Chuck had spent the first night on his own camping four or five miles down the trail from where he'd parted company with Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry. He'd been so demoralized at having been summarily dismissed from his dream job that he'd set up camp early and stayed up late struggling with what he'd do next; as a result, he'd slept in the next morning and hadn't gotten back in the saddle until after lunch.
He'd tried to keep to the trail he'd ridden in on with the two outlaws but, somewhere along the way, he'd strayed off the faint path and had become lost. By the time darkness had fallen last night, he was still deep in Devil's Hole territory. At least he thought he was. He'd spent the last couple of days wandering hopelessly. Now he was just waiting for the morning's coffee to perk and he'd be on his way. He sure hoped Heyes didn't discover he was still here. He had no idea where he'd gone wrong and planned to follow his tracks back until he found another trail.
At least he had plenty of food. Heyes had generously shared his supplies with him. Pulling out one of several biscuits he'd made last evening and tucked away in his inside coat pocket wrapped in a bandana; he ate, contemplating the flames and life in general. He wasn't angry at Heyes. The man wasn't wrong and Chuck knew it. The first time he slipped and stole something at the Hole, he'd be a walking dead man. The problem he was facing is that the fine restaurant community was a small one out West and he'd already burned several bridges between here and Denver. All his jobs ended the same way; he stole, he was fired. He might be able to find a job at a smaller place, but maybe it was time he thought about doing something else.
He was so lost in his thoughts, he never heard the riders coming. When he looked up and saw a rifle pointed at him, it was a complete surprise.
"Don't move, we've got you covered," snarled the tough-looking, mustached man, wearing a U.S. Marshal's badge, and holding the threatening weapon. More than a dozen other men wearing long, light-colored dusters emerged from the dense forest. All of them had their guns trained on Chuck.
Chuck squeaked and his hand shot to the sky still clutching his biscuit. "Don't shoot, please don't shoot me," he cried with his eyes squeezed shut. Bravery had never been his strong suit.
The lawman prodded him with the rifle, "Stand up! Forster, search him."
One of the marshal's men holstered his gun and came over, hauling Chuck to his feet. He performed a thorough and expert pat down, finding nothing. "He's clean. Don't even have a pea shooter on 'im." The other men laughed in derision.
"Who are you?" demanded the tall marshal. He was a handsome man in an austere, forbidding way and he exuded an air of command.
"Chuck, er, no, um, Joe, Joe Langdon," sputtered Chuck.
"Which is it, Joe or Chuck?" growled the stern lawman.
"Chuck's my nickname, sir, Joe's my real one."
"Clete, we got any paper on a Joe Langdon?" yelled the marshal to one of his men.
"Paper?" asked Chuck, confused.
The marshal looked him up and down before lowering his rifle. "You aren't one of the Devil's Hole boys, are you?"
"No sir! I'm a cook," said Chuck proudly.
"What the hell are you doing in Devil's Hole country?"
"I, er, I was riding through and I got lost," prevaricated Chuck.
Unfortunately, he was a much better cook than a liar and the tall lawman seized him roughly by a handful of coat. "You're lying to me, boy, and I don't take kindly to being lied to. Am I going to have to persuade you to tell me the truth?"
Chuck gulped, "No sir." The man held his eyes for several seconds; then shook him like a rag doll and released his hold.
"Let's start over. What are you doing here?" The other men gathered around putting silent pressure on Chuck to start talking. He did.
"I…I really am a cook. Heyes hired me to cook for his gang, but then he found out that I was a thief and he fired me before we got there. He gave me the horse and told me to get lost. I did. Get lost, that is." The frightened little man smiled tentatively.
"Heyes fired you for being a thief? Didn't that strike you as kind of ironic, Chuck?"
"Well, yes sir, at first it did, but you see, I can't help myself. I don't mean to steal, not like Heyes does, I don't even always know I'm doing it. He said I'd get myself killed in the Hole so he cut me loose."
"I suppose that's true, you likely would've gotten killed. But you do realize, don't you, that the same thing could happen to you right here, right now?" said the tall man, menacingly.
Chuck gulped again, "Y…y…yes sir."
"Good. You're going to lead us back up the trail."
"But, I'm lost! How can I lead you anywhere?"
"Get yourself unlost or get yourself dead; it's your choice, Chuck." The marshal wasn't buying it. The little man had already proven he was a liar.
The smoke from the train drifted up the hillside to where the three riders sat their horses, causing their eyes to water. The dark-haired rider consulted a pocket watch he held in his right hand as the other two men each coughed gently trying to clear their lungs.
"Two twenty-three," said Heyes. "Yesterday, it was one-fifty." He snapped his watch shut and shook his head. "What's this country coming to when you can't depend on the railroads?"
"We'd best be ready by one o'clock. Ain't no way the train could get here 'fore one less'n it sprouted wings," said Wheat.
"There's plenty of cover in that stand of trees. We can put a couple of men down there to stop the train. I reckon that spruce could be dropped across the tracks." The Kid pointed out the tree he was referring to and swung his arm in the opposite direction from which the train had just come, "The rest of us can stay out of sight over there. Once the train goes by, we can ride up behind it as slows, get a couple of the boys to hop on, and get the drop on the guards before it stops."
"I like it. Simple and easy," grinned Heyes.
"You'd better hope so. We ain't that far from Columbine. We don't have a lot of time to get it done before someone gets wise and sends out a posse," said Wheat.
"We won't need much time; we're gonna blow this one," said Curry.
"How come?" asked the big, mustached outlaw. He was surprised. Opening the safe was usually Heyes's favorite part of a job.
"Because we don't know what kind of safe they're hauling, I don't know how long it'll take to open it," explained Heyes, "I can't run the risk of running out of time."
"Afraid you're losin' your touch, huh?" grinned Wheat.
"Wheat," warned the Kid. He cast a quick glance at his partner, but Heyes was smiling, letting the teasing roll off his back. He really did seem more relaxed, and when Heyes was relaxed, he could be, too. "Let's go take a look at that stream crossing you two were yammering on about the other night."
The three riders rode head to tail along a narrow game trail using Heyes's compass and his treasured map of the Union Pacific Railroad routes to navigate. Eventually, the trail dropped down off the hill and led them to the stream crossing. The water was low and several large rocks were exposed. Heyes rode his gelding to the edge of the water and, with little urging, the small sorrel stepped into the stream and easily crossed to the other side. Wheat and the Kid watched him turn and come back, pulling up next to them. "See, it's easy."
"Heyes is right, Wheat. It's easy and it's not worth the extra time to go around it; not with the town so close. We'll stick to his plan," said Curry.
Wheat frowned and started to protest, but the Kid held up a hand. "I told you both, what I say goes. I say we go this way."
"Let's go time the ride from Columbine. I want to know just how long it's going to take that posse to get here," said Heyes, being careful not to gloat.
"Turn here. No, wait, that's not right, let's go a little further," said Chuck. He appeared to be doing his best to pick up the trail, but it was becoming all too clear to his companions that the little man had not been lying to them when he'd said he was lost.
The tall marshal growled with frustration. He didn't have time to waste wandering through this hellhole with an idiot for a guide. Heyes could slip past him if he did. He probably already had.
The marshal had assembled his team of ruthless, well-armed men with one goal in mind-to run Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry to ground. The Devil's Hole Gang had finally driven their enemies over the edge by pulling several lucrative robberies over the normally peaceful winter months. The banks, the railroads, and even the Stock Growers Association had ponied up a generous amount of money to outfit this little soiree and he'd be damned if he'd be the one to waste the opportunity.
He'd spent the last month putting together his plan. The feelers he'd put out and the bribes he'd paid had panned out with the information that Heyes and Curry had just returned to the Hole after a long absence. He'd quickly gathered his men and had ridden towards the Devil's Hole with a plan to set an ambush and trap the gang when they left the Hole for their next job.
What he hadn't counted on was the confused, misleading tangle of forest that made up Devil's Hole country. He and his own men had been lost several times before they'd stumbled across this hapless little man. He had assumed Chuck was lying about being lost and he had made a rash, foolish decision to force this man to lead them into that den of thieves. How could he have been so stupid? They'd wandered around in confusion for the last day and a half hoping they'd get lucky.
He was done blindly thrashing his way through this god-forsaken place. It was time to cut his losses. He'd go to his plan B. All of his benefactors were keeping him informed of any planned shipments of large amounts of money or gold. He'd do what he should have done in the first place. He'd give up this wild goose chase and head back to town. He now knew what he had to do; he had to follow the money.
Pulling his pistol, he cocked it, and pointed it at Chuck, who instantly turned ashen.
"Get off the horse, boy," snapped the marshal. The other men watched silently.
"You heard me."
"Sir, I know it's around the next corner. I'm sure of it," babbled Chuck. He was terrified that the man was about to kill him.
"Get off the damn horse!" yelled the lawman.
Chuck slipped to the ground and hung onto his saddle. His knees were going to buckle if he let go. He began to tremble.
"Step away from your animal and get down on your knees," ordered the marshal, waving his pistol.
Chuck started to cry as he shakily sank to the ground. "Please, give me another chance." He buried his head in his hands, moaned, and prepared to meet his maker.
"I am giving you a chance. I ain't killing you," said the cold, hard voice. "Forster, get his horse. We're moving out." The lawman wasn't about to take this odd, little man with them. He was too much of a liability, but he also wasn't going to leave him mounted. With a horse, the odds were too good that he'd eventually blunder his way into the Hole; on foot he wouldn't have much of a chance. Still, the marshal prided himself on not outright murdering anyone but outlaws and the cook was hardly a hardened criminal. He'd let fate deal with Chuck.
Lifting his tear-stained face, Chuck watched as the riders mounted up and led his horse away. He had only the clothes on his back and the meager store of biscuits in his jacket. It wasn't long before his initial relief gave way to an uneasy feeling that his troubles were far from over. Slowly, he got to his feet and looked around. He had no idea where he was. Making a choice, he began trudging up the hillside away from the direction the marshal had taken. He was too terrified of coming across those men again and he wasn't thinking clearly.
"I think we've got some leeway here considering how late the train's been the last few days," observed Heyes. "What do you think?" He and Wheat were sitting by the fire discussing the particulars of the job they'd spent the last two days casing. The ride home had begun early that morning and they had stopped to set up camp as the sun began to go down. They'd just finished eating a simple meal of salt pork and beans. The Kid was cleaning his gun on the other side of the clearing, trying to keep watch and keep the peace at the same time. He was pretty sure Heyes had the job all planned out in his head and he was just amusing himself drawing Wheat into his confidence. That was fine with the Kid, just as long as Wheat didn't realize it.
"I think we got us at least a half hour after the train's due to arrive in Columbine 'fore anyone thinks to send out a posse. That ought to give us," Wheat hastily added up the time on his fingers, "an hour and thirty-eight minutes."
"What do you think about using this logging road for a getaway?" asked Heyes, pointing to the map he'd notated.
"I reckon it'll do. It's kinda uphill, but that works against both us and the posse. Ought to be easy enough to lose them in the mountains and, if we have trouble shakin' 'em, we could take this cutoff."
Heyes slapped him on the back, "Good eye, Wheat." He was pleased with his lieutenant's appraisal and was starting to feel a whole lot better about leaving the gang in Wheat's hands.
The bigger man preened at the compliment and sat back against his saddle, satisfied with the plan.
"You two done planning?" asked the Kid.
"Sure are," answered Wheat smugly. He couldn't believe how good it felt to be in on the planning end of things. He was a natural-born leader.
"Good, 'cause I'm ready for some shut-eye. We'll head out at first light. I want to be back at the Hole before tomorrow night," said Curry, tucking away his gun and supplies.
"Well, we ain't altogether done planning. We've still got to figure out what we're going do with all that money," grinned Heyes.
The next day, they got on the trail just after sun-up and were nearly back to the trail leading into the Hole when the Kid held his hand up and gestured for silence. He pulled his gun from his holster prompting Heyes and Wheat to draw their own weapons.
"What is it?" whispered Heyes, pulling up alongside his partner. He hadn't heard anything, but it paid to be careful. The law often tried to hang around the Hole, hoping to pick off an outlaw or two, but had never ventured this far in before.
"Don't know; heard something funny."
Curry looked at Heyes in exasperation, "If you could shut up for a second, I might be able to figure out what it is."
"Sheesh, no need to get proddy, Kid."
A faint, plaintive sound wafted through the foliage and drifted past the three outlaws.
"What the heck is that?" asked Wheat.
"Sounds like a baby crying," said Heyes, holstering his gun and urging his horse forward. Curry hurried after him, his gun still cocked and ready.
Wheat held his horse up. If it was a trap, he'd ride to the rescue. He watched as Heyes, and then Curry, disappeared into the thick foliage. The sounds of their horses snapping small branches and rustling through the leafy forest bed soon faded away. Wheat listened, but he couldn't hear anything except the usual creaking of the trees and twittering of stray birds. Cursing softly to himself, he spurred his gelding. The placid animal plowed its way through the undergrowth with its head down, forcing Wheat to swat branches out of his own face. Several minutes later, he reached a clearing and saw his two friends, off their horses, leaning over a small man curled up on his side and lying under a tall fir tree.
"He dead?" asked Wheat as he swung off his horse, tying it off next to Heyes' and Curry's horses. As he walked over, he could hear the hiccup-y sobs coming from the inert figure.
"Chuck, c'mon; it's okay, we won't hurt you," said Heyes softly, his hand extended to help the poor man up, "Why are you still here? What happened to you?"
The man wiped his eyes. His clothes were torn and filthy; his hair dirty and matted from stumbling through the dense forest. He looked at each man fearfully and didn't take the proffered hand, but he did sit up. "I didn't tell them anything. I promise."
Heyes' hand dropped as he absorbed the words and he squatted down to eye level as the Kid and Wheat looked on. "Didn't tell who anything?" he asked gently but firmly.
"The marshal caught me. He made me help him. I didn't want to," whined Chuck.
"What marshal?" snapped Wheat, causing the rotund little man to cringe away from him.
"Easy, Wheat, Chuck here's a friend of ours," said the Kid.
Chuck looked up at him with wide eyes, "I am? You're not mad at me?"
"Nobody's mad at you. Why don't you tell me what happened?" said Heyes as reassuringly as he could. The thought of a U.S. Marshal in the Hole made his blood run cold, but he kept his poker face in place not wanting to frighten Chuck into clamming up.
"I got lost after you left. I kept going in circles so I finally gave up and made camp. That's when he found me."
Heyes ran his hands through his hair. It never occurred to him that Chuck wouldn't be able to find his way out of the Hole. He should have been a better judge of character; now he had a U.S. Marshal wandering around in his own backyard.
"The marshal?" asked Wheat.
"Yes, the marshal and his men," peeped Chuck.
"How many men?" probed the Kid, fishing a piece of jerky from his pocket and offering it to the small man. Poor Chuck looked a lot worse for the wear and Curry knew he'd calm down and think better with a little food on his stomach. "Wheat, get him some water, will you?" Wheat stomped off, annoyed at being reduced to a go-fer.
Chuck took the jerky and bit off a chunk, chewing hungrily. He hadn't eaten since yesterday morning. "At least a dozen; maybe more," he said between mouthfuls. Wheat came back and handed over his canteen. Chuck unscrewed the top and upended it, drinking eagerly.
The Kid looked sharply at Heyes, who frowned. This was getting worse by the minute. "Where'd they go, Chuck?" asked Heyes sternly.
"I don't know. They tried to make me lead them into the Hole. The marshal…he wouldn't listen to me when I told him I didn't know where it was…he threatened to kill me! I didn't lead him anywhere, Heyes! I promise. I led him back in a ways, but I made sure we stayed lost." Chuck smiled, pleased with himself, "It wasn't hard. I was pretty lost anyways and I just made sure we passed up any likely-looking trails. I thought he'd catch on, but he didn't; at least not for a while."
Heyes smiled and grabbed the little man's shoulder, squeezing it gently, "You took a big risk for us, Chuck. Thank you."
"He got real mad at me. Made me get off my horse and kneel down. He wanted me to think he was going to shoot me. It worked, too. Next thing I knew, they were gone and I was alone. I wandered around for a long time." Chuck shivered at the memory of being hopelessly lost.
Wheat took off his coat and wrapped it around the shoulders of the smaller man. The poor little guy had been scared out of his wits but he'd risked his own life for the gang by pulling one over on a U.S. Marshal. That made him a friend in Wheat's book. "You done real good, Chuck." Turning to Heyes, he said, "We gotta take him with us; we can't leave him here."
Heyes flicked his eyes up to the Kid's. They both knew Chuck was going to be a disaster in the Hole, but Wheat was right, they couldn't just leave him here.
"Wheat, you and Chuck ride back to the Hole. Let the boys know what's up. The Kid and I will see if we can figure out where that marshal went and what he's up to." The Kid helped Chuck to his feet as Heyes went to get their horses. Heyes gestured for Wheat to follow him.
Wheat walked alongside his dark-haired leader, "You be careful, Heyes. Even you and the Kid ain't gonna be able to take on a dozen men."
"We'll be real careful," Heyes stopped and faced Wheat, "Look, there are a couple of things you need to know about Chuck. He's a cook; not an outlaw. I hired him to come to the Hole; that's how the Kid and I knew him."
Wheat narrowed his eyes, "So why didn't he come?"
"Because he's also a compulsive thief. When I found that out, I had to let him go."
"We're all thieves, Heyes. Worse, we're all hungry thieves and sick of stew."
"I know that!" snapped Heyes. Sighing, he shook his head. "Chuck steals without even knowing it. You're going to have to keep a real close eye on him or he's going to wish that marshal had put him out of his misery."
Wheat smiled, "I'll keep an eye on him. How much trouble can one little fella get into?"