Wrong Train to Porterville
Written for Virtual Season
“You ’bout done?” Kid Curry rounded the corner of a freshly painted little church, pail in one hand, paint brush in the other, and came to a sudden halt.
Hannibal Heyes, paint speckling his otherwise dark hair, stood and smiled proudly. “You like it?” He gestured toward a wooden barrel, as freshly painted as the building.
The Kid hesitated, contemplated, and finally shrugged. “The Reverend Sullivan is only payin’ us to paint the church, Heyes. What the devil do you call that?”
“I call it a masterpiece!” Heyes beamed.
“I call it a rain barrel,” the Kid amended.
“This is the chapel’s cistern,” Heyes said, then waited patiently, even expectantly.
The Kid nodded. “It’s a cistern alright. A cistern with a picture of a couple’a guys painted on it.”
“Exactly!” Heyes concluded, triumphantly, as if his explanation was now complete.
“Sheesh, Heyes, that one’s nekkid!”
“Right! See, this one’s the Creator and that one… Hey!” Heyes swiped at the Kid’s hand, “Don’t touch that! It’s still wet! That one is Adam. The chapel’s cistern?” Heyes tried again, more slowly this time. He waited. With no immediate response, he blurted, “The Sistine Chapel!”
A disapproving glare accompanied Curry’s words. “I get it, Heyes. I saw that book in the lobby of the Brown Palace Hotel too, last time we were in Denver. The one with the pictures of all those fancy paintin’s in Europe. An’ I take it this is supposed to be the one on the ceilin’ of that church in Paris.”
Heyes’ face contorted, as if trying to bite his tongue. “Rome,” he muttered.
“What’s that fella’s name… Mike somethin’?”
There was another wincing attempt at silence, and another failure. “Michelangelo!”
“Whatever.” Curry waved a dismissive hand and shook his head. “The Reverend and his wife ain’t gonna like it.”
“The Pope seems to like his.”
“Mr. Smith! Thaddeus!” An attractive woman, perhaps a tick of the biological clock past her prime, but certainly not matronly, waved as she alighted from her buggy. She exchanged a pleasant smile with both men, but her eyes took on a glow as she approached “Thaddeus.”
“Mrs. Sullivan!” Heyes greeted. “We only expected to see your husband today.”
“I’m afraid my husband was called away unexpectedly.”
“Unexpectedly?” Heyes checked, concern edging his voice.
Mrs. Sullivan nodded. “One of the drawbacks of being a minister’s wife. You see, the Widow Hollis has taken ill and my husband has been called to her bedside.”
Curry was too late in covering the hint of distress that caused his forehead to wrinkle.
“Oh!” Mrs. Sullivan grabbed the Kid into a crushing embrace. “You dear, sweet man! Such concern for a sister in the Lord!”
His eyes widened. “Um, Mrs. Sullivan…”
“I told you before, Thaddeus, please call me Georgia.”
Curry forced a smile. “Sorry. Georgia. I… I mean, WE…” He managed to squeeze a hand free to gesture back and forth between himself and Heyes, “We certainly hope the Widow Holloway…”
“Hollis,” Heyes cut in.
“We hope she’s doin’ better real soon,” the Kid explained, pressing the Reverend’s wife safely to arm’s length. “But Ma’am…”
“Georgia,” she corrected, again.
“Right. Georgia. The Reverend didn’t, by chance,” Curry paused, hopefully, “leave anything for the two of us, did he?” He untangled the woman’s fingers from the laces of his red shirt as he spoke.
Heyes’ expression seemed to mirror his partner’s expectation.
“He left your pay, of course. I have it right here.”
Heyes smiled in satisfaction.
The Kid breathed in relief.
Georgia reluctantly let go of the Kid, fumbling through her bag, then handed him an envelope.
Grinning, Curry thumbed through the bills.
Heyes snatched the envelope from him.
“I almost forgot!” Mrs. Sullivan remarked. “The telegraph operator asked me to tell you, he has a message waiting for the two of you at his office.”
A non-verbal exchange passed between the partners, undetected by Mrs. Sullivan. Behind Heyes’ dark eyes, hope glimmered, and the hint of a grin played at one corner of his mouth. Curry’s eyes, on the other hand, narrowed ever so slightly, exuding skepticism.
“Thank you, Mrs. Sullivan. Mr. Jones and I are just finishing up here, and then we’ll be on our way.”
“It’s so difficult to say goodbye. It’s been such a pleasure,” Mrs. Sullivan sighed, eyes fixed on Curry. Suddenly distracted, she looked past him. “What’s this?” She moved toward the rain barrel.
“It’s my own portrayal of…”
“Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Yes, I see, Mr. Smith.” Her face flushed in amusement. “Only I think some of our parishioners might feel it’s a little too…”
“Don’t worry. We’re paintin’ over it,” the Kid assured.
“Thank you.” She smiled, gratefully, then turned to Heyes. “Mr. Smith, thank you for your work and your, uh…” her gaze shifted again to the rain barrel, “artistic interpretation. And, Thaddeus,” she gave him a small peck on the cheek, “Bless you!”
Heyes and Curry followed the retreat of the Reverend Sullivan’s wife as she sashayed across the churchyard to her buggy.
She lifted her skirts to climb aboard.
Two eyebrows, one above a blue eye, one above a brown, lifted, accompanying the lacy hem.
Mrs. Sullivan smiled, waved, and flicked the reins.
“Georgia? You and the Reverend’s wife are on a first name basis?” Heyes questioned, watching her disappear into the distance.
“She’s just a nice lady, Heyes. Kinda lonely maybe, with her husband busy tendin’ to his flock and all,” Curry said, dipping his paintbrush into the paint.
“Uh-huh,” Heyes nodded, obviously doubtful.
“Can I help it if I got a certain…somethin’? Besides, she don’t really mean it the way it looks. You can take that from an expert.”
The Kid gave Heyes a glare.
“Bless you!” Heyes mimicked, in his best “Georgia Sullivan” voice.
Curry slapped a brush full of white paint over his partner’s masterpiece.
Later – Outside the Telegraph Office
“Of course Lom wants us to come to Porterville! Lom always wants us to come to Porterville, only what he don’t seem to understand, is that Porterville is in Wyoming, where Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry are well known by more’n half the population!”
“You plan on lowering your voice any time soon, THADDEUS, or would you like us to be well known by half the population of Loveland, too?” Heyes reprimanded with a frown, and returned his attention back to the telegram in hand. “He says the governor wants to meet with us.”
“How come?” Curry gave a curious, yet skeptical, glance toward his partner. “Some job he can’t get no one else to do?”
“If he had a job for us, why wouldn’t he just have Lom tell us about it, like he’s done before?” Heyes put a finger to his chin. “I don’t know, Kid. Lom says right here the governor wants to MEET with us. Must mean he’s got something important to say, don’t you think? Like maybe…”
“Like maybe he’s yankin’ the whole amnesty deal out from under us! Like maybe when we show up in Wyoming, he’s gonna have us arrested and save himself the trouble of transportin’ us back!”
“When did you become such a miserable cynic?”
“When did you become Little Mr. Sunshine, seein’ a silver linin’ in every dark cloud? The governor never comes through on our amnesty, JOSHUA, and he’s never gonna!”
Heyes’ heels padded quietly against the boardwalk in front of the telegraph office as he paced, wordlessly.
Curry crossed both arms across his chest and leaned against a support rail, stubbornly.
Finally, Heyes spoke. “Just a little faith, Kid. Remember?”
There was an audibly impatient sigh. “When’s the meetin’?”
“Friday. Five o’clock.”
“Friday? Nothin’ good happens at a governor’s office on a Friday,” he grumbled.
“And you know this because…”
“‘Cause Friday is the day he schedules all the stuff he don’t really wanna do. If we were somethin’ really important to him, he would’a scheduled us first thing Monday mornin’, not last thing ‘a the week.”
“Interesting. Maybe after we get our amnesty, I’ll run for governor and you can be my office manager.”
A gentle glare from two blue eyes, then, “So when do we leave?”
“First thing tomorrow?”
Outside Porterville, Wyoming
“That’s right. Everyone just exit the car peaceable-like an’ no one gets hurt.”
The promise came from the tobacco-stained mouth of an outlaw who waved his six-shooter, herding the train’s passengers toward a gulch.
The trestle, that had formerly traversed the ravine, lay splintered from an apparent dynamite blast. Black smoke rose from smoldering pieces of timber, coal, and other debris. Steam seeped from the engine, which had come to rest, disabled on the muddy river bank. Broken rail cars, trunks, and clothing were strewn in every direction.
Passengers lucky enough to have survived the crash made their way, limping, whimpering, and frightened in the direction indicated by the man brandishing the weapon.
Behind the outlaw, in the distance, four small figures ran quickly and quietly toward the edge of a thick woods.
“Here,” said the oldest child, a girl who looked about nine years old. “Hide here.” She hurried three younger children, a boy of about seven, and two smaller children, beneath the branches of a huge pine.
“They’ll find us!” the boy protested.
“They won’t!” she insisted. “They never even saw us! Where’s Flo?”
The boy shook his head and shrugged. “Thought she was right behind us.”
The older two children turned to look back in the direction of the train.
“Looky what I found!” An outlaw with an evil glint in his eye held a squirming mass in front of him — a girl, appearing to be no more than fourteen.
“Roy, you and the men get their money and jewelry, while Charlie blows the safe,” the apparent leader barked to his second-in-command.
“Right, Jerry” came the prompt response. “But what about her?” he nodded to the girl he held.
“What about her?” Jerry repeated, then tipped his head toward the crowd of passengers, gathering near the edge of the ravine. “Put her with them.”
Roy laughed as the girl struggled, then bargained with the leader. “But boss, she’s a right pert little thing, ain’t she? Raven-haired, scrappy, an’… OW!”
The heel of the girl’s boot came down on Roy’s instep, just before she turned, kicked him hard, and made a run for it.
Roy swore as he lifted his gun, centering on the girl’s back.
“Run!” yelled a young woman, who stood among the train passengers, and the gunman flinched, spoiling his aim.
Jerry burst out in laughter, as the teen disappeared between two cars. “‘What’s’a matter? Little girl an’ a woman got the better of ya?”
“Ain’t funny, I tell ya! An’ look, now she’s gettin’ away!”
“Forget the girl! Get the goods!” Jerry ordered.
“But she saw me! Might’ve got a look at you too.”
“She’s just a kid!”
Roy cast another nervous look in the direction the girl had run.
“Forget her, Tilton!” Jerry yelled. “She’ll never be able to give nobody a good description of ya. She’s too scared.”
“And you, lady!” Roy moved toward the frightened woman.
“Roy!” the outlaw leader reminded. “The goods?”
The outlaw hesitated, then followed orders.
A muffled explosion signaled the successful completion of Charlie’s safe-blowing role, while Roy enlisted the rest of the gang members in the process of quickly and effectively relieving all passengers of their valuables.
“Gimme the ring,” Roy ordered, grabbing the left wrist of the woman who had distracted him.
“But it belonged to my husband’s mother,” she protested, protectively covering her wedding ring with a trembling right hand.
“An’ now it belongs to us!” The outlaw punctuated his declaration with a hard slap across the woman’s face, which sent her husband lunging toward him.
Roy’s pistol immediately threatened against the husband’s forehead.
After a collective gasp from the frightened crowd, silence ruled.
“And THAT, folks, is why they call this here gun the Peacemaker!” Roy laughed. “Get the ring off, lady,” he instructed, still pointing the gun at her husband.
The woman obeyed, tugging it from her finger. “Here,” she offered, extending it toward one of the outlaws, “Take it!” Her hand shook uncontrollably, causing the ring to slip from her fingers, bounce down the incline, and land with a plop, in the mud.
Roy gave an intimidating scowl. “Get it!” he commanded.
“Let me get it,” the woman’s husband pleaded.
“I’d rather see your wife wallowin’ in the mud, mister,” he scoffed. Turning to the woman, his eyes grew cold. “Lady, gettin’ in my way ain’t a mistake you wanna make twice.” He shoved hard with his boot then, lifted his weapon again.
From his hiding place beneath the big pine, the boy whispered, “I heard them say nobody’d get hurt. That’s a good thing, huh, Ellen?”
“Those men are train robbers! You think they gives two hoots about telling lies?” Ellen asked, gathering her two littlest siblings closer.
“You think Flo’s alright?” he whispered.
The boy’s question went unanswered.
From her hiding place under one of the baggage cars, the terrified teen watched, eyes wide with horror. First, the man who had grabbed her shoved a young woman down the steep slope. She heard one shot. Flo covered her ears as a torrent of gunfire followed.
“Roy, let’s go!” Jerry ordered.
“But the girl,” Roy protested.
“You wanna look for her, you’re on your own, Tilton. We’re leavin’. Now!”
Roy took a quick glance between the two train cars where he had seen the girl disappear, then he looked inside. Nothing. He scanned the landscape. Still nothing. He swore and swung himself into his saddle.
The sound of rapidly retreating horses’ hooves ebbed into the distance. Then, silence.
Flo crawled out from beneath the baggage car and took a glance in the direction of the ravine. She swallowed hard, then moved instead toward the pine where the children hid.
“Tilton,” she muttered to herself. “Roy Tilton.”
The morning sun cast long shadows westward as Heyes and Curry crossed the border into Wyoming.
“…Cattle ranchers, lawyers, saloon owners,” Heyes rattled a long list.
“Lumberjacks, blacksmiths, cooks…” Employment opportunities continued to flow from the silver tongue.
“Heyes, you been spoutin’ since we left Loveland. You think maybe we oughtta GET our amnesty first, ‘fore we start plannin’ what we’re gonna do, once we got it?”
“What’s got you so proddy?”
“I’m not proddy, I just…” the Kid glanced nervously over his shoulder. “I just got a bad feelin’ is all.”
“A feeling? Breakfast not agreeing with your constitution?”
“No, this is a different bad feelin’. Kinda like,” he lowered his voice to a whisper. “Kinda like… What’s that smell?”
“What smell?” Heyes tipped his nose to the wind and sniffed. “Smoke.”
Curry scanned the horizon. “There.” He pointed toward wisps of gray tainting the otherwise blue sky, and turned his horse in that direction.
Heyes grimaced, but reluctantly, urged his horse to follow.
Two riders approached the smoldering mess of train wreck, bandanas covering their faces.
Heyes mumbled something unintelligible, as he pulled his horse to a halt near his partner’s at the top of a gully.
Curry’s eyes fixed at the bottom of the ravine, then closed them as if to shut out the horror. The cloth of his bandana fluttered with the breath of his muffled curse.
“You suppose there could possibly be any survivors?” Heyes started to dismount.
Curry caught his arm, stopping him, and again pointed far into the distance. “Posse’s gonna find that out in a couple minutes.”
“Let’s go!” Heyes agreed, and the two headed for the cover of the nearby woods.
“Still say you shouldn’t start a fire.”
Heyes added another stick to the bundle he already held. “That posse never even saw us, Kid.”
“I know that, Heyes!” Curry snapped, again checking over his shoulder, straining to see in the falling dusk. “But I still got that bad feelin’.”
“What we saw back there is bound to give anyone a bad feeling. Anyone with a soul, anyway. The men who did that, they can’t be human.” He shook his head. “‘Least when we were robbing…”
A wave of Curry’s hand signaled for silence. He nodded behind them, toward a row of pines. The sound of cloth rustling against pine needles was barely audible, then — Nothing.
“C’mon out of there,” Heyes commanded. Both he and Curry had drawn their weapons, and Heyes continued talking, while the Kid swung around, quietly approaching the pines from another direction. “I know you’re in there. I can hear you breathing. Come on out here where I can see your face!”
A feminine squeal of surprise preceded a yelp of pain from Curry. A flurry of activity in the darkness ended with a squirming figure being held to the ground by Heyes. Four more pint-sized attackers came running, screaming and frantic, each from his or her own hiding place.
“Quiet!” Curry yelled, holstering his Colt and holding both hands in the air.
He lifted an eyebrow in surprise when his order was immediately obeyed by the four smallest of their assailants. The largest one still flailed arms and legs beneath Heyes on the forest floor. Together, Heyes and Curry lifted the girl to a standing position, but kept her arms restrained.
“If you promise to quit hittin’ and kickin’, we’ll let go,” the Kid bargained.
“Fine,” the girl agreed, breathless from her struggle, but the moment her arms were freed, a quick upward jab caught Heyes in the nose.
“Ow!” he growled, as his partner regained control of both the girl’s limbs.
“Why are you following us?” Heyes questioned, taking stock of the children’s tear-streaked faces, eyes wide with fear, and the chin of the girl who had punched him, thrust into the air, defiantly. Blood trickled from his nose and he wiped at it absently, while interrogating the girl. “I said…”
“Who says we’re following you?” she countered, eyes blazing.
Heyes resumed questioning, “If you’re not following us, then what are you doing out here?”
“Mister,” a pair of glistening, nine-year-old eyes pleaded, “Please don’t shoot Flo!”
“Nobody’s going to shoot anyone, I just want to…” Heyes paused, and his voice softened. “Were you kids involved in that train wreck?”
“We just got turned around is all!” Flo insisted. “We were heading into town and…”
“We got lost!” the little girl’s wavering voice interrupted. “And Flo said if we kept real quiet and followed you from a distance, maybe…” Tears prevented her from continuing.
As Curry loosened his grip, Flo angrily wrenched her arms away from him to comfort the sobbing child.
“Where’s your folks?” Heyes asked.
“In town,” came Flo’s curt reply.
The girl hesitated, her eyes flitting nervously. Finally she blurted, “Cheyenne!”
“Nice try, Flo. That is your name, right?” Heyes checked.
The teen nodded.
“Uh-huh. Like I said, nice try, but Cheyenne’s fifty miles from here, through some pretty rugged territory. Wanna try again?”
A silent glare served as her answer.
“Your parents wouldn’t leave you to wander the wilderness on your own. You were on that train, weren’t you?”
“We were never on any train and we don’t know what you’re talking about!” the teenager insisted. “We were heading into town and got turned around, like I said.”
“These your brothers and sisters?”
Without a word, Flo gathered the two smallest children close.
“She’s our big sister, mister. She takes care of us ever since…” With a look of reproach from Flo, the little boy stopped.
“What’s your name?” Curry asked, stooping near the boy.
“Blake,” he answered. “And that’s my other sister, Ellen.” He pointed to the nine-year-old girl. “The little ones are Brandon and Marley.”
“Listen,” Heyes began, addressing Flo. “You and the children look like you could use something to eat and a place to sleep. We were just about to cook some beans. You can join us for the night.”
“We don’t need your help! We’re fine! We just…”
“I know,” Heyes interrupted. “You were just heading into town and got turned around.”
“Flo?” Blake whispered, “I am gettin’ kinda hungry.”
“Me too,” Ellen added. “And Brandon and Marley need to rest.”
“They’re not going to hurt us,” the boy reasoned.
Flo scrutinized Heyes and Curry, before turning softer eyes on the boy. “I know they look nice enough, Blake, but they could be…”
Blake cut in, “If they were really bad men, we’d be dead already.”
The boy’s stomach growled loudly and Flo eyed the two strangers once more, before giving a reluctant nod.
“C’mon,” the boy encouraged, and enlisted the help of his two sisters and younger brother in the gathering of more firewood.
“You’re bleedin’, Heyes,” Curry whispered, after they had stepped a few paces away from the children.
“I know, but it’s stopping,” Heyes answered, checking his bloodied nose. “Where’d she hit you?”
“She didn’t hit me.”
“Then how come you yelled?”
“She kicked me.”
The Kid sat, rubbing his shin. Heyes joined him.
“It’s gonna leave a mark, that’s for sure.”
“Another thing’s for sure.” Heyes glanced toward the teen whose fiery gaze still followed both men. “That Flo sure don’t trust us!”
“Can you blame her? Train bein’ robbed, all those people murdered.” The Kid paused. “Think the gang doin’ the robbin’ knows the five of them got away?”
“If they do, those kids are in a lot of trouble.” Heyes met the Kid’s eyes, paused, then shook his head. “I don’t like what you’re thinking, Kid. We’re on our way to Porterville, remember? Lom? The governor? Our amnesty?”
“Well, we can’t just leave ’em out here roamin’ on their own. They’re scared. More than that, they’re probably witnesses. To both robbery and murder!”
Heyes conceded his agreement with a shrug.
“We gotta take ’em with us.”
“And suppose WE end up accused of robbing that train, Kid? Have you thought about that? You want to add murder to both our warrants?” Heyes’ voice was an angry, loud whisper.
“You playin’ the part of the cynic now?” Curry asked, sarcastically.
“If we do this, there’ll be people to talk to, questions to answer. We’ll probably miss our meeting with the governor.”
“Yeah, well, I’m sure he’s missed plenty’a meetin’s. He’ll just hafta understand.”
“No, he won’t.”
“Okay then, maybe he won’t understand! I really don’t care, but I’m NOT,” the Kid emphasized his point with a finger to Heyes’ chest, “leavin’ those kids here!”
“WE’RE not,” Heyes corrected.
“Wait a minute. You sayin’ we’re playin’ this hand my way? Without even tossin’ a coin or nothin’? We’re takin’ ’em with us to Porterville?”
“Looks like it, Kid. And if we’re lucky, the governor will understand about us missing his meeting, and if we’re really lucky…”
“If we’re really lucky, what?”
“They won’t hang us for murder.”
“Now what?” Ellen wondered.
Heyes reached into his saddlebags for something, then turned around, bumping into the child who scampered at his heels. He side-stepped around the girl and bent toward the kindling which stood, teepee fashion, over a pile of dried grass and leaves. “Now we strike a match and start the fire.”
“Indians rub sticks together,” she objected, “or bang a coupl’a rocks ’til they spark.”
“You been camping with a lot of Indians?”
“Uh-uh,” Ellen shook her head. “But Sister Mary Martha read to us about ’em back in New Y…”
“Ellen!” Flo chided, giving her sister a reprimanding glare. “Why don’t you give Brandon a hand getting cleaned up for supper?”
Ellen took Brandon and did as bidden.
“Sorry, Mr. Smith. I’ll do my best to see that the children aren’t a bother to you or Mr. Jones.”
“They’re not a bother, Flo,” Heyes answered.
“She asks too many questions.”
“Asking questions is a good way to learn.”
“Most folks like children to be seen and not heard,” Flo observed.
Heyes gave her a warm smile. “I think you’ll find Mr. Jones and myself aren’t like most folks!”
Flo gave a curious, hesitant smile.
“How about giving me a hand with these beans?”
Flo stashed clean cooking utensils into Heyes’ saddlebags and removed a blanket. She spread it on the ground and settled Brandon and Marley on it, then covered them with another blanket. All the while, she kept a watchful, anxious eye on the man next to them, seated on another blanket, with his Colt laid out in front of him on a clean white cloth.
“What are you doin’?” Blake reached a curious hand toward the glistening metal.
“Cleanin’ my gun,” the Kid informed, stopping the boy’s hand and gently removing it from his work area.
“It don’t look dirty.”
“Then how come you’re cleanin’ it?”
“Because it’s important to have a clean gun.”
“Because a clean gun works better than a dirty one.”
“But if your gun ain’t dirty, then how come it needs cleanin’?”
Curry caught the grin on Heyes’ face. “Look, son… What’s your name? Blake?”
The boy nodded, grinning.
“Cleanin’ my gun is just what I do, okay?”
“Blake,” Heyes called. “I got a book in my saddlebag over there.” He pointed. “If you get it maybe your sister will read some so you kids can go to sleep.”
“Really?! You’re gonna let us read from your book?”
Heyes nodded, and the boy hurried to comply.
Flo stood in front of the two men, arms crossed over herself, protectively, and gave a barely discernible shiver.
“You cold, Flo? I got a shirt you can pull over…”
“No! I’m fine, really,” she assured Heyes. “If Ellen’s going to read, then, if it’s alright with you, I’d like to go for a walk.” She addressed the question to Heyes, but never took her eyes from Curry as she watched him reload his Colt and slip it into its resting place on his thigh.
“Sure,” Heyes shrugged, not missing her fearful expression. “Just don’t go too far, okay?”
Flo jerked her attention back to Heyes. “No, ‘course not,” she replied, with another glance over her shoulder at the children.
Some distance from the campfire, Flo stopped and leaned against the trunk of a tree. She covered her mouth and allowed a quiet sob to escape. Then, she turned her eyes to the night sky and whispered, “Papa, Mama, I sure hope you’re watching out for us, ’cause we sure could use your help.”
“Morning,” Heyes whispered, and Flo, shoulder propped against a rock, jumped awake. “You might’ve slept better if you had actually laid down,” he suggested, helpfully.
She rubbed her eyes and stretched.
Heyes chuckled. “Look at that.” He moved toward his partner who was still asleep with little Marley curled into the crook of his arm. “Thaddeus,” Heyes called, quietly.
“I’ll get her,” Flo volunteered and started toward Curry’s side.
“Maybe you better let me…”
Flo’s abrupt movement resulted in the barrel of a .45 being thrust in her direction.
“I’m s… sorry!” she stammered. “I was…” Flo pointed to the sleeping little girl.
Now fully awake, Curry put down his weapon and scooted the still-sleeping Marley toward Flo. “Sorry,” he apologized, while trying to extract his Henley from the grasp of a tiny fist. “Ya startled me. I didn’t mean to…”
“Just give me my sister!” she cried, tears threatening to fall.
“I’m tryin’! She must’a got cold in the night or somethin’,” the Kid fumbled.
Heyes tried to make light of the situation, “Ya know, Flo, my partner can’t help it if women, even the little ones, find him, well… He’s got a certain something…”
“He’s gonna get somethin’ alright,” Flo muttered, clutching her sister possessively. “C’mon,” she cooed, trying to sound more cheerful. “Let’s get washed up and ready to start a new day.” She herded the sleepy bunch to the riverbank.
“What were you thinking, drawing on that girl?! I’m trying to win her trust, in case you haven’t noticed!”
“What was I thinkin’?! I wasn’t thinkin’ anything, Heyes, I was sleepin’! What were YOU thinkin’, lettin’ her sneak up on me like that?”
“I didn’t exactly LET her sneak up on you, she just, did. If you hadn’t been latched onto that little one…”
“She was cold, Heyes.” The Kid fell back onto the blanket. “Look, can we just drop this?”
“We could, but I think your quick draw has got Flo thinking.”
A groan of frustration served as Curry’s response.
“I’m hungry,” yawned Blake.
“Me too,” little Brandon agreed.
“I like camping!” Ellen declared.
“Mist’a Jones!” stated Marley, emphatically.
“You see what I’m contending with, Mama and Papa?” Flo asked, turning her eyes to the heavens. “I don’t know what to do. First, our train gets robbed, then all those people, murdered. And now, we’ve fallen into the hands of evil men!”
The mid-day sun found Heyes, Curry and five children on the trail.
“My feet are gettin’ tired,” Ellen protested.
“We haven’t been walking that long yet. Try to think about something else,” Flo suggested.
Without comment, the Kid picked up Ellen, who had been walking next to him and placed her atop his horse, behind her brother, Blake. As he lifted little Marley from his horse and onto his shoulders, he commented, “Marley’s kind of a diff’rent name for a little gal. That short for somethin’?”
The tiny girl smiled, but said nothing. Instead, she took hold of Curry’s ear lobe with one hand and placed the thumb of the other in her mouth. With a happy sigh, Marley settled in for a long stay.
“Her name’s really Maria Magdalena,” Ellen informed.
“Maria Magdelena? That is a mouthful. Marley it is!” the Kid chuckled. “After all, names don’t get much more diff’rent than mine — Thaddeus.”
“Your name’s THADDEUS Jones? That’s silly,” Blake giggled.
“Sure is,” the Kid agreed.
Flo rolled her eyes.
Heyes, riding his horse while holding the youngest boy, Brandon, in front of him in the saddle, regarded the teen. “Your feet gotta be tired too, Flo. How about trading places with me for a while?”
“I’m fine,” she insisted, stubbornly.
“Okay then, how about you get on up here and hold onto this kid for a while? My arms are getting tired.”
“Fine,” she relented, with a toss of her head.
Heyes dismounted, still holding the sleeping Brandon.
“Let me get up first. Then hand him to me,” Flo directed.
“You got some particular problem with me and my partner, or are you always this surly?”
“I’m NOT surly!” she hissed, like an angry bobcat.
“Yes, ma’am!” Heyes saluted, after handing her the sleeping toddler.
Heyes and Curry fell into step, guiding the small band slowly but surely on to Porterville, with both their horses, and the children, trailing behind.
“You realize we ain’t gonna make today’s meetin’ at this pace,” Curry informed.
Heyes sighed. “I know. I was just thinking the same thing.”
“What do you wanna do about it?”
“Are you suggesting we split up?”
Curry shrugged. “Not my favorite idea. You got a better suggestion?”
Reluctantly, Heyes shook his head. “No, I don’t. If that gang comes looking for these kids, even together you and I got less than a fifty-fifty chance of coming out ahead. If we split up…” Heyes allowed his thought to trail off.
“So we agree we’re gonna miss the meetin’?”
“Don’t see as we have a choice, Kid.”
Evening – Just Outside Porterville
Dark shades of night had fallen on the unlikely traveling companions. Kid Curry sat by the fire, entertaining the children with his best imitation of a “Wolf’s” voice. “The better to HEAR you with!”
Flo stood away from the fire, near the horses. She held bits of apple on her open hands, allowing both Heyes’ and Curry’s mounts to share the treat. “…But it’s been a couple days now, Papa and Mama, and neither one of them has laid a hand on any of us. I don’t know if that means they’re exactly good men, but maybe they’re not ALL bad.”
“Nice night.” Heyes surprised the girl, causing her to jump. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It’s okay. I was just thinking.”
“A lot on your mind?”
Flo shrugged. “Some.”
“Thinking about the train robbery, maybe?”
The girl frowned and looked away.
“What’s it going to take to earn your trust, Flo?”
“Look, I’m truly grateful for the help you and Mr. Jones have given the children.”
“And me, what?”
“You’re grateful for the help Mr. Jones and I have given the children — and you.” Heyes emphasized his final two words.
Flo bit her lip before responding. “Yes, sir. And me.”
Heyes graced the girl with a full smile. “There now! That didn’t hurt too much, did it?” he chuckled. “Accepting help from a friend shouldn’t be that difficult.”
Flo grinned, but only briefly. Her eyes turned skeptical again. “But that’s exactly it. You and Mr. Jones aren’t our friends. You’re just a couple of men we met in the woods.”
Heyes threw a glance over Flo’s shoulder toward the campfire.
“Grandmother!” “Little Red Riding Hood’s” voice continued, “What big EYES you have!”
Heyes chuckled again. “He look dangerous to you?”
“Not at the moment, sir, but, this morning… How would I know for sure? I mean, how can I be sure both of you aren’t…” Flo stopped.
“Aren’t part of the gang who robbed that train you were on?” Heyes waited while the girl silently studied the ground. “Mr. Jones and I saw the train wreck, Flo. The bridge was blown. Most likely with dynamite. We saw what happened to the passengers, too.”
She turned her back to Heyes and stared instead toward the happy scene at the campfire.
“Your parents aren’t really in a nearby town, are they?”
The girl shook her head. “No, sir. They died more than a year ago, back in New York. The five of us were put on the orphan train, only there are rules about how many children couples can adopt.”
“They wanted to split you up?”
“Yes, sir. So, I took my brothers and sisters. I was planning to raise them myself. We hopped the first train we saw and hid in a freight car. The wrong train, as it turned out. Never figured we would get held up.”
“The better to EAT you with!” roared from “the Wolf’s” mouth, as Kid Curry chased four children who squealed in delight.
“Flo.” Heyes rested his hand on the teen’s shoulder and met her eyes. “I need to ask you something important. The men who robbed that train, do they know you and the children got away?”
Too quickly, Flo shook her head. After a moment, she faced Heyes again and reluctantly, shrugged her shoulders, then hurried to add, “They never saw the children. Only me.”
“You know, if you had stayed with the train, the posse would have found you as soon as they realized the train was late making its next stop. Why’d you leave?”
Flo dug a toe into the dirt, nervously. “I saw those men kill all those people. All of them! And there wasn’t anything I could do to stop it. One of them, a really mean one… He grabbed me and…” Flo shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. “I was scared he would come back, Mr. Smith. And besides, if the posse found us…”
“They would have taken your brothers and sisters away,” Heyes nodded in understanding. “But, the men who robbed the train, can you identify them?”
“I saw their faces clear, and I got some of their names. One’s Tilton. Roy Tilton. The leader, a man named Jerry, called him that more than once. I heard him. And there’s another one named Charlie who blew the safe. I listen real good when I got reason to, and I figure what they did to those folks on the train, that’s more than reason enough.”
As the four children began to settle near the fire, Curry joined Heyes and Flo.
“You’re planning to tell this to the sheriff when we get to Porterville?”
Flo nodded reluctantly. “I suppose I have to. But NOT until I know the children will be safe!”
“Don’t worry, Flo,” Heyes comforted. “Nothing’s going to happen to you or the children. Mr. Jones and I promise!”
“Thank you. And I want you to know how much we appreciate you and Mr. Jones missing your meeting to help us.” Flo moved away from the men, toward the campfire.
“She finally let her guard down, huh?” Curry wondered.
Heyes nodded. “Finally admitted being on the train during the robbery. She saw the murders too.”
Curry patted his mare’s neck. “I’m a little surprised you decided to tell her about our meeting with the governor though.”
Heyes closed his eyes and sighed. “I was actually hoping maybe you told her about it.”
“Me? Why would I…”
“She said she listens real good, Kid. It’s how she knows the names of some of the gang members. And it’s a sure bet that’s how she knows about our missed meeting with the governor too.”
“I thought we were real careful about bein’ alone whenever we talk.”
“Guess we weren’t careful enough. But, Kid, if she’s been listening close enough to know about our meeting with the governor, what else do you suppose she knows about us?”
Next Day – Porterville
The door of the sheriff’s office opened and two tired and dirty travelers stepped inside.
“You’re late,” Sheriff Lom Trevors responded, without looking up.
“Got a good reason.” Curry held the door as four children filed in, followed by a particularly frightened-looking Flo.
“What’s this?” he wondered, taking in the group.
“They’re not a ‘what,’ they’re a ‘who,'” Heyes corrected. “Sheriff Trevors, meet Ellen, Blake, Brandon and Marley.” He rested a hand on the eldest girl’s shoulder. “And this, is Flo.”
“They’re the reason we’re late,” Curry added.
“I’m afraid it won’t matter to the governor. He left, late last night.”
“Look, Lom.” The Kid rested both hands on the sheriff’s desk, menacingly. “These kids could use a bath and somethin’ to eat. Then, we’ll talk.”
“Right,” Lom agreed. “Harker!”
Deputy Harker Wilkins shuffled in from the cell area. “Well, I’ll be!” he declared. “If it ain’t Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones!”
“Harker, these kids need some cleaning up, some food, and rest. You think your wife might be able to see to ’em?” Lom suggested.
“Sure thing, Sheriff Trevors. Me and my missus would be right happy to see to the young-uns. Don’t see near ’nuff of our own grandkids, since our only girl and her husband set south to Texas, two, three, maybe four years back now. Let’s see, there’s Seth, that’s her oldest and then there’s Daniel, followed by…”
“Deputy, maybe you could fill us in later?” Heyes suggested.
“Sure thing, Mr. Smith,” Harker nodded, hustling the children out the door.
“Sheriff, I need to speak with you, please,” Flo requested, timidly.
“Go ahead with the deputy, Flo,” Heyes reassured her. “We’ll bring the sheriff by in a little while.”
Flo looked skeptical, but nodded.
“Harker live close?” Curry checked.
“End of the street. Why?”
“Just wonderin’. In case of trouble.”
“What kind of trouble could come from a bunch of children eating supper with the deputy and his wife?” Lom asked, suspiciously.
“Not much,” Heyes answered. “Unless the gang looking for them shows up. In that case, there could be trouble.”
“Gang?” Lom growled. “What gang?”
“We’re not exactly sure, Lom. We didn’t see them,” Curry offered.
“Actually, to be completely honest, the little children didn’t see them either. Only Flo. A gang robbed the train the kids were on. Killed a lot of people.”
“The Mulligan Gang? These kids witnessed the train robbery that took place a couple days ago?”
“Like I said, Lom,” Heyes reiterated, “the children didn’t witness much of anything, but the older girl, Flo, she saw everything.”
“This Flo, you think she can identify them?”
“I’d bet on it.”
“Get her back here! Now!”
“‘Cause a posse brought the Mulligan Gang in this morning. Got all four of ’em, locked up tight, right here in my jail!”
A still dirty, still tired, still hungry, and very frightened teenager stood in front of a jail cell, eye to eye with four desperate and angry-looking outlaws. Two friendlier, reforming outlaws flanked her on either side, protectively.
“Well?” Lom prompted.
Flo studied each face carefully, then nodded. “Yes, sir, that’s them alright. I’d know them anywhere. Only…”
“You prepared to testify to that, in front of a judge?”
“Good,” Lom finished. “Smith, Jones, why don’t you take her back over to Harker’s place so she can…”
“Sheriff,” Flo interrupted, “you didn’t get the whole gang.”
All three men turned to face the girl.
Flo gulped, nervously. “One of them is missing. The one they called Roy Tilton.”
“Roy Tilton?” Lom sat down at his desk and sighed, running a hand over his face. “Tilton was part of this?”
“Yes, sir,” Flo assured the sheriff. “A big part.”
“You know him?” Curry wondered, leaning onto Lom’s desk again.
“Wish I didn’t,” Lom continued. “Gotta be the most brutal…” Lom broke off, shaking his head.
Heyes moved close to the desk and lowered his voice to a nervous whisper. “Tilton knows Flo saw him, Lom. When word gets out she’s identified the rest of the gang, she’s going to be in one heap of trouble.”
Fearfully, and unnoticed by the three men, Flo backed away until she bumped into the wall. Startled, she turned. Wanted posters were plastered everywhere. She focused on one, in particular. Roy Tilton’s. Then her gaze shifted to two more posters, old and yellowing, nearly lost in the jumble on Sheriff Trevors’ wall. She reached out, uncovering them. Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry.
Flo hit the front door of the sheriff’s office on a run, leaving it flapping in the breeze behind her.
“What’s all that about?!” Lom exclaimed.
“She’s scared, Lom,” Curry offered, nodding to Heyes, who lit out after her.
Flo ran, crying and stumbling, but Heyes ran faster, overtaking her before she reached the end of the street. “Whoa there!” He caught her arm and pulled her close.
“Let me go! I can’t do it!”
“Yes you can, Flo! Mr. Jones and I will be watching your back the whole time.”
“How can I trust you? You’re just like them! Outlaws! Both of you!”
“Look, Flo, I don’t know what you think you know, but I can promise you, Mr. Jones and I aren’t anything like that gang.”
“You’re outlaws! You’re Hannibal Heyes and Mr. Jones is Kid Curry! I heard you talking, more than once. And I listen…”
“I get it, Flo. You listen real good. But, sometimes what you think you know and the truth aren’t exactly the same thing.”
Flo listened, trying to catch her breath. “I saw the wanted posters, too. Suppose I go back in that sheriff’s office and tell him exactly who I think you two are? You still going to stand with me then?”
“Promise.” Heyes held up his right hand, grinning. “Come back inside with me and you can tell Sheriff Trevor’s whatever you think you need to, about me and Mr. Jones.”
Flo bit her lip, and after a long time, nodded.
“Good girl!” He placed an arm around Flo’s shoulder, leading her back toward Lom’s office.
The ominous click of a weapon came from behind them, then, a command. “Toss the hogleg, Mr. Heyes,” Roy Tilton laughed, “and move away from the girl.”
Heyes did as directed, reaching slowly and carefully for his Schofield and tossing it away before stepping from Flo’s side.
“Don’t do this, Tilton,” Heyes pleaded.
“Shut up! Don’t need no washed-up, has-been outlaw buttin’ into my business.”
A strong arm grabbed Flo, pinning her securely, then Roy jabbed his weapon into her back.
Flo gave a small cry of alarm.
“You hush, too! Now, your friend, Mr. Heyes here, is gonna lead us back on over to that sheriff’s office and he ain’t gonna try nothin’ funny, knowin’ he’ll be signin’ your death certificate, iff’n he does. Git!” he ordered.
Heyes moved slowly forward, stopping just outside Lom’s office. “We’re here. Now what?”
“Now we go on inside and tell that sheriff to set his prisoners free.”
“Just like that? You think the sheriff is going to throw his hands up and open that cell door, just because you say so?”
“Sure he will!” Roy barked. “‘Less he wants this purdy little eyewitness bleedin’ on the floor’a his nice office.” He ran a finger over the girl’s cheek.
Flo struggled, trying to wrench free.
“Whoa there, sweetheart! You ain’t gettin’ away this time. You might’ve got the better’a me once with that mean kick, but twice? No siree. Nobody crosses Roy Tilton twice!” He grabbed hold of her hair and finished, menacingly, “An’ that’s one lesson you’re ’bout to learn!” He turned to Heyes. “Git inside!”
“I can’t do that,” Heyes responded, calmly.
A flustered look crossed Tilton’s face. “What?”
“I said I can’t do that,” Heyes reaffirmed. “If I let you walk in there with Flo, there’s no way she’ll come out alive. She’s an eyewitness, Tilton. Letting her live is like placing a noose around your own neck.”
“Git in there now, or I’ll kill her where she stands!” Tilton demanded.
“Just told you I can’t do that.” Heyes took a tentative step toward Flo.
“Stop!” Roy pulled his gun from behind Flo’s back, pointing it instead toward Heyes. “Don’t come no closer!”
Heyes lifted both hands in front of himself. “Fine. I won’t come any closer. Just let the girl go.”
“Better do as he says,” a voice called from an alley alongside the sheriff’s office. Kid Curry stepped into view, gun already drawn and trained on the outlaw, Roy Tilton.
Roy frantically shifted his aim from Heyes to Curry and back again, as he backed away, dragging Flo with him. “Stay back!” he yelled. “Or I swear, I’ll kill her!”
Sheriff Trevors opened the front door of his office, causing Tilton to wheel around, taking aim.
Two shots fired. Roy’s gun spun from his hand before he fell to the ground.
Flo ran to Heyes’ open arms.
Curry retrieved Tilton’s weapon, before moving to the outlaw’s side. “Relax, Roy. You’ll live. ‘Til your trial, anyway.”
Lom inspected the frame of his office door, finding a bullet lodged deep in the wood, only a few inches from the place his head had been. He exhaled deeply and met Curry’s questioning glance with a grateful nod.
Several weeks later
“Now what?” Flo descended the courthouse steps into the softly falling twilight, with Sheriff Trevors and his deputy on either side.
“Tilton and the rest of the Mulligan Gang will stay here until the judge hands down their sentences,” Lom answered.
“What about me?” she wondered.
“You’re free to do as you like, Flo,” Lom informed.
“You can stay with me and the Missus,” Harker suggested, “’til you decide what you wanna do.”
“Thank you, sir,” Flo answered, and smiled, her eye catching two figures lurking in an alley across the street. “And now that I can safely walk the streets of Porterville, I had better let both of you get back to your jobs.”
Both men tipped their hats before they walked toward the sheriff’s office.
Flo gave a squeal of excitement as she was hugged and swung in a circle by one, and then another wanted, but reforming, outlaw. “What are you doing here?” she asked, giggling.
“We told you we’d stand by you, Flo. Thought you’d learned to trust us by now,” Heyes grinned.
“Of course I do, but this is Wyoming. Southern Wyoming. Isn’t it kind of dangerous for the two of you to…”
“We kinda have an agreement with Sheriff Trevors, Flo,” the Kid explained with a smile.
“You mean he knows that you’re… Does the deputy know, too?”
“No!” Heyes shushed her. “Only you, the two of us, and Sheriff Trevors know about it,” Heyes finished.
“And the governor,” cut in Curry.
“Don’t worry,” Flo assured, twisting her fingers to her lips like a key in a lock, “it’ll be our secret!”
Heyes and Curry exchanged a glance. “Right,” they chorused.
“What about the children?”
“Well, funny thing about the kids, Flo,” Heyes started.
“We were plannin’ to contact the mission you and the kids came from,” the Kid interjected.
“When we had a slight change of plans,” Heyes finished.
“The children are alright, aren’t they?” Concern edged Flo’s voice. “What happened?”
“Oh, the kids are fine!” Curry told her, smiling. “It’s just…”
“We didn’t feel right about you and the kids being separated, so we made alternate arrangements.”
“Alternate arrangements?” Flo asked, apprehensively.
“Yeah,” the Kid explained. “With a preacher friend of ours, and his wife. Back in Colorado.”
Flo’s smile widened. “Adopted? By one family? All four of them?”
Heyes smiled his answer. “That’s right!”
“That’s wonderful news!” Another round of hugs was shared.
“What are you going to do now?” Heyes asked, softly.
Flo shrugged. “Get a job. Settle wherever the kids are, so I can be close to them. They’ve got a home now. A place to belong. That’s more than I ever could have hoped for!”
“No, it’s not,” Curry countered.
“Flo.” Heyes touched the girl’s chin. “We’ve been thinking maybe you might like to have a place to belong, too.”
She shook her head. “That’s never going to happen. I’m almost fifteen.”
“When did you become such a miserable cynic?” Curry asked.
She met his eyes, questioningly.
“How would you like a family, Flo? A real family, just like the one the children got adopted into?” Heyes offered.
“What are you talking about?” she wondered, skeptically.
“He’s talkin’ about Preacher Sullivan and his wife.”
“Georgia,” Heyes filled in.
The Kid continued, “They’ve adopted your brothers and sisters, and they’re hoping we’ll be able to convince you to come back with us and…”
“Work for them?” Flo cut in.
“Let them adopt you, too,” the Kid finished.
“You’d be one big, happy family,” Heyes added.
“What do you say?” Curry asked. “Wanna come back to Loveland with us?”
Flo smiled and nodded, tears flowing freely. “As long as we DON’T take the train!”
“So, you found a place for the kids?”
“Yep. Not just a place, a home,” Heyes answered.
“With a preacher we know, and his wife. Nice people. Never had kids of their own,” the Kid relayed.
“We’re taking Flo there, too,” Heyes added, “soon as she says her goodbyes to Harker and his wife. Lom.” Heyes leaned forward onto the lawman’s desk. “That meeting with the governor…”
“You’re gonna get him to set up another meetin’ with us, right?” the Kid asked, with only a hint of threat in his voice.
“Boys, boys,” Lom clicked his tongue. “I thought you understood. Whatever the governor had to say was a one-time offer.”
“He wanted us to help bring in the Mulligan Gang, didn’t he?” Heyes speculated.
“Well, now,” Lom hedged, “maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t, but…”
“But it was OUR witness that convicted ’em!” Curry objected, with an accusing finger poking into Lom’s chest.
“It was the girl who testified. Not you. But, the governor is willing to be reasonable.”
“How reasonable?” Heyes wondered.
“He’s willing to consider amnesty for the two of you, provided you can keep yourselves out of trouble, for just a little while more.”
“And in the meantime, we’ll still be wanted?” the Kid asked.
“That’s true,” Lom continued. “And only you, me, and the governor will know about it.”
Both Heyes and Curry groaned in unison. “That’s a good deal?!”
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
- Far from the Castro, California’s Bible belt chases equality (tv.msnbc.com)