“Hell? What kinda name is that for a town?”
Heyes shrugged. “I think you’re playing fast and loose with the word ‘town.’ It’s more of a collection of shacks around a main street.”
“I don’t care. We deliver the box to the mayor and then we eat. My belly thinks my throat’s been cut. I’m starvin’.”
The dark eyes rolled. “You’re always starving.”
“That’s not true,” the Kid protested, “I just burn it off quicker’n you; probably because I do most of the work around here.”
“All we’ve done is ride. You haven’t done any more work than I have.”
“I stay alert while you daydream,” the Kid’s lips firmed into a line. “That uses energy.”
Heyes dismounted. “Thinking takes energy too, ya know. Come on. Let’s eat. That place looks like it serves food,” he stared at the skinny girl sitting in the doorway, displaying her charms through tattered frills with as much allure as the raddled chicken scratching for food in the dirt, “in fact, it looks like it serves just about anything; as long as it’s cheap.”
“Well the mercantile seems to be the saloon too,” blue eyes scanned the town. “I guess the town isn’t big enough to have more than one business. They seem to do it all.”
“Yeah,” Heyes’ eyes drifted off into a haze of memories, “farming’s a tough life. Folks need somewhere to kick back. I guess this is all they got.”
“It’s real sad if this is your reward after a week’s work.” The Kid nudged his partner and nodded towards the shabby place of business. “Come on, I’m hungry.”
They entered the store - or the brothel – or the saloon. Nothing was that easy to distinguish in Hell, and all these businesses seemed to merge into one. No opportunity to earn was missed.
“Do you serve food?” Heyes frowned and stepped back from the mongrel who was entertaining himself by indulging in a spot of chicken-worrying.
“Yeah.” A mountain of a woman piled dirty tin plates onto a tray. “We got food.” The hound scuttled passed again, chasing jittery poultry out the door. “We got bacon and beans,” the female gestured with her head towards the kitchen, “or we could do you a special.”
The Kid’s brows arched appreciatively. “A special? What you got?”
“Yeah,” the waitress repeated. “Eggs is the special.”
The partners shared a look. “Can eggs be special?” Heyes asked.
“If they’re fresh enough. Ya want eggs?”
The Kid paused before replying. “How are they done?”
“Depends,” she shrugged. “If they ain’t already broke you can have them boiled.”
“Is this the only restaurant in town?” Heyes asked looking around at the empty room. “Is that where all the rest of your customers are?”
The loud cackle split the air. “Restoorant? Ya think you’re in New York? This is Hell. We don’t have no restoorants. We serve chuck for folks passin’ through. Take it or leave it.”
“I’ll have the bacon and beans,” the Kid slumped into a chair, “and a beer.”
“Sure,” the waitress stared at Heyes almost in challenge. “What about you, sweet cheeks?”
“The same,” Heyes joined his cousin at the table and nodded towards the terrier. “At least the dog looks fresh.”
“We’ve eaten in worse. You’re getting’ soft, Heyes.”
“Soft? No, I just learned a long time ago that latrines loom large in the world unpicky eaters and I doubt there’s one of those for fifty miles.”
“The whole world’s a latrine, especially around here. Have a whiskey, that’ll kill anythin’ bad in the food. I don’t know what you’re complainin’ about everyone looks healthy enough here.” The Kid paused in embarrassment as a gaunt man limped into the room and poured two beers from a barrel in the corner. His twisted frame turned awkwardly, encased in the leather body brace which was fastened with buckles and straps which forced him to move like a statue to deliver one glass at a time with his only arm.
“Beer?” he asked. “Ya wanted beer?” The man glanced down at his frame. “This? Yeah, folks look at it all the time. I got hurt in the war; hurt myself real bad.” He stretched out a gnarled claw of a hand, the skin stretched and deformed like some kind of molten, mottled marble. He flicked a look at the stricken blue eyes staring into his distorted face. “Pretty ugly, huh? I was in a burnin’ barn; and the roof collapsed. If’n it weren’t for my comrade pullin’ me outta there I’d have been as dead as a tin of embalmed beef.” Another glass of beer was placed shakily on the counter. “Walt is the name, Walt Clifford.”
Walt lowered himself down onto a bench. “Yeah, we were routin’ out a gang of traitors when some little rat shot me in the leg – must’ve been no more’n nine or ten. The whole place was aflame and the fire was creepin’ nearer and nearer. I screamed for help and then I hollered like a maiden-aunt when the flames caught me. I thought I was a gonner. All I really remember was passin’ out and then wakin’ up in a farmhouse. Treacherous spies the lot o them.”
Heyes frowned. “That’s quite a story.”
“I was behind enemy lines so they had to take me to a friendly family to tend me. I don’t remember much; I was in and out of it with morphine for I don’t know how long, but a real kind lady nursed me through the worst and I eventually got outta there.” He tapped his leather body-brace. “There was a doc out in Charlotte who took me on as a special case cause the fire caused all my muscles to shrivel.” The remaining arm curled up. “They were all shortened, see; like this.” He sat back with a sigh. “It took three years of blood, sweat and tears and eight different braces to push me back upright again, but I gotta wear it all the time ‘cos I ain’t got the strength to hold m’self upright.” He tapped his leather shell. “Shot to hell, these muscles. Sometimes I wish they’d just left me to die. I still live on morphine.”
“Yeah?” murmured the Kid.
“Lord, yeah! One arm, blind in one eye and a face that could scare bejayzus outta an angry grizzly. It ain’t much of a life. If I could get my hands in that little runt who shot me in the leg, I’d …”
The blue eyes hardened to ice. “You’d what?” The Kid stood and strode over to Walt. “Shoot him? That was a long time ago and that boy is a man now. D’ya think a wreck like you’d stand a chance? Well? Answer me, do ya?”
Heyes frowned in concern but rose to take up a position beside his cousin. “Kid?”
“I doubt you’re any more recognizable than me, you b*stard.” The hand dropped down to the gun. “I was only ten and you’re now as ugly on the outside as you are on the inside.”
Walt’s jaw dropped open as he fell against the wall in shock, his arm heading under the bar.
The Kid’s gun appeared in his hand as if by magic. “Get that hand where I can see it or lose that one too.”
Heyes stared at the Kid, the realization dawning on who this cripple actually was.
“I thought the voice was familiar,” The Kid drawled dangerously, “but then you confirmed you were in the barn and shot by a boy. Do you recognize me? Do you remember why I shot ya? Tell him what you were doin’ to that woman.” The voice dropped to a low growl. “She was my ma.”
“I..no… you’ve made a mistake.”
Heyes strode behind the bar and removed the rifle kept there to deter trouble-makers. “Don’t want you going for this, do we?” The dark eyes flicked s concerned look over to his partner, unsure how this was going to play out. The taut shoulders echoed the tight jaw while the long fingers twitched inches from the holstered gun. “Kid? What are you gonna do here?”
The glacial eyes remained fixed on his prey. “I ain’t sure.”
Heyes sighed heavily and took up position against the wall where he could guard both the entrance to the kitchen and the main door. “Ya gotta decide. I’ll support you either way. You know that don’t you?”
“Sure I do.” The hard stare never faltered. “I never doubted that for a moment.”
They stood for the longest time, the air thick with emotion and pregnant with fear. The Kid sucked in a breath and stepped towards his prey and the little man shied away with a whimper.
“Pathetic! You low-down, no-good, piece of dirt,” the words rolled out of the Kid’s mouth like a torrent. “You’re a coward. You were then and you still are; attacking unarmed women and children? Do you think I’m gonna end your miserable existence for ya?” He leaned in prodding the leather shell for emphasis. “Well, do ya?” He stood back, grabbing a few items from the shelf. “You don’t even have the courage to end it for yourself.” He backed off towards the door, gesturing with his head for Heyes to follow him. “I ain’t in the mood to end your misery today, but you never know when I might just change my mind and come lookin’ for ya. In the meantime, I’m glad to see you’re sufferin’. I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.”
They strode over to their horses and mounted before kicking them into action. “Are you gonna come back, Kid?”
“Who knows?” There was a long pause before terse words filled the void. “He’s sufferin’ and has done for years. I’ve always got that to hang on to. He exists, but he doesn’t live.”
“Speaking of hanging onto things, you lifted some supplies from the shelves on your way out. D’you want to stop and cook some of that bacon?”
“Maybe later, Heyes. I just lost my appetite.”
“Sure just let me know what’ll help.”
“Help? He’s in hell in more ways than one, but it sure does help to know he’s livin’ with fear now too.” The fair eyebrows arched. “Now all I gotta do is work out is if it’s enough.”