Can’t Trust Anyone
"Nothin’ in there,” he muttered. “Flat-out nothing.” The water was brown as coffee, and pebbles rattled in the rusty pan as the prospector sloshed it around and around. He stared into the muddy dregs again, with the eternal optimism of the gambler—surely there’d be a gleam of gold as the last of the water splashed out of the pan?
Nope. Nothing in the bottom but mud.
Gus filled the pan from the wide stream that ran past his cabin, and set to work once more. As he swirled the water, he glimpsed a golden sparkle; it looked big, too, a thumbnail-size chunk. His weathered face brightened.
The loud crack of a shot made him jump. The pan tilted, and he saw the nugget slide out and vanish in the deep, churning stream.
He swore and dropped the pan on the ground, drawing his gun and looking warily around. “Now who the hell is that?” he inquired of the empty air. The shot had come from close by, followed by two more in rapid succession. Then silence.
The clearing around his small cabin was quiet, a thread of smoke drifting from the chimney, the tall pines silent in the afternoon sun. He scratched his chin and wondered what was up. Hunters? There were a few other prospectors on this stretch of stream, it was possible someone was shooting at a deer.
None of your business, anyway, Gus told himself. Just keep your head down. Stay out of it.
He returned to his panning, but couldn't concentrate. A nagging curiosity to see what was going on finally made him put the pan aside. He decided to ride up the trail a bit, to see if there was anything to see.
He saddled Molly, and rode cautiously up the narrow path, continually turning his head from side to side. He looked warily down the empty corridors between the trunks, where the thick pine boughs cast a gloom. No sight or sound of anyone. Finally Molly plodded into a wide clearing lit by golden afternoon sun, and Gus found what he'd known he'd find. Sure enough, he thought.
A body lay sprawled in the clearing. He almost rode off, but a small pricking of curiosity made him dismount and walk over to the still figure. The body lay face down, a man with sandy hair, wearing a sheepskin jacket. He could see the bloodstained bullet hole, just over the left shoulder. There was a pool of red on the ground.
He turned the body over with his foot. It was quite a young man, and Gus shook his head. He himself was old, at least he thought of himself as old, though he wasn’t yet out of his forties. Stupid kid, he thought. He got careless. Once is all it takes. Then he frowned, looking down intently, and stirred the limp figure with his foot. The man gave a low moan, and moved his head.
Gus swore in annoyance, cursing his own curiosity. Be a busybody, he told himself. Poke your nose into someone else's business. Now what?
Now nothing, he answered himself. Leave him, he's practically dead, anyway. It's nothing but trouble.
The man's eyes opened slowly, and he stared blankly at Gus for a long minute. Then the blue eyes looked past the prospector. His glance roved around the clearing, as if seeking someone. His lips moved, and Gus leaned down in spite of himself to catch the words, but couldn't tell what the man murmured. It sounded like a name. Then the young man’s eyes closed and his head sank limply to one side.
Dead, thought Gus. Good, that's the end of that. But when he reached down and put a hand in front of the man's mouth he could feel a faint breath. God damn, he thought, and spun on his heel, leaving the still figure behind.
He mounted his horse, and kicked his heels so that the horse was startled into a trot across the clearing. But Gus pulled up at the edge of the trees and looked over his shoulder. If the man had asked for help, he would have ridden off without a thought. Gus himself never asked for help and never offered any. It was the absence of pleading that made him yank his horse’s head around and head back across the clearing.
The young man was no light weight, and Gus couldn't lift him onto the horse. He gave the guy a kick in the ribs, and smacked his face a couple of times, and when the man groaned and stirred, Gus grabbed him under the armpits and hoisted him to a sitting position. “Get up, kid, come on, stand up,” he kept on shouting in the young man’s ear, and finally he staggered upright. Gus helped him get a foot in the stirrup, and shoved him bodily onto the horse while Molly, well used to being loaded with burdens, stood placidly munching grass. The man slumped forward onto the horse’s neck, and Gus had to grab his jacket to keep him from falling off as he led the horse down the trail.
They were halfway down the hill when Gus heard hoofbeats behind him, and felt a surge of fear in his stomach, like a sudden swallow of icy water. He hastily pulled the horse off the trail behind a boulder, then peered over the rock to see if someone was following. He caught a glimpse of a man in a black hat and jacket riding along, carrying a rifle and looking intently from side to side, as if in search of something. Gus waited till the man was hidden by the trees and the last thump of hooves had died before tiptoeing back to the trail, Molly clumping slowly behind.
The young man was lying limp across the horse’s neck when they reached the cabin. Gus noted with annoyance that he was dripping blood down Molly's brown sides, and all over the saddle and blanket. He hauled the man off the patient horse, and she placidly headed to her tiny stable.
Gus half dragged, half supported the young man into the cabin, and dumped him onto the narrow bedstead. Gus sighed, and began to haul the heavy sheepskin jacket off. The boy moaned again, then gritted his teeth and stayed silent as Gus yanked off the coat and ripped his knife through the blood-soaked blue shirt. The bullet had gone through the left shoulder, below the collarbone. Gus pursed his lips, wondering if it was worth while continuing. All this work, and you'll end up with nothing but a body to bury," he thought gloomily. Weighs a ton, too. He was tempted to go back to his panning, and see if the man was still alive by evening. He walked to the door, and then looked back. He saw that the young man's eyes were open, considering him. Again, the man said nothing, made no plea for help.
Gus heaved another sigh. "How you feelin', boy?" he asked roughly.
The stranger didn't answer, just stared at him like a coyote with its leg in a trap. Gus saw fear and pain in the young face, and was moved to smile. "Don't look too bad," he said. "Take it easy."
Half an hour later he stood back and surveyed his handiwork, not dissatisfied. He had sacrificed his only clean shirt for a bandage, and there was blood all over the blankets now, but the bandage looked pretty good. The young man was sunk in an exhausted sleep. Damn, can't kill that fellow, Gus thought. He went outside, closing the door quietly behind him.
He had just finished washing his bloody hands in the stream when he suddenly became aware of hoofbeats blending with the noise of the water. He spun around. A stranger, a dark-haired young man, was just dismounting from his horse, and gave him a friendly smile. There was a rifle thrust into a saddle holster, and Gus realized with a chill it was the same man he'd seen earlier, looking for something. Looking for someone.
“Hello,” said the stranger, holding out his hand with a genial smile. “My name’s Smith.”
Gus wiped his wet hand on his trousers and shook briefly, then took a few steps backwards. “What d'you want?” he inquired warily.
“Nothing, just wanted to ask if you'd seen my partner, by any chance. He was riding down by this way earlier today. Brown hat, sheepskin jacket, brown hair?”
“Nope,” said Gus, with the instinct of a poker player to avoid showing his hand. He had an uneasy feeling that behind Smith’s pleasant smile there was danger. “Didn’t see no one.”
The man nodded. “You hear any shots a few hours ago?” he inquired.
“Yeah, I did,” Gus admitted cautiously. “Didn’t see nothing, though.”
“I heard them, too,” said the man with a slight frown. “Just got to thinking I'd come along and see if my partner was okay. But you didn’t see anyone?”
“Nope, just figured it was somebody hunting,” Gus muttered.
“Not too many folks in these parts,” the stranger observed, glancing around the clearing.
Yep," Gus agreed shortly. "Like to keep it that way." He backed away, and didn’t volunteer any further information.
"Well, thanks," said the man, getting back on his horse. He watched Gus cross the yard with what Gus felt was a suspicious eye. "Be seeing you," said the stranger with a wave and rode off. It seemed like a casual phrase, but Gus had the distinct feeling that it was a veiled threat.
Gus rattled around the cabin uneasily, getting out beans and flour for an evening meal, and looking out the window every other minute. Finally he became aware that the stranger was awake. "How you feeling, young fella?" Gus inquired.
The man looked him over. "Who're you?" he asked groggily.
"No one you know," Gus replied. "Name's Hanks, Gus Hanks."
The young man nodded, then winced at the movement. "Thaddeus Jones," he said. Gus nodded unsmilingly.
"What happened?" Jones asked, looking around the cabin.
"I dunno," said Gus curtly. "None of my business." He got up and poked the fire with a stick, and threw on another log. The night was growing chilly as the sun sank behind the pines.
"Appreciate you taking me in," said Jones. "I'm obliged to you."
Gus snorted. "Know who shot you?" he asked, to change the subject. "Get a look at'em?"
"Nope," said the young man, rubbing a hand across his face. "Came out of nowhere. Didn't see a thing." He watched as Gus filled the coffeepot and hung it over the tiny fireplace. "Was my horse around, by any chance?"
"Nope, nothing but you lying there like a sack of potatoes."
"No sign of my saddlebags, I don't suppose?"
"Nope," said Gus again. The boy heaved a sigh, then winced again. "Damn," he said in a low voice.
"Something important in the saddlebags?" Gus inquired, using his knife to pry open a can of beans.
"About five thousand dollars in gold dust," Jones said dismally.
Gus opened his eyes wide with a stab of jealousy. "You been panning upstream?" he asked.
"Yeah, me and my partner been working the stream for about a month. Good spot we found, real good."
Gus thought of the countless times he'd filled the dented pan and swirled muddy water, with almost nothing to show for it. "Five thousand. In a month," he said. He chewed on the thought for a while, as the coffeepot began to steam, and soon realized what must have happened. "Your partner, you say," said Gus slowly. "Where's he at?"
Jones had been staring at the fire, lost in thought, but he blinked at the question and looked over at Gus. "Oh, he stayed up there to hold our spot, and we decided I'd ride down and get the dust weighed and banked."
"Ah," said Gus, and nodded wisely. "Then that explains it."
"Explains what?" Jones inquired, frowning.
"Who shot you. Plain as the nose on your face." The young man stared at him. "Your partner, of course," Gus went on. "He gets rid of you, takes the gold, keeps the claim all to himself. Easy."
The young man laughed aloud. "No, no, it wasn't him," he said.
"No?" Gus repeated, eyebrows raised high.
Jones grinned, and shook his head. "No, of course not."
Gus snorted. "Son, there's no partner alive wouldn't do you in for that kind of money. Think about it. Who decided it'd be you to ride into town? He did, right?"
"Well, yeah, but..."
"You said you should both go, but he thought it'd be better if he stayed to make sure no one else took the spot?"
"Well, yeah, but..."
"See? Can't trust anyone, pal. Too bad you had to learn the hard way."
Jones shook his head. "You're wrong," he said.
Gus snickered at the calm certainty of his tone. "Sure," he said with bitter satisfaction. "You'll see."
Gus heated up the beans, and managed not to burn more than half of them. He added some salt, and stirred the pot with an appreciative sniff, then glanced over at Jones, who was lying quietly, eyes closed. “Want some dinner?” Gus inquired. “Can’t beat beans on a cold night.”
Jones shook his head, with a faint smile. “Not right now,” he said.
“Suit yourself,” said Gus, spooning the black-speckled mass out of the pot and onto his plate. “Want some coffee?”
“Could I have some water, please?” Jones murmured.
“Sure,” said Gus, and as soon as he’d finished the beans he went out to get some fresh water from the stream.
He was halfway across the clearing when he heard a footstep behind him, and spun around. It was the genial stranger of the afternoon, Smith--but a very different Smith. Gus hardly recognized him. The stranger’s face was white, the eyes narrowed and glittering dangerously over the gun, held in a hand that was not quite steady. Under his terror, Gus realized with satisfaction that his instinct had been right after all. Smith was a very dangerous man.
“Where is he?” demanded Smith, in a low voice filled with hate.
Gus tried to think of a convincing lie, but his mind was blank. “You still looking for…” he began shakily, but Smith interrupted.
“I found the clearing,” he said. “There’s blood all over, and it leads right to here.” He shoved Gus backwards, and Gus was so startled he fell down, his rear hitting the ground with a thud. Smith stood over him menacingly, the gun pointed straight at his face. “You slung him over your horse and hauled him down here, there’s still blood on the ground, and blood all over your saddle.” Smith reached down and yanked Gus to his feet, then shoved the gun under his nose. “I want to know where he is,” he said in a voice that shook. “So I'll ask you one more time, where is he?”
Gus bit his lip. The obvious thing to do was to admit Jones was in the cabin, and hope that he himself could make a run for it when Smith went in there to finish Jones off. Gus hesitated, feeling a strong reluctance to tell the murderous stranger where his helpless victim was. But his eyes involuntarily slid to the cabin, and Smith caught the movement, following his glance. “In there?” he demanded, a surprised lift in his voice. Gus said nothing. Smith spun him around and shoved him forward. “Walk,” he commanded.
Gus walked towards the cabin, aware every inch of the way of the gun jammed into his back. He opened the low door and stooped to go inside, with Smith on his heels. Jones lay asleep on the bed, his face flushed with fever, turning his head and muttering. Gus felt an unaccountable wave of sadness that it should end like this, after working so hard on the young fellow. "None of my business," he murmured for the hundredth time. "I warned him."
Smith stood motionless for a few seconds, and Gus heard the breath hiss between his teeth. Then Gus was pushed roughly aside. He could hardly bear to watch as Smith strode over to the bed, gun in hand. But then, to Gus’s amazement, Smith dropped the gun, and sank on his knees beside the low bed. “Kid?” he said in an unsteady voice.
Jones opened his eyes and stared at the stranger. A smile spread over his face and he held out his hand weakly. Smith grasped it. “Heyes,” Jones said, and Gus blinked at the strange name. “Glad to see you, you okay?”
Smith nodded his head wordlessly, a smile dawning. “My God, Kid, I thought you were...you had me scared to death, you know that?”
Jones grinned drowsily. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m fine, fine. Just a little tired, that’s all.” His eyes closed, then fluttered open. “I lost the money, Heyes, lost all of it. Can’t imagine how I came to be so stupid, getting bushwhacked like that.”
“Damn the money,” Smith said impatiently, as he reached out and felt the other’s forehead. “How bad you hurt?”
“It’s nothing, just my shoulder. Lost a little blood. I’ll be all right tomorrow.” His eyes closed and opened again.
“Get some sleep,” Smith said softly. Jones nodded, and his eyes shut again. Smith stood up, swaying wearily, and dragged a sleeve across his eyes. He glanced around the cabin, a keen look that took in the pile of rags from the torn-up shirt Gus had used for a bandage. He walked over to Gus wordlessly, and held out his hand.
Gus fidgeted and turned all night, in an uncomfortable tangle of blankets on the hard-packed dirt floor. In the gray dawn he got up, and poked the fire till it burned hot enough to get a pot of coffee going. Even the noise of the poker didn't wake the two strangers, who both slept like the dead. Smith was rolled in a blanket on the floor next to the bed, in an even less comfortable spot than Gus's, but he didn't stir.
Gus sat on the one chair in the cabin, and regarded the two partners, sipping his coffee thoughtfully. He couldn't get used to the complete oversetting of his fixed convictions, that you couldn't trust anyone where money was concerned. Damn the money, how bad you hurt? he remembered Smith saying to his friend. "Damn the money," Gus murmured over and over, thinking that was the most amazing sentence he had ever heard.
He thought back over his solitary life, trying to imagine having a partner, someone who would value his welfare over a sack of gold dust. For some reason the nugget he'd seen during yesterday's panning came into his head, and he saw again the chunk of gold elude him and slip away in the swirl of brown water. He snorted impatiently, jumped to his feet, and slammed out of the cabin, heading to the stable to feed Molly.
He let Molly as well as Smith's horse out of the shed, into the small corral he had built near the cabin. Smith's saddle, tossed carelessly in a heap in the corner of the dark stable, caught his eye. His eyebrows rose as a thought crossed his mind, and he poked the saddlebags with his toe. One of the bags was very heavy.
His eyes narrowing suspiciously, he unbuckled the strap, and plunged his hand inside. He wasn't surprised when his hand closed around a small canvas sack, round and unbelievably heavy. Yep, Jones was right, he thought, hefting the bag. About five thousand dollars in there. That's the only thing he was right about, though. Damn fool.
He dropped the sack on the ground and stood up, breathing heavily, as though he’d been in a footrace, then left the stable, flinging the door shut behind him. Without pausing for thought he stormed across the clearing, driven by an anger he couldn't begin to explain. Outside the cabin, he stopped, took a deep breath, and thrust the door open.
Smith was bending over his partner, who was still asleep, and Gus realized he’d gotten back in the nick of time. Smith straightened up and said "Good morning," with an easy smile; Gus grunted, and stood staring at him, noticing that the man wasn't wearing his gunbelt--the holster hung from the bedpost. Gus edged towards the shelf where his own gun lay.
"Where could I find a bucket for some water?" Smith asked courteously. He glanced at Gus, then frowned, and a watchful look came into his pleasant face. He's onto me, Gus thought. I'd better be careful.
"Sorry to be such a trouble to you, but my friend needs some water," Smith added, his wary eyes on Gus's face. Gus pointed outside, towards the stables, and Smith nodded. He walked towards the door, and the second he was in reach, Gus pounced. He jumped on Smith, flinging him back against the wall.
"Hey, wait a minute," Smith demanded. Gus laughed and shoved him again. Smith's head cracked against the log wall. He staggered and would have fallen if Gus hadn't held him up by the front of his jacket.
"Hey, what's going on?" came Jones's voice from the bed. "Gus, what the devil are you doing?"
"Keep out of this, kid," Gus snapped. "I'm doing you a favor, I'm gonna get rid of this double-crossing partner of yours for good."
Jones struggled up on one elbow, a fresh red stain spreading on the bandage. "Gus, I told you, it wasn't him that shot me..."
“You're such a fool,” Gus said pityingly. He looked at Smith with narrowed eyes. “No need to spin any more lies, pal,” he said. “I found the gold in your saddlebag.”
“What?” Smith demanded. “You’re crazy.”
“That little sack in your saddlebag—it’s awful heavy.”
“Well, yeah, it’s full of lead bullets…”
"Oh, sure,” Gus sneered. “Who’d believe that?”
"I would," said Jones positively. "Let him go, Gus, you couldn't be more wrong."
"Oh, yeah?" said Gus, not looking at Jones. He stared into Smith's face. "You want him dead, I see your game."
"Why would I want him dead if I've already got the gold?" Smith inquired reasonably, and Jones grinned.
Gus grinned, too, with the triumphant certainty that he'd figured everything out. "Because of the claim, the spot on the stream. I bet it's worth millions..."
"As a matter of fact I think we've pretty much cleaned it out..." Smith began, but Gus slammed him against the wall again, hard.
"Hey!" said Jones, his voice suddenly menacing. "Gus, stop it, now."
Gus grabbed the front of Smith's jacket, and hurled him towards the fireplace. Smith fell over a low stool, and crashed full length on the floor. Gus leveled the gun at him, aiming carefully and pulling back the hammer. His finger tightened on the trigger, and then he caught a movement behind him, and spun around.
He had a glimpse of Jones, white-faced and bloody, yanking the gun from the holster on the bedpost, and then came the loudest explosion Gus had ever heard. It filled his mind and body. He reeled back against the wall and sank to the ground, his vision blurring into a swirl of brown shadows. The last thought that filled his dying brain was a bitter, burning satisfaction that he’d been right, for sure, he’d been right all along.
You can’t trust anyone.
"It's a bad idea, I tell you," Kid repeated for the tenth time. "It's just unlucky, starting out on a Friday, everyone knows that. Bad luck."
"Oh, come on," said Heyes wearily. "That joke's getting tired." He swung himself up into the saddle and looked down at Kid standing rigidly, arms folded, hat pulled low, next to his horse. Heyes studied him, recognizing the stubborn look from long experience. He raised his brows. "I can't believe you're really serious about this. Just because it's a Friday? Look, we're not going to rob the bank on Friday, it'll take us three days to get to Riverton. We'll rob the bank on Monday, okay, will that make you feel better?"
Kid shook his head, but slowly put his foot in the stirrup, and swung himself up into the saddle. The rest of the gang were already mounted, and waiting impatiently. "Thank you!" said Heyes with relief. "All right, boys, let's go," he called, and the Devil's Hole gang moved out.
But Kid couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling he’d had all day. It wasn’t anything definite. Maybe it was the Friday start, maybe it was just the weather, a cloudy, overcast sky that made the range seem like a shadowless, flat plain. The breeze was steady, as usual, the horizon hazy with wind-blown dust.
He looked over at Heyes, who was whistling tunelessly as he rode along, with apparently not a care in the world. Kid knew, from long experience, that the whistling was a sign of nervousness. Heyes always whistled before a bank or train job, the whistling getting faster and quieter the closer they got to the target. Maybe the Friday start was on his mind, too, Kid thought.
They walked their horses, Heyes setting an easy pace. No sense getting all hot and tired, it was three days to Riverton, where the bank was. The range was quiet, the slight creak of saddles and the jingle of canteens and spurs the only sounds aside from the relentless wind.
Behind Heyes the rest of the Devil’s Hole gang spread out, Kyle nodding and almost asleep on his plodding horse, Henry, Lobo, and Jake off to the left arguing over last night’s poker game, and Dock, as always, off by himself. Kid was in the rear, instead of next to Heyes as he usually was, and after a while Heyes slowed his horse and waited for Kid to catch up.
"Come on, Kid," he said with a grin. "If you went any slower you'd be walking backward." Receiving no answering smile, he glanced at Kid's glum face. "What is it?" he said in a quiet voice the others couldn't hear. "Is there really any reason we should go back? Something I don't know about?"
Kid heaved a deep sigh, and shrugged. "No, nothing like that," he said, pushing his hat back on his head. "It's just, I don't know, I just got a feeling...Didn't you ever hear about it being unlucky to start something on a Friday?"
"Oh, for heaven’s sake!" said Heyes with exasperation.
"Oh, yes," said a voice behind them. They both jumped, and turned to see Dock, who had come up behind them in his usual silent fashion. Dock was a tall, thin man, who looked awkward on any horse, his long legs bent at a sharp angle in the stirrups. He was generally so quiet, Kid was surprised to hear him say anything at all.
"There, see, I'm not crazy," Kid said triumphantly.
"It's not just a Friday," Dock said, shaking his head. “Know what day it is?"
"No idea," said Kid.
"July first," said Heyes promptly. Kid wondered how he knew, since they hadn't seen a newspaper or a calendar in weeks. It was one of those little annoying details that Heyes always seemed to know.
"July first," Dock repeated. "That's what it is." He nodded to himself as if he had proved his point, his white hair fluttering in the wind.
"So?" asked Kid. He glanced over at Heyes, who shrugged and shook his head.
"How old are you?" Dock asked abruptly.
"Twenty-three," Kid said, humoring the old man. "Why?" Kid wondered suddenly how old Dock was. His hair was pure white, which made him look elderly, but Kid had noticed that he got on and off his horse with the ease of a younger man.
"Twenty-three," Dock repeated. "You were just a boy. Too young to remember. It was ten years ago."
"Remember what?" asked Kid, with a bewildered glance at Heyes, but Dock spurred his horse ahead, and went off by himself. Heyes and Kid looked at each other, mystified.
"Well, I thought you were crazy," said Heyes.
"Now you see I'm not so crazy," said Kid, looking after Dock’s angular figure.
"No," said Heyes, shaking his head. "Now I see you've got plenty of company."
"Friday," Kid said. "You'll be sorry."
Heyes spurred his horse and jogged ahead. He kept a careful lookout, for they were approaching the jagged rock that marked the way down from the cliffs. When they reached the big, square boulder, he turned his horse onto a thread of path. It led to a low canyon that cut through the sheer face of the Red Wall.
The horses drifted into single file as they carefully stepped their way from rock to rock. Kid leaned back so far his head almost touched the horse’s rump as they went down the steep slope. The line of riders wound down the hill, letting their surefooted horses choose each step. Chunks of red sandstone lay piled on the hillside like giant broken dishes.
The Wall formed an impenetrable barrier, a long straight sandstone cliff that ran for forty miles across this barren stretch of Wyoming range. There were only a few of these “holes:” narrow canyons that led through the wall. The unmarked trails were known only to the outlaws who hid there.
Once they were off the cliffs, Kid felt even jumpier. The plain looked flat as a pancake, but low hills hid valleys with tiny streams; box canyons led to walled-in dead ends. The dips and rises of the range were deceiving–they seemed shallow, but some were deep enough to hide a posse from view.
Heyes seemed oblivious to Kid's tense glances, and rode on at an easy pace, whistling. Kid muttered under his breath, and followed, the others strung out behind, and they rode on under the rising sun. Kyle casually rode up behind Kid and poked him in the ribs.
"What's the matter, pal?” he asked, grinning. “You're as jumpy as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs. Look at old Heyes there, goin' along whistling, not a care in the world."
"Kyle, you ever hear that it's unlucky to start a trip on a Friday?" Kid asked.
"Sure," said Kyle. "Bad luck to do anything on a Friday. Bad luck to bury a dead man on a Friday."
"Worse luck to be a dead man," observed Lobo, who had come up alongside. “Don’t matter if it’s Friday!” and he and Kyle guffawed loudly. Kid felt like shooting them both.
"Yep, Friday's bad luck for sure," Lobo agreed, chuckling. Kid nodded glumly, and they rode in silence for a while.
"So what day is it today, anyway?" asked Kyle. Kid rolled his eyes, and spurred his horse to catch up with Heyes.
The terrain grew more uneven, the plain that bordered the Red Wall turning to steep hills followed by deep valleys. Heyes picked up the pace a bit, and they went at an easy canter, mile after mile, up one slope and down another. The rhythmic pace finally began to set Kid's mind at ease, and he relaxed in the saddle, starting to think about a night in town, a soft bed and all the other attractions of civilization after six weeks laying low at Devil's Hole.
He was trying to decide whether to go straight upstairs with the first girl he saw, or have a good steak dinner first, when he topped a rise and saw figures in the little draw below them. Horses were gathered in a ring around a muddy waterhole, their noses down as they drank the brown water. Then the group of men began to point, and shout, and run towards their horses. Kid had a last wild hope that they might be sheep-herders or cowhands, but as they began to pull their guns from their holsters, he knew that the trouble he had vaguely feared had come on them with the suddenness of a thunderbolt. They were too far away for him to see if any of them were sporting silver stars, but he knew they must be a posse, patrolling the outlaw trails near the Wall.
The Devil's Hole gang didn’t wait for a command. By the time Heyes shouted “Head for home!” they were already wheeling their horses and spurring them to a gallop. Dock, as usual one step behind the others, stared down at the posse with mouth agape.
"You heard him, get going!" Kid yelled, and rode off after Heyes, Dock following.
They pounded back along the way they had come, flashing past the landmarks they had just passed at an easy lope. The Red Wall was on their left, and now it was a wall indeed, penning them on the open flats. Not so much as a tree to hide behind, no bush or cactus that grew taller than knee-high; there was nowhere to run except straight ahead, back to the Hole, and the steep and hidden trail that led up to the top.
Shots spattered behind them. Kid ducked, even though he knew it wouldn't help. At this speed, a hit would be luck, and it was all a matter of who would have the luck--would the pursuers get lucky and hit him; or would he be lucky and escape? He bent low, expecting every second that a bullet would hit him in the back. The horses were racing, necks outstretched, hoofs drumming, but the Wall continued beside them as though they weren't moving at all.
Then Kid spotted the big square rock, taller than a man, that stood by itself away from the Wall. It marked the entrance. Heyes, in the lead, drew rein and stopped, and Kid knew that he meant to see that they all got safely up the trail. Kyle thundered past Heyes, then Lobo flew by. Kid, with Dock right behind him, passed Heyes, too, and rode a little way up the slope, then reined in his stumbling horse and turned to look back.
Jake and Henry, riding older, slower horses, had fallen a little behind. The posse was gaining, and was only a few hundred yards away. Jake and Henry sped past the big rock, and Kid was just thinking that they'd done it, when there came a barrage of shots. A bullet cracked the rock beside Kid’s head, sending red splinters flying.
Jake and Henry both fell to the ground. When they stopped moving, they lay still; it was plain that they would never move again. Kid turned away, cursing.
Then he heard an astonished squawk from Dock. "Jesus! What the hell's he doing?"
Kid looked around to see Heyes riding back towards Jake and Henry--back towards the posse.
"Heyes!" Kid yelled. "Come on, for Christ's sake, you can't do nothing there!" Behind him he could hear Dock shouting too. Heyes ignored them and rode up to where the two figures lay sprawled. He drew rein and looked down at them.
And then Kid saw what he had been dreading--Heyes reeled in the saddle, almost falling, and clapped a hand to his side. Even from far away Kid could see the red.
Kid felt as if he was frozen to the ground. He knew that if Heyes fell off his horse nothing could save him before the posse came thundering up to finish him off. But Heyes managed to stay in the saddle, wheeled the horse around, and raced back, bent low over the horse's neck.
Coming suddenly to life, Kid spurred towards him, the posse seeming to come at him with terrifying speed. He pulled back savagely on the reins as he drew level with Heyes, then shouted "Come on! Get going!" driving his horse behind Heyes’s to get it to move faster.
Their horses scrabbled up the slope frantically, loose rocks sliding under their hooves. Kid rode behind Heyes, watching him sway in the saddle, sure that any moment he was going to fall off. But Heyes had both hands wrapped tight around the pommel and managed to hold on. Kid kept saying "That's it! Hang on! That's it!” The red stain was getting larger on Heyes' trouser leg, and red started to drip down his boot.
It seemed like years before they reached the top of the cliff. Kid gave a hasty glance behind him from the heights, and saw the bare plain below spread out to the horizon. There was no sight or sound of the posse. Kid could see the cabin up ahead, and couldn't believe it was only a few hours since they had set out.
Kyle and Lobo got to the cabins first, and stayed in the saddle, guns drawn, waiting to see if they were pursued. But Kid didn’t look behind him again; he dismounted, pulled Heyes off his horse, caught him as he fell limply, and carried him into the cabin.
He kicked the door open, and crossed the bare little room. He dumped Heyes on the bed, and pulled his shirt open. There seemed to be blood everywhere. Kid grabbed a towel off a hook on the wall and began to mop blood off the wound. Blood soaked the cloth, but there seemed to always be more. It was all over his hands, warm and sticky, bright red.
He tried to beat back a growing sense of dread, a feeling of panic that was fluttering inside. This was no flesh wound, no nick in the leg that he could fix with a few bandannas and a shot of whiskey. This was far beyond his skill. The nearest doctor was about a week away, even if the posse hadn’t been lurking right outside the Hole, watching it like a cat outside a mouse-hole.
“Looks pretty bad, huh, Kid?” said Kyle. He watched the blood dripping on the floor, his face slightly green.
“Shut up, you idiot, what do you know about it?” snapped Kid, throwing down the bloodsoaked towel. “Get me some rags, some shirts, anything.” Kyle bustled out. The other outlaws muttered just outside the door, as though Heyes was suffering from an infectious disease.
Heyes lay with his eyes closed, his face ashen. His breath came in uneven gasps. Kid wadded up a bandanna and pressed it hard against the wound, hoping to stop the bleeding. Heyes groaned and opened his eyes.
“Kid,” he whispered.
“Yeah,” said Kid gruffly.
“Pretty bad, huh?” said Heyes in a shaking voice.
“Shut up,” Kid replied, not meeting his eyes. “It’ll be fine.”
“Hurts like hell,” said Heyes. “Do something, willya? Can you get the bullet out?”
“Got to get the bleeding stopped first,” said Kid. “Hold still.”
The bandanna was soaked, and he threw it on the floor. “Kyle, where’s those towels?” he bellowed through the open door. Kyle hurried in, followed by Lobo and Dock, who trailed slowly into the cabin holding their hats and shifting from foot to foot like uneasy visitors at a funeral.
“Here, Kid,” said Kyle, holding out an armful of dirty towels and old shirts.
“Took you long enough,” growled Kid, snatching a towel. Kyle averted his eyes and stepped back. He and Lobo huddled in a corner, talking in low voices and watching the bed with furtive glances.
Dock stepped forward as though he was going to say something, then turned around abruptly and went to stare out the window at the red cliffs of the Wall that protected them from the posse. Kid shoved the towel down hard on Heyes’s side.
“Kid! Christ, stop, you’re makin’ it worse,” Heyes said through clenched teeth.
“Got to, got to get the bleeding stopped,” said Kid grimly, and pressed down harder. Finally he lifted the towel. Heyes gave a shuddering sigh, and closed his eyes. Kid looked at him, the sense of hopelessness growing. He gazed in bewilderment at the bloody hole in Heyes’s side, the purple wound, the torn skin streaked with blood. He couldn’t imagine cutting into it to dig the bullet out, but he knew he would have to try.
He heard footsteps behind him, and turned. Dock was standing behind him, looking down. “Lot of blood,” he said. “Lot of blood.” This was another long speech for Dock, who till today had rarely said anything at all, but Kid didn’t have time to wonder at it.
Kid went to the washstand to rinse the worst of the blood off his hands, then took out his knife. Looking the blade up and down, he took a deep breath, and turned to the bed. “You guys give me a hand, and hold him down, will ya? This isn’t going to be easy.”
Dock fetched a deep sigh, rubbing his hands over his eyes. He walked over to the bed and looked down at Heyes. “I’ll do it,” he said. “He’s a good officer.”
“What’s that?” said Kid absently, wondering if he should sharpen the blade first.
“A good officer,” repeated Dock. “A good officer never leaves a man on the field. Give me the scalpel, I’ll do it.”
“Look, you crazy old coot, this is no time...” Kid began angrily, but stopped as he saw Dock straighten his tall figure, and begin to examine Heyes with a professional air, pulling a watch from his pocket, and feeling Heyes's pulse. Kid stared at him. “What do you mean, you’ll do it? You ever do this before?”
Dock sighed again, a long sigh that seemed to come from a deep sadness. “About a thousand times, son. I’ve cut out more bullets than you’ve got hairs on your head. In the old days it was minie balls, they’d shatter and make a real mess. Rifle slug like this, nice and neat, won’t be much of a problem. Simple lateral incision.”
Kid was staring at him open-mouthed, as were Kyle and Lobo. Dock took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, then reached out and took the knife from Kid’s hand.
“Dock?” said Kid. “You...are you a doctor? A real doctor?”
“Used to be,” said Dock. “Was a doctor in a nice little town in Wisconsin. Fixing broken legs and delivering babies. Then along came the War, and things weren’t quite so simple anymore. Haven’t done any doctoring since. Got sick of cutting off arms and legs and throwing them in a pile. After Gettysburg the pile was as high as your waist.”
“You’re really a doctor?” repeated Kid, unable to believe the change in Dock. He’d never heard him utter three sentences together before. “Thank God!”
“No such thing, Kid,” said Dock with a smile. “Found that out at Gettsyburg. You know how you stop the bleeding after you cut a man’s leg off? Dip the stump in hot tar. Did a lot of that at Gettysburg. July first, 1863. You’re too young to remember.”
He walked over to the bed and examined the wound in Heyes’s side, touching it lightly with deft hands. Heyes opened his eyes and looked at him blankly. Dock nodded and said in brisk tones, “You’re going to be fine, son, you’re lucky. Nothing vital’s touched, you’ll be back on your feet in a couple of weeks. Now, I’m afraid this’ll hurt, but the stiller you can hold, the quicker I’ll be. You hear me, boy?”
“Okay,” murmured Heyes, looking around for Kid.
“Kid, you hold his shoulders, Kyle and Lobo, you take his legs,” ordered Dock in a business-like manner. Kid sat down on the edge of the bed and put his hands on Heyes’s shoulders.
Heyes looked up with an attempt at a smile, but Kid could see the fear in his eyes. “Don’t worry, Heyes," said Kid. "He’s a doctor, an honest-to-God doctor. I think he knows what he’s doing.”
“All right, hold on,” said Dock’s calm voice, and Kid could feel Heyes go rigid with pain.
It seemed to take forever. Heyes stayed fairly still for a while, but then he suddenly groaned and tried to sit up. Kid shoved him back and leaned down hard on his shoulders. “Hold still!” commanded Dock.
“Jesus, stop for a minute,” Heyes begged in a choked voice.
“Can’t, almost done,” replied Dock. “Keep still!”
Heyes gasped and Kid could feel him shaking. He grasped Kid’s sleeve and yanked it tight. Kid held him down firmly for what seemed an eternity.
Finally Dock said in a pleased voice, “Ah, there we are!”
Heyes went limp, and Kid thought he’d passed out, but he opened his eyes again. “Is it over?” he murmured, his face even whiter than before.
“It’s over, son, take a rest.” Dock nodded pleasantly. “Bravely done.”
Kid released him, and Heyes sighed and closed his eyes. Kid watched him anxiously for a few minutes, but he seemed to be all right. He was breathing, anyway.
Kid moved out of the way as Dock tore one of the shirts into long strips and deftly bandaged the wound. Then Dock stood up stiffly, and looked down at his bloodstained hands as if he’d never seen them before. He went to the sideboard and lifted the pitcher to fill the bowl with water. But the bowl was already half full where Kid had washed his hands earlier, and the water was deep red. He stared into the bowl as though hypnotized.
“So you think he’ll be all right, Dock?” Kid broke the silence.
There was no reply. He had to repeat the question three times before Dock jumped and said “All right? I think so. Lost a lot of blood, but I don’t think any organs were touched. No, he ought to be all right. Keep him quiet, don’t let him get up, and make sure he has a lot of water. No booze.”
Kid looked at him, frowning. Dock put his hands in his pockets without washing them. “Clean the wound out with a shot of whiskey twice a day, and put on a fresh bandage. I’d say about two weeks he should be walking around, but it might be more.”
“Why you telling me all this? Where are you gonna be?” asked Kid.
“Well,” Dock said slowly, “I think I’ll move on.”
“Okay, fine, we haven’t had a successful day, but you can stay around for a week or two, can’t you?” Kid hunched his shoulders irritably.
“No, I don’t think I can,” said Dock, still speaking very slowly. “No, I think I’ll be going.” He headed for the cabin door.
“What, now?” demanded Kid. “You mean tonight?”
“That’s what I mean, boy, tonight. Right this minute, in fact.”
“You’re crazy,” said Kid, grabbing his arm. “That posse’s camped outside the Hole like a coyote watching for jackrabbits, twenty men strong. You can’t go right now.”
“Sure I can,” said Dock. He stood quietly for a minute, then suddenly wrenched his arm free from Kid’s grip. Kid was so surprised that he let him go.
“It’d be crazy,” Kid repeated. “It’d be suicide.”
Dock looked over at Heyes, lying quiet on the bloodstained blankets, and at the bloody rags scattered over the floor. “Got to go, son,” he said, not meeting Kid’s eyes. “Got to.” He headed for the cabin door.
“Come back here!” said Kid, his voice rising. “You want to get killed, you crazy...” He was interrupted by a stifled groan from behind him, and turned to see Heyes struggling to raise himself up on one elbow. "Hey, what do you think you're doing?" said Kid, hastily moving to the bed and pushing him back down.
“What’s going on? Are you okay?” asked Heyes, wide-eyed.
"Nothing, nothing," said Kid soothingly. "It's just Dock acting crazy again." He noticed a red stain on the new bandage.
"Where's the rest of the guys?" asked Heyes, glancing around the cabin.
"Oh, just outside," said Kid, looking away. "Kyle's cooking up some beans and some of that awful coffee."
"Who else is there?" Heyes tried to twist his head around to look out the open door.
"Lobo’s there, and Dock, of course," said Kid slowly.
"Jake, and Henry?" asked Heyes.
"Not yet," said Kid. "They haven't come in yet, but they might be holed up in the rocks someplace. You never know."
Heyes looked at him steadily. "You know better, Kid," he said finally. "They're never coming back."
"No," said Kid.
"Jake got shot a couple of times, got a bullet in the face. Henry hit the ground like a ton of bricks, I think his neck was broken, his head was bent underneath him when he landed and the horse ran right over him..."
Kid noted the deepening stain on the bandage. "Let it go, Heyes," he interrupted firmly. “Let it go."
Heyes nodded silently, then put his arm over his face and lay still. Kid sat on the edge of the bed, unmoving, till he could tell by Heyes’ breathing that he had fallen asleep.
He got up and went to the door of the cabin. Kyle and Lobo were cooking dinner, and the fire gave a pale, warm glow. There was no sign of Dock. The sunset light colored the Red Wall a deep crimson. He looked out towards the path that led to the Hole, but Dock was nowhere to be seen. Kid was glad to look away from the blood-red rocks and accept a cup of gritty coffee from Kyle.
"Beans, Kid?" asked Lobo, handing him a plate.
"Thanks," Kid poked at the beans with a fork for a while, but couldn't seem to raise any interest in eating them. As dusk fell, the cheerful blue sky dimmed to gray. The wind blowing through the sandstone pillars had a cold sound that made the men draw closer to the fire. Kid went back into the cabin to see if Heyes was warm enough.
He came in softly so as not to disturb Heyes, but when he approached he saw Heyes' eyes were open, looking around the room feverishly. "Will you stop fretting?" demanded Kid.
Heyes closed his eyes. “I wish...” he began, then stopped.
“What?” asked Kid softly.
I wish we’d never gone out this morning, Heyes thought. I wish we’d never stolen that first dollar so long ago, never robbed that first store when we were kids, never broken into that first bank. I wish Jake and Henry weren’t dead. I wish I hadn’t seen them die. I wish I could wake up and this wouldn’t be real. I wish...
“Nothing,” he said finally. “I wish I’d listened to you.” There was a long silence.
“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” said Kid, and somehow Heyes found the old platitude comforting. “It wasn’t your fault, you know,” Kid went on. “We all went along. You got that?”
“I guess so...” said Heyes, staring out the window. It was past sunset, and the brilliant light on the Red Wall had died to a dull russet brown.
“You got that?” repeated Kid more loudly.
Heyes sighed. “Sure,” he said finally.
“Good,” Kid nodded. “Get some sleep.” He spread a blanket over Heyes, who closed his eyes, and Kid quietly left the cabin. The door closed behind him with a soft click. As soon as Kid was gone Heyes opened his eyes and stared out the window at the darkening desert, wishing, for a very long time.
Author’s Note: This story was written in a tent, during a camping trip to Wyoming. I went to a remote part of Wyoming (well, most of Wyoming is pretty remote) and went riding in the Red Wall area, where Butch Cassidy hung out with the famous Hole in the Wall gang. I wrote the story partly to help me remember what the beautiful landscape looked like, since I never bring a camera when I travel. I have tried to describe the setting as accurately as possible. Heyes and Kid are pretty used to riding through the country, but I was clutching the saddlehorn desperately as the horses teetered from rock to rock while descending the Wall. They were incredibly sure-footed, but I was terrified. I can see how it would be a great place to hide out.