A Christmas Surprise
"He wants us ta what?"
Heyes flicked the telegram with his index finger. "That's what it says. He wants to meet us in Cheyenne two weeks from now."
"He do know what the weather is like in Wyoming this time a year, don't he?"
Heyes sent him a smirk. "He lives there, Kid, of course he knows. It must be important."
Kid turned and leaned back against the counter, groaning his discontent.
The telegrapher figured he'd waited long enough. "Would you like to send a reply?"
Dark eyes flicked up to meet his. "Okay."
The telegrapher snatched up pencil and paper. "All right. What would you like it to say?"
Heyes smiled. "That's it: Okay."
Kid glanced over his shoulder at the telegrapher. "It ain't okay with me."
The telegrapher hesitated, glancing from one partner to the other.
Heyes sighed. "Just send it."
"Come on, Kid, it won't be so bad. We have money for hotels. I figure we can ride north until the weather turns cold, then we'll sell the horses and take the train the rest of the way. Maybe we can spend Christmas with Lom."
"Yeah, I suppose."
The two men strolled along the boardwalk toward the café.
"Don't be so sour apple. It might be about our amnesty. Why else would Lom ask us to come to Cheyenne in the middle of December?"
"I can think of a couple a reasons. None a which is good."
"Aww, come on, Kid. You'll feel better after a hot supper. We'll get in a few hands of poker, have a good night's sleep and head north in the morning. It'll be fine."
Heyes pulled rein and brought his gelding down from a hand gallop. He swung around to face his partner.
"This don't feel right," Kid said as he scanned the open waterway sliding past them. "It's too open."
Heyes looked back at the river and shrugged. "Of course it's wide open; it's a river."
"Yeah. I still don't like it. C'mon, let's head to that other crossing we saw on the map."
"But that's ten miles, and it'll be wide open there, too."
The Kid had already turned his gelding away from the flowing water. "What? You're still arguing with me?"
Heyes sat his horse and watched the Kid's back moving away from him. He harumphed, shook his head, then pushed his own gelding into a trot to catch up.
"See? It's just as open here as it was ten miles back."
"Yeah, but it feels better. Besides, this didn't take us out of our way. What difference does it make if we ride the ten miles on this side of the river or that side?"
"You have a point there."
The Kid nudged his horse forward to enter the slow-moving flow.
Heyes hesitated. "Wait!"
Kid pulled up, causing his horse to grunt with surprise.
"Now you got me all jittery." Heyes frowned as he scrutinized the far bank. "Maybe we should carry on to the next crossing."
"The next crossing?" Kid was incredulous. "We won't get there before nightfall. On top a that, the river changes course up there so it will be takin' us outta our way."
"Yeah, I know. But—"
Kid nudged his horse onward.
The animal moved forward, feeling its way along the bottom so as not to take a mis-step in the murky water.
Heyes sat his horse and harumphed, then shook his head and followed in his partner's wake.
The river deepened as they approached the half-way point, causing both riders to hoist their knees up to avoid getting their feet wet.
Heyes constantly surveyed their surroundings, expecting them to be bushwhacked at any moment.
But the Kid moved forward confidently and relaxed, almost smirking at his partner's nervousness.
"Relax Heyes. We're good."
An eternity later, they splashed out onto the far bank, water cascading off the horses' shoulders and flanks.
As soon as they were on dry ground, Heyes jumped down and handed his reins to the Kid.
Kid snatched them but frowned at him. "What are ya doin'?"
"Covering our tracks. What do you think?"
Kid did smirk this time. "C'mon, Heyes. If there were a posse followin' us, which there ain't, they'd know we crossed here. This is the only crossing in, well, ten miles. They wouldn't even need ta look for tracks. Let's go. I'm ready for a beer and a hotel room."
"Yeah, yeah." Heyes finished scraping away their wet trail with a convenient shrub, then remounted.
Kid chuckled. "You satisfied now?"
"Yup." Heyes grinned at him. "Let's go."
Cutting through Utah on their way to Colorado, the temperatures dropped to an uncomfortable level. Usually associating Utah with red rock, towering natural monuments, and heat, riding through hard, red dirt covered in a layer of snow seemed surreal.
"Just our luck," Kid griped. "It ain't supposed ta snow here."
Heyes nodded. "I didn't expect to run into this stuff until we hit Colorado. How about we head for Thompson Springs and catch the train there."
"Sounds like a plan. But we ain't gonna get there today."
"C'mon, Kid. It'll be like old times. Scraping away the snow, sleeping on the hard, cold ground. Just think how good that fire is going to feel. There's no shortage of water so we can make plenty of coffee. We've even got enough fixin's for a decent supper and left-overs for breakfast. What are ya gripin' about?"
"Yeah, uh huh."
Then Kid pulled up and looked over his shoulder at their back trail.
"What is it?" Heyes frowned and followed Kid's gaze.
"I donno. I just felt a shiver go down my spine."
"That could be from the cold, ya know."
Kid shook his head. "It weren't that kinda shiver."
"I don't see anything, and there aren't too many places out here for someone to hide."
"Yeah, but our tracks are pretty easy ta follow in this snow. It ain't like they need ta keep us in sight."
"Well, let's find a place to shelter for the night. It's getting late anyway. We can still put up a small fire and we'll take turns keeping watch."
"I'm regrettin' this journey more and more," Kid complained. "I don't know why Lom couldn't just meet us half-way or somethin'."
"If it's about our amnesty, then I don't think the Governor would be willing to meet us half-way."
Years of practice came in handy in their search for a cozy hide-a-way. A slope into a gulley with high rocks around it and even an undercut into the rock face made for the perfect spot to spend a chilly night outside.
There was no snow on the ground, and the enclosed space kept the heat and the light from the fire inside their room. There was even enough space for the horses, although grazing was limited.
Curry sat down by the fire where Heyes was cooking bacon and biscuits. He pulled off his gloves and rubbed his hands together over the fire.
"I split up the last of the grain so they'll have somethin' ta eat in the morning too. It ain't much, but it'll see 'em until we get into Thompson Springs."
"Yeah. Good. Coffee's ready, if you want some."
"Oh, that ain't even a question." Kid put a glove back on and took the coffee pot off the heated stones. He poured the steaming brown liquid into a pre-heated tin cup, then cocked a brow at the chef. "How about you?"
"Oh yeah. You got any whiskey left in your saddle bag?"
Kid grinned. "Yup. It's for medicinal, but if this situation don't count as that, I don't know what will." He reached for his saddlebag and dug out the small bottle along with his eating fork. "Here ya go. We about ready?"
"Yeah." Heyes took his laced coffee and indulged in a sip. He closed his eyes as the liquid burned down his throat. "Ohh, that's good." He then set his cup aside and took the frying pan off the fire and set it onto the stones alongside the coffee pot. He handed Curry a warm biscuit and the two of them tucked into the panful of fried bacon, dipping the bread into the grease with every opportunity.
Within minutes the pan was wiped clean and the last mouthful of biscuit was chased down with a swallow of hot, laced coffee.
Curry wrapped his saddle blanket around his shoulders and belched.
"Oh, 'cuse. But that was a mighty fine supper."
Heyes grinned. "More coffee?"
"Which watch do you want?" Heyes asked as he poured out two more laced coffees.
"I'll take the first one. I'll give ya a nudge around two."
It was still dark when the enticing aroma of more frying bacon awoke the Kid from his slumber. He stretched and yawned then somehow managed to maneuver into his coat and boots, and wrap the saddle blanket around his shoulders while in the process of emerging from his bedroll.
Heyes poured him a cup of coffee. "Cold?"
"Yeah. What time is it?"
"Around 6, I'd say. I figure we should be on the move by first light."
"Uh huh. Hold the coffee. I'll be right back."
Heyes nodded, then dropped two biscuits into the hot bacon grease to get them warmed up. By the time Kid returned, breakfast was ready.
"Quiet night, I take it."
Heyes shrugged. "On the most part. A pack of coyotes spent most of the night serenading the stars. I'm surprised they didn't wake you up."
To prove his statement, a chorus of yapping greeted the coming morning and it soon escalated into the high-pitched singing associated with the band of hunters.
One of the horses paused in his munching of grain just long enough to ascertain that the pack was of no danger to him, then returned to his breakfast.
Kid tucked into his bacon and biscuits. "As long as they are the only hunters on the prowl this mornin'."
Kid hesitated over his mouthful and squinted at his partner. "What?"
"Hmm? No, nothing."
"C'mon, Heyes. What's botherin' ya?"
"Well, I can't be sure, mind you . . ."
Kid sighed. "What?"
"Well, I might have heard a rifle shot around 3 o'clock. It shut the coyotes up for a while."
"You what?" Kid's jaw dropped. "And you didn't wake me?"
"Well, it was just once, and like I said, I can't even be sure I heard right. If it was a rifle shot, it was probably just someone shooting at the coyotes."
"At 3 o'clock in the morning?"
"It's not likely a posse member would be shooting at anything then either, is it?" Heyes grinned. "So, I figure if we get on the move before dawn, we'll be fine."
Kid grumbled as he looked down at the frying pan. "Damn. Now you put me off my breakfast."
"You'd best eat up anyway. That's the last of the grub and the grain."
Kid considered this fact, then shrugged and went back to eating.
Heyes stood up, stretched, then poured the last of the coffee over the fire to douse it.
"Hey!" Kid snarked over a mouthful. "I wanted more a that. Not ta mention the light."
"No ya didn't. We gotta move fast so we won't have time for any bush breaks. I'll get the horses saddled if you wanna break camp. We don't need much light for that."
"Now you're concerned that we gotta get movin'? What happened to It's just somebody shootin' at coyotes?"
Heyes ignored him as he walked away.
Kid rolled his eyes, sopped up the last of the bacon grease with a biscuit, then set about breaking camp as quickly as he could in the semi-darkness.
They'd been on the trail about two hours before the rising sun began to brighten the landscape. It was still unseasonably chilly for the area though, and they kept the horses moving in an effort to warm themselves up. Everything but their cold feet responded to the endeavor.
"How much further to Thompson Springs?"
Heyes shrugged. "Another ten miles I guess."
"Good. I need a hot bath and a shave. Then a warm train for the rest of the trip."
"Yeah. I—dammit! Did you see that?"
"I sure did."
The two men pulled their horses to a halt and gazed at the distant rock cliff. Sunlight hit the higher edge, causing the hardened snow to sparkle and dazzle the eyes.
Heyes squinted. "It could have just been the sun on the snow."
"Yeah, it could. But—There!" Kid pointed toward the spot where a bright flash of light exploded from atop the cliff. "That weren't snow."
"It sure wasn't."
Both men looked behind them. A series of bright flashes sending out a message caused the blood to chill in their veins. They turned forward again and saw the flicking response.
Without a word, they booted the horses into a gallop even though they knew they could already be trapped.
The cold air stung their eyes as they sped across the open landscape. Wiping the blurriness away only helped for a few seconds as the wind from their gallop assaulted their senses.
They had to trust their horses to find their own way across the hard footing as their focus was on the horizons both ahead and behind them. Nothing appeared and the only sounds they heard were the rushing wind and the footfalls of their galloping horses upon the cold ground.
Then Heyes' horse faltered and began coughing; a hard, barking cough that ended with a gasp and was then followed by another cough. The animal tried to carry on, but the cold air assaulting its lungs made it difficult to keep up.
The Kid slowed down, then turned his plunging horse around to block Heyes.
"Stop!" Kid yelled. "There ain't nobody followin' us."
Heyes was already bringing his horse to a halt, and both horses stood, gasping for air and coughing against the cold.
With hearts racing, the riders scanned their back trail and true to the Kid's observation, there was nothing there. Looking ahead again, that direction was also clear of anyone trying to intercept them.
"What's going on?" Heyes said through gasping breaths. "We know there are at least two other groups out here."
"I donno. But let's just keep movin'. We'll take it slow or we're gonna wind up without any horses at all."
Another cough and gasp from Heyes' mount punctuated Kid's statement.
Half an hour later, the horses were recovered enough to handle a quiet, ground-covering lope.
There was still nobody following them, but both men were uneasy. Anticipation of pursuit was harder on the nerves than actually having a posse on their heels, and the desire to kick the horses into a gallop was hard to resists.
Then Kid pulled up sharp and pointed ahead and to the right.
Heyes snapped his attention in the desired direction.
Three horsemen galloped toward them, the sunlight glinting off tin badges and rifles. Even from the distance, they could hear the men whooping.
A quick, wide-eyed glance was shared and then they booted their horses into a gallop again and hoped that the now warming air would give them a chance.
Distant rifle fire encouraged them to kick the horses on faster as they headed for a rise in the landscape which hosted a number of natural monuments. If they could just get to those towering buttes, they might be able to lose their pursuers.
More rifle fire sounded, but it was further away this time. Not willing to believe that they were already outdistancing the posse, the two men galloped up the ridge then stopped and looked back. What they saw defied logic.
The three-member posse had angled away from their trail and instead were going after two other riders. Those riders had been coming up behind Heyes and Curry, but found themselves intercepted by the posse and, being out-numbered, turned tail and ran.
The posse continued after them, firing their rifles as incentive to hurry them along.
As the two groups diminished from sight, the partners shared an incredulous look.
"What's going on?" Heyes looked in the direction of the disappeared posse. "They must have seen us."
"I donno, Heyes. But I suggest we don't stick around ta find out."
Heyes sat on the ledge of the window sill watching the street below as Curry finished putting his gun back together. They had managed to secure a room with two beds, a view of the main street and the livery. There was also a small coal stove in the corner that soon brought heat to their cold bones. Two pairs of boots were set in front of the stove to warm them for their next use.
"I sure do feel a lot better now," Curry said as he clicked the last piece into place and slid his Peacemaker into its holster. "It's been a long time since I enjoyed a bath as much as that one."
Heyes smiled, remembering the warm deliciousness. "That bathhouse did it up right, didn't they? They made it kinda hard to leave."
"Yeah. But now I really am hungry. What do ya think?"
Heyes turned away from the window and straightened up. "It seems quiet. A quick trip down to the restaurant should be safe enough. Probably best that we stay away from the saloon though."
"Yeah, well, with the train leavin' at 6 in the mornin', I'll be happy for an early night anyway." He stood up, snatched his holster from the bed post and strapped it on. "Let's go eat."
When first arriving at the hotel, the partners were more concerned about who might be there ahead of them rather than the decor. Now, however, feeling more at their ease, they took note of the festive atmosphere.
A small, spindly tree stood in the far corner, but it was given special honor by being adorned with lit candles, paper chains and other small knick-knacks that depicted the holiday season. Even around the frames of the doorways and along the front of the check-in counter, paper chains hung in splendid color.
"I kinda forgot Christmas was comin'," Kid commented. "Funny we didn't notice this when we came in."
"I guess we had other things on our minds."
"I suppose. I hope I ain't losin' my touch."
Heyes smirked but didn't comment.
They entered the restaurant through the double doors and then stopped as their eyes took in the abundance of Christmas cheer.
Another small tree, also alight with candles and other homemade decorations greeted them at the entrance. Every table was adorned with either a red or a green table cloth and had a single candle surrounded by a leafy sprig.
The fellas sat down at a table near the exit and gazed around in astonishment.
"Where'd they get the trees?" Kid whispered. "I ain't seen a real tree for days. Not in this area."
Heyes shrugged then smiled at the waitress who approached their table.
"Ah, where do you get the trees?"
"I have lost count of how many times I have been asked that question," she answered with a laugh. "Some of the men in town make a special trip north just to find some. They usually find something that will do along the banks of the Green River."
"Oh. It seems like a lot of bother just to decorate the place for a short time."
"Oh, but it's worth it. It's become tradition. It makes it feel more like Christmas, and the snow this year has really added a nice touch."
"Yeah," Kid grumbled. "Real nice."
The waitress took note of his tone and cocked a brow at him.
The Kid sent her a gleaming smile. "But it sure is pretty. Real festive."
She smiled back at him. "Yes."
"Ah," Heyes interrupted this mutual admiration exchange. "Do you serve beer here?"
"Yes. But only during the festive season. Would you both like one?"
"All right. And for supper tonight we have antelope steak, rabbit stew or roasted roadrunner. They come with all the fixin's and apple pie."
"Sounds good," Heyes said. "I'll have the steak."
"Yeah, me too. But, where do ya get the apples for pie?"
"Oh, well, Mrs. Bloomendale has a real nice business going for herself. She's a widow, you see, with three young'uns to raise on her own. She started getting apples and pears, and sometimes even some peaches, brought in on the train. She spends the whole summer canning them then sells them at the market. The restaurant always buys a large selection of her wares. It's too bad she didn't get any peaches this year; they do make for a lovely pie."
"Real apple pie will be just fine, ma'am." Kid smiled at her again. "I've et so much a that mock stuff that I've forgotten what real apples taste like."
She laughed. "I can understand that. Rest assured; this is real apple pie. Make sure you leave room for it."
"Ah, we will," Heyes piped in, feeling a bit resentful at being ignored.
She sent Heyes a quick glance, smiled and walked away.
"She's nice." Kid said as he watched her leave.
Heyes looked out the window. "Hmm."
Warm apple pie and fresh coffee finished up the meal, and the partners headed back to their room stuffed and contented.
"I sure ain't ready for bed yet," the Kid said as he pulled off his boots. "Not after that meal."
"How about a hand or two of friendly poker?"
Kid sent Heyes a skeptical look. "How friendly? I don't wanna leave here broke."
"Naw, we'll just use match sticks. Just something to do to wind down."
Heyes retrieved the well-worn deck of cards from his saddlebags and the two friends settled in on one of the beds to play a few hands of cards.
The morning chill woke the fellas up more than two cups of coffee did. They stood on the platform, making sure to stay out of the light from the overhead lamps, and watched for any suspicious-looking passengers.
The platform was almost empty, as most people traveling this time of year were those wishing to meet with relatives for the holiday. Most of them were family groups and did not offer any threat to the two wanted men.
Still, they watched and waited as the steam engine hissed and chugged in preparation of departure.
At five to six the bell sounded and the announcement of "Everyone aboard! The train will be leaving in five minutes. Everyone aboard!"
"Good," Kid said. "I don't see nobody rushin' for a last-minute ticket."
Heyes tensed. "Yeah, but I do see something that could be just as bad."
He pointed to three men walking toward the ticket booth, light from the lamps glinting on badges pinned to coats.
"Oh crap." Kid gritted his teeth. "Now what do we do? We ain't got enough money ta buy our horses back."
"Yeah." Heyes bit his lower lip as he considered their options.
The train bell clanged again and the whistle blew. The conductor's yell of "All aboard!" barely preceded the train chugging into motion.
The partners glanced at the train pulling out then scrutinized the depo.
"Well?" Kid asked.
"Let's get on board," Heyes came to the snap decision. "We'll keep an eye on them and see if they get on behind us."
"And if they do?"
"One thing at a time, Partner. Let's go."
Having come to this conclusion, they moved quickly and grabbed the handrail of the last passenger car. They stood on the landing as the train pulled out, hoping that the darkness would hide them from searching eyes.
"Here they come." Kid pointed at the three lawmen as they exited the depo and walked across the platform toward the departing train. "They still have time to grab onto the caboose."
But as the partners watched, the lawmen stopped and made no move to board the train.
"They're not getting aboard," Heyes announced the obvious. "What's going on?"
"Jeezus! One of 'im looked right at us. Do ya think he saw us?"
"I know he saw us."
"But they're just standin' there. What's goin' on?"
Heyes shook his head as they entered the passenger car. "I don't know. I'm almost tempted to call this whole trip off."
Kid smiled as they sat in a quiet corner, facing each other. "Yeah?"
"I said almost. Lom wouldn't have sent for us this time of year if it wasn't important. So, we'll just stay on this train and keep an eye open for anyone getting on along the line."
Kid slumped. "I don't think we're gonna be gettin' much sleep on this trip."
Heyes got up and stretched as the train came to a halt in Windsor, Colorado.
"You wait here," he said. "I'm going to send a telegram to Lom and let him know we'll be in Cheyenne tomorrow morning."
Kid didn't like the sound of that. "I oughta come with ya. Watch your back."
"No." Heyes shrugged himself into his coat and hat. "Stay on the train. If one of us gets taken, the other may still get through. Don't worry; I'll be careful."
"I donno, Heyes . . ."
Kid fretted and worried until he finally spotted Heyes walking briskly back along the platform.
A minute later, he returned to their seats and took off his coat before sitting down.
"So, all went well?" Kid asked.
"Yeah. Got some interesting news though."
"Oh yeah? From Lom?"
"No, from the telegrapher. Apparently, we just missed quite a ruckus in town. Two US Marshals arrived yesterday, then two seedy looking characters arrived today. There was quite a clash between the two groups resulting in some gunplay and one of the miscreants being wounded. They're both cooling their heels in the town jail."
"Oh yeah? Where are they now?"
"I just told ya. In jail."
"No, I mean the marshals."
Heyes shrugged. "I don't know. The telegrapher said they haven't left town yet, but nobody has seen them."
"Well, it couldn't be the same marshals we saw in Thompson Springs. They couldn't a got here that fast."
"True. What happened here probably isn't even connected to us."
"Unless they're all workin' together. You know; sendin' messages along the route we're takin' so they know where we are all the time."
Heyes sighed and considered this. "But what would be the point? Why just follow us when they've had plenty of opportunity to arrest us and be done with it?"
Kid rolled his eyes. "I don't know. This is just weird. I think—" He tensed and sat up straighter. He slapped Heyes on the arm and then pointed out the window. "There!"
The whistle blew and the train lurched into motion as Heyes turned and looked out to the platform.
Sure enough, two US Marshals stood, watching the passenger cars slide by, but made no move to get on board.
Heyes sat back, frowning, then met the worried eyes of his partner. "What's going on?"
The train pulled into Cheyenne the following morning, just as planned, which was pretty unusual considering the weather conditions.
Those passengers who were disembarking here, all streamed off the passenger cars and set off in different directions to deal with luggage, get to the hotel to secure lodgings, or meet with friends and family to enjoy their holiday visits.
Heyes and Curry stepped off the train feeling both relieved and anxious. The only tin badge they wanted to see was the one pinned to the coat of their friend, but anticipation of meeting up with others hung heavy on their shoulders.
Both heads turned toward the familiar voice and then wide grins took over from the anxiety.
"Hey, Lom. Good ta see ya!"
"Howdy, boys." Handshakes made the rounds. "How was your trip?"
"Weird," Kid said.
Heyes grinned and slapped Lom on the shoulder. "How about we go have a beer. We'll tell you all about it AFTER you tell us what was so all fired important to get us here in the middle of December."
Lom's smile disappeared. "Not so fast, boys." He straightened up as his expression hardened and a threatening heaviness settled between them. "There's more going on here than you realize."
Lom's eyes flicked to the side and both Heyes and Curry followed his gaze.
Three very large and intimidating US Marshals approached them and, walking around behind the two wanted men, they spread out to block any thoughts of retreat.
"What's this?" Heyes turned accusing eyes to the man they thought was their friend.
"Aw, Lom." Kid sounded disappointed. "What are ya doin'?"
"It's not what you think, boys."
"Well then, maybe you better explain it." Heyes' dark eyes turned darker. "Because what I'm thinking isn't very complimentary."
"Well, you see, it's like this," Lom explained. "It was real important that you fellas get here to see Governor Hale, but we got word of two bounty hunters who had found out about this meeting and were gonna try and stop ya. They wanted to collect the reward on you two before it became obsolete."
"Obsolete?" Kid asked.
"That's right," Lom nodded. "So, Governor Hale sent out six US Marshals to watch your back and make sure you made it to Cheyenne all in one piece. From what I understand, it was a good thing he did, because those bounty hunters knew their business, and they closed in on you a few times. But the marshals intercepted them each and every time, until finally, they were able to arrest them in Windsor and put them in jail for a few days. Long enough for you fellas to make it here for the meeting. This here is Marshal Taylor, and Deputy Marshals Mahlo and Townsend. The other three are still in Colorado, but you can thank them later."
Heyes and Curry turned to nod at each lawman as he was introduced, but they were so confused over what was going on that no words of thanks came forth. They had a difficult time simply smiling and acknowledging each badge.
When they turned back to Lom, he met them with a wide grin and an envelope for each.
"Here you go boys. Congratulations."
Still reeling with confusion, the partners opened their envelops and pulled out official-looking documents.
Lom laughed. "In true Christmas spirit, Governor Hale has granted you your amnesties. We also have an appointment with him later today. He is going to offer you each a well-paying and secure job working for the government. You're never going to have to worry about money again. Ha, ha! Merry Christmas, fellas! Your lives are about to change!"