“Come on, Coy, quit your bellyaching, would ya? We should have hightailed it for camp hours ago. The saloon’s empty, excepting for us, and the barkeep’s getting riled.”
“Riled? What’s he getting riled for? We ain’t bothering him none.”
“Suspect he’s tired of listening to you all night long. Come on, let’s get on home. Can you stand up by your lonesome?”
“Course I can. I ain’t been talking to him anyways, so why’s he eyeing me like I was a skunk in his kitchen?” Glassy-eyed, he sneered in the bar’s direction, but the barkeep had turned his back to them, and Boone was thankful. Now, if he could just get them out of here without Coy saying or doing something to bring them trouble. Usually smart-thinking and easygoing, even when partaking, grief was messing with the man.
Coy’s attempt to stand was short-lived, causing a frustrated Boone to grab the back of his chair to keep it, and his drunken friend, from pitching backwards. “I need another drink.”
“You ain’t getting one.”
“The barkeep. He wants us gone.”
“Why? What did we do?”
Boone snorted, his patience at its limit after a long day, and a longer night. His stomach growled to remind him it hadn't been fed since morn. “You’ve been talking up a storm since we got here, and the more you bent your elbow, the louder you got. We’re the last ones in the place, so I reckon he’s had enough. Now get your ass up and stay up. I’ll get your hat.”
“My hat? Where’s my hat?”
“Ended up on the floor behind you when you tried to stand.”
“Hey, what’s making you so ornery? I just lost my fourth brother! Will was the only one I had left… or did you forget that?”
Boone groaned and muttered, “No chance I could.”
I said, “No, Coy, I didn’t forget. How in blazes could anyone forget with you yammering all night?”
“Yammering?” Coy asked, slurring the word badly, but sounding hurt.
Struggling, Boone kept his cool. He really cared for his friend, and felt terrible bad for his pain, but he had his limits. “Sorry, but I’m plumb wore out. I know it’s tough to lose kin, especially your last one, but you knew it was bound to happen when Will shot those good men—our friends—in the back. He’d been living on borrowed time since he let loose that mean streak of his.”
“But he was my brother!” Coy wailed.
“Yes, he was… bad to the bone as he was, he was your brother, and I’m sorry for that.”
Coy looked at him with eyes that were fast becoming slits. “No… no… no you’re not. You hated him. Everybody hated him. He never got a break, no matter how hard he tried.”
“Tried?” Boone asked with a scoff. “We make our own damn breaks, and you know that as well as I do. Will never thought he needed to earn anything. How do you think your ma would have felt if she’d lived to see the last couple of years? Come on, I’ll help you up.”
“I don’t need your help, and… and you shouldn’t talk about the dead that way.”
“Hang it all, Coy, what do you expect from me. You know what? You’re right. I kept my mouth shut out of concern for you, but I did hate that mean son-of-a-snake. The longer he lived, the more chance he was going to get you killed, and you know what else? He wouldn’t have given a good goddamn if that happened. Will only ever cared about hisself. And you’re lucky it was him that died and not you.”
“Don’t… just don’t. That’s not—”
“Are you saying I’m wrong?”
“Yes… no… no you’re not wrong… but why are you doing this?”
“Cause I worry for you, and you damn well know I do. You been beating yourself up all damn day, and it's time to stop. You were a better brother than the man deserved.”
Coy's eyes had widened as he listened to Boone. “I know you worry for me... I do... but... it ain’t right nobody cares he was shot dead in the street.”
“Your ma used to say we reap what we sow… and Will sowed hurt wherever he went. You care, Coy… and that’s more than he should have expected… and you got him buried proper.”
“I did, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did, and he’s planted on a fine piece of land with a nice view of the river.”
“He deserved that at least. He never liked you either, you know.”
“Didn’t like us being friends.”
“Said you was bad for me.”
“Know that too.”
“Said you kept me from making something of myself.”
“Yep. Told me the same thing.”
“He… he wasn’t right about that, Boone, not at all.”
“I know… he was jealous you listened to me over him. I got under his skin, and if I wasn’t as careful as I was, I’d likely be long buried.” Boone had been watching his own back for years, never trusting Will wouldn’t try to kill him one day.
“You stuck with me… kept me from—”
“Time to leave, gentlemen. Saloon’s closed, and it’s the last time I’m telling you,” the burly barkeep called over to them.
“Another whiskey!” Coy demanded.
The barkeep looked from one man to the other before glaring at Boone. “Get your friend out of here before the sheriff does his rounds. He should be moseying by anytime now, and you won’t hear him until you see him. He’s got strict rules about keeping the town quiet at night, and anyone drunk in here or on the streets gets to sleep it off in jail—he don’t make no exceptions and he don’t put up with no mouth.”
“Hey, I ain’t drunk!”
“Shut up, Coy! You know he’s right about Sheriff Willard. The man runs a tight town, and I don’t want to spend no night in jail.”
“He never liked Will either, not one bit.”
Boone listened to his friend sputter something unintelligible before slowly slumping over the table. “Aw, hell, I knew you were going to do this. Mister, you got any rooms?”
Coy’s head rose up. “I’m awake, Boone. Don’t get riled… just resting is all.”
“Heard that a time or two,” the big man said as he rolled his eyes at Boone. “One room left if you want it. Two dollars, cash up front, and you got to be out two hours after sunup.”
“We’ll take it. Can you help me get him upstairs?”
“I reckon I could, but it’ll cost you another dollar.”
Boone shook his head in annoyance, but held his tongue.
“Hey, why ain’t we going back to camp? We don’t need to waste money on no room.” Coy sat up again, but he was far from erect. “I can walk.”
“All the way to the livery to get the horses, and then ride for an hour?”
“Sure can,” Coy answered unconvincingly.
“Stand up then.”
The lanky man did, but soon toppled over the next table and slowly slid to the floor. Blue eyes looked up at Boone through messy black curls, and he spoke with a sheepish, crooked smile. “Guess we’ll be needing that room after all.”
He returned the smile, happy the ordeal of this night would soon be at an end, and thankful once again Coy wasn’t a mean, spittin’ drunk like his brother had been. He helped him up into a chair before walking over to the bar and placing two dollars on the polished top.
The big man looked at it and smirked. “Plan on getting him up there all by yourself?”
“If’n I got to drag him. Not spending the dollar.”
“Suit yourself… but keep the noise down,” he warned. “Room number six… door’s unlocked… here’s the key.”
Boone stowed it in his shirt pocket as he muttered, “Thanks.” Eying the long staircase, he headed back to his now-sleeping friend. “Wake up, Coy.”
“We got a room. Think we can make it up those stairs?”
Coy’s eyes took some time to focus, and he grinned. “Won’t be the first time you had to carry me.” Standing up on his own, on shaky legs, he began to walk. He lurched to the side but Boone was quick to steady him.
“I got you.”
“You always look after me. Hope the mattress is soft… been a while since we slept in a proper bed.”
Coy seemed to have found a second wind, and Boone was surprised at the speed with which Coy handled the stairs. He kept a tight grip on the man’s gun belt as he followed behind, but Coy did it mostly under his own steam, with a lot of help from the worn but sturdy oak bannister.
The room was hot and stuffy, and Boone opened the window as soon as he locked the door. Coy flopped on the bed, and let loose a loud sigh, and then a groan. “Could have used another drink… damn that barkeep… had no care for a man’s loss. Oh, lord, this is better than a foot of moss. I can smell pipe tobacco. Can you smell a pipe?”
Boone drew in a breath through his nose as he threw Coy’s hat on a chair in the corner. “All I smell is dust and whisky, and old chamber pot. Hey, don’t be putting your boots on the bed.”
“Sorry I got skunk-faced. Are you mad at me?” Coy asked as he tried and failed to kick his boots off.
“No need for apologizing. You had good reason to let off some steam.”
Coy sat up and braced himself on his arms, weaving slightly. “So, you’re not angered at me?” His eyes, despite the question, sparkled with humor in that remarkably handsome face, but there was genuine concern there too, and Boone had always been weak to his friend’s mixture of charm and sincerity.
“No, I’m not angered, but we should have gone back to our camp instead of spending money on whiskey, and now a room.”
“Sorry, but no one’s going to find our measley bit of gold, Boone. It’s well hidden.”
“Keep your voice down,” Boone whispered fiercely. “And it’s not about that. Our supplies are there for the taking, don’t forget, and Wes and Lee’s chickens have been penned up since last evening. Should have turned them loose this morning.”
“Maybe so, but I gave them a pail of water afore we left… and our supplies are running low anyways. I needed… I had to get away for a spell, after the burial, and raise a drink to my brother. I was the one who convinced Will to pan with us in the first place, and now he’s dead… and his tent is still there, back at camp,” he finished sadly.
Boone sighed, removed his hat, and ran his fingers through hair that felt gritty with dust. “I know you’re hurting, Coy, but don’t be feeling guilty about nothing. You didn’t convince Will of anything. He never took panning for gold seriously, and the reason he was at camp was to bide his time and hide out between trips to Lord knows where… and you know damn well he stole Wes and Lee’s gold. It wasn’t a fortune, but it was all they had after years of backbreaking work, and they ended up dead for it… shot from behind like they were nothing but animals. So forgive me if I don’t feel the same as you do.”
“There weren’t no proof Will did it, and the sheriff said so when Dan accused him,” Coy insisted stubbornly.
“Tell that to the poor, grieving son who challenged Will out there on that street. He was convinced enough to face a faster draw. Will laughed in Dan’s face after he shot him, and he never once denied it… and we both heard that from the undertaker.”
“Yep, we did, and he said it was a fair fight… excepting Will ended up shot in the back!”
“His own fault for turning away like he did, and crowing like a rooster. Any man who does that, enjoys killing, and don’t have a lick of respect for anybody. Anyways, it was no different than what Will did to Dan’s father… and Lee.”
“There’s no proof!”
“Yes, there is, Coy… and I have it,” Boone uttered softly.
“What? How… how can you have proof? What are you saying, Boone? What proof you got?”
“If you calm down, I’ll tell you. I’m saying I know where Will’s hiding place is, and I saw him put their gold in there.”
“You saw him hide gold somewhere? What does that prove? He could have panned it from the river, and you don’t know what he might have found.”
“Keep your voice down. Come on, Coy. How often did you see him pan? He always complained all the gold was gone years ago, and how the handful of miners left were chasing ghosts… and maybe we don’t want to admit it, but he had a point. The man would go up river every day he was there, and sleep off his hangover. I don’t recollect he ever had a pan with him.”
“Not that you saw, but that don’t mean….”
“No, that’s right. Not that I saw.”
“So then, why can’t that gold be his?”
“Because we saw what Will had… he had one nugget, not much bigger than a corn kernel, and a few grains, and he never showed us no more, yet every now and again he had money.”
“From selling his gold, most like.”
“Without bragging first? Not the Will I knew.”
“You’re always judging him,” Coy accused.
“You’re not wrong, but I had good reason. What I’m trying to tell you is what he put in his hiding place was in the tin Wes and Lee used, and there’s a lot of gold in it. You’ve seen it, so you can’t tell me there’s two like that in this world… it has their initials on it. Hell, they were our friends, Coy—they showed us the ropes and never complained about us sharing their territory—and they’ve been working that worn out river for years to get enough money to buy themselves a piece of land, just like we were supposed to be doing.”
“What do you mean, supposed to?” Coy rubbed his face, looking more sober and distressed by the minute.
“I… I don’t know,” he answered, not really sure of his own mind. “I’m not a miner, I know that for sure, and you never liked farming, and I’m tired of dodging trouble because of your brother.”
“But he’s gone now!”
“Yes, and so are our friends, and we still have to watch our back because of all the trouble Will’s caused in the past. Lord knows what he would do when he’d disappear for weeks on end, or who’s going to show up looking for him.”
Coy laid back on the bed. “I don’t understand,” he uttered softly.
“Let’s talk about this tomorrow.” He walked over and began pulling Coy’s boots off, watching the caked-on mud from the grave site crumble and fall to the bare wooden floor. The man’s arm was over his eyes, and Boone saw some wetness slide down one side. “It’ll be all right. I know you loved him… him being your brother and all, but you finally get to be your own man, with no worry for another. Get some sleep now… I need some shuteye too.”
“You’re thinking of clearing out on me… am I right?”
“At some point, I got to go my own way. You don’t need me anymore, Coy.”
The arm moved away and he attempted to sit back up as Boone worked on removing the man’s holster. “Sure I need you. You’re the best friend a body could ask for, and I know you’re right about Will. It’s hard to admit my brother lived for trouble, but there’s no denying it. Are you sure he killed Wes and Lee?”
“I didn’t see him do it. Far as I can tell, nobody did, because they were up above the falls when it happened, in a perfect place for an ambush, but why else would he have their tin in his hidey hole?” Hanging Coy’s gun on the bedpost, he shook his head to clear the picture of their dead bodies lying in such a pretty spot. “The only reason for someone to shoot those harmless old men would be to rob them, because they never hurt nobody, no how.”
“No, but you don’t know it was for their gold… some people don’t need reasons… not sensible ones, anyways.”
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing… just saying, there weren’t no good reason, no matter what it was. Where is the gold now?” Coy asked, sitting all the way up this time, braced on his arms again.
Boone wondered at Coy’s words, knowing his friend as he did. What other reason could there be? The man was likely just clutching at straws. “Gold’s still there, up on the north ridge under a big ole tree root,” he answered, barely above a whisper.
“I checked his spot the morning after Dan found the bodies, and it was there. I was trying to figure out how to get it to Dan—without anyone else getting killed—and to be plumb honest, I was thinking turning Will in was the right way to do it, but then the gunfight happened and I was too late. I wish Will had just taken the gold and disappeared. Dan was a damn good man, and he didn’t deserve to die.”
Coy’s eyebrows rose. “You were going to turn Will in?”
“Would have been the right thing to do, but I was torn, and took too long thinking it through… cause I didn’t want to do wrong by you.”
Coy’s response was a somber nod. “Dan… he liked you.”
Boone eyed his friend curiously. “Yep… he did, and I liked him.”
“Did you more than like him?”
“Now why are you asking me that?”
Coy’s gaze darted away. “I have eyes, but I guess it’s no business of mine.”
“No, it ain’t, but the truth is, I didn’t feel about him the way he felt about me, and that weighed heavy on me.”
“For someone who was full as a tick downstairs, you’re sure doing a lot of talking… time to get some sleep.” He lifted Coy’s feet and swung his body sideways before taking the folded up blanket from the foot of the bed. He reached for the second, yellow stained pillow when Coy grabbed hold of his forearm.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to sleep on the floor.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“Give you more room.”
“I don’t want more room. Slide in here.”
Boone tried to pull his arm free but Coy wasn’t letting go. Their eyes locked. “Not a good idea, Coy.”
“Come on, don’t be like that. I don’t want to be on my lonesome tonight. I….” His other hand rose to the back of his neck, exerting pressure that Boone resisted.
“Why not?” he asked as his own head moved closer to Boone’s.
“What in blazes are you doing?” Trying to pull away only made the grip on his neck stronger. “Stop!” he hissed through clenched teeth. “Are you forgetting the last time we… did this... because I haven’t? You busted my nose soon as the kiss ended.”
“I… I’m sorry… I shouldn’t have done that.” His grip lessened slightly.
“Yes, you should have. I read the situation wrong, and I shoulda known better.”
“No! No you didn’t. It’s just… I heard Will outside the tent and he always warned me if he caught me….”
“You’re blaming that on Will?” He made a scoffing noise as he thought about that night. “No need to blame him or you… it’s good I finally cottoned on to exactly how you feel… but you could have just pushed me away, or told me you changed your mind.”
“You don’t know how I feel, Boone,” he whispered. “Give me another chance? I think I know what I want and….”
“You think? No.” Boone pulled away gently but forcefully and stood up straight.
“It’s what I said, and it’s what I mean. You don’t want this and you don’t want me. This is all about being drunk, and grieving over your brother… and feeling alone, and maybe… maybe you think you owe me something, but you don’t. Maybe you think it’s a way to get me to keep panning with you, but it isn’t.” He didn’t want to sound bitter, but knew he did.
“It’s not that. I’m drunk but—”
“I’ve known you since we were sixteen, and you’re not like me… and we both know that.”
“I ain’t never had the chance to figure that out, what with Will and my mom always talking about the sin of it, and burning in hell just for the thought.”
“Imagine… Will talking about sin and burning in hell for something… ain’t that a hoot,” he said with more bitterness. “Your ma’s been gone a while, God bless her, and I understand you minding her words, but—even so—you shouldn’t have to figure it out, Coy. It’s something you just know.”
“Well, did you always know?” he challenged.
“For sure? Since I was about sixteen, yep. Not something you can ignore for long.”
“Yet you never told me… till that night I saw you with the red-haired cowboy.”
“And I wouldn’t have then if you hadn’t made such a big fuss over seeing me kiss a man.”
“I only made a fuss because you never told me—and I thought you were gonna run off with him.”
“I was never going to do that, no how. He taught me some stuff I need learning, but he wasn’t right for me. Now stop yammering and go to sleep. I mean it, Coy. Doesn’t do a lick of good to rehash mistakes… or broken noses.” He was never sure what had hurt worse… the physical pain, or what that punch did to his heart at the time. At least his nose had healed straight.
Laying himself down on the floor, he was relieved Coy stayed quiet. It wasn’t long before he heard soft snores coming from the bed above him. It had been the music of his life for most of the last five years, and he was surely going to miss it.
If you're taking a chance on this story, I thank you. I would also like to thank my editor, Timothy M., for his hard work. Please let me know what you think. Can you handle a western-themed story?