Calling His Bluff
Kid Curry felt the percussive attack on his leg before he glanced down to see a little boy of about five with a shock of white, blond hair kicking furiously at his shin.
The boy’s lack of strength along with the stiff leather of his boots muffling the attack prevented any real injury so he couldn’t help but smile in amusement at the determined frown on the little forehead as the child continued his assault with relentless enthusiasm.
‘Hey, what you doin’, little man?’
Great, blue globes slid up to him. ‘You’re a bad man!!! I hate you!!’
‘Such wisdom from one so young,’ laughed Heyes before he crouched down and gave the boy a gentle smile. ‘What’s your name, son?’
‘Amos!’ the boy declared before he drew back his arm and aimed an undersized fist straight at the Kid’s most vulnerable spot.
‘Whoa there,’ he cried, using all his hair trigger instincts to leap back from the blow. ‘What the Sam Hill you think you’re doin’, boy?’
‘I hate you!’
‘Why? What have I ever done to you?’
‘Bad,’ the boy shouted again, ‘it’s all your fault!’
‘AMOS! Just what do you think you’re doing?’ The yell came from a flustered young woman who clattered down the wooden sidewalk towards them.
The boy instantly feigned innocence, drawing aimless circles with his foot as his petted lip swelled impressively. ‘Nuthin’... just playin’,’ he muttered, casually.
The girl approached, emotional patches of heightened color mottling her alabaster complexion. ‘I’m SO sorry! He gets like this at times.’
The Kid looked into the huge, china-blue eyes which gazed apologetically into his.
‘Havin’ trouble controlling your son, ma’am?’ asked the Kid. ‘You want to stop that before he gets any bigger... and stronger.’
‘She ain’t my ma!’ yelled the boy, launching another attack at the Kid’s shins.
The cry cut right through Curry and Heyes, let alone the child, who was startled into inaction.
‘Pleeease, Amos!’ the young woman crouched down and grasped the child in a bear hug before standing up to wipe a surreptitious tear from her eye. ‘I can’t apologize enough... I’m sorry, truly sorry!’
The Kid beamed his most charming smile at her as her moist eyes twinkled engagingly at him.
Heyes groaned inwardly. She was just his type; blonde, pretty and in need. If he didn't handle this they could be acting as big brother to this apprentice lout before the day was out. ‘Ma’am, no need to get upset. No harm done.’
‘No, not now... but what about in a few years when he’s bigger. You said it yourself.’
‘That ain't your problem. That’s his ma and pa’s. Just take him home,’ replied the Kid, smiling reassuringly.
The woman gave a little sniff of frustration. ‘He is home. I’m his sister and I’m all he’s got. Our parents are dead.’ She seemed to shake herself back into some kind of composure before she gave them a watery smile as she proffered a hand. ‘Josephine.... Josephine Carwithen and this is my brother, Amos.’
The boy scowled up at the Kid as Heyes felt the need to step in before the long, lingering looks between the blue-eyed couple became any more intense.
‘Smith, Joshua Smith and this is my friend, Thaddeus Jones. You mind telling us just what little Amos here got against him.’
She gave a little regretful shake of her head. ‘Oh.... He’s just got a thing about bank robbers.’ Her eyes widened in shock as she bit back her words, interpreting the men’s exchanged glance as startled denial. ‘No, you don’t understand, that came out wrong. He thinks that most strangers are bank robbers... especially when they wear guns like yours. He’s had a thing about it since we he was orphaned. You’re not the first he’s done this to,’ she gave a sheepish smile, ‘but you’re undoubtedly the most understanding.’
‘You lost your folks in a robbery, ma’am?’ asked a shocked Kid.
‘My father died about five years ago, just before Amos was born, but my mother...,’ her voice cracked with emotion before she quickly changed the subject and gulped deeply. ‘This isn't your problem. Thank you, gentlemen, you've been very kind. Say you’re sorry, Amos.’
‘No! That’d be a lie... then I’ll go to hell and not to heaven with Ma.’
‘He’s got it real bad, ma’am,’ the Kid laughed gently. ‘You don’t have to apologize if you don’t want to, son. I ain't what you think I am, Amos, but you are right. You really shouldn't say sorry unless you mean it.’
‘I’m at my wits end with him. It’s only a matter of time before it affects my job. I’m the local school teacher and it looks like I can’t control children. It’s the only income we've got.’
Heyes tipped his the brow of his hat as he moved on, urging the Kid to do the same with urgent brown eyes. ‘Well, it’s been real interesting. Good day, ma’am.’
‘I don’t suppose...?’ she paused awkwardly as she turned and looked after their retreating backs. ‘I know it’s very forward of me, but would you be interested in coming to dinner tonight. I could show Amos that he’s wrong about you by getting to know you better.’
Josephine blushed appealingly as Heyes’ heart sank. Food and a pretty girl... there was no hope of getting out of this, especially as they were trying to save money.
‘I don’t just ask men in the street to dinner by habit,’ she added, hurriedly. ‘The men he usually chooses are rough, but you’re different.’
‘Sure are,’ Heyes thought silently to himself. ‘We’re probably the only real bank robbers he’s picked out.’
‘Please, sit down,’ Josephine smiled invitingly at the two men as she directed them to sit at the table in the small, wooden house.
The simplicity of the two roomed building testified to the poverty of the little family scratching a living on the edge of town, but it was scrupulously clean and a delicious smell wafted passed their noses as they took their seats either side of Amos. The boy idly banged a spoon on the table, refusing to even acknowledge them.
‘Sure smells good. Stew?’ the Kid enquired.
‘Pie. Beef and ale. My mother’s recipe.’
Amos stopped banging at the mention of his mother and glowered accusingly at the Kid who merely smiled patiently at him.
‘You like pie, Amos?’ he asked casually.
‘I ain't hungry!’ the lad announced. ‘She don’t make it like my ma.’
Heyes pursed his lips before he spoke patiently but firmly. ‘Do you think your ma would have been happy about you saying that when your sister’s worked so hard for you? Made you a nice dinner?’
The boy gave a surly shrug before slouching untidily onto his elbow, resuming his para-diddle on the edge of the table.
‘Sit up straight, Amos,’ Josephine as she put down a dish of mashed potatoes with a clatter.
‘I want to go out and play.’
‘No, Amos. It’s dinner time and we have guests. Now, sit up properly and mind your manners.’
The boy thrust out his lower lip and started swinging his legs, kicking into both men’s legs under the table as they sat at either side of him around the square table.
The Kid caught the kicking foot and looked the boy straight in the face.
‘Amos. Please don’t kick us. It ain't a nice thing to do.’
‘I don’t want you here,’ the boy barked defiantly.
‘But your sister does,’ he dropped Amos’ foot and smiled at him. ‘So I guess if you want her to be nice to your friends you’d better behave.’
‘Ain't got no friends. Don’t know anyone here!’
The Kid’s eyebrows darted up in surprise. ‘No one, Amos?’
‘We've just moved here from Denver and he’s not happy about leaving all his friends, but I needed the work. I couldn't find anything in our home town.’
The Kid’s eyes glittered sympathetically at the boy. ‘You’ve sure been through a lot, son, you have a special friend that you miss?’
Amos looked surprised at the question and found the answer tripping out in spite of himself.
The Kid nodded. ‘That sure is hard. I had a special friend at your age. We used to go fishin’. You like fishin?’
Amos nodded before chewing on his lower lip.
‘You want to go fishin? I could take you.’
The big, blue eyes hardened. ‘I don’t wanna to go anywhere with you. You’re a bad man!’
Josephine rolled her eyes and put a golden-crusted pie on the table.
‘Is that because we got guns, Amos?’ Heyes gently enquired.
‘Yes!’ the boy barked.
‘But not all men who wear guns like these are bad, Amos. The sheriff wears his gun like this doesn't he?’
The boy’s eyes widened as confusion swirled around his mind. Sheriff Jeffries did indeed wear his gun like these men.
‘You a sheriff?’
Heyes smiled. ‘You heard of Sheriff Lom Travers? He’s one of the best, most honest lawmen I’ve ever met. We've worked with him... ridden with him on jobs.
The Kid grinned widely at Heyes’ creative spin on their relationship with their old friend. They had indeed ridden with him on jobs, but none they wanted to tell Amos and his sister about.
‘See, Amos?’ Josephine smiled reassuringly as her chair scraped in towards the table. ‘They’re lawmen. They use those guns for good. You could do that when you grow up.’
‘Why ain't you got a badge?’ demanded Amos, accusingly.
Heyes and Curry shared a look before the Kid spoke. ‘We’re travellin’ to a new job. We’re not lawmen at the moment.’
‘You’re not lawmen at all.’ snapped the boy, refusing to accept their dissimulation. ‘You’re liars!’ Amos leaped down from his seat and ran for the door. ‘I hate you.’
The Kid dropped a hand gently over Josephine’s as she started to stand. ‘Leave him be for a minute.’ Her blue eyes darted to his full of hurt and confusion before he spoke again. ‘He’s angry. Real angry and that’s just fine. He’s got a lot to be angry about. He ain't a bad boy, he just needs to find a way to get rid of it.’
‘He’s real bright.’ added Heyes.
‘I know,’ Josephine dropped her head into her hands. ‘That’s part of the problem. He thinks too much and he‘s not mature enough to deal with those thoughts. Maybe I should have stayed in Denver, but I needed the work and I thought it had too many bad memories for him.’
‘You did your best. He’ll realize that,’ murmured Heyes.
‘He saw her die. It’s just not fair!’
‘Fair?’ snorted the Kid. ‘I’ve been lookin’ for fair all my life. It always seems to be one town ahead.’
Josephine shot him a tearful look. ‘You have a way with words, Mr. Jones.’
‘Nope,’ replied the Kid. That’s my partner.’
‘Can you smell anything?’ asked Heyes sniffing the air and looking over at the range with a confused look on his face, ‘something’s burning.’
The screams of the horse alerted them to the need to act fast and within moments Heyes had entered the burning building. He quickly wrapped his jacket around the terrified animal’s eyes and led it to safety.
It had been a dry summer and the flames leapt quickly across the surface of the dry wood and straw, rapidly consuming anything in their path in an orgy of crackling, rapacious gluttony. Bright fingers of red, yellow and orange flashed from any tiny hold they could find before they merged into a monstrous, roaring holocaust.
It was the crying that alerted the Kid. It could be heard now that the terrified animal had been removed from the barn. Amos was up in the hayloft surrounded in flames. As the Kid climbed the ladder it became clear that the fire had started up here as the place was a veritable inferno and that the wooden floor was a creaking, friable, smoldering mess. There was no way it would bear his weight and time was running out before it crumbled and dropped to the lower floor.
‘Give me your hand!’
‘No!’ the boy back away from him as the Kid cursed under his breath.
‘Amos, give me your hand. I can’t come over there to get you. The floor’s too weak.’ The boy looked at the outstretched hand as his eyes filled with tears and his bottom lip wobbled in terror as the heat started to penetrate his boots. ‘Give me your hand now! There’s no more time.’
‘You did it. My God, I thought you were a goner,’ Heyes worried face peered desperately into his partner’s as he supported him away from the collapsing building.
The Kid dropped to the ground and sucked in great gulps of refreshing oxygen before falling forward onto all fours as his back arched against the barking, retching cough whilst the acrid, burning smoke fought against the fresh night air.
Heyes pushed a tin cup towards his cousin. ‘Drink this.’
The Kid gulped down the clear refreshing liquid and felt his guts churn. The wave swirled ever higher until he could contain the smoke filled bile no longer. He leaned over and was violently sick.
They sat together for a few minutes before a pair of black boots walked over and stood directly in front of them.
‘Sheriff Lennox Jeffries. I hear you did a real good thing, lad. Real brave. Miss Carwithen told me all about it.’
The Kid glanced up before he shook his head.
‘Anyone would have done it.’
He shook his head. ‘I don’t think so, son. We could do with men like you working with us. You need a doctor.’
‘I’m fine,’ the Kid replied simply, staring into the night with blank eyes.
‘I ain’t askin’. You’ll have swallowed a lot of smoke. He’s seein’ to the boy right now. You’re next.’
They watched the sheriff walk away towards the group huddled around the boy as the Kid hissed an urgent whisper to Heyes. ‘I feel sick to my stomach. We gotta do somethin’ for that boy.’
‘Why? What’s wrong? The doc won’t be long. He’s with him now.’
The Kid’s serious eyes gleamed through the darkness as the light from the flames cast sinister dancing shadows across his face. ‘He wouldn’t take my hand. He thinks I killed his mother. Do you know what that feels like? He really believes it.’
Heyes sucked in a breath as his voice dropped to a whisper. ‘Kid, we never killed anyone in a robbery. It wasn’t you.’
The Kid shook his head. ‘You don’t understand, it’s more complicated than that. What have we done, Heyes? A child would rather die than take my hand. What have we become? Are we like the men who ripped our lives apart?’
Amos Carwithen strolled down the street, his mop of white hair now blanched by age rather than the sun. It was his last day and he was in a reflective mood as he walked back to the police department where he knew that friends and colleagues would be waiting to see him off to a happy retirement with his beloved wife after his long, distinguished career.
How had he got here?
It had been a long, winding road but he had finally come to accept that tragedy is only one of life’s many textures, a good job too as this new war promised many more unnecessary deaths. Everyone had sworn that the world would never be so foolish again after the Great War, but then the ability of mankind to make monumental mistakes should never be underestimated.
Not in his experience anyway.
That day had made all the difference in the world. What would have happened if he hadn’t met those men? Would he have lashed out at the world until he flushed away his future just like so many of the young men who had passed through his hands? Or would he have simply perished in the fire?
He had learned so much after that evening, mostly the value of his own life, but those men had also made sure they taught him that anger is a wasted emotion unless it is channeled and focused into something positive. It can eat through a heart like acid until the corrosive power of hate pervades every thought and action.
Poison, pure poison.
He had focused all his energies into trying to make sure that people were safe from the criminal fraternity and even his worst enemies had to concede that he had been extremely good at it. He had learned to use his pain constructively and maturity had added perspective to his life.
He had forgiven himself for wandering away from his mother that day. After all, he had been a normal, curious, little boy and children did things like that all the time. It really hadn’t been his fault that she had been crushed under the hooves of that horse while looking for him, and he certainly hadn’t been responsible for the horse which had been startled by a stray shot fired in the air by the robbers trying to keep pursuit at bay.
Rationalizing the actions of the man who had fired that shot had taken longer.
He could still see the pain swirling behind the man’s blue eyes as he faced a little boy who refused to take his hand, even to save his life. Amos had hated that man so much and told him why. He had looked at him with old eyes that had seen too much and couldn’t forget. ‘You’re him,’ he had said. ‘You fired your gun. I saw you! It scared the horse and she was in the middle of the road.’
The blond man had dropped his head and spoke in haunted, rasping tones. ‘I’m not that man and he’s gone forever. I promise you. Now, for God’s sake give me your hand!’
Had it been him or had he been bluffing?
To this very day he just couldn’t be sure.