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  • rachie74uk

The Beginning of Always

Title: The Beginning of Always.

Genre: Gen

Warnings: Violence, non-explicit attempted male rape. Death of minor characters.

Summary: Sometimes, you have to leave, in order to learn that you belong right back where you started.

Author's Notes: Thanks go to: Dawn: For her invaluable help and suggestions on the early drafts. Penski: For an encouraging, fun and thorough beta. ASJ FB Group and Forum members: For their patience with my wittering and their encouragement.


A good friend is a connection to life - a tie to the past, a road to the future, the key to sanity in a totally insane world.” Lois Wyse


Jed dangled his bare legs in the river; the water was pleasantly cool on his overheated skin. Surrounded by wide open space, the quiet peace only broken by the munching of the horses and the gentle sound of splashing, he tried and failed to relax. Jed glanced over at his companion, who was seemingly intent on soaking his own legs and cleared his throat.


Heyes looked up with a speed that suggested he'd been expecting something. They locked gazes for a moment, before Jed said a little hesitantly.


“I ain't fond of your idea, Heyes. It's like we'd be admittin' we cain't do any better. “


Heyes rolled his eyes a little before replying, “Well seeing as Silver Ridge is the third town we've been chased out of in less than two weeks, it don't seem like we got another way to go.”


Jed sighed heavily, “Well, maybe you oughta be more careful about tellin' poker players how bad they are, or win less of their money so they don't get so mad.”


As he spoke, Jed watched Heyes, saw his jaw tighten, then studied his friend's hands as they clenched and unclenched, noted the sudden sharp tension in his shoulders and waited, his own hands balled into fists, nails digging into his palms. However, much to his mute surprise, instead of unleashing the expected sarcasm, Heyes merely dropped his eyes back to the river, and stared into it, as if fascinated by the rippling patterns. But Jed, too familiar with both his and Heyes' temper knew an argument was inevitable in the end.


“That weren't the reason we got run out of Barkerville, don't think there was one, except someone didn't like our faces. In Red Rock, it weren't me that took on that guy in the saloon.” Heyes was attempting to keep his voice reasonable, but Jed could hear the tightness underneath it.


“What was I s'posed to do, just let him hurt that girl?” Curry snapped at his friend, annoyed at the implication that he should have done nothing.


Heyes didn't reply, still looking into the river, but took a deep breath, obviously biting back an angry retort. After a few moments he looked up, making an effort at keeping his tone unaggressive. “Look, it don't matter why we got chased out, only that we did. We need more help to stay outta trouble.”


“How is joinin’ an outlaw gang gonna help us any? We left Kansas to put trouble behind us, but it's still findin’ us. Your idea don't sound like we'd be tryin' to avoid people not likin' us.” Jed struggled to mirror his friend's calm tone, but knew he hadn't succeeded at Heyes' expression.


“Stop being so mule-headed over this and listen, you know I'm right as usual.”


A wave of anger at the superior and patronising tone brought Jed to his feet. He swirled to face his friend, his hands in tight fists. He lost the fragile hold on his temper and yelled, loud enough that the horses were startled out of their contented eating.


“You ain't my Pa, it's not even like you're that much older. You ain't always right and some of your ideas are downright dumb. So why should I listen?” It sounds to me like you're aimin' on causin' us even worse problems then we already got.” He subsided into silence, as he fought to wrestle his temper under control. He hadn't wanted to be the first to turn this into a confrontation, but he felt some satisfaction as he caught the slightly startled expression on Heyes' face.


After a brief staring match, he looked away and pulled on his socks and boots. When he returned his gaze to Heyes, there was an almost steely determination in his friend's expression. “This is the only choice we got left, Jed.” No longer superior, his tone was as level and firm as the look in his eyes. Jed was suddenly starkly aware that disagreement on this could mean the end of them travelling together.


Jed realised he had perhaps one last try to get his point across. “Our folks would hate this!” At the discomfort on Heyes' face, he thought he'd made an impact, but his friend's reply quickly squashed the brief hope.


“We're on our own. We cain't be what our folks would have wanted, it just ain't possible. You're just bein stupid if you don't see that. A gang who needs us is the only way we'll avoid getting killed. We might even get rich. Why cain't you just go along with me on this?” Heyes' voice was loud and heavy with frustration.


Jed turned away, an angry knot in his stomach. They were never going to agree over this. Heyes just didn't see that turning outlaw went against everything they'd ever been taught. He stomped towards his horse and mounted without any clear plan of what he was going to do. He just knew he needed to get away. He heard his friend call out as he rode away, but he simply kept going with his head down.


It was close to dusk when Jed finally stopped, both he and his horse far too tired to go any further. The sun was fully set by the time he was comfortable, the process of bedding down having taken longer than he was used to, now he was doing it by himself.


The darkness was only broken by the flickering fire, the crescent moon and the bright twinkling of the stars. Curry sat staring into the dancing flames, nursing a whiskey and faced the fact that he couldn't go back. He'd gone along with most of what Heyes planned or suggested for close to ten years, but now with the two-year age gap almost meaningless, he wanted a more equal say. He doubted that would be possible with the pattern so deeply set between them. The best chance he had of finding out what he really wanted was to be away from his friend. The decision made, he finished his drink, laid down on his bedroll and closed his eyes. He was exhausted and despite his unquiet mind was soon asleep.


He woke early, still tired, his sleep had been broken and restless. He turned to speak to empty space, forgetting for a moment that Heyes wasn't beside him. Jed packed up to head anywhere he wanted to go. Instead of happiness and anticipation at a new beginning, he felt uneasy as if something was missing. As he rode trying to ignore the silence next to him, the feeling of loss only deepened. Jed hoped it'd fade as he grew more used to being alone, because he was sure his decision to strike out alone was the right one for both of them.


XXX


Heyes camped near the river for three nights, hoping his friend would return once his temper had burnt itself out. It wasn't till the early afternoon of the fourth day that Heyes truly understood that Jed had left him. Even in the face of his angry hurt, he was completely certain that them splitting up was a mistake. However, as he rode out, he accepted that Jed had made it clear by not returning that he didn't feel the same way. Heyes wouldn't go searching, if that's what Jed expected; he hadn't done the leaving after all. The only thing left to do was to pursue his idea, because despite Curry's rejection of it he still believed it was the only route that made any sense.


Heyes rode into Buford and glanced around the town, his eyes finally resting on the brightly painted saloon down at the end of the main street. He tied his horse to the hitching post and walked towards it.


As he entered, Heyes took in the few drinkers spread sparsely through the small building. He placed his hat on the bar before running a hand through his dusty hair. He ordered two beers, turned away to study the clientele, while keeping one eye on the door. When two glasses were placed in front of him, he turned back with a smile, nodding cheerfully at the barkeep as he asked, “You get busy?”


“We do, come evening, quite a rowdy crowd.”


“Ranch hands or other types?” Heyes deliberately left the question vague, not sure of the response.


The man eyed him a little doubtfully, but answered him anyway. “Well they ain't always on the side of the angels, if that's what you're meanin', but they sure like to spend their money.”


“Sheriff pay 'em much mind?”


“He ain't bothered, less it gets too outta hand. “The man's expression turned suspicious as he eyed the two glasses. “You thirsty, son, or waiting on someone?”


Heyes glanced down a little blankly at the two beers on the bar and shook his head at himself: old habits were going to be hard to break. He smiled innocently at the man, before taking a long drink of one of the beers. He swallowed, enjoying the cool liquid as it slid down his throat and replied, “Just thirsty, trail dust sure makes my throat dry. Besides, I ain't in no rush to leave, seems like this is my kinda town.” The man smiled at that and the wariness faded from his expression. Heyes figured from what the man had said that this was as good a place as any to see if he could persuade an outfit that he had skills they might need.

Heyes booked into the hotel at the end of the street and then returned to his position at the bar. Half an hour before dusk as he continued to look through the saloon windows, he saw a group of men arrive; they were smartly dressed, looked competent and possibly a little dangerous. Heyes was suddenly alert and stood away from the bar, watching them as they and their horses headed towards the livery.


The barkeep cleaning the bar behind him had noticed his interest and said softly, “Jim Plummer and his gang – they're making quite a name for themselves. Iff'n you're lookin' to make a good livin' and ain't too choosy, they're likely a good bet.”


The group of men entered the saloon, sparking an increase of tension, but when it was clear that they didn't intend to make trouble the patrons went back to their own conversations.


Plummer and one of his men sat down at one of the poker games, while the rest ordered drinks and eyed the pretty saloon girls with interest. Heyes joined the table, eager to try and get noticed. He quickly realised that both Plummer and his companion were cheating. It bothered him, never having needed to cheat to win, but he shrugged it off. As Jed would no doubt have pointed out, what did he expect from people who robbed for a living?


About an hour into the game, one of the other players finally smelling a rat and frustrated at the loss of so much of his pay, pulled a gun, pointing it firmly at Plummer.


“Hey, mister, you're cheating. Ain't no way anyone can win that much playing fair.”


The sheriff having seen something going down, came over to the game, flanked by his two deputies. He was a tall man, broad at his shoulders and looked like he knew how to handle a gun. The rest of the gang suddenly wary were standing, arms resting by their sides, ready for action. The Sheriff looked round at all the players, before his eyes rested on Plummer.


“Look, I'm happy enough to let you boys spend your money, but I don't want no gunfight or killing in my town. So, you come to some agreement that don't involve shooting, or I'll suddenly remember those wanted posters in my office and Bud there might get a night in jail. I ain't sure he's gonna enjoy havin' to explain to his missus how exactly he got to be there.”


The man holding the gun shifted uneasily and Plummer cleared his throat. Heyes who had been expecting something, knew if he handled this right, it would be his ticket in. He looked round, taking in the charged atmosphere, the men at the bar and the expressions of everyone involved and said calmly, “I think this is all gettin' a mite out of hand. I'm sure none of these fine folks were cheating, just seems that luck ain't on Bud's side tonight. Why don't we just call it a night? As a gesture of goodwill, we could return some of his money.”


Plummer's dark gaze flicked towards Bud, then back to the Sheriff, before finally settling on Heyes. “Seems that isn't such a bad idea. What do you all say?” There was general nodding in agreement and under the Sheriff's watchful eye, money was redistributed and the game broke up peaceably.


“Well, son, that was some quick thinkin'. I'm right grateful to you.” The Sheriff tipped his hat as he and his deputies headed out of the saloon.

Heyes could feel Plummer's eyes on him as he bought a drink and wasn't surprised when he joined him at the bar.


“You knew we were cheating, but you didn't let on. Why?”


“If people are too dumb to see the obvious, till they've lost what they can't afford. Ain't my job to tell 'em.” Heyes shrugged, hating the coldness in his voice, glad Jed wasn't around to hear him, but hoped it was what would get him accepted into the gang.


“Yet, you had us return some of his money.”


“Figured if he weren't flat busted, he'd be happier to just walk away.” If there was another reason, like a niggling unwelcome sense of guilt over how his silence had played a part in the man's losses, then he wasn't about to admit it out-loud.


Plummer eyed him with a speculative look and said, “I'm assume you're aware of who I am.” At Heyes' nod he added, “Well, if you're interested, I believe we could be useful to each other.”


Heyes was riding with the gang when they left the next morning.


XXX


Several weeks after leaving Heyes behind, Jed rode into Aspen Falls, feeling sad and a little desperate. He unmounted and looked round the town, spying the building he needed at the far end of the street.


His feet dragging, he headed towards it. He had avoided this for as long as he reasonably could – the thought of selling such a good, even-tempered, easy to ride mount painful. But as his money and supplies were practically gone and jobs were scarce to non-existent, he could see no other way to keep from starving or freezing to death in the oncoming winter. Besides this way, Pilgrim would probably be better looked after than he could manage.


“He's well cared for and his gear ain't too shabby.” Surprise was clear on his face as he looked away from the horse and took in Jed's dishevelled appearance. Jed was insulted but made no comment as he needed the money too much to start an argument.


“I'll give you one hundred and fifty dollars for him and your gear.”


“He's worth more than that; you know it! Two hundred dollars and you'll almost be gettin' the gear free.” Curry's temper flared, the offer was nowhere near what he knew his horse was worth.


The man was unimpressed at his outburst and said calmly, “There's a depression on, son, ain't worth my while to go higher than one hundred and fifty. Take it or leave it. I'm the only place in town.”


Jed stared at him, let his anger drain away as he recognised the man wouldn't budge. After a final lingering pat on the horse's head, he reluctantly took the money and walked back into the street, blinking in the suddenly bright sun. He was certain, despite knowing one hundred and fifty dollars was a poor price, that selling Pilgrim had been the only choice he could make.


After buying some bullets and gun oil from the general store, he looked for somewhere to eat, eager for something that wasn't beans or burnt biscuit. He'd not even had rabbit for a few days as he'd been down to his last few bullets and hadn't wanted to risk having an empty gun.


The small cafe at the opposite end of the main street from the livery looked appealing. As he entered the worn but very clean building, his stomach rumbled. He took a small table near the door, and when the waitress came over to him with a smile, he ordered beef stew, with extra potatoes and apple pie.


The same waitress who'd taken his order came back with his food. Her smile left him in no doubt that she would be interested in getting to know him better. Jed's attention was temporarily distracted from his hunger and he grinned at her, she was very pretty and certainly no older than him. The food still proved a greater pull and he was unable to resist taking an appreciative mouthful. He winked, but continued to eat and with a final interested glance, that promised much, she walked away.


Unfortunately, by the time he had finished his meal, the place was busy and he was unable to catch her eye again.


He lingered over a cup of coffee, reluctant to leave the cafe's warmth and comfortable noise. To his mind, he had three options: stay for a while, buy a stage ticket for one of the bigger towns, or take the train to a city, where work might be easier to find. He hadn't made much progress on deciding his best course when a shadow came into his line of vision.


When a man cleared his throat and sat down in the empty chair opposite, Jed removed his gaze from his coffee and looked up in irritation at being dragged out of his thinking.


His slightly unwelcome visitor had several inches both in height and muscle on Curry, but he wasn't in the least bit threatening. His clothes were a little worn, but he appeared well-groomed and his clothes weren't trail dusty. Curry figured he probably worked out at one of the sprawling ranches he'd noticed on his ride into town.


The man favoured Curry with a friendly smile and his eyes were warm. He looked neither concerned or surprised by Jed's scrutiny and put his hand out. “William Carter, but most here just call me Will.”


Jed shook the offered hand and offered his own name in reply. With introductions completed, Will took a sip of his own coffee and then waved the cup in Jed's direction.


“I saw you at the livery. If you don't mind me saying, you seem a little down on your luck.”


Jed shrugged, embarrassed, but unable to deny it. His unshaven face, reddened eyes and dusty appearance would have made a liar of him if he'd tried, even without the man knowing he'd just sold his horse.


“I ain't exactly flush, but I don't see...”


“I'm one of the hands at the Running Rock Ranch about eight miles out of town. They're wanting more long-term help. It pays fifteen dollars a month, with board. I thought with so little work around, a young fella like you might be interested. Carlton Branning and his family have owned the land since well before the war, so they know what they're doing. Most of the boys are good workers and the food ain't half bad. We can go to the saloon for a drink and a chat, then if you're interested, we'll ride up and see Jack.”


Curry knew that fifteen dollars was slightly higher than the usual rate. The work would be hard, which put him off a bit, but the thought of half-decent food and regularly sleeping under a roof was still extremely tempting.


The waitress who'd caught his eye was still too busy to sit and chat. He knew he'd likely have ended up at the saloon anyway, so he could see no harm in agreeing to a drink.


As they both nursed a beer, Curry appreciated having someone to talk to. He'd been on his own for much of the last few weeks and had missed company far more than he'd expected.


“It's two squares a day, better than the one meal most offer. Jack's good at his job and Mr Branning knows it makes sense to treat his men decent so they don't move on too quick.”


“Jack's the foreman, huh?”


Will looked down as if suddenly deeply interested in the bar “No, that’s Sam, but he's a bit touched and can be real mean. He can be against someone for no good reason or get a liking for people who ain't exactly right, so his deputy Jack does most of the hiring. He likes us regulars to keep an eye out for folk who might be willing to sign on, so he don't need to leave the ranch much.”


“If it's such a good place to work, why they needin' new hands?” Despite his interest, Jed couldn't quite shake the strange prickly feeling that he'd learnt to recognise as a warning of potential trouble.


“Not everyone can settle well in one place for long, besides the work ain't for everyone, especially with such a big ranch. But the size makes it easy enough to avoid folk you don't get along with. Jack's real good at making sure there ain't no trouble.”


Jed suddenly wished Heyes was there to discuss the idea with. Annoyed at himself, he pushed the thought aside and decided he'd take the job if it were offered to him. It sounded far more appealing than trying to make one hundred and forty five dollars stretch beyond a few weeks.


As they rode into the ranch, doubling up on Will's horse, a man came over to greet them. He looked at Jed dubiously as he clambered off the horse.


Will waved at an extensive wood building at the far end of the square. “The stables are over there. Why not go settle Diamond while I speak to Jack?” Jed did as he was told, taking the hint that they wanted to talk without him listening.


“I don't think he'll work out. He ain't built right and he cain't be much older than fourteen.”


“C'mon Jack, he's half-starved and this is all the work he's gonna get offered. He don't seem so young when you get to talkin' to him, I think he's probly sixteen.”


Jack sighed and removing his hat, scratched his head. “Still, he don't look like he can do a man's job. We ain't a charity, you know that.”


Jed hurried back to the men, eager to know the outcome and as his sharp ears caught the conversation his heart sank. He found himself suddenly wishing he'd taken after his Pa rather than his Ma in size and looks. Not too long ago, it’d been useful to be mistaken for younger, but now at nearly seventeen and needing whatever work he could get, it looked like it was going to be a problem. Hiding his disappointment best he could, he called over his shoulder as he started to walk towards the drive that led to the road back into town.


“Thanks for the thought, Will, but seein' the answer's no, I best be gettin' on. Long walk into town.”


Jack stopped him in his tracks before he'd got far. “Okay, son, you're on a week's trial.”


Jed turned, grinned and ran up to join the two men. Jack still didn't look convinced, but Curry was confident he could easily change the man's mind in seven days.


He'd just attached wire to the last repaired fence post that he'd banged in to re-secure one of the smaller corrals on the afternoon of his fourth day when Jack called him over. “Son, you're tougher than you look. Welcome to Running Rock.” He held out his hand which Curry shook gratefully, not bothering to hide his relief.


A few weeks later, Curry finished raking in the last of the fresh hay and straightened up, despite every muscle protesting the movement. He rubbed his damp forehead with an equally damp hand and even with the smell of sweat and manure up his nostrils and in his clothes, Jed felt a measure of pride at a job well done. He heard footsteps behind him and turned, expecting to see Will, but instead looked into the face of Sam Coleman.


“Well, with those baby blues and soft curls, you're just 'bout the prettiest darn thing I've seen in quite a while. I think we coulda' been having a lot of fun. Shame on Jack for hiding you, my sweet boy.” Sam reached out to touch Curry's face.


Curry jumped back. The coldness in Sam's eyes reminded Curry of a rattler about to strike and he couldn't quite suppress a shiver. His hand by instinct went for his gun just as he remembered with an inward curse the ranch rule that hands could only carry a weapon when working out on the wilder edges where there was a risk of animal or bandit attacks.


“I'm nobody's boy, least of all yours, and ain't no-one been hidin' me.” The last part wasn't really true. Jed knew that Jack, Will, plus many of the other older hands had been doing their best to keep him away from the foreman.


Sam's expression broke into an unpleasant smile at both the words and gesture, his eyes swept over Curry in unmistakeable appreciation. “I can think of better things than smart comments to occupy that mouth with, son.”


Sam lunged and Curry brandishing his pitchfork in an attempt to ward Sam off, backed away. The tool was easily yanked out of Curry's slick hands and thrown out of reach.


Finding himself caught up against the wall, Curry kicked out, adding a flailing left hook. Somehow both found their target, leaving Sam sprawled on the ground. As Jed looked at the fallen man unsure of what to do next, he heard voices outside, likely people coming to see what the commotion was. With his heart pounding in his ears, unwilling to wait and see if they were Sam's cronies, he ran out of the stable, stepping quickly round Sam, barely avoiding the hand that tried grab his leg.


Racing over the uneven ground he only stopped when he reached the final boundary of Branning land. He sat down heavily, letting his back rest against two of the fence-posts. Will found him there a couple of hours later. Jed looked up into concerned eyes and knew what the older man was going to say even before he opened his mouth.


“I think you oughta move on today before the weather hits.”


“I'm not leavin'”


Jed never one to duck trouble had already made his decision and wouldn't be swayed. The threat of snow heavy in the air had only made him more determined, not fancying freezing to death if he was caught in the storm.


Will looked unconvinced and said carefully, “You sure, son? He sure is spittin' feathers. You cracked him a good one. Sam don't take too kindly to being bested.”


“You sayin' I shoulda' just let him do whatever he were plannin’?” Angry and frustrated at the unfairness of the situation, Jed ran a hand distractedly through his hair.


Will sighed, “No I ain't sayin' that, son, just givin' fair warnin' that you've bought yourself a whole heap of trouble.”


Jed, although stiff from sitting so long, refused Will's offer of a hand as he clambered to his feet. Looking down at himself critically, he attempted to brush the dust off his clothes and said irritably, “I don't get why he's kept on. It ain't like he couldn't be easily replaced. Jack does most of his job anyways.”


Jed looked up as Will handed him his hat, knowing from the resigned gaze that it must have been an explanation he'd given many times.


“Sam saved Mr Branning's life when they were fighting together. The family feel they owe him and nothin' anyone tells them convinces 'em to let him go.”


Jed lapsed into silence having nothing useful to say to that. He and Will walked back to the bunkhouse without speaking. Will had seemingly accepted he wouldn't budge, although the anxious glances he was throwing in Jed's direction as they walked made it clear he really wished that weren't the case.


A storm came through during the night, shaking the bunkhouse and bringing enough snow and ice with it that both ranch land and the surrounding area were covered, making outside work impossible at least until the ice melted a little.


As they sat eating breakfast, Will nodded over at Jed. “Looks like you made the right choice; you'd have frozen last night.” Will looked more relieved at his decision to stay then concerned about what trouble it might bring, now the weather had worsened. Jed only nodded, glad not to have Will fussing too much.


After he finished his meal, Jed headed out to look for Jack. He found in him his office, looking over some papers.


Hovering at the door, his eyes drifted to the safe in the far corner. “I'd like my gun, just to get some practise in. Ain't like I can do much else with the weather an' all.”


“You looking for trouble, son?” Jack didn't look surprised at the request, only slightly troubled. Curry guessed he'd heard about what had happened.


Jed shook his head, understanding, if not exactly appreciating the question. “Mostly, just tryin' to avoid it.”


Jack seemed to accept that and taking the heavy keys from his belt unlocked the safe. He briefly hesitated as if about to speak, before he handed over the weapon. Jed quickly fastened the gun to his waist and immediately felt happier at the weight on his hip.


As Jed turned to walk away, Jack said, “Son, if he were anyone else, Sam would be long gone. But them at the big house won't hear nothing against him. I don't want you rilin' him none, it won't help any of us.”


Curry stopped, his thumbs resting on his belt, a little tired of everyone warning him to stay out of trouble, as if it were a choice, but he knew his boss meant well. “Jack, you know it ain't me doing the rilin', but I'll be sure to try keep outta his way.”


He tipped his hat and headed out to find something to shoot at and a safe place to do so. The incident with Sam had left him feeling too vulnerable for comfort. He had been pretty handy with a gun from nearly as soon as he was old enough to hold one safely. His family had thought it useful and encouraged him. When he and Heyes ran away from the boys’ home, the need for the skill had gained an even greater importance for him, despite his friend's often voiced feeling that he was buying trouble. Once winter was well over, he intended to move on, and he needed to be good enough with a gun so he could avoid more trouble like yesterday.


“Jack said it's fine I practise, but I need somethin' to fire at.”


The cook stared at him, shaking his head in mock resignation. “One day that smile of yours ain't goin to work, but as I'm a natural born sucker, you can use them, just don't go hitting anything you ain't aiming at.” He waved over to the door at a pile of cans and bottles waiting to be thrown out.


An hour later, Curry was carefully putting up a third row of targets on the fence when he heard a unwelcome voice.


“Well, for a pretty boy, with a smart mouth, you ain't bad with a gun.”


He swirled round, Sam and his usual group of his hangers on were watching, carefully spaced to block any chance of him getting past. Jed had been so intent on his task he'd not heard them come up. They were all armed, in direct disregard of the ranch rule, but as Jack had warned, Sam was pretty much free to do what he wanted. Although most already had their guns out, Jed still made a move for his own, but one of men fired at his feet, forcing him to take an involuntary step back.


Another man, Mick, Jed thought his name was, gestured at him, his lip curling in cruel amusement. “Now, we ain't of a mind to kill you, just want to teach you a little lesson. So, toss your gun, slowly now.” Jed reluctantly complied, unwilling to risk getting shot.


He briefly shut his eyes, then stepped forward to meet whatever was coming. He fought hard, landing a few telling blows, before the sheer number of attackers overwhelmed his resistance, eventually a heavy knee to his groin left him sprawled full length on the snowy ground.


As he lay battered and aching, his head spinning, Sam leaned over him. Jed bit down hard on his bottom lip, determined not to make a sound, but as Sam's feet deliberately found the most painful spots, a low moan escaped him. He glared up into his tormentor's face, before the pain became too much, and he had to close his eyes tightly to prevent himself from passing out or throwing up.


Sam's voice came as if from a great distance. “You're pretty spirited, son, but that'll make the breakin' all the more fun.” He patted Curry's face in a parody of affection, then gave his side a final kick. Curry, unable to move, his face burning with both humiliation and anger, could only watch through half closed eye as the men walked away, laughing loudly.


He wasn't sure how long he lay there, but long enough that the damp had soaked through his clothing, into his skin, adding further discomfort to his already aching body. Eventually after several failed attempts, Jed struggled onto all fours, crawling to the fence, using it to help pull himself to his feet. Once he was standing, he bent to pick up his gun, fighting the agony that shot through him and then unsteadily finished putting up the bottles.


Despite the rolling waves of pain, he managed to correct his aim enough after each missed shot, that he was soon hitting most of his targets. With each satisfying crash of breaking glass, he imagined it was Sam or one of his walk-off friends. Nausea finally overwhelmed him and he retched, doubled over in pain, until he was dry heaving. He ached everywhere, his head was spinning and sweat dripped down his face. As blackness tugged at the edge of his vision, he finally accepted he'd pushed himself as far as he could. Waiting until he was sure he wasn't going to end up flat on his back passed out, he carefully straightened. With both arms protectively wrapped round his stomach, he headed slowly to the bunkhouse, relieved when he finally made it, breathless and dizzy, that the building was empty.


He lay gratefully down on his bunk and closed his eyes against the spinning world. He found the least uncomfortable position he could and was soon asleep, too exhausted for the pain to keep him awake. He only woke when some of the others returned. He stayed flat on his bunk, grateful for the dim light. There was a general clattering, fading into silence as the men headed out again.


“Jed, you comin' for some chow?”


Curry clamped a hand over his mouth as his stomach twisted at the thought of moving, let alone eating. After a few worrying moments he eventually wrestled the urge to be sick under control and found what he hoped was a convincing reply. “Nah, the cook took pity on me not long since.”


“You sure can charm 'em, son.” Jed was grateful that it was Gabe, good-tempered, easy-going and never one to notice much. Footsteps headed out, then stopped, “Before I forget, Will told me he'll be back in the mornin'. Think he's got Emily shaped business keepin' him in town.”


Jed snorted, “Yeah, probly so, Will's mighty sweet on her.” He knew he sounded breathless, but he hoped Gabe would just leave it alone and head out to eat. Everything suddenly seemed to go out of focus, and he blinked trying to clear his vision.


Curry jerked as he realised Gabe was leaning over him; he'd not heard him approach. Despite his blurred vision and the dim light, Jed could clearly see his worried expression.


“You don't look so good, Jed.”


“I'm fine, Gabe, just overdid the practise today.”


“Yeah, sure.” Gabe's face was as unconvinced as his tone. “And I'm a cattle baron.”


“Look, it don't matter, nothin' you can do about it.”


“Sam and his pals, eh?”


Jed attempted to shrug, but couldn't get his body to cooperate and had to be satisfied with a nod. “I ain't too bad off; I'll be fine, come mornin’.”


Gabe realising he was getting nowhere, headed out, but not without a final concerned glance over his shoulder.


Jed took a careful breath; the brief conversation had sapped his energy and his eyelids felt too heavy to stay open. He shuffled to try and get as much of his weight off the throbbing bruises as possible then let either sleep or unconsciousness take him under


When Jed woke the next morning, everyone else had long gone to whatever job they'd been assigned. He had to get up or he'd lose a full day's pay. Sitting on the edge of his bunk, he waited until the floor stopped moving before attempting to stand. He was so stiff and his back so painful that it was nearly beyond him. He wasn't sure how long it took, but he finally managed to get to his feet, although he was unable to quite fully straighten up. When he eventually struggled to the outhouse to relieve himself, he was unsurprised to find that his stream was bright red and hurt to pass.


Jack met him as he walked slowly towards the office, his face darkened as he took in the Jed's appearance. “I thought you was set on avoidin' trouble.”


Jed met Jack's eyes, angry at the implication. “Sam and his pals came lookin'. I weren't exactly given that option. It ain't right that he does what he wants.” A sudden wave of pain swept through him as he raised his voice. He was forced into silence as he fought to bring it under control, but he managed not to look down.


Jack stared at the gun that Jed still wore, his implication clear as he stretched out his hand. Jed glared, unwilling to give his only protection up. “He just won't leave me alone. My gun might give him pause next time.”


Jack shook his head, “It don't seem to have dissuaded him much yesterday.” His face was sympathetic as he added, “I know it ain't fair, son, but unless you're gonna leave, you know the rules. I need your gun.”


Jed briefly considered moving on, but he doubted he'd get much beyond the drive with how bad he felt, so he accepted staying was his only real option. With a sigh he unfastened his gun-belt and reluctantly handed it over, trying not to show just how much he hurt.


Jack, the gun held loosely in his hand, continued to stare at him, until Jed finally looked down, muttering, “Just tell me today's duty. I can do the work, I ain't broke.”


Jack huffed out a long breath, before saying, “You're 'bout the stubbornest cuss I ever did meet. How about you set to tidying the bunkhouse and help out in the kitchen?” As Jed headed towards the bunkhouse relieved and more than a little grateful Jack added, “Sam's away with Mr Branning, looking to buy some thoroughbreds. Probably be a few days before they get back.” Curry knew he should probably leave just as soon as he was able, but it felt too much like running away.


About three weeks later in the half-dawn, Jed weaved a little unsteadily out to relieve himself. Last night he along with most of the other boys had celebrated the news that Sonny was heading home to make an honest woman out of his lovely Arabella. He'd not drunk that much, but still living with the lingering effects of the beating, he'd been left with a very heavy head. Still mostly asleep, he was concentrating on nothing except avoiding tripping over his feet and failed to notice he was being followed.


After quickly finishing his business, he exited, glad to be away from the heavy smell of human waste. Distracted by his thoughts of more sleep and enjoying the brisk air, he missed the shadowy form creep up on him. With no time to react he found himself turned round and his face pushed hard into the wall, a heavy body forcing him tightly up against the building. He tried to kick back and wriggle free, but the grip was too hard and his struggle just resulted in his arm being twisted even more painfully towards his shoulder.


“Well, ain't it my lucky day.”


Curry had guessed who his assailant was even before the voice confirmed it. This time he knew he was really in trouble, but he still tried his best to fight, until a smack on his head with something heavy, left everything spinning and his legs sagging beneath him. He was yanked down to lie flat, his face pushed hard into the ground. Sam kept an arm braced against his neck to stop him moving and used the other to pull down Curry's pants and long-johns exposing him to the cold air. Jed wanted to scream as he felt a heavy almost caress on the bare skin. Panicked, but swamped with a huge wave of rage, a red mist seemed to descend and he somehow managed to wriggle free from Sam's heavy weight. He pushed back hard and the foreman hit the outhouse wall with a heavy thud and slid down to lie unmoving on the ground.


Curry tried to stand but his legs gave way and he lay on the floor panting heavily, shaking, unsure whether from fear or anger. Nothing quite seemed real and he lay unmoving as a hubbub of voices broke into the silence. He was helped gently to his feet and his clothes pulled up. “You're okay now, son, just breathe.” He let Will steady him and leant in slightly to the touch, still too shaken to feel embarrassed by his need for comfort.


As he stood with Will's arm round his shoulders, his ears buzzing, he heard someone gasp, but couldn't tell who. “His neck's broke. Jed's killed him.”


Curry sagged as his knees started to fold. Dead? He'd just wanted him to stop. He started to pull away from Will's hold, but the older man held on tight, turning him, so they stood face to face, his arms clasping Jed's shoulders, shaking him slightly as Jed tried to concentrate on what was being said. “They've gone for Mr Branning, it's probably best you ain't here when he arrives. I know you didn't mean to, but I don't think he'll necessarily see it that way straight off. Jack and me will clear it eventually, but it's best you just get out of here.”


Curry wanted to protest; it'd been an accident, he'd just wanted him to stop, but he couldn't find the words. Will let him go as someone else came up behind them.


Jed turned to look and saw it was Jack, out of breath and holding something. He pressed it into Curry's right hand. It was his gun. Will then pushed some money into his left and then they were telling him to go. Jed ran, out of the ranch onto the road leading into town. As he half-walked, half-ran the eight miles into town, he stumbled several times, but eventually found his way to the centre of town, his feet throbbing and blistered. Taking steadying breaths, he decided his best idea was to take the stage to Cheyenne and maybe then he'd have a better idea of what to do next.


On the day and a half trip, he made up his mind; if he couldn't find his place here, he would head East and start over. Philadelphia was somewhere that the Curry family had often talked of visiting. Grandpa Curry had some relatives who'd settled in the city, who exactly Jed hadn't paid much mind to, but the name had stayed with him. Eighteen hundred miles seemed just far enough for a new beginning.


He slept little on the seemingly endless journey. The track beneath jolted the already uncomfortable benches, leaving him stiff and sore. Besides the discomfort, his mind was just too full, as he searched for any way he might have done things different.


The relief as the train finally pulled into Philadelphia was short-lived. The station was buzzing with the noise of more people than Jed had ever seen in one place. He was jostled impatiently as he struggled through the crowd. When he finally exited onto the street, the heavy knot that had settled into his stomach as he'd run from the ranch, only tightened as he took his first real breath of the city. He stood in the middle of a bustling pavement and looked around at the urban sprawl, wishing desperately for red rock and wide-open desert.


“Hey, fella, you better shift your ass. Ain't smart standing in the way like that.” A smell of over ripe fruit assailed Curry as he stumbled back, barely avoiding crashing into people coming up behind him.


Suddenly annoyed at his helplessness, he viciously subdued the mild panic and managing to get his body moving, found shelter from the crowd under a small shop awning. He hoped it was just the unfamiliarity of it all getting to him and that in a few days he'd be fine.


He took deep breaths, coughing at the dust as it caught at his throat. As his head cleared, he again tried to dredge up the relative who'd moved here. The name had evaded him all throughout the long trip from Cheyenne, but finally it came to him – Great Uncle George Curry, his Grandpa's youngest brother.


In 1822, five years before the rest of the family, George and his new wife Maggie had left Ireland with four other couples in search of a better life. Jed realised he had no way of finding out whether George, Maggie, or even any of their family were still living in the city. He was totally alone here. As that sunk in, his mind wandered to Heyes and he thought maybe he should have tried harder to keep with him. He quickly pushed the thought away as pointless; they'd done nothing but argue those last few weeks. With their ideas on which way to go being so different, staying together wouldn't have helped either of them.


After over three weeks, the hoped-for adjustment hadn't happened and Curry had accepted that he'd never be at home here. It had the wrong kind of dust, was far too expensive and was just too full of fancy dressed folk who looked at him like he was a strange untamed species, from another world.


Each morning in his flea-ridden rooming house, the only place his meagre funds could afford, aware of everyone around him doing the same thing, he scoured the help wanted section of whatever newspaper was available. He was more than willing to take anything that meant he might be one step closer to going back West, where he belonged.


Early one morning, with the city still mostly asleep, he ran through a rainstorm, hoping to secure one of the dock jobs he'd found in The Ledger.


“You got any experience, son?”


Jed had never seen a dock until he'd arrived in Philadelphia, but thought he could figure out what was needed to unload and stack smelly, heavy crates. “I can lift, carry and know when to duck.”


The man's face split into a smile, “Well, son, that'll do.”


The work was back breaking and crushingly dull, but at the end of the day, the pay nearly made the aches bearable, especially as he'd been told to come back tomorrow.


He headed back to the rooming house, relieved at the likelihood of another day's wage. He became aware that someone was staying far too closely behind him. He slowed, wanting to force a confrontation and felt a hand touch his pocket. He grabbed it hard, eliciting a squeak and a sharp kick from its owner. He turned to look at the potential thief and nearly released the hand in shock. A girl, no more than eleven, stood there covered in grime, wearing almost threadbare clothes that were much too large. She had bright brown eyes and probably a pretty smile, but as she was angrily glaring at him, in-between kicking the bits of his body that she could reach, it was hard to tell.


“Will you stop kickin' me, dammit.”


“Not till you let me go, mister.”


“Well Iff'n you stop kickin' and move back a bit, maybe I might just do that.”


She eyed him nervously, but did as he directed, so he let her go, waiting for her to run off, but she stood there looking at him. He kept a tight hand over his jacket pocket, expecting her to make a lunge for his money.


She just continued to stare at him defiantly, “I ain't sorry, mister, me and my brother need the money.” She drew herself up to her full, less than impressive height, but her fierce gaze didn't quite hide the fear. Jed, suddenly reminded of another pair of dark eyes, found himself asking. “How much do you need?”


“What?”


“How much do you and your brother need, so you don't freeze tonight?”


She looked at him, her eyes wide. “You sure ain't from around here.”


“Ain't intendin' to stay neither and you look like you're as bad off as me. So how much?”


When no answer was forthcoming, he simply handed her most of what he didn't need for his bed. She looked at him speechless for a moment, then her face broke into a what was indeed a very attractive smile, before she disappeared back into the shadows. The encounter had left no regret, only a strange bittersweet feeling, heightened by the fact he could almost hear Heyes teasing him about being a soft touch for any pretty girl.


Now of course, he only had a few cents more than the cost of his rooming house, which meant if he wanted to eat, the nearest soup kitchen was his only choice.


At the sight of the huge line-up, he considered not bothering, tired from the long hours of heavy labour. But his stomach was aching from hunger; he'd missed breakfast due to the early start and certainly hadn't eaten lunch. He knew sleep would be easier with something warm in his stomach and he didn't want to risk missing the work at the dock by having a poor night's rest. He reluctantly joined the mass of people, settling in for a long wait.


He was half-asleep when he finally reached the front and nearly spilled the bowl of soup when it was handed to him. He sat down at the nearest available bench and for a couple of minutes just stared at his spoon, not sure he even had enough energy to lift it.


“Well, son, you look dead on your feet.” A female voice to his right startled him as he finally summoned up enough energy to begin eating. He looked up into the friendly face of a white-haired lady. She was expensively, but not flashily dressed and she was looking at him warmly. He found a smile for her as she sat next to him.


“Ma'am.” He wondered who she was, maybe a volunteer, possibly if he was lucky, she might even be looking for someone who needed work.


“Eleanor, my name's Eleanor. Now, just eat, then there's something I want to ask you.”


His head pounding with the need for sleep, he wasn't really in the mood to talk, but if she was offering a job, he couldn't afford to be rude. She watched him eat in silence, making Curry conscious of his manners. When he'd finished eating, he looked at her and said politely, “Ma'am.”


She raised a neat eyebrow at him and he squirmed, her gaze reminding him very much of Miss Melton, one of the teachers at his small pre-Valparaiso school. He couldn't bring himself to call her Eleanor and his face must have been shown his discomfort as she smiled, her eyes twinkling in amusement.


“I'd like to offer you a job. Two dollars a day and an afternoon meal. Just some heavy lifting, gardening and general outdoor maintenance.“ She paused as if unsure of how much to add, but then she looked at him with such intensity that he had to look down, before adding, “My husband died a few months ago and I'm afraid I've rather let things go.” Underneath the steady tone, there was an unmistakeable hint of tears. Without really thinking about it, he reached out a hand to comfort her, before quickly pulling it back, her face broke into a soft smile at his gesture. “So, young man, what should I call you?”


“Jed, Ma'am.”


“Well, Jed, here's my address and I'll see you bright and early in the morning.”


She walked off then with another friendly smile, and he looked down at the piece of paper in his hand. After three weeks in the city, he recognised the address as one of the houses on the high-priced side of the river.


He presented himself there at 7.00am, knocking on the back entrance. The man who answered looked at him as if he were something unpleasant. Jed shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, suddenly unsure whether this had been a good idea after all, feeling his temper rise at the expression on the smartly dressed man's face. The lady he'd met last night came into view, she smiled at Jed, before turning to the man who'd opened the door with a glare and said severely, “Arthur, please don't scowl; you know why the boy's here.”


Arthur looked down, flushing a little and muttered, “Sorry, Mrs MacKinnon,” before stepping aside.


After the first week she insisted that he stay in the servant's quarters, rather than returning to his rooming house, much to Arthur's sniffy displeasure. Curry overheard a rather heated conversation as he'd swept the driveway the day she'd suggested the move.


“Mrs MacKinnon, with respect, he doesn't belong in respectable society. People will talk.”


“Enough of this foolishness, Arthur. I am not intending to marry or even adopt the boy, I merely wish give him a safe place to sleep. He is young and alone. I will hear no further complaints. Is that clear?”


At the end of six weeks, she had no more need of him and he had enough to go home. Despite his relief at knowing he was leaving, he felt a little sad. She was the one thing he'd remember fondly about this dusty hole. She however looked genuinely happy at the news and clapped her hands with a smile. “That is such wonderful news.”


She insisted on giving him a bonus, despite him trying to refuse. “I can't take anymore of your money, Ma'am, it don't seem right when you've been so good to me.”


“My dear Frank left me more money than one person could spend in two lifetimes. We were not blessed with children and this is what I wish to do. Would you deny an old lady?”


Jed grinned at her, knowing when he was beaten and gratefully accepted the money, folding it into his shirt without looking at it.



Jed hadn't really expected everything to be suddenly okay back in Wyoming, which was good, as he still seemed to attract trouble, spending a fair amount of time in fist fights and gunfights, or at least trying to avoid them. Life wasn't easy as he drifted from one job to the next, but he knew he was better here than anywhere else. Mrs MacKinnon's bonus had been very generous, more than enough for a horse and a good gun; he could probably have afforded a better gun-belt and holster too, but he found himself reluctant to get rid of them as they'd been a gift. He practised his draw and shooting every day and more often twice or three times.


It wasn't until one night, when someone accused him of cheating at poker and tried to call him out, that he truly realised at the collective gasp as he drew his gun in reply, just how quick he'd become. The man backed down, terror crossing his face as he fled without looking back. As Curry made his way to the bar, he knew he was being watched with some admiration and likely some fear too. He felt invincible and more in control of his life, then perhaps he'd ever felt. Maybe he didn't have to practise as much anymore.


Three weeks later he was in Grand Rapids nursing a drink when he heard a slap and a sharp intake of breath, followed by some yelling, “You're just a whore, Betsy, you ain't no right to refuse me.”


He turned in the direction of the noise and saw a well-dressed young man about his age, holding onto a girl far too young to be doing what he was expecting her to.


“Beau please, I don't get paid to do that. I just serve the drinks here,” She flushed as he shook her, “Please, just leave me alone, there are other girls, who'll be more than willing.”


Curry could stand no more and pushed himself away from the bar. “I think the lady has made it quite clear she ain't interested.”


The young man stared, his eyes hard. “You calling me out?”


“No, just asking you to have some manners.”


The man stared at him and went for his gun and found himself looking down at Curry's already drawn weapon. “Now, the lady has said no and maybe it's time you went and did somethin' else.”


The man flushed and headed out of the saloon, letting the doors slam heavily behind him.


Betsy smiled over at him, but then her face dropped into a worried frown.” I can't thank you enough, but you might have just got yourself into trouble. He's Beau Starr . His Father practically owns the town. He likely won't take kindly to you stepping in like that.


“Miss, I don't like seein’ men throw their weight around, but maybe you're right and I should be movin' on.”


Curry tipped his hat and headed out into the main street, figuring it best to get as far away from here as possible, but out in the street he found a small group of men blocking his path to the livery. One of them was the man who'd been hurting the girl.


“Now, we got a score to settle with you; I don't like it when strangers interfere. But I ain't no coward, so we'll settle it man to man, just you, me and our guns.”


Curry knew if he refused, he'd no doubt find himself on the wrong side of more than one fist. Besides with his gun, he would be able to teach the idiot a lesson he'd not forget easily. Feeling confident and pleased with that idea, he nodded. “If that's what you're happy with.”


Beau and Curry stared at each other across the square. They'd drawn quite an interested crowd and Beau's friends stood cheering the fool on.


Curry just wanted to get this done so he could ride out. Starr started to draw, but Curry was faster. His gun cracked and the bullet flew. As Beau had readied himself, he'd moved further right than Curry expected and instead of his bullet hitting an arm as intended, it went straight into his heart and he fell to ground, dead.


Curry barely heard the collective sigh around him as he stared at the body, replaying the last few moments in his head. Before anything else could happen and as the others converged on the body, he ran to his horse, high-tailing it out into the mountains.


He sat staring at his gun, but not seeing it. His mind was full of images that made his throat ache. His family, their bodies haphazardly strewn in front of his burning house; Heyes knelt between the graves of his parents, his hand laying gently round Jed's shoulders, struggling to be strong, but with silent tears pouring down his cheeks; Sam lifeless on the ground; and now the young idiot lying dead. Brushing a shaking head across his forehead, he was assailed by a wave of self-disgust, his skill with a gun was a tool to protect, not to be whatever he'd started to believe it was. He had become too confident, too careless, too sure of himself, not thinking of every possible outcome, so a man had died. He would do better; he wouldn't be the cause of another man's death. Whatever else Beau Starr had been, he had been someone's son.



Standing on slightly shaky legs, Curry looked round and slowly gathered up some things he could shoot at. He put his targets up, shot them all down, and then set up some more. He practised till his arm ached and his legs threatened to collapse, till darkness meant he could no longer even see the hand in front of his face. The next day, he woke early and he did it again. After a week, his arm was so stiff, he had to massage the muscles to persuade it to work, but still he practised. Finally, after ten days, he decided he was ready to ride into the next town.


XXX


Heyes rolled into Cedar Ridge, needing money and tired of sleeping in the open air. After the Plummer gang had scattered to the four winds, running from a posse, minus a leader and thirty thousand dollars, Heyes had decided to wait a while before trying to join another gang. His experience hadn't changed his mind about outlawing being the best way to go. He just decided to be more careful about who he offered his skills to.


The players at the saloon were terrible, taking their money was like stealing candy from a baby. High on the rush of winning, he forgot to be careful. Even by the third night he was still enjoying himself too much to really think about what he was doing. He turned to the man to his left and couldn't resist giving him some advice. “Sticking on two pair just ain't the best way to win and you're always betting too high when it makes no sense.”



Eventually feeling he'd probably pushed his luck enough, Heyes raked in his winnings and headed back to his hotel. He'd set out next morning and head to the next town Green Ridge, which he'd heard was larger and more prosperous. Intent on his plans, he failed to notice the other players watching him go, anger clear on their faces.


Heyes had just reached the mouth of an alley when he heard scuffling behind him. It was too late to run and he found himself shoved hard into the wall, before being pushed onto the ground. A heavy kick rolled him onto his back and he looked up into the furious faces of the players he'd just left.


He tried to push himself up, but failed and instead merely rolled into the feet of another of his attackers, who yanked him up, only to let him sprawl back heavily on the ground, laughing as he landed with a thud. He was kicked a few more times and his hands stood on. They didn't seem interested in getting their money back, merely intent on punishing him for winning it.


Finally, one of the men, who Heyes recognised as the one who'd lost the most money, pressed down hard on his bruised hands and leant in to Heyes' face, yanking his head up. The smell of cheap liquor was heavy on his breath, making Heyes' stomach churn, on top of all the pain. “I'm sure you was cheating. Ain't natural what you was winning. I can play poker mighty well, don't need no little shit telling where I'm going wrong.” After a moment, he let Heyes' head go and smiled as it thudded into the hard ground. He looked up at his friends and nodded.


Everything seemed to slow down and Heyes was suddenly sure this was where he died. After everything, his folks, the boys’ home, all the problems he and Jed had overcome, it seemed entirely unfair that this was where it ended. Alone, kicked to death in a dead-end town, killed by idiots who didn't know when to fold.


He had no energy to move and as he lay there, memories rushed through his mind, until finally he was left with a single vivid image. It seemed fitting that his final thought would be of Jed.


As a booted foot came up to kick him in the head, there was a loud yell and a flurry of well-placed shots and his attackers fled. He stayed where he was for a few moments, stunned that he was still alive, before self-preservation kicked in and he started to scramble to his feet. Before he had got far, he was surprisingly gently pulled the rest of the way to his feet. He was stood up against the wall, still trying desperately to catch his breath. After a fruitless attempt to tidy his clothes, he eventually looked up at his rescuer, a smile planted firmly on his face.


His eyes were met by a not completely unfamiliar face. The man was large, well-muscled and his expression was amused. After a few moments, Heyes dragged up the memory of where he recognised the man from – the saloon. He'd been there the last two nights watching the games. Heyes wondered what the cost of his rescue might be; there were many reasons why the man had stepped into help and most of them only spelt trouble. Still not letting any of his worry show on his face, he rubbed his jaw carefully and nodded a thank-you.


The man's amused expression broke into a full-blown smile. “Not so clever, winning too much.”


Heyes couldn't help but agree as he took note of the numerous aches in his body and nodded carefully. He wasn't sure why it mattered, but it felt important that his rescuer know he had won the money fairly. “I wasn't cheating, they were just real bad at poker.”

“I am sure of that, but perhaps telling them so was also a slight error of judgement.“


Heyes found himself smiling a little, unable to disagree and thinking about all the times Jed had said the same. Jim held out his hand and Heyes took it a little warily, very aware of the bruising on his hands.


“Jim Santana.”


“Hannibal Heyes.”


Santana's grip was not painful and he was definitely doing his best not to be intimidating. At the name something tickled at the back of Heyes' memory, but he was so sore and weary that he couldn't keep hold of the thought.


The man still looked amused and his voice held a hint of mocking humour, but no scorn as he said, “Hannibal is a big name for one so small. I like it.”


Heyes in no position to be annoyed at the man's amusement, shrugged and smiled. “I usually go by Heyes.”


“Ah, but I think I prefer Hannibal.”


“Sir, I don't mean to be rude...”


“You want to know the 'bottom line' as it were?”


There was more silence as Santana studied him quietly. It appeared the man was in no rush to explain, but Heyes even knowing how ungrateful he was being, wished he'd get on with it. His jaw was throbbing, his hands ached, and a sharp pain was spreading through his body. He just wanted the whisky in his room and then his bed, trying to hurry the man up, without being too obvious about it, he said, “I don't want you to think I ain't grateful.”


Santana waved that away and fixing Heyes with a piercing look said, “I have a proposal for you. I'm short on people for a very big bank job. I think you are a person I could use.”


Heyes felt a slight rush of excitement as he finally placed the name – The Devil's Hole Gang. He suddenly felt less sore and far more interested. Jim Santana had noticed the sudden change and smiled.


“Ahh, I see you know of me. That is good, as I believe if all goes well, you will find a home with us.”


Jim led his new recruit back into the busy saloon and, with the ease of experience, found a quiet table away from prying eyes and ears. He laid the plan out to an eager Heyes. It wasn't exactly a bad plan, although there were some major flaws, but Heyes was unsure how to suggest the changes without losing his chance of being accepted, but Santana had seen his expression and raised an eyebrow.


“You do not approve of my plan, Hannibal, huh?”


“I do, I do, just a couple of tweaks might be good.”


“Tweaks? Do explain.”


Heyes heard the sarcasm, but decided to ignore it. He had been too eager to please with Plummer and that had been a mistake. If this man couldn't accept criticism, maybe Heyes would just look elsewhere, although he hoped he wouldn't have to. He took a deep breath, mentally crossed his fingers and took the plunge.


“You could do with more men on the outside, just in case. Timing is important, so you oughta think about doing it on a Saturday rather than a Monday. Town’s busier, so the sheriff might get more tied up, and ain't no-one gonna be doin' banking on a Sunday. You've a coupla blind spots on your bank plan and that might be a problem. You gotta have a more precise routine for the Sheriff's rounds.”


Heyes trailed off a little self-consciously, aware of just how negative he'd been about the plan. Santana, however, was looking at him with an expression of slightly irritated, surprised respect.


“I think you will go far, Hannibal. I may have to worry about you in the future, but for now, I suspect you will simply be happy to start somewhere, huh?”


Heyes nodded his agreement and shook Santana's proffered hand, feeling exhausted but eager.


“Now before I let you sleep, you must meet the rest of the boys.”


The next afternoon after they'd arrived back at Devil's Hole, Jim explained the changes Heyes had suggested. Some of the gang members looked at the young man with undisguised suspicion, while others looked unwillingly impressed, but none took issue with the ideas.


The robbery went without a hitch and after they returned, with enough money that even divided up it meant a good amount for each of them, much of the suspicion had faded to a wary respect. Although a couple of the men still seemed to resent how he'd caught Jim's eye, unimpressed by his confidence.


Wheat Carlson was the main objector and even two weeks on was still throwing him unfriendly glances. Heyes had weighed him up on the first day and had easily dismissed his dislike. Santana was popular enough and successful enough that no-one would go against him.


Heyes lay on his bunk making plans. In a few weeks, he would persuade Jim that he'd make a good second. He didn't think it'd be that difficult. The Devil's Hole Gang had a totally different feel to it than Jim Plummer's outfit, more friendly, less vicious. Home hadn't been a place since he'd lost his family, but this was closest he'd come in a long time. Without constant worry, his mind was much freer to drift, and he found himself thinking of Jed frequently, despite no expectation of ever seeing him again.


Heyes settled in quickly. It was after three successful jobs that Jim came over to him in the bunkhouse. He didn't hear him at first, his eyes caught by an article in the newspaper he was reading. It was about a gunfight ending in the death of the challenger, the son of one of large ranch owners. As he re-read it for the third time, he had a sinking feeling he knew exactly who the surviving man was. It wasn't the first time he'd read about the young gunfighter that people had taken to calling The Kid. So much for avoiding trouble. Jim cleared his throat and Heyes looked up with a start.


“You seem most intent, Hannibal. Something that should concern me?”


“No, Jim, just thinking about someone I used to know. You want me for something?”


“I have a proposition for you. I like to get the best out of my men and I feel maybe you are wasted out here. I propose that you become my second. I believe that is the correct term.”


“Wheat ain't goin' to be happy.”


Jim's eyes crinkled at that. “ Mr Carlson has many talents, but I do not believe his skills are what I need for this.”


Heyes grinned and took him up on the offer, not that there had been any doubt. It was only Wheat who voiced any objection to his new position.


Heyes enjoyed being second-in-command, he very much appreciated having his own space in the leader's cabin. Despite the odd moment when it chafed not being in full charge he liked Big Jim and was content enough that he wasn't prepared to leave or challenge for leadership.


But circumstances overtook him when a job went wrong. A posse had formed faster than anyone had thought possible. Heyes, with half the money in his saddlebags, found himself dodging bullets and riding so fast he could hardly breathe. He heard a yelp behind him, but didn't dare stop and look. It was only when he arrived at back Devil's Hole two days later that he heard the news from a still shocked looking Jackson.


“It's Big Jim, Heyes, he got shot in the arm and arrested. The Marshal's already got him on the way to Cheyenne. They was afraid someone might try and break him out.”


Heyes swallowed hard, noticing suddenly that everyone's eyes were on him, with a look of expectation on their faces. “What, you want to go to Cheyenne and rescue him?” It seemed like a fool’s errand to him and was relieved when there was a general shaking of heads.


Jackson appeared to have been appointed spokesman as Kyle was frantically waving at him to get talking. He cleared his throat a little nervously and then said. “Ain't an option now. While we was waitin', we got to talkin' and, well, most of us, we figure we want you as leader.” His eyes rested on Wheat for a moment, who humphed loudly, but leaning back against one of the bunks made no other comment.


Heyes met Wheat's gaze and the older man shrugged. “I ain't goin' nowhere, so I guess this way we'll both find out if you're as clever as you think you are.”


XXX


Curry rode into Marysville, money from his last job burning a hole in his pocket. He booked into the slightly cheaper of the two hotels and ordered a bath. He spent time soaking in the warm soapy water, washing off four days of grime and trail dust. As he dressed, he thought about a steak dinner and a pretty girl.


The saloon was already busy with several games of poker in progress and one of the new-fangled organs was piping out wheezy music. One of the players looked up as he entered, and Curry realised that he recognised the man. He'd been one of Beau Starr's friends. He figured that he had two choices, turn around and walk right back out or face another gunfight. All he really wanted to do was have a drink and relax, but the man was already on his feet, his gun wavering slightly as he pointed it towards Curry. “This man killed my friend! I should just shoot him here and now.” Curry's gun was also out, but his hand was much more steady


A man with a silver star on his chest stood up from the bar and looked between the two of them, but his eyes lingered on Curry. “You saying he's a murderer?”


Curry, without taking his eyes of the man at the table, said, “His friend started it, Sheriff. I was just faster.”


Curry saw his accuser give a reluctant nod and the sheriff sighed, “Huh, well that means there ain't much I can do. He flicked his head over at the young man standing at the table, before he squinted back over at Curry and added, “That young man is here with his Pa, looking at beeves. I know him , but I ain't never seen you before. Though I got a notion who you might be. I'd be a lot happier if you just moved on. “


Curry holstered his gun and headed out the door. It seemed his bad choices were going to haunt him for a while. He couldn't really blame the boy. He knew how it felt to lose people he cared about. Even now he wondered how he'd react if he heard Heyes had been killed. Curry's mind had drifted towards his friend very often since Beau Starr had died. He hoped he was well and doing better than him. He thought this was the fourth or maybe even fifth town since Grand Rapids someone had decided to draw on him.


He reluctantly collected his stuff from his hotel, shrugging at the surprised look on the desk clerk's face, and headed out to collect his horse. Wondering where to head next, he wasn't paying much attention and was slow to react when a figure came flying at him. He was punched hard in the stomach and, as he struggled to fight back, four more people came out of the alley he'd just passed. He caught the glint of a silver star as a fist hit his face. He was left nearly unconscious on the floor, his body aching by the time they'd finished. Everyone melted away, except the Sheriff who smiled down at him. “Money talks, son and I ain't of a mind to turn down fifty dollars, especially when it means I get to teach some young punk a lesson.” He lightly patted Curry down and with a huff of triumph took some of the money he found there. “For my trouble.” With final pat on his face, the Sheriff left him there without a glance back.



As Curry lay bleeding on the ground, angry and in pain, his mind swept back to his and Heyes last argument. He had been so determined that outlawing was wrong. But now he wondered if there wasn't maybe a certain honesty in robbing a bank or holding up a train. Least it left no-one in any doubt what was happening. He struggled to his feet and as he stood there, swaying slightly, he realised he was tired. Not the usual weariness that he often felt, but so tired that he felt the ache of it in his bones. He was tired of wondering what trouble tomorrow would bring, tired of drifting from one town to the next, tired of being lonely, just plain tired of his life.

XXX


After a successful bank job, their first major one since Heyes had taken over, the gang had been itching to spend some of their plentiful funds. Heyes had, despite resistance, insisted on a week at The Hole before he agreed to let them loose.


When Heyes had given them the go ahead to leave, the rest of the gang had headed for the rowdy mining settlement of Copper Hollow, but feeling the need for a break, Heyes had chosen to spend time in Rattlerbank, the quieter of the two outlaw friendly towns in easy riding of Devil's Hole. The idea of some Kyle and Wheat free days, with plentiful alcohol, poker playing, and women sounded like a kind of Eden. Heyes enjoyed his new leadership, but the ongoing battle to keep the boys in line, plus the planning that had been needed for the job, had left him wanting some time to relax.


Heyes sauntered into the small saloon, money satisfyingly heavy in his pocket, his eyes swept round, finding nothing of either concern or interest until his eyes fell on a man sitting sideways at the bar. Heyes drew in a deep breath as he recognised him almost instantly. The man, apparently aware of the scrutiny, met his gaze and time seemed to freeze for a moment, before he turned away, without even a smile of recognition.


Heyes was irritated; the man had known exactly who he was. Determined not to be ignored, he strode up to the bar. Heyes ordered a drink and took the space at the side of him. After a welcome gulp of his drink at the continued lack of response he said drily, “You just gonna pretend you don't know me?”


Jed looked up, his face giving nothing away and shrugged. “I was intendin' to, but seems like you have other ideas.” He said nothing else, only gazed at his beer in deliberate silence.


Heyes studied his friend, noting the shabby and dusty clothing. He looked down and his eyes took in first the gun-belt, then the holster tied his right leg. He saw with some pleasure that they were what he’d bought his friend for his first birthday after they'd escaped the home. They were both well-worn and frequently repaired with untidy but effective stitching. The gun unsurprisingly was newer and, from what he could see of it, expensive. Heyes noted Curry's right hand which rested near his weapon was covered with cuts and heavy bruising.


Heyes leant forward to better see Curry's face. He noticed more bruising was scattered over his cheekbones and chin. Heyes glanced down at the left hand, which was curled round his beer and saw that it was similarly damaged. The colour suggested the marks were a few days old, but deep enough that they were likely still sore. Heyes thought Jed looked unwell, in pain and very possibly on the point of collapse. He also realised the only reason he could see it was that despite their time apart he still knew what to look for.


“Stop it, Heyes, you lookin’ at me like that is makin' me nervous. I don't take kindly to bein' nervous.” His scrutiny had brought Curry out of his silence, but there was more weariness than anger in Curry's voice, confirming Heyes' observation of how tired he must be. Heyes knowing he was possibly taking a big risk, leaned in to speak softly in his ear.


“I'm just thinking maybe we oughta leave before you fall off that chair and get a mite more friendly with the floor than you'd like.”


Curry humphed, but didn't pull away, replying equally quietly, “I ain't goin' to pass out and give these boys a show, don't you worry.”


Heyes snorted before responding, “Jed, you might as well give it up. You forget how well I know you.”


Heyes moved back, but not before he caught a brief flash of sadness, quickly masked, cross the Kid's shuttered expression.


“I've changed, don't even go by Jed much these days. Most folk just call me Kid. Gotten used to makin' my own decisions so don't be expectin' me to follow or listen to you as easily as I did.”


Heyes was startled into quiet laughter, “As I recall, you never made anything easy. Why do you think I'm so good at persuading?” He was rewarded with a slight upturn of Curry's lips and a vaguely amused shrug.


“I always figured you was just born that way.”


“Well, even with my natural talent, it still took practise. I sure got it around you.”


“Not exactly my recollection.” The Kid didn't quite smile, but there was a definite thaw in his expression.


Heyes responded to the hint of warmth with a grin and clapped Curry gently on the shoulder, leaving his hand resting there lightly. “So, what do you say? You wanna get caught up?”


He suddenly feared he'd taken too much for granted when Curry's face froze. Under his hand, Heyes could feel suddenly tense muscles. Disappointment swept through him and he started to move away. However, after a moment, Curry relaxed and even flashed a weak version of the once familiar grin.


“I'd sure be interested in knowin' what you been up to. Seems to suit you; you're lookin’ well,real well.”


“Well, if it ain't the great Kid Curry. I've been hearing a lot about you. Sure didn't expect to see someone so famous way out here.”


Curry's whole manner altered – his face and stance hardening. Heyes felt a sudden chill at the change. Curry stood, quickly turning to face the owner of the voice. Heyes saw him grab the bar to steady himself as he did so and saw discomfort quickly suppressed cross his face, but doubted anyone else, least of all the idiot at the door had noticed. A man, although as Heyes eyed him critically a boy might be a more fitting description, was standing, his arms resting at his sides. There was a sudden sharp rise in tension as people took in what was happening.


Curry, indicating the beer on the bar, his eyes cold, said, “Don't seem right to disturb these good folk when they're enjoyin' a drink.”


Heyes was impressed with the steadiness of Curry's voice. Standing so close, he could feel the small tremors in his friend's body and wondered just how much pain he was in.


“Well, maybe we should just take this outside. I want to find out if you're as good as they say.”


Heyes blinked at the speed that the gun was in the Kid's hand. “I ain't in the mood, but I can tell you I mostly hit what I aim at.” His voice was calm, but with enough edge that there was an almost collective intake of breath.


Suddenly aware that he might have made a mistake, the youngster tried to smile. Curry simply continued to stare at him, his gun steady. The uneven battle of wills ended when the potential opponent, his face red with embarrassment, turned and almost fled out through the door.


The atmosphere broke as the other customers, realising the crisis was over, started breathing again.


“I'm sorry, Mr Curry, Karl ain't got much sense. Next drink is on the house.”


Curry twirled his gun back into his holster and turned to the barman.


“Ain't thirsty no more, but thanks for the offer. Maybe tomorrow?” The man nodded nervously in agreement.


The Kid finished his drink in a single gulp and threw some coins on the bar before he headed out to the door.


Heyes quickly followed; he was both impressed and shaken by the display. It was clear his friend was more than a little dangerous, but he needed to know just how much he'd changed.


Curry was leaning heavily against the saloon wall, the tremors that Heyes had noticed now more pronounced. He looked up into Heyes' eyes, his expression resigned. “Guess I'd better be ridin' on. That damn fool might come back with some friends.”



With more confidence than he actually felt, Heyes said airily, “I doubt he'll be back, think you scared him plenty. Don't see no reason to change our plans. You got a room?”


Curry shook his head and opened his mouth, but whatever he'd intended to say was lost, as their attention was caught by a motley collection of young men walking towards them. The Kid muttered under his breath and started to push himself away from the wall, but Heyes put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Let me handle this.”


Curry looked prepared to argue, but then nodded wearily and rested back against the building. Heyes thought he looked about at the end of his rope.


With another light pat, Heyes turned to face the small group. Walking out to meet them, he stood at an angle trying to shield Curry and addressed them calmly. “Look, I think we've all had more than enough excitement. I bet you boys have heard of The Devil's Hole Gang. Well they're good pals of ours and won't take kindly to you making trouble for us. Just in case you're wondering, the name's Hannibal Heyes.” He smiled brightly at them, but rested his hand on his gun.



Karl's face flickered and he turned back to his friends. The small group looked nervously at each other, then back at Heyes. After a brief pause, they all turned to slowly walk away, trying to make their departure appear less than a retreat.


Heyes huffed in relief and turned back to Curry, who was bent over, clutching his stomach. Heyes ran towards him, but stayed an arms-length away as Curry used the hand not holding his stomach to wave him off. Curry took a few deep painful breaths. Heyes wasn't sure he'd win the battle to stay conscious, but eventually he looked up, face pale and sweaty, an unnatural flush tingeing his cheeks. “Just moved a bit fast.”


“Uh-huh, just how many bruises you covered in, Kid?”


The Kid glared at him briefly, but then shrugged. “You still don't miss much.” He took a breath before admitting. “Bruised 'bout everywhere 'cept my feet.”


Heyes met the Kid's gaze and wondered just what trouble he was in, but decided they'd sort it out later, if need be,and made a decision. “Look, Kid, I know we ain't seen each other for a long while, but we're pretty much kin. So, if you're agreeable, you can share my hotel room.”


He expected resistance, despite his friend's obvious weakness and his slight giving of ground. He had all the reasons it was a good idea on the tip of his tongue, but to his surprise, he didn't need them as Curry agreed immediately, with a rueful but definitely grateful smile.


“Should just be for tonight. I ain't too bad at poker these days and either tonight or tomorrow evenin' I can likely win enough to get my own.”


Heyes was more than a little relieved at Curry giving in. If his powers of persuasion had failed, the only other idea he'd come up with was to knock him out and drag him to the hotel. Somehow he didn't think that would've have done much for their chances of reuniting as friends.


“You set, Kid?”


Curry straightened and put his hand on Heyes' arm and said slightly awkwardly, “Thanks. I sure wasn't keen on one of them boys dyin' just 'cos I'm too tired and bruised to shoot straight.”


“Well, it didn't seem right you havin' to leave before we got properly reacquainted.”


Curry gave him a brief but very warm smile that reached and softened his eyes, before he quickly looked away, likely embarrassed at revealing too much. Heyes knew then that he just needed some time plus his silver tongue to convince Curry to let him back in. Once that was done, he was sure he could persuade the Kid to come with him to The Hole. First things first though, Curry desperately needed some rest and if Heyes could convince him of that, it'd be a good first step towards accomplishing the rest.


In the hotel room, Heyes caught Curry, who was still looking flushed, glance at the bed longingly, but he walked past it over to the chair against the wall and looked intent on sitting down. It was plain to Heyes that Curry was still riding his stubborn streak. Not that he would really have expected much else, because even at just turned two, Jed had been able to out stubborn just about everyone, except his Ma, his Grandpa Curry and Heyes on a good day. Well, thought Heyes firmly, this is gonna be one of my best days.


“I need a drink after all that talkin', so you can either join me,” Heyes paused for a minute, then waved vaguely over at the bed and added, “or feel free to rest up till the games start.”


Curry hesitated and the look on his face left Heyes reflecting wryly that his friend also still knew him too well to be easily fooled. Heyes met Curry's gaze and was afraid at the stubborn set of his chin that he was going to be difficult, but then thankfully the Kid suddenly relaxed and replied tiredly, “I think that bed looks mighty invitin'.”


Heyes watched as his erstwhile partner unbuckled his gun belt, placed it on the headboard nearest his right hand, carefully sat on the edge of the bed near the pillows and removed his boots and socks with a grunt. As he lay down gingerly on the bed and sank into the mattress, an involuntary appreciative moan escaped him.


He shifted round for a minute or two until he was finally settled, then squinted at Heyes through half-closed eyes, voice thick with oncoming sleep. “I came here lookin' for you, heard you was runnin' with The Devil's Hole Gang. But when you walked in...” He vaguely waved at himself and then over towards Heyes, who grasped what he meant straight away, but made no comment. Curry's breathing quickly deepened as he finally surrendered to exhaustion.


Heyes had after the way they'd parted half expected to feel some anger towards his friend, or at least a level of resentment. Instead he'd felt only affection, warmth and a deep desire for them to get to know each other again. Though now he thought about it, perhaps the only big surprise was that he hadn't even felt the told-you-so smugness at his friend's appearance that Curry had feared. He was very glad that no-one could see him right now, as he was sure his smile was downright embarrassing.


Heyes left the room quietly, locking the door behind him. Before heading down the stairs, he pushed the key under the door. If Curry woke before he got back, he wasn't sure what his reaction to a locked door might be.


As he walked out back towards the saloon, the sun was setting and the shops were shutting up, but the streets were still fairly full. He entered the saloon, which was busier than earlier, and nodded politely to any of the other customers who caught his eye. There was a pleasant buzz around him and no-one paid him any particular mind, intent on their own business.


Heyes bought a drink, taking a seat at the bar where he had a good view of the comings and goings. There were several poker games starting up and he noticed some rather pretty girls that he'd not seen that afternoon.


Heyes was fairly confident that he could easily persuade Curry to join him at Devil's Hole, especially now he knew them meeting hadn't been by chance. But in case just asking didn't work, he needed a back-up plan, but even after the lubrication of a couple of drinks, he couldn't think of one. He decided to not think about it hoping that'd help. His eyes drifted to the poker games, his hands twitching. He walked over to one of the tables where the game hadn't started yet and smiled. “You got the space for one more, boys?”


The players looked up at him and one of them, a distinguished looking man with a bushy gleaming moustache and impressive side whiskers, indicated the spare chair. “If you got the money, son, we got the room.”


It was late when Heyes finally stood up from the table, winning enough to make it worth his while, but not enough that he'd caused a scene. A successful night all in all. He bought himself and his fellow players one last drink then left the saloon.


The town was quiet now, the lit lamps on the buildings casting strange shadows, but Heyes sensed no danger as he headed back. He hesitated outside his room, finally deciding against using his pick locks. He was fairly sure he'd be looking down the barrel of a 45, if he entered unannounced. So instead he knocked loudly and called out, “It's just me, Heyes.”


There was a slight thump, followed by a muffled groan, then after a few moments a light shone from under the door. A few seconds later the key rattled and the door opened. Curry looked at him sleepily, squinting in the light of the lamp. He drew a hand through his hair, making it stick up even more. He was still bare foot and with his eyes bleary with sleep and his defences down, Heyes could see nothing of the hardened gunslinger from a few hours ago. He subdued a smile thinking Curry might take it the wrong way.


“What time is it?” Curry asked this as he stood to one side to let Heyes into the room.


Heyes entered quickly and leaning into the lamp, took his pocket watch out and looked, “Late, past midnight.”


“Huh.” Curry looked a bit nonplussed. “I've bin asleep for hours.” He yawned suddenly and rubbed his face. “Don't exactly feel like it though.”


Heyes looked at him critically and thought he looked better, but certainly still in need of more rest. He locked the door and started to undress. Curry watched him for a few moments before sitting back on the bed and carefully doing the same. Even in the dim light of the lamp, Heyes could see the still colourful bruising dark on the pale skin. Curry saw him looking and shrugged.


“See, not quite to my toes, this time anyways.”


At Heyes' askance look, he added, “You were right, bein’ poor and alone ain't exactly safe.”


He said no more and simply lay down, closing his eyes. After a few minutes, Heyes realised he wasn't going to get anything else and with a quiet sigh turned down the lamp. Feeling very awake, his mind spinning with too many questions, he groped for a chair and sat. Thinking his room companion was asleep, the slightly slurred, amused voice from the bed made him start. “I can hear you thinkin' from here. “


Heyes humphed, but the warmth in the voice made him smile in the darkness. He decided to leave his thinking until tomorrow and walked to the bed climbing in to settle next to Curry. The other man's breathing quickly deepened as he drifted into sleep. Feeling a sudden sense of rightness in his world, Heyes soon followed.


XXX


Curry opened his eyes, knowing it was later in the day than he usually slept. The sun was bright through the half-open curtain and there was a bustle of noise from the street below. He lay quiet for a moment, savouring the rare sense of well-being. It was good to let his still only half-awake brain piece everything together slowly, accepting without yet remembering why, that there was no need to waken quickly. It came to him in a rush. Rattlerbank, Heyes, no gunfight, safety. A shuffling at his side drew his attention and he shifted his head to look.


“I thought you was never gonna wake up. I was considering shaking you to check you were still breathing.”


Heyes was sitting propped up by several pillows watching him, a book in his lap, an affectionate smile softening his face and eyes. Curry's throat tightened at the expression. He was suddenly reluctant to speak or move, fearful if he did, he'd only embarrass them both by being overly sentimental.


Heyes obviously had no such problem, he smiled, slid to the side of the bed and closed his book with a slight thump, before placing it on the table next to the bed. He then stood, looking at Curry a little impatiently when he too didn't immediately move. “C'mon, Kid, my stomach ain't happy it missed breakfast waitin' for a sleepy partner to wake up.”


Curry, only just beginning to get his stiff body to co-operate with him, stopped his attempts to get up as he took in what Heyes had just said.


“Partner?” Curry had realised that whatever he might told himself, he'd made this choice as soon as he'd set out to find Heyes. But somehow with Heyes' offer, it suddenly seemed too easy. Eighteen months was quite a long time and neither of them were exactly the same, but almost as soon as Heyes had sat next to him in the saloon, he'd felt like those months had been a dream and that no time had passed at all. Relief threatened to swamp him, but wrestling himself under control, determined not to show just how eager he was, he managed to say calmly, “What if I still ain't of a mind to turn outlaw?”


Heyes briefly looked a little worried before he grinned, his eyes alight. “You woulda' just stayed away if that were true. So, let’s go eat and I'll fill you in on what I got planned for us.” He turned away then in preparation to dress.


Curry watched his back for a few minutes, then started to get himself ready to face the day. With something approaching contentment, he realised he felt no resentment at Heyes' confidence, only a warm feeling of being exactly where he was meant to be.



THE BEGINNING



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