Miss Becker’s Bundle

By Kristy Danieli

She arrived in Porterville by train. Traveling alone with a large travel bag and another bundle, she had to hire the services of a carriage to move from the station to the town. The driver let her off in front of the hotel, where a polite fellow offered to carry her suitcase. She gratefully accepted the help, and followed him into the lobby. The mass of fabrics in her own arms gave a small whimper, and she started rocking and whispering soothingly to it. The bundle quieted, and she approached the desk. She rented a room for one night, and led her helper to her new room.

"Thank you," she told him as he placed the large bag next to the room's bed.

"You're welcome, ma'am." He tipped his hat at her, and looked curiously at her own burden. "Will your husband be coming soon?"

"My husband died," she lied, brushing a hand over the covered head of her infant. It was a lie she had repeated many times over the last three months. Her black dress was chosen in anticipation needing to repeat it many more times until she could lose her past. Her past took the form of the helpless child in her arms.

"My sympathies, ma'am," the young man said, with true sorrow for her.

"Thank you." She made an excuse about being tired from the journey, and he quickly took the hint and left. It wasn't that she disliked the man, quite the contrary, but there was really only one person she wanted to talk to at the moment.

She waited several minutes, using them to feed the baby. He suckled eagerly, then fell asleep, content. She would likely miss the boy, but supporting herself was hard enough. A glance out the window showed the young man entering the saloon.

Bundling the child back into his carrying basket, she marshaled her nerve, then made her way down the stairs and across the way to the sheriff’s office. She knocked, and a male voice invited her inside.

The man behind the desk finished scribbling something onto an official looking form, the looked up at her. "Hello, what may I do for you, ma'am?" he asked pleasantly.

"Are you Sheriff Lom Trevors?" she asked him.

He smiled at her and nodded. "I am."

She placed the basket on his desk, atop his official forms and whatever else was there. "You may give this to Joshua Smith." She turned and left his office without another word.

Lom Trevors stared after the woman for a moment, the turned his attention to the blanket filled basket sitting on his desk. With vague feelings of trepidation and curiosity, he pulled aside the top blanket. Chocolate brown eyes stared back at him. He gave a startled exclamation, and nearly fell over backwards. Of all the things he thought someone would wish to send to Joshua Smith, this was the last thing he would have considered.

He could not say how long he stood there, staring at the baby. After a little while, the small head turned to one side and the too-familiar brown eyes closed. Only when his door opened did he take his eyes from the child. "Hello, Lom," Miss Porter greeted, closing the door behind herself. She walked over to see what had the sheriff looking so befuddled, and retreated a step with a small cry when she saw. "My goodness, Lom, who is that? And why is he here?"

"Don't know his name. He belongs to Joshua Smith, or so the woman who brought him here says. She figured as I could find the father."

"Goodness," Miss Porter repeated.

The sheriff hesitated a moment, then said, "Would you mind watching him a minute, Miss Porter? I need to send Smith a telegram."

"Oh, yes, of course, go right ahead."

Hannibal Heyes pushed several dollars into the center of the table, then added a few more. "I call and raise you five," he told the other men sitting around the poker table. His brown eyes and pleasant features gave nothing away. At the bar, Kid Curry smiled at the woman beside him.

The saloon door opened, and a man in a brown vest with a tin star stepped inside. The Kid turned his back slightly, putting himself into a position less likely to draw notice and more able to draw the gun in his belt. He otherwise seemed to keep his attention on the girl. Heyes gave no indication of having seen the sheriff's entrance.

The lawman swept his gaze around the room until in fell on the poker table. As he approached it, Kid's attention drifted further and further from the girl and closer and closer to the sheriff and Heyes. The sheriff stopped behind Heyes' shoulder and watched as the hand was finished. Heyes swept his winnings toward himself, then looked behind him. "May I help you, Sheriff?" he asked politely.

"You Joshua Smith?"

Heyes glanced toward the bar, exchanging a look with his friend. He looked back at the sheriff. "I am."

"Telegram." The sheriff handed him a yellow envelope. Kid relaxed visibly.

Heyes scanned it, then transferred his winnings from the table to his pockets. "My apologies, but I can't take any more of your money this afternoon, gentlemen." They laughed good naturedly, and let him leave the game. The dealer began the next round. Heyes met the blond's eyes and inclined his head toward the door. Kid and the sheriff followed him out. "Thank you," Heyes told the sheriff as he departed from their company.

Alone, Heyes handed the telegram to his partner. "What do you make of this, Kid?"

Kid Curry unfolded it and read aloud, "Sheriff Wilson, watch for a dark haired drifter traveling with a blond one. Named Joshua Smith. Give this to him. Smith: Come to Porterville. I have a delivery for you. Wire back if you get this. Sheriff Lom Trevors." The Kid looked at his friend, "Lom's got a delivery for you, what else am I supposed to make of it?"

Heyes took back the paper with a frown. "I don't know. But what kind of delivery would he have that's for me and not you? What kind of delivery could he have at all, for that matter? I'm not sure I like this, Kid."

"Lom wouldn't trick us, would he, Heyes?"

Heyes whacked his left palm with the yellow paper, then put it into his pocket. "He's got no reason to that I can see." With another frown and a sigh, he added, "So much for having a bed again tonight. Let's go tell him we're on our way."

“Coming. – Smith, Jones” the return telegraph message said. Lom nodded toward the telegram carrier. "Thank you." He looked across the room to where four of the town's young ladies were cooing at Little Smith, as they'd dubbed him. "Keep an eye on him a few minutes," he told them unnecessarily, "I'm going over to the hotel." Only one of them acknowledged him. She waved in roughly his direction, her eyes never leaving the baby. The nonverbal message was clear. Go ahead and go away. He shook his head in minor annoyance and did just that.

"Did a woman dressed in black check in here yesterday?" he asked the hotel receptionist.

The man on the other side of the desk thought about it. "Yes. Room 23, she's in. Jimmy helped bring her bag up," he nodded toward a handsome young man chatting with some older patrons.

"Mind if I go up to have a word with her?"

The clerk looked surprised but nodded readily, "Sure, go right on up, Sheriff. Two doors down on the left, at the top of the stairs."

Lom followed his direction, and knocked on the door clearly marked with the number 23. "Who is it?" a woman's voice asked.

"Sheriff Trevors, ma'am," Lom answered, "May I ask you a few questions?"

For a long moment it seemed she wasn't going to answer. Then, "Come in." Lom eased open the door slowly. She was sitting on the foot of her bed, looking like she had been crying. She nodded toward a chair, which Lom took. "What do you want to know?"

Do you know who Smith really is? was his big one, but that had to be worked to gradually. "What's your name?"

"Jennifer Becker."

"Miss Becker," he belatedly wondered if she was a Miss. She did not correct him, so he assumed he was right "How did you meet Mr. Smith?" He felt uncomfortably like he was interrogating her, but he couldn't find a way around it.

"I was a librarian before I quit and left town." She offered him a bitter smile. "Before I started showing. Mr. Smith borrowed a number of books from us while he was working for Mr. Hathway, the saloon owner."

"How well did you know Mr. Smith?"

She just looked at him for a moment. "Well enough." Two pink spots appeared on her cheeks.

Lom almost blushed himself. "That isn't what I meant, ma'am. I mean," he tried to come up with an alternate wording. Do you know he's Hannibal Heyes? "Do you know much about his life?"

She shrugged. "He told me some stories. I gather they travel a lot and don't have a permanent address." She didn't clarify that "they" meant Joshua and Thaddeus. She didn't have to. The two pronouns, 'he' and 'they', were almost interchangeable.

"Why did you think I could find him?"

"It was the only name he ever mentioned with an address attached. You came up often enough that I guessed you were one of the few friends they had that they kept in touch with." Lom guessed that that she was probably right, but that had more to do with their amnesty than their friendship, he suspected. How much did she know anyway? If they told her about their past, they told her about the amnesty, and she'd know he could be trusted, so she wouldn't hide anything from him, would she? His head hurt.

He didn't dare let on if she didn't know. "Do you think a drifter like him will be able to take care of a child?"

"He's a smart man. They seemed, well not wealthy, of course, but comfortable. He'll starve if he stays with me." She paused, perhaps wondering if she ought to explain those pronouns. Her next words confirmed it, "The baby, I mean. I can't feed us both, not on a librarian's salary, and I won't even have that if he's around because libraries won't hire single girls with children." She looked ready to start crying again. "So being with his father has got to be better for him."

Though he was fairly certain Heyes never would, he asked, "You don't think Smith will ask for your hand after this?"

Miss Becker smiled bitterly. "I don't want him to. He didn't before, so he doesn't want to. I will not be part of a shotgun wedding. Besides, I've quite vilified him over the last six months, I'm not sure I ever want to see him again. I'll be leaving on the 7:30 train this evening, Sheriff, and I should rest before then." He doubted she intended to do anything of the kind, but he bowed, donned his hat, and left her in peace. He was fairly certain she did not know about Joshua Smith's other name.

Little Smith was by far the most popular boy in Porterville. Every lady between four and fifty-four had visited him at Lom's office during the day or at the Porters' house at night. Without exception, every one of them gave him a kiss and held him in her arms. Even the men liked him, and were not the least bit jealous about the attention their wives or daughters or sweethearts gave him. Little Smith, though, was oblivious. He just drank goat's milk and slept most of the time. The rest of the time he fussed, wailed, or delighted the ladies with his laugh and babble.

During his questioning of Jennifer Becker, Lom had forgotten to ask the boy's name. Miss Becker had never mentioned it, and she had long since left by the time he realized his lapse. None of the townsfolk, even his regular babysitters, felt right naming a child that wasn't theirs, so the boy was known only as Little Smith during the two weeks it took for Curry and Heyes to arrive.

When they did ride into town, they immediately noticed the increased attention they were getting. Heyes leaned in close to the Kid's ear and whispered, "I think we got less attention when we were shootin' over Wheat's head the night of the robbery."

"Of course we did," the Kid whispered back, "there was money fallin' from the sky then and outlaws to watch." He paused, as an awful thought occurring to him. "You don't think . . ?"

Heyes shook his head. "Nah, they're laughing at us," he nodded toward a gaggle of girls who were whispering to each other and giggling, looking at them, then giggling again. "They wouldn't laugh at outlaws."

"Don't see what's so funny about bankers, neither."

"I don't think that's it. Maybe Lom'll tell us what's going on." They dismounted, swung the reins loosely around the wooden bar, then made their way toward the Sheriff's office. Most of the town followed. "I don't like this," he told the Kid under his breath.

"Makes two of us." He tipped his hat politely toward a woman he had spoken with once during their last time here.

Inside Lom's office were four more women, one of them Miss Porter. "Ma'am," they greeted her, not quite in chorus, then nodded to the rest of the women. Turning toward the desk, they looked at a bedraggled looking Sheriff Lom Trevors. "Hey, Lom," Heyes greeted him, "Mind tellin' a pair of transients what's got the town so stirred up?"

"Well, Joshua, they're all anxious about Little Smith." He nodded toward the four women. Heyes and the Kid followed his gaze and noticed this time that one of the women was holding an infant.

"He looks healthy to," Heyes began, then stopped. "What did you call him?"

"Little Smith. His mother forgot to mention his name, and his father hasn't come up with a name for him yet." Lom waited a moment before delivering the fatal blow. "So what are you going to name him, Joshua Smith?"

For once in his life, Hannibal Heyes of the silver tongue was stunned speechless. He stared at the baby, at the women, at Lom, then back to the baby. His jaw moved several times as though he were trying to speak, but no sound emerged. The Kid wasn't doing much better, though he recovered first. "Your telegram didn't warn us about this," he accused Lom.

"If I told you, would you have come?"

"I'd've," the Kid insisted, hurt by the implication, then glanced at Heyes whose gaze was still transfixed on the baby. He jostled his partner’s arm. "Joshua!" Heyes blinked and apparently trying to clear it. "Lom wants to know if we'da come if this weren't a surprise."

"I knew the package would be trouble," he mumbled, then looked at the boy again. "Probably," he answered. The Kid turned back toward Lom in time to see the grim smile that the less certain answer had provoked, and he frowned. "You know we can't take him with us," Heyes continued.

One of the young women jumped from her chair and crossed to him. "He's your son!" she exclaimed angrily. "A sweet and beautiful boy. His mother left him. You're his only parent left, he needs you!"

"How do I know he's mine?" Heyes shot back.  The Kid looked at the baby trying to see his best friend in the pudgy face. It was surprisingly easy.

"Look't 'im, H- Joshua," he said, giving the ladies support Heyes obviously didn't want them to have. "Looks just like you, only littler." The Kid pretended to misinterpret Heyes' glower, "Well, maybe he's a little fatter, too, and his talkin' needs a little work, but give 'im a few years." He was thoroughly enjoying himself, but then he turned serious, "'Sides, with you named as the father, who else'll take care of 'im?"

Heyes looked past him, at Little Smith. "It's not that simple." He looked at Lom as though hoping he would contradict, but the sheriff shook his head regretfully. "Thaddeus and I have to travel all the time," he told the women, "That's no way to raise a kid. Beyond that, though, I don't know a thing about children, anyway. If he got sick while we were riding between towns, he could die from my ignorance." The thought clearly scared him, nearly as much as it did the ladies. The one who had spoken backed down with a little 'oh.'

The Kid looked at the boy with new uncertainty, realizing just how little he knew about kids. "Well, it wasn't *that* bad, and I never heard of an orphanage killing—"

"No," said Heyes firmly. "He's not an orphan." He caught and held the Kid's eyes with his own, "As long as I breathe, he won't go through what we did." The Kid released a breath he had realized he'd been holding, glad that Heyes would look for, and no doubt find, another way.

"May I suggest hiring a foster family to watch him while you're away?" Lom suggested, looking around the room. The ladies nodded their approval of this idea. The Kid and Heyes glanced at each other, the Kid imperceptibly nodding his support of whatever Heyes wanted to do.

Finally, Heyes nodded. "How does one go about hiring a foster family?"

"Mr. Smith," Miss Porter interrupted, "Before you find him a home, could you find him a name? Little Smith is a nice enough pet name, but he needs a real one."

He had already been asked the question once, but it still seemed to startle him that he could name a child. Decide on a collection of letters by which a person would define himself for the rest of his life. The Kid wondered what possibilities were going through his partner's mind. The only thing he was sure of was that it would not be Hannibal. Kid didn't really like Jedediah, either, so hopefully he wouldn't come up with that. Heyes had always been partial to Joshua, but he'd already named himself that, and a junior would be confusing, all things considered. Living with a foster family, the boy's last name was going to be Smith for a while. Heyes's eyes cleared as he looked at the Kid, "Would you mind if I named him Thaddeus, Thaddeus?"

The Kid laughed, "I'm honored, really, but it's a horrible name for a kid. Everyone would tease him." Only Lom and Heyes could know he wasn't speaking from personal experience.

"That's what I thought you'd say; figured I'd ask anyway." Heyes' gaze fell on Lom Trevors, and he grinned. "Trevor, then," he said with certainty. "Trevor Smith." Trevor Heyes. The women smiled their approval of that too. Lom looked surprised, but he nodded as well.

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