Hal thrust his hands into the pockets of his trousers. The night was comfortably cool and a light wind ruffled his hair as he made his way through the deserted streets of the dark and sleeping town. It was quiet here, but he was heading for the sound. Drawn like a moth, he quickened his step. Voices rose and the banter of a piano struggled to overcome the noise of fast footfalls and clapping hands.
Hal rounded a corner to find the Razorback blazing with light. Above the door of the saloon hung the head of a wild boar carved from a log and suspended on big, cast-iron hooks. Hal glanced up at it, watching it sway on its hooks as the dancers inside the Razorback slammed the floor with their boot heels. Making for the wide, wooden porch, Hal was stopped in his tracks by shattering glass as the saloon’s window exploded out into the street.
Struggling upright and snatching her hat from where it lay amidst a galaxy of glittering shards, Delihah was immediately put back on the ground by the fist of one of the men who had tossed her through the window. She made a sound of protest and reached for a handful of road dust to throw in her assailant’s eyes, but a second man stepped through the broken window, catching her wrist in a grip that made her grit her teeth.
Looking up at her attackers, Delihah caught sight of Hal and flashed him a grin. “Howdy there, Hal!”
Story continues below…
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Episode 2 – “Heading for the Sound”
Hal did not wait for further invitation. One of the men turned to see who Delihah had spoken to, and Harry “Hal” King lit into him, delivering a blow to the man’s temple that nearly spun him around. The two men stared at the young King in amazement, which rapidly transformed into rage.
“You best get outta here, boy,” said the man holding Delihah by the wrist. “This don’t concern you.”
“Nah, you stay right where you are, kid,” the other leveled a finger at Harry King, his free hand nursing his sore head. “You just stick around. I have half a mind to beat that nose right off yer face.”
Hal tilted his head. “Then I guess it concerns me, now.”
“Yer seven different kinds of stupid, kid,” growled the man furiously, “and believe me when I say I’m gonna enjoy beatin’ every last one of ’em outa you.”
Hal consider this for a moment, working his jaw before spitting in the dirt at the man’s feet. “I’m not your son,” he said finally. “And you sure as Hell can’t give the kind of beatings my father does, but you’re welcome to give it your best try.”
Delihah forgotten, both men rushed at Hal. Neither got far. Incensed that she was being ignored, Delihah tripped the nearer of her two assailants, sending him sprawling to the dust. She scrambled to her feet as he was picking himself up and landed a kick in his gut that knocked the wind from him. A second kick tipped him onto his side. Delihah seized him by the collar and brought her fist down on his nose, which bled freely.
Hal ducked under a punch and threw a vicious jab high on his opponent’s flank, making him grunt with pain and anger. Moving faster than the man could recover, Hal slammed a left hook to his jaw. Stumbling away, Hal’s would-be attacker backed into Delihah and toppled over her so that they both landed in a heap. This gave Delihah’s fighter the break he needed to regain his feet. His face cut and his nose streaming red, he nevertheless managed a sudden, darting rise and attempted to clamp his palms over Hal’s ears to stun him. Hal made to dodge, but on of the man’s hands clipped the side of his head, momentarily throwing him off balance. The fighter took advantage of the younger combatant’s vulnerable position and landed a jab to his face that busted Hal’s cheek.
Delihah and her opponent circled off, both waiting for the other to flinch. Finally growing impatient, Delihah made to charge him, but the man moved aside deftly and brought the side of his arm up hard against her throat before dropping a brutal punch to her kidney.
Delihah gasped in agony, the sound coming out as a harsh, strangled croak. Despite her buckling knees, she managed to shift her weight off of him, narrowly slipping away from a flying punch. Livid with anger, he made to grab her by her collar, but she was ready for him. She wrapped her arm around his, bringing him to an abrupt stop and locking his arm up before wrenching his shoulder, forcefully propelling his face into her knee and driving him to the ground.
Hal and his opponent exchanged a volley of blows that left them both winded, though Hal managed to deliver the worst of it. The man drew his arm back to throw a left hook at Hal’s face and Hal saw his opportunity. He brought his left arm around to deflect the blow, then struck out with his right fist, landing a rattling blow to man’s chin that brought him up on his toes. In the same smooth motion, Hal dropped his right arm, slamming the heel of his palm into his opponent’s solar plexus and drawing his left hand across the back of the man’s head and neck in a terrific, clawed slap. Swaying backward, the man made to straighten up, readying to fight once more, but he suddenly buckled on his left side and fell.
Delihah stood over him, twisting one arm behind his back, her boot firmly planted in the back of his knee. “Well?” she said, looking up at Hal. “What are you waitin’ for? Kick him!”
“I don’t think they’ll be causing you any more trouble, Delihah,” said Harry King.
Delihah blew a stray strand of hair from her face and wrinkled her nose. “So? Kick him anyway!”
Hal opened his mouth to argue but another voice rung out over the din, making him pause. “Well if ain’t my boy, Hal!” Jack Castle leaned out of the broken window, raising his glass and sloshing whiskey on his sleeve. “I heard somebody was fighting. What was it this time, Delihah?”
Delihah shrugged and wiped blood from her split lip. “Cheatin’ at cards.”
“And who broke the window?” asked Jack.
“Well,” Delihah considered this. “I did, ’cause of them throwin’ me through it. You can’t really blame me, though, on account of I was defenestrated.” She brushed aside the hand that Jack offered her and stepped back in through the shattered window without his help. She seated herself once more at the card table and began raking in the cash the two men had left piled there. “This is how you cheat at cards, fellas. Make sure you get caught playin’ dirty, get tossed out that there window, then beat ’em senseless and take all their money. Works every time,” she grinned, then winced, touching her lip gingerly.
“Then you give that money to the barkeep to fix his window,” said Hal, leaving the two men moaning outside the saloon. “And pay the doctor he’s about to send for.”
“You ain’t serious,” Delihah stared at Harry King, made a sound of protest, then grumbled under her breath. “You are serious. Ah Hell….”
“Well if that ain’t right honorable of ya, Hal,” Jack Castle chuckled as he threw his portly body back into a chair. “You beat two men senseless and you’re still the voice of our better angels.”
Delihah made a face at the two men, gathered up her ill-gotten gains, and moved off to talk to the bartender about paying for the window and the doctor.
“We could use some more of the good stuff over here. Real booze, not that corn shit,” Jack called after her. “And see what he’s got to eat! Hal,” he said, turning to Harry, “what’s the time?”
Hal furrowed his brow. “The time?”
Jack nodded. “What time is it?”
Hal leaned forward and set his arms on the table. “Jack, you measure time in cups. You drink time by the gallon. You eat time by the pound and the loaf. How many shots of whiskey have you had today? How many platefuls have you eaten? Just add it all up and I’m sure you’ll find the time of day down to the second. Why are you always asking me what time it is? All you do is nothing, and every time is the right time for doing nothing. If hours were bottles of gin, if minutes were served with steak and bacon, and if every whore was hiding a clock face under all that taffeta and lace, then I could understand you asking me time after time what time of day it is. What does it matter to you what time is it?”
“Shows what you know,” Jack snorted. “How’s a man supposed to make a decent living if he doesn’t know what time to get up an at ’em, huh?”
“One thing a dirty, thieving pickpocket should have no trouble knowing,” Hal replied, “is what time it is. Pocket-watches might as well be nickles and dimes to you, and just like nickles and dimes, you can’t seem to save a single one of them. Maybe that’s why you grew so fat and old, Jack. You feed yourself with clocks. Anyway, what does it matter? Can’t you tell time by the sun and the moon?”
“The sun?” Jack waved his hand dismissively. “Never. The moon? Now she always gives me the time of day. You see, Hal, folks like you and me—dirty thieves, like you call us, we set a lot of stock by the moon.”
Hal opened his mouth to demand further explanation, but Jack’s train of thought had already moved on to something else. “I’ve been doing a lot of considerin’ lately, Hal.”
“Always dangerous coming from you,” Hal replied sardonically, but Jack either did not hear him or simply chose to go on as if he had not spoken.
“The way I figure it, Henry King, your father, he’s got himself a decent spread of land, doesn’t he?” Jack carried on, not caring how or even if Hal answered. “More than that, though, he’s managed to consolidate a hefty share of power ’round these parts. All the other ranchers and all the folks here, they’re pretty disposed to doin’ what he says and to givin’ him whatever he wants. So the way I see it, see, he might as well own this whole portion of country, even if the titles and the deeds and whatnot are in other people’s names. He pockets a share of whatever they make at the stockyard. He organizes, hires and fires, promotes and what have you all the ranch hands, and punchers, and even the sheriff’s deputies, and the judge, and the commissioner. Hell, he owns most every building in town ‘cept for this one and a few others. He’s the King, you’re just a King.”
Hal remained impassive, examining the older man and waiting to see the sorts of places that thinking had lead him.
“Maybe King ain’t the right word for you. You’re more like a prince. So there’s Henry King and then there’s little ol’ you, Prince Hal. You’re still royalty, but you ain’t important,” Jack pursued teasingly. “Now, Henry King won’t be the King forever. One of these days, Harry is gonna be the new King. So we oughta be calling you by somethin’ like ‘Your Grace.’ Good day, Your Grace,” said Jack, putting on airs. “Does Your Grace find this pleasing? Will Your Grace take another platter of fruits? But now that I think about it, that don’t sound right, do it? I should say ‘Your Majesty’ instead of ‘Your Grace,’ because you ain’t got no grace.”
Hal narrowed his eyes at the fat drunk, his jaw tightening ever so slightly. “Now just what do you mean by that? No grace?”
“Son,” said Jack, heaving himself upright with a grunt. He leaned across the table, a gleam in his eye as he set his hand on Hal’s knee. “You could blaspheme just by sayin’ ‘In Jesus name we pray, Amen’ over a piece of old toast.”
Hal leaned back in his seat, resting his hand on his thigh just above Jack’s and eying the portly old drunkard. “Alright, Jack. I’m sure that wasn’t all you were thinking. Whatever it is you have to say, spit it out already.”
“Oh, of course, of course,” Jack withdrew his hand and resumed his former posture, reclined dangerously far back in his groaning chair. “Someday you’re gonna be runnin’ this town, and when that day comes around, I sure hope you’ll have yourself a more enlightened opinion of folks like us than that Henry King does.”
“Folks like you?” Hal raised an eyebrow.
“Folks like us,” Jack corrected. “Yer sittin’ here at this table, too.”
“So I’m guilty by association,” suggested Hal.
“Yes,” Jack nodded, then fervently shook his head. “No! I mean….” he paused to collect his thoughts. “’Guilty’ ain’t the right word. The word ‘guilty,’ well, it implies… it implies….”
“…Guilt?” Hal offered.
“Well yeah,” said Jack. “And we ain’t guilty, no! Folks like us perform an invaluable service to this here community. Why, if it weren’t for us, I don’t know how anybody would get any sleep at night for the worrying and the frettin’ they’d do. That’s because—and listen here, because you’re gonna need to know this when that ranch is yours and you run this place; without us thieves keepin’ our vigil at night, there’d be nobody to keep an eye on the criminal element around these parts. People should thank us. We ain’t parasites, we’re gentlemen of the shade. You and me, Hal, that’s what we are.”
“Gentlemen of the shade,” Hal repeated, turning away to keep his amusement from showing.
“That’s right,” nodded Jack. “Gentlemen of the shade. We’re just like the moon, see. We stay up all night, keepin’ one eye open for anything shifty. Really, we’re probably the most honorable and decent folk you could meet, sacrificin’ our beauty rest to do the moon’s work.”
“You know what else is shifty and does the moon’s work, Jack?” said Hal. “The tide. When the moon tells the tide to go out, out it goes, and when the moon tells it to come back, back it comes. It comes flooding into all the little nooks and crannies, picking its way through every pocket in search of pearls. And when it finds a shiny, naive little pearl, it snatches it up and sucks it down into its belly, which swells and swells. You remind me of the tide, you know. When the moon rises, in your fortune goes and you stuff your guts full with it. When the moon sets, out your fortune comes like a stream.”
“Uh-huh, couldn’t of said it better, son,” said Jack, who had ceased listening to Hal. His eyes followed the barkeeper’s wife as she made her way around the room. “One helluva woman, ain’t she?”
Hal followed Jack’s eyes. “Yes, Jack she’s one of Hell’s women, alright,” he replied dryly. “And a hat tree is one Hell of a scaffold, isn’t it?”
“What in all Hell are you talkin’ about, kid?” Jack made a face. “What’s the barkeep’s scarlet lady got to do with a scaffold?”
“Well Jack,” Hal demanded stormily, “what have I got to do with the barkeeper’s scarlet lady?”
“Hey now, boy,” Jack leveled a finger at the young King. “Don’t play like you ain’t saddled up that horse. You pay her up just like everybody else.”
“Everybody but you, you mean? You get to stop by her stables whenever strikes your fancy only because I’ve been footing your bill,” snapped Hal.
“Fine, fine,” Jack held up his hands and conceded. “You’re right, Hal. I can’t fault a fella who keeps my tab paid up.”
“And your bed filled,” Hal folded his arms on the table.
“And my bed filled,” Jack smiled slightly. “Tell me something, Prince Hal. Are there gonna be gallows and Sunday hangings still when Henry’s dead and gone and you’re the new King? Folks like us, we do our civic duty, we do our part, but I’ll be damned if the law ain’t full of an awful lot of old-fashioned prejudices against us. So tell me, son, when you’re runnin’ this town, would you consent to hang a thief?”
Delihah brushed past their table, dropping off a bottle of gin and a glass for Jack. “Barkeep says it’s too close to closin’ time to be orderin’ yerself a meal, Jack, and you know it.” she said. “Now drink up yer gin and git along.”
“What are you going to do?” asked Hal.
“I got a little money left,” Delihah sniffed. “No thanks to you two. I’m gonna buy me some fun fer tonight.”
Jack shook his head, reaching for the shot glass she laid in front of him, but was too slow. Hal grabbed it away from him along with the bottle, and watched Delihah make her way across the room. The inn across the road gave permanent rooms to a few dandies for just this purpose, and they frequented the Razorback Saloon on busy nights in hopes of attracting business. Delihah set her hand down on the table of one of these handsome young men and raised her eyebrow. Hal smiled as Delihah took her chosen dandy by the hand and hauled him into the crowd of other dancers, tossing her bleach blonde hair behind her and making sure that his hand found itself place firmly on her hip.
“Funny she never asks you,” Jack observed.
“She knows better,” Hal replied. “She’s smart enough to keep her hands off the boss’s boy.”
“You don’t make nobody else follow that rule,” Jack tilted his head.
“Is Ward your boss now, Jack?” Hal asked, pouring himself a drink.
“You givin’ me lip, son? I told you already, boy,” said Jack seriously, “the moon is the only mistress a man like me oughta keep. Now, what’s your answer?”
“My answer?” Hal corked the bottle once more and rested with the glass of gin in his hand. “My answer to what?”
“Would you,” Jack repeated, “hang a thief?”
Hal looked distant for a moment, leaning back and downing his gin in one swift shot. He drew his mouth tight, then exhaled slowly through his teeth, his tongue and throat burning and cold at the same time. “No,” he said finally. “No, I would not hang a thief, Jack.” Then, before Jack could reply, he added, “I think I’ll leave that honor up to you.”
Jack Castle laughed heartily at that, finishing off the last of his whiskey and joining Hal for a shot of gin. “That’ll be my honor, you say? I wouldn’t mind being called ‘Your Honor.’ I’d take right kindly to it. Alrighty then, Hal, so you’ll make me County Judge then, will ya. Sounds mighty fine to me.”
“You?” Hal snorted. “A judge? You judge me wrong already. No, nothing in this world could persuade me to make you a judge. An executioner, on the other hand, that is what I intend to make of you. I’ll let you hang your fellow thieves for me.”
“A hangman!” Jack laughed even harder than before, slapping the table as his big belly shook. “That sounds mighty fine, too!”
“You’ll see plenty of suits either way,” said Hal.
“Damn straight, son!” Jack grinned. “You remember Ol’Leroy Parks, used to pickpocket the ladies comin’ out of church? Course you don’t, yer too young for Ol’Leroy. Well, he never wore a suit in his life till they marched him up on the gallows in his Sunday best. Monday mornin’ rolls ’round and who do we see struttin’ about town in Leroy’s Sunday best? The hangman hisself! If that ain’t thievery, nuthin’ is, and thievery is a job I’ll do any day.”
“Or night,” suggested Hal.
“That’s right,” said Jack. He took another shot, then sighed deeply and laid his dusty, weather-worn hat out on his knee. “Hal, I’ll make you a confession. I’m a melancholy old fool. I’m down and out, son, like a snuff box what ain’t got no more snuff.”
“What about an old spinster?” asked Hal, with a slight smile. “Are you sad as a spinster? Or a homeless whore?”
“That I am, Hal,” Jack said dejectedly. “Maybe sadder even than them lonely, lost souls.”
“Oh, I see.” Hal nodded sympathetically. “And how can we raise you up above a broken bull? A wench, maybe?”
Jack stared at Hal, sputtering in anger. “You…! Why, that ain’t….! That’s just downright….! That ain’t hospitable! Just what do you mean?! You and your damnable double-talkin’, gudfernuthin’ whore mouth! I have half a mind to slap you, son! A broken bull, am I? Raise me up with a wench, will ya? I ain’t gotta take this off a pup like you, you dirty, two-timin’ cottonmouth!” The room grew quieter and quieter as Jack cursed his young friend. Hal King’s face was known by everyone in the county. There wasn’t a soul who wasn’t acquainted with him, if only in passing, and it was common knowledge that whatever one’s foul opinion of him might be, it was best kept to yourself. This reputation came as an inevitable result of his propensity for getting back at those who slighted him, but thanks also—and perhaps in greater part, to his being the son of Henry King, whom everyone loved and feared equally.
“You know what you are, boy! You’re a rascal, and a…! …and a…” Jack carried on, faltering as he slowly became aware of the hush falling around him. “…and a… and a very fine …fine upstanding young gentleman. That’s what you are, Hal, a fine, handsome, upstanding young man.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Hal raised his glass, eying Jack with a satisfied smile. The two clinked their glasses and downed their liquor, the tension visibly leaving the room and the volume slowly rising once again.
“Enough idle ramblin’, Hal,” said Jack. “I need to converse with ya, serious like, about what it is what’s got me blue.”
“Serious like,” Hal pursed his lips. “Out with it, then. What’s the matter?”
“Yer makin’ a bad name fer me, son,” Jack heaved a regretful sigh. “Why, it was just this afternoon a fella came up to me in the street, smackdab in the middle of town, and told me off for associatin’ with you. Course, I didn’t pay him no mind. What’s the opinion of Chester Percy to me? Now, he was mighty eloquent, I’ll grant him that, and he made some good points. Again, though, I didn’t give it a single thought, Hal, but he did make some mighty good points, and in the middle of the road in front of everybody, too.”
“You were right not to pay him any attention,” said Hal, feigning disinterest though his chest was tightening with anger. “As it is say in Proverbs, wisdom utterth her voice in broad places but that doesn’t mean a body ought to listen.”
“You got a lot of nerve quotin’ scripture with that mouth of yours,” Jack warned, wagging a chubby finger at Hal. “You could corrupt an angel, boy. I wouldn’t be half surprised if most of the fallen angels in this here town fell by your doing. Why, I myself was a good, innocent, God-fearing man before I met you. Now? Now I ain’t nuthin’ but a wicked man and a sinner man, too! I’ll come ’round, though, and that’s a promise. I’ll amend these bad ways I done got from you. That’s right, Hal, I know Heaven’s waitin’ for me, and you cain’t do nuthin’ to steal it away from me. I won’t be ridin’ that train to Hell, Hal, not even for a King’s son, you hear?”
“That’s a relief, Jack. You know better than any man that I lay awake nights worrying about the state of your immortal soul,” Hal said, smirking as he glanced at Jack out of the corner of one eye. “Now, if we’re done ‘conversing serious like,’ let’s get down to business. Cash is running short and it’s time we acquired some more. What are we to steal?”
“Christ above, cash is mighty scarce, yer damn right about that,” Jack blew a puff of air. “You just point me toward an easy nab, and I’ll be right there with ya.”
“I can see you’re already making a start on amending your wicked ways,” said Hal. “Talking to Christ one moment, picking pockets the next.”
“Thievery ain’t wickedness,” Jack replied innocently enough. “Thievery, why, it’s my vocation, and the Good Lord doesn’t hold a grudge against any man what follows his true calling. That’s a fact, son.”
“Is it, now?” said Hal with a doubtful look. Behind him, the bartender announced the last call. The excited bustle in the saloon was replaced by the sounds of people making their goodbyes and hopeful propositions, and gradually pouring out the doors. Arm in arm with her dandy, Delihah the card shark ruffled Hal’s hair affectionately as she slipped past him and out into the night. Hal smiled and took a deep breath, gathering the glasses and bottle from his table as he stood up.
Following the younger man’s lead, Jack heaved himself up. Hal made his way through the line of people moving past the bar, exchanging nods and pleasantries with the drunks, cutthroats, and prostitutes that populated the Razorback at closing time. He gave the gin and shot glasses to the bartender, Jack sidling up nearby, his face toward the door.
“Well looky here!” Jack exclaimed cheerfully. “If it ain’t Edda.”
At the mention of that name, Hal looked up. Edda Ward stood in the doorway, the crowd parting for her to pass. Her eyes met Hal’s and both concealed their smiles as hastily as they could. She took off her hat and hung it from the coat tree, letting her dark hair tumble over her shoulders carelessly.
“This little lady,” said Jack, taking the barkeeper firmly by the arm, “this little lady here, if she ain’t the wildest woman in the West, I’ll eat my own hat, and no two ways about it. Better watch out, now. There ain’t a more honorable thieving harlot in all the world. When she ain’t robbin’ coaches, she’s stealin’ hearts.”
The bartender regarded Jack blandly. “Git yer hand out of my pocket. Edda, I got a piece of trash fer you to take out.” With a resigned sigh, Jack removed the offending hand from the bartender’s pocket, leaving the man’s pocket-watch in its place, and letting him go.
“Good evening, Edda,” said Hal, pouring himself another shot to fortify his courage.
“Good evenin’, yourself,” said Edda as she came nearer, draping her arm around Hal’s shoulders and taking the glass from his hand, shooting back the gin herself. “How’s my sweet Hal, tonight, huh?” she asked, her lips close to his ear. “Still associatin’ yourself with riffraff, I see.” She grinned at Jack, “And you, ya big sack of tripas, what do you have to say for yourself, tormenting a good, honest young man like Hal, here? I’m no accountant, but last I checked, a fella’s only got one soul to sell to the devil. How is it you sell it to him for every meal?”
“Jack here is as good as his word,” Hal answered for the older man. “If he offers the devil his soul, you can be sure he’ll pay up one of these days.”
“Then Jack, look’s like you’re going to Hell for keeping promises to the devil,” Edda teased, her breath coming up short as Hal’s arm slip around her waist from behind.
“If not for making deals with the devil,” Hal added.
Jack opened his mouth to tell the two of them off, but Edda cut in before he had the chance, pushing both he and Hal aside as she moved to stand between them at the bar. “Listen here, boys. We got ourselves work to do. Tomorrow night, see, there’s a stage coach comin’ through. And not just any stagecoach, neither. Representatives of a cattle dealer down Fort Worth way are ridin’ on that coach with orders to purchase as many head of steer from Henry King as their money can buy. Now I say that money ain’t never gonna get to Henry King, and I’ll tell you why.
“I’ve taken myself a room down in Easter Hill. I’m gonna ride in there tomorrow late and wait for the train to show. When it does, we’re gonna follow that money straight from the train station to the stagecoach, and when that stagecoach gets out in the open country between there and here, well, you know what we’re gonna do. Pete and Shill are already in on it, and I can persuade Bardolph without no trouble. So what do you say, boys? You in? I’ll see to it you’re put up good for weeks if you do, but by all means, you stay right here tomorrow night if you want. Everybody’s gotta have their day to die, right? Might as well get hung for somethin’ rather than nothin’.”
Jack shifted his considerable weight and turned his nose up. “I listened, now it’s your turn to listen, Edda,” he said with an apathetic sniff. “If I don’t go, I’ll hang you for going. I’m gonna be a hangman, after all.”
“Is that so?” Edda demanded.
“Hal,” Jack went on as if he had not heard her. “Are you in?”
“Me?” Hal raised his eyebrow. “Me a thief? Jack, I’m afraid that’s your true calling, not mine.”
“Why you!” Jack glared at the younger man. “There ain’t half a thimble-full of honesty, manhood, and good-fellowship in yer whole damn body! There’s a demand on the table here, and you better take note.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in demand notes,” Hal jibed. “In any case, if you are permitted to be a fool every day, Jack, then I’ll be a fool tomorrow and let this opportunity for betterment pass.”
“Well said,” Jack clapped his hands sardonically. “Mighty well said, son. And I guess I’ll be a traitor to ‘His Majesty’ when yer the King. That how it is?”
“I don’t care who you’re a traitor to once my father is dead,” Hal replied seriously, his jaw muscles visibly tightening. “It’s better than me being a traitor to the King now.”
“Jack,” said Edda, turning toward Hal though she spoke to the fat drunk, who was currently fuming behind her. “Why don’t you leave Hal and me awhile. I’ll lay him down,” she added, throwing a glance in Jack’s direction, “mighty good reason why he ought to come along on this little adventure of ours.”
Jack straightened himself up, twitching with indignation at Hal’s reproach. “Well in that case may God give ya the tongue of persuasion and him the ear of profiting, that’s all I have to say. If yer gonna be bad, the least you can do is do it up good.” With that as his final word, a grumbling Jack Castle snatched up his hat from the bar and made his way to the door.
Hal shook his head, calling after the fat, old man in a loud, sarcastic voice. “Goodbye, my late blooming rose! Bon voyage, my prize pumpkin.”
“See ya in Easter Hill,” Jack said with a dismissive wave of his hand, not bothering to look back.
Hal and Edda both watched after him through the busted window as he tottered down the street and away into the night. The saloon had emptied out, save for the two of them, the bartender, and his wife, both of whom busied themselves about cleaning the place up. Edda kept a room in the apartment above the saloon in exchange for tossing out anyone who couldn’t act peaceably and for generally watching over the place with fist or gun, a job she performed with considerable alacrity. She furrowed her brow and looked up at Hal.
“What happened to the window?” she asked.
“Delihah Bardolph happened to the window,” Hal replied.
“Cheatin’ at cards again?” asked Edda.
“She was,” nodded Hal.
“Did she pay up?” Edda rolled her eyes.
“She did,” Hal confirmed.
“Is that how you got this?” Edda tendlerly touched her fingertips to Hal’s busted cheek.
“It is,” said Hal.
She set her hand on his chest and turned to the bartender’s wife.“Ma’am, could I trouble you to play somethin’ on that piano?”
The bartender’s wife tossed her rag down on one of the tables and looked in the young woman’s direction. “Special for you, Miss Edda. Anything you want.”
Edda gave her a grateful nod. “You know the one I like, doncha?”
The woman glanced from Edda to Hal and back again, and smiled to herself cleverly as she sat down at the piano. Her fingers arched elegantly, she waited while Edda pulled a reluctant Hal onto the deserted dance floor. It was really just a space in the middle of the room that had been cleared of tables, but it was plenty for a small town and one of the best things in Edda’s life, at least when Hal was around. Hal allowed himself to be pulled along, Edda guiding him into a gentle sway as the music began to play for them. She looked into his eyes, furrowing her brow before dropping her gaze down his face, over the cut on his cheek, across his lips, and finally down to his neck, which she pressed her lips to softly.
“I been practicin’,” she said softly. “From that book you gave me. I’ve been practicing, I mean,” Edda corrected herself.
He entwined his fingers with hers as she took his hand. “Show me?” he asked.
She smiled at him coyly and set her head to one side. “Just like that, huh?”
“Just like that,” he nodded.
“I’ll dance a little first,” she replied. “Then see how I feel about it.”
“Suits me,” Hal took a deep, contented breath, closing his eyes as she leaned up to press her forehead against his.
“That Jack Castle is gettin’ a little full of himself, ain’t he? …isn’t he, I mean.” Edda said momentarily. “’Bout time somebody put him back in his place, doncha think?”
“Do you have something in mind?” Hal asked quietly.
“Will you come with me to Easter Hill?” Edda answered with another question. “I didn’t take myself a room for nothin’, you know.”
An electric thrill traveled along Hal’s spine and settled in his stomach. “Let’s say I did come with you, what then?”
She smiled innocently. “Just what kind of question is that, Hal King? Now hush, the song is almost over and you’re gonna make me nervous.”
They held each other for a moment longer as the barkeeper’s wife slowed her pace to draw last few notes out as long as she could. Edda thanked her and tried to give her a little bit money, but the older woman wouldn’t hear of it and began fussing over the two of them like a mother hen. There were few decent choices for a young woman in Henry King’s country, and despite his poor reputation, the bartender’s wife consider Hal King one of the best. He was no Hotspur Percy, that much was plain, but perhaps that was for the best, particularly in Edda’s case. Edda Ward herself was no Ladybird Percy. The township wives and gossiping old maids could make their matches and carry out their schemes, the woman decided as she watched Edda withdraw up the stairs with Hal on her arm, but when it came to reading matters of the heart, an old whore knew better than any of those society ladies ever would.
“Hal,” said Edda as they neared the door to her room. “Are you ready?”
He stopped and turned, his back to the wall as he tilted his head. “Are you?”
She nodded, but bit her lip and looked away from him. Taking a deep breath and facing him once more, she held his gaze, her expression serious. “You promise you’ll come with me tomorrow? I can’t do it without you.”
“I’m hoping you’ll tell me your plan,” he replied.
Edda ran the tip of her tongue over her lips and broke into a slow smile. She took his hands in both of hers and pressed her hips into his, pushing him up against the wall. “Say you’ll come along, first,” she said.
“You want me to tell you that I’ll come first?” Hal retorted. “That’s not usually something a fella advertises.”
“You know that ain— isn’t what I meant,” she replied, pressing against him a bit more tightly and bringing her mouth close to his.
“You show me what you’ve learned from that book,” Hal offered, “and I’ll go with you to Easter Hill. Whatever it is you’ve got up your sleeve, I’ll play my part.”
“Promise?” she whispered, her breath brushing against his lips.
“I promise,” said Hal, leaning in to kiss her.
With a teasing smile, Edda pulled away from him before his kiss could land. “Alright, I’ll show ya. But!” She warned, “But, don’t you go makin’ me nervous, or I’ll have to beat up on you and give you what for.”
“Fair enough,” Hal replied, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Are you going to show me?”
“Just… just give me a second, now, give me a second,” she took another deep breath, then bit her lip, her cheeks reddening. “You ready?”
“Edda,” Hal touched her cheek. “It’s just me. What are you afraid of?”
Edda’s eye’s flashed. “I ain’t afraid of nothin’, boy, and I’ll whoop anybody who says that ain’t so! …isn’t so. Now just you keep quiet and let me concentrate. Readin’ don’t— doesn’t come natural to me, and you know it.”
“But you can probably remember every word I’ve ever said to you,” said Hal reassuringly. “Take one more deep breath and just repeat the words you read.”
Edda smiled softly. “You’re awful good to me, Hal. Alright, here goes: ‘Oh…. oh thou, my lovely boy, who… who in thy pow’r,” she began uncertainly, closing her eyes as she struggled to recall what came next. “….who in thy pow’r dost hold time’s fickle glass, his sickle hour, who… who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st thy lovers withering, as thy sweet self grow’st—.” There she paused, opening her eyes and furrowing her brow as the lines eluded her.
Hal brushed her hair back behind her ear and looked into her dark eyes. “If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack, as thou goest onward will still pluck thee back,” he picked up for her where she stumbled, “may time disgrace, and wretched minute kill.”
Putting her fingertip gently to his lips, she took up once more with the strength and conviction she had been wanting at first. “Yet fear her,” she said, withdrawing her hand from his mouth, “oh thou minion of her pleasure,” and replacing it with the kiss that had eluded him a moment before. “She may detain but still not keep her treasure. Her audit, though delayed,” she nuzzled him warmly and let him draw her close, “answered must be. And her quietus is,” she whispered as he took her hand in his and pressed his lips to her wrist, “to render thee.”
The door was shut softly behind him as she drew him into her room. The lamp snuffed, she took him into the darkness. The night was comfortably cool and a light wind ruffled his hair through a window left open. It was quiet here, but they were heading for the sound.
Lookin’ for more?
We hope you enjoyed the second episode of our new webseries, The Rise of Hal King. This is just the beginning! New installments will be published every first and third Tuesday. Want to follow along? Want to follow along? Click here to read the next episode!
(Featured Image: “Uncle Sam’s Saloon” by McGregor’s Landing)
(Roggen Wulf, 2014)