“They got over ten thousand in deeds, certificates, and greenbacks,” the Express man said.
Sheriff Norton, a big man, sat in his Wellmont office, taking notes from the Railroad crew. “You’re certain it was only two of’em?”
The four railroad men shared sheepish glances, with the Engineer finally saying, “Yeah, but it was Curry and Heyes.”
The Sheriff shook his head in disbelief, looking to the Conductor. “How is it possible, even for Curry and Heyes, to stop an entire train and rob it in less than a few minutes?”
The Conductor took a step back. “Not me. I did not even know we were being robbed.”
The Sheriff’s gaze swung to the Expressman, who bowed his head, seeming very interested in the melting snow and mud they had brought into the office on their boots.
“I heard a thump on the door, thought it might ‘en be one of….” He looked left and right to the Conductor and Engineer. “Then there was Hannibal Heyes pointing his big Schofield in my face.”
The Sheriff puffed his cheeks, blowing out a disgruntled huff of air. “So, you’re telling me I have to ride across this frozen waste chasing ‘em cause you opened the door without asking ‘Who is it?’”
The Expressman sighed dismally and once more fell to staring at the spreading pools of melt on the lawman’s floor.
“Fine! I will get the posse put together,” Sheriff Norton stood, his six foot five height towering over the men before his desk as he jabbed a finger at them. “Y’all get a cattle car hooked up and tell the Livery to load it with horses. You will be giving us a ride back up the track to where this little fandango occurred.” He moved to the map framed on his wall, shaking his head and grunting. Finally, he said in a low voice trimmed tight with his irritation, “They would be fools to head any direction but south, and we all know Heyes ain’t a fool.” He turned to the men. “Any of’n you know if the Snake is still frozen?”
They shook their heads.
Sheriff Norton’s narrowed eyes ran over the Engineer. “Why did you not roll back to Red Rock? It was their money; Sheriff Barton could have dealt with all this?”
The Engineer pulled a face, wishing he could have someone else answer. “Well, Kid Curry said if I drove on here, then he wouldn’t have to clobber me and Fred over the heads with his Colt.”
The creases in Sheriff Norton’s face dug in deeper, giving him a scowl that would set an Apache on edge.
“Uh, I got me a real soft head,” the Engineer muttered, “besides, Curry was so friendly and all.”
“Yeah,” the Expressman added, “Heyes was nice to me, too.”
The Sheriff pulled on his coat and, with all the sarcasm he could muster, answered, “Well, since Heyes and Curry are such kindly fellas, think I will have a hot cup of coffee and a slice of pie over at Mag’s before I leave. That way, I can let ‘em pleasant robbers have another hour head start.”
His sarcasm bit hard, and the Railroad men hung their heads like whipped schoolboys.
“At least the sun is out. I’ll be back in under thirty, and when I get here, that gold-dang cattle car better be loaded and ready to go.”
Heyes and Curry kept on their course, trotting their horses for a few minutes, then loping a spell and back to a trot. When they caught sight of a river tracing across an open span of prairie, they figured they had covered an easy fifteen, maybe twenty miles. Trailing along the waterway for another mile, they searched for a narrow stretch to cross. Finding a likely spot, they dismounted.
Leaving his horse to grab mouthfuls of the dry winter grass, Curry walked out on the ice and stomped his boot, bringing forth a thud with a low echo.
Heyes quickly called, “Sounds firm.”
Curry scanned the wide river; the night before snow had left a few inches of snow cover. As he stood there, unable to see if there were stretches of glassy, thin ice, his stomach turned as cold as the water he stood on, and he wiped his hands down his coat front with a frown.
When he turned around, Heyes read in his face that he was not so sure about the crossing, and before Curry could say so, he led his horse onto the ice. They slipped here and there but made it to the other side.
Curry uneasily led his sorrel onto the river; a few yards short of the far shore, his horse’s front feet broke through. The gelding panicked, jerking and the split reins slid through Curry’s mittens.
Whipping his lariat from his saddle, Heyes spun a long loop that settled over the sorrel’s head as his hindquarters broke through the ice. Dallying the end about his horn, he booted his bay, and Curry’s horse followed, thrashing his way to the grassy bank.
“You all right?” Heyes called as he spun his horse about.
“Came close to going in with him,” Curry answered in a strangulated voice.
“But you didn’t,” Heyes rode closer, pulling his rope from the sorrel. “That’s because—”
“Heyes!” Currey shouted, interrupting him, “do not say I was lucky. I do not want to hear that particular word from you until I am dancing with a sweet, brown-eyed senorita.” Coming up to his horse, he patted the sorrel, “Easy, Buck.” Examining the animal, he discovered a front leg had a trickle of blood oozing from a shin cut.
Heyes circled them. “Is it bad?”
“Doesn’t look serious,” Curry responded, lifting himself back into his wet saddle and he walked Buck up and down the bank.
“He is not limping.”
“I can feel that, Heyes.”
The engine rolled to a stop, and two men rushed the cattle car, sliding its doors open. From inside, a heavy platform was shoved out. Within minutes, the posse was leading their horses down the freshly positioned ramp. They wore long buffalo coats, double holsters strapped over them. From their saddles peeked rifles, and they were already speaking about the twenty-thousand dollar reward for Curry and Heyes, how they would spend it.
From where their fugitives had mounted their horses, they had left a clear line of double tracks headed south.
“Ain’t no towns out there for them to find harbor. They want one; they will have to cross the Snake,” Norton said, looking around at his men. “They got a good jump on us, so get ready for some hard riding.” He spurred his horse, and they were off, galloping across the barren, snow-swept plain.
Curry and Heyes had covered barely five miles when Kid felt his gelding buckle under him. He shifted his weight back, slowing the horse, and the sorrel bobbed his head each time the hoof touched ground. Though Buck was limping, it was not too severe. Still, it was enough to slow them. Curry turned, appraising the open land behind them.
Heyes dug out his dented pocket watch, peeked at it, and promptly tucked it away, saying, “It’s been more than two hours; they are after us by now.” He cast a pleading eye to the sunny sky, wishing for snow to cover their tracks. “We got to keep movin’,” his tone hitching a bit tight as his worry slipped through. “We cross the Snake before nightfall; we got a chance.”
Curry laid a look on Heyes that would make most backup. “You mean that wasn’t the Snake.”
Heyes’ mouth tugged to the side as he thought better about smiling at his partner. “Naw, I believe that was Dead Stag Run.”
Under his breath, Curry growled, “Heyes.”
“I know. I know,” Heyes briskly said, “I was thinking the tracks were further south than they were.” Then he did smile at Curry. “But you cannot blame me alone; you know this land as well as me, and that map in your head was off too.”
The blue eyes narrowed to slits, and Buck bobbed his head.
“You think he can keep going?”
“Nothing’s broke, and the cool weather is keeping swelling down.”
“Then we go on ‘til he wears out,” Heyes said, grimacing just a bit as he added, “then we ride double.”
Their progress was slow, and they made no more than five miles over the next few hours. Each kept tossing long looks over their shoulders as their situation became more desperate. As the sun began its fast winter descent, Heyes pointed to a faint set of clouds growing on the horizon. With the moisture in the air, they both felt cheered by the coming possibility of snow.
They reached the Snake River as twilight’s purplish shadows stretched across the land, but their hearts sank. Ice flows the size of wagon boxes were floating by on the swiftly moving current steady as a trail herd passing.
Ignoring the obvious problem before them, Curry bluntly said, “Buck is done.”
“Once we cross, you can release him, and we’ll ride double,” Heyes answered just as bluntly.
Curry skeptically eyed the chunks of ice. “I don’t feel good about this plan.” He looked down the river to the tree lines growing thick. “Maybe we should follow it and find a place to hole up.”
“Kid, we have to cross. ‘Sides, I doubt the posse will come after us.”
Heyes hesitated, looked to the trees, then back at Curry. “Well, ‘cause they aren’t as desperate as we are.”
Curry’s face soured more.
“I’ll go first; you take the same path when I make it across. Okay?”
Curry did not respond; he had turned and was looking back down the trail they had left that tenderfoot could follow.
Heyes snugged his black hat’s stampede strings, took a deep breath and headed his horse into the water. The first ten feet were no more than chest deep; when they veered about a slab of ice, they hit a hole, the water rushing across Heyes’ thighs. The bay struggled on, and they were halfway across when an ice chunk hit them. The gelding reared, falling backward, dumping its rider.
“HEYES!” Curry shouted, fear for himself forgotten.
The dark-haired outlaw popped up, spluttering, and snagged his horse’s tail as the bay swam toward shore. When he gained some footing, he let go, wading the last several feet. He stood bent, holding his knees, gasping for air, the cold having sucked it right out of him. After a moment, he straightened and called, “Your turn.”
“Looking forward to it,” Curry grumped, aiming Buck into the water. It was then he heard the pounding sound of hooves.
Heyes anxiously bellowed, “Spur him, Kid!”
He did so, the horse plunging forward, and they skimmed between two chunks that looked likely to smash them flat as a penny. Buck plummeted into deeper water with a fearful squeal and was all out swimming against the current.
Behind them, firearms started barking, bullets plinking the water and chipping shards from the ice.
Shivering so bad, his legs were shaking, Heyes labored to get his toe in the stirrup. When he hit the jackpot, he swung aboard, spinning his bay; he called, “Hurry, Kid!”
Buck stumbled from the icy water on three legs. Leaping down, in no time flat, Curry’s saddle bags were in his hand, and he ripped the bridle from the horse and ran for Heyes, bullets digging up dirt around him.
Clambering aboard behind Heyes, he wrapped his arms around his partner even as the sorrel broke into a run. They were off, the sun settling huge, fat, and orange into the grass like a sow in a mud hole. The river and posse fell away behind them, and looking back, Curry laughed.
“What?” Heyes asked, bent forward, watching for any pitfalls in the closing darkness.
“They are all off cussing and kicking the dirt.”
“See, I was correct; they aren’t crazy enough to cross the Snake.”
“Nope, only crazy person I know I call, Partner.”
“Hey, I resemble that comment.”
“Yes, Heyes, yes you do.” Curry looked back again, all he could see was the last light reflecting from the slabs of ice spinning down the Snake River, and he thought, ‘looks kind of pretty.’ He laughed again. “And know what, Heyes, so do I.”