A Midnight Clear
Moonbeams cut through the inky darkness with a shimmering, silver sheen of unearthly light which sparkled on the light dusting of fresh snow. The rays illuminated a scene of glittering beauty; nature dressed in her icy mantle of crystal lace, preserved in chilled air that cut through the sinuses and hit bare skin like the bade of a knife. Two horsemen rode quietly, side by side, the hooves crunching through the frozen crust of frost.
Night was a good time to investigate possible targets, and in the cold there was even less chance of a loitering witness noticing shadows slipping up to the back door, examining the security and assessing how close the building was to the sheriff’s office. It was now time to head back to the simple, broken-down shack they were using as a hideout. Devil’s Hole was too far to reach tonight.
The Kid’s blue eyes caught movement on the road ahead of them. “Heyes. Did you see that?”
Dark eyes peered into the night. “I saw something move. An animal, maybe?”
The Kid shook his head, his condensing breath hanging in the air like a dragon’s. “It looked like a child.”
“Out here? Are you kidding me? It’s twelve miles to town,” he frowned and fixed the Kid with an inquisitive look.
“Maybe we missed a homestead. We‘d better check that out before we bring the rest of the gang here for the actual job. We can’t use this for a robbery if there are folks about. If they see things going on at an abandoned shack they’ll start asking questions. They might guess that we’ve left fresh horses to outrun a posse.”
The Kid nodded, kicking his heels into action, heading towards the little figure. “We’ll do it tomorrow, when it’s light, but a child that young shouldn’t be out here alone. This ain’t good.”
The animal came to a halt beside a tiny boy, who was trudging resolutely towards town. His pinched face was white with cold and his little nose glowed red against his pallor. A pair of dark eyes swivelled up to the Kid, the flashing whites an indication of his fear of the large man who was bearing down on him. He gave a little gasp, before he took off, scampering into the scrubby undergrowth.
The Kid leaped from his horse, catching up in just a couple of strides, capturing the lad around the waist. “Whoa there! Where d’you think you’re headed?”
The child squirmed and kicked as the Kid held him out at arm’s length to avoid the jiggling feet. “Lemme go. I didn’t do nuthin’.”
“Hey.... Nobody’s accusin’ you of anythin’. I’m worried about you. What are you doin’ out here on your own? Where’s your folks?”
“Ain’t got no folks,” snapped the child.
The Kid dropped the boy to his feet and led him firmly back to the horses, holding onto a hand as cold as a lump of ice.
“Gimme a blanket, Heyes. He’s freezin’. What’s your name, son?”
The little chin tilted in challenge. “Not tellin’. What’s your’s?”
The Kid smiled. “My name is Jedidiah but folks call me ‘Kid.’ Where are your folks?”
“My folks are dead,” the child sniffed.
The partners exchanged a look. “Where’ve you come from?”
“The Home,” his little lip wobbled before his eyes widened. “I ain’t goin’ back. I hate it there, they say mean things. Please, Mister, just let me be? I want to find my brother.”
“The Home?” asked Heyes, gently. “Which Home?”
The boy’s body stiffened, before he started to wriggle inside the enveloping blanket. “I ain’t tellin’. Lemme go, please, Mister? I want my big brother.”
The child’s huge, racking sobs ate into the Kid’s heart. “I know, son. We’ll help you. How old are you?”
The boy looked up at him with great, glittering, globes of anxiety. “I’m nearly six.”
Heyes gave the Kid a wry smile. “How nearly? When’s your birthday?”
“March,” he sniffed.
“It’s December. That’s quite a while to go.”
The little chin set in challenge. “I’m more than five and a half. That makes me nearly six.”
Heyes nodded solemnly. “I guess it does, son. I bet you’re cold and hungry. How about we get you warm and give you some food? You can tell us where we can find your brother. How does that sound?”
The little face lit up with hope, his nose glistening with mucus. “You’ll help me? You won’t take me to the Home?”
They exchanged a glance laden with reservations before Heyes answered. “It’s too cold for you to be wanderin’ around in the dark, and it’s past midnight. Let’s see what we can do, huh?”
The child lay by the fire, swaddled in blankets. His long, dark lashes stood out in perfect crescents against his skin as he slept soundly. He had consumed a vast quantity of beans before his head started to droop, but he would pull it up sharply, dragging his rolling eyes open with a start, determined to reject sleep. Eventually, his eyes flickered shut and the men were free to talk at last.
“What are we gonna do, Heyes?”
“We don’t have any choice, Kid. We have to take him in to town tomorrow.”
The Kid shook his head ruefully. “They’ll send him back to the ‘Home,’ wherever that is,” blue eyes gleamed determinedly across the fire. “Have you forgotten what that’s like?”
Heyes sucked in a breath. “Nope. But what else can we do? He won’t tell us anything except that his folks are dead and his brother’s name is Aaron. He won’t even give us the surname in case we can find the Home from that.”
“He thinks that his brother was adopted by folks called Roberts.”
“There must be thousands of those. He doesn’t even know what town they live in. They could even be out of state,” Heyes ran a hand distractedly through his hair. “He would have been dead in a few hours if we hadn’t found him. A little kid can’t wander about in this weather.”
The Kid glanced over at the sleeping child. “That could have been us. Remember when I ran off because they split us up?”
Heyes gave a little laugh. “You only got to the end of the next field, and it was July.”
“Yeah, well. I realised that you were still there. I was comin’ back anyway. You had my knife.”
“I guess you planned it about as well as the boy has. He can’t have walked very far. He’s got to have been out for about two or three hours at the most.”
The Kid nodded. “He must have walked what.... three miles maybe?” he rubbed his face with both hands. “My God. He could have frozen to death. No one else would have found him until it was too late. He’s only five.”
“Five and three quarters, Kid.”
The Kid dropped his head and released a rasping breath. “Yeah. We’ve gotta make sure that he makes it to six, Heyes. He’ll only do it again. Him and his brother sure didn’t seem to fit in at that home. A little kid shouldn’t know names like the one he told us.”
Heyes stirred on his bedroll, a dark eye flickering open. They had pushed their bedrolls together placing the child in the middle for warmth, but he was awake and inching his way out of the bedding.
Heyes stretched out an arm and grabbed the little hand. “Going somewhere?”
Big, round eyes turned to him full of desperation as the little body jiggled frantically. “Please, Mister. I gotta go out.”
Heyes smiled in understanding. “Ah, right. Wait and I’ll come with you.”
The lad stood, dancing from one leg to the other with a pained look on his face. “Ooh, no. I can’t wait.”
His little fingers grappled with the primitive latch on the shack door before he ran haphazardly out into the snow.
“Wait for me,” yelled Heyes. “I want to make sure that you’re alright.”
The boy had already disappeared behind some bushes and was starting to pull down his breeches.
“Where are you...? Ah!” Heyes voice trailed off in surprise. He had found the child; but he had also found out a little bit more.
“A girl?” the Kid’s eyebrows arched in surprise.
“But his hair’s short.”
Heyes tilted his head and smiled. “There’s more to it than that, Kid. When I’ve got more time I’ll take you through it.”
“Why didn’t he,” he bit back his words. “Why didn’t ‘she’ tell us?”
“I’m guessing that she wasn’t telling us anything. She just wants her big brother.”
The Kid gave a groan. “Oh, Heyes. This makes it even worse. Girls don’t tend to get adopted. They want boys who can work. Nobody’ll want her until she can cook and clean. That’ll be why they took her brother and not her.”
“I know, Kid.”
“What are we gonna do? You know what happens to a lot of those girls? How they end up?”
Heyes nodded resolutely. “We’re not taking her back to that. I’ve got an idea. Who do you know who only ever wanted to get married and have a family, just like everyone else?”
The Kid shook his head before realisation dawned and a smile spread over his face. “She wouldn’t.”
“She would. Especially when I tell her husband how happy it would make her. He dotes on her.”
They turned to look at the tiny figure, dragging back the cuffs on the long sleeves that continually dropped about her little plump fingers as she tried to chew at her toast. The Kid strode over and crouched in front of her.
“Darlin’, I need you to tell me your name. I’ll try to find your brother for you, but I need your name and his.”
Her little face simmered with suspicion.
“I think I’ll call you Bert,” Heyes threw the Kid a wink.
The child’s face crinkled in protest. “No, don’t like it.”
“What do you want me to call you?”
She pursed her lips before she fixed him big, button eyes. “Ruth.”
A big smile spread over the Kid’s face. “That’s a beautiful name, and it suits you,” he flicked a glance at Heyes. “Much better than ‘Bert’, huh, Ruth? Now, if I’m to find Aaron for you I need to know your second name. Can you tell me that?”
The silent figure slipped a knife under the catch of the sash window, releasing it, before sliding the window open and draping a tentative leg over the sill. Waiting and listening before he decided that the coast was clear, he dragged the other leg over and dropped into the room.
Another shadow followed him, the silhouette betraying the bulky collar of a sheepskin jacket.
A harsh whisper drifted over to Heyes. “Is that it? One little catch on the window because it’s an orphanage? Not even any locks? It sure shows that folks value money a lot more than they value children.”
“Yeah. I doubt if anyone even looked for us when we ran off.”
A chuckle rolled around in the darkness. “Well, we’re sure making up for that now, eh?”
“Close those curtains and get that lamp lit,” Heyes smiled and shook his head as the drawer to the filing cabinet rolled open. “Not even locked. Easy. Just too easy.”
“Well, let’s hope that we got the right place. Ruth could only tell us that it was called, ‘The Furry House.’”
“It’s the only orphanage in the area and it’s called ‘The Patricia MacFury Memorial Home.’ It’s got to be the place, unless she took up with a family of friendly bears.”
The Kid smiled as he turned up the lamp and a bubble of golden light filled the room. “Friendly bears? We agreed that we weren’t takin’ her to Devils’ Hole.”
Heyes’ fingers trailed through the ledger. “First, second, twelfth... Here we go. The Sixteenth of December. Aaron Hupfeld aged twelve, adopted by Mr. and Mrs. David Roberts of Knowes Farm,” he turned to the Kid, lamplight glittering in his eyes. “It’s no more than a few miles from here.”
“Aaron? Aaron Hupfeld?”
The slim youth swung his pitchfork at the stiff, frozen earth, before he turned intelligent, dark eyes to the man in the black hat.
“I’m told that my name is Aaron Roberts now,” the rhythm and tone of his speech marked out a Germanic accent.
Heyes arched his eyebrows. “Do you want to change your name, Aaron?”
The youth glanced towards the house like a hunted animal. “I need to do whatever I can to get some money behind me. I have a sister I need to look after. You can call me what you want if it gets me where I need to be.”
Heyes and Curry smiled, this was exactly what they wanted to hear. “Is your sister’s name Ruth?”
The lad fixed them with a stare. “How do you know my Ruth?” he demanded.
The Kid’s eyes flicked over to the house. A burly man was striding angrily towards them. “Your sister ran away from the Home. We found her on the road at midnight, lookin’ for you. If we hadn’t, she wouldn’t have lasted the night.”
“Ruth? How is she? What have you done with her?”
Heyes was quick to reassure the lad. “She’s fine. She’s with a couple we know. They’re delighted to have her. They want to know if you want to join them?”
“She has a place? They want me? But nobody wanted us. We don’t fit in anywhere here.”
“They sure do, Son. We can get there by nightfall,” Heyes nodded. “Get your things.”
A red-faced, bull of a man bellowed from a few yards away. “The hell he is. We took him. We paid twenty dollars for him.”
“Mr. Roberts?” Heyes tipped his hat in welcome. “Aaron’s coming with us. He and his sister want to be together and we have a place for them.”
“He ain’t goin’ anywhere. I got him cheap ‘cos nobody wanted to take on his kind.”
The Kid pulled out his gun, chilling blue eyes fixed upon the farmer. “His kind? The last I heard, slavery was illegal. You adopted him, you didn’t buy him. Aaron, go get your things.”
The man hesitated, as Aaron ran towards the bunkhouse, returning with a sad, little bundle wrapped in a paisley print shawl.
“You’re sure?” the boy asked.
The Kid nodded towards the farmer. “Tell the boy he’s free to go, Mister Roberts.”
Roberts stood rooted to the spot, shifting from foot to foot, before the words eventually tripped from his nervous lips. “You can go...”
The snow had started to fall more heavily by the time they reached the Weiss place; large, delicate, feathery flakes sitting on their hats and shoulders as they strode up the steps and hammered on the front door. There were sounds of excitement and whoops of delight as the door was dragged open and an excited female clasped large hard-working hands to her chest and shook her curled hair.
“You made it, and on Christmas Eve too. Oh my, is this Aaron? Aren’t you the handsome one?”
Poor Aaron looked dumbfounded as he was dragged from the porch and hugged, before the woman screeched at the top of her voice. “Immanuel, get Ruth.”
A grizzled white head appeared around the door. “She’s asleep. It’s midnight.”
“Get her, Manny. Aaron’s here,” Dorothy sighed. “This will be the best Christmas ever. We have a real family. I never thought I’d live to see the day. Manny, are you still standing there? Oh, I’ll get her, myself.”
Aaron looked around in shock as an elderly man gave him a grizzled smile. “Sir? My name is Aaron.”
The man gave a chuckle. “You’ve met Dotty, then? She’s a force of nature isn’t she? She loves your sister. I do hope that you’ll be very happy here.”
“Sir. Did the lady say, ‘Christmas?’ We can’t ... You may not have guessed,” the youth paused unsure how to proceed.
“You probably won’t want us to stay when you know, but I have to be honest. It’s why we were hard to place...”
“You’re Jewish? I guessed from the names,” the old man face broke into a myriad of wrinkles, contorting against his wide grin. “So am I. If you want to keep Shabbat, my eldest daughter always says Kiddush for us. Dotty is my second wife and we have no children of our own. This is her holiday and we have it for her,” he walked forward looking into the young man’s eyes. “We keep Hanukkah and Christmas. I do hope that you’ll stay? My whole family love Ruth and it’d break their hearts to lose her.”
Ruth hurtled herself at Aaron’s legs like a whirlwind as Kyle’s sister sidled up to Heyes and Curry, the Murtry family resemblance still uncomfortably apposite despite her flowery frock. “You’ll stay, won’t you? For Christmas? It’s past midnight, so it’s Christmas day already and the snow’s really coming down. You have brought us the best present anyone could have. Manny’s family are all grown and have homes of their own.”
The partners exchanged a glance.
“It would be cruel on the horses to go now, Heyes,” reasoned the Kid.
Heyes nodded. “It sure would. We should go and get them bedded down for the night. They’re standing out there in the snow.”
The Kid dragged the saddle from his horse and dusted off the snow. “Heyes. Do you remember that story, that one with all the Christmas Ghosts?”
“A Christmas Carol?”
“That’s the one. Ruth was like our ‘Christmas Past,’ wasn’t she?”
“I guess so, Kid. And Aaron was like our ‘Christmas Present,’ just doing whatever he had to, to get by. Although, I think it’s gone a lot further than just getting by.”
“So? I wonder what our ‘Christmas Future’ would be.”
Dark eyes stared off into the middle distance. “Maybe this is it? A late family?”
“Who knows, Heyes? There’s always hope, eh?”