A Good Night's Sleep
The two figures bent low over the horses, racing across the desert, the pounding hoofs like thunder. The men spurred their horses till the blood ran, but the posse was close behind.
The horses sped over the flat, baked land. No cover, no hiding place, no rocks or trees, nothing but cactus and bare dust. The pursuers were drawing closer. One of the riders, a tall man with dust streaked through his blond hair, threw a hasty glance over his shoulder, and drew his gun. He fired behind him without even aiming, knowing the shot would go wild--at this range a hit would be pure luck.
The other rider, a dark- haired man wearing a black jacket, yelled, “Forget it! Come on!” and spurred his horse faster. The two fled side by side through the aisles of tall cactus.
Suddenly the dark rider’s horse crashed to the ground as if a giant hand had thrown it. There was a snap like a branch breaking, and the horse screamed, flailing on the ground. It rolled and heaved, then managed to get to its feet and hobble off, three-legged. The dark-haired man lay where he had fallen.
The other rider cursed aloud, and drew savagely back on the reins. His horse skidded to a halt, and the rider flung himself off and ran to the still figure. “Come on,” he shouted, shaking his partner hard. “Come on, let’s go!” The posse was nearer now, guns drawn, two dozen strong.
The blond man glanced over at his exhausted horse, wondering if a quick dash might be successful. Then he looked down at his partner, and shook his head. Slowly he stood up, and waited for the posse to arrive. The sheriff, in the lead, was aiming a shotgun at him, and he put his hands in the air.
The sheriff smiled, and pulled the trigger, and the blond man’s head exploded in a burst of blood. He fell across the other figure, and his blood soaked scarlet into the dust.
The old man’s eyes popped open, and he sat bolt upright in the chair, staring around the room as if looking for an escape route. He swore at himself in annoyance, and leaned back trying to ignore the pounding of his heart. The dream again, he thought.
“Something wrong, Sheriff?” asked Hank, the new deputy. He was a lanky boy, with a long neck like an adolescent gosling, and a faint line of mustache on his upper lip. The star on his tobacco-stained shirt was still shiny, after only three weeks on the job.
“No, no, nothing wrong,” replied Sheriff Collins, trying for a casual tone; he could hardly tell his new assistant that he’d had a bad dream and wanted some warm milk. “Twinge of lumbago in my back, that’s all. Must have dozed off for a minute.”
Collins glanced around the quiet office. Nothing was stirring, the office was still and dim in the afternoon light: the faded wanted posters on the walls, the battered wooden desk where Hank sat whittling, were the same as before he had dozed off. Even the cells behind the desk were quiet. “How’s those two doing?” said the Sheriff, trying to sound businesslike and conceal the tremble in his voice.
“Quiet as mice,” said Hank in a disgusted tone. “They don’t never seem to do nothing interesting. Heyes, he paces back and forth like a cat, and the big bad Kid Curry just sleeps all the time.” He shook his head and dug at the chunk of pine he was whittling. “Don’t nothing exciting ever happen in this town.”
“We just captured two of the most famous outlaws in the history of the west, isn’t that enough excitement for you?” inquired the sheriff, getting up and inspecting the remains of the lunch tray Hank had brought him from the saloon. A fly was buzzing in the bottom of the coffee cup.
“Well, that was pretty good for a bit,” Hank conceded. “The chase was kind of fun. But it didn’t last any time at all, and then Heyes’s horse puts its foot in a prairie dog hole, and we got’em both without a shot being fired. What fun is that?”
“Oh, you’re one tough guy,” said the Sheriff, smiling. “You'd like to have Kid Curry shooting at you, eh?”
“I just want to see some action, that’s all,” said Hank sulkily.
“Well, get those dishes back over to the restaurant, and don’t break any, or you’ll see some action from Big Aggie,” said the Sheriff.
“I didn’t sign on to be a deputy to do errand-boy’s work,” growled Hank.
“It’s a tough job, being a lawman, you have to be hard as nails,” said the Sheriff unsympathetically. “Bring me back some more coffee, hot, you hear?” Hank grumbled as he stacked the dishes and went off to the saloon with dragging feet.
The Sheriff waited till the door had slammed behind his assistant, then stood and sauntered over to the iron cage, the last in the row of cells, that held the two prisoners. As Hank had complained, the tall blond man was stretched out on the bunk, lightly snoring, while the other man paced restlessly back and forth. “How you fellows doing?” the Sheriff inquired.
“Oh, dandy, just fine,” snapped the dark-haired prisoner. He was a young man, with a pleasant round face that usually had a bland, innocent expression, but the sheriff knew he was the infamous Hannibal Heyes. “If you’d ever been in jail you wouldn’t ask such a stupid question,” muttered the outlaw.
The sheriff nodded solemnly. “Just asking, son,” he said mildly.
Heyes stopped pacing and heaved a sigh. “Sorry, sheriff, no offense,” he said. “You’ve been very decent to us.”
The sheriff observed that the other man, the notorious Kid Curry, had stopped snoring, and was regarding him from under the brim of his hat. The sheriff followed the direction of his gaze, and saw that he was staring at the gun in his holster. Involuntarily he stepped back a pace.
“Just looking, Sheriff, just looking,” said Curry amiably. “That’s something special you got there. Don’t see a gun like that every day of the week.”
“Heard anything about when they’re going to extradite us to Wyoming?” Heyes interrupted.
“Soon,” said the sheriff. “Pretty soon, like maybe tomorrow. The marshals are supposed to get here tonight.”
The two outlaws glanced at each other. Curry pulled the hat back down over his eyes, while Heyes sat down on the empty bunk and rubbed his hands over his face. He was still rather white from the crack on the head he’d gotten when his horse had fallen during the chase, and his lank dark hair fell over a bandage on his forehead.
“Not anxious to leave our hospitality?” remarked the sheriff. “Thought you didn’t like it here.”
The door slammed and Hank shuffled in. He slammed a large mug of coffee down on the sheriff’s desk, and yelled, “I’m on overtime now, sheriff, I’m heading home. Big Aggie says the Reverend says will you please stop by the church right away, someone’s broken into the poor box again.”
“Oh, thanks, boy,” said the sheriff, strolling back up to the front of the office. “Well, listen, sounds like a man of action should handle that. Why don’t you stop off at the church on your way home? You were itching for some excitement.”
“I got to get some sleep, I’m on night guard,” Hank whined.
“No, I’ll take it tonight,” said the sheriff. “You can go home to mama after you investigate the crime scene.”
“Night guard again?” said Hank. “Sheriff, you ain’t never gonna get no sleep.”
“That’s fine with me,” the sheriff muttered, taking a sip of coffee. “Get going. Make sure the gun’s loose in your holster, now, for a fast draw in case the thief’s still lurking.”
“Very funny,” snarled Hank, and stomped out.
“Crime wave, huh sheriff?” called Kid Curry from the back of the room, and the sheriff laughed and went back towards the cell.
“This is a nice quiet town, boys. Settled here forty years ago, and hasn’t nothin’ happened since–till Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry decided they just had to rob our bank.”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” said Heyes apologetically. “If we’d known you’d be so quick to get a posse together, we would have reconsidered.”
“Yes, a nice quiet town,” the sheriff went on, with a smile. “Youngsters like you boys and my daring deputy get bored when things are quiet, but I hope nothing will happen here for another forty years.”
“You like the quiet life, eh, sheriff?” Curry commented, with another glance at the sheriff’s worn holster.
“Yep,” said the sheriff, his smile fading. “I had enough excitement in my youth to last me the rest of my life.”
A few quiet hours passed, and the gleam of sunset came in through the windows. The office was so still that the ticking of the clock, and Heyes’s nervous footsteps up and down, could be plainly heard. Collins sat at his desk and sipped his coffee. His eyes drifted shut involuntarily, and deep in his mind he began to hear a thunder of hooves. His eyes snapped open, and he shook himself awake.
Heyes was still pacing, and the sheriff heard Curry sigh and say in a patient voice, “Will you please cut that out before you wear a groove in the floor?”
“I’ve got to do something,” Heyes retorted. “I can’t just sit around and watch the dust settle like you can.” The sheriff smiled to himself as though this was a conversation he recognized, and got up to check on the prisoners again.
Suddenly the door was flung open so hard it banged against the wall, and all three men jumped. A man in a dusty overcoat strode in, his spurred boots clanking on the floor. His long coat brushed a pile of papers off the desk, and they fluttered to the floor in his wake.
“Hey, there, mister,” Collins said pleasantly. “No need for a big entrance. What can I do for you?”
“Federal marshal,” the man announced. He was heavy-set and broad, with a red face, and he spoke in a voice so loud that the sheriff took a pace backwards. “I’m here to inspect the prisoners. Heyes and Curry.”
“Well, that’s not hard, they’re right over there,” said Collins. “Last cell on the left, can’t miss'em. Can I get you some coffee or something?"
The marshal ignored him and strode up to the cell. The sheriff saw that Curry had risen from the bunk and the two outlaws were standing grimly side by side.
“Hello, boys,” said the marshal in his loud voice. “Well, it is you, after all, Heyes and the Kid. I’m relieved--I couldn’t believe they’d actually caught the two of you, in this little jerkwater town.” The prisoners were silent, fists clenched. There was an air of hopeless defiance about them, like two boys facing down a gang of bullies they know will inevitably beat them up.
The sheriff approached, looking from the tense prisoners to the smiling lawman. “I gather you fellows know each other,” he said quietly.
"Oh, yeah, we've met," said the marshal affably, not looking at the old man. "These boys are a lot of fun, sheriff, they got a good sense of humor. Real funny, they are. Made a big fool out of me last time we met, but I got a good sense of humor, too. I can take a joke." He grinned through the bars. "Can you take a joke, boys?" he asked, and laughed loudly. Neither answered.
The sheriff glanced at the prisoners, and pursed his lips. "What's your plans, marshal?" he asked. "You gonna take these fellas to Wyoming soon?"
"First thing in the morning," the man said, grinning. "Time's a-wasting, want to get right to it."
"Well, maybe I'll ride with you, give you a hand," said Collins casually.
"No, thanks, I got three men with me, got all the help I need. Real nice fellas they are, you'll like'em, boys. They got a sense of humor, too." He finally looked over at Collins. "Have'em ready first thing in the morning, grandpa, I'll do the rest. You on guard here all night?" Collins nodded slowly. "Well, don't fall asleep on the job, now," the marshal ordered, and stamped out of the office.
The door slammed behind him, and all three men let out their breath. Heyes strode to the other side of the cell, and grasped the bars as though trying to pull them apart. Curry looked at the sheriff wordlessly, then sank back down on the bunk. Collins went back to his desk in silence.
The clock on the paper-strewn desk struck eleven, then twelve, with a whirring and clanking in between the strokes. It was the only sound in the office, except for occasional murmurs from the cell as the prisoners exchanged a low remark.
Collins sat with his head in his hands, his eyes wide open. Another hour passed. Every time his eyelids began to sink, he would get up and pace a circuit around the room, and then sit back down. Finally, after he'd circled the room five times, he gave a deep sigh. He stood up with a decided air, and walked over to the cell with his usual slow pace.
Both the prisoners were lying on their bunks, eyes open, staring at the low ceiling. They watched as Collins took out a large key, unlocked the door and swung it open. The two outlaws glanced at each other, then at him.
"What's up, Sheriff?" inquired Heyes.
"I'm letting you go," said the sheriff.
The two looked at each other again, with puzzled frowns. "We're not really in the mood for jokes right now," said Curry. "You're letting us go, eh?"
"Yep," said Collins, sitting down on a bench near the cell and stretching out his long legs. The two outlaws sat up and regarded the open door as though it might explode any minute.
Finally Heyes stood and ran a hand through his hair. "Is this some sort of trap?" he asked.
The sheriff chuckled. "You've been reading too many dime novels, friend. Yeah, you're on to me, boys, it's a trap all right. I got ten armed men surrounding the building ready to shoot you down like dogs."
The Kid took a cautious step out of the cell, eying the sheriff warily. Then he tried another step. Collins watched him unmoving. "Come on, Heyes," Curry said in a low voice. "Let's get out of here."
Heyes ignored him and stood frowning at the old man. "Why on earth are you doing this?" he demanded.
"Who cares?" said Kid, grabbing their gunbelts from a hook on the wall. "Come on, let's try the back door."
"You know you'll lose your job for this, end up in jail, even," said Heyes. Collins nodded calmly. "Why?" said Heyes quietly. "I just gotta know."
"Jesus, aren't you looking this gift horse a bit too close in the mouth?" exclaimed Kid, glancing out the window. "Let's go! Write him a letter if you want to explore the problem any more."
Heyes stood in the cell, his eyes fixed on the sheriff. Collins sighed. "Well, I'll tell you this much," he said. "You may not believe it, but I wasn't always a dull old codger. Once I was young and stupid, just like you. Got into trouble, just like you.” He glanced at Kid, who was peering out the back door, gun in hand. "Me and my partner."
"So you 're letting us go just to be kind-hearted?" Heyes asked, raising his eyebrows. “Just for old times’ sake?”
Collins smiled grimly. "Your partner's right, you better get going, son. Not all sheriffs are as kind-hearted as I am, you know. Some like to do target practice. They'll shoot a man even if he has his hands up. Blow his head right off."
Heyes stared at him. "Christ, Heyes, what's the matter with you?" said Kid, striding over to the cell and hauling Heyes out of it by force.
"All right, all right," said Heyes, shaking him off. He looked at the Sheriff again. "Well, thanks," he said awkwardly. The sheriff nodded. Heyes grabbed the gunbelt Curry handed him, and the two slipped silently out the back door, their footsteps fading into the quiet dark.
The sheriff listened for several minutes, but there were no shouts or noise of any sort. He smiled to himself. Then he entered the empty cell, and swung the door shut behind him. He stretched himself out on the bunk, put his hands behind his head, and yawned luxuriously.
It was time, he thought, time and more, that he finally got a good night's sleep.
Hog Nose Snake
It was a cold morning, just like the last three desert mornings. Heyes shivered as he unrolled himself from his blanket and stood up, yawning. The cloudless sky was a dim grey, the stars just fading and there was a faint tinge of pink rising behind the low cliffs to the east. Last night’s fire was dead out, the pile of ashes giving no heat at all. He shivered again as he pulled on his boots, looking around at the empty horizon. He gave the Kid a shove with his foot to wake him up, and set about re-building the fire.
He stacked the bone-dry firewood and lighted it easily with one match. There was no need of kindling–the sun had long since baked every speck of moisture out of the wood, and it burned fierce and quick like paper. The desert sky was brightening from grey to blue as the sun rose higher over the rocks. Soon, Heyes knew, the crazy desert temperature would go from icy to broiling, bouncing up and down like a rubber ball. This country got cold enough to freeze the water in your canteen at night, and by day it was generally hot enough to fry an egg on the baking rocks.
Sure enough, by the time he’d gotten the fire going well, the sun was beating down on his back, and he was starting to sweat. He took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, and set the coffeepot on to boil.
“Last night sleeping on rocks for a while,” said Kid, rolling up his blanket and dumping it on top of the saddle he’d been using for a pillow. “I’m looking forward to a mattress for a change.” He tossed his hat and gun belt on the pile, and looked around for the horses, who were grazing on the sparse tufts of grass not far away.
“Ah, Kid, it’s so pretty out here, though,” said Heyes, looking around at the wide horizon. “Fresh air, peace and quiet. No smelly hotel rooms with bedbugs, and noisy neighbors keeping you awake all night.”
“Damn coyotes howling, though,” growled Kid, stretching to get the kinks out of his back.
“Oh, you’re just scratchy before your morning coffee,” said Heyes. “You’ve gotta relax and enjoy the beauties of nature.”
“Well, we ought to get a move on,” said Kid, getting out the frying pan. “Cavendish won’t pay us the bonus if we don’t deliver those documents by the end of the day.”
“I know, I know,” said Heyes. “You’re always in a hurry, can’t ever relax.”
They fried bacon and beans in the frying pan and then sat on either side of the fire finishing their coffee. Heyes still felt in no hurry to go. It was indeed a beautiful morning, the tall crags and flat-topped mesas all around them glowing red under the blue sky.
He moved a few feet back from the fire as the sun grew hotter. Holding his tin mug in one hand, he leaned back on one arm to admire the morning light on the cliff face high above. A dry, rattling, rustling sound from behind made him start and drop the cup.
He was just about to turn around when Kid shouted, “Don’t move, for God’s sake! Hold still.”
Heyes stared at Kid’s face, not daring to turn his head. Kid was staring at a point just past his left arm.
“Rattler?” Heyes asked weakly, aware that it was probably a stupid question.
“About three inches from your hand, a big one. Don’t move,” said Kid, not taking his eyes off the snake. Heyes tried to slow down his breathing and hold perfectly still. Kid made a movement with his hand, and the rattle sounded again, fiercer than ever. Without moving his head, Heyes shot a glance at Kid’s holster, lying on the saddle where Kid had tossed it a few minutes ago, only about three feet away. Three feet out of reach.
“Just hold still, Heyes,” Kid repeated.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Heyes told him. He could feel his own pulse pounding in his ears.
Kid took a deep breath and eased himself up onto one knee. Moving almost imperceptibly, he stretched out his hand to the gun belt. He grasped it, then began to lift. The movement made the snake rattle again.
“Hurry up, will ya?” said Heyes through his teeth. “I don’t know how long I can keep my legs from running.” A voice in his head was screaming in panic: “Run! Run!” and he fought down the instinct that told him to leap up and get out of there.
“Shhh, you’ll spook it,” hissed Kid.
“Snakes are deaf,” Heyes pointed out irritably.
“Well they’re not blind, and if I hurry this one’s gonna really get annoyed. Just hold still.”
“Will you stop saying that?”snapped Heyes. “Get on with it!”
Kid inched the gun belt closer, then slowly brought this right hand closer to the gun. He eased it from the holster, inch by inch.
“I thought you were the fastest gun in the west,” murmured Heyes. The arm supporting his weight was starting to shake.
“No one ever won a fast draw against a rattler,” said Kid, bringing the gun up slowly. Heyes thought of nightmares he had had as a child, where everything seemed to move with a terrible slowness. Kid leveled the gun, and narrowed his eyes as he aimed. Heyes held his breath.
At the explosion of the gun he couldn’t help snatching his hand away. He heard the bullet crack on the rock, then whine into the distance. He slumped down on one elbow, panting as if he’d run a mile.
Kid scrambled over and grabbed his arm. “Did he get you?” He scanned Heyes’s hand and wrist for the tiny double puncture mark of fangs.
“I don’t think so,” said Heyes, sitting up. “I didn’t feel anything.”
“Looks okay,” said Kid, sitting back on his heels with a sigh of relief.
Heyes glanced down at the snake. Its head was shattered, the body tangled in a knot on the pile of dead sagebrush leaves where it had been hidden. The mottled golden-brown skin was the same color as the dried leaves where it had lain hidden. Kid picked up a stick and lifted the snake’s limp body. His eyes widened as he looked at the dangling tail. “Well, well,” he said. “Look at this.”
Heyes frowned as he examined the tail. It came to a narrow point, with no trace of a rattle. Suddenly he realized what had happened. “My God,” he groaned and collapsed flat on his back. “All that for nothing.” He didn’t know whether to laugh or to shout out curses till he was hoarse.
“Hog nose snake,” said Kid regretfully. “I’ve seen’em do that a few times, but this one gave the best imitation of a rattler I ever saw.”
“It was the dried leaves,” said Heyes, sitting up. He stirred the leaves with a finger and they gave off a rustling, rattling sound. “All he had to do was move his tail, and it sounded just like a rattler.”
“That’s how they scare away their enemies, I guess,” said Kid. “All bluff. They sure aren’t poisonous, I knew someone when I was a kid who kept one as a pet.”
“Well, it sure scared me out of a year’s growth,” said Heyes. His hands were still shaking.
Kid shoved his gun back in the holster and grinned at him. “You’ll admit,” he said, “There’s something to be said for a good hotel.”
Heyes and Kid leaned comfortably against the saloon bar as the bartender poured double shots of whiskey into their glasses. The bartender watched with a sour expression as they clinked the glasses together before taking a long drink. “Well, you boys look happy,” he said.
“Just got paid. Nice feeling, isn’t it?” said Kid expansively. “Good money for a job well done.” He finished his drink in one gulp.
“See it all the time,” sighed the bartender. “Get your hands on a few bucks and they burn a hole in your pocket. Guys like you never learn. Want another?” he asked, pointing to their empty glasses.
“Why don’t you just leave the bottle?”said Heyes. He slid a dollar bill across the bar.
“Cowboys,” said the bartender, shaking his head as he walked away.
“Well, Kid,” said Heyes, pouring another drink for both of them. “What’ll it be, blackjack or poker?”
“Heyes, you really gotta get your priorities straight,” said Kid. “The question is, steak or roast beef?”
“And after that, I suppose, it’ll be blonde or brunette? You know, that bartender’s right, you should do something to increase your money instead of throwing it away,” said Heyes.
“Well, what’s the point of finally having cashed in if we can’t have a little fun...” Kid broke off as he became aware that a man leaning on the bar was listening intently to their conversation.
“Sorry, friend,” said the man a little shamefacedly as Kid caught his eye. “Didn’t mean to be eavesdropping, but I’m kinda envious. You boys had some good luck, huh?”
“No, not exactly,” said Kid good-humoredly. “Just the rewards of a job well done.”
“You boys look like you been riding out on the range, though,” said the man, eyeing their dusty clothes. “What kind of work pays well out there, I wonder?”
“What’s it to you, friend?” said Heyes pleasantly, feeling that this had gone far enough.
“Oh, nothing at all, just making conversation. You guys look like you been out on the trail for a while.”
“Oh, only a few days,” said Kid.
“Really?” said the man. “There’s an awful lot of nothing in the desert out there–no ranches or herds. Just a lot of rock and dust.”
“Well, we were enjoying the beauties of nature, you see,” said Kid solemnly with a glance at Heyes. “It’s beautiful out there, you know, fresh air, peace and quiet, no smelly hotel bedrooms or noisy neighbors...” Heyes whacked him with his hat, raising a cloud of dust, and they both burst out laughing. The stranger laughed politely, watching them.
“Well, pardon us, friend, but we have to go,” said Heyes, putting on his hat. “Nice talking to you, but we got a couple of sirloin steaks waiting for us.”
“You haven’t quite finished the bottle,” the man pointed out.
“Help yourself, pal,” said Kid as they walked away. The man watched them go, then poured himself a drink. He stared at the whiskey in the glass, frowning thoughtfully.
“Little too nosy, that guy,” Heyes murmured as they walked out the swinging saloon doors. “Let’s find someplace else for dinner and stop talking so loud about how much money we got.”
A silver moon lit the deserted street as they sauntered back to their comfortable hotel, after a good dinner and a rollicking evening at the dance hall. As they passed the livery stable, Heyes heard a creaking noise, and the soft thud of footsteps. A thin stab of fear pierced his mind, and he was just beginning to spin around when a voice behind them hissed, “Hold it right there, boys, hands up. Way up.”
Heyes immediately recognized the voice, and cursed himself for his carelessness. “Still just making conversation, friend?” he asked, raising his hands. Beside him, Kid slowly did the same, muttering under his breath.
“Shut up!” said the stranger, and Heyes felt his gun being swiftly pulled from the holster. Then rough hands grabbed him from behind and shoved him through the stable door. He was pushed down onto a pile of crackling hay, and Kid landed on top of him. He rolled over and looked around the dark barn, wondering if there was a chance of making a run for it.
The stranger they’d encountered in the saloon was holding a lantern that cast a dim circle of light. In the shadows two other men stood, also with drawn guns. Hold-up, thought Heyes. How stupid are we, to fall for this? The two most successful bank robbers in the history of the west and we get rolled for a few hundred dollars. He picked himself up from the straw, and brushed himself off with an air of casual unconcern.
“Where’s the money?” said the tallest man. His face was hidden in the shadows, but Heyes could see the gun pointed unwaveringly right at him.
“Well, you can have what I got, but I think you’ll be disappointed, boys,” said Heyes. “I haven’t got but about forty dollars.” He took a roll of bills from his pocket. The rest was in his boot, but he didn’t have much hope that they’d miss it.
“Oh, we had a little more than that in mind, Heyes,” said the tall man, stepping out of the shadows into the circle of light.
Heyes and Kid both stared at him. “Kraft!” said Heyes uneasily. “Long time no see.”
“Wasn’t expecting to see you either, Heyes,” said Kraft, with a pleasant smile. “You boys been lying kind of low lately. I was pretty surprised to look up and see you knocking back the whiskey in the saloon this evening. Just got to wondering what it was you boys were celebrating, so I sent Jobson here over to find out.”
There was a pause. Heyes tried to look relaxed and made an effort not to catch Kid’s eye. “Well, we just finished a job and we had a little extra money for a change,” said Kid. “No big deal.”
“No big deal, eh?” said Kraft. “But if Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry are celebrating a big payday, then I’d kind of like to get in on it.”
“Not a job like you’re thinking,” Heyes explained. “The Kid’s talking about a job, like you get paid for. We delivered some important documents to a lawyer in this town, and he paid pretty well. Two hundred dollars apiece.”
“Oh, sure,” said Kraft, his smile fading. “You two take delivery boy jobs for peanuts. No, if you’re finally cashing in, like you said, you’ve got to be talking big money. And I figure you buried the loot out in the desert-- that’s why you were out there for a few days, and come riding into town all hot and dusty.”
“Enjoying the beauties of nature,” added their acquaintance from the saloon. “That’s a good one.” He and the other man snickered, but Kraft remained grim.
“There was a bank in Abilene, just north of here, robbed last week,” he said. “You boys rode in here from the north. No one knows who did it, but they got clean away with a hundred thousand dollars.”
“Well good luck to them, but it wasn’t us,” said Heyes. “You may not believe this, but we’re retired, actually, going straight. Haven’t done a bank job in ages.”
“You’re right, as usual, Heyes,” said Kraft. “I don’t believe you. So you’re gonna tell us where you hid that money.”
“You’re a little too smart for your own good, Kraft,” said Heyes, shrugging casually. “I tell you we haven’t got more than two hundred apiece.”
Kraft tightened his finger on the trigger. The click of the hammer was audible in the quiet barn. Kid’s hand involuntarily went to his empty holster. “Don’t try to be funny,” said Kraft in a low voice. “I’ve heard you boys have a sense of humor, but I ain’t in a joking mood.”
“You’ve got the wrong guys,” said Heyes with a friendly smile, shaking his head. “I don’t know what...”
The tall man didn’t wait for him to finish. “Tie him up,” he growled to the other two, jerking his head towards Kid. They grabbed Kid and shoved him against one of the beams that supported the barn roof. One of the men yanked Kid’s hands behind his back and tied him to the post. The tall man strode over and placed the barrel of his gun an inch from Kid’s head.
“Jesus, wait a minute,” said Heyes. “What are you doing?”
“The money,” said Kraft. “A hundred thousand--it’s a lot of money. Is it worth dying for?” He looked over at Heyes. “I’m not a patient man,” he said. “So I’m only gonna count to three. One...”
“Stop it!” yelled Heyes. He lunged forward, but the other two grabbed him. “Two...” said Kraft, still looking at Heyes.
“He’s telling the truth,” Kid said, straining at the rope that tied his hands. "We haven't got--"
“All right, you win,” Heyes shouted. “You’re right, we did rob the bank. I’ll show you where the money is.”
“That’s more like it,” said the tall man, withdrawing the gun and letting the hammer down gently. Kid slumped against the post, glad it was holding him up. He felt dazed. He took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on what the others were saying.
“...and you’re right, we buried it out in the desert,” he heard Heyes’ voice say, a ring of sincerity in every word.
“Tell us where it is, and we’ll ride on out. We’ll leave you two tied up here so’s we can get a good head start,” said Kraft, grinning.
“Oh, sure you will,” said Heyes, smiling just as wide. He looked relaxed and casual. “We tell you where a hundred thousand dollars is, and you just pat us on the head, say thanks, and ride off. No, sir.”
“I asked you before, you think it’s worth getting dead over?”
“Nothing’s worth getting dead over, we’re gonna cut you in,” Heyes assured him. “But how are you stupid lugs gonna find one little spot way out in the desert. There’s no way we could just tell you where it is. It’s buried under a rock, three days’ ride from here, and there’s an awful lot of rocks out there.” There was such conviction in Heyes’ voice that for a second Kid wondered blurrily if they had really robbed that bank and it had slipped his mind.
“Heyes is telling the truth, boys,” he pitched in. “You could look for a month and not find it. You need us to show it to you.”
“Oh, yeah?” said Kraft looking at him with a dangerous glint. “Well, we don’t need both of you. We’ll take you both along for insurance, but don’t try anything. If by any chance we don’t find that money, twenty thousand dollars is a pretty good consolation prize.” He turned to the other two. “Come on, Jobson, saddle up the horses. Armstrong, keep an eye on them while I get our stuff.”
Heyes edged closer to Kid as the three outlaws made preparations for the journey. Kid leaned back against the post and sighed. “I sure hope you have a hundred thousand dollars hidden under a rock out there,” he murmured. Heyes smiled, not taking his eyes off Kraft.
“Even if I did, it wouldn’t do us any good,” he muttered. “Soon as we showed’em where it was, we’d be dead. No, we just gotta string’em along, bluff till we can get away. That’s why I said it was three days ride from here. If we can’t get away from these idiots in three days...” His voice trailed off.
“String‘em along, that’s your plan?” asked Kid. “That’s it?”
“Bluff’em,” repeated Heyes confidently. “Like in a poker game. Like the hog nose snake.”
“Yeah, well, remember what happened to him,” said Kid.
Heyes woke up shivering in the desert morning. The east was pale gold streaked with pink, but he was far from appreciating the beauty of the sunrise. He and Kid had spent the last two nights tied hand and foot, guarded by one of the men with a drawn gun. Those three weren’t taking any chances on losing out on the mythical hundred thousand dollars, Heyes thought bitterly, and what they lacked in brains they made up for in persistence. At least one of them was watching closely, gun in hand, every minute.
Kraft had done the last stretch of guard duty, and he bent and untied their hands and feet. Heyes stretched his aching limbs and sat up stiffly. “You two come on over here and make yourselves useful,” ordered Kraft, sitting down on a convenient rock near the ashes of last night’s fire. “Get going,” Kraft commanded. “Put some coffee on, and bacon. Move it!”
Heyes soon had a fire blazing. He filled the coffeepot with water from a canteen, and set it near the flames. Kid, meanwhile, got out the frying pan and sliced bacon. Soon steam was issuing from the nose of the coffeepot, and the bacon was starting to sizzle.
“This is the last of the meat, and the coffee too,” remarked Heyes over his shoulder to Kraft. “Not much left but crackers. You guys didn’t plan this trip too well.”
“Well, we weren’t expecting to take such a long excursion,” said Kraft, yawning. “You said three days.”
“I said about three days,” Heyes snapped.
“Well, we’ll make up for short rations once we get the dollars,” said Kraft, sounding almost affable for once.
“He seems to be in a good mood,” Heyes said under his breath to Kid, who was crouching beside him as they tended to the cooking.
“Yeah, I get the feeling he’s enjoying ordering us around and having us do the chores,” Kid muttered back. “He always did like to throw his weight around.”
“You guys better come through today, or it’ll be the last day you’ll have to worry about eating, anyway,” Kraft remarked. He leaned back and stretched, yawning again and looking around at the sunrise. For once, his gun was in his holster.
Heyes felt Kid nudge him in the ribs, and looked up. Kid gave him a meaningful look, tilted his head towards Kraft, and then slightly raised the frying pan, sizzling with bacon fat. Heyes’ eyes widened. He knew immediately what Kid was suggesting, but it seemed much too risky. He shook his head slightly, with a quick frown.
Kid gave a small sharp nod, then a sidewise glance. Heyes interpreted this as a command to look over at their three captors, and threw a swift glance over his shoulder. Kraft was sitting just behind them, and the other two were a few paces away, still in their bedrolls. This was the first time at least one of them hadn’t had a gun in hand in the whole three days.
Heyes looked at Kid out of the corner of his eye. Kid hefted the frying pan again, and Heyes thought fast. They weren’t going to able to bluff much further. He sighed and gave a reluctant nod.
Kid flashed three fingers, and Heyes nodded again. He took a deep breath, and grasped the coffeepot handle, feeling the tension mount in his stomach. He watched as Kid lifted the frying pan slightly, once, twice, a third time.
Then suddenly Kid whipped around and smashed the heavy cast-iron pan full into Kraft’s face. Simultaneously, Heyes swung the boiling coffeepot, and flung a cascade of steaming water over the other two. Kid dived towards Kraft, but the man jumped back just in time, pulled out his gun, and fired. The shot went wild, but Heyes decided not to waste time trying for the weapons. Armstrong and Jobson were both drawing their guns, cursing with the pain of the scarlet burns on their faces.
“Come on, run!” Heyes yelled. He took off, Kid right behind him, and they dived behind a rock as bullets winged off it. They scrambled around the boulder, and stopped, panting, looking wildly for an escape route.
“Now what?” Heyes gasped as they crouched behind the rock. “This was your idea.”
“Well, so far, so good,” Kid said, breathing hard. “Now I’ve got another idea.”
“Oh yeah?” panted Heyes. “What?”
“Run,” said Kid. “Run like hell.”
Kid scrambled up a steep ridge, his boots skidding on the bare rock slope, Heyes right behind him, panting, breathing in dust. As they climbed higher, their pursuers caught sight of them, and a sudden hail of shots spattered against the rocks, kicking up chips of stone. Heyes felt a hard blow on his leg, as though someone had kicked him.
He lost his hold on the rock, and began to slide back. Digging his fingers into the dry grass, he stopped his slide and started to scramble up again. There was a sharp pain in the side of his thigh. He made it to the top of a ledge and rested on hands and knees for a second, spitting out dust.
Kid was already above him, climbing the next steep section. Heyes jumped to his feet, but the landscape tilted and spun around, and he sank back down on the rock. He looked at his leg to see why it hurt, and was surprised to see blood staining his trouser leg.
Suddenly Kid appeared beside him. He took one look at Heyes’ white face, then at the broad red stain on his leg. Pulling a bandanna out of his pocket, he wadded it up, and jammed it against the wound. Heyes yelped as Kid tied the bandanna around his leg, dragging the knot tight. Kid grabbed Heyes’ jacket and yanked him roughly to his feet. “Come on,” he panted.
Heyes started to follow him towards the steep face of the rock, and was amazed to crash to the ground as soon as he put his weight on his wounded leg. He scrambled to his feet, feeling sick, and tried again, but once more landed on the ground. Kid ran back and tried to pull Heyes to his feet, cursing.
Heyes knocked his hand away. “Get out of here, Kid, go!”
Kid ignored him. “Come on, Heyes, they’ll be here in a minute.”
“No!” shouted Heyes. “Get out of here, Kid, now! Run!”
“I’m not leaving you, Heyes,” Kid shouted back. “You can just forget it.” He bent over Heyes to haul him up.
Heyes grabbed Kid’s jacket, his eyes blazing. “Look,” he said, his voice low and urgent. “Don’t you get it? They only need one of us to lead them to the money. They don’t need both of us. And they’re mad as hornets right now. If they catch both of us, one of us is going to be dead in the next five minutes.”
Kid glared at him. “I’m not gonna run out on you,” he repeated, slapping his empty holster for the hundredth time, his hand automatically reaching for the missing gun. “I’m not running out, Heyes.”
Heyes smiled suddenly. “I know, Kid. But it makes no difference. One of us‘ll be dead for sure if you stay. It could be you, it could be me.” He gave Kid a shove. “Get going. Go on!”
Kid got to his feet and took a step away. Then they both swung round to look at the ledge as they heard shouts, coming closer up the hill. Kid turned back to Heyes and stared at him for what seemed to both of them like a long time.
“Go on,” Heyes said softly. Kid abruptly turned and ran.
He flung himself up the slope, tearing his hands on the rock, cursing out loud in gasps. He climbed behind an outcrop and vanished just as the pursuers clambered over the rocks to the ledge where Heyes sat, watching Kid safely out of sight.
Kid watched from high above, hidden behind the rocks, as the three pursuers surrounded Heyes. Even from high above, Kid could see the angry red burns on Kraft’s face. Kraft grabbed Heyes by the front of his jacket, heaved him up and hit him. Heyes fell flat.
hflung himself backwards, backed up against the cliff face and looked up at the sky, unable to watch. They won’t kill him, they can’t kill him, he thought again and again; they won’t dare kill him. If they wanted Heyes to lead them to the money, they couldn’t even rough him up too much. He just hoped they weren’t too mad to recall that fact.
He peered back over the cliff in time to see Kraft give Heyes a kick. Kid cursed again, louder this time. Kraft was just drawing back his foot for another kick when Jobson grabbed his arm. Kraft pulled free angrily, but Jobson shouted and gesticulated and Armstrong joined in. The argument continued for a while, and Kraft pointed up the hill in the direction Kid had disappeared in, but the other two shook their heads.
Finally Kraft grabbed Heyes’ jacket and jerked him to his feet. Heyes staggered but managed to keep his footing. Armstrong yanked Heyes’ arms behind his back and tied his hands, then the two dragged him back down the way they had come, Kraft following.
Kid leaned back against the rock and dragged a sleeve across his eyes. He muttered every dirty name he could think of. But that wouldn’t help. He had to do something, make a plan, think of something.
Tools, he thought. Heyes always had a carefully organized equipment list anytime they hit a bank or a train. He slapped his empty holster yet again, and checked his pockets. Kraft had gone over things pretty thoroughly, taking all their money and checking for hidden weapons. He hadn’t missed much. Kid found a box of matches, a tiny pocket knife with a blade about two inches long that he used for paring fingernails, a few coins, a length of twine, and a pencil stub. Not much potential there.
Think, think, he told himself fiercely. He looked around at the empty cliffs, the dry branches of sagebrush carved into strange shapes by years of wind and sand. The sage and small twisted pinon pines were the only greenery in the desolate landscape.
“Think!” he said out loud, slapping the empty holster. No gun, no bullets, no weapons. Anything he did would have to be a bluff. Pure bluff. Like the hog nose snake.
Heyes couldn’t help glancing around from time to time. Half of him hoped the Kid was safely and sensibly hiding out somewhere. The other half hoped that Kid would miraculously appear on one of the rocky hilltops and miraculously rescue him. It would have to be a miracle, he thought hopelessly. There didn’t seem to be any logical way out. The bluff had failed, and Kraft and the other two were starting to catch on.
Heyes was riding in front of the other three. All of them had their guns trained on his back, and were plainly in no mood to tolerate further escape attempts. Heyes moved his shoulders, trying to ease the ache in his back from his bound hands pulled tightly behind him. He had twisted and tugged at the rawhide thongs till his wrists were cut and bleeding, but with no success.
“Much further?” growled Kraft. “I told you, Heyes, I’m not a patient man. I’m running out of patience. And you’re running out of time.”
“Not much further now,” said Heyes for the twentieth time, and realized that for once he was speaking the truth. He couldn’t stall them much longer.
Involuntarily he glanced around again, hoping against hope to see a familiar floppy-brimmed brown hat appear from behind one of the cliffs. No sign. He shivered, thinking for some reason of the hognose snake, lying on the rocks with its head shattered.
They’d been riding for an hour under the noonday sun, the horses slowly picking their way up a steep trail. Heyes had chosen this way, off the flat desert floor, in the thin hope of finding a section of brush where he could jump off the horse and make a run for it. With his hands tied behind him and a gash in his leg, he knew he’d never get far, but he couldn’t think of anything better. He glanced around, trying to nerve himself for a dash. He knew from the muttering behind him that it would have to be soon. But the stretch they were on now, steep cliffs and bare rock, had almost no cover.
A pile of rocks against a cliff face gave him an idea. Maybe he could give them something to concentrate on besides himself. He took a deep breath, knowing this was the last bluff.
“Well, here we are, boys,” he announced. “Told you we’d get here sooner or later.” He made a show of checking various landmarks. “Yep, this is the place.” He jerked his head towards the huge pile of rocks. “Right there.”
“Where?” demanded Jobson.
“Under those rocks,” Heyes told him with a cheerful smile. “Better get busy, boys.”
“What, you and the Kid moved all those rocks?” Kraft asked incredulously. “Those rocks look like they been there for years.”
“That’s why we’re the best,” Heyes said with a modest smile. “Took us the whole day to get’em to look like that.”
Kraft gave him a glance with narrowed eyes. “Okay,” he said. “We‘ll look. But we better find something.”
“Oh, you will,” Heyes assured him. “I can see no one’s been here since me and the Kid.”
At a nod from Kraft, Armstrong and Jobson dismounted and yanked Heyes off his horse. Heyes fell heavily, unable to keep his balance. “Tie him to that tree,” growled Kraft, pointing to a half-dead pinon pine nearby. “I’m not taking any chances.” They hauled Heyes over to the tree and shoved him up against it. Heyes closed his eyes as Armstrong roughly tied him to the tree. He knew there was no way out now.
He leaned against the tree as the three men grunted and heaved over the pile of rocks. The mid-day sun baked down as the three men sweated at their work, cursing as they lifted the heavy rocks. It took an hour. Heyes tried to fight a growing sense of panic as the rock pile got smaller and smaller.
Finally Kraft heaved the last rock off the pile and they were down to bedrock. Plainly nothing had ever been buried there. The three men looked at each other. Kraft nodded.
He pulled out a long knife and walked towards Heyes. “All right, you’ve had your fun. You’re gonna tell up the truth now, for sure. Each time you lie, I’m gonna cut off another finger. You won’t be opening any more safes.” Heyes felt his mouth go dry. He wanted to yell for help, but he knew no one would hear.
Kraft was reaching out his knife when a calm voice behind them said “Hold it right there, boys. Hands up. Way up.” All four of them looked around in amazement. Heyes gave a gasp of relief as he saw Kid, standing on a rise just behind them.
Then fear filled him again. What could the Kid do without a gun? They’d both just end up dead. His eyes went to Kid’s empty gunbelt, and he blinked in surprise as he saw the familiar black handle sticking out of the holster.
“Hands high, boys,” said Kid easily. “Sorry it took me so long to catch up with you, Heyes, I had to go back a ways for those guns we stashed.”
“Oh, good,” said Heyes promptly, trying not to look as mystified as he felt. “Glad you found them all right.”
Jobson and Armstrong obediently held their hands high. Kid Curry’s dangerous reputation was well known. But Kraft’s hand was hovering near his gun. Heyes opened his mouth to shout a warning as Kraft went for his weapon, but Kid spotted him and whipped his gun out of the holster with his usual blinding speed. He didn’t fire the gun, somewhat to Heyes’ surprise, but Kraft stopped in mid-draw and put his hands up reluctantly.
Kid walked behind the three, putting his own gun back in the holster. He kept Kraft’s gun in his hand as he relieved the other men of their weapons, and picked up Kraft’s long knife from the ground.
“Lie down, boys, face down,” he said. “Hands over your heads, that’s it.” Without taking his eyes off them he backed over to Heyes, looked down swiftly, and sliced the rawhide that bound him to the tree. Heyes sank to the ground, feeling dizzy at how fast things had turned around. Kid went over to the horses, and rummaged around in the saddlebags for some rope.
“Lucky for you boys we’re not the revengeful sort that cut people’s fingers off,” he remarked as he pulled Kraft’s hands behind his back. “We’re just gonna tie you up and take all the horses, but don’t worry, we’ll leave you a canteen or two. Shouldn’t take you more than a day or two to get untied.”
He picked up one of the canteens slung on Jobson’s saddle and walked over to where Heyes was sitting, rubbing his wrists to try and get some feeling back in his fingers. Kid handed him the canteen, and Heyes took a long drink.
“You able to ride?” asked Kid, frowning as he looked him over.
“You kidding?” said Heyes. “Let’s make tracks.”
Kid nodded. “Sounds good.” He started to stand up but Heyes grabbed his arm.
“Where on earth did you get that gun?” Heyes demanded. “I saw it but I don’t believe it. We never stashed any guns out there.” Kid grinned. He pulled the gun out of his holster and handed it to Heyes.
Heyes grasped the weapon and looked it over in amazement. It was light in weight, far lighter than a six-gun should be. In fact it wasn’t a gun at all, he realized, it was a piece of sagebrush wood, crudely whittled into a gun shape, and blackened with smoke. Pencil lines crosshatched on the handle gave the effect of a metal grip.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Heyes, shaking his head. “You must be crazy.”
Kid shrugged and smiled with modest pride. “Hog nose snake,” he said.
Author’s Note: I have to apologize for having Kid shoot a hog nose snake, a beautiful and inoffensive reptile. Hog nose snakes are found across the United States. They’re pretty creatures, with mottled red and black markings and an upturned nose that gives them their name. Their habit of mimicking rattlesnakes may work to scare off predators like coyotes, but humans too often fall for the trick and kill them.
I’m from the eastern US, where rattlesnakes are rare—in fact, in my state they’re an endangered species and it’s against the law to harm them. Out west, however, they’re more numerous, and unfortunately, many people kill them on sight.