Sam slowly became aware of the hard ground beneath him and the thick smell of dirt. Forgetting for a moment where he was, he opened his eyes and found himself in darkness.
Then it came back to him – the men in the stable, the thumping pain in his chest as he ran, pushing aside the wooden board he had secretly loosened beneath the hotel porch and scrambling in, watching through the slats the legs of the two men pass by, and pass by again – cussing and looking for him.
He had never been so frightened. He had to deal with bullies at the orphanage, but he had never felt his life was in danger. With a stabbing ache, he again thought of his momma. Everything was good then; momma protected him from the saloon crowd where she worked, and taught him how to look at people and watch out for them. But momma got ill. Sam remembered every moment of those last days.
Then momma was gone, and Sam was dumped at the orphanage. Hughes, the guard there, took a liking to him. He watched out for him, sometimes got him extra food, and taught him how to use a gun. And Sam could shoot well. But he was no match for those two murderers, and he knew it.
His stomach grumbled; he couldn’t hide under the porch forever. He would grab something to eat, find a horse, and get out of town as fast as he could ride. He was about to slip out through his hidden door to the underbelly of the porch when he heard footsteps and voices above. He froze, listening sharply.
It was a cool night with a flirty breeze. The dark velvety sky was sprinkled with stars. Heyes and Curry sat down and relaxed in the rocking chairs at the end of the hotel porch, smoking cigars. They were feeling pretty satisfied, having done real well at poker.
“You know Heyes,” Curry said, “I been thinking.”
“You know that ain’t a good idea.” Heyes said.
“I been thinking about that boy.”
“Kid, I’m feeling pretty good, don’t ruin it by bringing him up.”
“Come on, Heyes, he’s not so different than we were at that age.” Heyes didn’t comment. “I mean, look at the things we used to do. Maybe we was just a little better at it than him.” The only sound was the breeze and the squeak of the rocking chair as Heyes gently pushed himself back.
“At least we had each other. This kid, Sam, he don’t have anybody.”
“What if we had someone at that age to keep us from stealing,” Curry continued. “We mighta had a better life. We wouldn’t be wanted, and we wouldn’t be worried about running or amnesty or anything.”
“Kid, that’s a lot of what ifs. And I don’t like the direction this conversation is going in.”
“Why’s that?” Curry asked.
“Because you wanna help him. Ain’t you heard a word I been saying?”
Curry shrugged. “Just thought maybe we could point him in the right direction so he don’t wind up like us.”
“You mean wanted? I bet you got a fine bounty on your heads.” Heyes and Curry sat up board straight and looked toward the porch railing where Sam watched them, his face hidden under the rim of his enormous hat.
“Why you little….” Heyes rose quickly and strode over to him.
“I’ll tell the sheriff!” Sam whispered fiercely. “One more step, and I’ll be a rich kid, HEYES.”
Heyes froze in his tracks, slowly turned to Curry and gave him a look to kill.
“Hey Sam, why don’t you forget about the sheriff?” Curry gently coaxed.
“Sure I will. Soon as you get me to San Francisco.”
“San Francisco?” Heyes echoed.
“That’s right. If’n you don’t, I’ll make sure the sheriff knows who you two are.”
“You know, Sam, you’re wanted too,” Heyes pointed out.
“Yeah, well, they’ll forget all about me when I tell ‘em who you are.” Sam answered. “So you better go get your stuff and meet me at the blacksmiths on the edge of town. And bring some food.”
“You want to start out tonight?” Heyes growled.
“Yep. And you’d better hurry, cause if’n I don’t see you right quick, I’m going straight to the sheriff and getting my train fare and more.”
“We’ll be there,” Curry sighed.
“We had a good town, good place to play poker,” Heyes groused, pulling the ropes tight on his saddle bag.
“I know, Heyes,” Curry sighed, deliberately not looking over his horse at his partner.
“No one knew us, we coulda stayed here for some time,” he added, mounting his horse.
“I know,” Curry said, pulling himself up into his own saddle.
“But you had to bring up that kid. You had to talk about us. You had to get us into this mess.”
“All right!” Kid snapped. “There ain’t much I can do about it now!” They reined away from the hotel, Heyes grumbling about paying for two nights and not being able to get his money back. They rode to the blacksmiths where they could just make out the small, dark figure of Sam standing on the far side of the building.
“About time,” Sam complained as they approached. Curry lowered his hand and pulled the child up behind him. “Did you bring any food?” Curry produced an apple from his pocket.
“Will this do?”
“For now,” Sam said, grabbing the fruit greedily and taking a huge bite. “Can’t thank you two enough for helping me,” he garbled, his mouth full of apple.
“Don’t mention it,” Heyes said, pained. “Please.” They urged their horses into motion and soon galloped out of town.
But their departure did not go unobserved. Hapsy was slumped against the back of the blacksmith’s shop. At the sound of voices, he leaned around the corner and saw the trio ride off.
Late the next morning after sleeping off another one, Hapsy stumbled along under the bright sun to begin his day with a brand new binge. He entered the cool shade of the saloon and lumbered to the bar. There weren’t too many people in yet, and no soft touches from whom he might wrangle a drink. Oh well, he still had a coin or two in his pocket, enough to get him started.
Jake and Tomes stormed into the saloon and headed straight for the bar, motioning for the bartender to attend to them.
“Have you seen that kid yet?” Jake asked him.
“Nope. Not since you asked yesterday.” He turned away from them and picked up a bottle to pour for Hapsy, who was urging him to hurry, his last coins on the bar.
“He’s gotta be here somewhere,” Tomes growled as Hapsy downed his first drink of the day.
“Er, excuse me, gentlemen,” Hapsy said, smoothing down his rumpled jacket and stumbling towards Jake and Tomes. “Are you referring to that <hiccup> delightful little child that is the cause of so much discontent in town?”
The two men looked at each other and then back at the drunk.
“You know where he is?” Tomes asked quickly.
“Yep. Yep I do,” he leaned in close, breathing stale whiskey at them.
“Where is he?”
“What’s it worth to ya?” he grinned.
“Give me a bottle,” Jake demanded of the barman. “Come over here,” he said to Hapsy upon getting the whiskey. They steered him to the nearest table, sat him down and popped open the bottle.
“You saw the boy?” Jake asked, pouring; Hapsy greedily watched his glass fill with the amber liquid. He grasped the glass and thirstily gulped the whiskey. Smacking his lips, he put the glass down on the table and grinned.
“Yep. He rode outta town last night, on the back of a horse.”
“Who was on the front?” Tomes demanded.
He pushed his glass towards Jake in an unspoken plea for more whiskey. Jake obliged him, impatiently watching Hapsy down it.
“It was them two poker playing strangers,” the drunk said, “in here yesterday. Dark haired one, and a blonde haired fella. They rode off, from the blacksmith’s place, last night. That’s the devil’s truth.”
“Keep the bottle,” Jake said. Then he and Tomes rose from the table and departed from a very contented Hapsy.