3. “Mother of Exiles…”

by Calico

1885. A TYPICAL WESTERN CAFÉ – EARLY EVENING

“Mister… Mister…”

A small and distinctly grubby hand tugs at the sleeve of a blue – and also distinctly grubby – shirt.

“Huh? Wha…?” Kid Curry’s unshaven chin slips off the hand cradling it. He blinks.

For a moment he faces a veritable sea of inquisitive stares. He blinks again, focusing. The sea ebbs to a mere half dozen pairs of eyes, each set within a youthful face.

“Huh?” Kid sucks back a strand of drool. “Wha…?”

The group’s evident leader – chosen, doubtless, for her maturity, having every appearance of one fast approaching her eighth birthday – takes a deep breath.

“We’re collectin’…” she twists a much-darned pinafore.

“C’lecktin’…” echoes the possessor of the grubby hand which had roused the drowsy ex-outlaw.

“C’ec’tin’…” further clarifies a diminutive red-head, simultaneously edging an inquisitive finger toward a tiny nostril.

“Mizz Gibbons told the class it’s a national an’ – an’ pat’rotic… [DON’T, Clyde!]” The questing digit is discouraged with all the simple physical authority that can only come from a bossy elder sister.

“Pat’rockic…” A box, crudely embellished with what might be stars and stripes, is thrust under Kid’s nose. The holder favours Kid with a winning smile. At least, it would be winning if she wasn’t currently between front teeth.

“…Campaign. Y’see there’s this statue…”

“Stachew…” The box is shaken. A feeble clinking ensues.

“C’lecktin’…” Grubby-Hand is clearly an orator who knows the value of sticking to the main point and not letting the primrose paths of eloquence lead him astray.

“Leastways there ain’t yet, but there’s gonna be this statue…”

“BIG stachew…” A fresh speaker. He rises on tiptoe; nibbled fingertips reach for the sky – well, the ceiling. Of course the enormity of what he tries to communicate with these dramatic embellishments might have been better conveyed if he’d stood higher than three foot six.

“An’ there’s this campaign to raise…”

“Camplain…”

“C’lecktin’…”

Clink, clink. The box rattles closer and closer to Kid’s nose. From beneath tangled bangs hazel eyes blink appealingly. Literally – appealingly.

“I means a national campaign – [Stoppid Clyde! Ya brains’ll fall out!] – we’re s’posed to say…”

“C’lecktin’…”

“Shaddup interruptin’, Jack, you’se puttin’ me off…”

“Ain’t.”

“Are too!” Radiant smile at Kid Curry, whose expression still has ‘Huh?’ stamped all over it. “Anyhow, Mister, if’n you’d like…”

“Ain’t ‘Truptin’…”

Clink. Rattle.

“Are too.” To Kid: “If’n you’d like…”

“Ain’t. ”

“Are too.”

“Ain’t”

“Are too! No-returns-offerwise-you’re-a-stinky-pig-touch-flo or-no-changes!” To Kid: “Any contri…

Contra… Anyfin’ – no matter how small…”

Sotto-voce: “Ain’t.”

“[Shaddup!] Anyfin’ is most gratefully…”

Still sotto-voce: “Ain’t ‘truptin’. C’lecktin’…”

“Anyfin’ you can spare…”

A shadow falls over the group. The speaker and her diminutive companions twist their heads and look up past a dusty grey jacket, past an even dustier bandana, into a quizzical brown gaze shaded by a much-battered black brim.

“Howdy, ma’am.” Heyes sets two plates on the table, freeing his hands for a gallant hat touch. The already much-crumpled pinafore is further wrung, as sudden shyness strikes the youthful collector dumb. She examines the toes of her boots then peeps, bashfully, through her lashes at the dimpled face smiling down at her.

Heyes crouches, bringing his face level with hers. A gloved hand is held out. “Joshua Smith, ma’am, and this fella you woke up is my partner, Thaddeus Jones. Both entirely at your service.” Pause. “And you are…?”

“Esther Turner,” she whispers to the floorboards. A very, very deep breath. “We’re collectin’ – Mizz Gibbons says we can – an’ it’s a national an’ – an’ patriotic collection for a – a plinth for the…”

“C’lecktin’…”

Rattle. Clink.

“Collecting! That’s real fine, ma’am. We’d like fine to hear all about it. Wouldn’t we, Thaddeus?”

“Er…” Kid’s butt shifts in his seat as his eyes scan the hopeful faces staring at him. “Sure.”

“It’s patriotic an’…”

“But, the thing is – we’re about to eat supper. I’m sure Mizz Gibbons told you, you should never interrupt folk at supper. You time your collecting activity for before or after supper. That’s the civil thing to do. I know a lady like you – a real professional – will want to do the thing right, huh?”

“I guess.”

“So, why don’t you come back…?” Heyes consults his pocket watch and mulls. “Say, at seven – maybe seven thirty. Then you can tell us all about this fine, patriotic cause. How’s that?”

“Seven! We’ve gotta be home ‘fore then!” protests Esther.

“Chores…” explains Bangs-With-A-Box.

“Bedtime…” chimes Mimes-The-Size.

Anxious nods from Clyde-The-Nostril.

“C’lecktin’…” perseveres Grubby-Hand-Jack. He joins in the anxious nodding to drive home the point to this obtuse stranger. “C’lecktin’ FORE bedtime!”

“Seven’s too late?” mourns Heyes. “That’s too, bad.” He straightens. Kindly but firmly, a gentle hand on her shoulder, he steers Esther and her group to the door, opening it for her. “Maybe some other time? Thank you for visiting with us, ma’am. Thank you, all.” Bangs are ruffled. The dimpled smile shines on every child. But, the ushering out is decisive. “Thank you – have a good evening.”

“Thank you…” murmurs a bewildered Esther.

“Why’s you sayin’ Fank you?” Grubby-Hand-Jack’s all too audible whisper puts a (grubby) finger on the salient point. “He’s not given us nuffin’.”

As for Bangs-with-a-Box, not only does her lower lip wobble, the look she gives Heyes would wring pity from Herod.

Unfortunately for her, the erstwhile leader of the Devils’ Hole Gang is made of sterner stuff than the tetchy Judean King when it comes to the treatment of infants. His smiling affability unruffled, he gently nudges the last lingering boot over the threshold and closes the café door behind them. He raises his hand in friendly farewell as the disappointed troupe trudge slowly away. Over her shoulder Esther shoots Heyes a glance which mingles confusion and resentment in equal measure. Grubby-Hand-Jack’s glance mingles the same emotions in unequal measure – resentment definitely winning out.

Unmoved, Heyes rejoins Kid Curry at the table, and prepares to send a forkful of beans south. He meets his partner’s accusing version of the ‘look’. “What?”

Intensification of the ‘look’ from Kid.

“You think we shoulda put a nickel or two in the box?” Heyes sets down his fork. “Kid we spent the day digging drainage ditches. It was hard on the back, huh? So much so, you did a Rip Van Curry act while I fetched us these two plates of beans and one portion of meatloaf to share. How much did we earn for all that hard work?”

“Dollar fifty each.”

“A dollar fifty each. We rode in with ninety-six cents. We got a livery bill. We got a room bill. We’re gonna be digging ditches for a dollar fifty every day until Saturday when maybe, just maybe, the farmhands’ll come into town and play poker. I reckon you’re gonna want breakfast before picking up a shovel in the morning. After all, we both know you’re a three squares a day kind of fella.” Heyes nods over to where a chalkboard displays the café prices. “See that? Bacon, eggs, biscuits, coffee – twenty cents. Do the math. Then look me in the eye and tell me you still wish I’d dropped a nickel or two in that box.”

Kid does do the math. A shrug, accompanied by a rueful expression, signifies that Heyes has a point.

Then, a movement outside diverts his attention to the window. A small nose presses wistfully against the glass. Clyde has eluded supervision and returned. Almost immediately he is pulled away by his older sister, whose eyes meet Kid Curry’s, reproachfully. Once again, troublesome baby brother in tow, she trudges away.

Heyes watches this and raises a sceptical eyebrow at his partner’s guilty expression.

“Don’t let it eat at ya, Kid.” He sends another forkful of beans south. “She’s probably working a scam.”

“A scam?! Heyes, she can’t be more’n eight!”

“So? How old were we when we set up that collection for the needy?”

“We? WE! That was YOU! Besides, you swore blind it wasn’t a scam.”

“It wasn’t. I was needy. I needed that penknife.”

“Heyes, you’re missing the point here.”

“Which is?”

“These kids ain’t you.”

-oooOOOooo-

LATER – A CHEAP HOTEL ROOM

Kid Curry, long-john clad, one hand tucked behind his head, the other holding aloft a folded newspaper, stretches full length on one lumpen bed. His brow wrinkles with concentration as he reads.

Heyes, similarly disrobed, perches on the second bed, polishing his gun. He glances over at his partner. He glances at the gun and oil-cloth in his own deft fingers. A smile lifts one cheek.

“Hey, Kid, have you noticed something odd here?”

“Uh.” The blue eyes stay fixed on the newsprint.

“We seem to be in the wrong places.”

“Uh.”

“And doing the wrong things.”

“Uh.” Faint frown.

“It’s annoying when you’re trying to read and someone keeps talking, huh?”

“Uh.”

“Are you listening to me?”

“Uh? Nuh-uh. I’m readin’.”

“Yeah. I can see your lips move.”

“Uh.” Pause. “Hey!” More reading. “It wasn’t a scam.”

“What wasn’t?”

“Those kids. It’s all here. Y’know the French…?”

“Not all of ’em. No.”

“Y’know they’re givin’ us this statue…” Kid reads, “Liberty, Enlightenin’ the World. It’s gonna go in New York harbor. It was crated up in Paris, shipped over…”

“I read about that,” Heyes interrupts. “Mind you, you hafta watch the French. Look at the Louisiana purchase…”

“Huh?”

“Well, it included this place…” Heyes scowls, darkly, at his admittedly dour surroundings. “If you ask me, we were robbed.”

Incredulous stare from the Kid.

“C’mon, Kid. The most exciting thing that happens all week in this whole dang state is watching corn grow.”

Kid rolls his eyes. “Yeah, Heyes. Davenport’s kinda dull – blame the French.” He lifts the newspaper. “Can I go on?”

“Only if you get to the point.”

“Point is, this statue needs a plinth – to stand on…”

“I know what a dang plinth is for.”

“…An’ it’s gonna cost $100,000. This newspaper fella, Joseph Pulitzer, has a fundraisin’ drive goin’ to raise the money. That’s what the kids were collectin’ for.”

“Hmm,” Heyes is underwhelmed.

“He’s pledged to print the name of every contributor, no matter how small the amount given…”

“Yeah, well. Some folks’ll do anything to get their names in the paper.”

“No, listen: Most contributions have been under a dollar. ‘A young girl, all alone in the world has donated sixty cents, the result of self denial. One donor gave five cents as a poor office boy’s mite toward the Pedestal Fund. A group of children sent a dollar as ‘the money we saved to go to the circus with.’ Another…”

“You’re not gonna make me listen to $100,000 in one dollar chunks, are you?”

Pause. Kid reads on in silence. Half-reluctant curious glance at the newspaper from Heyes. After a moment he holds out his hand in mute request. It is handed over. Kid turns onto his side, chin propped on one hand and watches his partner read.

A moment of silence. Then…

“I saw it, y’know,” says Kid. “Well I saw the arm holding the torch – back in ’76.”

Questioning look.

“At the Centennial exhibition. The arm was on display and you paid fifty cents and you could climb up onto the balcony round the torch and see the whole fairground…” He tails off in face of the blank expression on his partner’s face. “Heyes, I musta told you this before… I know I did.” Still blank. “Philadelphia – ’76.”

“You told me it was dusty…”

“I told ya I’d been to the Centennial exhibition an’…”

“Yeah, but you never said there’d been any ‘arm in it.” Delighted expectant grin from Heyes. Nothing. Metaphorical tumbleweed tumbles. “Did you hear me, Kid. I didn’t realise there’d been any ‘arm in it!”

“I heard ya, Heyes. Just thought it’d be more polite to pretend I hadn’t.”

Snubbed, Heyes goes back to the paper, turning it to scan the lower section of the article.

“Hey, some woman wrote a poem to help the fund-raising effort – well, guess it saved her a dollar…”

He looks up, reacts to his partner’s scowl. “No offence, Kid. I didn’t realise you were still carrying a torch for – well, for this gal carrying a torch you met in Philly.” Pause. “Poem’s printed here.”

Questioning lift of an eyebrow.

“Go on,” Kid says.

“The New Colossus.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles…”

Heyes reads on. Kid listens, his face sombre.

“…Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Silence.

Heyes opens his mouth. “I guess…”

“Quit it, Heyes!” snaps Kid, genuine anger sharpening his tone. “Quit makin’ smart remarks!”

“I never…”

“Well, don’t!”

Pause. Kid glances at his mildly offended partner. The scowl fades from his face. Remorseful wriggle.

“Okay, you can make anythin’ sound lame, but this statue… It means a lot to folk. Ordinary folk. It isn’t lame. It just isn’t. Same for that poem. It – well, it made me think of all those folk wantin’ a new life. A fresh start. And her, Liberty, bein’ there – her torch kinda a beacon – sayin’ don’t give up, keep on hopin’… It isn’t lame. It’s…” A flush shows on Kid’s cheek as he finishes, “It’s inspirin’!”

Pause.

Very quietly, no trace of cynicism, “I guess it is, Kid.”

Heyes lays aside the newspaper and stretches out on his own bed, he reaches to turn down the oil lamp.

“G’night, Kid.”

“G’night, Heyes.”

Enough moonlight penetrates the flimsy curtains to show neither man has closed his eyes. Two ex-outlaws stare, soberly, through the darkness at the cracked ceiling.
Not giving up.
Keeping on.
Hoping.

-oooOOOooo-

NEXT MORNING – THE STREET

Hannibal Heyes stands outside the café. In the middle distance children scamper and scurry towards a white-painted schoolhouse. Upon the steps the schoolmarm clangs the morning bell. Heyes watches the scene with mild interest. Then, with more than mild interest. A familiar figure – blue shirt, brown hat – approaches from that direction. Behind him, a beaming Esther, Bangs-With-A-Box, and Not-Grubby-‘Cos-His-Ma-Scrubbed-‘Em-Jack wave, cheerily.

Their words are almost carried away by the breeze, but Heyes’ lynx-ears can just make out:

“Thank you…”

“Fank you…”

“C’leckted! Fank you…”

Heyes greets his overly nonchalant partner with a bland smile. “Ready for breakfast?”

“Er…Thought I’d skip it today.”

“Kid, you didn’t…?”

Innocently, “Didn’t what? I – I just ain’t real hungry this mornin’.”

His stomach growls, ominously. Blue eyes meet brown. Kid silently dares Heyes to comment.

Heyes grins, then opens his gloved hand. He looks at the two dimes on the leather palm. A sigh.

“D’you know what, Kid, I reckon I’m not hungry neither.”

Heyes closes his fingers over the coins and strides towards the schoolhouse.

-oooOOOooo-

NOTES:

In 1885 Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the World, a New York newspaper, announced a drive to raise $100,000 (the equivalent of $2.3 million today) to allow construction of the pedestal for the Statue of ‘Liberty, Enlightening the World’ to proceed. He pledged to print the name of every contributor, no matter how small the amount given. Among the donations a kindergarten class in Davenport, Iowa, mailed a gift of $1.35

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