"Sure is a fine morning."
Heyes sounded at peace with the world. Glancing sideways at him, Kid saw that his partner was riding along smiling at nothing in particular, the way he only did when he was genuinely content.
It felt curmudgeonly not to agree with Heyes' pronouncement, but curmudgeonly was a light word for the black mood that had shrouded Kid since he'd woken up that morning. He managed a non-committal grunt, hoping that would suffice.
It didn't. Heyes looked across at him, the smile still on his face. "What's eating you?"
"Nothin'." Kid didn't elaborate. Figure it out. You're the smart one.
A slight frown pulled Heyes' brows together: he turned his head back to face the road in front of them. His lips pursed for a moment, but he said nothing more.
At nightfall they pitched camp in the lee of a small bluff, sheltered from the cool early October breeze. Once the sun dipped below the horizon, it got cold pretty quick: Kid got a fire going, which had the double benefit of giving off warmth and keeping himself busy. He put coffee on to brew and began making supper: biscuits and beans, the best that their scanty remaining supplies lent themselves to. Heyes led the horses off to drink their fill at a creek that ran alongside the track they'd been following, before picketing them out for the night.
Kid stared into the fire, waiting for the beans to heat through. The wood burned bright, snapping and popping as flames curled along it.
Footsteps approached from the darkness; stopped close behind him.
"Okay. I get it now." There was regret in the words. "You could've reminded me."
Kid shrugged. "What for?"
Heyes came into his field of view, crouching down by the fire. "You know how I lose track of time when we're out in the hills. But if I'd remembered, I would've - "
"Forget it." Kid reached out to the pot of beans, gave them a stir. "It's no big deal."
Heyes looked at him for a long moment, then let out a sigh. Kid felt anger trying to surface; latched it down. "Look, I said forget it. I sure don't feel like celebrating, anyway."
"C'mon, Kid." Heyes spoke quietly. "It's your birthday. I know you're pissed because I forgot it, but you're not half as mad with me as I am."
"I'm not mad at you."
"Well, you're mad, all right. That I get." Pause. "We should reach Oketon by noon tomorrow. And I got enough for us to get a room and a bath… and a bottle of decent whiskey. For starters. How's that sound?"
Kid shrugged. "Fine."
"Well, don't excite yourself." There was annoyance creeping into Heyes' tone now. "You going to make me spell out how sorry I am? Or do you just want me to feel bad a while longer?"
"I told you it was no big deal."
Heyes studied his friend for a moment. "Uh huh." He stood up and lifted the coffee pot off the fire; fetched two mugs and poured them full; set one beside Kid and took a sip from his own. "Then that face of thunder you've been carrying around all day must just be a trick of the light. Unless there's something else that's bothering you." A sideways look. "You feel like letting me in on it?"
Kid picked up a stick and poked at the fire. "What the hell is there to celebrate? Just another year older. Another damn year waiting for the governor to pull his finger outta his ass and make good on what he promised us. Another year dodging from Dustville to East Jesus Nowhere, hoping some nosy lawman or trigger-happy bounty hunter doesn't haul us back to Wyoming or put us into a wooden box." The stick broke: Kid regarded the half left in his hand darkly, then flicked it into the flames. "Yeah, that's worth feeling good about, all right."
For a long time the only sounds came from the fire. At last Heyes spoke. "I wish there was some other way of us doing this. But I don't think that there is." Pause. "You know, we always said that if either of us ever wanted to walk away from the deal - "
"I didn't say that. Did you hear me saying that?"
"I want it as bad as you do, Heyes. You know that. I just… Hell, you know what I think. You've heard me say it before. You want me to say it again?"
"What? That you figured we'd both do better getting the amnesty if we split up? I thought you'd let go of that one."
"Maybe I have. Maybe sometimes I don't think either one of us is ever gonna get it. Because the chances of the governor delivering on his promise, when he can keep us dangling by saying Stay out of trouble just a little longer, boys, is pretty long odds."
"But worth it if the odds pay off."
"You said it. If."
There was a longer silence this time. After a minute or so, Kid got up and swung the pot of beans from off the fire: reached for plates. As he started to ladle out the food, Heyes spoke again. "You've got to have a little faith, Kid. Things change. We've been in worse places than this, and come through okay."
"Yeah. Sure." Kid passed him a plate of food.
They ate without talking further; when supper was done, Heyes laid more wood on the fire. That done, he moved to where Kid still sat gazing morosely into the flames and sat down close beside him, so that their shoulders touched. An indeterminate length of time passed, while Heyes also looked at the leaping firelight. At last he spoke quietly. "Don't let it get you down."
Kid said nothing. The dark mood had settled deep within his chest, a dull misery that no words felt like they could touch.
Heyes' arm settled around his shoulders: eased him closer. "I'm real sorry I forgot your birthday."
Kid let out a long breath. Felt Heyes' hand rest against his neck; the thumb stroke gently against his skin, soothing. For some reason it brought the ache deep in his chest up into his throat: he had to swallow hard. He sensed that his partner was trying to coax away whatever demons had taken up residence, but they seemed locked tight inside.
Heyes said nothing else, but kept his arm around Kid as they both watched the fire burn away to ashes.
He could smell baking: warm rich sugar scent filling the air, cinnamon and ginger shot through the sweetness like sunlight falling between the leaves of a tree, gold and brown and glowing. He followed the smell into the house, dropping his school books inside the doorway. His boots thumped a little on the plank floor as he turned into the kitchen and the heart of that rich happy smell.
She turned around at the cookstove and gave him the special smile that made the room brighter still. That smile she had that curled into your soul and stayed there, making everything right.
"Well, I thought it must be about time you got home."
He looked at her but then his gaze was drawn inexorably to the big platter on the table, standing in the middle of the room. The plate was piled high with brown molasses cookies, each one dusted with white sugar, the best sugar that was only used when company came.
She laughed. "I know they're your favourite. That's why I made them for your birthday." She nodded at the heaping plateful. "Go on, now. They're for you. But don't eat them all in one sitting, son."
He reached out and took a handful: three cookies, thin and feather-light and still faintly warm. He crammed one into his mouth, the crisp cookie snapping between his teeth then melting away in a flood of sweet spiciness that tasted so good he was starting on the second almost before he'd swallowed the first.
"Good?" At his emphatic nod, she smiled again. "Take the plate outside. I expect Han'll help you eat more than a few, when he comes over later on."
He went to pick the plate of cookies up from the table; then paused, standing in indecision because now he was eleven years old maybe that was just too grown up to be giving his mother a hug, but he didn't know how else to show the happy feelings that were filling him up from head to toe. As if she understood his dilemma, she reached out and took hold of his shoulder: gave it a squeeze. Then let go. "Happy birthday, Jed."
Then she turned back to the cookstove; picked up some wood, opened the door and put the wood inside, laying it on the glowing fire within. The wood spat and crackled as it caught, a smoky smell drifting into the kitchen, sharper than the sweet cookies, tickling his nose. He bit into a third cookie and tasted cinnamon and ginger and sugar. His mother swung the cookstove door shut and the burning wood gave a loud gunshot crack!
Kid came awake and stared up at a clear blue sky with wide eyes. For a few seconds he was cast adrift, unsure of where or when or even who he was.
Then a snap! and rustling sound pulled him back down to earth, along with a tang of woodsmoke in the chill air. He turned his head, twisting under his blanket, to see Heyes kneeling not far away, blowing gently on the beginnings of a fire. Small flames licked and jumped: Heyes pulled back a little, turning his head away from the smoke, before bending to blow again. This time the twigs above the tinder caught. Heyes carefully leaned a few larger sticks against each other in the flames, placing each piece of wood with the same patient precision he did most things. Running out of sticks, he turned to a pile beside him to pick up more. Glancing over towards Kid he noticed for the first time that his partner was awake, and smiled at him.
"Morning. I wake you up?"
Kid sat up. "No." He pushed his blanket away, feeling the nip of the early morning air. "Boy… feels like it must've got pretty cold in the night." He reached for his sheepskin jacket and began to shrug it on, hoping to pull himself back into everyday wakefulness by getting moving. The dream still hung about him: there was even the ghost of the taste of molasses in his mouth.
"Yeah, I figure it didn't hit freezing… But not far off it." Heyes was still concentrating in perfecting his fire. "I'll make us some coffee. There's a few biscuits left from last night's supper, I can heat 'em up and there's some jerky… Reckon that'll hold you till we get to Oketon?"
"Sure." Kid got to his feet. "Gonna just…" He gestured into the distance. Heyes nodded in understanding, turning his attention back to the fire.
Kid walked further away than was strictly necessary. He breathed in deep the chill morning air, trying to use it like cold water dashed onto his face, to drive away the last traces of sleep. After he'd had a piss and buttoned up again against the cold, he stood for a while looking out across the empty hills, watching the shadows creep and shorten as the thin autumn sunlight lifted higher into the sky.
It was just a dream. That's all it was. Let it go.
That dark bittersweet taste of molasses still clung like a shadow to his tongue. He opened his mouth and sucked in cold air, as though that would wash the phantom sweetness away; shut his mouth again and swallowed.
Never knew you could taste things in dreams. Or smell things, neither.
Kid didn't go much for trying make sense out of dreams. Mostly he slept heavy enough that whatever dreams came were lost in his journey back up to wakefulness. Heyes was the one who dreamed, often and vividly. Even when Heyes was so wired that sleep came in short supply, he could wake from a catnap wide-eyed from whatever hectic dreamworld he'd been visiting, albeit briefly. Or sometimes, when things were going badly, from nightmares that sent him sitting bolt upright into gasping wakefulness, shivering under Kid's touch as he was coaxed to lay back down.
Kid shut his eyes, just for a moment. Then opened them again and looked out across the rocky country. Down to the lower ground in the distance, where trees picked out the winding path of the creek, their leaves starting to colour under the warning breath of autumn.
That's real. Those rocks, and that hill over there, and this ground solid under my feet. Here and now, that's what real. Not that kitchen, or that taste in my mouth, or her. Not for going on twenty years now.
Some part of him rebelled at his rationalisation. It seemed hardly fair: that after all these years this one sweet memory should surface, so clear that he could taste it yet. That last good birthday, when he turned eleven years old. A sweet memory that maybe he was entitled to, given all the dark ones he'd had to endure.
It had been the last birthday he'd truly had as a child. The next one, his twelfth, had passed by unnoticed and uncelebrated. He and Heyes had been in Valparaiso just over a month.
And that's what you get for thinking back to those times. Into the dark places. Waking up ghosts you thought you'd laid for good. And you chase those ghosts, you know right where they'll lead you. Smoke blotting out the sun; the crack of the timbers of your home falling in as they burned through. Crying out their names even as you saw what had been done, why they would never answer you back.
Kid took a deep breath in; then turned away from the valley, walking back to the fire.
It was still early when they set out down the trail that led to Oketon. As Heyes had predicted, they reached the small town a little after midday: turning their horses in to the town's livery stable, they sought a hotel that would meet their basic aims of a hot bath, a square meal and a room that overlooked a back alley.
Heyes dumped his gear onto a chair and went straight to the window to check out their surroundings, before turning back to regard the bed. He sat on its edge, then lay back on it with a sigh. "Wonder if they'll fix us a bath real quick… Or if we've got time to eat first."
"Desk clerk said they'd bring it right up," answered Kid, stowing his own belongings on the other side of the bed.
Heyes rested his head back on his folded arms. "You want first dibs?" At his partner's shrug, one corner of his mouth lifted in a smile. "C'mon. You being the birthday boy and all."
"Okay." Kid didn't much mind, but he had to admit, the thought of a hot bath was starting to have its appeal. A thought occurred to him: he looked over to where his partner was reclining on the bed, that smile still in place. "Oh, I get it. You want to watch."
"The thought never entered my mind, Kid." The smile grew a notch.
"Well, if it has, it better get the hell out again." Kid glanced at the door. "Don't know much about the folks that run this hotel, but I'm pretty sure they'd find the notion of you watching me take a bath a mite disturbing."
Heyes raised his eyebrows. "Now that's one downside that civilisation has, over camping out in the back country… Wouldn't nobody turn a hair if they come upon us skinnydipping in a creek up in the hills."
"That all depends," said Kid. "I seem to recall the last time we went swimming, things got kinda outta hand."
"Uh?" Heyes considered for a moment, frowning. "Oh. That time." A smile resurfaced on his face.
Kid sat down on the other side of the bed, and began hauling off his boots. "Okay. You've convinced me. I'll have the first bath. While you go and… do something else. Somewhere else."
"You're no fun at all." Heyes pushed himself up on to his elbows. "But as we're making up for me forgetting your birthday yesterday, I guess I'll do as I'm told."
"That'd be a first." Kid smiled wryly. "That offer hold good for the whole of today?"
"Play your cards right, it might do." Heyes came upright, sitting cross-legged on the bed.
"How about tonight?"
"Now you're just getting plumb greedy." But Heyes reached out, laying one hand to rest lightly on Kid's leg. Kid felt the touch of his fingers through his jeans, the gentle stroke upwards from knee to thigh. A shiver ran through his belly: he shut his eyes for a moment, then opened them again and grinned into Heyes' waiting face. "You don't quit doing that, and whoever brings that bath up here is going to see a whole lot more than they bargained for."
Heyes grinned too… but took his hand away. "I guess it would be kind of troublesome, having to find another place to stay if they tossed us out of here." His gaze rested on Kid's face; the grin faded as he turned a more assessing look on his friend. "Seems like you're in a better place than yesterday, anyhow. You feeling more on the up?"
"Guess so." Kid wanted to respond with something more positive, but the heavy feeling still lurked below the surface.
Heyes regarded him. "Maybe all you need's a good night's sleep."
That all depends on the dreams that come with it. The thought made Kid tense up: he turned away abruptly, standing up. "Yeah. Probably."
There was silence behind him. Then a knock at the door made him glance at it: he heard the bed creak as Heyes got up.
"Sir? You asked for a bath to be brought up?" A woman's voice came through the closed door.
"Yeah!" Kid found himself answering loudly, moving towards the door. He opened it to reveal a maid holding a steaming pail of water, accompanied by a bathtub carried by a beefy-looking man whose usual job, by the smell of him, was tending to hotel guests' horses. Kid stepped back to let them enter; after they'd done so, Heyes stepped past and through the doorway. He gave Kid a brief smile. "Enjoy your bath." Then he headed away down the hotel corridor, and was gone.
A long soak in hot water eased most of the knots out of Kid's body, and even went some way towards lifting the shadows that still clouded his mood. Once he'd shaved, dressed in some clean clothes and gone to tell the desk clerk that the bath needed emptying and refilling, he felt almost normal. But his less than positive response to Heyes' earlier enquiry hung about in his mind, uncomfortably so.
After all, it's not his fault I'm feeling blue. And he's sure enough trying to make it up to me, for forgetting about yesterday. He remembered the feel of Heyes' hand on his leg, stroking fingers trying to soothe the darkness away. The look of anticipation in those dark brown eyes.
Kid headed into the bar at the front of the hotel, guessing that his partner would most likely be where there were cards, or beer, or both. He paused in the doorway, running his gaze across the room. It was early afternoon and the place was fairly busy with lunchtime trade, both hotel guests and locals, Kid guessed. It took a few moments before he was able to spot Heyes: then he saw him, standing facing the other way over at the bar. Kid was about to walk over when he noticed something else. Heyes wasn't alone. He was bending close to whisper into the ear of a slender, dark-eyed, very pretty bar girl who listened intently to whatever was being said, before a smile spread attractively across her face.
It was no brief conversation: Heyes continued to murmur what must have been sweet nothings into the girl's ear, one hand resting on her arm. The smile on her face changed, then broadened. When finally Heyes straightened up and looked at her questioningly, the girl met his eyes and nodded, emphatically. Heyes reached into his pocket and took out something that Kid had no trouble recognising, even at that distance. A folded banknote, which Heyes tucked with a final smile into the girl's hand. She slipped it away somewhere, nodded to Heyes once more, said something and gestured upstairs. This time Heyes nodded. The girl gave him one more breathtakingly attractive smile, then turned and walked away. Heyes watched her go.
Standing in the bar room doorway, Kid felt a hollowness inside. He wanted more than anything not to have walked in there at that moment; not to have seen what he'd just seen.
Jesus. Get your head straight. He's a grown man. You don't own him. And we've each taken a tumble with a girl now and again, since we got together. Hell, there was even that night when the two of us and Clem…
Heyes was turning round now at the bar. In a few seconds he'd see Kid standing there motionless, watching him.
Enough. If he wants a warm and willing armful, who the hell am I to stop him? After all, he's showed me he wants me tonight. So it shouldn't matter what he does in the meantime.
Heyes' gaze travelled across the room; found Kid. His face brightened. Kid found himself walking into the room, a smile suddenly on his face that felt like a mask but which he kept it there anyway.
"Hey… been wondering how much longer you'd be." Heyes leaned on elbow on the bar. "Want a beer?"
"Yeah. Thanks." Kid leaned on the bar himself. "I told the desk clerk to set you up a bath. Should be ready pretty soon."
"Great." Heyes caught the barkeep's eye, and tossed a couple of coins onto the bar top. "You want to eat after I get through?"
"How long you figure you'll be?" The words came out before he could stop them. Kid could have bitten his tongue: he'd been wondering inwardly if Heyes planned to go with the girl before having a bath, or after. And hoping it was the former.
Heyes gave him a quizzical look. "Not long. You think you can hold out till I come back down? They'll cook us a steak here any time, seeing as how we're staying in the hotel."
"Sure." Kid picked up the beer that the barkeep set in front of him, and took a deep swallow. "I'll be right here when you're done."
Heyes gave him a parting smile and a clap of the hand on his shoulder, then headed out of the bar room. Kid turned away to face the bar, gazing down into his beer.
Heyes was as good as his word. Less than an hour later he reappeared in the bar, looking spruced up and pretty content. Kid watched him approach, and tried not to let the thought That must have been a pretty damn quick bath, show on his face.
Heyes gave him a smile. "That was worth waiting for."
I'll bet. Kid shoved the other thoughts that were gathering way, way down, and brought a smile onto his own face. "Well, speaking of waiting… I'm about hungry enough to eat a steer. You ready to get some food?"
"Yeah, that'd be good. Let's see what kind of a steak they serve up in this place."
The hotel cook turned out to be a former chuck wagon driver who had more than a passing notion of how to turn beef into something tender and tasty. He'd also learned to bake pies from a local rancher's wife, and both Kid and Heyes ate till they were sated. Afterwards, too full to do anything except digest, they sat out on the hotel porch in the waning late afternoon sun, smoking and watching the good people of Oketon go about their business.
After studying the passers-by for a while, Kid turned his gaze onto his partner. Heyes had swung his feet up to rest on the porch rail and now sat in a relaxed attitude, drawing on his cigarillo as he observed the traffic of people in the street in front of them. One hand rested in his lap; as he drew in smoke his eyes narrowed a little, then shut as he breathed out. Kid saw his head tilt back a little, the muscles in his shoulders settle and drop. For a while Heyes was still, face turned towards the sun, smoke curling up in a thin blue line from the end of his cigarillo.
I wish it could be like this all the time. No-one on our tail. Time enough to just sit and let the world go by. And him letting go of every damn thing that keeps him thinking, just letting go and letting things be.
The low sun that felt warm on Kid's face cast light and shadows over the features of the man beside him. Heyes' eyes stayed shut. Kid studied his partner's profile, that he knew as well as his own reflection. The curve of the jaw; the fine lines drawn around eyes and mouth; dark hair curling slightly where it met the shirt collar.
I'm not the only one getting older. Maybe I oughta remember that, the next time I get to bitching about the amnesty.
He thought back to the previous night, and Heyes' words of encouragement.
- You've got to have a little faith, Kid. Things change. We've been in worse places than this, and come through okay.
Kid wanted to believe that, more than anything. That they would both come through this, walk the crooked path without falling. Slip past the thousand chances of bad luck, just one of which would be all it took to blow the amnesty deal to hell. Not recognising some lawman before he recognised them. Running into a bounty hunter who really didn't give a good goddamn whether he collected his money on two live men or two dead ones. Meeting a feller who knew them back from Devil's Hole days but didn't have the sense to keep quiet about it.
And taking whatever work we can pick up while we're moving on, just to get by. All it takes is for one of us to get thrown off his horse when we're riding trail, or another son of a bitch like Bilson to turn up… Or for some liquored-up loser to turn ugly with Heyes at a poker table and me to be too slow on the draw…
Kid shied away from that train of thought. There were dark places he knew he couldn't let himself go to, and that was one of them. Whatever happened with the amnesty, whether they wound up on the lam south of the border or kissing ass with the governor for the next ten years, that was all do-able. However much he bitched about it: he could do it. But he knew, like he knew the sun rose in the east and set in the west, that if anything ever took Heyes away, he was a goner. Not a dead man: he'd still be breathing and walking around, for whatever was left of his remaining days. But without Heyes… There truly would be nothing between him and the dark places. His heart would go there and stay there till someone finally beat him to the draw; and he would welcome the bullet.
Jesus… How about you snap out of this. Kid frowned, disturbed by the resurfacing of his dark mood. His eyes still rested on Heyes' peaceful face, his partner happily unaware of the mental turmoil going on beside him. Why've you gotta go thinking about what-if. Just be grateful for today: for him, right here and now; and for last night, when he had his arm round your shoulders and told you not to let it get you down. Be grateful, for every damn moment.
Heyes' eyes opened; he blinked, gazing out onto the street; glanced down at his cigarillo, then held it up closer to his face and inspected its tip. "Huh…" One corner of his mouth lifted wryly, as he turned his head and gave Kid a grin. "Darned if it ain't gone out. D'I fall asleep for a while?"
Kid smiled back, glad to be lifted further out of his recent musings. "Guess so."
"How long was I asleep?"
"Don't know… A few minutes, I guess. Does it matter?"
Heyes considered for a moment, before rooting through his pockets for a match and striking it against the porch post. "No." He held the match to the end of his cigarillo and drew until the end glowed; shook out the match and sent it spinning away with a neat flick of index finger and thumb. Smoke wisped out of his mouth when he spoke. "Not like we got anywhere we need to be."
Heyes let out a yawn. "In fact… I reckon I might turn in before too long. We had ourselves an early start this morning. And that bed is going to feel pretty good after sleeping on cold, hard ground for a week and a half."
Kid cast a glance across the street, looking at the angle of the shadows. "You're planning on going to bed? Can't be more'n five o'clock or thereabouts."
"Well, I plan on heading in that direction real soon," replied Heyes. "Anyway, who cares what time it is… That bed'll feel as good now as it will later on."
"You go to sleep now and you'll be waking up at two in the morning, then waking me up once you get restless," said Kid. "I know you… You'll want to talk about something you remembered, or light the lamp so you can read some damn book or other."
"I could always read it out loud."
"Just try it," Kid threatened.
Heyes chuckled and took another pull on his cigarillo. After a few moments, he murmured, "Anyways… When I said I was going to turn in, I wasn't planning on sleeping."
Kid swallowed smoke the wrong way, and coughed till water came into his eyes. When he finally got his lungs working the right way again, he shot his friend a look. "One of these days you are gonna drive me plumb crazy."
The smile deepened on Heyes' face: the mischievous glint of a challenge accepted came into the brown eyes. "If that's what you want… I think I can manage it."
Kid turned his face firmly towards the street, trying to ignore how that tone in Heyes' voice was affecting him. "Do you see all those people walkin' by about ten feet away? You figure they're hard of hearing, or do you just like living dangerously?"
"Relax." Heyes swung his feet down off the porch rail. Standing up, he inhaled a last mouthful of smoke, then stubbed out his cigarillo and tossed it into the street. He stretched and gave a luxurious yawn, then turned towards the hotel. In loud tones he proclaimed, "Well, I'm beat. Think I'll go get me some shut-eye. Don't wake me up when you decide to sack out." The ghost of a grin flickered about his face.
Kid gave a nod and a grunt of acknowledgement, glancing only briefly at his partner before returning his gaze to the street in front of him. It was only when he heard Heyes start to walk away that he let himself look around, to see him turn in through the doorway of the hotel.
Whoa. Kid blinked, then leaned forward in his chair, resting his forearms on his knees. His head was dizzy in a way that had nothing to do with the cigarillo he'd been smoking. All of a sudden the street with its passers by, the late afternoon light shading down into evening, the taste of tobacco smoke in his mouth, seemed like unreal shadows. What was real was the warmth in the pit of his stomach, the way his skin felt alive to the breath of air moving against it. And how he wanted to get up right that second and follow Heyes, no matter what it looked like.
Take it easy, he cautioned himself. Give it half an hour. Make it look natural. He let out a long, slow breath. Or maybe quarter of an hour'd be long enough.
In the end he managed to sit there until dusk started to fall, and yellow glows of oil lamps began to appear here and there in the windows of buildings. It was beginning to get chilly again: as he stood up and began to walk to the hotel door the cold air stole through his shirt and made his skin prickle with gooseflesh. It was pleasant to walk into the well-lit warmth of the hotel, to head up the stairs. And despite his control - the careful wait out on the porch, his deliberate unhurriedness as he climbed - inside he felt the heady rush that nothing else ever came close to. That sweet anticipation, that longing so intense it almost hurt. And shot all through it, like honey, the smile on Heyes' face. The light in his eyes. The words drawled out in that low tone.
- If that's what you want… I think I can manage it.
A grin came to Kid's own face: he tried to smother it as he neared the top of the stairs, mindful of the possibility of meeting other hotel guests. Then he decided he didn't actually give a damn. He stepped up onto the landing at the top of the stairs, then turned into the passage that led along to their room.
He'd only taken a couple of paces when he saw something that froze the silly grin on his face and stopped him dead. Leaning in the doorway of their room was the girl he'd seen Heyes with at the bar earlier on. She was laughing, evidently trying unsuccessfully not to; as he watched, the room door swung a little wider open and he could see Heyes as well, laughing with her. Then Heyes reached out and gave her arm a little squeeze: raised a finger to his lips as if to warn her to be silent, still smiling at her.
Long years of living on the edge had taught Kid how to move quietly. He stepped back around the corner of the passage and leaned back against the wall. When the mist in his head finally cleared enough that he took in his surroundings again, he found his hands hurt. Coming back a little more, he realised his fists were clenched so hard that his nails were digging into his palms. He made himself release them: breathed in, then out.
Some noise floated up the stairs from the hotel lobby below: a drawl of voices, a laugh, the clatter of a door opening and shutting.
Any moment now someone'll walk up here and find me stuck on this wall like a swatted fly. Kid tried to goad himself into moving, but it was just too much to manage. Right now a herd of Bannerman detectives could come up the stairs and he wouldn't give a damn.
It was like a physical pain, a hook stuck in his chest. Worse than earlier on. Not something he could just push away, tell himself that it was okay, that it didn't mean anything, that it didn't hurt. Because it hurt, all right.
Just some bar girl, he tried, Just a roll in the sheets, she doesn't mean anything, you're the one he wants, you're the one he's with, Jesus it doesn't mean anything, it doesn't mean anything.
And straight away the rejoinder came back: But tonight it was going to be just us, the two of us. Forget all the other damn stuff just for a while, just for one night, Jesus that's all I wanted, just him and me and –
A footfall sounded close: swiftly Kid pushed himself away from the wall and tried to look as though he had just come up the stairs. Around the corner of the passage the bar girl came into view, still smiling. When she saw him, however, she checked; something must have showed in his face, because the smile faded a little. Her eyes widened: a little flush came to her cheeks. "Oh… Uh, I didn't know anyone was here." She actually sounded a little flustered.
Kid made an effort: no matter what coals of fire he was walking over, he had no intention of letting her in on it. "Didn't mean to startle you. Just heading up to my room."
"Umm… Yeah." She actually glanced backwards over her shoulder towards the way she'd come, before looking at him again. Kid's hands twitched. I was raised never to hit a woman. So get the hell out of here and go find your next customer.
The bar girl was no fool. She read something either in his eyes or his stance that told her she was better off elsewhere. Giving him another look, she edged past him and clattered off down the stairs.
Kid let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. Then he stepped around the corner of the passage and walked down it to their room. For a full five minutes he stood there in the passageway, just looking at the door. The hurt he'd felt was sinking deep within him, like stone thrown into a well. He tried to pin a name on the feeling, as though that would somehow lessen its sharpness. It felt like he was angry, but he wasn't sure with whom. With the girl. Or with Heyes, for being with her; for forgetting today was supposed to be special, was supposed to make up for him forgetting Kid's birthday yesterday –
Or with himself, for acting like a child instead of the grown man he was.
Kid reached out and turned the door handle; let himself into the room. As he stepped inside he saw Heyes, standing beside the bed, turn around quickly. For just a split second, as he saw Kid, there was a fleeting look of something furtive in his expression. But it was gone so quickly Kid couldn't be sure.
"Hey… I wondered if you'd be coming up soon." Heyes smiled at his partner. "I was starting to wonder if you'd fallen asleep out there on the hotel porch."
"Kinda chilly for doing that," replied Kid. He closed and locked the door behind him, then crossed the room to the other side of the bed. Not looking at Heyes, he began unbuckling his gun belt.
"Well, I got something that'll keep out the chill," said Heyes. There was a faint creak as he sat on the bed. Leaning into Kid's field of view, he held out a bottle of whiskey. "Barman had that stashed away, for his own self. Reckon'll it be a fair bit smoother than the usual rotgut they pour out for the guests here."
Kid glanced at the bottle: gave a short nod. Heyes swung himself up off the bed, moving over to where an old chest of drawers stood against the wall. He picked up two glasses with one hand and this time came to the side of the bed where Kid stood. Setting the glasses down, Heyes opened the whiskey and poured out two healthy measures. Keeping one for himself, he held the other out to Kid. "It's a day late… But happy birthday, anyway." His smile was warm as his gaze rested on his friend.
Kid took the whiskey; held it up as Heyes touched the rim of their glasses together. "Thanks."
Heyes lifted his glass in a toast. "Maybe next year you'll be celebrating it as a free man."
"I'll drink to that." Kid gave his own glass an answering lift, before taking a drink. The whiskey was smooth, all right. After his first assessing sip, he raised the drink to his lips again and knocked the whole thing back in one fiery swallow, before lowering the empty glass. When he lifted his eyes again, he saw Heyes watching him speculatively, a slight frown pulling his brows together. Without saying anything, Heyes held the bottle out again: refilled Kid's glass. As Kid lifted it and took another swallow of whiskey, Heyes spoke. "That helping any?"
Kid looked at him, not answering. Heyes took a sip of his own drink, then moved to sit on the bed, leaning back against the headboard. "C'mon. Sit down."
Kid sat on the bed's edge, nursing his glass of whiskey. He knew Heyes was still watching him: could feel his partner's gaze as Heyes studied him, trying to work out what was wrong and how to fix it.
"It still what we talked about, last night?" Heyes spoke quietly, as if edging up to a spooked horse. Kid shrugged. He didn't want to speak: it felt too risky to let Heyes in, given how persistent he could be when he thought there was something he needed to know. And the last thing Kid wanted right now was for Heyes to know what he was really feeling.
There was a long silence. At last, Heyes spoke again. "Y'know… Sometimes all you can do, is wait it out. Just keep on acting like it all makes sense, even it doesn't feel like it. Then one day, sooner or later… It does." There was another pause. " 'Course, sometimes folks can drive you crazy trying to figure out if there's any damn thing they can do to make it better." There was a hint of exasperation in this last: but when Kid turned his head, he saw Heyes regarding him with a small, wry smile and nothing but empathy in his eyes.
Kid let out a long breath. Then tried to smile back. "Sorry. Must be a bitch bein' round me right now."
Heyes moved one leg, resting his right foot lightly against Kid's hip. "Well, you're not going to win any prizes for congeniality. But that don't matter." He stroked his sock-clad toes back and forth on Kid's leg. "What matters is, you can be however you need to be. You know that's the deal… with you and me."
Kid felt the warmth of the contact, the physical touch mirroring the reaching out of Heyes' words. What he wanted to do was turn and give in to it, open up, let out the heaviness in his chest, and face whatever came with it. But he couldn't. All he could do was take another sip of whiskey; then he lowered his hand and let it rest on Heyes' foot, acknowledging what had been said.
After a minute or two, Heyes spoke again. "I got you a present."
Kid looked round at him, genuinely surprised. Heyes was looking a little sheepish: at Kid's look, he waved one hand a little self-consciously. "I know we don't go in for that… sort of stuff. I just thought maybe it might perk you up some."
Kid's eyebrows raised, but he felt intrigued in spite of himself. Heyes saw the change in his face and brightened slightly. "I'll get it. Stay there." With that, he swung himself up off the other side of the bed and headed over the chest of drawers again. Sliding open the bottom drawer, he took out a squareish package about the size of a large cigar box, inexpertly wrapped in a sheet of newspaper tied round with string. Returning to the bed, he sat down again and held out the package to Kid. "Sorry about the wrapping. I was kinda short on time."
Kid took the package: it felt pretty light. Too light for a book. Not that Heyes was likely to give him a book, anyhow.
"You gonna open it?" Heyes had leaned back against the headboard, legs stretched out and crossed loosely at the ankle. He was smiling, but there was still a slight apprehension there. Kid bent to the package, tugging the knots in the string loose. The newspaper unfolded, to reveal… A cigar box. Kid lifted it free of the wrapping, looking at the gaudy black and red printing on the lid: S. Ottenberg & Bros Partidos Cigars – Beware Of Fraudulent Imitations.
Kid lifted the cigar box lid – then froze. Instead of the scent of tobacco, suddenly he could smell spices and sweetness. It was there in his nostrils, like it had been in his dreams the night before: ginger, cinnamon, molasses. A thin sheet of paper had been folded more or less neatly to lie inside the top of the box, covering its contents: he blinked at it, breathing in the smell that seemed to be haunting him in his waking hours. Then with one hand, he lifted the scrap of paper away.
The small wooden box was filled to the brim with sugar cookies. They lay closely stacked in neat piles like poker chips, their dark molasses-brown tops dusted with sugar crystals. Even as he stared at them, Kid had a sudden mental image of Heyes filling the box, arranging the cookies carefully to fit inside.
He didn't realise how long he'd been staring at them, until he heard Heyes' voice. "I figured maybe you could do with something sweet for a change." There was a pause, then: "Unless I got it wrong, and I should've just stuck to cigars."
Kid turned around to sit facing his partner, still holding the box. "No."
Relief started to appear in Heyes' face, although he still looked unsure of how his gift was being received. "I know it's kinda dumb, just… I remembered, how you used to love molasses cookies. So when we hit town, I got a notion that I'd try to get you some, somehow. Even if I had to make 'em myself."
In spite of himself, Kid glanced down at the open box. Heyes laughed. "Don't worry. I didn't."
"Then who did?"
"I got lucky." Heyes smiled. "I was talking to one of the girls works the bar here, told her what I was looking for, and asked her did she know anyone in town could fix me up something like that. Turned out that not only was the hotel cook a fine hand at baking, but he was real sweet on her and wouldn't mind obliging her with a favour. So it was pretty much a done deal." Heyes was grinning now. "Only tricky part was doing it without you finding out, and that was just pure luck. If you'd have come up here only a few minutes earlier, you'd have met her bringing that up to me."
Kid stared at him. You'd have met her bringing that up to me. The memory of the girl's flustered expression at the top of the stairs came back to him; then the glimpse of Heyes laughing with her at the bar, slipping the folded bank note into her hand; Heyes turning around quickly as Kid came into the room, that slight expression of furtiveness in his eyes.
What came upon Kid first, as understanding dawned, was mortification. Followed in short order by relief, not just for what Heyes had told him, but also for the blessed chance that meant he hadn't said out loud the thoughts he'd had running through his head for the past few hours.
You asshole, he told himself silently, as the heaviness in his chest began to melt away. If you had a brain, you'd be dangerous.
Heyes was still watching him. "So… You gonna try one?"
Kid took a cookie between finger and thumb,and bit into it. The crisp cookie broke between his teeth, sugar and spice melting onto his tongue. The flavour filled him, reaching down to his heart: he shut his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, Heyes was regarding him curiously.
"Hope that look on your face means they're okay - "
For an answer, Kid took another cookie from the box, leaned over and put it into Heyes' open mouth, silencing him temporarily. Heyes raised both eyebrows, but a grin curved around the cookie between his lips. His hand lifted to the cookie as he bit into it, crumbs falling from his fingers.
Kid swallowed his own cookie; leaned in further, and kissed Heyes on the mouth. He heard Heyes make an inarticulate sound, half protest, half chuckle. Kid pulled back just long enough for Heyes to finish the cookie that was in his mouth, before leaning in again. This time the kiss tasted of sugar, and warmth, and Heyes.
"Mmmh…" Heyes sounded happy with the way things were turning out. When they came up for air, his hand rested on the small of Kid's back. "I'm guessing you like your present."
"I like it," Kid confirmed, coming further onto the bed to sit alongside Heyes, so he could reach him more easily. "I sure do like it." He bent his head to plant another kiss on Heyes' neck, just below the angle of his jaw. "Think I'm gonna go right on liking it."
Heyes let his head tip back just a little, a soft indrawn breath pulling between his teeth. Kid's head lifted and they kissed mouth to mouth again. Kid felt Heyes' hand reach for him, sliding from arm to shoulder.
Be grateful for every damn moment.
Kid knew he was more than grateful. As they sank down to lie together, reaching to hold each other closer, to fit just right, he felt the burden he'd been carrying finally lift away.
Much later, lying on his back in the dark and sinking blissfully down into well-fucked slumber, he felt Heyes shift beside him. The bed jounced as Heyes turned onto his side, then onto his back: finally Kid felt him sit up in the darkness.
"Hey… Wha's up?" he murmured sleepily. Heyes seemed to be fumbling about under the covers. For one hazy moment, Kid wondered if this could be a prelude for more sex: thinking this, he felt evenly divided between enthusiasm and exhaustion. After a few more rumples of the bedclothes, however, Heyes lay back down. Kid felt his partner's body stretch out beside his own: as Heyes turned onto his side, Kid automatically lifted his arm and brought it around his lover, pulling him closer. Heyes rested his head on Kid's shoulder and let out a long sigh of contentment, his own arm reaching across to lie pleasantly heavily on Kid's chest.
"What was that all about?" Kid asked, in a drowsy whisper.
Heyes' voice came low, tickling against his shoulder. "Crumbs in the sheets."
Kid felt a grin irresistibly coming onto his face. "That was all your fault."
"Yeah… Next year, you're just gettin' whiskey." The sound of Heyes' voice told Kid that his partner was grinning too.
"Oh no you don't. I want this every year, from now on."
"Which part, exactly?"
Kid tightened his arm, turning his head so that he could press his lips against Heyes' forehead. "All of it."
"Hmmm…" Heyes moved too, returning the favour by kissing Kid's neck. "Okay. It's a deal."
They were both quiet then for a good while. Kid was drifting away when he heard Heyes speak again.
"Umhh." Kid grunted, feeling Heyes' hand stroke gently against his ribs.
"Uh huh… You can't tell?"
"I just wondered… if you were through worrying about the big stuff?"
Kid smiled in the dark. "I think… All the stuff that matters is right here in this bed with me."
Heyes reached up with his hand to touch Kid's face, fingertips brushing over his cheek, stroking through his hair. Then he returned his arm to its position lying comfortably across his partner's body. Kid let himself slide towards sleep, conscious even as he was almost under of the warmth of the man beside him. His last flicker of awareness carried the sound of Heyes' whisper, close by his ear.
"What sweetness is left in life, if you take away friendship?"
"There's nothing better than a good friend, except a good friend with chocolate."