Heyes woke early the next morning. He hadn't slept well and his rest had been punctuated by disturbing dreams, but he really couldn't recall what they were about. He only knew that he felt anxious as he opened his eyes and he needed to get up. It was just before dawn and a small sliver of light glowed over the mountains far to the east. He eased out of his sleeping bag taking care not to wake the Kid who was sprawled next to him in his own bedroll. Standing up, he pushed his hair out of his eyes and yawned, stretching his arms wide. A shadowy form moved in the willow bushes surrounding the camp so he picked up his gun belt and pulled his gun from the holster. A big, russet doe strolled out from the vegetation followed by two tiny, speckled fawns. She stopped to stare at Heyes and, seeing him remain completely still, idly nibbled her way down to the stream. He watched until she was out of sight before re-holstering his gun and strapping on his gun belt.
Wheat was already up and bringing the horses in from the meadow where they'd turned them loose last night. Heyes walked over and took several of the horses, leading them to a highline stretched between two cottonwood trees and tying them securely to it. Silently, the two men quickly removed the animals' hobbles and slipped each horse a feedbag of oats. They would need the added energy the grain would provide. Pulling a stiff brush and wire currycomb from his saddlebags, Heyes began cleaning them up as they ate, removing caked mud and smoothing the animals' fur to prevent sores and pinching. Carlson followed behind, tossing a saddle on each horse and leaving the girth only snugged up enough to keep the tack in place. Over each saddle horn, he hooked a headstall before moving onto the next animal.
Finished with his task, Heyes stowed away the brushes and walked over to the fire ring. Now that the horses were taken care of, he turned his attention to his men. He scraped the still warm coals from last night's fire into a small hill and placed a few handfuls of dried leaves on them before stacking up a tepee of small twigs over the leaves. The coals quickly caught the leaves on fire and the flames licked their way up the kindling. Lobo had chopped a small amount of firewood before turning in so that the fire could be easily fed throughout the night. There were still a few logs left to feed the morning's flames. Heyes propped three split logs up over the kindling to draw the fire even higher. Once the bark on the logs started crackling with burning rosin, he put the coffee pot on to heat up. Hank had filled it with water last night and left it on the broad rock next to the ring. Heyes pulled open the lid to the pot and tossed in a fistful of ground coffee, stirring it with his finger, then added a few pieces of broken eggshells that he'd had Chuck collect for him over the last week. They would add smoothness to the brew and keep the grounds on the bottom of the pot. He put the pot on fire and sat back to watch it as Wheat joined him.
"Guess we ought to wake 'em up pretty soon," said Wheat, settling down next to Heyes. He'd awakened first and was feeling nervous about what the day would bring.
"Let's let them sleep a little longer, it won't take long to bust camp and it'll be too dark to go anywhere for another half hour or so," said Heyes. The sky had lightened to a dark, bruised purple and revealed heavy clouds gathered over the Rockies to the north. "Looks as if the mountains might be in for some weather."
"It'd better not come this way. We're gonna have to get across that stream at the bottom of Hells Canyon," said Wheat, keeping his voice low, but still managing to convey his irritation. "It'd better be crossable or we'll have wasted our time."
"It will be, might just take a little work. Kyle got the dynamite wrapped up tight?"
"Yeah," grunted Wheat. Kyle had done a pretty good job of stitching up the oilcloth and he'd melted hot beeswax on the seams to help seal them further. As long as the dynamite didn't get dropped in the water, it ought to stay dry enough. Even oilcloth couldn't repel a total dunking.
The two men sat in a comfortable silence as the sun rose higher in the morning sky. After the coffee had boiled for a while, Wheat reached for the pot and poured out two mugs, passing one to Heyes.
"So, how's it feel?" asked Heyes.
"How's what feel?" Wheat was staring into the flames, his coffee held in both hands.
"Being in charge."
Looking at Heyes in amazement, Wheat snorted, "I ain't in charge and you and I both know it."
"Sure you are, Wheat. You helped me plan the whole thing. You did all the prep work and got the boys ready to go."
"Yeah, but that ain't much different from what I always do 'cept you weren't breathin' down my neck while I did it. The boys still look to you, Heyes, and they're gonna keep on lookin' to you until you and the Kid up and go on that vacation of yours."
"Shh. The boys don't know about that yet," said Heyes, holding a finger up to his lips. His taking the summer off was going to depend on how successful this job was. He couldn't just up and leave unless the boys were set for a good long while. Not if he planned on ever coming back. He wasn't sure that he did.
"You know, just once I'd like to have them back me like they back all those fool plans of yours. How'd you get them to do that?"
Heyes grinned at his big friend. Wheat had a lot to learn about leading and he guessed it wouldn't hurt to give him a few pointers. "I didn't wait for someone to hand me the reins, Wheat. I took 'em. That's what you need to do. Take control and let them see you doing it. Don't wait for me to hand the gang over to you. Step in and take charge."
"Hmpf. Easy for you to say," grumbled Wheat. "When am I supposed to do that? Not while that cold-eyed partner of yours is watchin'. And why would they follow me when it's you keepin' their pockets lined with cash?"
"Well, I won't be lining them this summer, will I? Look, the Kid isn't going to get in your way. We want you to take the gang over. The men just don't need to know that."
"I guess you're right. But you'll be back in the fall, won't you?" asked Wheat. Much as he liked to boast how he could lead better than Heyes, he knew the man was a criminal genius and he'd have a hard time living up to his standards of thieving. He was already nervous enough about keeping the gang busy in the summer. Heyes had given him a few ideas for possible jobs, but he'd have to come up with a few more of his own. No matter how much money they made today, it was dangerous to let these men get bored. From Wheat's perspective, facing down the prospect of leading was a lot scarier than just talking about it.
"That's the plan," said Heyes softly. He knew damn well that he might have trouble coming back. Wheat had been pissing and moaning a long time about leading the gang and, if he had any success at all, he wouldn't give it up easily. Heyes would have to take it back by force and he didn't think he'd wanted it enough to do that. He'd already made his choice; the Kid had, too. If they didn't come back, they'd go out on their own. Start over; just the two of them. They were ready for a change and this was the first step. There was no turning back now.
He refilled his coffee mug and stood up. "C'mon, let's get this show on the road." He booted the Kid on the bottom of his feet and yelled to the company at large, "Rise and shine; time to get your lazy butts outta those fart sacks."
Groans and moans floated out of bedrolls and lumpen forms started to move. Curry rolled over onto his back, a frown in place, until a mug of fresh coffee was thrust in his face. He took it without complaint. Heyes continued talking, "We're heading out soon. Horses are tacked up. There's biscuits and jerky for breakfast this morning. Coffee's hot. Get a move on."
As the morning wore on, the sun rose higher in the sky but the clouds continued to hover and darken over the mountains. The gang was just leaving the high desert behind and beginning to cross a stretch of grasslands when the Kid pointed out the first lightning strike over the distant peaks.
"Dammit," Heyes muttered under his breath. He shook his head at his partner, silently asking him not to draw attention to the inclement weather. None of the men had noticed and he hoped to keep it that way. He didn't want anyone getting spooked. Thunderstorms in the mountains often resulted in flash floods in the low-lying areas and they had to pull this job off. Getting that fifty grand was crucial to their plans for the rest of the year. There was no way he was riding away from that kind of money. Come hell or high-water, he wanted that cash and he'd get it no matter what it took.
Heyes rode up next to Wheat at the front of the gang and began to review all the preparations. He'd had his day off but now the job was looming and he couldn't resist making sure everything was in place. This robbery had to go well. He peppered Wheat with questions and, after ten or so; the gruff man began to get irritated. He answered the most recent question tersely and added, "What the hell, Heyes, I thought I was leadin' this job."
Heyes frowned at him and growled, "You are, but I'm still leading the gang." He saw the anger reddened Wheat's face. That was good. He wanted to back Carlson into a corner so he'd be forced to step up.
Turning his gelding around, Heyes rode back to his partner and pulled up alongside the Kid leaving Wheat to fume silently.
Carlson was angry. It was just like Heyes to let him think he was running the show only to pull the rug out from under him. Damned if he wasn't right, though. He was just going to have to take the gang from him, but he had a sneaking suspicion that's what Heyes was hoping he'd do. He was just gonna have to make sure he did it right and the Kid didn't feel the need to get in the middle of it.
Curry looked over at his dark-haired partner, "You just can't leave it alone, can you?"
"What I'd do?"
"You said you were gonna sit this one out, let Wheat handle things. I reckon that means not second-guessin' everything he's done."
"Hey, there's too much riding on this job to not pay attention to the details. Besides, I'm just helping him along; Wheat's got to show initiative."
"Initiative?" said Curry. "You know, Heyes, I've spent the last six years watching your back and making sure none of the men got any bold ideas about takin' you out. Now you're practically begging Wheat to do just that."
"That's right, I am." Heyes smiled at his partner's consternation. "Think about it. How long do you think Wheat would last if I just handed him the gang and took off? Not long. The boys have to respect him. He's got to get the men behind him, let them think this is their idea. Otherwise, it isn't going to work. He needs to get his nerve up and take what he wants. I'm just pushing him in the right direction, that's all."
"Yeah, and what am I supposed to do when that happens?" growled the Kid, thinking of all the ways this could go wrong.
"Step aside and let it happen, just like I will," laughed Heyes.
They reached the lip of Hells Canyon by ten in the morning. The rift flowed out of the mountains to the north and bisected the open prairie, dropping deeply into the earth where its bottom was carved by an unnamed stream. Already Heyes could see that there was more water flowing than there had been only a few days ago when they were out scouting the job. Wheat signaled for the gang to stop and he sent Hank and Lobo in opposite directions along the shoulders of the cliff looking for the small bandana that he and Heyes had tied to a rock to flag the easiest route down. Several hundred feet to the south of where the gang stood, Lobo found the bright, red cloth. He pulled his hat off and waved it over his head, spooking up three ravens who'd settled in the shade of a ledge. They crowed raucously as they took flight and winged away. As one, the gang rode toward him, Hank hurried back from the north to catch up with his friends.
"You gotta be kidding me. We're riding down that?!" growled Wall-eyed. His single eye caused a lot of problems for his depth perception and the trail down looked far steeper to him than it actually was.
"We are," nodded Wheat, "and I'll go first just to show you how easy it is." He nudged his hesitant gelding and the big sorrel bunched his muscles but refused to step off the ledge. He dug his spurs in and the horse still balked. This animal was calm and well-behaved most of the time, not like the bay he'd had before and it surprised Wheat to have it refuse to step off the ledge. The horse had gone down it just fine a few days ago. Annoyed, he flicked his reins at it and growled in the animal's ear but all he accomplished was to cause the gelding to swing its hips sideways before nearly sitting on its haunches.
"Yah," yelled Heyes. They didn't have time for this. His small gelding leapt off the edge. The Kid's bay followed close behind as they plunged down a three-foot drop. The two horses slid their way down the crumbling lip for the first ten yards or so before finding their footing and settling into a stilted walk. One by one, the outlaws followed as Wheat sat astride his hesitant beast watching them pass by but helpless to send his horse on. Each man smiled and laughed at the mulish creature. Finally, as the horse saw the last of its herd drop out of sight, it stepped forward nervously, and shakily followed along far in the rear of the pack. Wheat was humiliated and furious.
He watched as Heyes led the gang to the edge of the roiling stream. It had already jumped it banks and was spreading into the bottom land on either side, flooding the grassy banks. Indian reeds swayed dramatically with the current. It irritated Wheat how quickly Heyes could re-exert his influence over the men and it wasn't lost on him that all faces were turned towards Heyes waiting to be told what to do next. Wheat said nothing. This was Heyes' mess and he'd warned him about the problems with relying on a stream crossing this time of year. Let's see how Mister High-and-Mighty handled this one.
"Wheat, you want to take 'em across?" shouted Heyes over the roar of the whitewater.
The Kid was watching a small branch slide swiftly by. The water was coming up quickly and he knew that they needed to hurry. By the time the job was over, it should be a sleepy stream again but right now it was an obstacle they needed to put behind them.
"Naw. You're the leader, you do it," said Wheat with a mean little smile.
Heyes untied the length of rope coiled and secured to his saddle and dropped the coiled end to the ground. He wrapped the other end around his saddle horn. "Kid, you ready?" He was already keeping his horse's head pointed at the river and couldn't see his partner over his shoulder.
Curry had dismounted and picked up the other end of the long, thick rope tying it tightly and securely around a tall willow bush. Despite the presence of a few scrawny cottonwoods towering over the bushes, the willows were deeper-rooted and would hold a rider's weight better if something went wrong. The other men looked on with varying degrees of concern.
"I don't know, Heyes, looks like it's kind of hard going to me," said Hank skeptically.
"Lobo, you and Hank head downstream by that bend and get ready for trouble," ordered Curry. He waited until the two riders were in position with their lariats out and the loops shaken open. The gang had done this many times before and everyone knew what to do. If someone got swept off a horse, the ropers could throw them a line. At Hank's wave, the Kid turned back to Heyes and yelled, "Ready."
With another well-timed growl and a squeeze of his legs, Heyes sent his gelding into the swiftly moving water. The horse lifted its legs, exaggerating each step, as it carefully walked into the muddy, opaque stream. As horse and rider reached the deepest part, the other outlaws waited anxiously to see if the beast could maintain its solid footing. It could, and it was only a matter of a few minutes before it emerged safely onto the opposite bank. The men cheered. Heyes patted his gelding and jumped off, quickly tying the other end of the line to a strong tree. He climbed back up on his mount and removed his lariat, shook out its loop, and rode to the edge of the water to watch over the others' crossings. If necessary, he'd be ready to do his best to fish them out of the water.
Wall-eyed came next, crossing easily, using his lariat looped over the rope stretched taut to hold on. Once on the other side, he rode downstream from Heyes, waiting for the next rider with his lariat out and ready. John paused at the edge of the water and, reaching into his shirt, he pulled out his medallion of St. Jude Thaddeus, the adopted patron saint of lost causes and a favorite among Mexican banditos. His Magdalena had given it to him before he'd left home and he'd never taken it off. It had seen him through many tight spots and he knew it would see him through this one. He kissed it solemnly before tucking it back in his shirt, making the sign of the cross and looping his riata over the rope. He entered the cold water, his horse staggering slightly, but he hung onto the rope and it kept its footing, reaching the other shore and shaking briskly.
Lobo came next and then Hank, both fording the stream easily. Kyle lined up and readied to go, but stopped as Heyes yelled to him to put the dynamite in his coat so that it would be out of the water. He hastily transferred the explosive from his saddlebag and tucked it inside his jacket. He took a deep breath and sweet-talked his feisty little mare into the water. She did well at first, but she was far shorter than the other horses and the water was still rising. As she reached the middle of the channel, she could no longer touch the bottom. Kyle encouraged her as best he could while hanging onto the rope, but he could feel her begin to swim and he began to fear that she would be swept out from under him. Keeping his eyes on her head lifting out of the water with every thrust of her legs, he didn't see the log careening through the whitewater and coming right at him.
The Kid did, and he screamed, "Kyle!"
As Kyle looked up and saw the log barreling down at him, he let go of his lariat, throwing the little mare off balance with the sudden shift of weight. She stumbled as the log glanced off her hind end, but Kyle hung onto the saddle horn and the current swept them both downstream in the middle of the rough water. He was too far from shore to reach with a rope.
"Dammit!" yelled Wheat, sitting on his horse at the bend. He raked the gelding with his rowel spurs and the shocked animal plunged into the water. A second later, Heyes leapt in on his gelding. It leaped and jumped through the swirling stream as Kyle and his mare drifted towards Wheat. Carlson turned his gelding broadside to the little mare and Heyes pulled up next to him. The bigger animals still had the rocky stream bed under their feet and they were braced against the current. The mare was scrambling to get her feet under her, capsizing and righting herself several times, but having difficulty finding the river bottom with the force of the current sweeping her along. As she bobbed up and down, Kyle could feel the cold water soaking his skin. He clung to the saddle and prayed. The panicked mare collided with Wheat's big gelding, which staggered into Heyes' horse, but the sturdy sorrel gelding absorbed the blow and the heavier horse remained upright sandwiched between the other two horses. Stopped for a brief moment, the poor mare had a chance to get her feet under her in the shallower water and, together, the three shaken men rode across towards the other side.
"Are you okay?" asked Carlson, "You scared the hell out of me, you know that?" He hung onto Kyle's reins keeping the little mare's head out of the water and on course. Kyle's eyes were as big as saucers and he could only manage a curt nod.
The Kid splashed noisily across at the rope and rode down to where the others waited. The gang cheered again as the three bedraggled men emerged. "Good work, Wheat," said Heyes, "that was damn close."
An angry pair of eyes swiveled towards him. "I told you that crossing was a mistake," growled Wheat.
"It's all right, Wheat. It was my fault, I got scared and let go," said Kyle, coughing up water.
Heyes leaned far out of his saddle and placed a hand on Murtry's shoulder, "You all right, Kyle?" Concerned brown eyes were totally focused on the smaller man. Heyes spoke calmly, but he stomach was knotted. He'd thought he'd been about to lose another man.
"Yeah, I'm fine."
"Good thing you put that dynamite in your coat," said the Kid, taking in Murtry's soaked clothing, "You still got it?"
Kyle felt inside his coat and glanced at Wheat for a second, but smiled at his curly-haired leader and grinned. "Yep. Good thing you got that oilcloth, Kid."
Heyes swung his horse around and raised his arm to gather up his men around him. "All right, let's move out. We're gonna have to move fast; we've got some time to make up." He sprang forward on his gelding and led the way up the other side of the canyon.
Wheat looked at Kyle one more time. That had been close, too close. "You sure you're all right?"
"Yeah, but Heyes is gonna be pissed if'n he finds out the dynamite got wet," said a very dismayed Kyle.
"Don't you worry about that; it's his own damn fault for not listenin' to me. Don't you say nothin' about it, you hear?"
Kyle nodded his agreement and followed his burly partner up the hillside.
His clothing had nearly dried by the time they arrived at the ambush site. Reaching inside his coat, Kyle felt the package of explosives. The oilskin had dried out, too. Wheat was right, there was no sense in drawing attention to the dynamite now, it would either blow or it wouldn't. The outlaws dismounted and clustered around in a circle awaiting their final instructions.
Wheat took Wall-eyed aside and pointed out the tree they wanted dropped across the tracks. He then turned to Lobo, John, and Hank. He was just beginning to explain where he wanted them positioned when he heard the sound of a train whistle not too far off in the distance. He swung around and looked at an equally stunned Heyes. The train was early, earlier than it'd been any of the days they'd scouted it. "Sonova…." Panicked, he ran to his horse.
"John, see that swale?" yelled Heyes, swiftly taking over and barking orders. "That's where you and Hank hide. Lobo, you're over there by the gnarled oak. You'll have good sight from there. You all know what to do, so mount up and get in place." Six outlaws clambered onto their horses and took off in a tightly clustered bunch galloping full speed down the grassy slope. The trees that dotted the hillside provided them some cover on the way down. The train came into view, but it was still far enough away for the plan to work.
Heyes looked at the Kid, who shook his head and said, "This ain't startin' out so good."
"It'll be fine. Quit worrying."
Curry narrowed his eyes at his partner and asked, "What's with the weird accent, Heyes?"
"Do you like it?"
The Kid smirked, "It's like your 'deputy' voice; only slower and dumber."
"Hey, I'm just trying to have fun here!"
"You plannin' on talking like that through the whole job?"
"Why? Does it bother you?" said Heyes with a sly grin. "I wouldn't want to do anything that bothers you."
"Use any accent you want, just do me a favor, and shut up," said the Kid, swinging his horse around and urging it forward.
As soon as they heard Wall-eyed chopping and saw the tall pine tree begin to sway, Heyes and the Kid galloped after their men. The tree crashed to the ground and Heyes heard the sound of the train's brakes squealing. He prayed that the engineer was too busy trying to stop the iron behemoth to notice the outlaws.
It was all over in a matter of seconds. The train was safely stopped. The men were in their assigned places, Wheat and Kyle had the drop on the engineer and the stoker. Heyes and the Kid pulled their horses up next to the engine and Heyes stood slightly in his stirrups, a broad smart-alecky smile creasing his face.
"Stand and Dee-liv-er!" Heyes held his gun high and pointed in the general direction of the cab.
"Who says so?" asked the indignant engineer.
"Kid Curry," said Heyes, gesturing carelessly at his partner with his six-gun.
"Hannibal Heyes," said the Kid grinning widely and gesturing to Heyes.
********** AFTER PORTERVILLE**********
"Hey, wake up," whispered Heyes as he leaned forward across the back of the train seat and put his hand on his partner's arm not wanting to startle him into drawing. He got no response, so he gripped harder and leaned further forward. "Kid!"
"Hmm? What?" said a sleepy Curry, scrambling to sit up and owlishly blinking his eyes.
"Grab your gear, we gotta go," said Heyes, sliding out of his seat and picking up his saddlebags and rifle scabbard.
With a groan, Kid Curry stood and moaned, "How do I let you talk me into these things?" But he, too, picked up his bags and his rifle. He followed his dark-haired partner towards the rear of the train car. The other passengers were asleep and paid no attention to their passing.
Once through the glass-paned door and standing on the grate over the coupling, Heyes turned and smiled at his closest friend. "This is it, Kid, our first step to a new life."
Curry peered around his partner and down at the ground speeding by. "Why's the first step look like it's gonna be the last one?"
Heyes snorted and threw his gear off, leaping after it, and hitting the ground rolling down a small embankment. He lay still for a moment checking for broken bones, but he felt fine. He sat up and dusted off his corduroy jacket, laughing as the Kid came up with a mouthful of dirt. His partner was obviously unhurt and Heyes picked up his gear and hurried over to help him up.
"You know, Heyes, I hope that's the last time we have to jump off a moving train," said the Kid. He retrieved his hat from the foot of a berry bush and turned around in a circle looking for his saddlebags. Heyes held them up. Curry grumpily snatched them away. "So which way do we go?"
Heyes got his bearings in the moonlit night and pointed to the north. "That way. We follow the north star."
Curry squinted at the bright star beckoning them. The moon provided meager light. "Are you sure?"
"Of course, I'm sure. I'm always sure."
The two partners began to walk up the dark hillside leading away from the tracks. Tall pines stood outlined against the night sky and the stars twinkled brightly overhead.
"I don't get why we have to walk," grumbled Curry. "Why'd we sell our horses in Porterville and hop the train if we're gonna end up riding anyways?" He hated walking and he knew Heyes did, too.
"'Cause I don't want anyone knowing where we're going; especially not the law. If we'd ridden out, there'd be a trail to follow. This way, even if someone does happen to notice that we got off that train, which isn't likely, no one's gonna know exactly where we're headed. We're already past the Hole. How long do you think it'd take the governor to yank that offer of amnesty if he found out we were on our way back to Devil's Hole?"
"I ain't convinced it's a good idea to go back at all."
"Now don't start," growled Heyes. "The only reason we agreed to the governor's terms was because we knew we had enough cash laid away to go somewhere warm and wait out the year."
"All right, we'll go to the Hole, but I ain't walking all the way there," vowed the Kid.
"Me neither. We're not that far from Walcott, maybe only eight or nine miles. I figure we'll walk that far, pick up a couple of horses, and ride south to the Hole."
Nine miles was a long way to walk in a pair of stacked-heeled cowboy boots. Curry could already feel the blisters that hadn't formed yet. "Ain't you forgetting a few things?"
"Like that marshal's probably not too happy we got away from him. He knows he damn near killed us and our horses trying to run us to ground. I'm betting he's keeping an eye out for two men looking for remounts."
"I've got a plan for that."
"Yeah, well do you have a plan for not getting our head's blowed off when we stroll back into the Hole? Seems to me the gang's not gonna be too happy to see us after we scared them off from the Porterville haul."
"I've thought of that, Kid. We'll go in the back way. Sneak in, get our stuff, and sneak out. Wheat'll never know we were there."
"Uh huh, it ain't Wheat I'm worried about. How are we gettin' in the back way? You bobby-trapped it or are you forgettin' that little detail?"
"I've got a plan for that, too." Heyes was determined not to let his partner's pessimism get to him. He felt free for the first time in a long time and he was enjoying the feeling.
"That's what worries me." The Kid shifted his heavy saddlebags to his other shoulder and plodded on.
By dawn, they'd cover six miles of rough ground. The anticipated blisters had arrived and both partners were limping. The Kid was hurting so badly he'd given up complaining a couple of hours ago. Spotting a small stream, he stopped walking and started pulling off his boots.
"What are you doing?" asked an exasperated Heyes.
"What's it look like I'm doing? I'm pulling off my boots and I'm gonna soak my feet in that stream for a while." The Kid had one boot and sock off and was wrestling with the other.
"But we're almost there."
"Yeah, well if you want to get all the way there; you'll shut up and let me soak." Curry pulled off the second boot and sock and hobbled to the edge of the stream. He sat down, plunged his feet into the icy, snow-melted water, and sighed.
Heyes watched his partner's mutiny with his hands on his hips and staring daggers at the Kid's back. "Fine!" he finally said, ripping off his own boots and joining his cousin. He sat down and slid his feet into the water. He had to admit it felt good. He closed his eyes and savored the relief.
They sat quietly for several minutes, each thinking his own thoughts, until the Kid said, "Heyes?"
"Do you really think we can get an amnesty?"
Heyes opened his eyes and looked at his partner, "Kid, are you having doubts already? Seems to me you were the one who convinced me that we had to try."
"No buts, we already made that decision before we approached Lom."
"Yeah, but we made it when we were hiding in that cave half-dead from being chased across Wyoming for days. I ain't sure we were thinking straight."
"Maybe not, but if we weren't, it's a damn good thing we weren't, or we'd never of gotten up the nerve to ask Lom to help us. Look, the hardest part is already done. The governor didn't laugh in our faces and Lom didn't arrest us. We've been offered a chance at amnesty. Granted, it wasn't exactly what I was hoping for, but we're getting a shot."
Curry muttered, "Yeah, a chance to get shot."
"That might be so, but we're getting shot at anyway. At least now, we have something to hope for." Heyes stared at his toes and wiggled them idly.
Hope. The Kid knew that hope was something that had been sorely lacking in their lives for a long time. He glanced at his partner and realized that Heyes had truly committed to this plan despite the harsh conditions the governor had insisted on. They'd been talking a long time about getting out of the business and now they had a way out. They had to take it.
He splashed his feet in the water and smiled. "You're right, partner, we've got a shot and we'd better get a start on making it happen." There was no point in voicing his misgivings anymore, if Heyes was set on going for amnesty, so was he.
The two partners crept into Walcott by way of a back alley that ran through the residential side of town. The livery was near the center of town and, as they passed by, Heyes and the Kid looked over the horses in the corral. The large sign by the barn door read, "Clancy's Livery. C. French, Proprietor." They both kept walking until they paused halfway down the alley.
"See anything you like?" whispered Heyes.
"That bay with the hind sock and star was kinda nice, the buckskin, too." said the Kid.
Heyes nodded his agreement. "C'mon, let's go," he said, starting to walk again.
When they intersected the main street, they stood in the shadows and surveyed the small one-block-long town. Peering from the shadows of where they hid, they could see a saloon, a small general store, the First National Bank of Walcott, a telegraph office, and down at the farthest end of the street, the post office. No sheriff's office. They grinned at each other.
"The whole town looks like it has a population of about ten. How're we buying horses with no one noticing?"
"We're not," said Heyes, "We're gonna get someone else to buy them for us." He walked back down the alley to the pile of empty crates behind the general store and lifted the lid off a crate marked, "Fragile". He put his rifle and saddlebags inside and gestured to his partner to come and do the same. "Let's go buy some lucky fella a hangover," he said, grinning and walking towards Main Street again. The Kid rolled his eyes but hid his gear and followed.
There were only a few customers in the saloon this early in the day and most of them looked as if they'd been drinking all night. One, a middle-aged man, sat in the back corner with a half-filled bottle of rye resting on the table in front of him. He appeared to be dozing, but every once in a while he'd reach out and grab the neck of the bottle, lifting it to his lips and taking a long, thirsty swallow. Other than that, he didn't move. He kept his head tucked into his chest and his entire demeanor screamed, 'leave me alone'.
Heyes spotted his mark. Probably no more than nineteen, the boy was sitting near the front window, idly flipping cards into his upturned ten-gallon hat set on the floor in front of him. He missed six times for every card he managed to pitch in and the hat was only five feet away. A battered saddle was heaped at his feet. He had several empty beer glasses sitting on the table next to him, but he appeared to be both out of beer money and reasonably aware of his surroundings. Dressed for the trail, it was obvious that he'd cowboyed. Best of all, it was plain he was alone and bored. Heyes decided he'd be perfect for his plan. Pushing back his hat; he strode over to the boy, sat down, and glanced around the saloon. He could hear someone banging around in the back room and assumed it was the bartender.
The Kid followed Heyes, but he didn't sit. Instead, he crossed his arms and leaned against the wall behind his partner where he could keep an eye on things.
"Hello, mind if I join you?" asked Heyes already sitting at the table.
The boy raised his eyes, looked at the interloper, and glanced at the man standing behind him. Dropping his attention to the hat again, he mumbled, "Suit yourself."
"Me and my friend are wondering if you might be looking to make a few dollars," said Heyes pulling a wad of bills from his shirt pocket and holding them in his fist.
This time, the boy looked up sharply, hungrily stared at the money, and sat up straighter. "Might, but I'm waiting for the afternoon stage."
"I'd only need your help for a little while. Are you from around here?"
"Naw, I just finished driving some stock into a ranch north of here. I'm heading home on the afternoon stage."
Heyes turned and looked up at the Kid, grinning like that cat that swallowed the canary, but he said in a serious tone, "He's not from around here."
"Don't matter if he knows his horseflesh," said the Kid.
The boy shrugged. "Yeah, I reckon I know a good horse when I see it. What is it you want me to do?"
Heyes leaned closer and kept his voice low, "Well, it's like this….?"
"Howdy, Clyde, I'm Jim and this here's my partner, Joe," said Heyes, gesturing to the Kid. He'd chosen common names in the hopes that the boy would forget them easily. If not, the odds were good there was at least one Jim or one Joe around town to confuse any folks asking questions later.
The Kid nodded in a friendly way. "Nice to meet you, Clyde."
Heyes leaned closer and lowered his voice. "Here's the thing. Old Clancy down at the livery has a couple of horses we'd like to buy. Problem is, we tried negotiating with him yesterday but he wouldn't come down on his price. He knows us. He also knows we're good for the money so he's trying to stick it to us. Now if we show up again today, he's gonna know he's got us right where he wants us and that's only gonna make the mule-headed jackass that much more determined not to give."
"Yeah, so what do you want me to do?" asked Clyde.
Heyes peeled five twenty dollar bills off the wad, hesitated, and then laid down one more. "What I want is for you to buy the horses for us. Now, here's a hundred dollars. That's what we're willing to pay. The extra twenty dollars is for you to keep; maybe buy some more beers while you wait for the stage. If you can get those nags for less than a hundred, you can keep that money, too."
Clyde shook his head. "He wouldn't sell you a couple of horses for a hundred bucks?" He could hardly believe it. Around here, forty dollars a head was top dollar, tack and all.
"Well, like I said, he knows us. I didn't say he likes us. It's a small town and he can name his price." Heyes grinned conspiratorially.
Clyde smiled back, "Guess I could help you two fellows out. Tell me what the horses look like."
"Better than that, we'll show you. We'll wait around the side of the livery while you close the deal," said Heyes, standing up and scooping up the cash. He wasn't about to send the boy off without supervision. At that age, he'd have pocketed all the cash and made a run for it. He threw a couple of dollars on the table to cover the boy's beers. Clyde picked up his hat and the three men walked out the door together.
Twenty minutes later, the two well-mounted partners had put Walcott behind them.
"I gotta hand it to you, Heyes, that was almost too easy," said the Kid.
"I'm telling you, luck's on our side," said Heyes smugly. "Now all we got to do is get the cash from the Hole, sit back, and relax for a year."
"See anything?" Heyes called up to the Kid who had ridden up a small rise. They getting close to where he needed to cut into the woods to approach the Hole from the back of the canyon and he wanted to be sure there was no one following them. They'd checked all day for anyone on their backtrail, but so far had seen no sign of pursuit.
"Not a thing," said the Kid. He rode noisily down the hill and came to a stop next to his partner. "So far, so good."
"Maybe so, but we're going to go in careful-like. I'm not taking any chances. Let's keep our eyes open. We'll wind around a few times and set a false trail, just in case. "
"Ought to be dark in a couple of hours; if someone's following us, they're gonna have to do it by torchlight." The Kid started walking his horse up the trail and Heyes fell into step alongside him.
Wheat woke slowly. Something felt strange. He opened his eyes and realized that he wasn't in the bunkhouse; he was in the leader's cabin, in the Kid's room. He rolled over onto his back and stared at the cracks in the plaster ceiling. Now he remembered. They'd all been so tired when the gang finally made it back to the Hole late last night. He'd barely had the energy to climb the stairs to the cold, dark cabin. It had taken several minutes of feeling and fumbling around before he'd located one of the oil lamps in the living area. He'd lit it. Once he'd been able to see what he was doing, he'd crossed to Heyes' room and flung open the door. It had looked as though Heyes had just stepped out for a minute and, try as he might, Wheat hadn't been able to bring himself to cross the threshold. He'd tried to tell himself it was because he was so pissed at Heyes that he couldn't stand to be reminded of him, but the truth was he'd felt uneasy. That uneasiness had quickly turned to self-directed anger. He'd been leader for well a couple of weeks now, why the hell couldn't he act like it? But instead of barging in and taking what was rightfully his, he'd built a fire, opened what was left of the good whiskey, and had gotten himself comfortably stewed. Once again, he found himself waking up in the Kid's bed.
In the end, Heyes had been true to his word and, when Wheat made his move to take the gang, he'd stepped aside without a fight. The boys hadn't even really noticed what had happened. They'd thought they were throwing their support behind Wheat's plan to open the safe they'd dragged up the mountainside. It wasn't until Heyes and the Kid casually bid them goodbye - told them they'd 'see you boys later'—that the men had begun to realize the leadership had truly shifted. They'd stood opened-mouth as their two leaders rode off without them. Those mouths shut damn quickly, though, when that posse showed up and took off after Heyes and the Kid. Wheat had done what any good leader would've done in those circumstances; he'd taken his men and high-tailed it out of there before some of the posse decided to come back for them.
He would've been right grateful to Heyes if it weren't for the events of the last week. Damned if he didn't run into those two on his very first robbery! He hadn't believed his eyes when he'd seen Heyes behind that teller's cage. Wheat had thought he'd been so clever choosing the Porterville Bank. Heyes had never let them look sideways at that one and Wheat had enjoyed picking a job that was strictly forbidden by his former bosses. Heyes had been just as shocked to see them and had tried to buffalo him with some cock and bull story about getting an amnesty. Even tried to convince him he could get one. Well, he'd showed them he wasn't changing his colors. The gang had busted that safe wide open. Too far open. Kyle must've used too much dynamite. Damned if the money hadn't been blown everywhere. If it hadn't been for the Kid's gun and Heyes' temper, they'd be rolling in dough right now. Instead, they had two failed thefts behind them and the boys were screaming for blood. Luckily for him, it wasn't his blood they were lusting after.
What he was having a hard time figuring out was why the hell Heyes and the Kid had stood around the town square with all that cash raining down on them acting like they were saving the bank? That made no sense at all. Unless…naw…no governor'd be stupid enough to give Heyes and Curry an amnesty.
He pulled back the covers and stood up stretching. Scratching himself, he walked into the kitchen and put on a pot of coffee—not Heyes' coffee, his own.
He was standing at the window enjoying the first cup and watching the sunrise when he noticed Wall-eyed overturning a water trough in the corral. He sipped again as he watched his man grub around in the moist earth underneath. Wall-eyed stood up and examined the trough carefully, then turned it upright again, and began pumping water into it. "Huh," mumbled Wheat, "I wonder what that's all about?"
Heyes and the Kid started out for the Hole just after sunrise. It would take most of a day to get there, but that was fine. They weren't planning to sneak in until the dead of night. Hopefully, the boys would be sound asleep.
"I figure fifteen minutes tops. Get the cash and, if we can, pick up a few of our things," said Heyes, riding along a climbing, twisting game trail.
"There ain't nothing there worth getting shot for; except the cash, that is," observed Curry.
"Now the real question is where do we hide for the next year?"
"I'm thinking we ought to pay our old friend, Silky, an extended visit."
"San Francisco? I like it, Kid. It's not too north and not too south; not to mention big enough for us to lay low. And there's hundreds of escape routes just sitting in slips in that big ol' harbor. Let's do it."
Yanking open the door, Wheat stepped out on the porch and took a deep breath of fresh air. It was a warm, quiet morning and he enjoyed the peace. The ride back from Porterville had been ugly. The men were angry that they'd done all that digging and ended up with nothing but ragged fingernails and dirt in their shorts. There'd been a lot of speculating about what Heyes and the Kid had been up to. They'd even half-talked themselves into believing that they'd find those two sitting on this here porch, laughing about what a fine joke they'd pulled. When the gang had ridden past the dark cabin last night, moods had turned sour and not even Chuck's warm welcome and delicious food could lighten them.
Out of the corner of his eye, Wheat saw movement. He swung his head around towards the bunkhouse but saw nothing. Stepping off the porch, he strolled towards the cookhouse. After he passed the bunkhouse, Hank hurried out the door, and dashed across to the barn. A few minutes later, the sounds of boards being torn up and bales being moved could be heard, but Carlson had already reached his destination and he didn't hear it.
"Mornin', Chuck," said Wheat, entering the cookhouse. As was usual since the small cook's arrival, a heady aroma scented the homey space. He was surprised to find that he was the first one to the table.
"Mornin', Wheat." Chuck turned and smiled at his new boss. He'd been shocked and sorry to hear that the Kid and Heyes had quit the gang, but he liked Wheat and, more importantly, Wheat liked him. At first, he'd been worried that he'd be fired and sent on his way, but his fears hadn't been realized. He'd taken Wheat aside and offered to forgo his salary until the next successful robbery. Wheat had quickly accepted the offer, knowing he stood a better chance of controlling his men if they were well-fed. Chuck never spent his money on anything anyway. He hardly left the Hole unless it was to pick up supplies and there was plenty of food already laid aside. He could cook for the next month or so without needing more.
"Where is everybody?" asked Wheat.
"I don't know. I was wondering that myself. Usually the boys are so hungry they're banging the door down. I sure hope breakfast doesn't get cold." Chuck frowned and turned back to his stove. He was putting the finishing touches on the meal.
"I'll give 'em a yell," said Wheat. He walked to the door and leaned out. The new leader of the Devil's Hole gang shouted "Food's on!" at the top of his lungs, rang the triangle hanging by the door, and returned to sit at the table. He picked up his oilcloth napkin, frowned at it, and put it in his lap. There was no sense in wondering now if Chuck's decorating cost them that job. What's done is done. Full bellies were more important than blame.
Slowly, the men trickled in one by one and took their place around the table. Chuck busily laid out a platter of eggs and bacon, some buttermilk biscuits, and a jar of his homemade raspberry jam. A pan of fried potatoes sizzled on the stove.
Everyone was pretty quiet this morning and long faces circled the table. Wheat knew he had to get the men focused on the next job quickly or there'd be trouble so, during breakfast, he quickly laid out the first of three plans Heyes had left for him.
Lobo had even praised the plan and muttered that Wheat had come up with a better plan than Heyes could have. Agreeing grunts surfaced here and there.
Wheat beamed and never let on.
By the time they'd finished breakfast, the boys were chatting amiably. Since they were still tired from the ride in, Wheat gave them the day off to rest up. He sat at the table, finishing his meal, and watched as his men slipped away much like they'd arrived, one at a time. Each man walked out the door and hurried off in a different direction, all except for Chuck who quietly cleaned up his kitchen.
"We're gonna be hard pressed to get there before dusk." Curry's horse was picking its way carefully through the heavy deadfall. Heyes and his horse followed close behind. Both animals had worked up a sweat as they started to gain elevation. They hadn't completely lost their winter coats and the day had grown increasingly warmer. The trail was even more overgrown since the last time they'd used it. Frequent high winds through this part of Wyoming often leveled dead trees and the horses had to contend with fallen trees and brush frequently blocking their paths.
"No help for it, Kid. The horses can't go any faster," replied Heyes.
"I know, but I'm worried about getting down that trail and past your booby-trap before dark."
"We'll get there. What difference does it make if it's today or tomorrow?"
"Don't make any difference. I'm telling you now, though, I ain't going down that cliff face in the dark," grumbled the Kid.
"Me either, partner."
Wheat had spent most of the day looking over the next plan and writing up a list of the supplies he would need for it. By late afternoon he put aside the paperwork and stood up from the table in his new cabin. Snatching up the list he'd come up with, he walked out the door and strolled towards the supply shack. He saw Lobo walking across the yard with a shovel in his hand. "Where are you going?"
Lobo had frozen for a minute as Wheat appeared and now he had a guilty look to him that caused the bigger man to feel a prickle of suspicion. "Um, er…I thought I'd do a little fishing, but the beavers have dammed things up upstream. I'm gonna bust it out."
"Want me to send someone to help you?"
"Naw, it ain't that big yet. I can handle it."
Wheat nodded, "All right, just make sure you're real careful about where you put your feet. Heyes set a booby-trap back that way."
Lobo's eyes widened, he'd forgotten about that. "Why'd he do that anyway?"
"Hell if I know. Don't make no sense to me; there ain't no way in back there."
Lobo shook his head, "Lots of things Heyes did didn't make sense. Well, guess I'll be going then." He had just realized the reason Heyes had booby-trapped it. His secret stash was back that way. He tossed the shovel over his shoulder and walked away, whistling.
Wheat continued to the supply shack, passing John, who was sitting on a bucket in front of the barn repairing his tack.
John had been watching his compadres all morning. After Kyle had remembered that Heyes had money hidden somewhere around the Hole, everyone had been frantically searching for it. No one knew whether or not Heyes had taken it with him; most likely, he had. But it was worth the trouble to find out. Unlike his friends, he already had a good idea of where Heyes might have hidden his cash. He'd woken up in the middle of the night last night, and hadn't been able to fall back to sleep. The loss of income had hit him hard. He was desperate to return home and he needed more cash before he could go. He had to save his ranchito and his family. His thoughts had chased each other around his head for hours and then, suddenly, one memory surfaced to his consciousness.
The morning he'd sat in nearly this same spot and watched his former leaders walk by. He hadn't really thought anything of it at the time and he now wondered why. He'd clearly seen the bulges in their shirt pockets as they strolled by on their way to the baños and had noticed them missing as they strolled back. Heyes' stash was somewhere near the outhouse.
An hour before dusk, Heyes and the Kid topped the rise overlooking the drop into the back of the Hole. They could barely make out the trail as it snaked its way down the hillside to the top of the cliff.
"We'll leave the horses down there," said Heyes, pointing to a thick grove of spruces behind them. "The ridge ought to block any sounds; I don't want them making any noise and giving us away."
"It's getting kind of dark. How do you plan to get around your booby-trap? There's not enough time to disarm it."
"I don't want to disarm it, Kid. We may still need it if the boys spot us. I've got another idea."
"Now might be a good time to share, Heyes," said the Kid, wearily.
Heyes pointed to a tall tree straddling the ridgeline thirty or forty feet above the ledge that hovered over the carved handholds forming a natural ladder that descended the cliff. "See that tree? We're gonna loop our ropes together and drop a line from it. That'll put us past the trap and right above the ladder."
Curry smiled at him, "If you'd told me that earlier, you could've saved me a few gray hairs."
Heyes snorted, "Me, too. I had to see it again to be sure I remembered it right."
"What would you have done if it was too far?"
"I don't know, but it don't matter now. Let's go."
The two seasoned partners worked quickly. The horses were stowed on the downside of the ridge and the rope was tossed down the rocky hillside, a small rock tied into the end of it to give it enough weight to get it to drop where they wanted it to. It did.
Heyes went first. Slowly, hand over hand, he worked his way down to the ledge. Once there, he waved to the Kid and steadied the rope as his partner descended. Curry dropped down the last two feet and stood next to him. Together, they peered over the ledge.
"Ready?" asked Heyes.
"I'm never ready for this. After you," grinned the Kid. With his heart in his throat, he stood watching Heyes painstakingly work his way down the cliff. Then it was his turn. It was a lot easier to do it than to watch his partner do it. As he dropped over the edge on his belly, he scrambled to find the first foot hole. Once he'd slipped his foot into it, he relaxed, and totally focused on each move. It didn't take long to reach the bottom. He felt Heyes' arms reaching up to grab him as came into reach. His cousin had been just as nervous about him.
"Let's work our way over to your shooting range. We can hide there until it's darker. No one's going to be practicing in the dark."
"Sounds good. We can eat the hardtack and jerky I brought," said the Kid, patting his bulging coat pocket.
They carefully started working their way over to the range.
Wheat had spent his entire day off checking the supplies until Chuck had rung the triangle, calling him and the boys to dinner. He'd made a roasted ham and Wheat had eaten far too much of it. It hadn't taken long before his stomach had started to pain him and he'd decided to try to walk the cramps off. It hadn't worked and now it was getting too dark for him to wander around.
He felt an incredible satisfaction as he walked towards the lamp-lit leader's cabin. The warm glow beckoned him to his new home and, for the first time in his life, he felt like he'd accomplished something important. The anxieties he'd felt about becoming leader had dropped away. He'd planned a successful job all on his own. The tunnel to the Porterville safe had been inspired. They'd dug the whole thing right under the Kid's and Heyes' noses not mention that stupid deputy's. Best of all, it had worked even if they came home empty-handed. He was a bona fide gang leader.
He strutted up the steps and flung open the door only to freeze at the sight of Kyle down on his knees prying up a floorboard. "What the hell are you doin'?" he bellowed.
Kyle looked up guiltily. He stared at his partner for a second too long and then smiled. "Just fixin' this floorboard for you; I noticed it was loose last time I was here and I didn't want you trippin' on it," he wheedled.
He could see that Wheat wasn't buying it and he dropped his crowbar, stood up, and backed away with his hands up. "Now, Wheat, don't go gettin' angry. I was just lookin' for Heyes' secret stash. We all are. Ain't you?"
Wheat was brought up short by that. He'd forgotten that Heyes had hidden money somewhere. He walked towards Kyle and picked up the crowbar.
Kyle swallowed his plug of tobacco in one gulp. "What are you gonna do, Wheat?"
"I'm gonna help you pry up this floor. C'mon." Carlson dropped to his knees and went to work.
"Does it feel funny to you, Heyes, knowing that after we leave tonight we ain't coming back?"
"It feels good. We've had a good run, Kid, and we're still in mostly one piece. I'm ready to move on."
"Yeah, me too." Curry held out another piece of jerky to his cousin. "Think I'll take a quick nap. We're gonna be busy later tonight."
"You do that. I'll keep watch." Heyes knew he wouldn't be able to nap. He was too excited. Ever since they'd left Porterville, he'd felt like a new man. Things were finally changing for them. He waited for the Kid to fall asleep, then stood up, and leaned against a tall pine watching the lights in the leader's cabin. Wheat was up awful late.
"We've pulled up damned near every floorboard. There ain't nothin' here. Not less'n you count that stack of stereographs we found in the Kid's room." Kyle chuckled at the memory. They'd soon found the stereoscope, too, in Heyes' trunk, and happily taken a short break to enjoy the views. They'd been pretty risqué.
"I'm ready to quit for the night. My stomach's still actin' up."
"What about the floor?"
"I'll have to boys nail it down tomorrow. They can see nothing's down there. It'll save 'em pullin' it up themselves," said Wheat. He stood up and stretched. His back was stiff.
"All right then, guess I'll see you in the mornin'." said Kyle.
Wheat grabbed the only lit oil lamp. "Hold on. I'll follow you out. I need to use the john."
"Kid, Kid, wake up," hissed Heyes. He shook his partner's shoulder hard.
"What is it?" whispered the Kid.
"The lights just went out in the cabin. Wheat just went to the john."
The Kid sat up quickly and stood, brushing the bits of detritus off his clothes. He could see a small light bobbing through the woods in the direction of the outhouse. "Let's go."
Wheat put the lamp down next to him. He unbuckled his belt, dropped his drawers, and settled onto the smooth wooden seat. A crumpled newspaper lay on the floor. One of the boys must've left it. The way he felt, it was gonna be awhile. Leaning over, he picked up the paper and began to read.
Heyes eased open the cabin door and carefully started to creep inside. He knew that the floor creaked badly so he stepped down gingerly, but his foot kept going and he stumbled forward. He would've fallen if it hadn't been for the quick reflexes of Curry. The Kid had seen him start to go and had grabbed a handful of grey jacket, pulling him back out the door.
"What the…" breathed Heyes softly. "Thanks." He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a match. Striking it on the rough jamb of the doorway, he could see the floor.
"Aw, hell," he heard the Kid say. "They're looking for the cash. Forget the cabin. Let's get the money and get outta here."
Heyes nodded agreement.
The wind gusted through the Hole and Wheat was startled to hear last fall's leaves skittering about the forest floor. It was warm and cozy in the outhouse thanks to the lamp light and Wheat relaxed. He was in no hurry. He had it all to himself.
Heyes crept past the turnoff to his secret stash and the Kid grabbed his arm. "Where are you going? We just passed the turn."
Heyes brushed off his hand. "I know. We're gonna pay Wheat a little visit first. I don't want him showing up at the wrong time."
The Kid smiled.
They crept as silently as they could through the dry leaves lining the path. Fortunately, the wind was getting stronger and creating its own noise. Ten feet from the john, the Kid picked up a long, narrow branch and held it up. Heyes nodded. It was the perfect size for slipping through the handle. The other end could be wedged between the small, spindly pine sapling crowding the outhouse and the left side of the tiny building.
Nearly crawling now, they reached the door with the quarter moon-shaped cutout that glowed with a warm, golden light. Crouched on either side of the door, the two partners waited. Without a word, they both began to move at the same moment. As the Kid lifted the branch to shove it through the handle, Heyes stood ready to receive it so he could jam it quickly into the narrow opening.
Neither was ready for the door that flew open in their faces. Heyes ducked back, but the Kid drew so blindingly fast that it took him a split second to realize he had his gun in his hand.
Wheat had thrown the door open believing one of his men was playing a practical joke on him. He sat frozen on the throne with the newspaper clasped to his lap with his other hand. The last thing he'd expected was to be literally caught with his pants down by his two recently departed ex-bosses.
"You!" he roared.
"Ah ah, keep it down or I'll put you down," warned the Kid softly but chillingly.
"You ain't gonna shoot me on the john!" hissed Wheat, keeping his voice down as instructed.
Stony blue eyes stared at him as Heyes peeked around the corner with his finger to his lips. "Shh. Kid's still mad at you for lying to us, Wheat. I wouldn't push him."
"He's mad at me?!" growled Wheat, his voicing rising in volume, but he cut himself off as the Kid's pistol cocked. Curry hadn't said another word but Wheat didn't like the look in his eyes.
"So am I," said Heyes. "We told you we were going for an amnesty and what did you do?"
"You ain't going for amnesty; you two just wanted that safe to yourselves."
Heyes briefly wondered if Wheat knew they, too, had blown that safe, but decided he couldn't possibly know. "I'm afraid you're wrong, Wheat. The governor's told us if we keep out of trouble for a whole year, he's gonna give us the amnesty."
"That don't make no sense," protested Wheat. "You two have been robbing everyone blind for years!"
Grinning, the Kid chimed in. "Well, that makes it a good deal for both of us, don't it? We get a clean slate and the governor can tell his good buddies that we're outta business."
"Point is, Wheat. You almost blew it for us before we even got started on it," said Heyes, no longer looking friendly.
"I didn't know! How was I supposed to know you weren't lying through your teeth?" whined Wheat. Then he had another thought, "Is that why you two were shootin' at us?"
Both outlaws nodded.
"Hell, I couldn't figure out what you was up to," said Wheat. "You two better get outta here. The boys think they've been cheated and, if they see you, they're gonna kill you."
"Will you set them straight?" asked Heyes. He hated to think that his own men believed he'd steal from them.
Seeming to consider it for a long time, Wheat finally shrugged. "Sure, but they ain't gonna listen to me right now. Their blood's up."
"Fair enough," said the Kid. "Tell you what. We're gonna lock you in here just like we planned to…"
"Hey!" protested Wheat.
"Listen up, Wheat, it's for your own good," interjected Heyes.
"We're gonna lock you in so the boys don't think you just let us get away. If they're as mad as you say, that wouldn't go well for you," finished the Kid.
"Yeah, I guess you're right."
"Now, we've got a little business to take care of and then we'll be on our way," said Heyes.
"How long is it goin' to take? I'm gettin' kind of cold here," complained Wheat.
"Give us five minutes and then you can yell your head off," said the Kid.
"Are you gettin' your stash, Heyes?" asked Wheat. "Is that why you snuck in?"
Heyes glanced at the Kid.
"Well, good luck with that. The boys have damned near torn this place apart lookin' for it. Far as I know, no one's been crowin' about findin' it."
"Good luck to you, too," said Heyes sincerely.
"Wheat. Be seein' you around," said the Kid, swinging the door shut and shoving the branch through the handle. Heyes wedged the end of it between the sapling and the corner of the outhouse. He stretched up to the moon-shaped cutout.
"Thanks for everything. You did good work for me. Give our best to the boys if you can."
There was no answer for several seconds until Heyes heard a short cough and, "Will do. I hope you two get what you're lookin' for."
The two partners crept away.
The Kid pulled the large rock off Heyes' hiding place and his partner lit another match. Their hearts fell as they looked down into the gaping hole.
"# $%! It's gone!" hissed Heyes. The match burned out in the light breeze.
"What was that?"
"What?" Heyes said distractedly. He was stunned. How had anyone figured out his hiding place? The money was gone. After all those years, all those risks, he and the Kid were flat broke. Worse, they'd agreed to quit stealing and now they had no gang, no hideout, and no way to lay low. They'd be worse off than they'd ever been. Still wanted, chased by every bounty hunter and lawmen in the West, and forced to work for a living! He moaned.
"Light another match; there's something in there," said the Kid.
Heyes lit one and held it down into the hole. "It's a chain." He reached down and pulled it out. The tiny flame went out. Rocking back on his heels, he put the chain on his thigh and lit another match on the heel of his boot. He picked up the chain and shook his head.
"What is it?" asked the Kid. It was too dark for him to tell.
Heyes tossed it at him and he caught it deftly. "It's John's St. Jude medal," said Heyes caustically. "He found the money. He wanted us to know it was him. He's probably halfway to Mexico by now. We're finished, Kid."
Curry stared at the medallion for a long time and then softly said, "No, Heyes, why would he take the chance on us hunting him down? He wanted us to have this. He's getting outta the game so he won't need it. He thinks we will. Funny, ain't it? He don't even know we're going for the amnesty. Kinda nice of him if you think about it."
Heyes rubbed a hand through his hair and sighed in frustration. "Well, he's right. Without the cash, we're gonna need all the help we can get."
The Kid slipped the medal into his pocket and stood up. He held out his hand, pulled his dismayed partner to his feet, and patted him on the back consolingly. "Don't matter, Heyes. I still want to go for it. Do you?"
Heyes did. Despite the change in their circumstances, he still wanted the amnesty. It was their only shot a new life and he was going take it no matter how poor the odds. Hell, he and the Kid could survive. They'd done it before and they weren't wet-behind-the-ears kids anymore. They'd learned a lot of skills since they'd been on their own before and they could do this. "I do, partner."
"Good. Now let's grabbed some of our stuff and get the hell outta here before Wheat starts to get impatient." The Kid led the way back down the trail and stopped. He didn't see anyone in the yard. He and Heyes hurried across it towards the leader's cabin. Just as they started up the steps, they heard a sound far behind them and then someone shouted, "Hey! It's the law!" A shot rang out. He and Heyes split apart diving off the steps in opposite directions. They met up behind the cabin and took off running through the undergrowth.
As they ran, they heard more shouting, doors slamming open, and the sounds of a hot pursuit. The forest came alive with cursing, angry outlaws, and gunshots. Just as the two former leaders of the Devil's Hole gang cleared the densest vegetation, an explosion shook the earth and knocked them off their feet.
"Dammit, they blew the trail!" snarled the Kid, coming up onto his elbows and pulling his gun, ready for a fight.
"No, that's the main trail in. Everyone's heading in that direction. Let's go," said Heyes, hauling his partner up and nearly dragging him along after him. They stumbled through some downed trees, splashed noisily across the creek, and plunged into the willows and scrub brush that met the other bank. They could no longer hear shots being fired and, out of breath, they stopped for a moment. They could hear horses. Some of the men were searching on horseback. That wasn't good.
"They've figured out there's no one there, Heyes. They'll be coming soon; fanning out and searching the rest of the Hole next," gasped the Kid, between breaths.
"We can't outrun horses. We're dead if they figure out where we are."
"I know that!" snapped Heyes.
"What are we gonna do?"
"Start running. Let's go!"
"Hold up, I think I heard something," growled Lobo. He pulled his horse to a stop and waited for Hank and Wall-eyed to do the same. When Wall-eyed had raised the alarm, Lobo had sent Chuck to blow the trail effectively cutting off the interlopers' escape. Kyle had gone with the small cook to provide cover just in case he encountered anyone. The others had hurried to the barn and bridled their horses. Leaping on them bareback so as to save time, they'd promptly begun searching the small valley.
"Lobo, where's Wheat and John? You think the law got 'em?" asked Hank. No one had seen their new leader or their Mexican friend since all hell had broken loose.
"Maybe. We won't know till we find them," said Lobo. There! He heard splashing. "They're crossing the creek, come on!" He dug his bare heels into the roan and the stocky animal leaped into a gallop, dodging bushes and weaving its way through the trees. Lobo could hear his friends close behind them.
Kyle and Chuck were cutting through the woods on their way back from detonating the explosives. Rather than risk being caught out in the open, they'd chosen to angle back using the trail to the outhouse.
"What's that?" asked Chuck.
"What's what?" Kyle stopped.
"I hear something."
Kyle froze and listened intently. He could hear yelling far off in the back of the Hole. It was dead quiet for a second and then he heard a sound closer by. A muffled, cursing growl. "Shh. I hear it. One of 'em must've hidden in the john." He crept stealthily the last few hundred yards until he and Chuck crouched down in the bushes surrounding the small building.
"What are we going to do?" asked a frightened Chuck. Fighting lawmen was not something he signed on for and he was just about to voice that opinion when Kyle stood up. He'd recognized a few of those curses.
"Wheat, is that you?" he called.
"Dammit, Kyle, let me outta here," was the answer.
The two men hurried to the door and pulled the branch out from the handle. The door swung open and Wheat shouldered his way out past them. "'Bout time someone got here. What the hell is goin' on?"
"Someone got into the Hole. Wall-eyed saw two of them trying to get into the leader's cabin!" said Kyle, chewing furiously. He was nervous. This had never happened before; it wasn't ever supposed to happen.
"Dammit, Kyle, that was Heyes and the Kid. They came back for their money," snarled Wheat.
"It was? Heck, let's get 'em," said Kyle, starting to move. Wheat grabbed his arm.
"Hold up there. They didn't cheat us, Kyle. They really are goin' after that amnesty. They just want their money to make it happen. You gonna drill them for wantin' to quit?"
Kyle chewed thoughtfully for a minute and then shrugged, "Naw, I guess not, but it don't matter. If Lobo and the others catch up with them, they're good as dead."
"That's why we're gonna go help 'em," said Wheat firmly, his tone making it plain that this was not a request. "Chuck, you can wait in the cookhouse. Make something tasty and break out the good whiskey. We're gonna need it. C'mon, Kyle!"
Kyle ran after his partner. Wheat crashed down the trail running as fast as his lungs would allow and not stopping until he reached the barn door. He rushed down the aisle and pulled his gelding out of its stall. Holding the halter, he slipped the headstall over it and turned to see Kyle doing the same with his small mare. She had her ears flat back and her nose wrinkled with displeasure at being pulled from her cozy stall in the dead of night.
Using straw bales, the two men mounted and took off out of the barn at a dead run. The horses plowed into the brush and never slowed.
Heyes broke through the brush into the grassy meadow that led to the cliff face. He stopped, bent over at his waist, hands on his hips, and sucked air as the Kid ran up alongside him.
Curry was panting heavily and he thumped his cousin on his back. Without saying a word, he grabbed a fistful of Heyes' coat and yanked him forward into a stilted run. He could hear the horses trampling the vegetation. They were still a ways off and it sounded like they were spread out beating the bushes. Probably hoping to drive us like buffalo, he thought, only we ain't going over a cliff; we're going up one.
The two partners reach the foot of the ancient Indian ladder-a series of small hand and footholds carved into the nearly vertical cliff face. Now all they had to do was get up it without getting filled full of lead.
The Kid started to climb while Heyes leaned back against the rocks panting. He couldn't catch his breath. Turning, he hugged the cliff and lifted his hand and grasped the first hold. Still breathing hard, he began to climb as fast as he could.
"Hurry up. C'mon. Hurry, will you?" gasped Heyes. It seemed like the Kid was taking forever and he was now right up behind him dodging Curry's feet every time he lifted them to the next foothold. They were about two-thirds of the way up the cliff when the riders galloped into the meadow. Both partners froze as the riders circled the meadow. The muscles in their arms and legs ached with the dead weight of their bodies and the sweat bloomed on their skin.
After what seemed to be an eternity, the horses and riders gathered in the center of the grassy field.
"You see anythin'? said Hank.
"Nothing," said Wall-eyed.
Lobo was still looking around. It was too dark to see very far even though dawn was coming soon, so he used his ears to listen for any sign of flight. He could hear Wheat and Kyle yelling loudly in the distance. It sounded like they were coming this way. Damn it, he couldn't hear anything they were making so much noise.
The Kid couldn't hang on much longer. His arm muscles were trembling. If he didn't start climbing, he'd be falling. Slowly, achingly slowly, he reached up to the next handhold and pulled himself up. Gently sliding his foot silently across the rock he found the next foothold and eased into it. He felt Heyes bumped him from underneath and knew his partner was following.
Far below them, they could see the riders dismounting. That was good. It meant that the riders believed their quarry was hiding in the bushes, not hanging above them. The Kid kept climbing noiselessly. As he lifted his hand again, he felt nothing and knew he'd reached the top but he couldn't haul himself up onto the ledge without making noise. If the boys heard him do that, Heyes would be a sitting duck. Once again, he froze and waited. Soon, he could hear the men rustling around in the bushes. He pulled himself up slowly and carefully onto the overhang. Several small stones and some gravel slid off the ledge, ricocheted off Heyes, and tumbled to the ground. The Kid knelt and drew his gun waiting for the men to reappear.
As Heyes reached the ledge, he, too, paused and waited. He could hear more riders approaching, but he kept his eyes on his partner who was squinting into the darkness. Hoof beats drew closer and, finally, two more riders burst into the meadow.
"Lobo!" yelled Wheat, "Hank! Wall-eyed! C'mon on out here."
"Dammit, Wheat what're you trying to do? Get yourself killed?" asked Lobo from where he hid in the bushes.
"Nobody's gettin' killed. It's Heyes and the Kid you're chasin'," bellowed Wheat.
"Heyes and the Kid?" asked Hank, standing up and coming out into the clearing. "What are they doin' here?"
"They came for their stash," said Kyle.
"#$%!" answered Lobo, "the greedy lowdown, good for…" He barged through the bushes and came into the meadow. Wall-eyed appeared a moment later.
"They didn't beat us out on the cash, boys. They really are goin' for amnesty. The law was watchin' them; that's why they was shootin' at us. Shootin' over our heads," said Wheat.
As the boys were talking, Heyes made his move. He lifted his arm and the Kid seized it. Leaning back and yanking with all his strength, Curry pulled his partner up onto the ledge. Rocks careened and clattered down the cliff and the outlaws below swung their eyes and their guns up.
Lying as flat as they could, the two partners waited on the ledge expecting the shooting to start any second.
"That you, Heyes?" yelled Wheat.
Heyes shared eye contact with his partner. "Yeah, it's us."
"You get your money?" asked Wheat. Lobo, Kyle, Hank, and Wall-eyed all had their guns trained on where Heyes' voice was coming from.
"Nope, it's gone."
"Gone?" yelled Lobo. "What do you mean it's gone?"
"He means it wasn't there, Lobo," hollered the Kid, as though talking to a child.
"How could it not be there, Kid? None of us took it," asked Hank.
"Not true, Hank. John took it," said Heyes loudly, keeping his head down.
The small gang of outlaws looked around at each other. "Well, I'll be," said Kyle, "John's not here."
"That's 'cause he's on his way to Mexico with our money," shouted Heyes.
Wheat started to chuckle and then full-out laugh. Pretty soon Kyle, Hank, and Wall-eyed joined in. Lobo didn't, though; he was still feeling surly about the cash.
"Reckon we're all in the same boat, Heyes," yelled Wheat. "Be seein' you." He waved and turned his horse around, riding back toward the cabins. Kyle fell in behind him and they both disappeared into the brush.
To the east, the sun was beginning to cast a soft, rosy glow and the darkness was beginning to grow lighter.
"See you, boys," hollered Heyes and the Kid together. They still kept their faces pressed to the ledge.
Hank and Wall-eyed went to fetch their horses, but Lobo walked to the edge of the bushes and stood still, peering up at the top of the ledge.
At the receding sound of hoofbeats, Heyes and the Kid cautiously sat up. "You think they're gone?" whispered Heyes. The Kid nodded. Slowly Heyes rose up to his knees and the Kid came up to a crouch. All was silent below them. Heyes stood up and grabbed the dangling rope. His arms hurt from the earlier climb, but he could keep going for a little longer. He started to shinny his way up the rope. He felt it tightened under his hands as the Kid seized hold and half-walked, half-climbed up behind him. They were about fifteen feet above the ledge when the shooting began. One of the boys was taking pot-shots at them! Furiously, they scrambled up the ridge.
Lobo had bided his time. He was still pissed over the robbery. He didn't owe the Kid and Heyes a damn thing. Matter of fact, all he owed Heyes was payback for that beating he got. He thought about all the times he and Heyes had scuffled or he'd been humiliated by that sharp tongue in front of the men. He wasn't about to kill the man over it, but he sure loved the idea of throwing a scare into him. He lifted his rifle and deliberately swung it away from where he was sure the Kid and Heyes were and began firing.
Unfortunately, he only got off four shots before the fifth one struck a branch on one of the pine trees. He heard a loud crack and stopped shooting for a second. The branch fell and Lobo could hear it crashing down through other branches. It fell free from the tree and plummeted to the trail. To the section of trail Heyes had booby-trapped. The heavy branch struck the rock with a force equal to the weight of several men and set off the explosives with a roar. Dirt exploded in a skyward cascade and the force of it all blew a crater in the trail.
Heyes and Kid were knocked flat again, but they kept hold of their rope and tucked their heads down as debris rained down on them.
Lobo, too, had been knocked over. As he rolled over and came up on his knees coughing, he heard another louder, cracking sound. The cliff face began to slowly bulge outwards and two huge slabs of rock broke loose and rode a wave of loosened soil to the ground as he ran for his life. As they collapse on the meadow floor, a billowing cloud of dust shot out from the impact and loose rocks and flying shards knocked the craggy outlaw to the ground well clear of the boulders.
The sound of the blast echoed across the valley. As it died away, Heyes and the Kid lifted their heads and started scrambling up the hillside. They'd just reached the top of the ridge when they heard Wheat and the boys coming back below them, yelling for Lobo.
Not waiting to see if their former gang was going to start shooting again, the two partners slid and ran down to where their horses waited.
"Lobo! Lobo!" yelled the frantic outlaws.
"Over here," answered a shaky voice. The outlaws rode over to their fallen friend and jumped off their horses gathering around him.
Lobo was covered with dirt and gravel, but he was unhurt. He coughed a few times and then hoarsely asked, "What the hell happened?"
"I'd say you shot up Heyes' booby trap, you damn fool," said Carlson.
"Wheat, look!" Kyle stood with his arm outstretched. He pointed at the hillside where the huge section of cliff face had cleaved off. The dirt was still settling where the two rock faces had slid down to the ground, but the outlaws could see that the fallen rocks had created a soft dirt hillside that could be easily climbed by man or beast. The Hole now had second, easy way in.
Wheat pulled off his hat and flung it at the ground, cussing with an inventiveness that surprised his men.
On the other side of the ridge, Heyes had mounted his horse and waited patiently as the Kid mounted his. Curry settled into his saddle and turned to his partner. "Where to?" he asked. He was surprised by the lost, bewildered smile that sprang to Heyes' face.
"I don't know," said Heyes softly. The Kid's question had jolted him. For the first time in his entire life, he had no scheme; no place to go, no idea of what to do next.
"Well, I do. We're going where we damn well please," said the Kid with a happy smile. He clucked to his horse.
Heyes smiled back and followed his best friend down the hillside towards their new life.
Thank you for riding along with me and the boys. I hope you've enjoyed the trip, I know I have. I am grateful for all of you and very thankful for the lovely comments some of you have left.