Curry sat cross-legged and warmed his hands at the small cooking fire. The left-overs of a rabbit he'd shot the previous day was warming up in the skillet along with some wild onions and flatbread. The coffee went down good, especially with some whiskey added to it.
Though not normally comfortable with him and Heyes going separate ways, on this occasion he was happy for some solitude.
Their last job of the season had not gone well. Though there was enough in the kitty to see the gang comfortably through the winter, the last job going badly always left Heyes snarky and sarcastic.
The Kid had had about enough of it, so when Heyes suggested they split up to confuse any possible pursuers, Curry was happy to comply. He knew there wasn't anyone tracking them, but any excuse to get on his own for a bit was welcomed. He was confident that once they met back at The Hole, his partner would have worn himself out with all his internal bickering.
He tested the rabbit and decided it had warmed up enough to be supper, and taking the hot skillet off the fire, he tucked into his meal enjoying the blessed silence.
Kid woke up shivering in the cold, clear dawn. A light dusting of frost had turned the ground crisp and the fire cold. Gathering together the kindling left over from the previous night, he set a small fire to crackling and used a portion of his water for coffee, leaving just enough to boil up some oatmeal.
No worries; there was a creek not far ahead that would be running high this time of year and he would replenish his canteens there.
But he was hungry, and his horse gazed at him in anticipation.
"Yeah, hang on," he said to the animal. "I got just enough grain here for your breakfast." He snorted a laugh. "And mine."
But when he reached for his saddle bags, he knew something had gone terribly wrong.
Expecting the weight of coffee grounds and oats to be part of the package, a knot of fear hit his gut when the bags came up light. He dug into them, tossing out his extra shirt, socks, shaving kit, gun-cleaning kit, his gray suit and hat, all wrinkle-free, his go-to-meetin' shoes, and the folded over train schedule.
He turned the bags upside down and shook them, hoping that, miraculously, the desired items would come tumbling out.
But they didn't. No oats, no coffee. No edible items presented themselves. Even the whiskey bottle was gone. His stomach grumbled and a caffeine headache settled in for the day.
Midnight nickered. He lowered his head and pawed the ground with his impatience for breakfast.
"It's gone." He offered up the empty saddle bags as evidence, but the horse was not convinced. "Honest. It's all gone. But how?" He looked around, searching for any signs of a scavenger coming into the camp during the night. He saw nothing amiss. He sent the horse an accusing gaze. "Was it you? Did you sneak into the stores while I was asleep?" Midnight pricked his ears but refused to answer. "Ah, but you wouldn't 'a eaten the coffee or the tie bags they were stored in neither." Curry sighed. "What happened?"
Midnight snorted and pawed the ground again, but he still refused to tell what he knew.
Curry had to accept the inevitable truth that there was no food. He could likely shoot a rabbit or something, but Midnight still needed to eat. In the summertime, he would simply hobble the horse so he could graze, but in late October, the sparse grass was mostly mush and not enough nutrition to keep a mouse going.
A small detour took him into the friendly town of Bear Creek where he took advantage of the forced delay. A night in a comfortable stall supplied with a warm mash and all the hay he could eat was Midnight's reward for a day without food. The Kid made sure he also treated himself accordingly. Fortunately, whoever had taken their supplies had not taken his money.
The next evening, they put in a good day's travel and again settled in for a chilly night. But at least there was food in the larder.
The Kid made sure the fire was well stoked, wrapped himself in his coat and bedroll and tried to go to sleep.
Then, he heard it. A slight rustle by his saddlebags sent a shiver down his spine. The temperature dropped even further as Kid strained his ears to decide if someone or something was actually in the camp or if it was simply a stirring of his vivid imagination.
Midnight snorted and stamped a foot which helped Curry to make up his mind.
He opened his eyes and silently shifted so he could see his bags. Sure enough, someone was there. The light from the dying fire was just enough for a silhouette to show the crouched figure rummaging through his newly stocked saddle bags.
Kid was out of his bedroll in a flash and had his hand around the thieving wrist before the trespasser could dash away. But once having grabbed him, the sensation of cold, fleshless bones made his skin crawl. He almost let go, but determination to catch the thief prevailed, and he yanked the interloper into the fading firelight.
Inflamed coals danced in the eyes that stared back at him from a face so emaciated that the skin appeared translucent, and the boney fingers clutched and grabbed at Curry's sleeve in their desperation. The tattered clothes draped off the skeletal frame like a coat on a hanger, and Kid had a flash of wondering how "this thing" could still be alive.
"Help me. Please."
"What?" Curry snapped out of his imaginings. Suddenly the apparition before him took on solid form and became a flesh and blood man. "Jeez, what are ya doin' out here, Old-timer?"
"I'm lost. And so hungry. Can you spare some food?"
"Yeah, sure." Curry frowned as he gazed at the geezer. "C'mon over by the fire. I'll get it goin' again so you can warm up. Dammit, your skin feels cold as ice."
"Thank you, kindly."
Curry held the boney hand and jutting elbow as he assisted the man to sit by the fire. He worked the flames back up into a small blaze and set water on to boil for coffee.
"Was it you who took my supplies the other night?"
"I don't know. Could be."
"You could'a just come inta camp. I would'a fed ya. I would'a got ya back ta civilization too. Mister, you don't look so good."
The fire-lit eyes simply stared back at him.
Curry felt the shiver trickle down his spine and he looked away.
Midnight snorted and Curry noted the horse's tense stance and white-eyed gaze coming at him. Even with the fire blazing, the campsite still held onto its chill.
Twenty minutes later, the guest was tucking into beans and bacon and wasn't saying no to more laced coffee either.
Curry sat, drinking coffee, and watched the old man with growing concern.
"What happened to ya?" he asked again. "What are ya doin' out here?"
The man stopped chewing just long enough to gaze at his host and scratch a stubbly chin with a skeletal finger.
"My partner left me out here fer dead. Took my horse and my weapons and just rode away. I don't know how I survived the winter." His eyes glazed over as he reminisced. "What year is this?"
Curry frowned. "It's 1879."
A ghostly light shone through the coal eyes. "1879? Are you sure?"
"That's odd. Well," the man put his empty plate down and swallowed the last of his coffee. "I do thank ye for yur hospitality. I best be goin' now."
"What?" Curry put a hand on the fleshless arm and stopped him from rising. "You ain't goin' nowhere. You can't stay out here. Another winter is just around the corner and I can't figure how you even survived this long. The least I can do is take ya home so's you can rest and fatten up. I'd be no kind 'a man at all, leavin' yea out here. Damn, and I thought my partner was skinny. Maybe after a week of recuperatin' you'll remember who ya are and where you're from."
The skull of stretched skin nodded. "That's right neighborly of ya. Yessir, I think I will."
Curry woke up shivering. He briefly wondered why he was leaned up against a tree and only had his coat wrapped around him, then he remembered the strange encounter during the wee hours. He sat up, ignoring the complaints from his aching back, and looked at his bedroll.
It was empty.
Curry straightened and looked around the camp.
"Hey, mister? Where are ya?"
The only response he got was from Midnight. Now that his human was awake, he went into his usual campaign for breakfast.
Curry stood up and, hugging himself against the cold, shouted out his enquiry. "Hello! You out there?"
Curry shrugged. "Oh well. If'n he'd rather freeze ta death, I suppose that's up ta him. At least it seems to have warmed up a bit."
Then a really scary thought hit him and he made a dash for his saddle bags. A quick inspection revealed that nothing had been taken and all was as it should be in the camp.
He got the fire going again, put water on for coffee and fed the horse. A quick breakfast of left-over beans and bacon, and they'd be on their way home.
"What took you so long?" Heyes complained as Curry dismounted by the barn. "You should'a been back a week ago. We were worried. Wheat almost saddled-up to go look for you."
Curry frowned at him. "A week ago? I was only delayed by one day. What are ya talkin' about?"
"Kid, you're a week over-due."
Curry shook his head as he led Midnight into the barn. "That can't be right. You and I only split up four days ago."
Heyes and Preacher exchanged looks.
"C'mon, Kid," Preacher took Midnight's reins. "Let me tend ta your horse. You need ta thaw out your brain."
"What? What's goin' on?"
"Good question." Heyes gave his partner a pat on the shoulder. "Come on. There's elk stew simmering and you could probably use a shot of whiskey."
Curry grinned. "Yeah, sure could."
Preacher, Heyes and Curry sat around the table in the leaders' cabin while Curry finished his third helping of stew along with the telling of his experience.
"It was the strangest thing. I swear, Heyes, all he was, was a skeleton held together by skin. He said he'd survived last winter, but he sure didn't recover much through the spring and summer. And how come we ain't never seen 'im before? We've taken that trail often enough."
"Which trail was it?" Preacher asked.
Preacher's eyes lit up and, grabbing the bottle of whiskey, he took a long swig right out of the bottle.
Heyes and Curry exchanged a look, then both shrugged.
"What's the matter, Preacher?" Heyes asked.
"You took Ghost Loop?"
"Well, yeah." Curry frowned. "So what? Like I said, we've taken that route before when we're confusin' a posse."
"Yeah," Preacher nodded and took another swig, "but not at this time 'a year. Even the Injuns don't go near that area in the fall." He was met with two blank stares. "Ain't you boys never heard of the Legend of Casey Whitaker?"
Heyes chuckled. "Sure we have, Preacher. But like you said, it's just a legend: a scary story to tell the kids."
"No, it ain't." Preacher took the time to pour himself a drink this time. "Ten years ago, almost to the day, Casey Whitaker and Ben Hopkins robbed the bank in the town of Elk Mountain. Got away with a good haul, too. A month later, Hopkins showed up at the Dust Bowl hideout with all the loot and no Whitaker. He said his partner fell off his horse and broke his neck, but there's plenty who doubted 'im.
"The following spring, some of them Dust Bowl fellas were out huntin' and they came across the remains of Ole' Whitaker. Both his legs were broke, and it looked like he'd up and starved ta death. Hopkins was long gone by then, so there weren't nothin' to be done about it.
"But every fall, when the leaves turn ta frost, some folk claim they see Casey Whitaker walkin' around out in them there woods, and the injuns sure do believe that area is haunted. Them that dare ta travel that road in the fall claim that the ghost is always hungry and will come into a camp at night ta steal food.
"If he's caught stealin' and treated badly, well, them that are lucky enough ta come outta there don't talk about what happened, and they sure don't go back, not even in the summer. But them that catches 'im and treats 'im with kindness is given leave ta come and go. And he won't steal food from ya no more."
"You're tellin' me that I shared my vittles with a ghost?" Curry was incredulous.
"Sure sounds like it ta me." Preacher grinned and patted his arm. "Good thing ya did, too, or you likely wouldn't ever 'a come outta there at all."
"Ah, c'mon." Curry snorted. "You expect me ta believe that? It was just some crazy old coot who didn't have enough sense left ta come in outta the cold."
"Yeah, but Kid," Heyes bit his lower lip, his eyes dark with concern. "You are a week over-due. Where were you for those seven days?"
"Well, I was just . . . I was . . ."
Heyes and Preacher exchanged a look.
"Damn." Curry snatched up the whiskey. "I need a drink."