Two sets of boots were propped up on the porch railing of the leader's cabin and two pairs of eyes followed the preparations of the Devil's Hole Gang as outlaws scurried about the hideout gathering supplies and saddling horses.
"You know, Kid, I should've done this a long time ago," said Heyes, drawing on the cigar tucked into the corner of his mouth. He was enjoying watching Wheat's attempts to oversee the chaos. His big, mustached lieutenant was ordering the men to and fro, stopping every so often to pull the hat off his head and wipe the sweat out of his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt.
The Kid smiled around his own cheroot. "That's what I've been trying to tell you. You gotta start having some fun with it." He reached over and lifted a half-filled glass of beer from the table next to his wicker chair. Heyes lifted his own beer as well and the two partners clinked glasses.
"To the easiest job we'll have ever pulled," said a smug Heyes.
The Kid's glass stopped before it reached his lips and he frowned, "Aww, why'd you have to go and say that?"
"What? Nothing's going to go wrong and, even if it does, it's going to be Wheat's fault," Heyes grinned.
Curry's face brightened and he took a sip. "To Wheat," he said, his glass colliding with his partner's again.
As though he had heard his name, the big outlaw turned and scowled at them. Hiking up his trousers and puffing out his chest he made his way to the steps leading onto the porch. He paused at the bottom and frowned up at the two men sitting there. "You two plannin' on doin' any work today?"
Heyes grinned at his partner, who grinned back. As one, they said, "Nope."
"Then let me ask you this. Are you two still plannin' on takin' a cut off the top?" growled Wheat.
Heyes adopted a wounded expression and placed a hand over his heart. "Why, Wheat, you're doing such a great job getting the boys ready; I didn't want to up and steal your authority away from you by getting in the middle of things. You're doing real well leading the gang."
Wheat turned thoughtful but found nothing to disagree with, so he nodded, "That's right. We're doin' just fine without you two muckin' up the works; best you stay out of it until we need you." He marched away in the direction of the supply shack. He could see Kyle digging around inside the shed searching for something. As he drew nearer, he could also hear some imaginative cuss words floating out the door. "Watcha lookin' for?" he asked as he leaned in the opening.
"I can't find the oilcloth. Kid picked some up yesterday and told me he left it here, but I can't find it." Kyle was growing frantic in his search and had begun seizing boxes and throwing them about.
"Whoa, whoa, you're makin' a mess. Slow down, we'll find it," Wheat stepped inside and began helping his small partner.
Fifteen minutes later, Kyle stood up triumphantly holding a swatch of oilcloth. "Here it is." He shook open the cloth and held it up. "It's got holes in it!"
Sure enough, the swatch had been cut and there were holes in the middle of the fabric.
"What the hell?" said Wheat angrily grabbing the fabric from his partner and holding it up.
"There ain't gonna be enough to wrap up the dynamite, Wheat," observed Kyle.
"Don't you think I know that?!" snapped Wheat. Throwing the material back at Kyle, he said, "I've got a feelin' I know who's behind this." He stomped out of the supply shack towards the cookhouse. "CHUCK!" he yelled.
A small round face peered out the door. "Yes, Wheat?"
"Where's the rest of the oilcloth?"
Wheat was steaming mad and it was very apparent to the cook. Chuck began to hem and haw. "Well, um, er, I thought it was for me. You see, you all liked the tablecloth. I, um, saw the new oilcloth when I went to fetch some string. That's when I got the idea to make some napkins to match and a set of curtains for the window. I was trying to make it homey in here. The boys like that. You know they do."
Wheat stared at him open-mouthed. "Napkins?" he managed to babble out.
Chuck nodded enthusiastically, "Yes, and a pair of curtains."
"%# *&!" Wheat stomped back to the supply shed. Kyle was sitting on a box as his partner walked in. "Chuck made us napkins with it!"
"What are we gonna do, Wheat? Heyes told me to wrap the dynamite up real tight."
Wheat glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the leader's cabin and swung his head back to his partner, "What Heyes don't know, won't hurt him or us. Sew it together as best you can and don't say nothin' to nobody. Be right quick about it, too, we're leavin' in an hour."
"Sure, Wheat," said Kyle, gathering up the remnants and hurrying to the bunkhouse.
Watching him go, Wheat shook his head and grumbled, "It if weren't for me, nothin' would get done around here."
Heyes sauntered out of the cabin, his saddlebags hooked over his left shoulder and his rifle in his right hand. His blazed-face sorrel gelding was saddled and tied to the hitching rail in front of the barn and it turned its head towards him. Not for the first time, Heyes wished he still had Fannie. The gelding was a decent horse, but no animal could replace his mare. One great horse was all a man could hope for and he'd had his. She ought to be growing fat with her first foal right about now.
He could just see her, her coppery coat gleaming in good health and her face glowing with intelligence. Allie would be doting on her, too. Heyes smiled at the thought of his two ladies caring for each other. He'd done the right thing leaving Fannie at the Second Chance. She'd have a good life there and she'd throw many fine foals. He sure wished he could know this first one. The first was always special.
It had been hard to give Fannie up, Lucifer as well, but he felt good about his two unselfish acts. It had been a long time since he'd put someone's needs above his own. Maybe he really was finding some good in his life. Whistling, he crossed the yard to where his partner and his men waited for him mounted on their own horses. He shoved his rifle in its scabbard, tossed his saddlebags up, and tied them off.
The men watched him, bemused. Heyes was in an awfully good mood for just setting out on a job. Usually he'd be all over the place at once, snapping out orders, and nitpicking at their work. He hadn't done any of that this time. Seeing his carefree attitude threw them slightly off balance and made them all a little bit nervous. John snuck a peek at the Kid to see how he was taking it. Curry had one arm across the horn of his saddle and leaned down on it. He, too, was watching Heyes, only he was smiling at the happy expression on his partner's face. It was good to see the man having fun.
It also pleased Wheat. Heyes had stayed out of his way and left everything in his hands. They were organized and ready and it was all because he'd done his job well. He could lead this gang as good as Heyes. He sat up straighter and nodded to his boss, who settled into his saddle and nodded back.
"Move 'em out, Wheat," said Heyes with a broad grin. He and the Kid held their horses back as the other outlaws adopted a single-file line and started up the trail that led out of the Hole.
From the corner of his eye, the Kid saw Chuck running across the yard towards them. "What's he doing?"
The small man stopped by Heyes's left leg and held up a small sack. Reaching down, the outlaw leader lifted it up. He could smell the odor of freshly baked rolls and he smiled at his cook, "Thanks."
"I didn't want you all to ride out without something from me and I…I wanted to wish you good luck and a safe return," said Chuck, shyly.
"Why, thank you, Chuck. That's right nice of you," said the Kid. "Keep a good eye on the Hole for us and don't forget where the detonator is. Mind, if you hear an explosion at the back of the Hole get out as quick as you can. Heyes has a booby trap back that way. Don't go wandering about and keep one of the horses saddled for a getaway at all times."
Chuck swallowed, suddenly afraid to be left alone at the infamous hideout. "Yes, I will, Kid. Take care, both of you."
"You, too, Chuck. We should be back in four days," said Heyes as he urged his horse to catch up with the others. The Kid galloped behind the sturdy sorrel as the small cook waved good-bye.
It was nearly seventy miles to the spot Wheat and Heyes had selected for the ambush, but most of the way it was flatland and the gang made good time the first day. The horses were fresh and feeling good and the men let them lope easily through the scrubby high desert. There wasn't much of anything out this way. The land was too dry to be good for farming. Mostly it was open range except for a few huge ranches that depended on a large amount of acreage to provide a small amount of fodder for their herds. These spreads allowed their cattle to run free in order to maximize the grazing, but every once in a while Heyes saw a line of barbed wire fencing stretching into the distance. During their scouting of the job, Wheat and Heyes had made note of the location of these fenced ranches and they now skirted well away from them. Occasionally, one of the men spotted a few hungry-looking steers or a small herd of antelope, but for the most part it was sagebrush and rocks, gullies and hills. Still, the outlaws kept wary eyes out for any sign of the law. Out here, they could see for miles, but they could also be seen for miles.
The skies seemed somehow broader and a deeper blue in this part of the country. Small wispy clouds scuttled overhead, but the wind stayed high and it was pleasant being out in the open country. The Kid and Heyes rode along side by side, their geldings matching strides and allowing them to chat as they covered the miles.
"So have you given any thought to where we ought to go, Kid?"
"I thought I wasn't supposed to do the thinking."
Heyes snorted. "Well, I've been thinking about it. You know, if we really do take the summer off we'll have plenty of time to go south and north. We could head somewhere warm right away like you want to and then head north by train when the summer warms up; might be the best plan of all."
"Sure feels good to be looking down the barrel at all this free time, don't it?"
"I'm kinda surprised how good it feels. We haven't had a summer to ourselves since we skedaddled out of Valparaiso back in '66." Heyes tugged his black hat down a tad to shield his eyes from the sun. It was well after noon and the sun was in their faces as it began its drop to the western horizon.
"That wasn't much of a summer as I recall. We damned near starved to death."
"Yeah, if it weren't for my talent for poker and your skill with that peashooter, the west might never have heard of Heyes and Curry."
"Might be more than a few folks who would've preferred that," smiled the Kid. "We sure ate a lot of sagehen, though. Still can't stand the smell of it." They were almost a quarter of a mile behind the rest of the gang in order to avoid eating their dust. He was enjoying this. He and Heyes seldom got the chance to ride along on their own talking about whatever popped into their heads. They should do this more often.
"Well, we won't be eating sagehen this time. We'll be living it up in fine hotels, drinking good whiskey, and eating steak every night," Heyes grinned. "And women, don't forget the women."
"Why haven't we ever done this before, Heyes?" Curry's horse dodged sideways to avoid a particularly large sage bush, and he smoothly stayed with the big bay gelding.
"Don't know, but the important thing is we're doing it now. C'mon, I'll race you." Heyes pulled his hat off his head and fanned his gelding's hind end with it. The small sorrel bunched its muscles and stretched out its stride covering ground quickly.
The Kid hooted and flicked his bay with the reins. The two beasts were nose to nose as the outlaw leaders caught up with the rest of the gang, laughing happily. The other horses pranced excitedly at the commotion and the men shook their heads at their leaders' antics. Wheat didn't miss the opportunity to complain to Kyle, "Those two are actin' like a couple of snot-nosed schoolboys."
"Aww, they's just havin' fun, Wheat. No harm in that."
"Maybe not, but if I was leader, I be a damn sight more dignified."
Kyle snorted, but kept his mouth shut. Dignity was not a word he associated with his big friend.
The gang made camp that night on the north side of the Little Snake River Valley not too far from Baggs, Wyoming. The grazing along the river was lush and the population sparse so it was an ideal stop to let the horses and men rest up. They'd stopped here several times in the past on their way to or from robberies and knew the lay of the land well. Wheat posted John and Wall-eyed as sentries for the first watch and tasked Hank and Lobo with the second. He and Kyle would set up camp. He wasn't about to ask the Kid or Heyes to do anything. He'd show them he didn't need their help. There was an old fire ring they'd built on one of their previous trips through the area and Kyle quickly fished the old ashes out and stacked it with kindling and dried grasses.
Freed from responsibilities, Heyes strung an old piece of fishing line to a willow branch and laced it with a few chunks of jerky then tied on one of the hooks he carried with him. Setting it down, he strung another line for his partner and the two men ambled down to the scenic riverbank just as the sun started to drop behind the Rockies far to the west. The air was cooling quickly as the two partners settled themselves side by side on the grass and dropped their bait into the swirling water. It was the perfect time of the day to fish, and Heyes sighed with contentment.
"Don't get too used to this, Heyes. The boys ain't gonna stand for us shirking our duties every job."
"Let me enjoy it while I can, will you?"
"Hey, I've got a bite!" hissed the Kid quietly so as not to spook the fat brown trout that had snapped at his line. It was testing him and he waited patiently for it to return to the bait. He'd be ready when it did.
"Me, too!" Heyes scrambled to his feet and pulled his willow branch up, tightening the line. He could feel the insistent pull of a large fish and he laughed out loud. The trout shouldered its way around and made a run for the deeper current in the center of the river. Heyes rushed into the water ankle-deep, then thigh-deep before managing to lift the feisty creature onto the bank behind him. Curry had landed his, too, but had stayed dry in the process. Quickly, the outlaws checked their bait and dropped their lines back in the water. A half an hour later, it was almost completely dark and they had a stringer of rainbow and brown trout. The cold, wet, happy outlaws returned to camp proudly holding up their catch.
"I'll clean 'em for you if'n you set them down on the rock," said Kyle pointing to a flat, broad rock adjacent to the crackling fire.
"I got some cornmeal in my saddlebag. I'll fetch it," said Heyes, dropping the four fish and heading off towards the horses.
The Kid sat down by the fire and put his wet boots up on the lip to dry. He watched as Kyle fetched a bottle of beer from his own bags. As Murtry walked back to the fire, he deftly untwisted the wire cage over the cork and pulled it out. He pulled a tin plate from a stack sitting next to the fire and laid it on the rock. He splashed a generous portion of the beer into it.
"Heyes sure seems happy. What's up with that?" asked Kyle, trying to be nonchalant.
The Kid wasn't about to tell anyone else about their plans until the job was over, so he just answered blandly, "Why shouldn't he be?"
The little outlaw shrugged and put out another plate. By this time, Heyes wandered back into the circle of light and passed Kyle a small bag of grain. Murtry poured a hillock of cornmeal onto the empty plate. Then he picked up the first of the fish and expertly gutted it with the knife he kept shoved down the shaft of his boot.
Heyes dropped down next to the Kid, who reached out and grabbed the open bottle of beer off the flat rock passing it to his partner. After a big swig, Heyes passed it back. The Kid sipped from it and passed it onto Kyle, who finished it.
"Got any more of those?" asked the Kid, hopefully.
Kyle looked at the Kid and then at Heyes. He didn't want to reveal that he had half a dozen bottles wrapped up along with the dynamite in his bags to enjoy after the job, so he said, "Kid, you know as well as I do that Heyes don't hold with drinkin' the night before a job."
Curry narrowed his eyes, sensing the prevarication, but he stayed quiet and watched Kyle finish cleaning the fish. The small man worked efficiently, picking up each fish, dipping it in the beer, and rolling it in the cornmeal before dropping it into the sizzling bacon fat melted in the iron skillet on the fire. Heyes reached into his jacket and pulled out a small vial of salt and pepper mixed together. He lightly sprinkled the fish and then sat back savoring the aroma.
Wheat came over and sat down as did Lobo and Hank. Wall-eyed and John would have to wait to eat until Kyle could walk plates out to them where they stood on watch.
Using a folded rag, Kyle pulled the pan from the fire, flipped the fish over with his knife, and returned the pan to the heat. He laid out eight more tin plates and put one of Chuck's rolls onto each one. Wheat pulled several apples from his pocket and tossed them across the fire to Lobo, who quickly cut them up into equal portions.
After a couple of minutes, Kyle again pulled the fry pan out of the flames and laid a fish on every other plate, filleting each one, and carefully slipping half of the fish onto another plate. He passed one to each man, and then stood up and carried two of the meals out to the sentries. His own plate sat by the fire to stay warm.
"So what time do you reckon we'll get there tomorrow, Heyes?" asked Lobo between bites.
Heyes was chewing and nodded to Wheat. "Ask him, he's leading this trip."
Smiling, Wheat put down his roll and cleared his throat importantly. "Well, I reckon if we start out just after sunup we'll get there an hour or so before noon tomorrow."
"And the train comes by at one or two?" asked Hank.
"That's right," said Wheat. "We should have time to spare."
Lobo grinned wolfishly, "Wouldn't want to miss the gravy train."
Kyle returned and sat down, picking up his plate and eating his meal quickly. He smiled at Lobo's comment, adding, "By this time tomorrow, we'll all be rich…again!"
The other men laughed as they licked their plates clean with their rolls. Hank stood up and offered to take the dirty dishes down to the river to rinse them off. As he walked into the night, Heyes watched him go. How many nights had they all sat around a fire anticipating what the next day will bring; looking forward to the next big score? He'd lost men from one night to the next. A chill passed over his heart and he shivered. Would he lose one of these men tomorrow? Would it be the Kid? No longer feeling light-hearted, Heyes grew silent and sat staring at the flames watching the fire die away as his men talked quietly into the night.