Swathes of frost-tipped grass sparkled in the bright sunlight and crunched crisply under the horses' hooves as two riders, wrapped in heavy coats and mufflers against the chill of the winter morning, made their way across the meadow.
"Darn, if that sky ain't the prettiest blue!" The words hung as a soft mist in the cold air as eyes of an identical hue, looked skyward
"Sure is," agreed Hannibal Heyes with a smile. It had taken a while but he had always known that the Kid would eventually appreciate the beauty of the country they rode through. He knew it could, however, have something to do with the fact that a little over two months ago their long awaited amnesty had finally been granted by the Governor of Wyoming, and the Kid now had more time to look. Always watching for lawmen, posses or bounty hunters — indeed, anyone who fancied their chances of claiming the ten thousand dollar reward on each of them — made it almost impossible to appreciate the passing scenery.
"Those mountain tops have a fair covering of snow already," he added. "It's good we're riding through here now. A couple more weeks and this trail would be impassable."
Dragging his eyes away from admiring the sky Curry cast a sideways glance at his friend. "Well, I can't believe we're passing this way at all."
"It does feel kinda strange," agreed Heyes. "We haven't used this trail since we held up the Columbine train."
Curry pointed at one of the shorter peaks. "Hey, ain't that the mountain Wheat had us push the Brooker 202 offa?"
Heyes nodded pensively. "Could be."
"D' you think she's still there, at the bottom of the river?"
"I reckon so." The former leader of the Devil's Hole Gang smirked to himself as he pictured Wheat Carlson, his chest puffed out like a rooster at finally being in charge, instructing the other gang members to push the safe down the mountain side where it had rapidly sunk to the bottom of the river instead of hitting the pointed rocks Wheat had promised would bust it wide open. "None of those boys would have come back here, especially with a posse in the area. Then, after the mess they made robbing the bank at Porterville, they likely just headed for the hideout, holed up for the winter and forgot about it."
Heyes turned his horse toward the river. "Let's go take a look," he said and heeled the mare into a lope.
Curry called after him, "Don't know what you wanna go look for, Heyes. The water won't look no different to the last time we was here."
As they got closer both men suddenly pulled their mounts to a halt and stared in astonishment.
"Where'd the river go?" Curry exclaimed.
"Maybe a rock fall dammed it upstream and set it on a different course," speculated Heyes. "Must've happened some time ago 'cause that river bed looks real dry to me." He stood up in his stirrups to get a better view. "Over there," he said excitedly, pointing at something looking suspiciously like a large box, sticking up out of the sand. "That's no rock. It's the 202!"
"Well, I'll be..."
The Brooker 202 lay door downward, half-buried, and with a thin layer of silt still clinging to its grey metal exterior. Heyes was the first to jump down from his saddle and had already brushed away a good amount of the silt by the time the Kid joined him.
"Will you look at that! It's just like I told Wheat — those two tumbles down the mountain hardly scratched her paintwork. What we need to do now is pull her upright so I can get to the door."
Seeing a familiar glint in his partner's eyes Kid Curry sighed wearily. "You ain't gonna..."
Heyes grinned cheekily.
"You don't crack safes anymore."
"Not ones in banks or express cars, I don't. But, out here in the middle of nowhere..." Heyes threw his arms wide and shrugged, "...who's to know?"
"Well now, I happen to recall you sayin' it would take two hours to get into this safe and that was the reason we dragged her all the way here and threw her off a doggone mountain. You plannin' on spending two hours out here in the cold tryin' again?"
Heyes patted the solid box. "There's fifty thousand dollars in here, if the rumours we heard back then were true. I guess I gotta know, Kid."
Aware that nothing he said would change Heyes' mind, Curry began unhooking the lariat from his saddle.
"You'd better start diggin' some of that sand away so we can get this rope underneath."
The river sand was soft and easy to dig but it also ran back into the hole just as easily. After improvising a way of shoring up the hole with flat river stones, they eventually succeeded in excavating a small trench in order to feed the rope through and wrap it around the safe. While Heyes tied a secure knot Curry mounted up and looped the other end of the lariat around his saddle horn.
"Okay, Kid, haul away!" called Heyes, standing clear.
Kid Curry urged his horse forward but after several attempts the vault still remained in place.
Again, Heyes was down on his knees this time scooping as much sand away from the base with his gloved hands as he could. "That oughta do it. Try again," he urged, feeling more confident by the minute.
This time the safe moved, but only a little.
"Keep going. She's gonna yield, any minute now."
The words were barely out of Heyes' mouth before the Brooker 202 shifted and, with a dull thud, stood upright for the first time in almost four years.
The second the tension on the rope was released Heyes untied it and began brushing all the sand from the door paying close attention to the all-important dial. He then pulled off his leather gloves and slapped them against his leg in an attempt to rid them of the sand which had made its way through numerous splits in the stitching.
"Looks to me like it's time you bought yourself a new pair of gloves, Heyes," remarked Curry as he dismounted. "And a new hat."
Hannibal Heyes removed the old black hat from his head and regarded it with a look that could only be described as affection.
"There's nothing wrong with them. They're just kinda...'lived in' is all."
He dropped the gloves into the upturned, hole-riddled crown of his hat before handing it to Curry who took it with a mock reverence before looking about him for a rock to sit on. Finding nothing suitable, he sank down onto the cold river bed with his back against the safe and the treasured hat nestled safely in his lap.
Heyes frowned disapprovingly. "If you're gonna sit there, you'd better not breath too loud."
"Don't you fret, Heyes. I'll be as quiet as a mouse. Just make it fast, will ya, before we both freeze to death."
Heyes began briskly rubbing his hands together to warm up his chilled fingers. He then pressed his ear to the metal, closed his eyes, and slowly turned the dial. A long twenty minutes passed before he heard the click of the first tumbler. Smiling to himself he continued to manipulate the dial, listening intently for another.
Eventually he was rewarded as the second tumbler fell into place.
There were a number of things that both he and the Kid missed since they had decided to go straight, a regular supply of food in their stomachs was one, and plenty of money in their pockets was another. But what Hannibal Heyes missed the most was this — pitting his wits against the men who thought themselves clever enough to design a safe that could outsmart the likes of him.
As he listened for the third and final click, so intense was his concentration that a low rumble reverberating through the door made him jump and involuntarily jerk his fingers from where they rested delicately on the dial.
"Dammit it, Jed, wake up will ya!"
Kid Curry peered from underneath the lowered brim of his hat to see why his partner was yelling.
"Wa-wassa matter? You got her open?"
Trying hard to curb his irritation Heyes inhaled long and deep before saying, pointedly. "No. And I won't with you snoring fit to wake the dead."
"You even close to crackin' her?"
"Yes, I am. Only one more tumbler to go." He smiled tightly. "So, if you'll just let me get on with it."
The quest for amnesty had taken so long that Curry had forgotten how touchy Heyes could get if he was disturbed. As always, he smiled as if nothing was amiss.
"Sure, Heyes. I guess I'll go stretch my legs."
When the third tumbler finally fell into place Heyes could barely contain his joy as he took hold of the lever and, after a somewhat dramatic pause, eased it forward. The door swung open and he eagerly reached in to pick up a handful of dollar bills. He certainly hadn't lost his touch at working the combination.
Hearing his partner's triumphant whoop Kid Curry was quickly back at his side, thrusting his own hand into the vault and pulling out a further wad.
"Okay, Heyes, you were right. Looks like there could be fifty thousand dollars here. You got any idea what we're gonna do with it?" he asked.
Heyes raised a speculative eyebrow.
"You did what!"
Sheriff Lom Trevors' eyes rose from the bundles of greenbacks on his desk to look accusingly at the two men standing in front of him.
"There's no need to get proddy, Lom," placated Heyes. "It's not as if we stole the money — well, not recently, anyway."
"Yeah, we're turning it in, like honest, forthright citizens," stated Curry.
"So? What do you expect me to do with it?"
"Sheesh! And you call yourself a lawman!" scoffed Heyes. "Return it to the railroad, of course. We wouldn't feel right doing it on account of the fact we robbed 'em of it in the first place. There may even be a reward and a sizeable one, at that. Ten percent is the customary figure." He smiled persuasively. "Now, you can't tell me five thousand dollars wouldn't be real useful."
Lom glared at Heyes, long and hard. "I have no intention of profiting from your thievin', Heyes, no matter how long ago it was."
The former outlaws exchanged a look — they had anticipated this might be Lom's response.
"You could always do the noble thing and give the reward money away," suggested Curry.
"Give it to who? You two?"
"No! Not us." Heyes chuckled as he rolled his eyes. "But we do have an idea. We were talking about it on the way over here.
Lom eyed him suspiciously. "Go on."
"A ways south of here, near Kettledrum, there's this little convent. Now, it just happens that we know two nuns there who could take in a lotta orphans, not to mention help a whole lotta poor folk with five thousand dollars. So Lom, what d' ya say?"
"I'd say, I wanna know how it is you two happen to be acquainted with a couple of nuns!"
"It's a long story," said Curry, with a wary glance at his partner who was hastily stuffing the money back into his saddlebags.
Heyes gave Lom's shoulder a hearty slap. "Let's get this money over to the bank first, then we'll tell you all about it over a beer or two."
Lom Trevors sighed. Things were never simple when these two came to town.
"Fine," he growled. "But you'd better be buyin'."