14. Everyone’s a Critic

By Calico

“Neglecting you! Never!” protested Cally. “If that’s true – I’ll eat my hat! You’re my favourite boys. You know that.”

A mute conversation between chocolate-brown and cornflower-blue eyes.

“Recently,” said Heyes, “…We haven’t been so sure.”

“You don’t write about us anymore,” pouted Kid.

“I do!”

“Yeah, right! When’s the last time you threw your hat in the monthly challenge ring?”

“Well…” Self conscious shuffle of dainty feet in not-so-dainty fluffy slippers. “I’ve been busy.”

“Busy, huh?”

“Are you implying I’m simply lazy?”

Heyes let his gaze drop and linger, meaningfully. With a blush, Cally Coe kicked the tell-tall ‘House’ box-set under the sofa. A second kick was about to send the bowl of popcorn in the same direction but Kid Curry was too fast for her. (After all, ain’t no one that fast!)

“If the cap fits…” Heyes left his sentence unfinished.

“We think,” inarticulated Kid, through newly bulging cheeks, “…You oughta get your thinkin’ cap on; do a story this month!”

“Well, with my team-spirited-join-in hat on, I think you’re right. But, with my sun-is-shining-and-I-ought-to-dig-the-garden hat on, I think is it justified to sit indoors typing? Then, with my nothing-like-a-few-story-comments-to-cheer-you-up hat on…”

“Which particular hat are you talking through at the moment?” Heyes’ cut her off.

“Less yakkin’, more writin’!” summed up Kid Curry.

“I have been running through ideas,” Cally offered, meekly.

“What’s the topic?” asked Kid.

“Hats,” said Heyes. “Hence all the headgear references.”

“Hats?” echoed Kid. “That ain’t so easy!”

“A hard hat, huh?” joshed Heyes.

Cally groaned. Then, “I could set a story in Homburg. Or Balaclava. Or Derby.”

“Or Panama,” offered Heyes.

“Or, you could both be rowing on the river.”

“Huh?” grunted Kid, sending another fistful of popcorn west.

“A pair of boaters!”

The boys’ turn to groan.

“Or you could learn cricket. Kid’s fast and Heyes is a tricky spinner.”

Pause. Then, from Heyes, “Bowlers! Ouch!”

“Maybe a tracking tale – you become deer-stalkers. Or a romance – you two being such fascinators…”

Groan from both ex-outlaws.

“Or you’re in bare skins, I mean, bearskins. Or hunting beavers…”

“Hey, keep it PG!” interjected Heyes.

“Or Kid mulls on his favourite pie filling: Blue-beret? Black-beret? Cran-beret?”

“You do know you ain’t funny?” checks the Kid.

“Yes I am. I’m a hoot! What about Heyes gets Kid caught up in a beer drinking wager: the ten-gallon challenge.”

“That has possibilities!” encouraged Heyes.

“No it don’t,” vetoed the Kid.

“Okay, okay. I have a bunny.” Cally Coe flipped open her laptop…

-oooOOOooo-

BAD HATS

“So,” Isa Livilan twirled his luxuriant moustaches, “Smith and Jones – or, as we now know them; Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry – have interrupted my Machiavellian machinations for the last time! Tonight, they become my prisoners. Muhahaha!”

“Muhahaha!” agreed Deke, through crooked, tobacco-stained teeth.

“Muhahaha!” assented Zeke, displaying jagged, yellowing incisors.

“Muhahaha!” acquiesced Freke and Streke, adding a miasma of halitosis to the already stale air.

Isa Livilan flashed a gloating, though gleaming, smile. (Being an arch-criminal he was well able to maintain respectable veneers.) “This very night, Deke will drug their drinks, Zeke will drop them through the secret hatch into this impenetrable underground lair and Freke will tie them up.”

“What do I do, boss?” asked Streke.

“You put your finger on Freke’s knots – so there’s none of that pesky working a hand loose during the night, bravely bearing the pain of the lacerated wrists with the determined manly stoicism beloved of the hurt’n’comfort ladies. After I claim the twenty thousand dollars reward on Heyes’ and Curry’s dead bodies, I can concentrate on exploiting the poor but honest workers toiling in my mines! Muhahaha!”

“Muhahaha!” concurred Zeke, Freke and Streke.

“After every criminally avoidable cave-in, I can cheat the grieving widows and orphans out of their homes and farms and… All that villain stuff! Muhahaha!”

“Muhahaha!” chimed in Zeke, Freke and Streke.

“I can subject Heyes’ and Curry’s angelic-natured sweethearts, Mary-Sue and Susie-May to a fate worse than death!” His well-manicured hands rubbed together in fiendish glee. “And those interfering, reformed ex-outlaws doing shame-faced good deeds, usually kicked off by the ramifications of some random odd-job allocated by the Governor, they’ll never foil me again! Muhahaha!” A sudden frown. “Deke – are you even listening? I’m recapping the plot out loud and at length for your benefit y’know? Well, ostensibly for your benefit, in reality to bring the readers up to speed.”

“The thing is, boss,” Deke scratched his head dislodging some nameless invertebrate and a hunk of what appeared to be cheese. “… I’m confused ’bout my motivation here. Why are we so set on tyin’ up Heyes an’ Curry?”

“Did you not hear the part about the twenty thousand dollar reward?”

“Yeah, but…” Deke scratched again; insect-life stirred. “…I was readin’ that most philosophers agree money don’t really make ya any happier.”

“Not past a minimum comfort level,” nodded Zeke. “I read that too.”

“WHAT?”exploded Livilan. “Since when could you two read?”

“I’ve been kinda wond’rin’ why we do what we do,” chipped in Freke. “Why do we always tie folk up? An’ when we do, why all the beatin’ and gloatin’?” His unshaven face took on a pensive expression. “It means no one ever likes us.”

“The real route to happiness is affiliation with friends an’ family an’ devotin’ effort to somethin’ worthwhile bigger’n yourself,” contributed Streke. “Maybe we should do that. Y’know, make the mine a safe place to work, use the precious ore for useful improvements to wider society, share the immediate rewards with the employees, let Heyes an’ Curry work out their amnesty, let ’em marry the gals.” A happy smile, “We could be godfathers to their young uns.”

Livilan’s fists crashed down on his mahogany desk. “Have you all gone outta your tiny minds?”

“We’re only askin’, boss,” shuffled Deke. “After all, we oughta know why we do what we do…”

“You’re henchmen for a fanfic villain! Bad Hats! You don’t HAVE any dang motivation. Even I don’t have much dang motivation and I’m the guest star. As for you – you show up, you look mean, you do bad stuff to Heyes and Curry. Period.”

“But WHY?” whined Zeke.

“Because … Because… Because they’re there! Sheesh.”

“Seems to me,” Freke squared his shoulders, “we all oughta get outta this lair and take more time to smell the flowers.”

“Seems to me,” Streke took in a deep breath, “we all oughta…”

-oooOOOooo-

“You can’t enter THAT!” exploded Kid Curry. “That’s… It’s…” His search for a derogatory word suitable for mixed company failed. “For a start, we ain’t even in it!”

“Lotta truth in that!” agreed Heyes.

“You don’t like it?” Cally was crestfallen.

“Sure we like it.” Brown eyes turned on their best appealing look. “If you could just change a few tiny details…”

“Which details?”

“The words,” grunted Kid. He fortified himself with more popcorn. “You wanna win, dontcha?”

“The story challenge is not about winning,” intoned Cally, virtuously, “it’s about sharing stories with…”

“Yadda, yadda,” cut in Kid, brusquely. “You wanna win, dontcha?”

Affirmative double eyebrow lift from Cally.

“What ya need to do is think; what do those ladies really like?”

“They like Kid getting shot,” suggested Heyes.

“What ELSE do they like?” Kid flashed the look at his helpful partner.

Thinking. More thinking. “Ooooh,” squealed Cally, “I know!”

-oooOOOooo-

OI’LL HAVE A TWIST

“Oh, Han’bul,” quavered Jed Curry, his starved body shivering with cold beneath the inadequate rags in which he was clad, “the Val’praiso gruel is so thin.” A teeny starved hand rubbed at a tiny damp nose. A plaintive sniff. A wobble of a weeny bottom lip. “I’m still hungry. I want some more!”

“More?” roared the portly man supervising the ranks of throat-catchingly appealing orphans. He strode forward, chins quivering, gold braid on his scarlet coat glinting menacingly, knob-berry stick held aloft. “MORE?”

“Oh, Mister Bumble!” cried Hannibal, thrusting his younger cousin-stroke-erstwhile-neighbour-though-no-relation behind him. “Don’t beat Jed! He is so tiny and waif-like and – and…” A second small nose was rubbed by a second small fist. “…I swore to his Ma as she lay dyin’ in the dirt in front of us that I’d always protect him. If’n you hafta beat anyone – beat me!”

“I’ll beat you both!” thundered Mister Bumble. “Out of sheer early nineteenth century brutality to helpless orphans.”

“No!” A grim faced man as skeletal as Bumble was fat elbowed past the beadle. “Let ME beat them!”

“You, Mister Murdstone?”

“Yes, Mister Bumble. I surpass your brutality because, rather than free-floating historical callousness, I am motivated by twisted nineteenth century hell-fire religion. I am convinced if I sufficiently torture their wicked, fleshly bodies, I can save their souls!”

“Brother!” A female voice rang out. “Let ME beat them. As well as twisted religiosity I am also motivated by warped, frustrated female sexuality. I could flay them alive and hardly break sweat.”

“We’ll take turns,” decided Bumble, tucking Hannibal under one arm.

“Done!” agreed Miss Murdstone. She and her brother spread-eagled Jed over a table and tied down his pitifully thin wrists and ankles.

“No!” beseeched Hannibal. “Don’t hurt Jed! He is far too waif-like! If anyone were to read of this – particularly middle-aged women – their withers would be wrung at such a tiny, appealing, golden haired orphan being hurt! Especially in such bleak and oddly Dickensian surroundings. I can take the beatings of you all!”

“Oh, Han’bul,” sniffed Jed, unshed tears glistening on the lashes quivering around his heart-tuggingly piteous blue eyes, “you’re so brave, and so ‘tective. Anyone readin’ of your brav’ry an’ my lispin’ grat’tude – part’larly middle-aged ladies – ‘ud be SO moved!”

“They would,” agreed Hannibal. “Our resilient friendship would be the final clincher. After all, though we hadta bury our whole fam’lies – all sixteen of ’em – usin’ nothin’ but a rusty teaspoon, at least we still have each other!”

“Just a moment,” thundered Murdstone, his arm halting mid-swipe over wee Jed’s teeny tiny quivering buttocks, “is that boy there…” An outraged finger indicated Hannibal. “…Wearing a non-pauper-uniform hat?”

“He IS,” concurred Bumble. “An adult-sized black hat with silver trimmings, sitting adorably askew on his ruffled dark locks. How come I never noticed that before?”

“It must be confiscated at once!” declared Miss Murdstone. “The proceeds will be spent on more improving tracts to hang upon the walls of this bleak house.”

“No!” implored Hannibal, his hand clamping the hat to his head. “This hat is all I have left of my beloved Pa. His last act, before he expired in my arms, after giving me a final wise, but also winningly warm, fatherly lecture on the benefits of being poor but honest – even though it doesn’t stop you and your family being slaughtered by villains, or possibly raiders – was to press this hat onto my head.”

“Don’t take Han’bul’s Pa’s hat!” chimed in the piping voice of tiny Jed. “My Ma used to say each silver trimmin’ rep’sented a diff’rent good deed an’ how we oughta do a good deed ev’ry day. It was one of the last things she ever said. Just afore we buried her. We had to keep Mister Heyes’ hat safe an’ ev’ry time we saw the silver trimmin’s we had to…”

“I thought the last thing she ever said was that Hannibal had to protect you?” interrupted Murdstone.

“She said that too.”

“For a dying woman, she sure did a lot of yakking.”

Hannibal gave a rueful shrug. It was true, the death scene of his and Jed’s families had been crowded with more touching last speeches than would fit comfortably into a heart-warming mini-series. His tiny triplet sisters in particular had lisped out their loving wishes to big bruvver Han’bul at such length he had worried the whole clan would not be dug a tear-jerkingly safe six feet under before the obligatory shot of him and wee Jed walking off together into the sunset to face an uncertain future.

“Nevertheless,” he pressed, “…Don’t take Pa’s hat.”

“If’n you do,” Jed’s lip wobbled so much that it resembled jelly on a plate, “it might be the final straw that turns us…” Huge sniff. “…Into bad men. We might think if’n our most prec’ush poss’shun gets taken, maybe it’s all right for us to take other folks’ stuff.”

“If’n any middle-aged women read such a story,” sobbed Han’bul, his brave front breaking down, “their maternal instincts would be so wrought upon they’d hafta vote for it.”

“Hafta!” agreed Jed, tears soaking into his…

-oooOOOooo-

“For Pete’s sake!” protested Kid, pressing a hand to his stomach. “Some of us are eatin’!”

“Over the top?” queried Cally.

“Not all of it,” reassured Heyes. “Just the part set in Valparaiso.”

“That IS all of it.”

“I wanted to break it to you easy.”

“Got any other ideas?” prompted Kid.

“Only one. And, it’s not even mine. My husband came up with the idea.”

“Consider us – coiled springs,” invited Heyes.

-oooOOOooo-

GET IT SORTED

“This castin’ process better be fair,” grumbled a blue-eyed young man in a dusty sheepskin jacket. “If I end up with some kinda sidekick role with only ’bout a quarter as many lines as…”

“You think YOU got problems with small parts?” groused a short fella with a mouth full of dodgy teeth and chewing tobacco.

“Too much information,” dimpled a dark guy in a silver-trimmed black hat.

“Where do you think we’re all bein’ taken?” asked an older man with an uncanny resemblance to the Virginian, as the disorganised group of assorted actors and extras shuffled forwards.

“Ze – ‘ow do you say – casting, zis ees not ze usual way,” pouted a pretty young girl, frenchly. “Zere is no – ‘ow do you say – couch.”

The blond and dark young men exchanged a glance. It was true; this was a casting session unlike any other they had known. Everyone was being shepherded into a Great Hall. It was lit by thousands and thousands of candles which were floating in mid-air.

Mister Huggins silently placed a four-legged stool in front of the assembly of Western folk. On top of the stool he put a cowboy hat. It was patched and frayed and extremely dirty. The hat twitched. A rip near the brim opened wide like a mouth – and the hat began to sing:

All the world’s a stage – or 1970s telly,

And there are many parts – hence this casting mêlée.

We need to get it sorted – sort the wheat from chaff.

Who’s a handsome hero? Who can only raise a laugh?

Which guy gets the girl? Which girl gets the guy?

Who’s brave? Who’s bad? Who’s cute? Who is kinda shy?

Who’s the smiler with the gun?

Which are outlaws on the run?

Pick me up and try me, on your head I’ll sit.

I’ll take your measure in a trice – and choose a part to fit.

“What the Sam Hill…?” grunted sheepskin jacket. “Is it some kinda witchcraft?”

“That’s what I call a thinking cap,” said silver-trim hat. “I’m going to Potter over for a closer look.”

“What’s it mean – Wheat an’ chaff?” frowned a tall moustachioed fella in a light brown hat. “What’s wrong with Wheat? Pfftt.” More quietly, crossing fingers, “I wanna be the leader!”

They watched the young French girl skip up to the stool and pull on the hat.

“Annoying female guest star!” shouted the hat.

“Zut alors! ‘Ow rude!” An idea struck her. “Shall I seeng?”

“No!” yelped several of the surrounding crowd in a single voice.

The short guy spat out a gloop of tobacco juice and pulled on the hat.

“Recurring lovable comic relief.”

“Recurrin’? That sounds like a hangin’ oh-fence!”

He was reassured and went back to the crowd.

“You wanna go next?” asked silver-trim.

“Why? D’you think the best part isn’t up till later?” frowned sheepskin jacket.

“No idea. D’you want ME to go next?”

Blue-eyed pondering.

“Tell you what,” offered silver-trim, “we’ll flip for it.”

“Whose coin?”

Meanwhile a disgruntled clutch of middle-aged men had all been sorted into extra poker players and members of posse. A lithe looking dark guy was sorted as: practically everything as required. “Well done, Monty,” smiled Mister Huggins.

“Heads,” dimpled silver-trim. “Me first.”

He strutted up to the stool and pulled on the hat.

“Hannibal Heyes. Affable but with hidden complexities. Devastatingly attractive to the opposite sex. Articulate and intellectual, but also a man of action. Star of the show!”

“Anybody got a soundproof hat box?” grunted sheepskin jacket. “Or can I just shoot it?”

“You never know,” beamed Heyes, striding back emanating smug waves, “there could be two equally good starring roles.”

Brightening, sheepskin jacket did his own strut up to the stool. He pulled on the hat.

“Kid Curry. Recurrent quick draw scenes and eye candy for the ladeez!” shouted the hat.

A burst of applause from the French girl and a gaggle of women earlier sorted as; ‘saloon gals – if you know what I mean!’ Excitedly they hauled forward a foaming bath tub.

Kid Curry sighed deeply, but resignedly, and began to unbutton his shirt…

-oooOOOooo-

“If you’re not gonna take this seriously…” intoned Kid Curry.

“You said; give the ladies what they like!” protested Cally. “There’s a whole clutch who like seeing you in a bath and a whole other clutch who like Harry Potter stuff!”

“Hidden complexities. Devastatingly attractive. Articulate, intellectual, man of action. Star of the show,” mused Heyes. “This story does have a certain – something.”

“A certain dumb thing,” groused Kid.

“Listen, Blue-Eyes!” Cally went nose to nose with the blond ex-outlaw. “I’ve given you a whole hat-trick of stories. Whether you like them or not, I’m only planning on typing two more words before hitting the pillow…”

THE END

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