"That wasn't one of your longer conversations, partner," snorted Kid Curry walking alongside Heyes who was leading Ralph's mare towards the box canyon hideout.
"Long enough; old Ralph wasn't much of a conversationalist."
"Well, it's not like you gave him much of a chance. Man looked like he'd been pole-axed by a pair of lips."
"He told me what I needed to know."
"For starters, he didn't know that he was risking his life for a load of week-old newspapers. That might've made him and his friends a little less likely to chase off after those filthy outlaws he was yakking on about."
"He was yakking on?"
Heyes ignored the gibe and continued, "I learned that Wheat hit the stage at the right spot; twelve miles from here and sixteen or so miles from Laramie."
"So, that means when the stage didn't arrive like it was supposed to, the stationmaster would've wired the Laramie office, which is closest, and that means Wells probably sent out a posse from Laramie three hours ago. They would've made it to the stage by now and that means that they've found John. Now, if we're lucky, he's alive and on his way to a doctor or he's alive and they've got him with them. Either way, we're gonna come across that new posse sometime tonight."
"You know, Heyes, for a man of so many words, you sure can read a lot into somebody else's few."
"I ain't sure that's a compliment, partner."
Heyes laughed and threw his arm over his partner's shoulders. He was glad to see Wheat and Kyle riding out to meet them. They had heard his whistled signal and were ready to go. Good, he was ready, too. He hated walking in these boots; they pinched his feet something terrible, but he couldn't complain. He had once and the Kid had been merciless in pointing out that it was his own vanity torturing him, not the boots.
"How many do you see?" whispered Kyle. He and Wheat were stretched out on the frozen ground atop a small rise and were watching the flickering campfire below them. The Kid had spotted the light from a mile or so back and Heyes had split them up to approach the camp. The small outlaw couldn't see his two leaders, but he knew they were out there in the dark keeping him covered and also watching the men gathered around the small fire on this cold night.
"I'm countin' fourteen men. Looks like they came equipped, too. That's too much firepower for the four of us. Let's go." Wheat slowly pushed away from the ground keeping his head low and melted into the darkness with Kyle close behind.
They ran into the Kid and Heyes on their way back to the horses. No one said a word until they had mounted and ridden out of earshot of the posse. Curry pulled his gelding up in front of the others.
"Did you see John?" asked Wheat, pensively, pulling up his own horse.
"He's not with them," snapped Heyes, not pausing, instead riding on past his three friends.
Curry watched his partner's back retreating into the darkness, knowing that Heyes was upset that he hadn't found John with the posse. His partner was worried about what this could mean and so was he. Despite his own misgivings, he said, "It don't mean he's dead, Wheat. If he was, they'd probably be dragging the body along with them. They most likely wouldn't leave the body and risk losing a reward."
"But John ain't wanted. Least ways not here in America," said Kyle.
"That's so, but they don't know that and won't until they check the wanted posters. I'd bet you good money that most of those men didn't join up with the posse out of the goodness of their hearts; they're looking for reward money." Kid Curry was still looking down the road in the direction his partner had taken.
Wheat nodded, but failed to be relieved by the Kid's logic. He had to find John, dead or alive.
"So what are we gonna do about the posse?" asked Kyle.
"Nothing; Lobo ought to have lost those other men by now. This bunch'll be following a cold trail by the time they start out in the morning. Even if they managed to follow the gang's trail back to the Hole, the best they'll do is figure out it was us that did the stealing." Curry nudged his gelding into a walk and the other two horses fell into step next to him. "We'll check the stage first. If John's not there, I reckon we'll head into Laramie and check out the jail."
They trailed Heyes by a small distance until they reached the wreckage of the stagecoach. Heyes stopped some yards short of the smashed vehicle and waited on his horse for his men to catch up. Curry rode up alongside his partner. "John inside?"
"I haven't looked yet." Haunted brown eyes met understanding blue ones.
The Kid swung his leg over the saddle and stepped down, handing his reins to Wheat. "C'mon, let's take a look."
Heyes nodded, dismounting, and handing his reins over, too. Wheat wouldn't look him in the eye. Heyes knew how bad the man felt about leaving John behind. He hated this part of being a leader. Losing a man was hard enough, but knowing you had a hand in sending him to his death was heartbreaking. He knew that all his men rode with him willingly, but that didn't help much when things went wrong; and they went wrong a lot in this business.
Heyes followed slightly behind his partner, grateful for his support. A pang of guilt gnawed at him as he remembered the heavy-handed way he'd bullied Gully into riding with them on this job despite knowing the man wanted no part of it; he hadn't come willingly. He owed the cook an apology as soon as they got back to the Hole. He'd never before strong-armed a man into coming with him, and he wouldn't do it again; it could've easily been Gully they were searching for. Heyes could plan all he wanted, try and figure out all the angles, but so much of what happened was out of his or anyone else's control. Wheat's job was living proof of that and the realization caused all of Heyes's anger to leach out of him. Instead, his stomach fell as the Kid pulled open the broken door of the stage, peering inside the coach. He held his breath.
"It's empty," said the Kid. Heyes looked blankly at his partner who reached over and squeezed his shoulder gently. "He ain't here, Heyes. They must've taken him back to town."
"Good…that's good. Thanks," mumbled Heyes, feeling a weight lifting from his heart. No posse would've split men off to take a dead man in; John had to be alive. "Wheat, Kyle, bring the horses. John's on his way to Laramie," he called back to the two men holding the horses. He heard Kyle cheer and saw Wheat's relieved smile appear out of the darkness as they brought over the animals. He looked up at the big man when Wheat handed him his reins, and said, "Don't worry, we'll get him back."
Carlson looked away and choked out, "I know we will."
It was mid-morning when the four tired riders reached the outskirts of Laramie. They split up into pairs for the ride in; Wheat and Kyle from the west and Heyes and the Kid riding in from the north. It wasn't safe to ride alone in these parts and two men together was a common enough sight; four men were sure to get attention.
Kyle rode with Wheat to the saloon to pick up the gossip about the robberies while Heyes and his partner rode past the sheriff's office. They would all try to find out where John was and then meet up at the saloon. There was a small crowd of men standing on the sidewalk outside of the jail and as the two outlaw leaders rode by they could hear bits and pieces of the conversation.
"Four of 'em got away. Sheriff's got one in the jail, but he's shot up. Doc's in there with him now."
"That so? I heard that Wells sent those stages out empty. Lucky for the guards, them outlaws didn't shoot 'em dead over the disappointment."
"My brother-in-law, Ralph, is one of those guards. He said they were takin' a big payroll to Rawlins."
The voices faded as the two men rode up the street. Heyes pulled up a few doors down from the sheriff's office in front of a general store. He dismounted and waited on the sidewalk for his partner to join him. Curry stretched and made a show of knocking the trail dirt off his sheepskin coat. Pasting a smile on his face, Heyes turned away and walked into the general store. The clerk was up on a small ladder restocking the shelves, but called down to his customer, "Mornin', sir, what can I help you with?"
Heyes picked up a can of beans from the box at the foot of the ladder and peered at its label. "Just picking up a few supplies before me and my partner head out again." He sat the beans down on the counter and walked along the shelves, picking up a sack of coffee and a small bag of red licorice.
The clerk looked at the smiling, dark-haired man with the tied-down gun and then glanced out the window at the other man lounging against a post. He, too, sported a big hogleg. The man came down the ladder and passed by Heyes going behind the counter and resting his hand on the sawed-off shotgun he kept there. It was filled with buckshot. "Passing through, huh?"
"Yep. Looks like something big's going on at the sheriff's office. What's up?" Heyes felt the change in the man's demeanor and forced himself to turn his back on the clerk and walk over to a stack of blankets. He pulled one out from lower down in the pile and spent a moment straightening the stack. The clerk relaxed slightly at his considerateness.
"Two stage coaches were held up yesterday. Sheriff's got one of the outlaws locked up in the jail waiting for him to heal up enough to tell him who he's riding with."
Heyes put the blanket on the counter, too, as the door opened and a small red-headed boy walked in with a stack of newspapers under his arm. He dropped them on the floor by the counter and grinned at the clerk, who held out a dollar and a few pieces of horehound candy. "Thanks, Jimmy. Say hi to your pa for me.
"Will do, Mr. Guthrie," said the boy, walking out as quickly as he had come in.
Heyes wandered over and picked up a paper, scanning the front page. The lead story was about the robbery and there was much speculation that it might be the Devil's Hole gang as they were known to be in the area, but the reporter argued that, while rumors surfaced from time to time disputing it, it was a well-known fact that Hannibal Heyes was dead and in his grave four months past. It went on to say that it was also accepted knowledge that Kid Curry was incapable of planning such a daring robbery. He chuckled and laid the paper down with his other purchases. He couldn't wait to see the Kid's face when he read it. Heyes reached into his jacket and pulled out his billfold. "Two stages? Ain't that kind of ambitious?"
It was the clerk's turn to chuckle. "Might be ambitious, but it didn't do those thieves any good. Weren't nothing on those stages but last week's newspapers."
"It'd take someone awful smart to come up with the idea of robbing two coaches at once. Less, of course, it was more than one gang. Wouldn't that be something?" Heyes was enjoying this.
"It was the same gang all right, the robberies were nearly identical. 'Cept one of them worked just fine and the other one was a hellacious mess!"
Heyes's eyes twinkled brightly as he laughed with the clerk. "That so? I wonder what gang it was. The paper there seemed to think it might be the Devil's Hole gang. Maybe Heyes ain't dead after all."
"Well, if he's dead, he'll be rolling over in his grave right now knowing his men screwed this job up so bad." Having shared a laugh with his customer, Mr. Guthrie let go of his shotgun and began to ring up the purchases. It was a good thing he did, because he missed the look on Heyes's face. "That'll be eleven dollars and fifty-nine cents, Mister. Where're you heading out to?"
"Somewhere with warm weather and cold beer."
The clerk counted out the change and added a couple of pieces of the horehound candy to the pile of goods before wishing his friendly customer a good day. Heyes walked of the store with his purchases under his arm.
"Did you get it?" asked the Kid, pushing away from the post.
Heyes reached inside the blanket and pulled out the small bag of red licorice. "That's not all I got." He walked to the horses to put the supplies into his saddlebag, tucking the newspaper into his inside jacket pocket, and rolling up the blanket against his leg before tying it onto the back of his saddle. Curry narrowed his eyes and waited; he knew that tone.
Heyes mounted and waited for the Kid to climb onto his horse and begin asking questions. When that didn't happen, he couldn't help feeling disappointed. "The robberies are already big news. Seems that some folks are thinking it might be the Devil's Hole gang."
"So? It was us," said the Kid.
Grinning now that the trap had sprung, Heyes continued, "Seems other folks don't agree. Matter of fact, the article I read feels that now that Hannibal Heyes is dead, Kid Curry ain't smart enough to plan a robbery."
"What?! Let me see that paper!"
Heyes pulled the paper out from his jacket and passed it over to his cousin. The Kid folded it up and read the front page while Heyes led them to the saloon down the street. Wheat and Kyle's horses were tied out front and they dismounted next to them. Curry looked up from the paper, visibly upset. "I helped you plan all those robberies, how can they say that?"
"Don't let it get to you, Kid. It don't matter if the public thinks you're slow."
"It matters to me!"
Heyes laughed, delighted at needling his partner. "Kid, you're just gonna have to figure out how to let the public know you're smarter than they think you are. Maybe leave a calling card next time." He turned and started to go into the saloon, but the Kid's hand snaked out and seized his arm.
"What about you, Heyes? How're you gonna feel when I start taking credit for the jobs? You're dead, you know. Why, I bet the Public is gonna start thinking that maybe Kid Curry was the real brains behind the gang all along."
Heyes's mouth dropped open and he stared at his smug cousin while the Kid grinned at him. "You know, Kid, if you were any smarter I'd have to kill you." The sound of his partner's laughter followed him into the crowded bar. Wheat and Kyle were sitting at a table for six in the center of the room with an older, obviously drunken man. A half-emptied bottle of cheap whiskey sat next to the man's left hand and Wheat reached over to re-fill their glasses. Heyes walked to the bar and bought another bottle while the Kid walked over to the table and rested his hands on one of the empty chairs.
"Afternoon; mind if my partner and me join you folks? He's fetching another bottle to share."
"Suit yourself," growled Wheat.
The wobbly man between Wheat and Kyle grinned at the Kid in pleasure. "Sure thing, mister. Come sit right down. We're celebrating."
Curry sat and smiled as Heyes walked over gripping the bottle in his right hand. He sat down, too, and placed the new bottle on the table in front of him, asking, "So what are we celebrating?"
"My promotion! That's what," said the man, reaching for the new bottle and missing badly. After two attempts, he looked at Wheat and begged him with his eyes. The big outlaw grabbed the bottle and slopped another full-to-the-brim serving into the man's glass. He then gripped his own glass with the palm of his hand and served himself a small splash before passing the bottle to Kyle. It was an old trick, one that Heyes and the Kid used regularly, and it worked every time.
The Kid held up his glass and said, "To promotions!" He downed his drink and slammed the glass to the wooden surface. The small, mousy man jumped at the noise and giggled.
"What were you promoted to?" asked Heyes, lifting his own glass to his lips.
"Mister, you're lookin' at the new Office Manager of the Laramie Wells Fargo branch, Mr. Wilbur Hastings," said Kyle with a lopsided smile. He held his hand up and toasted his new found friend.
Heyes sat back and looked at the man, "Really? Didn't they just get robbed? Seems like funny timing to be handing out promotions."
Wheat leaned forward. "Mister, you're gonna offend Mr. Hastings," he said warningly.
Wilbur quickly grabbed the bottle in front of Heyes, getting it on the first try, and laughed, "A man who buys me a drink can't ever offend me. You're right, Mister…?"
"It's Cottingham, Calhoun Cottingham, but you can call me Cal. This here's my partner, Sonny."
"Sonny? Isn't that kind of a funny name for a grown man?" chortled Wilbur as the Kid frowned at both him and his partner. "Sorry, Sonny, I didn't mean anything by that. I guess I've had a little too much to drink. It's making me chatty." He turned his attention back to Heyes. "That's why I got the promotion. I saved the company almost forty thousand dollars," he said proudly, but with a slight slurring of his words.
"Well, congratulations to you, Wilbur," Heyes lifted his glass again and the others followed; Kyle patting Wilbur on the back so hard he spilled some of his whiskey. Heyes reached over, topping it off again, and sat back smiling at the new office manager. "So how'd you get it?"
Wilbur laughed, "I lied through my teeth."
Heyes laughed, too, and the Kid grinned back then looked at Wilbur and asked, "What'd you lie about?"
"The keys," giggled the inebriated man. Heyes got a sick feeling and rubbed his face, he'd just figured out where this was going. His partner looked at him questioningly as the small man continued, "Yes sir, lied through my teeth. You see, I got ready for work a couple of weeks ago and I couldn't find my keys. It's my job to open up and get the drawers set up for the tellers. Figured I must've forgotten them at work. I keep them in my desk's top left-hand drawer. Same place-day in and day out." The Kid glared at Heyes and gripped the table tightly. The dime had dropped for him, too. "Scared the hell out of me, too. Wells is real fussy about security and I knew I'd be canned if the boss found out. I didn't know what to do; I couldn't get into the office without my keys, and I had to open the office or explain why I didn't; so I broke the lock on the back door and busted in. Got to my desk and still couldn't find my keys; must've dropped them somewhere. Usually, I'm real careful but I'd had a few on my way home the night before and they could've been anywhere. When my boss got in, he saw the broken lock and came at me real angry. I told him someone had broken in during the night and stolen my keys. You feeling okay, Cal? You don't look so good. Anyway, the boss figured whoever it was, they were nosing about looking for information on those two stagecoaches that got held up. It was his idea to ship the payroll out on the train instead and stuffing the stage strongboxes with newspaper. He just got promoted to head of the regional office and I got his job. Don't that beat all? Who would've of thought, there'd actually be a robbery, let alone two of them?"
The Kid stood up and pulled Heyes to his feet by grabbing his jacket and hauling him to his feet. "Cal, why don't we get you back to the hotel before you get sick right here in the saloon?" Heyes nodded meekly and followed his irritated partner out the door. Curry shoved him roughly away.
"Kid, how could I know? C'mon, you thought it was funny at the time, too."
"It ain't funny now. John's lying over in the sheriff's office all shot up because you got smart-ass."
"That's not fair! How was I to know Wilbur would make up a story about a robbery?!"
Curry sighed. "You're right. I didn't think anything of it at the time."
"Geez, I still have the damn keys," said Heyes, fishing deep into his pocket and holding up a small ring.
"Get rid of them," hissed the Kid, "Last thing we need is someone finding out you're holding keys to the Wells Fargo office." Heyes obediently dropped the keys into the water trough in front of their horses.
"I'm sorry. I should've gotten rid of them right then and there. Good old Wilbur would've found the door unlocked the next morning and figured he'd forgotten to lock up the night before. No one would've been the wiser." Heyes was horrified that he'd made such a huge mistake.
"We're slipping, Heyes. We shouldn't have goofed this up. I watched you pocket those keys and didn't think nothing of it at the time. I should've and so should've you."
"Is it just me or do you feel like someone's trying to tell us something?"
"You mean like get out of this business?"
"Yeah, just like that. Hey, looks like the doc's leaving the sheriff's office. C'mon," Heyes started to run down the sidewalk towards the tall, gaunt grey-haired man hurrying away from the jail with a large, black bag held in one hand. "Doctor, Doc, wait up."
The surprised physician stopped mid-way across the street and waited as the young stranger ran up to him followed by a blond-haired man. He eyed the men as they caught their breath. "What can I do for you? Are you sick?"
Heyes shook his head, "No, sir, not like that; just sick to death with worry."
"Worried about what, young man?"
"My friend here's wife is in an awful state. Seems her brother got hisself tangled up with some outlaws a few days ago and she thinks it might be the ones that robbed those stages."
"Well then, sir, she's right to be worried."
"John's a good man, Doc, but he's not from around here. He's from Mexico originally and he don't understand some of the finer points of judging the company he keeps. His sister's afraid he might be the man that got shot during that robbery. The man the sheriff's got in the jail. We promised her we'd find out if it was John, but you see Doc, we can't just go into the pokey and ask. I mean, what if it is John? We'd have to tell the sheriff who we were and then there'd go the good family name. Now, her poor old sickly Ma would die from mortification if the family name got dragged through the mud. Don't you see?" babbled Heyes.
"No, sir, I really don't see what this has to do with me." The doctor started to move past the two men when the Kid stepped forward and blocked his way. The medical man looked up mesmerized by the cold, blue eyes staring him down. "One side, young man."
"No sir, I can't step aside. I need to know how John is or there'll be no reason for me to go home tonight."
The exasperated man sighed, "Very well. What is it you want to know? The man said his name was Sam Carlson, but I didn't believe him. He's Mexican, through and through. Most likely it's the man you're looking for."
"I'll break it gently to my wife, sir. Thank you," said the Kid sincerely.
Heyes smiled. John had usurped Wall-eyed and Wheat's names and come up with an alias, maybe not a good alias, but at least he'd known enough not to give his real name. "How is he, sir? Is he hurt bad?"
The doctor squinted at him with one eye and spit out of the corner of his mouth. "He'll live. He's shot in the shoulder, but the bullet went clear on through and whoever patched him up did a good job of cleaning the wound. He's lost some blood, but if infection doesn't set in, he'll be fine."
"Thanks, Doc. That's great news," Heyes shook the man's hand vigorously, "We owe you, Doc."
"Just get the hell out of my way and let me get home to my own wife and dinner," growled the Doc. The Kid stepped aside and the two grinning partners watched as the doctor resumed hurrying down the street.
"Let's go find Wheat and Kyle. We're busting John out," said Heyes.
"Right now? Wouldn't it be better if we let him rest up some?"
"Nope. It's still regular business hours. John's gonna get a visit from the lawyer his dear sister hired. Have Wheat and Kyle fetch the horses and wait by that stack of whiskey barrels out behind the saloon. They can bring the bottle. It'll look like they're just tying a few more on."
"What do you want me to do?"
"You'll be my loyal, although underpaid, clerk."
"What do I have to do?"
"Nod a lot and say, yes, sir," Heyes started to walk away, but paused, turning back, "Oh, and smuggle the gun in."
The sheriff was just finishing up his paperwork on the prisoner when a loud banging at his locked door interrupted his administrative duties. "Who the hell is it?"
"Walter K. Forthright, Esquire, Sheriff, here to consult with my new client, Sam Carlson." The loud rapping continued.
The sheriff mumbled, "Carlson, my eye," and then yelled, "Hold your horses, I'm coming for Pete's sake!" He rose from his desk and glanced at the injured man in his cell. "Sam" struggled to sit up having recognized Heyes's voice. He smiled weakly at the sheriff. "I wanna talk to my lawyer."
The lawman pulled his gun and swung the door open. A smiling dark-haired man and a scowling blond-haired man stood outside. The darker of the two held a leather briefcase in one hand and thrust the other hand out, waiting expectantly for the sheriff to holster his pistol. He did so reluctantly and the man seized his hand, shaking it enthusiastically. "I'm Walter K. Forthright, at your service, Sheriff. Or, perhaps, I should say at my client's service. Sam, good to see you." Heyes took a step towards the inside of the building, but the sheriff held up a hand stopping him in his tracks.
"You as well, Walter," answered the jailed man politely.
"And who's this?" growled the sheriff looking the Kid over.
"This is my legal assistant, Dudley Peepers," replied the glib lawyer. The Kid scowled even more deeply, but slightly bowed his head in acknowledgement.
"Well, step on in here. I'm gonna have to search you two before you can consult my prisoner; standard procedure. Mr. Peepers, you can set over there by the woodstove while I give Mr. Walter K. Forthright, here, a good going over."
"Yes sir," said the Kid mildly. He sat carefully down in the cane chair drawn up close to lit woodstove. Holding his hands towards the hot iron stove, he smiled as the sheriff thoroughly frisked his partner. Finding nothing, the lawman cleared his throat and gestured for the Kid to come over. Curry rose slowly and walked meekly to the waiting man. He, too, was patted up and down his legs, arms, and across his mid-section.
Satisfied, the sheriff walked over and opened the cell door. Heyes walked in, but the Kid was stopped before he could enter. "Not you. You can wait out here. And, you, Mr. Forthright, leave that bag out here."
Heyes nodded to the Kid, handing him the bag, and turned to John, crossing the cell floor and sitting down on the thin, lumpy mattress. "How are you feeling, Sam?"
"Okay, I guess. They've been treating me decent enough."
"I'm glad to hear it. We'll have you out of here in no time." Heyes dropped his voice down low and quietly told John his plan.
The Kid, sitting by the stove, started to jiggle his right leg up and down impatiently. He looked up to see the sheriff watching him at the same time he watched the lawyer and the prisoner. "Uh, Sheriff, I've got to go. Is it okay if I go out to the outhouse?"
The grizzled man stood up and shook his head. "Damn it all; just use the commode in the other cell. I ain't friskin' you again. Leave the bag." He followed the blond man to the empty cell across from the prisoner and watched closely as the Kid reached up and pulled the clean commode off the shelf over the bed, sitting it down on the floor in front of him. He turned his back discreetly to the lawman and the other occupants of the room, and fussed some with his fly buttons. Finally, a stream of urine splashed into the commode and the meek law clerk completed his business.
"Leave it there, the deputy can get it when he comes in later," growled the sheriff. He stepped aside as Curry came back out through the door and was shocked to feel the barrel of a small gun pressing into his side. The blond man lifted his gun from its holster and tossed it to the lawyer, who caught it deftly. "We're gonna be taking Sam with us, Sheriff. Step inside the cell and turn around." The Kid lifted the keys and handcuffs dangling from the lawman's empty gun belt as the man stared at the small derringer in his hand; it had been damned uncomfortable for the Kid, trying to walk around with a gun in his underwear. Curry pushed the sheriff's hands through the bars and handcuffed them together. Pulling a bandana out of his pocket, the Kid neatly gagged the bound man. "Sorry, Sheriff, standard procedure, you know." He hurried to the front door and threw the heavy bar across it, locking it from the inside.
Heyes had John's arm over his shoulder and was supporting most of his man's weight as the Kid slipped the key inside the heavy lock on the cell door. With a click, it sprang open. Heyes eased John out and stopped in front of the angry sheriff. "It's going to be mighty humiliating for you to have to explain to Wells Fargo how you lost your prisoner, ain't it?"
"Don't feel bad, Sheriff," said the Kid from across the room, "that's Hannibal Heyes, alive and in the flesh, who broke into your jail easy as pie."
Heyes grinned broadly and tipped his hat, "If it's any consolation, Sheriff, you've been hoodwinked by the best. That's Kid Curry over there, and as glad as he was to meet you, that really was a pistol he was packing."
The lawman growled through his gag and shook the bars as the three outlaws slipped out, laughing hard.