Nick was hungover. No, he wasn’t hungover. He was dead and his limbs were still twitching. And Heath was grinning at him mildly across the table in the tiny cafe, drinking a BEER of all things, for breakfast, and tucking into a disgusting, slimy burrito that was undoubtedly made of the innards of carrion and the eyeballs of dead beef.
Nick, however, had been blessed with a full portion of drunkard’s wisdom—a wisdom that passeth all understanding.
Nick had ordered the sopa de what’s-it... the chicken soup.
They had driven the cattle to Mexico and, after taking a bath and thinking about the fact that, without the cattle or the men to boss, he had nothing left to do with his time, Nick had promptly hopped up and headed to the nearest saloon.
Only it wasn’t called a saloon. It was called a cantina. Nick had been on the trail a long time and simple things nudged his nerves. That is why he tipped his head and, speaking in the high-pitched voice of a bitchy woman, he’d mocked the word, saying, “oh, look at me, I’m not a saloon, I’m a CANTINA.”
Because of that insult, the Cantina decided to kill him. Clearly, and from the start. Because the Cantina knew a secret. That secret was tequila.
Nick began drinking the foul stuff, fairly gagging on it, simply because Heath didn’t seem to find the drink of any import (yes, he knew he couldn’t help his competitive nature... but what was a man to do?). Heath had the audacity to start the show by winking at Nick and then throwing a portion back. Well, Nick thought with a sober glare, the boy be damned. If Heath could drink this nasty liquid rot, than so could Nick... and then some.
In fact, after a mere three shots Nick decided he could drink it with the best of them. There were lots of tender souls there in that cantina who considered themselves the best of them.
Thus that mildly slurred statement was what started the competition, known far and wide as “La Noche de la Gringo Muerte” for years to come. To stay in the competition, each man had to toss back a shot of tequila and then tip the empty glass over, smashing it soundly on the wooden table to signify doneness: to signify all things masculine, drunk, and good.
It went well at first, Nick eyeballing Heath, who merely looked calm. After a long, vast number of shots—maybe five—Nick began to think of things decidedly melancholy. He loved Heath, his dearest competitor, and he wished that Heath, too, could win. Although it was already vague what it was that Heath was winning. All he knew was that Heath was grinning at him, and the grin made Nick feel warm and tall and big. Another shot came looming into his face and, although Nick was scolded lovingly by Heath for forgetting to turn the glass upside down after, and although Nick promptly and slowly fixed the glass with fumbling fingers... well... something happened after that that Nick forgot which was probably important.
One of the ranch hands died in the eighth round. He took his shot like a warrior and then he told every man-Jack one of them left at the table that they were “wormers all around” (nobody really knew what that meant), after which he simply expired. Nick decided to be sad, but then he remembered, for once, that he had to turn the shot glass over. He smashed it so hard that it would have hurt his hand. If he could remember what a hand was.
This contest was damned GREAT.
It got exciting after the death because one stalwart contestant, suspecting that he might lose, began making clucking noises at Heath and Nick, who were clearly in the lead. Then he began making mooing noises. After a time he began making vague train noises, both the chugging and the whistling parts, and then he must have derailed because he sighed deeply and put his head to his chest. He lifted it once and insisted drunkenly that he could do all the sounds of a building, but nobody was listening. Nick missed the mooing noises so he picked them up himself. Heath cussed mildly at him because he was mooing instead of slamming his glass.
Nick studied Heath’s eyes. It was possible that Heath was the only one left at the table, but Nick wasn’t sure anymore what a table was. He thought he knew what eyes were and Heath’s were...
Nick threw back another shot. Heath put his hand on Nick’s and they turned the glass over together. The contact of their hands was like kind love. Their shared, blurry gaze was portentous, strong, deep, and Nick thought that they could ride the tequila together forever, brothers. Heath nodded; he knew they could too. They both reached for another shot.
And sometime in the morning Nick ordered the chicken soup. He wasn’t sure if Heath had actually won the competition because Heath seemed... alive. Men could not have participated in that horror and still be alive.
And yet he suspected that Heath might have, in some small way, bested him. Because Heath had ordered a burrito and Nick had felt the dire need to order something kind and small and good, like soup.
When the soup came Heath looked away, refusing to make eye contact. It was as if he knew something Nick didn’t. And then Nick remembered Heath’s past; he’d had his heart broken in Mexico, he’d been beaten and whipped in Mexico. Nick sighed for his brother, knowing that... knowing something was important about Mexico, but his head hurt.
And idiot Heath had the villain burrito while he had the sweet chicken soup.
The victory of such a thought made him clutch for his spoon and, with a quavering hand, he went to tuck in to the bowl. His hand stopped before his eyes did. His hand tried to actively flee.
It was a bowl full of... death. It was a bowl full of substance unspoken of by the living. Things floated there that were thick and good, oh yes. Like that... that was carrot. The piece of carrot tried to save Nick but the cantina had already set his fate.
The piece of chicken and the cantina were in cahoots.
The... chicken thing... smiled at Nick with its fleshy, monstrous self. It had bones where bones shouldn’t be and skin. Oh Lord, the skin... bumpy and thick and a slimed yellow. And the skin winked back a bit revealing a bloody cavern of... meatiness.
Nick gagged once and as he ran for the door, both hands pressed to his mouth, he wondered. Could that chicken have been hit by a passing wagon and then, having crawled inside to die, been murdered by the cook? Had Nick been witness to the end of a murder most foul?
As the horror of that thought dropped him to his knees in the Mexican sun he heard Heath’s voice float out from inside. “Shouldn’t have had to warn you about the tequila Nick, you’re a man. But what kind of fool orders the soup?”