By Maz McCoy
Abner Weed tied his mule to the hitching post in front of the saloon and gave her a pat on the neck. “You wait right here ol’ gal,” he said affectionately.
The mule was laden with two packs, a pick axe, shovel, ropes and a bucket. She peered at Abner from under the brim of a cowboy hat in which two holes had been cut for her ears to pass through.
“I know, I know,” Abner continued as if the mule had spoken to him. “But it’ll be jus’ one drink and a handa poker.” With a final pat to her neck he turned, climbed the three steps onto the boardwalk and pushed through the bat wing doors into the saloon.
Inside the saloon was welcomingly cool and empty except for the bartender and a group of men seated at a table playing poker. All eyes looked up when Abner entered, watching the dusty old prospector head towards the bar.
“Afternoon, Abner,” Mike the barman said as he picked up a bottle and glass. “The usual?”
“Yup.” The old man licked his lips as he watched the glass fill with whiskey. It was placed on the bar in front of him. Abner’s grubby fingers closed around it and he downed it in one grateful swallow. He gave a contented sigh. “Same again.”
Mike obliged, pouring another glassful as Abner felt in his pockets for something. A moment later he pulled out a pipe and a bag of tobacco.
“How’s my tab?” Abner asked as he pushed tobacco into the bowl of the pipe with his thumb.
“Paid up ‘til Doomsday.” Mike smiled.
“In that case I’ll take the bottle.” Balancing the glass and bottle in one hand and his pipe in the other Abner shuffled across the room to the poker table. “Got room for one more, fellas?”
Hannibal Heyes looked up from his cards, his expression unreadable. Kid Curry looked up from his cards and his expression didn’t change. Abner Weed looked up from his cards and grinned.
The dealer slid a card to the next player who looked at it muttered a cuss word and threw the cards on the table. The next man wanted two cards but they did him no good. His cards hit the table face down in disgust. Kid took one card spread his hand carefully then threw them away. It was between Heyes and Abner now. Both men declined a card.
“I hope you got enough money in that pile, son.” Abner waved a hand at the pile of coins and notes in front of Heyes.
“More than you have if you want to see my cards, old timer,” Heyes replied.
Abner chuckled. “Son, I reckon I got more money than King Solomon himself. I also got me the perfect hand.”
Coins clinked and notes rustled as money entered the pot. Kid watched Heyes with amusement. His partner was enjoying himself.
“Old timer, you talk a lot but I can see what’s in front of you. That’s not enough to see these cards.”
“I ain’t got the cash on me that’s for sure. Will you take somethin’ as collateral?”
“Not if it’s your hat.”
Abner chuckled. His hat had to be older than he was and twice as dusty. He turned towards the bar. “Mike, tell this young fella I’m good for a dollar or two.”
“That old man could buy my saloon outright with what he’s dug outta the ground,” Mike informed them helpfully. “If he says he’ll pay ya, he’ll pay ya.”
Heyes looked at Kid who shrugged. It was Heyes’ call. Brown eyes narrowed then he said, “All right.”
Abner asked for pencil and paper which Mike provided. The old man scribbled something on the paper then held it up. “A note okay?” Heyes nodded and the old man placed it on top of the pot. “I reckon that’s more than equivalent to my fifty dollar bet.”
Heyes laid his cards face up on the table. And Abner swore. “I’da bet my last dollar you didn’t have that ace.”
Heyes picked up the piece of paper. “Well, let’s see what you did bet.” He opened the paper and his smile faded to a frown. Kid looked worried. Heyes read aloud. “I owe you fifty dollars. I grant you sole custody and care of Forget-Me-Not until the money is handed over to you. Abner Weed.” Heyes brow furrowed, confused.
The old man nodded, satisfied.
“Who’s Forget-Me-Not?” Kid asked.
Abner smiled. “My Mule.”
“A mule!” Kid scoffed. “You accepted a mule as collateral.” He sidestepped a pile of horse manure that lay steaming in the street.
“You don’t have to tell me, I was there. I know what I did.” Heyes tugged on the rope attached to the mule’s halter. Forget-Me-Not obligingly followed them towards the livery stable. “Besides you heard what the bartender said; Abner’s dug a fortune out of his mine. Once the bank opens on Monday morning we’ll get our money.”
“Yeah, and it’ll have cost us the price of a stall and feed for three days. That old man’s not stupid.”
They reached the livery and Brody Rees, a tall broad shouldered Welshman, stepped into the doorway to greet them. “What can I do for you fellas?”
Heyes gave him a genial smile. “We’d like room and board for the lady here.” He jerked a thumb in Forget-Me-Not’s direction.
Rees looked at the mule’s cowboy hat as he wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “That ol’ Forget-Me-Not?”
“Abner lose a bet to ya?”
Kid’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah.”
Rees smiled. “He does that a lot. I’ll give you the same rate as for ya horses.” He reached out a hand and took the rope from Heyes. He chuckled as he led the mule away. “Abner’s pulled this one a time or two.”
Kid looked at Heyes. “He has, has he?”
“Yeah. He’s sorta known for it.”
Heyes shrugged. “Let’s go eat.”
Kid fixed him with a look. “That’s the first sensible thing you’ve said all day.”
The stall was empty.
“Where is she?” Heyes demanded.
Rees looked up from where he was shovelling soiled hay into a wheelbarrow. “Guess she went for a walk.”
“What?” Heyes looked again at the stall as if expecting Forget-Me-Not to reappear.
Kid settled his hands on his hips. “We paid you for…”
“Board and feed and that’s what you got. You never asked me to see she didn’t wander off if she felt like it.”
“If she felt like it?” Heyes’ found himself uncharacteristically lost for words.
“How d’you know she wasn’t stolen?” Kid asked.
“Forget-Me-Not? Never. She goes wanderin’ all the time. I’m surprised Abner didn’t tell ya.”
Kid looked at Heyes. “I’m surprised about that too, ain’t you, Joshua?”
Heyes refused to comment.
“Don’t worry boys,” Abner said reassuringly as he shovelled his breakfast into the gap in his beard where he presumably kept his mouth.
Kid and Heyes sat across the table from him in the small town cafeteria. Despite having eaten earlier the smell of the bacon on Abner’s plate and the aroma of coffee in the air made their stomachs’ rumble.
“Ol’ Forget-Me-Not likes to take a walk now and then. She’ll probably be on the road east of town or down by the pond. You’ll find her.” He shovelled a forkful of beans into his mouth. “Course if you don’t I can’t give ya your money.”
Kid shot Heyes a look.
Kid Curry sat on his horse just east of town. His left leg was looped casually over the saddle horn, arms rested on his knee as he watched Hannibal Heyes, feared leader of the infamous Devil’s Hole Gang trying to persuade a mule in a cowboy hat to stop eating the flowers at the side of the road and follow him back to town.
“Got everythin’ under control there, Heyes?” Kid asked helpfully.
“Yes!” Heyes grasped the mule’s halter tightly and pulled. Nothing happened. He pulled again. Forget-Me-Not ignored him and continued to chomp on a rather tasty bush. Heyes dug his heels into the ground and heaved. The mule didn’t budge. He muttered something best not repeated in the presence of ladies and moved to the rear and began to shove the animal’s rump.
“Not sure you should touch a lady’s behind without askin’,” Kid observed.
“If she doesn’t want me round her she can…” Heyes felt a hard thump, a pain shot through his right thigh and then he was lying on the ground looking up at a circling turkey buzzard.
Kid jumped off his horse and stood over his friend. “You okay?”
“I think she broke my leg.” Heyes clasped his thigh and winced.
Kid held out his hand. “Let’s see if you can stand.”
“How can I stand if she broke my leg?”
“Maybe she didn’t break it.” Kid used his most patient tone.
Heyes caught hold of Kid’s wrist and let his friend pull him to his feet. He took a moment to steady himself.
Kid looked at him “Well?”
“Guess she didn’t break it after all, but I bet they’ll be a bruise!” He looked up. “Where the heck is she?”
Kid spun around. No Forget-Me-Not. He turned full circle and pointed. The mule was heading back to town.
“Do you see that?” Heyes asked. He sat on his side of the bed the lower half of his union suit around his ankles.
Standing in front of the mirror, Kid ignored him as he continued to shave.
“Look at the size of it!”
Peering into the mirror Kid paused, the razor still pressed against his soap covered chin. He could see Heyes pointing at his lower half. “Please tell me you’re talkin’ about the bruise.”
Heyes shook his head. “This thing’s gone purple already.”
Kid looked at his reflection in the mirror. What the heck could he say to that?
“Again?” Kid stared at the empty stall.
“It’s Sunday, maybe she’s gone to church,” Rees offered with a smile as he carried a bale of hay into an empty stall.
“How’d she get out?” Heyes asked as he flicked the stall’s catch up and down.
“She lets herself out.” He looked over at the men and realised they expected more of an explanation. “She lifts the latch. Damn clever mule.”
“And knowing that you couldn’t have locked it?” Heyes could hardly contain his disbelief. He limped over to a bale of hay and sat down.
“If you wanted me to lock her in you shoulda told me,” Rees informed him. “Padlocks are extra.”
“Any sign?” Heyes called.
“Nope,” Kid replied as he urged his horse up the hill to meet Heyes astride his own mount at the top.
“Where the heck can she be?”
“One of them rhetoricals?”
“No!” Heyes’ eyes scanned the open plain. “I thought you might have an idea seeing as you’re both so stubborn an’ all.”
“I’ll let that pass seein’ as how you took her as collateral in the first place. I mean you could have read the note Abner threw in the pot.”
Heyes ignored the remarks. Kid looked around not expecting to find the…His eyes narrowed on something moving in the distance. A mule wearing a cowboy hat was making her way towards the distant escarpment.
“Where d’you think she’s going?” Heyes asked as his horse followed Kid’s.
“Why are you so convinced I have any idea what a mule’s thinkin’?”
“Takes one to know one.”
“Heyes, just ‘cos she kicked ya, don’t take it out on me.”
“You coulda helped.”
“Yeah. I coulda kicked your other leg.”
Heyes flipped the latch on the stall where Forget-Me-Not now stood chomping on a bale of hay. He attached a padlock and secured it, giving a reassuring tug on it before he let it drop from his hand. Heyes headed towards the livery exit and spotted Kid’s silhouette as he stood leaning against the wall. Six feet tall, cowboy hat hiding his eyes, gun hanging on his hip. He felt a knot tighten in his stomach. Every once in a while he was reminded just how dangerous Kid could look and the price his friend paid for his reputation as a gunslinger.
“Gotcha girlfriend settled in?” Kid asked as he pushed off the wall.
Heyes smiled. “I think she’s more your type.”
Kid followed him as he limped down Main Street. “Wasn’t she impressed by your silver tongue?”
Heyes chose to ignore him. “You owe me a beer.” He stepped onto the boardwalk.
“How d’you work that out?”
“Last Sunday I bought the beers.”
“You’re keepin’ score?”
“We’re partners, we’re supposed to share things evenly.”
“Well, I’ve bought a few beers since last Sunday.”
“I’m not counting incidentals.” Heyes crossed the street heading to the saloon.
“Incidentals? What the heck are incidentals?”
Kid and Heyes looked up from their table in the cafeteria and found Abner Weed standing before them.
“Abner,” they chorused before each man shoved a forkful of food into his mouth.
“Got my money?” Heyes asked, his cheeks were stuffed with partially chewed food.
“Sadly, Joshua, I ain’t.”
“Bank not open?” Kid asked as he took a drink of coffee to wash down the beans.
“So what’s the problem?” Heyes wiped his mouth with his napkin and picked up his own coffee cup.
“Forget-Me-Not ain’t in her stall.”
“Oh yes she is,” Heyes assured him. “I locked her in myself last night.”
“Well, she ain’t there this mornin’. I can’t give you your money if I don’t get my mule back.”
Kid looked at Heyes. Heyes looked at Abner. “She couldn’t have let herself out.”
Abner looked at Kid and shrugged. “She ain’t there.”
Confused, Heyes came to a decision. “She can’t have gone far. Thaddeus and I will find her.” He pushed back his chair and stood up.
Kid didn’t reply but his expression suggested he was getting fed up with the we part of Heyes’ plans. He scooped as much of the remaining beans as he could onto his fork and shoved them quickly into his mouth.
Abner smiled. “Thanks fellas. I’m right fond of my gal Forget-Me-Not. I’ll wait for you at the saloon.”
As Abner headed for the door Kid waved a gravy covered fork at Heyes. “You know for all the time and effort that mule’s cost us youda been better off losing.”
“There.” Kid pointed to the escarpment they had found Forget-Me-Not wandering towards the previous day. The mule plodded along a rough trail towards a distinctive rocky outcrop. The outlaws urged their horses in the mules’ direction eager to take her back to town and collect Heyes’ $50.
“You thinking what I’m thinking?” Heyes asked.
“Does it involve a saloon gal and a lot of beer?”
“Then I’m not thinkin’ what you’re thinkin’.”
“I’m thinking she knows where she’s going.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because she was going the same way yesterday and…”
“You think she’s goin’ back to the mine?”
Heyes smiled as he studied his friend’s face. “My genius really is wearing off on you.”
“You want to follow her?”
“To the mine?”
Heyes considered this then sadly shook his head. “Wouldn’t be much point? It’s not our mine.”
Kid smiled. “You’ve turned honest, Heyes.”
“No, just staying outta trouble.”
“There’s your money, son.” Abner handed Heyes a wodge of notes. Heyes counted it, smiled and then handed Forget-Me-Not’s halter rope to the old miner.
“Why d’you call her Forget-Me-Not?” Kid asked.
“Hadta name her somethin’.” Abner informed him and Kid nodded. “Besides it describes her well. She remembers where we live. It don’t matter how drunk or sick I get, she’ll always take me home.” He patted the mule’s neck affectionately then looked up at the men. “But then I reckon you know that don’tcha?”
The partners exchanged a look. “What makes you think that?” Heyes asked innocently.
“You followed her. She always went the same way, right?”
“Yeah.” Kid agreed.
“Yet you never let her take you to my mine. Why?” The weather-beaten face looked from one man to the other.
“Just naturally honest, I guess,” Heyes informed him.
Abner chuckled. “Guess that’s it all right.”
“If that’s the case you took a risk letting us look after her.”
Abner looked from Kid to Heyes. “I don’t think so. I read faces real well.” Without another word he led Forget-Me-Not away.
“What d’you think he meant by that?” Kid asked.
“I said…” Kid realised Heyes wasn’t listening to him. “What is it?”
Brown eyes looked up at his friend. “How did she get out of that stall?”