Blood in the Snow
By Maz McCoy
A single gunshot woke Hannibal Heyes. He pulled the blanket up around his chin and smiled. One thing you could guarantee, having the fastest-gun-in-the-west as your partner, you wouldn’t starve. He just hoped Kid got something with a bit more meat on it this time. The scrawny chicken he shot a few days ago had hardly enough flesh on it to feed them both.
He shivered. He hoped Kid got some wood for the fire too. He was starting to freeze. Still, at least they didn’t have to watch their backs for a while. They had been on the run for over a week, having been spotted by two bounty hunters in what they thought was a sleepy little town. The men had pursued them relentlessly. They had taken it in turns to keep watch at night, but Heyes had hardly slept, not because he didn’t have faith in Kid’s abilities. Kid’s ability to protect them both was never in doubt, it was just that he…he what? He wanted to keep an eye on Kid too? Was that it? He’d looked after him since they were children; no correction; they’d looked after each other. Heyes gave a heavy sigh. He was too tired to have this argument with himself now. The truth was, staying awake when he should have been sleeping, had finally caught up with him. He was exhausted.
When they found the cave in the mountains, after a long ride through the snow, he had been relieved.
“Heyes, you’re dead on your feet,” Kid said as they led their horses deeper into the cave. “Get some sleep!” He brushed the flakes off his sheepskin jacket.
Heyes looked at his partner through half closed eyes, the collar of his grey coat pulled up around his chin.
“You know I’m right,” Kid told him.
“This once,” Heyes muttered as he headed for his bed roll. Kid smiled but decided not to comment.
It was still cold when Heyes opened his eyes again. He shivered and pulled the blanket closer. Light from outside illuminated the cave. It must be morning. Had he slept through supper? Why didn’t Kid wake him?
“Kid?” There was no answer. He turned over, expecting to see that the fire had died down. Instead he was surprised to find there was no fire at all. Not even a charred spot where one had been. Heyes sat up. “Kid?” His partner was no where to be seen. More worryingly, Kid’s bed roll wasn’t laid out. Heyes threw back the blanket and got quickly to his feet.
Their horses were still in the back. He picked up his gun belt and buckled it on. Heyes headed to the opening of the cave. The air was still, nothing moved and the snow laden branches of the trees, and the thick layers on the ground, absorbed any sound.
He set off, moving cautiously down the hillside, heading for the river. There were footprints in the snow leading towards the scrub that ran along the bank. A bird flew up startling Heyes and he drew his gun, aiming it at the flurry of feathers. He let out a long breath. He hadn’t wanted to admit how nervous Kid’s absence made him.
When he reached the river bank Heyes saw more footprints in the snow. The champeen tracker of all southern Utah followed them, having recognised the shape of Kid’s boots. He remembered his friend commenting that this area would be a good place to look for something to eat. The snow squeaked beneath his feet as it compacted. His legs disappeared up to his knees in the deeper drifts. When he turned a bend in the river, Heyes stopped in his tracks. Kid’s footprints were no longer distinguishable amongst so many others. There were impressions of at least two different shaped boots but his brown eyes focused on only one thing, the red stains in the snow just a few feet away. Heyes looked around, listening. There was no movement; it didn’t appear that anyone was still around. He walked, slowly, towards the blood. He knew what it was; he’d seen more than enough to know. A pool of blood gave way to large droplets on a pristine white background, leading up river. Heyes thought of the single gunshot in the night.
More than one person had been here. Kid had been here, but maybe not at the same time. There was blood, a lot of blood and then a trail leading away. Something or someone had been injured. It could be an animal. Maybe Kid had shot their supper and had carried the bleeding creature…up river? Why would he head up river? Who had made the other tracks? And WHERE THE HECK WAS KID NOW? A feeling in his gut told him it was Kid’s blood and that he had been captured. Of course he could have injured his captors first…
He couldn’t afford to jump to conclusions but if Kid was in trouble he didn’t have time to waste. A familiar brown hat lying beneath a bush confirmed his worst fears. Reaching down, Heyes picked up Kid’s hat and, gently, brushed off the snow.
“DAMN IT!” He whacked Kid’s hat against his leg, looked at the trail in the snow, then set out at a run, back to the cave and the horses.
In places the snow came up to the horses’ belly. Heyes pulled the collar of his jacket up around his neck. The expression on his face was grim, as he led his partner’s animal up an incline. Following a trail of blood in the snow was easy. Before long Heyes found himself looking out for the imprints of three horses, one of which made deeper impressions in the snow, suggesting it was heavier or carrying more weight. He had decided that someone had Kid and that it was probably the two bounty hunters they thought they had lost. The two bounty hunters he’d been convinced they’d lost; convinced enough to leave his partner to face them alone, while he slept the night away. Damn it!
It was curious that they had not come looking for him, but then having caught Kid Curry on foot, maybe they didn’t think his partner was around. Either way he would have to be careful. He ducked his head as the horse passed under a low, snow laden branch.
The blood spots grew smaller and less frequent. Heyes looked on this as a good sign. However what lay on the ground up ahead soon quashed any positive feelings he had. He pulled his horse to a halt and eased himself slowly from the saddle, eyes and ears alert for any sound that might indicate a trap. He waited, once more nothing moved. Heyes walked towards the object and, bending down, picked it up. His grip tightened on Kid’s glove.
Willis Gardner spat, hitting a leaf and sending a cascade of snow from the branch to the ground. He turned in the saddle to watch his partner and younger brother, Silas climb from his horse and walk back to the mule; the man who was going to make them $10,000 richer lay across its back. Kid Curry’s hands were bound tightly at the wrists, the rope looped under the animal’s belly and around his ankles keeping Kid secured.
“He dead yet?” Willis asked, bluntly, and he spat again.
Silas grabbed a handful of blond hair and pulled Kid’s head up.
“I don’t think so.”
“Be easier if he was.”
“Want me to finish him off?”
“Nah. He might start bleeding again and I thought we’d have every bear and wolf on the mountain following us, the trail he was leaving.”
“You think his partner’s out there?”
“Could be. I reckon they split up in the night to throw us off the scent.”
“Didn’t work did it?” Silas grinned.
“It sure didn’t. We’ll get this one down the mountain and then get back on his friend’s trail. I’m not losing Curry now.”
“Heyes could be followin’ us.”
“Well if he is, he’ll just save us some work. C’mon Silas, I want to get lower down before dark.”
Silas climbed back into his saddle and urged his horse on. The mule followed as the rope attaching it to Silas’ saddle horn pulled tight. Kid Curry was still unconscious as they entered the trees.
When the trail of blood stopped Heyes knew it could mean one of two things. Either the blood on the wound had dried or the person’s blood had stopped flowing. He preferred to think of a wound clotting and followed the three animals down the mountain.
If he hadn’t stayed awake when he should have been sleeping, maybe he wouldn’t have been so tired last night. Maybe he’d have heard a commotion and would have been able to help his friend. It was his fault. He couldn’t stop blaming himself for not being the usual light sleeper; for letting Kid go off alone and for not being there for him.
Quashing the fears of what he might find at the end of the trail, he moved on.
There was a sudden volley of shots up ahead. Heyes kicked his horse on, no longer worried about keeping out of sight. Kid’s trailing horse, slowed him down but he was not about to let it go. When he reached the top of the rise, Heyes pulled his horse up sharp. Two men lay dead in the snow. Two horses stood nearby along with a mule. A man was slumped over the mule; Heyes recognised the man’s coat. As desperate as he was to get to Kid, he took a moment to survey the area. Nothing moved but it could still be a trap. Slowly he lowered himself from the saddle.
“Heyes!” A cry from the trees was followed by the appearance of several men on horseback. Heyes drew his gun, stopped dead and watched in stunned amazement as The Devil’s Hole Gang rode into view.
“Heyes, you okay?” Kyle Murtry asked, as he pulled his horse alongside his former leader. Wheat Carlson and Lobo rode beside him. Preacher and the rest of the boys brought up the rear.
“What are you doing here?” Heyes asked, looking up at the gang. “What happened?”
“We figured you and Kid would head into the mountains,” Wheat told him, clearly pleased to have been proved right. “Once we lost the posse we just headed up here to find ya.”
“What posse?” Heyes was confused.
“The one that was chasin’ us,” Kyle explained.
“Yeah, and we met those two instead,” Lobo added, with a glance towards the Gardner brothers. “We saw they had Kid and they tried to stop us getting him back. It didn’t work.” No more needed to be said. Heyes nodded. He didn’t know why the boys were there or how they knew, he and Kid had gone into the mountains, but he was grateful for their presence. He turned to the slumped form of his unconscious friend and gently lifted Kid’s head. The bullet wound looked bad. Dried blood matted his hair and covered one side of his face.
“Help me get him down.” Heyes took the knife from his boot and cut through the ropes, freeing Kid’s wrists and ankles. He noted the absence of rope burns; Kid had made no attempt to free himself, suggesting he’d been unconscious since he had been captured. With the other’s help he lowered his friend to the ground but despite their care, Kid fell backwards into the snow. Heyes dropped quickly to his side.
“Kid?” There was no reply. Kid’s face was pale, his skin cold to the touch.
Kyle placed a blanket on the snow and they lifted Kid onto it.
“How is he?” Lobo asked, although from what he could see, he already had an answer.
“Alive.” Heyes didn’t say anymore because he didn’t know anymore.
“What d’you wanna do?” Wheat handed Heyes a blanket, which he placed over his friend.
“He needs a doctor,” Lobo stated, looking down at the young blond man.
“I know.” Heyes’ his eyes were still on Kid.
The head wound was bad. It would take them a long time to reach the nearest town which, if Heyes remembered correctly, didn’t have a full time doctor anyway. The best thing to do was to let his friend rest and then if he surv…if he…when. When he was able to ride, Heyes would take him to the doctor. He would get him proper help and care. The rest of the gang stood around, looking at their friend, lying unconscious at their feet. No one was going to tell Hannibal Heyes that it didn’t look like Kid would make it.
“He can’t ride like that,” Wheat stated.
“I’m gonna stay with him; bring him down later. Can you deal with them?” Heyes nodded towards the two dead men.
“Sure Heyes,” Kyle assured him. “Want us to stay with you?”
“No, Kid and I will catch up.”
Knowing glances were exchanged but no one dared say what they really thought.
“Whenever you’re ready.” Lobo placed a hand on Heyes’ shoulder, cast a final glance at Kid, then walked towards the bounty hunters.
“Here.” Wheat held out another blanket. “For you.” Heyes took it.
“Take care of Kid.”
“Kid’s a fighter,” Kyle stated, but his eyes told them he didn’t think Kid would win this battle. “We’ll be seeing ya, Heyes.”
“Yeah.” Heyes attempted a smile but it didn’t work.
“Watch your back,” Wheat told him, and then headed back to his horse.
Heyes watched in silence as the Devil’s Hole Gang rode away, then pulled the blanket around his shoulders and sat down beside Kid.
Heyes looked at his partner. Dried blood plastered his hair against his head; his face was pale, his body so still.
“Kid, I don’t know if you can hear me but you’re going to make it. You are fighting this, right? I mean I’m not sitting here in the cold for nothing. You have to do some work too. The bounty hunters have gone. It’s just you and me now. You’re safe. So don’t give up okay?” Kid showed no sign of hearing and Heyes leaned back against a tree, watching and thinking. “Please, just don’t give up.”
Heyes shivered as the sun began to set on another day. He looked at his friend once more. There was something he needed to say…in case…well just in case.
“Hey partner, I don’t know if you can hear me but I want you to know that…I…er…” Heyes swallowed. He felt awkward. How did you condense a lifetime of feelings into just a few words? How did you tell someone who could be dy… Heyes shook that thought away. No. That wasn’t going to happen. “You know you’re my best friend, Kid. Always have been. I’d do anything for you. Well anything within reason. I don’t want you waking up and thinking you can take advantage of what I’m saying, okay?” Kid lay still. Heyes continued. “I just hope I’m doing the right thing. The right thing for you. I don’t want you to die Kid.”
He looked down at his friend and was startled to find two blue eyes looking directly at him.
The dark-haired man smiled.
“Welcome back.” Kid said nothing, his eyes still on his partner. Heyes had a sudden, worrying thought. “Can you hear me? Kid?”
There was no reply, just a look from beneath heavy eyelids. Kid’s right hand opened. Heyes reached out and took hold. Their eyes met. No words were necessary. Kid closed his eyes once more. Heyes held his friend’s hand, willing him to survive, until Kid slowly released his grip.
“Heyes?” There was no reply. “Heyes?”
Hannibal Heyes’ eyes shot open. Oh no! Oh please, no!
“Kid!” He called frantically.
“D’you want a cup of coffee?” a voice asked.
Heyes turned over and stared at Kid, who crouched beside a fire, coffee pot in his gloved hand.
“What?” Heyes was stunned.
“D’you want a cup of coffee?”
“Yes.” Kid looked confused as Heyes continued to stare at him. “What’s the matter? Have I got my hat on back to front?”
“You’re not shot?”
Heyes propped himself up on his elbows and looked around. They were in the cave. Orange light flickered across the walls as the flames moved in a breeze.
“You’re not shot,” Heyes said again. His breathing began to slow.
“No. Should I be?” Kid looked concerned. “Were you dreaming?”
Heyes let out a sigh of relief.
“I guess I was.” He knew it must be true but a small part of him still needed convincing. “I heard a shot.”
“That was last night. I got a rabbit.”
“You shot a rabbit?”
“There was no one out there?”
“Didn’t see anyone.” He looked at his partner. “It was pretty real huh?”
Brown enquiring eyes looked up at him.
“Yeah. Too real.” Heyes pulled himself into a sitting position. “So you shot a rabbit?”
Kid looked sheepish.
“There’s not much of the stew left. I was hungry and you were fast asleep.”
“You ate my food?”
“I called you. You didn’t wake up.”
“How hard did you try?”
They eyed each other.
“So I got shot?” Kid asked. “In your dream?”
“Wheat and the boys turned up.”
“Rode in to save the day huh?”
Heyes looked away, not liking the memory.
“I could use a cup of coffee.”
As Kid poured a cup, he cast a sideways glance at his friend. What ever Heyes had dreamed about it had clearly shaken him. Kid wouldn’t push it. Heyes would tell him in his own time, if he wanted to.
“At least we don’t have to suffer your coffee this morning,” Kid said, as he handed Heyes a steaming cup.
“I’m glad Kid. I’m glad.”