The New Kid
“Hey! Break it up!” Heyes stepped between Wheat and the young man who had been exchanging blows.
“Wheat! You’re bigger than him.” Heyes grabbed Wheat’s arm and pushed him away with gloved hands. “Go get a drink and cool down.”
Wheat glowered at him, bleeding from the lip, and opened his mouth. “I’ll take care of this kid,” said Heyes hastily. “Now don’t argue.” Where was Kid, when he needed him to take care of proddiness amongst the men? The men and a stranger, in this case.
He turned to the young man, and crossed his arms. “Well? What have you got to say for yourself? You know—or you ought to know—this is the hangout for my gang. Why are you pickin’ fights?”
“All I said was, D-hole gang? How about the a-hole gang?” The boyish-faced gunfighter grinned, showing his teeth in a defiant, devil-may-care grin. He’d come off a bit worse in the fight, his clothes mussed, his lip fat, his nose blooded, but he still stood cocky and confident as a bantam rooster. He looked all of nineteen, and had light blond hair. His smile tilted whimsically higher, and for a second in his eyes Heyes saw an almost pleading look, too proud to be put into words—a hungry kid, looking for acceptance and work. His next words confirmed it to Heyes’ ears. “Bet I’d make a better outlaw than that guy. Or that.” He jerked his chin towards Kyle, who, wearing an unfortunately blank and clueless look, was hitting the music machine (repeatedly) with the palm of his hand.
A smile twitched Heyes’ mouth. Well, a little new blood couldn’t hurt, if he could rein in that proddy streak. Heyes tilted his hat back with one finger. “Can you shoot that gun, or just your mouth off?” He nodded to the Colt tied down by the kid’s side.
A quick grin, which the boy quickly tried to swallow. “Can I! Just let me show you. Time me!”
Heyes looked around and scanned the room. He caught the eye of to the Preacher, who nodded and followed him. Without the Kid here, he needed someone to watch his back.
He sorely missed the Kid when he was gone, but it was selfish to, especially when he had something important to do away from the gang. Especially when it was something real important. There was nobody he’d trust like the Kid, even on a supposedly-simple errand. He couldn’t exactly go himself, as he was a mite too well-known at present, in certain circles. Perhaps if he hadn’t actually had lunch with the president of the safe company that other time...and then been found out. Well, never mind. Right now he had this wet-behind-the-ears kid to try out.
“Set up some bottles,” he said. “We’ll see who can shoot ‘em fast. I’d better warn you—I’m not that fast, so if you can’t beat me, you’re definitely not in the gang.” He pulled his gun out, spun the barrel, and blew on it, make sure it wasn’t dusty, and over its shiny length, he glimpsed the kid’s quick, incredulous grin.
“I can beat you! I could beat my pappy by the time I was fourteen, and he used to be a real gunslinger, back in his day.”
“Back in the day, lots of people were fast, to hear them tell it.” He sent the boy a stern look. “Put your money where your mouth is.” Heyes slid his gun back into its holster.
Lugubrious in black serge, the Preacher stood in the background, watching, his face grim and expressionless.
The boy glanced at him once, then seemed to dismiss him. He lined up with Heyes, a cocky expression on his face, an overconfident tilt to his stance. He reached for his gun. “You want that guy to count us down?” He pulled his gun, spun it a couple of times, and put it back in his holster all in one smooth movement. Heyes blinked. He was pretty fast. Not as fast as Kid Curry, of course, but pretty good, and they could always use more fast guns.
The best thing about being fast was, the faster you were, the less likely you actually had to shoot. Get a reputation, and in a dispute, or a robbery, your reputation protected you and the men you rode with. And even when you had to back it up, you could often do it without killing anybody. Kid was so fast that....
Never mind. Focus on the job at hand. Don’t think about Kid, and what he’s doing for you. Focus on this. He’ll be fine.
“Sure thing, boy,” said Heyes. “Preacher.” He motioned the Preacher forward with two fingers. “On three?”
The Preacher nodded. “One.”
“Not your boy,” muttered the kid.
Heyes stared at the bottles, lined up on the fence, his face going intense. He didn’t usually win fast-draw anything, but he could shoot straight, he hit what he aimed for. But he had to focus. He wasn’t the easy-as-breathing natural the Kid was.
This caused Heyes to smile. “As in Martin?”
“Huh?” said the boy.
They grabbed their guns, yanked them from holsters, and fired. The boy’s rounds fired so fast they sounded almost as one. His four target bottles shattered into pieces in the same time it took Heyes to burst one.
He turned to stare at the kid, flummoxed. Then, a beat, and he grinned. “Guess you are a good shot. Want to work with the A-holes?” He gave the boy an ironic, sarcastic, speaking look, and then smiled again, meaning it. “...boy?” he added, to push the buttons a little.
Too-pleased-with-himself eyes flashed in momentary anger. Then he gave a wary jerk of his head. “Could use steady work. And I ain’t a boy. I’m eighteen three months now.”
“Eighteen.” He could remember when that had sounded grown up to him, as well. Now it made him want to shake his head and tell the kid to go home.
“Well, boy, you’re welcome—if’n you remember to obey the rules at all times.” Another stern look.
“What are the rules?” Wary look.
“Rule number one—we don’t kill people. That’s trouble we’ve never had in our gang, and don’t intend to. I don’t ask what you did before, but I tell you—we don’t do that here. Rule number two.” Heyes jerked a thumb towards his chest. “I’m the leader. Don’t forget it. Rule number three. No proddiness among the boys. That means you’ve got to get along—or else. Even with Wheat. You cause anymore rowdy fighting, and you’re out.”
The boy was looking a bit sullen and defiant, but also—somehow—hangdog. To forestall the boy from raising objections, Heyes added, with a quixotic smile, “Rule four—new recruits get a good lunch, courtesy of me, Hannibal Heyes.” He quirked a dimpled grin, jerked his head, and headed back towards the bar. “C’mon, then. Ain’t you hungry, boy?”
“I could eat,” he allowed, relief in his voice. Then he followed, his steps quickening.
Kid climbed from the saddle of his horse, feeling sore and out of sorts. He badly needed a drink, and a bath to chase off all the dust.
“Kid!” Heyes started towards him, raising his hand, grinning.
At the sight of his smile, some of the exhaustion and stress faded away, and Kid smiled back. He swung off his horse and went to greet his friend.
“You brought it!”
Wide-armed, grinning, arms spread—Heyes started forward, with that special grin.
He moved past Kid, smiling excitedly, and dug into the sack. He pulled out the safe plans that Kid had bought for him, and unrolled them. “Oh! Perfect!” He walked away, his head down, avidly poring over the plans. “Beautiful!”
Curry watched him go, and his shoulders slumped. <i>Glad to see me, huh? Great. Glad I know where I stand....</i>
He managed to get a sponge bath, and a quick bite to eat—cold cornbread and buttermilk—and then headed out to make sure Kyle had taken care of his horse right.
On the way out to the barn, he saw a young man practicing his fast draw. He stopped, and blinked. The guy stood at a cocky angle, obviously thinking a lot of himself.
“Draw,” he said to himself, and—three bottles shattered, almost as one. Kid blinked. Yep, he was fast.
Curry walked up to join him. “Hey. We haven’t met. I’m—”
The boy turned with a cocky grin. “I’m the new kid. Who are you?”
Kid blinked. The new Kid? <i>Curry</i> was the Kid! Kid Curry, one and only.
What was Heyes thinking?
Curry was eating in sullen silence, his cheeks stuffed full, very much ignoring ‘the new kid’ at the meal, when Heyes slid into his seat and looked around brightly at all the collected members of the Devil’s Hole Gang.
“Well. Couldn’t wait for me, huh?” He reached for the stew ladle.
Kyle snorted into his stew. “Heyes, yew wouldn’t notice nothin’ when you’ve got safe plans! We could starve to death afore you quit starin’ at ‘em.”
A couple of the men laughed, and Heyes smiled congenially. “Well, it’s a really good one. It’ll be quite useful the first time I get a shot at this latest model.”
“Ahem. Speakin’ of getting a shot.” Wheat shifted in his seat, looking shifty. “You two had a draw yet?” He pointed at Kid and the new boy. “Like to see who’s fastest?”
Heyes blinked, as if that question surprised him. “Kid Curry, of course. But we can always use new blood. Maybe Curry can teach Luther something.”
The boy’s head jerked up, and he stared at Curry with what could only be called a challenging look.
After the meal Heyes took Curry aside and said, “I forgot to introduce you. The new kid is Luther. He’s going to be riding with us for awhile. He’s pretty fast, if a little hot-headed. I was hoping you could help him improve, and rein in that temper of his.” He gave Curry a smile, raising his brows. “How about it?”
Teach him? The Kid looked at Heyes like he was insane. “That kid don’t need teaching, he needs a good hide tannning!”
He said it just loud enough the kid could hear. He could see Luther bristle up like a porcupine from here.
Heyes’ eyes narrowed in disapproval, but Kid ignored him, resting his hand on his gun butt, and turned and strutted—okay, swaggered—away.
He wasn’t being replaced by some new kid.
And he certainly wasn’t going to help groom his replacement!
Curry was standing by the fence, watching the horses mill around and graze, when the new boy offered his challenge.
“Think you’re faster’n me, Curry?” Luther spit on the ground, and then looked up at Curry with arrogant, challenging eyes. “Maybe we could have a little contest, find out.”
“Fine,” snapped Kid. He could beat this punk with one hand tied behind his back. Thought he could replace Curry, did he? “Set up the cans.”
Luther snorted. “Cans? You need cans to beat me? Guess you’re not the shot I heard.”
Curry’s gaze narrowed. His mouth tightened up so much he almost swallowed his tobacco. He spat it out. Maybe Heyes was right, he ought to quit chewing it after all. A man could choke, if he got distracted by a shootin’ challenge.
Heyes stepped out of the cabin, shading his eyes. And almost dropped his jaw on the ground.
There he was the new kid and Kid Curry facing off, dangerous-looking, the boy swaggering but growing whiter under his tan, and Curry looking the way he looked when he was really angry—deadly inside, not much showing on his face, but his stance all too clear to Heyes.
Curry almost never got like that, and he never got like that with new folks.
Their hands hovered by their guns, deadly as rattlesnakes going for each other.
“KID!” snapped Heyes, and started forward.
Both heads snapped up. Both men focused on him.
“Put that away!” he snapped, pointing, anger blazing in him for a moment. He didn’t even try to conceal it with his usual charm. He pointed at Curry’s hand, which had already drawn the gun, quicker than a blink. He held it like he didn’t know what to do with it.
“But I won. I wasn’t gonna actually shoot him.” Curry sounded hurt.
“You didn’t—” Luther saw the gun, and blinked. “Well,” he said after a pause to think, “Heyes distracted me.”
Curry glared at him. “You stuck-up—” He took a step forward.
“KID!” said Heyes, shocked by his friend’s behavior. Kid was never one to get proddy with new people, without a real good reason. Luther hadn’t done anything offensive except be a little cocky—not always a bad thing in an outlaw.
You had to have some cockiness or you’d give up, first sign of trouble. And it was a hard life. Besides, cocky guys couldn’t always find any other kind of work. Kind of got in the way of listening to orders at a regular job, where things got boring.
No, Heyes couldn’t blame the new kid—only Curry. He should know better by now.
He jerked his head towards the cabin. “C’mon, Kid. I gotta talk to you.”
Curry glared at him, and Heyes put the emotion into his eyes, that said, “It’s important.” At last, Curry hesitated, then nodded. He followed Heyes—but his shoulders slumped.
Heyes wondered why.
“Kid,” he said, once they were inside. “What’s the idea? You want to drive him off?”
“Yes,” said Curry shortly.
“Wha—“ Heyes crossed his arms, and leaned against the desk, trying to look casual, even though he’d gone all tense and tight inside. “Mind telling me why?”
Curry wore his stubborn expression. After a moment, he nodded again. “All right. I don’t ‘ppreciate you tryin’ to replace me. What’s the matter? I’m not young enough, you gotta get another Kid? Well, I’m still faster’n anybody—and I can prove it.” He glared at Heyes.
“Kid...” For a moment, Heyes was aghast. “You think I’d replace you? Really?” He shook his head gently, and then he was grinning. “There’s not another like you for miles, Kid! Miles. Besides, I’m kinda used to havin’ you around.” He squeezed his friend’s shoulder, putting a smile into his voice as he said these words.
Immediately, Curry’s demeanor changed. He relaxed into a sheepish grin. “Guess there’s not anybody quite like me,” he agreed. Then he gave a nod. “I guess I could teach him a thing or two, Heyes. If he knocks off the attitude a bit.”
“You can take him down a peg or two—just don’t do it the hard way,” said Heyes. He gave his friend a wink. “Wouldn’t want to have to replace you.”
Curry’s smile disappeared with a sour look. He gave Heyes a reproachful look.
“Now see, Luther, you gotta hold it like this. You’ll get a faster time if you do.”
Curry was explaining for what felt like the hundredth time, how to improve his fast draw.
The kid just wasn’t a quick learner. He was too flighty, like one of the squirrels or blue jays overhead.
Kid suppressed a sigh. What had he gotten himself into, agreeing to work with the brat?
The boy was already showing signs of flagging. “But when do we rob a bank or a train?” he’d said yesterday. He’d looked downright disappointed when Heyes explained that most of their time was spent holing up, staying out of the way of posses, making what they had last and tryin’ to plan the next job.
Except, thought Curry sourly, the money never did last. There were the wasteful men who’d go broke almost instantly, and then there were the expensive plans Heyes made, like all that money to bribe someone for safe plans, that they might not even get to use for years and years.
Well. It made Heyes happy, anyhow. That had to be worth something.
“Now, see, try pulling it out of your holster the way I showed you,” said Curry, with a restraint he thought no less than saintly.
The boy lounged, and yawned. Then his eyes focused on something—a rider. No, two riders. Curry shielded his eyes, squinted. Only one was guard of the pass. Had he caught a trespasser?
Wheat squinted, looking proddy. “Found this here trespasser, claiming to know Luther. You ever seen him before?”
The boy snapped to alertness. “Pappy!” he said.
Curry blinked at him.
“Your Pa’s alive? Why are you goin’ bank robbing for, boy?”
“’Cuz we had a fight. Pappy!” he said again, in the happiest voice Curry’d ever heard from him. He was grinning hard. “He came for me.”
The boy barely remembered to put away his gun, before he started running towards the approaching men.
From the distance, Curry watched the reunion—the man slip off the back of his horse, and embrace his son, the two of them talking, smiling a lot.
He tasted a sour, sour taste. It was like being jealous all over again. Except this time, not of something he could lose—of something he’d already lost.
Heyes sauntered out to see what was going on.
Kid was looking down at the mouth, Luther excited, Wheat proddy, and the newcomer pleased.
“Who’s our visitor?” said Heyes, trying to keep his expression neutral. The newcomer and Luther obviously knew and liked each other. But Heyes needed more information before he could stop feeling wary that a stranger had come here.
Kid crossed his arms. “Says he Luther’s Pa,” mumbled Kid.
Heyes put a smile on his face and walked forward, with a “Well! How d’ye do?” He shook the man’s hand, claiming his attention. “Now, uh, how’d you find out your son was here?”
The older man, with the lined face and strong grip of a rancher, regarded him for a moment, weighing. “Well, I heard in town, when I came through lookin’ for my son, ‘bout the band of men he left with. Someone at the saloon said they were the Devil Hole gang. I don’t know what my son has done for you so far, but I’d like to take him back home. We might’ve had our differences—but he’s still my boy. And his Ma’s sick, so if you don’t mind—”
Heyes glanced at Luther’s face. The boy was obviously struggling to hold back his strong feelings. His face almost glowed with the happiness of seeing his father again. Heyes suddenly understood a little how Kid was feeling. It was a hollow thing, to watch a family reunion when you knew you’d never have one of your own again.
Heyes refocused on the rancher. “Sure. We wouldn’t want to keep him here if he’s needed at home.” He put on a charming smile. “Care to eat with us before you go?”
The rancher hesitated, looked at his son, and then nodded. “I’m be rightly obliged to you.”
Heyes and Curry stood side by side at the tree line. Heyes could still taste the biscuits and beans they’d all had for supper, along with the squirrels Kid had shot, and roasted slowly.
He and Curry watched the retreating men on horseback, Luther and Luther Jr. (Luther and his pappy had the same name.) The boy looked back once and waved.
Curry shook his head gently. “I can’t believe you gave him a horse.”
Heyes glanced at him. “Well, he was a member of our gang—however briefly.”
They were silent for a minute, sunk in their own thoughts. The sun was going down. <i>They should’ve at least waited to leave till tomorrow,</i> thought Heyes. Seemed the two men couldn’t wait to get away from the taint of outlaws, now that their fight was patched up.
“Heyes,” said Curry quietly, into the twittering twilight.
Heyes glanced at him.
Kid’s voice was low, a little embarrassed. “I wouldn’t leave you.”
“Sure you would, Kid.” Heyes pushed back his hat, crossed his arms calmly, and watched the riders in the distance.
“Huh?” Kid blinked, looking startled and hurt.
“Kid, if your dad came to get you, to take you outta a life of crime, you’d go in a heartbeat.”
“Oh. Well, you’d come too.”
Heyes nodded, acknowledging the justice of this. He sighed. “Sure would, Kid.” Then he clapped a hand on Kid’s shoulder, and left it there. “C’mon, Kid. Let’s us outlaws get back to where we belong. We got work to do.”
Kid nodded, and the two turned back together. Kid hesitated a moment, then slung an arm around Heyes’ shoulder in return. They walked back that way, and Kid didn’t let go till they got to the cabin.