The snow was falling constantly reducing visibility to a few feet. Kid Curry shivered as he encouraged his horse to keep moving.The tan leather jacket he wore offered little protection from the elements. He stole a glance over his shoulder at his partner who was huddled in his saddle, at least the sheepskin jacket Heyes was wearing offered some warmth.
Curry was a worried man. His mind churned with few options but with many nightmare scenarios; all vying with the image of Heyes being washed from his saddle as they forded a fast flowing river yesterday.
The young ex-outlaw was a man of action, so he moved ahead trying to block some of the icy particles from his partner. The town of Red Gorge, by his reckoning, should be just ahead and the posse, which had dogged them for the last five days had turned back.
Suddenly out of the white expanse Curry spotted a light. He continued moving forward but with new resolve. His reckoning had been right.The town was just ahead. The light he had seen was an oil lantern burning in the window of a house that stood up against a neighboring property about fifty yards from the main street.
Curry stopped his mount at the hitching post outside the house and quickly slid from the saddle. He guided his partner’s horse to the post. “Heyes, just hang on for a minute while I check this out.” He whispered to the slouched rider.
He climbed the two steps to the porch of the house wincing as he heard a wheezing cough coming from his partner. He knew Heyes was sick and if truth be told he felt pretty rough himself but his priority was his best friend and he hoped help lay on the other side of the door. He rapped hard against it.
The door edged open slightly and a woman’s voice rang out clearly. “We’re not open tonight, so come back tomorrow night or when this weather lets up.”
Curry wedged his boot in the gap of the door preventing it from closing. The woman’s voice turned angry. “Now look, we don’t want no trouble, so get back on your horse and ride off.”
“Bertha?” Curry shook his hat off and pulled his bandana from his face.
The door was flung open. “Good God! Kid! As I leave and breathe.”
A woman filled the doorway. She was large and dressed elegantly in a light silver gown with a warm woolen shawl over her shoulders. Her blonde hair was piled in coils and she wore a little rouge on her cheeks. She was past the first bloom of womanhood but was still an attractive woman.
“Bertha, we’re in trouble, Heyes is sick, real sick. He needs help.”
“Kid, by the look of you he’s not the only one.” She stepped onto the porch, embracing the chilled man. She squinted her eyes and spotted the slumped figure on the horse at the hitching post.
“Has he been shot?” She asked.
“No. He’s coughing real bad and he damned near drowned yesterday.” Kid pulled out of the embrace and headed towards his partner.
The large woman followed him. Together they managed to ease Heyes from his horse and half carry him into the house. Bertha pushed open a door to the right of the front door revealing a large but cosy room heated by a roaring fire of logs. Loud coughs echoed in the room as they lowered Heyes onto a comfortable couch in front of the fireplace. Bertha raised her eyes as she realized that both men were coughing.
“Strip him out of those wet clothes, Kid while I get us all a drink.” She commanded as she went to a small table on the other side of the room. She picked up a cut glass decanter and poured large measures into three glasses. She left one on the table and returned to the couch with the other two.
Curry’s cold hands were making little progress in stripping his partner. She handed him a glass and knelt down beside the couch. She lifted Heyes’s head and propping him up against the back of the couch she eased the glass between his lips.
“Heyes honey, you gotta’ drink this. It’s brandy, the good stuff. It’ll warm you right up.”
Fevered brown eyes fluttered open. “Kid?”
“I’m right here, We’re at Bertha’s place. We’re safe, Heyes, you’re going to be fine, just rest now.” Curry hovered beside the couch the brandy in his glass untouched.
Heyes closed his eyes but not before Bertha managed to get some of the fortifying drink into him.
Bertha began to strip Heyes. “Kid, drink your brandy, Heyes ain’t got nothing that I haven’t seen before.” She snorted at the young man.
Kid drank back the alcohol and began coughing as the strong liquid hit the back of his throat.
“Thanks, Bertha. I better go and see to the horses.” He spoke as soon as the worst of the coughing subsided.
Bertha stood up and pulled a rug from the back of the couch, which she deftly tucked around Heyes’s naked body.
“You’re not going back out in that, come with me.” She barked the command and Curry followed her out of the room.
She turned right and headed to the back of the house, leading the exhausted man into a warm kitchen. She pressed a knob on the wall near the stove and a distant bell seem to peel out. Bertha pulled a chair out from the large wooden table that stood in the middle of the room and all but pushed the young man into it. “Shush” she muttered putting her index finger against her lips in response to Curry’s protest.
The wall beside the door seemed to move and a large tanned man stood in the opening. In fact he blocked the hidden doorway. He carried a lantern in his left hand and a small pistol in his right one. Curry automatically went for his gun as he rose from the chair. But Bertha’s voice rang through the room. “Kid, put that away! This is Joe and Joe put the gun down this is a good friend of mine.”
Curry eased his hand away from his holster and the large man stowed his gun in the waistband of his well worn work pants. Bertha turned her attention to the stove as she spoke. “Joe will you take the horses out front and stable them in your barn? And I’m sorry to disturb you and Annie on a night like this but could you ask her for some of her ointments as my other friend has a real bad cough?”
Curry broke into a prolonged bout of coughing as Bertha finished speaking and she sighed. “Both of the boys will need her services.” She dismissed Curry’s deniel with a wave of her hand.
“Of course I’ll take care of things, Bertha. Is this one of the times when Annie and me are better off not knowing the names of your visitors?” The tall man asked trying to conceal a smile. He turned and headed back through the hidden doorway without waiting for an answer.
Bertha smiled. “Kid, I’d be lost without Annie and Joe. I’m heating up some rabbit stew left over from supper and I’ll make up a fire in Sally’s room while you eat it and then we’ll move Heyes in there.”
Curry was so tired that he couldn’t quite make out what Bertha was saying no matter how hard he tried to concentrate. He just knew Heyes was safe and getting his friend to safety had been his top priority so he took a few spoonfuls of the warm stew when it was placed in front of him. But his exhaustion won out and within minutes he pushed the bowl away and put his arms on the table and lay his head on them and was asleep within seconds.
That was how Annie, Joe’s petite wife found him when she entered the kitchen a few minutes later. She sought out Bertha who was lighting a fire the bedroom next to the kitchen and she began making up the bed as the room warmed up. Bertha smiled her thanks and led her to the parlour where Heyes was sound asleep on the couch. Annie bent down beside him feeling his forehead.
“Well Bertha, I don’t think I have ever seen two such handsome young men in this house.”
Joe entered the room as his wife made this declaration. “Should I be jealous, sweetheart ?”
Annie laughed. “Joe, I’m old enough to be their Momma.”
Bertha smiled. “Let me introduce you to my old friends Hannibal Heyes and Jed Kid Curry and I have to say, Joe if these two were awake then any woman in a hundred miles ain’t safe from their charms.”
Hannibal Heyes opened his eyes and looked around an unfamiliar room. His head hurt, his chest felt tight and his mouth was dry. He closed his eyes and tried to recall where he was. He bolted upright opening his eyes and rasping “Kid! Kid!” He spotted a trestle mattress lying on the floor a few feet from his bed. The familiar blond curls of his partner peeped out from under a pile of blankets.
Heyes fell back against the pillows, exhausted. A large woman entered his sight as he tried to gain strength to call his partner’s name again. The woman smiled at him as she sat on the edge of his bed and Heyes realized she was vaguely familiar.
“Heyes, honey, just take it easy. Kid’s alright but he’s tuckered out and you need to let him rest.” She poured water into a glass from a pitcher standing on a nightstand by the head of the bed. Heyes sipped it gratefully as his keen mind searched for a name to match the face.
“Yes, honey you got it in one.” Kind but mischievous eyes met his.
“Kid!” Heyes went to push the blankets away, feeling the need to see his partner clearly, but the sudden realization that he was naked stayed his hand.
Bertha laughed. “The great Hannibal Heyes is a mite bashful.” Sensing the young man’s worry about his friend she hurried on. “ You stay still and I’ll tell you everything.”
Listening to Bertha and recalling his own memories the story came together for Heyes. He and his partner had once again carried out a job given to them by Lom at the Governor’s bequest and in doing so they had ended up being chased by a small posse in a sudden snowstorm. While trying to lose their pursuers they had forded a river and Heyes had been almost unseated by the force of the current. His memories were hazy but he recalled Kid helping him strip out of his wet clothes and providing him with dry items from Kid’s own dry saddle bag. He tried to refuse the sheepskin jacket but his stubborn partner would have none of that. They couldn’t chance building a fire so looking back on it Heyes realized his partner’s jacket had probably saved his life.
“Oh my God! Bertha, how the hell did Kid manage to find you without freezing to death?”
“I’d say it was sheer damn stubbornness.” Bertha Glanced over to Curry her eyes misted over as she turned back to Heyes.
“It’s the fifth of December, Heyes, you have been here three days and all that time Kid watched over you and refused to grab more than a few hours of sleep but last night he knew you were over the worst of it so he finally let us move a trestle in for him and he’s sleeping like a baby. It might be his jacket that saved your life but it’s the strength of your friendship that keeps you both alive. God help you both because that’s some responsibility.”