KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

By

Kellie Ingle

 

 

            Kid Curry was tired and hungry.  He had been on the trail for a week, making his way back to Rimfire, Texas, to rendezvous with his cousin and partner, Hannibal Heyes.  It had been Heyes’ idea to split up and take the two jobs that had been offered to them at the same time.  Heyes’ had been to ride shotgun for a few days on the new stage line connection that had come to Rimfire to make sure that nothing, like outlaws or highwaymen, stopped them from their appointed rounds.  The Kid’s had been to escort Lom Trevors’ niece and her mother from No Trees, Texas to San Antonio to put her into a girl’s school there.  Both jobs had paid well and, as it usually happened, the Kid lost the coin toss.

            The job had been easy until he had started on his trip back and the sheriff in Rock City had recognized him.  He had been dodging the man and his posse for three days now, running when he had to and keeping off the main trail as much as possible.  He was pretty sure he had lost them but he was still keeping an eagle eye out for trouble.  He could not afford to be caught.  Not when their goal of amnesty was so close.

            So, here he was, heading north towards Rimfire and wishing that they had decided to go when the weather was a little friendlier.  Spring in Texas was a constantly changing thing.  One day was warm and the next was cold, or wet or windy or even snowy.  He couldn’t wait to share his adventures with his partner, who would not believe him for a minute when he told him of the things he had been through.  He smiled to himself and was glad that he would be in Rimfire in only a few more days.

            He smiled even bigger when he saw the sign for the town of Tumbleweed.  He was ready to stop for a while and rest and get something to eat.  Living on the trail and dodging posse’s was not the most enjoyable thing to him and he was tired of sleeping on the hard ground without a fire to keep him warm.  Tumbleweed looked to be fair sized and he was sure they would have a decent hotel and café available.

            The streets were mostly mud as he entered the outskirts so he carefully led his horse around the roughest spots.  No need in causing the animal any harm.  The General Store looked to be the only thing inhabited on this cool, wet morning so he reined up and made his way inside.  The pot-bellied stove gave off a warm glow and he went to it almost immediately and spread his hands out to absorb some of its heat.  A large man wearing an apron looked up from the woman he was waiting on and nodded to him.

            “Help yourself to some coffee,” he directed the Kid.  “It’s free.”

            “Thanks,” a grateful Kid acknowledged as he reached for the pot sitting on top and poured himself a large cup.  It was about as strong as coffee could get without melting the cup itself but it was hot and it eased its way down into his cold joints in a most pleasurable way.  He sighed gratefully then turned to have a look around the place, watching the people who milled around doing their shopping.

            The woman the proprietor was waiting on was looking at a bolt of calico cloth and ignoring the small girl who pulled relentlessly on her skirts and whined for a penny candy.  A young man who looked about fourteen or so was admiring the guns and rifles that were displayed behind a glass case on the other side of the room.  An older couple, a man and his wife, were going over a list and deciding how much coffee, sugar, flour and cornmeal they could afford this time.  All in all it looked to be a pretty regular day. 

He took another sip and admired the stack of canned peaches that someone had painstakingly stacked in the middle of the floor.  If there was one thing Kid Curry had a weakness for it was canned peaches.  He remembered the fresh ones he had had as a boy and how marvelous it had been when he had discovered that they came in cans as well.  Heyes had always teased him about it but he always seemed to come up with a can when things got rough for the two of them.  He smiled at the memory and was about to ask after the hotel and the café when a man coming through the door stopped him dead in his tracks.  

He watched him remove his wet hat and shake the raindrops from his shoulder before he smiled over at the storeowner.  A smile the Kid had seen a hundred times.  It was wide and open and held a promise of mischief.  The eyes were dark and friendly as they met the Kid’s and he nodded.  He ran a long slender hand through his unruly dark hair before coming on inside. 

It was if he was looking at a ghost.  The breath left him as he stared at a man who could be a twin to his partner.  He was a little younger and thinner, his cheekbones a bit more sculpted but his voice when he spoke had the same timber to it.  Suddenly he felt himself being flung back into the past.  The Kid stood as if paralyzed but could not draw his gaze from the man. 

“Mornin’ Mr. Hanson.  How’s business?”

“Fine, Mr. Aames.  What brings you into town so soon?  Not that I’m complaining, but weren’t you in here just last week?”

“Well, I had to come in to town to get a wheel fixed over at the livery and I figured it wouldn’t hurt to bring Cherry a little something nice when I got home.  She’s feeling a little cooped up what with her condition and all and she’s got a sweet tooth worse than a child.”

Mr. Hanson and his customer both laughed at his explanation.  He smiled and nodded again as he moved to pass the Kid, who still stood as if he had turned to stone.  He opened his mouth to speak to the man but his words died on his tongue when a small voice spoke right behind him.

“Mama!  Mama!  That’s the man that robbed the train!  It’s both of them!  Mama, look!”

He spun around and looked down into the pale blue eyes of a boy about twelve.  He was standing there, looking up at him with a shock on his round face, his small hand pointing at the Kid like an arrow.  He was speaking to the woman buying the cloth and everyone in the place came to a complete standstill as his words echoed off the high-ceilinged walls.

“Jonah, what nonsense are you talking,” the woman admonished the boy as she came over to take him by the arm.  “I’ve told you it’s not polite to point and you need…” her speech came to a halt as she looked up at who her son was pointing a finger at and all the blood drained from her face as she clutched her son closer.

“Mr. Hanson!  This is the man who robbed the train.”  She pushed her son behind her as the Kid took a defensive step back.

“Don’t move, mister.”  The Kid looked over and found himself facing the barrel of a rifle, held unsteadily in the hands of Mr. Hanson.  All activity in the store came to a halt.  The older couple gasped and held onto each other while the young man took a step towards them.  The familiar stranger turned and looked at the boy as if he had grown horns.  The Kid slowly set the coffee cup down and raised his hands then smiled his most charming smile.

“Look…there’s been a mistake,” he began, his eyes darting around the room and judging just what he was going to have to do to get out of this. 

“No there’s not,” the boy said, his eyes narrowing as he looked up in judgment.  “And that’s the man what helped him.”  His hand once again pointed only this time it went past the Kid and settled on Mr. Aames, who stood there as if he didn’t quite know what to do.

“What are you talking about?”  Hanson moved the barrel to cover both men and then frowned in confusion. 

“I’m tellin’ ya,” the boy insisted.  “When we was coming here our train got robbed by Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry.  It was only two years ago but I remember it like it was yesterday.  It is them, ain’t it Mama?”

“Yes.  No.  Oh, Jonah.  I don’t know for sure.”  She looked at both men and frowned.  “I’m sure this one is one of the men but I’m not sure about that one.”  She looked at the one called Aames and shook her head.  “Mr. Hanson, I just don’t know.”

“Well, it seems to me that the logical thing to do is to go fetch the sheriff,” Hanson decided, not taking his aim off either man.  “Jonah, you run on down to the jail and be quick about it.”

“Look…” the Kid began.

“No, you look, mister.”  Hanson trained the gun directly on the Kid, his hands visibly shaking.  “I don’t know you, but I do know Mrs. Potter and if she says you robbed her train then I believe her.  Now as for Mr. Aames…” that was a far as he got. 

Without further thought the Kid grabbed a can of peaches and sent it flying at the older man.  It hit him square in the chest, causing him to rear back and fire the gun at the same time.  The women screamed as everyone dove for cover.  With a quick turn of his boot the Kid sent the stack of cans rolling across the floor and ducked out the door with the sound of confusion thundering behind him.. 

In the commotion that followed he managed to slip down the alley and away from the fray.  His heart was hammering and his horse was still tied up in front of the store but he ran until he was sure no one was following him.  He made his way to the livery and climbed up into the loft to take stock.  It was then that he felt the pain in his shoulder and pulled his coat back to see blood staining his shirt and coat.

“Damn,” he muttered as he removed his bandana and settled down in the hay to wait.

 

******

 

Heyes sat on the porch at the Rimfire Hotel and casually smoked a cigar, his feet propped up on the porch rail in front of him, his belly full from the good breakfast he had just partaken of.  Life was good for the moment and he was going to enjoy it for as long as it lasted.  The Kid would be here any day now and then they would head out for some place new.  New Mexico or Arizona, maybe.  He knew how the Kid hated to be cold and the weather in south Texas had probably not been very accommodating. 

He only felt a small amount of guilt that he had used his special coin and had sent his partner on the least palatable job, but he had decided that a gunslinger as fast as Kid Curry had no business riding shotgun on a stage.  His speed and accuracy would have raised questions and questions would have led to inquiries and inquires would have led to visits from the law.

No, it was better that the Kid went on the milk run, even though it was going to take longer and be more inconvenient.  He would never hear the end of it, of that he was sure, but he was the leader and sometimes a leader had to make unpopular decisions.  Besides…what could happen to the Kid just going down to Texas? 

******

 

            Aames sat in the jail cell and waited for all of this to be sorted out.  He was a patient man by nature and he had lived around here for years.  Many of the people in Tumbleweed knew him and knew he and his wife ranched about fifty miles from town.  All he had to do was be calm and all of this would be over with soon.  It had to be over with soon.  Cherry was alone at the ranch with only Jip and a single shot rifle to protect her.  He needed to get home before dark.

            What a surprise it had been when the Potter boy had pegged him as Hannibal Heyes.  He still could not get over the shock of it.  He was a law-abiding citizen and had never seen the inside of a jailhouse, much less the inside of a cell.  Cherry would have a fit when he told her about this little adventure, then she would storm and rant for a little while at them treating him so badly.  She was mighty protective of the people she loved and he loved that about her. 

            The front door suddenly opened and a man he had never seen before came swaggering inside, his hat almost as big as a church bell.  He took his time removing his slicker then dropped it on the floor before walking towards the cell to peer in at his prisoner.

            “You the one they’s saying is Hannibal Heyes?” his voice boomed in the small space, startling Aames just a little bit.

            “I’m afraid so,” he stood but didn’t move forward.  “My name is Aames.  I own a small place not far from town.  I’m not this Heyes fellow and I most certainly don’t rob trains.”

            The sheriff eyed the younger man for a long time, wanting to make him sweat, but to his disappointment he just stood there and waited. 

            “I’m Buford Johnson.  I’m the sheriff of Rock City.  You ever heard of me?”

            “No, sir.  I’m sorry to say I have not.  I’ve never been to Rock City and I don’t have much to do with lawmen in my line of work.”  Black eyes met bloodshot gray ones through the bars.

            “What line of work is that?”

            “I’m a rancher, sheriff.  As Sheriff Thompson knew when he arrested me.  As everyone in this town who knows me will testify.  As I’ve told you.  I am not an outlaw.”  His face flushed with anger but his voice stayed quiet.

            “You know the man that got away?  You ever see him before?”

            “No, sir.  I barely got a look at him when I came in the store.  He was just standing there drinking a cup of coffee.”

            The silence grew between them and Aames began to have doubts that this man didn’t believe him.  What would he do if they decided that he was this Heyes character?  How would he get a message to Cherry?  What would happen to her with him gone?  He took a step forward and grabbed the bars.

            “You’ve got to let me go, sheriff.  I’m not the man you’re looking for and my wife is home alone.  I need to get back there before it gets dark.  Don’t you understand?”

            Johnson sized him up and saw the genuine desperation in the man’s face.  Besides…he already knew that this man was not Hannibal Heyes, even though he did fit the description pretty good.  But there were other ways to skin a cat.  He stepped back and reached for the keys and unlocked the door.

            “I’m sorry for the misunderstanding, Mr. Aames.  You go on home.” 

            “Thank you, sheriff.”  Aames picked up his hat and placed it on his head.

            “You ever see that Curry fellow again…I want to know about it.”  The threat was there and Aames heard it.

            “Isn’t he just wanted for bank robbing?” he asked as he shrugged into his coat.  “I mean…they haven’t ever killed anybody, have they?”

            “They’re worth $10,000.00 a piece, dead or alive.  That’s all I need to know.”

            “Yes, sir.”  Aames shivered at the speculative look the sheriff gave him then shook it off and headed for the livery.  All he wanted to do was to get out of town and get home and forget this day ever happened.

            He met Mr. Hanson and Mrs. Potter, who by now had her husband in tow.  They were waiting for him outside the store, their faces showing their true regret for their part in his sudden misfortune.

            “Aames,” Hanson stepped forward and if he had had a hat it would have been in his hands.  “I’m sorry for the ruckus.  I know you ain’t that Heyes fellow but Sheriff Thompson just wouldn’t let it go and then the sheriff from Rock City showed up and, well…”

            “My boy wasn’t wrong about the other man,” Mrs. Potter said, wringing her hands in front of her as her eyes pleaded for forgiveness.  “But I’m terrible sorry about them putting you in jail over this.”

            “It’s okay,” Aames said, his warm smile encompassing them all.  “It was all just a little misunderstanding and now it’s over.”

            “I’m glad you’re so forgiving,” Mr. Potter said, extending his hand to him in friendship. 

            “No harm done.  But I’ve really got to get home.”  As he turned to go Hanson stopped him.

            “Will you take the outlaw’s horse over to the livery for us?  In all the commotion, no one has thought about it and since you’re headed that way…”

            Aames hesitated then sighed.  Why not?  He was already going there to collect his wagon and his new wheel so it would do no harm to lead it over there for them.  With a nod he untied the reins and led the beast away.

            Dickens, the blacksmith, was pounding away on his anvil when Aames walked up.  He looked up and acknowledged him through the smoke and steam that rose between them.

            “Been a busy day for you, huh?”

            “You could say that.”  Aames smiled ruefully, showing one dimple, as he pushed his hat back on his head.  “They asked me to bring the outlaw’s horse over here to you.”

Dickens let out a sound that might have been a laugh.  “Some people got lots of nerve,” he chuckled.  Aames conceded this as he handed the reins to into the smithy’s hands.

“Is my wheel ready?”

            “Yeah.  It’s already loaded in your wagon.  That’ll be four bits.”  So much for more conversation.  Aames dug into his vest pocket and produced the proper coin. 

            “Thanks.  I’ll be on my way.”

            “Look lively around your place,” Dickens warned.  “That outlaw might want to come for a visit.”

            Aames gave him a sour look and headed for the barn.  His team was harnessed and ready to go and for that he was grateful.  It was going to be a long ride back to the ranch.  He went around to the bed to check on the repaired wheel.  It was on its side, covered with a tarp, which he found strange.  With a tug he pulled the covering back then jumped back in surprise when he saw the man from the store that morning curled up beside it.

            “What are you doing here,” he hissed, his voice low.  That was all he needed was to get caught helping a fugitive from the law.  The threatening voice of the Rock City sheriff came quickly to his mind.

            “I…didn’t have any other way to get out of town,” the Kid answered.  His breathing was labored and his face was drawn and pinched.  “I’ve been hiding in the loft all day and I overheard what happened to you from the blacksmith and his apprentice.  I figure that they won’t stop you or give you a hard time because of this morning.  Please.  I just need to get out of town.  Then you can drop me off on the side of the road and you’ll never see me again.”

            Aames looked down at the man and noticed that, though he had his rig strapped to his hip, he did not have his gun drawn.  He also noticed the bloodstains on the floor of the wagon.  Maybe this man was an outlaw and guilty of all the things they had accused him of but he had never been the kind to turn away from his fellow man if he was in need and something about this stranger pulled at him.  He had no fondness for the Rock City sheriff and he suddenly had a premonition of what fate awaited this man if he were to be turned over to him.

            “How bad are you hurt?” he asked.

“Not bad.  Just a scratch.”  The look on Aames’ face said he didn’t quite believe that and the Kid suddenly felt as if he were answering to his partner and not this kind stranger who had his face.

“Get back under the tarp.  I’ll let you know when its clear.”  His voice was rough and more than a little aggravated as he reached to throw the cover back over him.  The gratitude he saw in the injured mans face made his next words a little softer.  “Keep down and keep quiet.”

            He made sure that no one could see anything then he mounted up and set off out of town.  The stranger had been right.  No one stopped him.  They all gave him a wide berth and almost everyone waved to him as he passed by.  He sweated bullets as he drove past the jailhouse and nodded to the two lawmen standing on the porch.  It was like a bad dream but soon he was out of town and headed up the old mine road towards Cherry and home.

 

******

 

            When he was sure that he hadn’t been followed he pulled up on the reins and spun around to jump down into the wagon bed.  When he pulled the tarp back he watched as the Kid blinked in confusion before trying to stand up on very unsteady feet.

            “Thanks, Mr. Aames,” he said as he picked up his hat and put it on.  “I know you have no reason to help someone like me, but I appreciate it all the same.”

            “Where will you go?” Aames asked, concern in his voice.  “You’re on foot, without supplies and you’re injured.  You can’t get very far like that.”

            “I’m tougher than I look,” the Kid grinned, trying to make himself believe it.  “I’ve been in tougher spots and lived to tell about it.  Besides…you don’t need the kind of trouble I could bring to your doorstep.  You helped me out of a tough spot and I’m grateful.”  He jumped down from the wagon and winced as the pain from his shoulder radiated all the way down to his toes.  Aames lithely hopped down beside him and smiled as the Kid stood looking at him for a long moment.

            “I really do look like him, don’t I?” Aames said, his dark eyes full of compassion. 

            “Actually, you look more like my Uncle John.  He was about your age when they were all killed and Heyes and I were sent to the orphanage.”  He blinked suddenly and a flush crept over his face.  “I don’t usually talk about that part of my life.  Don’t know why I did just then.”

            “Maybe because I do remind you of someone you care about and someone you’ve lost.”  The gentle answer brought an unexpected ache to the Kid’s heart.  It was something his Uncle John would have said.  He turned to go and felt a strong hand on his good arm.

            “You get back in the wagon.  I’m taking you home with me.  You’ve no business being out here in the shape you’re in.”

            “I can’t let you do that, Mr. Aames.  It would be too dangerous.  What about your wife?  What if Johnson comes poking around and finds me there?  You could go to jail permanent like for helping someone like me.”  He tried to shake off the hand that held him so tightly but it wouldn’t budge.

            “Someone once took me in when I was in trouble, Mr. Curry, and I’ve spent my life paying back that debt by helping people who are in need.  You are in need right now, and, outlaw or not, I won’t leave you out here to fend for yourself.  Now get in the wagon.”

            The Kid swayed a little as the past and the present swirled in his head.  The face was so familiar and the voice so calming.  His first instinct was to follow his instructions.  To do whatever he was told.  But this man wasn’t his uncle and he couldn’t let his kindness cost him everything that was dear to him.

            “I can’t,” the Kid said.  

            “You can,” Aames said with force and turned him around.  “Get on up there.  We need to be getting on home.”  He ushered him back into the wagon and smiled as the Kid fell back against the side.  “You just rest.  We’ll be there soon.”

 

******

 

            The sound of a barking dog roused the Kid just before the wagon came to a halt.  He was surprised that he had managed to doze off in the condition he was in.  He was cold and hungry and hurting and he knew he had to find a way to get away from this friendly stranger before his run of bad luck took them down with him. 

            A sweet voice shushed the dog as he waited for Aames to come get him.  He felt him vault off the seat and heard the happiness in his speech as he greeted his wife.

            “I hate going away, but I always love coming home to you,” he said as he took the rifle from his wife’s small hands and pulled her into a warm embrace.  Cherry Aames relinquished her burden and melted into his strong arms, raising her heart shaped face to his for a welcoming kiss.

            “You say that every time you come home,” she sighed.  Her relief was evident as her eyes glowed in the last light of day.  “I was beginning to get worried,” she confessed.

            “Well, Cherry, my love, it’s been a very eventful day.”  He grinned down at her and handed the gun back as he bent down to give Jip’s ears a tug.  “I’ll explain everything a little later, but first…we have company and he needs tending.”  He walked to the wagon and drew back the tarp to reveal their guest.

            The Kid slid out of the bed and stood leaning against the tailgate.  He tried to look presentable but it was no use and he knew it.  She was tall for a woman, but as supple as a willow with milk smooth skin and hair the color of sunshine.  Her eyes were open and friendly and the color of fresh spring grass.  She was also just barely rounding with child.    

            “Cherry, this is my new friend, Mr. Curry.”  Aames sent him a chagrinned look.  “I’m sorry…I don’t know your first name.”

            “Jed,” the Kid mumbled, then cleared his throat.  “It’s Jed, ma’am.  Jed Curry.”  He reached out to shake her hand and winced. 

“Mr. Curry!” she exclaimed, dropping the rifle in the dirt and startling the dog as she hurried forward.  “You’re hurt.  Oh, Sandy, why didn’t you tell me right away?  We must get him into the house.”

            “No,” the Kid protested to no avail.  “I’ll just bunk in the barn.  If I could trouble you for some water and bandages I can fix myself up.”

            “You’ll do no such thing.  You come right on into the house with me.”  She grabbed a hold of his good arm and began to drag him across the yard towards the open door of a cozy looking cabin.  “You look like you need more than just water and bandages.  I’ll bet your starving and freezing to boot.”  She quickly sat him down at the table before the fire and began to gather her things.

            The shock of going from cold to hot made his head spin, as did the constant chatter from his hostess, who seemed quite used to taking strangers into her house.  Before he knew it she had his coat off and was gently peeling back his blood soaked shirt to have a better look.

            “Why, it’s not near as bad as I thought,” she crooned as her gentle hands used warm water to clean the large gash across the top of his bicep.  He flinched once as she began her work, then was still.  She worked quickly, never letting her stream of conversation stop as she applied salve and a bandage and was just finishing up when Aames came in the door. 

            “If you’ll take off your shirt I’ll see what I can do about washing and mending it,” she said as her green eyes looked over his head to her husband.  “I’m sure Sandy won’t mind lending you one of his until we see what I can do.”

            “I’ll go fetch one, my dear, and then I think we should get this man some food.”  He passed through the large room and disappeared into what was surely their bedroom.  He returned almost immediately with a soft linen shirt the color of sun washed bricks, which he handed to him and then instantly helped him slip his arms into.

            “You really don’t have to do all this,” the Kid began, then fell silent when she gave him a stern look

            “You are a guest in our home, Mr. Curry.  It would be un-Christian of my husband and me to do anything else.”

            Moved beyond words he only nodded and let them do what they were going to do anyway.  In short order he was fed a hearty supper of stew, fresh milk and apple pie then firmly led into what they called their guest room and told to rest.  The bed was feather soft and he sank into it as easily as he sank into sleep.  He never knew when Cherry came in to check on him and gently tucked an extra quilt around him.

 

******

 

            Dreams of long ago followed him.  Han and Alex and Darius and Tommy and Jed.  Boys both dark and light, playing and running and teasing their sisters and getting into trouble.  Doing chores and slipping off when they thought they could get away with it.  Summers gigging for frogs and catching lightning bugs and watching corn snakes shed their skins.  His mother and father and his aunt and uncle.  Their smiling faces and the sound of their laughter.  Sunshine days when the light seemed to last forever and there wasn’t anything they couldn’t do if they all stuck together.

           Days before the darkness came and took all but two of them.  The smell of smoke and pain and heartache and death.  The cold of the orphanage and the bone weary hunger.  The unrelenting days of living without; without love…without laughter…without singing. 

            It disturbed his rest and unsettled him but soon a calm, sweet voice eased his mind with soft words and a cool hand on his brow.  With a huge sigh he gave up the dreams and slept without pain again.

 

******

 

            Heyes turned over in bed and sat up.  It was still night but the dawn was only a few minutes away and he knew without a doubt that the Kid was in trouble.  He had dreamed of family and of loss and of his mother.  He never dreamed those dreams unless there was something wrong and he knew that with the sunrise he would be heading south to find his partner.  The link was too strong and the fear too great not to. 

            Hang on, Kid, he whispered as he threw the covers back and began to dress.  Just hang on…

 

******

 

            The Kid woke to the sound of pinging against the windows.  For a moment he couldn’t remember where he was.  He sat up slowly and saw his coat hanging on the back of the door, the sleeve neatly mended.  His rig hung on the bedpost beside his head, within easy reach.  He was warm and comfortable under the quilts that he noticed were more plentiful than when he had gone to bed the night before.  Then the events from yesterday came flooding back. 

            The boy in the store, the burning pain as the bullet from the storekeepers gun grazed his shoulder, the mad dash for safety, the man with his partner’s face who had gone to jail for him and had still opened his home and hearth to him when he knew that he was a wanted man.   

He sat up slowly, taking inventory and realizing that he felt worlds better than he had yesterday.  His mind was clear and his arm was only a little stiff.  The bandage was dry so there had been no new bleeding in the night.  The sound that had awakened him intensified as he stood up and pulled his pants on before pushing back the curtain to reveal a world of icy white outside the window. 

More surprising Texas weather he thought as he watched the small pellets of ice hit the window ledge and bounce off to join their compatriots on the ground.  It wasn’t snow, but it was almost as bad.  Ice had a way of tearing things up worse than snow.  He had seen it gather it’s beautifully heavy load on surfaces until trees collapsed and roofs caved in under the pressure. 

How was he going to get back to Heyes if things like this kept happening?  All he wanted to do was to get back to Rimfire so that they could get out of Texas as fast as they could.  This trip had brought nothing but trouble and now he had brought that trouble to the doorstep of the two best good Samaritans.  He just had to find a way out of here.

He heard sounds of inhabitation coming from the other room so he finished dressing and opened his bedroom door.  The warmth from the huge fire in the fireplace enveloped him and he smiled as the scent of something cooking filled his senses. 

Cherry Aames stood by the table, a breath of spring in the midst of a wintry day.  She was wearing an apron over a plaid dress made of green and blue flannel and had her lovely fall of hair tied back with a ribbon.  She turned when she heard him and blessed him with a welcoming smile.

“Good morning, Mr. Curry.  How did you sleep?”  Her hands were elbow deep in bread dough and smudge of flour on her cheek only made her more lovely.

“Good morning, ma’am.”  He came forward and smiled down at her.  “I slept very well.  Thanks for the extra quilts.”

“Oh, you’re more than welcome.  When Sandy went out to check on the animals last night he said that it looked like we might have a storm coming in.  I wanted to make sure that you were comfortable.”  She worked as she talked, efficiently kneading and sprinkling and portioning her dough into the pans that sat all in a row on the table.  “I just need to get this bread to baking and then I’ll get you some breakfast.  I’m sure you’re starving.”

“You don’t need to go to any trouble, ma’am.”

“Oh, as I’ve said before.  It’s no trouble.  I love having company.”  She wiped her hands on a cloth and turned to put her pans into the oven.  Sandy is out in the barn.  He’ll be in shortly.  He wanted to make sure everyone was warm and dry until this little bit of late winter leaves us.  They told us when we moved here that Texas weather could be capricious, but until you’ve lived with it, you don’t really understand what they meant.”  She laughed softly as she picked up a frying pan and began to put together the makings for breakfast.

“Can I help you or your husband in any way?” 

“Yes, you can.”  She nodded to the dishes on the wall shelf.  “You can set the table for three and you can keep me company until Sandy gets back.”  She watched him out of the corner of her eye as he went about the small chore.  She was not afraid of him in the least, but she was curious.

“My husband says you are an outlaw, Mr. Curry.  Is that true?  Are you really Kid Curry?”

The Kid laid the last plate down and looked up at her with steady blue eyes. 

“Yes, ma’am.  I’m Kid Curry.”  He held his breath, waiting for the next words from her. 

“Well, I guess you never know what the Lord is going to send your way, do you?”  She turned the frying bacon over in the skillet and shook her head. 

“That doesn’t bother you, ma’am?” 

“Not really,” she answered honestly.  “The world is full of interesting people and I just consider myself lucky to get to meet some of them.” 

The Kid stepped closer to her and watched as she transferred the bacon to a plate and then began to fry eggs.  It was his turn for curiosity.

“Where do you and your husband hail from?  I mean, where did you grow up and how did you meet?”  He drew a chair around and sat backward on it, leaning his arms casually across it’s back.

“We grew up in Nebraska, actually.  Our families moved out there to farm after the war.  Things were hard and dangerous in Kansas so our fathers wanted a new start away from the meanness.”  She took the eggs up and placed them beside the bacon then opened the oven safe and pulled out a pan of biscuits.

“We’ve known each other since we were kids.  He’s been my best friend for as long as I can remember.”  She smiled as she sat the plate and the pan down on the table just as the door opened and Sandy came stomping in.  “Just in time,” she said, going to her husband and helping him off with his coat.  He grinned at her then made her shriek as he put his cold hands on each side of her face and planted a kiss on her welcoming mouth.

“Nothing like coming in from the cold to a warm house and a beautiful wife.”  He gently removed the flour from her cheek then let her go and laughed as she gave a little shudder and moved back towards the stove to retrieve the coffee pot.  She gave the Kid a ‘what can you do?’ look as she passed him.  He couldn’t help but smile as he stood and turned his chair around.

“How are you feeling this morning?” Aames said as he joined them and they all sat down together.

“Much better than yesterday,” the Kid admitted as food was handed to him and he added it to his plate.

“Good.  Good.  I’m glad.”  Aames paused and said grace before digging into the hot bounty before them.  “It’s about to blow over.  The clouds are breaking up already.  I figure by this afternoon we’ll have enough sun to get rid of all this.”

“Things sure do change fast around here,” the Kid said before sinking his teeth into a light fluffy biscuit. 

“That’s Texas for you.”  Aames took a big sip of hot coffee and sighed with pleasure. 

“Do you have a horse I could buy from you?” the Kid asked, changing the subject rather abruptly.  He was not comfortable taking advantage of people he was getting more and more attached to by the minute.

“I’m sure I can come up with something,” his host responded.  “But you don’t have to go right away do you?  I mean, I’ve never met a genuine wanted man before and I’ve got about a thousand questions to ask you.”

“Questions?”  The Kid swallowed hard and tried not to frown.

“Sure.  Like how long you been outlawin’ and what exactly are you wanted for and why did you go into such a questionable profession.”  He grinned at his guest with Heyes’ smile and devilish glint in his dark eyes and saw the instant recognition on his face.  “And how it is that I look so much like this partner of yours.”

“We’re family, actually,” the Kid began.  “Cousins.  Our mothers were sisters and our families farmed together in Kansas when we were boys.”  He watched as his words sent a cloud across Sandy’s face.  “Our families were killed when we were kids and, as I said before, we were sent to the orphanage.  Growing up there didn’t really make us good for much and we didn’t want to be farmers like our folks.  Heyes ran off and joined a gang before I was old enough to and then when I got let loose from the orphans home we met up again and just went from there.”

“I’m sure it wasn’t as easy as you make it sound,” Cherry said as she refilled their cups. 

“No, ma’am.  It wasn’t easy but, unfortunately, we found ourselves really good at it.  But we never shot anybody and we’ve only killed in self-defense.  But that don’t matter to many folks when they’re looking at the bounty on us and the posters do say dead or alive.”

“I haven’t heard much about either of you lately.  Have you started doing other things or are you just trying to lay low?”  Sandy idly reached for his wife’s hand and gently caressed the back of it.  Cherry recognized it for the gesture it was and easily turned hers over so that their fingers slid together.  Her husband was unsettled by something and it wasn’t harboring an outlaw.

“Well, we’ve sort of made a deal with the Governor of Wyoming that if we can stay out of trouble for a few years he will give us amnesty.  No one is supposed to know about it, but that’s the reason.  That’s why I’m down here without Heyes.  I was doing a favor for an influential friend and was on my way back to Rimfire to meet up with my partner.  Then things went a little south on me, as you well know.”

“The sheriff made it very clear to me how much you and your cousin are worth.  A very avaricious man, to be sure.”  Aames remembered clearly the warning in Johnson’s voice and the threat. 

“I’m really sorry you got caught up in this,” the Kid apologized sincerely.  “It’s just…well…you just look so much like my partner.  You could easily be mistaken for him.  You sure you aren’t from Kansas?”

“We started out in Kansas, but moved to Nebraska when I was a boy.” 

“Mrs. Aames told me that when she was fixin’ breakfast.  I don’t remember any Aames’ in our family tree but it’s a real wonder just how much you favor him.  But we don’t have any family left except each other, so I guess it’s just a coincidence.”  The Kid sat back and fingered his cup.  “I’m much obliged for all your help, but I really need to be moving on.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” Cherry responded immediately.  “You can’t leave in this messy weather and besides, one more day won’t hurt you.  There’s no one for miles around and with the storm we won’t have company for at least a week.  You’ll stay for at least another night.  Your arm will be all the better for it.”  She stood and began clearing the table.

“She’s made for you,” the Kid said under his breath as his eyes met Sandy’s.

“Don’t I know it,” Sandy agreed, his smile not quite reaching his eyes.

 

******

Heyes rode through the storm, the tiny pieces of ice blowing in his face and down the back of his coat.  A great sense of urgency filled him and pushed him forward.  He had to find the Kid.  Soon.  Or it was going to be too late.  He reined up as he saw the signpost for Tumbleweed.  With any luck he would make it there before it got dark.  It was past time for him to have seen a sign of his partner.  Something was wrong and every instinct he had screamed it to him.  He pushed on and prayed that there would be word in Tumbleweed.

 

******

 

   The Kid recognized a happy couple when he saw one and Sandy and Cherry Aames were the real thing.  He watched them go through the routine of their day, helping each other and working side by side to get the every day chores done.  He jumped in to help and by afternoon they were caught up and all enjoying quiet time inside where it was warm and dry. 

Cherry sat contently in her rocking chair, mending the tear in the Kid’s freshly laundered shirt, her long nimble fingers quickly piecing the cloth back together.  She had miraculously been able to get all the blood out though the Kid would never know how.  Sandy was going over the books while the Kid was repairing a broken bridle he had found in the barn. 

It was the excited barking of Jip that brought Sandy to his feet.  He closed his ledgers and moved to the window to peer out.

“What’s got Jip so riled up?” Cherry asked, noting the worried look on her husband’s face.

“Don’t know, but I guess I’ll go have a look.”  He reached for his coat and motioned for the Kid to stay where he was when he started to rise as well.  “Stay here.  I don’t know if someone’s out there or not.”  He snagged the rifle and slipped out the door.

“He’s worried,” Cherry sighed, her hands crumpling the finished shirt in her grasp.

“About what?” the Kid said as he stood up and let his hand rest lightly on the handle of his gun. 

“I don’t know.  I think it’s you.”  Her green gaze found his blue one.

“I said I’d leave right away.  I don’t want either of you to suffer for helping me.” 

“It’s not that.  It’s the remembering about your family.  It’s the resemblance to your cousin and how your face registers it every time you look at him.”  She put her sewing things aside and rose gracefully to face him.  “He was an orphan, too.  He doesn’t remember his real family or where he came from.  The Aames’ took him in and adopted him but he was so small that he doesn’t have any memories of the first years of his life.”

“H…how old was he when he was adopted?”

“I don’t know and neither does he.  He says that God must have a reason for not wanting him to remember so he just accepts it.  The only thing he does know is that his name is Alexander.”

The Kid’s face drained of all color at her words and she reached to steady him.

“Did you say Alex…?” was all he managed to get out before the door burst open behind them and Sandy came rushing back in..

“The sleet has collapsed the roof on the henhouse!”  He put the rifle back in place and turned to go back out.  “I’ve got to go clean up the mess.”  He grinned and shook his head.  “So much for a quiet afternoon.”

“I’ll help you,” the Kid managed as he reached for his own coat.  He sent Cherry a pensive look and then followed Sandy out the door.

They worked the rest of the day, fixing the roof and resettling the hens.  It was hard, dirty work but by the time the clouds moved on over and the sleet stopped falling they had things repaired and in better than new condition. 

The Kid had worked in silence as his mind turned over what Cherry had told him.  Could Sandy Aames be his long lost cousin Alexander Heyes?  Could, by some miracle, he have been absent from the house just as he and Heyes had been and had escaped the massacre of their families?  Alex was born the same year as he was and Sandy looked to be of the same age.  Did things like this really happen to them and how would he be able to explain it to Heyes or to keep this kind of information a secret so that Sandy and Cherry could remain safe.  He wished that Heyes was here to be able to think what they needed to do.  

They washed up in the horse trough and headed for the cabin as dusk began to paint the sky a lovely shade of orange.  Tired and hungry they didn’t notice that the porch lights were not lit until it was too late.  Sandy crossed the porch and opened the door and stopped so suddenly that the Kid almost ran into him from behind.

Cherry sat bound and gagged to a chair beside the kitchen table.  Beside her stood the sheriff from Rock City, his large frame hovering over her, his six-gun at her neck.  Both men froze where they were.

“Come in.  Come in,” Johnson said, his eyes gleaming.  “I thought you two would never get that henhouse fixed.  You sure took your own sweet time about it.  Why, me and the missus have been in here for what seems like hours.  Isn’t that right, Mrs. Aames?”  He pressed the gun down harder and they watched as her eyes pleaded for help.

“Let her go,” the Kid barked, stepping forward with his hands up.  “It’s me you want and we both know it.”

“Oh, yes.  It’s you I want.  But I want the reward on both of you.  Twenty thousand dollars is just too good a prize to let slip through my fingers.  I can turn you both in and be set for life.”

“But he’s not my partner!”  The Kid took another step forward, his eyes blazing.  “This man is not Hannibal Heyes.”

“It won’t be a problem, as much as he looks like him,” Johnson sneered.  “All I have to do is kill you both and take your bodies into town.  By the time someone gets down here to verify that you are Kid Curry and Hannibal Heyes you won’t be in good enough shape for it to matter.  I’ll get my money and no one will be the wiser.”

“You can’t murder these people in cold blood,” the Kid began to plan just how close he would have to be to rescue Cherry.  She sat perfectly still, her eyes locked on Sandy’s.

“Oh, Mr. Curry, I can do whatever I want to do at this point.  I’m the one holding the gun.”  He used his free hand to stroke Cherry’s hair.  “I’m sorry to have to kill her, too, but I can’t have anyone finding out what I’ve done.”

“You keep your hands off my wife,” Sandy growled, his dark eyes flashing with helpless anger.  He took a step forward then stopped when Johnson cocked back the hammer.

“I can do it now or later.  It’s up to you.” 

The Kid turned to Sandy and put his hands up to restrain him.  Their eyes met and the Kid mouthed the word ‘table’ and the plan fell into place as if they had spoken it out loud.  He turned to face their foe and raised his hands again as Sandy took another step forward.

“Don’t hurt her,” Sandy pleaded, his eyes going from the sheriff’s face to Cherry’s and then back again.  “Please.  Don’t hurt her.” 

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a man beg.  And you ain’t even doin’ it for yourself.  It’s mighty touching but it ain’t going to do you any good.”

“No, I don’t suppose it will.”  Sandy stepped forward two more steps and the lawman raised the gun to stop him.  The Kid shot forward and hit the edge of the table sending it into the sheriff and knocking him backwards.  Cherry’s chair went over in the commotion but did not hit the floor as Sandy dove under her to break her fall.  In a flash the Kid’s gun came up and he fired only once.  The bullet caught Johnson in the heart and sent him to hell in an instant.

Sandy wrapped his arms around Cherry and held onto her trembling body as the Kid disarmed the dead man and then came over and undid the ropes that held her to the chair. 

“Are you alright?” he asked as he shielded her from the sight on her kitchen floor. 

“Yes,” she said as soon as Sandy had removed the gag.  “I’m fine now.”  She burrowed closer to her husband and did not protest as he stood and lifted her into his strong arms.  He headed for their room and closed the door behind them.

 

******

 

The Kid put the room to rights and quickly removed the body to the barn.  By the time he had the blood cleaned up Sandy had come out of the bedroom again, his face still ashen.  He stopped and looked around the room, amazed at what had just happened here in his usually quiet home and stunned at what the Kid had accomplished in such a short time.

“I’m sorry I didn’t help,” he mumbled, his hands going into his back pockets and his eyes not quite able to meet the sympathetic ones of his guest.

“You had something more important to take care of,” the Kid said simply.  “How is Cherry?”

“She’s resting.  I…had to hold her for a while.  She says she’s fine and that the baby is fine, too.  I don’t know what I would have done if…”

“I know.  You don’t have to say anything else.”  The Kid bent down and retrieved his shirt from the floor where it had fallen.  “I think I need to get my things and get going.” 

“I’m sorry, but I think that would be for the best.  I just can’t take any more risks.  Not with Cherry and the baby.  Not anymore.”  He ran a hand through his tousled hair and shuddered at what could have happened.  “I’ll go saddle you a horse.”

The Kid stood watching as he quickly left the room.  Without another thought he quickly shed the shirt he had borrowed and put his own back on.  When he had his coat and hat on as well he softly knocked on Cherry’s door. 

“I just wanted to check on you before I left,” he said as he came to stand beside the bed where she lay propped up on the pillows.  “I’m sorry for all the trouble and I hope you and the baby are going to be alright.”

She smiled up at him and took his hand.

“We’re going to be just fine.  I don’t know how we’re going to explain a dead sheriff, but I’m sure Sandy will come up with something.  He’s very clever that way, though he hates to lie.”  Her eyes suddenly filled with tears and her voice shook as she continued.

“Do you really think that my husband is your cousin’s brother?  Could my Sandy be kin to you and him?”  At his guarded look she sent him a watery smile.  “I saw the look on your face when I said that Sandy’s name was Alexander.  Your Hannibal had a brother named Alexander, didn’t he?”

“Yes.  Hannibal, Alexander and Darius.  My uncle was a soldier and he named all his sons after great military leaders.  He named his only girl Helen.  My aunt thought he was crazy, but she let him.”  The Kid smiled pensively.  “Cherry, I don’t know if Sandy is my cousin, but I do know that until we get our amnesty that you can’t be any part of our lives.  Just look what happened here today.  That sheriff was going to kill all of us for the bounty.  You can’t take the risk.”

“You’d keep this a secret from Sandy?  You’d keep this from your cousin as well?” 

“To keep the two of you…all of you…safe, you bet I would.”

She saw the wisdom of this but knew she despaired of ever being able to keep it from her husband.  They were always honest with each other, that was the number one rule and this was too big to keep secret.

“I’ll have to tell him,” she said, her eyes falling to where their hands met.  “I can’t keep it from him.  I don’t want to keep it from him.”  She looked up at him and he saw the depth of her love in eyes.

“You do what you need to do, Cherry.  Just  please wait until I’m gone.”

“I will, Jed.  And please take care of yourself and your partner.  Know that you are both always welcome in our home.”

“You humble me,” he said as he bent forward and placed a kiss on her forehead.  “Goodbye.”  He turned and headed towards the door.

“Jed,” she called out and waited until he turned.  “What was your uncle’s name?”

“John,” he said as a huge lump formed in his throat.  “His name was John.” 

“John,” she repeated and smiled as her hands gently caressed her round stomach.  “Thank you.  Fair well and be careful.”

“I’ll try.” 

 

******

           

            Sandy was waiting for him by the barn with a paint pony saddled and ready.  They shook hands and both men felt a certain awkwardness that upset them both. 

            “What are you going to tell the sheriff in Tumbleweed?” the Kid asked as he fished around in his pocket for his money. 

            “I guess I’ll tell him the truth but leave you out of it.  I can’t afford any more trouble.”  He gave him a wry grin then frowned when he saw what he was doing.

            “If you’re thinking about giving me money for this horse you’d better think again,” he said with such authority that the Kid found himself doing another double take.  “After what you did today, I owe you a whole herd of horses, so just put your money away.”

            Sandy, I just don’t feel right about not paying you for the doctoring and the food and everything else.  Please, I know money doesn’t grow on trees.”

            “I don’t charge family,” he said, stunning the Kid into silence.  “I feel like there might be some kind of connection between us and I know you feel it too.  But I’m going to have to ask you to wait until you’re clear of the law before we try to explore it.”  His dark eyes were somber as they looked into his clear blue ones.  “Can we do that…cousin?”

           “Ah, yeah.  I think maybe we should.”  The Kid stood looking at him for a long moment the nodded and mounted up.  “I hope to be seeing you again some day, Sandy.  You take care of Cherry and that baby.”

            “You know I will.”  He stepped back and waved as the Kid headed down the road towards Rimfire and his partner.  “God speed, cousin,” he said under his breath as he watched him disappear around the bend.  “God speed.”

 

******

 

            The Kid had just turned onto the main road when a rider coming his way made him stop and grin.  He reined up and waited, thinking his eyes must be deceiving him but knowing in his gut that they weren’t.  It was so good to see his cousin coming up the road that he just sat there and soaked up the sight.  As Heyes grew near he took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow then crossed his arm across his saddle.

            “Been lookin’ for you,” Heyes said as he pulled his mount to a halt.  The Kid looked none the worse for wear except that his coat had a newly repaired hole in it and he was riding an entirely different horse than the one he had started out on.

            “You couldn’t wait for me to get back to Rimfire?” the Kid teased, his tongue firmly in his cheek.  “Aw, Heyes.  I’m touched.”

            “You’re touched alright,” Heyes said in a huff.  Here he had been worrying about him and he was as right as rain.  “I got tired of waiting.  Thought maybe you had run into some trouble so I decided to head this way and see if I needed to get your sorry butt out of a jam.  I see I was mistaken.”

            “Heyes, you wouldn’t believe the things I’ve been through on this trip,” the Kid started, as he stirred his horse and it fell into step with Heyes’.

            “No, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me in great detail, whether I want to hear it or not.”  Heyes scowled over at him and then let his relief show in a face splitting grin.  “I was getting worried,” he said softly.

            “I was getting a little worried myself, but I’m glad to report that I survived my little adventure and now you’re going to have to hear about it.  It’s only fair, since you gave me the hard job.”

            “Hard job!  Hard job?  Have you been hit on the head recently, Kid?  How does escorting two ladies to San Antonio equal a hard job?  Try riding on a stagecoach with mail and payroll on it and having to have eyes in the back of your head to keep someone from stealing it.”

            The Kid settled into the saddle and into the routine of being Hannibal Heyes’ partner.  He would tell him about Sandy and Cherry in his own good time, but for now, he was content to ride beside him and count him as his friend.

 

The End