Three sharp blasts from the engine’s whistle sent shivers and sweat trickling down the backs of the passengers.
Only the children had been blissfully unaware of the dangers of crossing through this particular stretch of the Wyoming badlands. Outlaws roamed here. All the way from two-bit scavengers out for whatever the passengers carried on their person, up to the notorious Devil’s Hold Gang led by the infamous bandito, Big Jim Santana.
Women hustled their children to them, while husbands dashed forward to protect their families. Some of the younger, more impetuous men pulled guns as the screeching brakes struggled to bring the train to a halt.
But before any action could be taken, the back door to the passenger car crashed open and two, dusty and threatening outlaws strode into the group of gasping civilians.
“Everybody out! That means you too, young’un! Put that gun away unless you want a pistolwhippin’.”
“But, it’s my weddin’ day. I’m on my way ta’ meet my betrothed. You can’t rob—
“Yeah, yeah. Go tell it to yer ma’.” The outlaw brandished his weapon around to indicate the whole group. “Now, all of ya’, out.”
Stepping off the train, the ladies were surprised to find one of the outlaws holding out a hand to assist them with that last jump to solid ground. But once they were outside and huddled in a group, ladies slid wedding rings off fingers and men hid pocket watches and hoped their wallets weren’t too obvious.
“C’mon, all of ya’ straighten out,” Wheat ordered. “Stop bunchin’ up. Hey, Lobo, give me a hand here.”
The second outlaw, a round-faced, hard looking man, grinned like a wolf and started grabbing purses with clear intentions.
The shout cut across the heat wave to subdue the two outlaws.
“Crap.” Wheat’s dirty blond mustache bristled with irritation. He turned on the horseman who pulled rein in front of him. “What?”
Passengers and outlaws alike, coughed and sputtered, as they waved the disturbed dust away from their faces. Only once the dust settled, did the folks on the ground get a good look at the horseman. He was young, one might say, baby-faced with his blue eyes and blond curls.
But when he spoke, it was with authority, and the tied-down rig of a gunny took attention away from curls. “You know what Heyes said. No stealin’ personal items from the passengers.”
Wheat threw up his hands. “Well, why the hell not? We always steal from the passengers! We’re outlaws; it’s what we do.”
“Yeah, Kid,” Lobo said, then spit in the dust. “We usually get a tidy sum here; good drinkin’ money. What’s Heyes’ problem?”
“No problem, Lobo. Unless you’re plannin’ on defyin’ his orders.” Tension increased, and the gunman sat up straighter, his right hand moving to line up with the butt of his gun.
The outlaws on the ground backed off.
“Naw,” Lobo said and spit in the dirt again. “I guess what we get out’a that safe will more’n make up fer these tidbits.”
“Good.” The horseman turned a cold eye to the other outlaw. “Wheat? You gonna cause problems—again?”
“Geesh.” Wheat’s lip curled, but he did back off. “Fine. Whatever the little ‘boy genius’ says. Fer now.”
“When is Kyle gonna blow that thing?” Wheat asked. “Ain’t it about time we got done and out’a here?”
“Kyle ain’t blowin’ it,” the horseman said. “Heyes is gonna open it, hisself. Kyle and Hank are keepin’ an eye on the train crew.”
“Open it, hisself?” Wheat spat, then puffed out a blast of air. “Bloody little show-off. Why don’t he just blow that thing, so we can get out’a here?”
“It’ll be done soon enough. Just keep the passengers quiet, will ya’?”
Touching his horse’s flank, the gunman rode off toward the freight car. More than one pair of admiring, feminine eyes watched him go.
“Who was that?”
Wheat snorted. “That? That was none other than ‘Kid Curry’. I swear, if he weren’t wearin’ that gun—”
“Kid Curry?” a male passengers stated. “I think I’ve heard ‘a him.”
“I know I have.” The lad’s eyes bugged with hero-worship. “Said ta’ be the fastest gun west of the Mississippi. Kilt more men than he’s got fingers, before he was sixteen.”
“Yeah, well ya’ can’t believe everything ya’ hear,” Wheat snarked.
“You backed down from him fast enough.”
Wheat turned on him, his lip curling. “What was that?”
“No, nothin’. Sorry.”
“Yeah, you better be. Cause I’m Wheat Carlson, and you know what that means.”
“Ah, no. No, I don’t.”
“Wh . . .? You mean ta’ tell me, you ain’t never heard ‘a Wheat Carlson?”
The lad shrugged. “Sorry.”
“I’ve been runnin’ with Devil’s Hole for years. Dammit. If it weren’t fer that little show-off, Hannibal Heyes, steppin’ up and takin’ over leadership of this gang, why I’d be—”
“Hannibal Heyes?” asked an older gentlemen. “We’re being robbed by Hannibal Heyes?”
Several ladies gasped and brought hankies up to their faces.
The young boys in the group gulped. “Wow.”
“Yeah. I didn’t know we was bein’ robbed by Hannibal Heyes. I wondered why you weren’t gonna take our rings ‘an such. I mean, what happened to Santana? Don’t he run the Devil’s Hole Gang?”
Wheat hadn’t gotten over his shock and indignation, so Lobo stepped in to answer the question.
“Naw, Santana ain’t around no more. Heyes there, he took over.”
“Only ‘cause he’s got that gunny backin’ ‘im up,” Wheat finally responded. “Dammit. I’d be runnin’ this gang, if it weren’t fer that.” He stuck a finger in the face of the passenger and wagged it at him like an old schoolteacher. “Then you’d know who I am! Dagnabbit.”
“Santana’s gone?” asked one of the younger men. “Did Heyes kill ‘im ta’ take over the gang?”
“What?” Wheat sputtered. “Geesh, you’re a blood-thirsty lot. No, Heyes didn’t kill ‘im.” His eyes became distant, and his mouth tightened with remembered animosity. “Someone else went and betrayed ‘im to the law.”
Curry pulled his horse up by the opened door of the freight car. One lone man stood on the outside, leaning against the floor while he held two horses. He turned a hawk-nosed face to the approaching rider, then nodded acknowledgement as the horseman dismounted.
“How’s it goin’?” Curry asked.
The black-clad outlaw put a finger up to his lips, requesting quiet.
Curry grinned and looked in the freight car to see for himself.
His partner, Hannibal Heyes, sat, cross-legged in front of the large, impressive safe. He leaned against it, an ear pressed against the warm metal, as his long, slender fingers attempted their seduction of the tumblers. His eyes were closed, and dark strands of hair lay plastered against his forehead with perspiration caused just as much by his focus as by the heat of the day. The look on his face could only be described as erotic ecstasy.
“How’s it goin’?” Curry asked again.
Heyes jumped, and his face screwed up in an irritated grimace as he glared at his partner.
Curry grinned. “Just askin’. We gotta get a move on.”
“You can’t rush something like this,” Heyes told him. “You know that.”
“Yeah well, we don’t wanna get caught, sittin’ here, playin’ with ourselves,” Curry countered.
“Maybe I should get Kyle, and he can blow it.”
“Not yet. Lom’s on look-out. He’ll let us know if we have company coming. Besides, I almost had the last number before you interrupted me. I’d have it open by now if you—”
“Uh huh. How about I just go get Kyle anyway. If’n ya’ ain’t got it open by the time we get back, then he better blow it. It’s what he’s good at.”
Heyes nodded, then with a deep sigh, settled in to continue.
Three minutes after Curry left, a soft, metallic click sounded from inside the workings. Heyes’ face broke into a wide, dimpled grin as he locked eyes with his companion. “One of these days, the railroads are going to learn that they need timers on their safes, like the banks.”
Preacher grunted and nodded. He then turned to send a thumbs-up to the other gang members who had been watching the car from a safe distance.
A loud whoop went up as success was announced.
Heyes grinned as he swung upon the heavy door, then gazed upon the riches within.
“Oh, that’s beautiful. There’s gotta be at least $14,000 in cash alone.”
Preacher jumped into the car with the saddle bags. “Looks like the boys will get some glad money, after all.”
Heyes chuckled as they stuffed their plunder into the bags.
Wheat’s craggy face appeared at the door of the car. “Ya’ finally got it opened?”
Heyes’ grin wouldn’t quit. “Yup.”
“About time. Lobo and Charlie are gettin’ the passengers back on board. Let’s get goin’!”
Heyes was so pleased with the outcome of this job that he didn’t reprimand Wheat for his insubordination.