Actions

Work Header

Rain from Heaven

Work Text:

Jagged lightening snaked across the sky, illuminating the rain-whipped trees momentarily. Thunder roared afterwards, the ground trembling with the sound. It was a cold rain, driving all sensible wildlife into burrows or hollow logs to keep warm.

Kid Curry pulled his sodden sheepskin coat closer around him, hunching over his horse’s head. “We gotta get out of this storm soon.”

“I know, Kid,” Heyes answered a trifle irritated. As if he couldn’t figure that out for himself. “I haven’t seen any nice warm hotels pop up on the trail in the last hour, have you?”

Not willing to start an argument with his partner in such a touchy mood, Kid kneed his horse forward, ducking his head to try to avoid the rain in his face. This only resulted in the rain from his hat dripping down his neck. He shivered miserably. If only Heyes hadn’t been in such an all-fired hurry to get to Cottersville, where there was supposed to be a high stakes poker game starting tonight. Well, they’d never get there at this rate.

The rain had reduced visibility to nearly zero, despite the fact that it was barely mid-afternoon. Stinging droplets assaulted the two riders at an angle due to the wind, driving water under the brim of hats, up into sleeves and under collars. It had started just after noon and showed no signs of letting up any time soon. The only light came from the intermittent flashes of lightning. The thunder followed so quickly, it was obvious they were in the heart of the storm.

Heyes shivered, flexing his freezing fingers around the horse’s reins. He was wet clear through, and had been for some time. That meant that even if they did find a nice hotel with a roaring fire in the hearth, his extra clothes from the saddlebags were probably wet, too. Not to mention the little bag of flour he’d just bought in Jackson’s Hole with the idea of making pancakes for breakfast. That had certainly been a waste of money.

Lost in thought, Heyes had dropped back behind Kid by several hundred yards. A sudden burst of jagged brilliance lit up the trail in front of him, his horse rearing in fright with a loud neigh.

Lightening hit a tall pine, electricity zipping down the trunk with an audible sizzle. The crack of the splitting trunk and the boom of thunder came together, echoing across the canyon like a shot from a rifle. The tree snapped, the top ten feet toppling down as if Paul Bunyon had swung his giant ax and forgotten to yell timber.

Multiple streaks of lightning chased across the dark sky, illuminating the scene in front of Heyes like a lime-lit stage. The Kid’s black horse had started to run, from terror or because Kid realized the danger, Heyes couldn’t tell. The long needled branches of the tree hit first, enveloping Curry and the horse in a tangle of foliage, water splashing up around them like a rain burst from hell.

“Kid!” Heyes screamed, his voice whipped away in the wind with a roar of thunder. He scrambled off his still rearing gelding, hoping the animal didn’t take the opportunity to bolt. The trail was awash, ground so saturated by rain, the water didn’t even soak in. Practically wading in a stream, his boots sticking in mud, Heyes stumbled over to the fallen pine. He couldn’t even see his cousin under the drenched greenery.

He had no ax or saw to cut the branches, nothing to pull the tree away. If the full weight of the trunk had fallen on Kid, it could have broken his back, if not killed him. Swallowing against the panicked beating of his heart, Heyes pulled out the only cutting tool he had, a ten inch hunting knife. He hacked away at the top most boughs, tossing them behind him with reckless speed.

He found Kid’s hand, pausing to feel the steady beat of the pulse in his wrist. He was alive.

Pushing away another branch, he uncovered nearly all of his friend. The main truck of the tree had hit the black horse full force along his side. It crushed the animal from withers to tail. Kid must have tried to jump out of the saddle at the last moment, otherwise his legs would haven been pinned by the tree trunk. Instead, the largest of the branches pressed him down into the mud, surely breaking his ribs.

Even cutting away all the smaller branches, there was no way Heyes could lift the tree and limb off the horse and rider. It weighed more than two men could lift.

“Kid,” Heyes called urgently, vainly wiping the rain from his face. Bolts of electric fireworks darted across the sky, letting him see that the Kid’s eyes were open, if dull. The following thunder was like dynamite exploding, the ground reverberating with the sound. “Kid, can you hear me?”

“Yeah,” he answered, his jaw tight with pain.

“Can you move your legs?”

To demonstrate, Kid bent the knee that had escaped being crushed by the tree trunk by inches. The other foot was partially trapped under the horse’s neck. If Heyes could pull the limb off Kid, he could probably free that leg, too.

“That’s good.” Heyes squeezed his friend’s hand encouragingly. “I’m gonna tie a rope around the tree and see if my horse can pull it off. It may hurt, but it’s all I can do.”

A coil of rope tied to the saddlebow in front of Curry had miraculously remained intact. Grabbing one end, Heyes looped it around the thickest part of the tree, knotting it as tightly as he could. The rain made the rope heavy and unwieldy. Using flashes of bright light to quide him, he approached his gelding cautiously.

“Hey, there, hey-I need you to help me with a really important job.” The horse shied, hooves catching in the mud. Heyes grabbed the bridle, soothing the nervous animal. “You do this for me and you get all the oats I can buy for you.”

With the rope secured around his own saddle horn, Heyes gave the horse a smack on the hip, urging him forward. The ground was too wet, and at first the animal couldn’t get any purchase to move the tree, slipping dangerously in the sludge. Then, the rope taunt between horse and tree, the gelding was able to pull forward. In a sudden calm between claps of thunder, Heyes heard his cousin moan in pain as the branches moved off him.

* * * * *

Heyes steadied Kid on the gelding’s saddle, watching his friend’s face. He had wavered in and out of consciousness since being pulled from under tree, but now seemed to be in a dazed stupor, awake but barely responsive.

Mounting, Heyes pulled Curry up against his chest, wrapping his arms around him to conserve whatever body heat he could. Unfortunately, the only reason Heyes felt warm was because he’d been hauling tree branches and getting Kid up onto his none to steady feet. Kid radiated no body heat at all; he was cold to the touch. They needed to get to shelter soon.

The rain fell steadily, the wind having died down some and the accompanying light show seemed to have moved a bit further north. Naturally, north was the direction Heyes wanted to go. He wished he could encourage the horse to move quicker than a fast walk, but he was afraid of jostling Kid’s broken bones.

Straining his eyes through the downpour, Heyes realized, with a quick breath, that he could see a light up ahead. Whoever lived there had to let them in. He’d insist with a gun, if necessary. He tightened his grip on the Kid and urged the horse forward toward the hopefully welcoming structure.

On closer inspection, the little L-shaped building had suffered the same fate as Kid. A large tree had collapsed the roof of the smaller end, rain pouring into what appeared to be a church. A cross leaned crookedly in the rubble.

Lightning sizzled in the air, blinding light and cracking thunder together like the
gods above were throwing firecrackers.

“Jesus!” Heyes swore, nearly toppling from his horse.

“I always pray during storms,” a quiet voice agreed. “Can I help you?”

Swinging around, Heyes was face to face with a woman dressed entirely in black. “Ma’am...uh...my friend, a tree fell on him.”

“Like our chapel.” She sighed. A tall, thin woman, she was nearly of a height with Heyes. “You’re both freezing. Help me get him into the house.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Heyes was tongue-tied. The appearance of a nun in the middle of a torrential deluge like a black winged angel was just too startling. He dumbly pulled Curry off the horse and helped the Sister guide him through the door. Kid was shivering violently.

“He’s in shock, I think.” The nun pursed her lips. “Sister Mary Moses, stoke up the fire and brew some tea. Warm blankets and look for old Zebulan’s clothes.”

“Coming right up! “ A second shorter, stouter black habited woman bustled off, two small dark haired children in her wake.

“Where are we?” Heyes asked, rubbing his goose pimpled arms. He looked curiously around the big room and moved closer to the fireplace, the heat making steam rise up off his clothes.

The nuns had laid the Kid on a small threadbare sofa near the fire. Across the room was a huge oak table flanked by long benches. Whoever lived here, it was more people than two nuns and two small children.

“Children of Jesus Orphanage,” the Sister replied, rapidly divesting Kid of his wet clothes. The second nun had reappeared with the necessities for warmth and was quickly swaddling him in blankets.

An orphanage. Heyes rolled his eyes. The Kid was going to refuse to stay here when he came to. Both ex-outlaws still had unhappy memories of their childhood years in an orphanage. Heyes watched his cousin anxiously until Kid’s eyes were open; he was conscious but still dazed.

“Your coat?”

“What? I’m sorry.” Heyes tried out his best lady-killing smile. He could tell it wasn’t coming off as successfully as usual by her expression. “Ma’am, he needs a doctor. He’s got broken bones.”

“Take off your clothes,” she said in a no-nonsense voice.

Heyes had never had a nun tell him that. He complied. She handed him a too-big flannel shirt and a pair of patched pants.

“I’ll splint his arm when you both get warmed up. We need to get liquids into him quickly.”

The second nun was already attempting to spoon beef broth into Kid’s mouth. He choked, coughing painfully. “No more.” he whispered.

“Hey, K-Thaddeus.” Heyes knelt down next to the couch. “Keep on drinking, it’ll do you good.”

“Whiskey’d do me good.” Kid coughed, grimacing from the pain.

“Maybe a little brandy.” The taller nun smiled slightly. “For warmth, mind you. I believe we’ve been so busy we’ve neglected our manners. I’m Sister Mary Joseph. This is Sister Mary Moses and Sister Luke is in the kitchen, presumably making tea.” She bustled across the room to procure a small bottle of medicinal spirits.

“Joshua Smith.” Heyes finished buttoning the roomy, but very warm flannel shirt.

“And my friend is Thaddeus Jones, We apologize for barging in during the storm. . .”

“But you need a place to stay.” Mary Moses spooned more broth into Kid’s mouth, nodding when he swallowed. “That’s what we’re here for.”

“And we couldn’t possibly turn away one of the apostles and the man who brought down the walls of Jericho.” Mary Joseph poured glasses of brandy.

”I didn’t have anything to do with that,” Heyes pointed out ruefully. “But I'll be happy to try to pull the tree off the chapel in return for you taking care of my partner.”

“In due time.” Joseph handed out glasses of brandy just as the two children returned, one bearing a teapot, the other a box full of medical supplies. “Drink up and rest. It’ll rain for the rest of the night, I fear. Whatever’s not smashed to smithereens in the chapel will just have to get wet.”

The brandy sent a hot glowing path down Kid’s throat to his belly. He gulped air reflexively, sitting up straighter on the couch. The cobwebs in his brain burned away, leaving the full effects of his broken ribs and arm. They hurt. He took short gasping breaths.

“Thaddeus, lay back.” Mary Moses patted him, alarmed.

“You all right?” Heyes asked worriedly.
“No.” Kid gave him an exasperated look. “Yeah, I’ll live.”

“Well, I think we can do better than that,” Mary Joseph answered sternly. “Time to set your arm.” She looked over at Heyes. “You may need to hold him down for this part.”

Heyes sat down next to Kid on the couch, uncertain whether to be worried or amused. “That woman could command the Devil’s Hole Gang.”

“Better than you,” Kid agreed apprehensively as she advanced towards them with bandages.

* * * * * *

Heyes glanced up at the morning sky. Leaden clouds still clothed the tops of the surrounding pines but overhead the sky was brilliant blue. The air was heavy with the scent of wet forest; pine needles squishing under his feet as he circled the chapel.

“Can you pull it off?” A tall, broad shouldered boy surveyed the damage left by the felled tree. The roots stuck out from the chapel like a giant spider.

“It’s too big,” a blond girl argued.

“I say we set the whole thing on fire, “ A small boy named Zeke with skin the color of coffee with cream, commented.

“Not a good idea,” Heyes put in hurriedly. “I’ll yoke my horse with yours, and they’ll pull that tree off.” He assessed his troop of helpers. “Then everybody needs to start cutting firewood.”

“That we can burn.”

“Yeah, Zeke,” Heyes agreed. “That we can burn.”

“Joshua? Did God send you?” The blond haired girl, Ruth Ann, hopped up and down to keep warm.

“I sincerely doubt it.” Heyes laughed, looping ropes around the tree. Without terrified adrenaline driving him forward to save the Kid, it was definitely harder this time. His throat was raw and his head was throbbing every time he leaned over to secure another line.

”Well, sister Joe said God must have sent you to us,” Ruth Ann continued to chatter on. “Ever since Matthew and Steven left there’s been no one around to help us.”

“Matthew and Steven?” Heyes echoed, just to show he was listening. He guided the two horses into the traces, securing their bridles.

“My elder brothers,” she supplied. “Charles is my brother, too.” She pointed out the broad shouldered boy carrying out several axes. “Anyway, since they left, strange things have been happening.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “Accidents.”

“I think God sent this.” Heyes pointed to the tree. “It’s called a natural disaster.”

“God works in mysterious ways,” Ruth Ann agreed. “But I’m talking about other things.”

“Ruth Ann. Sister Joe’s warned you about telling tales,” Charles admonished.

“It ain’t nothing that’s not true,” Ruth Ann retorted.

“Charles, catch the gelding’s reins,” Heyes instructed. “He’s skittish. When I say three, lead ‘em forward.”

“Yes, sir,” Charles answered smartly, proud to have the important job.

Heyes was more than happy to give it to him. His eardrums were bulging and his sinuses were demanding more and more of his attention, He would much prefer to go lie down next to Kid and pass out for about ten hours. He’d sat up most of the night trying to help Kid relax enough to sleep. Unfortunately, the sisters had no painkillers beyond the half bottle of brandy, and Kid had spent a painful, wakeful night He’d finally fallen to sleep from pure exhaustion just in time for everyone else to wake up. And Heyes had promised he’d try to salvage the chapel.

The horses surged ahead, the tree sliding well on the slick pine needles covering the ground. Unfortunately, it brought most of the roof down with it, weakening the outer wall even further.

“Hurrah! “Zeke cried as the horses came to a sweaty, quivering halt. “Look, Sister, he did it!”

“Shush, Ezekial, Mr. Jones is sleeping.” Mary Moses smiled, despite her words, coming out to admire their work. “Good job.”

The twin children Heyes had seen the night before trailed behind. He was beginning to think they orbited her like twin moons around some planet he couldn’t remember the name of.

“There’s not much to save there.” He rubbed his nose, willing himself not to sneeze in her face.

“Not to worry, we’ll rebuild.” Moses shrugged. “It’s the altar chalice and cross that are really important.” She pushed past the abundant pine branches still blocking the door of the chapel and stepped over the apex of the tree into the ruins. There she genuflected in the direction of the smashed altar and waded through the broken beams to the front of the church.

“Sister, it’s not safe.”

“I still say we could make a big fire,” Zeke planned. “Have a party? Maybe cook a fatted calf like those Bible celebrations.”

“Not a good idea.” Heyes firmly prevented the twins from following her and stepped over an overturned pew to catch up to Sister Moses. “Sister? This place is collapsing around us. If the ceiling go. . .”

She reached down and retrieved a gold cross off the floor. “Look for a gold chalice, a cup.”

“Joshua? Did you find anything?” Ruth Ann called plaintively.

“Stay there, Ruth Ann!” Both Heyes and Sister Moses called at the same time. Heyes grinned in spite of himself and sneezed.

“You have a lovely smile, Joshua.” Mary Moses pushed broken glass aside with her foot. “But something scares you.”

“Me?” Heyes dimpled again. “No, ma’am-I’m just worried about you and the kids around this. . .”

“Ruined church.” She spotted a gleam of gold under a pile of wood and shoved at the up-ended altar to get it. The overhead rafters creaked ominously.

“That’s enough.” Heyes started tugging her out. “We’ll have to pull all this down before we can get that chalice.”

“I knew a man named Joshua would want to pull down a few walls. “ She emerged into the orphanage yard, holding the cross aloft.

Heyes followed her, wondering what she’d say about a man named Hannibal. There weren’t too many elephants in the Rocky Mountains.

“Charles, make sure the children stay out of here,” Heyes warned, then sneezed abruptly. “You and I can start razing it this afternoon.”

“Sure!” Charles agreed excitedly. Being the youngest of three brothers, he’d never been given so much responsibility before and he liked it.

“Come on in, lunch is ready,” Mary Joseph called. She received the cross from the other nun and cradled it in her arms. “Amen for this.”

“Joshua has a cold.” Ruth Ann caught up his hand, Zeke and the twins bringing up the rear.

“Oh, dear, I didn’t think getting that wet was good for you.” Joseph beckoned him to her and felt his forehead. “I hope it doesn’t turn into influenza.”

“Ma’am, don’t worry about me. How’s Thaddeus?”

“He’s been asleep all morning, but I think he’ll wake up for lunch.” She ushered the five children into the building, pausing a moment to contemplate the church. “When the river recedes, we can get to town. Maybe the doctor can come out here to check on you both.”

“The river?”

“Just past those trees, there’s a river. Usually it’s quite small -- we can wade across to get to Cottersville -- but right now it’s impassable.” Sister Joseph crossed her arms over her chest, hugging the cross. “We own all that land, and there’s a lot of fish in the river.”

Heyes sneezed again. “We were trying to get to Cottersville. “ He decided not to include why.

“Well, I guess it was God’s will you’d wind up here one way or the other.” She nodded. “We’re all stuck here until the river goes down.”

Looking up at the sky again, Heyes noted the increasingly dark clouds piling up. “And it looks like it’s going to rain again.”

“Luckily, we know it won’t last for forty days.” She smiled.

“I’m glad you believe, Sister.”

* * * * * *

Carrying a bowlful of chicken and dumplings, Heyes bumped the bedroom door shut with his foot and put the food down on a small bedside table. The Kid had been sleeping, but the noise wakened him. He regarded his cousin through slitted blue eyes.

“Hey.”

“Hey, how’re you feeling?”

“Stupid. Sore.”

“I don’t think trees fall on just anyone,” Heyes teased lightly. “You and a church. Good company.”

“Heyes,” Kid hissed. “This is an orphanage.”

“You’d rather I left you up to your neck in mud?” Heyes picked up the bowl and held out a spoonful of chicken. “Sister Luke’s a good cook.” He pushed the spoon’s contents into Curry’s mouth.

“I can feed myself,” Kid mumbled around chewing.

“Go ahead. You’re amazing ungrateful.” Heyes threw up his hands in surrender.

Reaching left-handed for the spoon, Kid hitched himself up higher in the bed. That hurt. He gave Heyes a smile through gritted teeth and scooped up a spoonful of dumplings. “It is good,” he admitted, after swallowing. He emptied the bowl, hungrier than he’d thought. His right arm and ribs were a sharp, persistent ache he wished he could ignore. “Where are we -- besides an orphanage?”

Heyes gave him an oh-are-you-speaking-to-me? glare, then spoiled it by sneezing. “Outside of Cottersville, I’m not sure how far, but there’s a river just past the church and it’s jumped the banks.”

“So we’re stuck here.”

“For a while.” Heyes rubbed his stuffed-up nose. “Something strange is going on here, though.”

“Stranger than you and me sleeping in nun’s beds?” Kid wrapped his good arm around his ribs. “Heyes, I do not like lying to nuns.”

“We’re not lying to them.”

“Don’t tell me you told them who we are? What we’ve done?”

“No.”

“Then you’re lying to them. Holy, church women.”

“Kid, quit worrying about that,” Heyes placated. “We’ll just stay ‘til you can sit a horse, then ride out. That game in Cottersville goes every week.”

“Lying to nuns.”

“I have this under control, Kid.” Heyes made a wide, all encompassing sweep of his arm. “I’m fixing up that church-well, pulling it down.”

“You doing that kind of work does sound pretty strange to me.”

“I think you need to get more rest.” Heyes took the bowl and exited, annoyed that Kid’s accusations about lying to religious people had struck a little close for comfort.

 

* * * * * * * *

“Keep piling the firewood up behind the kitchen,” Charles directed the other children. “This tree is so big it’ll keep us warm for months.”

“I’m tired.” Ruth Ann groaned.

“We could build the church with that tree,” Zeke complained, “We’ll never cut it all up.”

“I’m coming!” Heyes called, “I said I’d be here.”

“Joshua! How’s Thaddeus?” Ruth Ann grinned, putting down her ax. “He’s really handsome.”

“He’s in a really bad mood.” Heyes rubbed his nose. “I wouldn’t disturb him just now.” He took in the progress the kids had made in amazement. “You’ve down a great job.
We’ll have enough room now to pull down the church.”

The rest of the afternoon was spent in hard, manual labor. As a concession to the firebug Zeke, Heyes piled the more mangled boards in preparation for a bonfire. The intact lumber was stacked neatly to one side for the chapel reconstruction. Heyes fervently hoped that he wouldn’t be expected to rebuild the place. He’d worked construction when there wasn’t any other jobs to be had, but he had a tendency to slam his thumb with a hammer. And these hands much preferred a handful of cards to a handful of nails.

By late afternoon the heavy pewter colored clouds had gotten so dark it was necessary to use a lantern to see by. Heyes did manage to recover the nuns’ beloved chalice from the cleared sanctuary before a flash of lightning lit the sky. The air was so pregnant with rain Heyes could barely breathe through his clogged nasal passages. Just as the clouds opened up to pour more rain on the soggy ground, the demolition crew decamped to the orphanage’s front room for hot cider and popcorn.

“Rain, rain, go away,” Ruth Ann sang off key. “Come again another day. I sure am tired of the rain."

“If this were the ark, we’d be floatin’ by now.” Zeke tossed popcorn into his mouth.

“First the fire, now it’s flooding.” Ruth Ann sighed, “Next we’ll get locusts. We don’t get very good luck.”

“Ruth Ann, you can’t blame the rain on them, too,” Charles corrected.

“Blame who?” Heyes asked as casually as possible, letting the warm cider clear up his head.

“Ruth Ann has all these wild ideas that some accidents aren’t,” Charles explained. He playfully tossed a piece of popcorn at Zeke, starting a gleeful war.

“What was the fire, Ruth Ann?” Heyes asked quietly, ducking to avoid the flying kernels.

“Well, the roof caught fire -- but Zebulan put it out. Then the barn burned. Well, half of it. Then the buggy burned up.”

“Where is Zebulan now?”

“He’s dead,” Ruth Ann said disdainfully, as if Heyes should have known.

“Sorry.” He took a sip of the cooling cider.

“He was really old. Ancient.” She popped a few pieces of popcorn into her mouth. “He was Sister Luke’s dad.”

“She doesn’t talk much, does she?”

“She’s taken a vow of silence,” Ruth Ann answered matter of factly. “But I think she’s sad. She used to go to his grave every day, but now it’s under water.”

“Zebulan owned this land,” Heyes deduced.

“Yeah.” Charles plopped down on the bench, laughing. “That old man could be annoying, but he was great when he saved the barn.”

“That fire was amazing. The stables were red hot,” Zeke said enthusiastically. “An’ when the chapel roof burned. . . we all helped put it out. A bucket brigade from the river.
Zebulan knew what to do.”

“How’d he die?”

“Heart. He keeled over in the yard,” Charles supplied.

“It was sad,” a tiny voice said.

Heyes jumped when the little girl twin spoke. It was the first words he’d ever heard out of her. He hadn’t even noticed she’d walked in the room, but she had popcorn in her hair, so she’d obviously crossed the battle lines.

“He was nice to me.” Sofia sighed, “And those men were really mean.”

“Those men?” Heyes prompted, feeling like he was playing twenty questions with the children.

“Two men,” Samuel added, directly behind his sister. “ From Cottersville.”

“Two men from Cottersville came and spoke to Zebulan, and he died,” Heyes put together, tension settling in his chest.

“They yelled at him.”

“You didn’t tell me you saw them, Sofia!” Ruth Ann cried.

“They were scary.” She plucked some popcorn out of the bowl and offered half to her twin. “An’ Zebulan din’t like them.”

“Do you know their names?” Heyes pinched the bridge of his nose. His sinuses were definitely under attack, and General Grant was in the lead.

“Eddie Lee Shaunnessy and his brother Jimmy Joe.” Charles curled his lip. “They started coming out here more often since Zebulan died and my brothers left.”

“Have they threatened you at all?”

“No.” Zeke shrugged, “But they don’t talk to any of us. Just the Sisters.”

“Where are the Sisters? “ Heyes glanced around, suddenly aware he could hear singing.

“Vespers,” Ruth Ann answered, “You know, they pray a lot. They’re nuns.”

“So I've noticed.” Heyes grinned, sneezing.

 

* * * * * * *

The rain continued for two more days with very little let up and the river continued to rise and rise and rise. The ruined chapel was completely under water with the waves lapping ever closer to the main house.

Heyes generously shared his cold with nearly everyone in the orphanage. Luckily for Kid and his broken ribs, he didn’t succumb, and felt well enough to sit up in the main room for a meal.

“What makes you so lucky?” Charles asked wearily, wiping his runny nose.

“Me, lucky?” Kid would have laughed, but it hurt too much. “I got so many broken bones, I rattle when I walk.”

“But you’re the only one here who isn’t sneezing,” Zeke groaned.

“Luck of the Irish,” Kid quipped.

“Are you?” Ruth Ann asked.

Heyes coughed abruptly, giving his cousin a look over the bowl of mashed potatoes he was passing. The constant rain had pretty much reduced the menu to food that contained corn or potatoes. There hadn’t been meat for days, but no one was ready to kill the cow yet. Thus, cream gravy for the potatoes and butter for the cornbread. Yet, meals were getting monotonous.

“What?” Kid answered nervously.

“Are you Irish?” Sister Mary Moses asked interestedly. “I was a Houlihan myself.”

“Uh . . .”

“Our grandfather,” Heyes said smoothly, telling the truth.

“You’re cousins?” Sister Mary Joseph asked shrewdly, smiling at the Kid, who looked extremely uncomfortable. “Are you both Jones or Smiths?”

Using another cough to cover for hesitation, Heyes tried to get his story straight. Familially, they were both Currys. Kid’s father and Heyes’ mother were siblings. “Jones, ma’am. Grandpa . . . Jones was born in the old country.”

“Not a very Irish name,” Mary Joseph commented.

Kid just about choked on his mashed potatoes, prompting several people to hover worriedly over him, not really wanting to give the usual cure of pounding on a choking man’s back.

“I’m all right.” He waved their ministrations away, wondering how far Heyes was going to go. He awkwardly drank the proffered water, his ribs throbbing from his choking episode.

“So, you grew up together?” the nun continued her gentle probe.

“Yes, ma’am,” Kid answered. “In Kansas.”

“And after your parents died, you went to an orphanage,” she added. “Joshua told us you were uncomfortable here.”

“Oh, no, ma’am . . .” Kid flicked his eyes at his partner, who tried to look as bland as possible. “You Sisters have been real good to me. This place is one hundred times better than where we were.” He was tired, he hurt and he wasn’t used to talking a lot, but the words seemed to come out on their own. “I was a little kid, and there was nobody there for us. Those people running that orphanage had no business taking care of children.”

“But we took care of each other,” Heyes spoke softly, never having heard Kid talk like this before.

“I think you’re still taking care of each other.” Mary Joseph put a gentle hand on Curry’s. Kid resisted the urge to jerk his fingers away from her friendly gesture and smiled bleakly at her. “But you look very tired and we shouldn’t have let you get up so soon. Children, clear the table while Joshua and I help Thaddeus back to bed.” She stood, bowing her head. “Thank you, Lord, for this food we have eaten and for your constant presence in our lives continue to lead us on the paths of truth and righteousness.”

“Amen,” chorused the children, crossing themselves.

* * * * * *

“Heyes, she knows,” Kid hissed, once he’d been tucked back into bed.

“Kid, calm down,” Heyes placated. “I already told them we’d been in an orphanage together, obviously we grew up together.”

“She know we’re lying about. . . everything!”

“Well, not everything. There was some truth in there.”

“A little. You heard that prayer.” Kid leaned back against the pillow, breathing in short gasps to relieve the pain in his right side.

“You’re gonna get yourself all worked up, then you won’t be able to sleep,” Heyes accused, pointing a finger at him. “All right, so maybe she can recognize a fabrication, Kid. . . ”

“A lie.”

“A less than accurate portrayal of the facts,” Heyes reworded, “But that doesn’t mean anything. A nun would never turn us in.”

“Lying is a sin. And they could use the money around here.”

“Oh, when did you get all high and mighty? I seem to remember you were quite willin’ to sneak out of church to go fishing most Sundays.”

“That doesn’t make it right,” Kid concluded his argument.

“Well, I’ll tell you something else that’s not right.” Heyes sat down beside the bed, stifling a cough. “I don’t have the whole story, but I think somebody’s trying to drive the nuns out.”

“Why?” Kid opened his eyes, interested in spite of himself.

“I haven’t got that entirely figgered out.” Heyes leaned his chin on his fist. “But a pair of brothers have been threatening the sisters.” He related what the children had told him about the Shaunnessys and Zebulan in the last few days, including an interesting piece of information he’d gleaned only hours earlier from his usual source, Ruth Ann.

While helping Sister Luke with dinner, the chatterbox little girl had spouted out that Jimmy Joe Shaunnessy had unsuccessfully courted Sister Luke before she’d taken the veil. This piece of news had stopped Heyes in his potato peeling to stare at the child. The embarrassed nun had ducked her head over her bowl of cornmeal, putting Heyes in the unfamiliar role of acting the disciplinarian to a ten year old.

Kid listened quietly to the whole story. After three days in bed, asleep a great deal of the time, he was starved for conversation. When Heyes finished his narration, a comfortable silence fell over the room until Kid spoke. “Water rights.”

“What?” Heyes frowned, using his bandanna to wipe his still stuffy nose. “You don’t even know these parts. Cottersville could be ringed with lakes for all you know.”

“Betcha it’s not,” Kid retorted. “We’re still pretty high up, aren’t we?”

“Yah, but I haven’t been able to get out much to scout around.”

“Tomorrow, go huntin’,” Kid suggested. “Follow the river down, if you can.”

“Kid, it’s lapping on the door sill.” Heyes laughed, “We can’t get out of the house. And anyway, the claim on the river is moot when it’s been raining like this for days.”

“But if Cottersville is downhill, anyone sitting up here on the river controls the water,” Kid said reasonably. “Next summer, that’s power.”

“Y’know, I think having a tree fall on you shook up your brains.” Heyes grinned at him “That’s really intelligent thinking, Kid.”

A light knock at the door stalled the conversation, and Heyes opened the door for Sister Joseph.

“I thought you might still be up.” She smiled at them, offering bowls of apple brown betty. “Sister Luke, has as usual, worked her magic on our meager stores.”

“That looks wonderful, Sister.” Heyes took the bowls, smelling the cinnamon aroma. “I’ll have to go thank her personally when I’m done.”

“She’s really taken quite a shine to you and Thaddeus.” Joseph nodded.

“Umm.” Kid took a bite and closed his eyes in reverence. “Oh, Sister. Joshua was thinking of doing some hunting as soon as the water recedes. How far is it between here and Cottersville? Maybe he could pick up some supplies, too.”

“Oh, this mud will make the trip unbearable.” She sighed. “But if we get a few sunny days, it’s ten miles to town, straight down hill.”

“What made you Sisters start an orphanage ways up here?” Heyes inquired.

“Purely by chance.” The nun sat down on the bedside chair, arranging her black skirts over her feet. “I think Ruth Ann has, no doubt, told you that Zebulan was Sister Luke’s father. She attended the same convent that I did, back in Denver, and mentioned the need for an order out here.”

“That must have taken a lot of guts for a couple of nuns to travel through the Rockies on your own.”

Mary Joseph’s long thin face was usually smooth and calm, but for some reason this statement tickled her. Heyes was surprised to notice that she had a dimple in her left cheek, similar, but smaller than his own. “Thank you for the compliment, Joshua. I'm glad to hear that I have ‘guts’, as you put it We arrived here at Zebulan’s home and never got much further.”

“It’s just an awfully long way to Cottersville from here,” Kid observed, licking the last bit of apple off his spoon.

“Nuns like solitude.” She shrugged.

“But you’re also at risk for attack, way up here with only children around.”

“Now I know you’ve been talking to Ruth Ann,” Sister Mary Joseph said dryly, collecting the bowls. “The Lord has kept us safe so far.”

“What about the fires?” Heyes asked.

“Unfortunately, Zebulan was getting senile, God rest his soul.” She crossed herself absently. “He’d go outside to smoke his pipe and wasn’t too careful with the matches.”

“And the Shaunnessy Brothers?” Heyes persisted, accepting her explanation.

“Them.” She made a face. “The elder brother is our banker. They’re both unpleasant men, to be sure, but I don’t suspect them of any foul play.”

“Are you sure?” Kid put in.

“Well, if I weren’t,” She turned to go, her hand on the doorknob, “Then, I guess I’d be very happy to have two guests who wear guns like they know how to use them, wouldn’t I?” With that enigmatic answer, she left them alone.

“Heyes, she knows,” Kid groused.

 

* * * * * * *

 

The rain stopped falling in the night, bringing a silence so profound, Heyes awoke. He lay in the darkness, listening to the small sounds of the building and the absence of rain on the roof. Despite Kid’s concerns about staying in an orphanage with a very intelligent head nun, Heyes felt quite content and surprisingly safe.

The next few days were warm, with a light wind and brilliant blue sky. The water in front of the main building receded quickly, leaving a quagmire of mud in the yard. Charles and Zeke used some of the old chapel boards to make pathways to the barn, well, and outhouse. The other children, especially the twins, just made artistic mud pies and mountains until Sister Moses complained that their clothes would never come clean. Bored with the inactivity, Charles took to entertaining the girls by whittling rough doll people out of bits of leftover wood. Very soon there was a strange line of wooden people headed for the mud mountain castle like supplicants on the way to Jerusalem.

When Heyes finally felt he could walk without sinking up to his knees, or tripping over carved dolls, he sent the boys out to set snares for rabbit and prepared to go down the mountain. The Sisters gave him a list of necessary supplies. The Kid gave him a look that spoke volumes about how unhappy he was that Heyes was planning to approach the Shaunnessys without back up.

 

* * * * * * * *

 

Cottersville turned out to be an amazingly bustling little hamlet, with, surprise of surprises, a train station. Heyes’ outlaw days might be over, but he always kept his eye out for quick escape options. Train stations were very appreciated as long as trains actually stopped there frequently. It didn’t take very long to find out that Cottersville had a single weekly freight train stop. Well, at least he didn’t think he would need it!

There were also the usual amenities of any small frontier town; mercantile, telegraph and a sheriff’s office. The name printed neatly over the door meant nothing to Heyes, which made him even happier. Since he’d planned to stay the night for a good game of poker, he put off Sister Luke’s shopping ‘til the next morning and headed over to the closest saloon for a drink.

The main road was still so muddy, deeply rutted grooves in the ground made crossing treacherous. Heyes tried to skirt the deeper puddles, but ended up dirtier just walking from the livery to the saloon then he had gotten all the way down the mountain. Nearly every man, woman and child in town had mud up to his or her knees. No doubt, Cottersville being lower than the orphanage, the town had even worse flooding.
The floorboards of the saloon were warping as they dried, moldy tree smell coming up from the wet wood.

Heyes held up one gloved finger to the bartender. “Beer.”

“Got eggs in the bowl there.” The bartender pointed. “Free with a beer.”

“Thanks.” Heyes closed his fingers around the white shell, a memory dimpling his cheeks. He knew of a sure fire way to earn cash with an innocuous little bet on whether an egg would stand up on a bar or not. But Heyes hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and that had been cornbread in milk. His stomach wanted the egg. He tapped it against the bar as he received his beer.

“Looks like bad flooding down here,” Heyes observed, swallowing some draft.

“The tables were floating around.” The ‘tender pointed. Most of the table legs in the room were tipped in mud. “That was a rare rainstorm. Doesn’t usually go on for days like that. Last year it was dry for months ‘round this time.”

Kid’s voice said “water rights” in the back of Heyes’ brain. “Then, it’s a good thing there’s a river back there.”

“Under normal circumstances.” The man laughed, “Not last week.”

“Yeah, last week I tried to get into town for the poker game.” Heyes took a bite of egg, followed by beer. “ Had to stay up on the mountain.”

“Nobody made it to the game. They’re postponing the big one for another week ‘til things dry out.”

“No loss then.” Heyes shrugged, nonchalantly, but worried that he wouldn’t be able to earn any money. “Any smaller prospects around?”

“Cowboys and miners in here every night.”

“I’ll be back, then.” Heyes finished his late afternoon lunch.

 

* * * * * * *

 

“Thaddeus, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to go outside. You’re still weak,” Sister Mary Moses protested.

“I’ll never gain back any strength just laying around.” Kid stood in the door, his left arm around his still painful ribs. After a week, he still found it hard to take a deep breath and his right arm ached constantly, but he needed to be up and busy. “I need to get some target practice.”

“At least keep Charles around,” she added worriedly.

“Can he shoot?”

She chuckled. “He’s tolerable with a Winchester, but I doubt he’s ever held a Colt.”
Her odd familiarity with gun names struck a chord in Kid. “And you, Sister?”

“Can I shoot?” She cocked her head. “Once upon a time.”

“Show me.”

“Oh, I gave that up.” She tucked her hands under her surplice, “One must make sacrifices unto the Lord.”

“I’ll bet,” Kid agreed. He sat, pulling out his six-gun and holding it between his knees to open the revolver. One handed, he shoved the bullets into their chambers, then flicked it shut. He felt awkward and out of practice. He’d occasionally shot two fisted, but never just left-handed.

All five children eagerly helped him set up targets along the fallen tree, pestering him with question about his gun and where he’d learned to shoot. Looking at all the excited faces, Kid was loath to tell them he started shooting when he was eight years old. It would most definitely set a bad example.

“I started using a gun younger than I should have,” Kid confessed, “But there was a war on and some bad things were happening.”

“Your parents were dead?” Ruth Ann asked sympathetically, “Like all of ours.”

“Yeah.” He sighted on the targets, holding the gun loosely and away from his body. Even the small weight of the colt pulled on his aching chest muscles. Kid pulled the trigger, moving down the line of targets. He hit all six, but three were not dead on. He was sluggish and his aim wasn’t true. “Damn,” he whispered, turning away from the children.

“That was amazing,” Zeke crowed, “I never saw anybody so fast!”

Mary Moses, watching from the door, sighed. “Thaddeus? Are you feeling all right?”

Ruth Ann smiled up at the blond gunman. “You must be the fastest gun ever.”

“Not anymore,” Kid muttered, clenching his teeth against the burning in his right arm. He couldn’t shoot anymore. His one talent was gone. Taking a slow breath, he dropped the gun back into the holster and walked across the yard.

 

* * * * *

 

“Royal flush.” Heyes spread his cards on the table, wanting to smirk at the astonished expressions of the other players. He kept a straight face, pulling in the pile of cash from the middle of the table. It wasn’t a fortune, but it would certainly help buy supplies for the sisters. He’d been playing for nearly two hours and didn’t want to antagonize the locals in anticipation of future games. “Thanks, boys, hope to see you again.”

“So we can win back some of our money,” A gray haired man grumbled good-naturedly.

Walking back to the bar, Heyes overheard the bartender call a tall, thickset, blond haired man ‘Mr. Shaunnessy.’ His interest piqued immediately, Heyes hastened to secure a position at the bar next to the infamous man.

“Now I know that bottle isn’t the rot gut he’d been pouring for me.” Heyes eyed Shannessy's bottle of aged Kentucky whiskey, signaling the bartender with his empty shot glass.

“Well, I do have a private stock, Mr. . . ” Shaunnessy eyed the smaller, dark haired man.

“Smith, Joshua Smith.” Heyes held out a gloved hand, accepting a shot of house whiskey from the bartender.

“Eddie Lee Shaunnessy. I was watching you play over there.”

“You find poker an enjoyable spectator sport?” Heyes grimaced as he swallowed the alcohol.

“Not usually.” Eddie Lee grinned. He tipped the bottle into his glass, then held it out invitingly to Heyes. “But I did today.” He poured Heyes a shot. “You’re one of the best players I’ve ever seen.”

“Me?” Heyes spread his fingers across his chest modestly. “That was just a quick game to alleviate boredom.”

“You won several hundred dollars in a nickel and dime game.” He downed his drink.

“Some nights are luckier than others.” Heyes tossed back his whisky, nodding in satisfaction. “Now that’s whiskey.”

“Served at all the games I run.”

“I think you’re the man I came to see, but Mother Nature got in the way.”

“Yeah, hasn’t rained like that in years, the old folks say,” Shaunnessy agreed. “Usually dry this time of year.”

“So when’s the next game?”

“A week from Friday. Some people around here are still under mud.”

“Yeah, I stayed up at the orphanage on the mountain,” Heyes mentioned casually, watching the man’s reaction. He maintained a decent poker face, but the muscles in his jaw tightened. “The Sisters had water lapping on the doorstep, and the Chapel collapsed.”

“Sorry to hear that.” Eddie Lee smoothed the lapels of his suit. “Those poor women have as terrible time up there. I’ve been telling them they should move down here for a long time.”

“Seems to me they would have had water knee deep if they’d been down in town,” Heyes observed. “Probably safer up there.”

“Perhaps this time,” Shaunnessy conceded coldly. “But maybe not the next.”

“You said yourself it rarely floods around here.” Heyes acted deliberately obtuse.

“I meant if some other catastrophe befalls them.”

“Luckily, my friend and I will be staying around for a while.” Heyes shoved his hands under his gun belt, shrugging. “Friend’s laid up, but I’ve been helping the nuns out.”

“Well, those ladies must feel safer.” Shaunnessy eyed the dangerous looking man in front of him. “I’m certainly no longer worried.”

“I’m looking forward to playing poker with you.” Heyes stared him square in the eye, tilting his chin up just slightly to compensate for the height difference. “Sometimes it’s hard to find a worthy opponent.”

 

* * * * *

On a gloriously bright blue sky morning, Heyes did the shopping, enjoying picking out special treats for the children and even the nuns. He made a stop at the town doctor on behalf of the Kid, since nearly everyone else had recovered from the coughing and sneezing that had run rampant for a short time. Surprised to find that the doctor was younger than he was, Heyes found himself chatting easily. He’d never met a doctor who wasn’t either old as the hills or too busy to sit.

“I’ll try to make it up the mountain by tomorrow, at the latest.” Dr. Miller Sebastian shook his head. “Sure am sorry to hear your friend’s gone a week like that. Broken bones hurt like hell.”

Heyes let out an unbridled laugh. “I thought doctors were supposed to say ‘now this won’t hurt a bit’.”

“Well, can’t lie about that.” Miller tapped white powder into little twists of paper and handed them over. “Maybe a mite late, but if he’s still having pain, tell him to take this in some water.”

“Thank you, Doctor.” Heyes nodded, handing over a dollar.

“That’s not worth a whole buck!”

“Doc, it is to me.” Heyes shook his hand. “Say, did you treat ol’ Zebulan McClure before he died?”

“Yeah, nice old man. I swear to God he’d still be alive if he didn’t worry so about the place.”

“Why? Did something happen?”

“Don’t like spreading tales.” Miller pulled on his jacket and hat. “Got to go check on Mrs. Polansky -- having a baby soon. But Zebulan was having troubles. I think some of those fires were deliberately set, and not by Zeke.”

“Who’d do that?”

Miller frowned, looking Heyes over. “You seem like you could take care of yourself, but once you move on, those ladies will be up there by themselves.”

“And there are people in town they should stay away from,” Heyes prompted, “Maybe a couple of brothers?”

“Mr. Smith.” Miller smoothed his bushy mustache. “I never told you anything.” He hefted his medical bag and stepped out onto the porch. “Nice to meet you. I’ll be by, probably after that baby is born.”

Stopping at the saloon for a quick beer, Heyes impulsively bought a bottle of whiskey. Never hurt to have a bottle of rye on hand.

 

* * * * * *

The ground was much dryer after another day of sun, and Heyes made far quicker time going uphill than he’d expected. He arrived back at Children of Jesus to find a yard full of people.

“Joshua, Joshua!” Ruth Ann ran up, grabbing the bridle of his horse. “The family from down the mountain came to fix the chapel!”

“Great.” He dismounted, suddenly surrounded by children, a few he didn’t recognize.

“That’s the Billings.” Charles waved a hand over six tow headed children. “Their dad can build anything.”

“Glad to know I’m not in charge of construction, now.” Heyes grinned. “I brought candy.” Immediately, nearly a dozen hands dove into his saddlebags. Peppermint sticks, horehound and maple candy was distributed amongst the children.

“You spoil them.” Mary Moses laughed.

“Hey, I’m just happy someone else is hammering nails.” He inspected the framework admiringly. “And he’s fast.” He pulled a small bundle from his bag. “Something for you sisters.”

She unwrapped six white candles and sighed happily. “Oh, these are so expensive.”

“I had some money.” He winked. “In fact, it was enough for all the supplies, so yours was left over.”

Her mouth formed a round O, starting to protest, then stopped. “Thank you.” She smiled. “You’re so kind.”

“Not me--you all took us in when we needed help.” Heyes shrugged. “Better get this stuff to Sister Luke. I'm starving.” He began to unload packages. “Where’s K-Thaddeus?”

“Oh.” She frowned slightly. “He hasn’t been feeling well.”

“What happened?” Heyes asked, alarmed.

 

* * * * * * *

 

After carrying most of the packages into the kitchen, admiring the fine rabbits Zeke and Charles had captured for stew, and snagging a corn muffin with butter for a snack, Heyes went searching for his cousin. Kid was tucked into the corner of his bed, splinted arm resting on his bent knees, face stormy.

“What the hell did you do?” Heyes greeted.

“G’afternoon to you, too,” Kid grumbled.

“Why’d you even try shooting? You’re all broken up.”

“Well, I can’t shoot anymore, anyway,” Kid answered morosely. “I’ve lost the touch.”

“You’ve lost your mind.” Heyes shook his head. “Here, I brought you something.” He handed over the bottle of whiskey. “And the Doctor sent this pain powder. I think you need both.”

“You’re a great comfort to me.” Kid grimaced at him sourly, taking a swig straight from the bottle.

“Now you going to tell me why you acted like an idiot?” Heyes settled into the chair, his booted feet up on the bed.

Kid took another swallow of whiskey, the pain in his head and his arm easing a little. “Heyes, it’s all I have.”

“What? Using a gun?”

“You -- you’ve got the silver tongue, the smooth ways. You can pick a safe. You have -- I dunno what you call it.” He stared down at the bottle. “You’re smart. Me, I could shoot -- better’n most. Now, I can’t.” He took a drink, letting the whiskey warm his whole body.

“Kid.” Heyes took a deep breath, understanding his cousin’s anguish, but unsure how to begin. “You’re laid up, you need to heal. Give yourself a chance.”

“What do you expect to do when we get amnesty?”

Stunned, Heyes stared at his partner. “Why?”

“We can’t wander f’ever.” Kid slurred his words. “S’m day we’ll get jobs, settle down. You could work in a bank, but not me.”

“This is not the time to be talking about this,” Heyes soothed. “Take the powder, get some sleep.”

Kid poured nearly half the bottle down his throat, woozy and weary. He generously handed the rest over to Heyes. “Wait, I’m serious.”

“You’re drunk.”

“Yep, and I feel good for the first time in a long time.” Kid touched the gun and holster next to him on the bed. “What do you plan to do?’

“I never thought about it much before.” Heyes tasted the alcohol, wishing he’d gotten some of the stuff Shaunnessy had. He laughed. “I never thought past actually getting amnesty.”

“It’s been two years.” Kid fiddled with the bullets in his cartridge belt. “I never really wanted to live in San’a Marta. If it comes through, we need to be ready.”

“When,” Heyes amended.

“When. If.” Kid shrugged, twinging his injured arm. “Where’s that powder?”

 

* * * * * * *

 

The whiskey made Kid fall asleep easily, but he didn’t stay that way. The effects wore off before dawn, and he found himself wide awake in the dark house. Heyes was snoring on the far side of the bed and barely stirred when Curry got up. The pain powder had worked wonders, he could move with more ease and agility than in the last week. Now, if only he could get rid of the furry mouse sitting on his tongue.

Walking quietly along the hall, Kid passed the children’s room and the nuns’, headed for the kitchen. Although no one had ever complained to him, he suspected that he and Heyes had appropriated Charles and Zeke’s room. Maybe when Billings finished the Chapel, he could add another room onto the orphanage; just in case Sister Joseph decided to take in any more drifters after he and Heyes left.

“Good morning, Thaddeus,” Joseph said softly, closing the fire gate on the cast iron stove.

“Sister.” He took a breath to steady his racing heart. He hadn’t expected to see anyone else up so early.

“Sit down. Are you in pain?”

“No, ma’am. I’m all right.” Kid took the offered chair. “Joshua brought me some powder.”

“And some drink.”

“Well, yeah. That, too.”

“It’s all right.” She nodded. “I know how badly you hurt last week. You needed some respite.”

“I just. . . I wanted some water,” he said lamely. “Why are you up?”

“Matins. Early prayers.” Sister Mary Joseph waved a slim hand at the warming stove. “We take turns getting up first to heat the house, We’re nuns, not martyrs.”

Kid grinned. “I had a sister once.” He drank from the glass she gave him, “Who was a nun.”

“A sister Sister.”

“She never liked it cold, either. One of the only things I remember her telling me was about lying face down on the stone floor, in winter, to pray.”

“Yes. I’ve done that. As a novice.” She sat down next to him, tucking her fingers into her black wool sleeves. “Even when our chapel had a floor, it was wood.”

“Good thing.” Kid nodded, wondering why she had so unnerved him earlier in the week, when now he felt oddly as ease. He wanted to talk to her. Wanted to. . . “Confession.”

“What?”

“If I tell you something, it’s like confession. You can’t tell anyone, right?” He looked over at her, his blue eyes gray in the half light.

“Yeas. I can hear confession. Father Lawrence only comes every other month.”

“My name isn’t Thaddeus.”

“I know,” Joseph said softly, watching him.

“You know?” He echoed, astonished.

“You mentioned your sister, Sister Mary Assumpta. But you called her Siobhan.”

“You knew all this time?” He practically shouted, but calmed himself before he woke the house. “You recognized us?”

“Jedediah Curry, I’ve even seen you before.” Mary Joseph ducked her head. Her voice was calm, but the memory agonizing. “When you and Hannibal came to the convent -- sometime after your parents were killed. You were tiny, very thin and wet. I think it was raining that time, too.”

He remembered that night. He and Heyes, afraid they were the only ones left after Quantrill’s Raiders had murdered their parents and siblings, had struck out on their own. They had made it to Siobhan’s convent after several months on the road. Sore, starving and drenched, he had reached out to the only family he had left, an older sister he’d barely met. Siobhan had been eighteen when he was born, and already a novice nun. By the time he was a war-hardened eleven year old, she was a black habited stranger. Sister Mary Assumpta had fed them, nursed their ills, and then, on the advice of her priest, sent them to an orphanage. Not one affiliated with her order, but one recently opened to accommodate the hundreds of suddenly orphaned children.

“If you have anger for what happened, it was a long time ago. . . ” Joseph began.

“And your order couldn’t take in children. I know,” he replied in a dead voice. “We took care of ourselves.”

“The convent was broken up during the war; I went to Denver. I lost touch with Assumpta.”

“Is she alive?”

“I don’t know. But, years later I saw some newspaper articles about you. I remembered you.”

“So, why didn’t you turn us in? You could use twenty thousand dollars around here.”

“That wouldn’t be right.”

Kid snorted, smiling to himself, her words paralleled his with Heyes. “Thank you.” He rubbed his aching ribs. “We’ve been straight for nearly two years. We’re tryin’ to get amnesty from the Wyoming Governor.”

“That’s very good news.” Joseph nodded. “You recognized the error of your ways.”

“Oh, I recognized that years ago,” Kid answered ruefully. “It got to be a question of what else can I do. Bank robbing was easy, but I never shot anyone doing a job.”

“You’ve made your confession, Jed.” Sister Mary Joseph steepled her fingers. “Now what?”

“Aren’t you supposed to give me penance? Hail Marys? Which I never can remember. I know the Our Father.”

“Doing the Rosary is good under any circumstance. And feel free to offer a few personal prayers,” she agreed. “But I suspect you have more practical matters in mind.”

“I’ve never done anything else.” Kid made a gun with his left hand, forefinger as the barrel. “And the reputation isn’t going away for a long time.”

“Is that all that defines you?”

“Just about.”

“Sister Mary Joe?” a soft voice called from the hall. “We’re ready.”

“There’s Moses.” The nun stood, patting Kid’s arm, then closing her hand over his extended finger. “I know you have a good to contribute, Jedediah. Find it in yourself.”

Alone in the kitchen, Kid sat quietly next to the warmth of the stove, feeling more at home than he’d felt for most of his life. Memories of waiting for his mother and sisters to make breakfast welled up around him. He could almost smell the coffee brewing.

“Daydreaming?” Heyes reclined against the doorframe, clad in just his Henley shirt and brown trousers.

“Something like that,” Kid agreed. “But it’s not even quite day.”

“Dawn, then.” Heyes peered towards the Eastern facing window. Golden rays of sunlight were starting to spill onto the kitchen floor. “Coffee?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

Pouring fragrant coffee beans into the grinder, Heyes turned the crank. “You look. . . happy.”

“Happy?” Kid tossed a lopsided grin at his cousin, “I dunno, things are different.” While Heyes prepared the coffee, Kid filled him in on his conversation with Sister Mary Joseph.

“She knew Siobhan?” Heyes shook his head at the coincidence, pouring steaming mugs. “Well, no need to worry that she’ll turn us in, now.”

“No, and I'm sorry I was kind of. . . ”

“Hair trigger? Prickly?”

Shrugging, Kid accepted the words. “I still don’t know what to do without a gun, but. . . ”

“You’re healin’ up.” Heyes warmed his hands around the mug. “Your ribs are gettin’ better. Kid, you’ll be able to shoot.”

“With this?” He tapped his splinted right arm.

“You tried too soon. Take another day an’ I’ll watch you blow those tin cans away like you always done.”

“That pain powder was pretty good.” Kid took a swallow of coffee, “But I'm no good left handed. I won’t be blowing away any cans.”

“Kid Curry is better left handed than most of the country is right handed.”

“Most of the country?” Kid teased.

“Most of the world,” Heyes expanded, spreading his arms wide.

“Most of the world does what?” Ruth Ann came running in on the end of the conversation, the little twins trailing her.

“Most of the world has breakfast in the morning,” Kid answered.

“I wan’ breakfast,” Samuel cried.

“Me, too,” Sofia agreed.

“Looks like you’re elected.” Kid smirked at his cousin, “I can’t do any heavy lifting.”

“No, huh?” Heyes looked unimpressed. “What do ya’ll want to eat?”

“Pancakes.” Zeke came tearing into the kitchen, his suspenders still flapping around his knees.

“Pancakes,” Ruth Ann agreed.

“That fine with you?” Heyes directed at the Kid.

“Hey, I always eat what you fix.”

“Cause I’m head of this gang and you don’t have any choice in the matter.”

“Are you inna gang?” Zeke asked eagerly.

“Only when you kids are around,” Heyes responded. “Find me the flour and a bowl.”

Letting Zeke indulge his fire loving heart in stoking up the stove to heat the griddle, Heyes and the girls stirred up batter. Samuel set the table and Charles appeared finally with an armful of logs for the woodpile. By the time the nuns had finished matins, there was breakfast on the table and several happy faces covered in molasses syrup.

When breakfast was over, Sister Luke once more took command of her kitchen and motioned everyone else out. The children reluctantly followed Moses to the schoolroom, having enjoyed the cheerful meal.

“So, you didn’t tell me about Cottersville.” Kid settled gingerly into the threadbare sofa in the front room, attempting to arrange his arm in a position where it didn’t ache. “Didja meet Eddie Boy?”

“Eddie Lee.” Heyes pulled a deck of cards from his vest pocket, shuffling absently. “A fine upstanding man. Makes you and me look like law abidin’ citizens. And as a bonus, he runs the high stakes poker game.”

“You get to play?”

“Game was canceled due to the rain, and there won’t be another one for nine days. So, I have until then to come up with a plan.” He dealt out twenty five cards onto the table, starting to arrange them into decent poker hands.

“Put that Queen with the Jack and the ten.” Kid craned his neck to examine the cards.

“Hey, who taught you how to do this?”

“Can’t remember,” Kid remarked straight faced. “What’s you plan?”

“Win at poker.”

“You always do, that’s no plan.” Kid laughed.

“All I got right now, Kid.” Heyes flipped over the twenty-fifth card. “Oh.” he grimaced.

“Not gonna win that game.”

“Well, I’m just happy that you’re so happy.”

“Hey, I can’t shoot and you can’t play poker.” He was laughing so hard his ribs ached abysmally. “Guess we’ll just have to retire to a convent.”

“Men usually go to a monastery.” Sister Mary Joseph observed dryly, coming in from the yard.

Heyes shuffled the offending cards back together. “Sister, you said you own this land?”

“Yes. Zebulan deeded it to us.”

“Down to the river,” Heyes continued. “Who owns the land across on the other side?”

“The Shaunnessy brothers.”

“Ah, the plot thickens.” Heyes tapped the cards neatly together. “Now I got a plan, Kid.”

“Well, I came in to tell you that Dr. Sebastian is here to see you, Thaddeus. And Mr. Billings wants to consult you on the chapel, Joshua.”

“I’m not on the building committee anymore,” Heyes protested. He opened the door just in time to let Miller Sebastian in. “ Good to see you, Doctor. This is my cousin Thaddeus Jones.”

“Heard you broke a few bones.” The doctor held out his hand to shake Kid’s left. “About two weeks ago?”

“Almost.” Kid agreed, hugging his ribs.

“How are you feeling?” He inspected the splinted arm with a professional eye. “Still much pain?”

“That powder helps a lot. Thanks.”

“I’ll leave you some more. Broken bones take a while to heal.”

“How long? I need to. . . ”

“Doctor!” Charles came tearing in through the door, his blue eyes wild and face pale.
“Doctor, Mr. Billings -- he. . . come quick!”

Miller grabbed his medical bag, running out into the yard. Heyes, the nuns and the children were clustered under the newly wood framed chapel, talking worriedly. Zeke and Ruth Ann grabbed the doctor’s hands, pulling him into the group where Abner Billings lay, his body twisted awkwardly. Abner Jr. rubbed his father’s hand franticly, pleading for him to wake up.

Looking up, Hannibal Heyes inspected where he’d fallen from. One of the cross beams, meant to support the ceiling, had broken, crashing down onto the dirt floor. Billings had been standing on it, nailing roof bracings into place.

“Everyone, give Dr. Sebastian some room,” Sister Mary Joseph commanded in a voice that brooked no argument. “Junior, you and Charles get some blankets to make a stretcher to get him inside. Go.” She helped the distraut 18 year old up, giving him into Charles’ care. “Girls. go tell Sister Luke. We’ll need tea, food for everyone.”

Ruth Ann, Sofia and Clarissa Billings were sent on their mission with worry on their faces.

Unable to think of anything useful to do, Zeke hovered behind Heyes, nervously clenching his fists. “This is bad. Like Ruth Ann said, we’re having back luck. God is striking us down.”

“Get the locusts out of your head, Zeke,” Heyes snapped more sharply than he’d meant to. “We haven’t gotten to Revelations yet.”

“He’s got a pretty severe head wound, and maybe broken ribs or leg--but he’s breathing,” Miller proclaimed. “Abner, can you hear me?”

The only answer was a painful mutter, but all took it as a hopeful sign. Mary Moses orchestrated loading him onto the makeshift stretcher as Kid finally made it out to the wood frame.

“What happened?” he asked sympathetically, knowing full well the kind of pain Billings must be in.

“He fell. From up there!” Zeke supplied. “That wood just snapped in half.”

“Only it didn’t,” Heyes spoke, crouching beside the fallen beam. He ran his fingers over the end, then squinted up at the other half of it.

“It’s been cut.” Kid recognized ax marks.

“Yep.” Heyes stood, brushing off his trousers.

“Somebody tried to kill him!” Zeke cried shrilly.

“Quiet. We can’t be yelling that out to everybody,” Heyes hushed. “Zeke, go in, see how things are going, but don’t say anything.”

“You want to talk to Thaddeus alone,” Zeke countered.

“Yeah.” Kid grinned ruefully. “Zeke, promise, we’ll tell you if anything else happens.”

“Zeke!” Ruth Ann yelled from the porch. “Sister Moses says we hafta go back to lessons.”

“Go on,” Heyes urged, giving the boy a little push, walking back to the house with him.

Kid followed more slowly, a frown forming on his face as he watched Sebastian splint Billings’ leg. “Heyes, he looks like you.”

“Zeke?”

“No, Billings.” Kid pointed to the injured man. “Dark hair, thin. . . ”

“Is that all you think of me? I always thought I was good looking, like my Dad.”

Kid favored him with a stern look. “Somebody watching from far off could make a mistake.”

“Kid,” Heyes said softly, turning him away from the makeshift hospital bed. “That beam had to have been cut in the middle of the night. None of us heard it. Any one of us could have been up there today and happen to step on the wrong beam.”

“If Eddie boy. . . ”

“Eddie Lee.”

“Followed you up here, he might not have realized you weren’t still working on the chapel.”

“You didn’t see Shaunnessy. Not exactly the skulking about in the woods guy.”

“Did you see – uh -- his brother?”

“No.”

“Somebody’s been watching the yard, and got you n’Billings confused. And my bet it was Shaunnessy.”

“You need to go lie down.”

“You’re in danger.” Kid headed for the bedroom. “I’m getting my gun.”

Heyes rolled his eyes, actually reluctantly accepting Kid’s hypothesis, but unwilling to worry about his own skin when there were so many other things to worry about.

Very little constructive was accomplished for the rest of the day, but Sister Joseph was determined to keep the hysteria from building. That in mind, she sent Charles and Abner Jr. to Cottersville to tell Sheriff Taylor of Smith and Jones’ suspicions. Since he was the one with theories, Heyes proposed to go along, against Kid’s adamant objections. Sister Joe sided with Curry, mostly because Abner would be passing by his own home on the way down the mountain. and could tell his mother of the accident himself.

“His father was just hurt, do you think it’s safe for him to go by himself?” Heyes gave a last ditch appeal.

“That’s a specious argument, He’s 18, a man and won’t be by himself. Charles is accompanying him,” Joseph said quietly. “You would do well to be an example to the others and remain calm.”

Heyes started to object further, but was stalled by the arrival of the two boys in question.

“Take care of yourselves, boys,” she said. “Abner, tell your mother to come right on up. Your father will remain with us until he’s able to travel. Charles, tell the sheriff we won’t move anything until he’s seen the boards.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” they chorused solemnly, the weight of maturity and the tragedy heavy on them. Both boys mounted their horses turning them towards the bend in the road leading to the river.

Heyes turned away, picking up a hammer from the ground, “This is all going to hel. . . going wrong.”

“I think it was wrong before we got here,” Kid observed.

“You believe this was all deliberate, but I just can’t accept that people I’ve done business with could. . . ” Mary Joseph shook her head. “Try to kill someone.”

“Sister, if what we think is correct, the Shaunnessys may have murdered Zebulan.” Kid rested his right elbow in his left hand to support it. The powder had definitely worn off.

“This is just more than I want to accept right now.” She held up her palms as if to wipe a slate clean. “I want to say a few prayers before the sheriff comes.” She smiled wanly at them. “But thank you for worrying about us. God knew what he was doing when he sent you here. “ She lifted her skirts to step onto the porch, a swirl of black fabric as she disappeared into the house.

“Sheriff won’t be here for three or more hours -- that’s a lot of prayers.” Heyes tapped the hammer against his hand. “The first time I saw her -- right in this spot, I thought she was an angel dressed in black. She’s the most amazing, stubborn woman I’ve ever met.”

“The woman of your dreams and she’s a nun,” Curry teased.

“Kid,” Heyes admonished, unnerved at the thought. “We need to keep our eyes open and be ready for anything.” He held the door open for his cousin, following him inside.

“Smith, Jones.” Dr. Sebastian finished packing his equipment in his medical bag. “I’ve done as much as I can for now, he’s resting.”

“Did you give him some of that powder?” Kid asked, watching Billings sleep.

“Even better, morphine,” Miller answered. “I left some more of each for both of you.” He indicated packets on the table. “I need to go check on Mrs. Polansky’s twins, but I’ll be back.”

“Doctor, I wonder if you could do something for me.” Heyes drew him aside and explained his idea.

 

* * * * * *

 

Mary Moses sank to her knees amongst the rows of vegetables, savoring the earthy smell of dirt and growing things. It lessened the feeling of nastiness in the air. She pushed her fingers into the earth, searching for potatoes.

“Need help, Sister?” Kid asked.

“You should be resting.” She pulled two potatoes out, placing them in a basket.

“Resting makes me tired.” Kid sat somewhat awkwardly on the ground, but immediately popped a tuber out left-handed. “But I’ve been digging up spuds all my life.”

“Well, then, I need all the help I can get,” Moses agreed. “When Maria Billings comes back to care for Abner, she’ll probably bring all those children.”

“There are a lot of ‘em.” Kid added more potatoes to her basket. “Boiled potatoes were the regular dinner in my family.”

“A proper Irish meal.” Mary Moses laughed, “Boiled cabbage, too? That was on our table.”

“I don’t eat that.” Kid wrinkled his nose, then turned in the direction of the chapel, hearing the unmistakable sounds of jingling horse bridle. “Is someone coming in the yard?”

“Sister!” Zeke called from the house, “The sheriff is here.”

Joining Zeke on the front porch, Heyes waited until the tall, rawboned red haired man dismounted from his pinto. “Sheriff Taylor?” He held out a welcoming hand, “Joshua Smith.”

“I’d heard there were some men staying up here.” Andy Taylor pushed his Stetson back, shaking Heyes’ hand. “Frankly, I was glad to hear it. These nice ladies need somebody on their sides.”

“Sheriff, that’s the best attitude I’ve heard in this town.” Heyes walked him over to the chapel, pointing out the obvious signs of tampering.

“Unfortunately, there’s no way we can prove who did this.” Taylor sighed. “You have any suspicions?”

“I do.” Heyes pointed to the usual cluster of eavesdroppers, “You know the Sisters, the kids. That’s my partner, Thaddeus Jones. We have a long story to tell you.”

Supplied with a pot of Sister Luke’s coffee, Sheriff Taylor was treated to the full Shaunnessy saga. In the midst of the explanation, the entire Billings clan descended, expressing anguish and fear at the condition of Abner Senior. After reuniting husband and wife, setting children to peeling potatoes, and rounding up extra chairs, Sister Joseph called everyone for dinner.

“I want to thank the Lord for the return of Abner’s senses.” She glanced over at the man reclining on the sofa. “The construction of the chapel, and the help of so many good friends. I know that God will continue to support us. Amen.” She smiled at the crowd of people around the table. “Now, I know there are enough potatoes for all, so pass the gravy.”

 

* * * * * *

Morning was nothing if not chaotic. With all six Billings children swarming around the main room, the usual Children of Jesus five, three nuns, Billings laid up next to the fireplace, and his wife hovering over him, Heyes was glad to escape to the yard. The weather was turning colder and at 7:30 in the morning, he could see his breath. He sipped coffee, walking slowly around the long side of the building to the back.

Kid was loading his pistol with the gun tucked between his splinted right arm and his body. He spun the chamber with his left hand and dropped the last bullet in. Grasping the butt, he flicked his wrist, giving the pistol a smooth road agent spin.

“Wondered where you were.” Heyes set his cup on the back steps, sitting down beside it.

“Didn’t want anybody to watch.”

“I can leave.”

“You don’t count.” Kid sighted down the barrel. The pain powder let him move more easily, but he felt off-center, not used to having to rely solely on his left hand. “Put some of those rotten apples up on the corral fence.”

“Oh, I’m just hired help, huh?” Heyes chuckled, collecting some windfall from under the apple tree and placing them where Curry directed. “Want my opinion?”

“Didn’t ask for it.”

“Nope.” He leaned against the fence, gloved fingers laced. “But I’ll tell you anyway.

You’re pushing yourself too hard.”

Kid raised the pistol, ignoring his cousin. He pulled the trigger, letting the first bullet fly. It smashed the apple only inches from Heyes’ elbow. The next four bullets performed similarly until the corral fence was littered with applesauce.

Heyes never flinched, and when the barrage of bullets had ended, he grinned beatifically. “I told you you could do it.”

“You did not,” Kid countered. The movements to raise his gun arm still pulled all the muscles across his chest enough to make him wince, but he’d shot well, and felt marginally satisfied.

“And you got an audience.” Heyes pointed back behind them.

Charles, Ruth Ann, Zeke and a handful of Billings were watching from the window, their faces awestruck.

“Thaddeus!” Ruth Ann was still pulling on her plaid coat as she vaulted from the kitchen door. “You are the fastest shot ever!”

“Joshua, he looked like he coulda shot you!” Zeke gasped. “That bullet went right by your arm.”

“He’s never shot me yet.” Heyes grinned at his cousin, “Welcome back, Kid.”

“Can you show me how you do that?” Charles asked reverently. “That’s amazing.”

“It’s harder that it looks,” Kid admitted, realizing he’d never before had to think much about the mechanics of shooting a gun, he’d just done it. He began explaining how to aim to Charles, encouraging the other children to put up more targets. He needed a lot of practice.

“How come you called him Kid?” Zeke hunkered down on the back steps next to Heyes, both of them watching the blond gunman put holes in tin cans and various pieces of fruit.

“Did I?” Heyes grimaced at his error.

“Yeah, you did.”

“Cause he’s younger'n’ me.”

“D’jou ever read them dime novels?”

“On occasion,” Heyes agreed, not quite catching the change in subject. “Why?”

Zeke pulled a battered book out of his jacket pocket. “When Steven left he gave me a buncha books. Said it’d help me reading.” He smoothed the wrinkled cover. “And it did. These are nothing like the McGuffey readers.”

“The Devil’s Hole Gang’s reign of Terror,” Heyes read the lurid title with a straight face. “Good story?”

“Swell. An’ there’s an’ outlaw in here named Kid Curry who’s a really good shot. Best in the West.” Zeke looked up thoughtfully at Heyes, his creamy brown face concerned.

“D’you think Thaddeus is Kid Curry under an assumed name?” He blinked as Curry let off another volley of shots.

Feeling like he couldn’t take a breath, Heyes debated what to say. Admit their real identities and risk accidental gossip getting back to Cottersville and the Shaunnessys? Or lie, when Sister Mary Joseph knew the truth anyway? “Well . . . if he was Kid Curry, wouldn’t that make me Hannibal Heyes?” he proposed. “They always travel together, don’t they?”

“Yeah, that’s true.” Zeke frowned. “And that Heyes is a really mean fella, nuthin’ like you.”

“Thanks.” Heyes grinned, glad the novelist had gotten his facts so wrong. “You can’t really believe everything you read.”

“What about the Bible?” Zeke waited expectantly.

“Oh, I wouldn’t touch that one.” Kid dropped the pistol into his holster, a grin on his face. “Sisters Joe and Moses are the experts there.”

“Doncha have to believe the Bible’s true?” Ruth Ann asked scandalized.

“I’ve always wanted to be an expert at something.” Moses leaned out the kitchen window. “Very nice aim, Thaddeus. All you children could be experts too, if you’d come in for lessons.”

“But we’re helping Thaddeus,” Ruth Ann protested.

“I’m done,” Kid said. “Go to school.”

The twins scurried up to the kitchen, several Billings behind them, but Ruth Ann lingered. “Thaddeus, I think you must be really brave to be able to shoot like that.”

“Ruth Ann, using a gun doesn’t take any bravery at all.” Kid ran a gentle hand down the length of her blond hair, “It’s just all I know how to do. If you do your lessons you can do something better.”

“I still think you’re brave,” Ruth Ann persisted.

“C’mon, Ruth Ann!” Charles called.

Heyes finished his now cold coffee, watching his cousin. “She’s in love,” he said when the children had disappeared.

“Heyes,” Kid said seriously. “We really need to go somewhere where we can both find women our own ages.”

“Hey, I’m leaving for Cottersville in awhile -- there’s a saloon.” Heyes grinned impishly. “Probably a couple of girls in satin dresses, pouring beers. . . ”

“I want to go with you.”

“No.”

“It’s dangerous. What if you run into one of the Shaunnessys?”

“You can barely sit a horse.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Play a little five card, Kid, you worry too much.” Heyes held open the kitchen door. “C’mon in, it’s cold. You can worry about the orphanage instead.”

* * * * * * *

With a large number of people staying at Children of Jesus, supplies were dwindling faster than planned. Heyes rode out past Abner Jr. and Charles working on the chapel, armed with a long grocery list from Sister Luke. Truth be told, he missed having Kid riding at his side. Now that Curry was healing, he almost wished they could just leave this whole mess behind them and head for San Francisco and some wild nights. Instead, he was planning to play careful poker to earn as much money as possible to help a pack of nuns, orphans, and poor people.

Here he was, the ex-leader of the most successful gang in Wyoming -- well known in newspapers and dime novels as a safecracker and generally mean fella, and he was going to give all the money he won to charity. Maybe living amongst religious people had done something to him.

The poker was successful, the beer plentiful, and Heyes went to sleep, by himself, in a hotel room. A tawdry looking blonde had pouted unhappily at his rejection, but Heyes couldn’t get Mary Joseph’s long thin face out of his head long enough to enjoy the temptation.

“Mr. Smith!” A hearty voice greeted him as he finished shopping in the mercantile.

Heyes pulled on his leather gloves, squinting into the sun. “Mr. Shaunnessy.”

“Haven’t seen you around, still staying up with the Sisters?”

“Helping out,” Heyes agreed.

“Nice of you, heard there was trouble up there. Abner Billings busted his leg?”

“Word travels fast.” He tightened the strap holding his saddlebags, stroking the skittish gelding.

Shaunnessy seemed to puff himself up even larger than he already was, like one of those fish Heyes had seen in a Denver Museum; all fat, prickly and deadly. “I’ve got a great deal of influence around here.” He patted the horse’s rump. “Buying supplies for those women?”

“Like I said, helping out.”

“Helping them could be dangerous.” Eddie Lee settled his derby on his smooth graying blond hair. “Floods, accidents. I’d move on, if I were you.”

“I like it here.” Heyes smiled with just his dimple. “Scenery’s pretty, nuns are nice.
Poker’s been good to me.” He shaded his eyes, “Why the concern?”

“Don’t think an outsider should get involved in local disputes.” Shaunnessy shrugged elaborately.

“Just exactly what is this whole dispute about?”

“Nothing you’d understand.” He beckoned to someone behind Heyes. “Brother, come over here.” He put a proud arm around a taller, younger man’s shoulders. “Smith, my brother Jimmy Joe.”

Having described Eddie Lee as not the skulking in the woods type, Heyes realized the same could not be said for Jimmy Joe. He looked like a hunter, long, lean and sharp-eyed.
“New around here?” The younger Shaunnessy asked blandly.

“He’s staying with the nuns.” Eddie Lee gestured expansively. “He’s a poker player, one of the best I’ve seen.”

“Staying around for the game?” Jimmy Joe grinned broadly at Heyes, but there was no pleasure in it, just hardness. He reminded Heyes of the only man Kid Curry had ever killed, Danny Bilson. All smiles to cover up blue eyes that were cold as ice.

“I’ll see you on Friday.”

“If you’re still around.” The older Shaunnessy said dryly. “It’s five hundred to sit in.”

“I’ll be there.” Heyes swung up onto his horse, finally taller than the Shaunnessys. “Don’t worry about the money, I’ve got it.” He kneed the gelding, leaving the brothers behind. What exactly could they be planning with their veiled threats? He didn’t really have five hundred dollars, but he’d made a good dent in it. A few more poker games like yesterday, and he’d be set.

As he was riding out of town, he overtook a buckboard heading up the mountain. “Doctor?”

“Smith!” Miller drew in the team. “Whoa. Tie your horse to the back, ride up here with me.”

After arranging the gelding, Heyes settled himself on the wagon seat, bracing his booted heels against the front edge. “Thanks.”

“I was headed up to the orphanage to get Abner, help Maria bring him back to their house.”

“That couch isn’t all that comfortable, believe me.” Heyes laughed.

“But I was able to find out what you wanted.” The doctor sucked on one end of his luxurious mustache. “You’re treading in dangerous waters.”

“The flood’s receded, doctor. Mud’s all dried up by now. My boots are all clean.” He waved a hand at them.

“Don’t butcher my analogy. You haven’t stepped in anything truly smelly yet,” Miller grumbled good naturally. “The Shaunnessys can be vicious.”

“Do you know that for a fact?”

The Doctor didn’t answer for a few minutes, contemplating the horses’ backs moving sedately between the traces. “Smith, I have to live with these people.” He sighed. “There were rumors that a rancher south of town didn’t just break his back ‘cause his horse threw him.”

Heyes sucked in his breath. “He had dealings with the Shaunnessys?”

“He owned a little parcel smack in the middle of some land they’d been buying up.” He jiggled the reins. “Couldn’t keep his stake with a broken back.”

“Do they own this whole area?” Heyes asked incredulously.

“Near abouts.” Miller Sebastian agreed. “Less up on the mountain than below Cottersville, but they’ve got their fingers everywhere.”

“I plan to cut off a few.” Heyes smiled tightly. “So, tell me about your visit to the land office, my friend.”

The long journey up the mountain was passed in companionable discussion. Heyes was no longer surprised to drive into the orphanage yard to find disorganized, frenetic activity. There seemed to be people everywhere.

Miller pulled the team of horses to a stop before the chapel, to avoid the crowd, as Heyes jumped down. Curry was seated on a boulder, obviously keeping out of an animated conversation between the nuns.

“Kid,” he greeted his cousin sotto voce. “What’s going on?”

“Joshua.” Ruth Ann caught sight of him, weaving her way through a group of Billings. Her blond braids flapping, she announced breathlessly, “Bossy is dead!”

“Yep,” Kid agreed. “Charles went out this morning to milk the cow and she was dead.”
“Damn.”

“Joshua,” Ruth Ann reprimanded primly. “We don’t even know what happened.”
“I do.”

“No proof.” Kid sighed, “And no milk. All these kids were not too happy.” He waved an arm at the children. “Luckily, Sister Luke did her usual magic in the kitchen, and we had oatmeal with molasses.”

“Sounds good, but how did she die?” Heyes stuck his head into the little barn. The Guernsey lay on her side, mouth covered in foam.

After having Dr. Sebastian examine the animal, the consensus was that the cow had been poisoned, but how was not entirely evident. Just to be on the safe side, the barn was scrupulously cleaned and new hay added to the horses’ feeding troughs.

At the same time, the Sisters helped the vastly improved Abner into the back of the buckboard, which had been padded with blankets and pillows. The two youngest Billings were tucked in next to their father, cuddling close. Maria Billings hovered around, making sure Abner’s broken leg was well protected.

There seemed a sudden silence when the buckboard full of Billings, with Dr. Sebastian at the reins once more, pulled out of the yard.

“We’ll need to report Bossy’s death to Sheriff Taylor,” Mary Moses mused, tucking her hands into her voluminous sleeves. She needed to go back inside to supervise Zeke and Ruth Ann’s reading lessons, but the recent emotional turmoil was wearing even her down.

“I can ride down tomorrow.” Heyes nodded.

“You just got back!” she protested.

“Sister, the more poker I play, the more money I earn.”

Her round face was speculative. “Now, Joshua, what do you need all that money for?”

“Oh, I like to buy presents for my best girls.” He leaned down, giving her a quick kiss on her plump cheek.

“And who would need that many presents?” Mary Joseph asked sternly, returning from the barn. She brushed hay off the front of her habit.

“Stocking up for the future.” Heyes smiled, leaning against the porch railings.

“Are you that good at poker?” Charles looked up from the mathematics he was struggling with. Any little distraction was more interesting than this. “Can you teach me?”

“Well. . . ” Heyes hesitated, looking for approval from Moses. “It’s a lot like math, Sister.”

“There’ll be no actual gambling.” Joseph warned. “But otherwise, it probably won’t do any harm.”

“Good, ‘cause I haven’t played a good hand of poker in years.” Moses laughed. “Come on, we’ll play until dinner.”

Other schoolwork abandoned, all five children gathered around the big plank table while Heyes explained the rules. With Kid and Mary Moses rounding out the game, it wasn’t long before all had an understanding of the basic elements of poker.

“Three of a kind, Jacks,” Mary Moses proclaimed proudly, laying out her cards.

“Sister, you interest me more and more,” Kid slapped his losing hand on the table. “You know more about shooting than you let on and now you’re a card shark.”

“Not me.” She blushed.

“She’s better’n’ me,” Charles agreed. “I just can’t remember what’s a good hand.”

“Took Thaddeus years to learn,” Heyes assured, “You’re much quicker than he was.”

“Oh, thanks a lot,” Kid groaned. “Just remember I won over 50 thousand dollars at Montana Red Dog.”

“What’s that?” Zeke asked eagerly.

“A game for suckers.” Moses shook her head. “Stick to five card.”

“I used to have a red dog,” Sofia put in, using her cards to make a little house.

“But his name wasn’t Montana,” Samuel included, sticking his cards in a triangle roof on top of the house.

“Listen, y’know, I think I win.” Ruth Ann continued to study her cards with a frown. “I got four of these ones.” She held out all the aces.

“Oh, boy, look, Joshua.” Kid chuckled. “She does win all the matches.”

“Aww, can’t I keep a few?” Zeke groaned, pushing the pile of matchsticks towards her.

“Next, we can play pick up sticks,” Ruth Ann crowed, scooping them up.

“She has a natural ability.” Heyes shuffled the cards with a professional flip of his wrist. “Like me.”

“Children!” Joseph called. “Get the plates out, dinner is nearly ready.”

“Just don’t teach her any of your other talents,” Kid said into Heyes’ ear as he helped set out plates.

 

* * * * * *

 

Loud hammering shattered the early morning silence, waking the inhabitants of the orphanage, although the sisters had finished matins and were just about ready to cook breakfast when it started.

“What the hell is that?” Heyes rubbed his eyes, stumbling out of the bedroom. “Sorry, Sister Joe.”

“It’s an apt statement.” She led the way to the front door, swinging it open. The chapel was covered with people, already nailing walls and roof boards into place.

“It’s the whole town!” Ruth Ann jumped up and down in her excitement.

“Very nearly.” Moses agreed. “At least those who live up the mountain. There’s Seth Green and Francis Doyle. . . ”

“And Marcus Polansky,” Mary Joseph continued. She walked out to the chapel, greeting townspeople with her usual calm demeanor. However, she was still amazed at the generosity of the people. When she’d first arrived in Cottersville, Robert Conner had made unfriendly comments about papist Catholics. Now, there he was, fitting the window frame in place.

“Sisters.” Angela Doyle held up a large basket of food. “We’d heard you were havin’ a bit of trouble, but no one knew how much until Maria spread the word of how kind you were to her Abner. We’ve brought sweet cream and milk for your children, and a few eggs.”

“You’re so kind.” Joseph pressed her hands against her chest in reverent thanks, “We are truly blessed to have friends like you.”

Even shy Sister Luke was coaxed outside to accept the food. Other women brought forth canned pickles, jelly, pork sausages, and a wide assortment of other homemade goodies.

“And my Guernsey Millie is just weaning her calf.” The portly Polansky spoke in his usual jovial manner. “We’d be honored to give her to the church.”

Heyes grinned contentedly, standing at the back of the group with his cousin. “Looks like their luck may be turning around.”

“Couldn’t come at a better time.” Kid nodded. “And I’m just waiting for one of those sausages.”

The women organized a banquet-sized breakfast, laying food out on planks set across sawhorses. Ham, bean soup, apple butter, fresh bread and fried donuts delighted the eye. Like the stone soup of story fame, there seemed to be more food than any one family would have admitted to. The children began to reach eagerly for treats, excited to have such a party.

“May I start this meal with a small prayer of thanks?” Sister Mary Joseph had brought the gold cross out and set it in the middle of the food. She held up her hands to get the crowd’s attention. Hammering stopped, the sound of a bird suddenly trilling from a tree loud in the silence. “I know some of you are not of the same faith, but we all give thanks for the end of the flooding, and the help of friends and family to get us through the harder times. God bless this food.”

Scattered Amens were heard as people began to fill their plates. Many of the mountain neighbors had not socialized much with the nuns, fearing repercussions from antagonistic townspeople, and most of the people in the orphanage yard found themselves glad they’d ventured up to help with the chapel.

There was a renewed sense of community as the walls, floor and roof were constructed with amazing speed. By late afternoon, the chapel was a recognizable building on its own, no longer attached to the main house, and although lacking windows and doors, it was fully functional.

“I can’t believe how fast you all have worked,” Mary Moses commented happily. “We’re like to start having services in a week, and I hope most of you might attend.”

“Sister, we’ll be back in a few days to help with the finishing touches.” Francis Doyle patted her hand.

“Can’t have a church without pews!” Another man piped up, as people began to leave in family groups.

“Will they all really come back again?” Ruth Ann danced excitedly over the new pine floor, her blue gingham skirts flipping. The twins ran circles around her, while Zeke attempted handstands.

“Is that really the first time most of them have been up here?” Kid leaned against the chapel wall, his arm feeling the ache of the colder evening air. He’d done what he could to help, carrying nails and such, but the unaccustomed activity was catching up to him.

“We know the Doyles and Billings.” Moses ran her hands over the planks set up for a makeshift altar.

“But many people are not tolerant of Catholics.” Joseph looked around contentedly, “And I am aware there has been talk against us in Cottersville.”

“Like the Shaunnessys.” Heyes entered the chapel, nursing a bruised thumb. Just as he’d feared, flying hammers always found his hands.

“Yes,” Sister Joe admitted reluctantly, “But they’ve . . . done business with us. I still don’t believe they would be capable of murder, although I realize their practices may be less than honest.”

“Well, glad to hear you’re not as naive as I thought,” Heyes said dryly.

“I’ve got ‘guts’, remember?” she quipped with a straight face.

“”I don’t trust either brother.” Heyes raked his fingers through his shaggy black hair. “Thaddeus actually was right. Jimmy Joe looked exactly like somebody who’d start fires and kill cows.”

“Glad you can admit when you’re wrong,” Kid said snidely.

“What do you propose to do?” Mary Joseph slid her chilly hands underneath her surplice, thin face expectant.

“Actually, it’s better if I’m the only one who knows the details for now.” Heyes glanced over at his cousin. “Things may start getting dangerous. I talked to both brothers yesterday, and I think they’re suspicious.”

“Moses,” Sister Joe raised her voice above the children’s raucous games. “Why don’t you help the children get cleaned up for dinner?”

“Certainly. Girls? Samuel, Zeke, come along.” She made sweeping motions with her hands, ushering them out despite Zeke’s complaints that he had splinters in his hands.
“Hannibal. Jedediah,” Joseph said formally. “How dangerous could this get? Should I worry about the children?”

“Sister, Kid’ll be here all the time,” Heyes assured her. “Plus, after today, I think you got some back up.”

“You are not planning anything illegal, are you?” she pressed. “I can’t condone that.”

“Neither would we.” Kid shook his head. “It wouldn’t set well with the Governor. Heyes has it under control.”

“I’m starved. Sister Luke must have something cooked up by now.” Heyes changed the subject. “Ready for dinner?”

“I’ll see you inside.” The nun looked at them astutely. “I trust you two completely, and know that good has and will come out of this turbulent time. Good luck, Hannibal.”

“She’s beginning to scare me,” Kid grumbled after she’d left. “You do have a plan that’ll get rid of those bastards.”

“I don’t know if it’ll get rid of ‘em.” Heyes dimpled. “But it’ll sure cut ‘em off at the knees.”

“Heyes, I can shoot ol’Eddieboy in the foot, if you want me to.”

“Eddie Lee,” Heyes corrected. “And I don’t want to show our hand before we need to.” He waved his arm at the new pine walls. “Everyone just keeps doing what they’ve been doing, and I’ll go down to Cottersville one more time to play some poker. Keep up the routine.”

“You haven’t really told me your plan.”

“If I keep it close to the vest, you’ll be all the more impressed by the results.” Heyes tucked his hands under his belt, trying to look pompous.

“You’re making this up as you go!” Kid groaned.

“Just don’t tell Sister Joe.”

“A real Hannibal Heyes plan. Huh,” Kid snorted.

“Don’t start, Kid.” Heyes swatted at his good arm.

 

* * * * * *

Clouds were gathering along the tops of the trees in the morning, wind scuttling leaves along the ground and rattling windows in the orphanage. Heyes shivered despite his corderoy jacket. He jerked on the strap securing the saddle on the gelding, planning to get to Cottersville before the coming rain. He walked the horse out of the barn, leading his horse past the new chapel. Stopping, he realized there was someone inside.

“Charles?” Heyes leaned in through the still unglassed window. “Aren’t you supposed to be in class?”

“Sister’s doing spelling with the twins.” Charles skillfully whittled the side of a long piece of wood. “I know C-A-T.”

“Watcha making?” Heyes dropped the horse’s reins, looping them over the unfinished windowsill.

“A cross.” He held up the wood, revealing an intricate carving of Jesus.

“A crucifix.” Heyes knelt down to examine it more closely. “It’s beautiful. You’ve got talent.”

“The Sisters have lost so much--between the fire and the building collapsing.” He shook his head, knife carefully molding a portion of the feet. “People need the . . . stuff of a church, y’know? Some people like nuns can just pray without having crosses and stained glass, but if we could really get some of the mountain folk to come here, they need more than walls and a roof.”

“Very astute, Charles.” Heyes was impressed. “You’re going to be a lot of help to the sisters.”

“Yeah?” He grinned shyly, blue eyes shining. “My folks din’t hold much with church goin’, but I really like it here.”

“How did your parents die?”

“Fever.” Charles looked off towards the trees. “When we first arrived here there was an epi. . . dem . . ?”

“Epidemic.” Heyes nodded. “And you kids were left alone.”

“My father taught me to whittle.” Charles ran a gentle hand over his crucifix. “But I haven’t done it in a long time. Matthew thought it was a waste of time.”

“Doesn’t look like a waste of time, to me.” Heyes squeezed the boy’s shoulder. “Cause Sister Joe is gonna love it.”

“You and Thaddeus, you can shoot and hunt an’ . . . play poker.” Heyes chuckled as Charles cut a small sliver of wood off the cross. “I never felt like I was as good as Matthew an’ Steven.”

“You an’ Thaddeus should talk.” The ex-outlaw slid on his gloves against the chill. “Discovering what you’re good as isn’t all that difficult. It’s figgerin’ out what use it is.” Heyes shrugged. “I once thought I had an answer -- now I’m just wandering around like everybody else.” He paused at the door, reaching out to take the horse’s reins.

“Like Moses in the desert.” Charles smiled.

“We’re in the Rockies. God, it better not last for forty years.”

“He’s the one who’d know.” Charles whittled delicately on his creation.

“Don’t stay out in the cold too long.” Heyes swung up onto the gelding. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”

 

* * * * *

The rain started mid-afternoon. Nothing like the last storms, it was a steady downpour, unpleasant to be out in, but the perfect weather for games by the fire. Zeke and Ruth Ann were engaged in a serious round of checkers, and the twins had appropriated Heyes’ deck for little card houses.

Dr. Sebastian arrived, soaking wet, after a visit to the Billings. Sister Moses loaned him Zebulan’s clothes while he examined the Kid.

“Your arm is healing really well.” Miller resplinted Curry’s arm with less bulky bandages.

“How long do I have to wear this?” Kid complained, clenching his hand experimentally. The new splint left his hand free and he was now able to bend his elbow, but the broken bone was still painful and restricted easy movement.

“Until the bones knit.” Miller began winding bandage back into a ball. “You use that arm too soon and it won’t set straight.”

“Thaddeus wants to shoot his gun,” Ruth Ann proclaimed, leaning her head on her hands, watching the Doctor work. “He’s the fastest gun around.”

“Really?” Miller glanced over at his patient. “You a gunslinger?”

“Not hardly,” Kid said off-handedly.

“He’s really fast,” Zeke agreed. “Ruth Ann, it’s your move.”

The girl reached over and without looking, jumped two of Zeke’s black checkers, landing on his side of the board. “King me.”

“How do you do that?” He groaned, complying with her command. The next set of moves was fast and furious, taking both their concentrations.

“Nice move,” Dr. Sebastion congratulated.

“She’s good at poker, too,” Kid remarked, carefully moving his right shoulder around. He was stiff from the heavy splint Joseph had used. His back and neck had begun to ache from the strain.

“Use a sling,“ Miller directed. He closed the medical bag with a snap, keeping an eye on the two children’s second game of checkers. “Are you really as good with a gun as she says?”

“Left handed I’m passable,” Kid answered warily. “Why?”

“Word is the Shaunnessys aren’t exactly too happy with Smith stirring things up.”

“Was afraid of that.” Kid automatically pulled out his Colt, unloaded the bullets and got up to get his cleaning supplies from the bedroom. “Doc, what exactly did Joshua want you to do in Cottersville?”

“Went to the land office. He wanted to know how much Shaunnessy paid for that plot on th’other side of Cotter’s River.” Miller smoothed his mustache. “Is he planning to buy it? Cause they’re not going to sell it to him.”

“No.” Kid grinned, his bright blue eyes sparkling, suddenly understanding his cousin’s strategies. “He’s planning to WIN it.”

“I win again!” Ruth Ann crowed. “Queen of all checkers!”

“I’m not playing you anymore!” Zeke upended the board, causing both children to laugh as red and black checkers rolled eraticly around the floor, knocking over the twin’s card houses. The resulting cacophany brought nuns from all over the house to investigate.

“Is there a problem?” Mary Joseph asked sternly to the four children.

“They started it!” Sofia groused.

“Knocked over our houses,” Samuel agreed.

“I think we could use more firewood, Zeke,” Sister Mary Joseph proposed. “And, Ruth Ann, I’m sure Sister Luke could use your help in the kitchen.” Both did as they were told, grumbling.

Mary Moses cuddled the twins up for a story on the sofa. “Doctor, how’s our favorite patient?” she asked.

“Recovering nicely.” He felt his wool shirt, which had been drying by the fire. “By the way, I told the Sheriff about your cow. He was mighty interested, since ol” Man Fisher’s cow died in a similar manner.”

“Were you able to examine that one, too?” Joseph asked.

“No, it was too long ago. But Bossy probably died of arsenic, rat poison.” He put on the only slightly damp plaid shirt. “They sell it at the store. And Mr. King says he’s sold enough of it to Jimmy Joe to kill every rat from here to Denver.”

“Disturbing.” Sister Joe frowned.

“Scary.” Moses motioned to the twins who were listening avidly. She flipped open the Bible and began reading about the prodigal son in a loud voice.

“Rain’s let up.” Miller pulled on his jacket. “I’ll be heading back down.”

“You see Joshua, you tell him not to draw to an inside straight.” Kid returned from the bedroom, spreading his gun cleaning supplies out on the table. He rammed the rod into the gun barrel viciously, feeling impotent with his disabilities. “He gets in more trouble.”

“You’ve got more friends ‘down there’ than you think,” the doctor said.

“And up there.” Mary Moses pointed up. “Like the Christian soldiers, we’ve got God on our side.”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way.” Miller jammed his bedraggled hat down low and headed out into the drizzle, the sound of the twins off key rendition of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ wafting after him.

 

* * * * * *

Poker, of late, had been successful, and Heyes folded his winnings to put them into his jeans pocket. It was late enough on a mid-week night that the saloon was clearing out. Any married man had long since gone home, and now even men with little responsibilities were heading out.

“See you next week, Smith?” A grizzled older man drained the last of his beer. “I don’t even mind losin’ just to have the pleasure of watchin’ you finesse those pasteboards.”

“Nothing to it.” Heyes shrugged on his jacket. “Makes the evening go fast.”

“I’ll say, an’ I’m fifty dollars poorer to show for it.”

Grinning, Heyes shook the man’s hand, “See you next time.”

“Counting on it.” The old man turned to go then looked back at him, scratching his gray whiskers. “I heard what you’re doing for Zebulan’s girl. He was a friend of mine. An’ I know he’d thank you for it.”

“Hasn’t been hard at all.” Heyes smiled at the words Zebulan’s girl applied to Sister Luke. “I wish I could have met him.”

“Let me tell you a couple of tales over some beer.” The man beckoned. “Simon Decker, but most people call me Deck.”

“Thanks, Deck.” Heyes accepted the beer, listening avidly to the stories the old man wove.

 

* * * * * *

It was way past midnight when Heyes finally left the bar, feeling mildly drunk. His thoughts on a bed in the hotel, he took a deep breath of the cold night air.

A hand snaked out of the darkness, connecting solidly with Heyes’ jaw. He went down hard, but the blows continued, giving him little chance to defend himself. He was finally able to grab a booted ankle, cutting his hand on the man’s sharpened spurs before jerking his assailant off his feet. Scrambling up, Heyes pulled his colt, pointing it into Jimmy Joe Shaunnessy’s face.

“What is it all for?” Heyes shouted. “I know you’re behind what’s happened at the orphanage. How the hell can you do this to nuns? Children?”

“This isn’t over.” Shaunnessy got to his feet, fists clenched.

“It is now,” Sheriff Taylor’s voice boomed. “Put your gun down, Smith.”

Heyes complied warily, watching Jimmy Joe for any sudden moves towards his still holstered gun.

“This is a private conversation, sheriff!” Shaunnessy growled.

“Didn’t look like a conversation t’me.” Deck scowled at Shaunnessy, having been the one who called the sheriff.

“Looks like it’s over to me,” Andy Taylor spoke sharply. “Shaunnessy, get on home before I throw you in the jail.”

“Throw me?” Jimmy Joe stared menacingly at Heyes, his face full of hate then turned to Taylor. “Sheriff, my brother got you that job, he can take it away.”

“Smith, do you want to lodge a complaint?”

“Get out of here,” Heyes directed at Shaunnessy so softly that the others didn’t hear him.

“No,” he answered loudly, knowing he may have already lost himself a chance to play at the Shaunnessy’s poker table.

Jimmy Joe strode away as if he hadn’t been ordered to leave, his posture rigid.

“You want me to get Sebastian?” Deck squinted at Heyes’ face. “Gonna have a shiner there.”

“I’ll be fine.” The ex-outlaw had survived far worse beatings. He wound a bandana around his bleeding hand, cursing his stupidity for not having anticipated the sneak attack. “Thanks, Sheriff, for backing me up.”

“I’ve been closing my eyes for too long.” Andy frowned. “Maybe you helped me open ‘em.”

“You could loose your job,” Heyes said sympathetically. “I don’t think he was joshin’ you.”

“Election’s a long way off.” Andy holstered his weapon, “The wind’s turning around here, could be I won’t need his support to get reelected. Where are you gonna sleep?”

“I’ll just ride back to the orphanage.” Heyes pressed against his palm to stop the bleeding. “Safer that way.”

“Jimmy Joe could be waiting for you,” Deck objected.

“Probably not,” Heyes negated, privately giving a little prayer to back up his words. ”No more element of surprise.”

“Take care of yourself, Smith.” Taylor nodded curtly.

“I intend to, Sheriff.” He grinned tiredly. “Just can’t wait for the big game at Eddie Lee’s on Friday.”

The ride back up the mountain was dark and cold, but it gave Heyes time to think. Despite his knowledge of what the Shaunnessy’s had done in the past, he hadn’t really expected them to accelerate their violence, especially not to focus it towards him. His worry for the nuns, children, and the Kid simmered, bubbling just below the surface until he crossed the river. Luckily, there didn’t seem to be anything out of order in the yard as he dismounted. Letting himself breathe at a slower rate, he stabled the gelding next to the old pie in the barn, and approached the house.

“You’re back sooner than expected.” Sister Mary Joseph’s calm voice floated out of the darkness.

“Sister!” Heyes gulped, letting his heart settle back into its normal place in his chest. “Don’t you ever sleep?”

“Oh, you’d be surprised.” She chuckled. “When Father Lawrence starts a sermon, I’m in dreamland before he condemns his first sinner.”

“But that’s only every other month,” he pointed out dryly.

“Jedediah and I felt there was a need for guard duty, since most of the vandalism occurs at night.” She sat, wrapped in a blanket, on the front porch, back against the house.

In the dim light, Heyes didn’t see the nun, just the sensible, strong woman in her face. He liked her, a lot.

“He took the first watch, and I took the second, since I had to get up early for Matins anyway. Charles will help tomorrow.”

“I’m here.” Heyes sat down next to her, “Why don’t you go inside, get some rest before you have to pray.”

“You’re hurt!” she exclaimed, taking a closer look at him.

“Just met up with a Shaunnessy in a dark alley.” He made light of it.

“Then, you’re in no shape to sit out here in the cold.” Mary Joseph pursed her lips, angry at what had been done to him. “Anymore than you were to ride up here in the dark. You should have gone to see Dr. Sebastian.”

“Sister, all I need is a good cup of Sister Luke’s coffee and maybe some food.”

“You’re just like my younger brother Mick was.” She stood, dusting off her habit. “Sweet talking, but always has to be strong and in charge.”

“Oh, sister, I don’t believe you ever let anyone be in charge of you.” Heyes fingered the bruise on his cheekbone. “You’re tougher’n anybody I ever met.”

“I’ll say it again: Sweet talker.” She shook her head, “I’ll get you some food and a cleaner bandage for you hand.”

 

* * * * * *

Heyes opened his eyes to a pistol barrel practically up his nose. The sun was up and so bright he had to squint to see. “Kid,” he said wearily. “Get that out of my face.” He batted the gun away.

“Well, you’re a really fine guard.” Kid straightened, holstering his gun. “Asleep on the job.”

“I stayed awake until after Matins.” Heyes pulled his legs up, resting his arms on his knees. “Charles came out to feed the horses at dawn.”

“Way you look, you’d have scared any prowler away.” Kid cocked his head, examining Heyes’ face.

“That good, huh?” He dimpled, wincing from the bruise on his face.

“Colorful,” Kid deadpanned. “What’d you do to your hand?”

“Jimmy Joe’s got some nasty spurs,” Heyes answered. “Dumped him on his head.”
“Can you hold a deck of cards?”

“Left handed.” Heyes grinned again. “We’re two of a kind, huh?”

“Speaking of that.” Kid held out a hand to help his cousin up. “Ruth Ann and I played poker all afternoon when it rained. Y’remember how you said she had your talent?”

“Joking.”

“You weren’t half wrong.” Kid laughed. “Eventually nobody else in the place would play with her, including Moses. She can count cards, like you.”

“Really?” Heyes looked at him in amazement.

“She couldn’t lose.”

“I’ve got to see this.”

 

* * * * * *

 

Residents from the homesteads on the mountain arrived to put finishing touches to the chapel. Rough backless pews were hammered together, hinges hung for the door and donated glass inserted into the windows. Sister Luke had spent the last few days stitching an altar cloth with a beautiful cross embroidered in white silk thread. She sat on the porch watching the construction, finishing her embroidery.

“Sister.” Heyes leaned against the porch railing. “I met a man named Deck, in town.”

She looked up at him, giving a brief shy smile.

“He told me some stories about Zebulan.” Heyes grinned back, impressed by her embroidery. There was no end of talented people around here. “He was a trapper? Some of that stuff sounded like legends.”

Luke bent over her stitchery, her sweet face brightly pink, embarrassed by Heyes’ attention.

“Buffalo hunting, fighting Indians, and then he served in the war under General Lee . . .not many people can say that,” Heyes continued, toying with a loose thread on the bandage around his injured hand. “Settling down here must have been real quiet after everything he’d done.”

She nodded, pushing the needle through the linen self consciously, despite her enjoyment at hearing someone else praise her beloved father.

“But originally, he owned everything around here? All the way down past where Cottersville is now.” Heyes watched her sewing, knowing she was uncomfortable and probably wouldn’t answer him. “He should have been the richest man around here instead of ending up stuck half way up a mountain on the smallest plot of land around.”

“You said it yourself.” Mary Joseph stood behind them, as usual, having approached so quietly no one had heard her. Heyes was beginning to find it a most unnerving ability. She could have excelled as an eavesdropper. “The man was an adventurer. He didn’t have much of a head for business -- or land owning.”

Conscientiously burying her thread under a previously stitched area, Sister Luke smiled gratefully at the older nun.

“By the time we arrived three years ago, he’d already lost all of it. I’m not sure if he sold it all or . . . just wasn’t very good at staking his claim.” Joseph shaded her eyes, watching Doyle and Polansky hanging the chapel door. “It was an enormous property for a man with a wife and two small girls . . .”

“When did he first settle here?” Heyes asked, swiveling his head between each nun, waiting for an answer.

Dropping her altar cloth into her lap, Luke held up all ten fingers, then flashed her right five fingers a second time.

“Fifteen years . . .” Heyes interpreted. “A long time. And then the Shaunnessys moved in an’ started taking over.”

“That’s about the extent of it.” The taller nun raised her eyebrows. “I think he began to feel worthless, until he was a tired, sad, old man.”

Sister Luke made a strangled sound, grabbed up her stitchery and scurried into the house, her black wool skirt almost catching in the door as it shut.

“Oh, dear . . .” Mary Joseph sighed. “She was very close to her father. Her mother and sister died when she was younger. I’ll go talk to her.”

“Sister, I think I’d like to have a . . .” Heyes stopped, uncertain what to call it, “Orphanage meeting. We all need to talk.”

“Even the children?”

“I think you all have a stake in this.” He nodded. “After dinner?”

She nodded in return, following the other nun inside.

“Give me that!” Ruth Ann’s voice rose angrily, seconds before she came barreling around the building, chasing Zeke. “I had it first!”

Zeke zigged through the still open door of the chapel, seeking sanctuary behind the unfinished altar. The volunteer builders laughed heartily, peering after the boy before going back to their construction.

“What are you two doing?” Heyes asked irritably. He still hadn’t gotten enough sleep.

“He had my . . . the chapel looks really good with the windows in.” She swung her head around, blond braids flapping over her shoulder to inspect the newest improvements. “D’jou think we could have colored glass? Like a real church.”

Zeke skulked out the back of the chapel, hiding something Heyes couldn’t quite identify in his hands.

“Not that this doesn’t look like a real church, cause it does . . .” Ruth Ann continued, “But I saw a picture of one in England, and it had the most bee-u-tiful windows I ever did see, all about Jesus and angels with big wings and cherubim and the like . . .” She waved her arms to illustrate the feathery wings, pirouetting like a drunken ballerina. Forgetting why she’d been chasing Zeke, Ruth Ann pranced back around the main house in search of Sofia and Samuel.

Heyes laughed, bracing his bruised ribs with his elbow. He liked being around children. They kept life lively and completely unpredictable. In fact, he hadn’t lied to Eddie Lee when he’d said he liked living at the orphanage. The nuns, the kids, hell, even the ragtag population of upper Cottersville had begun to feel like . . . the word popped unbidden into his head; like a family. Like people he wanted to keep on knowing for a long time. A soft wind ruffled needles on the trees over his head, the heady scent of pine and earth rich and redolent, cementing the memory of the place in his senses.

It wasn’t a perfect place by a long shot. Pretty women who were of a courtable age would be good, for a start. At least two of them. One for himself and one for Kid. And then there were the Shaunnessys. Two brothers Heyes would like run out of town on a rail. He indulged his imagination by picturing Eddie Lee and Jimmy Joe covered with tar, feathers sticking out of their blond heads, straddling a rail. He rubbed his unshaven chin with a frown – how exactly was that done, anyway?

“What’re you smiling about?” Kid asked, sliding gingerly down from the old pie’s saddle. His healing ribs and arm, coupled with the loosening effects of the pain powder had allowed him much greater freedom. He’d begun by taking a short ride around the acreage, familiarizing himself with the closer trails. He barely remembered being clobbered by the tree, much less arriving at the orphanage. It was totally alien to his nature to have lived in a place for nearly three weeks without having learned the lay of the land. The mild ache in his bones wasn’t bad enough to diminish his joy at being out on a horse again.

“Nothing.” Heyes stroked the horse’s gray muzzle, “Kid, this horse is as old as you are. Can’t be an easy ride.”

“He’s bumpy,” Kid conceded, rubbing his backside, “But I don’t have much of a choice, do I?”

“Sorry about your horse.” Heyes shrugged hands outspread. “It was you or that nag -- an’ I couldn’t get him out of the mud.”

Curry regarded his cousin, blue eyes steady on the brown ones. “Thanks.”

“For what?”

“Pulling me out of the mud,” he said simply, leading the horse over to the barn.

“The least I could do.” Heyes said sotto voce, watching his best friend remove the animal’s bridle. There had never been any question. He loped over before Kid tried to take the saddle off one handed, to take over the more strenuous work.

Kid produced a currycomb, playfully brushing his cousin’s black hair.

 

* * * * * *

Dinner finished, Ruth Ann and Charles cleared away the remains of the rabbit and potato pie, bringing out apples and goat cheese made by Maria Billings. The twins commandeered a single piece of fruit, splitting it between the two of them.

“What a satisfying meal, Sister.” Mary Moses pared one of the apples with her knife. “It is amazing what the townspeople have provided for us.”

“Amen.” Joe didn’t like to admit to Earthly vices, but she couldn’t resist a nice piece of cheese. She bit into a creamy piece with gusto.

Luke bobbed her head shyly at the compliments, clasping her apple in her hands without eating it.

“According to sources . . .” Heyes eyed Ruth Ann with a smirk. “Rumors are rampant around here about what I’ve been doing in Cottersville.”

“Well, Joshua, what have you been doing in Cottersville?” Moses popped a slice of apple into her mouth, unable to resist a straight line.

“Yeah, Joshua . . .” Kid teased, placing his fingers over a squirming Sofia’ ears. “Maybe the kids shouldn’t . . . ”

“I wanna know!” Zeke proclaimed.

“Seriously.” Heyes waved them all to quiet down. “I need your agreement on this.” He looked around the table, each person returning his gaze with a mixture of expressions. “I need the deed to this land as . . . collateral, I guess you could call it.”

“To get into the poker game?” Mary Moses asked, her round face sober.

“No, I’ve got the five hundred.”

“You need five hundred dollars to play poker with Mr. Shaunnessy?” Ruth Ann exclaimed indignantly. Having only ever played for matchsticks, she hadn’t realized the money that could be made at cards.

“To tempt Mr. Shaunnessy to put up a deed of his own,” Mary Joseph guessed, setting down the last slice of cheese. “You plan to win the game? How can you be certain you can do that?”

Ever impressed by the oldest nun’s deductive reasoning, Heyes nodded. “I need to win that game. If I do, I think I can get the lower half of the river back for you. Shaunnessy owns that land all the way down to Billings’ place.”

“I know.” Joseph watched him, trusting the ex-outlaw implicitly. “But what happens if you don’t win?”

There was a profound silence around the table, even the children realizing the seriousness of the situation.

Kid finally spoke. “He rarely loses.”

Heyes shot him a grateful smile.

“Can’t you cheat?” Zeke asked curiously, snagging a quarter of Ruth Ann’s apple.

“No!” Two nuns chorused, Sister Luke giving an emphatic shake of her head.

Charles whacked him on the arm disdainfully.

“It’s a sin, huh?” Zeke sighed. Nobody ever liked his ideas.

“You’re so dumb,” Ruth Ann shot at him, taking back her apple.

“It’s certainly not right.” Mary Moses admonished, “I’m not sure any of this is, really. . .”

“We don’t have a lot of choice anymore.” Sister Mary Joseph cut through the chatter. “The accidents have escalated, it’s become dangerous to live here. If we want to stay. . .” She waited until there were nods and muttered agreement from everyone. “Then we need to fight back. I don’t normally approve of gambling, but God sent Thaddeus and Joshua when we needed them -- with specific abilities that we lack, and I for one am not about to let an opportunity like this pass us by.”

“But what if he does lose?” Charles objected, not enjoying the role of Devil’s advocate, but wanting an answer to the original question. This was his home, after all.

“Then we move.” Joseph’s practical side shone forth. “It’s as simple as that.”

“I thought that’s what you’d say.” He sat back warily, listening to the adults elaborate on the plan. All sides argued vehemently the various angles to the problem but no one consensus was made.

“I say get back my Daddy’s land.” Sister Luke’s voice was as sweet as her face, slightly rusty from disuse, but firm in her conviction. She blushed crimson as everyone at the table turned to stare at her.

“The voice of reason.” Joseph inclined her head at the younger nun. “As Zebulan’s daughter, Sister Luke has the most to lose here, and the swaying vote. Joshua, you win back that land.”

“Can you get rid of Mr. Shaunnessy, too?” Sofia screwed up her face in a scowl. “He’s a mean man.”

“I know how to play poker, sweetie.” Heyes cupped his hand under her chin, giving her a gentle kiss on the forehead. “Leave the rest to Sheriff Taylor.”

“Do you need to practice?” Ruth Ann asked interestedly. “I mean, if you want to play poker, Thaddeus taught me three kinds and . . .”

“Now, she must be cheating,” Zeke interrupted. “Ain’t no girl can really play poker like her.”

“There isn’t . . . no girl could . . . ” Moses tried to untie his grammatical knot, finally throwing up her hands. “Zeke, don’t talk about her like that.”

“She is good.” Charles pointed at his younger sister. “Steven could play cards like that, too.”

“You’re on.” Heyes dimpled, always ready for a game. “Just never draw to an inside straight and bluff when you’ve got low cards.”

“Thaddeus said that – ‘bout the inside straight.” Ruth Ann produced a deck of cards, recalling the conversation between Jones and Dr. Sebastian. “But I don’t know what it is.”

“Does everyone eavesdrop around here?” Kid asked no one in particular as the nuns left for their evening prayers and the smaller children trailed after Sister Moses.

“Time for a lesson, then.” Heyes winked at the blond girl, “K-Thaddeus tells me you’re good.”

Glowing with this praise, Ruth Ann pulled up a chair next to her brother as the cards were dealt. Zeke and Kid joined the game, arguing amiably over the values of the matchsticks.

Heyes actually had to concentrate on his game to win against Ruth Ann. He found himself surprisingly challenged. While Kid was technically a better player, from years of experience playing against his cousin, Ruth Ann was reckless, impulsive and unpredictable. Heyes could interpret nearly all of Curry’s nuances, despite the fact that Kid had an impassive ‘poker face’ and was a decent bluffer to make up for his less that impressive card skill.

Charles and Zeke sat together, conferring on each other’s hands, telegraphing every good or bad card without saying a word. But Ruth Ann sat hunched over her hand, tongue caught between her teeth, humming when she was ready to bet, frowning intently when she was concentrating. As Kid had discovered, she had the uncanny knack, like Hannibal Heyes, to count cards. Instinctively knowing after one round of poker how many more deuces, aces and other high cards were left in the dealer’s pack after seeing what the other players had folded with.

“Charles?” Heyes raised an eyebrow, tapping his straight flush together into a compact pile. “Bet or fold.”

“Fold.” Charles dropped his two threes, jack, seven of hearts and eight of diamonds onto the table.

“You coulda bluffed with that, huh, Joshua?” Ruth Ann asked, storing away every trivial bit of knowledge for the game.

“Two threes could win with the right bluff,” Heyes admitted. “But it takes panache.”

 

“Ain’t got it.” Charles laughed. “Whatever it is.”

“Sounds like the measles.” Zeke made a face, chewing on his lip. His mixed hand of high and low cards was essentially worthless. “I bet two matches.”

“I’ll match the pot.” Kid dropped in six, more than satisfied with his two tens and three fives.

“Me, too.” The little girl flicked in half a dozen matchsticks, holding her jack high straight below the edge of the table.

“All right, Ruth Ann, I’ll raise you,” Heyes challenged, suspecting she was holding a good hand.

“Not me.” Zeke dropped out.

“I’m still in.” Kid eyed his cousin, straight faced. “I’m planning a big bonfire with all those matches.”

“Hey, yeah, we never had that bonfire you promised!” Zeke interjected, pointing a finger at the dark haired man. Heyes nodded absently, his eyes on the little girl.

“No, no, no.” Ruth Ann poked her tongue out again, the pink tip resting on her bottom lip. “Uh -- I’ll meet you an’ raise one match.”

“You have enough to win?” Heyes wished he had a nice cheroot about now. Bluffing always went even better when he could puff on a big cigar.

After counting her remaining stakes, she squinted up at him, “Enough for one more bet, right?”

“I’ll match the pot,” Heyes teased, pushing in the correct number of matches.

“Then I don’t . . . ” Ruth Ann stared at him hard, “You want me to bluff again?”

“Well, don’t tell him!” Charles laughed, “Just do it.”

“I’ll . . . .” The girl checked the cards she held in her gingham clad lap. “I want an IOU from Charles for six matches.”

Her brother complied silently with the request, he certainly was never going to win at poker.

“And I match the pot and raise it by one.”

“I’m in,” Kid agreed, just to see how far Heyes could get Ruth Ann to go.

“Oh . . . ” She flicked out her tongue like a lizard, “That’s all, I call it.” She pulled out her cards, spreading them carefully on the table, “Jack, ten, nine, eight and seven. A straight.”

“Full house.” Kid showed his hand.

“Queen high straight flush.” Heyes grinned triumphantly. “And Ruth Ann, I told you not to draw to an inside straight.”

“Yeah, but it worked didn’t it?” She asked reasonably. On her first card replacement, she’d gotten rid of a three to get the nine, and could have won if she’d just been a little bolder. Oh, well, maybe next time.

Zeke reached out to gather the cards in for another hand when Heyes stopped him, “Wait, I want to try something first.” He tapped the cards still neatly in the deck. “Ruth Ann, there’s twenty five cards out on the table, take a good, quick look at them, then tell me what’s left here in the deck.”

“Yes?” She scanned the cards all laid out face up, before Heyes signaled Zeke to collect them. “There were all four tens out, three jacks, and all the fives.” She concentrated, counting briefly on her fingers. “Three aces left; Heart, Diamond and Spade. All the Kings, three queens, jack of Hearts, no tens, two nines, one eight -- the club, two sevens, three sixes, three fours, three of diamonds, and three of hearts and three deuces.” She let out a deep breath as Heyes handed the remaining deck to Kid to count.

“Spot on.” Kid nodded proudly.

“Jeez, an’ she’s just a little girl!” Zeke groaned.

“That’s my sister!” Charles clapped her on the back. She was blushing with pride, dimples poking out both ends of her smile.

“I’ll tell you, Ruth Ann.” Heyes said. “That’s a gift.”

“Ain’t too many people can do that,” Kid agreed. “He’s one of ‘em.”

“Can I make lots of money at this, like you?” she asked slyly.

“Well . . . ” Heyes began.

“Joshua, y’know that book I showed you?” Zeke interrupted, “About Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry?”

The real Kid, who had gotten up for a dipper full of water to drink, sputtered, the water spraying over the roaring fire, making tiny hissing sounds.

“What?” Heyes asked, distracted between his cousin choking and Zeke’s question.

“Well, it said that Hannibal Heyes could count . . . ”

“All right!” Kid had recovered enough to speak. “I think its about time for small children to go to bed.”

“Who’s small?” Zeke demanded, indignant.

“You are.” Charles stood his full five foot eight, towering over the ten-year-old boy.

“Children go to bed, Adults have things to do. I’m taking the first guard duty.”

“When did you get to be an adult?” Ruth Ann challenged her brother, hands on hips.

“Since now, and if you don’t get on, I’ll call in my IOU, sis.” Charles laughed, herding her towards the bedroom.

The nuns returned from Vespers to aid in the bedtime preparations, and it was decided that Mary Moses should take first watch, Charles second, and let Thaddeus bring in the morning. Heyes, exhausted after minimal sleep the night before, was more than happy to crawl into bed next to his cousin.

“What’s this book Zeke has?” Kid asked sleepily, shedding his trousers before getting into bed clad only in longjohns.

“Great literature. A penny dreadful featuring you and me.” Heyes turned his face to the wall, burrowing into his pillow.

“Heyes! Does he know something?” Kid punched him lightly in the kidneys, reminding him that he hadn’t had a trip to the outhouse.

“He thinks he does. Just keep him guessing, Kid,” Heyes muttered. “Besides, what does it matter, here? Sister already knows.”

“Just the principle, I guess.”

“That Ruth Ann.” Heyes raised himself up on his elbows, still debating the trip outside. “She’s got it in spades.”

“An’ diamonds, clubs and hearts,” Kid finished dryly. “You shouldn’t encourage her.”

“Me? You’re the one who started all this.” He smiled in the dark. “If I had a little girl, she’d be just like her.”

“No little girl of yours would have blond hair,” Kid countered. “Where are you going?”
He grumbled as Heyes crawled over his legs to get out of the bed.

“Be back directly.” He waved a hand in the general direction he was heading, “An’ move over when I get back, I hate that side.”

* * * * * * *

“You can feel winter calling.” Mary Moses hiked her black skirts up a little to kneel in the potato plot, shivering despite her thick sweater.

“You talk to the weather, Sister?” Kid chuckled, rubbing gun oil into the barrel of his Colt.

“I listen to it.” She unearthed several spuds, adding them to her basketful of apples and early pumpkins. “You should, too. If you and Joshua want to get out to more exciting places, you’re going to need to leave soon. One good snow and we’ll be stuck inside for the whole season.”

“Must get pretty hard up here, in December an’ January.”

“In the past, yes.” She straightened. “But this year, we’ll have more friends up here, I think.” She smiled, her plump cheeks bright red in the cold. “What you two have done is nothing short of a miracle.”

“Moses!” Kid objected. “I sat around, listening to my bones mend. Hey . . . Joshua did all the work.”

“You were going to say Heyes,” Mary Moses said with a twinkle in her eye.

“Sister Joe told you?” he asked with a strangled voice.

“We keep no secrets from the Lord, and each other.” She patted his arm comfortingly, “But who would I tell? And Jedediah, don’t sell yourself short, you did some important work, too.” She opened the kitchen door. “Coming in?”

“Still need to practice.” He hefted the pistol. “I’ll be in for lunch.”

Left alone behind the house, Kid repeatedly plugged bullets into any small object he could find. His need for perfection in the one true skill he had drove him on for several hours until he was dripping with sweat in the increasingly frigid air, and his healing wounds were aching bone deep. The last quick draw would have impressed most gunslingers, and although it was slower than he could have achieved right handed, Kid was not unhappy.

“Come in, Jedediah,” Mary Joseph commanded quietly, from the back porch. “You’ll be giving me a headache soon, with all that noise.”

“I’m sorry,” he apologized instantly; aware his own head was aching some from the strain. “Where is everyone?”

“Here and there.” She ladled up a bowl of vegetable soup from the pot on the range.

“Hannibal has been getting a little antsy waiting for the game tomorrow night, so I sent he and the boys out hunting. With any luck, they’ll start after a deer and be gone all day and maybe we could have venison for supper.”

“That’s optimistic.” Kid stirred the soup with his spoon to let it cool. “Heyes is barely tolerable with a rifle.”

“You looked very fast out there with your pistol.”

“It’s improving.” Kid admitted. “I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks.”

“Jedediah, you would hardly quality as an old dog,” she commented dryly, taking a mouthful of soup from her bowl.

“Sometimes I feel like one.”

“How old are you?” she asked, taking in his baby-faced looks and sweet nature, but knowing how old he had been the first time she’d met him.

“Just a hair past 31.” He spooned the vegetable soup into his mouth, “I just realized something this morning.”

“Yes?”

“It hit me that Siobhan was 29 years old when she listened to her priest, turned her back on us and sent us to hell.” He paused, uncertain how to phrase what he wanted to say. “”I couldn’t forgive her. I don’t think I wanted to.”

“But things have changed?” Mary Joseph asked quietly.

“She was my sister.” Kid swallowed some soup. “But I’m older now than she was then. I’ve never listened to anybody in my whole life except Heyes, and I don’t always do what he says. But I do know what it’s like to be in a gang. You do what the leader tells you to.”

“Are you calling the Church a gang?” She snickered.

“I guess.” He gave her a crooked smile. “I think I know why she did it. She was doing what she thought was right.”

“And forgiveness?”

“Some time along the way, that just happened,” he answered with a shrug.

“That’s how it often happens,” Joseph agreed. “It gets to be a burden carrying around all that anger.”

“Well, you pick up new anger in the strangest places, like an orphanage.” He pushed the empty bowl away. “Sister, I don’t know why you’re not mad as hell at those Shaunnessys.”

“What purpose would that serve?”

“You could get some revenge. I . . . ” He rolled his eyes at her calm countenance, “It’s not right for a nun, huh? S’posed to turn the other cheek?”

“Something like that.” She dimpled at him, “Besides, if I had known how to get . . . revenge, as you put it, what would there be left to do? It wouldn’t bring back Zebulan, or the land.”

“It might have,” Kid insisted stubbornly.

“But isn’t that what you and Hannibal came here to do?” She stood, clearing the dishes to the wash basin.

“You have an awful lot of faith in two has-been outlaws.” He chuckled.

“I have a great deal of faith in mankind, in general.” She began to rinse off the plates, a twinkle in her eye. “If that includes a gunslinger and a poker player, so be it.”

 

* * * *

There was no venison at dinner, but the intrepid hunters had caught a large number of trout, and this made a delicious meal. Luke had sliced the potatoes and covered them with a creamy cheese sauce, getting rave reviews from all those at the table. Just as they were clearing away the dishes, two Billings knocked on the door.

“Junior, Clarissa, come in,” Mary Moses urged. “We’ve got applesauce, it you’re hungry?”

“No thank you, Ma’am,” Abner said politely, “My Ma went into town this morning and collected the mail for you. She says to tell you that Pa’s leg is mending just fine.”

“We hardly ever receive mail.” Moses took the envelopes and newspaper eagerly, reading the names on the front. “Charles, Ruth Ann, here’s a letter from Matthew!”

“Let me read it!” The little girl dashed across the room to grab the letter from the nun, Charles following in her wake with a grin. Only he wasn’t looking at the mail.

“H’llo, Clarissa.” He inclined his head to the girl, trying to think of a topic to interest her.

“How do, Charles,” The pretty towhead answered, twisting her fingers into the folds of her lavender print skirt.

“It’s nice to see you, Clarissa.” Heyes decided to do a little matchmaking, at least to get the conversation going. “Have you seen Charles whittling? He’s been working on a cross for the chapel.”

“I’d like to,” Clarissa said enthusiastically, just as Charles had thrown Heyes a frantic look. “Is it out in the chapel?”

“Sure, why don’t you come outside? I’ll show you.” Charles gallantly opened the front door, still looking as if he were going under water for the third time.

“I’ll be along directly,” Abner called after her. “Mr. Smith, my Ma said Shaunnessy’s boasting all over town that he beat you up an’ scared you away an’ that you ain’t gonna play poker with them.”

“I just know when to pick my battles, Junior,” Heyes said carefully. “But I fully intend to be in that game tomorrow night.”

“Thank you for coming all the way up here, Abner.” Sister Mary Joseph rifled through the other envelopes Moses handed to her. “I hope your family will join us on Sunday to bless our new chapel.”

“Ma’am, we’ll be there, even if that danged river floods again,” he replied, then looked askance. “Sorry ‘bout the cuss words, Sister.”

“No need to worry, Abner, the sentiment was sincere.” Joseph’s eyes twinkled.

“I’ll be getting’ on back home, then,” he excused himself, going in search of his sister.

“Tryin’ to set up Charles and Clarissa?” Kid teased, sitting down at the now empty dinner table with his second bowl of applesauce. “Sendin’ ‘em, outside, alone?”

“They were going out to a church, can’t get in much trouble there,” Heyes answered mildly.

“Well, some have,” Moses interjected with a grin. “But at least it’s with the Lord’s blessing.”

“Sister!” Both cousins chorused, amazed at her risqué suggestion.

“What does your brother have to say, Ruth Ann?” Mary Joseph raised her eyebrows at the raunchy discussion. “Is he doing well?”

“He’s having a fine time.” Ruth Ann ran her finger along the page of tightly written script. “He’s got a job helpin’ a doctor run a clinic for im . . . imegrants? What’s that?”

“People who have moved to the United States from other countries,” Joseph explained. “Quite an admirable job.”

“I’ll go let Charles read this, now that Clarissa’s gone.” She skipped outside, long blond braids flapping in her breeze.

“Where did Matthew and Steven go?” Heyes asked. “Seems like they left you in a lurch.”

“No, just testing their wings.” Joseph smiled, remembering her eldest boys. “Matthew’s gone to Yale. He had already been accepted when their parents died, and actually delayed his entrance to college for two years to get the others settled. He’s very intelligent and driven.”

“And Steven?” Kid asked, licking his spoon, still hungry.

“He’s a bit of a ner’e do well.” Mary Moses put in, over the edge of her new Catholic newspaper. “Likes gambling and fast living, we haven’t heard from him in quite a while.”

Kid grimaced, glancing at his cousin’s bemused expression. “Don’t expect anything much of him?”

“Oh, I have faith,” Joseph said, reminding Kid of the conversation they’d had that morning. She patted Heyes’ vested chest. “After all, look how you two turned out.”

“Sister, faith may work in the church, but in the rest of us need something more substantial.” Heyes squeezed her hand to cut the sting of his words.

“Hannibal, faith can move mountains,” she said confidently. “And it’s never let me down yet.”

 

* * * * * *

There was a nervous energy around the orphanage compound on Friday morning. With the poker game looming in front of them and the imminent chapel debut on Sunday, there was lots to get done and nerves were becoming frayed.

Heyes would have left for Cottersville midmorning except that he realized opening himself up to any of the Shaunnessy’s attacks wasn’t an optimal defense. Especially after Abner Jr.’s warning, a better plan would be to arrive only minutes before the nine PM opening hand, to circumvent any dangerous situations that might arise. Still, that left hours of the day to get through.

Mary Moses had herded up the children to help her in the chapel decoration. She sent the twins and Ruth Ann to gather any autumnal flowers or pretty leaves for bouquets, leaving Zeke to pile wood for the grand celebratory bonfire.

Having finished his crucifix, Charles was trying his hand at carving a small statue of Mary. It was a momentous undertaking, and he had doubts whether he could do justice to the Mother of Jesus. He ran his fingers over the rough outline of the profile he’d created like a blind man meeting a person for the first time. Almost without looking, he let his hands whittle away small imperfections on the nose, cheeks and brow. Sitting in the last pew in the tiny chapel, Charles glanced up from his labor, watching the nuns arrange the altar.

Sister Luke smoothed the white linen she’d embroidered over the new altar, placing the salvaged gold cross squarely in the center. There was only one Bible left, which luckily had been on Joseph’s prie-dieu the night of the flood. The other nuns’ Bibles had been too damaged by water to be readable, but luckily all three sisters knew long portions of the holy book by heart. Mary Moses even wondered if she could emulate the monks of the dark ages and copy out chapters of the Bible by hand. It could be cheaper than buying more books, and might help instill the ancient stories in the children’s minds in a unique way.

She lay the last Bible carefully next to the cross, flashing a happy smile at Luke. “It looks like a proper chapel.”

The gold chalice was tucked into a side niche, ready to be used in the Eucharist. The beautifully carved wooden crucifix was placed above a collection of the candles Heyes had bought, to offer solace to those who were praying. Sister Luke immediately lit the first candle in memory of her father. She dipped her head over the flickering flame, remembering the man who had helped them start this sanctuary, knowing he was still guiding them from above.

Bringing in the bottle of holy water and blessed wine for the service, Mary Joseph paused, admiring the décor with a nod. “I am in the presence of miracles, my friends, to know that all this was accomplished from the ruins of the flood.”

“God works in mysterious ways.” Mary Moses nodded.

“His wonders to perform.” Joseph genuflected in front of the altar. “I wish that Father Lawrence could be here Sunday, but his letter said he won’t be able to come for a few more weeks.” She put down her bottles in the front pew, kneeling to give a prayer of thanks.

“Joshua.” Moses gestured him inside when he poked his head in to check out their endeavors. “Stay, we’re going to have a little informal prayer.”

“It’s been a long time since I . . . ” Heyes shrugged, coming inside in spite of himself.

“God doesn’t care when you last prayed, just that you continue talking to him.” Joseph dimpled at him, standing. She shook the still present sawdust off her surplice, “We have a lot to thank him for.”

“So do I, Sister,” Heyes agreed, sitting in a back pew while the nuns gathered up at the front of the chapel.

Without any real plan, as Joseph began to recite a short verse from the Bible, Kid and Zeke came inside, sitting in the last row next to Charles.

A feeling of peace descended on those gathered for the impromptu service, dispelling the anxiety of the last few days. The prayers gave all a renewed sense of purpose, especially giving Heyes a boost of self-confidence. He hadn’t expected this to happen, given his lack of experience with the power of faith. It surprised him that simple communal prayer could give him such a feeling of well being. Sister Joseph’s trust in her belief had once seemed overly simplistic, but he began to understand where her strength came from.

“Go with God.” Mary Moses ended the short service, following the other nuns out of the chapel.

“What are you working on?” Kid peered at the wood Charles had tucked under his arm during the prayers.

“It’s just . . . a statue.” He muttered embarrassed, starting to dig his knife into a tiny crevice. His artistic ability created a graceful sweep of a gown with only two or three slices of the blade.

“It’s Mary,” Zeke guessed. “Like the little figure in the kitchen, over the stove. That’s the same dress she has, and the same veil on her head.”

“She looks familiar.” Heyes came over to lean against the pew, watching Charles’s knife transform the wood. “It’s Sister Luke.”

“It is.” Kid scrutinized the carving with a chuckle. “That’s amazing, you caught her expression exactly.”

“Just like when she’s making somethin’ really tasty.” Zeke agreed.

“I didn’t mean to.” Charles examined the face with a plumb. “I guess she’s the only…” “Girl around here?” Heyes bit his bottom lip to stop from laughing. “Don’t worry, Charles. I expect that Clarissa may be spending more time up here, and her sisters and brothers, too, if Mary Moses starts a school for all the mountain kids.”

“Ruth Ann?” Sofia’s voice floated in from the yard. “Where are you?”

She ducked her little curly head into the chapel, surprised to see the men all sitting there. “Where’s Ruth Ann?”

“She went with you,” Zeke answered sensibly.

“I don’t know where she went.” Sofia frowned. “We can’t find her.”

“Where were you picking flowers?” Heyes pushed down the sudden feeling of dread that rushed through him.

“Out along the river.” Sofia pointed. Samuel was sitting on the ground surrounded by branches covered with red, gold and brown leaves. “We couldn’t find any flowers, just leaves.”

“Did Ruth Ann go across the river?” Charles asked in a stricken voice.

“I think so.” Sofia’s lower lip trembled, her dark eyes brimming with tears. “Where’d she go?

“Kid, c’mon.” Heyes didn’t care who heard him, his fear for the little girl escalating. “We’ll search for her. Charles, take the kids back to the house.”

“I want to go with you,” Charles insisted, Zeke nodding his head vigorously.

“Charles, you’re the only man here,” Kid said seriously, “Tell the sisters we’re looking for her and to stay inside.”

“What if she drowned?” Zeke said too loudly.

“I don’t think she did.” Heyes gave the boy’s shoulder a squeeze. “Go inside, get some lunch. We’ll be back with Ruth Ann before you cut the apple pie.”

“Charles.” Kid waited a moment until Zeke, Sofia and Samuel were nearly to the house. “Tell Sister Moses to find her old pistol. I know she has one, and to be prepared.”

“For what?” he asked fearfully.

“Nothing good,” Heyes answered in a hard voice. He strode down past the little copse of trees that hid the bend in the river nearest to the orphanage and waded across, simmering anger visible behind his black eyes.

“You think Shaunnessy grabbed her.” Kid followed his cousin across the river, picking his way carefully through the still nearly knee deep water. He stumbled on a slippery rock, jarring his bandaged right arm, but gained the far bank without incident.

“I don’t think so, I know so.” Heyes scanned the underbrush. “When the night guards prevented him from any vandalism, he struck during the day.” His throat tightened as he spoke. “So he took Ruth Ann.”

“There.” Kid pointed at fresh horse dropping under a tree only five hundred feet past the river, just off the wagon rutted road. “He waited until one of the kids came by -- probably didn’t care who.”

“She should have known better.” Heyes slapped the bark of the tree, scraping the palm of his hand. “I’m going to Cottersville,” he said with conviction, “Shaunnessy can’t get away with this.”

“I’m coming.”

Heyes swung around to disagree, point out Kid’s still healing bones, then reconsidered. He welcomed Kid’s steady presence and his six gun beside him when confronting the Shaunnessys. “I’ll saddle up both horses-you can ride the gelding. He’s got a smoother gait.”

“Thanks.” Kid nodded.

 

* * * * *

Sheriff Taylor pressed his back against the jailhouse wall, balancing precisely on the chair’s rear legs. He appeared to be relaxing in the noon day heat, like a cat on the doorstep in a patch of sun. However, he was anything but relaxed. The undercurrent of tension in Cottersville was palpable, an ache at the base of his brain. He wanted to be ready, visible to all who passed by, and yet he wasn’t entirely sure what exactly he was waiting for.

Since he’d declared his independence from the Shaunnessy’s domineering thumb, the townspeople had become as nervous as cats in a dog pound. All waiting for the world as they knew it to explode.

After sitting for an hour without moving, he was becoming cold, despite the warmth of the sun. It was just too late in the year to be doing nothing. He stomped his feet, to improve the circulation before taking an amble along the main street, alert for any signs of trouble.

He saw Smith and Jones riding in from a long ways off, and stood in front of Mr. King’s mercantile to wait for them. Their grim faces boded no good.

“Sheriff.” Heyes dismounted, feeling slightly strange to be hailing the law. There had been a time when just seeing someone wearing a star shaped badge would have been enough to send him riding hard in the other direction. “Have you seen Ruth Ann Kinney this morning?”

“Ruth Ann?” he repeated, “I’d think you’d have seen her before I did. What’s happened?”

“She’s missing,” Heyes answered. “We rode down just after we discovered she was gone. We think Shaunnessy took her.”

“That’s a pretty serious accusation.” Andy frowned. “You got any proof before I go lookin’ for her?”

“Only some fresh horse droppings where they shouldn’t oughta been,” Kid said. “It’s not much, but everybody knows he’s been threatening Joshua, and the nuns.” He dismounted more slowly, finding the job more complicated than usual due to his bandaged arm.

“Don’t expect you to come with us.” Heyes glanced down the street in case a Shaunnessy should walk by, “Just point out their house, and we’ll do the askin’.”

“I dunno, you could be stirrin’ up a mess of trouble if you ain’t right . . .” Andy crossed his arms, still chilly. “I think I oughta come along, just in case.”

“What ever you think’s best, Sheriff,” Heyes conceded, “But I’ll do the talking.”

“Somehow, Smith, I think you usually do,” the sheriff said dryly. “Eddie Lee Shaunnessy lives down at the end of Front Street, on the little side road. There’s only his house there, pretty much a mansion for the likes of Cottersville.” He had started walking down the street, so Heyes and Kid followed, leaving their horses tied at the horse rail. “Jimmy Joe lives just behind, in a smaller place.”

“Convenient,” Heyes muttered, gearing himself up for whatever might come. He didn’t know what to do, if the girl was there but Shaunnessy refused to give her up. He had become increasingly fond of Ruth Ann, and feared for her safety.

The Shaunnessy home would have been considered a mansion even in a town considerably larger than Cottersville. It was a turreted Victorian monstrosity, painted a garish blue and festooned with more gingerbread than the house Hansel and Gretel had snacked on.

Kid whistled. “How’d he get somethin’ like that up here in the Rockies?”

“Piece by piece with a lot of sweat,” Andy Taylor responded, pushing his Stetson back to regard the building with fresh eyes. It was truly an ugly house. “And none of it his own.”
Rapping on the ornately carved door, Heyes waited impatiently. Eventually a short, very round woman with a tight, frowning face opened the door, eyeing the three men coldly.

“Yes?” she asked.

“Joshua Smith here to speak to Eddie Lee or Jimmy Joe, ma’am,” Heyes said as politely as he could muster under the circumstances.

“Regarding?”

“They’ll know.”

“Wait in the drawing room.” She gestured to an archway on the right, turning her back on them so she resembled a beruffled, stuffed pillow topped by a blond ringleted head.

“The missus?” Kid guessed.

“Elianora Marie Vincent Shaunnessy.” Andy led the way into the house. “And God forbid anyone who call her Ellie or Nora.”

Heyes and the Kid followed the sheriff into Shaunnessy’s drawing room, perching carefully on a slick horsehair sofa. The room was the epitome of Victorian splendor, crammed with far too many pieces of furniture and thick curtains over the floor to ceiling windows to keep the sun from ever brightening the permanent gloom.

Heyes had never given any thought to the fact that Eddie Lee was married, but obviously Elianora was in charge of the household. No man would ever have decorated a room like this. Gilt-framed pictures crowded every single wall, many festooned with droopy feathers and dried roses. Silk tassels dangled from the curtains, antimacassars and mantle cloth, and every flat surface was covered with china shepherdesses, prancing fauns and other breakable brickabrack.

Peering closely at a handtinted family photograph, Heyes realized Eddie Lee had two chubby sons who resembled him like peas from a pod. Sister Luke was luckier than he’d ever imagined not to have married into this family.

“You are not welcome in my home, Smith.” Eddie Lee stood firmly in the archway, hands on his ample hips.

“You may reconsider, after you hear what I have to say,” Heyes stated. “But first, where is Ruth Ann?”

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” Shaunnessy said smoothly. “I was under the impression that she rarely leaves the orphanage.”

“So was I,” Heyes agreed. “But she has, and I think your brother took her.”

“Jimmy Joe isn’t here at the moment.”

“Then get him here,” Kid spoke for the first time, a deadly edge to his voice.

“Your laid up friend, Smith?” Eddie Lee dismissed the man with the broken arm, turning his attention to the red haired sheriff. “Sheriff Taylor, I’m surprised to see you here. After what happened a few nights ago, I expected you to be packing your bags.”

“Then you expected wrong, Shaunnessy,” Andy said quietly, “Just answer the question. Have you or your brother seen Ruth Ann Kinney?”

“I cannot speak for my brother, but I’ll repeat myself for those of you who find it hard to understand. I haven’t seen the child.” Eddie Lee turned, waving towards the door, “Now I ask you to get out of my house.”

“We plan to wait until your brother returns.” Kid drew his pistol with just enough speed and flourish to momentarily break through Shaunnessy’s impassive exterior. Eddie Lee was impressed, but covered it quickly. “Now, if you can send somebody to get him we’d all be a lot happier. Meanwhile, Joshua has a proposition for you.”

Staring down the pistol barrel at the dangerous looking man holding the gun, Shaunnessy considered his options. He nodded briskly, calling out the name Chester in a loud voice.

“Yes, Pa?” A smaller version of his father appeared, fat face still smeared with some sticky jelly.

“Go find your uncle, and make it fast,” he commanded in a voice that bordered on threatening.

When the boy had disappeared, as quickly as his chubby body could go, the man turned back to those still assembled in the drawing room. “What exactly do you want to talk to me about? My time is valuable and I have a lot to do before this evening.”

“The poker game?” Heyes questioned. “That’s why I came.”

“You aren’t invited.”

 

“Aw, Eddie Lee,” Heyes coddled, feeling almost at ease with Kid’s gun at his side, “You practically begged me to play last week, what’s changed?”

“I was under the impression you were a passing gambler, I hadn’t reckoned on you sticking your nose into local disputes that are none of your concern.”

“By local disputes, I guess you mean your greedy consumption of every parcel of land around here.” The dark haired man smiled tightly, his dimples like deep grooves in his cheeks. “You’ve threatened innocent nuns, poisoned animals, injured workin’ ranchers and now kidnapped small children. I’d call that down right illegal, wouldn’t you, Sheriff?”

“I would, Mr. Smith.” Andy glanced over at the Kid. He’d been impressed by the gun draw, too, and for an entirely different reason than Shaunnessy.

“You have absolutely no proof that I was involved in any of those nefarious deeds.” Eddie Lee puffed himself up, blustering.

“But we do, Eddie Lee.” Andy smiled this time, too. “Dr. Sebastian can prove that the Sister’s cow was poisoned with arsenic, and Mr. King says Jimmy Joe bought some the day before.”

“My brother? Playing a harmless prank that got out of hand.”

“Not by my books,” Sheriff Taylor countered.

“So, I have a proposition, as Mr. Jones said,” Heyes continued. “I get to play in the game, using this as collateral.” He pulled out the deed to Zebulan McClure’s land which he’d gotten from Sister Mary Joseph before riding out. “You put up the deed to the land up there on the other side of Cotter’s river. If I win, the nuns get both pieces of property, and you get out of town and the sheriff doesn’t throw your brother in jail.”

“That’s preposterous,” Eddie Lee roared. “It’s blackmail.”

“You want their land.” Heyes shrugged. “We just want Ruth Ann.”

“What if I win?” Shaunnessy said after a moment.

“We’ll help the nuns pack up and all leave,” Kid answered. “But that ain’t what’s gonna happen.”

“Not that I think you possibly have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning this game, but I am intrigued that you think you can.” Eddie Lee crossed his arms across his wine colored vest. “So, certainly, why not? The first evidence of cheating I see, your ass lands in jail, Smith.”

“I don’t cheat,” Heyes said simply.

A noise from the front door caused Shaunnessy to hurry into the foyer to see what the disturbance was. The other three followed behind until there was a small crowd in the hallway to witness Ruth Ann come bursting inside with Jimmy Joe and Chester in her wake.

“You get your hands off me!” She shook herself free of Jimmy Joe’s hold. Ruth Ann was disheveled and dirty, but otherwise unharmed. “I tol’ you I’d call the sheriff . . .”

“Ruth Ann, is there a problem?” Taylor asked calmly.

“There he is!” the little girl announced triumphantly. Catching sight of her friends, she crowed. “Joshua, Thaddeus, did you come to get me?”

“We did, indeed.” Heyes took her hand, and she caught up the Kid’s hand, too. Just to be on the safe side.

“Found her wandering around by herself in the woods,” Jimmy Joe said self-righteously. “So I brought her here.”

“You see? Just doing what any man would do to help a lost child.” Eddie Lee said genially.

“I wasn’t lost!” Ruth Ann protested. “I wasn’t hardly past the bend in the river.”

“Does seem like a mite outta the way when the orphanage was closer by ten miles,” Kid commented holding his gun loosely in his left hand while Ruth Ann held his right hand.

“He was performing his civic duty,” Shaunnessy put in. “Taking the child to the proper authorities.”

“Didn’t come to my office,” Andy mentioned dryly.

“Did he hurt you, sweetheart?” Heyes asked.

“He made me come with him and put his ol’ bandana around my mouth!” the little girl cried angrily. “Smelled like an ol’horse.”

“Sheriff, take Ruth Ann back up the Mountain. We’ll stay for the game,” Heyes said, seething on the inside for using the child like a pawn, but outwardly calm.

“C’mon.” Andy held out his hand to the little girl.

Eddie Lee blocked the way. “She stays -- a little guarantee that you play a fair game.”

“He doesn’t cheat,” Ruth Ann protested, looking up at Heyes for assurance, “I could, though.”

“Little girls don’t play poker,” Chester scoffed, speaking up for the first time.

“Oh, she can.” Heyes grinned devilishly. “And she’s good.”

“You -- sheriff.” Eddie Lee pointed contemptuously, “Go up there an’ tell those nuns to start packing up. When the game is over, I expect them to vacate my premises.”

Taylor didn’t move, watching the by-play between Shaunnessy and Heyes with fascination. There was no way he was going to help Eddie Lee force those nuns out.

“Feeling pretty sure of yourself.” Heyes shrugged. “It’s only midafternoon. We have a long time before the game starts. It you want to keep us all here, Ruth Ann needs some food.”

“Me, too.” Kid hissed out of the side of his mouth.

“And somewhere to rest until nine o’clock.” Heyes gave his most ingratiating smile. “’Cause you wouldn’t want to be known as a rude host. Keeping us here against our will.”

“Eddie Lee . . .” Jimmy Joe complained, “You’re takin’ orders from him?”

“He thinks he has leverage holding that deed in his hand, but it won’t last long.” Shaunnessy spread his arms, suddenly jovial. “I think we can afford to be neighborly. My wife will make some dinner. We’ll eat, like friends. Sheriff, don’t you have a town to protect?”

“Some friends,” Kid muttered. He reluctantly holstered his pistol as Taylor left, suddenly feeling self-conscious holding the gun in the middle of the house.

“I’ll send someone up to assure Sister Joe that Ruth Ann’s all right.” Taylor tipped his hat at the child and her protectors before leaving.

There was a very strained meal an hour later. Elianora’s cooking didn’t come close to what Sister Luke could have done with the same ingredients. An over-cooked joint squatted amongst a pile of limp vegetables on a hideous red and blue serving platter in the middle of a table meant to seat twelve. Eddie Lee played his part as congenial host to the hilt, encouraging his guests to eat as much as they wished. Only Chester and younger brother Hilton cleared their plates and asked for seconds, no one else had much appetite. Kid felt distinctly uncomfortable with Jimmy Joe’s blue eyes boring into him the whole time. He suspected that Shaunnessy was trying to place his face and hoped it would never come to him.

“I’d feel a whole lot better if they’d have let her go back up with Taylor,” Kid groused when the Shaunnessy family had left them alone in a small upstairs bedroom after dinner. “Maybe we could sneak her out the back . . .”

“Kid,” Heyes cut him off. “We’re on the second floor.”

“You are Kid Curry,” Ruth Ann stated flatly.

“Not so loud,” he shushed.

“Zeke said you were an outlaw an’ you really are!”

“Yes, I am, darlin’.” Kid sat down on the edge of an overly ruffled four poster bed. “Does that worry you?”

“No, you’re a good person.” Ruth Ann crossed her arms thoughtfully. “But if you an’ Hannibal Heyes stole all that money-for years, where is it?”

“That’s a good question.” Kid glanced over at his partner, who was struggling to stifle laughter. “You see, Hannibal Heyes wasn’t much for savin’ the money. He had some terrible vices . . .”

“Wild women an’ song?” Ruth Ann suggested seriously. “Jezebels.”

“Exactly.” Kid bit his lower lip to keep from laughing himself, it was such a bizarre conversation to be having under the present circumstances.

“Uh . . . Hannibal Heyes had a lot of other gang members to pay,” Heyes finally put in to his defense.

“Well, I just thought that if you did have some of that money left over, you could pay Mister Shaunnessy for the whole river an’ then we wouldn’t be in this per’dicment.”
Ruth Ann faced Heyes, obviously aware of his real name, as well.

“I’m afraid he probably wouldn’t agree to a sale.” Heyes stroked her blond hair. “But it’s a good idea, if we had that much money.”

“Can he really throw us out?” Her lower lip trembled slightly, the tension of the day finally catching up to her. “Make us leave?”

“I won’t let that happen,” Heyes stated confidently, although even he had a tiny frission of doubt. His poker playing had been fantastic lately, but every gambler had a game where the cards just didn’t go his way. Lady Luck better smile on him tonight or he’d really need to find another line of work.

“Hey, Ruth Ann, it’s a long time before the game, why don’t you lie down and get some rest?” Kid suggested, reclining in a stuffed chair. He arranged his bandaged arm over the armrest; it was aching miserably.

“A nap?” she asked disdainfully.

“Keeps the mind fresh.” Heyes agreed, looking around for somewhere to rest. He finally appropriated a few of the needlepointed pillows from the bed and made a little nest on the floor. His bruised ribs still twinged when he tried to get comfortable, though.

With this example, Ruth Ann curled up on the satin covered bed and fell asleep almost immediately.

“Heyes?” Kid asked softly.

“Yeah?”

“You got any plans for after this?”

“Thinking we oughta ride out soon.” Heyes hooked his hands behind his head, staring up at the ornate ceiling. Featuring the latest fashion in plasterwork, it was the fanciest thing he’d ever seen outside of a bordello in San Francisco, and here it was hidden in an upstairs bedroom in Cottersville.

“Sister Moses said it’d be snowing soon. The mountain gets impassable,” Kid agreed. “We should wait until Monday, huh? After the chapel dedication.”

“Kid, what if we came back here?” Heyes asked thoughtfully. “In the spring? After we get amnesty?”

“What would we do? We don’t have any skills in a place like this.”

“I dunno, but I think I’d enjoy finding out.” Heyes sat all the way up, looking at his friend across the room. “I planned all those bank jobs to the letter. We may have been the most successful outlaws in Wyoming history, but we’re still broke. Maybe this time I’ll just let nature take its course.”

Kid let loose a crackling laugh, “Don’t believe it, the great Hannibal Heyes without a plan.”

* * * * * *

 

Just after eight thirty, a glum faced Jimmy Joe came to unlock the bedroom door. Walking behind him, Heyes noticed that he still had on the pair of star shaped spurs, and they raked jagged little furrows in the rose colored carpet with every step he took. No doubt, Elianora took a dim view of a brother-in-law who wore spurs in the house. Heyes massaged the wound on his right hand, but it hadn’t given him as much trouble as he’d thought. He’d have no trouble holding a fan of cards.

The younger Shaunnessy grumpily escorted Heyes, Kid and Ruth Ann downstairs where several men had congregated, talking. Marcus Polansky, Deck and three other men Heyes didn’t recognize looked up as they entered, all five sipping aged Kentucky bourbon.

Eddie Lee greeted Heyes like an old friend, pressing a glass of bourbon into his hand immediately. It was all incredibly false, like acting out an unfinished play, but one in which everyone had rehearsed their lines separately, so that they didn’t quite mesh.

“And one for my friend Jones?” Heyes asked frostily, glancing back at Kid and Ruth Ann.

“Anyone not joining the game is asked to wait in the smaller lounge.” Eddie Lee plastered a fake smile on his face, indicating the room across the hall.

“I want to watch.” Ruth Ann insisted, “Unless you let me play?”

“Let a child play,” a blustery man with huge mutton chop whiskers and an almost bald head harrumphed. “Why is she even here?”

“She’s a member of my family,” Heyes answered smoothly, putting an arm around her. Polansky came up behind them to offer a shot glass to Kid. “A good luck charm, you might say.”

“Well, one can understand sentiment,” the older man said. “But it’s no place for a child.”

“What’s your opinion on drawing to an inside straight?” Ruth Ann asked, periwinkle blue eyes focused on the man, “Or are you a very conservative player?”

“I feel you are being extremely impertinent!” He frowned, turning away from her.
“Jones, take the girl out of here,” Jimmy Joe ordered imperiously, over his double shot of liquor.

“Jimmy Joe, you’re the one who brought her here, now you want her to go?” Kid spoke in a quiet tone, but there was no doubt who was the more deadly of the two. “Make up your mind.”

“Thaddeus,” Heyes said softly, “Just keep your eyes on her, and stay out of trouble.”

“Not like we aren’t in up to our necks already,” Kid muttered.

“Gentlemen, the tables are set up in the library.” Eddie Lee beckoned them into a wood paneled room lined with shelves of leather bound books.

Had they not been ready to play some pretty serious poker, Heyes would have loved to dive into any of the volumes and check out their contents. He’d never been in the presence of so many books before, and doubted that any of the Shaunnessys had ever even cracked the spines on any of them.

“Every man playing can deposit their entrance fees with Mr. Carmichael, our banker.” Shaunnessy held out a hand to a cadaverously thin man with three strands of pale hair across his head. The banker nodded carefully and accepted each player’s money with a receipt and doled out the correct number of chips.

With Eddie Lee directing who sat where, the players were finally seated at two round tables. There were four men to a table, and Heyes found himself seated between Deck and Muttonchops, with Eddie Lee directly across from him. Cards were dealt swiftly and playing commenced. Although Heyes had played in higher stakes games before, he was still impressed at the amounts of cash in the pot so early in the game. When he did win, he’d have enough for the nuns with a nice chunk left over for he and the Kid to travel in style.

Kid and Ruth Ann had ensconced themselves in the Shaunnessy lounge, a room so full of furniture it was literally hard to walk between them. There were several display cabinets containing curios and other small objects like a haphazard museum. A huge stuffed bear loomed in one corner.

Ruth Ann made sure she didn’t sit near the animal. With nothing to do, the two scrounged up a pack of playing cards and began to play. Very soon, both Chester and Hilton joined them, although neither could play worth a damn. Ruth Ann gleefully beat the pants off the two boys with Kid’s amused support.

The main game room filled with aromatic smoke as cigars were lit between poker hands. It took two hours to reduce two tables to one, with Heyes now next to Polansky and a small bird like man called Filbert, still with Eddie Lee across the table. Only he no longer looked as confident as he had earlier in the evening. The hands were played nearly silently, no extraneous chatter to distract from the concentration of the game.

Around the periphery of the room, the disqualified players lingered, watching the others play. By half past eleven, Ruth Ann had curled up on a floral print sofa to sleep, so Kid slipped into the library to observe the ongoing poker game. The room was filling with men as the word spread around Cottersville that Joshua Smith had taken on Eddie Lee Shaunnessy and was winning.

Standing behind his cousin, Kid could easily see the cards Heyes held in his hand. A moderately good hand, with two jacks and a ten, but Heyes was obviously not content. He plucked out the last two cards, a six and a three, and slid them onto the table, asking for replacements. The dealer handed over two blue backed cards, which Heyes casually inserted into his fan.

Kid held back any show of excitement, settling his poker face firmly in place. Heyes had received the ten of hearts and the ten of spades. He now had a full house. It would take some pretty good hands on the parts of the other players to beat that.

Eyeing his good fortune, Heyes fingered the colored chips in front of him, deciding how high to bet. He wasn’t quite ready to put the squeeze on Shaunnessy, but the time was getting nearer. There was approximately one hundred thousand dollars between the chips in front of Heyes and what was in the pot. Shaunnessy was obviously sweating, perhaps mentally counting what was left in his bank account. Even the richest man in Cottersville had his limits. This house alone must be worth a small fortune.

Throwing a handful of chips into the middle of the table, Heyes doubled the size of the pot without blinking an eye. Filbert visibly blanched, slapping his cards down on the table with a dismissive gesture.

Polansky frowned thoughtfully before tapping his low card straight onto the
tabletop and bowing out also. “Too rich for my blood, Smith. But you have my support to put this bastard into the poorhouse.”

“Polansky!” Shaunnessy was momentarily startled from his contemplation of his own full house of nines and sevens. “I’ve helped your family many a time -- given you a bank loan. Now you stab me in the back?”

“Eddie Lee, can’t remember when I’ve had a better time at one of your games.” Marcus grinned wickedly. “You’ve used these poker tournaments to finagle money, land . . .power out of everyone in this town. When you couldn’t use your bank to foreclose on some poor soul, you’d just invite them for a friendly hand and a shot of some good ol’ sippin’ whiskey, and cheat them out of their life savings. Well, tonight it stops.”

“You can leave my home!” Shaunnessy closed his cards into one large fist, rising from his chair to glare at the shorter, portly man. “A man I’ve thought of as a friend . . .”

“Shaunnessy?” Heyes didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at Polansky’s poorly timed rant. He did, however, welcome the fact that it had entirely blown Shaunnessy’s concentration, which would make it much easier to trip him up. “Your bet?”

“I’ll meet the pot.” Shaunnessy turned back to stare at the multicolored pile of chips. “Jimmy Joe, get rid of Mr. Polansky -- and tell him his loan comes due on Monday morning, in full.”

An angry murmur rippled through the crowd of men, and Heyes took a moment to really concentrate on who was in the audience. He recognized many faces, including the Sheriff, Mr. King from the mercantile, Miller Sebastian and Francis Doyle.

“Excuse me, Edd . . . Mr. Shaunnessy.” Carmichael, the banker, stammered nervously. “If you do that, you won’t have any liquid assets left.”

This immediately quieted the chatter in the room. Even Jimmy Joe, who had been manhandling Polansky out the door, froze, staring back at his older brother in confusion.
“That cannot be,” Eddie Lee said calmly. “You must have miscounted, Carmichael.”

“No, sir. You have reached your limits.”

“Are we going to finish this hand?” Heyes asked pointedly.

“In a moment, Smith. I need a word with my banker,” Eddie Lee barked, “A few minutes recess.”

“In the middle of a hand?” Muttonchops asked in astonishment.

“Someone will have to hold each of the unplayed hands until playing has resumed,” Heyes proposed. “I certainly want the problem of Mr. Shaunnessy’s finances worked out.”

“There’s no problem.” Eddie Lee answered as smoothly as possible, fingering the watch chain stretched across his barrel chest. “Perhaps the Doctor would be kind enough to hold
the two hands, one in each pocket of his vest. He’s never played poker with us, and is a neutral third party.”

“Agreed.” Heyes nodded.

Miller bit one end of his mustache, but nodded, holding out his right hand to Shaunnessy. He slipped the cards he was given into his right vest pocket and did the same for Heyes’ card, tucking them neatly into his left vest pocket.

“No one is to disturb the other cards on the table,” Eddie Lee commanded. “Jimmy Joe, keep your eyes on them and don’t let anyone leave.”

“Sure thing.” Jimmy Joe crossed his arms, standing like a tree in front of the door as Carmichael and Shaunnessy stepped into a small anteroom.

“Joshua,” Kid hissed, bending down so his mouth was near his cousin’s ear. “How long are you gonna draw this out?”

“Thaddeus,” Heyes said calmly. “I have him right where I want him. If he doesn’t have any cash, then he has to put up the deed.”

“But if that was the whole idea, why play all night?”

 

“Can’t let him think he lost it easily.” Heyes stood, stretching muscles tight from sitting for over two hours.

“Joshua, I found one of the Billings kids.” Andy Taylor stepped forward. “Sent him up to the orphanage to tell the sisters that Ruth Ann was all right.” He glanced around curiously. “Where is she?”

“Resting on her laurels.” Kid grinned, “In moves worthy of you, Joshua, she fleeced those two Shaunnessy kids of every penny they were saving for candy.”

“How much’d she get?” Heyes laughed.

“Smith, we’re all behind you.” Marcus Polansky offered a fleshy hand to Heyes. “You may succeed in doin’ something the rest of us were too cowardly to try for years. Get rid of Shaunnessy. He deserves everything you can throw at him.” The other men behind him nodded in agreement. “Doctor, just don’t forget which pocket you’ve got Smith’s cards.”

“Not likely.” Dr. Sebastian patted his vest with both hands like a man rubbing his stomach after a huge meal. “I don’t want to jeopardize the outcome.”

“He’s sure takin’ a long time,” Francis Doyle spoke up. “You think he really don’t have anything left?” All the men looked over at the solid oak door, as if expecting it to suddenly open.

Jimmy Joe frowned at their scrutiny, glancing behind him, as if they were seeing something he wasn’t aware of. “My brother’ll be back right soon.”

As if on cue, the door opened Eddie Lee and Carmichael returning from their discussion. “Mr. Carmichael has informed me that I am short on readily available assets and should withdraw from the poker game.”

“Ah, Eddieboy,” Kid interrupted. “Not before you and my friend play for the deeds.” He rested his hand on his holstered gun butt.

“That would not be opportune.” Eddie Lee showed his distaste at Jones’ mispronunciation of his name.

“Let’s just finish this hand,” Heyes insisted. “Can’t stop now, can you? In the middle of the game?”

The greedy gleam had returned to the elder Shaunnessy’s blue-gray eyes. He smoothed his unruffled hair, nodding. “Doctor? The cards.”

After the cards had been returned to their rightful owners, Shaunnessy pushed nearly all the chips in front of him into the pot. “I meet the pot.”

“I’ll raise you one thousand dollars,” Heyes said smoothly, never yet having looked at his folded cards.

“I don’t have a thousand. You know that,” Shaunnessy growled.

“Sorry, do you want to show cards now?” Heyes asked innocently. “If not, you must have something you can put in -- like the deed to the land just above Abner Billings’ section.”

The room seemed to hold its breath. There was no way out for Shaunnessy. Either way he would loose if Heyes’ cards were better. Kid glanced to his right, both Doyle and Polansky were leaning forward, excited by the tension.

Dr. Sebastian looked like he’d rather to be anyplace else at the moment, and Sheriff Taylor’s body position echoed Curry’s own. Both had their hands near their weapons, ready for a fight.

At the table, Heyes maintained astonishing calm, his hands resting lightly on the table edge, only the tightness of his knuckles on the cards he held showing any nervousness.

On the other hand, Eddie Lee was perspiring freely. He took a moment to wipe his neck with a large linen handkerchief, examining his cards as if he hadn’t seen them before. Jimmy Joe stood behind him, a blank expression on his hard boned face. The other men in the room had inched backwards towards the door, ready to escape if there were gunplay.

“If I do so, I expect reciprocal,” Eddie Lee proclaimed. “The deed to the top of the mountain on the table.”

“Guess I might as well,” Heyes responded lightly, no trace that this was the denouement of all he’d worked for. “But I’ll take back a few chips, so’s the bets’ll be about equal.”

“Can he do that?” Jimmy Joe objected.

“Eddie Lee, you’ll be broke,” Carmichael pointed out.

“Not if I win.” Shaunnessy waited until Heyes had placed his deed on the table before writing out an IOU for his own piece of land. “The deed is in the bank, in the safe. I can’t get to it right now.”

“I’ll just have to trust you.” Heyes raised his eyebrows. “However, if you want to keep some cash aside, I’d be willing to take the house off your hands.”

“You’re certainly cocky.”

 

“No reason not to be.” Heyes stared the older man, dark almost black eyes boring into pale gray blue ones. “Show your cards? Or do you want to prolong it? I could raise another five hundred or so.”

“Let’s put an end to this, then.” Eddie Lee placed his cards on the table, three nines and two sevens, the pasteboards slightly damp from his sweaty hand.

Not saying a word, Heyes spread his cards in a fan, laying them next to Shaunnessy’s. Three tens and two jacks. He had won.

The other men in the room erupted in a roar of enthusiasm, slapping Heyes on the back and whistling their approval. The two Shaunnessys were mute, their faces glowering. Heyes sat quietly, knowing it wasn’t quite over yet.

“I expect a rematch,” Eddie Lee said finally, “You cannot just walk away with everything.”

“Why not?” Heyes began to collect the poker chips, pushing them roughly into piles.

“This is my house and my deed, and I demand another hand.”

“Now, Shaunnessy, Smith won fair and square,” Polansky pointed out. “You were never a very good loser.”

“I’m no kind of loser.” Eddie Lee clamped a hand over Heyes, preventing him from adding the IOU to his pile of chips. The sharp sound of a gun being cocked echoed loudly in the suddenly quiet room.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Curry spoke in a deadpan voice, his face calm above the pistol in his hand.

“Thaddeus.” Hannibal Heyes glanced over at his cousin, his connection defusing the tension in the Kid that only he could see. “If Eddie Lee wants another hand, I don’t see why I can’t oblige him.” He jerked his hand away from Shaunnessy’s grasp. “But how bout five hands?”

“Five?” Eddie Lee eyed him with suspicion. “You want the rest of them back in the game? This is just between us.”

“I bet you everything -- except the deeds, that I can make five winning hands from any twenty five cards dealt,” Heyes proposed.

Kid bit down on his bottom lip, trying not to smile. It was a sucker bet if ever there was one. Heyes had won with this trick more times than he could count. He reholstered his weapon as the atmosphere in the room calmed.

“Huh.” Jimmy Joe chuffed a laugh, “I’d take that bet.”

“I just bet you would.” The dark haired ex-outlaw grinned easily. “What about your brother?”

“Why not?” Eddie Lee’s bonhomie was back. “Except I get the chance to win back the deeds.”

Heyes had expected that, and nodded his assent. “Who’ll deal?”

“I will.” Polansky pulled out a chair, shuffled the cards several times under the watchful eyes of the two participants, split the deck in half once, reshuffled and then dealt out twenty-five cards.

It was, in essence, a parlor trick which couldn’t be lost. Heyes never told his mark which hands he was going to create, just that they’d be hands that could win a poker game. Frankly, he rarely won with three of a kind, but as he studied the twenty-five cards on the table, that was the first thing he found. Three fours. He quickly began to select cards to build five winning hands.

“Can’t be done.” Eddie Lee smiled smugly, not seeing the possible combinations of the cards.

Unbeknownst to any of the men watching Heyes’ quick fingers rearrange the cards, Ruth Ann had slipped into the room and squeezed between the long legs.

“Take that ten,” Her voice piped. She picked up the ten of spades and added it to a pile Heyes had already compiled. “Full house, two queens, three tens.”

“Thanks, sweetheart.” Heyes grinned, finishing the last five cards as she’d instructed.
“It’s kinda smoky in here.”

Ruth Ann wrinkled her nose from the thick pall of cigar smoke in the room.

“Don’t worry, we won’t be here much longer.” Kid put his hand on her blond braid. “Looks like Joshua won.”

“And we get the river?” the little girl cried, “Thank you, Joshua!” She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him happily while the other men looked at the pasteboards on the table in astonishment.

Eddie Lee’s face was tomato red.

“I’d agree.” Polansky agreed patting Ruth Ann’s arm as she jumped up and down with excitement. “Shaunnessy, you said it couldn’t be done, and he managed to do it in five minutes. Two straight flushes, a full house, two pair and three of a kind.”

The other men nodded, Miller Sebastian examining the cards with interest. He’d never understood poker, but if it could be used to bring down a criminal, he was eager to learn more.

“Can you do that every time?” Ruth Ann crowed, memorizing yet another piece of poker trivia.

“Just about.” Heyes stood. “Eddie Lee? That’s about the end, I’d say.” He folded the deed and the IOU carefully, secreting them in his inner jacket pocket.

“Fine,” The elder Shaunnessy seethed, gritting his teeth, his fury barely contained. “Expose my wife, my children to poverty and ridicule.”

“I’d say you did that all on your own,” Sheriff Taylor said neutrally. “I’m arresting your brother for poisoning two cows and kidnapping Ruth Ann Kinney.”

“You can’t do this!” Jimmy Joe protested as the sheriff relieved him of his gun and escorted him towards the door. Francis Doyle grinned broadly as he held open the door for the lawman. “I’m not going!” Jimmy Joe shouted.

“We are.” Heyes hadn’t been an outlaw for many years for nothing. He knew when to make an escape. Giving Ruth Ann a little push to get her out of the room, he jerked his head at his partner. “Get the horses.” When Curry had left, he addressed the cadaverous banker. “Carmichael, I’d like to cash in now.”

* * * * *

 

With a small guard of friendly mountain inhabitants, Heyes, Kid and Ruth Ann headed back up the trail only a short time later. Heyes wasn’t entirely sanguine about taking a child up a dark mountain after midnight but he knew the sisters wouldn’t be able to sleep until they knew she was safe. Plus, as dangerous as a horseback ride on a cold moonlit night might be, he had a certain nervousness about Eddie Lee’s temperament with his brother in jail. Unfortunately, there was no real reason to put the older brother in jail, too. That was, until people started to talk. Andy Taylor had been fairly certain that a few more unsavory facts could be dug up about the Shaunnessys that might put both behind bars.

“You did it, Joshua.” Kid grinned triumphantly, kneeing his horse around a rock on the trail. “Exactly how much money did you actually get?”

“About one hundred thousand, plus the land.” Heyes returned his grin, finally able to feel excited about his win. The whole evening, he’d had nervous flutters in the pit of his stomach, totally unlike his usual calm poker persona. The stakes had been so incredibly high, and not because of the money. He’d played to save the Sisters’ home, their livelihood and their dignity. It was a very different feeling to be depended on for so much. He’d once led outlaws on dangerous raids and robberies, but he’d never felt so important before. He held a sleepy Ruth Ann in front of him on the saddle.

“You’ve given Cottersville new hope,” Polansky said proudly. “Without those Shaunnessys.”

“He’s not totally gone,” Heyes negated. “And now he’s angry.”

“You’ve declawed the beast,” Miller Sebastian spoke up from behind them. “A lot of people are going to feel very differently about him after they hear what he’s done.”

“Joshua.” Kid drawled his cousin’s alias. “You took his money and his power. You could run the bank now.”

“Hey.” the ex-outlaw sat up straighter in the saddle, intrigued at the idea. “D’ya think I could?”

“Know anything about banking, Smith?” Polansky asked, reining his horse in to walk parallel to the other man. “There’ll probably be a job opening soon.”

“You might say I used to be very involved in the banking business.” Heyes bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. He held Ruth Ann close to his chest with his right hand, guiding the piebald with his left.

The coterie of guards peeled off halfway up the mountain, leaving the other three to continue up by themselves. The early morning darkness was frigidly cold and still, although Kid saw deer dart across the trail at one point, delicate long legged shadows against the inky darkness of the densely grouped trees. But the ride was quiet, no hint of danger at any time and they arrived safely at the orphanage.

Three female voices could be heard singing sweetly in Latin, their voices harmonizing beautifully with the soft wind through the overhanging pines.

“They waited up,” Kid said, sitting in the saddle a moment longer to listen to the song.

“That surprises you?” Heyes regarded his cousin’s profile, just barely visible in the light of a lantern hung from the eave of the porch.

“Just haven’t had anybody wait up for me in a long time.”

“It’s a whole new world, Kid.” Heyes shook the sleepy child in front of him. “Time to wake up, sweetheart, we’re home.”

It wasn’t just the nuns who were still awake. All four children came bursting into the front room as they entered. Greeting the prodigal sons and daughter as if they’d been gone for weeks instead of just over half a day, they filled the room with love and happiness. Heyes, Kid and Ruth Ann were plied with food and drink and repeatedly made to describe every detail of the ordeal, and especially the poker game.

After the early morning breakfast of freshly baked bread, for Sister Luke had channeled her night’s nervous energy into a frenzy of baking, the entire group around the plank table agreed that they needed a good morning’s sleep. So, as dawn was pinking the clouds and gilding the tops of the evergreens, the orphanage went to sleep.

It was well after noon when the first person stirred. Sister Mary Joseph was just adjusting her wimple when she heard a voice from out in the yard.

“Hallo, the house! Anybody home?”

“Who is that?” Heyes jerked up in his bed, nearly sending Kid over the side.

“Watch out,” the blond man grumbled, still more asleep than awake.

“There’s someone outside.” Heyes climbed over his cousin, found his clothes and pulled on a pair of trousers.

“It’s Steven!” Ruth Ann could be heard running down the hall. Heyes opened the door in time to see the tips of her blond braids disappearing into the main room.

By the time the ex-outlaws had dressed and arrived in the yard, they found all three nuns and all the children gathered around a virtual twin to Charles. At second glance, Steven Kinney was taller and leaner, but the family resemblance was uncanny. The brothers were lustily clapping each other on the back and laughing.

Ruth Ann had her arms around his waist and was describing the previous evening in terms suitable for a dime novel. Eddie Lee was despic’ble, Joshua was amaz’ng and Thaddeus brave in the face of danger. The others were all clambering to put their two cents in and Steven was laughing helplessly, unable to quite understand a word with everyone talking at once.

“Sounds like a lot’s been going on here since I left.” He waded through the children. “Nice to know somebody’s been keeping an eye on the place.”

Steven wasn’t exactly what Heyes had expected, but then, nothing at Children of Jesus orphanage ever turned out as he expected. He grinned and introduced himself as the whole tribe returned to the main room to catch up.

“You really won the old man’s land back?” Steven asked, impressed. “I just about lost my shirt the one an’ only time I played in that game!”

“You didn’t tell me you played with Eddie Lee,” Mary Moses admonished.

“Not my finest hour, Sister. I’d built up a nest egg an’ I got into the game, but I lost.” He shrugged. “I thought you’d be proud of me if I had enough for a stake and then some. I thought maybe I could give you some money to help run the place . . .”

“But you felt disgraced after you lost?” Mary Joseph questioned gently. When he nodded miserably, she gave his arm a squeeze. “Is that why you left?”

“Yes’ ma’am.” He pushed a hank of heavy blond hair out of his eyes.

“You didn’t have to leave, Steven,” Charles spoke up. “But what made you come back here after Denver and San Francisco?”

“I had even less luck there.” Steven held up his hands, indicating the swayback horse he’d come in on, “I guess I failed . . .”

“You didn’t fail,” Mary Joseph said quietly. “You just didn’t succeed at gambling. God undoubtedly has a different path for you.”

“Yeah, an’ we love you anyways.” Ruth Ann leaned her head against his shoulder.

“Thanks, sis.” He felt the rush of acceptance his family gave him.

“And you’re the onliest one who could ever get the ball outta the barn rafters,” Samuel said earnestly, with Sofia nodding in agreement behind him.

“But I bet your sister could win you at poker, now.” Zeke nudged his knee.

“Truly?” Steven gave Ruth Ann a quizzical look, making a comical face before pulling her into a hug.

“She’s my protégé.” Heyes laughed.

“And he’s a fair teacher,” Kid added. “But it helps that she’s got a poker genius.”

“Care for a game?” Ruth Ann wheedled.

“Don’t mind a little diversion.” Steven laughed again.

“Couldn’t have said it better myself.” Heyes pulled out the battered deck of cards, shuffling then rapidly.

“The sisters don’t mind?” Steven asked in surprise. “Things have changed since I left.”

“We can hardly regard this as a sin, when we used gambling to get back the land,” Joe said dryly, “But I do have a few things to confess when Father Lawrence finally arrives.”

“Oh, me too,” Ruth Ann said so solemnly that the rest of them laughed.

While Sister Luke prepared a feast fit for a prince, the others played a laughter filled round of five card. Heyes found this competition so much more enjoyable than the tense one of the night before, he could have played all afternoon. With Steven, Ruth Ann and Kid, he even had some worthy opponents, although Zeke and Charles kept the game lively with silly pranks and jokes when they lost. The twins attempted to play one hand together, with hilarious results.

“It’s like the clouds opened up and God smiled on us today.” Joseph cupped her elbows in her palms, watching the game fondly. She felt giddy, a little bubble of joy tickling the underside of her breastbone. This was the way it should be; the room overflowing with happiness. In fact, she felt so full of love, it threatened to spill out of her and roll out of the window into the yard, like a bright light illuminating the place.

“It’s wonderful. A prayer,” Moses agreed. “I wish we could preserve moments like this, the way a spider gets caught in amber. Forever.”

“Ah, but I can.” Joe tapped the side of her black veil. “In my memory.”

“Sisters!” Zeke popped up, having lost at poker, as usual. “I think we need to light the bonfire. For a celebration!”

“That’s a wonderful idea.” Joseph smiled. “I think you have been more than patient waiting for the fire. Have you saved some matches?”

“I won every one!” Ruth Ann crowed. “From him, anyway. But I’ll donate as many as you need.”

Darkness came early at this time of year, especially on the top of the mountain where the trees held the night down close to the ground. Directly after dinner, it was shadowy in the yard, and the pile of dry branches from the downed tree and broken boards from the chapel made an impressively large dark mound.

“We thank the Lord for all the riches of the earth and especially the people . . .”

“And land,” Moses added in a stage whisper.

“That have been returned to us this day,” Joseph continued with a raise of her eyebrow in her companion’s direction. The darkness, fortunately, hide the expression. “We continue to live in humble thanksgiving of God’s love and compassion. Amen.”

“Amen,” the rest chorused. “Father, son and Holy Spirit.”

“You are the light of the world!” Sister Luke said loudly, apparently having decided that having spoken once, she could do so again. This caused several Hallelujahs from the children.

“Time to light the fire!” Zeke shrieked, frightening an owl in the branches overhead. He struck the first match and threw it in.

It took more than one match to get the blaze going, but very soon the dry branches caught. The yellow flames illuminated the little compound with a roaring heat and a brightness to match to noonday sun.

“Sister, I have to say, this isn’t exactly what I expected when we limped in here on one horse.” Heyes settled his back against the porch railing.

“Can’t tell the future?” Mary Joseph teased gently. “My goodness, Hannibal, and I was beginning to think you had mystical powers.”

“Me?” Heyes scoffed. “It’s you-you’ve got the connections to the man up above.”

“There’s no mystical power in that.” She shook her head, folding her hands together in demonstration. “That’s just simple prayer.”

“Mary Joseph, nothing about you is ever simple.”

The children had linked hands and were dancing around the bonfire like pagans at an ancient festival, the flames highlighting the gold blond hair of the three Kinneys. Charles swung Sofia up onto his shoulders and bounced her around the circle while she began to sing a hymn off-key. Immediately, Samuel demanded equal time on Steven’s shoulders as the other children joined the song with zeal.

Watching from the sidelines, Mary Moses kept time by clapping her hands and Kid added his voice to the chorus, although he obviously didn’t know all the words. Zeke’s dark face glowed with happiness as sparks flickered and snapped above the flames, mingling with the twinkling stars above.

“Kid and I talked. We think it’s about time to leave-probably on Monday,” Heyes said, glancing at the nun out of the corner of his eye to judge her reaction.

“I’d expected as much.” She looked over at him, their eyes level. “We always knew you couldn’t stay forever.”

“The thing is -- I’d kind of like to.” He shrugged. “But it’s not the right time yet, and besides, I’m real glad that Steven’s here. You nuns need a man around the place.”

“You don’t think we can take care of ourselves?” She dimpled at him, still teasing, “And I thought you said I have guts.”

“Guts, no question, and you’ve got a surprising amount of gumption, but I still feel you’ll all be safer with a man around.”

“You got rid of Mr. Shaunnessy,” she pointed out.

“Not entirely,” Heyes admitted. “But he’s not the only shark in the ocean.”

“I can swim.” Mary Joseph tucked her hands into her voluptuous sleeves. “I want you to take care of yourself, too. Don’t draw to any inside straights, as I believe the saying goes.”

“I never have. It’s a sucker’s play. And why do I always have to explain myself to you?”

“I don’t know, why do you?”

“You just want the last word, don’t you?”

“Hannibal Heyes, God always has the last word, but I come a close second.”

“I knew that,” he grumbled good naturedly, then went to join the bonfire dance.

* * * * * *

Sunday dawned gloriously, as if even the weather wanted to be on hand to celebrate the new chapel. There was much to be done before the eleven o’clock service and every man, nun and child around the orphanage had many jobs to finish. Luckily, the Billings family came up early in the buckboard they’d borrowed from Dr. Sebastian, and their many hands made light work. Even Abner Senior was well enough to sit and help Sister Luke shell peas, peel potatoes and chop vegetables for the after church soup.

Marcus Polansky showed up sometime after ten with a small Guernsey in tow. He helped stow her in the barn, letting the children fight over who would name her. She wasn’t quite ready to be a milk cow yet, but that would come soon enough. Until then, Ruth Ann proclaimed her a pet, and stroked her soft nose with delight.

As the morning progressed, the yard filled with people, until they were upon the appointed hour. Without any formal discussion, a sort of solemn procession formed as the congregation filed into the chapel to take their places. After the Billings, Polanskys -- including the newborn twins -- the Doyles, Dr. Sebastian, and Sheriff Taylor had found pews, more and more people began to squeeze in until it was filled to the overflowing. There were enough people still standing outside in the yard to fill the little chapel three times over.

Sister Mary Joseph crossed herself in amazement at the sight of the crowd, as she stood on the front porch of the orphanage. “The whole town must have come up this morning.”

“It’s Joshua and Thaddeus’s doing.” Mary Moses clapped her hands together, “They’ve shown everyone what a scoundrel that Eddie Lee Shaunnessy was. Given people courage few knew they had.”

“I don’t think we should have any more talk of him on this glorious morning,” Joe scolded gently, “It’s the Sabbath and our services are about to begin.”

Sister Luke joined them, holding a warm loaf of bread for communion wrapped in a linen napkin.

Kid leaned against the side of the barn, feeling slightly out of place. Although certainly baptized Catholic many years before, he’d rarely attended any sort of church since.
“Heyes, d’you think what we’ve done . . . thieving and robbing’ and all, makes us real sinners?”

“Probably, Kid, it’d take a year of confession to wipe us clean.” Heyes pushed his black hat forward to shade his eyes as he watched the people still trying to find more room in the tiny chapel.

“I don’t think we ought to . . . ”

“The thing is, Sister Joe doesn’t hold it against us,” Heyes continued in a conversational tone. “And personally, I think that counts for a lot with Him.”

“This one’s different than the little Mass she had the other day, though,” Kid argued, resting his bandaged right arm in the crook of his left elbow.

“I think, when it’s all said and done, it’s all the same.” Heyes inclined his head in a follow-me gesture, “This one’s just got a little more pomp and circumstance, C’mon, she expects us to come.”

“Be a right shame to disappoint Sister Joe.” Curry took off his hat as he followed his partner over to the church.

The thunder of small and not so small feet heralded the children, and the nuns shepherded them between the groups of waiting townsfolk into the church. The children filled the front pew, bowing their heads like the little angels they weren’t, giggling all the while. Heyes and the Kid tucked themselves into the back amongst the standees, not wanting to have undue attention paid to them.

The candles were lit, and mass began. Hymns sung and ancient prayers recited. Many of the congregation were not Catholic, and had not attended a religious service in many years, so the responses and amens were a bit ragged, but enthusiastic. The Sisters had long known that although Latin was the traditional way to conduct a mass, it greatly helped to ease worshippers into the service by having some parts said in English.

Mary Moses read the morning’s epistle from Revelations, “Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees . . .”

The people who lived in and around Cottersville nodded, appreciating these words. Most had carved their homesteads and lives from the land by their own sweat and hard labor. The earth, sea and trees were things to be held carefully, not to be used as a commodity as Shaunnessy had done. Nearly every person in the building had had some dealing with the banker. All were greatly heartened to learn that many of his dealings had been illegal, and that there might be hope that others besides the nuns might get back their lost properties.

The Gospel was from the Sermon on the Mount, a reading so apropos that it caused a few chuckles from the congregation.

“Jesus seeing the multitudes, went up into a mountain and when he was set, his disciples came unto him . . . ” Sister Mary Joseph read in a quiet, solemn voice. Her smooth face, framed by the black veil, shone with happiness as she read the beautiful words, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

After the scattered amens, Joseph put the Bible carefully aside and stood up behind the pulpit. She folded her hands, taking a quiet moment in prayer as the gathered multitudes waited. The children shifted restlessly in the hard pew, glancing back curiously when one of the baby twins wailed. Marcus Polansky bounced the baby on his arm, shushing her, while his wife rocked the boy twin.

“The Lord’s mercy is everlasting,” Mary Joseph began. “And his truth endureth from generation to generation. We say this at almost every Mass. But what is mercy? Kindness and compassion, benevolent forgiveness . . . something to be thankful for. God’s Love. We are thankful for this, and for His kindness and compassion, but the quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth like the gentle rain from Heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes . . . ”

In the back of the chapel, Heyes grinned, his dimples deep in both cheeks, recognizing the source of the nun’s words. Kid looked over questioningly, but when he got no response, went back to concentrating on the sermon.

“Well, we had more than a gentle rain recently, but I think that it may have been a more powerful rain than the one that caused Noah’s ark to float. That past flood changed all our lives in ways we may never fully understand. For whatever reason, that rain brought mercy . . . kindness, something to be thankful for. Had a tree not fallen on our old chapel, we would not have needed a new one built. Had the rain not caused pain to some of our friends, strife in the lives of others, we might not all have been brought together. It may not have been a gentle rain, but it was a rain from Heaven. It brought compassion and kindness back into our lives, it brought a community together. For this, I am truly thankful. But we must have mercy for others, as well. There are those among us who have recently not been so fortunate, and feel perhaps ostracized from the community . . . they deserve, not only God’s mercy, but our own, because mercy both gives and takes . . . and as we all know, it is more blessed to give than to receive.” She bowed her head to hide the smile, but all saw it and returned it with their own.

“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy . . . ”

“Joshua Smith, I want you out here!” The rough voice, interrupting the Holy words, shocked the congregation into silence.

Heyes was nearer to the door; he stumbled around the older couple to his right, and emerged into the bright yard to see the gathered crowd spread out in a loose circle around a gun wielding, crazy eyed Eddie Lee Shaunnessy.

The burly man hadn’t changed his clothes since the night before, but now the wine colored vest and pin striped pants looked stained and creased, and he’d lost his jacket, despite the cold air. He swung the pistol up square as Heyes emerged from the chapel.

“You deserve to rot in hell,” he snarled, the sun glinting off the silver blue barrel of the Colt. “I had this town right where I wanted it, and you come in here . . . acting like some savior . . . Well, I know who you are . . . ”

“Eddiebo . . . Lee,” Kid spoke sharply from behind his partner, wanting to stop him before he blurted out their secret in front of all of Cottersville. “This isn’t the time or the place. These people are having mass . . . ”

“Never been a practicing Catholic.” Shaunnessy laughed harshly.

“But others here are.” Heyes took up his cousin’s train of thought, “We can discuss this in the house.”

“Shoulda been my house, I had it all planned out.” Eddie Lee glanced at the little building to his left, then back at his prey, waving the gun threateningly. “Could come up here, get away from that . . . woman. But you’ll never guess what happened?”

“What?” Heyes asked, knowing this was his cue. He was acutely aware of the townspeople on all sides of him, and more importantly, the nuns and children in the chapel behind him. He could feel the press of Kid’s body behind his, but in deference to the church service, neither man had worn their guns that morning.

“She threw me out! Said I disgraced her! And I don’t have my little house yet . . . so I’ll just take it.” He leveled the gun and pulled the trigger.

“Down!” Kid shouted shoving people to the ground around him as the bullet whined above them, imbedding itself in the doorframe.

Inside the church, the babies began to wail, their cries grating on the already strained nerves of the congregation. Zeke pulled Ruth Ann towards the back of the sanctuary, inclining his head to include her two brothers.

“Joshua and Thaddeus need our help,” Zeke whispered urgently.

“What can we do?” Ruth Ann demanded.

“Where are their guns?” Steven asked, the only one of them who had much experience with firearms, apart from Curry’s impromptu fast draw lessons.

“In their saddlebags.” Zeke grinned, then showed them the small door at the back of the chapel put in to allow easy access to the woodpile and outhouse. He explained his plan his quick sentences.

“You can’t shoot your gun off like that, people could get hurt!” Heyes protested from his crouch against the chapel wall. Had he been wearing his hat, the bullet would have put a hole through the crown, it had passed so closely to his head.

“Then everybody better clear out,” Shaunnessy warned. “Cause, when I’m through, this won’t be a pretty sight.” The townspeople behind him started for the river, afraid of deadly gunfire.

“Joshua!” Ruth Ann sobbed, running past the startled nuns to her favorite poker buddy, and sinking to her knees as Shaunnessy pulled off a wild shot. The bullet went wide, not even hitting the building, plowing a furrow in a tree beyond.

Nobody noticed the boys sneaking out the back to the chapel and around the barn to the kitchen door of the house.

The little girl threw her arms around Heyes, burrowing her face in his shoulder. “I thought he’d hit you.”

“Ruth Ann, get back here,” Mary Joseph insisted, her heart hammering in her chest. The man she was certain would never do anything to really harm them was shooting at a child!

“Shaunnessy, this has gone too far.” Sheriff Taylor had worked his way through the terrified congregation inside the church, and now took his place beside Kid, urging the rest of the people back into the relative safety of the wooden building. “You’re under arrest.”

“How’re you gonna stop me, huh, Taylor?” The crazed man’s face was florid red, his breath coming in harsh pants, “Not a one of you is wearing a gun.” He laughed, “Where’s your bravado now, Jones? Now you’re just a broken arm . . . ”

Kid stood slowly, mirroring Heyes’ ascent. The impotency he’d felt after his accident flooded through him, but there was nothing he could do, not with the innocent bystanders all around. He could hear soft whimpers from some of the women and other children, and the increasingly desperate screams from the baby twins.

“I said before,” Heyes’ voice was surprisingly steady. “We can discuss this in the house. Before anyone gets hurt.” He squeezed Ruth Ann’s gingham clad shoulder, then sent her back to the nuns.

“I said I don’t want to,” Shaunnessy balked, but his gun hand was visibly shaking.

“The deeds are in there,” Heyes wheedled. “Carmichael brought up the rest of the money and your deed this morning. You can have it. Just lay down the gun so we can walk calmly into the house and talk.”

“I’ll go into the house,” the bigger man conceded. “Walk ahead of me, no tricks.”

Exchanging a quick look with Kid, Heyes crossed the compound until he was next to Shaunnessy. The few townspeople still near the house shuffled to one side to give them room to walk, with Kid following the little parade closely behind. He realized Heyes had some plan working, but hadn’t a clue of what it might be.

Heyes took the porch steps slowly, but seemed to stumble as he went through the front door, grabbing the doorframe as he folded in half. Shaunnessy halted in his tracks, startled, his gun hand wavering.

“Joshua!” Ruth Ann’s high pitched voice rang out, and once again she dashed past the nuns, although Sister Luke made a grab for her skirt.

This distraction was enough for Heyes to spin around in the doorway, a pistol in his hand. Kid was close enough behind Eddie Lee that he swung his still bandaged right arm like a battering ram, knocking the Colt from his slack fingers and giving him a kick that sent him to his knees. Sheriff Taylor took over, handcuffing the astonished man before there was any more violence. A ragged cheer broke out from all around the compound, as the nervous townspeople emerged from the woods.

“Where’d you get the gun?” Kid laughed, adrenaline still racing through his veins. He hugged his arching arm against his chest. He never should have slammed it into the heavier man, but it was the only thing he could think to do. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.

“I had some help.” Heyes grinned, as all three boys tumbled out of the house, armed to the teeth.

“It was a Zeke Marstan plan! “ the little boy shouted, waving the rifle he’d appropriated in the air.

“I knew you were a snake! You’re like a viper . . . getting these people on your side!” Shaunnessy spit at Heyes, foam coming from his mouth.

“That’ll be enough, Shaunnessy.” Andy Taylor pushed him roughly to where the horses were corralled behind the barn. Several men from Cottersville went to help him escort the prisoner to jail.

“Zeke, I’m extremely proud of all of you, but put that weapon down now.” Sister Mary Joseph decided it was time to exert her control over the situation, now that it had been defused.

The boy knew who was boss, and handed it to Kid, who shouldered it absently. Heyes threw his arms around Ruth Ann, astounded at how frightened he’d been for her safety.

“I think we could all use a prayer right now,” Mary Moses agreed shakily. She’d never been more terrified in her life. The townspeople gathered around the nuns, the rest of the people spilling out of the chapel, until the yard was filled with relieved people.

Steven gathered the guns from his brother, piling them all on the porch while the Sisters concluded their mass in the open air, under the canopy of greenery. The cold, bright air was quickly filled with the sound of nearly all of Cottersville singing praises to the Lord. The birds above couldn’t have sung with more joy.

 

* * * * * *

Gallons of vegetable soup were consumed by the hungry populace as every one talked about the close call, and how bravely Smith and Jones had acted. Many came by to congratulate and thank them before starting the long journey back down the mountain.

It was mid afternoon before crowd in the yard had reduced to a more intimate group of friends, and there was more of an opportunity to talk easily. The remains of the dedication feast were still scattered along the plank tables. Mary Moses helped Sister Luke clear away the dirty dishes with Sofia and Samuel trailing behind her like ducklings following their mama.

Heyes helped himself to a handful of chocolate cookies, offering one to his partner who declined, having eaten three pieces of pie.

“How did you know the boys would be in there?” Kid asked curiously. His arm had ached abominably since he’d walloped Shaunnessy, and he’d finally had to ask Miller Sebastian for a dose of the pain powder. He was now feeling a lot better, and had enjoyed getting to know the locals, but wanted to reconnect with his partner.

“Ruth Ann.” Heyes caught sight of her playing a spirited game of some sort with two equally blond Billings girls, “She whispered to me when she was pretending to cry. That girl is gonna be the death of me . . . ”

“Spoken like a real Daddy,” Kid teased.

Heyes stared at him in shock, the half eaten cookie halted midway to his mouth. “You think so?”

“She’s got your talents.”

“It’s true.” Heyes took a large bite from his cookie. “It’s frightening.”

“Want to find out if she’d a natural at safe cracking?” Kid proposed, a twinkle in his blue eyes.

“Let’s not.” Sister Joe stood behind them, giving both a stern look despite the amusement she was trying to hide.

“Sister, did you ever work as a spy during the war?” Heyes covered the startle she always gave him by finishing the cookie, then dusting off his hands. “You can move quieter’n an Indian trackin’ a cougar.”

“One of my talents.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “Proved useful in the convent.”

“I’ll bet.” Kid barked a laugh, imaging Sister Joseph and his older sibling Sister Assumpta as young novices gliding across polished marble floors with silent grace.

“Enjoyed your sermon, Sister.” Heyes grinned, still watching the girls play tag around the pine trees. “Don’t often hear those words in a church.”

“You recognized it, did you?” Her dimples matched his own, “I allowed myself a small wager to see how many people would.”

“Did you win?”

“There are quite a few more literate people up here than I realized.” She held up three fingers. “You’re the fourth. I knew Marcus Polansky would be familiar with the quote, but I was pleasantly surprised when Seth Green caught my little joke, and so did Dr. Sebastian.”

“What are you two talkin’ about?” Kid demanded. “It was a fine sermon.”

“Sure was, Kid, but she didn’t get all her words from the Bible.”

“There’s no rule that says one has to,” Sister Joe informed him, selecting a cookie from the nearly empty plate. “A beautiful, meaningful passage.”

“From Merchant of Venice,” Heyes identified. “She was quoting Shakespeare, Kid. Remember that play we saw in Denver a few years back? Romeo and Juliet? Shakespeare wrote ‘em both.”

“Liked that play, that man could twist around words even fancier that you, Heyes.”

“Your silver tongue certainly proved worthy today,” she remarked, delicately eating the cookie. “Things are always lively with the two of you around.”

Kid cleared his throat, “That’s why I think we should leave. Let things settle down a mite.”

“But I want you both to come back when you can.” She laid a long fingered hand on each man’s arm. “You have a home here. We owe you more than we can ever give thanks for.”

“Oh, Sister.” Heyes leaned over to give her smooth cheek a chaste kiss. “You’ll never know what we owe you.”

Mary Joseph winked at him. “Just keep your appointment with the Wyoming Governor when the time comes.”

“Planning to send a telegram to our friend Lom tomorrow,” Heyes explained. “He has the Governor’s ear.”

“Jedediah, how’s your arm?” she asked. “I worry that it was perhaps a bit foolhardy to smack Mr. Shaunnessy as you did.”

“It worked didn’t it?” He rubbed the spot on the bandage where the arm beneath ached.
“Doc says I probably just bruised it. Bone’s still healin’.”

“And you can ride?”

“I’ve done it in worse shape than this,” Kid assured her.

“Joe, stop worrying about us.” Heyes pointed to Charles and Clarissa sitting under a tree with Steven and a fiery redhead who could only come from the Doyle family, nearby. Both couples had eyes only for each other, lost in their own romantic worlds. “You’ve got those two to keep you busy now.”

I think I’ll manage,” she said dryly. “But I may have to have some discussions with the girls about . . . babies and such.”

“Sister!” Kid positively blushed. “What about the boys?”

“I could give that assignment to the both of you,” she mused. “But since you’re intent on leaving, I may have to recruit Dr. Sebastian.”

“Good choice.” Heyes hastily scanned the activity in the yard. “Kid, c’mon, I think the Billings could use some help packin’ up.”

“Probably, with Abner still laid up.” Curry followed him posthaste, leaving the tall nun laughing to herself.

 

* * * * *

 

Monday was so cold, frost had decorated all the orphanage windows with feathery patterns of silver ferns. Their breath showing smoke even inside the house, the younger children excitedly added to the designs, tracing their fingers across nature’s artwork, leaving five fingered handprints that melted and disappeared as the fire in the hearth began to warm the room.

Breakfast was both joyous and heartbreaking as it began to sink in that Kid and Heyes were serious about leaving. Sister Luke had concocted fluffy pancakes with molasses syrup and fried bacon as a treat, piling each plate until Charles’ stack toppled over on its side. The laughter around the table dispelled the tension and bouyed appetites. Kid filled his stomach, knowing that after a couple days on the trail, all he’d have to eat would be canned beans and Heyes’ bitter coffee.

It was with definite reluctance that the cousins began to pack their belongings. Heyes recalled his first impressions upon learning that they’d stumbled upon an orphanage. He’d expected Kid to insist on leaving, and here they were nearly a month later, wishing there was a reason to stay. The twins trotted behind Sister Mary Moses when she brought in their folded laundry, eyeing the two men as if they were traitors.

Carrying his bags into the front room, Heyes took a last look around. Ruth Ann sat with her back to him at the plank table, twenty five cards spread out in front of her. She slid a five of clubs out and paired it with the five of diamonds.

Zeke, chewing on a apple, watched her game with interest. Heyes reached over the little girl’s shoulder and selected the queen of hearts, placing it in her hand. She gripped his fingers tightly, then got up to follow him outside to where he tied up the saddled horses.

Leaving the children was harder than either of the ex-outlaws expected. Neither had ever had much previous long term experience with youngsters, and they weren’t prepared for how much the kids had wormed their way into their hearts.

“Joshua, remember the first day you were here?” Ruth Ann leaned against the compact gray mustang Heyes had brought from Francis Doyle, rubbing the horse’s velvety nose.

“When we were trying to pull the tree off the chapel,” Zeke supplied helpfully.

“And he hadda cold,” Sofia added, her twin nodding in agreement.

“I remember.” Heyes toyed with the end of Ruth Ann’s braid, brushing the back of her neck with it. She giggled, grabbing his hand to stop the tickling.

“I said God sent you here to help us, an’ I was right,” she declared firmly. She looked down at the red card she still held. “But he didn’t tell me you were gonna leave.”

“Ruth Ann, I’ve heard you say more’n once that God works in mysterious ways.” Heyes said, not believing he was saying these words. “So, I think we have to leave it up to him.”

“I’ll try.” She sighed.

Steven and Charles trooped outside with the ex-outlaws’ saddle bags and bedrolls, wanting to be useful. Kid followed behind, burdened by the sack of home baked goodies and extra food for the trail Sister Luke had pressed on him.

It took all Heyes’ strength to mount up on the gelding with Ruth Ann beginning to sob, but he settled into the saddle, then turned back to wave. Kid was astride the gray, gathering the reins into his gloved hands.

“Go with God,” Mary Moses said, her eyes brimming with tears.

“Stay out of trouble.” Mary Joseph warned, but her eyes looked suspiciously wet, too.

The others waved as the two men rode out of the familiar yard, Ruth Ann burying her face in her brother’s sleeve as the horses reached the river.

* * * * *

Having once entertained elaborate plans of perhaps jumping the passing freight train as it hurtled out of town, one step ahead of threatening Shaunnessys, Heyes found it amusing that he and the Kid rode through Cottersville like welcomed heroes. Townsfolk waved and shouted greetings as they passed, until he thought everyone in town must recognize them.

“Sort of unnerving, everybody knowing who we are,” Kid voiced his partner’s thoughts.

“Except luckily they don’t know our real names or they might be giving up a different reception entirely.” Heyes pulled his coat closer. If Mary Moses’ weather sense were to be believed there would be snow in the next few days, and they needed to be out of the Rockies before then.

“I was beginning to think that maybe ol’Eddieboy did know our nam . . . ” Kid stopped when they saw the red haired sheriff.

“Smith, Jones! “ Taylor hailed them from the steps of the mercantile. “Can I have a word?”

“Sure.” Heyes kneed his horse up to the hitching post, dismounting almost in unison with Kid.

“Sorry to see you two moving on,” Andy said sincerely, hunching his shoulders against the increasing wind.

“We are too, Sheriff.” Kid’s breath froze in the frigid air.

“Got both those Shaunnessy’s behind bars, and already had half a dozen people come out of the woodwork to tell me ‘bout their troubles with the banker and his brother,” the Sheriff began. “You two may have saved this town.”

“Just tryin’ to help the sisters.” Heyes downplayed their actions.

“And Polansky’s proposin’ that you could run the bank . . . ” He grinned with a shake of his head, “I’d say you’d be more’n qualified, Mr. Heyes.”

Kid’s heart stopped momentarily, frozen like the ice on the water trough. He took a wavery breath when Heyes laughed shakily.

“Where’d you get that idea, Sheriff?”

“Wasn’t all that hard to figure out. He’s the fastest draw I ever saw, and that’s with a busted wing.” Andy glanced at the Kid’s holstered gun. “And every lawmen’s heard of Hannibal Heyes’ legendary prowess with cards.”

“So, what do you propose to do?” Kid found his voice.

“Don’t think there’s anything I can do.” The Sheriff shrugged elaborately, “The frost has most likely gotten to the telegraph lines, or if they aren’t downed now, they will be with the first snow. The most I can do is offer you my hand in friendship, and wish you a good trip outta here.”

“Thank you, Taylor.” Heyes ignored the trickle of sweat down his back, despite the cold air. “I’m glad to be a friend of yours, too.”

“Once the circuit judge makes it here, which may not be till Spring at this rate, the Shaunnessys’ll probably be hauled off to the state prison, and I’m sure we’ll need a banker by then.”

“I’ll think on it.” Heyes laughed, relieved beyond his wildest dreams. “We’d better get moving.” The lawman sketched a wave as they mounted up.

“G’bye.” Kid touched his hat, surprised at the Sheriff’s generosity. He reined his horse towards the open road, Heyes’ gelding following with a neigh. “Well, you’ve got a job set, but what’ll I do?”

“Kid, I’m sure we’ll think of something, and if we can’t . . . ”

“Sister Joe will.” Kid finished with him.

 

fin