The Kid stood near the stage trying to stay warm. Heyes was inside the coach working his lock picks, alternately picking up and discarding each one. Lobo was guarding the entrance to the box canyon they were hiding out in while Gully hovered over the cook pot dangling from a tripod over a hot fire. A satisfied chortle drew attention to the dark-haired outlaw leader who was crouched inside the stage. It had taken him nearly two hours, but Heyes had finally opened the Chubb's lock. He'd insisted on trying and he'd plenty of time to work at it while they waited for Wheat and his men to arrive. After reading about the supposedly unpick-able lock being opened by an American, Alfred Charles Hobbs, during the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London; he'd been itching to get his hands on one. This was the first one he'd come across and he was almost as pleased by the challenge of the lock as he was about the money it secured.
Curry walked over and leaned in through the coach's window to watch as Heyes slowly opened the strongbox. It was his partner's favorite part of a job, knowing that he had won and was finally facing the fruits of many hours of careful planning. Heyes rocked back on his heels and exhaled, staring blankly into the chest. The Kid, blocked from seeing inside the strongbox by the lid Heyes was holding, asked, "How much did we get?"
Heyes looked up at him with an odd expression on his face and reached into the metal-clad chest pulling out a bundle of newspapers, and holding it up for his cousin to see. "Looks like about two dollars' worth."
Curry stared at the bundle, glanced at his partner, and stared harder at the bundle. "Is that what I think it is?"
"Yep, last week's edition of the Rocky Mountain News." Heyes slammed the lid shut and smiled at the Kid's shocked expression. "Wells probably used this one as a decoy and Wheat's gonna be braying that he pulled the whole job."
"Let him bray. If he hauls in forty grand, he'll have earned the right."
"What happened back there, Wheat?" asked Kyle as he drew alongside his partner. The outlaws were almost five miles from the botched job and were in a comfortable lope, eating up ground, but not taxing their horses too much. Hank and Wall-eyed rode a few paces behind them.
"Heyes's damn fool plan didn't work; that's what happened," hollered Wheat over the sound of the hoofbeats. He was still upset at leaving John behind and furious that he had failed as a leader. "We nearly got our heads blowed off going after a decoy. I bet Heyes's braggin' right now that he got away with all the money."
"Yeah, but he did."
Wheat scowled at his friend and pulled his horse to a jog. "It just don't seem fair; me and John get shot at while Heyes and the Kid get the glory."
"You'll get your cut just the same."
"Maybe I want some respect, too. Money ain't everythin', Kyle." Wall-eyed and Hank rode up behind them and slowed to a jog, too.
"It is to me. Why'd the job go south, Wheat?" Kyle had been stationed at the bridge and had missed the fiasco of a robbery until he'd ridden in to blow the strongbox. His curiosity was getting the better of him now despite the deep red color Wheat's face was turning.
"'Cause that heap of dogmeat he's setting on kicked up a fuss," offered Wall-eyed.
"That sorry excuse for horseflesh oughta be butchered for what he done to John," snapped Hank. Wheat glared at him and he glared back. Hank rode on ahead with Wall-eyed, leaving the two partners behind.
Kyle couldn't believe that the whole job had been brought down by one hair-brained horse and he was angry that John got caught, maybe killed, because of it. "I told you not to buy him, didn't I? I said he was all looks, but no brains, didn't I? But, no, you had to have somethin' flashy like Heyes's mare. Weren't you the one who always said he was a damn fool for ridin' that high-strung filly? Who's the fool now?"
Wheat felt hurt by Kyle's recriminations and grew angrier with shame and frustration, clamping his jaw tightly. He couldn't justify what happened and knew he'd never hear the end of it from Heyes or the boys. He'd thought that this job would make the gang look at him differently—well, they were looking at him differently all right. Just not the way he'd hoped. Betraying him once again, his handsome bay gelding began to jig sideways and shake its head. Kyle shook his head, too, and rode on to catch up with Hank and Wall-eyed.
Vern stood up from studying the tracks. Turning to his horse, he grabbed a hank of mane and levered his elbow into the horse's shoulder using the bony structure to vault onto its back. Picking up the cutoff reins, he looked over his shoulder at his two men. "They can't be more than an hour ahead, but they're making up ground now the road's leveled out. My guess is that we won't catch up to them until they stop for the night; if they stop for the night."
Ralph groaned and looked at Carl. "I don't know about you, but if I have to ride bareback until nightfall I'm gonna have to get me a job singin' in the ladies' choir."
As the sun started to drift to the horizon, a ray cut through the hole in the roof of the shattered stagecoach and fell across John's eyes. He groaned softly and blinked several times, trying to regain consciousness. His mind began to clear and the pain crowded in; so did the memory of the bullet slamming into him. His head ached terribly. He opened his eyes and squinted into the glare, ducking his head, and pulling at his wound. Another groan escaped his lips, and he looked at the drying blood on his right shoulder. There was a thick cotton pad covering the wound and held in place by his shredded shirt. His left arm was tightly handcuffed to the frame of the ruined coach. By his left thigh, there rested two canteens and a half-filled bottle of cheap, rotgut whiskey.
Using his good hand, he grabbed a canteen and unscrewed the top, drinking greedily before closing it. He lifted the whiskey and splashed some over the wound as best he could, took a drink to dull the pain, and looked around again. Several pieces of jerky were sitting atop the broken bench he leaned against. He dropped his head back, closed his eyes, and sighed. At least his captors had been humane. It could have been much worse.
His eyes popped open again. They'd left him here alone; the three guards must've gone after the gang. He struggled briefly with his cuffs and then gave it up; too weak to be of any help even if he could get loose. He'd save his strength. Someone would be along to collect him sooner or later. John let his eyes drift shut again and his thoughts wandered to his little casa south of Juarez and the family that waited there for his return.
Gully stirred the pot over the open fire. He'd brought some root vegetable and beans with him to put together a makeshift stew. All it needed was some meat to go in it and give it some flavor, but Heyes had forbidden him and the Kid to go hunting. The boss didn't want them firing off their guns and giving away their hiding place. He guessed it made sense, but he hated to put forth less than his best effort. The rest of the boys were sure to be hungry when they got in and Gully doubted they'd be happy with a meatless stew. He glanced over at the Kid and Heyes who were sitting on some rocks by the horses playing a game of cards.
Setting down his spoon, the gray-haired cook sat down on a stump he'd dragged over to the fire. The vegetables were stewing nicely, as was he. He was still smarting from having to ride into the middle of a robbery. Hmph. Heyes had promised he'd only be cooking for the gang. He'd told the boss he didn't want to have no part of thieving, but that hadn't held any water when the gang came up short-handed. When push came to shove, Heyes had called in his debt and he'd paid it.
Staring into the flames, he remembered back to first time he'd set eyes on Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry. He hadn't paid them no notice when they'd walked through the batwing doors of the smoky saloon on that backstreet in Wichita. He should've. There was something about them, but he didn't realize until later what it was; they weren't your typical scruffy cowpokes. There'd been something special about these two. Not their good looks. No, that weren't it at all. It was the way they'd walked in the door. All confident and relaxed, not trail weary or shifty-eyed like so many of the men he'd served. They'd been joking and kidding around like they didn't have a care in the world. At first, he'd thought they might be new to that part of the country, unaware of the dangers, but one look at their well-worn cartridge belts and their tied down guns had him re-thinking that. He'd hardly paid any mind at all to the scraggly group of men that followed them in. He wished he had.
The Kid had set right to sparking LouLou, the prettiest gal in the place, while his partner had dropped into an empty seat at one of the poker tables. It wasn't long before the blond outlaw had followed little Lou upstairs, leaving his friend alone. Only Heyes hadn't been alone, had he? He'd had five dangerous men watching his back while his partner was otherwise occupied. How come he'd missed that? If he'd seen the attention focused on the smiley dark-haired man, he might've figured out what he was dealing with.
Gully absent-mindedly rubbed at the scar on his forearm. The puckered skin felt rough under his hand and, for just a moment, he could still smell the burning flesh; his flesh. He'd been minding the bar for Will who'd had to run home for a short time to see to his sick wife. Usually, he'd of been out back in the cookhouse away from all the liveliness of the saloon. That's what he'd liked best about his work, the quiet and solitude. He doubted he'd ever get used to crowds again, not after the war. Once in a while, though, he'd find himself behind the bar serving up a boisterous bunch. He'd try to relax, but he couldn't. It was always too much for him and he knew his jitters showed.
That night, the drovers from the Lazy H had been whooping it up in town after a long drive and they were as drunk as skunks. Gully had known who they were and he'd known enough to steer clear of them. Tough men all the time; when they were drunk, they were bullies. They'd often made sport of him while he tried to do his job. He wasn't tough, he was a cook. That's what he'd done in the war when his friends were out dying horrible deaths. He'd taken pride in caring for the ones who came back the only way he knew how. He'd never been a fighter or any good with a gun, but he was a good cook and that's what he'd be 'til his dying day.
The cowboys had just finished losing most of their money to the dark-haired fella wearing that silver-trimmed hat and had bellied up to the bar trying to drown the rest of their sorrows and all of their common sense when it happened. He'd been hurrying to deliver another round of beers to the six drovers; had all the mugs in his hands, when he'd turned too quickly and tripped over the wooden plank that ran the length of the floor behind the bar. It'd been meant to keep the barkeep's feet dry during a busy night, but the damn thing never was more than a hazard. The drinks had gone flying, hitting the bar, and shattering the glasses, sending shards and beer over three of the Lazy H's men; cutting one of them up pretty good. Gully had pulled himself off the ground where he'd fallen and up to the bar top. Staring down at him had been six pairs of angry eyes then all hell had broken loose. He'd nearly been pulled out of his shoes as they dragged him over the bar, swearing and hollering. He'd tried to fight them, but he wasn't a big man and there'd been too many of them. Before he'd even realized what they were doing, they'd dragged him over to the big pot-bellied woodstove and pressed his forearm down on the sizzling iron. Gully had heard them laughing over his screams, joking that he was the cook so they was gonna cook him. The big, ugly drover, Blake, who'd held him down, smiling the whole time, had let go of him suddenly and stiffened up; and that's when the place had gone dead quiet.
Gully could still hear the light tone underscored by menace in Heyes's voice and him saying, "You boys are getting between me and my dinner and I'm damn hungry. Think you could see your way clear to letting my friend here go and finish my meal?"
Blake had turned and found a Schofield pointed at his nose. He'd looked past the barrel eyeing the slighter man behind it. "Butt out, mister. Can't you see we're dealin' with one problem already?" The cowboy had turned away from the stranger and nodded to his friends who let go of the cook. Gully had clutched at his arm and watched the drama unfolding as avidly as the rest of the patrons. The other drovers had gathered around Heyes and Blake, drawing their guns.
Heyes had smiled wickedly at the bigger man. "Mister, I think your problems just got a whole lot worse."
"Yeah, well, I ain't the one with five guns pointed at me," Blake had let loose with a mean little laugh.
"You might wanta take another look around." Gully had turned towards the twangy voice's owner and found a big, mustache man standing right next to him. Four other men had crept up behind the cowboys and everyone in the bar heard the clicks of five guns being cocked.
The drover had looked at the men behind his friends and then turned back to Heyes with a nasty grin. "Looks like we've got ourselves a Mexican stand-off."
Things had gotten even tenser until the sound of footsteps on the stair treads had rung throughout the hushed room. "Geez, Heyes, can't I leave you alone for a minute?" All eyes had turned towards the blond-haired man walking casually down the steps.
"Sorry, Kid, but you've been gone fifteen minutes. I reckoned you'd be all done by now," Heyes had chuckled.
"Very funny." The Kid stepped up next to his partner, keeping his right hand on the butt of that big Colt .45 he carried.
Gully recalled the moment it all fell into place for the big drover. The man's eyes had rounded like dinner plates and he'd started to stammer. "K..k..id? You're Hannibal Heyes? The D..d..devil's Hole gang?" The other drovers had dropped their guns and raised their hands as he said it. Blake had slowly raised his, too. "We didn't mean nothin' by it. We were just teachin' old Gully here a thing or two about servin'."
"Seems to me it meant something to old Gully," Heyes had said coldly as he gestured for the cook to come to him and Gully had; simple as that. He'd stood between the two outlaw leaders as though they were the closest of comrades and, damn it, he'd enjoyed the fear that was pouring off Blake. The man was a bully and this hadn't been the first time he'd had a go at Gully and it wasn't going to be the last either. Blake planned to make him pay for this humiliation; probably permanently. Gully had seen it written in his eyes; so had Heyes.
"Kyle, get their guns," Heyes had ordered, reaching into his pockets and pulling out several large bills, dropping them onto the table next to him. "This ought to cover the cost of new ones so you've got no call to hold a grudge against Gully over this. We're square, right?"
Blake didn't say anything, he'd just stared at the money and back at Gully, who'd spoken up, "Keep your money, Mister Heyes. I reckon I'll be clearing out of here anyway. Blake here, ain't the forgive and forget kind."
"That so? Then maybe you better ride along with us for a while, just to make sure you get to where you are going," the Kid had said.
Heyes had scooped up the bills and tucked them away. "Guess I'll be keeping these and your guns after all." He had holstered his gun with a smile and tipped his hat to Blake, "It's been a pleasure."
The Devil's Hole gang had kept them covered as they backed out of the bar and off the sidewalk. Heyes had mounted first and held out his hand to Gully who had hesitated taking the outlaw's hand for a second. He didn't have much in the way of worldly possessions, but what he had was stored under his cot out in the backroom of the cookhouse. It wasn't worth his life, though. Reaching up, he'd grabbed Heyes's hand and allowed himself to be swung up behind the infamous man. The powerful horse under them had leapt into a gallop and the timid cook had found himself fleeing town with the Devil's Hole gang. Blake had quickly raised a posse and the gang had been chased nearly to Devil's Hole before they'd shaken it.
Gully had never meant to join up with the outlaws; only to make his getaway with them, but they'd stuck their necks out for him when they could've left him to his fate and, for that, he was grateful. Heyes had offered to let him hang out at the Hole until things died down and that had been his final mistake. Once those boys saw how good he could cook, they'd begged him to stay. It had suited him, too. He liked the Hole. Most of the winter it was just him and one or two of the other boys; there was the times, too, the gang rode out to do their work; he'd have the Hole all to himself. Yep, it had been a good enough life and he'd been able to tell himself that he was just doing a job like any other normal citizen. Only he couldn't do that anymore, now could he?
"Riders coming," yelled Lobo. Gully roused himself from his reverie and gave the stew another stir then walked over to watch Wheat and the rest of the gang ride in. He noticed that John was missing and so did the two outlaw leaders. The horses nickered to their friends as the men dismounted. Heyes and the Kid waited for things to settle down, then Heyes got up and walked over to Wheat who was fussing over his gear, trying to put off facing the younger outlaw.
Wheat savagely yanked at his horse's cinch, and turned on Heyes. "He got shot. I had to leave him."
Heyes measured Wheat's anger and knew that the man was hurting over losing John. He gently asked, "Is he dead?"
Wheat was surprised by the kind tone and the air leaked out of his lungs. "I don't know. I tried to go back for him, but he'd gone down in the slot and one of the guards had holed up in some rocks. I couldn't get to him."
"My piece of crap horse started buckin', that's what happened. Startled the damn guard and he started shootin'," said Wheat defensively. He braced himself for Heyes's temper to flare and the humiliations to start.
Instead, Heyes offered him sympathy. "Could've happened to any of us, Wheat. I know you wouldn't leave him behind unless you had to. If he's alive, we'll get to him." Heyes put his hand on Wheat's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. He knew there was nothing worse than the feeling of having left a man behind. "You got the rest of them away safely. You did what you had to do. How'd the rest of it go? Did you get the money?" He felt Wheat tense again under his hand.
"No, I didn't get the money. There wasn't any money to get. You sent us after a decoy."
Heyes clamped his arm around Wheat's forearm and steered him away from the others and out of ear shot. "It was stuffed with newspapers?"
"Yeah, it was stuffed with newspapers," Wheat paused and then narrowed his eyes at his leader, "How'd you know what it was stuffed with?"
"'Cause that's what ours was stuffed with," hissed Heyes.
Wheat stared at him, waiting for him to laugh before realizing that this wasn't another one of Hannibal Heyes's stupid jokes. "You mean to tell me that both those stagecoaches were empty?"
"Looks that way, don't it?" Heyes watched the emotions flit across his lieutenant's face; shock, followed by anger, finishing up with resignation.
The mustached outlaw ran his hand over his face. "This ain't gonna go down well with the rest of the boys, you know."
"Believe me, I know," sighed Heyes, slumping slightly.
"We'll tell them together," said Wheat, squaring his shoulders, "After all, we were the leaders."