I scouted the outskirts of Gentle Bend before I set up my camp in a grove of red aspens. It’s been a mild fall so far, so the aspen’s reds are an intense blood red. These reds bring back unpleasant memories of ten years ago of my family dead on our farm…and the blood of men I’ve shot in gunfights. These reds won’t last long. The leaves’ll turn brown, then winter will be here…again. The memories always last. Another winter alone but it’s changed from last year when I was driftin’ through here lookin’ to earn money. Even then I had a reputation as a fast gun. I worked in the saloon, swabbin’ the floors and cleanin’ up spilled whiskey after closin’. The bartender was gruff but fair. Let me sleep in the back room. The girls were pretty.
Don’t think that will happen this year. There’s a wanted poster out on me. Says I killed a man in Wyoming. I didn’t. I was near but not part of the gang that robbed the bank. But with my reputation of bein’ a fast gun, just bein’ there was enough to earn that poster. Wrote to a friend, Soapy Sanders in San Francisco, for help. He’s more than a friend. He took me and Heyes in when we was alone and hungry. Taught us how to run cons. We got good at it. I ain’t heard back from him but that’s not surprisin’. Been movin’ around too much to wait for answers to my telegrams. He knows I was here last winter so I’m hopin’ he’ll figure I might come back again this year.
I have to be careful here though. People, includin’ the sheriff, know me on sight by my real name. There was no need to lie about it last year. I’ve been Kevin Williams the last couple of months. After dusk, I leave my horse in camp and walk into Gentle Bend. I stay in the shadows behind the buildings until I venture up an alley across the street from the telegraph office…and the sheriff’s office.
Bert Roberts is no longer the sheriff. The name on the shingle says Deputy Sheriff B. Brian Connors. I don’t know him. Hope he don’t know me either.
I’m dirtier and scruffier than when I was here last year, taller too. I’m twenty now. I’m takin’ a chance walkin’ into the telegraph office. Didn’t send but one telegraph when I was here last year so I’m hopin’ the clerk don’t know me. I sent it on Christmas Eve to Soapy. Needed to reach out to someone who knew me…knew us. I was lonely and lost, just driftin’. I used to travel with my cousin, Hannibal, but we argued over joinin’ a gang. He wanted to, I didn’t. First time ever we both were so stubborn that we split up. I didn’t know where he was a year ago, but was hopin’ Soapy would let him know I was alright. Don’t know where he’s now, but I saw a wanted poster on him last month. He did it. He joined a gang. He’s ridin’ with the Plummer Gang. I’m sure he’s doin’ well there. But I read something about that gang breakin’ up. When he wants something, he usually makes it happen. I wonder what he’s doin’ now.
Not sure just where I am. I ride, er rode, with the Plummer Gang. It had been a good choice for me up to now. The Kid and I argued about joining. They would have taken both of us. Probably wanted his gun more than anything I brought to the gang. But I've made myself valuable. I can open safes by manipulation. Quieter than dynamite. The gang provides some protection, a sort of family. Course I wouldn’t trust most of these men, but it was nice belonging somewhere while it lasted. We had some epic hurrahs after successful robberies. Our last job was successful, but the sheriff got a posse up quick. Plummer had the entire take in his saddle bag. Our practice was to meet about three miles outside of a town, split it into three and then divide it further when we got to Plummer’s Palace, as he liked to call our little hideout in the mountains.
But that’s not what happened. The safe was a bit of a challenge. Still, I opened it quickly. There were three planned getaway routes from the town, and we raced out of there. There was a new sheriff from when we’d scouted the town. He knew what he was doing. The posse was up and chasing us quickly. Whitey and I followed Plummer as planned. Whitey caught a bullet in his shoulder. Plummer laughed and sped ahead while I caught Whitey's reins as he fell forward. Then a bullet ripped into my calf.
“Plummer, help,” I yelled, not caring if the posse was following us or had trailed one of our other groups. He didn’t stop. He waved his hand in the air and was gone.
Took two days for me and Whitey to get to Plummer’s Palace. Plummer and the thirty thousand dollars take never showed up. There was no argument, only anger. The gang broke up. Whitey and I stayed there until we healed some and we went our separate ways.
After almost eighteen months, I was back where I started when the Kid and I split up. Even though we didn’t agree about joining a gang, he’s still my cousin, my friend. I’d never tell him, but I still feel closer to him than anyone else. Now, I’m broke, alone, and limping on a leg that don’t seem to have healed right. And I’m wanted. Posters went up on us after a botched train robbery. They have my name and a vague description, but no picture. My only contact with the Kid is through Soapy Sanders. I ain’t been in contact with him since last Christmas when I sent a telegram that said, “Kid?” It was all I could afford.
He answered, “Near Gentle Bend. Alone. Reputation.”
If the Kid was there last Christmas, maybe he’ll head that way again this year. I sent Soapy a telegram I was heading there. Saw a wanted poster for Kid Curry in the telegraph office. Ain’t got his first name, but the description’s close except for the height. I guess he’s grown over the last year. He’s wanted for murder. That don’t sound like the Kid I know...or knew.
I paid a boy a nickel to go into the telegraph office and ask if there was anything for Jed Curry. I couldn’t take the chance my name was on a wanted poster on their wall. I watched from the alley as the boy went in there. He came out quickly with a letter.
“You want me to send a telegram for you, sir, for a nickel?” The boy’s ingenuity reminded me of Heyes when he was young.
“Be here in about an hour. I’ll let you know.”
He smiled and ran off but turned and yelled, “Be back in an hour.”
It was a letter from Soapy and it had been written three months ago.
Glad you’re keeping in touch. I let Han know where you were. This was the last address I had for you.
The trouble you were worried about has been resolved. Wanted posters have been recalled. Use care. Posters may still be around and bounty hunters abound. Telegram Laurence Rose, attorney at law, Oxford, Wyoming if you are arrested. He will clear you.
Mr. Rose has informed me you have a reputation in Wyoming as a fast gun with a short temper. Are you hiring your gun out now? Didn’t I teach you better?
Keep in touch when you can.
I reread the letter twice. It had a lot to think about. I wasn’t wanted, but the posters were still out there. I wish I had Heyes here to watch my back with them bounty hunters. Could I trust the boy to check for my poster? I liked Gentle Bend. I’d like to winter here.
I decided to send the telegram myself but still flipped the boy a nickel when I walked past him. I wrote:
San Francisco, CA
Thanks for help and warning. STOP Have reputation. STOP Never for hire. STOP
The clerk gave me a sideways look when he sent the telegram but said nothing. I went to the back door of the saloon and walked in cautiously.
The bartender smiled when he recognized me.
“Boy, you’ve grown.” His eyes were focused on my tie downed gun. “Still wearing that?”
“Yes, sir. For protection. Was wonderin’ if you might need some help?” The place looked the same, familiar.
“Same job, same pay?” he offered. “Room in the back’s still open.”
“Done! I’ll be back before closin’.”
My poster wasn’t hangin’ in the telegraph office. And I checked the sheriff’s office when he was makin’ his rounds. It wasn’t hangin’ there either. But there was one for Hannibal Heyes.
The job was familiar but not comfortable. Since those posters came out, I’m always wary of everyone. In a few days, I learned the regulars that stayed until closin’. I’m leery of every stranger. And I feel alone.
I started toward Gentle Bend but wandered off course. My leg was worse, not better, so I found a doctor. A bullet fragment was festering in there. The doctor took it out and bandaged it. Told me to rest right there while he helped another patient. Out the window, I saw him leave. He’s going to get the sheriff, didn’t believe my explanation. Hard to explain away a bullet fragment in the leg. I left money on the table and left through the back door.
I knew the sheriff wouldn’t be far behind, so I headed out north, hid until he went by, backtracked, and went east toward Gentle Bend. At least I think that’s where I’m heading. After the plan of being part of a gang fell apart, I was alone. I didn’t want to partner up with any of the men there. So now I was here, injured, alone and heading to the only person in this world I called family.
I would never tell the Kid, but I miss him, miss riding next to him, and even freezing camping outside when we didn’t have money for a hotel room. Well, maybe I would tell him if I could find him.
Gentle Bend looks like a quiet town. I have enough money to board my horse and eat for a few days, but not for a room or to spare for a telegram to Soapy. I’m scouting the town from the shadows. It’s so small there’s not even a bank. It’s a Friday. The saloon filled up with men, mostly farmers and ranch hands at dusk. I’ve studied everyone walking around here for two days but I haven’t seen the Kid. Maybe I’m foolish. I was sure he would be here. Looks like I’m wrong.
A big group of ranch hands on horses followed their foreman into town and stopped in front of the saloon. I inched closer to hear them. They’d obviously already started their weekend drinking on the way here.
“Gather around, boys.” The foreman waved at the group that had gotten rowdier as they dismounted. “Here’s a twenty dollar advance for each of you on your month’s salary. Try and save some of it.”
As a group, the men stuck out their hands toward the foreman. With nothing to lose, I stuck mine out, too. Even though I couldn’t see through the men, I felt the twenty dollars hit my hand. I silently slipped backward and down a nearby alley. It seemed like a fortune.
I wandered to the trees behind the buildings. My money problem was solved, but I still didn’t know if anyone here had seen my wanted poster. As I walked, from somewhere behind the saloon, I could hear a familiar rhythm - bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. The shots fired so fast they almost melt together, followed by a whish as a gun is holstered.
“Kid!” I thought and headed toward the sounds. But as I heard the shots repeat, I stopped. The Kid I left was fast, but not that fast. I approached the shooter from behind. Taller than the boy I'd left and stronger, I looked closer. I recognized the gun belt I gave him for his sixteenth birthday.
I stood in back of his right shoulder as he started to shoot his next round. Standing there had started as a place to stand out of the way when he practiced. It had changed into me letting him know I had his back.
“Heyes, I can hear you breathing back there. Glad you’re here, cousin,” he spoke warmly, turning around. His voice was the same but lower. He still looked like a kid, but his eyes told me he had grown into a man.
We looked at each other for a moment. We’ve always been able to communicate without words. Our bond was still there.
“So, Heyes, now that we’ve found each other, I’m thinkin’ your gang idea ain’t so bad’” he said tentatively.
“Guess you heard it didn’t work out so well with the Plummer Gang.”
“Read they disbanded. That how you got that limp?”
He surprised me that he weren't against joining a gang. I didn’t want to argue again. “Yeah. Or maybe we can survive together, just the two of us. Heard you got a reputation now.” It was good just talking with the Kid, just walking with him. He headed for the saloon’s back door. I leaned against the building, looking around. “Saw you’re wanted for murder. How can you just walk in there?”
“Ain’t wanted no more. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time and accused. Soapy helped clear me.”
“Well, I’m wanted, Kid. I can’t just walk into a saloon.”
“You know the sheriff here?”
“Never heard of him.”
Then you're my cousin, Greg Williams. Let’s go talk.” He draped his arm around my shoulders. I was going to have to get used to this world-wise Kid that had my back.
“Kid, if you’re willing to join a gang, I’m thinking of joining the Devil’s Hole Gang. Heard they’re looking for a few men so they should want a fast gun and a safe man. Rumor has it Jim Santana don’t believe in violence during robberies; he’s a tough leader, but fair.”
His blue eyes smiled. “If we leave tonight, maybe we can get there before Christmas.”