"You still feelin' poorly, Heyes?" Wheat eyed his leader as he rode alongside him. Something was going on, but he wasn't sure what. Heyes had looked like death warmed over sitting in that saloon right before the Kid had hauled him out of there. Wheat had been afraid that they wouldn't accomplish what they'd come to Laramie for, but Heyes had bounced back quickly. Quick enough to bust John out of jail.
Wheat tightened his hold on the injured man who lolled semi-consciously against him. His high-strung horse had easily carried the two men as the gang had ridden hard to put Laramie and the law behind them, but the ride had taken its toll on John. Blood was seeping through the bandage across his wound and he'd taken a fever. At least they'd be back at the Hole in another couple of hours. Heyes was going take them in the back way, up an old, overgrown game trail in order to bypass the possibility of coming across that posse. Heyes wasn't taking any chances this time with a wounded man needing care. Wheat just hoped John would heal up okay once he got some rest. He glanced up at the dark, forbidding clouds turning the sky an ugly gray. Hopefully, the weather would hold off until they got in.
Heyes was looking at Wheat in confusion, trying to digest his question. "Huh?"
"You was sick earlier, weren't you?"
"Uh, yeah, must've been something I ate," said Heyes, trying to cover up his awkwardness.
The Kid, riding on his partner's left side, laughed, and added, "Heyes puked his brains out in the alley; nearly ruined those fancy boots of his. I can guarantee you he got rid of what was making him ill." He smirked at Heyes, who remembered, all too well, the keys he'd disposed of in the water trough.
"That's about all them boots is good for," laughed Wheat, satisfied with the explanation and happy to poke fun at Heyes. He reined up to ride alongside his own partner. Kyle was asleep in his saddle, a small trickle of tobacco-y spit drooling from the side of his open mouth. "Hey, wake up!" Wheat gave him a shove, and Kyle sat up with a start, choking slightly on the plug still in his mouth. "Dammit, Wheat, what'd you'd do that for? I was dreamin' 'bout Daisy." The small outlaw spit out the chaw he'd nearly swallowed and gave his partner an angry scowl.
"Sorry, but you was about to fall off. Ain't you already fallen for that gal once?" Laughing, Wheat pulled a small flask from inside his coat and passed it over to his good friend.
The two outlaw leaders rode quietly along together. After a couple of minutes, when they had gotten further ahead and out of earshot, Heyes said, "Thanks, Kid."
The Kid glanced at him. Wheat was right, Heyes didn't look that good and he figured he knew why. "Are you still moping over those keys? It was just a stupid mistake and we both made it. Let it go."
"I can't let it go. John got shot up and we're just damn lucky nobody else did. I could've gotten us all killed."
"Ain't you being a bit melodramatic? You couldn't have known that Wilbur was gonna make up some cock-eyed story or that his boss was gonna buy it and pull a switch on you. You want to wallow in guilt; you go right ahead. We're human, we're gonna make mistakes.
Angry now, at himself and his partner's refusal to indulge him, Heyes snapped, "I know that, but it don't matter. I shouldn't have taken the keys; I should've known better."
"Well, why did you take 'em?"
"I thought they might come in handy later. Maybe we'd hit Wells again after things died down."
"So you had a good reason to take them, and, with some better luck, it might've been a good thing. You're always stumbling across things other folks miss and making the most of them. Don't beat yourself up because it didn't turn out right this time." The Kid patted his horse neck, smoothing the hair.
"That's just it. We've done some dumb things in the past and been real lucky to get away with them. Well, luck changes and I'm thinking mine might be taking a turn for the worse."
"Bull-you're just hurting from having to ride away from Allie. You've been looking at the dark side of things ever since."
"It ain't that," said Heyes morosely.
"Geez, I hate it when you talk like this. What the hell do you have rattling around in your head?" The Kid could see that Heyes was uncomfortable talking about what was bothering him, but that was nothing new. Sometimes it was like pulling a stubborn tooth trying to draw the truth from his partner. Heyes could talk a blue streak when it suited him, but when something was bothering him you couldn't get him to put two words together. "Tell me," he said commandingly.
Heyes stared ahead trying to put his feelings into words. "It's just…I don't know…it ain't nothing you haven't already heard." He looked down at the ground and over his shoulder, anywhere but at his partner of so many years.
"What is it, Heyes? You're scaring me here." Finally, dark eyes turned to meet his.
"I feel like we're finished, Kid, like our luck's gone and it's just a matter of time before something real bad happens…happens to you."
"Not that again. Why to me? Why not to you? If you're gonna keep getting all gloomy on me, Heyes, the least you can do is make your own ass the object of your fears!"
Heyes looked at him blankly for a second and then gave a small laugh. "I always manage to save my own ass; it's your ass I worry about."
"Well, worrying never did no one any good," said the Kid, smiling at his friend. He dropped the smile quickly, though, and said, "Heyes, we've talked this round over and over again and nothing's ever gonna change. We chose our path a long time ago and we've always known where it was likely to end up. You might be right; it's about time for us to get to the end of our road. But, if we're there, we got there together. That counts for something, don't it?"
"Yeah, I guess it does," said Heyes, smiling tightly.
"And, you ain't lost all your luck. You got damn lucky that Wheat and Kyle didn't figure it out about those keys. I reckon its time you forgave Wheat his mistakes."
"I already have."
How did the Kid always know what he needed to hear? He was lucky; lucky to have the Kid still riding alongside him; lucky to have a partner who knew him better than he knew himself; damn lucky to have a good, true friend he could count on. He had to stop worrying about their future and enjoy what he had now. He was wasting what precious time they still had by fretting over something he couldn't control.
With a wicked grin, he turned to his cousin, "Twenty bucks says I can beat you to the top of the knoll." He spurred his small sorrel gelding knowing he'd need a good lead on the Kid's big bay gelding. He took off at a dead run, startling Wheat's and Kyle's horses and causing their riders to scramble for a better grip on their reins.
"Hey!" yelled the Kid, struggling to keep up with his partner, both literally and figuratively.
Heyes and the Kid reached up and gently took John from Wheat's arms. He'd passed out a while ago. It was blessing, really; he'd missed the rocky, precarious ride that snaked down the cliffs looming over the Hole. It had been bumpy and hard going. Heyes seldom risked coming in that way because of the dangerous footing.
"Let's get him to the cookhouse, Kid. It'll be the warmest place," said Heyes, adjusting his grip on his unconscious man.
"Don't look like Gully's got the stove going yet. There's smoke coming out of the bunkhouse chimney, we'd better take him there."
Wheat and Kyle dismounted and came around to help carry their fallen comrade; they grabbed each other's hands behind John's legs and lifted him, forming a human litter between the four of them with the Kid and Heyes supporting the hurt man's shoulders in the same fashion.
"I sure hope Gully's been cookin' up a storm. I'm so hungry I could eat Wheat's horse," joked Kyle.
Heyes frowned, seeing no smoke from the cookhouse. What was Gully thinking? Hungry outlaws were dangerous men. John moaned slightly and Heyes shifted his grip again, forgetting about food. The Kid kicked open the bunkhouse door using his foot and backed inside with Heyes as they gripped hands under John's shoulders. The room was almost stiflingly hot and the woodstove in the center of it glowed red.
Carefully, the four men lowered John onto his bunk. Heyes sent Kyle up to the cabin to fetch his medical supplies and Wheat back outside to take the horses into the barn. The Kid crossed to the stove and closed the vents at the bottom to damp down the flames and cool off the iron. "Those damn fools are gonna burn this place down someday. What were they thinking leaving this stove blazing like that?"
Heyes, leaning over John, gently un-wrapped the soiled bandages across his shoulder, the wound looked okay. It was slightly red and puckered around the edges, but no real signs of infection. He felt John's forehead. Still hot, but that was to be expected after the day's exertions. Relieved, he sat back to wait for Kyle's return and looked at his partner. "Where is everybody?"
"I don't know, but I'm gonna find out," said an annoyed Kid Curry, striding across the floorboards and yanking open the door.
"Go easy on them, Kid. I want them in a decent mood when I tell them there's no money coming this time."
Curry let go of the door, shutting it, and walked over to his partner. "I forgot you hadn't told them yet. We'll do it together."
"Thanks, but Wheat wants to shoulder his part and I'm gonna let him. This isn't your problem, it's ours. I'll wait for him and then he can stand with me. Though, I won't mind at all if you kept your gun hand loose," grinned Heyes, looking up at his cousin from his perch on the edge of the bunk bed.
The Kid patted him on his shoulder, "It'll be fine, Heyes. You've made them a lot of money this winter. No one's got any reasons to complain."
"No one around here needs a reason to complain, Kid, it just comes naturally," snorted Heyes as the door opened again and Kyle stepped in, his arms filled with bandages. Wheat followed the smaller man with a pail of water, setting it on the hot stove before coming over to stand by the bunk. "How's he doing?"
"Not bad. Let's get him cleaned up," said Heyes, turning his attention back to the wounded man.
"I'll find the boys," said the Kid.
"Find somethin'to eat, too, Kid. I'm starvin'," pleaded Kyle.
"Will do." The Kid stepped outside and crossed the yard in a hurry. The sun was nearly down over the cliffs and the biting wind they'd battled all the way home was blowing harder. Small flakes of wet snow struck his face. As he neared the cookhouse, he could hear his men inside, but he couldn't make out what they were saying. He pulled the door opened and stopped cold at the sight before him.
Wall-eyed was cursing and fussing with the stove, striking match after match, but failing to light it. Hank had on Gully's apron and he was nearly covered from head to foot with flour. A gray, lumpy mass of dough sat on the table before him. Lobo hovered over him with a book in hand and his finger pressed down on it keeping his place while he berated his friend. "Dammit, Hank, it says right here two cups of flour, not two pints. You used the wrong measuring cup."
Hank slammed a fist down and a cloud of white powder took to the air. "How am I supposed to know? I ain't made a recipe before. Just add more milk." A chuckle from the doorway drew his attention and he looked at the Kid scowling. "It ain't funny, Kid. Gully took off and we ain't got nothin' to eat."
"Took off? When?" The Kid was concerned; he was damn hungry, too.
"Right after we got back. He left Heyes a letter. It's over there on the shelf over the stove. Wall-eyed almost burned it by mistake," said Hank, earning a scowl from the man kneeling by the stove. Lobo picked up the dough and put it back into the dirty bowl on the table. He poured some milk over it and began kneading angrily. Having already figured out that Gully probably wasn't coming back, he was too pissed to speak to Curry and the gooey lump suffered for it.
The Kid snatched up the letter, tucked it into his coat pocket, and turned his attention back to the men before him. He needed to keep them under control until this got sorted out and the best way to do that was to keep them busy. "Wall-eyed, quit messing with that stove and use the bunkhouse stove, it's burning hot enough to roast a cow. Hank, go on out to the barn and fetch the supplies that Heyes brought in. They're in his saddlebags; there's some cans of beans in there. Take a pot with you and put them on the woodstove to heat up. Lobo, run down to the smokehouse and grab one of those hams hanging up there." His men sprang into action as he started to turn for the door. "Oh, and clean this mess up. Gully'll have your hides if he comes back to a dirty kitchen." He knew the chances of Gully coming back were slim to none, but he had to smooth things out until Heyes had a chance to know what was coming at him. He almost ran back to the bunkhouse.
Kyle and Wheat were supporting John as Heyes finished wrapping him up. They all looked up as the Kid came in. "Trouble, Heyes. Gully's gone. He left a note." He pulled out the letter and held it out to his frowning partner. Wheat looked at Kyle, who moaned at the news, but both men were wise enough not to say anything. They watched as Heyes tore open the envelope. He read it quickly and crumpled the note, shoving it into his pocket. "Great, just great. Kyle, go on back up to the cabin. Under my bed, there's a case of that Tennessee whiskey. Bring me four bottles. Also, on my dresser is a box of cigars, grab that, too."
"Sure, Heyes, but what're we gonna do for grub?" asked Kyle.
"The boys are on it, Kyle. Don't worry about your stomach," said the Kid.
"Go, Kyle!" growled Wheat. He watched his small partner scurry out the door before looking back at Heyes and the Kid. "This is bad, ain't it? Does this have something to do with Gully ridin' along with us? Just what the heck did you say to him to get him to agree to come? He always said he wouldn't never do that." The look on Heyes's face told him all he needed to know. "Aww, dammit all to hell, what are we gonna do now? We've still gotta tell those boys they ain't gettin' any money."
"Back off, Wheat," said the Kid, warning him to shut up.
"Those boys'll fill us full of lead for sure," continued Wheat, ignoring Curry's cold stare. Heyes said nothing and continued caring for John, but he was thinking feverishly about how to handle his men. Wheat grumbled, "Well, I guess my stomach ain't gonna feel empty if it's full of hot lead."
"Shut up, Wheat, and let Heyes think," snapped the Kid.
"Think? His thinking's what got us into this m…." Wheat stopped short as the Kid grabbed him by his coat collar. "Um, you know, maybe I'd best go help Kyle."
"You do that, Wheat," ground out the Kid.
"No, wait!" said Heyes, wiping his hands on his pant as he stood up and walked to the other side of the bunkhouse, gesturing for the Kid and Wheat to follow. Curry let go of the bigger man, giving him a small shove, and they both trailed after the dark-haired outlaw leader. Heyes stopped at the far end of the room, far enough away that John was unlikely to hear anything should he awaken unexpectedly. "We all need to talk this through. We're the only ones that know there's no money, right?" Heyes started to walk back in forth in front of them. "What if there was?"
"Was what?" asked Wheat.
"Let Heyes finish," snapped the Kid, already guessing where his partner was going, but not particularly happy about it.
"Money, Wheat. What if there was money?" asked Heyes.
"There's no point in wonderin'. There ain't any money and the men know it," growled Wheat.
"Your men know it; mine don't," grinned Heyes. "The Kid's the only one that knows our strongbox was empty, too."
Wheat's eyes widened and he started to protest, "You're gonna lie to them!"
The Kid leaned back against the bunkhouse wall to watch his partner work on Wheat.
"Hold on now, I'm not lying. They'll be getting what they expected so they ought to be satisfied with it." Heyes watched Wheat like he was a coiled rattler. He had to have his lieutenant's help for this to work.
"So you're gonna be the hero, 'cause they'll all think you got the money, and I get to be the goat, again. Is that it?" bristled Wheat.
"No, that ain't it. Stop, for one second, competing with me and look at this from a practical point of view. The men have already gotten one serious disappointment. They ain't stupid, Wheat, they know Gully's cleared out and they're already thinking about what that's gonna mean for them from here on out. Do you really want to tell them they aren't getting paid too? How do you think they might react to that news? Who do you think they'd blame?"
"I'm talking about making things right, Wheat. You want to be leader, you've gotta deal with the problems. You'd be the goat if you stood in the way of my making things right."
Wheat tried to stare Heyes down, but ended up hemming and hawing, "Well, I guess that makes sense; giving 'em the money would solve our worst problem and if they got paid, it'd sure make it easier for 'em to swallow losin' Gully."
"How much you got saved?" asked Heyes. The Kid pushed off the wall and came over to stand next to his partner, giving Wheat a silent reminder to watch his manners.
"Now, hold on a second, that's my loot," Wheat blustered.
The Kid frowned at him again and shook his head. "It's your neck, too."
Heyes started pacing again, "Mine, too, Wheat; but we were the leaders and we've both had a hand in coming up empty. The boys think we took in forty grand. That means that once we pull off ten percent for overhead and take our cuts, we should have…wait…Lobo and Hank are getting a bigger cut, too, for taking the tough jobs…so we need to come up with…no, that's not right, Gully's out, so we cut it eight ways, not nine. That'll be…thirty seven twelve-fifty a head and we only have to pay five men, so that makes…eighteen thousand, five hundred sixty-two dollars and fifty cents we've gotta come up with real quick."
"I don't got half of that!" yelled Wheat.
"Shh! Keep it down," hissed the Kid.
"What do you have?" asked Heyes, stopping again in front of the bigger man.
Wheat shrugged, "Don't know, maybe five grand."
"That's all?" The Kid was incredulous. They'd brought in so much cash so fast this winter. Wheat must be holding out on Heyes. He made to grab at the bigger man again, but Wheat put his hands up quickly to fend him off.
"Kid, it's the honest truth. I sent most of it home to my Ma. She's having a hard time. And, I sent some to Soapy for the gals out at the Second Chance," added Wheat quickly. He'd also lost a bunch playing poker with the boys and whoring in Belton. Little Lacie had rolled him the last time he'd seen her and left town the same night, leaving him drunk and snoring in her bed. Wheat's bankroll was going to finance her retirement.
The Kid raised his eyebrows at Wheat's charity. "How much more do you need, Heyes?"
"I've got ten I keep set aside for emergencies, which this definitely is, and I can come up with another two grand out of my poker stash. If Wheat kicks in his five, we'll be about fifteen hundred short."
"You're gonna bust me!" whined Wheat.
"Don't get your tail in a twist. I've already got another job planned and it'll be quick and easy. Don't forget, this is gonna wipe me out, too," said Heyes.
"I reckon I can cover that fifteen hundred to keep you in one piece," said the Kid.
"Thanks, guess I owe you again." Heyes shifted his eyes to his lieutenant, "Wheat, are you willing?"
Wheat was completely deflated. After a moment or two, he nodded and tried to muster a weak smile, "I reckon I am." He began warming to the idea of making good on his silent promise to square things with John and found himself starting to feel a whole lot better than he had since things had gone south.
Wheat's cooperation made Heyes smile broadly. "All right then, let's get the cash together. We might just pull this off with a little help from Mr. Jack Daniels."
The second bottle of whiskey was nearly empty when Wheat picked it up and stepped up onto one of the bunks. He tapped a spoon against the glass bottle, getting the men's attention. A ravaged ham bone sat in the middle of the table and licked-clean plates surrounded it. The remainder of a crusty pot of beans sat simmering on the woodstove. Outlaws were strewn around the room like old clothes; some lying down, some draped over their chairs.
"Listen up, boys, Heyes and me got somethin' to tell you," yelled Wheat.
Grumbles were heard all around the bunkhouse, but faces were turned to Wheat and the noise soon died down. Heyes and the Kid watched quietly from the side of the room.
"You sure you want to do this, Heyes? They got their money, no reason for them to know the particulars." The Kid was chewing on his last piece of ham, holding his plate in his left hand.
"It's gotta be done. I can't risk one of them hearing a rumor or seeing a newspaper and deciding if we'd lied to them about this, what else would we lie about? I don't want anyone questioning my word." Heyes left his partner and walked to the center of the room, joining Wheat.
"Thanks, Wheat. Listen up, boys. You did a real fine job despite some tough conditions this time and I appreciate it. John, I'm sorry you got shot and we're gonna make sure that doesn't happen again. Wheat's trading out his horse for something quieter, but I'm sure you're grateful that nag was hot enough to outrun a posse with two riders." Heyes grinned and lifted his glass to his wounded man, who smiled and nodded firmly. The other men laughed but wondered where this was going. Was Heyes announcing the next job? Lobo frowned; he was ready for a break and so were the rest of the boys; he just hoped they'd back him up if he stood up to Heyes. He wasn't going toe to toe with his boss again; least ways, not until he'd forgotten the last fight.
Wheat cleared his throat in an officious manner and spoke, "Now, we just paid you your fair share of the forty thousand dollars that Wells was supposed to be shipping on those stages…"
"What do you, mean supposed to be?" interrupted Lobo, gruffly.
"That's what Wheat's getting at, Lobo, if you'll just hear him out," said Heyes, sternly. Lobo sat back and shut up.
All attention was on the big outlaw lieutenant and he was enjoying his moment; even Heyes was deferring to him. He'd offered to break it to the boys. After all, it was his horse that caused all the trouble.
"There wasn't any money on those stages." Wheat smiled at the shocked faces turned to him and he waited for grumbling to die down again. "Wells pulled a fast one on us, boys. Those stages were both decoys and the money got sent out on the train."
"You mean I got shot at for nothing?" said John, standing up.
"You got paid same as if there'd been forty grand, didn't you?" growled Wheat. John sat down again.
"Where'd the money come from if there wasn't any on the stages?" asked Wall-eyed.
Heyes walked into the circle of men. "It came from some money Wheat and I had set aside from the last few jobs. Kid threw in on it, too. You all kept up your ends of the bargain and did your jobs; by rights, that money should've been there and the fact that it wasn't, wasn't your fault."
"You never paid us before when we've been skunked on a job, what's different this time?" asked Kyle. Heyes frowned at him and the smaller outlaw squirmed. Leave it to Kyle to get astute at the wrong moment.
"I should've…" began Wheat, but Heyes interrupted him quickly, casting a warning glance to his lieutenant not to go any further.
"I've asked a lot of you boys this winter and I'm gonna ask a lot more. I want the answer to be yes when I do." Heyes popped the cork on the next bottle and handed it to Lobo who hesitated a second and took a drink, passing it onto Wall-eyed. Wheat stepped down off the bunk, and stood next to his leader. Heyes glanced at the Kid who nodded back. The dark-haired leader patted Wheat on the back, and walked out of the bunk house.
"How are they?" asked a distracted Hannibal Heyes. He was seated at his small desk, a stub of a candle close to his right hand, staring down at the formerly crumpled note before him. He heard the door open but failed to turn to see who it was. Didn't matter, did it? He'd have known by now if there was going to be trouble. Once the boys were paid, the questions about Gully had died off and the drinking had begun. The third and fourth bottles would be finished by now.
"What's it say, Heyes?" asked the Kid. His partner grabbed up the paper and held it out to him. Taking it, he stepped into the tiny circle of light and began to read:
By the time you get this I'll be long gone. I wanted it that way. That tongue of yours might've talked me into staying. Don't worry about my share of the money, I've got enough set aside, and I don't want it, anyways.
You done me two favors for which I'll always be grateful. The first, you know already, and were quick to remind me of. The second one is that you made me take a good, hard look at who I was and how far wrong I've gone. I've been lying to myself the whole time I've been here and might've kept on if you hadn't forced my hand. I was angry at you for it, but now that I've had some time, I think you've saved me again, whether you meant to or not.
It's my turn now and I'm going to do you another favor, then we'll be square. You and the Kid are real good at what you do, the best ever, but I can't say as how I see that making you happy. Sure, I know you get a big kick out of getting away with it all, but there's a part of you that knows you're doing wrong. Listen to that part and turn away from this life before it kills who you really are. It's what I should've done and, I can tell you, it ain't too late. Smart as you are you can figure a way out.
PS. Don't let those yahoots into my clean kitchen. Get yourself a new cook right quick.
The Kid glanced at Heyes several times while he read the note. His partner was staring at the flame, intently watching the light flickering as it prepared to go out. The Kid put the note down on the table and lit an oil lamp, putting it on the other corner of the desk. He blew out the candle.
Heyes shook off his reverie and looked up, with a rueful smile. "Words to live by, huh?"
"I reckon," said the Kid.
"Well, I guess he's right about one thing. I'd better get a cook in here fast."
"Ain't gonna happen, Heyes. Have you looked outside the last hour?"
"We've got us a full-blown blizzard going."
"I reckon that, too."