Mules

Mules
(The stubbornness of men. How stubborn can one man…or three men…be?)

By Maz McCoy

Kid Curry rode through the cottonwood trees and out into the sunshine. He turned his horse onto the trail that led down into the valley. The sun was high in the sky and he adjusted his hat, shielding his eyes from the glare. A rabbit ran across the path ahead of him, startled by the approaching horse. Kid yawned. He’d been in the saddle since dawn and there were just a few more miles to go before he reached Red Rock. He was looking forward to a hot bath and a decent meal. He smiled at the thought of Manuela’s cooking. Heyes should be back soon. Big Mac was buying a horse from a good friend of his, owner of the Pinto Ranch. Heyes had travelled with McCreedy to take a look at the animal, advise on the negotiations and accompany man and horse on the train journey back. Of course the fact that Mac’s friend was holding a high stakes poker game had been an additional incentive for Heyes to go. Kid was sure he had seen his partner’s fingers twitch at the thought of the cards and all that money. In the meantime Kid had been sent on an errand to Sorrel Plains.

Something made the horse skittish. Kid tightened his grip on the reins as he looked around. He could see nothing up ahead or in the undergrowth.

“Easy girl,” he soothed, patting the horse’s neck, but the animal was still disturbed by something. “What do you hear, huh?” Kid’s answer came, not from the horse, but from a terrifying growl above him. He turned just as the mountain lion launched itself from a rocky outcrop. Kid could do no more than put up his hands to protect himself. The cat hit him hard, knocking him from his horse. Kid hit the ground and began to roll down the hillside. When he came to a stop, despite being dazed, he dragged himself to his feet, searching for the animal. The cat stood a few feet away, its eyes focussed intently on Kid. It snarled, lips curled back, giving Kid a clear view of its sharp, saliva covered canines. The cat’s shoulders rose, its muscles tensed, then it launched itself. Claws slashing, the cat hit Kid, sending him stumbling backwards, the sound of a single gunshot echoed around the valley and the mountain lion crashed to the ground.

Kid pulled himself quickly to his feet, breathing heavily. Stones skidded from beneath him on the sharp incline and he fought to regain his balance. He looked at the cat; it did not move. Satisfied it was dead; Kid holstered his smoking gun. As he did so, he saw a red stain on his ripped shirt. Gently he pulled aside the torn cloth to reveal claw marks on his right side. He knew the animal had hit him, but with the adrenaline surging through his veins he hadn’t realised how hard. One swipe of its huge paw was all it had taken to tear his flesh. He was lucky the claws had not sunk any deeper. Tentatively he touched his side and grimaced, sinking to his knees, as he caught his breath. It hurt. His horse was standing, a few feet away along the trail, looking down at him.

“I’m glad you’re still here,” Kid stated. The horse gave no reply. Kid placed a hand on his side, and pulled himself to his feet. The ground beneath him gave way and stones and soil went cascading down the hillside. Kid fell to his knees once more. The topsoil was loose all around him. He would have to be careful. Reaching out, he caught hold of a shrub, using it to steady himself, as he climbed to his feet. Again the ground slid out from under him and he lost his footing. His grip on the shrub tightened, he couldn’t get a foothold. A rivulet of pebbles went tumbling down the incline. He watched, in consternation, as his gloved hand tore the leaves from the branch. There was nothing else he could hang on to, no foothold to be found. Frantically, he grabbed for another branch but they were all now out of reach. When his hand finally slipped free, Kid couldn’t stop himself from sliding down the slope. Man, soil and stones could not outwit the force of gravity. Kid went tumbling, head over heels, crashing through the vegetation and muttering curses, as he headed towards the bottom of the valley. Half way down the hill he hit his head on something hard and a blinding pain went though his skull.

When he came to a stop, Kid Curry lay on his back surrounded by broken branches, twigs and stones. A few feet away lay the body of a dead mountain lion. Kid was unaware of any of this. He was already unconscious.
***

The driver pulled the buggy to a halt in front of the large house. Patrick McCreedy climbed out with a heavy sigh, glad to be home. Seated beside him, Hannibal Heyes yawned and then stepped down from the carriage. It had been a long, tiring journey from the Pinto Ranch. It had not, however, been an unprofitable trip. The horse Mac had bought was a good specimen, it would improve his stock and was worth the money Mac had been persuaded to pay. In truth Heyes had not been needed to help with its purchase, or offer any equine advice. The poker game McCreedy promised had not been in the same league as the first Heyes had played with the rancher, but it had left him with a sizeable wad of cash in his pocket. The game had also introduced him to two potential, rich employers, Winslow Beecham, a successful horse breeder and Harvey Driver III, owner of a large cattle ranch. Their advice to “look us up next time you’re here Mr. Smith” had been more than polite conversation.

“I’m sure we’d find something for an intelligent man like yourself,” Winslow had told him as they stood together on the porch of his impressive home.

“They’re good men to have on your side,” Mac told him on the train journey back to Red Rock. Heyes hoped it was true. Each man had clearly been an excellent judge of character. He would certainly keep their offers in mind.

Heyes followed Mac into the house, anxious to see Kid and tell him about his good fortune.

“Hello Manuela.” Heyes smiled, as the housekeeper greeted them. “Mr. Jones, about?”

“He’s not back yet,” she informed him as she took Big Mac’s hat.

“Where’s he gone?”

“Not back since he left when you did.”

“He’s not been back at all?”

“No. You the first ones here.”

Mac saw Heyes frown.

“We could do with something to eat,” he announced and Manuela headed for the kitchen. Mac slapped a hand on Heyes’ back. “Come on let’s get you a drink.”

Still thoughtful, Heyes followed him into the study.

***

A hand touched his hair. His eyes still closed, Kid tried to swat it away as he would a troublesome fly. Something was dabbed on his forehead. It felt as if his head was splitting in two. Kid tried to say something but the words wouldn’t come. Someone touched the claw marks on his skin, pressing down. He cried out and the hands moved away. Everything was distant; in a world he couldn’t quite reach. Eyes closed, he teetered on the edge of consciousness. He could hear movement; footsteps in the dust, a horse standing nearby. There was the creak of a saddle.

Hands grabbed him under the arms and he was lifted, his head falling forward, the heels of his boots dragging on the ground. He lay at an angle; the world took on a steady rhythm, rocking gently from side to side. There was a scraping sound along the ground; the plod of a horse’s hooves. He was jostled over rough terrain. Kid’s eyes opened but he saw no more than a blur of bright lights and coloured, indistinguishable shapes. The world faded.

Kid had no idea how much time had passed when he woke, he just knew that he was aware of his surroundings once more. He felt something cool on his face. It soothed his pounding headache. He muttered, trying to form words. A damp cloth was placed on his lips, water dripping from it into his mouth. Kid swallowed gratefully and slept.

A cold paste rubbed into the wound woke him and he felt a sudden stinging agony and cried out. Kid writhed and tried to get away but strong hands gripped his wrists, preventing him from touching the wound and pinning him down. He was held until he no longer struggled, until his body gave in once more.

***

“Do you think you’ll take Beecham up on his offer?” McCreedy asked, conversationally as he chewed his steak.

“Huh?”

“We’re you listening to anything I said?”

The dark-haired man seated opposite him shook his head.

“Sorry, Mac.”

“No point asking what you’re thinking about. However, you need to eat and I don’t like seeing food wasted.” Mac pointed to the plate in front of Heyes. “Eat. Then we’ll talk about that partner of yours.”

Heyes looked down at his plate. Manuela had produced an appetising feast as always. He stabbed a piece of meat with his fork.

***

Kid opened his eyes and slowly focussed on the things above his head. The pelts of animals hung from a wooden pole. Skins, fur, twigs and bunches of dried leaves tied with rawhide, dangled over him. Sightless eyes, from the withered face of a fox, peered down, fixing him with its lifeless gaze. He wasn’t in a cabin; it was some sort of tent. Light from a fire outside cast dancing shadows around him. He heard the crackle of burning wood. A sweet smell, mixed with wood smoke, filled the air. Reaching up, Kid felt a bandage around his head. Raising his head slightly, he tried to ignore the nausea, as he looked around. He was lying on, what looked like, a bear skin. He felt the long black fur beneath his fingers. From the waist down he was covered with a blanket. A bandage was wrapped around his abdomen. It was bloodstained on the right side. He touched his side, tentatively, it felt sore. There was a sudden shaft of fire-light as the tent flap was pulled further back, a cool rush of air and then soft footsteps approached him. Kid turned his head and squinted at the figure silhouetted in the doorway.

“Who..?” Kid tried to sit up and pain shot through his head. He screwed his eyes tight, lay back and then tried again. “Who are you?”

Without a word, the figure drew closer. It was a man. His long dark hair was tied back from his face, revealing streaks of grey at his temples. His jaw was square, his eyes deep set, his clothes made of buckskin and cloth. He was an Indian. Apache? Comanche? Kid couldn’t tell. Was there any trouble with Indians in this region? He couldn’t remember. He hadn’t been scalped, so that was a good sign, wasn’t it? On a previous encounter with Indians, he’d needed rescuing. He hoped it wasn’t going to be the same this time. The man knelt beside Kid, placing a jar on the ground, as he did so.

“Who are you?” Kid repeated, weakly.

“Rest,” the man advised as he lifted the bandage from Kid’s side.

“Where are we?”

“Don’t talk.”

Kid ignored the suggestion.

“How long have I..?”

Kid yelled in pain, as the man placed something on the wound. His cries did not appear to affect the man. He continued to tend the wound, applying a sticky paste to the newly knitting skin, while keeping one strong hand on Kid’s shoulder, holding him down. When he had finished, he replaced the bandage, then sat back on his heels. He studied Kid’s face.

“Rest.” He stood up and turned to go.

“Wait! Please!” Kid pleaded and the man stopped. “Who are you? Where are we?”

The Indian pointed to his chest.

“Red Mule.” He waved a hand at his humble abode. “My tent.”

“How long have I been here?”

“You ask a lot of questions.”

Kid gave a faint smile.

“Where is this tent?”

“Rest. We’ll talk later,” Red Mule said with determination, turning away again.

“My friends were…expecting me…”

But the man had already left.

“I can’t remember what happened,” Kid muttered to himself.

***

“He should have been back by now.” Hannibal Heyes paced back and forth on the front porch of Big Mac’s house. Manuela’s good home cooking had filled his stomach but he still had a hollow feeling inside. His partner’s absence gnawed at him. Despite being tired from the journey, he had slept fitfully the previous night. He and Kid had been apart before but this time something didn’t feel right and he couldn’t explain it, not even to himself. He had waited, watching the distant hills for a sign of his friend. Another day had passed and now…? Big Mac watched him, taking a slow draw on his expensive cigar as he did so. He looked off into the distance.

“He’s only a couple of days late,” he pointed out.

“He should have been here when we got back.”

“Sorrel Plains is a nice town; he could have decided to stay on longer; found himself a girl or a game.”

“If he did, he’d have sent us a telegram. He knew he was supposed to be here. He’d be here.”

Heyes looked off into the distance.

“What is it?” Mac asked.

“I don’t know. Something just doesn’t feel right. Kid’s usually the one that gets feelings but this time… I don’t know Mac.” Heyes gave a sigh.

“You’re tired and anxious to see Lom Trevors.”

McCreedy was right about that. A telegram had arrived in their absence. Lom wanted to see them. It was about a job, not about their amnesty, but it was always good to see Lom and find out the latest from the Governor. There was rarely anything new to report but at least they could show they were still serious about going straight.

“Come on,” Mac said. “Let’s get you a drink.”

“I don’t need another drink.”

“Well I do, come on. Keep me company. He’ll probably be here in the morning. And worried or not, there’s nothing you can do tonight.”

Reluctantly, Heyes followed him back into the house.

***

The mountain lion drew closer. Kid tried to back away but there was nowhere to go, his back was pressed against the rocks. The cat edged forward. Kid swallowed, his mouth was dry, his gun empty. He’d fired six bullets at the cat but still it kept coming and then it sprang. Kid raised his hands to fight it off.

His eyes opened and he looked up with a start. The dead eyes of a fox looked back at him, menacingly. Pushing on the ground with his heels, Kid tried to get away, a pain shot through his side and head. He groaned. Breathing heavily he looked up at the pelts hanging above him. There was no cat. It hadn’t been real. He took several deep breaths trying to calm down. Kid turned his head to the side. The Indian was sitting a few feet away, watching him. Their eyes met.

“Bad dream?” Red Mule asked.

“Yeah.” Kid could feel his heart pounding in his chest.

The man picked up a bottle and removed the top. He poured something into a cup and carried it over to Kid.

“Drink some.”

Kid eyed the cup, suspiciously.

“What is it? Some sort of medicine? Herbs and stuff? Something your family’s been using for generations?”

The Indian remained serious.

“My people call it water,” he stated, meeting Kid’s eyes. Both men smiled, the tension between them easing. “Drink.” He placed the cup to Kid’s lips, supporting his head as he sat up to take a few welcome swallows.

“Thank you.” Kid lay back. “A mountain lion knocked me off my horse.”

“I know. I have the body outside and you have a few scratches.”

“There are people waiting for me.”

“They’ll have to wait.”

“I need to get word to them.”

“No telegraph here.”

“Where is here?”

“We’re in the mountains.”

“I was on a trail.”

“It’s not far from here.”

“My friends will worry about me.”

“Where are they?”

“Red Rock.”

“Hmm, not too far.”

“They expected me back. Could you get a message to them?”

“Can’t see how.”

“I hafta let them know…” Kid tried to sit up and grimaced.

“You can’t ride yet.” Kid knew he was right. “What do they call you?”

“Well, I’ve been called a lot of things,” he smiled. “My name’s Thaddeus Jones.”

“Hmm.”

“What did you say your name was?”

“Red Mule.”

“Is there a reason for that, you know, tradition?”

“I was to be called Red Eagle but my mother tells me I was very stubborn being born, so my father named me Red Mule. Kinda been stubborn ever since, so I guess he was right.” He looked at the blond man. “Who gave you your name?”

Kid was momentarily thrown by the question.

“My folks,” he finally said. The Indian smiled, then Red Mule stood up and left the tent. Kid closed his eyes.

***

Hannibal Heyes stood by the bedroom window staring out into the night. His eyes searched desperately for a man on a horse. It wasn’t logical, but something didn’t feel right. He sensed…no, that wasn’t the right word. For such a well read man, he couldn’t find the right word. He just knew something was wrong.

“Where are you, Kid?”

***

At the sound of a hammer being drawn back, Kid’s eyes flew open and his hand shot to his side, but he found no gun there. He was breathing fast when his gaze met Red Mule’s. The Indian’s eyes showed interested curiosity and then his expression softened. He released the hammer on Kid’s Colt.

“Nice gun,” he said as he held it. “Good balance.”

Kid didn’t say anything.

“A man who owns a gun like this knows how to use one. D’you want to sell it?”

“Not unless I have to.”

“Understandable.” He watched as Kid relaxed. “Gave you a start, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Quick reflexes. Bet you’re pretty fast with this.” He replaced the Colt in its holster, then lay Kid’s gun belt to one side. “I should take a look at those bandages.”

“Thanks.”

Red Mule opened a small box containing numerous rolled up pieces of cloth.

“Why d’you have so many bandages?” Kid asked as the Indian removed two.

“I found this box a few months back. There was a whole lot of other stuff too; must have fallen off a supply wagon. I knew it would be useful. You never know when some fool white man will get himself attacked and drop by.”

Kid smiled.

***

The sound of metal against good quality porcelain was irritating Patrick McCreedy. He chewed his food and tried to ignore it. His eyes focussed intently on the fork tapping against the edge of the plate, and then on the dark-haired man doing the tapping.

“Damn it, Joshua! Will you stop that infernal noise?”

Heyes looked up.

“What?”

“Your fork.”

Heyes looked down at the offending implement and realised what Mac was on about.

“Oh, sorry.”

“Go outside and pace if you have to, but let me finish my breakfast in peace.”

Heyes put down his fork and rested his hand on a barely touched cup of coffee.

“I’m riding out,” he stated, definitely.

“No point asking where you’re going.”

“I have to find him.”

“I know. I thought he was the stubborn one, but once you get an idea in your head there’s no point trying to talk you out of it.” Heyes met Big Mac’s gaze. “I’ll have some supplies made up for you.”

“Thanks, Mac.”

“I just hope you find my nephew.”

“Me too.”

“Kid Curry, or not, I’ll give him a good talking to when he gets back.”

Heyes smiled. He was looking forward to seeing that.

***

Kid threw back the blanket covering him. He was wearing only long-johns and his socks. With one hand holding his right side, he pulled himself up onto an elbow. Slowly, he managed to sit up, groaning in pain at every movement. Nothing, in the tent, seemed to want to stay still. After a few moments, Kid turned onto his hands and knees. He decided against trying to stand, mainly because he didn’t think he’d be vertical for long. He crawled towards the entrance of the tent. As he reached it a sudden shaft of early morning light appeared, followed by two large feet clad in worn moccasins. Kid focussed on the moccasins.

“Going somewhere?” Red Mule asked.

“Not at this rate.” Kid let out a deep breath..

“How long did it take you to get this far?”

“Too long.”

“You gonna crawl all the way to Red Rock or should I help you back to bed?”

Kid looked up.

“I could do with a hand.”

The Indian grabbed his arm and hauled him to his feet. Kid cried out and swayed, fighting a wave of nausea, a spinning tent and the pain in his side. Red Mule led him back to the makeshift bed. Kid slumped back on the pillow as the man covered him with the blankets.

“Thank you.”

“You always so stubborn?”

“Remind me again, why they named you?” Kid looked up at Red Mule.

“Good point.”

***

Exhausted by his exertion and aborted attempt to leave, Kid drifted in and out of sleep for the rest of the morning. Whenever he woke Red Mule was there, working on some repairs to a saddle, fixing himself something to eat or changing the bandages on Kid’s wounds. The man had a quiet efficiency about him that Kid admired. He spoke only when he needed to, choosing his words carefully. He had a sense of humour and had taken Kid into his home, and cared for him, as yet asking for no reward.

The fabric tent walls began to flap, as the wind blew outside. Kid’s stomach rumbled.

“You hungry?” Red Mule asked.

“Yes.”

“A good sign.” The Indian put down the hide he was working on. “Want some stew?”

“Please.”

Kid watched Red Mule move to the tent’s opening and go outside. The flap had been left open and Kid watched as the Indian removed the lid from a pot that stood on the fire. An aromatic smell diffused through the air when the lid was removed. Red Mule spooned some stew into a bowl, replaced the lid and then headed back to the tent. Kid pulled himself up onto his elbows and the Indian pulled a saddle behind him to support him.

“Here. Can you feed yourself?” He held out the bowl, in which a spoon sat half submerged in the appetising stew.

“Thanks, I’ll manage,” Kid assured him as he took the bowl. He held it carefully in his left hand, then scooped a spoonful into his mouth. “Ish iz ood,” he mumbled, appreciatively.

Red Mule sat back, satisfied, watching the blond man chew on the meat.

“This is real good,” Kid told him enthusiastically, but something in the way Red Mule was looking at him made him stop, mid-chew. “What is it?”

The Indian’s eyes met Kid’s. The ex-outlaw noted a certain glint in those dark eyes. Kid stopped chewing, suddenly concerned as to the contents of the bowl.

“What’s in this?” he asked. Red Mule smiled. “It’s not rat is it?”

“No.”

“Rattlesnake?”

“No.”

“It’s not the mountain lion?” Kid sounded horrified. Red Mule laughed.

“No.”

Kid thought.

“You people don’t eat skunk do ya?”

“I don’t.”

“Are you gonna put me out of my misery and tell me what I’m eating?”

“You said it was good.”

“Well I have to admit it is but…”

“Isn’t that all that matters?”

“I like to know what I’m eating.”

Red Mule smiled again.

“Aww come on!” Kid pleaded.

“I call it…” the dark-haired man searched for the word he needed. “In your language I believe it is known as a…” There was another annoyingly long pause as he pondered.

“Known as what?” Kid asked. “You know you are one annoying Indian!”

Red Mule met his gaze.

“I believe you pale faces call it a…rabbit.”

“Rabbit?”

Red Mule’s eyes sparkled, mischievously as they met two blue ones.

“You people do eat rabbits don’t you?” he asked.

Kid smiled at his own ignorance.

“I do,” he admitted and took another spoonful of stew.

***

It was a nice day, bright but chilly. The sun was shining, somewhere in the trees a bird sang cheerfully and, at the bottom of the slope, a stream tumbled gently over glistening rocks. The tranquil scene was wasted on the ex-leader of the Devil’s Hole Gang. The safe cracker extraordinaire had his eyes focussed on the trail, scouring the trees and the ground ahead, not for tuneful birds or scampering critters, but a broken twig and crushed vegetation. In fact he was searching for anything that would tell him anyone had recently passed by, especially if that happened to be his partner.

He’d ridden fast for a while, eating up the distance from Big Mac’s ranch. Despite his eagerness to reach Sorrel Plains he knew he couldn’t push his horse too hard. He walked it now, letting it recover. Kid had to have taken this trail on his way back, but as yet Heyes had seen nothing to ease his mind.

***

From a rocky outcrop, Red Mule watched the valley below. His eyes surveyed the distant hills, then rested on the trees and shrubs on his own part of the mountain range. His gaze wandered to the trail below. He had stood in exactly the same place when he first spotted the man calling himself Thaddeus Jones. He had watched as he rode by, heard the growl of a cat, followed by a single gunshot. Red Mule had witnessed Kid’s tumble down the hillside, then set off to see if his help was needed.

He watched now, as a man in a black hat rode along the same trail, but in the opposite direction. The man appeared to be looking for something or someone. His head kept turning from one side to the other, his eyes ever watchful, missing nothing, except the Indian above him, who did not wish to be seen.

***

The sound of a horse up ahead caused Heyes to tense. His hand dropped to the gun at his side, removing the safety. His grip tightened on the reins, as a tall, dark-haired man rode into view. The man was clearly assessing Heyes, as he approached.

As the distance closed between them, Heyes noted the man’s dark skin and his long tied back hair. His clothes were a mixture of buckskin and cloth. His horse had no saddle, just a blanket over the animal’s back and the man’s moccasin clad feet hung at the horse’s side. Using his years of experience and skill, Heyes came to a conclusion; the man was an Indian. Like Kid, he had not had a lot to do with Indians and he was unable to identify the man’s tribe.

“Howdy,” Heyes said when they drew alongside each other.

The Indian nodded.

“I’m looking for a friend of mine, wonder if you’ve seen him. Blond man, my age, wears a brown hat. He’s probably wearing a sheepskin jacket too.”

“He got a name?”

“Thaddeus Jones.”

“You got a name?”

“Joshua Smith.”

“You come up from Red Rock?”

“You got a name?” Heyes asked. The man met Heyes’ eyes. Clearly he was not going to have things all his own way.

“Red Mule.”

Heyes nodded a greeting.

“Yes. I came up from Red Rock.”

“You been expecting this friend?”

“Yes. He should have turned up a couple of days ago.”

“I know where your friend is.”

Heyes eyes opened wider.

“Where?”

“Back aways. He’s hurt.”

Heyes didn’t bother to hide his concern.

“How bad?”

“Head wound. Got attacked by a mountain lion.”

“Sheesh.” Heyes looked at the Indian. “Can you show me where he is?”

“I’ll take you.” Red Mule turned his horse and Heyes urged his horse to follow.

***

There was a large tent erected in a clearing. It was neither tepee nor army; more an amalgamation of both. Smoke rose from a fire in front of the tent. Kid’s horse stood patiently amongst the cottonwood trees, its reins tied around a trunk. Leaning against the tree was a travois. Red Mule pointed at the tent. He’d said very little on the journey there, despite Heyes’ best efforts to engage him in conversation or find out more about his friend’s condition. Heyes slid from the saddle and, cautiously, approached the tent. Lifting the flap he let his eyes adjust to the darkness before stepping inside. Kid lay, eyes closed, on a fur rug. He was covered to the waist by a blanket. Heyes looked at the bandages on his head and across his abdomen. Both showed a small blood stain. Heyes walked towards him and then dropped to his knees beside his partner.

“Aww, Kid,” he said, quietly, but it was still heard by Red Mule as he entered the tent.

“He’s just sleeping,” the Indian told him. “He was awake and talking earlier.”

Heyes considered this.

“D’you want coffee?”

“Thanks, that’d be good.” Heyes sat back on his heels. He looked at Kid. Heyes sighed. He’d found him.

***

Kid Curry began to wake. He could hear the crackling of the fire outside and smell the wood smoke. He opened his eyes; the dead fox stared back at him; no change there then. His head felt better; there was only a dull ache now. He turned his head towards the tent flap. Someone was sitting beside him. The man smiled.

“Heyes?”

“Hi,” the dark-haired man said. Kid closed his eyes.

“You’re not here.” Heyes touched Kid’s hand. Kid’s eyes opened. “You’re really here?”

“Yeah. I see you got yourself in trouble again.”

“Yeah, I guess I did.” His eyes narrowed as he looked at Heyes. “How d’you find me?”

“Champeen tracker of all Southern Utah, remember?”

Kid smiled.

“Yeah, but how d’you find me?”

“I met the Indian.”

“He’s okay; looked after me.”

“So I see.”

The tent flap opened and Red Mule entered. He nodded when he saw Kid was awake, looking from one partner to the other.

“You feeling better?” he asked Kid.

“Yeah.” Kid eased himself up on his elbows and Red Mule reached across and dragged the saddle behind him again. “Thanks.”

“When d’you think you’ll be ready to ride?” Heyes asked his friend.

“I’ll go now, if you can help me onto my horse?”

“You can’t ride yet,” Red Mule stated. He looked at Heyes. “The world moves every time he tries to stand up.”

“That true?” Two brown eyes focussed on Kid.

“It was. I’ll be fine now.” It seemed he was the only one who believed that.

“Stay here tonight. See how he is tomorrow. You can put your bedroll over there.” Red Mule indicated a space in the tent.

“Thanks.” Heyes got to his feet. “I’ll get my things.” Kid watched as his partner left the tent.

Red Mule knelt beside him. He pulled back the bandage covering the claw wound. Kid’s eyes fell on the deep scratches and the medicine Red Mule had spread on his body. The Indian placed one of his large hands on Kid’s side. Despite himself the blond man flinched.

“Still hurts. You need to be careful.”

“I will.”

“Hmmm.” Red Mule covered the wound and turned away. “He’s worried about you.”

“Yeah, he is.”

“Good to have a friend that cares.”

“It is.”

“You known each other long?”

“All my life.”

“He an outlaw too?”

Kid almost stopped breathing.

“What?” he asked, innocently.

“You heard.”

“Odd question to ask.”

“What’s the answer?”

Kid looked at Red Mule.

“Why’d you ask that?”

“He called you Kid. You got a real nice gun; a gunfighter’s gun. You got fast reflexes. Reckon that makes you fast with the Colt too. Makes me think of a man I read about.”

“And who might that be?”

“An outlaw.” He watched for a reaction, but detected none. “You called him Heyes. Makes me think of what I read about his friend too.”

At that moment the tent flap was pulled back and Heyes stepped inside

“What’s going on?” he asked, seeing Kid’s worried expression. Kid didn’t answer. “Thaddeus?”

Red Mule held Kid’s gaze.

“I’ll go catch us a skunk for dinner,” he said, climbing to his feet. Heyes watched him leave the tent.

“He’s not serious about the skunk is he?” Heyes asked.

“No, but I think he knows who we are.”

“Think he’ll do anything about it?”

“I don’t know.”

***

Heyes woke in the night. Something was wrong. He heard Kid muttering and looked across in the darkness. Moonlight through gaps in the tent gave him enough light to see his partner. Kid appeared to be in distress. Heyes threw off his blanket and moved to his friend’s side. Kid was in the midst of a dream.

“Thaddeus.” Heyes touched Kid’s arm. “Thaddeus.”

Kid woke with a start; his hand was swiftly at his side, reaching for the gun that wasn’t there. Heyes clamped his hand on Kid’s wrist and the blond man’s eye’s fixed on Heyes. The dark-haired man waited, as his friend realised who it was and relaxed.

“You okay?”

“Yeah.” Kid’s breathing was slowly returning to normal.

“Bad dream?”

Kid nodded.

“I’m okay.”

Heyes waited until he reassured that was true, and then returned to his bedroll. As he lay down, pulling the blanket over him, his eyes met Red Mule’s. The Indian said nothing and then turned his back, returning to sleep.

***

Heyes pushed the tent flap to one side and stepped into the early morning sunshine. Red Mule stood by the fire, holding the coffee pot. The Indian didn’t turn around as he handed Heyes a cup of coffee.

“Thanks.” Heyes took the cup from him and Red Mule, stooped down to pick up an empty cup and pour one for himself.

“He sleeping?”

“Yes.”

“Bad dream last night?”

“Yeah, it was.”

“He’s had others.” Heyes looked at him, concerned. “A man like him must have a lot to keep him awake at night.”

“A man like him?” Red Mule remained quiet. “He said you think we’re outlaws.”

“Well aren’t you?”

“What makes you think that?”

“I was a scout for the Army. When the Captain retired he became a Marshal. Gave me a job, helping him.” Heyes said nothing. “He taught me to read letters and words; mostly from ‘Wanted’ posters. I could tell you everything the ones on his wall said. I have all those words in here.” He tapped the side of his head.

Heyes took a casual sip of coffee, as if only mildly interested in what the man had to say.

“There was one for a blond man and his dark-haired partner.”

“That’s not much to base your accusation on.”

“They had names too. You called him Kid.”

“That’s ‘cos he’s like a kid brother to me.” Heyes smiled and tossed the remains of his coffee on the ground.

“He called you Heyes.”

Their eyes met.

“So if you think we’re outlaws, do you plan to do anything about it?” Heyes hand hung beside his Schofield.

The silence between them was broken only by the distant hammering of a woodpecker in the trees.

“I don’t work for the law anymore.”

“You’re not tempted by a reward?”

“I have little use for white man’s money.”

“You’re in a minority there, then.”

Red Mule studied the man beside him.

“What are you two doin’?” a voice asked and they turned to see Kid standing in the entrance to the tent. His hair was a mess, his eyes puffy from sleep. His red long johns were rumpled, his socks around his ankles. He had one hand holding the tent flap open, the other was across his body, holding his side. Kid looked anything but menacing.

“Does that look like a tough outlaw to you?” Heyes asked.

“Guess I’m not seeing him at his best.”

He met Heyes’ eyes and smiled.

***

“Do you think you can stay on?” Heyes asked, later that morning, as Kid eased himself into a more comfortable position in the saddle.

“I’ve been riding for years now, I reckon I know how it works.”

“Yeah, but you’ve done a lot of falling off too.”

“I’ll manage. What was it you once told me? You worry about staying on your horse and I’ll worry about staying on mine.”

Heyes looked across at his friend.

“Yeah, but I knew I could do it. With you I’m not so sure.”

“I’ll be okay.”

“Hmm.”

“He all right up there?” Red Mule asked as he walked towards them.

“Hopefully,” Heyes remarked. The Indian held out a sack.

“Just some biscuits,” he explained.

“Thank you. For everything.”

“I’m not responsible for everything.”

“Then thank you for the food and for looking after my friend.”

“Seems a lot of white folk can’t take care of themselves. Don’t know what you’d do without us Indians around.” He smiled at the two men.

“Thank you,” Kid said and touched the brim of his hat. Red Mule looked at the bruise on the side of Kid’s head.

“Stay out of trouble,” he advised.

“We always try to,” Heyes assured him, as he pulled himself into the saddle. He held out his hand and Red Mule shook it.

He watched them ride away, wondering what he would have done with $20,000.

THE END

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2 thoughts on “Mules

  1. I liked Red Mule, he was a good man. I wonder why he was off on his own, did his people not want him around since he had lived in the white mans’ world? He took good care of Kid for til Heyes got there. I liked the back and forth between Kid and Red Mule.

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