by Terri Sutro
"Merry Christmas, Heyes." Kid Curry smiled, a little embarrassed by his words. He handed his partner a gaily wrapped, twine-bound package.
Hannibal Heyes looked up from the stack of train schedules and newspapers that he'd been studying. "Huh." He eyed the package, interest growing in his dark eyes, but made no move to take it. Instead, he focused his gaze on his cousin.
"Thought we weren't gonna do this this year. Money's tight, Kid, you shouldn't have wasted it on . . . well, on whatever that is."
Heyes' eyes clouded. This time of year routinely opened the wound the two men shared: they were the only family each had. Heyes always pushed Christmas away, hoping to avoid the memories and the sadness that seemed to envelop him and Kid. He frowned at the other man, wondering what Kid was doing, why he was just digging it all up. He turned his gaze away from the package, looking out the window at the snow that had begun falling in early morning, and showed no signs of stopping as the day progressed.
"So, you're saying you don't want it." Kid didn't move his hand, but left it outstretched toward Heyes. He knew the man well enough to know how much he wanted to open the package. He just had to get around to it in his own way.
Heyes squinted at the man he'd spent his life with. There was something in Kid's voice. It wasn't teasing, exactly. And it wasn't hurt feelings, exactly. It was more of a challenge. He frowned. Kid only did this when it was important. And they both knew that. He itched to take the package, his curiosity growing as he watched the broadening smile light his cousin's deep blue eyes.
"I don't have anything for you, that's all. Don't seem fair." He lifted his hand, then hesitated.
Kid threw back his head and laughed heartily. "Ya know, Heyes, you might just be the stubbornest man in the whole world. Now, if you don't want this, that's fine. I'll just give it to someone else. Why, I bet old Wheat would take it."
Curry moved his hand a fraction, as though he fully intended to retract both it and the package. Heyes caught it before it moved very far, the tiniest of smiles breaking through.
"Now, I didn't say that. I just feel bad, that's all." He sighed and finally took the package, shaking his head. Kid knows me too well. Inspecting it carefully, he turned it over to look at each side. He held it to his ear and shook it, frowning again. There was no sound save the rustle of the red and green paper wrapping.
Curry laughed again and pulled up a chair. "Always used to do that. Tried to figure out what was in the package 'fore you got it unwrapped."
Heyes grinned sheepishly. "Should I open it?" His voice was that of the eight-year-old boy who asked the same question of his pa one Christmas morning. The last Christmas morning before there were no more Christmases.
"Well, course you should open it. What d'ya think you should do, sit there and look at it?" Curry laughed again and put his hand on his cousin's arm. He knew where Heyes' thoughts were headed. His voice was gentler when he spoke again. "Ain't all that much, Heyes. So just get on with it."
Finally a smile creased Heyes' face. Hesitancy abandoned, he tore open the package with enthusiasm. "Sure used a lot of twine," he mumbled, grinning. He looked surprised as he held the object in his hands. "Where on Earth did you get this?" He looked from the gift to Curry, the smile fading to a look of surprise and wonder; his baritone voice was husky.
"See, told you it weren't that much." The younger man touched the black enameled object.
Heyes was holding the gift as if it were a bar of the purest gold. He tried to smile, but he was afraid if he did the memories would return with it. He knew he'd have no chance of stopping them if they did.
"Where'd you find it?" he whispered, not looking at Kid. He turned the object over and over in his hands, almost reverently, almost willing it to not be there. Almost.
"Now, it's not the same one, of course. Ya know that. I saw it when we were in Porterville the last time. Don't know why exactly I found it, but there it was and, well, it seemed to be the thing that needed buyin'. It's like . . . well, it's just like that one, isn't it?" Curry's strong hands reached out and stilled Heyes' restless ones. "Heyes?"
Heyes coughed and cleared his throat, his slender hands now surrounding the object. "Yeah, just like it." There was a funny smile in his eyes when he looked up, a smile prompted by a memory that didn't hurt. That memory brought warmth to a heart long closed to such things. He met his friend's eyes, knowing they shared the memory of lives lived before. Kid was smiling, willing him to remember that particular Christmas. . . .
"Han?" Jedediah Curry scratched his head and turned to his cousin. "Han?" he repeated, nudging the other boy with his fist when he was ignored.
"Yeah, Jed. What?" Hannibal Heyes' gaze was fixed on the wagon slowly making its way down the main street of Lawrence, Kansas on a blustery December 20, 1862 afternoon.
"What's in the wagon again?" Jed would have preferred to be building snowmen, or playing cowboys, or seeing if he could sneak an extra cookie out of the jar his mother always kept in the kitchen. He didn't see any reason to be in town, watching a wagon. He'd tagged along when Han had come to town with his folks, but he sure didn't see anything interesting about what they were doing, which was standing in the middle of the street, watching a wagon hauling a big black box. Besides, it was snowing, his nose was running, and the mittens his mother had forced him to wear weren't doing the job of keeping his hands warm out on the freezing street.
Hannibal Heyes sighed the long-suffering sigh of an eight and one half- almost nine-year-old. "I told you, Jed, it's a safe. That's where folks put their money so it's, well, so it's safe."
"Safe from what, Han?" Lawrence was about as safe as six and a half-year-old Jed Curry could imagine.
"From robbers, of course. Pa said this was a special safe. No one can break into it. Came all the way from Philadelphia, Pa said." Hannibal was trying his best to make Jed see how serious this was. He frowned, then sighed. Jed was just too young to understand.
Hannibal watched the heavy wagon, pulled by eight sturdy workhorses, approach the bank.
"Why do people rob safes, Han? They shouldn't take stuff that don't belong to them." Jed knew that for a fact. His Ma and Pa had always told him not to take things that didn't belong to him. He tried to mimic his cousin, studying the on-coming wagon, but he was cold and tired and hungry and not very interested in a safe at all. "Can we go get some candy, Han?"
"You go on, Jed, I wanna watch the safe. Pa said he didn't know how they'd get it into the bank. Why, it's bigger 'n our whole house." Hannibal started walking down the street to meet the wagon.
Jed, following as quickly as he could, reached out and grabbed his cousin's arm. "But, Han, I wanna build a snowman. Can we play cowboys, Han? My pa said I could have a real gun when I was more growed up. Just like the one in the shootin' match, Han. I'm gonna win this year; I just know it. And then I can have a real gun. I'm gonna practice, 'til I'm real fast. I'll teach you if'n you want, Han." He ran into his cousin, who suddenly stopped and turned to face him.
"Jed, why'd I wanna learn to shoot a gun? Not like there's ever gonna be a need to. Not here, anyway." He swept his arms around. "Anyway, maybe I'll go work for old Mr. Simpson at the bank. I'm good with figures. He'd pay me lots of money." At the disappointed look in his cousin's blue eyes, Hannibal smiled. "Well, I guess it wouldn't hurt none to know how to shoot a gun. Okay, Jed, you can show me. Maybe when I'm working at the bank, you can make sure it don't get robbed." He stopped for a moment. "I really want to see the safe now, okay?"
Mollified, the younger boy grinned. "Sure, Han. I can watch real good and shoot anyone who tries to hold up the bank." Jed stood still for what seemed like forever. "Can we go now?" He started tugging on Hannibal's arm again. "It's just a big box. Come on, Han."
With a pained look, Hannibal watched the wagon creep ever closer to the bank, wanting to stay but knowing he was responsible for Jed. He made a promise to himself that he'd take a closer look at that safe real soon.
"But Pa, can't we go see the safe?" Hannibal had nearly exhausted everyone in the house with that question.
Daniel Heyes frowned at his oldest son. He'd been trying with little success to ignore the boy's persistence for the past four days. He studied the determined face in front of him. He'd obviously inherited his grandfather's stubbornness.
"Why is seein' that safe so all-fired important, Hannibal? Not like we've got enough money to even bother worrying about lockin' it up in a bank anyway."
Hannibal thought for a moment. "I heard Mr. Simpson talking about it. He said he bought it so no outlaw would ever rob his bank. I wanna see how an outlaw would do it." At the frown on his father's face, he re-thought his comment. "Not like I'm gonna rob it, Pa. I just gotta see it. Please, Pa? We've gotta go to town tomorrow anyway to go to church." It was evident that Hannibal would have gladly given up the one for the other.
The man stifled a grin. "Goin' to church isn't exactly the same as goin' to the bank, son." The man once again studied the young face. His mother's eyes. Can't talk sense to her either when she gets that determined look. "All right. We'll see if Mr. Simpson will let you take a look at the safe, but not tomorrow. It's Christmas Day." His look silenced the words his son was about to voice.
Hannibal sighed. It didn't seem like he'd ever get to see that safe.
Christmas was a special time for the Heyes and Curry families. They enjoyed mixing the traditions of the country they'd left and the country they'd found.
A week earlier, James Curry and Daniel Heyes took the boys out to find their trees. The two men and six boys tromped through the woods behind their adjoining farms to find just the right ones. They loaded them onto the wagon and brought them home; the arrival accompanied by genial arguments with their wives as to the perfect place to put them.
Brigid Curry and Muireann Heyes had been cleaning for weeks. They'd scrubbed both homes from top to bottom and laundered everything in sight. They'd supervised their husbands and sons in white-washing the two homes until they were satisfied the holiday could be properly welcomed.
Days before, the baking started. Rachel Curry, nearly eleven, took her place with the women. They prepared and gently put away the plum pudding, finished early enough so that it should be ready for Christmas dinner. They made the traditional seed cakes, one for each member of the family, that would be given on Christmas Day. They often worked together, first in one kitchen, then in the other. Brigid and Muireann Ferguson were not only sisters, they were friends. They'd chatter continuously while working, filling the houses with the scent of gingerbread and the sound of carols while they made Christmas for their families.
All the children had surveyed the countryside for pine boughs and holly sprigs to decorate the houses. They hung garlands and wreaths throughout the houses and on the doors, making sure they chose the very best greenery, bedecked with bright red berries. Holly was important; tradition held that on Christmas Eve night an angel stood on every spike of holly.
They'd laid the candles out, ready for lighting. The larger candles went into sconces made from turnips filled with flour – one each for Daniel and James, Muireann and Brigid; one for Grampa Curry. Each child got a small, colored candle of their own.
They'd hidden some mistletoe in surprise places and explained to Rachel that, if a boy caught her under its tiny bouquet, she owed him a kiss and he owed her a present. Rachel thought about this and told them that she'd be very careful who she got caught by. The two women looked at each other and smiled, explaining that, as a beautiful young lady, it wasn't a question of who she'd be getting caught by, but who she'd be catching. She looked curiously at them for a time, then smiled the smile of a girl who'd be a young woman soon, and who understood exactly what her mother and aunt were saying.
They'd sat around a table laden with a platter of cookies, scraps of cloth and paper, buttons and spools, and made trees and bells and angels and hearts to hang on the Christmas trees. Each year one of the children was selected to place the angel on the top of the Curry's tree and the star on the top of the Heyes'. This year Rachel would do the honors for her family and Alexander Heyes would finish his family's Christmas tree.
A tradition they'd brought from the old country was a visit and a small gift for the tradesmen they knew. They also joined friends in visits to families who were not able to provide for their families, bringing baskets of food and decorations. Spending time with each, they tried to share their feeling for this time of year with their neighbors. While not wealthy, both families tried their hardest to fill the season with tradition and with fun.
At noon on Christmas Eve, James Curry and Daniel Heyes had joined hands and held the shotgun that fired the traditional salute – the "grussensshus." As all of the boys would be old enough by next year, they'd promised that the winner and runner up of the shooting contest would have the honor the next Christmas.
The families gathered at the Heyes farm for Christmas Eve dinner. It began with the tradition of lighting a large, red candle that had been placed on the table in the parlor. At 6 p.m. sharp, the youngest children, Jed Curry and Conor Heyes, held the match and lit the candle together.
The adults gasped when the boys turned around, their combined movement causing the candle to go out. They bowed their heads in silent prayer against the omen that held someone was to die. Then, with exchanged glances, they embraced the holiday spirit again, so as to not frighten the children.
The families held hands around the table and listened as Hannibal said the prayer. Daniel and Muireann exchanged glances as they listened to their son. He had his father's soul and his mother's spirit – and sometimes the reverse – and his grandfather's gift of blarney. They suddenly realized how grown-up their first-born had become, and tried not to laugh when the prayer included mention of a visit to the bank.
There was much laughter as the spiced beef, potatoes and vegetables were passed from hand to hand. They all sighed when it was done, happily moving to the parlor for coffee and Christmas Cake, and just a bit of good Irish whiskey for the men.
Hannibal wondered if he was old enough to join them this year. His mother looked aghast as his uncle let him take a sip, but was relieved by his reaction. Everyone laughed as Hannibal choked and coughed, his eyes streaming from the fire the golden liquid had started in his throat and stomach. He said he wanted to try it again, but his mother quickly said no and pulled him over next to her on the sofa.
They sat in front of the blazing fire and listened to Grampa Curry re-tell tales from the old country. They'd heard the stories over and over, but somehow they never grew old. He told them tales of how no prayer would be unanswered on Christmas Eve, and of how snow on Christmas Eve meant geese were being plucked in Heaven. They sang carols while Grampa Curry played his fiddle.
All joined in playing pantomimes, laughing uproariously as James pretended to be Cinderella and Brigid played the Prince. They all grinned at her blush when he ended the play by kissing her soundly.
Then, in a solemn procession, they each took their red candles, sheltering the flames with their hands, and set them on the windowsill. A light to remind them of another family that, once upon a time, a long time ago, sought shelter on a Christmas Eve night.
The evening ended with Daniel Heyes reciting A Visit From Saint Nicholas. Everyone sat spellbound as the baritone voice began, "Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house. . ."
Finally, the night over, the families bid farewell to one another. The Currys bundled up in their wagon for the short trip home. Alexander and Conor raced back to the warmth of the house. Daniel slid his arm around Muireann's waist, pulling her to him as they walked toward the door. Hannibal stood silently, watching them. Finally they turned and smiled at him, opening their arms to collect him as he ran to them.
Once inside, he started to latch the door, but they stopped him.
"The doors are always left unlatched on Christmas Eve, son, as a sign of hospitality; in case weary travelers need shelter." Daniel knelt so he was eye-level with his son. The same tradition would be carried out at the Curry home.
Another tradition was mirrored in both homes. Seven young faces snuggled in their beds, trying as hard as they could to keep sleepy eyes open, knowing that this year, they'd catch Santa Claus leaving them their presents.
Christmas Day was cold. Flurries of snow dusted the ground and the trees. The three Heyes boys raced to see what was in their stockings, and in the brightly-wrapped packages under the tree. Their father caught them, finding a way to wrap his arms around them all.
"So, we're eager, are we? Don't we say something this morning, boys? Alexander? Conor?" He paused. "Hannibal? Are ye forgettin'?"
Hannibal scrunched up his face for a moment, then smiled happily at his father. "An Nollaig, Pa. Merry Christmas."
The other boys shouted the greeting before managing to squirm away and reach the tree.
"An Nollaig, me darlin's." Muireann Heyes stepped out of the kitchen and handed her husband a steaming mug of coffee.
The boys turned, hearing their mother's voice. "Merry Christmas, Ma," they cried in unison, running back to hug her. Eagerness was etched on the three small faces, and they shouted happily once she shooed them back toward the tree.
Permission finally given, the three boys tore open the packages and dug into their stockings: an apple in the toe and an orange in the heel, a tiny leather bag of chocolate, another with a few coins, some blocks for Conor, a hand-carved and painted train set.
There were more shouts as they unwrapped each car and attached them together. Their father and uncle and grandfather had spent many evenings carving the set all the children would share – three cars at this house, three at the other to be joined and traded and played with.
Other presents soon were discovered: new boots and a harmonica for seven-year-old Alexander; another hand-carved piece, a rocking horse for Conor, who turned five only the month before; for Hannibal, a real black cowboy hat and new books – The Boy's Book of Indian Battles and Adventures, A Pictorial History of the West, Gulliver's Travels.
"'Tis enough celebratin'. Alexander, Conor, Hannibal, come along now. Let's get you ready for church." Muireann Heyes gathered up the two younger boys and shooed them into their bedroom. Hannibal started to follow.
"Wait, son, I have one more thing for you. My father gave them to me and, well, I think you're old enough to appreciate them." Daniel Heyes motioned for Hannibal to join him on the sofa and handed him a wooden box.
Hannibal took the box, looking questioningly at his father. He held it to his ear and shook it, turning red as his father laughed.
"Can I open it, Pa?"
"Well, course you should open it. Won't do ya much good just looking at the box." His booming laugh filled the room.
Hannibal cautiously unclasped the hinge on the box and opened the lid. His eyes grew wide when he saw the set of toy soldiers made from heavy metal, and painted in bright red and blue. There were even elephants. He dumped them into his lap, picking up one, then another, and examining them carefully. His father had promised to teach him all about the military battle led by a famous general with his name, but he'd never imagined he'd be given his father's box of soldiers.
He carefully put the figures back in their box and turned to his father. "They're for me?"
Daniel Heyes took the box. "Of course they're for you, son. One day you'll be givin' them to your son. In the meanwhile, maybe I'll teach you about how great generals lead their men in battle. Maybe we'll both learn something. . ." His voice trailed off as he re-clasped the lid of the box of little men, holding it tightly, eyes closed, lost for a moment in thought.
The adults had agreed that the children would be told when they turned ten, if the hated war was still raging, or if there was a need for them to know. The Curry twins, Rachel and Patrick knew, and Hannibal and Michael Curry would know soon. Their parents would tell them their father and uncle and grandfather were leaders in a cause most dangerous: helping slaves escape to freedom. Abolitionists walked a line between North and South, a line that had gotten many killed. It was a fact never far from the mind of either Daniel Heyes or James Curry, or the two women who loved them enough to share their work.
There was something in his father's voice that made Hannibal turn his gaze to the man. He didn't understand what he meant, or why his father was suddenly quiet. His father was a farmer. He didn't lead men in battle. Hannibal was confused. He knew his father spent time with other men in town, at meetings in the church Hall, but that was just farm talk.
Or was it? Hannibal suddenly felt afraid. He remembered how scared he'd been during the Free State wars. His friend Will's parents had been killed by bad men, and Will had had to go to the Home for Waywards. There was no place else for him. He sensed the same tone in his father's voice now as there had been the day he'd told his son about the deaths.
His father opened his eyes and caught his son as the boy's lip began to quiver. "Here now, nothin' for you to be worried about. It's Christmas. Nothin' can be sad on Christmas Day." He cleared his throat. "I was goin' to wait to surprise you, but. . ." He smiled at the expectant look on Hannibal's face. "Well, I'm still not sure why it's so important, but I'll talk to Mr. Simpson tomorrow about showing you that safe you're so curious about." He hugged his son.
Hannibal's smile was bright enough to light the room. "Really, Pa? I get to see it? Up close and everything? Can I try to open it, Pa? Can I see what's inside?" Any fear Hannibal had felt was lost in the excitement of having his Christmas Eve prayer answered. "I've gotta go tell Jed, Pa. Is it all right?"
He didn't give his father a chance to reply, leaping from the sofa and heading for the door.
His mother caught him, holding the struggling boy tight. "Not before you put your coat on, Hannibal, you'll catch your death out there. Anyway, we'll be catching up with all the Currys in just a few minutes." She smiled, knowing exactly what was going to happen.
Twisting away from his mother, he dashed out, yelling that he'd be glad to tell them that everyone was on the way. Of course no one had asked him to be the messenger, but that was a detail Hannibal didn't concern himself with.
His parents laughed. This had been the way Christmas Day started since Hannibal and Jed decided they were best friends. No announcement was really needed; both families always spent the day together, starting with the ride into town for church, and culminating with dinner. As Christmas Eve had been spent at the Heyes' home, Christmas Day would be at the Curry's. They'd trade off the next year. So it had been for as long as they'd been in this new country – from the time the sisters had found the two men they'd pledged share their lives with and had come West from Pennsylvania to finally settle in Lawrence.
They watched their oldest son run across the snowy ground. Muireann Heyes was wearing the slender strand of pearls her husband had given her. He was smoking the new pipe, packed with the special fragrant tobacco she had found just for him. She'd given him another gift, too, a special one they thought might never come. A gift that made him hold her a bit tighter against the cold: a new child to be born by summer.
She frowned slightly. "Always running. He's a dreamer, Daniel." She shook her head. "He'll catch his death of cold," she said as she closed the door. She rested her head on her husband's shoulder, grateful for the momentary quiet.
"Ah, Molly, the way the boy's running, he'll outrun the cold. Anyway, it's not far to James and Brigid's. They'll warm him up sure enough." He kissed her gently, brushing an errant curl from her face. He looked into her dark eyes. "I pray he'll keep his dreams, m'love. With the world as it is today, a child with dreams is the fortunate one."
Hannibal could barely restrain himself as he raced over the snowy ground to the Curry farm. He was red-cheeked and puffing bursts of cold frosty air by the time he arrived. He pounded on the door of the house, eager to get inside, but there was no answer. In fact, there were none of the usual noises coming from the house. And Jed hadn't burst through the door to meet him. All was quiet.
Hannibal frowned and tried to peek in the windows on either side of the door to see where everyone was, but the spots not covered by the curtains were frosted over.
"Jed! Jed, you in there?" he called out, his young voice echoing in the stillness. "Aunt Brigid?" he called again, his voice a little less sure. He pounded at the door a second time. He was cold and shivering now, and mad that no one would let him in. He'd just about decided to try around back, when the door flew open. He jumped backward, falling into a patch of snow as his grandfather flung the door open.
"So, what's all the ruckus, young Hannibal?" With that Brendan Patrick Curry started laughing, a great roaring laugh. He reached down and plucked Hannibal out of the snow as if he were no more than a feather, flinging him over his shoulder and hauling him into the house to the laughter of the rest of the Curry family.
"Grampa, you tricked me!" Hannibal sputtered, part-angry at being fooled and part-relieved that everyone was all right. He arched up from his position on his grandfather's shoulder to seek out his best friend, hoping for sympathy. He was less than pleased to find Jed grinning from ear to ear.
"That we did, and a good trick it was. Always be prepared, my boy, for whatever life throws at ye." He easily flipped his grandson down on the braided rug in front of the blazing fire. "That way ye won't be caught off guard."
"Enough with teasing the boy, Father." Brigid Curry laughed as she broke in front of the man. "Come along, Hannibal. Why, you must be frozen solid. You left without waiting to put your coat on." She offered him a slender hand, helping him up and hugging him when he had finally clambered to his feet. "There's some nice hot cider in the kitchen, go on now, and help yourself." She ruffled his dark hair and gave him a shove toward the other room.
"Yes, ma'am." Hannibal glared at Jed as he went into the warm, spicy-smelling room. He was ladling a cup of cider into a mug when the younger boy joined him.
"That sure was funny, Han. The way Grampa had you over his shoulder. Just like a sack of grain." Jed busied himself, trying to figure out how to taste the pie that was on the table without his mother knowing. The iced Christmas cake might have been tradition, but Brigid Curry knew her apple pie was one present her youngest son always got at Christmas.
Intent on the pie, Jed missed the scowl that his cousin directed at him.
"What'd you get, Han? Michael got a kal– a kal– Well, it's this round thing and when you spin it around and look in it, there are lots of colors. And Patrick got books with pictures of ships in them, and real cowboys. I got a real six-shooter, Han, and a real gun belt. Wanna see how fast I can draw, Han? I'm gonna be the fastest in the whole world." He yanked the weapon out of the holster, promptly dropping it on the floor. "I'm gonna practice. And I'm gonna be real fast, Han." He stuffed the gun back in the holster. "What'd you get?"
Hannibal clutched the mug of cider in both hands, trying to get warm. He sneezed and shivered a little, then moved closer to the stove, turning to face his cousin.
"You got a real gun, Jed?" He peered through watery eyes at the gun and belt slung low around the boy's thin waist. "Aw, that's just a toy gun. I didn't think Aunt Brigid would let you have a real gun. You're gonna have to wait 'til you're more grown-up. Like me."
"And when'd you get so grown-up, Hannibal Heyes?" Jed's sister Rachel had quietly entered the kitchen. "Why, you're barely older than Jed." Two years older than Hannibal, she enjoyed teasing her brother's best friend even more than her brother. "I got a charm bracelet for Christmas. See? And a charm in the shape of a heart. Isn't it pretty." She offered her hand in Hannibal's general direction, turning it over so the boys could see the silver bracelet and the tiny heart. "Every Christmas I'll get a new charm."
The two boys looked at the shiny silver chain encircling the girl's wrist for only an instant before returning to their conversation as though she wasn't in the room.
"Pa said I can see the safe, Jed. Right after church. You've gotta come with me. I'm gonna try to open it and see what's inside. I bet I can, too." Hannibal was re-filling his mug.
"I can help. I can watch for the sheriff while you open the safe. We can be real outlaws, Han." Jed had joined his friend in front of the stove.
"And we'll have lots of money, and no one will ever catch us." In his mind, Hannibal already had that safe open.
Their game was interrupted by Rachel's laughter. "Outlaws? Why, if either of you so much as took a piece of penny candy from Mr. Jameson's store Pa and Uncle Daniel would give you enough of a whipping so you both couldn't sit down for a week. Outlaws." With another laugh, she returned to the noisy parlor.
"Don't pay no attention to her, Han. She's just a girl. She don't know nothin' 'bout bein' outlaws." Jed shook his head. "Wanna open what I got for you?"
Hannibal didn't say anything. There was a disturbed look in his eyes and he shifted his attention to his mug of cider.
"You all right, Han?" Jed cocked his head, trying to understand what he'd said to upset his cousin.
"Uh, I didn't get you anything, Jed." He mumbled the words, still not able to make eye contact with the younger boy. "I'm sorry. Really. I just forgot Christmas was coming so soon, and then it was too late to . . . aw, Jed, I'm sorry." Finally, he looked up.
Jed didn't say anything for a moment. "That's okay, Han." He put an arm around the older boy's shoulder. "We're partners. And you could'a had anybody." He smiled as though that were completely sufficient.
A cough from the door startled both boys. Muireann Heyes smiled at them as she walked into the kitchen and stood in front of Hannibal. "Did you get some of Aunt Brigid's nice hot cider, darlin'?" She combed her fingers through his dark hair, pushing it from his forehead, then cupped his face, tilting it upward. After confirming that he was all right, she turned to her nephew. "Nollaig shona duit agus slainte, Jedediah." She hugged him tightly. "Are you both ready for church?"
"Yes, ma'am. An Nollaig, Aunt Muireann." Jed liked his aunt. She always made sure he had double helpings of her berry cobbler. She smelled good too.
"Well, go on now and get your coats on. We'll surely be the last ones there." She kissed Jed's forehead and gave him another hug.
Jed started out, but Hannibal hung back, once again studying his mug.
"Is something wrong, darlin'?" She put an arm around her son.
"Ma, I didn't get Jed a present. He got me one, but I forgot." He didn't want to cry, he was too old for that, but he could feel his eyes beginning to fill. "I must be as mean as– Who was in that book, Ma?" He looked up at her. "The one Pa read to us."
"Why, that was Scrooge, Hannibal." She gently removed a tear that had escaped and was rolling down his cheek. Bending down, she held him tightly. "Darlin', I'm sure Jedediah doesn't feel that way." In truth, there were times she believed that, regardless of chronological age, Jedediah was older than Hannibal. "Why, you heard him, the two of you are partners."
"Yeah, but Ma, partners are 'sposed to take care of each other. I must not be a very good partner. What am I gonna do?" He turned desperate eyes on the one person who always seemed to know how to fix things.
She smiled gently at him and was quiet for a moment. "Right now, darlin', you're going to get your coat and come to church. Maybe if you pray extra hard, God will help you find your answer." She kept her arm around him as they walked from the kitchen.
"Pray extra hard." Hannibal frowned, not sure. He looked up at his mother. She always knew what to do. "Okay, I'll try to pray extra hard." He still wasn't sure, but his ma had always been right in the past, so he was willing to give it a try.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The ride to church was full of gentle teasing and familiar laughter. They crowded into one wagon, no one wanting to miss Grampa's travel tale. Whatever story was chosen, when Grampa Curry told it, it was full of excitement and adventure. And it took the entire trip to tell it.
Brendan Curry never hurried a tale. And no one would have wanted him to.
This Christmas he told the story of how Saint Boniface encountered pagans who were about to sacrifice a child at the base of an oak tree. "Seems they thought that tree was a god. Well, he couldn't let that happen, so he just walked right up to them, took up an ax, and before ye knew it, that giant tree was laying on the ground. Why, them pagans were so dumbfounded, they just stood there lookin' at him.”
"Then do ye know what happened?" He stopped and looked at the sets of wide eyes fixed on him.
Heads started shaking.
"No, Grampa, what happened?" five-year-old Conor finally asked.
"You all want to know?" His laugh echoed over the snow as he watched the heads nod vigorously up and down. "Well, then Boniface jumped up on the stump of that oak, and just as calm as ye please, told them that his God was stronger than any old tree god. And then, just to prove his point, didn't a fir tree spring up right then and there in the place of that oak.”
"Saint Boniface took one look at that tree and told the pagans that it was the Tree of Life and represented Christ. And so the first Christmas tree was born. And each year, when we have our own Christmas tree, we always remember this first tree and what it means."
He stopped and for a moment there was quiet in the wagon as each person thought about what he'd said.
Then from somewhere a snowball hit Jed in the arm.
"Hey!" he cried, looking around for the culprit. His gaze first went to his best friend, but Hannibal had been silent the entire trip and his eyes were closed tight. Jed would have asked what was wrong, but somehow it seemed everyone suddenly had snowballs, and the rest of the trip was consumed in a close range war.
By the time they reached Lawrence, they were all red-cheeked and laughing. There were greetings exchanged as the wagon bearing the two families reached the church and they found friends waiting for them. The adults joined their friends in conversation while the children eagerly compared presents, all but Hannibal, who hadn't moved from the wagon.
Rachel came and stood beside the boy, her voice a bright tease as she asked, "Are you all right, Hannibal? I've never seen you so quiet. Why, you didn't interrupt Grampa once during the ride to church. Are you sick or something?"
He moved away from her. "Go 'way, Rach."
The girl studied him, seeing the slump of his slender shoulders. She called out to him, "What's wrong? You know you'll feel better if you just say it out."
He stopped and she watched him take a deep sigh before he turned around.
He stood stiffly in front of her, a firm set to his jaw. "Oh, all right, if ya gotta know . . . Jed got me a present, and I didn't get nothing for him." He looked at her, anger darkening his eyes. He just knew she hated him, but it wasn't his fault. He'd just forgotten, that's all.
All right, he thought looking at her, get it over with. Tell me I'm mean and awful and shouldn't even have Jed as a partner.
Rachel's forehead creased in a frown, but she was silent.
Hannibal stared at her deep blue eyes, daring her to be mad at him. Or disappointed. Or something. Just not silent. That was the worst. Finally, the anger slipped away from him. She really did hate him. He turned away from her and started walking away.
"Hannibal? Wait a minute. Hannibal, please, stop." She reached out and caught his arm.
He closed his eyes against what he knew she was going to say.
"Hannibal." She moved around to face him, once again studying his face in a way much older than her ten and a half years. "Don't worry, you'll think of something. You always do." And in a heartbeat she was gone; skipping away to talk to the other girls, laughing and showing them her bracelet.
It was his turn to watch her. You'll think of something. That was all she'd said. She wasn't mad at him. Suddenly, it didn't seem so hopeless. If both his ma and Rachel thought he could fix it…maybe Ma was right. He'd been praying read hard on the ride into town. Maybe it was working. He decided he'd have to try even harder once he got into church.
He smiled and ran to catch up with the other boys.
Lawrence was bustling this early Christmas morning. Men and women from town and from farms and ranches wore their very best to celebrate the day. And it didn't seem to matter how much or how little they had, today people spoke to one another as friends, excited about the prosperity that had come to their town. New people were moving to Lawrence every day. The railroad’s presence was strong here, and a University was being built. These were good times.
The preacher talked about forgiveness and love, about a special child. The adults tried to still their own impatient children. Jed tried to whisper to Hannibal, but the older boy seemed to be sick or something. He just kept his eyes closed and his hands folded.
When it came time to leave, Muireann Heyes had to prod her oldest son to get his attention. The other children laughed. Hannibal just scrunched up his face, stuffed his hands in the pockets of his jacket and followed the families out into the clear cold day.
"Hannibal?" Muireann had watched him throughout the service. Now she stopped him before they reached the wagon. "Darlin', what's wrong? Are ye not feeling well?" She put her hand on his forehead.
"I prayed, Ma, all the way to church and all through church. And I still don't know what to do. And Jed's gonna want me to open his present. And, and– And you said if I prayed real hard, I'd get my answer, but I didn't. I didn't get any answer at all." He looked both desperate and accusatory at the same time.
She almost laughed until she saw the pain in her son's eyes. "Hannibal, m'love. You know it isn't like that. You can't be expecting God to drop a gift out of Heaven into your hands, now can ye? You're looking for something that can't be seen. Jedediah doesn't care if you have a gift for him or not. You've given him your friendship. P'raps that's your answer, darlin'. That's the gift from your heart to him, and that's the only gift that really matters." She smiled at him, trying to gauge his reaction.
He stood quietly, listening to her. All around them people were laughing and talking. The children were playing. People were bundling up in carriages and wagons, heading for home. Slowly he nodded and reached for her hand.
"I understand, Ma. I think. I just wish–" His words were cut off by his father's voice.
"Come along, Molly, there's time for talk when we're in front of the fire with a glass in our hands." Scooping Hannibal onto his shoulder, and taking his wife's arm, Daniel Heyes made his way to the wagon.
There was laughter ringing from the others already seated.
"A story. We'll need a story for the ride home. Father, have ya a decent story for the journey?" Brigid Curry asked as she sat next to her father-in-law.
"A story is it. Why, didn't I tell ye a fine story already?" This scene had been replayed, year after year. "Well, I suppose a story to bide us over 'til we reach home would be all right. Let me think . . . I know, the Wren Boys." His eyes twinkled wickedly.
"Aye, the Wren Boys. A fitting story given the morrow's the Feast of Saint Stephen," James Curry laughed, slapping his father on the back.
"We'll have none of that. Wren Boys, indeed." Brigid Curry tried to scold her husband and father-in-law, but there was too much laughter in her voice for anyone to take it seriously.
"Who're the Wren Boys, Grampa?" A small voice asked.
Everyone looked when Hannibal spoke for the first time.
"Well, I thought one of the little people had stolen your tongue, Grandson. You're seldom so still as this day."
Everyone laughed. For the truth was, Hannibal usually talked and talked and questioned and interrupted and in general annoyed as many as he could. But he couldn't help it, he'd been born with both a quick mind and an insatiable curiosity.
"Well, who are the Wren Boys, Grandfather?" Rachel's soft voice echoed Hannibal's question and she smiled at him.
"Daughters?" It was less a request for approval and more a victory statement.
Both women just sighed, resigned to losing another battle with their father-in-law. In fact, both women saw him as the father they'd lost on the long journey from Ireland. He was all they had in the way of parents now. And the only grandparent to the children.
"Very well, go on then, but there'll be no shenanigans tomorrow." Muireann Heyes was losing the fight to remain any more serious than her sister.
"Aye, to be sure. We'll be as sober as judges." He winked at Hannibal and started the tale. "The wren, 'tis such a tiny thing, but very important to our people. Why, this little creature betrayed our brave soldiers fighting the heathen. They'd swoop down and beat their wings against the shields our men were wearing, creatin' such a sound that the heathen found them and murdered them all. And then didn't the same wren turn right around and betray our own Saint Stephen, so he was put to death. So, in the old days, boys would find the wren, kill the little thing and put it in a box with holly. Then the boys would dress in straw – straw petticoats, and cloaks made of straw, and march through the streets of the town, singing and playing the flute and drum."
"Causin' mischief, you mean," Brigid Curry interjected. "Why, they'd march through town, singin' and dancin' at all hours, and if ye didn't give them a coin or a sweet, why, they'd likely drag ye out of your own house and take you along. Mischief, plain and simple."
"Aye, now Bridey, it wasn't mischief you were talking about when I was the one comin' to your door, singin'," James teased his wife, causing a deep blush.
"Never mind that, James Michael Curry." She fanned herself to get rid of the red in her cheeks. "And never mind, any of you." She gaze swept across the others in the wagon, some of whom changed their minds about further comment.
"G'on, Grampa. What else do they do?" Patrick had the same blond hair and blue eyes as his twin sister and their mother and was the most serious of all the children.
"Aye, Patrick, they do indeed cause mischief. Ah, well, they also go 'round to the neighbors and sing a rhyme from the old country. . .
The wren, the wren the king of all birds
On St. Stephen's day he got caught in the furze.
Although he was little, the family was great.
Up with the kettle, down with the pan
Give us a penny to bury the wren.
So, ye all see, it's not beggin', nor is it demandin'. It's payment for song." He stopped as the wagon reached the Curry farm.
"And you'll all be putting whatever ideas he's given you right out of your minds, if ye know what's good for ye," Brigid said to no one and everyone. She reached out to accept her husband's offer of help from the wagon.
"Come along, Bridey, you'll feel better when you're in your own home." As he set her down, he tightened his grip around her waist and from the depths of his coat pocket pulled out a sprig of mistletoe, which he held over her head.
"James, where on Earth–? Come in the house . . . I've married a fool to be sure." She tried to pull away, but he held her fast.
"Now, you know the tradition, my dear. A kiss is mine." Without waiting for her response, he kissed her, to the applause of the adults and the embarrassed giggles of the children.
"All right now, enough foolishness," Muireann laughed. "Brigid, come along, now. We have dinner to prepare. Rachel, will you be helpin' us?" She linked her arms through her sister's and niece's. "Daniel, you and James keep the boys and Father outside, and out of trouble, 'til dinner's ready."
The women had already done most of the work, but there was still quite a bit to do to get ready by the traditional serving time of three o'clock. The turkey had to be stuffed and roasted, the potatoes had to be cooked just right, and the vegetables cleaned and prepared. There was bread to knead one last time and then bake.
They retrieved the Christmas plum pudding. Done perfectly, or so they hoped. Rachel set the table, bright with red and green cloths and gift-filled crackers at each place.
Outside echoed the sounds of the shooting contest that Daniel and James organized each year to keep the boys busy while dinner was being finished.
Grampa Curry sat with Conor, whittling a whistle for him.
"You did just fine, Alexander. Two out of ten cans. So, let me see. We have Michael, three out of ten. Patrick, one," Daniel said as he reset the cans and reloaded the gun.
The gun. He studied it as he packed the powder. He should have found a way to get rid of it. An old Colt Navy. Who knew where the man who'd left it had picked it up. He'd said he wouldn't be needing it any more when they'd sent him on to his new life as a free man. He'd just handed him the box and headed North to Canada.
Well, at least it was good for a shooting match. He slowly loaded the pellets and packed the powder.
He looked at the two boys. "Hannibal or Jed? Which of you boys want to go next?"
"Han can go, Uncle Daniel." Jed was practicing with the toy gun on his hip.
Hannibal reluctantly took the gun from his father, testing its weight.
"Careful now, son, never point a gun at anyone. Just hold it firmly and point it at the cans." He settled the gun in his son's small hand and helped him hold it steady. "Use two hands if you have to, Hannibal. It's heavy when you're not used to it."
Hannibal wondered how his father was "used" to holding a gun, but he raised his other hand to steady the weapon.
The two men had taken turns, standing behind the boys to lessen the recoil they'd experience after they'd fired the gun. Both men knew that their sons would have to know how to use a gun, for their own protection. As much as they both hated that thought, they were realists. So the match served two purposes, fun and learning.
"I can do it, Pa."
He took a deep breath and fired the gun, missing the first can and slamming backwards into his father's arms. He'd seen the other boys do exactly the same thing, but he was sure it wasn't going to happen to him. Stunned that it had, and breathless from the force of the blast, he wobbled back up.
He frowned and shook out his hand and arm. The others watched his face, determined and set. He aimed at the second can. Missed again, but he stayed upright. He fired a third time and the can went down. His family cheered as they had with the others who'd been successful. The fourth and fifth cans stayed up. The sixth fell after he clipped it. The seventh was a clean miss.
He took a deep breath and shook out his arm again. The last three shots knocked the cans of cleanly. He turned to Jed, who was smiling and to his father.
"Five out of ten. That's fine shootin', Hannibal. You been practicin' and not telling anyone?" His father took the gun from his son's still-shaking hands.
"No, Pa. Guess I was just lucky." Almost shyly, he went and sat down next to Jed. "You'll do better."
"Gee, Han, you knocked over five cans. I'm not that good. I'll never be that good." There was no jealousy in the boy's voice, just pride in his cousin.
"Sure you can, Jed. I just got lucky. Why, one of them cans just fell over. You've been practicin'. G'on, you can do it. I bet you knock over all them cans."
Jed stood up and slowly walked over to his uncle.
"Jedediah, you don't have to shoot if you don't want to. It is getting on now, maybe we should start getting cleaned up for dinner." Daniel was giving the boy a way out.
"He's too little anyway. He should just play with his toy gun." Michael, although only just nine years old, was at least a foot taller and twenty pounds bigger than Jed. "He can't even figure out how to hold the gun."
"He can too, Michael Curry. You take that back. Jed's just thinking 'bout the best way to knock down them cans." Hannibal strode over to the boy, shouting at him. "So you just shut up or I'll–"
"Here now, none of that. Jed, son, do you want to shoot?" James Curry positioned himself between his son and his nephew.
"Yes, Pa, I do. It's like Han said. I was just thinkin'." Jed tried to take the gun from his uncle, but the older man kept hold of the weapon.
"Here, Jed, let me see where the gun will sit in your hand. Placement is very important." He bent over and adjusted the boy's fingers around the stock, murmuring softly to him, "Just do your best, Jedediah, that will always be enough."
The boy nodded, understanding his uncle's words, and walked to the line. He held the gun in both hands and pointed it straight at the row of cans. The first shot sent him flying. Somehow he missed his uncle's arms and landed on his backside, and while it didn't cause an injury, it did startle him. His eyes started tearing up as the other boys started laughing.
When he looked up, he found Hannibal next to him, helping him up.
"That was sure funny, Jed. Way you dodged Pa and pretended to fly backwards. Come on, stop foolin'. Show 'em how you can really shoot." He nodded encouragement as the younger boy walked back to the line.
Jed once again raised the gun and fixed the barrel on the first can again. He reeled at the blast once again, but the can went down. So did the next three. No one was laughing anymore. The next two rocked, but stayed up. Two out of the final four fell. Jed didn't move, he just squinted at the rail. His arms hung at his sides, the empty gun pointed at the ground.
"Jed won! Jed got six cans!" Hannibal's shouts were loud enough to cause the three women to come out to see what was going on. The others were laughing and shouting.
"What on Earth is goin' on out here? Sounds like the banshees themselves!" Brigid Curry laughed as the women joined the noisy group of men.
"Jed won the contest, Aunt Brigid. Michael said he wouldn't, but he did." Hannibal was pumping Jed's hand up and down like he'd seen his Pa do with other men.
"Well, did he now? A marksman, have we. And would you all rather be shooting at cans, then? Tis a pity. There's a table full of food that will be goin' to waste, I suppose." She smiled, knowing there was little chance of that happening. Brigid shook her head.
"Aunt Brigid's right, come along with ye all now. Get washed up and come to the table." Muireann Heyes laughed and started gathering up the children.
Dinner was a happy time. Grampa Curry led the toast. "May you have warm words on a cold evening, a full moon on a dark night, and the road downhill all the way to your door."
The room burst with warm words. There was talk of the spring, sure to bring a bountiful harvest; of the New Year and all the hopes that the new child coming would bring. The families ate and talked, and talked and ate.
Jed finally got to taste that apple pie – a double helping as a prize for winning the shooting match. The Christmas pudding was served to the cheers of all.
They left the cleaning until the rest of the presents were opened. A music box for Muireann that played a waltz. A comb to keep Brigid's heavy blond hair up, made of tortoise shell and carved in an intricate design. A bicycle for all the children to share. A bottle of Irish Whiskey for Grampa Curry. A pocket watch for Daniel. A new rifle for James. And toys and books for the children. The year had been a prosperous one for the two families; they'd sold a large portion of their crop at a fine price.
The men went outside to light their pipes, the smoke looking frosty in the night air. The women cleared the table. Brigid tried to get her sister to rest – she tended to look after the younger woman.
"I'm just fine, Brigid. The baby's restin'. It'll be a girl. I just know it. Finally, a daughter." She sighed and said a silent prayer. "What am I sayin'? What does it matter as long as the child's healthy." Muireann laughed off her sister's concern and started the coffee. "Daniel and James will be goin' into town for the meetin' tomorrow?"
"Aye. Early morning, afore anyone's up. They'll be meeting Ben Clary and the Frederick men. Two more families are hidin' at the church. And a new family's comin' in." Brigid Curry met her sister's eyes. No other words were needed.
"I pray this war will end soon, and the killin' and hatin' will stop." Muireann sighed. "So this baby can be born into a peaceful world."
"Aye, sister, I hope your prayers are answered. Well, tis enough cleaning. Sit, have some coffee and we'll talk of pleasanter things."
In the large parlor, Patrick and Michael were huddled by the lamp, looking through the new books. Patrick read about great sailing ships; he'd already decided he was going to join the Navy. Alexander and Conor played with the carved train, making loud sounds as they scooted around in front of the fire.
Rachel, excused from helping with the chores, opened the box of scraps her mother and aunt had given her. There were pieces of fabric, fancy buttons and pictures cut from ladies magazines. She carefully added the newly cut pieces of flour sack to the others and re-fastened the pink silk ribbons. She'd decide how to assemble the scraps in her memory book a bit at a time.
Hannibal and Jed had snuck out back to go listen to the men, the older boy still wondering about some of what he'd heard early that morning. Before they could get to the barn, Jed stopped him.
"Here." He held a small, brown paper and twine wrapped package out to Hannibal.
"Jed, I told ya, I didn't get you nothin'. Don't seem right me taking that." Hannibal stared at the package, then at his cousin. He'd ignored the fact that Jed had carried it out of the house.
"You don't want my present?" Jed didn't seem upset, just annoyed. He started to pull his arm back.
Hannibal grabbed his wrist before he got very far. "I didn't say that. 'Course I want it. I just– Well . . . it just don't seem fair." He finally took the package from Jed's hand. He turned it over and over and held it up to his ear, shaking it. He frowned when it made no noise, save for the rustling of the wrapping paper. "What is it?"
"Ya gotta open it to find out. You'll never guess." Jed was grinning from ear to ear. "G'on, Han, open it. I found it. It was just sittin' there when Ma and I went to Mr. Jameson's store. I had to tell Ma why I wanted it, but she just laughed. Open it. Please?" Jed reached out as though he meant to open it himself. He was fidgeting with excitement.
The dark-haired boy finally gave in and tore open the package. His eyes grew wide as he saw the shiny black enamel safe with a real combination lock.
"Jed, you got me a safe."
"Can ya open it, Han? Mr. Jameson said I could have it for free, 'cause he didn't know how to open it. Can you, Han? Can you open it?"
"Ya mean it doesn't have a combination?" Hannibal examined the small safe carefully as he spun the dial on the combination lock. He looked quizzically at Jed. "Didn't Mr. Jameson know the numbers?"
"Nah. He said he had 'em once, but they got lost. But you can open it, can't you? Just like we said, right, Han? G'on, open it now."
The boys walked into the barn just as their grandfather spoke. "So, ye'll be meeting the others at the church at dawn, then."
The men fell silent, looking at the children.
"Did you need something, boys?" Daniel Heyes hoped the two hadn't overheard their conversation. Hannibal was almost old enough. Jed, well, he hoped Jed might never have to know.
"No, Pa. Jed gave me a safe, see." He held out the small black box. "But I have to figure out how to get it open. Can we come with you tomorrow, Pa? I nearly forgot I get to see Mr. Simpson's safe. Can I see it tomorrow, Pa?" Hannibal studied the three men, once again sensing that fear he'd felt earlier.
Jed studied Hannibal, and his father, and uncle, and grampa. And Hannibal again. He didn't like the feeling in the barn. Something told him something was wrong. "Han? Pa?"
"Not tomorrow, Hannibal. Soon though." Noting the disappointment on the boy's face, he continued, "I promise, son. Uncle James and I have business in town tomorrow. Grown-up business. But maybe the next day. End of the week at the latest." The look got worse. "I promise, Hannibal. That's a fine gift Jedediah's given you. You practice on that on for a time. G'on now, the both of you. Your mothers will never let me forget it if I let you catch a chill."
The boys ran out of the barn and back to the house. Entering through the back, Hannibal set the safe down on the kitchen table.
"Han, can you stay here tonight? I wanna watch you open the safe." Jed had collected a handful of gingerbread cookies to share with his friend while he tried to open the safe. He offered one to him now.
"Nah, can't tonight, Jed. I gotta be up early. I'm gonna go with Pa tomorrow." He traced the outline of the cookie with his finger.
"Ya can't, Han. That's grown-up stuff. They're gonna be mad." Jed was happily working on his second cookie.
"Don't care. Something's goin' on and I'm gonna find out what." There was no stopping Hannibal when he was determined. And right now he was one very determined little boy.
"Okay. I'll go with you." Jed took the safe from the table where Hannibal had placed it and started for the warmth of the parlor. "You gonna open this tonight?"
"You can't go, you're too little. Anyway, no need for both of us to get whipped – I mean if my pa finds out. I'll open the safe tomorrow, Jed. I promise. Right after I get back from town." He followed Jed to the door which lead to the parlor. "Besides, I wanna go hear Grampa's story. Okay?"
In truth, the boy just didn't want to talk about his plan anymore. He was scared, somewhere inside. He knew his father was doing something that was dangerous, and he had to find out what it was.
Jed looked at his cousin for a moment, then grabbed another cookie and quietly followed him into the parlor. He really hated it when Hannibal shut him out, but he had his own plan. He'd show his cousin he wasn't too little.
There was a comfortable sleepiness in the parlor. Jed sat next to his mother on the sofa. Hannibal sat on the floor between his mother and aunt, leaning on his mother's legs. Alexander and Conor were curled up next to her, sleeping soundly, their dark hair falling on both pale foreheads. Muireann gently stroked those foreheads.
Grampa Curry strode in, singing an old carol: "The Holly and The Ivy." Rachel joined him as he sat down next to her. Soon the entire family was awake and singing.
Muireann looked up when the grandfather clock chimed 9 p.m. "It's time, Father."
"So 'tis. Would ye all like to hear the story of the Christmas Rose?"
Voices signaled that everyone did. It was the way the Christmas Day ended, and had for so many years they couldn't remember when it had started.
The man stroked his beard and cleared his throat. "Well, a long time ago–"
"How long ago, Grampa?" Hannibal asked.
"A long time ago, Hannibal." The man started again. "A very long time ago–"
"But when, Grampa?" Hannibal was regaining his spirit. He had an idea about how to fix things with Jed, and it made him feel better.
The man looked down at his grandson, a twinkle in his blue eyes.
"Hush, Hannibal, let your grandfather finish the story." Muireann smiled down at the grinning face of her son.
"But, Ma, I just wanted to know. . ." Hannibal, so engrossed in explaining his innocence, he did not see his grandfather reach down for him. Hauling him onto the sofa, he wrapped an arm around him. "You've a curious mind, Hannibal." His voice turned serious, "There's only one way to cure a curious mind." He frowned and leaned closer to the boy. "And that's to not cure it at all." He hugged the boy to him, laughing. "Now, will ye be silent and let me finish?"
Hannibal started to talk, but both his mother and grandfather covered his mouth with their hands, ignoring his look of outrage, and the mumbling coming from behind their hands.
"Now, where was I? Ah, yes, a very long time ago there was a beautiful shepherdess named Madelon. Madelon was a good girl, why as good as any of ye." He looked at his granddaughter, his expression full of love. "Why, sure, she was a pure and as beautiful as young Rachel here."
Rachel blushed and the boys laughed at the compliment.
"Well, one cold and wintry night, Madelon was tending her sheep. And didn't a whole group of men pass by the snow-covered field where she stood. Wise men they were. Shepherds, too. When the girl asked where they were going, they told her they were bringing gifts to the Christ Child. Proud they were, and the wise men told her of the rich gifts they carried: gold, myrrh and frankincense.
"Madelon pulled her thin cloak closer around her. 'And what would ye be bringing the Baby?' she asked the shepherds. 'Why aren't we bringing fruit and honey and beautiful doves, as white as the snow itself?'
"The men walked on, leaving Madelon alone. Poor thing, she began weeping at the thought of having nothing, not even a simple flower for the Newborn King."
He looked around at the rapt faces. Even Hannibal, freed from the stifling hands, was now silent.
"Now, didn't a beautiful angel see the child weeping and come down to Earth. Why, with a single sweep of her wings she brushed away the snow, and there it was – created by the girl's own tears – a flower so purely white that even the snow seemed dark. And in its center was a glow of rose, as warm as a sunrise it was.
"Madelon looked for the angel, confused. But she was gone. Madelon plucked the rose from the ground, no longer sad, but filled with the joy and beauty of what she'd seen. And knowing that sometimes the greatest gifts are not gold or doves, but come from the heart – like the love I feel for you all this night. Love, which only makes you happy when you give it away."
His gaze swept over his family. "An Nollaig, m'dears."
Rachel's soft voice broke the quiet in the room as she leaned against her grandfather. "Merry Christmas, Grampa."
"Merry Christmas, child." He kissed her forehead and smiled at her, receiving a smile from the girl in return.
As if on cue, the room erupted in shouts and laughter, the families sharing their love for one another, drawing the evening to a festive close.
Hannibal willed himself to wake up. He had not slept much, and was concerned that he might miss the wagon.
He heard sounds outside his room. Silently, so as not to wake his brothers, he picked up the clothing he'd stuffed under his bed shortly after his mother had kissed him goodnight. He dressed quickly, and carrying his boots, inched toward the door. Peeking out, he heard his parent's voices coming from the kitchen.
He slowly made his way to the door, praying that – for once – the hinges were silent. He opened it only as far as he needed to slip out. Once outside, he pulled on his boots and the coat he retrieved from the hooks by the front door.
He ran off to the side of the house so he would not to leave footprints in the newly-fallen snow, and made his way to the barn, finding the wagon already hitched. Smiling at his own cleverness, he started to climb into the back, planning to hiding under the pile of tarps that lay on the wagon's floor.
"Mornin', Han. Want a cookie?" Jed's voice was sleepy.
He jumped back, surprised. "Wh–? Jed, what're you doin' here? I told you, you couldn't come."
Hannibal was mad; Jed was going to spoil everything. Now he'd have to watch out for him, and he wouldn't be able to prove to his pa that he was grown-up enough to know what was going on. Besides, Jed would probably make noise and they'd get caught. This was his adventure, his Saint Stephen's day adventure.
"Nope. You said you were goin'. Don't remember you sayin' I couldn't. Anyway, I'm here and you can't make me go home." Jed, even at six, could out stubborn his cousin.
Noise outside the barn stopped anything else Hannibal might have wanted to say. He quickly climbed in the wagon and pulled the tarp over him and Jed.
"Just don't make any noise," he whispered.
"Mornin', James. There's time for coffee if you'll be wanting it," Hannibal heard his father say.
"Thank you, Daniel, but no. Let's be on our way. We have decisions to make, and the others will be waiting," James Curry responded.
They felt the wagon move as the two men climbed into the seat, then the jounces as it lurched out of the barn and made its way toward Lawrence.
Jed quickly fell asleep and Hannibal breathed a sigh of relief that he wouldn't have to make sure he was quiet. He tried to calm himself by closing his eyes and thought about the present he'd finally figured out he was going to give Jed. He'd found an answer. As usual, his ma was right.
He smiled, knowing Jed would like it, and vowing not to forget about Christmas next year. He looked at his cousin, sleeping curled up in a ball – Jed could sleep anywhere – and suddenly felt tired himself. He closed his eyes. Just for a moment, he thought. The last thing he remembered was the bend in the road that signaled that they had reached the long, straight road to town.
Jed shook the arm of the still sleeping boy. "Han, wake up. We're here."
"What. . .?" Hannibal sat up, for a moment not sure where "here" was.
"Shh, they'll hear." Jed pointed at his father and uncle, who had jumped down from the wagon and were walking toward the side door of the church.
"Did I fall asleep?" Hannibal asked as he rubbed his eyes and looked around. They'd reached the town, and he hadn't even known it. Shaking his head in disgust, he turned back to Jed. "Thanks for waking me up. Can't believe I fell asleep."
"That's why you need a partner, Han. Ta help. And make sure ya wake up." Jed jumped down from the wagon and looked back at his friend.
Hannibal sighed. "Okay, but just don't make any noise. I wanna hear what's goin' on."
He ran to the side of the church, Jed close behind. They reached a window in time to hear James Curry speak.
"So, what are we to do? The war's coming closer and closer. Those people we got out last week, well, it was too close."
"Aye, James, I know full well. And now with the new baby comin' . . . but what are we to do? The people who seek us out have nowhere else to go." There was resignation, mixed with determination, in Daniel Heyes' voice.
"We all have families to protect, but we're the only hope left for some, as Daniel said." Pat Clary rubbed the sleep from his eyes and looked wearily at his brother.
"I don't think James was advising we stop. Just voicing what we're all thinking." Ben Clary stood and walked toward the window where two small boys huddled outside, transfixed as they listened to the conversation.
"Aye, a prayer that this hated war ends soon." Emphatic agreement met James Curry's words.
"Friends. . ." the boys heard a new voice say, one they didn't recognize. "This is Emmanuel and Sarah, and Martin, their son. They've journeyed far, all the way from Texas, to find their freedom."
A tall, dark-skinned man stepped forward. He held his hat in his hands and did not make eye contact with the other men. The woman stayed behind him, holding a child of maybe six close to her. "Sir, my Sarah and me, we want to thank you. Don't know how we can ever repay what you're doin' fer us."
"No need to talk of repayment. Your freedom, and that of your wife and son, is all we seek," Daniel Heyes said as he extended his hand to the man.
Emmanuel did not move, just stared at the proffered hand. Finally he reached out, making eye contact as he gripped it in friendship. "Bless you. God bless all of you."
"You'll stay here today. One of us will be back tonight to take you to the next stop. It'll be a long journey, but soon you and your wife and child will be free, in Canada. Free." James Curry moved up closer.
"Free," the woman's voice cracked on the word. Tears stained her cheeks.
The boys had to stand on their tip-toes to see inside the church. After a while they gave up doing that and satisfied themselves with listening to the conversation. They did not see the exchange of glances from the man who'd approached the window, and the man inside the church, nor did they hear the man approaching them.
"So, it's eavesdropping now."
They jumped away from the window and turned to face the angry gaze of Daniel Heyes.
"Hannibal, Jedediah. You'd better have a good reason for disobeyin' me. This is not a game. Lives are at stake. Do you–? Can you understand?" He took an arm of each boy and guided them to the front of the church. "I want you to go to that bench over there and wait for me. You'll have time to explain why I shouldn't punish both of ye for disobeyin' me." He gave them a gentle shove away.
Hannibal paused and looked back at his father. "That man you was talking to, he's a slave isn't he, Pa."
His father looked surprised that his son would know that word. No, he shouldn't be surprised. He'd been old enough during the ruffianism of the Free State wars to have heard it. "He was, Hannibal. Do you know what that means, son?"
"Means he works for someone else. Right, Pa?"
"Not really, son. It means that someone owns him, and his wife, and their son. And they can do whatever they want to them. They can beat them, separate them, even kill them if they try to run away." Daniel's voice was angry, but not at his son, at the people who felt they had the right to enslave others.
Hannibal thought about what his father had said. "That ain't right, Pa. He should be able to do what he wants. I don't like slavery, Pa."
"Neither do I, son."
"Is that what you're doin', Pa? Helping slaves?"
"Is my pa helping slaves too, Uncle Daniel?" Jed had been quietly listening.
"We're trying to. Me 'n' your pa, Jed and the Clary's. And Mr. Jameson. And a whole lot of others in Lawrence. Son, I have to go back to the church. You stay with Jed. You might as well know it all. I'd hoped this would all be over before you had to hear it." His voice was both sad and serious as he knelt in front of the two boys. "You'll give me your word that you won't talk about this to anyone else. All right, boys?"
"It's a secret, Uncle Daniel. We won't tell no one. I promise." Jed crossed his heart to show his uncle how serious he was.
The boys walked slowly across the street and sat on the bench outside the bank. They didn't speak, just exchanged looks that said they did indeed understand the seriousness of what had been shared with them.
"Han? Could my pa get hurt? Helpin' slaves, I mean. I don't want him to get hurt." Jed's face was scrunched up in a deep concerned frown.
"Maybe. Don't know." Seeing the concern deepen the blue eyes staring back at him, he thought about his answer again. "They're doin' somethin' important, Jed. They'll be all right. Honest."
"You promise, Han?"
Hannibal didn't want to promise. He didn't know if he could promise. He felt the weight of what his father had said inside of him. He also saw the fear in Jed's face and he forced a smile. "I promise, Jed."
The younger boy looked at his cousin and he relaxed some. "What're we gonna do now?"
Hannibal smiled again. This was what he was waiting for: His plan. "I gotta go see the safe. Pa's busy and Mr. Simpson'll never let me in by myself. You wanna come with me?"
"You gonna rob the bank, Han?" Jed asked in wide-eyed surprise.
"Nah, not rob it, just look at the safe and see if I can open it. Just like the one you gave me." He hopped down from the bench. "You comin'?"
Jed watched his cousin's back for a second before he jumped down and ran after him.
It was still just dawn dusky in the alley in back of the bank. Hannibal Heyes looked cautiously around and nodded encouragement to Jed. "Tell me if you hear anything." He took a long, thin knife from inside his boot and showed it to his cousin.
"Where'd you get that? That's your Pa's. He's gonna kill you if he finds out. Me, too." Jed glanced around, looking guilty. "Maybe this isn't such a good idea. Let's just go wait, like he said."
"Jed, I just borrowed it. Pa'll never know. I'm gonna see that safe, if you wanna go back, that's okay with me, but I gotta do this. I might never get another chance at that safe." He bent down and inserted the knife into the door lock.
"How'd you learn how to do that?" Jed whispered as the door lock clicked and Hannibal carefully turned the knob. He gave Jed a big grin as he opened the door.
The sound of voices startled them both, and Hannibal pulled Jed into the dark building, closing the door. They could hear the sound of their hearts beating and their scared breathing. Expecting to be caught at any moment, they huddled behind the door for a good five minutes before they realized no one was coming in.
Hannibal smiled at Jed as though he knew they'd been safe all along. "It was in a book Pa gave me." He nodded confidently and looked around, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light coming in from the partially-shaded windows.
"Jed, over there. There it is. See it?" He pointed to the big, black, enameled box standing behind the counter, topped with bars and little sliding doors through which the bank tellers conducted business.
"Han, it's gonna be sun-up real soon, and Pa and Uncle Daniel are gonna be looking for us." He chewed on his lower lip and frowned at his friend. "Guess you'd better hurry. I'll be the lookout."
"Okay, Jed. This'll be the best Saint Stephen's Day adventure ever." He started toward the counter. "Jed?"
The younger boy turned back.
They exchanged smiles.
Finally, Hannibal Heyes stood before the safe. It was taller than he was. He ran his fingers over the shiny surface and traced the painted picture on the door. His heart beat faster as he grasped the silver handle and pulled it up, then down.
He took a deep breath and tried to remember what the book had said. He nestled his cheek against the cool metal door and spun the dial.
He frowned and tried again, going slower. Click. He heard it and gasped.
"Han? Did'ya open it?" Jed was standing behind him.
"Not yet, but I can." He looked up, at least as surprised as his cousin that he actually might be able to open the safe.
Jed nodded, never doubting the older boy for a second, and leaned on the counter. He alternated between watching his cousin, both doors and the window, through which he could just see a bit of the main street. "Just hurry."
Hannibal fixed his ear to the safe again and was rewarded with a second click. He reminded himself to remember the numbers – six and thirty-two. He slowly turned the dial all the way round.
Frowning, he stopped and stared at the dial. He sighed in relief when he remembered he had to go the other way round. Click: Forty-seven. Click: three. Click: fifteen. The last one was different. He stared at the silver handle.
The younger boy turned, wondering what was wrong. His mouth dropped open when he saw his cousin, a big grin on his face standing in front of the now-opened safe.
"Han, you did it. How'd you do it?" his young voice was full of admiration.
He moved quickly to his cousin's side and together they peered inside. The sun was rising, the light making it easier to see the contents.
"Han, look at all the money," Jed whispered, his voice full of awe.
A slender hand reached in and took out a stack. "Jed, there must be all the money in the world here." He swallowed hard. It would be so easy to just take some. He could buy his ma something real pretty. He sensed Jed watching him. He blinked, and with a decidedly shaky hand, replaced the stack of cash. "Not ours, Jed. We didn't come to take someone else's money. Wouldn't be right."
He reached into the pocket of his jacket and drew out a small box. With a mischievous smile he cleared a space right on the front shelf of the safe and set the box on it.
"Anyway, this'll be better. Just wish I could be here to see it."
"What is it, Han? What'd you put in the safe? Is it a snake, Han? You gonna scare Mr. Simpson?"
Jed reached for the surprise, but Hannibal stopped him. "Nah, nothing like that. I'll tell you later. Come on, we've gotta get outta here."
He slammed the safe door shut. The boys carefully tip-toed toward the back door. They'd almost reached it when the front door creaked open. Panicked, the two boys dove for cover behind a desk, reaching their hiding place just as Mr. Simpson, Daniel Heyes and James Curry entered the bank.
"Han?" Jed's voice was a terrified whisper.
Hannibal silenced him with a look, then jerked his head toward the back door.
"Well, Heyes, I don't know where they might be. There's no possible way they could be in the bank. The doors are locked every night and I have the only key." Orville Simpson set the keys down on the heavy desk that sat across from the big, black, shiny safe. "Feel free to look around if it will make you happy, but as you can see, the safe is still here, and no one's opened it. As if a child could. This, gentlemen is a Brooker 100. Why, the Brooker people told me that they went to extraordinary measures, having actual bank robbers try to open it. And they couldn't." His voice exuded pride. He sat in the heavy chair, gesturing for the two men to take the seats opposite from him.
"I didn't say Hannibal or Jed were going to try to open the safe, Mr. Simpson, just take a look at it. For some reason Hannibal's got it in his head that he's gotta see it." All three men looked toward the big black box and shrugged in unison.
"Well, as you can see, they're not here." The man picked up a sheaf of papers in an attempt to encourage the two men to leave. In his haste, he sent some of the papers flying off the desk and onto the floor.
The two men knelt down to help the banker pick up the papers. They were facing the safe.
The two boys took the opportunity to slide along the desk to the back door. With one last look at where the men were, they slipped out, unseen, they thought, by their fathers.
Hannibal silently closed the door. They took one last deep breath, then ran for the front of the bank.
James Curry had reached to pick up a document that had slipped behind him when he caught a movement from the corner of his eye. He motioned to his brother-in-law, who nodded that he had seen it too.
Both men breathed deeply, wondering just how much mischief their sons had caused.
All three men rose.
"Well, you're most likely right, Mr. Simpson. We'll just be on our way. The boys are surely around here somewhere." Daniel extended his hand.
"No harm done. Glad to help. I tell you what, Mr. Heyes, you tell that son of yours that I'd be glad to show him the safe."
The front door burst open and the two boys hurried in.
"Pa, there you are. Why, Jed 'n' me were lookin' everywhere for you. When you didn't come over to the hotel where we were waitin' we didn't know where to look. We've been everywhere." Hannibal didn’t like lying to his pa. Didn’t usually work anyway. But it wasn’t really a lie. They had run out in front and had sort of run by the hotel.
"Boys. Thought I told you to wait right outside the bank." Daniel Heyes looked as sternly as he could at the two boys. "Never mind now. Mr. Simpson's going to let you see the safe, Hannibal." He put an arm around his son's shoulders and looked at the banker. "Perhaps we might see it now, Mr. Simpson? As long as we're here. Hannibal was so eager to see it. Weren't you, son?"
Hannibal looked up his father. He couldn't know. How could he know? He frowned and looked over at Jed, who was studying the floor as if it was the most interesting thing he'd ever seen.
"Uh-huh. I mean, yes, Pa. But I thought we were in a hurry to get home?" Hannibal took his father's hand and tried to pull him away.
"Not at all, son. And, if Mr. Simpson's willin', why, I think we should just take a look. If that's still all right with you, Mr. Simpson." Daniel took Hannibal's hand and led him back to the safe, fully intending on finding out what had happened.
James did the same with Jed.
Hannibal not sure of what was going to happen but, deciding that he wasn't about to be whipped, at least not immediately, regained some of his self-confidence. "What kind of a safe is it, Mr. Simpson?"
"Why, it's the most well-built safe available, young man, a Brooker 100. There isn't an outlaw within a hundred miles of here who could break into this safe."
"Imagine that, within a hundred miles." James Curry had an intrigued expression on his face, as though this was the most amazing fact he'd ever heard.
"Yes, well, even famous outlaws couldn't open this safe." At Hannibal's quizzical look, Mr. Simpson repeated his story. "The Brooker people had convicted bank robbers try to open this safe."
"And they couldn't?" Hannibal asked. "Not one of those famous outlaws?"
"Not one of them, son," the banker said proudly.
"Imagine that," Daniel Heyes said.
"Indeed," James Curry concurred.
Hannibal smiled. Even Jed relaxed and loosened the grip he had on his father's hand.
"Can we see inside, Mr. Simpson? I've never seen the inside of a safe that famous outlaws couldn't break into." Hannibal was himself again.
The man paused, unsure if that was a good idea. But Orville Simpson was a proud man. And he was proud of his safe. And two farmers and their children were hardly a threat. "Of course. Part of the boy's education."
The boys smiled.
"Now, you'll have to turn around. I can't have you seeing the combination, now can I?"
"You just turn that big dial around and the door opens, Mr. Simpson?" Hannibal pointed to the combination lock he had just recently made friends with.
"That's right, son. The numbers are the combination. You have to know all the numbers or the door won't open. Now, turn around and I'll open it." He smiled graciously as the four turned.
They heard a loud click a few moments later.
"All right, you may– What the devil is that?"
The four turned around just as the man reached in and removed a small box. "And how the–? How the devil did this get in my safe? It wasn't there last night when I locked up, and no one could've opened this." He looked accusatorily at the two men and the two boys, who all wore similarly innocent expressions. "You. You did this," he said as he pointed at Hannibal. "You're always causing trouble – last summer's picnic, the disaster at the sheriff's office." He turned his attention to Jed when the boy smiled. "And you helped him. The two of you. Troublemakers!"
"Now, Mr. Simpson, I'll not be standin' here while you accuse my son and my nephew. They're good boys."
"Daniel's right, Mr. Simpson. How on earth could Hannibal or Jed open your safe? Didn't you just say convicted bank robbers tried and couldn't? Would you be seein' it possible that a boy could do it?" James Curry moved to stand next to Daniel, forming a shield between the banker and the accused children.
"What's in the box, Mr. Simpson? P'raps that will shed light on the guilty party?" Daniel suggested, squinting to read what was scrawled in a child-like hand on the top of the box. "What's that it says?"
"What? What d'ya mean? . . . What it says? . . . Well, I'll be . . . If this is some kind of threat . . . It's a dead bird and some leaves and berries." Simpson was angry, confused, and more than just a little bit scared. He was an orderly man, and this did not fit into his well-ordered life. "How could it have gotten into the safe?"
"May I?" James took the box and glanced inside. He showed it to Daniel before replacing the top. "Beware the Wran Boys." He looked at Simpson. "Well, I wouldn't worry too much, Mr. Simpson."
"More 'n likely just a prank," Daniel said, nodding his agreement.
"Then the Wran Boys aren't an outlaw gang?" Simpson was mopping his forehead. "Trying to rob the safe?"
"Ah, and leavin' this like a callin' card. Well, surely that could be. Did they take anything, Mr. Simpson? Is the money still there?" James handed the box back to the banker.
The man stiffened, embarrassed that he'd forgotten to look. He bent down and looked inside. He moved some stacks around and breathed deeply. "No, nothing's missing."
"Well, then, no harm done. Probably just a prank. P'raps you want to keep this quiet, Mr. Simpson. Could cast doubt on the safety of your bank. Well, have you seen enough, son?" Daniel gave Hannibal a look that said the answer had better be yes. "Good, then say thank you to Mr. Simpson for his graciousness."
"But how'd did it get there?" the banker asked. "I should tell the sheriff. No, people would wonder. Very well, we'll just keep this to ourselves." He glared at the boys. "But I'll be watching you two."
The four left the bank, followed by the curious and irritated stare from Orville Simpson, who still didn't understand exactly what had happened; he just knew his unopenable safe wasn't so safe after all. He also knew that he'd be having a conversation with the Brooker people – very soon.
Neither James nor Daniel spoke as they all walked quickly to their wagon, the boys running to keep up.
"Pa?" Hannibal started.
Daniel Heyes pulled himself onto the wagon. "I suppose you have an explanation for all this?"
"For what?" Hannibal caught the look in his father's eyes. "I just wanted to see the safe, Pa. And then it just opened. I read about it, and I didn't think it would really open, but it did." He stopped and looked up, hoping to find encouragement. There wasn't any. "It was for the Wran Boys, Pa, just like Grampa said." He was sorry he'd said the last as soon as it left his mouth.
"So, you broke into the bank – how did you get the door open anyway? – and then broke into the safe. Is that it, Hannibal?" His father's voice was stern. "Because of Saint Stephen's Day? You felt it was your duty to cause mischief."
Hannibal was very quiet. "Yes, Pa. I mean, no. But–"
"No buts. We'll talk when we get home. And Jedediah, don't think you'll avoid explainin' this."
Daniel looked straight ahead, as did James. Both men knew that they'd lose the fight to remain serious if they saw each others' expressions, or the boys'.
"Yes, sir." Jed looked at Hannibal. He was resigned to whatever punishment his father and uncle decided to dole out, although he still didn't understand how they knew he and Han had done anything. He smiled at his friend. His first real mischief. He was a grown-up now.
"He opened the safe? Oh, are you sure, Daniel?" Muireann glanced at the door behind which Hannibal and Jed sat, waiting for their punishment.
The knock on the door interrupted his answer. James and Bridgid Curry entered first, a reluctant Brendan Curry followed slowly behind.
"Oh, Muireann, James told us. He opened the safe?" Brigid went to her sister, a horrified expression on her face.
"I can't believe it myself. He's just a little boy. Daniel, are you sure?" The woman turned, wide-eyed, to her husband.
"Oh, I'm sure. He had that innocent expression on his face. The one that always means he's done something. At least he didn't lie. And they took nothing, just left a little box with a dead bird and a sprig of holly. He said it was for Saint Stephen's day. Something his grampa had said."
All eyes turned to the older man who'd been quiet since entering the house. He looked up now to fine four sets of eyes on him.
The room got very quiet.
Daniel Heyes met his father-in-law's eyes. James Curry met Daniel's. Both men focused on their wives. All eyes turned back to Grampa Curry who was wearing that very same innocent expression as his grandson.
Muireann broke first. Just a tiny laugh. Daniel followed, his head bent forward, a broad smile on his face.
Brigid stamped her foot. "It's not funny. To break into the bank? Heaven save us. And open the safe?" She tried to stay serious.
James Curry walked over to her. "Bridey," he said, laughing hard, "they meant no harm. Will make a fine story for next Christmas. P'raps by then we'll learn just how young Hannibal did open that great, fine safe."
She stared at the laughing eyes of her husband and gave in, joining the other three in laughter over what had happened.
They finally turned back to Grampa Curry, who was smiling and lighting his pipe. "I'm not saying I had any part of this, but you'd have to give the boy credit. 'Tis a Saint Stephen's Day mischief to rival some of the pranks the two of you committed upon the unsuspecting townfolks back home."
"Well, we must do something. I mean, they broke into the bank," Muireann said, trying to be serious again. "They should be punished, somehow." She stopped. "He left a bird in a box?" She shook her head and started laughing again.
Behind the closed door, two little boys waited. They heard the muted sounds of talking, but they couldn't make out what was being said. They heard the quiet and looked at each other.
"I'm sorry, Jed. I didn't mean for you to get in trouble. I'll tell them it was all my fault." Hannibal sat on his bed and tried to figure a way out of this.
"We're partners, Han. I had to be there to back you up." Jed was sitting on the floor, playing with the toy soldiers. "Han, which is the general? The one that has your name?"
"That one." He joined his friend on the floor and picked up one of the little men. It was in a painted uniform. "Jed, I, uh. . ." He fumbled with what he wanted to say. "Aw, here." He shoved a small wrapped package at his cousin.
"What is it?" Jed took the package and looked up. "What is it, Han?"
"You gotta open it. G'on, Jed." Hannibal frowned at the boy. "Please? I didn't know what to get you. Ma said I should pray real hard. And then I knew. So will ya just open it?"
The boy tore off the paper to find one of the soldiers inside. He was in a uniform just like the general's, and riding on an elephant. Jed looked up at his cousin, holding the little man tightly.
"It's the same as mine, Jed. Pa said he was the most important person in the general's army. They were partners, just like us." Hannibal picked up his soldier. "Merry Christmas, Jed."
Suddenly, they heard noise. They paled, expecting four angry parents to burst into the room.
The noise got louder.
They got up and crept to the door, putting their ears against it to hear.
Laughter. Lots of it.
They looked at each other and smiled.
Jed turned the toy soldier over in his hand. "Partners. Merry Christmas, Han."
Later that night, Daniel and Muireann entered their son’s room. Conor and Alexander were sound asleep.
"Son, you know what you did was wrong, don't you?" Daniel Heyes sat on one side of Hannibal's bed.
"Jedediah, you know it was wrong." Muireann Heyes sat on the other side, tucking Jed in.
Both sets of parents had given up trying to be angry at their sons. They all knew these two were different. They were special. They loved all their children equally, but Hannibal and Jedediah, well, nothing usual would work with them. They were fiercely loyal to each other, and to their families. But the bond between them was something rare, something that could not be broken.
"Yes, Pa." Hannibal was always sorry for getting into trouble.
"Yes, Aunt Muireann. I'm sorry. We didn't mean anything bad." Jed was really sorry for always getting into trouble.
"All right, boys, go on to sleep." Daniel kissed his son's forehead.
"Sleep tight, m'darlin's." Muireann kissed Jed's cheek, then crossed over to sit by her son. "Hannibal." She sighed as she brushed her fingers over his cheek, tracing the dimple that he'd inherited from his father. She kissed him softly then rose, walking with Daniel toward the door.
Hannibal sat up. "Pa?"
He turned back. "Yes, son?"
"Those people at the church, the slaves, where are they now?" There was a serious look on Hannibal's young face.
His parents exchanged looks, part fear, part sadness. They returned to the boys' bedside.
"Boys, you have to remember the promise you both made: never to talk about what you saw. Those people, and many others, count on this town to help them find their freedom. I wish you hadn't seen us. I wish you hadn't any need to know, but this war shows no signs of endin' soon." He took a deep breath.
His wife took his hand, tears forming in her eyes. "They're so young, Daniel."
"Old enough, Molly." He looked intently at the two small figures buried under the covers, then he looked over his shoulder at the other children, sleeping soundly. His last look before starting was at his wife and the child she carried.
"Have you ever heard of the Underground Railroad?"
They both shook their heads.
"Well, those people you saw are running for their lives, boys, from the people who would keep them from their freedom. The Underground Railroad isn't really a railroad at all, it's just a group of people who try to help by hiding runaway slaves in their homes or in their churches."
"And you're helping, Pa?" There was pride in Hannibal's voice. "You're helping the slaves?"
"Is my pa helping too, Uncle Daniel?" Jed raised himself up on his elbows.
"Yes, son, your mother and I are trying to help, and so are your ma and pa, Jed. And Grampa Curry too. But it's not something everyone agrees on, boys. That's some of why there's a war bein' fought. So, do you understand how important it is that no one else know?"
"We understand, Pa. Me 'n' Jed won't tell nobody. We promise."
"All right, then, go on to sleep and don't worry or be frightened. All right? This war will be over soon. As for you two Wran Boys, well, tomorrow will bring chores a'plenty to keep you from any further mischief." Taking his wife's hand, he blew out the lamp and left the boys to sleep.
"It's important, isn't it? Helping the slaves."
The two boys lay side-by-side in the darkened room.
"Yeah, Jed, it's important . . . Jed?"
"I'm gonna keep that safe you gave me right by my bed. It'll be our secret. I'm gonna keep all my important things in it. Where're you gonna keep the soldier?"
"I'm gonna keep it under my pillow, so no one will find it."
Hannibal nodded to himself. "Night, Jed."
"That was some Christmas, wasn't it, Kid?" Heyes looked from the safe in his hands, meeting his cousin's eyes. "Our first safe . . . finding out what our folks were doing . . . all in one day."
"Yeah, Heyes, that was some Christmas. Poor old Banker Simpson. He never did figure out how that box got in his brand new safe. Think that's why he left town?" He stopped while Heyes grinned and shrugged. "You wanna go give the boys their presents?"
Heyes usually left that for Kid to do.
But this year, Kid thought, hoped, it might be different.
"Nah, you go ahead. I want to finish up the plans for the bank. I've got a couple of ideas about how to work it. You're gonna love this plan, Kid." At the look in cousin's eyes, he turned back to the papers on the desk. "G'on, wish 'em a Merry Christmas for me."
Kid got up, shouldered the sack that sat by the door and left the cabin.
Heyes continued to stare at the papers after his cousin was gone, not really seeing what was on them. Finally he turned to start at the door. Kid had left it open.
Heyes smiled. He always could read my mind, he chuckled to himself as he pulled on his coat and walked to the bunkhouse.
He heard laughter and shouts as he approached. When he opened the door he was greeted by silence and a lot of stares.
"Didn't want to miss all the fun," he said, almost embarrassed. "Money's tight this year, boys. Couldn't do much. Hope everything's all right."
Kyle held up an almost new pair of boots. "Why, I never had boots this fine, Heyes." His old pair were held together with twine and stuffed with rags.
"And this belt buckle will surely make every lady look twice at Wheat Carlson." The older man was shining the silver buckle on his trousers.
There was a new holster for Lobo, a new gun for Hank and a leather cover for Preacher's Bible. Saddle blankets and new shirts to replace those worn out by time or bullets were in the hands of other members of the gang.
Heyes and Kid usually ate in the Leader's Cabin, but today they ate with their men at a table someone had decorated with branches from one of the trees that grew around Devil's Hole. Somewhere, Cookie had found a couple of wild turkeys and had created quite a feast.
After supper they played poker until early morning. Heyes made sure he played just well enough to lose more than he won. Kid just watched him and smiled.
It was almost dawn when Heyes and Curry finally returned to their cabin.
"Don't say it," Heyes cut his cousin off as soon as Kid opened his mouth to speak.
"Don't say what, Heyes?" Curry took off his coat. He was smiling broadly.
"Whatever it was you were gonna say. I know you, Kid. You were gonna say something smart, and then I'd have t'flatten you." Heyes was trying to be stern, but he wasn't being very successful – a smile kept trying to find his mouth.
Kid just laughed louder, a throw-back-your-head-you-couldn't-flatten-me-even-on-a-good-day kind of laugh. "Sure, Heyes, but what makes you think I'd say that was a nice thing you did, losing like that?"
Heyes smiled. "Just not my night," he mumbled gruffly. "What's that?" He pointed at a small box Kid had thrown on the desk.
"Just somethin' I thought might come in handy for the job tomorrow." He grinned at Heyes, who grinned back.
Heyes picked up the box and tossed into the air toward Kid. "Well, it's Saint Stephen's Day, isn't it, and a little mischief never hurt anyone. We’ll fill it in the mornin’."
"That's what Grampa Curry always said. Think we can find some feathers and holly around here?" Curry asked, catching the box.
"Yep, I bet we can. Funny, don't you think, how Mr. Simpson ended up in charge of the First Bank of Laramie, isn't it, Kid?" Heyes had a devilish look on his face.
"Real funny, Heyes. Think he'll remember the Wran Boys?" he chuckled.
Heyes laughed. "Oh, I don't think he's forgotten that day, Kid. He'll get quite a reminder tomorrow . . . uh, today, I guess."
Kid yawned. "Well, partner, it's gonna be a busy day. I'm turning in."
"Guess I'll turn in, too. I can finish the plans after some shuteye." He started for his room, then stopped as he remembered something and turned back.
Kid was waiting for him, the little safe in his hands. "Night, Heyes."
Heyes smiled sheepishly as he took the safe. "Night, Kid," he mumbled as he closed the door to his room. He heard the door to Kid's room close and smiled again.
Looking around, he finally set the little safe on the shelf across from his bed – a place where he could see it all the time. Satisfied, he yawned and stretched.
Stripping off his clothes, he shivered as he slid into bed and pulled the covers tightly around him. He looked over at the little safe.
"Merry Christmas, Jed," he said softly.
Kid was still laughing as he, too, stripped off his clothes and hurriedly climbed into bed. Yanking the covers around he finally got them where he wanted. He was punching his pillow into shape when his fist hit something.
"What the. . .?" He reached under the pillow and pulled out something hard.
Squinting in the dim light he finally made out a little toy soldier, painted in bright colors and riding on an elephant. He stared at the little man, then at the door.
"Well I'll be. . ." he said softly.
He shook his head, then slid the toy back under his pillow. He closed his eyes and thought back to the night he'd tucked that other little soldier under his pillow.
He rolled over and closed his hand around the little man, whispering into his pillow, "Merry Christmas, Han."
The next day, Saint Stephen's Day, the Devil's Hole Gang rode to Laramie. They arrived after dark and waited until the streets cleared. One by one they made their way to the alley behind the bank, watching while Heyes pulled a thin stiletto from his boot.
He opened the door and the gang entered the quiet, darkened bank. Heyes walked confidently to the safe. He and Kid exchanged amused glances as they noted the name plate on the desk nearby: Orville Simpson. Their smiles grew even broader when they saw the Brooker.
Heyes opened the safe quickly, and with little effort. He carefully made a place for the little box, now wrapped with twine and bearing a familiar message.
Kyle asked what was in the box, but Heyes and Curry chose not to explain, saying only that it was a joke between them and the banker.
Some things never change. Two little boys who had to grow up too quickly, hadn't really grown up at all. And sometimes history does repeat itself.
Except this time they took the money. . . .
 Merry Christmas, and cheers to you.