A Quiet Christmas

By Nelly-Pledge

The two boys were laughing and running along the steep bank of the creek, jostling each other in their fight to get ahead. Though the dark-haired boy had two years and a couple of inches on the fair-haired boy, he had barely overtaken his determined younger cousin when he slipped, sending him plunging into the creek. The last thing he heard were Jed’s frantic cries as he sank into the numbing coldness. Overwhelmed with fear and panic, the water filled his lungs and he sank into unconsciousness.

He awoke to the soothing voice of his mother, gently rubbing his back and encouraging him to cough. Gasping for every shallow breath, he hurt all over and the numbing cold had been replaced by an almost unbearable heat. He briefly wondered why his mother was calling him Mr Heyes and wearing a mask, but slipped back into darkness before his thoughts could become words.

They were running from yet another posse. His partner, Kid Curry, was ahead of him by a few feet when he felt the bullet slam into his back. The initial shocked numbness was quickly followed by intense pain and he fell heavily from his horse. As he lay there drowning in his own blood – he heard a familiar voice calling……

“Heyes! Heyes! Are you with us Heyes?”

Struggling to open his eyes and gasping for each painful breath, he turned slightly to see Grandpa Curry’s concerned blue eyes on him. His confused mind was trying to comprehend the presence of his long dead Grandpa calling him Heyes and wearing a mask when he slipped back into unconsciousness.

Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry finally got their amnesty from Frank Warren, the inaugural Governor of the new state of Wyoming, in 1890. You could say their hard work and determination to stay legal finally paid off, but Heyes’ cynical belief was that it was a publicity stunt, part of the celebrations of a new state, a new beginning. But the main thing is they got it!

After several attempts to settle at various occupations and locations, they finally settle in the small town of Sundance in Crook County (they chuckled at that), Wyoming. A small town of just over 500, they felt they could grow with it. Established just 15 years before as a trading post, it was pleasantly situated at the foot of Bear Lodge Mountain, part of the Wyoming Black Hills.

They settled quickly in the town, Heyes taking over the publication of the town’s newspaper and Curry opening a prestigious gun shop, from which he offered expert advice and ran very popular courses on the safe handling of firearms. Within their first year Jed married the baker’s daughter, Faye, who ran the little pastry and coffee shop attached to her father’s bakery. Jed could not resist the sweet treats on offer and Faye, with her gentle nature, pretty blue eyes and silky blonde hair, soon became the main reason for his frequent visits to the shop. They had six children in not many more years, all with startling blue eyes and an equal distribution of silky straight and curly blonde hair.

It was a few more years before Heyes’ heart was captured by a striking redhead with glowing amber eyes. Jinny, a quick-minded, quick-tempered young woman, had come West to escape the suffocating restrictions of her middle class life back east. Not wanting to be a mail order bride, she had answered an advertisement to come to Sundance to teach in the growing school. Her real ambition was to write and it was this that brought her to Heyes. Her decidedly non-romantic views were shattered on her first meeting with the enigmatic and extremely attractive Mr Heyes. She had written an article on women’s rights and was prepared to do battle with the local newspaper editor to get it published when she found herself looking into the intense brown eyes of Hannibal Heyes and told people later that both she and Heyes had felt lightning strike when their fingers touched, as he took the article from her. In the first few years of their marriage, two fine boys with auburn hair and dark brown eyes arrived, followed several years later by a girl, Hanna, who with her fiery spirit, thick dark hair and glowing amber eyes, quickly became the apple of her father’s eye.

The cousins purchased a decent plot on the outskirts of town and built their houses within sight of each other, separated only by a shared barn, corral, vegetable garden and “The Hideout.” About the size of a small line shack, it stood half way between the two properties and was their place to hang out, to reminisce, and enjoy each other’s company.

Always welcoming in a noisy, busy kind of way, the Curry house was a rambling structure, with additions to accommodate their growing family. In contrast, the Heyes house was quietly welcoming, with plenty of room to sit comfortably reading or just thinking. Heyes would visit the Curry house when he needed to lighten his mood and Curry would visit the Heyes house when he needed some quiet to think.

They were content with their post amnesty lives and forever grateful for the second chance they had been given. That contentment was sorely tested almost 30 years later when they found themselves caught in another life and death struggle.

It was generally thought that the source of the outbreak of the Spanish flu in their small town was the party given by the Mayor for his son returning from the war in Europe, at the end of April 1918. Jed was the first to come down with it and given his tendency to suffer severely with the grippe every few years or so, everyone was very concerned. Although both men were relatively fit and healthy, Jed’s age of 64 was an added worry. From previous experience, Heyes knew how rapidly he could deteriorate and he’d seen more than enough close calls not to feel deeply concerned. Luckily, that first wave appeared to be the least severe form of the illness and after only a few days in bed with a fever, sore throat and cough, Jed was well enough to get extremely irritated by his partner’s constant “mother hen” hovering and banished Heyes from the house. They all heaved a sigh of relief when he made a good recovery and it appeared that no-one else in the family had caught it.

Heyes’ eldest son Joshua, now a doctor in Boston, had kept his father informed of the developments concerning the outbreak and Heyes had been including warnings in his editorials for some weeks. The general belief was still that it wouldn’t reach their little town, despite evidence of its rapid spread galloping ever closer. As the numbers kept on rising, the Mayor called an emergency meeting of the Town Council and public health officials. Heyes was asked to attend so that he could publish the restrictions.

One of the two wards in the town’s infirmary was set aside, all shops, businesses, entertainment, hospitality and schools were closed with immediate effect and citizens advised to wear linen masks. The minister’s wife was quick to organise the women of the town to make masks from bolts of linen kindly donated by the local dressmaker.

Most universities had closed and the town’s young people were back home and bored, Heyes’ own 19 year old daughter Hanna amongst them. Heyes felt compelled to add this warning to his editorial:

“I must point out that Officials are discouraging students from spending time downtown, since the soda fountain and picture house are also closed and there is not a great deal of inducement to loiter in the street” (1)

In August, just as the town’s people thought they were seeing the end of the dreadful illness, a second, stronger strain invaded the town. Invisible and indiscriminate, they were powerless to stop it and it was around her birthday on August 18 that Jinny was struck down. Becoming very unwell, very quickly, she narrowly escaped hospitalization when she began to show signs of a slow recovery about two weeks later.

She was still suffering from exhaustion and debilitating weakness months later when Heyes was struck with the third wave. It was the end of November and Heyes was just starting to believe he had escaped the virus. Having constantly hovered over Jed and nursed Jinny through her illness, he was feeling particularly pleased with his good fortune.

When he woke with a sore throat one morning in late November, he put it down to a normal winter chill after being caught in a heavy downpour the day before. But by that afternoon, he had a pounding headache and a high fever. He took some aspirin and a shot of whiskey and went to bed. Jinny was woken in the early hours by his feverish mumblings and laboured breathing and immediately called the doctor. By the time the Doctor arrived, Heyes was barely conscious, burning with fever and struggling to breathe. Sending him straight to the infirmary, the doctor forbade Jinny from accompanying him. Although still not fully recovered, she was prepared to defy him, only relenting when he agreed that Jed, having been fully recovered for several months, could go instead.

It was three weeks later on December 21 as Jed was walking into the ward for his daily visit, that he was highly amused to see the formidable matron coming away from Heyes’ bed blushing and giggling like a schoolgirl. He was relieved to see his cousin sitting up in bed with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.

“Heyes you're incorrigible” he said as he sat down. “I haven’t managed to get so much as a smile from matron in all these weeks I’ve been visiting,” he said shaking his head. “And here you are, barely alive and already launching a full charm offensive on your poor, unsuspecting nurse!”

“Just making sure I get treated right. Worked pretty good, huh” he grinned then took a sip from his fresh cup of coffee and laid aside the newspaper matron had brought for him.

“Gotta work on it though — I couldn’t quite talk her into a cigar and shot of whiskey” he said with an exaggerated pout.

With a slightly embarrassed show of affection, Jed leaned forward and lightly squeezed Heyes’ hand. “Glad to see you back, old partner,” he said with a slight hitch in his voice. Clearing his throat he carried on. “I missed you at The Hideout. It was touch and go for a while there, Heyes”

“Yeah, I know Kid. I never thought I'd see this day. I thought my mother was looking after me at one point and another time I swear Grandpa Curry was sat right where you’re sitting now and calling me Heyes.”

“That was me, you fool. We've gotten old Heyes. I guess I must look like him now,” he said, memories of his Grandpa bringing a smile to his face.

Heyes looked equally thoughtful as he said “Yeah, kid we got old against all the odds and we’ve come through this latest life and death struggle, too. How are my two girls?”

“They’re fine. They’re going to be so relieved to hear how you’re doing. Hanna is racked with guilt. She’s blaming herself for sneaking out to meet up with her friends shortly before you got taken sick.”

“I could have picked it up anywhere poor girl. Though I expect it’s been a hard lesson for her to learn that there’s a reason to stay quarantined.” Heyes said thoughtfully.

Then he smiled again as he said

“Doc says I can go home tomorrow as long as I take it easy for at least a month. It’s gonna be a quiet Christmas this year Kid but I’m so thankful we get to celebrate together - as always.”

(1) From an editorial in the Wyoming Student, early October 1918