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Ain't Nothing more Confused than a Pair o' Lovers ('cept a Drunken Armadillo at a Debutante's Shindig)

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Butch Callinan gets born out in New Mexico, or maybe Nevada. It don’t much matter, his kinda folk ain’t got deep roots out West.

His grandpappy weren’t ever sober enough to be sure of his birthday so when Butch’s words grow in far as he can figure he’s ‘bout halfway through fourteen, give or take a month. Them fancy-looking curly black letters, dab smack over his heart, arrive after he’d near given up on ever seeing ‘em.

And, after all that? Well, turns out they ain’t even worth much waitin’ for.

“Hell and damnation, that’s Butch Callinan! Shoot him! Shoot him!!!”

Butch’s ‘bout half-way through fourteen, give or take a month, and he’s already killed more men than he can count on both hands, including his grandpappy. He can’t say he ain’t a mite disappointed that he’s gonna be killing his soulmate too, but he can say he ain’t surprised.

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Alex gets himself born out East. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a star in each fist. Born all soft hands and soft voice, silk hair and silk skin, with no seat for a horse that ain’t a thoroughbred with a pedigree like a queen.

He goes and gets himself born’ bout ten years after Butch did, so let’s come back to him later. It’s gonna be a while yet ‘for he does anything worth reading ‘bout.

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Folks say Butch Callinan tamed his first eagle when he was 12 (he’d say it ain’t hard to get a bird friendly, not when you got a can of corned beef and the desert winter’s come in harsher and dryer than even the Paiute remember it doing.)

They say he killed his first bear when he was 13 (he’d say they ain’t wrong, but there weren’t no glory in it neither. It had been old, sick too, and weak into the bargain, and Butch’s knife had been a mercy.)

They say he wrestled his first river when he’s 14 (he’d say it weren’t much of a river to speak of, more like a stream gone uppity).

They say Butch Callinan killed his soulmate when he was 15.

Butch’d say it weren’t her. He checked the body, just like he’d gone and checked all them others before, and her words weren’t no match for his, just like all them others before.

She made the ninth so far, by his count, though only the second woman. He’d been thinking of starting a tally stick, soon, for when he ran out of fingers to count ‘em all on.

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Alex’s soul words come in early, him a few months shy of ten, and he spends all of that year, and the one after, and the one after and after and after, strainin’ to hear them words with his own ears.

“Walk away from this, kid, this life ain't for you,” stark over his heart, in jagged red letters like they’d been carved into him with a knife.

Thing is, Alex had gone and gotten himself born into a rich family, so rich he bathed in champagne every night. So rich that when their golden plates got dirty they just bought themselves new ones. So rich that there weren’t anyone ever gonna tell him there ain’t anything he can’t do, anything he can’t have. Ten years old or twelve years old or twenty, all anybody gonna ever tell him is yes sir.

So one day, when Alex is 16, when he goes from his big, fancy house to that big city train station, where he’s supposed to take a big, fancy train to his big, fancy boarding school.

Well now, would you look at that, he goes and takes the train heading to California instead.

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By the time Butch turns 19, he’s already got folk talkin’ bout the time he played a raven at poker and won the secret location for three seams of silver and two seams of gold.

By the time he’s 21 you’d have been forgiven for thinkin’ that folks had clean forgotten about all that, what with the way they got so busy talking about the time he drove five herds of cattle ‘cross the Mojave on a single water-skin. 'Bout how half-way across he ran into trouble with a pack of half-rabid rugaroo. How he beat ‘em up so soundly he made them work as his herdin’ dogs the rest of the way.

‘Course by the time he’s 25, they probably wouldn’t be mentioning that neither. Maybe they’d tell you ‘bout the time he rescued them Aluxo'ob from a landslide, just by punchin’ the mountain till it learned it some better manners. Maybe they’d tell you ‘bout the time he lassoed a hurricane heading for San Juan and broke that sucker in, riding clear the way over to Paris to say howdy to Napoleon III. Maybe they’d be tell you ‘bout the time he’d harnessed a wagon to two kelpie and drove his way back home across the ocean, bringin’ seven Irish lasses and six elf lads back with him.

Point bein’, by the time he was 30 there was a lot you could be sayin’ ‘bout Butch Callinan.

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Butch Callinan’s tally-stick was up to forty-three notches, that first time he meets Alex the Kid. Not that he noticed at the time.

Alex, you get me. Not the tally-stick. Butch always kept an eye on that.

See, by seventeen Alex had found his feet out west. He couldn’t lasso a fence post or hit a spitoon from an inch away, not yet, but, boy howdy, he sure could shoot. He could shoot so well he even got the attention of Diez Burros Gang.

Now, ‘course you’ve heard of the Diez Burros Gang, so ain’t a need to talk ‘bout them more here. ‘Course, if you’re thinkin’ to yerself that this ain’t much on what Butch had been up to, ain’t no one gonna blame you for it.

(Don’t you worry, though, ‘cause the kid’s always been a fast learner.)

Anyways, ain’t no need to get into the this or that of how it came that Alex the Kid and Butch Callinan crossed paths for the very first time. Bet ya already heard the story elsewhere, like enough, ‘bout the biggest pearl in Asia and the thief what stole it. Only thing ya gotta understand was that the whole to-do was a bit of misunderstanding, which is to say that the Diez Burros Gang misunderstood the wisdom of tryin’ to chase a bounty that Butch Callinan already said he’d be takin’ care of.

So that first time Alex ever sees Butch, it comes when he’s standing look-out on the hill with Molly Lewis, the Sacramento Songbird. The boss-lady put Alex up there ‘cause he’s got the sorta eyes that can see a frog in mud at midnight from two miles away, and Molly ‘cause if Alex spotted anything, well, she could whistle a warning that folk’d be hearing in Istanbul.

Butch? Oh, well, ‘course, he ain’t far behind.

Now, Alex is still half a greenhorn, so when he first sees that shadow sliding ‘bout the rocks he thinks to himself that’s a big damn lizard, but he don’t think much else. Then when it moves closer, he thinks to himself that it’s the biggest damned lizard he’s ever seen, and maybe gets a little twang in his gut, warning-like. And then when that shadow gets closer, maybe a foot, maybe two, from being in shooting range, Alex sees a little glint of sumthin’ and then his mouth is yellin’ ‘fore his brain can even catch up.

“Hell and damnation, that’s Butch Callinan! Shoot him! Shoot him!”

See, ain’t no one ever twigged to Butch ‘fore he got into shooting range, so he’s a mite surprised. Still, folk don’t talk ‘bout Butch Callinan for nothing and he still gets three shots off before Alex can even blink. One bullet takes care of the thief and that half of the bounty. One bullet shoots the hill out from under Alex and Molly ‘fore Molly can even start to whistle a warning. One bullet shoots a hole clean in the ground and makes a new canyon, with him on one side and the Diez Burros Gang on the other.

(It’s a mighty pretty canyon, too. Popular spot for a pinic now, if you ever happen to find yourself out that way.)

Butch mighta gotten a fourth shot off, and folk still argue ‘bout what he was aiming for, but then Alex shoots his bullet clean outta the air, shoots the gun clean outta his hand and shoots a third bullet into the meat of Butch’s shoulder.

Butch got real surprised by that, let me tell you. He got so surprised by that he forgot he got another arm and six other guns left. And maybe things may have gone differently, then and there, if the rest of the Diez Burros Gang hadn’t been more scared than a mouse in a coyote’s stomach, but when folk get scared they get stupid, and then got damn well stupid enough to try shooting at Butch Callinan some more.

Well now you know that wasn’t gonna do much other than make Butch annoyed.

After the dust had cleared and the Burros who could still stand got to their knees instead, Butch tilts his hat up and takes a closer look at this boy who’d managed to get a bullet in him. This boy, with his soft skin and his silk hair, ‘cause what in tarnation? Ain’t no way he’s old enough to be drinkin’, barely old enough to be walkin', and Butch ain’t the sorta man to pick a fight with children.

“Walk away from this, kid, this life ain't for you,” he growls, and it ain’t Alex’s fault he goes and drops his gun, ‘cause every man and woman in the Diez Burros Gang goes and does the same. Butch gotta way of growling that makes the ground itself shiver.

So, once her knees stop knocking together so hard she could add a percussion section to her whistlin’ act, Molly Lewis, silent as she’s ever been, gets up and tosses the bag with the biggest pearl in Asia over that new canyon and into Butch’s hands. He gives them a nod, polite-like, and then turns and saunters away.

And Alex? Well, Alex watches his soulmate walk away, with his words burnin’ like a wildfire over his heart and his voice frozen like a glacier in his throat.

-----------------

After that, ‘course, Alex gets famous. You don’t put a bullet in Butch Callinan and walk away breathing without folks wanting to know your name.

Alex had used to have one of them names like Alexander Coddington-Boyd III or William Alexis Smyth-Pyke Jr, something rich and fancy-like, but he’d shed all of it like a sidewinder shedding old skin.

Butch Callinan had called him Kid, and he didn’t need no more names than that.

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Alex sticks it out with the Diez Burros Gang for a couple months after that, ‘till it comes clear that Butch ain’t coming back for him. He likes ‘em and he’ll miss ‘em but if Butch is gonna make Alex chase him then that’s gonna be a full time occupation and Alex has been cooling his heels enough already.

Knowing Butch Callinan’s his soulmate, well, it makes Alex the Kid feel like he’s wasted every day of his life since the day he was born, doing things like learning to walk and talk when he shoulda been learning how to lasso the sun and ride the moon. He’s a mite discouraged then when it takes him three days and three nights to lasso his first rain-cloud but still, like I told you all, the Kid’s a quick learner.

Now, if you’d ask folks ‘bout Alex the Kid, they’d tell you how when he was 17 he lassoed a thunderstorm and dragged it away from the pueblo it’d been fixin’ to flood.

They’d talk about how when he was 18 he tried to lasso that comet aimin’ at Houston. Now, that rope snapped, and Alex was mighty embarrassed when it did, but since he shot that dang comet out of the sky right after most folk are too polite to laugh at him much ‘bout it.

They’d say how, when he was all of 19 and not a day more, he got into a fist-fight with Hafgufa, the Queen of the Krakan, after she went and broke Molly Lewis’ heart. Now, it was him with his two fists and Hafgufa with her eight, each the size of a barn, but if you thought that’d she ever had any chance of winning then you’re a damned fool.

‘Bout the only thing they wouldn’t tell you about was how Alex the Kid was, out of every man or woman or anyone else out West, the only person who could take on Butch Callinan and win, mostly 'cause folks had no inkling of that yet. Fact is, taking Butch on in a fight was the furthest thing from Alex’s mind back in those days.

(Unless you’re the type who thinks all fighting’s a sorta, well, fancy prelude to other things. A sort of play-acting before the real business, if you know what I mean and I’m sure you do. Well then, suppose it’s fair to say that them ‘other things’, so to speak, were about all that was on Alex’s mind those days.)

How’d things come to change, you ask? Well, I ain’t gonna be telling you nothing you don’t already know ‘bout how that fool McKinley got it into his damned head to steal all the islands in the Philippines to go and make his wife a necklace, then went back for Hawaii to make her a matching bracelet too? Well, then I’m sure you also know that damn near every man and woman and everyone else looking to make a name for themselves went right after him to get ‘em back.

And I sure don’t need to tell ya ‘bout how two weeks later, on the peak of wise ol’ Mount Apo, it was Alex the Kid and Butch Callinan, standing side by side, what banished that ol’ spook back to hell and got them islands back. Ain’t gonna go bore you with a story that everyone already knows.

What most folk don’t talk ‘bout was how the peak of the mountain crumbled right out from under ‘em, ‘cause it’s a mite embarassin’ and takes a bit of shine off the story. Mount Apo just wanted to give ‘em a bit of a hug, you see, it was grateful for the rescue, and Alex and Butch got pitched right into the volcano sleeping in the heart of that mountain.

Took ‘em a while to climb back out again.

Now, that lava was as good a bath as Alex had ever gotten, even better than champagne, and his hair ain’t ever felt so silky. ‘Course, the volcano blazed his clothes right off in the bargain and later, much later, he’d make a space in his head for the vexation of losing his favourite water bottle and the tooled leather belt his mama had sent him.

Back then, though, his eyes snapped to Butch, every inch of him bare for the appreciatin’, though Alex didn’t get to enjoy it much ‘for he saw them soul-words on Butch’s chest, clear for anyone who looked to read, “Hell and damnation, that’s Butch Callinan! Shoot him! Shoot him!!!”.

It was his writing, that fancy city boy writing he ain’t ever been able to shake, even if he couldn’t ever remember saying those words. He suppose he must’ve, given the circumstances, but it dazed him that he could have ever meant them.

And then.

And then Butch . . .

And then Butch’s sharp eyes flicked over Alex’s chest, then Alex’s arms, his head, his whole form, quick and appraising, like a cat what’s spotted three rats all in the larder. Alex held his breath, ‘cause he knew, he knew it had to be Butch, but Butch ain’t said anything for so long that Alex had maybe started to fear it weren’t.

And then Butch turned away, and then Butch turned away and loped away down the side of the mountain, whistling to the islands to start to herd ‘em back across the ocean.

Alex stands there for a night and a day ‘for can gather his thoughts in.

Well.

Well then.

Well if Alex didn’t mean them words about killing Butch back then, he sure as hell would mean them now.

-----------------

Butch hadn’t really given much thought to the kid before the thing with McKinley and the islands. Ain’t really given much thought to any of his would-be rivals, to be honest. Most of ‘em didn’t ever tangle with him more than once, not even the ones still breathing after.

But after the islands, and the volcano, well, seemed like Alex the Kid got his mind fixed on being as aggravating to Butch Callinan as possible.

It started out with small things, things it took folk a while to notice. Just little things, like if Butch could drive sheep across the Mojave with a pack of werewolves, well then, Alex the Kid was gonna drive a pack of camels ‘cross the Sahara with nothing but a half-mad djinn.

And it takes a while for it to get under Butch’s skin and he’s as surprised as anyone when it does. Butch Callinan ain’t the sort of man who cares ‘bout rivals, ‘bout what folks are sayin’, ‘bout who gets the glory, but there’s just something ‘bout Alex the Kid that makes him sit up and take notice. He ain’t even sure what it is that makes him do it, but hell, if Alex won the Kentucky Derby, well then, Butch would just have to show folks he could win it too.

‘Cept he’d give his horse the day off and do it himself on foot.

So, after ‘bout three or four years of this, all Alex would say was there weren’t one thing that Butch Callinan could do that Alex the Kid couldn’t do right along with him.

‘Cept break a heart, ‘course, Butch Callinan still led him by a mile on that one.

---------------

Well now, after ‘bout three or four years of this . . . Well now, folk ain’t that stupid, danged near everyone had cottoned on.

(Everyone ‘cept Butch and Alex that is.)

Way most folk saw it, all that was needed to settle this foolishness was to lock Alex the Kid and Butch Callinan in a closet for 15 minutes and force them to talk it out. Thing was, weren’t no one - no one out West, no one down South, not even one single person out in Korea or Mali or Peru - who was strong enough to do the one thing that everyone could see plain needed doin’.

So how’d it all get fixed? Well, when there ain’t a dang person on the dang planet who could straighten a fix out, well then, then maybe it’s time for something greater to take a hand in things.

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Comes about that a rumour got out about something out over the Blue Mountains.

Most folk talked ‘bout it maybe being a dragon wandered down from China, one of ‘em big ones, of the sorta size that ain’t been spotted in eight hundred years. Now, even a big ol’ ancient dragon ain’t that impressive, not to someone like Butch Callinan, but somehow Butch gets it into his head that Alex is heading for it and ‘course Butch’d be damned if he gets there second. ‘Course, when Alex hears Butch is riding out there, he’s gotta mount up too, no choice. ‘Course, each man only does it ‘cause if he don’t, the other’ll get to it first.

. . . ‘course, you know it ain’t no dragon at all.

Now then, there are some sights that are just special, even to folk like Butch and Alex, so special that y’ain’t gonna want to talk ‘bout it after, ‘cause you just know the words ain’t gonna do right by it. Hell, I ain’t even comfortable writing this bit down, ‘fraid I might be disrespectful by accident.

Let’s just leave it at this - a visitation from Jim Barnes, that holy voice soaring ‘cross the sky, like an angel on fire, that’s somethin’ that speaks straight to your heart and shakes hands with your soul. That’s something that makes you consider your life, and what you’re doing with it, and why you’re so fixed on killin’ the man you just can't get out of your head.

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Alex ain’t quite sure what to do, after, so he saddles up his horse and rides back towards the sea, thinking maybe if he gets back to San Francisco his old friend Molly Lewis could help him put the word out to Butch that maybe, for once, they could just exchange words instead of bullets.

He don’t have to ride far, though, ‘cause Butch is waiting for him by the shore, camp all set up like he’s meaning to stay a while, and Alex thinks that maybe this time they’ll get a chance to talk after all. He dismounts, heart thudding so hard that over in Campbelltown they think a storm’s coming, and gives a cautious nod to Butch.

“You saw that too?” first thing Butch says, little jerk of his chin all that makes it clear he ain’t talking about the bleached driftwood or the ocean waves or the koala that just fell outta a nearby tree.

“Up in the sky, with . . .” Alex waves his hand in what he hopes is a respectful way, “Yeah, reckon I did.”

They stare at each other. They stare at each other so long that the sun creeps over the sky and night starts to sneak in after it, until Alex feels like maybe this is just gonna end in another one of their showdowns, and maybe he should just draw his gun so they can go and get it over with. And then Butch huffs a laugh, as dark and bitter as a winter’s night in Michigan, and looks away first, pulling his hat down over his eyes.

“Look here,” Butch says, still looking away, “ if Ol’ Jim Barnes Himself comes down from on high to tell me to kiss my worst enemy, which from where I’m standing is purty much what just happened here, I ain’t the sort of damned fool to tell Him no.”

Alex looks at him close, trying to make out what sorta mood Butch is in, but his wide-brim hat’s got his face all in shadows, “So why don’t ya already, then?”

“Well I ain’t the sorta type who lassos a man and kisses him when he don’t wanna get kissed, neither,” Butch says, “Jimmy Barnes or no.”

“I reckon I wouldn’t mind the kissin’ too much,” Alex says. The words slip out of his mouth like a greased pit-viper, tricky and treacherous and just as deadly to his heart as the real thing, “I mean . . .”

Butch tilts the brim of his hat up and looks at Alex sharply, more surprised than a groundhog in a stew-pot, “you telling me there’s something to this? I can’t ever been the first to tell ya you was out of your depth by a mile.”

Alex’s hackles rise, “That’s cause I weren’t ever. Not ever. Fourteen gangs we’d broken ‘for you’d gone and tried to steal the glory like ya always do.”

“Fourteen?!” Butch says, “‘Bout the only thing that was fourteen there was you, Kid,” dark eyes rake Alex up and down, “Fact, how old are you ‘bout now, anyway? I ain’t kissing no child neither, Jimmy Barnes or . . .”

“I’m twenty-two, you damned bastard,” Alex snaps, then adds, ‘cause he ain’t that sorta man neither, “And if you sure you ain’t minding then I ain’t either and I think we’d best get to the kissin’ now.”

“Well if ya say . . .”

Alex doesn’t wait for him to finish, he’s been waiting long enough.

Butch’s mouth is sweeter than apple butter, than fine bourbon whiskey, than honey stolen from a bear. Maybe it’s ‘cause their soulmates, or maybe ‘cause there ain’t a thing under the sun that Butch Callinan can’t do perfect if he puts his mind to it, even kissin’, but Alex loops his arms around him and leans in close, ‘cause anything Butch Callinan can do Alex the Kid is gonna learn to do better.

Alex ain’t that soft-pawed boy that had said Butch’s words, all them years ago, but his hair’s still silk between Butch’s fingers and his skin’s like satin under Butch’s lips. There’s a scar, here and there, more than Butch’d like, even if he’s the one responsible for more than half of ‘em. He runs his tongue flat over each one he finds that’s his, and loves the way it makes Alex’s voice go softer, like a secret.

Butch’s own skin ain’t much to write poetry over but he ain’t as scarred-up as Alex ‘cause he ain’t as big a danged fool. He’s only got one bullet hole in him, in fact, just that one that Alex gave him that first meeting. Alex sighs softly over it when he finds it, kisses it even softer still, and then what’s Butch got left to do ‘sides tip the kid onto his bedroll and make him sigh like that some more?

Things go, well, like these things tend to go. Alex is a mite relieved to find out that not all stories are true and that what Butch has got in his trousers ain’t no actual living rattle-snake or redwood tree. Hell, it ain’t even made of stone or gun-metal, just flesh and blood like most other folk’s. True, Alex had seen trees that weren’t the size of that thing, but Butch ain’t ever set him a challenge he couldn’t see through, and this was the sweetest challenge that Butch had ever set him yet.

Now, I ain’t gonna get much more into it, there ain’t much else that happens that’s fit for printing, hope you understand, but by any standard you’d like to pick you can say it all went pretty dang well indeed.

All you really gotta know is that first time Alex comes so hard he didn’t just see stars, everyone else got to see ‘em too. You ever wonder where the Calafia constellation came from? Well, it came from that night, any astronomer can tell ya that.

---------------

In the morning Alex takes his time waking up. He ain’t usually the sort but then he didn’t exactly get an early night, if you get my meaning. When he stretches out in the bed-roll his joints are stiffer than steel, with a sweet burn at his wrists that reminds him that yeah, ‘round the fourth or fifth time Butch had gotten around to proving he really did know more ways to use a lasso than Alex did. Alex wants to smile at the memory but all it does is remind him that Butch ain’t here right now where he should be, in Alex’s arms.

He looks around some, ‘cause Alex got eyes like an eagle with a telescope and if Butch is in three miles’ walk Alex’ll spot him. Ain’t necessary, though, 'cause there’s a hunched shape right there, sitting by the embers of their fire.

Alex lets the knot Butch tied in his heart loosen, just a lil’.

“Watcha up at this danged hour for?” he asks, getting free of the bedroll. He steps soft towards the fire, softer than a leaf falling on water, ‘cause he still ain’t sure that Butch ain’t gonna be swimming away ‘cross that ocean by nightfall.

Instead, Butch just looks up and grunts, “Catch”.

He tosses something to Alex, a short wood rod. Now, Alex has got eyes like a cat at midday with a lantern and a magnifying glass but, for all he looks at that stick, it still ain’t much more than a stick with some notches cut in it.

“I was up to near two hundred,” Butch says, staring into the embers.

Alex catches on, “this some sorta tally stick?”

“Every one of you sonna guns what said my words, I made a notch,” Butch says, and Alex has hoe-danced through earthquakes that didn’t try to knock the footing out from under him like this does. Before he can get his bearings, Butch speaks again, “You’re the only one whose corpse I didn’t get to check, after. Reckon I owe you an apology.”

“That you didn’t kill me?”

Butch looks up at him then, rueful, “That I didn’t figure it out sooner. Reckon the clues were all there for me, I just weren't lookin' at ‘em right.”

Alex lets out the breath he’d been holding and sits down next to Butch, leaning into his warmth. “Reckon I know a way you can make it up to me.” he says, tilting his face up for a kiss.

“Reckon so,” Butch says.

There ain’t much said they needed to say after that. ‘Least, not for the next few hours. Just a whole lot more of that stuff what ain’t fit for printing.