"Are they there? I can't see."
Hannibal Heyes stood on tiptoe and attempted to peer over the cluster of rocks he was hiding behind, but his view remained obstructed by a single tree growing at an impossibly acute angle from the side of the mountain.
"No sign of 'em. Reckon they've given up." Kid Curry had chosen a more advantageous spot and, despite the early hour, had a clear view down the frost-covered valley.
"I should hope so after two whole days," grumbled Heyes, vigorously rubbing his hands together. "Wheat and the others will be back at the Hole thinking we're in jail."
He could picture Wheat Carlson, right now. The man considered himself, misguidedly in Heyes' opinion, to be the only gang member with enough smarts to replace him as leader of the infamous Devil's Hole Gang. The mere thought of Heyes locked up in a cell would put a wide grin on that knothead's face.
"We gotta stay sharp," advised the Kid, checking his gun for the third time since sunup. "That posse could double back; even lay in wait for us someplace."
Heyes studied the gathering clouds overhead. "Hmmm. It looks like the weather's about to turn too. Let's face it, none of that bunch will chance coming out of the Hole in the snow to bust us outta jail."
The little-used rock-laden path that they had recklessly traversed in the dark to escape their pursuers wove its way steeply down the mountainside. Despite having had very little sleep both men remained alert for any unexplained dust clouds, the clomp of horseshoes, or the sound of firearms being cocked. All being well, they would soon hit the trail which skirted around the valley before crossing the hills to Rattlesnake Ridge. From there it was simply a matter of following the Muddy Loop back to the hideout.
Heyes pushed his hat away from his eyes. "I can't understand it," he announced, a pensive frown creasing his brow.
"Why that posse stayed on our tail for so long. It's not as if we got away with the money!"
"We're the money now, Heyes. A whole twenty thousand dollars worth."
Heyes smirked, proudly. "True."
"Or," Curry continued, "it could be that the good folk of Marble Rock don't take kindly to their bank bein' robbed a few days before Christmas."
"Aaw, c'mon Kid! No steel bars on the rear window and a Morse 1872; that bank was just beggin' to be robbed."
"You know the boys are gonna be real mad when they find out you hurled that bag full of greenbacks at the deputy."
"He was reaching for his gun!" protested Heyes. "What was I supposed to do, let him shoot me?"
"You shouldha left him to me."
"To do what?"
"I'da shot his holster off."
"In the dark?"
Kid Curry looked affronted. "Yeah, 'course."
The pair rode at a steady pace until late morning when, having ventured deep into an area of dense woodland, they decided now would be a good time to take a break and rest the horses.
"Don't suppose we could chance a fire," Heyes mused as he loosened the buckle on his cinch. "It's cold and I sure could do with some coffee."
"Wouldn't be one of your better plans, Heyes. Posse might see the smoke."
With a weary sigh Heyes slumped onto the ground and leaned his back against the nearest tree trunk. Taking his place alongside him Curry reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out two thick strips of jerky, one of which he offered to his partner.
"Beef or mutton?" asked Heyes, not really caring what the answer would be.
"Beef. Now, I'd rather have me a nice juicy steak, but it's better than nothing," declared the Kid. He took a large bite and spoke through the chewy mouthful. "Remember the days after we left Valparaiso; travellin' from town to town, no job, no money, and we called this stuff a good meal? There ain't a thing that'd make me live that kinda life again."
Heyes snorted. "Can't think of one reason you'd need to, Kid. We make a real good living outta thievin'. When the law don't interfere, that is," he added, gloomily.
They sat in companionable silence, well hidden by a cluster of chokeberry bushes, taking occasional mouthfuls of water from their canteens and chewing ponderously. In fact, chewing seemed to be the only thing keeping their fatigued bodies awake because the minute they finished the last of the jerky both men unwittingly began to doze.
All of a sudden, a couple of hundred yards or so behind them there was a loud rustling sound.
Immediately on the alert, the two outlaws' eyes sprang open and they exchanged a wary glance. Slowly rising to a crouch, they drew their guns.
The rustling continued, closer this time.
Even though he couldn't actually see anyone approaching Curry signalled with the barrel of his Colt for Heyes to move to his left. This would give him a much better line of fire should they be the intended victims of an ambush.
As soon as Heyes had taken up his new position the rustling stopped. Both men froze, waiting nervously. Several minutes passed and, having heard nothing further, they assumed it was safe to stand up, eyes rolling skyward at their unwarranted unease.
Without warning, something big and black burst through the foliage.
"What the—!" Heyes took several faltering steps backwards before snagging the heel of his boot on a tree root, making him lose his balance. With his arms waving wildly he fell heavily onto his back.
At the very same moment, Kid Curry squeezed the trigger of his Colt and a huge wild turkey, its wings outstretched in avian outrage at the intruders on its territory, fell dead, landing on top of a wide-eyed Hannibal Heyes and pinning him to the ground.
"Get this thing offa me!" he demanded, doing his best to avoid several mouthfuls of feathers.
When the anticipated help was not forthcoming Heyes became aware of the sound of laughter — great gales of it. Gritting his teeth, he strove to work his hands underneath the bird and with no small effort managed to heave it off his chest. Breathing heavily he rolled onto his stomach and lay watching his partner who was doubled over, clutching his belly.
"Ain't funny," Heyes declared petulantly. "That thing must weigh thirty pounds." He clambered to his feet. "Couldha killed me!"
"You should have seen yourself," Curry spluttered. "Your legs wavin' in the air and that surprised look on your face. It was so funny!"
Hands on hips the outlaw leader's eyes narrowed to a cold stare which had the desired effect of making the Kid try harder to suppress his giggles. Having eventually succeeded in getting some control the laughing gunman wiped the tears from his eyes and proudly surveyed his kill.
"That'll make one heck of a Christmas dinner," he remarked.
"Well, it's not riding with me," Heyes stated emphatically as he retrieved his hat. "You can tie it behind your saddle."
While his partner leaned unhelpfully against a tree picking a variety of dry leaves and twigs out of his hair, Kid Curry hoisted the abnormally large bird on top of his bedroll with a loud grunt and secured it with rope. He had just finished tightening the last knot when a shot rang out and a bullet whistled past his shoulder.
Heyes slapped his hat on his head and made a dash for his horse. Staying as low as possible both men leaped into their saddles and rode off through the trees. Numerous bullets followed, splintering bark all around.
"My shot must have given us away," yelled Curry over the rattle of gunfire.
"Your laughing, more like," Heyes muttered, sourly. "How'd they get that close?" he yelled back.
After a while the trees began to thin out and they emerged onto bare hillside. Still ducking the odd bullet, the two outlaws spurred their horses into a flat-out gallop.
Dusk was rapidly approaching by the time Kid Curry fired the obligatory three shots into the air at Deadline Point. With the knowledge that no posse would dare to follow them any further he led the way deeper into the safety of Devil's Hole.
"Hey, Kid, is that blood on your horse?" Heyes called after him.
Curry twisted in his saddle to take a look. "He's not hit. Maybe it's come from the bird." Reaching behind him he ran a gloved hand through the feathers, eventually holding it up for his partner to see the blood. "That wasn't where I shot him. Musta taken another bullet." Curry grinned. "How 'bout that! Dogonne turkey saved my life."
"What do you figure are the odds of it saving your hide again when we get to the hideout?" Heyes asked, flippantly.
"My hide? It was you who threw the bag!"
Hannibal Heyes rubbed his chin as he considered this unfortunate fact. "Suppose it's about time I worked up an explanation, huh?"
"Might be a good idea, Heyes," smirked Curry. "Words bein' your specialty an' all."
Six pairs of eyes looked up from the cards in their hands and turned toward the door as the two outlaw leaders walked into the bunkhouse.
"Well, look who finally showed up," snarked Wheat. "And there was us figurin' ya'd been took."
Heyes responded with a disdainful stare.
"What ya got there Kid?" Kyle tried to see what the gunman had slung over his shoulder.
Curry stepped forward and everyone jumped as a large bundle of black feathers landed on the table with a resounding thud, scattering poker chips and playing cards in all directions.
"Ooooweee! That sure is a biggun!" exclaimed Kyle.
Concerned that there might be trouble Curry dropped his hand to rest near his holster and backed up to lean against the door. Heyes, on the other hand, strolled over to the stove where he proceeded to pour a cup of hot java. Having gestured with the cup to the Kid, who shook his head, he returned to the table, sank down into a chair and casually plonked a dusty boot across his knee.
"I suppose you're all wondering how come it took us so long to get here?" Taking a sip of the strong, bitter brew Heyes looked around at the expectant faces and grinned. "Well, it's a curious tale, sure enough. It all started 'bout five miles outta Marble Rock..."
Fifteen (incredibly imaginative) minutes later...
"...and when we turned around, this big ol' turkey lay dead and the bag was gone!" Ruefully Hannibal Heyes shook his head and sighed. "That's the truth of it, boys."
An unnerving silence followed during which he hastily gulped down several mouthfuls of cold coffee.
Then Kyle whistled. "Well, did ya ever!" he exclaimed in wonderment.
"Who'd a thought...," murmured Hank.
"The Lord moves in mysterious ways," stated Preacher, solemnly.
Wheat Carlson was not so easily convinced. "Pfftt! Bunkum!" he sneered. Then, sensing that the Kid's intense blue eyes were boring a virtual hole in the back of his head he looked back over his shoulder and twisted his mouth into something resembling a conciliatory smile. "But... anythin's possible."
The moon appeared briefly through the last gap in the clouds, its silvery light reflecting off the surrounding snow-capped mountains and illuminating Heyes and Curry's path across the clearing to the leader's cabin. Having left the gang almost ankle deep in plucked turkey feathers, Curry slapped his friend on the shoulder.
"That silver tongue o' yours sure is in fine shape," he said with a throaty chuckle. "You had me believin' that story — and I know what really happened!"
The dimpled smile Heyes flashed in return was nothing if not self-congratulatory.
"I guess I shouldha known," the Kid continued, "only Hannibal Heyes would have the gall to tell six hard-case outlaws that a bunch of racoons ran off with the haul from a bank robbery!"