The boys found Chuck sitting on the steps leading up to the boardwalk out in front of the General Store. He'd been waiting for it to open. He saw his new bosses coming and stood up quickly, smiling tentatively at them. "Good morning, I thought I'd get here early and go over my list," he said, patting his coat pocket. "I came up with kind of a long one and I was wondering what kind of budget I had to work with."
Curry said, "Budget? We don't have a budget for food. Get whatever you need, just make sure it's enough. We've got nine mouths to feed including yours."
"Ten, really, the Kid here eats for two," smiled Heyes, hooking a thumb towards his partner and stepping up onto the sidewalk as the clerk inside the store turned over the closed sign to read open. "Sounds to me like you might be an educated man; asking about budgets."
The small, rotund man nodded, "I've had some schooling and I learned early on in the hotel business that you always keep an eye on your expenses."
"Chuck, I think you and I are going to get along real well. Kid's right, though. We've been without a cook now for a little over two months and my men aren't happy about it. The last thing we want to do is run out of anything. Let's make sure we're well-stocked."
Pleased, Chuck pulled out his list and followed the two outlaws into the store.
The three men stopped at noon for lunch. The Kid's mouth had been salivating in the store as he had watched the new cook ordering sausages, hard cheeses, and other goods to tide him over until he could start making his own. Curry had been thinking about the food all morning and Heyes had noticed his partner getting quieter and quieter on the ride back to the Hole. He'd known it was a sure sign that the Kid about to get grumpy. His partner didn't travel well on an empty stomach. Heyes had pulled up and quickly built a small fire in a clearing at the center of a willow thicket. A tiny, but deep, spring-fed creek ran through the tall bushes.
They'd have lunch and then it would be time to blindfold Chuck for the rest of the ride into the Hole. Until he knew the man better, he wasn't going to be taking any chances. While the others were getting settled, Heyes took a short walk to work out the kink in his knee. It was starting to feel better and he wanted to keep it that way. When he returned, Chuck was putting a few of the sausages in a fry pan. He placed the pan over the fire to heat up and began cutting up a loaf of bread. Several pieces of hard cheese were laid out on a clean bandana and the cook added the bread to them. A pot of coffee was percolating in the flames. Heyes pulled it off the heat, using his jacket sleeve as a potholder, and left it to stay warm on one of the rocks ringing the fire. His stomach gurgled with pleasure at the sight of the food cooking, but he didn't remember buying a fry pan. His newest gang member must've brought his own.
The Kid was just coming back from picketing the horses so that they could easily graze and, sniffing the aroma of cooking meat, he smiled. "Mmm, sure smells good." Heyes poured three mugs of coffee, handing them out, and stayed standing as he sipped his. He'd be sitting again soon enough. The Kid chose to stretch out by the fire and leaned up on one elbow. A spring storm had passed through the previous day and had brought colder, drier temperatures behind it, and the warmth of the fire felt good after a chilly ride. Chuck sat back and idly poked at the logs with a green willow stick keeping the coals stirred so the heat would cook their food evenly.
"So, Chuck, what makes you desperate enough to want to ride with the Devil's Hole gang?" asked the Kid.
The man looked up with a frightened expression, "I don't want to ride with the gang! I just want to cook. Is that all right?"
Heyes frowned, remembering the mistake he'd made with Gully. If Chuck didn't want to ride with them, that was fine with him, but he didn't want any misconceptions. He thought carefully before he said, "You do know if you don't ride with us, you won't get an even cut of the take? I know we agreed to a hundred a month plus a share of the take, but I can't be giving you the same as I give someone who runs the risk of getting his head blown off. Is that going to be a problem? If it is, you might want to think twice about riding any further."
"No, sir, I'd be grateful for the hundred if I don't have to outlaw for you. I'm real sorry I wasn't clear when we talked over the job. I just don't have the skills or the nerve to be an outlaw."
Heyes patted him on the shoulder. "That's fine, but I want to be sure that both of us understand the expectations. I'll make sure the men do, too."
Chuck look at each of them shyly. "Can I ask you both a question?"
"Sure," said the Kid.
"You two seem like smart, friendly fellows. What made you take up outlawing?"
The Kid glanced at Heyes and saw the shutters come down over his partner's eyes. They never shared their real story. "Oh, you know how it is when you're young and stupid. Me and Heyes were just younger and stupider than most and we fell in with the wrong crowd."
"Did you ever think about quitting? I mean early on; not after you got so good at it."
"Sure, we thought about it. Just couldn't figure a way out. Still can't," answered Heyes tersely.
"Oh." Chuck suddenly found the coals much more interesting. He was feeling a distinctive chill from his two newfound friends and he could tell that this line of questioning wasn't welcomed. He thought hard about how to change the topic of conversation without being obvious. "So what's it like to pull a bank robbery?"
Heyes smiled, a spark of amusement lighting his eyes. The inexperienced men always asked this question. "It's a lot of work. At least for me, it is. The Devil's Hole gang doesn't just go blundering into a job with guns pulled."
"Heyes spends months planning most of our jobs. You'll see. He looks at everything." There was a definite note of pride in Curry's voice and the smile on his partner's face widen.
"Is it true that you've never shot anyone you were stealing from?" Chuck forgot the sausage as his interest grew in the conversation.
"If you burn that sausage, I might just shoot you," said the Kid, gesturing towards the meal sizzling over the flames.
"Oh, yes, sorry!" The small man began to stir the coals again vigorously and he skillfully shook the fry pan, rolling the sausages in it.
"We've been lucky so far," said Heyes.
"Luck don't have nothing to do with it," said Curry, shaking his head. "Heyes plans it that way."
"How can you? I mean, you can't stop someone from drawing on you, can you?" Chuck was completely absorbed in the conversation again. Heyes reached out and pulled the sausages from the pan folding them, with a piece of cheese, into the slices of bread. He handed one to the Kid and one to Chuck, who took it distractedly.
"Heyes figured out a long time ago that the most dangerous part of a job is when it first begins. You need to be sure you're in control from the first second. Once we have control, I don't have much trouble keeping it." The Kid took a bite of his meal and smiled, "Mmm, good."
Chuck shifted his glance to Heyes. "If you don't mind me asking; how do you do it? Get control, that is."
Heyes chewed his sausage sandwich for several moments deciding whether or not he should answer that question. He couldn't see any harm in it. After all, Chuck was going to be working for the gang; he'd see soon enough how it all worked. Swallowing, he said, "The element of surprise."
"Isn't every job a shock for the folks being robbed?" asked Chuck.
The Kid grinned, "It is, but most bank robbers bust in the door with their masks on and guns drawn."
Chuck frowned, confused, "But, that's a surprise, isn't it?"
"It is, but it's not a controlled situation. There's a chance someone might decide to play hero or a clerk could be in the back room," explained Heyes patiently. "We go in quietly, without masks, like regular customers. That way, we can cover all the eventualities before we even draw our guns and let on we're robbing the place."
"But people can see your faces that way!" blurted out Chuck, horrified that the infamous Hannibal Heyes would overlook such an obvious problem.
The Kid laughed and shook his head again, "Don't you think we know that? Heyes discovered that folks pay way more attention to you if you cover your face. They try to see past the mask and then, when they can't, they pick up on other things; like how tall you are or how heavy; how you move; or scars. Things like that; those are the things that make for a really good wanted poster."
"But, if people see your faces, they can give the law a good description of you!" Chuck was shocked that these two men, whose careers he'd admired so much, would take such an unnecessary risk.
Heyes grinned smugly, "They haven't yet, have they? It's human nature, Chuck. If we go in like ordinary folk, they don't pay any attention to us until we draw our guns and take control of the room. When that happens, we make sure things go so fast and the folks we're robbing are so afraid of what's happening to them, they're focused on our guns and not our faces. They see us, but they're distracted and confused by everything going on at once. It's worked pretty well so far." He felt a momentary twinge of guilt, hearing it out loud and thinking about how it must've sounded to the cook, but he shook it off quickly. After all, intimidation and fear is what kept everyone safe. In his mind, it was a small price to pay.
"It does work. Most times, folks get our descriptions all jumbled up. Heyes has a mustache," said the Kid. Heyes chuckled at him, knowing Curry was needling him. "And I have a nasty chaw habit. Have you ever seen our wanted posters? They could be anyone."
"Still, it seems awfully risky," said Chuck.
"What about robbing isn't risky?" shot back Heyes.
"I don't ever want to go on one of your jobs. I'd be more scared than the folks being robbed," said the small man sincerely.
"You won't have to. You can stay at the Hole and keep an eye on things; have a good meal ready when the gang returns," said Heyes. "Sam said you'd done some thieving of your own. What'd you do?"
Chuck reddened. "Oh, that. I didn't rob anyone. I just stole things; small things, like silverware or watches. The kind of stuff people think they've mislaid."
Heyes consciously felt for his cherished pocket watch. It was still there. Unsettled, he returned his attention to the small man, listening intently.
"Still, you steal. It's the same thing," said the Kid.
"No, not really; I don't plan to steal…it just happens. I can't help myself. I like shiny things and, sometimes, I just take them without thinking it through."
"Kind of like a magpie, huh?" said Heyes, chuckling. Another thought occurred to him and he jumped up, agitated, exploding loudly, "You stole that fry pan!" The small man nodded meekly. "Dammit, you can't be stealing things like that; I do business with that store!"
"That sort of thieving's going to get you killed real quick in the Hole, Chuck," warned Curry coldly, casting a glance at his partner. He didn't like what he was hearing, and it was obvious, neither did Heyes. "The boys won't take to someone stealing their valuables real well. They've killed for less."
Chuck's eyes went round. He hadn't thought of that. He swallowed hard and turned white. "I can't help it! Sometimes I don't even know I'm doing it, it just happens!"
Heyes exhaled, exasperated. He ran his hands through his hair. "Chuck, I like you, but I don't think this is the job for you. The men have been pretty unhappy without a cook and they're going to get a whole lot angrier if you start stealing from them. Kid's right, you're gonna get yourself killed."
"But, I quit my job!" protested Chuck.
"Sam will take you back, you're his cousin," pointed out the Kid.
"I can't go back! Sam knew you needed a cook. He told me to come up from Denver and he'd give me a job to tide me over until I met you. The saloon can't afford to keep me on." Chuck's voice rose to a desperate squeak.
Heyes stood up, his meal forgotten and his appetite gone. "I'm firing you. You can take the horse, consider it payment for your time, but I want you to ride out now." His eyes had hardened and his voice had a sharp edge to it; he was angry.
Chuck stood up, too, a frightened look on his face, "I don't have anywhere to ride out to. Heyes, you promised me a job!"
"And you didn't tell me you stole from our friends at the store!" snapped Heyes angrily.
The small man cringed. He didn't understand. These men stole, too. Why were they so upset with him? He saw that they were, though, and began to be concerned for his own safety. Maybe he should go.
Heyes prided himself on never going back on his word and he couldn't do it now, not to this likeable man. Chuck was right, he had promised him work. Sighing, he spoke more calmly, "Ride to Denver and look up Charles Fallon. The bartender at Mattie Silk's can send word to him; he'll know how. Tell Fallon I sent you, but you've got to tell him what you told me; that you're a compulsive thief. If you don't, and I find out you didn't, it'll go badly for you. Understood? Charles can put you to work. I can't guarantee that it'll be cooking, but he'll find a place for you somewhere."
Chuck nodded and gulped, "Thank you, Heyes. Thank you." He looked from one outlaw to another and hurried off to pack up his things.
Curry said wistfully, "My stomach sure is going to miss him."
The Kid and Heyes rode into the Hole just before dark. They stopped and the Kid fired off two shots signaling the lookout that there were two riders were coming in. A few hundred yards down the trail, Wall-eyed appeared from the vegetation.
"Heyes, Kid, welcome back," he said simply, his rifle resting in his arms.
"Thanks. Are the rest of the boys back?" asked Heyes.
"Yeah, they all trickled in last week. Hank's on the point keeping lookout with me. Rest of 'em is in the bunkhouse fixing dinner." The milky-eyed man grinned at the Kid's naked hunger and added, "It's venison stew."
Groaning, the Kid said, "Great, stew."
He and his partner continued down the trail leading into their hideout. Heyes had grown quieter and quieter as they had neared the Hole and now he was completely silent. The two outlaws pulled up outside of the leader's cabin and dismounted, pulling their saddlebags off their horses and tossing them over their shoulders. Kyle came out of the bunkhouse and hurried over to them.
"Howdy! We was wonderin' when you two was gonna git here. Wheat was sendin' John and Lobo out tomorrow mornin' to track you down." Kyle spit out a gob of chaw. "I'll settle your horses. Go on in and get the fire goin'. I got the cabin all ready for you."
"Thanks, Kyle, appreciate that. You mind unpacking the rest of these supplies, too?" asked the Kid. He pulled a couple of sacks from his horse. "We're tired. We'll see you boys in the morning."
Heyes plodded up the steps and pushed open the door, walking into the cabin and closing it behind him with a slam.
"Sure, Kid." Kyle knew better than to comment on Heyes's foul mood. He led the horses away to the comforts of the barn.
The Kid followed his partner inside and saw him kneeling before the fireplace. Logs had been laid in the grate and kindling piled under it with paper tucked throughout. Good Ol' Kyle. Heyes held a match to the neatly prepared wood and it leapt into flames. He rocked back on his heels and looked up tiredly at the Kid. "Wonder what Wheat was going to tell them to do when they found us?"
"C'mon, Heyes; he was worried. You know Wheat, he talks trash, but deep down he's as loyal as they come."
"Maybe so, but I bet he was hoping this might be his big chance."
"Could be, but he'll get that chance soon enough if we take some time off. I reckon a few months of having to ride herd on this gang of yahoots might just knock that idea right outta his head.
I grabbed the bread, some cheese, and the sausages. Let's have those again. They were awful good like that."
The thought of food only further reminded Heyes that he was back in the Hole again with no cook and a passel of hungry outlaws. Well, he could at least take care of the outlaw looking down at him hopefully. He sighed, pushing himself to his feet, "I'll start the stove and make some coffee, too." He was still limping as he went into the kitchen and the set of his shoulders was a dead giveaway to Curry that his partner was pretty dispirited to be 'home'.
Heyes lit the fire in the cookstove and pumped some water into the pot. Pulling the coffee tin from the cupboard, he tossed several scoops of grinds into the pot and grabbed a dried eggshell from the bowl full of them that he kept by the sink. He blew on it just in case it was dusty and threw it in. He put the coffee on and pulled out a fry pan from the cabinet next to the stove. Staring at the pan, a slow smile crept onto his face. How absurd was it that Chuck turned out to be a thief?
Curry had been putting away his gear. Walking back into the living area, he saw his partner staring at the fry pan and chuckled. "Good thing it was just us talking with Chuck. The boys never would've let us live this one down. Who would've thought that mild little guy was a compulsive thief?"
Heyes turned and his smile widened slightly. "Maybe that's our excuse, Kid. We just can't help ourselves." He put the fry pan on the burner and dropped several sausages into it.
The Kid sat down at the table. "Naw, we ain't compulsive, partner, we just get a kick out of doing it."
Heyes laughed, his sour mood replaced by happy thoughts of thievery. "Too true, and I'm going to make damn sure we get a big kick out of this next job!"