Big Jim Santana was riding peacefully along towards Devil’s Hole when a small boy with golden hair jumped out and aimed a pistol at him.
“Your money or your life!” he squeaked.
Jim reined up his horse. The boy was small, but his aim was true, and his gun didn’t waver. And small boys could be dangerous and desperate.
“How much money?” asked Jim.
“All of it. How much do you have?”
The boy was dressed surprisingly well and his clothes were almost clean, but he had a hungry look about him. He was young, too young for his voice to have fully changed. He had an abundance of golden curls that would’ve allowed him to play a cherub in any play. His cheeks held a baby fat softness belied by the hard, desperate look in his blue eyes.
Despite the danger he knew he could be in, Jim had to hide a smile, as he reached for his wallet.
The gun’s hammer clicked. Even from twelve feet away, that sound could be very loud.
“Don’t try it, mister. I might be just a kid, but—I’ll do what I hafta do.”
Big Jim’s hand stilled, and he no longer felt like smiling. He did it anyway, though, to reassure the boy. Sweat popped on his forehead. The Devil’s Hole gang would laugh at him like anything if they knew he was afraid of this boy. But something in those eyes…something in his stance…told of more than a cherub, aiming this gun. Told that maybe he would not be afraid to shoot….
“I’m just getting my money for you,” promised Jim. “See?” He pulled it out with two fingers, and held up his wallet, brown and thick, stuffed with loot. He’d rather not give it to this boy. But—if worse came to worse—he could always track him down later. One boy, alone, would not be hard to find, and if he took his money back and gave the boy a whipping, it would serve the kid in the long run—teach him a lesson about stealing, particularly from outlaws.
“Okay. Throw it over—” began the boy.
With a rustle of bushes, another boy stepped out into the roadway. He coughed, a deep, hacking cough. They both stared at him. He was skinny, and slightly too tall for his patch trousers.
This boy was taller, dark-haired, wretched-looking, hollow-cheeked and too thin. His eyes were dull and his cheeks too pale, and he seemed unsteady on his feet. He took the situation in and coughed again, then faced the boy.
“Jed, what are you doin?”
“It’s not Jed! It’s Kid Curry, the fastest gun in the West!” Suspicious wobble of the younger boy’s bottom lip. “And I’m robbin’ this guy so you won’t die!”
“Jed—I’ll tan your hide so hard—” threatened the older boy in a weak, gasping croak. He leaned against a tree to keep himself upright.
Now that the older boy was here, some of the hardness had gone out of Jed, and Jim was relieved to see a frightened and insecure little boy. His concentration was also diverted, and Jim thought he could’ve gone for the gun. But—he didn’t want to shoot the boy, or egg him into shooting at Jim. He’d wait a little longer, see how this played out.
“Not allowed to steal,” said the older boy in a hoarse gasp.
“You steal!” protested Jed. “I seen you! I know you been stealin’, Han—I seen you pick pockets while I’m shootin’! If we’re gonna steal, let’s do it right.” The curly headed angel-faced boy glared at the dark-haired lad. His blue eyes flashed. “An’ I’m sick of bein’ hungry, and if you knowed best you shouldn’ta got sick, an’ left me t’ do all the thinkin’!”
The dark-haired sick boy’s mouth snapped shut. He blinked. For a moment, he just stared at the younger lad. Then, slowly, he slid to the ground.
“Han!” Jed rushed to him, and bent over him, gun forgotten. He gave him a shake, and repeated the name again, tears in his voice. “Han.”
Then he looked up at Jim. “Please, you gotta help us! Nobody’ll help us! I don’t have a doctor for him, or a warm room or nothing, and he’ll die. He’s gonna die like the rest of ‘em, and I can’t stop it, if somebody don’t help us!”
Then he pulled himself to his feet and swiped one sleeve across his eyes. “Help us, or I’ll—I’ll shoot you!” He aimed it again towards Jim, and again, Jim saw that desperate, dangerous look in those eyes that sent a shiver of dread up his spine. The outlaw look. It was a good one—even for a child. That look said he’d do whatever he had to to get what he was asking for.
If you had a good enough outlaw look, you almost never had to fire even a warning shot….
In the back of his mind, Jim could see some use for these boys. They’d grow up—well, Jed would, the one called Han might not live—and then that look could come in mighty handy for the Devil’s Hole gang. Feed one boy, or at most two, for a couple of years, till he or they got big enough to be some use—and teach Jed the trade in the meantime—why, it might just be a good investment.
“The others died of sickness? What others, and how recently?” he asked. No need to carry some kind of plague back to the Hole. That boy surely did look sick.
“No.” Jed shook his head distractedly, looking like he was trying not to cry. “Our folks got killed—b-back in Kansas. Couple years ago.” Suspicious wobble of his lower lip. “I’ll shoot you, mister. Either help us or give us your money an’ I’ll try to get him to a doctor. I’m losin’ p-patience.”
“I’ll help you,” said Jim. “BUT, you must promise never to draw your weapon on me again.” He gave Jed a stern look. The boy had the grace to look hangdog, ashamed.
“Okay mister.” He put the gun away. “But if you’re lyin’— I’d do anything for Han. You’d better know it. I’ll kill you if I hafta.”
The words sent another shiver. He gave Jed another stern look, but was pleased to see the lad had put away his gun, if not his stubborn expression. “I’m not lying, and you can call me Big Jim.”
He slid his wallet away and swung from the saddle. He walked to where the boy lay, and bent over him. Still breathing, although his color was not good, and he had a deep rattle in his chest.
“Hm,” Jim said noncommittally. He had seen people die from less than this, or live from worse. A lot would depend on luck, and the boy.
Jed was obviously beside himself. “What are we gonna do?” He clasped his hands together. He reached up and yanked at his curls. “We gotta help him.”
“I’ll let him ride ahead of me on my horse. You may ride behind. I’ll take you both to Devil’s Hole. There you will get warmth and rest, and what doctoring we can provide. Only time can provide the rest.”
Jed nodded miserably. “If only there was a doctor…”
“Ah, but there is not, my young friend. This is too small a town, yet. Someday, perhaps. That will not help your friend, however. Come. Let’s go, young Han.” So saying, he bent and lifted the boy. He’d looked thin, but he felt even lighter. It was like carrying rags and sticks. Jim felt a stir of sympathy for the boy who was probably dying. Even if Jim hadn’t needed to help him to gain the other boy’s trust, he would have. Even a criminal had his honor, and Big Jim had his.
The ride was slower with the two boys. He had to keep hold of Han. Jed clung to him and bounced a little when the horse trod over rough spots.
“So,” said Jim, making conversation, “How old are you?”
Hesitation. “Han says not to tell,” he said reluctantly. “But I’m older than I look. Han says that’s a good thing, or nobody’d be willing to bet I can’t shoot. He says I shouldn’t get my hair cut, ‘cuz it helps me stay lookin’ young.”
This artless confession made Jim more curious than ever. “Bet against you?” he asked.
“Yeah. I’m Kid Curry, the fastest young gun in the West.” Pride in his voice momentarily replaced some of the gloom. He sat up straighter behind Big Jim. “We travel from town to town. Hannibal talks me up, and I try lookin’ young, and then somebody puts up money that they can outshoot me, and then I outshoot ‘em and we get the money. When things are goin’ good, we eat and have a warm place to sleep afterwards. When things aren’t— Well, lots of times, things aren’t. We’ve been robbed, and chased out of town, and overcharged—” He gulped. “Things are rough enough when Han’s well,” he finished in a sad little voice. His arms tightened around Jim. “You sure he’s gonna be okay?”
“No one can promise that. I said I’d help him, and I will—but I can’t promise.” Might as well get him used to the idea. His friend probably would die. It would be a shame for more death to enter such a young life, but there was likely no avoiding it. Han seemed awfully far gone.
Jim stopped twice to give the boy water from his canteen. When roused, the boy would cough and cough. The sound seemed to torture Jed, especially as there was nothing he could do. Nor could Jim do much, but give the boy’s thin chest a couple of whacks, and wrap his own coat around those shoulders.
When they arrived at Devil’s Hole, he handed the boy down into the surprised hands of Leroy Lipzwig, a tobacco-chewing, nearly-toothless outlaw, and then swung down and took him back.
“Two guests, Leroy. Care to inform the others?” He raised a dangerous eyebrow to let him know there would be no toleration of foolishness, and then hauled the kid into his own cabin. He stretched him out on the bed, and stoked the fire.
“Put that pot on to boil,” he directed Jed. “We’ll make him some tea.” He spread a quilt over the young form, so still and pale, and then frowned. No, his head should be higher, so he could breathe. He propped another pillow up behind him. There; he was higher now.
No one could say he wasn’t giving the boy a fair chance.
In the next days, the lad Jed was beside himself with worry about his friend. He barely left Han’s side, except when Big Jim shooed him away. Jim kept his promise by taking care of the boy the best he knew how.
But he also started trying to work on grooming Jed to become an outlaw.
Jim made sure the kid got plenty to eat, to show him one of the perks of being a successful outlaw meant not going hungry. He also let Jed get a good look at the quality gun Jim carried. This actually distracted the boy for a few moments, making him tear his gaze away from the sleeping Han.
Jed stared down at the well-weighted, shiny, new-looking gun in awe. Jim was proud of his gun, normally wouldn’t let grubby little hands touch it, but it made him smile to see how carefully Jed held it, as though just being near such a piece was an honor.
“That’s amazing,” said the boy, handing it reluctantly back. “It’s not like my gun. My gun’s pretty old,” he admitted.
“Well, a man who works with a gun needs a good one.” Big Jim smiled.
The boy’s head jerked up. “Works with…?”
“Yes.” He watched the gears turn slowly in the boy’s head. Could even someone so young be so innocent? Or had he just not been in this area long enough to have heard of Devil’s Hole and the Gang?
“You mean… you’re a shooting champion too?”
“No, I mean robbing banks, holding up trains.” He smiled his best roguish-outlaw grin down at the lad. “Didn’t you know that?”
The boy tore his astonished gaze away, and guiltily looked towards the flushed, sleeping older boy. “I said we should become outlaws for real. But I didn’t know…”
“Well,” said Jim, temporizing, “who else did you have to help you? You can always leave if it does not suit you.”
“No, no,” said Jed, quick fear springing to his eyes, and a pleading look. “We need your help. Han can’t—” He shook his head. “Don’t send us away.”
“I certainly won’t,” said Jim heartily. “And if you’d like to practice with a real gun sometime, ask me.” He left the boy to think about that for a while.
The third day, the older boy began to improve. When he opened his eyes, there was sense in them, along with a great, blank weariness. Han smiled in recognition of his little friend, and squeeze his hand weakly in return to Jed’s pressure. Then those eyes roved the room, as though searching for something—anything—to recognize. Dark, tired eyes fell on Jim, and stopped.
“Jed, who…?” Han’s voice was little more than a hoarse croak.
“Oh. This is Big Jim. He rescued us. He’s been taking care of us till you feel better. We’re with the Devil’s Hole Gang, but don’t worry, Jed, I didn’t really steal anything, least not yet…”
Startled dark eyes refocused on his friend. “Jed, you—” A round of coughing stopped what he’d been going to say.
“I’ll get the coughing tea,” said Jed, jumping to his feet and trundling competently away.
The coughing spell passed before the boy returned, and dark eyes focused again on Jim. The eyes looked older than the boy, plainly assessing, mistrusting, questioning. “Can we leave?”
“Certainly, when you’re well enough.” Jim forced a smile on his face. This one would be tricky. If he wanted the boys to become outlaws—outlaws he could train from their youth, to obey him, to turn into men with real skill—he’d have to work carefully. And he needed people like that, not the slovenly, disobedient outcasts he could usually get for the gang.
Well, he’d have to earn this boy’s trust. Or at least convince him that a life of an outlaw held more promise than trying to make it on his own with another kid to look out for.
“Would you like some broth?” he offered.
But Han’s mistrusting eyes were already falling shut. Jed returned with the tea, looking scared when he saw Han had drifted off again. Jim told him that sleep was for the best, but Jed just gazed mournfully at his friend, and let out a sigh.
“He’s supposed to be better by now.”
“He’s much better,” said Jim. He put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Why don’t you show me how well you can shoot? I’ll let you try with my gun, if you do well enough.”
The boy’s eyes lit with quick delight. “Yeah—o-okay. I guess it can’t hurt to practice more.” With a quick, worried glance back at his friend, he went with Jim back outside.
The boy was still sticks and bones.
The younger lad, Jed, or “Kid” as everyone had begun calling him, was already looking a little pudgy from eating—inhaling—as much food as he could possibly get. A growing boy’s appetite rose to Olympian heights in this child.
But the older boy was still painfully thin. He tired easily. Today he stood on the porch, leaning heavily on the railing while he watched with a critical eye the shooting lessons Jim was giving Kid.
In truth, Kid was a good shot already. He took a delight in shooting, he was serious, and he respected his weapon and took instruction well. He really wanted to get better—and that was more than could be said for most of the mule-headed men Jim had ever worked with.
Jim was more than ever convinced that recruiting this child would be a sound decision for the gang. A very few more years, and the boy would be better than most of the men here—and, if this trend continued, far more loyal, as well.
Kid was already grateful for the help for Han, and thrilled to be eating regular meals—but more than that, Jim saw something in him that made him hide a smile. Jed had started to look up to him as a role model, the way boys without fathers would to men they admired. He’d seen the boy trying to walk as he did, hold his gun the same way—even eat like him, though his face broke out in sweat and his eyes watered at the hot, spicy foods Jim favored.
Though it made Jim chuckle privately, he also found he strangely liked having someone look up to him and imitate him. Even before he was fully grown, this boy would be a useful member of the gang. But he could also be—well—the sort of thing that Jim had thought he’d had to give up on. He could be—like a son.
That thought made him wonder if he were going soft. To ‘adopt’ a new gang member, even a young one, was one thing, but to think of a boy as a replacement for the sons he’d never been able to have—that was quite different.
Was he losing his way as a leader? Already, a few of the men thought he was getting soft. He’d nipped that in the bud quickly enough, however. None of them dared question him now, and they treated the children respectfully, if still privately rolling their eyes about how stupid it was to recruit children—or take them on as charity.
One man had almost quit over it, but when push came to shove, he’d backed down, his eyes dark and angry. He’d mumbled that they’d all come to a bad end taking in children, but said nothing since.
Kid was happily eager to explore, to practice shooting, even to help with chores. He groomed the horses already nearly as well as the others, because he didn’t try to rush through the job with as little effort as possible.
Han was still too weak to be good for anything; he could barely make it to mealtimes on his own power, and sometimes Kid rushed to his side to help support him when he walked. But Jim had the uneasy feeling that those dark eyes were biding their time, taking everything—everything!—in.
Did Han see the tensions amongst the gang? The members who slacked off, and didn’t pull their weigh? Did he see Jim’s plans to make his friend into an outlaw?
Or was Jim reading too much into a child’s gaze?
One thing was for certain. If Han mentioned leaving, Kid looked sad, but never did he once seem to even consider staying here without the older boy.
Jim eavesdropped once, and overheard the proof.
“You’re getting awful comfortable here, Kid,” croaked Han.
“I like it. But I’m bein’ good, honest, Han. I’m pulling my weight, and I haven’t stolen nothing. You tell me when to pack, and I’ll do it.”
Jim moved away from the door, frowning. He’d begun to think the younger boy would stay no matter what; but there had been no hesitation in those words. None at all.
Then one day Jim found the key to turn that recalcitrant lock.
He found Han fiddling with a broken watch, part of the loot collected from a train, broken in the rush. They had left it lying around, not expensive enough to be worth trading broken, and no longer useable as a timepiece.
Han’s dark head bent over the gears as he picked them apart, trying to see how they belonged together.
Jim stilled, and thought, “Aha!” So the boy had a mechanical bent. That changed things, indeed. For someone who had no bent or interest in guns, perhaps he might be induced by other things.
The next day Jim brought out the safe they’d stolen. It was a small thing, quite battered, and broken in the back where they had busted it open. They hadn’t had a speedy enough safe cracker with the gang at that time, and they had been in too much of a hurry, simply dragging the safe with them and busting it up at the hideout. It would, in fact, be useful only for training a potential safecracker.
Jim set it out, as though it were another piece of junk that just happened to appear. He saw the boy eying it right away. But Han was careful; Jim didn’t catch the boy trying to open it till two days later.
Han was feeling a lot better, if not quite well enough to go running circles around Devil’s Hole like Kid yet. Han jumped when Jim cleared his throat, and jerked back from the safe. “I was just—”
“Trying to see if you could open it,” said Jim. He gave the boy a knowing smile. “Bet you wish you could do this.” He leaned down, so his ear pressed against the safe, and listened while he twisted the dial. It was halfway pretense; he knew the combination, though it was harder to enter it without seeing the dial; he merely listened to be sure he’d gotten the right number.
In a few short moments, Jim swung the door open. “In a bank, you’d get rich for that.”
He shut the door again, spun the dial, and stood back, crossing his arms and watching the boy.
Han’s eyes were worried and dark, questioning and hesitant.
Then he stepped forward, with an eager little twitch to his hands, and touched the dial.
And inwardly, Jim smiled. He’d gotten another recruit.