RAIN FROM HEAVEN

 

By Dawnwind

 

Alias Smith and Jones

Part two of two

 

Gen

 

 

 

*                        *                     *                      *                  *                             *

 

 

Residents from the homesteads on the mountain arrived to put finishing touches to the chapel. Rough backless pews were hammered together, hinges hung for the door and donated glass inserted into the windows. Sister Luke had spent the last few days stitching an altar cloth with a beautiful cross embroidered in white silk thread. She sat on the porch watching the construction, finishing her embroidery.

“Sister.” Heyes leaned against the porch railing. “I met a man named Deck, in town.”

She looked up at him, giving a brief shy smile.

“He told me some stories about Zebulan.” Heyes grinned back, impressed by her embroidery. There was no end of talented people around here. “He was a trapper? Some of that stuff sounded like legends.”

Luke bent over her stitchery, her sweet face brightly pink, embarrassed by Heyes’ attention.

“Buffalo hunting, fighting Indians, and then he served in the war under General Lee . . .not many people can say that,” Heyes continued, toying with a loose thread on the bandage around his injured hand. “Settling down here must have been real quiet after everything he’d done.”

She nodded, pushing the needle through the linen self consciously, despite her enjoyment at hearing someone else praise her beloved father.

“But originally, he owned everything around here? All the way down past where Cottersville is now.” Heyes watched her sewing, knowing she was uncomfortable and probably wouldn’t answer him. “He should have been the richest man around here instead of ending up stuck half way up a mountain on the smallest plot of land around.”

“You said it yourself.” Mary Joseph stood behind them, as usual, having approached so quietly no one had heard her. Heyes was beginning to find it a most unnerving ability. She could have excelled as an eavesdropper. “The man was an adventurer. He didn’t have much of a head for business -- or land owning.”

Conscientiously burying her thread under a previously stitched area, Sister Luke smiled gratefully at the older nun.

“By the time we arrived three years ago, he’d already lost all of it. I’m not sure if he sold it all or . . . just wasn’t very good at staking his claim.” Joseph shaded her eyes, watching Doyle and Polansky hanging the chapel door. “It was an enormous property for a man with a wife and two small girls . . .” 

“When did he first settle here?” Heyes asked, swiveling his head between each nun, waiting for an answer.

Dropping her altar cloth into her lap, Luke held up all ten fingers, then flashed her right five fingers a second time.

“Fifteen years . . .” Heyes interpreted. “A long time. And then the Shaunnessys moved in an’ started taking over.”

“That’s about the extent of it.” The taller nun raised her eyebrows. “I think he began to feel worthless, until he was a tired, sad, old man.”

Sister Luke made a strangled sound, grabbed up her stitchery and scurried into the house, her black wool skirt almost catching in the door as it shut.

“Oh, dear . . .” Mary Joseph sighed. “She was very close to her father. Her mother and sister died when she was younger. I’ll go talk to her.”

“Sister, I think I’d like to have a . . .” Heyes stopped, uncertain what to call it, “Orphanage meeting. We all need to talk.”

“Even the children?”

“I think you all have a stake in this.” He nodded. “After dinner?” She nodded in return, following the other nun inside.

“Give me that!!” Ruth Ann’s voice rose angrily, seconds before she came barreling around the building, chasing Zeke. “I had it first!”

Zeke zigged through the still open door of the chapel, seeking sanctuary behind the unfinished altar. The volunteer builders laughed heartily, peering after the boy before going back to their construction.

“What are you two doing?” Heyes asked irritably. He still hadn’t gotten enough sleep.

“He had my . . . the chapel looks really good with the windows in.” She swung her head around, blond braids flapping over her shoulder to inspect the newest improvements. “D’jou think we could have colored glass? Like a real church.”

 Zeke skulked out the back of the chapel, hiding something Heyes couldn’t quite identify in his hands.

“Not that this doesn’t look like a real church, cause it does . . .” Ruth Ann continued, “But I saw a picture of one in England, and it had the most bee-u-tiful windows I ever did see, all about Jesus and angels with big wings and cherubim and the like . . .” She waved her arms to illustrate the feathery wings, pirouetting like a drunken ballerina. Forgetting why she’d been chasing Zeke, Ruth Ann pranced back around the main house in search of Sofia and Samuel.

Heyes laughed, bracing his bruised ribs with his elbow. He liked being around children. They kept life lively and completely unpredictable. In fact, he hadn’t lied to Eddie Lee when he’d said he liked living at the orphanage. The nuns, the kids, hell, even the ragtag population of upper Cottersville had begun to feel like . . . the word popped unbidden into his head; like a family. Like people he wanted to keep on knowing for a long time. A soft wind ruffled needles on the trees over his head, the heady scent of pine and earth rich and redolent, cementing the memory of the place in his senses.

 It wasn’t a perfect place by a long shot. Pretty women who were of a courtable age would be good, for a start. At least two  of them. One for himself and one for Kid. And then there were the Shaunnessys. Two brothers Heyes would like run out of town on a rail. He indulged his imagination by picturing Eddie Lee and Jimmy Joe covered with tar, feathers sticking out of their blond heads, straddling a rail. He rubbed his unshaven chin with a frown – how exactly was that done, anyway?

“What’re you smiling about?” Kid asked, sliding gingerly down from the old pie’s saddle. His healing ribs and arm, coupled with the loosening effects of the pain powder had allowed him much greater freedom. He’d begun by taking a short ride around the acreage, familiarizing himself with the closer trails. He barely remembered being clobbered by the tree, much less arriving at the orphanage. It was totally alien to his nature to have lived in a place for nearly three weeks without having learned the lay of the land. The mild ache in his bones wasn’t bad enough to diminish his joy at being out on a horse again.

“Nothing.” Heyes stroked the horse’s gray muzzle, “Kid, this horse is as old as you are. Can’t be an easy ride.”

“He’s bumpy,” Kid conceded, rubbing his backside, “But I don’t have much of a choice, do I?”

“Sorry about your horse.” Heyes shrugged hands outspread. “It was you or that nag -- an’ I couldn’t get him out of the mud.”

Curry regarded his cousin, blue eyes steady on the brown ones. “Thanks.”

“For what?”

“Pulling me out of the mud,” he said simply, leading the horse over to the barn.

“The least I could do.” Heyes said sotto voce, watching his best friend remove the animal’s bridle. There had never been any question. He loped over before Kid tried to take  the saddle off one handed, to take over the more strenuous work. Kid produced a currycomb, playfully brushing his cousin’s black hair.

 

           

*                          *                        *                         *                       *                      *

 

Dinner finished, Ruth Ann and Charles cleared away the remains of the rabbit and potato pie, bringing out apples and goat cheese made by Maria Billings. The twins commandeered a single piece of fruit, splitting it between the two of them.

“What a satisfying meal, Sister.” Mary Moses pared one of the apples with her knife. “It is amazing what the townspeople have provided for us.”

“Amen.” Joe didn’t like to admit to Earthly vices, but she couldn’t resist a nice piece of cheese. She bit into a creamy piece with gusto.

Luke bobbed her head shyly at the compliments, clasping her apple in her hands without eating it.

“According to sources . . .” Heyes eyed Ruth Ann with a smirk. “Rumors are rampant around here about what I’ve been doing in Cottersville.”

“Well, Joshua, what have you been doing in Cottersville?” Moses popped a slice of apple into her mouth, unable to resist a straight line.

 

“Yeah, Joshua . . .” Kid teased, placing his fingers over a squirming Sofia’ ears, “Maybe the kids shouldn’t . . . ”

“I wanna know!” Zeke proclaimed.

“Seriously.” Heyes waved them all to quiet down. “I need your agreement on this.” He looked around the table, each person returning his gaze with a mixture of expressions. “I need the deed to this land as . . . collateral, I guess you could call it.”

“To get into the poker game?” Mary Moses asked, her round face sober.

“No, I’ve got the five hundred.”

“You need five hundred dollars to play poker with Mr. Shaunnessy?” Ruth Ann exclaimed indignantly. Having only ever played for matchsticks, she hadn’t realized the money that could be made at cards.

“To tempt Mr. Shaunnessy to put up a deed of his own,” Mary Joseph guessed, setting down the last slice of cheese. “You plan to win the game? How can you be certain you can do that?”

Ever impressed by the oldest nun’s deductive reasoning, Heyes nodded. “I need to win that game. If I do, I think I can get the lower half of the river back for you. Shaunnessy owns that land all the way down to Billings’ place.”

“I know.” Joseph watched him, trusting the ex-outlaw implicitly. “But what happens if you don’t win?”

There was a profound silence around the table, even the children realizing the seriousness of the situation.

Kid finally spoke. “He rarely loses.”

 Heyes shot him a grateful smile.

“Can’t you cheat?” Zeke asked curiously, snagging a quarter of Ruth Ann’s apple.

“No!” Two nuns chorused, Sister Luke giving an emphatic shake of her head. Charles whacked him on the arm disdainfully.

“It’s a sin, huh?” Zeke sighed. Nobody ever liked his ideas.

“You’re so dumb,” Ruth Ann shot at him, taking back her apple.

“It’s certainly not right.” Mary Moses admonished, “I’m not sure any of this is, really. . .” “We don’t have a lot of choice anymore.” Sister Mary Joseph cut through the chatter. “The accidents have escalated, it’s become dangerous to live here. If we want to stay. . .”  She waited until there were nods and muttered agreement from everyone. “Then we need to fight back. I don’t normally approve of gambling, but God sent Thaddeus and Joshua when we needed them -- with specific abilities that we lack, and I for one am not about to let an opportunity like this pass us by.”

“But what if he does lose?” Charles objected, not enjoying the role of Devil’s advocate, but wanting an answer to the original question. This was his home, after all.

“Then we move.” Joseph’s practical side shone forth. “It’s as simple as that.”

“I thought that’s what you’d say.” He sat back warily, listening to the adults elaborate on the plan. All sides argued vehemently the various angles to the problem but no one consensus was made.

“I say get back my Daddy’s land.” Sister Luke’s voice was as sweet as her face, slightly rusty from disuse, but firm in her conviction. She blushed crimson as everyone at the table turned to stare at her.

“The voice of reason.” Joseph inclined her head at the younger nun. “As Zebulan’s daughter, Sister Luke has the most to lose here, and the swaying vote. Joshua, you win back that land.”

“Can you get rid of Mr. Shaunnessy, too?” Sofia screwed up her face in a scowl. “He’s a mean man.”

“I know how to play poker, Sweetie.” Heyes cupped his hand under her chin, giving her a gentle kiss on the forehead, “Leave the rest to Sheriff Taylor.”

“Do you need to practice?” Ruth Ann asked interestedly, “I mean, if you want to play poker, Thaddeus taught me three kinds and . . . ”

“Now, she must be cheating,” Zeke interrupted. “Ain’t no girl can really play poker like her.”

“There isn’t . . . no girl could . . . ” Moses tried to untie his grammatical knot, finally throwing up her hands. “Zeke, don’t talk about her like that.”

“She is good.” Charles pointed at his younger sister. “Steven could play cards like that, too.”

“You’re on.” Heyes dimpled, always ready for a game. “Just never draw to an inside straight and bluff when you’ve got low cards.”

“Thaddeus said that – ‘bout the inside straight.” Ruth Ann produced a deck of cards, recalling the conversation between Jones and Dr. Sebastian. “But I don’t know what it is.”

“Does everyone eavesdrop around here?” Kid  asked no one in particular as the nuns left for their evening prayers and the smaller children trailed after Sister Moses.

“Time for a lesson, then.” Heyes winked at the blond girl, “K-Thaddeus tells me you’re good.”

Glowing with this praise, Ruth Ann pulled up a chair next to her brother as the cards were dealt.  Zeke and Kid joined the game, arguing amiably over the values of the matchsticks.

Heyes actually had to concentrate on his game to win against Ruth Ann. He found himself surprisingly challenged. While Kid was technically a better player, from years of experience playing against his cousin, Ruth Ann was reckless, impulsive and unpredictable. Heyes could interpret nearly all of Curry’s nuances, despite the fact that Kid had an impassive ‘poker face’ and was a decent bluffer to make up for his less that impressive card skill.

Charles and Zeke sat together, conferring on each other’s hands, telegraphing every good or bad card without saying a word. But Ruth Ann sat hunched over her hand, tongue caught between her teeth, humming when she was ready to bet, frowning intently when she was concentrating. As Kid had discovered, she had the uncanny knack, like Hannibal Heyes, to count cards. Instinctively knowing after one round of poker how many more deuces, aces and other high cards were left in the dealer’s pack after seeing what the other players had folded with.

“Charles?” Heyes raised an eyebrow, tapping his straight flush together into a compact pile. “Bet or fold.”

“Fold.” Charles dropped his two threes, jack, seven of hearts and eight of diamonds onto the table.

“You coulda bluffed with that, huh, Joshua?” Ruth Ann asked, storing away every trivial bit of knowledge for the game.

“Two threes could win with the right bluff,” Heyes admitted. “But it takes panache.”

 

“Ain’t got it.” Charles laughed. “Whatever it is.”

“Sounds like the measles.” Zeke made a face, chewing on his lip. His mixed hand of high and low cards was essentially worthless. “I bet two matches.”

“I’ll match the pot.” Kid dropped in six, more than satisfied with his two tens and three fives.

“Me, too.” The little girl flicked in half a dozen matchsticks, holding her jack high straight below the edge of the table.

“All right, Ruth Ann, I’ll raise you,” Heyes challenged, suspecting she was holding a good hand.

“Not me.” Zeke dropped out.

“I’m still in.” Kid eyed his cousin, straight faced. “I’m planning a big bonfire with all those matches.”

“Hey, yeah, we never had that bonfire you promised!” Zeke interjected, pointing a finger at the dark haired man. Heyes nodded absently, his eyes on the little girl.

“No, no, no.” Ruth Ann poked her tongue out again, the pink tip resting on her bottom lip. “Uh -- I’ll meet you an’ raise one match.”

“You have enough to win?” Heyes wished he had a nice cheroot about now. Bluffing always went even better when he could puff on a big cigar.

After counting her remaining stakes, she squinted up at him, “Enough for one more bet, right?”

“I’ll match the pot,” Heyes teased, pushing in the correct number of matches.

“Then I don’t . . . ” Ruth Ann stared at him hard, “You want me to bluff again?”

“Well, don’t tell him!” Charles laughed, “Just do it.”

“I’ll . . . .” The girl checked the cards she held in her gingham clad lap. “I want an IOU from Charles for six matches.” Her brother complied silently with the request, he certainly was never going to win at poker. “And I match the pot and raise it by one.”

“I’m in,” Kid agreed, just to see how far Heyes could get Ruth Ann to go.

“Oh . . . ” She flicked out her tongue like a lizard, “That’s all, I call it.” She pulled out her cards, spreading them carefully on the table, “Jack, ten, nine, eight and seven. A straight.”

“Full house.” Kid showed his hand.

“Queen high straight flush.” Heyes grinned triumphantly. “And Ruth Ann, I told you not to draw to an inside straight.”

“Yeah, but it worked didn’t it?” She asked reasonably. On her first card replacement, she’d gotten rid of a three to get the nine, and could have won if she’d just been a little bolder. Oh, well, maybe next time.

Zeke reached out to gather the cards in for another hand when Heyes stopped him, “Wait, I want to try something first.” He tapped the cards still neatly in the deck. “Ruth Ann, there’s twenty five cards out on the table, take a good, quick look at them, then tell me what’s left here in the deck.”

 “Yes?” She scanned the cards all laid out face up, before Heyes signaled Zeke to collect them. “There were all four tens out, three jacks, and all the fives.” She concentrated, counting briefly on her fingers. “Three aces left; Heart, Diamond and Spade. All the Kings, three queens, jack of Hearts, no tens, two nines, one eight -- the club, two sevens, three sixes, three fours, three of diamonds, and three of hearts and three deuces.” She let out a deep breath as Heyes handed the remaining deck to Kid to count.

“Spot on.” Kid nodded proudly.

“Jeez, an’ she’s just a little girl!” Zeke groaned.   

“That’s my sister!” Charles clapped her on the back. She was blushing with pride, dimples poking out both ends of her smile.

“I’ll tell you, Ruth Ann.” Heyes said. “That’s a gift.”

“Ain’t too many people can do that,” Kid agreed. “He’s one of ‘em.”

“Can I make lots of money at this, like you?” she asked slyly.

“Well . . . ” Heyes began.

“Joshua, y’know that book I showed you?” Zeke interrupted, “About Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry?” The real Kid, who had gotten up for a dipper full of water to drink, sputtered, the water spraying over the roaring fire, making tiny hissing sounds.

“What?” Heyes asked, distracted between his cousin choking and Zeke’s question.

“Well, it said that Hannibal Heyes could count . . . ”

“All right!” Kid had recovered enough to speak. “I think its about time for small children to go to bed.”

“Who’s small?” Zeke demanded, indignant.

“You are.” Charles stood his full five foot eight, towering over the ten-year-old boy. “Children go to bed, Adults have things to do. I’m taking the first guard duty.”

“When did you get to be an adult?” Ruth Ann challenged her brother, hands on hips.

“Since now, and if you don’t get on, I’ll call in my IOU, Sis.” Charles laughed, herding her towards the bedroom.

The nuns returned from Vespers to aid in the bedtime preparations, and it was decided that Mary Moses should take first watch, Charles second, and let Thaddeus bring in the morning. Heyes, exhausted after minimal sleep the night before, was more than happy to crawl into bed next to his cousin.

“What’s this book Zeke has?” Kid asked sleepily, shedding his trousers before getting into bed clad only in longjohns.

“Great literature. A penny dreadful featuring you and me.” Heyes turned his face to the wall, burrowing into his pillow.

“Heyes! Does he know something?” Kid punched him lightly in the kidneys, reminding him that he hadn’t had a trip to the outhouse.

“He thinks he does. Just keep him guessing, Kid,” Heyes muttered, “Besides, what does it matter, here? Sister already knows.”

“Just the principle, I guess.”

“That Ruth Ann.” Heyes raised himself up on his elbows, still debating the trip outside. “She’s got it in spades.”

“An’ diamonds, clubs and hearts,” Kid finished dryly. “You shouldn’t encourage her.”

“Me? You’re the one who started all this.” He smiled in the dark. “If I had a little girl, she’d be just like her.”

“No little girl of yours would have blond hair,” Kid countered. “Where are you going?” He grumbled as Heyes crawled over his legs to get out of the bed.

“Be back directly.” He waved a hand in the general direction he was heading, “An’ move over when I get back, I hate that side.

 

*                   *                    *                     *                      *                      *                *        

           

“You can feel winter calling.” Mary Moses hiked her black skirts up a little to kneel in the potato plot, shivering despite her thick sweater.

 “You talk to the weather, Sister?” Kid chuckled, rubbing gun oil into the barrel of his Colt.

“I listen to it.” She unearthed several spuds, adding them to her basketful of apples and early pumpkins. “You should, too. If you and Joshua want to get out to more exciting places, you’re going to need to leave soon. One good snow and we’ll be stuck inside for the whole season.”

“Must get pretty hard up here, in December an’ January.”

“In the past, yes.” She straightened, “But this year, we’ll have more friends up here, I think.” She smiled, her plump cheeks bright red in the cold. “What you two have done is nothing short of a miracle.”

“Moses!” Kid objected. “I sat around, listening to my bones mend. Hey . . . Joshua did all the work.”

“You were going to say Heyes,” Mary Moses said with a twinkle in her eye.

“Sister Joe told you?” he asked with a strangled voice.

“We keep no secrets from the Lord, and each other.” She patted his arm comfortingly, “But who would I tell? And Jedediah, don’t sell yourself short, you did some important work, too.”  She opened the kitchen door. “Coming in?”

“Still need to practice.” He hefted the pistol, “I’ll be in for lunch.”

Left alone behind the house, Kid repeatedly plugged bullets into any small object he could find. His need for perfection in the one true skill he had drove him on for several hours until he was dripping with sweat in the increasingly frigid air, and his healing wounds were aching bone deep. The last quick draw would have impressed most gunslingers, and although it was slower than he could have achieved right handed, Kid was not unhappy.

“Come in, Jedediah,” Mary Joseph commanded quietly, from the back porch. “You’ll be giving me a headache soon, with all that noise.”

“I’m sorry,” he apologized instantly; aware his own head was aching some from the strain. “Where is everyone?”  

“Here and there.” She ladled up a bowl of vegetable soup from the pot on the range. “Hannibal has been getting a little antsy waiting for the game tomorrow night, so I sent he and the boys out hunting. With any luck, they’ll start after a deer and be gone all day and maybe we could have venison for supper.”

“That’s optimistic.” Kid stirred the soup with his spoon to let it cool. “Heyes is barely tolerable with a rifle.”

“You looked very fast out there with your pistol.”

“It’s improving.” Kid admitted. “I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks.”

“Jedediah, you would hardly quality as an old dog,” she commented dryly, taking a mouthful of soup from her bowl.

“Sometimes I feel like one.”

“How old are you?” she asked, taking in his baby-faced looks and sweet nature, but knowing how old he had been the first time she’d met him.

 

“Just a hair past 31.” He spooned the vegetable soup into his mouth, “I just realized something this morning.”

“Yes?

“It hit me that Siobhan was 29 years old when she listened to her Priest, turned her back on us and sent us to hell.” He paused, uncertain how to phrase what he wanted to say. “”I couldn’t forgive her. I don’t think I wanted to.”

“But things have changed?” Mary Joseph asked quietly.

“She was my sister.” Kid swallowed some soup. “But I’m older now than she was then. I’ve never listened to anybody in my whole life except Heyes, and I don’t always do what he says. But I do know what it’s like to be in a gang. You do what the leader tells you to.”

“Are you calling the Church a gang?” She snickered.

“I guess.” He gave her a crooked smile. “I think I know why she did it. She was doing what she thought was right.”

“And forgiveness?”

“Some time along the way, that just happened,” he answered with a shrug.

“That’s how it often happens,” Joseph agreed. “It gets to be a burden carrying around all that anger.”

“Well, you pick up new anger in the strangest places, like an orphanage.” He pushed the empty bowl away. “Sister, I don’t know why you’re not mad as hell at those Shaunnessys.”

“What purpose would that serve?”

“You could get some revenge. I . . . ” He rolled his eyes at her calm countenance, “It’s not right for a nun, huh? S’posed to turn the other cheek?”

“Something like that.” She dimpled at him, “Besides, if I had known how to get . . . revenge, as you put it, what would there be left to do? It wouldn’t bring back Zebulan, or the land.”

“It might have,” Kid insisted stubbornly.

“But isn’t that what you and Hannibal came here to do?” She stood, clearing the dishes to the wash basin.

“You have an awful lot of faith in two has-been outlaws.” He chuckled.

“I have a great deal of faith in mankind, in general.” She began to rinse off the plates, a twinkle in her eye. “If that includes a gunslinger and a poker player, so be it.”

 

 

*                                   *                                       *                                      *                       

 

There was no venison at dinner, but the intrepid hunters had caught a large number of trout, and this made a delicious meal. Luke had sliced the potatoes and covered them with a creamy cheese sauce, getting rave reviews from all those at the table. Just as they were clearing away the dishes, two Billings knocked on the door.

“Junior, Clarissa, come in,” Mary Moses urged, “We’ve got applesauce, it you’re hungry?”

“No thank you, Ma’am,” Abner said politely, “My Ma went into town this morning and collected the mail for you. She says to tell you that Pa’s leg is mending just fine.”

“We hardly ever receive mail.” Moses took the envelopes and newspaper eagerly, reading the names on the front. “Charles, Ruth Ann, here’s a letter from Matthew!”

“Let me read it!” The little girl dashed across the room to grab the letter from the nun, Charles following in her wake with a grin. Only he wasn’t looking at the mail.

“H’llo, Clarissa.” He inclined his head to the girl, trying to think of a topic to interest her.      

“How do, Charles,” The pretty towhead answered, twisting her fingers into the folds of her lavender print skirt.

“It’s nice to see you, Clarissa.” Heyes decided to do a little matchmaking, at least to get the conversation going. “Have you seen Charles whittling? He’s been working on a cross for the chapel.”

“I’d like to,” Clarissa said enthusiastically, just as Charles had thrown Heyes a frantic look, “Is it out in the chapel?”

“Sure, why don’t you come outside? I’ll show you.” Charles gallantly opened the front door, still looking as if he were going under water for the third time.

“I’ll be along directly,” Abner called after her. “Mr. Smith, my Ma said Shaunnessy’s boasting all over town that he beat you up an’  scared you away an’ that  you ain’t gonna play poker with them.”

“I just know when to pick my battles, Junior,” Heyes said carefully, “But I fully intend to be in that game tomorrow night.”

“Thank you for coming all the way up here, Abner.” Sister Mary Joseph rifled through the other envelopes Moses handed to her. “I hope your family will join us on Sunday to bless our new Chapel.”

“Ma’am, we’ll be there, even if that danged river floods again,” He replied, then looked askance. “Sorry ‘bout the cuss words, Sister.”

“No need to worry, Abner, the sentiment was sincere.” Joseph’s eyes twinkled.

“I’ll be getting’ on back home, then,” he excused himself, going in search of his sister.

“Tryin’ to set up Charles and Clarissa?” Kid teased, sitting down at the now empty dinner table with his second bowl of applesauce. “Sendin’ ‘em, outside, alone?”

“They were going out to a church, can’t get in much trouble there,” Heyes answered mildly.

“Well, some have,” Moses interjected with a grin. “But at least it’s with the Lord’s blessing.”

“Sister!” Both cousins chorused, amazed at her risqué suggestion.

“What does your brother have to say, Ruth Ann?” Mary Joseph raised her eyebrows at the raunchy discussion. “Is he doing well?”

“He’s having a fine time.” Ruth Ann ran her finger along the page of tightly written script. “He’s got a job helpin’ a doctor run a clinic for im  . . . imegrants? What’s that?”

“People who have moved to the United States from other countries,” Joseph explained. “Quite an admirable job.”

“I’ll go let Charles read this, now that Clarissa’s gone.” She skipped outside, long blond braids flapping in her breeze.

“Where did Matthew and Steven go?” Heyes asked. “Seems like they left you in a lurch.”

“No, just testing their wings.” Joseph smiled, remembering her eldest boys. “Matthew’s gone to Yale. He had already been accepted when their parents died, and actually delayed his entrance to college for two years to get the others settled. He’s very intelligent and driven.”

“And Steven?” Kid asked, licking his spoon, still hungry.

“He’s a bit of a ner’e do well.” Mary Moses put in, over the edge of her new Catholic newspaper. “Likes gambling and fast living, we haven’t heard from him in quite a while.”

Kid grimaced, glancing at his cousin’s bemused expression. “Don’t expect anything much of him?”

“Oh, I have faith,” Joseph said, reminding Kid of the conversation they’d had that morning. She patted Heyes’ vested chest, “After all, look how you two turned out.”

“Sister, faith may work in the church, but in the rest of us need something more substantial.” Heyes squeezed her hand to cut the sting of his words.

“Hannibal, Faith can move mountains,” she said confidently. “And it’s never let me down yet.”

 

 

*                             *                             *                         *                        *                        *

 

There was a nervous energy around the orphanage compound on Friday morning. With the poker game looming in front of them and the imminent chapel debut on Sunday, there was lots to get done and nerves were becoming frayed.

Heyes would have left for Cottersville midmorning except that he realized opening himself up to any of the Shaunnessy’s attacks wasn’t an optimal defense. Especially after Abner Jr.’s warning, a better plan would be to arrive only minutes before the nine PM opening hand, to circumvent any dangerous situations that might arise. Still, that left hours of the day to get through.

Mary Moses had herded up the children to help her in the chapel decoration. She sent the twins and Ruth Ann to gather any autumnal flowers or pretty leaves for bouquets, leaving Zeke to pile wood for the grand celebratory bonfire.

Having finished his crucifix, Charles was trying his hand at carving a small statue of Mary. It was a momentous undertaking, and he had doubts whether he could do justice to the Mother of Jesus. He ran his fingers over the rough outline of the profile he’d created like a blind man meeting a person for the first time. Almost without looking, he let his hands whittle away small imperfections on the nose, cheeks and brow. Sitting in the last pew in the tiny chapel, Charles glanced up from his labor, watching the nuns arrange the altar.

Sister Luke smoothed the white linen she’d embroidered over the new altar, placing the salvaged gold cross squarely in the center. There was only one Bible left, which luckily had been on Joseph’s prie-dieu the night of the flood. The other nuns’ Bibles had been too damaged by water to be readable, but luckily all three sisters knew long portions of the holy book by heart. Mary Moses even wondered if she could emulate the monks of the dark ages and copy out chapters of the Bible by hand. It could be cheaper than buying more books, and might help instill the ancient stories in the children’s minds in a unique way.

She lay the last Bible carefully next to the cross, flashing a happy smile at Luke. “It looks like a proper chapel.”

The gold chalice was tucked into a side niche, ready to be used in the Eucharist. The beautifully carved wooden crucifix was placed above a collection of the candles Heyes had bought, to offer solace to those who were praying. Sister Luke immediately lit the first candle in memory of her father. She dipped her head over the flickering flame, remembering the man who had helped them start this sanctuary, knowing he was still guiding them from above.

Bringing in the bottle of holy water and blessed wine for the service, Mary Joseph paused, admiring the décor with a nod. “I am in the presence of miracles, my friends, to know that all this was accomplished from the ruins of the flood.”

“God works in  mysterious ways.” Mary Moses nodded.

“His wonders to perform.” Joseph genuflected in front of the altar. “I wish that Father Lawrence could be here Sunday, but his letter said he won’t be able to come for a few more weeks.” She put down her bottles in the front pew, kneeling to give a prayer of thanks.

“Joshua.” Moses gestured him inside when he poked his head in to check out their endeavors. “Stay, we’re going to have a little informal prayer.”

“It’s been a long time since I . . . ” Heyes shrugged, coming inside in spite of himself.

“God doesn’t care when you last prayed, just that you continue talking to him.” Joseph dimpled at him, standing. She shook the still present sawdust off her surplice, “We have a lot to thank him for.”

“So do I, Sister,” Heyes agreed, sitting in a back pew while the nuns gathered up at the front of the chapel.

Without any real plan, as Joseph began to recite a short verse from the Bible, Kid and Zeke came inside, sitting in the last row next to Charles.

A feeling of peace descended on those gathered for the impromptu service, dispelling the anxiety of the last few days. The prayers gave all a renewed sense of purpose, especially giving Heyes a boost of self-confidence. He hadn’t expected this to happen, given his lack of experience with the power of faith. It surprised him that simple communal prayer could give him such a feeling of well being. Sister Joseph’s trust in her belief had once seemed overly simplistic, but he began to understand where her strength came from.

“Go with God.” Mary Moses ended the short service, following the other nuns out of the chapel.

“What are you working on?” Kid peered at the wood Charles had tucked under his arm during the prayers. 

“It’s just . . . a statue.” He muttered embarrassed, starting to dig his knife into a tiny crevice. His artistic ability created a graceful sweep of a gown with only two or three slices of the blade.

“It’s Mary,” Zeke guessed. “Like the little figure in the kitchen, over the stove. That’s the same dress she has, and the same veil on her head.”

“She looks familiar.” Heyes came over to lean against the pew, watching Charles’s knife transform the wood. “It’s Sister Luke.”

“It is.” Kid scrutinized the carving with a chuckle. “That’s amazing, you caught her expression exactly.”

“Just like when she’s making somethin’ really tasty.” Zeke agreed.

“I didn’t mean to.” Charles examined the face with a plumb. “I guess she’s the only…” “Girl around here?” Heyes bit his bottom lip to stop from laughing. “Don’t worry, Charles. I expect that Clarissa may be spending more time up here, and her sisters and brothers, too, if Mary Moses starts a school for all the mountain kids.”

“Ruth Ann?” Sofia’s voice floated in from the yard. “Where are you?”

She ducked her little curly head into the chapel, surprised to see the men all sitting there. “Where’s Ruth Ann?”

“She went with you,” Zeke answered sensibly.

“I don’t know where she went.” Sofia frowned. “We can’t find her.”

“Where were you picking flowers?” Heyes pushed down the sudden feeling of dread that rushed through him.

“Out along the river.” Sofia pointed. Samuel was sitting on the ground surrounded by branches covered with red, gold and brown leaves. “We couldn’t find any flowers, just leaves.”

“Did Ruth Ann go across the river?” Charles asked in a stricken voice.

“I think so.” Sofia’s lower lip trembled, her dark eyes brimming with tears. “Where’d she go?

“Kid, c’mon.” Heyes didn’t care who heard him, his fear for the little girl escalating. “We’ll search for her. Charles, take the kids back to the house.”

“I want to go with you,” Charles insisted, Zeke nodding his head vigorously.

“Charles, you’re the only man here,” Kid said seriously, “Tell the sisters we’re looking for her and to stay inside.”

“What if she drowned?” Zeke said too loudly.

“I don’t think she did.” Heyes gave the boy’s shoulder a squeeze. “Go inside, get some lunch. We’ll be back with Ruth Ann before you cut the apple pie.”

“Charles,” Kid waited a moment until Zeke, Sofia and Samuel were nearly to the house. “Tell Sister Moses to find her old pistol. I know she has one, and to be prepared.”

“For what?” he asked fearfully.

“Nothing good.” Heyes answered in a hard voice. He strode down past the little copse of trees that hid the bend in the river nearest to the orphanage and waded across, simmering anger visible behind his black eyes.

“You think Shaunnessy grabbed her.” Kid followed his cousin across the river, picking his way carefully through the still nearly knee deep water. He stumbled on a slippery rock, jarring his bandaged right arm, but gained the far bank without incident.

“I don’t think so, I know so.” Heyes scanned the underbrush. “When the night guards prevented him from any vandalism, he struck during the day.” His throat tightened as he spoke. “So he took Ruth Ann.”

“There.” Kid pointed at fresh horse dropping under a tree only five hundred feet past the river, just off the wagon rutted road. “He waited until one of the kids came by -- probably didn’t care who.”

“She should have known better.” Heyes slapped the bark of the tree, scraping the palm of his hand. “I’m going to Cottersville,” he said with conviction, “Shaunnessy can’t get away with this.”

“I’m coming.”

Heyes swung around to disagree, point out Kid’s still healing bones, then reconsidered. He welcomed Kid’s steady presence and his six gun beside him when confronting the Shaunnessys. “I’ll saddle up both horses-you can ride the gelding. He’s got a smoother gait.”

“Thanks.” Kid nodded.

 

 

*                                *                                  *                      *                                  * Sheriff Taylor pressed his back against the jailhouse wall, balancing precisely on the chair’s rear legs. He appeared to be relaxing in the noon day heat, like a cat on the doorstep in a patch of sun. However, he was anything but relaxed. The undercurrent of tension in Cottersville was palpable, an ache at the base of his brain. He wanted to be ready, visible to all who passed by, and yet he wasn’t entirely sure what exactly he was waiting for.

Since he’d declared his independence from the Shaunnessy’s domineering thumb, the townspeople had become as nervous as cats in a dog pound. All waiting for the world as they knew it to explode.

After sitting for an hour without moving, he was becoming cold, despite the warmth of the sun. It was just too late in the year to be doing nothing. He stomped his feet, to improve the circulation before taking an amble along the main street, alert for any signs of trouble.

He saw Smith and Jones riding in from a long ways off, and stood in front of Mr. King’s mercantile to wait for them. Their grim faces boded no good.

“Sheriff.” Heyes dismounted, feeling slightly strange to be hailing the law. There had been a time when just seeing someone wearing a star shaped badge would have been enough to send him riding hard in the other direction. “Have you seen Ruth Ann Kinney this morning?”

“Ruth Ann?” He repeated, “I’d think you’d have seen her before I did. What’s happened?”

“She’s missing,” Heyes answered. “We rode down just after we discovered she was gone. We think Shaunnessy took her.”

“That’s a pretty serious accusation.” Andy frowned, “You got any proof before I go lookin’ for her?”

“Only some fresh horse droppings where they shouldn’t oughta been,” Kid said, “It’s not much, but everybody knows he’s been threatening Joshua, and the nuns.” He dismounted more slowly, finding the job more complicated than usual due to his bandaged arm.

“Don’t expect you to come with us.” Heyes glanced down the street in case a Shaunnessy should walk by, “Just point out their house, and we’ll do the askin’.”

“I dunno, you could be stirrin’ up a mess of trouble if you ain’t right . . .” Andy crossed his arms, still chilly. “I think I oughta come along, just in case.”

“What ever you think’s best, Sheriff,” Heyes conceded, “But I’ll do the talking.”

“Somehow, Smith, I think you usually do,” the Sheriff said dryly. “Eddie Lee Shaunnessy lives down at the end of Front Street, on the little side road. There’s only his house there, pretty much a mansion for the likes of Cottersville.” He had started walking down the street, so Heyes and Kid followed, leaving their horses tied at the horse rail. “Jimmy Joe lives just behind, in a smaller place.”

“Convenient,” Heyes muttered, gearing himself up for whatever might come. He didn’t know what to do, if the girl was there but Shaunnessy refused to give her up. He had become increasingly fond of Ruth Ann, and feared for her safety.

The Shaunnessy home would have been considered a mansion even in a town considerably larger than Cottersville. It was a turreted Victorian monstrosity, painted a garish blue and festooned with more gingerbread than the house Hansel and Gretel had snacked on.

Kid whistled. “How’d he get somethin’ like that up here in the Rockies?”

“Piece by piece with a lot of sweat,” Andy Taylor responded, pushing his Stetson back to regard the building with fresh eyes. It was truly an ugly house. “And none of it his own.”

Rapping on the ornately carved door, Heyes waited impatiently. Eventually a short, very round woman with a tight, frowning face opened the door, eyeing the three men coldly. “Yes?” she asked.

“Joshua Smith here to speak to Eddie Lee or Jimmy Joe, ma’am,” Heyes said as politely as he could muster under the circumstances.

“Regarding?”

“They’ll know.”

“Wait in the drawing room.” She gestured to an archway on the right, turning her back on them so she resembled a beruffled, stuffed pillow topped by a blond ringleted head.

“The missus?” Kid guessed.

“Elianora Marie Vincent Shaunnessy.” Andy led the way into the house, “And God forbid anyone who call her Ellie or Nora.”

Heyes and the Kid followed the sheriff into Shaunnessy’s drawing room, perching carefully on a slick horsehair sofa. The room was the epitome of Victorian splendor, crammed with far too many pieces of furniture and thick curtains over the floor to ceiling windows to keep the sun from ever brightening the permanent gloom.

 Heyes had never given any thought to the fact that Eddie Lee was married, but obviously Elianora was in charge of the household. No man would ever have decorated a room like this. Gilt-framed pictures crowded every single wall, many festooned with droopy feathers and dried roses. Silk tassels dangled from the curtains, antimacassars and mantle cloth, and every flat surface was covered with china shepherdesses, prancing fauns and other breakable brickabrack.

Peering closely at a handtinted family photograph, Heyes realized Eddie Lee had two chubby sons who resembled him like peas from a pod. Sister Luke was luckier than he’d ever imagined not to have married into this family. 

“You are not welcome in my home, Smith.” Eddie Lee stood firmly in the archway, hands on his ample hips.

“You may reconsider, after you hear what I have to say,” Heyes stated, “But first, where is Ruth Ann?”

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” Shaunnessy said smoothly, “ I was under the impression that she rarely leaves the orphanage.”

“So was I,” Heyes agreed. “But she has, and I think your brother took her.”

“Jimmy Joe isn’t here at the moment.”

“Then get him here,” Kid spoke for the first time, a deadly edge to his voice.

“Your laid up friend, Smith?” Eddie Lee dismissed the man with the broken arm, turning his attention to the red haired sheriff. “Sheriff Taylor, I’m surprised to see you here. After what happened a few nights ago, I expected you to be packing your bags.”

“Then you expected wrong, Shaunnessy,” Andy said quietly, “Just answer the question. Have you or your brother seen Ruth Ann Kinney?”

“I cannot speak for my brother, but I’ll repeat myself for those of you who find it hard to understand. I haven’t seen the child.” Eddie Lee turned, waving towards the door, “Now I ask you to get out of my house.”

“We plan to wait until your brother returns.” Kid drew his pistol with just enough speed and flourish to momentarily break through Shaunnessy’s impassive exterior. Eddie Lee was impressed, but covered it quickly. “Now, if you can send somebody to get him we’d all be a lot happier. Meanwhile, Joshua has a proposition for you.”

Staring down the pistol barrel at the dangerous looking man holding the gun, Shaunnessy considered his options. He nodded briskly, calling out the name Chester in a loud voice.

“Yes, Pa?” A smaller version of his father appeared, fat face still smeared with some sticky jelly.

“Go find your uncle, and make it fast,” he commanded in a voice that  bordered on threatening.

When the boy had disappeared, as quickly as his chubby body could go, the man turned back to those still assembled in the drawing room. “What exactly do you want to talk to me about? My time is valuable and I have a lot to do before this evening.”

“The poker game?” Heyes questioned. “That’s why I came.”

“You aren’t invited.”

“Aw, Eddie Lee,” Heyes coddled, feeling almost at ease with Kid’s gun at his side, “You practically begged me to play last week, what’s changed?”

“I was under the impression you were a passing gambler, I hadn’t reckoned on you sticking your nose into local disputes that are none of your concern.”

“By local disputes, I guess you mean your greedy consumption of every parcel of land around here.” The dark haired man smiled tightly, his dimples like deep grooves in his cheeks. “You’ve threatened innocent nuns, poisoned animals, injured workin’ ranchers and now kidnapped small children. I’d call that down right illegal, wouldn’t you, Sheriff?”

“I would, Mr. Smith.” Andy glanced over at the Kid. He’d been impressed by the gun draw, too, and for an entirely different reason than Shaunnessy.

“You have absolutely no proof that I was involved in any of those nefarious deeds.” Eddie Lee puffed himself up, blustering.

“But we do, Eddie Lee.” Andy smiled this time, too. “Dr. Sebastian can prove that the Sister’s cow was poisoned with arsenic, and Mr. King says Jimmy Joe bought some the day before.”

“My brother? Playing a harmless prank that got out of hand.”

“Not by my books,” Sheriff Taylor countered.

“So, I have a proposition, as Mr. Jones said,” Heyes continued. “I get to play in the game, using this as collateral.” He pulled out the deed to Zebulan McClure’s land which he’d gotten from Sister Mary Joseph before riding out. “You put up the deed to the land up there on the other side of Cotter’s river. If I win, the nuns get both pieces of property, and you get out of town and the sheriff doesn’t throw your brother in jail.”

“That’s preposterous,” Eddie Lee roared. “It’s blackmail.”

“You want their land.” Heyes shrugged. “We just want Ruth Ann.”

“What if I win?” Shaunnessy said after a moment.

“We’ll help the nuns pack up and all leave,” Kid answered. “But that ain’t what’s gonna happen.”

 

“Not that I think you possibly have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning this game,but I am intrigued that you think you can.” Eddie Lee crossed his arms across his wine colored vest. “So, certainly, why not? The first evidence of cheating I see, your ass lands in jail, Smith.”

“I don’t cheat,” Heyes said simply.

A noise from the front door caused Shaunnessy to hurry into the foyer to see what the disturbance was. The other three followed behind until there was a small crowd in the hallway to witness Ruth Ann come bursting inside with Jimmy Joe and Chester in her wake.

“You get your hands off me!” She shook herself free of Jimmy Joe’s hold. Ruth Ann was disheveled and dirty, but otherwise unharmed. “I tol’ you I’d call the sheriff . . .”

“Ruth Ann, is there a problem?” Taylor asked calmly.

“There he is!” The little girl announced triumphantly. Catching sight of her friends, she crowed. “Joshua, Thaddeus, did you come to get me?”

“We did, indeed.” Heyes took her hand, and she caught up the Kid’s hand, too. Just to be on the safe side.

“Found her wandering around by herself in the woods,” Jimmy Joe said self-righteously. “So I brought her here.”

“You see? Just doing what any man would do to help a lost child.”  Eddie Lee said genially.

“I wasn’t lost!”  Ruth Ann protested. “I wasn’t hardly past the bend in the river.”

“Does seem like a mite outta the way when the orphanage was closer by ten miles,” Kid commented holding his gun loosely in his left hand while Ruth Ann held his right hand.

“He was performing his civic duty,” Shaunnessy put in. “Taking the child to the proper authorities.”

“Didn’t come to my office,” Andy mentioned dryly.

“Did he hurt you, sweetheart?” Heyes asked.

“He made me come with him and put his ol’ bandana around my mouth!” The little girl cried angrily. “Smelled like an ol’horse.”

 “Sheriff, take Ruth Ann back up the Mountain. We’ll stay for the game,” Heyes said, seething on the inside for using the child like a pawn, but outwardly calm.

“C’mon.” Andy held out his hand to the little girl, but Eddie Lee blocked the way.

“She stays -- a little guarantee that you play a fair game.”

“He doesn’t cheat,” Ruth Ann protested, looking up at Heyes for assurance, “I could, though.”

“Little girls don’t play poker,” Chester scoffed, speaking up for the first time.

“Oh, she can.” Heyes grinned devilishly. “And she’s good.”

“You -- sheriff.” Eddie Lee pointed contemptuously, “Go up there an’ tell those nuns to start packing up. When the game is over, I expect them to vacate my premises.”

Taylor didn’t move, watching the by-play between Shaunnessy and Heyes with fascination. There was no way he was going to help Eddie Lee force those nuns out.

“Feeling pretty sure of yourself.” Heyes shrugged. “It’s only midafternoon. We have a long time before the game starts. It you want to keep us all here, Ruth Ann needs some food.”  

 

“Me, too.” Kid hissed out of the side of his mouth.

“And somewhere to rest until nine o’clock.” Heyes gave his most ingratiating smile. “’Cause you wouldn’t want to be known as a rude host. Keeping us here against our will.”

“Eddie Lee . . .” Jimmy Joe complained, “You’re takin’ orders from him?”

“He thinks he has leverage holding that deed in his hand, but it won’t last long.” Shaunnessy spread his arms, suddenly jovial. “I think we can afford to be neighborly. My wife will make some dinner. We’ll eat, like friends. Sheriff, don’t you have a town to protect?”

“Some friends,” Kid muttered. He reluctantly holstered his pistol as Taylor left, suddenly feeling self-conscious holding the gun in the middle of the house.

“I’ll send someone up to assure Sister Joe that Ruth Ann’s all right.” Taylor tipped his hat at the child and her protectors before leaving.

There was a very strained meal an hour later. Elianora’s cooking didn’t come close to what Sister Luke could have done with the same ingredients. An over-cooked joint squatted amongst a pile of limp vegetables on a hideous red and blue serving platter in the middle of a table meant to seat twelve. Eddie Lee played his part as congenial host to the hilt, encouraging his guests to eat as much as they wished. Only Chester and younger brother Hilton cleared their plates and asked for seconds, no one else had much appetite. Kid felt distinctly uncomfortable with Jimmy Joe’s blue eyes boring into him the whole time. He suspected that Shaunnessy was trying to place his face and hoped it would never come to him.

“I’d feel a whole lot better if they’d have let her go back up with Taylor,” Kid groused when the Shaunnessy family had left them alone in a small upstairs bedroom after dinner. “Maybe we could sneak her out the back . . .”

“Kid,” Heyes cut him off. “We’re on the second floor.”

“You are Kid Curry,” Ruth Ann stated flatly

“Not so loud,” he shushed.

“Zeke said you were an outlaw an’ you really are!”

“Yes, I am, Darlin’.” Kid sat down on the edge of an overly ruffled four poster bed, “Does that worry you?”

“No, you’re a good person.” Ruth Ann crossed her arms thoughtfully. “But if you an’ Hannibal Heyes stole all that money-for years, where is it?”

“That’s a good question.” Kid glanced over at his partner, who was struggling to stifle laughter. “You see, Hannibal Heyes wasn’t much for savin’ the money. He had some terrible vices . . .”

“Wild women an’ song?” Ruth Ann suggested seriously. “Jezebels.”

“Exactly.” Kid bit his lower lip to keep from laughing himself, it was such a bizarre conversation to be having under the present circumstances.

“Uh . . . Hannibal Heyes had a lot of other gang members to pay,” Heyes finally put in to his defense.

“Well, I just thought that if you did have some of that money left over, you could pay Mister Shaunnessy for the whole river an’ then we wouldn’t be in this per’dicment.”

Ruth Ann faced Heyes, obviously aware of his real name, as well.

“I’m afraid he probably wouldn’t agree to a sale.” Heyes stroked her blond hair, “But it’s a good idea, if we had that much money.”

“Can he really throw us out?” Her lower lip trembled slightly, the tension of the day finally catching up to her. “Make us leave?”

“I won’t let that happen,” Heyes stated confidently, although even he had a tiny frission of doubt. His poker playing had been fantastic lately, but every gambler had a game where the cards just didn’t go his way. Lady Luck better smile on him tonight or he’d really need to find another line of work.

“Hey, Ruth Ann, it’s a long time before the game, why don’t you lie down and get some rest?” Kid suggested, reclining in a stuffed chair. He arranged his bandaged arm over the armrest, it was aching miserably.

“A nap?” she asked disdainfully.

“Keeps the mind fresh.” Heyes agreed, looking around for somewhere to rest. He finally appropriated a few of the needlepointed pillows from the bed and made a little nest on the floor. His bruised ribs still twinged when he tried to get comfortable, though. With this example, Ruth Ann curled up on the satin covered bed and fell asleep almost immediately.

“Heyes?” Kid asked softly.

“Yeah?”

 “You got any plans for after this?”

“Thinking we oughta ride out soon.” Heyes hooked his hands behind his head, staring up at the ornate ceiling. Featuring the latest fashion in plasterwork, it was the fanciest thing he’d ever seen outside of a bordello in San Francisco, and here it was hidden in an upstairs bedroom in Cottersville.

“Sister Moses said it’d be snowing soon. The mountain gets impassable,” Kid agreed. “We should wait until Monday, huh? After the chapel dedication.”

“Kid, what if we came back here?” Heyes asked thoughtfully. “In the spring? After we get amnesty?”

“What would we do? We don’t have any skills in a place like this.”

“I dunno, but I think I’d enjoy finding out.” Heyes sat all the way up, looking at his friend across the room. “I planned all those bank jobs to the letter. We may have been the most successful outlaws in Wyoming history, but we’re still broke. Maybe this time I’ll just let nature take its course.”

Kid let loose a crackling laugh, “Don’t believe it, the great Hannibal Heyes without a plan.”

 

*                    *                           *                              *                              *                      *

 

 

Just after eight thirty, a glum faced Jimmy Joe came to unlock the bedroom door. Walking behind him, Heyes noticed that he still had on the pair of star shaped spurs, and they raked jagged little furrows in the rose colored carpet with every step he took. No doubt, Elianora took a dim view of a brother-in-law who wore spurs in the house. Heyes massaged the wound on his right hand, but it hadn’t given him as much trouble as he’d thought. He’d have no trouble holding a fan of cards.

The younger Shaunnessy grumpily escorted Heyes, Kid and Ruth Ann downstairs where several men had congregated, talking. Marcus Polansky, Deck and three other men Heyes didn’t recognize looked up as they entered, all five sipping aged Kentucky bourbon.

 

Eddie Lee greeted Heyes like an old friend, pressing a glass of bourbon into his hand immediately. It was all incredibly false, like acting out an unfinished play, but one in which everyone had rehearsed their lines separately, so that they didn’t quite mesh.

“And one for my friend Jones?” Heyes asked frostily, glancing back at Kid and Ruth Ann.

“Anyone not joining the game is asked to wait in the smaller lounge.” Eddie Lee plastered a fake smile on his face, indicating the room across the hall.

“I want to watch.” Ruth Ann insisted, “Unless you let me play?”

“Let a child play,” a blustery man with huge mutton chop whiskers and an almost bald head harrumphed. “Why is she even here?”

“She’s a member of my family,” Heyes answered smoothly, putting an arm around her. Polansky came up behind them to offer a shot glass to Kid. “A good luck charm, you might say.”

“Well, one can understand sentiment,” the older man said. “But it’s no place for a child.”

“What’s your opinion on drawing to an inside straight?” Ruth Ann asked, periwinkle blue eyes focused on the man, “Or are you a very conservative player?”

“I feel you are being extremely impertinent!” He frowned, turning away from her.

“Jones, take the girl out of here,” Jimmy Joe ordered imperiously, over his double shot of liquor.

“Jimmy Joe, you’re the one who brought her here, now you want her to go?” Kid spoke in a quiet tone, but there was no doubt who was the more deadly of the two. “Make up your mind.”  

“Thaddeus,” Heyes said softly, “Just keep your eyes on her, and stay out of trouble.”

“Not like we aren’t in up to our necks already,” Kid muttered.

“Gentlemen, the tables are set up in the library.” Eddie Lee beckoned them into a wood paneled room lined with shelves of leather bound books. Had they not been ready to play some pretty serious poker, Heyes would have loved to dive into any of the volumes and check out their contents. He’d never been in the presence of so many books before, and doubted that any of the Shaunnessys had ever even cracked the spines on any of them.

“Every man playing can deposit their entrance fees with Mr. Carmichael, our banker.” Shaunnessy held out a hand to a cadavernously thin man with three strands of pale hair across his head. The banker nodded carefully and accepted each player’s money with a receipt and doled out the correct number of chips.

With Eddie Lee directing who sat where, the players were finally seated at two round tables. There were four men to a table, and Heyes found himself seated between Deck and Muttonchops, with Eddie Lee directly across from him. Cards were dealt swiftly and playing commenced. Although Heyes had played in higher stakes games before, he was still impressed at the amounts of cash in the pot so early in the game. When he did win, he’d have enough for the nuns with a nice chunk left over for he and the Kid to travel in style.

Kid and Ruth Ann had ensconced themselves in the Shaunnessy lounge, a room so full of furniture it was literally hard to walk between them. There were several display cabinets containing curios and other small objects like a haphazard museum. A huge stuffed bear loomed in one corner. Ruth Ann made sure she didn’t sit near the animal. With nothing to do, the two scrounged up a pack of playing cards and began to play. Very soon, both Chester and Hilton joined them, although neither could play worth a damn. Ruth Ann gleefully beat the pants off the two boys with Kid’s amused support.

The main game room filled with aromatic smoke as cigars were lit between poker hands. It took two hours to reduce two tables to one, with Heyes now next to Polansky and a small bird like man called Filbert, still with Eddie Lee across the table. Only he no longer looked as confident as he had earlier in the evening. The hands were played nearly silently, no extraneous chatter to distract from the concentration of the game.

Around the periphery of the room, the disqualified players lingered, watching the others play. By half past eleven, Ruth Ann had curled up on a floral print sofa to sleep, so Kid slipped into the library to observe the ongoing poker game. The room was filling with men as the word spread around Cottersville that Joshua Smith had taken on Eddie Lee Shaunnessy and was winning.

Standing behind his cousin, Kid could easily see the cards Heyes held in his hand. A moderately good hand, with two jacks and a ten, but Heyes was obviously not content. He plucked out the last two cards, a six and a three, and slid them onto the table, asking for replacements. The dealer handed over two blue backed cards, which Heyes casually inserted into his fan. Kid held back any show of excitement, settling his poker face firmly in place. Heyes had received the ten of hearts and the ten of spades. He now had a full house. It would take some pretty good hands on the parts of the other players to beat that.

Eyeing his good fortune, Heyes fingered the colored chips in front of him, deciding how high to bet. He wasn’t quite ready to put the squeeze on Shaunnessy, but the time was getting nearer. There was approximately one hundred thousand dollars between the chips in front of Heyes and what was in the pot. Shaunnessy was obviously sweating, perhaps mentally counting what was left in his bank account. Even the richest man in Cottersville had his limits. This house alone must be worth a small fortune.

Throwing a handful of chips into the middle of the table, Heyes doubled the size of the pot without blinking an eye. Filbert visibly blanched, slapping his cards down on the table with a dismissive gesture.

 Polansky frowned thoughtfully before tapping his low card straight onto the

tabletop and bowing out also. “Too rich for my blood, Smith. But you have my support to put this bastard into the poorhouse.”

“Polansky!” Shaunnessy was momentarily startled from his contemplation of his own full house of nines and sevens. “I’ve helped your family many a time -- given you a bank loan. Now you stab me in the back?”

“Eddie Lee, can’t remember when I’ve had a better time at one of your games.” Marcus grinned wickedly. “You’ve used these poker tournaments to finagle money, land . . .power out of everyone in this town. When you couldn’t use your bank to foreclose on some poor soul, you’d just invite them for a friendly hand and a shot of some good ol’ sippin’ whiskey, and cheat them out of their life savings. Well, tonight it stops.”

“You can leave my home!” Shaunnessy closed his cards into one large fist, rising from his chair to glare at the shorter, portly man. “A man I’ve thought of as a friend . . .”

“Shaunnessy?” Heyes didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at Polansky’s poorly timed rant. He did, however, welcome the fact that it had entirely blown Shaunnessy’s concentration, which would make it much easier to trip him up. “Your bet?”

“I’ll meet the pot.” Shaunnessy turned back to stare at the multicolored pile of chips. “Jimmy Joe, get rid of Mr. Polansky -- and tell him his loan comes due on Monday morning, in full.”

An angry murmur rippled through the crowd of men, and Heyes took a moment to really concentrate on who was in the audience. He recognized many faces, including the Sheriff, Mr. King from the mercantile, Miller Sebastian and Francis Doyle.

“Excuse me, Edd . . . Mr. Shaunnessy.” Carmichael, the banker, stammered nervously. “If you do that, you won’t have any liquid assets left.”

This immediately quieted the chatter in the room. Even Jimmy Joe, who had been manhandling Polansky out the door, froze, staring back at his older brother in confusion.

“That cannot be,” Eddie Lee said calmly. “You must have miscounted, Carmichael.”

“No, sir. You have reached your limits.”

“Are we going to finish this hand?” Heyes asked pointedly.

“In a moment, Smith. I need a word with my banker,” Eddie Lee barked, “A few minutes recess.”

“In the middle of a hand?” Muttonchops asked in astonishment.

“Someone will have to hold each of the unplayed hands until playing has resumed,” Heyes proposed. “I certainly want the problem of Mr. Shaunnessy’s finances worked out.”

“There’s no problem.” Eddie Lee answered as smoothly as possible, fingering the watch chain stretched across his barrel chest. “Perhaps the Doctor would be kind enough to hold the two hands, one in each pocket of his vest. He’s never played poker with us, and is a neutral third party.”

“Agreed.” Heyes nodded. Miller bit one end of his mustache, but nodded, holding out his right hand to Shaunnessy. He slipped the cards he was given into his right vest pocket and did the same for Heyes’ card, tucking them neatly into his left vest pocket.

“No one is to disturb the other cards on the table,” Eddie Lee commanded. “Jimmy Joe, keep your eyes on them and don’t let anyone leave.”

“Sure thing.” Jimmy Joe crossed his arms, standing like a tree in front of the door as Carmichael and Shaunnessy stepped into a small anteroom.

“Joshua,” Kid hissed, bending down so his mouth was near his cousin’s ear. “How long are you gonna draw this out?”

“Thaddeus,” Heyes said calmly. “I have him right where I want him. If he doesn’t have any cash, then he has to put up the deed.”

“But if that was the whole idea, why play all night?”

“Can’t let him think he lost it easily.” Heyes stood, stretching muscles tight from sitting for over two hours.

“Joshua, I found one of the Billings kids.” Andy Taylor stepped forward. “Sent him up to the orphanage to tell the sisters that Ruth Ann was all right.” He glanced around curiously. “Where is she?”

“Resting on her laurels.” Kid grinned, “In moves worthy of you, Joshua, she fleeced those two Shaunnessy kids of every penny they were saving for candy.”

“How much’d she get?” Heyes laughed.

“Smith, we’re all behind you.” Marcus Polansky offered a fleshy hand to Heyes. “You may succeed in doin’ something the rest of us were too cowardly to try for years. Get rid of Shaunnessy. He deserves everything you can throw at him.” The other men behind him nodded in agreement. “Doctor, just don’t forget which pocket you’ve got Smith’s cards.”

“Not likely.” Dr. Sebastian patted his vest with both hands like a man rubbing his stomach after a huge meal. “I don’t want to jeopardize the outcome.”

“He’s sure takin’ a long time,” Francis Doyle spoke up, “You think he really don’t have anything left?” All the men looked over at the solid oak door, as if expecting it to suddenly open.

Jimmy Joe frowned at their scrutiny, glancing behind him, as if they were seeing something he wasn’t aware of. “My brother’ll be back right soon.”

As if on cue, the door opened Eddie Lee and Carmichael returning from their discussion. “Mr. Carmichael has informed me that I am short on readily available assets and should withdraw from the poker game.”

“Ah, Eddieboy,” Kid interrupted. “Not before you and my friend play for the deeds.” He rested his hand on his holstered gun butt.

“That would not be opportune.” Eddie Lee showed his distaste at Jones’ mispronunciation of his name.

“Let’s just finish this hand,” Heyes insisted, “Can’t stop now, can you? In the middle of the game?”

The greedy gleam had returned to the elder Shaunnessy’s blue-gray eyes. He smoothed his unruffled hair, nodding. “Doctor? The cards.”

After the cards had been returned to their rightful owners, Shaunnessy pushed nearly all the chips in front of him into the pot. “I meet the pot.”

“I’ll raise you one thousand dollars,” Heyes said smoothly, never yet having looked at his folded cards.

“I don’t have a thousand. You know that,” Shaunnessy growled.

“Sorry, do you want to show cards now?” Heyes asked innocently. “If not, you must have something you can put in -- like the deed to the land just above Abner Billings’ section.”

The room seemed to hold its breath. There was no way out for Shaunnessy. Either way he would loose if Heyes’ cards were better. Kid glanced to his right, both Doyle and Polansky were leaning forward, excited by the tension. Dr. Sebastian looked like he’d rather to be anyplace else at the moment, and Sheriff Taylor’s body position echoed Curry’s own. Both had their hands near their weapons, ready for a fight. At the table, Heyes maintained astonishing calm, his hands resting lightly on the table edge, only the tightness of his knuckles on the cards he held showing any nervousness. On the other hand, Eddie Lee was perspiring freely. He took a moment to wipe his neck with a large linen hankerchief, examining his cards as if he hadn’t seen them before. Jimmy Joe stood behind him, a blank expression on his hard boned face. The other men in the room had inched backwards towards the door, ready to escape if there were gunplay.

“If I do so, I expect reciprocal,” Eddie Lee proclaimed. “The deed to the top of the mountain on the table.”

“Guess I might as well,” Heyes responded lightly, no trace that this was the denouement of all he’d worked for. “But I’ll take back a few chips, so’s the bets’ll be about equal.”

“Can he do that?” Jimmy Joe objected.

“Eddie Lee, you’ll be broke,” Carmichael pointed out.

“Not if I win.” Shaunnessy waited until Heyes had placed his deed on the table before writing out an IOU for his own piece of land. “The deed is in the bank, in the safe. I can’t get to it right now.”

“I’ll just have to trust you.” Heyes raised his eyebrows. “However, if you want to keep some cash aside, I’d be willing to take the house off your hands.”

“You’re certainly  cocky.”

“No reason not to be.” Heyes stared the older man, dark almost black eyes boring into pale gray blue ones. “Show your cards? Or do you want to prolong it? I could raise another five hundred or so.”

“Let’s put an end to this, then.” Eddie Lee placed his cards on the table, three nines and two sevens, the pasteboards slightly damp from his sweaty hand.

Not saying a word, Heyes spread his cards in a fan, laying them next to Shaunnessy’s. Three tens and two jacks. He had won.

The other men in the room erupted in a roar of enthusiasm, slapping Heyes on the back and whistling their approval. The two Shaunnessys were mute, their faces glowering. Heyes sat quietly, knowing it wasn’t quite over yet.

“I expect a rematch,” Eddie Lee said finally, “You cannot just walk away with everything.”

“Why not?” Heyes began to collect the poker chips, pushing them roughly into piles.

“This is my house and my deed, and I demand another hand.”

“Now, Shaunnessy, Smith won fair and square,” Polansky pointed out. “You were never a very good loser.”

“I’m no kind of loser.” Eddie Lee clamped a hand over Heyes, preventing him from adding the IOU to his pile of chips. The sharp sound of a gun being cocked echoed loudly in the suddenly quiet room.

 “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Curry spoke in a deadpan voice, his face calm above the pistol in his hand.

“Thaddeus.” Hannibal Heyes glanced over at his cousin, his connection defusing the tension in the Kid that only he could see. “If Eddie Lee wants another hand, I don’t see why I can’t oblige him.” He jerked his hand away from Shaunnessy’s grasp,. “But how bout five hands?”

“Five?” Eddie Lee eyed him with suspicion. “You want the rest of them back in the game? This is just between us.”

“I bet you everything -- except the deeds, that I can make five winning hands from any twenty five cards dealt,” Heyes proposed.

Kid bit down on his bottom lip, trying not to smile. It was a sucker bet if ever there was one. Heyes had won with this trick more times than he could count. He reholstered his weapon as the atmosphere in the room calmed.

“Huh.” Jimmy Joe chuffed a laugh, “I’d take that bet.”

“I just bet you would.” The dark haired ex-outlaw grinned easily. “What about your brother?”

“Why not?” Eddie Lee’s bonhomie was back, “Except I get the chance to win back the deeds.”

Heyes had expected that, and nodded his assent. “Who’ll deal?”

 

“I will.” Polansky pulled out a chair, shuffled the cards several times under the watchful eyes of the two participants, split the deck in half once, reshuffled and then dealt out twenty-five cards.

It was, in essence, a parlor trick, which couldn’t be lost. Heyes never told his mark which hands he was going to create, just that they’d be hands that could win a poker game. Frankly, he rarely won with three of a kind, but as he studied the twenty-five cards on the table, that was the first thing he found. Three fours. He quickly began to select cards to build five winning hands.

“Can’t be done.” Eddie Lee smiled smugly, not seeing the possible combinations of the cards.

Unbeknownst to any of the men watching Heyes’ quick fingers rearrange the cards, Ruth Ann had slipped into the room and squeezed between the long legs.

“Take that ten,” Her voice piped. She picked up the ten of spades and added it to a pile Heyes had already compiled. “Full house, two queens, three tens.”

“Thanks, Sweetheart.” Heyes grinned, finishing the last five cards as she’d instructed.

“It’s kinda smoky in here.” Ruth Ann wrinkled her nose from the thick pall of cigar smoke in the room.

“Don’t worry, we won’t be here much longer.” Kid put his hand on her blond braid. “Looks like Joshua won.”

“And we get the river?” The little girl cried, “Thank you, Joshua!” She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him happily while the other men looked at the pasteboards on the table in astonishment. Eddie Lee’s face was tomato red.

“I’d agree.” Polansky agreed patting Ruth Ann’s arm as she jumped up and down with excitement. “Shaunnessy, you said it couldn’t be done, and he managed to do it in five minutes. Two straight flushes, a full house, two pair and three of a kind.”

The other men nodded, Miller Sebastian examining the cards with interest. He’d never understood poker, but if it could be used to bring down a criminal, he was eager to learn more.

“Can you do that every time?” Ruth Ann crowed, memorizing yet another piece of poker trivia.

“Just about.” Heyes stood. “Eddie Lee? That’s about the end, I’d say.” He folded the deed and the IOU carefully, secreting them in his inner jacket pocket.

“Fine,” The elder Shaunnessy seethed, gritting his teeth, his fury barely contained. “Expose my wife, my children to poverty and ridicule.”

“I’d say you did that all on your own,” Sheriff Taylor said neutrally, “I’m arresting your brother for poisoning two cows and kidnapping Ruth Ann Kinney.”

“You can’t do this!” Jimmy Joe protested as the sheriff relieved him of his gun and escorted him towards the door. Francis Doyle grinned broadly as he held open the door for the lawman. “I’m not going!” Jimmy Joe shouted.

“We are.” Heyes hadn’t been an outlaw for many years for nothing. He knew when to make an escape. Giving Ruth Ann a little push to get her out of the room, he jerked his head at his partner. “Get the horses.” When Curry had left, he addressed the cadaverous banker. “Carmichael, I’d like to cash in now.”

 

*                                   *                               *                            *                      *

             

 

With a small guard of friendly mountain inhabitants, Heyes, Kid and Ruth Ann headed back up the trail only a short time later. Heyes wasn’t entirely sanguine about taking a child up a dark mountain after midnight but he knew the sisters wouldn’t be able to sleep until they knew she was safe. Plus, as dangerous as a horseback ride on a cold moonlit night might be, he had a certain nervousness about Eddie Lee’s temperament with his brother in jail. Unfortunately, there was no real reason to put the older brother in jail, too. That was, until people started to talk. Andy Taylor had been fairly certain that a few more unsavory facts could be dug up about the Shaunnessys that might put both behind bars.

 

“You did it, Joshua.” Kid grinned triumphantly, kneeing his horse around a rock on the trail. “Exactly how much money did you actually get?”

 

“About one hundred thousand, plus the land.” Heyes returned his grin, finally able to feel excited about his win. The whole evening he’d had nervous flutters  in the pit of his stomach, totally unlike his usual calm poker persona. The stakes had been so incredibly high, and not because of the money. He’d played to save the Sisters’ home, their livelihood and their dignity. It was a very different feeling to be depended on for so much. He’d once led outlaws on dangerous raids and robberies, but he’d never felt so important before. He held a sleepy Ruth Ann in front of him on the saddle.

 

“You’ve given Cottersville new hope,” Polansky said proudly. “Without those Shaunnessys.”

 

“He’s not totally gone,” Heyes negated. “And now he’s angry.”

 

“You’ve declawed  the beast,” Miller Sebastian spoke up from behind them. “A lot of people are going to feel very differently about him after they hear what he’s done.”

 

“Joshua.” Kid drawled his cousin’s alias. “You took his money and his power. You could run the bank now.”

 

“Hey.” the ex-outlaw sat up straighter in the saddle, intrigued at the idea. “D’ya think I could?”

 

“Know anything about banking, Smith?” Polansky asked, reining his horse in to walk parallel to the other man. “There’ll probably be a job opening soon.”

 

“You might say I used to be very involved in the banking business.” Heyes bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. He held Ruth Ann close to his chest with his right hand, guiding the piebald with his left.

 

The coterie of guards peeled off halfway up the mountain, leaving the other three to continue up by themselves. The early morning darkness was frigidly cold and still, although Kid saw deer dart across the trail at one point, delicate long legged shadows against the inky darkness of the densely grouped trees.  But the ride was quiet, no hint of danger at any time and they arrived safely at the orphanage.

 

Three female voices could be heard singing sweetly in Latin, their voices harmonizing beautifully with the soft wind through the overhanging pines.

 

“They waited up,” Kid said, sitting in the saddle a moment longer to listen to the song.

 

“That surprises you?” Heyes regarded his cousin’s profile, just barely visible in the light of a lantern hung from the eave of the porch.

 

“Just haven’t had anybody wait up for me in a long time.”

 

“It’s a whole new world, Kid.” Heyes shook the sleepy child in front of him. “Time to wake up, Sweetheart, we’re home.”

 

It wasn’t just the Nuns who were still awake. All four children came bursting into the front room as they entered. Greeting the prodigal sons and daughter as if they’d been gone for weeks instead of just over half a day, they filled the room with love and happiness. Heyes, Kid and Ruth Ann were plied with food and drink and repeatedly made to describe every detail of the ordeal, and especially the poker game.

 

After the early morning breakfast of freshly baked bread, for Sister Luke had channeled her night’s nervous energy into a frenzy of baking, the entire group around the plank table agreed that they needed a good morning’s sleep. So, as dawn was pinking the clouds and gilding the tops of the evergreens, the orphanage went to sleep.

 

It was well after noon when the first person stirred. Sister Mary Joseph was just adjusting her wimple when she heard a voice from out in the yard.

 

“Hallo, the house! Anybody home?”

 

“Who is that?” Heyes jerked up in his bed, nearly sending Kid over the side.

 

“Watch out,” The blond man grumbled, still more asleep than awake.

 

“There’s someone outside.” Heyes climbed over his cousin, found his clothes and pulled on a pair of trousers.

 

“It’s Steven!!” Ruth Ann could be heard running down the hall. Heyes opened the door in time to see the tips of her blond braids disappearing into the main room.

 

By the time the ex-outlaws had dressed and arrived in the yard, they found all three nuns and all the children gathered around a virtual twin to Charles. At second glance, Steven Kinney was taller and leaner, but the family resemblance was uncanny. The brothers were lustily clapping each other on the back and laughing.

 

Ruth Ann had her arms around his waist and was describing the previous evening in terms suitable for a dime novel. Eddie Lee was despic’ble, Joshua was amaz’ng and Thaddeus brave in the face of danger. The others were all clambering to put their two cents in and Steven was laughing helplessly, unable to quite understand a word with everyone talking at once.

“Sounds like a lot’s been going on here since I left.” He waded through the children. “Nice to know somebody’s been keeping an eye on the place.”

Steven wasn’t exactly what Heyes had expected, but then, nothing at Children of Jesus orphanage ever turned out as he expected. He grinned and introduced himself as the whole tribe returned to the main room to catch up.

“You really won the old man’s land back?” Steven asked, impressed. “I just about lost my shirt the one an’ only time I played in that game!”

“You didn’t tell me you played with Eddie Lee,” Mary Moses admonished.

“Not my finest hour, Sister. I’d built up a nest egg an’ I got into the game, but I lost.” He shrugged. “I thought you’d be proud of me if I had enough for a stake and then some. I thought maybe I could give you some money to help run the place . . .”

“But you felt disgraced after you lost?” Mary Joseph questioned gently. When he nodded miserably, she gave his arm a squeeze. “Is that why you left?”

“Yes’ ma’am.” He pushed a hank of heavy blond hair out of his eyes.

“You didn’t have to leave, Steven,” Charles spoke up. “But what made you come back here after Denver and San Francisco?”

“I had even less luck there.” Steven held up his hands, indicating the sway back horse he’d come in on, “I guess I failed . . .”

“You didn’t fail,” Mary Joseph said quietly. “You just didn’t succeed at gambling. God undoubtedly has a different path for you.”

“Yeah, an’ we love you anyways.” Ruth Ann leaned her head against his shoulder.

“Thanks, Sis.” He felt the rush of acceptance his family gave him.

“And you’re the onliest one who could ever get the ball outta the barn rafters,” Samuel said earnestly, with Sofia nodding in agreement behind him.

“But I bet your sister could win you at poker, now.” Zeke nudged his knee.

“Truly?” Steven gave Ruth Ann a quizzical look, making a comical face before pulling her into a hug.   

“She’s my protégé.” Heyes laughed.

“And he’s a fair teacher,” Kid added. “But it helps that she’s got a poker genius.”

“Care for a game?” Ruth Ann wheedled.

“Don’t mind a little diversion.” Steven laughed again.

“Couldn’t have said it better myself.” Heyes pulled out the battered deck of cards, shuffling then rapidly.

“The sisters don’t mind?” Steven asked in surprise. “Things have changed since I left.”

“We can hardly regard this as a sin, when we used  gambling to get back the land,” Joe said dryly, “But I do have a few things to confess when Father Lawrence finally arrives.”

“Oh, me too,” Ruth Ann said so solemnly that the rest of them laughed.

While Sister Luke prepared a feast fit for a prince, the others played a laughter filled round of five card. Heyes found this competition so much more enjoyable than the tense one of the night before, he could have played all afternoon. With Steven, Ruth Ann and Kid, he even had some worthy opponents, although Zeke and Charles kept the game lively with silly pranks and jokes when they lost. The twins attempted to play one hand together, with hilarious results.

“It’s like the clouds opened up and God smiled on us today.” Joseph cupped her elbows in her palms, watching the game fondly. She felt giddy, a little bubble of joy tickling the underside of her breastbone. This was the way it should be; the room overflowing with happiness. In fact, she felt so full of love, it threatened to spill out of her and roll out of the window into the yard, like a bright light illuminating the place.

“It’s wonderful. A prayer,” Moses agreed. “I wish we could preserve moments like this, the way a spider gets caught in amber. Forever.”

“Ah, but I can.” Joe tapped the side of her black veil. “In my memory.”

“Sisters!” Zeke popped up, having lost at poker, as usual. “I think we need to light the bonfire. For a celebration!”

“That’s a wonderful idea.” Joseph smiled. “I think you have been more than patient waiting for the fire. Have you saved some matches?”

“I won every one!” Ruth Ann crowed. “From him, anyway. But I’ll donate as many as you need.”

Darkness came early at this time of year, especially on the top of the mountain where the trees held the night down close to the ground. Directly after dinner, it was shadowy in the yard, and the pile of dry branches from the downed tree and broken boards from the chapel made an impressively large dark mound.

“We thank the Lord for all the riches of the earth and especially the people . . .”

“And land,” Moses added in a stage whisper.

“That have been returned to us this day,” Joseph continued with a raise of her eyebrow in her companion’s direction. The darkness, fortunately, hide the expression. “We continue to live in humble thanksgiving of God’s love and compassion. Amen.”

“Amen,” the rest chorused. “Father, son and Holy Spirit.”

“You are the light of the world!” Sister Luke said loudly, apparently having decided that having spoken once, she could do so again. This caused several Hallelujahs from the children.

“Time to light the fire!” Zeke shrieked, frightening an owl in the branches overhead. He struck the first match and threw it in.

It took more than one match to get the blaze going, but very soon the dry branches caught. The yellow flames illuminated the little compound with a roaring heat and a brightness to match to noonday sun.

“Sister, I have to say, this isn’t exactly what I expected when we limped in here on one horse.” Heyes settled his back against the porch railing.

“Can’t tell the future?” Mary Joseph teased gently. “My goodness, Hannibal, and I was beginning to think you had mystical powers.”

“Me?” Heyes scoffed. “It’s you-you’ve got the connections to the man up above.”

“There’s no mystical power in that.” She shook her head, folding her hands together in demonstration. “That’s just simple prayer.”

“Mary Joseph, nothing about you is ever simple.”

The children had linked hands and were dancing around the bonfire like pagans at an ancient festival, the flames highlighting the gold blond hair of the three Kinneys. Charles swung Sofia up onto his shoulders and bounced her around the circle while she began to sing a hymn off-key. Immediately, Samuel demanded equal time on Steven’s shoulders as the other children joined the song with zeal.

Watching from the sidelines, Mary Moses kept time by clapping her hands and Kid added his voice to the chorus, although he obviously didn’t know all the words. Zeke’s dark face glowed with happiness as sparks flickered and snapped above the flames, mingling with the twinkling stars above.

“Kid and I talked. We think it’s about time to leave-probably on Monday,” Heyes said, glancing at the nun out of the corner of his eye to judge her reaction.

“I’d expected as much.” She looked over at him, their eyes level. “We always knew you couldn’t stay forever.”

“The thing is -- I’d kind of like to.” He shrugged. “But it’s not the right time yet, and besides, I’m real glad that Steven’s here. You nuns need a man around the place.”

“You don’t think we can take care of ourselves?” She dimpled at him, still teasing, “And I thought you said I have guts.”

“Guts, no question, and you’ve got a surprising amount of gumption, but I still feel you’ll all be safer with a man around.”

“You got rid of Mr. Shaunnessy,” she pointed out.

 “Not entirely,” Heyes admitted. “But he’s not the only shark in the ocean.”

“I can swim.” Mary Joseph tucked her hands into her voluptuous sleeves. “I want you to take care of yourself, too. Don’t draw to any inside straights, as I believe the saying goes.”

“I never have. It’s a sucker’s play. And why do I always have to explain myself to you?”

“I don’t know, why do you?”

“You just want the last word, don’t you?”

“Hannibal Heyes, God always has the last word, but I come a close second.”

“I knew that,” he grumbled good naturedly, then went to join the bonfire dance.

 

*                           *                           *                        *                         *                *

 

Sunday dawned gloriously, as if even the weather wanted to be on hand to celebrate the new chapel. There was much to be done before the eleven o’clock service and every man, nun and child around the orphanage had many jobs to finish. Luckily, the Billings family came up early in the buckboard they’d borrowed from Dr. Sebastian, and their many hands made light work. Even Abner Senior was well enough to sit and help Sister Luke shell peas, peel potatoes and chop vegetables for the after church soup.

Marcus Polansky showed up sometime after ten with a small Guernsey in tow. He helped stow her in the barn, letting the children fight over who would name her. She wasn’t quite ready to be a milk cow yet, but that would come soon enough. Until then, Ruth Ann proclaimed her a pet, and stroked her soft nose with delight.

As the morning progressed, the yard filled with people, until they were upon the appointed hour. Without any formal discussion, a sort of solemn procession formed as the congregation filed into the chapel to take their places. After the Billings, Polanskys -- including the newborn twins -- the Doyles, Dr. Sebastian, and Sherifff Taylor had found pews, more and more people began to  squeeze in until it was filled to the overflowing. There were enough people still standing outside in the yard to fill the little chapel three times over.

 

Sister Mary Joseph crossed herself in amazement at the sight of the crowd, as she stood on the front porch of the orphanage. “The whole town must have come up this morning.”

“It’s Joshua and Thaddeus’s doing.” Mary Moses clapped her hands together, “They’ve shown everyone what a scoundrel that Eddie Lee Shaunnessy was. Given people courage few knew they had.”

“I don’t think we should have any more talk of him on this glorious morning,” Joe scolded gently, “It’s the Sabbath and our services are about to begin.”

 Sister Luke joined them, holding a warm loaf of bread for communion wrapped in a linen napkin.

Kid leaned against the side of the barn, feeling slightly out of place. Although certainly baptized Catholic many years before, he’d rarely attended any sort of church since. “Heyes, d’you think what we’ve done . . . thieving and robbing’ and all, makes us real sinners?”

“Probably, Kid, it’d take a year of confession to wipe us clean.” Heyes pushed his black hat forward to shade his eyes as he watched the people still trying to find more room in the tiny chapel.

“I don’t think we ought to . . . ”

“The thing is, Sister Joe doesn’t hold it against us,” Heyes continued in a conversational tone. “And personally, I think that counts for a lot with Him.”

“This one’s different than the little Mass she had the other day, though,” Kid argued, resting his bandaged right arm in the crook of his left elbow.

“I think, when it’s all said and done, it’s all the same.” Heyes inclined his head in a follow-me gesture, “This one’s just got a little more pomp and circumstance, C’mon, she expects us to come.”

“Be a right shame to disappoint Sister Joe.” Curry took off his hat as he followed his partner over to the church.

The thunder of small and not so small feet heralded the children, and the nuns shepherded them between the groups of waiting townsfolk into the church. The children filled the front pew, bowing their heads like the little angels they weren’t, giggling all the while. Heyes and the Kid tucked themselves into the back amongst the standees, not wanting to have undue attention paid to them.

The candles were lit, and mass began. Hymns sung and ancient prayers recited. Many of the congregation were not Catholic, and had not attended a religious service in many years, so the responses and amens were a bit ragged, but enthusiastic. The Sisters had long known that although Latin was the traditional way to conduct a mass, it greatly helped to ease worshippers into the service by having some parts said in English.

Mary Moses read the morning’s epistle from Revelations, “Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees . . .”

The people who lived in and around Cottersville nodded, appreciating these words. Most had carved their homesteads and lives from the land by their own sweat and hard labor. The earth, sea and trees were things to be held carefully, not to be used as a commodity as Shaunnessy had done. Nearly every person in the building had had some dealing with the banker. All were greatly heartened to learn that many of his dealings had been illegal, and that there might be hope that others besides the nuns might get back their lost properties.

 

The Gospel was from the Sermon on the Mount, a reading so apropos that it caused a few chuckles from the congregation. “Jesus seeing the multitudes, went up into a mountain and when he was set, his disciples came unto him . . . ” Sister Mary Joseph read in a quiet, solemn voice. Her smooth face, framed by the black veil, shone with happiness as she read the beautiful words, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

After the scattered amens, Joseph put the Bible carefully aside and stood up behind the pulpit. She folded her hands, taking a quiet moment in prayer as the gathered multitudes waited. The children shifted restlessly in the hard pew, glancing back curiously when one of the baby twins wailed. Marcus Polansky  bounced the baby on his arm, shushing her, while his wife rocked the boy twin.

“The Lord’s mercy is everlasting,” Mary Joseph began. “And his truth endureth from generation to generation. We say this at almost every Mass. But what is mercy? Kindness and compassion, benevolent forgiveness . . . something to be thankful for. God’s Love. We are thankful for this, and for His kindness and compassion, but the quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth like the gentle rain from Heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes . . . ”

In the back of the chapel, Heyes grinned, his dimples deep in both cheeks, recognizing the source of the nun’s words. Kid looked over questioningly, but when he got no response, went back to concentrating on the sermon.

“Well, we had more than a gentle rain recently, but I think that it may have been a more powerful rain than the one that caused Noah’s ark to float. That past flood changed all our lives in ways we may never fully understand. For whatever reason, that rain brought mercy . . . kindness, something to be thankful for. Had a tree not fallen on our old chapel, we would not have needed a new one built. Had the rain not caused pain to some of our friends, strife in the lives of others, we might not all have been brought together. It may not have been a gentle rain, but it was a rain from Heaven. It brought compassion and kindness back into our lives, it brought a community together. For this I am truly thankful. But we must have mercy for others, as well. There are those among us who have recently not been  so fortunate, and feel perhaps ostracized from the community . . . they deserve, not only God’s mercy, but our own, because mercy both gives and takes . . .  and as we all know, it is more blessed to give than to receive.” She bowed her head to hide the smile, but all saw it and returned it with their own.

“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy . . . ”

“Joshua Smith, I want you out here!” The rough voice, interrupting the Holy words, shocked the congregation into silence.

Heyes was nearer to the door; he stumbled around the older couple to his right, and emerged into the bright yard to see the gathered crowd spread out in a loose circle around a gun wielding, crazy eyed Eddie Lee Shaunnessy. The burly man hadn’t changed his clothes since the night before, but now the wine colored vest and pin striped pants looked stained and creased, and he’d lost his jacket, despite the cold air. He swung the pistol up square as Heyes emerged from the chapel.

 

“You deserve to rot in hell,” he snarled, the sun glinting off the silver blue barrel of the Colt. “I had this town right where I wanted it, and you come in here . . . acting like some savior . . . Well, I know who you are . . . ”

“Eddiebo . . . Lee,” Kid spoke sharply from behind his partner, wanting to stop him before he blurted out their secret in front of all of Cottersville. “This isn’t the time or the place. These people are having mass . . . ”

“Never been a practicing Catholic.” Shaunnessy laughed harshly.

“But others here are.” Heyes took up his cousin’s train of thought, “We can discuss this in the house.”

“Shoulda been my house, I had it all planned out.” Eddie Lee glanced at the little building to his left, then back at his prey, waving the gun threateningly. “Could come up here, get away from that . . . woman. But you’ll never guess what happened?”

“What?” Heyes asked, knowing this was his cue. He was acutely aware of the townspeople on all sides of him, and more importantly, the nuns and children in the chapel behind him. He could feel the press of Kid’s body behind his, but in deference to the church service, neither man had worn their guns that morning.

“She threw me out! Said I disgraced her! And I don’t have my little house yet . . . so I’ll just take it.” He leveled the gun and pulled the trigger.

“Down!” Kid shouted shoving people to the ground around him as the bullet whined above them, imbedding itself in the doorframe.

Inside the church, the  babies began to wail, their cries grating on the already strained nerves of the congregation. Zeke pulled Ruth Ann towards the back of the sanctuary, inclining his head to include her two brothers.

“Joshua and Thaddeus need our help,” Zeke whispered urgently.

“What can we do?” Ruth Ann demanded.

“Where are their guns?” Steven asked, the only one of them who had much experience with firearms, apart from Curry’s impromptu fast draw lessons.

“In their saddlebags.” Zeke grinned, then showed them the small door at the back of the chapel put in to allow easy access to the woodpile and outhouse. He explained his plan his quick sentences.

“You can’t shoot your gun off like that, people could get hurt!” Heyes protested from his crouch against the chapel wall. Had he been wearing his hat, the bullet would have put a hole through the crown, it had passed so closely to his head.

“Then everybody better clear out,” Shaunnessy warned, “Cause, when I’m through, this won’t be a pretty sight.” The townspeople behind him started for the river, afraid of deadly gunfire.

“Joshua!” Ruth Ann sobbed, running past the startled nuns to her favorite poker  buddy, and sinking to her knees as  Shaunnessy pulled off a wild shot. The bullet went wide, not even hitting the building, plowing a furrow in a tree beyond.

Nobody noticed the boys sneaking out the back to the chapel and around the barn to the kitchen door of the house.

 The little girl  threw her arms around Heyes, burrowing her face in his shoulder. “I thought he’d hit you.”

 

“Ruth Ann, get back here.” Mary Joseph insisted, her heart hammering in her chest. The man she was certain would never do anything to really harm them was shooting at a child!

“Shaunnessy, this has gone too far.” Sheriff Taylor had worked his way through the terrified congregation inside the church, and now took his place beside Kid, urging the rest of the people back into the relative safety of the wooden building. “You’re under arrest.”

“How’re you gonna stop me, huh, Taylor?” The crazed man’s face was florid red, his breath coming in harsh pants, “Not a one of you is wearing a gun.” He laughed, “Where’s your bravado now, Jones? Now you’re just a broken arm . . . ”

Kid stood slowly, mirroring Heyes’s ascent. The impotency he’d felt after his accident flooded through him, but there was nothing he could do, not with the innocent bystanders all around. He could hear soft whimpers from some of the women and other children, and the increasingly desperate screams from the baby twins.

“I said before,” Heyes’ voice was surprisingly steady. “We can discuss this in the house. Before anyone gets hurt.” He squeezed Ruth Ann’s gingham clad shoulder, then sent her back to the nuns.

“I said I don’t want to,” Shaunnessy balked, but his gun hand was visibly shaking.

“The deeds are in there,” Heyes wheedled. “Carmichael brought up the rest of the money and your deed this morning. You can have it. Just lay down the gun so we can walk calmly into the house and talk.”

“I’ll go into the house,” the bigger man conceded. “Walk ahead of me, no tricks.”

Exchanging a quick look with Kid, Heyes crossed the compound until he was next to Shaunnessy. The few townspeople still near the house shuffled to one side to give them room to walk, with Kid following the little parade closely behind. He realized Heyes had some plan working, but hadn’t a clue of what it might be.

Heyes took the porch steps slowly, but seemed to stumble as he went through the front door, grabbing the doorframe as he folded in half. Shaunnessy halted in his tracks, startled, his gun hand wavering.

“Joshua!” Ruth Ann’s high pitched voice rang out, and once again she dashed past the nuns, although Sister Luke made a grab for her skirt. This distraction was enough for Heyes to spin around in the doorway, a pistol in his hand. Kid was close enough behind Eddie Lee that he swung his still bandaged right arm like a battering ram, knocking the Colt from his slack fingers and giving him a kick that sent him to his knees.  Sheriff Taylor took over, handcuffing the astonished man before there was any more violence. A ragged cheer broke out from all around the compound, as the nervous townspeople emerged from the woods.

“Where’d you get the gun?” Kid laughed, adrenaline still racing through his veins. He hugged his arching arm against his chest. He never should have slammed it into the heavier man, but it was the only thing he could think to do. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.

“I had some help.” Heyes grinned, as all three boys tumbled out of the house, armed to the teeth.

“It was a Zeke Marstan plan! “ the little boy shouted, waving the rifle he’d appropriated in the air.

 

“I knew you were a snake! You’re like a viper . . . getting these people on your side!” Shaunnessy spit at Heyes, foam coming from his mouth.

“That’ll be enough, Shaunnessy.” Andy Taylor pushed him roughly to where the horses were corralled behind the barn. Several men from Cottersville went to help him escort the prisoner to jail.

“Zeke, I’m extremely proud of all of you, but put that weapon down now.” Sister Mary Joseph decided it was time to exert her control over the situation, now that it had been defused. The boy knew who was boss, and handed it to Kid, who shouldered it absently. Heyes threw his arms around Ruth Ann, astounded at how frightened he’d been for her safety.

“I think we could all use a prayer right now,”  Mary Moses agreed shakily. She’d never been more terrified in her life. The townspeople gathered around the nuns, the rest of the people spilling out of the chapel, until the yard was filled with relieved people.

Steven gathered the guns from his brother, piling them all on the porch while the Sisters concluded their mass in the open air, under the canopy of greenery. The cold, bright air was  quickly filled with the sound of nearly all of Cottersville singing praises to the Lord. The birds above couldn’t have sung with more joy.

 

 

*                    *                    *                  *                    *                              *  

 

Gallons of vegetable soup were consumed by the hungry populace as every one talked about the close call, and how bravely Smith and Jones had acted. Many came by to congratulate and thank them before starting the long journey back down the mountain.

It was mid afternoon before crowd in the yard had reduced to a more intimate group of friends, and there was more of an opportunity to talk easily. The remains of the dedication feast were still scattered along the plank tables. Mary Moses helped Sister Luke clear away the dirty dishes with Sofia and Samuel trailing behind her like ducklings following their mama. Heyes helped himself to a handful of chocolate cookies, offering one to his partner who declined, having eaten three pieces of pie.

“How did you know the boys would be in there?” Kid asked curiously. His arm had ached abominably since he’d walloped Shaunnessy, and he’d finally had to ask Miller Sebastian for a dose of the pain powder. He was now feeling a lot better, and had enjoyed getting to know the locals, but wanted to reconnect with his partner.

“Ruth Ann.” Heyes caught sight of her playing a spirited game of some sort with two equally blond Billings girls, “She whispered to me when she was pretending to cry. That girl is gonna be the death of me . . . ”

“Spoken like a real Daddy,” Kid teased.

Heyes stared at him in shock, the half eaten cookie halted midway to his mouth. “You think so?”

“She’s got your talents.”

“It’s true.” Heyes took a large bite from his cookie. “It’s frightening.”

“Want to find out if she’d a natural at safe cracking?” Kid proposed, a twinkle in his blue eyes.

 

“Let’s not.” Sister Joe stood behind them, giving both a stern look despite the amusement she was trying to hide.

“Sister, did you ever work as a spy during the war?” Heyes covered the startle she always gave him by finishing the cookie, then dusting off his hands. “You can move quieter’n an Indian trackin’ a cougar.”

“One of my talents.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “Proved useful in the convent.”

“I’ll bet.” Kid barked a laugh, imaging Sister Joseph and his older sibling Sister Assumpta as young novices gliding across polished marble floors with silent grace.

“Enjoyed your sermon, Sister.” Heyes grinned, still watching the girls play tag around the pine trees. “Don’t often hear those words in a church.”

“You recognized it, did you?” Her dimples matched his own, “I allowed myself a small wager to see how many people would.”

“Did you win?”

“There are quite a few more literate people up here than I realized.” She held up three fingers. “You’re the fourth. I knew Marcus Polansky would be familiar with the quote, but I was pleasantly surprised when Seth Green caught my little joke, and so did Dr. Sebastian.”

“What are you two talkin’ about?” Kid demanded. “It was a fine sermon.”

“Sure was, Kid, but she didn’t get all her words from the Bible.”

“There’s no rule that says one has to,” Sister Joe informed him, selecting a cookie from the nearly empty plate. “A beautiful, meaningful passage.”

“From Merchant of Venice,” Heyes identified. “She was quoting Shakespeare, Kid. Remember that play we saw in Denver a few years back? Romeo and Juliet? Shakespeare wrote ‘em both.”

“Liked that play, that man could twist around words even fancier that you, Heyes.”

“Your silver tongue certainly proved worthy today,” she remarked, delicately eating the cookie. “Things are always lively with the two of you around.”

Kid cleared his throat, “That’s why I think we should leave. Let things settle down a mite.”

“But I want you both to come back when you can.” She laid a long fingered hand on each man’s arm. “You have a home here. We owe you more than we can ever give thanks for.”

“Oh, Sister.” Heyes leaned over to give her smooth cheek a chaste kiss. “You’ll never know what we owe you.”

Mary Joseph winked at him. “Just keep your appointment with the Wyoming Governor when the time comes.”

“Planning to send a telegram to our friend Lom tomorrow,” Heyes explained. “He has the Governor’s ear.”

“Jedediah, how’s your arm?” she asked. “I worry that it was perhaps a bit foolhardy to smack Mr. Shaunnessy as you did.”

“It worked didn’t it?” He rubbed the spot on the bandage where the arm beneath ached. “Doc says I probably just bruised it. Bone’s still healin’.”

“And you can ride?”

“I’ve done it in worse shape than this,” Kid assured her.

“Joe, stop worrying about us.” Heyes pointed to Charles and Clarissa sitting under a tree with Steven and a fiery redhead who could only come from the Doyle family, nearby. Both couples had eyes only for each other, lost in their own romantic worlds. “You’ve got those two to keep you busy now.”

I think I’ll manage,” she said dryly. “But I may have to have some discussions with the girls about . . . babies and such.”

“Sister!” Kid positively blushed. “What about the boys?”

“I could give that assignment to the both of you,” she mused. “But since you’re intent on leaving, I may have to recruit Dr. Sebastian.”

“Good choice.” Heyes hastily scanned the activity in the yard. “Kid, c’mon, I think the Billings could use some help packin’ up.”

“Probably, with Abner still laid up.” Curry followed him posthaste, leaving the tall nun laughing to herself.

 

 

*                                *                                 *                          *                           *

 

 

Monday was so cold, frost had decorated all the orphanage windows with feathery patterns of silver ferns. Their breath showing smoke even inside the house, the younger children excitedly added to the designs, tracing their  fingers across nature’s artwork, leaving five fingered handprints that melted and disappeared as the fire in the hearth began to warm the room.

Breakfast was both joyous and heartbreaking as it began to sink in that Kid and Heyes were serious about leaving. Sister Luke had concocted fluffy pancakes with molasses syrup and fried bacon as a treat, piling each plate until Charles’ stack toppled over on its side. The laughter around the table dispelled the tension and bouyed appetites. Kid filled his stomach, knowing that after a couple days on the trail, all he’d have to eat would be canned beans and Heyes’ bitter coffee.

It was with definite reluctance that the cousins began to pack their belongings. Heyes recalled his first impressions upon learning that they’d stumbled upon an orphanage. He’d expected Kid to insist on leaving, and here they were nearly a month later, wishing there was a reason to stay. The twins trotted behind Sister Mary Moses when she brought in their folded laundry, eyeing the two men as if they were traitors.

Carrying his bags into the front room, Heyes took a last look around. Ruth Ann sat with her back to him at the plank table, twenty five cards spread out in front of her. She slid a five of clubs out and  paired it with the five of diamonds. Zeke, chewing on a apple, watched her game with interest. Heyes reached over the little girl’s shoulder and selected the queen of hearts, placing it in her hand. She gripped his fingers tightly, then got up to follow him outside to where he tied up the saddled horses.

Leaving the children was harder than either of the ex-outlaws expected. Neither had ever had much previous long term experience with youngsters, and they weren’t prepared for how much the kids had wormed their way into their hearts.

“Joshua, remember the first day you were here?” Ruth Ann leaned against the compact gray mustang Heyes had brought from Francis Doyle, rubbing the horse’s velvety nose.

“When we were trying to pull the tree off the chapel,” Zeke supplied helpfully.

“And he hadda cold,” Sofia added, her twin nodding in agreement.

 

“I remember.” Heyes toyed with the end of Ruth Ann’s braid, brushing the back of her neck with it. She giggled, grabbing his hand to stop the tickling.

“I said God sent you here to help us, an’ I was right,” she declared firmly. She looked down at the red card she still held. “But he didn’t tell me you were gonna leave.”

“Ruth Ann, I’ve heard you say more’n once that God works in mysterious ways.” Heyes said, not believing he was saying these words. “So, I think we have to leave it up to him.”

“I’ll try.” She sighed.

Steven and Charles trooped outside with the ex-outlaws’ saddle bags and bedrolls, wanting to be useful. Kid followed behind, burdened by  the sack of home baked goodies and extra food for the trail Sister Luke had pressed on him.

It took all Heyes’ strength to mount up on the gelding with Ruth Ann beginning to sob, but he settled into the saddle, then turned back to wave.  Kid was astride the gray, gathering the reins into his gloved hands.

“Go with God,” Mary Moses said, her eyes brimming with tears.

“Stay out of trouble.” Mary Joseph warned, but her eyes looked suspiciously wet, too. The others waved as the two men rode out of the familiar yard, Ruth Ann burying her face in her brother’s sleeve as the horses reached the river.

 

*                              *                             *                        *                          *

 

Having once entertained elaborate plans of perhaps jumping the passing freight train as it hurtled out of town, one step ahead of threatening Shaunnessys, Heyes found it amusing that he and the Kid rode through Cottersville like welcomed heroes. Townsfolk waved and shouted greetings as they passed, until he thought everyone in town must recognize them.

“Sort of unnerving, everybody knowing who we are,” Kid voiced his partner’s thoughts.

“Except luckily they don’t know our real names or they might be giving up a different reception entirely.” Heyes pulled his coat closer. If Mary Moses’ weather sense were to be believed there would be snow in the next few days, and they needed to be out of the Rockies before then.

“I was beginning to think that maybe ol’Eddieboy did know our nam . . . ” Kid stopped when they saw the red haired sheriff

“Smith, Jones! “ Taylor hailed them from the steps of the mercantile. “Can I have a word?”

“Sure.” Heyes kneed his horse up to the hitching post, dismounting almost in unison with Kid.

“Sorry to see you two moving on,” Andy said sincerely, hunching his shoulders against the increasing wind.

“We are too, Sheriff.” Kid’s breath froze in the frigid air.

“Got both those Shaunnessy’s behind bars, and already had half a dozen people come out of the woodwork to tell me ‘bout their troubles with the banker and his brother,” the Sheriff began. “You two may have saved this town.”

“Just tryin’ to help the sisters.” Heyes downplayed their actions.

“And Polansky’s proposin’ that you could run the bank . . . ” He grinned with a shake of his head, “I’d say you’d be more’n qualified, Mr. Heyes.”

 

Kid’s heart stopped momentarily, frozen like the ice on the water trough. He took a wavery breath when Heyes laughed shakily.

“Where’d you get that idea, Sheriff?”

“Wasn’t all that hard to figure out. He’s the fastest draw I ever saw, and that’s with a busted wing.” Andy glanced at the Kid’s holstered gun. “And every lawmen’s heard of Hannibal Heyes’ legendary prowess with cards.”

“So, what do you propose to do?” Kid found his voice.

“Don’t think there’s anything I can do.” The Sheriff shrugged elaborately, “The frost has most likely gotten to the telegraph lines, or if they aren’t downed now, they will be with the first snow. The most I can do is offer you my hand in friendship, and wish you a good trip outta here.”

“Thank you, Taylor.” Heyes ignored the trickle of sweat down his back, despite the cold air. “I’m glad to be a friend of yours, too.”

“Once the circuit judge makes it here, which may not be til Spring at this rate, the Shaunnessys’ll probably be hauled off to the state prison, and I’m sure we’ll need a banker by then.”

“I’ll think on it.” Heyes laughed, relieved beyond his wildest dreams. “We’d better get moving.”  The lawman sketched a wave as they mounted up.

“G’bye.” Kid touched his hat, surprised at the Sheriff’s generosity. He reined his horse towards the open road, Heyes’ gelding following with a neigh. “Well, you’ve got a job set, but what’ll I do?”

“Kid, I’m sure we’ll think of something, and if we can’t . . . ”

“Sister Joe will.” Kid finished with him.

 

 

fin