“Mommy, I’m hot,” whined the boy two tables down. His mother wheedled, “Sebastian, drink your Coca-Cola and stop complaining.”
Those two sat alone at their table, the father no doubt off working. The Midnight restaurant, named after another of the local mines, was indeed sweltering today. It was an oven despite the overhead ceiling fan, and the additional portable fans whizzing and buzzing, positioned at intervals atop the high display case behind the bar. Even combined, the fans did little to ease the afternoon heat.
Creed sleeved his brow and took a long swallow of his water. Only crumbs remained on his plate, now. The sandwich had been tasty, ham and swiss. Nika was still working at her beefburger sandwich, and Knife noisily slurped the dregs of his frosted malted, his ‘Miner’s Hash’ long gone.
Where the Deep Silver Saloon had been a rustic reminder of a bygone era – a throwback to the old west – the Midnight Restaurant was a model of modern times. A slick chrome-edged marble bar ran the length of the narrow building, fixed padded chrome swivel-stools evenly spaced along its length. Two fellows sat together at the bar, eating and exchanging quiet chinwag. Another had his head buried in a newspaper at the far end. Two matronly ladies shared polite palaver at another table, also near the back entrance.
“We need to hit the road,” Creed urged. “We have miles yet to travel today. I’d like to be in Bankleyville before dark.”
Tudeevio finished dabbing his lip, then patted the sweat from his brow before neatly folding the napkin and placing it on the table. “Before we embark,” he stated, “I have certain queries that are wont for being answered.”
“We can discuss it on the road,” Creed replied.
“The heck we will,” Nika interjected.
“Huh?” Creed said. “Why not? Time is not on our side, Button.”
“If you are sharing polite conversation with Tudie while we are on the road, then where will I be? That’s right, the rumble seat – being wind-battered and eating dust. I think not, Kes.
“Ahh.” Creed swiped his forehead again. They really did need to get a move on.
“Ask away, then.”
The Apache rudely cleared his throat, hawking up a lump. He looked around for a spittoon, and spotting none about, swallowed down the phlegm. That caused Nika to scrunch up her nose in the most adorable way.
“This felon who needs apprehending, you mentioned he was a raper, murderer and an arsonist. Who is this man? What has incited him to perpetrate these heinous crimes?”
Creed gnawed on his lip for a moment before answering. “He’s killed at least two families, from what the coppers told me. We’ve a description, but no name.” He shrugged, “Who can tell why a criminal breaks the laws set by men?”
“Motive is important, if we are to find him,” Knife said. “The fact that he has done this to two separate households implies revenge was not his intent, unless the victims were somehow related. Do you know if this is so?”
Creed shook his head. “Naw, there was nothing in the bounty post to indicate it.” It was too early yet, in their relationship, for Creed to tell the Apache what he really knew about the felon. Explaining how he knew it would prove even more tetchy. “Lets just go on the notion that the fella’s stone whacky. What’s important is… he’s got to be stopped.”
“You told me he is headed north. Have you discerned his destination? How do you know this is the direction in which he travels?”
Because the spirit of my aboriginal mentor told me so. No, Knife might be a native of this land, and he may be enlightened to the ways of spirits and magic, but Creed didn’t feel safe talking about those topics. Not yet. Likely not ever.
“The places he’s been indicates he’s headed north. As to his destination, that’s the chief part of why I need you. You know this land…”
“I am not a Chief,” Knife interjected, “but you will find no better tracker…”
“Yes, you’re the best in the territory,” Nika said sweetly, fluttering her lashes. She didn’t have to keep selling the Indian. Did she? Well, it was apparently working. The man’s oaken visage softened nearly every time she paid him any attention. Creed would have to keep an eye on that. This native wouldn’t be the first to become enamored with Nika. Lets just hope he can keep things civil. Creed didn’t want another problem like they’d had with Killer Kule back in Burning Bush.
“What is your interest here Creed. You say it is because of the bounty, but I can tell there is more to the matter. I will be straight with you. It almost looks to me like you have a personal interest in capturing this fugitive.”
“Sure, it is more than the bounty.” Creed canted his head to Nika. Her eyes sparkled, brows raising slightly. “Folk’re getting killed out here. That’s gotta stop,” he said. She smiled.
“We can’t go after every bounty, every horse-thief and automobile bandit,” Nika added. From Knife’s reaction, she’d given his arm another squeeze.
“Its not all about money for us,” Creed stated, then changed the subject before the Apache asked any more questions.
“I figure,” he proposed, “that we can make it to Bankleyville by dusk. Earlier if we get out of here in the next few minutes. I’ll check to see if the law there has heard of our quarry, or if they’ve been wired any updates. If not, we’ll have to ask around town. I don’t relish having to canvas the countryside to see if there are any more torched farmsteads. But we will if we have to.”
“Maybe we can split up once we get there,” Nika added. “I bet they’ll have horses we can rent.”
Creed frowned. “No!”
“Oh, I meant that Tudie here could spit off from us. I know you’d never let me go off on my own,” she corrected.
“And don’t you forget it, Button.” For all her polite back-peddling, Creed saw right through her. The native might buy into her facade, but it wouldn’t work on him.
Nika reached across the table and again gently touched Knife’s arm. “Kes here is my protector, you see. He is teaching me how to be a bounty hunter, and a great adventurer, just like him.” Knife didn’t pick up on the sarcasm, he was too distracted by her doting caress. She surely knew how to play at the heartstrings of the menfolk.
“Her father was a mentor to me,” Creed added, shooting Nika a look. “I promised if anything ever happened to him that I would take Nika here under my wing.”
The Indian started, “What happened to…” but he was interrupted.
“YOU!” shouted a fellow who’d just stopped beside their table. It was the fellow who’d been reading the weekly down at the end of the counter. He looked familiar, and it took only a moment for Creed to realize where he knew the bloke. He sighed.
“You owe me, you Aussie bastard,” Roosevelt Adams roared. “I’ve a mind to take it outta your kangaroo hide, Creed!”
“You know this man, Kes,” Nika asked.
“He rootin’ tootin’ does. And because of him I had to skedaddle out of the whole damn state of California.”
Knife slipped a hand into his jacket, no doubt to unfasten his machete. Creed shook his head at the Apache, and stood, interposing himself between the irate Roose and the table… and his friends. He opened his mouth to speak, but before the sound hit air, the dark-haired roustabout pounded a right hook into his jaw. Creed flew back onto the table, sending the empty lunch-ware crashing to shards on the floor. Patrons gasped. One lady let out a shriek.
Knife abruptly stood, the bent wood chair flying across the tiled floor and striking the base of the brick wall just below the large, pane-glass window at the front of the restaurant.
“I got this,” Creed insisted, even as his opponent yanked him up by his vest. “This is between Roose and me,” he said just as another sharp blow rammed into his gut, expelling all his wind and making further conversation impossible.
Creed slammed his left elbow down onto the arm that had ahold of his vest. A sharp ripping sound confirmed that Roose no longer had a sure grip. The youth’s jaw was then favored by the hammer punch of Creed’s mighty right jab. The agitator flew back, wildly spinning around. He landed soundly across the marble bar with an audible “oomph.”
Roose grabbed up the first thing at hand, a glass straw-cozy, and spun back around. With a vehemence-slathered expression, he heaved it murderously at Creed’s head. Creed easily batted it out of the way, and the deflected utensil shattered against the wall, sending an explosion of glass and paper straws to rain down on Nika’s head. It didn’t matter that she had seen it coming, or that she’s successfully shielded her face from the debris. Nika could have been hurt. Roose was going to pay.
“Take it outside,” a man yelled. Probably the cook, but Creed didn’t really care. Outside it was. Pounding blood hammered his ears, and Creed rushed at Roose. The foe had righted himself, now standing mere paces down the counter, in front of the big brass cash register. Creed caught his opponent in the gut, lifted him up and with reckless momentum, and bore him toward the front of the diner like a rodeo bullock driving its errant rider between deadly horns.
They both crashed through the glass-front window with a tremendous chorus – a shattering racket – and toppled headlong over the brick base wall. The two men landed in a tangle on the curb outside amongst the shards. Creed heard a loud cracking sound as they hit the sidewalk. It resonated like the thwack of a splitting coconut. Roosevelt, underneath, had taken the full force of the impact.
Straddling his antagonist, Creed grabbed at the fellow, coming up with a handful of shirt and one red trouser brace. Fury pained his world hot. Creed cocked his hand back, ready to knock the man senseless. He’d make the lout pay for putting Nika at risk.
But then he felt hands close around his arm.
“Stop. Kestrel please.”
It was Nika, getting in the way. Didn’t she realize this dolt could have seriously hurt her?
Her grip tightened. “Stop. He’s out. He’s bleeding!”
He swallowed, gulping down equal portions of bile and rage.
She was right. Of course she was.
Creed’s chest pounded, and his cheek stung. As the red fog of anger faded, he felt warm blood trickle down into the corner of his mouth. Both he and his opponent, he now realized, were injured. Bleeding. But Roosevelt Adams had taken the worst of it.
He reluctantly let go of the fistful of his foe’s clothing, and realized Nika was gently lowering Adam’s head down onto the concrete sidewalk.
A crowd had gathered, and Creed swore under his breath. His chest heaved
“Somebody bring a doctor,” Nika ordered. She had Roose’s newsboy cap, and had placed it under his head. The pavement was dappled with blood.
Roose’s eyes held a distant look, unfocused and uncomprehending. That loud cracking sound, Creed realized, had been the man’s head breaking against the pavement.
Beside him, Creed heard a smooth whisper, the sound of a long blade sliding into a sheath. He yanked a long shard of glass from his left cheek as he eyed the Apache. Knife held a firm stance, arms folded, the right one inside the flap of his jacket. The weather-faced native nodded. Creed had no doubt that Knife would not hesitate to use that snickersnee.
“Have I killed him?” Creed asked the aged doctor who had hobbled up some few minutes later, followed shortly by the lawman Creed had met not two hours earlier.
“I seen it all,” came the voice of a youth. “That feller there on the ground started it. You sure showed him, Mister. You sure did.”
“Sebastian,” chided his mother, obviously none-too-pleased with how their afternoon outing had transpired. She snatched the boy up by the scruff – he couldn’t have been older than seven – and dragged him away down the street.
“He’ll be fine,” replied the sawbones, the faded man who they’d seen earlier in the day, driving that ancient Runabout. Over his blanched clothing he now wore a threadbare, white frock. Through a near-toothless mouth, he whistled, “I’ll see the both of you in my office. You, sir, will be needing stitches there on your cheek.”
“Who’s gonna pay for this window?” bellowed the cook, “Sheriff, I want to press charges?”
“I’ll pay for the damages,” Creed said. “Nika, could you take care of it while me and Roose go with Surgeon here.”
“Of course,” Nika sighed, biting her lip. “I’m… I’m sure it looks worse that it is.”
“I gotta hand it to you Roose, I’ve seen feral camels in the outback that held less of a grudge than you.”
Roose had a pristine white bandage encircling his wild black locks, and another around his left upper arm. He looked a little paler than Creed remembered, but that could be the blood he’d lost from his cuts and split head. His eyes were clearer now. They were the color of limes and shot an acid stare between hard cheekbones set on a stark, triangular face. Expression augmented by flaring nostrils and a red-faced glare, the man was obviously still steaming.
They’d both been tended to and stitched up by the ancient sawbones, but Roose had the worst of it.
“You think cuz you threw me through a window and busted up my head that this is over? You owe me, Creed. You reniggered on paying me, and cuz of that, I couldn’t pay back my bookie. I show my face in Los Angeles again, I’m a dead man. And its all your fault.”
“Reneged,” Creed said flatly. “The word is reneged. What you said is wrong on a couple of levels, and insulting to boot. And… I didn’t renege. You didn’t finish what I paid you to do. Shelby slipped past you, right under your nose, and I lost the bounty. I don’t get paid, you don’t get paid. Simple as that, mate.”
“You promised me twenty green. That was my stake outta trouble. And I ain’t your mate!”
“You just won’t let it go,” Creed admonished. “The only one you got to blame is the fella in the mirra.”
Roose stood abruptly, white-knuckled fists balled at his sides. He was shorter than Creed, and significantly less muscled. Creed could take him every day of the week, and twice on Sundays.
“Do I have to kick your arse again, Roose, or can we let bygones rest?”
“Calm down, you two,” called Doctor Haywood from the reception area, past the powder-blue exam room door. “I’m just finishing drawing up your bill.”
“Sit down Roose,” Creed said a touch more harshly than he’d intended. “I think I know how to make it up to you.”
“What do you mean – make it up to me?” He still looked tense as a tasmanian devil protecting its food.
“I’m on another bounty. I’m in need of a posse. I can cut you in on the action.”
“I’m listening,” he said, a leer tinting his expression. “What does it pay?”
“If you come with us, and don’t lair it up, I can cut you in on half a share of the bounty, if that’s reasonable.”
“The bounty is…?”
Creed wasn’t about to tell him. Not yet. “Lets just say, mate,” he admitted at last, “your share will be at least the twenty bucks you were so determined to punch outta me. Perhaps even double that. Fair dinkum.”
Roose nodded and abruptly sat, as if nothing ill had ever come between them.“Sounds fair. I’m in.”
“Just like that?”
“Sure. But you re-nigg this time and I’ll kill you.”
Creed sniggered. “Fair enough.”
“And,” Roose added, “you pay my share of the doctor bill.”
Creed cleared his throat and frowned. “Sure,” he said at last. “You’re a tenacious one, thats for sure.” He guessed it was the least he coud do to earn some trust with the man. “But remember this, you lout… If we don’t collect the bounty, none of us get paid. Savvy that?”
Roose nodded and said, “Yeah, I savvy.”
Less than an hour later the Ford Model A Coupe sped away along the north road, a billow of ever widening ginger dust expanding in its wake. Creed manned the wheel with Nika beside him in the passenger position, fretting over his injuries. In the rumble-seat, facing the ever diminishing town of Chloride, Tudeevio, also called Knife, huddled, one hand clutched a fancifully patterned Indian-carpet valise, the other clenched onto the crumpled brown hat atop his head. Escaped tangles of long hair whipped violently about him. His face was more screwed-up than usual, and he blinked and occasionally wiped at watering eyes. Squeezed in beside him was Roosevelt Adams, smiling broadly, oblivious to the wind and dust. He sported a tan, military surplus rucksack – worn wrong way around. His fists were clasped fast around his blood-stained newsboy cap. The two men’s visages could not have been more opposite.