Heyes laughed humourlessly as he wrestled his younger son into his high chair. Billy was squealing with delight at the attention from his father and not co-operating.
“Bend your legs, Billy! Come on. There’s a good boy.”
Harry laughed at their father’s attempts to stuff his brother into the chair.
“Not funny, Harry. Not funny at all,” Heyes said, slightly out of breath with exasperation.
“’Tis,” grinned the small boy, cheekily.
Heyes growled. “Billy! Thank you. Finally!”
He puffed when the boy was in. Then he smiled and he gave Billy’s dark hair a ruffle, before turning to Harry. The older boy was sitting on the side of the chair.
“This way round, Harry, please.” He swung the boy’s legs round to the front and then shuffled the chair under the table. “There you go.”
Heyes had just taken his place at the table when he heard a crash from the kitchen. Heyes rubbed his eyes wearily. “Oh, Susan!” he heard Mary cry.
“I’m sorry, Mama,”
“Go and sit down!”
A moment later, a forlorn little girl shuffled into the dining room. She climbed onto her chair without a word and sat there, arms crossed over her doll, head down hiding her trembling bottom lip.
“What happened, Susan?” Heyes asked gently.
“Dropped the plates,” the little girl mumbled.
Heyes nodded. Yep that just about summed up the whole day. Not for the first time did he wonder whether running a band of outlaws was easier than having to deal with three small children. Especially two boys close in age. Double trouble.
It was a while before Mary came into the dining room, carrying a tray bearing plates and a stew pot. She thumped it down without a word. Heyes and the children knew better than to say anything. Even Billy stopped squealing. Mary had just taken the lid off the stew pot, and stood, ladle in hand ready to serve up, when there was a knock on the outside door.
“Oh now who’s that?” she sighed, pushing back an escaped lock of hair with the back of her hand. She was tired. Heyes had been late home and dinner was probably spoilt. The children had run her ragged all day and a delay in getting them fed and put to bed was last thing she wanted.
“I’ll get it,” Heyes said, levering himself up quickly. He was not in her good books today.
Stopping for a beer in the saloon before coming home had not gone down too well. Normally it was fine but today, obviously it wasn’t. “Serve up and start.”
As he crossed the hall with a frown. They weren’t expecting visitors, on a cold and wet night like this. Whoever it was must have a good reason to be out. He briefly toyed with the idea of getting his gun. As he had no cause to wear it now, it might take some finding. Then he would have to search for bullets and load it. He decided it wasn’t worth the effort. And the knocking sounded urgent.
A moment later, the front door was open he and was walking backwards into the hall, with his hands up. He groaned inwardly. Oh, this was all he needed today.
A man’s head appeared around the door looking both ways.
“You alone, Heyes?” he asked.
“Of course I’m not alone, Wheat, my family is here,” Heyes replied, irritably. “Put that away!” He gestured at the gun.
“Oh, right, sure.” As Wheat holstered his gun, he flipped the door behind him shut. He wrung his hands. “Sure is cold out tonight.”
“What are you doing here?” Heyes growled, in a low voice.
“Ain’t ya heard?” Wheat blinked in surprise.
“Heard what?” Heyes glowered menacingly.
“The Gang. It’s dang busted, Heyes. Broken.” Wheat hesitated and then in case Heyes didn’t understand. “No more. Finished.”
Heyes licked his lips, slowly. “No, I hadn’t heard that,” he said, quietly. “What happened?” He knew there must be a story. Else, why would Wheat be here? “Where’s Kyle?”
A flicker of pain crossed the face of the older man. Before he could answer, small feet stomped into the hall.
“Mama says she’s served up and if you don’t come now, it’ll be cold,” Susan said, firmly and then paused before lowering her voice. “Pappy, I don’t think she’s in an arguing mood today.” She shook her head furiously and eyed the big man with her father curiously. She clutched her doll tightly to her chest.
Heyes tore his eyes from Wheat and smiled down at his daughter. “Thank you sweetheart. Tell Mama, I’ll be right there.”
With a nod, Susan ran back into the dining room. Heyes turned back to Wheat. He looked the older man over, noting the lack of shaving and general unkemptness. Nothing unusual there but Wheat had a hollow look in his eyes. This man had a story to tell and Heyes was curious to know what it was.
“When was the last time you ate?”
Wheat considered. “Yester … yesterday lunch, I reckon.”
Heyes sighed and nodded. “We’re just sitting down to dinner. Come and join us. We’ll talk later.”
Wheat grinned. “That’s mighty good of ya Heyes. Don’t mind if I do. Can’t remember the last time I had a home cooked meal.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Heyes said, stopping him from going any further. “Give me your things and then I’ll show you where you can wash up.”
Wheat blinked at him.
“You’re kinda dirty, Wheat,” Heyes growled, impatiently.
“Oh. Yeah, sure,” Wheat said, in realisation and handed Heyes his hat.
Heyes looked at it in disgust and beat it against his leg, sending a cloud of dust into the air. He grunted as Wheat deposited his tan heavy canvas jacket into Heyes’ arms, followed by his gloves.
Heyes looked at him. Wheat looked back. Then impatiently, Heyes nodded with his head to Wheat’s gun. Wheat frowned.
“There’s children here!” Heyes exclaimed.
“Oh. Yeah, sure.” He bent to untie the throng from around his thigh and then unbuckled the belt, before piling it on top of things Heyes held. “What now?” he asked, seeing the look on Heyes’ face.
“Something else?” Heyes asked, expectantly.
Wheat sucked in a breath. “Ya gonna leave me defenceless!” he growled.
“What’s gonna happen to you in my dining room?” Heyes growled.
Wheat grunted. He reached between his shoulder blades and pulled out a knife, laying it on top of the pile. “Sheesh Heyes ya never know …”
“See that door over there?” Heyes cut him off and indicated the door under the stairs. “Wash up in there and then come through into the dining room.”
Wheat nodded and sauntered off in that direction. Heyes watched him go with a sigh. Then conscious of the odour emanating from the pile of things he held, he scowled.
Heyes deposited Wheat’s things in the study then turned and locked the door behind him. Patting the pocket where he’d put the key, he looked thoughtfully at the door Wheat had headed for.
Heyes went back into the dining room.
“Can we stretch to one more, Mary, please?” Although he said it as a request, it wasn’t and she frowned in surprise at his tone.
“Yes I think so. Who is it?” she snapped.
Before Heyes could answer, Wheat appeared behind him. Mary’s face fell and she raised an eyebrow at her husband. He just nodded reassuringly.
“Fine,” she said, getting up. “I’ll get another plate,” she murmured before disappearing in the direction of the kitchen.
“Take a seat next to Sue, Wheat,” Heyes said, indicating the spot.
“It’s Susan, Pappy,” reminded the small girl.
Heyes nodded, duly reminded.
“Looks like you’re running the gang again Heyes,” Wheat chortled as he walked behind him. “This time in miniature.”
Heyes smacked his lips and watched Wheat take his seat before he took his.
Susan turned to Wheat. “Hallo, I’m Susan. What’s your name?”
Wheat looked at Heyes for help. Heyes just smiled ruefully.
“Er well now Little Missy …. .” Wheat blustered. “Folks call me Wheat.”
“Please to meet you, Wheat. Put it there.” The small girl held out her hand, expecting to shake.
Wheat looked at Heyes, who nodded with a smile. Wheat self-consciously took the small hand and shook it, solemnly.
Mary came back with the plate, saw Wheat and Susan shaking hands, and looked a question at Heyes. He smiled back, tight lipped. With a sigh, she picked up the ladle.
“I hope you like beef stew.”
“Oh yes ma’am.” She passed a filled plate over. “Thank you ma’am. Much obliged ma’am.”
Wheat waited until the others had started before shovelling stew into his mouth. There was an uncomfortable silence around the dinner table but Wheat didn’t notice so intent was he.
“It’s … it’s Wheat isn’t it?” Mary asked suddenly and widened her eyes at Heyes when he glared at her.
“Susan, sit on that chair properly young lady. Nobody here needs to see your underwear.”
“Didn’t you have a friend with you that last time you visited?” Mary paused. “In the middle of the night,” she added, icily.
Heyes noticed the look of pain crossing Wheat’s face again. Yes, there was definitely a story here for the telling.
“Yes ma’am,” Wheat mumbled and attended to his dinner.
“So where is he today?”
Heyes growled and shook his head at her.
“Er … he … couldn’t make it, ma’am.”
“Wheat. That’s a funny name,” said Susan, thankfully distracting the conversation.
“Susan! Be polite to our guest now.”
“Mama, I’m curious. I’ve haven’t heard that name before so I’m just asking. Pappy says you have to ask questions if you want to know things.”
Aware that Mary’s eyes were boring a hole in the top of his head, Heyes kept it down, hiding his smirk.
Wheat cleared his throat. “Well now Little Missy …”
Wheat cleared his throat again. “It’s the name my folks gave me. Just like your folks call you Susan.”
“They named me after Pappy’s Mama. Who did your folks name you for?”
“Is that right?” Wheat looked at Heyes. “Heyes never told me his folks’ names.”
“So you’ve known Pappy for a long time then?”
Heyes and Mary swopped glances.
“Yeah, I reckon a fair while.”
Heyes smiled at his daughter’s persistence.
“Oh well I’ve known Heyes for …”
Heyes looked up to see Wheat’s mind considering.
“Must be … getting on for fifteen years now.”
“My that is a long time! That’s older’n me!” Susan’s legs were drawn up on the chair again. Mary put out a hand to pat them down. “Why do you call Pappy, Heyes? His name is Joshua.”
Heyes winced. Wheat looked flustered and looked at him for help. Which wasn’t forthcoming. “Er well er … .” Heyes just smiled ruefully and Wheat snarled at him. “It’s er … well it’s like this Little
“Yes yes Susan. I’ll remember. Well see it’s … it’s a nickname. That’s it. A nickname.” Wheat looked pleased with himself and beamed at Heyes, who nodded.
At first, the explanation seemed to satisfy Susan and the room filled with sounds of eating.
“What’s it mean?” Susan asked suddenly.
Heyes sighed and swopped glances with Mary again.
“Huh?” grunted Wheat.
“Heyes. You give a nickname for a reason. What’s the reason?”
Wheat puffed and looked at Heyes for help. This time it was forthcoming.
“Eat your dinner, sweetheart, before it gets cold,” he said, sharply.
Susan sighed. “Yes Pappy.”
After dinner, Heyes and Wheat adjourned to the study.
“How old is Little Missy?” Wheat asked, as Heyes poured whiskey.
Heyes smiled. “Just seven.”
“Was she the …?” Wheat mimed a bump.
“Yes she was,” Heyes nodded and handed Wheat a glass. He indicated a seat and sank into the opposite one with a sigh. “Seven going on seventy. She’s far too sharp for her own good sometimes.”
“And the boys?”
“Four and a half and three and a half,” Heyes said, looking up at the ceiling as he thought.
“Sheesh Heyes.” Wheat chortled. “When you get the hang of something you sure do like to practice don’t ya?”
Heyes smacked his lips, feeling slightly embarrassed.
“Ya’ve got yaself a real nice set up here Heyes,” Wheat said, looking round with interest. “All this from running a hardware store huh?”
“Nope not all of it. Remember Soapy?”
“Soapy Saunders? Yeah I remember ole Soapy.”
“He died a few years back. Left me a bit of money in his will. Enough for me to buy a parcel of land and have this house built.”
Wheat nodded. “Sure did make it hard for me to find ya. I rode all over. ‘Till I saw the name of the house. That kinda gave it away.” Wheat grinned. “Amnesty. Sheesh, Heyes.”
“It wasn’t my idea.” Heyes growled. “I was overruled,” he muttered, rolling his eyes. He set his glass down deliberately. “So Wheat, why were you looking for me? Can’t be jus’ to tell me ‘bout the gang? I would of read ‘bout that in the newspaper eventually.” He hesitated. “What happened to Kyle, Wheat?”
Wheat put his head down and Heyes prepared himself for some hard news. He didn’t press. He would let Wheat tell it in his own time.
“Me and the fellas held over the post office in Atkins.” He saw Heyes’ questioning look. “We’s strictly small time now Heyes.”
Heyes nodded and reached for his glass. “Go on.”
“Few of the town’s folk collected themselves into a posse didn’t they? Got the jump on us and we had to light out fast.” Wheat sniffed. “S’right. They weren’t no good. Heart weren’t in it for a long chase so we lost ‘em soon enough.” He took a deep breath. “Anways we’s pulled up to get our breath back. Y’know how it is.”
Heyes nodded. He did know how it is.
“Anyways all of a sudden Kyle’s horse rears up. Musta been spooked by something. Dunno what. Caught Kyle on the hop and he falls right off over the back.” Wheat swallowed hard. “Me and the boys started to laugh. Y’know Kyle. He was always falling off his horse one way or another.”
Heyes smiled faintly. “Yeah.”
“Only … this time …”, Wheat gasped. He put his head down and his breathing came in short jerky breaths. He took a gulp of his drink. “He didn’t get up Heyes. Broke his dang head on a rock didn’t he?” he finished, quickly. “Died right there in front of us.” Wheat shook his head. “Nothin’ we could do,” he forced out, struggling to contain his emotions.
Heyes saw the tears welling up in Wheat’s eyes and he leant over, putting a hand on Wheat’s arm.
“I’m sorry Wheat,” he said, softly. “He was a good man.”
They sat in silence. Wheat collecting himself, Heyes thinking back through his memories of the small scruffy man. Of all of the outlaws in Devil’s Hole, Kyle had the least harm in him. He wasn’t the brightest. He was often the butt of pranks and jokes but he took it all with good grace. Heyes smiled as he remembered him. His willingness to please. His enthusiasm, especially for blowing things up. He remember the laughs they’d shared. The danger they’d experienced together. The numerous close shaves. After the Kid, Kyle was probably the only one of the Devil’s Hole Gang that Heyes could call friend. He mourned his passing.
While Kyle had been his friend, to Wheat, Kyle had been his partner, just like the Kid was his partner. There was a special unbroken bond between partners. Even though the Kid lived two thousand miles away now, Heyes still felt him. He knew if things were wrong and he knew the Kid felt the same way. Heyes couldn’t imagine losing that bond and he felt for Wheat.
“It hit all the boys hard Heyes. We’s went back to the Hole but it was like a fire had gone out. Nobody wanted to talk ‘bout the next job. Lobo … he was the first to go. Said he had a cousin who ran with a gang up in Canada. Reckon they did things different up there so he thought he’d go try his luck up there.
“Then Preacher said he had the callin’ agin. Said it was time to go back into the fold. Or some such religious reason, I dunno.” He sighed. “He jus’ went one night. Nobody heard him go.
“Hank said he had enough money saved to try an’ make it with his family agin. If they’d have him. So he went not long after.
“That jus’ left me and Red and Sam. Don’t reckon you knows them Heyes. They came in after you left.”
Wheat sighed heavily. “Anyways they figured there was nothin’ left for them so they headed off. Dunno where.” He sighed again. “An’ it got me thinkin’ one night with just me an’ a bottle for company. ‘Bout what you said, Heyes.”
Heyes blinked. “I’ve said a lot of things, Wheat. Care to narrow it down a bit.” He didn’t mean to sound unkind and he winced when he realised perhaps he had.
Wheat didn’t seem to notice. “’Bout amnesty Heyes. Worked for you and the Kid. Right? An’ you two were much bigger crooks than I am.” Wheat licked his lips. “D’you reckon … that Governor would give me amnesty Heyes? Like yous two?”
Heyes took a deep breath. “I dunno Wheat. It’s a different Governor these days.”
“Jus’ a thought,” Wheat said, quickly and levered himself out of the chair. “Well I’d best be
making tracks, Heyes. I jus’ came to tell ya ‘bout Kyle and the boys. Figgured ya’d wanna know what happened.”
“Thanks Wheat. But you don’t have to go. There’s a spare bed upstairs. You’re welcome to it.”
“Sheesh, Heyes. I don’t wanna get ya into trouble now.”
“No trouble, Wheat. It’s always made up. Just in case of sudden visitors.”
“I mean ain’t there that restriction on your amnesty? ‘Bout associating with criminal types. That’ll be me right enough.”
Heyes smiled. “Yeah there was but only for seven years. Expired year last June.” A typical Heyesian grin spread over his face and he got up. “Sit down Wheat. I’ll get you another drink.”
With glasses refilled, they settled again. Heyes looked at Wheat. “So, what would you do? If you got amnesty?”
Wheat shrugged. “Dunno. Don’t reckon I’m much good at anything except outlawin’. It might jus’ be too late for me to learn anything new.”
“You can’t think like that Wheat. You must have some idea.”
Wheat shook his head. “Naw! I’m pretty set in my ways. Ain’t got no family to go look up. Nothin’ like that.”
Heyes frowned. “I thought you had a brother. Sent you those awful cigars at Christmas.”
Wheat shook his head. “I ain’t got no brother,” he said, bitterly. “I bought those cigars so …” He put his head down and couldn’t continue. They both knew. It was so Wheat could pretend he wasn’t alone in the world. The Devil’s Hole Gang was his family. The loss of the Gang and Kyle especially had broken Wheat more than he realised and talking about it was suddenly all too much. He turned away from Heyes as the dam broke.
Heyes wasn’t immune to Wheat’s plight and he swallowed the lump in his own throat as he listened to the sobs that were escaping from the big man. He squeezed Wheat’s shoulder in sympathy.
“We can go and see Lom in the morning, Wheat. He’ll know how to talk to the Governor.” Heyes shook Wheat’s shoulder reassuring as the shudders of his grief took him again. “We’ll get you sorted, Wheat. Don’t worry.”
All Wheat could do was nod at that point. It was a while before he had composed himself to sit up straight again and then he was embarrassed.
“You won’t say nothin’ to the Kid? Or anyone ‘bout this will ya?”
Heyes smiled. “No, it’s just between us. Nobody else needs to know.”
“Thanks Heyes.” He hesitated. “You’re a good friend.”
They both knew that had never been the case. Heyes and Wheat had always been at loggerheads over one thing or another. The fact that Wheat was here with Heyes spoke volumes. It had taken guts for Wheat to come to him and Heyes respected him for that.
Perhaps things would be different between them in the future. Who knows? Sometimes things have to be broken first, in order to fix them.
Heyes lay on his back, one hand behind his head as he stared up at the ceiling. There was a half-moon tonight and a little light reflected through the curtains. He had been awake for hours thinking about Wheat. Mary was sound asleep beside him. He smiled at her and pulled the blankets over her a little more. He was a lucky man. He had a beautiful, independently-minded and intelligent wife. She had given him three happy and healthy children. He had a thriving business and with the publication of Hard to Go Straight, Volume 2, a lucrative writing career as well. He had a comfortable life now post amnesty. But he only had it by the grace of God. If things had been different, he could easily have ended up like Wheat. Or dead. Or in prison.
Wheat wasn’t a bad man but if he was serious about amnesty he would need help to stay on the straight and narrow. With Kyle gone, who would do that? Heyes shook his head. He didn’t have to help beyond talking to Lom for him. He was under no obligation. Hell, he couldn’t even count Wheat as a friend. Yet somehow, Heyes felt a responsibility for Wheat. He had come to him for help. Despite locking horns, day in, day out when they were both in Devil’s Hole, Heyes knew he couldn’t abandon Wheat.
There was an idea forming in his mind but he wasn’t sure that he wanted to give it serious thought. It could be a huge risk to his business. Just last week he had signed the lease on a new hardware store in Salt River, thirty miles away. He needed a manager. Could that manager be Wheat? He shook his head. He didn’t know if Wheat would go for it. Could Wheat even cope with it? Could Heyes take the risk? To his livelihood, his reputation? Could he afford the time to hand-hold Wheat? All these things went through his mind as Mary stirred beside him.
“I know you’re awake,” she whispered.
“Because you’re talking to me!”
They laughed gently together. Heyes shifted his arm so Mary could snuggle closer. He hand went to the opening of his Henley and smoothed the patch of hair she found there. He kissed the top of head.
“Are you thinking about Wheat?”
“Yeah,” Heyes sighed, sadly. “He’s a broken man, Mary. I don’t want him on my conscience. I need to help him in some way.”
“You’ll think of something. You usually do.”
“He and Susan seemed to hit it off,” she said, casually.
“Yeah.” Heyes laughed gently. “That was a surprise.” He paused. “Hey! You said you wanted help with the children perhaps ….”
“No! Find another way to help him.” Mary was firm.
“Just kidding. I’ve got an idea but I guess it depends on what the Governor says. I need to know that first before I can think on it some more.” He sighed.
“Do you think he’ll get it? Amnesty? Like you and Jed?”
“Dunno, Mary. I hope so.” He sighed. “There isn’t anything else for him.”
Both were silent for a while thinking about Wheat. Then Heyes said, “Sooo … As we’re both awake … and not doing any sleeping …”
Mary raised her head. He couldn’t see her smile but he knew it was there.
Kid Curry and that other fella; Hannibal Heyes and whatsname