A High-Flying Tall Tale
It was along about noon when Heyes saw the giant chicken cross the road.
Now Hannibal Hayes was not averse to the telling of tall tales: you might even say he had something of a talent in that direction. However, this was the first time he'd ever seen an actual tall tale in the flesh...er, feathers.
"Uh, Kid," he interrupted his partner, who was holding forth on the strategy he contemplated for his next poker game. "Did you just see a, urn, er, chicken go by?"
The Kid looked blank. "Huh? A chicken? No, why?"
"You sure? This was...a rather large chicken."
"Heyes, I didn't see no chicken, large, small, or middlin', and what's the big deal about a chicken anyhow?"
"No big deal, I've just never seen one that big before is all." Heyes sounded kind of funny.
The Kid sighed. "Okay, I'll bite. How big was it?"
"Oh, about six feet."
Curry reined his horse to an abrupt stop. "Six feet?!"
Heyes pulled up next to him. "Yeah, I'd guess about that."
"A...six...foot...tall...chicken." Curry enunciated each word very carefully, as if that way they would make more sense.
"That's what I said. Biggest chicken I ever saw."
Curry just looked at him a moment. Then, "Fine, Heyes," was all he said.
"Fine? Fine? I tell you there's a chicken bigger than you or me running around loose and that's all you've got to say about it? Fine?"
"Look, what kind of chucklehead do you take me for? You don't want to hear my ideas on poker, just say so, no need to go making up fool stories about giant chick--" but here he faltered, his indignation fading as he watched a very tall chicken trot across their path.
"Heyes," he finally managed, breaking his dumfounded trance, "you were wrong."
"I'd say closer to seven feet."
Another bird followed the first two, then another, and soon more flocked in twos and threes past their bemused gaze. They sat transfixed until roused by a shout.
"Help! Stop those birds!"
They spotted a man galloping after the creatures, frantically waving his arms and succeeding only in scattering them every which way.
Curry raised his eyebrows questioningly at Heyes. Heyes shrugged a "why not?" response. With a cry of "Ee-hah!", the two joined the chase. They'd herded enough cattle in their time to be able to handle a bunch of chickens, even chickens as unusual as these. They galloped past them and began turning them back, circling them around, gathering in the stragglers, and soon had them contained in a manageable group.
"Never thought I'd see the day I'd be wrangling chickens. Now what?" Curry asked.
"I expect he'll tell us." Heyes nodded at the third man arriving.
The frantic rider who'd been playing "catch-up" finally caught up and gawked admiringly at their accomplishment. "A most efficient round-up, gentleman. I'm quite impressed," he complimented them between gasps for breath. "Ostriches can be difficult animals to handle, with their combination of strength and speed."
"Oh-h-h, ostriches, of course. Well now. Imagine that. Ostriches." Heyes laughed weakly in relief.
"You mean them's the critters ladies get the feathers from for their hats?" Curry asked in amazement.
"Oh, indeed. Quite valuable they are, too. There's a big demand for them, especially back east. The supply can't keep up fast enough."
"That so?" Heyes perked up considerably. Any talk of business aroused his interest, particularly when it sounded like such profitable business. "I'd sure like to hear all about it."
'Would you, by George? And I'd like to express my gratitude for your help. Won't you accompany me back to my ranch and join me for dinner? In fact, I'll confess I 'm not sure I could get the 'merchandise' back alone."
"My partner and I would be delighted to help. We accept your invitation."
"We do? Uh, that is, we do." Kid Curry recognized his best course was generally to agree with Heyes, and anyhow he was never one to turn down a free meal.
They started the ostriches moving back towards their home and introduced themselves. The rancher took "Joshua Smith" and "Thaddeus Jones" at their face value. Likely he wouldn't be interested in the price on their heads even had he known them to be wanted by the law. They could see immediately that his spread was luxurious by any standards, though more comfortable than ostentatious.
They got the ostriches penned and settled, then settled themselves down to a delicious meal, spiced with their host's eclectic conversation. This ran the gamut from the slightly exotic-sounding ostrich feather trade to the positively outlandish notions of horseless carriages and flying machines.
Price Fallen was a wealthy rancher with a fondness for scientific pursuits. "I'm lucky my inheritance gives me the leisure to indulge my 'fancies,' as a friend once called them. And I'm close enough to Denver here to have some access to civilization. It's simply that I'm interested in more than the grazing requirements of cattle and the market for beef. There are fascinating developments in modern science occurring every day. We live in a wondrous age, gentlemen, and I intend to take part in it."
"If enthusiasm is any measure of success, I'm sure you'll achieve your goals," Heyes smiled.
"I do tend to get a bit carried away when I get on my soapbox. You've hit on something there, though -- interest and excitement surely are components of success. People who are the best at what they do are not bored with what they're doing. Excitement seems to naturally follow successful people around, don't you agree?"
The two most successful outlaws in the history of the west thought it over.
"Excitement ain't always all it's cracked up to be. Myself, I look forward to a nice spell of boredom every now and then," remarked the Kid.
"Now, Thaddeus, Mr. Fallon wasn't talking about common, ordinary folks like you an' me, who haven't ever done anything special."
"Call me Price, please, and I don't see why it shouldn't apply to you. I wouldn't be at all surprised to discover you have hidden talents."
The fastest gun in the west looked at the slickest safecracker, who swallowed and said faintly, "O-o-oh, they must be hidden real deep."
"On the contrary, I've already noticed something."
The Kid grew very still.
"And what would that be?" Heyes asked carefully. He resisted an impulse to glance at his partner.
"Why, your round-up skills today," Fallon continued. "As you could plainly see earlier, since the last of my hands quit this week I'm making a botch of things on my own. How'd you like to take on the job of running this place, so I can get back to my studies? I'd make it worth your while." He made them a generous offer.
The Kid started breathing again.
Heyes relaxed. "Matter of fact, we just might be able to accommodate you," he said. "Don't know much about ostriches, though."
"Oh, it's standard ranch work overall. I can fill you in on anything special you need to know about my pet projects. You'd be helping me out of a spot here."
Heyes waited for Curry's nod of agreement, then turned back to Fallon. "Price," he said, "throw in an extra hundred and you've got yourself a deal."
"Apiece," the Kid clarified.
"Apiece," Heyes agreed.
Fallon held out his hand to seal the bargain. "Splendid! I know we'll get along famously. I have a feeling about you two --perhaps you'll change my luck."
'The question is, which way?"
Price laughed at the Kid's "joke"; Heyes forced himself to join in.
The Kid was a patient man. There was a stillness about him while waiting out situations that would have his partner prowling like a caged wildcat. So it was that he waited a full ten seconds before saying, "Okay, Heyes, you been looking like a cat in a cream pot ever since we got here. Granted, the pay's good and we need a job, but you got more. on your mind than that. You gonna tell me what's got you so all-fired set on bein' ostrich wranglers?"
"Kid, you heard what Fallen said about the money to be made from those birds. Society ladies back east are paying through their upturned noses for those feathers. We got a chance to make our fortunes here. Ostrich wranglers, nothing -- we’ll be ostrich entrepreneurs!"
"Heyes, last time I looked, those birds belonged to Fallen. We're just the hired hands -- well paid, but hired hands just the same. How you figure to change that?"
"You heard 'im, Kid. They can't keep up with the demand for them. Plenty of room in the market for a couple more dealers. We'll learn everything about the birds and the business while we're working here, then we'll take our excessive salary and use it for a stake to buy our own breeding pair. Then we just sit back and count the money that rolls in."
"I dunno, Heyes. I think there's a little more to it than that. Like land for a ranch to raise these fancy birds, not to mention everything that goes along with that."
"I know, I know. I simplified things a bit. I haven't got all the angles figured yet, but I will. Trust me, Kid – I know when a sweet deal's knockin' on our door. Our luck's turned at last."
The Kid was unconvinced. "Like I said before, the question is which way?"
For once it seemed the Kid was right. There was a lot more to it than they'd figured. Trouble was, sometimes Heyes would get so caught up in the pure beauty of an idea, he'd be reluctant to notice any problems. When he did, he could work them out more often than not. This was one of the nots.
"No matter how many times I calculate it, Kid, I just can't make it come out better. We might not lose too much money the first year, assuming we don't hit one stroke of bad luck, but the time it would take us to actually start making any... and I really thought this was gonna be a gold mine. Problem is, this is just one of those cases where you already have to be rich to get any richer."
"Don't take it too hard, Heyes. At least we got a good job out of it and I was never really happy with that ostrich idea, anyway. Them birds just ain't dignified."
"Mm. Well, speaking of our precious charges, we'd better go check and make sure they're bedded down proper."
"You know, Heyes, you're gettin' to be as bad as Fallen over them critters -- like a mama ostrich hen with 'er chicks."
"Kid, they're valuable livestock and we're bein' well paid to mother 'em."
"Price is the one I think needs a mother. I still can't figger him goin' off like that today without sayin' anything."
"Kid, he don't have to report to us. 'Sides, he took that contraption from the barn with him. Prob'ly the wind came up sudden and he had to rush off to do this experimentin' before it changed or died down or something. You know how he is about those studies of his."
"I'da thought he'da been back by dark, though."
"Who knows, Kid? Maybe he was too far away by then and had to spend the night somewheres. Now who's sounding like a mother hen?"
"I expect you're right, Heyes. Still, somethin' about all that book learnin' stuffed inside a feller's head seems to drive the common sense right out."
"Different people just have different strengths, I guess, like we was talkin' about that first night. Besides...sh!"
"D'djou hear something?"
"Thataway. I'll go left, you circle around to the right."
The Kid nodded in agreement and slowly drew his gun from his holster in readiness. One thing no intruder in his right mind would want to meet up in the dark was Kid Curry with a six-gun.
However, it seemed that one was about to. The Kid made out one shadow darker than the rest near the ostriches' corral, one that wasn't shaped like any bird, giant or not. He crept silently up to it and issued a low warning. "Come on out, slowly, and hands up where I can see 'em."
"Easy now, there's no need to get trigger happy," came a familiar voice, and the Kid saw a pair of hands go up, followed by a man's figure raising to its feet.
"Kyle?!" the Kid exclaimed.
"Howdy, Kid," greeted his old colleague.
"Kyle, what are you doing here?" In exasperated surprise, the Kid lowered the gun.
"Wheat an' me, we aim to snatch us some fancy birds, s'posed to be worth a whole heap of money." Kyle grinned broadly.
"Wheat? Wheat's here, too?"
A grumble acknowledged his presence. "Kyle, do ya have to be givin' me away with your first words?"
"He didn't, Wheat. I sighted you before he spoke up." Heyes strode forward from the other side, his gun trained on the second would-be robber. "Evenin', boys," he smiled, then holstered his gun.
"Well, isn't this a cozy reunion," Wheat commented.
"Yuh, so you won't mind a friendly question. What's this about stealing these here birds? You can't sell 'em without everybody knowing where they came from, and if you're planning to go into the ostrich business for yourselves, I already figured out it ain't easy money."
"We ain't gonna keep 'em, Heyes. We're gonna hold 'em for ransom," Kyle announced proudly.
"Yeah, that's right, Heyes. See, you ain't the only one can think up a smart plan."
'Thought this one up all by yourself, did you, Wheat?"
"That's just what I done. I reckon that rich dude that owns this place'd pay plenty to get 'em back. He sets a lotta store by them fancy birds, for what I hear."
"And just how did you plan to do this, Wheat?"
"Yeah, how? How exactly are you gonna hold 'em while you're holdin' 'em, if you see what I mean?"
“Wheat and me are gonna just drive 'em off a ways and camp out somewheres the owner couldn't find 'em."
"Kyle," the Kid interjected, "you ever seen an ostrich?"
"No-o. They're just big birds, ain't they?"
"Oh, they're big all right. Kyle, these aren't just oversized chickens here. These birds are seven feet tall."
"Seven feet tall?!"
"That's right, and they can run faster 'n your horse and they're strong enough to kick you clear back to Devil's Hole if they've a mind to, all of which makes no never-mind anyhow because you're not stealing these ostriches!" Heyes forcibly declared.
"Oh, we ain't? Who says so?" Wheat challenged.
"I say so, the Kid says so, and what's even more important, the Kid's gun says so."
The Kid just smiled. He didn't move a finger towards his gun, which was back in its holster. He didn't have to.
Wheat nervously cleared his throat. "Well, when you put it like that, Heyes, we don't mind doin' you a favor. For old times' sake. Ain't that right, Kyle?"
"Sure, Wheat." Kyle was generally ready to please.
"Glad you see it our way, Wheat. It wouldn't have worked, you know. The Kid and I've been working with these pesky ostriches long enough to know that. Believe me, we saved you a heap of trouble."
"Oh, so you boys are hired on here. Tell me, is that rich owner as strange in his ways as folks say? I mean, I heard all kinds o' stories 'bout the goings-on here."
"He just likes to do science experiments is all," Heyes answered slowly, beginning to wonder just what Wheat had heard. "They don't always work, and even when they do some folks think they're kind of peculiar."
"I guess the boys'll find out all about that in Denver tonight," mused Kyle.
"Denver? What boys? What's going on, Wheat?" asked the Kid.
"How'd you two hear about this place and the ostriches anyway?" added Heyes.
"Kyle," Wheat began to scold, then gave it up as a lost cause. He sighed and decided to come clean. "It's some of Big Jim Santana's old recruits," he confessed. "You remember, Heyes, when Big Jim brought in all those boys to Devil's Hole because he needed extra help on that big job he was planning, to rob the Wells Fargo Clearinghouse in Denver? Well, after you talked him into giving up his plan and goin' straight, some of those boys just couldn't let go of the idea. They kept at it and at it, all this time, till they finally come up with a plan of their own. They figured out a way to get in, but I guess their biggest problem was gettin' out -- just wasn't no way they could get around gettin' caught till they heard about your boss here and one of his newfangled notions."
Heyes and the Kid looked at each other in alarm as light dawned: the object missing from the barn!
"They came back to Devil's Hole to get us to join them," Kyle took up the tale, "but we didn't want no part o' that scheme. That's when we heard about this place, though, and when Wheat thunk up his idea about the oss-trich-es. I guess they found enough boys to throw in with 'em someplace, 'cause they come today to get the thingamajig and to take your boss with them to work it. We thought this'd be a good time to take the birds away and make him pay later, after he got back. We didn't know you boys was workin' here, though."
Heyes was doing some quick calculating. "They've go a big head start but they must have had to wait until dark, and they'd have needed time to get set up. We just may be able to catch 'em before they do anything. We gotta at least try."
"You're gonna try and stop 'em?" Wheat was incredulous. "Now, seein' as how they outnumber you and they got a big head start on you, why would you wanna do that?"
"For one thing, we like Fallen. For another, he owes us money and we want to get paid. For a third," and he eyed the Kid seriously, "if they pull this off, it's gonna be the biggest robbery west of the Mississippi and every lawman within spittin' range is gonna want in on it. They're bound to find out we were here and there's not one will believe we weren't in on it, and..."
"And there goes our amnesty," the Kid finished glumly.
"Looks like you got your work cut out for you, so Kyle and me will just be wishin' you luck and moving on."
"Whoa there, Wheat. I was counting on you two to be comin' along."
"Now why would we do that, Heyes? We don't got any of those reasons you talked about, so I don't see..."
"The reward, Wheat."
"Ree-ward? What ree-ward?"
"Price Fallon is a very rich man. You thought he'd pay a lot to get his ostriches back safe and sound and you were right. So don't you think he'd pay even more to get himself back safe and sound?"
"That's smart thinking, Heyes. Ain't it smart, Wheat?" "Sure it's smart. I was just waitin' to see if he'd think of it, too. 'Course there'll be a ree-ward. Count us in."
"We know when we can count on you, Wheat. What's your plan, Heyes?" the Kid asked.
"So far my plan's to saddle up and get going. I'll think up the rest on the way. We haven't got time for more now -- except..."
The Kid could always tell when Heyes was getting an idea. A certain look came over Heyes’ face, so you could practically see his brain clicking away in there. The Kid saw that look now. "Except..." he prompted.
Heyes looked up and smiled. "I think we'll take some of the ostriches with us," he said.
“What do you want to be draggin' them silly birds along for?" complained Wheat.
"Easy, Wheat, he's got an idea. Don't you?" the Kid defended his partner.
"I think I just might. Come on, we need to hurry. I'll explain on the way."
"Hannibal and the ostriches," said the Kid. "Well, at least they're not elephants. You heard 'im boys. Head 'em up, move 'em out."
By the time they got into town, Wheat and Kyle were pretty comfortable with handling the birds. This was important, since Heyes' plan required them to bring the ostriches back to the ranch on their own, along with all their horses.
"What do you mean, take our horses back? How are we getting back?" the Kid asked suspiciously.
"We're going back with Price, of course," was Heyes' bland reply.
“With Price? In that...that thing?! No, Heyes, there is no 'of course' about it. You're not getting me in that!"
"Kid, don't be such a stick-in-the-mud. Where's your sense of adventure?"
"Stuck in the mud. Or at least on the ground. And I intend to stay there with it. I'll just stick with the horses. You come back with Price if you're so anxious to try something that far-fetched. You don't need me anyway."
"I do need you because those boys are not going to be too happy to see their escape ticket floating away. We're going to be the target of all that unhappiness and I want your gun arm with us."
The Kid glared at his friend, but didn't answer for a minute. Finally all he said was, "How I let you get me into these fixes…"
"I knew you'd come around. You might even enjoy it," Heyes enthused.
"You wanna cut the chatter back there? We're here," came from Wheat who'd been scouting up ahead.
They halted the birds, dismounted, and crept up for a closer look at the scene before them. They saw men and horses quietly standing about. Beyond them was a wall that they knew marked the rear of the Wells Fargo Clearinghouse, where more gold then they dared to dream about awaited shipment to banks and businesses all over the west. Off to the side of the group a strangely-shaped, bulky object loomed out of the darkness, seeming to expand overhead as they watched. It stopped growing and steadied, and they heard a voice growl, "Is it all set then at last?"
"Yes, she's ready to go," Price's voice replied.
"About time," the first voice complained. "Don't forget what we said. This had better work or you're a dead man."
"And I'll repeat what I said," Price responded unflinchingly. "I do have confidence, but I can make no guarantees."
"I'll make you a guarantee, I'll guarantee you a grave if you cross us," a third voice threatened.
"I've assured you I'll make every effort to cooperate," Price said.
Heyes had heard enough. It sounded like they were just in time. He still would have attempted his plan, with minor alterations, if the robbery had already taken place, but this made it definitely easier. He began giving instructions to his crew.
"Wheat, Kyle, get those ostriches moving. The Kid and I are going to head straight for Price. As soon as you see us clear, get those critters together and high-tail it out of here. And just a reminder -- the reward will probably go down if any of them gets hurt along the way."
"Don't you worry none about that. I won't let that ree-ward out of my mind."
"I knew I could count on that, Wheat. Kid, are you over your jitters?"
"No, I ain't over 'em, and iffen you had the sense of one of those ostriches you wouldn't be either. If you're asking me if I can shoot straight regardless..."
"No, I wouldn't be asking such a fool question as that. Let's get going then. With luck we'll all meet back at the ranch by morning."
With a whoop, Kyle and Wheat drove the ostriches forward. They ran straight for the waiting group. Horses reared, men shouted and ran. It was total, glorious chaos -- exactly what Heyes had hoped for.
With everyone's attention riveted on the distraction he'd engineered, Heyes led the Kid in a beeline straight for Price. They found him too startled by the commotion to wonder at their materialization.
"My flock! Where… how...?"
"Never mind that now. Can you get this thing airborne?" Heyes insistently recalled his attention to their plight.
"Well, yes. I'm sure I can, but..."
"No time for but's. We gotta get you outta here. Now!"
"Here. Help me loosen these lines." He climbed into the basket as he spoke. Heyes climbed right in after him. In a moment they began to rise from the ground. The Kid stood and watched.
"Ya know, Joshua," he ventured, "I didn't like the looks of this thing from far away, but now that I see it up close, I still don't like the looks of it."
"Hey! The balloon!" Somebody raised the alarm.
"Would you get in here!" Heyes reached out and dragged the Kid into the basket. A shot whistled past the spot where he'd been standing. He peered cautiously over the rim and returned the fire as they continued to rise into the air.
"Be careful of my birds," Price cried.
"Don't fret," Heyes reassured him. "He won't hit nothin' he ain't aimin' at. You just concentrate on your flying." He drew his own gun and joined the Kid in covering their escape.
"The gunfire's gonna bring those Wells Fargo guards running," the Kid observed. "These boys won't be hanging around much longer if they know what's good for 'em."
"I 'd like to take that advice myself. This won't move any faster, will it?" Heyes inquired.
"We'll pick up a little speed with the wind. We're pretty much dependent on that… ah, here we go."
The wind carried them safely out of range. Before they were too far, they were able to make out figures suddenly running off in all directions, as Wheat and Kyle and their feathered charges trailed back the way they'd come.
Now that the immediate danger was over, Heyes relaxed and hazarded a good look around and below. He was abruptly overcome by a sensation of spinning. "Thaddeus," he said hoarsely, "whatever you do, don't look down."
"What's that, Joshua? Hey, you were right, this isn't so bad after all." The Kid was leaning over the edge of the basket, thoroughly enjoying what he could see of the view in the dark. 'We're moving along at a pretty good clip now."
"Indeed we are," agreed Fallen. "Too bad it's in the wrong direction."
"Hah?" Heyes was not at his most articulate when he was feeling out of control, which he was most decidedly feeling at the moment.
"It's blowing us away from the ranch. As I mentioned before, we do depend on the wind to a great extent. That's one of the problems we aeronauts are trying to work out. We might be up here for some time, however, before I can get us on the right track."
"There's nothing for us to do, then, but sit back and enjoy the ride, eh, Joshua?"
"All that talk about excitement and adventure and science and, sure enough, we landed right in the middle of it."
"Kinda makes you think, don't it? Those great big birds with all those fancy feathers and can't fly an inch off the ground, and here we are without a feather among us, flying through the air as if we were born to it."
"I wouldn't be surprised if this does catch on someday. It's kinda pleasant and peaceful way up here. You're looking a little peaked, though, Joshua, or is it the dark?"
When they finally made it to the ranch the next morning, a bit bedraggled but all in one piece, they saw that the others had arrived before them. The birds were none the worse for wear, and Wheat and Kyle had made themselves right at home. They even dished them up some breakfast. The Kid was famished and dug right in, but Heyes wasn't feeling particularly hungry for some reason.
Wheat and Kyle wanted to hear all about the ride in "that there air-buggy". For once Heyes left the storytelling to the Kid.
Fallen didn't let them down. As Heyes had predicted, he rewarded Wheat and Kyle generously, and gave Heyes and Curry a big bonus as well.
He accepted Heyes' explanation of the rescue: Wheat Carlson and Kyle Murtry were two old friends who'd heard they were here and stopped in for a visit. Witnessing the kidnapping, they'd followed at a distance, then returned to enlist the aid of "Smith" and "Jones". Fallen didn't seem to wonder why they hadn't gone for the law. He was just too relieved they'd all, including the ostriches, made it back safely.
"I said I had a feeling about hiring you two. I knew you'd be lucky for me."
"That doesn't sound very scientific, Price," said the Kid.
"I don't know a scientist anywhere who'd deny the role of luck in his discoveries."
"As a gambler, I certainly recognized the role of science in my luck," Heyes contributed. "I just never knew either one could be found in a giant chicken or lady's hat trimming."
"Appearances can be deceiving and the world is full of surprises," speculated Price. "You just never know what fascinating stories may be hidden behind the most innocent surfaces."
"Or then again," said Thaddeus Jones, "things, and people, may be just as ordinary as they seem."
Joshua Smith smiled. "I guess you just never know."
1: See ASJ episode "Return to Devil's Hole."
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