Kid Curry searched the ground for tracks in the darkening coniferous forest.
The latest posse had hunted them like mad dogs and when they finally lost it, the boys had found themselves far away from civilization. They were far further north than they liked to be at this time of the year. It was cold and uncomfortable and they were running out of supplies.
Only a handful of flour and beans were left, although Heyes had rationed their food immediately. For days the dark-haired ex-outlaw pretended that he was not very hungry, reducing his meager portions further, but his pale skin and his misty eyes betrayed him.
His partner knew him much too well to believe him. It was just the behavior he had developed during the long cold winter months in the orphanage. But the Kid was no longer a kid. He wouldn’t allow it another day. Today Heyes would eat! They both would eat! And they both would be satisfied!
Tracks! Finally tracks! Some kind of deer and the hoofprints were fresh!
Hope sprouted and with new enthusiasm Kid Curry followed them deeper into the woods.
He brought the quarry to bay in a swampy clearing. To be truthful he found it trapped. It was a strange small deer with grey fur and wide antlers. Its prominent headgear was the reason for its futile situation. It was caught in the strong branches of a bush that leaned over a small well.
It couldn’t escape. It was an easy target.
Kid Curry raised his rifle.
The deer turned his head.
Blue eyes and brown eyes met. Time seemed to stretch.
There was something about this animal, Kid Curry couldn’t explain. Was it its soulful eyes? Its shiny nose? It looked swollen and red as if it had been stung by a hornet. Did hornets still fly at this time of year?
Kid Curry lowered his rifle.
Slowly, murmuring soothing words he moved towards the trapped animal, ignoring the muddy ground.
Cautiously he touched the quivering flanks, slipped his hand along the neck until it reached the mighty antlers.
Carefully he bent the branches, that kept the deer from escaping. With a strong shake of his head the animal freed himself from the last sticks that held him.
Astonished Kid Curry noticed that it didn’t flee immediately. Instead it turned its head and watched him trustingly. The blond man patted its shoulder.
“Good, boy. See that you find a safer place before I change my mind, huh?”
The cracking of brushwood nearby startled both of them.
“Kid, what are you doing? Step aside!” Heyes asked him quietly as he raised his rifle.
“Too late, boy,” the Kid told the deer sadly. “I’m sorry.”
Kid Curry patted the deer one last time and stepped aside slowly.
Heyes focused on the animal and frowned. A reindeer? Here? However, it would feed them for several days. Finally they were saved!
He held his breath to stop his hands from trembling. Fortunately, the target was close and didn’t move.
The deer turned his head and looked at him.
Two pairs of big brown eyes met. Time seemed to stretch.
Heyes’s rifle sank towards the ground.
Kid Curry noticed it and smiled.
“We ain’t that hungry, are we?” he asked while the moved nearer to his partner and gently laid his arm around his shoulders.
“No, for sure.” Heyes sighed. “Seeing you cuddling with it was even worse than giving it a name!”
Kid Curry laughed and patted Heyes’s shoulder.
“Come on. We’ll find you something else.”
The animal nodded towards them, turned around and slowly walked away.
For no particular reason, they followed the animal. Maybe it would lead them to a place where they would find some dried berries or nuts or a creek, which held fish.
Was it just their imaginations or did it really turn around and watch out for them?
After a while they reached a clearing. Surprised they noticed a bunch of eight more reindeer in front of an old wooden cabin. The place seemed to be inhabited, because smoke rose from the chimney.
When the deer arrived at the front yard, the door of the cabin flung open and a corpulent old man with long white hair and a bushy beard strode right to it.
“Number Nine, where have you been? I’ve been searching for you for days! I guess, I really need a better name for you, little rascal,” the man scolded the animal that seemed to listen to him somewhat contrite.
He rubbed the forehead and nose of the deer and then turned towards the boys.
“I have to thank you, for bringing him back here! I really don’t know what I’d have done without you. It’s nearly time for me to leave and I could hardly leave one of them behind, could I?”
“Probably not. My name’s Joshua and that’s my partner Thaddeus.” Heyes couldn’t say why, but in some way, it felt wrong to tell him their aliases, nevertheless he did.
They both earned a thoughtful glace from the old man. “You know, a name says a lot about a man. The names you’ve got are good ones. You shouldn’t hesitate to use them.”
The boys exchanged a sheepish glance and shrugged simultaneously.
“Speaking of names - I’m Kris.”
While he talked, snowflakes began to fall from the darkening sky. A sure sign of the coming winter.
“No sense in travelling on, boys. It’s better if you rest here tonight. Come in! It’s getting cold when night falls.”
Inside the cabin it was warm and homely. A crackling fire scared the cold away and delicious scents filled the air.
“Please, won’t you join me for dinner?” Kris invited them.
The boys accepted the invitation gladly and were surprised when dinner became actually a feast.
They ate a hearty stew, apples and nuts, juicy pie and fruitcake, soaked with brandy. After dinner they settled down in front of the fireplace with sweet cookies and punch.
“I have to say you know how to live in style, Kris,” Heyes said, watching his partner’s peaceful and contented smile.
“To be honest, it’s good to talk to another biped. I rarely have guests here.”
“When you enjoy company, why are you out here all alone?” Heyes asked.
“I lived here once. Now I’m kinda on vacation before the busy time starts again.”
“In winter? Which business are you in?”
“Well, one could say it’s ... kinda a delivery service with tight deadlines. Out of season I usually enjoy my peace. But near the end of my free time it gets a little boring. So, one must celebrate when one has the chance.” Kris winked at them with twinkling eyes.
“Yeah, I always liked that proverb,” the Kid muttered sleepily. “We used to live that way, too. But we created our own opportunities.”
“Nothing wrong with that, as long as nobody gets hurt.”
“It’s not always easy to say that,” Heyes said thoughtfully. “That’s one reason why we decided to mend our ways. I’m not sure, if things got better ‘cause of that.”
“At least not for us,” his partner added quietly, looking at him warmly.
“Don’t hang your heads, boys! If you do the right thing, things will fall into place,” their host encouraged them. “I’m sure, you’ll be better off in the long run.”
“Sometimes I doubt that,” Heyes confessed.
“Be confident, it will!” Something in the old man’s voice made it sound like a promise.
“However, at least it counts for today.” Heyes beamed one of his bright smiles and raised his mug for a toast. “Here’s to our host!”
“Hear, hear,” the Kid chimed in.
Kris answered them with an infectious laugh.
They had themselves a good time and it turned into a long and pleasant evening.
The boys spent the night in the sweet-smelling hay in the loft. Their bed was soft and warm and it was the first time in weeks that they felt safe and slept soundly.
When they woke up in the morning Kris was gone and so were the reindeer. Not even a track of them remained.
Instead they found all their belongings. Much to their surprise someone had fetched their horses during the night along with everything they had left in their makeshift camp.
The mounts were as rested and well-fed as their owners. Neither of the boys had heard Kris leaving the cabin, but who else could have engineered it?
Also, they found a lot of packages which were meant to be stored in their saddlebags: fruitcake and hardtack, fresh apples and raisins and any kind of supply the boys would need on their journey. On top of that they found a bottle of fine whiskey and a short note:
“You boys have saved me, more than you’ll ever know! Take the presents as sign of my gratitude ... or a seasonal present, if you will. I’m sure you won’t see me again, so I wish you a very merry Christmas and all the best!”