Deep Down

(Whispered by the boys. Transcribed by Carla)

 

"Heyes?"

 

"Hmmm?"

 

"Just checking."

 

 

Heyes felt a smile touch his lips at his partner's concern.  They had been trussed up like branding calves for nearly 12 hours in the small back room of the mountain cabin and despite all their experience and cunning had not been able to loosen their bonds.

 

Twice they had been brought water and allowed to stand and regain some circulation, but these small acts of mercy worried Heyes more than they comforted.  They were being kept alive by a mad man and the reason was being kept tantalizing out of reach.

 

Neither of them had seen the betrayal and the ambush coming.  Paul Miles had been a former gang member gone straight who owed his freedom and his life to the two ex-outlaw leaders.  Having joined a religious cult he had sworn off his criminal past and Kid and Heyes had done all they could to give him a second chance.

 

So when they had stopped at his farm in answer to a desperate telegram neither had suspected a trap or Christopher Handle.

 

Heyes winced remembering the way the large burly mountain man with the wild eyes had been sprung on them.  Crying out in a voice full of rage and damnation he had accused them of taking his son's life and demanding an eye for an eye.

 

Miles had been stoic as he tied them up and helped them on their horses saying only the man was the religious leader of their community and he had sworn allegiance to him.

 

When reminded that he might owe them as well he had been sheepish enough to look away, but it was clear where his loyalty or fear lay.

 

The two captives had spent a great deal of their time trying to deduce who it was they had supposively killed with Curry convinced it had to be him who had gotten them into this fix.

 

But Heyes was not so sure and Handle made no effort to enlighten them.

 

Suddenly light flashed into the room and they both blinked at the intrusion and a moment later were roughly pulled to their feet.  The lack of movement had cut off the flow of blood and both nearly fell as the binding on their feet was cut and they were pushed forward into the main living area of the cabin.

 

Here they found hooks waiting on the wall to hold up their still tied hands and Heyes realized they had not been the first prisoners of this bizarre wild-eyed zealot.

 

"The good book demands and eye for an eye," Handle said sitting back down at the table and absently cutting an apple with a knife and plopping the pieces in his mouth.  "Therefore only one of you must die for your deed.  I will show you more mercy than you showed my son and allow you to choose which of you shall be slaughtered."

 

Heyes tried to ignore the word slaughter and swallowed trying to take the dryness from his mouth and force his brain to work.

 

"What does the other get?"

 

"He will be assimilated into the group and reformed."

 

"Were not going to choose who you kill," Kid said angrily.

 

"Then I kill you both.  Miles says you are blood kin, I presumed you would want your people to live on.   I will return in ten minutes for your decision."

 

And to their surprise he cut the ropes holding them up and left the room.

 

Kid rose first from where he had fallen rubbing his wrists and looking around for something, anything to use as a weapon.

 

"Man is crazy," Kid said angrily.

 

"Yup he sure is," Heyes said quietly.  "Heads or tails?"

 

Kid turned incredulously on the younger man, "What!?"

 

"Kid at least one of us can get away."

 

"You don't know that!  Besides I got a better chance getting a drop on him, you'll just try and talk him to death," Kid said firmly.

 

"Oh you're saying I can't take him?"

 

"I'm saying Heyes you think too much," Kid said and when it came out in a yell he winced and softly added. "I'll go with him."

 

"The hell you will, we'll flip like we do for everything!" Heyes said just as angry, but there was a desperate fear in his eyes knowing that maybe at last he had run into something that he couldn't out think.

 

"All right," Kid said pulling out a coin.  "Call it!"

 

"Heads!" Heyes said and to his relief saw it come up as he had called.  "All right it's settled I go."

 

"WHAT!" Kid said whirling on him.  "I lost!  I go!"

 

"No you don't," Heyes said calmly feeling relieved it was settled.  "I won so I get to choose."

 

"Heyes you are not going and if I have to I will flatten you."

 

Heyes stared at him indignant, "I won fair and square!"

           

"To stay!" Kid roared back.

 

They had fought physically before, as children it was almost a daily routine.  As they had gotten older Kid had caught up to his cousin in body weight and their last fight more than ten years ago had convinced them both their time and energy was better spent united taking on others who were more than eager to pick a fight.

 

But this time was different.  This time each man knew the winner, the last man standing, would be capable of saving the other.

 

Handle stood at the window and watched enjoying their desperation. It was right he found pleasure in their suffering, had they not made him suffer?

 

He had been a long time since he had chased down the infidel and slew him and he felt an almost sexual tension at the anticipation of blood letting.

 

He nodded as a final blow was struck and one of the men fell unmoving on the ground.

 

Motioning over two of his sons he picked up his gear.

 

"The one vanished is now your servant.  Teach him our ways until he is ready to become one with the body."

 

The two men nodded and the sadistic gleam in their eyes clearly showed servant or slave the loser of the fight was not going to see much difference in his future.

 

Opening the door Handle stared at the winner gasping for breath and wiping the blood out of the corner of his mouth with his knuckles.

 

"The Lord has decided, come and prepare to meet thy doom."

***

When he awoke, it took a moment for him to remember where he was. A dark room. No windows. A small flicker of light from a lone candle in the corner. A dirt floor. A dank, musty odor, the same one from every other awakening.

            He felt cold, but he was used to that. He wasn’t sure he’d ever really be warm again.

            How many days had it been? Ten? Twenty? Did it even matter?

            She would come soon, he thought, with food. Just bread, water, a piece of fruit. But he didn’t really feel the hunger, not even those first few days. What did it matter if he didn’t eat?  He lifted himself from the pallet that served as his bed, stretching stiff legs and arms, and started to pace. He walked the circumference of the room, first clockwise a dozen times, then reversing. He completed this ritual with every awakening. He no longer measured days and nights, because there was no sun to gauge that. But each time he woke up, he made himself walk to help  the blood start pumping again.

            He had to do it. It was the only thing he HAD to do. He reached in his pocket and pulled out the note. He sat beside the candle, like he’d done a hundred times before, and read what his cousin had written. It was his last request, his keepers said, that he have a pencil and paper to write this.

            Of all things, why did he choose these words to write? It was maddening really. Completely, utterly maddening. Leave it to Kid.

            Han,

            Don’t give up. Don’t you ever give up.

             Jed

            His finger traced the signature like it had done so many times.

            You reading that note again?” Her voice surprised him. She liked to sneak in like this, inching open the door and staring at him without him knowing.

           She especially liked to awaken him, preferably from a deep sleep, so he took satisfaction whenever he denied her that pleasure. She wore the same brown dress, torn at her ankles, with the stained apron draped from her waist. He wasn’t sure about her age,  maybe twenty or so, but the years had worn her down. There was nothing soft or feminine about her—her time with Handle had made her into something else, something barely human. 

            “Don’t have anything else to read,” he said, carefully refolding the sheet and placing it in his pocket.

            “I don’t believe that’s why you was reading it again.” She came over, placing a tray on the floor beside the pallet. The same as before- bread, water, an apple. He lifted  the apple and frowned like it didn’t suit him.

            “Don’t you snub your nose at that! A man as starved as you don’t got no right to be  picky.”

            “Who said I was  starved?” He pushed the tray away.

            She knelt down in front of him to peer in his eyes. Hers were milky gray and vacant. “You  ain’t sick are you?”

            “Sick of being here.” He faked a yawn, just to annoy her. “When do I get to see that idiot Handle again?”

            Her eyes widened. “Don’t say that,” she hissed. “He hear you say that and you won’t breathe another breath.”

            He didn’t have to fake his smile. “That insecure, is he?”

            “He’s the master. You best learn to respect him.”

            “I tend to respect people when they’ve earned my respect,” Heyes said matter-of-factly, lifting the apple to inspect it again.

            “He’s the Lord’s chosen one.”

            “So you say. But I don’t believe it. If the Lord wanted to choose someone, I doubt it would be a fat blowhard like Handle.”

            She glanced over at the door, making sure they were alone.

            “You have to believe me,” she whispered, her voice pleading  now. “He will kill you. Just like he  killed—”

            Heyes’ head snapped around to face her. Fire flickered in his eyes. “Say it. Go ahead.” “Your friend wouldn’t want you to die. Then his sacrifice would be for nothing.” These words weren’t her words. They must have come from Handle, but they cut him to the quick.

            “You know nothing about him.”

            She leaned back, resting her head against the wall. A few tendrils of dirty black hair fell over her face, leaving her curtained behind them. “Why don’t you tell me?”

            He didn’t answer. She didn’t deserve to know him.

            “Brother Paul says you were partners. Cousins, too. But I don’t believe that.”

            “What?” He said it more forcefully than he meant to.

            “If you were cousins, then you would have grieved his death. But I been here most of the time since you came. You ain’t shed a tear. Don’t even look sad. Maybe you’re one of them selfish kinds, don’t think too much about other people.”

            “Maybe you’re smarter than I thought,” he muttered. She was right, he hadn’t shed a tear for Kid. He’d felt no grief, no sadness. If he had to put a word on what he felt, it would be “empty.”

            “He wasn’t selfish, though.” She was persisting in this talk of Kid. Handle must be behind that, too, he thought.

            Two could play that game. “No, Jed’s never selfish,” he said softly. “Stubborn, yes. Mule-headed, definitely. But never selfish.”

            “The Master said he knocked you unconscious so that he could be the one chosen to die.”

            “He sucker punched me. Kid’s quick. Has reflexes like a cat, not just drawing his gun. I swung at his jaw, and he ducked, but I expected that. My plan was to follow with an uppercut, but while he was bent over, he nailed me in the gut. Where he found that piece of wood, I don’t know, but he swung that thing up and caught the side of my head. That’s all I remember. Can’t believe he didn’t fight fair.” He didn’t tell her how often he’d relived the fight, how it replayed over and over in his dreams, how always, always… Heyes was the loser.

            “He cheated to save you.”

            “He’s always doing stuff like that. Always rescuing somebody. Usually, it’s a pretty woman with big brown eyes. He just can’t help himself.”

            She regarded him for a long moment. “You keep talking like he’s still of this world. Maybe you haven’t accepted that he’s dead.”

            Dead. He turned away, closing his eyes against that word, feeling the rage churning deep inside.

            Early on, he’d harbored a dim hope that maybe Kid had escaped from Handle. That he’d come busting through the door, mad as a snake, ready to help Heyes, ready to “take care of” anyone who stood in his way. But he never came. And after so many awakenings, Heyes knew, logically, that Kid hadn’t survived. But logic didn’t reach deep down to where it mattered.

            “Master told me something. It might help you.”

            “I doubt that.”

            “Would you like to hear how he died?”

            He fell against the wall, bracing himself.

            “Master said he felt no pain. He wrote the note for you, gave it to Brother Paul. Master knew your friend would fight, so before he knew what was happening, the Master sent him to heaven.”

            His breath caught. “How?”

            “A single bullet he didn’t see coming. So you see, he didn’t suffer.”

            “Go away.” His legs let go and he slid down the wall, landing on the damp earthen floor.

            “Master said I should read to you from the holy book.”

            He blinked up at her, hoping to hide the hatred he felt. “You can read?”

            She shrugged. “Not really. But I got some Bible verses memorized. The ones we live by here. You need to know them, too.”

            “I don’t much feel like Bible study right now.”

            She sighed. “What do you feel like?”

            He rested his head in his hands, wanting her to leave. But he knew she had orders to stay with him, to work on him, to “assimilate” him into their deranged world. “Tell you what,” he said suddenly. “You can bring me Brother Paul. If my soul is to be unburdened, it best be by him.”

***

            When Lom Trevors dismounted his bay gelding, his legs quaked as they hit the ground. He’d been riding straight for eighteen hours and began the trek after a 12 hour shift at the Portersville Sheriff’s office. As soon as the marshals came for Cal Weathers, the lone prisoner in his jail, the telegram arrived: THADDEUS JONES HURT REAL BAD. CAN YOU COME.

As much as the content of the wire had worried him, the signature “Ben Taylor” had also caused  concern. If Kid was badly hurt, where was hell was Heyes?

            Lom had come through the town of Folsom Gap once before and it didn’t look like the place had changed much. A store, a saloon, a bank. A stage coach station consisting of a bench and posted schedule. And across the narrow, dusty street, a tiny clapboard structure with a “Sheriff” sign swinging over the door.

            Lom secured his horse’s reins on the hitching post outside the sheriff’s office, scraped his boots against the wooden step, and knocked on the door.

            “What do ya want?” A voice yelled from inside.

            “It’s Lom Trevors. Sheriff over in Porterville. Need to talk to you.”

            The door creaked open and a man appeared.” Sheriff Fred Bolton,” the man said. “Come on in.”

            Lom limped into the tiny office and refused the offer of a chair. Sitting was the last thing he wanted to do.

            Fred Bolton leaned against his desk and looked up at Lom. Lom supposed Fred looked up to most people—the guy was barely five and half feet tall. He had red hair, freckles, and a shadow of stubble on his upper lip that didn’t come close to making a mustache. He doubted the fellow was even twenty years old.

            “I’m here about this.” Lom handed him the wire.

            Fred shook his head. “This guy a friend of yours?”

            “Yeah. Where is he?” Lom swallowed, bracing for the worst.

            “We got him over at the Taylor’s ranch. Man’s hardly been conscious for over two weeks. Miracle he’s still alive.”

            Lom drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. Good. If Kid was still breathing, there was reason to hope. “What happened to him?”

            “Christopher Handle happened. You heard of him?”

            Lom shook his head.

           “He describes himself as a ‘religious leader,’ but I’d say he’s more of a deranged lunatic. Got himself a group of followers, too. They took over an abandoned fort fifteen miles south of here.”

            “What did he do to my friend?”

            “Wasn’t Handle who shot him. It was one of his followers—Brother Paul, they called him. Your friend took a bullet in the back.”

            Lom narrowed his eyes. “His back?”

            Fred nodded. “Nearly bled to death before anybody found him. A miner came across him and carried him to the Taylors’ place. Doc Wells has been taking care of him. But like I said, he ain’t been conscious much. Told us what happened. Asked for some fellow named Heyward or something, and you, of course.”

            Heyward. Heyes. “When the miner found Thaddeus—he was alone?”

            “Yep.” The sheriff reached in a drawer for his gunbelt. “Come on. I’ll take you out to the Taylors.”

***

Kid looked bad. Didn’t look a thing like himself, Lom reflected, staring at the bone-thin, unconscious form in the bed. He rested on his side, a hand under his whiskered chin. He was too pale, Lom thought, almost gray, and the sounds he made—soft groans, faltering breaths—meant he must be in a great deal of pain.

            The injury looked clean. He’d watched Doc Wells remove the bandage, clean the wound, and re-pack it. “The bullet cut deep,” Wells had said. “I had to dig a bit. Tried not to do more damage than the slug had already done.”

            And the slug had done some damage. Lom knew lesser wounds could kill a man. But that man wasn’t Kid Curry.

            Kid stirred, groaned, and blinked open his eyes. He squinted at Lom and glanced around the room as if trying to get his bearings.

            “Hey there,” Lom said, laying a hand on Kid’s arm.

            Kid blinked again. Licked his lips.

            “How about some water?” When Lom filled a glass and held it to his mouth, he was grateful to see Kid gulping down half before nudging the glass away. “How are you feeling?”

            “Been better. How’d you—”

            “Mr. Taylor sent for me. Remember what happened?”

            Kid squinted again, looking confused.

            “Let me fill in some gaps for you.” Lom told Kid what he knew about Christopher Handle and Kid’s getting shot. Then he leaned forward, whispering, “Kid, where’s Heyes?”

            “I won the fight,” he answered, wincing.

            “What?”

            Kid coughed. Lom reached for the water glass and helped him drink some more. “Handle thinks we’re responsible for killing his son.” Kid paused, taking in a slow breath. “Said he was going to kill one of us and we could choose who. We fought to decide.”

            Lom swallowed. “And you won. So Handle killed Heyes?”

            “No!” Kid jerked up, that effort making him cough more. “No, I won. So Handle meant to kill me. Took Heyes, was going to ‘assimilate’ him or something. Lom, I gotta find him!” Kid clutched at Lom’s sleeve.

            “You’re not going anywhere. I’m just relieved you’re both alive.”

            Kid shook his head, wincing again.

            “Easy Kid. Easy.” Lom squeezed his arm.

            “Lom, you don’t understand. Heyes thinks I’m dead.”

            “Heaven help them, then,” Lom answered. Hannibal Heyes could be a very dangerous man. But an avenging Heyes—this was not a man he’d ever want to face.

***

            Heyes was losing the fight again. Kid kept coming at him, like maybe he had an extra fist or something, and wherever Heyes turned, there Kid was. Then Kid lifted that board and--

            “I understand you wish to see me?”  The man’s voice cut through his black, stormy sleep.          Heyes jerked awake, hurling the frayed wool blanket that had scarcely covered him onto the floor. “Who’s there?”

            “It’s me. Brother Paul.”

            Heyes blinked at him, his fists still clenched from the fight.

            “You asked for me.”

            “Right.” He wiped his face wearily. “How long have I been here?”

            Paul smiled. “We have no need to measure hours or days. Only the bounty in God’s passing seasons.”

            “A couple of weeks, maybe?”  

            “Why do you persist in this? It doesn’t matter.”

            Heyes sighed. “No, I suppose you’re right.”

            “So why did you want to see me?”

            Heyes stretched, rubbed his face, tried to clear the cobwebs from his mind. He needed to be clear. Focused. He needed to have all his senses alert if he was to find a way out of here. “Don’t know, Paul. Guess I just wanted to see a friendly face.”

            “Call me Brother Paul.”

            “You see, the thing is—I can’t figure out why I’m being kept alive. I mean, if you call this living. What does Handle want from me, Paul?”

            “Brother Paul.”

            Heyes shook his head. “Can’t really see calling you that. You sure ain’t a brother to me. Not the way you’re acting.”

            Paul’s eyes widened- just a brief flicker of something, but Heyes wasn’t sure exactly what. Paul crossed to where the candle rested on the floor and knelt beside it. “You have no family now. No ties at all to this world.”

            Heyes flinched as if he’d been slapped by these words. But his hand, reaching in his  pocket, sought out the note from Kid.

            “Don’t you see?” Paul went on. “This is what we can give you. Family. We can be your family now, Brother Heyes.”

            “Can you?” Heyes asked, staring at the man he used to call a friend. “And why would I want you to be my family?”

             Paul looked up at him, a wide, empty smile spreading across his lips. “Because we can give you what you’ve always wanted. How long has it been, Heyes, since you’ve had a real family? A family that gave you a home. And, more importantly, gave you that feeling that you are loved completely, as a child of God?”

            Heyes swallowed. How long had it been? Maybe he wasn’t so sure about that “child of God” part, but he’d had all the family he needed until Handle put a bullet in Jed Curry. He felt a knot tightening in his stomach, but he wouldn’t let Paul Miles know how he felt. He wouldn’t give him that satisfaction.

            “So that’s what Handle’s given you, Paul? He’s given you a ‘family’? Are we talking about the same deranged idiot that killed my cousin?”

            Miles closed his eyes. “We must weed before we sow, Brother. Your cousin’s death was the will of God.”

            Heyes took a step back, working hard at self-restraint. He could almost feel his hands around the throat of “Brother Paul.”

            “But that is done,” Miles continued. “And now, you are with us. You will come to know our ways, to understand what our family can offer. Here, your sins are forgiven. Here, you are on the path that will take you straight to heaven. I’m so glad for you, Brother.”

            Heyes thought about how much he’d like to send Miles and Handle on a quicker path to heaven, or, more likely, the other direction.

            Miles stood and approached the door. But he hesitated, turning to look at Heyes once more. “It’s best if you quit fighting us. It only makes it harder on you.”

            “You’re probably right about that.” Heyes eyed the door. “Brother Paul? There is something you can do to help.”

            “What?” Miles’ expression was hard to read.

            “Take me out of here. Just for a few minutes. I’ll feel better—maybe even more receptive—if  I can breathe some fresh air.”

            Miles glanced around the dark, cold room, narrowing his eyes and frowning.  Heyes wondered if “Brother Paul” had stayed here as part of his “assimilation.”

            “I can check with Master.”

            Heyes looked down at the candle. “Thanks. And I could use another candle, too. If it’s not asking too much.” He threw in the last part as bait.

            Miles nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.”

***

Lom Trevors stared in disbelief as Kid Curry, fully dressed, emerged from the Taylor ranch house. Curry grabbed the rail as he descended the steps and bent over to rest when his feet hit the ground. While he’d finally been able to hold down food and stay awake for several hours at time, Kid Curry was a long way from being well. The doc had advised another week of bed rest to ward off any chance of infection, but Lom knew Kid wouldn’t have the patience for that. Not with his partner missing.

            “Just what do you think you’re doing?” Lom asked, as if he didn’t know.

            “You know what I’m doing,” Kid panted, wincing as he tried to stand straight.

            “You’re a damn fool if you think you’re healed up enough to go after Heyes.” Lom retrieved Kid’s hat, which had fallen to the ground.

            “I gotta do it, Lom,” Kid’s voice was quiet. “It’s been eighteen days. Lord knows what they’ve done to him.”

            “And how do you expect to get into Handle’s place? It’s a fort, Kid. I’ve seen the plans--the calvary built it and they built it well. From what I hear, Handle has his own soldiers patrolling, too. They’ll just as soon shoot you before you make it to the gate.”

            “Then I won’t go through the gate.” Kid replaced his hat and began a slow, staggered walk to the barn.

            “You won’t have to worry about that, Kid. The fifteen mile ride to the fort will kill you.” Lom shook his head, disgusted. “What am I gonna tell Heyes when he finds out I let you do this?”

             “Tell him—” Kid hesitated. “Tell him I was sorry about the sucker punch. If I hadn’t done it, he’d have licked me fair and square.”

***

            It was the damnedest operation Heyes had ever seen. Two dozen men, half dressed in robes like Miles, half dressed like banditos prepared for a raid. The “banditos”, armed with revolvers and shot guns, circled the periphery of the compound as though expecting an eminent attack.

            He glanced over at Sister Rachel, the woman who had served as his “keeper” had finally given him her name. While Handle permitted Heyes these short walks around the fort, he was required to be escorted by either Miles or Sister Rachel. And neither guard let him out of their sight. Not that getting away from them would do him much good—over the past few days he’d covered every inch of the grounds and found no way to escape unnoticed. It was sort of a shame Handle was such a depraved animal—the army might could use someone with his military skills.

            “Have you prayed today, Brother Heyes?” Rachel asked.

            He turned to smile at her. In the sunlight, she looked less haggard and dreary. But there  was something missing in her eyes. He saw no joy, no spirit. No life there, really. “What should I pray about?”

            “You should pray that God will soften your heart. That God will help you accept we are your family.”

            Your God took my only family, he wanted to scream. He tightened his grip on the smile. “Okay. I’ll pray for that.”

            She placed a hand on his arm. “That will please Master.”

            As if on cue, Handle emerged from his “temple,” a squat adobe building in the center of the compound. He wore a long white robe, belted with a blue sash, and moccasins. His unkempt gray beard covered his chest, and looked thick and filthy enough to provide home to wildlife, as far as Heyes could tell.

            “Master, he is ready,” Rachel said, bowing before him.

            Handle stepped closer to peer at Heyes. His breath smelled rancid as spoiled fish.

            “Perhaps you’re right, Sister.” Handle continued to stare, his eyes feral and savage as a startled bear. ”Perhaps he is ready for my test. Tell Brother Paul. I will need his help.”  With that, Handle turned and returned back to his temple.

            “What’s the test?” Heyes whispered as Rachel walked him back to his room.

            “I cannot say. But the Master has great plans for you, Brother.” She unlocked the heavy wooden door and motioned him inside. “Prepare yourself with prayer and fasting. Soon, I won’t have to lock this door. You will be one of us.”

***

            “Kid, let’s stop for a rest. The horses could use a drink.” Lom watched as Kid reined his paint to a stop. He couldn’t believe the man was still in the saddle.

            While their horses drank from a narrow stream, Lom took a good look at his riding companion. Pig-headed didn’t come close to describing Kid Curry. The man looked as gray as his revolver. His hands shook as they gripped the saddlehorn and he had to hold the saddlehorn to stay upright. He’d only managed to mount the horse with reluctant help from Lom, who couldn’t figure a way to keep the man from killing himself.

            “You okay, Kid?”

            “Making it,” he whispered. “How much further you reckon?”

            “We’re almost there.” Lom retrieved the plan of the fort given to him by Sheriff Bolton. He held it out for Kid. “What I don’t know is what we’re gonna do when we arrive.”

            Kid looked over the plans. “We’re gonna free my partner.”

            “Oh. Is that all?”

***

            Hannibal Heyes knelt as he pulled the note from his pocket and carefully unfolded it. This had been his ritual every night and every morning. The keepers believed he was praying and it was about as close to prayer as he’d let himself get.

            Don’t give up, Han. Don’t you ever give up.

            “Well, Kid, were you talking about the amnesty?” he whispered. “Or Handle? Hell, I know you. You were talking about all of it.”

            He smoothed the fold with careful, gentle fingers. “I’m getting out of here, Kid. I promise. But before I do, somebody’s gonna answer for your death.” He looked down at the signature on the note. “Then what, Jed? What am I going to do then?” He felt the raw, gnawing wound that was becoming harder and harder to ignore. But not yet. He had things he had to do.

            He replaced the note in his pocket and glanced down at the food Rachel had brought him. For the first time, there was meat. Potatoes, even. He needed to eat what he could, to give him strength, but it had been so long since he’d had real sustenance he wasn’t sure his stomach could manage it. He finished a potato, a few bites of meat, and the full glass of water Rachel had left for him. Now, all he had to do was wait.

            He’d almost dozed off when the door creaked open.

            “Brother Paul? That you?” He blinked at the man he once called friend, now dressed in a robe startlingly white.

            Miles knelt down before him. “Are you ready for your test?”

            “I doubt it.” Heyes smiled nervously. “Can you tell me what’s involved?”

            “You will be challenged, Brother. But if you are strong, if you have faith—you will pass. You will become one of us. Come with me.”
            Miles led him from the room. Outside, dusk was settling down on the compound, leaving the sky a gun-metal gray. A cold wind stirred orange dust and blew right through Heye’s threadbare shirt.  He spotted a few of Miles’ guards standing close to the gate, eyeing him and murmuring to each other. His “test” must be the talk of the compound, he thought.

            Miles led him to Handle’s temple, opening the door and closing it quietly behind Heyes. Squinting into the darkness, Heyes could barely make out the outline of a table holding two unlit candles. No, not a table. An altar. Beside it, a robed figure stood, his arms outstretched.

            “He is ready?” Handle’s voice boomed.

            “Master, he is here for your test.” Miles bowed and turned to exit. But Handle stopped him. “You will assist me, Brother Paul.”

            Anxiously, Miles glanced at Heyes and nodded.

            “Come, sit before me, Brother,” Handle bellowed. Heyes inched towards him, wondering how he was going to get out of whatever Handle had in mind for him. He noticed Miles reaching inside his robe and pulling out a revolver.  This wasn’t going to be easy.

            “Do you remember my son, Brother?”

            Heyes shook his head. He’d wracked his brain, trying to recall a card player or outlaw or law man named Handle, but none came to mind.

            Handle frowned. “You should remember. A card game in Denver? The devil’s playground, poker is. It was a cold, snowy night. My boy stopped in a saloon and soon found himself in a game with you and a man named Daltry. You took all their money—cheating, I’m sure—and Daltry took offense.”

            Heyes shook his head, confused. He remembered the game. Remembered a cowhand just in from the trail. Remembered Daltry, a conman, trying to palm the king of hearts. When Heyes confronted him, Daltry had drawn but was so drunk he misfired and hit the cowhand. But that hadn’t been a mortal wound, just a nick in his shoulder. “I didn’t shoot your son,” he said definitively.

            “You may as well have.” Again, Handle’s eyes took on that wild, unleashed look. “You riled that man Daltry. Daltry shot my boy. The wound got infected. They took his arm first, but then the blood poisoning killed him.”

            “I’m sorry,” Heyes said softly. “But that isn’t my fault.”
            “Not your fault,” Handle repeated.  “I could say the same thing about your cousin. You think I killed him, don’t you? But it wasn’t me, was it Brother Paul?”

            Stunned, Heyes turned to glare at Miles. “You shot Kid?”

            Miles didn’t answer. He closed his eyes as if preparing to pray.

            “Your friend did my bidding,” Handle continued. “But while Brother Paul did fire the gun, who really killed Jedidiah Curry?”

            Heyes felt a cold breeze again, this one blowing through his very soul. “What do you mean?”

            Handle’s hand reached out to point at him. “Your cousin’s death--was it not your fault? I was there. I watched you fight him. Did you really try to defeat him? Who really killed your cousin?”

            Heyes fell back. Could Handle be right?  Was that why he kept having the nightmare about the fight? Could he have done something, anything—to save Jed?

            No. The answer came unexpectedly from somewhere deep down. No. And the truth of that word freed him somehow.  Heyes had done all he could. He would have done anything to save his cousin. Anything. Jed knew that, too.

             This-- this was a test, he reminded himself. Christopher Handle’s demented plan to render some kind of judgment.

            And as far as Heyes was concerned, the test was over.

            “Hey Paul.” He grinned as he turned to Miles. “You do everything this lunatic says?  You sure have pathetic taste in religious leaders. I’d sooner worship a pile of horse dung than bow down before this jack ass!”

            “You dare denounce me?” Handle bellowed. “Brother Paul, I think the time has come!”

            When Paul whirled around to shoot, Heyes hit the floor and rolled, grabbing Paul’s legs and toppling him before he could cock the trigger.       

            But Handle was fast, faster than most men his size. He reached under the altar, pulled out a Colt, and aimed it at Heyes.

            Heyes rolled again, grabbing at the gun in Paul’s hand but finding Paul’s grip surprisingly strong. Handle fired, the bullet blasting the floor inches from Heyes’ head.

            When Heyes lunged again in a last, desperate attempt to get Miles’ gun, he caught a glimpse of Handle approaching. He tried to move, knowing at that close range he’d feel Handle’s bullet soon, but Paul grabbed his wrist and held him.

            Handle smiled. “Looks like you failed the test, brother. Prepare to meet your judgement.”

***

“I don’t think so,” Kid Curry said.

            Lom Trevors steadied Kid Curry in the doorway of what looked like a chapel of some kind. As bad as Kid felt, his hand held steady to the gun leveled at Christopher Handle. When the other man turned to fire, a quick shot from Lom’s revolver disarmed him and left his right arm trickling blood.

            Seeing the wound seemed to inflame Handle who cocked the trigger of his Colt, but shots from both Lom’s and Kid’s guns took him down. Lom kicked the gun from his hand but could tell from the hole in his middle that Christopher Handle had passed on to some other world. Lom had an idea which one.

            “You okay, Heyes?” Lom asked, looking the ex-outlaw over. He looked thin, pale, but thankfully, uninjured. Kid looked okay, too, which was a miracle given that he’d helped Lom take down five men to get to the temple.     

            Heyes rose slowly, squinting over at his cousin who stared right back. Heyes had the strangest expresssion, Lom noticed. Confused. Maybe a little scared. Dumbstruck.

            But then it was like the sun rose behind his eyes. Kid limped to him. Neither said a word as they embraced, holding hard to each other as if afraid to let go.

            Lom Trevors had seen a lot in his life. Been through a lot, too—much of it with these boys. But seeing Kid and Heyes reunited after all this time. After the hell each had endured—Lom turned before anyone saw the mist forming in his eyes.

***

“Heyes?”

“Hmmm?”

“You okay?” Kid eyed is cousin over the fishing pole. It was a question he’d asked a lot over the past five days, but also one he’d had to answer from his cousin.  From Lom, too, until they put him on the stage yesterday.

            “I’m fine,” Heyes replied.

            The answer bothered Kid. Heyes always said he was “fine,” but he didn’t say much else, which was unusual for his silver-tongued partner.

            This was why Kid suggested they come here. They’d discovered this little fishing hole last year during an escape from a persistent posse. It had brought back old times for them—good times, from back when they were boys.

            Kid thought it would be a nice, quiet place for them to heal up. Kid’s wound hardly hurt much now—but Heyes still checked and changed the bandage twice a day. That man sure could fuss.

            The fishing was good, too, and both cousins needed the nourishment. Kid had never seen Heyes this thin and worried what had happened during his time in that camp. But Heyes wasn’t talking.

            “What do you think happened to those people?” Heyes asked suddenly. “Handle’s followers.”

            Surprised, Kid answered, “I don’t know. Reckon they went back to their families, if they had them.”

            “It’ll be hard for them to fit in. To even think for themselves.”

            Kid nodded, thinking about this. “That what it’s like for you?”

            Heyes shook his head.

            “What is it like?” Kid asked gently. “You were locked up for a long time.”

            Heyes studied the water for a long moment. “Just being alone so much of the time. Guess I get a little stuck inside myself.”

            Kid had heard Sheriff Bolton describe the “assimilation” process. Isolation. Deprivation. Christopher Handle was one sick son-of-a-bitch.

            “But you’re doing better, aren’t you?” Kid couldn’t keep the worry out of his voice.

            Heyes looked up at him. “Sure. I wasn’t assimilated, remember?”

            “Don’t guess you ever could be,” Kid said with an exagerrated sigh. “Man as stubborn as you.”

            “Stubborn? You’re calling me stubborn?” Heyes’voice rang out hotly.

            Kid pointed to the water. “You’re scaring the fish,” he whispered.

            “Stubborn,” Heyes went on. “You insisted on the coin toss. Then you had to pick the fight with me. And Lom told me about how pigheaded you were, coming after me when you’d been shot—nearly died! You call me stubborn!” He was really ranting now.

            “And what exactly are you smiling about?” Heyes demanded.

            Kid just grinned wider. “Just glad to have you back.”