Heyes paused, motioning the Kid to stillness, listening for the deer they'd been tracking. On the trail for over a week, they'd been without meat for two days, and he could already taste the venison. A whole buck would be more than enough for the two of them-with any luck they could sell some of the meat and the hide and come out ahead all the way around.
For just a moment, Heyes saw the animal, immature horns silhouetted against the pink and gold Eastern sky, still as a statue. Then, the buck raised his delicate head, sensitive nose alert smell of danger. Luck was with the hunters, they were downwind and escaped the deer's notice. With a last look around, the animal dipped his nose into a clump of winter grass, nibbling the green shoots.
Moving stealthily, Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry stalked their prey, rifles ready for the kill. Ducking under the cover of a verdant redwood, Heyes went to the left and Kid to the right. With the deer surrounded, surely one of them would be able to place a killing shot.
It happened so fast, between one heartbeat and the next. Heyes took a step forward, eyes on the grazing deer, never noticing the menace half hidden in a tangle of foliage and underbrush. The snap of a steel bear trap made an audible click in the frigid morning air, sending the deer fleeing across the meadow, white tail raised like a surrender flag.
Heyes sucked in a tight breath, his leg cramping in agony. An experimental jerk of his foot to see if the trap would loosen immediately sent waves of pain shooting up the inside of his leg. He could feel the razor sharp teeth slicing deeper into the meat of his calf through his leather boot.
"Damn, Heyes," Kid hissed, his face pale in the half-light of dawn. He lowered his rifle to the forest floor, any hunger forgotten in the shock of seeing the other man caught in such a vicious device.
Bracing himself against the redwood, Heyes took a shuddery breath, fighting the vertigo that swamped his brain. "It's not as bad as it looks," he managed, the pain in his voice belying his words.
Kid knelt to examine the trap's mechanism. It was fiendishly simple. A wide metal brace held the two sides open until unsuspecting prey stepped on the brace, then the metal toothed jaws sliced shut, held closed by a tight spring.
"Knife in my boot. The trap's only breaking the skin on one side." Heyes clenched his jaw against the pain, barely feeling the rough bark of the tree that was the only thing keeping him upright.
"That's incredibly lucky," Kid muttered, searching around for a stout stick he could jam in between the teeth to lever them apart.
Heyes favored his cousin with the most disdainful expression he could muster under the circumstances. "If I was so incredibly lucky I wouldn't have stepped on the damn thing in the first place." He closed his eyes, pushing back the encroaching darkness with strength of will, but the pain was like a physical being, chewing on his foot. Taking short panting breaths, Heyes concentrated on staying conscious. "Kid, are you going to be getting this thing off anytime soon?"
"Hold your horses, Heyes," Kid groused, not wanting him to see how really scared he was. A bear trap could snap a man's bone like a twig. He was terrified of what Heyes' leg might look like when they pulled off the trap. Already there was visible blood welling up around the wicked teeth digging into the boot, leaving crimson droplets on the dried redwood needles littering the ground. "I gotta shove this branch between the two halves of the teeth and then pry it apart without cuttin' my hands."
"Well, forgive me for puttin' you out." Heyes gritted his teeth as he felt his cousin's hand slide behind his calf. Even the gentle touch sapped his strength, the pain his whole world, blotting out the surrounding trees and dawning sun.
"Hang on, this'll hurt," Kid apologized in advance, concentrating so completely he was biting his lip with the effort needed to pull the spring-loaded trap apart widely enough to free his cousin's ankle. His biceps trembled, fighting the trap's locking mechanism, but the branch held the teeth open just widely enough for him to snap the spring back. "Pull your foot out, Heyes!" he commanded urgently.
Kid's voice sounded too far away for Heyes to immediately respond to, just the willpower necessary to keep standing almost more than he had in him.
"Geddid out, Heyes!!" Kid repeated louder, just about losing his grip on the bloody trap. He was glad his winter leather gloves protected his fingers, but he could feel the steel working it's way through the thick suede and sheepskin. Finally Heyes pulled up his foot, slower than his usual reflexes, but managing to clear the trap before Kid's fingers slipped and the razor edges snapped the tree branch in half.
Heyes howled in pain, swaying, and would have fallen but Kid caught him around the waist, easing him onto the greenery strewn ground.
"Hey, hey, take it easy." Kid pulled a bandana out of his back pocket, wiping his cousin's sweaty face. Heyes was ashen, breathing in jerky ineffective pants. His lanky dark hair and eyes looked black in contrast to his too pale face. "Lemme take a took at your foot."
"Nooo." Heyes reflexively turned away, unwilling to submit to anything more on his mangled limb.
"Heyes, you're bleeding something awful." Kid examined the shredded boot without touching it. As Heyes had indicated, the knife he wore sheathed in his left boot had protected the distal side of his leg, but the proximal side was oozing viscous red blood and glimpses of ripped flesh and whatever lay just under the skin were easily visible.
"You'll need stitches at the very least," Kid concluded. "Y'think the bone in broken?"
Now seated, without the steady agonizing pressure of the unyielding steel, Heyes found he could think a little more clearly. The pain still drained his stamina. He felt lightheaded and nauseated, unable to do anything but sit with his back against the solid redwood. The smell of his own blood in the fresh morning air turned his stomach and he was really glad they'd chosen to go hunting before breakfast. Nothing in there to throw up. "No." He finally spoke. "I don' think so."
"Good." Kid glanced around at the windfall for two approximately foot long branches. "Maybe I can wrap your foot and splint it, an' then we'll hightail it for the nearest town."
"Good plan," Heyes agreed, opening his eyes for the first time in many minutes. Kid was peering at him with such grave concern it would have been amusing on any other day. Today it touched his heart. "Just get it done, cause it hurts like hell."
Setting to work, Kid gingerly used the bandanna to wrap around Heyes' ankle soak up the blood. Then he lashed two lengths of wood on either side of his boot as a splint, using the loop of rope meant to tie the deer's hooves for easier transport to their campsite. Heyes moaned, his face tightening into a grimace as he endured the necessary treatment of his injured limb. Kid found himself needing to talk to cover up his nervousness over Heyes' fragile appearance. "Remember when you did this when I was seven? I fell out of that tree near the river and you splinted my arm before we got home?"
"Yah." Heyes managed a tired smile, remembering how his Aunt Maeve had vacillated between anger at their disobeying her rule of not playing near the river and her concern over her youngest son's injury. "You were so white I thought you'd died lyin' there."
"I know the feeling," Kid said dryly. He rocked back on his heels to survey his handiwork. "How does that feel?"
"You don't want to know," Heyes answered honestly. "Could you get me a drink of water?"
"Sure, want something stronger? I still got half a bottle of that moonshine we bought in Fargate."
Heyes estimated his stomach's willingness to accept 100 proof, then nodded. It would really help his stamina to sit a horse for the few hours until they got to the next town if he were drunk into numbness.
As it was, the 'shine didn’t help nearly as much as Heyes had hoped, since it come back up only shortly after he'd poured it down his throat. The rest of morning was a pain filled ride over uneven terrain that sent lances of pain through his body every time the horse advanced to anything faster than a walk.
Kid led the way on his sturdy brown mare, having packed up their meager camp in record time. He chewed on a stringy piece of jerky to appease his hunger pains, wanting to get Heyes to medical care as quickly as possible, but his stomach growled ominously the whole ride. The morning progressed into a chilly but brightly sunny day, perfect for ride in the hills, but neither of the cousins noticed the natural beauty.
After two bone jarring hours in the saddle Heyes was too far gone to pay any attention, but Kid saw the white spire of a clapboard church rising out of a clump of red and gold maples. His spirits soared at the welcome sight, even if he'd never been much of a churchgoer. A church meant a settled community, not just some tent city erected by unshaven miners. That meant there was probably a doctor, real beds, baths and food. All of which he wanted badly.
"We don't got a real edu-cated doctor." The balding, rotund hotel manager of the Aspen Winds Inn shook his head. "There is Miss Calinda."
"Miss Calinda?" Kid echoed his little plan to get Heyes bandaged up and tucked into a bed crumbling.
"She takes care o'birthin' babies and dosin' fevers."
"She know how to stitch up a wound?" Kid demanded more brusquely that he'd meant to. Heyes was huddled on the lobby's slick horse hair sofa, his foot propped up on a tea crate the hotel's manager had provided, having added the proviso that Mr. Smith had better not bleed on his fine "Chin-ee carpet."
The fine carpet had patches so threadbare the warped floorboards were showing through, but at least there was a fire in the pot-belly stove next to the sofa and Heyes was beginning to lose the chill that had soaked into his bones.
"I reckon she could probally try." The man nodded, his round belly bobbing in time with his head.
"Well, then Mister…?"
"Talbot, Jedediah Talbot."
"Mr. Talbot." Kid nearly bit down on his tongue, appalled that he had a common first name with this idiot and glad that no one ever called him Jed anymore. "Can you send anybody over to find Miss Calinda and help me get Mr. Smith upstairs and into bed? He looks about done in."
"Surely, surely. Just let me find that boy. Where is he?" He wandered towards the back of the hotel, calling out the name Samuel.
"Heyes." Kid pitched his voice low so Talbot didn't hear him. "Think you can make it upstairs with some help?"
"Just try me." Heyes roused from his stupor, standing with effort, to lean on his cousin's arm.
Miss Calinda was one of the smallest adult women Kid had ever seen. Nut brown and wrinkled as a raisin, she reminded him of one the apple dolls his sisters used to make in the wintertime.
She inspected Heyes' leg with an impassive face, then whipped out a Bowie knife.
"Hey-uh…what 'er you going to do with that?" Kid protested, fearing she panned to chop his best friend's leg off at the knee.
Heyes, having lapsed into a stupor since the arduous trek upstairs to the room, roused with Kid's voice. His black eyes riveted on the knife poised right above his aching limb.
"Cut off his boot. Can't sew it up like that," she said abruptly. "Hold his foot."
Kid took up a stance at the end of the bed, gingerly taking hold of his cousin's foot. "Sorry, H…Joshua," he said, capturing the other man's gaze.
"As long as it's over fast," Heyes said, the pain evident in the deep lines of his face.
"I do good work, you see." Miss Calinda set to work, slicing the shredded leather off him. Underneath, Heyes' leg was more red than flesh colored. "You lucky," she proclaimed after assessing the wound with pursed lips. "Only broke skin on this side. No broken bone. You'll heal, have a scar, but nobody sees it when you wear boots."
Kid was impressed. The woman might look like a Brownie from one of his Irish Grandpa's stories, but she knew her medicine. She had the wound stitched up in less time than he'd expected. Heyes had retreated into a blank gaze, his left hand wrapped around the bedpost in a death grip.
Finishing her handiwork by packing a mixture of what looked like damp moss and leaves on the injured limb, Miss Calinda then bandaged it loosely with white sheeting. "You keep this clean, up on pillow an' I come back tomorrow to change bandage."
"T-thanks," Kid stammered. Heyes' unresponsiveness was scaring him. "Anything else I can do for him?"
"Make some tea with this." She handed him a substance he finally recognized-willow bark. "It help. Whiskey, too."
"Yah, we tried that, but I ain't got anything to make tea with."
"Mr. Talbot, he fix you right up. We pals." She gave him an astonishing wink, sliding the Bowie knife and the rest of her utensils back into a shapeless carpet bag and jammed on a felt hat that had long since forgotten it's origins and now resembled a gray mushroom on her head.
Just as Miss Calinda had said, Samuel came up about ten minutes later with a pot of steaming water. Kid let the willow back steep, his belly grumbling at the smell. He'd hoped for venison for breakfast and made do with beef jerky but it was now long past time for lunch and he was hungry.
"Heyes." Kid laid a hand on his cousin's cheek. He felt warm, but not feverish, which was a good sign. "Wake up, you need to get some of this tea down."
"Not hungry. Can't eat," Heyes muttered, drawing in a sharp breath. Everything hurt, even if he didn't move his foot.
"That's good, cause this is tea. You drink it." Kid held the cup to his lips, letting Heyes take a few sips.
"Wouldn't wonder," Kid agreed, sitting down on a wobbly ladder back chair. He had to decide what was their next course of action. Heyes was obviously out of commission for the next couple weeks and they had very little coin between them. Originally they had been heading towards Miracle Springs, which was still about half a day's ride ahead, for a job escorting a prized bull to it's new home, a stud farm. Kid wasn't exactly sure why anyone would care what bull took up with which cow, but it was certainly important to their erstwhile employer. Probably, the best thing to do was telegraph the rancher with a brief explanation of the situation and let it go at that. A loss of $500, but what else could he do?
There was a staccato knock on the door while he was giving Heyes more tea. "C'mon in!" Kid called.
"Miss Calinda sent y'all some salt pork, cornbread and a slab o'apple pie," Samuel declared. "She makes the best pie in these parts."
"Thank you!" Kid scooped up the basket the boy held out with a happy heart.
"Oh, an' she said there's some drippings for Mister Smith to dip the cornbread in, he's s'posed to eat it all."
"Don't worry, I will." Heyes' voice was weak, but the glazed look was gone from his eyes and his color was back.
"Thought you weren't hungry," Kid said after the boy had left.
"I changed my mind. Did I hear something about cornbread?"
"You always did perk your ears up for that." Kid set out the feast. Miss Calinda had even included a chipped blue bowl for the cornbread and drippings. Soon, the only sound in the room was chewing. "Samuel's right. She makes a fine pie," Kid declared, patting his stomach. "How're you doing?"
"Better than earlier." Heyes nodded. The willow bark tea had taken the edge off the pain. That, along with a few swigs of Kid's 'shine, and the food had gone a long was to making him feel human again.
"Heyes, I think I'd best go over to the telegraph office and send Mr. Stockard a message that we ain't comin'."
"I don't think that's necessary, Kid," Heyes said, smoothing the quilt over his leg. His bandaged foot poked out of the multi-colored patchwork, resting on a pillow.
"Heyes, there's no way you can sit a horse to Miracle Springs. You barely made it here," Kid pointed out.
"Then go by yourself."
"No-you're laid up. I can't leave you to fend for yourself."
"Much as I appreciate it, Kid, we need the money more. Miss Calinda seems to be takin' pretty good care of the both of us. I think she can manage me on my own."
"I don't know."
"We need the money. You said yourself, two days ago, it wasn't much work for two." Heyes smiled. "Just think, you can relax in that bull's special private train car, nothing to do for two whole days, then a ride back first class for the return. Why you could have a steak right in the dinin' car."
"Don't strain yourself makin' it sound like a dream job, Heyes." Kid laughed. "You just want all of that cornbread for yourself. I'll go."
That having been decided, Kid headed out the next morning. Even with a deck of cards, a penny dreadful novel supplied by Samuel, and Calinda's company when she arrived for dressing changes, Heyes was bored out of his mind by the second day alone.
After Samuel had dropped off a basket with breakfast and the message that Calinda was delivering a baby and couldn't come by until the child was born, Heyes tried to entertain himself with a game of solitaire. The game held no amusement and he then resorted constructing a tiny pasteboard town out of the cards still left in the deck. The card city fell down when he was delicately planting the king and queen of hearts on top of the 'saloon' as a roof and with an annoyed grunt, he hurled the rest of the cards to the floor. He wanted to get out of this room!
Maneuvering his damaged foot around, Heyes reached for the makeshift crutch Calinda had left and levered himself to a stand. The room swam for a few seconds, but he hung on to the bed frame and it passed without him falling down. That was definite progress.
With infinite care Heyes hobbled out of his room, down the hall only to stop at the top of the stairwell. How to get down? It might as well have been the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains. There was no way he could scale that obstacle.
"Try the banister," a sweet voice urged.
"I think my banister days are past," Heyes said regretfully, peering over at the child. It was dim in the upper hall, but he got an impression of a child about ten or so with blond curls and a confident air.
"It's fun." She came closer, grinning puckishly. "I'll go first and you can come behind me."
Heyes stared at her disconcerted. He had an almost palpable feeling of recognition, but he was confident he'd never seen her before. He'd never been in the town of Aspen Winds before and the number of children he knew could be counted with fewer than the fingers on one hand.
"I'm Daphne," she announced with a cock of her head. "What's your name?"
"Joshua." He extended a hand, which she shook gravely. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Daphne."
"You do go on!" She giggled. "Makes me sound like some Madam, or somethin'." Laughing, with her sky blue eyes mocking him in an oh-so familiar way, Daphne slapped the polished baluster like it was the rump of a pony. "Just climb up." She demonstrated with a flip of gingham skirts, straddling the banister, her button shoed feet swinging. Bracing herself with her left hand, she held out her right to Heyes.
"Here goes nothing." Heyes tossed his crutch down the stairs then hitched himself up on the banister behind the girl, clutching the shiny wood. He felt both foolish and exhilarated, reminded of childhood pranks with the Kid, when they'd dared each other to bigger and more dangerous feats of daring-do.
Looking over her shoulder, the little girl made sure the man was settled. "Your foot gonna be all right?" she asked.
"If not today, then some other day," Heyes quipped, ignoring the increasing pain from the unaccustomed activity.
"One, two, three…" Daphne counted, then held her hands out like an acrobat on a high wire act. She began to move downward, slowly at first, then with more speed, until she was whizzing down the slope on her muslin drawers, with Heyes close behind her. Heyes hung on with one hand, while trying to keep his injured foot from bumping into anything. Both laughed gleefully, hair in their faces, wind tugging at their clothes.
Experienced at riding stair railings, Daphne hooked her foot in a slat to slow her momentum then braced herself on the newel post until Heyes bumped into her back.
"Isn't that fantastic?!" Daphne hopped off, dancing in place until Heyes had untangled himself and carefully stood on his strong leg. He was breathless with laughter, almost unable to manage the crutch until he stopped chuckling.
"That was definitely the most fun I've had in years, Daphne."
"You must not go out much." She eyed him critically. "What do you usually do?"
"Play poker." Heyes crutched over to the uncomfortable sofa, pleased to see his tea crate still there and he was able to settle himself with foot propped up.
"Oh, like Mama's friends." Daphne plopped down next to him.
"Poker players?" Heyes asked, still somewhat bewildered by her. The turn of her head, her mannerisms and expressions were as familiar to him as his own and yet he knew he'd never met her before.
"Most of 'em."
"So your mother plays poker?" he asked, still trying to figure out why she seemed so well known to him. Maybe he knew her parents. He'd only met a few woman poker players, so it stood a good chance he'd remember the name.
"No." Daphne laughed. "She just likes men who do. She'd like you. When they win big they buy her drinks and maybe presents and then they go have dinner with her."
"Oh." The former outlaw, considered to be a genius by many, belatedly realized what the little girl was saying. "Your mother is an entertainer."
"She's a trollop," Daphne said bluntly. "I always thought that was a funny word, don’t you?"
Heyes choked, trying to decide whether he was astonished or amused, "It's better than some words I could think of. Where is she now?"
"Sleepin'." Daphne tugged at a curl of unruly blond hair, trying to stuff it back into her braid. "She was up late. We got into town on the stage an' she 'mediately had an engagement."
"What do you do while she's…busy?" Heyes asked carefully.
"This n' that…" Daphne held her finger out like a gun, "Sometimes I take their guns when they're sleepin' and I practice. Some day I'm gonna be real fast an' join a Wild West show. Ever'body says I'm real good for a girl."
"You practice shooting?" Heyes repeated. Daphne was the best diversion to keep his mind off his aching foot he'd found and he could talk to her all afternoon. "I think I know somebody you'd get along with just fine."
"Who?" she asked eagerly.
"My cousin—Thaddeus. He's out of town right now, had to leave me behind because I hurt my leg."
"Did you get shot?" Daphne's eyes glowed with excitement.
"You read too many penny dreadfuls." Heyes laughed. He recounted the story of the bear trap, giving it a few embellishments the original had lacked, and making himself sound a bit less of a weakling.
"That's terrible. Why, I'd just find that ol' poacher an' give him a piece of my mind." Daphne jumped up as if ready to do just that, her skirts rustling with her determination.
"You'd put the fear o'God in me," Heyes admitted, "Ceptin' we don't t know who left the trap, an' there could be a danger of bears 'round here. I don’t know these parts. You from around here?"
"No, we travel." The girl leaned over the sofa arm, fist planted under her chin, studying his face. Heyes again had an overwhelming sense of almost kinship with the child. "All the time. An' when we have "respites"…" She pronounced the word with a matryed sigh, no doubt exactly how her mother would say it. "We go to my Granny's in Garden City."
"Kansas?" Heyes asked in surprise. "I was born near there." Although, in truth Garden City was completely across the state from his hometown of Lawrence.
"Me, too," Daphne agreed. "You're really handsome."
"Thank you, I guess…" Heyes dimpled, embarrassed. "What's your mother's name?"
"Delphine DelRio." Daphne laughed suddenly, covering her mouth to keep the giggles from erupting. "But not really. She was born Delilah. My Granny's a big Bible reader."
"Delilah, huh?" Heyes always wondered how parents could saddle their children with outlandish names like Delilah or Hannibal. "Delilah from Kansas." No, he didn't know that name either. Damn. Why did he feel like Daphne was someone he had known all his life?
"You win at poker or d'jou just play for fun?"
"I usually win." Heyes grinned, "Why? You challenging me to a game?"
"No. I'm conductin' an 'speriment," she said seriously. "I always ask people what their most favorite thing to do is, then ask 'em how they feel when they do it. Does it make you feel all tingly inside when you win?"
Heyes considered this answer seriously, knowing it was important to her. It had been a long time since he'd been excited about much of anything. Months on the trail, trying to find work enough to keep himself and the Kid fed, sleeping outside in the rain and cold had hardened him, but he remembered the thrill in the early days when they'd been outlaws. The genuine, if illegal, thrill of robbing a safe, then taking that same money and parlaying it into even more by playing all night games of poker. Yes, he knew that tingly feeling. "I feel a shiver up my spine when I get five really good cards." He nodded. "When it's just perfect."
"Yes." Daphne grabbed his hand, "When I aim with a bow and arrow, or pretend with a gun, cause I usually don't got any bullets… and hit somethin' square on, there's that second of perfection, of absolute stillness, that's what I want all my life."
"Daphne, if I could give it to you, I would," Heyes said sincerely, thoroughly enchanted with the little girl. He reached up and tucked the errant blond curl back behind her ear with a pang.
"Hey, Daphne!" Samuel loped into the lobby with a large basket. "I wondered if you'd be around. I got that slingshot I was tellin' you about last night."
"Great!" Daphne scrambled over, her hair coming loose again.
"Mr. Smith, didn't think I’d see you down here," Samuel greeted. "Miss Calinda sent over some dinner, and the Aspen Winds Weekly come out, so I brung that, too."
"Thanks, Samuel." Heyes accepted the basket, smelling fried chicken. He'd paid Miss Calinda a tidy sum for her care and noted with amusement that the quality of the food had improved. The meal she'd provided the first night had been well prepared and quite edible, but it had been poor folk's food. Something Heyes had more than a passing knowledge of, but with finances Miss Calinda was sending over meals fit for a banker in Denver. "You two go play while I eat. Unless you'd like some dinner?"
"No," Daphne declined, "I'm always supposed t'make sure Mamma's up by six so she can make herself beautiful for the evenin'. Then, we eat together"
"Well, then, Miss Daphne, thank you for helping me downstairs and the entertaining chat. I've enjoyed meeting you." Heyes waved as the two shot out the door together.
Left alone in the dingy lobby, Heyes opened the weekly journal and read the local news. The schoolmarm had left town to be married, leaving the ten elementary school aged children under the care of Widow Prim. Heyes shivered, even without a description, Widow Prim did not sound like she'd be a push over in the classroom. The sheriff, one Jonas Mulvaney, no one Heyes knew, thank god, had jailed the 'notorious' Barkley twins over night. Unfortunately, nothing was mentioned of their crime, leaving Heyes curious and frustrated. The story of how rancher Collins had brought his chicken back from the dead by blowing into it's mouth and smacking it 'right firmly' on the breastbone brought Heyes to tears with laughter. He was enjoying himself so much, munching on fried chicken and apple fritters while reading the paper, he didn't notice how dark it had become until Jedediah Talbot came over to light the lamp hanging in the corner of the room.
"Slow afternoon," Talbot said by way of greeting, adjusting the wick on the lamp. The flame flickered hotly for a moment, then glowed when he had placed the ruby colored glass over the top again.
"Surely was," Heyes agreed, wondering briefly where the man had been for the last two hours. Did he usually leave the hotel unattended for that long, or had Samuel been expected to watch the place? But his attention was diverted once again, by a stunningly beautiful woman coming down the staircase, adorned in a ruffled green and blue satin afternoon gown.
"Excuse me?" she asked politely, but with an air of someone who always got what she wanted. "Has anyone seen my daughter?" Talbot shrugged, going over to the registration desk with an elaborate act of ignoring the beautiful woman. Heyes now knew where the hotel manager had been for the last little while.
"Blond? Name of Daphne?" Heyes asked, hiding a smirk.
"You've seen her, then, Mr…?" Delphine's violet eyes assessed the handsome man on the couch. She liked what she saw-long lean body, dark brown hair brushed carelessly over his forehead, brown eyes to dive into and deeply grooved dimples on both sides of his smiling mouth.
"Joshua Smith, ma'am." Heyes pushed himself to his 'good' foot, shaking her hand.
"Please, Mr. Smith, sit yourself down," Delphine urged, her face full of concern. "You're hurt."
"Thank you, ma'am, Mrs. DelRio." He sat down again, easing his bandaged foot back up on the tea crate. " I spoke with your daughter earlier, she was a most delightful companion, but she went off to play with Samuel a while ago."
"I can never keep track of her." Delphine had a twinkling laugh, her pink lips parting to show even white teeth.
Heyes realized she was a 'professional' who entertained men for a living, but she had a real sweetness about her. A genuine interest in other people. She must have had a hard life, but life hadn't hardened her. He wondered how she'd managed that. It reminded him of Kid, who even after years on the outlaw trail, having been shot, imprisoned and double-crossed more than once still managed to see the goodness in people.
"And it's just Miss, never had the pleasure, or misfortune of a husband."
"Misfortune, ma'am?" Heyes laughed.
"From what I've heard." She sat next to him, arranging her dress for maximum effect so that the edge of her skirts just brushed his outstretched leg. "A husband can be a blessing or a curse."
"And as a wife, how would you be?"
"A curse, I'm afraid." She leaned forward, enjoying the conversation. "Can't cook, sew or do any housewifely chores."
"Now, that's a curse of which I wouldn't mind bein' afflicted. I'm sure there are a few of the wifely duties you could perform," Heyes teased.
"I know nothing of wifely duties," Delphine answered coyly. "I told you I've never been married, but I do have a few unique talents."
"I'll bet." Heyes ran his forefinger down the back of her pale pink hand, "Daphne told me you like poker players, and I've been known the play poker for a whole weekend."
"A whole weekend?" She turned her hand over, closing her fingers around his, "That sounds downright boring, I always want a little more diversion than that." Delphine glanced up at his dimpled face, playing the game enthusiastically. She regarded him for several long minutes, her violet eyes wide and suddenly unreadable. "But I think I know you."
Good, Heyes thought. Maybe she could explain his odd familiarity with Daphne. Or maybe not so good, if she knew who he really was. Debating with himself, he missed the look of sadness that crossed her face.
"You're …" Delphine leaned in closer, her breath hot on his cheek when she whispered, "Hannibal Heyes."
Struggling to catch a breath, Heyes glanced across the lobby to Mr. Talbot who was opening a stack of mail. "Now, Miss DelRio, you must be mistaken."
"No." Delphine shook her ringlets, the curls bouncing around her satin shoulders. "Because Jed told me about you."
"Uh--Jed?" Heyes smiled sickly.
"Kid Curry." Delphine's soft voice tickled the hair on the back of his neck.
"W-when did you know him?" Heyes asked, wondering why he'd never heard of her.
"A long time ago." Delphine sat back, folding her hands in her lap, no longer the temptress of a few minutes ago. "Many years."
"Del," she said.
"Del," Heyes continued. "Where did you meet my friend? Cause we've been together for a long time and he's never mentioned one word about you to me, and believe me I'd have heard about a woman as beautiful as you are."
"You talk about your conquests on the trail?" she asked, her voice coarse.
"No, not conquests, I just don’t think you're someone he would have forgotten." Heyes had seen the similarities between the two from the moment he'd met her. Kid would have been smitten with her.
"Well, he must have." She shrugged, "I knew him before all the robberies and notoriety. In Kansas."
"He must have been around eighteen or so?" Heyes guessed. There had only been a few years, in the Kid's late teens, when they had not been partners. Their first robbery had gone horribly wrong, and separated the cousins for several years. It wasn't until Heyes had been the head of the Devil's Hole Gang that Kid had once again joined up with him.
"I guess so," Delphine agreed, looking around the shabby lobby. "Where is he now?"
"Gone to Miracle Springs." Heyes wanted to know more about this puzzling woman, but the children chose that moment to come clattering back into the hotel, their faces red from the cold wind.
"Mamma!" Daphne cried, "I was outside, sorry I'm late."
"Just don't let it happen again," Delphine said with real affection, giving her daughter a hug.
"Thanks, Samuel, I wish we could use your slingshot summore but we're leavin' tomorrow on the mornin' stage," Daphne said.
"Gee, can't you stay another couple days, Miss DelRio?" Samuel asked plaintively, the cowlick in his red hair standing straight up from the wind.
"I'm glad Daphne found some one to play with, Samuel, but we have business in Denver." Delphine smiled, "Mr. Smith, it was a pleasure to talk to you, but I must be going for now."
"Ma'am." Heyes inclined his head, his heart bursting with questions. How well had Kid known Del? Either as Delphine or Delilah? Why had he never heard about it? Was Del making it sound more than it was, or was there really something going on that Heyes wasn't privy to? And if they had been close, what had caused them to part? Daphne said her Granny lived in Garden City. The botched robbery had been in Elmwood, Kansas. The two cities were fairly close…Sitting quietly, Heyes thought things out and came up with some painful and heart rending conclusions.
"Mr. Smith? Do you need help getting back up the stairs?" Samuel was standing in front on him with an expression that said he'd been talking for several seconds without getting an answer.
"Much obliged, Samuel." Heyes scooped up his crutch. "Do you know where the stage that Daphne and her mother were on came from? And where it's going?"
"Daphne said they'd been in Glenwood Springs for a time an' then were headed on to Denver," the boy supplied, giving Heyes support as they headed up the staircase much more slowly than Heyes had come down.
"Did she tell you anything else?" Heyes asked, wiping sweat from his brow when they'd finally attained his room.
"I asked her where her Pa was." Samuel sucked thoughtfully on his lower lip, "But she said she didn't ever know him, that he musta died before she was born."
"Sorry to hear that."
"Oh, but that her Ma says she's his image-like a ray o'sunshine in his hair. I heard her Ma even call her Sunshine last night when I brung their bags up." He swung the door open, waiting until Heyes had walked through. "Anything else you need?"
"No, thank you, Samuel." Heyes leaned against the door, listening to the boy clatter down the hall. Like a ray of sunshine in his hair. Kid's hair was a dark, golden blond now, but as a child, even into his teens it had been brilliant, sunshiny blond. Oh, God, Kid, what happened between you and Del? How did he not know?
Seating himself on the lumpy mattress, Heyes ran his hand over the patchwork quilt, the different textures of the patches only half registering until his fingers slid across a piece of satin and onto a square of velvet. The satin brought back the feel of Del's dress against his skin when she had leaned in close. He hadn't imagined it. Once she recognized him, she'd stopped her seduction game. Because they were almost related? Was he just making up relationships where there were none?
But the proof of his hypothesis was Daphne. She'd reminded him of Kid the minute they'd met. He'd just refused to see his cousin in a ten year old girl. She had his looks, his joy, his devil-may-care-streak and if her boasting were to be believed, his prowess with a gun.
Should he speak up? Should he follow after Del? Tell Kid?
A confident knock on the door interrupted his reverie and he called, "It's open!"
"I know it late." Calinda trundled in, lugging her usual carpet bag, "But that baby, she big! Didn't want to come out. Had to coax her all day long!"
"It's fine." Heyes waved a dismissive hand. "I'd welcome the company, anyway."
"What you been doing?" Calinda placed her shapeless hat on the bureau, examining Heyes' dingy bandage with an expression that wrinkled her eyes up until they disappeared completely. "You not staying in bed."
"No, believe it or not I went sledding with a girl friend."
"You joshin' me, Joshua." She laughed, stripping off the old bandages with a skilled hand. "Leg lookin' good."
"Glad you think so." Heyes grimaced at the sight. His foot and ankle were still swollen with multicolored bruises covering every inch of skin not already decorated with Calinda's stitches. It definitely hurt less than the first day, and whatever poultice it was that the little healer put on every day worked wonders. He could wiggle his toes without wanting to scream and even let Calinda gently bend the ankle without launching himself off the bed, although his fingers did dig into the quilt with considerable force.
"Healin' fine." She looped clean sheeting around the injured foot, glancing at her patient's face. "But what botherin' you?"
"I met a fine lady today, and her mother."
"Very nice." Calinda shrugged, securing the bandage with a neat fold.
"Her mother once knew my friend Thaddeus."
"Oh, you not want to…get in the way?"
"Not exactly. I found out the mother--Del--knows something that Thaddeus ought to know, and I can't decide if I oughta tell him." Heyes wasn't often in such a quandary, but he didn't want to have the Kid hurt under any circumstances.
"What your heart say?"
Heyes let out a bark of laughter. "I know exactly what my heart says-but my head is usually a lot more intelligent."
Calinda gathered up her supplies, stowing them in the copious bag with a shake of her grizzled hair. "Your heart know truth-head always want safe way, but heart speaks to heart."
"Yeah," Heyes agreed dismally. She hadn't said anything he didn’t already know. "Oh, that dinner was delicious tonight, I don't know how you do it."
"Just mix ingredients right way, food always taste good. Do the same thing with people, never be no more war." Calinda grinned at him, missing more teeth than she'd kept.
"You should run for president."
"Nah, those people no got hearts at all." She donned her hat once more, the sure sign that she was ready to go. "Keep your foot up, no more sledding. I send Samuel with more willow bark tea."
"Thank you, for everything," he said sincerely. After she'd closed the door, Heyes lay back among the pillows, drifting off. He was more tired than he realized after the adventures of the afternoon.
"Joshua?" a small voice called, then a tiny hand pinched the end of his nose.
"Hey," he complained sleepily. "My nose is big enough, thank you very much, no need to pull it out."
"Wake up, Samuel had to run some errands for Mr. Talbot, so I brought you up some tea." Daphne held out a cup. She'd managed to slosh most of it into the saucer, but there was still a swallow or two in the cup. "I spilled some on the way up," she apologized.
"That's just fine." Heyes tool a sip, making a face. "Cause the stuff is bitter as sin." Over the edge of the cup, he studied her face, thankful for the unexpected opportunity to do so. There was no doubt about it. She had Jed Curry's blue eyes, the same unruly curls, the shape of his face and his very essence. It hurt his heart more than he could imagine possible that neither of them had known of her existence for all these years.
"Why are you starin'?" Daphne narrowed her eyes, an expression so like Kid's that Heyes laughed.
"Just happy to have met you." He put down the tea cup, "How old are you anyways?"
"Eleven," she answered promptly, "Just turned-end of October."'
"And you were born in Kansas, like I was."
"Yep," she agreed. "Wanna see what I can do?" When he nodded, she flipped herself over into a handstand that resulted in her beruffled petticoats covering up her face. Wobbling only slightly, she hand walked for three steps before toppling into a heap on the ground.
"Bravo!" Heyes clapped enthusiastically. "Best show I've seen in a long time."
"Well, sometimes I can walk all the way cross the room," she dismissed, but looked pleased at his praise.
"Your ma gone out?" he asked carefully.
"Yes." She straightened her skirts, pushing blond curls away from her flushed face, "There's a man on a big ranch south o' here. He met her in Glenwood Springs, an' asked her t'come on down for a few days. In Glenwood Springs, he let me ride on his big horse."
"Did you steal one of his guns?" Heyes dimpled.
"I never steal, that's not right, I just borrow," she said loftily. "But we gotta be goin' on t'Denver tomorrow, cause Uncle Seth is there."
"Your mother's family?"
"No." She regarded him with scorn. "He's Mamma's friend," she emphasized the word, "We stay at the Brown Hotel. You been there?"
"I have. Ate lobster."
"Me, too. With lotsa butter." She grinned at him, "I like talkin' to you, Joshua."
"I like talkin' to you too, Daphne." He wished with all his heart that he could tell her the truth, but stored away the information she'd given him for the future.
"Do you have a real Pa, Daphne?"
"He died, I think." She shrugged, "Before I was born--but it made my Grandda really angry, I guess, cause he made my Mamma go away for awhile. Then when I was just little, we went to see my Granny, but Grandda had died, so we stayed there for a spell."
A typical story--the father angry when his daughter got pregnant without the benefit of the Church's blessing, had sent her away , probably hoping she would get rid of the baby. Heyes ached to know the whole story, and why Kid had left. "Sorry to hear that," he said finally.
"S'fine. Mamma said he was a nasty ol' coot."
"Mmm." She smiled radiantly at him. "Don't think I say this to all the men, but I wouldn’t mind if you were my pa."
"Oh, sweetheart." Heyes felt absurdly like crying, "I wouldn't mind that either." He gave her a chaste hug, rubbing her thin shoulders. "I'm waiting for my friend Thaddeus to come back from Miracle Springs, but we're kinda headed for Denver ourselves. Is your Ma planning to stay there long?"
"Maybe, maybe not." Daphne considered a moment, "Depends a lot on Uncle Seth--if he gives her good presents we stay longer. And if it snows, we stay past Christmas."
"Those mountain passes do fill up with snow."
"What're you plannin' to do?"
"You need to find another hobby," she whispered conspiratorially in his ear.
"Well, if you're still at the Brown, maybe you and Thaddeus could go out and have some target practice. Wouldn't even have to borrow a gun, you could use mine."
"He any good?"
"He could hit the stars in the sky, Daphne."
"Then I'd surely like to meet him." She nodded, then tried to hide a yawn behind one pink little hand.
"Off to bed with you, young lady," Heyes urged, feeling truly like the uncle he was.
"G'night." She winked at him, "I'll be lookin' for you in Denver."
"Sleep well, an' say your prayers." Heyes was astonished to hear those words come out of his mouth.
"I do. Granny taught me." She launched into a rapid fire version of the Our Father, ending with, "An' God bless Grandda, and my Pa up in heaven. I'm always s'posed to say that, even though I've seen it makes my Mamma sad. Tonight, when she was getting' dressed, she had the same sad look, like she was remembering…"
"She and I got to talking in the lobby," Heyes explained hastily. "Seems we know some of the same people, I might have reminded her of something."
"Probably." Daphne waved her hand at him, then impulsively, ran back to the bed and planted a kiss on his cheek.
"Good night, Daphne." Heyes sent up a silent God Bless of his own when she'd skipped out the door.
The willow bark tea was tepid by the time Heyes drained the cup, and even tipped the contents of the saucer into his mouth. He wanted to be able to sleep. There were too many thoughts whirling around in his head, too many things he wanted to say. He'd have liked to sit Del down and question her at length about what happened, but knew she was too smart. She'd keep him at arms length, even if he tried. His best hope was to show up in Denver with the Kid and have them hash it out together. It wasn't fair that Kid should never know about that beautiful child.
Heyes had no romantic conceptions about Kid marrying Del to 'take her away from that life' or any such nonsense. She was obviously a well kept woman, living a life that neither of them could have given her, but he wanted Daphne to know her father, and Kid to know his daughter. Perhaps biyearly meetings could be arranged in mutually agreed upon cities, so that the two of them could spend time together. Giving his brain over to pleasant thoughts of afternoon picnics with Daphne and buying her gifts at Christmas, he drifted off to sleep.
The sound of bridles jingling and horses snorting in the morning air wakened Heyes and he lay in a tangle of sheets and patchwork quilt, trying to sort the sounds in his brain. The Stage! He jerked upright, climbing out of bed and hobbling across the room with all the speed he could muster. Outside, in the chilly street was a magnificent red and gold painted stage, four mismatched horses waiting impatiently in the traces. A burly man wearing a Stetson with a woolen cap pulled down low over his ears underneath was stowing a small trunk and two carry-all bags up on top of the stage. Dancing in ever widening circles around the whole affair was Daphne, swirling her skirts out like a tipsy ballerina. Her blond hair gleamed in the early sunlight, haloing her face so that she shone as brightly as any angel in a Bible illustration. No need for extra gold leaf, she was made of gold through and through.
As Heyes craned his neck out the window to watch the scene below, Delphine stepped off the hotel porch, watching her daughter dance with indulgent pride. She allowed the impromptu display of joy for a few moments more before beckoning the girl into the stuffy confines of the stagecoach. "Now, Daphne, Mamma is tired this morning…" was all Heyes could hear before Del climbed inside.
Just before following her mother, Daphne unerringly turned her face up towards the second story window and waved. "G'bye, Joshua!" she called. "I see you!" Her breath formed tiny puffs of frost that floated upwards before dissipating into the air.
"Good bye, Daphne. I see you, too," he called, waving as the coach driver swung up onto his high seat, slapping the reins against the backs of the closer pair of horses. The stage started up with a jerk that must have jostled the occupants considerably.
With a slight frown, Heyes watched until the stagecoach pulled out of Aspen Winds. He made his way carefully back to the bed, spending the rest of the morning trying to decide how to broach the subject with the Kid.
Kid Curry had spent a few boring days in the company of a bull. Horatio was, as bulls go, a placid animal. There was no pawing of ground or ramming indiscriminately with his horns. He mostly stood solidly on four hooves, vapidly chewing hay while the world rushed by outside their train car. That was Curry's one big complaint--that he had to sit in the freight car, the smell of bovine animal and manure in his nose. All he had to sleep on was a burlap sack over a mound of straw and meals had consisted of cold cornbread and fried chicken the rancher's wife had packed him for the trip. Kid had included a bottle of whiskey for himself, and spent the cold night curled up in the corner of the bumpity train car, half drunk. He knew it wasn't good form to get completely sloshed when he was supposed to be guarding this enormous side of beef, but how else was a guy going to keep warm and sleep? He had vague fears of one ton of bull loosing his stance and falling over onto the guard while he lay sleeping, Horatio, however, had proven to be a considerate roommate, staying on his of the car, attached to a ring in the wall with a sturdy chain.
The arrival at the new owner's was uneventful. Mr. Carstairs thanked the Kid profusely, pumping his hand up and down as if he were getting water from the backyard pump. Kid's arm ached afterwards, but the money in his hand more than made up for it. Carstairs had added a hefty fifty dollar bonus on top of the $500, which gave Curry full advantage of the return train's first class accommodations.
Now this was more like it! A dark faced waiter in a white jacket served the ex-outlaw red wine, prime rib and a baked potato dripping with butter as the distance between Utah and Colorado diminished. Kid toasted the mountains rising on the horizon, knowing his return to the good life was to be short lived. Unless Heyes had managed to get up out of his sick bed and play a few hands of poker, this five hundred dollars was going to have to last them a few weeks, if not months. It was late in the year. There was very real danger of getting snowed in in some small place and having to wait out the winter until the snow melted. He shivered, remembering having spent five months in a line shack with half a dozen other men, freezing his tail off. This winter he was going to insist they find a nice place, preferably in a city with modern conveniences like coal heaters, to stay.
The train tracks didn't go back as far as Aspen Winds, so in Miracle Springs the Kid once more saddled his brown mare. Patting the warm, rounded flank, Kid smiled to himself. He'd missed his cousin, even though it had been only a five day separation. Heyes' silver tongue would have made the long boring train ride much more enjoyable. The man could talk for hours on almost any subject one could name. Kid was interested in finding out what Heyes had learned in the last week. Sometimes he could read a newspaper while in a small town and then, while they were out on the trail, entertain Curry for days on the information he'd gleaned from a single paged journal.
Swinging up into the saddle, Kid flicked the reins on the horse's neck, heading back to Aspen Winds, and his only family.
It was nearly dark, but Heyes had been feeling the Kid's imminent return for most of the afternoon. It was if, the closer his cousin got to town, the more he could sense his presence. He hadn't had such a strong feeling of connection in a long time, not since they'd been separated during a hold-up and had to return to Devil's Hole from different directions. Heyes had felt so strongly that Kid had been injured the day after the hold-up that he'd ridden down to the nearest town to the Devil's Hole hide out to wait for him. Sure enough, Kid had ridden in the next day, his left arm still bearing a deputy's bullet.
This time, Heyes felt the blood that linked them singing in his veins, connecting him not only to the Kid but also to Daphne, riding in a stagecoach on her way to Denver. He vowed that he would at least unite the father and daughter for a first visit, even if fate conspired never to reunite them again. Jed Curry would know he was a father.
Leaning on his crutch, Heyes rested his aching foot on the porch step, returning from visiting Calinda's little shack. He'd been appalled by her living conditions, the building little more than boards and tar paper and offered her cash to help repair the place. Amazingly, Calinda had turned him down with a sweet smile on her nut brown face, insisting that she liked the way she lived. She was used to it. He'd argued that used to it or not, it would be freezing cold in a few short weeks and she'd catch her death. Calinda had just laughed, handing him a plate of freshly baked apple pie. When he'd finished his dessert and thanked her for all the care she'd lavished on him, she'd thrust an extra piece of pie into his hands.
"For Mistah Jones. He coming back today?"
Surprised she'd known this, Heyes nodded, "I should think so, today or tomorrow at the latest."
"Then you be on your way too, to the little girl?"
"How'd you know?" Heyes gaped, now too amazed to wonder how she'd guessed his secret.
"I hear things. I talk…but mostly I listen," She tapped the ratty sweater covering her chest. "Remember to think with your heart, Joshua, it always knows best."
"I can't ever repay you for what you've done, but at least let me just give you enough to get a decent roof." Heyes held out the money he'd won in a poker game the night before, the first he'd played in over a week.
"I take half--I think you need money, too." She tucked the cash into a pocket, patting his leg. "Foot still need to heal better, you take care and put that foot up!"
"Yes, ma'am." Heyes had bent down and given the leathery cheek a kiss, the odd little woman settling into a place in his heart where she would stay for the rest of his life.
"Heyes!" Kid's voice broke him out of his revere. "What are you doin' standing there on your foot? Sit down and put it up, for God's sake."
"First Miss Calinda, now you." Heyes laughed, overjoyed to see his cousin again. "She sent you a slice of pie. I'm glad to have you back, Kid."
"Good to be back." The blond haired cowboy swung down from his horse, leaning over to give the dark haired man a clap on the back that nearly knocked him off his crutch. "You'd better sit down before you fall down, Heyes."
"All right, I will if you'll come over to the saloon and tell me how you and the cow got on."
"You know very well it was a bull." Kid looped the brown mare's reins over a hitching post, following Heyes across the rutted road to a brightly lit saloon. Luckily, the place actually served a half way decent meal, and both men settled themselves comfortably with glasses of beer while a dumpy girl squeezed into a skimpy yellow satin dress with a swooping neckline cut off hunks of ham for them.
"Easiest job I've had in a long time, Mr. Carstairs even paid me a bonus," Kid boasted, "This and whatever you make playin' poker should set us pretty for the whole winter. I aim to stay in someplace nice and warm. I'm not setting foot in some flimsy shack during a blizzard this year!"
The saloon girl dumped the plates of ham and beans onto the table with a notable lack of grace. Clumping back to the bar, she swished her daffodil yellow skirts in hopes of some attention, but the motley group of ranch hands at one end of the bar didn't give her a second glance.
"Decided have you?" Heyes tucked into his dinner with gusto. The piece of pie that Miss Calinda have given him was just long enough ago that he was properly hungry again. "Then, I have a proposition for you, Kid."
"Am I gonna like it?" The Kid cocked his head in such an identical manner to Daphne that for a moment it took Heyes' breath away. Now if he could only decide on the right way to tell his cousin the truth.
"You will. Have I ever steered you wrong?" Heyes paused a fork in midair to stare quizzically at his cousin.
"Many times, but go on." Kid gestured with his own fork, chewing ham.
"I propose we stay in Denver all winter."
"Denver?" Kid frowned, thinking it over. "It can get mighty cold way up there in the mountains in December and January."
"But they've got saloons, and big hotels…" Heyes persuaded. "Not to mention lots of women."
"Heyes, you don’t have to gussy it up for me, I've always liked Denver, but you sound like you have a particular reason in mind."
Heyes cut his meat in careful pieces before lifting one into his mouth. "Um--do you know a woman named Delphine DelRio? Or maybe just Del, short for Delilah."
Kid's face had paled. He was sitting so still he could have been carved from ice. When Heyes put a hand on his arm, Kid trembled just once, then asked. "Where did you hear that name? Delilah Derry."
"I met her."
"You can't have. She's dead."
"Sorta reddish hair, dark blue eyes, really pretty," Heyes described with a lump in his throat from the Kid's reaction. So the Grandda had banished his daughter, then told Curry that the girl was dead. It all made sense, in a twisted sort of way.
"Y-yeah." Kid placed his fork carefully on the plate, but the clatter of the flatware on the china betrayed how much he was shaking. "I knew her back in Kansas. I wanted to…Damn, Heyes, that was a lifetime ago. How could you have met her?"
"Kid, she was staying here in the hotel and now she's on her way Denver." Heyes faced his best friend, both sadness and joy in his heart at what he needed to tell him. Finally all he said was, "And tomorrow morning we'll be headin' for Denver, too. There's someone there I want you to meet."