Heyes sat comfortably in his armchair, snuggled in with his stockinged feet stretched out on a foot stool and crossed at the ankles. He was reading a book, the light from the fire flickering across the pages and warming his toes.
Then a knock on the door interrupted Heyes’ focus, and a frown creased his brow. The story was just getting interesting, and now his escape into another existence had been abruptly broken. He sighed. Marking the place in the pages, he set the book aside and returned to reality.
Lom Travers entered, bringing a blast of cold air in with him.
Heyes’ frown turned to a smile.
“Lom. Come on in. Have a seat.” Heyes stood up and removed the paperwork of the plans for their next job from the second armchair, then motioned his friend to settle in by the fire. “Would you like some coffee?”
“No, that’s fine,” Lom said, as he removed his coat, hung it on a peg by the door then joined his boss in the comfort zone of the fireplace but did not take the offered seat. “There’s somethin’ I need ta’ talk to ya’ about.”
Heyes’ eyebrow twitched. He never did like the sound of those words strung together. “Should I be sitting down for this?”
Lom shrugged. “I’m leaving the gang, Heyes.”
Heyes struggled to remove the knife from his back.
“Why?” he finally asked. “Are you mad at me? Did I do something to—?”
“No, Heyes. It ain’t that. We’ve been friends too long, fer that.”
“I always figured we were friends, Lom. I thought you liked it here. At least you did when Jim was running things.” Heyes became defensive. “Is that it? You don’t like taking orders from me?”
“No. That ain’t it. It’s just time.”
“It’s just time? What’s that supposed to mean? Jeez Lom, this is the best season we’ve ever had. We’ve got all the stores and supplies we need for winter and then some. There’s still money in the safe, and once we pull this next job, we’ll be sitting pretty for next spring. I’m even going to hand out bonuses at Christmas. We’re somebody now. How can this be the time to leave?”
Lom sighed and ran a hand through his dark hair; he figured this wasn’t going to go easy. “Yeah, you’re somebody. And maybe that’s part of the problem.”
Heyes frowned and shook his head in disbelief. “What?”
“C’mon, Heyes,” Lom tried to explain. “When you and me were runnin’ together, we were just penny-ante thieves. We stole enough to get by on, and we were happy with that. Nobody cared. Nobody even knew who we were. But now, you’re pushin’ it. The wrong kind of people are beginnin’ ta’ take notice.” He hesitated and gazed into the fire. “Besides, well, it ain’t right; what we’re doin’ ta’ folks.”
Heyes’ jaw set with irritated determination. “We only go after the corporations, Lom. You know that. The average citizen gets treated fairly; I don’t allow any rough stuff. You know that, too.”
“Fairly?” Lom swung around, the flickering light from the fire dancing in his dark eyes. “You’re too busy in the freight car, playin’ with the safe, ta’ see the faces of the passengers. It makes me sick. They’re either scared or angry, or both. You may not take their personal items, but you do take most of their money—and you do it at gunpoint. How’s that fair, Heyes?”
Heyes hesitated, feeling unsure of his position. He drew in a deep breath and met the challenge in his friend’s hard eyes. “Wells Fargo insures whatever we take. Even the payrolls. Those people get their money back. The only ones we’re hurting are the banks and railroads; the big corporations who don’t give a damn until it hits them in the pocketbook.”
“You keep tellin’ yourself that, Heyes. But Wells Fargo takes months to pay out on these kind ‘a claims, and in the meantime, people who needed that money you stole, are goin’ hungry and sinkin’ inta’ debt waitin’ for compensation.”
“The folks around here don’t hate us,” Heyes persisted. “They love it when we come into town and spread some money around. We’re good for business, we help their economy. They’ve given us the head’s up, more than once, when a lawman has come snooping around. Damn, Lom, there’s even dime novels being written about me and the Kid, and the Devil’s Hole Gang. We’re bucking the system; we’re heroes.”
Lom snorted. “And what about when the system starts buckin’ back? Wells Fargo and Pinkerton’s already have you in their sights. Not ta’ mention that safe company you keep targetin’. What’s their name again?”
“Yeah, Yale. And safes ain’t the only thing they got a hand in. Railroads, banks, security. They ain’t too pleased with our success, either. You keep goin’ like this, and they’ll be comin’ after you, big time. It’s a losin’ game, Heyes. You’re on the top now, but for how long?
“Most of the banks have the timer locks and it won’t be long before the railroads have ‘em too. Then what? You ain’t always gonna have someone on the inside, tellin’ ya’ when ta’ show up. And on top ‘a that, with the reward on you and the Kid increasin’ every year, more and more likely it’ll be one ‘a your own men that turns on ya’. Set ya’ up to arrive at a bank only ta’ find a herd of lawmen and guns pointin’ right at ya’. You’re playin’ a dangerous game. I give ya’ ten years at the most, before you’re in prison or dead. I don’t wanna stick around ta’ see that happen.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, there, Lom,” Heyes snarked. “Don’t you worry about those timed safes.” His eyes flicked to the plans he’d shuffled over to the table. “I’m working out a way to open them without needing any inside information. Besides, the men are all happy here. They’re making good money with me running things, and they know it. They’re not going to throw that away just for a small percentage of some reward money. They respect me. They’re loyal to me.”
“Really?” Lom queried. “Wheat respects you?”
“Well . . . Wheat . . .”
“And Lobo?” Lom barked a laugh. “Lobo’s loyal to you now, because you’re on top. But one bad season, and he’ll knife you in the back. And you know it. Curry and Preacher can’t be with you all the time. You’re making enemies, Heyes. Powerful ones, and weak ones that can be used to get at you. You’re a smart man; you could do anything you wanted to do.”
“And I am,” Heyes insisted. “I’m having the best time of my life, right now. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been under the control of somebody else. Ridiculous rules being forced onto me, constantly being told what to do, then getting punished for doing it.” He started to pace, shaking his head. “No more, Lom. I’m boss now. Nobody tells me what to do, not anymore. I know what I want my life to be.”
“Jeez, Heyes. You’re only twenty-two years old. You don’t know anything. I’m tellin’ ya’; get out while you still can.”
Heyes stopped and stared at the floor, his heart hurting. He couldn’t understand why one of his best friends was turning away from him.
“I’m happy right where I am. This place is a haven. You’re a fool for leaving it. What are you going to do, huh? Where are you going to go? You’ve got nobody; just us.”
“No, that ain’t true,” Lom told him. “I got a friend. He’s the sheriff in Buffalo. He told me that any time I wanted out, ta’ come see ‘im.”
Heyes laughed. “Oh, come on. And you call me a fool. I’ve never met a sheriff I could trust. It’s a set-up, Lom. You’ll be walking right into a trap.”
“No, I don’t think so. I’ve known him a long time. We served together. We lost track ‘a one another after the war, and we kind’a went off in different directions. But I run into him a few months back. He could’a arrested me right then and there, but he didn’t. He offered me a way out before I got in so deep, I couldn’t get out. I trust ‘im.”
“More than you trust me?” Heyes sulked.
Lom shook his head. “There’s no comparison, Heyes. It ain’t a matter of who I trust more. It’s about me makin’ changes in my life. About me doin’ the right thing accordin’ to my conscience.”
Heyes tried to put hurt feelings aside; he knew when he was on the losing end of an argument.
“Well, you gotta do what you gotta do, I guess.”
“Why don’t you stay for the winter? It’s kind of cold for a ride to Buffalo now.”
“No, Heyes. Thanks, but I can still get there before the heavy snows start. I made my decision; I’d best act on it.”
Heyes nodded and went to the cupboard next to the stove. He took down the bottle of whiskey and two glasses, then, without asking, poured a shot into each glass.
Lom joined him, and the two men toasted their farewells and downed the shots.
“I’m going to miss you,” Heyes admitted, his throat tightening. He didn’t have many close friends, so he hated losing the ones he did have.
“Yeah. I can’t say as I’ll be stayin’ in touch, either. If I’m breakin’ away from this life, that’s gotta include you and the Kid.”
Heyes nodded his understanding. “When are you leaving?”
“I figure, first thing in the morning.”
Another nod. “Well, come by here on your way out. I’ll give you the money that’s owed you. And don’t give me a line about how your conscience won’t let you take it. You earned it, it’s yours. Besides, you’re going to need a stake.”
“Yeah, all right. One last time, I guess. Say goodbye ta’ the Kid for me. Although I may run into him and Ed on my way down the mountain. They should be headin’ back by now.”
“Yeah, they should.”
The two men stood and looked at one another, neither one finding this parting easy.
Finally, Lom extended his hand. “Goodbye, Heyes. Watch your back.”
Heyes took his hand and they shook on it. “Yeah. You too.”
Lom turned and, taking his coat from the hook, he opened the cabin door and left, closing it behind him.
Heyes stood where he was, watching the door as though hoping it would open again, but it didn’t.
Finally, he turned away and poured himself another drink; two shots this time.
With a heavy heart, he downed half of it in one go, the burning in his throat having nothing to do with the fiery alcohol. He coughed and wiped a sleeved arm across his eyes, then stood, staring at nothing as he swirled the golden liquid around in its glass.
Finally, he straightened, looked at the whiskey, then tossed it back and set the glass onto the table.