The sun began to rise in the morning sky and, as it heated the top branches of the laden spruce trees, it melted the fresh snow. Tiny drops of water splashed down upon the sleeping outlaws. It was Wheat who woke first since he'd slept nearly around the clock.
"What the…? Geez, dagnabbit. Oww!" said Wheat, wiping at his face and sitting up. His arm ached terribly from moving too quickly and he rubbed at it gently. Kyle stirred in the bedroll next to him, but rolled over and snugged the cover across his shoulders.
Hearing Wheat, Heyes sat up and stretched. He was stiff from sleeping so long. Crawling out of his bedroll, he stood up and rubbed a sore hip. Sleeping on the ground was bad enough, but sleeping on cold, hard ground guaranteed a few aches and pains the next morning. Kid, also awake now, watched his partner as he hobbled the first few steps before loosening up. They really were getting too old for this life. Kid briefly wondered what it would be like to wake up in a soft, warm bed every morning. Heyes picked up a stick to stir the embers with and set about re-building the fire. Once it was burning, he took his old coffee pot and filled it with water from his canteen. Kid smiled to himself; his partner always went for the coffee pot first thing.
Coffee on, Heyes walked over to Wheat and crouched next to him. Without waiting for an invitation, he reached out and felt Wheat's forehead as the big outlaw squirmed away.
"I don't need no nursemaid!" grumbled Wheat. He leaned back into his saddle as far away from Heyes as he could get.
"Maybe not, but you do need some more willow bark. You're running a fever. How's the arm feeling?" said Heyes as he reached for Wheat's arm.
"It's okay," said Wheat, but Heyes knew it wasn't. The mere fact that Wheat held his arm out for him to unwrap meant that it hurt a lot and Wheat was worried. So was he. Heyes gently unbound the wound and examined it. The stitches were holding, but the skin around them was puffy and still pretty red. There was no sign of pus or red streaks, but Heyes was still concerned. Re-wrapping it carefully, he stood up. "How's it look?" asked Wheat.
"It looks like you might be working up an infection," said Heyes, "I'll bring you some more tea. There's not much point in scrubbing it now, it's already healing over. It'd be best if you rested, Wheat. We don't need to hurry along and I reckon we would all enjoy a day out of the saddle."
Heyes turned away as Wheat softly said, "Thanks," and lay back down. Heyes grinned as he walked to the coffee pot. He didn't hear that word very often from Wheat, so when he did, it meant a lot. Kid had risen while Heyes was busy and stood by the fire holding a steaming mug out to his partner. Heyes smiled and took it. He inhaled the aroma and took a sip. Morning coffee was a routine he held tightly to; it was a soothing, familiar constant in a life of uncertainty.
"Is Wheat going to be okay?" asked Kid. He watched as Heyes filled another small pot with water and place it over the coals then pulled out a small, white bindle from his pocket and sprinkled some of the willow bark into the water to steep. Picking up his mug, Heyes stood and took another sip of coffee.
"I think so, if he just gets a chance to rest. We'll stay here another night. I'll know better tomorrow," said Heyes. He'd lost men to infected wounds before and had no desire to watch a man suffer like that again. "We can smoke the meat today and check the supplies. Kyle told me they brought a bag of beans. With any luck, we'll have enough to get us to Denver," said Heyes, "I plan to head out first thing tomorrow and travel fast."
"What if Wheat's worse tomorrow?" asked Kid.
"If he is, we'll get him to a doctor. There's that old sawbones at the end of Sixth and State. He's never been choosey about his patients and we have plenty of cash," said Heyes, sipping, "He'd take him in for the right price."
"What if he can't ride? We can't all sit around Leadville waiting to be recognized," said Kid.
"We won't. Kyle can stay with him. I need to get Allie home, Kid. She's a little too comfortable riding around with us and that's likely to get her killed," said Heyes. He poured another mug of coffee and walked out to the meadow, leaving Kid standing by the fire.
Kid knew Heyes was right. This was no life for Allie, but the thought of having to say good-bye to her hurt him to his core. He'd only known her a short time, but she'd snuck into his heart and now he had no idea how he would get her out. He'd already given up the idea of building a life with her. He knew that could never happen and he was no longer sure he wanted it to. She was changing; becoming stronger, more willful and independent.
He glanced at Allie and saw her crawling out of bed. She stood and brushed back her long hair with her fingers; it had been days since she bothered to pin it up. Bending over, she reached for something and Kid saw her gripping her gunbelt in her hand. Wrapping the belt about her waist, she buckled it and settled the holster on her hip. Armed for the day, she turned and disappeared into the bushes.
Where was the sweet, gentle lady he'd fallen for? He loved Allie, but she was no longer the woman he had fallen in love with and he had a hard time envisioning them together anymore. When did she become this fearsome woman who was so confident in her abilities? Ever since Heyes showed up, Allie had been different. Kid still wanted to care for her, but she had made it plain that she didn't want to be taken care of. Heyes didn't pamper her at all, he ordered her about like one of the boys. At first she had resented it, and Kid had been worried his partner and his chosen lady would end up hating each other. Somewhere along the way she had accepted Heyes's leadership and now she seemed to look to him for direction the way the gang did. Kid sighed. His cousin was a natural leader and Kid had lived with that fact his whole life. He wouldn't blame Heyes for Allie's transformation; she had changed because she wanted to. He was done blaming Heyes for things. Heyes was Heyes. He did the best he could just like they all did. Kid threw the last of his cold coffee into the fire.
Monty and Stafford rode into Leadville early that morning. The outlaws' trail had been obliterated by the snow and they would have to change tactics. Stafford needed to contact his clients and let them know he'd lost the trail. He was trying to come up with a satisfactory excuse but wasn't having any luck. Monty had been mulling over a new plan and spoke up, "Heyes is circling back for a reason. He ain't coming back to Leadville, that would be crazy, so he's got to be headed somewhere else."
Stafford sniffed, "Of course he's headed somewhere else. That much is obvious."
Monty bristled at the dismissive answer, but continued, "Have you given much thought to why Heyes is riding around with a city girl? Why he lets her ride with the gang?"
It was clear to Monty that Stafford had not. "What are you getting at?" said Stafford.
"Heyes is an outlaw. He ain't gonna do anything that don't make him money," said Monty. "I reckon he plans to ransom that little gal and he's heading to Denver to do it. It's the only thing that makes sense."
Stafford thought it over. "You're right! Curry was taking her to Aspen and she was posing as his wife. When Heyes joined them, they abruptly changed course. He's taking her back to town to extort money from her family. She's either going along with his plan or she doesn't know what he's got up his sleeve," chuckling delightedly, Stafford picked up a jog. "We'll take the train back to Denver and get ready for them," he said.
The horses were turned out in hobbles to forage in the snow. It wasn't deep and they could easily paw down to the grasses hidden beneath. Patches pestered the older horses, eager to play. The geldings ignored him, but Fanny rolled happily in the snow with him. The two dashed about for a time, kicking up their heels, and biting at each other in play before settling down and grazing contentedly. Heyes sat on a boulder near them and watched their antics. It made him feel better, lighter-hearted, to see the horseplay.
Allie and Kyle had slept in and were now paying for their laziness by helping Kid strip the meat off the deer carcass and carefully place it over the smoking fire. They were nearly done. It would take all day for the meat to dry, but they would have plenty of jerky when it was finished. Tonight they would roast up a cut of fresh meat. Kyle had a big pot of beans simmering on the fire.
Wheat was propped up in his bedroll near the fire and was whittling a branch that Kyle had brought him. Wheat didn't whittle very often, but he was good at it and enjoyed having something to do to pass the time. He could hold the branch between his legs and use his good arm to peel it. His sore arm was propped up on Kyle's folded bedroll to help ease the pressure of holding it up.
Kid placed the last strip on the fire. "Kyle, keep an eye on this, will you? I'm going to go check on Heyes."
"I'll come with you," said Allie, standing up and wiping her hands on a small rag. Tossing down the rag, she picked up her hat and followed Jed. "Is Heyes usually this quiet?" she asked as they walked through the snow.
Kid smiled, "Nope. I can't usually get him to shut up without threatening to shoot him." She looked at him quizzically and he sighed. "He hasn't been the same since he was shot. Something happened to him. He's been shot before, almost as bad, but he came out of it different this time. I'm hoping if I give him enough space he'll work it out," said Kid.
"Have you talked to him about it?" asked Allie.
"I've tried a bunch of times. The problem is that Heyes likes to talk but not about what's going on in that thick head of his. I got him to talk yesterday morning and you saw how well that turned out," said Kid.
Allie nodded and contemplated the forlorn figure ahead. His back was to them and it appeared that he was deep in thought. Heyes leaned forward and hunched over as though the weight he was carrying in his heart was too much for him. Stooping down, she scooped up some snow and started making a snowball. Jed grinned at her and reached down as well. When they were each armed with several snowballs, they crept slowly towards Heyes. Once within range, Allie drew back her arm to throw as Heyes rolled forward off the boulder and pitched a snowball into her forehead. Hers went wildly astray. Jed laughed and hit Heyes several times before he ran out of ammunition, but it was obvious the outlaw leader had been ready for them. From behind the rock he lobbed snowball after snowball until Jed and Allie were covered in snow and laughing hysterically, begging him to stop. Heyes stood up with a grin and walked out to them.
Gasping, Allie said, "You heard us!"
Heyes laughed and said, "You weren't exactly quiet."
"I forgot to tell you that Heyes can hear a pin drop. He's got to, to hear those tumblers on the safes," said Jed, laughing hard.
"You knew he would hear us? You set me up!" she said. She pushed Jed as hard as she could, and they fell into the snow together. Jed reached out fast and hooked a hand around Heyes's leg sending him toppling next to them. The three rolled onto their backs and laughed until they were out of breath. Heyes stood up first and reached down to pull Allie up. She stood and brushed the snow off her clothes. Jed popped up and knocked the snow off Heyes's back then turned for Heyes to brush the snow off his. Together the three walked back to camp, laughing and joking about the 'fight'.
The train whistle blew as Monty and Stafford settled into their seats. Stafford had had to pay twice the going rate for the first class tickets he had bought because a large number of people were leaving town due to the Ute uprising. He was now in a foul mood and Monty was doing his best to ignore him. He left Stafford and wandered out to the platform to watch the town slowly disappearing behind the train. He'd lived in Leadville a long time, but he doubted he'd return. There wasn't really anything or anyone to bring him back. It was time to move on and Monty was giving serious thought to returning to Texas. It was home and he missed it. People were just somehow different everywhere else.
Stafford settled back into the comfortable seat. At least he was travelling in style. It irked him that he'd had to pay so much. Of course, it didn't help that he had to buy two tickets, but he wanted to keep Northrup around for back-up. Once he learned that he was trailing not one but two legendary outlaws, he had decided he had to have help. He wasn't a gunman; he used his guile to get the job done. There was no denying that the big deputy was a competent lawman and if he could help him successfully capture those outlaws and the girl; he'd be well worth every penny. This job might be lucrative enough that he could quit the Bannerman Agency and live in style for a long time. He deserved that. He never should've had to work in the first place. If his foolish father hadn't managed to run through the family fortune, his life would have been far different. Closing his eyes, Stafford drifted off to sleep dreaming of plush hotels and fancy women.
Heyes couldn't sleep, but this wasn't unusual. It happened from time to time, but most often when he was planning a job. Tonight, it wasn't the details of a well-thought out robbery that kept running through his head; it was the fruitless search for a solution that would get them out of this life and into another. He was tired of thinking so he got up and pulled his bedroll around his shoulders. By the light of the moon, he wandered out to the boulder in the meadow and sat down. The night was clear, cold, and the stars were amazingly bright. He leaned back onto the broad rock and stared at the sky mentally naming the constellations his grandfather had taught him.
The posse was gaining. Patches was straining to keep up with Jed's and Heyes's horses and she was falling behind. Shots rang out and she saw Jed fall out of his saddle. Heyes's horse staggered, and rolled head over heels; the outlaw still in the saddle. She felt a sharp sting in her back and she, too, began to fall only to jerk awake gasping for breath. She sat up and looked around the campfire, disoriented from her dream. It was dead quiet except for Kyle's soft snoring. The pounding of her head and heart subsided and she noticed that Heyes was gone. Allie threw back her cover and stood up, shivering. It was colder tonight. She grabbed her bedroll and pulled the heavy material around her, clasping it tightly with one cold hand. Slipping her boots on, she walked to the edge of the trees where she could see Heyes laying back on the boulder in the meadow. If she couldn't sleep, she may as well have company. Starting across the snow, she tried to step as quietly as possible just to see if she could sneak up on him. She'd only gone two or three steps before she saw him sit up and turn in her direction. He really could hear a pin drop!
"Mind if I join you?" she asked tentatively.
"You couldn't sleep either?" asked Heyes in answer.
"I had a nightmare," she said.
"What about?" asked Heyes.
"A posse…they got us," Allie said shakily.
Heyes looked away from her and softly said, "They will get us some day. You know that, don't you?"
She frowned and nodded. "I do, but I don't want to think about it," she said.
Heyes grinned, "Neither do I." He lay back down and he stared at the stars. "Do you ever wonder what's out there? Is it heaven or is it just a never-ending display of stars? Are there other places like Earth or are we the only ones here?"
Allie lay down next to him and looked up. "I have and I've never reached a satisfactory conclusion. Have you?" she said with a laugh.
"Nope, but I like trying," said Heyes. A shooting star streaked brightly across the sky. "Look," he said, pointing to it.
"The skies are so different out here than in Denver. They seem bigger and there are so many more stars," said Allie.
"It's because the air is cleaner and because there are no lights out here," said Heyes still looking up, "The factories in Denver spew soot and dirt into the air and the street lamps light the town so brightly that the stars are harder to see."
Allie sighed, "I'll miss this; sleeping out, the stars, the freedom."
"Was it really that bad at home?" asked Heyes gently.
"It was the most suffocating, emotionally sterile place you could imagine. I was well-fed, well-clothed, and well-ignored," she said.
"I can't imagine anyone ignoring you, Allie," said Heyes.
Allie laughed, "Believe me; I made sure they both had to work at it. I was always getting in trouble."
Heyes chuckled, "Me, too, and I usually dragged Kid into it. Fortunately, for both of us, we had very understanding parents." He sighed deeply, "Of course, by the time we started getting into serious trouble, they were gone." He silently stared at the night sky lost in his thoughts for several long minutes.
"Look, there's another shooting star!" said Allie pointing, "Over there by that bright star."
Heyes laughed again, "That's not a star; that's Jupiter."
"It is?" asked Allie. "Do you know the constellations?" She shivered with the cold but kept her eyes on the star-filled sky.
"Sure. See the stars overhead? That's Sagittarius. Look, there's the bow and that's the body of the horse," said Heyes. "Are you cold? Here, scoot over next to me." He held open his bedroll with his left arm. Allie hesitated a second and then slipped under his arm. He pulled the heavy blanket about them both and held it shut tightly. Allie felt a chill go through her and then the warm heat from his body.
"I can't see anything but a lot of stars," giggled Allie. Heyes grinned at her.
"Okay, here's an easy one. Over there, see those three bright stars? Those are Vega, Altair, and Deneb. They form the summer triangle," said Heyes, tracing the geometric shape with his finger.
"I see it! Show me another," said Allie.
They lay together watching the stars and talking softly. Their worries slipped away from them both and so did the hours. By early morning, they had fallen asleep wrapped in each other's arms.