This story first appeared a few years ago as a challenge story. I hadn't intended to continue with it, but requests for readers has finally prompted me to do so. As I sit here during the Corona virus pandemic, recovering from my own set of fractured ribs, I contemplate how real life often seeps into fictional stories. This one is no exception. I hope you enjoy re-reading The Match, part one, and then the new posting of the second part. Stay safe, everyone.
THE MATCH part one
He stood in a world all his own, his brilliant blue eyes taking in every detail of the information on the flyers pinned to the telegraph office notice board.
People came and went, sending and receiving telegrams or simply stopping by to pass the time, gossiping with the telegrapher.
All telegraphers knew everything about what was news in town, therefore they were the most popular men to go to for information. Discretion rarely came into it.
The slim man standing by the notice board did not draw any attention. He was good at that; disappearing in plain sight. A first glance, there was nothing outstanding about him. To say he had a baby face really would not have been a correct description. The term tended to bring to mind an innocent and fresh countenance, rounded out with a chubby youthfulness. But this man was not chubby. His face, like his body, was lean and masculine, and his blue eyes held anything but innocence.
And yet, at first glance or a casual passing, most men tended not to take him seriously. His slender build and average height suggested youthfulness, until they looked closer. Until they took note of the impressive firearm that he wore, strapped low around his slender hips and tied down, the way a gunman would pack it. Then they’d take note. They they’d back off.
Until he smiled at them. A wide, happy smile that exuded friendliness and an open, honest personality. The smile would cause the sun-etched wrinkles around his eyes and mouth to crinkle and belie his true age and maturity. Those first meeting him would scrutinize this enigma and decide through their own personality whether this man was friend or foe.
But on this day at this particular time, the man of contradictions was not concerned about meeting new people, nor what impression he had upon them. He contemplated the two wanted posters tacked to the message board. He drank in all the information; committing to memory every detail that the rather generic physical descriptions offered him.
He frowned, but his frown held a determination that would not be denied. It was 1882, and Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry were in their heyday. They were running rough-shod over three territories and, with the lack of pictures and concrete information about them, they were almost arrogant in their cheeky lack of concern over being brought to task.
His mouth tightened in a line of conviction as his right hand rested upon the handle of the sawed-off Winchester shotgun that was strapped to his waist. The two outlaws were at the top of their game, but Josh Randall, professional bounty hunger, decided that it was time to bring them down.
We’re bein’ followed,” Curry informed his partner in a tone that suggested their pursuer was right behind them.
Heyes frowned as he directed his horse over a rough section of the trail. “We are?”
Heyes sighed, not even questioning how his partner would know. “How many?”
“How should I know? I just know we’re bein’ followed.”
“Okay.” Heyes soothed his tone. He hadn’t meant to insult. “What do you think we should do about it?”
“You’re the thinker, Heyes. I let you know when someone is followin’ us, and you come up with a plan. That’s the way it works.”
Heyes frowned again.
The two horses plodded along in the ensuing silence.
“Well?” Curry prodded.
“Well . . .” Heyes chewed his lip, “we could split up.”
“That never goes well.”
“Yeah.” Heyes thought some more. “How about we split up, then circle around and come up behind them? We get the drop on them.”
“Yeah. Then what? We turn them in for the reward?”
“Ha, ha. At least it would give us an idea of how many there are and what to do about it.”
Curry looked around at the rolling but sparse hills that surrounded them. “Not much cover here. And with this dirt footing, it’d be real easy for ‘em ta see what we’d done.”
Heyes nodded, then sighed again. “We could make a run for it.”
“On these horses?” Curry snorted. “They weren’t in great shape when we bought ‘em. I don’t think either one could outrun a donkey.”
Heyes growled in frustration. “Fine. My ideas aren’t good enough, let’s see you come up with something.”
The discussion was abruptly terminated by a loud crack from a Winchester. The little bay Curry rode tensed, then crumpled like a paper sculpture.
Curry cursed as they both went down, then he scrambled to get away from the dead weight of the animal.
Heyes’ chestnut somewhere found the energy to rear and then try to take off at a pathetic gallop. Heyes fought to bring the horse under control, but more rifle fire added incentive to the animal’s panic. It continued to rear and fight against the restraint upon its mouth.
Curry, using his dead horse for cover, pulled his peacemaker and shot it in the general direction of the attack, trying to give Heyes a chance to find cover.
Heyes had different ideas. Finally getting his horse under control, he pulled his schofield and pumped shots toward their opponent.
“C’mon!” he yelled as he maneuvered his horse closer to his partner. “I’ll cover you. Get on!”
“I can’t! That first bullet went through my leg. Get to cover or get outta here!”
“Damn it,” Heyes cursed, as he sent the last of his rounds toward the only rock large enough to hide a man.
His mind flashed from one option to another. Making his choice, he grabbed his rifle from the boot and was about to dismount when another volley of shots came at him. He felt the searing pain go through his right arm, and he dropped the rifle.
His horse reared again, then dropping down onto its hindquarters, it toppled over backwards, taking its rider with it.
Heyes hit hard; the wind knocked out of his lungs.
The ground, that had previously appeared so soft and dusty, now felt like a rock-strewn battleground, baked hard by the desert sun.
Then the horse came down on top of him, and he was certain his ribs were crushed. He couldn’t move; he couldn’t breathe, and his rifle was out of reach.
The situation did not look good.
Curry cursed as he witnessed the wreck in progress and, deciding he didn’t have time to reload his empty colt, he made a grab for his rifle.
More shots thumped into the dead horse, right by the stock of the weapon, and Curry jerked his hand back for fear of getting hit again. He glanced at his partner, as Heyes struggled to get out from under the horse. As it was, he couldn’t even reach his schofield.
Not seeing assistance coming from that quarter anytime soon, Curry gave one more effort to grab his rifle, but the result was the same. He jerked his hand back, then sighed and shook his head.
He swiveled slightly and began to reload his colt, but as he looked back at his partner, his expression was one of defeat.
“I think we’re done, Heyes.”
“We’re not done yet.” Heyes increased his efforts to get out from under the horse. “All I need to do is get to one of my guns, and we’re back in business.”
“Uh huh.” Curry wasn’t convinced. He turned back toward their attacker and waited, hoping to find a target.
Meanwhile, Heyes wriggled and pushed, ignoring the searing pain in his arm and ribs. He gritted his teeth and gave one more serious push with his foot against the saddle. He was able to raise the animal just enough for him to pull his trapped leg out from under. He then lay on his back and, gritting his teeth against the pain, he pulled out his handgun and reloaded it.
Biting his lip in concentration, he maneuvered his body around and took aim. He managed to get off a couple of rounds before his arm decided to stop working.
“Damn it.” He cursed as he tried to get his finger to pull the trigger.
“What’s the matter?”
Heyes sighed and gave up the effort. “This isn’t going to work. I need my rifle.”
“Do ya think you can get it?”
“Yeah. Cover me.”
Curry glanced back at him and was surprised to see his partner already on his knees and getting ready to make a dash for his rifle.
Curry cursed and spun back to recommence shooting.
Heyes ran, bullets hitting the dirt around him, but he kept going, ducking into a roll and grabbing the rifle as he went over it. Then he was on his feet again and running toward Curry. He dodged bullets and, diving in behind the downed horse, he came to a sliding skid on his hands, bumping into his partner.
His left hand went to the bloody slice on his right arm, and he grimaced as he gasped for air.
“Is it bad?” Curry asked.
Heyes bit into his lip as he delicately pulled the torn material away from the wound. “No, but it hurts like mad, and my chest feels like there’s a vice squeezing it.” He pulled off his bandana and handed it to his partner.
Curry took it with well-honed confidence and wrapped it around Heyes’ arm. He tied it snug, but not too tight.
Heyes settled, then both jumped as another volley of bullets came their way.
Heyes leveled his rifle along the horse’s barrel and, using his left hand, began to fire, giving Curry his chance to re-load.
Once their token return fire was complete, Heyes tended to Curry’s injury.
“It’s not too bad, either,” he said as he inspected the wound. “Just sliced you across the front of the thigh.”
“Yeah, I know.” Curry took his own bandana and tied it around his leg. “But it still won’t take much weight.”
More shots fired, and both men ducked.
Curry fired back. With his chamber empty again, he gave it up. “This ain’t gonna work. He’s just sittin’ up there, waitin’ for us ta run outta bullets. After that, there’s nothin’ stoppin’ ‘im from mosseyin’ on in here and doin’ whatever he wants.”
Heyes nodded, already thinking the same thing. “Are you sure you can’t put any weight on that leg?”
“I might be able ta manage a slow, agonizing limp. What did you have in mind?”
“We both fire what we got in our guns, then split up. If we can circle around behind him, maybe we can take him instead of him taking us.”
“Sure,” Curry said with mock bravado. “That ought’a work.”
Heyes’ dimples showed through the smudged dirt on his face. “Glad you agree with me. You ready?”
“Nope. Gotta re-load.” Curry again removed bullets from his belt, taking note of how few he had left, and slipping them into the chamber. He rolled into his stomach and took aim. “Fire away.”
Both men began firing toward their adversary until the rifle and the colt clicked on empty.
Heyes didn’t even make it to his feet when another rifle sounded from behind them, the bullet slamming into the dirt where Heyes’ hand had just been.
The two outlaws came up short and pivoted around to come face to face with the grungy looking man who had come up behind them.
He grinned a grin that showed more holes than teeth and kept his rifle aimed at the two men.
“Howdy.” He smirked then spit out to the side. “You fellas weren’t thinkin’ ‘a goin’ nowhere’s now were ya?”
“Woo hoo! We got ‘em,” came the exuberant claim from the direction of the rock.
The partners slumped as the man who had pinned them down with rifle fire now came strutting around them to go stand by his buddy. Apparently there had been two bounty hunters all along.
The two hunters grinned and slapped each other on the backs, sending up billows of dust and unwashed odor into the air. Once the short celebration as over, Orville approached their captives and collected their guns.
“You’ve made a terrible mistake,” Heyes began his usual spew. “We have every right to charge both of you with assault. Maybe even attempted murder.”
Orville and Odin glanced at each other and laughed.
Odin spit again. “Since you fellas are wanted dead or alive, we can hardly be charged with murderin’ ya, now can we?” His grin dropped to a scowl, and he gestured with his gun. “Now, you boys just start walkin’ that ‘a way, and we’ll get ya inta town, lickidy-split.”
Heyes pushed himself to his feet, then gave his partner a hand to help him.
It was a struggle, but Curry managed to haul himself up. He shifted his weight in an effort to ease the burden on his injured leg.
“Ah, in case you ain’t noticed,” he said, “one ‘a you put a bullet through my leg, so I ain’t gonna be walkin’ nowhere.”
“You ain’t walkin’.” Orville smirked at him. “You can still ride, can’t ya?”
“Oh.” Curry’s brows rose in mock surprise. “You got some spare horses back there?”
“Hell, no. You can ride yer own damn horse.”
A glance was exchanged between the cousins.
“Ah, excuse me,” Heyes said. “You fellas shot our horses. See?” He motioned with his good arm, indicating the two dead animals.
Orville and Odin stared at the mounds of deceased horseflesh, expressions of confusion, then slow recollection, drifting across their faces.
“Oh yeah.” Orville gave his brother a smack on the arm. “What did ya shoot their horses fer?”
“What do ya mean? Ya told me to.”
“Yeah, but ya weren’t supposed ta shoot him in the leg as well.”
“How was I ta know I shot im in the leg?” Odin puffed up in his own defense. “I was shootin’ at the horse. His leg just got in the way.”
Orville turned on him, his face red with rising anger. “Maybe ya should’a learned how ta shoot! Now what are we gonna do?”
“And the way this arm keeps bleeding,” Heyes chimed in, “I doubt I’ll be able to walk more than a mile or two. How far is it to the next town?”
The two bounty hunters stared at Heyes, the wheels slowly turning in their heads as they searched for an answer.
“Twenty miles?” Orville asked.
Odin nodded agreement. “About that.”
Both Heyes and Curry groaned, shaking their heads.
“There’s no way my leg will hold up for twenty miles,” Curry said.
“And I’m likely to pass out from blood loss.” Heyes then emphasized his prediction by grimacing in pain.
Curry perked up. “You could let us ride your horses.”
Orville snarled at him. “You ain’t ridin’ our horses. Then we won’t have no horses ta ride.”
“Yeah,” Odin agreed. “I ain’t walkin’ twenty miles inta town.”
“Well,” Curry thought about it. “Maybe we could ride double. I’m sure your horses are strong enough to carry two people apiece for twenty miles.”
“I got an idea!” Odin was so excited to find a thought in his brain that he ignored Curry’s suggestion. “Why don’t we just shoot ya. Then we can ride inta town, get us a buckboard and come back out ta collect yur bodies. Shouldn’t take more ‘n a day.”
“Oh well . . .” Heyes paled. “I don’t think that’s a good plan.”
“No,” Curry shook his head. “You don’t know who might come along and find us. Maybe somebody who also mistakes us for those notorious outlaws, and claims the reward money for themselves.”
The bounty hunters again presented the appearance of looking thoughtful.
“He’s got a point,” Odin admitted.
“Yeah,” Orville agreed. “So, why don’t you stay here and guard the bodies while I go inta town and get a buckboard?”
“If you’re going to do that,” Heyes piped in, “then you don’t have to kill us. You can stay here and guard us while you buddy goes into town. We won’t try anything. Honest.”
“Yeah.” Curry supported this idea. “Especially with my leg the way it is. I sure wouldn’t get far tryin’ ta run off.”
Heyes nodded with a dimpled grin. “And I wouldn’t be much help, supporting him, with my arm like this. We’d just stay put, right here, until you got back.”
Orville and Odin exchanged looks, then as one, made up their combined mind.
“Nope,” said Orville.
“Safest just ta shoot ya.” Odin nodded.
The two rifles came up with intention.
Heyes and Curry both paled with surprise that their smooth-talking plan hadn’t gone the way they expected.
Heyes was just about to lay in a protest, when another rifle boomed from out of nowhere. A splattering of shotgun pellets sent dirt flying into the air right under Orville and Odin’s noses.
“Hold it!” came the command from behind a small rise of a hill. “You two, drop them guns.”
“Hey!” Orville was in a snit. “What do ya think yer doin’, mister?”
A slim, wiry man walked into view; his sawed-off shotgun aimed squarely at the two bounty hunters.
“I’m preventing you from committing cold blooded murder.”
“It ain’t murder,” Orville sneered at their opponent. “These two is Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry. They’s our prisoners, and they’s worth the same dead or alive. We got every right ta kill ‘em if we wanna.”
“I know who they are. And, maybe by the letter of the law, you’re right. But in my book, shooting down two wounded and unarmed men is murder. Plain and simple. Now, drop them guns. I ain’t tellin’ ya again.”
“This ain’t no fair,” Odin complained as he and his brother deposited their guns onto the ground. “These two is our prisoners. You ain’t got no right takin’ ‘em like this.”
“We’ll see about that,” the stranger said. “I’ll let the sheriff in Sweetwater know that you’re entitled to half the reward. But I’m takin’ them in. Alive.”
“And just how are you gonna get ‘em there?” Orville asked with a smirk. “They ain’t got no horses.”
“That’s all right. We’ll borrow yours.”
“What?” Odin was incensed. “Then how are we suppose ta get inta town?”
“You can walk.”
“Excuse me,” Heyes interrupted the negotiations. “There are a couple of items that all of you gentlemen seem to be over-looking.”
“Oh yeah?” the stranger asked. “What’s that?”
“For one thing, both me and my partner have been shot. They aren’t bad wounds, I admit, but we are kind of still bleeding here.”
“Well, you’ll get tended to in a minute,” their new captor assured them. “You’re not going to bleed to death.”
“The other things is,” Heyes continued, “that I think all of you fellas are under the same misinformation.”
“Oh yeah? What’s that?”
Heyes smiled with all the charm he could muster. “The assumption that we’re Heyes and Curry.”
“Heyes,” Curry interrupted him.
Heyes sent his partner an incredulous look.
Curry simply smiled at him. “Take a look at his rigging.”
Heyes frowned, but his eyes dropped to the man’s holster. It was a simple rig, but custom made, designed to hold and give quick release to the mare’s leg, Winchester sawed off shotgun the stranger handled as though it were an extension of his own body.
Heyes’ heart sank as his eyes rose up to meet the blue piercing ones of the bounty hunter standing before them.
He tried to smile, but it came up as a resigned grimace. “Your name wouldn’t happen to be Josh Randall, would it?”
The boyish face broke into a grin, and the dust-caked features metamorphosed into manly laugh lines. “It just so happens that it would.”
The two ex-outlaws groaned.
“I got the feelin’ we might ‘a just met our match.”