Great puffs of frozen breath rose from the horses' nostrils as the two outlaw leaders waited behind the large rock outcropping that had cleaved from the cliff face. Heyes was watching the stage through a pair of binoculars while the Kid was stamping his feet trying to stay warm in the frigid morning air. He held his and Heyes's horses in one hand and had the other hand, his gun hand, tucked inside his sheepskin coat to stay warm. Gully's horse and Lobo's horse, packed and harnessed to a toboggan-like contraption, were tied to a snow-covered bush on the far side of the rocks where they wouldn't be visible from the road. "Is it almost here?" asked Curry for the third time in the past hour.
His partner dropped the field glasses down and looked at him in disbelief. "What are you? Six years old? It's still coming. The road's real bad and it's gonna take some time. Now quit asking." Up came the glasses again, as Heyes watched the coach struggling slowly through the slippery mud and snow. The narrow wooden wheels were sinking deeply in spots and causing the stage to slide from side to side. The six horses pulling it were throwing their shoulders into their harnesses and digging for solid ground but they weren't making much progress and were barely able to maintain a slow, uneasy jog.
Heyes smiled. That suited him just fine. He had no intention of trying to chase down a fleeing stagecoach in these conditions. He could see Lobo riding shotgun next to the driver and thought he could make out two men riding inside. He doubted they were passengers; they must be guards. A small movement in the corner of his field of vision drew his attention to the road stretched out behind the stagecoach. "DAMMIT!" he yelled.
"Sheesh, you sure got up on the wrong side of your bedroll."
"Someone else is coming up the road. They're still pretty far behind. It looks like a wagon, but I can't tell how many people. This could screw up the whole plan."
"So we go to Plan 'B'."
"Plan B's gonna take time, too. You're going to have to dissuade that wagon from getting too close. That's going to take some fine shooting. Gully can give me a hand."
"I'll trade places with him after the stop." The Kid looked at the top of the cliff where Gully lay hidden from sight. He had to be cold, too. At least it was clear today for a change. "You know, I gotta say, I'm surprised you got him to agree to help us."
"He saw the sense of it after I explained it to him," said Heyes in a clipped tone that caused his cousin to look at him suspiciously.
"Aw, Heyes, what did you say?"
"I said what I had to say to get the job done." He kept his eyes trained on the road below, refusing to look at his cousin.
The Kid shook his head and wisely changed the subject. "I sure hope this works."
"It'll work, quit worrying."
"Quit doing things that worry me."
Heyes glanced at his partner. "You losing faith in my planning abilities, partner?"
"Don't matter how well you planned, you don't have all the say in how this goes down, partner," said the Kid.
"C'mon, it's time to mount up." Heyes stowed the binoculars in his saddlebag and took his gelding's reins from the Kid. He swung up and turned to his partner. "Be safe, Kid."
Curry, swung up onto his own horse, lifted his arm and waved up to Gully signaling him to be ready to provide cover if necessary. He saw a gray head peeking up slightly from a large boulder and the muzzle of a Sharps rifle appeared. He turned to his lifelong friend and said, "You too, Heyes." They often said something similar at the start of a job; a quiet acknowledgment of the risks they were taking. There was nothing more dangerous than riding head on at an armed vehicle and, no matter how you planned it, there always came the point when you had to expose yourself to the guns. They'd been lucky so far, but luck didn't last forever and they both knew it.
They waited patiently until they could hear the jingle of the stagecoach team's harnesses and then they slowly slogged their horses through the deep snow; the leather-padded horseshoes preventing their mounts from sinking too deeply. Reaching the road, they turned onto it and rode abreast towards a small hill. They could hear the approaching coach, but they still couldn't see it. As they crested the hill, they saw the stagecoach coming towards them. The driver saw them, too, and realized he had no room to go around them without sinking his vehicle into the deep snow on either side of the road. Pulling at the team, he yelled, "For Pete's sake, get off the damn road." Turning to his shotgun rider, he said, much more quietly, "What are these two morons thinkin' hoggin' the road like that? Keep 'em covered."
Lobo smiled and lifted his rifle casually aiming it at the two approaching men who rode calmly toward the stage, smiling and waving their arms. "Looks like they're flagging us down; Banks, Morton, look alive, we've got company." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a gun poke out the window. He sure hoped the two guards inside the coach didn't have itchy trigger fingers. He'd spent the last couple of weeks trying to get to know all the drivers and guards, but wouldn't you know it, these two had been on a long run to the coast and he'd had no more time with them than a few minutes this morning to mumble a quick greeting. Still, Wheat had been wrong; this job was not the most dangerous. The Kid and Heyes had saved that one for themselves. Ironically, because of his belly-aching, Wheat was gonna have to do the same with the other coach.
The driver was standing up now, leaning his weight back and hauling on the reins with all his strength, "Whoa, I said whoa, you mule-headed buzzard bait." The team came to a stop only a few feet from Heyes and the Kid who sat their horses and smiled easily at Lobo and the driver.
"Howdy. The road's closed ahead—mudslide. We had to turn back." Heyes was talking and pointing in the direction he was pretending to have come from.
"Keep your gun on 'em, Bosco. I don't like this," said the driver softly before yelling down to the two men blocking his path, "How far ahead?"
"Couple of miles, where the road cuts through that canyon with the stunted pinyons growing out that broken rock; slide's on the far side." said the Kid with a rueful grin. "There ain't room in there to turn a rig this big around, but there's a wide spot up ahead."
Nodding, the driver was thinking fast. He knew that part of the route and it was a likely place for a mudslide. He'd ridden past that point many times and had wondered how long it would be before those barren hillsides came roaring down at him. All this snow must've loosened things up. He looked again at the two friendly men who obviously knew the canyon, too, from their description, and he decided they were right. If he got stopped deep in that narrow canyon, he'd be hard-pressed to get his team out of there. Not to mention, it would be a real likely spot for an ambush. Why, heck, maybe that mudslide was no accident.
He looked again at the genial, open faces of the two men in front of him and made his choice. These two he could handle. "I know just where you're talkin' about. Damn it all to Hell, we'll have to go back and swing east at that last crossroad. Much obliged to you boys." He clucked to his horses and whispered to Lobo, "Bosco, don't you take your eyes off these two. This could be a trap." The team of horses picked up a slow jog and Heyes and the Kid parted to let them pass between them, sidling their mounts tightly to the steep snow banks.
Heyes sat comfortably in his saddle leaning over his forearm which was resting atop his saddle horn, giving all signs of being totally relaxed. The Kid pulled his canteen from his saddle and started to unscrew the top as the coach began to slide by. Just as the eyes of the two guards shifted away from them, Heyes nodded. Lobo, who had been holding his rifle and his eyes on his boss as he rode past, saw the signal and lifted the butt of his rifle sharply, striking the driver squarely in his jaw and silently knocking him out. With one hand, Lobo held onto the driver's shirt saving him from a fall likely to kill him; with his other, he grappled for the reins and slapped them hard on the horses' backs causing the team to leap forward. The coach lurched dangerously to the right and the two men inside were caught off-guard and thrown ruthlessly to the floor. They scrambled for their dropped weapons and sat up quickly only to find Heyes's and the Kid's guns aimed at them through opposite windows.
"Easy now, fellas. No sense in suicide," said Heyes with a dimpled smile. The men slowly laid down their guns again and lifted their hands over their heads. The Kid dismounted, and pulled open the coach door, signaling with his gun barrel for the two men to step out and drop to the muddy ground. They did.
Lobo lowered the unconscious driver down to Heyes who dragged him over to the two guards. Lobo stayed seated in the box holding the horses steady. The Kid was finishing up with binding the guards' arms behind their backs when the driver groaned and opened his eyes. Heyes rolled him onto his stomach and tied his wrists together. Standing up, the outlaw leader pulled off his black hat and waved it over his head, signaling to Gully that it was time to bring the other horses in. Heyes walked back to the door of the stage and pulled it open, looking in. A large strongbox, securely bolted to an iron plate inset into the stagecoach floor, sat solidly before him. He shut the door and knelt down looking at the undercarriage. The plate was welded to a metal frame that spanned the underside of the coach. There would be no removing the strongbox; not without dismantling the stage piece by piece. Lobo had been thorough in his assessment with the exception of the lock. It was a Chubb's lock. It could take hours to open or Heyes might not be able to get it open at all; and he couldn't take a chance on blowing it right here, either, and tipping off the other wagon that there was trouble ahead. Plan B it was.
The cook rode towards him leading the other horse through the snow. Heyes smiled at him, pleased that he was working out so well, but Gully wore a deep frown that didn't soften as he drew closer to his boss.
The Kid pulled the driver to a sitting position and leaned the three Wells Fargo men against each other, then walked towards Heyes and Gully, leaving the muttering men behind. He saw the cook pull off his old beaver hat and throw it angrily to the ground. As Curry neared the box of the coach, he stopped and looked up at Lobo, who was smiling. "Old Gully looks pretty pissed. I wonder what Heyes said to him," said the craggy outlaw, so quietly the Kid could hardly hear him.
"There's a wagon coming up behind us. We're gonna have to change up the plan."
"Darn right," said the Kid, looking back towards his partner. Heyes was wiping off Gully's hat and handing it over to the gray-haired man who took it, nodding his head in agreement with whatever was rolling off his cousin's tongue. The cook still didn't look happy, but it appeared he was going along with the new plan. Curry went over to his horse and mounted up, wanting to be in place before that wagon got within range. He waved at his partner, who waved him off, and rode out towards the cliffs.
Efficiently, Heyes and Gully unharnessed the packed horse and lifted the traces off it. Gully led the horse away as Heyes went to his saddlebags and pulled out a wrench. He quickly went to work on the bolts that held the traces to the toboggan. Once they were removed, he started working a set of straps that held one side of the sledge to the other. Gully returned with another wrench and started work from the other side.
Lobo, sitting in the box of the stagecoach and holding the team still, kept his rifle trained on the three men sitting bound by the side of the road. The Wells Fargo men were watching the other two outlaws and wondering what they were doing. The driver laughed out loud derisively, "What in tarnation are you two doin'? Don't you all have enough sense to skedaddle? You can't open that box. You might as well ride out of here and save your thievin'necks."
"Shut up, you old goat," growled Lobo, climbing down from his perch. He went to the lead horse and took hold of the big bay's bridle.
"You boys must be new at this. You didn't think things through. It's kind of hard to get away when there's no place to go," chuckled one of the guards.
The last strap was undone, and Heyes pulled it off. The toboggan fell apart into two separate wide wooden runners, each with a curved-up front end. He grabbed one and Gully grabbed the other. Using a small leather strap laced through a hole in the tip of each runner, they towed their burdens around and lined them up in front of the stagecoach on either side of the two wheel horses while Lobo soothed the team and kept them still. Heyes bent down and undid the two metal shackles near either end of his runner. Wall-eyed had forged them according to the design Heyes had come up with and they looked like a perfect fit. Gully unshackled his, too. Straightening, Heyes signaled his readiness to Lobo who gently urged the horses forward while Heyes and Gully kept the runners in line with the wheels. Slowly, inch by inch, the iron-bound wooden stagecoach wheels rolled onto the runner until they were centered in the shackles. Heyes yelled, "Whoa!" and held up his hand. Lobo halted the team. As one, Heyes and Gully bent down again and snapped the shackles shut, binding the wheels to the runners securely.
The guards and driver gaped as the outlaws worked. It was now obvious to them that these men, far from being novices at outlawing, had come up with a devious plan. The grizzled driver hissed to the guard on his right. "Who are these guys?" The man shook his head. He didn't know and he didn't care as long as he made it home in one piece.
Lobo swung back up into the box and snatched up the long lines to the team. Clucking softly, he asked the team to move forward slowly. The coach started to move, but suddenly slewed sideways in the muddy snow, slamming into Heyes, and knocking him off his feet. It tilted dangerously on one runner, hovering over him as Heyes watched in horror. He closed his eyes and waited for the crushing impact.
"Heyes!" yelled Gully, throwing himself at the right rear wheel which, along with the front, had lifted the runner off the ground. Hugging the spokes, he felt himself lifted off the ground and he planted his feet on the runner, leaning all of his weight back as far as he could. It was enough to shift the balance and the coach came crashing back down on both runners. Lobo pulled the team up and wrenched his head around to find Heyes sitting up and wiping snow off his face. Gully ran to his boss's side. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," said Heyes. Gully grabbed his arm and helped him to his feet. He was winded and sore from the blow, but nothing was broken. "I'm okay, thanks. I owe you."
"Yes, I guess you do," said Gully with a small, satisfied smile.
"Let's go get this stage going," yelled Heyes. He stepped back, well out of the way this time, and watched as the stagecoach started picking up speed, gliding easily over the ruts and soft spots in the snowy road. Pulling off his hat again, he waved it in the Kid's direction and was surprised to see his partner stand up and wave back. A minute or two later, he saw Curry galloping through the snow towards them. Heyes turned to Gully, "Go on and take off, we'll catch up with you."
Gully wasted no time scrambling onto his horse and taking off, leading Lobo's horse behind him. The outlaw leader walked over to the bound men and stood over them. He watched as the Kid slid his horse to a stop and smiled down at him, "Wagon's stuck in the mud a way's back. They have no idea we're here."
Heyes looked in the direction the coach and Gully had disappeared, making sure they were out of sight. He pulled out his gun and the men tied up at his feet, cringed, seeing their own deaths before them. Pointing his pistol to the sky, Heyes fired one shot. "They do now," he said with a grin. He looked at the driver, "There's a wagon a few miles back. They'll give you a lift out of here before you freeze to death." He climbed onto his horse and wheeled it around. "Let's go or we're going to be late meeting up with the others."
"Hey, mister," said the driver, getting the attention of the dark-haired rider before him. "That fella called you Heyes. I only know of one outlaw named Heyes and the newspapers say that he's deader than a doornail. Who are you?"
"Him? He's Hannibal Heyes and he don't look dead to me. Didn't your mama teach you not to believe everything you read in the papers?" laughed the Kid.