The Kid's horse shied sideways as an unearthly howl rose from the ammo box tied securely to the cantle of Heyes's saddle. Nearly unseated for the second time in the last hour, Curry snapped, "Dammit, Heyes, make him stop that caterwauling!"
"How am I gonna do that?"
"Plug up those airholes you drilled. That ought to do it."
"You don't mean that," said Heyes. He kept a firm rein on his own horse; it also wasn't particularly happy about the noise. Horses couldn't see directly behind them and the nervous gelding wondered what was creeping up on him every time Luce yowled. It was making for an exciting ride into town.
"I'm not kidding. If that marshal's still hanging around, he's gonna hear us a mile away."
"He's long gone, Kid. What's making you so jumpy?"
"Oh, hell, I don't know. Maybe it's because Luce's howls sound like fingernails on a chalkboard," said Curry.
Heyes laughed out loud. "You remember that? Miss Perkins never figured out that I used to do that on purpose!"
"Yeah, you'd think she'd of quit calling on you."
Pleased to get his partner's mind focused elsewhere, Heyes replied somewhat smugly, "I guess she called on me 'cause she knew I had the answer and the other kids listened to me."
"But why'd you do that to her? She was one of our nicest teachers and you damned near drove her nuts."
"Had to, Kid. Don't you remember Eddie Wall?"
"Eddie Wall? Yeah, he used to jump up and down in his seat waving his hands every time Miss Perkins asked a question. I recall that little egg-headed weasel; made us all look bad, even you."
"Only 'cause I let him."
"That ain't how I remember it. He'd practically pee his pants trying to beat you to an answer and, he did. A lot."
"And how'd you feel about ol' Eddie?"
"I hated him for a good long time. We all did."
"What do you mean why? I just said he made us all look bad; got us a lot of extra homework, too. Miss Perkins figured if he knew the answer, there was no reason the rest of us shouldn't, too."
Exasperated by the round-about conversation, Kid pulled his horse up and glared at his partner. "See what?"
"I couldn't flub the answer or she'd know I was doing it and she would've loaded us down with more work. But I couldn't be right every time, either, or the rest of the kids would've hated me, too. So I made it excruciating for her to have me up at the chalkboard."
Stunned, the Kid could only stare for a second or two before saying, "You know, Heyes, your mind is a strange, devious place."
Heyes grinned, pleased with the compliment.
"Let's go see Mrs. Hawkins first," said Heyes as the two partners entered the town of Belton. Luce had grown tired of yowling a few hours ago and had been silent ever since.
"No. I ain't going with you, Heyes. I was picking cat hair out of my underwear for a month after that last visit. You're on your own," said Curry.
"All right, I'll meet you at the saloon in an hour or so."
"Fine, I'll get the mail, check for telegrams, and pick up the oilcloth." The Kid turned his horse to the hitching rail in front of the post office and dismounted. Heyes drew up beside him, but stayed on his gelding.
"Don't forget Kyle wants a tin of chaw and it's gotta be Pinkerton's. Also, Hank asked for some of those little peppermints. Oh, and Chuck told me this morning that he needed some more cinnamon. He used what he had for the donuts."
"Sheesh, anything else?" The Kid walked over to where Heyes sat his horse.
"Nope, that ought to do it," said Heyes.
Turning to the ammo can, Curry slapped the wooden box twice. "See you, Luce, have a good life." He looked up at his partner. "You know, I kind of envy ol' Luce. He really is gonna have a good life; warm house, good food, lots of other cats to hiss at and beat up; kind of like still being in a gang without the risks. Wish we could have it so good."
"Yeah, at least one of the gang gets a happy ending," said Heyes, softly. He rested his hand on the box for a second and then turned his horse in the direction of the Hawkins home. "See you in a bit."
As Heyes departed, the Kid trotted up the steps into the post office. "Hi, Mr. Jakes, any mail for us?" The older man was behind the counter, a large sheaf of mail clutched in his hands. He was efficiently sorting it into the boxes he faced.
"Yeah, I've got a letter for your man, Garcia." Mr. Jakes reached to the far right and pulled an envelope from a box. Turning, he handed it to Curry and immediately turned back to his boxes, saying nothing further.
Surprised by the brusque reception, the Kid wondered why the old Postmaster was acting so cool. Normally, he was a real friendly sort. Maybe he was having a bad day. Shrugging it off, Curry hurried off to his other errands. He was looking forward to a cold beer at the saloon. Now that spring had arrived, the beer in the Hole was warming along with everything else. He crossed the street and tipped his hat at the ladies passing by in the opposite direction. They ignored him and he heard them whispering as they went by. Belton was beginning to feel a little strange to him.
"Afternoon, Mrs. Hawkins," said Heyes, lifting his hat off his head and holding it against his chest. The elderly lady had looked startled to see him when she opened her door. "I wonder if I might have a moment of your time?" he asked.
"Please, do come in, Mr. Heyes, and quickly," she said, stepping back, giving him room to pass by. He was carrying the ammo crate and she stared at it as he walked in.
"Ma'am, I'm here to ask a favor of you," admitted Heyes. Seeing that she was receptive, he continued, "I'm leaving for a while and I'm looking for a home for my cat, Lucifer." He set the ammo box at his feet and waited. In his past visits, Heyes had told the widow about Luce and how he'd come by having a tomcat. The idea of a crook keeping a pet had tickled the older woman and strengthened her unlikely friendship with the outlaw leader.
"Oh, dear, you know then." She looked so sad and concerned that Heyes felt a prickling of alarm.
Mrs. Hawkins realized that Heyes, in fact, didn't know what she was talking about and she rushed to explain. "I'm sorry, you haven't heard, have you? There's a marshal in town. A solemn, stiff man, he is."
Heyes's eyes widened at her news. "He's here now?"
"I don't know, dear, but he was here yesterday and the day before. He's been bribing the men to join his posse and letting the townspeople know that he knows we've been harboring criminals. Oh, he's a dreadful bore, but he is a U.S. Marshal so I suppose that does carry some weight."
The dark-haired outlaw gulped, "Yes, ma'am, I'm sure it does. You said he's raising a posse?"
"Yes, Mr. Heyes. He has almost two dozen men now. That awful Bill Riley was the first to join him, but there've been others. Ashamed I am, that after all you've done for this town, we have men who would turn on you that way."
Nervous now, Heyes knew that he had to get to Curry fast. "Pardon me for interrupting, Mrs. Hawkins, but the Kid's in town and I better get to him before the marshal stumbles across him. I'm hoping you might see your way to helping me out and taking Luce in." He knelt down and pried off the lid of the box. Luce sat up and gave him his dirtiest look. Carefully, knowing that the tom was capable of inflicting a lot of damage when he was in this mood, Heyes lifted him out. He wanted Lucifer to make a good first impression.
"Oh, he's so handsome, just like his owner!" tittered Mrs. Hawkins. Reaching out, she took him from Heyes and clasped him to her chest. Instead of resenting the hand-off, Luce sniffed her curiously and rubbed his cheek against her chin. She scratched his ears and he purred as she looked at Heyes sadly. "Are you leaving for good, Mr. Heyes? That might be wise."
"No, ma'am, but me and the Kid are taking the summer off and, well, I figure it's only fair that Luce has a stable home."
"I'm delighted to hear you are planning to lay low for a while. If you disappear, that terrible lawman will, too, and then things can go back to normal. I'll be happy to care for Lucifer while you are gone," offered Mrs. Hawkins.
"No, ma'am, you misunderstand me. I'd like to give Luce to you," said Heyes, stroking the soft fur one last time and being rewarded with a loving nuzzle. His felt a stab of pain in his heart and snatched his hand back. No reason to make this any harder than it had to be.
"Mr. Heyes, there's no need for you to give him up. I'll just take him for the summer. He'll be waiting for you this fall."
"Please, ma'am, I'd like you to keep him if you would. I don't know what kind of future I'll have and it'd give me comfort to know that Luce has a good home."
Tears welled in her eyes. She nodded and held the cat more tightly. "He'll have a place here for the rest of his life, Mr. Heyes, and he'll remind me of you and your kindness to an old woman."
"Thank you, Mrs. Hawkins," Heyes kissed her cheek. "There's a blanket from home in the box. He likes to sit on my lap when I'm in the rocker by the fire," he said huskily. He'd noticed her wooden rocking chair pulled up next to the hearth on several of his previous visits to the home.
"Then I'll put his blanket on my rocker. He'll smell you on it, dear." She pulled out the blanket from the box with one hand and placed it on her chair and settled the big tomcat on it. Luce began kneading the soft wool happily. "You'd best go, Mr. Heyes. I don't want you running into that marshal but, don't forget, you're always welcomed in my home, dear. Please write if you can. You know you can come visit any time you are able, don't you?"
Heyes crossed to the door, pulled it open, and took one last look at the orange tabby cat. He was going to miss him. "Yes, ma'am, and thank you."
After he left, Mrs. Hawkins stroked Luce gently. "We'll do just fine, won't we, dear? You and I will pray that Mr. Heyes and Mr. Curry don't run into that horrible man. They're such nice boys."
His errands completed, the Kid entered the saloon. It was a Wednesday afternoon and the place was deserted. Half the tables still had the chairs resting on top of them and Sam was sweeping the floor. Ben was behind the bar, dusting the bottles. Both men turned to him as he pushed through the batwing doors.
"Kid, what are you doing here?" hissed Sam, nearly dropping his broom.
"I'm hoping to get a cold beer, why?" Curry tensed up. Something was wrong.
"Here, hurry, follow me," said Ben, gesturing with his hand urgently and walking through the door to the storage room, "Sam, keep an eye out," he called over his shoulder. He shut the door as soon as Curry entered the small, windowless room.
"Ben, what's going on?"
"It ain't safe here for you, Kid. You've got to go," said Ben, keeping his voice low, "There's folks here keeping an eye out for you."
"In the saloon?" said Curry, confused.
"No, the whole town; there's been a marshal wandering around. He's got a posse with him and he plans to go after you and Heyes. He wants the whole gang."
So that's where the law got to. "We've seen him. He's already been stumbling around the Hole."
"Do you know he's bribing and threatening the townsfolk to turn you in?" whispered Ben anxiously. He didn't feel like Curry was taking this seriously enough and he worried about his outlaw friends.
"He is? Are people going for it?" Is that why Mr. Jakes was so quiet? Was he turning them in right now? What about the storekeeper?
"Enough are. He already had a dozen men riding with him when he arrived. I don't know how many more have joined him."
The claws of fear tore up the Kid's back and he felt his hair standing up. "I've gotta find Heyes. He went to the Widow Hawkins' place."
"You wait here. I'll send Sam to fetch him," said Ben, firmly. He left the Kid standing in the darkness of the storeroom, worrying about his partner.
Less than five minutes later, Curry heard the batwings squeaking on their hinges and footsteps coming towards the storeroom door. He tucked himself behind one of the banks of shelves and loosened the safety on his gun. If it was the marshal, he wasn't going out easy.
He heard a light tap and the door eased open slowly. "Kid?" said a familiar voice.
"Over here, Heyes."
"C'mon, we're going out the back way. Sam's bringing the horses around. Ben's keeping an eye out for the marshal."
Curry emerged from the shadows and slipped past his partner. Heyes caught his eye and shook his head. They were getting too old for this shit.
Kyle sat on the floor of the dynamite shack, sorting through a box of explosives. He pulled out a stick, held it up to the light that fell in through the open door, and examined it carefully. A large pile of sticks sat to his left and a smaller pile to his right. He gently added the stick to the larger reject pile.
As he worked, a shadow filled the doorway. "Watcha doin'?" asked Wheat.
"Makin' sure I get the good stuff."
"It's all good as long as it blows," snorted Wheat.
"Ain't true. Look here," Kyle picked up a stick from the reject pile. "See this?"
Wheat came into the small shack and peered at the dynamite Kyle held in his hand. "What am I lookin' at?"
"Get outta the light and I'll show you." The big man shifted around. "Right there," said Kyle, turning the stick so that tiny pinpoints of crystals reflected in the sunbeam.
"Yeah, so? It's just sweatin' a bit, that's all."
"No, it ain't. Them crystals means it's gettin' old and dangerous."
Wheat looked into the opened box of dynamite on the floor and said, "There's something in the bottom of this here crate."
"I know. That's why I'm goin' through it. Some of this stuff's likely to blow us all sky high before we get anywhere near that train. I been real good about turnin' the boxes over from time to time, but I think we got us a bad lot here. Still, we ought to have enough to blow that safe."
Wheat backed slowly to the door, nodding. "Good work then, Kyle. You keep at it, I'm gonna go check on Lobo." He left the shack sweating a little himself.
He was just crossing the yard, when the Kid and Heyes came galloping down the trail, sliding their mounts to a stop in front of the barn, and jumping from their saddles. "I'll turn them out," said the Kid, reaching for Heyes's gelding.
"What put the bee in your bonnets? You two rode in like you've got the law on your tails," said Wheat, walking up to them.
Handing his reins to his partner, Heyes spoke to Wheat, "Just might. That marshal we saw has been hanging around Belton."
"He didn't see you, did he?"
"No. But he's paying some of the less than loyal citizens to rat us out." Heyes watched as the Kid stopped at the fence and pulled the saddles from the two geldings. He tossed them on the top rail and tugged a handful of straw from a bale by the gate to rub the damp saddle marks off their backs.
"Dammit! How'd he know about Belton?" asked Wheat.
Heyes looked at his big lieutenant. "I don't know, but he does."
"Where are we gonna get our supplies?"
"We can still pick them up there, but we'll have to be careful about it. I'll have to send Chuck. No one knows he's working for us and he's Sam's cousin. It'd make sense for him to visit."
"Geez, Heyes, no wonder you're gettin' gray hairs. I ain't so sure I want this job," muttered Wheat.
"Too late, you've been asking for this for years. Now you're getting it whether you want it or not," snapped Heyes. "Is everything ready to go?"
Wheat hitched up his pants and settled his gun belt on his hips. He'd done his job and Heyes had no call to take that tone with him. "Pretty much. Kyle's checkin' the dynamite. Some of it's gone bad, but there's enough. Lobo's got the ammo packed and ready. I've got Hank and John givin' the tack a good cleanin' and checkin' for tears. Wall-eyed is shoein' Hank's horse now and he's checked the rest. They'll do. Chuck's got the food ready to go."
Heyes was too preoccupied to show much appreciation and it needled Wheat. "So we're still pullin' the job tomorrow?"
"Why wouldn't we?" Heyes sounded almost bored by the question.
"Hell, I don't know, maybe 'cause the law's sniffin' around," growled Wheat angrily.
"Let them sniff, they don't know we're hitting the train," said the Kid, returning from letting the horses out and jumping into the conversation.
"As a matter of fact, Ben might just now be spreading the word that Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry were in his saloon today and he saw them heading south towards Laramie," said Heyes, finally cracking a smile.
"Kyle, you got the dynamite sorted out?" asked Heyes as he reached across the cookhouse table for a slice of bread. The men were all eating enthusiastically. Chuck had made a tasty stew for the first time since his arrival and had left it to simmer all day while he got the food for the trip in order. It was way better than any stew they'd had lately and even Heyes had asked for seconds.
"Yeah, we've got enough for the job, but there's a whole bunch that's got crystals growin'. We're gonna have to get rid of it somehow," said the small outlaw.
The Kid glanced at his partner. Unstable dynamite was too dangerous to leave lying around.
"How much?" asked Heyes.
"Least ten sticks or so," answered Kyle.
Heyes thought for a moment and then asked, "Can you still work with it?"
"I reckon I can but it won't take any bangin' around."
"Finish up your stew and I'll meet you at the shack," said Heyes, wiping his mouth and standing up. The Kid stood up, too. "No need for you to come, Kid."
"That's all right. I'm done with dinner," said Curry. If Heyes was going to get himself blown up, he wasn't doing it alone. He followed his partner out the door and down the path towards the dynamite shack. "What are you planning, Heyes?"
They both turned at the sound of Kyle running up behind them. He was slightly out of breath when he reached them. "It's not in there. I moved it all about a hundred yards that way," he pointed to a thick stand of aspens. "Just in case."
Heyes patted the smaller man on his back, "That was right smart of you, Kyle. Now tell me, can this stuff still be wired up to a detonator?"
"Sure can, Heyes. I still got one in the shed somewhere." Kyle slipped past his bosses and disappeared into the shed.
"Grab the wire while you're at it. All of it," yelled Heyes.
The Kid didn't like the sound of that.
They spent the next hour taping together two rather large bundles of old dynamite and hiding one bundle at the head of the trail to Lookout Point. Heyes had Kyle run the wires from the blasting cap inserted in the dynamite a long ways back to the detonator which could be quickly accessed from the cookhouse. He wanted to make sure that no marshal or his posse would enter the Hole while he was gone. Chuck would be here by himself and it'd be up to him to seal off the Hole at the first sign of trouble. He and the Kid stood over Kyle and watched him wrap the wires around the anodes and secure them.
"Thanks, Kyle. Looks good," said Heyes, smiling. "Do me a favor and get Chuck. Show him what to do. Make sure he knows the signal for incoming gang members. I don't want him blowing any of us up by mistake."
"What are you gonna do with that other bundle of dynamite, Heyes?"
"Don't worry about it. Kid and me are taking a little walk. We're going to get rid of it."
"Take it good and far, you hear?" Kyle hurried off to the cookhouse. There was only about another hour of daylight and he wanted to make sure Chuck could see when he showed him the detonator.
The Kid waited until Kyle was out of hearing and then said, "Where are we going?"
"We're gonna make sure no one gets in the back way."
"I had a feeling you were gonna say that," groaned Curry, following along behind his partner.
A small, unused trail came into the Hole down a steep cliff at the back of the canyon. This trail was hard to find, nearly overgrown, and the last portion ended at a sheer rock face, but there were tiny hand and foot holes carved into the rock. The primitive ladder must have been used by the ancient Indians that lived near the Hole. No one used the trail anymore, not even the animals, as it ended at the top of the rocks. Only the Kid and Heyes knew about the handholds and they were very careful never to let their men know they were there. If the gang ever turned on them, it was their way out of the Hole.
At bottom of the rocks, Heyes stopped. He turned to the Kid and handed him the dynamite before he began to unbuckle his gun belt.
"What do you think you're doing?" asked the Kid, not liking what he saw.
"No sense in both of us getting blown up; here, hold my gun for me," said Heyes, holding out his holster.
"Wait here." Heyes took the dynamite and stuffed it into the front of his shirt. He'd need both hands to crawl his way up the rock face. The ladder was barely usable, and only by desperate men, but he wasn't leaving anything to chance. If that marshal found a way into the Hole, it'd be all over for them and the gang. He wasn't going to let that happen.
He began to climb. Hand over hand, using the small, hard-to-see holes carved into the rock. He painstakingly worked his way up the face until he reached the shelf above it. He pulled himself onto the ledge and stood up, looking down on the Kid. Curry waved to him and he waved back.
Just beyond the rocky shelf, the trail wound up a scrub-filled hillside until it reached a notch at the top of the mountain. This would be the only suitable spot for a trap. Heyes looked around, saw the perfect place about ten yards up the trail, and made his way to it. He could see the Kid far below walking along with him. Did his partner really believe he could catch him if he fell?
He stopped and pulled the dynamite from his shirt attaching a blasting cap at one end of the bundle and putting it down carefully. Kneeling, he pulled apart a jumble of rocks clustered in the center of the trail and scooped out the cool dirt underneath then settled the dynamite in the depression. He placed small, loose stones all around the explosives, one at a time. After building up a four-inch high ring of stones around the dynamite, he sat back and assessed his work in the little daylight he had left. It should work. The trap was set in the narrowest part of the trail. There was nowhere else for a person to step but onto the large rock he was about to place on the loose stones. When a foot landed on the apparently solid rock, the whole thing would slide, setting off the blasting cap, and the dynamite, obliterating the trail. Hell, probably the whole hillside. Heyes hated the idea of killing someone, but it was unlikely anyone would wander down the trail anyway. He just had to be sure he'd cover all the possibilities. If he lost the Hole, he and the Kid would be as good as dead.
He lowered the large, flat rock with infinite care, holding his breath as he set it onto the ring of stones. Lifting his hands away slowly, he backed away and exhaled. There. It was done.
It took him a while to descend in the gloaming, but he made it safely to the ground. The Kid greeted him silently with a strong bear-hold of a hug and then pushed him away roughly.
"Don't ever do that to me again!" said Curry, harshly.
Heyes laughed, pleased at the show of affection. "Well, someone's going to have to dismantle it at some point. You wanna do it?"
"No way, but I'm not watching the next time, Heyes."
"Fair enough. C'mon, I've suddenly got a powerful thirst for a drink."
Everything was ready. Wheat had done his job and the men knew what was expected of them. They'd gone over and over the plan until each and every one of them knew it by heart. The only fly in the ointment was the damn marshal. Heyes could work around that. Hopefully, the man was already on his way to Laramie. If not, he'd have a hard time figuring out where the Devil's Hole gang was headed next. Even his own men didn't know exactly what train it was they were hitting. That had been Wheat's suggestion and, considering the current situation with the law, it had been a good one. Only he, Wheat, and the Kid knew what the intended target was so why did he feel so disquieted?
Heyes was used to feeling edgy the night before a job, but this was different and he wasn't sure why. Maybe it was the fact that he'd stepped back and let Wheat handle the set up, but he'd double-checked everything this afternoon and it was all in order. Whatever it was, Heyes vowed to relax. He'd promised the Kid he'd have fun with this one and he would. No matter what came up during this job, his plan was to grin and bear it.
He heard a soft tap on the door and pulled it open.
John was on the doorstep. "Heyes, you got a minute?"
Heyes stepped back and nodded, "Sure, John, come on in. I thought you'd be sitting in on the game."
The boys were wiling away the evening with a poker game. IOU's made up the bulk of the pot. Heyes had elected to sit this one out, feeling his nerves were too raw for him to be civil company. The Kid, however, had decided to stay. He liked to hang out with the men the night before a job as a show of solidarity.
Garcia wiped his muddy feet on the scraper by the door before stepping inside. The cabin was shadowy with a single gas lamp lit on an end table. On the sofa arm closest to the table sat an open book. Heyes must've been reading. Man always had his nose in a book. "Sorry to disturb you, Boss, but I wanted to talk to you alone."
"Sure, John, have a seat." Heyes turned up the gas lamp and brought it over to the table. He put it down and pulled out a chair. "Everything all right?"
John sat. "Yes and no. I'm ready for tomorrow if that's what you're asking, but something's come up."
"What is it?"
"The letter the Kid brought me was from my Magdalena. There's been trouble at home. The federales raided our rancho and shot my oldest boy. Damn fool tried to hold them off with a rifle."
John was upset. Heyes grabbed the whiskey bottle off the sideboard. He poured a stiff drink and set it down in front of his man. "Is he dead?" Heyes asked softly, leaning against the sideboard behind him.
"No, he'll live. Maggie had the other boys take him to the hills. The federales burned down the house looking for him, but they didn't find him. They won't find him. We have friends." John slammed his fist on the table and let loose a flood of Spanish curse words. "They took everything we had. All that hard work; all the time apart; it was for nothing."
"John, what can I do to help?"
Garcia slugged back his whiskey and turned the glass upside down. "You can let me go after this job."
Heyes felt terrible. John had spent years apart from his family trying his best to give them a good life and now it was all gone. He knew exactly how Garcia was feeling. He'd lost his own home years ago, but he kept that to himself. Instead, he said, "You can go now if you need to. We can make do without you."
"No! Don't you see? I need the money to rebuild. I will rebuild. That land was my father's land, and his father before him. There's been a Garcia on that rancho for a hundred years. The federales will not take that from me! I will do the job tomorrow, but then I would like to go home." He stood up. "I will not come back."
"I understand. I'll be sorry to see you go, John. We all will," said Heyes, standing up and holding out his hand.
"Gracias," said John, shaking it firmly. He paused at the door. "Tomorrow we will all be rich and I'll never leave my Magdalena again!" The door shut firmly behind him.
Heyes stood for a long time, sick to his stomach, and thinking back to a hot, dusty day in Kansas and the smell of smoke in the air.