"Where the hell is my shaving mug?" growled Lobo, tearing apart a pile of dirty clothes lying on the floor by his bunk. "I know I left it by the mirror yesterday. Who took it?"
Wheat rolled onto his back and groaned. Chuck. He'd had to cover for him a couple of times, and as much as he liked the little guy, he was already getting sick of doing it. "Shh, Lobo, you're wakin' the whole bunkhouse." He sat up and rubbed his eyes. The other men were stirring, too. Reaching into his own saddlebag at the foot of his bunk, Wheat pulled out a small tin mug and brush. "Here, use mine, and shut up. It's your own damn fault for not puttin' your stuff away." Lobo snatched the mug with a grunt and stalked away.
After pulling on his pants and buttoning up his brown shirt, Wheat stepped out onto the porch. The luscious aromas of sweet rolls and frying bacon assaulted his senses and he inhaled deeply before walking towards the fragrant cookhouse, salivating. Well, maybe he'd cover for him one more time.
Hannibal Heyes greeted the morning lying on his belly on the top of a cliff overlooking the valley that widened out below the Hole. He held his field glasses up to his eyes studying a group of riders camped alongside a small stream beneath him. He and the Kid had seen the light of the campfire last night and had crept in for a closer look, making camp on the clifftop. Of course, that meant they'd had a cold night with no fire and he was missing his morning cup of coffee. It was chilly without it and he shivered in the cold. Hearing the small sounds of his partner coming, he pulled the glasses away as the Kid stretched out on the ground next to him.
"Good Morning," mumbled the tousled, blond Curry.
"What's so good about it? There's a posse down there with a U.S. Marshal leading it."
"Anyone we know?"
"I don't think so. Here," Heyes handed over the binoculars, "take a look."
The Kid studied the men below for a long time before putting down the glasses. "Nope, don't recognize any of 'em. Who do you think they are?"
"I can tell you who they aren't. They aren't the usual store clerks and drunks like you'd see in a normal posse. Those men are professionals."
"Professional or not, they still got themselves lost. From the looks of their tracks, they had no idea where they were going until they stumbled across that stream," snorted the Kid.
"Maybe so, but they wouldn't be the first lawmen to get lost in the Hole. They aren't stupid, they knew enough to find a way out," observed Heyes. "I don't like it, Kid. That posse's outfitted for a fight. When was the last time a marshal roamed around at the head of a random posse? "
"Is that one of them rhetorical-type questions you're always asking?"
Heyes grinned lopsidedly at his partner. "C'mon, I've seen enough." He pushed himself back down the slightly sloping ground on his belly before standing up.
The Kid mimicked him and came up dusting the dirt from his pants. "So what do you wanna do about it?"
"Nothing to do; they're heading out of the Hole. I'll send Charles a telegram and see if he can find out where they came from. The way they're geared up with those fine horses and guns, my guess would be that our old, deep-pocketed friends at the banks and the railroads got a little upset with us this winter." Heyes patted his own pocket; the mention of a telegram reminding him of the letters he'd tucked there after his last visit to Belton. He'd forgotten all about them. Geez, he really was feeling old!
"Then let's get outta here. I'd like to get back to the Hole and see what Chuck's cooking up," said the Kid.
"I'm afraid to find out," groaned Heyes.
"Uuurpp," uttered Hank. "Thanks Chuck, that was great!" He leaned back in his chair and rested his hands on his slightly rounded belly. The cookhouse table was still laden with food and he contemplated another strip of bacon.
"Yeah, it was good," said Lobo, feeling agreeable. He'd let go of his irritation over the mug when he'd sat down to the sumptuous breakfast. Chuck had been feeding them well ever since he'd arrived and Lobo had gotten into the habit of looking forward to his next meal. If this kept up, he'd have to let his belt out another hole.
"You just might be the best cook we've ever had, Chuck," offered Kyle.
Wall-eyed and John were still shoveling the warm rolls into their mouths. They grinned their approval.
Wheat chewed his eggs thoughtfully listening to the praises being sung to the new cook. Chuck had fit right in. How could he not? He was a likable guy and an amazing cook. The stealing was a problem, though, and Wheat was glad that Heyes had warned him. He'd caught Chuck's sticky fingers around his own knife the first day he was here and, yesterday, he'd seen the little man scurry around the corner with something shiny clutched in his fist; probably Lobo's shaving mug.
Well, it was time he did something to put an end to the thievery before it went too far and he couldn't stop it from ending violently. Wiping his mustache, he set down his napkin and cleared his throat. Chuck had the coffee pot in hand and was walking around the table re-filling mugs as the men held them up. Everyone looked in the direction of the big man.
Without a preamble, Wheat declared, "Chuck here is a thief. He took your mug, Lobo, and he's taken some other stuff."
Chuck squeaked and bobbled the pot, spilling hot coffee on Kyle's lap. Kyle hollered loudly and pushed his chair back, jumping up and glaring at the small man. The other men around the table started to rise threateningly. The little cook cowered, holding the pot in front of him as though it could fend off an attack. He hadn't expected this and he was both hurt and terrified. Wheat had been friendly to him and had even seemed kind of tolerant of his 'problem' after catching him with the knife. He felt betrayed.
"Hold on, now, nobody move!" yelled Wheat, standing up. Heads turned in his direction again. Chuck used the distraction to try and get out the door, but Kyle cut him off, frowning grimly and gesturing for him to sit down. He did.
"Look, Kyle's right, Chuck's the best cook we've ever had. We're eatin' food better than we can get in a restaurant, leastwise the kind of places that would serve us, and the only reason we are is 'cause he's gotten hisself fired from every fancy chow house between here and Kansas City. The man's an uncontrollable thief." Seeing the confusion on the other outlaws faces, he continued, "He ain't like us. He don't steal on purpose. He sees something and the next thing he knows, it's in his hand."
"I knew a feller like that down Abilene way, ended up gettin' his neck stretched," snarled Wall-eyed. Chuck turned white and groaned, clutching his throat.
John took out his big hunting knife and slammed the point of it into the table next to Chuck's right hand. "I know another way of curing that ill."
The small cook moved surprisingly fast considering his bulk as he scrambled to his feet again. Hank put a heavy hand on his shoulder and forced him back into the chair; the knife was still quivering dramatically in front of his eyes. "I…I'm sorry. I know it's wrong and I'm trying to make it up to you with the food."
Wheat nodded, "That's just the point I'm gettin' at; this is about the food. Now, the way I see it, we can learn to live with Chuck's little problem and keep eatin' like kings or we get rid of him and go back to eatin' Kyle's rat stew."
An insulted protest issued from Kyle. "Hey!"
Wheat spoke over him, "Personally, I ain't got nothin' worth losin' a good cook over."
"You saying we just let him take our stuff?" asked Lobo, incredulous.
"Yep, I am," said Wheat. Grumbles rambled around the room, and when they finally died down, he went on. "Look, Chuck steals something without knowin' it and then he don't know what to do with it. I've been watchin' him. He takes something and he squirrels it away in that cabinet over the stove." The big outlaw crossed to the cabinet and yanked the door open. Several small items spilled out, and he had to reach out quickly to catch Lobo's shiny, tin mug before it fell.
Chuck moaned. He was going to die after all, he just knew it.
"It's simple enough. If something goes missin', you look for it here. Chuck, do you think you can keep puttin' what you take up here?" asked Wheat.
Seeing the possibility of a different fate opening in front of him, Chuck replied, "S…sure, I know I can. It's like Wheat says, I just kind of find things in my hand. I get scared and hide them because I know I'll get in trouble. By the time I'm hiding something, I know what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. I'm just too afraid to try to put it back." The little cook timidly added,"I don't steal money, only things, shiny things."
"All right, then," nodded Wheat, "Let's vote. We can get rid of Chuck here or we can let him keep stealin' now that we know where to find our things. It'd be easy enough to open that cabinet every time we sit down to enjoy one of his fine meals. I want you to think about that while Chuck and me step outside. You all can talk it over real good and vote on it. We'll go by whatever you decide, right Chuck?"
Chuck sputtered, but he couldn't speak. What if they decided to get rid of him? Wheat's huge hand grabbed a fistful of his shirt and hauled him to his feet, pushing him roughly out the door.
The Kid and Heyes were just riding into the yard as Chuck flew out the cookhouse door, stumbling and falling to his knees. Wheat followed and yanked him to his feet again.
"Looks like old Chuck has already worn out his welcome," said the Kid, sarcastically. He pulled his horse up outside of the barn by the hitching rail, keeping his eye on Wheat. It didn't appear that he was going to harm the little man any further and the Kid relaxed.
Heyes, however, did not. He wasn't about to allow a murder on his watch and he jumped from his saddle, leaving the reins dangling, and his gelding loose. He hurried over to Wheat. "What's going on here?" he demanded.
"Don't get your tail in a twist, Heyes, I know what I'm doing," snapped Wheat.
The Kid quickly caught the gelding and, after tying him off, joined his partner.
"What exactly is it you're doing, Wheat?" Heyes asked icily.
"The boys are voting to let Chuck here stay and steal from them," Wheat announced proudly.
The Kid and Heyes glanced at each other and then at the cook. Chuck was drooping in the big outlaw's hand, looking as though he was about to faint. "Say that again, Wheat," said the Kid.
Before he could, the door opened, and Kyle poked his head out. "Oh, hey, Heyes, Kid. Welcome back. Wheat, the boys said Chuck could stay and steal." He ducked back inside leaving the door ajar. The aromas of a delicious breakfast drifted out.
Wheat hung onto Chuck as he swayed on his feet for a second. Smiling, the big man said to his leaders, "There's some sweet rolls staying warm and bacon's on the stove. Come on in and have some breakfast." He pulled the cook by his arm and trotted the two of them up the steps and into the cookhouse, leaving a dumbfounded Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry standing outside.
The Kid recovered first. "You know, Heyes, I'm beginning to believe that Wheat might just make a good leader after all." Heyes nodded mutely.
That night Heyes sat in the rocker by the fire with Lucifer on his lap. The Kid had gone to bed earlier, but Heyes had a lot of thoughts racketing around his head keeping him awake so he sat and idly stroked the soft orange and white fur. A loud, rumbling purr vibrated through the small body and he felt soothed by it. He was going to have to do something about Lucifer before he left the Hole for the summer. He hadn't thought about that when he'd agreed to take a vacation, but he knew he couldn't leave the cat here in his absence. Ever since he'd lost part of his tail in a brutal attack, Luce had become more and more of a house cat. Heyes didn't trust Wheat, or any of the other boys, to allow that to continue while he was gone. He owed it to Luce to find him a good home, but it was going to hurt to part company with him.
He remembered the old widow lady that lived on the edge of Belton. She had a bunch of cats. He'd taken the Kid with him one fall afternoon out to her house to clean her gutters and fix some roof shingles. After they'd finished, she'd invited them in for tea and cookies like it was the most normal thing in the world for an old lady to entertain hardened criminals. He grinned at the memory of the Kid, sitting in a stuffed chair, inundated by the multitude of cats that roamed her home. His partner liked animals, but his ma had drummed it into his head that cats belonged outside, being dirty mouse-eating creatures. They must've known how he felt, because they wouldn't leave him alone. One by one, they had insisted on jumping up on his lap and curling up; testing him. Every time the widow lady left the room, the Kid would shoo the felines away, but they kept coming back, like he was catnip or something.
Making a mental note to stop in and see the widow, Heyes remembered the letters again. He put Luce down and went to the peg by the door where his gray jacket was hanging. Fishing into his pocket, he pulled out the two letters and sat back down by the fire. Luce jumped onto his lap again and pawed at Heyes's legs trying to make a comfortable spot for himself after having been so rudely uprooted.
The first letter Heyes opened was from Silky. His old friend kept in touch often although most of his letters were a litany of complaints about the incompetent people who surrounded him. This one was, too, but it also contained a request that he and the Kid come to visit soon. Well, there'd certainly be time this summer to grant that request. Heyes set that letter aside and pulled out the one from Gully. He'd been very surprised to get another note from his former cook and had been amused by the return address. Gully, US of A. Tearing it open, he read:
I bet you weren't expecting to ever hear from me again. Hell, I wasn't expecting to write neither, but I wanted to let you know how well life's worked out for me considering how badly we ended things with each other.
After I left the Hole, I ended up drifting down to the Front Range looking for work, but with the recession just coming to an end and all, I had a tough time finding anything. Luckily, I had enough money to see me through although it wasn't going to last forever. Anyways, I drifted down through Kitcher Falls figuring I'd drop in on Luke Kenneter for a spell. I always liked that boy. He says Howdy. So does his ma and the kids.
That was another thing you were right about, Heyes. The gold he and his ma had on the ranch ran out pretty quickly, but not before Luke was smart enough to make some investments with it. The boy bought the old hotel in town and fixed it up hisself. It's a real nice place now and he's doing well. He just bought the place next door. It's a restaurant. Yep, you guessed it; I'm now the cook at the Desperado Hotel restaurant. Things are going real well and Luke says if I keep working hard, he'll make me a junior partner. I've got you to thank for that, Heyes. If you hadn't of pushed me over the edge, I'd still be in the Hole making grub for a bunch of ungrateful outlaws. Now I've got a real future. Funny how things work out, ain't it?
I've heard you and the Kid have been busy this winter. You should know that even the common folk here are starting to grumble about the Devil's Hole gang. That's the main reason I wrote. Times are changing and the outlaw trail is coming to an end. Heyes, I worry about you and the Kid. I was hoping you'd of taken my advice and looked for a way out, but it seems to me like you're riding to hell in a hurry.
Think hard, son. If an old codger like me can turn his life around, so can you.
Your friend, Gully
Heyes sat for a long time watching the flames turn to coals and the coals cool to ashes; wishing with all his heart that he could find a way out of this mess he and the Kid were in.