Snow was falling softly all around, as they headed out for their Christmas Eve ride.
Jed Curry tried to remember when the tradition had begun, but he was pretty sure it was something that he and Hannibal Heyes had been doing for as long as they’d had horses to ride. Some Christmases had been spent in Devil’s Hole or places even colder and further north, where they’d bundled up and cut things short to spare the horses, while others had taken place in the sunnier climes, where the pair had sometimes sat out the winter.
The holidays had always been difficult for them, remembering everything they’d lost when they were still children. There was something about Christmas that put them in mind of family, not of a bunch of rowdy outlaws. The Devil’s Hole gang generally spent the evening getting drunk and singing naughty parodies of Christmas carols, though sometimes Preacher read the Christmas story aloud to them first. Otherwise, the gang members sunk into maudlin reminiscences about happier times that were never to come again. None of these were exactly what Curry or Heyes wanted. So the Christmas Eve ride had become an annual occurrence, where they could get away, appreciate the stark beauty of a December night, and look at the stars. Even afterwards, after the amnesty, their Christmas Eve tradition had continued.
On this particular Christmas, it was cold and snowy, but not so cold or snowy that the horses were uncomfortable. Curry’s old sheepskin jacket, still going strong after all these years, kept him warm, and he looked at Heyes, who seemed perfectly cozy as well, in his heaviest coat, with a woolen muffler wrapped snugly around his neck.
“Let’s do it first, and then head on out of town.”
“All right, Heyes,” his partner agreed.
They rode past the church, with its wooden steeple, painted white in New England style, and decorated with evergreens for the holiday. Lights were shining, and they could hear voices singing familiar hymns of the season.
“Be nice to go, sometime.” Curry sounded wistful.
“Sure would, Kid,” Heyes responded, using the old nickname, which only he used nowadays. “But we know they’ll be at service, so this is the best time to do it. To start our new tradition.”
A few months earlier, a friend in San Francisco had sent them a packet of old dime novels about themselves, Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry, the most successful outlaws the West had ever known. Heyes had been taken with the description of the pair as “latter-day Robin Hoods.” At the time, he’d laughed at the author’s somewhat less flattering follow-up, the mention that unlike the original outlaw of Sherwood Forest, they’d robbed from the rich and kept the money for themselves.
But as the holidays drew near, he couldn’t get it out of his mind. “Not sayin’ we did wrong, Kid. But now that things are different for us, maybe we should give something back.”
“Maybe so. Talk around town is that the Williams family’s been struggling since Tim’s accident.”
“Six kids and him unable to work, sure. Gotta be tough on ‘em.”
“You thinking what I’m thinking?”
“Guess so, Kid.”
And so, when they rode out that night, their horses were laden with sacks full of gifts and food.
“You sure Tim’s not gonna be home? What with the snow and all, might be hard for him to get to church.”
“Reverend Moore told me they asked him special to read the Christmas lesson, on account of folks in town wanting to make him feel like he was cared for.”
Of course, when they reached the Williams house, it was locked up tight. It wasn’t so much that people in town weren’t trusting, but it was pretty isolated, and since the railroad ran right to town, strangers sometimes found their way there.
Heyes pulled his handy lockpick out from behind his hatband, where it had been tucked. “Gettin’ a bit out of practice with this, but,” he manipulated the metal tool in the lock, “nothin’ that doesn’t come straight back.” There was a satisfying sound, and the door fell open.
Quickly, the two former outlaws unloaded the sacks, placing gifts underneath the scrawny tree, and topping up the lightly-filled stockings with oranges, nuts, and small toys. They left baked goods on the table, the kind of thing that Bessie Williams no longer had time for, and a baked ham for the holiday dinner. Under the tree, there were stuffed animals, one for each child. There were games to play and books to read, for children and adults alike. For Tim, there were new woodworking tools. Even before his accident, he’d been known for his whittling, and since he’d been unable to work, he’d been supplementing his wife’s cleaning jobs by selling his carvings. For Bessie, there was a length of pretty dress fabric, with a note containing strict instructions that she was to use it for herself, by direct command of Saint Nicholas himself.
“What do you think, Heyes?” asked Curry, looking around.
“I think we’ve outdone ourselves, Kid.”
Their new Christmas tradition fulfilled, they left the Williams house, Heyes carefully snapping the lock shut behind him.
They mounted again, and turned their horses’ heads so they were riding out of town. The snow continued for awhile, the silent whiteness surrounding them and the sound of hooves muffled. Maybe it was because they had homes to go to, but instead of the nuisance it had sometimes been over the years, the snowfall was a pure delight. They found themselves laughing as they rode.
The snow tapered off, and a breeze came and drove the clouds away. The winter stars were brighter here, away from the lights of town. There was Orion, the Hunter, acknowledging them from the night sky. A wolf howled in the distance, but neither Curry nor Heyes felt any anxiety, though Curry’s horse snorted in response.
The whiteness of the snow-covered ground under the star-filled sky was almost eerie, strange and beautiful. They rode on for awhile longer, but finally, in such accord that they were of one mind even without speaking, the two men turned their horses back towards town.
They rode back to the house a different way, so that they didn’t pass the church and alert anyone to the fact that they’d been out riding. Let the Williams family be surprised by what awaited them.
And so they approached the big white house on the outskirts of town from the outside. Even at a distance, they could see through the windows that there were lights burning brightly, and the noises of conversation and laughter. As they drew nearer, they could hear the clinking of glasses, and through the windows, see the decorations. The porch was festooned with boughs of holly and fir, tied with red ribbons; they’d put them there themselves. They looked in through the window, at the Christmas tree, with its garlands and shiny glass ornaments, and at the people who surrounded it. Someone inside began to sing a favorite carol, and soon the others had joined in.
Jed Curry turned to his partner, his blue eyes shining. “Ever think about how lucky we are, Heyes? How easily this could’ve turned out different?”
“All the time, Kid. Now, let’s settle the horses in, and have ourselves a merry Christmas.”
[Author’s Note: Although the Teddy bear, per se, dates back to 1902, the Internet tells me that Steiff invented the stuffed animal in Germany in 1880. This being my holiday gift to all of you, I’ve left it so that you can decide just where the guys are, and who’s waiting for them back at the house: friends, wives, family, Wheat and Kyle, or whatever you’d like. For my part, of course, I imagine they’re in Blue Sky, Montana, and you can read the rest of what happens at: https://archiveofourown.org/works/16738654 This is a Christmas Eve story, but whichever holidays you celebrate at this season of the year, may they be utterly delightful! Thanks to Niki Pauline Conard for permission to use her wonderful photomanip as the illustration!]