4. Part Two, Chs 7 to 8

PART TWO

ABOUT THREE WEEKS LATER – NARRATED BY KID CURRY

“Sure is one wet Sunday.”

Nothing.

“Pity. I’da liked to ride out to the lake. Maybe do a little fishin’.”

Nothing.

“Good night last night, huh? Won enough to make it an evening well spent – not enough to get anyone riled.” I give a final polish to my gun. Even I can’t clean it any more. The dang thing is bouncing light around the room like a mirror. I slip it back into the holster – also buffed to a high shine – hanging over the back of the chair.

Uh huh.

What now?

My boots and saddlebags already gleam.

“Fancy a beer?”

Nothing.

“Heyes!”

“Huh?”

“Fancy a beer?”

A shrug. “Nah. You go if you like.”

Nah. I don’t really fancy a beer neither. I just fancy moving. Dang weather.

“Want me to clean your gun?”

Silence.

“Heyes!”

“Mmmm?”

“Are you gonna sit starin’ at raindrops runnin’ down that dang window all morning?”

“I’m reading.”

“You are NOT readin’! You haven’t turned a dang page for an hour. AND, you’ve read the print off that dang book anyhow. You’re broodin’. You’ve been broodin’ ever since we left…”

“I’m not brooding – I’m thinking.”

“Pfffttt! I’ve eaten eggs from creatures less broody’n you!” He ain’t even listening. Not properly. “You’re no fun at all any more, Heyes, y’know that? Ever since you started broodin’ over that girl…”

“Girls play with dolls. She’s a woman.”

Hey! That’s exactly what SHE shut me up with once!

Heyes realises he gave himself away, there. He presses on quickly. “And I’m NOT brooding. I’m thinking.” He turns to me. “You’re right – we did pretty good last night. We’ve done pretty good for a few nights, huh? This town and the last place?”

“Uh huh.” I give a rueful grin. “Can’t believe it’s us havin’ a run of luck. Must be two other fellas wearin’ our hats.”

“We’ve got a stake together?”

I shrug. We haven’t been THAT lucky. I’m not complaining. It’s a dang sight more’n we usually have! Just, hardly ‘a stake’.

“I’ve been thinking…”

“Yeah, you said.” I pick up my hat, start to brush it. I’m not sure exactly what’s coming – but, I’m guessing I won’t like it.

“D’you reckon we oughta go back and clear your doctor’s bill? Pay for that crutch we stole.”

“Nope.”

“Kid! She saved your life! Now we have a little cash, don’t you wanna go back and settle up?”

“Nope.” I glance at him. “I’ve no objections to wrappin’ the money real safe, going to the depot tomorrow and mailin’ it.” I think for a moment. “With a real nice thank you letter and apology for runnin’ out like that.” I grin. “Well, in my case, limpin’ out like that.”

Heyes stares at a knothole on the floor. “I oughta give her book back.”

It’s the one in his hand. He didn’t mean to take it. He’d borrowed it and when our stuff was thrown together it ended up in his bag. Like I said, he’s practically read the print off the page.

“Mail that too. The U.S. mail is the one of the prides of this great country!”

My turn to receive no answer.

“Heyes I know you…”

I stop. What do I know? He hasn’t said anything.

I don’t know nothing.

I guess.

I’m not sure WHAT I guess – but, whatever it is, it’s a first for Heyes.

While I’ve been with him anyhow.

I suppose he musta been dumb enough to join the rest of us, at least once, between fifteen and twenty and fallen in…

I stop the thought. If I don’t say it – it ain’t happening.

I start again. No teasing, just quiet and straight. “Heyes, however much you’d like to see her – what’s the point? It can’t…”

“Who said I wanna see her? I just thought – hey – won’t SHE wanna see YOU, Kid? Talk about a miraculous recovery! She’ll…”

I don’t want to say the wrong thing. But…

“It can’t do any good Heyes. However much you like her. However much she might like you – what can happen? She’s got ‘marriage or nothing’ written all over …”

“Hey! I never even THOUGHT…” He cuts off his angry outburst, stares at the knothole, then looks up. “D’you think she did – y’know?”

“No.” I hold his eyes. “If she liked anyone, it was Joshua Smith. And he don’t exist. Remember?”

More staring at the floor. He knows I’m right. This is Heyes. Self-preservation is his middle na…

He looks up with that ‘I’m gonna keep repeating my idea until your ears bleed and you give in’ smile.

“We could just pay a friendly visit. Settle our bill. Hey! Maybe Ann’s had her baby? Don’t you wanna be civil? Go give our congratulations?”

Silence.

“We don’t hafta worry ’bout Matt Ridley. There was a report from the trial of Jed Butler in yesterday’s paper. It was held out in…”

Ah. So it ain’t just his new interest in the newspaper business making Heyes grab any journal he can get his hands on these days. He’s been waiting.

“…Y’know – the county town. Ridley was in court giving evidence and he’ll be off to spend his bounty somewhere a mite livelier than Arcadia, huh?”

Silence. I have nothing to say.

More quietly, “I’m going, Kid. You don’t hafta come. No hard feelings.”

That’s that then. I inhale deeply, square my shoulders and look him straight in the face. “Which train are we takin’?”

And, you know what? If it wasn’t for Heyes being – whatever – I’d like to go back, too.

-oooOOOooo-

The next morning, on the train, I hafta listen to Heyes trying to convince me going back to Arcadia isn’t a dumb idea. I don’t get to say much. Since Heyes could argue black’s white when he’s talking up a storm, you probably knew that without me telling you, huh?

“We go back, we say ‘hello’, she gets to see you walking around good as new. What’s wrong that?”

Nothing wrong with THAT. It’s the rest.

“Arcadia’s a nice quiet town, the kinda town we like. Just a friendly visit, Kid… Doesn’t hafta be any more than, does it?”

Yeah, right.

“I thought we once agreed, Heyes – we never turn a lady into a ‘good friend’.”

He pauses.

“Yeah, but look at this logically, Kid. Let’s suppose – just for the sake of argument – your suspicions are right and I’ve a soft spot for the doc. I’m not saying that’s true – but let’s suppose it – hypothetical like…”

Hypothetical? I guess he looked it up and it means ‘plain as the nose on your face’, huh?

“What possible outcomes does that give us? I see a couple straight off…”

Oh, sheesh. Maybe I’ll get lucky. Maybe the train’ll get held up.

“We go back and in five minutes flat it’s obvious she’s never given me so much as a second thought. Why should she, huh? That hug I got on the last night – she was upset; probably didn’t mean a thing. She’d probably laugh in your face if you suggested she’d be interested in someone like me. She can do better’n me, huh?”

“Sure,” I agree.

“Yeah, she…”

“She could hardly do worse,” I agree some more.

“Yeah, she…”

“Even if you weren’t wanted, you’d still be no catch. I can see that and the doc’s a dang sight smarter’n me, huh?”

“Yeah – HEY!”

“A woman like that could get someone with looks, charm, brains, money, prospects. Why settle for zero outta five?”

“I dunno, Kid. I was standing next to you mosta the time. You gotta allow that woulda made ME look good by comparison.”

I grin and decide to call that one a draw, which ain’t bad against Heyes.

“Scenario two,” pushes on Heyes.

Scenario? It’s that dang thesaurus! Every day’s ‘Big Word Day’ now.

“She’s given us a second thought or two – and none of ’em are good because she’s mad as fire we ran out without saying goodbye. And – quite right too!”

I keep my arms folded and the ‘Is zat so?!’ disbelief on my face, but – perhaps he’s right. I can’t really see Nell Meredith being a gal who you can ‘treat mean to keep her keen’. Though, you never know with women.

“Scenario three, still assuming I’ve a soft spot for the doc – and we’re still hypothetical here – it was probably brought on by being thrown together digging that bullet outta you, Kid. Maybe the situation threw a romantic light over her. I go back, take another look – wonder what all the fuss was about, end of story.”

Hmmm? Maybe. I mull on that for a second. Yeah, maybe.

If I’d ever pictured Heyes falling for anyone – which woulda been a big if – I’d have had my money on someone a lot less keen on laying down the law and, to be honest, a mite better looking than the doc.

-oooOOOooo-

ARCADIA – TUESDAY

“We’d like to see the doctor, ma’am,” says Heyes.

“Take a seat, gentlemen. He’ll be free in a few minutes.”

We arrived late last night. This morning, all bathed and barber shaved – plus haircut and bay rum for Heyes – we went to the surgery, knocking at the front not going round the back to the house entrance. We don’t recognise the young woman who let us in; I guess it might be one of Doc Cooper’s daughters. His eldest girls are – nineteen and twenty was it? – which’d be about right.

“It was Doctor Meredith we came to see, ma’am.”

Heyes gets a surprised and not particularly approving look. I guess – in fact I know, because Ann told me – some young men think it’s funny to ask to see the lady doctor and then present her with a ‘bet you’ve never seen anythin’ quite like that before, huh?’ show and tell.

“Doctor Meredith is out on rounds…”

“Off you go now! And keep the weight off it as much as you can.” The door of the consulting room opens and an affable looking man bustles out a boy with a bandaged ankle and an anxious looking mother. We touch our hats as she passes. “Ah, more patients, Lizzie? No rest for the wicked! Who’s first gentlemen?”

“We’re together,” says Heyes, stepping forward.

“Together?” repeats Doctor Cooper, but he ushers us into his room cheerfully enough. “A two-fer, huh? What seems to be trouble? I have to say you both look healthy enough.”

“We are, but a coupla months back Mister Jones,” Heyes nods at me, “…was anything but. He was a patient here – it was while you were away, Doc. Miss Meredith looked after him and we had to leave kinda sudden. We’ve come to settle our unpaid bill.” He pulls a roll of notes from inside his jacket.

Doctor Cooper smiles, “Come to pay your bill? Sounds good!” He pops his head through the door, “Lizzie – could you bring me the account books for May?” As he turns back, “Jones? Jones? Would that be Thaddeus Jones?”

“Uh huh.”

“It’s a pleasure to see you looking so well, Mister Jones. My partner told me all about your case. Any residual pain?”

“The odd twinge. Nothing to speak of, now.”

“I hope you’ll be in Arcadia long enough to see Doctor Meredith. She’d hate to miss you, Mister Jones. She’s spoken more than once about wanting to know how you were faring.”

“We were planning on staying a while, Doc,” says Heyes.

A while, huh? On the train it was a day or two.

“That’s good news, Mister – er…” By this time Doctor Cooper’s forefinger is flicking through a ruled notebook.

“Smith, Joshua Smith.”

“Oh, yes.”

I glance at Heyes to see how he’s taking only my name having been mentioned often enough to get remembered. He looks… I dunno.

“I’m confused, Mister Jones. These notes and accounts clearly show your bills as paid in full. Drugs – both oral and topical, board, provision of crutches, initial surgery – good heavens, I still can’t believe she succeeded in bringing off a lateral pelvic…”

“There must be a mistake, Doc…” interrupts Heyes.

“No. All settled. And the money sure balances with the books. Maybe you just didn’t realise it was the final total you were paying?” Heyes and I exchange a glance. We know that’s not true. He carries on, cheerfully, “You’d have to get up pretty early to catch Doctor Meredith out on her math. Replacement drugs and chloroform ordered and paid for. Same with the crutches. All in order. I’d sure like to relieve you of a few of those dollars, Mister Smith, but you and Mister Jones don’t owe this practise a thing.”

As he finishes, we hear the front door click open and bang shut. A familiar voice calls out, “Hello, Elizabeth, any messages?”

Heyes head jerks round like a cat who’s just heard a bird twitter in the bushes. I reckon he stops breathing, the way he used to sometimes when he was listening for that last tumbler to click into place.

Doctor Cooper is already calling out, “Helen! Come on in here, there’s someone I know you’ll be pleased to see.”

From his smile, I know he means ME and I’m pretty sure he’s only talking about how well my hip’s healed. Whatever’s in Nell’s head, it’s pretty clear she hasn’t given her boss any reason to think she’s pining over Joshua Smith. Just maybe his ‘scenario one’ was right. Maybe she’s not given him a second thoug…

Oh sheesh.

Nell bounces in, sees Heyes and – that’s that. One look at her face and I know ‘scenario one’ is a non-starter.

One glance at him and ‘scenario three – I realise she’s not so special after all, Kid’ is dead in the water too. I don’t blame him. At that moment, with her cheeks flushing up, her eyes sparkling, her lips opening to give a gasp of pleasure, lit from inside with happiness, she IS something pretty special.

That leaves me to pin my hopes on option two – she’ll be so mad at the way we walked out it won’t matter what she thought before. Well – just now she looks as if nothing Heyes decided to do could make her mad ever again, but like I said before, you never can tell with women.

-oooOOOooo-

NARRATTED BY NELL

He’s come back!

I walk into Doctor Cooper’s office, not expecting to see anyone in particular, and it IS someone in particular! It is BETTER than someone in particular. It is HIM! Looking just as I remember and smiling at me and…

I ought to be angry. At the very least, I ought to be cool and distant. To walk out without a word and never write. I ought to…

Maybe later.

Just for now, I don’t give the snap of my fingers about him going away. I only care that he came back. Just for now I am going to let my insides sing and dance and turn somersaults for joy. Calm good sense can wait half an hour, surely?

Of course, even while I silently whoop huzzahs, I hope I am not so ill-bred as to make my feelings obvious.

“Mister Jones! Mister Smith!” I make sure I put Thaddeus first, you see, because he was the actual patient. “What an unexpected pleasure! This is Mister Thaddeus Jones, Doctor Cooper. He is the…”

“I know! He was telling me.”

“How is your hip, Mister Jones? Please – would you walk for me?” I am trying not to look too often at HIM. I am ‘on duty’ you see. I will always put work first when ‘on duty’. Anyway, as I said, one does not care to be obvious.

Mister Jones looks as if he’d rather stay in his chair, but, as both Doctor Cooper and I smile, expectantly, he gets up and – sheepishly – strides away across the room. I frown. “Again,” I order. “Come back and walk away from me again.” He opens his mouth as if he is about to refuse, then, with a shrug and a grin, he obeys. I stare at the movement of the gluteus maximus muscles. “There is just a trace of – hardly a limp – more a sway,” I say.

“That’s just Jones’ swagger, ma’am.” HIS voice, teasing the way it used to! “Don’t make fun. He reckons it makes him look tough.”

I meet the brown eyes. Laughing, but – with something warm and serious behind the laughter. What he said is not all that funny, but it does not matter. I laugh back. His words free me to laugh for sheer, utter, absolute joy.

“These boys want to pay us twice,” beams Doctor Cooper, “…How about that for novelty?”

That stops me laughing. I know I blushed when I walked in and saw – him. Now I do not just blush, I turn red as fire. I did not lie to Doctor Cooper, nor to my Aunt, nor Ann, nor Sheriff Fraser. Not LIE. Not really. I – equivocated. I said all the bills had been settled – which was not exactly a lie by the time I said it; and, I let Aunt Miriam think Mister Smith and Mister Jones had said a proper goodbye to me and sent their respects to her; and I let Ann think…

I do not know why.

I suppose I…

I wanted to…

I did not want other people – people who matter to me – thinking badly of him. There.

Doctor Cooper watches my face. We have worked side by side for a good while now. He knows me and is no fool. How can he be? He took me on as a junior partner, did he not?

“Doctor Meredith, did you pay these bills yourself?”

I hesitate. I cannot tell a direct, thumping lie to Doctor Cooper. Well, maybe I CAN, but I won’t! I have never told a direct, thumping out and out lie to ANYONE. Not since I grew up, I mean. ALL little children tell lies. I may have been an annoying, opinionated little bookworm, but I was not so singular as all that!

“You shouldn’t have done that,” his voice is very kind, “…just because I was away doesn’t mean I shouldn’t take my usual share of any bad debts.”

“You have Peter at college,” I say, gruffly. “And the other boys still away at school and Sally’s wedding to pay for later in the year and…” I break off. I do not know quite why I am so embarrassed. It is not as if I have been caught with my hand in the till, is it? Nor have I made some kind of exaggerated, noble gesture worthy of a heroine in a cheap, silly novel. What has it cost me? Having to wear last year’s summer party frocks rather than having new ones made. A good trim to my book orders over the coming months. Not exactly a major sacrifice, is it?

I do not look at Mister Smith. Again, I am not entirely sure why. It is not as if my behaviour has given HIM anything to complain of.

I am glad he came back, though. I mean to settle up, once he could. OBVIOUSLY I am glad he came back ANYWAY! If you have not picked that up by now – there is no hope for you!

“How much do I owe you, ma’am?” he asks, very quietly.

“Nothing! It doesn’t matter. You told me you couldn’t pay.”

But, Doctor Cooper turns around the ledger and points at the total.

Joshua Smith’s eyebrows rise, “Sheesh, Thaddeus. If I’d known your hip cost that much I’d’a tried to trade it for something useful!”

He peels notes from a slim – I believe the apt term might be wad – and holds them out to me. I look at the ‘wad’. Where did he get that? Did he win it gambling?

I suppose it is none of my business.

No, not ‘suppose’. It IS none of my business.

Not unless we become a cou…

And, that is not very likely however much I think I saw his face light up when I walked in and whatever seeing him again did to my insides.

Besides, I do not exactly disapprove of gambling, per se. I just…

Could the men he won the money from afford to lose it? Did he know? Did he care?

What is in my mind is the four or five thin, anxious women I know whose husbands lose most of their earnings every week over the poker table. Them and their hungry, cold, crying children whose ailments and bruises I treat – knowing the most useful prescription would be a change of father – and whose bills I also occasionally sign off as paid after dipping into my own purse, against my better judgement.

He is very clever. If he sat at a card table with those five family men, he could strip their pockets – and their children’s plates and skinny backs – bare within the hour. And, by all masculine rules it would be entirely ‘fair’.

It is this thought that makes my voice stiffer than it would otherwise be as I wave away the money. “No, I couldn’t possibly.” Perhaps I am misjudging him. Perhaps he earned it by honest toil. Even if he won it, perhaps every other player was comfortably rich and simply enjoying frittering away their loose change. Who knows?

We are falling into a dumb-show of ‘please take it’, ‘I couldn’t possibly’. Doctor Cooper clears his throat, “May I make a suggestion? Why not put it into the benevolent fund? Call it a mutual donation.”

I give Joshua Smith the tiniest twitch of a questioning eyebrow. An almost imperceptible ‘fine with me’ shrug of the shoulders in response. We smile at each other, as I tuck the money in an envelope, ready to hand over. I think I should not be so quick to suspect him of… Well, of anything.

“Thank you,” I say. A pause. I want to ask what made them leave so suddenly, Doctor Cooper is here. “Are you staying at Brown’s Hotel?” I enquire instead.

“Yes, ma’am,” from Mister Jones. His friend looks as if he is about to add something, but nothing comes.

Pause.

“Will you call on the Buchanan’s?” I sound as if I am making small talk! And for three weeks we lived in the same house and had so much to say to each other, the days were not long enough.

“Uh huh.” Mister Jones again. “How is she?”

“Huge!” I grin, “…I have my money on three weeks today.” I remember my thoughts about gambling not two minutes ago and blush.

Both men smile back at me. Joshua Smith is still apparently about to speak, but not doing so.

Pause. Elo-o-o-ongated pause.

“Well,” begins Doctor Cooper, “…Is there anything else we can do for you gentlemen?” The unstated ‘because if not, may I have my office back?’ is clear.

They both stand. I hold out my hand, “Good-bye, Mister Jones.”

“Good-bye, ma’am.”

“Good-bye, Mister Smith.”

He shakes my hand and… Is he going to say anything? No? No? I suppose I could say something myself. I yap on enough about the equality of the sexes. But… Well! This is not a question of political involvement or social reform, is it? There are some areas in which even I believe the man should lead off – like dancing! He puts on his hat, heads for the door. Nothing! Oh, well. I daresay I will live. I was becoming quite reconciled to his never returning at all. Ah! He wheels round, the hat comes off again, he takes a breath, I am treated to a charming smile and…

“I wonder, ma’am, could I take you to dinner tonight to celebrate Jones’ recovery and to thank you for what you did?”

What? Dinner tonight? What does he mean – dinner tonight? He is supposed to say, ‘may I call on your aunt?’, or ‘which day are you and your aunt ‘at home’, ma’am? – may I call?’

“That is very kind, but I am speaking at the debating society tonight, Mister Smith. The topic is, ‘What should be the principle objective of our penal system?’ Perhaps we may see you there? At the church hall, seven’o’clock.”

“Sure, ma’am. We wouldn’t miss that, would we Thaddeus?” I notice Mister Jones blinks a touch, at this. Poor chap, the chairs aren’t even comfortable. “What about tomorrow – for dinner that is?”

What shall I say? Er… “I am afraid my aunt may be engaged, Mister Smith. I can’t answer for her. But, perhaps you had planned to invite another hostess?”

His face falls, just a touch, although the smile stays in place. He must realise, though, I cannot possibly join a man for dinner in a public hotel without a married woman to receive me? Or at any rate, I am not going to! I flout enough conventions in my working life. Sticking strictly to the rules in my off-duty hours is a way of keeping censorious and disapproving tongues under some control and letting that working life continue.

Lunch. He could ask me to lunch. We could take Thaddeus Jones with us, maybe ask Lizzie Cooper to come along to make a four. Lunch combines broad daylight, comparative brevity since everyone needs to get back to work, informality – you can almost just turn up and happen to join them at their table – with an utter lack of candlelight and romance. Lunch for four would be perfectly acceptable; it would raise not a single disapproving eyebrow.

He does not ask though. He leaves.

Never mind. I will have a word with Ann and Charles. They can ask him to supper, casually, nothing too obvious. The fact I happen to be invited on the same night will be a complete co-incidence.

After all, what are friends for?

-oooOOOooo-

CHAPTER SEVEN

NARRATTED BY KID CURRY

Heyes is kinda quiet all afternoon. He knew, we both knew, Nell don’t live in town mosta the time, just works there. We both knew that mosta the time she isn’t THE doctor, she’s ‘that other gal doctor’. We both knew it, but I think it took walking through that surgery door and things being so different for it to hit home. It’s hit home to Heyes, now. I reckon part of him imagined coming back and it being the same – Nell and Ann both in the parlour, cosy evenings talking and reading and laughing together, them trooping up to their room, us going to ours, taking turns making the breakfast coffee. I feel a pang myself – happy times.

We go call on Ann, meet the wonderful Charles. Nice guy. Talks a lot, but I’m broken in to folk who talk a lot, huh?

We go see the guy at the livery, buy a coupla horses and gear after agreeing on a price he’ll take ’em back at if we take the train out again. We go for a ride. Not the first time I’ve been back in the saddle since the accident, but we still take it gentle. Heyes heads west outta town, not far, a coupla miles. We go over a ridge from which we can look down at the Hartleman place. Where Aunt Miriam lives; where Nell lives except for when she stays over at the Coopers. He don’t say that’s where he’s heading, but you don’t hafta be a genius to work it out, huh?

He stops on the ridge and leans forward on his saddle-horn, stares down into the valley. He flashes me a rueful grin, “Pretty fancy, huh?”

“Uh huh.”

Pause.

“Fancy a beer before we go listen to this debate at the Church Hall, Kid?”

“Nope.”

He looks surprised.

“What I fancy, Heyes, is four or five beers INSTEAD of goin’ to this dang debate. Maybe a friendly game of poker.”

“I’m not allowed poker in this town.”

“I am.”

“Well,” he shifts in his saddle, “…we’re not joined at the hip, Kid. Suit yourself.”

-oooOOOooo-

“…Are you staying in Arcadia long, Mister Jones?” It’s Hannah Tammett, Fred’s sister, asking, as she passes me a glass of lemonade.

“We’ve not exactly decided, ma’am. Probably not.”

“How exciting it must be, travelling so much!”

Yeah, right.

“I’ve never been out of Arcadia, but I’d love to travel.”

“Uh huh?”

“Would you like another slice of cherry cake, Mister Jones?” This is from Jenny Cooper. Sheesh! How many daughters does the doc have?

“Thank you, ma’am.”

You’ve probably gathered that though we ain’t joined at the hip, I still went to this dang debate. Sheesh! Can some folk TALK! But, at least I’m not sitting in the saloon wondering what hole Heyes is digging us into. This part of the evening isn’t so bad. Pretty girls smiling and passing refreshments, yapping about ordinary stuff, not ‘penal reform’. The clutch around me are all a touch young, but no way am I gonna add to our problems by showing more’n a polite interest in ANYONE female anyhow, so it don’t matter. I guess Hannah and Jenny are both here because in a small town a gal takes any chance she can to put on her best ribbons, fluff up her hair and go where she can mingle with her friends and be seen by the local bucks. A coupla hands from the lumber mill who joined me in having to listen to the yapping earlier with their eyes shut at times – to concentrate, y’know – are hanging near these two gals and looking glum at seeing a new face get the attention.

I glance over at Heyes. He’s hovering near Nell, who’s talking earnestly to a couple of fellas in suits and two much older ladies. He’s joining in but he’s not getting her to himself, I’d say he’s not even getting more’n a fifth share of her attention. She looks over and smiles. One of the other ladies looks over too; no smile. I cannot hear, but I reckon Nell is making polite ‘excuse me’ noises. She comes across, non-smiler and the younger of the suits come with her. So does Heyes.

“This is my partner, Thaddeus Jones, ma’am. Thaddeus, this is Mrs. Rotherham and her son, Will.”

Rotherham? That name’s come up before. THIS is the one who Nell calls ‘THAT woman!’ after Ladies’ Committee nights. I gather they don’t see eye to eye on – well anything; anything ‘cept ‘I oughta be the one bossing folk round’ that is.

She looks me up and down. “Did you enjoy the debate, Mister Jones?”

“You sure can talk, ma’am.”

Heyes scowls at me. Why? What was wrong with that?! If I said what I really thought he’d have something to scowl about! Besides, how many of these dang townsfolk are we trying to make a good impression on?

“Doctor Meredith, would you like me to fetch you more lemonade?” asks Will Rotherham.

He’s hovering like…

HEY! He’s hovering like Heyes!

Maybe, that explains some of the disapproval wafting from his mother towards Nell. It’s not just ‘who’s queen bee?’ it’s ‘hands off my son’. Or not? Maybe she approves and it’s Heyes making her look like she’s sucking a lemon?

Not that Heyes REALLY has a rival. I can see Nell acts perfectly friendly to Will Rotherham in a way that means she’s never so much as noticed he likes her. With Heyes she’s trying her level best to act the same way, but is kinda conscious of where he is all the time and when he takes her empty glass their fingers touch and, though she don’t so much as pause in what she’s saying, her cheeks glow.

“…I thought you made your arguments very skilfully, Doctor Meredith,” he – Will I mean, not Heyes – is saying.

“Well, I was only seconder, Mister Rotherham. Charles was the proposer…”

Charles Buchanan turns around from where he’s telling the local reverend more than he wants to know ’bout labour conditions in ‘Frisco. Ann’s not here, I think the heat’s getting to her now she’s so near her time.

“Did I hear my name being taken in vain?”

“However skilfully the argument was made,” sniffs Mrs. Rotherham, “…I cannot agree that the principle object of our prisons should be molly-coddling criminals in cosseted comfort at the expense of law-abiding and tax-paying citizens.”

“If you thought that’s what Doctor Meredith and I were saying, ma’am, I guess I wasn’t skilful at all,” smiles Charles.

“Your newspaper certainly seems to consider that that outlaw, Jed Butler, has been treated too harshly…”

I guess this month’s debate topic – they do this EVERY month and here was me thinking Arcadia was kinda on the slow side, huh? – has come outta the excitement they had back in May.

“And it was clear last month that you thought the sentence excessive, Miss Meredith.”

“Doctor Meredith,” corrects Nell, civilly. I wonder how many hundreds of times she’s corrected ‘that woman’?

“And, yes,” chimes in Charles, “I think fifteen years hard labour for Jed Butler is harsh. ‘Hard labour’, the very term seems to epitomise what’s wrong with…”

“You’d have him sitting around in idleness, I suppose?” interrupts Mrs. Rotherham.

“Surely…” We are back to Nell. “It would be more to the point if the labour were constructive, or uplifting, or restitutional, or educational? What is the point of breaking his spirit further? Won’t that simply turn him out still more disaffected in fifteen years? I hope I’m not so naïve as to believe everyone can be reformed, but I think people can change and if we can help, let’s do so should be our default position.”

Nell sure is a windbag sometimes, but I reckon she’s got a good heart under all these fancy notions.

“Oh, I must go and speak to Reverend Alleyn, excuse me, Mrs. Rutherford,” and, one cheek swollen with a huge last bite of cherry cake, she bounces away.

-oooOOOooo-

I don’t reckon Heyes got Nell completely to himself for two minutes together. He’s watching though and, as soon as she glances at the clock, he’s there, offering to walk her home. Well, back to the Cooper place; she’s staying over – it’s midweek.

“That’s very kind, Mister Smith.”

He fetches her shawl, as he holds it up Sally Cooper and her beau walk over. “Yes, I guess it’s time to leave, Nell. Where’s Jenny and Lizzie? Come along, girls.”

Jenny’s still standing by me. She smiles so hopefully, I go fetch her shawl. I fetch Hannah’s too, her place is on the way to the Coopers. They’re both nice kids. Hannah’s mother appears from nowhere to walk with us all. Charles Buchanan buttons his jacket and starts talking to Heyes about the newspaper.

“…We can discuss this at supper, tomorrow,” tries Heyes, but Charles stays by him.

We’re going to the Buchanans tomorrow, huh? It’s news to me! I see Nell throw Charles a grateful look. Ah, I see. Well, at least the chairs there have cushions and I’ll get something a mite stronger’n lemonade to drink

It’s a good job my partner has a poker-face, otherwise I reckon it would have been a real picture as he realised what he saw as a moonlight stroll for two – me making myself scarce at the corner where we turn for the hotel, is now a party of nearly a dozen trouping along.

“Nell, can I talk to you?” trills Hannah; and she slips her arm through Nell’s and pulls her aside as we set off. Heyes is not getting so much as a hand resting on his sleeve. His only compensation has to be that SHE looks put out too.

-oooOOOooo-

After saying good-night to the crowd gathered round Nell at her door, we go to the saloon for something to wash away the taste of all that lemonade. Heyes is pretty quiet. We go back to our hotel. He’s still pretty quiet. Every cloud, huh?

“Heyes…”

“Uh huh?”

“If that evenin’ was part of a Hannibal Heyes plan, I hafta say – it wasn’t one of your best.”

-oooOOOooo-

NEXT EVENING – WEDNESDAY – NARRATTED BY KID CURRY

“Aren’t we waiting for…? I thought we were expecting Miss Meredith?” Heyes tries to sound casual, as Ann leads us to the table.

This evening IS better. I’m getting wine to drink and proper food. And I like Ann. I like Charles too. Supper at their place is fine with me.

“Oh, she’ll be running late, she won’t mind us starting,” says Ann.

Heyes does no justice to the cold roast chicken with salad. He’s not even touching his baked potato. What a waste! Nor is he giving his full mind to talking to Charles and Ann about working on the paper again, though I can tell he WOULD be real interested if he weren’t busy twitching every time he hears footsteps in the street.

A blueberry pie arrives. It’s good!

“Maybe something’s happened to her?” This interrupts what Ann is telling him about a fund-raising dance the reverend’s wife is organising.

“Who – Mrs. Alleyn?” asks Charles, confused. Whatever else Ann has told him, she’s not filled him in on all her suspicions about Nell and Heyes. If she has suspicions, that is. I’m only guessing.

“No, Ne… Miss Meredith. Perhaps something’s happened to her.”

“I wouldn’t worry,” says Ann, “it’ll only be her getting held up with a patient.”

“I don’t know,” grins Charles, “…last time she didn’t turn up for supper, she was reading a mystery novel in the bath and got so caught up in the plot she forgot the time. And there was the time she’d double booked herself and was over at Miss Skinner’s place toasting cheese and planning the time when women win the vote and give all us men our well-deserved comeuppance.” He spoons up some more cream. “Made a change from her doing her scheming with Ann and them both shooting me looks as if to say; come the glorious day, he’ll be first against the wall!”

“Charles! You make it sound as if she… You know perfectly well those two times were the most casual of ‘come over later if you like’ invitations!”

“Oh, Nell knows we’d never take offence if something else came up.”

Heyes frowns as he pushes his pie round his plate. The Buchanans may not take offence but I reckon I can guess what’s going through his mind.

She hasn’t turned up.

She’d a chance to spend a friendly evening with him – with a dang sight more chance of a little privacy than last night – and she hasn’t bothered to turn up.

Maybe she preferred to stay warm and cosy with her nose in a book.

Maybe she’d rather be round with the schoolmarm yapping about politics.

Heyes is already feeling kinda touchy ‘cos he’s running outta ways to pretend he’s NOT come back to moon over the doc AND I made him listen to just how dumb I think mooning over her makes him. Having to sit there, in front of me wearing my ‘I told ya so!’ look – I’m trying not to, but, sheesh, I’m not a saint! – is getting to him.

As soon as we’ve drunk our coffee, with a tot of whiskey livening it up – told you this was a better evening – Heyes is on his feet, full of polite thank yous. I was enjoying a few reminiscences ’bout ‘Frisco with Charles, but – no, Heyes reckons we gotta go.

“So soon?” Ann’s saying. “It’s early. Do stay for another coffee…”

“Nell will be so sorry to have missed…” This is Charles.

Heyes interrupts him, “You’ve both been real hospitable, but we oughta go. Mrs. Buchanan is tired.”

I shoot a look at Ann. Well, maybe. She looks less tired than when we turned up if you ask me, but I guess that’s natural as the evening cools.

We’re shaking hands out on the porch when we see a small figure in the distance doing a kinda walk three paces, run three paces trot along the street. ‘It’ – though I guess you don’t hafta be a genius to work out who it is, huh? I’m not exactly Edgar Allen Poe when it comes to telling this – looks up and, I guess, sees us leaving. ‘It’ stops trotting, lifts up its skirts with one hand and clamps the other on its head to keep its hat in place and starts to run properly. For someone on the short, dumpy side, she sure can cover the ground!

“No need to panic,” Charles calls, cheerfully, once she gets within hearing distance, “…We put your potato in the stove to keep warm and the chicken in the ice box to keep cool. We even saved you a glass or two of wine.”

She’s here. Scarlet in the face and panting for breath, she gasps, “You’re – heeeeeek – not lea – heeek, heeek – leavin – hwacccchhhhh…”

“Yes, we must go,” says Heyes, all cool. He don’t meet her eyes, just makes a big show of being real casual, as he brushes non-existent dust off his sleeve. I guess you don’t hafta be under twenty to behave like an idiot, huh?

“Did you have a difficult patient, Nell?” asks Ann. She looks as if she’d like to slap Heyes, but she’s too much of a lady to say anything.

Heyes flashes a tiny glance at Nell. If she says ‘yes’, I reckon he’ll come off his high horse.

“No – heeeeek…”

Sheesh! I know she has a thing about only telling the truth, but come on, Nell!

“Just everyone ALL day – heek – took longer than – heeek!” She bends over clutching her side. “Stitch! Owww! And, mylastcallwasatthe – heeeek – Robinsonsand – OWWW! – onceIhadchangedJimsdressingshe – heek, OWWW – askedmetolistentothebabyscoughandthen – hwaaachhh – tolookatJessiesrash – heeek – notthattheresmuchwrongwitheitherofthembutitseemsch urlishto…” Splutter.

“Try breathing,” smiles Charles. “I don’t claim to have a medical training, but, speaking as a layman, I find it works wonders.”

“You ran all the way from the Robinson’s?” admires Ann, “That’s two miles. No wonder you’re so…”

Again Heyes eyes flick up. If she ran all that way to see him…

“No,” says Nell, getting her breath now.

Oh, for Pete’s sake! You don’t hafta lie, woman! What’s wrong with a silent eyelash flutter?

“I needed to go back to the Coopers…”

I look at her. It dawns on me that what she’s wearing has a ruffle round the hem, a flower print and is kinda – well, kinda pinker than what she usually wears. Her hair’s different too, not so tightly pinned. Those bits over her ears haven’t just worked loose in the sprint. She set out with a coupla curls left free at the front. Before they got plastered flat with sweat and the back mussed up running, it musta looked kinda pretty. Before she got all shiny red like a lobster and kicked up so much dust over her damp face you’d think she’d done a shift in a stone quarry, SHE musta looked kinda pretty too.

She went back to get herself gussied up, didn’t she? For Heyes. Okay, she made the wrong call; turning up sooner woulda been a better choice, but, all the same – it’s the kinda mistake natural enough for a girl. Or even an ‘I’m not a girl, I’m a woman’.

Maybe the same kinda thing is going on in Heyes’ head. His voice is still a touch stiff, but he does meet her eyes and he does turn on a little of the silver tongue charm, “I reckon tomorrow’s gonna be another lovely day, ma’am. I was thinking how nice it’d be to take a ride out to the lake…”

“I’m sure you’ll enjoy that very much, Mister Smith. I wish I could find time tomorrow to enjoy some of this glorious weather, but I’m afraid I’m booked solid all day and Ann and I are engaged with Miss Skinner – campaigning work – in the evening.”

Heyes’ smile switches off. Whatever he pictured happening in Arcadia, it wasn’t this. I guess his opinion is that since he’s offering Nell the privilege of his company, SHE oughta show some appreciation of how dang lucky she is and put the rest of her life on hold while he’s around. NOW, I ain’t saying any normal fella don’t like to feel his gal would rather spend time spooning than yapping with two other gals, BUT – Nell isn’t his gal, is she? AND, if he wants to change that – he oughta take the scowl off his face and stop acting like a jackass.

“My first real free time will be at the dance Mrs. Alleyn has organised this Friday. Apart from now. It is a shame you can’t stay a while now. It’s a lovely evening – now. This evening – right now – is made for sitting out on the porch.”

Silence from Heyes.

“I’m looking forward to Friday, I love dancing,” says Nell.

Come on Heyes. From her that’s the equivalent of grovelling at your feet. He seems to realise this.

“If I could have the pleasure of escorting you, Miss Mered…?”

“Mister Rutherford offered to escort me some weeks ago, but I hope we will see both you there?” He gets a sweet smile. “One can never have too many agreeable partne…”

Heyes gets back on his high horse so quick you wouldn’t notice he’d climbed off. “I dunno, ma’am. Jones and I mighta left town by then. Not much to keep us here, huh? We won’t take up any more of your time, you being so busy and all. Goodnight.” To Ann, “Goodnight, ma’am, goodnight, Buchanan. Thank you both for a real fine evening.”

“Goodnight,” says Ann, quietly. “Come along, Charles.” And, they go in.

“Goodnight,” echoes Nell, mounting a high horse of her own and stalking past Heyes with her nose in the air. “I’m sure you have a full evening of drinking whiskey, smoking cheap cigars and playing cards with total strangers before drifting off to another short-term casual job which neither uses the talents you were born with, nor is of any use whatsoever to the greater good of mankind. Don’t let me keep you from that any longer.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t!” says Heyes, but he says it to a shut door. “Conceited, self-righteous…”

“Hey!” I warn. The doc saved my life. If he calls her anything too bad, I may hafta flatten him.

“Does she think I’ve nothing better to do than hang around a church hall waiting for the chance of a coupla dances with her?”

“I think she KNOWS that, Heyes.”

“What makes her think she’s so dang special?”

“Beats me. Wanna tell me what makes YOU think she’s so dang special?”

He glowers at that. Half a street of silent striding and fuming. “Another casual job that don’t use my talents… Huh! Who the Sam Hill does she think she is? Y’know what I reckon?”

“I reckon I’m gonna.”

“I reckon she reckons I’ll turn up at that dang dance!”

“I reckon she’s right.”

Now, y’know in some ways it’d suit me just fine if Heyes came to his senses and saw there was no point hanging around Arcadia a day longer. So why I felt the need to say THAT, I dunno. I see his face and shut up.

Like I say, I’m not exactly in the match-making corner, am I?

Another half street of silence.

“Are we leavin’ town, Heyes?”

“Nope! But if she thinks I’m stayin’ ‘cos of her, she can dang well think again!”

I face him. “Heyes, you’re a jackass!” That pretty much sums up all I gotta say on the subject. I turn on my heel and stride into the nearest saloon.

-oooOOOooo-

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