8. Occupational Hazards

By Calico

PART ONE

Midlake? Er…? No. Doesn’t ring a… Oh, yeah, I remember.

Sheesh, that was near six months ago – but I remember.

Midlake.

A bank robbery where we made a haul of – approximately – in round figures – just the one round figure actually – a VERY round figure – nothing. Nil. Nought. Nada.

It does happen. The best laid plans of mice and men – even the best laid plans of Hannibal Heyes – can go astray.

I’d decided against a night job ‘cos Kid reported the deputies were real conscientious at their patrols. And, besides, you’d think a daytime job is riskier – but it mostly don’t work out that way. It’s surprising how much you can get into place in broad daylight without folk taking a blind bit of notice, while, if you start moving your men in the dark, you can bet someone, somewhere’ll be peering through a drape. In the daytime you’re what they call – hidden in plain sight, huh?

Folk are jumpier at night too. More chance someone – our side OR the other – will get twitchy; which is a problem when one of the fingers twitching is on a trigger.

Anyhow, I’d laid the plans and briefed the boys, same as usual.

We were real careful not to attract attention as we rode into town, NOT altogether – ‘cos that’s just dumb. No one paid any mind when me, Kid, Wheat, Kyle, and the Preacher went – again, not together – into the bank. I’d Hank on lookout, Lobo with the horses. Inside the bank, everything went fine to start. Smooth as silk. Which is what you’d expect from a Hannibal Heyes plan, me being a genius and all.

The bald old manager read my note, then – Adam’s apple bobbing like a Diablo – moved to the back where the safe was kept. I followed; Preacher covered me.

In unison, Kid, real polite – but forceful, y’know? – had the customers and employees sit on the floor with their hands where he could see them. And, being Kid, he flashed that grin of his and tipped his hat at one real rose of a pretty gal wrapped in a pink shawl. Wheat and Kyle backed up Kid’s orders, one a few feet either side to cover the space, guns gesturing at folk to get back and keep down.

The manager, burbling how we’d never get away with this, took me to the safe. He was stalling on opening it – and no way did I want to stick around for the time it’d take me to turn tumblers; broad daylight has some advantages, but you sure want to be in and out slick and smooth…

Where was I?

Oh yeah, the manager was stalling on the safe, so I hoisted Mister Schofield a little higher to see if HIS persuasive powers could help out my silver tongue. Know what? They did. The pudgy hands moved faster. Faster still when Kid announced who we were. I guess it pays to have a reputation, huh?

“No need to worry,” Kid was saying, “…If no one does nothin’ stupid, no one gets hurt.”

Someone DID do something stupid that day at Midlake. The young clerk who’d watched his manager then gone to join the few customers sitting against the far wall was dumb enough to decide to be a hero. As Kid passed, he grabbed his boot and tried to wrestle him to the floor. It almost worked. Kid nearly toppled over, hopping and dragging the guy along, before he shook him off.

Now, that kinda thing can lead to accidents. The last thing – the very last thing – we want is anyone getting hurt. Maybe once upon a time when we were young we got a buzz outta staring down a ‘have-a-go’ hero. Now, I reckon we think armed robbery is exciting enough without extras. Must be getting old, huh? All we want is a nice smooth job with a nice smooth get-away to follow. So, I could understand why this jackass got the full Kid Curry warning glower. And why Kid aimed his Colt right at the young fella’s chest and made his voice ice-cold as he growled, “Are you wantin’ to get shot? ‘Cos if you are – all you hafta do is try that one more time. I’ll be happy to oblige.” You see – he hadta make sure he scared the guy enough to get him back against the wall and keep him there, blinking apology.

It wasn’t ‘Have-a-go’ Joe that made us leave with nothing though. It was the young gal in the pink shawl. When she moved – and the shawl moved – turned out she was carrying and… You guessed it! Right there in the middle of the proceedings…

Later when we were back at the Hole, me and Kid and the rest decided, since we’d kinda had a hand in setting the date of the baby’s birthday a mite early, we oughta send a gift. Y’know – for the christening. So, next time we got into a town, I had a fine silver mug inscribed from: ‘all the gang at the bank’ and sent it along.

Like I said: “The best laid plans of mice and…”

For Pete’s sake. I listen to myself coming out with all this guff and…

No.

Midlake wasn’t like that.

Leastways even if it seemed kinda that way at the time – it sure didn’t afterwards.

Not that everything so far is exactly lies. Half-truths and editing are so much more effective than lies when you want to hide something, huh?

And – I do want to hide something. From myself, let alone from you.

Midlake was nothing like that.

It was…

Okay – I’m going to try and tell it straight. But remember – straight isn’t exactly my natural direction.

Let’s start over – from the beginning.

Midlake.

All that pretending to search my mind – pffft!

I do not have to TRY and remember.

These last few weeks I’ve thought about nothing but Midlake.

I told you the manager was ‘bald’, that his ‘Adam’s apple bobbed’, that his hands were ‘pudgy’ because – because those details make him, somehow, a comic figure. It stops you – sheesh, it stops ME – focussing on the unvarnished picture. I held a gun on an old man who was scared stiff. Swallowing convulsively in terror.

I said he was ‘burbling how we’d never get away with this’. It makes him sound a fool, huh? That choice of verb; ‘burbling’ – perfect. Does it sound rather different if I say he was stuttering out his words because the teeth chattered in his head from sheer fright as I pointed ‘Mister Schofield’ – was I really trying to make even that sound that cute? – at him? Does it sound rather different if I explain when he said,’they won’t get away with it’, he was actually trying to give some – admittedly useless – reassurance to a worn-looking, middle-aged mother among the customers. She was bleating…

(Bleating! There I go again! Note the loaded verb choice! NO!)

She was frantically trying to push her children behind her, so she was between them and the guns and pleading: “If the bank breaks, Frank, will I lose my farm? Will they foreclose?”

The manager finished turning the safe dial, half-counting under his breath all the while. He pushed down on the handle. Nothing.

“Quit stalling,” I said. “Though, I’m giving you ten outta ten for the dramatic start of surprise. You oughta be on the stage.”

He looked up at me, wide-eyed, his hands fumbling again with the dial. Lips mouthing the numbers. Another tug on the handle. “It won’t… Honest… It’s…”

He’s not bluffing. I’ve sat opposite enough men trying to bluff me to know. Besides, he couldn’t fake the beads of sheer fear popping out on his forehead. Then, he remembers something.

“Geor… We… I mean I cha-changed the co-co-comb-co…”

He cannot get the word out.

Wheat, who’s getting spooked by the delay, raises his gun in our direction and snaps, “Quit stammerin’ an’ stallin’, old man!”

I throw a frown at him. Wheat clears his throat and gets his eyes and his gun direction back where they belong, on the customers.

I make my expression reassuring as I can as I turn back to the old man. Him getting more’n’more scared isn’t gonna speed things up none, so far as I can see. “Okay. Another try – with the new combination.”

“I – I can’t…”

A voice from among the customers, calls over, “Leave him alone. Mister Wright didn’t change the combination. I did.”

It’s the young clerk speaking.

“Ev-every quarter, we reset…” The manager – Wright – is wringing his hands as he starts to stutter out an explanation.

“He won’t recall the new number without looking it up. And he can’t look it up, because we only changed the combination yesterday and I haven’t coded it into the…” The clerk realised his voice had sped up and what he meant to come out as defiant was veering into nervous. He took a breath, “So, leave him be.”

Great. I had me conscientious bank staff who follow security guidelines on combinations.

“Do you recall the new combination?” Kid asked the clerk.

“Yes.”

“In that case, I’m gonna ask you to step over and help us all move this along by opening the safe. Then all you good people can get on with your lives, no harm done.” Though the hand gesturing the young man to get to his feet was the one holding the gun, Kid still kept his voice real civil.

The clerk did not move.

“That there’s Kid Curry askin’ yer to stand up, fella,” puts in Kyle, “…If’n you know what’s good fer yer – yer’ll ‘blige him.”

“No.”

Just the one word from him. Not raising his voice at all. He met Kid’s gaze, dead on. He lifted his chin, gave his answer. Then…

—oooOOOooo—

Do you know what? There’s usually nothing I like better’n talking – but not right now.

If you’ll excuse me, I’ve decided I don’t want to go over that day in Midlake.

—oooOOOooo—

PART TWO

Me? You’re asking me about the Midlake job?

Sure, I was still riding with the Devil’s Hole Gang then. After all, it is not good that a man should be always alone.

It was what happened – after – that decided me on leaving.

What? You wanna hear about it?

That’ll cost you the price of a bottle. So long as you keep pouring, I’ll keep talking.

I can see why you wouldn’t ask the Kid; beats me why you don’t go ask Heyes though.

Ah.

I knew it’d got to him. It got to ’em both. Not so much the job itself – more what happened after.

The Kid was in charge of controlling the customers and keeping our exit clear.

That left me – ‘cos I was second best gun – covering Heyes as he had the manager open the safe.

According to Heyes’ plan we shoulda been in, the safe open, money bagged and out again in ninety seconds.

One minute in and it’s pretty clear we’re not on schedule.

I know, though they don’t show it, Heyes and the Kid aren’t happy. A coupla reasons. Heyes don’t like seeing how scared outta his wits the old fella in charge is.

The Kid don’t like the way the pretty gal in the rose shawl flinches when he throws a smile her way. Then, as she cringes back, the shawl moves and we all see she’s carrying. Kid tips his hat and says, “Nothing to worry over, ma’am. No one’s gonna get hurt,” and jerks his head for Kyle to move a chair so she don’t hafta sit on the floor. But he still don’t like it.

He don’t like seeing the other woman, the worn-lookin’ mother, trying to protect her young ‘uns.

And neither of ’em like what she’s saying ’bout losing her farm. They don’t like that one little bit.

They make a big deal outta not robbing passengers on the trains and not robbing customers in banks. Heyes don’t like being reminded out loud that you can’t rob ‘a train’ and you can’t rob ‘a bank’. He don’t like being reminded that the folk suffering most when we snatch a payroll or empty a safe are gonna be workers waiting for their pay or the smallest depositors last in line when and if any insurance pays out.

Me? Do I like being reminded?

Well, I’ve an advantage over those two blessed boys. I drink. I drink so I can convince myself I don’t know what I’m doing.

I’ve been drinking since the war. I sure needed convincing I didn’t know what I was doing back then. ‘Cos the stuff I’ve done since the war – all the killing and the robbing – isn’t nothing to what I did in uniform. Nothing. And that was legal. So legal they called me a hero and gave me a medal.

I wasn’t a hero.

I know what I was; I was marked. I AM marked. A marked man. You can see it still.

Sure you can; it’s right here. Look.

The mark. THE mark.

So, I was no hero. But I sure could shoot straight. Straight through any poor sap I was paid to. Drunk or sober – I could do that. Still can; it’s my lone remaining virtue, but my price sure is higher now.

Speaking of which, this bottle is empty, friend. If you want to hear more, well then, the labourer is worthy of his hire.

Thank you.

So, the manager’s spent half a minute NOT opening the safe, when this young fella – who’d come out from behind the counter but is sitting with the customers, says he – that’s the manager – CAN’T open it and for us to leave him be.

And the young gal, the one in the pink shawl, she starts pleading; ‘Please George, please…’

The Kid asks if he – that’s the young fella, George – can open the safe.

He says, sure.

The Kid says, go do it then.

He says, no.

One of us – Kyle maybe – points out that when Kid Curry’s the one asking you to do something, you better do it.

And by now Pink Shawl is crying and saying, “Do as he says, please George, please…”

George says, no. He says it real firm to the Kid. Then, he turns to the gal and is saying how he hasta do what’s right. He’s saying how the Building and Loan serves the town. How if it breaks one of the bigger boys’ll come take over. How it’s all right for them – he’ll probably get another job, but what about folks who’ll lose everything? How if it happens it happens, but he can’t raise a finger to help these robbers break their neighbours’ lives and then live with himself. He’s sorry but she hasta see that.

Maybe he don’t say ALL that. Maybe some of it got said the other time – y’know, afterwards. I dunno. I drink. I forget.

But, whatever he says – we all get the message.

And the boys – Heyes and the Kid – don’t like it one bit.

I don’t mean they get riled with him. I mean just what I say. They don’t like it one bit.

‘Course while this is getting said – or maybe not getting said – the Kid’s got himself a problem. The rules are: he points his gun at someone, they do as they’re told, no one gets shot. If they don’t do as they’re told – he can’t just leave it. We live on our reputation. Sure, we don’t want anyone getting hurt, but… If word gets round that you say ‘no’ at gunpoint to the Devil’s Hole Gang and nothing happens… Well, pickings ‘ud get pretty thin, huh?

The gal – and you’d hafta be drunker than I was not to realise they’re man and wife – is pleading with the young fella to do as he’s asked.

The Kid’s telling her that’s good advice. Now, the easy way to get his way ‘ud be to turn the gun on her belly. It’d bring the husband into line quicker’n anything. It’s what other gangs I’ve ridden with woulda done. Most woulda been bluffing; some not. I’m not saying it’s what I’d do. The fact no one in the Devil’s Hole Gang thought that way was what made my time there closer to happy than any time since the war. I’m just saying what’d work.

Instead, the Kid’s striding over, meaning to pull the fella to his feet and get him over to the safe. As he gets close, George grabs his boot and tries to wrestle him to the floor. He’s whip-quick and the Kid nearly falls. That makes him real mad ‘cos he’s getting backed into a corner he don’t want to be in. He’s going to hafta back down or get mean. And – he can’t back down. He’s in the wrong line of work for that.

He yanks George to his feet, aims his gun right at his chest and tells him if he makes one more wrong move… He tells him if he tries that again, he’ll…

I forget what he said. You fill it in. He’s trying to scare him into being quiet and opening up. But this George fella, though we can see he’s shaking all over, still looks the Kid straight in the eye and says, “No.”

Telling it like this makes it sound like we’ve been in the bank ages – I doubt it’s more’n two minutes. All the same, Wheat and Kyle are getting twitchy ‘cos it’s not going right.

Heyes is…

Y’know my guess? I’m guessing by then all Heyes wants is to get outta there clean, before anything turns nasty.

But, he can’t. ‘Cos just like the Kid – he’s in the wrong line of work for backing down.

Then, while the Kid’s still doing all he can to make the Curry glare and gunpoint do their job, there’s a different kinda cry from the gal in the shawl.

We look and…

There’s wet spreading round her feet and for half a second I reckon – us all being bachelors like – that she’s p*ssed herself. It does happen when folk get real scared. Even soldiers; I can vouch for that.

But, the gal’s legs are kinda spread and she’s clutching at herself. And it’s not just water seeping out. Swirled in the pool we can see thin threads of blood. George shakes off the Kid’s hand – the Kid lets him – and goes to join her. He – George that is – has gone white as a sheet.

D’you know what I think? I think Heyes was almost relieved.

He wants an out. It’s pretty clear we’re not gonna get a combination from George less’n we beat it outta him. Heyes turning tumblers’d mean holding hostages, maybe for hours. Maybe we could drag the safe with us, but it’d draw all eyes straight away and the weight’d slow us down enough for a posse to catch up.

Yeah, Heyes wants an out.

He can’t let it be known he took us outta there with nothing ‘cos a scrawny, skinny clerk stared down the Devil’s Hole Gang.

Him taking us outta there with nothing ‘cos mother nature intervened and a woman followed Eve into the pain and sorrow of childbirth – that’s different.

Heyes starts dishing out the silver tongue: everyone keep calm, nothing to worry about.

He says that once we all leave the eldest girl – I mean the eldest kid of the worried-looking ma – she can go fetch the Doc. She hasta run in the direction of the surgery – NOT the Sheriff’s office. No one else is to leave for ten minutes. No one – not even George, still white as a sheet – has any problems with that.

We leave. Kept it casual as we go down the steps. It’s fine.

As we swing ourselves into the saddle we see a small pinafored figure dash out and along the street, nowhere near the Sheriff’s office.

We ride out and – nothing.

Oh, I’m sure a posse got rounded up, but we saw nothing.

Once it was all over – and remember, we were probably outta that bank less’n ten minutes after we strolled in – the boys were kinda laughing over it. Heyes was teasing that the Kid was no longer the fastest ‘kid’ around.

It was Heyes and the Kid decided we oughta send a gift. I reckon they set store by being seen as good guys. Or at least as not two of the bad guys.

Sending that silver mug made ’em feel pretty fine about themselves. Then, the next job we pulled, no one got real scared. The manager blustered a while and opened the safe, we tipped our hats and rode out, found a friendly town to hurrah and… I dunno, I got blind drunk. By the time I was next sober, which was no time soon, even Wheat wasn’t griping ’bout Midlake no more. It got forgotten. Until…

Hey, looks like the glass is empty here. Didn’t we have some arrangement about pouring and talking.

—oooOOOooo—

PART THREE

I think they’ve forgotten Midlake; forgotten Emily; forgotten me. It’s taken months to find them. Many months and all the money I could scrape together for bribes.

I’ve tracked them to a town called… It doesn’t matter. All places are as one to me, now. I take a look in the Sheriff’s office. The stink of whiskey and the dead eyes of a man who climbed inside a bottle years back tell me all I need to know about the law in this place. Good. Law is not what I want. Not even justice.

They are in the saloon.

Heyes notices me first; doesn’t recognise me, but sees me watching. Then the older, dark haired man with the haunted eyes follows Heyes’ gaze. I’m looking at Curry. Why Curry when all of them are equally to blame? Because he’s the one struck the actual blow? Or, because he’s the one most likely to give me what I want? You pick.

I set my shoulders and walk in their direction. Heyes nudges his partner to fetch his attention away from a sleek redhead. Curry watches me head over. I must look a fool. A scrawny, skinny man out of place and wearing a gun belt that doesn’t fit, the heavy weapon it carries bumping awkwardly against my leg.

When I get close, when I speak, that’s when they recognise me. I see it in their faces. They don’t like it. I don’t mean they are scared. Wary maybe, wondering if I brought any law with me. But not scared. They just – don’t like it. Not one little bit. Good.

“Jedediah Curry…” My voice wavers, d*mn it. They may not be scared but I sure am, which, considering what I want to happen, is ridiculous. What have I got to be scared of?

“Nope. I reckon you’ve made a mis…”

He’s denying who he is. He doesn’t expect me to believe him. I suppose lying is just part and parcel of his life.

“No mistake. We both know you’re Kid Curry. I’m,” a deep breath, “…I’m calling you out.”

He blinks. They all do. A silence. Not just from them. Some of the neighbouring tables are listening too. Then a half-derisive, half-astounded ‘Pfffttt!’ from the guy with the moustache and a nervous snicker from the short fella. Curry throws a glower at them; they shut up.

Curry says, “I got no quarrel with you, Mister. Like I said, you’re makin’ a mista…”

“Well, I have a quarrel with you, Curry.” My voice rises, “Outside, now. Or are you too yellow?”

Another silence. Tenser now. A lot of folk heard that.

I raise my voice even higher, “Is that a yellow streak down your back, Curry?”

I am not too clear on the protocol for gunslingers, but I am doing my best to back the man into a corner where he cannot avoid standing up against me. I think calling them yellow is one thing they cannot ignore – isn’t it?

Curry says nothing. It is the other one, Heyes, that speaks, quietly so he’s not overheard. “Even if, just for the sake of argument, my friend here was that notorious outlaw Kid Curry, and if – just hypothetically – Kid Curry and the rest of the Devil’s Hole Gang had tried to rob the bank in your town, is that any reason to bear a grudge? Especially if,” Heyes is smiling at me, trying to defuse the situation, trying to get me to see reason, trying to get me to smile back, “…Still talking hypothetically here, they rode away with a big fat zero unless you count the egg all over their faces?” A pause. I say nothing. I keep my eyes locked on Curry’s. Heyes lays a hand on my sleeve. I flinch as if his touch burns, I cannot help it, but I still do not look away from Curry. Heyes says, “Think of your family and just go, huh? Before anyone gets hurt.”

I shake off the hand.

I say: “I am thinking of my family. I’m thinking of my dead daughter and my dead wife…”

I say: “You killed everything I care about, Curry, I want you to come outside and finish the job…”

I say: “Don’t tell me you didn’t want anyone to get hurt. I KNOW that. What you wanted was a whole heap of easy money that didn’t belong to you. Innocent folk getting hurt was just a risk worth taking, an occupational hazard…”

I say: “You holding a gun on me scared my Emily into birthing too early, Curry, and you thought it such a good joke you sent her a memento…”

I say: “How many lives have you ruined? How many folks’ homes have you stolen? How many families slid into debt because you snatched the pay they were due? How many have you killed?”

I say: “It was our third baby, the first two miscarried. We’d hardly dared hope Emily would carry this one to term…”

I say: “Where’s your smile disappeared to, Heyes? Doesn’t that famous silver tongue of yours have anything smart to say? Still talking hypothetically, here, huh?”

I say: “When babies die, they do something called ‘agonal gasping’ – it sounds like its name – like agony. Do you know how long we listened to it? To her gasping. And gasping. And gasping…”

I say: “Stop the ‘we don’t mean to hurt ordinary folk’ act, you lying scum! You carry guns. You load them. You point them at the heads and hearts of ordinary, scared people. You rely on the threat of death to get what you want. It works…”

I say: “Come friendly death…”

I say: “Shut your lying mouth, you lying piece of lying filth. Do you think my wife and daughter’s death being nothing but an annoying accident justifies you? Huh? Do you?”

I say: “Forty hours, that’s all we had with her… We named her Beth.”

I say: “You were prepared to gamble with the lives of everyone in that bank the minute you walked in. You do the gambling, but you don’t pay the losses – do you?”

I say: “I came home and called. Emily wasn’t in the kitchen. She wasn’t in the empty nursery…”

I say: “It’s a good life, huh? Stealing? Plenty of excitement, plenty of money, plenty of women? A real man’s life and not too hard on the back.”

I say: “A few more weeks. That’s all Beth needed to have a chance of living…”

I say: “Emily never spoke again after we buried…”

I say: “I opened the scullery door… The boots were twisting and turning right in front of my eyes. It was the first time she’d stepped outside since the funeral. I knew because there was damp grass on the soles… She’d been to fetch in the washing line. She needed it.”

I say: “Don’t use her name! You’re not fit to say her name!”

I say: “Beth was so tiny. So tiny and so perfect…”

I say: “Your gift, it was there on the shelf, right next to her…”

I say: “Come embrace me, my brother, bodily death…”

I say: “Her hand was like a petal from a rosebud, crumpled, soft, perfect… Her fingers touched mine…”

No, I don’t.

I don’t say all that. I don’t know what I say. Some of it, maybe.

I practised so often what I’d spew at Curry when we finally met face to face that… The words in my head and the words coming out of my mouth, they’re not the same.

Maybe I say a quarter of all that. Maybe less. Maybe almost none of it.

I don’t know.

What does it matter? What will he care?

I say: “Are you coming to finish off what you started, Curry – or am I going to draw on you where you sit?”

—oooOOOooo—

PART FOUR

You want another chapter?

I’m waiting. Remember the arrangement.

Ah! Another bottle. Thank you my friend.

Like I say, time passed, Midlake got forgotten. It was months later after that it happened…

We’re celebrating a successful haul in one of the places where no one asks too many questions so long as we spend our ill-gotten gains freely. A town named Retribution. We were in – let’s call it a den of iniquity. Heyes notices him first – don’t recognise him, but notices him. I follow Heyes’ eyes. The skinny fella at the bar is paying us far too much attention. No. Not us. Paying the Kid far too much attention. I don’t recognise him neither. He sees us watching him watch Kid Curry, sets his shoulders and heads in our direction. Heyes nudges the Kid to fetch his attention away from the painted Jezebel who, according to the bunkhouse gossip, is worth every cent of her fancy twenty-dollar price tag.

Kid looks up and watches this scrawny streak of nothing, with a gun in a belt that don’t fit and bumps against his leg, head over.

It’s when he gets close and speaks we recognise him. He’s shaking like before but, like before, he don’t drop his gaze like most fellas do facing Kid Curry. He looks older. No. Older isn’t the right word. He looks… I dunno. Yes, yes I do. Dumb as it sounds in peacetime, he looks battle-scarred.

“Jedediah Curry…”

Oh? You’ve heard this part? You wanna to know what happened AFTER? Suits me…

Well, George says his piece. He says…

I can’t remember. Yeah, yeah I can. I just don’t wanna say. It was confused; all mixed up. It was…

It was a voice heard in Ramah: it was Rachael weeping for the children, because they were no more.

It’s Wheat who speaks. He says what I’m thinking in the mean part of my head – and I reckon Heyes is thinking, deep down in the places where he don’t like to look, but won’t say.

“Seems to me, you can’t blame Curry for all this. If’n you’d been a mite less stubborn an’ opened that dang safe, none of that woulda…”

Somewhere, deep underneath the pain, I guess George is thinking what Wheat just said, it’s all HIS fault. But he can’t think it’s his fault – can he? What does that leave him to cling to? Besides, there’s no getting away from the fact that all he did back at Midlake was try to do the right thing and the brave thing. And, all Kid and the rest of us tried to do was get away with other folks’ money at gunpoint and we didn’t care too much if it risked folk getting hurt. If we cared, we sure didn’t care enough – did we? Or we wouldn’t have been there – would we?

“Are you going to come finish off what you started, Curry, you yellow-bellied piece of…”

George is staying on the insults to back Kid into having no choice.

No.

All the talk about if a man calls you yellow, or a liar, or insults your mother, all the talk ’bout that meaning you have no choice, that’s fools talk. There’s always a choice.

“…Or do I draw on you where you sit?”

I think it’s THAT getting repeated that finally gets Kid outside. It’s pretty clear George’ll be a lousy shot. Even if Kid shoots the weapon off his hip, bullets bounce. The place is crowded – girls and some fellas hardly more’n boys around. Kid – like the rest of us – has been reminded you don’t get to pick who gets hurt.

So less than two minutes later we – and the curious among the crowd – are watching Kid Curry face up to George outside in the street. I reckon I can read Kid’s mind: ‘This won’t be so bad. I’ll outdraw him. Nobody gets hurt. If he loses a little face, so what? He don’t live in our world, he’ll never see any of these folk again. Sheesh, why should he lose face anyhow? He’ll have done what he came for; he’ll have stood up, fair and square, ‘gainst Kid Curry. It’s not what I’d choose – but it’ll be fine. I let him reach first, I outdraw him, he goes home. I let him reach first…’

George does reach first.

I doubt he practised once. He’s slow as molasses.

Kid’s drawn while George’s hand is still inches from the butt of his gun. George stares at the barrel pointing at him, but only for half a second, then he carries on his awkward reaching.

Kid hasta be realising then, what I’m realising. George didn’t follow our ‘rules’ back in Midlake; he didn’t do as he was told just because a gun was pointing at him. He isn’t following the ‘rules’ now. He won’t accept that ‘cos Kid’s outdrawn him, the fight’s over.

Kid’s lips move. No sound though. He moves left, fast as he can, to get an angle on George’s mishung holster, shoots it off. It spins away, skidding in the dust of the ground. Gasps from some of the watchers. George looks astounded. Then…

George, with Kid Curry’s Colt still levelled on him, steps towards his own gun, bends to pick it up.

The Kid fires, sends it spinning a few feet further back. George follows. And again. And again.

I can read what the Kid’s lips are mouthing now, ‘Leave it. Leave it.’ Then, ‘Please.’

I glance at Heyes; he’s poker-faced. I glance at the watchers. When the Kid drew, when he shot off the holster, I think the bulk of any good-will around was with him. Most of the folk heard him try to be peaceable and heard him get goaded into standing up. He’d be within his rights to finish George off. Instead, he’s avoided the shedding of blood.

But now…

As George follows the gun, the sympathy shifts. George is dumb. No, make that mad. But, you can’t argue he’s brave. Those close enough to have heard some of his confused rant are whispering the gist of his reasons ear to ear. Glances at the Kid become hostile. There’s a low seething hiss.

The Kid has two bullets left. Once more he spins George’s gun away. He barks out, “Leave it, or the next one’ll be aimed at your head.” He don’t sound like he’s bluffing. Maybe only Heyes and me’ud know he is. He wants this over. ‘Course, if we weren’t all playing by the ‘no one interferes in a fair fight’ rules, we’d do something; but we are. Wheat’s hand twitches towards his own gun once, but the Kid’s glare freezes him.

George stares up at the Kid as he hears the threat; a pause, then…

Please no. Don’t let that be sheer hope flooding his face. A bullet through his head; that’s what he wants. He told us. In among everything else he told us. He told us plain as plain and we had no ears to hear.

George steps towards his gun, reaches down. The Kid now has only one bullet left. He takes aim, I see his lips tense, he fires. A yelp from George and he is crumpled in the dirt clutching his right arm, blood seeping through his shirt. Nicely judged. Flesh wound only, below the elbow, just enough to stop him using it for a day or two, not much more than a deep graze. It’s over.

Except…

George is clenching his teeth and breathing fast so as not to let the tears come. I don’t blame him, bullet wounds hurt like hell. But, he is still reaching. His bleeding right arm is clutched up against his chest; his left hand is groping, awkwardly, for his gun. The Kid’s gun is empty. George’s fingers grasp his own weapon, he pulls it towards him.

A lightening movement from one side. Heyes has drawn. The Kid’s eyes are wide staring into the brown ones, the silent message is: ‘Don’t!’ Heyes tosses his loaded gun within reach. Maybe that’s what he always meant to do.

In a seamless moment, all this happens quicker than I can say it, the Kid scoops the Schofield from the street and fires. He is, I’m real sure, going for another flesh wound, but George is all twisted and…

There is a crack of bone from the left arm and he squeals in pain like an animal. This time, though, it is finally over.

“Let’s get you to a doctor,” says Heyes, walking over and sounding as if he does this every day of his life.

“NO! Finish it, Curry! Finish it!” George is still scrabbling for the gun, faint yet pursuing; he can’t lift it. The blood is spurting, a line of scarlet thread.

Kid, poker-faced, but eyes snapping anger – though I’m guessing even he isn’t sure who he’s most angry with, the fella he shot or himself – moves to help Heyes get George on his feet.

“Not you,” says Heyes, in a low tone. “Preacher’ll help me. You get outta here. Get ALL the boys outta here. We’ll follow soon as he’s safe.”

“But…”

I interrupt, “Kid, so long as he sees you, he’d gonna keep strugglin’ an’ the worse it’ll be for that wound. The best thing you can do for him is get outta his sight. Besides, we all gotta shake the dust of this place from our feet.”

He knows me and Heyes are right. Before George walked into that saloon, maybe no one looking at us splashing our money around thought we were honest citizens – that saloon don’t attract folk fussy over a touch of breaking of the eighth. But I’m guessing less than a handful suspected who we really were. Now, nearly half the crowd is catching on fast. Sometime soon someone is gonna start thinking ‘bounty’ – if they haven’t already – for surely the love of money is at the root of most of our evils. While we’re all armed and on the alert, we’re safe enough. We don’t worry ’bout someone calling the law, ‘cos in Retribution folk hafta call real long and real hard afore the law even thinks of coming. But still, we gotta go.

The Kid hesitates, but – there’s nothing he can do to make things any better here. Nothing.

I glance at Heyes and add, “I’ll watch his back. Trust me.”

The Kid nods. I’m gazing at his forehead. I’ve seen the mark before, but not usually so clear. Or maybe I’ve fooled myself into not looking. He opens his mouth as if he’s gonna ask what the Sam Hill I’m staring at, but he don’t. He shuts his mouth, tosses Heyes’ gun back to him, beckons to Wheat and the boys, they go get their horses, ride out.

I pick up George’s gun, tuck it in my belt. Then, Heyes and me, we heft George onto a board. He’s still hollering for Kid to come back and finish the job. We’re carrying him over to the doc’s place when he – the doctor I mean – comes hurrying over to meet us. Someone must have run fetched him. He’s a fella we’ve used before; young, poor, struggling to get a decent practice going, but he knows his trade. He patched up Kyle’s leg not long back without asking too many questions. In return we made sure he was paid real prompt and real well.

The doc gets George onto a table, cuts the shirt off the left arm. All the time George is gasping out… He’s saying the same stuff as before:

We robbed him twice. First we robbed him of his wife and child. Now we’ve robbed him of death.

Curry hadn’t even the decency to finish what he’d started.

Why are we torturing him bringing him here?

All he wants is to die.

Curry not putting a bullet through his head is a lie. Us pretending to help him now is a lie. It’s not for him. It’s so we can lie to ourselves. Lie that we’re not killers. Lie that Curry’s not a killer.

Beth was so beauti…

George says a lot. Not as clear as I’ve told you here. Some of that is me. It’s me guessing what he meant to say – what he shoulda said. ‘Cos what I’ve told you – ‘specially ’bout us lying – it’s true, isn’t it. Isn’t it? I dunno.

Though it’s all mixed up and, as George runs outta strength all hoarse and mumbled, the doc gets the gist. As he’s cutting away the material he shoots a look at the pair of us. It’s a look I’ve seen often enough before. I reckon Heyes has seen it a few times. He kinda likes the young doc and he don’t like getting that look from him one bit.

“It was a fair fight. What I mean is; this fella started it. He called. He drew first…”

Nothing from the doc.

“Listen to him now. You can tell he’s not right in his head…”

A shrug from the doc. That may have some truth in it – but it kinda skirts high and wide around the why.

George don’t react to Heyes at all – I think with pain and all, he’s not all with us.

Heyes tries again. This explaining stuff – trying to walk justified – isn’t like him, but he did it, so I’m telling you.

“Our friend who shot him, he’d no choice. None. He tried to get the guy to give up. Tried and tried. He couldn’t just stand there while a bullet went through him – could he?”

This makes me think of the gun, George’s gun. I take it outta my belt, lay it down.

“It’s his,” I say to the doc.

The doc didn’t so much as look at Heyes while he spoke. He don’t look at me neither as he says, real cool, “Empty it, please, if you’re planning on leaving it. I don’t let loaded weapons lay around here.”

He was the same with Kyle’s gun that other time. I open the chamber and…

It seems a long time that I stare down at it. Heyes says my name, but I don’t look up. He steps over, sees what I see. The room is very quiet. Even George stops with the mumbling. We stare at the gun. George stares at us.

“It’s empty,” says Heyes, at last.

“‘Course it’s empty,” breathes George from the table. “You brought me low enough to pick up a gun. Nothing you could ever do – ever – would turn me into the kind of scum that’d load it.”

I guess whatever we think of how sane or mad George is, we now know one thing’s true – he came here to get shot, not to hurt Kid, not to hurt none of us. Not to do us bodily harm, anyhow.

The doc moves over to fetch something. Heyes follows.

“How bad is it, Doc?” he asks in a low voice.

“Bad enough.”

A pause.

“There’s no bullet to dig out though. A broken bone’ll heal easy enough, huh? He’s young.”

“It isn’t broken. It’s shattered. There’ll be fragments of bone to clean out as well as all the filth from the street. And he’s lost a lot of blood.” The doc shoots a cold, cold look at Heyes. Is it me, or is he looking at the mark? “What do you want to hear? That it’s nothing but a flesh wound? That everything’ll be fine? Haven’t you learnt – bullets don’t work that way?”

And we know that. Me and Heyes and the Kid, we all learnt that years ago. It’s another thing we all know but never look at too close – same as we don’t look too close at who we’re really stealing from. Did you hear me earlier, talking like a fool about a ‘nicely judged flesh wound’? Talking as if not shooting to kill turned us into good guys. Wounds get infected. Limbs get sawn off. Some of the folk I’ve preened myself on winging mighta ended up dead the slow, lingering way – not the quick, choking way.

“Do what you can for him, Doc,” Heyes says.

“Of course.”

Heyes pulls a roll of notes from his pocket, peels off half a dozen – a real, real generous fee – and puts them down.

The doc pushes them back, “No charge.”

“We’d like to…”

“I’m sure you would, but,” he looks up, meets Heyes’ eyes, “…I’d prefer not to take so much as the time of day from you, Mister Heyes.”

He wipes the hand that touched our money on a cloth and carries on with what he’s doing.

Heyes puts the notes back in his pocket. We leave without another word.

—oooOOOooo—

I stick with Heyes until the entrance to Devil’s Hole.

I say, “I’m gonna ride out, now. I’ve kept my word to the Kid, watched your back.”

“What do you mean, ride out?” Heyes meets my eyes, reads them. “You don’t mean you’re leaving? ‘Cos of…?” He’s surprised, but underneath I reckon not surprised – does that make sense? “What are you going to do, go back to hiring out your gun?” He is trying to make that sound… He is gonna try and get me to change my mind.

“Nope. Not go back to it. I never stopped. What else have I been hirin’ out to you?”

I don’t mean we’re not friends. He knows that. He KNOWS. But what else am I doin’ for him ‘cept be a gunman? It’s what I do. I made me a covenant with death years back. I carry the mark. Like him. Like the rest of them.

I’m not going back to the Hole, not going back to being with him and Kid. Those blessed boys, they didn’t mean to, but they set a snare for my feet; a trap for the unwary. It let me fool myself I’m not… That the mark might fade… That…

Nope.

I’m gonna be that which I am.

I wanna say something. I wanna say… I dunno. I raise my hand to Heyes. I ride away.

—oooOOOooo—

Do I know what happened to George? Yeah, I know. I made it my business to find out.

You want to know? Why? Does the outcome of our acts change the acts themselves?

I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you two outcomes. One is true. You decide which. You decide what you wanna be true. ‘Cos – if you do end up believing a lie, it don’t make no difference to what really happened – does it?

George healed up fine. He was young, strong. He got the full use of his arm back. He met someone else – another gal, I mean. He fell in love, he let go of the anger, ‘cos love drives it out. He married again. Emily and Beth, they faded into sad memories. He thought of them less and less. For days, weeks at a time they weren’t even memories. They were nothing. Dust to dust.

George’s wound got infected. The doc was never real sure if he – George I mean – had somehow done it on purpose. The poison spread. George did nothing to help himself, there’s nothing so dangerous as lacking a will to live. The doc took off the arm. What is it they say? The operation was a success but the patient died. He didn’t die cussing us. He didn’t die with his wife and child’s names the last thing on his lips. He didn’t die thinking; ‘I’ll be with them again’. He just died. Dust to dust.

—oooOOOooo—

PART FIVE

I told you once before, I don’t want to go over that day in Midlake and I sure don’t want to go over that day in Retribution.

After I got back to Devil’s Hole? I don’t know as I want to go over that either.

What happened to George? I have no idea and I intend to keep it that way. If you know, don’t tell me. Ignorance may not be bliss, but it sure beats knowing what my gut tells me the truth might be.

Look, if I tell you some of the stuff that I said to Kid and that he said to me – can we drop it then? Okay.

I told Kid it was the cleanest wound the doc had ever seen.

I told him the doc said George’d be back on his feet in no time.

I told him I reckoned George’d be okay.

I told him he was saying stuff like, ‘no one can say I didn’t at least go up against Kid Curry’, almost beginning to feel good about himself.

I told him he’d had no choice. If he’d not fired George would have put a bullet through him.

I told him he wasn’t to try find George – ever. It’d only stir things up which is the worst thing he could do.

I said he had to think hard who he’d be trying to set things right with. George or himself. If it’s George, he knows that’s never going to happen. If it’s himself, he doesn’t need to leave Devil’s Hole for that.

I told him whatever is past, is past; the right thing and the best thing he could do was to let it go.

What? You thought I didn’t lie to Kid? Sure I do. I lie to him when the truth is no dang use at all. And don’t even think of saying what you’re about to say. You think Kid can tell if I’m lying ‘cos we’ve been so close for so long.

Grow up.

He can tell if I’m lying if I choose to let him. And this time – I didn’t choose.

Kid was pretty quiet for the next few days. Nothing too unusual about that. I was pretty quiet too. Plenty unusual about that. A couple more days passed. I did what I have to do; I started planning a new job. Kid stayed pretty quiet.

Then, early one morning, I see Kid isn’t in his bunk. I find him down by the stables whittling a piece of wood and looking real miserable.

“Kid,” I say, “…It wasn’t your fault.”

Kid don’t say nothing to that.

“They’d lost babies before. He said that. It coulda happened anyhow. If it hadn’t happened that day, she coulda got scared by a horse bolting, or by anything. It coulda been waiting to happen.”

Nothing.

“Okay. WE – that’s all of us, not just you – didn’t help none. But it sure wasn’t YOUR fault. As for his wife, that was her own choice.”

Nothing.

“Most of the stuff he threw at you, Kid, he was lashing out at the world – not you.”

Nothing.

“He’s probably healed up and back in Midlake by now. It was only a fractured arm.”

Nothing.

“He’s young, Kid. He’ll get over it.” I say it so he knows I don’t just mean the broken bone.

His eyes meet mine. I know. I know. I know.

“We can’t change what’s past, Kid.”

A long silence.

“This job you’re plannin’,” Kid starts. “Do we…? Do you reckon…?” He stops.

“Nothing can go wrong, Kid. I’ve got it all planned out…”

He gives me a look as if to say, ‘Don’t tempt fate.’ What he says is, “Nothing can go wrong? I thought we were gonna block the track.”

I know what he means. We stop trains by levering up, or blowing up, or blocking off track. Trains get derailed that way. There are very long odds on it happening. I reckon my planning makes the odds longer still. But the odds on dealing a royal flush from a fair deck are pretty long too; nevertheless, if you deal enough hands, one day you’ll do it.

“It’s going to be on a good, long, straight stretch. Plenty of visibility, Kid. I’m timing it for the driver heading away from the sun.”

I do plan. I do. I plan well.

“And,” Kid is still whittling at that piece of wood, “we’ll be holding a gun on the engineer. And Wheat’ll be hustling the passengers off with a shotgun. They could…”

They could call our bluff. Like George did. If it is a bluff. The better I plan, the less likely I am to find out.

He scowls at his knife. “Heyes…”

I don’t say anything. I give him time to spit it out. “Heyes, you know we sometimes say we gotta get outta this business?”

It’s true; we have said that once or twice. Sometimes half-joking when a posse gets too close or a sheriff gets too smart or we come across another devious new safe. Sometimes not half-joking; sometimes half-serious.

“We can’t exactly settle down to honest jobs, even if we could find ’em, Kid. Not with $10,000 apiece on our heads. We’d have to live on the run for the rest of our lives. We’ve kinda no option but to stick to what we know – do we?”

Our eyes meet again. I know the ‘we’ve no choice’ line is a lie; there is an option.

“There is an option,” says Kid, frowning at his moving blade.

“Would you take it?” I ask. “Hand yourself in; pay your debts, fair and square.”

Another long silence.

“Nope,” says Kid.

“Me neither.”

I reckon it makes Kid feel pretty bad, saying that. Don’t make me feel too good either.

If you put a young woman and baby in front of us, would we shoot them to stay outta jail? Nope, never.

But would we risk them dying? Yup. We just said so.

We skirt round it, but we just said: We won’t live on the run with no money and no hope. We won’t hand ourselves in. We’d rather risk another Midlake, another Emily, another Beth. I guess it’s a question of odds.

“If we had us a stake…” I say. Now, THIS, we have said before. Then we spend any stake we’ve got.

“If your plan works, next week we’ll be up $50,000. Our share’d be…”

“Over $12,000,” I say. We are both quiet.

It is not as big a stake as we’d like, but it’d do. We could head over the border, disappear for a few years. We’d have to earn money somehow there, but it could be done.

I don’t want to. I don’t want to go.

And, I don’t want this. I don’t want to be waiting for the next Midlake.

I want…

I want another option.

“So, Heyes,” the blue eyes look up from the whittled stick which is now little more than a toothpick, “…Is the Columbine train gonna be the last job we ever pull?”

THE END.

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