This was the first full length, non-challenge ASJ story I wrote.
Rescue in Zion
Ba da dum, ba da dum, ba da dum, ba da dum. The pulsing beat of the galloping horses was driving a spike into Hannibal Heyes’ brain. He was tired and thirsty, and the altitude was draining him and his horse. Kid Curry and his mount were also struggling with the thin air and the August sunshine in the high elevations of southern Utah.
They had arrived in Cedar City two nights before and delivered the mining documents to Colonel Harker’s friend the following morning. They had even been paid! The bustling mining community and the US army in Cedar City insured that it supported two saloons and plenty of poker, even though it had started life as a Mormon missionary town. The ex-outlaws had slept in clean beds, eaten hearty meals, and played cards at the saloons.
Unfortunately, a retired railroad conductor recognized them, and the resulting posse hounded their trail eastward and into the mountains. They pounded up switchbacks towards towering cliffs that jutted above the forest in jagged, red-and-orange-striped sandstone. Luckily, both men and horses had benefited from a few days rest before the punishing 4,000-foot climb out of Cedar City. Yesterday afternoon they rode through forests of scrawny pinyon pine and juniper. When they reached the plateaus, pine and juniper gave way to aspen, spruce, and fir. The leaves of the trees dappled the glaring sunlight that sparkled through the thin air at 9,000 feet.
A cold camp near a small lake provided both outlaws and horses water and rest. By the time the thin rays of early sunlight threaded through the surrounding peaks, they were riding hard again, heading south and east through a sparse forest dotted with twisted lava formations. Since mid-morning, their trail had descended steadily. They picked their way down rocky slopes, followed dry stream beds, and walked their horses through shallow rivers. Now they were galloping through a grass-filled valley that followed the east fork of the Virgin River. Ba da dum, ba da dum, ba da dum. The drum beat of the horses’ relentless gallop continued.
Heyes held up his hand, signaling a stop. His sorrel snorted and sidled while he gentled him with a pat and a quiet word. Curry pulled his bay to a walk beside his partner. He took off his brown hat, pulled a grimy bandana from around his neck, and wiped at the sweat matting his dark blond curls and beading on his forehead. Heyes pushed back his battered black hat, pinning his hair off his face. He wiped his own brow on the sleeve of his navy blue shirt.
“Do ya’ think we lost ‘em, Heyes?”
Shading his eyes with a gloved hand, Heyes peered north up the valley and then scanned the hills to the west. “I don’t see any sign of them, Kid. You?”
“Not since mornin’. I think we lost ‘em.”
Heyes indicated a nearby stream with a tilt of his head. “Let’s water the horses and decide where to go next.”
Several hours later two muddy and sweaty men atop equally muddy and sweaty horses rode into a prim, starched town on the east fork of the Virgin River. The prosperous community was laid out in a precise grid. No debris littered the dirt streets or the boardwalks. Men and women went about their business with unhurried precision. Kid’s clear blue eyes darted about the town looking for dangers and escape routes, but found only order and serenity. Heyes shifted his shoulders as people stopped to study the two scruffy cowboys riding into their community.
“Town’s called Orderville. Appropriate, huh?” joked Heyes.
“Ya’ think they know who we are?” Curry hissed, using only one side of his mouth.
“I don’t see how,” responded Heyes, while his coffee brown eyes catalogued the surroundings.
“Nah, I don’t think the sheriff’s had time to get back to Cedar City and send one.”
Curry’s expression hardened. “Then why are they staring at us like that?” he whisper-shouted.
“I don’t know,” Heyes muttered. “Let’s check-out the sheriff’s office.” At least they didn’t know the sheriff.
After failing to locate a saloon or a hotel, the partners headed for the livery stable to take care of their horses and find the answers to a few questions. The livery owner was a wide man with large hands and very little hair. “Yup, I got space for your horses. Will ya’ be staying long here in Orderville?”
“Just passing through,” answered Heyes.
The man narrowed his eyes suspiciously and inspected the two visitors more closely. “Don’t get mucha that here. Mostly see folks visitin’ family or comin’ through on farm business.”
Curry placed enough coins in the man’s hand to cover the cost of board for the horses. “Is there a hotel in town?” he asked casually, as he pocketed the remainder of his money. “And can ya’ recommend a saloon?”
“Hotel’s two blocks down and to yer right. Nice place with a good café. But you won’t find no saloon here in Orderville. No gamblin’ house, either.” He looked them over again and frowned. “Good day to ya’, gents.”
They stepped outside of the stable, puzzled by the curt dismissal.
“What now?” asked Curry.
“I guess we check out the hotel.”
“Ya’ sure we should stay? Maybe we should just eat and leave.”
“I think we’re safe for tonight. Besides, the horses need the rest.”
The brown-haired man strode down the boardwalk, following the stable owner’s directions to the hotel. The blond scanned the street before heading after his partner.
“Folks are still starin’ at us, Joshua.”
“I can see that, Thaddeus. What do you want me to do about it?”
“It makes me nervous.”
Dark eyes sparkled as they slid sideways and peered at the Kid. A mischievous grin spread across Heyes’ face. “I like it when you’re nervous. It makes me feel safer.”
Curry glared at Heyes. “What kinda town this size don’t have a saloon?”
“I been thinkin’ about that. Got an idea, but I think we should talk about it in our room.”
Both men paused and politely tipped their hats at two women herding a bunch of neatly dressed children. Several shops down, the women greeted a distinguished gentleman with generous mutton-chop sideburns. He took the hands, and kissed a cheek, of each lady in turn. The man noticed Heyes and Curry watching. His face creased in a frown, and he propelled both women across the street. Before the group turned a corner, the man scrutinized the ex-outlaws again, and then hurried after the women and children.
“That does it, Joshua. Do we look like murderers or desperate outlaws or somethin’?”
Heyes’ closed lip smile only hinted at dimples. “I sure hope not.” He chuckled at his partner’s irked expression.
Curry gave in and replied with a grin of his own. He placed his hand on Heyes’ sweaty shoulder and steered him into the hotel lobby.
Upstairs in a corner room with two beds and fresh curtains, Curry sprawled in a cushioned chair. His long legs extended across the floor, nudging one of the beds.
Heyes placed his hat on a rack fastened to the wall. He checked to make sure the door was locked, and then sat down on a bed and toed off his boots. He ran long fingers through his dirty hair and looked up to find his partner glaring at him. “What?”
“What do ya’ mean ‘what’? Ya’ said you’d tell me about the saloon when we got to our room.” The cranky outlaw glanced around. “This is our room, ain’t it? So talk. I’m thirsty, and there’s no saloon. Why?”
Heyes rolled his eyes. “Sheesh, Kid. No need to get proddy. I didn’t steal the saloon. I’d like a drink as much as you.” Heyes leaned back on the bed. “You know much about Mormons, Kid?”
“No. Should I? I know they’re in Utah.”
“Just in case you haven’t noticed, so are we-- in Utah, I mean. Anyway, they don’t hold with gambling, and that book of theirs is not too keen on drinking either, so I’m guessin’ that’s why there’s no saloon.”
Curry yanked his feet towards the chair and plopped his elbows on his knees. “We been in Utah before, Heyes, and they always had saloons. So what’s wrong with this place?”
Heyes cradled the back of his neck in his hands and leaned against the headboard. “We’re in a small town in the middle of nowhere. In fact, I’m not sure about this, but I think we might be in one of those missionary towns where they have,” he paused trying to remember the word and stretched out its pronunciation, “co-mu-nal living. I think I read somewhere that Orderville is a town that follows the Order of,” he paused and shook his head, “e … somethin’. It means they share everything and are real strict about followin’ their rules.”
Curry stared at Heyes with hurt puppy eyes. “No saloons?” he verified forlornly.
“No saloons,” confirmed Heyes.
“Anything else I need to know about folks ‘round here?”
“Well, Kid,” Heyes hesitated. “They probably have pole-ig-amy.”
“Pole what?” asked a frowning Curry.
“You know. When a man can have more than one wife.”
“AT THE SAME TIME!”
“Shh, Kid. Don’t shout. Yep, at the same time. It has somethin’ to do with bringing lotsa children into the world.”
“Well, that would do it, but it ain’t decent.”
Heyes chuckled. “I don’t know, Kid. It seems to me that a man’s got his hands full with just one woman living under his roof. I think a man with more than one wife is already paying for his sins in ways I can’t even imagine.”
About an hour later, two clean and shaved cowboys entered the restaurant. The large dining room suggested that it served the town as well as the hotel. Clean blue-and-white-checked tablecloths matched the gingham curtains, and a vase with a single flower sat on each table. Only a few places were available, but one next to a back wall suited Heyes and Curry.
The noisy room buzzed with chatter and laughter. A mix of children and adults sat at most of the tables. Several included two or three women with a whole passel of children. Each of these tables also had one prosperous and well-dressed gentleman. As the two cowboys entered, the dining room quieted, and the patrons stole surreptitious glances at the strangers. Once they were seated and looking at the chalk board where the day’s menu was posted, the conversation in the room resumed.
Curry was studying the menu as he whispered to Heyes, “They’re starin’ again. We had a bath. What are we doin’ that’s so dang fascinatin’?”
“I don’t know, but it’s worrying me too.”
A young waitress approached the table. She was polite, but nervously twisted her fingers in her apron. Her eyes darted to a man with a handlebar mustache at a table loaded with children and three women. Both cowboys ordered the fried chicken special. The waitress lifted the corners of her mouth in an imitation of a smile and glanced at the man at the large table again. He nodded slightly, and she scurried back to the kitchen.
Heyes opened his mouth, but abruptly shut it when he caught sight of a man wearing a tin star walking purposefully to their table. Curry recognized the expression on his partner’s face and turned toward the approaching lawman. He looked a question at Heyes, who answered, no, with a mere twitch of his head. The lighter-haired man removed his hand from his Colt and deliberately placed both hands on top of the table.
“How do’, gentlemen?” asked the sheriff, respectfully removing his hat. He was a small, wiry man with thick white hair and a broad smile. His tin star seemed shiny and new.
Both Heyes and Curry started to get to their feet, but the lawman waved them back down. He snagged an empty chair from a nearby table as he asked, “You gents mind if I join you for a minute?”
“Our pleasure, Sheriff,” answered Heyes with an amiable, if not entirely authentic, smile.
“I just came to see if I could be a help to you two in any way.”
A smile masked Heyes’ discomfort. “I think we’re doin’ fine, Sheriff, but thanks for the offer.”
“Thanks for checking on us, Sheriff. We appreciate that. Right neighborly of ya’,” Kid’s grin was bright and forced. “We’re doing just fine. Just riding through. This is a real nice town ya got here.”
Heyes’ face told the Kid to stop talking while they were ahead, or at least not behind.
The sheriff just smiled and bobbed his head. “Yeah, real peaceable. So quiet, in fact, that I only sheriff part time. Don’t need nobody full time. Everybody’s real law-abidin’ and peaceful. The townsfolk here work real hard and take care of each other. Don’t leave much for me to do. But if anything is wrong, or we’ve missed somethin’, just let me know, and we’ll make it right”
Curry’s smile slipped as his blue eyes sought his partner’s. What did the man mean? Heyes’ raised eyebrows told the Kid that he wasn’t the only one baffled by the sheriff’s behavior.
Oblivious to their silent communication, the sheriff pushed back his chair and rose to his feet. He extended a hand to each of the ex-outlaws. “Well, if you gents need any help, or anything at all, just call on me anytime, day or night. We always want to be of assistance here in Orderville.”
Placing his hat back on his head, the sheriff turned to leave. On his way to the door, he nodded at the gentleman with the handlebar mustache. The man returned the gesture and smiled.
Curry started to speak, but was cut off by the arrival of the waitress with their chicken. After shoveling several large bites of mashed potatoes and gravy into his mouth, he asked, “What was that all about?”
“Don’t know. I’m thinking on it.” The man with the handlebar mustache was paying his bill. Heyes tilted his head in the man’s direction. “But whatever’s goin’ on, that man has a finger in it.”
“Well, there’s no reason to stay in town and figure it out,” stated Curry. His brow furrowed. “Is there?”
“Nooooo,” replied his partner. “Let’s just get a good night’s sleep and leave real early tomorrow morning.”
“After breakfast,” affirmed Curry. Heyes rolled his eyes. “I don’t want you to forget breakfast again.” Heyes kept silent. “O.K., Joshua? After breakfast?”
“O.K. After breakfast.” Heyes shook his head as he got up to pay the bill.
Heyes had finished his huckleberry muffin and was drinking his third cup of coffee while he waited for the Kid to finish a plate of eggs, hash browns, ham, sausage, and biscuits. They were seated next to a window, and Heyes was watching Orderville come to life in its sedate and methodical way. The sun had risen above the distant mountains and was washing the valley with friendly light. Fluffy white clouds dotted the blue sky, and a breeze fluttered the curtains. Later, the sun would turn hot and scorching, but this early in the morning, it was a warm caress.
Heyes sat forward, placing his forearms on the table, as his focus sharpened on a scene outside. Alerted by the other man’s posture, Curry slowly lowered his fork and peered out the window.
“How long they been talkin’?” He indicated a knot of men clustered across the street with a movement of his chin.
“Not long, they just started congregating.”
“Mustache man and sideburns guy are both there.”
“So’s the helpful sheriff,” added Heyes.
“Ya’ think they’re talkin’ ‘bout us?”
“Good odds of it.”
As the two cowboys watched, the man from dinner the night before handed a piece of paper to a younger man who walked quickly and purposefully to the telegraph office. After he went inside, Curry’s and Heyes’ eyes locked.
“You done?” asked Heyes.
“I am now,” replied Curry. “You’ll pack the bags?”
“And you’ll pay for breakfast and check out?”
“Yup. Meet you at the livery stable. This town just got a whole lot less friendly.”
Ba da dum, ba da dum, ba da dum, ba da dum. This time the horses galloped north. They had kept to a trot until Orderville was hidden by a bend in the road. Shortly after losing sight of the town, Kid spotted a dust cloud to the north. Heyes reined up where a stream crossed the road. He and the Kid walked their horses up the hillside by following the sandy-bottomed creek until they could cut across stony ground. High boulders shielded them from the road. Heyes pulled a spyglass from his saddlebag and studied the approaching dust cloud.
“Looks like a posse,” he told his partner. “Six men.”
“It’s too soon to be because of the telegram, Heyes.”
“Probably, but it’s a posse just the same. Want to head northwest across country? I’ve got an idea.”
They worked their way up a rocky ridge by zigzagging through scraggly trees and broken basalt. Groups of boulders provided cover and alternated with patches of pine trees and junipers. As their horses carefully picked their way out of the valley, fir and aspen replaced the trees from lower down.
Looking back at the road, Curry saw the dust cloud resolve into six figures on horseback. After a brief pause, the riders pursued the outlaws up the slope. Curry kicked his bay into motion and brought it next to Heyes’ sorrel. The mare tried to crowd in front, but Curry controlled her with a firm rein.
“Ya’ see ‘em?” he asked while tussling with his mount.
“Yeah. We need to hurry.”
As if to stress Heyes’ point, a rifle shot chipped the boulder sheltering them. Each man kicked his mount, and soon they were riding hard and lying low against the necks of their horses. More shots rang out, but none hit as closely as the first. They pounded up the slope; hooves occasionally slipped on the rocky ground. Years of brutal chases, allowed Heyes and Curry to pull ahead of the posse.
They pressed north and west. After cresting a ridge, they dodged scattered oak and sagebrush before descending into a valley. The three-point beat of a gallop echoed through the surrounding hills.
Kid reined in his bay as it splashed into a shallow river. Heyes maneuvered next to his partner, patting his sorrel’s neck as the gelding heaved deeply and tossed his head. Heyes let the horse reach for a drink.
“Ya’ wanna follow the river?” asked Curry.
“Uh-huh,” Heyes agreed distractedly. He craned his neck to peer up the valley. “Have you seen the posse?”
“Not for a while. You?”
“No, but I’m pretty sure they’re still back there. I think we can slow up for a bit, though.” Heyes took a drink from his canteen and then offered it to his partner. With the twitch of a leg, they each directed a horse downstream.
“I hope this is the river we’re lookin’ for, Kid.”
“We’re lookin’ for a river?”
“Yep. Remember, I told you I had an idea how to shake the posse? Well there’s a branch of the Virgin River somewhere hereabouts that goes through a narrow canyon and ends up in the town of Springdale twenty-five miles south of here.”
“Heyes, if you’ve heard about this canyon, then I’m thinkin’ someone in the posse knows about it, too.”
“Kid, I thought we had an agree--”
“Yeah, Heyes, I know, we got a deal ‘bout thinkin’, but I’m still askin’ my question.”
Heyes hid his smile by looking down.
“Well?” demanded an impatient Curry.
“Well what?” Heyes shot back.
“Is it a good idea to go through this canyon if the posse knows about it, too?”
“Nope. Almost as bad an idea as going back to Cedar City or Orderville.”
“Then why are we doin’ it?”
“Coupla reasons, Kid. First off, we’re going to send the horses on up the valley without us, hoping the posse will follow them and not us. The posse might know about the canyon, but maybe they’ll assume that we don’t. Secondly, the canyon’s real narrow, so if they do follow us, it’ll be easy for you to scare ‘em off. Lastly,” Heyes turned and looked directly into the Kid’s blue eyes. “You got a better idea?”
“Nope. So how far to this canyon?”
“I was told that it’s about three miles from where the valley turns to the west.”
Heyes slowed his horse to a canter and then a trot as the valley narrowed into a shallow canyon, and the river tumbled down a steep slope. He dismounted and handed his reins to Curry. Squatting near the waterfall, Heyes inspected the narrow ledge. Soon Curry stood next to him holding the reins of both horses.
“The horses can’t run no further, Heyes. You sure this is the place?”
“It’s gotta be, Kid. Let’s get our stuff.”
The two cowboys quickly removed their saddlebags and gear, but left the saddles and other tack on the horses. They remounted and rode back to where the valley widened. Curry picked up a stick and whacked each animal soundly on the rump, while both he and Heyes shouted until the horses bolted across the valley. They backtracked to where the river descended by walking in the creek to hide their tracks.
Curry picked his way down the ledge. Heyes followed him down the steep trail until both men stood next to a creek at the base of a sloping cliff. They studied the terrain in the late morning sunlight. Where the water hit the gravel, a small pool formed. Streams meandered across the canyon floor in a braided channel.
Curry smirked at his partner. “After you,” he said as he stretched his upturned palm downstream.
Heyes adjusted his saddlebags on his shoulder before stepping over a narrow stream and picking his way on the dry gravel between the channels. The creek snaked through the bottom of the ravine, leaving patches of exposed rocks and sparse vegetation. The ex-outlaws chose a path on the dry ground. The gorge deepened and grew dimmer as they hiked downstream.
Soon the canyon narrowed, and the walls grew into vertical sandstone cliffs. Every route was now wet, and Heyes and Curry were forced to wade. The water, though only a few inches above their ankles, was chilly as it leaked through their boots and soaked their socks and feet.
About a mile further, the ravine peeled open into a wide canyon with the creek winding through the middle. The sun’s heat soaked into the cliffs and heated the air. Soon both cowboys had sweaty shirts stuck to their backs. About noon, they stopped in the shade of a willow tree to get a drink and strip down to their Henley tops. As Heyes stored his shirt and vest in his saddlebags, he removed biscuits and jerky and handed some to Curry.
“My feet are startin’ to hurt, Heyes.”
“How far is this town?”
“I’m not sure how far we’ve come, but I’d estimate we have at least another fifteen miles or so.”
“FIFTEEN MILES!” Curry exclaimed. “All in the river?”
“Relax, Kid, not all of it’s in this canyon. It’s in the river--off and on--for about half of that. Also, once we get out of the canyon, there are folks who farm the land north of Springdale. Maybe we can buy some horses or get a ride into town.”
Heyes pushed the sleeves of his white undershirt above his elbows, then bent down to repack his saddlebags. Once Heyes was ready, he scrounged through fallen branches from the cottonwood and maple trees huddled near the cliff wall. After he found what he wanted, he strode back to the Kid and handed him a branch about five feet long and an inch around. He kept a similar branch for himself.
“What’s this for?” asked Curry, clearly unimpressed.
“It’s a walking stick,” Heyes explained. “I thought it would help when we wade through the river.”
“You’re welcome.” Heyes placed a hand on Curry’s shoulder as he passed him and headed downstream. “You coming?”
“I’m comin’, Heyes. My feet might never forgive me, but I’m comin’.”
They trudged downstream. The gorge narrowed, and widened, and narrowed again. Sometimes, they could hike on dry ground while the river chattered down one side or snaked around hummocks of gravel poking up between the channels. Other times, the cliffs crowed close, squeezing the river into a single passage which stretched across the canyon. Then they were forced to wade, bracing with the walking sticks as their boots slipped on round rocks slick with algae. The sides climbed higher, bracketing a single slot of blue high above their heads. By late afternoon, the slanting sunlight warmed sandstone of vibrant red and orange. White and tan striations streaked the walls in wavy patterns, like a great hand had swirled the stone before it hardened.
The splashing creek, swollen by tributaries, grew into the Virgin River. The water was nearly knee deep, and Heyes and Curry had been sliding on the rocky bottom for about an hour, when the river turned, and the canyon opened wide. The current hugged the right wall, and on the left a gravel bar was dotted with willow and maple trees. Low brush nestled near the cliff, and ferns and small plants cascaded where pristine springs dripped into lush hanging gardens.
Curry limped onto the dry ground and looked up at the colorful sandstone. “This is somethin’, Heyes,” he said with awe. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Heyes nodded as he turned in a slow circle admiring the scenery. He stepped onto the gravel bar and hobbled over to Curry. His boots rubbed against the blisters forming on his feet.
“It’s getting late. You wanna camp here?” asked Heyes as he pulled off his black hat and slapped it against his leg to remove a coating of dust.
“Yeah,” Curry agreed, moving further away from the water. He gingerly sat on a large boulder, tossed his hat down, and then pried his boots off his feet and calves. His faded jeans were soaked halfway up his thighs, and the boots did not want to come off. Once his feet were bare, Curry stood and unbuckled his gun belt, carefully hanging it on a tree. He peeled off his jeans, and placing his hands on the small of his back, he stretched.
Heyes stopped collecting fire wood and turned back to his partner. “What are you doing in your drawers?” he demanded. “What if we have to run?”
“I ain’t runnin’, Heyes. My feet hurt, my legs hurt, my boots are wet, and so are my pants. I gotta let everything dry. If the posse shows up, we can all sit here and dry out together. Right now, jail don’t sound so bad, as long as it ain’t wet.”
“Yeah, I’m drenched, too,” Heyes glumly agreed. He extended his arms to demonstrate to his cranky friend just how soggy he was. His Henley was sweat-soaked and clung to his chest. His pants had turned dark brown where the water pasted them to his calves and lower thighs. As he shuffled toward the Kid, his boots made squishy noises, and water squirted out one damaged seam.
“We gotta get dry, Heyes, or it’s gonna be real cold when the sun goes down.”
“I guess you’re right, Kid. Let’s get the camp set, and then we’ll let these clothes dry out near the fire.”
The next morning was cool, but not cold. Thin clouds stretched across a strip of grey-blue sky framed by the canyon walls. After breakfast, two damp, but determined, cowboys splashed downstream. The river volume increased, and footing became treacherous, forcing them to wade through water that lapped at their thighs. Both Heyes and the Kid removed their gun belts and hung them around their necks, trying to keep both the weapons and their ammunition dry.
As morning wore into afternoon, the temperature climbed. They rested and ate lunch in the shade of a willow tree. Their downstream trek stopped when the canyon pinched into an especially narrow slot.
Heyes hitched his pants up at the knees and squatted down by the cramped channel. He tried to measure the depth using his walking stick, but it failed to reach the bottom. He cocked his head and studied his partner. “I suppose we can swim it,” he summed up as he stood and faced Kid.
“Swim it!” accused Curry. “I can’t keep my gun dry if we swim that!”
“Your gun’s been wet before. It didn’t melt. You’ll just need to clean it when we get to the other side. You do that every day anyway.”
“And the bullets, Heyes? I can’t just clean the bullets! You want to end up in this Springdale place with no bullets?”
“I don’t want to, Kid, but I prefer it to the alternative. You wanna just sit here? Or head back the way we came?”
Curry crossed his arms over his sweaty underwear. “You’re the genius, Heyes. You planned us into this mess. Think up a plan to keep my bullets dry.”
Curry turned his back on his soggy partner and limped over to a dry boulder where he sat down with a grunt.
Heyes rested his chin in the palm of his hand and tapped his cheek with gloved fingers. He stared at the swirling current and considered how to get the guns and bullets across the deep slot without getting them wet. Throwing them wasn’t going to work. Somehow they would need to keep them out of the water while swimming, or the weapons were going to get soaked. Suddenly a wide grin split his face, and he picked up his walking stick.
“I got it, Kid.” He hobbled to the boulder where a cranky Curry sat rubbing sore ankles through the leather of his boots. Heyes tapped the walking stick against his palm. He grinned at the Kid and planted the end of the branch firmly into the gravel at the blond’s feet. Curry raised skeptical blue eyes and aimed them at his partner.
Heyes returned the gunfighter glare and then looked pointedly at the walking stick. When he still didn’t get a reaction, the sweaty cowboy drummed the stick into the gravel and raised his eyebrows. Kid Curry didn’t respond.
Frustrated, Heyes heaved a sigh. “We’ll tie the gun belts to the branch at the top of the stick and hold it out of the water while we swim. River’s deep, but it’s not movin’ too fast, so I think we can do it.”
Kid stopped glaring.
Heyes saw that he was thinking it over.
“What about my box of extra bullets?”
“Put it in the holster with your gun.”
“O.K. It might work.” He grinned good naturedly. “Let’s try it.”
Curry pushed himself upright and took the walking stick from Heyes. Soon he had his gun belt secured to the branched top. “Gimme your gun, Heyes, and the box of bullets from my saddlebags.”
Heyes shuffled over and returned with his belt and the extra bullets. After securing both weapons, Curry jammed his box of bullets into Heyes’ holster.
“Why’d you do that,” asked Heyes.
“To keep em’ dry. Was your idea.”
“Yeah, but you put them in with my gun. Why not yours?”
Curry made a dismissive noise and limped over to their things. He took a couple of leather straps and tied his bedroll to the branch. Heyes did the same with his, and then placed his saddlebags around his neck, draping both bags across his chest and tying them together, so they wouldn’t float away.
After their gear was secured, Heyes waded to where the river pooled and swirled upstream of the constricted flow. He began to swim when it rose above his waist. He reflexively sucked in a breath when the cold water hit his torso. The walking stick, held with one arm, poked high in the air while Heyes kicked to stay afloat. The current pushed him downstream. Curry was right behind him, carefully watching the gun belts secured to the top of the pole. The narrowest section only lasted about ten yards. When the canyon widened, the river spread from wall to wall, but only reached about mid-thigh. They no longer needed to swim.
“That was cold, Heyes,” complained Curry. He moved to stand in the sunlight at a spot where the water only reached his knees.
Heyes followed his dripping partner and pushed up the sleeves of his Henley to let the sunlight warm his arms. The Kid removed both gun belts and handed one to Heyes. They each secured their belts low around their hips and then bent to tie the thigh strap. Heyes jammed his hat on his head and then shoved it back, pinning his hair off his face. He squinted one eye and looked at the strip of sky high above.
“Day’s turned kinda grey and sticky, hasn’t it?”
“Yeah, Heyes, it has. But I can’t get much wetter so …,” Curry shrugged.
“Shall we get on out of this canyon?”
Curry nodded, and they resumed plodding downstream.
The sun burned high overhead, hazy and indistinct behind clouds filling the murky afternoon sky. The towering walls and sculpted sandstone faded from fiery red, to deep copper, to orange, and then to rust. A distant rumble echoed through the constant, lapping murmur and soft splashing.
Each ex-outlaw focused on moving one foot in front of the other. Boots were placed awkwardly among slick rocks. Walking sticks braced each step against the tug and push of the current. Riding boots slipped and bent, and tired ankles struggled not to crumple. Simply plodding downstream and staying upright required all their attention. The day was hot, but the water was cold, further sapping energy already depleted by the high altitude, a posse chase, short rations, scanty rest, and the arduous trek.
Another far-off rumble caught Heyes’ attention. He looked around the canyon. The river was changing, and changing fast. Brown swirls stained the grey-green water. It was moving quicker, and rising. Another rolling growl interrupted Heyes’ study. He looked up sharply with real fright in his brown eyes. He tried jogging to catch Curry, but slipped and fell to his hands and knees. Pushing upright he ignored a jagged cut bleeding on his hand. River water ran from his torso, plastering his clothes to his exhausted body.
“Kid!” Heyes shouted. “Flood coming!”
Curry spun around and lost his balance. He caught himself before bashing his knees. Heyes reached his partner and helped him stand.
“You sure?” snapped Curry, his eyes darting around looking for escape routes.
“Yep, I’m sure. Look at the water. Listen.” The rumble swelled to a deafening roar. “We gotta run!”
“Can’t outrun a flash flood, Heyes. Look for a place to get outta the water.”
Both men rushed and stumbled downstream, searching for somewhere to scramble up the cliffs. Curry whirled around and shouted, but Heyes could hear nothing but the crash of the flood. Suddenly, a moving wall slammed into Heyes and threw him down like a doll. As the river swallowed and poured over him, he gasped in a lungful of muddy water. The last thing he saw, before the churning engulfed him, was his partner’s terrified face. Kid Curry toppled backwards into the chocolate foam.
Seconds crawled as the river pummeled Heyes. All control vanished as he learned man’s impotence when faced with nature’s fury. He snatched a quick breath, before he was yanked to the rocky floor. The current gripped him like a giant hand, pushing him along the bottom, and then capriciously tossing him back to the surface. It slammed him into a boulder, forcing the air from his lungs. He tried to hold on and catch his breath, but the cold and scant oxygen made him clumsy. His arms slipped from the boulder. The sound and feel of the surging water overwhelmed his senses.
When the current spun him around, his downstream hurtle was slowed by an eddy of slack water behind the giant rock. He tried to will his flopping limbs to swim back to the boulder, but the river sucked away his strength. He glimpsed a valley downstream as he floated through the eddy. Hope rose when he saw the canyon walls open wide, and the river flatten and slow. The current blasted into an undercut cliff on the left as the river turned. An exposed island huddled near the side of the canyon. Heyes kicked his way to the right, hoping the current would carry him to the gravel bar. He was jerked out of the eddy and shoved back into the current. He resurfaced when the river pinned him against the trunk of a tree. The world went dark and faded into silence.
Hannibal Heyes woke to the smell of smoke and the crackling of a fire. A gentle hiss told him the wood was wet. He opened his eyes to a black sky smeared with the white stars of the Milky Way.
When he tried to sit up, his blanket slipped to the ground. He shivered and realized that he was naked under the rough wool. When he hitched it back over his shoulders, a sharp pain pierced his side. His hand met tight, cotton dressings binding his torso. He found a bandaged spot on his calf that was stained with brown patches. Everything ached, and his throat hurt.
Suddenly, Heyes lurched to his hands and knees and spewed river water on the gravel bar. When the vomiting stopped, he sank back until he was sitting on his heels with his forehead cradled in his palms. Strong hands secured the cloth around his shoulders and helped him lie down. Heyes clutched the blanket and then looked up at an unfamiliar blur. He raised himself on his elbows and peered at the pale smudge.
“Hold on a sec, there,” advised a scratchy voice. “Let me help you sit up. If you need to gag up river mud again, let me know, and I’ll help you to the side.”
Heyes blinked his eyes, held still, and tried to focus. Slowly the blotch became a face. It was attached by a thin neck to a long, stretched body. The man was young, perhaps early twenties, and had thin shoulders and large hands. Reddish-brown bangs fringed his forehead, and freckles evenly peppered his face and forearms. Spindly legs folded up as he squatted next to Heyes, and his skinny limbs ended in large feet encased in worn leather boots.
“Hello,” rasped Heyes, in a voice worn gravelly by river grit and retching.
A crooked smile lit up the man’s face. “Are you all right?” he asked with concern.
Heyes sat up with the man’s help and looked around. He saw the hissing fire and a set of soggy saddlebags, but he didn’t see his partner.
“My friend?” he croaked. “Did you find another man? I wasn’t traveling alone.” Heyes struggled to stand, but the lanky stranger stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
“Calm down. Your friend is on the other side of the fire. He hasn’t come ‘round yet. He took a good knock to the head, but his pulse is steady and his breathing is strong and regular.”
“Help me over to him, would you please? And where are my clothes?”
The stranger grinned. “You and your friend were in the water a while. Those wet things were just keepin’ ya’ cold. I had to strip them off to warm you up. Sorry, but your clothes aren’t dry yet, and everything ya’ had with you is as soaked as what you were wearing. It’s real lucky I had blankets with me.”
The man helped Heyes get up. He gripped the blanket and stepped carefully across the tumbled rocks, on bare, blistered feet. Hunkered down next to his friend, Heyes checked Curry’s breathing and heart rate. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to find, but Kid seemed to be breathing the same as always. His head was turned to the side, and Heyes could see where the hair was matted with dried blood. When he gently touched the raised knot beneath the Kid’s curls, his partner shifted and groaned.
“Heyes... Heyes,” the unconscious man muttered.
“It’s O.K. I’m here,” Heyes replied softly. He glanced around to see if their rescuer was listening. The tall man was tending the fire and didn’t seem to notice what Curry was saying. He straightened up and walked over to them.
“How is he?”
“All right, I guess.” Heyes moved closer to the fire, and then stuck out his hand. “I’m Joshua Smith,” he introduced himself and shook the man’s hand.
“Ezra Thompson. Glad to meet you, Mr. Smith, but from what I’ve seen you and your friend there are lucky to be meeting anybody this side of heaven and hell.”
“Thanks for your help, Mr. Thompson. My friend is Thaddeus Jones.” Heyes turned to his partner when he offered the alias, and then broke off and coughed. His throat still ached. Thompson grabbed a pot and a cup from near the fire and offered him some coffee. Heyes sipped the warm liquid. He was afraid that Thompson was going to ask how they had ended up in the canyon and was stalling so he could think up a story. Thompson returned the coffee pot to the fireside and sat down next to Heyes.
“You’re lucky. I think you have some hurt ribs, but other than cuts and bruises, that’s all ya’ got. I was fishin’ just upstream of here when the flood hit. I saw you two, but couldn’t reach you until the water went down. Your friend’s got a good knock on the head and a few scrapes, but nothing more. Riding out a flash flood could have been a lot worse. You two are lucky to be alive.”
“We might not have made it if you hadn’t been here. Thanks for helping us. How long have we been out?”
“’Bout five hours. I figure to keep an eye on you two through the night, then if you’re feeling up to it, I’ll leave you to watch your friend, and I’ll go get my wagon to take you to my cabin.”
Heyes nodded. “Sounds like a good plan, and thank you. Can you help me move my blankets over next to my friend? I’ll rest better if I can hear if he needs me.”
The sun was hot and bright by mid-morning of the next day. Heyes sat on a rock near the small fire tending to beans and bacon left by Thompson. He was dressed in clothes that were mostly dry. His partner’s things were laid out in the sun in the hope that they would be ready when Curry woke up.
The Kid had roused several times during the night and early morning. The last time he had been lucid. After throwing up and allowing Heyes to check his bandages and the lump on his head, he had rested peacefully. He was still asleep. Heyes didn’t like how much Curry was sleeping, but figured it would be a few days before the Kid recovered from the head bashing.
Heyes found their clothes spread out to dry. One set of saddlebags lay near the fire. The other he couldn’t find anywhere. He saw one bedroll tied to a stick and stuck in a tree. What he didn’t find were their guns or their gun belts. They had been wearing their gun belts when the flood hit. He figured that he should have found them with their clothes. Thompson must have taken their weapons. Heyes decided that the young man wasn’t as trusting and amiable as he had first appeared if he took their guns with him. Not that it really mattered, since after that dousing, their bullets weren’t going to work anyway. It made him a little wary that Thompson seemed to want them unarmed.
A soft clop of hooves interrupted his thoughts. Heyes forced his aching body to its feet and turned to watch Ezra Thompson cross a river that was now shallow and tame. The young man rode one bay horse and led another. Heyes waived in greeting.
“How ya’ doing?” called out Thompson.
“Good. Thanks for the food.”
Thompson urged his horse up onto the gravel bar and dismounted. “Has Mr. Jones come around yet?”
“He woke up a few times. The last time he threw up a bunch of water, talked a bit, and then went back to sleep.”
“Was he aware of things?”
“That’s good. I wasn’t sure about that knock on the head, but if he’s wakin’ up, he should be o.k. in a few days. Has he tried eating?” Heyes shook his head. Thompson tied the horses and then dished out two plates of beans and bacon. “Wanna see if he’ll eat?”
“I was trying to let him sleep.”
“We’re gonna have to wake him up to get to the wagon anyway, but it’s up to you.”
“Let’s try. Thaddeus is mighty fond of food.”