The rhythmic clackety-clack of the wheels increased in volume as the heavy boxcar door slid to one side. A head of blond curls turned left and right; their owner diligently studying the passing landscape.
"How far do you figure we are from Huntsville?" Kid Curry asked over his shoulder.
Hannibal Heyes tilted up his hat from where it rested over his eyes, pulled his watch from his pocket, and considered the dial.
"It's three hours since we left Sack City so, I'd say... 'bout seven miles."
The blond groaned. "Can't we get any closer?"
"Not on this train."
"Looks like there's a bend comin' up," observed Curry. "The engine will have to slow some, so it could be a good place for us to get off."
"Good don't necessarily mean safe," grumbled Heyes as he left the dubious comfort of the burst straw bale he had been using as a pillow and took his place at his friend's side. "But as much as I hate to jump, let alone walk seven miles afterwards, it's probably as good a place as any."
Exactly as predicted, when it approached the long left-hand bend the locomotive began to slow, puffing out voluminous plumes of dark grey smoke as the boilerman shovelled coal into the firebox in preparation for the need to increase speed again.
Curry pointed. "There."
"I see it," Heyes affirmed, tightening the stampede strings on his hat.
An area of ground, hopefully devoid of rocks, was coming up among the scattered sagebrush, and as the train drew level with it the former outlaws hurled their belongings out of the door and followed them, leaping clear of the moving wheels and making sure to tuck and roll as they hit the bare earth.
Years of experience in riding boxcars told them to remain low and still for a few minutes — somebody may have thought they saw them jump — but once the train had disappeared around the bend Kid Curry rolled over to face his partner.
Heyes sat up rubbing his left elbow. "Nothing's broke, if that's what you're asking. You know, although it goes against all my principles to give money to a railroad company, I'd choose buying a ticket any day over risking my neck for a free ride."
"Well, we don't have a dime between us, so it's a free ride, or no ride." Curry clambered to his feet and proceeded to slap himself down with his hat, momentarily enveloping them both in a thin cloud of dust. "C'mon. We'd better start walkin'."
Following a cool, misty start the early fall day was gradually turning out to be pleasantly warm and sunny, which was great for walking, but only if you were properly equipped for it. Unfortunately, Heyes and the Kid were not; they wore heavy coats as well as rather unforgiving leather cowboy boots, and each carried a bedroll and saddlebags.
After a couple of hours trudging across a vast area of stony scrubland both men were sweating and their feet were throbbing. Another hour and a lot closer to the hills they were aiming for, both had developed large blisters on their heels and were in desperate need of a drink. It had been no mean feat making their limited food and water last for the three day boxcar ride, but both supplies were now exhausted.
Come noon, they at last began to traverse the hills they had seen from the train. These turned out to be surprisingly rocky and steep in parts, but did have the benefit of the occasional tree for shade.
Suddenly, Curry halted. "Does that sound like water to you?"
Heyes inclined his head and listened. He grinned. "I sure hope so. Let's go take a look."
Despite their sore feet, the promise of water drove them on at a faster pace and it was not many minutes before they rounded a cluster of rocks to a very welcome sight. Here, several large boulders had formed a cove, into which flowed a stream, thus creating a natural pool. The addition of a number of bushes to the open side, together with a small stand of trees, also made it nice and private.
Curry beamed. "Yahoo! Will ya look at that!"
"Best thing I've seen since that card-sharp in Cedar Bluff dealt me those four aces by mistake," quipped Heyes with an identical grin.
The two men broke into a run, falling to their knees at the edge of the pool to scoop up handfuls of the cool, sweet water. Once they had sated their thirst Heyes stood and surveyed their surroundings.
"You know Kid, this water looks mighty inviting and we do need to clean ourselves up some before we get to Huntsville. Until we collect our pay we can't even afford the bare necessities, like food or a bath, and I suspect this lawyer will be reluctant to even let us in the door, let alone give us the package for Big Mac, or pay us what we're owed, if we turn up like this. That boxcar was full of you-know-what and that's exactly how we smell. I've got a change of shirt and pants in my bedroll. Whaddya say we take that bath right here and put on some fresh clothes?"
Heyes really needn't have asked — his partner was already starting to shed his jacket, boots, and gun belt. He then began rummaging through his saddlebags. "Knew I still had that piece of soap," Curry triumphantly held aloft little more than a sliver. "Last one to the middle buys supper!"
Pulling off their clothes and dumping them in a heap, both men stripped naked then waded out into the crystal clear water until it reached their armpits. Here they splashed and laughed, floated and swam, as if they were children again enjoying a carefree summer's day at the local water hole back in Kansas. Eventually they got down to the more serious business of washing; vigorously rubbing their skin a rosy pink in the hope of ridding themselves of days of trail dust, not to mention the pungent aroma of eau-de-boxcar, carefully reserving the tiny piece of soap to wash their hair with.
Large water droplets dangled from Kid Curry's water-darkened curls as he surfaced from rinsing off the suds. "I figure supper's on you," he announced.
"There must be something wrong with your eyesight, Kid, 'cause I was definitely the first to the middle," Heyes stated, before he too ducked below the surface.
Curry began to laugh at his friend's adamant, but in his opinion totally inaccurate reply, until his eyes caught a movement near the pool's edge and he stopped abruptly.
"My eyes are fine, Heyes, but I'd rather not see that," he said through partially clenched teeth as soon as the dark head resurfaced.
With his back to the shore Heyes froze. The look on his partner's face was a clear sign that they were in trouble, and although he knew the Kid would have already scoured their surroundings for an escape route, Heyes instinctively did the same. Miserably, he concluded that the rocks forming the natural wall around the pool would be impossible to scale, so he swallowed hard and croaked, "The law?"
Curry remained stock-still. "Nope," he murmured. "But he ain't seen us — yet. Turn around. Reeeal slow."
The 'he' to which his partner was referring, was a bear — a large one — and it was busy investigating their belongings; interested snuffles and grunts issuing forth from its long black snout. As they watched, two huge paws equipped with long, sharp claws began scratching at the pile of clothes.
"He won't stay long." Heyes tried to sound positive. "We don't have any food so..." Sensing his friend's shoulders stiffen even more, his eyes drifted sideways and he enquired suspiciously, "What?"
Curry winced. "I had some candy in my pocket."
"Aaww no," groaned Heyes, much louder than he intended.
The bear ceased its foraging and looked up, but not quite quickly enough to see two heads disappear below the water's surface.
Less than a minute later, with their lungs fit to burst, Heyes and the Kid had no choice but to come up for air. Heyes blinked the water from his eyes, before continuing the hushed conversation.
"I thought you ate that candy days ago."
"I did, but the pocket's still sticky."
At Heyes' reproachful scowl Curry went on, "Don't go givin' me that look! Those pants are the only ones I've got and I ain't had a chance to wash 'em. Threw my spare pair away after they got ripped up on that barb wire."
Heyes shrugged. "Looks like we're just gonna have to stay right where we are and wait it out. Don't worry, Kid, he'll soon figure out there's nothing to eat here."
"Oh, there's plenty to eat alright," responded Curry, cynically. "Us!"
While the bear scattered clothes, guns, and saddlebags plus most of their contents in all directions the two former outlaws remained as still as possible. Unfortunately, Heyes' prediction that they would not be there for long proved to be wildly inaccurate.
As soon as the creature had finished its investigations it wandered over to a nearby tree. Here it proceeded to rub its back and rump against the rough trunk for several minutes before demonstrating how sharp its claws really were by scratching off great chunks of bark. It then yawned widely, affording them a most undesirable view of a mouth full of flesh-ripping teeth, and settled down for a nap.
Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry exchanged a forlorn glance. Then, hoping to make the wait a little less uncomfortable, they took several slow steps backwards so that they could rest against one of the boulders. It was here that they remained, hour after soggy hour.
During the long afternoon there had been one fleeting moment of hope.
"Did you hear that?" Heyes inclined his head, listening intently.
"What?" replied Curry, dully.
"That noise. It sounded like a growl to me." A clear note of optimism was starting to creep into Heyes' hushed voice. "Hey, Kid, I think there could be another bear close by. Maybe that'll get this fella spooked and he'll go finish his nap somewhere else."
Curry sighed. "That wasn't a bear growlin', Heyes. That was my belly." Seeing his partner's look of incredulity he almost whined, "I ain't had nuthin' to eat for nearly a whole day!"
Later, as the sun made its way toward the western horizon and dipped behind the pines, they were presented with a more pressing problem than the Kid's empty stomach. With the pool now in shade, the water temperature was rapidly changing from wonderfully refreshing to flesh-numbingly cold.
Speaking as quietly as he was able through chattering teeth, Curry turned to his friend. "Y' know, I figure if he stays asleep and I don't splash too much, I might be able to get to my gun and—"
"Not a chance," interrupted Heyes. "I saw him swat it under a bush, way over yonder. Anyhow, he'd be on you the second you stepped out of the water. We gotta wait it out."
"Heyes, a few hours ago this water felt real nice, but now..."
Heyes knew exactly what the Kid meant. He was shivering too.
Darkness was almost upon them when, at last, the bear began to stir. It still took its time waking up, but once its eyes were fully open it yawned several times, stretched leisurely, then returned to what was left of the tree trunk to scratch some more. Finally, it took a long drink at the pool, gave a loud snort, and sauntered off down the trail.
Despite their eagerness to get out of the freezing water the two men felt it wise to wait a while to see whether the creature was going to reappear. When they did decide it was safe to move, they discovered that a few more minutes were needed in order to summon some life back into their numb legs before wading stiffly to shore.
Keen to make use of what little daylight remained Curry made straight for the bushes to look for his revolver, while Heyes, his very dusty Schofield gripped as firmly as he was able in his cold, pruney fingers, began gathering the rest of their belongings. Despite the chill of the approaching night and although they were both still devoid of a stitch of clothing, five minutes of frantic activity soon warmed them up.
"Gun's alright, but I wish I could say the same for my holster. It's covered in scratches," grumbled the gunman, while checking that the bear, despite its lack of opposable thumbs, hadn't removed any bullets from his Colt.
"That holster's in fine shape compared to these," Heyes announced, the corners of his mouth beginning to twitch as he held up the Kid's only pair of jeans. In its hunt for the source of the sweet smell the bear's claws had made long rips in the fabric across the thighs and knees.
"Aaww no! I can't wear them!"
"Kid, unless you wanna go into town in your union suit, it looks like you don't have a choice. Mine won't fit you, and like you said, you've got nothing else."
No longer able to contain his amusement Heyes began to laugh. "Hey! You never know, you could start a whole new fashion."
Kid Curry rolled his eyes at his friend's bizarre idea.
"Oh yeah," he scoffed. "Like anyone would wanna buy a pair of ripped jeans!"