It had taken longer than planned to round up the hobbled horses sheltering further up the side canyon. They'd obstinately refused to leave having found some succulent young grasses. Curry loaded up the rider-less horse with most of their gear to give their own horses a break. He carefully centered the load on either side of the saddle. Finally, they were mounted and ready to move on. Heyes led the way out of the canyon with him following behind and leading their 'new' pack horse. He wanted to keep an eye on Heyes from where he wouldn't see what he was doing.
The topography was changing and they were leaving the classic desert environment of cacti, yucca and sage. The vegetation was giving way to a more barren, rocky vista. The canyon was not only broadening out but it was becoming drier and more forbidding. The Kid asked Heyes about this, concerned at the changing landscape but he assured him they would find water and insisted they were going the right way. This didn't reassure him much as he knew his partner was struggling with periodic confusion.
Heyes remembered a spring-fed pond beyond the exit from the canyons. It wasn't much, a puddle really, but it was water in a barren land. They couldn't be far now. He sure hoped they weren't. He had to keep urging his horse to go on, spurring it gently but almost constantly. The animal was tired, hot, and underfed. It was starting to resent the endless wandering and swished its tail constantly in a show of irritation.
Noon passed, but the day continued to get hotter. Heyes pulled his watch from his pocket, but he couldn't see the hands even holding it within inches of his nose. "Kid, I can't see this damn thing, what time is it?" The Kid leaned over to read the watch he held out. "It's 2:20. Why do you ask?"
"Just curious." Heyes was more than curious, he was tired again and feeling the heat. He knew this was often the hottest part of the day in these parts and didn't really expect it to start to cool until after suppertime. He needed to stop. God, he hated being so fragile, but he hated the seizures more and he could feel his muscles tightening. Maybe he could tough this one out? No, the last thing he needed was falling off his horse again and it was likely to happen. "I've got to stop. I feel a spell coming on."
Kid's stomach dropped but he nodded and smiled at Heyes. "Sure, there's a small spot of shade over there," and he led the way knowing Heyes wouldn't be able to spot it. They were nearly to the slight outcropping when he heard Heyes pull up and jump off his horse. He turned back and saw Heyes backing away from the alarmed animal. He was wind-milling his arms and moving jerkily. Curry leapt out of his saddle and ran back to him, but stopped short. He now knew it was better not to try to hold him down. Heyes looked at him desperately, abject fear in his eyes, but then it was gone and blankness took over. Heyes fell to the ground and rolled, tearing at his clothes, the sage, and anything within grasp of his hands. The Kid had to look away, he couldn't bear to watch.
It was over quickly, much faster than the last one, and Curry sent a silent word of thanks to a God he wasn't sure he believed in anymore. Heyes lay still, panting in the hot sand. His eyes were closed and he appeared unconscious. Pulling a canteen from his saddle, the Kid grabbed the horses' reins led them both close to where Heyes lay. He tied them to opposite shrubs creating a bit of intermittent shade. Kneeling at his partner's side, he gently rolled him onto his back. He was semi-conscious. He lifted him up and held the canteen to his lips but couldn't get him to swallow. The Kid tried to take a swig from the canteen and realized it was empty. He stood and went to his horse. All of his canteens were empty. He knew Heyes had one with a little water left in it, so reaching over to his horse he shook the first canteen and then pulled it off. This time he successfully managed to get a few swallows into his partner. Heyes coughed and moaned but kept his eyes closed. "Heyes, wake up. I've got to get you to some shade. Wake up." Heyes groaned and twisted his head away, but he didn't wake.
Setting the canteen aside, Curry stood up and grabbed Heyes' legs. He dragged him to the shade of a rock outcropping. There was enough room for the two of them, but the horses would have to stand out in the sun. He noticed the animals were so tired they stood with their heads down, uninterested in feeding, miserably enduring the heat. They had all lost weight, as had he and Heyes, and their coats were dulled with dehydration and the bleaching of the sun. He wondered listlessly if they would make it, if any of them would.
Heyes stirred a while later and opened his eyes. He didn't move, just opened his eyes and stared. The blankness was still in his eyes. The Kid reached out and waved a hand in front of him. Nothing. Worried, he rolled onto his knees and shook Heyes. Still nothing. It wasn't as though he was blind. If he were only blind, he would've reacted to the slight breeze he'd created waving his hand. This was like the morning he couldn't wake Heyes. He wondered whether it had been a seizure, too, but they hadn't known it at the time. Sitting back, he sat and waited. Eventually, he saw Heyes blink and begin to focus. He let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding and quietly said, "Hey. C'mon, time to wake up."
Heyes didn't say anything. He had no strength to so he sighed deeply. He wanted to keep up a good attitude; he knew he needed to for both their sakes, but it was so hard. He felt like a freak. How was he going to deal with this? It was bad enough having the Kid see him in this state he didn't want anyone else to see him like this.
Curry could see the sadness and loneliness in his cousin's eyes. Heyes was a proud man and this was an awful trial for him. "We're almost out of water. We've got to keep moving. I'm going to put you up on your horse and tie you on."
Heyes nodded, but stayed silent.
"I'll get the horses."
It was a struggle, but he got Heyes mounted. Since he was too weak to be un-cooperative, Kid was taking no chances and he tied Heyes on. He hated doing it, but he had to. Heyes' sub-consciousness couldn't be relied on to keep him upright and another fall could do him in. Grasping the reins, Kid led the horses on foot, in a line, one tied to the other. He knew this wasn't safe, but he was too tired to hang onto three horses. He was exhausted, too, but he knew the animals would last longer if he used them wisely.
He plodded on for hours until he stumbled and nearly fell to the ground. He realized he had been literally asleep on his feet and had traveled some distance without knowing it. Had he missed a turn? He looked up at Heyes who was leaning over the front of his horse, held only by the ties holding him on. He reached up and pushed him back into his saddle. Gazing around, he saw they were at the mouth of the canyons. Somehow he'd managed to stay on track. Maybe Heyes had been right. Maybe they had a spirit guide like the Indians believe. Whatever it was, he was grateful. They couldn't rely on Heyes' instincts anymore.
Beyond them the canyon gave way to a broad, barren expanse of land punctuated by several huge monoliths of slickrock rising from the ground. It was an amazing sight. He scanned the horizon trying to decide on a direction when he saw movement in the distance. He headed in that way leading his partner and the horses behind him.
It seemed to take forever, but eventually he could make out a scraggly herd of cows on the horizon. He knew cows on the desert would hang out at a water source never getting too far away from it. It soon became apparent the horses smelled water and he mustered enough strength to pull at their reins. Heyes was still out cold and bounced around with the movement of his horse.
The waterhole was a muddy mess. The cattle wallowed around the edges and lay in the murky water. Their hooves had churned up the edges and they'd polluted the water with their droppings. No matter, it was the most beautiful sight he'd had ever seen. He held onto Heyes' horse and let the other two rush into the water on their own. They sank and struggled in the mud, but the horses were soon drinking. He tugged at the reins and rushed into the cool mud himself, keeping one hand on Heyes to steady him as the horse struggled in the quagmire. Reaching the edge of the water, he fell down and allowed the water to soak his clothes. He lay there for quite a while gathering his remaining strength before standing and untying Heyes. He pulled him off dunking him under the water. Heyes came up sputtering and waving his arms, wide-eyed and looking at Kid. Without a word, he started laughing and splashing water. The Kid splashed back and for a few minutes they played like the children they'd once been. Tired, they finally crawled out of the muddy water and lay in the sun drying. The mud on their clothes stiffened as they fell asleep.
The Kid awoke to the sound of a gun hammer clicking back. His eyes shot opened as his hand reached for his gun but the holster was empty and he was looking into the mouth of a .45 aimed at his face. On the other end of the gun was a smiling man. "Easy now, partner, no need to get nervous, I'm a real cautious type." The sandy-haired cowboy looked down on him. Behind him, Curry saw two other cowboys tensely backing up their friend.
He slid his hands up slowly and nudged Heyes with his foot. "You startled me. No harm done. Joshua? Wake up, we've got company."
Heyes moaned and rolled over, "What? Huh?" Opening his eyes, he too, got a close up view of the cowpoke's weapon. "Great, just great." He closed his eyes again.
The cowboy laughed at his reaction and holstered his gun. He held his hand out to help the Kid up. "I'm Mike Conroy and this here's Walter Kent and Vance Randall. We're from the Lazy Bar C. I gotta say, we were surprised to find the two of you wallowing with our herd."
The Kid grinned back at him. "We can't afford to be picky about the company we keep, we've been wanderin' those canyons for almost a week now."
The cowboys stared at him in shock. Vance said, "You came through the canyons? Brother, you're a lucky man. Not many people make it out of there alive."
Walter spoke up suspiciously, "What were you doing in there in the first place?" He'd noticed the tied down guns and was leery. Outlaws were known to frequent the maze of canyons from time to time.
Heyes spoke up, his eyes closed against the sun beating down on him. "We were chasing a couple of heifers; made the stupid mistake of following 'em down a game trail. They lost us soon enough and, after a couple of turns, we were lost ourselves. Luck was on our side, I guess."
"What about the third horse?"
"Our buddy didn't make it." Heyes' poker face gave nothing away.
"You don't look so good. You hurt?" asked Walt.
The Kid answered, "My partner took a nasty fall. He's got a bad concussion."
They relaxed. They could handle one gunnie, if that's what they were, and the other sure looked like he'd be no trouble at all. You couldn't fake that white of a face. "Well, come on then. We set up camp while you two were dozing. Coffee's on and there's enough stew if you're hungry."
Curry's smile broadened. "Oh, we're hungry all right."
"You wouldn't have a little extra feed for our horses, would you? We've pushed them hard, and I'd be much obliged if you could spare some," said Heyes, rousing.
Walt approved of the question. A man who worried about his stock, was a decent man in his eyes. He nodded. "We've already seen to your horses. They're dozing over there." He gestured to where the three exhausted horses were standing with their heads down.
Heyes stood up with Kid's help and swayed slightly before smiling at the three cowboys. "Let's eat. I don't ever want to see another piece of jerky as long as I live!"
Almost immediately after finishing his stew, Heyes had moved away from the fire and fallen into a deep sleep. His snores were now interrupting the conversation at regular intervals. The Kid told the three men about their trip through the canyon. Heyes had always said when you made up a story use as much of the truth as you can so he them about the handprints, finding the granary, everything he could think of to distract them from the truth. The cowboys had peppered him with questions about the canyons. They'd lived their whole lives on this side of them and had learned at an early age to avoid them. He was tired now as were his companions and the conversation was winding down. "Guess I'll join Joshua in some shut-eye. Thanks, boys, for a great meal. You have no idea how good that tasted." He stood up and the cowboys wished him a good night.
At dawn, the cowboys were ready to leave. They'd only ridden out to check on the herd and were due back at the ranch around noon. The Kid and Heyes woke early with the activity stirring around them, and whispered quietly together. "Heyes, we could ride back to the ranch with them. Walt already offered. You could rest up a bit."
"No. Tell them I feel too sick to go any further." He could have ridden on, but he didn't want to be around strangers. He was too self-conscious about his spells and wanted to be alone with his partner.
"All right, if that's what you want. Maybe they'll leave us a bit of stew."
The cowboys did more than that. They generously supplied the partners with a small tent they carried in case of rain so Heyes could have shade as well as feed for their horses and some stew for the two men. The Kid thanked them profusely, but Mike told him the story he'd told last night was payment enough. They wished Joshua well, said their goodbyes to Thaddeus, and mounting their horses rode away. Curry watched them disappear from sight. Heyes was dozing again. Just as well, he thought as he stoked the fire to begin purifying water for their canteens.
When Heyes woke a half an hour later, he said he was ready to go.
"Yep, that little extra bit of sleep must've put me right. I think we should head for Dolores. I'd like to see the same doctor. He seemed pretty good." He knew the Kid would take him up on his willingness to see a doctor since he usually avoided them like a plague. He wanted to cut off any talk about following the cowboys' trail to the ranch. It worked.
"I'm almost done filling the canteens. You start packing up and we'll head to Dolores.
He grinned at his partner feeling slightly guilty for the deception. There was no need for guilt, the Kid knew exactly what he'd done.