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 A Winter's Tale

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riders57

riders57

Posts : 554
Join date : 2013-08-24
Age : 62

A Winter's Tale Empty
PostSubject: A Winter's Tale   A Winter's Tale EmptyFri Jan 09, 2015 9:13 am

The following is the expanded version of my December challenge, as promised.

A Winter’s Tale


The wind whistled out of the mountains and across the high plain, driving the snow before it, and lashing anything standing in its way. 


Kid Curry shifted, trying to find a comfortable spot on the back of Heyes’ saddle.


“Will you cut that out?  You’re forcing cold drafts down my collar,” Heyes groused.


“Yeah, well at least I’m blocking the bulk of that wind for you.  Lucky I have your back,” the Kid growled.  
“Lucky you have me saving your sorry neck,” Heyes replied.


Curry nodded and glanced over his shoulder at his horse which limped behind them with their packs.  The horse’s breath wreathed its face in steam before freezing around the nose.  She snorted and shook her head irritably.  “Don’t blame you, old girl.  I feel the same way.”


He turned back to the silent figure before him.  “Heyes, we gotta find shelter.”


Heyes pulled his snow encrusted scarf from across his mouth.  “I know, I know.  This is sheep country; maybe we can find a shepherd’s cottage or something.”


“Maybe we can find a sheep or two – we could take their wool.”


“Shepherd might not be too welcoming if we show up wearing his flock.”  He laughed briefly then sobered as he glanced up into the falling snow.  Even though it was early afternoon, the heavy clouds and driving snow made it appear darker.  “Maybe we should have stayed in that town.  At least that jail was warmer than this.”


The Kid reached a hand under his scarf to rub the raw marks on his neck, left by the rope that had almost ended his life.  “Right.  Would have been even warmer, once those men returned and finished hangin’ us.  On second thought, there’s nothin’ like a little fresh air.  At least the snow’ll make it harder for them to track us if they have a mind to.”  


Earlier that day


“Can you make out the name of the town?”


Heyes pulled up and studied the faded sign.  “Bel…?  Something like that I think.”  He studied the collection of buildings beyond the sign.  “Doesn’t look like much, but we should be able to get shelter from that storm that’s coming.”


“Yeah, bed down in a barn or somethin’ if they don’t have a hotel.  I bet they have a bar at least.”


“Most places around here do,” Heyes agreed.


The two partners rode into town, slowing as they noticed the stares they received and the growing sounds that followed their arrival.


“Ya know, maybe we should take our chances on that storm,” the Kid muttered out of the side of his mouth.  He stopped short as several men strode into the middle of the street in front of their horses.  Glancing around, he saw they were surrounded by an angry crowd.


“What did you do with them?” one of the men shouted.


Heyes and the Kid glanced at each other.  Heyes put a large smile on his face, and the Kid stealthily undid the guard on his holster.  “Do with who?  We’re strangers here, just got to town.  We were hoping to find shelter from the storm.”


“I tell you these two took them.  My Jamie says one man was dark and other blond like these two.”


“That’s what I saw.”


“Where are they?  Tell us now!”


The Kid looked around at the crowd, “We have no idea what you’re talkin’ about.  Like my friend said we just got here.”


“Yeah, but we’ll just be leaving and let you folks get back to whatever you were doing.  We can see this isn’t a good time.”  Heyes smiled again and began to turn his horse, the Kid following his lead.


A shout rang out and the crowd surged towards them.  Heyes was hit with a rock and went down.


When he came to he found he was being held by several men.  He looked around frantically before finding the Kid -- disheveled, his hands tied behind his back, and a rope around his neck.


A large, dark man slapped Heyes.  “You with us now?”


“Yeah.”


“Tell us what you did with those children or your friend there will be hanging from that post.”  The man paused.  “If you still won’t tell us, you’ll be joining him.”


“You have no idea how much I wish I could, but we don’t know anything about any children.  You have us mistaken for two other fellas.”


“Mister, we don’t get strangers through here more’n a couple of times a year.  You expect us to believe that we have had two different sets of strangers, both with one dark-haired man and one light-haired man in less than one full day?”


Heyes shrugged.  “Must be what happened because we just rode into this town a few minutes ago for the 
very first time.”


The Kid, watching this, tried to nod his agreement then grimaced as the rope around this throat tightened with the movement.


As they spoke a murmur arose, and the crowd slowly parted.  A tiny, bent elderly man slowly made his way forward, hobbling on crutches.  He was dressed in a rusty black cassock and a shabby, large-brimmed black hat was on his head.  With him came a young woman dressed in clothing that proclaimed her profession – about the only profession open to women in the high plains.


The man stopped two feet in front of Heyes and looked him up and down.  He turned, looked at the Kid, and frowned.  The men holding the rope taut shuffled and looked away.  The rope loosened and the Kid drew in a breath.


Finally, the man turned to the woman beside him.  “Now, sister, are these the men you entertained last night?”


“I don’t think so, padre.  As I told you, it was late by the time they got here and I…” she paused.  “I might have had too much to drink by then myself.  But I’m pretty sure the dark one was a half breed, not this man, and the pale one had hair so blond it seemed to gleam like silver.”  She looked shyly at the Kid then looked around at the crowd glaring at her.  “But I can’t be sure…” she faltered and stopped.


“Putana” someone in the crowd spat.  She glared back and pulled her shawl more tightly around her thin shoulders.


The priest surveyed the crowd.  “It seems to me that there is some question whether these men had anything to do with the disappearance, and we are wasting time that could be better spent searching for our missing ones.  Put them in the jail, they can wait there while you search.”


The big man glared at the wizened old priest, then bowed his head.  “The word of a whore isn’t to be trusted.  But I’ll do as you suggest, padre.  For now.  But if we don’t find my children, these two will pay.  Their lives for my children’s lives.”  


The crowd muttered but stepped back.  Several of the men hauled the partners to the jail, throwing them harshly into the single cell and locking the door.


~~~oOo~~~


Heyes and the Kid looked at each other then simultaneously turned to examine the blanket placed over the window – blocking most of the light while freely allowing the cold air to enter the cell through the barred but glassless opening.


“You okay?”


“Neck’s sore, but it ain’t any longer than normal.  How are we goin’ to get out of here before they come back?”


“I’m working on it.”  Heyes shivered as the opening of the door to the room housing the cell caused the blanket over the window to fly up.


Both men turned their eyes to the little priest as he hobbled into the room.


He smiled at them.  “Well there are certainly better places to be, but surely this is better than dangling at the end of a rope.”


“Thanks.”


“Yes, sir, we really appreciate that.  My partner here and I have no idea…”  Heyes trailed off as the man smiled and held up a hand with the keys in it.


“I believe we’d all be a little warmer for some soup.  There’s a pot in the front room, along with some cups, but I’m afraid I can’t bring them in for us.”  He gestured at his crutches then twinkled at the pair.  “Perhaps one of you could help me carry in three cups?”


The partners stared at him through the gloom, looked at each other, eyebrows raised, and turned back to him, smiling.


“Sure, happy to help you,” Heyes said and stood by the cell door waiting for the man to unlock it.


~~~oOo~~~


The three sat in the cell sipping the soup.  The old priest, with one of the blankets across his shoulders sat on one cot, while the partners sat opposite him sharing the remaining blanket.


“Good soup,” the Kid remarked.


“Yes, Elana, the young woman who spoke up for you makes it for me.”


At their astonished looks, the little man twinkled.  “Elana is a good, pious woman.  Her husband, Miguel, died several years ago leaving her with two little ones and no resources.  She does what she must to feed her family.”  He smiled at them.  “After all, did not our Lord Jesus befriend Magdalena?  Did He not say ‘he who is without sin…?  It is not our place to judge; it is God’s.  I’m sure, with your backgrounds, you two understand this.”


The two stiffened.  


After a pause, Heyes spoke, “Father, I’m sure we both appreciate your intervention, but could you tell us what this is about?  My friend here and I just arrived this morning; we have no idea why these people want to hang us.”


“Yeah, what’s this about missin’ children?”


The old man spoke softly, a frown adding even more wrinkles to his forehead.  “Last night, late, as Maria said, two men – strangers – came to town.  Tomás Ochoa, when he arose this morning, called to his children, but they did not come.  He looked, and they were gone.  Tomás and his wife searched everywhere but could find no trace.  The other townspeople searched the town, but found no sign of little Mirin or Josu.”


“But why would they think we had anythin’ to do with it?”


“My people are isolated here.  They see few strangers.  Four in just a few hours has never happened before.”  The priest shrugged.  “Like many who live in small communities, they gossip.  They heard that Maria had offered her services to two strangers last night late after my flock were in their beds, and they heard that one stranger had blond hair, the other was dark…”  He trailed off and looked at the two.


Heyes considered the man sitting before him.  “But you are not convinced.  Why?”


“I find it is usually correct to believe the best in men.”  He sat and sipped his cup.  Finishing the soup, he placed the cup on the floor and sighed in contentment.  “I did not always live here.”


The partners glanced at each other then glanced at the man’s hand holding the keys.


He saw their glance and tucked the keys into his cassock.  “No.  Like many in this town I am from a place you would call the Basque country.  I used to travel from town to town to tend to my fellow Basque.  I was welcomed everywhere I went and received great gifts for my calling.  I came to believe them, believe that I was their savior.”  He paused and sighed.  “When one travels frequently in this wild country one meets all sorts of men, experiences all sorts of adventures.”


Heyes and the Kid listened as the old man spoke.


“Yes, I’ve even been robbed a few times.”


The two stirred, and a small smile crossed the old priest’s face.


“Several times while traveling by stagecoach, twice while riding on trains.  The first time my train was robbed by a gang led by two young men.  They were very polite, apologized for inconveniencing the passengers, and left them alone.  When one of their men tried to bother a woman and take her brooch, the leaders stopped him and sent him away.”  


He paused in his narration to explain.  “In those days I had a breviary.  It was very fine, bound in leather embedded with stones and with clasps of gold.  I admit that I was vain and always, foolishly, carried it with me.  Our Lord teaches us that vanity is wrong; pride goes before the fall we are taught.  But I was not listening.  In this first robbery, I was left alone.  So I did not worry, thinking that our Lord was protecting me.”  He sighed again.  “The Lord does not protect those who in their vanity so foolishly flaunt what others might desire.  The next time my train was robbed was very different.  That gang was not content with taking the contents of the baggage car and the safe.  No, they searched the passengers, taking great delight in searching the women.”  He frowned.  “I tried to stop them, to reason with them, to no avail.  They beat me.  When I came to, my beautiful breviary was gone and to this day I walk with difficulty.”


“We’re sorry to hear that, father, but what does this have to do with us?”


“My son, I learned to turn from my wicked ways.  I no longer seek the glory of being welcomed in town after town, of receiving great gifts.  I am content to be what I am, a small village preacher.  It was a great lesson I learned.  I sense that you two know something of turning from the path of the wicked.  The way to righteousness is not easy, but it is the best way; it is the Lord’s way.”


He stirred and stood up.  “I have enjoyed your company, but I do think it would be best if we parted company now.”


The partners, too, stood looking uncertainly at him and uncomfortably at each other.


“I am just an old man, easily confused after all.  I’m certain such desperate men as you could easily convince me to come close enough that you could overpower me and take the keys.”  He smiled broadly at them then turned his back, with the keys held out in his hand.


Eyebrows raised, the two accepted the invitation.


Afternoon


Heyes straightened and peered intently through the gloom and swirling snow.  “Kid!  Do you see that up there?”


Curry looked over Heyes’ shoulder, following the pointed finger.  “Is that a hut?”


“I don’t know, but we better go see.”  He urged the little party forward towards the low, dark shape.


As they neared it, the hut or whatever it was appeared to be moving and they could hear the bleating and baaing of sheep.


Heyes laughed.  “Looks like we found both shelter and sheep.”  He urged the tired horse forward.


“Wait, Heyes, listen.”  The Kid whispered urgently.


Heyes pulled the horse up and paused, straining to hear.  He turned toward his friend.  “It couldn’t be, could it?”


“Sure sounds like a couple of kids to me.”


“We don’t want to be found anywhere near those two.  That town’ll kill us for sure.”


“Heyes, we can’t leave them to freeze to death out here, and if they were taken, then they need help.”


“I suppose . . .”


“And they are in the only shelter we’ve seen, and night’s comin’ on.”


“Okay, okay.  Get going, just do it quietly.”


The horse balked, refusing to carry them into the sheep clustered around the shelter they had reached.  They dismounted and hobbled the two horses, then slowly pushed their way through the flock and around the side of the building.  As they did so, they saw that it was not a hut as they’d thought, but a shed with a back wall facing the way they’d come and two half sides.  The rest of the building had a roof but no walls.


They edged closer, hearing hushed sounds.


“Shh, Miri, don’t cry.”


“I’m cold and I’m hungry and I want my mama!”


“I know.  But it’s too dark now and . . . Hush.  Do you hear that?  Quick, Miri, hide in the straw.”


Heyes and Curry stepped around the side wall to be confronted by a small boy, no more than eight years old, holding a heavy stick over his head as a club, standing defiantly before a large metal bin full of hay.  The two glanced quickly around and held up their hands, smiling.


“Whoa now, boy.  We mean you no harm.”


The child looked from one to the other.


“It’s cold out here; just looking for a little shelter.  You hungry?  We have some jerky.”  The Kid smiled at the boy and slowly lowered his hands.


“That’s better,” Heyes said, also lowering his hands and rubbing them together.  “This isn’t so bad, blocks the wind at least.”  He looked around.  “Mind if we get our stuff?  Why don’t I do that, Thaddeus, and you can see if you can get a fire started.”  Heyes headed back towards the horses.


“Sure, maybe you could help me twist some of this hay into sticks for the fire.  What’s your name, boy?”


The boy hesitated then lowered his club.  “It’s Josu.  My sister got lost this morning, and I went after her, but…” he trailed off.


“The weather sure did turn bad, didn’t it?  Real smart of you to find shelter.  Where’s your sister?”  The Kid looked around and smiled when he noticed a pair of dark eyes in a grubby face peering out at him from the straw.  He reached into a pocket.  “You know, I think I have some lemon drops.  Would you like one?”


The girl stared solemnly at the lemon drops in his palm and slowly climbed out of the hay to stand next to her brother.  “I’m Miri,” she announced shyly, reaching out for a candy.


“Hello, Miri.  Josu.  I’m Thaddeus Jones, and my partner there,” he paused to indicate Heyes who had just rounded the corner with the horses.  “My partner there is Joshua Smith.  Now let’s see if we can get a spot clear of any straw and keep the sheep away from it long enough to get a fire started.”  He grabbed handfuls of the straw and quickly began plaiting it into strands.  When he had enough, he braided the strands together to form loose logs.


“It’s not much, but we should be able to get a little fire goin’.  Mind if I use your stick as well?”  


Josu silently handed him the stick and clumsily began to help make straw logs.


Heyes bustled over and wrapped Miri in one of their blankets then handed Josu the other one.  “Here, you two look like you need these more than we do.”  He squatted and began plaiting straw.


When they had a small pile ready, Heyes and Curry carefully cleared an area and piled several of their straw logs into a tent.  Heyes set a match to the pile and the straw quickly flared.


Miri and Josu, who had been silent up to this moment drew deep breaths and came closer to the small blaze, drawing in its limited warmth.  Their skin still retained a blue tinge.


Heyes walked over to the saddlebags and extracted jerky and a small flask.  He handed each child a piece of jerky before he and the Kid took several.  Finally, opening the flask, he poured a small portion into the cap.  “Drink this.  It’ll help warm you up some.”


The children hesitated.  “We’re too young to drink, Mr. Smith,” Josu protested.  


“Not tonight you’re not.”


Josu took a tentative sip and began coughing.  He tried to hand it back, but Heyes refused.  


“I know you don’t like the way it tastes, but you need it tonight.”


Josu sighed, closed his eyes and, grimacing, swallowed the remainder in one big gulp.


The Kid hid his smile and turned to Miri.  “Now your turn, sweetie.”


“I don’t want it.”


“It’s medicine that’ll warm you from the inside.”


Miri looked at Josu, who nodded for her to take it.  Sighing, she reached out and gagged down most of a capful.


The four settled around the fire, Miri curled against Josu.  Josu tried to keep up with Heyes and the Kid as they braided straw to keep the fire going but soon began to lag.  They ignored him, and in a few minutes he was slumbering next to his sister.


“I think they’ll be warmer if we put them in that bin of straw.”


“Don’t wake them.”


“Don’t think I can.”


The Kid picked the two children up and laid them in the bin of straw, making sure they were firmly wrapped in the partners’ blankets, and covering them with another layer.


He returned to the small fire.  “You know, I’m kinda surprised this fire’s keepin’ us this warm.”


Heyes looked thoughtful.  “Yeah, maybe it’s all these animals crowded around us.”  He looked at the sheep and the two horses that had also sought shelter under the roof of the shed.


The two said little, sharing the flask between them and braiding straw that they slowly fed to the fire. 


Finally, Heyes stood and stretched his hands, cramped from hours of braiding straw.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out his watch.  “Midnight.”


“Hmm.”


The Kid looked up and walked to the edge of the shed.  “It’s stopped snowin’.”


Heyes joined him.  “Yeah.  Look you can see the stars.”


“That one sure is bright.”


“Sure is.”


“Well we better get back to the fire.”  The Kid turned back as Heyes continued to stare at the star that outshone all the others in the sky.  


Pausing, the Kid considered the fire then looked back at Heyes.  “Heyes,”


“Hmm, what?”


“Don’t it seem to you that this fire’s warmer than it should be and that the straw is burnin’ slower than it ought?”


“That don’t make any sense, Kid.”


“That’s my point.”


“It’s your imagination.”  But Heyes turned from his contemplation of the night and joined the Kid by the fire, his brow creased.  He resumed braiding straw.


The baaing and jostling of sheep roused Heyes.  He sat up and saw it was dawn.  Stretching he was surprised to realize he felt refreshed.  Turning his attention to the fire, he frowned at the glowing embers still emitting plenty of warmth.  He reached to place on the fire the last of the straw logs they’d twisted.  It burst into a bright flame immediately.  Shaking his head, he roused the Kid.


“Time to get going.”


Curry sat up, rubbed his eyes, and glanced at the fire before turning wondering eyes to Heyes.  “You stay up feedin’ it?”


“No.”


The two stared at each other and in unison turned to the fire.


Shaking his head, the Kid stood, stretching.  “Guess we gotta get those two back to that town.”


Heyes frowned and sighed.  “I guess.  Maybe we can leave them on the outskirts and get out of there before anyone realizes it’s us.”


“Maybe.”


Mid-morning


The outline of the town rose from the snow-covered plain, shining in the morning sun.  Heyes and the Kid stopped their horses.  Curry rode with Miri sitting before him on his, no longer lame, horse.  Josu rode with Heyes.


“Okay, sweetheart, it’s time to get down.  You and Josu should be able to walk to town yourselves.”


Josu turned to look at Heyes and, at his nod, slowly climbed down, turning to hand the blanket back to Heyes.  “Thank you.  Come on, Miri.”


“No,” Miri cried, burying her face in Curry’s jacket.  “Not till I find my mama.”  She clung to Curry and refused to budge.


The partners exchanged grimaces and shrugs.  His face set, Heyes reached down to help Josu back up behind him.  The small group rode into the town; Curry’s free hand twitched over his gun handle.
They entered the town slowly, looking around warily as they came.  A man loitering outside the main building looked up as they came.  He squinted at the foursome then gasped and ran into the church.  The bell rang out and people poured from the church, circling the horses and exclaiming.


“Mama!” Miri shrieked, struggling to free herself from the blanket caressing her and falling into the arms of the woman who had rushed up to Curry’s horse.


Josu quickly jumped from Heyes’ horse and ran to his father, who stared then started and swept him into a bear hug.  “Papa, Miri got lost, and . . .  and . . .  Anyway, Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones found us and saved us.”


Tomás Ochoa looked over his head at the two.  “Bless you, bless you.”


The little priest pushed his way through the crowd; he watched the little family’s reunion then turned to the two sitting warily on horseback.  “As I said, I find it appropriate to think the best of people.  Please join us, you have turned today from a day of mourning to a true celebration of Christmas.”


“Christmas?” Heyes said, startled.


“Yes, did you not know what day today is?  The day our savior was born.  How fitting to have you in our midst today.”


Later


The partners sat back, replete from the feast, tired, hands sore from shaking the hands of the townspeople as they came to thank them.  Heyes turned to the little priest by his side.  “Father, I have one question.”


“Yes?”


“What is the name of this town?  The sign is too faded to read.”


The priest smiled.  “It’s Belén.  You would call it Bethlehem.”


Notes:  From the mid-19th century, many Basque settled in the high plains of the west, where such settlements exist to this day.  Many continued to raise and herd sheep.  
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