Beginner’s Luck

Anita Sanchez

In daylight, Devil’s Hole was a barren, eroded ring of yellow cliffs surrounding a small valley with a few cottonwoods and a tiny stream. At night, the tall cliffs melted into the darkness and were invisible until the moon rose behind them. But at dusk, as now, the cliffs caught the red light of the sunset and glowed a with a deep honey-colored light.

Hannibal Heyes had started a small campfire as the sun went down, not only because the air suddenly seemed much colder, but also to have something to do with his hands. He was so nervous he couldn’t sit still, and even after the fire was burning brightly he kept getting up to add sticks to it. He heard a faint sound of voices behind him in the dusk, and looked over his shoulder. A group of men was riding up to the outlaw hideout–the gang of bank robbers he had joined just the day before. There was Danforth, the leader, and Henry and Cal, and a new man, one Heyes hadn’t seen before. Danforth must have just recruited him.

Heyes looked up curiously at the newest member of the gang. A young guy, about his own age, with curly light brown hair and blue eyes. The newcomer wore a sheepskin jacket against the chill of the desert night, and looked friendly and easy-going, like a farmer on a market day who’s done well selling calves or sheep. Heyes couldn’t quite see him robbing a bank. Then he glanced down at the gun holster the new guy was wearing. It was faded and scuffed with use, and was tied securely around his thigh with a leather thong. Heyes knew this was to give a quicker, smoother action on a fast draw.

Heyes looked up and saw the guy watching him. They eyed each other for a minute, the smile on the new man’s face fading slowly. Heyes nodded without smiling. “I’m Heyes,” he said curtly. He was anxious to appear a seasoned veteran of the gang, a professional bank robber to whom this was just another job.

“Kid Curry,” said the other.

Heyes nodded again. “Sit down,” he said, and kicked a log forward for Curry to sit on.

“Thanks,” said Kid, and sat down, opening his heavy jacket and spreading his hands to the warmth.

“All right, shut up,” said Danforth, the gang’s official leader, entering the ring of light provided by the fire. He was a heavy-bodied man, with a bristling black mustache and an aggressive face that thrust forward as he talked. Two younger men, whom Heyes had met earlier in the day, followed him. Cal, a tall, thin boy with awkward hands and feet, sat down close to the fire. Henry, older and surly-faced, stood behind him.

Danforth kicked the fire with his boot and turned to glare at his audience. “Here’s the plan,” he said impressively. “We go in at dawn, and tie our horses in the alley behind the bank. Then we wait till the teller unlocks the door, and just walk right in the front. There’s never any customers there for the first fifteen minutes or so. We get the drop on the tellers, open the safe, and blow on out of there. Simple.”

Cal and Henry, who’d worked with Danforth before, nodded. Kid didn’t say anything, but gave Danforth a straight, impassive stare. Heyes shifted uneasily on his log seat.. He’d never done any bank robbing before, but Danforth’s plan sounded a little too simple.

“Wait a minute,” Heyes said hesitantly. “We open the safe?”

“Well, we have to if we want the money,” said Danforth with heavy sarcasm. Cal and Henry sniggered. Kid Curry still wore the blank look of a poker player.

“Yes, but how do we open the safe?” asked Heyes.

“Don’t you give me any lip, kid,” snapped Danforth, thrusting his face toward Heyes.

Heyes persevered. “I mean it’s locked, right? You have to know the combination...”

Danforth exploded. “You shut up and keep your nose out of my business! You’re a hired gun, that’s all you’re good for. Shut up or be wishing you had!” He put his hand on the gun in his holster. Out of the corner of his eye, Heyes saw Kid make a quiet movement and ease his gun out of the holster. Danforth didn’t notice. He spun around and stomped angrily out of the light of the fire, leaving the others sitting open-mouthed. No one said anything. After a minute Curry quietly reholstered his gun.

Cal and Henry followed Danforth off to the small hut that was their headquarters when they were at Devil’s Hole. Heyes and Curry sat and stared at the fire for a long time in silence, and then rolled themselves up in blankets to lie awake and wait for dawn.

So far, Heyes had to admit, it was going according to plan. They’d tied their horses in the back, and when the bank opened, had walked in like ordinary customers. When the gang had pulled out their guns, the four tellers and the two bank guards had obediently lain down on the ground as ordered. Heyes waited with interest to see how the rest of the plan would unfold.

Danforth grabbed one of the tellers by the collar, and dragged him to his feet. The teller, an elderly man, waved his arms wildly, yelling “Please! Please!” Danforth hauled him past the tellers’ desks and over to the large black safe that squatted behind several rows of shelves. Kid, as arranged, followed him, moving backwards easily, eying the bank employees, the doors, and the windows with nervous watchfulness. Heyes, curious as to how Danforth was going to manage getting the safe open, followed as well.

Danforth dragged the teller around the shelves, out of sight of the others still lying flat on the floor. He slammed the old man into the safe, and drew his gun. Holding the barrel an inch from the teller’s nose, Danforth shouted into the man’s ear “Open the safe, now!”

“I...I...don’t...I...can’t...” stammered the man, gasping for breath.

“Hey, Danforth, take it easy,” said Kid, frowning. “Can’t you see he’s scared to death?”

“Shut up, kid,” snarled Danforth without looking around. “Now!” he screamed, inches from the teller’s ear. “Open it now or you’re dead.” He drew back the hammer on the gun with a loud click. The teller stared at the gun with blank eyes. His lips moved but no sound came out. Heyes opened his mouth to say something, then shut it. Kid listened uneasily, his back to Danforth.

“Open it!” Danforth howled in frustration. “I’m gonna count to three and that’s it.” The teller seemed frozen. He gave no sign that he had heard the threat. “One,” said Danforth, suddenly quiet.

“Hey,” said Kid. “You can’t do that.”

“Two,” said Danforth.

“Hey, wait a minute,” said Heyes.

“Three,” said Danforth.

Kid spun around, and, without pausing to think or aim, fired at the gun in Danforth’s hand. Danforth screamed as the shock stung his hand and the gun crashed to the floor. His scream was echoed by the other three tellers, lying on the ground with hands over their ears. The white-haired bank teller was unhurt, but so shocked by the explosion that he fell in a heap to the ground and lay limp, his hands over his head..

“You idiot!” Danforth yelled angrily. “What the hell’d you do that for?”

Kid didn’t reply. He couldn’t think of a good answer, indeed, as he put the question to himself. A movement caught his eye and he swung the gun and his glance around together. Heyes was staring at him in amazement. Kid noticed that he was literally open-mouthed.

“You got anything to say?”asked Kid belligerently, levelling the gun at Heyes.

“Nope,” Heyes said. They stared at each other for a moment like two wary cats.

“Well, I got something to say, you jackass!” Danforth burst out. “Don’t you dare...”

He went on, shouting, but Kid stopped hearing the words. He looked back at Heyes for some reason, and their eyes met. Kid couldn’t imagine what to do next. The shot must have alarmed the town, the citizenry on the floor were growing restless, and the rest of the gang were shouting impatient questions and curses.

Heyes glanced down at the teller, who still lay on the floor. Then he ran over to where Cal and Henry were still guarding the trembling bank clerks. “Heyes, what’s going on?” whined Cal. “Anybody heard that shot, we’ll have company in a minute.”

“Hold your horses, Cal, we’re gettin’ to it,” said Heyes, hauling another teller to his feet. This one, a young man with spectacles and neat side whiskers, struggled and protested, but Heyes pulled him over to the safe. The young man stared in horror at the elderly teller lying motionless on the ground.

“Now we’ve had to kill one of you already,” Heyes growled, brandishing his gun. “You want to join him, or are you gonna open the safe?”

The teller, staring horrified at the limp body on the ground, quavered,”I’ll do whatever you want.” He flung himself on the safe and after a few false starts managed to twirl the dial back and forth in the correct pattern and turn the handle. There was a quiet metallic “snick,” and the thick door swung open.

All three outlaws crowded to look into the safe. “My God,” said Heyes under his breath. All of them stared open-mouthed for a moment at the stacks and stacks of hundred dollar bills.

After a frozen minute Heyes blinked and said, “Well, don’t stop to admire it, let’s go, let’s go!” and they all started towards the safe at once. Henry and Cal rushed over, too. “Damn it, watch those guys on the floor!" yelled Kid. He and Heyes moved past the row of shelves to keep the tellers and the guards under surveillance while Danforth, Cal, and Henry grabbed up heavy canvas bags and began stuffing them full of bills.

Faint shouts sounded outside the bank window. Kid opened the window shade a crack, and peered out. In the street people were shouting and gesticulating towards the bank, but no one was, as yet, approaching. Then Kid saw a tall man wearing a star on his vest come striding down the main street. Several men ran up to him, pointing at the bank.

Kid glanced at Heyes.   “Looks like I kinda drew their attention,” Kid said ruefully.

Heyes grinned. “Guess we’d better get a move on. Come on, that’s enough,” he called to the others. “The citizens here aren’t deaf. Let’s call it a day.” Danforth stuffed one last handful of hundred dollar bills into his sack, then ran for the door, followed by the rest.

They burst out the back door, Danforth in the lead, Kid last, backing out and keeping an eye on the guards till the last minute. He slammed the door and ran for his horse. Danforth was already spurring down the alley.

They wheeled their horses into the main road that led out of town. Kid heard shouts, but soon they were drowned in the noise of hoofs. He glanced back, and saw nothing but empty road behind.

They pounded on for what seemed like hours, and Kid knew the horses couldn’t keep up this pace much longer. They slowed for a sharp bend in the road, and the horses sank into a trot. Danforth reined up, and the others stopped too. “What are you stopping here for?” shouted Heyes. “You can’t see if they’re behind us or not. We’ve got to get to some high ground.”

“No one’s behind us,” growled Danforth. “We’re clear.” Without warning he pulled his gun from the holster and leveled it at Kid.

“What the hell?” said Heyes. Kid stared at Danforth, feeling an icy chill go down his back. Danforth was only a few yards away, staring at him with hate.

“You young punk, you don’t take a shot at me,” said Danforth in a quiet voice. “You don’t tell me what to do. You don’t screw up my plans...”

“You stupid idiot!” Heyes interrupted. “If he hadn’t stopped you, they’d be after us for murder, right now, and if they caught us we’d all hang.”

“You keep out of this,” Danforth screamed. “I’m the leader here, and I’m going to teach this kid a lesson.” He cocked the gun, aiming it squarely at Kid’s chest.

Kid felt his face and hands grow cold. His brain seemed to be frozen. Heyes swung his hand down towards his gun, but Danforth’s hand was already tightening on the trigger. Cal and Henry watched open-mouthed.

Suddenly a barrage of shots sounded, seeming to burst around their ears. All of them swung around in unison to look at the road behind them, and saw a group of a dozen men roaring towards them around the corner. Dust rose in clouds from the racing hoofs.

Danforth jerked his horse around and spurred it frantically. He fired a shot in Kid’s direction as he did so, but it went wild. Cal and Henry followed him. Heyes and Kid were left alone, staring at each other.

“What a day!” said Heyes. Both yanked on their horses’ reins, turning them sharply around. Heyes whacked his horse’s sides with his heels and yelled “Go! Let’s go!” and the horse abruptly broke into a canter.

Heyes bent low over the horse’s neck as it picked up speed. The rhythmic beat of the hoofs pounded faster and faster, the trees on either side of the road became a green blur. Heyes felt terrified at the prospect of being caught, but he also felt like laughing out loud, a mixture of excitement and terror he’d never felt before. He could see nothing but his horse’s head, ears bobbing and mane flying, and the dust from the road rising on either side. He tried to turn around to see if they were being pursued, but almost lost his balance, and grabbed at the saddlehorn. Beside him Kid was pounding along, holding onto his hat with one hand. Heyes’ hat blew off his head in the wind of their speed. Together they flew down the dusty road, and the posse was left behind.

Kid hit the ground with a crash that knocked his breath out and bewildered him for a few seconds. He heard the scream of the wounded horse, and rolled to get out of the way of the flailing hooves. Getting up on his hands and knees, he shook his head and looked around. He had drawn a little ahead of the others during the long chase, but now the rest of the gang were pounding by on their horses, bent low to avoid bullets. Cal and Henry galloped past and never even looked down; Danforth was already far ahead under the shelter of the trees. Kid saw Heyes glance down at him as he went by, then a fusillade from the pursuers made Kid duck behind the still heaving body of the horse. He looked around, fear starting to rise in his chest. There was no possibility of making a run for the trees. The posse were only a hundred yards off and firing as they came closer. Kid pulled out his gun and crouched low, waiting till the posse came in range.

He heard a pounding noise behind him, and a shout, but he ignored it at first. Then he heard someone yelling his name, and wheeled round to see Heyes galloping towards him. He watched in disbelief as Heyes yanked on the reins, pulling the horse back on its haunches, and held out a hand. “Well, come on,” Heyes yelled. “Or are you gonna stay and have a chat with them?”

Kid stared at him for a long second, then holstered his gun and ran towards Heyes’ horse, who was sidling and pawing with impatience. Heyes kicked his foot out of the stirrup, and grasped Kid’s hand. Kid heaved himself up on the back of the horse, behind the saddle, as Heyes drove his spurs into the horse’s ribs, and the horse took off with a spring that nearly left Kid behind.

They raced for the shelter of the woods, veering away from the rest of the gang. Kid was acutely aware of the popping noise of guns being fired behind them. He tried not to imagine a bullet hitting him in the back, and held on tight as Heyes steered the horse between the trees and up a rocky rise. They rode clinging to the saddle and jouncing up and down as the horse scrambled up the ridge. Finally they reached the top, and Heyes reined in the wheezing horse.

“We better stop and let the horse blow a minute or he’s gonna have a heart attack,” said Heyes, kicking one leg over the horse’s head and sliding to the ground.

“He’s gonna have to get in line behind me,” said Kid, pushing back his hat and rubbing his forehead. Heyes laughed out loud, then looked up at Kid and smiled. “You hurt?” he asked.

“Only my dignity,” said Kid, getting off the horse gingerly. His knee ached and his face and arm were scraped and cut from the fall. “You okay?” He wanted to say something more, but couldn’t quite think of how to put it.

“Yeah,” said Heyes. ”Come on, let’s see where they’re at.”

Crouching low, they scrambled up to the lip of the rise. Lying flat on the ground, they cautiously peered over the edge, and were just in time to see the posse disappearing over the gentle hills in the distance. Heyes blew a sigh of relief, and rolled over on his back. Kid put his head down on his arms. Now it was over, he found his hands were shaking. They lay under the hot sun for a long while.

“You ever do this before, Curry?” asked Heyes finally.

“Do what, get shot at, or fall off my horse?” asked Kid, looking up.

“Rob a bank, I mean,” said Heyes. “Rob anything.”

“Nope. You ever rob anything before?”

“I ain’t robbed anything yet,” said Heyes ruefully. “I haven’t got a cent, have you? Danforth and the others have all the money bags.”

“You’re right,” said Kid, startled. He rubbed his aching knee. “All that for nothing.”

“No, it wasn’t for nothing,” said Heyes slowly. “Call it experience.”

Kid snorted and got to his feet, sliding back down the ridge towards the horse. Heyes followed, deep in thought.

“Let’s think about this for a minute, Curry,” he called after Kid. “You know what we need?”

“More experience,” said Kid, untying the horse. Heyes grinned. “No,” he said. “We need our own gang.”

“Our own gang?” repeated Kid.

“Sure, why not?” said Heyes, warming to the idea. “We could do it. Instead of following some idiot into all sorts of trouble, we’ll start our own gang. Do it right. Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry. What do you say?”

Kid pushed back his hat and scratched his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.”

“Okay!” Heyes said with enthusiasm. “Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry, the two most successful outlaws in the history of the West. And in all the trains and banks they robbed, they never shot anyone.”

Kid laughed, and held out his hand. “Okay,” he said. “It’s a deal.”

“It’s a deal,” said Heyes, and they shook hands. “I don’t know what we’re getting into, though,” added Heyes.

“Well, I do,” said Kid. “I do.”

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