"Here it is, Mister Rembacker! All the way from San Francisco!"
The postmaster grinned as he held up a box wrapped in plain brown paper and tied securely with string. A disconcerting rattle from inside quickly changed his smile to a frown.
"Oh, dear. It doesn't appear to have travelled very well. I do hope it was nothing valuable."
The recipient gave the concerned postmaster a warm smile. "Don't you worry, Mister Davis. I'm just glad it got here in time for Christmas. My boys will enjoy this." He gave a heavy sigh. "My wife and I sure need something to keep our little rascals from getting into mischief."
"How many did you say you had?"
A quick mental roundup. "Six — so far."
"Sounds like quite a gang y' got there."
"Oh, it is."
Hannibal Heyes flashed the postmaster another smile, tipped his hat and tucked the parcel securely under his arm. As he made his way along the boardwalk the first snowflakes began drifting down from heavy grey clouds above and he hastily turned up his collar against the cold. Looking dubiously up at the sky he hoped that his partner, Kid Curry, had finished loading the last of the supplies into the wagon so that they could start back to the hideout without delay. Now winter was upon them there was a good chance of being snowed in and with little to do the boys, also known to every lawman as the Devil's Hole Gang, had a tendency to get a might unruly if left to their own devices for any length of time.
It had been something of a risk attempting the journey through the Devil's Hole canyon and over to Horn Ridge this close to Christmas but Heyes and the Kid had felt it was worth it; the gang had put in some good work this year. Every robbery had gone without a hitch, no passengers or bystanders had been hurt, and none of the gang had been arrested or shot, so the two leaders figured a few extra treats were in order.
Heyes had already taken his seat on the wagon when Kid strode out of the general store and climbed up onto the bench beside him.
"Got it!" Heyes said, waving the box triumphantly.
Kid slapped the reins. "Great. They're gonna love it," he said, with more than a touch of irony.
"Whatcha got there, Heyes?" Kyle Murtry eyed the parcel in Hannibal Heyes' hands with interest.
"This? Oh, this is something for us all to do now that it's getting dark real early."
"Yeah? What is it?"
Heyes placed the parcel on the large bunkhouse table, cut the string with his knife, and peeled back the paper. "It's a jig-saw puzzle!"
The Devil's Hole Gang gathered round to see this new-fangled plaything.
"Box is kinda small for a saw," frowned Kyle.
"It's not an actual saw. It's a puzzle. Soapy sent it from San Francisco. They're real popular out there."
Exhibiting his usual belligerence Wheat Carlson scoffed, "Pfftt. What would we be wantin' with some citified junk way out here in Devil's Hole?"
"Wheat," chided Kid, not bothering to move from his warm spot near the fireplace nor raise his eyes from the hat peg he was lazily whittling.
"It'll be great, boys, just you wait and see." With a flourish Heyes removed the lid of the box and stood back as six faces closed in, all eager to see what their leader was so enthusiastic about.
Kyle's excited face fell. "Well, whatever it is, it's all busted up now."
"Real rough roads on the way from San Francisco," said Hank, with a shake of his head.
"Never mind, Heyes," commiserated Lobo. "We can always play cards."
Heyes tipped the contents of the box onto the table. "It's not broken, fellas, it's supposed to look that way. That's the point. You see, you get all these little bits and you fit them together to make a picture." He pulled a card from the pile of pieces and held it up for all to see. "Like this."
Kyle stared hard at the picture. "Them's is flares!"
In an effort to curb his irritation Heyes closed his eyes and inhaled slowly. "Roses. They're roses."
"Yeah, like I say'd — flares. Cayn't it be a picture of somethin' else? Like a train?"
Heyes cast a bewildered look at a smirking Kid Curry who rocked his chair back onto four legs and sauntered over to the table to give his partner some moral support. "Somethin' wrong with roses, Kyle?" he asked, tapping his knife against the palm of his hand.
Kyle shoved his hands deep into his pockets and shuffled his feet before answering, somewhat sulkily, "Didn't say there was anythin' wrong with 'em, Kid. I kinda like trains, is all."
"Y' know he may have a point there, Heyes," Kid declared. "A train might have been more fittin', us being train robbers an' all. Why didn't Soapy choose one with a picture of a train?"
"I don't know! Maybe he was being diplomatic!" Brown eyes flashed momentarily. "Anyway, this is the one we've got, so this is the one we're gonna do."
Nods and muttered 'sures' and 'fines' abounded under Heyes' earnest and uncompromising stare.
Kid Curry selected a piece of the puzzle, considered it for a moment then, shaking his head, tossed it back onto the pile before returning to his seat by the fire.
Keeping a wary eye on the gunman, Kyle asked, "How's it work then, Heyes?"
"Well, like I said," the outlaw leader explained, slowly. "You fit all the pieces together until they make a picture. Hey, not like that!" With lightning reactions that his partner, known to many as the fastest draw in the West, would have been proud of Heyes lunged toward Kyle who was a split second away from hammering two totally unrelated pieces together with his fist. "If they're supposed to fit, they will — easily," he ground out, prising them from Kyle's stubby fingers. "No force is necessary, okay. And don't go breaking off any bits to make them fit, neither."
Kyle was still not sure he understood. "So when d' ya place your bets?"
"Gotta be before you pick up one of them bits," stated Wheat. "Or, maybe even—"
"There's no betting!" Heyes interjected quickly. "In fact, there's no money involved at all. It's not that kinda game. It's just for fun."
Kyle looked disappointed. "I don't like it."
Heyes stared over his shoulder toward the fireplace. He could swear he had heard a low chuckle.
Several hours later....
"What time is it?" Blue eyes blinked sleepily from the only occupied bunk.
"About three... in the mornin'," came Lobo's weary reply.
"Huh! You boys sure have been takin' your time makin' that doggone picture. Ain't you finished yet?"
A number of moans, groans and assorted curses answered Kid's question until Mattson eventually said, "Five minutes ago."
"Good." Kid yawned heartily. "This puzzlin' business sure is tiring."
Before angling his hat back over his eyes he glanced around the bunkhouse. "Where's Heyes?"
Hank reluctantly pulled his jaw away from where it rested heavily in his hand and grumbled, "Gone to get the big lamp from outta your cabin."
"So's we'll have more light when we do the puzzle. Ag'in."
Kid eased himself up on one elbow. "Again? When?" Then, noting the glum faces around the table he asked, incredulously, "Now?"
"Yep, that's what he said, sure 'nough," confirmed Wheat, adding sourly, "Right after he done broke all our hard work into pieces."
The blond gunman tried his best to keep the corners of his mouth from twitching with the help of a frown. "I can't believe Heyes would go and do an ornery thing like that."
"Well, he did. Said we was gonna do it again. But, faster."
"You know what it's like, Kid. Once he gets somethin' in his head..." Merkle was resigned, as were the others, to being up until daybreak.
Hannibal Heyes was nothing if not a perfectionist, something Kid Curry was all too aware of. He had lost a lot of sleep over the years while the outlaw leader described his plan for a job right down to the smallest detail, or had him sit long into the night, half-asleep and holding an alarm clock, in order to time how long it took to pick a lock or crack a particular make of safe.
"What can I tell ya, boys? Heyes just don't need as much sleep as the rest of us," was all Kid was prepared to offer by way of sympathy. Suddenly, he shivered. "Hey, who's supposed to be watching that fire? It's cold in here."
Kyle Murtry raised his head from where it rested on the table top, an errant puzzle piece sticking to his forehead. "We been so busy fittin' all them funny shaped bits t'gether, Kid, I guess we just plumb forgot."
"Well, put some wood on it now, will ya, before we all freeze to death." Kid pulled his sheepskin coat closer about him and settled back down to continue his nap.
Wearily getting to his feet Kyle asked, "Hey, Wheat, what d' ya suppose this here jiggy-saw thing is made outta?"
Wheat plucked the piece from Kyle's forehead and studied it closely. "Looks like wood to me."
A few minutes later a stomping of feet could be heard outside and the bunkhouse door opened admitting Hannibal Heyes along with an icy gust of wind and a flurry of large snowflakes. "That snow sure is coming down. I reckon we'll need to set up ropes to the outhouse," he remarked, heeling the door shut. "Good. It's nice and warm in here now. About time you stoked up that fire, Kyle!"
With a loud clang Heyes placed an old kerosene lamp on the table, pulled a box of matches from his pocket and struck one. "We'll be able to see a whole lot better with this," he said, as the lamp's wick sputtered into life, immediately doubling the amount of light in the dingy bunkhouse.
Brown eyes stared at an empty table. "Hey! Where'd the puzzle go?"
Six outlaws glanced innocently at the ceiling.
The fire burned brightly.