Alias Smith & Burne-Jones:
A Frustrated Hurt/Comfort Story
dedicated to Deborah Menikoff, who knows why
“But how does Burne-Jones get to the West? Does he stow away in one of Oscar Wilde’s trunks? ‘Oh, I need my great-coat,’ says Wilde. ‘But what’s this? It’s not my coat at all. It’s Burne-Jones. Hullo, Ned.” -- D.M.
They should never have gone into the saloon, that was for certain. The extended heat wave, followed by the week of rain that drenched everything but somehow never removed the sticky heaviness from the air, as a rainstorm ought, had the people of Carter’s Creek on edge. And Kid Curry’s temper was on hair-trigger right now, faster even than his draw.
Hannibal Heyes sighed. Usually his partner was so easy-going, so sure of his own skills and so willing to trust Heyes’s quick wits to get them out of any unpleasant situations they found themselves in. But on those rare occasions when he wasn’t, anything could happen.
So a saloon full of cowboys in a similar temper was the last place they should have been. Except that Heyes was bored, and wanted to play poker, and Curry had his eye on a pretty saloon girl.
Unfortunately, a particularly large and drunken miner had his bloodshot eye on the same girl, and Curry was in no mood for backing down, particularly not when it was obvious that the girl would far prefer his company to that of his rival. One thing led to another, and though no guns were drawn, a fistfight ensued, and Kid Curry got thrown against the wall so hard that he fell unconscious on the floor.
The town doctor was sent for, and when it was ascertained that there were no internal injuries, the Doc and Heyes had carried the Kid back to their hotel room.
“Mister Jones will need a great deal of quiet and rest,” explained the doctor. “He’s got a concussion. He doesn’t really need to be watched, however. I’ll give him something to make sure he sleeps, and . . . oh, darnitall.” (The doctor was an extremely civilized man. His friends often commented that he was about the least effective swearer that they’d ever met.)
“What’s the matter?” asked Heyes, ignoring the doctor’s egregious lapse. (After all, “darn” is not a word a manly man would use, and whatever you had to say about Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry, they were certainly manly men. Even if Heyes did secretly like to read poetry, and even though the Kid had been beaten up by a girl, once. He was five at the time, and she was nine, and the terror of the one-room schoolhouse.)
“I’m all out of laudanum in my bag. My nurse is on vacation, and I thought my wife was going to see to making sure that my medical bag is stocked up for me. But last night was her whist night with the girls, and I suppose she just forgot.” The doctor smiled, thinking about how much money his wife had won in last night’s whist game. “Could you come back to my office with me, now? As I said, he doesn’t really need to be watched, and my office is just across town.”
On the way to the doctor’s office, Heyes thought that there were an unusual number of people on the street for a town the size of Carter’s Creek. Perhaps there was a carnival coming to town, or a local steeplechase, or something of the sort. They reached the doctor’s office, which was farther from the hotel than it reasonably should have been in a medium-sized town. The house had a side entrance that led to the doctor’s dispensary, and the doctor soon provided Heyes with a small container of laudanum, and instructions to give it to the Kid when he woke up.
But just as Heyes was about to take his leave, there was a knock at the door which separated the dispensary from the house. “Frank, are you home?”
“Yes, Milly. Just bringing the friend of a patient back to give him some medicine. Come in, dear.”
The door opened to reveal a motherly-looking middle-aged woman. “Hello,” she said to Heyes, warmly. “You’re not from around here, are you? You know, I have an apple pie cooling and you’re welcome to stay.”
“Apple pie?” asked Frank. “You really ought to stay, Mr. Smith. My Milly’s apple pie is the best this side of the Mississippi.”
“Well, that’s very kind of you, and all, Doc, Miz Milly. But I really ought to be getting back to my friend. I’m worried about him.”
The doctor scoffed, “Oh, he’ll be sleeping for hours yet. He’ll be just fine.”
Still protesting, Heyes was ushered into the parlor, a well-kept, homey place filled with well-polished furniture and lace antimacassars. Milly handed him a slice of apple pie, which was indeed the most delicious he had ever tasted, and coffee that rivaled even his own. (The reader will surmise that Heyes had a much higher opinion of his own coffee than the Kid did.)
But as he rose to leave, his hostess stopped him. “Oh, you aren’t going to go just yet, Mister Smith, are you?”
“Well, yes, ma’am, actually I think I have to. My friend is still alone, and he could be waking up any minute, and . . .”
“Look here, Mister Smith,” said Milly, with a gleam in her eyes that Heyes didn’t quite trust, “How about a nice friendly little game of cards?”
How could such a sweet, motherly-looking lady possible prove a danger to Heyes at the card table?
Meanwhile, back at the hotel, Kid Curry lay unconscious. If his partner had been there, he would have sat and wiped the sweat from his brow, as he sat watching the Kid’s occasional tosses and turns. Curry looked so very pale, and strong-yet-wounded, and adorable, and his golden curls haloed his head in such a way that even the most dedicated and single-minded Heyes-fancier would have been touched to her very quick. But alas, the Kid was all alone, wasting all that good hurt with nobody to comfort him.
An hour later, Heyes stumbled out of the dispensary room door. Miz Milly had managed to win nearly a hundred dollars from him! And she’d seemed so very much the apple-pie-baking, antimacassar-crocheting, sweet grey-haired lady that he couldn’t believe what a shark she was at the poker table. (Alas, dear reader, we would like to report that Heyes at this moment got over the mistake of ever underestimating anyone, and particularly ever underestimating a member of the gentler sex, but he did not always remember to apply today’s lesson to whatever befell him. Pretty d**ned frequently, though. You will note that the author is a manly woman, indeed, and swears when it is necessary, or even when it’s not.)
Still, it was a good thing that he’d won pretty heavily at the saloon earlier that afternoon. At least he wasn’t coming out too far behind.
I gotta get back to the Kid, and start doin’ the comfort part, he said to himself, looking with dismay at the crowds which had gathered in the streets. How was he ever gonna get past them? “Excuse me,” he asked a passing cowboy. “What’s goin’ on that the streets are so crowded?”
“Why it’s our annual Fourth of July celebration,” responded the man. “We get folks from all over the territory comin’ for the fireworks, and the carnival, and the big parade.”
Heyes had noticed the Fourth of Julys tended to occur with suspicious frequency in the towns that he and the Kid passed through, but this was the first time that one had blatantly occurred in the middle of October. “Ain’t it a little late for Fourth of July?”
“What are you, some kind of, uh, not patriotic person or somethin’?” (The cowboy might have accused him of being a Communist, of course, since Marx had already published his famous manifesto, but the cowboy didn’t actually know that, not getting to see the papers regularly on the range or anything. Still, he did the best he could with the limited resources he had available to him.)
“No,” said Heyes, “but this is my third Fourth of July this year.”
The stranger brightened. “Guess you are a patriot, then. Well, we all have our Fourth of Julys at different times so we can all go visit the other towns what are havin’ ‘em. That way everyone gets a bigger celebration, and all the towns only gotta do all the work once.”
Heyes nodded. It was a brilliant plan, and he was only sorry he hadn’t thought of it. On the other hand, maybe he had.
“Now, son,” said his father, “the teacher says you’ve been hitting the other boys again. You’re the smartest boy in the class, but you can’t keep getting into trouble like this.”
Nine-year-old Hannibal Heyes sighed. “But they called me a name, Papa.”
“Now what could they possibly have called you that was so bad you had to hit them?”
Heyes turned red, and looked down. “They called me . . . they called me . . . they called me -- Hannibal!”
Heyes senior looked a little surprised. “But that’s your name, son.”
“But they don’t have to remind me of it, do they?”
Heyes’ father looked thoughtful for a moment, and then said, “No, I suppose they don’t, son. I suppose they don’t. I told your mother it was a bad idea, but she did insist on calling you after her favorite uncle . . . well, never mind. Is there anything you’d like me to bring you back when I go into town for the council meeting?”
“But the Fourth of July’s already over. What would you do with fireworks?”
It was then that an idea struck Heyes. It hit him with a warm, all-over glow, and then his brain began vibrating, faster and faster until he said, “Why can’t there be more than one Fourth of July? If we had ours later than Millersville had theirs, why, everybody could go to both!”
And Heyes, pater, liked the idea so much that he shared it with the town council, and it was enacted, and gradually spread across the entire West.
Thus was born the first Hannibal Heyes plan.
*** END FLASHBACK ***
So, it was a Fourth of July celebration, was it? Well, thought Heyes, the streets are awfully packed. It’s gonna be hard to get back to the hotel. Just then, he spotted an alley that looked relatively unobstructed, and made for it. However, as he was about to slip through, a deputy sheriff suddenly blocked his path.
“Hold it right there, cowboy,” said the deputy. “Nobody goes through this way.”
Heyes gave his most winning grin, and mentally polished his silver tongue. “But I’ve just come from the doctor’s, and I’ve got to get back to my sick friend at the hotel.”
The deputy looked entirely unsympathetic. “Well, now, you just should have thought of that before you decided to go gallivanting around town on the day of the Carter’s Creek annual October 15th Fourth of July celebration, shouldn’t you?”
Heyes tried again, in words of one syllable. “I just came from the doc. I need to get back to my friend. He is sick and needs me.” But as he tried to slip past the deputy, a contingent of other deputies showed up and blocked his path.
“You ain’t goin’ nowhere, stranger. Try anything, and you’ll spend the night in the sheriff’s lockup.”
Heyes thought for a moment. Was the town jail on the other side of these crowds? But the town jail would have wanted posters, and even law enforcement officers as dim as these might just put two and two together. Not for the first time, Heyes thought the amnesty was taking an awfully long time to come through.
Meanwhile, Kid Curry continued to lay on his bed, the hurt object in sore need of the comforting subject. Once he opened his blue eyes, looked about in surprise to see that Heyes was not sitting at his side, and closed them again. Must be somethin’ important going on. Heyes likes a good hurt/comfort wallow as much as the best of ‘em. He fell back into a troubled sleep.
D**n! thought Heyes. How’m I gonna get back to the Kid? He formulated a new plan -- if he couldn’t cross town, he’d circumnavigate it. (Heyes had recently read the word “circumnavigate” in a book he’d come across.) He’d just go to the edge of town and walk around it and come up on the hotel from the other side. And with that thought, he headed out boldly away from the crowds, towards the edge of town.
“What’s the matter?” asked a kindly-looking old timer.
Since kindly-looking old timers were generally good news for Heyes and the Kid, he replied. “My name’s Smith, and my friend Mr. Jones is back at the hotel, and I can’t get there because of this Fourth of July Celebration.”
The old timer was just a little hard of hearing, so what he heard was actually “Mumble, mumble Smith, mutter mumble Jones something something hotel, and I can’t get there because of this Fourth of July Celebration.”
“There was another feller around here, sayin’ something about a Smith and a Jones and a hotel, too,” said the old timer.
Heyes wondered if it was possible that the Kid could be up and wandering around. In his current condition, that would be bad. That would be very bad. “Which way did he go?”
“Thataway,” pointed the old man.
Heyes went “thataway,” further and further from the crowd, only to discover a bearded, balding man in a well-tailored tweed suit and a pair of pince nez. “Hello,” he said, “I’m looking for my friend, Mr. Jones. Have you seen him? He’s blondish, about my height, wearin’ a sheepskin jacket and a brown hat?
“Can’t say that I have,” said the other, in a distinctly British accent. “Funny, though. I’m a Jones, myself. Well, Burne-Jones, actually. Edward Burne-Jones, at your service. I’m a painter.”
Heyes looked at him, puzzled. “Your clothes are awful neat for a painter.”
Burne-Jones smiled. “Not a house painter. I’m an artist.” As they were in a quiet street at some distance from the crowd by now, he opened up a large leather portfolio. “These are some drawings I’ve been working on.”
Now, Hannibal Heyes loved reading, though his way of living hadn’t put him in the way of as many books as he would have liked, but there were certain of the fine arts to which he’d never really been exposed. So when Burne-Jones showed him his sketches of dreamy-eyed ladies in semi-medieval settings, Heyes was struck speechless. Not an easy thing to do to Hannibal Heyes.
When he could finally speak again, he muttered, “These are . . . beautiful.”
“Thank you, Mister . . . ?”
“Smith,” said Heyes promptly. “Joshua Smith.”
“Well, Mister Smith, thank you.” The Englishman paused. “Funny. I just told a rather elderly gentleman that I was looking for a W. H. Smith, or its equivalent.” As he saw the look of incomprehension on Heyes’ face, he continued. “Railway booksellers.”
“Wish we had more of them around here,” said Heyes, longingly. He forcibly brought himself back from a reverie which involved languid beauties in diaphanous dresses (actually, not having read that word anywhere recently, Heyes thought “see-through”) carrying tempting volumes, and addressed the matter at hand. “Guess that old-timer didn’t hear either of us right. He just heard Smith and Jones, and figured we were lookin’ for each other.”
“Where’s your friend?”
“Well, see, that’s the thing. I left him back at the hotel. He’d been hit on the head pretty good, and the doc said he’d be out for awhile. I went back to the doc’s to pick up some medicine, and now ‘cause of this big Fourth of July celebration, I can’t seem to cross town. When the old man said a Mister Jones’d gone this way, I figured my friend might be up and wandering around.”
“Fourth of July?” asked Burne-Jones, curiously. “But it’s October . . . let me see,” and he withdrew a small memorandum-book from his waistcoat pocket. “October 15th. Rather an odd time to celebrate the Fourth of July, isn’t it?”
“That’s what I said,” Heyes replied, conveniently forgetting that it was in part his own fault. “Anyway, the difficulty is getting back to him.”
“So the hotel is unapproachable?”
“Pretty much. So I was figuring on walking around town.”
“Well,” said Burne-Jones, shouldering his portfolio, and lifting a rather impressively-sized leather valise, “lead on. All I can say is, I’m glad I had my trunks sent ahead to San Francisco.”
Kid Curry opened his eyes wide. He was still pale and wobbly and shakily adorable, and if that wasn’t a call for hurt/comfort, he didn’t know what was. So where was the comfort bit, already? A whole lot of female admirers of his, and of Heyes’, were gonna be awful upset about this one. Slowly, he sat up, pulling the sheet down from his bare chest. It was attractively sweat-slicked, so he paused for a moment as a sort of consolation prize to said admirers, but it was time to get dressed and try to get some food. He went to the washstand, took a sponge, and began to wash himself, then slipped on a clean white shirt and a pair of dark tan trousers.
“Never thought a town this size would take so much time to walk around,” murmured Heyes, who’d long ago begun carrying Burne-Jones’ portfolio so the Englishman could concentrate on the not-inconsiderable weight of his valise. “Hope Thaddeus is okay.”
“I shouldn’t worry, if I were you, Joshua. The physician did tell you that he would be sleeping peacefully for some time, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, Ned, he did, but still . . . Thaddeus is the restless type, and if he gets hungry, he’s gotta eat.”
But just as Heyes spoke, a giant blast of fireworks went off over their heads.
“What was that last?” asked the bearded Pre-Raphaelite.
“Hungry. Gotta eat.”
“I’m feeling a bit peckish myself, to be quite frank with you.”
“We can eat at the hotel. But right now, we just gotta get there.”
Food. Must find food, thought Kid Curry, opening the door of his hotel room, and quickly clutching onto it, as a wave of dizziness hit him.
“How many brass bands can there possibly be in a town this size?” asked Burne-Jones.
“I dunno. I lost count about two dozen ago. They musta shipped them in from all over the territory -- hell, all over the entire West. Funny how fireworks ain’t such a thrill anymore, either.”
“Agreed. Hullo, Joshua. Can it be?”
Heyes broke into a wide grin. “It sure is! Come on along, Ned, and we’ll have a big steak dinner, and a coupla beers at the local saloon. Uh, after we make sure my friend is okay, of course.”
The two men made their way to the hotel. Heyes looked at the time at the clock over the desk. It couldn’t have taken that long. The Kid . . . he must be . . . dropping Burne-Jones’ portfolio, he paused only to give him the number of their room, and raced up the stairs.
“I wouldn’t . . .” came the desk clerk’s voice weakly after him.
But all Heyes could think about was his wounded partner. He’s my best friend, the only person I trust, my other half . . . and if anything ever happened to him . . . A rush of delayed emotion overcame him. The Kid . . . He unlocked the hotel door only to find . . .
A flash of red satin, a female scream and the Kid, half dressed, running to the door.
“Where have you been, Heyes? I was hurt and need of comfort for hours.”
Heyes tried to peek past him, to see if the woman was indeed the saloon girl in whose pursuit the Kid had been injured. He grinned wickedly, all his previous urgency forgotten. “Looks like you found a pretty good substitute in my absence, Kid. You can’t be all that bad off. ‘Least, it looks like she’s not just wiping your brow and saying soothing things, like I would’ve done.”
The Kid laughed. “Naw. Miz Violet here’s a good sight better at comfort than you ever were. Now will you get lost, please?” And he closed the door in his partner’s face.
Heyes turned around and shrugged, only to find Burne-Jones coming up the hallway. “Come along, Ned,” he said. “My partner’s found him a real pretty nurse while I was away.”
And the two men headed down to the hotel dining room, where they swapped stories of the Wild West and of the London art scene, and after that they headed to the saloon where they drank and talked more and swore eternal friendship, and then Heyes whispered to his new best friend (other than the Kid, of course) that he was really an outlaw, and Burne-Jones whispered to his new best friend (other than William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, of course) that he really always wanted to be an outlaw, but being an artist was the least conventional thing he’d ever managed. And then Heyes told Ned his real name, and Ned was really impressed by the Hannibal part, and Ned told Heyes that his real name wasn’t Edward Burne-Jones, but Edward Burne Jones, and he’d hyphenated it because it sounded classier. Also because it pushed him further to the front of alphabetical lists. And then Heyes told Ned about the amnesty, and Ned insisted that they toast it with yet another whiskey, and then Ned passed out.
Heyes lay in bed, his head on fire and his whole body aching. He felt the cool dampness of a cloth mopping his fevered brow. He opened his eyes, but the room was spinning, so he closed them again. When he ventured to open them again, he was conscious that Kid Curry was sitting at his bedside, a twinkle in his eyes.
“This is the way it’s supposed to be done, Joshua,” the Kid said, grinning. He turned his head to the other side of the room, and Heyes followed, groaning all the way, because even moving his head hurt like aitch ee double-hockey-sticks. “How you doin’ over there, Violet, honey?”
“Just fine,” said the saloon girl, who was occupied with mopping Burne-Jones’ brow. “And, Thaddeus, this nice man says he’s a pre-ray-fee-alight painter, what ever that means, and that he’s gonna put me in the pictures! Ain’t that right, Neddie?”
The Kid grinned again and turned back to Heyes. “Oh well. You win some, you lose some.”
Heyes closed his eyes, hoping the whole thing would go away. At least there was some hurting and some comforting, after all.
And Edward Burne-Jones thought what marvelous stories he’d have to share with Rossetti and the others.
To the best of the author’s knowledge, Burne-Jones was never in the West. Now, Oscar Wilde on the other hand . . . forthcoming, in an issue of Just You, Me and the Governor near you . . .
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