The sound shook every plank of the cabin.
In a small bedroom adjacent to the main room a pair of brown eyes opened to the night, their owner listening intently. There was nothing to hear but the howl of the wind; no footsteps, no hushed voices, no animal noises.
Hannibal Heyes felt around on the nightstand for a match and having used the small flame to take a hasty glance around the room, applied it to the wick of a candle. Cold air quickly enveloped his long john-clad legs as he swung them from underneath the warm covers. Sliding a finger through the loop of the candleholder he crept across the bare floorboards.
Next-door, his partner, Kid Curry, was doing something similar except it wasn't a candleholder loop that his finger was through; it was the trigger guard of his Colt .45. He didn't need a candle. He preferred the cover darkness afforded him. If he had to use his gun he was confident the bullet would still find its mark.
Both men reached their respective doors at the same time, but it was Curry who opened his a little in order to peer into the main room. The fire in the large stone fireplace was almost out; however, what remained of the glowing embers still rendered enough light for him to see that there was no intruder.
"All clear," he announced, pushing the door wide and un-cocking his gun. The Kid knew his partner would be listening.
Holding the candle aloft Heyes emerged from his bedroom. "What the heck was that? Sounded like the whole place was coming down!"
"Fallen tree?" suggested Curry.
Heyes shook his head. "Pines are too far away to hit us."
"Avalanche? This blizzard's been blowin' real hard."
"The old cabin would be crushed. Us too."
Curry gave a helpless shrug. "Mountain lion on the roof, then? Could be he was figurin' on following those doggone birds down the chimney." He glanced around at the random sooty splodges deposited all over the walls — the result of the desperate efforts of two pigeons to find an exit yesterday afternoon.
Heyes sniffed the air. There was a smell; not of wood smoke, but something was definitely trying to catch fire. A scattering of soot, ash, and charred fragments of wood was spread all over the hearth and the adjacent floorboards, but nothing outside the fireplace itself appeared to be smouldering.
Although he thought the Kid's idea of a mountain lion was rather far-fetched, Heyes chose to err on the side of caution. "Best take a look."
Both men edged forward to stare into the blackened mouth of the fireplace.
"Well, would ya look at that!" Curry exclaimed, pointing at a canvas cabin bag resting on top of what remained of the glowing embers. He seized the leather handle and frowned. "It's heavy."
While his partner dragged the bag clear of the fire Heyes placed the candle holder on the mantle. "I wonder how it got up there?" he mused.
"I dunno, Heyes, but before we do anything, I'm gettin' a blanket. It's cold."
"Fetch me one too, will you," the outlaw leader called over his shoulder before crouching down to inspect the bag. It was black with soot and strewn with cobwebs.
In no time at all Curry returned wrapped in an old grey army blanket and carrying another for his friend.
"It could have been up there for years, Kid," Heyes speculated. "Maybe those birds loosened it."
"Must be somethin' real valuable inside, there's a padlock on it."
Curry selected a log from the supply stored in a basket beside the hearth and placed it firmly atop the smouldering embers. Now that his partner had a mystery to solve, there was a very good chance they would be there for some time.
Poking his right index finger into the fold at the top of one of his thick woollen socks Heyes produced a small metal tool.
Blond curls shook in dismay. "You keep a lock pick in your sock."
Heyes shrugged his blanket-covered shoulders. "Never know when I'm gonna need one."
"Planning on robbing banks in your underwear from now on, huh?"
"Hadn't really given it any thought, but now you mention it..." With a mischievous twinkle in his eye Heyes frowned in mock consideration. "Hmmm, half naked robbers? That could be an interesting way to distract the law. You could be onto something there, Kid. I might—"
"Just get the thing open, will ya," Curry interjected. "I need my sleep."
A poke here, a twist there, and within seconds the lock sprang open.
"Okay, let's see what we've got here." Heyes tugged the leather strap free and opened the bag.
"What is it?" Curry asked, wondering whether he should be alarmed by the look on his partner's face.
Heyes reached inside. "Ohhhhh," he breathed. Slowly pulling his hand back out he opened his fingers to reveal a number of shiny coins. "It's gold."
"What's a bag of gold doin' up our chimney?"
"I have no idea, Kid, but I sure wish it had fallen down last month. Couldha saved me a whole lot of sleepless nights planning that last bank job."
"Amen to that," agreed Curry, sourly.
The fresh log had not yet begun to fully catch alight, but as if by magic, Heyes found he was no longer cold, so he pulled the blanket from his shoulders and spread it out on the floor. He then upended the bag and shook all the gold pieces onto it.
Kid Curry whistled his approval, then asked, "Heyes, you'd remember if Jim Santana had talked about a haul of gold, wouldn't you?"
"I sure would."
"So, who do you figure it belongs to?"
Heyes frowned. He couldn't believe the Kid had to ask. "Why, us of course!"
"But we didn't put it there."
Heyes regarded his partner with some concern. "Kid, are you alright? It's not like you to turn down easy money."
"Oh, I ain't turnin' it down. Just wonderin' is all."
"Well, stop wonderin' and start countin'!"
"Isn't that the most wonderful sound you ever heard?" drawled Heyes, dreamily. He sat cross-legged, eyes closed, listening to the almost musical tinkle each gold piece made as he dropped one coin after another into the palm of his hand. "Except for the rustle of banknotes, of course."
"I don't think I've ever seen ten thousand dollars look so pretty." Curry sat back on his heels surveying the neat stacks glinting in the firelight. "Y' know, Heyes, could be this bag falling down our chimney has nothin' to do with them pigeons. It's Christmas. What if Santa Claus hisself delivered it here?"
Heyes' full-throated, easy laugh filled the room. "Santa Claus!" he spluttered.
"I don't hear you comin' up with a better explanation."
"I can't, not right now, anyway. But, so far as Santa Claus goes... if it was him, then the old fella's got the wrong address. All the stories I've ever heard say he only delivers presents to people who've been good, and when you consider all the robbing we've done this year, Kid, that sure ain't us!"
The Kid looked a little crestfallen. "Guess not."
"I do know one thing though," said Heyes as he scooped up heaped handfuls of the carefully counted coins and dumped them back into the bag. "We need to find a good hiding place for it."
Without warning, Curry lunged forward and seized his arm. "Hold on a minute! Did you say hiding place? Ain't we gonna share it out?"
"You heard me. Share it out — like we always do. Split it with the rest of the boys."
Heyes' eyes narrowed. "Why would we do that?"
"Because we're part of a gang, that's why. Everybody always gets a share of the haul."
"That's right. They do," nodded Heyes, before adding, "if they've earned it. But what if your theory is correct, Kid, and it's Santa's gift to us? I'm betting he'd be mighty upset if—"
In Hannibal Heyes' not so humble opinion, the idea of keeping all the gold for themselves was a valid one, and despite the lateness of the hour he was fully prepared to argue about it. That was until he saw the look of unalterable resolve on his partner's face. He sighed inwardly. The Kid was right. No matter how much, or how little, they always shared it with the gang.
Next morning the blizzard continued to rage unabated, whipping up great swirls of snowflakes from the deep blanket of white it had dumped on the Devil's Hole hideout and making the two outlaw leaders' short walk across the clearing a great deal more arduous than they had anticipated. Once safely inside the bunkhouse they applied their snow-covered shoulders to the protesting planks of the door and pushed hard against the freezing blast until it shut fast.
"Merry Christmas, boys!"
With a loud clink Curry placed a small wooden crate on the old pine table. It contained six bottles of whiskey, one for each man.
"Well, that's real friendly of ya," beamed Kyle before his face returned to its customary worried expression. "But we ain't got you fellas nuthin'."
"Don't worry about that," Heyes assured him, genially. "But if you think that's good, wait 'til you see what's in here." He hefted the heavy cabin bag onto the table alongside the whiskey.
"This had better not be one o' your weird Christmas surprises, Heyes," grumbled Wheat. "Coz I ain't in the mood."
Hannibal Heyes affected a wounded expression. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Ya don't, huh?" Wheat Carlson stuck out his chest and stepped a little closer to the outlaw leader. "Well, I'll tell ya. First, there was some jiggysaw thing what kept us up all night puttin' all them bits together. That was bad enough, but then you had the gall to rip it apart and tell us to do it again! And last year, when we was expectin' a nice big sack o' loot from the bank robbery we'd just pulled, you come up with some cock and bull story about a bunch of racoons runnin' off with it, and dump a big ol' turkey on us instead. Took the whole of Christmas mornin' to pluck the doggone thing. Dang bird was as tough as old boots too!"
Curry did his best to keep a straight face. "No need to get proddy, Wheat."
"Yeah, well, I'm still findin' feathers."
"Aaaww, don't take no notice of him," said Lobo. "He's just mad coz last night me and the boys cleaned him out playin' Montana Red Dog. He's flat busted."
This piece of news drew Heyes' attention to a substantial heap of coins and greenbacks at the far end of the table. "Is that the pot?" he asked, with growing interest.
Kyle grinned. "Sure is. Somebody's gonna win 'emselves a pile!"
"Better start sharpenin' y'self a pencil, Wheat, 'cause the only way yer gonna be playin' today is if ya bets with IOU's," gloated Lobo.
"Ahhh, now that's where you're wrong." Heyes flipped open the cabin bag and gestured invitingly. "Take a look."
The gang approached warily, almost as if they were expecting another huge turkey to make a surprise live appearance.
Wide-eyed, Kyle gasped, "Is that... gold?"
Enjoying the sight of six astonished faces, Heyes grinned. "Yep. One thousand dollars in half eagles for each of you. Good ol' Santa Claus paid me and the Kid a visit last night. Merry Christmas!"
Wheat boldly tilted his chin in the air again. " Pfftt! Santa Claus! You two bin holdin' out on us, more like. Same as last year," he challenged.
"You wouldn't be accusing me and Heyes of somethin' there, would ya, Wheat?" Curry eased his jacket behind his ever-present six-gun.
That small gesture, along with Wheat Carlson's natural sense of self-preservation, made the aspiring leader of the Devil's Hole Gang instantly decide against any further display of bravado. After all, this man was a notorious gunman, and while most of the time he was pretty amiable, he could also become dangerously short-tempered if his, or Heyes', integrity was called into question.
"In my book it ain't polite to look a gift horse in the mouth, 'specially on Christmas day." Kid Curry's eyes were quickly turning as cold as the weather outside.
Wheat smiled, weakly. "No offence meant, Kid."
Now, if there was one thing Hannibal Heyes rarely missed it was an opportunity to put on a bit of a show, so he took his time counting the coins into stacks, which he then split into equal portions before inviting each man to help himself to his very own share of the gold.
The bunkhouse soon echoed with the jingle of precious metal, accompanied by the pop of whiskey corks and raucous laughter, as they all began celebrating in typical outlaw style.
Later, while still keeping a watchful eye on Wheat, as well as the gang's antics in general, Curry placed his hand on his partner's shoulder and steered him over to a quiet corner of the room, murmuring confidentially, "I saw what you did there."
"And what's that?" Innocent brown eyes blinked back at him.
"You didn't bring enough gold. Shouldha been more than a thousand apiece, if you'd split it right."
"Of course I split it right," Heyes protested. "I took out our share and left it back at the cabin, just like we agreed. I admit, I did add a small bonus, but only 'cause we're the leaders. That gives us certain rights," he added, quickly. "Then, I put some aside for emergencies."
Being all too aware of his partner's unequivocal love of hard cash, Curry regarded him sceptically.
"Emergencies? What kinda emergencies?"
Heyes crossed his arms and looked thoughtfully up at the ceiling.
"Well... as I see it, Kid, by the time this storm's rolled on through we'll be lucky if the barn's still standing, or the outhouse, so we'll need money for repairs. Then there's those two old broomtails in the remuda; they're pretty much crowbait already so, come spring, they're gonna need replacing. Maybe we'll even get us a couple more. We'll be needing plenty of fresh horses to outrun the posses that are gonna be chasing us next year, what with all the jobs I've got in mind."
Satisfied with this explanation, Kid Curry slapped him enthusiastically on the back.
"You're a born leader, Heyes!"
Still grinning, he flopped into an old, but surprisingly comfortable armchair alongside the fireplace, pulled a silver hipflask from his pocket — a generous gift from Heyes, which he had filled with good corn whiskey from their own personal supply — and took a long swallow.
Meanwhile, Hannibal Heyes ambled back to the table, his most beguiling grin spreading across his face.
"Now boys, about that game of Montana Red Dog..."