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Along the Rocky Road


Ex-outlaws Hannibal Heyes and Jed "Kid" Curry indulge in some R&R but Kid's restless and trouble soon follows. The story includes the chance to explore the duo's unbreakable bond of friendship,

Adventure / Action
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

Heyes and Kid set out on a narrow road, many years ago.

Hoping they'd get amnesty, along the rocky road.

They got lost a time or two, wiped their brows - kept pushin' through.

But the Law couldn't see how everything proved their intentions were true.

1885 Somewhere in Colorado

Arms folded across his chest, Jed “Kid” Curry exhaled loudly one more time right before he let a shrill whistle escape through his teeth. He also directed another exasperated glare at the man who was contentedly sprawled out on the ground just a few feet away.

Seemingly unperturbed, the man in question was leaning back against his saddle, using it as a headrest. His feet were crossed casually at the ankles and he didn't look like he was going to move any time soon. Even the flashes of sunshine that danced across his face as they filtered through the leaves didn't seem to bother him. In fact, looking at him, one could almost be deceived into thinking he was oblivious to everything going on around him, with the exception of what he held in his hands. Almost.

I wish Heyes’d never found that stupid book! Curry realized he'd wished that very same thing at least ten times in the last two hours. “An’ another thing, why'd he havta go an' pick one that had so many daggone pages for in it anyways?” The young outlaw aimed another pebble at the old tin can he'd wedged tight in the crook of the tree. A tree which just so happened to be right smack dab in the middle of the two men. The pebble hit the can square on.

Curry relished the minute sense of satisfaction it gave him as he heard the annoying pinging sound it made. Well, at least that was what Heyes had told him - that the sound was annoying - the last few times he'd bothered saying anything at all. All it earned Kid now was a silent scowl and a pointed look from his partner over the top of his book. Curry shrugged the look off with an innocent one of his own; a look which plainly said, What? But even that was a wasted effort, since his cousin had already returned his attention back to reading his book again.

How can some old book be so darn interestin' anyways? he wondered and heaved another deep sigh. What had Heyes said this one was about? Oh yeah, somethin' ‘bout some man who thought he could go ‘round the world in eighty days. Curry shook his head and chuckled to himself. What a loco idea! Heyes had also said the man was going to do some of it while riding an elephant. An elephant? he snorted with a roll of his eyes skyward, Now I’ve heard everythin'!

Restless and now even bored with tossing pebbles, he heaved himself up to a standing position with as much noise as he thought he could get away with and made his way over to the campfire. Like a mischievous schoolboy, he scuffed his boots along the ground as he walked, managing to scatter everything he encountered in his path every-which-way and sending up a small dust cloud in his wake as well.

Reaching his goal, he leaned down and grabbed some of the biscuits left over from breakfast. Taking a big bite out of one, he put the rest into his coat pocket for later and glanced hopefully at his cousin one last time, but Heyes never even blinked. Curry studied his partner thoughtfully as he took another bite. If I didn't know better, I'd wonder if he was even breathin'! Curry sighed again. All of a sudden, he turned and began to walk downhill towards the creek with a big grin on his face.

When he reached level ground, he made his way over to a large rock. Leaning against it and chewing on a biscuit, he tipped his head back, enjoying the feel of the warm sunshine upon his face. After a while, he tilted his head forward and began to look around for what he needed. This is a sure-fire way to get Heyes' attention! He walked around, scouting out the area and gathering up objects as he came across them.

Curry chuckled. He'd learned long ago not to be too picky out on the trail, the old ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ bit, but today he was going to need lots of targets. He found some wood knots, a few pine cones and even came across an old boot someone had lost. Finishing the last bite of biscuit, he dusted his hands off on his pants, still looking around in the hope of finding at least a few more things.

Catching the glint of the sun shining off something metallic, Kid dropped to the ground with an excited cry. Crawling forward on his belly to reach underneath a bush, he pulled out a battered tin can, crusty with rust and a dirty, old whiskey bottle in triumph. These would be perfect! “Hey,” he said as he dusted off the bottle with his shirtsleeve, “it's not even cracked!”

As Curry lay there admiring his treasures, he heard a rustling sound and his whole body tensed as he turned in the direction the sound was coming from. Whatever it was, it was jus' over there in those bushes! Still laying flat on his belly, he reached back to unhook his gun and eased it out of the holster…just in case. A moment later, instead of pulling the trigger, the outlaw laid his head down on his folded arms and laughed in relief.

Why, it’s only a little ol' coon; nothin' to be 'fraid of. He slipped his gun back where it belonged and began to speak to the animal in a low voice. “Hey, there, little fella - whatcha doin' way out here all by yourself - you lost?” He watched as the raccoon climbed up on a nearby rock and stared back at him with a wary look in his eyes. Getting to his feet in slow motion so as not to startle the animal, Curry continued to speak in a quiet tone.

“It's okay, I won't hurt you; maybe you'll even be some company for me. Hey, you got any relatives?” He laughed and answered without waiting for a reply, “Well, I do! See, I've got this cousin,” he raised his voice, “named Hannibal, an’ all he does is read!”

He dropped his voice back to normal before he added, “In fact, he's got his nose stuck in a book right this very minute. An’ you wanna know what else? It's some story 'bout this loco fella who thinks he can go 'round the whole world in only eighty days - can you believe that? An' what's even more loco, is that he's gonna do some of it while riding an elephant - you know, like they have at the circus or the fair -” Kid stopped speaking and gave a rueful laugh as it dawned on him what he had just said.

“Course you don't - when would you ever have had the chance to see a fair or a circus, huh?” As he talked, Curry had slowly edged a few steps closer, but the raccoon stood its ground and continued to watch him. It cocked its head to the side, as if considering the human's words.

“Guess you've probably never seen an elephant neither, right?”Curry shook his head. As crazy as it seemed, the animal's ears perked up and he chattered noisily and then fell silent, as if he were waiting for the man to continue.

“At least you look like you’re listenin’.” Taking his time, the young man sat down in front of the rock, careful not to make any sudden moves. “Well, let me tell you, I've been to both a circus an’ a fair - plenty of 'em, an’ they're a bunch of fun, let me tell you! There's lots of animals, clowns, acrobats, fortune tellers, two-headed snakes; there’s games to play, an’ best of all, my favorite, the shootin' contests - I'm real good at those. In fact, I usually end up makin' everyone mad 'cos I win all the time. I can hit anythin’ an’ everythin’ I aim at,” the gunfighter boasted with pride.

“See, that's what I do best. I can shoot really fast an’ I never miss, neither! I practice all the time - that's why I'm so good.” Curry heaved a deep sigh. “I s'pose that's why Heyes keeps talkin' me outta enterin' any more of 'em. He says it's jus’ too dangerous...too risky for us. Makin' that many men mad, winnin' the prize money all the time, well, it kinda tends to make 'em suspicious, an’ 'sides that, I think maybe HE thinks I'm just showin' off.”

He smiled, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. He cocked his head to the side to glance at the raccoon before he added, “I'm not, you know. What I mean is, I can't help it if I'm really good at shooting things, can I?” The young outlaw paused a moment to watch an ant as it labored to carry a piece of food and made it's way across the ground in front of him. As the tiny insect continued on its way, so did Kid.

“See, I'm not as smart as my cousin - he's the one I was tellin' you ‘bout earlier. He's the one with all the brains, thinks up some of the best plans. I don't think his mind ever rests, even when he's sleepin' his brain is still busy thinkin' up stuff. Says he does his best thinkin' at night, but I'm not too sure 'bout that.”

Curry shook his head, “I still have the scar on my leg from gettin' shot up when we tried to follow one of the plans he thought up one night...” his voice trailed off as his attention was drawn towards the raccoon when it began to wash its face with its hands. He leaned back against the tree, closed his eyes and blew out a happy sigh.

“Anyways, back to the circus an’ the fairs...I almost forgot to tell you about the food - there's all kinds of good things to eat! I bet you can't even imagine how much there is.” He opened his eyes and leaned forward to look at the coon, his eyes sparkling. His mouth already watering at the thought of all the wonderful things and wanting to share them with his new friend, he spoke in a voice that was filled with enthusiasm.

“There's candied apples, popped corn, cotton candy, apple cider, roasted beef an’ chicken, there's corn-on-the-cob smothered in butter, lemonade, roasted 'taters, peanuts an’ every kind of dessert you could ever imagine!”Curry toppled over backwards and stared straight up into the sky. If he turned his head just a bit, he could still see the coon out of the corner of his eye.

“There's so many, I don't know if I can even begin to remember 'em all! Let's see, they have breads, cakes an' pies - every kind an’ any flavor you can think of! Apple, cherry, pumpkin, blueberry, banana, blackberry, chocolate - all of 'em!” Kid tucked his hands under the back of his head.

“I like cherry the best - my ma used to make the best cherry cobbler for miles around; you could smell it bakin' two whole towns away! She always won the blue ribbon for 'em, too; used to make all the other ladies mad 'cos she won all the time. Guess we were kinda alike, my ma an' me,” he said reflectively, “Both of us makin' people mad when we won. I bet you would've liked my mom, an’ she probably would've liked you, too - as long as you didn't come inside the house. She had a rule, said animals belonged outside.”

Lost in his thoughts, Curry lay quiet for a few minutes. When he spoke again, his voice was husky with emotion. “She's gone now; my whole family's gone...You know what, little fella? There was this one time she broke her own rule an' she let me bring my puppy inside. It was when I was sick - real sick - down with pneumonia. They said I almost died that time.

“When I got well enough, there was only one thing I asked for; I wanted to see my puppy. My mom went right outside an' carried him into my bedroom herself, darin’ anyone to say a word. She laid him down on the bed next to me and we jus' looked at each other, didn't neither of us havta say a word. I could tell how worried she'd been, thinkin' I might've died...an’ I knew how much she loved me, too.”

He fell silent. “You know what else? I was wrong...there was one other thing I asked for. I wanted my best friend to come in with me, too.” Curry grinned, “I called him Han back then, an' he called me Jed. We were more'n jus' friends - we were cousins - an' we did everythin’ together. Even back then he came up with some of the best plans - the greatest ideas – an’ so many ways to have fun.

“I missed him. See, they wouldn't let him come near me when I was so sick, they said I probably wouldn't have even known, but that's not right. I would've known if he was there. His family's gone too, so we're all that's left. I'm his family an’ he's mine. We look out after each other, even when we're fightin'.” Kid inhaled and then released it, nice and slow.

“Guess that's why I get so mad when he reads all the time; it's like he shuts a door in my face. He gets to go places...without me. He has all this wonderful stuff inside his head, places he's been, people he's met, things he's done an’ learned – an’ I don't know any of it! When he gets that look on his face, I kinda feel like he's left me behind; like he's forgotten that I even exist. I guess readin's okay; I like the dime novels myself.”

“They've even written some stories 'bout me 'n Heyes,” he boasted with a proud grin, “We're famous! ‘Course we don't do all the things they say we do, neither, but it sure is fun to read about 'em.” Curry stretched his legs out in front of him. “Anyway, Heyes knows all kinds of stuff an’ me, well, like I said before, I'm good with my gun. I let him do most of the thinkin' an’ my gun makes sure he gets to stay alive long enough to do it.” He turned back to look up at the sky, watching the clouds as they floated overhead.

“You wanna know somethin' else? We used to lie on our backs jus' like this, watchin' the clouds an’ we'd make up stories about 'em. Well, Heyes would mostly do the makin' up; I'd find a shape an’ then he'd tell me about it. Boy, could he ever come up with some good ones, too.” Taking a moment to gather his thoughts, he watched a hawk as it circled lazily overhead.

“That was before we had to be on the run all the time. Now, we hardly ever get to relax anymore. This is the first time in months we've stayed put in one spot for more'n two days. It sure feels good, not havin' to be in the saddle all day, or bein' chased by a posse, but after a few days I need somethin' to do! Heyes can read for a week straight an’ never even stop once to eat. I have to remind him; I sure don't know how a man can forget to eat.” Kid shook his head and laughed. “I'm glad I don't have that problem.” He closed his eyes and pondered those thoughts for awhile.

Meanwhile, back at the camp…

It was with great reluctance that Heyes finally gave up all pretense of trying to read once he realized that he'd read the same paragraph three times and still didn't know what it said. There was one thing he did know for certain and that was that his cousin was annoyed with him. “Shoot, anytime I pick up something to read...”

A slow grin spread across his face as he recalled the time Kid had once threatened to get a book of his own to read if Heyes didn't quit reading long enough to pay some attention to what he had to say. He put a hand to his mouth as a snort of laughter escaped. The only thing besides Tom Sawyer he'd ever seen the Kid pick up voluntarily to read was an occasional newspaper and those dime novels he liked.

Curry would read those just to find the good parts, especially the ones that were about the 'numerous exploits of those two dashing and daring - not to mention amorous - outlaws, Hannibal Heyes and Jed “Kid” Curry.' Yep, his cousin sure loved reading about how 'fantastic those two dare-devil outlaws were, and how the women swooned at their feet, barely able to believe their good fortune at merely being in presence of the tow outlaws...' Heyes' thoughts turned in another direction.

Well, Kid did listen while I read “Treasure Island” out loud to him. His partner had really enjoyed the pirate story and it had given them something else interesting to talk about besides the amnesty and wondering where their next meal was coming from. Mulling things over, Heyes began to feel a bit uneasy as he became aware of just how quiet it was.

“That's what’s wrong – there's too much silence!” His curiosity getting the better of him, Heyes laid his book down and stood up with a stretch and a yawn. Grabbing a couple of apples from his saddlebag, Heyes started off in search of his missing friend. He figured the apples would come in handy and serve as a kind of peace offering when he found his partner. Since Kid had gone off in the direction of the creek that was the place he would begin his search.

Heyes could hear Curry's voice as he neared the water. He paused and cocked his head to listen. Laughter? Heyes frowned. “Now who in tarnation have you found way out here in the middle of nowhere to talk to, Kid?” As he came to the edge of the clearing, he stopped short to stare in amazement at the sight that met his eyes. Kid and…a raccoon? His back to him, his partner was sitting cross-legged in front of a rock, looking up at the animal. Heyes couldn't help the smile that tugged at the corners of his mouth as he watched the two of them together.

His cousin never ceased to amaze him. No matter what the situation, Kid could always find something good in it. Just like now, for instance. He could have sat around and sulked or kept pestering him but instead, there he sat, happy, laughing and he'd even made himself a new friend! Heyes remained where he was, hidden in the shadows, not wanting to spoil the Kid's fun. He listened with growing amusement as his partner continued his one-sided conversation with the coon.

“...an' you know what else? Talkin' 'bout all that food sure made me hungry - how 'bout you? You hungry too?” Curry pulled the bread from his coat pocket. “Lookee here what I've got - a biscuit. Tell you what I’ll do, I'll share it with you.” He pinched a piece off the biscuit and tossed it up to the waiting animal. After watching him for a few minutes he spoke up with excitement. “Hey, betcha I could teach you a trick!”

From his hiding place, Heyes put a hand to his mouth to still the spurt of mirth that threatened to escape, not quite ready to reveal his whereabouts just yet.

Kid got up on his knees and held out another piece of biscuit, but this time he held it above the raccoon's head, just out of its reach. The animal looked first at the bread, then at Kid, then back at the bread again. Finally deciding to trust the human, he sat back on its haunches, his paws extended.

As Curry's laughter rang out in the otherwise silent clearing, Heyes decided it was time to make his presence known. In an effort not to spook either the man or the animal, he called out softly, “Hey, Kid, wondered where you'd wandered off to - who's your friend?”

In spite of Heyes' precautions, a startled Curry turned around quickly, his hand reaching for his gun before it registered with him who was there. Full of chagrin, he realized he’d been so caught up with the raccoon's antics that he'd completely shut out the rest of the world and allowed someone to catch him off guard.

“First time that's happened in a long time,” he muttered. Fully expecting Heyes to make a comment about his ability to sneak up on him, Kid squared his shoulders and waited, but to his surprise, his cousin walked down the hill and tossed an apple to him. Catching the fruit with ease, Curry hastened to explain.

“He jus’ showed up, outta nowhere. I was lookin' for targets -” After catching the knowing look Heyes sent him he continued, “An’ well, anyways, I heard this rustlin' sound in the bushes an’ there he was. Right friendly little critter...an’ hungry, too.”

“Sounds like you two have a lot in common,” Heyes grinned.

Kid tossed a piece of biscuit to the coon. “Yeah, guess maybe we do at that.”

Heyes noticed Curry hadn't taken one bite of the biscuit, nor had he even taken a bite of the apple yet. So much for sharing.

“Hey, you wanna see somethin’? He can do a trick!”

As Curry's voice intruded into his thoughts. Heyes realized he couldn't help but be caught up in Kid's enthusiasm. Taking in the expression on his cousin's face, he also realized that this was the most carefree he'd seen him in a long time. He nodded his head and watched with tolerance as the raccoon performed his 'trick' of begging as if it were the first time he'd ever seen it.

Grinning as proudly as a new parent showing off their child's first steps, Kid turned to Heyes. “See? Told you he could!”

“That's good, Kid, real good. You're a great teacher.”

“Well, he's a real fast learner too, Heyes. Think I'm gonna see if I can teach him another one. Hey, I bet that apple you brought will help; he oughta like that a lot.”

“Oh, I'm sure he will. Well, if you're sure you've got something to keep you busy for awhile, guess I'll head on back up to camp, maybe do some more reading. I wanted to make sure everything was okay; things were a little too quiet.”

Shooting his partner his 'innocent' look once more, Curry grinned, “Yeah, we'll be just fine; me 'n Rocky here, we'll just keep each other company.”

Heyes arched a brow. “Rocky?”

“Well, I had to call him somethin' 'sides 'coon', didn't I?” Kid answered defensively and shrugged, “Rocky seemed as good a name as any...” his voice trailed off at the other man’s laughter.

Heyes reached out to pat Curry's shoulder. “It's okay, I'm sure you and 'Rocky' will have lots of fun together. It's not quite time to eat; I'll holler at you when it's time to start fixing dinner, okay?”

After a measuring look at his partner, Kid blew out a breath. “I know how silly you think it is for me to be foolin' ‘round with a 'coon, but...well, you were busy, I was bored an’ at least he listens to me. I don't feel so - oh, nevermind! Jus’ forget it. Go on back to your book; I'll see you at suppertime.” Curry turned away, but not before Heyes had caught the expression on his cousin's face.

“I'd be real interested in seeing Rocky do another trick later. Why don’t you work with him for a while and call me when you two come up with something, okay?”

With his back to Heyes, Curry shrugged his shoulders, but otherwise remained silent.

“Kid, I -” Heyes began, but after giving Curry's rigid back another look, he turned away instead and headed back up the hill, deep in thought.

When the sound of Heyes' footsteps grew faint, Curry turned to watch his cousin walk away. “Wish you’d hung around a little bit longer, but you probably think I'm just being childish.” He sighed as he realized he could never compete with a book for his cousin's attention; he'd never be a match for that genius mind of his.

“But,” he reasoned, “that’s not all Heyes' fault.” His cousin had tried once before to share that new story with him but Kid had quickly lost interest. It sure wasn't anything like that pirate story; now that was a book worth listenin' to!

Curry smiled as he remembered when Heyes had found that book about the pirates and their buried treasure. He'd really enjoyed listening to it read out loud. Every night after they'd finished eating supper, Heyes would read a chapter or two and then they'd talk about it. He hadn't felt so left out, like he did now.

“Hey, bet I can talk Heyes into readin' more about that fella an’ his trip, even if I don't think an elephant's gonna be much help, as big an' as slow as they are. Maybe if I try real hard to look like I'm interested, we can talk about it like we did that other one.”

The raccoon's excited chattering drew Kid's attention back to it.

“Sorry little fella. Guess I'm guilty of doin' the same thing to you; it's not any fun to be ignored, is it? Well, Rocky, looks like it's jus' you an’ me again, don’t it?”

Rocky chattered back, just as if he'd understood what the ex-outlaw had said.

Kid smiled at his new friend. “I've still got some of that biscuit left; let's see what else you can do.”

So for the next few hours Curry amused himself by playing with the raccoon, pretending he was teaching him tricks to pass the time; anything to avoid going back to camp too soon.

The biscuits had long ago disappeared and Rocky was now working his way through the apple. It was funny to watch the animal put the fruit between his little paws and nibble on it.

His good mood restored, Kid's spirits were high as he tossed another piece of apple up to Rocky. Unlike the others however, this piece fell short and landed on the ground. Curry walked over to pick it up but just as his hand touched the fruit, Rocky flew off the rock and sank his razor-sharp teeth into the outlaw's left wrist.

“Ow!” Curry cried in surprise and jerked his arm back out of reach.“Hey - that hurt!” Holding his wrist, he eyed the raccoon with reproach, watching in silence as Rocky grabbed the piece of apple and scampered back up on the rock, still chattering angrily away.

“I wasn't gonna eat it, you silly coon! I was jus’ gonna throw it to you - you didn't have to go an’ bite me!” Curry pushed his sleeve up in order to inspect the damage. Not much blood, but it sure hurt. He pushed his sleeve back down, “Next time, you can jus' get your own food!” he snapped and shook an admonishing finger at the animal.

Watching the human with a wary look, Rocky continued to gnaw on the piece of apple.

“Aw, c'mon, its okay,” Curry said wryly, “I'm not really mad at you. It was jus’ a big mistake - one we both made an’ one I won’t make again. Here, see if you can catch this, it's the last piece.” Tossing it high into the air, he grinned as Rocky reached up, nimbly caught it between his paws and without a second’s hesitation, began to chew on it.

“Well, my friend, that's it; I'm all outta food. Guess you'll probably wanna take off now, huh?” Kid sat down on a fallen log and while he waited for the raccoon to finish, he glanced up at the setting sun. “It's 'bout time for my supper anyways.” Maybe. Heyes has probably forgotten all about me by now; I'd better wash up and go remind him. Curry shook his head. “Knowing Heyes, he's probably gone right back to his book an’ lost all track of time.”

He turned to say goodbye to Rocky only to discover that the rock was empty. He looked all around, but it was like the animal had just disappeared! “Well, of all the ingrates,” Curry muttered. Standing up, he brushed off his hands and headed down to the water. While he was washing up, he took a closer look at the bite, relieved to see there was barely any evidence of it left. He pushed his sleeves back down and buttoned the cuffs.

“I'd better remember to wash it good with soap later, no need to take any chances of it gettin' infected.” Yeah, that's all I'd need, to have Heyes fussin' over me like an old mother hen - I'd havta listen to him rub it in an' say, ‘I told you so!’ His older cousin tended to take credit for all the bad things that happened to him, whether he was responsible or not.

Yep, Heyes would definitely feel this was his fault, especially since he had encouraged him to play with the raccoon. Kid made the decision to keep quiet about getting bit. Why borrow trouble? His stomach growled, a reminder that it was way past mealtime. Before walking up the hill, he stopped and took one last look around for Rocky, but there wasn't any sign of his little friend.

As he stepped into camp, Kid stopped dead in his tracks at the sight that met his eyes. Heyes was lying on his back, fast asleep, his book laying face down across his stomach. He looks so peaceful, Curry thought, think I'll let him rest while I fix supper. He grinned as something suddenly dawned on him. “Guess I'm not the only one who lets people sneak up on 'em!”

When supper was ready, Curry 'accidentally' dropped the empty pot on the rocks near the fire. Their clatter created a racket loud enough to wake the dead...or at least a sleeping partner.

Heyes sat up quickly, causing the book to flip shut. It landed with a loud thud on the ground beside him. “Wha - what - who's - ? Oh, it's you...Hiya, Kid,” he said, ineffectually attempting to hide a yawn behind his hand. He grinned instead and inquired, “Suppertime already? I was just going to call you.” He reached out and picked up his book, dusting it off. At his cousin's snort of laughter, Heyes scowled up at him. “Well, I was!” he sputtered.

Curry stopped filling his plate to give his partner a look.

“Just as soon as I woke up!”

The laughter of both men rang out in the camp.

“So where's your friend…uh, Rocky?” Heyes asked as Kid handed him a plate.

“I invited him to join us for dinner, but it seems he had 'other' plans.”

“Well, guess he's not so smart after all, passin' up a good meal like this.”

Curry grinned, enjoying the light-hearted banter with his cousin, “Probably had a wife or girlfriend back home; I was just someone givin' away free food.” He eased himself down on the ground across from Heyes. “Boy, he sure high-tailed it outta there fast enough after it was all gone.” He took a bite of sage hen and closed his eyes and slowly began to relax as he savored the taste.

“Well, you know, he's just a wild animal. You can't trust 'em or turn your back on 'em like you can a person; you've gotta be real careful around them. They’re unpredictable creatures; you just never know when they might turn on you.”

All thoughts of relaxing vanished in an instant. Curry stopped chewing and gulped. Busy with his own meal, Heyes missed the startled look that crossed his friend's face.

“Yep, a wild animal's just that - a wild animal. You can only be so friendly with 'em before they just up and walk off, leaving you to go back to where they came from.” When he became aware of the silence, Heyes glanced over and sent his partner a curious look. “What? Something wrong?”

With a quick duck of his head, Curry looked down at his plate. “Uh, no; nothin', nothin' at all.”

With a sharp look at his cousin, Heyes tried again. “Did you think I was picking on you for playing around with the coon? I wasn't, you know. Why, just think of the story he's gonna have to tell his family and friends...'I spent the day with Kid Curry and lived to tell about it!'” Heyes grinned. When he saw the answering grin on the other man's face, Heyes turned his attention back to his own plate.

After Curry had spooned the last bite into his mouth, his glance slid over to where Heyes had laid his book and he cleared his throat. “Uh, Heyes, I've been thinkin'...”

“All this fresh air and good company sure must agree with you, Kid,” Heyes teased, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

Giving him a pained look, Curry doggedly continued, “Anyways, I was thinkin' maybe you might read some more of that book to me. I didn't give it much of a chance before...”

“Sure, in fact, I'm at a really good part right now, they're -”

“Would it be alright if we waited until after supper tonight, you know, like you did with that pirate story? It's kinda...uh, more interestin' when you read it when it's dark. Reminds me of when my ma used to read to us at bedtime -” Kid broke off and shot his partner a worried look. “Sorry, Heyes, I didn't mean -”

“Its okay, no need to apologize,” Heyes brushed it aside, “I'm glad it's a good memory for you. And, its fine with me to wait until after supper tonight. Why, I'll be glad to read you a bedtime story, Kid,” Heyes teased with a laugh.

“I guess it does sound kinda silly when you put it that way,” Curry acknowledged ruefully.

“I wasn't trying to make you feel that way; I'm just agreeing it's a good way to end the day. And who knows, you might even end up liking the story.”

“Maybe.” Curry stood up. “Guess I'll go ahead and wash these plates; that way you can get on back to your book.”

“I think I've had enough reading for a while. What do you say about playing some cards after you're done?”

“Now you're talkin', Heyes!” Even without words, Curry's smile would have given the other man his answer. “How 'bout some Blackjack? An' you know what? Since you've been practicin' with me, I bet I can even win more hands than you!”

Heyes waved him off. “Go on, hurry up and get finished - we'll see if you can back up those words - we'll just find out how much you've been paying attention. Maybe you've even managed to learn a few things from me.”

Kid carried the dishes down to the water and once they were clean he even remembered to scrub the coon bite with soap. I doubt anyone, even Heyes, would notice if they weren't lookin' for it, he thought as he inspected the bite. It's not even a tiny bit sore anymore, neither. With a sigh of relief, he gathered up the dishes and headed up the hill, whistling as he walked.

Heyes had already spread out a blanket and was busy shuffling the cards when he paused to listen. Whistling? Surprised, he cocked his head to one side, not sure he'd really heard it. Yes, there it was again, the unmistakable sound of whistling. How long had it been since he'd heard the Kid whistle?

Lost in thought, cards momentarily forgotten, Heyes realized that he couldn't recall a time since that day so many years ago, the day neither of them hardly ever spoke about...Heyes was brought swiftly back to the present as his cousin's whistling grew closer. Shaking his head to banish the traitorous memories, he drew a deep breath and concentrated on shuffling the cards instead, welcoming the familiar feel of the deck in his hands.

As Kid approached the camp he caught sight of his partner's smile. I bet Heyes thinks he's gonna be the winner this time; guess I'll jus' havta show him a thing or two! A grin on his own face, he called out, “I hope you've got those cards shuffled real good, Heyes; you're gonna need all the help you can get!”

“Is that so?” Heyes countered. “You really think you've improved that much, do you?”

“Well, let's jus' say I had an excellent teacher - a real genius some might say.”

“Only some, huh? The teacher may have been a genius, but it all depends on how well the student learned his lessons; that'll be the real test.”

“I think the teacher's gonna be real surprised; yep, he might even lose a few hands to his student.”

“You care to back up those words with a small wager?”

“As a matter of fact, I don't mind putting up a pretty good-sized wager.”

“You sound serious. You sure about this?”

“Yep, never been more serious. Told you, I had a good teacher; he made sure I learned all the right things.”

Throughout the bantering the two men continued to grin at each other.

“Well, guess you know what you're doing...” Heyes said, continuing to shuffle the deck.

“I'd be real glad to show you, Heyes.” As he settled down on the blanket and seated himself across from his partner, Curry added, “It'd sure be a heck of a lot easier though, if you quit shufflin' an’ deal the cards!”

“Okay, Kid, I was just giving you some time to reconsider. It'd be a shame to take...I mean, I'd hate for you to lose all that hard-earned money.”

“What makes you think I'm gonna lose? You think you're that bad of a teacher? C'mon Heyes, put your money where your mouth is! You're gonna be sorry you ever took the time to work with me!”

Looking up from the cards, Heyes caught and locked eyes with the man seated across from him. Pulling his money slowly out of his vest pocket, he tossed it down on the blanket, never blinking once.

Curry tossed his money next to his partner's, then looked down and grinned. “You're still holding all the cards, Heyes. If we're gonna play, you have to let me have a few!”

Heyes shuffled one last time and dealt out the first hand. As time passed, he had to acknowledge the truth that Kid's game had indeed improved. Enough so that Heyes realized he couldn't relax his guard like he usually did. He had fallen back on his normal course of action with his cousin, only to find he was on the losing end more times than he cared to admit. When he glimpsed the smile that tugged at the corners of Curry's mouth, he decided he wouldn't go so easy on him in the next hand, after all, this was a matter of pride - his reputation was at stake!

Nonetheless enjoying this new challenge, Heyes discovered that he had to devote all his energy into outwitting his partner, a task that didn't prove to be as easy as he'd thought. The pile of money in front of Kid slowly grew as the one in front of Heyes dwindled. A frown puckered his brow and his eyes narrowed as he realized that today Lady Luck had turned a cold shoulder to him and was indeed smiling on the Kid.

Tossing another losing hand down on the blanket, he was forced to admit defeat. While he was playing logically, Kid was relying on pure gut instinct and it was proving to be a learning experience for Heyes. “Okay, so you were right - you DID have a genius for a teacher! I hate to admit it, but you've got a real feel for it tonight. I look forward to our next game, only I won't make the mistake of underestimating you again.”

And, although Kid did allow a big grin to spread across his face, his words were sincere. “You can still take all the credit, Heyes. All that time you spent teachin' me, showin' me where I made my mistakes an’ workin' with me until I 'felt' like part of the game - that's why I was able to win today. Not because I'm the better player, but because you taught me how to play like you. The only thing is, you can't teach me to 'think' like you do. That's always gonna make us play differently; but that's a good thing, ain't it? That way neither of us is gonna get too full of himself; we'll both jus' keep gettin' better an’ better.”

Unable to find any fault with Curry's logic, Heyes stood up, held a hand out and pulled his partner to his feet and their eyes met.

“Next time,” the look silently promised.

After the card game was over and the horses had been bedded down for the night, Kid flopped down on his bedroll. Stretching out, he tucked his arms under his head. “Okay, Heyes...” a huge yawn interrupted him. He covered his mouth, unsuccessfully trying to stifle it. “I'm ready,” he finished sleepily.

“You sure you're going to make it through a bedtime story? That yawn sounded mighty convincing...”

“You jus’ worry about readin', Heyes, an’ I'll worry 'bout listenin'.” He tried to smother another yawn and both men laughed. “Sorry, it’s been a long day. I really do wanna hear about that man an’ the baloon an' the elephant...I mean it.”

“I know you do. Okay, let me just find my place and we'll get started.” Heyes thumbed through the pages until he found the place where he'd put the leaf to mark the place where he'd left off. Turning the book so that the fire reflected its light on the written words, he began to read aloud...

It wasn't long afterward that Heyes' voice trailed off and he let the book fall forward onto his chest. He watched the steady rise and fall of his partner's chest and grinned. “I have to give you credit, Kid; you lasted a lot longer than I thought you would.” Using the leaf to bookmark his page, he pulled his blanket up and stared thoughtfully into the star-filled sky above.

Today had been a real interesting day, one full of surprises and revelations. Tomorrow they'd be leaving the peace and quiet and heading to Medicine Bend to start that new job. He looked forward to being back in the hustle and bustle of a town, not to mention a nice hot bath, a meal they didn't have to hunt down and a good poker game with a few beers – and not necessarily in that order.

Although he was relaxed and knew that the time here had been good, Heyes was getting restless. While Kid was good company, sometimes he felt as if he needed something more; a diversion of sorts. Things had become a little too quiet. Yes, it was definitely time to move on. Turning onto his side, he closed his eyes and his breathing became regular as he dreamed of a town full of poker players who loved to draw to inside straights...

At first light, Heyes crawled out of his bedroll, pulled on his boots and headed towards the campfire. After stoking it, he walked over to Curry and nudged him with his boot. “C'mon sleepyhead, time to get up. We need to get an early start if we want to make it to Medicine Bend on time.”

A muffled groan answered him from somewhere beneath the blanket. “Dontcha think we could at least wait until it's daylight?”

Heyes reached down to yank the blanket away from his partner’s body and deepened his voice as he intoned, “And let there be light...” Returning his voice to normal, he added, “See how easy that was? Besides, it's your turn to cook; I'm heading down to check on the horses and wash up.”

“Better watch out, Heyes, you jus’ might get hit with a lightnin' bolt if you keep on talkin' like that!” Grumbling as he stuffed his feet into his cold boots, he watched his partner walk away with an unconcerned expression. “At least we don't havta drink your coffee on top of everythin’ else!” Curry muttered and set the coffeepot on the fire, glad he'd remembered to fill it up with water last night. Still yawning, he trailed his partner down to the water. After washing up, he made his way back to camp and had breakfast ready by the time Heyes returned. “You sure we have to leave? It's been kinda nice -”

“Kid, we've already been over this - you know we have to. It's a big paying job, we're low on funds and it's time to eat someone else's cooking for a change.”

“I know,” Curry sighed, “it's jus’...well, it's jus’ that it's been kinda nice not to have to keep lookin' over our shoulders all the time.”

Heyes leaned back and then set his plate down on the ground beside him. “You're right, it has been good, but we can't just forget about that job either. The money we make should be enough to tide us over for quite a spell. We can always take another break afterwards, right?”

Curry didn't answer right away. When he did, his reply was far from enthusiastic. “If you say so, Heyes.”

Heyes stood up. “Good, let's break camp and get going; we're burning daylight.”

A short time later they were on their way. Several hours down the road they came to the quiet little town of Paradox. Riding past the sheriff's office, they glanced at the name and exchanged a questioning look. Both men shook their heads; neither of them recognized it.

Next stop was the town's cafe. A large placard that hung outside proudly proclaimed, 'Mama's Kitchen,' to be the establishment’s name, while the sign inside the window boasted that the menu was full of 'Food your mama would be proud to serve.'

The two men shared a grin.

“Sounds like our kind of place huh, Kid?”

“You took the words right outta my mouth. Sure hope this place lives up to its name; I’m so hungry I think I could eat a horse!”

With a tolerant grin, Heyes shook his head. It had only been a few hours since breakfast; where did his cousin put it all? Tethering their animals to the hitching post in front of the building, they made their way towards the cafe.

Heyes reached down to grab a newspaper someone had left laying on the bench before he walked inside.

Curry inhaled deeply. “Joshua,” he announced, “I think I've jus' died an’ gone to heaven!”

Heyes sniffed the air and had to agree. The smells of just-baked bread and savory stew, combined with the aroma of fresh coffee, did indeed smell heavenly.

After they had seated themselves, a young girl with rosy cheeks brought them some coffee. She smiled at each of the men in turn as she handed them menus.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen. Our special today is the venison stew with corn-bread – which everyone says is delicious, but you can check the menu to see if there’s something else you’d rather have. I'll be back in just a few minutes to see what you've decided.”

Heyes nodded and gave her a smile before he picked up the paper and started to scan the articles; he didn’t need to read the menu.

After giving his friend a long-suffering look, Curry glanced around the busy cafe. Everyone looked like they were enjoying their food. Satisfied that no one seemed at all interested in either of the two strangers, he perused the menu intently and glanced up as the waitress returned.

“So, gentlemen, have you made up your minds yet?”

That was all the encouragement Curry needed. “That stew sounded mighty good; think I'll have a bowl of that – with some of the cornbread. How 'bout the fried chicken - what comes with that?”

“Mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, biscuits -”

“Okay, that'll be fine...an' how about pie? What kind do you have?”

“Let's see,” she wrinkled her brow in thought, “today we have apple and peach... oh, and there's also some delicious cherry cobbler; it's still warm from the oven.”

“I'll try the cobbler, I guess. Bet it's not as good as my ma used to make,” he muttered under his breath.

The waitress turned to leave.

“Uh, ma'am, wait a minute - you didn't take his order,” Curry gestured towards the man seated across from him.

His order? You mean all that food – I’m sorry, I mean...” Embarrassment flooded her cheeks, causing them to flush an even rosier shade of pink. A stricken expression on her face, the flustered girl fell silent as she looked from one man to the other.

Taking pity on the poor waitress, Heyes lowered the paper and flashed his dimpled grin at her, “It's okay, ma'am, happens all the time. You see, Thaddeus here, why he’s just a growing boy. I think I'll try the fresh fish and whatever comes with it.”

The waitress sent Heyes a grateful look and turned to leave, only to be stopped once again by Curry's voice.

“Oh, an’ could you bring a glass of milk with that cobbler? You can't have cobbler without milk now, can you?”

Heyes cast an amused glance towards his cousin, who was oblivious to the turmoil he was causing the young woman. She backed away slowly, then turned around and practically fled into the safety of the kitchen.

Heyes returned to his newspaper and as he skimmed the last page a headline caught his attention. 'Vaccine For Rabies Discovered.' As he read through the article, Heyes was transported halfway across the world to France and into the laboratory of Louis Pasteur. It was July 6, 1885, and Pasteur had just tested his pioneering rabies treatment on man for the first time. The outlaw paused. July 6th? That was just a few months ago!

He marveled at the brilliance of the man as he continued to read the rest of the article. After mastering his method of vaccination, Pasteur had also developed vaccines against chicken cholera, anthrax and swine…Heyes' brow furrowed as he sounded out the last word, e-ry-sip-e-las. The article went on to say it had something to do with pigs...whatever it was. This was an quite an important event in the medical world; something many people would benefit from, this man's discovery. Rabies would no longer be the death threat it now was.

“Hey- uh, Joshua! Are you listenin' to me?” Irritation evident in his tone, Curry reached across the table and pulled the newspaper down so he could see his partner's face.

Still distracted, Heyes murmured, “Hmm? What was that, Thaddeus?”

Curry heaved a sigh. “Nothin’, nothin’ important, I guess.”

Heyes glanced up. “Sorry, I was just reading this really interesting story about rabies -”

“That's nice, you read all the stories you want, here comes that waitress with our food - I'm gonna eat!” And true to his word, as soon as the plates were put in front of him, Kid tucked in with gusto, savoring each and every mouthful.

After a full moment of watching his cousin, Heyes laid down the paper, picked up his fork and began to eat his own food. It was the first meal they hadn't had to cook themselves in the past week. The trout, light and flaky, almost melted in the outlaw's mouth. The green beans and potatoes were seasoned just right and the golden cornbread completed the meal. He couldn't remember when a meal had tasted better.

Kid was enjoying his food just as much, if not more, than his partner. The venison stew hit the spot, warming his stomach. The fried chicken disappeared in the blink of an eye, as did the potatoes, green beans and cornbread. Picking up a biscuit, Curry smeared butter across it and took a huge bite. Looking up as he chewed, he made eye contact with Heyes, who had leaned back in his chair, arms folded across his chest.

“What?” Kid mouthed around the biscuit.

Heyes grinned. “Nothing...just relaxing and watching you. It sure does a body good to see how much you enjoy eating. It also makes me wonder where it all goes.”

“Funny, Joshua, very funny!” Curry took another bite of the biscuit. “Sometimes I wonder at all the things you wonder about!”

“Well, one of us has to wonder. If one of wasn't wondering, then I'd wonder why we weren't wondering.”

Curry pulled the cobbler in front of him and took a big mouthful before he replied. “You know, sometimes you don't make much sense.”

“Yeah, it does kind of make you wonder…doesn't it?” Heyes grinned at the pained look he received. “C'mon, finish up that cobbler and let's get going while there's still some daylight left.”

Curry drained the glass of milk. “I am done!” An’ I was right, ‘bout that cobbler, he added to himself, It didn't even come close to the ones my ma used to make! He stood up, put his hat on his head and looked down at his partner who was still seated at the table.

“Whatcha waitin' on, Joshua? C’mon, let's get goin'!”

Heyes shook his dark head and followed his cousin out the door. “Next stop, Medicine Bend.”

The two men mounted up and were soon on their way. Their bellies full, each one was preoccupied with his own thoughts as they traveled once more along the rocky road.

Later that afternoon, they entered the town of Medicine Bend. Heading straight for the office of Mr. Baker, they tethered their horses out front and made their way inside.

“Mr. Baker is expecting us, I believe,” Heyes smiled at the receptionist as both men removed their hats.

“Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones?” she inquired after consulting a piece of paper on her desk.

“Yes, I'm Joshua Smith and this is my partner, Thaddeus Jones, ma'am.”

“I'm Miss Johnson. If you gentlemen will wait here just a moment, I'll inform Mr. Baker that you have arrived.”

Heyes nodded.

Kid walked over to a chair, eased himself down into it, then leaned back and closed his eyes.

Heyes turned to look at him. “You okay?”

“Yep,” Curry replied with eyes still closed, “Guess I'm still a bit full from lunch.”

“A bit?” Heyes rolled his eyes at the understatement but was saved from making any further comments by the return of Miss Johnson.

“Mr. Baker will see you now, if you'll come with me this way, gentlemen...”

Heyes turned to follow her.

A reluctant Curry heaved himself out of the chair and wiped a hand across his sweat-beaded brow. Upon joining his partner to stand in front of Mr. Baker's desk, he realized that the headache he'd been fighting all afternoon had not let up. When Heyes shot him a questioning look, his answer was a desultory shrug of his shoulders.

“Well, gentlemen, I must say, you’ve come highly recommended. Lom Trevors said I could rely on you for your complete...uh, your full discretion in this matter.”

“Yes sir, you can definitely count on us for keeping this matter private. We've done many such jobs for Sheriff Trevors and we've never let him down yet.”

“Well, that's wonderful to hear gentlemen; just wonderful. You see, I actually have two jobs instead of one and I was in hopes that you would be able to fulfill both obligations…that is, if you two would be willing to split up and go in opposite directions. Would that be a possibility, Mr. Smith? Mr. Jones?”

After exchanging a quick look with his partner, Heyes smiled. “It could be a possibility - if the price were right, Mr. Baker.”

“Oh, but of course. How about $500 each, after you have returned to Medicine Bend with the receipts? Would that meet with your approval?”

“Would you mind if I discuss this with my partner in private? We just need to clear up a few small details before we accept your generous offer.”

“Perfectly understandable; no problem at all. You can use the empty office just down the hall a few doors, if you'd like. I'll be right here waiting for your answer.”

Heyes left the office with his cousin trailing behind slowly.

Kid pulled the door shut behind him as he entered, then turned and locked it before walking over to stand by the window. He stared at the street outside. “I don't like it, Heyes.” He rubbed absently at his left wrist with his thumb as he spoke.

“You never do. How many times -”

“Every time we split up, something bad happens!” Curry snapped.

“Not every time, just some of the time. Even you and I can only beat the odds so long.”

Curry reached up to rub the back of his neck. “So, guess that means we're gonna take the jobs,” he muttered with resignation. “Split up an' meet back here say, in what, two weeks?”

Heyes grinned. I won that round pretty easy. “Well now, that all depends.”

“On what?” Curry turned around to face him.

“On the two places we're going to be delivering those papers; might take more than two weeks. We'll know for sure when Mr. Baker tells us, but first we need to tell him that we've agreed to take both jobs.”

“Fine, Heyes, you tell him. Let's jus’ get this over an' done with - an’ don't even try to convince me of anythin' else, I'm not in the mood for listenin'!” Curry unlocked the door, gave it an impatient jerk to pull it open and then exited without a backward glance, leaving his partner to stare after him with a troubled expression on his face.

A moment later, Heyes walked back into Mr. Baker's office and, after getting all the instructions, went in search of his partner. It didn't take him long. Kid was sitting on a bench right outside the office door, arms folded, glaring at the ground in front of him.

“You want to tell me what's wrong?”

“I shouldn't have to. It's the same argument I have every time...nothin's changed, you're still not gonna listen, so why bother?”

Heyes sat down beside his partner. “I am listening,” he said patiently, “but so far I haven't heard anything to keep us from doubling our money by doing the two jobs. You have any ideas on how to earn $500 in a week or two for doing nothing more than delivering papers? If you do, you just let me know right now and I'll go right back in there and tell Mr. Baker you've got another job.”

Curry remained silent for a few moments, all the while wishing his head didn't throb so much and that he could make the other bad feeling disappear. The feeling that kept telling him that something was definitely going to go wrong if they split up; it always did, despite Heyes' optimistic attitude. He straightened up and spoke without looking at his partner.

“You know I don't, so why bother askin'?” he grumbled and heaved another resigned sigh. “So where do we have to deliver these important papers to?” Mentally crossing his fingers in the hope that, for a change, it wouldn't be too far.

“Well, once again, that depends,” Heyes said cheerfully.

Casting his friend a sideways glance, Curry eyed him with suspicion. “Depends on what?

“Well, it all depends on who goes where...I think we should flip a coin. One trip will take maybe a week, the other about a week and a half to two weeks.” Heyes produced a coin out of his pocket and tossed it into the air. “You call it.”

“Heads…I guess. Doesn't really matter, I never -”

Deftly catching the coin and covering it with his hand, Heyes paused for a dramatic moment before raising his hand to reveal it.

“Heads? Curry stared at the coin laying on the back of his cousin's hand in disbelief. “I won? I don't believe it - you mean I actually won a coin toss?”

“Well, one day it was bound to happen; guess that means you get the shorter trip, Kid.”

His mood improving a bit, Curry grinned. “It's about time! An’ it’s a sure bet I'm gonna chose that shorter trip. I'll be waitin’ on youfor a change an’ I know jus’ how I'm gonna spend that time waitin’, too - sleepin’, eatin’, poker an’ a pretty face!”

Heyes returned his partner’s grin as he pocketed the two-headed coin. Kid deserves a break and it wouldn’t hurt to let him think he won fair and square. “So we'll get us some food, stock up for the trips and get started early in the morning, right?”

“Yep, sounds like a plan. How about if you take care of the horses an’ I'll get our room?”

“Fine with me,” Heyes nodded. “Come on down afterwards and we'll head on over to the diner.”

The two men separated to take care of their respective jobs.

Heyes had long finished giving the liveryman his instructions and had been waiting around restlessly for some time. Maybe he'd better go find his partner; surely he hadn't gotten into trouble already? His first stop was at the desk. The hotel clerk confirmed that indeed a Mr. Jones had checked in over an hour ago, and no, he hadn't seen him come down.

After getting the room number and a key, Heyes proceeded up the stairs, wondering again if something had happened. Tapping on the door but not getting any response, he tried the knob, surprised to find it unlocked and eased the door open. He was even more surprised to see his missing partner sprawled face down across the bed.

“Thaddeus?” he called out. When there was still no answer, Heyes pushed the door closed, crossed the room and touched his partner lightly on the shoulder. “Hey, Kid…” And although he had anticipated Curry’s response, Heyes still backed away, hands held up, chuckling at his partner's lightning-fast draw. “Hey, relax, it's just me...I was beginning to wonder what you had gotten yourself into; you didn't say you were going to take a nap, sleepyhead. Riding the trail getting to be a bit too much for a Kid like you?”

Shoving his gun back into his holster, Curry's face bore a sheepish grin. “Maybe; I was jus’ gonna rest a bit...” he stifled a yawn. “Horses all taken care of?”

His face still sporting a huge grin, Heyes nodded. “They've been fed, watered and are getting ready for bed even as we speak. You sure you're okay?” He reached out a hand as if to feel his cousin's forehead, but Curry pulled back with an annoyed look before he could make contact.

“I told you - I'm fine!” he growled. “Jus’ a bit of a headache, that's all. Now, go away an’ leave me alone, will you?” He swung his legs off the bed and onto the floor. “Didn't I hear you say somethin' 'bout eatin'?”

Heyes turned and opened the door. “I knew you'd be fine once you remembered about food; come on, I'm a bit hungry myself.” He made his way outside into the hallway.

Curry made to follow, but when he stood up, the room started to spin, causing his stomach to churn and his head to throb even worse. Closing his eyes and clutching the bedpost for support, he raised a shaky hand to his face. What's goin' on? he wondered.

He had to be okay, or else they'd lose that $500! “Probably jus’ too much sun today, that's all. I'll jus’ get somethin’ to eat an’ I bet I'll feel jus’ fine.” He opened his eyes slowly, relieved to see everything was back in its place and no longer spinning wildly around the room.

Heyes poked his head back around the open door. “You going to stand there all afternoon dreaming or are you coming with me to get something to eat?”

“Right behind you, partner.” Curry reached down to carefully pick up his hat and followed his partner down the stairs.


Heyes was playing poker, but his mind wasn't on it. He kept going back over the events that had transpired that evening. To begin with, despite his claim to be hungry, Kid had barely touched his food. Oh, he had put on a great show of making it look like he was eating, but it was really more like pushing the food around on his plate from one point to another instead of putting it into his mouth. That fact alone was enough to cause Heyes to wonder. Next, the man passed on dessert, merely saying that he was too full.

Finally, to round off the evening, they had barely been in the saloon for more than fifteen minutes when Curry had risen abruptly from the poker table, smiled apologetically at the pretty young thing that had been sitting in his lap, tossed his cards down on the table and announced that it wasn’t his night and that he was out.

Casting Curry a questioning glance, all Heyes had received in reply was an apologetic shrug and a view of his partner's back as he disappeared through the batwing doors. Heyes finished out the hand, managing to win the pot and wondered if he should continue to play or follow Kid and attempt to find out what was going on.

“If I push too hard, he’ll only get more defensive, more stubborn and then I’ll never find out,” he reasoned. “Maybe he just needs some rest; I'll wait and see how he feels when I go up to the room tonight.”

Focusing his concentration back on the game, Heyes continued to do quite well. So well, in fact, that the other poker players grumbled and were quite vocal when he finally pushed back his chair and announced he was done for the night.

“I'll be back in less than two weeks fellas; keep practicing and I'll give you another chance to win back some of your hard-earned money!” he grinned. He picked up his winnings, downed the last of his drink and then headed over to the hotel.

When Heyes entered the darkened room and heard the loud snores that emanated from the bed, he had serious doubts as to whether Curry would have heard the Devil's Hole Gang blowing up a safe - even if Kyle used dynamite - with all the racket he was making.

Once again his partner was sprawled out in the bed, this time face up, one arm thrown across his face, the other wrapped in a protective manner around his middle. Trying to make as little noise as possible, Heyes stripped down to his henley and long johns, and then eased into bed, squeezing himself into the little space Curry had left him.

“Good thing I think you need your beauty sleep, partner, else you'd be pickin' yourself up off the floor!” he grumbled. Grabbing the blanket with both hands and tugging it towards him, bit by bit, Heyes finally managed to get his half, but just barely.

“Honestly, the things I do for you, Kid...” Heyes muttered as he reached out to turn down the lamp. As another snore threatened to shatter the windows, Heyes turned back towards his cousin.

“Well, I'm glad at least oneof us is getting some sleep; you’re as loud as a grizzly bear in hibernation!” Heyes grumbled before he grabbed his pillow and buried his head beneath it, holding it tight against him with both hands. He even tried plugging his ears with his fingers, but it was all to no avail. Raising the pillow to aim a glare at Curry, Heyes released an exasperated sigh. It was going to be a long night...

The next morning, the two cousins - one exhausted and both out-of-sorts - glared at each other from across the room. Heyes had just opened all three window shades, pulling them down and releasing each one quickly so that it would go all the way to the top with a loud snap when it hit the wood frame. The bright morning sunlight streamed through the panes of glass and was shining full force right into Curry's face.

“Aw c'mon, Heyes!” he growled and rubbed his throbbing temples. “Why'd you do that for? Can't a man get any sleep 'round here?”

Sleep?” Heyes snapped with a scowl of his own. “Funny you should mention that, Kid. Since you're the only one who got any last night – I guess that makes you the expert on the subject, doesn't it?”

“Whaddya mean, 'I'm the only one who got any sleep?' You were sleepin' jus' fine in the bed right next to me the last time I looked.”

“You mean you actually woke up long enough to look? I don’t know when you could’ve done that - you were making enough noise to wake the dead! Why, I'm surprised you took time out to check on me! Me - the one who didn't get any sleep - which I might add, you'd have known if you'd reallytaken the time to notice!”

Both men were tired and edgy, but Curry had also had enough time to discover that if anything, he felt worse than he had the day before. All this arguing was making his head feel like it was going to explode! And now, he also had a throat that was scratchy and sore. Shoot, even my eyes hurt from the bright sunlight streaming into the room! His stomach was continuing its mutiny and all thoughts of breakfast caused him to want to retch.

And then Heyes had the nerve to accuse him of...somethin'... what? What was it Heyes said he'd done? Or was it somethin' he 'hadn't' done? Totally at a loss to remember, he looked at his glaring partner in confusion and admitted defeat. “Jus’ forget it, Heyes. Whatever it was, I'm sorry. It probably was my fault...it's this blasted headache,” Curry bowed his head and rubbed his temples with his fingers, “it jus’ won't go away!”

Upon hearing the pain in his partner’s words, Heyes' anger abated. If his cousin was still nursing that same headache from yesterday, it was no wonder he was in such a foul mood. “It’s okay, Kid; I’m sorry, too. And real sorry your head still hurts. Maybe getting out in the fresh air will help?” He cast his partner a shrewd look. “We have to leave right after we eat breakfast.”

Curry gulped and went a shade paler at Heyes' words. Swallowing again, he took a deep breath and turned away from his partner's watchful eyes. “Think I'd jus’ as soon get somethin' somewhere along the way.” He picked up a boot and started to put it on his foot.

Heyes eyed him a moment. “Well, guess you know when you're hungry. Okay, I'll go get some breakfast and then I'll meet you down by the livery stable, say in about an hour? You check our gear and supplies, make sure everything's ready so we can head on out.”

“Right.” Curry grabbed his shirt and shrugged his arms into the sleeves. Once that was accomplished, he started to work on the buttons, hoping Heyes would leave soon. I didn't know how much longer I'm gonna be able to pull off this bluff.

Staring at his cousin's back a moment longer, Heyes turned and left without another word.

Curry fell back on the bed and curled up into a tight ball. His stomach was in knots and the shooting pains in his head had just about driven him loco! Maybe some water would help? Sitting up cautiously, he made his way around the bed and picked up the pitcher to pour himself a cup. As the liquid flowed from the pitcher into the cup, his hand began to tremble. The water sloshed over the sides and a moment later the cup itself was on the floor.

Curry found himself staring at it, wondering why the sound of the water being poured had caused him to feel so odd. He kicked the cup across the room and dropped back onto the bed wearily. “I've never felt like this before; never heard of anyone feelin' this way, neither.” He glanced down at his wrist, where the raccoon had nipped him and pushed his sleeve up. The bite mark was a bit red, maybe a little puffy, but nothin' to be alarmed about. Okay, so if it wasn't that, what else could it be?

“I can’t waste any more time tryin’ to figure it out, I’ve gotta get downstairs an’ over to that livery before Heyes. I havta have my horse saddled an’ be sittin’ on it when he shows up. “I can't let him down - we need that money! There’s no way I’ll be able to fool him if I havta climb into that saddle with him watchin’ me.” It was going to take every ounce of his iron will and determina-tion to get it all done without arousing Heyes’ suspicions as it was.

Surely I can manage to get those papers delivered and get back with the receipt before anything worse happens, right? Grabbing their saddlebags, he started down the stairs slowly, taking them one at a time, keeping his mind focused on each step until he reached the bottom. Wiping the beads of sweat from his brow, he looked out the front door to measure the distance between the hotel and the stable.

He heaved a deep sigh. It might as well be a hundred miles, instead of jus' a hundred feet, the way I'm feelin'. After another deep breath, he began his trek across the street. Sure hope no one’s in a hurry to get past me, 'cos I don't think I’ve got the strength to move any faster than I already am!

The bright sunlight caused his head to pound even harder and eyes to water and sting. Resolutely he put one foot in front of the other, concentrating once again on reaching his goal. Making it to the stable door at last, he inched his way inside and leaned back against the wall, his breath coming in deep, panting gasps, as if he had been running instead of crawling at a snail's pace.

Thinking of his tedious trip across the dusty street and how long it had taken him reminded him of how bad his throat hurt. He tried to swallow enough saliva to ease the ache, but his mouth was too dry. An' I've still gotta get both horses saddled and be up on mine before Heyes gets here! he groaned. Curry forced himself to work, talking himself through each task until he was sitting in the saddle and could breath a sigh of relief. He had managed to pull it off, so far.

True, he felt like a wet rag and if someone had suddenly challenged him to a gunfight he would've probably lost. But for now, he was seated on his horse and with any luck he'd be saying good-bye to Heyes and be on his way soon. Now all he had to do was stay in the saddle until he was safely out of his cousin's sight. That and not be sick in front of him, he added with a deep sigh.His insides churning like a Kansas twister, he reached down into his saddlebag, scavenged around, found a piece of jerky and bit off a tiny piece with the hope that maybe it might help.

“I see you found something to eat.”

Jerking convulsively, and almost falling off his horse at the sound of Heyes' voice, Curry's reaction caused the animal to rear. It pawed the air and whinnied as Kid tugged at the reins in a valiant effort to calm the horse down while trying to keep his stomach from spewing its contents all over the place.

“Dontcha know you're not supposed to go 'round sneakin' up on people like that, Heyes?” Curry growled, “You spooked him! He could've thrown me an’ then we'd be out that $500 for sure!” he added, doing his best to stay in the saddle. “After all I’ve gone through to get here, I am not gonna fall off now!” he muttered under his breath.

“Whoa there, easy now, fella...” Heyes grabbed the animal's bridle, and shot his partner a warning look. “Why don't you yell my name a little louder?” he hissed, “I don't think the sheriff quite heard you!” He continued on in a normal tone, “And I wasn't sneaking up on anyone; I just walked in without making a lot of noise. Sorry I spooked you...and your horse.” Heyes couldn't help the grin that tugged at the corners of his mouth.

“Fine! Curry snapped, “Jus’ give me the papers an’ I'll take me – an’ my spooked horse – an’ git on outta here!” He winced in pain, feeling as if his eyeballs were going to pop right out of his head. If I don't get outta here soon...

Heyes tucked the papers into Curry's saddlebag and tied it shut. “You're to take these to Mr. Jerome Clark, over in Rocky Ridge - it's all written down on the top sheet of the papers. We'll meet up back here in Medicine Bend after the jobs are finished. Take it easy, Kid, and try to stay outta trouble - if you can.” Brown eyes looked up into blue, “You’re sure you're okay to ride? I mean -”

“Don't you worry none 'bout me Heyes, you jus’ remember to watch your back. I'll be right here waitin' on you when you get back.” Seeing the genuine concern on his cousin's face, Curry forced a smile to his. “Look, it's jus’ a headache; I'll be fine. Like you said, the fresh air will probably do me good.” Looking pointedly down at his partner he added, “You know, it'd sure be a lot easier for me to leave if you'd let go.”

Heyes released the horse's bridle. “See you in a few days.”

Curry wheeled his horse around and headed out into the sun, pulling his hat down even further to shield his eyes from the glare.

Heyes watched him leave before he climbed up and into the saddle and headed off in the opposite direction. He wouldn't reach his destination of Sidewinder's Gulch for a few days.

”Sure hope Kid's headache has disappeared and his mood's improved by the time we meet up again, or else we're going to be staying in separate rooms!”

Heyes put a gloved hand to his mouth as he yawned. “Well, we've got several days; he's bound to be in better spirits by then.”

After being out on the trail for two days, Curry had risen bright and early that morning so that he could be in Rocky Ridge by the time Mr. Clark opened his office. He was relieved to see a sign off to his right which declared the corner office to be that of Mr. Jerome Clark.

As luck would have it, Mr. Clark was so pleased with the speedy delivery of the paperwork that he asked Curry if he'd be willing to make one short trip out to one of the nearby ranches to delivery some very important papers that required signatures and had to be brought back to his office without delay. While Kid was at the ranch, he would be taking possession of a buckboard, which he would then drive back to Medicine Bend to deliver to Mr. Baker.

About to refuse, Curry was quick to shut his mouth when Mr. Clark added that there would be an extra $300 bonus if Mr. Jones would consider taking the job.

“How far away and how long will it take?” Curry asked, masking his true feelings behind a faint smile.

“It's only a few hours ride out and then, of course, there would be the ride back. You can tie your horse to the back of the wagon and give both of you a bit of a rest. You could complete the job all in one day if you left now and came straight back here after getting the paperwork signed. What do you say, Mr. Jones? Easy way to make $300!”

To his credit, Kid didn't hesitate. Instead, he answered, “You're right about that, Mr. Clark. Guess you'll be owin' me some money when I get back here later.” Once he was alone and could let his guard down, Curry released a deep sigh. What's one more day when I already feel this lousy? Guess the wagon will be better than sittin' on a horse, an' we can use the money...

That afternoon, it was a thoroughly exhausted, as well as a very out-of-sorts, Kid Curry that rode back into Rocky Ridge. To say it had been a difficult trip didn't even come close to how tough it had really been on him.

Somehow he had managed to survive long enough to make it back. Once I've delivered those papers, got that receipt in my hand, an' Mr. Clark's paid me the money I'm owed, I'm gonna head straight for the doc's office. There has to be something I can take to get rid of this daggone headache!

The truth of the matter was that, instead of getting better, the pain had increased in its intensity. And in addition, he still couldn't keep anything down, not even water. In fact, thoughts of water caused him to feel kind of strange...it was as if it had the power to scare him somehow. “The great Kid Curry - afraid of water!” he snorted in self-derision. Not understanding, but at this point no longer caring, Curry shook his head with caution, not wanting it to explode with those sharp pains that made him want to shoot something.

Saddle-sore and road-weary, he made his way inside the office, delivered the papers and received a signed receipt in return. After asking the way to the doctor's office, he stood outside and leaned weakly against the wall as he waited for the bout of dizziness to pass. Taking a deep breath and keeping in the shade as much as possible, he arrived at his destination feeling drained.

After a quick glance at the closed door, Curry groaned when he read the name inscribed on it. “Dr. Seymour Coffin.” It figured. With a name like that an' the way my luck has been runnin'...Well, they had said he was the only doctor around so, despite the man's name and his own misgivings, Curry knew he'd be going inside.

He took a deep breath, put his hand on the knob and turned it. Once he had stepped into the room, he pulled the door shut behind him and waited until his eyes had adjusted to the dimmer light. When they did, he saw a woman seated behind a desk and a roomful of patients in chairs waiting their turn to be seen.

The woman looked up, her brow raised in inquiry as he approached the desk. Her hazel eyes took in his sorry condition in an instant. The young man who stood before her was far too pale; drops of beaded moisture were making trails down a face, which had a gaunt, pinched look. His eyes appeared sunken and dull, his gait unsteady and weak; in fact, he looked about ready to collapse. “May I help you, sir?”

“I need to see the doc...” Curry looked around the room. “Guess, I'll be after all these other folks, huh?”

“Well, it shouldn't be too long of a wait, Mister - ?”

“Jones, Thaddeus Jones, ma'am.”

“If you'll just have a seat, Mr. Jones, Dr. Coffin will be with you soon.”

Kid winced at the name and then turned around to survey the room. Every chair was taken; it was standing room only. Knowing he wouldn't be able to remain upright very much longer, he turned back to face her. “If it's okay, ma’am, I think I'll jus’ wait outside until it's my turn.”

She smiled in apology. “I'll be sure to let you know, Mr. Jones. We're not usually this busy, but we've had an unusual number of the townspeople sick lately and with Dr. Coffin being the only doctor around...well, I'm sure you understand.”

Curry heaved a deep sigh before he replied, “Unfortunately for me, ma’am, I do.” With a tip of his hat, he made his way outside and dropped onto the nearest bench, glad of its solid support. Pulling his bandana loose, he wiped his brow and undid the top buttons of his shirt, welcoming the cool air against his skin. Licking lips that were dry and cracked, he wished he was in the saloon across the street, with a beer in front of him...He leaned forward suddenly, clutching his stomach.

”Oh, please, not now…I can't be sick anymore!” he groaned. He didn't think he had anything left to part with, he'd retched so much already. After several minutes of taking slow, deep breaths he was relieved when the feeling passed. “Okay, that does it, no more thinkin' of food...or beer,” he fervently vowed.

Still holding his hand across his middle, he leaned back against the wall, closed his eyes and released an exhausted, shuddering sigh. The next thing he knew, a hand was on his shoulder and a voice was calling his name.

“Mr. Jones? Mr. Jones!” The hand shook him slightly. “Mr. Jones, the doctor will see you now.”

He swallowed with difficulty and opened his eyes. The face of the woman from inside finally swam into focus.

“Mr. Jones, would you like some help?” She thought the young man looked even worse than he had a few hours ago.

“Uh, no...ma’am, I don't think so. I can manage by myself.” I hope, he added silently as he rose to his feet.

She waited until he had gained his balance and walked a few steps on his own before she turned to follow him inside. The woman moved ahead of him and led him to an open door. “Doctor Coffin is right inside.”

Curry gave a slight nod and entered the room.

She smiled and once Curry was all the way inside she pulled the door shut behind him.

He leaned back against the door. Wish I'd never come here. Who's stupid idea was this? he wondered and then supplied the answer. All yours, Kid - all yours! Can’t blame Heyes for this one…

His eyes darted to the gray-haired man wearing glasses who was looking at a sheaf of papers which he clutched in gnarled, shaking hands. The papers made a rattling sound which echoed loudly in the small room. Still leaning against the door for support, Curry waited, uncertain what to do next.

A moment later the bespectacled man turned to look at him. “Well, don't just stand there lollygaggin' around, sonny; git on up on that there table!”

Curry eyed the table like it was a rattlesnake waiting to strike. He had never been fond of going to the doctor, ever since he was a child. He edged a bit closer and put a hand cautiously on the end of it. Maybe I don't really need anythin’…I feel better already...

“It's just a table, boy - it won't bite! Now git on up there so I can examin' you. An' take off those shirts you're a-wearin'; a doctor can't work on you when you’re a-wearin all those clothes!”

Reluctantly obeying the doctor’s instructions and removing his shirt and henley, Kid stood in the room holding them, along with his hat, in his hands. There's still time; all I havta do is walk on out that door -

“Just toss 'em over there,” the physician gestured towards a chair. “You're not gonna need 'em for awhile. An' while you're gettin' up on the table, you can start in a-tellin' me what's wrong with you.”

Curry sighed as he perched on the edge of the table and looked at the doctor. “I thought that was why I was here, so you could tell me what's wrong?”

Doctor Coffin directed a censorial glare at his patient. “Now listen here, ya young whippersnapper - I don't have time for such nonsense! I meant I want you to tell me what you feel like; what's been goin' on that makes you think you need to see a doctor.”

“Well, doc, it all started about a week or two ago –“

What all started?”

“At first, I jus’ had this sore throat, an’ then it got worse, an’ then I was jus’ kinda sick at my stomach, you know, like the grippe. Oh, an' I got this really bad headache in the beginnin' an’ it jus’ seems to keep gettin' worse an’ worse. Sometimes I get dizzy, mostly when I stand up, an’ now I can't keep food or water down-”

A look of grave concern upon his face, the physician interrupted him again. “Jus' how long's it been since you were able to keep somethin' down in your gullet?”

Kid thought for a moment. “Guess I had a little bit of jerky a few days ago... longer than that for anything to drink. I know this might sound kinda loco doc, but even the thought of drinking water makes me feel sick.”

The wizened old man looked at him sharply. “Hmm, ya say all this started over a week ago?”

Curry nodded.

“Can you think of any other ailments?”

Ailments? Like what, doc? You think you know what's wrong with me?”

“I won't know 'til I finish examinin' you. Has anything else been bothering you?”

Again Curry had to think before he answered. “Well, sunlight makes my head an’ eyes hurt somethin’ fierce. My body aches like I've been run over by a herd of stampeding cattle, an’ I feel like I could jus’ fall into bed an’ sleep for a couple of weeks...other than that, I feel jus’ great,” he added wryly. The corners of the outlaw’s mouth turned up in a weak smile as he waited for the doctor to speak.

“You say all this came on you all at once? Nothin' strange happened before that?”

Strange? Uh, well...no, I guess not, doc.”

“Hmm, well now...that does sound kinda strange, if you ask me. An' you are askin' me. Well, sit on back an' I'll give you a once-over.” The doctor put his stethoscope against Kid's chest and listened. “Okay, son, take a couple of deep breaths...”

Curry did as he was told. He remained silent although there were many questions he wanted answered.

The doctor pursed his lips and made some muttering noises. He then put the instrument against Kid's back and listened again. This was followed by a shake of his head. “Tsk, tsk…” he muttered.

Concern and trepidation in his voice, Curry gulped and looked at Dr. Coffin anxiously. “What is it, doc?” He stretched out a hand to touch the doctor’s arm. “Tell me – is it somethin’ serious? I -”

“I don't know yet - how in the blazes can I tell you when I haven't finished givin' you your examination? What I can tell you is that what I'm hearin' ain't good, young fella. Are you sure nothin' else happened to you in the past few weeks? Think real hard…Anything…Anything at all? Somethin' that might help me to -” The doctor broke off suddenly and grabbed Kid's arm. “Jumpin' Jehoshaphat!” he snapped, looking at the man's wrist, “what in the blue blazes happened here?”

Curry sucked in his breath as he looked down at the appendage the doctor was holding. That couldn’t be his arm - could it? The raccoon bite had turned fire-engine red and the flesh was now swollen. Not only that, there was an angry red line running from the bite upwards towards his elbow. He raised stricken curry-blue orbs to look straight into the eyes of the physician. “That didn't look like that a couple of days ago, doc!” he protested.

“Well, that there, now that looks kinda infected, if you ask me. What did you say happened to it?”

“I...uh, I didn't say...yet.” Curry’s voice had dropped to a whisper by the last word. His head was throbbing even worse and the room was beginning to spin around; feeling swimmy-headed, he couldn't fight back the feeling of nausea any longer. Turning away from the doctor, he wrapped his arms around his stomach but, as empty as it was, Curry fell victim to the dry heaves. When at last he managed to stop and sit up, the doctor handed the outlaw a wet cloth.

Curry reached out a shaky hand and took it as he murmured his thanks to the man and mopped at his face.

“Didn't you think this might've been something important enough to let me know about? What kind of animal got a hold of you?”

“What makes you think it was an animal?” Curry asked guardedly.

“I don’t think - I know!” He reached out to grab hold of Kid's arm again. “These are teeth marks, boy! Now quit dilly-dallyin' 'round an' tell me what bit you!”

“A raccoon,” Kid whispered.

The silence in the small room was deafening. The doctor dropped Curry's arm like it was a hot potato and took a step backwards. “A coon? You don't say...” He looked at the outlaw thoughtfully. “About how long ago was that, would you say?” he queried sharply.

“A while back, see -”

A while back? An' you're just now seein' a doctor about it? Why'd you wait so daggone long for?”

“I'm tryin' to tell you, Doc! The raccoon wasn't actin' strange; he didn't mean to bite me - it was an accident -”

An accident? No animal bites somebody by accident! Nosirree, Bob! I'd bet you a hundred dollars that the 'coon had the rabies...an' by the looks of it, now you do, too!” The doctor stopped speaking and took another step back, while keeping his eyes glued on his patient.

“Rabies?” Curry breathed in disbelief. There was a look of fear in his eyes when he added, “Are you sure? I mean -”

“Course I'm sure!” the doctor declared, bristling with indignity, “You've got all the signs of it - in fact, I believe you're in the final stages of the disease. I can't help you now; if you’d have come to me sooner…” his voice trailed off. “You don't have much time, son. An' what time you do have left, you're not gonna be spendin' it here with me!

“The best thing for you to do now is to get on your horse, ride outta town an' find yourself someplace where you can be alone. A place you can hole up in an' let nature take its course. Somethin' else I can tell you for sure, is that no one ‘round here is goin' to wanna watch you die - it's an awful slow an' painful way to go! So, you'd best take my advice an' get goin' - the sooner, the better - before anyone else finds out an' they run you outta town!”

Curry had sat like a statue made of stone, listening to the physician's dire words as he predicted what was about to happen. Digesting the information and still in shock, he glanced down at his wrist as despair began to work its way in.

Rabies? Is this the way it's all gonna end? Unable to defend myself against an enemy that was invisible an' didn’t fight fair? Funny, but I'd always figured I'd be standin’ on a street in some town, facin’ some hotshot gunslinger who thought they could outdraw me, or at a poker table defendin' Heyes...not hidin', cowerin' on the ground, writhing around outta my head with pain... Hell, my gun ain't gonna be of any help to me at all in this kinda fight! Curry looked up to meet the physician's frightened eyes. “Isn't there anythin' you can do, Doc?”

The old man shook his head.

“Doc...please?” Desperation had crept into Kid's voice. “There's gotta be somethin’ -

“I wish there was. I can't do anythin', 'cept give you some powders to make it easier when- when the time comes. They'll make you a bit sleepy, an' I guess that should help some. I'm sorry son, that's the best I can offer you.”

Curry nodded and his shoulders sagged in defeat. No sense in beatin' a dead horse... “If you'll hand over those powders, doc, guess I'll be on my way.”

The doctor stared at him briefly before he turned to reach into the cabinet behind him. “I'm awful sorry I had to be the one to give you such bad news. Is there anyone you'd like me to get in touch with for you? You got any kin I should notify?”

Only one name sprang to Kid’s mind. Heyes. The only family he had left. But his cousin hadn't even made it back to Medicine Bend yet and probably wouldn't for several days. Curry shook his head. “No, doc, I don't have anyone. I used to have family, but...” he swallowed the sudden lump in his throat with difficulty.

“Well, let's jus’ say I wouldn't want anyone to have to watch me d-” He stopped, not wanting to say the damning word aloud. “It's gonna be hard enough on me, without worryin' that someone I care about is sittin' ‘round watchin'...No,” he whispered, a note of finality in his voice, “there's no one to tell.”

The doctor held out the packets of medicine. “Add one of these to a cup of water an' drink it down all at once, without stoppin'. It tastes pretty bad but it'll ease your pain an' make you forget about...things…for a bit.”

Curry stood, and a wave of dizziness washed over him, causing him to grip the sides of the table for support. When it had passed, he reached out and took the powders and stuffed them into his pocket. While he dressed, his mind was busy thinking.

Sure glad I’ve got that delivery wagon to drive, not so sure I could sit a horse an' make it very far…He reached out to shake the doctor's hand, pressing some money into it as he did so. “So long, doc, and thanks for the medicine.”

Looking down at the coins he held in his hands, the doctor’s voice was quiet. “I sure wish I had better news to give you, son.”

Curry nodded and then turned and left the room.

“Good day, Mr. Jones,” the receptionist smiled as he walked past, but the man was so filled with anguish he never even noticed.

Finding himself outside, Curry was surprised to see that the sun was still shining brightly in the sky overhead. The townspeople were going about their daily tasks. No one gave him a second glance. Not a single one of them knew that he had just received news that had altered the course of his life in the space of a few minutes...

Or the little bit of what's left of my life, he silently amended his thoughts. Placing his hat gently on his aching head, he squared his shoulders, headed for the supply wagon and hauled himself gingerly up and into the driver's seat. Grabbing the reins, he called out to the horses as he maneuvered the buckboard down the crowded street and headed out of the town, never once looking back.

Heyes sported a grin as he soaked his tired, aching muscles in the tub of hot water and puffed away on his cigar in complete contentment. Everything had gone as smooth as silk and all according to plan. He'd delivered his papers, got the signed receipt, returned to Medicine Bend and picked up his pay only to discover that, somewhat to his surprise, somehow he'd made it back before his partner.

At first he'd been a bit concerned and decided to go see Mr. Baker and find out if he had heard anything. Heyes was ushered right in to Mr. Baker's office and the man greeted him with a smile.

“I had a feeling you'd be over to see me before too long, Mr. Smith. I'm going to guess that you're looking for your friend, Mr. Jones, correct?”

Heyes returned the smile. “Looks like you're right on both counts, Mr. Baker. I thought Thaddeus would beat me back here by at least a few days.”

“Well, he would have, if Mr. Clark hadn't given him the chance to make another $300 by delivering some papers to a couple of his clients just a few towns over from Rocky Ridge. I believe Mr. Clark said it wasn't more than a few hours ride there and back to Rocky Ridge, so Mr. Jones shouldn't be too far off schedule. I received a telegraph asking me to explain the situation to you when I saw you again.”

“Guess I'll just have to find a way to occupy my time while I'm waiting,” Heyes grinned and after saying good-bye to Mr. Baker, he headed over to the hotel to get a bath. “Well, Kid, with that extra money you’re bringing in, we’ll be adding another $300 to the pot!”

Heyes’ smile grew broader.This was the most money they'd had all at one time in quite a while and they were going to enjoy spending it! Knowing it would be at least three or four days before Kid arrived back in Medicine Bend, Heyes settled into an easy routine while he waited. Wake up, eat a leisurely breakfast, take his horse out for some exercise, eat dinner, relax on the boardwalk and watch the daily afternoon rigors of the townspeople, or go up to his room and read the new book he'd discovered in the General Store.

He had been pleasantly surprised to come across the book, “Marguerite de Valois” by Alexandre Dumas. He'd remembered the name from several other books of the author's that he'd read and this one promised to be just as good, if not better. While still in the store, he'd opened the book to a page at random and eagerly started to read as he leaned against the counter. After only a few paragraphs, he was hooked! Even Kid would like this one.

It had such a fantastic plot...the King is poisoned on accident by his own mother, who had put the poison on the pages of a hunting book that she gave to someone else she wanted to kill. But instead, the king borrows the book, and when he licks his finger to turn the pages, he gets poisoned. The poison causes the blood to come seeping out of his pores...Heyes had snapped the book shut and carried it up to the storekeeper. Yep, he'd have to read some of the gory parts to his cousin for sure; Kid would really like that.

On some days, often after either reading or sitting on the boardwalk, he'd catch a nap, and wake up just in time to eat supper and join in one of the many poker games to while away the evening hours. It was a nice routine, but after the fourth day of spending his time in such a lazy manner, Heyes began to feel like a cat on a hot tin roof.

When nightfall arrived and there was still no sign of his partner, he turned in earlier than usual. As he stretched out on the bed and tucked his hands behind his head, there was a worried frown upon his face.

When noon rolled around the next day, Heyes’ restlessness increased and he began to pace up and down the boardwalk, keeping a watchful eye out for his partner. Every time a wagon came around the corner he'd pause and wait with mounting impatience for it to draw near enough for him to make out the driver.

After the fifth such occurrence, he stepped out into the street and strode purposely towards the livery stable, trying to reassure himself that he was worrying needlessly, even as he continued to saddle his horse. “I'm sure nothing's gone wrong; in fact, he'll probably ride into town before I even get out of this barn.”

But as Heyes swung himself up and into the saddle and rode out into the bright sunlight, he realized he was going to have to ride further than the edge of town to find Curry. Upon reaching the outskirts of Medicine Bend, he paused as he raised a hand to shield his eyes against the sun. Scanning the nearby countryside, he searched for a sign - anything that moved - but everything was quiet and still, not a dust cloud for miles.

Wheeling the animal about, Heyes went to the hotel and packed up both his and Curry's belongings, stuffing them impatiently into their saddlebags. Standing on the boardwalk, Heyes searched one final time before he stepped down into the street and tied the saddlebags behind his saddle. With an impatient sigh, Heyes grabbed the reins, climbed back into the saddle once again, kneed his horse into a trot and went in search of his missing partner.

Hannibal Heyes arrived in Rocky Ridge two days later. There had been no sign of Kid anywhere along the way. The two towns he'd passed through on his way here had yielded no results; no one had seen a man fitting his cousin's description either driving a wagon or on horseback, in the last week. It was as if Curry had just vanished into thin air!

Frustrated, tired and edgy, Heyes drew up in front of Mr. Clark's office. Tying his horse to the hitching post, he wasted no time in hurrying inside. A few moments later he exited with a troubled look on his face.

With an abrupt pivot, he crossed the street and entered the general store. Within moments he was again standing outside. In addition to the frown, he now wore a puzzled scowl on his face. He glanced across the street and quickly located what he was looking for. Walking with rapid steps, he looked neither to his right nor to his left; his thoughts were competing with each other in his head as he tried to make sense of it all.

So far, everything he'd learned clearly showed that Curry had left Rocky Ridge, driving a wagon. And that had been over four days ago! Four days - so where in the hell was he? Maybe this next stop would shed some light on the answer. Entering the office he was greeted by a smiling woman seated at the desk.

“Good afternoon, sir, may I help you?” This devilish-looking and handsome man certainly didn't look like he needed a doctor, in fact he –

Heyes pushed the hat back off his head with thinly veiled impatience. “I need some information...about a friend of mine. I was told that he may have come here to see the doctor, about four days ago.”

“What is your friend's name, Mister…?”

“Smith - Joshua Smith,” Heyes replied in a terse voice. “My partner's name is Thaddeus Jones. Was he here?”

“Mr. Jones? Oh, I see...”

Heyes watched with growing trepidation as the smile slowly disappeared from the woman’s face. He began to have a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach when he heard her say:

“Let me check to see if Dr. Coffin can see you now, Mr. Smith.”

Heyes' eyes widened at the physician’s name. He reached out to stop her as she would have walked past him. “Why do I need to see the doc? Is there something wrong?” he demanded angrily, “Something you can't tell me?” He couldn't help the feeling of fear that gripped him all of a sudden, causing a constricted feeling in his chest. He waited, tense and hardly daring to breathe, for her answer.

She looked down at the punishing grip he had on her arm, then in a voice that was quiet, but firm, answered, “Your friend was here to see the doctor, but I'm afraid I really can't answer your questions; you'll have to speak with him.”

With an apologetic look, Heyes released her arm and she moved away to knock on a nearby door. He watched as she disappeared inside, trying to push down the rising sense of panic that threatened him. Every sense in his body was screaming out. Something was wrong - very wrong - he could feel it!

Although he could hear the muffled murmur of voices behind the closed door, he was unable to make out what was being said. Just when he reached the point where he thought he might rush over and break it down, the door opened and the woman beckoned to him.

“If you'll step inside, Mr. Smith, the doctor would like to speak with you.” She gave him a sympathetic smile which did nothing to relieve any of his fears, for he was quick to notice that it didn't quite reach her eyes.

There was no masking his concern as he stepped inside the room and faced the last man to see his cousin alive before he left this town.

The doctor, who was standing near the window when Heyes entered the room, glanced up from the book he held in his hand. “Have a seat Mr....uh, Smith,” he said, his eyes indicating the lone chair in front of his desk.

“I don’t -“

The physician cut his protest short. “You're gonna want to be sitting when you hear what I’ve got to say.”

Heyes frowned, but walked forward and sank down into the chair, his eyes never leaving the doctor's face. His gut instincts were already on high alert, warning him - telling him to run while there was still time - before the doctor opened his mouth and started to speak again, but he didn’t. Instead, he swallowed the lump that had lodged itself in his throat, forced himself to relax and focused his attention on the doctor's voice.

“You claim that this Mr. Jones was your friend now, do you?” Dr. Coffin began and sat down opposite him.

“WAS?” Heyes shouted, “WHAT DO YOU MEAN WAS?” Without realizing it, he slid to the edge of the chair, his hands gripping the edge of it so hard his knuckles were white.

“Mr. Smith, you can save us both a whole lotta time an’ trouble if you don't go repeating everything I say! Now, all I was askin' was if Mr. Jones was anything more to you than jus' a friend?”

Heyes inhaled deeply before replying in a tone that had caused many braver men to cringe, “Mr. Jones – Thaddeus - is my friend.” After a slight pause he added, “And not only is he my friend, he's my partner – as well as my cousin. And now, YOU -” Heyes jumped to his feet and slammed the palm of his hand down on the desk.

Eyes wide in alarm, the startled doctor flinched and leaned back in his chair.

“…YOU are going to tell me what's going on - I've just about reached the end of my rope! I want to know why he came to see you and what you told him!”

“Young man, if you want to hear one more word, than you'd best sit yourself right back down in that chair there an' listen,” the doctor blustered, “Otherwise I'll have you thrown in jail an' you'll never find out about your friend!”

Heyes glared down at the man in front of him as he weighed his options. There was no need to bring the sheriff into this. He knew better than to draw to an inside straight; he'd have to do as the man said, or risk not learning the truth about Kid. Backing up to the chair, he sat down, his face still an angry mask as he waited for the doctor to speak.

“The reason why I asked, is that Mr. Jones told me he didn't have any kin. Yet, you say you're his cousin? Why'd he lie to me, I wonder?”

Although startled by the words, outwardly Heyes remained poker-faced. He cleared his throat, “Maybe if you'd tell me what you told him, I might be able to answer that question.” He leaned back, crossed his legs and casually folded his arms across his chest as he curbed the impulse to reach out, grab the little man by the throat and shake him until he forced the doctor to tell him what he wanted to know.

“Your cousin was a very sick man, Mr. Smith an’ -”

Despite his best intentions, Heyes shot forward again. His feet hit the floor with a thud as he again rose to tower over the man. “Would you stop that - you keep saying ‘was’ like he's already gone! Why in the hell would you think something like that? When Thaddeus left this town, all he had was a bad headache!” The frustrated outlaw glowered at the doctor, as if he dared the man to contradict him.

Doctor Coffin met his gaze with an expression of pity on his face. “Mr. Jones had more'n 'a bad headache.' He was bit by a rabid raccoon some time ago an’ when he came to see me, he was in the final stages of the disease, Mr. Smith.”

Once again shocked into silence by the physician’s words, Heyes sunk back down into the chair as he digested what he had just learned. A raccoon had bitten Kid? He was in the final stages of...what? He raised his head to stare at he doctor as if he were loco. “Is that what you told him - that he was going to...die? Because he was bitten by a raccoon who had rabies? How do you know? How could you be so sure?”

“Because that's what he told me.”

“Thaddeus told you that he'd been bitten by a rabid raccoon?”

“Well, no...not exactly. He only admitted that he'd been bitten by a raccoon.”

“But he didn't tell you it had rabies,” Heyes pressed, “did he?”

“He didn't have to!” the doctor snapped defensively. “I found the bite mark on his wrist. It was all infected an’ the poison was already makin’ its way up his arm -”

“Wait just a minute, Doc. You say he had a bite mark - an infected bite mark - and that's why you told him he had rabies?”

“No, of course not! He had all the other signs, too!”

Heyes pinned the doctor with a sharp look. “All what other signs?”

The doctor rattled them off as he counted them on his fingers. “First, he said it started with a bad headache an' a sore throat, then nausea an’ dizziness. Then he said bright lights an’ sunlight hurt his eyes. Next was the loss of his appetite, he even said he had a fear of water, then dehydration set in -”

Heyes held up a hand. “Whoa, Doc - are you telling me that Thaddeus had every single one of those symptoms?” He couldn't believe what he was hearing. Sure, Kid had befriended the animal, but he'd never said anything about getting bit. Heyes thought back, trying to remember how Kid had been acting. He did have a bad headache, but as for all those other signs? And if he did,why in the hell hadn't he said anything?

The doctor nodded his head. “He looked jus' terrible too - said he hadn't eaten or drank anythin' in 'bout four or five days. Poor fella, he could barely drag himself in here to see me.”

Heyes sighed. Knowing his cousin's fear of doctors, he must have been feeling mighty bad to come here alone. “And you're positive he has rabies?” He looked at the physician, hoping he would contradict him.

Unfortunately, the doctor nodded his head even more vigorously. “But that was over four days ago. By now he doesn't have anythin'. He's outta his misery an’ -”

“You crazy old coot! You don't know what you're talking about!” His brown eyes smoldering black with anger, Heyes stood up, towering over the man. “It takes longer than that to die of rabies - IF he even had them to begin with! Thaddeus would've only been bit about two weeks ago!”

Taken aback by the man's declaration, the doctor sank back in his chair. “Two weeks, you say? He said it was a while back - he made it sound like he'd been havin' those signs for a long time!”

“Well he didn't - and that means you were wrong! He's out there, alone - and scared - thinking he's about to die - all because of what you told him! Didn't you even think to check him out for anything else besides rabies?”

“There wasn’t any reason to! I found the bite an’ he told me himself how poorly he was feelin' – an' I could see with my own eyes how bad he looked. Why in tarnation would I think there was something else wrong with him?”

Heyes leaned forward and placed his hands flat against the desk in a valiant effort to keep from making the doctor one of his own patients. “WHY?” he shouted in fury, “I'LL TELL YOU WHY - BECAUSE YOU'RE A DOCTOR - THAT'S WHY! THAT'S WHAT DOCTORS ARE SUPPOSED TO DO - GIVE THEIR PATIENTS THE RIGHT INFORMATION AND TO HELP THEM GET WELL! ALL YOU'VE DONE IS SENTENCED AN INNOCENT MAN TO DEATH BY NOT DOING YOUR JOB!”

Stung by both the force of Heyes' angry outburst as well as his accusations, but even more intimidated by the expression on the outlaw's' face, the doctor wisely chose to remain silent.

His anger still raging, Heyes stepped back, his hands clenched into tight fists at his sides. “For the last time, what exactly did you tell my cousin?” he demanded, “What did you tell him to do?”

“I...I told him he only had a short time left, an’ that the best thing for him to do was to find someplace quiet where he could be alone until...” his voice trailed off.

“That's just great, Doc, real great! So somewhere between Rocky Ridge and Medicine Bend, Thaddeus is waiting to die?”

“Well, as bad off as he was that day here in my office,” the doctor swallowed nervously, “I really don't see how he -”

“Stop right there, Doc -” Heyes held up a hand, 'Don't you dare say another word! I told you when I first walked in here that Thaddeus was alive and I still believe that. He's my only living relative and I'd know if he was dea- gone! You've told me everything I need to know and I think it would be better for both of our necks if I was on my way to find my cousin!” Heyes turned to walk away, but when he reached the door, he turned back to face the doctor. “

“And another thing… you'd just better hope that nothing’s happened to him!” The threat hung heavily in the air as Heyes opened the door and left the room, slamming the door shut behind him. The sound of it reverberated inside the office as well as the waiting room full of surprised patients. His anger tangible, and his mind on his partner, Heyes looked neither right nor left as he exited the office.

The receptionist took one look at the man's set face as he strode past her and, although the look she sent him was sympathetic, she was also wise enough to keep silent.

Back inside the examination room, the sound of the door slamming shut bounced off the walls and knocked two framed photos onto the floor. Dr. Coffin eyed them and went limp with relief. A few moments passed before he reached up to remove his glasses with hands that shook.

Digging down into his pocket, he pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his dripping brow. The physician raised his eyes in a silent prayer of thanks that the angry young man had not resorted to any other physical displays of violence. The physician shook his head and sighed with regret, “It really is too bad about Mr. Jones...”

Outside the office, Heyes stood next to his horse and drew in a deep, calming breath before he grabbed the reins and hauled himself up and into the saddle. Pivoting his mount, he took off down the street at a furious pace, ignoring the indignant looks of the townspeople as they scurried and scattered to get out of his way. “I had to have passed him somewhere along the way; he must have pulled off the road and I just missed him somehow…right?”

Heyes' frustration increased as the miles sped by. Another hour passed and he was still searching for any sign that a wagon had veered off the main road. He glanced towards the sun setting in the west. Pretty soon it'll be too dark to see anything. Stopping his horse, Heyes sat in the saddle while he surveyed the area in silence and took the opportunity to get a drink from his canteen.

“What good is it being a champeen tracker if I can't even find my own partner?” he muttered with a derisive snort. He stood up in the stirrups to get a better look. Nothing. He lowered himself back down into the saddle and watched the sun as it dipped down behind the hills. When it had disappeared from view, his head dropped so that his chin rested against his chest. His mind was busy working as he let his eyes close; a sigh of frustration escaped him.

“Kid, why do you have to be so damn stubborn? What is this supposed to prove anyway? Why'd you believe that old man passing himself off as a doctor? I wish you'd never found that stupid raccoon in the first place! You know -” Heyes' eyes snapped open. He lifted his head and sniffed the air, breathing in deeply. His attention had been caught by the familiar smell of burning wood.

As dusk continued to settle in around him, he was able to make out the faint glow of a campfire just up ahead. Not wanting to get his hopes up too high, he urged his horse forward with caution, keeping an eye fixed on the light as he made his way through the underbrush. Reaching the edge of the camp, the first thing he spied was Curry's horse.

Reining in his mount, Heyes jumped off and ran towards the blanketed figure that huddled near the fire. He glanced at the nearly extinguished flames and realized what a stroke of luck it was that he had even noticed it at all. “If I hadn't stopped for that drink of water…”

He added a few sticks to the fire to enable him to see better and then tentatively reached out a hand as he knelt down beside his cousin and touched his shoulder to let Kid know he was there. “Hey, Buddy...” As his hand came into contact with Curry's arm, Heyes' head jerked up sharply, shocked into silence as the young outlaw on the ground turned towards him.

Heyes' first thoughts as he took in his partner's sorry condition were: Maybe that old quack was right...? Kid's eyes were dull, sunken in and listless. There wasn't even a flicker of recognition in them as he stared blankly back at the man who knelt next to him.

He looks like he hasn't taken a bath or shaved in over a week - and smells like it too! The foul, sour-smelling odor that surrounded his cousin almost caused Heyes to retch; he had to turn his head and take a deep breath before he could speak.

“Kid? Hey, it's me…Heyes. Dontcha know I've been tracking you for days? You sure did a good job of trying to hide your trail, but as you can see, I still found you!” Heyes watched helpless, as Curry shivered violently and tried to wrap the blanket even tighter around himself. There was no indication that the man even knew his partner was there.

“Kid? Hey, buddy, look at me.” Getting no response, Heyes took Kid's head between his hands and tilted it upwards so that he could see into his cousin's face. Even though his eyes were open, the glazed look was still present. Curry remained passive, which allowed his partner to examine him without any trouble. Heyes retained his hold on his cousin's face and could feel the heat that radiated from it. That meant that a high fever was raging throughout Kid's body; a fever that needed to be extinguished as soon as possible.

He lowered Curry's head with care and gave a light slap to his partner's cheek in an attempt to get a response. Instead, he watched with frustration as the man twisted away, curled himself into a tight ball, closed his eyes and began to rock back and forth while moaning in a low voice. Heyes immediately moved in closer to his friend's side and gripped his shoulder. “Its okay, Kid; don’t worry, I'll have you fixed up in no time.” He took a moment to stare down at the shivering man in front of him before he addressed Curry once more.

“Oh, and by the way, just so you know, YOU DON'T HAVE RABIES!” he announced loudly, “YOU HEAR ME, KID?” He brought his voice down to a slightly lower level before he went on, “You want to know how I know you don't have rabies? Well, first because you're too damn stubborn to have 'em, and second, that stupid walk-off who calls himself a doctor doesn't know what he's talking about! You are not going to die - I WON'T LET YOU!”

As his tirade came to an end, Heyes sat back on his heels, his dark eyes still flashing with anger as he subjected Curry to a thoughtful glare. “Coffin never mentioned which arm it was…” A moment later he reached under the blanket to pull Kid's right arm out. He pushed the sleeve up, not surprised to find that, although the arm was hot with fever, it was just a normal looking arm. Heyes tucked it back under the blanket and went over to Curry's left side.

Squaring his shoulders, Heyes repeated the same procedure for the second arm. As he slowly eased the sleeve up past Kid's wrist, an angry red patch was revealed. Pushing the sleeve even further up, Heyes saw the red line the doctor had warned him about. He inspected it up close, squinting at it intently in the firelight.

It was an animal bite alright; he could make out the telltale teeth marks near the wrist. And it was infected - okay, so at least the old coot had been right about that much, but...Heyes replaced the arm under the blanket and released another deep sigh as he looked down at his shuddering cousin, shaking and shivering from head to toe with the fever raging inside him. Not knowing if his cousin could even hear him, Heyes laid a hand on top of the other man's shoulder.

“Aw, Kid...why didn't you tell me? What made you think you had to hide this from me, huh?” As tentacles of fear reached out to grip him in their hold, Heyes lashed out at his friend in his anger and frustration. “And why do you have to be so damn stubborn all the time? Look, I know I called you stubborn earlier, well, that was a good thing. But not telling your partner something as important as this... that's a stupid thing - there's a big difference!”

He tightened his grip on Curry’s shoulder briefly before he straightened up. His mind racing, Heyes strode towards the fire, muttering to himself as he worked. “Got to get this fire built-up even more; get some water boiling, and try to get that fever down first. Then, in the morning, Kid, you and I, we are going to get to a town with a real doctor!” Heyes set a pot of coffee on to boil; he had a strong feeling he was going to need it during the long night ahead.

As the first rays of daylight hit the camp, Heyes was already busy getting Kid settled into the back of the delivery wagon. A grim smile appeared briefly on his face as he realized he must look nearly as bad as his cousin after the night he had just spent caring for him. He ran a hand absently through his hair, pushing it back off his forehead and then rubbed it across his jaw, feeling the whiskery stubs.

“Well, Kid, at least I don't smell as bad as you!” He shook his head. It had been a rough night for both of them, much more than he had ever imagined it could be. There had been a couple of times when Heyes had been ready to concede defeat, but then his own stubbornness had kicked in and he had dug his heels in and fought even harder to keep his cousin alive. While Heyes had kept a close vigil, Curry had alternated between the burning heat of a raging fever and the uncontrollable shivering and shaking of the chills that followed in its wake.

The young outlaw had refused all offers of food or water that were attempted, becoming almost violent when Heyes tried to force it down, knowing his partner needed some kind of nourishment to help fight the infection that was ravaging his body. He refused to give up, but was willing to resort to different tactics at a later time and set about accomplishing his next goal.

Having made the decision to concentrate on getting the fever down, he had removed each piece of Curry's clothing a piece at a time, using warm water to remove as much of the dirt and the putrid smell as possible before dressing his cousin in clean clothing. By the time he was finished, Heyes had to admit that although it had taken a long time and had been a lot of trouble, it had been well worth the effort; at least now he didn't need to stay downwind of Kid to be able to breathe.

And his cousin seemed to be resting more comfortably; but what was even more important, he didn't feel quite as warm. Heyes tucked a blanket loosely around Curry and settled back against a nearby tree with a cup of coffee. He took a few sips and closed his eyes, working on a plan to get Kid up into the wagon in the morning. It wasn't going to be an easy task, considering his partner was unconscious and therefore dead weight.

A low moan caught his attention and brought him scrambling to his feet and the coffee cup went flying sideways, forgotten. One minute he had been wishing that Kid would wake up and the next found him kneeling next to his partner trying to get him to calm down. Heyes had thought having his partner conscious was what he wanted until he had to deal with his cousin's wild thrashing about. He had his hands full as he held onto Curry, ignoring the incoherent mumbling until the words began to make sense.

“Rocky, where are ya, boy? C'mon, Rocky...quit hidin', okay?”

Heyes could hear the worry and the panic in Curry's voice and wondered at it. He could feel the agitation in the arms and legs that were flailing about, almost knocking him over backwards into the flames of the campfire. But, hearing the animal's name was the last straw for Heyes. His anger came out in full force once more as he grabbed his cousin by the shoulders and shook him roughly.

“Damn it, Kid,” he lashed out, “forget about that blasted raccoon, would you? Hasn't he caused you enough grief without you dreaming about him too? He's probably off having some great adventure somewhere while you - ”

“No – no he's not, Han! I've looked all over for him an’ he's not anywhere! Pl- please, Han, ya gotta h-help me find him…please!”

Stunned, Heyes released his grip and sat back on his heels. Confusion warred with shock as he repeated Kid’s words in his brain. Han? He looked down, surprised to see tears leaving a trail down the side of his partner's face. Why in the world would Kid be crying over a missing raccoon? His own eyes were filled with concern as he watched Curry reach up, and with an almost child-like gesture, rub an arm across his face, wiping the moisture away.

Troubled blue eyes, which still held the glazed look of fever looked up into Heyes' brown ones. “Sorry 'bout bein' such a cry-baby, Han, but...” Curry took a deep, shuddering breath, “Do ya think the R-raiders g-got him? Do ya think m-maybe they…k-killed him, too?”

For a moment, Heyes was too dumbfounded to reply as it dawned on him what was going on. It was all beginning to make sense. Kid wasn't thinking of the raccoon, he was remembering his pet dog, Rocky. That was why the name had seemed so familiar - his cousin had named the raccoon after his dog!

A faint grin graced Heyes' face briefly. Jed and that dog had been inseparable – well, at least they had been until the fateful day the Raiders had come. Finding their farms burned to the ground and both their families slaughtered, neither boy had given any thought to the animal until hours later.

Keeping a firm grip on his partner’s shoulder, Heyes' mind drifted back to that day...

The two boys had started the painful task of digging graves at Jed's place. Han knew it would be better to get the job over and done there first. To his credit, Jed had done pretty well, at least up until it got time to put his ma and pa down into the ground. Han had been hard pressed to keep a tight rein on his own emotions, knowing he couldn't afford to give in to them now, not with what all still remained to be done. After they were finished here, he had to take care of his own family. His concentration was shot to smithereens by the one word his cousin yelled.

NO!” Throwing his shovel down, Jed stood with his hands balled into tight fists at his sides, his chest heaving.

Han took a steadying breath and crossed over to stand beside his cousin. He laid a hand on Jed's shoulder and said quietly, “We're almost done here, Kid; why don't you let me finish up? Go over there and sit down for awhile and then we'll head on over to my place and -” he didn't get to finish.

The younger boy had raced off towards some nearby bushes, dropped to his knees and began to retch. Han stared at the younger boy, helpless and unable to offer comfort when he felt like doing the same. Instead, he picked up the shovel and returned to the task of burying his aunt and uncle. He worked as quickly as possible while keeping a watchful eye on his cousin. Jed had curled up into a tight ball, clutching his stomach, his back turned resolutely away from the graves.

When he was finally finished, Hannibal paused a moment to look down at the ground. There were eight fresh graves in all: Jed's three older brothers, his older sister, Grandma and Grandpa Curry, and Jed's ma and pa. Eight lives that were lost to them forever. He was so caught up in his own painful thoughts that he never noticed when Jed slipped away.

Eventually Han had become aware of the silence. When he couldn't find Jed anywhere nearby, he'd panicked and gone off in search of his missing relative, taking his shovel with him as a weapon. It had taken nearly an hour of furtive hunting. Han had been hesitant about calling out too loudly, in case any more Raiders were still lurking around. The darkness that had settled over the land when the sun set only added to his difficulty. It was fortunate that, as the full moon rose higher, it provided enough light for Han to continue his search.

He headed up to the far end of the Curry homestead, becoming more and more worried as time passed and there was still no sign of his young cousin. Just when he was about to give up, the frustrated boy decided to check out by the barn. When he rounded the last corner, he stumbled upon something huddled on the ground. Peering down into the darkness, he was relieved to see his friend.

“Jed, whatcha doing way off down here all by yourself?” he hissed angrily, “I've been looking all over for you! Dontcha know you 'bout scared me plumb to death? I thought maybe the Raiders had got you, too!” Then, as he had noticed what Jed was clinging to, Han realized he didn't have the heart to finish his tirade. He let his shovel fall to the ground.

Jed was lying with his head resting on Rocky's side, a hairy paw clutched tight in his own small hand.

Dropping down next to Jed, Han put a hand on his cousin's shoulder and gave it a comforting squeeze. “I'm awful sorry, Jed.”

Jed nodded silently and leaned up on his elbow, still holding the dog's paw. “Rocky died fightin', Han. He tried to protect 'em...I think maybe he might've even help kill those two Raiders over there.” Jed pointed to two bodies to their left.

Eyes wide, Han jumped up quickly. “You sure they're dead?” He grabbed his shovel and swung it up over his shoulder, prepared to do battle if they weren't.

A faint smile appeared on Jed's face at the sight of his cousin wielding the ‘weapon.’ “Well, if they ain't, they're sure doin' a good job of pretendin’!”

Hannibal relaxed, letting the shovel fall to the ground once again. Squatting down next to his cousin, he smiled in return. “You know what? I think Rocky deserves a hero's burial, don't you?”

Jed's eyes grew big and round. “A hero's burial, Han? Ya really think so? I mean, he's jus' a dog an' all...”

Heyes couldn't fail to notice the combination of pride and uncertainty present in the other boy's voice, nor the fact that this was the first real conversation the two of them had shared since finding the destruction and mayhem that afternoon. He nodded his head, “Yep, I'm sure; a dog can be a hero, too and Rocky is one of the best around. You wait right here while I go get another shovel, okay?”

Jed nodded. Han would take care of things.

Returning a few minutes later with the shovel, Heyes had stopped short when he heard Jed's voice.

“...at least you got the chance to try an’ stop 'em - I should've been here! I should've tried to fight 'em, too - it's all my fault they're dead!” He buried his face into the dog's coat, “An’ you’re gone, too…I was off havin' fun...fishin' - while they was all gettin' killed - I should've stayed here! I never should've asked Han to go with me, neither - it's all my fault his family's gone, too!”

Han had heard enough. He threw the shovel to the ground and rushed towards his cousin, falling on his knees and angrily jerking Jed around to face him. The younger boy's startled blue eyes looked straight into stormy brown ones, dark with their owner's anger. For the first time in his life, Jed was afraid of his older cousin. His eyes dilated with that fear and he took a deep gulp as Heyes pressed his face closer and began to take him to task.

“Jedediah Ezekiel Curry - you just shut your mouth talking like that - I mean it!” he shouted. Unaware of what he was doing, Han shook the younger boy. “I don't EVER wanna hear you say anything like that again - you hear me? I swear I’ll flatten you for sure if I ever hear you talk like that again – do you understand? Dontcha know that if you had been here I'd be burying you, too?”

Jed's lower lip began to wobble. The events of the day had already begun to take their toll and now, even his cousin was mad at him! It was too much for the boy to bear. “I'm s-s--sorry, Han,” he cried, “I didn't me-me-mean - I d-d-didn't know...” Pulling away, he dropped his head down onto his knees, his shoulders heaving with emotion. “I w-w-won't say it no more...ever again...I p-p-promise! Jus’…don't be m-m-mad at m-m-me...please, Han?”

Heyes’ anger evaporated in an instant; he pulled Jed towards him and put a protective arm around the shuddering boy. “Never mind, Kid, I'm not mad at you - I'm angry at everything else and I'm taking it out on you. But just so you know, I am glad you weren't around for those Raiders to find you. Here's something else for you to remember: If you hadn't asked me to come fishing with you, I would've still been at my place and they would've killed me, too! You saved my life today, Jed.” He watched the other boy's face as he processed the information and then added, “I'm gonna need you around to help watch out for me – what do you say? Think you can do that? You'd be my partner.”

“Really?”Jed moved away and settled himself back near Rocky and let his hand rest on the animal's side. Drawing a ragged breath, he looked up to find his cousin still watching him. He wiped a grimy hand across his eyes and then ducked his head. “Ya sure ya really want me for a partner, Han?”

“Now what made you go and ask a dumb question like that?”

“Well,” Jed shrugged, “I was jus' thinkin' that maybe I won't be much good at a job like that 'cos I'm such a…” Ashamed, his voice dropped to a whisper as he got to the last two words, “cry-baby.”

Heyes grinned. “You know what, Kid? I think you're thinking too much. I also think you're the best man for the job; I can't think of anyone else I'd trust to be my partner.”

Jed raised his head and, seeing the twinkle in his cousin's eyes and the dimple that had appeared, he released a deep sigh of relief and grinned back. “I think too much? Didn't know anyone could ever think too much; guess I'll jus’ havta find another way to help ya, then.”

“You have any ideas on how you're gonna do that?”

“Nope, not yet.” A mischievous twinkle in his curry-blues, he added, “Guess I'll just havta think on it awhile.”

The two boys smiled as they exchanged a look.

“Let's go give Rocky that hero's burial.” Han put a hand on Jed's shoulder. “After that, we need to head on over to my place...okay?”

And although he had paled, Jed had solemnly nodded his head, knowing he would stand beside Han and do whatever he could; that's what partners did for each other.

The two boys had quickly finished with Rocky, and then made the trip over to the Heyes' farm. It didn't take long; Han had only his ma and pa to bury. As the last shovelful of dirt fell to the ground, the two boys said good-bye to their childhood.

Heyes took a deep breath and turned to Jed. “You and I need to find us someplace to spend the rest of the night. We'll take turns sleeping, that way one of us is always keeping a look out for trouble; we'll watch each others' back, okay, partner?”

“Okay, partner; whatever you say.”

They took one last look, and then turned towards the old dirt road that led away from the farm. Already cousins by birth, the events that had transpired that fateful day had forged an unbreakable bond between the two boys; together as friends and partners, they would face whatever adversity came their way along the rocky road of life.

Still immersed deep in the memories of that long ago night, Heyes was slow to come back to the present; he shook himself and looked down at his cousin.

“Well, Kid, this trip sure is sure turning into more than I bargained for. I'd completely forgotten all about Rocky; guess you never did. And here's another thing - I am not going to wish for you to wake up again anytime soon if I have to wrestle with you - it's like trying to settle down a grizzly that's been woke up in the middle of hibernation! You just go right ahead and rest, nice and quiet-like and I'll take the first watch, okay, partner?”

True to his word, Heyes did keep watch throughout the night, tending to his cousin's needs. It hadn't been easy, but then it never was when one of them was hurt or sick. Curry had even taken a few sips of broth before lapsing back into unconsciousness. He seemed uneasy, restless and worried.

Heyes felt the same way and added to that, he was impatient as he waited for daylight to arrive. When the first rays of light began to filter through the leaves, Heyes yawned and stretched and carefully lifted Kid's head off his leg where it had been resting for the past few hours.

Tired of jumping up every time his partner had began to toss, turn and yell out, Heyes had settled down near Curry's head, letting him use his leg as a pillow. Kid had seemed a bit calmer from then on, or at least it seemed to Heyes that he had. As he lowered his cousin's head to the ground, Heyes realized that the fever had abated some; that was a good sign.

However, as he tried to stand on his leg, Heyes discovered he needed to walk around to get the circulation flowing in the numb limb. He knew he was going to need both legs at full strength to get the Kid up and into the wagon. He walked around and began to break camp, his mind occupied with going over the plan he had formulated last night.

An hour later found him breathing heavily and leaning against the wagon he had just finished getting his cousin up and into. Curry was by no means a lightweight and it had taken every ounce of iron will and determination Heyes possessed, and then some, to accomplish the task. Throughout the whole operation, never once had Kid shown any signs of coming around.

Heyes climbed up into the driver's seat and turned around to make sure he would be able to keep a good eye on Curry as they traveled. “Next time, I get to be the unconscious one, okay?” With another look down at his slumbering partner, he added, “Forget what I said earlier, I sure wish you'd wake up...”

Heyes had done everything he could to make the trip as easy on Kid as possible. He had rigged up one of their blankets so that it shielded most of the hot sun off his cousin's face and had wrapped wet compresses around Kid's head and neck. He had cleaned the animal bite with some whiskey. It wasn't much, but he had done what he could with what few supplies he had on hand. As the wagon started on its way, the man driving the wagon kept his eyes on the road ahead, but his thoughts were on his friend and the best way to get things back to normal.

Lying unconscious on the floorboards behind him, Curry was blissfully unaware of the danger he was in as they traveled together along the rocky road.

“You know what, Kid? This reminds me of the time we...”

Heyes continued his one-sided conversation as the miles continued to mount up. Spying a road sign several hours later, he pulled the horses to a standstill and interrupted his monologue long enough to read it aloud.

“Paradox?” he muttered, with a shake of his dark head, “Who gets to name these towns, anyway?” He glanced back over his shoulder and down at his silent partner, “Bet you're wondering what a paradox is, right? Good, 'cos I'm going to tell you. A paradox is, well it's just a whole bunch of nonsense - just like what that fool of a doctor tried to make you believe. Kid, how many times have I told you that you can't believe everything you hear? I know, too many times! But this time I'm right - and in a little while you're going to see just how right that is!

“I bet this town has a real doctor - one that'll know what's really wrong with you, too - you just wait and see. In no time at all, you'll be back to your normal stubborn self, hungry all the time and wondering where our next meal's coming from when we haven't even finished the one we're eating…Why, I can just hear you now, grumbling about my coffee – which, by the way, is not as bad as you try to make it out to be...and you can't even begin to imagine how much I miss all that jabberin' you do. You know what, Kid? I never really realized how much you do talk until you're quiet...”

Heyes’ expression turned serious. “So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that what I miss most is knowing that you're not beside me, backing me up. Anyway, just thought you should know – in case you’re listening,” he added quietly. “What it all boils down to is, that since I don't know whether or not you can hear me, I just wanted you to know I'll sure be glad when you're back where you belong.” Heyes could see the town not too far ahead. “Well, we're almost there, Kid; it won't be long now.” He fell silent as they covered the few remaining miles into the little town of Paradox.

Heyes stopped the wagon once again, this time on the outskirts of town. He watched as another wagon ambled towards them and called out as the driver came within hailing distance.

“S'cuse me, sir, would you mind telling me where I might find the doctor?”

“No trouble at all, young fella. Head down the middle of town, it's on the left side of the street, next to the hotel - right across from the bank and the sheriff's office - ya can't miss it. Doc Chance is one of the best doctors around these here parts,” he boasted with pride, “Why, he'll have ya fixed up in no time.”

At the mention of the sheriff's office, Heyes directed a quick look towards the town. Returning his attention to the man, he nodded towards the back of the wagon. “It's my friend who needs the fixing up, but you've made me feel a whole lot better about bringing him here. Say, maybe you could tell me one more thing; what's the sheriff's name? I may need to see him on a little matter while I'm in town.”

“Oh, we've got us a real good sheriff too; a real no-nonsense kind of man, iffin ya know what I mean.” The man grinned and sent Heyes a wink.

Unable to summon an answering smile, Heyes nodded his head, wishing the stranger would spit out the lawman's name.

“Most folks 'round here just call him Sheriff John,” the stranger continued. “The sign hangin' outside his door says, 'Sheriff John Marshal,' but it's all kinda confusin' to say Sheriff Marshall, so you can see why we jus' call him Sheriff John - can't ya?”

Heyes grinned as he nodded his head again, this time in relief. “Yes, I can certainly see how a name like Sheriff Marshall might be a bit too tricky for some folks.” He didn't care what they called the lawman; the name didn't cause any warning bells to go off in his head, so at least that was one less problem to worry about. “Well, I'd best get my friend on down to that doctor.”

A look of guilty remorse crossed the other man's face, “Here I am jawin’ my mouth, talkin' your ears off when you could've already been down there by now...”

“No harm done, you've been very helpful, friend; saved me a lot of time.” Urging the horses forward, Heyes tipped his hat in the man's direction.

The man did likewise, a relieved smile of his own upon his face.

“Well, Kid, at least the people seem friendly enough...and we don't have to worry about the sheriff, neither.”

Moments later, Heyes pulled up in front of the building and, after giving Curry a quick check, he tied the reins securely to the hitching post and went inside. The tinkling of a bell overhead announced his arrival. Heyes removed his hat, wiped the sweat from his brow and pushed his hair out of his face as he waited, his patience almost at an end.

A door to his left opened and a man emerged, wiping his hands on a towel, followed by a woman holding onto a young boy's hand. The boy was holding his free hand up to his face, gazing with rapt interest at the bandage wrapped around it; his face bore traces of recent tears.

Turning around, the doctor knelt down to look the boy in the eyes with a smile, “Now remember, Luke, the fish hook is supposed to catch the fish, not your finger!” he chided in a gentle tone. Giving the boy a wink and ruffling his hair, the doctor stood up and addressed the woman.

“Try and keep the wound clean and the bandage on, wash it with soap and apply that salve twice a day. If it should start showing signs of infection, like redness or festering, if he starts running a high fever or a red line starts to run up his arm, you're to bring him back to me - muy pronto – right, Cassie?”

With a small sigh, she looked down at the boy and then back at the doctor. “I'll do my best, but you know how little boys are! Thank you, Doc Chance - I'll be sure to send some of those pies your way; come along, Luke.” She tugged gently at the boy's hand to get his attention since he was still busy examining the bandage.

As he listened to the exchange, Heyes felt as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. At least this man sounded like a real doctor; one who knew what he was doing and who genuinely seemed to care about his patients.

As the pair left the office, the doctor turned his attention to Heyes. “And what can I do for you, young man? You don't look too bad off; you even have a grin on your face.”

“What?” Lost in thought, Heyes shook his head. “Oh, I was just remembering another little boy I knew a long, long time ago...he and I kept our doctor pretty busy back then, too, as I recall.”

“Yes, young Luke is a regular customer and a favorite one of mine. Seems as if trouble comes looking for him sometimes.”

“Some things never change, Doc.” As he looked into the twinkling eyes of the physician, Heyes became serious, “My name is Smith - Joshua Smith - and I've got my partner outside in a wagon; he's the one who needs your help.”

“Well, let's get him inside and I'll see what I can do to get him back beside you.”

Heyes halted in mid-step and gave the man a curious look. “What made you say that, Doc?”

“Your smile - it doesn't quite reach your eyes. And there's a look on your face, like you've had about all you can take. I've been a doctor long enough, I've seen that look many times before. The expression is one that a patient's family and friends wear as they go through the waiting period, hoping to hear the good news that their loved one is going to make it.”

“You're right, Doc, Thaddeus is more than just a partner, he's my best friend. We have been through a lot together and we've been friends for as long as I can remember.”

The doctor placed a hand on Heyes' shoulder. “I'll do the best I can. Now if you'll just grab that travois over there in the corner, it'll make it a whole lot easier for us to get your friend inside. Don't worry, Mr. Smith, together we'll make sure your friend has the best chance possible to beat this.”

“You can call me Joshua.” Heyes smiled his thanks at the man's encouraging words, and then as he picked up the travois, his curiosity got the better of him. “Doc, if you don't mind my asking, how'd you come by this?”

“I don't mind; in fact, I'm getting kinda used to it. I had an opportunity recently to help out a wounded Indian Chief. His people were so pleased with the treatment he received that they presented me with this as part of their payment. I did a bit of research and discovered that it's sometimes referred to as a 'drag sled'.

“The way it's fashioned, it can either be hooked up behind an animal or pulled by a single man. Or, like now, since there are two of us, we'll both work together and carry it between us. Although simple, it’s value to me is priceless; I can't even begin to tell you how much of a help it's been.”

Having reached the wagon, they both fell silent as they eased the unconscious man down onto the stretcher. Grabbing the poles and each lifting an end, they made their way back inside the office and placed Curry on the exam table.

“Doc, this is Thaddeus...” After a brief hesitation, he added, “Jones.”

The physician looked down at the man who lay silent and motionless.

Heyes cleared his throat. “Uh, doc, I think maybe I'd better explain a few things -”

“If you'll just give me a few minutes with my patient, we can talk all you want, okay?”

Nodding his assent, Heyes stepped back to lean against the wall to watch the man work. As the doctor carried out his examination, the outlaw tried to discern from the man's expression what he might be thinking, but soon gave up with an exasperated sigh. The doc would have made an excellent poker player; his face didn't give out any clues. Even when he discovered the raccoon bite and saw the infection that had set in, his face remained impassive.

Removing the stethoscope from his ears, the doctor turned to Heyes.

“Well, I can tell you this much, your friend is an extremely ill man; I won't lie to you. If you hadn't brought him here when you did, he wouldn't have stood a ghost of a chance. As it is - ”

“It's all that crazy old coot's fault,” Heyes broke in angrily, “the one over in Rocky Ridge that calls himself a doctor – he’s the one who told Thaddeus a whole parcel full of lies and made him think he was dying! I tried to tell him he was wrong!”

“Rocky Ridge, you say?” The doctor gave a roll of his eyes skyward, and shook his head. “He went to see Jerome Coffin?” At Heyes’ nod of assent, he gave a snort of derision and continued, “Why, that man couldn't find fleas on a dog, let alone put a bandage on a cut finger - even if you stood right there beside him and gave him step-by-step directions! He gives the whole profession of doctoring a bad name! If it were within my power to stop him from practicing!” The physician took a deep breath before he added in a calmer tone, “I'm real sorry your friend's path had to cross his.”

“Yeah, me too, Doc. He convinced Thaddeus that he was dying from rabies...but he's not...is he?” Heyes fell silent and waited for the other man's reply.

“I did see the bite mark during my examination, but that's only a part of the problem. Can you tell me what you know about what happened, maybe fill in a few of the missing gaps?”

“I'll do my best, doc. What do you need to know?”

“I'm trying to establish a timeline; it'll allow me to rule out certain things. Do you have any idea when Thaddeus was bitten and by what kind of animal?”

“Coffin said Thaddeus told him it was a raccoon, and if it was, I guess it would have been about four weeks ago by now. Although I'm not sure why - for some crazy reason Thaddeus must've decided to keep it to himself - about getting bit, I mean.” Giving Curry a long look, Heyes added, “When he's well enough, I aim to discuss that little matter with him.”

Doc Chance bit back a smile. “Well, Joshua, I hope that you'll be able to discuss whatever you want to with Thaddeus, but I need to know a few more things before I can make my final diagnosis. Do you recall what his symptoms were and when they first appeared? What would be the most helpful to me is if you remember what you two were doing right before you noticed something was wrong with him.”

Heyes closed his eyes as he took a moment to think. “Well, he had a really bad headache, that's what I remember him complaining about the most.” Heyes opened his eyes and snapped his fingers, “Wait, there was something else! He wasn't eating much - which if you know Thaddeus at all, is really strange! He doesn't usually pass on anything to eat, but that quack said Thaddeus told him he hadn't had anything to eat or drink for several days.”

Heyes frowned and continued, “I know he didn't eat hardly anything before he left Rocky Ridge, at least not while I was around him. In fact, the last real meal I can remember him eating was the one he had back when we stopped in Medicine Bend. It wasn't too long after that when he began having that headache and quit eating.”

“Do you happen to remember what Thaddeus had to eat that day?”

Heyes grinned, “Doc, it would be easier to tell you what he didn'thave. You might not believe this, but he had venison stew, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, cornbread, biscuits, cherry cobbler and then washed it all down with coffee and milk...I'm pretty sure that's all.”

Doc Chance pursed his lips thoughtfully. “And you say that is wasn't too long after this that he started to feel sick?”

“Sick? Well, no, I wouldn't exactly call it sick, I mean, he did have that headache...” Heyes' voice trailed off. “Just a minute, Doc - Coffin said Thaddeus told him he had some other things wrong. That's when he told me they were all signs that Thaddeus was definitely in the last stages of rabies!”

“This is important, can you remember what any of those other signs were?”

“I'm sure I can; let's see..." Heyes mused, "Coffin said something about him having a sore throat, some dizziness, a bellyache and retching...then he told me something else, that at the time, I thought was pretty strange. He said that Thaddeus told him that sunlight hurt his head and that water - ”

“Yes, go on,” Doc Chance prompted.

“I know this is going to sound kinda weird, I mean it sure doesn't make much sense to me,” Heyes fell silent while he struggled to find the right words to explain, “He told me that Thaddeus was scared of water - have you ever heard of anything so loco?”

“Yes, unfortunately, I have.”

Heyes' look of mocking skepticism disappeared in a flash to be replaced by one of surprise as he listened to the rest of the physician's explanation.

“What you're describing is called 'hydrophobia', a big, fancy word which simply means 'a fear of water.' It's one of the worst symptoms of rabies, causing it's victim to become severely dehydrated and - ”

“So, Ki - uh, Thaddeus, really does have rabies?” The whispered words and the horrified expression on Heyes' face caused the doctor to amend his words in a flash.

“I'm sorry, I didn't mean to alarm you, but you didn't let me finish, Joshua. While Thaddeus is dehydrated - among several other things - I don't believe it's from rabies.”

“I don't understand, Doc, if it's not rabies, then what is it?” Although the doctor's words of assurance had allowed Heyes to relax somewhat, he still held himself rigid, his hands clenched into tense fists at his sides. “Why's Thaddeus so sick? How serious is it?”

“From all that you've just shared with me, and from what I was able to learn from my examination earlier, I believe that your friend is suffering from a severe case of food poisoning and that raccoon bite on his wrist is full of infection.”

Poisoned?” Heyes sputtered, “How could he be poisoned? I was with him most of the time – and if he is, how in the hell could that quack in Rocky Ridge be so wrong?”

“Not poisoned, Joshua - food poisoning,” the doctor explained patiently. “Thaddeus most likely got hold of some rancid meat that day in Medicine Bend; either the chicken or the venison - maybe both. And, as for Coffin and his misdiagnosis, besides not knowing anything about being a doctor in the first place - I'm sorry to have to admit this - he wouldn't have been able to recognize those symptoms as being the same signs of food poisoning. He had already made up his mind that his patient had rabies and that was that.”

“So what does all that mean, Doc? Can you help him?”

“I won't lie to you. Your friend's not out of the woods yet, although I'm pretty sure we can help him make it through the food poisoning. It's going to be extremely close these next few days. In fact, the next few hours will tell the tale, but...”

“But what? What aren't you telling me, Doc?”

“It's that bite that concerns me the most; the infection is spreading rapidly and putting Thaddeus' life at great risk. As I said, the next few hours will tell me which path we'll need to take to do our best to keep him alive.”

Heyes walked over to stand next to Curry. Reaching down, he laid a hand on his cousin's arm. “Do whatever it takes, Doc. I...I can't lose him now!”

“We'll talk about what needs to be done when the times comes. Until then, we'll work together, Joshua.” He grinned and added, “Trust me; Thaddeus couldn't be in better hands.”

And so, for the next forty-eight hours the two men - one dedicated to saving lives and the other one wanted by lawmen across the land - worked together, side-by-side, relentless in their efforts; both determined that the unconscious man would win his fight against the poison and the infection that ran rampant in his blood and threatened his life.

It wasn't an easy battle. Thaddeus himself was his own worst enemy as he fought against the very ones trying to help him, struggling so violently in his delirium, that at times it required the combined effort of both men to hold him down.

It was after one such exhausting ordeal that Dr. Chance turned to Heyes while they were trying to catch their breath. “Well, the good news is your partner is still fighting - both the poison and us! He's strong, he's stubborn and he's definitely not a quitter; I think he's going to start showing signs of beating that food poisoning real soon.”

“And the bad news? What about that infection - you're being mighty quiet about that arm, Doc.” Heyes’ brown eyes pinned Chance with a directness that couldn’t be misunderstood.

The two men continued to stare at each other; the physician was the first to look away.

“Your silence is telling me more than any words ever could,” Heyes persisted, “It's not looking good, is it?”

This time, as their eyes met and locked, the doctor's look was steady.

“I wish I could tell you what you want to hear, Joshua.”

“I know; I've been keeping an eye on it, too.” This time, it was the outlaw who turned away. He was the one to cross the room to stare blindly out the window. In a voice devoid of all emotion, he spoke without turning around, “How long before you need an answer?” Heyes heard the sound of footsteps behind him, and then felt a hand rest lightly on his shoulder.

“Let's give him until tomorrow, Joshua. There's still a good chance that Thaddeus will pull through on his own; remember, he's quite a fighter - and as stubborn as you warned me about - he may surprise us yet.” He gave Heyes’ shoulder a reassuring squeeze.

Heyes leaned forward to let his forehead touch the windowpane, welcoming the coolness of the glass against his skin. The doctor removed his hand and Heyes exhaled. “Doc, Thaddeus is a good man; anyone would be proud to call him their friend. The thing is, this good man…he’s also my cousin and my best friend - he makes his way in this world using his hands. I don't know - I'm not sure he'd ever be able to forgive me…” A long silence filled the room before Heyes added quietly, “If he wakes up to find it gone...”

Turning around to face the physician, his emotions for once not hidden behind a poker face, Heyes cried out in a hoarse whisper, “How can I tell him I was being selfish - that I wanted to keep him alive - whatever the cost, so I told you to...to take it off? Tell me Doc…what could I possibly say to convince him that it was the 'right' thing to do.”

“Tell him exactly what you just told me, that you thought such a good man, and friend, deserved a second chance. I know right now you may find this hard to believe, but in time his anger will fade...he'll be alive and you'll be there for him. It's a terrible responsibility to have on your shoulders, but as I said, let's give Thaddeus the chance to show us what he's made of; try not to lose that faith of yours just yet.”

Taking a steadying breath, Heyes turned to look at the man who lay pale and deathly still on the bed behind him. “Okay, Doc, I'll keep right on believing that he's going to win; that it won't be long and we'll be tossing insults at each other like always. I wish...” leaving his sentence unfinished, he crossed the room to stand beside Curry. “Doc, would you mind giving us some time alone? I've got some things I need to talk over with him.”

With a nod of understanding, Chance replied, “I'll be right next door in the office if you need me. Good luck, Joshua; I'm betting on Thaddeus, too.”

Heyes waited until the door closed behind the doctor before he dropped into the chair beside the bed. “Kid, I sure hope you can hear me, 'cos we've got some real important things that need settling, and they can't wait. You know we've always at least listened to each other - even the times when we didn't particularly agree or like what the other was saying...well, this is going to be one of those times. Guess I'll be the one doing the talking and you'll be the one doing the listening...”

Heyes reached out to take Curry's good hand in his, bowed his head and fell silent as he stalled for time, not wanting to say the words that he knew needed to be said. “Look, partner, we're running out of time...and I'm not sure...I wish I wasn't alone in making this decision...” He took a deep breath and tried again, “Kid, please don't hate me...” His head lifted in surprise when he felt a slight pressure as if his fingers were being squeezed.

“Kid?” Heyes whispered tentatively, hardly daring to believe what he was seeing. His cousin's eyelids were fluttering open! “It's about time! I was beginning to think you'd gone into permanent hibernation!” Heyes couldn't keep the joy out of his voice as he added, “Aw, Kid, it's great to have you back! I think I must've aged at least twenty years in the past few days.”

“Glad...you're...glad...” Curry whispered weakly.

The sound was music to Heyes' ears. “Hey, I bet you're thirsty, aren't you? You haven't had anything to eat or drink for quite a spell; I bet your throat feels like the desert.” Heyes had a glass of water up to Kid's mouth before he finished speaking. “And you don’t need to worry; it's only water, it won't hurt you...”

Curry gave his partner a strange look over the top of the glass before he took a tentative sip. He grimaced and weakly pushed the glass away, “No…more…”

“You sure? There's plenty more where that came from. You need to drink, I can -”

“NO! Go ‘way!” Although the words were still said in a whisper, Kid managed to get his point across. For added emphasis he shook his head, his curry blue eyes asking questions instead.

Heyes set the glass down. “Ah, let me guess; you want to know where you are, why you're in bed and what's been going on, don't you?” At Curry's nod, he continued, “Well, it seems the whole thing started when someone in this room got bit by a raccoon... You wouldn't happen to know anything about that now, would you?” Heyes pinned his cousin with a piercing look.

With a resigned sigh, Curry acknowledged that look for what it was. It was the glare the leader of the Devil's Hole Gang usually reserved for the more recalcitrant gang members; the ones who thought they could put one over on their leader. There was no trace of a smile upon Heyes' face; in its place was a deep scowl which, at the moment, was being directed full force at him.

Curry found himself fervently wishing for some kind of divine intervention that might divert Heyes' attention away from him. With the realization that this was the time and place when he should at least attempt to defend himself, he opened his mouth. “Heyes, I -” but the pitiful raspy squeak that emerged from his throat stopped him cold. He closed his mouth in defeat and directed an innocent look up at his partner instead. Yep,” he groaned to himself, Heyes definitely has that look on his facethe one that says, 'I already know, but go ahead and tell me your side of the story...'

Heyes was quick to note Kid's discomfort. “You're right; I do have you at a slight disadvantage, cousin... and I plan on making full use of it.” A wicked gleam appeared in the outlaw leader’s eyes. “So anyway, as I was saying, after this someone was bitten by the raccoon...” he arched his eyebrows in inquiry, “Your friend, Rocky, I presume?”

Curry remained silent and neither confirmed nor denied the presumption. Instead, he focused his attention on the suddenly very intriguing pattern of the bed quilt.

Heyes leaned back and folded his arms across his chest. “It's okay, Kid, you don't have to say a word. In fact, I think maybe I'll tell you a little story instead; a story I'm positive you're going to find very interesting.”

Curry's head shot up in surprise and caused him to wince in pain. He groaned as he raised a hand to his throbbing forehead.

“Thought that might get your attention,” Heyes smirked. “Well, it seems that same someone went to see Dr. Coffin over in Rocky Ridge. At least that's what some people thought that he was - a doctor. And this Coffin guy, well, he gave that someone some pretty bad news; told him he was dying from the raccoon bite. Said he had a bad case of rabies and that he only had a matter of time left - less than two weeks to be exact. Right so far?”

Curry nodded, more carefully this time, and realized that all he had done since waking up was either nod or shake his head. He wished he could at least try to defend himself; Heyes looked far too smug.

“Why, I bet news like that probably scared that someone plumb to death; I know it sure would have spooked me. And so, that someone did the only thing possible in a situation like that. Probably put a whole lot of thinking into what he decided to do, too. He thought the best thing to do would be to just up and walk-off. He decided to go someplace where he wouldn't be any trouble or any bother to anyone and so he wouldn't have to let his best friend watch him die a very slow and painful death. He thought he had to find someplace off the beaten path; a quiet hideaway to spend those last few days...all alone.”

Curry squeezed his eyes shut, as if by doing so he could shut out the condemning words Heyes was speaking.

Heyes watched the agitated rise and fall of his partner's chest for a few beats in silence and took note of the hands that were clenched into tight fists with knuckles as white as the sheets they rested upon. Taking a step forward, he reached down and touched a hand to Curry's shoulder.

A long moment passed before the man who lay on the bed forced his eyes open. Curry looked up into his cousin's face and licked his dry, cracked lips. “Heyes...I...” he rasped and stopped. Just as quick, he closed his mouth in defeat, a sigh of resignation once more his only audible contribution to the conversation. What was the use?

Heyes removed his hand and pulled a chair closer to the bed. Straddling it, he sat down to face his friend. “Oh, I'm not finished with the story yet; there's more.” He crossed his arms along the top of the chair and then rested his chin on top of his hands. “But what that someone didn't know, is that Coffin was wrong. So wrong in fact, that he almost cost an innocent man his life.” Heyes waited in silence for his words to sink in. His patience was rewarded by the look that appeared on Curry's face, a mixture of disbelief, hope and many questions.

“I'm not...gonna die?” he finally managed, still unable to believe the words that Heyes had just spoken.

Grinning and with a twinkle in his own eyes, Heyes decided to let his friend off the hook; he'd suffered enough already. “Well, Kid, it seems that food poisoning has almost the same exact symptoms as rabies in the beginning, at least to someone who doesn't know what he's doing. Dr. Chance, the one that's been taking care of you here, he says you got hold of some bad, rotten food, probably from that little meal you had over in Medicine Bend.”

Still filled with uncertainty, Curry looked down at his arm and then back up at Heyes, his eyes clouded with worry. “Looks... bad...hurts...a lot.”

The words whispered haltingly, along with the skeptical look on Kid's face, told Heyes his partner was still far from convinced. “Well, that raccoon bite did manage to get infected pretty badly and between the two, you were real sick.” Heyes stood up before he added, “And it's a good thing you were, too, because when I found out that you were loco enough to think you had to hide the bite in the first place, and then thought you had to crawl off somewhere to die all by yourself...well, let's just say I had several thoughts of flattening you myself running through my head.”

Curry swallowed and looked up, a smile on his face despite Heyes' threat. He wasn't going to die!

Placing his palms flat on the bed, Heyes leaned down, just inches away from Curry’s face to look his partner square in the eyes. His voice ominously quiet, he said, “And just in case you were wondering, you're not completely out of the woods - yet.”

Curry's smile slipped a bit. It was somewhat of a relief when a knock on the door interrupted them.

Heyes straightened up, a welcoming smile on his face. “Perfect timing, Doc,” he called out as a man stepped into the room. “Thaddeus, this is Dr. Chance - now he's a real doctor!”

The man crossed the room to stand beside Heyes. “Ah, I see our Rip Van Winkle has decided to awaken.” Walking to the side of the bed, he reached down to feel Curry's forehead. “Wonderful, that fever had us both pretty worried. Now, just let me take a look at that arm.” Dr. Chance gave it a thorough once-over and then looked down at Curry with a smile.

“Well, young man, I think you're finally managing to beat that infection, too. Your fever's almost gone, and you look a hundred percent better than you did at this time yesterday, but the real question is, how do you feel?”

Curry shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. He knew what Heyes had just told him, but still...He looked down at his arm again. “Sore...tired...” he rasped.

“I don't think Thaddeus quite believes me, Doc. And since he's not up to his usual talkative self yet, maybe it would help if you told him what you think.”

“Well, I do know that all three of us have worked very long and hard to make it this far. It's to be expected that you're tired; you almost didn't make it. And as far as that arm of yours still being sore - be glad you can feel the pain - you almost lost it.”

Curry looked up in alarm, his blue eyes wide with surprise.

The doctor nodded, “Maybe Joshua will tell you all about it some day. You didn't give up, though. You've got a stubborn streak of determination a mile wide and I think that helped to save your life.” He crossed to stand beside Heyes. “Your friend here, he has that same attitude; he wasn't willing to give up on you, either.”

Kid and Heyes exchanged a look, one so familiar no words were necessary. Curry was the first one to look away. While he still had a lot of questions, they could wait.

Heyes yawned and stretched. “Well, doc, I don't know 'bout you, but now that Thaddeus is doing better, I sure could use a cup of hot coffee...maybe something to eat.”

The physician nodded in agreement and joined Heyes. They had only taken a few steps towards the door when a loud groan from the bed stopped them dead in their tracks. Dr. Chance and Heyes turned back, their eyes widening in surprise at the sight that met them.

Curry was leaning forward, his arms wrapped around his stomach and his eyes squeezed shut with an expression of pain on his face.

Both men rushed back towards the invalid, almost knocking each other down in their haste to reach his side.

The doctor was the first to speak. “Thaddeus - what is it?”

Heyes dropped to his knees at Curry's side and reached out a hand to his partner. “Ki - hey, Buddy, what's the matter?” Turning to look at Dr. Chance with worry in his brown eyes, Heyes whispered, “Doc, what happened? He was doing fine just a few minutes ago...”

“I'm not sure,” Chance replied. The physician, along with Heyes’ help, eased Curry back against the pillows. “Thaddeus, can you tell us what's wrong?”

Still clutching his stomach, Kid slowly lifted the lids that shuttered his curry-blue eyes. He looked first to look at the doctor and then turned to face Heyes. His words rang out loud and clear in the room as the invalid declared plaintively, “I'M HUNGRY!”

As the sound of their combined laughter filled the room, the three men drawn together by fate, realized that their journey down this rocky road had indeed come to an end.

~ Finis ~

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