One Good Turn - Chapter One
Woodsmoke spiralled up from a fire under the trees, curling lazily in the still night air. The scent of it carried sharply to the man down at the river's edge, turning his thoughts to food and hot coffee. Beside him one of the horses drinking from the water lifted its head and whickered, twitching its flanks and shaking its head irritably.
"Easy, there." Kid Curry laid a calming hand on the horse's neck, smoothing the twitching skin. "Easy." The horse shook its head one more time, then blew out with a snort. Beside it, its companion animal also lifted its head and shifted its feet, stepping sideways from the river. "I guess that means you're done." Kid spoke quietly. "Sure now? Figure you've had enough to drink?" He waited for a moment to give the animals a last chance to slake their thirst, listening to the running of the river ahead in the darkness. One of the horses shifted and stamped slightly on the muddy ground. "Okay, you're done." He tightened his hold on the reins and led the two animals back up the shallow riverbank, walking slowly in the gloom.
Ahead of him the fire flickered, dazzling his night vision: Kid shaded his eyes with one hand as he guided the horses to the snag of an old dead tree and picketed them out. Then he headed back to the fire. As he drew close smoke billowed out in a cloud: he squinted through it, his eyes stinging, and ducked down to clearer air. "Heyes, are you cooking dinner or smoking it?"
"This blamed wood's so wet it's a miracle I got a fire going at all." Crouching by the meagre flames, Heyes was fanning the fire with his hat in an effort to goad the smouldering fuel into burning more fiercely. "Yet another delight from this boggy excuse for dry land." Smoke rose into his face and he turned it to one side, shutting his eyes. "Son of a…"
"All you've done since we got this job is grouse." Kid crouched down.
"Yeah, and with good reason."
"C'mon – we've rounded up stray cattle before. There's worse jobs."
"Right." Heyes began fanning the fire again. "Only right now I just can't bring 'em to mind."
"It ain't so bad." Kid spoke lightly, recognising that his partner's usual sunny mood had gone into eclipse. "Ground's easy riding; we found nearly thirty head; got the country to ourselves. Nice and peaceful."
"Except for some fool who talks to horses."
"Keeps 'em gentled." Kid felt the first sting of irritability breaking through his attempts to keep the peace. "You sung enough cattle asleep to know that. They were both twitchy as lizards down by the river, with all them mosquitoes. They was getting riled."
"They're not the only ones." Heyes settled his hat back onto his head, frowning into the fire. "Since we been in this godforsaken valley, I swear there ain't one mosquito living here that hasn't made a meal out of me."
"Guess there are more'n a few hereabouts." Kid shrugged. "They don't seem to bother me none."
"Yeah, that's what I don't understand." Heyes shot him a jaundiced look. "How is it I get bit in a hundred places, includin' some I didn't know I had till now, and you get off with hardly a scratch." Heyes' brows creased into a sudden frown. "Ah, hell… Wish I hadn't said that."
"Scratch." Heyes looked pained. "I itch worse'n a jay on an ant hill."
Curry laughed. "We been chased by posses, jumped by bounty hunters, beat on, held up, shot at – and you let a few bug bites get you down? You need to toughen up, partner."
"Uh huh." Heyes gave his friend a jaundiced look. "I'd'a needed skin as tough as a buffalo's to keep them darn mosquitoes away."
"Never heard a grown man fuss so about nothin'." Curry was grinning now.
"You wouldn't be sayin' that if was you they'd been eatin' alive."
"Well, some of us were born luckier 'n others." Curry looked smug.
"Uh huh." Heyes hitched one shoulder up with a frown, trying to shift the itch between his shoulder blades, then let it drop. "I reckon it's more like, there's some things even mosquitoes won't eat."
"Now, was that a nice thing to say?" Curry's brows drew up into a mock wounded expression.
"There's a time and place for nice. And this ain't it." Heyes reached for the coffee pot and stood it carefully on the fire. Kid let out a sigh. "What we havin' for eats?"
"Beans and biscuits."
"Any bacon left?"
"Nope." Heyes poked the embers up around the base of the coffee pot. "Finished the last of it up this morning."
"Huh." Kid pursed his lips. "Maybe it is time to think about heading back."
"That's the first sensible thing you've said all day."
"You figure heading up to Garnerville's our best move for selling these beef?"
"Sure. Get as good a price there for 'em as we'll get anywhere." Heyes rose and lifted the covered pan of beans, setting it on the side of the fire near the coffeepot. "Likely we won't get more'n ten, maybe twelve dollars a head… But it'll do us for a while. Till we find ourselves another job, anyways."
"Mm-hmm." Kid looked at the flames licking around the pan. "Ain't much in the way of work opportunities in Garnerville."
"Yeah, I know." Heyes crouched back on his heels. "I was wonderin' about riding on to Lawton, sitting in on some poker games. There's a couple of bars there with casinos; plenty of action and not too many good players."
"Sounds like a plan." Kid glanced at his friend, smiling slightly. "You had enough of cattle herding for a while?"
"Oh, it ain't the cattle I've had enough of," Heyes replied. Suddenly he reached up and slapped hard at the back of his neck. "Damnit - " He examined the palm of his hand and shook his head. "I swear, the next mosquito bites me I'm gonna torture it to death, like they been doin' to me all week."
After their supper both men unpacked their bed rolls and settled down to sleep not far from the fire. For some time Heyes shifted about restlessly under his blanket. At last Kid's voice came to him through the darkness. "Heyes, you planning on keeping that up all night?"
Heyes let out a sigh, then turned onto his back, staring up at the night sky. "Sorry, Kid. Guess I just don't feel sleepy."
"Well, no need to feel sorry 'bout it. Just maybe, it'd be good if you let those of us who do feel like sleeping get some shut-eye."
"Right." Heyes lay quiet for a few minutes, still looking up into the night. Then, "Kid?"
There was a barely suppressed groan, followed by a muttered response. "What?"
"D'you ever worry we're not gonna make it?"
"You know. That we're not gonna make it through without blowing our amnesty."
"Heyes, you pick a fine time to worry about the big stuff."
"Don't it ever keep you awake at night, thinking about it?"
"Well, right now you're doin' a pretty fine job of that."
"Sometimes I just get to wondering about whether it'll work out. That's all."
"I mean, how long we been outlaws? Near enough ten years, off and on? Kind of makes me wonder what else we're cut out for."
"Time enough to worry about that once we got the amnesty," Kid responded.
"Yeah… But don't you ever think about it?"
"Sometimes, yeah. But right at this moment, all I'm thinking about is how we got to get up at daybreak, and how much easier that's gonna be with a good night's sleep."
"Sometimes I think maybe I could get a share in a casino… Even run a place of my own."
"I'm happy for you, Heyes."
"Then I think, I ain't so sure I'd take to it. It's alright when it's just for a spell, but spend the rest of my life doing that? Think I'd go crazy after a while."
"Go to sleep."
The clatter of the coffee pot lid woke Heyes the next morning. His eyes squinted open into dazzling sunlight: he shut them again and tried to recapture whatever dream it was he'd just been having. The smell of smoke and coffee defeated him, and he abandoned his attempt. Pushing back his blanket, he sat up and looked across to where Kid was fixing breakfast. "Morning."
"Mornin'." Kid glanced across at him. "Coffee?"
"Oh, yeah." Heyes rubbed a hand across his face, letting out a huge yawn. Then he winced and scratched at his neck. "Damn – I been ate alive again while I was asleep!"
"Don't expect no sympathy from me." Kid passed him his tin mug full of steaming black coffee. "Not after you kept me awake half the night."
Heyes took the coffee and swallowed a scalding mouthful, then set the mug on the ground. He stood up and shook out his bed roll, then began packing it up. "Well, here's a proposal might cheer you up some. How's about we aim to sleep in a bed by tomorrow night."
"Head up to Garnerville today?" Kid pursed his lips, nodding thoughtfully. "Guess we could do that."
"We set off this morning, we could be there by noon tomorrow. Find us a buyer and unload the beef, get ourselves a hotel room and a bath and a real meal." Heyes was visibly brightening as he unfolded his idea. "What d'you say?"
"I'd say you talked me into it," Kid grinned.
As soon as breakfast was made and eaten and the fire doused, the two men set about the day's work. The sun made good its promise of the early morning and soon the air grew uncomfortably warm and humid in the sheltered valley bottom as they pushed the cattle along on horseback. Waiting behind the moving herd, Heyes took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his face. He turned as Kid rode up. "That's the last of 'em, right?"
"Yeah." Kid looked as hot as Heyes felt. "Leastways, it better be. I sure don't want to spend any more time riding these bottom lands."
"I'm with you on that one." Heyes regarded the boggy low ground with dislike. "No wonder folks don't settle down here in the flats. Must be a regular swamp come the winter rains."
"Let's get 'em up to higher ground. We'll make quicker time up on the plain." Kid spurred his horse on towards the herd, closely followed by his friend.
After one more night spent sleeping under the stars, the outlaws reached Garnerville a little after midday. A buyer took the herd off their hands after only a little haggling on Heyes' part for a price all parties could live with: the partners found themselves with a little over three hundred dollars and the simple pleasures of the small town at their disposal.
A bath, a shave and a good meal later, they had settled on the porch of Garnerville's only hotel for an unhurried smoke and to watch the world go by. After a long companionable silence, Heyes tipped back comfortably in his chair and rested his feet up on the porch rail, letting out a satisfied sigh. Beside him Kid smiled around his cigarillo. "That's one thing I'll say for working cattle. Kinda makes you appreciate life's little comforts."
"Sure does." Heyes removed his own cigar and regarded its glowing end meditatively. "Pity we can't stay here a week or two."
"Gotta earn ourselves a living." Kid blew a stream of smoke out into the evening air. "That's one of the drawbacks of this law-abiding lifestyle."
"Mm-hmm." Heyes replaced his cigar in his mouth. "So you still happy for us to ride on to Lawton?"
"Guess it's as good a place to head to as any other. How far you reckon it is from here?"
"I'd say three, maybe four days, if we take it easy. No reason to push it." Heyes looked thoughtful. "We could stay here tomorrow, rest up the horses and get some supplies. Head on out the day after."
"Suits me." Kid folded his arms behind his head. "The money we got today should keep us flush for a little while. Then if you reckon you can find a poker game once we're in Lawton, make enough to tide us over till we find some payin' work…"
Heyes grinned around his cigar. "Kid, when have you ever known me not to find a game?"