Ever

Terri Sutro

Their horses flew over the barren ground.  Faster.  Gotta move faster.  Gotta keep running.  Can’t stop yet.  They’re still back there.

 He permitted himself a glance behind.  Kid was riding just as hard as he was, his face clenched in exhausted desperation.  Heyes knew he looked no different.  He pulled ahead and swung off the main road onto a grassy path.  He knew Kid would be angry.  ‘Stay on the main road.  Better chance to find good cover.’  Yep, that’s what he’d be hearin’.  Especially if this path turned out to be a dead end.   He grimaced at his own choice of words.  Dead end.  Well let’s hope not.’   Something.  He didn’t know what it was.  A feeling.  A sudden impulse.  The scent of wildflowers, of long uncut meadow grass.  Something guided his hand as he turned his horse onto this path.   ‘Lack of sleep.  Yea that’d be what it was you durned fool.  Serve you right if it turned out to really be a dead end.’  A word crossed his mind.  One he didn’t often allow himself to think of.  ‘Home’.   He shook it off.  More’n likely just needin’ a couple of good meals. 

He slowed his horse down as he approached a wide parcel of green overlooking a clear lake.  The wildflowers painted splotches here and there and fragranced the air. 

“Well will ya look at that.”  Heyes reined in his horse at the edge of a meadow.

 Kid pulled up  beside him at first slumping in the saddle, eyes closed.  The first moment of rest in days.  At Heyes’ question he looked up, alert again to whatever danger was there.  Knowing he should have spotted it first.  That was his job.   He rubbed his eyes, bloodshot from too much dust and too little sleep and squinted into the sun. 

“Now what.”  Curry muttered.

“Over there, Kid.”  Heyes pointed straight ahead.    

They’d been riding for days, finally losing the posse that seemed determined to be the ones that put Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry in the Wyoming Territorial Prison. 

Heyes had managed to once again take complete responsibility for their situation, blaming himself for playing that one last hand of poker.    Waiting just a bit too long.  Not reading recognition in the eyes of the man sitting across from him.  Too intent on winning just one more hand.  Now the considerable amount of money in his pocket seemed unimportant. 

It had been a familiar conversation as they rode hard out of that town.  Heyes saying he should’a done it differently, paid more attention.  Kid telling him as long as one of them was payin’ attention that was all that mattered, and can we just get outta here and talk about it later?

So they rode.  And rode.  And made do with cold camps so as not to draw any unwanted attention from a campfire’s smoke.  And chewed on hardtack, not daring to hunt the game they saw all around them for fear the sound of gunfire would draw the posse to them.  

Now they were both bone tired and just looking for a place to rest up. 

“See ‘em Kid?”  He paused, feeling suddenly replenished, his voice lighter.  “Been a long time.”

Kid Curry’s clear blue eyes went where Heyes was pointing.  He relaxed in the saddle.  It was the first time that Heyes had sounded like himself in days.  He looked at his partner.  Heyes was smiling, leaning back in the saddle.    “Yea, a long time Heyes.  You remember that summer?  The one just before….”  Kid stumbled over the words, feeling the long ago hurt still present in both of them.  “…well before.”  He turned his attention to the scene in front of him. 

 “Yea, I guess that would’a been it.  Seems like forever ago doesn’t it Kid?”  Heyes looked at his cousin.

“Yea, forever ago.”  Kid met those deep brown eyes.  A long buried memory passed between them before Heyes looked away. 

Neither spoke for a while, both remembering a happier time. 

******************

It had been a warm early summer day.   The Kansas countryside hadn’t yet become so hot and dry that a great adventure was impossible.   Two little boys knelt in the dust of a barn, heads together; planning their escape from the chores they knew they should have been doing. 

“Barns’ll just hafta wait.  I wanna go see the lake.  Never had a lake right there.  Come on Jed, you wanna see it too.”  Hannibal Heyes could be very convincing.  He didn’t usually have to try real hard to convince his cousin.  Today’s adventure was much more important than cleaning out the barn at the Curry farm.   The lure of a brand new lake formed at the bend of a usually thin stream.   “No reason for that storm to come through like it did if’n we weren’t supposed to go see what it made.”

“Yea, but Pa’s gonna be real mad if he comes back from town and the barn’s not cleaned out.”  There was a momentary doubt in the younger boy’s eyes. 

“Aw we’ll be back in plenty of time.  You comin’?  He looked at the blond head that bobbed in suddenly eager agreement. 

With matched smiles and a bandanna filled with apples and some surreptitiously snatched cookies, the two set off. 

********************

 “Think there are tadpoles in there, Han?”  Jedediah Curry was half walking half hopping across the wet rocks that rimmed the lake.  His bare feet squished as he moved from rock to rock. 

“Don’t see why not.   Course them ‘poles are gonna be clear over ta the next county with all the noise you’re makin’.”  Hannibal Heyes cupped his hands in the cool water and splashed in on his face.  Running his hands through his dark hair, he grinned waiting for Jed to catch on. 

Jed froze for a moment and stood up.  He looked over to where Hannibal was sitting.   The older boy smiled broadly.  “Aw Han, cut it out.”  He was always caught off guard by his cousin’s teasing.  He grinned back, squatting on the slick rocks, staring intently into the clear water willing a ‘pole to swim by.   

Hannibal watched his cousin concentrate on any movement in the water.  Just to make sure Jed didn’t fall in or anything.  Only ten himself, he still took responsibility for Jed.  Two of them did everything together.  Well, ‘cept that time when Jed went to Philadelphia.  But that all got worked out.  Ma said they were like two peas in a pod.   Sometimes she called them night and day.  He didn’t quite understand that.  He’d have to remember to ask his Ma what she meant.  She always explained stuff to him when he asked.   The sun felt good on his face.   He dunked his feet in the cool water.  His eyes slowly closed. 

The splash startled him out of his reverie.  “Han!!”  Jed was flailing in the water, splashing and kicking.   “Han, help me!”   There was scared urgency in his voice.

“Jed, I’m comin’.   Hang on.”  The boy rushed across the rocks, slipping and staggering in his haste to reach the spot where his cousin had fallen.

Jed struggled to keep his head above water, all the while screaming for rescue. 

Kneeling on the rocks Hannibal stuck his hands out.  “Jed, here grab my hand.  Come on you can do it.”  He stretched his hands out as far as he could, but Jed seemed to be just beyond his grasp.   Then he was gone, disappearing under the water.  “Jed?   Jed!!!”  Hannibal screamed his cousin’s name as he dove into the water. 

He surfaced after a moment gasping for air and fighting the panic he was feeling.    He forced himself to calm down.  Taking as deep a breath as he could muster he arched up and prepared to dive into the water again.  Familiar laughter stopped him and as he paddled to stay above water,  he looked up to locate the sound.  Amazed relief crossed his face when he saw his cousin standing on the rocks.

“Hey Han, think you scared all them tadpoles off, I can’t find a one.”  The boy’s laughter rang in the quiet afternoon. 

Hannibal sputtered out some undistinguishable comments, before he met his cousin’s sparkling and right now mischievous blue eyes.  He started laughing himself.   “Tadpoles, huh.” His own deep brown eyes twinkled at the game he and Jed had been playing all their lives.  This time his cousin had won.  But there’d be other games. 

*****************

Once again the two men met each other’s eyes.  Both were smiling.   The noise of the two little boys playing in the lake carried across the still meadow to where they sat.

“Lake sure looks invitin’ don’t it Kid?” 

“Yep, real invitin’ Heyes.”

The silence hung in the air while both men considered what they should do; two men refusing to acknowledge that they both shared the same crazy thought.

“Think that posse’s still out there Kid?”

“Posse’ll always be out there Heyes.”

Both men stared intently at the lake and the children playing. 

“Think there are any ‘poles in that lake, Heyes?”

“S’pose there’s only one way to find out Kid.” 

They finally met each other’s eyes, sparkling blue eyes to dancing brown.  And they both knew they just had to do it. 

Caution abandoned, they spurred their horses to a gallop eager to find something that neither could actually describe.  They just knew they had to find it.  Regardless of the risk. 

They raced across the meadow chasing each other with the friendly competition that they’d practiced forever.  Shouting back and forth at each other, teasing each other furiously.  All the pent up tension of the past few weeks thrown off in the sheer joy of a long ago memory and the feel of flying on the back of their horses.

They pulled up short near the lake to the sight of two little boys chest deep in clear water, eyes wide in fear and surprise.  The taller one moved in front of the other. 

Heyes and Kid swung down from the horses in unison.  Heyes looked around.  Yes, this was right.  Posse be damned.  There’d be no posse today.  No running.  No hiding.  No aliases.  No long ago horrors.  No nightmares.   Just two little boys, looking for a once upon a time moment of innocence in the Colorado sun.

******************

“Heyes?”  Kid didn’t have to look for his partner to know where he was and what he was doing. 

“Yep, just like it was Kid.  Just don’t fall in this time.”  Heyes was already at the edge of the meadow, stripping off his jacket, boots, hat. 

“Worth it to see you try to ‘rescue’ me again.”  Gunbelt, jacket, boots removed with hasty fingers.  Kid stopped and looked at the water  “Think it’s deep enough?” 

“How deep’s the lake?”  Heyes frowned at the two boys.  Their faces showed the fear they still felt.  They’d moved closer together.  

Kid looked over at them.  Not any older than he and Heyes when… “Don’t be scared fellas.  We’re not gonna hurt you.  Just want’a share the lake for a bit.  How deep is it?”

The boys looked at each other and shrugged.  The tone of Kid’s voice seemed to be enough for the taller of the two. “Pretty deep in the middle.  Least ways deep as you be tall.” 

The smaller boy looked at his friend, who nodded that it seemed all right.  The fear in his face seemed to dissipate to curiosity.  “You want us to get out?”

“Nope.  More’n enough water for the four of us.”   There was a boyishness eagerness in Heyes’ voice.

 Two smiles met.  Two grown up smiles that suddenly weren’t.   They didn’t need words.  They both knew what the other was thinking. 

The two ‘real’ little boys stood in the water watching the two men create a flurry of clothing on the long grass of the meadow.  They glanced at each other with looks that said ‘Crazy, for sure.  Grown ups.  They’re all crazy.’ 

Stripped to long john bottoms Heyes and Kid again looked at one another.  With exuberant shouts they took off running, simultaneously reaching the edge of the wooden planks that made up the makeshift diving platform and diving into the still water. 

“You’re still slower.”  Heyes choked on water and air as he surfaced shaking the cold water from his hair. 

“And you’re still dreamin’.”  Kid broke water.   He too shook the water from his hair.  “Come on over fellas.  Water’s just right.”  He spoke to the boys who hadn’t stopped watching since the two men joined them. 

“You two family?”  The smaller of the boys moved closer to Heyes.

“Yup.  Cousins.  How ‘bout you two?”  Heyes extended his hand, an offer of equality the child seemed unused to.  “Name’s Joshua Smith.   His is Thaddeus.  Thaddeus  Jones.”  The boy hesitated just a moment before he accepted the larger hand. 

“Will MacIntyre.  That’s my cousin Tommy Duncan.  He’s older.  But I’m braver.”  Will spoke with the confidence only a child has. 

“Are not.  You just think you are.  Anyway I’m smarter.”  Tommy stuck his hand out at Kid.  

“Well it’s nice to meet you Tommy.”  Kid grasped the smaller hand.   He knew he wasn’t the only one who saw the resemblance in these two young cousins.  Partners.  He hoped they’d learn what that word meant through growing up slow and easy.  Not like him and Heyes.  Their partnership was forged when the very first practical joke was played.  Toughened through years of thinking through each other’s eyes.  Sealed with the knowledge that their lives were in each other’s hands.

“Ever think it isn’t which of you is braver or smarter but how you work together.”  He glanced at Heyes, then at the far shore of the lake. 

Heyes caught his glance.   Partners and friends from the earliest either could remember.  They balanced each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  Some thought a perfect balance.  The bankers and railroad men usually used words other than perfect.  They seldom needed to say what they were thinking.  They usually just knew. 

“That what you two do?”  Will didn’t seem convinced.  

Heyes nodded.

“He’s bigger’n you.”  He pointed at Kid. 

Heyes grinned.  “Maybe.  But I’m faster that him.”  There was the essence of the two of them.  Pushing each other just a bit further.  Heyes the dreamer.  Kid the realist.  Roles reversed when Kid needed to dream.  Or Heyes needed reality.  

“Bet you’re not.”  Tommy stood next to his new friend. 

“Bet he is.”  Will couldn’t let his friend go undefended.

“Feel like a race, partner?”  Kid asked innocently still looking at the shore. 

“Maybe.”  Heyes drew out the word.   There was mischief in his voice when he started to speak gain. “Doesn’t seem fair though, me bein’ the faster swimmer and all.  Hate ta see you lose again.”  He continued to stare at the shore.  “Course might be different if one of these fellas could be convinced to help you out.”

“So, who starts?”  Kid looked at Heyes. 

“What’cha think Will?  If I wait over on that bank, you think you can out swim Whatshisname over there?”  Heyes and his ‘new’ partner looked at the still water and the land about a hundred yards ahead. 

Will looked carefully at Kid.  His small face scrunched up in thoughtful consideration.  “I could try.” 

“Nope.  That wasn’t what I asked.  Can you out swim him?”  Heyes looked intently at the boy.

Will was silent for a moment.   Then he smiled a broad smile of understanding.  “Yup.  Sure can.  Any ole day.” 

Heyes laughed.  “Thaddeus?”

“Well Tommy, sounds like those two think they can beat us.  What d’ya think?”  Kid looked as serious as Heyes.

“Well…”  The boy looked up at Kid.  “No sir.  Not a chance.” 

“Deal then.  Once up and back.  First man across touches his partner’s hand, second man dives in and finishes up here.  Right?”  Heyes once again stuck his hand out.  This time to Tommy. 

Kid did the same to Will. 

Finally they reached for each other’s hands.  “One more time partner?”  Heyes’ soft voice conveyed a thousand memories.

“One more time Cousin.”  Kid’s answer spoke of complete understanding of those memories. 

“Who starts?”  Will’s voice broke the quiet.

Heyes cleared his throat.  “Well, guess we should trade off.  One of you, one of us.  How does that sound?  I gotta coin we could flip, but it’s over there.”  He pointed to the pile of clothing.

Kid just laughed.  “Never did trust that coin of yours Joshua.  You and Tommy start.  Will and I’ll take the second half.  That ok with everyone?” 

Three heads nodded agreement.  Didn’t need to be a prize.  Just the race itself.  And the cool water on a warm summer day. 

“On your mark.  Get set.  Go!!” 

Heyes and Tommy hit the water at the same time Kid said those words.  Heyes broke clear first.

“Come on Tommy.  You can do it.  Do it like we done before.”  Will seemed to forget Tommy was on the ‘other’ team. 

Kid didn’t remind him.   “Come on Will.  We’d better get to our places.” 

The two ran to the other side of the lake all the while yelling encouragement to their teammates. 

Heyes touched Will’s hand first and the boy dove into the water with all the strength he had. 

Tommy’s head appeared and he reached for Kid’s hand.  Kid dove in and started his pursuit of Will. 

Heyes helped pull Tommy out of the water and they re-traced Kid’s and Will’s steps back to the starting point. 

“Come on Will. You’re winnin’.  Don’t let him catch you.”  Tommy was jumping up and down in excitement. 

Heyes just smiled.  “You don’t really think he can win do you?” 

“Sure he can.  He’s the best swimmer in the whole county.  You just wait and see.”  Tommy frowned at the idea that his cousin could lose.

Two heads bobbed in and out of the water coming closer and closer to the two on land.  Those two on land shouting at the swimmers, urging them on.

“Come on Thaddeus.  You gonna let a kid beat you.”    Heyes’ called out,  purposefully teasing his partner.

“Come on Will, I’ll do your chores for a week if you win.”  Tommy was screaming and bouncing on the rocks. 

The swimmers approached the end.   The watcher’s shouts merged, encouraging the two on to the finish.  There.  There it was.  More shouts came.  And laughter too.  Hands extended to help the two out of the water. And hands extended in congratulations.       

************************

“Is too an elephant.  If’n you know so much what do you see.”   Tommy was lying on his back in the tall grass beside his cousin and the other two bigger little boys.   They’d flopped down side by side after the exertion of the race. 

“Ah, well there’s a dragon.”  Heyes pointed up at a cloud marbled in white and gray, passing in front of the sun. 

“Where?  I don’t see no dragon.”  Will scrunched over to look where Heyes was pointing, his dark eyes squinting into the sunlit sky.

“Ever seen a dragon?”  Heyes spoke softly not wanting to jar to peaceful moment.  

“You sayin’ I haven’t?”  Will was defensive.   “My pa’s read to me and showed me pictures.  This fella was rescuin’ this girl and he had to kill the dragon.”  There was an implied, ‘so there’ in the boy’s tone.

Heyes just smiled.  “So you see this one?”

The boy frowned as he searched the clouds for the dragon.  “I don’t see no dragon.” 

“Right there.  Straight up.”  Heyes took Will’s hand and pointed it to the cloud.  “See?  There’s his tail and his wings.”

“Maybe.”  The boy did not sound convinced.  He went back to admiring the tadpoles they’d collected and put in a glass jar. 

“Well, what do you see then?”  Heyes turned slightly to look at the boy.   Over that young shoulder he could see Kid dozing.   Tommy had long since given up the fight and drifted off. 

“Clouds.  Just clouds.”  The boy stopped looking.  In a moment he too was asleep.

Heyes looked at the sleeping boy.   Too young to not have dreams.   He traced the pattern in the sky with his finger.   “Nah.  Dragon.  Remember Kid?   Dragon.”  He looked over at his partner again.  Sound asleep.  Heyes just smiled.  ‘That’s ok Kid.  I’ll keep watch this time.’  He went back to outlining dragons in the sky. 

************************

“Hey Han!  Han where are you?”  Jedediah Curry nearly fell over his cousin lying still in the grass of the meadow near their farms.  “Han, you ok?”  It wasn’t like his cousin to be so still. Except for when he was sick that once.  Jed didn’t like that one bit.  His parents wouldn’t let him go visit.  Seemed like forever until he was allowed in.  He was scared that Han would be sickly like their friend Ethan.  Then there’d be no adventures.  Han was great at planning adventures.  He sunk slowly to the ground.  “Han?”  He lightly punched his cousin’s arm.  “Han come on.  Stop playin’.”

“Dragon.  See it Jed.  Just like Grandpa told us about.”  He pointed at the sky.  “I’m gonna find a dragon some day and a sword in a stone, just like King Arthur.” 

“I don’t see no dragon.  Where is it?  Come on Han, show me.”  The younger boy squirmed around so he was lying next to his cousin.  He shielded his eyes from the sun. 

“There, Jed.  Right over your head.”  The boy took his cousin’s hand and pointed it to the spot in the sky. 

“See?  There’s his nose, and his tail.  Looks like he’s breathin’ fire.” 

“Oh yea.  There he is.  I see him.  Look Han, he’s got wings.  Can he fly?”  Jed turned inquisitive blue eyes on his cousin.

“Sure.  Why he just decides where he wants to go and up and flies off.  Wouldn’t that be great Jed?  To just go where ya want, when ya want.  Doin’ whatever you decided to do.  Not havin’ to go to dances and wear collars and stuff.”

Jed laughed.  “Thought you liked grown up parties.”

“Well yea.  I do.  But not where I got to dance with girls.”  He was silent for a moment.  “Someday I’m gonna be just like that dragon.  I’m gonna go where I want and do what I want.  And have lots of money.”

“Can I go with you Han?  I wanna do stuff too.  And see stuff.”  He returned to cloud watching.  “Hey look Han.  I see an elephant.  Just like we saw in that book about the circus.  Look Han, d’ya see him?”

“Yea Jed, I see him.”  Hannibal’s voice was distracted, his mind wandering.  “Just like in the circus.” 

************************

“Don’t see a dragon, but that’s a pretty clear elephant.  You never could tell which animals those clouds really were Heyes.”  Kid exchanged glances with Heyes. 

“Remember those clouds Kid?”  There was a wistful note in Heyes voice that Kid did not miss.

“I remember the dance Heyes.  I didn’t think I’d ever be able to sit down again.”  He wrinkled his face at the memory.

“Yea, me too.  Well you shouldn’t have ruined that dance.  All the ladies had worked so hard on it.”  Heyes had a broad smile on his face. 

“Me?  I was just a kid.   You’re the one who did it.  I just got blamed.”  Kid was also smiling, feigning outrage.

“Not the way I remember it Kid.  I distinctly remember telling you to be careful with that black pepper shaker.” 

************************

“But ma, I don’t want to dance with her.”   Hannibal Heyes was pulling at his stiff collar.  The fact that it was a warm summer evening was not making it any easier on him.  Little boys were not made to enjoy stiff collars and this particular little boy was not of a mind to grin and bear it.  Even if that’s what his Pa said he should do.  “Can’t I just go listen to the stories Pa and the other men are tellin’?”

“No you may not.  You just go ask Rachel to dance. Go on now.”  His mother’s voice was soft but left him no choice.

“Yea Han.  Rachel’s waitin’ for ya.”  Jed always enjoyed it when he got a chance to tease the older boy.   He ignored the black look that was directed at him. 

“None of that Jedediah Curry.  Your turn will come soon enough.”  Maureen Heyes never could entirely keep the scolding tone in her voice when talking to her son or his best friend.  Somehow one or the other of them would smile and before she knew it she’d be laughing with them.  They were both good boys.  Just curious.  And mischievous.  She met her nephew’s eyes.  Right now they were so distressed, she almost laughed. 

“Yes ma’am.”  He sounded sincere, but his eyes said not if I can help it.

**********************

Hannibal Heyes took a deep breath.    He took one last look at his Ma, who, rather than giving him the reprieve he hoped for, sent him to his doom with a shooing gesture of her hands.  He chose to ignore his cousin who was choking back laughter.  He straightened his shoulders and marched stiffly across the room to where the girls stood, expectantly waiting to be asked to dance.  Terrified that they’d be the ones left behind.  

The furniture had been pushed back along the walls of the Church Hall leaving the entire center of the room empty.  Nowhere to hide.  Hannibal found he was suddenly very warm.        

The group of girls watched him walk across the room.  Straightening Sunday dresses.  Putting on their very best smiles.  He was younger that a lot of them.  But those dark eyes and that dimpled grin had caught the attention of most of them.  And it was almost the last dance.  They all looked hopefully at him. 

Oblivious to all of the preening that was going on, Hannibal walked up to his cousin.  Standing even straighter, he stuck his hand out at the pretty girl in pink.

 “Ma says I hafta dance with you.”  He wore a serious frown on his face as though this was about the same as going to church every Sunday.  He didn’t know exactly why he had to do it, but he knew he had to, cause that’s what his Ma had said. 

Tears formed in the girl’s blue eyes.  “What makes you think I’d dance with you Hannibal Heyes.  I think you’re the most horrid boy I know.”  And with that she ran out of the room. 

Hannibal looked confused.  He didn’t think the girl was supposed to cry and run away.   It was, however, his first ‘grown-up’ dance, and he wasn’t entirely sure what ‘was’ supposed to happen. 

The other girls were giggling and pointing at the door.  And at him.  They were whispering to each other behind tiny hands.  He kept thinking it was easier looking for tadpoles with Jed.  He’d never figure girls out. 

He looked back at his Ma.  She had a look on her face that told him he’d better fix this.  He opened his mouth to say something.  Taking one more look at his mother, and seeing her look get even darker, he decided on a course of action.   He followed the path the girl had taken and found her sitting on the old porch swing behind the Church Hall.  The lights from the Hall were bright enough to let him see that her face was wet from crying. 

“Rachel?  I’m sorry.  What’d I do?  I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.  Really.  Didn’t think I did.”  He went and sat beside her.

 “Well you did.  No go away and leave me alone.  I hate you.  I hate all boys.”   She refused to look at him. 

“Aw Rachel, you can’t hate me.  Jed and me are best friends, partners.  You can’t hate your brother’s partner.  Just can’t be done.  Come on back in, ok?  Ma’s gonna be real mad if I don’t dance with you.”  He fished around in his pocket and came out with a bandanna.  Well it was a close to a handkerchief as he had.  He handed it to her and hoped it would help convince her of his sincerity.  It didn’t seem to be working.  New tears were forming in the girl’s eyes.  The memory of the look on his Ma’s face made him swallow.  “Rachel?  If you dance with me, I’ll give you that blue marble I won off’n Jed last week.”  Hannibal really liked that marble, but under the circumstances it seemed like a reasonable offer. 

The girl turned to him, appraising him and his offer with irritation. She was almost two years older than he was and loved reminding him of how grown up she was.  She sighed.  “What am I going to do with a marble, Hannibal?   Girls don’t play with marbles.”  She studied his face.   Had he suffered enough?  “Oh all right.  I suppose I can give it back to Jed for his birthday.”  She rose, almost regally, from the swing and offered him her hand. 

Hannibal looked at her face for a moment.  Drawing a deep breath and wearing a look of supreme martyrdom, he  slowly reached into his pocket, pulled out the marble and dropped in into her hand. 

Rachel looked at the marble then at the boy.  Then she started laughing.  “Oh Hannibal you’re hopeless.”  Her hand closed around the marble.  “Come on.  I’ll let you dance with me.  Even if you are the worst dancer I know.”  She flounced by him and up the path back to the Hall.

Hannibal stared after her for a moment.  “Girls.”  He shook his head as though that would help him understand what had just happened.  It didn’t seem to help.  He gave up trying and ran to catch up with her. 

His Ma was on the steps of the hall when the two returned.  “Rachel honey are you all right?”  She tilted the girl’s face upward.  Seeing the smile there, the woman relaxed. 

 “Yes ma’am.  But I sure don’t understand boys.”  She glanced at Hannibal, who was looking at the two females as though they were both crazy. 

The woman shrugged her shoulders.  “Nor do I sometimes, Rachel.  But we do the best we can with them.  You two go on inside now.” 

************************

The fiddler started playing.  A sign to choose up partners.  The men, blindfolded, picked brightly colored calico ties from a basket and tied them on as armbands.  They searched the room to find the lady wearing the dress made from the same material.  Bowing and curtseying, men a little out of practice, ladies a little shy.  They linked arms and readied themselves for whatever dance the fiddler called.  The fiddler played a few starting notes to prime the fiddle and to tell the dancers what he’d chosen.  Swanee River.    

Hannibal heard the music start and looked heavenward.  A slow dance.  ‘Why couldn’t it be Cotton Eye Joe, or something where he didn’t actually have to put his arm around a girl.’  He looked at her.  ‘Well, she was nice enough, for a girl.  And she didn’t always act scared of everything. And she was Jed’s sister.’   Oh well.    A number of the adults looked at the two children and smiled, remembering their first dance.

 He took her hand and led her into the crowd of dancers.  She looked up at him, suddenly unsure.  He suddenly didn’t seem to be Hannibal, her brother’s little friend.    His eyes were older.  They startled her and she stopped walking. 

 “Rach?”  He looked at her wondering what he’d done now. 

She tried to smile at him and started walkin again. 

Hannibal fixed his hand at the girl’s waist.  She took his hand and held it tightly as he tried to remember and follow the steps his mother had taught him.  Every so often they would make eye contact.  Neither could find anything to say.  It was the longest dance either could imagine. 

Both children let out a deep sigh when the fiddler finally stopped.  The dancers clapped.   Hannibal led Rachel back to the other girls.  He bowed stiffly to the girl and she gave an unfamiliar curtsey as a response.   The other girls giggled again and surrounded Rachel. 

Breathing another sigh of relief that he had survived the ordeal, he went looking for his cousin.  He had a plan.  It was time. 

************************

“Han, you sure of this?”  Jed was watching his cousin tuck a shaker of black pepper into his pocket. 

“Shhh.  Someone’s gonna hear you.  It’s gonna be great, Jed.  You’ll see.   I’ll do it, you don’t have to.   You just have ta not tell anyone.” 

Hannibal and Jed worked their way through the crowded room to the tables heavily laden with food.   Hannibal’s brown eyes were full of mischief.  He was wearing what his Ma and Pa called his ‘gotta talk to the preacher about’ look. 

          Every time that look turned up, something happened.  Water pails mysteriously dumped contents on store owners.  The Spring Fair’s prize pig was seen wandering around the Sheriff’s office.   The teacher found a frog in her desk.  Right now that look was fixed on the big cut glass punch bowl resting innocently in the middle of the table. 

The boys approached the target.  Hannibal reached into his pocket and carefully took out the pepper shaker.  He cupped it in his hand, shielding his action from anyone but his cousin.  Loosening the top, he moved slowly and carefully to a place behind the table.   He waited for the music to start and for the people to start dancing.  He surveyed the room, looking in particular for his parents and Jed’s.  He found the Curry’s.  He found his Ma.  His Pa wasn’t anywhere.  He frowned and scrunched his face while he thought out his next step.  Maybe his Pa was outside smoking his pipe.  Yea that was it.  He was safe.  “Jed, keep watch for Pa.”  His voice was a whisper.  He slipped the top off the shaker and raised his hand.

“Ah, there you are son.  I was lookin’ for you.  What are you doin’ back there.”  His father’s voice came from somewhere behind him. 

Startled he dropped the shaker.   Instinctively Jed put up his hands to catch it.  Hannibal turned to find the voice, and hit Jed’s arm which in turn hit the shaker on it’s way down sending it directly into the full bowl of punch.  Hannibal heard the splash and turned back catching his cousin’s desperately unhappy blue eyes.  He squinted at Jed who rolled his eyes and nodded at the bowl.  Hannibal closed his eyes and thought about all the ways he could describe not having anything to do with this. 

 “Hannibal?  You all right, son?”  Daniel Heyes only saw that curious look on his oldest son’s face.  He knew it only too well.  He didn’t know for certain what was going on, but he knew in his heart that he’d find out fairly soon.

“Uh yea Pa.  Just dropped somethin’.  I mean on the floor.  Dropped somethin’ on the floor.”  He suddenly felt very warm again;  the collar threatened to choke him. 

“Well then come on out from behind there you two.”  He put his arm around his son’s shoulders and guided him out from behind the table.  He turned back to collect Jed the same way.  “Go on you two.   But stay out of trouble.” 

“Yes Pa.”

“Yes sir.”   Jed looked at Hannibal.

Hannibal shook his head furiously.  “Let’s get outta here.” 

“Han, I couldn’t catch it.  I didn’t see your Pa.  Honest.  They’re gonna be real mad aren’t they?  We’re never gonna get to do anything again are we Han?  They’re gonna lock us in our rooms forever.”  His blue eyes widened in fear at a sudden thought.  “Ya think they’ll give us breakfast, Han?” 

The two boys were sitting on the Hall’s front steps.  Jed looked miserable.  Like the entire world was just about to end.  And he’d been responsible for it.  He slouched over holding his head in his hands, his elbows propped up on his knees. 

“Nah, party’s almost over anyway.  Maybe they won’t even drink the punch.  Don’t worry Jed.  Nothin’s gonna happen.”  The confidence Hannibal heard in his voice came as a surprise.  Even to himself.

There were shouts and applause and laughter from inside the Hall.   “A toast to Emma and John decidin’ this night to become husband and wife.”  They heard the clink of the glasses.  Lots of glasses. 

They peeked in the window to see what all the noise was about.  Just in time to see practically everyone lift punch filled glasses. 

“They’re gonna kill us.”  Hannibal closed his eyes and waited for the end to come. 

It started slowly.  A few coughs.  A random sneeze.   The sound built rapidly to a crescendo of shouting and sneezing and choking never before heard in the small town. The town’s banker, a substantially sized gentleman, was hit by the store owner who was sneezing so hard and so often he had tears running down his face.  The bump, while not hard, was enough to send the banker into the food table which wasn’t designed to support that much weight.   Especially coming at it the way he did.  The crash made as the table buckled was loud enough to startle some of the horses tied to the post in front of the church.  Food went in all directions.  The punchbowl rolled to a stop in the corner, the pepper shaker still in the bottom. 

The two boys watched in amazement, smiles creasing their faces as they watched the chaos.  

People made their way out of the Hall into the cool night air.  Holding onto each other for support they continued choking and coughing as they made their way to their wagons. 

The two boys were laughing now, enjoying the scene.  Then the thing happened that neither could have imagined.  Hannibal watched his Ma and Pa stagger from the hall, followed closely by Jed’s folks who were holding Rachel between them.  All were red faced and coughing. 

“Han?”  Jed’s voice was weak.  

The two little boy smiles faded. 

Five faces turned simultaneously towards the two boys. 

“Hannibal Heyes.  Jedediah Curry.  You both come over here right this second.”   Bridgid Curry’s voice left no question as to whom she ‘knew’ had had something to do with this occurrence.  “What do you know about this?”

“Uh, ‘bout what, ma’am?”  Hannibal’s voice wasn’t quite as confident as it had been just a few moments before.  And he couldn’t quite make eye contact with his Aunt.

“I didn’t mean it Ma.  Honest.  Han’s arm hit mine and the shaker just went into the bowl.  Then Uncle Dan told us to go outside and…. I din’t mean for everyone to get sick Ma.”  Jed’s eyes were wide as saucers and brimming with tears as he spilled out the story. 

“We’ll talk about this later, young man.  You come with me right now.  When I get you home….” A very outraged mother took her young son by the arm and dragged him off with only a helpless backwards glance at his cousin.

“Uh, Ma.  Sure sounds like an accident…shame if Jed….” Hannibal watched his friend being hauled off.  He didn’t miss the miserable expression on Jed’s face. 

“Never you mind that.  I’m sure your Uncle James and Aunt Bridgid will take care of Jedediah.  You have your own explaining to do.”  Her hands on his shoulders were as much to steady herself as to scold him.  “Let’s get on home now.” 

************************

Hannibal tried to get his Ma and Pa to understand it had been an accident.  He’d tried everything.  But they just looked at him and he knew they knew.   He steeled himself for the whipping he knew he’d be getting.  But they’d surprised him and just sent him to bed.  How was it that just when he had them figured out, they went and surprised him. 

He lay there wide awake.  His younger brothers were fast asleep in the beds that lined the two walls opposite him in the room they shared.  He had to figure out how to fix this. 

He knew he heard crying.  He knew in his head the Curry farm was too far away.  But he heard it just the same.  “Aw Jed.  I’m sorry.  I’ll make it up to you.  I promise.”  He whispered a firm promise to his best friend.  He just knew that Jed had heard him. 

His Ma came in to check on the younger boys, Alexander and Conor.   Straightening covers, kissing a peaceful forehead, she smiled at the two of them. 

She sat on the edge of Hannibal’s bed, tucking him in.  “You’re lucky no one got hurt, you know that don’t you Hannibal.”   She brushed the hair off his forehead.   Her touch was so soft.  Made him feel real safe.  Her tucking him in. 

“Yes ma’am.  I’m real sorry Ma.”  He looked up at her.  He thought his Ma was the prettiest grown up lady he’d ever seen.  “Ma?”

“Yes, Hannibal.” 

“How come you call Jed and me ‘night and day’?  He’d been thinking about that for days now.  Seemed like a good enough time to get it cleared up.

She smiled down at the boy.  Always a question.  Answer one and there were three right behind it.  “Not now, darlin’.  Now’s the time for little boys to be saying their prayers and closing their eyes. 

 “Please Ma.  I’ll go right to sleep if you tell me.” 

He looked so earnest she had to laugh.  “You’ll be talking the corn off the cob one of these days.  But if you promise to go right to sleep.” 

He nodded furiously, the dark hair flopping back onto his forehead.  

“All right then.  Don’t know rightly how it came about.  It just did.  Jed was such a happy baby and still is.  Always smiling.  Making people feel good.  Just like a bright and shiny day.”

A deep frown crossed the boy’s face.   “What about me?”   He wasn’t sure he wanted to hear the answer.

 “You?”  Sometimes she just had to tease him.  The look on that small face told her now was not the time for that.  “Why you had the darkest eyes anyone had ever seen.  When you’d get mad they’d turn even darker, why they were dark as night itself.  And when you’d get happy they’d shine just like the moon.”  She leaned close to him and rubbed her nose against his.  They shared a smile.  One only known to mother and son.  “And when you’d get to planning some new mischief, why they sparkle like the stars in the night sky.”  She started tickling him.  He squirmed trying to get out of her grasp, laughing so hard tears rolled down his cheeks.   She loved the sound of her son’s laughter. 

“Ma, stop it.  Please.  Come on that tickles.  Ma!”   He wiped the tears from his face as she finally stopped.  “Aw ma.  I wish you wouldn’t do that.” 

“I know.  Why do you ‘spose I do it?   And now m’darlin’ it’s time for you to close those beautiful eyes.”  She looked at him tenderly. 

“I love you Ma.”  Hannibal suddenly threw his arms around the woman.  It was hard to tell who was more startled. 

“Why Hannibal.   I love you too darlin’.”  She hugged him for a long moment before settling him back onto his bed.  “Go to sleep now.”  She re-tucked the covers around him and sat watching him drift off.  She worried about this one.  So smart.  So serious.   So curious.  A dreamer.  It was good that Jedediah was his friend.  They were good for each other.  They’d take care of each other.  Making one more gentle attempt at brushing the dark locks from his face, she watched him sleep.  Finally blowing out the lamp, she left him alone. 

************************

Hannibal woke up earlier than usual.  He had planned on seein’ if Jed was all right.  And if he was really mad at him.  He’d thought about what to bring him as a peace offerin’.  Yea.  That was what his Pa had said they’d used to make friends with the Indians.  He just wasn’t sure he could get it.   He carried his boots and opened the door as quietly as he could.  He made it almost to the front door when the voice stopped him. 

“Why Hannibal.  You’re up bright and early.  I expect you’re ready to start on all those chores you’ve been avoidin’ the last few days.”   His Pa spoke softly, but they both new there would be no arguing. 

“Yes Pa.”

“Put your boots on son and get some breakfast.  You can see Jedediah when you’re done.”  He turned towards the kitchen.  “Hannibal?”

“Yes Pa?”

“When you’re done with your chores.” 

“Yes Pa.”  He sat on the floor and stuffed his feet into his boots, wondering just how many chores his Pat had in mind for him. 

************************

Hannibal found the answer to that question soon enough.  He thought he’d never get done with the work.  Every time he thought he was done, his Pa would come up with something new.  It was lunchtime before he was finally done.  He’d said he wasn’t hungry, but his Ma said he wasn’t going anywhere till he’d had lunch.  It was just the three of them, the other children off with friends. 

He gulped the food,  intending on getting over to the Curry farm as quickly as possible.  He didn’t like not being able to talk to Jed.  And it had been hours.  He excused himself and started for the door. 

“Hannibal, are you sure you aren’t still just a little hungry?”  His mother’s voice teased him just as he reached the door. 

He turned back, a suspicious frown furrowing his forehead.  She was holding a cake.   Chocolate.  His eyes widened at the sight of it.

She set it very carefully down on the table.  Licking a bit of frosting from her finger.  He watched her cut a big piece for his father and a smaller piece for herself.     She put the knife down. 

 “Can I have a piece of cake Ma?”  He knew she couldn’t mean for him not to have a piece.  It was his favorite. 

“Are all your chores done?”  And all your lessons too?”  She was trying very hard to be serious with him.   It was increasingly difficult.   He looked so hopeful and so injured.  She coughed to hide the laugh. 

His Pa had busied himself with something that had fallen on the floor.  He was losing his own battle with laughter.

 “Yes ma’am.”  He frowned down at the floor, muttering under his breath,  ‘And everyone else’s chores too.’  Catching his Ma’s look, he quickly made amends.  “I enjoyed doin’ them, Ma.  Honest.”  He smiled his very best smile for her.

She finally gave up and gave in.  There was no resisting that smile.  He’d be a heartbreaker for sure. She smiled back at him.   His Pa was going to have to talk to him fairly soon.  She started to cut a piece for him, but stopped as she noticed his face.  His smile tipped downward, just a bit and another furrow started on his forehead.  Sighing, she widened the piece.  It was now a full quarter of the cake. 

She carefully lifted it onto a plate.  “I suppose you’d like to take this somewhere and eat it in private.”

He looked at her.  How did she always know what he was thinking?  “Yes ma’am.” 

“I’ll just put in two forks.  In case one of them gets lost.”  She handed him two forks and the plate now covered by a gingham napkin.   “Don’t be too late.  We have a new book your Pa wants to read with you.”

“A new book?   Which one?  Pa?  Which book?  Can I see it now?”  He scrambled over to his Pa, the cake and everything else momentarily forgotten. 

His father’s laugh echoed in the room.  A baritone, deep and melodic, his voice usually led the group that sang at Church on Sundays.  “So, readin’s better than your Ma’s cake?  Well son, some day you’ll learn never to treat a lady’s cake in that fashion.”  He rumpled his son’s dark hair.   Run along now.  I’m sure you have some need for some peace and quiet after last night’s… excitement.  We’ll have the book later.”

Hannibal frowned again.  How did they both always know what he was gonna do.  He’d have to figure that one out.  For now, he had a plan to fix things for Jed.  And his Ma had supplied the first part.  Jed loved chocolate cake.  Now, how to finish the second. 

************************

“Hi Rachel, whatcha doin’?”   He was out of breath having run from his house.  He nearly fell over rounding the bend on the trail and finding the girl sitting on a downed tree.  She was holding a small book and had a thoughtful expression on her face.  That changed to annoyance when she saw him.

“Thinking, if that’s all right with you.”  She turned her back to him. 

“Want some cake?  It’s chocolate?”  He stretched the plate out to her. 

She looked at the plate full of broken cake pieces and the smear of chocolate on the side of his face.  She sniffed haughtily and turned away again.   “No thank you.” 

“Um Rach?  Where’s Jed.  He finished with his chores?  Boy my Ma and Pa gave me twice the amount of chores of anybody else.  Guess they were pretty mad?  Did Jed get a  whippin’?  I coulda sworn I heard him cryin’.  Rach?  You gonna talk to me?”  He went and sat next to her

“Well if you must know, he’s just fine.  No thanks to you Hannibal Heyes.”  There was fire in that voice and in the eyes than glared at him. 

“Aw Rach.  I didn’t mean for Jed to get in trouble.  Honest.”  He looked down at the plate of cake.  “Um Rach?  Ya know that marble I gave you?” 

“What about it?”  She looked at him, instantly suspicious of his motives in asking. 

“Well, you don’t really want it, and I won it and anyway, girls don’t play marbles.”  Once again, he put on his best persuading voice and hoped it would work.

The girl looked at him intently and thought for a moment.  “Maybe I’ll start.  Anyway, it’s pretty.  Ma said it was the color of my eyes.  I think I’ll just keep it in my treasure box.  

Hannibal looked at the girl with total astonishment.  “Your treasure box?  That’s stupid.  That’s a winnin’ marble.  You can’t put it in a dumb old box.” 

“Well it’s my marble.  I can put it anywhere I want.  I’m going home.”  She got up and delicately brushed invisible dirt from her yellow dress.  “Bye.”  She got about twenty steps.

“Rach, wait up.”  He rushed to catch up with her, tripped and dropped the plate.  “Damn!”

The girl whirled around and glared at him again.  “Hannibal Heyes.  Don’t you dare use that word.  I’m gonna tell my Ma.” 

“Rach, I’m sorry.  I mean I dropped the cake.  I was gonna share it with….  Well I just thought Jed might be hungry and I couldn’t eat it all.  Come on Rach.  Don’t be mad at me.  Please.  Jed’s mad at me I just know it.  Ya both can’t be mad at me.  Please Rach.”  This was not going the way he planned it. 

The girl looked back at him.  Deciding if he’d been punished enough for getting her little brother in trouble.  Well he did look miserable.  Especially with that chocolate scar on his face.  And he ‘was’ just a little boy.  And he did bring enough cake to satisfy even her brother’s appetite.  “Oh all right.  I’m not mad. Let’s see if we can save the cake.  Jed loves chocolate cake.”  She knelt down next to him and started handing him the cake, picking off leaves and twigs that were sticking to the chocolate. 

 “You’re not gonna tell your Ma about…, about what I said are you?”   He was licking chocolate off his fingers.

She just laughed.  “No Hannibal, I’m not gonna tell Ma.  Just don’t do it again.  Here, stay still for a second.”  She re-folded the tiny lace handkerchief she’d been using to pick up the cake and reached for his face.

He backed away.  “What’re you doin?”

“Just cleaning off the chocolate, silly.  What did you think I was gonna do?”  She laughed again, louder as he turned bright red.  “Come here, let me get that off your face.  Jed’ll be mad as anything that you didn’t wait for him to get into the cake.”

He looked suspicious, but let her wipe the brown smear from his cheek.

“Go find Jed.  He’s out by the horses.”  She got up and watched him move off.    “Oh Hannibal.”  She called to him, when he was just far enough away to not be able to ignore.

He turned back to her. 

“Um, you better take this.  More for boys anyway.”  She held her closed fist out. 

He came back to her slowly with a question on his face, looking suspiciously at her hand.

“Well here.  Do you want it or not?”

He slowly put his hand out and watched as she dropped the marble into it.   He looked at the marble then at the girl.  He didn’t understand this.  But suddenly he decided he really liked his best friend’s sister. 

“Thanks Rach.  Thanks a lot.”  The boy looked at her with new respect. 

“Don’t tell Jed that you gave it away.”  She smiled.  An older smile.  One that said she’d always see through him.  One that said she was glad he was her little brother’s partner.  “Go on now.  Jed’s been lookin’ over his shoulder for you all day.” 

With a grin, Hannibal took off running. 

Rachel Curry watched him go with a smile on her face.  She felt better about Jed.   Less worried.  Hannibal would always find a way to take care of him.  They’ d always take care of each other.

************************

“Jed!  Hey Jed where are you?”  Hannibal was standing outside the corral.   There was no sign of his cousin.  “Hey Jed I got cake!  Chocolate!”  He started walking towards the barn when Jed came out.  “Hey Jed!”  He started running again towards the barn.  “Hey Jed, you ok?”  He skidded to a stop in front of the younger boy.  He looked at his cousin’s face.  He looked mad. 

Jed just ignored him, continuing to walk towards the house. 

Hannibal ran up to him, cutting him off.  “I got chocolate cake.”  He showed the now messy plate to his cousin. 

Jed finally looked at Hannibal.  “Chocolate cake?”  The boy’s face brightened, then darkened again.   “Ma and Pa were real mad at me Han.  They said they might not let me play with you anymore, if’n I can’t stay outta trouble.”   His eyes filled with tears.  “They wouldn’t do that would they?” 

“Nah.  Don’t worry.  We’re partners Jed.  No one’s gonna change that.

“Partners.”  The boy ran a grimy hand through his blond curls and smiled.  “Yea.  That’s right.  Partners.”  He stuck his hand out.

Hannibal looked at it for a second then smiled back at him and took his hand.  Their handshake was very serious.

          They’d turned back towards the barn, finding a bale of hay to sit on.

 “Want some cake? Ma made it.  I ate some, but there’s lots left.  Didn’t mean to, but it just smelled so good.”

“Your Ma’s chocolate cake?  Sure I want it.”  He eagerly accepted the plate, taking the chocolate covered napkin off and looking at the remnants.  He looked up at Hannibal. 

Hannibal reached over and removed a leaf from the plate.  “Fell down.  Still good though.  You mad at me Jed?” 

“Nah.  I’m not mad.”  He picked up a piece of cake and stuffed it into his mouth.  “Whippin’ weren’t nothing.”  He spoke almost proudly, as though he’d passed some kind of grown up test.

“You shoulda told them it was my fault.”  Hannibal was scuffling his feet on the dusty ground. 

“I couldn’ta done that Han.  That’d be snitchin’.  I ain’t no snitch.  You think I’da done that?”  There were two bright red anger spots forming on Jed’s cheeks.   The normally clear blue eyes were darkening.

“Nah Jed.  I knew you wouldn’ta.  Ya just should’a.  Weren’t your fault all the pepper got in the punch.  My idea.  I should’a said so.  Don’t know why I didn’t.”  Hannibal was playing with some of the hay, not meeting his cousin’s eyes. 

“Weren’t nobody’s fault, Han.  Just happened.   No cause for both of us to get a whippin’.  Figured Ma was so mad I was in for it anyway.  Anyway, I got chocolate cake, so it don’t matter no how.”

“Well, maybe.  But ya didn’t have to and ya did.  That’s why we’re partners.  We’re gonna be partners forever.  OK?”  This time Hannibal did meet his cousin’s eyes and his voice was firm.

“Yep.   Sure is good cake.  Your Ma got any more?”  Jed’s face was covered in chocolate. 

“Sure.  Lots.  Will your Ma let you come over?  Pa’s got a new book.  He won’t tell me what it is.”  Hannibal stood up.  “Let’s go get some more cake.  I got this idea for somethin’ we otta do at the picnic next Sunday.” 

Jed laughed and started out.  He looked back when Hannibal didn’t follow.  “Han?  You comin?”

“Here.”  He tossed the marble in the air.  “You better keep this.”

Jed caught it as it fell.  “My marble.  But Han, you won it.” 

“Yea, but you won it back.  It’s yours now.” 

************************

“Well at least you got the whippin’ for that stunt at the picnic.  Guess that evened us out.”  Kid grinned at his partner.  “Well for a while anyway.”

“Yea.  For a while.”  He paused.  “Getting’ late.  We’d better be movin’.”  Heyes looked at the boys, sleeping peacefully, the sun pinking their cheeks.  A cloud passed through his smile as he was reminded how temporary this particular moment was for he and Kid.  “Will, come on son, wake up.”  He gently shook the boy.  “Hey, it’s all right.  Only me.” 

The boy woke startled, a look of fear on his face.  He relaxed as he remembered where he was and who the dark haired man staring at him was. 

Heyes left his hand on the boy’s shoulder, reassuring him that everything was all right.  He glanced at Kid who frowned in response.  Boys that age shouldn’t have to wake up scared.’  Heyes wondered what had frightened him so badly. 

“Will?”  Tommy opened his eyes and searched for his friend, the same fear in his eyes.

“Easy son.”  Kid put a comforting hand on the boy’s shoulder. 

Both boys sat up, rubbing sleepy eyes.  Tommy suddenly jumped to his feet.  “We gotta get home.  We’re gonna get skinned.  Come on Will.”

“Here, hold on fellas.  We can give you a ride home if ya want.  Might be quicker.”  Heyes stood up and began pulling on clothes. 

“You’d do that?”  Will was gathering his own clothes, stuffing arms and legs into the various pieces. 

“Sure, why not.”  Something inside Heyes told him he had to answer in the affirmative.  Every instinct he had was telling him to say the exact opposite.

Kid was dressed and looking quizzically at his partner.  Taking all this time was not smart.  Not with the posse somewhere out there.  He wondered what was driving Heyes this time.  Something always was. 

“Well let’s go then.  Which way?”  The boys were pulled up behind the two men, the jar of tadpoles safely in front of Will. 

“Just over that rise.”  Tommy said and pointed. 

The boys hung on as Heyes and Curry urged the horses on.  It only took minutes to reach the house.  Bigger than they expected, painted a crisp white, with carefully tended with flowers in the window boxes.

A tall, thin man stood at the opening to a barn off to the right.  His demeanor was one that said clearly he spent most of his forty some years tending a patch of land that seldom provided a reward. 

He watched the two boys swing down from the horses and walk meekly towards him. 

Two large dogs of some indeterminate breed had not moved from their prone position on the porch till they saw the two boys.  They took off as though they hadn’t seen their friends for years, barking and jumping on them. 

Will was trying to push one of them off him.  “Cut it out Dusty, I got tadpoles.” 

The dog stopped and looked at the jar as though understanding.  He sniffed at it and looked at the boy clearly informing him that this was uninteresting.   

The other dog was licking Tommy’s face, the boy laughing at the eagerness. 

The dog’s ears stood up at a shuffle in the bushes.  They bounded off to chase whatever small animal was foolish enough to tread on their territory.  

“Take it the fishing was better than chores today.  That about right Will?”  The man spoke to the younger boy.  He didn’t seem angry. 

“No Pa.  I mean yes Pa.  I mean, we found tadpoles Pa.”  Will held up the jar. 

For a moment the slightest glimpse of a smile crossed the man’s drawn face.  He studied the small creatures swimming inside the jar.  “Good batch of ‘em, too.  All right, we’ll talk about chores later.  Go on inside now boys.  Your Ma’s still got some things for you to do ‘fore dinner.”

“Yes sir.  Come on Will.”  Tommy cocked his head towards the house. 

They’d only gone a few steps when he stopped.  “Thanks.”  He looked at Heyes and Curry.  He looked like he wanted to say more, but just nodded and walked slowly to the house. 

The man walked slowly over to where Heyes and Curry stood, next to their horses.  “Thank you for bringing the boys home.”  He looked carefully at them as though deciding whether trust was a commodity he could spare on them. Somehow the tied down guns didn’t match the gentleness, no the longing in the eyes he looked into.  He decided to trust his instinct.   He wondered if maybe these two men weren’t the answer to an almost forgotten prayer.  “Robert MacIntyre.”  He extended his hand towards Kid.  “Dinner isn’t much, but you’re welcome to join us.” 

“Thaddeus Jones, Mr. MacIntyre.  Wouldn’t want to put you out any.  My partner and I’ll just be on our way.”  Kid had just started to turn his horse when Heyes stopped him.

“Joshua Smith.”  Heyes grasped the man’s hand.  ”If it isn’t any trouble.  We’ve been ridin’ a long while.  It’d be nice to stop for a while.”  He sounded weary again. 

“Joshua?”  Kid turned his horse back so he could face Heyes.  “Thought there was a big poker game you wanted to get to.”  He met his cousin’s eyes.  Heyes was tired.  The dark shadows around those darker eyes had reappeared.   

“Game can wait a while.  If you’re sure we’re not intruding on you and your family, we’d be pleased to share dinner with you.”  There was an almost desperate eagerness in Heyes voice. 

The man nodded.  “Looks like we’re due for some more rain.  Best put your horses in the barn.  You’re welcome to stay the night if you like.  Barn’s dry and plenty comfortable.”  The man started towards the house.  “I’ll tell the wife.”

Kid watched Heyes walk his horse towards the barn.  He quickened his pace to catch up with him.  “You wanna tell me what’s goin’ on?” 

Heyes ignored the question.  “Seems like a nice family don’t it Kid?”  He kept walking.  “Nice of him to offer us dinner and a place to stay.”

“Heyes, talk to me.  I know you.  Somethin’s eatin’ at you.  You gonna make me work at it?”  He grabbed Heyes’ arm to stop him. 

“Doesn’t always have to be a reason, Kid.  Can’t it just be a nice home cooked dinner and some friendly conversation.  Just for a while.  Not to be running away from something.”  He looked at Kid imploring him to understand what he did not want to speak.  Then he moved off.   

Kid was silent.  He watched Heyes continue into the barn.  He looked out at the empty, quiet countryside.  They’re out there, Heyes.  I can just feel ‘em.  Hope you find what you’re lookin’ for quick.’  He breathed deeply.  ‘Well, your luck’s holdin’ anyway.  Smells be a bad storm.’  He looked up at the masses of dark clouds that had blown across the sky.  Thunder rumbled in the distance. 

He walked his horse into the barn looking around as he entered.  A mule in one stall and a colt in another.  Two empty stalls.   He led his horse into the one next to where Heyes was.   “Got lucky.  No posse’ll be out in the storm that’s comin’.”  He slung the saddle over the railing separating the two stalls.

“Nope.”  Heyes started towards the door.

“Heyes.” 

“It’s nothin’ Kid.  Let’s go.  I’ll bet we get chicken.  Fried chicken.”  Heyes turned back to him.  ‘Please Kid, just don’t ask any more questions.  I’m just tired.  Just one night.’ 

Kid read Heyes’ face.  Heyes would tell him when he was ready.  He was stubborn as the mule that occupied the third stall in the barn.  He grinned.  “With apple pie, right?”  ‘In time, Heyes, as usual.’ Kid muttered to his cousin’s back.  “And vanilla ice cream.”  He caught up with Heyes, forcing a laugh he did not entirely feel. 

Heyes smiled.  “Sure hope so.” 

They knocked at the door. 

The woman who opened it was in her mid forties, small, pretty and smiling at the two strangers who stood on her porch.  They immediately took their hats off.  She glanced down at the guns on their hips but said nothing.  The two dogs sniffed at the strangers.  Heyes absently scratched Dusty’s head. 

 “Come on in boys.”

Heyes stepped inside, but Kid remained on the porch.  When he did enter he had his gunbelt in his hand.  “Ma’am?  Where should I put this?” 

Heyes had grinned at Kid’s action, but he quickly untied the thong at his thigh and unbuckled his own belt.

The woman smiled at their actions and pointed towards a row of hooks by the front door.  “Ann, Ann MacIntyre.  Pleased to know you both.”

“Joshua Smith, ma’am and my friend’s Thaddeus Jones.”  He handed his gunbelt to Kid who hung them both up. 

“Robert tells me you gave our son and his cousin a ride home.  That was very thoughtful.  We’re glad you can join us for dinner.  Now you both go get washed up – right through there.   Dinner’ll be on the table in a few minutes.” 

“Thank you ma’am.  If you’re sure we’re not putting you or your family out any.”  Kid still was worrying about the posse. 

“Not at all.  There’s always room for friends at our table.”  

************************

Ann MacIntyre was putting plates on the table when the two men returned.  There was no sign of her husband or the two boys.  “You just sit there Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith, why don’t you sit next to him.  Kid sat where the woman pointed.  Heyes did the same.  They watched her finish setting the table.

“Can we help ma’am?”  Heyes straightened a glass was wobbled on the brink of falling. 

“Why thank you.  But I’m just about done.  You boys look tired.  You just rest right there and have some of this lemonade. 

They held out their glasses awkwardly, almost unused to the simple kindness offered by this woman.  She smiled at them and filled their glasses.  “Won’t be but another moment.”

“Nice family.”  Heyes surveyed the room.  It was big, combination parlor and dining room.  They sat with their backs to the wall on one of the four benches that ringed a large plank table which was placed against one wall. 

“Yea, Heyes.  Real nice.”  He let what he was about to say drop.  It wouldn’t have made a difference now.  Heyes would talk when he was ready. 

Robert MacIntyre entered the room carrying a large platter heaped with fried chicken.  His wife followed with a basket of biscuits and a bowl of gravy. 

Heyes and Curry smiled.  Their mouths had started watering at the first smell of dinner. 

A side door opened and Tommy and Will bounded into the room. 

“That smells good, Ma.  Can I have the drumstick?”  Will took his place on the bench opposite Kid. 

“Yes, Will you can have a drumstick.  Tommy will you go get the vegetables, please?”  The woman set the gravy down next to the chicken.  She handed the biscuits to Heyes.  “Help yourself, Joshua.  It is all right if I call you by your given names isn’t it.  Robert and I aren’t as formal as some.”

“Oh yes ma’am.  That’s just fine.  Thaddeus and I aren’t exactly formal ourselves.”  Heyes helped himself to a warm biscuit, holding it so he could savor the small of the fresh baked bread. 

They held hands while grace was said.  The last moment of quiet during dinner.  As soon as ‘amen’ was heard, the boys erupted with stories of the swimming race and tadpoles and cloud animals.  The two outlaws shared real laughter for the first time in as long as they could both remember. 

Both Heyes and Kid found themselves relaxing and joining in the conversation as though they’d known these people for years.  Kid occasionally glanced at Heyes.  He seemed all right.  The famous Hannibal Heyes silver tongue was absent.  There was no blarney here.  This was just Heyes.  ‘Maybe their stopping would turn out all right; it was ‘only’ one night after all’.

The MacIntyres talked freely about the sudden storm, the town nearby, the problem with the neighbor, the Church Social on Sunday. 

Heyes and Kid learned that Robert and Ann MacIntyre were farmers in a place didn’t seem to want to be hospitable to farmers.  The land didn’t produce enough crops to sell and the stock seemed barely able to survive.  Everything seemed so hard, they found they had to take joy where they could find it or when it found them.  Like when the colt came.  Yes, the colt.  He was special. 

Ann sent the men off to the parlor area while she cleared the dishes.  “I’ll have a berry cobbler ready for dessert in no time.  You all just go on and rest a spell.” 

Ann MacIntyre had studied her two guests carefully throughout dinner.  She noted how they spoke with Robert and how they listened to him.  How both men teased the boys.  How the one called Joshua could spin tales that had the boys captivated.  And how the one called Thaddeus, every so often when he thought no one was looking would glance at his friend.  Protective like.  She decided she liked these two young men.  And that she trusted them.   She was used to caring for those left behind. That’s how Tommy came to live with them

The four adults continued their friendly conversation as they finished up the cobbler while the boys sat at the table playing checkers.   

“Ma’am, that’s just about the best cobbler I’ve ever had.”  Kid was chasing the last bit of crust around on his plate. 

“Well thank you Thaddeus.  I must say you two boys can do a meal proud.”  She rose and collected the plates.  “The ladies who manage to lasso you two will have their work cut out for them.  And I imagine there’ll be a lot of those ladies at the Social on Sunday.” 

The men smiled. 

“Never mind that Ann,”  Robert MacIntyre spoke jovially to his wife.  “It’s the race that’ll be exciting.  That colt out in the barn stands a good chance of winnin’.” 

 “He’s mine.”  Tommy spoke quietly.  “I’m gonna race him on Sunday.  And we’re gonna beat that stupid horse of Mr. Carter’s.”  There was a fierce determination in his voice that no one missed. 

“Now you boys will stay for the Social and the race, won’t you?  Plenty of pretty girls would like to have a dance with you two.”  Ann put her hand on Tommy’s shoulder as she picked up the remaining berry stained plates.  The boy looked up at her; his anger fading at her touch. 

In unison came “No ma’am, don’t think we can.” And “Why sure, ma’am.”  Neither missed the interaction between woman and child. 

Heyes and Kid exchanged glances and wordless comments.  Heyes saying ‘Kid, we gotta stay, I don’t know why’; Kid saying ‘there’s a posse out there Heyes, are you crazy?’ 

“Good.  That’ll be wonderful. Not nearly enough handsome young men hereabouts.  Now you boys can bed down right in here if you like.  That barn’s damp and cold.  Tommy, Will.  Time for bed.”  It seemed that Ann had made their decision for them. 

“Aw Ma can’t we stay up longer.”  Will knew it was a useless argument even though he had to try.      

“Me too Aunt Ann?”  Tommy had just the tiniest bit of hope in his voice that he’d be treated as an adult, being almost thirteen.  Not to be.  She gave him just enough of a smile to tell him maybe in a year or so. 

The boys trudged towards an open door off the parlor, sighing mightily as they closed the door behind them.

“Seem like real nice boys, Mrs. MacIntyre.”  Heyes accepted a cup of coffee from the woman.

“It’s Ann, Joshua.  Oh they are.  Good boys.”  She picked up some mending.

“Tommy’s a handful, but then again with what that boy’s been through, no wonder.”  Robert MacIntyre had been quietly smoking his pipe, studying the two men who were now their guests.  He was a simple man.  A few years older than his wife.  He lived by his instincts and his love of his family.  He judged these two men friends.  “This part of the world has been pretty rough.  Tommy’s folks got caught up in a situation with Hank Carter.  Owns the property all around here.  Seems there was supposed to be a railroad spur going through James’ property.  That was Tommy’s Pa.

Heyes’ jaw tightened at the last words, ‘was’ Tommy’s Pa.  Kid looked down into his coffee.  

“Carter found out about it and tried to buy the property.  Beth and James, well they just wanted a place for their family.  They refused.  Mysterious fire killed ‘em all.  Tommy was over here with Will.  They’d helped birth the colt that day.  The colt had been promised to Tommy for his birthday.  Will…, well we couldn’tve separated those two if we’d tried.”

“Thank God he was here, or we’d have lost him too.”  There was a catch in Ann’s voice as she spoke, and she looked at the door behind which the two boys slept. 

Heyes’ deep brown eyes darkened, “Were the men caught?”  The edge in his voice was apparent to everyone in the room.  Sadness tinged with anger.  From somewhere deep in his heart.

Kid looked up from his coffee at the voice.  He knew the memory that Heyes had just relived. 

 “No, son.  Everyone knew.  There was just no proof.”  Carl looked hard at Heyes.  He knew at that moment he’d made the right decision about these two men. 

“Law didn’t do anything?”  Kid’s voice was more resigned.  Like he’d seen it before and almost expected it to happen. 

“Wasn’t anything much they could do.  Sheriff Mercer came by.  He talked to folk.  There just wasn’t anything that proved who did it.  None of Carter’s men would talk.  Can’t blame them.  They all knew he just killed a man, his wife and baby.  Didn’t stand to reason they figured he wouldn’t just up and kill them if they said anything.”  He stopped.  “You two all right?” 

He was staring at Kid’s hands clenched in white knuckled fists. 

“Fine, Mr. MacIntyre.  Just been a long few days.”  Kid consciously tried to relax his hands.  He heard Heyes trying to do the same with his breathing.  He doubted that they were succeeding all that well.

“Mr. MacIntyre,  Mrs. MacIntyre, ‘fore you invite us into your home, I gotta tell you that we’re wanted men.”  Heyes voice was a sad whisper.  His eyes closed as if waiting to be told to leave.  

Kid, sitting next to him started.  His body tensed, then relaxed.  Without looking at his partner he understood and continued.  “And that there’s a posse out there looking for us.  Your family might be in danger if we stay.”

Without waiting to be told, Heyes sighed and rose from the sofa. “That’s why we’ll be heading’ out tonight.”  He looked at the closed door that lead to the boy’s bedroom.  “You’ll tell the boys good bye for us.  And to keep looking for dragons.”  He shook the man’s hand and nodded at the woman who sat staring at him.  He started for the door. 

Kid followed him out, nodding at the couple who had not said a word.  They retrieved their hats, coats and gunbelts from the post by the door.  “Sorry if we’ve caused you any trouble.”  Kid fixed his hat on.  They both carried the gunbelts out of the house pulling the door closed behind them.

They stood on the porch and wordlessly, strapped the belts back on.

 “Don’t say it Kid.  I had to.”  Heyes jammed his hat on and walked quickly by Kid on his way to the barn.  Regardless of the warm day, the evening chill hit him.  He looked up at the sky.  The moon casting faint light as it hid behind the clouds.  The rain’d come soon.  He buttoned his worn trail coat and started forcing his hands into his dark gloves.

Kid watched him walk off and shook his head.  “Heyes.”  He moved quickly to catch up with his partner.  “I know.  Doesn’t matter.  We should’a headed out hours ago anyway.”  Catching the look from the dark eyes, he grasped Heyes’ arm, “You know what I meant.” 

Heyes relaxed and smiled.  “If we start now, we should be far enough away in a couple of hours to make sure these folk don’t have any trouble, Kid.”

“Heyes, what’s botherin’ you.  Ever since we saw those boys, you been acting strange.”  He paused, not knowing if he should open the wound.  “You rememberin’?” 

Heyes flinched at Kid’s voice.  It was the voice of the little boy who clutched at his older cousin a thousand summers ago and whispered,  “Han, what’s wrong, you’re cryin’.” 

Kid pulled his hand away, stung by the action.  “Heyes, what the devil’s wrong with you?” 

Heyes looked into the eyes of the man he’d known all his life.  Trusted with his life.  Protected with his life.  What could he tell him?  That seeing those two little boys playing so innocently and knowing what happened to Tommy had jarred loose memories he didn’t want.  Hurts he had stored deep inside his heart and promised he wouldn’t look ever again.  He was trying to push it all back out of his conscious.  But it wouldn’t go.  He couldn’t ask Kid to share that.  He wouldn’t.

 “Nothin’ Kid.  I guess I’m just more tired than I thought.  You’re right.  We should’a moved out hours ago.  Sorry.  I guess I just got sidetracked.  Let’s go.  We’ll find a place to camp for the night and get a good start in the morning.”  He forced himself to smile and throw what he hoped was a nonchalant arm around Kid’s shoulders.  “You comin’?” 

‘You’re tryin’ too hard Heyes.’ Kid thought.  “Sure, better for all if we get movin’.  Shame about Tommy’s folks though.   Man shouldn’t get away with that kind of thing.”  He shook Heyes’ arm off, walking quickly ahead. 

Kid may have sounded nonchalant, but Heyes knew how angry he was.  How disturbed. Heyes followed more slowly.  ‘No Kid.  No man should get away with that sort of thing.  Ever.’  He shivered in the evening’s chill.  At least that’s why he told himself he was shivering. 

They worked in silence; handing items back and forth to one another.  Both determined to let the other set the pace.  The two dogs had given up watching them and returned to their own sleeping spots. 

“Boys.  Hold up there.”  Robert MacIntyre’s voice made them both jump.

“Somethin’ wrong?”  Kid frowned at his lack of watchfulness.  He didn’t even hear the man approach the barn.

“No, no. Not at all.  Been talking to the wife.  No sense in you boys running off tonight.  Too dark to get far and too cold to be comfortable sleepin’ outside.  And that storm should be hittin’ anytime now.  Anyway, the boys’ll be disappointed if you’re gone when they wake up.  Come on back to the house.  Ann’s gonna make some cocoa.  That should take the chill off.”  He turned towards the house.

“But Mr. MacIntyre…”  Heyes called to the man, stopping him.  “…you’ll be putting your family in danger.  We, well we can’t let you do that.” 

“Son, we’re in no more danger if you stay than our just staying around here anyway.  And whatever you boys did, you showed a kindness to the boys.  And that shows me more about your true nature than words on a wanted poster.  And the name’s Robert.” 

“Don’t you even want to know what we did?”  Kid had walked over and joined the two men.

“Nope.  No need.  You can tell me ‘fore you leave, if you’ve a mind to.  But won’t make any difference.  You’re both welcome in my home.  Now hurry up and get your things settled again.  You can take what you need to feed your horses.  But you’d best be quick, ‘fore Ann’s out here.  One thing you don’t want is one of her scoldings.    Robert smiled softly at the two before he left the barn.

They stood in the doorway for a moment, watching him walk back to the house. 

“Heyes?”  Kid’s voice broke the still.

“I know.  We should leave.  Danger for us and for them if we stay.”  Heyes hadn’t made eye contact with the other man.

“But…”  Kid knew the answer.  He just hoped Heyes was ready to tell him why they’d be staying. 

“But…”  Heyes did finally look at Kid.  “But, I just gotta feeling we were supposed to be here.  Darned if I know why.  But I can’t leave.  Not now.  Not yet.  You go on, maybe.  Safer if we split up anyway.” 

Kid smacked his gloved fist against the barn.  “One of these days Heyes, you’re gonna say something plain stupid like that and I’m gonna have to flatten you.  Anyway, think I’m gonna leave you here with all that fried chicken and cobbler.”  He walked back to his horse and began unsaddling the animal. 

Heyes watched him for a while, grateful for the reprieve Kid had offered.  He didn’t even know if he could explain why he wanted, hell, needed to stay.  He didn’t want to try right now.  Joining Kid in the stalls, he started working on his own horse.  Outside a lightening flash lit the sky.  The rain started pounding on the roof.  “Thanks.” 

Kid ignored it.  “Let’s just get movin’.  It’s gonna get nothing but wetter the longer we’re out here. 

They finished tending and feeding the horses and clutching bedrolls and saddlebags, made a run for the porch.  They took the steps two at a time and stood shaking water from hats and boots.  The door was open and the parlor looked warm and very inviting. 

Kid started unbuckling his gunbelt.  Heyes seemed frozen, staring inside.  “You planning on stayin’ out here?  Heyes?”  He stood up and looked at his cousin.  “Heyes?  ‘Are’ you ok?  You’re shakin’”  Again, he put a hand on the other man’s arm. 

“Just cold, Kid.  It’s freezin’ out here.”  A forced smile put an end to the inquiry.  Heyes unbuckled his belt and entered the house. 

Kid sighed.  ‘OK, Heyes.  Your way.’ 

Ann MacIntyre had covered the large braided rug that lay in front of the fire with a colorful, wedding ring quilt.  They all laughed when the two men looked at it, then at her. 

“It should be warm enough for you right here.”  Ann handed them pillows and extra blankets.  “Sorry, we’d let you use the boy’s room, but they’re sound asleep.  I hate to disturb them.”

“No ma’am.  This is better than we’re used to.  Thank you for letting us stay.”  Kid has set down his bedroll and hat. 

“Well, here’s some nice hot cocoa.  Should put you right to sleep.”  She handed them two large mugs, chocolate scented steam rising from each. 

“Thank you ma’am.”  Heyes caught her glance.  “Ann.” 

“Night boys.”  Some sudden impulse made her reach out and hug first Heyes, then Kid.  “Sleep well.” 

“Night, we’ll talk more in the morning.”  Robert MacIntyre took his wife’s hand as they walked to their bedroom.

The two men stood alone in the parlor for a long moment.  Clutching pillows in one hand, hot cocoa in the other.  They eyes followed the couple as they left the room, but they didn’t speak, even after the door closed. 

Kid raised the cup to his lips and took a noisy slurp.  Heyes looked over and started laughing.  Kid tried to look injured, but failed in a fit of his own laughter.  “Heyes, you might just be a genius after all.” 

They quickly got out of boots, jackets, shirts, looking at each other deciding if it would be proper to take their trousers off too.  They decided that they’d probably be awake before the family anyway, and that they’d have plenty of time to get dressed. 

“What about the posse?”  Kid asked.

Heyes opened the front door a bit.  “Still rainin’ pretty hard.  They won’t be doin’ any ridin tonight.  Should be safe enough.”  He closed the door wishing there was a latch. 

Propped up against the sofa, covered with blankets Ann had left them, they sipped the cocoa. 

“Heyes?”  Kid was tentative. 

“Yea Kid?” 

“You ok?” 

“Sure. 

“You wanna talk about it?”

“Nothin’ to talk about Kid.  Just felt like stoppin’.  Good luck we found the boys, might never have met the MacIntyres.  That’s all.”  He put his empty mug down and burrowed into the pillow, rolling over to tuck himself in the blankets.  “Night Kid.” 

Kid watched his friend for a minute.  “Night Heyes.”  In another minute he too was wrapped up in the blankets.  He was asleep almost instantly. 

Heyes opened his eyes and stared at the blanketed bundle next to him.  He wanted to tell Kid what was going on.   He wanted to tell him about that day.  He’d wanted to tell someone for so long.  But he couldn’t.  He carried it in his heart for all those years, alone.  Seeing the boys was like seeing an echo.  Seeing he and Kid, before they had to grow up.  Before he had to grow up.  Meeting Robert and Ann and hearing about Tommy’s family had jarred loose a piece of the wall Hannibal Heyes had built around his heart.  A piece that called out, home.  Home. 

He willed the word out of his mind.  Home’s gone, ya damn fool.  There’s no home left.’  He punched the pillow and squeezed his eyes closed, concentrating on the crackle from the fire and only that safe noise.  He finally dropped into a fitful sleep. 

************************

They awoke to the smell of bacon and of coffee.  The sounds of people trying to be quiet, but needing to get the day started. 

“Heyes, you awake?”  Kid whispered.

“Am now.  Something smells great.”  Heyes sat up and ran a hand through his dark hair. 

“Yea, I’m starved.”  Kid was up, wrapped in a blanket, obviously looking for something. 

“Hungry?  You?”  He ignored Kid’s glare.  “You lose something.”  Heyes watched Kid poke around in the blankets and the quilt.

“Yep.  You too, less I miss my guess.  Didn’t we have clothes around here last night?”

“Huh?  What d’ya…course we had clothes.  Why they’re right over…”  He didn’t see the pile of clothes, they’d left on the sofa.  He jumped up and started pulling the make shift bed apart. 

“Heyes, there’s nothing there.” 

“Morning boys?  Best get washed up, breakfast is about ready.”  Ann MacIntyre came into the room smiling; she carried coffee for the both of them.

“Morning ma’am.”  Kid reached for the coffee.  “Uh, Heyes…”  He nodded at his friend who was alternating glances between the empty sofa and the cup of coffee.

“What?  Oh morning ma’am.”  Heyes reached for his coffee.

“Uh Heyes.”  Kid grinned at him then turned back to Ann.  “You’ll have to pardon my partner, ma’am.  It takes him at least three cups of coffee to wake up.”

“Huh, what’re you talking about…”  He froze as he realized what Kid was grinning at; he was only wearing his long johns.  His face turning a deep red as he tried to juggle the coffee, grab for a blanket and hastily drape it around him.  “Thanks partner, ya might of mentioned something.”  He muttered to Kid.

Ann laughed.  “I washed your clothes this morning.  Hours ago.  The sun came up bright hours ago.  They should be nearly dry.  You can use some of Robert’s if you don’t have other things.” 

Heyes sipped the coffee.  “Thank you, but you didn’t have to do that.”  His face was still red; he was trying to pull the blanket tighter around himself. 

The woman just laughed again.  “Land sakes, it was just a few pieces of washing.  I did mend the tear on your shirt though Thaddeus.  I hope it’ll be all right.  Now you boys just take your time and get washed up.  Robert and the boys have been up for hours.  I’ll get you breakfast whenever you’re ready.”

“Thanks Ann.  Sorry to be putting you to all this trouble.”  Kid handed the cup back to her. 

“No trouble at all Thaddeus, Joshua.  It’s nice having someone around during the day.  I’ll be in the kitchen.”  She collected the coffee cup from Heyes and returned to the kitchen. 

“Some special reason you failed to mention that I was only in…well, that I wasn’t exactly dressed for a lady?”  Heyes glared at Kid as he hissed the words.  His face was still red. 

“Nope.”  Kid dropped the blanket and picked up his saddle bags.  “Ya know Heyes, you should try not bein’ so proddy in the morning.  Ladies don’t much like that in a fella.”  He smiled broadly at the astonishment on Heyes face, re-wrapped himself in the blanket and sauntered off. 

Heyes thought of the million things he should be saying to Kid.  All the comments.  The come backs.  The insults.  Another wave of breakfast smells wafted by him.  Deciding that while getting even was better than getting mad,  he figured he could work on that after breakfast.  He hitched the blanket a bit tighter around his waist, picked up his own saddlebags and stumbled after Kid. 

************************

Half hour later they were back at the dining table, shaved, dressed and hungry.

“Here boys, you just start on these.  There’s plenty more batter if you’re still hungry.  And I can whip them up in a minute.”  She set a platter of hot cakes on the table, next to a pitcher of syrup. 

“Heyes, we gotta get outta here.”  Kid was forking the cakes onto his plate.

They stopped as the women returned and left another plate stacked with crisp bacon on the table between them. 

“Why?  You seem to be doin’ all right?”  Heyes continued after she’d gone.  He watched the stack dwindle on the platter as it grew on Kid’s plate. 

“Why?  Cause last night I didn’t even hear Robert come into the barn.  And this morning Ann managed to get close enough to take our clothes and I kept sleeping.  It’s too comfortable here.  I’m losing my edge.  That’s dangerous. 

“Nah you’re not losing anything Kid.  I didn’t hear anything either.”  Heyes finally managed to put the remaining hot cakes on his plate and was pouring syrup on them.  “We were just so tired, we wouldn’t have heard the whole house coming down.  Nothin’ to worry ‘bout.” 

“Should’a heard Heyes.  Tired don’t make any difference to a posse.”  Kid directed a hard look at Heyes, and went back to eating.

“Look Kid.  It was my fault.  I practically strong-armed you into stayin’, even though it would’a been safer to leave.  We haven’t eaten or slept proper in weeks.  Don’t go blamin’ yourself.  Anyway, nothin’ happened.”  He tried to make the smile on his face real. 

“Well, you two are certainly serious for such a beautiful morning.”  Ann returned and collected the now empty plates.  “Are you still hungry?  I can get some more of these hotcakes.”  

“No, thanks Ann.  That was enough to fill up even my partner over there.”  This time the smile was real.  He liked this woman.  He liked her family.  But they couldn’t stay.  Not for the reasons Kid had voiced.  But just as certainly, they had to leave.  “Actually, we’ll be leaving soon as we help you clear this up.”  Heyes actually seemed relaxed as he spoke.

“Oh, I thought, I mean I hoped, well,  The boys…will be disappointed.  Must you leave?”  She was clearly surprised and disturbed by Heyes’ statement.  

“What my friend means, Ann, is we’ll be leavin’ as soon as we get the race is cleared up.  Never missed a good horse race.  See no reason to start now.”  Kid hadn’t looked at Heyes.  Just as Heyes knew they had to leave, Kid just knew that they had to stay.  Whatever the risk.   “Where are the boys, anyway?”  He avoided the brown eyes he knew were fixed on him.

“Oh..oh, that’s wonderful.”  The relief was apparent in her voice.  “Why the boys are with the colt.”  She laughed.  “Where else would they be?  You leave all this.  Go on now.  I’m just glad you’re going to be stayin’.”

          Kid pushed the bench back and got up, giving one last yawn and stretching.  “Well ma’am, given what a good cook you are and how you don’t seem to mind feeding two hungry strangers, a man’d have to be a plum fool to be in a hurry to leave.  If you’re sure we can’t help you,  maybe we’ll just take a better look at that colt.”   He grinned, as he walked by her, completely ignoring Heyes

          For his part, Heyes hadn’t moved.  He’d just stared at Kid as though he was a complete stranger.  Finally he got up, nodded to the woman and walked quickly out to find Kid.  He had to speed up to equal the long strides Kid was taking towards the barn.

          Catching up with him just in front of the structure, he grabbed Kid’s arm to stop him.  “What just happened?  I thought you were in such an all fired hurry to leave, and now you want to stay.  What happened to the posse and the danger?  And that edge you were losin’?” 

          “Changed my mind.”  He smiled affably and kept walking. 

          Once again Heyes caught up with him.  “Ya know, you’re being exasperatin’ on purpose.” 

“Heyes, I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.  I’m just goin’ in there to take a look at that colt.”  He took a couple of steps.   “Anyway, when it comes to exasperatin’ I learned from an expert.”

          Anything Heyes might have said was cut off by Tommy and Will bursting out of the barn and running up to the two men. 

          “Are you gonna stay to see the race.  Tommy’s gonna ride Tailspin.  That’s his name, Tailspin, cause he used to chase his tail.”  Will had grabbed Kid’s hand and was dragging him towards the barn. 

          “You gonna stay?”  Tommy face said he still hadn’t made up his mind about Heyes.  “Tailspin’s faster than anything around here.  He’ll only let me ride him.” 

          “Pretty special, huh.”  Heyes squinted through the morning sun at the boy.  “Well I guess we’d better to take a look.” 

          Tommy nodded, choosing to walk in front, rather than beside the older man.

          The colt was a deep red, his mane and tail shone copper bright.  It fidgeted at all the attention, flicking it’s tail and stamping the ground.  He looked like he was ready to break out of the stall and run with or without a rider.  Will moved a bit closer to Kid. 

          “Easy, Windy.”  Tommy walked confidently to the animal and gave him the remnants of an apple he carried in his pocket.  “Call him that, cause he’s faster than the wind.  Isn’t he somethin’?”  There was a mixture of pride and defiance in his voice. 

“Sure is son.  Looks like he’s ready to run.”  Heyes joined the boy at the stall.  He raised his hand to stroke the colt’s mane.  The colt knocked his hand away.  “Seems to be a one man horse.”  He tried again to touch the animal with the same result.

          “Yep.  No one else can ride him.  Just me.  You wanna watch?”  Tommy shrugged off Heyes’ offer of help with the saddle. 

          “You gonna run him?”  Heyes actually managed to get a hand on the colt without it knocking him away. 

          “Yea, we make him run everyday.  I help.”  Will moved over to the stall. 

“Well, let’s see what he can do.”  Kid opened the stall gate. 

          Tommy took the horse out of the barn.  He stopped for a moment, not wanting to ask for help, but finally accepting Heyes’ assist in mounting. 

          “I’ll time you.  From here around those trees out there, then back around to here.  That’s about a mile.  Sound about right?”  Heyes had pulled his pocket watch out and had it up to his ear. 

          Tommy threw an unsure look at Robert MacIntyre who’d joined the group.  Tailspin stamped the ground and pulled at the bit.  The deep red of his coat shone in the sun.  He’d made his decision. 

The man wanted to say no.  He’d lost his best friends.  He wasn’t sure he was ready for Tommy to do anything as risky as this race.  He also saw the need in Tommy’s eyes.  The need to prove himself.  The need to grow up.  All he could find to say was, “Your decision son.  He ready to race?” 

          The boy smiled. “Yes sir.”

          Heyes nodded at Kid.  “All right.  Thaddeus, you call it.” 

          Kid, still with an arm around Will’s shoulder, moved up closer to the horse.  Will pulled back enough for Kid to stop. 

          The boy looked up at Kid.  “I’m not scared of him.” 

          Kid looked at the small face looking at him.  “Course not.  Wise man stays out of the way of a horse ready to race.  They get downright skittish.”

          The boy frowned as if considering Kid’s words.  Then grinned.  “Yep, that’s right.  Can’t get in Windy’s way.  Wouldn’t like that a’tall.” 

          “OK, you ready Tommy?”  At the boys nod, Kid called the start.  “Ready…set…go.” 

          Tommy took off in a blaze of dust.  The group watched the sun glint off the colt’s chestnut coat, copper mane and tail flying. 

          Will ran after, leaving the three men alone. 

          “Fine looking animal, Robert.”   Kid turned back first.

“Yes.  A miracle I suppose.  We just had work horses.  We took a mare in trade for some help we gave a couple a while back.  Didn’t seem anything out of the ordinary.  Didn’t know she was with foal.  Tommy’d done so much work around here, I got laid up some.  Well we promised him, it’d be his.  That night he and Will and I were with the mare.  The colt came out as beautiful as a sunrise.  All wobbly legs and coat, red as anyone’d even seen.  He and Tommy seemed to know they belonged together right off.   I think sometimes God made that happen, so as to help the boy get through what we found the next day.” 

          “And then he came to stay with you.”  Heyes hadn’t turned around, instead continuing to look at the horizon, the trees in the distance.  His voice was husky.  It sounded distant, even to himself.

          “He’s family.  Well close enough anyway.  We wanted more children.  Will came to us late.  Just never seemed to work out, that we’d have more.  Till Tommy.  He’s been a blessing for Will.”  His voice got quieter as he finished speaking. 

          All three men were staring at the trees.  Even Will had stopped moving.  The same thought running through their minds.  Too long.  He should’a come out the other side by now.’

          Heyes and Kid took off running, Robert following a split second behind them. 

          They skidded to a stop as they left the stand of trees, spotting horse and rider both down off to where the trees grew in a thick grove. 

          “No, not again.  Not now.”  Heyes mumbled and raced to the boy’s side.  “Kid…”  He lowered his head to the boy’s chest.  Kid and Robert were kneeling beside the boy.  “He’s breathing.  We got to get a doctor.”  He looked up, his face was ashen. 

          “Tommy…his arm…”  Robert was stroking the boy’s forehead.  “Broken.”  He was chewing on his lower lip, struggling to remain calm, more for Will than for anything or anyone else. 

          They turned when Tailspin moved, struggling to get up.  Kid went to him.  “Easy boy.”  He stroked the animal who seemed to calm down under his touch.

Will ran up, out of breath and shaking.  He saw Tommy and Tailspin, looking from one to another, he started crying, running first to his father and kneeling by his friend.  “Tommy, get up.  Tommy, please.”  He was choking out the words. 

          Robert put an arm around his son. He rose, pulling the boy up with him.  “Come with me Will.  Joshua and Thaddeus are gonna stay with Tommy.  We’re gonna go get the Doc.  He’ll help Tommy.”  MacIntyre looked at Heyes as if to ask if that was the truth.

          Heyes could only shrug.  His eyes were black with anger and something else. 

          “You promise, Pa?”  Will’s eyes were trained on his friend. 

          “Doc’ll do everything he can Will.  Wish I could promise, son.  Let’s go now.”  He nearly dragged the child away, trying it ignore his pleas to be allowed to stay with his friend. 

          When they were out of ear shot, Kid finally spoke.  “You know this wasn’t an accident.”  His voice was a study in controlled rage.

          “I figured.  How’s the horse.”  Heyes voice was cold, emotionless and icy.  It send a shiver up Kid’s spine.  That voice meant Heyes was ready to do something reckless.  If the boy was seriously hurt or if he died, there’d be no stopping Heyes. 

          “Stunned, by the look of it.”  He looked at the horse, still struggling to right itself.  Coaxing it gently, he managed to help the animal back to a standing position.  As if testing its legs, it wobbled slightly.  “How’s the boy?” 

          “Out cold.  I’m afraid to move him, Kid.”  Heyes took off his jacket and covered him.  He hadn’t moved from the child’s side, willing him to open his eyes.  “Tommy, can you hear me son?  If you can.  Hang on. Doc’s on his way.”  He had no reason to believe that the boy could hear him.  His own desperation just made him believe he could. 

          Kid moved to the other side of the boy.  They didn’t speak.  Just watched and listened for help to come. 

          It seemed like hours before they heard the sound of an approaching carriage.  It barely stopped before Will had jumped out and raced to where Tommy still lay unconscious.  Heyes caught him and held on. 

          “No, lemme go.  Tommy, wake up, please wake up.” 

Heyes felt a scream rise in his throat.  Something flooded over him, a wave of dizziness and nausea. For a moment he thought he was going to pass out.  He let go of Will and stood up.  He stumbled backwards into Kid, who caught him.  He pushed away, silencing Kid with a look.  “Not now” was all he choked out.  He started walking.  He didn’t hear Kid’s voice calling to him. 

The Doctor had ignored everything going on but the boy.  “Looks like a pretty bad concussion.  Arm’s busted.  You…”  He pointed at Kid.  “..can you carry him to the carriage.  I’d like to get that arm set, but I can examine him better at home.”

Kid watched Heyes’ stumbling backwards away from the scene.  As concerned as he was for his friend, he had no choice.  “Sure Doc.”  He gently lifted Tommy and carried him to the carriage.  He set him down and held the reins until the doctor, Robert and Will and gotten in.

          “Who’s gonna take care of Windy?”  Will asked in a very shaky voice.  “Tommy’s gonna be mad when he wakes up if no one’s taken care of him.”

 “I’ll take care of Tailspin.  Don’t worry, Will.”  Kid watched the carriage bounce slowly back down the path to the house.  He looked in the distance for his partner, but saw only a small figure running a jagged path away from him.  Or away from something. 

‘Heyes.  Ya gotta let me help you.’  His every instinct told him to go after the man.  To not let him be alone.  Kid looked back out to the empty land in front of him.  He could no longer see his friend.  ‘Heyes, where are you.’   The sigh that escaped his lips signaled resignation; acceptance of a decision made that he didn’t want to make.  He’d once again give Heyes some room.  Let him make the next play.  As usual.  Fighting back the anger and frustration he was feeling, he slowly walked Tailspin back to the house. 

************************

He was walking, faster and faster.  Then running.  Till there was no strength to run anymore.  He fell to his knees.  The ground rushed up at him.  He pounded at it, the sobs breaking from behind the wall he’d put up around his heart.  He heard Will’s voice crying out for Tommy to wake up.  It merged with another child’s voice that kept screaming.  ‘Ma, wake up.  Ma, please wake up.’  A child that died that day in Kansas. 

          There hadn’t been tears since that day.  The child named Hannibal had given way to the man named Heyes too many years early.  Hearing Will those words had struck Hannibal Heyes to the very core of his soul.  The tears he’d stopped crying, the ones he vowed never to cry again, now wouldn’t stop.  He stayed there, alone, finally allowing himself to grieve for that lost child. 

*****************

          He wasn’t sure how long he’d slept.  The tears had stopped somehow.  He didn’t remember falling asleep.  His eyes stung.  His face and shirt were still damp.  He ached everywhere.  He thought he might stay exactly where he was.  It was quiet. The echoes inside him were still. 

*****************

          Everyone looked up as he entered the house.  The doctor’s carriage was gone.  Robert and Kid sat in the parlor.  Will was at the table, restlessly pushing the checkers around on the checkerboard, watching the closed bedroom door. 

          “You all right, son?”  Robert asked.  He noted Heyes swollen eyes, still red. 

“Fine Robert.  How’s Tommy?”  Heyes took the cup of coffee Kid handed him with hands still shaking.  He wrapped them around the cup as though it would be able to stay the chill that still enveloped him.

          “Doc seems to think he’ll be fine.  He’ll need a lot of rest, though.” 

          “He won’t be able to ride Windy in the race.  That Hank Carter’s gonna win.  He hurt Tommy, I just know he did.”  Will swept the checkers off the table and ran out of the house. 

          Heyes didn’t say anything.  He just walked past everyone into the bedroom.  “Ann?”  He approached the woman sitting on the bed.  She held the boy’s hand in hers. 

          “He’s going to be fine Joshua.  We were so lucky.  Doc says he’ll need rest, but that he’ll be fine.  He woke up just a while ago.  Drifted off again.  Doc says not to leave him alone for a while.”  Fresh tears made tracks on her cheeks.  She hurriedly brushed them away.

          “Can I stay with him for a while?  I mean, if you’d like to rest some.”  He only met her eyes once, but couldn’t hold the connection. 

          “Joshua, are you all right?  She walked towards him and gently took the cup from between his clenched fingers.  “He’s going to be fine.  Are you?”

          He finally looked at her, a small smile working on his lips.  He nodded. 

          She rested her hand on his for a moment, returning the smile.  Then she brushed by him.

          He walked softly to the child’s bed and sat.  Not speaking or moving. 

          Ann watched him for a while.  ‘He’s so young to be carrying such troubles.’ 

          Hannibal sat by Tommy’s bedside for the rest of the afternoon.  He was vaguely aware of sounds outside.  Ann, came back and stayed for a while.  Robert brought in a horse carved in wood, one of Tommy’s favorite things, he said.  Kid brought him coffee and tried to make small talk.  The pain in Heyes’ eyes startled him.  He tried but didn’t have the words to ease that pain.  He refused dinner.  Said he wasn’t hungry, he’d rather stay with the boy.  The sounds from the other part of the house grew quieter.  Ann peeked in to say goodnight.  Heyes had fallen asleep, his head sharing the pillow with the boy.  He was curled up in a tight ball.  She watched him for a minute.  Choosing a comforter from a chest at the foot of the bed, she covered him.  His eyes blinked open, confusion apparent.  She smiled gently at him.  “Go back to sleep.  Rest easy, Joshua.”  She smoothed the dark hair from his forehead and watched his eyes flutter shut.  “Night, Ma” his voice a sleepy whisper.  She stayed there for another minute, looking up to find Kid watching them.  A sad and concerned look on his face. 

          “It’s all right, Thaddeus.  He can stay with Tommy tonight.  Will you be all right by yourself? 

          He looked surprised.  She wasn’t teasing him.  “Yes, ma’am.  Thanks.  You and Robert are taking an awful big chance, trusting us.  Well…,well, thanks.”  He bent over and kissed her gently on the cheek.

          She blushed pink.  “Don’t be silly.  Nothin’ more than anyone else would’a done.  Now you go on and get some rest.  We got some things to talk about in the morning.

*****************

          She awoke only hours later, to a soft moaning.  She thought it was Will, having a nightmare.  Leaving her bed quietly so as not to wake her husband, she walked to the boys’ room.  No, he was sound asleep.  She turned at the sound.  Tommy.  As she moved closer to the bed she saw it wasn’t Tommy at all.  He was sleeping peacefully.  “Joshua?  Hush now.  Everything’s all right.”  She whispered to him. 

          “Don’t go away, Ma.”  He mumbled, still asleep. 

         She almost left.  She watched his face, something, some long past terror shadowed it.  She reached down and put her arms around him, rocking him gently.  “I’m not going anywhere, son.  I’ll be here when you wake up.”  It seemed to quiet him.  She held him like that for a long while.  Until the shadows had passed. 

“Everything all right?”  Robert was awake, when Ann returned to bed.

          “It was Joshua, Robert.”  She pulled the covers up over her and turned towards her husband.  “Wanted or not, I think they’re good boys.  Somethin’s sure hurt them, somewhere along the line though.  Maybe we’re supposed to help them, and they’re supposed to help us.”  She closed her eyes and drifted back to sleep.

*****************

“Joshua!  Come on Joshua, wake up.” 

He awoke to someone shaking him.  For a moment he didn’t know where he was.  Or who was yelling at him.  He sat up.  Kid.’  “What, what’s wrong.  Is it the posse?  I can be ready in a minute.”    He relaxed as he saw the grin on the other man’s face.  Looking around he saw Tommy, awake now and looking at him curiously.  He remembered.  He looked downward and grinned.  “Tell me I didn’t fall asleep in here.” 

          “Ok I won’t tell you.  But you did.  Surprised Tommy got any sleep at all, the way you snore.  He keep you up, Tommy?”

          “Nope.  My head sure hurts.  My arm’s busted ain’t it?”  He knew what was coming.  His eyes welled up. 

          “Don’t worry ‘bout anything right now, son.  We’re gonna figure this all out.”  Heyes patted the boys arm, only slightly reassuring the child. 

          Ann came in with breakfast for Tommy.  “Morning Joshua.  Thaddeus.  Your breakfast is waitin on you.  Robert would like to talk to you.  Tommy, Will would like to have breakfast in here with you, if you like.” 

          “Not hungry Aunt Ann.”  Tommy rolled over and buried his face in the pillow. 

          “Well I’ll just leave it anyway.  Maybe Will can convince you to have some.”  She set the tray down and motioned for Heyes and Curry to follow her out.  Will entered as they left.

          Sitting around the breakfast table, the four adults didn’t even work on conversation.  They just ate. 

          “Well at least Tommy didn’t get hurt to bad.”  Kid chewed on a piece of toast.

          Ann brightened.  “Yes, he’ll be fine.  He’s just so disappointed.  He wanted to ride Tailspin in the race so badly.”

          “Truth be told, we have a lot riding on that race.  Purse isn’t big, but it’d be enough to tide us over some.  Would’a made it a whole lot easier.  Now, we’ll get by, but sure won’t be none extra.”  Robert’s look at his wife said that they’d been here before and that they’d manage.

          “What if Will rides Tailspin.”  Heyes suddenly planted his cup on the table.  “He’s small enough.”

          “Joshua, you know Will is terrified of that horse.  And Tailspin seems to know that.  He just shies away from Will.  Anyway, I won’t have any more of my children hurt.  We’ll make due.”  Ann was furiously shaking her head.

          “But what if he wanted to do it?  For Tommy, I mean.”  Heyes persisted.

          “No, Joshua.  And there’s an end to it.”  Ann studied the man carefully.

          “But I want to help.”  Will’s voice floated over the now quiet table.  He was standing in the room his arm supporting Tommy.  “I can do it.”  His voice was shaky.

          “No.  I won’t risk it.  Bad enough Tommy’s getting hurt.  I won’t stand by and see it happen to you too.” 

          “But he won’t get hurt, Aunt Ann.  If I talk to Windy, he’ll let Will ride him.  You gotta.  If Windy don’t race, that Hank Carter wins.  Ya can’t let him do that Aunt Ann.  You just can’t.  Please.”  Tommy was so pale.  He leaned heavily against the younger boy. 

          Pain crossed her face.  She looked pleadingly at her husband.  “Robert…”

          “Will do you really want to do this?  You’re not scared of Tailspin?”  Robert beckoned for the boy to come to him. 

          “No Pa, I’m scared.  But I gotta do this for Tommy.  I can do it Pa.  I can.  I can ride Windy and I can win the race.  I gotta.  Please Pa.  Ma?  Please.” 

          “And Tommy.  You think you’re strong enough to help?”  He watched his wife look away knowing the answer.

          “Yes sir.”

          “And we’ll help too Robert.  In any way we can.”  Heyes pushed back from the table.  “We’d best start.  There’s gonna be a lot to do.”  He walked by Ann.  “Ma’am?  Don’t worry.  We’ll see to it he don’t get hurt.  I promise.  You comin’ Will?”  He held the door open.

          “Yes sir.”  Will ran through it and straight to the barn.

          Kid caught up with Heyes.  “You know what you’re doin’?” 

          “Nope.  Just know it’s gotta be done.  Kid…” He turned and looked squarely at his partner.  “…well, this is somethin’ I gotta do.  I don’t know why, exactly.   Just know it’s gotta be done.  You don’t haf’ta stay.  I know it’s dangerous, us both bein’ here.  Why this’ll be done in two days.  We could meet up somewhere.” 

          Kid sighed.   His eyes changed from the clear sky blue that was normal to a deeper, angrier sapphire color.  “Heyes, when you gonna figure out that I’m not a kid anymore.  That we’re cousins, partners.  Hell, friends I thought.  Stop tryin’ to push me away when there’s trouble.  I’m not goin’.   And you might just try trustin’ me now and again with whatever gets to botherin’ you.”  He turned and started back towards the barn.  “You comin’ or not.  We got a horse race to win.”

          Heyes didn’t respond, just watched Kid’s back disappear into the barn.  ‘He’s right.  He’s not a kid.  Maybe I can tell him.  Maybe I should.’ 

*****************

          The barn was crowded.  Tailspin for his part stood quietly and allowed the adults to work. 

Tommy lay on a bench they’d brought into the barn.   He encouraged Will at every step.  

Robert and Ann smiled, reminding his that it was his decision and that it would be all right if he changed his mind.

Will looked at Tommy and his parents and the two men.  He looked at the horse.  “No…no, I wanna ride Windy.”

Kid had to lift the onto the horse’s back.   He was pale and trembling.  Tommy kept talking to boy and horse, doing a good job of calming both of them.  Heyes led the horse out of the barn. 

          Kid looked back at the other boy.  Then joined him.  “Know you wished it could be you up there.”

          “Yes sir.” 

          “Next time, it’ll be your turn.  This time it’s Will’s.  Good that he can help you out.”

          Tommy averted his eyes.  When he looked up, he just nodded.  “Partners.”

          Kid rumpled his dark hair.  “Yep.  Partners.”

          “Think we should go watch how he does?”

          Tommy smiled at Kid and nodded his head.  “He’s gonna win the race.”

          They heard Heyes instructing the boy as they joined Robert and Ann.  Ann put her arm around Tommy. 

“Ok Will.  Just take it nice and slow.  Just up the path and back.  Let Windy do the work.  You just enjoy the ride.”  Heyes smiled up at the boy. 

          “Will…”  Ann started to say,  ‘be careful,’  he seemed so small.  Looking at her son, she changed her mind.  “Your father and I are very proud of you son.” 

          Robert nodded and reached out to shake his son’s hand. 

          The boy sat a little straighter on the horse.  “I’m ready Joshua.” 

          Heyes handed the boy the reins. 

          Will bent over and spoke something to the horse,  who answered by moving forward.  The boy froze for a moment, then seemed to relax as they moved onto the path. 

          Once again, eyes were trained on horse and rider. 

          Will walked the horse down the path.  When he turned back, he was smiling.

He pulled the horse up in front of them.  “See I can do it.  That was great.  Was it all right Tommy?  Did I do it right?” 

          “You did it just right Will.”  The boy was obviously exhausted.  He made no complaint though.  He just grinned at his friend.

          “Can you try it a little faster, Will.  A nice easy canter.  OK?  We’ll work up to racing a little at a time.”  Heyes held the horse still.

          “Yes sir.  Windy and me can go as fast as the wind.  Right Tommy?”  There was no hesitation in his voice or his face any more.

          “You just take it slow, Will.  Just like Joshua says.  We have two days to practice.”   Robert’s face was a mixture of relief and pride in his son. 

          “Yes sir.  Can I go out again?” 

          “All right,  but no need to race.  Just build up the speed.  Slow like.  All right Will?” 

          The boy nodded at Heyes’ instructions and started out. Faster, more confident this time. 

          “He’s gonna do just fine, Robert.  Ann, he’s gonna be just fine.”  Heyes turned to the two. 

          They practiced the rest of the day.  Will gaining confidence with each ride.  Going a little farther and a little faster each time.   Robert and Ann relaxing just a bit more each time.  Tommy fighting back the desire to be the one on the back of that horse.

          Tommy and Will, excited and exhausted, went to sleep right after dinner.  Ann and Robert stayed and chatted with Heyes and Curry for a while more.  Ann was still not convinced.  The men knowing it was probably something that had to be done.  Finally, they said goodnight. 

          Ann handed Heyes a stack of blankets.  “I hope you have pleasant dreams tonight Joshua.” 

          He frowned at her.  “Ma’am?”

          “Well you were having such a nightmare last night, I just hope you have sweeter dreams.”  Her smile teased him.

          He remembered a face in his dreams.  A kind face with a soft voice that said she’d be there when he woke.  He blinked at her.  But that was a dream.   He knew it was a dream.  “Thank you, I hope so too.” 

          “Night Thaddeus.  Rest easy.  Thank you both.  What you’re doin’ means a lot to Tommy and Will.” 

          Later as they lay waiting for sleep to find them, Heyes watched the fire.   “Kid, you asleep?”

          “Working on it Heyes.” 

          “How’d Ann know about my havin’ a nightmare?”

          “Probably cause you were moaning loud enough for the whole house to hear.”

          “Did you hear me?”

          “No, Heyes.  But I’m used to you.”

          He was quiet for a moment. 

Kid sighed and pulled the covers up a little closer to his chin.

 “Kid?”

“Shut up Heyes.”

“Think Will’s stands a chance?”

          “I think he’s got a fast horse and a lot of want to.”

          “Yea, but…”

          “Heyes will you just go to sleep.”

          “Sure Kid.  Sorry.”  He slid farther into the covers, punching the pillow.  “Kid?”

          “Heyes, you’re making the barn look real invitin’.”

          “You ever think about home?”  Heyes’ voice slid into a husky whisper.

          Kid didn’t answer.  Then, “The Home?  Why’d I want to think of that place.”

          “No, not there, just home.  Our home.”  Suddenly Heyes wished he’d never brought the subject up.  “Never mind.  ‘Night, Kid.”

          Again, Kid was quiet.  “Not so much any more.  That what’s been eatin’ at you? 

          “Some.  Kid, I know it’s gonna sound crazy, but something brought us here.  Not just outrunnin’ a posse.  Somethin’.”

          Kid remained silent.  He hoped Heyes would continue talking. 

          “Night Kid.”  The tone of his voice ended that hope. 

          “Night Heyes.”

          Any dreams either had that night were kept to themselves. 

*****************

          All were back at practice early the next day.  Some of the men from town rode by.  They commented on how strong Tailspin looked.  Said he was a sure winner.  Will seemed at ease on the horse, wanting to run him, no longer willing to walk. 

          “OK, Will.  Let’s see what you and Windy can do.  Take him same path as before.  Up the path, around the trees and back.  Thaddeus will ride with you, to give you both a taste of someone riding next to you.” 

          The two riders mounted their horses.  They shook hands. 

          At the mark they took off.  The tension apparent in all faces as they disappeared behind the stand of trees in the distance, relief just as apparent when they reappeared.  The two riders seemed evenly matched, Kid wasn’t going easy on the boy.  At the end, Kid pulled out ahead. 

          Dejected, Will slumped in the saddle and dropped the reins.  “I can’t do it can I?” 

          Kid leaned over and caught the slender strips of leather.  “Will…” Before he could finish his answer, a shot hit the ground in front of the horses.  Both shied, kicking and struggling, wanting to run.  Will was tossed off, landing on his side.  Kid got his horse under control quickly.  He dismounted and went to the boy. 

          Heyes started running again. 

          Ann screamed and grabbed Robert’s arm.  They ran towards their son.

         Heyes reached Kid’s side.  They looked towards where the shot must have originated.  No one.  Their exchanged glances said they didn’t have to see anyone to pretty much know who was responsible. 

          “Will, oh God, Will are you all right?”  Ann knelt by her son. 

          “I’m fine Ma.  Don’t hurt at all.”  He sat up. 

          “That’s the end of it.  No one else is gonna get hurt over this.”  There was finality in Robert’s voice.  “Come on Will.”

          “Pa, please.  I gotta…”

          “No, Will.  It’s done.” 

          Heyes and Kid took the horses and followed the three back to the barn.  They found a visitor waiting.

          “MacIntyre.  Heard you had a racin’ colt.  Wanted to see for myself.”  Hank Carter was leaning against the corral.  A thin man, dressed in finely cut clothing.  His smile was cruel.  “Just telling the boy what a shame ‘bout his accident.  His family sure seems fond of accidents.” 

          Heyes held an arm out against Kid.   His own eyes darkening at the comment.

          Tommy was pale. 

          “Carter, why don’t you just go home and leave us alone.  You’ve done enough.”  Robert kept leading Will towards the house.

          “Why don’t tell me you intend to still race that animal.  My horse will beat him by a mile.  I got a ‘real’ rider.  Why that colt doesn’t even like the boy on it’s back.  Or the boy don’t know how to ride a horse.”   His voice was a mean sneer.  “Could use another work animal, I suppose.  How ‘bout I give you $25 for him.  More than he’s worth, but I’m in a generous mood.” 

          “Uncle Robert…”  Tommy started, his voice both scared and mad.

          “Carter, get off my property.  You’ve done enough to this family.”  Robert was very quiet.  His voice icy cold.

          “I don’t know what you’re implyin’ MacIntyre.  If it’s anything to do with his family…”  He jerked his thumb towards Tommy.  “…I suggest you think back.  Sheriff couldn’t prove anything.  Maybe they were just stupid and clumsy and wound up killing themselves.”

          He never saw the black gloved fist as it connected with his jaw.   Or the second or third blows that sent him to the ground. 

          Kid pulled Heyes off the man and dragged  him away.   Heyes’ breathing was ragged, his eyes raging. 

          Carter stood up.  “You’ll be sorry for doing that.   Something’s wrong with you two.   I can just smell it.  The Sheriff’s gonna be real interested in who you are and why you’re helpin’ them.    Yea, maybe you’re hired guns.”  He eyed the guns, slung low on their hips, tied down.  Yea.  That’s it isn’t it.  You hired some killers.  Yea, Sheriff’s gonna be real interested.”  He mounted his horse.  “This isn’t the end of it.”  He gave his horse a vicious kick as he galloped off. 

          Will ran over to where Heyes and Kid were standing.  Heyes breathing had quieted and he was flexing his hand.  “You knocked him down.”  The boy was clearly impressed.

          “My partner gets a little excited sometimes Will.  Hittin’ a man is not a good way to solve a problem.  Well at least not usually.”   Kid turned back to Heyes. 

          Heyes was wearing a rather sheepish grin.  “Thaddeus is right Will.  I shouldn’t have hit him.” 

          Will looked almost disappointed and rejoined his father. The man looked at the two gratefully.

          “But it sure felt good.”  Heyes mumbled as he turned away.  Kid’s answering grin met him as he looked up. 

          They remained outside after the family had gone into the house. 

          “Feel better now?”  Kid held up his hands.  “I know, I know.  He had it coming.  But what do we do now.  If he goes and speaks to the Sheriff.  Heyes, that posse has got to be wonderin’ where we got to.  It’s not safe for us here.  Or for them.”  He leaned back against the fence and watched his friend.  He already knew what Heyes’ response would be.

          “You’re right Kid.  Too dangerous now.   First Tommy, now Will.  Carter won’t stop, though.  But you’re right.  It’s not safe for them.  Anyway, it’s not our problem.  We should just pack up and leave.  Gotta think of ourselves.  We should go tell the family we’re ridin’ out.  They’ll understand.  Hell, probably be grateful.  We’ve been eatin’ them out of house and home.”  Heyes wasn’t sure who he was trying to convince. 

          Kid just looked at him, then started laughing.  “Heyes, you can talk faster than any six snake oil sellers.  Maybe when we get that amnesty you otta go into the snake oil business.”

          “Everything all right, boys?”  Robert joined them.   “Heard what Carter said about telling the Sheriff.  We’d understand if you have to go.  Just so as you know, you still welcome in our home.”

          “Thanks Robert.  We don’t want to put you or your family in danger.  We’d like to stay on for a bit, just till tomorrow anyway.  Got a stake in seein’ that race.  Anyway, my friend here seems to have hurt his hand.  I keep trying to tell him to watch out where he plants it, but he just won’t listen.”  Kid slapped Robert on the back.  “So tell me some more about Carter.”  The voices dwindled as the two walked back to the house.  

          Heyes just shook his head and followed them. 

          Tommy and Will were sitting with Ann.  She was tending a small cut over Will’s eye.  “I was just telling Will it’s all right.  That we’re very proud of him that he tried. 

          “I want to race Windy.  That Hank Carter’s just mean.  He killed Tommy’s Ma and Pa and I just want to beat him.”  Tears spilled over and he flung himself into Ann’s arms. 

          “Can anyone ride the colt?” 

          Everyone looked up at Heyes voice. 

          “Well, I suppose so, Joshua.  Never saw any rules that said different.  Why?  You thinking of riding the horse yourself?”  He said the last part almost as a joke, until he looked into Heyes’ eyes. 

          “Maybe, Robert.  You know Carter’s gonna cause trouble.   I got nothing to lose.  He’s mad at me anyway.  Anyway, I’ve ridden in races before.  So I’ll know what to expect.”  Heyes face displayed nothing of the small, but significant lie he’d just told the family. 

          “You’d do that?”  Tommy looked like he didn’t believe they might still have a chance. 

          “Sure.  Why to get a chance to ride Windy?  And win the big prize.  There is a prize isn’t there?”

          “Why sure.  There is a modest cash prize, of course.  But this year the winner also gets to be deputy for the whole week after the race.”   Robert spoke through a smile.

          “Deputy for a… well, doesn’t that sound exciting.  Hear that Joshua.  If’n you win, you can be a deputy.”  Kid was grinning at Heyes. 

          “Deputy…”  Heyes voice sank just a bit.

          “And they give you a badge and everything.”  Will had stopped crying. 

          “A badge and everything.”  Everyone looked at Heyes.  “Well, I guess it’s settled.”   He hoped the smile on his face was convincing the rest of the people in the room.  It sure wasn’t convincing himself.  He couldn’t bring himself to look at Kid. 

          They celebrated that night at dinner.  Ann’s roast was devoured quickly.  Everyone sighed in contented fullness when she excused herself.  She returned carrying a large chocolate cake.   There was respectful silence as she set it on the table. 

“I thought we deserved something special.”  She began cutting the cake and handing it around the table.  She started cutting the final piece when she heard the sound of a throat being cleared.  She looked up to find Heyes frowning.  She widened the piece a bit.  The frown stayed.  She widened it a bit more.  A smile turned up the corners of his mouth.  She shook her head, laughing.  And handed him the large piece.  

He was quiet for a moment, just looking at the cake. 

“Joshua?”  Ann came and sat beside him.

He rubbed his eyes.  “Just tired I guess Ann.  Cake’s wonderful.”

She suddenly hugged him.  “Thank you for what you’re doin’.  We know the risk you and Thaddeus are taking.”

He blushed and looked at Kid.

Kid smiled, but he didn’t miss another shadow cross Heyes’ face.

Everyone turned in early that night.  

*****************

“No, no.  Please, no.  Blood, too much blood.  Ma?  Ma, please wake up.  Don’t be dead, Ma.  Jed, no, no you can’t come in here.”

Kid woke to the sound of crying.  He rolled over and found Heyes curled up in a ball, mumbling, crying, still asleep.  “Heyes.  Heyes, wake up.  Heyes you’re dreamin’.  Wake up now.”  He shook him, not knowing whether waking him up was better than letting him work through the nightmare. 

“Huh, what.  What’s wrong?”  Heyes opened his eyes.

“You were havin’ a nightmare.  You were talking about… about that day.”

          Heyes paled in the firelit room.  He sank back into the pillow.   He felt his face, wet.  “Just a dream, Kid.  Nothing more.” 

          “Heyes, that silver tongue hasn’t worked on me in a long time.”

          The dark eyes were focused on Kid’s face, angry, no, frustrated.  He let out the breath he’d been holding in a rush.  Like he couldn’t hold it in anymore.  “Kid I don’t rightly know what’s happenin’.  Ever since we saw the boys at the lake.  The memories.  They won’t stop.  I can’t make ‘em stop.”  He looked up at Kid.

          Kid winced at the pain in Heyes’ eyes and the desperation in his voice.  “Why don’t you try letting them out.  I’m here Heyes.  You wouldn’t let me know then.   Said I was too young.  Well I’m here and I’m not too young.  Tell me.”

          Heyes closed his eyes.  “I can’t Kid.”  

         

          Kid just stared at him.  “Fine Heyes.  Just keep carrying it all by yourself.  Don’t let me help.”  He lay back down and turned his back on the dark, haunted eyes that watched him.

          Heyes flinched as Kid’s last words struck him.  “Kid, please.”   There was nothing, no sound, no movement.   He touched Kid’s shoulder.  “Please.”

          Kid turned back.  “All right Heyes.  I’m listening.”

          He swallowed.  Sitting up, he drew his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around them.  He closed his eyes.  “That day.  I should’a been there, Kid.  I’ll see them for the rest of my life.  My folks, yours.  The boys.  Rachel.”  His voice, husky with emotion cracked as he said her name.  “I couldn’t let you see….”  He looked up, tears collecting on the dark eyelashes.  “I couldn’t let you have those pictures in your head.”  The tears fell.  “I still can’t.   Not ever, Jed.  Not ever.”  He buried his head in his hands. 

          “Heyes, you couldn’t have done anything.”  He sharpened his voice.  “Heyes, it wasn’t your fault.”  He laid his hand on the other’s arm.    Heyes…Han, look at me. It wasn’t your fault.  I should’a been there too.” 

          Heyes head snapped back.  “You were only a child.”

 

          “I could’a done something.”

 

          He gripped Kid’s arm.  “What?  What could you have done?  Got yourself killed.  That’s all you could’a done.  Kid you were 10 years old!”   ‘Why couldn’t Kid understand.  It was his responsibility.  If he’d been there….’

 

          “And you were just 12,” Kid said, anger, frustration gone.  Nothing left in that voice but the truth. 

 

          Heyes looked at him, ready to argue.  He found he had no words to answer.  Had he only been twelve?  Tommy’s age.  He blinked, trying to make sense of everything.  Twelve.  Too young.   Too young to have made any difference at all.  He sank back against couch,  his energy drained. 

A thousand lifetimes passed between them in the moment that followed.  A myriad of possibilities.  Choices stolen and choices made.  Lives lost and those found.  Little boys becoming men.  Men becoming little boys. 

Kid pried loose the fingers that had nearly cut off circulation to his arm.  “You sure about ridin’ tomorrow.”  He was rubbing his arm.  “Sure nothing wrong with your grip.” 

 

Heyes winced as Kid hit a sore spot and scowled at him.  “Yea. Yea I’ll be fine.  Just fine, just fine Kid.”

 

“You’d better be.  I got twenty bucks on you” Kid said with a smile only family would understand.

 

Heyes looked up.  He wasn’t sure why, but he felt lighter.  As though some of the weight he’d been carrying had been lifted.  He returned Kid’s smile.  “Guess we’d better get some sleep.  We got a race to win tomorrow.”   He settled back into the covers, ready for the memories he was certain would continue to pursue him.   This night Hannibal Heyes found only quiet dreams of red horses flying down an open trail. 

          “Yep Heyes.  Can’t wait to see you with that big old Deputy star pinned to your chest.”  Kid rolled over again, this time falling asleep with a smile on his face.

                   

**********************

          Sunday.  They got washed and dressed.  They ate breakfast hurriedly and climbed into the wagon.  Heyes and Kid rode.  Heyes led Tailspin.  They rode slowly through town, the MacIntyres waving to friends.  They went to the livery to get Tailspin ready.  The family went to church.  Heyes and Kid decided to stay with the horse.  Just to make sure everything was all right. 

          The Sheriff met the family as they were leaving the stable.

          “Heard you got visitors, Robert.  Hank Carter said they might be ‘hired’ help.  That true?” 

          “We got visitors, Dan.  That’s true.  Two young friends we met on our way from St. Louis.  They’d staying with us has been a blessing, what with Tommy having an ‘accident’.  Why Joshua’s gonna help us out and ride Tailspin here in the race.”

          Sheriff Daniel Mercer looked at the two men standing by the colt.  He took in the ready stance and the tied down guns. His face, when he looked back to Robert said he knew exactly what these men were.  He looked at Tommy.  He merely nodded.  “Well, lucky they happened by.  Good luck in the race.  Ann.” 

          They all heard Carter shouting threats as he followed the Sheriff to the small church. 

          And they all heard the Sheriff tell him clearly to shut up or get jailed himself. 

          A collective sigh of relief was breathed as the family left the livery.  “Always knew the Sheriff had good in him.  He was just waiting for the right time to let it out.”  Ann laughed. 

**************************

          The tension mounted.  The preacher had made the sermon quick.   He tried to talk about how patience was a virtue.  But he wanted to get to the race and then the party too.   

High noon.  They lined up at the start.   Six riders.  Luck of the draw placed Heyes and Tailspin in the middle.  Carter’s horse,  Smokey was on the outside.  Heyes surveyed the field.  From the looks of the contenders the big gray was the only one who stood a chance.  His rider, a man named Ralph Hake,  was doing the same as Heyes was.  Sizing up the pack.  They’re eyes met. 

“Might as well give up now Smith.  That colt’s outta his league.    Why he don’t stand a chance up against Smokey, here.”  Hake spat tobacco at Heyes boots, barely missing them.

“Guess we’ll just have to wait till the finish won’t we.”  Heyes carefully stepped around the puddle and prepared to mount Tailspin. 

Kid held the horse’s head.  “Ya know there’s gonna be trouble.”  He spoke quietly.

“Yep.  Just a matter of where.”  Heyes bent over in the saddle so they could continue to talk privately.

“Best place looks to be about three quarters through the race.  Nice, peaceful spot.  Lots of trees.”  Kid handed Heyes the reins.

“Imagine you’d be able to pick someone off pretty easy there.  Considerin’ the likelihood of there only bein’ two horses and riders there at the same time.”  Heyes wrapped the reins around his gloved hand.

“Yep.  ‘Spect so.  Ya know Heyes.  I think I’m just gonna mosey on out there.  If there is anyone out there, why I’d just hate for him to be gettin’ lonesome.”  He smiled and walked away. 

“Yer friend too chicken to watch, Smith?”

Heyes’ smile was a portrait of icy control.  “Oh he’ll be around.   My friend there’s got this knack.  Yep, amazin’ thing.  He always shows up, exactly when and where he’s needed.”  He pulled the horse back and walked him to the start line. 

Hake laughed as he followed, edging up against the already skittish colt.  “Can’t even get to the start line.” 

The six horses were lined up at the rope that stretched across town’s main street, held by a man on either side.  The street was crowded with watchers.  They were shouting and laughing waiting for the start.   Robert, Ann and Will waved encouragement.  Tommy stood next to Tailspin, trying to calm him down.  He moved back as the Sheriff climbed onto a chair and held the gun in the air.  The crowd stilled.  Crack. The shot broke the quiet.  The horses bolted forward. 

Carter’s gray took the lead immediately.  Tailspin shied away from the noise and was at the back of the pack.  They sped through town and soon disappeared from sight.    The crowd dispersed, heading for the picnic area.  They’d return as soon as the riders got close to the finish. 

Heyes gradually brought Tailspin past three of the other horses.  One had dropped out.  He was slowly gaining on the big gray.  They rounded a bend in the road.  Nothing but open ground ahead.  Heyes prodded the colt a bit.  The colt as if understanding, moved even quicker.   The gray was in sight.

*****************************

          Kid Curry had taken a back route that paralleled the course of the race.  He knew he’d find someone.  He just wasn’t sure where.   He rode a long as he dared, then tied his horse and started slowly making his way through the brush and trees.  He stopped.  Uh huh.  Just one by the sound, he knew.  In the trees just ahead.   Kid looked at where the man perched.  Rifle in hand, waiting for his target to come riding by.  He’d have a clear shot at Heyes all right.   His jaw clenched at what might have happened.  He figured he had no more than ten minutes to make sure the man didn’t have the opportunity to take that shot.  Slowly he removed his tanned gloves and folded them over the gunbelt. 

          Stealthily he moved closer.  The man so intent on being ready when the rider he’s been hired to kill came into view, was oblivious to anything else.  The click of the gun being cocked froze him as he was raising the rifle towards the oncoming riders. 

          “Lower it.  Real slow.”  There was deadly authority in Kid’s voice.  The man obeyed.   “Now turn around.”      The man did as he was told.  “Kick it towards me.”  The sounds in the distance told of the approaching racers.  Kid moved forward so that he had a better view of the path the racers were on.  The man faced him, his back to the race. 

The man scowled.  “Ya don’t know what ya bought into, mister.  If’n you’re smart you’ll just let me go about my business.” 

“Well, folk have accused my partner of being the ‘smart’ one, so I guess I’ll just have to keep the hand I’ve got.”  Kid smiled genially at the man and looked quickly at the road. 

The man dove for the gun, rolling over, firing towards Kid.   Kid hit the ground, the shot missing him by inches.  The racers were within sight now.  The gray just out in front.  The man’s next shot was at Heyes, bent low in the saddle of the red horse. 

“Don’t…”  Kid righted himself and pointed his gun at the man. 

Two shots rang out almost simultaneously.  The shooter screamed and grabbed his shoulder. 

Kid looked up.  Tailspin was standing about fifty yards up the path. The gray horse next to him.  The gray’s rider on the ground.  Kid looked back and ran to where Heyes was lying. 

The bullet had creased Heyes’ temple.   Kid breathed a sigh of relief as the dark eyes fluttered open and tried to focus.  “You ok?  Hey, stay still.”  He held Heyes shoulders.

“What happened.”  He touched the bloody crease and looked at Kid.

“Ambush.  Or another handy accident.   Sorry, Heyes. I just looked up for a split second.”  He shook his head.  “I got him, just as he fired at you. 

“The race, I gotta get back in it.”  Once again, Heyes made as if to get up. 

“You’re not goin’ anywhere.  Hake’s down.  The gunfire must’a spooked the gray.” 

The other riders approached, slowing and finally stopping.  “What happened?” 

“Looks like someone wanted to make sure who won the race.”  Kid pointed to the shooter, still lying off to the side of the road. 

“Why that’s Clete Robbins.   Works for Hank Carter, don’t he.”  One of the riders went over to the man. 

“Your friend all right?”  One of the other riders looked down at Heyes.

“Yea, he’ll be fine.  Just dented him a bit.  How ‘bout Hake?”  Kid cocked his head towards the other man, now sitting up and shaking his head. 

“Looks like he’ll be all right.  If your friend is fit to ride, we otta get back to town, let the Sheriff figure all this out.  Shame ‘bout the race though.” 

Kid helped Heyes to his feet.  “You gonna be able to stay on the horse.”  He helped steady Heyes who was swaying as he tried to keep his balance. 

“Yea, sure.  ‘Dented him a bit’?”  Heyes looked around.  “How far’d you say it was to town again?” 

It actually wasn’t more than another half mile or so.  The Sheriff, wondering what had happened actually met them part of the way there.  Hake wasn’t saying anything.  The shooter, Robbins, just kept moaning about his shoulder.  Kid seemed like the only one willing to explain what had happened. 

“All right, let’s get everyone back to town and let the Doc fix Robbins and your friend up.  Then we’ll sort this out.”  He scratched his head.  “Shame ‘bout the race.  Could’a used a deputy for a week.” 

The group slowly made their way to town, met by a crowd of people.  The MacIntyres shielded their eyes against the sun and watched for their friends to come in.

The boys ran to Heyes and Kid as they dismounted, followed closely by Robert and Ann.

“Joshua, you’re hurt.   Here, sit down.”  Ann helped Heyes to a bench.  Brushing the dark hair from his forehead, she examined the wound.  “It doesn’t look too bad.  We should get him to the Doctor.” 

“I’m fine Ann.” He tried to rise and fell back on the bench. 

“Uh, huh.  Let’s go Joshua.”  Kid pulled him up and supported him to the small office of Doctor Andrew Brown.   The Sheriff was watching as the Doctor completed his work on Robbins’ shoulder. 

Robbins glared at Kid, but kept his silence. 

“You ‘bout done Doc?  I’d like to get him over’ta the jail.  Then get back to the party.”  He looked at the faces frowning at him.  “Well after you fix Smith up too, I meant.” 

The Doctor examined Heyes, pronounced him fine, but needing rest. 

“Good thing you got a hard head, Heyes.  Bullet might’a killed ya.”  Kid handed him his hat.

Heyes just gave him a ‘thanks for the sympathy’ look.  “Sheriff?  What about the race.  I mean it’d be a shame if we couldn’t finish it.”

The Sheriff stopped and turned back.  “Well now son, it is a shame.  But you sure can’t ride, nor can Tommy here.  And I sure don’t think that that Hake fella’s gonna be interested, seein’ as he’s in jail for the moment. 

“I can ride Windy, Sir.”  Will’s voice peeked out from behind his parents.  “I was ‘sposed to anyway.” 

“That right, son?”  The Sheriff smiled at the boy.

“Will, no.  It’s too dangerous.  Look at what happened to Tommy and Joshua.  No.   I won’t allow it.”  Ann took Will’s hand and pulled him closer to her.

“Well, reckon the folk that were gonna be causin’ the trouble ain’t gonna be in a position to be causing any more.  Bein’ in jail and all.   Say, if we started it from where all the commotion happened, it’d only be ‘bout half…three quarter mile.  Boy could do that.  Shame to miss out on havin’ a deputy for a week.”  Sheriff Mercer didn’t have children.  But he did know what might make one in particular pretty happy.

“Please Ma.  It’s just half…three quarter mile.  Like Sheriff Mercer said.  And it’s not dangerous.  Please Ma.  Please, I can do it.”  Will was tugging at her arm.

She looked helplessly at the men in the room,  who suddenly found it better to examine the floor.  With a sigh, she lowered herself to eye level with her son.  “You’ll be careful?” 

“Oh yes Ma.  Real careful.  Please?”

Giving one more look at her husband, she shook her head.  “All right.  Against all my better judgment, but all right.”

The boy flung his arms around his mother’s neck. “Thanks Ma.  You’ll be proud of me.   I’m gonna win that race.  Come on Tommy.   Help me get Windy ready.”  The boys disappeared out the door.

“If anything happens to him…”  Ann glared at each of the men again. 

“Nothing will happen to him Ann.  Good for the boy to be able to help.  To prove himself.  Good for Tommy too.”  Robert put his arm around his wife’s shoulders and led her in the direction Tommy and Will had taken.

Heyes and Curry started to follow. 

The Sheriff stopped them.  “Boys, I know what Robert said ‘bout you being friends and all.  And I know what happened to Tommy’s folks, whether or not I could prove it.  And I believe I know what happened today.   Carter’s a mean skunk of a man.  What I’m sayin’ is that unless you got good cause for stayin’ around, you might just find it safer to be on your way.”  He paused, watching their faces move through apprehension and anger to a quiet resignation.  They’d had this conversation before.   “Well, after the race and the party, course.  Morning’s soon enough for that.” 

Kid shook the man’s hand.  “Thank you Sheriff.  Thanks a lot.”

Heyes nodded, shaking the man’s hand.   “Anyway you can prove Carter killed Tommy’s folks Sheriff?”

“Not likely.  Who knows though.  Travelin’ judge should be here in a week or so.  Maybe if one of them two in the jail know how long you get to be in jail for trying to kill a man, they’ll be more willin’ to help me solve Tommy’s folks’ killin’. 

“Thanks again Sheriff.”  Heyes winced as he settled his hat on the spot the bullet had creased. 

********************

This time a small crowd gathered at the spot where the shooting had taken place.   They were going to follow the riders.  Two of them.  Will on Tailspin and another boy on Smokey.  The Sheriff had decided that would even the race.  It was obvious to all that Carter didn’t want that, but it was also obvious that the Sheriff didn’t much care what Carter wanted. 

Hooves flying the two boys took off.  Side by side for a while.   Smokey pulling out in front.  Then Tailspin.  Then Smokey.

The crowd in town heard the cries, “They’re comin’!!!  Here they come.” 

They raced through town, finally crossing the finish line enveloped in a cloud of dust.   Hard to tell who was in the lead.  Folks said it was the closest race they’d seen in the longest time.   They pulled the boys from the horses and carried them on shoulders to the church hall where the party was just getting started. 

********************

The fiddler called the tune.  Men sought out their partners from the ladies, dressed in their Sunday best, lined up against the wall. 

Heyes and Kid found a way to dance with most of the young ladies present.  The bandage over Heyes’ eye caused great concern among those ladies.  Kid mentioned he thought that was why Heyes wanted to ride in the race in the first place.  Heyes mentioned that Kid didn’t seem to be doin’ too bad either. 

The food was laid out on a long table against another wall.  The centerpiece was a large cut glass bowl filled with the preacher’s wife’s best punch. 

The music played late into the evening.  

Robert found the two boys huddled behind the food table.  “What’re you two doin’?  Come on out here.  Party’s almost done.”

“Nothin’ Uncle Robert.”  Tommy turned to Will, who was busily polishing the shiny Deputy Sheriff badge pinned to his shirt.

“All right then, go wait outside.  Your Ma and I’ll be along.”  He watched them suspiciously knowing something was wrong, and figuring he’d know what it was soon enough.

They waited outside the Hall, peeking inside through the window.

“Tommy?  You ‘spose it’s all right for a Deputy Sheriff to…, well you know?”  Will had turned the badge around and was studying it.

“You’re the law, you can do anything.  Anyway.  It’s just for fun.  Party’s almost over anyway.  No one’ll probably even take a drink.”

“A toast,  a toast to one and all.  Everyone get a glass.”   The preacher’s words were shouted loud enough for two little boys to hear, and look at each other, and look back to see everyone with a glass in their hand.

“They’re gonna kill us.”  Tommy said with great finality.

The screaming seemed to start with the schoolteacher, who raised her cup, found something staring back at her, screamed and flung the cup across the room.  Where it hit the Mayor’s wife who had just found something similar in her cup and dropped in on the preacher’s boots. 

Cups seemed to be dropping and flying everywhere. 

Heyes and Kid were standing close to the table of food when the chaos started.  They frowned and looked in their cups.  They smiled.  Tadpoles. 

Hank Carter approached them.  “You, you’re the cause of all this.  Why I’m gonna see that the two of you…”

He never got the end of his sentence out.  Mainly because Kid’s fist connected with his jaw, which sent him reeling backwards into the food table.  Where he landed face down in the baked beans. 

“Feel better now?”  Heyes sighed.

“Yep.”  Kid smiled. 

“Oh, oh.”  Heyes nudged Kid towards the front door.

“Tommy Duncan,  Will MacIntyre!!!  Just what do you two know about all this.”  Ann had a boy in each hand.  Robert was leaning on the railing, trying to look serious, but losing the fight with the grin that threatened to cover his face. 

Heyes and Kid stepped out onto the porch.

“And just what do you two know about this?”  If she’d had two extra hands,  she would have been dragging them along to their fate too.

“Us, ma’am”   Heyes actually had a reason for looking innocent.

“Never mind.  We’re all going home.  And when we get there, someone’s getting a whipping.”  She dragged the boys off to the wagon.  

“See ya at home, boys.”  Robert finally gave up and grinned at the men.

“Ya know Heyes?”

“Yea Kid?”

“Some things just never change.” 

**********************

          Next morning found them getting ready to leave the MacIntyre’s farm. 

Robert had grasped both hands firmly in a fond goodbye.  “You’ll always have a place here, both of you.  If you ever need or want it.”

Tommy and Will followed suit.  Small hands in larger ones. 

Ann had fussed over Heyes injury, and given them more food than even Kid thought they could eat.  She hugged them both and cried and said they’d have to come back. 

They’d cleared the town and sat on the ridge above, looking down. 

“You still thinking ‘bout home, Heyes.”

“Yea.  Hard not to, being part of this.”

“Ever want to go back.”

“Sometime.”

“Think we ever will.”

“Maybe.  Someday.  But I been thinkin, Kid.  I think home’s not a place at all.  Oh it can be, maybe for us it will be someday.  But home’s people.  People who give you back pieces of yourself.  So I guess maybe we’re always home.”  He sensed Kid’s smile at his back. 

“Think maybe Lom would like a visit Heyes?”

Heyes smiled a brilliant, mischievous smile at Kid.  “Ya know Kid.  That’s just what I was thinkin’.”