Heyes briefly pulled up his gelding looking for the road to Belton. The storm had abated early this morning, but the snowfall over the past three days had left the lightly-used trail covered under a deep, white featureless blanket. Finding the familiar twisted pine tree he was looking for, he confidently started out again, his partner by his side. The horses ambled along slowly, stepping carefully, and snorting occasionally as ice rimed their nosehairs and tickled their nostrils.
"What was the ten grand for?"
"I told you, emergencies."
"That's a pretty big emergency."
"Yeah, well, it wasn't quite big enough, was it?"
"Do you always keep that much cash on hand?"
"I try to keep more than that, but with the money I'm sending to the Second Chance, I've run through some of it. We'll get some more quick. You'll like the next job; it's real easy on the back."
Curry ignored his partner's attempt to divert him and refrained from asking what the new job was. "What sort of emergencies are you planning on?"
"How should I know?" Heyes knew the Kid had neatly sidestepped him and he was beginning to get a little irritated with all the questions. "Just in case we need it; like now."
"We can always pull another job if we need cash." After all, that was what they had always done. Curry was thinking about the risks of Heyes sitting on that kind of money. Wheat now knew that Heyes kept a large stash of cash. He wondered how long it would be before a less trustworthy gang member figured it out. They all had to be wondering how Heyes came up with that much money. The gang knew that he kept some on hand to pay for gang expenses and incidentals, but how long would it take for them to do the math and realize just how much Heyes had hidden away somewhere. And, what would they do about it?
"You think the boys would've waited for their money while we went out and knocked over a bank?" laughed Heyes. "I've got people depending on me, partner, I've gotta be prepared."
"I'm not sure it's a good idea for them to know you have that kind of cash around." With a start, Curry realized that he was also upset that his partner had never confided in him that he had the money and he wondered why.
"I don't have it anymore, do I? C'mon, Kid, what if something bad happened and we couldn't get more? What if I was killed or you were?"
"I don't wanna talk about that."
"Neither do I, but you know as well as I do, it could happen. The money'll be there for you if you need it. It's hidden under that cracked stone by the outhouse. The big, flat one; the boys would never think to look there, but it makes it real easy to sneak out to it." Heyes chuckled at his own cleverness. "Look, you didn't really think I'd do all this stealing without putting some aside for a rainy day. Don't you think that'd be kind of stupid, me being a genius and all?" Heyes flashed his partner a brilliant smile. "Besides, you had your own stash."
"That's different. It wasn't ten grand's worth."
"I had a hell of a lot more than ten grand before I went charitable."
"I already said why; in case things go bad for us. You'll have something to set you up in Mexico or one of those sunny places you're always harping about."
"Dammit, Heyes; the last thing I'd want is to go south without you. I'd have already gone if I wanted that."
"I just like knowing I've got us covered."
"Well, we're broke now. How do you plan to hire a new cook?" The Kid's horse shook itself and a flurry of snow went flying.
"I still have my poker stash. It'll do and I might be able to make a little more before we leave town."
The Kid smiled, "Now you're talking."
Kyle struggled through the deep snow drifts, stew slopping from the heavy pot he held. Reaching the un-shoveled steps of the bunkhouse, he nearly stumbled. "Hey, open the door!" Snow had dusted his shoulders on the short walk from the cookhouse.
Hank shouldered the door open wiping a small arc of snow from the porch. "It's about time, we're starving in here." He followed Kyle inside and pulled the door shut before sitting down again at the table. The smaller man crossed to the woodstove and put the pot on the single burner on top. From his pockets, Kyle pulled out a dozen or so hard biscuits.
Wheat walked over and tried to lift the lid on the pot, but his partner smacked his hand hard causing him to drop the lid back down with a clatter. "What'd you do that for?" snapped the big outlaw.
"Keep your shirt on, Wheat, it ain't ready yet. I had to cool it off some to carry it over and I want it to be good and hot. This here's my grandpa's recipe and it's gotta be done right," said Kyle. He opened the door to the stove, grabbed two more logs from the wooden box next to it, and threw them inside to stoke the flames.
"Smells good, Kyle. What is it?" asked Wall-eyed as he walked over to join the others around the hot woodstove. John was propped up on his bunk dozing; his shoulder was still paining him and the storm had provided him a chance to catch up on his sleep.
"Aw, geez, don't anyone know how to make anythin' but stew? I'm sick of stew," groused Wheat.
"Seems to me you was makin' stew night before last," said Wall-eyed. "'Sides, weren't you belly-aching about John's dinner? He didn't make stew."
Wheat cast a glance at the sleeping man, and lowered his voice, "Those in-chill-lah-dees could've taken the paint off the wall. My belly was on fire all night!"
Wall-eyed shrugged, "I'll give you that. I could've done with a few less of them chili peppers myself, but they sure made the beer go down easy. Not too much fun in the morning, though."
"I liked them. The beans were good, too," said Hank.
Kyle turned from the pot and looked at him. "They wasn't so good the second time around. Next time you eat beans, you're sleepin' outside, snow or not. I ain't dyin' in my sleep from refried bean poisonin'."
Hank chuckled, "You weren't no petunia neither, Kyle."
"Heyes and the Kid will be back day after tomorrow with the new cook; save your bellyachin' for them," Kyle pulled a stack of bowls and a bottle of whiskey off the shelf above the stove and set them on the table. "Get your spoons out, boys, stew's ready. John, wake up, time to eat."
John opened his eyes and smiled, "Good, I'm hungry." He gingerly stood up and came over, rolling his stiff shoulder and flexing his hands before sitting down next to Wall-eyed. "Too bad Lobo's missing this one, it smells good."
"I'll keep some warm for him. He'll be off watch soon," Kyle ladled generous portions into the bowls and passed them around to the hungry outlaws. They'd been snowed in for nearly four days and it was wearing on them. Without chores to keep them busy, they'd played cutthroat poker the first two days, but fights kept breaking out, and Wheat had finally called a halt to the games. That left six bored outlaws with nothing to do except feed the livestock and think about what they would eat next. Unfortunately, now that Gully was gone, they had to take turns doing their own cooking. Breakfast had been a steady diet of oatmeal and lunches consisted of cold, salted meat and leaden breads.
With the arrival of dinner, the room quieted down. Appreciative grunts and the scraping of dishes took over for conversation. Wheat finished first and smiled at his partner. "That's real tasty, Kyle, best stew yet. What is it?"
"My grandpa's varmint stew; he used to be a cook on board an East Indies tradin' ship. This here's his recipe. Who wants some more?" Kyle stood up and pulled the pot off the stove, plunking it down in the middle of the table. Eager hands reached for the ladle and seconds were passed all around.
"Varmint, huh? It ain't coon or squirrel, I've had those. What is it?" said Wheat, shoveling another big spoonful of the tasty meal into his mouth as he spoke.
Hank said, "Horsemeat," and Wall-eyed sniggered.
"That ain't funny," growled Wheat with genuine menace in his voice. He heard all he wanted to ever hear about his horse. He'd already given up his fancy mount for a placid, homely roan gelding and it still stung.
"It's rat," said Kyle. Wheat blew his mouthful across the table splattering Hank, who jumped back and reached for his gun reflexively.
"What?! You're servin' us rat?! What the hell, Kyle," bellowed Wheat. Hank turned varying shades of green and Wall-eyed rushed for the door.
"Rat ain't no different than rabbits or chickens, Wheat, you eat what you've got plenty of and we had plenty of rats trying to get into the storehouse when the snow started. It didn't take much to catch 'em." Kyle frowned, hurt by his friends' angry grumbling. "You all have been complainin' about not having fresh meat. You do now, set down and eat it. It ain't gonna hurt you, I been eatin' this stew my whole life."
"I ain't eatin' no rat!" Hank grabbed a couple of biscuits and went over to his bunk to sulk. Wall-eyed returned, wiping a sleeve over his mouth, and swallowing hard several times; he grabbed the bottle of whiskey and downed some before passing it to Hank, who upended it.
Wheat stared at John, who was still eating quietly, ignoring the fuss going on around him. John looked up at Wheat and shrugged, "The stew's good. My mamacita used to grill the field rats over an open fire."
"You've eaten it before?" a stunned Wheat looked back and forth from Kyle to John.
"Sure. In my country, it is eaten." John reached out and served himself another spoonful. "Kyle, you gotta teach me this recipe."
"I don't care how good it tastes, I ain't eatin' it." Wheat stalked off to his bunk and laid down on it. He was still hungry, but there was no way he was eating more of that stew. He was angry all over again that Gully was gone and it was all Heyes's fault; good thing the new cook was coming soon.
Wall-eyed left an hour later to relieve Lobo on watch. When Lobo returned, he found the bunkhouse dead quiet. His friends were pretending to be asleep after a wild flurry of betting on what he would do when he found out he'd eaten rat stew. Wheat opened one eye from the shadows of his lower bunk, and watched as Lobo shook the snow off his coat and hung it up. Unbuckling his gun belt, the chilled man hung that up, too, along with his wet hat. John snuck a quick peek, but closed his eyes quickly as Lobo turned towards the stove. Kyle really was asleep having gone to bed in a snit over the cool reception his stew had received.
Lobo lifted the lid and sniffed the stew. Hank had his face pressed hard into his pillow trying to suppress the laughter threatening to bubble out of him, but Wheat watched in disbelief as the craggy outlaw grabbed a biscuit, laid down on his bunk, and fell asleep before he could finish his crumbly meal. Disappointed in Lobo's performance, the rest of the gang settled down into their bunks and the sounds of snoring outlaws soon filled the bunkhouse.
The saloon was unusually quiet for a Friday afternoon and Heyes found himself without a poker game to entertain him while his partner spent his time upstairs with the lovely Maybelle. He'd run out of conversations to have with Ben, the barkeep, and was looking for something to do. He idly shuffled a deck of cards one-handed as he looked out the grimy window and rocked his chair on its back legs.
Ben was washing his beer mugs and glasses, setting each one on the counter running the length of the bar, before picking up the next. Finished, he wiped his hands on the grayish apron he wore and reached under the bar. Heyes's chair banged to the floor and his dark eyes swung to the barkeep while his hand dropped to his gun. Ben lifted his hands over his head, his right hand holding a newspaper, and begged, "Please don't shoot, Mr. Heyes."
"Sorry, Ben, you startled me is all."
Ben nodded his head. "Yes sir, I can see that." He put the paper on the bar and shakily lifted a couple of clean glasses off the shelf over the back bar. While he appreciated his famous patrons for their outwardly friendly natures, he knew they were tough men who lived desperate lives and his mistake could've been fatal. "I think I could use a drink. You?" Watching Heyes, he carefully reached under the bar again; this time pulling out a bottle of fine whiskey. He uncorked it and poured two fingers into each of the glasses as Heyes stood up and came over. They toasted each other and downed their drinks. Heyes put his empty glass down next to the newspaper noticing that the edition was nearly a week old. Ben picked it up and grinned, "I use it to dry the glasses. Gets 'em real clean." The barkeep opened up the paper and tore off a sheet, returning his attention to his glassware.
"Mind if I read some of it? Been awhile since I caught up on the news," said Heyes.
"Sure, help yourself; I've got more."
Heyes nodded and picked up the newspaper, returning to his table. Sitting down, he opened it up again and was surprised to find a brief article on the second page about the Wells Fargo job. He began to read, but was quickly interrupted by Ben's chuckling. The barkeep was watching him read. "Yes sir, Mr. Heyes. Folks sure are having trouble believing you're still alive. You might just have to start introducing yourself when you're robbing." Heyes frowned at him and Ben wisely stopped talking and started drying. Heyes read on until he reached the final paragraph:
…rumors about Hannibal Heyes and the involvement of the Devil's Hole gang were quickly dismissed by Wells Fargo's newly promoted Regional Manager, Mr. Wilfred Standish, who said, quote, "Hogwash, this botched robbery was the work of rank amateurs from beginning to end. Heyes is dead, no matter what people want to believe, his gang is finished and the West is safer for it." Upon being further questioned about recent reports that the man killed in Leadville was not the infamous outlaw but rather a nameless drifter, Mr. Standish responded, "Poppycock, Heyes is dead and that's all I have to say. The press is just stirring up trouble to sell their rags."
Heyes couldn't believe it; Wells still stubbornly clung to the idea that he was dead despite their posse chasing the gang almost into the Hole. He sat back and picked up his cards, considering what he had read. He was relieved that no one attributed this latest fiasco to his gang, but it pricked his pride that no one knew that he was behind this winter's string of successful thefts. That was part of the fun, having folks know it was the Devil's Hole gang and having the public seeing them getting away with it. Being dead hadn't proven to be much of an advantage; he was still getting chased by posses and shot at by lawmen. The sound of his partner's footsteps coming down the stairs broke his reverie.
"Let's go find us a cook, Heyes. I'm starting to think about food," said Curry, not pausing, but walking out the batwing doors.
"Why am I not surprised?" Heyes hurried after him.
"Whatcha you doin' in Heyes's cabin, Wheat?" asked Kyle. He'd caught his partner coming out the front door as he stepped up onto the porch and it was obvious Wheat had been up to something.
"I was, um…"
"You was lookin' for Heyes's money." The small greasy blond outlaw spat a stream of chaw off the porch and eyed his partner challengingly.
"So, what are you doin' here?" asked a defensive Wheat.
"Same as you. I reckon the others will be lookin' soon, too. Find anythin'?"
"Naw; didn't really expect to. Heyes said he pretty much got cleaned out. Still, it'd be nice to know where he hides it." Wheat had a few more places he wanted to check out, too.
"Mind if I look for myself?"
"Let me know if you find anythin'."
"You bet, Wheat, just like you was gonna let me know," said Kyle, shouldering past the bigger man.
"Be damn sure you don't move nothin' around."
The Kid savagely yanked his latigo tight around the sack of flour he'd tossed behind the cantle of his saddle. "We'll just ride into Belton, Kid. Hire us a new cook, Kid. No big deal, Kid." He untied his horse, causing the animal to shy at the rough, quick movements of his normally calm rider.
"All right! How was I supposed to know the mine was hiring and cleaned out every able-bodied man in town?" Heyes swung up into his saddle and watched his partner mount up. "What do you want me to do? Hire a lady to cook for that band of cutthroats?"
"Ain't no women left neither, they're busy doing the men's chores. If you hadn't of run Gully off with your big mouth, we wouldn't be in this fix." The Kid swung his gelding around and jogged off without waiting for Heyes, who loped after him, pulling his horse up alongside his angry partner.
"Don't you think I know that?!"
"I hope you know, too, that the boys aren't gonna be happy about it neither." Curry refused to look at his partner, keeping his eyes trained on the road ahead.
"I hope you also know that I ain't cooking no more. You got us into this mess, you can do the cooking."
"You can tell the boys, too."
"Enough!" yelled a furious Heyes.
The ride back to the Hole was silent.