Get ready, this is a long one, but I tried to make it as funny as I could.
It doesn't take a long time, really, to unbuckle a gunbelt. Just untie the thong that wraps around the leg to keep the holster secure in a fast draw. Then work the leather strap free of the buckle, and lift the belt off, feeling the heavy weight of the gun, seeing the silver handle gleam. It doesn't have to take long, but this time Kid made the process last as long as possible. He always hated to do it, hated the feeling of helplessness when the gun was gone from his reach.
Handing the gunbelt to Deputy Hooper was like handing over his freedom, like a cell door swinging shut behind him. He shoved his empty hands in his pockets and scowled at Heyes, who had already handed his gunbelt over to the young deputy with a cheery smile.
“Well, thanky, boys,” said the deputy, a relieved grin spreading across his face. He had a long goose neck, and a line of fuzz on his upper lip; Kid reflected morosely that deputies were getting younger all the time. "I was a mite nervous about asking, I don't mind telling you," the boy went on. "I'm glad you're such good sports."
"No problem at all, deputy," said Heyes, patting the youthful lawman on the back and trying to distract his attention from Kid's uncooperative face. "Glad to oblige. When old Lom asks us to leave you our guns, why, we're happy to oblige. Not like we'd be needing them, anyway, in a well -run town like this one."
Kid snorted audibly. Heyes shot him a look, and Kid turned away, hunching his shoulders miserably. He looked over the sunny, wood-panelled sheriff's office, with its broad desk and comfortable chair, and thought glumly that Lom had a good thing going, really: nice, well-paying job as sheriff in a nice, law-abiding town.
"I'm new at this job, you see," Deputy Hooper confided to Heyes. "This is my first week, actually, and I never had to enforce this transient rule before. Just my luck, the first time it comes up, Mr. Trevors is out of town. But like I told you, he'll be back any day now. He had to stay in Salt River longer than he thought, something about a robbery there."
"Well, I'm sure the town is in capable hands," Heyes said.
Kid stopped listening to this dull conversation, and as always when he was in a sheriff's office, he cast a glance over the wanted posters on the wall, checking to see if his own was there. He felt the familiar unpleasant jolt at seeing his name in large black letters, printed just under the words "Dead or Alive." Heyes's poster was right next to his. Kid was mildly pleased to note that Lom had had the decency to cover the description part of their flyers with several more recent ones, and he idly looked over the gallery of blurry photos of mean-looking outlaws with wide, staring eyes and bristling beards.
"Oh, no problem about Lom being delayed, happy to wait for him. We're old pals," Heyes was saying in his best genial style. "Well, thanks, Deputy Hooper, glad to meet you. Best of luck in your new career."
"It's a pleasure, I'm sure, Mr. Smith," said the youngster. Kid paid scant attention to the exchange of civilities; he was gazing longingly at his gun where the boy had hung it on a peg behind the desk. Heyes gave him a shove, and they left the office, clattered down the steps and strolled along the familiar streets of Porterville.
It was a beautiful day, clear and sunny, and the streets were crowded. Kid slouched along, head down, and Heyes gave him a sideways glance. "Honestly, Kid," he said severely. "You'd think it was your first-born child or something. It's just a gun." Kid heaved a sigh that came right up from his boots, but said nothing. They'd had the same argument so many times it wasn't worth repeating. Talking never changed anything.
He kept on walking without a word, but Heyes never could let a silence go unfilled. "You know, it feels good," he exclaimed. "No guns, no worries, no one challenging you to a fast-draw showdown." Kid brushed his hand along his thigh, feeling the emptiness.
"No reason to break a sweat," Heyes went on. "I declare, I'm gonna think of it as a vacation." He looked around the pleasant main street, crowded with shoppers and lit with spring sunshine. "Porterville's got not one but two restaurants, a saloon, and a very comfortable hotel. I'm just gonna relax and enjoy a few peaceful days till Lom comes back from whatever it is he's doing and tells us what errand he's got up his sleeve for us this time."
Kid glanced at him. "You relax?" he said scornfully. "When pigs fly. You'll be as nervous as a cat without that gun."
"No, sir," Heyes said firmly. "I am gonna sit in a rocking chair and relax." He looked at Kid's unhappy face. "Hey, come on, Ki-Thaddeus," he said, patting Kid on the shoulder. "We've got to get used to it, you know. Law-abiding citizens don't carry a gun every waking moment."
"I'll never get used to it," said Kid glumly. "Not ever. And neither will you. Sit in a rocking chair and relax, my foot. I bet you ten dollars you'll break a sweat in this town before we're done here."
Heyes smiled. "Okay, ten bucks, you're on. Nothing's going to make me break a sweat in this weather," he added, drawing his coat around him. "It's awful cold for spring."
Kid patted the sleeve of his own heavy sheepskin jacket. "You ought to get one of these," he said. "Never feel the cold."
"Yeah, but it smells like a dead sheep," said Heyes. "Let's get something to warm us up." He nodded towards the saloon across the busy street, and they dodged past the carts and wagons to the other side.
"Not much going on in here," Kid complained, as they pushed open the swinging doors of the saloon. "Wonder how long we'll have to hang around waiting for Lom."
"I wonder what's keeping him," said Heyes in a low voice, frowning. "If he's down in Salt River, it's probably not anything to do with the amnesty." He ordered a whiskey and leaned against the counter, surveying the saloon. It was early evening, and there were no poker tables going yet. "Hmm," he said, spotting a well-endowed young lady dealing cards at a table. "Haven't played any black-jack in a while. Wanna give it a try? Come on, remember, we're gonna relax, no sweat.”
"Maybe later," said Kid. "Have fun."
Heyes leaned back in his chair, and took a leisurely sip of his drink. The black-jack was going well, and there was a modest pile of coins at his elbow. The dealer leaned forward when she gave him another card, so that he got a good look down the front of her dress. She shot him a glance, then dropped her lashes slowly when she caught his eye. He heaved a sigh of contentment. Yes, it promised to be a pleasant vacation.
"Mind if I join in?" inquired an eager voice, and a small man sat down next to Heyes. He was dressed in the flannel shirt and patched jeans of a farmer, and had hair as yellow and stiff as a stack of hay.
"Go away, Billy," said the dealer, her red lips pouting. "You never have any money."
"Got ten dollars, cash on the barrel," said Billy, proudly displaying a handful of silver. "Deal me in, Vi."
The girl whistled, and looked at him with raised brows. "Where'd you get that kind of money?" she demanded, hands on her ample hips.
"Long story," he said. "Must be my lucky night. Come on, deal me a hand before the luck runs out. Gotta play while the luck holds, ain't that the truth, stranger?" he said, glancing at Heyes.
"That's true," Heyes agreed, shoving some coins into the center of the table. The young man glanced at him again, with an expression that Heyes had seen too many times before--a look of dawning recognition.
"Hey, you know what?" said Billy. "You look kinda...Don't I know you from somewhere?"
Heyes felt the familiar stirring of fear in his stomach, but shook it off. He made a show of studying his cards. "No, I don't think so," he said casually. "Unless you ever worked at the Bar W, down in Arizona?"
"Nope, never worked no ranch," said the man, grinning as the girl dealt him a deuce. "Hit me again, Vi. Nope, never been as far as Arizona, but I'm sure you look familiar." He stared at Heyes, who could feel his ears going red. "Now where was it?" Billy went on musingly. "On a stage, maybe? Or maybe...a train?"
Heyes picked up his cards with sweaty palms and tried to divert attention to the game. "I'll stand," he said. "What you got for my friend here, Vi?"
"Ace of diamonds," said Vi in a husky voice, dealing another card.
"Bust," said Billy, flinging his cards down. "That's okay, though, I'm just getting started." He turned back to Heyes. "Yeah, it was a train, I'm sure of it. You know how sometimes you see a person, and you know the face, but you just can't put a name to it. But it'll come to me." Vi dealt them both a fresh hand, and smiled invitingly at them to place their bets.
"Three bucks," said Billy with enthusiasm. "I tell ya, I feel lucky." He turned to Heyes again, examining his face. "You know, it's coming to me. Ah, I know...isn't your name... let's see...begins with an H, don't it?"
"I'll fold," said Heyes. "Think I'll go for a walk, stretch my legs a little. Get some fresh air."
"A walk?" said Vi, staring at him. "It's pitch dark and freezing out there."
"Han...Han something…" Billy thoughtfully scratched his chin.
"Sorry, really have to be going," said Heyes. He shoved back his chair as Billy banged his fist on the table. "Han...Hanover Heywood!" he exclaimed. "That's it, isn't it?"
"Um, I..." Heyes wiped a hand across his forehead, then caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. Kid, leaning against the bar, raised his whiskey glass high in a toast.
Billy looked around, too. "Did I do that okay, Mr. Jones?" he called anxiously.
"That was just right," Kid assured him, strolling over to their table. "Nice job."
"Didn't forget anything, did I?"
"Nope, not a thing," said Kid, patting him on the back. "That was great, well worth the ten bucks."
Billy grinned, and scratched his tousled hair. "Well, seems crazy to me, but, like I said, it's my lucky night. Come on, Vi, deal'em again, I got three dollars here says it's my lucky night."
"Maybe it is," said Vi, glancing at him under her lashes. "Want another card, mister?" she asked Heyes.
"No, I'll fold," said Heyes. "Got to get another drink." He got up hastily, and walked over to the bar. Kid followed, and lounged against the bar beside him as Heyes ordered a large whiskey.
"Warm in here," Kid remarked, untying the bandanna around his neck. "Want to borrow this?" he inquired solemnly. "You look all hot and sweaty."
"Yeah, I need it to strangle you with," Heyes snarled. "I can't believe you did that."
"Not sweating, were you?" Kid inquired, looking surprised. "Thought you were all relaxed and on vacation."
"It was stupid," Heyes growled. "What if he really had seen me on a train?"
"Sorry," Kid said, a grin breaking through. "It was just... what's that word you used to use about the Brooker 404...irresistible."
"You'll be sorry, all right," Heyes warned him. "You don't think you can get the last laugh on me, do you?"
"What, you're gonna take revenge?" Kid said, still chuckling.
"You bet your socks, mister," said Heyes, with a reluctant grin. "I'll admit, you made me sweat a little bit, but there are gonna be rivers of moisture running off your brow. You are up against the master."
"That remains to be seen," said Kid smugly, finishing his drink. "I think I'll go play some poker, wanna join me?"
"No, I'm gonna stay here and scheme for a while," said Heyes. He cast a look at the blackjack table, but Vi was sitting on Billy's lap, and he sighed.
"Well, okay," said Kid. "Just hand over my money, will ya?"
"Money?" said Heyes absently, watching Vi run her hand along the back of Billy's neck. "What do you mean?"
"Ten bucks," said Kid.
The next morning, Kid woke up with sunshine pouring cheerfully in through the hotel room window. He blinked fuzzily, and rubbed a hand over his eyes--he'd had a few extra drinks last night, to celebrate his unusual victory over Heyes. He was alone in the sunny room and the other bed was empty; Heyes must have gotten up early and gone off to breakfast, which seemed odd, considering how late they'd been up. But Heyes never seemed to need as much sleep as he did.
Kid got slowly out of bed, shivering a little; he was only wearing his Henleys, and in spite of the sunshine, the spring air was chill. He reached for his shirt, which he'd tossed on a chair last night, but the shirt wasn't on the chair, or on the floor. He looked around the room for his pants, but didn't see them either, though he was sure he'd left them in a heap on the floor right by the bed, as he always did. He went over to his saddlebag, and dug in it, looking for his only other shirt, but the bags were empty of all but his shaving tackle. Heyes' bag was empty of clothes, too, and he slung it impatiently on the floor.
"Okay," he said out loud, glaring around the room. "Very funny." He searched carefully, looking in every possible hiding place, in the closet, and even up the chimney, but located no other items of clothing than his hat and boots. Even his sheepskin coat was gone.
There was a loud knock on the door. "About time!" Kid called. "I'm not exactly sweating here, Joshua, more like to freeze to death." He flung the door open, and blinked as he saw a stout lady standing in front of him, red-faced and puffing for breath. She was dressed in a stained apron over a gray dress, and her hair was untidy; she hardly came up to his shoulder, but she glared up at him with hands on her hips. "About time indeed, young man!" she said.
"Sorry," Kid said, ducking behind the door to hide his patched underwear from her angry gaze. "What do you want?"
"I want my money, that's what," said the woman, still wheezing and brushing straggling gray hair from her forehead. "And I expect cash on the barrelhead. When I'm woken up at an ungodly hour to do a rush job I expect to get my money on time, and not have to climb three flights of stairs to collect it."
"Job?" said Kid, bewildered. "Rush job of what?"
"Laundry," she said. "Mr. Smith woke me up in the dark before dawn and told me you needed your laundry done immediately. Promised you'd pay me by eight o'clock, and here it is after nine. I want my money and I want it now."
Kid mumbled a few words under his breath but didn't dare to say them out loud. "Okay, okay," he said. "How much?"
"Ten dollars," she said firmly.
"Ten dollars?" he repeated incredulously. "For laundry?"
"Extra starch," she snapped, holding out her hand.
Kid muttered threats of what he'd do to Heyes when he caught him, and reached for his pocket, then realized he was in his underwear. "Just a minute," he said. The coins he'd had in his trousers pocket were neatly stacked on the nightstand, and he gave her a handful of silver dollars. "Okay," he said as she counted the money over carefully. "Where's my clothes? Hand'em over."
"What?" she said, her bosom swelling in outrage. "You think I'm a delivery boy? The laundry's in the basement, I'm not coming all the way up three flights again. I'm an old woman, my bones won't stand for it. You can pick your things up whenever you're ready." She gave a decisive nod and turned away.
"Hey, wait a minute!" Kid pleaded. "No, really, just please hold on...wait!" She ignored his cries and flounced down the stairs. He heard her wheezing her way down three steep flights, till there was the faint slam of a door, far below.
Kid closed the door and stood in thought. He looked around the room and briefly considered trying to invent some sort of dressing gown out of the bedsheets, but gave it up. He stamped his bare feet into his boots, and put his hat on, yanking the brim down low over his eyes. Then he opened the door a crack and peered out cautiously, feeling as though he was robbing a bank. The coast was clear, and the laundry was in the hotel basement, only three flights away, so he decided to chance it. He tiptoed down the hallway, and sneaked quietly down the stairs. After all, he thought, it was early; no one would notice him.
Heyes had a late breakfast in the sunlit cafe, and thoroughly enjoyed the steak and eggs, and the fresh-brewed coffee. He was sipping his second cup and leafing idly through the newspaper when a sudden hard whack from behind knocked his hat clean off his head.
"Hey, be careful of that," he said, retrieving the hat from the floor and brushing it off. Kid was standing over him with the narrow-eyed, tight-lipped expression that had made many a famous gunslinger run for cover. Heyes looked up at him and smiled. "My, my," Heyes said admiringly. "Don’t you look nice, clothes all clean and starchy."
Kid pulled out a chair and sat down, still scowling. "That was really unworthy of you," he said bitterly. "It was childish. Stealing my clothes, honestly, why don't you just dump a bucket of water on my head or something?"
"Ah, my boy, sometimes it’s the simplest plans that are the most effective," Heyes said. "Certainly they're the most enjoyable."
"So how much did you pay all those girls to lie in wait in the laundry all morning?" Kid inquired.
"Buck a head," said Heyes cheerfully. "Pretty little things, weren't they? They were going to a church social, but they said they wouldn't mind helping me out."
"A buck apiece, that's ten dollars," said Kid, shaking his head. "Plus ten for the laundry. Think it was worth it?"
"Cheap at half the price," said Heyes, grinning. "Sweat any?"
"Some," Kid admitted, giving him a sideways glare. "Not as much as you're gonna, though."
"I told you, an apprentice like you can't possibly beat the master schemer," Heyes reminded him, and shoved the coffeepot his way. "Want any breakfast? Food here's pretty good."
"Nope," said Kid, getting up. "I got work to do."
"Suit yourself," said Heyes, and returned to his newspaper, still chuckling, as Kid stalked out the door.
He poured himself another cup of coffee, and went back to his paper. Enormous headlines caught his eye, and he perused an article thickly sprinkled with exclamation points. He stopped reading halfway through, depressed by the graphic account of murder and robbery in the nearby town of Salt River: not exactly vacation reading. He turned to the financial news, which promised to be more relaxing, and was halfway through an account of gold stock speculation when a hand tapped him on the shoulder. "Excuse me," said a voice in his ear. "Aren't you..."
"Oh, for heaven's sakes," said Heyes, lowering the paper to see a young man in the shirt-sleeves and visor of a clerk standing in front of him. "Not again," he protested, rolling his eyes. "He's already done this one."
"Excuse me, sir," said the man, uncertainly, scratching his side-whiskers, "but aren't you..."
"I mean it, pal," Heyes snapped. "Don't bother me." He knew it was a only a joke, but the thought of being recognized still made his muscles tense and his stomach churn. It was getting to be time to stop this game. He held the newspaper up in front of his face, but under the lower edge of the paper he could see the man's neat shoes still standing in front of him.
"But I was told..." the voice continued, and Heyes threw the paper down on the table, knocking over his half-full coffee cup. "Yeah, yeah, I know," he said angrily. "You recognize me, you've seen me before. On a train, wasn't it? Get going, I said." Coffee spread across the red-checked tablecloth and dripped on the floor.
The man backed off, nervously crumpling an envelope he was holding, and headed for the door. "Gosh, I'm sorry about the mistake, sir," he said. "I could have sworn you were Joshua Smith."
"Oh," said Heyes awkwardly. "Yeah, that's me. Sorry. What did you want?"
"Telegram from Lom Trevors, sir, but if you don’t want it..."
"No, no, bring it here," Heyes said hastily, and gave the man a quarter. The clerk left, glancing back warily over his shoulder and shaking his head, as Heyes tore open the envelope and read the message. "Sorry for delay--please wait in Porterville few more days-- try not to destroy town if possible -- Lom."
Heyes snorted at the last line, then crumpled the telegram and put it in his pocket. He leaned back in his chair, and through the window he caught a glimpse of the clerk. The man was still staring at him with raised brows. Gotta relax, Heyes told himself, hiding his hot face behind the newspaper. Gotta relax.
He spent the rest of the morning trying to take his own advice, but he was still uneasy. He expected any moment to feel the full force of Kid's revenge, and found himself looking over his shoulder, watching where he walked, and inspecting chairs carefully before he sat down on them. But the afternoon passed uneventfully. He was finally starting to unwind during a hand of poker in the saloon when a hand tapped his shoulder. "Excuse me," said a familiar voice.
He looked up to see the same young man with an envelope in his hand. "Another message from Sheriff Trevors, sir," said the man, and scuttled off without waiting for a tip.
Heyes unfolded it and scanned the message, then read it again with mounting excitement. "Meet me this afternoon by old oak tree near stream five miles south of town-- important news-- come at once, don't wait -- Lom."
He jumped up from the poker table, the words beating in his head. Important news. Could it have something to do with the amnesty? If it was good news, though, surely Lom would have said so? He looked around the saloon for Kid, but there was no sign of him.
The main street was empty of all but a few shoppers passing by and a cart or two. Heyes glanced towards the hotel, but Kid was nowhere in sight. He pursed his lips and wondered where to look next. Kid could be anywhere, and Lom's telegram had sounded as if time was important for some reason. He decided to get his horse and ride out to see Lom by himself, then tell Kid about it when he got back. He trotted down the steps, whistling, and ran to the livery stable, trying not to count too much on good news.
Kid watched from the window of the telegraph office as Heyes led his horse out of the stable. Kid grinned broadly, and tipped his hat to the side-whiskered clerk, handing over the agreed-upon sum. But as Heyes rode past the window, Kid caught a glimpse of his partner's face, smiling and eager, and suddenly he felt remorseful. He'd been a little sore over the laundry joke and wanted to get even, but he should have remembered how seriously Heyes took anything about the amnesty. He hadn't actually expected that Heyes would really fall for the telegram--he'd thought that Heyes would see through it, and then it would set him up for the next joke, as soon as Kid figured out what that was going to be. But Heyes's guard went way down whenever the amnesty was concerned.
Kid left the telegraph office, ignoring the clerk's inquisitive stare, and hurried down the street. He decided he'd ride after Heyes and catch him before he got too far, and then they could call off this silliness and have a drink before a nice steak dinner. He was almost to the stable when an urgent voice called, "Hey, mister! Wait a minute!"
He turned and saw a tall man waving his hat. Kid tapped his foot impatiently as the man hastened up. "What is it, friend?" Kid said. "I'm in a hurry, can't it wait?"
"Well no, not really," said the man. "I have a business proposition for you." Kid looked him over curiously; the man was completely bald, and had a dark bristling beard that contrasted oddly with the dome of his bare head. The man put his hat back on, pulling it low, and went on eagerly. "Yes, sir, a business proposition. You see, I know who you are."
"Ah," said Kid, with huge enjoyment, ready for the punch line. "Recognized me, did you?"
"Yep," said the man, looking him up and down carefully. His eyes were wide and pale. "Knew I couldn't be mistaken."
"Saw me on a train, I suppose?" Kid prompted him, and the man looked a little taken aback.
"Yes, exactly," he said, frowning. "I never forget a face."
"Honestly, I thought he was more original than that," said Kid, shaking his head. "But I suppose this is just the opening. So, now, what is it you want?"
"Well, I told you, it's a business proposition. Lot of money could be in it for--."
"Listen, friend," Kid said. “I'd love to hear the end of this, but I really should go now. We'll finish up later." He brushed past, but the bald man caught his arm.
"No, we'll discuss it now," he said, in a quiet voice that had an air of command. His pale eyes looked at Kid with an expression that teased him with a sense of familiarity; he was sure he'd never seen the guy before, but there was something about the look in his eyes...
"Later," said Kid firmly. He turned away, but the man grabbed him with surprising strength, and shoved him against the wall. Kid shoved him back with annoyance. "Boy, you really get into your part, don't you?" said Kid. "Mr. Smith have you learn all this by heart?"
"Mr….what are you talking about?" demanded the man.
"You're good, you are, you should go on the stage," said Kid admiringly. "I'll catch the second act later, but right now I have to go." He turned his back and took a few steps.
"I don't know any Mr. Smith," said the cold voice behind him. "But I do know you, Mr. Curry."
Kid stopped dead, and began to swing around, his hand going instinctively to his side where the holster should be. He knew with sudden certainty that this was no joke, Heyes would never... his thought was broken off short by the unmistakable feeling of a gun jammed into his back.
"Walk," commanded a voice. "Inside the stable, let's go."
"Why should I?" Kid tried, without much hope that the bluff would work. "You don't want to pull that trigger in the street, friend, the whole town would come a-running."
"Well, that'd be okay, I'd be quite the hero," said the man. "I'd just tell'em I had apprehended a famous outlaw, and he was resisting arrest. Shall we give it a try and see if it works? Of course, you won't know, you'll be dead," he went on. "Or we could go and continue this discussion in the livery stable."
Kid walked slowly into the dark stable, racking his brain to think what the guy could want. Two more men were waiting inside with drawn guns, and one of them quickly slid the door shut. Kid turned and faced them with an expression of mild curiosity. "What on earth are you fellas up to?" he inquired easily. "I can't imagine..."
"Hey, Weller, you sure that's Kid Curry?" one of the men interrupted. "Kid Curry 'd have a gun, for Pete's sake. That can't be Kid Curry." He looked the prisoner up and down scornfully, and Kid felt a stab of annoyance. He was tempted to protest that he was indeed the genuine article, and to complain about the ridiculous transient rule to what he felt sure would be a sympathetic audience, but managed to hold his tongue.
"It's him, all right," said the bald man, grinning. "I tell you I was on a train he robbed once, I looked him right in the eye. That's him, for sure."
"But Kid Curry always carries..."
"Shut up," Weller commanded. "Now, as I said, we have a business proposition," he went on, turning to Kid. "Why don’t we take a little ride out into the country and discuss it? We've got your horse right here, all saddled up and ready to go."
Kid considered arguing the point, but something about the pale eyes watching him over the gun made him change his mind. He shrugged, and climbed onto his horse, as one of the men slid the barn door wide open.
Weller mounted his horse, and came up alongside Kid as they rode into the sunny street. "Now, Curry, you ride out in front of us," he said in a low tone. "But remember, we'll be right behind you. We'll be all laughing and friendly, like we're going on a picnic or something, and no one will suspect a thing, and you'll be fine. Remember, we only want to talk." He patted the gun on his hip, and smiled at Kid, his teeth showing white in the dark beard. "But if you try to make a break for it," he went on, his eyes widening, "why, I’ll just go down in history as the man who shot Kid Curry. And I’ll also be ten thousand dollars richer. So don’t tempt me, pal. Don't tempt me."
They rode slowly out of town, the men behind him joking and smiling, and as the bald man had predicted, none of the passers-by suspected a thing. The only person who would have known he was in trouble was Heyes, and Kid knew that for once his partner wasn’t around to watch his back. He cast a desperate look up and down the bustling street, but he saw only strangers' faces, and no one gave him a second glance. Heyes wasn't there, and he had no one to blame but himself.
As soon as they were past the outskirts of Porterville, they left the main road and followed a faint trail up into the wooded hills above the town. Kid wondered where on earth they could be taking him, and if they were in for a long trip, but they hadn't ridden more than a mile or so when he noticed the sharp smell of woodsmoke, and around the next bend he saw four men seated near a small fire. The bedrolls and saddles strewn around showed that they'd been camping there for some time.
One of the men, tall and thin with clothes that hung on him like a scarecrow, got slowly to his feet as they rode in. "Got him, I see," he said, frowning. "Any trouble?"
"Nope, not a bit," said the bald man cheerfully. "Came along with us like a little lamb. He knows we've got a good offer for him." Weller tossed his reins to one of the other men. "Take the horses down to the stream, Johnny, and give'em a good drink, we still got a long way to go tonight." He turned and gestured to Kid invitingly. "Now take a seat, Mr. Curry, and let's talk this over like businessmen."
Weller sat down on a stone near the fire, with a business-like air, as though he was pulling up a chair in his office. "Rest of you go get ready, we'll be heading out soon," he commanded. Most of the men got to their feet obediently, and went to roll their blankets and tack up the horses, but the thin man stayed where he was.
Kid sat down on a rock, and stretched out his hands to the fire, trying hard to seem at ease. He was acutely aware of being unarmed; he almost felt an ache on his right side, like a missing tooth. He eyed the two men, estimating his chances if he made a sudden grab for one of their guns. "Well," he said casually. "Want to tell me what this about? I was planning on having a nice steak in town tonight, and you're making me late for dinner. What's all this about a business proposition?"
"Well, Mr. Curry, you have a commodity we're interested in," Weller said pleasantly. "A skill, I mean to say, that we can use. It'd be worth quite a lot of money to us. We simply want you to do what you do best."
"And what would that be?" Kid inquired, equally amiably. "You want me to rob a bank? Hold up a train?"
"No, no," said Weller. "We've already taken care of that end of things. We want you to kill someone."
Kid felt a cold ripple down his spine. He'd seen plenty of shooting, and watched plenty of men die, but he'd never heard a killing discussed in a pleasant, business-like manner like this. "You want to pay me to kill someone for you?" he said slowly, wondering if there was any possibility they would accept a refusal.
"Exactly," said Weller, with a pleased smile. "See, we pulled a job the other day, and we made a mistake, I freely admit it. We made a mistake that an expert like yourself would never have made."
"Yeah, what's that?"
"We left someone alive," said Weller. "A man who could identify us. So we want you to take care of that for us. He's the only eyewitness, and once he's dead, they can’t prove we did it. Can't prove a thing."
"Otherwise, it's a hanging offense," said the thin man grimly. He gave Weller a sideways glance full of resentment.
"Exactly," Weller agreed, ignoring the look. "You can see our problem. And see, it has to be clearly not one of us that kills him--if he's just shot from behind a bush, or found dead, or something, they'll just chalk it up to our account. You've got to do it in broad daylight, so there's witnesses."
"Witnesses?" Kid said, raising his brows. "You think I'm crazy?"
"Well, that's why we're prepared to pay pretty high," Weller went on. "We'd be prepared to cut you in on the profits--we held up the payroll from the entire Blue Rock silver mine. Sixty thousand dollars, we'd give you thirty per cent."
"Twenty thousand dollars," Kid said, nodding solemnly, stalling for time till he could see his way out. "Lot of money, all right. That would be enough to buy me a very nice funeral, after they got done hanging me for murder."
Weller shook his head impatiently. "No, no, I've got it all planned out. We'll set it up so that there's a horse right nearby, ready to go, and we'll cover for you--we'll make sure no one comes after you. Then we'll meet up, and give you your percentage. 'Course we'll have to loan you a gun, I suppose," he added, shaking his head in disapproval. "Seems like the famous Kid Curry really ought to carry a gun, you know."
Kid resisted the temptation to apologize for his lack of weaponry. He nodded, wondering how on earth he could get out of this trap. "Got all the angles covered, I see," he said admiringly. "And who's the witness, a bank clerk or someone?"
"No, it's a sheriff, actually," said the thin man grimly. "He was in the payroll office when we busted in there, and he got a real good look at all of us."
"Ah, that makes it more interesting," said Kid, with a professional air. "Haven't shot too many sheriffs lately. Who's the sheriff in Salt River? Don't think I know him."
"No, the guy just happened to be in town, he's actually the sheriff from Porterville," said Weller, with a broad smile. "Guy named Lom Trevors."
It was late afternoon when Heyes rode slowly back into town, having spent several hours searching for non-existent oak trees by non-existent streams. He was tired, and hungry, and angry. In hindsight, now, he was amazed that it had taken him so long to catch on to Kid's stratagem; he realized he should have seen it coming, and he was angry at himself, too, for being taken in.
He looked around the livery stable as he led his weary horse inside, and was a little surprised to see that Kid's horse wasn't in the neighboring stall. It seemed odd that Kid would be out just at suppertime, but he supposed that his partner was working on the next part of the scheme. Ah, well, he reflected, with a sigh. Don't get mad, get even.
He was filling a bucket with water for his horse when suddenly, an idea for revenge occurred to him: an idea that was bold, simple, but elegant in its simplicity. He smiled with grim satisfaction. After his horse was comfortably bedded down, he collected some supplies from the stable, and headed over to the hotel.
He spent a long time perfecting the details of his scheme, and considering fine points of design. Finally, his creation was ready, and he stood back and looked his handiwork over with pride. After all, as he always insisted to Kid, the simplest plans were the best.
He went back downstairs, and emerged from the hotel doorway, glancing up and down the street, hoping to see Kid. There was no sign of him, and Heyes was about to head to the cafe for some dinner when a pleasant voice spoke behind him. "Excuse me, mister, could I have a word with you?"
He turned to see a bald man with a bristling black beard. "Yes?" Heyes said suspiciously, wondering if this was Kid's next move. He was tired, and hungry, and he felt suddenly weary of this game; their life on the run was tough enough already, filled with suspicion and fear. He vowed that he would declare a truce as soon as he saw Kid again. "Listen," he said to the stranger, who stood before him, hat in hand. "I'm a little busy right now, can't this wait?"
"Well, no, not really," said the man, with a smile that showed white teeth in his thick, dark beard. "First of all, let me explain that I know who you are."
Heyes threw his head back and shouted out a string of the worst oaths he could think of. Two elderly ladies who were passing by threw him shocked glances and hastened past with their hands over their ears. The bald man looked at him with an equally shocked expression. "Get out of here!" Heyes yelled, so exasperated with this silliness that he didn't care who heard him. "Not again!"
Kid huddled close to the fire to keep warm as the darkness grew around him. The rocks and trees were black silhouettes against the graying sky, and the wind made the tall pines creak as they swayed back and forth. He stared into the embers of the fire and tried, without much success, to keep his mind on escape plans. There were four men with drawn guns, watching him like hawks, so his chances didn't seem too good right at the moment, but they'd have to relax their guard sometime. They were nervous, he could tell; they paced and muttered together and kept looking down the trail that led towards Porterville, where Weller had ridden with the other two members of the gang an hour before.
Kid's head ached, and he and he rubbed his jaw where Weller had hit him. He'd actually been surprised when Weller had stopped after only a few blows; he'd expected a lot more of the same, but after only two or three punches, Weller had scratched his beard thoughtfully, and said, "Don't want to help us out, eh? Well, maybe there's a better way to convince you."
Kid wondered for the tenth time what better way Weller had in mind. Thoughts of unpleasant things like knife blades heated red-hot in the fire kept intruding into his thoughts, and kept him from concentrating fully on escape strategies. He supposed they couldn't beat him up too much if they wanted him to shoot straight. But what would they do to him when it became clear that he wouldn't cooperate? He tried to prepare himself somehow, to set up some kind of defenses in his mind that would enable him to deal with whatever punishment they had in store.
It was almost dark when he heard the sound of hoofs coming up the trail. His guards heard it too, and got to their feet expectantly, peering through the gloom. "Any luck?" called one of them, but the riders didn't answer, just laughed out loud triumphantly. Four men, not three, rode up to the fire, and looking up at their faces Kid recognized the newcomer. He jumped to his feet, realizing with a sick chill of fear that they'd found a better way indeed, a foolproof method of compelling his cooperation: the one sure way past all his defenses.
Heyes met Kid's eyes, and raised his brows in surprise at Kid's horrified expression. Then Weller pointed a gun at him with a brusque command, and Heyes climbed off his horse. He went over to the fire, where Kid stood staring at him as though he was a stranger.
"You all right?" Heyes asked in a low voice, frowning as he saw the bruises on his partner's face. Kid didn't answer, and Heyes looked at him wonderingly. They'd been in a lot of tight places together, but he thought that he'd never seen Kid look so scared.
Then he looked around, as the entire gang of men surrounded the two of them. Heyes and Kid instinctively drew close together, Kid's hand brushing his side once again to find his missing gun. They stood silently as the outlaws drew closer, closing the circle so that there was nowhere to run. The ring of eyes gleamed around them in the firelight.
Weller stepped forward, and began to explain his proposition. Heyes listened expressionlessly till Weller mentioned the town where the robbery had taken place, then Kid saw Heyes raise his head sharply, and heard his sudden intake of breath. "In Salt River," Heyes said, his eyes widening. "A payroll office in Salt River...I read about that in the newspaper."
"Don't look all pious," said Weller. "We're just professionals, like you are."
"We never did anything like that," Heyes said, his voice shaking. "Never. You're not anything like us, you're just filthy murderers."
The thin man took a step forward angrily, but Weller grabbed his arm. "Hang on, Nick," he said. "Take it easy. I'm sure we can convince these two to give us a hand."
"Drop dead," said Heyes curtly. "We're not doing anything to help scum like you."
"Really?" asked Weller, raising his eyebrows. He took a sudden step towards Heyes, and hit him with the hand that held the heavy gun. It happened so fast Kid didn’t have time to open his mouth. He lunged towards Weller, but three of the others grabbed him and hauled him back. Heyes lay face down where he had fallen, and didn't move.
"You're sure I can't persuade you to help us out, now?" Weller asked Kid, in the same friendly tone. "You might want to give it some thought." Kid fought to get loose, but the three held him fast, and finally he stopped struggling. He stared down at Heyes, still lying motionless, and fear overwhelmed his anger.
The thin man also looked down at Heyes, and shook his head doubtfully. He stirred the body with his boot, but Heyes didn't move. "Hell, Weller, you hit him pretty hard," he said. "I think maybe you killed him. Just like that other guy."
"So what?" said Weller, shrugging.
Kid could feel the grip on his arms slacken as the men who held him turned towards each other uneasily. He tore himself loose, and ran over to kneel beside Heyes, and shook his shoulder gently, but he didn't stir. Kid pulled him over onto his back, and his body came limply, his eyes closed; his face was striped with blood from a gash on the side of his head. Kid shook him again, harder, with mounting fear, but there was still no sign of life. He put his ear down to Heyes' chest, and listened, holding his breath, and at last he heard the faint trace of a heartbeat. Relief washed over him like warm rain.
"Well?" said Weller unconcernedly.
Kid looked up at him, eyes narrowed with hate. "He's alive," he said.
"You want him to stay that way?" Weller inquired. "You got to do what I tell you." Kid looked down at Heyes' bloody face, and bit his lip. "You're sure you can't help us out with Trevors?" Weller went on. "That's a pity. I'm just not as fast as you, you see. And I never could hit a moving target.” He aimed the gun carefully at the still figure on the ground. “But maybe I could hit one that's not moving.”
"All right," said Kid hastily. "You win. I'll do it."
Weller gave no indication of having heard; he tightened his finger on the trigger, and the hammer clicked back, loud in the stillness. "For God's sake," Kid said, getting to his feet. "I said I'd do it, stop!"
"You sure, now?" Weller inquired, in a casual voice. "Not gonna change your mind on me when we get there?" He gave a slow, wide-eyed smile that made Kid quake with fear. With a flash of recognition, he realized what was familiar about the man; it was the expression in the pale eyes. He'd seen that kind of hot, lustful light before, in the eyes of men who challenged him to a fast-draw for the fun of the thing, eager for the opportunity to kill: men who revelled in the power of having a gun strapped to their side.
"No," Kid said, his voice shaking. "Please. I'll do anything you say. You're the boss." He felt cold sweat on his face, and icy knives of terror in his stomach. Weller kept the gun unwaveringly pointed at Heyes; his smile grew broader, and Kid held his breath, tensing himself for a last-ditch grab at the gun. Then, abruptly, Weller holstered his weapon. Kid sank down on his knees beside Heyes' body, limp with relief.
"Okay, then, let's go," Weller said cheerfully. "What'd I tell you, boys? I knew he'd see reason." He looked around at his gang, and they nodded and smiled. "All right," he said, pointing to the ones who'd accompanied him into town. "You boys stay here with Heyes, the rest of us'll go to Salt River with Curry. Come on, let's saddle up." The outlaws turned to the horses, making preparations for departure.
Kid bent over Heyes. He took off his bandanna, and wiped away some of the blood, knowing he wasn't doing any good. He shook Heyes gently, calling his name, but Heyes didn't stir. In the gloom, Kid could see his face was white. He touched Heyes' hands and face; they felt icy.
There wasn't much he could do, but he made Heyes as comfortable as he could. It wasn't more than a few minutes before he heard the sound of approaching footsteps, and stood up, shivering a little in the cold air.
"All right," said Weller, shoving Heyes with his foot. "He stays here. You kill Trevors for us, and we'll let him go. If not...if you cheat on us...your partner's dead. And he’ll be a long time dying, Curry. A long time." He looked at Kid searchingly. "You believe I mean it? I'm not joking."
Kid nodded. "Oh, yes," he said softly. "I believe you."
Heyes became aware of a pounding headache. He tried to open his eyes, and groaned as the slightest movement made the hammers in his head pound harder. He lay still for a few minutes, trying to remember why he felt such a sense of disaster. "Kid?" he called faintly. No answer.
He opened one eye experimentally. It hurt, but the pounding was lessening a bit. He opened the other eye cautiously. "Kid?" he said again.
He realized he was lying on the ground; it was dark, but there was a fire nearby, and three figures sitting near it. He could see his breath in the cold, still air, but he felt warm; there was a blanket or something draped over him.
He frowned, racking his brain as to what he was doing there, and slowly recalled Weller and his threats. "Kid!" he said, sitting up suddenly, a stir of fear in his chest.
"Shut up," one of the figures said, glancing at him briefly. Heyes could see by the firelight that it was one of the men who'd brought him from town. He felt a wave of dizziness and closed his eyes, but soon the darkness stopped spinning and he opened them again.
Where was Kid? He shivered in the icy air. The blanket had slipped off his shoulders when he sat up, and he pulled it up. As soon as he touched it, though, he knew it wasn't a blanket, and he peered through the darkness, rubbing his hand over the soft material. It was a heavy sheepskin jacket.
They rode through the night, Kid always compelled to go in front of the others. His horse followed the almost-invisible trail instinctively, though the moonlight was faint and clouded in a milky sky. Kid didn't look back, but he was continually aware of the men following close behind. He could hear the clop of their horses' hoofs echoing his own, and knew that a gun was trained squarely on his back. He sat apparently relaxed in the saddle as the horse plodded on, while his thoughts ran wildly, racing to and fro like a squirrel in a cage, trying desperately to find any crack, any tiny opening for escape.
The journey seemed to take forever, but the sky was still dark in the east when they finally stopped on a high, open ridge. Kid could feel the cold wind on his face, and looking down he saw a faint gleam of light far below. The weak moonlight showed the outlines of streets and buildings, with only one window showing pale yellow. Kid wondered dismally who had a lantern lit at this hour.
"There's Salt River," said Weller, dismounting. He stretched and yawned widely. "We'll stay here for a few hours, get some shut-eye. No sense going in too early, we want to make sure there's lots of folks on the streets."
Two of the men rolled themselves up in blankets, while two stayed awake, grumbling, to guard Kid. Soon a chorus of snores filled the air, and his guards were yawning and heavy-eyed, but Kid had never been less inclined to fall asleep. He stood on the windy ridge and stared eastward, waiting in dread for the first stain of pink light that would bring the dawn.
Heyes drifted in and out of consciousness as the night passed slowly. But finally the feeling of impending disaster that flitted among his dreams pried his eyes open. He lay still, recalling the events of the night before, and piecing together the situation in his aching head. He rolled over slightly, and peered around the clearing.
It was early morning, the sun just lifting clear of the horizon, and he squinted painfully at the light. He could see three men sitting around the fire, and breathed in the savory smell of frying bacon. From time to time the men threw him a suspicious glance, and he closed his eyes again and lay still, playing possum till he could formulate a plan.
He racked his brain till his head ached worse than ever, but the only plan he could think of was so old, so predictable, so unlikely to succeed, that he almost discarded it. But there was no time to think of a better one; the day was brightening as the sun edged above the treetops.
He sat up, groaning, and held his head in his hands, feeling as though it would split in two if he didn't hold it together. He wanted nothing more than to lie back down and sleep. But the feeling of fear that had woken him propelled him off the ground; he climbed to his feet and stood swaying. The three guards watched him with guns in hand. Heyes closed his eyes for a second, took a deep breath, and began.
He walked, a little unsteadily, over to the fire, where the three were sitting with coffee cups nearby. "Mind if I have some of that coffee?" he inquired pleasantly, and one of them poured a tin mug full and handed it over, looking at him curiously.
"Mind if I sit down?" Heyes went on, and one of the men, a heavy-set, tight-lipped fellow, pushed a log over with his foot. Heyes sank down on it, glad to sit before he fell over. He was still dizzy, but at least he could see straight.
One of his guards was a youngster, hardly out of his teens, with freckles dotting a sharp nose that protruded from under a tangle of red hair. "You really Hannibal Heyes?" he inquired, wide blue eyes regarding Heyes with awe. Heyes opened his mouth to deny it instinctively, then remembered the plan, and nodded, with a modest smile.
"Wow," said the boy, elbowing the man next to him. "I never met anyone famous before."
Heyes offered his hand politely. "Me, neither," he said. "I'm mighty proud to meet you."
"Me?" said the boy, giggling. "Heck, I'm not famous."
"Oh, you sure are," said Heyes, smiling broadly "Why, I told you, I read all about you boys in the newspapers. You're all over the papers, don't you know that?"
The boy stopped laughing, and glanced at the others. "Newspapers?" he repeated nervously.
"Oh, you bet," Heyes assured him. "Headlines three inches high, all about that deal in Salt River. You know, you boys really ought to learn how to read."
"I can read," said the young man indignantly.
"Ah, well then," said Heyes. "You're in for a treat! You can read all about yourselves, they describe you right down to your socks, wart on your nose, coffee stain on your shirt, every last little detail. All of you," he added. "Why, I reckon you're the most famous men in the territory. Everyone's anxious to meet you."
The two older guards shifted uneasily. "Shut up," said one, his black brows meeting over his nose. "We’ve heard about your slick tongue, you're not going to scare us. Keep your mouth shut or we'll stuff a gag in it."
"Suit yourself," Heyes said. "Thought I'd try to help you out, but...well, that's okay." He sipped his coffee in silence, and tried not to fidget as he waited for the next move.
He wasn't disappointed. "What do you mean, help us out?" the boy asked, after a pause. "No, come on, Taylor," he added to the man in the dark hat, who shook his head warningly. "Let him talk. After all, he’s just talkin', that never hurt no one."
Heyes smiled in a relaxed fashion. "Oh, well," he said to the youngster. "Mr. Taylor here's right, you don't want to hear any more of my slick talk. We'll just wait till Kid Curry gets back, and see how it goes. He should be here any minute now."
"What, are you crazy?" the boy said. "They couldn't possibly get all the way to Salt River and back that fast."
Heyes looked at the boy in amused surprise. "Now, son–what's your name?"
"Hank," said the youngster.
"Hank, now you don't think they're going to get all the way to Salt River, do you? With Kid Curry? He'll outsmart a fool like Weller in less than no time. Why, the second they let him get anywhere near a gun he'll kill those boys so quick–and the Kid enjoys his work, too, I mean to tell you. First he puts a bullet or two in the leg, just for starters, then he moves up–oh, dear,” he broke off, smiling apologetically. "I don't know if any of them are kin to you boys. If so, I'm right sorry."
"There’s four of them," said Hank indignantly. "You think Curry's going to beat those odds? That's no joke."
"Four of'em?" Heyes laughed out loud, then shook his head, making a show of trying to hide his mirth. "You’re right, Hank, it's no laughing matter." He bowed his head piously. "God rest their souls." The three guards looked at each other, and shuffled their feet uneasily.
"But, yeah," Heyes went on cheerfully. "I expect he'll be along about any time now. And that's why I was going to try to help you fellas out. Because when he gets here–I'll tell ya, I'm gonna run for cover myself. Why, that man ain't eaten since yesterday, he'll be as mean as a bear in winter. And when he's hungry –you boys ever hear of the Dawson gang?"
"No, but I..." Taylor began dubiously.
"Well, course not, they're all dead now," Heyes swept on. "Seven of'em, there were. They tried to give the Kid some lip when he was on the way to breakfast one morning, and, well... it don’t bear thinking of..."
Heyes kept talking, trying to ignore the ache that was still pounding in his head. He followed the story of the Dawson gang with another lurid tale, all the while watching his captors intently as they squirmed and sweated. He smiled to himself, satisfied. He had to get them good and jumpy before he made the final move.
It doesn't take a long time, really, to buckle on a gunbelt. Just work the leather strap into the buckle, feeling the heavy weight of the gun, seeing the silver handle gleam in the low-cut holster of scuffed leather. Then tie the leather thong around the leg. It doesn't have to take long, but this time Kid made the process last as long as possible. He drew the unfamiliar weapon, and spun it in his hand a few times, checking the balance. Weller and two of the gang stood with him in the alleyway, watching his every move like cats at a mousehole.
Nick was on guard at the end of the alley, watching the busy Salt River street corner. "There he goes!" he called over his shoulder, and they all peered around the corner to glimpse a tall man walking up the steps into a cafe, a warm, sunny place with red-checked curtains.
"That's perfect," said Weller, elbowing Nick. "What'd I tell you? We can't miss."
He turned to Kid, who was standing just behind him. Kid had his gun levelled right at Weller, but the bald man didn't blink at the sight of the gun pointed at his belly, just gave a slow, wide-eyed smile. They stared at each other for a long minute, then Kid holstered his weapon. "That's right," Weller said, nodding approvingly. "Now, just walk over to the restaurant real casual-like," he went on. "Shoot him from the doorway, and then run right out. Everyone'll be so shocked, you'll have plenty of time to get away. We'll leave your horse right here."
Kid nodded, not really listening. He rubbed a hand across his tired eyes, feeling light-headed from lack of sleep. In a corner of his mind he kept hoping that perhaps he'd wake up soon, and this would all be nothing but a bad dream.
He turned away, and Weller grabbed his arm, eyeing him intently. "Don't mess this up, Curry," he said in a low tone, and motioned with his head. "Look up there." On a ridge above the town, a man on horseback was waiting, watching. "If you mess up, Johnny heads straight back to camp, and you know what'll happen," Weller whispered. Kid nodded again, his face blank.
He took a deep breath, and walked across the street and up the steps into the restaurant. Sure enough, there was Lom: he saw the back of his tall figure across the room, a head taller than most others. Lom was facing away from him, chatting with a pretty waitress--it would be simple to pull out the gun, fire one shot from the doorway, and then get clear. His hand moved slowly towards the holster. But somehow, he couldn't bring himself to do it. He'd never shot a man in the back.
He took a few heavy steps across the room. His eyes were blurred with fatigue, and a burning moisture, but as Lom turned towards him abruptly, Kid saw the star glitter on his chest. He dragged a sleeve across his eyes to clear his vision, and his right hand sped downwards towards the gun.
Then his eyes flew wide. He halted his hand an inch from the holster, and stared at the dark, mustached face of a stranger. Kid wondered for a bewildered second if this was all some crazed joke.
"You got a problem, cowboy?" said the tall man, frowning.
"Um…why, no, sheriff," Kid stammered. The sheriff looked pointedly at Kid's right hand hovering near his hip. Kid, unable to think of anything else to do with his shaking hand, reached back and scratched his backside. "Fleas, you know," he said, with a weak grin. "Got a bad case of fleas. I hope to tell you, they can bite."
The sheriff stared, obviously thinking him a lunatic. "You looking for me?" he inquired.
"No, no..." Kid said, unable to think of a convincing lie. "I was... actually I was looking for Lom Trevors."
"Well, he was in town, but he left early this morning for Porterville," the sheriff said slowly. "Said he had to meet a couple of friends there--he was all twitchy, seemed to think they'd blow up the town or something if he didn't check on them. He'll be back tonight." He looked at Kid with searching gray eyes. "Anything I can help you with, friend?"
"No, thanks, I'll catch him later." Kid retreated, summoning all his self-control not to run. He could feel the sheriff's curious gaze all the way across the street, till he ducked around the corner, and bumped into Weller.
"I heard," Weller said shortly. "Don't worry. We'll just wait till tonight."
Heyes' throat was starting to go dry from so much talking. The three guards were giving him their undivided attention as he recounted the fictional tale of the massacre in which Kid had earned the three most recent notches on his gun handle. Heyes hardly heard himself babbling on, making it all up as he went along.
He wondered tensely if the plan would work. It was the oldest trick in the book, but these boys were pretty fresh off the vine; it might work. He had to try it soon, for the sun was high overhead; too much time had passed already. He took another deep breath, and reached the ending of his story.
"So then the Kid reloaded, and caught the last guy right between the eyes, three shots, bang, bang, bang, just like that. And a last shot to finish him off, bang!"
He slapped his hand on his knee with a sharp crack, and all three of them jumped a little. "And then...Hey, Kid!" Heyes broke off, looking over Taylor's shoulder with a happy grin. "About time! What took you so long?"
All three of the men jumped to their feet and spun around so fast that they staggered, off balance. They stared into the underbrush in bewilderment, and in the split second before they caught on, Heyes made his move.
Kid felt as though a cell door was swinging shut behind him as he walked into the saloon. The place wasn't crowded, but there were a few casual drinkers, and a poker game in progress; bars of late afternoon sunlight slanted through the windows and glowed on the glass bottles lined up behind the counter. There was Lom, standing alone at the end of the bar--no mistake this time. Kid saw his face clearly.
Lom's face lit with recognition, and he raised his glass in greeting. "Hey, Thaddeus, what are you doing here?"
Kid walked slowly forwards, feeling as though there were lead weights on his feet. He wished fervently that he could think of some insult that would make Lom angry--so angry that he would go for his gun. That would make what he had to do a little easier, but he couldn't think of anything to say. "Looking for you," was all he managed, choking on the words.
"That's funny," said Lom, looking at him with raised brows. "I just went over to Porterville looking for you, we must have missed each other. Want a drink?" Kid shook his head.
"So what you boys been up to?" Lom asked. "I heard you been making almighty fools of yourselves over there, up to your practical jokes again. Running around town in your unmentionables, eh?" Kid didn't answer, and Lom frowned, looking at him searchingly. "What's wrong, Thaddeus? Where's Joshua?" he added, glancing around the saloon. "Is he okay?"
Kid moved his hand towards the handle of his gun, hating himself. Lom saw the movement, and stiffened, his hand moving automatically towards his own gun. "Come on, Thaddeus, what are you up to?" he said with annoyance. "If this is another joke, it's pretty stupid."
Kid looked at him with despair. His voice came out as a whisper. "Forgive me," he said.
Lom's eyes widened, and Kid saw a flash of fear in them. They stood gazing at each other as though frozen, and then Kid heard running footsteps, and a voice shouted "Kid! Stop!" His eyes flew wide, and he spun around to see Heyes racing towards him. He stared open-mouthed, and then Heyes crashed into him, unable to halt in time, and they both cannoned into Lom, sending him sprawling back against the bar. The glass flew into the air and whiskey spattered over all three of them.
Lom shoved them off and stood wiping whiskey off his face. "God damn it, you two have pulled some idiotic stunts," he scolded. "But this is the stupidest joke I ever heard of..." He went on at length, but neither Heyes nor Kid heard a word.
Heyes leaned against the bar, panting and white-faced, and Kid grabbed his arm, shaking him roughly. "You okay?" Kid demanded. "You all right, you're okay?" Heyes nodded, and Kid released him and stood breathing hard. Then he collapsed onto the nearest chair and hid his face in his hands.
Lom glared at them furiously, hands on hips. "You hear me, both of you? I mean it, that kind of joke is so dumb, I ought to lock you both up..."
Heyes looked down at his partner and put a hand on his shoulder, giving him a gentle shake. "Oh, you know that's just the way we are, Lom," said Heyes. "Always joking around."
The sun had sunk below the roofs of Salt River, and the air was growing chill again. Kid shivered as they stood on the sidewalk outside the saloon, watching a mob of mounted men brandishing rifles and milling around the street. Lom and the Salt River sheriff were conferring in front of the sheriff's office while the crowd waited impatiently, and finally the two lawmen swung themselves onto their horses, and the whole group thundered away. Heyes and Kid stood alone and watched the dust settle on the deserted street.
Heyes drew a sigh of relief. "Kind of nice, to watch a posse riding in the opposite direction for a change," he remarked.
"I tell you, we ought to go along with'em," Kid complained. "I'd really like to catch up with those guys."
"Lom expressly ordered us to stay out of it," Heyes reminded him. "Don't worry, they'll catch them, that's the biggest posse I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a few," he added. "But it's just too dangerous, the whole gang knows who we are, someone's bound to believe them."
"Especially with you shouting out 'Kid!' all over the place," Kid grumbled, as they turned to retrieve their horses from the hitching post in front of the saloon.
Heyes grinned. "Sorry," he said. "Somehow 'Thaddeus' just isn't a name that rolls off the tongue when you're in a hurry."
Kid shivered again, and Heyes walked over to his horse and unstrapped the sheepskin jacket from behind his saddle. "Here," he said, holding it out. Kid nodded, and put it on, buttoning it up to the chin.
"You were right, it's warm," said Heyes. "I really...it was...well, thanks."
Kid smiled at him. "Told you, you should get one of these for yourself," he said.
"I surely will," said Heyes, and smacked him on the shoulder. "Come on, let's go."
“Where?" said Kid, leaning against the hitching post tiredly. He glanced at Heyes, who still had dried blood streaked down the side of his face, and looked pale and exhausted in spite of his cheery smile. "We could find a hotel here and get some sleep, leave tomorrow," Kid suggested.
"No, sir," Heyes said firmly. "That posse might be back any time with Weller and Company, they can't have gotten far. No, let's go back to Porterville. We'll collect our things, and then we'll hit the road first thing in the morning." Kid was weary to the bone, but he was too anxious to see the last of Salt River to protest.
It was a long, cold ride to Porterville, and it was close to midnight when they reached the town. They unsaddled their horses in the pitch-black livery stable, and walked down the quiet street, past dark windows, to the hotel. "Shh," said Heyes as they went by the hotel desk, where a clerk was fast asleep. "It's late, let's try not to wake anyone up. We've already drawn way too much attention to ourselves."
They tip-toed up the stairs and down the silent hotel corridor, lit only with a single gas lamp. Kid groped in his pocket for the key, while Heyes slumped against the wall, too tired to stand. Kid fumbled with the lock, yawning. Finally the key turned and he swung the door open, just as Heyes suddenly raised his head and stood bolt upright. "Ki-Thaddeus!" he shouted, lunging forward. "Don't--"
Kid turned in amazement as Heyes grabbed his arm to pull him back. Then, from above, a tidal wave of icy water descended on both their heads, followed by a bang and clatter as two metal buckets crashed down on them and smashed on the floor. Kid slipped in the deluge and fell over, dragging Heyes down with him. They lay sputtering as a third bucket dumped another freezing flood onto them. Doors flew open all along the hotel corridor, and sleepy voices called out questions and curses.
Kid sat up, wiping his dripping face, and looked at Heyes. "What," said Kid with dangerous quiet, "What in the name of God do you think you're..."
"Shh, quiet," Heyes hissed, eyeing him apprehensively. "I'm sorry, I completely forgot it was there..."
Kid picked up a bucket and hurled it down the corridor, where it clanged and rattled, rolling past the outraged neighbors watching them. "Why on earth?" he demanded at the top of his voice.
"Well, remember how you made me break a sweat, and so I said there'd be rivers of moisture running down your brow?" Heyes said lamely. "I'm awful sorry..."
Kid lay back down in the puddle of water, and began to chuckle. He laughed out loud, and went on roaring with laughter, and Heyes leaned back against the wall and joined in. They laughed till their sides ached, and tears ran down their tired faces, as the neighbors shook their heads and shouted insults at the two lunatics. They laughed and laughed in relief, and joy, and at the sheer hilarious, incredible joke of simply being alive.
A Halloween story...
Beats Diggin’ Ditches
“I’ve had it,” said Kid, as the heavy door banged shut, an inch from his nose. He stood glaring at the door for a minute; it was a solid oak door, and made a very daunting sound when it was slammed shut in one’s face. He gave it a defiant bang with his fist, then turned away.
Heyes, just behind him, slumped against the side of the wall and ran a hand over his face. “I’ve had it, too,” he said wearily. “Looking for a job has got to be the worst thing in the world.”
Kid jammed his hands into his empty pockets. “I’ve had it, I tell you,” he said grimly. “If one more person slams a door in my face, I’m gonna kick it down.”
They stood in silence on the doorstep, and looked up and down the empty main street of the little town. The sun was low, casting long shadows across the road, and windows were beginning to gleam with lamplight, as curtains were drawn against the October night. “Dinnertime,” said Heyes, looking at the rows of inhospitably closed doors.
“Not for us,” said Kid bitterly, and heaved a deep sigh. “There must be someone in this town who doesn’t know how to stand an egg on end.”
“It’s the way we look,” said Heyes. “You can’t look hungry if you want to pull off one of those deals. Even the five pat hands thing won’t work if they can tell you’re desperate.”
Kid looked down at his stained and dusty clothes, and ran a hand over his unshaven chin. Heyes was just as dirty and trail-worn; neither of them had seen a bathtub, a bed, or a hot meal in weeks. “Come on,” said Heyes tiredly. “No good standing here.”
They walked aimlessly down the street. The sky was darkening, and clouds rolled low overhead, pushed by the chill wind that swept down from the mountains that were already thick with snow. Occasional beams of sunlight shot out from behind the clouds, and then were quickly extinguished. “Getting colder,” said Heyes, turning up the collar of his threadbare jacket.
Kid nodded. “Guess it’s another night on the road,” he replied glumly.
They walked towards the hitching post outside the hotel, where their horses stood with heads down, as dispirited as they were. The hotel window sparkled with cheerful lights, and Heyes peered in through the swinging doors longingly. “Just one good hand in a poker game,” he said, shaking his head. “If I could just get in a game...”
“Don’t even think about it,” said Kid, tightening the girth on his saddle. “It takes money to make money. You just gotta know how.”
Something about his tone made Heyes glance at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he demanded.
“Nothing,” Kid muttered. Heyes continued to stare at him with raised brows, and Kid looked away. Heyes waited, watching his partner buckle and unbuckle the same strap twice.
Finally Kid spoke, softly. “We know how to make money,” he said under his breath.
Heyes felt a twinge of fear at the hungry look on Kid’s face.“We’ve given it up, we’ve gone straight...” he began, but his voice lacked conviction. He was hungry, too.
Kid stopped fiddling with his saddle straps, and faced him. “Just one more,” said Kid. “One more job. Get our hands on a stake, then we can really make a new start.”
Heyes backed up a step, looking away from Kid’s intent eyes, shaking his head. “We swore we wouldn’t...”
“Yeah, but one, that’s all, just one, what can it hurt?”
“Yeah,” said Heyes. “Yeah, but it won’t be just one.”
“One more job, one bank, that’s all, then...”
“Shut up!” Heyes hissed. A man was walking briskly on the opposite side of the road. From his black suit and white turned-around collar, Heyes could see he was a minister. The man glanced at them, and crossed the road to where they stood. Heyes and Kid nodded, expecting him to pass by, but he stopped and looked them up and down.
He was a young man, not much older than they, wearing a loose black suit, tall and almost painfully thin, with a shock of unruly black hair that stood up in the back. He looked them over with his head thrust forward.
“Cold night,” he said pleasantly.
“Sure is,” Heyes agreed warily, wondering if the man had overheard the reference to a bank. But the stranger gave him a smile that seemed friendly. Heyes reflected that it was the first smile he’d seen in this town. “Sorry to bother you,” the man went on. “I’m Father Allen.” He shook hands with a warm clasp, and Heyes and Kid mumbled their aliases as they returned the handshake. “I’m looking for a couple of men to give me a hand,” the minister went on. “You fellows wouldn’t be interested in a job, would you?”
Heyes and Kid glanced at each other, and Heyes felt suspicion rise in him again. This seemed too good to be true. “Sure,” said Kid, at the same time as Heyes said “What kind of work?”
Father Allen smiled. “Honest work,” he said. “Pays a dollar. A dollar apiece,” he added, with a glance at their worn clothes.
“Great,” said Kid. “We’ll take it.”
The minister looked at Heyes and raised his brows. “Honest work,” he said reassuringly. Heyes hesitated, then shrugged his shoulders and nodded. “Okay,” he said. “Why not?”
“Good,” said Father Allen. “You won’t regret it. Come on, boys, this way.” He turned to continue down the street, and motioned them to follow.
“What, right now?” said Kid.
“Why not?” Father Allen replied. “No time like the present.”
He led the way up a side street, and they followed, shivering a little against the chilly wind. The tall man led them to the end of the street, where the flat road turned into a narrow horse-path leading up towards a church, perched on a small hill overlooking the town. The clapboard walls of the small, square building glowed white against the gray sky. A gust of wind whipped gold leaves around their ankles as they followed the minister up the path.
“So what do you want us to do?” Heyes persisted. “Chopping firewood? Sweeping? Fixing something?”
The man didn’t answer, just walked on. He passed the steps that led to the big arched front door of the church, and led them to the back, where a small shed leaned against the side of the building. He opened the shed door, reached a thin arm into the spider-webbed interior, and took out two shovels.
“Digging,” said Kid, glancing at Heyes with a grimace. “Digging what?”
Father Allen nodded to the area behind the church, and Kid followed his glance. A cluster of gray and white tombstones poked out of the rocky hill. “Oh, no,” said Kid.
“What’s the matter, you aren’t superstitious, are you?” asked Father Allen, holding out the shovels.
“No,” said Kid defensively.
“Someone’s got to do it,” said the minister. “You want the job or not?”
Kid opened his mouth, but Heyes shoved him in the ribs with his elbow. “Sure,” said Heyes, taking a shovel, and handing one to his partner. “Beats digging ditches.”
“Not by much,” grumbled Kid, but he followed the tall minister to the cemetery. Father Allen stopped in the center of the graveyard, where there was an open space under a twisted cedar, and pointed to the ground.
“Right here,” he said. “Two graves, please. Side by side.”
Kid looked around at the rows of tombstones. Some were cracked and tilted, with festive yellow and orange lichen spattered on their sides. Some of the stones were straight and shiny, obviously new. He looked out over the town, where the setting sun was hidden behind gray clouds. “What’s the rush?” he said.
“Well, there’s no time like the present,” said Father Allen. He dug in his pocket and handed them each a silver coin.
“Payment in advance?” said Heyes, raising his brows. “That’s not how it usually goes.”
“I trust you not to run off till you’re done,” said Father Allen, patting his shoulder. “Do a good job now, nice square corners.”
Heyes looked around the small graveyard a little uneasily. This was certainly a new line of work, he thought, but a dollar was a dollar. “What size do they need to be?” he inquired. “Who are they for?” He looked around, but the minister was gone.
“A dollar apiece,” said Heyes, with forced cheerfulness, flipping the coin in the air. “That’ll get a us a room, and a meal, and a hand in a poker game, if we don’t eat too much.”
Kid shoved his coin deep in a pocket, and sighed. “So how do we do this?” he said, looking at the shovel with distaste.
Heyes surveyed the tool with a serious face. “Well, I’m not too familiar with it myself, but I think the pointy end goes in the ground,” he said. Kid snorted.
“I don’t know, how hard can it be?” Heyes thrust the shovel into the sod. “Six feet long and six feet deep. That ought to pretty much fit all customers.”
They dug. The ground was dry and hard, thin red soil drifted between layers of flat rocks. Their progress was slow. After half an hour, Heyes straightened with a sigh and moved his shoulders up and down to get the kinks out. Kid sat down on the edge of the grave, and rubbed the back of his neck. “Honest work,” he sighed.
Heyes stepped out of the hole, stretching his arms, and strolled over to a nearby row of tombstones. He bent and peered at the worn letters through the deepening dark. “John Wright,” he read aloud. “1815-1853.” He inspected another one. “William Turner, 1789-1853. Sarah Franklin, 1802-1853--must have been a bad year,” he observed, grinning. “Look, here’s one, Samuel Collins, 1803-1830. Only twenty-seven.” He shook his head.
“Will you stop?” said Kid, getting up and moving away from the rectangular hole.
“What’s the matter, making you nervous?” Heyes asked innocently. “You’re twenty-seven, aren’t you?”
“You know damn well I am, stop reading those things,” said Kid irritably. “Always got to be reading something, don’t you?”
“Nothing wrong with graveyards, it’s where we’re all gonna end up someday, I suppose,” said Heyes, his smile fading as he looked around.
“Not me,” said Kid under his breath, as he resolutely stepped back into the hole.
“What do you mean, not you?” said Heyes. “You think you’re gonna live forever?”
“No,” said Kid, “But I sure don’t want to be buried in a nice neat row like this. Too crowded.” He pointed to the row of lichen-covered tombstones with his shovel, three or four of them leaning so that they touched each other.
Heyes laughed. “Don’t worry, they won’t waste churchyard space on you, that’s for the bank owners and respectable citizens. We’ll be lucky if we get a tombstone. Maybe a wooden board, they’re cheap.” He looked at Kid with serious eyes. “Here lies Kid Curry, twenty-seven, shot while doing just one more bank robbery.”
“Drop dead,” said Kid, poking at the hard ground with his shovel.
“Good place for it,” Heyes returned promptly.
“Will you shut up?” Kid snarled. “Let’s get to work and get this over with.”
They dug in silence for a while. “Damn rocks,” Heyes grunted, bending over to heave one out of the deepening hole. They scratched at the stones with their fingers, but after a while they hit a layer of what appeared to be solid rock. They both stood, stretching their aching backs. The moon was starting to glow behind the clouds, giving a silver light to the churchyard.
“I’m done,” said Kid. “I’ve had it.”
“Me too,” said Heyes. “It would take dynamite to get this hole six feet deep. Whoever it is will just have to settle for this.”
They climbed out of the hole, and sat side by side on a broad, flat gravestone. Heyes looked down and opened his mouth to read the inscription, then caught Kid’s eye, and said nothing. They sat in silence, as the wind blew little eddies of dust from the piled heaps of dirt. Suddenly Kid stood up and walked a few paces away, then turned. “How do you want to die?” he asked Heyes abruptly.
“What?” said Heyes startled.
“You heard me.”
“I don’t know,” said Heyes, frowning up at his partner. He could see Kid’s face in the gray light, frowning too. “What kind of a question is that?” Kid didn’t answer.
“Suddenly, I guess,” Heyes said, after a while, with a half-hearted smile.
“No, really,” Kid said. "Didn't you ever think about it?"
“I don’t know,” said Heyes, exasperated. “Of a heart attack, after breaking the bank at Brown’s Casino, I suppose. Or maybe of exhaustion, after screwing twenty beautiful dance-hall girls.”
“That’ll be the day,” Kid snorted, looking less grim.
“Or maybe after a good dinner,” Heyes went on, warming to his theme. “After a double beefsteak and mushrooms with wild rice and gravy, with champagne and brandy and a couple of cigars...or after a nice hot bath, and a massage by a...”
“All right, all right,” said Kid. “I get the idea.”
“Well, you asked,” said Heyes reasonably. He looked at Kid with curiosity. “What about you, what do you think?”
“I don’t think, I know,” said Kid, jamming his hands in his pockets.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll get shot, of course. I’m fast, but someday there’ll be someone faster. It’s a foregone conclusion. It’s just a question of where and when, that’s all.” He took the silver dollar out of his pocket, and spun it idly, then put it back.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Heyes, with a cold feeling in his stomach at Kid’s certainty.
“Is it?” said Kid. He sat down beside Heyes on the tombstone again, and Heyes could feel him shivering. “It’s getting cold,” said Heyes. “Let’s get back to work.”
They outlined the second grave, close to the first one. They dug and panted, sweating in the cold moonlight, heaving out the shovelfuls of dirt. The grave was still shallow when Heyes straightened up suddenly and pitched his shovel out of the hole.
“That’s it,” he said. “Good enough. The thing about digging a hole is that someone’s just gonna fill it right back in again. Let’s go find Father Allen and tell him we’re done.”
“Sounds good,” said Kid, wiping the sweat from his face with dirty hands. They both climbed out of the hole, and stood looking at the twin graves, two rectangles of black in the dim churchyard, neatly side by side. “Corners square enough for you?” asked Kid.
“It’ll do,” said Heyes, glad to turn his back on the cemetery. “Let’s go.”
They walked to the front of the church, and entered through the big arched door, still carrying their shovels. The church was dark and empty. “Anyone here?” called Heyes. No one answered.
A light gleamed at the far end of the long aisle, behind the dark square of the altar. They walked towards it, their boots clumping loudly in the silent church. A beam of light shone as a door swung open, and a man stuck his head out. “What do you want?”called a harsh voice. “All Saints’ service isn’t till tomorrow at ten.” Heyes could see that it certainly wasn’t Father Allen; this man was short, with a fringe of gray hair around a bald head, but his turned-around collar showed that he was a minister. “What's that you've got there?” the man demanded.
“Only shovels,” said Heyes, wondering if the minister was afraid they were carrying rifles. But the man looked far from reassured, and smacked a hand on his forehead with a groan. “Oh, lord,” he exclaimed. “Sweet Jesus, not again.”
“What?” said Heyes, mystified.
“He's gone and done it again,” said the man, shaking his head. He looked them up and down. “Two of you, eh? You haven’t been digging graves, by any chance?” he inquired.
“Of course we have,” said Kid in an impatient tone. “Father Allen...”
“Father Allen told you to,” the minister interrupted. “May all the saints preserve us. He asked you if you wanted work, because you seemed a bit down on your luck, right? He just can’t stop, can’t keep his nose out of other people’s business. Asked if you wanted a job, right? Honest work?”
“Right,” Heyes said slowly, glancing at Kid, who shrugged and shook his head.
The minister sighed. “And he took you up here, and showed you the spot under the cedar tree, and told you to make the corners nice and square, right? And he paid you a dollar apiece?”
“Right,” said Heyes again, wondering which was the lunatic, the first minister, or the second one. “So we’re all done now,” he said soothingly, trying to humor the agitated little man. “We’re done and we just wanted to tell Father Allen. Where can we find him?”
The man snorted, then turned his back on them abruptly, and stalked back to the lighted office. “Every Halloween he does this,” they heard him mutter. “Every one. Can’t leave anyone alone.” He slammed the door and the church went dark again. Heyes stood in the darkness, and heard Kid breathing hard beside him.
They returned their shovels to the tool shed without a word, and walked the steep path to the town in silence. All the way down, Heyes was aware of the graveyard, white and silent behind them on the rocky hill. When they got to the hotel, the lights blazing from the plate-glass windows made him blink, dazzled, after the long hours of darkness.
He dug a hand in his pocket, but came up empty. “Damn, where’d I put that dollar,” he murmured, feeling around for the coin. He checked all his pockets, but it wasn’t there. Beside him Kid was doing the same. Their eyes met as they both came up empty-handed. “Must have fallen out,” Heyes said lamely.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Kid. Heyes nodded. They climbed wearily onto their tired horses. “We can make the next town by morning,” Kid added. “It can’t be more than twenty miles.”
“What are we going to do when we get there?” Heyes looked at Kid out of the corner of his eye.
“What do you think?” Kid muttered. “Look for a job. Ditch diggers, or something, I suppose. Now that we’re experienced shovellers.” He met Heyes’s look, and smiled reluctantly.
Heyes grinned back at him. “Okay,” he said. “Ditches it is. Or maybe we can find someone who doesn’t know how to stand an egg on end.”
They rode slowly into the night.
Author’s note: Halloween is my favorite holiday, and every year I try to write a Halloween story. Seems like the temptation to do just one more robbery must have been well-nigh unendurable, and I always wondered what kept them on the straight and narrow.
(A look back in time to a younger Heyes and Kid...)
"Let's take a break," said Kid finally. "We've been riding since breakfast, let's stop and stretch our legs."
"Oh, come on, we're almost there," said Heyes. "You can stretch all you want when we get there."
"You're young, give it time," said Heyes, swinging off his horse. "When you're only eighteen, women must seem a little intimidating. I remember how it was."
"Oh, thanks for that pearl of advice, Grandpa," said Kid. "Now that you've reached the ripe old age of twenty, you're the voice of experience. Damn, that saddle is really uncomfortable, I've gotta get a new one."
"It's not the saddle, it's you," said Heyes. "It's your style of riding, you gotta keep your heels down."
"Oh, you're just an expert on everything, aren't you?" said Kid, unbuckling his saddlebag.
"I can't help it," said Heyes modestly. "Some men are just better in the saddle than others." He ducked as Kid hurled a piece of bread at him.
"I suppose Melinda thinks you walk on water," Kid growled.
"She's really something, isn't she?" said Heyes, his face lighting up. "Melinda's just...I've never known a girl like her."
"Yep," said Kid, with a tiny sigh as he realized he was going to have to hear it all over again.
"She's not an ordinary saloon girl, you know. She's just working there till she can get enough money to set herself up in a nice business somewhere. She's a nice girl."
“Yep," Kid said again. He sat down in the small patch of shade thrown by a boulder, and munched on a hunk of bread. "Want some?" he asked.
"No, I'll wait till we get to town. Come on, come on, hurry up," said Heyes. "Melinda isn't expecting me till tomorrow, I want to surprise her." He paced impatiently while Kid munched his dry bread, and drank some water. Finally Kid heaved himself up from the ground, rubbing his legs, and hoisted himself into the uncomfortable saddle. Heyes was already mounted and trotting on ahead.
Kid groaned inwardly at the thought of another hour in the saddle, but consoled himself with thoughts of a steak dinner, a bottle of whiskey, a game of poker, and Lottie the barmaid. Lottie was a plump and bosomy lady, much older than he, who gave him free drinks sometimes when he smiled at her. Saturday night in town, he thought, should be fun.
Kid felt a hesitant tap on his shoulder as he sat at a table in the well-filled saloon, enjoying his first steak in two weeks. He put down his fork, and turned around. He was surprised to see Melinda, dressed in her frilliest dress, her blonde hair decorated with green ribbons. "Where's your pal?" she asked in a low voice. He could hardly hear her over the saloon piano.
She glanced around the crowded saloon. "I didn't know you guys were coming in today," she said.
"No, Heyes wanted to surprise you," Kid said, taking another bite of his steak. "Were you surprised?"
"Oh, yes," she said, laughing. Kid frowned. It didn't sound like a pleasant laugh.
Lottie, the barmaid, sauntered over and leaned on the table. "But Heyes was even more surprised," she said, elbowing Melinda in the ribs. "That right, honey?" Kid looked at Melinda with raised brows, and she looked away.
"A girl's gotta eat," she said sullenly. "A girl's gotta eat. You guys never have any money."
"So where's Heyes now?" asked Lottie cheerfully, looking around the crowded room.
"I thought Curry would know," said Melinda. "His horse isn't out front."
"Maybe he's heading back to Devil's Hole," said Kid slowly.
"Maybe," she said. "He was a little upset." She twirled a bracelet on her wrist nervously. "You don't think he'd do anything foolish, do you?"
"Not Heyes," said Kid promptly. "He's one guy who never does anything foolish."
Melinda looked at him with her wide blue eyes. "Honey, there's no such thing," she said. She turned and walked off, her red skirt rustling. Kid looked after her uneasily.
"What does she mean by something foolish?" he asked Lottie, who was pouring herself a drink from his whiskey bottle.
"Oh, you know, like in the penny dreadfuls. Drowning himself for love, or leaping off a cliff or something."
"Pretty hard to drown himself around here," Kid pointed out. "Not enough water around here to drown a flea."
"You're so unromantic," complained Lottie. "He could throw himself off a cliff. That high ledge that overlooks the town, they call it Lover's Leap, you know. A fella jumped off there twenty years ago, they say, after his girlfriend dumped him."
"Well, Heyes doesn't know that," Kid snapped.
"Yeah, he does," she said unexpectedly. "We were talking about it last time you guys were in town." Kid glanced at her, and she laughed. "Not that I think Heyes'd do anything like that," she said. "He's got more sense than that. Not for a little floozy like Melinda, he's always seen through her. He didn't think she was really on the level."
"Mm," said Kid.
"He's fine," she said, rolling her eyes. "Don't be silly." She whacked him on the shoulder, and walked off to talk to the piano player.
Kid decided she was right. Heyes wouldn't thank him for poking his nose into his partner’s romantic troubles. He poured another whiskey and joined in the poker game, but couldn't keep his mind on it. He folded three times in a row, and then lost four dollars on one hand by reckless betting. Finally he tossed his cards down on the table, and strode out of the saloon.
He glanced at the line of horses standing quietly tethered to the rail. Sure enough, Heyes's horse was no longer tied next to his. Kid looked up at the red sandstone cliff that loomed behind the town, and drummed his fingers on his gun belt.
A long ride up the ridge in the chilly evening yielded no sign of Heyes. The sun went down behind thick clouds, and Kid was thinking longingly of the warm, bright saloon, and Lottie’s charms, when he spotted a darker shadow against the dark rocks. It was Heyes’s horse, riderless, head down as it quietly cropped the sparse grass. He drew in his breath sharply. “Heyes!” he yelled, and heard his own voice bounce off the cliff walls.
He looked up the slope at the edge of the cliff, and noticed a figure sitting on the ledge. “Heyes?” he said quietly.
There was no answer. “Heyes,” he said again, louder.
“What?” Heyes’s voice in the darkness was harsh and angry.
Kid walked up the slope till he stood behind him. “What'cha doing?” asked Kid.
“That has got to be the stupidest question anyone has ever asked,” Heyes growled.
Kid smiled to himself in the darkness. “Well, what are you doing?”
There was a pause. Kid waited patiently, and finally Heyes gave a long sigh. "Getting ready to throw myself off the cliff because my girl is a two-timing, lying little bitch," said Heyes. “What do you think?”
“Ah," said Kid, nodding wisely. "Can I have your saddle, then?"
He thought he heard Heyes give a snort of laughter, and took a few steps closer. "Sure," Heyes said. “Maybe you'll have better luck with it than I did."
“Thanks,” said Kid. He waited a minute or so. The wind gusted more strongly, blowing dust into his face. “Damn, it's cold up here,” he complained, buttoning his heavy sheepskin jacket. “If you're gonna jump, could you please hurry it up?”
“Don't let me keep you,” said Heyes, pulling his hat lower over his eyes. “Why don’t you go on down and see if Melinda’s free, she’s probably ready for another customer by now.”
“I like the view from up here,” Kid said, and climbed up next to Heyes. He sat down, and looked past his boots, dangling over the edge, at the faint lights of the town far below. They sat there in silence for a while, as the cold wind blew in their faces.
Heyes finally gave another long sigh. “Let's go,” he said.
“Okay,” said Kid with relief. “Let's go get drunk.”
“Nah,” said Heyes. “I've had enough of saloons for a while. I'm heading back to the Hole, you go on back to town. Saturday night’s just getting started.” They walked back down the slope to where they had left the horses.
Heyes mounted his horse, and looked down at Kid. “Tell Melinda...” he began, then broke off. “Forget it,” he said. “See you.” He turned his horse and rode into the darkness.
Kid hesitated, looking at the lights of the town. It was still early, for a Saturday night. Finally he mounted and turned his horse to follow Heyes into the dark hills.