The Hole The Ground Gang
A pair of lambent blue eyes solemnly surveyed the devastation, drinking in the splinters of shattered glass and the charred remains of the smashed furniture, while the damaged door creaked wearily on the only hinge still attached to the frame. “This is a tragedy,” muttered Kid. “Fifteen years old. But they’re all gone - and for what?”
“Religious differences,” Heyes bent over and picked up a broken bottle and wiped away the soot before he read from the label. “Powers Gold Label Whiskey, aged in the cask for fifteen years,” he sighed heavily. “Why would anyone want to destroy such a beautiful thing?”
Beer still oozed from split casks, darkening the dirty floorboards with a foaming, deliquescent soup which carried the remains of chewing tobacco, ash and grime through the cracks in the floorboards.
“I just don’t get these temperance folks. If they don’t like alcohol, don’t drink it. Why smash the imported hoard?” Heyes shook his head. “It survived for at least fifteen years in Ireland, a journey over the Atlantic Ocean, and then all the way to Kansas; and they smash it up!”
Nancy Rowe fumed; her little, peroxide curls trembling in concert to the anger burning through her make-up; which was no mean feat. She had the cosmetic fortitude to wear powder, paint and perfume in a way which was rarely seen outside of circus folk. A long, lacquered fingernail tapped out a syncopated rhythm of fury as she intermittently sipped at a glass from her hidden stash. “They ain’t gettin’ away with this!” she barked.
“Nancy! The state’s been dry since 1881. We got away with it because nobody bothered in a one-horse town like this.”
She flashed angry eyes at the barman. “Not until Eve Montgomery moved into town. Damn her, and damn her rockin’ horse teeth! What difference does it make to her how I make my livin’? I tell you, if I’d been here...”
“Her brother’s the mayor. He didn't care until she came to live here after their father died.”
“I saw Matt Bailey, the lawyer. It’s legal to sell alcohol for medicinal purposes. We’re gonna do the same as the rich folks. We’re gonna start a private health club and provide it for medicinal purposes.” She tipped her glass towards Heyes and Curry. “I’m gonna need security to keep out non-members. You fancy the job, Boys?”
Heyes gave Kid a long look. “It sounds like it’s bordering on the illegal, and we play it strictly straight down the line. We really came here looking for work in the mines.”
Kid shook his head doubtfully. “And what if the women came back? I ain't gonna fight with them.”
“I’m askin’ for security,” Nancy gave a discrete smirk. “If the temperance league come back, let me know. You might not touch ‘em, but with me and my girls meetin’ ‘em, it’ll be a fair fight.”
Kid gave her a sympathetic look. “Nancy, the place is nearly burnt to the ground. We need a job now, not sometime in the future. I’m sorry, but we’re headin’ to the mines tomorrow.”
“Boys, we’ll be open tomorrow night. Do you want the job or not? My Bill’s got a mine on the edge of town. I store stock there. I want you here first thing in the mornin’ to load a wagon with anythin’ we need to turn it into a health club.”
“A health club in a mine?” asked Heyes, incredulously.
“Sure! Watchin’ girls dance and relaxin’ in good company is the best treatment for melancholia I can think of, and I ain't even a Doc! By the time I've finished with it, Four Forks will be a drinkin’ town where they have a minin’ problem.”
The stiff woman, who strode down the main street of Four Forks, had lived a pious life, keeping the fine name of Montgomery as unsullied as the day it found her. By the time she reached forty five she was not a happy person. Nobody had ever taken the time to look deeply enough into her slate colored eyes to notice the lightness of spirit dancing in ever decreasing spirals of desperation, and no one seemed to have any real interest in spending time with her beyond prescribed social convention. Her need to nurse her strict, overbearing father in his final years had squashed down the inner child, until the little voice was stilled; leaving her unappreciated and alone in a society which only allowed women to flourish within the convention of marriage. The pinched face and the prominent teeth did nothing to soften the harshness of the craggy face confronting Kid Curry.
“Just what do you think you are doing, Young Man?”
He looked down at the duck-head handle of the umbrella prodding his chest. “Can I help you, Ma’am?”
“I do hope that you are not stealing from this place!”
He tossed the chair onto the back of the wagon. “No, Ma’am. The owner wants us to take anythin’ not ruined to her.”
“I guess, because it’s her property, Ma’am.”
She was not about to be put off that easily. “But why would she need it? She’s closed down.”
He handed Heyes another chair. “I guess folks don’t need a reason to use what’s theirs , Ma’am.”
He turned away to lift a barrel, rolling his eyes in exasperation as he felt the now familiar tapping on his shoulder blade.
“I am Miss Montgomery, the Mayor’s sister. I demand that you tell me why these are required.”
Kid gave an impatient sigh and leaned on the tailgate. “Why don’t you ask her, she’s real keen to see you. You were handin’ out the axes.”
“I do not mix with the likes of her!”
Kid shook his head. “Then I don’t know what to tell you, Ma’am. She wants her stuff. If you have any more questions, take it up with her.”
She stomped and snorted behind him for a few minutes before she tapped again, stopping suddenly as Kid stiffened and slowly stood upright.
He turned, fixing her with glacial eyes as icy as his voice. “Ma’am. Let me give you some advice. Folks don’t like to be told what to do, especially by those that don’t seem to do much themselves. It seems to me like you’d be a lot happier if you spent your time doin’ what you really want to do, instead of tellin’ folks what you hate.”
She sucked in a breath. “Well, I never....!”
“I don’t doubt that for a moment, Ma’am.”
“What do you mean by that!?”
Kid shrugged, a smile playing around his lips. “I don’t doubt that you never found your passion in life and that’s a cryin’ shame, Ma’am. Stop botherin’ me and go and find it.”
“When I need your homespun wisdom, I’ll ask for it!” She turned on her heel and strode out into the middle of the road.
There was a screech of wooden brakes, mingled with yells and horses whinnying. A wagon careened across the road trying to avoid the inevitable collision, dragging ruts into the dirt road and spraying dust into the air. Heyes leapt, catching the woman around the waist, before throwing her back to the edge of the sidewalk in an undignified heap.
The driver’s face was a picture of twisted fury. “YOU STUPID IDIOT!! WHY DON’T YOU LOOK WHERE YOUR’RE GOIN’!?”
Eve Montgomery moaned as Heyes looked at her with concerned, brown eyes. “Are you hurt?”
“I've hurt my wrist,” she held up a stick-thin arm, waving it in his direction.
“Wrist!” snapped the driver. “I feel like breakin’ your neck.”
Kid stepped forward. “Leave her alone! It was an accident.”
“Accident! I got four cases of eggs in the back. Who’s gonna pay for that? Nobody wants to buy a giant omelette full of straw.”
“Go and see her brother, he’s the mayor.”
The driver gave the reins an irritated twitch, driving the horses into action and trundled indignantly off down the street.
A short, square middle-aged man appeared at their side. “Can I help? I’m Doctor Sheppard.”
Eve’s eyes flickered up at him gratefully. “Oh! Please help me. I’m in such pain.”
His hands felt their way over the injury, carefully manipulating the hand. “There ain't nothin’ broken, Ma’am. It’s just a bad sprain. Let me just give you somethin’ for the pain, then we’ll get you some privacy.”
He opened his bag and poured a generous dose of an amber liquid into a glass measuring cup.
“Blech!” she exclaimed, with a grimace. “It’s positively horrible.”
“Finish it up. The worse it tastes, the more good it does you,” twinkled the doctor, scooping her up and assisting her towards the mercantile.
“Ooh! It’s burning all the way down,” her eyes startled to sparkle as her knees gave way with a giggle. “Oh, I do feel… Well - just lovely.”
The partners watched the pair disappear into the store for bandaging.
“That was lucky, a doc bein’ right on the scene like that,” Kid remarked, casually.
“Doctor?” Heyes grinned. “I saw him with Nancy this morning. He’s her quack for the ‘Health Club.’”
A grin spread over Kid’s face. “You don’t think...?”
“I sure do, Kid. A teetotaler’s just gulped down a huge glass of whiskey. It’ll hit her like a brick wall.”
Kid started to laugh, his deep chortle rolling around his chest. “She’s gonna feel terrible in the mornin’. Do you think that was her choppin’ arm she injured?”
“We can only hope so, because if she hated drink before, she’s gonna be a lot worse after a hangover.”
“Miss Montgomery? Missin’?” demanded Kid.
“She ain't been seen since she left with the doc to go home,” the sheriff stared at Nancy before glancing around the converted mine. “I need men. Postpone your ‘health club’ until she’s found. We gotta send out a search party.”
Nancy gave a growl. “That woman’s a nightmare! If she ain't ruinin’ my life one way, she’s doin’ it another,” she threw her hands up in exasperation. “Fine. I’ll give you my two security men. If you find that doc, bring him here. I’ll skin him alive for you.”
The sheriff hooked his thumbs in his belt. “What do you know about him, Nancy?"
“He treats all the girls at Maggie’s place. He’s harmless. Ain't much of a doctor, but he’s real good as a painless dentist.”
The sheriff’s eyes glistened with worry. “So? He’s worked at a brothel and he’s real good at knockin’ folk out?”
Nancy’s face tensed. “I guess so, yes.”
“Let’s go, boys. We ain't got no time to lose.”
Nancy stood. “Ben. Take them all. If there’s a man in this place that don’t help, I’ll remove his teeth for him, and it won’t be the painless way.”
A lone figure stood by the road out of town, waving in the moonlight.
“That’s a woman,” gasped Kid, taking off in her direction.
“Help me, please!” Eve Montgomery sobbed, as they leapt down from their horses. Her torn dress hung from the shoulder and her straight hair tumbled down around her shoulders in messy tendrils.
Kid sucked in a breath of anger. “Ma’am! You’re safe now.”
She burst into tears. “Thank God! I thought no one would ever come.”
“Come with us,” Heyes murmured softly, placing a comforting arm on her shoulder. “No one can hurt you now.”
She leapt back as though burnt. “Come with you? No. You must come with me! Cyril’s hurt.”
“Doctor Sheppard. He was bringing me home when something spooked the horses,” she pointed down the rocky incline. “He’s down there. He’s hurt.”
She took off, as athletically as a goat, dodging down the hill on bent knees, rapidly followed by Heyes and Curry.
The moonlight shone weakly down on a scene of devastation. The wagon lay in bits, pieces cascading down the hillside.
“Where are the horses?” asked Kid.
“I let them loose. It seemed cruel to keep them in harness,” Eve croaked emotionally and pointed out to the night. “They’re out there, somewhere. Cyril! Are you there?”
A weak voice drifted out of the darkness. “I’m over here. Did you find someone?”
They stumbled towards the sound, quickly finding the stout man draped across the remains of the axle.
“My leg’s broken. I can’t move it.”
Heyes fished around in the broken wagon. “Don’t move, Doc. Is there anything in your bag we can give you for the pain?”
“Yes. There’s laudanum.”
Kid glanced at Heyes doubtfully. “Are you sure, Doc. We know who hired you and why.”
“He’s a doctor! How dare you question him?”
Heyes sighed. “He’s a quack, hired by Nancy Rowe to keep her ‘Health Club’ open.”
The woman’s eyes widened with disbelief. “Is this true, Cyril?”
The man closed his eyes and pursed his lips. “Just give me the laudanum. I know how to administer painkillers.”
Heyes dug about until he brought out a bottle. “Thaddeus, can you light a fire so I can see what I’m giving him? I don’t want to give you the wrong thing, do I?”
“The ribbed bottles are poison. DON’T give me anything from those.”
Heyes nodded while Kid pulled together some tinder and struck a small flame, feeding in sticks until a fledgling fire gave them enough light to read by.
“Found it. Do you need anything for pain, Miss Montgomery?”
She shook her head. “No. The painkiller that Cyril gave me earlier sent me into a deep sleep. I seemed to just bounce. I was dead to the world for ages. I just have a headache.”
“Yeah? Dead drunk, more like,” muttered Kid, under his breath.
The partners exchanged a wry smile. They both knew about the strange ability of the inebriated to survive falls that would cripple a more sober victim. Somehow, not bracing, added more elasticity and resilience than their terrified, more sentient, counterparts.
“We’ll need men and a wagon to get you out of here. Miss, can you ride?” asked Heyes.
“I’ll wait here. Cyril’s been so brave.”
“You've been marvellous, Eve. You really kept me going with your stories. How do you know so much about the sea?”
“My grandfather was a sailor. He told us tales his whole life. I wrote them all down and then I started adding to them,” she sighed. “It was my escape. I could only dream of a life like that,” she paused, staring straight at Kid as though something had just hit her between the eyes. “Writing was my passion! You were right. Who’d have thought you could be so wise?”
The drugs started to filter into the man’s blood stream, as he slurred his next request. “Tell me more about Amalthea’s trials amongst the savages.”
She crouched down beside him, and took his head in her lap. “Well, as you remember, Amalthea was shipwrecked right after being captured by the pirates. It was very timely, and protected her virtue, but then...”
Kid grasped Heyes by the arm. “I’ll go to town.”
“No. I said I’d go. We agreed.”
“Yeah? Well, I changed my mind. I ain't sittin’ here listenin to this!” he hissed.
Heyes firmly removed Kid’s hand. “I’m going. Just ignore them.”
“Ignore them? This story’s are so sweet, my teeth are startin’ to rot.”
Heyes chuckled. “He’s a dentist. You’ll be fine.”
“And then she stopped and stared at the savage, struck by his rippling muscles and the nobility in his eyes...”
Kid dropped his head into his hands. “For cryin’ out loud, Joshua! How long are you gonna be?”
Twelve months later, in a railway waiting room -
“What are you reading?”
Kid shrugged. “Just somethin’ I found in the waitin’ room.”
Heyes narrowed his eyes. “Why’ve you got the cover bent all back like that? What are you trying to hide?”
A pair of guilty blue eyes flicked up. “Nothin’.”
Heyes reached out an arm as Kid dodged back. “Let me see.”
“Just leave me alone, will ya?”
They stopped scuffling, looking up innocently, as a young blonde woman walked in. “Aah! Thank heavens, you found it.”
Heyes snatched the book, reading from the cover. “’Amalthea and the Pirate.’ Were you looking for this, Miss?”
“Yes! It’s a signed copy. I just couldn't bear to lose it. I heard the author speak. She’s SO inspirational.”
“Eve Montgomery,” mused Heyes with a smile. “Thaddeus, wasn't that woman’s story after that accident about someone called, ‘Amalthea?’”
Kid said nothing, his eyes glittering with embarrassment at being caught reading a woman’s dime novel.
“The accident!? You were there? That was her epiphany. That was when she realised what her passion was in life. In one short year she has published three best sellers and has embarked on a speaking tour. Apparently a drunken tramp told her to find her passion; she talks of the pearls of wisdom amongst the swine.”
“Drunken tramp?” Heyes suppressed a snicker.
“Yes,” the woman continued, misreading his reaction as interest. “A reprobate who was looting a burnt-out bar. I would never have the courage to confront a ruffian like that.”
“Lootin’? Ruffian?” Kid’s mouth firmed into a line. “She sure can tell a story.”
“She certainly can,” she stepped forward, taking the book. “She really does give women hope that they can do something respectable, other than get married. She was never able to marry because she had to nurse her father, you know?”
“I can’t say I did,” grumbled Kid.
“Well, thank you. It’s been lovely meeting someone who was at the scene of the accident with Miss Montgomery.”
Heyes sat with folded arms, laughter dancing in his eyes. “Don’t worry. We’ll be able to get you another. It’s a best seller.”
“Don’t bother,” snapped Kid. “I’ll get one when I’m lootin’, after my next drunken rampage. I wasn’t really readin’ it. I just picked it up.”
“Sure you did, Thaddeus. And Nancy runs a health club in Kansas.”