A heavy dusting of snow covered the wide, deserted street, while large, wet flakes continued to fall from the gray sky, dancing about in a gentle but cold wind. It was Christmas Eve and nearly all of the town folk had retreated to their homes, preparing meals, filling stockings, sitting around a warm hearth telling small children the story of Christ's birth.
Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry rode slowly down the street, carefully seeking out the location of the Sheriff's Office, as well as those businesses that offered lodging, food, perhaps a drink, and maybe a poker game. A few businesses, including the hotel and the general store were decorated for the holiday season, with strands of pine garland decorating doorways and posts. Oil burning street lamps were already lit though dusk had not quite settled over the town.
Pulling up in front of the hotel, Heyes dismounted and handed his reins to Kid. “I'll see if there's a room, then we'll take the horses to the stable.”
Kid nodded and pulled his collar tight about his neck as he watched his partner walk into the hotel. He pulled his hat from his head and shook off the snow, then slipped it back into place and adjusted the brim.
“They are almost full, but we got a room,” Heyes announced when he returned and climbed back onto his horse.
“Just hope there's a place open for a hot meal to get the chill outta my bones,” Kid replied.
Heading down the street toward the livery, they heard the sound of a player piano emanating from the saloon. They each gave the other a quick glance and an agreeable nod.
Arriving at the livery, they gathered their gear and handed their reins to the livery boy.
“Any place to get a hot meal?' Heyes asked
“Most everything's closed for the holiday. Saloon's open till seven. They usually have some kind of hot stew brewing,” the boy told them.
The snow scuffed at their feet as they made their way across the street to the saloon, the piano music growing louder as they approached. Inside, the smell of stale smoke and spilt whiskey clung to the air.
“Evening gents, what'll you have?” the bartender asked as he wiped the bar down with a dingy rag.
“What's on the menu for the day?”
Heyes glanced at Kid who offered a nod and a quick shrug of his shoulders.
“Two bowls and two beers,” Heyes replied, then headed for an empty table, his partner close behind.
The saloon was virtually empty, save for three elderly men sharing a table and the beginnings of a lonely holiday. They spoke little and drank less, staving off the loneliness that comes with age.
A few minutes passed before the bartender appeared with the order. “That's the bottom of the pot for the stew,” he told them. “A dollar twenty will cover it.”
Heyes paid the man, then stirred the stew with his spoon to let the steam escape.
“You boys here for the holidays?” the bartender asked.
“Rather looks that way,” Kid replied. “Likely leaving in the morning.”
“Well, being Christmas tomorrow, nothing's open. But there's a breakfast being served after church service. You're welcome to attend and put a hot meal in your bellies before you go.”
“That's a kind offer. Thank you,” Heyes replied. “But I think we'll be getting an early start.”
“Trying to get somewhere in particular for Christmas?” the bartender asked.
“Just outta the cold,” Kid replied as he spooned a mouthful of the stew into his mouth.
“Well, suit yourself, but you're welcome to come to church and the breakfast. The church and school is that stand alone building at the end of the street. By the way, I'm Sam Willis, a Deacon at the church, so I know you'd both be welcome.”
They woke the next morning to find that a heavy snow had begun during the night and had already dropped eight inches of the white powder on the ground. Being a holiday, there had been no traffic on the road and it was hard to discern the street from the boardwalk.
“I think we'll be staying here another night,” Heyes said as he gazed out the window to the empty street below.
“You know, that free breakfast might be the only food we can rustle up today, and I don't mind getting preached at for a spell so long as I know there's a hot meal waiting for me afterwards,” Kid said while still huddled under the warm covers of his bed.
“And staying another night gives us nice warm beds two nights in a row.”
Kid stretched leisurely in his bed. He was in no hurry to leave the comforts of the soft, warm down coverlet. “I hope they have gingerbread,” he said, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath as he remembered the smell of gingerbread on Christmas morning when he was a very young boy.
Heyes walked across the room and reached for his pants lying at the foot of the bed. Pulling the pants up over the long johns, Heyes sat down on the bed to put on his shirt and boots.
“I remember just how much your Ma loved Christmas,” Heyes mused.
“For two weeks every year she'd spend every day baking, and the house smelled like cinnamon, and gingerbread, and pumpkin pie,” Kid said, his eyes still closed as he relived the memories.
“You always loved them gingerbread cookies,” Heyes recalled.”I don't think anyone else in the whole house ever got one, you'd gobble them down so fast, Kid.”
“I can almost taste em right now, Heyes.”
“If you want some of that breakfast they're offering, you'd better pull yourself outta that bed and get dressed. If we're late for that church service, we'll be stuck in the front row, which means we'll be the last ones out outta the church, and the last ones in line for the food.”
Kid smiled. “I like the way you think, Heyes,” he said and threw back the covers.
They arrived at the church dressed in their finery and with enough time to find seats in the middle section of pews. By the time the service started, the church was packed with nary a seat to spare. The service began when the children's choir was paraded down the center aisle to the front of the church and the children sang 'The First Noel' and 'Silent Night,' which was followed by a loud round of applause.
The sermon was brief and followed by two more songs that the entire congregation stood and sang. Then everyone began filing out and heading toward the hotel. Being that the Hotel dining room was closed for the holiday, the church had rented the entire dining room for their carry-in breakfast.
Long tables laden with bowls and platters of food lined two walls of the dining room. The line began with eggs, porridge, and breakfast casseroles, followed by meats, breads, danishes, then fresh and canned fruits, and finally a wide assortment of Christmas cookies, cakes, and pies. A separate table held drinks of fresh milk, eggnog, coffee, and tea.
“Oh, I see you made it. Wonderful!” Sam Willis exclaimed when he saw Kid and Heyes in line and filling their plates and bowls. I hope you enjoyed the service this morning.”
“Made me think of when I was a boy,” Heyes replied. “You remember, Thaddeus, you and me was always two of the wise men in the stable, and your little sister Katie played the Baby Jesus one year.”
Kid didn't reply, but he nodded and Heyes saw a soft smile on his face.
“Please, both of you, join me and my family for breakfast. We're sitting right over there,” he said and raised his hand to wave at his wife. “Prettiest lady in the room.”
“Well thank you Mr. Willis. We'd be honored to join you,” Heyes replied.
“Splendid. Just splendid. I'll meet you at the table after your plates have been filled.”
“Well he certainly is a nice fella,” Heyes mused. “Got a real Christmas spirit about him.”
Again Kid nodded, but his attention was focused on the dessert table. A small boy, no more than seven, was in line just ahead of Kid, and was piling at least one of nearly every dessert onto his plate. Kid waited patiently, eyeing the three remaining gingerbread cookies just out of his reach.
Kid's face visibly drooped when the boy grabbed all three of the gingerbread cookies. He dropped two on them on his plate, and crammed half of the third one into his mouth. Cheeks puffed full of gingerbread, the boy turned to Kid and smiled gleefully.
“Good, uh?” Kid asked and the boy rapidly nodded his head, then dashed off to find his family.
“Ah Kid,” Heyes said compassionately. “Look at it this way, too much gingerbread can do a number on the digestive track. That boy is in store for a lot of trips to the outhouse this afternoon.”
“That ain't much in the way of consolation, Heyes,” Kid replied and picked up a plate of mincemeat pie.
They made their way through the room and sat own with their food at the Willis' table.
“I'll go get us some coffee, Thaddeus,” Heyes said and disappeared back to the line.
“So where do the two of you come from?” Willis asked Kid.
“Southern Wyoming for the most part,” Kid replied, then took a bite of his food.
“So you're a long way from home. You're family is probably missing you today.”
“Neither one of us has any family, except each other, of course. We're cousins.”
“Well, today I want you to think of us as family.”
“Thank you Mr. Willis. That's very kind.”
Heyes returned with two steaming cups of coffee. “They had just made a fresh pot,” he said, explaining his delay.
“I was just telling Thaddeus that I want the two of you to think of us as your family today,” Mr. Willis told Heyes. “I suppose you'll be leaving in the morning?”
“I guess that depends on the snow, but yes, that's the plan,” Heyes replied.
“If there are any leftovers, you are welcome to take some food back to your hotel room,” Mrs. Willis said. “I'm sure you'll be hungry by suppertime.”
“Oh, we don't want to imposition any of you none,” Kid said. “We'll be fine, Ma'am.”
“Nonsense. It's no imposition. I'll go see if I can find some boxes and fill some plates for you,” she said as she got up from the table and hurried back toward the kitchen.
Twenty minutes later Mrs. Willis returned with three boxes of food. “Two have the casseroles, meats and breads, a meal for each of you. The third has a variety of desserts.
Heyes and Kid stood and accepted the boxes.
“Thank you Ma'am. You and your husband have made this a Christmas to remember,” Heyes told them before he and Kid left the dining room and made their way back to their room.
Stomachs more than full, Heyes set the boxes of food on the dresser. Then he and Kid each plopped down on his bed for a long afternoon nap.
They woke late in the afternoon and, looking out the window, the first thing they noticed was that the snow had stopped.
“Guess we'll be leaving in the morning, then,” Heyes said.
“Uh-uh,” Kid replied and walked over to get the boxes of food and set them down on the small table. “I'm hungry,” he announced.
“You're always hungry, Kid.”
Kid opened the two larger boxes and slid one across the table to Heyes. Then he picked up the spoon he had found inside the box and began eating quite hardily. “This is even good cold, Heyes.”
When the two boxes were empty, Kid slid the smaller box to the center of the table and opened the lid. Heyes watched with a smile as Kid's blue eyes grew wide and a smile spread ear to ear. He reached into the box and pulled out one of a dozen gingerbread cookies. Inside the box was a handwritten note that Heyes opened and read aloud.
“Mrs. Crenshaw was working in the kitchen when a stranger asked her if there were anymore gingerbread cookies as his friend considers them a Christmas delicacy. I hope the two of you were those strangers. Merry Christmas.”
Heyes smiled “Ain't that nice,” he said and looked across the table at Kid who could only nod as both his cheeks were puffed full with gingerbread.
Heyes laughed long and loud. “Merry Christmas, Kid,” he exclaimed.
“Merry Christhmuths, Heythes” Kid replied, his mouth still stuffed with gingerbread.