"Come on in," yelled Heyes just before he scraped the straight razor through the shaving cream on his cheek. He heard the cabin door open and then shut again. "I'm in here."
Booted footsteps echoed on the plank floor and Wheat leaned in the doorway to Heyes's bedroom; a rolled-up map in his hand. "Lucky you've still got your shavin' mug."
Heyes smiled, "Mine's porcelain, Chuck won't want it, but I put away the good silver." The big, mustached outlaw snorted. "Coffee's on; grab a mug. I'm almost done," said Heyes, stropping his blade several times on the old strip of leather anchored to his dresser. He lifted his razor and gazed into the mirror propped up in front of him.
Wheat put the map on the table and poured a mugful then wandered over to the fireplace to stay warm. The chill was beginning to leave the room, but the temperature outside was cold for this time of the year. The month of May could be a real mix of weather in these parts and the peaks had been dusted with snow the day before yesterday. Last week, they'd all been wearing light shirts. "Where's the Kid?"
Heyes came into the main room of the cabin, wiping his face on a damp towel. "He's inventorying the ammunition. We're going into Belton later on to run an errand and pick up a few things. Want to come?" He noted the pleasure on Wheat's face and felt a pang of guilt that it took so little to make Wheat feel welcomed.
Since he'd started including Wheat in on the decision-making, the barbed comments had dropped off dramatically. It bothered him that he never understood that his approval meant so much to his burly lieutenant. All these years riding alongside this man and he'd never tried to see past the needling and blustering to the uncertainty that triggered it. Instead, he'd ignored Wheat as much as possible. It wasn't as though Wheat was really competing with him. Heyes had always known he wasn't; if he had been, he'd of come after him and the Kid a long time ago. Others had. Wheat didn't so much want to be leader as he wanted people to believe he could be leader. He wanted to be valued. Heyes wondered why it was so hard for him to give the poor man what he needed.
"Naw, I think I'm gonna stay here. It's gettin' kinda hard to miss one of Chuck's meals." Wheat patted his stomach as he walked over and sat down at the table.
Heyes unrolled the map across the wooden surface and weighed the four corners down with empty mason jars he pulled from the cupboard. "So what did you come up with?" He'd asked Wheat yesterday to figure out who was going to have what job as a sort of a leadership test. Only Wheat had no idea he was being tested.
Wheat pointed to the stand of trees the Kid had selected during their scouting expedition near Columbine. "I'm thinkin' we put Wall-eyed here. He can drop the tree."
"Huh?" He looked up, wondering what Heyes was getting at.
Heyes kept a neutral expression, "I want to know why you chose Wall-eyed and not one of the others?"
"Oh. 'Cause I've seen him swing an ax. He knows what he's doin' and he'll lay it out across the tracks just right. Besides, I can't use him for hoppin' the train or providin' cover. That milky eye screws him up judgin' distances; it'd be too risky."
Heyes smiled, pleased that Wheat had put some thought into this and was basing his decisions on sound reasoning. "So who's jumping on and covering the guards?"
"That'll be Hank and John. I figure they can hunker down here," a meaty finger pointed out a swale marked on the map. "Engineer won't see them until the last second; by then, it'll be too late to do anything about it. I'll put Lobo over here, in these trees, to cover them. He's the best with a rifle. When things settle down, he can come in and take charge of the horses."
"What about you and Kyle?"
Wheat continued to slide his finger across the map. "I'll be here and Kyle will be here. That way we've got eyes on both sides of the train in case Hank and John have some trouble with the guards. We'll see to gettin' the passengers off and tuckin' 'em out of the way." Wheat was warming to his task and gaining confidence as he explained his plan.
Heyes listened patiently. He was pleased, but not altogether surprised, by Wheat's performance. He'd expected Wheat to come up with a decent plan; after all, Heyes wasn't in the habit of surrounding himself with stupid men. That could be a fatal mistake for a gang leader to make.
"The engine ought to stop right about here," Wheat's index finger slid smoothly to another point on the map, "You and the Kid can hang out here and cover the engineer and the stoker when the train stops. Be careful, though, one of those boys might have a weapon stowed in the cab." He sat back, crossed his arms, and waited for the criticisms he was sure were coming.
"Looks good, we'll do it your way." Heyes said simply. He sipped his coffee. "You can go over it all with the boys after breakfast. I'm letting you take point on this one." He wanted the gang to start looking to Wheat for directions-and away from him. The men were much more likely to accept the Kid and him taking off for the summer if they knew it wasn't going to disrupt their source of income. The best way to accomplish that was for Heyes to make Wheat look good.
Wheat's eyebrows rose up. "You ain't changin' nothin'? Not movin' anyone around?"
"How come?" challenged Wheat.
Heyes couldn't help grinning a little, "You sayin' you want me to change your plan?"
"That ain't it. It's just that you always find something you don't like. The ground's too rough, or the cover ain't enough. You never do anything I come up with unless you can change it one way or another," growled Wheat. "What're you up to, Heyes?"
Faking a pained reaction, Heyes placed his hand across his heart. "Honest, Wheat, it's a good plan. There's nothing to change."
"Yeah, but it's nothin' you couldn't have come up with on your own. Why'd you bring me in on this one? And, don't give me no bull."
Heyes nodded, he'd already made the decision to tell Wheat before the robbery and now was as good a time as any. "All right, actually, the Kid and I are planning something, but I don't want the boys to know until the job is over."
"What are you plannin'?" asked Wheat suspiciously. He didn't like surprises.
"We're gonna take a vacation."
"What?" Wheat wasn't sure he'd heard right.
"Kid and me are taking a vacation. We're taking the summer off and I'm leaving you in charge of the gang."
Wheat's jaw literally dropped and he floundered for a second before he found his voice again. "You're giving me the gang?"
Heyes nodded, "Yep, but not until after this job."
"I told you, we want a vacation."
"You're outlaws, not accountants. You don't get to take vacations," sputtered the big outlaw.
"'Cause it just ain't done!" hollered Wheat, becoming flustered. He slammed his palms onto the table to punctuate his outburst.
"Don't you want to be leader? Seems to me you're always making noises about what you'd do if you were leader." Heyes got up and poured a cup of coffee for himself.
"Sure I want to be leader, but not because you decide to take a vacation and dump your responsibilities on me."
"So you only want to be leader if you're elected leader?" said Heyes, slipping back into his chair.
"Right! Don't mean much otherwise." Wheat crossed his arms again.
"All right, let's see how this job goes and then we'll take it to the boys."
"They ain't gonna like it."
"They will if they see for themselves how good you can be."
"So that's what this is all about! This is about you usin' me to get what you want?" growled Wheat standing up and towering over the smaller, sitting man.
Heyes leaned back and smiled smugly, "Don't I always use you, and everyone else, to get what I want? What's so new about it?"
Wheat was speechless for several seconds trying to come to grips with Heyes's audacity. Finally, he shrugged, rolled up the map, and tuck it under his arm. He crossed to the door and opened it. "You're right. Ain't nothin' new about it; just as long as you know I know what you're doin'," he warned.
The heavy, planked door closed behind Wheat with a slam and Heyes let loose a wide grin.
"Pass me that ammo crate," said the Kid pointing to a small, wooden box tucked under some saddle blankets in the corner of the supply shed.
Kyle slipped past the shovels and tools hanging along the wall, and reached down. Grabbing the rope handle on one end of the box, he slid it out, toppling the neat stack of blankets. Sighing, he folded them up again. Heyes was real fussy about keeping the shack neat and tidy. He opened the lid of the box, peeked inside, and passed the crate back to Curry. "It's empty."
"Not for long," said the Kid, cryptically. "Check the ammo shelves while you're over there." He set the box at his feet and picked up the length of wood, the pencil, and the piece of paper he had put down. He was making a shopping list for the ride into town.
Kyle stretched up and moved several boxes around while he called over his shoulder, "Four boxes of .45's, one and a half of .38's; a little over two boxes of .50-70's for the Sharps; and…," he reached to the far end of the shelf, "Aw, hell, we're almost outta the .38-40's for the Winchesters."
Curry scratched several notes on his paper and looked up again. "See any oilcloth?"
"Ain't any. Chuck took what was left to make a tablecloth."
"Yeah, looks real nice, too. Funny, ain't it? But we all like it and we like Chuck, too. He's making bear signs today. I ain't had those since I was a lil' runt." Kyle bent down and dug through the old tack at his feet. "That's it. There ain't no more ammo."
"Chuck's making donuts?" The Kid heard his stomach rumble loudly. It had a mind of its own. He put down the plank and folded up the paper, tucking it into his shirt pocket along with the pencil. "You checked the dynamite?"
"Yep, took a look this mornin'. There's plenty and there's no sign of sweatin' or crystals," nodded Kyle, chewing on a plug of tobacco.
"Guess we're done then. Anything else you can think of that we might need from town?"
"Good. I'll run this box up to the cabin and see you at the cookhouse," said the Kid.
Heyes was just tucking the mason jars away when the cabin door opened. He turned to see if Wheat was coming back, but his partner came in with his arm around the ammo crate.
"Found it," Curry said, putting the box by the flickering fire. "You sure you want to do this? No reason he can't start earning his keep outside."
"Thanks, Kid. Yeah, I'm sure. I made Luce a housecat, the least I can do is make sure he has a house to go to. Besides, Wheat's no better with cats than you are." Heyes pulled off the lid and snatched the soft, knitted blanket from the back of the sofa.
"Hey, don't be giving that mangy critter that blanket!" said the Kid, unwittingly proving his partner's point.
"I don't want to send him away without giving him something that smells like home and you know he likes this blanket." He folded it up and knelt by the box, tucked it carefully inside, and made a small nest. He stood up and walked into his bedroom.
The Kid couldn't sustain his indignation. Heyes wasn't kidding around; he was worried about the cat. Curry hadn't given any thought to what taking a vacation might mean for Luce until his partner had explained his plan this morning. He'd of just thrown the damned cat outside, letting him fend for himself. To him cats were a dime a dozen, but he knew it was going to hurt Heyes to let Luce go. He said nothing more.
Heyes returned with the big, orange tabby in his arms. Stroking his soft fur, he gently placed Lucifer in the box and stood watching as the scruffy tomcat began kneading and clawing the blanket. The flames from the fire were casting a warm glow on his fur turning it golden. He contentedly curled up and looked so pleased with himself that the Kid reached down to pat him only to be brought up short by a deep-throated growl. He quickly pulled his hand back. "You better work on your personality, you little flea-bag, or that old lady's gonna throw you out on your ear!"
Heyes petted Luce several times and the cat preened with pleasure, producing a happy purr. He was going to miss having Lucifer around when he got back from the trip. They'd spent many long, sleepless nights comforting each other and Heyes knew this small beast had helped him salvage what little was left of the child he'd been. But it'd be selfish of Heyes to leave him on his own for that long; it was time for him to give Luce a loving home for his old age. He'd be sorry to lose him, but he felt good about what he was planning. It was the right thing to do. He stood up and stared down at his furry friend. At least, he'd be able to visit him this way.
"He's gonna be fine, Heyes."
"I know, but will we?"
Curry didn't know what to say to that. "C'mon, let's go get some of those donuts Chuck's cooking up."
"You go on. I'll be along in a minute."
Heyes stood, picked up a hot donut, and stuffed it into his mouth. He'd already eaten three but they were so good he couldn't resist. He'd watched in amazement, along with the rest of the gang, as Chuck had continuously piled the fragrant, sweet treats onto a big platter in the center of the newly-decorated cookhouse table. The scrap of oilcloth had been spread out across its length and two coffee cans filled with early spring wildflowers sat on either end, but all eyes were focused on the pastries. Except for the Kid's; he was looking a little green after downing about a dozen of them in rapid succession.
It was amusing to see how happy the boys were with their new cook. In the space of a few days, Chuck literally had them eating out of his hand and it was all thanks to Wheat's clever solution. He'd come up with a way to keep the small man safe and was now reaping the rewards. Powdered sugar liberally dusted the big man's mustache.
Heyes was beginning to feel downright benevolent towards Wheat. Not only that, he found that he was actually feeling kind of happy. He was happy that Chuck worked out after all; happy that he had a vacation to look forward to; and, most of all, real damn happy that Wheat was proving to be a capable enough leader. It'd been a long time since he'd felt anything but trapped.
"Kid, you done?" he asked.
Curry turned pained eyes to him and nodded, not trusting himself to open his mouth for fear that he couldn't keep his breakfast down in his stomach where it belonged.
"C'mon then, there's something I want to show you," said Heyes, "Chuck, you might want to ease up on production a mite. I don't want anyone dying from an overabundance of donuts. We've got a lot of work ahead of us and these boys are going to have to fit in their saddles." He laughed, but his men all fought for the rest of the heavenly little circles on the platter, fearing they were the last of them.
Chuck wiped a hand over his floured forehead and smiled. He'd never felt so accepted before. These men knew what he was, they were willing to keep him around despite his proclivities, and his cooking had never been so appreciated. He couldn't believe he'd been ready to do something else, this was where he belonged.
Wheat saw Heyes turning for the door and the Kid rising to follow him. It was time for him to take charge. He was leader now. A ripple of excitement tightened his stomach muscles. He stood up and cleared his throat. The men were still grappling for the donuts and ignoring him, so Wheat picked up and slammed the empty coffee pot on the table. Hands stopped mid-air and the men's eyes swung his way. Heyes and the Kid paused for a second, just inside the door, wanting to see how it all played out.
"Listen up, you all. Day after tomorrow, we're ridin' out for the next job. Now Heyes's lettin' me ramrod this one and I'm gonna make sure all you good-for-nothin' yahoots are in the right place at the right time."
"How come Heyes made you a leader?" asked Lobo, picking his teeth with his jackknife.
"Yeah, how come Heyes made you a leader?" echoed Hank.
"'Cause he knows I'll make a good one." Wheat puffed his chest out as Kyle smiled his encouragement.
Wall-eyed snorted and John quietly offered, "Maybe he knows that, but we don't."
Glaring at John, Wheat bent down and retrieved the map from where he'd put it through the rungs of his chair. "Well, you're gonna know soon enough; less'n any of you plan on sittin' this money-maker out." He pushed back the empty platter and rolled out the map. "I didn't think so. Now shut up and pay attention. Wall-eyed you're gonna be here. It'll be your job to drop the tree. Lobo, you'll be…"
Interested in what was going to be expected of them, the men gathered around Wheat, listening intently as he told them the plan. Tomorrow, they'd have to have their parts down pat and be ready to go.
Heyes smiled. Wheat would do just fine. He stepped out onto the porch in front of the small building, and lifted his face to the sun. It had already warmed up a lot this morning and he opened his jacket and took it off, hooking it by a thumb over his shoulder.
"Gonna be a nice day," said the Kid, coming up behind him.
"Yes, it is." Heyes started walking with his partner towards their cabin, but instead of turning in, he continued on.
"Where're we going?"
"I'm going to show you where I hid the cash."
"You already told me," said the Kid.
"Yeah, but I'm going to put aside some more and I want you to know exactly where it is in case you need to get to it in a hurry," explained Heyes.
The Kid grabbed his arm and pulled his cousin around to face him. "Why would I need to get to it in a hurry, Heyes?" he asked suspiciously.
"Kid, we already discussed this. I need to know you're taken care of if something happens to me."
"Ain't nothing going to happen to you; not while we're riding together," said Curry firmly, letting go of his partner's arm. He resumed the stroll, satisfied with the answer. Heyes was just being Heyes; there wasn't any more to it than that.
Glancing behind them to make sure no one could see what they were going to do; Heyes ducked into the trail to the outhouse and picked up an old, dried pine branch lying alongside the path. He held on to it as he walked.
The Kid felt his own shirt pocket. He had a substantial amount of cash left from the last job. Maybe he should leave some with Heyes's stash. If anyone would need it, it would be his partner. Curry knew all too well how abruptly his own life might end and never felt the need for hanging onto his cash like Heyes did. When the time came, if Heyes had enough money, he'd be clever enough to find a way to start over. The Kid's thoughts were interrupted by a vile smell reaching his nose.
Heyes stopped in front of the tiny building with the quarter moon carved in the door. He pulled it open and confirmed it was empty. He did this every time he came out to his hiding place just to be sure no one would hear him rooting around in the underbrush. Turning back up the trail in the direction they had just come from, he went another forty or fifty feet and cut off the path into the shrubs, his partner closely trailing him. "I take a different approach each time so I don't cut a trail to it." He stopped, knelt down, and pushed aside some leafy Potentilla branches to reveal a large flat rock. "Keep an ear out for anyone coming."
Heyes pried up one end of the rock with his fingers and the Kid leaned over his shoulder peering into the shallow depression under it. There was a canvas sack. Heyes pulled it out, opened it, and showed his partner the tightly bundled bills. Reaching into his shirt pocket, he pulled out another plump wad of money, and put it in the bag. Heyes started to pull the drawstrings to shut it.
"Wait," said the Kid. He pulled his own bundle from his shirt pocket and slid it into the bag. "The more the better, right?"
Heyes smiled and pulled the drawstring tight, closing the bag, "Right." He put it back in place and dropped the heavy, flat rock over it. Sitting back, he took a minute and examined the branches, but saw no broken twigs or bits of cloth that would reveal the secret cache. He stood up and told the Kid to stay behind him. Using the pine branch, he backed out to the main trail, sweeping the leaves on the ground all around until there were no visible traces of their tracks. Anyone who tried to trail after them would think that they'd gone on to the outhouse.
"How much do you think you've got in there?" asked the Kid, starting back to the cabin.
"I'm thinking almost five grand with what you put in."
"That's enough for us to live well for a good long time."
Heyes laughed, "Not the way we like to have fun, but it'll have to do."
"I thought you'd run through all your cash when we paid off the boys after that stage job."
"Not all of it and I had a good run of luck in Denver," said Heyes.
They stopped talking when they noticed John sitting out in front of the corral on a bucket mending his tack. He watched his two leaders walk by. They smiled and he nodded back at them.
Trotting up the steps to the leader's cabin, Kid reached to open the door and faced his lifelong partner, "You know, Heyes, I'm beginning to feel like our luck's finally changing."
Heyes grinned, "Me, too, Kid, me too!"