The two men were in high spirits as the small house on the outskirts of Denver came into view. They’d wired Lom their whereabouts, hoping for news of their amnesty a few weeks ago. They had received the usual disappointing reply, but the message postscript had them whooping with delight. Clem had invited them to spend Christmas with her. They brushed away their initial suspicions of an ulterior motive and wired back that they would arrive around the 21st.
Having finished their delivery job, they added some prettily packaged lavender soap and fancy-looking candy for Clem to their provisions and headed for Denver, acquiring a Christmas turkey en route, courtesy of Kid Curry’s legendary gun skills.
Arriving on 21st as planned, they anticipated a warm welcome. With a large smile and amusement shining in his blue eyes, the blond man slapped his brown hat on the rump of his horse and shouted “Race ya Heyes, first there gets first kiss!” With a dimpled grin and a whoop of his own, the dark haired man urged his own mount into a gallop.
Skidding to a halt in front of the house in a dead heat, the two men continued their banter.
“Ha, Kid, I still caught you, even with that sneaky head start!”
With a mock pout, Curry muttered, “If I didn’t have this giant turkey weighing me down I’d have beat you, Heyes!”
Heyes rolled his eyes at his partner. “And whose fault is that? I pointed out a nice bird that was an easy target and would have been just fine. But no, you had to show off and go for the biggest darn turkey I’ve ever seen, the second it stepped out from behind a tree!” He was just about to suggest a coin toss for first kiss, when the front door flew open and Clem stepped out, carrying what looked like a bundle of clothes.
“Oh, you’re here,” Clem exclaimed, holding out the bundle towards Heyes. “Take her from me, there’s no time to waste!”
Heyes dismounted in one fluid movement and before he could open his mouth to speak, the squirming bundle had been thrust into his arms and Clem was mounting up behind Curry.
“No time for long explanations” she said, as she added the limp turkey to Heyes’ precarious burden.
“Her name’s Emily. She’s due her supper in about an hour. There’s stew in the pot and potatoes boiling. You’ll have to mash it up as best you can, and mind she doesn’t choke on a chunk of meat. There’s fresh milk and cookies but try and get her to eat some stew first. There’s clean diaper cloths in my room. And watch your cussing. She picks up everything. I’m trusting you to keep her safe, Heyes.”
Turning to the open mouthed man in front of her and pointing to the left, Clem ordered, “Let’s go Kid. I need to get to Laura’s place – NOW!”
As they rode, Clem explained that it would take about an hour to reach her friend Laura. A new baby had decided to make its appearance a few weeks early, and Laura’s husband had dropped off 14-month-old Emily at Clem’s on his way to get the doctor. That was over 2 hours ago, so Clem feared a delay and didn’t want to leave Laura alone any longer.
Curry gave her an incredulous look over his shoulder as he urged his mount on, “You’ve left a baby . . . with Heyes!”
“Sure, why not?” she exclaimed defensively. “He’s always saying how clever he is – how hard can it be?”
A stunned Heyes stood spluttering and protesting as his partner’s horse disappeared from view. It was only when the squirming bundle he held at arms length let out an ear splitting yell that his attention was forced from the road. If he hadn’t been in such a state of shock, the sight before him would have been comical! The baby’s face was totally obscured by the limp turkey draped over her head and she was protesting loudly. At a loss of what to do first, Heyes pushed open the front door with one booted foot and gingerly carried the squirming, howling baby inside, kicking it shut behind him.
The baby’s cries were getting louder. Wincing from the pain which was stabbing through his head, Heyes quickly scanned his surroundings for a place to deposit the distressed baby. He strode across the room to the sofa, but as soon as he put her down, the wailing got louder, the little body flung itself backwards and the little feet kicked out. Heyes couldn’t believe the noise level or the strength that this little scrap was displaying. He didn’t know what to do first: put his fingers in his ears, rub his sore thighs where the little feet had caught him, or retrieve the turkey that had gone flying over the arm of the sofa. The decision was made, when seeing a movement from the corner of his eye, his hand shot out with Kid Curry-like speed, just in time to stop the angry baby from falling off the sofa.
He had to stop the noise before his headache got any worse! He was at a complete loss – his only dealings with babies had been way back in his childhood, and dim memories of his infant sister were reluctant to be disturbed. Then there was the baby on the stagecoach a year or so back. A nice enough young family but Heyes had kept his distance, uncomfortable with the feeding and irritated by the understandable high-pitched wailing during the shooting. Heyes had told himself then that raising babies was not something he was cut out for, amnesty or not.
Looking into the red face of the distressed infant, the tears streaming down her face mixing with the mucus dripping from her nose, Heyes felt an overwhelming need to comfort her. He tentatively drew her closer and, trying to soften his gruff voice, he muttered, “Shhhh little one” and gently rubbed her back.
He must have been doing something right because after a few minutes the angry wailing had become intermittent shuddering, hiccuping sobs. As she became calmer, the little girl looked up at the strange person she had been unceremoniously dumped on. Wide bright blue eyes stared at him from a rosy-cheeked face, framed by soft blonde curls, tears still glistening on her eyelashes. The blue eyes met the “as innocent as he could make them” deep brown eyes as they studied each other. Heyes felt humbled by the trust that shone from her eyes and his face lit up with a dimpled smile.
“Well hello, Miss Emily. I’m Heyes.”
Emily stared at him for a few more seconds, then grinned back. “Ayssss,” she chattered, her little fingers exploring Heyes’ nose and mouth.
“Oh hell,” he said, when Clem’s warning about her picking up new words came back to him.
“Ew ayssss,” Emily stated, looking very pleased with herself.
Get a grip Heyes, he told himself, as he looked around to assess the situation. He spotted the now sorry-looking turkey laying on the floor by the sofa. He was still wearing his thick blue-grey coat, his hat and, most dangerous of all, his gun belt. Little fingers had already found the stampede string and bright eyes were being drawn to the shiny metal on his hip.
He stood up quickly and tried to set Emily down on the rug in front of the sofa. But Emily had other ideas and started wailing as soon as her little bottom touched the floor. She clung onto the stampede string with a strength which belied her small size.
Heyes found he couldn’t straighten, his only course of action being to work his hat up over his head and off. Emily was momentarily distracted by her prize, and Heyes took the opportunity to quickly take off his coat and gun belt and put them out of harm’s way. His hat was already a lost cause, so he left it to its fate.
He’d just managed to get the turkey into a cooking pot and onto a shelf in Clem’s cold store, when he turned around to see Emily teetering blindly towards the open fire, his hat covering most of her face. Cursing under his breath, he dived across the room with lightning speed, catching her just before she reached the hearth. His heart thumping in his chest, he hugged her tightly.
Emily, not at all impressed by his heroic rescue, started to protest loudly. Her fists pummelled his chest and she kicked a bit too close for comfort to Heyes’ “sensitive” area, while shaking her head vigorously. “Ew-ayssss baa!”
He returned her to the rug and, after removing his hat from her head, dragged a wooden chest in front of the fire. Running his hands through his hair, he turned to look at the suspiciously quiet baby. She still sat where he’d put her, with a slight frown and an unfocused, intense look of concentration on her face. She uttered a few low grunts and once her eyes had refocused, grinned widely. She crawled to Heyes, pulled herself up on his leg, reached up her hands and demanded “bup”. As he settled her on his hip, he felt a warm, wet patch travel up his side and a smell worse than their camp after eating beans for a week assaulted his nostrils, making him gag.
Emily started to squirm and whimper in discomfort and Heyes knew what had to be done. With some difficulty he managed to one-handedly fill a bowl with water from the cooled kettle, pick up some washrags and manoeuvre himself, baby, and bowl into Clem’s bedroom.
With his bandana pulled up over his nose, Heyes spent the next ten minutes battling with a squirming baby intent on rolling off the end of the bed, the most foul mess he had ever encountered, and a safety pin with a bite worse than a rattler.
Emerging triumphant with one clean baby and one sore thumb, Heyes turned his attention to supper. Emily had started to smack her lips and make “nm nm nm” sounds!
Preparing a bowl of food with no choking hazards was relatively easy for Heyes. He’d had to get food down a hungry Kid Curry with a sore mouth and loose teeth many times after a brawl. But his confidence was short lived -- the difference was his partner had wanted to eat! After the first few mouthfuls were taken enthusiastically, there followed a food fight of epic proportions. Emily was covered, Heyes was covered, the upturned bowl lay in a congealing puddle on the floor and the walls were pebble-dashed with mashed potato and meat.
Heyes admitted defeat and Emily happily munched on cookies until she suddenly started to rub her eyes and whimper. Again she held her arms up to him, clenching and unclenching her little hands, murmuring “bup bup ayssss.” His heart melted. He gathered her up in his arms and she nestled her head on his shoulder, patting his arm with her little hand as he started to rock her and pat her back. With her thumb in her mouth, she drifted off to sleep.
Walking in a few hours later to the smell of scorched wood, Clementine Hale drew in a sharp breath and was about to curse loudly at Heyes when the scene on the sofa stopped her in her tracks. Kid Curry was already staring down at his partner, a tender smile on his lips. Heyes was lying back, soft snores emanating from his open mouth, congealed gravy in his disheveled hair, and Emily sound asleep, cradled in his arms.
Clem gently lifted Emily from Heyes’ arms and put her down in the makeshift crib in her room. Her eyelids briefly fluttered open and she softly muttered “ew-ayssss” before drifting back off.
Clem returned to the main room in time to see Kid Curry draping a quilt over his sleeping partner. Heyes briefly stirred and muttered “Sorry Kid, she knows my name”.