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Thicker than Blood

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Kid Curry led his horse, a handsome bay, down to the stream to drink. He rubbed the horse's nose, then proceeded to fill his canteen, drink, and fill it again.

"You know, Heyes," he said to the horse, who he'd taken to calling by his absent partner's name, "you ain't much of a talker."

The horse blinked at him with huge brown eyes, snorted in the morning air, then returned to drinking.

"See? That's what I mean. You turn those big eyes at me, and I believe whatever you want me to, but there's somethin' not right here. Heyes—not you," Kid patted the horse. "The other one. Hannibal Heyes. He's got a silver-tongue, can talk the moon out of the sky, and somehow he talked me right into doing this job solo, but the more I think on it, the more I get the feeling somethin's not right."

The horse raised its head from the stream, shaking off the excess water. It looked surprisingly like a nod. Kid pushed his hat back on this head and nodded in return.

"That's what I thought. If he'd wanted to stay 'cause of a girl or a game, he would've just come out and said. Instead he was acting twitchy, like he was waiting on somethin' to happen, and it weren't nothin' good. Heyes has gone and done somethin' stupid, and he didn't want me there to talk him out of it." Kid mounted the horse, urging it up the short hill back to the main road. He turned back the way he'd come. "We best get back to Willow Bend quick as we can."

*

The town of Willow Bend, Wyoming, was much like every other town Heyes and the Kid had been to lately. It was small enough to be quiet, and big enough that no one would raise an eyebrow at two dusty strangers showing up at the saloon. It had a bustling main street with a decent-sized hotel and a well-lit saloon. Best of all it had a sheriff they'd never met, and they were happy to keep it that way. When they first rode into town, music and laughter greeted them, setting Heyes to grinning like a fool. Kid couldn't help but grin back.

"You hear that, Kid?" Heyes hopped down from his mount, and tied it to the hitching post.

"I hear an out of tune piano and someone gettin' accused of cheatin' at poker." Kid slid off his horse and looked around. They'd been to worse places, certainly, and as long as the hotel had a bed and a bath, he'd be happy.

"Just our kind of town. I think I'm going to like Willow Bend." Heyes rubbed his hands together in gleeful anticipation and took a step towards the saloon. Kid caught him by the arm.

"Hotel first. Let's at least pay for tonight before you start losing our money."

Heyes managed to look innocent and offended all at the same time. "You, my friend, are a cynic."

Now, riding hard back to that nice little town, Kid couldn't help but think something had happened that first night when he'd opted for bath and bed, and Heyes had sauntered down to the saloon to play a few hands. Maybe he was a cynic, but not usually when it came to Heyes. In fact, Heyes was probably the one thing he believed in one hundred percent. Truer than a God he couldn't see or even the cold steel of his Colt .45, one thing he was certain of was Hannibal Heyes. He'd never let Kid down when it mattered—he'd always come back for him, and that smooth talking had got them out of more than one jam. Heyes had probably saved his life ten times over just by talking somebody out of a shootout they couldn't possibly win, and he'd saved the Kid from killing more than was absolutely necessary. It was something Kid appreciated; it was never an easy thing to live with taking a man's life.

Something was definitely wrong. Now that Kid put his mind to it, Heyes had practically saddled up his horse and put him on it, eager to get Kid out of town.

"Tell me again why you're not coming with me?" Kid had asked, as Heyes handed him his hat, the documents and the reins, in that order.

"It's a one man job. Would be a terrible waste of resources to have us both ride all that way." It sounded perfectly reasonable, but then again, most things Heyes said sounded that way, even when they didn't make a lick of sense.

Kid tucked the documents into the saddlebag. The address on the outside of the envelope was a lawyer's office in Cheyenne. "I'm beginning to feel like the Pony Express, Heyes. Surely, it would get there just as fast by train or stage."

"Now look, Kid, I assured the Widow Eldridge we'd get the documents safely to her lawyer's within two days, and I aim to keep that promise."

Kid looked down at Heyes' sincere face, and shook his head. "Uh-huh. And by 'we' you mean 'me.'"

"Naturally," Heyes grinned, then turned more serious. "It's good money and she's a sweet old thing. I'm the one who'll be stuck playing canasta and drinking tea with her for the next few nights, so consider yourself lucky."

Kid laughed. "Okay, okay. Just try to stay out of trouble while I'm gone." He started to turn the horse to leave, but suddenly Heyes' hand was a firm grip on his leg. "Something you forget?" Kid asked. Heyes was looking up at him strangely, too serious all of a sudden, his dark eyes trying to take everything in at once. "Heyes?"

Heyes shook himself, and the grin flowed easily back into place. "Nothing. Just—just take real good care of yourself, Kid." Heyes patted his leg a little awkwardly, and let go. "I'll see you in a few days."

Except the look on his face didn't match what he was saying, and it was only now, when it was too late, that Kid realized what Heyes had been really saying. Goodbye.

"Ah, Heyes, what the hell have you gone and done?"

Kid urged his horse into a gallop, racing the sun westward across the sky, back to Willow Bend.

*

Hannibal Heyes didn't like physical violence. There was a reason he preferred to talk his way out of situations or let Kid answer them with his gun. It was just more civilized that way.

But this—he ducked his head and blocked a fist with his forearm—was completely unacceptable.

"Look, Garrett, I ain't runnin'. I got the Kid out of town. What more do you want?"

Heyes could hear the frustration in his own voice, but honestly, he didn't know what more he could do. He'd always known this day would come, that what had happened with Mattie Haskell would catch up with him. He knew damn well nothing Mattie's brothers could do to him would make up for Mattie's death, but Heyes had accepted long ago that Nate Haskell's face was likely to be the last one he saw before checking out of this life. Somehow it had made it easier robbing banks and trains all those years—he felt he was safe somehow. Fate had promised him death at the end of a gun in the hands of the eldest Haskell brother, and until then, well, he was likely to be all right.

Garrett Haskell—or it might have been Silas, Heyes had always had trouble telling the twins apart—grabbed a fistful of Heyes' shirt and backed him up against the stable wall. "We're just making sure you're not figurin' on leaving town, too. Nate's ridin' in tomorrow, and he wants to make sure you don't turn tail and run before he gets here."

"I told you, I wouldn't run," Heyes said sincerely, although he knew it didn't help his case that they'd caught up with him in the livery stable with a saddled horse and all his worldly possessions. He hadn't given them his word, after all.

Silas's toothy grin shone over Garrett's shoulder. "Yeah, then what you doin' down at the stable at midnight? With your bedroll and saddlebags all packed?"

Heyes smiled. It had been a long shot that the Haskells wouldn't be watching now that they'd found him, but Heyes had always been fond of impossible odds. Besides, he really didn't have a death wish. He'd just as soon live to run again another day, but he also wasn't surprised to find his escape plans blocked. It'd been stupid ill luck that had put him and the Haskell twins in the same town at the same time, hundreds of miles and a dozen years since they'd first met, but now there was nothing to do except see things through to the end.

"Would you believe I was just going to exercise my horse?" Heyes asked. Garrett's fist ramming him hard in the cheek was his answer.

Heyes could've almost laughed then, if the pain in his face wasn't so sharp. Mattie had always warned him about his smart mouth, but back then it hadn't seemed to matter. They were eighteen and dangerous. It was before Devil's Hole and before he and the Kid had found each other again after the orphanage. Heyes had tumbled into a job riding herd at the Bar H ranch. Nate Haskell wasn't more than five years older than Mattie and Heyes, but he seemed ancient back then, weighed down by responsibility and hardened by debt and drought. The twins had been nothing but two golden-haired bursts of energy on horseback, twelve years old and completely in awe of their older brothers. Heyes liked to think they'd been a little in awe of him too, but they clearly weren't anymore.

Silas pulled Heyes to his feet only to knock him back down to his knees with a harsh blow. "Mattie'd be alive if it weren't for you, Heyes. And Nate's gonna make sure you finally get what's coming to you."

Maybe he deserved it, Heyes thought, as he tasted blood on his tongue. It was a long time ago, but he could still remember the moment when the light had gone out of Mattie's eyes, the way the blood had trickled down his chin from a mouth round with surprise. It should've been him instead, dead on that saloon floor with scattered cards and chips all around, and they all knew it.

Heyes closed his eyes and let the blows rain down.

*

It was round about midnight when Kid and his horse reached the edge of Willow Bend. He was tired and dusty, but more than anything he was mad. It had started as a hard knot of worry down in his belly, worry that Heyes was in trouble so deep he hadn't wanted the Kid anywhere near it. Then as the miles wore on and the darkness rolled over the landscape Kid had ridden through twice in as many days, the worry turned into something that simmered hot and angry.

"Haven't we always done everything together?" Kid asked the horse as they rode. "Haven't we stuck it out through the good and the bad? Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry. Smith and Jones. You find one, you get the other. Ain't that how it's always been? Ain't it?"

The horse kept his head down and concentrated on the road.

"Every time I wanted to go off on my own, Heyes talked me out of it. Said we were better together. Stronger. We complement each other, he says. So, what's changed? He don't want me around no more? He tired of waitin' for the amnesty? I just don't get it."

Kid could hear the same off-key piano and saloon noise that had greeted them their first night in town. He steered the horse towards the stable, surprised when a man ran out to greet him. Kid put a hand on his Colt.

"Howdy, friend," he said.

"'Might want to just hitch your horse a-front of the hotel, young feller," the man whispered loudly.

"Why's that?" Kid said, dismounting.

"Can't you hear it? There's a ruckus in back of the stable there, unsettlin' the horses somethin' awful."

Kid stood and turned an ear to listen. The sound of a fight reached him beneath the whinnies of frightened horses. "Why don't you get back there and stop it?" Kid asked, the anger he'd been carrying all evening bubbling to the surface.

The man looked at him as if he were crazy. "No, sir. It's not my problem." He patted Kid's arm. "You take your horse on over to the hotel, tie him up there. I'll go get him and rub him down when the fuss has died down."

"You do that," Kid said, handing the reins over to the man, and pulling his gun. He edged toward the back of the stable, mindful of the restless hooves pawing at the hay. He could see the outline of three men. Two had hair like straw, shining golden in the lamplight. One was holding a dark-haired man while the other worked him over. Kid stepped closer and raised his gun. The click of the hammer locking into place was audible.

"I reckon that's about enough of that," Kid said. The two blond men looked at him with identical faces, and Kid did a double-take. If he'd been drinking, he would've thought the whiskey had gone to his head. Never in his life had he seen two men look so much alike—they were the same in height and build, identical down to the frowns on their faces.

"Ain't none of your business, mister," the closest one said, his fist hanging in the air over the dark-haired man, who looked to be almost unconscious. Kid couldn't get a clear look from where he was standing, but he felt the anger melt away into worry when he glimpsed the familiar black hat tumbled off to the side. Heyes.

"I'm makin' it my business," Kid said, and gestured with the gun. "Just go on now. He ain't fightin' back anyhow. You done proved your point, I believe."

The second man, the one who'd been holding Heyes, let him drop. "He's right, Garrett. Heyes ain't going nowhere, and we want him to be able to at least hold a gun when Nate gets here." He put a hand on his twin's arm. "We don't want no trouble with you, Mr. Curry. We'll be sayin' goodnight."

Kid watched them go before he holstered his gun, then hurried to Heyes' side. He was beaten and bloody, but the grin was unmistakable.

"Thought that was you," Heyes mumbled, letting Kid hoist him to his feet.

"You recognized my unmistakable charm?"

"Nope, the sound of your gun." Heyes spat out a mouthful of blood. "You're s'posed to be in Cheyenne."

"Well, I ain't." Kid slung Heyes' arm around his shoulders. "Can you walk?"

"'Course I can walk." He stayed steady on his feet for two steps, then almost put them both on the ground when he reached for his hat. Kid scooped it up and set it on Heyes' head.

"You just concentrate on puttin' one foot in front of the other, 'kay?"

"You shouldn't'a come back," Heyes murmured. Kid tightened his grip and suppressed the urge to punch Heyes in the face. He doubted it would do any good.

By the time they reached the hotel stairs, Heyes was walking mostly under his own steam, although his breathing was ragged enough Kid thought he might've busted a couple of ribs. He sure as hell wouldn't be able to ride if that was the case, and Kid figured the sooner they got out of this town, the better. Somehow, though, he suspected he was going to have a fight on his hands from Heyes. He just didn't know why.

When they reached their room, Kid opened the door with one hand, balancing Heyes' limping frame with the other arm. He helped him to the bed, then closed the door and leaned against it. Heyes opened his mouth to speak.

"Don't," Kid said, raising a hand. He pulled off his gloves and his coat, tossed his hat onto the table. He turned up the lamps and took a good long look at Heyes in the light. His face was starting to swell where solid blows had caught him around the cheeks and eyes. His lip was split and bleeding at both ends. There were cuts over both eyes, and another down his cheek. Someone had been wearing a ring. Kid couldn't tell how bad the bruises were that he couldn't see, but from the way Heyes was holding his side, Kid figured he'd be binding ribs before morning. He wondered if there was a doctor in town.

"Kid, you don't—"

"Shut up, Heyes." Whether Heyes was going to tell him that he didn't understand, or he didn't have to tend his injuries, Kid didn't care. Neither was true, anyway. Well, the first was probably true, at least a little, because the fact was Kid didn't understand what had happened in Willow Bend: first, that Heyes had wanted him out of the way, and second, to let himself get beaten like this. Kid turned the ewer over and emptied water into the dish. He carried it to the side table, which he dragged close to the bed. Heyes was watching him warily, still looking like he was about to blurt out something, but Kid knew if he waited him out, the excuses would die silently, and the truth would rise up. He just had to give Heyes time to find his way.

Kid dipped the cloth in the cool water and wiped at the cuts on Heyes' brow. He winced, but didn't pull away or complain as Kid dabbed at the blood, washing grit out of the wounds.

"Something wrong with your fists?" he asked conversationally.

Heyes looked down, colour coming back into his cheeks suddenly. "I was working on my defense."

"You were blocking punches with your face, Heyes. Thought I taught you better than that." Kid looked at the cuts and figured they weren't bad enough to need stitching. He moved to the bloody gash on Heyes' cheek, and pressed the damp cloth to the wound. Heyes sucked in a breath of air, hand clutching at his side. They'd worked him over good.

"Guess it was good you came along when you did then," Heyes said quietly, pulling back, but Kid reached up and held his chin in place, kept working at cleaning the cuts with steady precision. "Why're you back, anyway? I promised the Widow Eldridge—"

Kid rolled his eyes. "Her documents are on the way to Cheyenne. I gave the stagecoach driver at Wilmington an incentive to get them there on time." Kid rinsed out the rag, the water swirling pink with blood. He continued dabbing at Heyes' mouth. "That hurt?"

"Yeah."

"Good."

Heyes blinked at Kid through bruised eyes. "Now, there's no need to be like that."

"Really, Heyes?" Kid dropped the cloth on Heyes' lap and stood up. "You sent me on a wild goose chase, and I'm trying to figure out why."

"Kid."

"Don't 'Kid' me, Heyes. I've known you almost all my life, and I never expected to be lied to by you."

"I didn't lie to you."

Kid pulled a bottle of whiskey from the drawer and poured two glasses. He took a sip of his, and set the other within reach of Heyes. "I know you wanted me out of the way—I just can't figure out why. I always thought we were in this together."

"We are. I didn't lie to you." Heyes tossed the bloody cloth into the bowl, and leaned against the headboard, holding his side. His breathing was still shaky, and Kid couldn't maintain the anger he felt. Heyes looked sorrier than a three-legged jackrabbit in a snare.

"Take your shirt off; let me have a look at those ribs." It took both of them to unwind Heyes' arms from his deep blue shirt, and by the time it was off, Heyes was pale and sweating. His chest, back, and side were a motley collection of boot prints and purpling, fist-sized bruises. Kid swore under his breath and felt along Heyes' side as gently as he could until he found the ribs that were out of place. Heyes looked as if he might pass out.

"Drink that," Kid said, shoving the whiskey towards him. He dragged an extra sheet out of the closet and set to tearing it into wide strips. "This is going to hurt," he apologized, and he waited until Heyes nodded before he started the agonizing process of pushing the ribs back into place and binding them tight with cloth. When he was done, Heyes was as pale as Kid had ever seen him, including the time he'd had a bullet graze his head. Kid settled him back against the headboard with a pillow behind him and wrapped the room's quilt around him. He poured them each another measure of whiskey, which Heyes drank with a shaking hand. He closed his eyes and let out a stuttering breath.

"Thank you, Jed," he said, and Kid looked up from the wooden chair where he'd settled. Heyes so rarely called him by his first name, it almost always meant something was up. Kid sipped his whiskey and waited. The lamps were burning down, casting a soft glow over the room, and Kid thought Heyes must've fallen asleep when he heard a low voice break the silence.

"I've never lied to you, and I never would."

Kid sighed. It figured that out of everything wrong with their current situation that was what struck Hannibal Heyes as the most important issue. Not that he'd tricked his partner into getting out of town. Not that he'd gone and got himself beat to a bloody pulp, or that someone named Nate was riding into town tomorrow, which couldn't possibly be a good thing if the twins were any indication. Kid supposed he should take Heyes' stubbornness as a good sign; maybe Heyes still had some sense left in him after all. "The documents?"

"Were real. They might not have needed to be in Cheyenne right away," Heyes admitted, "but it was a real paying job."

"And what about the evil twins?"

In spite of himself, Heyes smiled. "They don't like me very much."

"I can see that. And who's Nate?"

The smile slid away. "If I told you it was nothing to do with you and I asked you to leave town, would you do it?"

Kid watched Heyes' dark eyes trace an unseen line across the ceiling. It was as close as he'd heard Heyes come to pleading for something since they'd decided to try for amnesty, but he couldn't do it. He couldn't walk away, not now, and especially without knowing why Heyes seemed so desperate to get rid of him.

"Nope."

"Kid—"

"Save your breath. I'm not leavin', Heyes, so you may as well tell me what's goin' on."

"You need to stay out of it." There was an edge of desperation in Heyes' tone. "You can't interfere."

Kid leaned forward. Now they were getting somewhere. "Interfere in what?"

Heyes finally met his eyes, and the mixture of resignation and apology he saw there made Kid's heart skip a beat. "Interfere in what?" he repeated, a little louder.

"You and your six-gun have been saving my life as long as I've known you, Kid," Heyes said, "and I can't let you do it this time. You can't be part of this."

"Why not? What aren't you telling me, Heyes?" Kid moved his chair closer to the bed and laid a hand on Heyes' arm. There was something dark and foreign in Heyes' familiar eyes, something the Kid had never seen in all the years he'd known him. It looked like giving up. "Who are they? What do they want from you?"

Heyes let his eyes slide shut. "The Haskell brothers. Nate's the oldest. Garrett and Silas are the twins. We were all friends once, a long time ago, until …" Heyes trailed off.

"Until what?" Kid coaxed.

"Until I killed their brother Matthew—Mattie," Heyes finished. "And what they want is revenge."

*

There was a time when Hannibal Heyes had believed whole-heartedly in killing for revenge. Of course, he'd been a boy at the time, gutted by the loss of his family in the civil war. He could remember lying in bed at night at the orphanage, thinking of ways to hurt the people who'd taken his parents away. Even then, he'd had a quick mind and a great imagination. Swords, guns, cannons, knives, fire. Nothing was off-limits. Nothing too horrible to consider. All the messages about "forgive and forget" and "turn the other cheek" were lost on him.

But about the time he saw the Kid forced into his first draw and felt a man die underneath his bloody hands, useless against the endless flow, Heyes started rethinking revenge. Especially when the local sheriff tossed the Kid in jail just on principle, and Heyes spent an hour propped outside the back wall listening to a fourteen year-old Jed alternate between choked sobs and throwing up. When the jail had grown dark and silent, Heyes had begun a quiet, steady monologue. He knew it wasn't important what he said but that he was there, and when a hand had reached through the bars as if reaching for a lifeline, Heyes had grabbed on and held tight until his skin turned cold and his arm went to sleep.

In the morning, the Kid was gone, already spirited away by state authorities, shunted to some other orphanage where they could try and rehabilitate him with gospel and gruel, turn him from a potential life of crime. No one would tell Heyes anything because he was seventeen and not Jed's family, except that he was in every way that mattered. In the end, there wasn't anything he could do.

But every train he passed, every town he walked through, he studied the faces of boys and young men, looking for one set of piercing blue eyes and light brown hair that curled when it grew too long. Heyes didn't know how, but he knew someday he'd find the Kid, and he'd be able to keep all those promises he'd made through the bars of the jail—about riding the trails together, having their own gang who'd always have their backs, and about having enough money to do what they wanted and go where they pleased. No one was going to make a liar out of Hannibal Heyes.

It was looking for the Kid that he met Matthew Haskell. Same bright blue eyes, hair more golden, but there was an energy and a spirit there that Heyes was drawn to. After a year of looking without any leads on the Kid, Heyes was discouraged and broke. Then came Mattie Haskell with a smile that outshone the sun, and it was good honest work on the Bar H ranch. Heyes had never thought of himself as a farmer or a rancher, but for a time it was money coming in and an almost family, and he'd needed both desperately.

"I'm sorry," Heyes murmured, on the edge of consciousness, and Kid, still awake beside him in the hotel room's one bed, patted his arm.

"Sleep, Heyes. We'll figure it out in the morning."

*

When dawn cracked through their window, Kid felt as though he hadn't slept a wink. He'd spent a long night listening to Heyes' rattling breath, half-afraid if he fell asleep Heyes would disappear. He pulled himself out of bed, mindful of his sleeping partner, and dressed. It wasn't much work to round up their belongings from the livery stable and deposit them back at the room, then charm a pot of coffee and some food out of the hotel's cook.

When Kid got back to the room the second time, Heyes was sitting up, his face and bare chest a sorry mess of bruises. Kid winced just looking at him.

"That bad, eh?" Heyes said.

"You won't be winning no beauty contests," Kid agreed, setting the coffee and food on the table beside Heyes. "You should eat."

"In a bit," Heyes said, and he looked like he was getting used to his body again, moving slow and deliberate, feeling his way through the pain. Meanwhile, Kid tucked into the food, hoping it would give Heyes some incentive. The coffee was hot and the grub was good; for a few minutes, Kid could even forget about the information he'd been turning over in his mind all night. Heyes might've believed it was the truth, but it still didn't sit right with Kid.

"This Mattie Haskell," Kid started, ignoring the look of warning from Heyes. "You ain't never been a killer, Heyes. Hell, I've seen you try your damnedest to avoid killing. So what makes you think I'm gonna believe you were responsible for his death?"

"Doesn't matter if you believe it," Heyes said matter-of-factly. "It's the truth of it, and his brothers won't let it rest until they feel justice is done."

"And that means killing you?"

"Yeah."

"Why didn't they do it back when it happened? Why wasn't there a trial?" Kid knew they were sensible questions in spite of Heyes' glare. "I'm trying to understand, Heyes. You can't expect me to believe you killed a man in cold-blood."

"I might as well have. He died just the same, and it was my fault."

Kid poured more coffee, watching Heyes struggle through his first few bites. "Why don't you tell me what happened?"

*

Heyes had always been a gambler, even if he wasn't much of a risk-taker at heart. He'd started learning cards when he was just a kid, something to pass the lonely hours of an only child. After he'd lost his family, he'd always had an audience at the Valparaiso Home for Waywards—as long as he had a deck of cards, he could make magic happen. It was just a natural progression to high-stakes poker; Heyes had a bonafide gift for being able to turn five miserable dollars into fifty or a hundred in no time at all. It was a skill the Kid had always appreciated.

"So you and Mattie got into a game at the local saloon with a group of strangers?" Kid asked.

Heyes nodded. He'd watched them from the bar where he and Mattie had split a beer, ducking out of afternoon chores at the ranch to cool their heels inside where it was dark and the summer heat couldn't touch them. The men were loud and careless with their money, and Heyes could feel the jangling coins in his pockets. It would be easy to turn those few dollars into so much more, and so he'd slid over to the table and wrangled himself an invitation to play. Mattie sat at the end of the bar and grinned. Watching Heyes work was like watching an artist.

"The cards were falling perfectly," Heyes recalled. "I couldn't lose. And I'd been watching them long enough to figure out who couldn't bluff and who liked to bet big when they were holding nothing but a pair of twos. 'Cept I didn't figure on them being angry—drunk and bitterly angry when some two-bit kid beat the pants off 'em." Heyes put down a half-finished breakfast plate and swallowed a mouthful of coffee. "See, Kid, I wasn't as reserved as I am now. Back then, I was downright cocky, and I couldn't see I was in way over my head."

"I can't imagine, Heyes," Kid said sarcastically, and Heyes grinned in spite of his busted lips. Yeah, the Kid had known him a long, long time.

It was a hard-won skill to know not only when you were beaten, but when to quit. Heyes at eighteen hadn't yet learned either of those things, and the pile of coins growing in front of him only made his grin wider and brighter until he couldn't see the darkening faces across the table from him. When he tossed down a handful of pretty ladies and reached for the gleaming pot, he found the barrel of a gun in his face.

"You're cheating," the man with the gun accused, even as the other players stepped away and Mattie moved from the bar to stand beside Heyes.

"I don't need to cheat, mister," Heyes said. "You're a terrible poker player."

*

"You actually said that?" Kid asked, raising an eyebrow.

Heyes nodded gravely. "I was stupid. It was Mattie who paid the price."

 

*

Heyes had stared down the barrel of a gun before, and he'd gotten used to being able to smile, spin out niceties with his silver tongue, and have everyone walk away happy, or if not happy, at least in one piece.

"Gentlemen," Heyes began, but before he could get a full sentence out, there was angry yelling and more accusations of cheating. Heyes hated sore losers.

"There's no need for—" Mattie's voice was a soft reassurance.

"I've had just about enough out of you two," the man, red-faced and breathless, said cocking the hammer of his gun. He kicked the leg out from underneath the table, cards and coins spilling everywhere, and reflex made Heyes reach for the tumbling wealth, even as Mattie moved to step between him and the Colt, his hands wide in a gesture of placation. The next moment seemed to last forever.

The close-range shot tore through Mattie's chest and out the other side, spattering the still-bent over Heyes with blood. He turned in time to see Mattie look down in stunned surprise, then tumble over backwards. The rest of the room emptied out while Heyes pulled Mattie's head onto his lap, and for the second time in his life, couldn't do anything to stop a man from dying beneath his hands.

*

"Did you cheat?" Kid asked when Heyes had been silent long enough to signal the end of his tale.

"No."

"And you didn't pull the trigger," Kid added.

"I didn't even draw."

"It was an accident. A stupid, tragic accident, but it wasn't your fault."

Heyes started to argue with him, but Kid cut him off. "No, listen to me. I know you. There isn't anything you wouldn't do for a friend, and it sounds like Mattie was a good friend. It wasn't you who killed him, Heyes, it was the trigger-happy drunk you beat at poker."

"You don't understand, Kid."

"Try me."

"He was aiming at me—it should've been me, but Mattie—"

"Saved your life. I understand perfectly, Heyes. It's you that don't seem to—there's nothing you could've done." Kid set the dishes aside and sat on the bed beside his partner. He touched a hand to Heyes' bruised face and looked him in the eye. "You know there was nothing you could've done, so why are you still punishing yourself for this? Why are you letting his family condemn you for something that wasn't your fault."

Heyes reached up, pushing the Kid's hand aside. "I ran."

"What?"

"When Mattie died, I ran. I took the money I could grab, a horse, and I rode as far as I could as fast as I could, and I didn't look back."

"You were a scared kid, Heyes."

Heyes' mouth twisted into something hard as he tried to keep the emotion out of his voice. "I left him there on the floor of that saloon, Kid. After he saved my life, I just left him there and ran, so don't tell me I'm not to blame in this. Don't tell me I don't deserve whatever his family wants in revenge."

"Heyes."

"Just go, Kid. Please. You stay, you'll only end up getting hurt, or worse. One way or another."

Kid held his tongue. Heyes in this kind of mood was like a brick wall—there would be no moving him or changing his mind without a considerable application of force, and Kid didn't have the energy to fight Heyes and his demons both.

"Fine," Kid said. "I'll be down at the saloon if you want me."

*

Kid drank two shots of whiskey, but they didn't ease what was troubling him. No matter how many times he turned it over in his mind, he couldn't see a way to convince Heyes he'd paid his debt in guilt. He'd never seen him like this before.

Fine, Kid thought. Maybe he couldn't talk sense into Heyes, but maybe there was something he could do to set the Haskells straight. If they knew the facts—if they understood that it hadn't been Heyes' fault, that Mattie's death had been an accident—maybe they could find their peace somewhere other than over Heyes' dead body.

He walked the streets of the town until his feet were sore and his throat was parched. Not a sign of the two blond men or the older brother, Nate. Kid didn't have anywhere else to go except back to the hotel room. Maybe Heyes would be in a more receptive state after he'd had all day to think.

The room was empty when he got there, and Kid felt something inside him break.

"No. No, no, no, this isn't good." Heyes was gone, his hat and his gun gone with him, and propped on the side table was a hastily written note in Heyes' hand.

This is something I have to do, Kid. You were the best friend a man could hope for. I'm sorry.

"Heyes!" Kid said, and crumpled the note in his fist, even as he turned and headed for the stables. The man from the previous night was eager to share what he knew.

"I couldn't believe my eyes! Your friend, all beat up, and those two boys from the other night riding out together as if they were old friends."

"Was there another man with them?" Kid tightened the saddle straps, and mounted.

"Not that I saw."

"Which way did they ride?" Kid said. He'd been figuring on a shootout in the middle of town, but that would bring out the sheriff and innocent by-standers and a whole host of problems. It made sense they'd head out, meet Nate somewhere quiet to dispense justice and bury the evidence.

The livery man hesitated for a second, left hand fidgeting with his pocket. Kid could hear the coins clink together. "Please," he begged. "Whatever they told you to tell me, whatever they paid you, I need to know where they went."

"They fixin' to kill your friend?"

"Yeah."

"He done somethin' to deserve it?" the man asked. "He didn't seem to be fightin' real hard to get away."

"He blames himself for their brother's death," Kid said honestly, "but it was an accident. Please, mister, help me before someone else gets killed."

"They headed south, probably to the Madden place. Few miles down the road, no neighbours to speak of. Lots of privacy."

"Thank you," Kid said, and spurred his horse southward. "I won't forget it." He just hoped he would get there in time.

*

Heyes hadn't seen Nate Haskell in more than twelve years, but he would have known him anywhere. Big and blond, skin dark from the wind and the sun. The years had hardened his features into stone. Heyes couldn't imagine a smile crossing that face now, although there was a time when he'd had a grin almost as bright as Mattie's. Heyes figured he was at least partially to blame for Nate's sober countenance.

"Hello, Nate," Heyes said, getting down from his horse.

"Hannibal." Heyes had forgotten Nate's insistence on calling him by his given name; he'd said "Heyes" sounded too much like a man on the run, so it was either going to be Mr. Heyes or Hannibal, and at eighteen it had been an obvious choice.

Garrett and Silas gathered the horses and tied them at the front of the old farmhouse. It was clear no one had lived there in years. The twins hung back near the horses, waiting for a sign from Nate.

"I honestly never expected to see you again," Nate said, "so I figure the boys running into you like this must be fate. We're a long way from Kansas."

"That we are." Heyes was still hurting, could feel the pain aching in every muscle and joint. The ride out had left him breathless, and it was all he could do to concentrate on what Nate was saying.

"You know why you're here."

"Killing me won't bring Mattie back," Heyes reminded him.

"I know." Nate eased his gun out of its holster and checked that the chambers were full. "And I know it was a long time ago, and maybe a better man could forget, but you took away something precious to us, Hannibal. Mattie kept us together, and without him—" Nate's voice broke a little, and Heyes understood exactly. "Nothing was ever the same after that."

"For me either," Heyes said, although he doubted it would make any difference.

"Oh, we saw how your life changed. Heard about it in all the papers, too. Wanted: Hannibal Heyes! Fine thing Mattie did, saving your life, and what did it mean to you?"

"It wasn't like that."

"You were free to ride around the country robbing honest people, living a life of crime, starting right there in our little town."

Heyes blinked in the afternoon sun. "That's not—"

"I don't care," Nate said. "You were always a bad influence on Mattie. That afternoon he should've been fixing fences on the south range, but you dragged him to a poker game. He thought you could do no wrong, Hannibal, and it got him killed, didn't it? That bullet was meant for you! It should've been you."

Heyes couldn't do anything but agree. "I wish it had been me, Nate. You have no idea how many times I wished it had been me instead. But it wasn't and I was scared, so I ran and I just kept running until I was as far from Kansas as I could get. It was never far enough to forget what happened or forget that it should've been me."

Nate stared at him. It was obvious he'd been expecting Heyes to try and talk his way out of it. "I don't know what you're up to, but it won't work. I've had too many years to think on this, and I'm not about to change my mind now."

"I didn't figure you would," Heyes said. "So let's get it over with then. Shoot me." Heyes raised his hands in the air, wincing at the strain on his ribs. "There's no one to stop you, Nate. Go ahead and shoot me if you think it will make you feel better."

Whatever Nate was going to say was drowned out by the steadily growing thunder of hooves. All of them turned to see Kid Curry and his horse arrive in a cloud of dust, gun raised in the air and ready to fire.

"Nobody's gonna be shooting anybody. Come on, Heyes. Let's go."

*

"No."

Kid couldn't believe his ears. He'd ridden the bay as hard as a horse could run, and he'd started to believe in miracles when he'd seen Heyes' slim frame facing down Nate Haskell. Kid slipped off the horse, never taking his eyes off the three blond men, all of whom were now pointing pistols in his direction.

"Heyes, come on."

"No, Kid, I can't. I told you to stay out of it."

Kid let his eyes flicker over Heyes' battered, but determined face. "They obviously knocked something loose in that head of yours if you think I'm gonna stand by and watch somebody gun you down in cold blood."

Nate Haskell tilted his head appraisingly. "I've got no intention of doing that. Hannibal's armed; he's got as fair a chance in a draw as any man."

"He's in no shape to fight," Kid said angrily. "Your brothers saw to that."

If Kid didn't know better, he would've thought Nate Haskell looked almost sorry. "They were just supposed to talk to him. They let their emotions get the better of them."

"Well, it seems like everyone's been doing that," Kid shot back. "Heyes didn't kill your brother. It was an accident."

"Mattie would've never been there if he'd been on his own. He was a good boy." Nate shook his head. "I don't even know who you are, mister, but I'm damn sure it ain't any of your business."

"Kid Curry, and Heyes is my partner, so yeah, it's my business. You want him, you're going to have to go through—"

"No!" Heyes stepped in front of the Kid as three hammers cocked. He whirled around and gripped the Kid by the shoulders. "Listen to me. This is my problem, Kid, and you can't use your gun to save me this time. I've got to do this myself."

"Heyes."

"I mean it, Kid. Nate and I are going to face off in a regular draw and you're going to stand back and do nothing, you hear me?" Kid started to shake his head, but Heyes just gripped him tighter. "If he kills me, you do nothing. Not a damn thing because it will never end, Kid. You'll shoot him, but one of the twins will get you, and maybe you'll shoot the other before you go down, but there'll be a whole lot of blood for no reason at all. It's gotta stop."

"I can't stand by and watch—"

"Then don't watch," Heyes returned soberly. He clapped the Kid on the shoulder and looked him right in the eye. "Kid, trust me. This is the only way it can end."

Kid glanced at the three Haskells, the determined faces. Maybe Heyes was right; he didn't want to admit it, and he damn sure didn't want to stand back and do nothing, but the Heyes he knew always had a plan.

Kid lowered his voice. "I've seen men go into gunfights thinking they deserve to take a bullet, and more often than not, that's exactly what happens."

Heyes smiled, and for the first time in the last two days, it seemed to reach his eyes. "I'm not stepping in front of a bullet, Kid. Believe it or not, I heard everything you said. I know it wasn't my fault."

"Well, that's progress."

"I'd still change it if I could, but what I can do is bring it to a close." He glanced over his shoulders at the brothers. "I think everybody needs that."

Kid took a deep breath and a step back. "Mr. Haskell? I'm gonna take this gun out of my holster real slow, and I'm gonna put it in my saddlebag where I won't be tempted to use it. Maybe your brothers would like to do the same. That's iffen you meant what you said about a fair draw."

"Garrett, Silas, put your guns away," Nate ordered. "Put 'em in your saddlebags. This is between me and Hannibal, and whatever happens, this puts it to rest."

Kid led his horse around to where the others were hitched, then stood awkwardly with the two younger Haskells. He was aware of Nate watching him.

"You Jed Curry?" Nate asked, sliding his gun back into its holster in readiness for what was to come. He flexed his gun hand before letting it hang loose at his side, inches from the handle.

"That's right."

"We heard a lot about you back then." Nate sounded thoughtful. "Hannibal was just about broken-hearted when they took you away."

In spite of himself, Kid felt his face flush. He hadn't thought about that time in years; he and Heyes had never really talked about it. When they'd found each other again, they'd been young adults running from the law, and it hadn't seemed wise to spend much time looking back.

"I can see why he fell in with Mattie. You've darker hair, but the eyes, something in the face—he never stopped looking for you, and I guess he found you." Nate glanced back and forth between him and Heyes as if understanding something for the first time. "Mattie was just a temporary stand-in along the way."

Kid could see the anger flooding back into Nate's face, the adrenaline that would make his draw that much faster. Heyes had always been a solid draw—nowhere near as fast as the Kid, of course, but then again, few people were.

"For what it's worth, Nate," Heyes said, glancing once at Kid and then away, "Mattie was like a brother to me, and I loved him."

"So did I," Nate said, the shake in his voice unmistakable. "Let's finish this. On three. Jed, you count."

Kid figured if this was what it was like to be Heyes, standing on the sidelines waiting for him to draw, he would rather be in the fight. At least there he had some control.

"On three," Kid said. "One."

Heyes and Nate adjusted their stances.

"Two."

Fingers twitched in nervous anticipation.

"Three."

Nate Haskell was a fast draw, the pistol sliding out of its holster fast and clean, cocking the hammer, and squeezing the trigger in an easy, practiced motion. Kid heard the grunt of pain as the bullet took Heyes in the left shoulder. His gun was still in his holster.

"Heyes!"

Heyes raised a hand awkwardly and the Kid stayed rooted to the spot. "The rules of a draw give each man a chance to fire one shot." Heyes slid his gun out and raised it. "What I lack in speed, I make up for in accuracy."

Kid could see the terrified looks on the faces of the two younger Haskells confronted with the possibility of losing another brother. Nate gave them a half-smile tinged with regret, and Kid knew he was looking at a man who'd realized too late the futility of revenge.

"Finish it, Hannibal," Nate said, turning to face Heyes with acceptance.

Heyes raised the gun in the air and fired once, skyward. "It's over, Nate. The last thing I want is your blood on my hands." He staggered then, the loss of blood from the bullet in his shoulder taking its toll, and Kid ran across the courtyard to catch Heyes as he fell.

"Stay with me, Heyes," he said, pulling open his shirt to get a better look at the entrance hole. It looked clean, and high enough that it wouldn't be fatal. Kid tore off the hem of Heyes' shirt and put pressure on the wound. He heard Nate's footsteps behind him.

"He gonna be okay?"

"Yeah," Kid said, "but it'd be best if we get him to a doctor."

"There's an old wagon 'round back," Nate said. He yelled at the boys to fetch it, while Kid concentrated on keeping Heyes conscious.

"I thought you had a plan," Kid said, wrapping the wound with another piece of shirt.

"I did."

"Your plan was to let him shoot you?"

Heyes' mouth turned into a grin. "It worked, didn't it?"

Kid figured it was probably for the best Heyes picked that moment to pass out.

*

They stayed in Willow Bend a lot longer than they'd planned, what with Heyes recovering from both a beating and a bullet. The doctor didn't say much and the sheriff didn't seem to care as long as no one was dead and no one was swearing out a complaint.

The Haskells stopped in to see Heyes before they continued on to the Dakotas, looking for work. The family farm in Kansas had long since dried up and blown away, and Nate said it'd been more important to keep the three of them together than to keep the farm. Kid didn't know what exactly passed in the hour Nate spent with Heyes, but he could imagine some of it, and he hoped whatever was said was enough. Life was too short to be weighed down by guilt and regret.

Kid spent most nights sitting playing cards with Heyes or reading to him from whatever book he could find at the hotel or borrow from the Doc. They'd exhausted Mark Twain and a couple of the dime store novels Kid preferred because the action zipped along at a pace considerably faster than Twain's Mississippi riverboat.

Heyes' ribs were almost mended, the shoulder moving without pain, and the bruises had faded to a dull sheen. Kid figured it would be only a day or two before they could hit the road, leaving Willow Bend and all its misery behind them.

He turned the lamps out for the night, careful not to jostle Heyes as he climbed into bed.

"You can stop being so careful," Heyes said when the Kid settled on his side. "I'm not going to break if you bump me, you know."

"Forgive me, but six weeks of watching you heal has made me reluctant to do any damage that might keep us in this town even longer."

Kid could see Heyes' grin in the moonlight. "Listen to you. All that readin's been good for somethin'!"

Kid laughed, and it felt good, almost like old times. Almost like when they'd been kids.

"Heyes?"

"Yeah, Kid?"

Kid rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. He couldn't account for why Nate Haskell's words kept coming back to him, but he knew if he didn't ask, he'd always wonder. Heyes seemed to sense his reluctance to speak, and rolled over to face him. It was a good sign that the ribs were almost healed.

"Spit it out. You've been holding onto something. Just say whatever you've got to say."

"Nate Haskell knew who I was, and not because I'm Kid Curry."

"I spent a good amount of time with the Haskells. I might've mentioned you a time or two." Heyes' words came slowly, measured, as if he wasn't sure how much he should say. "What are you asking, Kid?"

"If Mattie Haskell had lived, would you have kept looking for me?"

Kid felt a hand press against his shoulder, the grip warm and firm. "I would've looked for you to the ends of the earth. Mattie was a good friend, and yeah, he reminded me of you, but he wasn't you. He didn't need me, and it would've only been a matter of time before I moved on." The grip tightened. "I never stopped looking for you, Kid, and I never would've. You were my family, closest thing to a brother I'd ever had. You still are."

"Likewise, Heyes," Kid replied softly. He wasn't real big on talking, but sometimes these things needed to be said. Family. Brothers. The words were important, and they made the freedom they were working for more valuable in the end because it was shared.

Kid knew he never would've considered amnesty without Heyes alongside him—it would've been too hard to do on his own. It was challenging enough with both of them trying to keep one another on the straight and narrow. Most likely, Kid figured, he would've died years ago in a dusty dead-end street with a bullet in his heart. This path they'd chosen wasn't always easy, but it was better than dead or alone. Kid had a lot of regrets, a lot of things he would've changed in his life, and he knew Heyes was the same. Mattie Haskell's death would've been one of those things. But somehow as long as their paths stayed together, Kid figured they'd be alright.

"G'night, Kid." Heyes' voice was soft and tired.

"G'night, Heyes," Kid said, letting his eyes fall closed, Heyes' hand still a warm touch on his shoulder.

 

THE END