They rode burrowed deep in their coats, scarves wrapped about their faces against the stabbing wind. The leather chaps they had added to block the same wind from cutting through their pants hung heavy with frozen ice from their numb legs.
“It’s never been this cold before,” Heyes said, interrupting the silence that stretched around them.
“They say this isn’t a normal winter,” Curry answered, his breath moistening his face and hissing as it escaped into the frigid air.
“Maybe not, but I’m done with it,” Heyes grumped, tenderly clapping his hands together, for, despite the quality wool mittens, they felt like wooden blocks. “Gawd a’ mighty, Kid, I’m cold in places that aren’t supposed to be cold.”
Beneath the wrappings, Curry’s blue eyes rolled, his mouth tightening to a flat, twisted smile.
Silence drifted back over them, and with it came fresh snowflakes falling in their whispering, hushed way. They kept on, hugging to the underside of trees where the snow was not as thick, their shoulders hunched until they ached. The hills slowly pinched together, forcing their horses into the road they had been pacing. Not much of a road as it was drifted five and eight feet deep. Just as slowly as it came together, the draw peeled back like theatre curtains, and below, nestled like a flock of birds, sat the humped shapes of Red Rock.
Coming down the rugged, sloping hillside, they sought the path of least resistance, their horses pushing through the chest-deep snow, snorting and giving all they had. At the bottom, they reined in, letting the animals blow for several minutes.
“Why did we ever choose Wyoming?”
Curry turned to eye his partner, and after a moment, he shrugged, too tired and cold to wrap together enough words for a decent answer.
“Was it your idea or mine?”
Heyes’ accusatory tone sent little prickles down Curry’s back, and he thought, ‘He wants to argue to distract his mind, but I’m not in the mood.’
When they started their horses, Heyes grumped, “Take it; since you aren’t replying, it must have been yours.”
“I don’t recall whose idea it was,” Curry responded, thinking, ‘Need to come up with more to say to distract him. ‘Cause if he starts one of his blasted arguments, the way I’m feeling, it might be his last.’ Looking across his shoulder to Heyes behind him, he said, “You recall when we were so hot in Kansas, wishing for a cool breeze?”
A strained laugh rose from Heyes. “Right ‘bout now, I’m wishing that we were back there.”
Curry chuffed, the air puffing from his scarf and freezing into a cloud he rode through. “And if we were there, we’d be wishing we were up here all over again.”
They were still a few miles from town, the snow not as thick down on the valley road, but the wind cut down their backs from the draw like a knife. Heyes shuddered all the way to his tingling toes, complaining again, “It’s never been this cold.”
Truth was, Hannibal Heyes’ two cents worth was correct. It had never been that cold before. It was the winter of 1885-86, and the owners of the cattle spreads were calling it ‘The Big Die Up.’ It was a phrase that traveled far and wide, being picked up by newspapers until it reached the eastern seaboard. Millions of cattle across the West died that winter in severe blizzards and ungodly long spells of below-zero weather. There was no brand that did not suffer enormous losses, with many going broke.
After a few days of sitting about a saloon bellied up to a Franklin stove, Heyes set his whiskey-laced coffee on the tabletop one evening. Pushed his black hat back with a grin and said, “Let’s catch a train south.”
“Boys will wonder why we never appeared back at the Hole.”
“They are already pondering that,” Heyes replied. His grin expanded into his notorious dimpled smile. “Wheat has probably proclaimed me frozen stiff in a snowdrift and himself the leader.”
“All the more reason to return.”
“We can surprise the pants off him in the spring.”
A low chuckle drifted from Curry. “Not so certain that is something I wish to see.”
“Me neither,” Heyes answered, smiling all the brighter. “Still, I’ve been thinking it over, and senoritas, warm sun, and resting with our feet up sounds like a way to be living.”
Curry took a long drink of his cooling coffee, reached over to the stove, and topped off the cup. The steam lifted from it, carrying its delicious scent that spoke of its warmth.
“We are days ride, and when I say days, I mean in good weather, from the Hole.” Heyes leaned forward across the table, peering intently at his partner. “You really wanting to do that?”
The boyish smile that gave Curry his moniker appeared, and he shook his head. “Less than I want to see Wheat with his pants off.”
Chuckling, Heyes nodded and stood, declaring, “Then it’s settled; I will head over to the depot.”
When he entered the station, the clerk was absent. Heyes paced about and, not seeing a soul, told himself, ‘Must have stepped out for supper.’ Finding a seat in the adjoining room, he studied the train schedule chalked on the wall. No more than five minutes had passed when he heard someone enter from a different door, and two men were talking.
“What time is she coming through?” Heyes heard one man say.
“Nine-thirty tomorrow morning,” came the answer.
“When does the time lock open the safe?”
Heyes’ ears pricked up like a pup being offered a rib bone.
“At exactly ten.”
“Good,” said the first man. “Wire Denver and tell ‘em we’ll have the money on board.”
Heyes remained still, listening as they talked some more. The door opened and closed again; stepping lightly into the ticket room, he saw the men through the frosted window. After a final farewell, one mounted a horse and rode off. Before the railroad employee returned, Heyes exited through the lobby door.
Outside, he watched the man trot to the far end of town and dismount. He tied his horse to a rail, disappearing into an out-of-sight building. Meandering along the boardwalk, oblivious to the cold, his heart pumping like a bellows after hearing, ‘when does the time lock open the safe….exactly at ten.’ He finally paused across the street from Red Rock’s bank, where the horse stood on three legs, and although the curtains were drawn, he could see a light burning inside.
Going back to the saloon, he stepped in and motioned for Kid Curry to join him outside.
“Did you get the tickets?”
“Was the station closed?” Curry asked, glancing toward the Union Pacific building crouched near the tracks.
Heyes did a quick double-take that they were alone and said, “What do you say we rob the train?”
One of Curry’s eyes squinched, and he again looked to the squat depot domineering its section of town. Finally, saying, “Why not.”
At precisely nine-thirty the following day, a train thundered and squealed into Red Rock, Wyoming, steam bellowing in great clouds from its wheels, hanging like fog in the near arctic air.
A conductor made his way to the station, stepped in, and, after a few moments, flowed back out with the Union Pacific clerk, the Sheriff, his deputy, and a finely suited man carrying a black satchel. The foursome walked along the wheezing train to the express car. Handing off the bag to the agent, they stomped their feet, joked cordially, and returned to the warmth of the station.
The fireman was pouring on the wood, the engine chugging up to cruising speed, when the Engineer spotted a figure ahead, only a few miles from town. As they drew closer, the man moved off the tracks he was walking along with his saddle over his shoulder and waved wildly to the train with his brown Stetson.
Considering the cold, the Engineer figured the man would likely die as his horse must have done and pulled back the throttle. When the big wheels ground to a halt, he leaned from the engine box, calling, “Looking for a ride?”
Climbing the ladder, Curry flopped his saddle on the floor and straightened with a nickel-plated Colt in his right hand. “Stay calm, and nothing exciting will happen.”
The Engineer and Fireman flattened themselves against the far side of the cab, their hands reaching for the iron canopy and their eyes bugged wide.
Curry leaned out, peering down the line to where Heyes had moved from a thicket of Sagebrush to the Express Car. His smile bloomed on seeing the door slide open, and his partner climb inside, holding his pistol negligently and beaming like a boy at a carnival.
Heyes said, “Isn’t quite ten, is it?”
The Express man’s eyes dropped to the black satchel sitting before the safe, the color leeching from his face.
“Go ahead and pass it over,” Heyes ordered, aiming the full bore of the .44 caliber Schofield at the man. Once the leather bag was in his left hand, he tipped his head to the Express Agent. “Make sure when you hit the next town to let them all know it was Heyes and Curry who lightened your load.” Then he was out the door, gone like he had never been there.
Curry picked up his saddle. “I am going to leave your pleasant company now,” he said, a coyote grin tugging at his mouth. “If you swear on your word to keep going, I won’t harm either of you. Otherwise, I’m going to be forced to lay this gun over your heads, and I don’t want to do that to you boys. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Sir,” the Engineer yelped, thinking how many times he had told his wife. “Me, I ain’t the hero type; train ever gets robbed, you can expect me home for dinner.’
“Can I trust your word that you will continue on to Wellmont?”
“Yes, Sir,” the Engineer answered, “I will aim ‘er right on down the track.”
“Uhm, Sir,” asked the Firebox man, “you ain’t by chance Kid Curry?”
Curry passed the man a wink, “Might be at that, and I would like to thank you both for your cooperation.”
As the train moved off, Heyes waved jubilantly to the Expressman and Engineer, leaning out for a last look.
“He is keeping his word,” Curry said with a satisfied smile that was nowhere near as big as the one decorating Heyes’ face as the engine rolled forward, smoke surging black into the sky from its stack.
“Don’t know how much we got,” Heyes jiggled the bag, “but it has a good weight.”
“Let’s get while the getting’s good,” Curry said with a laugh, hopping sideways down the earthwork.
Five minutes from the time the train had stopped, they were back on their horses, heading off southerly. The passengers had no idea why the train stopped. But, it was moving again, and even the Conductor though initially concerned, sat back down to his newspaper.
The temperature was just below freezing, but the sun shined full, and no snow spilled from the sky. Curry and Heyes loped on at a leisurely pace, figuring to lose themselves in the low hills that would provide them much-needed cover.
“If the train keeps on, it will reach Wellmont inside of an hour,” Heyes said.
Curry cheerfully replied, “Gives us a solid head start on any posse they throw together to hound us.”
“The Snake River will still be frozen over if our luck holds true,” Heyes said.
Although the touch of worry Curry heard in his partner’s voice made his gut tighten, really more than the worry, it was Heyes calling on luck. A part of him wanted to blow up, have an all-out tantrum as he thought, ‘How many blasted times have I told him….him calling on luck always brings us the wrong kind.’
Heyes peeked at Curry, reading his thoughts, and said a silent prayer, ‘Please let it be frozen over.’
TBC on Dec. 18th