8. Part Three, Chs 16 to 17

PART THREE

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

NARRATTED BY NELL

Though I have seen him so many times now, my tummy still flips whenever he walks through the door. (Not literally, obviously! I may be head over heels in love, but I have not forgotten that stomachs actually stay put. My heart races too, but that IS real! Documented reaction to excitement.) When I think of what we were doing – was it really only yesterday – part of me wants to curl up with shame, part of me wants to shout my joy from the rooftops.

I like the second part of me best!

They ask after Ann; just fine but resting upstairs.

They ask after Charles Junior; just fine but – not surprisingly – also resting upstairs.

For a change, it is Thaddeus doing most of the talking. Joshua is very quiet, looking at me. His hat twists in his hands.

A pause.

“Charles,” says Thaddeus, taking a deep breath, “Why don’t I take you to the saloon, buy you a beer to celebrate you becoming a father?”

“Er, we have beer here. Let me…”

“No. Let me take you to the saloon. A quick beer. Just you an’ me, huh?.”

Charles eyes go from me to Joshua and back again. Light dawns. “Oh! Right! A beer. That sounds real fine, Thaddeus.” He pauses at the door, “If Ann wakes up and asks where I am, Nell, you’ll…”

“I’ll tell her you ran back to ‘Frisco after only one afternoon of squawking,” I smile.

“And if little Charles wakes up, you’ll…”

“I’ll see if I can trade him for something quiet, dry and useful. Charles, I think I can cope with any waking up emergencies for the duration of one beer.”

He gives a rueful grin, claps his hat on his head and walks out.

Thaddeus throws Joshua a meaningful look, before following Charles onto the street.

So, HE wants to speak to me alone, about something on which he has already briefed his best friend in all the world.

Unless, that is, his best friend in all the world is now ME.

Because, the something can only be one thing – can it not?

He is going to ask THE question.

He is doing it now, so I know for sure he means to support me through the coming trial. I knew anyway. I trust him so much…

“So,” I smile, throwing my arms around my lover’s neck and lifting up my face to be kissed, “…What shall we talk about?”

He pulls me close, strains me to him so tight I gasp, but only for a second. I hear him draw in his breath. I wait to hear those four little words from this wonderful, beautiful man whom I utterly adore.

“Helen,” my arms are unwrapped from his neck; I am not kissed. “I hafta leave.”

They are NOT the correct four little words.

“Leave? You only just arrived.”

“I hafta leave Arcadia. Jones and me – we got a telegram. An old friend wants us to go do a job for him.”

Oh! That came out of the blue. My heart sinks. Not only because of the fact I will miss him so much while he is away, but because…

This feels wrong. It does not ring true.

No, no! Two seconds ago I was thinking how much I trust him. I DO trust him.

“Who is this friend?” I have never heard him talk about any friend except Thaddeus Jones. “What kind of job?” It makes no difference, does it? Except… If this is just an excuse – why?

“His name’s Trevors.” He does not answer the question about the job. Instead, “I really do hafta do this, Helen. Trust me. I wouldn’t go otherwi…”

“When do you plan to leave?”

“Tomorrow. Thaddeus and I will ride out first thing. Helen, I want you to know how very, very special my time here has…”

Tomorrow! As in, in less than twelve hours tomorrow. As in, this is the last time I see him until… Until when?

“How long will you be gone?” I interrupt.

I do not want to hear how special the time we have together is. I know that! I want to know when it will start again. NO! I want to know when we will have nearly all our time together!

“I dunno, Helen. It could be… I dunno.” He stops. “It’s hard to say. Y’know, it’s not as if me and Thaddeus have what you’d call a settled lifestyle. Maybe one day…” He stops.

What? The pause lengthens. Well… Go on! You must have more to say than that.

He takes my hand, presses it. “Goodbye, Helen.” He moves in, he is going to kiss me.

No! I am NOT having a goodbye kiss.

“No!” I hold him off. “Have you nothing more to say? What about us?”

“Us – was real special, Helen, I want you to know…”

“Stop it! Stop with the extra kind, oh-so-understanding voice! What are you talking about? You and Thaddeus don’t have a settled lifestyle? Where did THAT come from?” My hands go to my hips, as I stare at him. “Firstly, what on earth has Thaddeus to do with US?! I like Thaddeus very much but, when you talk about yourself as half of a couple, Joshua, the only other name I expect to hear mentioned is mine! Secondly, unless I’ve been dreaming, you have a perfectly settled lifestyle here if you want it! Here would be fine until we move to Denver…”

“Move to Denver?!”

“We talked about it! I was saying how I’d need a reasonably urban environment to support a suitable practice, and YOU said you’d always thought Denver a real nice town!”

He DID say that! Admittedly, I have made it sound as if the two comments were more linked than maybe they were. I have been reading up on Denver! Planning where…

“Helen…”

“You want us to live somewhere else? I’m open to suggestions.”

“Helen…”

Finally, I see this situation and my stupid, stupid self for what they truly are. I admit what I have been trying not to know ever since he took my hands from around his neck.

You fool, Nell! You utter fool! You think you are SO clever and you have made the oldest, dumbest mistake a girl can make.

“You don’t want US to live anywhere, ever,” all the feeling, all the young hope, has bled from my voice. It sounds bleak as winter in the quiet room.

Nothing.

“You’re not waiting for the right moment to propose. There IS no right moment. Or rather, from your point of view, the right moment is never.”

His mouth opens, closes again. Then, a flash of the old Joshua. “I thought,” he says, “marriage was deeply flawed within our current society. Far from being based on love, it is often a mostly commercial transaction…”

He is quoting things I said all those weeks ago when he and Ann and I had evening after evening at the Coopers. He is trying to lighten the mood.

“Stop it!” I do not WANT to lighten the mood. If what I think is happening IS happening, this is one very dark day and deserves a mood to match.

“I’m only repeating something a real clever woman told me.”

“Whatever the flaws, marriage is the ONLY way we can be together. You know that. I know that. I certainly don’t want to sink into provider and helpmeet roles; I don’t want to tie either of us down to 365 days of domesticity a year. BUT, I love you, Joshua Smith. I want my life linked with yours. Until two minutes ago I believed you loved me…”

“I do, Helen.”

And, do you know what? A foolish part of me still believes that. He looks so…

But…

What WOULD a gifted seducer swearing true love look like? He would look like an honest man, deep in love, speaking from the heart.

Like this.

Words are only air. It is actions which reveal the truth.

If he leaves, without…

“You don’t. If you did, you’d want to marry me. And, you don’t.” Pause. “Do you?” Silence. “You have no intention of coming back at all, have you?”

Silence. Then, “It’s not that I don’t want to…”

A thought strikes me. It would still hurt. It would mean he’s a liar, but – it would explain.

“Have you a wife, already? Is that it?”

“No! Helen, please listen…”

“No. I loved you. I trusted you. I was wrong. Go away.”

“I love…”

“I don’t care to hear it. Go away.”

“Helen. Don’t…”

“Look!” I was trying to retain some dignity, but now the words explode from my mouth. “Why are you STILL trying to sweet talk me? You won! You got what you wanted. You got me to fall on my back and spread my legs! Go away and cut another notch on your belt, or your gun handle – or wherever it is you keep score – then ride on to the next town! Go away!”

D*mn it! I am starting to cry. My voice is shaking so much that last ‘go away’ was little more that a hiccup.

“It wasn’t like that! Don’t think that!”

“It sure looks like that from where I’m standing. One quick **** and next day, what do you know, you’re riding out!”

He flinches at the ugly, ugly word. I do not care! It is not ‘making love’ if only one of us was stupid enough to mean it!

Frantically, I search first pockets, then my sleeves, for a handkerchief. D*mn and blast and…

“Please don’t cry, Helen…” He holds out a clean linen square to me.

“I am NOT crying!”

Not quite! Not yet! I am NOT crying in front of him! I am not taking ANYTHING from him neither. Not even a handkerchief. I pluck a diaper from a pile, blow my nose on that, mop up as best I can.

“Go away!”

“Please…”

I turn on my heel, go open the front door. “I asked you to leave, Mister Smith.” I do not look at him. Not then. Not when he picks up his hat and walks past me. I close the door behind him, lean against it. I lean there for a long time. I have no idea how long. I am waiting for it – this – to sink in. Or, maybe I am waiting to wake up from this bad dream.

It does not sink in. I do not wake up.

I walk upstairs, taking the steps very steadily, because my knees feel like jelly. I grip the banister tightly, because my hands shake like leaves.

“Ann,” I say very softly as I push open her door. “Are you still asleep?”

“No,” she sits up, wincing just a touch. “I’m starving! Is it anywhere near supper ti… Nell! What is it?”

“Nothing,” my voice wavers on the lie.

If I were as strong as I like to pretend, I would say, ‘his loss!’ and shrug this off.

But, I am not, am I?

I am not as strong, nor as clever, nor as rational, nor as – ANYTHING – as I like to pretend.

I should not burden Ann with any of this. But…

A gurgling sob, smothered behind my hand because I do not want to wake the baby, bubbles out of my mouth and nostrils. I run over and crumple to the floor beside the bed, burying my head in the quilt.

Out of me comes a mostly meaningless burble of self-reproach, pleadings for secrecy, whimpers, what seems like half a pint of tears, half a pint of drool and a whole pint of snot, cussing of men, cussing of myself and the odd animal-like howl of pain delivered, quietly as I can, into a pillow.

Ann is utterly wonderful. I am stroked and soothed and shushed; what bit of me she can rock, is rocked. A little later, my nose is blown, my face is washed, my hair is tidied. Ann has only been a mother for half a day, but she is a natural.

And, just now, I need mothering nearly as much as her little son does.

-oooOOOooo-

By the time we hear Charles coming through the front door, I am sipping hot sweet tea and, through sore and puffy eyelids, watching Ann feed the baby.

Life is still bleak, but, I would have to be an ungrateful wretch not to at least make an effort to count a few blessings. If only the cruel, twisting ache would ease up and the wrenching hollow emptiness stop. I know perfectly well there is no such thing as a broken heart, but now, I certainly understand where the term came from. This really hurts.

Charles takes one look at me and his mouth falls open.

Oh, d*mn it! I know human beings are mostly water, but this is ridiculous! I cannot start to cry again already! D*MN it!

Believe me – however much you despise me for being so utterly wringing wet, it is not half so much as I despise myself.

-oooOOOooo-

AT THE SALOON – SHORTLY AFTERWARDS – NARRATED BY KID CURRY

Charles was pretty disappointed when I told him we were leaving town. I reckon he’d got Heyes pegged to be right hand man in ensuring the girls got the kinda publicity they’re after.

He hoped it wouldn’t be too long before we were back in Arcadia.

I said, we were both real happy here.

He guessed Joshua was settling things with Nell.

I said, I guessed so too.

It’s what Heyes calls equivocating. It’s not lying, but it kinda feels dang close when I’m doing it to a fella who’s been so straight with both of us.

Mind you, it’s not real hard to get Charles OFF the subject of why we’re going and when we’ll be back and ON the subject of how his son’s the most wonderful object in the entire world and is clearly gonna be president one day.

Heyes looks – strange – when he arrives. I reckon he tried to pace some of whatever he’s feeling off, but – it’s not worked too well. On the surface he’s wearing a smile and acting normal. But the eyes are…

Charles, who’s still pretty much floating, assumes it’s nothing more than a fella facing a few weeks of missing his gal. He kinda pats Heyes on the shoulder, tells him his job’s open when he gets back, tells him absence makes the heart grow fonder.

I sure hope that last bit’s only guff! Else I’m in for a hell of a time, let alone what Heyes’ll go through.

Then he sets off home to coo over his baby, breaking into a trot the minute the batwing doors swing behind him.

“Heyes,” I say real low, “you did the right…”

Sheesh. Last time I saw that look, Danny Bilson was on the receiving end. I shut up. He calls for whiskey, tells the barkeep to leave the bottle.

I don’t reckon the first whiskey even touches the sides.

“Uh huh,” he says, with a bitter edge, “men have died and worms have eaten ’em, but not for love, huh? I reckon it’s the same for women. We’ll both get over it.”

Another whiskey is poured and drunk.

“Our last night, Kid,” the dangerous look’s gone, the not-reaching-the-eyes smile is back. “Let’s try and enjoy what’s left of it.”

He downs another, then gathers up the bottle and glass and walks over to the forbidden poker table.

“Room for a couple more, fellas?”

-oooOOOooo-

As folk drift in, the saloon starts to buzz – as much as any saloon ever buzzes on a Monday – with the arrest and sniggers about what kinda drawings this pamphlet had. (The sniggers are wrong. I saw a copy and… Euw! How nice girls like Nell and Ann coulda produced… Euw! But it wasn’t anything like some of the fellas seem to imagine. Seeing tubes and – and stuff – and how you’d look if’n you and a gal were sliced right down the middle, it’s enough to turn a fella OFF – y’know – not put him in the mood!) I worry Heyes’ll get riled up by some of the talk, but I don’t reckon he even hears most of it. He’s drinking, playing, talking his usual card talk, but I’m not sure he’s really with us – if you know what I mean. Part of me thinks I oughta say something, but… I dunno. No one’s coming out with anything you could really object to about the girls – not anything that isn’t true anyhow. Most folk around here think what I think; Ann and the doc are real nice ladies, whose heads happen to be full of new-fangled notions! Picking a fight ‘cos some of the older men think women oughta stay home and keep house, or ‘cos some of the younger bucks are enjoying picturing the kinda stuff they’d LIKE to see drawn – that’d just be dumb. I scowl at one particularly noisy pair who immediately stop laughing and move out of my range. I give a long cold look to another fella who uses a word I don’t care to hear. He mutters ‘no offence’ and leaves. That’ll do. If anything IS still being said, folk know to keep it out of my earshot.

A few heads turn, I glance over to see who’s walked in. It’s Charles. What the Sam Hill is he doing back? He’s making for us, stopping to get his hand shook and back slapped by fellas who weren’t around to congratulate him earlier.

“Joshua,” he says, as he reaches the table, “when you finish that hand – could I have a word?” His voice is civil enough, but the smile he’s wearing is kinda like Heyes’ when HE walked in – not real.

“Sure,” says Heyes, he pushes out a chair with his boot.

“I meant outside, in private.”

Their eyes meet for a moment.

“Sure,” repeats Heyes. He picks up his winnings. “Deal me out fellas.”

“Me too,” I say. Whatever Charles has come to say – I wanna hear it.

Outside on the boardwalk, Heyes stops. “Uh huh?”

Charles switches off the smile. “Not here. Let’s go round behind the livery.”

“Why?”

“Because, I don’t want anyone hearing what I have to say. Not that I care who knows what I think of YOU; but a gentleman doesn’t risk a lady’s name being overheard and…” he searches, “sullied.”

“Charles,” Heyes says, “when you asked me to step outside – were you actually asking me to – y’know – step outside?”

“Yes. I’m not too sure of the etiquette of the thing, but I suppose I am.”

“You’re calling me out?”

“Yes.”

This kinda COULD be almost funny ‘cos Charles is… Well, he’s not a weakling or nothing, but he’s a coupla inches shorter than Heyes and must be a good twenty pounds lighter. Even if he weren’t, he’s… The man’s one of those pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword types. Last I heard, he didn’t think violence solved nothing. (Mind you, the longer I live, the more I reckon there’s a lotta truth in there.) Like I say, the idea of him calling Heyes out could be funny – but, it’s not, is it? We like him. We’ve both got kinda used to…

Look. It sounds sappy but it’s nice having decent folks’ good opinion.

I glance at Heyes, but there’s no ‘look’. He don’t glance back.

Charles is already striding toward the livery. We follow. When we’re on the patch of ground behind the stables, Charles turns. There’s a pause.

Heyes breaks it. “I’m not claiming to be no etiquette expert neither, but, if you’re the one doing the calling out – I reckon you hafta start.”

“All I want to ask is – what’s actually been happening between you and Doctor Meredith?”

“Is it any of your d*mn business?”

“Yes. She’s MY friend and she’s sitting in MY house breaking her heart and looking like her world just fell apart. So, I’m making it MY business!”

Silence. I don’t like thinking of Nell like that, so I’m guessing Heyes likes it even less.

“What’s she say has been happening?” Heyes asks, all gruff.

“Nothing! Neither is Ann! It’s what they WON’T say that makes me think I’m standing here talking to a – a skunk!” Pause. “Right, let’s make the questions specific. Have you been meeting her in secret?”

Silence.

“Have you kissed her?”

Silence.

“Have you taken,” he actually blushes, “…Other liberties?”

Y’know what? I’d like an answer to those questions too. Especially the last. ‘Cos if the answer to that one’s yes – I kinda wish Charles was six foot four and two hundred and twenty pounds on the hoof, so he could flatten Heyes the way he deserves.

“Do you want to deny ANY of that?”

Silence. Heyes might wanna deny it, but he don’t. I don’t think he wants to tell lies about Nell.

“Because, any man who puts a woman’s reputation in jeopardy is slime. Any man who leads a woman to believe he loves her, who courts her – and then doesn’t follow through with an honourable proposal is scum. Scum needs dealing with.”

“And you’re gonna deal me, huh?”

Written down it sounds like Heyes is being flip. He kinda is. He’s got his hands on his hips; he’s pushed back his hat; he’s wrapped around near on a half bottle of whiskey. But… He’s not flip. Not really. Underneath, he’s miserable.

“I’m going to try. I wouldn’t count myself any kind of man if I didn’t.”

“Charles,” this is me, “…In case you haven’t noticed, Joshua’s wearing a gun and you’re not. It kinda swings the odds in a fight.”

That sounds flip written down, too. I can only say – I don’t think I said it flip.

Heyes draws, stares down Charles with his meanest look. Like I said, he’s been drinking.

Charles looks at the weapon pointing at him. Of all the fellas I know, I reckon, right now, he’s got the most to live for. A long pause. He draws a deep breath. “Like I said, I wouldn’t count myself any kind of man if I didn’t do this.” He strips off his jacket, starts to roll up his sleeves ready for a fight. He really hasn’t done this before, has he?

Heyes does what I knew – nearly knew – he’d do, even though he’s so near drunk as makes no difference. He shakes his head in disbelief, then throws his gun aside. Good. ‘Cos – if I’d hadta shoot it outta his hand…

“Something else you might not have noticed,” Heyes says, “there’s two of us.”

Charles looks at me. “I’ve no quarrel with you Thaddeus, apart from your abysmal taste in friends. BUT, if it’s two against one – so be it.”

“It ain’t,” I say, shortly.

I reckon Heyes only said it to stop anything starting, but I don’t wanna… I’m not taking sides. Well, I am. That’s the trouble. I don’t feel like taking the side of the guy whose back I’ve watched for ten years straight and who I’ve known since the day his folks brought him over to see the new baby at the Curry place.

“In that case, Thaddeus, would you hold my glasses?”

“Sure,” I say. “But, Charles…”

“If you’re about to say Joshua could still pound me to a pulp with one hand behind his back,” Charles gives a rueful shrug, “…Him being bigger than me doesn’t stop him being a skunk. Slime. Scum. Vermin.”

Pause. I think Charles is hoping Heyes’ll throw the first punch. He’ll have to work on the insults for that.

His fists go up, classic boxing style. I can’t help a half-grin. He’s never had a street fight in his…

Sheesh! Right in the chest! And, from the sound of it, that musta hurt! Okay, Charles has never had a street fight. But I reckon, whatever fancy school he went to gave boxing lessons! His full weight went behind that well-planted left. And those print racks are heavy. Lifting those day after day – his arms might look skinny, but maybe he’s got those whip-cord kinda muscles?

I don’t think Heyes even expected it. He thought there was more yapping to come first. He gasps and… He’s furious, but only for a second.

Ouch! Even I wince as the second punch lands on Heyes’ jaw. Even Charles winces! He also gives a yelp and sucks his knuckles. I think he just realised why the sport of boxing decided to introduce gloves!

Heyes still doesn’t strike back. His fist kinda comes up, then drops.

“You’re not even fit to black Nell Meredith’s boots!”

Nope. Charles has definitely not mastered fighting insult language. He frowns in frustration. I don’t think he can go on hitting a man who won’t hit back.

“Aren’t you going to fight?”

“Nope,” Heyes is gingerly feeling his lip. A trickle of blood snakes down his chin. “You’ve not said anything I got an argument with yet. I treated Nell bad and I don’t deserve for a woman like her to wipe her shoes on a piece of dirt like me, let alone anything else.”

Charles straightens up, confused. “If you’re not offering for Nell because you think you’re not good enough – isn’t that her call?”

“I’m not offering because…” He stops. His voice tries to sound light-hearted. It don’t fool me, but maybe it fools Charles. I don’t reckon Charles can see the misery in Heyes’ face without his eye glasses. “Let’s just say I’m not the marrying kind.”

Ouch again! I think that punch wasn’t outta the boxing text book. I think that one was sheer fury. Maybe Charles has a little help from Heyes not even wanting to stay on his feet? Maybe all the cheap whiskey plays a part? Whatever. Heyes’ butt hits the dirt.

Charles stares at the man he thought he knew. “How COULD you, Joshua? How could you hurt her like that? How could you make a woman believe you loved her and then…” He breaks off. I guess he thinks he’d done what he came for and anyhow – what’s the use. His lip curls, he turns on his heel, collects his glasses from me, picks up his jacket and strides off.

I walk over to Heyes.

“The last question’s easy, Kid!” Heyes grunts, as he takes my hand so I can pull him to his feet. “I could make her believe I loved her because it’s the truth!”

“Was he right?” I ask. “Have you been – y’know – takin’ liberties?” He says nothing, but I can see the answer in his face. He might argue the doc’s old enough to know what she’s doing – but that ain’t fair is it? You’re supposed to help decent gals stay straight, not help ’em stray.

I’m so dang mad at him, I could…

I do! My fist curls and I flatten him again. Properly. No way did he deliberately go down this time.

“I told you, Heyes!” I fume. “I told you, leave her alone! Sheesh! All we owe the doc and you… Geddup so I can d*mn well flatten you again! Get up!”

He don’t. He don’t even raise his eyes to look at me.

You know what I said earlier, ’bout violence solving nothing. It’s true, huh? Pounding Heyes isn’t gonna help Nell, is it? It’s not gonna help no one. Not even me.

I take a few deep breaths. “C’mon, geddup,” I repeat more softly, holding out my hand. “Let’s get back to our room, get you cleaned up. Maybe the desk clerk’ll rustle up a little black coffee an’ we can pour it into you. Get some sleep. Like you said, I guess she’ll get over it. You both will.”

“You go on, Kid. I’ll follow.”

His voice sounds… I stare at him. His head kinda jerks. He’s not… He can’t be crying? He CAN’T be. If he is… He CAN’T be! If he is, he won’t want me to see. The kindest thing I can do is…

“Don’t be long,” I grunt. “Early start tomorrow.”

-oooOOOooo-

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

NARRATTED BY KID CURRY

I hear Heyes come in but he’s moving real quiet and stealthy, so I keep my head in my pillow, watch him through half shut lids. His hair’s wet, so maybe he dunked his head in a trough as an alternative to black coffee. He pulls off his boots, but then goes to sit by the window staring into the night.

Next time my eyes flicker open, he’s still there. It’s no longer night. Not quite anyhow. It’s struggling towards dawn.

“You okay?” I yawn, sitting up and having a good scratch. “Have you sat there all night?”

“Nope I’m not okay and, yeah, I’ve sat here all night. I’ve been thinking.” Pause. “I’ve been thinking about – ’bout my mother.”

Sheesh! Where did that come from?

“I’ve been thinking about how she and my father were – together. And how me and Helen are – together.”

I got nothing to say. I hardly remember his mother. And, what I do remember – I’m never sure if it’s ME remembering, or me remembering stuff he told me after. If you know what I mean.

He turns, “Jed…”

He called me Jed. He’s not done that for…

“…You know how I agreed it was a lousy idea to tell Nell who I really am?”

“Who WE really are, Heyes.” I look at him, “You’ve changed your mind, huh?”

“Nope. It IS a lousy idea, but I reckon I prefer it to the alternative. Seems to me I’ve backed myself into a corner where I can be either a lying skunk or just a plain old stinking skunk. I’m gonna stop lying. To her, anyhow. Then, I’m gonna ask her to wait for me to get that amnesty.”

“Right,” I say. I don’t bother to argue. I don’t reckon it’ll do any good.

Pause.

“You think I’m wrong, dontcha?”

“Well, since it was only the night before last we listened to her mull over how she’d spend the reward money if she’d a chance to hand in outlaws…”

“She wouldn’t! She’s not… She hasn’t got a mean bone in her body, Kid!”

“I dunno, Heyes. D’you need mean bones to prefer new drains for the orphanage – ‘specially if’n you’re always worryin’ over an outbreak of somethin’ nasty – over bein’ kind to men who…” I can quote her, ‘cos it kinda stuck, “Hustle scared mothers, cryin’ children and frail old people around at the end of the barrel of a gun to get their hands on easy money?”

He slumps. I think, like me, he trusts Nell to do what she thinks is the right thing. Just, like me, he’s not too sure what that might be. However much she loves Joshua Smith, will that stop her doing whatever her conscience tells her is the right thing with Hannibal Heyes?

Then, he draws a deep breath and pulls his boots towards him. “I’m gonna see her, set things straight if I can. If you wanna ride out right now, Kid, that’s fine. I’ll meet up with you in Red Rock. Otherwise, go get the horses ready to leave before the first train is due. I’ll see you back at the livery.”

I drop back onto my pillow with a sigh. “Back at the livery it is, then.”

“Thanks, Kid.”

“Heyes.”

“Uh huh?”

“No offence, but after all that whiskey last night, you might wanna clean your teeth, huh?”

He turns back from the door, pours a little water from jug to basin, picks up the jar of toothpowder and a toothbrush. “Thanks, Kid.”

As he leaves, I say, “Good luck, Han.”

“Thanks, Jed.”

-oooOOOooo-

STILL VERY EARLY THE SAME MORNING – NARRATTED BY NELL

Across the landing I hear the sound of a squawking, hungry newborn, immediately followed by the sound of besotted new parents cooing and soothing. I can picture Charles scampering to pick him up, then helping Ann prop herself up on the pillows. The squawking stops. The faint murmuring sounds of a happy couple joined in baby-worship continue. How mean does it make me, that listening to my best friends being happy – hurts?

My head aches. In fact, all of me aches. Too much snivelling, complete inability to swallow even a mouthful of food last night, no sleep. Every time I close my eyes, my mind races – what could I have done differently, said differently, to make him come back to me? Why doesn’t he WANT to come back to me? Our time by the lake was so – so real. I was so sure he felt the same. Was I simply fooling myself the whole time? I do try to stop the ‘what if’ thoughts. I try to concentrate on, ‘if he doesn’t appreciate me, that’s his loss!’, but …

Well, we all know trying and succeeding are two different verbs, do we not?

I OUGHT to get some rest. Doctor Cooper came back to the surgery with another long list of visits for tomorrow – I mean, today. He is thinking we may have a bout of chicken-pox doing the rounds of local children. Or should that be – hoping? He is hoping it is nothing worse.

Ping.

So long as it IS nothing worse – good! Not having a minute to spare between work and maximising publicity for the campaign and the trial will be the best thing for me.

Ping.

Huh? That was… Was that the window? I go over, lift up the curtain just as…

Ping. A third piece of gravel hits the glass. Down in the street is…

Anger warring with stupid, surging hope floods through me. I push up the sash.

“Helen,” he hisses. “Come down to the lake. Please. I got something to say.”

“Why don’t you knock on the front door and come say it here?” I hiss back.

“‘Cos – I don’t think I’m real welcome in Charles’ house any more.”

Well, maybe. But, if he had something worth hearing, by which I really mean an abject and unreserved apology immediately followed by a sensible, unequivocal proposal, he WOULD be welcome and he would go round the front and knock. If it is anything else – I do not think I want to hear it. All anything else he has to say will do is prolong the agony.

“I’ll be in the usual place and I’ll wait an hour. Then, I must go. Please, co…”

I have shut the window and dropped the curtain before he finishes. If he thinks I am SO besotted with him that I’ll… Ooooh! He’ll wait an hour, will he? He’ll have to wait longer than that for me to…

I wonder what he wants to say?

Not that I care.

I glance at the clock. He will wait an hour. An hour from now – or from when he gets there?

Not that it makes any difference – since I am not going.

I will just get dressed because – well, because it is too late, or should that be too early, to sleep now, so I may as well get up.

Five minutes later I am washed, dressed and staring at the clock.

I am not going.

Ten minutes later… Fifteen minutes later… Tick tock, tick tock.

Oh, for Pete’s sake – who am I fooling?

I AM going.

I can either pace the floor for half an hour then race down to the lake worrying I have missed him – or I can admit the truth now and set off now. Both are dumb options, but one will get me all hot and sweaty and one will not.

I grab my shawl and slip quietly out of the house.

I am not going because I expect to hear – anything. Oh, no!

I am simply going to give him a well-deserved piece of my mind WITHOUT my lip wobbling this time.

-oooOOOooo-

His face lights up, “You came!” He runs towards me, takes my hands. “Helen, you came.”

Now, I must his being overjoyed to see me is soothing to my bruised vanity. He has not taken it for granted I will show up. He is…

No. NO!

I push him away before his lips meet mine.

I will not be wound around his little finger by the charm and the dimpled smile.

“What did you want to say?” My voice sounds shaky. Steady, Nell, steady. Do NOT get your hopes up.

He braces himself. So do I.

“First, whatever else you think, I want you to believe I love you. I love you AND, I’m gonna ask you to marry me.”

Yes! YES! Or, in honour of being out west, Yee-hah!

“No, strike that…”

Oh! No!

“I’m gonna fall on my knees, kiss your feet and BEG you to marry me…”

Be still my heart! YES!

“But before I do, there’s something I hafta tell you, Helen. I’ve not been completely straight with you. There’s something you hafta know about me, before you say whether or not you’ll marry me.”

Pause. More pause. If we only have – er – around twenty minutes.

“What is it, Joshua?”

“That’s kinda it. My name’s not Joshua Smith.”

Huh?

“It’s Hannibal Heyes.”

For a moment, I register nothing. Then, I recall all the speculation Fred Tammett indulged in after the Butler boys were brought to town.

“Is this some kind of joke?” I already know it is not. His face tells me that. “You’re a criminal?”

“Me and you both, huh, Helen?”

It is not funny. If he is Hannibal Heyes…

“You’re THE Hannibal Heyes? The one who leads a gang of armed robbers? The one who holds up trains and banks? The one with a ten thousand dollar reward on his head?”

“Right verbs, wrong tense. Except for the last part. I held up trains and banks. I led a gang. Not now. Back in the summer of 1880, we – I went straight. I’ve been straight ever since. I’m hoping for an amnesty. I kinda got a promise from the Governor of Wyoming…”

“Wyoming?” I cannot take this in. When did we switch states to Wyoming?

“It’s where I’m wanted. That bit about the reward’s still present tense until the amnesty comes through. I can’t say how long that’ll be…”

He is holding my hands, gazing earnestly into my face. Talking and talking. I am not sure I even hear all he says. There is some sheriff called Trevors who is his contact with the Governor. He has to stay out of trouble. It was to be a year, but it has been… The amnesty is coming very soon. He is sure. Except – he is not really sure. He is just hoping. Some judge who knows him is due in town. That is why he has to leave. Besides, he cannot risk being here when journalists and photographers start to arrive. Let alone other lawmen. He has to leave before the first train comes in. That only gives us…

No. I certainly do not hear it all. Partly because my head is still throbbing from a long, long sleepless night. Partly because this cannot be real. First Joshua Smith, the man I love, walks out on me. Then, he comes back – only to say he never even existed. All the dreams I had built of a home together, a life together, come tumbling down around my ears for the second time in twenty four hours.

He has stopped talking. He is looking at me waiting for an answer. To – what?

“Huh?” I say.

“I asked if you’d wait for me, Helen?”

I do not know! How can I? He is…

“Why did you do it, Joshu…?” I stop. He is NOT Joshua. Almost the first thing he ever said to me, ‘I’m Joshua Smith’, was a lie. And, he has been lying ever since. When I was in his arms, my lips murmuring his name against his skin, into his hair – it was not even HIS name.

“Why did I rob banks? Or, why did I go straight?”

“No – well, YES! I suppose I want to ask both of those. But, I meant, why did you lie to me? No, that’s stupid. I can see why you lied at first. But, why did you carry on lying? Why didn’t you trust me?”

“I did try to tell you.”

I pucker my forehead. I remember. That?! He calls THAT trying to tell me!

“You didn’t try very hard! I distinctly remember the following words were conspicuous by their absence: Hannibal, Heyes, outlaw, armed robbery, large scale theft, intimidation, violent crime…”

His face hardens a touch. “I’m telling you now!” he interrupts.

“It’s a little late, NOW! According to you, NOW I have ten minutes to make up my mind about the rest of my life!”

“I’m still telling you! I didn’t have to tell you, but I did! And, listen Helen, I owe you an apology for deceiving you, I owe you an apology for hurting you, but I’m not gonna stand here apologising for everything I’ve been in the last dozen years. If I could change it – I would. I can’t. You can flash your eyes and do the outraged voice all you like, it won’t change a thing! The only thing I CAN change is the future. I’m trying to do that. I’ve gone straight.”

His voice is sharp, verging on angry. He did not like my list of words conspicuous by their absence earlier one little bit. Good! He was not meant to!

I stare at him, “How do I know you’ve gone straight?”

“You have my word.”

“Pffttt!”

“Do you think I’m a liar?”

“I KNOW you’re a liar!”

He opens his mouth, realises he cannot deny that, shuts it. Then, “I’m not lying about going straight. I’m not lying about they way I feel about you. I think you believe me. If you don’t – it’s a lost cause anyhow, huh? You just said, we’ve got less than ten minutes. Don’t waste it going in circles.”

All right. He is saying he has changed. He is…

“Why did you go straight? Did you…?” I search. I do not want to ask, did he see the error of his ways; it is such a cliché.

“Helen, I’d like to tell you it was all from the best of motives. But, it was mainly ‘cos safes were getting harder to crack, posses were getting smarter and I didn’t wanna spend twenty years in prison, or die young, bleeding in the street.” Pause. “I reckon there mighta been some better motives too. I just never needed to examine ’em. And, if I HAD examined ’em – that woulda meant thinking through why it took me more’n ten years to quit thieving. Wouldn’t it? I will say – being honest grows on a man, just like crime does. And, these last few months I’ve had the biggest motive a man could have to STAY straight.”

“Why did you rob banks?”

“It’s where they kept the money.”

He has clearly given that glib answer before, it comes out so fast. It is NOT funny! Well, it IS funny, but not now!

“I’m sorry, Helen. I shouldn’t have… I guess I give a dumb answer ‘cos… Let’s say it’s a question I’ve thought about over the years and I still haven’t come up with a smart answer.”

“I’ll settle for a mediocre answer!”

“For the money. For the excitement. ‘Cos I was good at it. Better than good, I was the best. ‘Cos once you ARE wanted it’s hard to do anything except keep running and keep robbing. ‘Cos I fooled myself I was only stealing from folk who had money to lose. ‘Cos I was a skinny, mixed-up kid who had nothing and it seemed some folk had everything. ‘Cos it didn’t seem much worse than all the stuff going on around me after the War. ‘Cos the safes were there – calling to me! ‘Cos it don’t happen all at once – you start off stealing to live, or to stay in good with fellas who’ll let you belong somewhere for a change and it gets to be a habit. ‘Cos there didn’t seem a lotta choices…”

“Can you HEAR yourself?” I explode. “How many choices do you need?! Shall I stick this gun into the face of someone who has never done me any harm and demand money with menaces – or not? How hard is it to pick the ‘not’ option?”

Pause.

“It don’t seem like that when young and angry and hungry, Helen. You’re dumb enough to think it’s something – I dunno… You’re so keyed up about what might go wrong and how you might let the gang down, you don’t think much about the folk on the other side.” He is watching my face closely. “It’s not the stealing bothering you, is it?” His voice sounds almost hopeless. “It’s the guns.”

“Of course it’s the guns! I’m a doctor! I know what a bullet does to a body. The first time you were involved in a holdup, didn’t you FEEL how wrong it was?”

Silence.

“If you didn’t feel it was wrong the first time, did it not start to dawn on you by the hundredth time? After all, you carried on choosing the, ‘yes I will threaten an innocent person with injury or death’ option for years! Long after you stopped being the mixed-up, dumb youth with some excuse! You’d grown into one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever met! How COULD you?”

Silence.

“Didn’t I always tell you, you were far too good for me,” he says, finally.

“You were right! Not that it’s any great compliment! Being too good for a notorious outlaw is not the steepest hurdle to clear, is it?”

“Careful, Helen, if you climb any further up onto that moral high ground of yours, you might get dizzy from lack of oxygen! Besides, don’t the halo get kinda heavy?” His hands go to his hips. “I’m not gonna say you’re wrong, ‘cos you’re right. I always did my best to make sure no one got hurt – and mostly it worked. Not always, but mostly. If I could keep it friendly and put folk at ease – I did. BUT, yeah, the whole thing depended on folk being frightened enough to believe we’d put a bullet in ’em if they didn’t do as they were told. Let’s accept that everything you can say about the outlaw life is true. You win. Let’s move on. That life’s in the past. The outlaw me is in the past. Stick with NOW. I’m being honest with you NOW. The man I am NOW, is in love with you. You told me you loved me…”

“NO! I told Joshua Smith I loved him!”

My riposte cuts over him as he asks, “…Will you wait for me to be free to marry you?”

I do not know! The right answer is so clearly no. But, no feels so wrong! No means…

He checks his watch. “I hafta leave, Helen. I need an answer.”

This is NOT fair! If he were… When will the amnesty come through? Suppose we…? No, it is NOT fair! I do not even KNOW him! How much of what we talked about all those mornings was just – made up?

He could have told me!

The brown eyes drop. “I guess I got my answer, huh? I need to know you won’t hand me over to the law.”

How DARE he? He is running away to save his skin and now… How dare he think handing him in would even cross my mind? Anger flares up.

“Good point! After all, ten thousand dollars will go a long way on good causes and tins of halo polish!”

“Don’t joke. I know you’re angry with me, but I can’t let you give me away.”

“How do you intend to stop me?”

He catches my wrist. “Listen, if it were just me… But it’s NOT just me – is it? That’s the other reason I wasn’t honest with you earlier. This is not just MY secret.”

What? Oh! I see.

“You mean Thaddeus is…” I have forgotten the name. “He’s whatshisname.”

“Yup. He’s the other fella.”

A big chunk of my anger dissipates. I see where some of his hesitancy that morning down by the lake came from. He WAS trying to tell me, but baulked at betraying a friend. I can appreciate that. I want to be the most important person in Joshua’s… Well, until this morning I wanted to be the most important person in this man’s life, but I have no desire to be the only important person.

“You can tell,” I STILL cannot remember his name, “your partner, he has nothing to worry about from me. I won’t say a word. You have my promise.”

“And – US, Helen?”

I turn away from him. “I think you’d better go.”

-oooOOOooo-

THAT SAME MORNING – NARRATTED BY KID CURRY

I’ve settled our bills at the hotel and livery. The bags are packed; the horses are saddled; all I need is Heyes.

He’s late. We really oughta get going ‘cos…

It might be better for us – okay, better for ME – if she turns him down flat. We’d go back to… I shake the thought away. He’s my best friend. All the family I got. I want him safe, sure. But, I also want him having a chance to be happy.

He’s still not here. I swing myself into my saddle and lead his horse a few more paces in the direction of the lake. I’m wary of busting in on anything – private, but we hafta get outta here. I see a familiar battered black hat appear over the rise.

“How’d it go?”

He don’t answer. Maybe he don’t hear. There’s a breeze and he’s a few yards off still.

“You’re late. The train’s already in. I watched the folk arriving from behind the livery. Sure was the start of a crowd. How’d it go with Nell?”

“Uh huh? Was Hanley on the train?”

He heard me that time. So – what happened? He’s wearing a poker face. I don’t think it went well.

“Nope. No sign of Hanley. But guess who did show up?”

He mounts up.

“I’m not in the mood for guessing games, Kid. Tell me.”

I tell him.

“For Pete’s sake! Again! What is he? Half carrier pigeon with some kinda homing device set to us?! We could go to Timbuktu and still lay odds, sooner or later, HE’D show up!”

That’s kinda an exaggeration – but I know how Heyes feels.

“We gotta get out of here, Heyes.”

“That’s what the horses are for, Kid.” He sniffs the air. “I vote, we head west.” He is riding away before I can reply.

I touch my heels to the side of my grey, close the distance between us.

“Heyes, how’d it go?”

“How’d what go?”

“With Nell.”

“Oh, that?” His face twists for a moment. He shrugs, “It wasn’t a yes, Kid.”

Know what? I don’t feel any relief. Not even for a second. My heart sinks for him.

Then, there’s a return of the Heyes grin. He urges his horse to a gallop. Hoof beats almost drown out his words, but I think I pick up, “‘Course, that don’t mean I’m giving up!”

—oooOOOooo—

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s