As New Year's approached, one fine but very cold afternoon Heyes and the Kid walked through the fresh, frigid mountain air to the hotel's stable to visit their horses. The boys wished they could go riding, but it was way too cold and snowy for that to make sense. So they were just going to groom their horses and check them over, as good horsemen will. "Heyes, what's a college class like? I just can't picture you sitting in rows on benches like we did in the school house reciting when they get to you. It ain't like that, is it?"
Heyes laughed. "No Kid, not much! It's all separate desks and every class gets it own nice, big room. We don't recite in order like school kids! But we did have to put up our hands and to give answers in class, which felt pretty weird, after all these years. I was just sitting in, so I didn't have to give answers. But I did sometimes."
The conversation paused as they as they went into the stable's tack room, out of the cold, to pick up a couple of buckets of brushes and hoof picks. The Kid was pleased to find his partner in the mood to answer questions so he could get some idea of what Heyes had been going through, and what was about to come. "Was anybody your age?" asked the Kid.
Heyes shook his head. "Not In the class I sat in with. There was one guy in the class I took who was older than I am – maybe forty. The rest of them were kids about eighteen or twenty. They called me old man or cowboy or hick, when they bothered to call me anything at all; I called them boy!" The Kid, hearing a defensive note in his partner's voice, looked concerned, but Heyes gave him a dangerous smile that the Kid knew well and said, "Don't worry, Kid, I can handle those children.
But in class, Kid, we talked like adults. Not just about what's right and what's the formula for whatever it is, but why it's right – why it works. That's the really fun part. That's where you really learn." His eyes glowed with enthusiasm and the Kid couldn't help but notice his partner's expanded vocabulary and how he stumbled less in his speech when he was talking about school. The Kid had never liked school much – Heyes loved it when it was well taught. But then, Heyes was good at it.
The pair carried their brushes to where their favorite horses were stabled side by side. Each man went into his own horse's stall. Clay rubbed his head against Heyes so hard he almost knocked his master off his feet. Heyes laughed and patted Clay's neck affectionately.
"Heyes," inquired the Kid over the low wall of the neighboring stall, "that was an awful long list of things you might do when you're done studyin'. If you really don't know what you want to do with it, why are you goin' to all that trouble?"
Heyes silently brushed his tall claybank dun gelding, Clay, as if he hadn't heard the question.
The Kid sighed. "You ain't gonna tell me what you really want to do with it."
Heyes sighed in his turn. "I am not," answered the new student steadily, and in his best new grammar. "You'd just laugh at me. You think it's all a joke anyhow, a grown man going to school. You know you do."
The Kid found the image of grown men in school pretty strange, but he didn't want to hurt Heyes by saying it. "I do not! I know college is a good thing, for smart guys like you. I remember our pastor who went to college. He was a good man."
Heyes looked up from curry-combing Clay to look at the Kid. He nodded. "He was. I want to be like that."
The Kid laughed, "You don't want to be a minister, do you?!"
Heyes laughed, too, "No Kid! And no, I won't tell you. If I can really do it, then you'll find out."
"Alright, Heyes, you be that way," muttered the Kid, pausing to lift each of Blackie's hooves one by one to clean each carefully with a hoof pick made a bent nail driven into a carved wood handle. He had to work carefully for a minute to remove a little stone caught near Blackie's hoof wall. When the Kid had the stone out, he put Blackie's hoof back down and patted the horse. He looked up and asked his partner. "You're goin' a long way from Devil's Hole, I guess. But do you keep up anymore? You know – keep in practice. I know you keep up with cards . . ."
"You mean can I use my pick locks? And open safes?"
"Yeah, like that. Can you, anymore?" asked the Kid.
Heyes looked a bit insecure at the question. He didn't have to say anything for the Kid to know that the answer was moving in the direction of "no." After all, what legal and legitimate excuse did Heyes have for practicing lock picking or safe opening?
The Kid guessed, "You must be kinda out of practice, Heyes. Least ways I hope so – you better not be openin' anything in New York!"
"Only the doors of academia, Kid," laughed Heyes with pardonable pride.
"Where do you learn all those fancy college words, Heyes?" asked the Kid, honesty curious.
"Readin' a lot, listening a lot, and puttin' in hard work, Kid." Heyes answered, not wanting to get specific about the embarrassing process of repeating words aloud over and over in any private he could get so he could be sure of saying his new words correctly in company. "I have to work at it. If I'd trip over one of those big words, those Columbia boys would laugh awful loud."
The Kid looked up from currying Blackie. He couldn't miss the bitter edge to Heyes' voice. Heyes had tried make it sound like people laughing at him was something that just might happen. But the Kid knew his partner well – he was sure that it actually had happened. The college boys had laughed at his partner; and it had hurt him badly. The Kid wished he could have been there to throw a punch in his partner's defense. For anyone to laugh at Heyes, when he was fighting back from being shot in the head, was just so wrong. But Heyes wouldn't let it stop him; it probably made him more determined. He had said he could handle those children, and the Kid didn't doubt that he could.
The Kid had to change the subject and get Heyes' mind off the scornful college boys, "Heyes, you got a gal in New York?"
"I've seen a few girls here and there," a wicked smile spread over Heyes' face. Down by the docks there were plenty of girls who would have known the reason for that look.
But Heyes stopped currying the red stripe down Clay's back to look over at the Kid, who was looking back at him with an unusually earnest look in his steady blue eyes and a slight furrow on his otherwise still smooth brow. "I mean a special gal. You know."
"Yeah, I know what you mean, Kid. Like you with Cat." Heyes fell silent for a moment and looked more thoughtful. "No, nobody I got plans with like you got with Cat. She's . . . she's sure a good woman."
Curry grinned a little. He was sure now that Heyes didn't mean that in any way that should worry him. Then he looked serious again. "Yeah, she is, real good. But she's gettin' restless. You know, she'd like something more permanent, more certain. I wish to God I could just ask her to marry me and settle down here. We'd like to maybe have kids. But we still ain't heard a word from the governor and that's been three years. And Cat and I been together for over a year. I mean, she understands about the way things are with us and all, but it bothers her."
Heyes sighed and felt horribly guilty for going back to New York when the Kid and Cat might need him right here to help watch their back. "Yeah, I guess it would have to get to a woman. Not knowing when your man might just have to ride off and not come back would have to . . . bother a woman. Truth to tell, it bothers me, too. I mean, to know I can't settle down with anyone – if I ever found someone I wanted to settle down with, that is. I guess that's one reason I don't have a special gal. What would be the use? Even if we don't wind up in the . . . Wyoming . . . Territorial . . . Prison [all of these words were so unusual in his vocabulary that Heyes had to work at each of them in turn], the money I need for school could go south any time – if I can't do as well as we hope, or if my aphasia kicks up too bad, or if they find out who I am, or maybe just for no reason that I know of. That's what the people in college tell me – you never know when a funder is just going to up and quit on you. I hope I really can trust the guys I'll be asking for money!
And, Kid, the . . . police there have our . . . posters on the wall at the station in New York, big as life. I saw 'em! I just hope that any trouble I get into back there won't come out here and make things . . . hard for you and Cat." Heyes leaned over Clay's back looking into the Kid's eyes seriously. His partner couldn't fail to notice how the pauses in his speech indicated Heyes' concern as they got onto these difficult questions.
The Kid understood. "You ain't going to get into trouble, Heyes! I remember you wakin' me up and tellin' me once that it had been nearly a week that we hadn't been almost arrested. Now it's been over a year, not counting that damn Wilde! He loves to worry me, but he never carries it through. You know he keeps our posters up right in the middle of his wanted wall? He does, damn him, and finds any excuse for me to go in there and look at 'em and sweat! But, yeah, I worry about the same thing – I don't want anybody who nabs me here to get you, too. All this waiting and wondering. It wears on me awful much sometimes, Heyes. Cat and I, we can't really count on anything or anyone – anyone but you."
Heyes gave an ironic bark of a laugh, "And then I go and . . . turn on you! I stay in . . . New York and leave your ass hanging out here. I'm awful sorry Kid! If it gets . . . dangerous, you wire me and I'll be back here as fast as a train can go, you know that!"
The Kid nodded and looked thoughtful. "I know, Heyes. And it works the other way, too. I'll head out to the big city whenever you need me. I'm just glad you've got your friend Jim there, to watch your back. And don't you worry – Cat watches my back real good. You won't need to leave your studies and save me."
Kid saw a look in Heyes' eyes that made him wonder again. "You need a gal with you out there in New York, Heyes. You're makin' me wonder. You ain't taken up with a gal here since Peggy. There is a special gal, back in New York, ain't there, Heyes? Or you there's one you'd like . . ."
The Kid's partner interrupted him with an irritable note in his voice, "I told you, Kid, there's no one . . . special." Heyes found some spot he needed to work hard brushing at on Clay's far side. "I'm working on school, not . . . girls."
"Alright, I guess you better tell her before you tell me. Just like you clammed up about what you were doing, and then we find out you been working for months to get ready to go to college. You just keep it to yourself. For a man who talks so much, sometimes you don't say much at all, Heyes," observed the Kid.
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The Kid woke early on New Year's Day, when the sunlight coming in the hotel window was still pale and grey. He sat up and looked around, unsure what had brought him so suddenly out of a deep sleep. He looked down at Cat and saw that her blue eyes were opened. She looked almost frightened. "Honey," Cat asked in a quiet, tense voice, "did I wake you or did you wake me?"
The Kid smiled apologetically down at where Cat was still keeping warm under the quilt, while his own bare chest sprouted goose bumps in the cold air with no stove going yet. "Well, you know what it usually is." She did know what usually disturbed their sleep; after all the years he and Heyes had spent on the jump from the law and people after them for the bounty, the Kid tended to sleep lightly and to wake easily. He also had occasional nightmares when he flashed back to violent traumas of his criminal past. "At least Heyes is going back to New York where he's safe from bounty hunters and sheriffs and all our old outlaw pals that I got to watch for out here. All he's got to worry about is studyin' hard and getting' good grades. Sounds like a good life to me!" The Kid smiled and kissed Cat. Cat still looked more than a little uneasy, but she got up and hurriedly dressed, to get her skin out of the Colorado cold. It was the day that Heyes was leaving for the East and she needed to fix breakfast for him and for everyone else.
But as Cat dressed and the Kid started to pull on his pants he asked his girl, "Honey it wasn't me was it? It was you. You had one of your dreams didn't you?" The Kid had gotten used to the fact that Cat now and then had vivid and disturbing dreams. She said that the night before the Kid and Heyes had first shown up, she had dreamed about a man being shot in the head, just as Heyes had been, although he hadn't looked like Heyes. And she had dreamed about a bounty hunter the night before a real one showed up. The man in the dream hadn't looked at all like the real man, but the warning had been timely. The Kid was coming to have respect for Cat's strange intuitions.
Cat nodded to the Kid's question. "Well, honey, what was it?" The Kid was putting on a heavy wool sweater that Cat had knitted for him and that came in real handy in the mountain winter.
Cat looked down and away from Curry. "I don't want to tell you – it'll worry you and won't do any good. We can't go around living our lives like my dreams were all real. I don't tell you about the ones that don't come true, and that's most of them, honey."
Curry stopped before putting on his hat. "Cat! What was it? It's bothering you and you'll feel better if you share it."
"No, honey, I really won't. Stop worrying about it. Just deal with real life, alright?" Cat came over and kissed her man.
"Cat, you're as bad as Heyes sometimes. You can't get around me like that. Was your dream about me?" Cat shook her head. "Was it about Heyes." Cat hesitated for a long, awful moment, her eyes getting bigger, and then she nodded. But no matter how the Kid plagued her, she wouldn't tell him what she had seen. In the rush of morning chores, feeding and watering horses and helping Heyes to get his things downstairs, and Heyes saying emotional good-byes all around, the Kid began to forget about Cat's dream. Cat was in the kitchen most of the morning, having plenty to do there.
Cat came out to kiss Heyes good-bye. As he kissed her cheek and smiled and turned to go, she reached out and grabbed his coat. She pulled her man's partner close and this time kissed him right on the mouth, for long enough that every eye the saloon wound up trained on them. As Heyes pulled away to go, he looked at Cat with troubled eyes. He couldn't avoid, now, knowing that she felt something was wrong.
"Good-bye, Honey!" he said, trying unsuccessfully to sound lighthearted and sure of himself. "I'll be back in June, if that's alright with you two. Don't worry about me – just watch out for you and the Kid."
"Good-bye Heyes!" whispered Cat, and then aloud she said, "Come back as soon and as often as you like, Joshua! You're always welcome here! Study hard and get done with school soon! Then come home!"
As Heyes and the Kid walked off to the station, Cat crept out of the door and stood in the cold, shivering although she was wrapped in a wool shawl. She waved to Heyes, although he was so deep in conversation with the Kid that he didn't seem to notice.
As the men, both in their old cowboy gear, vanished around a corner, Cat went back into Christy's Place. She dutifully made sure all of her people, including herself, went back to work. But no matter what she did, she couldn't rid herself of her fear that school wasn't as safe for Heyes as the Kid assumed. She couldn't forget the image in her mind left over from her vivid dream. It was of Heyes, his eyes closed and lips slightly open, lying under something that Cat couldn't identify that blocked out her view of nearly all but his face, as pale as a marble statue. He lay perfectly still, surrounded by a pool of blood.
Was the scene from the past or from the future, or was it a fantasy crafted from her own fears that would never come true? Cat had no way of knowing.
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The End – for the moment. The cycle will continue in: Two Degrees of Separation. Sorry that one won't get posted nearly as rapidly as theses first two – I do have work to do for RL. And the next story isn't quite so well finished, yet. Don't jump to conclusions about what the title means. It means a lot of things, actually. I've been really happy to hear from so many readers in the U.S.A. – but I'd love to hear from some of you in other countries. It's exciting to know you are out there! HW