The Kid By Ian Critchley

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Joe levelled the shotgun at the two men approaching on horseback and tried to hold steady. He’d shot bottles and jackrabbits but never a man, though they weren’t to know that. They were going to see him pointing his gun and think he was an old hand.

The men were hazy in the heat. They were trotting along, no urgency, but that could be deliberate. They could be fooling with him, trying to catch him out. Chauncey was gone to fetch the milk pail. It was just him here now with the cattle.

The dust swirled up as the men came nearer. The gun was tight in his hands. He wanted a drink. Water, whiskey. Not in that order.

They brought the horses to a halt maybe twenty feet away. The men’s hats were low on their heads and the shade hid their features. Then one of them tipped his hat back and said, ‘Hold on, Joe. Don’t you know your own brother?’

What kind of a trick was this?

‘Henry?’ He still aimed the gun, but it felt suddenly lighter in his hands.

The man laughed and jumped down and came towards him and laughed again. ‘Put the gun down, Josey. We ain’t here to steal the livestock.’

It was Henry all right. The same lopsided grin, the same smell of sweat and horse shit. Henry thrust a hand out, but Joe swung the gun round to the other man. ‘Who’s this?’

‘John C. Tunstall, at your service,’ said the second man, lifting his hat off like he was at church. His voice was funny, all high-pitched, and Joe struggled to work it out.

‘Mr Tunstall’s a friend, Joe.’

‘Why’s he speak like that?’

‘He’s an Englishman. He don’t mean nothing by it. You got anything to eat round here?’

Joe raised his chin towards the ranch house and left them to follow with the horses. There was bread on the table, stale now, but it would do. Unless Englishmen didn’t eat bread, and especially not stale bread, in which case there was going to be some argument. Joe flapped away the flies before his brother and the other man came in. They sat down without a word and set to, ripping off hunks of the loaf and chewing, chewing. Joe knew where Nicolia kept the whiskey. It was the first thing he’d scouted out when he came over from the Truesdell place. He fetched the bottle and put it on the table. Nicolia never kept track of it, just shrugged and thought he’d drunk it all himself.

‘Where’d you learn to drink this?’ said Henry, nudging the bottle, his words muffled by a mouthful of bread. ‘Dyer taught you, did he?’ He swallowed, then added, ‘What else he teach you? Cards and whores?’

‘D’ye want it or not?’

Henry turned to his companion. ‘The kid has grown up fast.’

‘I thought you were the kid,’ said Tunstall.

Henry grinned. ‘Yeah, they call me the kid. But this boy here is the real kid.’

Joe poured out three glasses. ‘I ain’t no kid.’

‘How old are you now?’ asked his brother. ‘Fifteen?’

‘Surprised you remember. But I ain’t no kid.’

‘All right, Josey. All right.’

Both men were carrying a pistol at their hip. The Englishman kept touching his, as if checking it was still there. His skin was red-raw above his collar, and it was peeling off his nose. He had a wispy beard, but only on his chin. His cheeks were smooth, like a girl’s. He didn’t look much older than Henry, but his clothes hung together better than most.

Joe drained his glass and addressed his brother. ‘Where you been?’

Henry sighed. ‘Arizona. Had to leave there pretty quick.’

‘I heard you killed someone.’

‘It was self-defence.’

Joe snorted. ‘Ain’t that what they all say?’

‘Didn’t I tell you, Mr Tunstall?’ Henry said to the Englishman. ‘Didn’t I tell you he was the smart one?’

Tunstall dabbed at a crumb on the table and rolled it between his fingers. ‘I could certainly use someone like that,’ he said. ‘No offence to the other lads we’ve got.’

‘What’s he talking about?’ said Joe.

Henry slammed his palm against the table. ‘You need to show Mr Tunstall some respect.’

‘Why?’

A fly landed back on the bread, then another. It was like they had told each other it was okay to come and feast on it again.

‘Listen, Joe,’ said Henry, his voice softer now, the grin drawn on his face once more. ‘Mr Tunstall has a proposition. He needs workers at his ranch. I thought of you.’

Henry had taken only a sip of whiskey and the Englishman had drunk none. Joe refilled his own glass. When had he last seen his brother? Couple of years, was it? At least. Even as boys they hadn’t spent much time together.

‘I got work here,’ he said.

‘He’ll pay you well.’

‘Of course I’ll pay you!’ said the Englishman, holding up his hands as if they were full of dollars to dispense.

Out the window, Joe could see Chauncey patting the cows. The boy would be needing help.

‘Joe, this is a chance for both of us to make good,’ said Henry. ‘It’s honest work. I know I ain’t been the best of brothers, but we might never get a better opportunity.’

‘Honest dollars for honest days, is what I always tell the lads,’ said Tunstall.

Joe gripped his glass with both hands, as if afraid it was going to be taken away from him. It was a habit he’d picked up at Dyer’s saloon, where you had to look to your own things at all times. He hadn’t done much in the way of travelling, not like Henry, but he’d heard the tales told by the regulars, the boasts and the dark deeds, and he hadn’t liked the sound of it, not one bit. The women were different. They didn’t talk up what they’d done. They were tired, mostly, just wanting a bed to themselves so they could rest.

‘I got work here,’ he said again.

Henry scraped his chair back, and Joe flinched at the noise, but his brother didn’t look like he was going to do anything of consequence. Maybe the two visitors had had enough and were on their way. Joe reckoned Silver City was a good ride distant.

But his brother leaned down, his knuckles white against the table top, and said, ‘There a croquet set here, Joe?’

Tunstall jerked upright, like he’d been shot. ‘Croquet? Do you play croquet?’

Henry turned to his companion. ‘What’s the matter, Mr Tunstall?’

‘You play croquet?’ he repeated. ‘In New Mexico?’

‘Can’t say I’ve had much time for it lately, but yeah.’

The Englishman rose and put his nose to the window. ‘But you haven’t got a lawn.’

‘A what?’ said Joe.

‘I mean, you need grass. There’s no grass here, not worth the name, anyway. Or a flat surface, come to that.’

‘I don’t know what kind of game you play over in England, Mr Tunstall,’ said Henry, ‘but we don’t need none of that.’ He turned to his brother. ‘What d’ye say, Josey? We got time for a game, ain’t we? We could even put a bet on it, if you like.’

*

Joe had seen a mallet in the building next to the outhouse. Nicolia kept all kinds of junk out there and Joe had moved it around while looking for the old man’s whiskey stash. Henry soon unearthed some balls and wickets, but there was only one mallet.

‘Guess we’ll have to share,’ he said.

Joe told him he was supposed to be milking the cows with Chauncey.

‘Let Chauncey handle the cows,’ Henry said. ‘Come on, Joe. It’ll be good to whack some balls around, won’t it?’

There was a patch of scrub out back that Henry pronounced suitable. Tunstall picked up one of the balls and said they were much lighter than the ones he was used to. He kept saying the word ‘hoops’ and it took Joe a while to work out he was talking about the wickets.

‘Back home,’ the man said, ‘this is a rich man’s game.’

‘Did you play it, then, Mr Tunstall, back home?’

‘Now, now, Billy, no teasing.’

Joe looked at his brother. ‘What’d he call you?’

Henry pushed the last wicket down into the earth. ‘I’m going by Billy now,’ he said. ‘William Bonney.’

‘Why you doing that?’

Henry shrugged. ‘Things got a little out of hand in Arizona. I’m trying to make a fresh start.’

‘An alias, you mean,’ said Joe. ‘They looking for you?’

His brother took hold of the mallet. ‘Let’s play.’

‘I don’t like the name Billy,’ said Joe.

‘You don’t have to like it. You think I liked being called Antrim after that old bastard? That man was never our pa. He split us up, then lit out of town.’

‘You lit out too.’

Henry turned to his boss. ‘You know the rules, I take it, Mr Tunstall.’

‘I believe we invented the sport,’ said the Englishman.

‘Then I’m sure you’ll be very good at it,’ Henry said, gathering the balls together. ‘So, let’s put a wager down, Joe, shall we? If I win, you come with us. If you win – well, you can stay here in this little place.’

‘I ain’t wagering,’ said Joe.

Henry shrugged. ‘I know you love a good competition.’ He stood with his legs asunder like he was on an invisible horse and swung the mallet through. His ball followed the slope towards the first wicket, nestling just in front.

‘I’m a little rusty,’ he said.

Beyond moving it from one part of the outbuilding to another, Joe had barely picked up a mallet before. He’d seen others play the game, of course – it had become popular in the territory since they’d first sold the kits in town a few years before. They were cheap enough for the farmers. He’d even witnessed the Indians playing it. He thought he could probably get the hang of it if he fixed his mind to it. It was just a stick hitting a ball, wasn’t it? He hadn’t shaken on the bet so he couldn’t be held to anything, but maybe if he could somehow win the game, it would shut his brother up for good.

It went badly for him from the start, though. He couldn’t get the ball to go where he wanted it at all. Somehow Henry judged the lie of the land, saw how the bumps and stones could be negotiated on the way through the wickets. He had total control over the mallet, his hands steady, his aim true.

The only consolation was that the Englishman could barely even hit the ball. He swung and missed on almost every other attempt. He blamed it on the weight of the balls, the sun in his eyes, and he kept bringing out his kerchief and dabbing his face with it. Joe didn’t know much about the English, but if they were all the same as this one they were a sorry bunch. How did this man manage a ranch? But then as soon as he asked himself that question, he knew the answer: he paid people like Henry to do all the dirty work.

His brother was talking about the job again.

‘You’d be a real asset, Joe,’ he said. ‘The size of you.’

‘I need people I can trust,’ said Tunstall. ‘If Billy here vouches for you, that’s good enough for me. You’re blood, after all. The truth of the matter is I’m having some trouble with the damned Irish.’

Joe frowned and looked at his brother. ‘What’s that he said about the Irish?’

Henry waved a hand around. ‘It’s nothing. There’s a gang of Irishmen trying to muscle in on the trade in Silver City, is all.’

‘Sounds like he don’t care for them much,’ said Joe.

‘Well, I don’t,’ said Tunstall.

‘Ma was Irish,’ Joe reminded his brother. ‘We’re Irish.’

‘I don’t mean you boys,’ said the Englishman. ‘Billy tells me you were born in New York.’

Joe narrowed his eyes. Why bring that up? They’d left there before they had any memory of it. Henry was getting on with the game. Joe was no expert, but even he could tell his brother was way ahead. But Henry couldn’t hold him to a wager they hadn’t shaken on.

The Englishman said, ‘Could I trouble you for the toilet?’

‘What?’

‘He means the outhouse, Joe,’ said Henry.

Joe indicated to the man, then when he was gone, turned to Henry. ‘Why have you taken up with him?’

‘Nobody else would employ me,’ said Henry. ‘He’s giving me a chance.’

‘You gonna rob him?’

Henry stood still and stared at him. ‘You ain’t got no reason to be saying things like that,’ he said. ‘You hear me?’

Joe looked down.

‘I told you,’ his brother went on, ‘I’m straight now. I’m gonna get me settled. There’s women to choose from in the city. What you gonna do with yourself here? You’re milking cows with Chauncey. That the kind of life you want?’

‘It’s all I got.’

‘Don’t have to be like that. There’s a group of us at Mr Tunstall’s ranch. They’re good people. I’ll look after you.’

‘I don’t need you to look after me!’ shouted Joe.

‘Josey, Josey.’

‘And what’s gonna happen when them Irish come for you?’ Joe said. ‘What you gonna do then?’

His brother said nothing to that.

‘What you gonna do, Billy?’ Joe went on. ‘What you gonna do when the Irish come starting the arguments, maybe with more than just words.’

‘Then they’ll get what they deserve, won’t they,’ spat Henry.

‘So you’re recruiting for a fight, is that it? That why you’re here?’

Henry came up close, right in his face. ‘You said you ain’t a kid no more. Come prove yourself a man.’

Joe turned away from the stink of his brother’s breath. ‘You’re a murderer.’

Henry swung the mallet high above his head, then seemed to change his mind, turning and hitting one of the wickets out of the ground. Then he smacked another one clean out, then another. Each in turn went spinning away, and when he was done with that, he started smashing the mallet down on the earth, again and again, as if he wanted to flatten it out, until the end broke off and flew into the air, just missing Joe’s head before landing in the dirt. Henry was left holding the pole, breathing heavily.

Tunstall was standing a few feet away. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I can see the rules of the game are slightly different here.’

Henry kept his eyes fixed on his brother. ‘Go milk your cows, Joe.’

*

Henry took the rest of the bread to see him and his boss back to Silver City, but that was no loss. Joe was worried they were going to take the whiskey too, but they didn’t make a move for that.

As they trotted away, Joe picked up the shotgun and trained it on his brother’s back. He held the gun in position, held it, held it, felt his trigger finger sweating and sliding. What did it take to kill a man? His brother knew already. Joe watched the two men get smaller and smaller. The sun was high and it beat down on him so hard he didn’t think he would be able to stand it much longer. The heat would make him buckle in the end, but he held the gun steady, keeping it aimed at his brother, at Henry, at Billy, at the Kid, and after the two men had disappeared from view he fired.

glasses

Ian Critchley

Ian Critchley is a freelance editor and journalist. His fiction has been published in several journals and anthologies, including Neonlit: Time Out Book of New Writing, Volume 2, The Mechanics Institute Review #15, Litro and Storgy, and his journalism has appeared in the Sunday Times, Times Literary Supplement, Literary Review and Telegraph.

Twitter: @iancritchley4
Website: iancritchley.wordpress.com

Publications:
‘Stub’ – Lucent Dreaming
‘White-Out’ – The Mechanics Institute Review Online
‘The Last Summer’ – Ellipsis Zine
‘The Hole’ – The Mechanics' Institute Review 15
‘Antique Pieces’ –  Litro
‘Past Performance’ – The Cabinet of Heed
‘Mr DIY’ –  Storgy

Image by Donna H from Pixabay


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