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Learning Curve

Chapter Text

The night had entered its quietest time, that hour before dawn begins to scratch at the surface of the black horizon.

Unwillingly, Hannibal Heyes had just let his eyes drop shut, even though he remained aware of the rock sticking into his back and his coccyx jammed into the hard ground. The evening's trail-supper hadn't appealed, and there was only coffee and grits slopping around in his gut, along with a hearty dollop of irritation, a more or less indigestible mix.

Making a living through honest toil was already beginning to tick Heyes off mightily. Here they were, neck deep in their second trail job, and it had turned trickier than a sack of snakes.

His eyes popped open again. You'd think getting some cows from A to B would be pretty straightforward, especially when there really weren't many of them, the trail-boss was paying over the odds, and the food was half-decent. But it seemed that, in the world of legal employment, your employer didn't always tell you everything you needed to know. Like, the whole time you were on the trail you'd be at risk of being jumped by your employer's sworn enemies. Heyes racked his brains to try and remember if he had always told the gang what they needed to know before they set off on a job, and he decided, hand on heart, that he had, especially if there was going to be unusual dangers involved. Lotta details he'd leave out, but that was because half the time they didn't know their left from their right, but he was sure he'd always told them enough to keep them safe.

Because he sure as hell had never wanted to be looking at someone's pocket-watch and thinking .... damn ... what's gone wrong? Like he could see Robert Chandler, the trail boss, was doing right now, and trying to look as if he wasn't.

Heyes shifted his back, cracked his knuckles, shut his eyes just to rest them.

One hour over time he had almost expected. Two hours could be explained away pretty easily. Three hours was getting worrisome.

But it had been nearly five hours now since Kid Curry had been due back in camp, and the night watch had come on duty, casting long looks over at Smith as if to say ... well, you never shoulda let him go now, should you?

The original debate had been a relatively easy one. Chandler had brought everyone to a halt and they'd made camp while the sun was still high. He announced a plan to parley, which involved one of their number running a message back down the trail. Heyes had given the Kid that count-us-out-of-it look and it was returned so strongly that he had a job not to snigger. But then the two Chandler boys, barely out of their teens, had volunteered, only to have their father wave them away. Usually Robert Chandler drove his sons hard, so Heyes had known at once that this meant there was tough trouble on the cards.

"It needs a big, strong man to go in there, someone who can handle himself," Chandler had said airily. "Someone they don't know."

Which meant Smith, Jones, Phillips or Green.

The Kid offered in the end, of course, because he thought his gun would keep him safer. But he was nowhere near as big and solid as Phillips and Green, who were hunched over their rifles thinking all sorts of thoughts, looking over at Joshua Smith and being mighty glad they hadn't been obliged to ride into the midst of the Websters with a message. They'd worked for Chandler before and knew what his overriding concerns were. Not them, that was for sure.

"I'm not happy about this," Heyes had muttered as his partner had saddled up, the roll of paper handed to him by Chandler tucked into the right-hand pocket of his sheepskin.

"Neither am I, Heyes, but it strikes me that we need to get this whole mess sorted out sooner than later. I for one am tired of being in the middle of a rancher's feud."

"I know that, Kid."

"So I'll just ride along there, give them the paper and ride along back. And, with any luck, they'll take the deal and we can finish this job and collect our money."

Heyes had raised his brows at this blatant optimism. It sounded downright peculiar coming from the mouth of Jedediah Curry. "Well all right," he said. "I'll save you some supper."

"If it's beans, don't bother," the Kid had said, a very faint grin glimmering through the late afternoon shadows. He looked over Heyes' shoulder as Chandler walked up.

"Thaddeus," said the rancher, "You don't need to do any talking, you hear me? Just pass on the message to one or other of the Websters and then come on back."

"And try not to get your head blown off," Heyes had added.

Kid Curry swung himself up into his saddle. "I'll do my best." He tipped his hat in the direction of his temporary boss and exchanged a little look with his partner. Then he was gone.

And ever since the time he had been due back, Heyes had been getting the cloying feeling that something was not right, a feeling that skittered up the top of his spine into his hair and left his midriff feeling all knotted and busy like a mess of indiarubber bands.

Sitting on his own by the beginning of the trail, he had at first felt wide awake, then crippled by sleepiness. A moment or two after his lids had dropped the second time was when he heard the sound of hooves clopping through the dust towards camp. He was on his feet at once, followed closely by Chandler, who had his gun in his hand. Heyes didn't even bother. He knew the familiar rhythm, even though it was slower and more cautious than he would have expected.

A horse slunk into the camp out of the gloom, her rider slouched low in the saddle. It passed Heyes and Chandler and walked across to the other mounts where they heard a low voice rein her in.

"Welcome back, Thaddeus," Chandler said, following after, Heyes in his wake. "Boy are we glad to see you safe and sound."

There was silence and no movement from the rider.

Heyes came closer. He knew the stance was all wrong. They both saw Curry shift one boot to lift it out of the stirrup, tightening his hands on the saddlehorn as he did so. The leg swung round and Heyes immediately stepped right in to the flank and reached up to take a hold of Curry round the waist.

"OK, easy there," he said quietly. "Slowly does it. I got you."

He took Kid Curry's weight against him and helped to bring him down to the ground, not letting go for a second. Curry managed to stand for just a moment, his head bent, and then his knees seemed to go from under him. Chandler had realized something was wrong by this time and he got round the other side to help stop him hitting the ground with a thump. Between them they lowered him straight down, laying him flat in the dust.

"Muriel!" Chandler shouted. "Muriel, get over here!"

Heyes flicked off the tan hat. There was moonlight enough to see the blood by, dried up where it had dripped steadily from the nose and pulpy mouth, but still slick coming from a thick wound above one eye. The other eye was swollen shut. There was grit and dust all over his hair and lips and at first they couldn't hear a breath coming from him. While they'd tended one another's fat lips and bruised cheekbones on any number of occasions since childhood, Heyes had never seen the Kid's face so broken up before and it made his stomach turn over.

"Let's move him near the fire," Chandler said, but Heyes stopped him with an arm.

"Wait a second," he said, still scared by the way his partner had been holding himself on to his horse by a combination of willpower and luck. Opening out the sheepskin he picked carefully at the buttons of the shirt that had looked mainly cream this morning. It was thickly speckled now and covered in red and brown stains. The moonlight was good enough, too, to illuminate the damage when Heyes gingerly lifted the Henley and loosened the Kid's belt. Boot-shaped bruising, bleeding under the skin from neck to stomach. They went in all directions, from right under the arms to deep in the abdomen.

Heyes shut his eyes, a pulse beating in his temple that might have been panic or might have been rage.

"We'll be careful," he heard Chandler's voice say, accompanied by the sudden intake of breath from his wife as she came up to see. "He looks busted up pretty bad, but we need to get him to the fire, Joshua." He turned his head. "Need your help, boys." Phillips and Green emerged from their dark corners.

They picked up the prone body between them and got close to the fire where Muriel Chandler had lain a bedroll and a pile of blankets for a pillow. In the flickering light the distortions on Kid Curry's face looked worse than ever. When they laid him down it was not gentle enough to prevent an exhalation of distress, which seemed tangled up at the back of Curry's throat like he didn't dare let it out.

There was emotion bubbling up in Heyes now. The Kid was an everlasting stoic when it came to real pain. It had been drummed into them both from an early age that the worse it hurt the more you had to hide it, or the consequences did not bear thinking about.

Curry's good eye opened slowly and he looked around the blurry faces hovering above, searching for one in particular. When he found it his gun arm shot out and gripped at Heyes' sleeve to pull him down. Even the hand was marked, bruised on the back and bloody under the fingernails.

"I'm listenin'" Heyes said, bending forward so a slight breath touched his cheek.

"They got the message," the Kid wheezed, that one eye incongruously bright. The fire was reflecting in Hannibal Heyes' dark gaze and the Kid was drawn to it like a moth seeking light.

"Yeah?" Heyes said gently. "And what was the answer?" He could feel the Kid's fingers trying to keep a hold of him but slipping away.

Curry let out a little sound that could almost have been a laugh. "I'm the answer," he croaked.

Heyes straightened up a little, replacing the clutch of sleeve with his own hand. "I don't think they're going to parley, Mr Chandler," he said.

"Well that means they'll be coming to try and take these heifers by force," was Chandler's response. He looked over at his wife. "Muriel, do what you can for Thaddeus. The rest of us better get prepared."

Heyes wanted to stand up and talk properly to the rancher but the Kid was clinging on to his fingers like a drowning man to a rope. "Mr Chandler, he needs a doctor. You can see that. He could be bleeding inside. He needs fixing up."

"Muriel will fix him up," Chandler said in his straight, dogged way.

Heyes let anger wash over him. He came up on to his feet, letting the Kid's hand drop. "That's not good enough," he heard his voice say, stony and stubborn. "This isn't about your cattle anymore, or getting paid or what the Websters might do. This is about my partner here being seriously injured and needing help. You put him in this position, Mr Chandler. Seems to me like he's your responsibility ....your first responsibility ... right now."

Chandler looked down at Thaddeus Jones. He could tell it was serious. As soon as Smith had taken him down off the horse he could tell it was serious. And it was his responsibility. But so were the three hundred head of prime dairy heifers, snorting and twitching in the moonlight at the other side of the trees. Uniquely-bred dairy heifers that he'd always been prepared to protect with his life. They were his sons' inheritance, nurtured especially for them, and needing the green grass at Lycett's Plain. The goddamned Webster brothers weren't going to get them. Not if he could help it.

If it had been one of his boys now ... if it had been Lucas or Christian .... that would have been different. But these hired hands had to take care of themselves, he reasoned. Half the time they came on board and you couldn't trust them as far as you could sling them. He had been slightly suspicious of Smith and Jones from the start, with their inseparable posture and private jokes, even though they had worked well and kept themselves to themselves.

Muriel had been to get a basin of water, some cloths and iodine and Heyes dropped back down on to his knees next to her. "You got any laudanum in your medicine bag, Mrs Chandler?" She nodded. "Good," he said, "We're gonna need it." He closed the shirt and jacket and pulled up a couple of blankets. When he laid a hand on the Kid's sweat-flattened hair, the blue eye crawled open again. The glitter in it was almost extinguished. Now it held a silent appeal. Heyes glanced up at Chandler, pacing a little way away, now flanked by his sons, Phillips and Green. Over by the wagon Mrs Chandler was rummaging.

"Damn, Kid," he said, pressing an iodine-soaked cloth down on a split cheekbone. "You done gone and walked yourself into trouble this time. What am I gonna do with you?"

Curry huffed a little, grimacing as the air moved around in his chest. It felt tight enough to snap him in two. "I d'livered the message didn't I?" he got out. "What more d'you want?"

Heyes kept his face neutral. He bathed the swollen eye until water dripped down Curry's neck making him roll his head away.

"How many of them were there, Kid?" he asked.

Curry rolled his head back, weighing him up. He knew the face of a Hannibal Heyes working up to a seething rage. It was a rare face, a face not many people knew. Curry had mostly been on the bad end of it. Not this time, though. "Forget it," he answered, forcing it out.

"Yeah? How many?" Heyes paused in his dabbing, fixing the Kid with his most unbending stare. It had worked very many times in the past, cowing Curry when he was beyond listening to any verbal reason, reducing him to muttering acquiescence.

"Four," he mumbled. "Or five." He raised his working hand and plopped it down on his partner's forearm. "I didn't tell 'em, and they didn't follow me."

"Didn't tell them what, Thaddeus?" Heyes asked, aware that Mrs Chandler was back again with a roll of bandaging and small glass bottle.

"Where we're headed," sighed Curry, patting the arm kindly, trying to signal calm.

"They tried to beat that out of you?" Heyes said out loud. His voice had notched up half an octave.

Curry sighed again, and his hand slid off Heyes' arm and plunked on the ground.

"He's out cold," Muriel Chandler remarked un-necessarily.

Heyes moved away. "I'll be with you in a minute," he said. "First I gotta talk to your husband."

Chandler saw him coming and folded his arms.

"I know what you're going to say, Joshua," he said, "and I'm real sorry for it. But I can't do nothing right now. I know that family. They'll be aiming to jump us on the trail ...."

Heyes interrupted him with a hand. "Hold it," he said. "He didn't tell them anything."

"What?"

"He didn't tell them where you're headed or who you're selling to, Mr. Chandler. He just delivered the message."

"What they beat him for then?"

Heyes cleared his throat. He felt uncommonly like slugging some sense into this single-minded man. "To try and find out ... but, like I say, he didn't tell them."

Chandler digested that, glancing back over at the fireside.

"Stubborn is he, your Thaddeus? Wouldn't have had him down as loyal to a ranch boss and a herd of cows."

Heyes sucked his teeth. "I think he was more trying to protect the rest of us two-legged types," he said.

"Oh."

"He needs a doctor," Heyes said, aiming to sound practical rather than desperate.

"I can see that, Smith, but we ain't got many choices. We have to be on the trail in a coupla hours now. He can go in the wagon. Muriel'll ride with him. We ain't got time to go for a doctor anyways, even if we knew where the nearest one was. And I need every man jack of you now that Thaddeus' gun is out of action. Listen, if we can get through tomorrow without Carl Webster bushwhacking us, then we'll be four or five miles outside of Marionsville I reckon. You could have him in a doctor's office by sundown."

A day in the wagon. Jolting along aside a dust-cloud of hooves, waiting for a bunch of addled, greedy neighbors to try and rustle the whole herd with gunpower. To Heyes' eye the Kid looked like he shouldn't be moved. Not even an inch.

Just whose idea had it been to take this job anyway? Herding cattle was not a natural job for either of them, although Heyes had speculated out loud that perhaps it would be akin to herding Wheat and Kyle. Curry more than Heyes had baulked at the whole notion, even while acknowledging that, in their new and unfamiliar careers as honest working men, they had to start somewhere.

"Look at 'em though, Kid," Heyes had said as they had leaned over the rail in a pink sunset looking over the herd while Robert Chandler and his family waited for their decision. "Look at those big, gentle eyes ... they're not going to give us any trouble. Come on, don't I always know what's best for us? Chandler seems a decent enough man. Seems like a good way to start going straight. And it's good money."

"It's dust and beans," Curry had groused.

"That's a yes then?"

"It's dust and beans," Curry repeated stubbornly.

Stubborn. Yes, he was that all right.

But of course, neither of them had known about the little bit of trouble that Chandler expected on the trail. The whole sorry story of the Webster-Chandler feud and the fate of these pretty, long-lashed cattle.

"I'll tell him yes, then," Heyes had said eventually, delivering an encouraging smile. And on the first night, as they had sat comfortably side by side in camp, stomachs full of Mrs. Webster's bean-free cooking, the Kid had nudged him.

"You know what, Heyes?"

"What?"

"Sometimes - only sometimes, mind - maybe you really do know what's best for us."

*

Kid Curry came out of his laudanum haze with the fear of God in the pit of his stomach and only a sketchy grasp of what had happened to him. As to where he was, he had no idea.

Something like daylight pressed down on his closed eyelids. He got them open, one of them with difficulty, and the light now pressed down on his eyeballs. Then abruptly the light disappeared and he was plunged into an inky blackness that made him jump. Immediately pain sat heavily on his chest, driving away the impulse to breathe. As he fought to suck in air he heard a peculiar sound like an ancient pair of bellows wheezing and realised it was him.

"That's what I was afraid of," said a wheedling, unfamiliar voice floating out of reach in the black. "You need to take it real easy, son."

Blinking open his eyes the Kid found the black was less dense than it first appeared. Tiny lights were flickering at the corners of his vision. Nothing but pain, though, rolling up from way below the surface. The intense drumming in his head was enough to make him cry out, only he couldn't get the air, he couldn't get the air ... and where the hell was Heyes ... that thought made him flex the fingers of one hand, a hand he remembered that a boot had stamped on. His gun hand.

Damnit, Heyes, this is your fault.

Standing a way back from the narrow little bed, Hannibal Heyes felt like throwing up, good and proper. He was hungry and trail-weary, lanced through and through with anxiety, and they'd finally got the Kid into Marionsville, the hickest, shittiest little town Heyes had ever had the misfortune to come across. All of Mrs Chandler's supply of laudanum had been used up across the day as the wagon rattled its way cross-country and by the time they'd stopped Kid Curry was motionless and blue-lipped.

And Marionsville's resident physician, Dr. Emmett Pike, hovering about over the bed like a malign spirit, smelled of unwashed clothes and whisky.

Frankly, things weren't looking good.

"I have to go," Heyes said tightly. "What you gonna do for him?"

"Not much ah can do," Dr. Pike replied, looking at the dark-haired man keenly. "Bind up those busted ribs, get some fluid in him and wait for the fever." He tapped one earpiece of his listening tubes, an instrument so grimy that Heyes hardly believed it could still function. "Th' boy's gonna be real sick from all that laudanum. Ain't gonna help. What you leaving him for?"

"I'll be back soon as I can," Heyes said, and brushed past the doctor, sliding his butt on to an upturned box next to the head of the bed which was what served as a chair. The doctor fuddled his way politely out of earshot.

"Kid," Heyes said softly, before brushing the back of his forefinger along a stretch of jawline that was unmarked. As he feared, the touch jolted Curry back, another agonizing attempt at a full lungful of air accompanying the opening eyes. "Easy now, no need to get all in a twist." He moved his hand and pressed it down on the nearest shoulder but only lightly. He really didn't know where to touch without hurting him, although he felt like he wanted to scoop him up off the bed and run away to safety. "Listen to me, but try and keep still."

The Kid's eyes were struggling to keep open and what Heyes could detect from their sludgy color told him his partner's senses were sluggish to say the least. "I'm going back to camp now," he said, making his voice reasonable because he knew the Kid would pick up the tiniest hint of negativity and lock on to it, half-killed or no. "Need to fulfill the contract to Chandler, or else I don't know how we're going to pay to get you well. Sooner I get back there, sooner I can be with you."

The Kid continued to watch him. His fingers curled a little against the sheet. Heyes stroked the face again, with the whole back of his hand this time. "So you just be calm. Be still."

"Need your help, feller, to get the binding on," the doctor said, re-appearing at Heyes side. Heyes glanced up at him. Pike seemed to know what he was doing, but he seemed curious about the patient rather than particularly anxious to care for him.

And when it came to caring, Dr. Pike was of the opinion they needed to be quick rather than gentle and Heyes wondered how he ever got to be a doctor, or even if he actually was. As they got the musty-smelling, dun-colored binding on between them, Heyes saw the mess of the Kid's back, the deep swellings around kidneys and spine. He could almost hear Curry's voice saying gloomily goddamnit, Heyes, 'm gonna be pissing blood for weeks.

"You don't need to be brave with us, young feller," observed the doctor, casting a twinkling eye over at Heyes, whose desire to throttle him was almost overpowering. "We know it's hurting you like the devil. You cuss and groan all you like. Whoa there now, here he goes ..." and he snatched up a basin just as Curry's stomach rejected its snarling pit of bile and poison. "Let it out now, don't want to choke yourself do you?" The doctor let Heyes take charge of keeping him on the bed as the combination of vomiting and gravity threatened to propel him on to the floor.

Heyes could have shed tears but he knew that there was a time and a place, and this wasn't it. Not yet. He had one hand pressed very hard into the Kid's breastbone and the other posted on the back of his neck. Between each convulsion Curry went limp. When they got him propped back on the pillows, Heyes was shaking, and annoyed with himself for it. He'd always been glad that being gang leader had precluded him from playing the role of medicine-man as well. It had usually been Lobo who'd taken charge of broken limbs and fevers in Devil's Hole and Heyes had kept well away from it. Dr. Pike took away the basin, saying cheerfully, "Think I'd better go and get Mrs Blaine for some nursin'. And a shot of whisky for you, Mr. Smith."

Heyes wiped away some flecks from the Kid's lips with a cloth. His eyes were fluttering between open and closed, twitching under some evil force. Heyes let his head lean down, feeling optimism draining away from him like a tap had been turned on.

"Fuck it, Kid," he whispered as his forehead knocked against Kid Curry's own, "I've gotta go. I've gotta go and leave you like this. I don't know if this doctor knows what the hell he's doing and I don't know if you'll be here when I get back." He dragged up his head, looking down at the sick face. "You gonna be, Kid?"

Curry's eyes remained shut, but his lips parted and a raspy word squeezed out. "Git." Somehow he managed to imbue it with disgust.

Heyes laid his fingers against the jawline one last time, but he didn't move them. Just left them there a few seconds. Then he said, "Back in no time," and dragged himself off the box and away from the bed.

Out in front of the doctor's ramshackle house there were only a few people on the main street of Marionsville. The sparse population and air of melancholia told Heyes this was a town on the skids. He swung up on to his horse and rounded her towards the gathering darkness.

Is this the end you deserve, Kid? Spitting up your guts in a lonely hole with nobody but a drunk and a Mrs Blaine to help you out?

Leaving the city limits he was going so fast that his hat blew back off his head and wheeled around his neck by the strap.

Damnit, Jed. Thought we'd agreed long ago that it just doesn't pay to be a hero? What you going back on it for now?

Back in the house, Dr. Pike came in with the shot of whisky and found Mr. Smith gone. He'd sent out for Mrs. Blaine and he supposed that between them they could make a job of keeping the boy alive until Smith got back with some money. Looking down on him now, Pike felt more than a little unsure. He'd seen his share of cases like this -- beat-up cowpokes and hustlers dying with their stomachs full of blood or their lungs full of froth. The doctor tipped the whisky shot down his own throat and then jammed his earpieces back in. Leaning down to wedge the stethoscope into the bandaging, his eyes roved over the face beneath. Could hardly tell what the young feller looked like, just that he had some fine structure under all that bruising. He was still listening to the beat of the man's heart cantering towards a rising fever when Mrs Blaine arrived with her basket of supplies.

"Lydia," he said, straightening up unsteadily, "I'm glad you're here."

Lydia Blaine, a small, untidy woman in her mid-fifties, took off her bonnet with large red hands and came over to view. "Dear me," she said. "Dear, dear me. What a mess. What's to be done?"

"The best we can, Lydie," he said with a toothsome smile. "The best we can. His partner's gone out to collect some money to pay for his care. And on top of that ... well, whether he makes it or not, this young feller could bring us in a sweet $10,000. Imagine that. And his partner the same again."

He laughed a slight, tobacco-rich laugh.

Mrs. Blaine peered a little closer. "Who in the world has gone and fallen into your care, Emmett?" she whispered.

"This feller here," said Pike in confident tones, poking down on the bandaging with one finger, "Is Kid Curry. Hannibal Heyes himself is desperate to be back as quick as ever he can. And that, my dear Lydie, is what they call bounty."

Lydia Blaine regarded the patient rather fearfully. "Kid Curry?" she hissed. "You sure about that?"

Dr. Pike made a snapping gesture with his fingers to dismiss her lack of trust. "Don't I always remember a face?" he said, "You know I do, an' specially the face of a man who held up a train I's sitting on. Hannibal Heyes, large as life, and the rest of his gang. Did I never tell you the story? Musta been two years ago when I's still in Wyoming. Quite an event, let me tell you. I don't recall Curry being there, but this has gotta be him. They run together ... and Heyes was treating him like his own begotten kin just now."

Mrs. Blaine's eyes grew round. She stepped forward and pushed a handful of damp, cinnamon hair back from the young's man forehead to the crown, trying to get a closer look at his poor, busted-up face. Mercy. A genuine, real-life outlaw. Lying in Emmett Pike's back room. Worth $10,000. And they didn't even really need to keep him alive.

The genuine, real-life outlaw whimpered out some nonsense as he felt the rough touch.

The good woman chucked him under the chin. "Now, honey, you just lie there real pretty and quiet," she said, "while Emmett and me have a little drink on your behalf."

Kid Curry flexed his fingers feebly again, but what he searched for was gone.