“Heyes?” The scanned the stable. “What’s that noise?”
“It sounds like a hurt animal. There, by that bag of food. There’s something in the hay.”
The Kid gasped and crouched. “Oh!”
“Where’s the mother?”
Dark, confused eyes peered around the dark corners. “There’s nobody else around. Maybe the stable-hand knows.”
The Kid grimaced at the open, pink mouth yowling at the injustice of ignored requirements. “There’s a note.”
Heyes’ gloved hand snatched it from the pin attaching it to the shawl. “To whom it may concern,” the partners exchanged a glance indicating they certainly fitted that category. “This is Joshua and he is eight weeks old. I have desperately tried to look after him but I can’t cope. I pray that someone will take him in and care for him.” Heyes shrugged. “It’s unsigned.”
“Joshua? A real one?” The Kid looked down at the needy, open mouth demanding urgent attention. “I reckon he’s hungry.” A plump, pink hand emerged and grasped the gunman’s forefinger, wrapping around it with all with the power of a life-seeking plant reaching for the sun. “Aw, Heyes,” he lifted the finger gently to show the tiny fist obstinately encircling the digit. “He likes me.”
“Poor, little mite. At least we were wanted.”
“Little Josh’s wanted,” the Kid murmured, “she just can’t manage. Aw, he needs milk.”
Dark eyebrows arched. “You do realise we’re in Bethlehem, and it’s Christmas Eve don’t you?”
The Kid frowned. “Maybe we can find something for now. There’s cow over there. Is there any animal a baby shouldn’t have milk from?”
“Yeah, mountain lion; straight from the teat.” Heyes gave a wry smile. “Come on. There must be a woman there who can nurse him.”
A clasp of cooing women surrounded the tiny foundling before a young woman removed the caterwauling bundle to the kitchen where the sound suddenly cut off as though plugged.
“Rachel’s offered to wet-nurse him,” the doctor sighed. “Poor woman lost her boy after just a few days, so she’s got milk to spare.”
The partners exchanged a hopeful glance. “That’s real tough, maybe she’d like to take him in?” Heyes ventured hopefully.
“Her husband’s fixed on having a son of his own.” The doctor shook his head. “Everyone knows everyone else’s business around here, but I can’t think of who the mother might be.”
“Dr. King,” a blonde thrust her head around the door. “He’s been sick.”
“He’s probably guzzling too fast; remove the breast now and again to give him time to digest some a little at a time,” Doctor King smiled at the cousins. “I hope I haven’t confused you with all this medical jargon?”
“I think we’re managing to keep up, I’m very medically minded,” Heyes grinned. “Is he gonna be alright?”
“Yeah, he’s a strong, little scrap. Adopters either want babies they can rear as their own or adolescents who can do hefty work. He’ll be fine.”
“Come on, Thaddeus,” Heyes nudged the Kid out of his quietude. “Let’s go.”
“Yeah, but I keep wonderin’ what would have happened if we hadn’t found him,” wistful blue eyes lingered on the kitchen door. “He’s so small, ya know.”
“He’d have been found,” the doctor paused at the kitchen door. “The stables are constantly in use.”
The Kid nodded. “Come on, Joshua. I’m suddenly real thirsty.”
Doctor King narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Joshua? That’s the baby’s name?”
“Me?” Heyes spluttered. “It’s a real common name – like Smith – my other name.”
“It wouldn’t be right to leave your own child as a foundling,” the doctor reiterated.
“Do you think I need to be told that?” barked Heyes.
The glimmer in the doctor’s eyes confirmed the lingering scepticism. “The name’s the same and he has dark hair.”
“Half this town has dark hair, including you,” Heyes retorted. “I’m not that baby’s pa.”
Doctor King waved a dismissive hand and gave Heyes a cold glare. “Just go. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him face up to his responsibilities.”
The woman was impeccably dressed in the most respectable modes but a certain hardness around the cornflower eyes and the set of her pretty mouth spoke of a woman who’d been kissed as often as a court bible; and by the same class of people. The empty coach drew up and the coachman strode over to the pile of bags as another woman joined the passengers on the sidewalk whose wide, cinnamon eyes only served to emphasize the patina of moxie in the slightly older woman.
Heyes and Curry had just drawn level with the passengers on the sidewalk when the bottle-blonde took the initiative with the group. “Hi, I guess we’ll all be travellin’ together, so we might as well get to know one another. I’m Vervia Howard.”
All eyes turned in question to the new arrival who brushed gently at her eyes with a delicate handkerchief.
“What’s your name, honey?” asked Vervia.
“Lydia,” a bulldog face, congested with anger, loomed up on the group from around the corner. “You ain’t goin’ nowhere!”
Vervia dabbed away a gob of irate spittle with her gloved finger as she stepped between the young woman and the stranger. “Is this your pa, honey?”
“Pa!? I’m not her goddamned father. I’m her husband.”
“No, you’re not,” the sylph protested. “I’ll never marry you!”
“But you promised to when I sent you the fare.” The toothless mouth added a gelatinous quality to the lips between the wobbling jowls. I either get my money back or a wife; and if’n I don’t, I go to the sheriff.”
“You lied to me. You said you were twenty three.” Lydia sniffed back her tears.
Heyes’ brows arched in disbelief. “You’ve got to be at least sixty.”
“Yeah,” the Kid muttered, staring at the angry bull. “The only place you’re twenty three is around the neck.”
“Sixty? I’m approachin’ forty.”
“From the wrong side,” the Kid retorted.
Vervia frowned and turned to the sobbing woman. “You don’t have to go anywhere you don’t want to go and certainly not with him. What do you want to do, sweetheart?”
“I want to go home,” Lydia bawled through her handkerchief.
“I’m gettin’ the law, ya can’t rob a man blind like this,” growled the thwarted bridegroom.
The Kid scowled but hung back at Vervia’s calming nod. “I’ll talk to him. A man’ll fight with another man just for show, but only the lowest of the low fight with a woman; if he does that, cowboy, you’re welcome to join in as fast as you like.”
“The name’s Jones, sweetheart.” A pair of lambent blue eyes smiled determinedly into hers. “And you can count on it.”
Vervia stared gamely up at the furious farmer. “I’ve been around the woods too long to be scared by a hoot-owl.” She prodded the well-upholstered chest with a long forefinger. “You wanna cry foul? You lied about your age and the good Lord only knows what else. Ya brought her here under false pretences. Let’s tell the law about that shall we? There’s a name for folks like that?” The finger stabbed the chest again. “A procurer; that’s what you are.”
“Ain’t that someone who smokes meat?” The bulldog blustered in confusion. “What’s that got to do with anythin’?”
“She seems to have him distracted at the very least” Heyes murmured.
“So far,” the Kid agreed, cautiously.
Then it started. Something was said; nobody could swear what, but it merited repeated whumps around the ears with a parasol which sounded as though it had been weighted like a shillelagh.
“You low-life piece of ...” Vervia was cut off by the Kid snatching the weapon from her hand and snaking an arm around her waist. “Did you hear what he said?”
“Can’t say I did, ma’am,” the Kid nodded towards the approaching lawman as he dragged her out of the fray. “But we’ve gotta keep you out of trouble, ain’t we?”
Vervia’s bright eyes sparkled with heightened emotion. “Well, that’s a first. Men like you have usually got trouble written all over them.”
A wiry man sporting a shiny star on his chest glowered at the group. “What’s goin’on here?”
“That no-good, low-down, flop-eared buzzard lied to an innocent girl to get her out here. He promised marriage to a handsome young man!”
“I never said I was handsome,” the man protested.
“Neither did anyone else, I reckon” barked Vervia.
“Innocent woman?” The sheriff flicked up a doubting eyebrow at Vervia.
“It ain’t me. I ain’t fool enough to fall for his brand of usin’.” Vervia pointed an accusing finger at her opponent. “Now he’s tryin’ to bully her into going through with the marriage. He’s as ugly as a burnt boot and she’s over there cryin’. She can’t handle him.”
“And you can?” the sheriff grinned.
“I can stomp a rattlesnake in a square dance, if that’s what you mean, sheriff,” Vervia pouted. “He’s a bully. He paid a fare for an introduction, but he seems to think he bought her.”
The lawman’s eyes narrowed and fixed on the thwarted groom. “Is that right, Noah?”
“All I want is for her to follow through with her part of the deal or give me ma money back, Sheriff King. Mail order bride they call them. She came for marriage, not courtship. I can’t be doin’ with none of that wooin’ stuff. Do I look like a maiden aunt?”
The sheriff sighed heavily. “Noah, she saw you and didn’t want you. Get over it. Half the county had already come to that conclusion.”
“I want ma money back!”
“And I want to be able to walk down this street without seein’ any trouble but life ain’t fair.”
“Ain’t ya even gonna speak to her?” Noah protested.
“She saw you and had the sense to get her butt in the first stage outta town,” the sheriff shifted his weight onto one leg. “You should’ve expected that.”
“I’m gonna see Ira King if’n you ain’t doin’ anythin’ to stop me from bein’ ripped off,” snapped Noah, “ and you need to stop her from leavin’ town until this has been dealt with by ma lawyer.”
“King?” Heyes queried. “Isn’t that the doctor’s name?”
“Yeah,” the sheriff nodded. “He’s my oldest brother; Ira the lawyer is the middle one and I’m the youngest.” He turned to Lydia. “I guess you’d better stay in Bethlehem until we get this straightened out, miss.”
“I’m not marrying him!” Lydia howled.
“Nobody’s suggesting that you do.” Sheriff King shook his head, “but I know my brother Ira, he’ll do his best for his client and he’ll only send me to fetch you back. I’m saving myself the trip.”
“I haven’t got any money,” sniffed Lydia. “I can’t give him anything.”
“We’ll get this all ironed out, honey,” Vervia cooed. “I’ll stay with ya.” She levelled eyes as friendly as gun barrels on the jilted fiancé. “Men have been at the root of all my friends’ problems but even the worst of them knew when to back off.”
“I have to get out of this place,” sobbed Lydia.
“There’s another coach the day after tomorrow,” the lawman pulled the ladies’ bags away from those being loaded onto the coach. “Just spend Christmas at the hotel. It’s not like you’ve anywhere to get to. You thought you were going to get married and stay here.”
“Am I under arrest?”
Sheriff King shook his head. “No, Miss...?”
“Barrett. Lydia Barrett.”
“Well, Miss Barrett, old Noah’s claiming that you owe him money and he’s sure mean enough to only spend money on the basis of some kind of promise, so I think it’s best we get it all ironed out for everyone’s sake. It won’t take long.”
Vervia slipped a hand around Lydia’s arm. “I’ll wait with ya, honey. I was only goin’ to look for somewhere to open a theatre anyways. It’ll keep.”
Heyes arched his brows. “A theatre?”
“Yeah,” Vervia nodded. “I’m lookin’ for somewhere classy where folks can be entertained while they dine; somewhere men ain’t ashamed to bring their wives. I figured the best idea was to build it myself.”
“Sounds great.” The Kid’s smile broadened. “Maybe you two ladies would care to join us for dinner in the hotel tonight. It’d be nice to do somethin’ special, this being Christmas Eve and all.”
Lydia pursed her lips doubtfully before Vervia swiftly cut in. “We’d love to. Shall we say about eight o’clock in the lobby?” She glanced at her timid charge. “I’ve got some lovely things she can wear.” Her blue eyes lighted on each of the partners in turn. “Show a little flesh, maybe? Live a little dangerously, that’s what I say.”
“That’s the complete opposite of what we say,” Heyes gave the ladies his most twinkling smile. “See you tonight.”
They watched Vervia sashay off in the direction of the hotel with Lydia trotting in her seductive wake. Heyes pulled a coin out of his pocket.
“Nuh uh,” the Kid murmured. “No coin toss; not with your coin.”
Heyes shrugged. “Which one do you like?”
“Vervia’s got spirit and courage...”
“And Lydia’s innocent and unspoiled,” Heyes grinned. “Just your type.”
The blue eyes narrowed. “I like spirit too. Sometimes I like a little excitement.”
“What if we both want an exciting evening?”
“Joshua, How about we let the ladies decide for themselves and just see how excitin’ things get naturally? You could try plannin’ on turning in early. That could make everyone’s night.”
“Vervia Howard?” The Kid turned, rankling at the familiar tone used at a woman in his company by a stranger. “What’s a girl like you doing in a nice place like this?”
Vervia gave a whoop and swung herself at the tall, dark moustachioed man. “Ira King! I thought the name seemed familiar, but I didn’t dare hope. We were just goin’ on for dinner,” she hooked both hands around his neck and dragged him down to her pouting, painted mouth. “C’mere.”
“What’s a lovely thing like you doing in this backwater? I thought you were a star who lit up the stage with her incandescence? At least, that’s what the Philadelphia Clarion said.” He turned to the ex-outlaws. “I studied law in Philadelphia and wasted so much of my youth on this lady. She was the most distracting thing I ever saw.” He turned back to Vervia, hugging her to him. “Still is.”
“Aw, that’s is the first time in years a man has called me a thing and put a pretty word in front of it.” Vervia gave a sensual smile. “I’m gettin’ older, Ira. It’s time for me to get off the stage and build a business. I’m headin’ to San Francisco to build a dinner theatre. I stumbled over this poor girl on my way. Has that old coot lawyered up?”
The handsome lawyer nodded a sympathetic smile in Lydia’s direction. “He has instructed me in an action for breach of promise.”
“I thought that action could only be brought by a woman,” Heyes queried.
Ira shrugged. “Men have brought them in England for centuries when they suffered financial loss from a broken engagement. There’s no legal reason why a man can’t bring a breach of promise action. Pride usually gets in the way nowadays, but with Noah Stapleton...”
“No pride?” Vervia ventured.
“Nope,” Ira replied. “But he’s got mad-money.”
“When I’m done with him he’ll have no teeth either,” the Kid growled.
“You’re about ten years too late,” Ira mused, “and that’s an improvement. They were like old roots, rotting in a bog.”
“How can he afford this?” The Kid cast concerned eyes at Lydia. “He looks like a dirt-poor sodbuster.”
“He seems to think this might make her pay up or give in just on the threat. He doesn’t like being thwarted by a slip of a thing.”
Ira gave an apologetic moue. “He built this up in his head. Miss Barrett was more than he could have hoped for.”
Vervia scowled at Ira. “I’m surprised at you allowing this.”
“I’m not,” Ira shook his head. “We just need to give him one very good reason why he shouldn’t proceed with this. He could go to one of the other lawyers in town and they aren’t as ethical as I am. I’m on the side of justice, Miss Barrett, and I’m not about to see you pushed at that old warthog through lack of funds. Tell me your side so I can persuade him it’s not worth his money. I do intend in charging him for my services so he’ll have less to spend with another lawyer.”
Vervia prodded the lawyer with a lacquered nail. “Ira, she’s scared. Say somethin’ nice.”
“Miss Barrett?” They all turned to see the sheriff enter the hotel lobby. “Will you come with me please?”
Lydia turned white and her knees began to buckle. “No...” The Kid caught her, supporting her over to a couch.
“We found out,” the sheriff nodded gently.
Ira King frowned. “David? What have you found?”
“Miss Barrett came to town yesterday on the inbound coach.”
The lawyer turned to face his younger brother. “Yes, as a mail order bride.”
The sheriff shook his head. “She also had a babe in her arms and one has been abandoned today. I’d like you to tell me what you’ve done with that child, Miss Barrett.”
“Surely she needs the opportunity to consult with her lawyer?” Heyes’ dark eyes stared intently at Ira King, pushing home his message.
Ira smiled. “Yeah, her lawyer.”
David King pulled off his hat in frustration. “Damn it, Ira. Don’t pull this ‘big brother’ rubbish on me again. She abandoned a baby!”
“Mislaid, I think.” Ira smiled mischievously. “She collapsed with relief.”
Heyes held up a warning hand as Lydia’s lips opened. “Best let your lawyer speak for you, Miss Barrett.”
“Good advice,” Ira nodded towards the manager’s office. “I need to speak to my client in private.”
“Ira, you’ve gotta stop messing with my cases,” the sheriff scrunched his hat in exasperated hands.
“Your brother’s the doctor isn’t he?” Heyes asked
“Yes,” Ira nodded, “but nobody’s ill.”
Duplicity played in the shadows of Heyes’ eyes. “Let me talk to him.”
Sheriff King frowned at both of his brothers. “Purple mania?”
“Puerperal mania,” Doctor King repeated. “Women can have a passing melancholia after giving birth, and some can behave very irrationally. Children have been abandoned to protect them; their mother’s disordered mind sees that as being in the child’s best interests.”
The sheriff’s eyes flicked uncertainly from Lydia to each of his brothers. “So? We have to take her to the asylum?”
“Not necessarily?” Ira King smiled. “She has no family to commit her and many medical men see a rest cure as the way ahead, isn’t that right, Sam? Some travel might be best...”
“What’re you saying?” the sheriff crossed his arms impatiently.
“I’m saying that the local town doesn’t want the expense of taking Miss Barrett or her child into care,” Ira asserted. She left her child because she couldn’t cope – not to harm him. Let them go or I’ll mount a defense of temporary Puerperal Mania. She’s over it now; so the townsfolk aren’t gonna want to support her or the baby. It’s all about the money when it comes to politics, David. Do I need to remind you there’s an election looming at Easter and not only are you standing again as sheriff? I’m running for mayor.”
“I’ve got to make sure the best interests of the child are considered,” the lawman muttered.
“We all know a child is best with its mother,” Vervia cut in.
“Within reason,” shrugged David. “She’s an unmarried woman who came here as a mail order bride who then abandoned her child. What’s she gonna do next?”
“She felt helpless because the feckless father left her to it,” Vervia cut in. “She needs support, the poor love. I’ll make sure she’s looked after. I’ll need staff in San Francisco. Hell, if I rejected women with no past, I’d have no show. Even the clean livin’ ones are only waitin’ for the highest bidder among the stage-door Johnnies. She had had no job, no future and no hope, and another mouth to feed. She just needs a break.”
“I can’t sing or act,” Lydia exclaimed.
“You can cook and clean, can’t you?” Vervia placed her hands on hips. “Can you sew, we’ll need costumes...”
“Yes,” Lydia sniffed back caustic tears. “I can do all of that.”
“You’ve both got a future, honey. I ain’t gonna turn you away because your morals slipped. I know better than anyone that it’s the good girls who get caught out.” The blue eyes glittered meaningfully. “The bad ones know better.”
“Can I have my baby back?” Lydia murmured, fixing the sheriff with glistening eyes. “Little Josh? It was like ripping out my heart.”
“I need a guarantee,” Sheriff King growled.
“How could we survive without a roof over our heads or any money?” Lydia’s knuckles whitened nervously. “I couldn’t see any way to give him a start in life. It was to save him.”
The lawman stared ruefully at his now mangled hat and made a mental note to stop letting his older brothers wind him up. “Then I guess you can go. Come and fetch him. I guess it’s the best thing all round – what with the costs of taking care of him, your trial and an election coming up and all... It’s best you leave town.”
“So I guess there’s somewhere for the babe to lay his head after all,” the Kid grinned. “Where’d you hear about this ‘purple mania?’”
“A court case I read in a newspaper; a woman called Esther Lack.”
The Kid’s blue eyes were alight with curiosity. “How did that end?”
Heyes’ eyes darkened. “This isn’t the same.”
Heyes smiled. “That was a case of a woman driven to the edge. This..? Well, it’s a baby with no place to lay his head and a star from the East making all the difference to his future.”
And three wise Kings,” the Kid chuckled, “the lawyer, the doctor and the sheriff. The gold they saved the townsfolk meant they made sure they let Lydia and baby go on their own sweet way.”
“Yeah, Bethlehem sure is a seasonal town,” Heyes nodded. “It’s a good job they didn’t know they whole truth.”
“That Lydia stole the ticket to Bethlehem from a woman at her boarding house to see if the husband could give her and her baby a fresh start?” The Kid whispered quietly. “That plan turned to worms the minute she saw the bridegroom.”
“A desperate woman, Kid. I’m just glad that someone other than you was around to pick up the pieces for a change. Vervia’s a woman with two very fine attributes.”
The blue eyes narrowed. “Yeah?”
Devilment glittered in the dimpled smile. “Her ability to get folks to trust her enough to get to the truth.”
“Yeah, and the other?”
“They didn’t need to know about the theft, Kid, and Vervia distracted the Kings from asking the right questions. She had the wisdom to know that honesty may be the best policy; but when that fails, dishonesty is the second-best policy.”
The Kid raised cynical eyebrows. “A real fine Christmas message, Joshua. What about the frankincense and myrh?”
They both turned at Ira King raising his hand and waving to the hotel manager. “Frankie? Any chance we could add a few more seats to the table these folks have booked? We’ve got a family back together and there are some glad tidings to celebrate.”
The man in the black suit nodded. “Sure, how many? I’ll get my wife to sort that for you.” He thrust his head around the kitchen door. “Myrtle? Can you help Ira King and his party?”
Brown eyes met blue. “Frankie and Myrtle? Tell me this is a joke, Joshua.”
Na sir 's na seachainn an cath - Neither seek nor shun the fight Old Scottish proverb