Kansas summers were miserable, but even more so stuck in an orphanage that didn’t even attempt to alleviate the boys’ misery. At the sound of the word “dismissed,” they ran to the cool water of the lake. It was the one redeemable quality of the home; Valparaiso sat on a small inlet, bordered by the largest lake in Kansas.
Those running the home freely allowed them their time in the water. The boys tiring themselves out were as much a gift to the staff as the cool water was to the children. It was in these moments where they were able to laugh. In these moments, they weren’t orphans, they weren’t survivors, they were just boys.
Heyes pulled his bangs away from his eyes as he collapsed in the mid-day sun next to his friend. “Ms. Carol said we’ll be having pork tonight.”
“Think it’ll be overcooked?” Kid asked.
“Probably.” Just above him, he felt a rain of water coming down; it was their friend, Mark, shaking the water from his long brown locks.
As the lanky boy sat just to Kid’s left, he laughed, “I was thinking we could slip out tonight, go into town.” Using his little finger, he dug in his ear releasing the water that had been trapped inside.
Heyes thought for a moment. “Up for some thievin’?” He asked the Kid.
The night was dark; a crescent moon barely provided enough light to guide the horses. Kid and Heyes sat atop one beast; Mark and Matthew on the other. They made this trip fairly often, ever since they became friends with the twins their shenanigans had increased. To be honest, it made the days more bearable. He’d even grown accustomed to the nickname that he had been saddled with the day their little “gang” formed. The youngest, they quickly took to calling him Kid. He’d rather have been called Curry, just as his friend was called Heyes, but sensing his displeasure, the other boys double-downed – ‘Kid’ he would forever be called.
At the General Store, they slid off the horses and with his tools Heyes had the door open in quick order. It was dark inside, but they had been in the store enough to feel their way around. With the shades closed, a pair of candles provided just enough light to see the space in front of their feet.
The twins made a bee-line to the candy jars, while Heyes worked on the safe. He’d only managed to get it open once before, yet he still tried all the same.
Standing over him, with licorice in hand, Kid asked. “What’s the point Heyes? You ain’t gonna take nuthin’. You said yourself, if we steal too much Frank will figure out it’s us.”
With exasperation, he looked up, “Cause there might come a day when I will need to take what’s inside. Now, will you shut up and let me work?”
Shrugging, Kid joined his friends who were mixing two jars, hot cinnamon and sweet hard candy.
“All right, keep your eyes closed.” Heyes commanded as they walked through the trees. He’d promised him a surprise – an early birthday present. Kid went along for a moment, but his patience was quickly running thin.
Just as they came out of the clearing, Heyes announced, “Now.”
Before them stood a girl from town; Kid remembered her from the last dance. She was shy, twice he had asked for a dance, twice she had said no.
“Heyes.” He spoke, threateningly.
“I ran into her when I went into town with Ms. Carol. I got her some water after Frank mixed up his candies again.” He smiled, devilishly. “Why don’t I give you two some privacy?” Before Kid could protest, Heyes took off into the woods.
Trying to hide his frustration with his friend, Kid smiled, “I’m real sorry about him, ma’am.”
She blushed, a beautiful shade of pink on her ivory skin, he had to admit. “Don’t be sorry. Actually, I had been hoping to run into you again.”
“Well?” Mark asked.
Heyes was looking through a set of binoculars. “He’s making the worst mistake he could in his current predicament.”
Tossing the looking glasses to his friend, he sighed, “He’s being a gentleman.”
“He’s still young.” Matthew shuffled the cards in his hands.
“He’ll be sixteen next week.” Heyes sat on the ground between the two boys.
Matthew handed him the cards, “Deal?”
Sitting on the grassy embankment they started a hand of poker.
“Bet ya $10 he ain’t gonna do nuthin’ more than kiss a woman before he’s seventeen.” Mark remarked.
“You ain’t got $10. Besides, you haven’t done more than kiss a woman.” Heyes replied.
“That ain’t true. Remember at the Christmas social; Lindsey Sue and I dancing?”
“Her tripping over your clumsy feet and you catching her right where you wasn’t supposed to doesn’t count!”
“C’mon Heyes, she did end up touching him at least - right across his cheek with the palm of her hand.” Matthew laughed, just before he received a sharp punch to his arm.
“If you’re interested, there’s a monastery in Northern Kansas that might take you.” Heyes said to the owner of the footsteps behind him.
“Not like you can say much.” Kid smiled.
“You care to make a bet on that?” Heyes squinted as he looked up at his friend.
Kid sat in the vacant spot between the two brothers. “A week of chores.”
“Alright.” Heyes smiled as he laid down the cards and clasped his hands together, “Valentine’s dance.”
Matthew got excited, “I knew it! Stacey Crenwall, ooh, I knew she wasn’t as so-phisticated as she acted!”
Heyes never broke his stare with Kid, who took a deep breath. “Her chaperone.”
Heyes’ smile broadened. “Be sure to make the windows shine.”
Mark stared in disbelief, “No way, she’s gott’a be at least twenty-five!”
“Boys, when you want to learn poker, you don’t take lessons from the player that has never dealt a hand.”
There was trouble at the lake, announced by a boy screaming, “FIGHT!”
They had been sitting under a shade tree, relaxing. Jumping up, the four boys ran. Two teenagers were in the throes, each landing solid hits to the other.
Heyes pulled on another kid’s arm, “What’re they on about?”
“Paul was making fun of Henry for failing his math test today. Starting saying he was stupid and that’s why his folks left him.”
Anger boiled in his chest. Parting the crowd, Kid pulled the smaller of the two back, pinning his arms. Heyes stood in front of the larger boy, his eyes dark and menacing. “Paul, I warned you.”
Behind him, the twins stood at the ready, equally angry.
The boy puffed up his chest. “I didn’t tell no lie. It ain’t my fault he’s too stupid to count to ten.”
Heyes stepped forward; behind him he could hear the Kid. “Let Heyes take care of it.”
“Comin’ from someone that spent his first month in here needin’ his bed sheets changed out every morning, I don’t think you’ve got much room to talk.” He heard a chorus of laughter around him.
The boy took a step forward. In unison, the twins stepped closer as well. The brute smiled, “You think I’m scared of you and your little gang?” He spat. “None of you is worth a plug nickel. You ain’t nuthin’ but a bunch of lyin’ thieves, I bet your folks are downright ashamed.”
Grabbing the boy by his shirt, Heyes reared back, only to have his arm grabbed by Mark, “He ain’t worth it.”
“Ms. Carol is coming,” someone yelled.
Quick as they had gathered, they ran.
Heyes kicked the end of the bed just before he collapsed upon it. Paul had gotten to him, something he had vowed he would never let happen.
“He’s wrong.” Kid sat his right. “They wouldn’t be ashamed.” He paused. “Mad as a wet hen, and we wouldn’t be sittin’ flat for at least a week, but never ashamed.” He smiled and just as he hoped, Heyes returned the favor.
“How about tonight?”
The night was still just as dark. Each boy had his own horse. On the saddle horns, each had a pillow case filled with items they didn’t want to leave behind. As the lights from the orphanage disappeared behind them, Kid asked, “Wyoming, right?”
“Yep, our cousin finally got his dad to say we could come up.” Mark spoke.
“When you say we…?” Heyes asked.
“Well…” he stuttered, “His wife passed about six months ago, she was a mean old hag, she’s why we got sent to Valparaiso in the first place.”
Matthew added, “Besides, Lom’s a smooth talker, kinda like you, Heyes. He’ll take care of us, all of us.”
As they crossed the prairie, they laughed, excited about the adventures that lay ahead.