They looked up at the heavy, frowning sky; the light adding a tint of purple behind the low cloud. Huge flakes swirled and whirled out of the nebula, settling on eyelashes, shoulders, and freezing dirt roads into hard ruts. The wooden spire of the church rose to meet the flurry, as though inviting coverage by a glacial blanket of crystals. The two newcomers clustered together in the porch, nodding politely to the faithful on their way to worship. The fair-haired man blew his reddened nose into a large handkerchief and shivered inside his sheepskin jacket.
“I don’t know why we had to come back here,” grumbled the Kid, kicking aimlessly at the gathering snow. “It ain’t like we usually go to church.”
“We’ve got to catch the priest right after he finishes his sermon, or we’ll miss the train back to Denver. If we don’t get back on time, we won’t get paid. It’s snowing, so I’m sure not going to stand outside.” Heyes sighed deeply. “I blame that rat Schlossen. He looked us straight in the eye and told us there was no reply. If we’ve got time before the train leaves I’m going to find out exactly why he lied to us. It’s his fault we’ve done a complete round journey in the last two days. You heard what the Governor said; if we don’t get a reply from the priest before tomorrow night, we won’t get paid.”
“But I’ve been up since yesterday mornin’. I’m ready to drop. You know I’ve got a bad cold.”
“We need the money.” Heyes stared into the bleary blue eyes and nodded in agreement. “We’ll sit at the back. You can rest your eyes until the sermon’s over and I’ll catch him as soon as it’s over. You can sleep on the train.”
“You said that on the way here. That little brat ran up and down the aisle with that wooden horse between his legs, whoopin’ at the top of his voice. It was cute for about ten minutes. I felt like brainin’ him with the thing.” A long forefinger poked into Heyes’ shoulder. “If he’s on that train on the way back I’m gonna go back to outlawin’. A law-abidin’ man has no control over the little ‘uns. They didn’t tell me that when I went for amnesty.”
“Isn’t the powder the pharmacist gave you helping?”
He shrugged inside the sheepskin jacket. “Not much. It doesn’t do a thing. It was a waste of money if you ask me. We’re cuttin’ it fine. The train goes at noon sharp. If we don’t get that one, we’ll be too late.”
The elderly priest’s voice barely reached the back pew. The heavily embroidered vestments appeared to be holding up the gaunt frame leaning against the lectern with stick thin arms. “I am of a mind, on this; my last day before retiring, to think of my first day in this parish. On that day I took my first confession in this very church. The man was a thief, a vagabond, and a drunk. I could have judged him and walked by on the other side, but I chose to help him. Was that a good decision? I sometimes wonder, given the money he has cheated people out of, and the episodes of inebriated brutality he has brought to this town, but what would have happened if I hadn’t? Yes, he brought a gang of thugs to the town, but wouldn’t he have done that anyway? When I muse on the matter I find that I have at least managed to protect the town from the worst excesses by maintaining a dialogue and setting boundaries. I employed that man and taught him how to read and write. He didn’t turn away from his dishonest ways, but at least he became less violent. I helped.”
The tousled head dropped in the sheepskin collar as the powder began to take full effect. It was almost as quickly jerked back up again.
The priest continued. “I think that the message I want to leave you with is one of faith and courage. Believe in your ability to at least make things better, even if you cannot solve the problems of the world. It is better to try than to do nothing. Be one of life’s helpers. Don’t wait for everyone else to do it for you. Please continue to fight the good fight when I am gone.”
The sermon seemed interminable, not helped by the monotone delivery and the thin, insipid voice drifting from the pulpit. The quietude was almost palpable in the calm, peaceful throng, where listening was as active as the pursing of lips and the tranquil nodding of heads. The fat, pot-bellied stove in the back corner pumped out a delicious, embracing heat, and the general sense of peace was too much for a sleep-deprived, feverish, and medicated man; the fair head started to drop, nodding at first, then swinging down into a deep slumber as he slumped against Heyes. Drugs stared to filter into his bloodstream, and pulled the ex-outlaw deeper and deeper down into a lethargic torpor. The awkward position and the depth of the lethargy soon made themselves known; he started to snore.
The brown eyes rolled in embarrassment at the tutting and muttering aimed at them from the congregation. Heyes jiggled his shoulder, trying to shrug the Kid into consciousness, but the only result was a loud, throaty snort of irritation followed by the smacking of lips before the resting head nestled back into its nest and settled back into a deep, deep nap. At least this time it seemed to be silent.
“...And let us remember the words of Matthew chapter seven, verse six.”Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine...”
A huge grunt cut through the sermon and rang in the rafters. Heyes winced in discomfort at the head dropping from his shoulder. The jolt of the falling head brought the sleeper up short and he gave a groan before grabbing at his partner’s jacket and sitting bolt upright, his head swinging from side to side. All heads snapped around in their direction and fixed on Heyes in the absence of any ability perceivable guilt on the face of the dreaming cowboy, who smiled and mumbled to fellow travellers on his trip to the land of nod. He buried himself into the side of his partner, his subconscious secure in the knowledge that an awake Heyes was on guard.
Heyes smiled, his eyes glittering guiltily as he elbowed his comatose cousin in the ribs. “Thaddeus!”
“Uh...” The uncomprehending blue eyes blinked open and stared blankly ahead as though nothing had happened. “Wotsup...?”
The sermon continued with a bleary Kid Curry fighting heavy lids and leaden limbs while the soporific homily swept over the assembly. Sleep won once more and the gunman’s head fell back, leaving the noise coming out of his throat to echo off the walls like the sawing of dry logs.
“Disgraceful,” snapped an elderly woman from the pew in front. “This is Father Whyte’s last sermon before he retires. He shouldn’t have to tolerate this.”
“I’m real sorry, ma’am.” Heyes leaned forward and beamed his most charming smile. “We’ve been working all night, but he just had to come to church before turning in. He’s real pious.” He thrust a thumb in the Kid’s direction. “He wouldn’t have missed this for the world, even though he’s done in and got some kind of grippe. The pharmacist gave him a powder, I think that the problem.”
Thin lips pursed and an only slightly mollified matron turned back to face the front. Heyes felt a slight tap on his arm.
“Here, take this.” He turned to see an ornate hatpin being handed to him over the back of the wooden bench by a sympathetically smiling woman. “Just give him a slight jab when he’s getting too loud. It’s wonderful to see a young man so determined to worship. I wish it happened more often.”
The dimpled smile filled with the kind of devilment and light definitely not encouraged in a house of worship. “Why thank you, ma’am. If I was wearing a hat I’d tip it to you.”
Heyes faced back to the front and stared at the priest once more. He tried to attend to the actual message, but the boring delivery stymied any comprehension in the ex-outlaw leader. The ‘thee’s’ and ‘thou’s’ mingled with archaic language and the names of ancient tribes and nations until none of it made any sense anymore.
“Blah, blah blah... and Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse ...blah...”
There seemed to be a whole lot of begetting going on, but who knew it could sound so boring? Owls? Why can’t you eat owls? Heyes found his mind wandering as he tried to remember if he’d even eaten one and came up blank, but given his past he supposed that his diet was the least of his problems. His cousin’s head dropped back onto his shoulder, and as if to remind him of more immediate concerns, he had started to whistle softly every time he exhaled. The head snuggled up, getting more comfortable, but that also meant that the muscles around the throat relaxed too. The whistle turned into a wheeze, which gradually developed into a full throaty rasp. The snore continued, a rasp on the way in, and a shrill blast through mucous on the way out. Judgemental eyes were turning back at the irritating strangers. Heyes raised the hatpin.
The sermon continued,“...and who do we have to thank for all this...?”
All heads turned to stare at the exuberant worshipper in the back pew.
"Yes. Jesus. We certainly do have to thank Our Lord for his sacrifice,” the white-haired, aged priest smiled. “And may I say how wonderful it is to have moved someone by the Holy Spirit with my last sermon?”
The Kid rubbed the top of his arm and glowered at his smiling partner. Heyes frowned, guiding the blue eyes to the aging priest who continued to speak. A scowl from the drugged man warned against another jab, but the Kid settled down and watched the wizened little priest continue with his speech.
The stream of words continued, and flowed over everyone; not only the two ex-outlaws, but the matrons, shopkeepers, and schoolchildren. The listlessness was contagious and more and more eyelids started to droop; along with the lashes of the drugged cowboy once again. It wasn’t long before the Kid was floating back into a hard day’s sleep again.
“And I am reminded, when I look at the providers of liquor and purveyors of the flesh on this Sabbath day of Ephesians chapter five verse four. ‘Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks.’
“Zzzzz...zzzzzz. Uchh! Zzzzz.”
“And in who’s name should we give thanks?”
“In the name of...!”
Heyes bit into his lip and looked innocently away.
“God.” The priest smiled. “That is correct young man.”
The sheepskin covered arms folded indignantly as a pair of blue eyes levelled on his partner menacingly. “Will you quit that?” he hissed.
“Sure, as soon as you stop snoring.”
“I ain’t snorin’. I ain’t even asleep.”
“Not now you’re not. Quit it or we’ll get thrown out. Have you forgotten it’s snowing out there?”
Both heads dropped to avoid the glare from the woman with the steel-grey hair and the even more steely eyes.
Father Whyte droned on and on, the heat from the stove built up, continuing to burn into the backs of the people on the back row, and the drugs continued to drag at the consciousness of the tiredest gun in West until he was unable to keep his eyes open any longer. In his head he was in a bower of long grass with a beautiful woman who reached out and stroked his face. The sleeping man’s lips twiched into a smile and he surrendered once more to the sandman.
“Now all this begetting I spoke of has a reason. We are here to populate this land, good people. The Good book itself says, ‘And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’” The priest paused to raise his arm, pointing towards the heavens.
The Kid filled the silence once more. “Zzzzzzzz”
“And what did Eve say to Adam on the birth of their ninety ninth child?”
"You stick that darned thing in me one more time and I'll break it in half and shove it right u....!"
The elderly woman’s head swivelled around. “If you two can’t behave like adults, you should leave. This isn’t a zoo.”
Heyes glanced out of the window at the snow gathering on the greying trees, stiff in their winter armour. “If he drops off again, I’ll take him out I promise...”
“Make sure you do,” she turned back to the priest who was continuing with his speech.
Heyes gave a sigh of resignation and nodded acceptance to the elderly woman. “Yeah, Yeah. We’re going.” He grabbed a handful of sheepskin and shook the Kid awake. “Come on, let’s get you outside. Maybe some fresh air will help?”
A bleary-eyed Kid followed his partner to the door, stumbling over the end of the pew and apologising to the elderly man nearby for nothing and everything on the way. A blast of refreshing cold air hit like a polar vortex, opening eyes and burning into sinuses as they opened the door and walked out into the icy steps. Heyes’ eyes hardened at the sight of the familiar wiry figure huddled into a thick coat and stripped scarf. “Schlossen, I want a word with you. We handed over that letter to you and you told us there was no reply. We’ve had to come all the way back here because the Governor insists on one. Why did you send us away?”
Schlossen’s moustache bristled as a grin spread over his face. “Then you can have one. The answer is that I am standing for mayor and that I do it with the full blessings of Father Whyte. You can tell the Governor that he has nothing to worry about in Wellford Springs. I have things under control.”
“The letter was about you? I’d rather hear that from him, if you don’t mind.” Heyes stood on the steps and stared down at Schlossen. “If the Governor wants a character recommendation, it needs to come from the person he asked, not from the person it’s about.”
Schlossen shook his head. “I’ve worked with him. He gave me my first job. I come to his church. The man’s retiring because of ill health,” he pointed a stubby forefinger at his temple. “He’s losin’ it. He’s not well enough to be dealing with things like this.”
“But we need...”
Schlossen cut him off. “Father Whyte is a poor, ill old man. He doesn’t need to be bothered by any of this. If you or any of your friends try to bother him before he leaves for the rest home, I’ll have the law on you. Have you got that?”
“Bother him?” Heyes scowled. “We just want to ask him a simple question. If there’s something you’re trying to hide, there are ways of finding it out.”
“Hide? Me? Don’t be ridiculous. You can ask Father Hannigan, he’s been doing most of the work around here for years. The sheriff, the local businessmen. I’m just trying to save a sick old man from being bothered.” He strode up the steps, brushing against Heyes’ shoulder aggressively as he went, and pulled open the door. “I’ll have men watching out for you. Get out of town and stop bothering Father Whyte.”
The door slammed behind him as Schlossen disappeared into the church. Heavy blue eyes blinked into the brown. “If the Governor asked Father Whyte, he had a reason. He won’t be happy with anyone else’s message.”
Heyes nodded. “I know, but if we don’t get back to him on the next train we won’t get paid.” He glanced over at his shivering partner. “You’re in no fit state to take on Schlossen’s men either.”
“I’ll manage, Heyes. You know I will.”
“No, we’re not going to risk it. You’re ill. We’ll go back to the Governor and tell him what happened. I guess he suspects some kind of bribery in the election and wonders if it’s worth looking into further. This’ll have to be enough for him. I’m not going to waste my time speaking to anyone Schlossen suggests. He’ll be paying them.” He turned and walked back up to the door, pulling it open to take one last look at his mark.
Schlossen had obviously come to make a speech about the departing clergyman. He stood in the pulpit and took papers out of his breast pocket and began. “Ladies and Gentlemen. I remember meeting Father Whyte many years ago when I was just a lad. In fact, this church had just been built and he had just been sent to this parish. I was his first confession here....”
Heyes’ face split into a grin. “First confession, huh?” He let the door fall shut behind him and walked down the steps with a laugh ringing in the air. “I think we’ve got what we need, Kid. Let’s get that train.”
“Huh? What just happened?”
The dancing brown eyes crinkled at the corners. “That’s the problem with being late you have no idea what you missed. They say the early bird gets the worm, but that worm just crawled onto the hook all by himself. We can give the Governor Father Whyte’s view of Schlossen from his own lips. First confession, huh? Real dumb. Never admit anything. He’ll never go anywhere in politics until he learns that.”