The drawer of the bronze, embossed cash register slammed shut with the enticing jingle of hard cash.
"Thank you for your custom, sir, and a very merry Christmas." The owner of the small tobacco store smiled amiably at the man who had just purchased six of his most expensive cigars.
Stepping past the six-foot tall wooden Indian on the boardwalk, Hannibal Heyes slid the neatly wrapped box into his coat pocket and stood for a moment surveying the dimly lit main street of Ironwood, Colorado. It was getting late and many of the store owners were dousing their lamps and locking their doors so that they could go home and spend what was left of Christmas Eve with their families.
Heyes and his partner, Kid Curry, had arrived in town a little later than expected; a rock fall having blocked the little-known trail they had elected to use and forcing them to backtrack for several miles. Therefore, instead of making the saloon or the hotel their priority they had quickly hitched their horses to the first rail they came to and made off in opposite directions to a store of their choosing.
When it came to buying Christmas gifts the former leaders of the Devil's Hole Gang didn't usually bother, mainly because they didn't always have money to spend on incidentals, but this year they were feeling flush, having been well paid for another delivery job on behalf of Colonel Harper.
Heyes looked up and down the street, his eyes eventually coming to rest on the general store. He was certain the Kid had headed that way but, not wishing to spoil any surprise tomorrow morning may bring, he decided to wait for his partner by their horses. He hoped the Kid would not be too long — as night fell, so would the temperature.
Just as he was about to step off the boardwalk he hastily changed direction, darted into an alley, and pressed his back firmly against the nearest building.
Walking along the opposite side of the street was a man clad in a long, ragged poncho and an old, brown fedora hat. Heyes' eyes strained to see more clearly through the deepening gloom. That couldn't be Righteous Adams, could it? The bounty hunter was the last person he expected to run into in this pleasant little burg deep in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Adams was more of a hot, dusty cantina, border town type and Heyes was certain he couldn't have been on their trail. He and the Kid had taken that old track for a reason — to ensure nobody could follow them without their knowledge.
As Heyes watched, the man stopped to peer through a shop window and the former outlaw leader's breath caught in his throat.
"You seen one you like yet, fella?" queried Rube Howell, the proprietor of the Ironwood General Store. The young man in front of him had been staring in dismay at the colourful array of woollen mufflers set out on the counter top for what seemed like an eternity.
Kid Curry frowned as he picked up a long, thick, knitted one. "Who'd a thought there'd be so many to choose from?"
"All top quality too. Nothin' but the best in my store, yessiree. You'll be real warm wearing any one o' these."
"Oh, it ain't for me. It's a present for my friend. He's always complainin' about the cold."
Trying not to show his impatience Rube forced a smile. He normally took great pride in the level of service he provided as well as the quality of the goods he offered for sale, however, it was almost closing time and today had been a very long one.
Finally, Curry announced. "I'll take the blue."
"A very good choice. That'll be three dollars even."
Reaching into his pants' pocket Curry pulled out a fifty dollar gold piece and placed it on the counter with a slightly apologetic look. He hadn't long been paid and there had not been an opportunity to break into it until now.
"A 'slug'!" Rube exclaimed, his eyes widening at the sight of the shiny coin. "Ain't you got nuthin' smaller?"
Curry sighed and began to search his pockets.
"While you're lookin', do you mind if I start clearin' up?" Rube asked.
Curry shook his head, so engrossed was he in retrieving a number of coins which appeared to have escaped into the lining of his sheepskin jacket. He also didn't bother to look up when the street door opened admitting a cold gust of air along with another late shopper.
The rough-looking stranger made straight for the small collection of hats on display. Rube was not surprised at this considering the state of the fedora he wore. What did surprise him was that the man had managed to find the display at all, seeing as it was almost hidden behind an oversized Christmas tree, the top of which touched the ceiling while the spread of its boughs took up a lot more trading space than he was happy with. The tree had been his wife's choice and she had taken a great deal of time and pleasure in liberally decorating its boughs with all manner of ornaments, mostly brightly coloured glass baubles and delicate angel figurines made of china. She had also draped it with one further extravagance — thin strips of tinsel made from real silver. Rube had to admit that it looked very festive and he had even chuckled at the sight of the elf in a little green hat which was pinned to the top.
Leaving the two men for a moment he carefully sidled past the tree, ensuring he did not disturb any of his wife's hard work, and through the partially blocked doorway in order to fetch his broom. He had only just begun sweeping the shop floor when he heard the unmistakeable click of a revolver being cocked. Kid Curry heard it too, and grimaced at the words which inevitably followed.
"Put those hands up, real high."
Curry didn't move, his gunman's instincts taking over as he tried to locate exactly where behind him the man was standing and if it was worth attempting to draw his Colt before the man could fire. Ultimately, he knew speculation of this kind was futile. He was good, but not that good.
"Hey!" the man shouted. "You there, at the counter, I'm talkin' to you."
Curry took a deep breath. "Look, mister," he said, his tone even. "I don't know who you think I am, but I've got a face lots of folks think they've seen before." He dearly wished he had a dollar for every time he'd said those words.
"I ain't gonna tell ya again."
While Curry slowly extricated his hands from his coat pockets and raised them above his head Rube at last found his voice. "I-I don't want no trouble, m-mister, it bein' the season of goodwill an' all."
Righteous Adams grinned slyly. "Yeah, and I just got me a real good Christmas present. Ten thousand dollars. Don't you fret none mister storekeeper, there won't be no trouble providin' he comes quiet like."
Hannibal Heyes watched Righteous Adams with mounting trepidation and, the very moment the bounty hunter opened the door of the general store and stepped inside, Heyes sprinted across the street, getting as close as possible so that he could see inside without being spotted. He had been right, the Kid was there but appeared totally unaware of the danger he was in.
Heyes ran down the alley at the side of the store. Thankful that there was just enough daylight remaining to enable him to locate the door at the rear, he tried the handle. Locked! Praying that he still had some time before his partner was marched over to the sheriff's office he felt along his hatband until he found his trusty lock pick. When it came to locks Heyes had not lost any of his outlaw touch and he had the door open in seconds. After a quick glance left and right the former thief slipped inside, moving silently through the stock room to arrive at the door into the shop. Here he peered through the boughs of the Christmas tree to see his partner with his hands held high and Adams holding a gun in one hand and a pair of handcuffs in the other.
"Hands behind your back, Curry."
Heyes scowled. The last thing he wanted was for Adams to get those cuffs on his partner; not because he would have a problem picking the locks, but because the Kid's mobility would be severely restricted, making their getaway harder and slower. He had to act fast.
Now, in years to come whenever Heyes recounted the story he always insisted that what he did next had been part of the plan all along, but in truth it was purely a reflex action, because the moment Adams took another step toward the Kid Heyes lunged forward and gave the tree an almighty shove.
Ornaments flew in every direction shattering into tiny pieces as the heavily loaded evergreen keeled over, knocking the bounty hunter off his feet and pinning him to the floor; his arms waving like those of a puppet, entangling him even further amid the branches, tinsel, and his own poncho. Heyes' boots ground the fragile fragments further into the floorboards as he leaped over the prone man and dashed past an astonished Rube Howell on his way to fling the door open and yell to his equally surprised partner to run.
Memories of many a heist came flooding back and both men's eyes shone with a level of excitement rarely experienced of late as they sped down the boardwalk to their waiting horses, vaulted into the saddles, and high-tailed it out of town.
Early the next morning, two pairs of eyes opened almost simultaneously as a single shaft of light lanced through a gap in the wall of an old barn straight into the stall where the former outlaws had spent the night.
There was a rustling of straw as Curry raised his arms and stretched. "Y' know," he said with a yawn, "I still can't believe I nearly got took. And by the likes of Righteous Adams!"
"Like I keep telling you, Kid. I'm not the only one who needs my back watching."
"True." Curry appeared thoughtful for a moment then he chuckled. "You sure busted that tree up real good!"
"Not exactly a regular Hannibal Heyes plan but sometimes you just gotta work with what you're given. And, talking about giving..." Heyes grinned as he pulled the small box of cigars from his pocket and held it out to his friend. "Merry Christmas, Kid!"
"Gee, thanks, partner!" Feeling thankful that he'd had the peace of mind to stuff the muffler into his pocket as they fled the store, Curry pulled out his chosen gift. "Merry Christmas to you too, Heyes. Sorry it ain't wrapped but, I was kinda in a hurry."
Heyes' face lit up at the sight of the warm wool. "Thank you. I can sure use this." His expression rapidly changed to one of concern. "You did pay for it before—?"
Kid's blue eyes rolled. "I paid for it."
"Good. Even the little things matter now we're going for that amnesty."
"There is one thing, Heyes, but I wouldn't call it 'little'."
"What's that?" Heyes asked absently as he wrapped the muffler around his neck and tucked it securely into his coat.
"You remember that shiny, fifty dollar gold piece I got in my pay?"
"I don't know how to break this to you but... we lit outta there so fast I left it on the counter top."
Heyes regarded his partner's forlorn expression for a moment, then he smiled.
"Well, Kid, I guess we'll have to call that restitution."
"Restitution! For what?"
"For me destroying that fancy Christmas tree."