"Are Kyle and Wall-eyed in position?" asked Wheat as John returned to the small copse of evergreens the gang was using to conceal its presence. The thick trees were hiding them from the road and their two horses were picketed behind them in a swale surrounded by a bare-branched tangle of thick brush that dipped down below their hiding place. It was cold; never having warmed up much since the sun rose, and Wheat was shaking his hands trying to keep some feeling in the fingers. It'd be just his luck to have his trigger finger cramp up on him.
"Yep. That little partner of yours sure is excited," chuckled John, "He's really hoping he'll have to blow that bridge."
"Yeah, well, I'm not plannin'on it. This here robbery's gonna go off slick as snot." Wheat sure hoped it would. Despite showing nothing but confidence to his men, he was nervous. He'd robbed lots of banks and trains and had often led the gang in executing jobs, but this was the first time he'd tried robbing a stage. He was no coward, but the thought of facing down an armed stagecoach didn't sit well with him. Damn Heyes for taking the stage Lobo was covering. Hank was driving this one and his guard was one of the real Wells' men. Wheat had made real sure his men knew they'd drawn the tougher job. If this went well, he also knew he'd have bragging rights for a long time.
"Here it comes," said John, pointing towards the road. He hurried back down the way he'd just come, staying out of view of the road, and slipping down into the swale to collect his and Wheat's horses. Wheat raised the binoculars Heyes had given him and watched the stagecoach going along at a much faster clip than he'd expected. The roadway must be starting to freeze up some. He cursed softly and hurried to his horse.
Mounted, the two men rode down the hillside and away from the stage. Wheat waved his hat to Wall-eyed who was keeping watch further down the road, well hidden on a small rise behind a large, downed pine tree. From there, the one-eyed man could see both the road and Kyle, who was waiting anxiously on the far side of the wooden bridge that spanned a deep canyon cut by the Laramie River just a few miles north of the Colorado border. Kyle was watching for the signal from Wall-eyed that would let him know he could blow the structure. Wheat had chosen Wall-eyed as the lookout, despite his one eye, because John was a better hand with a gun and coldly level-headed in tough situations. There was nothing Wheat was more interested in than the safety of his own hide.
John spotted the red bandana that Heyes had tied to a bush below the road bed. There was a sharp curve in the road at this point and they could ride onto it here without being seen. Heyes had gone over and over this part of the plan, stressing the importance of not being seen until the right moment. The outlaw leader had scouted both routes himself, carefully selecting the hiding places for optimum positioning. Heck, they all knew that shotgun rider was keeping an eye out for trouble; did Heyes think they were stupid?
This road had no snow cover as it was at a lower elevation than the one Heyes was taking down, but the steep bank of the road cut on the north side was casting a large shadow, and the mud was beginning to set up in the shade, making it easier for the stagecoach to pick up speed. Heyes had said that the timing was going to be crucial. They were to meet the stage in a section of the road where it carved its way through a hillside. The walls on either side of the road would paralyze the coach much as the deep snow banks did on Heyes's job; he had said that he wanted the guard to be surprised and thrown off by their appearance; that it would help the man swallow their story.
Wheat and John picked a jog to make up some time and rode quietly along the road, each lost in his own thoughts.
Wheat snorted. Heyes over-thought everything. Ain't nothing to robbing. You rode up, stuck a gun in your victim's face, took his money, and rode off; simple as that. It didn't take no self-proclaimed genius to plan a theft. The Kid and Heyes were too particular about avoiding gunplay. Not that he wanted to be shot at, but those two pussy-footed their way through every job. He glanced at the dark-complected man who rode next to him. He'd of preferred Kyle partnering him, but he'd had no choice. No one handled dynamite as well as Kyle and he was needed at the bridge. His partner was Heyes's Plan B for this stage. It pissed him off that Heyes even felt it was necessary to have a Plan B; like he couldn't get the job done right.
John Garcia was thinking of his wife and three small children and he was wondering what they'd say when they saw how much money he wired to them this month. Heyes had been true to his word; he'd promised his men a lucrative winter and it was. John missed his family so much, but at least he was providing well for them. Maybe, after a few more jobs, he'd have enough money to buy a little place down in south Texas. Close enough to the border for his relatives to visit, but far enough to the north that the Mexican law wouldn't come across the Rio Grande for him. It'd been years since he'd pulled a job in Mexico; he wondered if the federales were even looking for him anymore.
The stage was drawing closer. Wheat was feeling skittish enough that his horse felt him tensing up and started to chomp at its bit, flipping its head up and down. The big outlaw tried to relax and hoped that his mount's anxiousness wouldn't give them away. He could see Hank in the driver's box starting to pull the team up roughly. Wheat smiled and waved to the stage, inwardly tensing again as the shotgun rider drew a bead him. His horse danced sideways underneath him and he yanked his reins causing the big bay to plant his feet, startled. John drew his well-behaved horse up quietly and waited.
The guard sitting next to Hank started yelling at Wheat and John to get off the road, but there was no place to go in this narrow stretch. Hank wrestled with the team and the doors to the coach swung open as it rolled to a stop. The two guards who were riding inside, were now resting their guns on the sills of the windows, using the doors for cover, and watching the two riders closely.
"Get outta the road and let us pass," yelled the shotgun rider, waving his weapon at the two men looking up at him. Wheat tried to smile in a friendly, open way; but, not being friendly or open, failed to reassure the guard. He watched them warily.
"Bridge is out, Mister. We had to turn back. You'd better, too," growled Wheat, staring down the man as though challenging him to question what he'd said.
"Damn it," cursed Hank, looking at the guard and trying to get his attention off of Wheat, "We'll have to find a place to turn around."
The guard kept his gun and his eyes trained on the two men waiting in the middle of the road and said, "I don't trust these two, Floyd. That big 'un's lying through his teeth. Hold your ground." Hank frowned, but kept the team still.
Wheat saw the frown appear on Hank's face. He whispered under his breath, "They ain't buyin' it. Damn Heyes. We've gotta go to Plan B." Speaking up loudly, he said, "Hey, give us a sec, and we'll get outta your way." He turned his horse around, and John wheeled his mare, both riding back in the direction they had come, feeling the guard's sights drilling holes in the middle of their backs. They'd pull off the road and let the stage continue to the bridge. Kyle could handle them there and they'd hold back, riding in after the bridge blew and the coach was stopped. Wheat would have to speed up the timetable, though. Who knows if someone would hear the blast. Hell, he hated Heyes's sneaky ideas. Wheat's horse started jigging under him and then it began hopping up and down. "Cut it out!" roared Wheat, losing his temper and striking the beast's neck. That was enough to frighten the high-strung animal into rearing.
The sudden movement startled the guard and he pulled the trigger as Hank slapped the reins down hard on his team's back hoping to unseat the man next to him and ruin his shot. The team leapt forward and the doors to the coach slammed shut on the men inside. The shot whipping past his head caused John to draw his pistol, but he held his fire not wanting to risk shooting Hank. The shotgun rider, thrown off balance, gripped the brass bar next to him with his right hand, but unfortunately, he was left-handed and his second shot found its mark.
John tumbled off his mare and rolled to a stop at the side of the road; rider-less, his horse continued galloping away. Wheat cursed and dug his spurs into his horse's flanks causing it to leap off its hind legs, also galloping away, but bucking wildly. Wheat had to hang onto his saddlehorn to stay upright and in the saddle. Hank, seeing that the job had gone to hell, held the reins with one hand, swinging at the guard with the other, knocking him over the side. The team was out of control now and the coach barreled out of the narrow slot, past Wheat's still-bucking bronco, sliding wildly from side to side. Hank was standing up; using all his strength, but the lead horses were maddened and had taken their bits in their teeth; running away with him. He saw the sharp bend coming up fast and he knew they wouldn't make it. Giving the reins a few more hard yanks, he slowed the horses slightly, but it was too late. He felt the team bank into the turn and the coach tipping onto its left wheels. Dropping the reins, he jumped and rolled as the stagecoach careened over, breaking the traces, and further stampeding the freed team. The vehicle slid a good fifty feet before coming to a standstill, its wheels still spinning.
Wheat got his horse under control and spun it around riding back to the stagecoach that was lying on its side. There was no movement from inside. He pulled up next to Hank who was sitting up slowly and staring dazedly at the coach.
"You all right?" panted Wheat.
"I think so," replied Hank shakily.
"Get your gun out and make sure them two guards are covered. I'm goin' back for John."
Wheat rode back along the road. He was nearly to the cut, when shots struck the ground in front of his horse. The already frantic gelding shied sideways nearly unseating Wheat. The guard was shooting at him from some rocks near the entrance to the slot, but he'd panicked and fired too soon; Wheat was still out of range. Pulling his horse up, he drew his gun and tried to draw down on the sniper, but the man's cover was too good. He fired off four shots in frustration and watched them ricochet harmlessly off the stone. Pausing, he pondered the alternatives. Maybe he could try skirting around to the other side and coming in from that way, but he'd be riding right at the man, trapped by the steep walls. It'd also be impossible to climb the rock face on the downhill side of the road. It was too steep and broken up. The uphill side he'd be fully exposed to the guns. Heyes had picked the perfect ambush site, only not for them. Cursing again, Wheat turned his horse and rode back to Hank, praying that John could get away on his own. Heyes was going to be pissed that he'd left a man behind, but there wasn't anything he could do.
Hank was dragging the second guard out of the coach and over to where the first man lay still. He dropped the unconscious man next to his partner and straightened up. The sudden movement caused his head to ache and he reached up, tugging his hat down to shade his eyes, as Wheat pulled up and flung himself off his horse, tying it to some sage. The big outlaw pulled several lengths of latigo from his pocket handing one to Hank. They worked quickly tying up the two men who were beginning to stir as Kyle and Wall-eyed rode towards them leading Hank's horse. "Where's John?" demanded Wall-eyed from his saddle as Kyle dismounted and ran to the coach carrying a bundle of dynamite.
Wheat stood up and wiped a hand across his brow stalling for time. He looked around for the other animals. Wall-eyed had hold of Kyle's and Hank's horses and John's mare was down the hill, grazing alongside the road. Wall-eyed and John were good friends and this wasn't going to go down well. "He got shot. I tried to go back for him, but one of the guards is holed up in there and I couldn't get to him." Wall-eyed started to spur his horse and go after his friend, but Wheat grabbed his bridle, pulling the horse around by its head.
"Let go, Wheat," threatened Wall-eyed glaring at Wheat with his milky eye.
"I can't let you go after him, Sam. It'd be suicide. That guard would have no problem pickin' all four of us off if we tried to rush him; not from where he's hidden. I already tried," said Wheat gently. "Let's get this job done. If John's alive, they'll get him to a doc quicker'n we could. We can bust him out of jail." He let the words sink in, saw Wall-eyed's shoulders slump, and he let go. "Hang onto those nags. Kyle's lit the fuse. Hank, keep an eye out for that other guard." The four outlaws backed quickly away from the stagecoach and waited. Wall-eyed held onto the horses, but kept his eyes on the road hoping to see John walking towards them.
With a thundering roar, the coach blew apart into large chunks of flying wood and metal. The horses shied away from the sound and the debris. A cloud of paper lifted into the air. Greedily, the three men on foot crowded in and grabbed for the money. What they got was newspaper; lots of little bits of newspaper. Wheat stood looking down at the newsprint he held with a stunned expression, "What the hell is this?"
His partner was poking his head inside the coach and he turned at the question. "There ain't no money. That box was stuffed with newspapers. We've been robbed."
Wheat tossed aside the paper and yelled to his men. "It was a decoy. Heyes got the money. Mount up." He rode over to John's mare and leaned out of his saddle, snatching at the reins. Leading the rider-less horse, he took off at a gallop with Kyle, Hank, and Wall-eyed close behind him.
The shotgun rider waited patiently until the outlaws disappeared. He had watched, smiling, as they discovered they'd been tricked and he had bided his time. Now, he stood up and stretched his sore muscles. That fall had bruised him up pretty good but that wasn't going to stop him from going after the thieving scum. Gripping his rifle tightly, he slid his way out from behind the rocks he'd taken cover in, and started walking back to the body on the side of the road. He glanced over his shoulder and could just make out Carl and Ralph wiggling about trying to loosen their bindings. They'd have to wait a little longer; he needed to make sure this outlaw wasn't going to cause them any more trouble.
John was still unconscious when the guard rolled him over. His face was bruised from the rocks he'd collided with when he hit the ground and he was bleeding from a hole in his shoulder. The Wells Fargo man felt for a pulse and was surprised to find a steady one. He paused for a moment, trying to decide if he should simply put the man down like a rabid dog. Much as he'd like to pass on hauling this lowlife around, he couldn't justify murdering an injured man. That would make him no better than this piece of dirt. Grabbing John's shirt, the grim man pulled him onto one shoulder and struggled to stand. Taking a deep breath, the guard started walking towards the wreckage.
The other two guards were sitting up now, back to back, trying to work the latigo loose, but not having any luck. "Ralph, hold still and stop wrigglin' around," said the older one.
"Geez, Carl, you're taking my skin off here," complained the dirty blond-haired guard. They continued to bicker until they noticed the shotgun rider coming up the road with a body over his shoulder.
"Looks like Vern caught one; lucky for us. I'd sure hate to explain to the boss how come those fellas got clean away," said Carl.
Vern dropped John on the ground next to the tied men and quickly set them free. "Carl, go find the team. Ralph, get those weapons we've got stashed." He turned to see to the bleeding man's wounds. If he lived, he could tell them what gang they were dealing with.
Ralph nodded and started off towards the debris while Carl walked down the road looking for the horses. A bench from the coach lay overturned on the ground a few feet ahead of Ralph. He glanced at the bottom of it and then looked around, spotting the glint of metal against the damp soil. Walking a few feet to his west, he bent over and retrieved a Colt pistol lying at his feet. Checking that it was fully loaded, he put it into his holster, and walked back to the ruined coach. It took some doing to wrestle the shattered door open, but when he did, he leaned into the remaining half of the stage and felt around under the seat. Yanking hard, he snapped the bindings holding a Sharp's rifle tucked tightly under the bench. Smiling, he walked back to Vern.
It didn't take Carl long to discover that the six-horse team was nearby, placidly grazing the tall, dried grasses of the wet swale having been attracted by the fresh scent of the other horses. Walking slowly and quietly up to the lead gelding, Carl picked up the broken long reins, and led the animals back to his co-workers. "Found 'em right down the hill," he said coming to a halt.
"Good. Ralph, get over here and help me drag this man to the stage," said Vern, lifting John up by his shoulders while the other man lifted his legs, "Carl, pull them harnesses off the horses and fix those reins so's we can use 'em. We'll ride bareback."
"What're we gonna do, Vern?" Ralph had been with the company for a long time, but he deferred to this tough, competent man. Vern was the shotgun rider and, therefore, the leader of the guards.
"We're gonna handcuff this'n to that metal frame where he ain't gonna get loose, we'll leave him some water, and then we're going after those other four."