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This is the first time I've shared this story, but I wrote it a while ago. I've never posted it because I keep fiddling with it trying to improve it, but I guess it's as good as it's going to get.
I think it's set when they first began to hang out together and didn't know each other all that well. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it!
At first they had both liked the pretty little valley, that was nestled attractively in between the rocky hills. When they had found the first bits of gold dust in the tiny stream that flowed beneath the graceful cottonwoods, they had decided they loved the place. Now neither Hannibal Heyes or Kid Curry could stand the sight of it. But Heyes knew it wasn't time to leave yet.
“No, I said,” Heyes snapped at Kid, who was sitting across the campfire from him as they finished their morning coffee. “We’re not going, and I'm sick of talking about it. We have to stay and do at least another week’s work.” Heyes looked around the valley where their campsite lay, the green grass now dotted with enormous piles of dirt waiting to be sifted through for gold, and concealed a faint sigh. He wasn’t looking forward to all that digging any more than Kid was.
“I'm sick of breaking my back and sweating in the mud,” Kid Curry complained. “We've got at least ten thousand dollars’ worth of gold dust in the treasure chest, how much more do you want?” He poked at their campfire with a stick, making sparks fly.
“You have no idea how much we've got, it depends on the quality, and prices go up and down--we could have a lot less,” Heyes said, tossing the dregs of his coffee on the ground. “We’re gonna stay.” His voice was a little louder than he meant it to be, but he was tired, hungry, and thoroughly irritable. Both of them were red-eyed and unshaven, and weary to the bone after nearly a month of working the mining claim, the hardest work they'd ever done in their lives. “Now drop it,” Heyes added abruptly, seeing Kid open his mouth again. Heyes stood up, and headed to the cottonwood stump near the stream where the horses were tethered. “It’s my turn to go hunting,” he said over his shoulder. “Grab the pick and do some work for a change while I’m gone.”
“Says who?” demanded Kid, his voice rising several notches.
“That’s the deal,” Heyes said over his shoulder. “Whoever isn’t hunting is supposed to do the shoveling. There’s at least another thousand in those piles of dirt there, and we’re gonna stay till we get it.”
“You’re not the leader of the gang anymore, Heyes,” Kid said, getting to his feet. “You don’t get to decide everything.” He kicked at the litter of empty cans and boxes around the fire. “We got nothing left to eat but dried apples and coffee and the chance of shooting a rabbit,” he grumbled. “I’m sick of starving when we could be living high on the hog.”
“That's you all over, you always want to take the easy way out," Heyes snapped. "Well, go if you want to. Take your half of the dust and get going.”
“Maybe I will,” Kid said promptly. “You think you know everything.”
“Suit yourself,” Heyes replied, and turned his back. He saddled the horse in silence while Kid stood staring down into the dying embers of the campfire. “Well, I’m off hunting,” Heyes said in a milder tone as he climbed into the saddle. “Maybe I’ll find something slow enough to hit,” he added, expecting Kid to come back with the usual insult about his shooting ability. Kid said nothing, and didn’t look up or wave as Heyes kicked his horse and rode out of camp without a backward glance.
Heyes had even less luck than usual on the hunt. Marksmanship wasn’t really his strong point, but hunting was so much less work than heaving heavy shovelfuls of dirt, or endlessly sluicing piles of mud through the stream to seek out the tiny specks of gold. After the first thrill of their discovery had worn off, they had settled down to day after day of the back-breaking, boring, hand-blistering work of prospecting, and they both despised it. Hunting was a welcome relief, so that they had agreed to take turns at hunting for food after they ran out of beans and bacon, and whoever was off chasing rabbits usually made a day of it. But today Heyes couldn't keep his mind on looking for deer tracks and rabbit sign, and he hadn’t been gone more than three or four hours when he turned his horse’s head back towards camp. Dried apples and coffee it would have to be, he thought with a sigh. He hated to admit it, but maybe Kid was right.
He rode down the slope into camp, and was surprised not to see Kid’s horse tethered in the usual spot. The understanding was that the one who wasn’t hunting would stay in camp, not only to dig, but to keep an eye on the large pile of gold dust they’d already unearthed. They kept the grains of golden dust piled in a sparkling heap, in a wooden biscuit box with a hinged lid. Kid had taken to calling it “the treasure chest,” like the chest of glittering gold and jewels in pirate tales. The box was in its usual place, but Kid was nowhere to be seen.
Heyes stirred up the fire with a stick. The ashes were cold, so Kid had been gone some time, and he had to find the matches and fetch kindling and coax the fire to start from scratch, muttering under his breath in annoyance. He filled the coffeepot with water from the stream, and set it at the edge of the flames to boil. His stomach growled, and he regarded the bag of dried apples with a sigh, then glanced around again curiously. Kid had probably gone out to try for a rabbit, but it was starting to get dark.
“Thaddeus?” he called, in case Kid was just out of sight around the tall outcropping of red rock that surrounded their diggings. The only sound was the hiss of the coffeepot, and the trickle of the nearby stream. He called again, but got no answer, and a sense of unease began to seep into his mind. He couldn’t tell exactly when he first noticed that something was amiss. The camp seemed the same. But something wasn’t right.
He glanced at the biscuit box, and a thought entered his mind that made him feel a chill. It couldn’t be, he thought, frowning. Kid couldn't really have taken his share of the gold and left. They'd bickered and snarled at each other so many times before, surely Kid couldn't have taken it seriously? He shouted Kid’s name again, but there was no answer.
Finally he couldn't resist anymore. He went over to the box, and squatted down in front of it, his hand on the lid, then hesitated a moment. Kid's share couldn't be gone, not really--but if it was gone, it would mean his partner was gone, too, forever. They'd set no rendezvous, as they always had before when splitting up. In the vast expanses of the West, they might never happen to run into each other again.
But perhaps Kid had left a note. Yes, that was it, if he had indeed taken his gold, he’d have left a note, saying where to meet up in a month or so. Kid wouldn’t just vanish without a word. Heyes took a deep breath and swung up the lid.
He looked inside, and then blinked. He felt a curious numbness enter his mind, and realized he was more tired than he'd known. He stared into the box, unable to understand what he saw. The box was completely empty.
He couldn't believe the evidence of his senses. He scrabbled desperately in the empty box, his fingers scraping the sand in the corners, as though hoping to feel the gold he couldn't see. He picked up the box and looked underneath it, and then looked around and behind him. But there was no gold left, not a speck. It was really true--his partner had taken it all.
He sat on the ground and stared into the air, blinking vacantly. Finally he got to his feet, pushing himself off the ground with his hands as though he were an old man. Then he stamped on the box with his boots till the wood was reduced to splinters, and ground the splinters into the dust.
Heyes pulled himself wearily into the saddle, and turned to look at the deserted campsite where they'd spent so many hours. Cans, pots, and dirty dishes were strewn around the ashes of the campfire; he hadn't bothered to pack up most of the stuff. It seemed like too much trouble. He looked at the wreckage without really seeing it, and then turned away. As his tired horse plodded up the slope, Heyes had a vague sense that he was leaving something behind, though he couldn't quite put a name to it; his past, maybe, or maybe his youth. He felt much older. Older and wiser, he thought with bitterness. He realized that nothing would ever be the same again.
He rode back the way he’d gone while hunting. He knew he should be looking out for game, it was a long way back to town and he had no food at all, but he couldn’t concentrate. The torrent of anger had vanished, and left him more tired than he had ever been.
As he rode blindly along, letting the horse choose the route, his mind ran aimlessly down a river of memories. He and Kid had split up many times before. But always there had been some acknowledgment, something: a nod, or a casual wave at a train station; a handshake and a tip of the hat when they were dressed in their city best, or a last shouted insult as they turned their horses, galloping east and west to avoid pursuers. He remembered a posse once, that had threatened to turn into a lynch mob; as rough hands dragged them in different directions, there was no time to talk, but their eyes had met in terrified farewell.
He drew rein, and the horse stopped and stood, head down. Kid leaving like that, taking all the gold, no explanation– He’d been too furious to take the time to think. Something wasn’t right, some possibility was as yet unexplored.
He knew well what Kid was like when he was angry. He could imagine Kid furious, furious enough to want to split up, storming off in anger. He could even imagine Kid taking the money in a fit of rage. Heyes realized that he himself was capable of such a thing--what man was immune from pettiness and anger? But what he somehow couldn't imagine was Kid disappearing like that, without a word, a note, a look.
He forced himself to think in a logical pattern. If Kid hadn’t taken the gold, the box was empty, so someone had. But if Kid had been around, he would have tried to stop him, or them... Heyes rapidly carried this thought to its logical conclusion, and drew his breath in sharply. He yanked his horse around, jamming his spurs into the surprised animal’s sides, and galloped back to the camp as fast as the tired horse would go.
The little valley was as deserted as he’d left it. He dismounted and stood frowning, then began to search the rocky outcrops, scrambling over ridges and peering into clefts in the rock. Finally he climbed up on one of the low rock walls that was behind the camp, and froze, his eyes widening in horror as he realized his new theory was the correct one. An arm in a blue sleeve protruded from behind a pile of rocks. Heyes ran towards it, and saw Kid lying on the ground in a fly-speckled pool of red.
Kid groaned as Heyes shoved him over on his back. His blue shirt was a strange dark purple color on the entire right side, and Heyes yanked it away, tearing the cloth. He saw the wound immediately, a jagged gash from a knife, from which bright red blood oozed in a sluggish trickle. Heyes raced back to the campsite, grabbed up a handful of dirty shirts and bandannas, and wadded them together as he hastened back. The flies were already settling on the wound, and Heyes swept them away angrily. Kid lay unmoving, and Heyes thought he was unconscious, but he stirred and opened his eyes as Heyes thrust the compress down onto the gash.
"That you?" Kid asked weakly, squinting at Heyes as though he couldn’t see him.
"Yeah," Heyes said, pressing hard on the bandage. "Hold still."
"They took it, Heyes," Kid said. "They took the gold. All of it."
"I know it," Heyes said absently. He wondered whether to tie the bandage on, or keep pressing down on it, and cautiously raised the wad of soaked rag. The blood oozed from the wound as strongly as ever, and he pressed down again, harder.
"I'm sorry," Kid said, moving restlessly. "I tried...there were five of them, though, a couple of 'em got behind me..."
"Hold still, will ya?" demanded Heyes. "It doesn't matter."
"But they took it.. all of it. We lost everything."
"It doesn't matter, I tell you," Heyes said. "Shut up." He pressed harder, but the cloth reddened slowly. He discarded the soaked rags, throwing them down on the ground where the flies pounced on them. He hastily wadded up another handful of bandannas, and tried again to stem the bleeding.
"I'm glad you came back," Kid murmured. "I wanted to say goodbye."
"What’s that?" said Heyes, staring worriedly at the blood that was dripping down to swell the already large pool on the ground. Then he realized what Kid meant, and felt sick. "Will you shut up?" he said savagely. "You're not going to die."
"I don't know," said Kid, closing his eyes. "I feel strange...doesn't hurt any more, even. Just feels kind of...numb." Heyes pressed harder, trying to push down the panic he could feel rising in his chest.
“When you found the empty box...” Kid said, and paused for breath. “Did you think it was me?”
“Nah,” said Heyes. He swatted at the flies, but they only buzzed louder.
Kid smiled with white lips. “Yeah, you did,” he said. “I don’t blame you, sure looked that way.” He sighed, and closed his eyes again. “You came back anyway,” he murmured, so low that Heyes could hardly hear him. “To say goodbye.”
Heyes finally sat back on his heels, and took a deep breath. A litter of blood-stained rags surrounded him, but as the evening chill rose, the flies were decreasing in number. Kid lay with closed eyes, his face white as a sheet, but he was still breathing, and the bandage on his side was unstained with red. Heyes watched for a long time, but the bleeding seemed to have finally stopped. He relaxed a little, and rubbed his blood-stained hands on his trouser legs, leaving streaks of red. His arms were red to the elbow, and he smiled a little as he realized that he was as gore-soaked as Kid.
He went back to the campsite, and lugged the blankets and saddle rolls over to where Kid lay. He piled all the blankets on his partner, then gathered up sticks for a fire. After the flames were kindled, he sat down cross-legged on the ground, and buttoned up his coat, turning up the collar. It was going to be a long night. He shivered, but not with cold, looking at Kid lying motionless, and reflected that if he had returned to the campsite half an hour later, he would surely have found Kid’s dead body.
He put the coffeepot on to boil. It would be a long vigil, but he felt cautious optimism; the bleeding seemed to have stopped for good, and Kid wasn’t quite so deathly pale. He shivered again, looking up at the first stars pricking into the gray sky, and he watched them brighten into the familiar patterns.
Kid sighed and stirred, his hand pulling weakly at the bandage Heyes had arranged so carefully, and Heyes grasped his arm gently. “Water,” Kid murmured, without opening his eyes, and Heyes filled a tin cup from the coffeepot, and leaned forward to give him a drink. Kid drank thirstily, and then settled back down, breathing unevenly. Time passed, but he didn't stir again.
Heyes watched the long night through, as the moon travelled across the sky, and sank behind the hill, and finally fell asleep sitting up, his chin propped on his hand.
He woke from a nightmarish doze as his hand slipped and his head jerked suddenly forward. He blinked dazedly, and looked around, wondering for a second where he was. The sky was paling, and dawn wasn't far away. He looked down at Kid, and discovered Kid was watching him. "Hello," his partner said. "It's morning."
Heyes nodded, and grinned back at him. "Hey, there," he said. "So it is."
“What do you look so happy for?” Kid asked gloomily. “We’ve lost everything, you know. Everything.”
Heyes looked at him solemnly, but there was a smile in his eyes. "No," he said. "We didn't."
A long romantic story... I hope you enjoy it!
“Ossawatomie, Kansas, one mile,” Kid said, reading aloud the sign that leaned drunkenly by the side of the muddy road. The faded letters were hard to see through the drizzling autumn rain. “Ossawatomie. Who thinks up these names anyway?”
“Indians,” said Heyes, turning up his coat collar against the cold wind that blew raindrops down the back of his neck. “It means place of the buffalo hunt, or something. You know that.”
“Probably means place of the stinking cold rain,” Kid said morosely. “I swear it always rains in Kansas. In between hailstorms, that is.”
“Oh, give it a rest,” said Heyes. “Come on, we’re almost there. We’ll just stop for the night, to get out of the rain, and then head out in the morning.”
Kid looked out under the dripping brim of his hat, at the wide gray sweep of Kansas prairie that surrounded them. The horizon was veiled in curtains of rain, but up ahead the lights of the town glowed faintly orange. “Never should have come this way,” he grumbled. “Would have been shorter to go around by Witchita.”
“The river was flooded by Wichita, you feel like a swim?” Heyes snapped. “Come on, I’m gonna melt if we stand here much longer.” He shook the reins, and his tired horse plodded on.
Kid glanced at the sign again, and shook his head. “Kansas,” he said heavily, and spat on the ground. “We must have been crazy to come back here.”
“Feeling better?” Heyes inquired, as they leaned side by side on the bar, a well-filled whiskey glass in front of each of them. A piano sounded gaily, and the golden glow of an oil lamp chandelier made the crowded saloon seem a warm and home-like place.
“Little better,” Kid admitted. “Drier, anyway. Figures the rain would stop soon as we got here.”
“Well, we’ll be leaving in the morning, and next week we’ll be out of Kansas altogether,” said Heyes. He turned and surveyed the ring of straw-hatted players who were frowning over their cards at a near-by poker table. “Bunch of Kansas farmers,” he said in a low voice. “Some things never change. Want to get in the game?”
“Nah, not in the mood,” said Kid.
“Well, this is too good to miss,” said Heyes. “See you later.” He ambled over to the table, and gave the players a pleasant smile. “Howdy, neighbors, got room for one more?” he asked, pulling up a chair. They looked him over with blank, suspicious faces, and Heyes smiled winningly. “So how do you play this game, anyway?” he inquired, and Kid looked down to hide his grin.
A flash of gold caught his eye, and he saw something shiny on the floor, half hidden in the wood shavings and peanut hulls. It was a gold watch. He bent and picked it up, and saw it was a man’s pocket watch. The weight in his hand felt like solid gold. Kid glanced around the saloon to see who might be the owner, but there was no one in the crowd of farmers and shop-keepers who looked well-dressed enough to own such an expensive trinket.
He opened the front of the watch to see if there was a name engraved anywhere. Framed inside the front lid was a small photograph of a woman’s face. He stared at the picture, frowning.
It was a young woman, in a high-necked dress, with hair that he could tell was pale and fine, even though it was drawn back in a bun; hair like cornsilk, long and straight, and pure gold. Her eyes were light, fringed with dark lashes. Pretty girl, he thought, but there was something about her expression, some sadness in the sweet eyes, that made sudden tears prick his eyelids.
“Nice watch,” said a gravelly voice in his ear, and he jumped and looked up. “Oh, it’s not mine,” he said, blinking. “I found it on the floor here. Any idea who it belongs to?”
“Yeah, it looks like old Daniel’s watch, actually. He’s always mooning over that picture just like you were,” said the bartender, a small man with a bushy handlebar mustache. He peered with curiosity over Kid’s shoulder. “Dan never gives me a look at it, though. Hell, women are a dime a dozen, ‘specially blondes, don’t you know that yet, pal? What’s so special about her, anyway?”
“Nothing,” said Kid, snapping the watch shut with an annoyed click. “Where can I find this Daniel guy?”
“Over in the corner there, having a drink as usual, don’t think he’s noticed he lost it yet. Hang on to it for a couple of days,” the bartender advised, grinning. “Maybe he’ll post a reward.”
“You’re all heart, friend,” said Kid.
“Ain’t got no heart, pal,” the bartender said, pouring himself a drink. “Last blonde I met stole it clean away.”
Kid smiled and then walked over to the corner where an old man was sitting at a solitary table. The man looked up suspiciously with watery, red-rimmed eyes under white brows, but as soon as he saw the watch in Kid’s hand he leaped to his feet, open-mouthed. He scrabbled at his empty vest pocket, then snatched the watch from Kid.
“My God, I had no idea I’d dropped it,” he said, his voice quavering. “Must thank you, I am sincerely in your debt, sir. Many thanks.” He bowed in a courtly manner, and almost fell over.
Kid put out a hand to steady him, noticing that his face was an unhealthy shade of gray. “That’s okay, friend. Looks like the chain broke, better get that fixed.”
“I surely will,” said the man. “Thanks again.”
“Who is she?” Kid asked casually. “I don’t recognize her, exactly, but she...reminds me of someone.”
The old man looked around, and leaned closer to Kid. “Francina,” he whispered. He opened the watch and gazed at the picture. “Francina Talbot,” he said, as if that explained it all.
“And who’s that?” Kid inquired. “She sure is pretty.”
“She is that,” the man said. “You should see her smile...”
Before he could finish, someone elbowed Kid roughly aside. He swung around to see five young farmers, all carrying beer bottles, belligerently red-faced. One of them gave the old man a shove. “Get outta the way, old-timer, you’ve been taking up a whole table long enough.”
“I didn’t mean to...” the old man began politely, but one of the farmers shoved him again. “Get out!”
Kid didn’t waste time in arguing, just grabbed the youngster by the scruff of the neck and hauled him around. The farmer swung his beer bottle at Kid’s head, but he easily ducked it, and hooked his boot around the farmer’s ankle, tripping him neatly. The young man crashed to the floor, swearing.
“Hey, Bill’s in trouble,” said a burly man in overalls, waving to a crowd of half a dozen other men lounging by the bar. Kid noticed Heyes watching from the poker table, and saw his partner throw down his cards and shove back his chair.
“No, this guy’s the one who’s in trouble,” said a man in a battered straw hat, grinning at Kid. “Come on, pal, you think you can scare us? Who do you think you are, anyway?” Three men approached him, fists raised, and others were getting to their feet. Kid got in front of the old man, and drew back his fist with a grim smile and a feeling of perverse pleasure. He’d been longing for someone to hit ever since he crossed the Kansas border.
Five young farmers sat meekly lined up on the bench in the sheriff’s office, like a row of schoolboys, with torn clothes and blackened eyes. Behind them, on a second uncomfortable bench, sat Heyes, dabbing at a bleeding lip, and Kid, nursing a bruise on his cheek. They were all sitting quietly, listening to the sheriff, and had been doing so for the last quarter of an hour.
“..and there’s other ways to settle things, boys, peaceable ways,” the sheriff went on, his voice sounding as though he was at last coming to a conclusion. “So remember, this is a peaceable town.” Kid glanced at the rolls of fat that overhung the sheriff’s gunbelt and reflected that it was a good thing the town was peaceable. “Now get outta here, all of you, and don’t let me see you in here again,” the sheriff finished.
The farmers limped out of the office, with menacing looks at Heyes and Kid. As the door slammed behind them, the sheriff sat down at his desk and drummed his fingers on a pile of papers. “No good, those boys,” he said, shooting a glance at Kid. “They’re in my office twice a week, some of’em.” He scratched his stomach thoughtfully, and looked them both over with narrowed eyes. “You guys are new around here, aren’t you? Don’t remember seeing you around here before. ‘Course I’m pretty new here myself.”
“Nice to meet you, sheriff, we’ll try not to trouble you again,” said Heyes, heading for the door.
“Try hard, boys,” said the sheriff pleasantly, eyeing Kid’s low-cut holster and the well-worn handgrip of his gun. “Try hard.”
They clattered down the wooden steps of the sheriff’s office, and set off hastily down the dark street. The office had been brightly lit with kerosene lamps, too brightly lit; Heyes felt more comfortable in the shadows of the street. He glanced back over his shoulder, and saw the sheriff standing on the steps looking after them, and he deliberately slowed his steps to avoid the appearance of hurrying.
He blinked as his eyes began to get used to the dark. It was close to midnight, and the street was deserted. The night wind, blowing straight off the prairie, was damp and chill; overhead the stars were blotted out by sagging clouds that could be felt rather than seen. The side streets were black as mine shafts, but on the main street an occasional lamp on a windowsill sent a gold gleam across the muddy road. The warm light from the houses only made the street seem colder.
They shivered and buttoned their coats, and trudged along till Heyes broke the silence. “Well, we were in town for, let me see, not quite twenty minutes before we got hauled to the sheriff’s office,” he said pensively. “That’s got to be some kind of a record, even for us.”
“You didn’t have to get into it, you could have just sat quietly and played poker,” Kid muttered.
“Well, actually, that’s what I was trying to do,” Heyes said. “I think it was when you and the fat guy in the overalls crashed into the poker table and splintered it to matchwood that we decided to postpone the game.”
“Oh, come on...” Kid began.
“Of course, the chandelier crashing to the floor and setting the bar on fire was a factor, too,” Heyes went on. “I don’t want you to think we made a hasty decision or anything.”
“It wasn’t my fault, I didn’t start it,” Kid said sullenly.
Heyes snorted. “You’ve been looking for someone to pound on ever since we got here,” he said.
Kid gave him a sideways glance. “I’m gonna find someone handy to pound on right quick if you don’t shut up,” he growled, and pulled his hat lower as rain began to spit down. “See, what’d I tell you?” he said with gloomy triumph. “It always rains in...”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Heyes moaned. “We’re leaving in the morning, get a new tune.”
“Never should have taken this job,” Kid grumbled. “We’re becoming damned delivery boys.”
“Well, the pay beats cattle driving,” Heyes pointed out. “And delivering documents is easier than fixing fences. Maybe they’ll pay us extra for bad weather.”
As they passed the mouth of a dark side street, they became aware of shouts, and curses, and the sound of running feet. Before they could do more than look around, a figure came at a clumsy, stumbling run out of the alley and crashed full tilt into Kid, who staggered back against Heyes as the man grabbed at him wildly. “What the hell?” Kid demanded, but the man made no reply.
Heyes grabbed the figure by the shoulder, and hauled him off his partner, fist drawn back. The light from a window gleamed on the man’s face, and Heyes relaxed his grip as he saw the wrinkled face under the shock of white hair. The old man swayed, and Heyes propped him up.
“What’s the trouble, friend?” said Kid, recognizing his acquaintance from the saloon who had lost the gold watch.
“They’re coming, they’re after me,” the man gasped, clutching at his chest with both hands. They heard voices approaching, and gave each other a glance over the old man’s bent head. Five more figures emerged from the alley, and a strong smell of alcohol and their weaving footsteps showed that they were still good and drunk. “What’s the trouble now, boys?” Kid called.
“That you, deputy?” demanded a slurred voice.
“Yep,” said Heyes promptly. “You boys don’t want to pay another visit to the sheriff, you better back off.”
“Where’s that crazy old coot?” said another voice. “I told him this time I’d teach him...”
“Get out of here.” Kid put his hand on the handle of his gun, but Heyes grabbed his arm.
“You ain’t the deputy, you’re the guy who got us in trouble with the sheriff,” said the first voice, as the shadowy figures swayed to and fro. “We’re gonna make you sorry you ever saw this town.”
Kid shoved Heyes off, and drew his gun. “Get out of here before I count to three,” he said in a hard voice that Heyes barely recognized, “or you’ll be the sorry ones.”
The old man had been leaning more and more heavily on Heyes, gasping and choking, and now gave a violent shudder. “Thaddeus,” Heyes interrupted. “Something wrong with this guy.” Heyes lowered the old man’s slight weight to the ground, where he lay clutching his chest and drawing moaning breaths.
“He looks bad,” said Kid, straining his eyes to see the old man’s face. “One of you boys go get the doc,” he ordered, but the group shuffled their feet and muttered in low tones.
“Come on,” said one. “Let’s get outta here.” There was a spattering of running feet as they fled down the muddy road.
Heyes propped up the old man’s head, and Kid bent over him. The light from a window fell on the man’s wide eyes and bloodless cheeks, and they saw that his lips were blue. He looked wildly from one to the other, then grasped the front of Kid’s jacket. “You’re the man from the saloon,” he said in a thread of a voice. “The one who returned my watch. You’ve been... very kind.”
“Take it easy, pal,” Kid said. “Stay here with my friend, and I’ll go get a doctor.”
“No,” said the old man, clutching his jacket. “It’s too late for me. But you protected me, and I want to thank you for that.” His face twisted in pain, and he whispered, so low Kid could hardly hear him. “I wish you could watch over her, too...”
“Who?” asked Kid, a cold chill shooting through him. “Protect who?”
“Francina,” the old man gasped. “She’s all alone.” He raised himself on an elbow, and called in a desperate voice, as if searching for a lost child. “Francina...”
“Protect her?” Kid demanded. “Why? Is she in danger?”
The old man covered his face with his hands, and tears rolled down his face. He murmured so they had to bend over to hear him, but couldn’t catch the words.
“Okay, friend,” said Kid soothingly. He glanced at Heyes, who shook his head, his eyes solemn. Kid took the old man’s hand. “I’ll do what I can to help her. I promise. But you gotta tell me where...” The old man interrupted him with a gasping cry, then shuddered and went limp.
In the silence, Heyes opened the threadbare jacket and put his ear to the thin chest, but there was no heartbeat. He looked up at Kid, and laid the man down gently.
Kid released the limp hand, and was surprised to find himself shaking. Death was nothing new to him, and this was only a stranger, but he couldn’t seem to keep his hands from trembling. He rose and stood looking down at the small, twisted body in the road, and jumped when Heyes put a hand on his shoulder. “You okay?” Heyes asked softly.
Kid nodded dismally, and heaved a sigh. “Kansas,” he said.
Kid paced the length of the small room, then turned and paced back again, like a bear in a cage. He fidgeted with the handle of his gun, feeling an intense longing to shoot someone. Anyone. Heyes gave him a warning glance, but Kid sighed, and rolled his eyes. He couldn’t help it. It was impossible not to be fidgety, when they were in a sheriff’s office for the second time in an hour.
He dragged his eyes away from the wanted posters on the wall, and forced himself to smile disarmingly at the sheriff, as he answered the same questions for the fourth time. The complications of death in a civilized town amazed him; out at Devil’s Hole, you dug a grave and buried the guy, said a few words, that was that. In a town, there were reports, forms, officials, and questions, and more questions. He and Heyes had answered questions for the sheriff, the doctor, the coroner, and now the sheriff was painstakingly going over every detail of the old man’s death again.
“Well, all right, boys,” said the sheriff finally, stroking his mustache. “Guess we’ve got it all. You can go.” He shook his head, looking mournfully at them as they rose hastily. “Hate to have this kind of trouble here. This is a peaceable town, y’know.”
“But let’s get back to this girl, Francina, that he was talking about,” Kid said. “She’s in some kind of danger.” He was uncomfortably aware of the old man’s body, stretched silent under a sheet in one of the back cells.
“Well, you got me, young feller,” said the sheriff, scratching his broad stomach. “I don’t know. I already told you three times, I never heard of her.”
“Yeah, but he seemed so convinced she was in danger.”
“He’d been drinking,” said the sheriff soothingly. “You know how people get when they’ve had a few.”
“No, he hadn’t,” said Heyes. “No booze on his breath. He was sober as a¼a judge.”
“Well, you got me, boys,” the sheriff said again, glancing at the clock on the wall. “What do you want me to do? Never heard of no Francina. But then I’m new in town, just started this job last month. I’m from Texas, myself.” He yawned widely. “Well, boys, it’s past my bedtime. Better get off to wherever it is you’re staying. We’ll find this Francina in the morning.”
“What about him?” Kid asked, indicating the body. “Don’t you have an undertaker or something?”
“It’s late, we’ll deal with that tomorrow. Don’t worry, he’s not going anywhere.” He got up and ambled over to the door, and held it open invitingly. Kid hesitated, but Heyes gave him a surreptitious kick; it wasn’t often they had to be asked twice to leave a sheriff’s office.
They once more walked down the steps into the dark road dotted with mud puddles. The sheriff locked up behind them and went off whistling. Heyes heard the sheriff’s heavy footsteps receding down the street, and heaved a sigh of relief, that was cut short when Kid grabbed his arm and pulled him into a side-street.
“Come on,” Kid said. “This way.”
“What?” Heyes said. “No, I think the hotel’s actually over...” Kid paid him no heed, just strode down the alley, and Heyes followed, puzzled. They groped along the narrow way, stumbling into puddles. Kid turned left at the end of the alley, and left again at the end of the next, and finally came to a halt at what was plainly the back door of a low building.
“This is it, I bet.” Kid peered in the window. “Yeah, I thought I noticed a back door. Come on, open it.”
Heyes glanced at the heavy padlock on the door. “You’re kidding.”
“You think you can’t?” Kid said, tapping his foot. “It’s just a padlock.”
“Child’s play,” said Heyes scornfully, running his fingers over it. “But you mean you want me to break into a sheriff’s office?”
“Just for a minute,” said Kid. “I want to get something.” Heyes opened his mouth, but Kid met his eyes. “Please,” he said.
Heyes sighed, pulled a short piece of wire from his vest pocket, and bent over the lock. Kid heard a rapid series of clicks and in thirty seconds the lock was dangling open. Heyes pushed the door ajar. “After you,” he said.
They entered the pitch-black room silently. Kid groped in his pocket, and struck a match. The tiny gleam showed the deserted office and the shadowy stripes of cell bars. There was a candle on the sheriff’s desk, and Kid lit it, ignoring Heyes’s disapproving stare. Shielding the light with his hat, Kid turned and headed for the rear cell and its silent occupant.
He approached the draped figure on the cot. Years of fast-draw encounters had taught him to keep a steady hand, but he couldn’t quite keep his hand from shaking as he reached out and pulled down the cloth.
The face was set in the stiffness of death, with only a shadow of resemblance to the living, moving features of a few hours ago. Kid pulled out the watch out of the man’s vest pocket, and immediately flipped the cover open and stared at the picture. The sweet eyes looked up at him gravely, as if asking for help.
“That her?” Heyes asked, coming up behind him.
Kid nodded, gazing at the face. “Francina,” he said, as if that explained it all.
He began to feel in the man’s other pockets. “What are you doing?” Heyes hissed, hurrying over to peer out the window. “A career as a pickpocket seems a bit of a comedown after the Denver First National Bank. What the hell are you looking for?” He crouched low and peered cautiously over the sill.
“I don’t know,” Kid muttered. “Something...something to lead us to her.” He dug around and fished out coins, a tobacco pouch, a penknife, and other odds and ends. Then he put his hand in the breast pocket, with a shudder at the feel of the dead man’s body, cold and hard. In the pocket, his fingers closed on something round like a coin, but with sharp points. He drew it out, and in the candle flame silver glinted on his palm. A sheriff’s star.
Heyes reappeared behind him. “Come on!” he urged, poking Kid in the back. “Let’s get out of here.”
Kid put the star gently back in the pocket, and drew the sheet over the closed eyes. They stole silently out of the room and Heyes relocked the door, then they scuttled like cats down the back alleys till they reached the main street.
It was long past midnight; all the householders had gone off to bed, even the saloon was closed, and every window was blank and empty. “Okay,” said Kid, taking a deep breath, and loosening his gun in the holster. “Let’s get busy.”
“Busy? Doing what, exactly?” Heyes asked. “I hate to say it, but I think the sheriff’s right. Not much more we can do tonight, might as well go back to the hotel. If we can find it,” he added, peering down the unlighted street.
“But she needs protecting,” Kid said firmly. “We’ve got to do something.”
Heyes knew better than to argue when Kid was in this mood. “Okay,” he said agreeably.
There was a pause. “Not sure what, though,” Kid admitted.
Heyes smiled in the darkness, and gave Kid a gentle shove. “Come on, let’s get some sleep,” he said. “Things’ll look brighter in the morning.”
True to Heyes’s prediction, the morning dawned in a blaze of sunshine. From the hotel window, Heyes could see the prairie beyond the town, wave on wave of low hills golden with autumn sunflowers. A meadowlark sang outside their window as Heyes pulled on his boots, and he was tempted to comment on the lovely weather, but refrained. Kid was in a mood as black as a thundercloud.
“Let’s get going,” Kid snapped, buckling on his gunbelt. “I want to avoid that sheriff, he won’t be any help. The man’s an idiot.”
“Why, what a coincidence, I’d like to avoid the sheriff, too,” said Heyes. “I don’t know if he’s as stupid as he looks. He had his eye on you, all right, and noticed our holsters tied down, too.”
Kid snorted. “Well, if he comes after us, I’ll let you take him,” he said. “Even you couldn’t miss a target that big.” Heyes heaved a pillow at him, but Kid didn’t retaliate, just stared out the window at the cloudless blue sky. “So where do we start?” he asked the air. “How do we find her?”
“Well, everyone who goes in or out of town has to leave their horse someplace,” Heyes said. “Let’s stop by the livery stable after breakfast.”
Kid headed for the door. “Let’s stop by there now,” he said.
Heyes kept a casual eye on Kid all through the long morning. The sunny weather had brought the citizens of Ossawatomie out of doors, the shops were open and the streets were thronged with people; it was a cheerful morning, and the townspeople were willing to chat, but every conversational path they started on ended in the same dead end. “Francina Talbot? Never heard of her.”
No one seemed to know anything about old Daniel, either. They asked the freckle-faced kid at the livery stable, and the girl behind the counter of the store that sold ladies’ hats and bolts of calico. They asked the young clerk at the bank: “Francina Talbot? No, sir,” and the boy who sold newspapers on the corner. “Francina Talbot? Nope. Never heard of her.” And with every shake of the head, every blank face, every shrug, Kid’s eyes became more grim.
“You know, I could use a little breakfast about now,” Heyes suggested cautiously, as they left the last shop at the end of the main street. “Maybe just a quick bite.”
Kid rubbed a hand over his eyes. “I guess you’re right,” he said. “What time is it, anyway?”
“Three o’clock,” Heyes said.
Kid smiled reluctantly. “I guess it wouldn’t be too early for a plate of ham and eggs,” he agreed, and followed Heyes towards the cafe on the corner.
“You know, maybe we should think about moving on,” Heyes said. “It’s kinda clouding up, we should travel while the good weather holds. We really need to get those documents to Topeka pretty soon, the lawyer said that...”
“Hey, let’s try those guys,” Kid interrupted, pointing across the busy road to two figures lounging against the wall of the feed store. “They were in the bar last night, they must know the old guy, anyway.” He crossed the street, dodging under the noses of two horses pulling a wagon, and ignoring the driver’s shouted questions about his eyesight. Heyes sighed and followed, splashing through the puddles to the drier ground on the other side of the street.
By the time he caught up with Kid, the conversation was well under way. Heyes could tell from the shaking of heads and outstretched palms that these two young farmhands knew no more of Francina than anyone else.
Then one of the men scratched his head thoughtfully, and spat a stream of brown tobacco juice at Kid’s feet. “Hey, I know what,” he said, through the wad of tobacco. “Why don’t you ask Sam?”
“Yeah,” the other one agreed, slapping his friend on the back. “Sam’ll know.”
“He knows everybody,” said the farmer, and spat again. “Well, he gets to know everybody eventually. He’s that kinda guy. “
“Bet he’ll know,” said the first, and they nodded at each other, their straw hats bobbing up and down.
“Sam who?” Kid asked politely.
“Sam, you know,” said the man, surprised at his ignorance. “Sam. Everybody knows Sam.”
“And he knows everybody,” said the other, elbowing him, and they both chortled. “You new in town or something?”
“Just passing through,” said Heyes, glancing at Kid, who was drumming his fingers on the handle of his gun.
“Sam who?” Kid asked again, holding onto the rags of his patience.
“Don’t know, everyone just calls him Sam.”
“Any idea where we can find him?” Heyes said casually.
They looked at each other and pondered this with sober faces. “Well, ya mostly see him in the saloon, actually,” said one. “Don’t know where he lives. You might keep an eye out at the saloon.”
“Well, thanks,” said Kid. “It’s a start, anyway.”
They walked down the street, leaving the two farmers still chuckling. “Well, we’re making huge progress,” said Heyes. “I feel like we’re narrowing it down rapidly. Maybe if we stand on a street corner and yell ‘Hey, Sam!’ for a few hours.”
“I’m about ready to try that,” said Kid. “What else can we do?”
Heyes stopped and looked at him with a serious face. “Get going, that’s what,” he said. “It’s a dead end, Kid.”
“Come on, be reasonable. This is a lot of money we’re talking about, and a long trip, it’ll all be for nothing if we don’t get those documents to Topeka soon.” Kid kept on walking, head down. “Okay, okay,” Heyes sighed, reading the stubborn look on Kid’s face. “Let’s go ask at the saloon. At least we’ll get something to eat there.”
The bartender was sweeping broken glass off the floor, but hastily retreated behind the bar when he saw them. He clutched the broom in front of him like a weapon, his large mustache quivering.
“Relax,” said Heyes. “We’re not looking for trouble, just a little information.” The bartender kept a tight hold on his broom, but listened to what they had to say; he denied any knowledge of Francina Talbot, but cautiously admitted that he knew Sam. “You aren’t going to beat him up, are you?” he asked anxiously.
Kid sighed. “Like the sheriff keeps saying, I’m a peaceable sort,” he said. “Just tell us where we can find Sam, and we’ll be on our way.”
“Well, I don’t know where he lives, but he goes by here most days on his way to work,” said the bartender. “I’ll keep an eye out for him.”
“You serve lunch?” Heyes inquired hopefully.
“Two bits,” said the man. “You got two bits, I got stew.” He disappeared into a doorway behind the bar, and they heard him rattling pots and dishes.
Kid turned and leaned back against the slightly charred wood of the bar, and couldn’t help a rueful grin as he surveyed the room. “We did make a bit of a mess last night,” he admitted. “That chandelier may never be the same again.”
“That’s why it’s so important we lay low for a while, not cause any fuss,” Heyes said severely.
“Yeah, yeah,” Kid said. “The chairs are kinda beat up, too, but at least we didn’t break any windows...” He glanced out the big plate glass window and his voice trailed off.
“What’s up?” said Heyes, seeing his partner tense. He spun around, expecting to see an angry posse approaching.
“See that woman, in the blue dress, across the street there? Look at how she’s trying to sneak along,” Kid said. “She’s afraid.” Heyes peered through the streaked window and saw a woman hurrying down the sidewalk, glancing fearfully over her shoulder, and clutching a shawl about her head to hide her face.
“That’s her,” said Kid, craning his neck. “Yellow hair, blue eyes...it’s her!”
“How the hell do you know what color her eyes are?” Heyes demanded.
“It’s Francina,” Kid said under his breath, and headed for the door at a run.
The sheriff was strolling along the wooden boardwalk that ran in front of the saloon. “Look out!” Heyes called, but it was too late. Kid burst out the door, and slammed full tilt into the sheriff. Both men crashed to the ground, and Heyes groaned out loud as Kid scrambled up, leaped over the sheriff who was lying on his back like a beached whale, and fled down the street.
Kid shoved his way down the sidewalk, leaving a trail of irate citizens in his wake. He had a glimpse of the woman’s blue skirt as she turned a corner, but when he charged around the bend the street ahead of him was empty.
He paused, panting. The road ran past a few sheds and barns and then ended, the packed dirt surface blending into the limitless sea of grass that surrounded the town. The low sun emerged from behind a cloud and he strained his eyes in the glare to glimpse a woman in a blue skirt with corn-silk hair coming towards him across the prairie, but the horizon was empty under a windswept sky.
“Where are you?” he called, but the flat prairie had no echoes, and no voice answered his. “Francina!” he called again in a desperate voice, as if searching for a lost child. “Francina...”
He was turning to go back, when suddenly he caught a flash of blue out of the corner of his eye, and whirled to see another glimpse of blue skirt as it disappeared through the side door of a barn. He ran over to the ramshackle building, shoved the door open, and went inside.
No one was in sight; bars of sunlight slanted down through high windows onto stacks of hay, and over his head pigeons clapped and fluttered in the rafters. Then, blended with the sound of the birds he heard a feminine giggle. “Francina?” he called.
The face of a young woman in a blue dress looked down at him from the high hayloft, and smiled. “What do you want, mister?” she inquired, raising her brows archly. “You followin’ me?”
Kid knew right away she wasn’t the girl in the picture, but he asked the question anyway. “Francina?”
“No, I’m Sophie,” said the girl, and smiled more broadly, looking him over. “Who’re you?” A stern male voice said something from the hayloft behind her, and she giggled again, and the blonde head vanished. Kid left, closing the barn door quietly behind him.
Heyes fingered the coins in his pocket, and wondered if he had enough to buy the sheriff yet another drink. Wining and dining the sheriff had seemed a good way to smooth his ruffled feathers, but the man had a big appetite, and his funds were running low. The sheriff pushed aside his empty plate, and leaned on the bar, sadly regarding his flattened, filthy hat, which Kid had trampled in his haste.
“So, that guy, is he a friend of yours?” he asked, as he finished his fourth large whiskey.
“Nah,” said Heyes. “We’re just travelling in the same direction.” He eyed the sheriff’s broad, bland face, and had a sudden thought. “Say, you’re new here in town, you say. Who was sheriff before you? Was it that old guy who just died?”
“No, no, it was Richard Jakes, he was sheriff here for years. Good man. Why?”
“Oh, no reason,” said Heyes. “Have another drink?”
“No, thanks, not on duty,” the sheriff said. He brushed the remaining mud from his trousers, and settled the dented hat carefully on his head. “Well, watch out for that Jones fellow, neighbor. He’s nothing but trouble, I can tell. He’s a dangerous man.” He nodded at Heyes. “Very dangerous.”
Heyes finished his drink with relief as the sheriff left. The saloon was starting to fill with the afternoon crowd, and many of the men who entered eyed Heyes curiously, remembering last night’s brawl. Heyes groped in his almost empty pockets, and realized there wasn’t enough in them to get started in a card game. The piano player started up a merry tune, and a poker table was forming, but he went out the swinging doors glumly. The music faded behind him as he trudged back to the hotel.
He went up to the dingy little room, and stretched out on the bed, yawning. The room darkened as the sun sank behind clouds, and the curtainless windows and bare walls made the room seem chilly. He sighed, and pulled his mind resolutely away, as he always did, from thoughts of a warm kitchen fireside and welcoming faces around the supper-table. He fell asleep on the hard bed, waiting for Kid to get back.
It was more than an hour later when he woke to hear Kid’s slow footsteps trudging up the hotel stairs. The door opened, and Kid entered wearily. As soon as he saw Heyes’s expression he put his hands in the air. “Don’t shoot,” he said. “I surrender.”
“It’s unbelievable,” Heyes said, looking up at the ceiling. “It really is.” He shook his head. “What have you got planned next?” he inquired, sitting up. “Why don’t you challenge the sheriff to a little fast draw? Do some target practice outside his office? Ask to see his wanted posters?”
Kid ignored this. He sat down on the hard wooden chair, and drew his gun, checking it over carefully. Heyes watched him for a few minutes. “So it wasn’t her, huh?” he said, in a different tone. Kid shook his head without looking up.
Heyes got off the bed, and walked over to put a hand on Kid’s shoulder. “Come on, Kid. We can’t do any more here, it’s a wild goose chase.”
Kid inspected the gun’s chambers with narrowed eyes. “I said I’d protect her.”
“Against what?” Heyes demanded. “What the hell was the old guy talking about? Kansas is pretty peaceful nowadays, you know. There’s no massacres anymore.”
“I don’t know,” Kid muttered.
“That sheriff’s watching us, and he’s no fool,” said Heyes, shaking him by the shoulder. Kid looked up, and their eyes met. “Come on, Kid,” Heyes said urgently. “For once, just once, let’s quit while we’re ahead. Let’s do the smart thing, and leave.”
“I’m not leaving,” Kid insisted. “She’s all alone, she needs me.” He stood up and shoved the gun back into his holster. “I’m not going to let her down.”
“She doesn’t know you from a hole in the ground,” Heyes protested. “And you don’t know her. I mean, I’d like to help, but we’ve done all we can.”
“No!” Kid shouted, striding around the room. Heyes watched, amazed at the violence in his tone. “She needs me!” Kid circled the room again. “She’s all alone, no one to help her. I was just a kid last time, but now I know how to use a gun. I’m not going to let her down this time.” He turned and flung out of the room, slamming the door with a crash that threatened to bring down the building.
Heyes hardly head the sound of Kid’s boots thundering down the stairs. “This time?” he said out loud, staring at the door. “This time?”
Heyes sat a table in the saloon, an untouched plate of steak and fried potatoes in front of him, gazing at the opposite wall. His thoughts were years away. For once he had neglected the precaution of sitting with his back to the door, and he didn’t hear stealthy footsteps come up behind him, pause, and then approach closer.
Suddenly a hand, holding a shot glass full of whiskey, appeared in front of his nose, and he blinked in surprise. He looked up to see Kid standing over him, swaying slightly, and holding a half-full bottle. “Want a drink?” Kid inquired. “You don’t have to talk to me or nothin’, I’ll leave you alone.”
Heyes looked at him for a moment, then accepted the glass without comment. He shoved a chair out with his foot, and Kid sat down. They drank in silence for a while.
“You know, Kid,” Heyes said in a low voice, refilling his glass. “I agree we should try to help this girl, I’ll go along, no argument. But you gotta realize...” He paused. “Saving Francina isn’t going to change what happened. It won’t bring her back.”
“Her?” Kid stared at him warily. “Who do you mean?”
“Your mother,” Heyes said gently.
Kid’s eyes flew wide in surprise. “What are you, a damn mind reader?” he demanded. “Think you know everything.”
“I do know everything,” Heyes said smugly. Kid snorted, and splashed more whiskey into his glass, filling it to the brim. “That won’t bring her back either,” Heyes added.
Kid ignored this and tossed off the drink in one gulp. “You don’t know everything,” he said, filling the glass again. He held it up and looked at the amber whiskey gleaming in the light. “This’ll bring her back,” he said. “Works every time.” He downed the drink, then slammed the empty glass back on the table, and looked at Heyes defiantly.
“I know,” said Heyes in a low voice. “I’ve tried it, too. And it does bring my folks back, sometimes. I can see their faces and everything.” He looked away and shook his head. “It’s just that they’re never gonna be back to stay.”
The bartender waved across the room to get their attention. “Hey, boys,” he called. “Weren’t you on the lookout for old Sam?”
“Yeah,” Kid said, glad to end the conversation. He jumped to his feet and swayed a little. “You know where he is?”
The bartender squinted out the window. “There he goes—think he’s going to work, if you hurry you can catch him. Guy with the big hat, red suspenders.” Kid was out the door before the man had finished speaking.
Heyes got to his feet, and wearily followed him out into the drizzle. Kid stood on the boardwalk, looking up and down the street. “Red suspenders, there he is,” he said, and pursued the man. “Sam? Hey, Sam!”
His quarry stopped and turned around; he was an elderly gnome of a man, barely up to Kid’s shoulder. “What do you want?” he asked, squinting up at them. “I got to get to work, got a job to do.”
“Well...” Heyes began, but Kid interrupted him. “We’re looking for a Francina Talbot, do you know where she is?”
“Hm, Francina, Francina Talbot...” the old man said, tilting his head to one side like a thoughtful sparrow. “Name sounds familiar, now, why is that?” He blinked into space a few times, while Kid fidgeted. “Oh yeah, I remember—that old guy who croaked yesterday—he used to bring her flowers all the time.”
“Yeah, that sounds right,” said Kid eagerly. “So where is she, do you know?”
“Let me think, where did I see...yeah, just on top of the hill there. Over the stone wall, just across from the brook.” He pointed to a rutted road that ran past stores and houses up to the low hills that encircled the town.
“Think she’s there now?” Kid asked eagerly.
The man stared at him, and snorted. “Well, I should certainly think so--” he began, and that was enough for Kid. He strode up the hill under the lowering clouds, as raindrops began to splash down. He walked faster and faster, then broke into a run. “What’s your hurry, young feller?” he heard the old man call behind him, but didn’t look back.
He raced up the steep road, past the houses, past the church, and suddenly in his mind he was a boy again, running frantically up another Kansas hillside, smoke rising from beyond the crest, icy raindrops mixing with the hot tears that stung his eyes. He ran, knowing with the sure instinct of a child that something dreadful beyond words was waiting just over the top of the hill.
He topped the rise and slowed, panting, hoping to glimpse a figure in a blue skirt with corn-colored hair, waiting to see her turn and smile at him, her blue eyes lit with
welcome. But as he reached the crest of the hill, the buildings ended, and the road faded into an endless horizon of brown prairie grass. The hilltop was empty.
He looked around, and spotted the stone wall, and the little brook, but no one was there. “Francina!” he called out in wild despair. “Where are you?”
Heyes had started to run after Kid, but the small man caught his arm. “Hold on, boy, just hold your horses,” he wheezed. “She ain’t going nowhere, that’s for sure. Now what’s so special about this Francina? Old Sheriff Daniels, he used to bring her flowers all the time, I was always having to tidy up, and now you two mooning around.”
“What do you mean, tidy up?” said Heyes absently, watching Kid heading up the muddy road towards the small white church that stood on top of the hill.
“Sweep them away, after they faded. Dang mess, it was. He sure was broke up about it, felt he’d let her down, I reckon.”
“Sweep them after...what?” said Heyes, staring at the man. Suddenly things fell into place, and he realized with a sickening jolt what Sam’s job was, and why it was that he eventually got to know every body in town.
Heyes splashed through puddles, ignoring the rain that was beating down harder than ever. Finally he came to the top of the hill, where Kid was standing bare-headed in the downpour. He spun around when Heyes came quietly up behind him.
“I’m not leaving till I find her,” Kid said, through clenched teeth. “Where’s that little bastard? I’ll beat it out of him.”
“We found her, Kid,” said Heyes, pity in his dark eyes. “We found her.”
“What! Where?” Kid grabbed his partner’s shoulder as though he would shake the information out of him, then followed his glance over the stone wall, across the brook. He stared in disbelief for a long minute, then read the words on the tilted, lichen-covered headstone that was half covered by prairie grass.
A voice behind them broke the silence. “I see you found your friend,” said the little man, blinking at them with curiosity in his wrinkled face. He was holding a well-used shovel over one shoulder. “Terrible thing, really. She was so pretty, you know. Had the nicest smile, I used to...well.” He scratched his chin. “Daniels, he was nuts about her, promised her she’d be safe from the raiders. He never really got over it.” He stuck his shovel into the sod. “Guess I’ll put him up here, next to her. I don’t think he ever got over...” Kid turned away hastily, and strode off down the hill.
“Humph,” Sam said to Heyes, struggling to push the shovel through the tough grass. “Not very sociable, your friend, is he?”
“Oh, he just wants to...to get out of the rain,” said Heyes, watching his partner walk back towards the town. “He hates rain. Like a cat.”
“Well, he came to the wrong place, then,” said Sam. “Hell, it always rains in Kansas. In between twisters.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Heyes, looking out over the darkening prairie. He lifted his face to the cold rain, so that he would have an excuse to wipe his eyes. “I know all about it,” he said. “We were born in Kansas.”
Heyes looked across the crowded saloon, warmly lit by the repaired chandelier. He searched the faces of the cheerful card-players and drinkers, and tipped his hat when he saw the sheriff leaning against the bar, eyeing him suspiciously. He finally spotted a lone figure sitting at a corner table, head down, a full whiskey bottle in front of him.
Heyes crossed the room, and sat down at the table, pulling a deck of cards from his pocket. “Deal you a hand, stranger?” he said, shuffling the deck and fanning the cards expertly.
Kid looked up at him and smiled. “Want a drink?” he asked. Heyes nodded, and Kid shoved his full glass across the table to him. “Doesn’t work anymore,” Kid said. “I can’t bring her back even for a minute.” Heyes took a sip, then idly dealt a couple of poker hands, watching Kid.
“Did you read the date on the headstone?” Kid asked. “Same year. Same exact year.”
“Lot of killing that year,” said Heyes, his voice bitter. “They called it Bleeding Kansas, remember?”
Kid picked up the shot glass and emptied it, then crashed his hand back onto the table so hard the glass shattered. “Damn it, it’s not fair!” he said, his voice rising. He cried out again, like a grief-stricken child cheated of his heart’s desire: “It’s not fair!”
There was a lull in the buzz of conversation, and the room fell silent as heads turned towards them curiously. Heyes gave his partner a warning kick, and Kid bowed his head.
The sheriff heaved himself erect, and ambled over to their table. “Now, now, boys,” he said. “This is a peaceable town, you know. If someone’s not playing fair, why, you need to settle your differences peaceably.”
“Sorry, sheriff,” Heyes muttered. “Didn’t mean to disturb you.”
The sheriff frowned at Kid’s clenched fists and the shards of glass on the table. “You take it easy, there, son,” he said. “I don’t blame you for being mad, but don’t go flying off the handle and shooting this guy here. He might be a cheat, but we got peaceable ways of dealing with his kind.”
“What!” Heyes protested. “I’m not cheating, we were just...”
“Sure, that’s what they all say,” said the sheriff. “What do you say, young fella?” he added, looking at Kid. “You want to let him off, or bring charges?”
Kid raised his head, and blinked up at the sheriff for a moment, then smiled. “Well, I reckon I’ll let the dirty skunk go this time,” he said magnanimously. “To oblige you, sheriff.”
“Well, that’s square of you, friend,” said the sheriff, patting Kid on the back. “I appreciate that. And you should too, young man,” he added sternly to Heyes. “Deal’em straight, now. It’s not an easy thing to take, when you’ve been cheated. It’s not a pleasant thing. Makes you mad.”
“I know that, sheriff,” Kid said, his eyes somber again. “We both do.”
Here's a story I wrote a long time ago as part of a fan-fiction series--the idea was that everyone had to write a story from the point of view of a character who had a reason to be grateful to Heyes and Kid. "The Bounty Hunter" is far and away my favorite episode, and so I had this be sort of an epilogue to that wonderful story.
Sam Freeman's Story
No, sir, I don't actually know Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry. No, don't really know them at all. Never so much as spoke a single word to 'em. Yes, sir, thanks, I'll have another drink, why not?
Do they know me? No, sir, not at all. They never gave me so much as a glance.
What did the gentlemen in question do for me? Lost me my job, that's what.
What job? Well, used to be I worked for the sheriff of Big Butte, Arizona. What’s that?--was I a deputy? Me? Are you crazy? Excuse me, sir, no, I was the errand boy, and cleaned up the cells, dumped the chamber pots, scrubbed the floors. Brought the prisoners their meals, stuff like that.
It was a cold morning, I remember, the sheriff had just told me to fire up the wood stove to take the chill off when the two gentlemen in question walked into the office. Right now, over at the bar there, they certainly are all cleaned up and shiny, but that day they looked like something the cat dragged in, all dusty and bedraggled. But they walked into that office like they owned the place, heads held high.
"Excuse me, sheriff," said the dark-haired one--Smith, he called himself, I think. "We're here to report a crime." I was mopping out the closet, and as usual pretending not to listen.
"A crime?" said Sheriff Walker, looking them up and down with kind of a sneer at their dirty clothes. "What sort of crime?"
"A murder," said the other one, Jones. "A cold -blooded killing."
"Really?" said the sheriff, yawning a bit. "Well, don't keep me in suspense, who's dead?"
"A man named Joe Sims," said Smith. "Shot in the back, murder plain and simple."
"Sims?" said Sheriff Walker. He snorted. "You mean that bounty hunter fella?" He looked around at me. "Pick up that mop, boy, and get back to work."
"Yes, boss," I said.
"That's right, he was a bounty hunter, Sheriff," said Jones, looking surprised. "You know him?"
"I'm not a friend of his, if that's what you mean. Black fella, ain't he? Don't see much of their kind in this neck of the woods." He pointed at me. "He's the only other one around here."
They never gave me so much as a glance, their eyes were steady fixed on the sheriff. He sat down behind his desk, and grinned all over his narrow face. "We don't think much of the coloreds 'round here. Where I come from, don't count as a murder less'n a white man gets killed."
The two of them leaned forward and put their hands on the desk, and the sheriff's grin went away. "Where we come from, it's murder if anyone gets killed," said Smith in a very quiet voice. "Are you going to look into this, sheriff?"
Walker gulped and looked a little fidgety. He glanced at Jones's gun, holster tied down and cut low for a fast draw. "Sure, sure, boys, don't get all upset. Who killed him?"
"A guy named Maxwell," said Smith.
"Mr. Maxwell? Richest rancher in the county? That Maxwell?"
"That's the one."
"All right," Walker said, shrugging. "And how did you get involved in this? You friends of Sims?"
They glanced at each other, and for the first time Smith began to stammer a little. "Well, he was... he was... he thought we were someone else, an honest mistake. We were on our way here to straighten it out. But Maxwell killed him in cold blood, there were other witnesses."
The sheriff gave a slow smile, nasty as an undertaker. "Oh, I'll be sure to look into this, boys. I surely will. Don't you worry."
They both gave him a long, steady look. Then they turned and walked out of the office, heads held high.
As soon as they were out the door, Walker jumped to his feet. He was so excited that he talked to me, something he rarely did. "I remember that Sims fella," he muttered. "He was a pretty smart bounty hunter even if he was a colored. Could even read. If he was bringing those boys in, I bet he was on to something." He peered out the window. "They're headed to the livery stable, good, that means they're gonna hang around for a while."
He trotted over to the desk and pulled out a pile of wanted posters, and began to flip through them, but after a couple minutes he went back to the window. "Damn, they're heading down the street. I'm gonna keep an eye on them." He beckoned to me. "Here, boy, you look through these flyers for me--oh, you can't read, of course. Well, look at the pictures, some of the flyers have pictures. If you find'em there's a hundred bucks in it for you, that's more money than you make in a year."
"Yes, boss," I said, and he ran out of the room.
I put down my mop and went over to the pile of flyers. I leafed through them, reading each one carefully, till I found the two I was looking for. Then I picked up the whole pile of wanted posters and put them in the wood stove. They burned real good.
The flames were just starting to die down when Sheriff Walker came back in. "It's okay," he said, rubbing his hands together. "They're having a drink at the saloon, they'll stay put for a while. Soon as I get the goods on them I'll head back over with a couple of deputies, and they'll be spending the night in a nice cozy cell." He glanced at the stove. "That thing's full of ashes, clean it out, boy."
"No, boss," I said.
He looked at me with wide eyes. "What did you say, boy?" he demanded.
“No,” I said to him. And then I turned and walked out of the office. Head high.
Much as I love writing, I'm actually a botanist by training, and just for fun, I've started a blog, about my beloved weeds--the plants that pop up in unexpected places, between sidewalk cracks and in parking lots and graveyards and schoolyards. A little bit of plant lore, a little plant ID, a little craziness. Check it out!
love to see you there
For some wonderful fan art, check out
**************************************************************************************I believe this is my most recent ASJ story--and it isn't very recent, I think I wrote it a couple of years ago. I was on a horseback riding trip in New Mexico (clinging nervously to the pommel, I'm no great rider.) And very unexpectedly, just as we set off, it rained. Freakin' poured. I mean, it never rains in New Mexico, right? It was the oddest sensation, riding into the rain, not a house in sight, with water dripping down my back and into my shoes. Anyway, the long ride gave me a lot of time to think up a story...
The Shooting Match
Biggest Ever! Prizes Galore! Heyes read the cheerful red and blue letters on the poster with a sinking feeling in his stomach. Come one, come all! Biggest Shooting Match in the West.
He glanced at Kid out of the corner of his eye. Sure enough, his partner was studying the fine print eagerly. Are you the fastest gun in the west? Come to the town of Red Rock to show what you can do. Heyes’ stomach knotted as he watched Kid grin. Prizes, prizes, prizes! Hit the Bull’s-eye! Moving Targets! Special prize for the shooter who can shoot his initials into the wall, using only 12 bullets.
Kid’s eager smile faded. “Stop looking at me like that,” he growled, without turning his head.
“Like wha-?” Heyes began.
“Shut up!” Kid snapped. “Just shut up, will you?”
“I didn’t say a syllable,” Heyes protested.
“I know I can’t enter the contest—I know it, okay? It would be stupid. There’s no need to take risks, I know that. Everyone would say, oh, my stars, that boy’s so good with a gun he can’t be an honest man. I know, I know, stop harping on it, would you?”
“All right, I‘ll stop,” said Heyes. “I was getting hoarse from all that talking anyway.”
Kid didn’t even crack a smile. He just strode on down the street, and Heyes meekly followed him to the livery stable. They saddled up the horses in silence, and Kid led the string of three pack mules out of the stable. They’d agreed to try a little prospecting in the canyons to the north, where rumor had it there was silver to be found. Kid muttered to himself all the way down the main street of town, but Heyes ignored him, waiting for the Kid to get it out of his system.
The sun was sinking in a cloud-streaked sky, and Heyes turned up his collar as the wind picked up. Just out of town the road got steeper, and they followed winding curves into the pine-covered hills. After a mile or two they came to a crooked signpost: Red Rock 2 miles. Kid reined his horse, and glanced over at Heyes.
“What?” Heyes demanded, recognizing the look.
“Nothing,” Kid said.
“Don’t tell me, nothing. You’re formulating a plan, I can tell. Kid, you know that always leads to disaster.”
“It’s just that …well…”
“You don’t think maybe…a disguise?” Kid stopped short as Heyes burst out laughing.
Heyes pulled his face straight when he saw Kid’s expression. “Come on, Kid,” he said. “Why does it matter so much? You’re the fastest gun I’ve ever seen. Why do you want to show off?”
“I don’t know,” Kid said. “It’s just that...”
“Nothing.” Kid shook the reins and the horse started along the road, in the opposite direction to Red Rock.
As the road shrunk to a narrow dirt path, Kid went first, leading the three plodding mules laden with food and equipment. Heyes brought up the rear, glad to avoid conversation.
Soon the path forked. Each way led into a tangled thicket of pines and scrub, dark with shadows. “Hmm,” said Heyes. “Not sure which way we should head. What do you think?”
Kid shrugged. “You know everything,” he said. “It’s up to you.”
Heyes scratched his head for a while, then started up the left fork. “This is the way,” he said confidently.
“I don’t know, I think it’s the other way,” said Kid, but Heyes ignored him. The path wound and twisted, doubling back on itself. Finally it wandered into a canyon of crumbling gray rock dotted with twisted pines. The further they went the narrower the canyon became, and the walls rose higher on each side. “Don’t think this is gonna take us where we want to go,” Kid said.
“Ah, well, let’s keep going and see what happens,” Heyes answered with determined cheerfulness.
“Nothing good,” Kid muttered.
They rode forward in silence for a while, and soon a fine drizzle began. The icy rain found its way down their collars and oozed into their boots. “What did I tell you?” said Kid with melancholy triumph.
“Oh, come on, Kid, what are you so proddy about? Are you still stewing over that stupid shooting match?”
Kid glanced at Heyes eagerly. “Shooting your initials into a wall…what if I just did that part? That’d be a real challenge—only twelve shots…”
Heyes just stared at him. “Oh, shut up,” Kid snarled.
They rode along the canyon for a while, the rain trickling off their hat brims. Kid finally broke the silence. “Maybe if I grew a beard…or dyed my hair…”
Heyes threw back his head and shouted at the top of his voice. “Will you give it up?”
When Kid didn’t answer, Heyes went on in his most reasonable tone. “Kid, there’s no way on God’s green earth that you can go there and not have someone recognize you. Why, we hit three banks in that area just last year. It’s a crazy risk to take.” Heyes stopped talking and glanced at Kid’s face. He had never seen his partner look so miserable. “Why on earth does it matter so much?” he asked softly.
“It couldn’t matter less, just shut up,” Kid mumbled.
Heyes waited. Finally Kid burst out, “It’s just that I’m sick of it. Of never being myself, you know? For the rest of our lives we’ll have to pretend we’re someone other than who we really are. Never say what we really think, never let on what we can do…”
Heyes sighed. “Well, yeah,” he said. “I know.”
“Can’t look sideways at anyone in case I get into trouble, can’t pull a gun, can’t do this, can’t do that. And to top it off, I have to live the rest of my life saddled with this stupid name.”
“Yeah, I have to admit it,” said Heyes. “Thaddeus just isn’t a name that’s easy to get used to.”
“No, I like Thaddeus,” Kid said. “It’s the Jones part I can’t stand.”
Heyes decided to give up on talking Kid out of the dumps. They rode on as the canyon walls narrowed. Finally they turned a corner and came to a dead end. A smooth blank wall of rock rose in front of them.
“Guess this wasn’t the right way after all,” Heyes said lamely. He expected his partner to grouse some more, but Kid just sighed and didn’t say anything. “Well, we better stop and spend the night here,” Heyes said. “Horses are beat. It’s getting dark, and the moon won’t be up till after midnight.”
They did their best to get a fire going, but every twig they picked up was sodden. They finally settled for rolling themselves in blankets and gnawing on handfuls of beef jerky. “Guess you were right after all,” Heyes said, as he lay down, pulling the damp blanket over his head. “This road sure goes nowhere.”
Heyes was jerked awake by a gunshot. He scrambled up and stood gun in hand, looking around blearily. “Who do you think that was?” he called over his shoulder, but there was no answer. “Kid?” Bright moonlight showed Kid’s blanket in a heap, but there was no sign of his partner.
Another shot. The sound came from up ahead, towards the narrow neck of the canyon. Heyes ran forward as another shot sounded. A pause, then another. Shaking off the fog of sleep, it dawned on Heyes that the shots were coming at regular intervals. Blam. Blam. Between the shots there was no sound but the wind whispering in the pines.
After the sixth shot there was a pause. Then the noise resumed. Bang. Bang. Bang. Heyes listened, counting the shots, smiling in the darkness. When the shooting stopped, he holstered his gun and went quietly back to bed.
There was a long pause. He heard Kid’s footsteps crunching on gravel, then a deep sigh of satisfaction as he rolled himself up in his blanket. Heyes lay counting stars until he finally fell back to sleep.
The next morning, Heyes awoke to birdsong. His feet were like ice, and his blanket was speckled with gray drops of dew. He yawned and stretched, and glanced over at Kid, a silent hump under the blanket. Heyes got up and strolled down the canyon.
After a hundred yards, he came to the wall of stone that ended the box canyon. He smiled to himself, pleased as always when his own predictions came true.
There, on the canyon wall, were twelve marks. Each was a rounded chip where a bullet had ricocheted off the rock. The marks were in a precise pattern, neat as a schoolboy’s penmanship. One mark over the other, lined up perfectly. There they were, and there they would stay, engraved on the rock for all time, although no one would ever see them.
O O O
O O O
O O O O
Author's Note: This is yet another story I borrowed from the old Robin Hood legends. In the original story, Robin Hood is dying to go to an archery contest to prove he's the greatest archer of all time, and it's Little John who has the idea to wear a disguise. Fortunately for them the ever-dense Sheriff of Nottingham doesn't recognize them.
This one is a look back into the past--remember the evil Plummer, from Exit from Wickenburg?
There it was, up ahead.
A tall willow, a lone spot of green in the sun-baked desert. The cactus and the few shrubs that grew in the heat of the canyon were gray and sandy brown, but the willow was a gentle green. Odd, Heyes thought, to see a willow in such a dry spot. Usually willows stayed close to water, by riverbanks and shady, quiet lakes. He closed his eyes, and for an instant the heat of the desert was banished by a breeze from a tree-lined Kansas river.
But the blazing heat surrounded him like an oven, and could not be escaped for long. No matter, thought Heyes, wiping the sweat from his forehead. It wasn’t far now. And what was buried there, beneath the willow, would change his life forever.
Hannibal Heyes stared at the tin box which the cashier had just locked. There was a twenty dollar bill in there, he was sure of it. But the cashier had snapped the lid shut before he’d had time to move his hand. Twenty dollars. That would buy food for a month.
He pulled the small piece of wire from his pocket and held it ready. All he needed was a few seconds—there was no one in the empty store to see him, and usually the clerk fussed around the dry-goods counter at the other end of the room. But this time the clerk threw him a suspicious glance and remained standing close by, his hand resting on the cash-box. Heyes heard the jingle of a bell as a customer opened the door and entered. Soon it would be too late.
Heyes turned a wide-eyed gaze to the open window behind the clerk. “Oh, my gosh!” he exclaimed. “Look at that!”
The clerk looked at him through narrowed eyes. “What are you talking about, boy?” His hand remained squarely on the cashbox.
Heyes shook his head. “I just can’t believe it…I’ve sure never seen anything like that!”
“What?” said the cashier, turning his head slightly. Heyes ignored him, and stood on tiptoe to peer out of the high window.
“It’s just…gosh! Look at it now! I can’t believe--there it goes again!”
The cashier was only human. He turned and looked out the window.
Heyes slid a hand towards the box, and fiddled for a second or two with the latch. His fingers slid the twenty out and eased the lid shut before the clerk spun around. “Well, what on earth are you talking about, boy, I don’t see any—hey! Where are you going?”
Heyes had spun around, aiming to dart out the door as quickly as he could, but he bumped into a figure standing right behind him; a large man, dressed in a gleaming black suit. His heavy eyebrows rose as he regarded Heyes unsmilingly. The man had come up behind him as quietly as a cat--he must have seen everything.
The big man put a hand on Heyes’ shoulder, gripping him tightly. The clerk gave a tight-lipped smile and nodded, as if his suspicions were confirmed, and reached for the cashbox. But before the clerk had a chance to glance inside, the stranger gave a gasp. “My word!” he said. “Will you look at that! I’ve never seen anything like it!”
Heyes and the clerk both stared out the window, but the stranger didn’t give Heyes time to admire the empty street outside; he grabbed his collar and pulled him out the door. The bewildered clerk was still staring out the window, scratching his head, as the door slammed shut behind them.
Heyes had to laugh again at the thought of the clerk gazing out the narrow window at nothing. His throat was too dry for the laugh to be more than a croak. He stuck a hand in his pocket, and grinned—sure enough, the twenty-dollar bill was still there. And that was nothing—nothing! to what was waiting for him when he got to the willow tree.
Heyes took a sip of the ice cold beer, then another bite of the steak. Juicy, crisp at the edges—just the way he liked it. The stranger, sitting across the restaurant table from him, slowly sipped a glass of whiskey, watching him all the while.
“What exactly do you mean, Mr. Plummer, a business proposition?” Heyes asked with his mouth full.
The big man took another sip. “You’re pretty good with locks, I see. Fast on your feet, too. How’d you like to try for more than twenty dollars?”
Heyes felt a glint of excitement. This was it, the chance to get into the big time he’d been hoping for. He took another bite of the steak, trying not to appear overeager.
“So?” demanded Plummer. “Would you like a job?” He took a cigar out of his pocket and struck a match.
“Doing what exactly?”
“Oh, nothing too hard on the back…” said Plummer airily, waving out the match. The smoke from the cigar curled around his head. “I need a talented young fellow like yourself to give me a hand.” He smiled. “Trust me,” he said. “I’ll make it worth your while. You have my word.”
He lifted his glass, and Heyes raised his beer mug. They clinked glasses.
Heyes plodded along, one foot after the other. His throat was bone dry. He’d trade whole bottles of the finest whiskey or the coldest beer for one sip of muddy water. The canyon wall rose ever higher, cliffs of red rock streaked with stripes of black, as though a giant house-painter had drawn a great brush up and down the massive walls. No way to climb those sheer cliffs. The only way out of the canyon was behind him.
The robbery had gone surprisingly fast. It was over almost before Heyes knew where he was. The dark aisles of the bank, the empty counters, the lantern lighting up the marble pillars…he hardly had time to notice anything before he was staring at the big safe. The heavy padlock reminded him of the one on the tin cashbox at the general store—same design, just bigger.
The night guard was a young man, not much older than Heyes, but his long nose and droopy jowls gave him the look of a melancholy old hound dog. The guard stared at Plummer’s gun, held three inches from his nose, with eyes so wide that the whites showed all around.
“Open it!” Plummer ordered. “There’s probably five hundred dollars in that safe, and it’s all ours.” The man said nothing, just stared at the gun with chattering teeth.
The other two members of the gang eyed the scene uneasily, elbowing each other and shifting from foot to foot. Kyle was a straw-haired boy about Heyes’s own age, who so far hadn’t had a word to say for himself. Jake, the other outlaw, was an older man, heavy-set and red-faced.
“Open it!” Plummer shouted. “You don’t think five hundred dollars is worth getting dead over, do you?”
The guard raised his narrow chin and looked at Plummer with his sad hound-dog eyes. Slowly, he took a bunch of keys out of his pocket. Then he drew back his hand and hurled the keys high in the air. They made a silver arc in the lanternlight as they soared high over the robbers’ heads and flew out the narrow, barred window. In the appalled silence, they heard the chink as the keys hit the dusty road outside.
Sweat was dripping off his nose onto the dusty track. God, it was dusty. Heyes thought briefly of Kid, enjoying green and pleasant days out east there, far away in Philadelphia where it was doubtless not dusty at all.
Then he returned his concentration to the business at hand. He had to get to the willow, and it was so far away. Better keep an eye out for rattlesnakes.
Plummer’s eyes slitted narrow as a snake’s. He raised his gun silently, like a rattler about to strike.
“Hold on there,” said Heyes. A cold feeling settled in his stomach. “Let’s think about this for a minute.”
He put a hand on Plummer’s arm, but the man shook him off. “He’s getting what’s coming to him,” Plummer hissed.
“No, wait!” Heyes said, and there was such a note of certainty in his voice that all three outlaws stared at him. He reached into his pocket and felt the sharp bit of wire. Shoving the trembling bank clerk aside, he grasped the padlock and inserted the wire into the key hole. He felt rather than heard the tiny slip of tumblers.
“You don’t think you can open that, do you?” Plummer sneered, but Heyes made no answer. He closed his eyes, willing the wire to go a quarter of an inch further. He could hear his audience breathing in the stillness. Then there was a tiny click, and the thick door swung open. Heyes felt a glow of pride, that was momentarily swamped beneath the thought of the disappointment in his father’s eyes. He brushed the thought hastily away. You can’t disappoint someone who’s dead.
He looked around, expecting a flood of congratulation, but there was silence. He looked at Plummer, Kyle and Jake, all staring past him with wide eyes and open jaws. He followed their gaze to the inside of the safe. It was packed, toppling over with stacks and stacks of hundred dollar bills.
“My God,” Kyle whispered. “There’s a fortune in there.”
The sad-eyed bank clerk shrugged. “Stage that was carrying the Silverlode payroll broke down,” he said. “They’re just keeping the money here for twenty-four hours. How the hell did you guys know about it?” The outlaws just continued to stare open-mouthed.
Finally Plummer found his voice. He jumped to his feet and held a canvas satchel open as Kyle and Jake stuffed handfuls of bills into it. “Heyes, go take a look out the window, see if anyone’s coming. Kyle, you keep the drop on this guy here.”
Heyes glanced out the window and saw a glimmer of light, bobbing along the road that ran past the sleeping houses. A lantern. “Trouble coming,” he said.
“Okay,” said Plummer. He snapped the satchel shut, and hurried into the darkness. “Heyes, you go last, watch that guy till we’re out.”
“What about the money?” Heyes said. “Shouldn’t we all take some in case we have to split up or something?”
“No time for that now!” Plummer snarled. “Let’s go!”
Heyes followed in the wake of the other three. They slunk out the back door, and were just mounting up when a blinding beam of light hit Heyes in the face. He ducked away, but the light followed him. “Hey!” a voice yelled. “What’re you guys up to there?”
Heyes could just make out a dark figure through the glare. Kyle and Jake had mounted their horses and were already clattering away; Plummer was reaching for his gun.
“No!” Heyes knocked Plummer’s arm up, and the shot went wild. There was a growing tide of shouts behind him, as Heyes swung himself into the saddle, and galloped down the main street. Lights were glowing in windows as he dashed by. Just behind he could hear Plummer still cursing him as they fled down the road.
The horses were tiring, and dawn was in the sky by the time Plummer pulled up at the crossroads. They stared at each other, faces pale in the dim light, knowing the posse couldn’t be far behind.
“All right, we’ll outfox them,” said Plummer. He took a swig from his canteen, and gave them a confident grin. “Each of you take a different road, and I’ll double back the way we came. They won’t know which way to go.” He laughed heartily.
“Yeah, but what about the money?” said Heyes. “Just give us our share in case we get sep---“
“No time now! Honestly, you cowboys, always want to get your hands on the dough. You’ve gotta learn to be patient, son.” He pointed down the road. “Kyle, you go east, Jake, west.”
“Yeah, but what about the money?” Heyes insisted.
“We’ll split it up later, I said!” Plummer didn’t meet his eyes.
“When?’” Heyes insisted. “And more importantly, where?” There was a pause. Kyle and Jake stared at Plummer, too, and Jake’s hand drifted towards his holster.
Plummer rolled his eyes and sighed. “Oh, all right,” he said. “You know Blackwater Canyon?”
“I’ve heard of it,” said Heyes doubtfully. “It’s about a day’s ride from here, southeast—long, narrow box canyon.”
“Right!” Plummer nodded. “My, you’re a smart guy, you are. You know everything. Okay, I’ll meet you there.”
“Where exactly?” Heyes demanded. “It’s miles long.”
Plummer blew out his cheeks. “You’re the suspicious type, eh? All right, let’s see.” He pursed his lips and frowned as though thinking deeply. “I know, there’s a willow up at the very end of the canyon, big old tree. You can’t miss it. I’ll meet you there, and if by any chance we miss each other, here’s what I’ll do. I’ll bury your shares underneath the tree. Got it?”
“But what about…” Heyes began, but Plummer cut him off. “Trust me,” he said. “You have my word.”
“Well, why don’t we just split it up now—“ Heyes’s words were interrupted by a shot, close by. Splinters flew from a nearby rock as the bullet whined off.
“Better make tracks!” Plummer shouted. “No time to chat now!” and for once Heyes agreed with him.
He kept on, step after step. Had to keep going. “Trust me,” Plummer had said. “You have my word.” Heyes pushed away the thought of how Plummer’s eyes had shifted as he said it. The money was there, waiting for him. It had to be, after all this.
“I don’t know,” said Kyle, scratching his chin. “This might be a bad idea.”
The three men surveyed the entrance to the canyon. It was morning, and the cool freshness of night was still in the air. The few shrubs that clung to the high walls were dusty green. Birds chirped, and altogether the canyon looked a pleasant place, if a bit dry and sandy.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” Heyes looked over his shoulder at his two companions. Overhead the sky was pale, washed with a drift of white cloud--no rain in sight, for sure.
“I don’t know,” said Kyle again. “We ain’t got but a couple of canteens apiece. Looks awful dry to me.”
“It’s called Blackwater Canyon,” Heyes pointed out. “It’s gotta have water in it someplace.”
Oh, there’s a spring in there, for sure,” said Jake. “Redskin I met someplace told me about it. Almost at the end of the canyon, he said it was, but it’s got lots of water.” He sniggered. “Boy, he was stupid, that redskin. Took him for all he had, playing blackjack. Damn fool never noticed me slipping in that extra ace.”
Heyes stole a glance at Jake and made a mental note to try playing cards with him later, when they had some money to bet.
“Well, I don’t know.” Kyle scratched his head. “Looks awful dry.”
“Shut up,” said Jake. “There’s sixty thousand dollars waiting for us in there. You coming or not?” He led the way into the narrow canyon. Heyes urged his reluctant horse to follow, and after a minute’s hesitation, Kyle rode in behind them.
The scream split the night. It was a dreadful screech, a sound like nails dragging on slate. They all threw aside their blankets and jumped to their feet.
“What was that?” Heyes quavered, staring into the darkness.
“Mountain lion,” said Jake, peering into the night. “Stay close to the fire.” The scream came again and the horses, tethered to a nearby bush, dived and plunged. Kyle raised his rifle with shaking hands, and fired into the shadows. The horses reared again. There was a snarl from the darkness, and two of the horses tore their reins free and bolted into the night.
Heyes took a step into the blackness, but Kyle grabbed his arm. “You crazy, chasing after them with a mountain lion out there?” Heyes yanked his arm free, but he had to admit there was nothing he could do. The three stood and listened to the hoofbeats fading into the night.
In the morning, Jake was jubilant. “Takes a few brains to tie a knot the right way,” he said, shaking his head. This was the tenth time he’d made this remark, and Heyes ground his teeth.
“Tough luck, guys.” Jake gave them a smug smile. He pulled himself up onto his horse, and looked down at Heyes and Kyle, sitting on their blankets on the ground. “See you around—maybe.”
Heyes opened his mouth to ask if Jake was still willing to share the loot, but then he sighed. It seemed like a stupid question. Jake kicked his horse and rode off, still chuckling.
Kyle heaved a sigh, too. “Oh, well,” he said, starting to pull his boots on. “Easy come, easy go. Lucky we didn’t get too far into the canyon.”
“You heading back?” Heyes asked, surprised.
“What the hell else is there to do?” Kyle stood up, shrugging. “I can’t flap my wings and fly. It’s a powerful long walk.”
“Well, good luck, then,” said Heyes. He stood up, too, and held out his hand.
“What?” Kyle stared at him. “You going on? With no horse?” He squinted up at the sky. “That sun is fierce, pal. You’re gonna fry like a piece of bacon in a frying pan.”
“That’s my money,” Heyes said. “Well, some of it anyway. We earned it.”
“But what are you gonna do for water?” Kyle demanded. “There’s barely enough in our canteens to get us back to where we started.”
Heyes shook his canteen. The sloshing sound told him that Kyle was right--it was three-quarters empty. “Well, Jake said there was a spring in the canyon. Indian told him so.” He nodded. “Yep, I’m going on…and I’m going to find that willow tree.”
His face was dry and hot with sunburn. He closed one eye to squint at his nose, and could see it was cherry red. He wished in vain for a wider-brimmed hat.
When he was rich, he would buy a hat. An elegant black hat, with a silver-studded hatband. He’d seen one in a shop window in Denver. He could afford to buy a hat—ten thousand hats!-- with the money that was waiting for him under the willow.
The gully sloped down, and Heyes followed it, trying to remember what Jake had said about the spring. What was it Jake had said…something about how he had cheated an Indian at blackjack…and the Indian had told him about the spring. About halfway in, or thereabouts? He must be almost there. He could see the hoofprints of Jake’s horse leading down the dusty path.
Heyes trudged along. He had been walking for what seemed like days, when he noticed a dark shape, lying under a tall cactus up ahead. He couldn’t figure out what it was. It seemed like a big animal, and he slowed, approaching cautiously. It wasn’t moving at all. When he finally realized what it was, he stopped in his tracks.
The horse hadn’t been dead very long—it lay limp, the legs not yet stiffened, but already flies were buzzing around the eyes. It had kicked up cactus and brush in its death throes. Heyes walked around it, wondering what had happened. There was no sign of a broken leg or a bullet wound. Then he jumped back, heart pounding, at the sight of another huddled shape in the brush. Jake lay face down in the dirt, only a few steps from a still pool of water.
Blackwater Canyon, Heyes thought. He remembered that Jake had heard of the spring from an Indian he had cheated at cards—a damn fool, Jake had called him. Maybe the Indian hadn’t been so foolish after all.
He looked at the pool. The still water was dark, and clear as ice. Heyes could imagine the cool wetness sliding down his throat. Then he looked at the marks in the dirt, that Jake had made as he kicked at the ground. The man lay doubled over, dead hands still clutching his stomach. Heyes walked closer, and looked at his own reflection in the black water. He bent, and gingerly dipped his hand in. The water felt like heaven.
He blew out his breath hard, then filled his hat with the sparkling water and poured it over his head. That much couldn’t hurt. The water trickling down the back of his neck almost made him feel worse, reminding him of his savage thirst. He soaked his hat and bandanna in the water, and turned away from the tempting pool. He had a long way to go.
He stood for a while, looking back over the way he had come. The sun beat down on the sheer canyon walls from the narrow slice of blue sky overhead. No way to climb up and out. And the long trail back was waterless. There was no hope of making it all the way back to a waterhole before he dropped in his tracks. The only possibility was to go forward, and hope that there was a way out of the canyon at the far end of it. He trudged on.
He thought again of Kid, so far away. No hope Kid would ride out of the sunset with a canteen this time. No one was around to bail him out of this one. “Anybody here?” he called, his voice faint and rasping. He knew no one would answer, no familiar voice would yell, “Heyes, hang on, I’m coming.” But he called anyway, louder: “Anybody here?” and was amazed when a voice promptly answered back. “Here!”
“Over here!” he shouted. The voice replied, “Here, here, here…” Nothing but an echo.
He trudged on, feeling weakness starting to pull at his feet. Each step was harder than the one before. He no longer dripped sweat, but his eyes felt dry and gritty. The sun beat down more fiercely than ever. There was no shade at all.
Finally he rounded a rock outcrop, and came to a halt. He had come to the end of the canyon. It was a sheer cliff. An antelope couldn’t climb those towering walls. A dead end.
And there, clinging to the rock wall, on a ledge about a third of the way up, was the willow.
He saw at once why Plummer had chosen it as a landmark. The huge tree glowed emerald in the dry brown landscape. He also saw that it was going to be a hard climb. There was no sign of footmarks, not the slightest trace that anyone had been there recently. He was hardly surprised. Still, since he had come all this way, he might as well climb up to see.
His feet skidded and slipped on loose rock, sending up swirls of dust. He was shaking with exhaustion by the time he reached the top. And a thought slowly worked its way into his head as he struggled up the ridge. This was only the halfway point.
He lifted his aching eyes and stared back along the narrow canyon, the red walls shimmering in the heat. He still had to get all the way back before there could be a chance of water. As he staggered the last few steps, and sank down in the shade of the old willow, he realized that he would never make it.
This was what Plummer had intended--not only to cheat him, but to make sure no vengeance would follow. Heyes lay face down, gasping.
After a while, he sat up, dizzy and faint. A wave of irrational hope washed over him. Maybe there was a treasure buried under the tree, after all. Maybe Plummer had just done a really good job of hiding it.
The soil here was darker than the pale gritty dust lower down in the canyon. The ground was bare, and there were some spots where a hole just might have been recently dug. He picked the likeliest spot, and set to work.
Half an hour later, he had excavated a hole the size of a bathtub. Nothing was in it but dirt. He picked another spot, and tried again. Nothing.
He wondered how he could have been so stupid as to fall for such a stupid trick. He cursed himself, Jake, and Plummer equally in exhausted fury. He went back to digging--scratching and clawing at the soil, deeper and deeper…
Then he stopped, panting. He stared at the hole, unable to believe what he saw. A small, warm glow began to fill him, and his cracked lips stretched into a painful grin. He would have wept for joy, if his dry, aching eyes had had any tears to shed. He had found treasure, indeed. Treasure! Worth more than gold--more than diamonds--literally beyond price.
The hole was slowly filling with a seep of muddy water.
Heyes and the Kid have a journey to make, with a big pay-day waiting at the end of it—but it turns out to be a very rough trip.
Across the West in Eight Days
“It’s him, I tell you.” Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry shaded their eyes to peer across the dusty street. They stared at the approaching figure, coming slowly towards them along the wooden walkway that lined the row of stores and saloons in the little town of Red Rock.
“No, it isn’t,” Curry groaned. “You’re seeing things. It’s a mirage.”
“It’s him, I tell you,” Heyes muttered, turning and pretending to study a display of ladies’ hats in a shop window. “I recognize the hat, and the way he walks. And I recognize that enormous six-gun he carries.” He elbowed Curry in the ribs. “Don’t stare!”
“You’re staring,” Kid growled.
“It’s him all right,” Heyes heaved a sigh. “Most of all, I recognize the star on his chest.”
They scurried across the dusty, sun-baked street, hats pulled low. The tall figure crossed the street as well, his spurs kicking up little puffs of dust, as he continued in their direction. Heyes stole a glance from under his hatbrim, and groaned. “He’s still coming this way. Quick, let’s duck in here.”
They pushed through the swinging doors of a saloon. The interior was cool and friendly after the glare of the street. “Not a bad place to hide out for a while,” Curry remarked softly as they leaned against the bar.
Heyes glanced cautiously around the dim, narrow room. “It’s got a back door, that’s all I’m interested in.”
“Shh,” Curry hissed. “That old guy’s looking at us, too.”
“You boys wouldn’t be interested in a friendly game of poker, by any chance?” a pleasant voice inquired. “Awful quiet in here today.” A solitary man was shuffling a deck of cards at a nearby table, and he raised his brows at the newcomers. He had pure white hair and a trim silver goatee. The starched white suit and the gold watchchain stretched across his ample front told of well-lined pockets. Kid glanced at Heyes.
“Sure,” Heyes shrugged casually. “Why not?” It would be less conspicuous than idling in front of the bar.
The man dropped a few of the cards as he shuffled them awkwardly. “I have to confess, I’m not terribly experienced at games of chance,” he said. “Is it five cards to each player, or six?”
“Well, I believe it’s five,” said Heyes, scratching his head. “Isn’t that right, Thaddeus?”
“Guess so,” the Kid said with a shrug, rubbing his nose to hide a grin.
As the game began, Heyes watched the saloon door like a cat at a mouse-hole. But no suspicious lawman pushed the swinging doors apart. Curry kept a wary eye on the windows, but no curious face peered inside. No one seemed to notice them at all, in fact, and as the poker game proceeded, they both began to relax and even enjoy themselves. The white-haired gentleman didn’t seem to know a straight from a flush, and he was a reckless gambler.
“Mind if I join in?” A deep voice made both Heyes and the Kid jerk their heads up, and Curry’s hand sank quietly towards his holster. However, the newcomer wasn’t a tall man with a star on his chest, but a portly figure in elegantly cut clothes. Heyes and the Kid nodded politely, but their acquaintance with the goatee looked as if he’d bitten into a lemon. “I suppose so,” he said ungraciously.
The newcomer sat down in a chair and snapped his fingers for a waiter, as though he owned the place. “Introduce me to your friends, Curtis,” he said, with a broad smile.
“We just met,” Curtis snapped, all his genial politeness gone. Heyes and Curry stood and announced their aliases, shaking hands all round, but Curtis remained seated.
“Randall,” said the plump little man, beaming at them. “Jonas Randall.”
The waiter brought over a tall bottle, and gave a little bow as he put it at the stranger’s elbow. “Thanks very much, Mr. R.,” he said, as he was rewarded with a dollar tip.
Heyes raised his eyebrows as he read the label on the dusty bottle. “Looks like they save the good stuff for you,” he remarked.
Randall smiled, his broad cheeks creasing. “Well, money talks, boys,” he said. “Money talks. And speaking of money, Curtis, have you given any more thought to our little wager? If you can’t prove your point, I win.”
“Well, I’m quite sure I’m correct in my estimate.” Curtis scowled, the pleasant twinkle quite gone from his face. He threw his cards on the table. “Any person of sense could see that—“
“Could see that the impossible is possible?” Randall chuckled gently, and Curtis’s ears grew red.
“I‘ve had quite enough…”
“Excuse us, gentlemen,” Heyes said, pushing his chair back. “I can see you have business to discuss, so we’ll be on our way.” He began to gather up the money on the table. “Thank you for a very pleasant—“
Randall interrupted. “I appeal to you, Mr. Smith—Mr. Jones. You’re intelligent men of the world—I can see that from your expertise at games of chance.” He gestured at the pile of silver dollars Heyes was sweeping into his hat. “I ask you—isn’t it ridiculous to suppose that a man could travel between Denver and St. Louis in a week?”
Curtis banged his fist on the table before either of them could speak. “Damn it, the thing’s completely possible, given the new railroad. Any man of sense could see it.”
“From Denver to St. Louis in only a week?” Heyes looked at Curry who shook his head. “Well, we once made it from Wyoming to Kansas in two weeks, but I don’t think…”
“Eight days, then,” snapped Curtis. “Perfectly possible.”
Randall shook his head, smiling broadly.
Curtis audibly ground his teeth. “I’d like to see you put your money where your mouth is,” he growled.
“My dear Curtis, nothing would make me happier. Prove me wrong!”
“Well, for obvious reasons…”
“Well, send someone else, then.” He patted back a polite yawn. “Forgive me, this argument never seems to get anywhere. But I really must be going.” He tipped his shining bowler politely as he walked away.
Curtis sat, scarlet-faced, like a volcano about to erupt. “What was that all about?” Heyes asked.
“It’s a long-standing argument we’ve had. The opinionated jackass. It’s perfectly possible; he just won’t admit it, and I can’t prove it.”
“Why not?” Kid Curry asked. “Just go to Denver, send a telegram—they’re always dated—and then go to St. Louis and send another. That’d do it.”
Curtis pushed himself back from the table, and his chair glided smoothly backwards. Neither of them had noticed that he was seated in a wheelchair. “For obvious reasons, that would be difficult.”
Curry began to stammer an apology, but Curtis waved his hand, the smile returning to his face. “Say, I don’t suppose you boys would be willing to help me out? I’d pay you—in fact I’d be willing to pay pretty high. Of course, it’d mean you’d have to leave town right away…”
“Leave town right away?” Heyes glanced at Kid, trying to hide a delighted smile. “Oh, dear, we did have rather important business here, but I suppose…”
“Of course, of course. I couldn’t expect you to just leave town at the drop of a hat. Forget it, I’m sorry.”
“But I suppose we could manage it,” Heyes added hastily. “Just to do you a favor…”
The stagecoach pulled out of town in a hurry, the driver snapping the whip over the horses’ heads with a crack like a pistol shot. Heyes and the Kid gave a final wave to Mr. Curtis, who sat in his chair watching their departure. Then they settled back on the comfortably upholstered seats, tipped their hats over their eyes, and prepared to enjoy the trip.
Curtis waved his hat, and then gave a satisfied nod as the stagecoach disappeared around the bend. Behind him, the saloon doors swung open, and Jonas Randall emerged. He strolled up to Curtis, and stood beside him, eyeing the cloud of dust that hid the departing coach.
“Did our young friends get off all right?” he inquired.
“Oh, yes,” Curtis said, smiling. “I think it will work out.”
A tall man with a star on his chest crossed the street towards them. “Morning, gents. So how’s it going?”
“Oh, very well, sheriff,” said Randall.
Curtis nodded, smiling. “Very well indeed.”
“All aboard!” Kid Curry climbed slowly up the steps of the train, moving like an old man. Heyes still stood on the platform, both hands on his back, leaning from one side to the other. “Twelve hours in that damn stage,” Curry growled. “My legs are stiff as a board.”
“We made good time, really,” said Heyes, checking his watch. “Now we just have to catch the 6:15 train in Marston, change trains in Carsonville, and we’re there.” He climbed reluctantly into the passenger car, and they made their way down the narrow aisle in search of a seat.
“Boy, I’m sick of sitting around on stagecoaches and trains,” said Curry. “It was a lot more fun robbing them than looking out the window to watch the world go by. I’d like to see a little excitement…”
“Will you shut up?” Heyes hissed furiously. He glanced around at the other passengers, but no one took any notice of them. “What are you, crazy? You’d like to see a posse rounding the corner?”
“No, I just want a little more excitement, that’s all. This is duller than ditchwater.”
“Tickets, gentlemen?” They handed over their tickets to the conductor, then took their seats in the dusty car. Curry leaned back in his seat, pushing his hat over his eyes to avoid any more conversation.
“Excitement,” Heyes muttered, giving him a sidelong glare. “Just what we need.”
The train chugged past flat grassland, every now and then coming to a jerking, banging halt in dusty little towns that all looked exactly alike. Heyes had to admit to himself that the trip was, indeed, remarkably dull. Curry snored, head back on the opposite seat, and Heyes counted the telegraph poles flashing by, his mind wandering off when he reached three thousand and seventeen.
An abrupt jerk almost sent them out of their seats, and a clanking, hissing wheeze woke the Kid up fast. “What’s going on?” he demanded. “Why are we stopping?” Heyes shook his head as the train ground to a halt.
“You don’t suppose…” Curry began, looking around uneasily.
“You were hoping for some excitement,” Heyes snarled. “There’s only one reason a train would come to a sudden stop in the middle of nowhere like this.”
“Maybe there’s a cow on the track,” Curry said hopefully.
“Stand and deliver!” shouted a gruff voice. As the rest of the passengers shrieked and fluttered, peering out the windows and exclaiming, Heyes and Kid Curry sank back into their seats wearily, and both heaved a sigh.
A crowd of passengers were pushing and shoving, stretching their necks out the window to get a better view. Heyes glanced out the window, and sighed again. Sure enough, the engineer and conductor had their hands in the air, and a gang of ragged men was guarding them.
Heyes and the Kid joined the line of passengers who were filing off the train, following the nervously shouted commands of one of the gang, a plump, youthful fellow with a bandanna pulled over his nose. Another young outlaw relieved the passengers of their valuables, as Heyes managed to slip his watch into his boot in the nick of time. He and the Kid obediently handed over the meager contents of their pockets, and then strolled over to join the passengers who were exclaiming with indignation and gawking at the excitement.
Up by the head of the train, another group of men was attaching a bundle of dynamite to a huge safe that squatted in the rear of an open freight car. Heyes and Curry watched the operation with a critical eye.
“Anyone we know?” Heyes murmured.
“Don’t think so,” said Curry, scanning the faces. “They’re a bunch of children. Honestly, look at that kid, I don’t think he can shave yet.”
“Well, why don’t you give them some pointers, grandpa?” Heyes inquired. “Tell them about the good old days.”
“Shut up,” Curry said automatically. “Look at that, he hasn’t even got his holster tied down.”
“Young people these days.” Heyes shook his head. “I don’t know what the world’s coming to.” He watched as the outlaws fiddled with the dynamite, cursing and arguing. “I just wish they’d hurry up. We’ve got a connection to make. “
Curry glanced towards the front of the engine. “I got a feeling we’re not going to be making it.”
Heyes followed his gaze and groaned. Just ahead of the engine, a section of track had been pried apart, and the rails disconnected. “Dammit!” Heyes threw his hands in the air. “That’ll take a week to fix. Why on earth couldn’t they just put a log across the track? Why do they have to destroy property?”
“Young people these days,” said Curry. “Come on, let’s see how bad the damage is.”
It was bad. They stood surveying the bent and twisted metal. Nearby, the outlaws’ horses were tied to a tree, and they stamped and sidled, eager to get away from the still-hissing locomotive. Heyes looked at the horses and pursed his lips in thought.
“You want what?” the outlaw leader repeated, scratching his head. He was a lanky youngster with a weak attempt at a mustache, and a long, thin neck. He frowned at the two older men standing before him.
“To buy two horses,” Heyes repeated patiently. “We’ll pay for them, don’t worry.”
“With what?” inquired the boy. “We just took all your money.”
“He’s got a point there, Joshua,” Curry murmured.
Heyes ignored him. “Why, with advice, son,” he said. The gang looked at him with suspicious frowns. “Now, see, take a look over here.” He put his arm around the young man’s shoulders and led him over to the safe, which was heavily festooned with explosives. “If you light that fuse you’ll blow the door off the safe, sure, but you’ll also blow half the money to kingdom come.”
“What? You’re crazy,” said the boy. When he forgot to keep his voice low, it squeaked.
“Sure, money’s made out of paper, isn’t it? It’ll burn up. Trust me, I remember when—I mean, anyway, never mind. If you use all that dynamite you’ll be lucky to get a third of the money intact.”
Curry smiled. “Not burned up,” he explained.
The outlaw leader looked mystified. “But how do you know so much about—“
“But if you put the dynamite over there, near the hinges, you can use less, don’t you see?” Heyes deftly rearranged the stacks of explosives. “Now it isn’t anything to do with us, you understand—we don’t want money—we’re just going to ride off and get out of your way. But if you light off that fuse, the door will come off as neat as pie, and everything will be just fine…”
As they cantered off, a muffled explosion resounded in the distance. Heyes seemed not to notice, but Curry glanced over his shoulder and saw a plume of black smoke rising from the train car. The sound of cursing voices came to them on the gentle breeze.
“I can’t believe he fell for that trick,” he said, spurring his horse to catch up with Heyes.
“What trick?” Heyes demanded. “I gave him some valuable advice. Certainly well worth two scrawny horses.”
“But putting the dynamite where you told him would blow everything in the safe to Kingdom Come,” Curry pointed out. “They won’t get a nickel out of it.”
“I prevented those youngsters from embarking on a life of crime,” said Heyes. He pulled back on the rein and looked back over his shoulder at the rising cloud of smoke. “They’ll thank me someday. Honestly,” he added, shaking his head, “Young people today...”
They kept going, heading west as the sun sank behind the clouds that edged the horizon. The sky grew orange, then gray, and the horses slowed, but they only stopped for brief halts. Behind them the moon rose late; a lop-sided, half-hearted moon, but it gave enough light to see a few yards ahead, and they kept on.
“It’s got to be no more than thirty miles,” said Heyes. He looked up at the stars, trying to get his bearings. “North and a little west, across the river, and then to the town of Marston. Once we’re there, we’ll have it made.”
“We should be coming to the river any time now,” Curry remarked. “It’s a steep ravine, I remember. Keep your eyes open, let’s not fall in it.”
“Mm, that would be exciting,” Heyes agreed. They rode on in silence, listening for the rushing of the water.
“I think I hear it,” said Heyes. “We must be close. I don’t see any sign of the bridge, though.”
“Look out!” Curry yanked the reins, sending his horse skidding sideways. Heyes’s horse pranced backwards, snorting. “What?” Heyes demanded.
Curry shook his head. “Something’s wrong…hang on.” He swung out of the saddle and led his horse forward. After a few steps he halted abruptly. “Well, I found that bridge,” he called over his shoulder.
“Oh, good,” Heyes said, peering through the gloom. “Where is it?”
Curry stood on the edge of a sharp drop, craning his neck over the edge. “At the bottom of the ravine.”
They both stood holding their reins and looking down into the darkness. The ravine was hidden in blackness, but the roar of rushing water could be heard far below.
“All right. Well, we’ll just have to swim,” Heyes announced.
“What?” Curry glared at him. “Are you crazy? I’m not swimming anyplace.”
“No, it’ll be okay,” said Heyes, patting him on the back. “We can do it. It’s a pretty fast current—we’ll have to leave the horses here, they’re exhausted. But we can make it.”
“You can jump in there if you want to, but I’m not going to!”
“What’s the matter?” Heyes demanded. “You can swim.”
“Of course I can swim!” Curry snapped. “What kind of idiot doesn’t know how to swim? It’s just that…” His hand drifted towards his gunbelt.
“The gun!” Heyes rolled his eyes. “Hail Columbia!” he groaned. “That stupid gun. You’re like a hen with one chick over that thing. It’s just a piece of metal.”
“I went to a lot of trouble to have it specially balanced, you know.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake…”
“And it’s not easy to find a gunsmith who really understands…”
“Well, two thousand dollars from Curtis will buy you a dozen new ones.” Heyes was already unbuckling his gunbelt. “Wrap it up in your shirt and make a bundle, and then try to keep it above water. Tie it on your back or something.”
“What about my boots?” Curry demanded. “They’re practically brand new.”
“Well, wrap them up, too. They’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, where have I heard that before,” Curry muttered, but he sat down and yanked off his polished, square-toed boots. He took off his shirt, and carefully placed his gunbelt and the boots in the center, then made a neat package, wrapping the sleeves around the knobby bundle and tying them together in a tight knot.
“Ready? Here we go,” said Heyes, wading into the black water. Curry followed him, feeling the icy water pushing against his legs as soon as he stepped into the river. He took a deep breath and waded further, feeling the sand slip away under his bare feet. The current was awfully strong.
“You know, I’ve often heard the saying about losing your shirt,” Heyes said cheerfully. “I never knew anyone who’d gone and done it literally, though.” He threw another log on the fire, and turned so that the heat from the flames could dry out the back of his long underwear.
“Shut up,” Curry said through chattering teeth. “You’re inches away from death right now.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” said Heyes. “What are you gonna do, shoot me?”
“Drown you, possibly,” Kid growled, wringing out a sock. “River’s right handy.”
“Sorry about your gun,” Heyes said, a little remorsefully. He whacked Kid on the shoulder. “But just think, we’ll be able to buy all the guns and boots we want once we get to St. Louis.”
“Yeah, except how are we gonna get there?” Curry inquired. “It’s a bit of a long walk, especially as we’re barefoot.”
Heyes fished his watch out of his pocket and looked at it, then shook it and listened hopefully for a ticking sound. Water dripped into his ear. He sighed and shoved it back in his pocket. “Well, I guess we’ll have to just start walking and see what comes along…”
They started off down the muddy, pot-holed road as the sun rose, walking gingerly in their stocking feet. Every pebble and stick seemed to poke into their feet. After a few miles Kid felt he was walking on red-hot coals. “This is awful,” he growled, sinking down on a handy stump. “Let’s wait here till the next person comes by and steal their boots.”
“Now, Kid, that’d be dishonest,” Heyes said. “I know you wouldn’t do a dishonest thing like that.”
“Watch me,” Curry groaned, rubbing a blistered foot. “I won’t kill anyone, I’ll just tie them up and gently remove their boots. The governor will never find out.”
“It can’t be too much farther—“Heyes broke off. “What’s that?” He shaded his eyes against the rising sun, and they both peered down the road in the fresh morning light.
“Hallelujah,” Curry said. “Looks like a wagon.”
“Sort of,” Heyes answered. The wagon was a flat-bedded, dusty old cart that creaked as it wobbled down the road. Every time it hit a pothole the wheels seemed about to collapse. He heaved a sigh. “Well, beggars can’t be choosers,” he said. “Come on, our carriage awaits.”
“Thank God!” Curry waved a hand. “Hey, pal! Any chance we could hitch a ride?”
“It’s not very fast,” said Heyes doubtfully. “Looks pretty beat up. And he’s got all those crates in the back…”
“I don’t care, I’ll take anything. If it’s a garbage wagon, I’ll jump on it.”
“Howdy, neighbors,” said the white-bearded man who was driving the wagon. He pulled back on the reins, and the plodding mules came to a halt and stood patiently. “Need a lift there, boys?”
“That’d be obliging of you, friend,” Curry said. “We’d surely appreciate a ride into Marston—you going that far?”
The old man brightened. “Sure am,” he said with a wide grin. “Hop in, boys. Glad to have some company. Gets a little lonely, all by my lonesome all the time.”
“Thanks,” said Heyes. “We’re on a tight schedule, so maybe you could speed it up some?”
“Why, sure,” said the old man. “Boy, this is great!” he added, as they scrambled aboard. “Not just one, but two bodies to talk to. No one ever wants to ride with me. Sure does get lonesome.”
“Well, we certainly appreciate this,” Heyes began, but Kid interrupted him. “What do you mean, no one ever wants to ride with you?”
“Well, son, most folks get one look at the load I’m carrying, and they plumb just chicken right out.”
“Why, what do you mean?” Heyes asked uneasily, standing up in the wagon bed. “What’s in these boxes?”
“Why, you can read, can’t you, boys?” The old man cackled merrily. Kid jumped up too, and they both bent to peer at the wooden crates in the faint light. The driver shook the reins. “Gee up, there, Bill! Come on, Sam!” he shouted. “These gents is in a hurry!” The wagon lurched forward, and Heyes and the Kid both crashed to the wagon floor, amid a pile of crates painted in red with the letters “TNT.”
The wagon bounced down the potholed road in the last light of sunset. The little town of Marston looked pretty much like any other—a wide main street with a neat row of houses, flanked by a saloon, a hotel, a bank, and a livery stable. The clock was striking seven as they passed the church.
The wagon hit a stone with a bump and crash, and came to a halt with a final bone-jarring jolt. Heyes and the Kid climbed out of the back hastily. “Well, thanks, neighbor. We appreciate it.”
“Oh, anytime, pal,” said the old man with a toothless grin. “Anytime at all. See you soon, I hope!”
“Not if we see you first,” Curry muttered. The old man flapped the reins, and resumed his lonely journey with a sigh.
The two of them looked around the deserted streets. Lamps were coming on in windows of the houses, as the dusk deepened. “Okay!” said Heyes, slapping his friend on the shoulder. “We’re here at last. Let’s relax for a minute. There’s the train station, just down the street—and we’ve got an hour to spare.” He sank down on a nearby bench, and stretched his legs out. “We’ve done it.”
“Yep,” said Curry joining him on the bench. “It’s in the bag now.”
“Hope there was enough excitement for you,” Heyes said, grinning.
Curry grinned back. “Nope, Heyes, you’re right for once. I’ve had all the excitement I want on this trip.” He leaned back on the bench, tipped his hat over his eyes, and sighed with pleasure. “Thank God that’s over, and we can have some peace.”
Boom! A massive explosion shattered the stillness of the quiet street. The front windows of the bank exploded outwards, hailing broken glass in all directions. The force of the explosion blew the bench backwards. Heyes and Curry rolled on the ground, covering their heads against the shower of glass splinters.
A man emerged from the bank, coughing and staggering out of the smoke. “Help! Robbery! Help!” he called. They both recognized the man who had made the bet with Curtis, way back where they started—Jonas Randall.
Heyes and Curry stared at him, then at each other, brushing themselves off dazedly. Randall pointed at them, staggered back as if in fear, and bellowed at the top of his lungs “There they go!“ He pointed a shaking hand at the bewildered outlaws. “They robbed the bank!” A crowd was starting to assemble, shouting and gesturing at the two bedraggled figures picking themselves up from behind the overturned bench.
“Get them! Stop them!” he bellowed. “It’s Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry!”
A tall man with a star on his chest shouldered through the crowd. He began to run towards them, pulling a gun from his holster. “What on earth…” Heyes gasped, staring at the figure that looked ominously familiar.
“No time to discuss the matter,” Curry shouted in his ear. “Let’s go!” They raced down the street, the sound of pursuing footsteps close behind.
Elmer Curtis sat in front of the fireplace, sipping a glass of amber whiskey, and smoking a cigar. He leaned back in his comfortable chair, and then half-turned his head as if he heard a noise. Nevertheless, the room was silent; the only sound was the ticking of the clock on the mantel.
At the open window a curtain rustled. He turned sharply in his chair, but there was no one there. He went back to his cigar, the smoke wreathing through the quiet room.
“Sorry to disturb you.” The voice came from behind him. He looked over his shoulder, and his eyes widened as he saw Heyes and Curry standing just inside the window.
“Well,” he said, after a pause. “This is an unexpected pleasure.”
“We thought we’d do ourselves the honor of paying you a visit,” Heyes said pleasantly.
“How nice! An unexpected pleasure, I confess.” Curtis gave a little bow in his chair. “You’ll pardon me for not getting up, I’m sure. What can I do for you gentlemen?”
“Oh, cut all the sweet talk!” Curry yanked the gun out of his holster. “You played us for suckers, pal, and we’re not having it.” He felt a little guilty about holding a gun on a crippled man, but reminded himself that Curtis was as slippery as an eel.
“Well, to speak plainly,” Curtis admitted, “Indeed I did. And you took the bait very readily, you know. You’re really far too trusting. Once Sheriff Lomax pointed you out to me, I knew you two could be the answer to all my prayers.” He tossed his cigar into the fireplace. “I have had a few regrettable reverses on the Stock Exchange, you see—quite unforeseen. And I fear that a few of the investments had been with—ah—money that was not quite my own. So I needed to acquire the cash to pay back my losses—to rob my own bank, in effect.”
“And you needed us as scapegoats,” Curry added bitterly.
“Well, yes, I think that puts it very well. But I’m not greedy, you understand, I’m willing to share. I do apologize for any inconvenience
, and I can make it well worth your while. I paid Lomax and the fictional Jonas Randall equally well. The money is in the safe, right over there.” They both turned their heads to glance at the safe, Heyes noting the make and model with professional interest. He heard a soft footstep behind him, but before he had time to spin around, a gun jammed into his ribs.
“You’re much too trusting, both of you,” a voice said in his ear. “How many times do I have to point that out? Hold still, now.”
Heyes stood frozen. Curry turned to see the banker standing just behind Heyes. “Why, you lying snake--,” the Kid exclaimed.
“Did I ever say I was crippled?” Curtis protested. “You just leapt to a conclusion, that’s all.” He pulled the gun from Heyes’s hand. “Now, Mr. Curry, just drop that gun, if you please.”
The Kid ground his teeth but could see no way out. He let the gun fall at his feet with a heavy clunk.
“You see, you left the element of surprise out of your calculations. You should always plan for the unexpected.” Curtis gave such a smug smile that Kid Curry yearned to hit him.
“Yes, Mr. Curtis, that’s true,” Heyes agreed. “But you left a little something out of your conclusions, too, you know.” Heyes spoke in a relaxed tone that the Kid recognized instantly. That casual, don’t-worry-about-a-thing attitude was the infallible signal that Heyes had a plot in mind.
Curry stiffened, ready to move whenever Heyes gave him a clue to what was up. “You see,” Heyes went on, sounding as though he was sitting with a drink and a cigar instead of standing in front of a loaded pistol. “You see, we brought along a friend. Well, not just a friend, a witness. He’s been hiding behind those curtains all along.” Curry heard the swift intake of Curtis’s breath.
Heyes raised his voice a notch. “I think
you could come out now, don’t you, sheriff?”
Curtis spun towards the window. The instant Heyes felt the pressure of the gun in his back lessen, he jammed an elbow in Curtis’s stomach. The man gave a grunt and doubled over. Curry lunged across the room and grabbed the gun from his hand. He cracked the man over the back of the head with the pistol butt and Curtis slumped to the floor.
“You’re feeling reckless this evening,” Curry said, panting. “Give me a little more notice when you’re doing something like that, would you?”
“Sorry,” said Heyes. “It’s an old trick, but I had a feeling he might fall for it.”
Curry retrieved his own gun, and spun it smoothly back into his holster. “Very nice indeed,” he said, glancing at the curtains that blew in the breeze from the empty window. “You had just the right note of sincerity in your voice.”
Heyes looked around the room, spotted a window sash, and yanked it down. He tied Curtis’s hands behind his back, and added a gag for good measure. “I think we’ve heard all we need to from you,” he said, pulling the knot tight. “Now, let’s have a look at that safe…”
“Easy as pie, that was,” Heyes remarked as he pulled himself up into the saddle. “That kind of safe always is. There’s something about those tumblers that’s just like rolling off a log.”
“Now what?” Curry inquired, mounting up beside him. “We’ve got our saddlebags stuffed with thousands of dollars, and no one knows where we are.” He gave Heyes a sidelong glance. “We’re not that far from the Mexican border, you know.”
Heyes nodded, sighing. “Well, that thought did cross my mind, too, I have to say. You mean it?”
Curry sighed, too. “Well, almost. You’ve got a better idea, I suppose.”
“Well, I figure we’ll just drop a note off at the sheriff’s office, along with the cash, and that’ll be the end of it. They’ll find Curtis tied up in his office, and he won’t have a leg to stand on. If you’ll pardon the expression.”
Curry nodded, and shook the reins. “All that effort
, and we’ve got nothing to show for it.”
“Ah, well,” Heyes said cheerfully. “We did break the record of travel from St. Louis to Denver. Across the West in only eight days.”
I wish I had more time to write ASJ stories! This is a short one, that was part of a story challenge on a great new website dedicated to ASJ fanfiction:
The topic was the first meeting of Heyes and Kid. This one is for those who are in the "they're NOT cousins" camp.
Watch Your Back
“Watch your back tonight,” said Plunkett, narrowing his eyes and staring at each of the gang in turn. “This is going to be a dangerous job, men. The First National is built like a fort, and that sheriff is the most suspicious guy I’ve ever seen.”
“That’s why I think we should check the place out first–“ Heyes began.
“Shut up, boy!” Plunkett snapped. “When are you gonna learn to stop interrupting me?” He tapped his fingers on the handle of his gun, and Heyes closed his mouth reluctantly.
“Now here’s how it’s gonna go tonight,” Plunkett went on. He proceeded to outline the plan, and Heyes listened impatiently, biting his tongue to keep from pointing out the flaws. “And, Heyes, you stand outside and do sentry-duty,” Plunkett finished.
“Again?” Heyes groaned. “Why is it always me? When do I get to do something interesting?”
“When you can shave, kid,” said Plunkett, and the others sniggered.
“You know, I bet I could get that safe open,” Heyes said. “And I could do it quietly, too. Sheriff wouldn’t hear a thing.”
“For the last time, shut up!” Plunkett turned his back. “We’re using the dynamite and that’s it!”
Heyes strode out of the shack where the meeting had been held, muttering under his breath. He stopped under the snow-draped pines that sheltered the outlaw camp, his breath frosting in the cold air. Then, glancing over his shoulder, he quietly made his way to the corral and saddled his horse. Plunkett left way too many things to chance; Heyes decided that he was going down to Red Rock to have a look at the bank for himself.
Kid Curry rode into Red Rock from the south. He slowed his horse as he passed the First National Bank, and gazed in awe at the big double doors, flanked by tall pillars. He’d heard this bank housed the biggest payrolls in the territory. Yessir, in that bank was the solution to all his problems, the answer to all his prayers: money.
He stabled his horse and then went to the saloon for a drink. He needed a place to warm up, and to consider the next step. Maybe Red Rock was the place where his luck would finally change.
Heyes’s first stop in Red Rock was the saloon, to see if he could pick up any gossip about the sheriff’s habits or personality. The saloon was quiet, with only three or four guys lined up against the bar. Heyes joined the line and ordered a whiskey, then eyed the other men idly as he sipped his drink: there was a plump man who was obviously a shopkeeper of some sort, a black-suited man with a cadaverous face who could only be an undertaker, and a sandy-haired young guy in a sheepskin jacket, who was doubtless a cowboy from a local ranch.
Heyes quickly grew bored with sipping and staring into space. He finished his drink, and went outside, still burning with the injustice of Plunkett’s tyranny. He was dying to tell someone exactly why his idea was better, but there was no one who would listen.
But there had to be a way to get Plunkett’s attention. One lucky break, that was all he needed.
Jed Curry finished his drink, and left the bar. He sauntered back towards the bank, drawn as by a magnet. He walked around the building, and stopped at the back, rubbing his chin and gazing at the barred windows. The money was in there, he just needed a way of getting it out. He knew that he could outdraw or outshoot any sheriff. But what good would that do, faced with a locked safe?
Footsteps crunched in the snow behind him, and he tensed. He had learned the hard way that once you got known as a gunslinger, people would sneak up behind you, looking to test you. He glanced over his shoulder and saw a man approaching, the tin star on his coat glittering in the thin winter sunshine. Kid pulled his floppy-brimmed brown hat low over his eyebrows, and ducked down a side alley.
Heyes stood in front of the bank, watching customers go up and down the steps. He studied the door locks, and reflected bitterly that in a few hours he’d be standing shivering on the steps, doing sentry duty, while Plunkett ordered the rest of the gang around inside. He wished there was some way to get Plunkett to take him seriously, make the stubborn fool do it his way, the right way…
A voice broke into his thoughts. “Got a problem, kid?”
A tall man with a star on the lapel of his wool coat stood just behind him. “Problem?” Heyes stammered. “Oh, no sir, nope, no problem at all.”
“Ah,” said the sheriff, not returning Heyes’s smile. “Any special reason you’re loitering in front of the bank, then?”
“Oh, just waiting for my grandmother,” Heyes said promptly. “She likes to have me help her down those icy steps. Yep, here she comes now. “He trotted up the stairs and courteously offered an arm to a surprised and delighted old lady. He escorted her past the suspicious sheriff’s nose, then parted with her at the end of the street.
Retrieving his horse from the livery stable, he began the long, lonely ride back to camp, trying to cheer up. Tonight, he thought. He was due for a lucky break. Maybe he’d run into it tonight…
Kid went back to the bar and ordered another drink. He sipped slowly, spinning it out; he didn’t have the money for another one. But the saloon seemed to be the only place he could linger without arousing suspicions.
He pondered for a long while, and then abruptly came to a decision. He drained the glass, and set it down on the counter with a bang. It was settled. He would have a crack at the bank. Tonight, he thought. He was due for a lucky break.
And maybe, just maybe, it would be waiting for him tonight…