Brody took a mouthful of hot and gritty, campfire coffee from a tin cup. Choking, he swallowed down the bitter liquid portion, wiped his black horseshoe moustache on his sleeve, and spit coffee grounds onto the dusty earth. “Cripes sake, Skinner! Why the hell we should keep ya on the payroll is beyond me! Yer brown gargle is the worst!”
“Maybe because the little weasel makes the best damn cackleberries, hot rocks, and Texas butter?” Tripp defended his fellow outlaw while scarfing down a plateful of the bean master’s signature eggs, biscuits, and gravy.
Skinner, the thin, sickly chuck wagon cook, kept quiet as he washed and rinsed the cookin’ pans and eatin’ irons.
“Oh shut yer lard ass pie hole, Tripp. Yer just excited ya got a double portion this mornin’ since old Silas is buzzard food,” Brody crowed and nodded at the dead body gathering flies at the outskirts of the camp site. He tossed what was left in his mug into the fire, releasing hissing steam into the desert’s cool morning air.
Tripp let the insult roll off his folds of fat and tipped his plate up to his mouth to scoop the remaining vittles into a mottled white and brown-bearded maw. Gravy grease trickled down his beard and onto a white-patterned, turkey-red bandana tied around his neck. When his plate was clean, the fat man belched obnoxiously.
“Disgusting,” Brody groused, beating the trail off his pinched-front, leather cattleman’s hat before returning it atop his oily, raven hair.
“Stop yer jaw wobblin’ you two!” A lion’s roar came from the new leader of the desperate gang. The burly bandit’s whiskered and scarred face was bounded by a curly blond mane; twin Colt single-action army revolvers were slung loosely at his hips. The gunman was older than Brody and Skinner, but younger than Tripp. He’d been the right hand of Silas, who until yesterday had led the quintet, which was now down to a quartet after Silas took a gut shot in their latest bank heist. Colton had been a member of Silas’ Snakebites posse longer than anyone but the cook.
Tripp tossed his plate and fork in the general vicinity of the washbasin. His tin dish landed with a splash, splattering soapy water into Skinner’s eyes; his fork bounced off the side of the bucket ending up underneath the chuck wagon. “When yer done with the plate, y’all can crawl under the possum belly and get that there fork,” Tripp laughed. The possum belly was a rawhide apron attached to the underside of the wagon in which Skinner stored wood and dried buffalo chips for cook fires.
“I said can it, Tripp!” Colton admonished. “We gotta do two things. We gotta scout out a safe escape route, and we gotta pack up, clean up, and cover up our hideout. The bank we cleaned out yesterday is a half-day’s ride east, so Brody, you scout north; Tripp you scout south along the river, and I’ll scout out the foothills to the west. Skinner, you get the camp loaded into the wagon and be ready to skin out when we return with our best option.”
“What? We ain’t lettin’ that belly robber stay here all alone with the stash?! Send Skinner north and I’ll pack up.” Brody objected.
“Dontcha worry about it, Brody. All the money is locked in Silas’ safe, and he whispered the combination to me alone before he kicked the bucket. Besides, if ya think Skinner can get away with the money and the safe, he cain’t. His only option would be to go east to town…and then he’d be hung fo’sure. He’s Silas’ brother after all…wanted leader of the dreaded Snakebites.”
“Y’all might trust him, Colton, but we sure don’t,” Tripp agreed. “Didn’t he, not just last month, ‘bout have old Silas talked into foldin’ the Snakebites? I’ll stay here and Skinner can scout out the river. Maybe he can scrounge us up some pan fish fer dinner while he’s at it.”
Colton grabbed a shovel and tossed it at Tripp. “Fine, but dontcha forget you gotta bury our former trail boss as part of the job, fatty!”
The rusty spade hit the ground next to where Tripp sat upon a log by the fire; a plume of dust rose up to his double chin. “Uh, on second thought, I’m okay with lettin’ Skinner bury his own kin.”
The cook scowled but kept working kitchen patrol.
Colton moseyed over and casually picked up the shovel; he then strode over to Skinner and planted it into the ground. “Good, then we’re in agreement. Skinner’ll have the wagon loaded and he’ll have our tracks, and his brother’s corpse, covered by the time we return. We skin out at noon…no later! So if’n ya ain’t back…we’re takin the money and leavin’ ya behind.”
Colton clapped his hands and the three outlaws climbed into their saddles. The gang leader shouted a warning as the three horsemen went their separate ways. “They won’t be lookin’ for any lone riders, so if’n ya run into anyone, just say you were followin’ three riders and a wagon headed in the direction yer goin’. That way we can rule out yer escape route and send ‘em on a wild goose chase. Be back at the Snake’s Den hideout at noon…and Skinner, ya better be ready for us!”
When his comrades were out of site, Skinner dropped his cleaning duties and grabbed the spade to begin the grueling task of burying his older brother…
“What the hell happened, Tripp? How the hell did Sheriff Nash setup an ambush for us at the Snake’s Den? The last thing I saw were Colton’s peacemakers blazin’ before he took both barrels of lawman Nash’s twelve-gauge Remington and I got a shovel to the noggin’.” Brody rubbed the back of his hatless head.
Tripp completely ignored Brody; he nursed a grizzly shoulder wound and moaned from the bottom bunk.
Brody shook the bars of their cell, “AND WHERE’S SKINNER? That yellow bastard slunk off and left the hideout wide open. He didn’t even steal the damn money, he just absconded…I saw the deputies loadin’ Silas’ safe into our wagon!”
A deputy got up from his desk and ran a billy club up and down the bars. “Shut yer cake hole, thief!”
Brody barely had time to pull his fingers back before taking a rap with the night stick. “Y’all been holdin’ us here all night! When do we see the judge? When do we get some food and water?”
The deputy disregarded the questions, sat back down at his desk, and kicked up his dusty boots. “I told ya to shut it.”
Brody was about to give up on expecting any answers when the deputy tipped his hat and chuckled, “Nash got tipped off ‘bout the location of yer secret lil’ hideout.”
“WHO! Was it our double-crossin’ cook?!” Brody rattled the bars again. He doubted it could’ve been Skinner. The sallow cook was frightened of his own darn shadow. He didn’t even participate in most of their crimes; he always hung back at one of their many hideaways. He couldn’t have turned them in; he wouldn’t have the acorns.
“Tisk, tisk,” the deputy raised his baton in warning. “All’s I know is, the person who tipped us off got himself a fat reward for turnin’ in the Snakebites…and Sheriff Nash gave him a job too. As for the hangin’ judge, he’ll see y’all after breakfast.”
Before Brody could utter a word, a knock came at the jailhouse door. Another one of the Sheriff’s deputies brought in a covered serving tray. He set it down on the desk and tossed a canteen to Brody, who immediately unscrewed the cap and began drinking. He nearly choked to death in his jail cell when the deputy announced, “Breakfast is served…cackleberries, hot rocks, and Texas butter!”