“I don’t know what Silky was thinking,” Kid Curry groused, sighing heavily and slouching down further into his winter coat, stretching his stockinged feet out towards the fire in the fireplace. He wriggled a toe that was almost poking out of his threadbare socks. “My feet are freezing.”
Heyes tried not to roll his eyes. It wasn’t the first time and probably wouldn’t be the last that his friend and cousin complained. He’d like to say he was used to it but frankly under ordinary circumstances they could at least put a little distance between themselves when one of them or the other got cranky. Cooped up in such close quarters right now made it difficult. “Now, Kid,” he tried to keep his tone level. “You know Silky was simply trying to keep us out of trouble for awhile ...”
Curry snorted and shifted in his chair.
“At least we have a nice fire,” Heyes pointed out.
Curry glared at him. “Yeah, because I went out in that blizzard outside and got the wood.”
“Well, it was your turn,” Heyes said. “I went out and took care of the horses last time.”
“Explain it to me again how this is a good idea,” Curry said. “Go on.”
Heyes stopped to think for a moment. The problem was he was starting to agree with Curry that maybe coming up into the mountains to hide out really hadn’t been such a great idea. At the time Silky suggested it, though ... well, it had been an exceptionally mild winter so far, even up in the mountains. And they’d had several close calls lately with sheriffs and posses. After their last run-in with the law, Silky had thought maybe they should just go somewhere far away to lay low for awhile. If they’d been closer to Devil’s Hole, they might have even gone there and Heyes actually considered it briefly. They still had friends there and they knew it was safe. But then he realized if they were seen in that vicinity or in the company of their former gang, it could end their chances for amnesty for good. Lom would not have been happy.
Then he’d remembered Bushy Maxwell. Bushy had once been an outlaw, back in his younger days, but eventually he’d retired and become a gold prospector, high up in the mountains. He was basically a hermit. He had a little cabin that he rarely left but he was always welcoming to old friends from the outlaw trail if they needed shelter. He’d passed away a few years back and his cabin stood empty, still offering shelter to those who knew about it. It was sort of Bushy’s lasting gift to his old friends.
So Heyes had proposed they head up into the mountains with supplies for a few months and winter at Bushy’s old cabin, far away from the eyes of the law or bounty hunters. They needed a rest.
Curry wasn’t really too keen on the idea from the start but he usually gave in to Heyes’ way of thinking.
Unfortunately, right after they arrived at the cabin, the mild winter had turned to snow. A snowstorm that showed little signs of slowing down any time soon. At least they had shelter, plenty of supplies and there was even a barn still stocked with hay for the horses. Heyes kind of liked being able to just kick back and relax for awhile. But Curry was restless and bored. With only the two of them there, stuck in a one room cabin with not much to do except eat, sleep, and play cards, they were wearing on each others’ nerves at times.
“I’m waiting,” Curry said, jolting Heyes out of his reverie.
“Hmm? Oh, right. Why was this a good idea? Well, we’re certainly unlikely to meet any lawmen up here during this snowstorm. Which was the point.”
“Hmmmph,” Curry said. “We’re unlikely to meet anyone up here during this snowstorm. I don’t know why we couldn’t have just spent the winter in a nice little town down south. Maybe Mexico. Why couldn’t we have gone to Santa Marta, for instance?”
Heyes shook his head. “Too many lawmen along the way.” Although secretly he agreed with Curry that Mexico probably would have been a better idea.
Curry suddenly sat up straight, looking alarmed. “What was that?”
“What?” Heyes said, also sitting up straighter.
“Didn’t you hear that?”
Heyes strained his ears. Maybe a faint sound? “I’m not sure ...”
He jumped to his feet and started pulling on his boots.
Curry had already donned his and was heading to the door, a pistol in his hand. He threw open the cabin door then jumped backwards as a body fell forward into the room.
For a moment, Heyes thought that the ghost of Bushy Maxwell had appeared for a winter visit. The old gentleman lying on the floor was almost his spitting image. He was a bit stocky with a bushy gray beard covering most of his face and longish gray hair. He was dressed in a heavy winter coat, boots and gloves but there was a lot of snow covering him from head to toe. He rolled over and tried to get up.
“Hey, old-timer,” Heyes said, rushing forward to help him. He gestured at Curry to put his gun away. Curry looked skeptical but stuck his gun into his belt. “What happened? You okay? Where’d you come from?”
“Why not give him a chance to answer,” Curry suggested with what Heyes thought was an unwarranted bit of sarcasm.
They exchanged a look.
“I’m okay, thanks,” the old fellow said, dusting himself off as Heyes helped him to his feet. “Just lost my balance for a moment. I don’t usually have to travel up these ways since old Bushy died.”
“You knew Bushy?” Heyes asked, arching an eyebrow.
“Oh, yes,” the old man said. “We were well acquainted in his golden years. Not so much when he was younger.” His blue eyes twinkled then narrowed as he looked at first Heyes then Curry. “Much like you two.”
Heyes was confused but decided to leave the questions for later. The poor old man was probably addled from being out in the blizzard for who knows how long. No doubt he’d answer their questions after he had some food and drink and warmed up a bit.
Heyes gestured to their little table and chairs. “Why don’t you sit down and we’ll heat you up some food. You can have a coffee and a whisky to warm up.”
“That’s might kind of you,” the old man said, pulling up a chair and sinking heavily into it. He rubbed one hand through his hair. “I think I hit my head when I fell.”
Curry nodded sagely. “I’d say so. What are you doing way up here?”
The old man ignored him, pulled off his gloves and took a cup of hot coffee generously laced with whisky from Heyes. He inhaled the aroma for a moment then sipped it with a look of intense satisfaction on his face. “That really hits the spot.” He warmed his hands curled around the cup. “I can’t stay long,” he suddenly said.
Heyes and Curry exchanged another look. Was the man totally insane?
“I don’t think it’s safe to go back out there right now,” Curry pointed out. “Mr--?”
“Oh, yes. Yes, you’re right, of course,” the old man said. “Maybe I should stay here for the night. If you don’t mind?”
Heyes nodded in agreement. “Why don’t we move closer to the fire and I’ll get you a blanket.” He took Curry by the arm and dragged him to the other side of the cabin.
“Heyes, he’s either crazy or he’s been made crazy by being out in that storm,” Curry whispered.
“I know,” Heyes whispered back, “but let’s just humor him. Maybe he’ll be better in the morning and we can find out where he came from. It’s not like we can just let him go back out in that storm in the middle of the night.”
Curry shrugged. “All right. I just hope he’s not an axe murderer who kills us in our sleep.”
Heyes laughed softly. “Yeah. Right.” But inside he wondered. Wouldn’t that just be their luck? He decided he’d better keep his gun close at hand. He already knew Curry would do the same.
They all settled down in front of the fire and Heyes threw a few more logs on it, hoping they’d last through the night. They drifted off to sleep to the sound of crackling logs, snow falling and the wind howling outside.
* * *
Heyes sat up, startled. “What?” He blinked. Was it morning already?
“I said, he’s gone,” Curry repeated. “The crazy old man. I searched out in the barn and all around when I got up to check on the horses this morning. There aren’t even any footprints. Of course, with the wind and snow blowing ...”
Heyes was just glad they weren’t murdered in their sleep. He’d had some very strange dreams. But he wasn’t sure there was much they could do if the old fellow had wandered off.
Curry wasn’t done, though. “He left a note.”
Heyes blinked again. “A note?” This just got stranger and stranger. “Let me see.” He took the piece of paper from Curry and read it out loud. “ ‘Sorry I couldn’t stay longer, boys, but I have a lot of work to do yet tonight. I left you something by the fire. Seemed like you could use them.’ ”
Heyes transferred his gaze to the fireplace where two pairs of socks were now hanging. Nice new, warm socks. “How strange,” he said, taking the socks down and turning them over in his hands. “What an odd old man. I hope he’s okay.”
Curry had a look on his face Heyes well recognized. It meant Curry was thinking hard about something.
“What’s the date today?” he finally asked Heyes.
Heyes thought about it a moment. “I’m not sure I know.” Then he thought he caught the drift of Curry’s thoughts. “You don’t think?” he scoffed. “No.”
“Look at the signature on the note,” Curry insisted.
Heyes picked up the paper again. It was signed “Thanks for the warm welcome, Nick.”
He and Curry stared at each other a long moment.
“Better than him being an axe murderer,” Heyes finally said. He handed Curry the second pair of socks. “And at least your feet will be warmer.”
Curry smiled for the first time in awhile. “Yeah. Merry Christmas, Heyes.”