"Why'd you volunteer, Lobo?" questioned Wheat.
Lobo shrugged and dropped his trouser leg over the twin sticks of dynamite taped to his right leg. "Heyes's paying us double."
"Dynamite's safe enough, Wheat, if you don't let it get too hot or too cold. We ain't letting it get cold. That's why we've got it taped to our legs," said Kyle.
"You say that now. I'll check back with you two after you blow your damn legs off." Wheat saw Heyes by the horses. He had a big bucket of axle grease next to him and he lifted Hank's horse's leg and applied a large dollop of lubricant to the animal's foot, thoroughly covering the hoof. Wall-eyed had re-shod all the horses again last week and they all wore his specially designed snow shoes. It had snowed hard for the last three days; one of those fierce springtime storms that left a heavy, wet snow on the mountains and rain in the valleys. Exactly the weather Heyes had been hoping for.
Wheat tried to walk towards his leader, but the snowshoes he had strapped to his feet felt awkward and he had to go slowly in the deep snow. It had been years since he'd worn them and they took some getting used to. He wasn't the only one. Heyes had all the men practicing so they'd be comfortable by the time the job started. He smiled slightly as he saw Heyes unsteadily walking over to the Kid.
"How much time's left?" asked Curry.
Heyes fished in his pocket and pulled out his old, dented pocket watch. "If they're running on time, we've got a little less than two hours to get ready."
"You sure conditions are right?"
"Yes. Are the flags still in place?" He and the Kid had scouted the location last week marking out the critical positions for the boys. They'd used different color strips of cloth tied to tree branches or stakes so there would be no confusion about who was supposed to go where: Kyle was green and Lobo was white; brown for Hank, purple for Wall-eyed, red for John and…Heyes couldn't resist…yellow for Wheat.
"They are. I've gotta hand it to you, partner, you've taken stealing to a whole new height this winter," chuckled the Kid.
"Thanks. It's worked out pretty well, but next winter; no matter what I say; make me go somewhere warm."
"Don't worry, I will."
A dimpled grin flashed across Heyes's face at the faint sound of the freight train clacking along the tracks. There were four switchbacks snaking up the steep hillside before reaching the summit. The train would be going slowly up the grade and ought to have no trouble stopping for them. That was critical. Heyes knew that it could take a fast-moving train nearly a mile to stop and he didn't want anyone getting hurt.
All of his men were within sight, and Heyes waved his arm over his head to signal the train's approach, watching as the boys melted into the forest and readied for the train's arrival. Glancing up the ridge, he saw Kyle and Lobo slipping out of sight behind the twin cornices curling away from the sharp edges of the mountain top. A nervous excitement roiled in his stomach as he backed away from the edge of the forest. The large tracks his snowshoes had left would not be visible from the train. He loved the start of a job; the thrill of anticipation, facing the risks. Would all his planning pay off or not? He glanced across the tracks towards the Kid, who was smiling broadly. Heyes grinned back. It was almost here.
The soot floating up the hill from the engine's smokestack struck the Kid's eyes causing them to water. He blinked several times and wiped his sleeve across his face. He could feel the vibrations of the huge engine shaking the ground beneath the snow. He took a deep, relaxing breath and drew his gun. Curry was calm and focused on the job ahead; any second now.
Kyle kept his eyes on the train and his hand gripping the small white flag Heyes had given him. He'd wave it when the train was in position to let Lobo know the time to act had come. He was happy and excited to try something new using his beloved dynamite. That was the best part of working for Hannibal Heyes; he always came up with good plans. If this worked, the Devil's Hole gang was going to be famous all over again.
Lobo took another bite of jerky and shoved the remainder in his pocket. He was ready. The train was parallel to his position on the top of the crest and going into the last curve before the top. It would only be another couple of minutes or so.
Wheat hunched down under the snow laden branches and watched the tracks. He could see the light of the engine, but the thick smoke veiled the train from his sight. The smell of burning coal was heavy in the air and he inhaled it; it was almost as fragrant to him as that French perfume Lily had been wearing the last time he saw her. He'd buy her some more after this job. Wheat was looking forward to having his pockets filled again.
Wall-eyed was eagerly watching the train straining up the last, steep section of track before the summit. It had been a tough couple of weeks. Heyes had put a limit on the poker games, keeping the betting low and he'd held the boys to it. The boss had said that he didn't want any fights over money being won or loss. Wall-eyed wasn't sure he agreed. Gambling wasn't the problem, the food was. The boys were fairly bored and there'd been lots of grumbling, but there was a lot of grumbling about everything these days especially from Wheat.
John sat back against the trunk of the spruce tree he was hiding under. His eyes were half-closed, but he could see the train through his thick dark lashes. He would relax for a few more minutes.
Hank listened for the rumble of the train. He thought he could hear it, but he was pretty far away from the action. Not that he minded; someone had to watch the horses and have them ready to go. After the stagecoach fiasco, he was glad to have an easy job. He waited.
"C'mon, baby. That's it. C'mon," mumbled Kyle. He spit out a gob of chaw before rolling up his pant leg and loosening the tape around the sticks of dynamite. He rose to a crouch and waved the white flag, quickly dropping it into the snow. Tearing the first stick from his leg, he grimaced as the hair came off with the tape. Striking a match, he lit the long fuse. It sparkled brightly and began to burn; he wouldn't need the spare. Kyle stood up and lobbed the explosive onto the top of the thick cornice of snow in front of him. He dropped to the ground and rolled away from the dynamite down the back of the hill coming to rest in a deep patch of snow. From there, he could see Lobo laying on his stomach a stick of dynamite in one hand. Kyle cupped his ears and waited. He giggled with delight.
Lobo saw the explosion before he heard it. A cloud of snow rose into the air and a crack appeared in the cornice Kyle had blasted. A heavy load of snow broke away in one solid chunk and slid down the steep hillside, slowly at first, but rapidly gaining speed like a wave cresting on the ocean. As the avalanche barreled down the hill it grew in width and scope, dropping tall trees as though they were twigs, the cracks of breaking limbs sounding like gunshots, until a wall of snow and debris slid firmly in place burying the tracks under thirty feet of snow. He heard the train braking. Lobo lit his dynamite and held it, waiting for the fuse to catch. It sparked and sputtered, dying out. Laying it gently down in the snow, he pulled the second stick from his leg. This one lit easily and he threw it onto the backside of the cornice in front of him and slid away from the blast area. The explosion happened before he reached the bottom of the hill and clods of snow struck him as he rolled the last few feet. He laughed and stood up knocking the snow off his jacket before reaching for the snowshoes sticking up by their tails from the snow bank behind him. He could hear a dull roar from the other side of the hill and he listened intently until there was silence. Pulling on his shoes, he heard the first gunshot and laughed again. It had worked!
Wheat couldn't believe his eyes. A huge mound of snow had landed exactly at the spot Heyes had indicated it would. How the hell had he done that? The train's brakes screeched through the cold mountain air and, a minute or two later, he saw the second slide landing less than a mile behind the train effectively sealing off any escape for the hapless engineer. He had to give it to Heyes, he might have thought this one up, but he knew he never could've pulled it off. Emerging from his hiding place, he hurried as fast as he could on his snowshoes keeping to the oblique angle of approach that Heyes had selected. He would be hidden by the massive blind spot in the engine compartment.
The engineer and the fireman jumped down from the engine and walked towards the mountain of snow on the tracks. "Dammit all to hell, Danny, I knew that cornice was coming down soon. If the boss had only listened to me…" said the engineer, Mike. The two men had missed the first blast over the noise of the engine, but Lobo's explosion reached their ears and they turned as one, watching in shock as the second avalanche gathered strength and roared down the hillside.
"What the hell was that?" yelled Danny, staring agog at the huge drift of snow. A gunshot caused him to jump and he turned back only to find the muzzle of a six-gun aimed at his heart. It was held by a dark-haired man.
"Stand and Deee-liver!" said Heyes with a huge, dimpled grin and shining eyes.
Standing slightly behind and to the right of Heyes, the Kid held his Colt .45. "Why'd you say that?"
"I don't know." Heyes shrugged. "I thought it sounded kind of good."
"Can't you just say hands up, reach for the sky; drop your drawers or something? They're standing already and it don't look to me like they have anything on them to deliver," said Curry with a disapproving frown.
Mike looked from one outlaw to the other, but Danny kept his eyes on the two steady guns pointed at them.
"It's an expression. The old highwaymen in England have been saying it for years," answered Heyes, no longer smiling, and sounding somewhat defensive.
"Well, we ain't in England and you ain't old yet, neither." The Kid frisked the two men efficiently and stepped back. "They're okay."
Further down the train, the head brakeman and the rear brakeman stood with their hands in the air. Wall-eyed stood with his gun drawn in front of the brakemen and Wheat was pushing open boxcar doors, peering inside each car before moving onto the next. He yelled clear as he searched each one. John jumped into the caboose looking for other railroad employees.
Mike turned slightly at the noise and saw the other outlaws at work. He knew it wouldn't take them long to find the safe. He looked back to the men in front of him. "Sirs, I don't know who you are, but you've made a grave mistake. This is a special freight train on lease to Wells Fargo. If you rob it, you'll have to deal with Wells' and the railroad's security teams. They'll hunt you down and likely kill you for the trouble you've caused." Mike watched the grin on the dark-haired man grow impossibly wider.
"They've been hunting us for years, I reckon we'll take our chances," said the Kid.
"Let me help you save your breath, mister. I'm Hannibal Heyes." He ignored Curry's glare.
"Heyes? Ain't you supposed to be dead?" asked Mike.
"You don't read much, do you?" Heyes was exasperated. How long was it going to take for word to get around?
"Are you…? Danny asked the Kid.
The Kid rolled his eyes at his partner. It had finally come to this; Heyes had them announcing who they were. He sighed. "I'm Kid Curry."
The two men's arms shot into the air and they appeared to be afraid for the first time. The Kid smiled smugly at his partner.
"Keep it up, Kid, and your head's gonna get too big for that ugly hat," snapped Heyes.
"What's wrong with it? I like this hat." The Kid reached up and touched the floppy brown hat on his head.
Gunfire broke out at the rear of the train. The outlaws had found the safe and the two men who had been guarding it. Heyes started running towards the ruckus, but Curry held his gun on the two men, gesturing for them to lead the way more slowly.
"Easy money, Kid, that safe was a piece of cake," laughed Heyes, handing down the money sacks, one at a time. The growls of the two bound and gagged guards Wheat had found in the boxcar reached a fever pitch as Curry took the bags and passed them along to Wheat. The big outlaw was still pissed at the stray shot the one guard had gotten off at him before John had gotten the drop on the man. The bullet had missed flesh, but another of his good shirts had a bullet hole in it. At this rate, he'd be spending all his new-found cash on clothes.
Heyes lifted the last money bag from the safe and set it on the floor of the car. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a sheet of folded paper, and tucked it inside the pocket of one of the bound Wells Fargo guards. He grinned and patted the man's shoulder. The guard glared at him and pulled away.
"What's that?" asked Curry as his partner scooped up the sack of cash and came to the door.
"It's a note for our good friend at the Laramie office, Mr. Wilbur Hastings. I thought I ought to let him know that if Wells keeps denying the Devil's Hole gang's back, we're just going to have to keep trying to convince them."
"Don't you think you've written enough notes lately, Heyes?"
Heyes smiled and handed the Kid the last bag. "Can I help it if I've got a lot to say?"
"What's the matter? Have you plumb wore out that silver tongue of your?" smirked Curry. Heyes jumped down and the two men waved to Wall-eyed, who began shepherding the railroad men back to the train.
John ran up to his leaders. "Boss, Wheat and me searched the whole thing. Ain't any weapons left other than a couple of axes, some wrenches, and the poker for the firebox. Wheat found a few rifles and a couple of pistols, but not much ammo. He took those."
"Thanks, John. You and Wheat can go on. We'll be right behind you." Heyes and the Kid walked over to Wall-eyed and the trainmen.
"Thanks. Take up your position in the trees, we'll be along shortly," said the Kid. Wall-eyed nodded, holstered his gun, and left.
"So, gentlemen, we're going to leave you now. You've got plenty of firewood to stay warm." Heyes gestured to the wood piled into the gondola car behind the engine. I'm assuming you all have something to eat, but if not, here's some jerky. You can melt snow for water." He reached into his winter coat and pulled out a bag, tossing it at the feet of the engineer, who made no move to pick it up, but instead stared at Heyes with an expression of abject hatred. "Now, listen up, that snow's too deep for you to follow us and I wouldn't recommend trying it. You're liable to freeze to death. If you sit tight and stay on the train, it shouldn't be more than a day or two before they find you. We left you your shovels in case you get bored," chuckled Heyes.
"We're gonna go now, and we'll be keeping you covered. Don't move until we're gone. You hear?" The Kid kept his gun on the men with his right hand and took the spare pistol from his gun belt holding it in his left.
"He's got twelve bullets and I promise you, he don't miss. My man in the trees will be keeping an eye on you, too," said Heyes. The smiling dark-haired outlaw hefted the cash bags and plodded away on his snowshoes. The Kid let his partner get back to the tree line, then loudly yelled, "Do you have 'em covered?"
From the shelter of the trees, Heyes and Wall-eyed yelled that they did. The Kid grinned and tipped his head to the trainmen. "Gentlemen, thank you kindly."
Mike watched the outlaw disappear into the trees and he pulled off his hat, throwing it to the ground, yelling language strictly forbidden by the railroad employee handbook.