(Part of "Amnesty But First Penance")
“Heyes, you think they’ll all fall for it?” Jedediah “Kid” Curry leaned against the worn, wooden headboard in their hotel room. “It was real nice to get all of their invitations to spend Christmas with them. Don’t want to hurt their feelin’s.”
Stretching his legs out underneath the unbalanced table, Hannibal Heyes looked up from the telegrams he was composing.
“Yeah, Kid. We’re not lying to any of them; just not telling them everything. Here’s the first one:
Thank you so much for the kind invitation to spend our first Christmas as free men with you. Unfortunately, we have also received invitations from Big Mac, Lom, and our Valparaiso friend, Homer Pokora. Merry Christmas.
Han and Jed”
“Sounds good, Heyes.”
“I’ll change the names in each telegram when I send them. We’re not lying, just saying we have other invitations.”
“They’ll all think we goin’ somewhere else.” Curry smiled at the latest Hannibal Heyes plan. “You ever think last Christmas we would have our amnesties?”
“And a commitment for two years of penances we have no choice over?” Heyes added, ruefully.
“Three weeks off with pay, though.” Curry’s optimistic reply irked his cousin.
“Five dollars a day and these weeks don’t count toward our two years.”
Sitting up, Curry began to put on his boots. “And maybe, family. What do you remember about Christmas before...well before?”
Never liking to speak of the past, Heyes caught the wistful expression in Curry’s eyes and allowed memories to return. “Excitement, people, presents and setting a table for three near a candle burning in the window on Christmas Eve. Ma said it was for the Holy Family.”
“Yeah, and holly everywhere,” Jed finished.
While Heyes was at the telegraph office sending the messages, the clerk handed him one addressed to H. Heyes or J. Curry. “Believe this one’s for you.”
Waiting to open it until he was with the Kid, Heyes flipped the telegram over and over until he was back in their room. Then, he read the short missive out loud.
Hannibal and Jedediah,
Family always welcome at Christmas. Send arrival date and time. Southern Pacific RR Bakersfield station.
“Heyes, relax,” Curry’s voice carried his frustration.
“Can’t help but worry, Kid. Colleen and Alexander wrote that letter to Valparaiso about us when I was fourteen years old. Mark Curry gave his address to Father Fogerty seven years ago. A lot of things can change. We’ve changed. Maybe they won’t welcome ex-outlaws as family.
Curry’s sigh got a don’t say it look from his cousin.
“And I’m always afraid someone hasn’t seen the announcement and thinks we’re wanted,” Heyes added.
“Mark Curry answered our telegram. Didn’t have to,” Curry countered, then ended the discussion by pulling his hat over his eyes, trying to sleep sitting up on the crowded Christmas Eve train.
As they exited at the Bakersfield station, they realized it was larger than the cousins expected.
“Where now, Heyes?” Jed asked, alertly checking out their surroundings.
A smile broke across Heyes face as he saw the sheriff striding toward him. “I believe that’s Mark Curry there, Kid.”
The man approaching them was their height, with dark brown, curly hair and Curry blue eyes. Smiling as he got closer to them, Heyes saw dimples.
“Hannibal? Jedediah? I’m your cousin, Mark. My parent’s mercantile is over there. Ranch is ten miles out on the road to Tehechapi. We’re doing Christmas at my sister’s house in town, so you don’t have too far to go.”
Shaking hands, Mark ran out of words and strode down the street finally saying, “Follow me and we’ll go to the mercantile now.”
Following in awkward silence, Heyes finally said, “I remember Aunt Colleen. She’s Ma’s sister.”
Mark pointed at Jed. “His pa’s sister, too. Heard a lot of stories about you. How inseparable you were. Ma’s happy you’re here. She works hard. Not a lot of joy in her life but you'd never guess it.” Han and Jed shared a concerned look.
Turning a corner, Heyes stopped, smiling at the sign over the entrance - ‘Heyes Mercantile.’
In a flash, a woman rushed out and into his arms, hugging him and crying while reaching to bring Jed into the hug. Stepping back, she looked them over still crying. “I’m so happy you found us. So happy you came.”
Mark herded the group into the store, flipping the sign to read CLOSED.
“Come meet your Uncle Alexander!” She dragged them up to the man sitting behind the register.
“Alexander, they’re here!” she exclaimed.
Intrigued that the man didn’t rise, Heyes held out his hand over the counter. “Thank you for having us, sir.”
It was then he saw the wheelchair. “Welcome, boys. Glad you found us. You probably don’t remember me, Han. I’m your dad’s younger brother.” He looked at his wife, laughing. “Colleen and I are the black sheep of the family, so to speak.”
Stepping forward, Jed shook his hand but kept focusing on the wheelchair. He couldn’t imagine living life confined to a chair.
Several knocks were heard at the door.
“Open up, Mr. Heyes,” an insistent female voice ordered from the front door. “I say, open up right now.”
“Oh dear,” sighed Colleen. Heading to the door, she was cut off by Mark. “I’ll handle this Ma.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Drummond, Mrs. Drummond, Miss Kristen.”
“Afternoon, Sheriff. Why is that door locked? It’s too early to close. I need to do my shopping.” Mrs. Drummond marched in with self-assured purpose.
Alexander rolled his wheelchair in front of her. “Mrs. Drummond, Merry Christmas. We’re closed, but as you are such a dear friend, we’ll stay open a few minutes longer just for you.”
Smiling, Heyes watched as their uncle charmed the disagreeable woman into shopping quickly.
“Colleen,” Mrs. Drummond whispered by the register. “Who are those two handsome men? Are they single?” she asked with a furtive look toward Kristen.
With a twinkle in her Curry blue eyes, Colleen answered, “We’d like you to meet our nephews, Hannibal Heyes and Jed Curry. They’re here for Christmas.”
Mrs. Drummond blanched. Mr. Drummond took an involuntary step backwards, ignoring their outstretched hands.
“Outlaws… bank robbers?”
Redirecting his outstretched hand to scratch his head, Heyes answered, “Ex-outlaws. We got amnesty.”
Mrs. Drummond shook her head, saying loudly to Colleen, “First a bastard. We’ve forgiven you for that. Now you bring bank robbers to this town.” With a glance at Alexander, she continued, “Really, Colleen, you of all people. Bank robbers!” Turning she slammed out the door without her purchases, her husband and daughter followed.
Embarrassed, Jed apologized, “We’re sorry, Aunt Co…” Realizing she was laughing, he stopped.
“Ignore her. Our daughters have dinner just about ready. Let’s go eat.”
Colleen led them to the house next door. Mark, pushing Alexander, followed.
Noticing the wreath of holly with red berries, memories of his childhood house warmed Jed’s heart.
“More cousins?” Heyes smiled at the thought.
Making joyous noises, two young women, with their husbands and three toddlers, were busy singing and decorating the house.
“Girls, welcome your cousins, Han and Jed.”
Jed felt truly welcome as he hugged his cousins, Genevieve and Annaliese, and their babies. The men shook hands. Suspicious, after Mrs. Drummond’s comments, Jed studied them but saw only joy at their coming. Jed picked up the youngest boy who had been tugging on his pantleg. “What’s your name?”
“Arthur,” he said, hugging Jed’s neck.
Turning, Han said, “That was my pa’s name.” Uncle Alexander smiled and nodded.
Talking non-stop, Genevieve showed Han to their room. “Ma’s so happy you’re here. We’ve heard of your childhood adventures. Know them as well as our bedtime stories.”
All Han could do was smile a dimpled smile at their welcome from this family, their family.
Jed wandered over to the small table set for three. A lit candle shone out through the nearby window. Holly with red berries was laid with care at each place setting. “Gramma Curry always set up a table just like this. Looks the same.”
Colleen wrapped her arm around his waist. “It should. She taught me; she was my mother, you know.”
At dinner, Uncle Alexander proved as entertaining a storyteller as Heyes. Half listening, Jed studied Mark. Quiet, reserved, cautious and slow to laugh, he had a commanding presence. Even though Mark was his cousin, Jed felt more comfortable when he took off the vest with his sheriff’s badge.
As they ate, talk turned to Mrs. Drummond and her tirade.
Cautiously, Heyes commented, “I hope we don’t cause you trouble being here, Aunt Colleen.”
Catching the quick look passing between Colleen and Alexander, followed by Alexander’s nod, Heyes swallowed nervously.
Looking Han, then Jed in the eyes, Alexander spoke softly but firmly. “What do you remember about the day we left Kansas?”
Han spoke first. Embarrassed at the memory, he fixed his eyes on the spoon he was holding. “Kid’s pa, Uncle Tom, came over that night and talked to Pa. Ma cried. Pa and you had a loud angry fight and you stormed out after yelling, ‘She already left?’ Pa yelled after you to never show your face again.”
“Sounds about right,” Alexander noted. He turned his gaze to Jed. “And you?”
“Hard to remember; I was little. Aunt Colleen said something to Grampa and Gramma Curry and my parents that made them very upset. But I could not hear what she said.” Jed, a faraway look in his eyes, pulled the long-forgotten memory up.
“Pa yelled, ‘It’s that Heyes boy, right?’ and I thought Han was in trouble. I wanted to go warn him but ma said I needed to stay in the house. But I learned the next day he wasn’t in trouble.” Jed turned and looked at Colleen as his adult understanding was applied to his childhood memories. “You were pregnant? You two eloped?” he asked. Suddenly realizing these topics were not discussed in mixed company, he started to apologize but Alexander waved it off.
“We didn’t elope. She took the train in the afternoon. I was sure she went north to Denver. I didn’t know she’d left until Tom Curry came over looking for her that night. I took the first evening train to Denver, but she hadn’t gone that way. She went west toward California. Took me almost two years to find her in Tehachapi. Mark was already walking. Colleen had a small trading post there for the nearby mines. She also had taken two excellent horses in as trade and had started breeding them. They became the foundation of our horse ranch.”
“That’s why Mark’s last name is Curry.” Han liked it when he had answers.
“We were married there and moved here and grew our family. Rumors are like dust; they follow you everywhere. Most here know Mark’s background. Even though he is my son, I adopted him. He wanted to keep the name.”
Colleen reached out and touched Han’s arm. “It was a long time ago. When we learned about the raiders and what happened to our family and that you survived, we sent letters and telegrams, but never received an answer,” she said, sadly.
Colleen was crying. “We felt so guilty we had left and survived.”
“But we’ve learned to keep on living,” Alexander finished for her.
Heyes refused to let the conversation end. “Why was Mrs. Drummond fixated on us having robbed banks?” That lady had made him very uncomfortable.
Silence descended on the table. Genevieve spoke first. “Because Pa was shot in a bank robbery three years ago. He tried to stop it and got shot. That’s why he’s in that chair.”
A silent conversation between Han and Jed ended quickly. Han spoke for them. “We never shot anyone during a robbery, but we also never realized we were hurting people in other ways. We’re sorry.”
Alexander raised his hands to those at the table. “This is Christmas, a time for forgiveness. Let’s rejoice our family is celebrating together.”
“Amen!” came multiple replies.
That night in their room, Jed turned to Han. “Good Christmas, Heyes. What did you like best?”
“Know what I liked best?”
“Yeah, Kid, the food,” Heyes answered, chuckling.
Jed’s eyes laughed, but then became serious. Heyes saw something new in those blue eyes. Happiness? The contentment of family?
“Yeah, the food sure was good. Seeing holly everywhere brought back good memories, but having a family… That was better.” Jed struggled to find the right words. “You know, Heyes, when everyone was laughin’ in the living room and the babies opened a present each, there were seconds of quiet amid the chaos. I felt what I haven’t felt since Christmas in Kansas.”
“What’s that?” asked Heyes. Although he too felt something special, something comforting, his silver tongue had failed to describe it.
“The wonder and peace of Christmas.”