It was the third day of December. The air was clear and cold, the view was wide and unobstructed by haze. Rows and rows of mountain ranges blocked the view on the horizon. The world seemed wide and small at the same time.
Kid Curry and Hannibal Heyes reined in their horses on the peak of Old Man’s Hill and enjoyed the view and fresh air.
They had spent the last few days in jail, arrested for a misdemeanor - disturbing the peace or indecent behavior or something like that. The hangover they had shared at that time made it difficult to recall the incident.
Everything depends, even the quality of the good stuff as it seemed. The true culprit of the offense had been the maker of that brew. Heaven knows, what ingredients he might have used to adulterate it. The bet between the boys was arsenic and opium against tar and sulfur, but they would never know which of them was right.
Fortunately, they only received a very short sentence and were back on the road again, before one of the lawmen discovered whom they had had in their custody. Lady Luck had definitely been on their side this time.
She was the only lady who had ever been close to Heyes’s heart, passionate, capricious and hot-tempered. He adored her, worshiped her, gave himself into her hands over and over again, willing to take every risk, just to pleasure her – and himself, too. Everyone else was just ... entertainment.
This morning was gorgeous – pure and true as only untouched nature can be and for the boys it appeared twice as stunning. They almost felt the pulse of creation.
The boys took another deep breath, looked at each other and exchanged warm smiles. Slowly they turned their horses and tackled the steep and narrow descent.
Some bends and a couple dozen feet lower they encountered a strange pair. An old man, tall and vigorous, with long gray hair and a beard stood in front of a pretty small and dainty donkey, which was loaded with an immense sack.
The man stood with his hands on his hips in front of the animal and fixed it with a thoughtful and unfriendly gaze.
When he heard the hoofbeats of the boy’s mounts he turned his head towards the newcomers. Blue eyes that were the color of the deep sea after a storm fixed on them. Not one word was spoken but his charisma struck them, despite the outlandish robe he was wearing. His gaze cut right down to the soul, leaving no secrets hidden. They knew, that he knew – everything.
Uncomfortably they shifted in their saddles, unsure of what to do.
Than a smile cut through the dense hair covering the man’s face and lit it up like a sunrise over a glacier. They couldn’t help but return it.
“Howdy, mister,” Heyes greeted him, while the Kid tipped his hat.
“Good day, gentlemen,” he replied. His voice was low but forceful.
“You’re pretty late taking this pass by foot at this time of year...”
The stranger pursed his lips and nodded, at least the movements of the beard suggested that.
“Well, it wasn’t my choice. My ... employer gave me new instructions and now I’m here: much later than I intended, unsure of what to make of his orders ... and relying on this stubborn that creature he gave me.
“You’re having some trouble with your little friend, here?” Heyes asked and pointed towards the mulish donkey.
Its ears lay flat on its head, its legs were dug into the rubble and its whole stance distinctively showed that it wasn't going to take even one more step.
The bearded man glanced at it and nodded.
“No, wonder. That sack looks twice his size and three times his weight,” the Kid’s warm and compassionate voice chimed in.
“Appearances are deceptive. We all have our burdens and we are able to carry them. It isn’t half as much as it seems.”
“Maybe it just needs an incentive,” Heyes suggested.
The stranger brought one of his hands in front of him and a birch came in sight. He took a thoughtful look at it but he seemed unhappy with the sight.
The Kid looked at the tiny animal again and shook his head slowly.
Heyes cleared his throat and continued.
“Most of the mules I have met were just as clever and stubborn as men. And some of them were even smarter than someone I know,” he shot a side-glance towards his blond friend and grinned when he earned a sour grimace. “Most of them do much better with praise than with blame. A threat makes them small and unwilling, encouragement lets them grow and shine.”
“You have a point there, young man,” the old-timer answered thoughtfully. “And maybe that’s the answer to the other question, too.”
“Can we give you a hand?” Heyes asked. “We could load some of your stuff on our horses. Might be easier then...”
But truth be told, he was relieved when his offer was refused. He hadn’t been keen to walk down the steeply sloping path.
“No, thanks, boys. I guess, that was help enough. We’ll make it on our own now.”
They greeted each other before the boys drove their horses around the unlikely couple and continued their path down the hill.
St. Nicholas watched the boys leaving until they disappeared behind the next bend. He heard their lively voices a few minutes longer and smiled. Pretty good boys after all, good-hearted and kind. Of course, he knew everything else, too. It was all in the book.
His glance wandered to the middle-distance when his thoughts went back in time. They had been all under his protection for a long time: sailors, travelers ... children. The latest orders had been about the latter ones.
‘Evaluate their behavior,’ the Lord had told him.
‘As if that was so easy,’ Nicholas thought. ‘I love those little rascals. They’re good, each one in their own way. I am used to protecting them, guiding them - how can I be expected to punish them, just because they err sometimes? Humans - that’s what they are! And humans make mistakes. HE himself had made them this way. They are supposed to learn, to grow...’
He picked a crumbling cookie out of the depths of his robe and offered it to the animal. It raised its ears, sniffled and accepted the gift graciously.
That young man was right – about donkeys and men as well as about children. A little incentive here and there, a little reminder of what they’ve done - that it’s noticed and not forgotten - but most of all goodies in the end.
He smiled and patted the donkey’s shoulder.
“Come on, my boy. We have work to do!”
One morning a few days later the boys woke to a surprise. The Kid noticed it first, when he tried to slip into his boot. There was something stuck in it. He pulled it off again and turned it upside down. A couple of apples, nuts and cookies fell out of it. He lifted his brows and shot a questioning glance at Heyes, who shrugged and laughed.
“Maybe a squirrel fell in love with you!?” he teased him. “Now I know what took you so long behind that bush last night!”
But his own boots were hiding things, too. The smile disappeared from his face and was replaced with the same question he saw in his friend's eyes. ‘Who?’ The Kid wouldn’t have been so surprised if it had been his joke.
Heyes turned the boot over, shook it and more goodies fell on the ground, followed by a very tiny birch. Carefully he picked it up and examined it. It looked quite familiar to him.
He raised his hand and showed it to the Kid. “Does that remind you of something ... or better someone?”
“Hey, looks exactly like the birch the old man had! But how...?”
“Don’t ask me.” Heyes shrugged again. “I'd prefer to ask the fastest gun in the West who is supposed to protect our camp...”
“Then I’d like to ask the champeen tracker of Southern Utah where the tracks are that prove somebody was here!” the Kid shot back.
Heyes rose and turned around several times, searching the ground.
“You’re right. There’s nothing! Absolutely nothing...” he admitted in amazement.
“Not that your evaluation was much of a surprise to anyone... Next you will state our visitor must have appeared from nowhere!” Kid Curry teased him. “You think you’ll manage to make us breakfast without losing the tracks?”
Heyes throw his empty canteen towards him.
“If you ladle us some water, I’ll make us coffee and flapjacks with apples and nuts.”
Kid Curry caught it and laughed. “Deal!”
Before he left the small clearing, he turned around and smiled at his friend. “Whoever the donor was: I really like him!”