Heyes hefted the ax thoughtfully. It felt good to do a lick of work occasionally, manual work, honest work. He brought the ax down on a chunk of pine with a satisfying thunk and the log split cleanly in two halves. The piney smell was sharp and strong in the autumn air. Yes, sir, feels good, he thought, an honest day’s work.
Half an hour later, his hands were blistered, the ax seemed to have gotten a lot heavier, and his enthusiasm was wearing thin. A large stack of split pine logs seemed like more than enough for the present. He put down the ax, carried an armful of logs into the cabin, and dumped them in a heap near the stove.
On his way back to the woodpile he glanced around the clearing in front of the cabin. Not a thing to see but trees. Tall pines circled the cabin in every direction, their needles a dull green no matter what the season. Nothing grew in the shade under them, no flowers, ferns or grass. Heyes felt a tiny thread of unease as he looked at the wall of pines. Closed in, he thought. Too closed in. Kansas prairies or Arizona desert, they were blazing hot in summer, and bitter when the winter winds blew, but at least you could see around you. The dense pines blocking the horizon made Heyes feel edgy.
Kid wanted to winter over here, spend the winter in the mountains with the cabin as home base, but Heyes didn’t like the notion. It wasn’t the fact that it was so quiet here; a little peace and quiet would be nice for a change. He just wanted to be in a place where he could see what was coming.
He looked over his shoulder suddenly, for no reason. Nothing was there. It was getting on for evening, Kid should be back soon. He’d gone off to try his luck hunting, since they were both getting tired of beans and biscuits. Heyes picked up another armload of firewood. A fire would feel good tonight, it was getting colder by the minute, and the wind was picking up, too. His shirt was sweaty and he was starting to feel chilled. He decided to go in and start the stove, anticipating the luxury of sleeping warm under a well-caulked roof.
The cabin wasn’t something they’d planned on. He and Kid had just stumbled on it two days ago, as they were riding aimlessly in the mountains and idly panning for gold in the mountain streams. They hadn’t been up this far north in a long time. It was a roomy, comfortable miner’s cabin, with a bed, a chair, and a wood stove that must have broken the back of a mule to get up here. There were even a few supplies, but no sign that it had been inhabited for a long time. Just another broke miner who died or moved on, they supposed.
Suddenly he looked over his shoulder again. He couldn’t have told what made him so sure there was something behind him, but he wasn’t surprised to see figures under the pines— three men on horseback at the edge of the trees, watching him. The wind and the damp, pine-needled ground had muffled the horses’ hoofbeats. Heyes didn’t recognize the men with their faces shadowed in the gathering dusk, but he knew something was wrong. He glanced back at the cabin, where his rifle and gun belt were hanging on the wall inside.
One of the men moved forward, and the other two followed. Heyes felt an unpleasant chill down his back as he recognized John Cutter. He’d thought that they had successfully left Cutter behind a long time ago. The other two were his sons, Mike and Bill.
Heyes had to order his feet not to run. He took a deep breath and firmly placed a relaxed and affable smile on his face. The three men rode up to him but didn’t dismount. The tall figures on horseback surrounded him. None of the three returned his smile.
“Hi, fellows, long time no see,” said Heyes casually.
“Well, that’s not our fault,” returned John Cutter grimly. “We’ve been tracking you boys for quite a while now. Got on your trail in Denver, but you’re hard to catch up with.”
“That a fact,” said Heyes, smiling pleasantly and thinking wildly, desperately, what on earth to do. Stall for time? That was no good. Kid would come riding right into them. He might be here any minute. He could see from their grim expressions that they were out for blood. Get rid of them. The only chance, but how to do it? He wasn’t going to outfight them, that was sure.
“So where’s your partner?” asked Cutter, getting right to the point. The other two were listening, in what Heyes felt was a menacing silence.
“Curry?” said Heyes lightly. “Oh, we split up a few weeks ago. He was going to try his luck in New Mexico, and I had a fancy to come on up north here. “
“Oh, really? Well, that’s funny, because his twin brother was seen with you in Saratoga three days ago,” returned Cutter.
“Oh, that guy,” said Heyes, not missing a beat. “I know who you mean. Wears a brown hat. He looks a lot like the Kid, but that’s not him.”
“Just a funny coincidence,” said Cutter.
“That’s right,” said Heyes, realizing that he was getting nowhere.
Cutter dismounted and so did the others, keeping their hands on their guns. The brothers moved around behind Heyes. He could feel rather than see them standing at his back. Cutter moved a step closer.
“Come on, Cutter,” Heyes tried. “Kid didn’t have anything to do with Frank getting killed, why won’t you believe that? We told you back then, it was the sheriff that shot Frank. Kid wasn’t exactly fond of Frank, but he wouldn’t shoot him in the back.”
Cutter ignored this. Ever since the bank robbery gone wrong where his son had been killed, he had seemed impervious to logic. Kid and Frank had had a series of arguments over a saloon girl, and Cutter had decided that Kid must be to blame for the death of his son. No amount of reasoning could convince him otherwise.
“I’ve been waiting to get on your trail for long time, Heyes,” Cutter said. “Now I know Curry’s here, around here somewhere. You want to tell me the truth, or do you want me to beat it out of you?”
“He went into town for supplies,” said Heyes desperately, making it up as he went along, aware that he couldn’t stop to think even for a moment if it was going to sound convincing. “We needed beans, coffee, all sorts of stuff. Check the cabin, you can see we’re out of everything, and we’re planning to winter here. He went into town, he’ll be gone a couple of days.”
Cutter motioned to the cabin with his head and one of the brothers jogged over and disappeared inside. Heyes heard a crash of cans and jars hitting the floor. In a few moments the man was back. “Not much in there,” he said. “Two saddle rolls and blankets. Only one rifle. Not much food.”
“See, he went to town. Won’t be back till tomorrow,” repeated Heyes. “You boys want to leave a message?”
Cutter swung his arm and hit Heyes in the face with the back of his fist. “You stop shootin’ off your mouth and give me a straight answer,” he said. “Where’s he gone, which town? There’s two towns, Racine and Saratoga, one on either side of the mountain.”
Heyes wiped blood off a cut lip with the back of his hand. He felt as if the dull-green pines were closing in on him more closely than ever. He backed up a step and bumped into the Cutter boys standing behind him. There didn’t seem to be anywhere to run. He shrugged. “I didn’t ask and he didn’t say.”
Cutter hit him again, harder. The shock of the blow made Heyes feel a cold stab of terror. They could kill him, shoot him, beat him to death, and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. He shook his head to clear it, and saw Cutter’s fist raised to hit him again. Instinct took over and without even pausing for thought, he ducked, shoved an elbow in the stomach of Mike Cutter looming behind him, and ran for the trees.
He hadn’t gone five strides before something hit him like a boulder. It was the huge body of Bill Cutter, who knocked him over and landed on top of him with a crash that drove all the breath out of his lungs. Heyes lay on the ground, panting, head spinning, and heard the other two approach.
His mind raced, trying to calculate what would happen if he told them the truth, that Kid was just off hunting and would be back at any moment. What then? They’d hide in the cabin, wait in the dark, guns ready, and as Kid rode into the clearing they’d open fire. Heyes was dragged to his feet, and stood swaying, looking at Cutter’s grim face.
“You got anything to tell us?” asked Cutter. “Which way did he go?”
”He headed east,” said Heyes hopefully. “Might be he’s headed for Racine, that’s a bit closer.”
“Might be,” agreed Cutter. “Then it might be that he’s coming back tonight, since he left his blanket roll here. Got anything to say to that?”
Heyes rubbed a hand across his eyes. His head ached and he couldn’t think. For once his silver tongue had deserted him, and he couldn’t think of a single lie to tell, an escape plan, an alibi, nothing.
“Well?” said Cutter harshly. “Got anything to say?”
“Can’t think of a thing,” said Heyes.
It was getting darker— almost too dark to see. Snow began to fall noiselessly, just a few gentle flakes drifting down. The three Cutters stood over Heyes in the darkness, John Cutter swearing under his breath in frustration. Heyes lay on the ground and was only vaguely aware of voices overhead.
“It ain’t no good, Pa, he ain’t gonna tell you nothing,” said Mike Cutter. “Leave him alone, Heyes never did nothin’ to Frank. Curry was the one that killed him.”
“Shut up!” said Cutter savagely, turning away and striding over to where the horses were tethered. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
“Out of here?” repeated Mike, glancing at Bill and hurrying after his father. “What do you mean? Curry’ll be back here sooner or later. All we got to do is wait.”
“I’m not going to wait around for Curry to see our horses and bushwack us when we’re asleep. We know he’s around here somewhere. We’ll ride down the track towards Racine, and then if we don’t see him we’ll double back. Come on!” John Cutter yanked his horse around and headed off towards the path that led from the clearing. The two others looked at each other, then across the yard to where Heyes lay where they had dropped him. Bill shrugged, and they mounted and followed their father off into the darkness under the trees. The snow still fell lightly, but there was a steady wind. Heyes lay still, and the snow began to drift over him.
It was snowing hard by the time Kid rode into the clearing. He was glad to be back. Hunting had taken longer than he’d planned, and by the time he’d gotten a deer the shadows were long. The uphill ride to the cabin had seemed to take forever, and then the path that he was following had petered out, leaving him in a maze of trees that all looked alike. The snow had started to sift down as he searched for the right path in the deepening dusk and cold, and he had begun to have unpleasant thoughts of trying to weather a blizzard holed up under a pine tree. Finally the moon had risen above the trees, giving a pale light even through the clouds, and he had found the path to the cabin with a sigh of relief.
He was mildly surprised to see that the cabin was dark, and wondered if Heyes had gone out to look for him. He shouted, but no answer came from the dark doorway. Kid felt uneasy, and looked around. His tired horse plodded across the yard towards a pile of firewood already drifted with a covering of snow. Near the woodpile was a dark shape that Kid thought might be old clothes. Maybe Heyes had left his jacket outside? That seemed strange. He peered down through the snow.
Suddenly Kid flung himself off his horse. He bent over the huddled shape, and yanked at Heyes’ arm to roll him over. “My God,” he heard himself saying. “Heyes, what happened? Where’re you hurt?” Heyes didn’t move. “Heyes!” Kid shouted, sure that Heyes would answer “I’m okay, relax, will ya?’ like he always did. But Heyes still lay motionless. Kid bent over him to listen for a heartbeat, but couldn’t hear anything but his own ragged breathing. Heyes’ eyes were closed and his face was white in the dusk.
In sudden panic, Kid shook him roughly, but Heyes lay limp and still. Kid looked around with a wild unreasoning hope that help would come, that a doctor would appear out of nowhere, but all he saw was the dark, shadowed pines. Abruptly he realized that whoever had hurt Heyes was out there still, and that he himself was an easy target.
He drew his gun and crouched by Heyes’ side. He peered into the darkness, his eyes hunting for any movement or outline, straining to hear any sound of approaching footsteps, but the wind in the pines covered all other sounds. No place to hide. He spun around, his hand clutching the gun so tightly it shook. No sight or sound of anyone. He’d been shot at often, but always by someone he could see, could shoot back at. This unseen enemy filled him with fear.
After a few moments he lowered his gun. He was tempted to yell, “Come out and stop hiding, dammit!” But the years-long habit of secrecy, of lying low, made him stay quiet. He waited tensely, expecting any second the sound of a gun, a bullet that would smash into him. Nothing happened.
He looked down at Heyes again, who still hadn’t moved. Kid stared at him, looking for some sign of movement, anything, forgetting the possibility of an unseen gunman sneaking up on him. In the darkness, he couldn’t see if Heyes was breathing at all. He took off his glove, putting his bare hand in front of Heyes’ mouth. He felt a slight breath, and a vast relief flooded over him, in an almost painful wave. He could feel it go from the back of his neck right down to his heels.
He stood up, holstering his gun. He wasn’t scared anymore. He felt detached from the mysterious enemy lurking in the shadows. There didn’t seem to be anything he could do about it, so he might as well forget it. Besides, Kid thought, I guess if someone was going to shoot me they could have done it a few dozen times by now.
Kid felt an icy blast of wind on his back, and decided the most urgent necessity was to get under cover. He lifted Heyes in his arms and carried him to the dark cabin, kicked the door open, and dumped him on the bed. Kid slammed the door shut and groped for the lamp and the matches. As the tiny light from the oil lamp grew and strengthened, he set it on the table by the bed and turned to look Heyes over.
He swore viciously as he saw Heyes’ face, cut and battered, with dried blood smeared from mouth and nose. Even in the weak light from the lantern Heyes looked blue with cold. Kid swore again, piled both blankets over Heyes, added his own sheepskin jacket, and began to throw firewood in the stove.
The dry pine logs blazed up quickly, and when the stove was roaring, he put the coffeepot on top. As soon as the water warmed he poured a cupful, and added a large dollop of whiskey. Heyes coughed and choked over it, but Kid made him drink the whole thing. A little color came back to Heyes’ face, and he opened his eyes. He stared at Kid frowning, as if trying to remember who he was.
“How you doin’, Heyes?” said Kid, starting to wipe the blood gently off his face.
“Kid?” said Heyes, blinking at him dubiously.
“Yeah,” said Kid. “Hold still.”
Heyes reached up and grabbed Kid’s sleeve. “Are you okay?” said Heyes, staring at him.
“Me?” asked Kid in surprise. “You’re the one who’s half dead. What the hell happened?”
“I don’t know where he is,” said Heyes, closing his eyes.
“Who?” said Kid, shaking Heyes’ shoulder.
“I didn’t ask and he didn’t say,” Heyes murmured.
“Who did this? Who beat you up? Heyes!”
Heyes seemed to be asleep. Kid picked up Heyes’ right hand and looked at it in the light of the lantern. It was unmarked, the knuckles unbroken. He shook his head in frustration, wanting to beat the tar out of someone. Nobody being to hand, he kicked the stove ferociously and went on gently sponging off Heyes’ face with the warm water. Heyes muttered and stirred, but didn’t wake. Kid thought for a moment, then put his coat on and opened the cabin door.
The wind hit him like a hammer, ripping the door out of his hand and slamming it against the wall. Kid hauled it shut behind him and went out into the pelting snow. He’d meant to look around for signs of the mysterious assailants, but quickly realized that whoever had been here wouldn’t be lurking under the trees in this gale.
He went to the stable, leaning into the wind. His horse, the deer still tied across its back, had found the way inside and was standing next to Heyes’ horse. Kid could hear them munching hay placidly. Kid unsaddled the horse by touch in the dark, and dumped the deer carcass in a corner. It would freeze and stay there until he was ready to hack some meat off it. He fought the stable door shut against the wind and struggled back to the cabin, wading through the knee-deep snow.
The cabin seemed quiet and warm after the noisy howl of the wind. Heyes was still asleep. Kid threw some more wood in the stove and sat down to await developments.
He spent a worrying night. Heyes tossed and turned restlessly. He seemed burning hot one minute and icy cold the next. Kid gave him sips of hot water mixed with whiskey, tried to keep him quiet, and wished he knew more about doctoring. The nearest town was a day’s ride, in good weather.
Kid listened to the wind howling outside the windows as the hours dragged by. Finally, after what seemed like a week, Heyes stopped tossing and fell into a heavy sleep. Kid watched him anxiously for a while, but he seemed to be all right, so Kid got up from the edge of the bed and poured himself a cup of hot water laced with whiskey.
He threw another log on the fire and watched the pine wood spark and flare. He could hear the sizzle of the pine sap burning, and realized that the storm noises had abated, in fact the cabin was eerily quiet. He peered out the window, but all he could see was a sort of gray fog. He cautiously opened the door to check on the weather conditions. He glanced outside, then shut the door quickly.
Grinning, he sat down on the chair by the stove. He tilted it back against the wall, and heaved a tired sigh. The stove’s warmth made him relax, and he was asleep before he realized he had closed his eyes.
Heyes woke up with an aching head, and wondered what he’d drunk the night before. He tried to stretch and discovered his whole body was sore. He stared at the cobwebbed rafters overhead and tried to figure out where he was. And where was the Kid? There was something vaguely disturbing in this thought, and he frowned, trying to remember what was wrong.
He turned his head, wincing, and looked around the cabin. He smiled as he saw Kid, chair tilted precariously against the wall, fast asleep. Then in a rush he recalled what had happened, and lunged forward, trying to sit up.
Heyes couldn’t help a groan as he pushed himself up, and Kid was awake and on his feet in an instant. “Hey, hey, take it easy!” he said, shoving Heyes back down on the pillow. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Kid!” said Heyes, blinking in confusion. “We got to get out of here, now. They’ll be back...what time is it?”
“Hell, I don’t know,” said Kid, stretching. He filled the coffeepot with water from the pitcher and put it on the stove. “Why do you always want to know what time it is?”
“They must have missed you, but they’ll be back,” said Heyes urgently. “They might have gone down as far as Racine, but they’ll be back sooner or later. You didn’t run into them?”
“Didn’t see anyone,” said Kid. “Who you talking about? Who beat you up?”
“John Cutter, “said Heyes, sitting up with difficulty. Kid’s eyes widened.
“Cutter,” he said. “So that explains it. He was looking for me...is that why they beat you up? To find out where I was?”
Heyes ignored this. “Come on, we’ve got to be going,” he urged. “He’s got his two boys with him, and they mean business.” He started to get out of bed, but Kid pushed him back again.
“Relax, Heyes, they ain’t coming back. Not today. Maybe not ever.” He sounded so sure that Heyes sat back.
“What do you mean?” asked Heyes, staring at him. “Do you mean you killed them, or what?”
“No, although I’d be more than happy to,” Kid said grimly. “I didn’t know they were within a hundred miles of here till you told me just now. And they’re probably only a few miles from here right now, but we haven’t got to worry about them any more.”
He walked over to the cabin door, and flung it open. A solid wall of luminous white filled the entire doorway.
“Had a little snow last night, you see,” explained Kid. “Started up at dusk, and you were about half buried when I found you last night, about an hour after sundown. By dawn it was up to the chimney. Never seen such a humdinger.”
“Good God,” said Heyes blankly, staring at the snow.
“When did they leave yesterday?” Kid asked, closing the door.
“They got here about dusk–surprised me out chopping wood, with my gun in the cabin,” said Heyes ruefully. “I don’t know what time they left.”
“No, I guess not,” said Kid. “But if they were here at dusk, there’s no way they could have gotten to shelter. There ain’t nothing around here for miles, and it was a howling gale long before midnight. No, they ain’t coming back. Want some coffee?”
Heyes sank back on the bed and rubbed his face with both hands. “I guess so. Might as well. Looks like we’re gonna be here for a while.”
“Looks like,” said Kid, getting out the coffee. “Like maybe till spring.”
“Well, that suits me, I guess,” said Heyes. “I could do with a little peace and quiet.”