EARLY SUMMER 1869
Buck and Kyle rein in their horses, wheel ’em around. Me and Jed join ’em.
“Ya think we lost ’em, Buck?” Kyle’s grinning all over his face ‘cos he knows we lost ’em, but Kyle never decides nothing for himself.
Buck raises an arm, shields his eyes from the sun, stares back at the … Well, at nothing. We’re real high now and see clear across miles of – nothing.
“Ya think we lost ’em, Heyes?”
“Yeah, I think we lost ’em.” We lost the posse near half an hour back. Not that it was much of a posse, me and Jed and Buck and his dumb brother Kyle aren’t exactly the James Gang, huh?
Two sets of crooked teeth glint as Buck and Kyle crack the widest grins this side of… Nah, strike out glint. But, you get the picture.
I join in the whooping, though, unlike how I felt after the first bank job we pulled, I’m really not in the mood, “WHOOOO- haaaaaaaAAAAAA!”
Jed says nothing. He don’t even meet my eyes.
‘S’okay in one way, ‘cos Buck and Kyle’ll reckon it’s all part of this ‘ice-cool man of no emotion’ thing Jed’s got going at the moment. It’s straight outta one of those dumb dime novels. You catch him practising his steely stare in his shaving mirror – not that he needs to shave, I’ve seen more whiskers on a pig snout. I tell him he’s got nothing to prove just ‘cos Buck’s five years older – but, hey, you know Jed.
I know, right now, it isn’t the ‘strong and silent’ act keeping him quiet. It’s… Well, it’s nothing I’m gonna bring up with Buck and Kyle right there. It’s nothing I’m gonna bring up at all – not if Jed’ll let it lie. Even if he won’t let it lie… It’s nothing. We oughta be celebrating. We oughta be…
I turn away from Jed – let him stew if that’s what he wants. I grin at the boys, “We did it!” My hand rests on the bag slung over the saddle horn. “Whattchya bet there’s over five thousand dollars in here?”
It’s a good thing no one took that bet – I’d have lost. When we finish counting there isn’t five thousand dollars in the bag. BUT – there’s enough to have Kyle and Buck grinning like hyenas – hyenas are the ones that grin, huh? We sit by the camp fire, passing the bottle, saying what we plan to buy in the way of fancy gear, what we mean to drink in the way of fancy champagne and what we plan to do to fancy wh*res in fancy hotel rooms.
Jed sits to one side, cleaning his gun, saying nothing. I do my level best to act with the brothers same as usual – I mean, same as what I guess usual ‘ud be when we’ve got more money than we’ve ever seen in one place – but Jed’s silence is all I can hear, and though I never look at him, that mulish twist to his mouth is all I can see.
“Whattchya plannin’ spendin’ your’n on, Jed?”
Jed kinda glowers at Kyle, but Kyle isn’t real likely to pick up on a message delivered only by lowered eyebrows. Kyle needs words. Short ones. Single syllables are perfect. Besides, while I’m only pretending to have no idea what’s eating Jed, Kyle really does have no idea, so he carries on grinning and waiting for an answer.
“I dunno. I guess – stuff,” mutters Jed. He gets to his feet, “I’m gonna check on the horses.”
He strides off. He does ‘check’ on the horses. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see him lean his cheek against his mare. His lips move, then he buries his face in her neck. He sure wouldn’t do that if he thought any of us was watching. He looks so – so lonely. He looks how I’d feel if, under the cheerful act for the boys, I didn’t feel so – so… So dang mad. Which is pretty much as dumb as hugging your horse for company when you reckon no one is watching – ‘cos who the Sam Hill am I mad with? Jed? That dang Dan Gruber? Myself? My fath… No! No.
If Jed keeps up the silent act much longer Buck’ll find some’n to take offence over. Now, the way Buck looks after his little brother shows he’s got a good heart under all that bluster, but both him and Jed are dumb enough to get ’emselves beat up – or even shot – over nothing once they think someone’s not treating ’em right. So, when, instead of coming back, Jed wanders further away into the dark of the trees, I say I hafta to go sprinkle whiskey on a bush and stride after him.
“You coming back?”
A shrug. Okay.
“It went pretty well, huh? Nobody hurt. In and out real quick. You and me got over $2000 for what – five minutes work and an hour or so of hard riding.”
Jed kicks at the dirt. Another shrug. Okay, that’s it! He’s about to turn sixteen not six! It’s time he grew up. My hands go to my hips. “What’s eating you?”
He glowers at me. Unlike Kyle, I CAN interpret messages sent purely by eyebrows and bottom lips. Point taken, I know what’s eating him. You see, ‘that dang Dan Gruber’ I mentioned – he was… We know him. He knows us. What brought him to a two-bit small town this far from Kansas – who knows? Though, I guess , right now, he could be wondering the same about us, huh? Last time Dan Gruber saw us he told to run out and play ‘cos he had serious stuff to talk over with our Pas. I remember him binding up Jed’s knee that time Jed busted it falling outta his apple tree. I remember him cleaning us both up under his pump so our Mas didn’t know we’d been messing in the mud flats that time we’d been forbidden to go near. I remember… Enough. What does anything that happened before THAT day matter now? That was another life.
“Look! We saw someone who knew us as kids. Big deal! It was bound to happen one…”
“Saw him. Held a gun to his head. Robbed him.”
“Kid, you didn’t hold a gun to HIS head – he was just one of the customers.”
“Yup. One of the customers I held a gun on while you robbed ’em.”
“We didn’t rob HIM. We robbed the bank.”
“The bank with his money in it. The money from the crops he breaks his back over all year.”
“It don’t work that way, Jed.”
Jed looks up, half angry, half – I dunno. “You know that for a fact, huh?”
Hopeful, that’s it. That’s what he looks aside from angry.
He’s hoping I look him straight in the eye and say, “Yup. I know that for a fact. We did not rob Dan Gruber of a single cent.”
I could do that. I could look Jed in the eye and say it, but…
It’s too late now. He’ll know I’m lying. Maybe lying. The money in banks don’t just grow, does it? It belongs to someone. I have no idea if ‘the bank’ – this particular small bank I never heard of, in this particular two-bit town in the middle of nowhere – will make good all Mister Gruber’s money, some of it, or none of it.
More dirt kicking.
“Look, Jed, maybe he said some stuff to you and…”
No maybe about it. I saw Dan Gruber say some’n to Jed and I saw Jed’s face change as if… I dunno what got said – I was busy over at the teller’s station – but I suppose I can guess. No, that’s wrong – I can’t guess. I can think up a few possibles, but that’s not the same thing at all.
“…And, maybe you let it get to you. Let it go now. ”
“Han, do you think we’ve betrayed everything our folks ever stood for? Kinda stomped on their graves?”
Okay. That took out some of the guesswork, huh?
“Nope,” I say, firmly.
“You mean, we haven’t betrayed ’em?”
“I didn’t say that. I said I don’t THINK it. ”
Jed frowns – then gets it.
Of course we’ve betrayed them. No, let me stick with myself – to what I absolutely know – since, however close we are, I cannot absolutely know Jed. I have betrayed all my father tried to teach me. I’m a thief. I’m a liar. I push folk around at the end of a gun. I know it is wrong and I go right on doing it anyhow. I do NOT think about it and I intend to go right on NOT thinking about it.
He kicks up more dirt. “I’m thinkin’ we oughta stop.”
“Jed, you know the plan. We get enough together for the gear and papers and stuff so we can go stake a claim. We get enough to see us through the first year, maybe the first couple o’ years…”
“B*llsh*t!” I shut up. He carries on. “It’s never gonna be enough, is it? This is our third job. This time next week – how much do you reckon’ll be left? We’ll blue the lot. You know we will.”
I guess he’s right. I’m not exactly lying about the ‘getting a stake together’, just…
“Buck’s got him a friend Wyoming way who’s got an in to a gang – y’know, bigger jobs. It’d make getting a stake that much quicker.”
“I’m thinkin’ we oughta stop.”
My voice is cold, “One word from Dan Gruber and all of a sudden you wanna do what your Pa’d call ‘the right thing’, huh?”
“I’m thinkin’ we oughta stop.”
Jed does this – latches onto a line and sticks with it. It’s his way of avoiding having me talk him round. As tactics go – it’s not bad.
“You do realise just stopping don’t cover doing the right thing? What’d our Pas say when we’d done something wrong to someone else?”
Reluctantly, Jed says, “We’d hafta ‘fess up and take our punishment like a man.”
“You thinking of doing that? ‘Fessing up? Turning yourself in? Getting slung in jail – not the drying out when you’re drunk cell type of jail – the real territorial prison where you’ll be begging for a pair of needles to knit yourself a new *ss h*le after a week?”
“Shaddup! I only said – I’m thinkin’ we oughta stop.”
“Okay. Let’s think it through. We stop. Then what? We go back to living the lives our folks woulda wanted, huh? What’s that mean? I’ll tell you what it means. For them it meant working sixteen hours a day and being dog-tired and dirt poor at the end of it. For us it’ll mean – hey! Whaddya know! It’ll be the same only worse. We can work sixteen hours a day on a cattle trail. Or we can work sixteen hours a day on some ranch or farm. Or we can sweat in a rail camp, or maybe down some mine. The pay’ll be pretty much bed and board ‘cos if we don’t take bed’n’board, there’s plenty of fellas will. We’ll spend our days saying ‘yessir’ ‘nossir’ to some no-account head hand who can rub our face in it any dang time he chooses. Don’t matter how hard we work, we’ll still get fired pretty regular and hafta go bowing and scraping to some other no-account head hand for another chance. We’ll be lucky to get a cheap beer or two on a Saturday night and won’t be able to pay a saloon-gal to so much as give us the time of day. We go back to being the nothings and no ones we were those first few months outta Valparaiso. We’ll get old before our time and the most exciting thing we’ll ever do is play two-cent poker. But, hey, that don’t matter ‘cos there are rewards to being poor but honest, huh? Yeah! We know what they are. They’re a pair of six by two holes in the earth – and that’s all! That’s all there ever is! Everything else is a crock! And I want something IN my life before I bed down in MY hole in the ground. IF that means my life is pretty dang short, fine! Who wants to get old anyhow? But, before I turn into worm-food, I’m gonna have something! Be someone! ‘Cos, otherwise, despite all the fine talk, you’re squat! ‘Cos if you’re dumb enough to believe all those dumb lies you tell your dumb son… Lies ’bout standing up and doing the right thing whatever the consequences… Lies ’bout telling the truth and shaming the devil… Lies ’bout doing unto others… Lies ’bout bullies not prospering… If you start believing that – that crock – what d’ya get? You get yourself slaughtered without anyone lifting a finger to help. You get the one son you didn’t get slaughtered along with ya dumped in a pen with all the other kids no one wants! You break all the promises you ever made ’bout always being there for him… All the promises ’bout things working out okay in the end. You betray him! ‘Cos it’s a crock! The bullies DO prosper! Soon as we stopped asking nice and started shoving guns at folk and demanding like the rest – we prospered! He lied! Like father like son, huh? He lied and I hate him!”
I’m shaking. Shaking all over. Where did all that come from? If that’s a sample of the stuff I spend my time NOT thinking about, I reckon I plan to work even harder on the NOT thinking about it.
“Don’t you… Don’t you say nothin’ ’bout my Pa!” Jed’s near as angry as I am.
We stare at each other. Then…
Maybe he realises it wasn’t HIS Pa I was talking about.
Maybe, as I raise my sleeve to wipe – some’n – from my eyes, I realise that all came out blacker than…
I really don’t know.
I want to tell you I didn’t mean it. I want not to have meant any of it.
Anyhow, the moment when we mighta flattened each other passes.
Jed looks away. Quick as I can, I take another rub at my eyes. Without looking back, he touches my arm. “I miss ’em too, Han.”
He takes a few deep breathes. He don’t say nothing else to answer my – my rant. Which is not surprising, ‘cos in telling you what I think I said, I reckon I made it a lot clearer than it came out at the time. And, well… Even I still can’t follow it all and it came outta MY mouth, so what chance did Jed have, huh? Jed, who is nothing if not persistent once he’s made his mind up, goes back to:
“I’m thinkin’ we oughta stop.”
I’m only sure of one thing. Maybe.
“I won’t go back to being nothing and no one, Jed. I won’t.”
A long pause. Then his eyes drop.
“I think I’m gonna stop, Han. I’ll ride along far as Clearwater, then I’ll head out, see if I can find trail work.”
Clearwater is a loop back past the town we just hit. I’m having us head in the opposite direction to that in which they chased us – ‘cos …
That isn’t the point is it? The point is, Jed changed from talking about what he wants US to do, to what HE is gonna do.
“Well, I guess we’re not joined at the hip, huh?”
“Guess not,” he says.
It needs more than that. Surely us even thinking ’bout splitting up needs more than that? We promised… We swore… Mind you, I break promises. Liars do.
Jed starts to walk back to the fire. My voice stops him.
“You know if you get tired of getting pushed around trying to make it on your own, if you miss that ‘king-of-the-world’ feeling when a job you planned went well, if you miss having folk jump when you say jump ‘cos you’ve money to throw around… If that happens, and you think you can just come wheedling round wanting to be my partner again…”
His eyes challenge mine. His mouth opens.
“You’ll be right. I’ll take you back in a heartbeat, Jed. Soon as you find poor but honest isn’t working out for you – find me. Anytime. Anytime at all.”
I don’t know what I hope. That it works out for Jed – or that it don’t.
Hoping for either is a betrayal of – of something.