MONTHS LATER – NARRATTED BY KID CURRY
I stretch out on the bed. I’m not planning to fall asleep, you understand, I’m simply digesting a good supper and resting my eyes, while appreciating the softness of goose-down pillows.
This is a nice place. Not the town. Hereford’s pretty much the usual for cattle country. Full of cowboys drinking and gambling their wages away come the weekend. ‘S’okay. But THIS place, the boarding house Mrs. Flowers runs, is real nice. Fine home cooking, clean sheets, rooms that smell of beeswax and wild flowers.
We’ve been here just over a week. We came ‘cos it was the next place on the map once we’d finished a delivery job for some friend of Big Mac’s. We’re not down to our last dollar; not even near it, ‘cos we – brace yourselves – got paid what we were owed. And, Heyes won us a tidy sum at the table Saturday. We’re kinda half hoping to hear, through Lom, about another job from Colonel Harper. And, why would we move on when no one’s so much as looked at us twice?
There’s a lotta blessings to count as I lay here. But…
The thing is, a few days after we arrived, Heyes…
I guess the best way to put it is; this is the week Heyes finally gave up.
After we left Arcadia, we almost got back to normal. Spotting someone we knew – moving on. Scenting trouble – moving on. Hearing about a possible job in the next town – moving on. It wasn’t quite the same. I noticed Heyes didn’t drink as much as he used to, didn’t seem quite as keen on poker lasting into the small hours. D’you know what? At first I thought it might not all be down to Nell. I’m starting to feel, myself, that a clear head in the morning four or five days outta the seven has something to be said for it. I guess neither of us is twenty-two anymore. But a few days after we left Arcadia, I’d got talking to some saloon gal and noticed Heyes’d snuck off. (So far as THAT goes, since we left Arcadia, he’s been living the life of a nun. And I don’t mean the kinda nun that steals funds from the bank and hides out in disguise, neither!) When I got back to our room a coupla hours later I found him at the table with what to me looked like a whole ream of paper. He looked round, half guilty, and kinda covered it with his hands, then realised how dumb that was and tried to look – er – nonchalant. Yeah, that’s it, nonchalant.
“You’re back early,” he said.
“Makes two of us then, don’t it?” I glanced at the pages of scribble in front of him. “Is that a letter? You’re writin’ to the doc, huh?”
Well, who else COULD he have been writing to? Most of our friends don’t have addresses! Half of ’em can’t read!
“Remind me to hire you out to the Bannerman agency, Kid. Deductive ability like that shouldn’t be wasted.”
“What are you writin’ about?” He looked at me. I kinda flushed. I didn’t want him to think I wanted any kiss and tell. Not about Nell. “I mean apart from the mushy stuff.”
“Nothing.” He realised this made him sound about fifteen. “Leastways, I’m just telling her we’re both fine and wishing her all the best now the trial’s started.”
“Uh huh?” I stared at the pages and pages of paper. If that’s all he was saying, it had to be one repetitive letter. I know he can spin stuff out and Nell likes reading but, sheesh! I didn’t mean it to, but my head tilted to one side and…’Those questions you had about my past and about the decision to change course back in the summer of ’80; they sure couldn’t be answered in the time we had Tuesday, I’m not sure they can be answered at all, but I’m going to try…’
“Hey!” The letter was turned over and I was given a look to end all looks. Which I guess I deserved.
Three or four times over the next weeks I saw Heyes, still being nonchalant as he could, reach into his jacket and produce a fat letter addressed to Dr. H. E. A. Meredith when we were somewhere with a mail service. AND, there mighta been more, ‘cos I’m sure he only took them out in fronta me when he had no choice.
At the start, Heyes was like a cat on hot bricks every time we came to a place that might have a newspaper. I’ll admit I was keen to know how things had gone with the trial too. Trouble was, there was so much guff printed on both sides, it was kinda hard to pick out the facts. There were photographs too. Most were of Ann, some with, some without, her baby. Some were of both girls. Mind you, by the time I got to look, a coupla newspapers had neatly clipped squares missing, so I don’t know I even saw all the pictures. I held one up and peered through it.
“What d’ya think, Heyes? Paper moths?”
“It’ll be some fella clipping an advertisement, Kid.”
Yeah, right! These days his saddlebags rustle!
One night, after arriving in a fresh town soaked to the skin, tired and hungry, Heyes pounced on a journal a few days old; his face fell, then lit up, then kinda half fell again.
“Well?” I’d said.
“They were found guilty, but…”
“WHAT? What was that dang jury thinkin’?”
“Probably thinking of the law. The judge had no choice but to direct ’em according to the words in the Act, Kid. They WERE guilty. Guilty as weasels coming outta a henhouse with egg-yolk dripping from their whiskers. BUT, the summing up and the fact he fined ’em the minimum he could…”
“That means they’re all right then? They just got fined?”
“Huh?” he grunts, not even listening to me.
I tried to pluck the paper outta Heyes’ hands to read for myself. He twitched it outta reach, then, since it was no use to either of us held at full stretch, he spread it on the table so we could share.
Judge Hanley had said the law originally targeted ‘obscene, lewd, lascivious or filthy’ books and pictures – the real dirty stuff that had started to flood outta New York right after the war – though the paper called it ‘material whose dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest’ and is ‘utterly without redeeming social importance’. He’d said just ‘cos this fella Comstock got something written about how to ‘prevent conception’ added to a mile long list of things banned on one of hundreds of bills rushed through without debate, as a Congress surrounded by scandal tried to redeem itself with a spate of creditable legislation in its final hours… There was a good bit of this guff. Anyhow, HE’D said he didn’t intend any court he had a say in to lock up two ladies who’d be more use to everyone bringing up a baby, or looking after sick folk, for writing a pamphlet aiming to give medical advice, in plain spoken English, calling things by their right names, that folk could use or ignore or not as they chose.
Heyes was done before me. “It’s what they call a moral victory, Kid,” he said. He has GOT to stop with the dang books.
Soon after that, I realised Heyes wasn’t just mailing letters out. He was hoping for something back. Whenever we stayed anywhere more’n a few days, or knew ahead of time where we were heading, Heyes would come over all nonchalant (again!) in the telegraph office and ask if there were any messages for Joshua Smith.
The first time, I pointed out we weren’t expecting nothing more from Lom for a few weeks.
He shrugged, “No harm in asking, Kid.”
I caught on. “Heyes, are you mailin’ out where we are and where we’re goin’?” No answer, but the look on his face meant I didn’t need one. “Ain’t that kinda risky? I mean, even acceptin’ Nell won’t hand us in, letters can get read, mail can get stolen. We KNOW mail can get stolen!”
“I’m not using our real names, Kid! I’m not dumb! AND, I keep what I say in any letter with a town in it – y’know – oblique.”
“If’n folk read ’em – they wouldn’t necessarily know what I was talking about.”
“Not if they’re full of words like oblique, they won’t!” I stared at him. “Seems to me, if she don’t know what you’re talking about, what’s the point?”
“SHE’LL know. Nell’s sharp enough to turn oblique back to a right angle.”
“D’you geddit? Oblique – right angle?”
No! I didn’t get it! It sounded like the dumb kinda thing SHE used to laugh at. I rolled my eyes.
“Look, Kid. I’m not giving up! I reckon if she can believe I’ve really changed – that the amnesty’s not JUST about staying alive and staying outta jail…”
“Well, is it?”
He gave me a real straight look. And – I guess he’s right.
We don’t talk about it much, but…
Okay. We wanna stay alive. We wanna stay outta jail.
We want each other to stay alive and outta jail. But, there IS a bit more to it than that.
And, if that something more started off kinda small and shy and sheepish, it’s been getting stronger as going straight sinks in.
IF we were told we could go back to robbing and never get caught or killed – I reckon we’d still want that amnesty. I know I would.
I’m not saying we’re up there with the kinda folk who do good deeds like it’s natural. We’re not, are we?
There was something Nell said about being a doctor once that stuck in my mind: ‘first, do no harm’. I reckon both me and Heyes got there, wanting to do no harm, a while back. And, I reckon some of the things the girls said kinda made us realise there’s more to doing no harm than simply not being the one to start any trouble.
I shrug, “I guess.”
His voice stayed low, “I want her to know I’m trying. I’m trying to be the man she wanted – the man she thought I could be – even when she’s not there to see it.”
Maybe that accounts for some of the quiet nights in?
So, anyhow, there we were. Heyes haunting telegraph offices and annoying the clerks: ‘It’s Joshua Smith – ‘Ess, Em, Eye, Tea, Aitch – to await collection. It mighta been here a while? You sure? Look again, would ya? If’n anything comes in, you’ll find me at the hotel.’, It ain’t easy to do that AND stay nonchalant, but I’ll say this for Heyes – he almost pulled it off!
He’d be downcast at drawing a blank, sure. Then I’d see him talk himself round about how it hadn’t been that long. Maybe the message had arrived at the LAST town just too late. Or it’d be waiting at the next town. Maybe she was still unsure. Maybe he needed to be more persuasive. And, sometimes I’d see another fat letter sent off to Arcadia, sometimes I just guessed it had gone.
Then, after we arrived here in Hereford, he – he gave up.
It was the second telegram we’d had from Lom that did it. The second after we’d left Arcadia that is. The first had come through to Red Rock. Heyes had pounced on it, read it, re-read it, re-read it again. I saw his face had fallen more than the usual ‘no change from our mutual friend’ droop.
“You were expecting to hear from Nell? You told her a sure way to get in touch was through Lom, huh?”
He shrugged a yes, “I guess even I’ve not got SO dumb, Kid, that I don’t realise I can’t mail out an ‘X’ marks the spot of where we are ALL the time.”
“It’s not been long, Heyes,” I’d said. “She might not even have got your letter yet.”
I didn’t really think that was likely but, it was possible.
But, by the time we got a telegram from Lom in Hereford, it wasn’t possible. It’s not really been possible for a few weeks now. I hadn’t seen any letter heading out from Heyes for near on ten days.
He read the telegram from Lom. It told us no change so far as the Governor’s concerned and to wait around if’n we could as he might hear from Colonel Harper. That was it. No message from Nell. Nothing. Not even something – what was it – oblique.
I saw the hope finally die outta Heyes’ eyes.
Part of me knows the only sensible thing IS for him to give up, but…
“The trial’s been over ages now,” I say. “We could go back to Arcadia. Most likely all the folk we’re avoidin’ have left. We could scout it out first, make sure. IF Hanley did stay on with Sheriff Fraser for the fishin’ – you could do what you did with Clitterhouse that time…”
“‘Cos that worked out so dang well, huh?”
“Yeah, but we KNOW Hanley’s got an honest streak. You could go see him, discrete like…”
“We know he won’t turn us in for the money. If’n he tells us to head outta town – what have we lost?”
“Kid…” There was a pause. Then, “Me being able to go back isn’t really the point. If she really don’t want me to…” Another pause. I think he didn’t like saying it. “If she really don’t want me, isn’t the right thing for me to leave her alone? Not go raking it all up again.”
I dunno. I guess. I dunno. His face looked so bleak.
“Maybe she’s waiting for you to…”
“She’s not, Kid. I…” I waited for him to carry on. “The last coupla times I wrote, I told her I wouldn’t put her in that position. I’d stay away until she decided. I – I asked… Nah, I’ll be honest, I begged her to get in touch. Just a word. Just to put me outta… ‘Yes’, ‘no’ or ‘need more time’. That’s all I asked for. A word. If it was no forever – to tell me…”
I don’t say anything.
The silence goes on for a long time. His brow darkens. “D*mn her! D*MN her, Kid! I did my best to be straight with her. Sure, I was using the alias, but apart from that I didn’t tell her nothing that wasn’t true. Apart from… Not about me and her. Not about how I felt. Okay. She’s decided I’m not good enough – but am I so…? She stood up at that dang debate and reeled off a speech ’bout how even criminals still deserved to be treated with dignity. And now… I’d understand a ‘no’, Kid. Couldn’t blame her, huh? But, don’t I deserve the courtesy of an answer? She said she loved… D*MN her! Self-satisfied, smug, stony-hearted…”
I still don’t say anything. I guess I’m kinda surprised at the doc. Heyes isn’t being what you’d call impartial as he sounds off, but – yeah. I reckon she’d’a done better to send a brief word if’n their last meeting left things a touch – unsettled. It’s what I’d have expected of her. Mind you, I suppose if Nell IS nursing a grudge, I can understand that too.
“Look on the bright side, Kid,” the eyes that met mine looked anything but bright, “…I’ll be better company, huh? Like the old days. We can get back to the way we were. Women – leastways the kinda women that want more’n a few drinks and a few dollars – who needs ’em?”
That night was not like the way we were. Sure, on the surface, Heyes was back to playing poker into the small hours, letting the whiskey flow, using that smart silver tongue on the working gals, but…
The next night, I – I left him to it. Maybe I am getting old.
Nah, it’s not that.
Listen; I like having a few drinks – followed by a few more, I like smoking cigars, I like playing poker, I like the company of a saloon gal good enough at her job to make you forget she’s getting paid to pretend to enjoy your company, BUT, I reckon I’d rather spend every evening of my life swilling lemonade and listening to dull debating circles with a cheerful Heyes, than do all the supposedly fun stuff with this fella who looks and talks and acts like Heyes, but with none of the sparkle.
Getting happy drunk for the sheer pleasure of the thing – fine. Getting mean drunk to teach some gal a hundred miles away, who’ll never even know anyhow, a lesson – count me out.
He’s at the saloon now. Well, I guess he is. He missed supper. Again! Mrs. Flowers is getting used to Heyes missing meals. We’ve paid for full board anyhow – so, I guess she don’t mind. He was full of the usual charm before the telegram arrived, so I reckon she still sees him that way. She has this kinda fantasy he’s out on business. I smile, give the occasional ‘uh huh’ or ‘yes ma’am’ and try to make sure she don’t hafta see his portion of her good food going to waste.
I’ll go join him later. Must digest first. And, I’m going because someone oughta watch his back – it being a Saturday night – not ‘cos I want to. Still early yet. Too early for anyone to have lost their week’s wages, that means too early for trouble to start. I’ll just relax for…
Vaguely I hear the sounds of someone tapping at the front door, sounds of female voices in the hallway. It will be one of Mrs. Flowers’ friends, probably come for a game of whist and a glass of elderflower…
A squeak of excitement. Boots running up the stairs, sounds like they’re being taken two at a time. My eyes snap open; not that I was drifting off to sleep, you understand, just thinking. The door to our room bursts open before I can do more than swing my feet to the floor and make a grab for my gunbelt.
“Joshu…Oh! Hello, Thaddeus.”
It’s NELL! It’s HER! She looks… She don’t look too good.
“Nell! You’re here!” Okay, it’s not the brightest of remarks, but – hey – I’ve been caught on the hop here. I forget the gunbelt and hurry to tuck in my shirt and re-button my pants with a bit of an effort – digesting remember?
She’s saying, “Where’s Joshua?” and looking around the room as if I mighta hidden Heyes under the bed, or in a cupboard, when another set of footsteps – heavier and slower – reaches the top of the stairs.
“Mister Jones!” explodes Mrs. Flowers, “…I told both you and Mister Smith, I do not allow gentlemen boarders to receive visits in their rooms from lady friends! As for YOU, young lady…”
“Dr. Meredith,” says Nell, cutting Mrs. Flowers with a friendly smile. She holds out her hand, politely, “How do you do? I am SO sorry, ma’am. You see it is a long time since I have seen Mr. Jones and I was so happy to discover I had found the right place…”
Mrs. Flowers stares hard at Nell and calms down a little. I think Nell musta rushed past her so fast when she heard she’d found the right place, Mrs. Flowers didn’t get a good look at her. Now she can see Nell looks like a lady and hear she talks like a lady. I reckon the fact whatever expression I’ve got on MY face, it sure ain’t ‘amorous’ helps too. She takes the offered hand.
“Pleased to meet you, I’m sure. But, you see the thing is, I have my house’s reputation to…”
“Of course, ma’am. Do you have a parlour where your boarders may receive guests? Then Mister Jones can join me.” One of the old Nell grins appears. “Once he’s got the right buttons in the right holes,” I glance down; she’s right, I am crooked as a card trick, “…And pulled his boots on. AND, unless you have a vacancy yourself, ma’am, could you recommend somewhere respectable I can get a room? I’ll be staying in Hereford, for tonight at any rate.”
Another appraising look from Mrs. Flowers. Another friendly smile from Nell. She looks – I dunno what’s been happening to her. Maybe looking plain as a pikestaff does her no harm at all with our respectable landlady.
“Certainly,” says Mrs. Flowers, “The parlour is the second door on the left as you came in. You’re welcome to it, I’m sure; and I’ll make you some coffee. As for a room, I only take gentlemen boarders…” She scans Nell for any sign of disappointment, finds none. I think she finally decides Nell is okay. “My cousin Mrs. Roddick, on South Street, takes lady paying guests. I’m sure she could accommodate you.”
“Thank you, ma’am. Thaddeus, I’ll wait for you downstairs.” Her eyes command me to hurry up, then Nell leaves.
“Is this lady an old friend, Mister Jones?”
“Er – kinda. Well, not that old, I guess. She’s my – or rather she WAS my doctor… I was laid up after an accident back in April, in Arcadia…”
Mrs. Flowers blinks in surprise. “Your DOCTOR?” Then, “Arcadia?” I guess it IS one hell of a distance to travel. “She’s gone to a lot of trouble to come visit you.”
“I guess…” She is clearly hoping for a little more. “I better go down, ma’am.”
I do go down. I spot a small carpet bag dropped in the hall, which hasta be Nell’s. I get followed into the parlour, but once Mrs. Flowers has done fussing that Nell is comfortable, she heads off to make not coffee, but – at my request ‘cos I know what the doc likes – a pot of tea.
“Oh, Thaddeus…” The doc interrupts herself, “You don’t mind me still calling you Thaddeus Jones, do you? Even when we’re alone.”
“Nope,” I say. “Suits me just fine. I’d like you to stick with that ALL the time. Please. I think you should call Joshua, Joshua all the time too.”
She grins again, ‘cos it’s pretty clear I really, really mean that!
“It’s SO good to see you, Thaddeus. I tried Twin Forks and Woodford and…” She is taking off her hat as she says this, setting it down on the table.
“Sheesh, Nell!” I exclaim, “What the Sam Hill happened to you?”
“Oh!” She touches her shorn head, self-consciously. “I’ve been ill. Which is ridiculous for a doctor! They cut off all my hair while I was in a fever.” Her hand strays for a moment to her face, “…The spots are fading, and the chances are my eyelashes will grow back. Maybe they will, anyhow. Am I hideous? Will Joshua think I’m… Will he be back soon?”
No. The chances of Heyes coming back at all before the small hours – if then – are pretty small.
“I’ll go fetch him,” I say.
“Thaddeus,” she touches my arm, “…Is it all true? He’s been trying to live up to everything I could ever hope for – all these months?”
I think of the last week. I draw my hand back behind my leg, cross my fingers. “I guess.” It’s mostly true. I mean, it’s been true mosta the time. “I dunno, Nell. You’d better ask HIM, huh? I’ll go fetch him,” I repeat.
Please be half-ways sober and not nekkid under the covers with a saloon gal when I find you, Heyes, ‘cos I don’t guess Nell will put up with being lied to twice. And you and me might not see it that way, but I reckon she sure will.
“Yes, I must speak to him. What must he think of me, ignoring his letters? Refusing to respond to a plain question. You see I haven’t…”
Then, Mrs. Flowers comes back in with a laden tray and Nell shuts up.
“Nothing for me, thank you, ma’am. I’m gonna go find Joshua; tell him we have a visitor.”
Once I’m out in the street I take a deep breath of the cooling late evening air. Wow. She’s not written, she’s turned up in person. AND, it sounds like he was wrong to think she’d been stone-walling his letters. AND, it sounds like she’s been on the road looking for him a fair few days. Wow.
I stride off towards the rougher end of town, where the saloons are clustered. Last time Heyes mentioned Nell’s name, there’s no getting away from it, he was one bitter, angry man. If he blows it now… I’ll… Well, I guess I’ll do not much, ‘cos what can I do? But, before I do nothing much, I’ll flatten him. Again!
He’s in the Broken Arrow. It’s getting real crowded in there, but I spot him at one of the tables. He’s winning. Not big yet – but the pile of money in fronta him’s starting to grow. His hat’s pushed back and his mouth’s smiling, but… When he glances over at some tough-looking fella calling him – no. There’s no smile in the eyes. One of the working gals has smelt a winner and is cosied up to him, cooing away as he lays down a full house and pulls the pot towards him. She gets pulled close and kissed real long and deep, then his eyes go back to the deck he’s shuffling. I glance at the bottle beside him – near empty; then I take another look at the eyes. Sheesh.
Edging through the press of bodies, I work my way over to his table.
“Joshua.” Nothing. “JOSHUA!”
His glance comes up. The look stays cold, even for me. We haven’t been getting on too well, this last week. He’s taking it out on me – ‘cos, I guess, who else is there? And I’ve made it pretty dang plain what I think of the ‘if-she-don’t-care-neither-do-I’ act. Leastways, I’ve made it pretty clear of what I think of the act when all it does is leave him so miserable he wants to climb inside a bottle.
He raises his eyebrows, “What?”
“You got a visitor – back at the boarding house.”
For a moment there’s a fleeting glimpse of the old Heyes. If there is one thing me and him don’t like it’s a surprise visitor. He tenses, reads my face, relaxes. I’m not here on a ‘we’re-about-to-be-spotted-let’s-ride’ errand.
“Tell him I’m busy.”
“I think you should come back…”
“Are you deaf, I SAID – I’m busy!”
“Listen, fella,” this is the tough looking fella in a buckskin waistcoat talking, “…We’re playin’ poker here. Your friend told you – he ain’t going nowhere. Now, why don’t you run tell this visitor to call again in the mornin’ and stop interruptin’ our game.”
I’m not here to start no trouble so I let this pass with no more’n a look.
“He don’t care WHO it is,” says buckskin-waistcoat. The fella has a point, ‘cos Heyes ain’t even listening to me. He’s dealing; the tapered fingers flicking cards expertly across the table. “Smith’s staying to give us all a chance to win our money back. You go tell this other fella to wait. And, if he don’t like that, tell him to go **** himself.”
A few sniggers. I still don’t rise to it – ‘cos if I wanna have a fight with a dumb, bad-tempered ass who’s letting the whiskey talk – hey! – I can do that with the fella in the black hat any night of the week.
“It’s a lady, Joshua,” I say, real low, but not low enough.
A few whistles. More sniggers. Pouting and snuggling from the saloon gal.
“Tell you what, you go **** HER! Keep it warm for me! I’ll be along when the game’s…”
That’s it! I grab him by both shoulders, drag him and his chair around so he’s no longer facing the table, he’s facing me. “I don’t think you heard me, Joshua! I said, a LADY. I meant, a LADY. If you got one more dirty word to say, you come an’ say it outside! Now!” He stares up at me, black fury in his face at first, then – as it sinks in; hope, fresh anger, stubbornness, disbelief.
“You don’t mean…?”
“Uh huh. Now come on…”
A mulish look settles on his face, “I ain’t so sure I wanna be whistled to heel after…”
“This visitor’s been ill. That’s why she’s a little – a little behind in her correspondence. Now, geddup!”
That sinks in too. Hope, hope, hope, disbelief, hope, fear, hope, hope. He gets up; not too steadily. He can play poker by instinct. Walking straight, that might be a shade too complicated right now. He gathers his winnings.
“HEY!” This is buckskin-waistcoat talking. “I dunno about not hearin’ your baby-faced friend, here, you’re sure not hearin’ me! You’re not leavin’ with forty dollars of my money! Not after you said you were stayin’! Not just to go sniff after some cheap piece o’ tail…”
D’you know what? If he hadn’t said that last bit, I reckon I’da kept my temper. As it is, I wheel round. “Y’know what I just said to HIM, I reckon it goes for you too! You got one more word to say – you come say it outside!”
Buckskin-waistcoat jumps to his feet, face purpling with anger. His right hand hovers over his gun. Chairs are pushed back. Folk move from behind me and from behind buckskin. A hush falls. The gal that was wrapped around Heyes looks scared. The usual kinda scene when trouble starts. He looks at me, at my tied-down scofield in the well-worn holster, back up at my face, calm now as it always is when I’m waiting for the other fella to draw. A long pause. He gulps.
“No offence meant,” he mutters. He sits down, eyes flicking between me and the table.
Fine. I nod a silent ‘s’orright’. I’m sure not here to pick a fight. “Gimme that money, Joshua,” I say.
Heyes opens his mouth to object – I reckon that’s instinct too – remembers he don’t care the snap of his fingers about money right now, hands over the crumpled pile of notes. I hand twenty dollars to the saloon gal.
“I want you to go fetch this table a few bottles of the real good stuff – courtesy of my friend Joshua Smith here…” Sounds of thirsty approval from the other players. I peel off another twenty, toss it onto the table, “This is from him to keep the pot warm, since he does hafta leave kinda sudden.”
Buckskin-waistcoat shuffles in his seat. Once you’ve been made to look small the other fella being nice is no dang comfort, is it?
“And this…” I tuck another ten dollars into the working gal’s hand, “Is for you to go buy yourself somethin’ real pretty, Sweetheart.”
Pocketing the rest – which I’m guessing is not too much more’n what Heyes arrived with – away. I touch my hat, “Enjoy your game, fellas,” and lead Heyes away to cheerful murmurs from all bar one of them.
Once we’re in – not a quiet corner; there AIN’T a quiet corner – a corner where no one’s paying us no mind, Heyes puts a gloved hand on my shoulder. “She’s really here, Kid?”
Why?! What does he mean – why?
“I guess to give you that answer you were asking for – yes, no or …”
Oh. I kinda see what he means. Is he thinking she’s come just to give him a ‘no’ to his face? You never know with women – especially clever ones. She might think face-to-face is the decent thing to do.
“I think this is your last chance, Heyes. If it’s what you want, don’t blow it.”
“”Let’s get back…” A belch interrupts him.
“I think we oughta get you sobered up first.”
I give him a look, “Pfftt!”
A rueful grin appears. “Maybe we oughta get me sobered up first, Kid.”
I go up to the bar, “You got any coffee in the back?”
“Fella, we got beer, whiskey and water. We don’t sell water.”
Sighing, I fold a coupla dollar bills between my fingers, hold them up. “Me and my friend really got a thirst for a pot – no, make that TWO pots – of strong black coffee.”
My two dollars are taken. The barkeep looks thoughtful, “TWO pots?” he muses.
Sighing, I produce another two dollars. “AND, bring us some salt before you brew it, would ya?”
First we give Heyes salt water to make him retch. Out back, I hold his head as he brings up mosta the whiskey he’s sunk over the last few hours. Then I hold his head under a cold pump.
“I could do with a shave,” he hiccoughs, as he soaks his bandana and uses it to wipe his face.
“You could do with a shave, a soak in a tub with a bar of soap, a fresh shirt AND someone knocking some sense into your skull – but we’re gonna hafta settle for none of the above, huh?”
His brow furrows for a moment. A tentative sniff – which I reckon picks up whiskey scented sweat with a toasting of stale cigar smoke. He opens a coupla shirt buttons, resoaks the bandana and scrubs at his armpits.
Back inside he swallows cup after cup of back coffee. He gargles with it too, to get the smell of vomit outta his mouth.
“Another!” I order. “One more!”
“No more. I’m about to bust.”
“One more! Then go p*ss….” And they say romance is dead, huh? “And hurry up! She’s gonna think you’ve ridden out on her three times runnin’!”
NARRATTED BY NELL
I make civil small talk with Mrs. Flowers, who is just a little too polite to give her raging curiosity about me full rein. I wish she would go away; then I could pace the floor in impatience. Or, if pacing a hole in her rug was inadequate, I could gnaw frantic holes in the furniture. So, perhaps it is better that she’s here, pressing me to take another slice of cake, taking an innocent pride in showing off her best china and asking gently leading questions about me and Hannibal. Of course it did not take her two minutes to realise that he, not Jed Curry, was the object of my – er – search.
My eyes flick constantly to the clock. Every time I hear movement or male voices in the street I twitch like a cat watching a mouse hole. Where is he? Suppose he refuses to see me? If I had written those candid, self-revealing, glaringly truthful – utterly wonderful – letters, asking only for an honest response … If I had written and written and lain myself so open, so vulnerable to hurt… Not just exposing himself to hurt, neither; writing to me literally – well, nearly literally – put his life in my hands…
All he begged in return, was a reply and, from his point of view, I lacked the basic human decency, the common courtesy due to any acquaintance to give it.
Sure, he did not make himself out to be any kind of angel in those letters. He did not claim heady heights of reformation untouched by basic self-preservation. But, because of what he did NOT say, I was able to believe, truly believe, in everything he DID say. He IS the Joshua Smith I fell in love with. It was enough. I have put my trust in him. I have…
No. Enough yapping, even in my head. I am done.
Where IS he? Why is Jed – I suppose I had better call him Thaddeus, even when thinking – taking so long? Why were they not together? They are always together.
I try not to over react to the latest of many footsteps passing the door, but to keep up smiling admiration of a smartly framed photograph of her first grandchild my hostess is showing.
“Nine pound twelve ounces!” I marvel. Ouch! “That IS exceptional. Aw. He looks beautiful!” He does not. He looks like all babies. An expression of baffled outrage on a chubby face. But since the general consensus seems to be that IS beautiful, I am not exactly lying. I sip at my third cup of milky tea.
When, the latest of many footsteps do NOT pass. They grow louder and we hear the sound of the front door. A swallow goes down the wrong way as I leap to my feet.
By the time Mrs. Flowers has said, “That must be the gentlemen now,” I am choking.
By the time the parlour door opens I am being patted firmly on the back.
So, the first sight Hannibal gets of me after several months apart, I am not only scarecrow-headed and spotty; I am scarlet in the face with a saliva drool hanging from my lip as I grope for a handkerchief.
“Helen!” He looks – I am not sure – I would guess at horrified, but it is difficult to tell through streaming, still sore eyes.
“Take slow breaths, my dear,” Mrs. Flowers is saying, “In out. In out. Why, Mister Smith, is it raining out?”
She’s right. His hair is soaking wet.
“Hello – heeek – Joshua,” I manage. Honk. Wheeze.
He strides across the room, takes the hand not busy being coughed into. “Helen, what’s wrong with you?”
“Tea – honk – went down the wron… Heek!” Splutter.
“No, I mean…” He touches a strand of what’s left of my hair. “What’s happened? Are you okay?”
“Yes. I haven’t been. I am now. Nearly. Oh, Joshua…” Joshua! Joshua! Joshua. I must never slip and call him, Hannibal. I must remember. Which, since I have spent ages coming to terms with the fact he is NOT Joshua, is paradoxical, huh?
“Ma’am,” interrupts Jed, speaking to Mrs. Flowers. “…Why don’t I give you a hand to carry the tray back to the kitchen an’ help you wash up? We could make a fresh pot of tea for Doctor Meredith, brew some coffee for Joshua and me. Maybe you might spoil us all and bring out the oatmeal cookies, huh?”
She takes the hint. Hannibal and I are given a curious, but also motherly, glance and left alone.
As soon as the door shuts, we both speak at once.
“Joshua – I am SO sorry, what must you have thought …It was measles of all the silly diseases…”
“Helen! Are you really okay? What’s been happening to…”
We stop at the clash of voices. Then, again.
“To leave you unanswered so long… Forgive me…You see it affected my…”
“I can’t believe you’re here. I keep thinking I’m gonna wake up!”
We both grin, seeing the funny side together the way we used to.
“Ladies first,” he says.
“I am SO sorry. I would not have deliberately left you unsure of my feelings and in suspense for so…”
“Ladies first, but quicker,” he interrupts. “Put me outta my misery, Helen. Have you come to say ‘It’s no, leave me alone forever’, or, ‘Give me a quiet year to think it over’, or…” He stops.
“No!” His face falls. “No, NOT no! I mean, no, I haven’t come to say either of those! It’s yes! You KNOW it’s yes!” Does he not know that? A qualm, one that has bothered me all along, shakes me. “If you still want me, that is? If you haven’t changed your…? If it’s been too long…? Or, if I just look too hideous now…?”
He shuts me up, by the simple expedient of gathering me to him and kissing me…
“I know I look dreadfu…”
And kissing me…
“I don’t want you to feel oblige…”
And kissing me…
“Or, if you’ve decided you prefer to be fre…”
“Will you shuddup for one dang minute, woman?! Sheesh!”
And he is kissing me. And holding me. Murmuring my name into what’s left of my curls… “You’re beautiful… You always were beautiful…” Kissing my poor lashless eyes …”I love you, Helen… I’ll always love you…” And letting my fingers run through – why IS his hair soaking wet? Kissing my forehead… “I don’t wanna be free…” Kissing every inch of my face… “I wanna get hog-tied forever by you…” Letting my hands slip under his jacket to run down the hard muscles of his back… “I adore you…” It is the same as before; I am melting; liquefying in his arms, dizzy with desire. I want him so much.
“Oh, Joshua,” I sigh, “…I love you. I mean I love YOU,” I mouth ‘Hannibal’, silently.
His eyes light up at that, at his real name. All that anger and hurt feelings and standing on my dignity – what comfort would that have been if…?
“Suppose I’d died and never got the chance to tell the real you…?” I snuggle in, bury my nose in his shirt front. Sniff. Different tone, “What’s that smell? Have you been bathing in coffee?” Another sniff. Has he been bathing at all?
This collides with him repeating, “Died? Helen – have you been so ill I mighta…” The colour bleaches out of his face, “I mighta really LOST you? You look terrible, come sit down.”
“Hey,” I protest, teasingly. “The sweet talk ran out fast. What happened to me being beautiful? And – why are you sopping wet?”
But I let myself be led to a sofa and pulled into his lap; strong arms fold around me.
“I’m wet and I reek of black coffee because…” A deep breath. “This last week, I finally gave up on you, Helen. Kid hadta drag me outta a saloon where I was drowning my sorrows. This,” he touches his hair, “is the result of sobering up under a pump.”
“Oh. Have you been…?”
“Gambling hard without fussing too much over whether the other fellas’ pockets can afford it and drinking real hard. Uh huh. Since Tuesday. Before then – I was keeping to ‘I’m not doing nothing I wouldn’t do if SHE could see me’ rule.”
I want to ask if he has been faithful. But, faithful to what? To his written promises? Do they count if I never took them up?
“Everything I said in my letters is true up to last Tuesday. Please, don’t let six days flip me from a yes to a no.”
“Oh.” My voice is very small.
It is going to eat at me. But, what is the point of asking? If he has ‘been’ with another woman, do I really want to know? Unless it WOULD flip yes to no – and would it? – what is the point?
I am snuggled closer. “If the question you are mulling over, but not spitting out, concerns ‘monogamy’. The answer’s, yup – I have been. Monogamous, that is.”
Hurrah! The institution of marriage may need reform! Monogamy, that I have no issues with!
“Mind you, I’m not saying you haven’t shown up in the nick of time. Saturday being kinda a traditional night for blowing a few dollars on…”
“But I did? Show up in time?” Good!
“Unless you count kissing. After Tuesday that is – before that ‘my true lip was virgining it’.”
“I certainly DO count kissing!”
“Well, punish me later. So long as I never give up on you again – and I never will – it’ll be the last time I get beat up for straying even that much, so you might wanna save it for when you’ve got hours to spare on making me really, really, really suffer. Right now, we’ve only got so long as Kid can keep a lady talking in a kitchen…”
“Could be our chance to find out if time is infinite,” I smile.
He grins back, touches my shorn head again, “Tell me what’s been happening to you, Curly-Top.”
“You remember we thought there was chicken-pox in the offing for the local children – well, maybe you don’t remember because Doctor Cooper visited the first two cases just as all the excitement started. It wasn’t chicken-pox, it was measles – which is worse, but still we hoped to get through it without any family losing a child – because, unless they are already weak, the odds are pretty good for a simple week of feeling lousy, followed by rapid recovery…”
“Uh huh.” My head is on his shoulder. The thumb of the hand round my waist is stroking me, over and over. His lips nuzzle into my hair, a kiss is dropped on my head. This… This is bliss. I want this evening, in this over-furnished parlour, even with him smelling odd, to go on forever.
“So except for when I was needed in court, I was doing the rounds and, it was SO stupid, I caught it…”
“I don’t think that’s stupid, Helen. I’m not claiming any special medical knowledge – not in present company, huh? – but I think that’s how measles works. You spend time near it – you catch it. ‘Course you may wanna look it up… Ow! Right, you! For that you deserve…” I am thoroughly, roundly, satisfyingly kissed. Once we have finished mumbling mushy repetitions to each other and I am once again snuggled in the circle of his arms, he carries on, “Now I got you back, I’m not complainin’ anyhow, you understand, but did measles really stop you sending a message to Lom all this…?”
“Oh, Han – Josh…”
“Stick with Joshua for the duration, huh?”
“I didn’t just have measles! I know they always say doctors are the worst possible patients, but REALLY! I took it to ridiculous lengths! You’d have thought I had studied a list of complications and decided to work down them alphabetically! I suppose maybe I was vulnerable, because I hadn’t been eating or sleeping right for a…”
I see his stricken look, shut up. I did NOT mean what he thinks that implies, though – it may be true.
“First I developed encephalitis…”
“Yes, exactly! Which is not unknown for adults, since measles is worse for…”
“No. Not, uh huh. Uh huh? Uh huh? As in – I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Oh. Acute inflammation of the brain. So when your first letter arrived I was away with the fairies, rambling about having to study for my examinations because otherwise the train might get held up and there would be no way to get down to the lake and help the bullfrogs get safely across the Alps…”
“Fortunately, I was talking so much nonsense if anything dangerous DID get mentioned, no one was taking a blind bit of notice. THEN, my lungs became inflamed too! Doctor Cooper says I must have the constitution of an ox to pull through so fast as I did! By the time I came round long enough to have a sensible conversation which was neither sheer fantasy, nor cut short by me falling asleep after five minutes, I’d got three letters waiting, BUT no strength to lift an envelope, AND no eyes fit to read with. I’d developed a corneal infection…”
“Uh huh? Question mark.”
“In the eyes…”
“Ah – that accounts for the lashes, huh? I know measles CAN do that. Sheesh,” he looks at me, “…Poor old crock!”
“It’s been dreadful. I was so frightened…”
A comforting murmur into my hair. I am hugged. “If anythin’ had happened to you…”
“NO! Not frightened for me. Though, thinking you might die – AND having a colleague think you might die, because, of course I could tell from his treatment – DOES concentrate the mind wonderfully on what one really wants out of any life left!”
“I thought that was knowing you were gonna be hanged in the morning?”
“I am adapting the quotation to suit! I mean, I was frightened for YOU… I was ages having my eyes bathed and covered and living in the dark. Even when I was well on the mend, I still couldn’t see more than a fuzz. I couldn’t even TRY to read for weeks and weeks and weeks. I was like a convalescent mole, and SO scared. Because, the letters kept coming and I was terrified someone would open them and that you might give yourself away. I had nightmares about you ending in prison and it all being my fault!”
More murmuring. It is hard for me to be snuggled yet closer, but we manage.
“I was careful with the phrasing. Being very keen to save my own skin,” he says.
“I didn’t KNOW that, though, did I? At least, I couldn’t be sure. Everyone – Aunt Miriam, Ann, Charles – all knew they were from you. Ann knows your writing. My aunt kept offering to read them to me. Ann kept offering. Charles kept offering Ann’s services – so listening to that pair was like listening to an echo. They all must have thought I was the silliest woman on the surface of the planet – that I could not bear the embarrassment of hearing something sentimental made public. Or maybe they thought I feared the letters were – you know – explicit. Ann tried to tell me it was hardly fair to leave YOU in the dark as to the situation, so SHE must have thought me callous. I made her swear on her baby’s life to hide them and not open them. And, I didn’t know what you’d said,” I babble so fast the words begin to fall over themselves, “…Maybe you’d simply been sounding off about how mean-spirited I was that last morning. When letters kept coming – I thought, it CAN’T be that! And when they didn’t come any more, I didn’t know why you’d stopped. I thought maybe I’d lost you! But, I had no way of having anyone make contact without opening your letters – and I couldn’t risk it! I didn’t even have any idea of which town Lom Trevors was sheriff and how could I ask without raising all kinds of suspicion? Or maybe I could. I don’t know. I didn’t think I could – but…” My voice falters, “I wasn’t very well!”
That sounded like a whine and, to my shame, my lip wobbles.
“Hey! You’re not well now! I bet you didn’t wait as long as you were supposed to before reading ’em, did you?”
I shrug. But, I reach into my pocket and bring out a case containing deeply tinted spectacles and put them on. “I’m supposed to wear them in any light and not to read. For a while; not forever. I worried…” I stop, looking sheepish.
“You worried ‘boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses’?”
I hang my head. By now I am sure I look positively ovine.
“Sheesh, Helen…” My chin is lifted. “Men are pigs. We’ll make passes at anything with a pulse!” A kiss is dropped on the end of my nose. “You looking like a demented bug isn’t gonna put me …”
“AND, I bet you’re not supposed to be travelling – are you?”
“I’m fine!” But as he searches my face, I drop my gaze.
“You’re a BAD patient!”
“Does your aunt know where you are?”
“No, I – I slipped away. But I’m sending telegrams telling her I’m safe and sound and not to worry.”
“Hmmm. I guess that’s something. Listen, we’re gonna get you back to Arcadia. You’re gonna get strong again. Then, when the amnesty comes through, we’ll get married. Then…”
“No we won’t!”
“But, you said – yes.”
“I’m not waiting for the amnesty! Forget that! We’re getting married NOW! Well, not exactly now. Anytime in the next couple of weeks will do. But – with that working definition of terms – we’re getting married now! We’ll get Sheriff Trevors to arrange a legal…”
“Helen. I don’t think that’s really feasi..”
“I’m not asking you! I’m dang well telling you! I have just been reminded how fragile life is and how short it can be! I am NOT waiting years, or even A year, or HALF a year! I’m not waiting at all! I am not risking a bullet from a posse, a bounty hunter or a sudden bout of pneumonia meaning we never become man and wife. Period. If I lose you – I lose you. That would hurt anyway. I’d rather be your widow than your nothing. We’re getting married. If we can’t be together most of the year – so be it. We get married legally under your real name. Lom Trevors can arrange it…”
“Helen, I don’t think…”
“Maybe Judge Hanley will officiate? I know he liked me. We know he won’t just hand you over. We can put out a very discrete feeler. Then we have another ceremony in Arcadia under the name Joshua Smith, so we can be together without my friends and family imploding…”
“That is, if Aunt Miriam has not already imploded at my note saying I’ve gone travelling and will return soon. Whenever you need to leave Arcadia – you go. So far as anyone else is concerned, you travel for your work. Maybe you’re on the trail of good articles…”
“We can work on the cover story. You’re good at that. When the amnesty comes through, we’ll decide where we’re going to live. But, I am NOT waiting. Got that?”
“Helen, I think…”
“Yes or no! And you’ve got a count of ten to make up your mind! I’m not YOU with all the sappy, ‘take all the time you need to decide, my love’, malarkey!”
“Tick tock, tick tock!”
“Yes! You know dang well it’s yes!”
“Good! Because when I’m fully recovered and my inflamed brain returns entirely to normal, I shall probably realise how foolish this is and go back to being boringly sensible. Then, you’ll have missed your chance!”
“Can’t have that,” he smiles.
Sounds of exaggeratedly loud footsteps and very audible throat clearing out in the hallway. “Let me get the door for you, ma’am,” booms Jed, giving us plenty of warning. His boots thud, slowly. Obvious fumbling with the handle.
Hannibal grins, unhooks himself from me and strides over.
“Let me help you with that, Thaddeus. Doors can be tricky objects. There we go, twist and pull. Watch again; twist – and pull.”
Jed, carrying a gleaming coffee pot in one hand, scowls at him, then tries not to look eaten up with curiosity. Mrs. Flowers is ushered in with a fresh tea- tray.
“Thaddeus, Mrs. Flowers,” says Hannibal, “…Congratulations are in order. Doctor Meredith has just done me the very great honour of accepting a proposal of marriage.”
“Oh!” gasps Mrs. Flowers, who – to say she does not know me from Adam (or should that be Eve) – seems surprisingly delighted with the news. “Oh, Mister Smith!” His cheek is kissed. He is hugged. He hugs back. Kisses her on the cheek – and the other. Hmmm? I am going to watch him with older women. “Miss – I mean Doctor Meredith!” I am kissed. And hugged. “How wonderful! Congratulations! Never mind tea! I think this calls for a little of my elderflower wine! I love an engagement!” Off she bustles – presumably in search of elderflower wine. Yum!
Now, an enthusiastic response from a motherly stranger is all very nice, but the reaction I am worried about is the one from Jed.
Let me be clear, I am not interested in the position of Hannibal’s SECOND best friend. I am not really open even to joint first. BUT, love is not like cake. No one has to lose any, because someone else gets more. No part of me wants THIS friendship to weaken one jot. And, if it ever sickened and died – we would ALL be losers.
I watched him as Hannibal spoke and… I think that sigh and slump was relief. It looked like relief. But…
“Congratulations, Heyes. I’m real glad it’s worked out,” Jed grunts.
“You helped it work out. I owe you, Kid.”
A handshake. They realise how inadequate that is. An awkward man hug, which turns into a real hug for just a second. Brothers in spirit, if not in fact. Embarrassed clearing of throats. Backslapping. Hooking of thumbs into belts. Blue eyes avoiding brown, and vice versa.
“That’s great, Doc,” Jed nods at me. “For this jackass, I mean. Not for you. Can’t imagine what YOU’RE thinking.”
“Oh, there will be compensations. If he ever steps out of line for a single second, I trade him in for the money. Perfect control for me; the life of a serf for him. Just as it should be! And, by the way, don’t I get a hug?”
I get a hug. “Hey, Jed,” I smile. “Don’t worry. I’ll still let him out to play cowboys. I sure won’t be wanting him under MY feet all the time.”
“Sheesh,” he tries to smile back. “You mean I still hafta put up with him?”
“Sure do, Kid,” says Hannibal, his voice gruff. “I’m afraid nothing’ll ever change that.”
EPILOGUE – NARRATTED BY KID CURRY
I’m out on the porch smoking a celebratory cigar, blowing smoke rings and watching them drift up. Every so often, I glance in the direction of South Street. Heyes is walking Nell to these lodgings run by Mrs. Flowers’ cousin. She hasta be there before half past nine. Which gave them nearly an hour to cover about five hundred yards, but I can’t see ’em hurrying – can you? Something tells me they might be getting another glass of elderflower wine, delighted talk about weddings and reminiscences of ‘when I was a bride’ when they DO finally arrive.
Then maybe Heyes and me’ll go for a quiet beer – if we can find somewhere quiet. NOT the Broken Arrow. He won’t wanna stay out late though. I know he’s booked for a gentle stroll – Nell is supposed to be taking things easy – to Holme Hill in the morning. They’re gonna do some plotting and scheming about this dumb double wedding.
I sigh. I know earlier I was talking ’bout not minding quieter nights and wasn’t exactly rushing to go join in any hurrahing going on. But… I dunno.
If he… I mean WHEN he – y’know – marries Nell, what’ll it mean?
I know everything she wants outta life. A fella can’t live in the same house as Nell the way I did back in the spring and NOT know all her plans for putting the world to rights and seeing her name in the medical history books. Not unless he wears earplugs anyhow!
As for Heyes, I guess I can see he’s realised he’s nearly as good spinning words on paper as he is using the silver tongue. AND, it gives him a bigger audience. Once the amnesty comes through, I can picture him lapping up appreciation for driving up circulation figures. I can picture him working away on his – y’know. You DO know! I just can’t think of the word. One of them books which is all about some fella’s life – but instead of someone else writing it, the fella writes it himself. I can see Heyes making everything we ever did into cliffhangers and tearjerkers and planning to crack the bestseller list the way he planned to crack the Pierce and Hamilton ’78!
I can see him joining in Nell’s setting the world to rights one piece a time too. He’ll do it for sheer beating the odds. ‘We’ll never see that change in our lifetime!’ ‘We can never persuade people to vote for this!’ Heyes’ll get that wanna-wager-on-that? look in his eyes and set about proving folk wrong.
I can see her swelling with pride when he gets published in some fancy journal.
I can see him strutting like a peacock when she gets some classy hospital post.
What I can’t see…
Nah. It sounds mean.
Okay, I’ll spit it out. What I can’t see, is where the Sam Hill I fit in.
Or rather I can see all too well. I fit in nowhere.
Sure, I’ll be made welcome, given dinner, the guest room’ll be spruced up for me, Nell’ll be real sweet and take an interest in whatever I’m doing, Heyes’ll come out for a drink with me…
It IS mean for even a tiny part of me to wish he’d never even…
She did save my life.
And, I do like her.
I guess, I kinda thought if either of us ended up settling down, it’d be me. Not SOON! Sheesh, no. But maybe sometime. A nice home-loving girl. A place with some land. Maybe horses. I always pictured Heyes as the one who’d be the guest.
A phrase keeps coming to me as I lounge here, blowing smoke at the moon: The end of an era. I musta heard it from Heyes sometime, huh? Seems to fit though.
Y’know what? If this were a book – and if it WEREN’T the story of Heyes and Nell – if it were really the story of me and him being partners and living all fancy-free, this’d be about the time the writer’d hafta put…
NOTES TO CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
(nb: there is no need to read the notes – just to show I am actually looking things up, smile)
What Judge Hanley means about the Comstock Act being rushed through:
“A series of scandals involving financial schemes profiting prominent Republicans and their business cronies had cast a pallor over Washington politics and fueled the reformer Horace Greeley’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1872. Laboring under a cloud of suspicion, the Forty-second Congress now worked overtime to end the session with a spate of creditable legislation, as presumably befitted hardworking politicians worthy of the public trust. In the final hours of the term, Congress passed some 260 acts, the precise provisions of which remained unknown to many members. So impressed with their industriousness were these gentlemen that one of the last things they did before adjourning was to vote themselves a pay raise of twenty-five hundred dollars, retroactive for two years.
One measure passed in this last-minute frenzy was an anti-obscenity bill approved in the early-morning hours of Sunday, March 2. Commonly called the Comstock Act after its chief proponent, the morals crusader Anthony Comstock, the statute, embedded in a broader postal act, passed after little political debate and was signed into law along with 117 other bills on March 3. The Comstock Act defined contraceptives as obscene and inaugurated a century of indignities associated with birth control’s illicit status. Invoking its authority to regulate interstate commerce and the U.S. postal system, Congress outlawed the dissemination through the mail or across state lines of any “article of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever for the prevention of conception.” At the time, the act largely eluded public comment. Over the next century, however, its impact on birth control would be profound…
The Comstock Law thus continued a policy of federal obscenity regulation that in 1873 was more than thirty years old. It expanded the scope of the 1872 law by eliminating loopholes and codifying an extraordinarily long list of “obscenities.” Ominously, contraceptives made the list for the first time. The decision to include them was Anthony Comstock’s.” From”Devices and Desires” by Andrea Tone
The Comstock Laws were variously case tested, but courts struggled to establish definitive thinking about the laws.
The text of the federal bill reads:
“Be it enacted… That whoever, within the District of Columbia or any of the Territories of the United States…shall sell…or shall offer to sell, or to lend, or to give away, or in any manner to exhibit, or shall otherwise publish or offer to publish in any manner, or shall have in his possession, for any such purpose or purposes, an obscene book, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, drawing or other representation, figure, or image on or of paper or other material, or any cast instrument, or other article of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever, for the prevention of conception, or for causing unlawful abortion, or shall advertise the same for sale, or shall write or print, or cause to be written or printed, any card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement, or notice of any kind, stating when, where, how, or of whom, or by what means, any of the articles in this section…can be purchased or obtained, or shall manufacture, draw, or print, or in any wise make any of such articles, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction thereof in any court of the United States…he shall be imprisoned at hard labor in the penitentiary for not less than six months nor more than five years for each offense, or fined not less than one hundred dollars nor more than two thousand dollars, with costs of court.”
Comstock clearly hinges on definitions, particularly of obscenity. Though the law was originally based on the Hicklin test, definitions were mostly settled in Roth v. United States, in which it was determined that obscenity was material whose “dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest” to the “average person, applying contemporary community standards,” and was, “utterly without redeeming social importance.”
Perhaps Judge Hanley has a time machine and was there, or perhaps he simply echoes the Roth v. United States case by some strange fictional co-incidence?
(From good old Wickipedia and from “Devices and Desires” by Andrea Tone.)