For Better or Worse
Hannibal Heyes sat alone in the jail cell, the evening light dim through the barred window, the smell of past occupants’ sweat and fear surrounding him and making him slightly sick to his stomach. He could hear the sound of hammers from outside and he knew they were almost done building the scaffold he would be hung on in the morning. He thought once they had gotten their amnesty he would never have to see the inside of a jail cell again, but Fate had other plans for him. As he thought about the path that had had led him to this point, he twisted the silver band on the third finger of his left hand in a nervous gesture he wasn’t even aware he was doing. Touching it always brought back memories of laughing green eyes and dark hair with flashes of fire. He smiled in spite of his present circumstances, leaned back with his eyes closed and let the memories wash over him as he so rarely did.
He met her at a time when they were between jobs. Heyes was at his peak as leader and he had given the gang a much-needed vacation while he and Kid planned their next job.
She was a waitress in a café in a little town where he and Kid were checking out the bank as a possible target. As the café had a great view of the bank, Heyes and Kid spent a lot of time in there drinking coffee and talking. It started innocently enough, with small talk as she refilled their cups, but soon Heyes realized he was spending more time contemplating the possibilities with her than with the bank. Kid saw what was going on before Heyes even realized it himself, and he just shook his head and grinned, knowing better than to tease Heyes about it, well too much anyway.
He came in alone one day, waiting for a time when there weren’t too many customers, and he caught her hand as she walked by, pulling her into his lap.
“You’re going on a picnic with me and I won’t take no for an answer.” Heyes’ grinned as she half-heartedly struggled in his embrace.
“Sir, I don’t think that would be proper, I mean, the things that could happen, a single girl alone with a man out in the middle of goodness knows where.” The twinkle in her eyes told him that she would like exactly those things to happen.
Heyes pulled her close and whispered softly into her ear. “Aw c’mon Jessica, I want to have you all to myself for just a little while. I promise I’ll be a perfect gentleman.” The smoldering look in his dark eyes told her that he wanted to be anything but a gentleman however.
She paused, thinking it over. Heyes didn’t let on how nervous he was that she would say no. He didn’t understand why this girl was different from the many that he had been attracted to before, but he was determined to find out.
“Well,” she finally said. “I guess if it’s just a picnic, and you promise to be good, that would be ok. I have Thursdays off, so we could go then.” She gave him a coy look through her eyelashes. They made their plans and Heyes left the café all cocky and sure of himself. Jessica just laughed to herself knowing she had gotten him right where she wanted him. The tricky part with men, she figured, was to make it seem like it was all their idea.
Heyes walked on clouds the next few days until the picnic, unable to focus on anything until even Kid had finally had enough of him.
“Heyes! Heyes! I’m talking to you!” Kid slammed his gloved hand down on the table in frustration.
“Huh? You say something Kid?” Heyes looked startled that Kid was even in the room.
“I was asking if you had managed to draw a floor plan of the bank yet. Remember, the job? That’s why we’re here?” Kid said sarcastically. “Look Heyes, your mind is obviously not on the bank. I’m gonna’ go to the saloon and see if I can find a poker game to sit in on. Maybe once you get this girl out of your system, we can get back to business.” Kid stalked out of the room leaving a surprised Heyes sitting by himself in the hotel room.
Heyes just shrugged it off. He knew Kid would forgive him after he cooled down, and anyway, he admitted to himself that he had been distracted. He didn’t know why Jessica had gotten under his skin so quickly, but it was the first time in God knew how many years that he’d allowed himself to think there might be a chance for him to have a normal life and a family. The thought scared and excited him all at the same time. He told himself to take this a day at a time and not rush things, but he wasn’t sure his heart was listening.
The day of their picnic dawned bright and sunny, just like Heyes willed it to be. Kid tried to tell him that he did not control the weather, but Heyes had made up his mind that the day would be nothing but perfect and that was that. Kid had gotten over being angry at Heyes and had gone back to being amused that his normally so in control cousin was acting like a lovesick calf.
Heyes had found a meadow full of wildflowers next to a clear stream and Jessica was appropriately impressed.
“I didn’t even know this place was here. How did you find it?” She delightedly picked a large bouquet of flowers and inhaled their scent.
Heyes looked sheepish. “Well, I drove around a bit, a couple of days actually, to find the perfect place.”
She looked at him unbelieving. “You did that for me? No one has ever gone to that kind of trouble for me before.” She reached up and kissed him sweetly on the cheek. Heyes actually blushed, something he hadn’t done in years. He pulled one of the flowers from her bouquet and tucked it in her hair.
“Nothing’s too good for you. How about we eat? I’m starved.” Heyes lugged the overflowing picnic basket out of the wagon and laid out lunch on a red and white checkered blanket.
“Uh, well, I guess I’m just used to feeding my cousin. I didn’t want you to go hungry.”
“I don’t think there’s much chance of that.” They both laughed, at ease with each other and enjoying the beautiful day.
After lunch, Jessica laid back against a tree and Heyes laid his head in her lap. They talked about themselves, Heyes revealing things to her he hadn’t even discussed with Kid. He was amazed that it didn’t even bother her that he was an outlaw, telling him she understood why he chose that life. Jessica didn’t seem to want to discuss her past though, changing the subject back to Heyes as often as possible. Normally this would have put Heyes on his guard, but he was too close to see anything wrong, or maybe he just didn’t want to. They talked long into the afternoon, growing closer with every hour.
After the picnic, the plans in Heyes’ head started to change. Instead of planning a bank job, he was planning how he and Jessica could make a life together despite him being an outlaw. Kid noticed Heyes’ growing obsession with concern, and frankly it scared him. He had never seen Heyes like this and he didn’t know what to do. He ended up spending a lot of time by himself, contemplating these new changes in their lives. Kid was suspicious of Jessica, but he couldn’t figure out why, mostly he chalked it up to being uneasy about letting a new person into their lives, but he decided to see what he could find out about her anyway.
Kid had been discreetly asking around town about Jessica for a couple of days, but no one seemed to know much about her. Frustrated, he decided to go have a beer in the saloon and figure out what to do. One of the saloon girls had been trying to catch his eye and she immediately sat down next to him when he got his beer. He had been avoiding her, but he had been left by himself so much the last few days, he was grateful for the company, such as it was.
“You look upset sugar, why don’t you tell me all about it?” She purred in a fake southern belle accent, the ratty blue feathers in her hair brushing his ear as she leaned into his shoulder.
Kid sighed. “Oh, it’s nothing to concern you ma’am. I’ve just been trying to get some information and no one seems to have it.” He tried to ease away from her, but she just moved closer.
“Well, we girls hear a lot of information in our, um, profession. Why don’t you ask me?” She gave him a saucy wink.
Kid rolled his eyes, but he figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask. He’d asked everyone else, why not her. “You know anything about that waitress at the café? The one named Jessica?” He looked at her hopefully.
“You mean that red head? Not much. Been here a couple of months I guess. She spends her free time looking at the wanted posters in the sheriff’s office, talking about collecting the reward on one of them outlaws. Like a little thing like her could catch a dangerous outlaw. Hey! Where you goin’?” Kid had jumped up, knocking over his chair and ran out the door leaving the surprised saloon girl in his wake. He ran to the hotel room he shared with Heyes, not too surprised to find it empty. He searched through the town asking people if they had seen the couple, having no luck until he got to the general store.
“Yep, I seen ‘em about a half-hour ago.” The old man was slowly dusting the shelves behind the counter.
“Well, where did they go?”
“Cain’t rightly say.”
“Can you tell me which way they went?” Kid wanted to reach across and shake the man in frustration.
“Nope, could a been left, could a been right.”
Kid put his head down in his hands trying to control himself. Through gritted teeth he asked the man “What CAN you tell me?”
“All I know is they wanted a dress for the lady and two rings. Weddin’ rings. You might try the church. That’s where people usually get married in this town.”
“What? Why didn’t you say that in the first place?!”
“You didn’t ask.”
Kid restrained himself from shooting the man and instead concentrated on getting to the church at the other end of town to stop Heyes from making a huge mistake.
While Kid had been scouring the town trying to find information about Jessica, Heyes had been using the time to court her like a man possessed. He spent money on her lavishly, taking up so much of her time that she got fired from the café. He told her it didn’t matter, that he would take care of her. She seemed to accept it all a little too easily, but she made Heyes think it was all his idea. In his present state of mind, he accepted this and assumed she was as infatuated with him as he was with her.
They had gone on a carriage ride and stopped at the place where they had their first picnic and were sitting on a blanket next to the stream. Talking had progressed to kissing, and things got even more heated until Heyes realized Jessica was pushing at his chest.
“Please Hannibal. Whatever you might think of me, I’m not like those saloon girls. I can’t be with a man until I’m married.” She ducked her head and her bottom lip trembled.
“Oh Jessica, I’m sorry, I don’t know what got into me. I don’t think you’re like those girls.” He pulled her into his arms and held her for a few minutes. “Why don’t we?”
“Why don’t we what?” She pulled back and looked at him, confused.
“You’re asking me to marry you?” She looked incredulous.
“Why not, we love each other, we enjoy each other’s company, what more can you ask for?” He was getting more excited about this idea by the minute. “In fact, let’s do it today, right now!” He pulled her up and twirled her around.
“Mrs. Hannibal Heyes. How does that sound?”
“I don’t know. You’re crazy!” She was laughing, breathless at his enthusiasm. “What have I got to lose; ok, let’s do it.”
Heyes picked her up and hugged her, and then ran to the carriage pulling her by the hand. They stopped off at the general store and got a new dress for Jessica, since she insisted she couldn’t get married in the ‘old thing’ she was wearing, and they bought two wedding bands, a silver one for him, a gold one with a small diamond for her. It crossed Heyes’ mind to go tell Kid what was going on, but then Jessica pulled him out of the store and toward the church, and he forgot what he was going to do.
They had just said their vows and the minister had told Heyes to kiss his new bride as Kid burst in through the doors. He stopped in his tracks as the few people in the church turned towards him. He knew he was too late as Heyes walked up to him with a big grin on his face.
“Aren’t you going to congratulate me? I’m a married man now. Can you believe it?”
“No Heyes, I really can’t. Look, I need to talk to you.” Kid tried to maneuver Heyes out of the church and away from Jessica.
Heyes resisted. “Anything you have to say to me, you can say in front of her. She’s family now.”
Kid was getting really frustrated with Heyes. “Look there’s something you need to know about her Heyes…”
Heyes’ eyes turned cold. He loved his cousin, but his obsession with Jessica was overriding his sense. “Careful Kid. All I need to know is that she’s my wife. And that’s all you need to know too.” He crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Kid.
Kid saw this was getting him nowhere. “Just seemed a little hasty to me is all. How you plannin’ on livin’ with a wife at Devil’s Hole, Heyes?” Kid tried reason where anger had failed.
“We’re not going back to Devil’s Hole.”
“What do you mean you’re not going back to Devil’s Hole?! Where exactly you plannin’ on goin’?”
“I don’t know; maybe we’ll go back east. I’m not wanted there. I’m turning over the gang to you Kid, you’re the leader now. I’m tired of being an outlaw, I want a home and a family. I…I need this Jed. Please understand.”
Kid sighed. “I don’t understand Heyes, and I probably never will. I tried to warn you, but I guess you’ll have to find out for yourself.” Kid turned and walked out the door, his shoulders slumped in sadness. It was the hardest thing he’d done, walking away from Heyes like that, but he knew there was nothing he could do. As he rode off, he caught one last glimpse of Heyes standing there, a confused look on his face like he couldn’t understand why Kid wasn’t happy for him. Kid knew the sight would stay with him for a long time.
It took some fistfights and some fast draws, but Kid eventually convinced the Devil’s Hole gang that he was in charge and Heyes wasn’t coming back. He didn’t know what he was going to do; he was smart, but he didn’t have Heyes knack for planning. They were a team and he felt like he’d lost a part of himself.
A couple of weeks after he’d been back, Kid was sitting up late not being able to sleep because of a storm and because he always missed Heyes most in the middle of the night when they would sit up and talk over a plan until it was perfect. He was suddenly surprised by a soft knock on the door. Curious about who would be knocking this late, he pulled open the door and was startled when a person fell in like they had been leaning against the door. He rolled the person over and was started to see Heyes, his face gaunt and nearly unrecognizable. He was shivering from fever and from being in wet clothes. Kid quickly got him undressed and dried off, wincing at the infected gashes on his hands, arms and legs.
It took a week for Heyes to heal enough that Kid believed he would live. There were times he wasn’t sure Heyes wanted to live, but Kid figured he wanted Heyes to live enough for the both of them. He didn’t ask about Jessica until the second week Heyes was back when his curiosity got the best of him.
“She’s dead” was the only answer Heyes would give him and he turned away, not wanting to talk about it. Kid never mentioned it again and Heyes didn’t volunteer information. The two reconciled in their own way and went back to being partners, pretending nothing had happened. It took a couple of months before Heyes got his will back to lead the gang, but he never really regained the excitement he had before. Eventually it led him to seek amnesty and leave the outlaw life behind him.
Five years later
“Heyes, are you sure this is such a good idea?” Kid looked skeptically at the little town laid out in the valley below them. “I mean, you haven’t been back here since…well…you haven’t even mentioned her in years, why now?”
Heyes shook his head. “I don’t know Kid, there’s just something inside me that needs to. I need to visit her grave, say goodbye. I didn’t really get a chance before.”
Kid knew better than to ask. This was one of the few subjects they did not discuss. “Well, I guess if you gotta’, you gotta’.”
They rode into town and stopped at a saloon that hadn’t been there last time, ordering a beer to clear the trail dust. There were a few new buildings, but not much had changed over the years, and Kid knew Heyes was probably being swamped with memories.
Heyes finished his beer and stood up. “I need to get this over with Kid.”
“Want me to come with you?”
Heyes just shook his head and walked out the door towards the cemetery on the edge of town. Kid followed him at a discreet distance, ‘just to keep an eye on things,’ but mostly for his own peace of mind. This town held nothing but bad memories for him and he was jumpy even though they weren’t wanted anymore. He watched Heyes stop at a grave, take off his hat and just stand there, twisting that silver ring that he never took off.
Kid stood there awhile, just watching, until he realized people were whispering around him and pointing at Heyes. Kid ignored it until he saw the sheriff was headed out towards the cemetery. Kid ran up just in time to see the sheriff grab Heyes.
“Hannibal Heyes, you’re under arrest!” The sheriff pulled his gun out and pointed it at Heyes.
“Now wait a minute, we’ve been pardoned for all our crimes. I’m not wanted anymore.” Heyes tried to reason with the man as Kid stepped up next to Heyes for support.
“Not for murder you’re not.”
“Your wife, Jessica. I’ve been waiting a long time for you to show up again Heyes.” The sheriff dragged Heyes protesting towards the jail.
Kid just stood there for a moment, stunned, remembering the night Heyes had shown up at Devil’s Hole all beaten up. Was it possible? Kid dismissed the thought as quickly as it came. He knew how much Heyes had loved Jessica and despite what Kid thought about her, he knew Heyes would never harm her. He was determined to get to the bottom of this.
Kid entered the jail in time to see the sheriff locking the cell door. Heyes was protesting loudly.
“But sheriff, I told you what happened on that night. I didn’t kill her, it was an accident!”
“I didn’t believe you then and I don’t believe you now. Now quiet down. You can tell your story to the judge tomorrow.” He looked at Kid. “And don’t you get any ideas about breaking him out of jail. You’re not wanted for anything, yet, but I’m keeping an eye on you.”
“Can I talk to him sheriff?” Kid looked over at Heyes who had sat down on the bunk, his back to Kid and the sheriff.
The sheriff eyed Kid warily. “Just for a minute, but don’t try anything funny.”
Kid walked up to the cell. “Heyes, what is going on here? Why does he think you killed Jessica? More importantly, how are we going to get you out of here?”
Heyes flinched at the sound of her name. “I didn’t kill her Kid.” He whispered in a small voice.
“Well geez Heyes, I never thought you did.”
“I didn’t kill her,” he continued, “but I might as well have. I couldn’t save her Kid, I tried so hard. It was raining, and I knew we should have stayed in town, but she insisted that she wanted to leave right then. I couldn’t deny her anything. I lost control of the wagon, we rolled over a cliff and down into the river. I walked up and down that river all night but I couldn’t find her. I finally came into town to get help, but they didn’t believe me once they found out who I was. They figured an outlaw like me had probably done something to her. The sheriff tried to arrest me, but somehow I got away. I don’t even remember most of that night, it’s a blur. Next thing I knew, I woke up at Devil’s Hole. Later, I sent some money anonymously to have a headstone put in the graveyard for her. It was all I could think to do in her memory. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before Kid; I just couldn’t talk about it. I swear I didn’t hurt her, but maybe I should pay for her death anyway.” Heyes turned away bitterly.
Kid put his hand on Heyes’ shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’m going to figure out a way to get you out of this Heyes.” He didn’t expect an answer, knowing Heyes was fighting his own demons right now. He got up and left, feeling in his gut that there was more to the story, and he was determined to find out.
The next day went by in a blur for Kid. Heyes’ trial was first thing the next morning, and it seemed like the whole town was there. Heyes tried to tell the judge the same story he had told Kid the day before, but no one seemed to want to hear the truth. Kid got a sick feeling in his stomach when he heard the guilty verdict and the sentence for Heyes to hang in two days. He wanted to talk to Heyes, but he wasn’t allowed in the jail. He knew time was running out to save Heyes and danged if he knew where to start.
Kid felt a sense of dejá vu as he questioned people in the town about Jessica and Heyes and that night. It was probably a good thing the old shopkeeper was long gone because Kid might just have felt the need to shoot him this time.
A day later, Kid was no closer to finding any information to save Heyes and the frustration was wearing on him knowing that Heyes would be hanged in 24 hours if he couldn’t figure this out.
“Psst.” Kid was sitting in a chair on the porch of the hotel trying to decide where to go next when he heard a sound.
“Psst, hey mister.” He looked to the side of the porch. There was a woman standing there, her face vaguely familiar.
“Uh, do I know you?” Kid squinted at her trying to figure out where he had seen her. Then he remembered five years before, the saloon girl that had helped him. She was older and looking much more worn, but he was sure it was the same woman. “You! I remember you.”
She gave him a half-smile. “I wasn’t sure you would. There’s something you need to know.” She motioned him into the alley, not wanting anyone to see her talking to him. Kid followed, a little cautious, but more curious than anything. He spoke with her for a moment and then ran out of the alley and to the livery stable to get his horse. A few people turned and watched him ride hell-bent for leather out of town.
Heyes watched the progress of the scaffold through the window with a disinterested eye. If this was his fate, so be it. He had done a lot of things in his life, some he regretted, some he was proud of. He guessed his two biggest regrets would be that he wasn’t able to save Jessica, and that he would be leaving Kid without any family. He vaguely wondered why Kid hadn’t been in to see him all day, but he figured Kid was out there trying to save him, futile though it might be. He would be doing the same thing.
Evening turned into night and Heyes pushed away his last meal, untouched. The sheriff dozed in his chair, jerking awake every once in awhile to eye his prisoner. Things were pretty quiet until the door burst open, hitting the wall and causing the sheriff to fall out of his chair.
“What the??” The sheriff sputtered as Kid stood there in the door looking down at him. Kid offered a hand to the sheriff to help him up.
“There’s someone you got to talk to sheriff.” Kid said, out of breath like he had run a long distance.
“I don’t know what you’re trying to pull…” The sheriff reached for his gun.
Kid turned and pulled someone inside the jail. Heyes let out a loud gasp.
“But you’re dead!”
Heyes just stared at Jessica standing there. A million emotions crossed his face as he watched her walk towards him.
“Sorry? I’ve mourned you for five years and all you can say is you’re sorry?? Lady, you’ve got to be kidding me.” Heyes shook his head and turned away trying to get control of himself.
“Well, now this changes a whole lot of things.” The sheriff looked from Heyes to Jessica. “Guess we can’t hang you for a murder that didn’t happen.” The sheriff sighed. “I’ll go wake up the judge and see if we can’t get this straightened out.” He walked past Kid who was standing there with his arms crossed, waiting to see if Heyes needed him.
After a few moments, Heyes turned back to Jessica, the pain raw on his face. “Why. Just answer me that.”
Jessica had the decency to blush. “It was all a plan to collect the reward money. My, uh, accomplice was waiting at the next town, that’s why I wanted to leave so bad. He had alerted the sheriff there that I was bringing you in and they were waiting for us. When the wagon went over the cliff, I was thrown clear. I watched you looking for me and I followed you back to town, not quite knowing what to do. I knew they thought I was dead and so did you so I took my chance to walk away. I knew I couldn’t turn you in, I…I had fallen in love with you.” She turned away, not able to look at Heyes.
“Loved me so much you would have left me to hang for your murder. I can’t believe I didn’t see through you. I was a fool thinking you would marry me knowing I was an outlaw. Who was this accomplice?” Heyes was really angry, his knuckles white where he held the cell bars.
“You and I were never really married, not legally. The man waiting for us was my husband. After that night, we changed our names and moved to a town a few hours away. I never told anyone what happened until today.”
This was the final blow for Heyes. “Jessica, you better go. I appreciate you coming forward, better late than never I guess, but you better go before I do something I’ll regret.”
“I still don’t know how he found me, but your cousin is very ‘persuasive.’ Hannibal, I…” She held out her hand to him.
“Get out. I don’t ever want to see you again.” He turned his back to her.
She looked at him for a moment, one tear slipping down her cheek as she slowly turned away and walked toward the door. Kid stepped in front of her.
“Don’t think you’re going anywhere until this gets cleared up with the judge.”
She shrank away from the icy look in his blue eyes. “Don’t worry, I’ve caused him enough trouble. I’m going to talk to the judge right now.”
“See that you do. I’d hate to have to come find you again. And I would.” Kid stared at her a moment longer and then stepped aside to allow her out the door.
Kid walked over to the cell where Heyes was standing looking out the window into the night.
“Guess they’ll have to find another use for the scaffold.”
Heyes turned away from the window and looked at Kid with pain-filled eyes. “Jed, thank you. I’m sorry I put you through all this.” He whispered.
“Hey, it’s ok, that’s what family is for. You would have done the same for me.”
“Yeah, but you know it’s hard for me to be the one who needs the help. Usually I have to save you.”
“What, I’ll have you know…” Kid stopped when he saw Heyes grinning at him. He let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding, and knew in that moment that Heyes was going to be all right.
“Where is that sheriff? We need to get you out of this cell.” Kid found the keys on the desk. As he unlocked the cell, he watched Heyes unconsciously twist the ring on his finger like he’d seen him do a thousand times.
“You gonna’ take that off now?” Kid asked softly.
Heyes looked at Kid and back down at the ring. “I don’t know. I’ve kind of gotten used to having it there. Maybe I’ll just keep it on to remind me.”
“Remind you of what? A faithless woman?”
“Maybe as a warning. Or maybe it just reminds me that at one time I thought I could live a normal life with a wife and family. Maybe I still can, some day. I can’t explain it, but I’m not ready to take it off.”
Kid nodded. “Let’s go see that judge and get out of this town.” Kid pulled open the cell door.
“Can’t be soon enough for me.” He slapped Kid on the shoulder and they walked off together into the night.