The cold air stung their eyes as they sped across the open landscape. Wiping the blurriness away only helped for a few seconds as the wind from their gallop assaulted their senses.
They had to trust their horses to find their own way across the hard footing as their focus was on the horizons. Nothing appeared and the only sounds they heard were the rushing wind and the footfalls of their galloping horses upon the cold ground.
Suddenly, the Kid slowed down, then turned his plunging horse around to block Heyes.
“Stop!” Kid yelled. “There ain’t nobody followin’ us.”
Heyes was already bringing his horse to a halt, and both horses stood, gasping for air and coughing against the cold air in their lungs.
With hearts racing the riders scanned their back trail and true to the Kid’s observation, there was nothing there. Looking ahead again, that direction was also clear of anyone trying to intercept them.
“What’s going on?” Heyes said through gasping breaths. “We know there are at least two other groups out here.”
“I donno. But let’s just keep movin’. We’ll take it slow or we’re gonna wind up without any horses at all.”
Another cough and gasp from Heyes’ mount punctuated Kid’s statement.
Half an hour later, the horses were recovered enough to handle a quiet, ground-covering lope.
There was still nobody following them, but both men were uneasy. Anticipation of pursuit was harder on the nerves than actually having a posse on their heels, and the desire to kick the horses into a gallop was difficult to resists.
Then Kid pulled up sharp and pointed ahead and to the right.
Heyes snapped his attention in the desired direction.
Three horsemen galloped toward them, the sunlight glinting off tin badges and rifles. Even from the distance, they could hear the men whooping.
Without a word, they booted their horses into a gallop and hoped that the warming air would give them a chance.
Distant rifle fire encouraged them to kick the horses on faster as they headed for a rise in the landscape which hosted a number of natural monuments. If they could just get to those towering buttes, they might be able to lose their pursuers.
More rifle fire sounded, but it was further away this time. Not willing to believe that they were already outdistancing the posse, the two men galloped up the ridge then stopped and looked back. What they saw defied logic.
The three-member posse had angled away from their trail and instead were going after two other riders. Those riders had been coming up behind Heyes and Curry, but found themselves intercepted by the posse and, being out-numbered, turned tail and ran.
The posse continued after them, firing their rifles as incentive to hurry them along.
As the two groups diminished from sight, the partners shared an incredulous look.
“What’s going on?” Heyes looked in the direction of the disappeared posse. “They must have seen us.”
“I donno, Heyes. But I suggest we don’t stick around ta find out.”
When first arriving at the hotel, the partners were more concerned about who might be there ahead of them rather than the decor. But as they headed downstairs for supper, they felt more at their ease and took note of the festive atmosphere.
A small, spindly tree stood in the far corner, but it was given special honor by being adorned by lit candles, paper chains and other small knick-knacks that depicted the holiday season. Even around the frames of the doorways and along the front of the check-in counter, paper chains hung in splendid color.
“I kinda forgot Christmas was comin’,” Kid commented. “Funny we didn’t notice this when we came in.”
“I guess we had other things on our minds.”
“I suppose. I hope I ain’t losin’ my touch.”
Heyes smirked but didn’t comment.
The morning chill woke the fellas up more than two cups of coffee did. They stood on the platform, making sure to stay out of the light from the overhead lamps, and watched for any suspicious-looking passengers.
“I don’t see nobody rushin’ for a last-minute ticket.”
Heyes tensed. “Yeah, but I do see something that could be just as bad.”
He pointed to three men walking toward the ticket booth, light from the lamps glinting on badges pinned to coats.
“Oh crap.” Kid gritted his teeth. “Now what do we do? We ain’t got enough money ta buy our horses back.”
“Yeah.” Heyes bit his lower lip as he considered their options.
The train bell clanged and the whistle blew. The conductors yell of “All aboard!” barely preceded the train chugging into motion.
The partners glanced at the train pulling out then scrutinized the depo.
“Well?” Kid asked.
“Let’s get on board,” Heyes came to the snap decision. “We’ll keep an eye on them and see if they get on behind us.”
“And if they do?”
“One thing at a time, Partner. Let’s go.”
Having come to this conclusion, they moved quickly and grabbed the handrail of the last passenger car. They stood on the landing as the train pulled out, hoping that the darkness would hide them from searching eyes.
“Here they come.” Kid pointed at the three lawmen as they exited the depo and walked across the platform toward the departing train. “They still have time to grab onto the caboose.”
But as the partners watched, the lawmen stopped and made no move to board the train.
“They’re not getting aboard,” Heyes announced the obvious. “What’s going on?”
“Jeezus! One of ‘im looked right at us. Do ya think he saw us?”
“I know he saw us.”
“But they’re just standin’ there. What is this?”
Heyes shook his head as they entered the passenger car. “I don’t know. I’m almost tempted to call this whole trip off.”
Kid smiled as they sat in a quiet corner, facing each other. “Yeah?”
“I said almost. Lom wouldn’t have sent for us this time of year if it wasn’t important. So, we’ll just stay on this train and keep an eye open for anyone getting on along the line.”
Kid slumped. “I don’t think we’re gonna be gettin’ much sleep on this trip.”
Heyes got up and stretched as the train came to a halt in Windsor, Colorado.
“You wait here,” he said. “I’m going to send a telegram to Lom and let him know we’ll be in Cheyenne tomorrow morning.”
Kid didn’t like the sound of that. “I oughta come with ya. Watch your back.”
“No.” Heyes shrugged himself into his coat and hat. “Stay on the train. If one of us gets taken, the other may still get through. Don’t worry; I’ll be careful.”
“I donno, Heyes . . .”
Kid fretted and worried until he finally spotted Heyes walking briskly back along the platform. A minute later, he returned to their seats and took off his coat before sitting down.
“So, all went well?” Kid asked.
“Yeah. Got some interesting news though.”
“Oh yeah? From Lom?”
“No, from the telegrapher. Apparently, we just missed quite a ruckus in town. Three US Marshals arrived yesterday, then two seedy- looking characters arrived today. There was quite a clash between the two groups resulting in some gunplay and one of the miscreants being wounded. They’re both cooling their heels in the town jail.”
“Oh yeah? Where are they now?”
“I just told ya. In jail.”
“No, I mean the marshals.”
Heyes shrugged. “I don’t know. The telegrapher said they haven’t left town yet, but nobody has seen them.”
“Well, it couldn’t be the same marshals we saw in Thompson Springs. They couldn’t a got here that fast.”
“True. What happened here probably isn’t even connected to us.”
“Unless they’re all workin’ together. You know; sendin’ messages along the route we’re takin’ so they know where we are all the time.”
Heyes sighed and considered this. “But what would be the point? Why just follow us when they’ve had plenty of opportunity to arrest us and be done with it?”
Kid rolled his eyes. “I don’t know. This is just weird. I think—” He tensed and sat up straighter. He slapped Heyes on the arm and then pointed out the window. “There!”
The whistle blew and the train lurched into motion as Heyes turned and looked out to the platform.
Sure enough, three US Marshals stood, watching the passenger cars slide by, but made no move to get on board.
Heyes sat back, frowning, then met the worried eyes of his partner. “What’s going on?”
Heyes and Curry stepped off the train in Cheyenne feeling both relieved and anxious. The only tin badge they wanted to see was the one pinned to the coat of their friend, but anticipation of meeting up with others hung heavy on their shoulders.
Both heads turned toward the familiar voice and then wide grins took over from the anxiety.
“Hey, Lom. Good ta see ya!”
“Howdy, boys.” Handshakes made the rounds. “How was your trip?”
“Weird,” Kid said.
Heyes grinned and slapped Lom on the shoulder. “How about we go have a beer. We’ll tell you all about it AFTER you tell us what was so all fired important to get us here in the middle of December.”
Lom’s smile disappeared. “Not so fast, boys.” He straightened up as his expression hardened. “There’s more going on here than you realize.”
Lom’s eyes flicked to the side and both Heyes and Curry followed his gaze.
Three large and intimidating US Marshals approached them and, walking around behind the two wanted men, they spread out to block any thoughts of retreat.
“What’s this?” Heyes turned accusing eyes to the man they thought was their friend.
“Aw, Lom.” Kid sounded disappointed. “What are ya doin’?”
“It’s not what you think, boys.”
“Well then, maybe you better explain it.” Heyes’ dark eyes turned darker. “Because what I’m thinking isn’t very complimentary.”
“Well, you see, it’s like this,” Lom explained. “It was real important that you fellas get here to see Governor Hale, but we got word of two bounty hunters who had found out about this meeting and were gonna try and stop ya. They wanted to collect the reward on you two before it became obsolete.”
“Obsolete?” Kid asked.
“That’s right,” Lom nodded. “So, Governor Hale sent out six US Marshals to watch your back and make sure you made it to Cheyenne all in one piece. From what I understand, it was a good thing he did, because those bounty hunters knew their business, and they closed in on you a few times. But the marshals intercepted them each and every time, until finally, they were able to arrest them in Windsor and put them in jail for a few days. Long enough for you fellas to make it here for the meeting. I couldn’t warn you about it, ‘cause I didn’t know where you were. This is Marshal Taylor, and Deputy Marshals Mahlo and Townsend. The other three are in Colorado, but you can thank them later.”
Heyes and Curry turned to nod at each lawman as he was introduced, but they were so confused over what was going on that no words of thanks came forth. They had a difficult time simply smiling and acknowledging each badge.
When they turned back to Lom, he met them with a wide grin and an envelope for each.
“Here you go boys. Congratulations.”
Still reeling with confusion, the partners opened their envelops and pulled out official-looking documents.
Lom laughed. “In true Christmas spirit, Governor Hale has granted you your amnesties. We also have an appointment with him later today. He is going to offer you each a well-paying and secure job working for the government. You’re never going to have to worry about money again. Ha, ha! Merry Christmas, fellas! Your lives are about to change!”