Heyes and Karma were
once again galloping across the landscape in a joyous exhibition of flight and
freedom. Only when he was riding his
mare did Heyes actually feel that he was indeed unencumbered and totally
without constraint. She was his freedom
from the invisible shackles that still bound him and from the anchor that
weighed him down with the rules and conditions of living life on parole. Oh, this was
glorious! The spring day couldn't have
been nicer and the breeze whipping his old hat off his head and causing it to
fly along behind him, was fresh and clear and full of sunshine. Karma felt good; she had missed her
human. And though life at the Double J
had many pleasures and bonuses, having her human back with her again was worth
all of that and more. If he asked her to
leave this sanctuary, leave her children and ride the transient trail again,
she would have done it without question.
Now that he was back with her she remembered how much she had missed him
before the image and scent of him had faded away and her new life had taken
over. But now they were together again,
no questions asked, no grudges held.
They were together again and she was in her glory!
After two miles of an all out gallop and then three more miles at an easy swinging lope, Heyes finally pulled his mare down to a walk and they both settled in to a pleasant ride across the meadow, just drinking in the greens and blues and the yellows and the sun and the grass and the great cloudless sky.
Then Heyes pulled up altogether and shading his eyes from the sun he squinted into the near distance, not quite believing that he was seeing what he was seeing. He rode closer but it didn't help to clarify the situation; it just made less and less sense.
There was a table up ahead, a table covered by a red and white checkered cloth. There were two chairs at the table, with one being occupied by a man whom Heyes could not quite make out. This whole strange arrangement was set out under a large willow tree and there was a gurgling brook running by them, inviting the horseman to come and join in.
Heyes rode up closer and then stepping down from his mare he approached the table. The man sitting at it then turned and smiled a greeting to his young friend.
“Heyes! About time you showed up. The steaks are getting cold.”
Heyes' face broke out into a huge grin and he gave the man a heart felt hug right where he sat.
“DOC!” Heyes greeted him. “Doc, it's been ages! How are ya'!?”
“Well, I'm still dead, but other than that I'm fine I suppose.” But then his expression drooped. “I'm a little disappointed in you though.”
Heyes felt a little bit of hurt settle into his chest.
“Disappointed in me?” he asked quietly. “Why?”“C'mon, sit down Heyes. Have a beer, Doc offered. “I know that's your favourite. And there's a nice steak for ya' too. Dig in.”
“Yeah okay,” Heyes mumbled as he sat down to the meal but he was still feeling hurt and didn't really want to eat. He took a small gulp of the beer and couldn't help but smile. This actually tasted good unlike most of the beer he'd been trying to drink lately. Then he sighed and looked to his friend again. “Why Doc? What did I do?”
“It's not what you did, Heyes,” Doc explained. “it's what you haven't done.”
Heyes furrowed his brow; again Doc wasn't making any sense.“You ignored what I told ya',” Doc continued, seeing Heyes' confusion. “I told ya' it was Carson that fucking prick who murdered me, not Boeman! But you let outside pressure convince ya' that our last meeting was all just a delusion due to you being so close to death an' all.”
“Yeah, well.... I know Doc,” Heyes felt like a little schoolboy who was being reprimanded for misbehaviour. “I just.... I thought they were right. And the more I came back to the land of the living, the more that conversation drifted away until it did seem like it had just been a dream. I did mention it to my lawyer!” He perked up as he pointed this out, hoping to get some brownie points for that at least.
Morin just tutted and shook his head. “Yeah, but as soon as he suggested that you were looney bins you backed off,” the Doc countered. “It's not easy ya' know! Trying to get those messages to ya'! And then you just ignore them as bad dreams!”
“Oh,” Heyes sounded contrite. “I thought that's all they were.”
“What do I havta do?!” Doc demanded. “Write it all up in a goddam document and get your lawyer to sign it before you'll sit up and pay attention!?”
Heyes hung his head. Doc took pity on the young man's discomfort and came down a notch or two.
“It's not like I'm just asking it for me Heyes,” Morin explained. “That goddam, son of a bitch has got to be stopped! I'm not the only person he's murdered and he's gonna do it again too—you can bet your goddam lucky coin on that!”“Yeah but.... there’s no evidence,” Heyes pointed out. “I wouldn't know where to start.”
“You wouldn't know where to start!?” Doc repeated incredulously. “The great Hannibal Heyes wouldn't know where to start!?”
Heyes hung his head again—this was not going well.
“Of all the goddam, fucking lame excuses I've ever heard!” Doc cursed. “All I ask is this one little favour from you and all you can say is; 'I wouldn't know where to start'! Geesh!!”
“Yeah yeah, okay,” Heyes grumbled. “I guess that was kinda lame.”“Hmm,” Doc was in a snit.
Heyes leaned back with another sigh. “So you're sure it was Carson who did it?”
Doc would not honor that question with an answer and simply glared at his friend.
“Yeah, alright, Doc,” Heyes conceded again. “I suppose....”
But then suddenly the surroundings changed and the beautiful spring day was no longer in evidence around them. Heyes felt a chill go through him, not just from the lowered temperature, but from the fear that now clutched at his heart and threatened to stop his breathing.
He was in that dank, cold chamber again, hanging from the ceiling by his arms and his shoulders felt as though they were on fire and he struggled and cried out, trying to break free. The fear and the pain overwhelmed him and he knew he was going to pass out.Then he spluttered and choked and gasped for air and opening his eyes he saw Carson sneering at him, the emptied cup of water still dripping in his hand.
“Wake up Heyes!” Carson growled at him. “How do ya' expect to learn anything if ya' keeping passing out on us!?”
Carson laughed and slapped him hard across the face, causing his suspended body to swing against the rope and Heyes screamed out his rage and his agony and tried to fight again, but he was helpless. Carson just sneered at him and then the guard had a pillow in his hands and he turned away from the inmate and glared down at something on the floor.
Heyes looked closer and saw that it was the Doc, laying there in a ever expanding pool of blood and clutching the gaping wound in his side. The doctor looked up at Carson and he started calling out for help, started trying to scramble away, but he was too weak.Carson moved towards him, and kneeling down beside the helpless man, he slapped him hard across the face! Doc tried to fight back but the blow stunned him and then the guard pushed the pillow down on top of the Doc's face and leaned his weight into it.
Heyes was screaming! He fought against the rope, fought against the air, trying to get to his friend—trying desperately to help him.“NO! NO! DOC! NO!” and he cried and screamed and fought like a man possessed until he felt the muscles and tendons in his arms and shoulders snap and break free and his joints were pulled from their sockets and his head exploded with the light and he screamed out his torment.....
“Joshua! Joshua, wake up!”
Heyes lashed out at the light burning his eyes and he gasped for air as he scrambled away from the presence in the room. He was pushed up against the headboard of his bed, his blankets clutched up around him as he tried to get away.“Joshua...it's alright,” said a gentle voice behind the blinding light. “It was just a bad dream. Wake up!”
Heyes breathed in great gulps of air, his heart was pounding so hard he was sure it would burst from his chest and force the blood to break through his eardrums. He was shivering, bathed in a cold sweat and shaking like a leaf.
The blinding light mellowed out as Belle set the lantern down on the side table and she adjusted the flame so that a soft light now filled the bedroom. Heyes looked at her, still clutching the blanket and gasping for air, but he was awake now and he knew who she was and he knew where he was. He started to calm down.
Belle smiled and put a gentle hand on his arm and he breathed a sigh of relief.
“Are you alright now?” she asked him.
Heyes nodded. “Yeah,” he breathed in between gulps of air. But it was starting to slow down and his heart was not longer attacking the inside of his rib cage. “Sorry. I... didn’t mean....ta'...wake you.”
She sat down on the bed beside him. “You didn't wake me. I was already up. I couldn't sleep and thought that I would make some tea.” And just then they both heard the kettle on the stove start to whistle. She laughed. “See? Why don't you join me? A cup of tea might just be the ticket.”
Heyes nodded. “Yeah.”
She smiled again, and patting his knee, she stood up and leaving the light there she made her way back into the kitchen and Heyes could hear her striking up another light so that she could complete making the tea.
He took a deep breath and gave himself a few more minutes to calm down. He rubbed his eyes and then ran his hands through the stubble that was the beginnings of his hair growing back. He groaned quietly to himself.“Oh Doc....” he mumbled. “you're just gonna keep on haunting me until I finally get the message, aren't ya'? Well, you can stop now Doc, cause I think I finally got it.”
Then, just as he had done at David's place, Heyes pulled on his socks and grabbing the blanket he wrapped it around himself just as much out of modesty as for warmth this time. He took the lamp with him and padded quietly out to the dinning table and sat down.
Belle came in from the kitchen with two cups and the tea pot on a tray and setting them down on the table she then embarrassed Heyes a little bit (but not too badly) by giving him yet another of many heartfelt hugs. Then she smiled and sitting down beside him she poured the tea.“I hope you don't mind,” she said quietly.
“Mind what?”“It has occurred to me that both myself and Beth give you hugs every time we see you,” she pointed out.
Heyes smiled then too. “No,” he assured her honestly. “I'm not really sure how to respond to them, but it actually feels kind of nice.”
“It's just that we're so glad to have you home again Joshua,” Belle explained. “We've missed you so much. Being able to hug you I suppose helps to reaffirm the fact that you are actually here!”
Heyes laughed softly. “I know what you mean. You and Beth have my permission to carry on giving hugs!”
A slight expression of concern crossed over Belle's eyes as Heyes picked up his tea cup; his hand was still shaking just a little bit.
“Do you have those nightmares often?” she asked him gently.
“Almost every night,” Heyes admitted and then sent a quick glance over to the door of the first bedroom. “I'm surprised Kid didn't wake up.”
“You really didn't make much noise.” Belle assured him. “As I said; I only heard you because I was already awake.”
Heyes nodded acceptance of that.
“Do you want to talk about them?” Belle asked him, keeping her voice gentle and reassuring.
Heyes sent her a quick, self-conscious smile and then contemplated his tea cup again.
“They vary,” he finally said. “Often I'm going through the punishments again only worse.” Then a soft ironic chuckle. “If that can be even possible; the reality of them was bad enough. But in the dreams I'm actually being pulled apart and it's just......”
He stopped then as a tremble went through him, the fear clutching his throat. He took a deep shuttering breath and ran a hand over his hair. Belle tried hard not to be too much of a mother and sat quietly, waiting for him to continue.
“Then the other dream I have over and over again is about the doctor out there who was killed,” Heyes explained to her. “Those dreams are so real, I would swear that they're actually happening and I'm not sure what to do about them.”“How do you mean?” Belle asked.
Heyes looked at her then, concern and confusion in his eyes. Then he took a deep breath and went for it. “We all know that it was an inmate named Boeman who murdered the Doc—we saw the assault. But now Doc is coming to me in my dreams, insisting that it wasn't Boeman, but the senior guard Carson who actually killed him, and...” here Heyes smiled nervously, preparing to be ridiculed. “and the Doc wants me to prove it and get some justice for him.”“Well...” Belle stated as she poured more tea. “dreams are very strange things. Most of them don't mean anything at all—simply reactions to what has been going on in our lives and in our waking thoughts—like those punishments. But others can be very vivid and they tend to stay with us when the other dreams fade away. I'm not sure what those dreams mean—if anything. Perhaps it's simply your own sub-conscience that's nagging at you. Maybe you know something about it that you don't know you know.” She smiled. “If you know what I mean.” Heyes nodded. “Remember that day of your arrest Joshua?”
Heyes' mouth hardened for an instant and a great sadness passed through his eyes. “Yeah,” he whispered.
Belle smiled and put a reassuring hand on his arm again. “Remember what I told you about Beth?” Heyes sent her an enquiring look. “About her premonitions?”
“Oh! Yes,” Heyes nodded. “yes, I remember that now.”
“They came true didn't they?” Belle pointed out. “Not only in the way she hoped they would, but also her insistence that she and Thaddeus had something important to do together—some quest, or mission. Well, obviously that mission was saving you! Getting you out of that horrid place was always on her mind, always her motivation. She did a lot to support Thaddeus throughout those years, encouraged him to keep going on those occasions when he felt like giving up! She's still determined to keep after the Board of Directors in order to bring about some reform. Perhaps she and that guard will end up combining forces.”
“Warden,” Heyes corrected her. Belle's eyebrows asked the question. “Kenny's the warden out there now.”
“Oh, of course!” Belle laughed. “I'd forgotten that—so many changes!”
Heyes hardly heard her, he was contemplating his tea cup. “I owe Beth a lot,” he said quietly. “She accomplished so much more than I ever would have thought possible.”
“Yes, she did,” Belle agreed, pride in her daughter shining through. “But the point I'm trying to make here is that there is so much more to who we are and what we are capable of than what we are even able to understand. I can't explain Beth's premonitions, but there is certainly no denying them. It's the same thing with these dreams you're having. Just because you don't understand them at this point, doesn't mean there isn't something to them. Perhaps it is something that's worth looking into. At the very least, you could talk to David about it, he might have a better understanding of these things. I don't know.”
Heyes sighed and took another drink from his cup, his expression thoughtful. “David does seem to have certain insights into a lot of different things, but....” he shrugged. “I donno. I seem to be burdening him a lot these days.”
Belle laughed. “He lives for things like this!” she insisted. “I don't think I've ever met a young man with David's sense of compassion for people. It's as though he feels that he's not fulfilling his purpose in life if he isn't helping someone.” She patted Heyes' arm again. “I wouldn't worry about 'burdening' him, Joshua and he just might be able to help you, if not with the dreams themselves then at least in letting you get a good night's sleep.”
“I'll drink to that!”
The next morning Belle and Beth were up early and busy getting everything ready for the family visit that had been so eagerly anticipated by the feminine contingency of the Jordan extended family. Well, that's not entirely true actually—Jesse was also looking forward to his eldest daughter coming to see them. Not only to reassure himself of her continued well-being after the difficult birth of her first child, but to also meet his first grandchild as well. This was a special day for everyone.
The train from Denver had arrived fairly late the previous evening, so the young Granger family, along with Clementine had stayed at the hotel for what remained of the night. The following morning, Jesse had harnessed up Monty and driven into town himself to pick them up and bring them out to the ranch. The Gibson's were also going to be joining the gathering out at the Double J for the belated 'welcoming home' party so it was going to be a full house. Everyone was excited; like Christmas and the 4th of July all rolled into one!
Heyes had spent the morning brushing Karma and getting re-acquainted. He had forgotten how soothing it could be to stand quietly in a barn yard on a warm spring day and simply spend time with his horse. To add to this serene picture, the three dogs were also in attendance but were stretched out in the sunshine, snoozing and daydreaming and occasionally flicking an ear at an early fly.
He was still occupying himself with this pleasurable pass time when he heard the jangle of harness and the clop, clop of horses’ hooves coming down the lane, informing him that the beginnings of their company had indeed arrived. He stepped away from his horse and glanced down the lane and then smiled in anticipation.
Both surreys were coming together; the Jordan/Granger brood in one conveyance and the Gibson party in the following one. Heyes stepped out to take the head of the leading horse so that Jesse could step down and take over that position and then before he knew it he was being surrounded by feminine attention.
“Oh Joshua—I mean Hannibal!” came Bridget's high pitched greeting. “How wonderful to see you!”
“Heyes!” Clementine was a close second. “Haven't you gained any weight yet? You still look like a drowned scarecrow!”
Heyes grinned as both ladies were instantly upon him and hugs and kisses reigned supreme. He laughed with their contagious high spirits.
“Hello Bridget! Hey Clementine!” he greeted them back. “Ohh! It's so good to see you!”
It was then that Steven joined the group and Heyes looked up from the gaggle of female attention and noticed the small bundle that was being gently carried in the proud father's arms.
“Oh,” Heyes breathed a smile. “Is that Rosie?”
Both Bridget and Steven beamed their pleasure.
“Yes,” Bridget radiated love. “Come and meet her Hannibal, she's so precious.”
Heyes stepped forward and peered into the bundle, and then much to the ex-con's surprise, Steven settled the little creature into his arms. So before Heyes had a chance to decline the honor, he found himself cradling the infant and looking down into a quiet chubby little face accentuated by tiny clenched fists.
Heyes grinned and with his free arm he gave Bridget an embrace and kissed her on the forehead.
Bridget put her arms around her friend and hugged him close.
“We were thinking of calling her 'Hannibal' if she'd been a boy, but then for a girl, we thought...Hannah-Belle...?”
“Ha!” Heyes laughed. “Don't you dare!” Then he smiled over to Steven. “She's perfect just the way she is.”
Then Heyes happened to glance over at the house and met the eyes of his cousin. Jed was standing on the front porch, watching this exchange and smiling with delight. It did his heart good to see Heyes surrounded by friends and family and so obviously enjoying himself and feeling like he did indeed belong here. The two friends locked eyes for a moment and then Heyes again gazed down at the infant in his arms.
He gently stroked her face and then, just as J.J. had done to Jed five years before, little Rosa responded by emitting a huge yawn and then clamping down on the finger with her tiny fist and refusing to let go.
Heyes couldn't look at her long enough to take her in. He seemed lost in a world all his own and remembering the last time he'd held an infant girl in his arms and thought how beautiful she was.
Then she started to fuss a little bit and a cry was beginning to take a foothold so Heyes wisely decided it was time to hand the infant back over to her mother. Bridget took her in her arms and began to sooth her and then hugged her close.
“I should go inside and feed her,” the new mother announced. “She probably is quite hungry after the excitement of the train ride and the night at a new hotel.”
“Yeah alright.” Heyes agreed. “I'll see you in there.”
The Grangers headed over towards the house and Heyes looked up to find himself locking eyes with Miranda. She and the Gibson's had arrived right behind the Granger's and had exited their surrey just in time to witness the exchange between Heyes and the infant. Tricia and David were busy talking to Jesse, since they had already had their introductions to the new arrival, but Miranda had hesitated and found herself mesmerized by this 'conman' who seemed so entranced by the new little life form.
Realizing that she had been caught staring, Miranda smiled and then looked away. She felt very confused. From the descriptions that others had given her of this man she had expected either a loud, boisterous lout or a quiet, smooth talking perhaps even a bit slimy, confidence man trying to weasel his way into her trust. Or perhaps those were just the images she had conjured up for herself in order to stay safe from him.
Whatever the reason for her preconceptions, this man was quite different from anything she had imagined. That first night when they had arrived from Laramie. she had been caught off guard by his genuine demeanour. She had been all prepared to dislike him. He was an outlaw, having done time in prison! He was a master at deception, at manipulation; he could not possibly be likable, he could not possibly be vulnerable!
She was not some flighty maiden who was easily impressed! She was a widow woman who was well aware of men and their seductions, and she had prepared herself to not be taken in by him. But then he had looked so flustered over the mistaken identity in the Gibson's kitchen, that she had felt her heart go out to him. But that wasn't 'love'--certainly not! She wasn't looking for that yet; she wasn't ready for that yet! It was simply compassion.
And then he had taken her hand and looked into her eyes and her heart had skipped a beat or two. And the moment seemed an eternity, and she looked at him and didn't see a bald headed scrawny ex-convict, or a slick, overbearing conman. What she saw was a gentle soul and warm heart and though she wasn't quite ready to accept it yet; from that moment on she was lost in him.
And now again, she had been caught staring! She quickly turned away and followed Clementine into the house to see if Belle needed any help getting the meal prepared. There was always plenty to do to keep the ladies busy while the men stood around chatting. Always plenty to do.
The mid-day dinner was an unqualified success, of course! Beth and Bridget sat down on either side of their friend and one or the other of them always had a hand on his lap or touch to his arm and occasionally even an all out hug from the side, filled with smiles and fondness.
Heyes wasn't quite sure how to respond to so much physical affection, but eventually he simply accepted it. Occasionally he would send a self-conscious smile over to Steven or to Jed, knowing that these were their ladies giving him so much attention, but neither of them seemed to mind. In fact, Jed himself was grinning from ear to ear and couldn't have been more pleased with the support that his partner was receiving from the two young women.
Steven didn't seem to mind either and though he sent the occasional glance over to his wife, he spent much of the time talking with Jesse and David. Both those gentlemen, along with Belle were being very patient and supportive of Steven with his apparent obsession with his new daughter. Apparently it was all the young man seemed capable of talking about!
Tricia, Clementine and Miranda floated about the conversations at the table and joined in on which ever one caught their interest at any given moment. Tricia and Belle enjoyed listening to Steven talking about his new family, but Clem and Randa found it hard to relate and joined in with Beth and Bridget talking about the horses and the ranch and the up coming dances that were planned. Clem was constantly cajoling Heyes into eating more, since his appetite still seemed to be lacking despite the excellent meal whereas Randa simply enjoyed listening to the flow of the conversation.
After the meal was over and the clearing up quickly dispensed with, everyone broke up into groups and carried on with conversation. Coffee had been put on and things seemed to be settling down into a quiet afternoon. But then, of course when children are present, pandemonium is bound to break out sooner or later and sure enough all three youngsters started expressing their negative views all at the same time. Or, more precisely; one got started with the complaints and the other two just naturally joined in!
Heyes was finding this all a little too much too soon and with a freshly poured cup of coffee, he discreetly made his exit out to the front porch and settled himself into one of the chairs there. He really appreciated the warm affection and loving support that he was receiving here on this day, but, as stated, he was finding it all somewhat overwhelming. The three children starting in on their verbal complaints was the final straw and he had to get away for some quiet.
He sat back in the chair with a deep contented sigh and took a sip of his coffee. He smiled as he savoured the strong flavour of it, secure in the knowledge that his taste buds were finally getting back to normal. Maybe he could enjoy a nice juicy beef steak right about now. Hmm, time to have a talk with the chef—this was a cattle ranch after all!
The day was perfect. Not too hot but just warm enough to be pleasant. It was a beautiful day and Heyes smiled to himself. He knew he still had a long way to go to recover from the ordeals of his incarceration but, at least when he was awake, he knew that he was indeed a relatively free man. Yes; there were conditions to his freedom but he could live with those—for now anyways. It was a whole lot better than the alternative!
One of the barn cats suddenly appeared out of nowhere and jumped up onto his lap. Heyes was startled slightly but quickly regained his composure as the feline began to purr and need his leg. Heyes smiled and began to scratch the cat behind the ears and it leaned into his hand and assisted with the rubbing.
“Ouch! That hurts you know,” Heyes commented as the needing became more intense. But the cat just purred louder and demanded more attention. Funny thing, Heyes mused; cats never used to come up to him.
It was then that he heard the screen door open and close, and the cat made an instant dash for cover, as Heyes glanced up to see who was joining him. Miranda stopped short, almost spilling her own cup of coffee in her consternation at finding herself intruding on another's privacy.
“Oh! Hannibal. I'm sorry,” she apologized. “I didn't realize you were out here.”
“No, that's quite alright,” Heyes smiled at her as he stood up and offered her his chair. “Please, sit down.”
“Oh don't be silly,” she said, waving him aside. “Sit back down! There are plenty of other chairs here.”
And in proving the point, she grabbed another chair and pulling it over, sat down beside a grinning Heyes.
“I hope you don't mind,” she continued. “I didn't mean to intrude on you, but I'm just not used to all this noise. I never had children of my own and I even find Nathaniel a bit tiring at times. So to get all three of them going at once! It's just beyond my bearing.”
“No apologies necessary,” Heyes assured her. “Why do you think I'm out here?”
Randa settled back in her chair and taking a sip from her coffee, she contemplated the man sitting across from her. She really had no idea what to make of him. Even the descriptions from people who knew him well were full of contradictions and ambiguities. She found herself attracted to him, but afraid of the attraction as well.
There was a strained silence for a moment and both took a sip of coffee. Heyes, who normally was a very confident heterosexual found himself unsure of the next move. He knew he was attracted to this woman but didn't know if he was ready to pursue it or not. His encounter with Marion was still too fresh in his mind and he was scared to death of making a mockery of himself again.
Finally, he picked what he thought would be a safe topic.
“Kid tells me that you're a widow,” he stated, trying to be casual and then instantly regretted the remark as being far too personal. Obviously he didn't know Miranda very well yet and hadn't come to realize that to her, nothing was too personal. She had focused on something else.
“Kid?” she asked, slightly confused. And then....” Ohhh, you mean Jed.”
Heyes smiled, feeling out of the loop. “Yes, I suppose I mean Jed.”
“Nobody really calls him 'Kid' here—well except for your friend, Clementine, and I've only just met her,” Miranda explained. “It sounds odd to me, but if it's what you're used to.”
“I suppose everyone has moved on,” Heyes commented. “perhaps it's time I did too.”
“Don't do it on my account!” Randa insisted. “Both of you seem to have more names than royalty! It's just a matter of picking one you like and sticking with it!”
“And to answer your question; yes. I am a widow.”“I'm sorry,” Heyes responded. “I didn't mean to pry.”
“Oh, pry away!” Randa told him. “Everyone here knows it anyways—it's not like it's a secret.”Heyes smiled again, another sip of coffee. “How do you like living here in Brookswood?” he finally asked her, thinking that this was probably a more suitable question to ask someone he hardly knew.
Miranda smiled and sat back with a sigh. “I do like it here,” she stated. “I wasn't too sure at first, it's quite a bit smaller than what I'm used to. But the people are very nice.” Then her smile turned to what might have been called 'shy' if Miranda could ever be considered shy. “and the more people I meet the more I like the town.” She sent him a slightly coyish look.
“That's nice,” Heyes responded, the subtle hint going right over his head. He really wasn't on top form these days. “So do you think you'll be staying?”
“I think so, yes. I'm already looking around for a place to buy,” she admitted. “I've been staying at the boarding house but I still seem to spend most of my time over at Trich and David's place. So I think it's probably time I got my own abode. So I suppose that means that I'm staying.”
“Good,” Heyes smiled at her. “Give us a chance to get to know one another.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
Then the screen door opened again and Jesse poked his head out.
“Here's where you two have gotten to,” he observed. “C'mon back inside....” he smiled slyly. “...something important is about to happen!”
“Oh!” Heyes commented and then standing, he offered his free hand to the lady.
Randa smiled and accepted it and the two of them entered the house together.
Sure enough, the children had all been settled down either to play or sleep and the adults of the gathering were all standing around the table again. Jesse was taking down a bottle of 'the good stuff' while Belle was discreetly getting glasses ready. Beth and Jed were standing at the head of the table, both of them looking nervous, but pleased as well.
As soon as Heyes entered the room, Jed met his eye and smiled. Heyes nodded back to him, pretty sure he knew what was about to happen. Everyone was in an expectant silence—this had been a long time coming, after all!
Jed nervously cleared his throat and took hold of Beth's hand. “Well now that you're all here,” he started. “we have an announcement to make. I know it's been a long time coming and some of you...” a quick glance to Heyes here.... “didn't mind telling me that I was taking too long, but certain things had to happen first and well, now they have. So, with Jesse and Belle's permission I have asked Beth to be my wife and she has most graciously accepted my offer.”
A huge collective sigh of relief went around the table and then everyone was coming forward to congratulate the couple with handshakes and back slaps and kisses on the cheek.
“That's wonderful! When is the big day?”
“Oh dear!” came Clem's voice from the crowd. “another wedding to plan—a best friend's job is never done!”
“It's about time! Beginning to think you were never going to get around to it!”
“Well, come on everyone!” Jesse announced as he commenced to pour spirits into the glasses. “A toast to the happy news—and the happy couple!”
Everyone gathered around and helped themselves to a glass. Heyes procured two and handed one to Randa who smiled at him with sparkles in her eyes. Heyes was grinning over at his partner; he was genuinely pleased for him, but a little anxious too. Their lives were moving ahead so quickly now. So many changes, so many new relationships that the ex-convict felt his head spinning. This was going to change their lives and though it was bound to happen sooner or later, and Heyes had pushed his cousin to go for it, now that it was happening, Heyes couldn't help but feel just a little scared. And a little jealous.
Then he felt a gentle hand on his arm. He glanced down to find Randa sending him a quizzical look.
"Are you alright?” she mouthed quietly.
Heyes smiled, not realizing that he had been that easy to read.
“Yes,” he assured her.
Then Jesse called the room to attention.
“Now, I'm sure that everyone in this room is acquainted with the history of these two fine young men we have living with us now,” he began with a smile to both Heyes and Jed, and then those two gentlemen sent each other quick, almost embarrassed smiles. “Who would have thought that their chance meeting with my wife nearly ten years ago would have brought us all here to this place, on this day. We knew, way back then that you were family—both of you. And like with all families we've had our ups and downs.” This was met with some chuckles and head nodding. “But now we stand here at the announcement of Jed and Beth's betrothal and I could not be happier. Indeed, both of my daughters have chosen well. Bethany, I could not be prouder of you. You have grown into a beautiful young woman and I still marvel at your tenacity and your wisdom.”
Beth smiled at her father, fighting tears. “Thank you Papa.”
“And after you're a married woman, I still expect you to keep the books here!” Jesse reminded her. “Goodness knows we would probably go under if it was left to me!” This comment was met with more laughing and some head nodding. Everyone knew that Beth was the one who had a head for business.
“Jed, it was a little shaky at first I have to admit,” Jesse continued. “but you've stayed the ground and you've proven yourself over and over to be worthy of my daughter. I won't say 'welcome' to the family since I just stated that you already are family, so perhaps I should just say that I'm pleased that you decided to make it official.” Then Jesse raised his glass. “To Jed and Beth, on the occasion of their betrothal!”
Everyone raised their glasses and clinked onto as many other glasses as they could.
“To Jed and Beth!”
“Ahh, I'd like to say something if I may,” Heyes requested, feeling a little awkward.
Everyone quieted down and all eyes turned to Heyes. He smiled nervously and could feel Miranda's hand gently squeeze his arm. He wondered fleetingly why that would make him feel comforted.
“Well,” he began with a deep breath. “I'm real happy for ya' Kid—or perhaps I should be calling you Jed now. I don't know—you'll always be 'Kid' to me, I suppose. Anyway, I know you both waited a long time for this, and I know why you waited. I kept on telling you not to—that you should just get on with your lives, but deep inside, I suppose, I'm glad you didn't listen to me. You were always there for me, Kid, even when I pushed you away, you kept right on coming back, and I want to thank you for that. You're the best partner a man could have.”
Then he turned to the young lady who was holding onto his partner's arm. “Beth, you have a man there who can be just as stubborn as you are, just as tenacious, and just as loyal and true, and I want to thank you, from the bottom of my heart. You have no idea how scared I was, that he was going to wind up marrying one of the 'needy' folk! Thank you for stepping in and preventing that disaster!”
Everyone laughed. Jed grinned over at his partner, shaking his head. Trust Heyes to come out with that one. Heyes raised his glass. “To Jed and Beth; two of the best friends a man could ever have.”
“To Jed and Beth!”
More clinking of glasses and drinking of spirits, not to mention more back slapping and then everyone started to mingle. Beth came straight over to Heyes and hugged him.
“Thank you, Hannibal,” she said. “I'm so pleased that you're here with us now, and that you'll be at our wedding.”
“Well, thank you,” Heyes returned. “You had a lot to do with bringing all this about, and I'm never going to forget that.”
She smiled and hugged him again. Then her sister called her from the other side of the room.
“Beth!” Bridget waved her over. “Come on! We want to see your ring!”
“Oh yes! Of course!” and then with a quick kiss to Heyes' cheek and a squeeze to her betrothed arm, she hurried over to the group of females and the high spirited admiration began.
Jed turned to his cousin and shook his hand.
“Heyes, thank you,” he said. “Are you okay with this? I know it's a lot all at once.”
Heyes smiled, waving Jed's concerns away.
“No, I'm fine,” he said. “I'm happy for ya', Kid, really.”
“The 'needy' folk?”
“Well! I have to admit you had me worried there on occasion!”
Jed laughed and pulled his cousin into a hug “Naw—I think I'm done with the needy folk for awhile!”
“Ahh, Hannibal,” Randa broke in on them. “I think I'd better do the supportive woman thing and go admire Beth's ring. I'll see you later.”
“Oh yes,” Heyes smiled at her. “I'll look forward to it.”
Heyes looked round again and found Jed grinning at him with that wicked sparkle in his eye.
“What?” Heyes asked him.
“What!” Kid repeated and then laughed again. “Don't give me that! I'm seein' sparks!”
“What?” Heyes tried to sound innocent. “You mean between me and Miranda?”
“Uh huh,” Kid nodded.
“Oh no....I mean.... no. That's nothing.”
Then David joined the partners and shook Jed's hand.
“Congratulations Jed,” he said. “Nice to see it all finally coming together.”
“Yeah David. Thanks.”
“Any ideas as to the date?”
“Ahh, can't say as we've really discussed that part yet,” Jed admitted. “Probably later in the summer.”
David nodded. “Summer weddings are always nice.” He took a sip of his drink and then looked to Hannibal. “How are you holding up Han? Belle tells me you're still having those bad dreams.”
Heyes' shoulders slumped. There is just no keeping secrets in a small town. Still, he had planned on talking to David about it anyways.
“Belle knows about your nightmares?” Jed asked.
“Well yeah,” Heyes admitted. “She walked in on one of them the other night.”
“WHAT!” Jed was instantly alarmed. “She didn't touch you did she?”
Heyes furrowed his brow. “No,” he answered him, wondering at the concern. “She woke me up with the light from the lamp.”
“Oh good.” Jed was instantly relieved.
“Yes,” David agreed. “It's not wise to touch someone who's having a nightmare. The person who's asleep could think that you're actually part of the dream and lash out at you.”
“Yeah, no foolin'!” was Jed's caustic remark. “I found that out the hard way.”
Both Heyes and David sent Jed speculative looks.
“Did you wake Hannibal up from one of his nightmares?” David asked him. “by touching him, or shaking him?”
“I don't remember that,” Heyes commented.
“Well that's cause ya' didn't wake up!” Kid told him. “You damn near choked me to death and you were asleep the whole dang time!”
“Oh,” Heyes swallowed and paled slightly.
“Aww jeez, Heyes,” Kid was instantly contrite. “I'm sorry. There I go mouthin' off again. I wasn't even gonna tell ya' about that.”
Heyes looked down at the floor. “I'm sorry,” he said quietly. “I didn't mean....”
“No, I know ya' didn't mean to Heyes,” Jed put a hand on Heyes' shoulder. “You were asleep. That's why I wasn't gonna say anything. And I shouldn't 'a.”
"No, actually it's a good think you did,” David assured him. “It's important that you know how serious these nightmares are, Hannibal. It's not surprising that you would be suffering from them at this point, but I think you still need to talk about them. Get them out in the open. I'll be finished my rounds in the morning tomorrow, why don't you come by after lunch and we'll talk.”
Heyes looked a little reluctant but accepted the offer anyways.
“Yeah alright David. I'll come by.”
“Good! We can work on your shoulders then too!”
Heyes groaned; he'd walked right into that one.
“Anyway, it's probably time we headed for home,” the doctor announced and then downed the rest of his drink in one go. “I just need to collect the two ladies and track down the wayward son! Jed, again; congratulations. I won't say you'll make a fine couple, because you already are that. It's just nice to see it all coming together for you.”
“Yeah, thanks David,” the two friends shook hands again and David went off in search of his wife.
Heyes and Kid locked eyes.
“I'm sorry, Kid,” Heyes apologized again. He just couldn't believe he'd done that.
“No, Heyes. C'mon,” Jed smiled at him. “Everything's alright, and I learned a real valuable lesson!” Then he wrapped his arm around his cousin's shoulders and steered him over towards the table. “Have another drink Heyes, on me! We're celebrating!”
Spring moved into summer, and Heyes was slowly beginning to feel like his old self again. His hair was growing back, even to the point where Belle had to cut it, to keep it from totally taking over his head. He was slowly putting on weight, too slowly, according to some, but still in accordance with who he was. And though he had not been able to finish his first piece of steak, he had enjoyed in immensely and had even managed to keep it down.
Jesse was working him lightly, keeping him busy tending to the home barn and livestock and, Heyes was actually enjoying it. He could feel himself getting stronger, getting back into condition and the warm summer days made working outside a pleasure. Especially when he could take time out to spend time with his mare.
The bond between them hadn't needed any time to re-establish itself, it'd been there right from that first day of his return. Even in the mornings when Heyes would enter the barn for the first feeding, her nicker of greeting was just as much for his company as it was for the anticipated meal. She'd nod her head as he approached her stall and would nibble on his buttons and breathe tickling whiskers into his neck, and he'd laugh and stroke her head and whisper endearments to her. She was in her glory, and with her, he was slowly beginning to heal.
“How are things going between you and Miranda?” Kid asked his partner, while they were out mending fences.
Heyes shrugged. “I donno,” he mumbled and then proceeded to bang a nail into the post, securing the wire in place.
The two men were sitting in the grass along the fence line, tackling a particularly nasty tangle of barbed wire and getting it all straightened out, so it could be reattached to the post. Karma and Gov were happily grazing close by with no intentions of going anywhere.
“What do ya' mean 'Ya' don't know'?” Kid pushed. “You've been seeing her haven't ya'?”
Heyes shrugged again. “Yeah. Sorta. Casual like, you know.”
Kid put down his hammer with a sighed, feeling a little frustrated with his friend's ambiguousness. “Well, the 4th of July dance is coming up pretty quick, have ya' asked her to go with ya'?”
“WELL WHY NOT!?”
Heyes cringed and then shrugged again. “I donno. Do ya' think I should?”
Kid looked at his cousin with mouth hanging open. He still had a hard time dealing with this new 'Heyes'; he wasn't used to seeing his cousin so insecure and undecided about issues. that the pre-prison Heyes would have had no trouble at all dealing with.
“Yeah, I think you should ask her,” Jed finally stated, trying to keep his tone neutral and his frustration hidden. “You like her, don't ya'?”
“She obviously likes you,” Jed stated. “so what's the problem?”
Heyes busied himself with beating up a nail.
“Heyes—what's the problem?”
“I donno,” another shrug. “I just.... I don't think I'm ready yet.”
“What's there to be ready for?” Kid asked him. “It's not like you're gonna.....you know. Not on a first date! It'll just be fun. You'll see; we always have a good time at the 4th of July dance—everybody will be there. And believe me, if you don't ask Miranda to go with you, there's a couple of other fellas who wouldn't mind, I can tell ya' that!”
“Really?” Heyes asked him. “Maybe she'd rather go with someone else.”
“Heyes, just ask her, will ya'?” Kid pushed him. “Let the lady decide for herself. Okay?”
Heyes smiled quietly, “Yeah, okay.”
“Good! Glad we got that settled,” Jed grumbled and then went back to untangling wire. “Maybe after that, we can go visit Kenny and his family. You want to do that next month, Heyes? You up to that?”
“Yeah, I suppose,” Heyes sounded a little nervous about it though. “I'm not looking forward to reporting in to that Sheriff, but if Kenny can let him know before hand, that we're coming, and why –maybe he'll be nice about it.”
“Good. I'll send Kenny a telegram to let him know, and we'll go see him,” Kid decided. “We can go meet up with Lom too, if you want. You can meet his wife.”
“They'll be coming to your wedding, won't they?” Heyes asked.
“Yeah, I expect so,” Kid agreed. “but that's not until the end of August. Don't you want to meet Martha?”
“Yeah, of course I do, Kid,” Heyes insisted. “Of course. It's just.... yeah, of course I do.”
Jed frowned and sent a look over to his cousin, but Heyes ignored him and busied himself with the banging of nails.
A couple of days later Heyes was once again sitting in David's office with his shirt off and his jaw clenched.
“Try to breathe, Hannibal,” David advised yet again.
“I know! I am trying!” Heyes sounded exasperated. “Is there ever going to be time when this doesn't hurt?”
“We'll get there,” David assured him. “It took a long time for Jed to heal up, but he's doing quite well now, isn't he?”
Heyes nodded, “Yeah. He is.”“We'll get you there too,” David told him. “It's just takes time.”
“You're looking better though,” David noticed. “You've put on a little weight and getting some muscle tone back. How are you feeling? Have the nightmares eased off at all?”
Heyes sighed as David massaged some salve into the now sore muscles.
“Not really,” Heyes admitted. “The sleeping draft you gave me does help, and it does seem to calm the worst of the nightmares down but I'm still getting them.”“Dr. Morin still haunting you?”
Heyes gave a sardonic laugh. “Yeah! He's been getting downright insulting too,” he admitted. “I just don't know what to do about it. My brain just doesn't seem to want to go there. Whenever I think back to that day in the infirmary, nothing makes sense. If it was Carson who killed the Doc after we left, I just don't know how to prove it. I have nothing to go on.”
“Hmm,” David thought about it. “Is there anybody else who was there who might know something more?”
“Yeah,” Heyes told him. “Harris! But nobody knows where he is. A couple of our friends are looking for him—oh! Well, Kyle! You remember Kyle, from the prison?”
“Oh yes,” David nodded. “That odd little man who always seemed so happy.”
“Yeah,” Heyes agreed with a smile. “Well apparently Kid and Steven Granger are paying Kyle and well, an associate of his to track Harris down, but he's gone to ground, and he's not too likely to give himself up for this. Morin was nothing to him.”“Given the right incentive, he might be willing to talk,” David pointed out. He had noticed Heyes' hesitation in giving away too many details but decided to ignore it. Some things were best left alone. “If your friends do find him, perhaps some sort of agreement can be reached in exchange for any information. You never know.”
“Yeah,” Heyes didn't sound too optimistic. “Well, we're going to go visit Kenny next month. Maybe he'll have some ideas.”
“Yes. He strikes me as a very resourceful individual,” David observed. “I'm sure he'll be of help. In the mean time though, you still need to take things easy. Don't push yourself too hard. You still have a lot of things to adjust to here, and your dreams are letting you know that, you're still trying to deal with it all. One step at a time. Okay?”
Then they heard the front door opening, and women's voices coming down the hallway.
“Sounds like the ladies are back from shopping,” David announced.
Then the sound of thump, thump, thumping of little boy feet running towards the office, instantly followed by the door banging open and the little boy himself putting in an appearance.
“Papa! We're home!”
“Yes, I heard,” David commented.
Nathan saw the visitor and brightened up even more. “Han'bul! We're home!”
Heyes smiled at him. “So I see.”Then Nathaniel's childish brow furrowed, and he pursed his lips. “Wha's those lines on you' back?”
“Nathan, what did I tell you about coming into my office?” his father interrupted. “What are you supposed to do?”
Nathan instantly looked contrite and shuffled his feet. “I suppose ta' knock first and then wait, 'till you say 'okay'.”
“That's right,” David told him. “I'm with a patient now. You go back to the kitchen and help your mother. Hannibal will come out and see you, when we're done.”
Looking at the two men under his brows, Nathan reached up to grab the door handle, and then closed the door as he backed out of the office. Instantly the reprimand was forgotten, and the thumping of little boy feet could be heard heading back towards the kitchen again.
“Mama want help?” the distant query drifting back to them.
“Sorry about that,” said David. “Curiosity before manners, I'm afraid.”
“He's a fine boy, David,” Heyes told him. “No need to apologize.”
David grinned. “Okay, I think we're done here for now,” he said. “Put your shirt back on and I think we can go for a week now before your next treatment.”
“Oh!” Heyes was pleased about that.
“Just remember to keep up with the stretching,” the doctor reminded him. “That's important.”
“Yes, I know,” Heyes commented dryly. “Kid won't let me get away with forgetting about it.”
And the two men made their way out towards the kitchen, while Heyes tucked in his shirt and collected up his belongings. Then, suddenly, he felt very awkward, when he found himself in Miranda's company again. He smiled at her and then looked away, biting his lower lip.
“Find anything interesting?” David asked his wife.
“Maybe,” Tricia answered him. “We went to take a look at that nice little cottage just one block over from here. You know, the one that the Mulroney's have for sale? I think Miranda likes it.” And she smiled over at her cousin.
“Yes!” Randa agreed. “It's perfect. I think I'll go speak with the seller tomorrow and see what we can arrange.”
“Well, good,” said David. “That is a nice little place, and close enough to be handy. If you have any problems setting up the sale, let me know. I'll vouch for you.”
Miranda smiled and nodded her thanks. This was followed by an awkward silence, and Tricia exchanged a quick look with her cousin.
“Ah, David,” his wife commented. “there's something I need to talk with you about—in your office.”
“Now?” David asked with a creased brow. “Don't you think we should....”
“Now, David,” Tricia repeated pointedly.
David continued to look confused, until he glanced over at their guests, and noticed that both of them were sending him slightly embarrassed looks, and he finally got the message.“OH! Yes, of course,” he stammered. “Ah, we'll be right back. But not too soon—just....”
Quite suddenly, Heyes and Miranda found themselves alone. Heyes was embarrassed, to find himself actually fingering the brim of the new hat, that he was holding in his hands. Such a dead give away that he was nervous! Randa smiled at him.
“Well,” Heyes began. “it's nice to see you.”
“Hmm,” Randa nodded politely.
“You're thinking of buying the Mulroney place?”
“Yes. I think it would suit.”
“Hmm,” Heyes took a deep breath; this was ridiculous! “So... are you planning on going to the July 4th dance, here in town?”
“I had hoped to,” she answered rather pointedly.
“Oh. So....you've been asked then.”
“No. Though I sense the wolves circling.”
“Ah,” Heyes nodded. “Would you like to go with me? To save you from the wolves, that is.”
Randa smiled. “Well it's about time!” she responded with a smile. “I was beginning to think I was going have go with Floyd Rowlens, just in order to get there at all!”
Heyes snorted and then quickly put a hand to his mouth to try and cover it up. “Well, Floyd's not a bad fellow....”
“Right!” Miranda countered. “He's five years younger than I am, has no front teeth and smells like he only bathes for the holidays!”
Heyes chuckled again and then tried to put on a straight face, but his dimples still shone through.
“So I take it, of the two of us, you'd prefer to go with me, then?” he asked.
“Of course!” she assured him. “I was wondering what was taking you so long!”
“Oh sorry,” Heyes grinned a little abashedly. “I wasn't sure if you'd want to.”
“Well that's why you need to ask, isn't it?” she pointed out, coyly. “It's the only way to find out. That's always been my motto; if you want to know something, just ask!”
“Yes! You're quite right,” Heyes agreed with a laugh. “Good.”
Then he stopped smiling and he found himself trapped inside her dark blue eyes and suddenly he felt as though he couldn't breathe. It scared him; he wasn't sure if he was ready for this yet. But she was so pretty and he knew that he found her—enticing.
He stepped towards her and slipped his hand around her waist, bringing her in close to him. She didn't resist, and he could feel his heart pounding, and his fingers go numb. He didn't care, he'd come this far, he was going to see it through. He pulled her close to him, felt her body press up against his chest, and he held her with his eyes. He leaned in and kissed her on the lips. Full soft and moist—and gentle. She kissed him back and held him in that embrace for what seemed a long, long time.
He hadn't realized that he had closed his eyes, until he opened them again, and then he pulled away from her, and she smiled. Sweet and gentle. She opened her eyes again as well, and gazed at him, and he took in a deep, shuddering breath.
“Ahh....I'll see you on the 4th, then,” he stated rather lamely.
“I'll look forward to it,” she agreed. “Perhaps even sooner.”
Heyes swallowed and then regained some of his composure. “Yes. Perhaps. Good bye, for now.”
“Good bye, Hannibal.”
Heyes left the doctor's house, leaving Miranda standing alone in the kitchen. She put a hand on the back of one of the chairs to steady herself, and with her other hand up to her breast, she did the best that she could, to calm herself down.
This was unexpected. She had hoped that Hannibal would ask her, but she hadn't expected to feel such passion from just a simple kiss. This was frightening, this was happening too fast! Oh dear—this was happening way too fast. But wasn't it glorious!
Later that evening, after supper was done, Tricia and Randa were busy cleaning up the kitchen, while David had retreated to his office to bring the daily paperwork up to date. Nathan was sitting at the table, busy with coloring his pictures and not paying much attention to anything else.
“So?” Tricia nudged her cousin. “I've been nearly bursting all through supper—what happened?”
“When?” Randa teased.
“You know when!” Tricia laughed. “Did he finally get around to asking you?”
Randa smiled. “Yes,” and made a face, like; Oh oh, now what?
“It's about time!” Tricia commented. “It is what you wanted, isn't it?”
“Yes!” Randa agreed. “But now that he's asked, well, I have to admit, I'm rather nervous. Isn't that silly!? It's not like I'm a maiden! It's just that—I never saw myself getting involved with a....a... scoundrel!”
Tricia smiled slyly. “Scoundrel's can be fun.”
“Well yes, that's true!” Randa agreed. “But he's just such the opposite of William. William was an upstanding citizen—a solid business man. He was respected. Oh my goodness! He must be spinning in his grave right now! I've actually accepted an invitation to the dance with an ex-outlaw! A convict! A conman! Oh dear!” Suddenly her expression became reflective and a little worried. “How will I know if he's conning me? If he's just putting on an act? I remember reading about his trial, and how everyone was saying, how good he was at manipulating people! Top of the game! How will I know, if he's being honest with me?”
Tricia had dropped her teasing attitude and listened to her cousin's concerns, knowing that this was something that truly concerned her.
“I admit I don't really know Hannibal well, myself,” Tricia said. “all I can go on, is what others who do know him, say about him. Jesse and Belle are not foolish people. They would not allow either of those men into their home, if they didn't trust them. They certainly wouldn't be allowing Jed to marry Beth, if they had any doubts as to his character! And didn't you notice?” she continued on with a smile. “at the dinner last week—Belle was being so supportive of Hannibal; you can tell; she loves him very much. And even Jesse—who is no man's fool, was treating him like a long lost son. I don't think you need to worry about Hannibal deliberately trying to deceive you. And besides, it's just a dance! Go—have fun! There's no need for you to rush in to anything. And then, if he does turn out to be a 'scoundrel', well, we'll just hook him up with Isabelle!”
Miranda laughed with that. “Yes, of course! You're right!” she agreed. “I'm getting way ahead of myself and worrying over nothing! It's not like I'm in a hurry to get married again—I have a lot of time to pick and choose!” Then she sighed and smiled a little dreamily. “Still, he is very attractive, especially since he's put on some pounds. I can see a woman being drawn into those warm chocolate eyes of his and never wanting to come back out.”
Tricia smiled knowingly over at her cousin; it sounded to her, like Miranda had already gone past the point of no return.
The 4th of July came upon them quickly, and everyone had hurried through their morning chores in order to be in town in time for some of the afternoon festivities. As was normally the case, Jesse and Belle had no intentions of staying for the evening dancing. But they had agreed to do a fair share of the baby-sitting, along with Sam's mother, and Tricia's folks, in order for the younger adults to have a fun night out on the town.
The whole group were seated at tables in the town square, enjoying many of the culinary delights and the music coming to them from the local band, that had set themselves up over in the far corner. Jed sat and marveled at how this extended family unit had grown over the years, with both small and large humans being added, as time had gone on.
Sam and Maribelle with their two children, and Sam's mother had joined them this year. Todd was busy playing with his friend Jay, since the two were very similar in age, and Nathan had just naturally joined in. Next to them, Bridget and Steven had settled in with little Rosa, who was not too sure about all the strange noises surrounding her, but being a relatively good baby, she didn't fuss too much. Jesse and Belle were next at the table, and though Belle was still keeping a close eye on Jay, he was at an age now, where he demanded some independence, and she was an experienced enough mother to not stifle him.
Then, at the end of the table, was David and Tricia, with Tricia also keeping an eye on her son and not being quite as relaxed about it, as Belle was being. She was fussing more than the baby! Next to her, was Miranda, who was sitting back and being quite amused, by the family circus going on around her. Heyes sat next to her, looking a little shell shocked. He was still finding crowds hard to take, and the noise from the band, and the children screaming and laughing, was setting his nerves to jingling, but he was still doing his best to relax and enjoy the company.
Carol was sitting next to 'Mr. Heyes' and feeling quite honoured to be there, but it also put her in position to chat with Beth. who was sitting on her other side. The two of them, despite the age difference between them. had found many similar interests and had become fast friends. Then, next to Beth, was Jed, and he was grinning from ear to ear, his blue eyes sparkling with delight. He couldn't have been happier; Heyes had finally come home and they were with family—an ever expanding family, and life was good!
Last but not least to this celebratory group, was Clementine completing the circle, by sitting between Jed and Maribelle. Clem hadn't come to all the holiday outings, often preferring to stay home and entertain her own guests, but this was the first major event since Heyes had been released, and she was determined to be a part of it! Indeed, Clem had spent so much time with the Jordan's over the years and had become such good friends with Bridget, and Beth as well, though to a lesser degree, that she always felt welcome in their home and in their company.
Then, sure enough, wouldn't you know; the town vendor made an appearance selling popcorn and balloons! Every childish head in the vicinity jerked up and took note.
“Can we have some popcorn, Papa?”
“I have allowance coming don't I? I'm sure I do!”
Oh boy! All the fathers in attendance began to dig into pockets looking for loose change.
“Alright, here we go. How much?”
And the dealing began with numerous sets of young, eager eyes watching the financial exchange and waiting impatiently, for the bartering to come to a close. Soon, all the youngsters in attendance had a brightly colored balloon tied around their wrists and a bag of popcorn being given undivided attention.
The vendor moved on to his next victims.
“Does anyone have any plans for this afternoon?” Jesse asked the group.
Everyone looked around, shrugging their shoulders.
“Not really,” David finally vocalized. “Just walk around town, see the sights until the dance starts.”
“They have a shooting contest going on as usual,” Jesse pointed out with a smile. “you interested this year, Jed?”
“NO!” was Jed's adamant reply. “I'm gonna stay as far away from any shootin' contests, as I possibly can. Goddamn amateurs; they think, just cause they shoot a bunch 'a plates outa the air, suddenly they can take on a real gunfighter! I'm stayin' away from those yahoos!”
Most of the people at the table smiled, remembering Jed's first 4th of July encounter and could appreciate him not wanting a repeat of that episode. The others, who had not been present, just accepted his comments as common sense!
Then Heyes noticed, that the people sitting at their table facing him were suddenly focused on something happening behind him. He frowned, but then saw Jesse smile, and allowed himself to relax, but only until Jesse spoke.
“Good afternoon, Carl!” Jesse greeted the sheriff. “Quiet day so far?”
“Pretty quiet, yes,” Jacobs answered, and Heyes instantly tensed, realizing from the sheriff's voice, that the man was standing directly behind him. “It might get a little crazy tonight, but most of the folks in this town are pretty good.”
Then Heyes jumped and tensed up even more, when he felt the sheriff place both his hands onto his shoulders and give them a little squeeze. Heyes couldn't help it; the fear welled up in him, and every fiber in his being anticipated a blow, and why not? That's how it always came about at the prison; Carson would lay a casual hand on him, and next thing he knew—POW! Life would become a nightmare and pain would always follow!
Everyone at the table, even the children, stopped what they were doing and watched the lawman and the ex-convict. It wasn't that anyone there thought that Sheriff Jacobs was going to do anything unsavoury; he wasn't that kind of man, but Heyes' fear was so palpable, that everyone felt it and held their breath.
“Mr. Heyes,” Jacobs began from behind him. “you enjoying yourself today?”
Heyes swallowed nervously. He really expected something to happen here, it never occurring to him, that he was surrounded by friends and family, who would not just stand by and allow any abuses to be reigned down upon him.
“Yessir, Sheriff,” Heyes answered quietly, his heart in his throat. “a real nice day.”
“Uh huh,” Jacobs patted one of Heyes' shoulders. “Well, I'll tell ya'; I have been receiving a number of complaints concerning you, and I felt it was time, that we had a little discussion about it.”
“Oh yes, Sheriff?” Heyes asked, hoping he sounded casual, while at the same time, racing around in circles trying to think of anything he had done that would have causeed an issue. He couldn't come up with anything. “What complaints would those be, sir?”
“Well, it seems that some of our local patrons, over at the saloon, have been hoping that you would see fit to join in on their weekly poker games,” Jacobs explained. “They understand that you probably needed some time to settle in, so they weren't expecting you to come by right away. But seeing as how you have a reputation for enjoying the game, lately they've been feeling kinda insulted, that you haven't bothered to drop by and participate.”
“Oh,” was Heyes' only comment. He was both relieved and concerned at this bit of news.
“Now, normally I wouldn't be encouraging a cardsharp to be patronizing our local saloon,” Jacobs continued. “but apparently you played a few games here before you were arrested, and the fellas have assured me, that you were, in fact, an honest and considerate player. They have extended an open invitation, for you to come and join them.”
Jacobs gave his shoulder another quick pat. “Just thought I would let ya' know. Good afternoon folks! Enjoy the day!”
“Same to you, Carl!” Jesse responded, trying hard to stifle a laugh. “Thanks for dropping by.”
Heyes' knees turned to butter, and he was sure, if he hadn't already been sitting down, he would be on his butt on the ground at this point.
“Oh, my goodness!” he sighed with relief, as Miranda stroked his back. “He really had me worried.”
He could hear Kid haw hawing down at his end of the table, while everyone laughed, and those that could reach Heyes, gave him a reassuring pat on the arm or slap on the back.
“You don't need to worry about Carl,” Jesse assured him. “he's a good man, Carl Jacobs. That's why he keeps on getting re-elected as sheriff. You treat him fair; he'll give the same back.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” Heyes mumbled, though not feeling too sure about that just yet; five-plus years of conditioning was going to take a lot of undoing.
Down at the end of the table, Sam was watching and listening to this conversation, with a little bit of a guilty knot in his gut. He couldn't help but remember back to that evening five years ago, when he had ridden back out to the Double J with Heyes as his companion. Sam had been so disgusted with the ease in which this highwayman had 'tricked' the locals out of their wages, that he had wanted to arrest the outlaw right then and there.
Oh he had been so naive! Not only by thinking that he could have taken on Hannibal Heyes, all by himself, but that he had thought, that he had known who and what, the man was simply by the fact of his profession. Heyes was an outlaw and therefore there could be nothing honourable about him, and he deserved whatever justice was handed down to him.
Since that time, Sam had occasion to speak with some of those fellas in that poker game, and every one of them, to a man, had felt privileged to have had, not only that calibre of player join them, but one who obviously had a strong sense of fair play. The game had been for small stakes and was meant just for fun, and though the stranger had ended the evening as the undisputed winner, he had not wiped them all out.
Then the next day, when they had discovered his identity—well! The honor felt had known no bounds! They had actually sat down and played poker with Hannibal Heyes! That was an experience that money just couldn't buy, and certainly well worth what each man had contributed to the pot! There had been no hard feelings, and Sam had simply imagined an insult, when none had occurred.
Yeah, Sam had grown up a lot since then, and now that he sat at this table, with his wife and children, enjoying this picnic on this 4th of July, he realized how fortunate he was. He looked down the table at the ex-convict, watching him trying to relax, trying to fit in, but still not sure of his footing. Sam no longer felt intimidated by him, at least not in a bad way. He still felt that draw, that most people, men and women alike, felt when in his company. He just had that 'something' that was indefinable, but was there, none the less. Love him or hate him, Hannibal Heyes was simply a man you could not ignore.
Sam smiled as he watched his daughter hug Heyes' arm and speak quiet words to him, obviously trying to reassure him, after his harrowing encounter with the sheriff. Heyes was smiling back down at her, carrying on the conversation. He then lifted his hand and gently stroked Carol's hair and then, almost instinctively knowing he was being scrutinized, he looked up and met Sam's gaze. The two men exchanged quick smiles of understanding, and then Heyes turned and went back to his discussion with Randa. Carol went back to eating her popcorn.
As lunch started to wind down, everyone prepared to split up and go their separate ways, until the evening meal would bring them all together again. Belle and Sam's mother, Merle offered to take care of the youngsters, so that the young ladies could go and enjoy the festivities. Bridget was a tad reluctant at first, not that she didn't trust her mother, of course! But, simply being a new mother herself, the separation anxiety was still running strong. Belle smiled and put her at her ease, while her sister and Clementine wouldn't take 'no' for an answer and pulled her along with the gaggle of females.The men, of course, headed for the saloon. As usual, there was the opportunity to sample all the new brews, and those that were highest on the favorable list, were often brought in as regular fare for the patrons. Everyone felt it was their civic duty to put in their vote, as to which few would make it onto that list!
Heyes was a little nervous. He always seemed to be a little nervous these days, and it irritated him, but there didn't seem to be anything he could do about it! He pushed himself to join in on these social outings, knowing that it was expected and also knowing that the more he did it, the more comfortable he was likely to feel about them. But it was still a strain, and now he had the added stress of feeling obligated to join the poker game, if one was on the go. He didn't want to. The palms of his hands began to sweat just thinking about it!
So it was with a sigh of relief, when a quick glance around the saloon assured him that no games were on the go, at that moment. It was noisy and crowded, but everyone was in the festive spirit, enjoying the new brews and the company of good friends. Nobody was in the mood for poker.
Then, as luck would have, David spotted one of the tables in the corner opening up, and he darted in to lay claim to it. Being tall and slender, he could move quickly through the crowd and succeeded in the take over, while the rest of his group made a more cumbersome advance. Within moments one of the gals came by to ask them, what they would like.
“Afternoon fellas!” she smiled at the table. “We got six new brews here today for the sampling. Any preferences?”
Jesse looked around the table, nobody spoke up. “Doesn't look like it.” he observed. “How about we just start at the top of the list and work our way down.”“Fine,” she smiled and then did a quick head count. “So, six glasses of Harvie's 'Hollow Tree' ale comin' up!”
Heyes smiled, as she disappeared back into the crowd. “Is this what usually goes on during the 4th of July festivities?”
“Oh yeah!” Jed told him. “This is the best part of the day! Although the dancing is kinda fun too though!” His blue eyes were sparkling with the anticipation of more fun to come. “But this is nice. Make sure ya' chose wisely though, cause whatever brew wins, we could be drinkin' a lot more of it!”
“I don't know if I should vote,” Heyes admitted. “My taste in beer as been somewhat compromised of late.”
“Don't worry about that, Hannibal,” Jesse assured him. “You just might discover one here, that you really like. There have been some interesting concoctions find their way into this contest over the years.”
“That's for sure!” David joined in. “Some of it's quite good but there have been others.... I totally expect to be handing out a fair amount of stomach tonics tomorrow, for those who push it too far today.”
“Sometimes I think they judge the winner by the amount that gets thrown away,” Sam stated. “The one that gets dumped the least gets the blue ribbon.”
“And on that note,” David cautioned the new-comer. “if you don't like the one you're given, Hannibal, by all means, don't feel you have to finish it. You don't want to ruin your palate, for one you do like, by drinking the ones you don't. A lot of beer gets thrown away at these little contests. It's expected.”
“Oh, okay,” Heyes was thankful for that bit of advice, worrying that he might not be able to keep up with everyone else at the table.
Then the first round arrived, and a small glass was handed out to everyone at the table. They all raised their glasses in the unanimous toast and took small testing sips. Reviews were mixed.
“Hmm, not bad.”
“Not much body to it.”
“Nice and refreshing for a hot summer day.”
“Would be good for cutting through trail dust.”“A nice all round light beer for a picnic.”
“Well, it's wet anyway.”
Pro or con, nobody had trouble finishing their samples, and Heyes decided, that he just might enjoy this after all. Everyone settled in for the long haul and awaited the next round.
Meanwhile, the young ladies of the clan, now unburdened of off-spring, had made their way over to the soda shop and had settled in at a nice outside table, to enjoy some flavored ices. Everyone was continuing to admire Beth's ring and making her feel special all over again. She beamed with pleasure and excitement, and she didn't mind at all talking about her favourite subject.
“It is lovely, isn't it?” she reiterated, admiring the ring on her finger. “It really is an embarrassment of riches, though.”
“Why would you think that?” asked Clem. “Most ladies I know want the biggest ring they can possibly get! Yours is actually quite dainty.”
“Oh, I know,” Beth agreed. “But it's so elegant! I can't believe that Jed picked this out, all on his own, and he must have been saving his money for ages to be able to buy it! It's just so lovely!”
The other ladies at the table smiled knowingly. Indeed, Jed had asked for Bridget's opinion on the matter, knowing that she would have a better idea, of what her sister would like when it came to choosing the ring. Bridget, however, had no intentions of bursting the bubble that Beth was floating around in, and she let the matter lie. She was pleased, that her sister was pleased.
“And what about you, Randa?” Tricia asked, once the topic of Beth's upcoming nuptials had wound down. “There was more than one lady in town, who was hoping Hannibal would ask them to the dance! I hope you appreciate the honor!”
Randa sent her cousin a scathing look for putting her on the spot, but smiled with pleasure anyways.
“I still have butterflies,” she confessed. “I must admit, I'm a little afraid of him.”
“Afraid of him?”
“You ladies must understand,” Randa explained. “you all know him. But I'm still relatively new here, all I can really go on, is his reputation, and what I hear from others.”
“Isn't that what courting is all about?” asked Beth. “To get to know each other?”
“Well yes, I suppose it is,” Randa agreed. “But I hardly call one date to a dance 'courting'!”
“It's a start!” Clem laughed. “Besides that—Heyes wouldn't have asked you, if he wasn't interested!”
“You've known him the longest of everyone here, Clementine,” Randa stated. “Is he an honorable man?”
Clem snorted into her ice. “Honorable!? The man is so honourable, I could ring his neck sometimes!” she declared. “I'm not sure I'll ever forgive him for going to prison, in order to protect me! I'm quite capable of taking care of myself, thank you!”
“We all know there was more to it than that, Clementine,” Bridget reminded her. “Even Steven stated, that Hannibal was going to prison anyway, simply for having been involved in that confidence game in the first place! And the reasons for it didn't matter! His own attitude, more than anything else, got him on the wrong side of that Judge, so he was just looking for an excuse to find Hannibal guilty of something.”
“Yes,” Miranda piped in. “I do recall the articles in the paper commenting on his arrogance and lack of respect for the court. I suppose that is what's worrying me.”
“He's changed,” Clem commented and all the other ladies at the table who knew him well, nodded in agreement. “Some of the changes are for the better, some of them not.”
“How do you mean?” Randa asked, warming to the topic.
“He's certainly not as arrogant anymore,” Bridget put in. “He was always sweet and kind to us, but there was that other side to him, that we never saw, until his trial.” She smiled reassuringly at Randa. “I can understand you feeling a little unsure of him. As Mama says; he can be very masterful at times! But you can tell, that it's not there so much anymore. Prison certainly knocked that arrogance out of him.”
“Yes, but with it went his self-confidence too,” Clem added. “You notice, how he doesn't offer his opinions anymore? He seems to have a hard time making decisions and well...just what happened here today, when Sheriff Jacobs came over to the table. I don't think, I've ever seen, Heyes that scared.”
Silence settled onto the table, as the ladies contemplated the truth of that observation.
“Poor Hannibal,” Bridget finally commented quietly. “I don't think, we can even imagine, what it was like for him in there. Even though we've all heard the reports, and Beth actually witnessed one of the assaults...” Beth nodded sadly here. “.... it’s nothing compared to him actually having to live through it. No wonder he became suicidal.”“Oh dear,” Randa commented, suddenly thinking that maybe she was in over her head.
Clem patted her hand reassuringly. “No, no. Heyes is nothing if not resilient. I have no doubt, that he will pull himself out of this, and he'll be a better man for it! It's just going to take some time. And help from his friends, of course!”
“Oh, of course!” Bridget agreed.
“We'll all help him!” Beth seconded.
“That's what friends are for!” Bridget added on. “He's going to be fine!”
“Be his friend, Miranda,” Clem advised her. “I think you'll find him to be worth the effort. Just don't ask me to describe him to you! This afternoon isn't long enough—that well runs too deep!”
“That's for sure!”
“But what an interesting well it is!”
“Just relax and enjoy the journey!”
“He's going to be fine.”
The dancing got started right on time that evening, and everyone, save one, were eager to get out onto the cleared away town square, in order to get down to it. Heyes was the one who only felt trepidation at the prospect and was beginning to regret his impetuousness in inviting Miranda to be his date. This was all Kid's fault! If he hadn't pushed....
There was nothing for it now, so Heyes went along with the group and tried to relax and have a good time. They were fortunate again to find a table that would accommodate their party, and the ladies all settled in, while the men trotted off to get punch for everyone. Clementine instantly began scanning the floor—or more precisely—the field, knowing that she would have no trouble finding partners to dance with. All the locals knew her, and many of the young men in attendance were looking forward to adding her to their dance chart.
Heyes offered to get Clem her punch along with his and Randa's, so he was taking a little bit more time to return to their table, trying to keep from spilling three glasses and to keep out of the way of the other party-goers. Then, much to his chagrin, it all became a mute point, when he was bumped into from behind, and all three glasses ended up losing at least half their contents. Heyes fought down his irritation, as he turned to confront the clumsy person, when he found himself staring down at a rather attractive young woman.
She smiled up at him. “I am so sorry,” she purred. “Shall I help you to replenish them?”
“Oh. No ma'am, that's quite alright,” Heyes remembered how to be polite after all. “It was my fault and no harm done.”
“Oh please, call me Isabelle,” she informed him and held out her hand for shaking.
“Oh, ahh...” Heyes felt awkward, both his hands being occupied at that point in time.
“Oh! Yes, of course,” she said with a smile. “Consider our hands shaken.”
“Yes ma'am,” Heyes smiled. “I'm Heyes.”
“Yes I know,” she admitted. “I think everyone in town knows who you are.”
“Oh,” Heyes smiled, feeling a little embarrassed at this attention.
“And might I say,” Isabelle continued. “that we are all so pleased to have you returned to us, safe and sound. Many of us stood behind Jed and the Jordan's, in their efforts to get you released. I know for myself, personally, that I had many a talk with Jed, when he was feeling like giving it up, and I'm sure, that what I had to say, was often all that kept him going. So in that way, I like to think, that I was able to contribute, at least that little bit, to the effort of securing your release.”
“Oh yes,” Heyes nodded to her. “Thank you...Isabelle. I know I am beholden to many people who are here tonight.”
“Well, if you wish to thank me properly,” she smiled up at him. “perhaps you can offer me a dance later on.”
“Oh,” Heyes commented, suddenly feeling cornered and uncomfortable. “Ah, well....it does seem that my dances are all spoken for at the moment. But if one opens up, I will certainly keep you mind.”
Disappointment flashed across Isabelle's eyes, but she quickly recovered. “Of course,” she said. “I'll look forward to it.”
“Evening Isabelle,” came Jed's voice from behind them. “On the prowl early, I see.”
“Oh, Jed!” she said, as she patted his arm. “Don't be such a tease!”
“Uh huh. C'mon Heyes,” he said, taking a couple of the glasses out of his partner's grip. “let's get these glasses re-filled. Miranda was wondering what was keeping you.”
“Oh yeah. Thanks,” Heyes sent a quick nod over to the lady. “Good evening Isabelle. Nice to meet you.”
But then the two gentlemen had turned and were making their way back to the refreshment tables. Isabelle sniffed rather indignantly and then carried on back to her own table.
“That was close,” Jed commented, as they were re-filling the glasses.
“Oh, she was just saying 'hello',” Heyes insisted.
“Heyes, to that woman, saying 'hello' is a prelude to joining her at the church—and I don't mean for Sunday services, either!”
“Oh! Ha ha,” Heyes grinned at his close call, as they headed back to their own table, glasses replenished.
“Best that you stay away from her, until you find your footing again,” Jed advised him. “She might very well make an attempt to split you and Miranda up tonight, so just be careful, okay?”
“Yeah, thanks for the heads up,” Then they were back to their table again. “Here we are. Sorry for the delay, I had a run-in with one of the locals.”
“That Isabelle again!” Clem rolled her eyes. “Hasn't she found some dope to marry her yet?”“Apparently not,” Heyes commented.
“That woman!” Bridget snarked. “She did everything she could to break up Jed and Beth!” And then she leaned into Heyes, conspiratorially. “She even tried to convince Jed to forget about getting you released from prison! That you were a lost cause, and that he should just marry her and get on with his life!”
“Really?” Heyes' brows went up. “Isn't that interesting.”
Yeah,” Jed agreed. “She insulted you and Beth, all at the same time. I was already getting annoyed with her, but that was the final straw, and I let her know, in no uncertain terms, that I wasn't interested.” He smiled. “That was the last time she tried any of that.”
“Oh well,” Heyes smiled. “I have been fore-warned. Thank you.”
Then he picked up Miranda's hand and gently kissed it. Miranda went all warm and fuzzy inside.
Isabelle spotted the affectionate exchange from across the dance area and grimaced with disgust. Those Jordans really were becoming a thorn in her side. Then her thoughts got interrupted by a gentle enquiry.
“Good evening, Miss Isabelle,” Floyd Rowlins greeted her. “would you care to dance?”
Isabelle smiled at him and then, turning away for an instant, rolled her eyes. Oh crap!
A couple of hours later, the dancing was in full swing, and everyone was having a grand old time. Everyone that is, except Heyes and Miranda. Clementine had just breathlessly finished up a whirlwind of a dance with one of her local favourites and was making her way back to their table, when she spotted the new couple sitting there in conversation. Miranda was engaged enough, with what Heyes was saying, but the occasional whimsical glance out onto the dance area suggested that she would much rather be joining in on the festivities.
Clem sighed and shaking her head, she marched right over to the table and grabbed Heyes by the arm.
“C'mon, Silly!” she ordered him as she hauled him up out of his chair. “it's time you got your feet wet!”
“What!? No! We were just...!”“Yes, I know what you were just! I could see it from way over there!” Then she glanced down at the rather surprised Miranda. “You just sit tight. I'll bring him right back—I promise!”
“No, Clem, c'mon,” Heyes protested. “I really don't wanna....”“Yes, I know you don't wanna,” Clem continued as she pushed him out onto the dance 'floor'. “but this is just getting ridiculous! Miranda came here tonight to have fun, not just sit there and listen to you prattle on! Now you get out here, and you start dancing!"
“No Clem, c'mon!” Heyes repeated, showing that he was at a loss for words. “I just don't feel....”
“Too bad!” Clem threw back at him. “C'mon, put your arms around me. That's right. Now start moving your feet! My goodness, you'd think you were sixteen again the way you're behaving! Well, you can do better than that! C'mon! Stop shuffling—I know for a fact that you do not have two left feet! Now put your arm around my waist and take the lead. There! That's better. See? You ninny, you haven't forgotten how to dance.”
Heyes had suddenly started to grin. The music took hold of his mood and before he knew it he was floating Clem around the dance floor like an old pro and he was actually starting to enjoy the event. By the time the dance number was finished, his blood was up and he was flushed and laughing and feeling a little bit more like his old agile self again.
As they headed back over to the table, Heyes was still grinning, and Clem felt satisfied of a job well done, as she handed him back over to a smiling Miranda. Heyes took his lady's hand and brought her to her feet.
“I'm sorry,” he said to her. “Clem is right; I've been behaving like an old stick in the mud. Would you like to dance?”
Miranda smiled, her dark blue eyes sparkling. “Yes! I would.” And then, as Heyes led her out onto the dance floor, she turned to Clem and mouthed a silent 'thank you'.
Clem smiled and then went off in search of a new partner for herself.
The evening carried on, and as what usually happens at these events, everyone in the Jordan party ended up dancing with everyone else, and a good time was had by all. Then, at one point, Beth found herself without a partner and decided to take that opportune moment to make a discreet exit to the lady's latrine. If she was quick about it, she would be back again, before anyone noticed her missing.
It was getting quite dark, away from the lights of the dance area, but she knew the way well enough, even if the path way hadn't been marked out by subtle lanterns placed along the route. She quickly ducked into the small enclosure, did her business, and began to make her way back to the party. She was about half way there, when a stranger's voice behind her, stopped her in her tracks and sent a shiver down her spine.
“Good evening, Miss Jordan,” the man's voice whispered to her. “Are you having a good time, tonight?”
Beth gasped in surprise and spun around to face the dark silhouette of the interloper.
“Excuse me,” she breathed, somewhat indignantly. “do I know you?”
“No Miss,” came the eerie reply from the shadows.
Then, the first of the fireworks shot up into the air, exploding over top of them and sending a flash of bright light over the entire area. Beth gasped again in surprise, as she got a fleeting view of the man before her. He looked cruel, his eyes like dagger points and his smile malicious. She put a hand to her mouth and involuntarily took a step backwards.
“You don't know me,” he continued quietly, and his grin deepened. “not yet.”
Then, he was gone, back into the dark night, and Beth turned on her heels, and ran the rest of the way back to the company of her friends. She reached their table, breathless and shaking, but she sat herself down, and tried to relax her nerves, while she waited for the dance to finish up. More fireworks were shooting up into the air, and everyone was returning to their tables in anticipation of going out to the main street to enjoy the show.
Jed returned with the rest of their party, but the smile on his face turned to a frown of concern, when he saw his betrothed looking pale and shaken.
“What's the matter, darlin'?” he asked her, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Did something happen?”
“No, no,” Beth smiled, not wanting to ruin the evening for everyone else. “Silly, really. I just went out to the privy and got frightened by shadows. I'm fine.”
“Oh. Okay.” Though Jed didn't look convinced. “Well, the next time you want to go to the privy, you tell me. I'll escort you, and then you won't have to be jumping at shadows.”
“Yes, of course,” she assured him as she leaned into his hug. “It was nothing, really. Just silly me. Come, let's go enjoy the fireworks!”
“Everything alright?” Heyes asked as he, with Miranda on his arm, prepared to head out.
“Yup,” Jed told him. “Just shadows!”
During the walk down to Main Street, Beth held on tight to Jed's arm and spent much of the time darting quick glances around her, at the various people walking by. Quite understandably, she was feeling a little skittish, but as the lights and sounds of the festive spirits continued to swirl about her, she soon began to relax and enjoy herself again.
She was just being silly! It must have just been someone who was new to town, there for the festivities and ,of course, had heard about the Jordans; they were the wealthiest family in the county after all! He had just been saying 'hello', and it was only the strange lighting from the fireworks that had made his appearance so sinister. He would probably come out to the ranch the next day to officially introduce himself. Yes, that was it. She was just being silly.
The fireworks display was amazing—the best they'd had in years! The flares and lights and bright colors lit up the sky and exploded with loud bangs and cracks, that made spectators jump and gasp and hold onto one another. Then, they'd all laugh with nervous excitement and anticipation of more to come.
Heyes felt such a thrill! Suddenly the loud noises and crowds of people didn't bother him anymore, and for the first time since his release, he forgot all about the prison! He forgot about the pain and fear, and was just living in the moment, allowing himself to be swallowed up by the excitement and the fun and the noise and the brilliant colors! He was surrounded by his friends, and he had a fine woman on his arm, and for the first time in five years he was joyously happy!
Then something happened that marred the evening for all those involved. And yet, nobody really knew how it all came about, or why it had happened. No one could describe it later, there was just too much noise and bright flashes of color and too many people in the way, for anyone to have a clear reckoning of the events.
Beth had let go of Jed's arm in her excitement of watching the display, hands to her mouth with ooo's and aaahhh's, and eyes up to the sky watching the lights. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, she felt herself being pushed from behind. She plunged forward, out into the street, her senses overwhelmed with the loud noises and bright flashes of colored lights. She regained her balance, and could hear Jed calling her name, but darkness surrounded her, and she lost her sense of direction—she could hear Jed calling her, but which way was he?
Then more fireworks exploded into the sky, lighting up the whole area, and she looked up, just in time to see flaring nostrils and white rimmed eyes charging towards her. Sudden light reflected off of buckles and bits. Her ears were assaulted with the pounding of hooves, and the jangling of harness, and the wild snorting of horses spooked beyond reason. She felt, rather than saw, the bulk of the two animals charging into her, in their panic to get away from the terrifying noise!
She screamed, but her voice was ripped away from her by more explosions! She felt the impact of one of the horses ploughing into her, just as someone grabbed her arm and yanked her out of the path of the runaway wagon. She hit the ground hard and lay still, the wind knocked out of her, and her senses reeling.
She heard Jed's frightened voice; “Beth! Beth darlin'! No! No! Beth...! and then she passed out and heard no more.
When Beth awoke, she was in a strange room and a strange bed. She opened her eyes to slits but didn't dare go any further than that—her head was pounding. She tried to take a breath, but then caught herself with the pain that shot through her rib cage at the attempt. She groaned.
“Beth, sweetheart...are you awake?”“Mama?” it was barely a whisper.
“Yes, sweetheart!” came the beloved voice. “Thank God! Thank God!”
Her mother's face came into view and a gentle hand touched her face. She tried to move, tried to speak.
“Shhh,” Belle soothed her. “Lie still sweetheart. You've been hurt, but you're safe now. We're at David's place, he's taken care of you. You're safe.”
Belle looked up at Tricia and the doctor's wife smiled and quietly left the room. Out in the kitchen numerous sets of eyes instantly looked up as she came over to the table. She looked at Jed and smiled.
“She's awake,” Tricia told him. “she's asking for you.”
The whole table released a collective sigh of relief. Heyes grinned and rubbed his partner's back. Jed felt like he was going to throw up. He was pale and cold with fear and Heyes had stayed close to him, hoping to give morel support but without suffocating him. Jed had spent the last couple of hours hardly able to breathe, but now those few spoken words were like a flood gate opening and he started to shake with the relief of it.
“Can I....can I go see her?”
“Yes,” Tricia told him. “but just for a few moments. She's still very tired.”
“Yeah, yeah okay,” Jed agreed. “Oh Heyes! Oh thank goodness!”
“Yeah, I know partner,” Heyes said and gave him a gentle squeeze on the arm. “Go to your lady, we'll be here.”
Then Jed stood up on shaky knees and made his way over to the bedroom; the same bedroom that he had spent so many nights in recovering from his own demons.
Heyes leaned back in his chair with an exhausted sigh. Miranda, who was sitting on his other side, hugged his arm and leaned her head on his shoulder. He smiled and reaching over, he patted her arm. This had been one hell of a first date.
As soon as Beth had been delivered to the doctor's house, Maribelle and Merle had gone home with the children, while Sam had taken a horse and, despite the darkness of the night, had ridden at breakneck speed out to the Double J to let them know what had happened. Within moments Jesse had Monty harnessed up and ready to go, while Belle had bundled up the two children, and they'd headed back into town, as fast as the little pacer could go.
Now the Gibson's kitchen was packed full of very worried family members who had been doing their best to stay positive and supportive of one another, but not really doing too good a job. Tricia coming out to announce that Beth had indeed awakened had sent everyone into a spiral of relief and quiet conversation finally settled in as they all voiced their questions and concerns.
Jed stepped quietly into the bedroom and locked eyes with Belle. She smiled at him and nodded. David was sitting beside the bed, moving the small lamp back and forth in front of Beth's eyes. He smiled.
“Your pupils look good,” he commented. “but I'll still be waking you up every few hours, just to be sure.”
“Why?” Beth asked quietly.
“You have a concussion young lady,” the doctor informed her. “It's just a precaution, nothing to worry about.”
Then David looked up and smiled at Jed. “You can sit with her for a few minutes Jed, but that's all.”
“Yeah, yeah okay.”
“Hi, darlin',” Jed sat down, taking David's place beside the bed and cupped his love's bruised face in his hand. “You look a mess.”
Beth smiled and then grimaced; every inch of her hurt. “What happened?”
“Donno,” Jed told her. “One minute you were standing beside me and the next....do you remember anything?”
“Just...someone pushing me.”
Beth nodded and then regretted the movement as her head exploded with more pounding.
“My head hurts,” she mumbled.
“I think David is getting you something for that.”
Then right on cue, David returned to the room with a cup full of liquid meds, and hustled everybody out.
“Okay, that's enough visiting,” he said. “The patient needs to rest.”
“Yeah alright David,” Jed relented. “I'll see you later darlin'. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“Alright, sweetheart,” Belle took her daughter's hand. “you rest now. I won't go home without you.”
Out in the kitchen, Trich had put more coffee on, apparently nobody was going anywhere for awhile. The two boys had been put to bed in David and Tricia's room for the time being, and Bridget kept Rosa with her, while the infant slept.
David joined them at the table and sat down with a sigh. Every head turned his way. He looked up at them all and smiled.
“She'll be alright,” he assured the group. “She has a concussion, two cracked ribs and a lot of bruises, but she should be able to go home in a couple of days.”
“Oh, what a relief!” Belle breathed. “My goodness, what a thing to have happen!”
Jesse reached over and squeezed his wife's hand. She smiled at him and leaned her head into his shoulder.
“Does anyone even know what did happen?” David asked.
Everyone looked perplexed.
“I didn't even know anything was happening, until I heard Jed yelling,” Steven admitted.
“No, neither did I,” David seconded. “We were all too busy watching the display.”
“She said that she felt someone push her,” Jed informed them. Then he frowned and looked over at Heyes. Heyes looked back, questioning. “Something else happened this evening though. I didn't think anything of it at the time, but....” All eyes were upon him.
“You mean just before we headed out to the fireworks?” Heyes asked him. “She did look awfully shaken.”
“Yeah,” Jed confirmed. “I asked her if something had happened and she just said that she had gone to the privy and had been frightened by shadows.”
“Beth has never been one to jump at shadows,” said Jesse.“I know,” Jed agreed. “But like I said; I didn't think any more of it then, but now....”
An ominous silence settled over the kitchen. The coffee pot started to over-boil.
To Be Continued