by JoAnn Baker
The trail had become a blur of dust and wind as the two riders struggled against the increasing opposition. Both men wore bandanas over their faces and the horses trudged forward with their heads low.
"If we don't find some shelter pretty soon, we're gonna be the ones walkin' into this storm. These horses aren't gonna go much further," one of the riders shouted over the sound of the wind and the rustling leaves.
"I know that, Kid. Just a little further and we'll be in Twin Brook, er Two Streams, er something like that. I rode through here a few years ago."
"When, Heyes? Seven or eight years ago? That's what you said about the last town and that one turned out to be a ghost town. Not a soul to be found and no supplies left behind neither." Kid Curry shook his head, frustration showing in his face.
"There—up ahead. There's a building!" Heyes said, with excitement.
"Uh huh," Curry mumbled. His tone was not enthusiastic.
The street was empty. Dust swirled around the horses as tumbleweeds blew past. The first building they came to looked like an old barn or shed. Heyes dismounted and pushed the door open, revealing an utterly empty space. "I don't know what they stored in here, but whatever it was, there sure ain't any left," he muttered.
"We're gonna have to let these horses rest a bit," Curry said, matter-of-factly.
Heyes nodded. "We'll find some place to spend the night."
More buildings and storefronts stood further down the road, but the town looked completely deserted.
The two continued on down the street, walking and leading their horses.
"Now that looks more like it," Curry said, pointing at a sign that indicated the establishment had once been the town saloon. He headed for the double doors, still leading his horse.
"You taking your mare in there?" Heyes balked.
Curry shrugged. "I don't think anyone will mind. If the place looks decent, we'll find a better place for the horses later." They led the two horses into the saloon and out of the storm. A first glance revealed an old stove in the corner.
"Well, we'll have some heat and maybe some coffee if we can get that going," Heyes noted cheerfully. He stopped abruptly and his jaw dropped open when he saw another horse, already inside and standing in the corner.
The partners gave each other curious glances as they stared at the horse. In the silence, the click of a gun sounded.
Favor1"Hold it right there," a hoarse voice commanded.
The ex-outlaws shot each other looks that said 'not again' and slowly turned in unison to face the sound.
A man about ten years older than Heyes and Curry leaned against a crate. He had a six-gun aimed directly at them. "How'd you find me?" he demanded.
"Mister, we didn't know anybody was here," Curry offered, raising his hands slowly.
"You followin' me?" the man asked.
"Look, I don't know who you think we are, but we're just two travelers looking for a place to wait out this storm," Heyes said, pleasantly. "We didn't know anyone else was here."
"Sure you didn't," the voice replied, the cynicism thick.
"Can you put that gun down? You're makin' me nervous," the Kid asked, his hands still raised.
The man with the gun started to laugh, but ended in a cough. "Sure, I put the gun down, then you throw me over my horse and take me in."
"What?" Heyes asked, as his brow furrowed in surprise and confusion.
The man began to cough again and then collapsed onto the ground.
Glancing briefly at each other, Heyes and Curry went to the man and turned him over. Lifting his jacket revealed a blood-soaked shirt.
"Gun shot?" Curry wondered aloud.
Heyes nodded, as he opened the man's shirt and examined his arm. "Looks like the bullet went clean through, but it's bleeding pretty bad. We'll have to get that stopped. See if you can get a fire going in that stove and heat some water."
Curry nodded and set about to work on the stove. He got a fire started and filled a pot with water to boil. Then, he began opening cupboard doors and drawers, and looking into boxes and bags that were sitting around the room.
"Not a bottle or scrap of food," he reported, dismally.
"See what he's got," Heyes suggested.
Curry went to the stranger's horse and opened his saddle bags. He reached inside and rummaged through the bag. He pulled out a few items, looking at them briefly and then returning them to the bag. He pulled out a large piece of paper and stood still for a moment, staring at the paper. He slowly turned to face his partner.
"No food, but look at this," he said, holding out a wanted poster with a drawing that resembled the man lying in front of them. The headline indicated a bounty of two thousand dollars.
"Ben Caulder," Curry announced.
Heyes frowned. "I know that name. He rode with Plummer."
Curry's eyes narrowed. "He know you?"
"No. He left the gang before I rode with them. I remember hearing about him though. The boys said he was a good guy. I thought he got out of the business," Heyes replied.
"Apparently not," Curry observed, studying the poster for a minute. "It says here 'dead or alive' so he must've gotten into more trouble. He might be dangerous."
"Kid, we're wanted dead or alive, you know." Heyes' eyes met his partner's eyes.
Curry glared back. "You think I could forget that?" He looked away. "I just mean we should be careful, that's all."
"Let's get him bandaged up," Heyes said, and went back to work on Caulder. "Why don't you take these horses and see if you can find someplace better to put 'em. Maybe an old livery that still has some hay in it."
Curry nodded. "I think I saw one up the road. I'll give it a try. Do you need any help with him?"
"No, it's not as bad as it looked at first. There was just a lot of blood, but the wound isn't deep and it doesn't look infected."
Curry nodded and began leading the horses outside.
"The storm looks like it's clearing," Heyes said, as he took a sip from a coffee cup. The two men were sitting near the stove and Caulder was sleeping soundly by the side of them. "I think he's going to be okay now that we got the bleeding stopped," he observed. "He probably hasn't slept in days. One of us needs to go for supplies. Lewiston can't be just a few miles from here. I don't know about you, but I'm getting pretty hungry," Heyes grinned.
Curry considered this for a moment. "Maybe we should both head outta here. What if he's got a posse after him? They could be headed this way right now."
"No posse could track him through last night's storm. You got the horses out of sight, right?"
"Yeah, they're in the stable up the street. It's about a block up on the right."
"We can't just leave him here, and it wouldn't hurt us to have a place to hole up in for a few days either."
"Okay," Curry agreed. "I wouldn't mind having a roof over my head for a while. Besides, I'm startin' to like this town."
"Kid, there's nobody IN this town!"
"WHAT, exactly?" Heyes shook his head in confusion.
"The fact that there ain't nobody in this town is exactly what I'm beginnin' to like about it. No one lookin' over my shoulder, no wonderin' about every person that looks twice at me on the street."
"Too bad you'll be leaving for supplies."
"Me? Heyes, I think you should be the one to ride for supplies."
"I'm tending to Caulder."
"You don't think I'm capable of tendin' a bullet wound?"
"You want to flip a coin?" Heyes asked, cheerfully.
Curry narrowed his eyes, skeptically. "Your coin?"
"Do you have one?" Heyes extended his hand, palm up, and waited.
The Kid checked his vest pocket, then the front pocket of his pants. Coming up empty, he rolled his eyes and crossed both arms over his chest.
"My coin it is." Heyes flipped his coin into the air with a smug grin. "Call it!"
"C'mon, Heyes, I don't wanna... HEADS!"
A grimace from Curry and more smug grinning from Heyes revealed the result.
"Fine, I'll go!" Kid conceded. "Wanted to get some fresh air anyways, and the ride will clear my head." He picked up his jacket and trudge traipsed to the door.
"Stay out of trouble," Heyes warned.
Curry gave him a long-suffering look. "I'm only goin' to buy food. I think I'll take his horse though; mine was startin' to limp when I put her in the stable last night. Her left foreleg must be botherin' her again."
Heyes frowned. "I thought that had healed."
Curry shrugged. "It should be okay if she can stay off of it for a day."
"Okay, I'll see you in a few hours," Heyes said, as his partner walked out the door.
He sighed and looked at the sleeping man. "I sure hope nobody's trailing you."
Heyes sat, sipping coffee and watching Caulder sleep. He pulled the blanket back and checked the bandage he'd applied to the man's arm.
"You're lucky," Heyes said softly. "You're going to make it. At least, you're not going to die today," he added ruefully.
Caulder stirred and groaned as he opened his eyes. He attempted to sit up but pain showed in his face and he shut his eyes tightly until it subsided.
"Take it easy. You're safe for now. You can rest."
Caulder lay back and the tension in his face eased as he slipped back into sleep.
"Don't take too long, Kid; I'm getting pretty hungry here," Heyes groused, as he paced the main room of the saloon.
The sun was high overhead before the sleeping man stirred again. This time he opened his eyes and looked directly at Heyes.
"How do you feel?" Heyes asked, casually.
"Better. I think," the man replied, attempting to sit up.
"Here, let me help you," Heyes said, assisting the man into a sitting position. "You want some coffee, Mr. Caulder?"
The man's eyes narrowed. "You know me?" he asked suspiciously.
"We looked in your saddle bag for food. We found that poster," he gestured to the wanted poster laying on the table.
Caulder looked from Heyes to the poster, then back to Heyes, seeming to take in the situation and weigh his options. "There was two of you. Where's the other one?" Caulder asked, suddenly suspicious.
"He rode into town."
"To get the sheriff?"
"No, to get some food. If we were interested in the reward, do you think we would have patched you up?"
Caulder thought about this for a minute, and then his face softened. "No, I guess not. I'm much obliged for your help," Caulder said, accepting the cup of coffee that was handed to him.
"Take it easy," Heyes cautioned, helping him steady the cup. "You lost a lot of blood and you need to rest and get your strength back. If your arm doesn't get infected, you should be better in a few days, Mr. Caulder."
"You know my name, but I don't know yours."
"Name's Joshua Smith."
"I don't know what I would have done if you two hadn't come along."
Heyes shrugged. "I guess it was just your lucky day, Mr. Caulder."
Caulder smiled. "Call me Ben. I thought my luck had all run out. Always on the run…never catching a break…no matter how hard I tried to go straight…"
"You tried to go straight?"
Caulder gave a short humorless laugh. "Sure, lots of times. It's harder than it sounds."
Heyes nodded soberly.
"You ever been in trouble?" Caulder asked.
"Uh, no, no sir," Heyes replied quickly.
"You should keep it that way. Once you go down the outlaw trail there's no turning back."
"How did you end up here?" Heyes asked.
Caulder shrugged. "I always thought I'd pull just one more job, you know?"
"Yeah," Heyes sighed with a nod of agreement, and then suddenly shook his head. "Uh, no, so what happened?"
"The last one didn't turn out so good. A posse caught up with us and started shooting. One of the boys fired back and hit a deputy. Killed him. I've been on my own…running…ever since."
Heyes cringed and looked away. He took a deep breath and then turned back. "Don't you have…family? Anywhere you can go? Hide out?"
"I have a wife and daughter in Kansas City," Caulder said quietly. "I came west to make it big and go home rich—give my family the life they deserved. Instead, they're scrubbing floors and doing anything they can to make ends meet. I can't take this kind of trouble back to them." He paused and sighed. "I never wanted to be a part of any killing. I don't think Ned even meant to kill that man; he was just trying to scare 'em off."
Heyes nodded, sympathetically. "You wanted to give your family a better life. It just didn't work out."
"You have a family?" Caulder asked.
"Me? No. They're all gone."
Caulder looked at him quizzically.
"The war," Heyes said, as though that was the only explanation necessary.
"Oh." Caulder gave him a knowing look. "I'm sorry," he said. "I fought in the war. Afterwards, I went home and nothing was the same. Our crops failed. I couldn't find work. That was when I decided to do anything I had to do to give my wife and daughter a better life. I never thought it would end like this."
"Well, it ain't exactly over yet you know," Heyes said encouragingly.
"It is for me," Caulder said.
"Don't talk like that. You could go somewhere they don't know you, find a job, start a new life."
Caulder smiled. "It's not that easy for a man like me. I've never worked an honest job—except farming and I'm too old for that now. What kind of business are you in?"
"Me? Oh, a little of this. A little of that. Whatever I can find."
Caulder nodded. "I wish I was your age again. I'd do it all different."
"Sometimes I wish I could have done a few things differently too," Heyes agreed.
"I guess every man has a few regrets. My biggest regret is what I done to my wife. What I put her through. I wish I could make that right."
"I wish I could help…" Heyes mumbled.
Caulder turned to the younger man and studied him. "You really mean that?"
"Well, sure, we fixed you up, didn't we?"
"Yeah, you've helped me out a lot. Would you be willing to do one more thing?" Caulder's face took on a pleading look.
Heyes frowned and turned to face the outlaw. "Just what do you want me to do?" Heyes asked, cautiously.
"You can turn me in," Calder said after a moment. "Turn me in and send the reward to my wife and daughter."
Heyes' mouth dropped open. "What?" he asked. "I can't do that."
"Please," Caulder said, urgently. "It's the only thing I can do for them. I'll give you the address. Please," he pleaded.
Heyes stared at the older man. "I can't," he said again. "You'll hang. I won't be a part of that."
Caulder found a scrap of paper and began writing. "Just think about it. Talk it over with your partner when he gets back. You two can keep some of the money."
"No," Heyes said more forcefully. "You can't ask me to do a thing like that."
The two men stared at each other for a moment before Caulder sighed, shoulders sagging, and lie back down with a defeated look. In a few minutes, he was sleeping again.
Heyes stared out of the window.
Kid Curry left the general store with two bags over his shoulders. He stopped abruptly at the sight of two men examining the horse he'd ridden to town.
"What do you think you're doin'?" he demanded.
The two men wore dusty trail clothes and looked as though they had not shaved in a week or two. The taller man had shaggy blond hair and the other had short dark hair. "We're just admirin' your horse, mister," the blond said casually.
"Yeah, he's a real purdy animal. Where'd you get 'im?" the shorter man asked.
"None of your business. Get away from him and let me be on my way."
"What's your hurry?" the blond asked, grinning. Both men stood up straighter and stepped back, revealing six-guns on their hips.
"I've got business to get to, and that's none of your business either," Curry said slowly and evenly. His eyes bored into the men.
"Well now, we'd just like to know where you got such a fine lookin' animal?" the shorter man asked, taking a step forward and placing his hands on his hips.
"I bought him off a guy who was down on his luck. He needed the money and I needed a new horse. Mine had gone lame. Now, are you gonna get outta my way?"
"Why don't you tell us more about that man you bought this horse from. Where exactly did you run into him?"
Curry let his sacks drop to the ground and faced the two men. "Are you lawmen?"
"Us? Naw, the sheriff, he's up in Silver City testifying at the trial of a couple of outlaws," the shorter man wrinkled his nose. "Guess you'll just have to answer to us. Won't he, Corky?" he glanced at his companion.
"Yep. I'd say he does," Corky replied.
Kid Curry took in a long breath and blew it out slowly. "Well, if you ain't lawmen, then step away from my horse and let me be on my way." He began to reach down to retrieve his bags.
Favor2In the split second that it took for Corky and his companion to reach for their guns, Kid Curry's revolver was out of his holster and leveled at Corky. He slowly and evenly moved his aim from one to the other. "Now both of you get outta here."
The two men's eyes had gone round as saucers and they slowly raised their hands and backed away.
"What's going on here?" a voice suddenly demanded, as a figure emerged from the general store.
Curry turned toward the sound and saw an older man with silver hair standing in the doorway and aiming a rifle in his direction.
"Is this some kind of robbery?"
"No, sir, I was just tryin' to convince these, gentlemen, to let me get on my horse and ride out of town."
The street had quickly cleared when the argument turned into a stand-off, and faces peered from windows and around corners.
"Look, I don't want any trouble. I just came in to pick up a few supplies and now I'd like to head out." Curry's demeanor was polite but firm, and the revolver remained in his hand.
"What's going on, boys?" The man in the doorway looked from Curry to the two in the street.
"Nothin' really, J.J. We were just admirin' this here horse and this guy pulled a gun on us."
J.J. studied the horse and the gunman in front of the mercantile. "Well," he said finally, "Why don't you just get on along then?" He lowered his gun and turned to the two men by Curry's horse. "Come on, boys, let's let this stranger be on his way."
The two men balked at first, but at J.J.'s insistence they backed down and all three men left together and headed down the street.
Curry waited until they turned down a side street before retrieving his supplies and mounting up. He rode out of town quickly, looking over his shoulder several times as he left.
"How come you let him go, J.J.?" Corky asked. "That was Caulder's horse."
"I know that," J.J. replied. "What did you think you and Billy were gonna do? Ask him where Caulder is? Beat it outta him? You saw the way he handled that gun."
"Do you think he's joined up with Caulder?" Billy asked.
"Maybe," J.J. considered this. "Could be he's a bounty hunter. Could be he just bought that horse like he said."
"You really think so?" Billy asked, skeptically.
"No," J.J. said.
"You want us to follow him?" Corky asked, excitement beginning to show on his face.
"We don't have to. I saw him ride in and I went to see what he was doing. He bought enough supplies for two or three men to last three or four days. He wouldn't be buyin' food like that if he was in a hurry to get somewhere on business like he said. There's only one place they could be hiding out. All we have to do is ride out to Double Creek and take a look," J.J. grinned.
Corky and Billy both laughed and clapped each other on the back. "Yessir, two-thousand dollars is waitin' for us!"
"Well, you look a lot better than you did the last time I saw you," Curry stated, addressing Caulder, who was awake and sitting up. He set the sacks on the table where Heyes sat drinking coffee. "You'll feel a lot better too, after you get some solid food for supper," he added.
"Breakfast too," Heyes observed, retrieving a slab of bacon from the bag and grinning at his partner. The smile faded when he saw the look on Curry's face. "What's wrong?" he asked.
"I think we should head out at first light," Curry told him.
"Why?" Heyes asked again, concern darkening his face. "You said you wanted to rest here for a few days."
"I might have had a little trouble in town."
"What do you mean might?" Heyes was on his feet now.
"A couple of guys were hangin' around my horse—your horse," he added, looking at Caulder. "I think they might have recognized it. One of 'em was named Corky. The other one was taller and kind of slim, with a straggly beard."
Caulder closed his eyes and shook his head. "Corky Wells and Billy Barnes, I used to ride with them. I ran into them last month. They had a third man with them too, older, graying hair. I didn't know him, but he turned out to be a bounty hunter and they started trailing me. If it hadn't been for that dust storm, I never would have lost 'em."
"That must have been the other man," Curry noted with a frown. "They called him J.J."
Heyes looked up sharply. "J.J.?"
"I heard about a bounty hunter by the name of Jack Johnson. I think they called him J.J. He was pretty well known around these parts a few years back. He'd be…fifty, fifty-five maybe."
"Gotta be him. He was older than the other two. Kinda silvery hair."
"Great," Heyes muttered, "and you run right into him," he said accusingly to Curry. "We'll head out first thing in the morning. Do you think they followed you?"
"No. They didn't follow me," Curry said defensively. "Besides, if they show up here you can just convince them we bought that horse from some guy we ran into. We'll just make sure he stays out of sight."
Heyes furrowed his brow. "I'll help you see to the horses," he told Curry, and the two stepped outside.
The two former outlaws walked toward the stable. Finally, Heyes broke the silence. "Kid, I didn't want to say anything back there, but Caulder's not the only one who rode with those two."
Curry raised his eyebrows and shot his partner a quizzical look.
"They were still in Plummer's gang when I was riding with him. I know they'd recognize me."
"I knew helpin' that guy would lead to trouble," Curry said, shaking his head.
"Come on, Kid, we couldn't just leave him like that," he looked away. "That could have been one of us. If things had been different…if some loose cannon in the gang had ever shot and killed a guard or a deputy. If…"
Curry looked sharply at Heyes. "Stop it. It ain't us. He made his choices just like we made ours."
"Yeah, I guess you're right," Heyes agreed. "He asked us to turn him in."
"What?!" Curry stopped in his tracks and turned to face his partner.
"He told me he has a wife and daughter back in Kansas City. He wanted us to turn him in for the reward and then send them the money. He feels like it's the only way he can provide for them."
Curry pondered this. "There's gotta be another way. Maybe he could try for amnesty like us?"
"No, he told me a deputy was killed during one of the robberies he committed," Heyes said, glumly.
"That's a bad break," Curry agreed.
"Kid, do you ever think about what would have happened if you or one of the boys had hit some deputy or sheriff when you were shooting back at a posse?"
"No," Curry said quickly.
"Why not?" Heyes asked.
"'Cus it didn't happen," Curry said simply.
"But what if you had? What if your aim was off or your horse jumped or…"
"I don't think about it, Heyes," Curry's voice took on a hard edge. "I got plenty of things I done that I think about. I don't have to think about what I ain't done. And I don't want to talk about it neither."
"Okay, if that's the way you feel about it," Heyes shrugged. "I just can't help wondering what I would do if I was in that guy's place."
"Well I don't think he's makin' any sense. Why would he ask you to do that for him anyway? He don't even know you."
"I guess he just thought I looked like an honest man."
"Musta been delirious," Curry deadpanned.
Heyes feigned a hurt look. "Kid, I'm offended."
Curry stared at his partner. "You aren't thinkin' about doing doin' what he asked, are you?"
"What? Of course not."
"That's what Belle Jordan said when we asked her to turn us in."
Favor3"Yeah, I thought about that too," Heyes admitted.
"The hard part won't be findin' someone to turn him in. The hard part will be findin' some bounty hunter willin' to share the money," Curry groused. "I doubt that bunch back in Lewiston would be agreeable to something like that. I just don't understand how outlaws can turn bounty hunter and hunt down their old friends. That'd be like us turnin' in Kyle or Wheat!"
"I can't believe Billy and Corky could turn on a friend like that," Heyes said quietly.
"Yeah, well you didn't believe Plummer could either."
"No, I didn't," Heyes admitted. "I got lucky when I joined up with Big Jim. I got even luckier when you and I partnered up. I wouldn't want to be on the run all alone like Caulder there."
Curry kicked at the dirt. "Look, I feel bad for the guy, but we gotta look after ourselves."
"You're right, Kid, we've gotta look after ourselves and watch each other's backs. I can't even imagine not having someone to watch my back."
Curry sighed. "I 'spose he could ride along with us to the next big town—but then we leave him. He's on his own."
Heyes grinned. "Kid, that's a great idea. I'll go back and heat up some dinner while you go make sure the horses are settled in. We'll all head out at first light."
Curry stared after his partner and shook his head. "Why do I feel like you had your mind made up before we even talked?" he mumbled.
"Are you sure you can ride?" Heyes asked, watching Caulder grimace as he changed his shirt.
"I'll ride," the older man replied. "What choice do I have?"
"Are you sure there hasn't been any posse following you?" Heyes asked. "No other bounty hunters?"
"No, only Corky, Billy, and that bounty hunter."
"J.J.," Heyes added.
Heyes gave Curry a questioning look.
Curry shrugged. "The younger guys weren't that good. The other one, he could be trouble, but nothin' I can't handle."
"What are you talking about? If we run into that group on the road, you'll have to let them take me. I don't want to get you two into trouble."
Heyes looked at the ground. "Ben, if we run into that group, we will be in trouble."
"Then, you can tell them you're taking me in. That I'm your prisoner."
"You don't understand," Heyes said slowly, glancing at Curry.
"I'm goin' to go get the horses," Curry said, excusing himself and stepping outside.
"What?" Caulder asked.
"I wasn't exactly honest with you before."
"What are you saying?"
"You asked me if I'd ever been in trouble. I wasn't exactly straight with you. My name isn't Joshua Smith."
"Oh? So what is your name?"
"It's Hannibal Heyes."
Caulder's eyes opened wide and his jaw dropped. "You rode with Plummer after I left," he stammered.
"Yeah, and Billy and Corky were still in the gang. They know me."
Caulder's expression changed to one of suspicion and distrust. "Are you in cahoots with them?"
"No!" Heyes exclaimed. "How could you even think that?"
Caulder face relaxed and he sat taking in what he had just heard. "Hannibal Heyes?" he asked, in disbelief. "And your friend, I suppose he's Kid Curry?"
"Wow. I always thought I'd have it made if I could ride with the Devils Hole Gang. You were on top," Caulder said, looking at Heyes with interest. "I haven't heard your name much in a couple of years. Did you retire? You must have a pretty nice nest egg."
"Not really. We had a lot of big scores, but we never seemed to be able to hold on to any of the money. Times were changing and it was getting more dangerous, so, we went straight. We haven't pulled a job in over two years. We're broke most of the time."
"And you're still wanted. That's why you were so worried about a posse following me. You were afraid they'd catch you, too. That's why you couldn't turn me in," Caulder smiled ruefully. "You can't go to the law."
"No, but you can ride with us to the next town and then we'll go our separate ways."
"You really went straight?" Caulder asked.
"Yep, we did."
"Maybe if I can stay alive…after a little while…I could go back to Kansas City," Caulder said, thoughtfully.
"Sure, maybe you can just disappear. I'll bet your family would rather have you than the money," Heyes said.
"You really think so?" Caulder looked doubtful.
"I think if they're any kind of decent people then they would."
"They're more than decent." Caulder smiled at the memory.
"Then I think that's what you should do. But first, we've gotta get out of here. What's keeping the Kid? He should have been back by now."
Kid Curry crumpled to the ground as bounty hunter Jack Johnson, known as J.J., emerged from behind the cover of a stack of crates, where he had lain in wait for one of the three men to come for their horses. "Go get some rope and tie him up," he ordered.
"How hard did ya hit him," Corky asked, staring at the unconscious man.
"Just hard enough to knock him out," J.J. replied. "Now we'll see who comes out next."
Billy and Corky each grabbed one of Curry's arms and pulled him out of the street.
"What if Caulder ain't here?" Billy asked, when he returned with a length of rope and began to bind the hands of the man they had met the day before.
Corky pulled the gun from the belt of their prisoner and examined it. "Shore is a pretty gun," he said, appreciatively.
"It's a lot prettier when it's not in his hand," Billy laughed.
"Shush up you two," J.J. hissed. "Splash some water on his face and wake him up. Hey in there!" he shouted. "We've got one of your men out here. If you want him back, you'll send Caulder out. Unarmed."
Heyes and Caulder both jumped at the shouts and Heyes immediately pulled his gun and went to the window. "They don't know who they've got," Heyes said grimly. "If we can keep it that way, we might all stand a chance."
"We saw three horses in the livery," J.J. continued, "so I know there are two of you in there. Now if Caulder ain't one of ya, just come on out and show yourselves. We only want Caulder."
Caulder looked at Heyes. "What do we do?" he asked.
Heyes returned Caulder's look and shook his head briefly. "Stay there," he whispered. Then he took a deep breath. "My name's Smith," he shouted. "Who are you?"
"It don't matter who I am. I have your man, so come on out and show yourselves or I'll shoot him."
"How do I know he's okay?" Heyes returned. "Let me talk to him."
"He's fine. Just a little groggy," J.J. replied.
"I want to hear it from him," Heyes insisted.
The Kid sputtered and coughed after Billy splashed another bucket of water on his face. He opened his eyes slowly and stared at the three men standing over him.
"Tell your friends you're okay," J.J. ordered.
Curry looked confused for a moment. He blinked and took a few slow breaths. "Joshua?" he called out, as loudly as he could. "They've got me tied up here, but I'm okay."
Heyes relaxed visibly when he heard his partner's voice. "Alright, yeah, I've got Caulder here, but he's hurt. He's been shot up pretty bad and he can't walk. We were gonna take him in to the law as soon as he was strong enough to ride. If you want him, you'll have to come in and get him."
Caulder stared at Heyes. "What are you doing? I can walk," he said emphatically.
"I know that, but they don't," Heyes countered.
Curry squinted up at the three men who were holding guns. "I could help him carry Caulder out," he suggested.
J.J. laughed. "How stupid do you think I am?"
"I dunno, how stupid are you?" Curry quipped back.
J.J. lifted his rifle as if he was about to bring the butt end down on Curry's face, but he stopped and lowered his arms slowly. "Don't push me," he warned.
Curry glared at him. Behind his back, Curry was working to loosen the rope ties.
The older bounty hunter pulled Corky aside. "Keep an eye on him," he said, motioning toward Curry. "As soon as we get Caulder—kill him."
Corky's eyes went wide. "I didn't sign on to kill nobody."
J.J. sneered at the younger man. "You shot Caulder," he pointed out.
"Well, yeah, but he's wanted dead or alive—that makes it legal."
"Since when have you worried about what's legal? You're an outlaw. You didn't sign on at all. I caught you and your partner and gave you a choice—identify Caulder and some of your other old friends or go to jail. If you can't do that, then I don't have any use for you." He let the threat hang in the air.
Corky returned to stand in front of Curry, his gun trained on the man.
"Billy, go get Caulder," J.J. ordered.
"Alone?" Billy hesitated.
"He ain't gonna hurt you. We got his friend here, remember?"
"Yessir," Billy said, and headed toward the saloon.
"Is your gun loaded?" Heyes asked Caulder.
"Yeah, I think so," Caulder stood up slowly and took a few steps.
Heyes moved to the table where Caulder's gun belt lay. He picked up the gun and checked the rounds, then handed the gun to the other man.
"You, in the saloon," J.J. shouted. "Come out unarmed and let Billy check you."
Billy slowed as he got closer to the saloon, looking back toward the livery where J.J. was hidden, then anxiously back at the saloon before calling, "Hey, you comin' out?"
"You gotta help me with him," Heyes called in a hoarse voice.
Billy hesitated and grimaced, then slowly entered the building. He squinted and leaned forward as his eyes adjusted to the darker room. He could see a man standing in the corner of the room leaning over another man who appeared to be asleep or unconscious.
"Grab his feet," Heyes said again.
Billy hesitated again, and then holstered his weapon and took a step toward the men.
As soon as the gun was in its holster, Heyes spun, his own gun in his hand, and pointed at the newcomer.
Billy's eyes opened wide. "Heyes?" he asked in surprise.
"Don't yell out, Billy, or I'll drop you right here," Heyes said, his eyes conveying the truth of his words.
Caulder opened his eyes and sat up. He retrieved his own gun from under the pillow.
"What's goin' on?" Billy stammered.
"You're working for me now," Heyes informed him. "And you're going to help me get my friend back safe and sound."
"But J.J. will…" Billy began.
"He's not the one holding a gun on you right now. I am," Heyes interrupted.
"Well…yeah, but…" Billy started again, then closed his mouth and swallowed hard.
"I don't trust him," Caulder said, looking up at Heyes. "I think you should kill him."
"You're probably right," Heyes agreed, and cocked his pistol.
"W-wait!" Billy shouted. "I'll do whatever you say."
The edges of Heyes mouth turned up in a satisfied smile. "That's better. Now tell me about my friend. What did you do to him?"
"J.J. just gave a little tap on the head. He'll be fine."
"He'd better be," Heyes face darkened again. "What aren't you telling me?"
"Nothin'," Billy said quickly.
Heyes looked him the eye and held his gaze.
"Well, J.J. mighta told Corky to kill him," Billy admitted.
"What do you mean mighta?" Heyes demanded.
"Um, well, he said to kill him after we got Caulder."
Caulder, who'd been silent, grunted heavily. "You low-down turn-coat," Caulder growled, and aimed his gun at Billy.
"Save it," Heyes warned Caulder.
"You," Heyes addressed Billy. "Tell J.J. we're bringing Caulder out, but I need to see my friend first."
"Now!" Heyes pressed.
"Okay, whatever you say, Heyes," Billy nodded. "Uh, J.J.?" He called out loudly, leaning toward the open door. "I'm gonna help him bring Caulder out, but he wants to see his friend first."
Behind the livery, J.J. scowled. "I shoulda known better than to let that fool go in there," he mumbled.
Kid Curry sat facing his two captors. Behind his back, he wriggled his wrists and pulled against the rope that secured his arms.
"Bring him out so his friend can see him, but keep a gun on him," J.J. directed, and walked around the livery toward the street.
Curry began vigorously pulling at his binds and pulled the loosened ropes over his hands just as Corky turned toward him. He closed his eyes and slumped down to the ground.
"Get up," Corky said, as he approached.
Curry remained still.
"Hey," Corky said, louder, and leaned closer to shake Curry by the shoulder. Curry suddenly grabbed for the man's hand and yanked him down, reaching for the gun on his hip. The two men struggled and rolled on the ground. They stopped abruptly when a gunshot hit the dirt near their heads.
"Stand up slow and let me see your hands," J.J. barked.
Curry looked up at the bounty hunter, anger and frustration showing in his eyes. He stood, unsteadily, and struggled to maintain his balance.
"Tie him back up," J.J. told Corky. "Tighter this time."
When the gun fired, Heyes broke away from Billy and Caulder and ran toward the sound of the shot. He stopped abruptly at the edge of the livery and peered cautiously around the corner of the building.
"Let him go," Heyes shouted, his gun trained steadily on the silver-haired man with the gun.
Curry and Corky both turned to look at Heyes. Surprise and then excitement showed in Corky's face. "That's Hannibal Heyes!" he exclaimed.
J.J. still held a gun pointed at Curry. He shot a glance at the new man and then turned back to Corky and their hostage. "Well, if that's Hannibal Heyes then you must be Kid Curry. I should have suspected that by how fast you drew that gun of yours back in Lewiston. I said tie him up, Corky."
"And I said don't," Heyes insisted.
J.J. turned toward Heyes. "I don't think you'll shoot me. Because then Billy will shoot you, and Corky will shoot Kid Curry," he said smugly.
Heyes shifted uneasily.
"That's right, I'll shoot you, Heyes," Billy croaked.
Heyes let out an exasperated sigh and shook his head slowly. "Billy, what are you doing?" he asked.
"Gonna get me some o' that reward on you," he answered.
"Drop it, Heyes," J.J. ordered.
Reluctantly, Heyes let his gun fall to the ground.
A broad smile spread across J.J.'s face and he leveled his gun at the unarmed man.
Curry looked at J.J. in alarm and lunged for him just as he pulled the trigger. The shot went wild and Heyes ran for cover. J.J. recovered and turned to Curry, who was on the ground again. "You're a dead man," he declared, lining up his shot.
A shot rang out and J.J. spun around. He stared at Caulder, who stood with his legs apart and his gun held in both hands. "You hunted your last man," he declared somberly.
"You missed me," J.J. laughed, and aimed his gun at Caulder, who held his position.
Caulder squeezed the trigger again, and this time his bullet found its target.
J.J.'s eyes opened wide and his faced showed surprise. He fired back and hit Caulder squarely in the chest, and then slumped to the ground.
Billy and Corky both took cover when the shots rang out. Curry scrambled for J.J.'s gun and retrieved it. He quickly scanned the area and covered Heyes, who stooped to check on Caulder.
"I…wrote down…the address," Caulder said in a halting voice, as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of torn paper. He handed it to Heyes and then his eyes closed and his arm dropped lifelessly to the ground.
"Come out with your hands raised," Curry told Corky, who obeyed quickly.
"You too," he shouted at Billy, who also complied.
Both men looked fearful.
"Alright, both of you, get over here and keep your hands up," Curry directed. "Heyes?" he called over his shoulder. "You okay?"
"Yeah," Heyes said, standing up and walking over to Billy, pinning him with a glare. "You were gonna shoot me?" he asked, incredulously.
"N-no, I was just bluffun' Heyes; I wouldn't have shot ya," Billy stammered.
"Yeah, we didn't want to do it. He made us," Corky added. "He was gonna take us to jail unless we helped him find somebody with a bigger reward."
Heyes turned away with a disgusted look.
Curry stood over J.J. and looked down. "He's dead, too," he announced. "What are we gonna do about this, Heyes?"
Heyes thought for a minute. "First, those two are going to bury their friend, and then we're gonna take Caulder and turn his body in for the reward."
Curry stared at his partner. "That knock I took on the head must have been harder than I thought, 'cause I thought you said we're gonna turn Caulder in for the reward."
"I did," Heyes said simply, and Curry continued to give him a confused look.
"What about us?" Corky called out.
"You keep quiet," Curry warned, sending the two men a look that brought silence.
"We're going to leave you here tied up, and take your horses," Heyes stated, matter-of-factly. "We'll leave them for you in Lewiston. You should be able to walk to town after you get yourselves untied. There's water in the well and we'll leave you with a couple of canteens."
Billy's and Corky's eyes opened wide. "But…" Billy began.
"And if we ever hear of you two talking about what happened here, we will track you down and see that you never talk to anyone again. Do I make myself clear?" Heyes' voice held a menacing threat.
Billy and Corky exchanged a look, and then both nodded.
"Good, because I think there's been enough killing here today, don't you think?"
Billy and Corky nodded again.
"Thanks for meeting us, Lom," Heyes said, shaking the other man's hand. They stood next to a campfire. Curry sat on a rock nearby, sipping coffee. Caulder's horse stood next to him. Caulder's body lay over the horse's back wrapped in a blanket.
"Well, I could hardly refuse when I got your telegram," Lom replied. "Are you sure you two are telling me the whole story?" He shot Curry a suspicious glance.
"It's like we said, Lom, we found the guy holed up in the old ghost town all shot up. He begged us to turn him in so his wife could have the reward. Of course we said no. Then those bounty hunters that were following him showed up and the leader and Caulder shot each other." Heyes shook his head sadly at the memory.
"Just shot each other, and you didn't shoot either one of them?" Lom looked suspiciously at Curry again.
Favor4"No, Lom, I didn't shoot either one of 'em," Curry said angrily. "They hit me over the head and knocked me out. The one they called J.J. was gonna shoot me and Caulder stepped in and shot him first."
"He just stood there, Lom, right out in the open and took the shot. He didn't even try and protect himself…just stood there and let the bounty hunter shoot him back," Heyes added.
"I think he wanted it to end. He was tired of runnin'," Curry said, with a pointed look at Lom.
"I know boys, and I know you're tired of waiting for the governor to come through on his promise, but I don't think it will be too much longer now," Lom said, encouragingly.
"I hope it won't either," Heyes said, glancing at Caulder's body. "You're sure you can get the money to his wife and daughter?"
"If they're still at the address you gave me, it shouldn't be any problem," Lom nodded. "If not, well, then I'll try writing to the sheriffs in a few nearby towns and see what I can find. I promise I'll do everything I can to find them and get the money to them. One thing still bothers me though."
"What's that?" Heyes asked.
"Why did those other two bounty hunters let you have Caulder's body? Why didn't they insist on keeping the body and turning it in themselves?"
"Well, Lom, I guess they just decided to do the right thing. We explained about Caulder's wife and daughter," Heyes smiled.
Lom looked skeptical. "And they didn't recognize you two at all?"
"Nope, just our lucky day, I guess," Heyes shrugged.
"Yeah," Lom said finally. "I guess it was."
"Thanks again for riding out here," Heyes repeated. "We should probably get going."
"Well, it's only a two hour ride from Porterville, so it wasn't bad." Lom walked over to Caulder's horse and took the reins. "You know," he said suddenly, "I just remembered where I've heard Ben Caulder's name. Didn't he ride in the Plummer gang?"
Heyes blinked and looked at Lom. "Yeah, you're right, now that you mention it. I think he did. It was before my time, though, and we never ran into each other."
Lom shook his head. "Too bad he had to end up like that." He mounted his horse and rode out, taking Caulder's horse with him.
Heyes watched them go. "Kid, I'm just glad we're not going to end up like that," he said after a minute.
"Yeah, me too," Curry agreed. "Now can we get out of here? I'm not as sure as you are that those two friends of yours won't change their mind and tell somebody about us."
"I'm with you. Let's go." Heyes mounted up, followed by Curry.
"Right behind you, partner," Curry said, as they rode out.