The Deathwish Kid rose shortly after dawn.
His mouth was parched.
When he coughed to expel the phlegm collected in his lungs, his bloody lips cracked painfully apart.
He sat up. The fire was cold, damn near out.
He stirred the coals with his boot, caught a passing tumbleweed, and tossed it on to kindle the flame.
The rest of yesterday's coffee in the pot, the long brew he called it. He nestled the pot near the fire to warm up while he rolled himself a cigarette.
He coughed again and hawked up another wad of green snot, this time flecked with bits of red. No telling what caused blood in his spittle, but it wasn't good, he knew that for sure.
He stirred a little and gave a groan. He scratched his beard and farted. He closed his eyes and scratched at his balls a while.
He scratched his head and thought about how he'd let it get too long and the lice were back. It was time for a shave.
The coffee was steaming now and he poured off a cup. He lit the loose cigarette and took a drag, followed by a deep gulp of coffee. Damn good cup of coffee, he thought, as his hands rested on his crotch again.
Today was going to be a good day, he thought. It's not everyday a person like himself gets to meet a prince.
Breakfast was a stale biscuit, only edible when soaked in coffee, and tough piece of cured meat, also bathed in coffee.
After he ate he loaded his things into his bedroll and gave sharp whistle. "C'mon Iron," he said.
Iron came trotting from the chaparral, like he always did when called.
Iron, he thought, that's a good horse, a horse named Iron.
He gave the gelding a handful of oats, tied his pack down, and they walked together to the river.
He filled the canteens while Iron slurped up the cool mountain stream.
He replaced the canteens and dug out from his pack, the strop and the straight razor. He honed the blade carefully and set the strop aside.
He shaved his head clean and kept shaving until he could no long feel any stubble. He checked his reflection in the water, then started in on his beard.
"Yes," he said, "Gotta look our best if we're to meet a prince. Hell, maybe we aughtta give you a shave," he chuckled, stopping to turn and look at the horse.
Iron swatted a fly off his ass with his tail, feigning amusement. That got the kid laughing but good, till he was coughing again.
"Aw, I'm only kidding, you look just fine. Look good, like a horse should."
He finished shaving and looked himself over in the reflection again.
"Looking good," he said, and he was right.
For someone who had been living on his own since he was eleven years old, being twenty-two now, he didn't look a day over thirty-five.
He cleaned up, rolled himself a fat cigarette, and climbed up in the stirrups.
"Eight miles to Ryewater, old boy. Let's giddyup."
Iron had a healthy stride and they took their time. The prince wasn't due to show until midday.
About halfway, he called a halt. Iron got water and another handful of oats. The kid double-checked the barrel on his pistols and felt the straight razor in the breast of his overalls.
They rode into town around noon. Ryewater was a small town and it was damn quiet today.
The Lonesome Loser Saloon was open, so the kid lashed Iron to post out front and stepped inside. It had been a stretch since he'd had a drop of liquor. He fished in his coin purse and wasn't sure he had enough for a drink.
He bellied up to the bar and held out the coins to the barkeep.
"This enough for a drink, Mister?"
The barman eyed the money, then eyed him.
"It'll do, don't suppose there's much trouble you could make with one drink." He poured him three fingers of whiskey in a tumbler and collected the coins. "What's your name stranger?"
"D.W. What's your's?"
"Me? Well, I'm luckiest lonesome loser you're likely to meet friend. Lou's the name."
"Thanks for the drink, Lou."
"You'd better savor it, I don't run no charity."
"Cheers," said the kid. He sipped the whiskey and rolled himself a cigarette.
"Cheers," Lou repeated. "You hanging around a while or moseying on?"
"Well, since you ask, I heard tell there was bonafide prince passing through your little town today."
The kid chuckled. "Over in Casketon, a fella was spoutin' off about how y'all were expecting a visit from a prince, you know, royalty."
Lou wiped the bar. "I do believe he was pullin' your leg, friend."
"Yeah, I kinda figured. Well, in that case, anything worth stopping for?"
"Not much. Injun boy gettin' strung up for rustin' cattle."
"Well, no offense, but that ain't something I'd care to see. Nasty business if you ask me."
"Can't say as I agree. A man does wrong, a man gets what's comin' to him."
"I guess i'll be movin' along then." The kid leaned to his side and let out a fart.
The barmans mustache bristled with indifference.
Kid finished his drink, overturned his glass, tipped his hat, and walked away.
Outside, he could see the gallows erected outside the jailhouse.
He unhitched Iron and they walked down to get a closer look.
Ryewater was a damn small town. No one was gathered to watch the indian fella hang. Almost sad, nobody willing to spare the time for the last breath of a man they'd condemned to die.
He lit his cigarette and stepped into the jailhouse, leaving Iron by the water trough out front.
The sherriff hardly looked up. "Cain't smoke in here," he said and angled his attention back on his paperwork.
The kid tossed his butt on the ground a stubbed it out with the sole of his boot. He coughed up a slimy glob of snot and spat it on the wood plank floor with disregard.
The sheriff looked up again. "What the hell can I do for you?"
Kid looked at the indian and back at the sherrif.
"Now, you're gonna laugh, but, I heard tell, that there was an honest-to-god, royal prince supposed to be visiting your city this fine day."
"What's that? A prince?" he repeated, as though he'd never heard the word before.
"Yup, that's right. You know anything about that, or is it hogwash?"
The sheriff chuckled. "No son, I think you misheard."
"You sure that's not him," Kid said, pointing to the man in the cell.
"Oh, I'm sure," the sheriff replied, a bit annoyed. "I'm sure that's a cow rustlin' dirt worshipper that I'm late for hangin' on account of I'm sitting here talkin' nonsense with you."
Kid glanced at the indan boy and back to the sheriff, doing a double-take. "You're absolutely positive? If you catch him in the right light, don't he look almost noble?"
The sheriff was visibly perturbed now. "Listen, unless you want to hang around and watch me end this no good hatchet packer, I suggest you tuck dick and kick rocks."
Kid held up his hand. "I meant no offense. I can see you're a busy man. Real busy fella." He paused, lowering his hands to his holster. "You know, dead men, ain't busy men."
"Boy, you got a deathwish? Who the hell do you think you are?"
"Just a busy man, like yourself. It's funny, I been busy my whole life and I'm tired. I've been thinking it might be good to not be busy, so you see, I do have a bit a deathwish."
"You're gonna want to take that hand away from . . . " the sheriff started.
"I was busy in Omaha for a while. I stayed real busy all through Wyoming. Most recently I was busy in Prophetstown. Does that ring a bell?"
A look of realization washed the hardman act off the sheriffs face.
"Oh shit is right."
"Shit. Fuck. What . . . what do you want," he stammered.
"First, toss that gun over here."
The sheriff did as he was told.
"Now, see that boy in that cell, the one you been mistreatin', the one you was aimin' to hang?"
The sheriff shook his head up and down.
"Well, he's a royal prince and I'm here to fetch him back to his family."
"But . . . but, what do you mean? Injuns ain't got kings and queens. They ain't civilized."
"I beg to differ. As the original stewards of this land, every Iriquois or Blackfoot boy is a born king and every woman a queen, am I right?"
"I . . . I suppose so."
"You don't suppose shit. You say, 'yessir' or 'nosir' when you answer me. This ain't no time for indecision, now which is it?"
"Yessir, yessir. I believe you're right."
"Good. Now, are you going to unlock that cell and take those cuffs off my man or am I going to have to shoot you in your dumb fucking face."
"Yessir, the first option sir."
"Alright, well get to it."
The sheriff did as he was told and the bewildered Indian fella came and stood next to the kid.
The sheriff put his hands up without being told. "There you are, no harm done."
"All the same Sheriff, I'm gonna need you to step into that cell and lock yourself in. Then kick your keys and those shackles over my way."
Without hesitation, the sheriff followed the order.
"Now, put your arms through the bars so my friend here can get those cuffs settled nice and tight."
Kid motioned for the indian to grab the handcuffs.
"There we are. Tight enough sheriff?"
"Okay, you've been plenty helpful and I appreciate that. Now, before we go, there's just one more thing I'd like to say."
"Yessir, I'm listening."
"Show me you're listening."
The sheriff turned his head and strained to thrust his ear through the bars. "See, I'm listening."
The kid leaned in close and yelled, "fuck the law," and shot the man flat in his ear.
He wiped his pistol and turned back to his new accomplice. "We'd better scoot."
They ran outside. Kid jumped in the saddle and hoisted his companion behind him.
"Now, I don't know where you live, so when we get out of town, your're going to have to point me in the right direction."
Even with the load of two men, Iron was damn fast horse.
They got to the outskirts of Ryewater and the indian boy pointed toward Snake Valley.
He leaned into the kid and said, "I'm no prince."
"Ha!" Kid laughed. "Could have fooled me," he yelled. "Say, what's your name?"
"You don't have the tongue to say it, just call me Al. What do they call you?"
"They call me lots of things. Why don't you just call me Eddie."
They didn't speak again until they reached tribal ground.
Al hopped down and a young lady immediately ran over to embrace him.
They spoke in their tongue and the kid pretended to listen, though he couldn't understand a lick.
"Eddie, please, let me introduce you to my sister."
"Howdy-doo miss." He tipped his hat.
"Eddie, as thanks for your help . . . " but the kid cut him off.
"No, no, no. Don't get no ideas about marrying me off to your sister, it just wouldn't do. You're just getting home only to turn around and break her heart again."
"But . . . "
"No, a pretty young lady don't deserve to get stuck with an ugly sack of flapjacks like me."
"If you'd only listen . . . "
"Besides, it wouldn't do no damn good. You know what me and ole Iron here got in common? I'll give you a hint, it ain't massive cocks. Naw, see, he's a gelding. He ain't got no nuts, see? And neither do I."
Al and his sister just stared dumbfounded at the stranger.
"But that's long story and I'm starvin'," he said, swinging down from the saddle. Let's have some supper first and maybe some of that strong tobacco y'all roll, then I might tell you one of my stories."