31st December – Cheyenne
From the windows of a Central Avenue mansion lamplight spills a golden glow over snow-carpeted streets. The double doors fronting the imposing residence swing to admit a fresh cluster of guests to the festive throng visible within. For a moment music and laughter swirl into the frosted air, muting to a cheerful murmur as the doors close.
A crack of light shines at the side of the building. Two shadowy – yet familiar – figures emerge, turning up coat collars against the bitter chill. Taking a path away from the main entrance, they pause, briefly, to watch yet another carriage disgorge its merrymakers. A glance is exchanged. The hint of a shrug and our duo continue on their way.
Although the saloon is crowded with men determined to welcome the New Year in a state of inebriation, Heyes and Curry manage to secure two seats in an unoccupied corner.
Curry pulls the stopper from the bottle; Heyes places glasses upon the table. Whiskey is poured – but not drunk. In this one spot, amongst raucous, boisterous, rough-housing – there is silence.
Heyes clears his throat. “I guess we need a toast.” He raises his glass. “To – Amnesty at last!”
“Amnesty at last,” echoes Kid Curry.
The glasses clink – but, something is missing. Heyes tries again. “Amnesty at last – AND a Happy New Year.” Softly he adds, “Happy New Year, Kid.”
“Happy New Year, Heyes.”
A mute conversation says more than the words. The toast is drunk.
Kid refills the glasses, but his shoulders droop. “I thought, when we got the amnesty, I’d feel… I dunno.” He takes a document from inside his jacket, stares at it glumly. “I mean – is that it?”
“Sure was an anti-climax.” Heyes too draws a paper from his pocket, regards it solemnly. “I guess we expected more…” He searches. “More fuss.”
“Know what I’m thinkin’, Heyes?”
“That thinking’s something we have an agreement on?”
“I’m thinkin’ one of the reasons we feel – kinda let down, is the timing. It being New Years’ Eve and all.”
“Well…” Heyes considers. “The governor being tied up hosting the great and the good meant we only saw that secretary fella. And he reckons ‘cos the newspapers are thin on the holidays, announcing it New Years Day’ll cut down on any…Any…”
“On anyone even being interested,” glooms Kid. “That isn’t what I meant by timin’ though. I meant New Years’ Eve and – well – us. Y’know how we make resolutions…?”
“Yup. Not always GOOD resolutions – but, yup.”
“For the past few years – what’s it always been?”
Heyes thinks. “Next year – amnesty.” Light dawns. Ah.
“Yeah,” Kid sees Heyes got the point. “Now what?”
“It’s like that writer fella said, huh? There’s only one thing worse’n NOT getting what you want …”
A simple philosopher and a designated thinker drain their glasses.
“Look on the bright side, Kid, this sure beats some New Years’ Eves all hollow. Remember the last winter with the gang…?”
FIVE YEARS EARLIER
White flakes swirl. The ground is a churn of grey slush. In the distance light and clamour pour from a packed saloon. Intermittently, drunken figures emerge; void their bladders or stomachs, before returning to the fray. An inadequately clad saloon gal slips from a side door, lights a cigarette with a shaking hand and smokes, her skinny, adolescent body trembling with cold, her face a mask of despair in the moonlight. Summoning a smile to her lips, if not her dead eyes, she goes back inside.
Curry stands at the far end of the street, his expression not unlike that of the young girl he silently watched.
A movement beside him. His hand flies, instinctively, to his holster. Then, recognition; Heyes.
“The boys sure are making the most of New Year.”
Nothing from Curry.
“All thanks to the kind depositors of Calvary, huh?” Is there an edge to the seemingly-cheerful, deep voice?
“One of the barkeeps …” Curry nods towards the saloon. “Tells me he’s a brother workin’ in Calvary.”
“Uh huh?” Heyes looks away, apparently to study the stars.
“He was tellin’ me ’bout the robbery. Not knowin’, for me, it’s old news.”
“Talkative fella, huh?”
“Seems the bank manager took it hard.”
“I guess yakking with customers is as much part of the job as pouring whiskey…”
“Real hard. Barkeep tells me he shot himself the week before Christmas.”
The silence stretches.
“He had a wife, Heyes. Four children.”
“Some people might say, then, he’d no business taking the easy way out!” The words cut through the chill air. Heyes faces his partner. “I wouldn’t – not being one to cast stones – but some people might.”
Kid’s eyes narrow, suspiciously. “You knew!”
“I mighta heard.” Then, “We might like folk making something big outta us never having shot anyone, Kid, but this isn’t the first time we’ve realised actions have consequences, is it? You’re not Kyle – don’t pretend you’re dumb enough to believe otherwise.”
Blue eyes blaze angrily into a steady, brown stare. Then, Kid’s fundamental honesty acknowledges the truth in there. He turns away.
The ruckus sounding from the saloon intensifies. Whoops and jubilant gun shots pierce the night.
“Midnight,” deduces Heyes.
“Heyes, we gotta get outta this business. We could…”
“Live on the run, with a price on heads – but without the money,” Heyes sums up. “Yeah, right.” More gently, “We’ve made that resolution before, Kid, remember?”
“Maybe this time’ll be different.”
Heyes turns up his face, lets a swirling flake settle. A rueful smile. “Maybe. Happy New Year, Kid.”
“Happy New Year, Heyes.”
FIVE YEARS EARLIER…
Two youthful figures sit before glowing oil stove. Each clutches a charged glass. Heyes holds his pocket-watch in one slim hand.
“Four – three – two – ONE! Happy New Year, Kid!”
“Happy New Year, Heyes!”
The tumblers clink. The whiskey is drunk.
“Been quite a year, huh?” remarks Kid Curry, stretching out long legs and taking a contemplative sip.
“You tracking me down,” Heyes’ turn for a meditative sip. “Begging me to let you join the gang so’s we could partner up again…”
“WHO was doin’ the beggin’?!” An about-to-be outraged Kid spots the tell-tale dimple and realises he is being – successfully – teased. He settles back. “Haven’t never heard ya do as much silver tonguin’ as when I let you persuade me to stay, Heyes.” Another sip. “Didn’t think you’d be leadin’ the Devils’ Hole Gang before the year was out, though.”
Their expressions are pensive; as they recall the day Big Jim was captured.
Heyes proposes a second toast; “Absent friends.” Again, glasses clink.
Silence. A gentle pop from the fire.
“Guess we oughta make our resolutions,” suggests Curry.
“Once we get us a stake together – get outta this business while we’re still ahead!” says Heyes.
“Sure – goes without sayin’,” nods Kid.
“After all – we don’t want the price on our head getting real interesting.”
“Or turnin’ into ‘Wanted – Dead or Alive!”
“And…” Heyes pours. “Can’t expect our luck on no one getting killed to hold. Not with a gang of hot-heads carrying loaded guns and dynamite. I’m not claiming to be much of a moral man, but I reckon we’d both like to get out before there’s a death on our conscience, huh?”
Kid drops his gaze. There is a brief pause before he says, “Sure.” He takes a drink. “I reckon, too, we’d both like to get out before we join Jim in finding firsthand what the inside of state prison’s like.”
Heyes turn to drop his gaze. “True enough.”
Silence. Brown and blue eyes stare into the flames and remember…
FIVE YEARS EARLIER…
Jed Curry stares at the – object – sprawled, ten feet away, in the beer sodden sawdust.
A minute ago the saloon echoed with that blend of celebration and drunken, desperate defiance against the racing of the years that clings to New Years’ Eve. Now it was silent.
A minute ago Jed was riding high, buoyed up by youthful arrogance and a skinful of cheap liquor. Now he is stone cold sober and, although his stance still holds the remains of a brash swagger, deep inside something small and scared whimpers.
A minute ago Howie Carter was a man. Not a particularly good man. Had him a mean streak when drinking. Too ready to shoot his mouth off. Maybe too ready to play fast and loose with the truth – and other folks’ property. But still, a living, breathing human being. He had a mother who loved him; an old mongrel dog who adored him. Howie had hopes and fears and, maybe, a chance to change. After all, he wasn’t much past twenty.
The silence segues to subdued mutters.
Shocked patrons make way for the Sheriff.
Through a haze, Jed hears the business-like tones of the lawman, and the overlapping explanations of customers keen to offer their version of events.
“…Howie was shootin’ his mouth off.”
“…This fella – Ned is it? – drew like light’nin’.”
“…Howie called this kid.”
“…Tried to get ’em both to see sense.”
“…Reckon Howie reached first.”
“…Yeah, Howie reached. Never stood a chance though.”
“…Ain’t no one that fast.”
“…Is that right, son?”
“…Is that right, son? HEY! Fella! You listening to me?”
Slowly Jed drags his eyes away from Howie. He still sees him though. Will he always see him?
“Is that right? Howie was the one called you out?”
“Yeah. No. I dunno. We were…”
Acknowledgement in the blue eyes.
“Howie was sayin’ stuff,” chips in a saloon gal. “First makin’ out Jed was cheatin’ at cards – he weren’t, not that I could see – then sayin’ stuff ’bout his mother. Y’know, the usual.”
“Did he know your ma?” the Sheriff asks Jed.
A shake of the blond head
“So he was only trying to rile ya?”
“Guess he succeeded. Still, did he deserve that?” The lawman gestures at the corpse.
I didn’t mean it! I never meant…
Jed’s fists curl so tight the nails dig into his palms. “His call,” he drawls.
You fool! You STILL think it matters a roomful of drunk strangers think you’re tough! You stupid, damn fool!
“Jed told Howie to git.” The saloon gal again. The sheriff listens; she’s no fool and close to sober. “He’d’a let him go.”
“And – Howie reached first?”
“Sure did,” she says.
“‘Course – any gunman worth his salt knows it’s a scientific fact reacting is quicker’n reaching first.” The Sheriff meets Jed’s eyes. “…AND, folk think you’re playing fair.”
He’s right. You thought you were such a big man when Jake let you in on that trick of the trade.
“In my book, if the guy starts a fight loses – I call that the end of it. Seems Howie started it – so, you’re in the clear. But…” The Sheriff fixes Jed with a straight look. “Tomorrow – I wanna see you riding out of my town, y’hear?” More quietly, one to one, “And, son, think hard ’bout New Years’ Resolutions, huh? Some’n tells me you could be better’n than this.”
Coolly enough Jed gathers his winnings from the poker table and heads for the door. No sideways glance at the body. No need – he still sees it. Once outside and away, he takes a deep, deep breath.
“Never again!” He lifts his face to the stars. “You ain’t around to hear it, Heyes, but I got a resolution. I’m gonna give up my gun.” A waver. “Soon as I get me a job where I don’t need it…” He realises the rider weakens the vow. His shoulders slump. Then, “Happy New Year, Heyes – wherever you are.”
Heyes’ strains forward, slim fingers clutching the bars.
His cell-mate shifts. Grunts.
“Nothing. Go back to sleep.”
“You may be skinny, Hannah – but…” A snigger at his own wit. “…You ain’t skinny enough to fit through there!” Nothing. “Whatcha’doin’?”
“Trying to see the clock. I want to know when it’s midnight.”
“Wha…? Oh!” A hairy backside is scratched. “Got me MY resolution. When I get outta here I’m joinin’ my brother. He’s in Plummer’s gang. Real rich pickings.” Scratch. “Y’know – if what you said ’bout pickin’ locks is true, reckon they’d take you too.” Scratch. “Less chance o’ landin’ back in here with a gang watchin’ your back.”
Heyes opens his mouth, changes his mind, closes it again. The blanket is pulled over a close-cropped head.
Silence. Then, snores.
“Appreciate the offer,” whispers Heyes, “but I’m not risking prison again. Once I get out – I’m straight.” A rueful dimple. “Well, maybe a gentle, law-abiding spiral. Besides – I was too dang clever to need my back watching, huh, Jed?” He strains to see the inching hands. “Four, three, two, one… Happy New Year, Jed, wherever you are. Hope this year’s resolution works out better’n the one we took in Valparaiso.”
FIVE YEARS EARLIER
A tousled blond head lifts from a much-darned pillow. Sleepy eyes blink at the moonlight shining into them. Beside the window huddles a skinny figure, holding aside the drape to stare out at the night.
Barefoot, Jed pads over.
“Whatchya doin’, Han?”
“Waitin’ for midnight – y’know, New Year. You can hear the town clock chime from here.”
Jed settles himself beside his friend.
“What did ol’ Jenkins wanna see ya for? He hadn’t found out about…?” A mute conversation conveys the latest transgression to be hidden from authority.
“Nah,” dismisses Han.
No surprise there. Mister Jenkins never finds out nothing – he’s dumb about anything not in a book. Can’t even keep order in class. Leastways, not until Han persuaded Clyde and his gang there are advantages to letting a teacher too dumb to use the cane keep his job. Jed had never been real sure why Han did that. For himself – or for Mister Jenkins. ‘Cos Mister Jenkins has a real soft spot for Han. Says he’s a fine enquiring mind. Han makes out to be real riled over the ‘teacher’s pet’ teasing it causes – but… Jed isn’t so sure Han really minds.
“What’d he want, then?”
“He was talkin’ ’bout me bein’ apprenticed out.”
Jed’s heart sinks. Of course Valparaiso finds places for as many boys as it can. And, Han being two years older means…
“With a cousin of his – a pharmacist in New York City.”
That was the other side of the world! Being apprenticed out in the town was one thing! There were Sundays and sneaking out. But – New York! He’d never see Han again! Not for years’n’years’n’years’n’years!
“I’d study at evening classes. It’d be a lot of hard work – but maybe, just maybe, I’d get a scholarship for medical school.”
“New York!” repeats Jed. “You told him ‘No’, huh?”
“Don’t reckon we exactly get to pick an’ choose, Jed.”
Well, yeah. But…
“We can run off! Let someone else be a dumb Farmer-Sist”
Han looks away.
Doubtfully, Jed says, “‘Course, if you wanted…?”
“Nah. We promised when we first come – we’d never let ’em split us up.”
That’s okay then. Another glance at his friend’s averted face. Isn’t it…?
Distant chimes sound. Midnight.
“Are we makin’ a resolution, Han? The way our Pas used’ta before…” Jed breaks off, rubs his nose hard.
“Sure!” Han braces his shoulders, meets Jed’s anxious gaze. “We won’t split up – not ever. Not for nothing. Even if we hafta run away.” He smiles. “Happy New Year, Jed.”
“Happy New Year, Han.”
FIVE YEARS EARLIER
“Whatchya doin’, Pa?”
The friends, gazing up at the night sky, swivel. Two night-shirted, figures stare up at them.
“What the Sam Hill are you doing out of bed!?”
“Your mother’ll have something to say about this!”
Heyes has – half-guiltily – put his glass behind his back.
Curry has – instinctively – taken a hasty side-step to hide the bottle.
Sheepishly, they realise that – even when observed by boyish stares – they’ve a perfect right to stand on one man’s porch drinking the other fella’s whiskey.
“We woke up…”
“Heard ya talkin’…”
“We’re waiting for midnight, Jed.”
“Why?” This is still one of Jed’s favourite words.
“‘Cos at midnight,” Hannibal is keen to display superior knowledge, “it isn’t THIS year no more – it’s New Year.”
“That’s right, Hannibal. We see in the New Year – and make resolutions.”
Jed doesn’t get to finish before Hannibal is back in full flow. “A resolution’s some’n you’re gonna do, or change, or be better at next year.”
“That’s right, son.” Dark hair is ruffled. “Like – you might resolve to let Jed get a word in now and then. Now, back to bed both of you, before you freeze.”
“Can’t we see in the New Year? Please, Pa.”
“Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease…” Hey, Jed CAN get a word in.
A pocket-watch is checked. An (adult) mute conversation. Two small boys are wrapped in paternal arms and paternal overcoats.
“What’s your resolution, Pa?”
Heyes’ eyes darken. “To keep all my family safe from the border troubles. And from the war, if, God forbid, it comes to that.”
“Amen,” chimes in Curry.
Jed wriggles. That sounds… Resolutions oughta be more…
“I’m gonna resolve to be a train driver!” he declares.
“It hasta be some’n you can do NEXT year!” scathes Hannibal.
“Longer term resolutions are okay, too,” says Curry, kissing his son’s curls.
“Oh.” Hannibal considers. “I might be a whale-hunter. Like Ahab.”
“Not much call for whaling in Kansas,” smiles Heyes. “I thought you wanted to be a Doctor.”
True. Hannibal did kinda think being a Doctor would be…
“Carry on coming top of your class, you can be anything you want.” Heyes’ hugs his son closer. He reaches out a free hand, tweaks Jed’s ear. “Whatever you boys become – we know it’ll make us and your mothers’ proud.”
Curry raises a hand. “…Four, three, two, ONE!”
“Happy New Year!” The fathers’ glasses clink.
“Happy New Year, Jed!”
“Happy New Year, Han!”