Heyes was anxious. He rode over the top of a ridge and came down the other side at a slightly faster pace than what might be considered safe. He had been heading for the town of Fleetwood to meet up with the Kid, but had decided to make a slight detour and was now heading, as the crow flies towards the town of Guildford.
The bay gelding he was riding had proved to be an honest and steady mount, but Heyes'd had to push him harder than intended and the animal was showing definite signs of fatigue. It was time to trade this fellow in for a fresh mount because Heyes knew by the prickling on the back of his neck that he was being followed.
It was the simple fact that Heyes felt the presence of his pursuers that caused his stress level to escalate. It was always the Kid who picked up on these premonitions first. It was his instincts that had saved them from capture numerous times and Heyes had learned to trust them beyond a doubt, even if the Kid himself did not. So, Heyes reasoned; if it was always Curry who felt the presence of pursuers first and with enough time and distance in their favour for the partners to usually leave any followers in their dust, just how close would they have to be before Heyes could pick up on their presence? It was this question sending prickles of fear down his spine that caused Heyes to push that tired gelding even harder in order to get them into Guidlford safely, before shots started firing.
An hour and a half later both man and beast felt awash with relief upon entering the main street of afore mentioned town. Heyes, because for once, entering a strange town bustling with activity and people seemed a safe, though temporary harbour from the dangers of the open country. For the gelding, it was because he instinctively knew that this was the end of the ride for him. Ears forward and nostrils working, he needed no encouragement from his rider to maintain the tired but steady jog that took them unerringly though the side streets and straight up to the door of the livery stable.
Heyes dismounted, gave the gelding a pat on the neck and then stretched out his back and shoulder muscles while casually casting a critical eye over the livestock milling around in the paddock. Not much to get excited about in there. Oh well, he didn’t have time to be too picky.
“Good afternoon sir, is there something I can help you with?”
Heyes turned to see a rather short, middle-aged hostler approaching from the barn entrance. The man was all smiles and politeness, but at the same time he was taking in the condition of the horse and the rider in front of him. Heyes turned on his charm through the sweat and dirt and extended a hand for shaking.
“Oh yes sir” Heyes replied “I was hoping we could do some horse trading. I have an important meeting to get to, but it’s going to take another couple of days of fast riding to get there on time, and as you can see, my horse is about done in. He’s an excellent animal, and I hate to part with him, but I’m under the gun…” slight grimace at the poor choice of words…”and I really do need to get a move on here, so if you could see fit to offer a fair exchange…”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” The livery man waved Heyes into silence while he rubbed his chin and did a scrutinizing walk around the gelding. “Walk him around a bit will yea.”
“Certainly.” Heyes proceeded to lead the gelding around the small yard. “As you can see, he’s sound as a bell and though perhaps not as fast as some will keep on going after others fade away. He has good smooth gaits too and a soft mouth. He’s broke to harness as well, would make a real nice carriage horse…”
“Uh huh.” Was about the only response Heyes got while the other man ran a knowing hand over the horse’s legs and hind quarters. “Well I think we can do business young fella. Yes sir, I think I have just the horse for you. You strip the tack offa this one and I’ll go get her.”
Heyes’ smile of relief was two fold and he quickly began undoing the cinch and pulling the saddle off. Within moments he heard the distinct thump thumping of hooves on wood and turned to see the mare being lead down the ramp from the barn. She was a fine looking horse, liver chestnut in colour with two hind socks and a star and strip running down her face, but Heyes was too distracted to pay much attention. She was a horse and she appeared sound and that was all that mattered. He took hold of the reins and proceeded to tack her up.
The previous owner was understandably disappointed at the lack of enthusiasm. “I’m sure you’ll be happy with her young man, she’s a good horse, lots of speed.”
“Her name’s Karma-Lou if you’re interested.”
The older man shrugged his shoulders and taking hold of the gelding began to lead him into the barn. “So what’s this fella’s name?”.
“I have no idea.”
The hostler sadly shook his head and gave the gelding a pat on the neck “Well, come on ‘I Have No Idea’, let’s see if we can get you squared away with a good feed of grain and a rub down…..’
Heyes had finished preparing the mare and straightened up in time to see the gelding disappear into the barn. He frowned slightly, the idea finally occurring to him that he may have been too abrupt with the livery man. Oh well, he thought ruefully, he definitely had other things to think about. His necessary delay of dealing with the horse trader had increased his risk ten fold and he had to get moving.
He turned back to the mare and was stopped in his tracks by a soft brown eye scrutinizing him. Was there criticism in that intelligent gaze? Man and horse stood and contemplated one another.
Finally mounted up and on his way again Heyes took the quieter alleys out of town and then headed for the back country, avoiding the main road. He loped along for a few miles, did a couple of mile wide circles, backtracked, rode along a stream bed for a while and then brushed away any telltale tracks before finally heading off in the general direction of Fleetwood.
It was getting on to be late afternoon by the time Heyes and Karma-Lou had put a decent 10 miles between themselves and Guildford. In that time Heyes had to admit that the mare was proving herself to be quite the nice ride. Her gaits were smooth and efficient, her mouth was soft and she moved off his leg easily. Heyes could not help but smile with pleasure as they quickly put the miles behind them.
By the time evening was well established Hannibal had found the ideal camping spot for the night. There was a small creek, plenty of grass for grazing and lots of rockery and shrubs to hide their presence from prying eyes.
He unsaddled the mare and gave her a brief rubdown. She’d only been on the road for a few hours so really wasn’t in need of too much tending. He then tied her on a long tether so she could easily reach both water and grass, then stretched out his bed roll, positioned his saddle and settled in for a quiet night. Though he was feeling more at ease than he had been for some time, he still did not feel comfortable enough to light a fire or make coffee, so he settled for water and some jerky and an apple he’d snatched in town just before leaving.
When Heyes finished the fruit he got to his feet and approached the mare “Here Karma-Lou, would you like the apple core?”
The mare pricked her ears and with a soft nicker came to him. She had been aware for some time that the human had an apple and had been waiting patiently for the offer to be made. Okay, she thought to herself, maybe this particular human showed promise. Let’s wait and see what tomorrow brings. Then soft lips and horse slobber demolished the apple core.
Heyes slept reasonably well that night despite the worries on his mind. He had removed his gun belt and placed it conveniently by the bedroll and then leaned back onto the saddle. With a heavy sign, indicating more weariness than he had cared to admit, he placed his hat over his eyes and had drifted off to sleep before he even had a chance to realize how much he missed the Kid’s company.
Dawn was just making an appearance when quite suddenly Heyes’ hat was snatched from his face and he had rolled over and pulled his gun from its holster expecting to be faced with a posse of armed bounty hunters preparing to take him dead or alive!.... Nothing.... The chill of early dawn and muted lighting greeted him—and quiet silence. Then a pair of liver chestnut legs trotted past his line of vision followed by a pair of white stockings
“What the…..” Heyes was on his feet in an instance. Karma-Lou was trotting around the make-shift camp, tail cocked, head tossing around full of early morning frolics. Then Heyes’ heart froze.
In her mouth, being flung unceremoniously about in the dewy air was his HAT!
In one swift movement he returned his gun to its holster and made a snatching grab for the dragging tether line. He had it in his hand on the first attempt and started pulling the mare in. She did not want to come willingly.
“Whoa, come on Karma easy, come on now.”
Heyes tried to calm her. He pulled her head around towards him, but she continued to protest, rearing and flinging his hat around. He was trying hard not to panic, but it was his hat!
“Come on girl, settle down. Give me my hat!”
He pulled her in to him hand over hand until he reached her head, then he grabbed the halter with one hand and his hat with the other.
“Come on, let it go!”
Heyes tugged and pulled but to no avail. Karma-Lou just chomped down on the hat and began to pull back even harder. Finally Heyes had enough. He switched hands on the halter and with his freed up right hand grabbed hold of her ear.
Well now that was just rude!!! So much for just having a little fun. Karma-Lou tried to back out from under him. Then she reared again, lifting him off his feet. She shook her head, came back down onto her knees, jumped back up and pivoted around away from him. Nothing worked! This human just hung onto her ear and it was beginning to hurt!
'FINE!' Spit. 'HAVE YOUR STUPID HAT BACK. You’re no fun at all.'
Heyes reached down and picked up his poor hat. His shoulders slumped with a sigh, it was a mess. He did the best he could to coax it back into shape and plunked it onto his head. It sat there lopsided looking a little sad.
Man and horse stood and contemplated one another.
Half an hour later they both had eaten a quick breakfast and were pretty much ready to get under way. Heyes had reeled in the tether line expecting it to be broken and frayed at the end, but was surprised to find that it was all in one piece. That was odd. How had Karma gotten loose? He had assumed that she had simply broken the line since he was sure he had tied it securely to that tree the night before. Had he been that tired to have messed up a simple task like tying a knot? Oh well. He tied the tether to the saddle, mounted up and they were on their way.
The morning ride actually went quite well. Karma-Lou settled into the smooth ground covering lope that she had exhibited the day before and Heyes settled into a false sense of security. It always seemed that whenever he and Curry split up to take on two separate jobs one or the other of them ended up in some sort of trouble. So far, however, both men had completed their tasks successfully and had even been paid for their time and efforts. Heyes had wired his money ahead to the Kid who was waiting for him in Fleetwood and at the rate the mare was going they should arrive in that town well ahead of schedule
Yes, Heyes was feeling quite relaxed and confident when Karma-Lou suddenly put on the brakes and refused to carry on. Heyes tried to push her forward with his lower legs but she reared and danced to the side.
“Come on!” A sharp kick to the ribs
'NO!' She was up on her toes and blowing, going in every direction but forward her ears pinned onto the ground in front of her.
“Come on!” Heyes growled at her again, “What are you looking at? There’s nothing there!”
'Yes there is!' Karma-Lou snorted. 'It’s a snake, I’m sure of it. Are you blind? Are you an idiot? It’s right there in front of us!'
“Karma-Lou, it’s a tree branch! We’ve passed a dozen of them! COME ON!”
'NO! It’s a snake! My mother told me that snakes eat horses! I’M NOT GOING PAST IT!'
Heyes took hold of the reins in both hands, turned her head in the direction he wanted her to go and gave her two sharp kicks in the ribs with his boot heels.
Now Hannibal Heyes is one of those people who are just natural born horsemen. He sits deep and easy in a saddle and stays solid through just about anything a horse can throw at him. However, seeing no other way out Karma-Lou gathered her hind quarters under her and made a wild leap into the air then she violently kicked her back legs out behind her and came down hard and jarringly onto her forelegs.
Heyes went about another foot higher into the air than the saddle did and when he came down he hit the pommel so hard he thought he was going to pass out. Thank goodness he’d missed his privates, as that would have put him into the ground. Even as it was; one hand clutched the horn and the other a handful of mane while he gritted his teeth and fought to stay conscious and in the saddle.
Meanwhile Karma-Lou was fighting her own battle. Thoughts of the 'snake' were completely gone from her mind but she knew her human was in distress and that created stress and panic within her. The wild horse inside her wanted to run away as fast as her legs could take her, but the domestic side of her, the training conditioned into her since foal hood kept her standing on the spot.
She was frightened and tense, but she held her ground and slowly Heyes recovered. Within five minutes (though it seemed much longer) he was actually able to fight back the nausea and breathe again and he began to relax. He knew he hadn’t broken anything but the inside of his right thigh was burning and the pain and numbness shot right down through his knee and into his ankle. This injury was not going to go away over night.
Finally Heyes took a deep breath and was able to straighten up. He patted the mare on the neck and spoke some soothing words to her and she responded by relaxing her stance and giving a relieved snort. He asked her to move forward—at a walk, and she did so. A little tense at first but when she realized that her human wasn’t going to punish her she relaxed even more and lengthened her stride.
Half an hour later they were back into a gentle lope. Heyes was again gritting his teeth with the pain of his thigh rubbing against the saddle, but he knew they had to keep up a steady pace if they were going to make Fleetwood by the following morning. Oddly enough the main thought in his mind was relief that the Kid had not witnessed that incident for he would never have been allowed to live it down!
By mid-afternoon Heyes was wearing out due to the events of the day and was beginning to think about looking for a quiet place to make an early camp when Karma-Lou did it again. He couldn’t believe it! On went the brakes! She snorted, tossed her head and started backing up. What was it with this mare?! Maybe it was the closed in trails with poor visibility on either side that brought out the claustrophobia in her, but whatever it was Heyes felt like he was going to start crying! He had to fight the sudden impulse to pull his gun and shoot her right between the ears! Fortunately common sense prevailed as he knew that even this horse was better than no horse at all.
“COME ON! Don’t do this again!” Heyes tried to boot her forward but his thigh muscle protested and he couldn’t get any humph to it, so he took the end of his reins and slapped her a couple of times across the rump.
Karma-Lou got mad and her ears flattened. This human really is an idiot! Doesn’t he learn? There is something wrong here!
Heyes slapped her with the reins again. She gave a little buck and he sucked his teeth with the pain it caused.
“I suggest you just sit easy right there, Mr. Heyes.”
Icicles trickled down Heyes’ spine. He glanced around and sure enough there was a scruffy looking sorry excuse for a human being sitting his horse on the trail right behind him, with a rifle pointed straight at his back. He heard more rustling and turned forward again to see two more riders come out from the brush on either side of the trail. Dagnabbit! He had forgotten all about those bounty hunters. How did they get ahead of him?
The older of the two in front of him smiled. He was missing a front tooth. “You oughta learn how to listen to your horse, Mr. Heyes.” The smile disappeared and the rifle leveled to point directly at his chest. “Now reach over with your left hand and take that gun out of your holster and toss it over here nice and gentle like.”
Heyes did what he was told, being sure to keep his right hand away from him and in sight. He heard a saddle creaking as the man behind him dismounted.
“Now get down offa that horse, slow and easy and keep your hands where we can see them.”
Heyes did so, very much aware of the bounty hunter who had moved up to stand directly behind him. Still, he pushed the fear down and brought forth his most charming smile.
“Gentlemen, I believe you have made a mistake here. My name is Smith, Joshua Smith. I’m a rancher over in Wyoming and I’m just on my home from a business trip. I know I have an unfortunate resemblance to that notorious outlaw Hannibal Heyes, but I assure you I am not him. This has happened before and there is a sheriff in Porterville who will attest to the truth of my identity.” The two men in front of him dismounted and the younger one picked up Heyes’ gun and began to unload it. “You’re really making a terrible mistake and I would hate to see you waste even more of your time on this misunderstanding. I assure you my name is Smith, and I have a wife and three children waiting for me at home….”
Quite suddenly Karma-Lou took a deep breath stretched out her neck, opened her mouth and sent forth such a whinny as to pierce the ear drums of all those present. It started in the highest of pitches and then tumbled down into a low grumble and ultimately ended in a snort.
Heyes sensed he had lost his audience. However…..
”As I was saying…” Three sets of bounty hunter eyes swiveled back to the ex-outlaw. “I am a rancher…”
“Oh give it up Heyes.” Interrupted the older and apparent leader of the pack. “Mike and Ted here have both seen you before. On top of that it’s a well known fact that once you get started talking you can convince a prairie dog that he’s a buffalo, so the more you carry on the more we know you’re you. Beside,” he smirked “when a man’s own horse don’t even believe him…..” The three men started hooting and snorkeling. Heyes’ shoulders slumped.
Fifteen minutes later Heyes was again astride Karma-Lou, his emptied revolver back in his holster and his hands tied behind his back. They were on the move again, retracing the trail Heyes had already covered. He was in a foul mood. Jack had tied the leather thongs around his wrists too tightly and his hands were starting to go numb. And his leg hurt. Up ahead Mike and Jack were engaged in a conversation that sounded eerily like something Wheat and Kyle would have been discussing.
“Hey Jack, what do 'attest' mean?”
“Well, ah, that means like, um….well, a test. You know, like one of those things you got to take when you’re learnin' stuff. You know, to show you’re paying attention.”
“Oh.” Mike was quiet for a moment, trying to work this out. Then he continued. “But that don’t make no sense with what Heyes was sayin'.”
“Ah, well he was just grabbin' at anything to try and get out of the situation. He probably lost track of what he was sayin'.”
Mike glanced sadly back at Heyes and then shook his head. “That’s just sad,” he commented, “all that talk about how smart he is and he don’t even know how to talk right.”
Heyes rolled his eyes.
Then Ted, who was young and could therefore be excused for his lack of common sense, trotted up beside the prisoner.
“What happened to your hat?”
Heyes seethed, the look he shot the young man held as much malice as a caged tiger being poked and prodded by the games keeper. Ted’s smile faded and even though he was the one holding the rifle, fear choked his heart and he quickly pulled his horse back. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “Just asking.”
As the afternoon wore on Heyes’ bad mood did not improve. On the contrary, the more jovial Mike and Jack became carrying on with their light-hearted conversation the darker Heyes' mood became. Oblivious to the storm cloud building behind them the two bounty hunters raved about how they were going to spent the reward money, and how easy it had been to capture the notorious outlaw, and too bad Kid Curry hadn’t been there too etc. etc.
Karma-Lou was also in a tiff. She still hadn’t quite forgiven her human for not believing her when she had tried to tell him that something was wrong. Added to that, she did not like the way that other human riding in front of her was constantly pulling on her bridle. It was uncomfortable and was beginning to hurt her neck but the more she tried to shake her head and loosen the grip, the tighter it became. Then on top of that she could sense the bad mood of her own human and that just seemed to stir the resentment even more.
Finally she’d had enough of that idiot pulling on her head and she took a sudden jump forward to relieve the pressure. Heyes, taken by surprise, lost balance and instinctively clamped his legs around her barrel in order to stay in the saddle which instantly caused pain to fill up his right leg.
“Damn it, Karma-Lou! Will you smarten up?!” He gave her a sharp jab with his left boot heel.
Her ears flattened against her neck. She gave a hard sharp buck and then instantly followed it by throwing her head back. Heyes was flung forward in the saddle and then WHAM! Human face and horse neck collided with a brain numbing THUD. For the second time that day Heyes thought he was going to pass out. “Ooowwww.” Fortunately the three bounty hunters were laughing so hard they didn’t hear him whimper.
Heyes’ eyes were watering and his nose felt like it had been flattened into his face. He tasted blood where a tooth had cut into the inside of his upper lip. Even worse, the brim of his poor hat was crushed yet again and only added to it's lopsidedness
Fortunately his hands were tied and his gun was empty because this time, common sense would not have prevailed.
Dusk was upon them and camp had been struck. Heyes had been untied long enough to have something to eat and to attend to his private necessities although privacy itself was far from extended.
Heyes had forced himself to eat some of the meager meal that was offered and to drink some water, but his head was pounding and his leg was throbbing, his face hurt and his lip was swelling up. He was anything but comfortable and when he was tied back up against a small tree for the night he was reminded of how raw his wrists were.
He flashed an angry glance over at Karma-Lou, and was sadistically pleased to note that she was in no better a mood than him. She had been fed and watered and rubbed down, but then the saddle had been returned to her back and cinched up again, which was the habit of some people while on the trail if they didn’t care about saddle sores developing. She had also been tied short and hobbled so she was not free to move about and graze. She stood facing away from the humans, especially Heyes, with her head down and her ears back. She was definitely in a huff.
“Serves you right you flea-bitten, mangy old nag.” Heyes mumbled in her general direction. Karma-Lou shifted her hind quarters towards him, lifted her tail and plopped out a couple of round ones.
Sitting around the camp fire, drinking coffee, the three low-lifes witnessed the exchange of insults and chuckled between themselves.
Then Mike added his comment. “Seems to me Heyes that you should be kissin' and makin' up to your lady over there, or she’s gonna give you a worse ride tomorrow than you got today!”
Heyes was about to scowl at him, but then his expression softened as he realized the truth of what Mike was saying. He sent a thoughtful look over at the mare and then glanced back at the three men around the camp fire. They were all watching him, coffee cups poised, anticipating a show.
Damn, he thought. It’s bad enough trying to sweet talk a real woman when you had an audience, but turning his charm on to a horse was going to be down right embarrassing. Where to begin?
He looked back to the mare and cleared his throat. “Humm,” he began “I must admit, you are a pretty horse…” Karma turned her head even further away from him. “Yeah, you’re right.” Heyes conceded to himself, “that’s really lame.” His silver tongue felt tarnished. He took a deep breath and started again. “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you earlier when you tried to warn me about the ambush.” No response. “And I shouldn’t have taken my anger and frustration out on you, this wasn’t your fault.” A small response, ears relaxing a bit and one cocking slightly in his direction. “But you have to admit, that stuff with the tree branch was a bit ridiculous.”
'It wasn’t a tree branch! It was a snake!' Head toss, angry stamp of a hind foot.
“Come off it Karma-Lou, it was a tree branch!”
Slight lowering of a horse head. 'Oh alright, I guess it could have been a tree branch.' Ears pricked forward, soft brown eyes connected with dark brown ones. 'I’m sorry I hurt you---a number of times.'
“I’m sorry I yelled at you, and kicked you, and slapped you and thought about shooting you and… but my hat Karma-Lou! You just can’t go around snatching a man’s hat! A man’s hat is sanctified! A man’s hat holds the essence of who he is! And my hat was just right, we’ve been together for years and it was broken in just the way I wanted it. The perfect balance between ventilation and protection. You can’t just buy a hat like that; you have to live in it, work with it, and mold it into that perfection. But now….” He realized he had gotten off topic and sighed dejectedly.
Karma-Lou was looking at him somewhat dispassionately. 'Geez it’s just a hat. Get over it.'
“Yes, okay you’re right.” Heyes backtracked forcing himself to calm down. “It’s not your fault, you don’t understand the bond between a man and his hat so I don’t blame you and I’m sorry I got mad at you and I will try to treat you better from now on…..so…are we good now?”
Karma gave a big sigh, licked her lips a couple of times, cocked one of her hind legs in a relaxed fashion and promptly started dozing. It wasn’t long before her eyes were half closed and her lower lip was drooping. All was good, maybe he wasn’t such a bad human after all.
Heyes smiled triumphantly. Yup, he still had the touch with the ladies, even if it was an equine one this time. He glanced over at his captors but they had moved on to other issues, such as who was to take first watch etc. It was getting dark and time to call it a night.
Heyes was having a hard night. He was hurting and could find no way to get comfortable being tied up the way he was. Jack had taken the first watch and Heyes could just see him through the darkness sitting by the low fire, smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee. No coffee was offered to Heyes and no conversation passed between them. Around midnight Jack got up and roused Mike to take over the watch and then it was the same scenario all over again. Heyes just wished he could go to sleep. Eventually his wish came true and despite his acute discomfort he did finally drift off
A few hours later, he awoke with a start to the sound of something snuffling around behind him. He cast a quick glance over towards the camp fire and could see by its embers that all three of his captors were asleep. Whoever was suppose to be on watch had failed miserably at the task. So who or what was it behind him? Suddenly he felt hot breath against his hands. He tensed and tried to look around him to see what it was but all he could make out was a large dark shape and the smell of horses.
He looked over to where the horses were tethered and noticed that Karma-Lou was gone, and then he felt soft lips feeling out the rawhide strips that bound his hands and then something hard, biting at the thongs and pulling. Horse slobber started drooling down his wrists and into his hands. He couldn’t believe it! Karma-Lou could untie knots? Karma-Lou could untie knots!!! Well that explained how she had gotten loose the night before. Heyes started working the bindings, trying to rub the horse slobber into them to make them loosen while at the same time keeping a close watch on the sleeping bounty hunters. Suddenly he felt horse teeth pinch his wrist and he jerked his hand away. A small quiet nicker of apology and then his wrists were free!
He brought his arms around in front him despite the protests from his aching shoulders, and then slowly got to his feet and did his best to ignore the pain and stiffness in his muscles. He gave Karma a quick pat and rub on the neck then removed the rope halter, got the bridle from where it had been hung over the saddle horn and put it on her head. He then checked the cinch, undid the hobbles and still keeping a cautious eye on the three men over by what was left of the fire, quietly made his way over to where the other horses were tethered
He then undid the hobbles and tethers of the three other horses, mounted up on Karma-Lou and very quietly moved the small herd out at a walk, away from the camp site.
Although dawn was not far off, it was still quite dark and visibility was poor as Heyes moved the animals out towards open ground. Despite every nerve in Heyes’ body wanting to gallop away from there at full speed, he forced himself to keep the horses to a walk until he had gotten them out into more open country. Then, with dawn well on its way and the ground much more visible, Heyes finally pushed Karma into a lope and they were away.
Being herd animals, the other three horses stayed with them for some miles, bucking and frolicking and rejoicing in their temporary freedom. However, Heyes soon got his bearings and once he had Karma headed in the right direction back towards Fleetwood he asked her to lengthen her stride and she responded eagerly.
The other horses tried to keep up with the fleet footed mare, but even with Karma not even trying hard it wasn’t long before the bounty hunter horses were left far behind. Chances were good that they would eventually return to their owners looking for breakfast but by the time that happened Heyes would be long gone.
Heyes was ecstatic. He couldn’t believe the speed of this mare. With just the slightest pressure from his legs she had opened up and was devouring the landscape. The morning was still fresh and cool and the wind created by their passing caused Heyes’ eyes to water, but he was laughing with the exhilaration of the ride and Karma-Lou responded with a playful toss of her head. Then, just when Heyes was thinking that she couldn’t possibly run any faster, she flattened her ears and opened it up another notch. The ground was a blur.
Heyes could feel the pain shooting down his right leg but he didn’t care because he could also feel the power of the mare beneath him, feel her muscles straining and hear her hooves pounding into the ground, but she was so smooth, he literally felt like he was flying! This was wonderful and joyous! He’ll be leaving the Kid behind in his dust! What a beautiful mare!
They carried on at that breathtaking speed for a good five miles before Karma-Lou started to slow down and then they settled into a more sane ground covering lope. Heyes was still on an endorphin rush and the dimpled grin just wouldn’t leave his face for quite some time. Worry over his pursuers was long forgotten, but he knew he still had to take the necessary precautions to ensure that they could not eventually track him down again.
By early afternoon he was quite confident that the bounty hunters would be totally confused even if they were lucky enough to find his tracks at all. Both horse and rider had long since come down off the adrenaline rush and were keeping things at a more leisurely pace. Heyes was hurting again. His leg never had stopped throbbing, he had just chosen to ignore it, but he couldn’t ignore it anymore. And his headache was back Adrenaline can have a nasty after effect.
Every part of his body wanted him to stop and make camp, but it was early yet and he knew that if he could just push it a few more hours that would see them into Fleetwood. Heyes sighed. Thoughts of a real sit down dinner, and a bath and a real bed were forcing their way into the forefront of his musings. One doesn’t realize how much these simple luxuries are missed until they aren’t there for a while.
Heyes kept on riding.
Early evening finally found the tired pair jogging down the main street of Fleetwood. Both were covered in sweat and dust and both were in need of a rub down and a good feeding, but out of habit Heyes still scanned the street while he rode. He checked out the Sheriff's office, the bank, the hotel and finally the saloon. He was about to ride past that desired establishment and take the mare down to the livery first, but then he heard a very familiar voice….
“Hey, Joshua! About time you showed up!”
Heyes slightly adjusted his focus and saw the Kid walking down the boardwalk and conveniently stopping in front of the saloon entrance. The expressions of both men spread into huge smiles, and then Heyes grimaced as he was reminded of his cut lip. The smile (a smaller version) couldn’t help but return however, as the pleasure and relief of seeing his friend again overcame any discomfort the expression created. He turned Karma-Lou into the hitching rail and dismounted. Kid could not help but notice Heyes favouring his right leg.
“Hey, Thaddeus. How’d it go, been in town long?” He tied the rein to the post and limped up the steps.
As soon as their eyes met, Curry’s expression dropped to a concerned frown. “Jeez Heyes, what happened to you? Ohh, your face…and your HAT?”
Heyes rolled his eyes and jerked his thumb in Karma Lou’s direction. Realizing that she was being referred to, Karma pricked her ears and put on her most flirtatious countenance. Curry followed Heyes’ gesture and suddenly found himself immersed in soft brown eyes and long fluttering lashes.
He gave a long low whistle. “Well now, that is one mighty fine looking horse.”
Heyes grumbled something incoherent and headed into the saloon. Curry frowned again and then followed him inside.
“Well now, you know Josh; while I was hangin' around waitin' for you I did check out the stock over at the livery stable. They actually have some decent looking geldings….”
Curry was so surprised by the retort that he actually took a step back. Heyes smiled to soften his repute.
“No no, that’s fine. We just had to work out a few issues, but its fine now.”
“Uh huh.” Kid didn’t sound convinced
They approached the bar and ordered a couple of beers.
Heyes took off his hat and placed it in front of him.. “I’m sure a good milliner will be able to fix it up. Like the one down in Santa Marta. When they got finished fixing up that gray hat of yours I would have sworn it was brand new!”
“That’s because it was BRAND NEW Heyes!” The Kid retorted with more heat than he had intended, “After your feeble attempt at mending that bullet hole I had to go out and buy another one!”
The beers had arrived and both men focused their attention onto them. Heyes took an appreciative mouthful only to grimace and bring his hand up to his mouth in pain.
Curry looked on in sympathy. “I rented a room over at the hotel with two beds this time,” he commented quietly trying the steer the conversation away from the ‘hat’ issue. “I figured we could afford it since we both got paid. I even ordered a bath to be brought up later, since I didn’t know exactly when you would be getting into town.”
“Hmmm…” Heyes was busy trying to get his beer from the glass into his throat without it touching his injured lip.
“So,” Curry continued “if you want to go get cleaned up first and then get something to eat…”
“Sounds good,” Heyes responded, “but let me get my horse down to the livery first….”
Heyes was interrupted by the sound of running steps on the boardwalk outside, and then a flustered young man came flying into the saloon and stood gasping for breath. There were not that many patrons in the establishment at the time, but every one of them stopped what they were doing and turned to look at him.
Finally the young man got his breath, “Somebody’s horse has got loose and is wreaking havoc down at the mercantile! Sheriff’s getting ready to shoot it if nobody catches it real quick!”
All but one of the patrons started to chuckle over that, but Heyes groaned and dropped his head into his arms that were resting on the bar.
“I forgot (mumble mumble) that (mumble mumble) horse could untie (mumble) knots!” Then with a resigned sigh Heyes straightened up and headed for the door at a limping run. “I’m coming. She’s mine. I’ll catch her!”
This just goes to show that some men will put up with no end of bullshit just so long as they get a really thrilling ride out of it at the end.
Curry spotted Heyes’ abandoned beer.