Alias Smith and Jones
Part one of two
Jagged lightening snaked across the sky, illuminating the rain-whipped trees momentarily. Thunder roared afterwards, the ground trembling with the sound. It was a cold rain, driving all sensible wildlife into burrows or hollow logs to keep warm.
Kid Curry pulled his sodden sheepskin coat closer around him, hunching over his horse’s head. “We gotta get out of this storm soon.”
“I know, Kid,” Heyes answered a trifle irritated. As if he couldn’t figure that out for himself. “I haven’t seen any nice warm hotels pop up on the trail in the last hour, have you?”
Not willing to start an argument with his partner in such a touchy mood, Kid kneed his horse forward, ducking his head to try to avoid the rain in his face. This only resulted in the rain from his hat dripping down his neck. He shivered miserably. If only Heyes hadn’t been in such an all-fired hurry to get to Cottersville, where there was supposed to be a high stakes poker game starting tonight. Well, they’d never get there at this rate.
The rain had reduced visibility to nearly zero, despite the fact that it was barely mid-afternoon. Stinging droplets assaulted the two riders at an angle due to the wind, driving water under the brim of hats, up into sleeves and under collars. It had started just after noon and showed no signs of letting up any time soon. The only light came from the intermittent flashes of lightning. The thunder followed so quickly, it was obvious they were in the heart of the storm.
Heyes shivered, flexing his freezing fingers around the horse’s reins. He was wet clear through, and had been for some time. That meant that even if they did find a nice hotel with a roaring fire in the hearth, his extra clothes from the saddlebags were probably wet, too. Not to mention the little bag of flour he’d just bought in Jackson’s Hole with the idea of making pancakes for breakfast. That had certainly been a waste of money.
Lost in thought, Heyes had dropped back behind Kid by several hundred yards. A sudden burst of jagged brilliance lit up the trail in front of him, his horse rearing in fright with a loud neigh.
Lightening hit a tall pine, electricity zipping down the trunk with an audible sizzle. The crack of the splitting trunk and the boom of thunder came together, echoing across the canyon like a shot from a rifle. The tree snapped, the top ten feet toppling down as if Paul Bunyon had swung his giant ax and forgotten to yell timber.
Multiple streaks of lightning chased across the dark sky, illuminating the scene in front of Heyes like a lime-lit stage. The Kid’s black horse had started to run, from terror or because Kid realized the danger, Heyes couldn’t tell. The long needled branches of the tree hit first, enveloping Curry and the horse in a tangle of foliage, water splashing up around them like a rain burst from hell.
“Kid!” Heyes screamed, his voice whipped away in the wind with a roar of thunder. He scrambled off his still rearing gelding, hoping the animal didn’t take the opportunity to bolt. The trail was awash, ground so saturated by rain, the water didn’t even soak in. Practically wading in a stream, his boots sticking in mud, Heyes stumbled over to the fallen pine. He couldn’t even see his cousin under the drenched greenery.
He had no ax or saw to cut the branches, nothing to pull the tree away. If the full weight of the trunk had fallen on Kid, it could have broken his back, if not killed him. Swallowing against the panicked beating of his heart, Heyes pulled out the only cutting tool he had, a ten inch hunting knife. He hacked away at the top most boughs, tossing them behind him with reckless speed.
He found Kid’s hand, pausing to feel the steady beat of the pulse in his wrist. He was alive.
Pushing away another branch, he uncovered nearly all of his friend. The main truck of the tree had hit the black horse full force along his side. It crushed the animal from withers to tail. Kid must have tried to jump out of the saddle at the last moment, otherwise his legs would haven been pinned by the tree trunk. Instead, the largest of the branches pressed him down into the mud, surely breaking his ribs.
Even cutting away all the smaller branches, there was no way Heyes could lift the tree and limb off the horse and rider. It weighed more than two men could lift.
“Kid.” Heyes called urgently, vainly wiping the rain from his face. Bolts of electric fireworks darted across the sky, letting him see that the Kid’s eyes were open, if dull. The following thunder was like dynamite exploding, the ground reverberating with the sound. “Kid, can you hear me?”
“Yeah,” he answered, his jaw tight with pain.
“Can you move your legs?”
To demonstrate, Kid bent the knee that had escaped being crushed by the tree trunk by inches. The other foot was partially trapped under the horse’s neck. If Heyes could pull the limb off Kid, he could probably free that leg, too.
“That’s good.” Heyes squeezed his friend’s hand encouragingly. “I’m gonna tie a rope around the tree and see if my horse can pull it off. It may hurt, but it’s all I can do.”
A coil of rope tied to the saddlebow in front of Curry had miraculously remained intact. Grabbing one end, Heyes looped it around the thickest part of the tree, knotting it as tightly as he could. The rain made the rope heavy and unwieldy. Using flashes of bright light to quide him, he approached his gelding cautiously.
“Hey, there, hey-I need you to help me with a really important job.” The horse shied, hooves catching in the mud. Heyes grabbed the bridle, soothing the nervous animal. “You do this for me and you get all the oats I can buy for you.”
With the rope secured around his own saddle horn, Heyes gave the horse a smack on the hip, urging him forward. The ground was too wet, and at first the animal couldn’t get any purchase to move the tree, slipping dangerously in the sludge. Then, the rope taunt between horse and tree, the gelding was able to pull forward. In a sudden calm between claps of thunder, Heyes heard his cousin moan in pain as the branches moved off him.
* * * * *
Heyes steadied Kid on the gelding’s saddle, watching his friend’s face. He had wavered in and out of consciousness since being pulled from under tree, but now seemed to be in a dazed stupor, awake but barely responsive.
Mounting, Heyes pulled Curry up against his chest, wrapping his arms around him to conserve whatever body heat he could. Unfortunately, the only reason Heyes felt warm was because he’d been hauling tree branches and getting Kid up onto his none to steady feet. Kid radiated no body heat at all; he was cold to the touch. They needed to get to shelter soon.
The rain fell steadily, the wind having died down some and the accompanying light show seemed to have moved a bit further north. Naturally, north was the direction Heyes wanted to go. He wished he could encourage the horse to move quicker than a fast walk, but he was afraid of jostling Kid’s broken bones.
Straining his eyes through the downpour, Heyes realized, with a quick breath, that he could see a light up ahead. Whoever lived there had to let them in. He’d insist with a gun, if necessary. He tightened his grip on the Kid and urged the horse forward toward the hopefully welcoming structure.
On closer inspection, the little L-shaped building had suffered the same fate as Kid. A large tree had collapsed the roof of the smaller end, rain pouring into what appeared to be a church. A cross leaned crookedly in the rubble.
Lightning sizzled in the air, blinding light and cracking thunder together like the
gods above were throwing firecrackers.
“Jesus!” Heyes swore, nearly toppling from his horse.
“I always pray during storms,” a quiet voice agreed. “Can I help you?”
Swinging around, Heyes was face to face with a woman dressed entirely in black. “Ma’am...uh...my friend, a tree fell on him.”
“Like our chapel.” She sighed. A tall, thin woman, she was nearly of a height with Heyes. “You’re both freezing. Help me get him into the house.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Heyes was tongue-tied. The appearance of a nun in the middle of a torrential deluge like a black winged angel was just too startling. He dumbly pulled Curry off the horse and helped the Sister guide him through the door. Kid was shivering violently.
“He’s in shock, I think.” The nun pursed her lips. “Sister Mary Moses, stoke up the fire and brew some tea. Warm blankets and look for old Zebulan’s clothes.”
“Coming right up! “ A second shorter, stouter black habited woman bustled off, two small dark haired children in her wake.
“Where are we?” Heyes asked, rubbing his goose pimpled arms. He looked curiously around the big room and moved closer to the fireplace, the heat making steam rise up off his clothes. The nuns had laid the Kid on a small threadbare sofa near the fire. Across the room was a huge oak table flanked by long benches. Whoever lived here, it was more people than two nuns and two small children.
“Children of Jesus Orphanage,” the Sister replied, rapidly divesting Kid of his wet clothes. The second nun had reappeared with the necessities for warmth and was quickly swaddling him in blankets.
An orphanage. Heyes rolled his eyes. The Kid was going to refuse to stay here when he came to. Both ex-outlaws still had unhappy memories of their childhood years in an orphanage. Heyes watched his cousin anxiously until Kid’s eyes were open; he was conscious but still dazed.
“What? I’m sorry.” Heyes tried out his best lady-killing smile. He could tell it wasn’t coming off as successfully as usual by her expression. “Ma’am, he needs a doctor. He’s got broken bones.”
“Take off your clothes,” she said in a no-nonsense voice. Heyes had never had a nun tell him that. He complied. She handed him a too-big flannel shirt and a pair of patched pants. “I’ll splint his arm when you both get warmed up. We need to get liquids into him quickly.”
The second nun was already attempting to spoon beef broth into Kid’s mouth. He choked, coughing painfully. “No more.” he whispered.
“Hey, K-Thaddeus.” Heyes knelt down next to the couch. “Keep on drinking, it’ll do you good.”
“Whiskey’d do me good.” Kid coughed, grimacing from the pain.
“Maybe a little brandy.” The taller nun smiled slightly. “For warmth, mind you. I believe we’ve been so busy we’ve neglected our manners. I’m Sister Mary Joseph. This is Sister Mary Moses and Sister Luke is in the kitchen, presumably making tea.” She bustled across the room to procure a small bottle of medicinal spirits.
“Joshua Smith.” Heyes finished buttoning the roomy, but very warm flannel shirt.
“And my friend is Thaddeus Jones, We apologize for barging in during the storm. . .”
“But you need a place to stay.” Mary Moses spooned more broth into Kid’s mouth, nodding when he swallowed. “That’s what we’re here for.”
“And we couldn’t possibly turn away one of the apostles and the man who brought down the walls of Jericho.” Mary Joseph poured glasses of brandy.
”I didn’t have anything to do with that,” Heyes pointed out ruefully. “But I'll be happy to try to pull the tree off the chapel in return for you taking care of my partner.”
“In due time.” Joseph handed out glasses of brandy just as the two children returned, one bearing a teapot, the other a box full of medical supplies. “Drink up and rest. It’ll rain for the rest of the night, I fear. Whatever’s not smashed to smithereens in the chapel will just have to get wet.”
The brandy sent a hot glowing path down Kid’s throat to his belly. He gulped air reflexively, sitting up straighter on the couch. The cobwebs in his brain burned away, leaving the full effects of his broken ribs and arm. They hurt. He took short gasping breaths.
“Thaddeus, lay back.” Mary Moses patted him, alarmed.
“You all right?” Heyes asked worriedly.
“No.” Kid gave him an exasperated look. “Yeah, I’ll live.”
“Well, I think we can do better than that,” Mary Joseph answered sternly. “Time to set your arm.” She looked over at Heyes. “You may need to hold him down for this part.”
Heyes sat down next to Kid on the couch, uncertain whether to be worried or amused. “That woman could command the Devil’s Hole Gang.”
“Better than you,” Kid agreed apprehensively as she advanced towards them with bandages.
* * * * * *
Heyes glanced up at the morning sky. Leaden clouds still clothed the tops of the surrounding pines but overhead the sky was brilliant blue. The air was heavy with the scent of wet forest; pine needles squishing under his feet as he circled the chapel.
“Can you pull it off?” A tall, broad shouldered boy surveyed the damage left by the felled tree. The roots stuck out from the chapel like a giant spider.
“It’s too big,” a blond girl argued.
“I say we set the whole thing on fire, “ A small boy named Zeke with skin the color of coffee with cream, commented.
“Not a good idea,” Heyes put in hurriedly. “I’ll yoke my horse with yours, and they’ll pull that tree off.” He assessed his troop of helpers. “Then everybody needs to start cutting firewood.”
“That we can burn.”
“Yeah, Zeke,” Heyes agreed. “That we can burn.”
“Joshua? Did God send you?” The blond haired girl, Ruth Ann, hopped up and down to keep warm.
“I sincerely doubt it.” Heyes laughed, looping ropes around the tree. Without terrified adrenaline driving him forward to save the Kid, it was definitely harder this time. His throat was raw and his head was throbbing every time he leaned over to secure another line.
”Well, sister Joe said God must have sent you to us,” Ruth Ann continued to chatter on. “Ever since Matthew and Steven left there’s been no one around to help us.”
“Matthew and Steven?” Heyes echoed, just to show he was listening. He guided the two horses into the traces, securing their bridles.
“My elder brothers,” she supplied. “Charles is my brother, too.” She pointed out the broad shouldered boy carrying out several axes. “Anyway, since they left, strange things have been happening.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “Accidents.”
“I think God sent this.” Heyes pointed to the tree. “It’s called a natural disaster.”
“God works in mysterious ways,” Ruth Ann agreed. “But I’m talking about other things.”
“Ruth Ann. Sister Joe’s warned you about telling tales,” Charles admonished.
“It ain’t nothing that’s not true,” Ruth Ann retorted.
“Charles, catch the gelding’s reins,” Heyes instructed. “He’s skittish. When I say three, lead ‘em forward.”
“Yes, sir,” Charles answered smartly, proud to have the important job.
Heyes was more than happy to give it to him. His eardrums were bulging and his sinuses were demanding more and more of his attention, He would much prefer to go lie down next to Kid and pass out for about ten hours. He’d sat up most of the night trying to help Kid relax enough to sleep. Unfortunately, the sisters had no painkillers beyond the half bottle of brandy, and Kid had spent a painful, wakeful night He’d finally fallen to sleep from pure exhaustion just in time for everyone else to wake up. And Heyes had promised he’d try to salvage the chapel.
The horses surged ahead, the tree sliding well on the slick pine needles covering the ground. Unfortunately, it brought most of the roof down with it, weakening the outer wall even further.
“Hurrah! “Zeke cried as the horses came to a sweaty, quivering halt. “Look, Sister, he did it!”
“Shush, Ezekial, Mr. Jones is sleeping.” Mary Moses smiled, despite her words, coming out to admire their work. “Good job.” The twin children Heyes had seen the night before trailed behind. He was beginning to think they orbited her like twin moons around some planet he couldn’t remember the name of.
“There’s not much to save there.” He rubbed his nose, willing himself not to sneeze in her face.
“Not to worry, we’ll rebuild.” Moses shrugged. “It’s the altar chalice and cross that are really important.” She pushed past the abundant pine branches still blocking the door of the chapel and stepped over the apex of the tree into the ruins. There she genuflected in the direction of the smashed altar and waded through the broken beams to the front of the church.
“Sister, it’s not safe.”
“I still say we could make a big fire,” Zeke planned. “Have a party? Maybe cook a fatted calf like those Bible celebrations.
“Not a good idea.” Heyes firmly prevented the twins from following her and stepped over an overturned pew to catch up to Sister Moses. “Sister? This place is collapsing around us. If the ceiling go. . .”
She reached down and retrieved a gold cross off the floor. “Look for a gold chalice, a cup.”
“Joshua? Did you find anything?” Ruth Ann called plaintively.
“Stay there, Ruth Ann!” Both Heyes and Sister Moses called at the same time. Heyes grinned in spite of himself and sneezed.
“You have a lovely smile, Joshua.” Mary Moses pushed broken glass aside with her foot. “But something scares you.”
“Me?” Heyes dimpled again. “No, ma’am-I’m just worried about you and the kids around this. . .”
“Ruined church.” She spotted a gleam of gold under a pile of wood and shoved at the up-ended altar to get it. The overhead rafters creaked ominously.
“That’s enough.” Heyes started tugging her out. “We’ll have to pull all this down before we can get that chalice.”
“I knew a man named Joshua would want to pull down a few walls. “ She emerged into the orphanage yard, holding the cross aloft.
Heyes followed her, wondering what she’d say about a man named Hannibal. There weren’t too many elephants in the Rocky Mountains.
“Charles, make sure the children stay out of here,” Heyes warned, then sneezed abruptly. “You and I can start razing it this afternoon.”
“Sure!” Charles agreed excitedly. Being the youngest of three brothers, he’d never been given so much responsibility before and he liked it.
“Come on in, lunch is ready,” Mary Joseph called. She received the cross from the other nun and cradled it in her arms. “Amen for this.”
“Joshua has a cold.” Ruth Ann caught up his hand, Zeke and the twins bringing up the rear.
“Oh, dear, I didn’t think getting that wet was good for you.” Joseph beckoned him to her and felt his forehead. “I hope it doesn’t turn into influenza.”
“Ma’am, don’t worry about me. How’s Thaddeus?”
“He’s been asleep all morning, but I think he’ll wake up for lunch.” She ushered the five children into the building, pausing a moment to contemplate the church. “When the river recedes, we can get to town. Maybe the doctor can come out here to check on you both.”
“Just past those trees, there’s a river. Usually it’s quite small -- we can wade across to get to Cottersville -- but right now it’s impassable.” Sister Joseph crossed her arms over her chest, hugging the cross. “We own all that land, and there’s a lot of fish in the river.”
Heyes sneezed again. “We were trying to get to Cottersville. “ He decided not to include why.
“Well, I guess it was God’s will you’d wind up here one way or the other.” She nodded. “We’re all stuck here until the river goes down.”
Looking up at the sky again, Heyes noted the increasingly dark clouds piling up. “And it looks like it’s going to rain again.”
“Luckily, we know it won’t last for forty days.” She smiled.
“I’m glad you believe, Sister.”
* * * * * *
Carrying a bowlful of chicken and dumplings, Heyes bumped the bedroom door shut with his foot and put the food down on a small bedside table. The Kid had been sleeping, but the noise wakened him. He regarded his cousin through slitted blue eyes.
“Hey, how’re you feeling?”
“I don’t think trees fall on just anyone,” Heyes teased lightly. “You and a church. Good company.”
“Heyes,” Kid hissed. “This is an orphanage.”
“You’d rather I left you up to your neck in mud?” Heyes picked up the bowl and held out a spoonful of chicken. “Sister Luke’s a good cook.” He pushed the spoon’s contents into Curry’s mouth.
“I can feed myself,” Kid mumbled around chewing.
“Go ahead. You’re amazing ungrateful.” Heyes threw up his hands in surrender.
Reaching left-handed for the spoon, Kid hitched himself up higher in the bed. That hurt. He gave Heyes a smile through gritted teeth and scooped up a spoonful of dumplings. “It is good,” he admitted, after swallowing. He emptied the bowl, hungrier than he’d thought. His right arm and ribs were a sharp, persistent ache he wished he could ignore. “Where are we -- besides an orphanage?”
Heyes gave him an oh-are-you-speaking-to-me? glare, then spoiled it by sneezing. “Outside of Cottersville, I’m not sure how far, but there’s a river just past the church and it’s jumped the banks.”
“So we’re stuck here.”
“For a while.” Heyes rubbed his stuffed-up nose. “Something strange is going on here, though.”
“Stranger than you and me sleeping in nun’s beds?” Kid wrapped his good arm around his ribs. “Heyes, I do not like lying to nuns.”
“We’re not lying to them.”
“Don’t tell me you told them who we are? What we’ve done?”
“Then you’re lying to them. Holy, church women.”
“Kid, quit worrying about that,” Heyes placated. “We’ll just stay ‘til you can sit a horse, then ride out. That game in Cottersville goes every week.”
“Lying to nuns.”
“I have this under control, Kid.” Heyes made a wide, all encompassing sweep of his arm. “I’m fixing up that church-well, pulling it down.”
“You doing that kind of work does sound pretty strange to me.”
“I think you need to get more rest.” Heyes took the bowl and exited, annoyed that Kid’s accusations about lying to religious people had struck a little close for comfort.
* * * * * * * *
“Keep piling the firewood up behind the kitchen,” Charles directed the other children. “This tree is so big it’ll keep us warm for months.”
“I’m tired.” Ruth Ann groaned.
“We could build the church with that tree,” Zeke complained, “We’ll never cut it all up.”
“I’m coming!” Heyes called, “I said I’d be here.”
“Joshua! How’s Thaddeus?” Ruth Ann grinned, putting down her ax. “He’s really handsome.”
“He’s in a really bad mood.” Heyes rubbed his nose. “I wouldn’t disturb him just now.” He took in the progress the kids had made in amazement. “You’ve down a great job. We’ll have enough room now to pull down the church.”
The rest of the afternoon was spent in hard, manual labor. As a concession to the firebug Zeke, Heyes piled the more mangled boards in preparation for a bonfire. The intact lumber was stacked neatly to one side for the chapel reconstruction. Heyes fervently hoped that he wouldn’t be expected to rebuild the place. He’d worked construction when there wasn’t any other jobs to be had, but he had a tendency to slam his thumb with a hammer. And these hands much preferred a handful of cards to a handful of nails.
By late afternoon the heavy pewter colored clouds had gotten so dark it was necessary to use a lantern to see by. Heyes did manage to recover the nuns’ beloved chalice from the cleared sanctuary before a flash of lightning lit the sky. The air was so pregnant with rain Heyes could barely breathe through his clogged nasal passages. Just as the clouds opened up to pour more rain on the soggy ground, the demolition crew decamped to the orphanage’s front room for hot cider and popcorn.
“Rain, rain, go away,” Ruth Ann sang off key. “Come again another day. I sure am tired of the rain."
“If this were the ark, we’d be floatin’ by now.” Zeke tossed popcorn into his mouth.
“First the fire, now it’s flooding.” Ruth Ann sighed, “Next we’ll get locusts. We don’t get very good luck.”
“Ruth Ann, you can’t blame the rain on them, too,” Charles corrected.
“Blame who?” Heyes asked as casually as possible, letting the warm cider clear up his head
“Ruth Ann has all these wild ideas that some accidents aren’t,” Charles explained. He playfully tossed a piece of popcorn at Zeke, starting a gleeful war.
“What was the fire, Ruth Ann?” Heyes asked quietly, ducking to avoid the flying kernels. “Well, the roof caught fire -- but Zebulan put it out. Then the barn burned. Well, half of it. Then the buggy burned up.”
“Where is Zebulan now?”
“He’s dead,” Ruth Ann said disdainfully, as if Heyes should have known.
“Sorry.” He took a sip of the cooling cider.
“He was really old. Ancient.” She popped a few pieces of popcorn into her mouth. “He was Sister Luke’s dad.”
“She doesn’t talk much, does she?”
“She’s taken a vow of silence,” Ruth Ann answered matter of factly. “But I think she’s sad. She used to go to his grave every day, but now it’s under water.”
“Zebulan owned this land,” Heyes deduced.
“Yeah.” Charles plopped down on the bench, laughing. “That old man could be annoying, but he was great when he saved the barn.”
“That fire was amazing. The stables were red hot,” Zeke said enthusiastically. “An’ when the chapel roof burned. . . we all helped put it out. A bucket brigade from the river. Zebulan knew what to do.”
“How’d he die?”
“Heart. He keeled over in the yard,” Charles supplied.
“It was sad,” a tiny voice said.
Heyes jumped when the little girl twin spoke. It was the first words he’d ever heard out of her. He hadn’t even noticed she’d walked in the room, but she had popcorn in her hair, so she’d obviously crossed the battle lines.
“He was nice to me.” Sofia sighed, “And those men were really mean.”
“Those men?” Heyes prompted, feeling like he was playing twenty questions with the children.
“Two men,” Samuel added, directly behind his sister. “ From Cottersville.”
“Two men from Cottersville came and spoke to Zebulan, and he died.” Heyes put together, tension settling in his chest.
“They yelled at him.”
“You didn’t tell me you saw them, Sofia!” Ruth Ann cried.
“They were scary.” She plucked some popcorn out of the bowl and offered half to her twin. “An’ Zebulan din’t like them.”
“Do you know their names?” Heyes pinched the bridge of his nose. His sinuses were definitely under attack, and General Grant was in the lead.
“Eddie Lee Shaunnessy and his brother Jimmy Joe.” Charles curled his lip. “They started coming out here more often since Zebulan died and my brothers left.”
“Have they threatened you at all?”
“No.” Zeke shrugged, “But they don’t talk to any of us. Just the Sisters.”
“Where are the Sisters? “ Heyes glanced around, suddenly aware he could hear singing.
“Vespers.” Ruth Ann answered, “You know, they pray a lot. They’re nuns.”
“So I've noticed.” Heyes grinned, sneezing.
* * * * * * *
The rain continued for two more days with very little let up and the river continued to rise and rise and rise. The ruined chapel was completely under water with the waves lapping ever closer to the main house.
Heyes generously shared his cold with nearly everyone in the orphanage. Luckily for Kid and his broken ribs, he didn’t succumb, and felt well enough to sit up in the main room for a meal.
“What makes you so lucky?” Charles asked wearily, wiping his runny nose.
“Me, lucky?” Kid would have laughed, but it hurt too much. “I got so many broken bones, I rattle when I walk.”
“But you’re the only one here who isn’t sneezing,” Zeke groaned.
“Luck of the Irish,” Kid quipped.
“Are you?” Ruth Ann asked.
Heyes coughed abruptly, giving his cousin a look over the bowl of mashed potatoes he was passing. The constant rain had pretty much reduced the menu to food that contained corn or potatoes. There hadn’t been meat for days, but no one was ready to kill the cow yet. Thus, cream gravy for the potatoes and butter for the cornbread. Yet, meals were getting monotonous.
“What?” Kid answered nervously.
“Are you Irish?” Sister Mary Moses asked interestedly. “I was a Houlihan myself.”
“Uh . . .”
“Our grandfather,” Heyes said smoothly, telling the truth.
“You’re cousins?” Sister Mary Joseph asked shrewdly, smiling at the Kid, who looked extremely uncomfortable. “Are you both Jones or Smiths?”
Using another cough to cover for hesitation, Heyes tried to get his story straight. Familially, they were both Currys. Kid’s father and Heyes’ mother were siblings. “Jones, ma’am. Grandpa . . . Jones was born in the old country.”
“Not a very Irish name,” Mary Joseph commented.
Kid just about choked on his mashed potatoes, prompting several people to hover worriedly over him, not really wanting to give the usual cure of pounding on a choking man’s back.
“I’m all right.” He waved their ministrations away, wondering how far Heyes was going to go. He awkwardly drank the proffered water, his ribs throbbing from his choking episode.
“So, you grew up together?” The nun continued her gentle probe.
“Yes, ma’am,” Kid answered. “In Kansas.”
“And after your parents died, you went to an orphanage,” she added. “Joshua told us you were uncomfortable here.”
“Oh, no, ma’am . . .” Kid flicked his eyes at his partner, who tried to look as bland as possible. “ You Sisters have been real good to me. This place is one hundred times better than where we were.” He was tired, he hurt and he wasn’t used to talking a lot, but the words seemed to come out on their own. “I was a little kid, and there was nobody there for us. Those people running that orphanage had no business taking care of children.”
“But we took care of each other,” Heyes spoke softly, never having heard Kid talk like this before.
“I think you’re still taking care of each other.” Mary Joseph put a gentle hand on Curry’s. Kid resisted the urge to jerk his fingers away from her friendly gesture and smiled bleakly at her. “But you look very tired and we shouldn’t have let you get up so soon. Children, clear the table while Joshua and I help Thaddeus back to bed.” She stood, bowing her head. “Thank you, Lord, for this food we have eaten and for your constant presence in our lives continue to lead us on the paths of truth and righteousness.”
“Amen,” chorused the children, crossing themselves.
* * * * * *
“Heyes, she knows,” Kid hissed, once he’d been tucked back into bed.
“Kid, calm down,” Heyes placated. “I already told them we’d been in an orphanage together, obviously we grew up together.”
“She know we’re lying about. . . everything!”
“Well, not everything. There was some truth in there.”
“A little. You heard that prayer.” Kid leaned back against the pillow, breathing in short gasps to relieve the pain in his right side.
“You’re gonna get yourself all worked up, then you won’t be able to sleep,” Heyes accused, pointing a finger at him. “All right, so maybe she can recognize a fabrication, Kid. . . ”
“A less than accurate portrayal of the facts,” Heyes reworded, “But that doesn’t mean anything. A nun would never turn us in.”
“Lying is a sin. And they could use the money around here.”
“Oh, when did you get all high and mighty? I seem to remember you were quite willin’ to sneak out of church to go fishing most Sundays.”
“That doesn’t make it right,” Kid concluded his argument.
“Well, I’ll tell you something else that’s not right.” Heyes sat down beside the bed, stifling a cough. “I don’t have the whole story, but I think somebody’s trying to drive the nuns out.”
“Why?” Kid opened his eyes, interested in spite of himself.
“I haven’t got that entirely figgered out.” Heyes leaned his chin on his fist. “But a pair of brothers have been threatening the sisters.” He related what the children had told him about the Shaunnessys and Zebulan in the last few days, including an interesting piece of information he’d gleaned only hours earlier from his usual source, Ruth Ann. While helping Sister Luke with dinner, the chatterbox little girl had spouted out that Jimmy Joe Shaunnessy had unsuccessfully courted Sister Luke before she’d taken the veil. This piece of news had stopped Heyes in his potato peeling to stare at the child. The embarrassed nun had ducked her head over her bowl of cornmeal, putting Heyes in the unfamiliar role of acting the disciplinarian to a ten year old.
Kid listened quietly to the whole story. After three days in bed, asleep a great deal of the time, he was starved for conversation. When Heyes finished his narration, a comfortable silence fell over the room until Kid spoke. “Water rights.”
“What?” Heyes frowned, using his bandanna to wipe his still stuffy nose. “You don’t even know these parts. Cottersville could be ringed with lakes for all you know.”
“Betcha it’s not,” Kid retorted. “We’re still pretty high up, aren’t we?”
“Yah, but I haven’t been able to get out much to scout around.”
“Tomorrow, go huntin’” Kid suggested. “Follow the river down, if you can.”
“Kid, it’s lapping on the door sill.” Heyes laughed, “We can’t get out of the house. And anyway, the claim on the river is moot when it’s been raining like this for days.”
“But if Cottersville is downhill, anyone sitting up here on the river controls the water,” Kid said reasonably. “Next summer, that’s power.”
“Y’know, I think having a tree fall on you shook up your brains.” Heyes grinned at him “That’s really intelligent thinking, Kid.”
A light knock at the door stalled the conversation, and Heyes opened the door for Sister Joseph.
“I thought you might still be up.” She smiled at them, offering bowls of apple brown betty. “Sister Luke, has as usual, worked her magic on our meager stores.”
“That looks wonderful, Sister.” Heyes took the bowls, smelling the cinnamon aroma. “I’ll have to go thank her personally when I’m done.”
“She’s really taken quite a shine to you and Thaddeus.” Joseph nodded.
“Umm.” Kid took a bite and closed his eyes in reverence. “Oh, Sister. Joshua was thinking of doing some hunting as soon as the water recedes. How far is it between here and Cottersville? Maybe he could pick up some supplies, too.”
“Oh, this mud will make the trip unbearable.” She sighed. “But if we get a few sunny days, it’s ten miles to town, straight down hill.”
“What made you Sisters start an orphanage ways up here?” Heyes inquired.
“Purely by chance.” The nun sat down on the bedside chair, arranging her black skirts over her feet. “I think Ruth Ann has, no doubt, told you that Zebulan was Sister Luke’s father. She attended the same convent that I did, back in Denver, and mentioned the need for an order out here.”
“That must have taken a lot of guts for a couple of nuns to travel through the Rockies on your own.”
Mary Joseph’s long thin face was usually smooth and calm, but for some reason this statement tickled her. Heyes was surprised to notice that she had a dimple in her left cheek, similar, but smaller than his own. “Thank you for the compliment, Joshua. I'm glad to hear that I have ‘guts’, as you put it We arrived here at Zebulan’s home and never got much further.”
“It’s just an awfully long way to Cottersville from here,” Kid observed, licking the last bit of apple off his spoon.
“Nuns like solitude.” She shrugged.
“But you’re also at risk for attack, way up here with only children around.”
“Now I know you’ve been talking to Ruth Ann,” Sister Mary Joseph said dryly, collecting the bowls. “The Lord has kept us safe so far.”
“What about the fires?” Heyes asked.
“Unfortunately, Zebulan was getting senile, God rest his soul.” She crossed herself absently. “He’d go outside to smoke his pipe and wasn’t too careful with the matches.”
“And the Shaunnessy Brothers?” Heyes persisted, accepting her explanation.
“Them.” She made a face. “The elder brother is our banker. They’re both unpleasant men, to be sure, but I don’t suspect them of any foul play.”
“Are you sure?” Kid put in.
“Well, if I weren’t,” She turned to go, her hand on the doorknob, “Then, I guess I’d be very happy to have two guests who wear guns like they know how to use them, wouldn’t I?” With that enigmatic answer, she left them alone.
“Heyes, she knows,” Kid groused.
* * * * * * *
The rain stopped falling in the night, bringing a silence so profound, Heyes awoke. He lay in the darkness, listening to the small sounds of the building and the absence of rain on the roof. Despite Kid’s concerns about staying in an orphanage with a very intelligent head nun, Heyes felt quite content and surprisingly safe.
The next few days were warm, with a light wind and brilliant blue sky. The water in front of the main building receded quickly, leaving a quagmire of mud in the yard. Charles and Zeke used some of the old chapel boards to make pathways to the barn, well, and outhouse. The other children, especially the twins, just made artistic mud pies and mountains until Sister Moses complained that their clothes would never come clean. Bored with the inactivity, Charles took to entertaining the girls by whittling rough doll people out of bits of leftover wood. Very soon there was a strange line of wooden people headed for the mud mountain castle like supplicants on the way to Jerusalem.
When Heyes finally felt he could walk without sinking up to his knees, or tripping over carved dolls, he sent the boys out to set snares for rabbit and prepared to go down the mountain. The Sisters gave him a list of necessary supplies. The Kid gave him a look that spoke volumes about how unhappy he was that Heyes was planning to approach the Shaunnessys without back up.
* * * * * * * *
Cottersville turned out to be an amazingly bustling little hamlet, with, surprise of surprises, a train station. Heyes’ outlaw days might be over, but he always kept his eye out for quick escape options. Train stations were very appreciated as long as trains actually stopped there frequently. It didn’t take very long to find out that Cottersville had a single weekly freight train stop. Well, at least he didn’t think he would need it!
There were also the usual amenities of any small frontier town; mercantile, telegraph and a sheriff’s office. The name printed neatly over the door meant nothing to Heyes, which made him even happier. Since he’d planned to stay the night for a good game of poker, he put off Sister Luke’s shopping ‘til the next morning and headed over to the closest saloon for a drink.
The main road was still so muddy, deeply rutted grooves in the ground made crossing treacherous. Heyes tried to skirt the deeper puddles, but ended up dirtier just walking from the livery to the saloon then he had gotten all the way down the mountain. Nearly every man, woman and child in town had mud up to his or her knees. No doubt, Cottersville being lower than the orphanage, the town had even worse flooding.
The floorboards of the saloon were warping as they dried, moldy tree smell coming up from the wet wood.
Heyes held up one gloved finger to the bartender. “Beer.”
“Got eggs in the bowl there.” The bartender pointed, “Free with a beer.”
“Thanks.” Heyes closed his fingers around the white shell, a memory dimpling his cheeks. He knew of a sure fire way to earn cash with an innocuous little bet on whether an egg would stand up on a bar or not. But Heyes hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and that had been cornbread in milk. His stomach wanted the egg. He tapped it against the bar as he received his beer.
“Looks like bad flooding down here,” Heyes observed, swallowing some draft.
“The tables were floating around.” The ‘tender pointed. Most of the table legs in the room were tipped in mud. “That was a rare rainstorm. Doesn’t usually go on for days like that. Last year it was dry for months ‘round this time.”
Kid’s voice said “water rights” in the back of Heyes’ brain. “Then, it’s a good thing there’s a river back there.”
“Under normal circumstances.” The man laughed, “Not last week.”
“Yeah, last week I tried to get into town for the poker game.” Heyes took a bite of egg, followed by beer. “ Had to stay up on the mountain.”
“Nobody made it to the game. They’re postponing the big one for another week ‘til things dry out.”
“No loss then.” Heyes shrugged, nonchalantly, but worried that he wouldn’t be able to earn any money. “Any smaller prospects around?”
“Cowboys and miners in here every night.”
“I’ll be back, then.” Heyes finished his late afternoon lunch.
* * * * * * *
“Thaddeus, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to go outside. You’re still weak,” Sister Mary Moses protested.
“I’ll never gain back any strength just laying around.” Kid stood in the door, his left arm around his still painful ribs. After a week, he still found it hard to take a deep breath and his right arm ached constantly, but he needed to be up and busy. “I need to get some target practice.”
“At least keep Charles around,” she added worriedly.
“Can he shoot?”
She chuckled. “He’s tolerable with a Winchester, but I doubt he’s ever held a Colt.”
Her odd familiarity with gun names struck a chord in Kid. “And you, Sister?”
“Can I shoot?” She cocked her head. “Once upon a time.”
“Oh, I gave that up.” She tucked her hands under her surplice, “One must make sacrifices unto the Lord.”
“I’ll bet,” Kid agreed. He sat, pulling out his six-gun and holding it between his knees to open the revolver. One handed, he shoved the bullets into their chambers, then flicked it shut. He felt awkward and out of practice. He’d occasionally shot two fisted, but never just left-handed.
All five children eagerly helped him set up targets along the fallen tree, pestering him with question about his gun and where he’d learned to shoot. Looking at all the excited faces, Kid was loath to tell them he started shooting when he was eight years old. It would most definitely set a bad example.
“I started using a gun younger than I should have,” Kid confessed, “But there was a war on and some bad things were happening.”
“Your parents were dead?” Ruth Ann asked sympathetically, “Like all of ours.”
“Yeah.” He sighted on the targets, holding the gun loosely and away from his body. Even the small weight of the colt pulled on his aching chest muscles. Kid pulled the trigger, moving down the line of targets. He hit all six, but three were not dead on. He was sluggish and his aim wasn’t true. “Damn,” he whispered, turning away from the children.
“That was amazing,” Zeke crowed, “I never saw anybody so fast!”
Mary Moses, watching from the door, sighed. “Thaddeus? Are you feeling all right?”
Ruth Ann smiled up at the blond gunman. “You must be the fastest gun ever.”
“Not anymore,” Kid muttered, clenching his teeth against the burning in his right arm. He couldn’t shoot anymore. His one talent was gone. Taking a slow breath, he dropped the gun back into the holster and walked across the yard.
* * * * *
“Royal flush.” Heyes spread his cards on the table, wanting to smirk at the astonished expressions of the other players. He kept a straight face, pulling in the pile of cash from the middle of the table. It wasn’t a fortune, but it would certainly help buy supplies for the sisters. He’d been playing for nearly two hours and didn’t want to antagonize the locals in anticipation of future games. “Thanks, boys, hope to see you again.”
“So we can win back some of our money,” A gray haired man grumbled good-naturedly.
Walking back to the bar, Heyes overheard the bartender call a tall, thickset, blond haired man ‘Mr. Shaunnessy.’ His interest piqued immediately, Heyes hastened to secure a position at the bar next to the infamous man.
“Now I know that bottle isn’t the rot gut he’d been pouring for me.” Heyes eyed Shannessy's bottle of aged Kentucky whiskey, signaling the bartender with his empty shot glass.
“Well, I do have a private stock, Mr. . . ” Shaunnessy eyed the smaller, dark haired man.
“Smith, Joshua Smith.” Heyes held out a gloved hand, accepting a shot of house whiskey from the bartender.
“Eddie Lee Shaunnessy. I was watching you play over there.”
“You find poker an enjoyable spectator sport?” Heyes grimaced as he swallowed the alcohol.
“Not usually.” Eddie Lee grinned. He tipped the bottle into his glass, then held it out invitingly to Heyes. “But I did today.” He poured Heyes a shot. “You’re one of the best players I’ve ever seen.”
“Me?” Heyes spread his fingers across his chest modestly. “That was just a quick game to alleviate boredom.”
“You won several hundred dollars in a nickel and dime game.” He downed his drink.
“Some nights are luckier than others.” Heyes tossed back his whisky, nodding in satisfaction. “Now that’s whiskey.”
“Served at all the games I run.”
“I think you’re the man I came to see, but Mother Nature got in the way.”
“Yeah, hasn’t rained like that in years, the old folks say,” Shaunnessy agreed. “Usually dry this time of year.”
“So when’s the next game?”
“A week from Friday. Some people around here are still under mud.”
“Yeah, I stayed up at the orphanage on the mountain,” Heyes mentioned casually, watching the man’s reaction. He maintained a decent poker face, but the muscles in his jaw tightened. “The Sisters had water lapping on the doorstep, and the Chapel collapsed.”
“Sorry to hear that.” Eddie Lee smoothed the lapels of his suit. “Those poor women have as terrible time up there. I’ve been telling them they should move down here for a long time.”
“Seems to me they would have had water knee deep if they’d been down in town,” Heyes observed. “Probably safer up there.”
“Perhaps this time,” Shaunnessy conceded coldly. “But maybe not the next.”
“You said yourself it rarely floods around here.” Heyes acted deliberately obtuse.
“I meant if some other catastrophe befalls them.”
“Luckily, my friend and I will be staying around for a while.” Heyes shoved his hands under his gun belt, shrugging. “Friend’s laid up, but I’ve been helping the nuns out.”
“Well, those ladies must feel safer.” Shaunnessy eyed the dangerous looking man in front of him. “I’m certainly no longer worried.”
“I’m looking forward to playing poker with you.” Heyes stared him square in the eye, tilting his chin up just slightly to compensate for the height difference. “Sometimes it’s hard to find a worthy opponent.”
* * * * *
On a gloriously bright blue sky morning, Heyes did the shopping, enjoying picking out special treats for the children and even the nuns. He made a stop at the town doctor on behalf of the Kid, since nearly everyone else had recovered from the coughing and sneezing that had run rampant for a short time. Surprised to find that the Doctor was younger than he was, Heyes found himself chatting easily. He’d never met a doctor who wasn’t either old as the hills or too busy to sit.
“I’ll try to make it up the mountain by tomorrow, at the latest.” Dr. Miller Sebastian shook his head. “Sure am sorry to hear your friend’s gone a week like that. Broken bones hurt like hell.”
Heyes let out an unbridled laugh. “I thought doctors were supposed to say ‘now this won’t hurt a bit’.”
“Well, can’t lie about that.” Miller tapped white powder into little twists of paper and handed them over. “Maybe a mite late, but if he’s still having pain, tell him to take this in some water.”
“Thank you, Doctor.” Heyes nodded, handing over a dollar.
“That’s not worth a whole buck!”
“Doc, it is to me.” Heyes shook his hand. “Say, did you treat ol’ Zebulan McClure before he died?”
“Yeah, nice old man. I swear to God he’d still be alive if he didn’t worry so about the place.”
“Why? Did something happen?”
“Don’t like spreading tales.” Miller pulled on his jacket and hat. “Got to go check on Mrs. Polansky -- having a baby soon. But Zebulan was having troubles. I think some of those fires were deliberately set, and not by Zeke.”
“Who’d do that?”
Miller frowned, looking Heyes over. “You seem like you could take care of yourself, but once you move on, those ladies will be up there by themselves.”
“And there are people in town they should stay away from,” Heyes prompted, “Maybe a couple of brothers?”
“Mr. Smith.” Miller smoothed his bushy mustache. “I never told you anything.” He hefted his medical bag and stepped out onto the porch. “Nice to meet you. I’ll be by, probably after that baby is born.”
Stopping at the saloon for a quick beer, Heyes impulsively bought a bottle of whiskey. Never hurt to have a bottle of rye on hand.
* * * * * *
The ground was much dryer after another day of sun, and Heyes made far quicker time going uphill than he’d expected. He arrived back at Children of Jesus to find a yard full of people.
“Joshua, Joshua!” Ruth Ann ran up, grabbing the bridle of his horse. “The family from down the mountain came to fix the chapel!”
“Great.” He dismounted, suddenly surrounded by children, a few he didn’t recognize.
“That’s the Billings.” Charles waved a hand over six tow headed children. “Their Dad can build anything.”
“Glad to know I’m not in charge of construction, now.” Heyes grinned. “I brought candy.” Immediately, nearly a dozen hands dove into his saddlebags. Peppermint sticks, horehound and maple candy was distributed amongst the children.
“You spoil them.” Mary Moses laughed.
“Hey, I’m just happy someone else is hammering nails.” He inspected the framework admiringly. “And he’s fast.” He pulled a small bundle from his bag. “Something for you sisters.”
She unwrapped six white candles and sighed happily. “Oh, these are so expensive.”
“I had some money.” He winked. “In fact, it was enough for all the supplies, so yours was left over.”
Her mouth formed a round O, starting to protest, then stopped. “Thank you.” She smiled. “You’re so kind.”
“Not me-you all took us in when we needed help.” Heyes shrugged. “Better get this stuff to Sister Luke. I'm starving.” He began to unload packages. “Where’s K-Thaddeus?”
“Oh.” She frowned slightly. “He hasn’t been feeling well.”
“What happened?” Heyes asked, alarmed.
* * * * * * *
After carrying most of the packages into the kitchen, admiring the fine rabbits Zeke and Charles had captured for stew, and snagging a corn muffin with butter for a snack, Heyes went searching for his cousin. Kid was tucked into the corner of his bed, splinted arm resting on his bent knees, face stormy.
“What the hell did you do?” Heyes greeted.
“G’afternoon to you, too,” Kid grumbled.
“Why’d you even try shooting? You’re all broken up.”
“Well, I can’t shoot anymore, anyway,” Kid answered morosely. “I’ve lost the touch.”
“You’ve lost your mind.” Heyes shook his head. “Here, I brought you something.” He handed over the bottle of whiskey. “And the Doctor sent this pain powder. I think you need both.”
“You’re a great comfort to me.” Kid grimaced at him sourly, taking a swig straight from the bottle.
“Now you going to tell me why you acted like an idiot?” Heyes settled into the chair, his booted feet up on the bed.
Kid took another swallow of whiskey, the pain in his head and his arm easing a little. “Heyes, it’s all I have.”
“What? Using a gun?”
“You -- you’ve got the silver tongue, the smooth ways. You can pick a safe. You have -- I dunno what you call it.” He stared down at the bottle. “You’re smart. Me, I could shoot -- better’n most. Now, I can’t.” He took a drink, letting the whiskey warm his whole body.
“Kid.” Heyes took a deep breath, understanding his cousin’s anguish, but unsure how to begin. “You’re laid up, you need to heal. Give yourself a chance.”
“What do you expect to do when we get amnesty?”
Stunned, Heyes stared at his partner. “Why?”
“We can’t wander f’ever.” Kid slurred his words. “S’m day we’ll get jobs, settle down. You could work in a bank, but not me.”
“This is not the time to be talking about this,” Heyes soothed. “Take the powder, get some sleep.”
Kid poured nearly half the bottle down his throat, woozy and weary. He generously handed the rest over to Heyes. “Wait, I’m serious.”
“Yep, and I feel good for the first time in a long time.” Kid touched the gun and holster next to him on the bed. “What do you plan to do?’
“I never thought about it much before.” Heyes tasted the alcohol, wishing he’d gotten some of the stuff Shaunnessy had. He laughed. “I never thought past actually getting amnesty.”
“It’s been two years.” Kid fiddled with the bullets in his cartridge belt. “I never really wanted to live in San’a Marta. If it comes through, we need to be ready.”
“When,” Heyes amended.
“When. If.” Kid shrugged, twinging his injured arm. “Where’s that powder?”
* * * * * * *
The whiskey made Kid fall asleep easily, but he didn’t stay that way. The effects wore off before dawn, and he found himself wide awake in the dark house. Heyes was snoring on the far side of the bed and barely stirred when Curry got up. The pain powder had worked wonders, he could move with more ease and agility than in the last week. Now, if only he could get rid of the furry mouse sitting on his tongue.
Walking quietly along the hall, Kid passed the children’s room and the Nuns’, headed for the kitchen. Although no one had ever complained to him, he suspected that he and Heyes had appropriated Charles and Zeke’s room. Maybe when Billings finished the Chapel, he could add another room onto the orphanage; just in case Sister Joseph decided to take in any more drifters after he and Heyes left.
“Good morning, Thaddeus,” Joseph said softly, closing the fire gate on the cast iron stove.
“Sister.” He took a breath to steady his racing heart. He hadn’t expected to see anyone else up so early.
“Sit down. Are you in pain?”
“No, ma’am. I’m all right.” Kid took the offered chair. “Joshua brought me some powder.”
“And some drink.”
“Well, yeah. That, too.”
“It’s all right.” She nodded, “I know how badly you hurt last week. You needed some respite.”
“I just. . . I wanted some water,” he said lamely. “Why are you up?”
“Matins. Early prayers.” Sister Mary Joseph waved a slim hand at the warming stove. “We take turns getting up first to heat the house, We’re nuns, not martyrs.”
Kid grinned. “I had a sister once.” He drank from the glass she gave him, “Who was a nun.”
“A sister Sister.”
“She never liked it cold, either. One of the only things I remember her telling me was about lying face down on the stone floor, in winter, to pray.”
“Yes. I’ve done that. As a novice.” She sat down next to him, tucking her fingers into her black wool sleeves. “Even when our chapel had a floor, it was wood.”
“Good thing.” Kid nodded, wondering why she had so unnerved him earlier in the week, when now he felt oddly as ease. He wanted to talk to her. Wanted to. . . “Confession.”
“If I tell you something, it’s like confession. You can’t tell anyone, right?” He looked over at her, his blue eyes gray in the half light.
“Yeas. I can hear confession. Father Lawrence only comes every other month.”
“My name isn’t Thaddeus.”
“I know,” Joseph said softly, watching him.
“You know?” He echoed, astonished.
“You mentioned your sister, Sister Mary Assumpta. But you called her Siobhan.”
“You knew all this time?” He practically shouted, but calmed himself before he woke the house. “You recognized us?”
“Jedediah Curry, I’ve even seen you before.” Mary Joseph ducked her head. Her voice was calm, but the memory agonizing. “When you and Hannibal came to the convent -- sometime after your parents were killed. You were tiny, very thin and wet. I think it was raining that time, too.”
He remembered that night. He and Heyes, afraid they were the only ones left after Quantrill’s Raiders had murdered their parents and siblings, had struck out on their own. They had made it to Siobhan’s convent after several months on the road. Sore, starving and drenched, he had reached out to the only family he had left, an older sister he’d barely met. Siobhan had been eighteen when he was born, and already a novice nun. By the time he was a war-hardened eleven year old, she was a black habited stranger. Sister Mary Assumpta had fed them, nursed their ills, and then, on the advice of her priest, sent them to an orphanage. Not one affiliated with her order, but one recently opened to accommodate the hundreds of suddenly orphaned children.
“If you have anger for what happened, it was a long time ago. . . ” Joseph began.
“And your order couldn’t take in children. I know,” he replied in a dead voice. “We took care of ourselves.”
“The convent was broken up during the war; I went to Denver. I lost touch with Assumpta.”
“Is she alive?”
“I don’t know. But, years later I saw some newspaper articles about you. I remembered you.”
“So, why didn’t you turn us in? You could use twenty thousand dollars around here.”
“That wouldn’t be right.”
Kid snorted, smiling to himself, her words paralleled his with Heyes. “Thank you.” He rubbed his aching ribs. “We’ve been straight for nearly two years. We’re tryin’ to get amnesty from the Wyoming Governor.”
“That’s very good news.” Joseph nodded. “You recognized the error of your ways.”
“Oh, I recognized that years ago,” Kid answered ruefully. “It got to be a question of what else can I do. Bank robbing was easy, but I never shot anyone doing a job.”
“You’ve made your confession, Jed.” Sister Mary Joseph steepled her fingers. “Now what?”
“Aren’t you supposed to give me penance? Hail Marys? Which I never can remember. I know the Our Father.”
“Doing the Rosary is good under any circumstance. And feel free to offer a few personal prayers,” she agreed. “But I suspect you have more practical matters in mind.”
“I’ve never done anything else.” Kid made a gun with his left hand, forefinger as the barrel. “And the reputation isn’t going away for a long time.”
“Is that all that defines you?”
“Sister Mary Joe?” a soft voice called from the hall. “We’re ready.”
“There’s Moses.” The Nun stood, patting Kid’s arm, then closing her hand over his extended finger. “I know you have a good to contribute, Jedediah. Find it in yourself.”
Alone in the kitchen, Kid sat quietly next to the warmth of the stove, feeling more at home than he’d felt for most of his life. Memories of waiting for his mother and sisters to make breakfast welled up around him. He could almost smell the coffee brewing.
“Daydreaming?” Heyes reclined against the doorframe, clad in just his Henley shirt and brown trousers.
“Something like that,” Kid agreed. “But it’s not even quite day.”
“Dawn, then.” Heyes peered towards the Eastern facing window. Golden rays of sunlight were starting to spill onto the kitchen floor. “Coffee?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
Pouring fragrant coffee beans into the grinder, Heyes turned the crank. “You look. . . happy.”
“Happy?” Kid tossed a lopsided grin at his cousin, “I dunno, things are different.” While Heyes prepared the coffee, Kid filled him in on his conversation with Sister Mary Joseph.
“She knew Siobhan?!” Heyes shook his head at the coincidence, pouring steaming mugs. “Well, no need to worry that she’ll turn us in, now.”
“No, and I'm sorry I was kind of. . . ”
“Hair trigger? Prickly?”
Shrugging, Kid accepted the words. “I still don’t know what to do without a gun, but. . . ”
“You’re healin’ up.” Heyes warmed his hands around the mug. “Your ribs are gettin’ better. Kid, you’ll be able to shoot.”
“With this?” He tapped his splinted right arm.
“You tried too soon. Take another day an’ I’ll watch you blow those tin cans away like you always done.”
“That pain powder was pretty good.” Kid took a swallow of coffee, “But I'm no good left handed. I won’t be blowing away any cans.”
“Kid Curry is better left handed than most of the country is right handed.”
“Most of the country?” Kid teased.
“Most of the world,” Heyes expanded, spreading his arms wide.
“Most of the world does what?” Ruth Ann came running in on the end of the conversation, the little twins trailing her.
“Most of the world has breakfast in the morning,” Kid answered.
“I wan’ breakfast,” Samuel cried.
“Me, too,” Sofia agreed.
“Looks like you’re elected.” Kid smirked at his cousin, “I can’t do any heavy lifting.”
“No, huh?” Heyes looked unimpressed. “What do ya’ll want to eat?”
“Pancakes.” Zeke came tearing into the kitchen, his suspenders still flapping around his knees.
“Pancakes,” Ruth Ann agreed.
“That fine with you?” Heyes directed at the Kid.
“Hey, I always eat what you fix.”
“Cause I’m head of this gang and you don’t have any choice in the matter.”
“Are you inna gang?” Zeke asked eagerly.
“Only when you kids are around,” Heyes responded. “Find me the flour and a bowl.”
Letting Zeke indulge his fire loving heart in stoking up the stove to heat the griddle, Heyes and the girls stirred up batter. Samuel set the table and Charles appeared finally with an armful of logs for the woodpile. By the time the Nuns had finished matins, there was breakfast on the table and several happy faces covered in molasses syrup.
When breakfast was over, Sister Luke once more took command of her kitchen and motioned everyone else out. The children reluctantly followed Moses to the schoolroom, having enjoyed the cheerful meal.
“So, you didn’t tell me about Cottersville.” Kid settled gingerly into the threadbare sofa in the front room, attempting to arrange his arm in a position where it didn’t ache. “Didja meet Eddie Boy?”
“Eddie Lee.” Heyes pulled a deck of cards from his vest pocket, shuffling absently. “A fine upstanding man. Makes you and me look like law abidin’ citizens. And as a bonus, he runs the high stakes poker game.”
“You get to play?”
“Game was canceled due to the rain, and there won’t be another one for nine days. So, I have until then to come up with a plan.” He dealt out twenty five cards onto the table, starting to arrange them into decent poker hands.
“Put that Queen with the Jack and the ten.” Kid craned his neck to examine the cards.
“Hey, who taught you how to do this?”
“Can’t remember,” Kid remarked straight faced. “What’s you plan?”
“Win at poker.”
“You always do, that’s no plan.” Kid laughed.
“All I got right now, Kid.” Heyes flipped over the twenty-fifth card. “Oh.” he grimaced.
“Not gonna win that game.”
“Well, I’m just happy that you’re so happy.”
“Hey, I can’t shoot and you can’t play poker.” He was laughing so hard his ribs ached abysmally. “Guess we’ll just have to retire to a convent.”
“Men usually go to a monastery.” Sister Mary Joseph observed dryly, coming in from the yard.
Heyes shuffled the offending cards back together. “Sister, you said you own this land?”
“Yes. Zebulan deeded it to us.”
“Down to the river,” Heyes continued. “Who owns the land across on the other side?”
“The Shaunnessy brothers.”
“Ah, the plot thickens.” Heyes tapped the cards neatly together. “Now I got a plan, Kid.”
“Well, I came in to tell you that Dr. Sebastian is here to see you, Thaddeus. And Mr. Billings wants to consult you on the chapel, Joshua.”
“I’m not on the building committee anymore,” Heyes protested. He opened the door just in time to let Miller Sebastian in. “ Good to see you, Doctor. This is my cousin Thaddeus Jones.”
“Heard you broke a few bones.” The doctor held out his hand to shake Kid’s left. “About two weeks ago?”
“Almost.” Kid agreed, hugging his ribs.
“How are you feeling?” He inspected the splinted arm with a professional eye. “Still much pain?”
“That powder helps a lot. Thanks.”
“I’ll leave you some more. Broken bones take a while to heal.”
“How long? I need to. . . ”
“Doctor!” Charles came tearing in through the door, his blue eyes wild and face pale. “Doctor, Mr. Billings -- he. . . come quick!”
Miller grabbed his medical bag, running out into the yard. Heyes, the nuns and the children were clustered under the newly wood framed chapel, talking worriedly. Zeke and Ruth Ann grabbed the doctor’s hands, pulling him into the group where Abner Billings lay, his body twisted awkwardly. Abner Jr. rubbed his father’s hand franticly, pleading for him to wake up.
Looking up, Hannibal Heyes inspected where he’d fallen from. One of the cross beams, meant to support the ceiling, had broken, crashing down onto the dirt floor. Billings had been standing on it, nailing roof bracings into place.
“Everyone, give Dr. Sebastian some room,” Sister Mary Joseph commanded in a voice that brooked no argument. “Junior, you and Charles get some blankets to make a stretcher to get him inside. Go.” She helped the distraut 18 year old up, giving him into Charles’ care. “Girls. go tell Sister Luke. We’ll need tea, food for everyone.” Ruth Ann, Sofia and Clarissa Billings were sent on their mission with worry on their faces.
Unable to think of anything useful to do, Zeke hovered behind Heyes, nervously clenching his fists. “This is bad. Like Ruth Ann said, we’re having back luck. God is striking us down.”
“Get the locusts out of your head, Zeke,” Heyes snapped more sharply than he’d meant to. “We haven’t gotten to Revelations yet.”
“He’s got a pretty severe head wound, and maybe broken ribs or leg-but he’s breathing,” Miller proclaimed. “Abner, can you hear me?”
The only answer was a painful mutter, but all took it as a hopeful sign. Mary Moses orchestrated loading him onto the makeshift stretcher as Kid finally made it out to the wood frame.
“What happened?” he asked sympathetically, knowing full well the kind of pain Billings must be in.
“He fell. From up there!” Zeke supplied. “That wood just snapped in half.”
“Only it didn’t,” Heyes spoke, crouching beside the fallen beam. He ran his fingers over the end, then squinted up at the other half of it.
“It’s been cut.” Kid recognized ax marks.
“Yep.” Heyes stood, brushing off his trousers.
“Somebody tried to kill him!” Zeke cried shrilly.
“Quiet. We can’t be yelling that out to everybody,” Heyes hushed. “Zeke, go in, see how things are going, but don’t say anything.”
“You want to talk to Thaddeus alone,” Zeke countered.
“Yeah.” Kid grinned ruefully. “Zeke, promise, we’ll tell you if anything else happens.”
“Zeke!” Ruth Ann yelled from the porch. “Sister Moses says we hafta go back to lessons.”
“Go on,” Heyes urged, giving the boy a little push, walking back to the house with him.
Kid followed more slowly, a frown forming on his face as he watched Sebastian splint Billings’ leg. “Heyes, he looks like you.”
“No, Billings.” Kid pointed to the injured man. “Dark hair, thin. . . ”
“Is that all you think of me? I always thought I was good looking, like my Dad.”
Kid favored him with a stern look. “Somebody watching from far off could make a mistake.”
“Kid,” Heyes said softly, turning him away from the makeshift hospital bed. “That beam had to have been cut in the middle of the night. None of us heard it. Any one of us could have been up there today and happen to step on the wrong beam.”
“If Eddie boy. . . ”
“Followed you up here, he might not have realized you weren’t still working on the chapel.”
“You didn’t see Shaunnessy. Not exactly the skulking about in the woods guy.”
“Did you see – uh -- his brother?”
“Somebody’s been watching the yard, and got you n’Billings confused. And my bet it was Shaunnessy.”
“You need to go lie down.
“You’re in danger.” Kid headed for the bedroom. “I’m getting my gun.”
Heyes rolled his eyes, actually reluctantly accepting Kid’s hypothesis, but unwilling to worry about his own skin when there were so many other things to worry about.
Very little constructive was accomplished for the rest of the day, but Sister Joseph was determined to keep the hysteria from building. That in mind, she sent Charles and Abner Jr. to Cottersville to tell Sheriff Taylor of Smith and Jones’ suspicions. Since he was the one with theories, Heyes proposed to go along, against Kid’s adamant objections. Sister Joe sided with Curry, mostly because Abner would be passing by his own home on the way down the mountain. and could tell his mother of the accident himself.
“His father was just hurt, do you think it’s safe for him to go by himself?” Heyes gave a last ditch appeal.
“That’s a specious argument, He’s 18, a man and won’t be by himself. Charles is accompanying him,” Joseph said quietly. “You would do well to be an example to the others and remain calm.”
Heyes started to object further, but was stalled by the arrival of the two boys in question.
“Take care of yourselves, boys,” she said. “Abner, tell your mother to come right on up. Your father will remain with us until he’s able to travel. Charles, tell The Sheriff we won’t move anything until he’s seen the boards.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” they chorused solemnly, the weight of maturity and the tragedy heavy on them. Both boys mounted their horses turning them towards the bend in the road leading to the river.
Heyes turned away, picking up a hammer from the ground, “This is all going to hel. . . going wrong.”
“I think it was wrong before we got here,” Kid observed.
“You believe this was all deliberate, but I just can’t accept that people I’ve done business with could. . . ” Mary Joseph shook her head. “Try to kill someone.”
“Sister, if what we think is correct, the Shaunnessys may have murdered Zebulan.” Kid rested his right elbow in his left hand to support it. The powder had definitely worn off.
“This is just more than I want to accept right now.” She held up her palms as if to wipe a slate clean. “I want to say a few prayers before the Sheriff comes.” She smiled wanly at them. “But thank you for worrying about us. God knew what he was doing when he sent you here. “ She lifted her skirts to step onto the porch, a swirl of black fabric as she disappeared into the house.
“Sheriff won’t be here for three or more hours -- that’s a lot of prayers.” Heyes tapped the hammer against his hand. “The first time I saw her -- right in this spot, I thought she was an angel dressed in black. She’s the most amazing, stubborn woman I’ve ever met.”
“The woman of your dreams and she’s a nun,” Curry teased.
“Kid.” Heyes admonished, unnerved at the thought. “We need to keep our eyes open and be ready for anything.” He held the door open for his cousin, following him inside.
“Smith, Jones.” Dr. Sebastian finished packing his equipment in his medical bag. “I’ve done as much as I can for now, he’s resting.”
“Did you give him some of that powder?” Kid asked, watching Billings sleep.
“Even better, morphine,” Miller answered. “I left some more of each for both of you.” He indicated packets on the table. “I need to go check on Mrs. Polansky’s twins, but I’ll be back.”
“Doctor, I wonder if you could do something for me.” Heyes drew him aside and explained his idea.
* * * * * *
Mary Moses sank to her knees amongst the rows of vegetables, savoring the earthy smell of dirt and growing things. It lessened the feeling of nastiness in the air. She pushed her fingers into the earth, searching for potatoes.
“Need help, Sister?” Kid asked.
“You should be resting.” She pulled two potatoes out, placing them in a basket.
“Resting makes me tired.” Kid sat somewhat awkwardly on the ground, but immediately popped a tuber out left-handed. “But I’ve been digging up spuds all my life.”
“Well, then, I need all the help I can get,” Moses agreed. “When Maria Billings comes back to care for Abner, she’ll probably bring all those children.”
“There are a lot of ‘em.” Kid added more potatoes to her basket. “Boiled potatoes were the regular dinner in my family.”
“A proper Irish meal.” Mary Moses laughed, “Boiled cabbage, too? That was on our table.”
“I don’t eat that.” Kid wrinkled his nose, then turned in the direction of the chapel, hearing the unmistakable sounds of jingling horse bridle. “Is someone coming in the yard?”
“Sister!” Zeke called from the house, “The sheriff is here.”
Joining Zeke on the front porch, Heyes waited until the tall, rawboned red haired man dismounted from his pinto. “Sheriff Taylor?” He held out a welcoming hand, “Joshua Smith.”
“I’d heard there were some men staying up here.” Andy Taylor pushed his Stetson back, shaking Heyes’ hand. “Frankly, I was glad to hear it. These nice ladies need somebody on their sides.”
“Sheriff, that’s the best attitude I’ve heard in this town.” Heyes walked him over to the chapel, pointing out the obvious signs of tampering.
“Unfortunately, there’s no way we can prove who did this.” Taylor sighed. “You have any suspicions?”
“I do.” Heyes pointed to the usual cluster of eavesdroppers, “You know the Sisters, the kids. That’s my partner, Thaddeus Jones. We have a long story to tell you.”
Supplied with a pot of Sister Luke’s coffee, Sheriff Taylor was treated to the full Shaunnessy saga. In the midst of the explanation, the entire Billings clan descended, expressing anguish and fear at the condition of Abner Senior. After reuniting husband and wife, setting children to peeling potatoes, and rounding up extra chairs, Sister Joseph called everyone for dinner.
“I want to thank the Lord for the return of Abner’s senses.” She glanced over at the man reclining on the sofa. “The construction of the chapel, and the help of so many good friends. I know that God will continue to support us. Amen.” She smiled at the crowd of people around the table. “Now, I know there are enough potatoes for all, so pass the gravy.”
* * * * * *
Morning was nothing if not chaotic. With all six Billings children swarming around the main room, the usual Children of Jesus five, three nuns, Billings laid up next to the fireplace, and his wife hovering over him, Heyes was glad to escape to the yard. The weather was turning colder and at 7:30 in the morning, he could see his breath. He sipped coffee, walking slowly around the long side of the building to the back.
Kid was loading his pistol with the gun tucked between his splinted right arm and his body. He spun the chamber with his left hand and dropped the last bullet in. Grasping the butt, he flicked his wrist, giving the pistol a smooth road agent spin.
“Wondered where you were.” Heyes set his cup on the back steps, sitting down beside it.
“Didn’t want anybody to watch.”
“I can leave.”
“You don’t count.” Kid sighted down the barrel. The pain powder let him move more easily, but he felt off-center, not used to having to rely solely on his left hand. “Put some of those rotten apples up on the corral fence.”
“Oh, I’m just hired help, huh?” Heyes chuckled, collecting some windfall from under the apple tree and placing them where Curry directed. “Want my opinion?”
“Didn’t ask for it.”
“Nope.” He leaned against the fence, gloved fingers laced. “But I’ll tell you anyway. You’re pushing yourself too hard.”
Kid raised the pistol, ignoring his cousin. He pulled the trigger, letting the first bullet fly. It smashed the apple only inches from Heyes’ elbow. The next four bullets performed similarly until the corral fence was littered with applesauce.
Heyes never flinched, and when the barrage of bullets had ended, he grinned beatifically. “I told you you could do it.”
“You did not,” Kid countered. The movements to raise his gun arm still pulled all the muscles across his chest enough to make him wince, but he’d shot well, and felt marginally satisfied.
“And you got an audience.” Heyes pointed back behind them. Charles, Ruth Ann, Zeke and a handful of Billings were watching from the window, their faces awestruck.
“Thaddeus!” Ruth Ann was still pulling on her plaid coat as she vaulted from the kitchen door. “You are the fastest shot ever!”
“Joshua, he looked like he coulda shot you!” Zeke gasped. “That bullet went right by your arm.”
“He’s never shot me yet.” Heyes grinned at his cousin, “Welcome back, Kid.”
“Can you show me how you do that?” Charles asked reverently. “That’s amazing.”
“It’s harder that it looks,” Kid admitted, realizing he’d never before had to think much about the mechanics of shooting a gun, he’d just done it. He began explaining how to aim to Charles, encouraging the other children to put up more targets. He needed a lot of practice.
“How come you called him Kid?” Zeke hunkered down on the back steps next to Heyes, both of them watching the blond gunman put holes in tin cans and various pieces of fruit.
“Did I?” Heyes grimaced at his error.
“Yeah, you did.”
“Cause he’s younger'n’ me.”
“D’jou ever read them dime novels?”
“On occasion,” Heyes agreed, not quite catching the change in subject. “Why?”
Zeke pulled a battered book out of his jacket pocket. “When Steven left he gave me a buncha books. Said it’d help me reading.” He smoothed the wrinkled cover. “And it did. These are nothing like the McGuffey readers.”
“The Devil’s Hole Gang’s reign of Terror,” Heyes read the lurid title with a straight face. “Good story?”
“Swell. An’ there’s an’ outlaw in here named Kid Curry who’s a really good shot. Best in the West.” Zeke looked up thoughtfully at Heyes, his creamy brown face concerned. “D’you think Thaddeus is Kid Curry under an assumed name?” He blinked as Curry let off another volley of shots.
Feeling like he couldn’t take a breath, Heyes debated what to say. Admit their real identities and risk accidental gossip getting back to Cottersville and the Shaunnessys? Or lie, when Sister Mary Joseph knew the truth anyway? “Well . . . if he was Kid Curry, wouldn’t that make me Hannibal Heyes?” he proposed. “They always travel together, don’t they?”
“Yeah, that’s true.” Zeke frowned. “And that Heyes is a really mean fella, nuthin’ like you.”
“Thanks.” Heyes grinned, glad the novelist had gotten his facts so wrong. “You can’t really believe everything you read.”
“What about the Bible?” Zeke waited expectantly.
“Oh, I wouldn’t touch that one.” Kid dropped the pistol into his holster, a grin on his face. “Sisters Joe and Moses are the experts there.”
“Doncha have to believe the Bible’s true?” Ruth Ann asked scandalized.
“I’ve always wanted to be an expert at something.” Moses leaned out the kitchen window. “Very nice aim, Thaddeus. All you children could be experts too, if you’d come in for lessons.”
“But we’re helping Thaddeus,” Ruth Ann protested.
“I’m done,” Kid said. “Go to school.”
The twins scurried up to the kitchen, several Billings behind them, but Ruth Ann lingered. “Thaddeus, I think you must be really brave to be able to shoot like that.”
“Ruth Ann, using a gun doesn’t take any bravery at all.” Kid ran a gentle hand down the length of her blond hair, “It’s just all I know how to do. If you do your lessons you can do something better.”
“I still think you’re brave,” Ruth Ann persisted.
“C’mon, Ruth Ann!” Charles called.
Heyes finished his now cold coffee, watching his cousin. “She’s in love,” he said when the children had disappeared.
“Heyes,” Kid said seriously. “We really need to go somewhere where we can both find women our own ages.”
“Hey, I’m leaving for Cottersville in awhile -- there’s a saloon.” Heyes grinned impishly. “Probably a couple of girls in satin dresses, pouring beers. . . ”
“I want to go with you.”
“It’s dangerous. What if you run into one of the Shaunnessys?”
“You can barely sit a horse.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Play a little five card, Kid, you worry too much.” Heyes held open the kitchen door. “C’mon in, it’s cold. You can worry about the orphanage instead.”
* * * * * * *
With a large number of people staying at Children of Jesus, supplies were dwindling faster than planned. Heyes rode out past Abner Jr. and Charles working on the chapel, armed with a long grocery list from Sister Luke. Truth be told, he missed having Kid riding at his side. Now that Curry was healing, he almost wished they could just leave this whole mess behind them and head for San Francisco and some wild nights. Instead, he was planning to play careful poker to earn as much money as possible to help a pack of nuns, orphans, and poor people.
Here he was, the ex-leader of the most successful gang in Wyoming -- well known in newspapers and dime novels as a safecracker and generally mean fella, and he was going to give all the money he won to charity. Maybe living amongst religious people had done something to him.
The poker was successful, the beer plentiful, and Heyes went to sleep, by himself, in a hotel room. A tawdry looking blonde had pouted unhappily at his rejection, but Heyes couldn’t get Mary Joseph’s long thin face out of his head long enough to enjoy the temptation.
“Mr. Smith!” A hearty voice greeted him as he finished shopping in the mercantile.
Heyes pulled on his leather gloves, squinting into the sun. “Mr. Shaunnessy.”
“Haven’t seen you around, still staying up with the Sisters?”
“Helping out,” Heyes agreed.
“Nice of you, heard there was trouble up there. Abner Billings busted his leg?”
“Word travels fast.” He tightened the strap holding his saddlebags, stroking the skittish gelding.
Shaunnessy seemed to puff himself up even larger than he already was, like one of those fish Heyes had seen in a Denver Museum; all fat, prickly and deadly. “I’ve got a great deal of influence around here.” He patted the horse’s rump. “Buying supplies for those women?”
“Like I said, helping out.”
“Helping them could be dangerous.” Eddie Lee settled his derby on his smooth graying blond hair. “Floods, accidents. I’d move on, if I were you.”
“I like it here.” Heyes smiled with just his dimple. “Scenery’s pretty, nuns are nice. Poker’s been good to me.” He shaded his eyes, “Why the concern?”
“Don’t think an outsider should get involved in local disputes.” Shaunnessy shrugged elaborately.
“Just exactly what is this whole dispute about?”
“Nothing you’d understand.” He beckoned to someone behind Heyes. “Brother, come over here.” He put a proud arm around a taller, younger man’s shoulders. “Smith, my brother Jimmy Joe.”
Having described Eddie Lee as not the skulking in the woods type, Heyes realized the same could not be said for Jimmy Joe. He looked like a hunter, long, lean and sharp eyed.
“New around here?” The younger Shaunnessy asked blandly.
“He’s staying with the nuns.” Eddie Lee gestured expansively. “He’s a poker player, one of the best I’ve seen.”
“Staying around for the game?” Jimmy Joe grinned broadly at Heyes, but there was no pleasure in it, just hardness. He reminded Heyes of the only man Kid Curry had ever killed, Danny Bilson. All smiles to cover up blue eyes that were cold as ice.
“I’ll see you on Friday.”
“If you’re still around.” The older Shaunnessy said dryly. “It’s five hundred to sit in.”
“I’ll be there.” Heyes swung up onto his horse, finally taller than the Shaunnessys. “Don’t worry about the money, I’ve got it.” He kneed the gelding, leaving the brothers behind. What exactly could they be planning with their veiled threats? He didn’t really have five hundred dollars, but he’d made a good dent in it. A few more poker games like yesterday, and he’d be set.
As he was riding out of town, he overtook a buckboard heading up the mountain. “Doctor?”
“Smith!” Miller drew in the team. “Whoa. Tie your horse to the back, ride up here with me.”
After arranging the gelding, Heyes settled himself on the wagon seat, bracing his booted heels against the front edge. “Thanks.”
“I was headed up to the orphanage to get Abner, help Maria bring him back to their house.”
“That couch isn’t all that comfortable, believe me.” Heyes laughed.
“But I was able to find out what you wanted.” The doctor sucked on one end of his luxurious mustache. “You’re treading in dangerous waters.”
“The flood’s receded, doctor. Mud’s all dried up by now. My boots are all clean.” He waved a hand at them.
“Don’t butcher my analogy. You haven’t stepped in anything truly smelly yet.” Miller grumbled good naturally. “The Shaunnessys can be vicious.”
“Do you know that for a fact?”
The Doctor didn’t answer for a few minutes, contemplating the horses’ backs moving sedately between the traces. “Smith, I have to live with these people.” He sighed. “There were rumors that a rancher south of town didn’t just break his back ‘cause his horse threw him.”
Heyes sucked in his breath. “He had dealings with the Shaunnessys?”
“He owned a little parcel smack in the middle of some land they’d been buying up.” He jiggled the reins. “Couldn’t keep his stake with a broken back.”
“Do they own this whole area?” Heyes asked incredulously.
“Near abouts.” Miller Sebastian agreed. “Less up on the mountain than below Cottersville, but they’ve got their fingers everywhere.”
“I plan to cut off a few.” Heyes smiled tightly. “So, tell me about your visit to the land office, my friend.”
The long journey up the mountain was passed in companionable discussion. Heyes was no longer surprised to drive into the orphanage yard to find disorganized, frenetic activity. There seemed to be people everywhere.
Miller pulled the team of horses to a stop before the chapel, to avoid the crowd, as Heyes jumped down. Curry was seated on a boulder, obviously keeping out of an animated conversation between the nuns.
“Kid,” he greeted his cousin sotto voce. “What’s going on?”
“Joshua.” Ruth Ann caught sight of him, weaving her way through a group of Billings. Her blond braids flapping, she announced breathlessly, “Bossy is dead!”
“Yep,” Kid agreed. “Charles went out this morning to milk the cow and she was dead.”
“Joshua,” Ruth Ann reprimanded primly. “We don’t even know what happened.”
“No proof.” Kid sighed, “And no milk. All these kids were not too happy.” He waved an arm at the children. “Luckily, Sister Luke did her usual magic in the kitchen, and we had oatmeal with molasses.”
“Sounds good, but how did she die?” Heyes stuck his head into the little barn. The Guernsey lay on her side, mouth covered in foam.
After having Dr. Sebastian examine the animal, the consensus was that the cow had been poisoned, but how was not entirely evident. Just to be on the safe side, the barn was scrupulously cleaned and new hay added to the horses’ feeding troughs. At the same time, the Sisters helped the vastly improved Abner into the back of the buckboard, which had been padded with blankets and pillows. The two youngest Billings were tucked in next to their father, cuddling close. Maria Billings hovered around, making sure Abner’s broken leg was well protected.
There seemed a sudden silence when the buckboard full of Billings, with Dr. Sebastian at the reins once more, pulled out of the yard.
“We’ll need to report Bossy’s death to Sheriff Taylor,” Mary Moses mused, tucking her hands into her voluminous sleeves. She needed to go back inside to supervise Zeke and Ruth Ann’s reading lessons, but the recent emotional turmoil was wearing even her down.
“I can ride down tomorrow.” Heyes nodded.
“You just got back!” she protested.
“Sister, the more poker I play, the more money I earn.”
Her round face was speculative. “Now, Joshua, what do you need all that money for?”
“Oh, I like to buy presents for my best girls.” He leaned down, giving her a quick kiss on her plump cheek.
“And who would need that many presents?” Mary Joseph asked sternly, returning from the barn. She brushed hay off the front of her habit.
“Stocking up for the future.” Heyes smiled, leaning against the porch railings.
“Are you that good at poker?” Charles looked up from the mathematics he was struggling with. Any little distraction was more interesting than this. “Can you teach me?”
“Well. . . ” Heyes hesitated, looking for approval from Moses. “It’s a lot like math, Sister.”
“There’ll be no actual gambling.” Joseph warned. “But otherwise, it probably won’t do any harm.”
“Good, ‘cause I haven’t played a good hand of poker in years.” Moses laughed. “Come on, we’ll play until dinner.”
Other schoolwork abandoned, all five children gathered around the big plank table while Heyes explained the rules. With Kid and Mary Moses rounding out the game, it wasn’t long before all had an understanding of the basic elements of poker.
“Three of a kind, Jacks,” Mary Moses proclaimed proudly, laying out her cards.
“Sister, you interest me more and more,” Kid slapped his losing hand on the table. “You know more about shooting than you let on and now you’re a card shark.”
“Not me.” She blushed.
“She’s better’n’ me,” Charles agreed. “I just can’t remember what’s a good hand.”
“Took Thaddeus years to learn,” Heyes assured, “You’re much quicker than he was.”
“Oh, thanks a lot,” Kid groaned. “Just remember I won over 50 thousand dollars at Montana Red Dog.”
“What’s that?” Zeke asked eagerly.
“A game for suckers.” Moses shook her head. “Stick to five card.”
“I used to have a red dog,” Sofia put in, using her cards to make a little house.
“But his name wasn’t Montana,” Samuel included, sticking his cards in a triangle roof on top of the house.
“Listen, y’know, I think I win.” Ruth Ann continued to study her cards with a frown. “I got four of these ones.” She held out all the aces.
“Oh, boy, look, Joshua.” Kid chuckled. “She does win all the matches.”
“Aww, can’t I keep a few?” Zeke groaned, pushing the pile of matchsticks towards her.
“Next, we can play pick up sticks,” Ruth Ann crowed, scooping them up.
“She has a natural ability.” Heyes shuffled the cards with a professional flip of his wrist. “Like me.”
“Children!” Joseph called. “Get the plates out, dinner is nearly ready.”
“Just don’t teach her any of your other talents,” Kid said into Heyes’ ear as he helped set out plates.
* * * * * *
Loud hammering shattered the early morning silence, waking the inhabitants of the orphanage, although the sisters had finished matins and were just about ready to cook breakfast when it started.
“What the hell is that?” Heyes rubbed his eyes, stumbling out of the bedroom. “Sorry, Sister Joe.”
“It’s an apt statement.” She led the way to the front door, swinging it open. The chapel was covered with people, already nailing walls and roof boards into place.
“It’s the whole town!” Ruth Ann jumped up and down in her excitement.
“Very nearly.” Moses agreed. “At least those who live up the mountain. There’s Seth Green and Francis Doyle. . . ”
“And Marcus Polansky,” Mary Joseph continued. She walked out to the chapel, greeting townspeople with her usual calm demeanor. However, she was still amazed at the generosity of the people. When she’d first arrived in Cottersville, Robert Conner had made unfriendly comments about papist Catholics. Now, there he was, fitting the window frame in place.
“Sisters.” Angela Doyle held up a large basket of food. “We’d heard you were havin’ a bit of trouble, but no one knew how much until Maria spread the word of how kind you were to her Abner. We’ve brought sweet cream and milk for your children, and a few eggs.”
“You’re so kind.” Joseph pressed her hands against her chest in reverent thanks, “We are truly blessed to have friends like you.”
Even shy Sister Luke was coaxed outside to accept the food. Other women brought forth canned pickles, jelly, pork sausages, and a wide assortment of other homemade goodies.
“And my Guernsey Millie is just weaning her calf.” The portly Polansky spoke in his usual jovial manner. “We’d be honored to give her to the church.”
Heyes grinned contentedly, standing at the back of the group with his cousin. “Looks like their luck may be turning around.”
“Couldn’t come at a better time.” Kid nodded. “And I’m just waiting for one of those sausages.”
The women organized a banquet-sized breakfast, laying food out on planks set across sawhorses. Ham, bean soup, apple butter, fresh bread and fried donuts delighted the eye. Like the stone soup of story fame, there seemed to be more food than any one family would have admitted to. The children began to reach eagerly for treats, excited to have such a party.
“May I start this meal with a small prayer of thanks?” Sister Mary Joseph had brought the gold cross out and set it in the middle of the food. She held up her hands to get the crowd’s attention. Hammering stopped, the sound of a bird suddenly trilling from a tree loud in the silence. “I know some of you are not of the same faith, but we all give thanks for the end of the flooding, and the help of friends and family to get us through the harder times. God bless this food.”
Scattered Amens were heard as people began to fill their plates. Many of the mountain neighbors had not socialized much with the Nuns, fearing repercussions from antagonistic townspeople, and most of the people in the orphanage yard found themselves glad they’d ventured up to help with the chapel.
There was a renewed sense of community as the walls, floor and roof were constructed with amazing speed. By late afternoon, the chapel was a recognizable building on its own, no longer attached to the main house, and although lacking windows and doors, it was fully functional.
“I can’t believe how fast you all have worked,” Mary Moses commented happily, “We’re like to start having services in a week, and I hope most of you might attend.”
“Sister, we’ll be back in a few days to help with the finishing touches.” Francis Doyle patted her hand.
“Can’t have a church without pews!” Another man piped up, as people began to leave in family groups.
“Will they all really come back again?” Ruth Ann danced excitedly over the new pine floor, her blue gingham skirts flipping. The twins ran circles around her, while Zeke attempted handstands.
“Is that really the first time most of them have been up here?” Kid leaned against the chapel wall, his arm feeling the ache of the colder evening air. He’d done what he could to help, carrying nails and such, but the unaccustomed activity was catching up to him.
“We know the Doyles and Billings.” Moses ran her hands over the planks set up for a makeshift altar.
“But many people are not tolerant of Catholics.” Joseph looked around contentedly, “And I am aware there has been talk against us in Cottersville.”
“Like the Shaunnessys.” Heyes entered the chapel, nursing a bruised thumb. Just as he’d feared, flying hammers always found his hands.
“Yes,” Sister Joe admitted reluctantly, “But they’ve . . . done business with us. I still don’t believe they would be capable of murder, although I realize their practices may be less than honest.”
“Well, glad to hear you’re not as naive as I thought,” Heyes said dryly.
“I’ve got ‘guts’, remember?” she quipped with a straight face.
“”I don’t trust either brother.” Heyes raked his fingers through his shaggy black hair. “Thaddeus actually was right. Jimmy Joe looked exactly like somebody who’d start fires and kill cows.”
“Glad you can admit when you’re wrong,” Kid said snidely.
“What do you propose to do?” Mary Joseph slid her chilly hands underneath her surplice, thin face expectant.
“Actually, it’s better if I’m the only one who knows the details for now.” Heyes glanced over at his cousin. “Things may start getting dangerous. I talked to both brothers yesterday, and I think they’re suspicious.”
“Moses,” Sister Joe raised her voice above the children’s raucous games. “Why don’t you help the children get cleaned up for dinner?”
“Certainly. Girls? Samuel, Zeke, come along.” She made sweeping motions with her hands, ushering them out despite Zeke’s complaints that he had splinters in his hands.
“Hannibal. Jedediah,” Joseph said formally. “How dangerous could this get? Should I worry about the children?”
“Sister, Kid’ll be here all the time,” Heyes assured her. “Plus, after today, I think you got some back up.”
“You are not planning anything illegal, are you?” she pressed. “I can’t condone that.”
“Neither would we.” Kid shook his head. “It wouldn’t set well with the Governor. Heyes has it under control.”
“I’m starved. Sister Luke must have something cooked up by now.” Heyes changed the subject. “Ready for dinner?”
“I’ll see you inside.” The Nun looked at them astutely. “I trust you two completely, and know that good has and will come out of this turbulent time. Good luck, Hannibal.”
“She’s beginning to scare me,” Kid grumbled after she’d left. “You do have a plan that’ll get rid of those bastards.”
“I don’t know if it’ll get rid of ‘em.” Heyes dimpled. “But it’ll sure cut ‘em off at the knees.”
“Heyes, I can shoot ol’Eddieboy in the foot, if you want me to.”
“Eddie Lee,” Heyes corrected. “And I don’t want to show our hand before we need to.” He waved his arm at the new pine walls. “Everyone just keeps doing what they’ve been doing, and I’ll go down to Cottersville one more time to play some poker. Keep up the routine.”
“You haven’t really told me your plan.”
“If I keep it close to the vest, you’ll be all the more impressed by the results.” Heyes tucked his hands under his belt, trying to look pompous.
“You’re making this up as you go!” Kid groaned.
“Just don’t tell Sister Joe.”
“A real Hannibal Heyes plan. Huh,” Kid snorted.
“Don’t start, Kid.” Heyes swatted at his good arm.
* * * * * *
Clouds were gathering along the tops of the trees in the morning, wind scuttling leaves along the ground and rattling windows in the orphanage. Heyes shivered despite his corderoy jacket. He jerked on the strap securing the saddle on the gelding, planning to get to Cottersville before the coming rain. He walked the horse out of the barn, leading his horse past the new chapel. Stopping, he realized there was someone inside.
“Charles?” Heyes leaned in through the still unglassed window. “Aren’t you supposed to be in class?”
“Sister’s doing spelling with the twins.” Charles skillfully whittled the side of a long piece of wood. “I know C-A-T.”
“Watcha making?” Heyes dropped the horse’s reins, looping them over the unfinished windowsill.
“A cross.” He held up the wood, revealing an intricate carving of Jesus.
“A crucifix.” Heyes knelt down to examine it more closely. “It’s beautiful. You’ve got talent.”
“The Sisters have lost so much-between the fire and the building collapsing.” He shook his head, knife carefully molding a portion of the feet. “People need the . . . stuff of a church, y’know? Some people like nuns can just pray without having crosses and stained glass, but if we could really get some of the mountain folk to come here, they need more than walls and a roof.”
“Very astute, Charles.” Heyes was impressed. “You’re going to be a lot of help to the sisters.”
“Yeah?” He grinned shyly, blue eyes shining. “My folks din’t hold much with church goin’, but I really like it here.”
“How did your parents die?”
“Fever.” Charles looked off towards the trees. “When we first arrived here there was an epi. . . dem . . ?”
“Epidemic.” Heyes nodded. “And you kids were left alone.”
“My father taught me to whittle.” Charles ran a gentle hand over his crucifix. “But I haven’t done it in a long time. Matthew thought it was a waste of time.”
“Doesn’t look like a waste of time, to me.” Heyes squeezed the boy’s shoulder. “Cause Sister Joe is gonna love it.”
“You and Thaddeus, you can shoot and hunt an’ . . . play poker.” Heyes chuckled as Charles cut a small sliver of wood off the cross. “I never felt like I was as good as Matthew an’ Steven.”
“You an’ Thaddeus should talk.” The ex-outlaw slid on his gloves against the chill. “Discovering what you’re good as isn’t all that difficult. It’s figgerin’ out what use it is.” Heyes shrugged. “I once thought I had an answer -- now I’m just wandering around like everybody else.” He paused at the door, reaching out to take the horse’s reins.
“Like Moses in the desert.” Charles smiled.
“We’re in the Rockies. God, it better not last for forty years.”
“He’s the one who’d know.” Charles whittled delicately on his creation.
“Don’t stay out in the cold too long.” Heyes swung up onto the gelding. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
* * * * *
The rain started mid-afternoon. Nothing like the last storms, it was a steady downpour, unpleasant to be out in, but the perfect weather for games by the fire. Zeke and Ruth Ann were engaged in a serious round of checkers, and the twins had appropriated Heyes’ deck for little card houses. Dr. Sebastian arrived, soaking wet, after a visit to the Billings. Sister Moses loaned him Zebulan’s clothes while he examined the Kid.
“Your arm is healing really well.” Miller resplinted Curry’s arm with less bulky bandages.
“How long do I have to wear this?” Kid complained, clenching his hand experimentally. The new splint left his hand free and he was now able to bend his elbow, but the broken bone was still painful and restricted easy movement.
“Until the bones knit.” Miller began winding bandage back into a ball. “You use that arm too soon and it won’t set straight.”
“Thaddeus wants to shoot his gun,” Ruth Ann proclaimed, leaning her head on her hands, watching the Doctor work. “He’s the fastest gun around.”
“Really?” Miller glanced over at his patient. “You a gunslinger?”
“Not hardly,” Kid said off-handedly.
“He’s really fast,” Zeke agreed. “Ruth Ann, it’s your move.”
The girl reached over and without looking, jumped two of Zeke’s black checkers, landing on his side of the board. “King me.”
“How do you do that?” He groaned, complying with her command. The next set of moves was fast and furious, taking both their concentrations.
“Nice move,” Dr. Sebastion congratulated.
“She’s good at poker, too,” Kid remarked, carefully moving his right shoulder around. He was stiff from the heavy splint Joseph had used. His back and neck had begun to ache from the strain.
“Use a sling,“ Miller directed. He closed the medical bag with a snap, keeping an eye on the two children’s second game of checkers. “Are you really as good with a gun as she says?”
“Left handed I’m passable,” Kid answered warily. “Why?”
“Word is the Shaunnessys aren’t exactly too happy with Smith stirring things up.”
“Was afraid of that.” Kid automatically pulled out his Colt, unloaded the bullets and got up to get his cleaning supplies from the bedroom. “Doc, what exactly did Joshua want you to do in Cottersville?”
“Went to the land office. He wanted to know how much Shaunnessy paid for that plot on th’other side of Cotter’s River.” Miller smoothed his mustache. “Is he planning to buy it? Cause they’re not going to sell it to him.”
“No.” Kid grinned, his bright blue eyes sparkling, suddenly understanding his cousin’s strategies. “He’s planning to WIN it.”
“I win again!” Ruth Ann crowed. “Queen of all checkers!”
“I’m not playing you anymore!” Zeke upended the board, causing both children to laugh as red and black checkers rolled eraticly around the floor, knocking over the twin’s card houses. The resulting cacophany brought nuns from all over the house to investigate.
“Is there a problem?” Mary Joseph asked sternly to the four children.
“They started it!” Sofia groused.
“Knocked over our houses,” Samuel agreed.
“I think we could use more firewood, Zeke,” Sister Mary Joseph proposed. “And, Ruth Ann, I’m sure Sister Luke could use your help in the kitchen.” Both did as they were told, grumbling.
Mary Moses cuddled the twins up for a story on the sofa. “Doctor, how’s our favorite patient?” she asked.
“Recovering nicely.” He felt his wool shirt, which had been drying by the fire. “By the way, I told the Sheriff about your cow. He was mighty interested, since ol” Man Fisher’s cow died in a similar manner.”
“Were you able to examine that one, too?” Joseph asked.
“No, it was too long ago. But Bossy probably died of arsenic, rat poison.” He put on the only slightly damp plaid shirt. “They sell it at the store. And Mr. King says he’s sold enough of it to Jimmy Joe to kill every rat from here to Denver.”
“Disturbing.” Sister Joe frowned.
“Scary.” Moses motioned to the twins who were listening avidly. She flipped open the Bible and began reading about the prodigal son in a loud voice.
“Rain’s let up.” Miller pulled on his jacket. “I’ll be heading back down.”
“You see Joshua, you tell him not to draw to an inside straight.” Kid returned from the bedroom, spreading his gun cleaning supplies out on the table. He rammed the rod into the gun barrel viciously, feeling impotent with his disabilities. “He gets in more trouble.”
“You’ve got more friends ‘down there’ than you think,” the doctor said.
“And up there.” Mary Moses pointed up. “Like the Christian soldiers, we’ve got God on our side.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way.” Miller jammed his bedraggled hat down low and headed out into the drizzle, the sound of the twins off key rendition of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ wafting after him.
* * * * * *
Poker, of late, had been successful, and Heyes folded his winnings to put them into his jeans pocket. It was late enough on a mid-week night that the saloon was clearing out. Any married man had long since gone home, and now even men with little responsibilities were heading out.
“See you next week, Smith?” A grizzled older man drained the last of his beer. “I don’t even mind losin’ just to have the pleasure of watchin’ you finesse those pasteboards.”
“Nothing to it.” Heyes shrugged on his jacket. “Makes the evening go fast.”
“I’ll say, an’ I’m fifty dollars poorer to show for it.”
Grinning, Heyes shook the man’s hand, “See you next time.”
“Counting on it.” The old man turned to go then looked back at him, scratching his gray whiskers. “I heard what you’re doing for Zebulan’s girl. He was a friend of mine. An’ I know he’d thank you for it.”
“Hasn’t been hard at all.” Heyes smiled at the words Zebulan’s girl applied to Sister Luke. “I wish I could have met him.”
“Let me tell you a couple of tales over some beer.” The man beckoned. “Simon Decker, but most people call me Deck.”
“Thanks, Deck.” Heyes accepted the beer, listening avidly to the stories the old man wove.
* * * * * *
It was way past midnight when Heyes finally left the bar, feeling mildly drunk. His thoughts on a bed in the hotel, he took a deep breath of the cold night air.
A hand snaked out of the darkness, connecting solidly with Heyes’ jaw. He went down hard, but the blows continued, giving him little chance to defend himself. He was finally able to grab a booted ankle, cutting his hand on the man’s sharpened spurs before jerking his assailant off his feet. Scrambling up, Heyes pulled his colt, pointing it into Jimmy Joe Shaunnessy’s face.
“What is it all for?” Heyes shouted. “I know you’re behind what’s happened at the orphanage. How the hell can you do this to nuns? Children?”
“This isn’t over.” Shaunnessy got to his feet, fists clenched.
“It is now,” Sheriff Taylor’s voice boomed, “Put your gun down, Smith.”
Heyes complied warily, watching Jimmy Joe for any sudden moves towards his still holstered gun.
“This is a private conversation, sheriff!” Shaunnessy growled.
“Didn’t look like a conversation t’me.” Deck scowled at Shaunnessy, having been the one who called the sheriff.
“Looks like it’s over to me,” Andy Taylor spoke sharply, “Shaunnessy, get on home before I throw you in the jail.”
“Throw me?” Jimmy Joe stared menacingly at Heyes, his face full of hate then turned to Taylor. “Sheriff, my brother got you that job, he can take it away.”
“Smith, do you want to lodge a complaint?”
“Get out of here,” Heyes directed at Shaunnessy so softly that the others didn’t hear him. “No,” he answered loudly, knowing he may have already lost himself a chance to play at the Shaunnessy’s poker table. Jimmy Joe strode away as if he hadn’t been ordered to leave, his posture rigid.
“You want me to get Sebastian?” Deck squinted at Heyes’ face. “Gonna have a shiner there.”
“I’ll be fine.” The ex-outlaw had survived far worse beatings. He wound a bandana around his bleeding hand, cursing his stupidity for not having anticipated the sneak attack. “Thanks, Sheriff, for backing me up.”
“I’ve been closing my eyes for too long.” Andy frowned. “Maybe you helped me open ‘em.”
“You could loose your job,” Heyes said sympathetically. “I don’t think he was joshin’ you.”
“Election’s a long way off.” Andy holstered his weapon, “The wind’s turning around here, could be I won’t need his support to get reelected. Where are you gonna sleep?”
“I’ll just ride back to the orphanage.” Heyes pressed against his palm to stop the bleeding. “Safer that way.”
“Jimmy Joe could be waiting for you,” Deck objected.
“Probably not,” Heyes negated, privately giving a little prayer to back up his words. ”No more element of surprise.”
“Take care of yourself, Smith.” Taylor nodded curtly.
“I intend to, Sheriff.” He grinned tiredly, “Just can’t wait for the big game at Eddie Lee’s on Friday.”
The ride back up the mountain was dark and cold, but it gave Heyes time to think. Despite his knowledge of what the Shaunnessy’s had done in the past, he hadn’t really expected them to accelerate their violence, especially not to focus it towards him. His worry for the nuns, children, and the Kid simmered, bubbling just below the surface until he crossed the river. Luckily, there didn’t seem to be anything out of order in the yard as he dismounted. Letting himself breathe at a slower rate, he stabled the gelding next to the old pie in the barn, and approached the house.
“You’re back sooner than expected.” Sister Mary Joseph’s calm voice floated out of the darkness.
“Sister!” Heyes gulped, letting his heart settle back into its normal place in his chest. “Don’t you ever sleep?”
“Oh, you’d be surprised.” She chuckled. “When Father Lawrence starts a sermon, I’m in dreamland before he condemns his first sinner.”
“But that’s only every other month,” he pointed out dryly.
“Jedediah and I felt there was a need for guard duty, since most of the vandalism occurs at night.” She sat, wrapped in a blanket, on the front porch, back against the house. In the dim light, Heyes didn’t see the nun, just the sensible, strong woman in her face. He liked her, a lot. “He took the first watch, and I took the second, since I had to get up early for Matins anyway. Charles will help tomorrow.”
“I’m here.” Heyes sat down next to her, “Why don’t you go inside, get some rest before you have to pray.”
“You’re hurt!” she exclaimed, taking a closer look at him.
“Just met up with a Shaunnessy in a dark alley.” He made light of it.
“Then, you’re in no shape to sit out here in the cold.” Mary Joseph pursed her lips, angry at what had been done to him. “Anymore than you were to ride up here in the dark. You should have gone to see Dr. Sebastian.”
“Sister, all I need is a good cup of Sister Luke’s coffee and maybe some food.”
“You’re just like my younger brother Mick was.” She stood, dusting off her habit. “Sweet talking, but always has to be strong and in charge.”
“Oh, sister, I don’t believe you ever let anyone be in charge of you.” Heyes fingered the bruise on his cheekbone. “You’re tougher’n anybody I ever met.”
“I’ll say it again: Sweet talker.” She shook her head, “I’ll get you some food and a cleaner bandage for you hand.”
* * * * * *
Heyes opened his eyes to a pistol barrel practically up his nose. The sun was up and so bright he had to squint to see. “Kid,” he said wearily. “Get that out of my face.” He batted the gun away.
“Well, you’re a really fine guard.” Kid straightened, holstering his gun. “Asleep on the job.”
“I stayed awake until after Matins.” Heyes pulled his legs up, resting his arms on his knees. “Charles came out to feed the horses at dawn.”
“Way you look, you’d have scared any prowler away.” Kid cocked his head, examining Heyes’ face.
“That good, huh?” He dimpled, wincing from the bruise on his face.
“Colorful,” Kid deadpanned. “What’d you do to your hand?”
“Jimmy Joe’s got some nasty spurs,” Heyes answered. “Dumped him on his head.”
“Can you hold a deck of cards?”
“Left handed.” Heyes grinned again. “We’re two of a kind, huh?”
“Speaking of that.” Kid held out a hand to help his cousin up. “Ruth Ann and I played poker all afternoon when it rained. Y’remember how you said she had your talent?”
“You weren’t half wrong.” Kid laughed. “Eventually nobody else in the place would play with her, including Moses. She can count cards, like you.”
“Really?” Heyes looked at him in amazement.
“She couldn’t lose.”
“I’ve got to see this.”
* * * * * * *
End of part one. To be continued in Rain From Heaven part two.