The Devil at Christmas

By Ann Wortham

The pursuit had gone on for days. Hannibal Heyes was weary to the bone, tired of the running, tired of the fighting, tired of camping out at night in the cold, brisk air when all he wanted was a nice, warm bed somewhere. But one thought overrode all the discomfort: that huge steak dinner hopefully waiting at the end of their journey. If only they could reach their goal and return to Mission Rocks where that bed and steak dinner awaited. He knew the Kid felt the same determination although he could see the same weariness in his cousin’s eyes.

At least the weather had so far remained in their favor. It was unseasonably warm for December, if still chilly. But there was no snow on the ground or in the air, making things easier on both man and beast. Although even their horses were worn out now. And unfortunately, the moderate weather definitely made things easier on their prey.

The people of Mission Rocks called the beast a devil. El Diablo. The stories said he was as big as a barn and blood red with eyes like fire. Heyes and Curry had laughed at the old-timers in town telling tales about this huge stallion, galloping free, and the stories of how many men had been injured trying to capture him. But there was a rancher, Mr. Fenwick, who was enamored of the thought of owning and taming such a creature and he’d offered a nice tidy sum of money for anyone who brought El Diablo to him before Christmas day. Plenty of money to buy them each a big steak dinner with lots of money left over to last them over the winter. They could hole up right there in Mission Rocks, in fact, if they wished and sit out the colder months. It was a pleasant little town and the sheriff didn’t know them. Always a plus.

A short discussion later, a few questions of the locals to help them locate the herd of wild horses, and Heyes and Curry were outfitted and on their way.

They’d had a few glimpses of the herd and the stallion in question. He was indeed a beautiful and very large blood bay stallion. Although he seemed fiery of spirit, they’d so far seen no proof of the blazing red eyes but they were definitely starting to think of him as a devil. He’d led them a merry chase in and out of canyons and up and down hills but so far he’d always managed to elude them. Heyes wondered if El Diablo was getting as tired as they were but he’d seen no evidence the stallion was slowing down.

“I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” Curry said, glancing sideways at Heyes. Down below where they had stopped on a hill they could see El Diablo’s herd with El Diablo himself standing watch over his subjects. It was as close as they’d ever got to the stallion after days of hunting and pursuit.

Heyes sighed heavily. “I know.” He gave an exaggerated shiver. Was the weather finally turning on them? It seemed like there was more of a chill in the air and he could definitely see his breath ghosting out in front of him. “Our horses are about done in, for sure.” He patted the neck of his horse.

Curry sighed as well. “Maybe that steak dinner for Christmas was just a pipe dream.”

Heyes shrugged. “Maybe. Let’s give it one last try and then we’ll head back to town. I think it’s getting colder. I don’t think I can stand another night sleeping rough out here, especially with a town close enough to dream about a soft, warm bed.”

Curry nodded his agreement. “Okay. What’s your plan this time?”

Heyes cocked his head to one side, examining the situation. He pointed off to one side. “Maybe come up on them from that direction and try to herd them into that box canyon?”

Curry shook his head. “Okay, but every time we’ve tried that, that wily devil seemed to know what we were up to and turned the herd.”

“I know,” Heyes said. “But I’m out of ideas and I’m plumb tired out. Maybe he’s tired out, too. He gets tired enough, he might make a mistake.”

Curry shrugged. “Let’s do it, then.”

They turned their horses to maneuver down the hill and around the peacefully grazing wild horses below.

* * *

El Diablo saw them coming and whinnied to his herd, rearing up in the air, then charging towards the other horses to round them up and set them running.

To Heyes’ amazement, the wild horses turned exactly the way they had hoped and headed towards the box canyon. Maybe this time things would actually go their way and they’d be back in town by nightfall.

His heart racing, he urged his horse to go faster, encouraging a burst of speed from the weary animal, hoping against hope the herd in front of them wouldn’t turn at the last minute and dash their dreams.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Curry keeping pace with him, a determined set to his jaw. They both pulled out ropes as the wild horses thundered ahead of them into the canyon with El Diablo racing behind the herd only to be brought up short by the surrounding rock walls.

Too late, the blood red stallion realized his mistake and tried to turn and run. But this time Heyes and Curry were directly behind and closing in on him. Was he running a little slower, too? Perhaps the days of the chase had taken its toll on him, the same as it had on his pursuers.

Heyes threw his rope at the same time as Curry and, wonder of wonders, they found their target, pulling the huge stallion to a halt.

Diablo fought them tooth and nail, rearing and screaming and snorting, and Heyes thought he saw the origin of those stories of the flames in Diablo’s eyes. The stallion was soon soaked in sweat as he fought for his freedom and Heyes feared even their heavy ropes might snap or their saddles come flying apart as Diablo tried desperately to free himself.

It seemed to go on forever. But finally the fire seemed to drain from Diablo and he stood still, his head hanging, his sides heaving. His breath came in great gasps.

Heyes dismounted his own weary horse, tossing his reins to Curry, and walked slowly towards Diablo. The stallion watched him warily, a look of sadness and defeat in those once blazing eyes. Heyes stopped a few feet back and stared.

He recognized that look. That look of being hunted. Of fear and despair. Of utter weariness and hopelessness. He glanced over at Curry and shook his head.

“Heyes,” Curry said, “Heyes, what are you thinking?”

“You know,” Heyes said, and he knew Curry understood exactly what he meant.

“But steak dinner,” Curry reminded him. “And it’s almost Christmas...”

Heyes nodded. “There’ll be other steak dinners.” He strode to Diablo and the horse didn’t even flinch as he reached up and removed the ropes from his neck. “Merry Christmas, El Diablo.”

Curry sighed heavily but Heyes knew he’d understand. They’d spent years on the run; they’d been hunted to exhaustion and feared for both their lives and their freedom more times than he could remember. He couldn’t imprison this beautiful wild creature who so obviously wanted to be free.

Diablo stood still a moment, still breathing heavily, then he met Heyes’ gaze for a split second before he turned and ran, whinnying to his herd.

Heyes returned to Curry and his own horse, mounting up to slump in the saddle. He glanced upward as something hit his nose with a tickle and he realized it was starting to snow. “At least we can sleep in town tonight,” he said, trying to be upbeat.

Curry gave him a ghost of a grin. “There’s that. Do we have enough money for a bath?”

Heyes dug in his pocket for a moment. “Uh, dinner or bath.”

Curry shook his head sadly. “Dinner then. But not steak.”

Heyes grinned. “Maybe that nice widow woman you were flirting with back in town will take pity on us for Christmas?”

Curry laughed. “I’ll probably need that bath, then, if you expect me to flirt enough to get us invited for dinner!”

Heyes laughed too then glanced over his shoulder one last time before they headed for town. He fancied he saw El Diablo looking back at him, the blaze of defiance in his eyes once more.

Author’s Note: I’d like to thank my friend Montana who made the gorgeous artwork to go with my little story.