Only the Wind
“Someone’s following us,” said Kid Curry softly.
Heyes resisted the urge to swing around in the saddle and stare at the road behind them. He tried hard to keep his back stiff and his eyes straight ahead, but was unable to keep from throwing a quick peek over his shoulder. The road was empty, stretching out behind them in the gathering dusk, fringed with patches of brambles. The trees were frosted with light snow.
“Don’t look back!” Kid hissed. “Don’t let on we know they’re there.”
“We don’t know they’re there,” Heyes objected. “I don’t hear anything.” He felt a sinking in his chest nonetheless; Kid was generally right about these things.
They rode on for a minute, listening to the sound of their horses’ hooves. Heyes could see his breath steaming in the still air. “You’re crazy,” he said, but without conviction, and Kid shook his head. “Nope,” he said. “There’s someone following us.”
Heyes didn’t want to admit it. “Well, maybe it’s just a passer-by, it’s a public road,” he began, but Kid shook his head again. “No, he slows down when we do, and speeds up when we do.” He reined his horse to a stop, and Heyes did the same. A rustle sounded behind them, but the more he strained his ears the fainter it grew.
“It’s only the wind,” he said hopefully. Kid snorted.
“Okay, so what do you want to do?” Heyes asked. He provided the bank-robbing and get-rich-quick schemes, but Kid was the recognized authority when there was shooting to be done.
Kid chewed his lip. “These horses are beat,” he said. “We’ll never outrun whoever it is. Let’s circle around.”
“Okay,” said Heyes nervously. Ever since last night, the long-planned night of their first bank job, he’d been listening for pursuing footsteps behind him, and he knew Kid had been doing the same. Even though the safe-cracking had gone off without a hitch, and the town had been sleeping when they galloped away, he couldn’t rid himself of the notion that they might have been followed.
For an instant, Heyes tried to remember what it was like not to be scared by every unexplained noise. He imagined waiting casually for the follower to come up with them; Kid would grin and say, “Howdy, neighbor,” and it would be an old friend, the town grocery-store clerk or someone like that who they’d known for years, an old man with a beard, and he’d wave and say, “How’s it going, boys, weather’s turned kinda chilly...”
“Get a move on!” said Kid, breaking into his reverie. Heyes shook himself. “I’ll go around to the left,” he said to Kid, pulling his horse around. “You come along behind that ridge on the other side, how’s that?”
“Sounds good,” Kid said. “Please try not to shoot me again.”
“I didn’t shoot you last time, I missed you by a mile,” Heyes protested.
“You blew my hat off,” Kid pointed out. “Would have been damn good shooting if you’d been aiming for my hat.”
“Oh, shut up,” growled Heyes.
“Watch yourself till we know who it is,” said Kid. Heyes nodded, and Kid trotted off into the shadows.
Heyes rode into the thicket, but the tired horse made so much noise cracking and crunching through the brush that Heyes slipped off his back and tethered him to a tree. Drawing his gun, Heyes shoved his way though dense briers that grabbed at his jacket and tugged at his sleeve like warning hands pulling him back. With the heavy six-gun in his right hand, it was hard to push the branches away, and twigs snapped him in the face and poked his eyes. He swore under his breath and pushed on.
Finally he stopped and listened. Nothing. He took a few more steps, and then froze as he saw the road up ahead, a dim line of gray in the dusk. No sign of anyone. He waited in the cold till he couldn’t feel his toes anymore, then gave a low whistle.
Kid’s head poked up from the brambles on the other side of the road. Heyes raised his head, too, and Kid ducked hastily when he saw Heyes’s gun. “Cut that out,” snarled Heyes, “or I’ll shoot you for sure, right between the eyes.”
“Ah, well, as long as you’re actually aiming at me I’ve got nothing to worry about,” said Kid, and pushed though the brush to the road. Heyes joined him, and they looked suspiciously up and down its empty length.
They studied the hard-packed dirt road for tracks, but the cold weather had made the ground hard as rock. “Forget it,” Heyes sighed, as Kid bent to study a scratch that might or might not be a hoofprint. “An elephant wouldn’t leave a track on this.”
Kid straightened up and glanced along the road, which curved so often that they could never see very far up or down it. “Maybe they went on ahead and we missed them,” he said.
“I don't think so,” said Heyes. “We would have heard them. Maybe they went back.” He stared tensely up and down the road, aware that a wrong guess could mean disaster.
The teasing voice in Heyes’s head wouldn’t stop imagining what it would be like if the two of them were just on the way home from a hard day’s work on a summer’s evening, and had stopped to pick a hatful of blackberries from the tangled bushes around them. He looked at the brambles that edged the road, bent and black with frost.
Finally Kid shrugged. “Let’s go on, I guess,” he said, and Heyes nodded. They trudged back to get their horses.
It was almost dark when Kid drew rein again, and sat with his head cocked. “Oh, come on...” Heyes began.
“Listen!” Kid whispered.
Heyes listened, hearing his own heart pounding. He heard the tap of shrivelled oak leaves, and a lonesome wind sighing through the pines. Heyes’ saddle creaked as his horse stirred restlessly, wanting to get the journey over with. “Shh!” Kid hissed. Heyes felt his heart speed up as he distinctly heard a rustling noise.
“Maybe it’s only...” he began. Kid looked at him sharply, with such an expression of fear in his eyes that Heyes was surprised. Kid never seemed scared. Heyes had thought he was the only one who felt the cold ripple in his stomach at the soft sounds behind them.
“You stay here,” said Kid, looking away. “We make too much noise when both of us go back. You stay here and distract him.” He thrust his reins into Heyes’s hand and began to dismount.
“Oh, great,” said Heyes. “Pin a little target on the back of my jacket, why don’t you?” But Kid was gone, slipping from his horse and silently melting into the dark.
Heyes led Kid’s horse along in the frosty dusk, and tried to relax, whistling a cheerful tune and coughing from time to time, to convince whoever was following that both of them were riding along unaware. He tried to resist looking behind him, and rode slowly, wondering when this awful journey was going to end.
Then he wondered if it was going to end. Would they ever be able to hear footsteps behind them without pounding hearts and churning stomachs? He experienced a brief but passionate longing to take the bags of money back to the bank and explain that it all had been a terrible mistake.
He rounded a corner, but there was only the deserted road, stretching gray before him. He wondered how it would feel to turn the corner of a familiar road, and see a house with warm lighted windows just ahead, and a smiling face waiting for him...
The rustling silence of the night was cut by a by a single gun-shot. Heyes dropped the reins of Kid’s horse, and drew his gun. For a moment he was tempted to spur off to safety, as far away as possible, but he yanked the horse’s head around and hurried back along the way they had come. Not sure whether to shout questions and warnings, or try to be sneaky, he galloped back around the corner, and then drew rein abruptly, making the horse skid in the snow. The road was empty. “Kid?” he shouted, feeling cold fear.
Kid shouted, “Yeah, over here!” Heyes looked around with relief and finally spotted Kid on a ledge a few feet above the road, a smoking gun in his hand.
“Did you get him?” Heyes asked. He felt numb, and gazed at Kid blankly, wondering how he could look so calm.
“Yep,” said Kid, with a grin, blowing the smoke from the tip of his gun before holstering it. “Nailed the bastard.” Heyes stared at him for a second, amazed that Kid could be so callous, then blew out his breath when he realized Kid was having him on. “He wasn’t actually following us, just lying low and watching us go past,” Kid continued, and bent to pick up a dead rabbit by the hind leg. “That’ll teach him. Stupid rookies make lots of mistakes,” Kid said, and they looked at each other with rueful grins.
They sat as close to the tiny campfire as they could without scorching their boots, and Kid roasted the rabbit on a stick over the flames. The skin got pretty burnt, but the meat was tender, and they carved bits off with their pocketknives and ate with their fingers. “Pretty good,” said Heyes. “I thought we’d be eating steak and caviar after our first big job, but this’ll do.” He pulled a flask out of his saddlebag, and took a sip.
“Just wait,” said Kid, grabbing the flask and helping himself. “We’ve got to get to a big city, then we can live it up.”
They grinned at each other, and Heyes gave the saddlebag that held the money a loud slap. “Three thousand,” he said. “Just think, Kid, we’ve got three thousand dollars!”
Kid nodded happily. “And easy as rolling off a log, didn’t have to do a day’s work. Three thousand dollars,” he repeated dreamily. “That’ll buy a lot of...” There was a soft crack behind them, and they both leaped to their feet, hands flying to their holsters.
They waited, standing like statues in the darkness, but the sound was not repeated, and slowly they sat back down. Heyes felt suddenly weary.
He glanced over at his partner. The flickering firelight didn’t hide the dark shadows beneath Kid’s eyes. They’d been opening the safe all last night, and hadn’t slept much, from excitement, the night before. “Get some sleep,” Heyes said. “I’ll take the first watch.” Kid nodded, and rolled himself up in his blanket as close to the fire he as he could get without being on top of it.
Heyes felt wide awake; he couldn’t imagine summoning up the courage to go to sleep. He reached out and touched the saddlebag again, and knew suddenly that all the money in there was worth nothing-- it was worth less than a handful of wind, because the money in the bag could never buy back their peace of mind. He knew that they would travel through the rest of their lives with an ear always cocked for a quiet footstep.
There was a rustle in the bushes behind them. Kid half sat up, and Heyes drew his gun. Then they looked at each other sheepishly and shrugged. Their eyes met.
“Only the wind,” said Heyes.
Kid nodded. "Yeah," he agreed. "Only the wind."
The bath water was frothed into thick bubbles that rose to the brim of the narrow tin tub. Heyes glanced at Kid, then at the little man in rumpled, dirty clothes who ran the bath-house.
"You sure this is the only tub you have?" Heyes demanded, glancing around the chilly, bare little room as though he expected to find a bathtub in one of the spider-webbed dark corners.
"Yep," said the man, raising bristly eyebrows in surprise and shrugging his shoulders. "Don't get that much call for’em around here. Like I keep telling folks, bathing's unhealthy. Why, I never bathe more than once a year." Heyes glanced at his stringy hair and black fingernails, and believed him.
“Well, I don't mind going first," said Kid, starting to unbutton his shirt. "You probably want to get straight at that poker game, Joshua, so I'll just wash up while you're relaxing at the card table." The saloon was in the same building as the bath-house, just on the other side of the wall. The cowboys from three different cattle drives were all in town, and the place was jumping; they could hear snatches of song and the thump and jingle of a tinny piano through the thin plywood.
"I'm not gonna relax all grubby like this and reeking of cows, they'd never let me in the game," Heyes objected. "I'll go first, and that'll give you a chance to stable the horses."
"Why do I get to stable the horses?" Kid demanded. "I did it last time."
"No, I did," said Heyes. "Last two times, in fact."
The man looked the two of them up and down, shaking his head. "You boys sure you need to take a bath?" he asked earnestly. "Don't look all that dirty to me. Like I said, it's unhealthy. Bad for you."
Heyes ignored this advice and dug a silver dollar out of his pocket. "Heads," Kid said confidently, as Heyes tossed it high. They both watched the coin intently as it glittered and spun in the air.
Heyes pulled off his long-johns, stiff with dirt and crusted sweat, and dropped them on the pile of filthy clothes heaped on the floor. He gave a sigh of anticipation as he approached the foaming tub. After a three-week cattle drive, the thought of a hot bath in soapy water was like heaven.
With a broad smile, he plunged his foot deep in the water, then gave a squawk and yanked it out again. "Hey, you there!" he bellowed, and the bathman stuck his head through the curtain.
"What's all the fuss about?" the old man asked, yawning.
"This water's ice cold," Heyes complained through chattering teeth.
"Well, what's the problem?" the man inquired, scratching his tousled hair, where Heyes thought he saw a few lice scurrying. "Water's water. It's wet, isn't it?"
"I don't know about you, but I don't take ice-cold baths," said Heyes.
"Told ya, I don't take baths all that much. Unhealthy, as a general rule."
"Well, I want hot water," Heyes protested. "Polar bears would freeze to death in this stuff."
"Ah, hot water," said the man, nodding wisely. "Well, that's extra,"
"Six bits," said the man, holding out a grimy hand.
"Robbery," Heyes muttered, picking up his trousers from the heap of clothing and digging coins out of the pockets. The little man carefully bit each coin, counted them slowly, then nodded and vanished behind the curtain. Heyes assumed he had gone to the kitchen to procure hot water, and waited, tapping his cold feet impatiently.
It was a long wait. Heyes paced, barefoot, a towel wrapped around his waist. Finally the curtain was thrust open. "About time," Heyes growled, turning, but it was Kid who came through the open door.
"Ah, good, done already, I see," Kid said approvingly. "Usually you hog the tub for hours. My turn."
Heyes opened his mouth to protest, then changed his mind. "Okay," he said affably. "Actually I haven't started yet, but why don't you go ahead."
"What are you waiting for?" asked Kid, pulling off his stained shirt.
"Oh, nothing," said Heyes. "I'll be back in a minute. You go ahead. Dive right in." He went though the curtain, and paused in the hall for a minute, the floor cold and dusty under his feet, till he heard a splash. It was followed by a yelp, and then considerably more splashing interspersed with a string of curses. He smiled gently and continued down the hallway to the kitchen.
The old man sat scratching his stomach, near a fireplace that was giving out clouds of foul-smelling smoke. A stained black kettle hung over the hearth. "What are you doing, rubbing two sticks together to start a fire?" Heyes inquired testily.
"I'm coming, I'm coming," said the man. He heaved himself up from his stool by the hearth and ladled water from the steaming kettle into two wooden buckets. He lugged them down the hall, splashing puddles of water on the floor, and Heyes padded barefoot after him.
In the bathroom Kid was pulling his trousers back on. "Very funny," he growled at Heyes. "Be lucky if I don't catch pneumonia.”
"Cold baths are character-building," Heyes told him. He helped the man bail some of the icy water out of the tub, and refill it with hot water. Clouds of steam rose invitingly and the bubbles had a faint pleasant smell of soap.
Kid opened his mouth, but Heyes silently held up the coin they had tossed, and Kid grimaced. "All right," he sighed. "I'll go see what's going on in the saloon."
The old man had vanished, but the kettle over the kitchen hearth was boiling nicely, and Heyes made another two trips up and down the long, chilly hallway to fill the buckets. Finally he had the water in the tub piping hot. He smiled as he tested the temperature with a toe, and dropped the towel on the floor.
He was just about to step into the bubbles when he paused, holding the sides of the tub, foot poised above the water, head tilted, listening. At first he wasn't sure what it was that had caught his attention. He listened intently to the noises from the saloon next door, the usual Saturday night din of shouts and laughter and off-key piano music. Then he realized that there was a subtle change in the drone of conversation.
He straightened and stood listening uneasily. He couldn't tell exactly why, but a long-honed instinct for trouble made him nervous. There was definitely a change in the note of the voices coming from the next room: a slight lowering of volume, a rising level of tension.
He shook his head. It probably had nothing to do with Kid. And anyway, even if it did, Kid wouldn't thank him for interfering. He shrugged the thought away, and dipped his foot into the water again with a smile. The temperature was perfect.
He jerked his head up as he distinctly heard someone shout: "Draw!" Kid's voice replied with something he couldn't catch. The piano music stopped in the middle of a chorus, and the singing died away.
Heyes threw on his clothes in record time and ran out of the bathroom. He had to go outside the building and around a corner to enter the saloon. As he pushed the swinging doors open, he saw what he had been expecting to see: a silent row of onlookers, cowering out of the line of fire, while Kid stood alone against the wall, facing a man who stood stiff and tense, hand hovering near the handle of his gun.
Heyes stood quietly and waited. He could only see the challenger from the back, but he was a big man, thick-necked, with a stubborn rigidity in his heavy shoulders. Heyes noted that the man had a stiff new holster, the mark of an amateur, and knew that Kid could easily beat the fellow in a fast draw; he wondered why he had bothered to come and watch the inevitable. Sure enough, as soon as the man touched the handle of his revolver, Kid whipped his gun out with his usual effortless speed. The onlookers murmured in amazement, and Heyes sighed; another town they had best not linger in.
Kid held his gun pointed at the man for a long moment, then slid it smoothly back into the holster. The crowd let out a collective breath, and the murmur of chatter began again. Kid shrugged and walked towards the bar, as the piano resumed its noisy tune.
Heyes started to turn away, aware that the water in the tub was cooling fast. As he pushed open the saloon doors, he threw a glance over his shoulder at the man Kid had outdrawn. The stranger stood red-faced, muttering furiously, his face working. Heyes paused and watched him, frowning. Abruptly the stranger yanked the gun from his holster and took aim squarely at Kid's back.
"Watch out!" Heyes yelled, and Kid spun around and flung himself out of the way as the man fired off six shots. The bullets flew harmlessly past Kid and made a neat circular pattern in the plywood wall. Kid wrenched out his gun and fired, and the man dropped the weapon and stood cursing, clutching his bloody hand.
Heyes shoved his own gun back into the holster, and heaved a sigh of relief. He sighed again, less happily, as the swinging doors flew apart and the town sheriff pushed his way through the crowd of gawking cowboys.
The ensuing conversation with the sheriff took a while, but finally the lawman stalked away, eyeing Kid suspiciously as he led the wounded cowboy off to jail. Heyes followed them out the door, and hurried back to the bath-house. He figured he had just time for a bath before they left town; it might be a good idea to find another place to spend the night, considering the sheriff's curious glances.
The tub was still giving off faint wisps of steam, and Heyes hoped the water wasn't too cold. He was just unbuttoning his shirt when he glanced down into the tub and swore out loud. The tub was empty. A scattering of bubbles and a few inches of water in the rusty bottom were all that remained.
He stared at the tub, then realized that the floor was covered with water. "What the devil..." he began, then drew in a sharp breath. In both sides of the tin tub, just about chest high, was a neat circular pattern of bullet holes.
He threw his clothes on and went back to the saloon. Kid was leaning against the bar, sipping a whiskey, and looked him over with curiosity. "Back so soon, Joshua?" he said, and sniffed.loudly "You smell just as bad as before," he complained. "Aren't you done with that bath yet?"
"Changed my mind," said Heyes, and waved a hand to get the bartender's attention. "Double whiskey, please," he said when the man shuffled over, and the bartender poured him a full glass.
"Changed your mind?" Kid said, eyebrows raised high. "You mean you're not taking a bath, after all?"
"Nah, I decided that old guy's right after all," said Heyes, downing the drink at one gulp. "It's unhealthy."
“Not a breath of air,” Kid Curry observed with a sigh, mopping the sweat off his forehead. He looked at the landscape with distaste as his horse plodded along, head down. There was nothing but bare, baked rock, with shimmering heat waves rising off the flat surface, making the distant cliffs and ridges tremble in the still air.
“Gonna be like a frying pan when the sun gets well up,” he pointed out to his partner, riding beside him. “It’s just so damn hot.”
Heyes rolled his eyes. “It’s the desert, it’s supposed to be hot,” he explained.
“Why is it so damn cold at night then?” demanded Kid.
“It’s not my fault,” Heyes objected mildly. “Honestly, you think everything’s my fault. You think I plan the weather?”
“Well, you were the one who said we had to get going, I wanted to wait for the stage," Kid grumbled. Heyes said nothing, and Kid glanced at him apologetically. “It’s just so damn hot,” he repeated. “Just a little breeze, that’s all I ask.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” Heyes told him. “A little breeze can turn into a killer sandstorm around here pretty fast.”
“Well, my point exactly! Why on earth take a shortcut through the desert...”
"Oh, shut up, it’s too hot to have the argument all over again,” sighed Heyes. "You saw those two guys in the saloon eyeing us all night, I just thought it'd be a good idea to get out of town sooner rather than later. I didn't like the way they kept whispering, they just had a funny look...I don't know."
"You always think everyone's a threat," said Kid.
"I'm always right," Heyes pointed out.
Kid snorted, but said no more, and they plodded on, the only sound the thump of hooves and the creak of the saddles. The desert was empty of any sign of life; not even a cactus grew out of the stony ground. Heyes found himself looking for a rattlesnake or a scorpion, anything to break the monotony. He smiled as he reminded himself, be careful what you wish for. Sometimes there was a lot to be said for monotony.
He pulled his tired horse to a halt, and Kid, just behind him, stopped too. Heyes unslung his canteen from the saddle, and took a long drink, while Kid did the same. They were only a day from town, with three full canteens apiece, there was no need to go thirsty.
Abruptly, the canteen seemed to explode in Heyes’s hand, warm water gushing over his fingers and splashing in his face. He stared at his empty hand in amazement, wondering for a second if a bomb had gone off. He felt Kid shove him hard in the ribs, and tumbled off his horse, hitting the ground but scrambling up again to grab the reins as the frightened horse plunged and reared.
“Up there,” Kid shouted, pointing, and fired two quick shots at a tall ridge of red rocks just above them. Heyes pulled his gun out too, but couldn’t see a thing to shoot at. Another shot whined off the rock six inches from his foot, and he jumped away.
He cast a desperate look around. The barren land offered few hiding places, the ridges and cliffs were too far to make a run for. The only possibility was a large square boulder, about shoulder height, a few yards away. "There!" he yelled, pointing at the sheltering rock, and Kid jumped off his horse. They raced for the boulder, and both dived behind it as three more shots kicked up dust and rock splinters in their wake.
Silence fell. They looked at each other, panting. “What the hell?” said Heyes, between gasps. “We haven’t even gotten into town yet, we haven’t had a chance to piss off anyone.”
“Must be someone who recognized us,” said Kid, reloading his gun with steady fingers. "Maybe you were right about those guys in the saloon. Maybe one of them's been tracking us and thought this was a good place to get a clear shot.”
“Maybe he was right,” said Heyes, looking around the empty, open space surrounding them.
Kid cautiously raised his head over the top of the rock. A shot instantly hit a splinter off the boulder, and he dived back down. “Wow, he’s good,” he said ruefully.
“What do you want to do?” asked Heyes, trying to keep a nasty feeling of panic out of his mind. “Make a run or shoot back?” He looked over at the horses, still sidling nervously about ten yards away. “If we could get to the horses, we could be out of range in two minutes.”
“I don’t know, he’s pretty good...” Kid’s words were cut off as two more shots were fired. One horse gave a scream that was eerily human, as a red welt appeared on its rump, and both horses flung up their heads and thundered off.
“Well, that settles that,” said Heyes.
“All right,” said Kid grimly. “He’s not going to have it all his own way.”
“Wait a...” Heyes began, but Kid jumped up and fired off three more shots at the cliff. The shots were immediately returned, and Kid swore and sank down, clutching his right arm. He cursed between clenched teeth, blood pouring from between his fingers. Heyes said nothing, just pried Kid’s hand off the wound, and ripped the sleeve wider to get a look. There was an ugly gash torn just above the elbow, from which blood streamed down relentlessly.
Heyes ripped off his bandanna and yanked it tight around the wound. Kid cursed again, and tried to pull his arm free. "Hold still," Heyes snapped. He pulled the knot tighter, but the bleeding continued sluggishly. "Anything broken?" he asked. "Can you move it?"
Kid moved his forearm a few inches and groaned with pain. "Nothing broken, but Jesus, it hurts," he said. "Damn, that guy's good. He must have a rifle with a telescopic sight of some sort. He's way the hell up on that ridge, our popguns aren't gonna reach halfway."
He sank back against the rock and closed his eyes. Heyes watched him anxiously, wishing for his flask of whiskey, which was in his saddlebag, and his extra canteen, which was in the same place.
They were silent for a while. The wind sighed eerily over the dead, rocky landscape, and Heyes looked around the red cliffs and empty sky for inspiration. None came.
He thought back to the crowded saloon last night, the carefree Saturday night poker game and the piano playing loudly. The music had drowned the voices of the two men who sat at a table in the rear, but he could see them all evening, eyeing him and the Kid, then whispering together. They had looked harmless enough, one tall and thin with a hawk nose, one with a large belly rolling over his belt. But he remembered them frowning and discussing something with more heat than a casual saloon conversation warranted.
He looked around to find that Kid's eyes were open and watching him. Kid didn't have to say "So what do we do now?" Heyes answered the question before he asked it.
"I have no idea." Heyes rubbed his hands, sticky with blood, on his trouser leg. "There's nothing to do, I guess. We can't stick a toe out, or the guy'll shoot it off. Wait till night, I guess."
"Must be two hours till noon," said Kid, glancing up at the fierce sun.
Heyes pulled out his watch. "Ten-fifteen," he agreed.
"Long time till dark," Kid went on. "Plenty of time for him to circle around. All he has to do is stroll a half mile over to that ridge there to get a better angle, and we're sitting ducks."
"We'll have to keep track of where he is so we can move," Heyes agreed. He took off his hat, and held it above the boulder. Nothing happened. He looked around for a stick or something to wave it on, but the ground they sat on was sheer rock. He waved the hat again. Nothing happened. Heyes put the hat back on, and cautiously lifted his head over the edge of rock. Instantly there was a sharp crack, and he flung himself down, the hat blown several feet away.
Kid grasped Heyes's shoulder with his good hand. "You okay?" he demanded, shaking Heyes roughly.
"Yeah, yeah," said Heyes, gasping for breath. Kid released him, and flopped back against the rock. "That, as they say, was close," Heyes said shakily.
"Don't try that again," said Kid, panting.
"Don't worry," said Heyes. He could see the hat sitting on the rock, a neat hole though the front. It was just out of reach, but he didn't feel inclined to stick his hand out to get it. "So what do we do?" he asked slowly. "Dig a hole? Make a run for it? Hope he dies of a heart attack? I'm fresh out of ideas."
Kid shook his head. "We're in a box," he said slowly. "The lid's on tight."
Heyes looked up at the sun, high overhead. It was too bright to stare at, and he looked away, blazing spots floating in front of his eyes. The sun was a long way above the horizon. He knew that eventually it would sink in a blaze of glorious colors, and for the first time in his life he seriously considered the thought that he might not be there to see it. He felt a chill as he imagined the dusk settling, and dragged his mind away from the thought of two dead bodies sprawled in the shadows of the great red boulder.
He glanced at Kid, who was sitting with his back to the rock, his gun clutched tightly in his left hand. Flies buzzed around the wound, and Heyes waved them away, wishing again for a canteen. He knew he'd be wishing a lot harder long before nightfall. "There's not a lot of options," he said out loud. "You're right, the lid on this one is pretty tight."
"We just have to wait," Kid said, not meeting his eyes. "Sooner or later, he'll circle around, take a shot, then we'll move. Then he'll have to do it all over again. It's got to get dark eventually."
"He's a damn good shot," Heyes pointed out. "You think he's gonna shout a warning? We're ducks in a shooting gallery here."
"Well, you come up with something better," snapped Kid. "I don't think much of your digging a hole idea."
Heyes glanced at the solid rock they sat on and smiled grimly. "There's a third option," he observed. Kid made no reply. "We could give up," Heyes said quietly.
Kid looked at him fiercely, and Heyes could tell they'd both been having the same thoughts. "Twenty years in jail?" Kid demanded. There was a long pause. Heyes glanced up at the sun again, which didn't appear to have moved a fraction of an inch in the burning sky.
"I've thought about it," Kid admitted in a low voice, staring at the gun in his lap. "I've thought about it a lot, what I'd do if I ever got boxed in like this. But I'd rather be dead."
"Yeah, but there's a long way between here and jail," Heyes pointed out. "It's a day's ride into town, we could escape."
"Maybe," said Kid.
"Maybe," Heyes agreed. "It's a chance."
Kid shook his head. "He doesn't seem too friendly so far. What's to stop him from just blowing our heads off if we surrender? We're worth as much dead as alive. Why should he take a chance on us escaping?"
"Well..." Heyes began. An earsplitting crack interrupted him, and splinters of rock exploded out of the rock between them. They dived away from the bullet, and scrambled in opposite directions. Kid ran a few steps, then fell to his knees, clutching his arm. Heyes, coming around the other side of the rock, grabbed Kid's good arm and pulled him into the shelter of the boulder. They lay side by side, panting.
"Okay," said Kid, getting his breath. "This is good."
"Good?" Heyes demanded.
"Yeah," said Kid. "Damn this arm. It's good. Now we know where the bastard is. Took him an hour to get over there, so now we're okay for an hour."
"Oh, good," said Heyes. "I've got a deck of cards in my pocket."
They lay flat, thinking their own thoughts. After a while Heyes rolled over on his back and looked up at the sky. It was blank, washed over with a faint haze of white cloud that did nothing to cool the earth below. White hot, thought Heyes, as he lay gazing upwards. Vultures circled around lazily, black V's tilting slowly in the windless air. Vultures could smell blood from half a mile, he'd heard. He jerked his mind away from the vultures and sat up. "You sure you want to wait here..." he began, when a shot reverberated and a bullet whined off the rock near his head. They both leaped up and scrambled around the rock again.
"What the hell," panted Heyes. "How'd he manage that? He was on the opposite side ten minutes ago, we can't be in range yet."
Another shot cracked out, and hit the rock above their heads, and they once more dived away from it. "That's a different gun," said Kid, lying flat. "There's two of them." Their eyes met. Heyes could see his own hopelessness mirrored in Kid's white face. "It's okay," said Kid stubbornly. "We're okay for a while."
"That's what you said three seconds before the last shot," Heyes snarled.
"No," said Kid, his eyes tracing the paths the bullets had taken. "The first shot came from there, the second from there, we're okay on this side until they circle around."
"How long will that take? Five minutes?"
Kid glanced around, chewing his lip. "No, they've got to get right over to the ridge there," he said. "Twenty minutes at least."
"Twenty minutes," repeated Heyes, glancing at his watch. "May I remind you that it's all of eleven-thirty, it won't be dark for about eight hours. We can't keep dancing around this rock for much longer."
Kid shook his head mulishly. "I'm not giving up. There's no point, they'd shoot us anyway."
Heyes drew breath to argue, then let it out in a hopeless sigh. Kid was right. If the bounty hunters had been interested in live prisoners, they wouldn't be shooting from so far away, and plainly shooting to kill.
A shot sounded, and they both leaped up, tensed and ready to run. But no answering whine sounded, no rock chips split off the boulder. "That's funny," said Kid, staring up at the tall, silent ridges of red rock.
Another shot sounded, a bit fainter. Kid frowned. "By the echo, it's pointing away from us," he said slowly. A third shot cracked, and Heyes could tell that Kid was right, it was aimed in another direction. Then three more came in rapid succession.
"What the hell?" said Kid. They stared at each other, mystified.
The shots continued, getting closer together, plainly aimed nowhere near their rock. Heyes leaned back against the hot, rough surface of the boulder, his mind racing in circles, trying to guess what the unseen enemies were doing. Suddenly his eyes widened as a thought came to him. He thought back to the two faces lit by lamplight in the saloon last night, talking in fierce whispers...arguing?
"Maybe..." he said, almost afraid to say it out loud, in case he was wrong, in case the box they were trapped in truly had no way out. "Maybe... they're shooting at each other..."
Kid stared at him. "Why on earth...?"
Heyes shook his head. "Because each of them wants the money free and clear. They're trying to get rid of each other, so one can have all twenty thousand." Two more shots rang out, from opposite sides of the ridge.
Their eyes met, this time with a wild hope. "Want to chance it?" said Heyes.
"Now or never," said Kid. He struggled to his feet, Heyes giving him a hand up.
They crouched against the rock, like runners at the start of a race. "Okay?" said Heyes, looking at Kid's seeping wound and wondering how fast he could run.
"Don't worry about me, just try to keep up," said Kid with a grin.
"All right," said Heyes, with an answering grin. "This is probably stupid."
"Only thing stupider is staying where we are," said Kid. "Now!"
They ran. Heyes felt his breath tearing in and out of his lungs as his feet pounded the rock. Kid ran beside him, his right arm pressed to his side. They ran and ran, and behind them shots rang out; Heyes couldn't tell if they were aimed at them or not, he just ran. They ran until they were far out of range; still they ran, panting, stumbling, towards the west where the sun would set; running free and clear.
Finally Kid stumbled, and fell on his hands and knees, his breath sobbing. Heyes stopped and bent over, gasping, his heart banging. He raised his head, still panting, and looked behind them at the barren rocks. Silence.
He glanced up at the sky. The sun wouldn't be setting for a while, he thought, but now it didn't matter how long it took to get dark. This evening, the earth would cool, a quiet breeze would pick up, and little clouds on the western horizon would glow with a rainbow light; and it looked like they would be around to see the sunset after all.