Ace In The Hole
The lucent blue eyes searched the valley: the river; the scrubby vegetable patch, the corrals, the outhouses, the bunkhouse, and the cabin. The craggy sides rose around the canyon like a fortress, ripping through the landscape to meet an azure sky. It was a remote and not easily accessible place, and it was clear that this injured man would not have made it home without help; help which both Hannibal Heyes and Jed Curry were happy to give. A scrubby chicken clucked towards him, twitching its scraggy neck back and forth in the hope that these newcomers might provide some food. The Kid turned and reached out to help his partner carry the injured man from the wagon, noting the mere bag of bones in his arms. “Damn! There’s nothin’ to him. It’s like he ain’t eaten properly for years.”
“Don’t let looks deceive ya, I’m wiry,” wheezed the old man.
“Sure ya are,” murmured Heyes, kicking at the door to open it. “Are you sure there’s nobody else here?”
“I already told ya,” both men suddenly felt the ribs spasm in a paroxysm of coughing which seemed to originate somewhere deep in the man’s scuffed boots, “the wife left years ago and took the little ‘uns with her. She hated this place. The ground don’t grow nuthin’ but taters and cabbage. She swore that she left Ireland for somethin’ better, and ended up livin’ worse.”
The Kid pulled back a quilt and helped the old man onto the bed as it groaned in protest. “Easy now, mind that hip. I think those ropes need tightening too. You’re sinkin’ too low on that bed.”
“It’s broke, I tell ya. There ain’t nuthin’ you can do for me now.”
“How far is it to the nearest doctor, Gabe?” asked Heyes.
“It’d take at least two days for ya to get him here, and even then there’s be nuthin’ he could do,” Gabriel De Ville sighed in resignation. “A broke hip is the end for any man, not least a farmer. I’m a goner and I knows it. At least I’ll die in my own bed, thanks to you boys. I didn’t want to go out there on the rocks. I was fixin’ to put a bullet in my head when you two came along.”
Heyes and Curry exchanged a worried look. “There ain’t no need for that,” the Kid put his hands on his hips. “I’m more than happy to go to the nearest town for a doctor. I can leave now if you want.”
“Nah,” Gabriel shook his head. “You two were already beat when ya found me and it ain’t gonna change a thing. I’m done for.”
Heyes sighed deeply, acceptance setting in. Both he and the Kid had already discussed their surprise at this determined old man lasting this long. “You need some fresh water. There’s a well out there. I’ll be right back.”
“Do you need anything?” asked the Kid, tugging gently at the dusty boots. “These need to come off, let me know if I hurt you.”
“There’s some laudanum in the dresser, over there,” Gabe watched his guest pull open a drawer. “Open the cupboard. Yeah, that’s it. The green bottle. I’ve been dreamin’ of this stuff.” The old man seized the bottle and tossed back a gulp of the reddish-brown liquid before settling back on the pillows.
“Easy,” the Kid exclaimed. “That’s strong stuff. Ain’t you supposed to dissolve a few drops in water or somethin’?”
“Yeah, that’s the job,” the old man settled back on his pillows with a smile spreading over his grizzled face. “I can feel it spreading through me already. There ain’t nothin’ to worry about. What else can happen to me now? I’m as well floatin’ out on a cloud, there ain’t nuthin’ to stay here for.” He winked at the young visitor. “No offense, Jed. You and your friend have been great. It’s like the Almighty himself sent you, but if’n my time is up I want to go with a smile on my face and rememberin’ the best of times.”
“The Almighty?” the Kid gave Gabriel a wry smile. “I ain’t had too much contact with him. I’d be more likely to be sent by that other fella.” Heyes strode in carrying a bucket of water. “He seems to think we’re angels, Heyes.”
“Angels, huh?” Heyes dipped a glass into the bucket. “Here, drink this.”
“Yeah, I told him we’re more familiar with the devil.”
“Sure we’re in league with the devil, but our duties are purely ceremonial, Gabe,” Heyes smiled down at the injured man. “We’re not here for your soul, your money, or anything else.”
“I know,” chucked the old man. “You ain’t robbers, I can tell.” Uneasy brown eyes met widening blue pools of guilt before drifting back to the patient. “In any case I ain’t got nuthin’ worth stealin’.”
Heyes pulled out a chair. “Sure you have. Everyone has. You have your farm, your family, your memories,” he arched his leg and sat on the chair the wrong way around, leaning his chin in the back. “If you don’t want us to fetch a doctor is there anyone you want to contact for you? You said your wife is in San Francisco?”
“Yeah,” the old man shrugged, his eyelids drooping from the drug. “I guess she’ll want to know. I heard she got married again, at least it won’t be bigamy no more.”
The dark eyes softened. “She wasn’t coming back?”
“It were never right between us. She’d be a good enough woman if she found the right man: maybe a lion tamer or a lighthouse keeper who lived away a lot. Livin’ here in this hole with nobody to talk to drove her half-mad. Add no money, scratchin’ a livin’ to all that and she just had enough. She didn’t want to be here anymore.”
“You didn’t want to go with her?” asked the Kid.
Gabriel shook his head. “My pa was a poor farm worker from France. There might not be much here, but it’s mine. This might be a hole, but it’s my hole and it‘s the first time the De Ville family ever owned more’n a crust o’ bread. It won’t make ya rich, but it’ll keep ya alive and that was enough for me. I’m proud of it.”
Heyes nodded gently. “And she ends up with it?”
“Nah, she won’t come back here. She married some blacksmith and is sittin’ real pretty,” Gabriel opened his heavy eyes and looked at each of the boys in turn. “Ya want it? It ain’t much, but it could be a place to call home.”
“Us?” spluttered the Kid. “But it belongs to your children.”
“Nah, they’re girls. The place’ll rot before any o’ mine take an interest. I’d like ta give ya somethin’ for helpin’ me. What d’ya say boys? If you can write I can add my mark to make it legal-like. Take it. I can see you boys ain’t got nuthin’ but each other.”
The partners exchanged a meaningful glance. “We ain’t the settlin’ down types, but we’ll think about it, Gabe.”
“Well, I want you boys ta write it up and I’ll put my mark on it. If ya don’t want the place ya can just burn it and ride outta here. Do it boys, ‘cos I got no intention of bein’ here come mornin’.” He pulled out the bottle of laudanum and pulled out the stopper.
Heyes frowned and rose to his feet, but the Kid threw out an arm to bar his way. “Let him go. There’s nothing anyone can do. It’s his choice and at least he’s not in pain.”
Heyes paused, his downcast eyes masking his emotions before he walked over to the shelf and pulled down the bible. “If that’s what you want, Gabe. This is the only paper I can see in the place. I can write your wishes on the endpaper.”
“Yeah, it’s like swearin’ before God himself. I wouldn’t want you boys to have any trouble...”
A golden dawn lit up the valley as dawn broke over the craggy, jagged rocks encircling the little valley. The stark shadows grew at the rising of the sun, before being chased back into the crevasses and clefts by the fingers of light spreading across the canyon. The glow hit the face of the pensive young man sitting on the porch steps. He was doing what he always did when he had time to kill; cleaning his gun. It was an automatic movement to him; one which allowed his mind to wander and skip. It was something he only did when he knew he was safe, so it was something he did when he was most comfortable in his own skin. He turned at the sound of the door opening and held the gaze of the solemn man facing him. The Kid raised questioning brows in a mute conversation.
Heyes nodded silently. “He’s gone. A mixture of the laudanum and the shock of the broken hip. It was probably for the best. He was in agony and there was nothing we could do.”
The Kid stared back out at the valley. “So I guess we’ve got to bury him?”
“Yeah, I’ll write a letter to his wife too.”
“So, I guess this is all ours. All fair and above board.” The Kid looked around at the outbuildings. “We’re landowners. I’ve gotta tell ya, Heyes, I ain’t mad on the idea of livin’ off cabbages and potatoes.”
“It could be a fresh start, Kid.” Heyes fixed his partner with an intense stare. “Think about it. It’s a base for us, out in the middle of nowhere where we can’t be snuck up on. You get to the head of the valley and you can see for miles.”
“You ain’t serious about staying here are you? I’m no cabbage farmer.”
“Neither am I, Kid, but we can use it as a base, a safe place to come back to.” Heyes shrugged. “Look at that last place where we’ve been settled; out on the plains so we could see people coming for miles. The freezing winds cut right through you in the winter, and the lack of shade roasts anything caught out in the summer sun. Trying not to be snuck up on is no way for a civilised man to live. We’re not jackrabbits.”
“I think folks stopped callin’ us civilised when we committed our first robbery, Heyes.” The Kid shook his head. “Livin’ in one place will only make it easier for us to be found. It’s better to keep movin’.”
“But think about it. We can have a guard, and the rest of us can relax at last. It’d not only be safer, it’d be a lot more comfortable.”
“De Ville’s Hole?” The Kid shrugged. “It could work. We’d best run it past the boys though.”
Na sir 's na seachainn an cath - Neither seek nor shun the fight Old Scottish proverb