“Tell me again why we’re stumblin’ around Wyoming at ten below and not down south somewhere warm snuggled up to a coupla senoritas?” grumbled Kid Curry as his horse picked its way across an iced-over stream, crunching through in places, its hooves and legs coated in pearls of ice. The trees nearby were also sporting a fine rime and glistened in the early morning light. A slight breeze caused the needles to crack and pop and the four mounted outlaws to shiver in their heavy winter coats.
“’Cause Soapy asked us to stay and pull this job; we owe him,” answered Hannibal Heyes firmly.
“I’m with the Kid. It’s too damned cold. I don’t remember it being this cold other times we’ve overwintered.” Wheat Carlson’s breaths were visible as he spoke. His hands, encased in thick buffalo hide gloves, were stiff and achy. He couldn’t feel the tip of his nose anymore.
Kyle leaned over and spit out a stream of chaw splashing his mare’s shoulder. The spent juice froze immediately in the long fur. “It wouldn’t be so dang cold if it were snowin’. My pappy always said snow was Mother Nature’s blanket.”
“Your pappy was right, but if we had snow on the ground, we’d have to worry about covering our tracks. The ground’s so hard even the horses aren’t leaving prints,” observed Heyes.
“Maybe so, but it’s still too damn cold,” said Wheat.
The Kid’s horse clambered up the bank and stopped suddenly as his rider tugged on his reins. The other horses were forced to stand in the middle of the frozen watercourse and curses erupted in the crystalline air. “Hold up a minute. I see something.” Curry rode upstream as his friends finished their crossing and stood waiting for him. They saw him dismount and lean over the edge of the bank. “Over here!” he yelled.
Standing, he waited for the others to reach him and then pointed solemnly to a frozen corpse half-submerged in the thin ice at the edge of the water. “Poor devil didn’t have a chance. Looks like he got thrown in the wrong place.”
Heyes got off his horse and walked to the bank. He knelt next the body. Using his leather-gloved fist, he punched a series of holes around the dead man. He struggled with the gruesome form until he could turn it over. “Kid, it’s Milt Forbisher.”
“Milt? What’s he doin’ here?” asked a stunned Curry. His eyes shifted to the corpse of their former gang member. The man had died with a terrified grimace on his face. His arms raised and frozen in mid-crawl with his hands curved into claws, almost as though he’d been trying to fight off his inevitable demise.
Heyes smiled grimly, “Nothing. He’s doing nothing ever again. Wheat, Kyle, help us pull him out.”
“Why?” asked Wheat.
Heyes glared up at him and snarled, “That could’ve easily been any one of us. Would you want to be left out here for the animals to devil come spring?”
“I reckon he deserves better,” said Kyle, jumping off his mare and coming over to help.
“For Pete’s sake, what are we gonna do with him?” challenged Wheat.
“We’ll take him with us,” said Heyes simply.
“To the robbery? That don’t make sense.”
“We’ll leave him somewhere in town where he’ll be found. At least, that way, someone’ll give him a proper burial,” explained the dark-haired leader.
The Kid wasn’t feeling patient, “Get off your damned horse and lend us a hand!” Wheat grudgingly dismounted from his warm saddle. Twenty minutes later, the stiff corpse was balanced across the back of Heyes’ saddle and clumsily tied down with latigo and lariats.
“All right, you know what to do?” queried Curry. The four men were across the street from their target, hiding in the shadows of the alley, having waited for the sun to go down to cover their activities. It was a week shy of a full moon and there would be just enough light to allow them to escape after the job. “Soapy had said that the shipment would be delivered this morning so it should be an easy in and out.”
“What do we do with Milt?” asked Kyle. All eyes turned to the board-like figure leaning up against a door jamb.
“Leave ‘im here. Someone’ll find him and figure he froze here,” said the Kid.
“Don’t seem right. Milt was a friend,” protested Kyle.
“What? You want him to help?” smirked Wheat.
“There’s nothing more we can do. Now, get in your positions. We should be out in less than forty-five minutes if it all goes well.” Heyes hefted the sack at his feet. Through the heavy burlap, he could feel the cold steel of the bar spreader it contained. “Wheat, once you see us leave by the side door fetch the horses. We’ll meet up with you behind the mercantile. Kyle, don’t do anything unless you see trouble; then kick up a fuss.” Having delivered his orders, he stepped out into the cold, clear moonlight of the deserted street. The temperatures had steadily dropped all afternoon and it was too cold for man or beast to be roaming about. But not four determined outlaws. Kyle and Wheat watched as the Kid and Heyes made their way towards the jewelry exchange. After a few minutes of tinkering with the front door lock and risking exposure, their bosses disappeared inside.
Wheat held his gloves hands tucked under his armpits to keep them warm. He’d lived in Wyoming a long time, but he’d never seen a winter like this one. Maybe it was time to move south and take up with another gang; a gang that stuck to the south. He could feel his legs stiffening up from the cold and started to pace back and forth behind Kyle who’d tucked himself behind a couple of barrels. “Damn Heyes. We could freeze to death out here waitin’ on him and the Kid.” Realizing he might've insulted their present company, he glanced at Milt and mumbled a hasty apology. Milt had obviously not taken offense.
“Here they come,” whispered Kyle. “Whoo-we, they weren’t gone more’n a minute or two!” He stood from his crouch as Wheat hurried down the alley and disappeared. Heyes locked the door to the jewelry exchange as the Kid stepped off the sidewalk, a rough burlap sack clutched in his left hand.
“Hey! Stop! Thieves! They’s robbin’ the exchange.” Loud yelling cut through the cold air and echoed up and down the main street. The Kid’s head swiveled towards the alarmist and he saw men spilling out of the saloon, guns drawn. In a split second, he knew it was over. They were caught. He might shoot his way out, but not without casualties and prison was preferable to a rope. He raised his hands in surrender and glanced over his shoulder at Heyes who’d already sized up the situation and lifted his hands, dismay etched on his face. It was just their luck some drunken cowpoke had decided to pee off the sidewalk rather than walk the frigid thirty yards to the nearest outhouse.
The crowd came running down the street towards them, but suddenly slowed, staring beyond the two outlaws. Turning his head, the Kid saw Kyle emerge from the alley, clutching Milt, a gun held to the corpse’s head. “Hold it right thar or he gits it,” hollered the little outlaw with all the threat he could muster.
The small crowd skidded to a stop. “He’s got a hostage. Hold your fire!” yelled someone. “Don’t shoot!” called another.
Kyle dragged Milt with him; his stiffened feet bouncing across the hardened wagon ruts that carved the street. “Back off or I’ll shoot!” The crowd was still some distance away, but they could easily make out the grim visage of fear that froze Milt’s features. The poor man was stiff with terror. The men’s gun hands dropped, their hands dangled by their sides. It wasn’t worth a life to stop a robbery.
Heyes and the Kid sprang into action having heard Wheat pounding up the street towards them, the horses’ hooves clattering over the frozen ground. Running to meet their mounts, they jumped into their saddles crossing to Kyle and his hostage. Milt was dragged up into Wheat’s arms—Wheat being the strongest of the four--and he kicked one foot from his stirrups, slipping Milt’s rigid limb in its place and keeping his left arm encircling the dead man, he spurred his horse. Kyle gripped his saddle horn and screamed at his mare to run, swinging aboard as she reached a full gallop surrounded by her comrades.
The stunned witnesses stood mutely in the cold night watching as the outlaws rode off into the darkness, their hostage still frozen with shock. “Get the sheriff!” cried one. “No point,” said another, “an Apache couldn’t track across this ground.” “He’s a goner,” was heard before the crowd fell silent.
Into the stillness of the night, one voice spoke. “Was it just me or was there somethin’ odd about that guy?”
On a warm, sunny spring day, the gang gathered in the grassy meadow of the Hole. Milt’s coffin was fetched from the ice house where it had resided during the remainder of the winter. As it arrived, Heyes stepped forward and nodded to Lobo and Hank who lowered the pine box into the ground with Kyle and Wheat’s help. Standing around a deep trench, the rough men clutched their hats solemnly, their heads bowed in prayer as Preacher read verses from the tattered Bible he always carried next to his heart. “…ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Amen.”
The men picked up shovels and began filling in the grave. Once the mound was packed down, the other outlaws dispersed leaving Heyes and the Kid contemplating the freshly disturbed earth. Heyes slipped his black hat back onto his head. “You know, Kid. Milt was a nasty drunk and a cruel-hearted man, but when I cut him loose, I never wanted him to end up like this.”
Curry thought for a moment and then smiled mischievously, “Nothin’ you coulda done, Heyes. You know as well as I do, we didn’t cut no ice with him.”
Heyes grinned back at his partner, “Yeah, he was always skating on thin ice. You remember when I kicked him out? He said it’d be a cold day in hell before he ever forgave us. Not till hell froze over.”
Chuckling, Curry threw his arm over his partner as the two men left the grave to bake in the noonday sun. “Guess he thawed out some, huh?”
“The purpose of life isn’t to arrive at death in perfect condition but to slide into it sideways with your hair mussed, your clothes disheveled, a martini in one hand and chocolate in the other, shouting ‘Whooeee, what a ride!’”--Hunter S. Thompson