"Thanks, Wheat, I appreciate the support." Heyes said without looking at the big man walking beside him. Carlson could be a real pain in the butt sometimes, but he was good at his job and, when push came to shove, he was there when you needed him. Heyes knew that Wheat took every opportunity to run him down to the other men trying to bolster his chances to become leader, but he also knew that with Wheat yammering at the men about a change of leadership, there'd be no tolerance for someone else to make a bid; maybe someone who'd deal with the competition in a more direct manner.
"Heyes, there's more riders coming," yelled Lobo from his perch in the rocks besides the entrance to the narrow canyon.
Heyes broke into a run towards the entrance as Wheat struggled to keep up.
"How many? Is it a posse?" barked Heyes to his guard as he skidded to a stop.
"There's three of 'em and they're all riding bareback," laughed Lobo from the rock outcropping overhead.
Heyes whipped his head around to watch Wheat coming to a stop next to him. "You left them horses?" Gone was the sympathetic demeanor of a few minutes ago, Heyes was irate. He scrambled up the rocks and pulled the binoculars from Lobo's hands. After a long look, he lowered the binoculars. "Lobo, keep an eye on them. Don't fire unless you know they're heading this way and, if you do, make sure you shoot at their feet. I don't want anyone hurt." Lobo nodded his agreement and Heyes climbed back down to his disgraced lieutenant.
Wheat stood dumbfounded. He'd forgotten all about the team that had run off. How had those three found them so fast? Damn it, what could he say for himself? He'd been so shaken by the turmoil of the robbery that he'd wanted to hurry away from it and had never given a thought to the team. None of them had. He'd spent the whole ride being angry at his boss for sending them after a decoy, but Heyes would never have made the kind of rookie mistake Wheat had. "The horses had bolted."
"And you never thought it'd be worthwhile to know how far they'd gone?" Heyes snarled at him, leaning into Wheat, fury etched across his face. "Get the men saddled up, you're riding out."
"What about you?" asked Wheat meekly.
"The guards are looking for the four men who robbed them. They won't be expecting eight of us. You'll take your men out of here and draw those three off. They'll go after you. The Kid, Lobo, and Gully can help me break John out-if he's still alive." Heyes saw his verbal punch land and he started to walk away. The Kid was already sending the men to their horses and Gully was tossing out the stew and preparing to pack up camp.
Heyes stopped cold and wheeled on the bigger man, his hands curling into fists. "What did you say?"
Wheat couldn't sustain eye contact, not when he felt so ashamed. "I said no, Heyes. It's my fault John got shot, it's my fault there's a posse at our door, I ain't cuttin' and runnin' away. I want to make this right."
The fists unclenched and the dark-haired leader ran his hand through his hair in exasperation. He never was one to kick a dog when it was down and he appreciated Wheat owning up to his responsibilities. "All right; you and Kyle stay with us, and Lobo can take the men home. Let him know the plan and make sure they do a good job of taking those three with them."
"Don't thank me yet, Wheat, wait until we have John back safely."
"Ride north outta here and follow that old game trail that cuts over the backside of the pass. You ought to be able to lose them there," instructed Heyes. Wheat and Kyle had gone to fetch the rest of the horses from the highline and Hank had taken Lobo's place as the lookout.
"Got it," said Lobo, picking up his reins and preparing to move out. Hank and Wall-eyed were already mounted and Gully was tying off his tripod onto the back of his saddle. He was grumbling and cursing under his breath, but his companions ignored him. He gave the latigo one last tug and picked up his horse's reins. Mounting, he brought up the rear.
Heyes stepped back and watched the horses and riders surge towards the narrow exit. The ground under his feet trembled with their passing as he watched them pour out of the canyon and gallop madly down the snow-covered hill. The sound of them faded away quickly and he followed after them on foot with his rifle in hand to where the Kid was hidden atop a small hill with a view of the plain below. Heyes's boots displaced several small rocks on his way up to his partner and they clattered noisily down the slope. The Kid glanced at him as he settled beside him. "Sure-footed as a mountain goat, ain't you? Think you could make a little more noise?"
"Really? You think they'd hear me from that far away? They'll know soon enough where we are, if we start shooting at 'em."
"They'll see the boys any minute. You ready?" said the Kid, lifting his rifle and watching for the three guards to appear.
"Ready." Heyes aimed down the scope of his rifle drawing a bead on the lead rider.
A faint yell floated up the hill to where the two outlaw leaders lay on their bellies. Lobo and the others had reached the valley floor and emerged almost a mile ahead of the posse. The three guards instantly spurred their horses off the road to pursue the outlaws and the Kid grinned, turning to his cousin, "Now, that was just too easy."
"Not too easy for them, look," pointed Heyes. The horses and riders were leaping and jumping through the heavily sage-covered ground at a dead run. One of the guards' horses dodged sideways to avoid a big sagebrush bush and unseated its rider. The man desperately clung to the mane for a second or two as the horse jumped away from him, but without a saddle to cling to he soon slid off. Heyes couldn't help laughing as the man fell on his face into the muddy soil and came up wiping dirt out of his eyes. One of the other two riders pulled up, but the first man stood up and gestured to him to keep going. Seeing that his friend was okay, the second guard spurred his mount and surged after the third man who was relentlessly charging after the fleeing outlaws.
Heyes started to stand up and the Kid grabbed his arm, hissing, "Where are you going?"
Yanking his arm away, Heyes started back down the hill, "I'm going to have a little chat with our guest. I've got some questions I want answers to."
"Wait up. I'm coming with you."
Ralph doggedly followed the muddy tracks of his horse, cursing the stupid beast under his breath and sliding on the slick ground once when his legs betrayed him. He was so sore from the long bareback ride that he could hardly walk and he felt his stiffened back going out. He spotted the bay mare calmly nibbling some twigs down in a brushy wash. Too tired to pick his way down the hill, he sat and slipped on his muddy seat towards her. She snorted as he came to a stop and spooked, stepping a few yards away. "Take it easy, sweetheart. Ol' Ralph's just gonna catch you, that's all."
Offended by his unorthodox approach, the mare continued snorting and backing away. She jogged off a few more yards and blew out through her nostrils, arching her neck at him as though she was teasing him as he walked towards her. "You raggedy whore! Stand up there and let me catch your ass." She tossed her head coquettishly and backed off again. Losing his temper, Ralph ran at her, arms flailing, and yelling growls at the top of his lungs. The startled beast backed into a clump of bushes which further scared her and she planted her feet, mulishly staring at him. Ralph grabbed a trailing long rein and hauled her out of the bushes towards him. "You stupid cow. Stand up here while I get on you." He moved her over next to a large rock and stepped up on it grabbing her mane, but stopped cold at the press of a gun barrel to his sore back.
"That ain't no way to speak to a lady, mister."
Ralph turned and looked at the smiling blue-eyed man holding a steady pistol on him. He let go of the animal's rein, slowly raised his hands, and stepped off the rock trying to judge the amount of murderous intent in those deceptively friendly-looking eyes.
"What's your name?" asked the blond man.
"Ralph, Ralph Means." Was his luck so bad that he was going to be robbed twice in one day?
"Well, Ralph, my partner here wants to talk to you so why don't you put your arms down. You can drop your gun, too, if you don't mind." The blond man shifted his glance from Ralph to a point just beyond the horse. The guard gently laid his gun on the ground and straightened up following the blond's gaze. He saw a dark-haired man wearing a silver-studded hat emerge from cover.
"Hello, Ralph. Come on over here and make yourself comfortable," offered the man wearing the black hat, as he sat down on a rock and gestured to the larger one across from him.
Ralph walked over and stopped in front of the new man who was also smiling real friendly-like. At least, this man wasn't holding a gun on him. These two didn't seem like crooks; he sure hoped they weren't. "I ain't got no money, mister, but I'm chasing some men who've got plenty. Me and my friends could use another pair of guns and I guar-un-tee you my boss at Wells Fargo would give you a healthy reward if you saw fit to help us." He sank down onto the boulder and wiped his brow again. The mud was seeping into his eyes and making them water.
Heyes grinned at the Kid who chuckled and shook his head. Looking back at the guard, Heyes said, "Ralph, I'm afraid we're going to have to decline your generous offer."
Ralph's heart fell as he accepted that he might've misjudged the situation and his life could be coming to a violent, unexpected end.
"Now, Ralph, there ain't no call to get all hang dog on me. We just have previous plans, that's all," Heyes reached out to kindly pat the guard on his knee. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his partner emptying the bullets out of Ralph's pistol.
The Kid walked over to Ralph and handed him his gun. "I took the shells out; a man can't be too careful out here. You'll want to reload before you go too far."
It took the poor man a minute to realize that he wasn't going to die. The two men before him were watching him with some concern while the news sunk in. He slowly put his gun away and then braced both his hands on his knees, looking straight at Heyes. "If you don't plan on killing me, what are you plannin' to do with me?"
"Talk. I just want to talk to you. Is that all right, Ralph?" smiled the dark-haired man, formidable dimples creasing his face.
"Mister, you can talk a blue streak to me if you plan on lettin' me live."
A groan from the blond fella distracted Ralph for a second and he glanced at the man before looking back at the smiler in front of him.
"Don't mind my partner here; he's a man of few words. So few in fact, that I usually know what he's going to say before it crawls out of his mouth; makes conversation kind of humdrum. That's why I'm real glad to meet up with you, Ralph. Now you, you look like a man with plenty to say. Working for Wells Fargo, are you? That must be right interesting and I want to hear all about it. But first I've got to ask, what are you doing way out here?" Heyes paused, and held up a hand as Ralph's mouth flopped open. "No, don't tell me. Let me guess. You're a scout looking for a new route, right? No, that can't be it, 'cause you were riding that blinkered nag bareback. Must've been an accident; you were riding on the stage and there was an accident. You're going for help, right? That's it, isn't it? Yep, it had to be an accident."
Ralph listened to the torrent of words with a blank expression. He'd follow the first few words all right, but they'd come at him so fast and furiously that somewhere along the way he'd been left in the verbal dust. He could see the man was waiting for answers, but he was at a loss on where to start and too confused to wonder about whom it was doing the asking. "We was robbed, mister."
"Robbed?! Well, I'll be."
"I'm a stagecoach guard. We was carryin' a payroll; big one, too. The boss is gonna be real mad unless Vern and Carl can get it back."
"Vern and Carl? Where are they?"
"We was followin' those filthy outlaws' trail when my horse threw me. There was four of them that done it." He sure hoped that Vern and Carl would be all right taking on that many men without his help.
"How long have you been chasing them?"
"We just caught sight of 'em again, but we've been trailin' them for almost twelve miles."
"That so? Well, good luck to you." Heyes stood up abruptly and dusted off the seat of his pants, smiling at the Kid who was gathering up the reins of the loose horse.
"Hey, watcha doin' with my horse?" Ralph stood up.
Heyes laughed, "We're just taking her down the road a ways; about twelve miles or so."
"You can't do that. That's horse theft!" cried Ralph, indignantly.
"We ain't stealing her, Ralph, we're just relocating her," answered the blond man.
The dark-haired man shoved two fingers in his mouth and let out an ear-piercing whistle. He watched the far ridge for several minutes before turning back to Ralph who had just realized he'd been duped. These weren't good men, not altogether bad, but not good by a longshot.
"We'll be on our way here shortly. I'm leaving you a canteen, some jerky, and a blanket; gets cold around here after dark. Now, Ralph, I can see that you're a reasonable man. You'll understand me when I tell you that it would be best for you to rest up here before your long walk. Have a little dinner, get some shut-eye, right?"
"Good. I don't expect our paths to cross again, but I sure enjoyed talking to you."
Ralph watched speechlessly as the two men disappeared from his view, leading away his mare.