Morning frost was soon replaced by a light dusting of snow, and the Hole prepared to hunker down for the cold winter months. Heyes’ final job of the season hadn’t gone as smoothly as he would have liked, blaming Lom’s unexpected departure for putting him off his game.
Truth was, he hadn’t done his homework, and the timer mechanism proved more complex than he expected. They rode out of town in the dead of night with about as much fanfare as a coyote finding the chicken coop empty. He gave the fellas part of their Christmas bonuses early, along with permission to go have some fun with their friendly neighboring town, so they could blow off their disappointment. And since they hadn’t known about the bonus, this was just as good as a payday. Even Curry joined in on the fun, because he knew that Heyes, with the mood he was in that night, wasn’t worth being around.
Heyes stayed up all night, pacing back and forth in the living room with the fire blazing, and the coffee pot putting in full-time duty. He knew he could figure this out. He was the best there was, and he wasn’t about to let some little timing mechanism run him out of business. He’d gotten a good look at that safe in the bank; studied it, like a wrangler studying a wild stallion. The solution was there, somewhere, lurking in the depths of his mind, taunting him, forcing him to work for it. He chewed his lip, drank his coffee and walked a path in the already thinning carpet.
Then, as the morning light fought against the night shadows, Heyes picked up pencil and paper, and began to work it out.
December hit hard, and winter got serious about keeping the gang snow-bound for the season. Heyes considered backing off on the sentry duties, since no one in their right mind would be out in this kind of weather, when a warning shot sounded from the entrance look-out. He frowned, but stood up to grab his coat and hat, just as Curry came out of his room where he’d been napping.
“What the hell?” Curry grumbled while rubbing his eyes. “Ain’t it snowin’ out there?”
“Sure is,” Heyes said, then shrugged. “I can’t imagine why anybody would be out on a day like this, especially this high up.”
“I suppose there’s only one way ta’ find out.” With some reluctance, Curry pulled on his boots and donned his heavy coat. “Let’s go.”
Dressed for the weather, the two men opened the door and braced themselves for the cold temperatures.
It was a relief that the wind had died down some, but the snow still fell in large, ground-covering flakes, while the cold, crisp air tingled their noses and caused both men to snuggled deeper into their coats.
Wheat and Kyle also braved the elements to come check out who was arriving in their haven, but Hank, still recovering from his bullet wound, opted to remain dry and warm by the bunkhouse stove.
Heyes secretly hoped it was Lom coming back, that the offer had turned out to be a trap, after all, and Lom had come to his senses. But as Charlie rode into the yard leading a horse that sported a blind-folded rider, Heyes’ heart sank. There would be no reason to hide the entrance to the hide-out from Lom.
“Damn.” Wheat blew into his hand then rubbed them together for warmth. “He must be plumb crazy, ridin’ up here in weather like this.”
“Maybe he got lost,” Kyle commented.
“Yeah,” Curry said. “Maybe.”
The group on foot walked toward the two horsemen, and they all met in front of the barn.
“What’s goin’ on, Charlie?” Curry asked. “Who ya’ got there?”
Charlie shrugged, as he dismounted. “I donno.” He stamped his feet and blew into his hands. “We spied ‘im wanderin’ around out there by Bull Frog Creek. He says he got lost.”
Kyle grinned and nudged Wheat in the side. “See? Told ya’.”
Curry stepped forward, looking up at the man, who sat stone-cold still upon the steaming horse. It was impossible to get any kind of reading from him. He was bundled up in a buffalo coat that covered him from ears to ankles. A buffalo hat took care of his head, and any information from his eyes was hidden behind the blindfold. Every inch of buffalo hair captured the snow in layers, and the increasing abundance of heavy flakes falling, covered him in a natural camouflage.
“You can take off your blindfold,” Curry told him. “But don’t make no other moves than that.”
The apparition’s upper limbs moved toward their appendages, and heavy mitts clasped and pulled at one another to remove them from cold, stiffened digits. Fingers grabbed the mitts and slapped them against the coat, sending snow cascading down. The movement of the arms heading for the top of its head, caused more caked whiteness to split and tumble, only to disappear into its own kind upon the increasing blanket covering the ground.
Fingers stumbled over the knot behind the head until the blindfold loosened, and a small section of the face bared itself to the frigid air.
The five outlaws stared in silence. Even through the falling blanket of white, they could tell that something wasn’t right in the man’s cold, icy stare that met their gazes.
Curry came to his senses first. “What’s your name, Mister?”
The apparition shifted, apparently taking a breath, then a muffled voice from within the depths rumbled its answer.
“Name’s Obadiah Oswald. Folks just call me ‘Snake-eyes’.”
“Why do they call ya’ that?” Kyle asked, and Wheat smacked him on the arm. “Hey. What ya’ do that fer?”
Heyes and Curry ignored the dispute, and Curry stepped closer to the horse’s head.
“Do you know where you are, Mr. Oswald?”
“Can’t say as I do. But I would be obligin’, if I could step down off ‘a this horse and get the blood goin’ again.”
“We’ll do more than that,” Heyes offered. “Come on up to the cabin there. We’ll get you fixed up with something to eat, and then we can talk.”
Curry turned a scowl to his partner, but Heyes chose to ignore it, smiling in welcome as the bear dismounted.
“Much obliged,” it rumbled. “It’s colder than a pecker in vomit, out here.”
Heyes’ smile flickered. “Okay. Kyle, help the man get his horse settled. Charlie, you can call it a day. Go tell Wes and Lobo it’s time for their watch.”
Charlie smiled through his chattering teeth. “Sure thing.”
“What do ya’ think you’re doin’?” Curry complained, as they striped their snow-laden coats off in the warm cabin. “I’m head ‘a security. Ain’t it up ta’ me who stays and who don’t?”
“Yeah,” Heyes slapped the snow off his hat, “but you weren’t going to send him packing on a day like this. Besides, we might be able to use him. With Lom gone and Hank laid up, we short-handed.”
“So what? It’s winter. We don’t need no more men.”
Heyes shrugged. “Just thinking ahead, Kid.”
Curry seethed. “Next time, you let me do the invitin’. I don’t care if I would ‘a done the same this time. It don’t look good in front ‘a the men. I’m security here, and they know it. Let me do my job.”
“Yes, all right, Kid. Next time.”
Heyes sat across the table from their guest, as that man wolfed down flapjacks, beans and bacon. Curry stood behind Heyes, leaning against the wall, and neither man knew quite what to make of Mr. Obadiah Oswald.
Once he’d pried himself out from under the buffalo coat, he wasn’t quite as big or impressive as the apparition they’d first encountered. He wasn’t as tall as the outlaw leaders, but his girth equaled four of theirs put together. It still wasn’t apparent if he was big-boned, muscular, or just plain fat, but his horse must have felt the strain.
These characteristics were not what caused the partners to stare.
The man’s skin was almost transparent, but not from the cold, it was his natural complexion. His straggly hair and beard were white, and the tangled mass tightly framed pink-rimmed eyes that were the palest blue they had ever seen. When those eyes looked up and met theirs, it was like being pierced with an icicle. And there was no emotion in them; they were cold in every sense of the word.
‘Snake-eyes’ was a fitting name for him.
“So . . . Mr. Snake,” Curry began, and those orbs flicked up to encompasses the gunman. “What’s your business out here?”
“My business ain’t none ‘a yours. I’m obliged for the food, but once my horse is rested, I’ll be movin’ on. Unless you wanna do some horse-tradin’, that is.”
Heyes smiled, but it was tight and suspicious. “We come across a man in our territory, on a day when no God-fearing soul should be outdoors. I think that makes it our business.”
“I ain’t no God-fearin’ soul,” Snake mumbled around his food, “And besides, I told ya’, I got turned around out there.”
“Okay,” Heyes pushed onward. “But what were you doing ‘out there’ in the first place?”
“We don’t like it when strangers just happen ta’ stumble by,” Curry said. “It makes us kind ‘a nervous.”
“Well, like I said, I’ll be leavin’ soon.”
Heyes glanced back at Curry.
Curry shook his head.
Heyes’ smile returned to their guest. “The way the snow is piling up out there, it’s not likely you’ll be going anywhere, Mr. Snake. And I like to know who I’m bunking with.”
The cold eyes flicked from one man to the other.
“Maybe I’m the one who should be worried,” he said. “I’m familiar enough with these mountains ta’ know that a gang ‘a outlaws got their hideout up here, somewhere. Ain’t nobody been able ta’ find it, though.” He smiled, the gaps left by missing teeth being the only dark to his white. “Ironic, ain’t it? An outlaw hideout that nobody can find, and I stumble across it only ‘cause I got lost.” Feeling the tension rising, Snake pushed himself away from the table, giving his empty plate a shove. “Nah, never mind. I ain’t got no problems with you fellas. You might say, we’re in the same line ‘a work.”
“Is that so?” Curry asked him.
“It is.” Snake jerked his chin toward his saddlebags dumped on the floor by the front door. “Them bags is full of loot. That’s why I was in these mountains. I figured no posse was gonna come after me here. I thought I was familiar enough with this range ta’ make it through okay. Guess I was wrong. It seems lucky for all ‘a us that we found each other.”
“How’s that?” Heyes asked.
“I need a place ta’ hole up for the winter, and I got enough money ta’ help with stores. Win/win, I’d say.”
“What makes you think, we need stores?” Heyes asked.
Snake smiled, and those ice orbs bore into Heyes.
“I heard tell that the Devil’s Hole Gang hit the bank in Rawlins a while back. I also heard that Hannibal Heyes couldn’t open the safe, so the gang got away with nothin’. That must ‘a been embarrassin’.” Heyes squirmed but remained silent. “I doubt you would ‘a tried that job this close ta’ winter, if ya’ hadn’t been wantin’ one more, big score before shuttin’ down. Yessir, come early spring thaw, when you’re hitchin’ in your belts, I figure you’re gonna need what I got.”
Heyes and Curry exchanged another quick glance. Both had a feeling they were in for a long, cold winter.