The Newcomer in White River
The sun was making its appearance for the day. The man sitting by the campfire paused to watch the sunrise and smiled in appreciation at the awesome beauty before him as inky blackness faded into golden sunshine. This time of day was his favorite, and he always enjoyed the dawning of each new day.
He returned to making coffee, crushing the beans on a flat rock carefully with the butt of his six-gun. There were just enough for the morning's coffee, and he couldn't afford to waste any. He had double-checked the food supplies, but there were none left. The dark-haired man shrugged. There were always rabbits in the fields and fish in the streams so they wouldn't go hungry. In fact, this morning's fare last night's warmed-over dinner was much better than some they'd had. When the coffee was almost ready, Hannibal Heyes rose from the fire to wake the man still sleeping nearby.
Jedediah "Kid" Curry woke up immediately, instantly alert. He stretched his lean body to its full length and got up. He would have liked to sleep later, but knew his partner wanted to hit the road. Heyes was always ready to hit the road. Curry wondered idly if and when the governor of Wyoming came through with his promise, Heyes would ever be able to settle down in one place. He somehow didn't think so, no matter what Heyes said to the contrary. He wasn't even sure if he could.
More than three years ago, the governor of Wyoming had given his word that if Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry would go straight and stay out of trouble for "a year or so" he would give them both an amnesty for their past crimes of bank and train robbery. So far, for one reason or another, the governor had not kept his word.
To be strictly honest, although the two outlaws had managed to stay out of banks and off of trains except for the purposes they were intended they couldn't seem to keep out of trouble for any length of time. Trouble always managed to find them, whether in the form of eagle-eyed sheriffs not wanting two outlaws, reformed or not, in their towns; bounty hunters out for the ten-thousand dollar reward still offered on each of them; or old friends in need of a helping hand.
As the two men were saddling their horses, they talked. "Kid, how much money do you have?" Heyes asked.
"Same as I did when you asked me two days ago: seven dollars, fifty cents, and you have about ten dollars. Why?" the Kid answered with a grimace. Available jobs were scarce in this part of the country, and money was unusually tight right now for both of them.
"We need to find a town somewhere soon; we're out of supplies. White River is not more than a couple hours ride from here. We need to increase our stake anyhow. Maybe we can find a few men who don't know the odds in playing poker." Heyes grinned wickedly at the prospect.
Curry didn't return the smile, only looked at his partner for a long moment. When he mounted his horse without a word, Heyes knew the Kid was still perturbed with him about last night.
They rode into White River mid-morning. It was a pretty town nestled in a valley between two large hills. The large river rippling through a meadow on the far side of town apparently gave the town its name. As they approached the center of town, they saw tidy homes with children playing nearby. There were all types of businesses mixed in: a telegraph office, a hotel, a mercantile, a laundry, and a bank. Saloons and a livery stable could just be seen in the distance at the other end of town. There was no train station, at least not as far as they could tell.
Heyes noticed the bank first off. "Now, there's a place just a begging to be robbed," he told his partner with a mischievous smile on his face.
"I mean it, Kid. Look at that place. No bars on the windows. I don't see a guard inside, and I'll just bet it has nicer furniture in there than in some people's front parlor."
"Oh, Kid, you're getting to be no fun at all." Heyes looked over at his friend in annoyance. He knew this amnesty business was changing them, but he wasn't sure if he liked some of the changes in his friend or in himself for that matter.
The partners entered the first saloon they saw, walked up to the bar, and asked for a beer. After drinking half of his in one long, satisfying gulp, Heyes turned his back to the bar and looked around the room. Although it was still early in the day, several tables were in use, and Heyes saw one on the other side of the room with four men sitting around it, playing cards.
After watching them play for several minutes, he turned to the Kid. "I think I've found our game. Those four men over there don't know the first thing about poker," he said with a devilish look.
Curry turned around and smiled. "Well, then. What's keeping us?"
Several hours later, the two men walked out of the saloon, Heyes richer by more than fifty dollars. "That was my kind of game. When will people learn not to draw to an inside straight?" he asked, not really expecting an answer.
"Well," Curry responded happily, "when they do, I reckon I'll stop playing." He was well satisfied with the extra thirty-five dollars in his pocket.
They mounted their horses, hitched in front of the saloon, and rode to the mercantile they had passed on their way into town. It was designed like most of the other general stores Heyes and Curry had been in: food to the left of the store, dry goods to the right, and hardware along the rear wall. The two men selected a modest amount of supplies that would keep well on the trail.
Letting the Kid settle up the account, Heyes wandered over to a stack of books for sale that he'd noticed near the back of the store. He saw several he would enjoy reading but, after mentally adding up the cost, decided against buying any. He was tempted momentarily to abscond with one, but when he used to steal, it was in grand style and large amounts. Never let it be said that Hannibal Heyes was a petty thief. Besides, he hardly ever thought of stealing any more. At least not more than once or twice a month now! With a shake of his head and a derisive chuckle at himself, he turned away from the books and joined the Kid. "You boys joining in the big celebration?" the owner inquired.
"There's a big Founders' Day picnic tomorrow down by the river. The whole town will be there," replied the storeowner.
Heyes and Curry looked at each other. "Sounds like fun, but we're only here for a few supplies before we go on our way," Curry carefully responded. He had seen a certain look on his friend's face and had a feeling that, as nice as this town probably was, both he and Heyes would do well to leave as soon as possible. More to the point, he couldn't get last night's conversation out of his mind.
"Jobs?" The bespectacled shopkeeper thought for a minute before replying. "Afraid not. White River's a nice town, and maybe once the railroad comes through, jobs will pick up; but right now, I doubt if either one of you boys will find much. You could try the Circle M, though. Mr. Morgan might have something for you. He and his family will be in town tomorrow. Ask him then."
"Joshua? Don't you think we should be?" began the blond man, hoping against hope that Heyes would decide to travel on a bit further.
His hopes were dashed though when his partner said, "You know, we just might do that. White River is a nice place. Big doings, huh?"
"Yes sir," the other man said. "Everyone comes and brings food to share. I'm sure both of you will be most welcome. Why don't you come as guests of my wife and me? We have no children; she'd enjoy having someone to fuss over."
"We wouldn't want to impose," Heyes demurred.
Curry wanted to punch his friend out, knowing that "imposing" was exactly what Heyes had in mind.
"Not a bit of it! I'm Robert Weaver and my wife is Sarah. Wait 'til I tell her; she'll be pleased as punch. And you are?" Mr. Weaver's words trailed off as he waited for the two strangers to give their own names.
Robert Weaver looked the two men over. Smith and Jones? All of a sudden, he wondered at his wisdom in asking them to stay. They both appeared honest enough, even though they were trail-worn and dusty, but Smith and Jones? He considered himself a pretty fair judge of character, but he knew his wife was a better one. "Let me introduce you to my wife. Sarah? Sarah, come here. I want you to meet someone." Pride in his wife was evident.
Sarah Weaver came from another part of the store at her husband's call. When she saw the two strangers standing nearby, she greeted them warmly. "How can I help you, gentlemen?"
Bob and Sarah Weaver were a comfortable-looking couple in their mid- to late-thirties; self-possessed people who were happy with life and expected everyone else to be as well. There was an air of well-being about them.
Her husband made the introductions. "Sarah, this is Mr. Joshua Smith and Mr. Thaddeus Jones. They're looking for work, possibly at the Circle M, and I've invited them both to be our guests tomorrow for Founders' Day, seeing as they don't know anyone in town as yet."
Mrs. Weaver scrutinized the two men carefully. It was obvious she was having the same thoughts her husband was about their common last names.
Heyes, his conscience nipping at him a bit, said, "Ma'am, it was real nice of your husband to invite us, but we really shouldn't. We'll ride out to Mr. Morgan's ranch this evening to ask about those jobs. We don't want
"Nonsense," Mrs. Weaver said briskly, "Bob's right. You both are most welcome to have dinner with us tomorrow. We'll see you about one p.m. or so. You can talk with Mr. Morgan then. Why don't you get rooms at the hotel just down the way a bit? It's plain, but clean and comfortable, and the rate is reasonable."
Heyes spoke up before his friend could. "Thank you, Mr. Weaver; you too, ma'am. Much obliged. We'll be looking forward to seeing you then. See you both here about one?" It was a question, and the two Weavers nodded as Heyes and Curry left.
"Doggone it, Heyes," Curry exploded, once they were mounted on the horses and headed slowly to the livery stable. "Why don't we just ride out now? They're real good folk."
"Kid, I know that. But it's nice to be around good folk once in a while, even if only for an afternoon. We can always leave tomorrow night or Sunday morning at the latest. Tell me, do you want to look up this man Morgan and ask him for a job?"
Heyes halted his horse and stared at his friend. "You're serious." He was incredulous.
"Of course I'm serious. I saw that look on your face a little while ago. I've seen that look on your face often enough to know what it means. Trouble." There was real concern in Curry's tone, and Heyes knew that his cousin was not playing around.
"Sure, I was tempted, but only for a minute." Heyes wasn't going to mention his stray thoughts about the books. He was being honest with the Kid now. "Put that thought out of your mind. Kid, I have. There's no way I'm going to jeopardize our amnesty like that. I don't care how much money is in that bank." Heyes' face and the tone of voice he used showed that he was upset at his partner's implication.
Curry sighed deeply. "I know you want that amnesty. I just had to be sure, I guess. For a while there, though, I was afraid you'd do something foolish, and I'd have to back you up, and then we'd both be in real trouble again. No offense intended."
"None taken, Kid. I suppose I shouldn't have said what I did about the bank." Heyes' face cleared, and he smiled. "Let's get these horses taken care of and then us. That hotel sounds mighty inviting just about now."
While Heyes and the Kid took their time currying their horses, each man had some disturbing thoughts.
It had been just last night that he and Heyes'd had the argument, Curry realized. It seemed longer somehow.
After supper and with the horses cared for, the two men were enjoying a final cup of coffee when Heyes' lips tightened as he gazed into the firelight, not really seeing it.
"What?" Curry asked.
"Do you realize that we haven't had more than a hundred dollars between us at any one time in more than six months?" Heyes responded with a pained look on his face.
"Yeah, so?" Curry couldn't tell where this was leading to.
"Wheat's jealous." Curry dismissed Wheat Carlson with a wave of his hand. He wished Heyes would get to the point.
"We might just as well rob the first bank we come to and do some high living for a change," Heyes commented as though he was remarking on the weather.
"Think about it logically. Kid. We can't get a well-paying job anywhere, let alone hold one for any length of time before we have to leave, generally because of some sheriff like the last time or because someone like Kyle Murtry comes riding into town yelling out our names the time before that. This is no life."
"Logically? I thought you were the one who wanted to go straight, have a future? You think logically. What are we wanted for?"
There was silence from Heyes.
"The way I figure it, the governor's testing us, and he can't afford to make it any too easy for us. So what happens if we do rob some bank? Assuming we're not caught red-handed, that is. Every lawman and bounty hunter will be hot on our trails, even more than they are now. Our friends will get wind of it and most likely join the chase. People like Lom Trevors, or Judge Hanley, or even the Jordans. You want that?" The Kid understood Heyes' frustration. He'd felt that way many times himself, but usually it was Heyes who talked him into staying honest.
"No, of course not. It's just taking so long."
Hoping to talk some sense into his normally level-headed partner, Curry continued, "I know that, but Heyes, we made our beds a long time ago. You know as well as I do, we really don't deserve this kind of second chance. If it takes five years or even twenty years more to get it, we have to make the best of it. At least we're not in prison. We ought to take this second chance and be grateful. The governor's doing us a favor in offering us that amnesty."
"The governor can keep his amnesty" Heyes began unreasonably.
"Well, he can keep yours if that's what you want. But he is going to give me mine, eventually." Afraid of saying anything more, the Kid stormed off into the darkness, leaving Heyes to stare morosely at the fire.
Heyes, meanwhile, was thinking about changes. It seemed to him that his whole life had gone haywire during the last three years because of the amnesty deal they'd made with the governor. Of course it had, he realized. They'd been thieves for so long, himself in particular, that it was difficult to think honestly at times, especially when he saw banks with no bars at the windows or guards at the doors. He seriously mulled over what the Kid had said last night he was right, anything sure did beat going to prison even going straight.
As for the changes in the Kid, there were too many to count. The Kid had actually started to think honestly! He always used to follow Heyes' lead in most things. Now it was as if the tables were turned Heyes was beginning to follow the Kid's lead more often. His partner had made a lot of sense last night. Heyes really did want that amnesty, and even if he had to wait for it, he would. He made the vow silently.
By the time they were finished, it was almost suppertime and both were looking forward to a well-cooked meal and clean sheets on a soft bed. Neither man had ever learned to take that type of comfort for granted.
They were just leaving the stable when the Kid felt his back pocket rip. "What the... Hey! Come back here, you little thief!"
Curry and Heyes took off running after a boy who was clutching Curry's poker winnings. The race was brief and one-sided. Before the boy had gone twenty feet, each man grabbed an arm of the fleeing boy and pulled him to a stop between them.
"Give me that!" Curry grabbed the money from the boy's clenched fist.
"What's your name, boy?" Heyes asked while Curry counted his money and put it away in another pocket.
"You're gonna calm down and do it right now! That's what you're gonna do!" Heyes said somewhat heatedly himself.
Curry took a deep breath and walked a few steps away. When his flash of hot temper had cooled a bit, he asked his friend, "Just what're we going to do with him?"
The two men looked at the boy and were appalled at what they saw. The boy, what they could see of him behind the dirt, was about ten or so, filthy, ragged, and cold. Although the weather was warmer now that spring had arrived, it was still too chilly to be without a coat. His face had a thin, pinched look of hunger as he looked furtively around, trying to figure how to escape the two strangers who wore their guns tied down low, gunfighter style.
The boy made a sudden break, but Curry grabbed his shoulder none too gently. "Oh no, you don't. Stay put, young man!" he said irritably.
"You got your money. Leave me alone." The boy twisted and turned, but the blond-haired man just let him struggle until he was still.
The child still said nothing, staring stubbornly at the ground.
"Boy, we can do this the easy way or the hard way. You can answer our questions here or you can answer them in the sheriff's office." Heyes sincerely hoped that the mere threat of the sheriff would be enough. He wasn't sure what they'd do if the boy called his bluff.
The boy mumbled something.
Heyes hooked his finger under the boy's chin and brought it up so he could see the child's eyes. "What did you say? I couldn't hear you."
"Well, Gus Carter, how old are you?" came the next question from Heyes.
"Fourteen," was the whispered reply.
"Thaddeus, why do I think ten is closer to the mark? Come over here and let's talk about this."
"Gus, where are your parents?" The Kid's temper was back to normal. He was well aware of the boy's physical condition. Both he and Heyes had been cold and hungry more than once when they weren't much older than Gus.
"I think it's safe to say Gus doesn't have any parents, and he's on his own. Isn't that right. son?" Heyes asked. The boy nodded but didn't say anything.
"What happened?" Heyes asked the question quietly too quietly. The tone Heyes used, the boy was afraid not to tell the truth. "My ma and pa, they got sick and died a couple of years ago. We lived in Brown's Corner." He named a town about fifty miles or so south of White River. "The preacher there gave me to a family, but they... they didn't understand not really. After I ran away a couple of times, they put me in an orphanage." The boy's voice was bitter, too old for someone so young. "Anyhow, I didn't like that place neither, so I ran away. I didn't want to go back to Brown's Corner so I came here. I won't go back to that orphanage; I'll just run away again." There was real fire in Gus's eyes now.
That statement reflected Heyes' own feelings about a certain Kansas orphanage more than twenty years before.
"How long have you been in White River?" Curry had just about forgotten the attempted theft of his money. He, too, was remembering his own days in the same Kansas orphanage and the reasons why they had run away from it. At least he and Heyes'd had each other. This boy had no one.
Heyes wrapped his arms around the boy and looked at Curry sadly. "We've got ourselves a real problem here, my friend, and I'm not sure what to do. You know we can't afford to get involved."
"Looks like we already are, whether we want to be or not," was the blunt reply.
"I suppose so. We can't worry much about what might happen tomorrow. We have enough to deal with right now. First things first. Gus needs food and a bath, clean clothes, and somewhere to sleep. You go back to Weaver's store and get a shirt, pants whatever. Don't let on why you're getting them less you have to. I'll take Gus and get the three of us registered at the hotel. I suppose we'll need two rooms and a bath with hot water lots of hot water." He looked over at his cousin.
"Why don't we meet in the hotel dining room? This boy is hungry. We can get ourselves cleaned up later." Heyes followed his words with action as he picked the boy up in his arms.
"Okay. I'll meet you there in a bit. Don't know what I'll tell the Weavers, though." Curry, ever the worrier, wondered what kind of lie he'd have to tell the man and woman who had impressed him so much.
At the mercantile, Curry walked in expecting to see the friendly face of either Bob or Sarah Weaver. Instead, a young woman offered to assist him. Throwing himself on her mercy, he explained simply that his ten-year old "nephew" needed a sudden complete change of clothing. She took his request quite in stride, giving him her best advice about size and quality. Carrying the bundle of clothing, Curry went back to the stables before making his way to the hotel. It didn't seem to matter much that a good deal of the thirty-five dollars almost stolen from him was just about gone, spent on the same person who had tried to steal it in the first place.
Heyes was having problems of his own. He felt conspicuous as he carried the now-sleeping boy in his arms to the hotel. At the registration desk, Heyes propped Gus between the barricade and his own body, allowing the boy's head to fall to his shoulder. "Can you help me? I need rooms for two adults and one child. My partner and I find ourselves with an unplanned overnight guest. Do you have any suggestions?"
"We have a large room on the second floor that is designed for small families. It has a double bed as well as a single bed. Will that do?" The clerk named a price that Heyes thought fair.
"We'll take it, and thanks." Heyes signed the register and paid for one night's stay in advance. "We may stay an extra night or so, but I'm not sure when our business will be completed. If we do stay, one of us will let you know."
The clerk nodded his agreement, and Heyes continued, "Where is the dining room, and who do I see about baths after dinner?"
"The dining room is just behind you, sir; I'll see to the baths myself. I'll have them brought to your room by eight-thirty. That should give you time enough for an enjoyable meal." The helpful clerk made a notation on a slip of paper.
Heyes nodded his thanks and turned away when he saw the Kid walk through the door carrying the bundle of new clothes he had purchased as well as their bedrolls and saddlebags that had been forgotten during the confusion at the stable.
"Gus? Gus, wake up. It's time to eat. Come on now." Heyes jiggled the boy gently just before dropping his feet to the floor while still supporting him. Gus was by no means awake, but he was moving in the right direction toward the dining room.
The waitress came up, and Curry ordered beef stew for all three of them. It was the least expensive item on the menu, and he knew they would have to conserve every cent they had -again.
After the waitress left, Heyes spoke to Gus. "I think it's only fair that you know our names. My name's Joshua Smith and this is my partner, Thaddeus Jones. You can call us Joshua and Thaddeus." He threw a questioning look at Curry, who nodded.
Dinner was not the disaster either man feared it would be. Although sullen and watchful throughout the meal, Gus hungrily ate every scrap of food on his plate. Heyes and Curry were concerned, but left him alone as he ate. They had more to worry about than the attitude of one small boy.
"Kid, er, Thaddeus."
Heyes' slip caused Curry's jaw to drop in shock. That kind of mistake could get them both twenty years in the Wyoming Territorial Prison. It was obvious that Heyes was bothered about something that something being the small person of Gus Carter.
"Thaddeus I've been thinking. Gus needs a home somewhere, and there's no way we can take care of him ourselves." Heyes ignored the sudden fear in the boy's eyes as he continued to think out loud. "But no orphanage. We know that and why." The object of their discussion slumped back in his chair in obvious relief.
Curry wanted to continue this discussion in private, so he said, "Joshua, it's been a long day. Let's head on up to our room. Does bed sound good to anyone besides me?" He stood and gathered their pile of belongings that had been stacked in a corner. He slung both saddlebags over one shoulder, tucked the two bedrolls under one arm, and picked up the bundle of new clothes. He took the hotel key near Heyes' plate and left with a "now-what-are-you-going-to-do" look on his face.
Heyes glared daggers at his friend's back as he realized he was stuck with the boy and the bill for their meal. He called the waitress over and gave her a few bills, then looked down at the unhappy boy. His heart constricted in unexpressed sympathy. It was not right for the fate of a child's future to depend on a stranger's whim, he decided.
"Do? We're going upstairs and get a good night's sleep," was the reply.
"No. What about me? You don't want me either. I'd be real good." Gus looked hopeful as he made the pie-crust promise easily.
Heyes thought about their vagabond existence. "It isn't a question of not wanting you. We don't live here, and we travel around a lot. You need more than we can give."
"Why didn't you take me to the sheriff?"
Heyes supposed the question was reasonable. He answered the boy with one of his own. "Do you want to go back to the orphanage?" A vehement shake of Gus's head was his answer. "The sheriff would have to take you back there by law, that's why. Let's go on up to our room. Okay?" Heyes wanted to get away from the subject of the sheriff but quick.
Gus nodded, and the two left.
When Heyes opened the door to their room, Gus saw three copper tubs in the middle of the room with many large buckets of hot steaming water all around them. The Kid was in one of the tubs, clearly enjoying himself.
"I'm not gonna take a bath! You can't make me!" Gus had a sudden surge of energy as he protested and attempted to turn tail and run. Heyes blocked his exit and picked Gus up, his feet dangling. He kicked the door shut behind him and plopped the squirming boy hard in the closest chair.
"You will not tell me what you are and are not going to do. If Thaddeus or I tell you to do something, you will do it. Is that clear?" Heyes was not angry, but he felt he had to lay down this one basic rule.
"Yes, sir." Tears welled up in the boy's hazel eyes but did not fall.
Curry stared in some surprise at the older man. He didn't know how Heyes knew what to do or say, but it crossed his mind that Heyes would make a good father someday. Just wait 'til I tell him that, he thought with a smile.
Finished, Curry reached over for his towel and got out of the tub. Wrapping the towel around his waist, the Kid got ready for the night.
In the meantime, Heyes helped Gus strip down to his birthday suit. He was dismayed to see how gaunt the boy was. When Gus got in the tub, the warm soapy water worked its magic on him as he reluctantly started washing. He sank deep in the water until nothing could be seen except his dirty hair and face.
It took quite a while, but finally Gus announced, "I'm done."
Heyes, his own ablutions completed, washed the boy's hair thoroughly several times. He had held back two full buckets of water for this purpose. When he was sure that all of the dirt and soap were gone, he handed Gus a towel and laid out the new clothes.
Gus's eyes widened when he realized the new clothing was for him. "Gosh," was all he said. Heyes knew that gratitude was probably foreign to the boy, and the words thank you were no longer a part of his vocabulary.
As the three sat down in comfortable chairs. Curry took his Colt and proceeded to clean it. He saw no reason not to, just because there was a child present.
Now that the several layers of accumulated dirt had disappeared, Heyes and Curry could see that Gus Carter was a good-looking kid with a shock of rust-colored hair flopping over his brow. Freckles danced across the bridge of his nose, and a lopsided dimple came and went as he spoke. "I'm ten well, almost ten."
Heyes carefully hid a smile. "Almost" was such an important word to a child. He glanced at his partner.
The Kid didn't even try to hide a smile. "Reminds me of a couple of kids we used to know, don't he?"
Heyes shook his head and scowled at his friend. "Shh."
Fortunately, Gus didn't seem to be paying attention to the two men at the moment as he watched Curry clean his six-gun. He yawned widely and announced, "Don't see why I had to take a bath anyhow. I'll just get dirty all over again."
"Yes, he does remind me of those two boys." Heyes did smile then. "It's late, Gus, you go on to bed. Thaddeus and I need to talk."
They saw the mulish look on the boy's face and were pleased when he didn't talk back. He left the two men without a word, crawled into bed, and pulled up the covers, but refused to close his eyes. That didn't last long, however. For the first time in quite a long while, Gus Carter was warm and well-fed. Gradually, as nature took over, his eyes closed and he went to sleep.
Curry was the first to speak. "What can we do, Heyes? We can't go to the sheriff, even if we wanted to."
Heyes shook his head, unable to come up with an answer.
"I don't suppose we could take him with us?" Even before he spoke. Curry knew the answer no. "Think we ought to wire Lom? I know he'd help out." It was a good suggestion the Kid had come up with, but once again Heyes shook his head. "No. Lom'd only want to put Gus back in some orphanage. He'd think that would be the best place for him. Lom Trevors is a fine man, but I doubt he's ever seen the inside of one of those places. He wouldn't understand not really." Heyes mimicked Gus exactly.
For the third time Heyes shook his head, this time emphatically. "We can't put this boy in the middle of a feud. You know how him and Armendariz get along. Besides, as much as we like Mac, he's too much like us to raise a young boy."
"Well then, what?" The Kid had run out of ideas.
Heyes sighed deeply. "I just don't know, Kid. Maybe one of us will come up with a brilliant idea tomorrow. Oh, great! We're supposed to go to that picnic with the Weavers tomorrow. Don't suppose they'd mind another mouth to feed, would they? And I suppose the sheriffll be there, too. We'll have to avoid him."
"Like you said, we got ourselves a real problem. Let's sleep on it," was Curry's only response. After both men had settled down, the Kid reached over and turned the wick down until the room was dark.
The sun was at least two hours old when Heyes finally woke up. He kept his eyes closed as he remembered that something was wrong. He just couldn't remember offhand what it was. He stretched, unable to keep his eyes closed any longer. As soon as he opened his eyes, he saw Gus standing beside the bed looking at him expectantly. Now he remembered!
"Morning," the man said as he stretched once more. "How'd you sleep? Been up long?" He noticed that Gus was sporting his new clothes right down to his socks, although he had not put on his shoes.
Heyes got up and dressed. "Oh, have you really?"
The boy nodded and gave a cheeky smile as he said, "Well, it seemed like hours and hours."
Who did this child remind Heyes of? The fleeting thought came and went in a heartbeat. This conversation, brief as it was, woke up Curry, who said crossly, "Pipe down, will ya? It's still the middle of the night."
"The middle of the night? But the sun's shining." Gus was perplexed.
Heyes only grinned at the boy as he pulled on his boots. "Don't worry about Thaddeus, he's a bear in the morning sometimes. He'll come around." Reaching across the bed, he poked the younger man. "Come on, sleepyhead. It's time to get up."
Curry groaned loudly as he pulled himself up. Heyes had no right to be so chipper this early in the morning. One of these days... Not sure what he was going to do "one of these days," he dressed and took his turn to shave after Heyes.
As the three walked down to the dining room, Heyes said to Curry, "After breakfast, why don't we take a look around town and see what's here." His words had a special meaning for them that was lost on the boy. What Heyes was really saying to his partner was, "Let's check out the sheriff's office and make sure we don't know either the sheriff or any of his deputies."
The three had a hearty breakfast, with Gus eating even more than he had the night before. He had been hungry for too long a time for even two meals to make up for the lack of good food.
"I know, let's get the horses and go for a ride. Would you like that?" Curry asked as they were finishing.
"That's a wonderful idea, Thaddeus." Heyes had been wondering how to fill the extra few hours before meeting the Weavers. He would have preferred another poker game at the saloon, but knew that poker was out while Gus was in their care.
"Could we? I like horses!" Gus was ecstatic. He drank the last of his milk hurriedly and left a mustache across his upper lip.
Both men smiled at the excited boy while Curry handed Gus his napkin. When Gus looked confused, the Kid took the napkin and wiped the appropriate place. "Let's go!" he said, laughing.
Saddling the horses didn't take long, and soon the three were riding towards the river, with Gus up behind Heyes. As they neared the well-built jail, the men read the name of the sheriff that was posted on a sign in front James Brooks. They looked at each other and relaxed a bit. Neither one had ever heard of James Brooks.
Preparations for the Founders' Day picnic were well underway. There was no way they could let their horses run through the grassy meadow with so many people milling about, so they kept to a narrow path between the workers to their right and the woods to their left. Heyes was unable to give Gus the gallop he had wanted, but the boy seemed content with a fast trot.
After more than an hour, Curry spotted a large boulder and they dismounted near it to allow the horses to rest a few minutes before going back to town.
"Want to go to a picnic?" Heyes asked the question once they were sitting on the grass and watching the horses graze.
"Sure. What's a picnic?" Gus was ready for an adventure, even if he didn't know what a picnic was.
Heyes smiled. Looking at Gus, Heyes could almost see himself more than twenty years ago; it was an unsettling thought. "You'll see. It's nice."
Curry had been afraid Gus had picked up on Heyes' mistake, and waited for his partner to answer.
Heyes decided that only the truth some of it anyway would satisfy the boy's curiosity-"Well, Thaddeus and I are cousins, and he's younger than me. When we were boys I used to call him that; he don't like it so much now, but sometimes I forget." It sounded reasonable to Heyes, but would it sound that way to Gus?
Gus looked at the two men. They were not like any of the other men he had known in his young life. He remembered his father a hard-working farmer. Actually, he remembered his father's love more than the man himself.
He hadn't much liked the preacher in Brown's Corner who was forever telling him about God's wrath when he didn't behave himself. He absolutely hated the headmaster at the orphanage. His idea of answering a question was to rap Gus's hand smartly with a ruler for being impertinent. Gus did not even want to think about him.
These two men were different. They had a hard, dangerous look about them. They looked like the gunfighters he had heard about in stories, but gunfighters wouldn't make him take a bath or feed him, would they? Besides, what did a gunfighter look like?
"Oh, I just wondered." Suddenly, he didn't care. He liked the two men, especially Joshua. There was something about the dark-haired man that drew him.
"We'd best get back if we want to be on time for the picnic," Curry said. He was a little worried at Gus's reaction to Heyes' explanation. That kid was smart, maybe too smart.
They returned to town in record time. Heyes, Curry, and Gus were walking from the livery stable to the mercantile when they met Mrs. Weaver coming their way. She was pleased to see them, but surprised at the sight of the small boy at their side. "Why, Joshua, Thaddeus, how prompt you are. I didn't know one of you had a son."
"Um, I" Heyes was thinking as fast as he could, but his brain seemed clogged. Mrs. Weaver's honest eyes had him buffaloed, and he found it impossible to lie to her. "We don't. This is Gus Carter. Thaddeus and I ran into him at the stable last night after we met you. Gus, this is Mrs. Weaver. She and her husband own the mercantile over there."
He saw the pleading look on Gus's face and rightly guessed the cause. Gus didn't want her to find out what really happened with the money. Heyes arched an eyebrow but kept silent.
Sarah didn't appear to notice the silent exchange. "It's nice to know you, Gus." She held out her hand.
Gus didn't know what to do. He looked up at Heyes for guidance. Out of the corner of his mouth, Heyes hissed, not unkindly, "Shake her hand and tell her you're glad to meet her."
The woman pretended not to hear Heyes and responded to Gus's mumbled greeting, "And I'm glad to meet you, too."
"Oh, don't worry so, Joshua. Boys his age like to explore," Sarah replied blithely.
"I know, but he might get into trouble, and I wouldn't want that." Her words did not assuage Heyes' concern one bit.
"I'm sure he'll be fine. How much trouble could he get into?"
Heyes and Curry looked at each other in trepidation. They knew just how much trouble Gus could get into.
"Joshua, what is the real story behind Gus? I know every child in this town, but Gus is a stranger. Where are his parents?" Sarah looked at Heyes and Curry.
Both men searched their brains to come up with a more logical-sounding answer but were unable to do so. They were used to outstaring and outwitting some of the toughest lawmen and outlaws in the West, but they had trouble meeting the gaze of one small woman with eyes that could seemingly see into the soul of each of them.
After receiving no answer from either of them, she added quietly, "Never mind, Gus is still welcome to come with you to the picnic. You are bringing him, aren't you?" she asked Heyes and Curry expectantly.
"We were hoping we could, thank you" Curry stopped in mid-sentence. The three turned in one accord as they heard a sudden furor behind them. They saw Gus holding a book, running as fast as he could, and being chased by a red-faced Bob Weaver.
Gus almost got by before Heyes could react. He grabbed Gus by the arm, sending the book flying at Sarah's feet. "Hold on now, where are you going in such an all-fired hurry? Stand still!" He gave Gus a sharp swat to the seat of his pants, and the boy stood still.
Weaver came up, slightly out of breath. "That boy stole my book! Get the sheriff! Something's got to be done. I can't abide a thief," he said angrily.
The Kid involuntarily said, "Don't do that... please." Both outlaws looked almost ready to run themselves. Almost.
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't. Do you know this child? I trusted you two. Is this how you betray my trust?" Bob demanded.
Sarah had been standing quietly throughout the exchange, watching everyone but her husband. She knew him well enough to know how he would react in any given situation. She saw Thaddeus and Joshua's guilty reaction to her husband's words, and she saw Gus. He stood by Joshua's side, hiding as best as he could behind him, afraid to move. Since picking up the book from the ground and dusting it off, she had not said anything until now. "Wait a minute, Bob, please. Let's find out what's really going on before you get the sheriff. Why don't we go into the store and talk? The book's not hurt." She was calm before the storm of her furious husband.
"What is to be said? That boy's a thief." Bob Weaver was still ready to go to the sheriff's office.
"Please don't we need to talk," Heyes added his own plea.
"All right. We'll talk about it, and then I'm getting the sheriff," Weaver said with a savage glare at all of them.
Bob and Sarah Weaver led the way with Heyes and Curry following, each holding an arm of the recalcitrant Gus.
The Weavers entered their store, followed by Heyes, Curry, and Gus. Bob put a "closed" sign on the door before silently leading the way to their living quarters upstairs. When everyone was seated, he inquired in exasperation, "Now, what exactly is going on here? Who is this boy? Joshua, Thaddeus, does he belong to you?" The angry man paused and repeated, "I really trusted you two."
Heyes chewed his lip, wondering where to begin and what to say. "Like I was just telling Sarah, we met Gus for the first time at the stable last night while we were putting up our horses."
Heyes picked up the story, "He needed a hot meal and someplace to sleep. I thought that's why he stole the money in the first place. I didn't count on him doing something like this." He ran his hand through his hair distractedly.
"Where are his parents?" Sarah asked the question again, afraid she already knew the answer.
"They're dead," Curry answered with a regretful sigh.
"Well, then, he belongs in an orphanage. There is one not far from here." There was no softening in Bob's attitude.
"Now, what brought that on?" Bob questioned with a frown on his face. He was still incensed by the theft of the book.
"Gus told us last night he ran away from an orphanage near here; it must be the same one you're talking about," was Curry's response.
"And you believe that?" Bob was skeptical.
Heyes and Curry looked at each other, wondering how much of their past they could safely reveal. Heyes was the one to take the plunge. "Yes, Bob, we do," he began slowly. "State homes are never the answer for a child who has lost his parents. Oh, sure, they'll feed you, give you someone else's castoff clothing, and maybe, if you're lucky, you'll learn how to read and write. But, what about everything else that kids need, the?" Heyes stopped, unsure of what else to add.
Bob Weaver had the grace to be ashamed. "I didn't know. You two were raised in one, weren't you?"
Heyes, his brown eyes bleak, nodded before continuing, "We ran away, too, when we weren't much older than Gus. That's why we can't send him back. Thaddeus and I talked about it last night. An orphanage, any orphanage, is out of the question. We've got a friend, a sheriff up in Wyoming; we'll take him there. He's bound to have an idea what to do."
Gus said in a betrayed voice, "You said last night... you said you wouldn't take me to the sheriff."
"That was last night, boy. Mr. Weaver has every right to prosecute you. I'm afraid it's his decision. When you stole that book from him, you took any decision Thaddeus or I might have made out of our hands. Why did you steal it anyway?" Heyes asked harshly.
"'Cause I wanted to give you something. You done a lot for me. I heard you tell Thaddeus last night you wanted a book to read, so I got you one, see?" He picked up the book and gave it to Heyes proudly.
Heyes took the book from Gus and turned it over in his hands as he looked at it. The book was one he had been coveting yesterday. He remembered his wishful thoughts, spoken while Gus was in the tub. He hadn't realized the boy had been listening.
"That is no reason. I could've bought the book if I'd'a wanted to. You don't go around stealing just 'cause you want to give someone a gift!" Heyes wasn't sure if it was justifiable anger or his own guilty conscience that made him answer that way.
Sarah finally joined the conversation when she said gently, "Gus, come here."
Curry released his grip on the boy and gave him a small push. He stood before her like a prisoner before a judge for sentencing. "Why did you really steal the book?"
"I told you. I wanted to give Joshua a gift." The boy refused to meet her eyes.
"Gus, I want the truth now." Sarah was not quite as gentle as she demanded the truth. "Because, I I... I wanted t-t-to. It was fun." Gus's lower lip trembled and tears began to fall slowly down his cheeks. He flung himself on to her lap and began to weep uncontrollably.
Sarah gathered the crying child and wrapped her arms around him in comfort and let him cry.
"Dear Lord, no!" Heyes whispered, horrified at the boy's words. "Oh, no." He turned sheet white as he remembered saying the same words to the Kid more than once and not so very long ago either.
There was silence in the room while Gus continued to cry. At one point, he raised his head and tried to speak but couldn't.
Sarah told him firmly, "Get rid of the tears, then we'll talk." Gus took a deep breath as the weeping took control again.
Bob looked at his wife in bewilderment as she comforted Gus. He was a totally honest person, fair in his dealings with others. Stealing and lying were completely against his nature. Because he was honest, he always assumed that others were honest as well. He had certainly never thought about anyone stealing because it was "fun." He still thought he should get the sheriff, but when he opened his mouth to say so, he overheard snatches of a whispered conversation between Joshua and Thaddeus.
"could have been me" "a long time ago" not the same person you were" "can't let them take Gus" "he'll wind up just like us " When they saw Bob looking at them puzzled, they stopped talking, wondering how much he had heard.
Bob had heard enough to be suspicious of the two men across the room. He wondered what kind of people he had allowed into his home. "Take off your guns," he thundered. When Heyes and Curry looked startled at his demand, he added, "I want to find out the truth of this matter, and I don't want you two armed while I do it. I don't trust either one of you."
Putting the guns on a side table, Bob said grimly, "Now, I want the truth from you two."
"Bob, what we told you is the truth. My name is Smith, and his name is Jones. We can't help our last names. Would you have believed us better if we'd said our names were Sullivan or Turner? Or if we'd said that Gus was, say, my nephew my dead sister's child? Would you have believed us then? Gus is an orphan. Thaddeus and I did run away from an orphanage when we were kids. It happens a lot." Heyes hadn't meant to sound quite so bitter.
Gus was calm now, his tears finally spent. He still sat on Sarah's lap, tightly holding one of her hands in both of his. He was listening intently to the conversation around him, knowing that his future depended on the outcome.
Bob looked at the disconsolate boy sitting on his wife's lap. He looked much younger than the ten or eleven that Bob supposed him to be. "I feel sorry for the boy, but what can we do? I won't prosecute him. He has to go somewhere, and the sheriff is the one to handle that, not us."
"Please don't involve the sheriff. Gus isn't really a bad kid. He's mixed up, yes, but he needs more than any orphanage can give him. He can change; he will change. Thaddeus and I will take him with us. We do have friends who will help." Heyes was pleading now, as much for his own future as for the boy's.
"You are willing to leave now with the boy and never come back?" Bob asked the question firmly.
Heyes and Curry nodded. They knew that Lom would probably be able to help them find a decent home for Gus.
While Sarah had been holding Gus in her arms, he had stolen her heart. She wanted to be the one to raise him. "Bob," Sarah asked hopefully, "Isn't there some way we could raise Gus ourselves?"
"Raise him? You and me? No, Sarah, I don't think so; it's out of the question." Bob couldn't believe his ears. He wanted children of his own as much as she did, but not some half-grown thief who liked to steal.
"But why not, Bob?" Sarah remained calm, but tension colored her words. "He needs a home, a real home, and a proper upbringing. I'm sure Thaddeus and Joshua would do their best to find him a good home, but look at them; they're out-of-work drifters." So intent was Sarah in convincing her husband, she didn't think to soften her unkind words. "We have the space; we would do a good job."
"No, Sarah. It wouldn't work. Sweetheart, we can't take on that kind of responsibility. It's not fair to us. The best thing for him is the orphanage. Besides, he stole from us." Bob was resolute.
Still, Sarah urged, "I know that, but who better to teach him not to steal than an honest man? Who knows what his life will be if we don't? Do you want that on your conscience?"
"You know I don't," Bob said, feeling very much in the wrong here. He didn't know why he should feel that way; Gus was the culprit here, not him. He didn't want to be responsible for this child. But... would it be possible to train him? Was the child too old to change? "Gus," he asked suddenly, "How old are you?"
As he had answered Heyes the night before, Gus said, "I'm ten well, almost ten." Bob did not smile. He was thinking. Nine wasn't so old. And Sarah obviously had her heart set on adopting the little ragamuffin, who had nothing but two drifters as champions. "Joshua, what exactly did you mean by 'it could have been you'?" Bob asked, still apprehensive at what he had overheard between the two men.
Heyes knew the boy's fate depended on his answer. With a sideways glance at his friend, he said, "I told you that I'd run away from an orphanage?"
"What I didn't tell you is that I got into a little trouble with the law shortly after I left, doing pretty much what Gus did. I was lucky, because someone gave me a second chance." He minimized his trouble with the law, making it sound like something that had happened many, many years ago.
"Sarah, I just don't know. A half-grown boy? I know he's still young, but" Bob was clearly torn. He and Sarah might be the boy's last hope, but a boy who stole? That was the one thing that was keeping him from agreeing immediately. He strode over to where Sarah and Gus were sitting. He looked down at Gus. "Do you know what we're talking about?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. She wants me to stay, but you don't 'cause I stole that book." Gus was succinct in his answer.
Bob sighed deeply as he said, "That's right, son. I won't lie to you, that's the only reason I don't want you to stay."
Gus stood up from Sarah's lap and faced the determined man. His lip started to quiver, but he forced it to stop. He couldn't, however, keep a few tears from trickling down his cheek. "I won't ever steal again. I promise," was all he said.
Bob looked at Gus and then up at his wife. "Sarah, do you really want to do this?"
"Yes, I do," she replied. She knew once his mind was made up, her husband would do a fine job raising Gus.
"Gus, are you willing to try? You know, it won't be easy for any of us." Bob waited for the boy's answer.
Gus stepped away from the Weavers and looked at both of them for a long time without saying anything. He then turned and looked at Heyes and Curry before turning back to the Weavers. "Yes, sir. I'll try real hard."
Heyes and Curry were grinning joyfully. The Weavers were willing to keep Gus! Both men were glad, especially Heyes. There was a hint of moisture in his eyes as realized that Gus was going to have the kind of future he'd always dreamed of for himself and the Kid.
Curry retrieved the guns that Bob had taken from them. He handed Heyes his and reholstered his own before saying, "Bob, Sarah we're real glad you've decided to keep Gus. I think someday he'll make you both proud."
"Before we go, could we talk to him in private? We'd like to say good-bye since we'll be leaving real soon." Heyes was still smiling; he couldn't seem to stop.
"Of course. We'll be in the next room if you need us." Sarah shepherded her husband from the room.
After the Weavers left, it was quiet for a few minutes. Heyes was thinking to himself that it wouldn't be safe for them to stay any longer. Bob and Sarah Weaver knew too much about their past more, in fact, than most of their friends did. If one of them talked to the sheriff, or gave him their descriptions... He made himself stop thinking along those lines.
"Gus," he said, "you're lucky to have found such fine people to take you in. I'm real happy for you. You'll have a nice home here. They are real good people. I knew that the first time I saw them. But, you know, Thaddeus and I can't stay here any longer. We have to be moving on. There are reasons...."
Gus sounded a little downhearted as he said, "I kinda wish I could go with you."
"So do I, but you're better off here than with us. Like I told you, we travel around a lot, and you just can't come with us." Heyes was firm about this.
"But I'll never see you again. Besides he don't like me." Gus was talking about Bob now.
Heyes pulled the boy down near him on the sofa. He was not about to explain to Gus just how much "fun" he thought stealing was, but he did have something to say before the Weavers returned to the room. "You promised Mr. Weaver that you won't ever steal again. Be sure to keep that promise. Stealing is wrong," he stated flatly.
"I know, but"
"No buts, boy. Listen to me," Heyes interrupted severely before Gus could finish. "Do you want to live the rest of your life looking over your shoulder, wondering who you can trust, ashamed to use your real name, knowing if you do, you will most likely wind up in prison or dead? You steal again, that's exactly what will happen. You've been given a second chance; take it and be grateful." Heyes looked up at his partner. An important message was silently sent and received between the two men.
"You've lived that type of life, haven't you, Joshua?" Sarah had returned to the room and heard every word.
Heyes and Curry jumped. They hadn't heard her come in. Heyes stood and looked at the woman directly. "Yes, ma'am, I have, and I don't want Gus going the way I did. I see so much of myself in him to know that without a steadying hand he will. I wish I'd met someone like you and Bob when I was his age. Who knows, maybe my life would have been a lot different.
"I hope you don't feel called upon to tell Bob or the sheriff about what you've just heard. It's taken a while, but I have finally managed to turn my life around. We'll be leaving town in a few minutes anyhow."
"I don't know our sheriff well enough to do more than to say 'hello.' Bob's another matter; he's my husband. I have to tell him, and I will in a day or two." She gave a smile to Heyes and Curry, who returned it, smile for smile in gratitude.
"We'll see to it that Gus is raised properly. He'll have a good home with us."
"Yes, ma'am, I think he will." Heyes blushed slightly when she reached up and kissed him on the cheek.
"You and Thaddeus will stay for the picnic at least, won't you?"
"All right, I won't press you." In that moment Sarah knew that Joshua and Thaddeus had still not told them the entire truth. She wondered what their real names were; she knew for a fact now they weren't Smith and Jones. But that was one thing she would never tell her husband.
Two men paused their horses long enough to look back at the three people standing in front of the mercantile. They weren't a family not yet, anyway. But with a little work and lots of love, they soon would be. Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry were very satisfied as they rode out of White River.
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