A series of challenges, written as a continuous story, using the given monthly title - a challenge in itself! Beating the Odds
The beat of their hearts echoed the rhythmic drumming of the horses’ hooves, as they pounded the dry, cracked ground. Clouds of dust rose into the air behind them, floating upwards, hanging for a moment, until they had passed, before descending and settling once more, showing the route they had taken. Every so often they pulled their horses to a stop, as one of them tried to disguise their tracks, by disturbing the dirt with a branch, before remounting and heading on their way, at a swift pace.
The last three days had been spent like this, with only an occasional reprieve, to drink some water and chew on some jerky. The continual exertion and eternal heat was beginning to take its toll, on both men and horses.
Wordlessly, they had pulled their horses to a stop at the top of a bluff, each scanning the surrounding area in the hope that there would be nothing to see, but once again they were disappointed. The ominous dust ball on the horizon signalled that the twelve, strong posse was still on their trail. With heads hung low, the horses strained for breath, their flanks rising and falling, causing their riders to rock gently in their saddles.
“They sure are a persistent bunch, ain’t they?!”
It was more of a statement than a question and, as such, the man’s partner merely answered with a thoughtful, “Hmm!” as he narrowed his dark eyes, in contemplative thought.
“What d’ya think we should try next, Heyes? These horses ain’t got much left in them and it won’t be long until they get too close for comfort.” He looked hopefully across at the dark, haired man, hands resting on the horn of the saddle, in a seemingly relaxed pose. But neither man felt anything like relaxed, at this moment, each facing a possibility of twenty years in prison or even death. The wanted posters said ‘Dead or Alive’ and it meant just that and most posses weren’t too particular when it came to bringing in wanted outlaws. Especially ones with such a reputation and a substantial reward on their heads.
When no answer was forthcoming, Kid Curry reluctantly offered, “Do you think we should split up?”
He was taken by surprise at Heyes’ quick and sharp response of, “No!” but at the same time, relieved. Their partnership was what had made them so successful and it seemed only right that they should stay together. The Kid waited patiently, watching the approaching dust cloud, apprehension tightening his stomach, as it got closer and closer.
Heyes gathered his reins and gave his partner a reassuring smile, showing the familiar dimples in his cheeks. “Well, we can’t sit here all day waiting for them to catch us up!” he said with a false cheerfulness, as he wheeled his horse up the trail. The Kid sat for a moment, feeling amazed at his partner’s ability to keep good humour in their present predicament, before following faithfully behind.
By the time the skies had begun to darken, with the onset of night, they had reached the rocky foothills of some higher ground. Neither man had spoken for some time, exhaustion and strain getting the better of them.
Eventually, Heyes, who had been leading the way, stopped his horse and untied the bandana from around his throat. He splashed a small amount of water from his canteen onto it and wiped his face and the back of his neck. His partner sat motionless in his saddle, fighting to keep his eyes open, shoulders sagging and stomach rumbling, loudly.
Heyes proffered the canteen in his direction, asking, as he did so, “Reckon we might be able to lose them in the dark over this harder ground?”
The Kid took the canteen and took a small sip, knowing there was little water left and unsure when they’d have the chance to refill it again.
“At this stage, anything is worth a try,” he answered, wearily, passing the canteen back to Heyes, who took a small mouthful himself, before snapping on the lid.
“Right!” he said, decisively, trying to maintain a positive attitude, as he prepared to urge his tired horse further up the trail.
The horses slowly dragged themselves up the incline, heads down, on a loose rein. Heyes and Kid both clung grimly to their saddle horns, as the horses stumbled their way forward, in the encroaching darkness. After about an hour of this tiresome task, the Kid’s horse finally gave out and stopped in its tracks, refusing to take another step. Its rider didn’t have the energy or will to drive it on and sat forlornly in the saddle, with chin drooped down to his chest.
Heyes’ horse continued to plod on a little further up the trail, but sensing that the other was not behind it, stopped also. Its rider glanced over his shoulder, at his dejected partner. Heyes felt pretty much the same but he refused to give in now, not after all they had gone through, in the hope of getting amnesty. Taking a deep breath, he prepared himself to rally Kid for one last push up to the top of the ridge.
“What you waiting for?” he called down amiably. As he sat and waited for a reply, something caught his eye on the plain below. The flashes of light told him that the posse were still following, carrying torches, so that they could see their trail. Heyes cursed under his breath and then, in a more forceful tone, “Come on, Kid, we’ve got to keep moving!”
The urgency in his partner’s voice galvanised the Kid into action. Taking a deep breath, he gathered the reins and encouraged his horse onwards. They had only gone a short distance, when the trail petered out, to nothing but rock and scrub. The tired horses were finding it nigh on impossible to find space, between the rocks, to place their hooves and finally Heyes and the Kid conceded defeat and dismounted.
The Kid pulled at his horse’s ear and spoke soothingly to it, more to calm himself, than the animal. Heyes stared at the rocky terrain above them, thoughtfully.
“What d’ya reckon’s on the other side?” Heyes queried.
“Knowing our luck, another posse!” came the Kid’s despondent retort. Heyes gave his partner an appreciative smile. Their sense of humour was one of the things that had kept them going through all the troubles of their lives.
“Best not disappoint them then!” came the droll reply, making the Kid let out a small laugh. Without a further word between them, they retrieved what they needed and turned the horses loose. Hopefully, they would move off and leave a false trail that the posse would follow. Together they began to scramble up the rough ground, having to use their hands to steady themselves, in parts.
After about half an hour of climbing they stopped, to take a breath and check their back trail. They were unnerved to see the glow of the posse’s torches coming up the hill but had a brief moment of joy as they began to move off, in the wrong direction, following the horses’ tracks.
“You reckon we lost ‘em, Heyes?” the Kid asked, breathlessly.
Heyes narrowed his eyes in the darkness, peering into the gloom, in the direction that the glow had come from, saying, “Only for a while, Kid. Posse like this don’t give up too easy.” He reached out in the darkness and gave his partner’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze before continuing his scramble up the incline. Kid Curry took one last glance down the hillside and then followed behind.
Onwards and upwards they climbed, hand over foot, in a desperate effort to distance themselves from their pursuers. Beads of sweat, from the exertion, chilled almost instantaneously, in the cool of the night, intensifying the misery at every step, but still they kept climbing. They neared the pinnacle of the ascent some time later, just as the cold light of dawn began to creep across the rocks, casting lengthening shadows. Finally, Heyes sank down on a boulder, bracing his hands against his knees, struggling to breathe. The Kid joined him, laying back against a larger rock, throwing back his head to rest against it. Both men were having to haul in every breath they took.
“We need to rest, Heyes,” the Kid gasped, between breaths.
“I know,” his partner rasped back, unscrewing the top of the canteen and lifting it to his lips. As he tipped it fully upwards, only a single droplet trickled out. Heyes shook the container with frustration, before tossing it angrily aside.
The Kid pushed himself off the rock and slid down to sit next to Heyes, letting his arms rest loosely on his knees, tipping his head forward, to shield his eyes from the rising sun.
“It’s going to be a hot one today,” he murmured in a soft, low voice. Then, in an equally quiet voice he added, “What we going to do, Heyes?” Memories of a small, tousled, fair-headed kid came back to Heyes, as he remembered the day that had formed their lives, when Jed Curry had looked to him for a reassurance that he wasn’t sure he could give. He felt the same now.
Not wishing to let his friend down, he replied, “I think we should keep moving and keep as far away from that posse as we can!” Standing up, he reached out his hand and took the Kid’s arm and pulled him to his feet. Wordlessly they began to continue their climb.
The air was warm and still and both men were parched. The only sound was the click of boot against rock and the draw of their breath. Suddenly, they heard a noise echoing from further down the hillside. It was the reverberation of men’s voices, calling to each other. Their trail had been found and the posse was continuing its pursuit on foot.
A resolute look passed between the partners before they, slowly, continued on their way. A sort while later they reached the top of the ridge, which was formed with vast, craggy rocks that rose upwards, with hard, blank faces. Heyes searched for a way through to the other side, so they could descend down into the valley below, but each way he turned seemed impassable. Panic rose into his chest as he scrambled about the rock face, trying to find a gap wide enough to squeeze through. The Kid looked too, but there seemed to be no way through at this particular point.
“There’s no way through, Heyes,” the Kid said, finally.
“There has to be!” replied his partner, trying to control the desperation he was feeling.
“I could give you a push up,” the Kid offered.
“And how would you get up?” Heyes answered, irritably.
“I’d find a way,” came the nonchalant reply.
“I know what you’re trying to do!” his partner retorted. “I ain’t leaving you, so you can get that idea out of your head!”
“Look, at least if one of us gets away then there would be a chance of helping the other. As it is, we’re pretty much cornered here and …”
“No! We’ll just to have to go back down and try in another place.” Heyes was already making his way down the rocks, hunting for another possible way through. The Kid gave a sigh and began to follow him again when he suddenly froze. A flash of light, a short way off, had caught his eye. He stilled himself and watched again. A movement to his left drew his attention. It was a little way down the hillside but he was pretty sure it had been a man, rifle in hand, moving between the rocks. Taking his own gun from its holster, he checked it was fully loaded. The coolness of the metal in his hand calmed and reassured him that he was still in control. Making his way forwards, he kept scanning the hillside for any further movement, until he reached Heyes, who was about to crawl across a large, smooth rock, making him a visible and open target to anyone who was following.
“Heyes!” the Kid called in a harsh whisper. Heyes looked over his shoulder irritably at his partner. “It ain’t safe to go across there. The posse’s right on our heels.”
Heyes’ eyes widened with this news. He took another desperate look up the rock face at the top of the ridge.
“We’ll never make it. They’ll be able to pick us off like bottles on a log! I think we gotta go back further down and try and make it over to that next ridge,” the Kid said, indicating another group of rocks with a nod of his head.
“And how we gonna make it across there, huh? You thought about that?” Heyes asked impatiently.
“We’ll have to make a run for it. You go first and I’ll cover you. Then you cover me when I run across.” The Kid purposefully did not meet Heyes’ eye, but instead concentrated on checking his gun once more. He did not need to look at his friend to know the expression that would be on his face.
“Oh! You’ve really thought that one through, ain’t ya?” Heyes raised his eyebrows in exasperation.
“You got any better ideas?” The Kid gripped the butt of his gun firmly.
Heyes manoeuvred himself into a position where he would have a clear run to the other rocks, allowing the Kid to cover his back. He suspected that there were still twelve men out there, all too eager, to do their best, to stop him. His partner stood calmly by his side, with that all too familiar look of stoical concentration on his face. It was at times like these that Heyes understood why he trusted his friend so implicitly.
“Ready?” the Kid asked calmly.
Heyes swallowed hard, wishing they had some whiskey to settle the fear in his stomach. “As I’ll ever be.”
Their eyes met and the Kid nodded his head and gave a soft smile of encouragement. Heyes smiled back and turned to look at the ground he had to cover. It wasn’t that far but he’d be out in the open for a good few seconds, but he’d have Kid covering his back and have the element of surprise on his side. Even if he did make it across, Kid wouldn’t have the same benefits. They’d be waiting for him and Heyes wasn’t such a good shot. He turned to his partner and began to say, “You know, I’ve been thinking! Perhaps you ought to go first …” but the Kid stopped him with a stubborn look.
Heyes readied himself once more. As he made his move, the first deafening shot echoed around the surrounding rocks. He focused on the path ahead of him and began to run as fast as he could, feeling the motion of bullets as they whistled past him and ricochet off the surrounding rocks. Heyes had been a gambler all his life but, for once, he wasn’t sure they could beat the odds …
'If I hadn't seen such riches I could live with being poor.'