“Do you think we shook ‘em?” Kid Curry wiped a grimy sleeve across his sweaty forehead as he tried to get his breathing under control.
Hannibal Heyes was peering through the battered binoculars he kept in his saddlebags. “Not a sign of them as far as I can see.” He reached around and put the glasses away missing the relieved slump of his partner’s shoulders.
“The sun’s goin’ down fast and it ain’t too soon if you ask me. Those boys weren’t givin’ up easy and I bet they’re still out there tryin’ to pick up our trail. Where to?” asked the Kid.
“We’re not far from Lulu City but I’d rather skip towns for a while. What about heading into the Never Summers?”
“So now you’re worried about keepin’ a low profile? Why didn’t you think about that the other night when you decided to clean out that table of greenhorns in front of the entire saloon? I could tell that big fella was not gonna take to losin’ well.”
Heyes chuckled. “He sure didn’t. If you hadn’t been there, he would’ve taken it all back.”
“It ain’t funny, Heyes. That kid recognized me the second I drew. The only reason we got away is those rubes panicked when they knew whose gun they were starin’ at.”
“Yeah, they sure did panic! Gave me time to scoop up my pot, though. It was worth the risk, Kid, we got money to last us awhile and those gents got a story they’ll be telling their grandchildren.”
Curry frowned. “And we got the law on us. That money won’t do us a lick of good behind bars.”
“Anyone ever tell you you worry too much, Kid?”
“Yeah, you, every time you worry me,” muttered Curry.
“You can stow your gear on those two bunks,” said the big ranch foreman, Steve Minturn. “Get yourselves settled in. Mrs. Parkett rings the dinner bell at five sharp. See that you ain’t late.”
“Thanks, Steve,” said the Kid, swinging his saddle bags onto the top bunk as the foreman left through the bunkhouse door.
“Hey, how come you get the top bunk? I figured we’d toss for it.”
“If we tossed, I’d lose, and I ain’t losin’ this one.”
“Geez, who put your tail in a twist?”
Blue eyes with exaggeratedly raised brows turned to look at Heyes who raised his hands defensively, “All right, you don’t have to get all proddy about it, you could’ve asked nicely.”
“I ain’t askin’. I’m tellin’.”
The two men had barely finished washing up when they heard the toll of Mrs. Parkett’s bell. Quickly, they tugged on clean shirts and hurried towards the log ranch house across the wide yard. As they approached the steps, they became aware of a small, frail boy of about nine years old bundled up in a buffalo hide and sitting on a rocking chair at the far end of the porch.
“Howdy,” said the Kid
“Hey,” was the glum reply.
Up close, Heyes could see the boy wasn’t healthy. His face had a waxy, feverish look to it and his cheeks were gaunt like an old man’s.
“You better get in there, mister. Ma waits for no man.”
“What about you?” asked Heyes.
“I’m not hungry.” The boy turned away and gazed out over the wide expanse of meadow surrounding the ranch yard.
The two partners looked at each other and shrugged then entered the house. Steve was standing in the entry hall having watched the interaction.
“That’s Jolly. Mrs. Parkett’s boy.”
“Jolly? He didn’t seem so happy to me,” said Heyes.
“He used to be.”
“What’s wrong with him?” inquired Curry.
“He’s dying. Got the cancer, bad. Knows it too.”
Shocked, the Kid didn’t know what to say. Heyes gave him a gentle nudge and gestured for him to move along. The three men entered the warm kitchen. The long plank table that dominated the large room was surrounded by the other ranch hands who all sat up a little straighter when they spotted Steve.
A tall, slender woman was bent over a kettle suspended above the fireplace by a sturdy hinged crane. She stood up and turned around, smiling. Nearing forty, she was a handsome woman with just enough lines on her face to make it interesting. Her hair was a golden mane neatly tied back with a braid of brightly colored yarn. “Good evening, Mr. Minturn, and who do we have joining us tonight?”
“This here’s Joshua Smith and that’s his partner, Thaddeus Jones,” replied Steve, “They’ll be helping us till branding’s done.”
“Ma’am,” said the Kid.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Parkett,” said Heyes.
“Have a seat, Mr. Smith, you too, Mr. Jones. I’m preparing to serve dinner now.”
The two ex-outlaws sat down, introduced themselves around the table, and made quiet conversation as Mrs. Parkett put generous servings of roast pork with new potatoes and corn on the cob in front of each man. Her task completed, she
untied her apron and hung it on a horseshoe nail driven into the wall then sat at the head of the table. “Mr. Smith, as one of our newest hands, would you please say Grace for us?”
In a deep, melodious baritone, Heyes recited a prayer he knew by heart. One that never failed to painfully remind him of his mother.
A few days later, Jolly joined the cowboys at dinner. He sat at the foot of the table appearing much improved and toyed with the food in front of him eating an occasional bite or two. The ranch hands gently teased him and told stories of their lives as cowboys. He spent much of dinner laughing and smiling. By meal’s end, everyone had caught his good mood.
Curry helped clear the table after dinner. Despite Mrs. Parkett’s protests, she was all smiles as he jokingly swept the floor after the meal, twirling the broom on his arm as though it were a beautiful girl. Steve jumped up and held out his hand with a flourish, bowing from his waist to Mrs. Parkett. She blushed prettily and allowed him to gather her in his arms but soon wriggled free. “Thank you, gentlemen, it has been a lovely evening but I believe it’s time to say good night.”
“Aw, Ma, do I have to?” Jolly’s disappointment was palpable. So was everyone else’s as the men stood, thanked Mrs. Parkett for dinner, and left.
“Hey, Steve, when’re you gonna ask Mrs. Parkett to a real dance?” joked Stretch as the men neared the bunkhouse. It was a clear night. The stars were starting to blossom in the dark sky as the quarter moon appeared at the top of the mountain to the east.
“Ain’t none of your business,” snapped Steve, looking all kinds of miserable and splitting off to go to his private cabin.
Inside the bunkhouse, Kropp turned to Stretch. “Now you done it! You durn well know Steve can’t woo the missus. Not with her boy sick like that.”
“How long does Jolly have?” asked Heyes quietly. He was looking down at his feet, a frown on his face.
“Hard to know. Doc said he won’t live to see Christmas but I wouldn’t let that quack treat my sick dog. The missus wants to take him to Denver. There’s a specialist there but she ain’t got the money if we don’t get these heifers to market. Jolly’s daddy was a good enough man but not the sharpest tool in the shed. Left her with a mountain of debt.” Kropp spit his disdain into a nearby spitoon.
“Where’s his daddy?” asked the Kid.
“Dead two years now. Broke his neck tryin’ to ride a jug-headed hayburner that refused to be rid. Done in by sheer pig-headedness!”
“Guess it’s a blessing Cliff didn’t live to see his boy so sick,” offered Gypsy.
“I don’t think Mrs. Parkett sees it that way.” The Kid kicked a small stone out of his way and stopped to watch it skip away across the wooden floor. “The woman just lost her husband and now she’s losin’ her boy.”
“Poor kid,” said Heyes, still downcast, “I wish we could do something for them.”
“Ain’t nothin’ anyone can do, Smith,” said Kropp, sadly.
“Jones, iron!” yelled Steve.
The Kid hurried to the blazing fire and carefully pulled the red-hot branding iron from the coals. Rushing back to where Heyes knelt on the calf’s neck and Steve’s horse kept tension on the heel rope while Kropp handled the heading lariat, he slowly pressed the iron into the animal’s flank. He hated this part of the job. The evident pain he inflicted along with the smell of burning hide made him slightly sick but he knew it was vital to the ranch to identify its herd. Thankfully, it was over in a second and the calf struggled to its feet fleeing its tormentors with a buck and shake of its head.
“Good work, y’all!” said Steve, thumping his dusty Stetson against his thigh. “Grab a sandwich and take a break. Gypsy and Walt should be back soon with the stragglers from the last section. We’ll be finished up by sundown.”
Heyes picked grit out of his mouth and stood speculatively looking at the ranch house. Jolly was back in his rocking chair listlessly watching the branding. He gave the boy a smile and started walking over to him.
“Josh, ain’t you eatin’?” asked Kropp.
The Kid turned to watch his partner.
“Not hungry,” was the reply. Heyes stepped up onto the porch and strolled over to stopped in front of Jolly.
“Hey, Joshua,” said the small boy, once again wrapped in the buffalo hide.
“Mind if I join you?” asked Heyes.
“I guess, but I’m pretty boring.”
“I’m not easily bored.” A dimpled smile deepened. “How come you aren’t helping us out?”
Jolly looked startled then angry. “You know I can’t….”
“Sure, you can. We could use a counter. Thaddeus can’t count past his fingers let alone his toes. He’s messing us up bad. I swear every time we get to ten, he has to start all over. Do you know your numbers?”
Brightening, the boy sat up straighter. “I do. Reckon I can count for you.”
“Good. Give me a minute.” Heyes stepped into the ranch house with a quick rap on the door. He heard Mrs. Parkett call from the kitchen and saw her fleeting look of fear as he stepped into the room. “Everything’s fine, ma’am. I just need your help with something.” Heyes told her his plan and, receiving her permission, hurried past Jolly. “Don’t go anywhere, I’ll be right back.” Heyes went down the steps and over to the cattle pens, waving to Thaddeus, Steve, and the others to come over. He quickly explained and, as a group, they walked back to the house.
Mrs. Parkett came through the door wiping her hands on her apron and smiling as the men filed past. Surrounding Jolly, the men lifted him up rocker and all. He clung tightly to the arms of his chair wearing a huge grin as they carefully carried him to gate and gently lowered him to the ground. Mrs. Parkett followed along behind the procession unwilling to miss the fun. Ensconced in view of the pen, Jolly spent the rest of the afternoon dictating the count to his mother as he avidly watched the men working. Each man would make an excuse at one time or another to drift over and check the count or comment on the activities until, at last, Jolly fell asleep in his chair.
Heyes had the honor of scooping him up and carrying him off to bed followed by his mother. When he returned, the Kid squeezed his shoulder and said very softly, “That was a kind thing you did, Heyes. I’m proud of you.”
A rumble announced the arrival of the remaining cattle and both men turned to watch Gypsy and Walt deftly maneuver the animals into the pens. Once the gate swung shut, Gypsy came over to the two partners and dismounted. “I ran into a posse of nasty-looking fools while I was chasing a bull calf beyond the creek. Said they was lookin’ for some outlaws. I told ‘em ain’t nobody here we didn’t know but I ain’t sure they believed me.” With a shrug, Gypsy left them standing there, stunned.
“I know. Get the horses; I’ll get the gear.”
“What about Mrs. Parkett and Jolly?”
“We’ll leave a note. It’s better that way.” Heyes started to turn away, but the Kid grabbed his arm pulling him back.
“The money. Leave it here.”
Heyes smiled and nodded. “Easy come, easy go, right, Kid?”
“Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing you cleaned those greenhorns out.”
“I’m reminding you of that next time,” said Heyes, grinning.
The Kid groaned, “There’s always a next time with you.”
When Mrs. Parkett finished tucking Jolly into bed, she returned to her kitchen only to find a piece of paper weighed down by a canvas bag. She lifted the bag feeling its heft and the clink of coins. Setting it aside, she read:
Dear Mrs. Parkett,
Please tell Jolly we are sorry we had to leave in a hurry and didn’t get to say goodbye. Thaddeus and I would like you to use this money to take him to that specialist in Denver. Don’t worry, it was honestly (despite what you might hear) won in a poker game. Think of it as our early Christmas present to you and Jolly.
Fondly, Joshua Smith and Thaddeus Jones
PS Steve is a real good man.
She opened the bag, her eyes widening.
The posse galloped up the road and pulled up next to the pens. A burly man wearing a tin star dismounted and approached the ranch house as the door swung open and Mrs. Parkett stepped out.
“Ma’am,” said the sheriff, politely lifting his sweat-stained hat.
“Sheriff. What can I do for you?” Mrs. Parkett heard footsteps behind her and Steve stopped next to her.
“Evening Mister, er…”
“It’s Minturn, Steve Minturn. We’re just finishing dinner,” he said, pointedly.
“Yes, well, sorry to interrupt, Mr. Minturn, but we’re looking for two men. One dark, one not. You seen any strangers lately?”
“Nope.” Steve frowned down at the man deliberately not saying more.
“You sure?” The sheriff eyed him speculatively before adding, “These men are some of the worst outlaws to walk this earth. Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry.”
“I already told you we ain’t seen any strangers. Now dinner’s waiting.”
The sheriff stared at him for a long moment and then nodded. “All right, then, sorry to bother you and your missus.” He turned away.
“Oh, we’re not married,” called Mrs. Parkett after him.
Steve reached out and took her hand possessively and said, firmly, “Yet. Not just yet.”