Chili Con Carnage
Appraising brown eyes smiled at the bleary-eyed gunman. “Sleep well?”
“Ya know I didn’t,” the Kid dropped into a chair. “Is there any coffee?”
“Yeah, in the pot.”
A grimace flickered over the fair man’s face. “I guess I’ll make some more.”
“I just told you there was some in the pot.”
“Yeah, but that means you made it, considerin’ there’s nobody else here. “ The Kid hauled himself to his feet. “I’ve had a bad night, I ain’t gonna make it a bad start to the day too. Who was caterwaulin’ at the top of his voice like that? I’ll kill him.”
“I think that was our employer’s son. He’s got a liking for songs about girls from Nantucket.”
“Yeah, but only ones of ‘great renown.’ Those words are burned into my memory after hearing them over and over,” the Kid lifted the pot, “and over. What’s so special about Nantucket anyway?”
“Probably good as Bristol City for rhyming; judging by the amount of mentions that got too. He used to be a sailor, so he likes his songs salty.” Heyes smiled as the contents of the coffee pot were tipped away. “Mrs. Malone made the coffee.”
Pained blue eyes hooked his partner. “Why didn’t you tell me before I poured it away?”
“Because you were rude about my coffee again. I thought you could wait,” Heyes tossed back the rest of his drink, “but I’ll have some if you’re making it.”
“How come you’re so bright anyway? You must have heard it too.”
“I don’t need as much sleep as you,” Heyes retorted with an irritating grin. “I do my best thinking at night.”
“Yeah? I did some pretty good thinking myself, and if I see that idiot before I get some rest I’ll be tempted to follow through on it.”
“Mrs. Malone doesn’t seem to have much control of her son,” Heyes reflected.
“It’s gotta be hard for an older woman to stand up to a sailor returned from the sea without a man to back her up,” a smile tugged at the gunman’s lips. “Kinda like a young ‘un runnin’ an outlaw gang without a quick gun.” Heyes glanced around nervously. “Relax, nobody’s about. There sure were some fun times back then. Runnin’ the Hole could be like baptizin’ cats at times. Bringin’ up children has got to be easier.”
“I dunno,” Heyes swung pensively back on his chair. “Remember Lazarus?”
Blue eyes danced with memories. “Do I? A one-legged cook? What were you thinkin’?”
“He came recommended and needed a job,” Heyes shrugged, “and we needed a cook real bad.”
“Yeah, well real bad is just what we got. I remember the day we met him. What was the name of that town? Ah, yes. Trickle...”
Heyes shook his head. “Nah, that was the name of the sheriff. Walter Trickle. He was pretty useless. That’s why we went there to kick back. The town was called Crumbling Butte.”
“Yeah, how could I forget that? We were in the bar weren’t we...?”
Five Years Earlier
“Heyes? I met up with an ole pal. I thought you’d like ta meet him.”
Hannibal Heyes looked up at the twinkling, puppy-dog eyes and joyful jowls of his explosives man. “Ya did, Kyle?”
“Yeah, you’ll like him. Well, what’s left of him, anyways.”
“Huh?” Heyes turned, his interest piqued. “Left of him?”
“Yeah, he was an explosives man in the war, then he rode with a few outfits. I met him when I was in the Carter gang out Utah way.” Kyle turned and whistled through uneven teeth. “Hey, Lazarus. Git over here!”
The Kid grinned. “Lazarus?”
They all turned to observe the remains of the man who stomped up to them on a wooden leg; which from the fluted gouges and rich turns had obviously been retrieved from a good piece of furniture. He raised a right arm which ended in a hook. “Howdy, fellas.”
“Lazarus?” Heyes repeated.
“The real name’s plain old Bob. Bob Terry. I get called Lazarus on account of risin’ from the dead after an explosion; well most of me, anyways.” He waved his right arm. “It took my leg and my arm, but I survived.”
The outlaw leader nodded sympathetically towards the eye patch over his right eye. “And that too?”
“No. That was an itch.”
“Some kind of infection?” queried the Kid.
“Nah,” the right arm was raised again. “It was my first day with the hook.”
There was a brief silence before laughter drifted through the tobacco smoke clouding the bar. “We’s lookin’ for a cook, Heyes and Lazarus is great at it. It’s what he’s been doin’ since he lost them bits. He’s the best one-legged cook in the whole territory. Real trustworthy too. He’s never seen a law he wouldn’t break. How about it?”
Heyes swung back on his chair. “Why’d you leave your last outfit?”
“I didn’t. Most of ‘em left me.” The mobile features arranged themselves into a grin which revealed that many of his teeth were also casualties of a life of hard knocks. “They got caught; and them that didn’t has gone south. ‘Tweren’t my cookin’ that’s for sure.”
Heyes nodded. “And before them?”
“The Thompsons,” Lazarus shrugged. “I might have helped them get caught. They ate an awful lot of boggy-top and biscuits. That mighta slowed ‘em down a bit.”
The Kid settled back in his chair. “You just cook? You even done any outlawin’?”
“Sure have. I used to be a dynamite man,” Lazarus shuffled on his Sheraton style prosthetic. “I didn’t get this lot from choppin’ too fast, did I? I had to learn a new skill. I make the best chili this side of the Pecos.”
Heyes glanced at his cousin for a second opinion, but the warmth in the twinkling blue glint already confirmed his own thoughts. “You got yourself a chance, Lazarus. Wheat’s over at the store getting supplies. Go and see if you want to add anything to the order.”
Kyle backslapped his old friend, ducking quickly to avoid a hooked return. “C’mon, Lazarus. Let’s git goin’. Welcome to the Devil’s Hole Gang. I can’t wait ta sink my teeth into your huckdummies again. There ain’t nobody cooks ‘em like you.”
The Kid sat on the porch of the leader’s cabin, swinging back on his chair. Life was dreary at the hole in the winter because it was too easy to follow tracks in the snow and a horse could stumble on ice. It wasn’t worth the risk, so they stayed close to home and bided their time. Things could get rambunctious as the boys got more and more bored, but life was surprisingly smooth at the moment. Lazarus was a great cook; the gang would play poker in the evenings after a day of odd jobs. They seemed to sleep late and live quietly for the moment. So far so good, but it was only early January. Men forced together in close proximity would soon get on each other’s nerves.
Sharp blue eyes scanned the men heading out to relieve the guards, but there was something in the way they wove towards the end of the valley which made the gunman stand. “Heyes! Git out here.”
“What is it?”
The Kid nodded towards the relief guards. “Trouble.”
The brown eyes narrowed. “Huh? At this time in the morning?”
“Looks like it.”
The outlaw leader strode decisively from the porch and headed straight for Kyle and Wheat closely followed by his cousin. “Hi.”
Kyle stopped and spread his hands in question. “Are you angry at me, Kid?”
“Why should I be angry at you, Kyle?”
The rumpled outlaw drew aimless circles with his toe. “No reason, Kid. Just wondered is all.”
The partners exchanged a glance before Heyes spoke again. “How are you two feeling this morning?”
“I’m good,” Wheat twitched his moustache before wiping his nose on his sleeve. “We’re just going to relieve the watch.”
Heyes frowned, noting the glazed eyes and slurred speech. “Do you think you’re fit for it?”
“Sure, we’s dressed real warm,” Kyle grinned and patted his chest.
“That ain’t what we’re talkin’ about,” the Kid cut in.
“Something’s not right.” Heyes walked over to Wheat and sniffed before doing the same to Kyle. He grimaced and tuned back to his partner. “I think it could be due to alcohol.”
Kyle guffawed and punched his leader lightly on the shoulder. “That’s alright, Heyes. I’ll come back when you’re sober.”
“No, Kyle. You!” Heyes turned and glared at Wheat. “And you. You’re swaying from side to side. How many of me do you see?”
“There are always too many, that’s for damn sure,” Wheat muttered. “I’m fine.”
“No you ain’t,” the Kid snapped. “I saw you winding your way from the bunkhouse like a horse on ryegrass. Where’d you get it?”
“Get what?” Kyle’s’ contrived innocence only served to underscore his guilt. “We ain’t done nothin’”
“Nothing?” Heyes barked. “You’re completely roostered! How can you guard the place like that?”
“I’m fine, Heyes,” the sun caught the beads of perspiration on Wheat’s ruddy face.
“You know I allow one bottle of whiskey a day for the bunkhouse because we can’t afford to be caught drunk,” Heyes barked. “Unless you two necked it between you there’s been more booze around than I allow. What’s going on?”
“It ain’t no more than prairie dew,” Kyle protested. “It’s just somethin’ Lazarus cooked up from old ‘taters.”
“Potatoes?” the Kid demanded.
“Yeah,” Wheat nodded. “It ain’t whiskey. It’s just a few vegetables. What harm can that do?”
“It can get you shot because you’re too drunk to defend the place,” growled the Kid. “Has everyone been drinkin’ this stuff?”
“Not everyone,” Kyle replied. “Lazarus ain’t givin’ it away and some is too mean to pay knowin’ that you give us whiskey for free.”
“Good! Come with me,” Heyes turned on his heel and headed down towards the bunkhouse.
“We get off with guard duty?” chirped Kyle.
“You ain’t got off with anythin’,” the Kid retorted. “Once you sober up you’re gonna face the consequences.”
“T’ain’t fair” Wheat protested. “All we did was drink some ‘tater juice.”
“Yah, got sozzled when you should be on duty,” the Kid glowered. “You’ll be doing extra shifts to make up for it.”
“And no whiskey for a month!” Heyes added.
“No arguments,” Heyes called over his shoulder. “I’m beginning to see how Lazarus’ last gang got themselves caught. I’m going to nip this in the bud.”
“Potatoes ain’t got buds,” snickered Kyle.
“Ya ever heard the sayin’, ‘when you’re in a hole stop diggin’’?” demanded the Kid.
Wheat and Kyle trotted behind Heyes as he strode towards the cookhouse. “Yah ever heard the sayin’ ‘sleep with one eye open’?” the larger outlaw muttered.
“Keep talkin’, Wheat,” growled the Kid, “you ain’t exactly burned your bridges, but you’re sure loosenin’ the bolts.”
Lazarus plunged his hook into the barrel and pulled out the joint of brined beef. He slapped it onto the table and lifted the knife in his left hand. Heyes paused at the door to the cookhouse. “Hi, Lazarus. Got a minute?”
One grey eye fixed on the speaker. “For you, Boss? Always.”
“Good,” Heyes strolled in glancing around the building. “I’ve come to see you about your moonshine.”
The knife was thrown into the table with a ‘tduff’ before it waved back and forth like a menacing metronome. “Moonshine?”
The dark eyes never left the cook’s face. “Yeah. The gut warmer you’ve been making from potatoes.” Heyes folded his arms. “I’ve just found two men drunk on their turn on watch. I can’t have that, Lazarus. In fact, let me be clearer; I won’t have it. ”
“I didn’t mean no harm by it. I just like to keep folks happy. What’s wrong with celebratin’ Tuesday? There ain’t nuthin’ else to do around here.”
Lazarus shrugged. “There’s plenty to do around here. There’s making sure nobody can surprise us for starters, then there’s general fixing up the place... we don’t have time in summer.”
“Yeah, but men get bored of an evenin’. I like something full of the strong stuff. So do they.”
“I’ll fetch Wheat. He’s about as full of the strong stuff as a man can be and still remain upright. This place isn’t about what you like. How come you kept this secret from me?”
“T’weren’t a secret, Boss. I just thought you might... disapprove.”
“You knew he’d skin your hide,” growled the Kid from the doorway. “How much were you sellin’ this stuff for?”
“Two bits a bottle.”
Heyes propped his hands on his hips. “And how many have you sold?” He watched the cook’s eyes drop to the floor as he ‘ummed’ and ‘ooh’d’ evasively. “Out with it!”
“Three or four...”
“Bottles?” the Kid demanded.
Lazarus shook his head. “Gallons...”
Gallons!?” exclaimed Heyes and Curry in unison. “How long has this been going on?”
“Not long. Just a few weeks...”
Heyes raised his hand and rubbed his face, beating down the instinct to smack the grinning cook in the mouth. “So there are a couple of gallons of hooch somewhere, waiting for you to sell it on?”
“Nope. I sold it already.” Lazarus widened his one good eye innocently. “I’m makin’ a new batch now.”
“Stay where you are. Kid, come with me. We got gallons of gut warmer to find before the boys neck it.”
Wheat rolled off his bunk with a snarl. “This ain’t fair. First yah send me back to the bunk house. Then you hunt me out of bed ta look under the mattress? ‘The man’ says drinkin’s wrong and we all stop it? ‘The man’ forbids it so we don't do it. ‘The man’ tells us what to do and we all jump to it! Is that how it is? It’s like bein’ in jail.”
Kyle frowned. “Who are all these fellas?”
“They’re me!” barked Heyes, rolling back the bedding
Kyle nodded. “Is you seein’ double too, Wheat?”
The Kid rolled his eyes. “Where’s everyone else?”
Wheat smirked while Kyle suddenly recognized the endlessly fascinating qualities of the ceiling. “Dunno, Heyes. They’s all gone out.”
“You know what this means, Heyes,” the Kid snapped closed the trunk he’d just rifled through without finding any contraband. “They’re out hidin’ the hooch all over the hole!”
Heyes raised his eyes to the heavens and muttered as though in prayer. “Give me strength. Dealing with this lot is like trying to tie a knot in fog. No wonder they call this The Devil’s Hole. If I died and went to hell it’d take me a week to realize it. I’m starting to feel sorry for the staff at Valparaiso. Do you think we were this bad, Kid?”
“Worse,” came the chuckled reply, “but at least we think like the gang. Criminals ain’t complicated, Heyes. They’re always workin’ at bein’ either lazy or selfish. Right now they’re bein’ selfish. We got hit them with lazy as a reward to get them to work as a team.”
“Yeah? Well there’s a huge ‘A’ in this team, if you catch my meaning. I’m going to start by cutting off the source.” Heyes kicked the door back against the wall with a clatter. “Where does Lazarus keep his still?”
“So where is it, Lazarus?” Heyes’ eyes glittered dangerously. “And don’t even try to sell me any stories about there being no permanent set-up. You don’t turn around that amount of hooch in a day or two.”
Lazarus nodded. “I put it somewhere folks don’t go very often.”
“Yeah? Where’s that?” the Kid demanded.
“You know the hut at the end o’ the place?” Lazarus watched his bosses closely. “The one with all the tools and creosote and fixin’ up stuff...?”
Heyes nodded. “It’s in there?”
“Nope. You go passed there, ain’t nobody goes near the work stuff.” The cook pegged his way to the door on his wooden leg and pointed outside. “Ya can’t set up a still inside. You’ll burn the place down. It’s real stinky too. You go passed the buildin’s and down towards the river.”
“The gang go down to the river all the time,” Heyes replied. “So do we. Why hasn’t anyone seen anything?”
“Not that way, they don’t,” a grin twitched beneath the eye patch. “They go the easy way. Mine is up near the rocks, where the trees get thick. Ain’t nobody goes there.”
The Kid propped his hands on his hips. “Show us.”
They followed the cook across the well-worn paths. They went passed the bunkhouse, the corrals, the latrines, the barns and the various shacks; then through the long grass which snagged the man’s old table leg. The Kid kicked out at a snaring shrub. “There ain’t a path. How did you get a still down here with your leg?”
Lazarus turned and tapped the side of his nose with a hook. “Bit by bit. It don’t come as a machine, you know. It’s tubes an’ stuff.”
“But still...it’s gonna be hard with just one hand.”
“I gotta hook, Kid. You stick it all in a bathtub and drag it behind by the handle. I used my smarts. I mighta lost lots o’ bits, but I ain’t lost my mind. Not yet anyways...”
“What about your patience?” Heyes muttered. “I’m right out of it.”
“We’re here.” Lazarus stopped and cast his hook in the direction of a thicket where vapors wafted through the natural cover of foliage.
Heyes frowned. “There’s steam? You have to keep a fire burning?”
“Sure. It’s perfectly safe. I’ve been doin’ this for years. I feed it every two hours.” Lazarus limped forward. As they turned the bend the still came into view; a copper and rubber contraction which puffed, chugged and huffed great clouds of billowing steam.
The cook raised a log to throw it back under the copper, but a yell from Heyes caused him to catch himself. “I didn’t bring you here to feed the thing. I want it dismantled!”
The log slipped from Lazarus’ left hand, already caught by the momentum of his attempt to toss it on the fire. It bounced off the nearest tree and into the galvanized bucket sitting under the dripping tap which collected the dripping, filtered alcohol. It tipped over, the clear liquid spilling into the fire which sat under the tun containing the potato mash being boiled for the first stage of the distillation. The fire flashed up in excited fingers of blue flame, licking the grass and the dry winter branches with alcoholic zeal as the cook let out a cry. “It’s spreadin’ too fast.” He took off his jacket and started beating out the flames around him, appealing to his bosses for help. “It ain’t rained. These things’ll explode if we don’t stop this.”
The Kid nodded and took out his gun, shooting in the air to attract attention. “They’d better stop hidin’ all that booze and come runnin’!”
Heyes grabbed the bucket from amongst the flames and kicked it over to the river to cool it down enough to grab it and start throwing buckets of water over the cracking and spluttering grass. The vicious hiss coming from the cloud of steam turned to an alarming squeal which made everyone pause and stare at it in concern.
“It’s gonna blow!” bellowed Lazarus, turning to run. “Git outta here!”
Heyes and Curry ran, but the old man’s disability seemed to hit both men at the same time, and they turned on their heels and sprinted back the way they'd come. Lazarus was a good fifty yards behind then and was stomping towards them, but he wasn’t quick enough.
There was an ear-shattering boom and flashes of blue and yellow flame ripped through the air, lifting the recalcitrant chef off his feet and sending him into the river with an enormous belly flop and the Sheraton style wooden-leg flying through the air in the opposite direction.
The Kid jumped into the water, wading through the thigh-deep flow until he flipped Lazarus right way up. “Are you hurt? Speak to me.”
“My leg...,” he moaned. “My leg....”
Alert blue eyes quickly scanned the remaining limb for injury but found nothing obviously wrong. “Where? Tell me.”
The gunman dragged him ashore where Heyes helped to pull the soggy cook onto the riverbank. “He says he hurt his leg.”
“It looks fine to me.” Heyes took the ankle and gingerly manipulated it. “How does that feel?”
“It feels fine! I’m talking about my other leg.”
“Your stump?” the Kid queried.
“No! My wooden leg.” Lazarus sat up and blinked his one good eye at them. “Where’s it gone?”
“Oh, that!” Heyes dragged off his hat in frustration. “I dunno. “It went flying. I was more worried about you than some dumb bit of furniture.”
“But it’s got all my money in it. My life’s savin’s.”
“In your leg?”
“Sure,” Lazarus blinked at them. “There’s a high criminal element around here. I ain’t leavin’ it lyin’ around.”
The Kid turned at the arrival of the gang, here at last to help. “Where’ve you lot been? Heyes fired a warnin’ shot ages ago.”
“We ain’t bloodhounds, Kid,” sniffed the Preacher. We had to find ya first.” He nodded towards the still burning bushes. “The fireworks sure helped.”
“Yeah,” Kyle leaned against a nearby tree. “What you been doing? Ain’t nobody told ya that fightin’ fire with fire is just an expression?” He stood upright again, the shifting weight made the tree waver and jiggle. He jumped back as a heavy object tumbled from the branches above, clunking the half-drowned cook firmly on the noggin.
“I guess Lazarus found his leg,” muttered the Kid.
“Yeah. That’s the end of your moonshine, boys,” Heyes stood and glared at each of the gang in turn. “Now get that fire put out and we’ll get Lazarus back to the bunkhouse. Peacher! Come with us to check him out...”
Five years later – Mrs. Malone’s Guesthouse.
“Yeah,” Heyes sat back with a smile, “they were a wild gang to manage but they weren’t bad at heart.”
The Kid arched a cynical brow. “Bad? They were more crooked than a dog’s hind leg. Lazarus got his carved leg back, but he only got half his money.”
“And we never did find all those bottles of moonshine,” chuckled Heyes. “They hid them all over the place; in the rafters of buildings, under bushes, in holes. I bet there are rabbits bumping their heads on them to this day.”
There were the sounds of voices drifting down from the floor above.
“Sounds like Mrs. Malone’s trying to get the sailor outta bed,” the Kid observed.”
The female voice rose an octave to mezzo soprano.
“It sounds like he ain’t too pleased at the notion,” Heyes replied.
There was the clunk of something heavy against a wooden object. “Sounds like a boot bein’ thrown.”
Heyes nodded, his gaze sliding cautiously over to his cousin. “Yup.” Muffled shouting blared through the ceiling, escalating into a cacophony of anger. “He sure doesn’t like to be wakened, does he?”
“Who does,” growled the Kid with feeling.
The battle continued overhead, still hard to distinguish, with only the music of the words discernible as the volume rose. There was another whump as the partner of the first projectile was reunited with its partner which provoked a female scream.
“It’s not our fight, Kid,” Heyes warned the twitchy gunman. “Ya don’t want to get in between family.”
There was a shattering smash which brought the Kid to his feet. “That’s it,” he declared. “I’ve had enough. He kept me awake all night and now he’s throwing things at his Ma. He needs a lesson, but at least your story told me what I need to do here.”
“It did?” Heyes queried.
“Yeah, I’m gonna rip his leg off and beat him over the head with it.”
Na sir 's na seachainn an cath - Neither seek nor shun the fight Old Scottish proverb