Ties That Bind

By Carol Broyles

Hannibal Heyes smiled blandly at his opponents at the poker table as he discarded two cards and signaled for two more. His sincere brown eyes flicked over the two new cards he’d been dealt without changing expression, then Heyes looked up again, surveying his fellow players to gauge how successful they’d been in bettering their own hands.

The sound of glass breaking drew his attention to the bar, and Heyes’ glance sharpened as he noticed Kid at the center of the commotion. Appearing decidedly tipsy, Kid used his right hand to right the bottle he’d just knocked over as his left arm remained draped over a pretty blond saloon girl.

They’d been in this town for a few days with no signs of trouble, and after two weeks on the trail with nothing but his partner and the coyotes for company, the Kid deserved to relax and have a little fun. Still, it wasn’t like his partner to let down his guard so completely, Heyes reflected.

“You in or not?” the dealer, a red-headed cowboy named Murphy who was down more than $30, demanded.

“Check,” Heyes replied automatically, his eyes still locked on the scene at the bar. Supported by the giggling saloon girl – a buxom wench named Meg whom Heyes had spent some time with himself their first night in town – the two made their way in a somewhat weaving path toward the saloon’s double doors.

Spurred by a sense of disquiet he couldn’t ignore, Heyes tossed in his cards and picked up his winnings, folding the bills double and stuffing them into a shirt pocket.

“I’m done, boys,” Heyes announced as he stood to leave, ignoring the scowls of protests from the men he’d cleaned out nightly for the past three nights.

Heyes’ path intercepted that of Curry and the blonde before they made it to the door.

“Hey, buddy!” Curry grinned at him, punctuating the greeting with a friendly slap on the shoulder that was almost bruising in its intensity. Heyes was going to have more than a few bruises in the morning when Curry got done with him if he was wrong about his current course.

But as his partner rocked unsteadily on his feet, Heyes knew he wasn’t wrong.

“Time to go, Thaddeus,” Heyes told him.

“Whatza matter?” Curry slurred. “Meg’s takin’ me to her place to show me something.”

Heyes’ dark brown eyes measured the vivacious saloon girl, noting the sudden hostility reflected in her blue eyes as she stared back at Heyes.

“Now, partner,” Heyes insisted, and something in his tone cut through the fog in Curry’s brain.

Kid’s blue eyes managed to focus on Heyes for a moment, and he nodded.

Heyes ignored the glare the girl gave him as he extricated Curry from her embrace, then propelled him through the doors.

With the Kid’s arm snugged around his shoulders, Heyes helped support his partner as they headed down the boardwalk to their hotel. They were halfway there when Heyes heard the bootsteps behind them.

Deciding that this was as good a place as any to make a stand and with little choice in the matter, Heyes stopped, maneuvering himself and the Kid so their backs were against the wooden wall of a building.

Still supporting Curry with one arm, Heyes drew his pistol and waited. The four men who surrounded them in a semicircle were his poker-playing “friends.” Apparently they’d been even less happy about their losses than he’d been led to believe and had decided to make a transfer of funds.

After the way Curry had faced down that drifter the other night, the four had obviously decided it would be safer to rob Heyes if his partner were otherwise occupied.

Heyes had spoiled that part of the plan, but it didn’t look like it would make any difference.

Heyes was surrounded, and the drug they’d given the Kid was effective. His weight as Heyes supported him became a heavier burden with every passing second as the Kid slipped deeper toward unconsciousness.

Well there was no help for it. Heyes repressed a sigh. His brown eyes, appearing jet black in the dark, surveyed the four men coolly.

“What’s your play, boys?” Heyes asked calmly, seemingly unfazed by the guns the four pointed at him.

“Your money, Smith,” Duke Barron, the burliest of the four and their apparent spokes-thug, answered.

Our money,” Murphy corrected, eliciting a thin-lipped smile from Barron.

“That’s right, our money,” Barron corrected himself. “Drop your gun and take the money out of your pocket.”

“Can’t we talk about this?” Heyes asked reasonably, trying not to stagger under the Kid’s full weight.

“Guess not,” Heyes answered himself as the hammers were pulled back on four weapons.

Heyes thought rapidly. He didn’t mind losing the money so much. But he didn’t want to holster his own gun to hand the cash over. With his own gun drawn it was a certainty he could shoot one – maybe even two of the would-be robbers if they tried anything. Without his gun, there would be nothing to keep the four from gunning him and the Kid down if that was their intention.

“What’s going on here?” a sharp voice cut through the night, saving Heyes from having to make that decision.

The four robbers holstered their guns quickly as the sheriff came into view, the moonlight glinting off his badge. Heyes followed suit.

“These boys was in the saloon tonight. And that one…” Barron gestured at the Kid “…got drunk and roughed up one of the girls.”

“That true, boys?” the sheriff asked Heyes, who still supported the semiconscious Curry.

“He just had a little too much to drink is all. I’m taking him back to the hotel now.” Heyes shifted easily with the lie. If he tried to tell the sheriff what was really happening it would be the word of two strangers against four local boys. And the lovely Meg would no doubt back their story to the hilt since she had obviously been in on the plan to rob him.

“Which girl?” the sheriff asked.

“It was Meg, Sheriff Hawkins,” Murphy supplied quickly, shooting a triumphant glance at Heyes.

“Was she hurt?”

“Just frightened,” Heyes interjected quickly before any of the others could answer. “When my friend’s been drinking he tends to get a little … enthusiastic … is all.”

The sheriff nodded slowly, his stern features relaxing slightly. It was a pitfall of the profession, and Meg had a reputation for being able to take care of herself.

Sheriff Hawkins’ features sharpened again as he took in the four resident miscreants.

“You know I don’t hold with any vigilante justice in my town,” he said sternly.

“No, sir.” “Yes, sir.” “Yes, sir…” There was a chorus of agreement as the four fairly shrank away from him.

“Get on home,” Hawkins ordered, and the four disappeared into the night like apparitions. Heyes attempted to follow suit.

“Not you two,” Hawkins barked.

Heyes froze, swinging the Kid around so they were facing the sheriff once more.

“Yes, sheriff?” Heyes did his best to sound honest and forthright and respectable and whatever else he could think of that might dissuade a gung-ho sheriff from tossing a pair of trouble-making drifters into the local lockup.

“Not here. In my office.” Hawkins gestured down the sidewalk.

Heyes had an ironclad rule never to take one step closer to a sheriff’s office than was absolutely necessary. Tonight it appeared to be necessary, however, and Heyes stifled a sigh as he resolutely propelled Curry in the direction the sheriff indicated.

Fifteen minutes later found them in the sheriff’s somewhat spartan office, where Heyes deposited Curry on a wooden bench – pointedly ignoring the cot in the first cell, the door to which was ajar – and faced the sheriff with his best smile.

Unfortunately it didn’t have the same effect on the sheriff as it did on the fairer sex, and Hawkins sternly looked Heyes up and down in the light, making Heyes’ smile falter slightly. It did his disposition no good to notice his and Curry’s wanted posters pinned up beside a host of others on the wall behind the sheriff’s desk.

“Is there a problem, sheriff?” Heyes asked politely, breaking the uncomfortable silence.

“There’s still the matter of that girl your friend frightened,” Hawkins said.

“I’m sure that…” Heyes began, breaking off when Hawkins held up a hand.

“Since there was no real harm done, makes no sense to bother the judge with it. But I think a fine would go a long way toward soothing her fears,” Hawkins said meaningfully.

Heyes understood perfectly.

“Yes, sir. How much?”

“How much have you got?” the sheriff countered, and Heyes had the distinct feeling he was being skinned.

“Three hundred and forty dollars,” Heyes answered.

“I think $300 ought to cover it,” Hawkins said, and Heyes counted out the bills. Heyes sensed the sheriff wasn’t through with him, and he was right.

“And there’s still the little matter of that drunk and disorderly…”

“How much?” Heyes asked, resigned.

“Forty dollars.”

Heyes nodded, expecting this, and handed the remaining bills over. With some lawmen Heyes would have suspected larceny, but Heyes believed this was Hawkins’ method of getting two troublemakers out of his town – and making sure they didn’t come back.

“I don’t want to see you two boys around tomorrow.” Hawkins’ tone was not friendly.

“No, sir. You won’t” Heyes assured him.

“And if I even hear about any trouble…”

“No trouble. You’ve got my word on that,” Heyes promised.

“Good – now git!”

Heyes collected Curry – and they got.

Heyes breathed a sigh of relief after he got himself and the Kid safely back to their hotel room and locked the door behind them. The Kid mumbled as Heyes deposited him on the double bed – an encouraging sign – and Heyes pulled off his boots.

Heyes then kicked off his own boots and settled in to spend the night reading. Unsure of what drug or how much they’d given the Kid to knock him out, Heyes didn’t dare sleep himself. So he passed the time reading, glancing periodically at the Kid to make sure his shallow breaths hadn’t stopped altogether.

When the Kid’s breathing finally returned to the regular even breaths of normal sleep just before dawn, Heyes finally allowed himself to nod off, the volume of Dickens still open across his chest.

“Kid’s groan a few hours later roused him, and Heyes glanced with compassion at his partner, who had both palms covering his eyes to shield them from the stabbing rays that streamed in past the fluttering window curtains.

“What hit me?” Kid groaned. He opened one eye to look at his partner, who after a scant three hours of sleep also looked the worse for wear.

“What do you remember?” Heyes asked.

“I was drinking in the saloon – not much after that,” Kid confessed. “I don’t even remember ordering more than a couple of whiskeys.”

“You didn’t,” Heyes told him. Heyes stretched then gave Kid a blow-by-blow account of the night’s events as he began stuffing his belongings into his saddlebags. Kid, still lying on the bed, forgot his headache as his blue eyes flashed in anger.

“Damn thieves,” he groused, conveniently forgetting his and Heyes’ former profession as he sat up and pulled on his boots. It wasn’t until he began buckling on his gunbelt that Heyes felt a stab of concern.

“Kid…” Heyes began warningly.

“You’re just going to let them get away with it?” Kid challenged.

“I told that sheriff we’d be gone in the morning – and we’re going,” Heyes said firmly.

“I’ve got to see Meg first and make sure she’s all right,” Kid dissented, obviously believing the duplicitous little blonde had been forced into the plan by Heyes’ disgruntled poker players.

“She was in on it,” Heyes fairly shouted, making both of them wince.

“You don’t know that,” the Kid insisted, jamming on his hat.

“Kid, don’t be st…”

Curry stiffened, and Heyes bit off the word.

“Don’t be what, Heyes?” Kid enunciated each word clearly.

“Nothing,” Heyes muttered, refusing to look at him.

“Don’t be what?” Kid repeated louder.

Heyes tried to force the word “stubborn” past his lips, but it just wouldn’t go. He’d never lied to the Kid before.

“Stupid.” Heyes said the word unwillingly, then repeated more forcefully. “I said don’t be stupid.”

“Do you think I’m stupid, Heyes?” Curry asked, and his voice had a hard edge to it.

“No. I don’t think you’re stupid. Reckless, yes. But never stupid,” Heyes answered honestly.

Kid sat down on the bed again and took off his hat.

“I think I’m stupid,” he surprised Heyes by saying. “And I’m starting to think maybe we shouldn’t be partners anymore.”

There was silence for a full minute as Heyes digested this.

“I think those drugs they slipped you have addled your mind,” Heyes finally made a weak jest, but he could see the Kid was deadly serious. Heyes sighed. “Okay. What are you thinking?”

“When we were outlawing, our partnership made sense. You needed someone to keep the Devil’s Hole boys in line. You needed me on the jobs, too,” Kid explained. “Now that we’re trying for the amnesty you don’t need a gunfighter dogging your steps. Face it, Heyes, you’d be better off without me.”

Heyes ran a hand through his dark hair, wishing he wasn’t quite so tired. He had no idea how the conversation had escalated to this point or the best way to defuse it, so he decided to go with the plain unvarnished truth again.

“Kid, do you remember what you told me not long after we decided to try for the amnesty and I took that job taking Clara Phillips into Devil’s Hole?” Heyes asked.

“Nope,” Kid lied stubbornly, and Heyes gritted his teeth. Unlike Heyes, the Kid had no such compunctions against lying to his partner, which altered their conversations not a whit since Kid knew Heyes could see right through them. In fact the only reason Kid did it was to annoy his partner or, like now, to make Heyes work twice as hard to make his point in any argument they were having.

“You said,” Heyes explained patiently, “that the only thing keeping me alive all this time was you.”

“A lot of good I did you last night,” Kid said bitterly.

“Exactly.” Heyes sounded definite. “They knew they had to get you out of the way before they robbed me – and do you think they would have stopped there? Fancy words aren’t much protection against a bullet. If we went our separate ways how long would it be before someone else thought I was a little too good at poker? The next town? Or the next?”

Kid looked thoughtful. It was true that since they’d stopped outlawing Kid’s particular brand of talents weren’t needed as often, but when a show of force was required – and their lives hung in the balance – Kid’s skill with a gun was irreplaceable.

I like it when you worry, Kid. I can trust you to look after me better, Heyes had once said – and that was after they’d started trying for their amnesty.

Suddenly Kid felt a whole lot better. It was true the dynamics of their partnership had shifted. But it wasn’t as one-sided as Kid had begun to fear. Lately they’d had to depend on Heyes’ nimble mind every time they needed a stake, and the Kid had started to feel like so much useless baggage.

The matter decided, Kid put it away and flashed a wicked grin at Heyes.

“Seems like we were treated pretty badly last night, partner. What are we going to do about it?” Kid asked meaningfully.

Heyes held up his hands in supplication.

“Kid, I told that sheriff – I promised that sheriff – he wouldn’t see us again,” Heyes said.

Kid stood and pulled his weapon – twirling the piece before reseating it in its holster.

“He won’t,” Kid assured him.

Barron, Murphy, Cloyd and Peters weaved their way drunkenly down the boardwalk. True to his word, Sheriff Hawkins had given the $300 “fine” to Meg, and she had begrudgingly split it with them.

The click of a hammer being cocked sobered Barron instantly, and he froze. Cloyd, immediately behind, ran into him.

“Evenin’ boys,” Kid Curry said amicably, pushing the brim of his hat back with one finger while his other hand held his gun trained on the four. Despite his easy smile, Curry exuded an air of danger that made Barron’s mouth go suddenly dry.

“I … I thought you left town,” Barron said.

“Stop thinking. It’s doesn’t seem to be your strong suit.” Heyes’ voice held a fake-pleasant tone as he stepped from the shadows behind them, his own weapon drawn.

Cloyd licked his lips nervously, and his hand twitched as he considered going for his gun. Heyes shook his head warningly, and the man reconsidered.

“I think you have something that belongs to us,” Heyes said.

“And we want it back – now,” Kid ordered.

The four emptied their pockets faster than seemed humanly possible. Kid kept them covered while Heyes collected the cash.

“Now you run along and be good boys and you won’t ever have to see us again,” Kid told them, then his voice lowered an octave. “You know what I mean, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” the bullies stammered, except for Peters, who appeared tongue-tied and just nodded stupidly.

“Bye boys,” Heyes said pleasantly, and taking their cue, the four disappeared.

A minute later Heyes and Curry had untethered their horses and were riding out of town via a dark side street.

“You sure this won’t affect our amnesty?” Kid asked, and Heyes flashed him a grin, amused at his belated contrition.

“Nooo,” Heyes reassured Kid. “The last thing those boys want is to tangle with that sheriff, and even if they did, he’s not going to connect a couple of petty thieves with the great Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry.”

“Besides,” Heyes continued, his smile lighting up his face, “technically it was our money.”

Kid nodded, convinced.

“Partner, you have a way with words,” Curry told him, jamming his hat more securely on his head then kicking his horse into a canter as they reached the outskirts of town.

“We all have to be good at something,” Heyes responded. He was unsure if the Kid heard him, but it didn’t matter. Heyes urged his own mount to a faster pace as he followed his partner into the night.

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