The train drew into town, the telegraph poles flicking past the window more and more slowly. The town looked just like a million others, Kid thought, looking out the dusty train window at the dustier town-- nothing but a sun-baked, rutted main street lined with the usual assortment of buildings—saloon, hotel, sheriff’s office, undertaker, general store.
He stood up, glad to stretch his legs after the long trip. The train was crawling into the station, lurching erratically. He hauled his saddlebags down from the luggage rack, and hopped off the train as it creaked and hissed its way to a stop.
Nothing unusual about this town, for sure, just a stop between jobs. He and Heyes had been here before, a few times—they’d sometimes used the quiet town as a meeting place after splitting up to take different escape routes from a posse, or, more recently, different honest but low-paying jobs. An old friend from bank-robbing days, Soapy Wilcox, had taken up residence here when the Devil’s Hole gang broke up, and had really settled in, become a solid citizen. Soapy was always glad to see them, and always good for a bed and a hot meal before they moved on.
Kid started walking down the main street, idly wondering if he should stop at the saloon for breakfast or head straight for Soapy’s place. He noticed a small figure, neatly dressed in a suit and bowler hat, hurrying down the street towards the station, and was mildly surprised when he recognized Soapy. No reason why Soapy should be meeting him at the train station.
Soapy waved, and came panting up to Kid, who smiled at the little man in the natty suit. Soapy really did look like a solid citizen, Kid thought. Unlike all the outlaws or ex-outlaws Kid had ever known, Soapy didn’t carry a gun. Never had, even in the old days.
“Hi, Soapy,” said Kid, slapping him on the back. “You’re looking sharp these days. Been a while, how you been?”
“Oh, nothing to brag about,” said Soapy. “Hard times, you know.” That was pretty usual, thought Kid. Soapy was never happy. Always thought something was wrong, somebody was picking on him.
“I know about hard times,” said Kid. “I been bustin’ my hump on a cattle drive for a month now, gettin’ fifty cents a day. How’s the store doing?”
“Oh, so-so, been better,” answered Soapy. “Come on over to the house, I’ll get you a drink.” They walked down the main street.
“It’s a little early in the day, don’t you think?” asked Kid, smiling. “I’d just as soon have a cup of coffee.”
“All right, coffee and ham and eggs,” said Soapy. “Whatever you want.”
“Ham and eggs sounds good,” said Kid. “So did Heyes get here yet?”
“Yes,” Soapy said, nodding. “Yes, he did. Came in to town yesterday.”
“Oh, good,” said Kid, shifting the heavy saddlebag to his other shoulder. “He was on a drive that went down to Abilene, I thought he’d get done sooner. So where’s he at? Sleeping in, I suppose. Is he staying with you, or at the hotel?”
“Well, no,” said Soapy.
Kid laughed. “Which is it? Is he at your place?”
“So, where is he?”
Soapy didn’t reply. They were passing a brick building with narrow windows, and Soapy glanced at it, then quickly looked away. Kid caught the glance, and looked up at the sign that hung over the door. Sheriff’s Office, he read.
A small thread of unease crept into his stomach–just a slight cold feeling. “What’s the matter, Soapy, why’re you so quiet?” Soapy glanced back at the sheriff’s office again as they passed it, a strange expression on his face–of excitement? Kid frowned.
“Heyes isn’t in jail, is he?” asked Kid. “Did he get arrested, recognized?”
“No, no,” said Soapy. He turned down the side street that led to his house and small dry goods store. Kid followed him. “But something’s the matter,” said Kid. “What’s up?”
Soapy looked away and walked faster. Kid grabbed his shoulder and forced him to stop. Soapy wouldn’t meet his eyes. “He’s hurt, is that it?” asked Kid slowly.
No answer. Kid felt a cold ripple go from his scalp down his spine.
“Hurt bad, that’s it? That’s it, right?” Soapy shook his head, staring at the ground.
Kid stared at him and took a step backwards. The narrow alley seemed airless, the walls pressed in on him. Soapy continued to stare at the ground. Kid was aware of a dreadful thought, slowly approaching, menacing, like a dark stranger standing outside a door. He told himself it wasn’t real. People didn’t just die like that, one day smiling and waving a careless so long, and then just not there anymore.
He looked back down the shaded alley to the main street of the town, lit with morning sun. Only a few steps away. Only a few steps away was the real world where he and Soapy were chatting, on the way to meet Heyes playing poker in the saloon. He heard a voice say very calmly, “He’s dead, isn’t he?” and had no idea where the voice came from. But it must have been his own, because Soapy bowed his head and put a hand over his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” said Soapy quietly. “I’m so sorry about this.”
Kid backed up till he hit the wall, and stood there, breathing fast. He couldn’t decide where to look, where to go, what to think, not yet. He just knew he had to keep the door in his mind closed, barred tight against that stranger.
Kid and Soapy stood at the foot of the new-made grave. Kid could smell the dankness of the freshly spaded earth. A rough wooden cross stood at the head of the grave. Heyes’ hat was hung jauntily on top of the cross. Kid stared at the familiar hat for a long time.
Soapy shifted back and forth from foot to foot. Finally he said, “Don’t you want to know who did it? Shot him in the back, no warning, Heyes never had a chance.”
Kid opened his mouth to say something and closed it again.
“So senseless,” Soapy went on. “An argument over a poker game. Blam, just like that, and Heyes was dead before he knew what hit him. I was there, I saw it all, I can tell you the man who did it.”
Kid just looked at him. Soapy raised his voice angrily. “What’s the matter with you, Kid? I thought you and Heyes were pals, you’ve been partners for years. Never see one of you without the other, hardly. Don’t you want to get even? It was the sheriff, Jasper Transom, the dirty...” Soapy came out with a string of vile words, and Kid felt a flicker of surprise. Soapy was always such a mild-mannered little chap, never even carried a gun. Always said he was afraid of weapons. But then, Soapy had liked Heyes, thought Kid, that was why he was so upset.
Soapy was still going on. “Transom’s a no-account cur, thinks he’s God, thinks he’s so high and mighty. I know him. I been courting his daughter, but Mr. High-an’-mighty Transom says she’s too good for me, I’m just trash, I’m not good enough for his daughter. Well, I’ll show him...”
Soapy’s words burbled past like the noise of a stream in the background. So it was the sheriff who had killed Heyes. Kid repeated it to himself, trying to whip up some enthusiasm for vengeance. He was surprised at how calm he felt. As though it was just a story he was reading about in the newspaper.
For some reason Kid thought of the time he’d been shot in the leg, years ago, on a bank job gone wrong in Kansas, a nasty wound with the leg lain open to the bone. Kid remembered looking down at his own leg, seeing the blood and bone but not feeling a thing. He’d actually scrambled out the bank window and jumped on his horse and ridden almost a mile before he felt anything. Strange. But the doctor who’d patched him up had explained that it wasn’t unusual. The body knew what had to be done to survive, the body could shut off feeling for a while, till you had done what had to be done. “Don’t worry,” the doctor had said. “It’ll hurt enough later on.”
Soapy and Kid sat silent in Soapy’s small kitchen, one on each side of the table. Kid leaned back and took the gun out of his holster. He checked to be sure it was loaded, then spun it with a swift movement back into the holster. Soapy took a bottle of whiskey off the kitchen shelf, poured a large mug full, and shoved it across the table to Kid. Kid ignored it. He wanted to keep his mind on revenge. If he kept thinking about revenge, he wouldn’t have to think about anything else. Later on he’d get rip-roaring drunk. That would also prevent thinking. It was sobering up that he didn’t want to imagine. He took his gun out and checked to be sure it was loaded.
He was aware of Soapy’s voice meandering on: “...and every night Transom rides home to that fancy spread of his, there’s a good lonely stretch with lots of scrub to hide behind—I’ll show you where–plenty of room for you to get a clear shot at him, he’ll never see you...”
Soapy finally ran out of words. He shook his head and stood up. He walked over to where Kid sat, and stood in front of him awkwardly. “I’m sorry about this, Kid. I like you and Heyes, like you both. You been good to me...”
“Want to get some sleep now?” asked Soapy. “You been on the train all night. I’ll let you get some sleep, then we’ll get ready for tonight.”
Kid stood up. He checked his gun to be sure it was loaded, then spun it back into the holster. “Thanks for everything, Soapy,” he said.
“Where are you going?” asked Soapy uneasily.
“Where do you think?” Kid answered, annoyed. It seemed like a stupid question. Soapy’s eyes widened, and he rubbed his hands together nervously. “But, not now, wait, it’s broad daylight, the middle of the day! Transom’s probably eating lunch in the saloon, there’ll be a million witnesses...you can’t shoot him now! I tell you, I got it all figured out, tonight, it’s the perfect place, no one will see you...”
Kid walked out of the house. He felt too tired to argue with Soapy. After a month on a cattle drive, and then all night on the train, it did make you tired, Soapy was right about that. Kid walked toward the center of town, Soapy following him, still protesting. Kid wasn’t aware when Soapy finally stopped pulling on his sleeve and darted away.
Kid stopped on the wooden sidewalk that lined the main street, and looked up and down the dirt road, baking hot in the noonday sun. He wasn’t sure where to look first for this Transom guy. Then he saw a tall man with a big grey mustache come out of the sheriff’s office and start across the street to the saloon. He had a star on his chest. That’s gotta be him, thought Kid. Perfect, an empty street, clear view, lots of room.
He drew breath and began to shout. “Hey, sheriff! Transom! Is that your na—?” Suddenly something hit him like a boulder, knocking him off balance. It was a man–not Soapy, someone bigger, but Kid didn’t care who it was. He flung the guy off, slamming him against the wall of a store, and began to run towards the sheriff, who was standing staring at the altercation. But the guy grabbed him from behind. Kid heard a voice shout his name. “Don’t, you idiot, stop!”
Kid pushed the interfering busybody up against the wall. He felt a wave of fury, and drew back a fist, delighted to have someone to hit. Then he looked into the face of the man struggling with him, and he felt as though a bucket of cold water had been dumped over his head. Kid stared, unable to say a word. He sagged against the wall, dropping his fist. Then he shouted out loud. “Heyes!”
“Shut up, you fool,” Heyes snarled. The sheriff was fast approaching, hand on his gun. Heyes shoved Kid off and waved to the sheriff. “Sorry, sheriff, didn’t mean to bother anyone. My brother’s had a little too much to drink. I’ll get him out of here, no problem. Kinda early in the day, wouldn’t you think?” The sheriff slowed, watching them suspiciously.
“Come on, let’s go,” Heyes said loudly to the Kid. “Let’s go home, you’ll break Ma’s heart, drinkin’ like this. Sorry, Sheriff.” The sheriff watched them go, Kid staggering a bit as Heyes pulled him around the corner. Damn drunks, he thought, and continued on into the saloon for lunch.
Kid strode down the narrow street toward Soapy’s house, Heyes following. They both had their guns drawn as they approached the house. Kid slammed the door open with his foot. But the house was empty. They checked the whole place, the dry goods store in the front of the house, the attic, even the outhouse in the back. In the bedroom, drawers pulled open and clothes strewn on the floor showed signs of hasty packing.
“Looks like the bird’s flown,” said Heyes as they stood in the deserted kitchen.
Kid sank down on one of the chairs. He really was tired, he thought. Heyes noticed the chipped mug on the table, still full of whiskey, and pushed it toward Kid, who downed half of it. Heyes took the other chair, put his feet up on the table, and finished the mug.
“The little bastard,” Heyes said conversationally. “At least he gave me a good dinner last night before he cracked me over the head—must have used the frying pan or something. He never did carry a gun. He tied me up pretty good–took me half the night and all this morning to get loose.”
Kid glanced at Heyes’ bloodstained shirt cuffs and bruised wrists. “He better hope I never catch him,” he growled.
“You probably never will,” said Heyes. “He’s a slick one, that little guy. He wanted to get even with this sheriff, and he was afraid to use a gun, so he had to find some other kind of weapon.” He looked over at Kid. “You really thought I was dead?”
“Oh, yes,” said Kid softly. “He was very convincing, the little...he better get himself a gun now, because if I ever catch him...” He ran out of words.
Heyes stood up and put a hand on Kid’s shoulder. “Let’s get out of here.”
They caught the 12:45 train out of town. No use hanging around, with a curious sheriff eyeing them. First, though, Heyes insisted on a hasty detour to the cemetery behind the church, where he collected the hat Soapy had arranged so artistically on the most recent grave he could find. They just managed to catch the train, hopping on board as it lurched to a start and the telegraph poles began to flick past the windows.
Kid sank down on the train seat, put his feet up on the seat opposite, and closed his eyes. He felt tired, tired to the bone, but good. Light-hearted, even.
Heyes wasn’t dead, after all. Everything was all right. That door in his mind was closed tight, all was well, the dark stranger had gone away.