There was a definite air of defeat about the three bedraggled men making their way down the mountain, the wizened face of their leader, Nate, making him look older than his two companions, Jesse and Hank.
Rather than their own incompetence and laziness, they blamed their lack of success and their current dire situation, on a chance meeting with a bounty hunter and his two prisoners, about four years previously.
“Easy money for easy work boys” the stranger in the saloon assured them, tapping his nose with his forefinger, “I got it from my cousin’s, friend’s uncle, who got it straight from the horse’s mouth!”
That was good enough for them to pack up and head out to get that “easy money”.
The chance meeting en route, with its prospect of an even easier $20,000, had been too tempting to pass up and their original destination was soon abandoned. However, their failure to hang on to their valuable prisoners, had them unceremoniously dumped, bleeding and in pain, on the edge of a small town. Unfortunately, the town doctor had been an incompetent drunk, resulting in all three contracting fevers and narrowly escaping amputation of their infected limbs. Their convalescence was cut short when they were asked, not too politely, to leave the town, as soon as they could sit a horse. The Law had not taken kindly to being sent on a wild goose chase after two “maybe” criminals.
The next few years were spent in the mountains, far from civilisation, and their numerous attempts to strike it lucky had all ended in failure. Like their attempt at mining, when their meagre cache of gold dust gathered over many months, was stolen one night when they got blind drunk on moonshine. Or theIr months spent trapping, where the few mangy skins they presented to the trader, were deemed hardly worth the cost of their next meal.
Their funds very low and not wanting to spend yet another cold, desolate Christmas up in the mountains, the desperate trio decided to head back to civilisation, timing their arrival in the nearest town to best take advantage of the Christmas spirit, and goodwill to all men they were sure would come their way.
Descending into the valley just as daylight was fading, they spotted a town in the distance. Nate, judging it to be a little less than a day’s ride, suggested they look for a place to camp. Seeing the unenthusiastic looks on the faces of the other two, he said with false cheer, “Come on boys, I reckon we got a few days to Christmas. One more night camping out and tomorrow night we’re sure to be being fed and fussed over by the Town’s do-gooders”. Doing a quick scan of the surrounding area, he pointed to a line of trees not too far away. “That looks promising over there, probably a creek beyond them trees”.
Nodding half heartedly, Jesse and Hank followed Nate heading in that direction. As they got near, Nate suddenly raised his hand, bringing the other two to an abrupt halt.
“Hear that?” he whispered, as all three listened Intently to the unmistakable sound of men’s voices. Quietly slipping from his horse and handing the reigns to Jesse, Nate crept closer to investigate.
“Well I’ll be” he whispered to himself, as a deep frown settled on his face. He motioned for Jesse and Hank to join him and all three stared incredulously at two of the men they believed to be the cause of all their woes.
As they watched the two men setting up camp with practised ease and lighthearted camaraderie, Nate snorted with disgust at the looks of jealous respect on the faces of Jesse and Hank. His own resentment growing, he was hard pressed to stop himself from rushing in with his gun blazing. The two had obviously fared a lot better for themselves and with every deep chuckle from the dark haired man, and bark of amusement from the fair haired man, Nate’s anger grew.
Nate motioned Jesse and Hank back to where they’d left their horses. Seething with rage, Nate growled out through gritted teeth, “I’ve a mind to shoot first and ask questions later. Get ‘em in real quick and easy and collect that nice fat bounty on their sorry heads!”
An uncomfortable look passed between Jesse and Hank as Jesse spoke up, “I dunno Nate what if they are just regular folk, I was all set to believe that Smith Fella.”
“Yeh he sure can talk”, Hank said, “I almost wanted to believe him just to shut him up”.
Nate, not quite ready to abandon his initial impulse, responded,
“But you saw how quick that Jones was with a gun and they say Kid Curry is the fastest gun in the West. As for Hannibal Heyes, he’s well known for being able to talk up a storm, they say he could talk his way outa a tiger’s belly. You just said he almost had you both convinced.”
Still doubtful, Hank spoke up again, “Yeh but Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry are known to be two slippery cusses and those two fellas was outsmarted at least twice by that bounty hunter. If we’re going to take ‘em on, wE got to plan this real good, make sure they can’t get to their guns, truss ‘em up like Christmas Turkeys”.
“Gag ‘em too,” Jesse added “I don’t want that Smith fella bending my ear all the way to town. You said yourself Nate, it’s no more than a day’s ride, so it won’t be too long before we can offload ‘em”.
Nate, having cooled down a bit, conceded, “Yeh you’re right boys, we don’t wanna get ourselves hung for murder. We’ll let ‘em sleep, all unsuspecting like, and make our move before first light. They won’t know what’s hit ‘em!”
Blissfully unaware of their watchers’ intent, Heyes and Curry enjoyed a supper of spit-roast rabbit, washed down with some strong, whisky laced coffee, before falling into pleasant dreams and softly snoring the night away. On the other hand, the growing resentment of Nate, Jesse and Hank was as evident as their growling stomachs and groans of discomfort as they watched, causing them to seriously doubt their decision to wait until the predawn to make their move.
Heyes was immediately awake at the feel of cold steel pressing against his forehead, his mind going back to an identical awakening a number of years before. But rather than looking up into the weaselly features of a certain Bannerman man, he took a moment to recognise the vengeful eyes of Nate looking down at him. His own eyes narrowed in disgust and anger as he remembered his treatment of Joe at their last meeting. The intensity of Heyes’ hard gaze caused a slight shake in Nate’s voice as he demanded, “D-Don’t move a muscle or make a sound, it won’t take much for me to shoot you where you lay. Be far less trouble taking you in”
Heyes’ menacing growl, “You can’t do this …..you…….” was cut short by the cold steel being pressed even harder into the middle of his forehead.
“I said not a word Mr Heyes!”
Kid Curry, who had been similarly awoken, directed his glacial gaze up the barrel of the rifle, causing Jesse to swallow nervously, and desperately trying to control the urge to wipe his sweaty palms on his shirt he hissed, “Come on Hank - hurry up and get them tied up tight and gagged. Blindfold ‘em too” he added with an involuntary shudder.
Less than half an hour later, the sorry looking party were heading down the trail to the nearest town. Although bound, gagged and blindfolded, their nervous captors could not escape the ominous waves of danger emanating from the two ex outlaws and, not risking any stops, by late afternoon they were approaching the Sheriff’s Office in the town. As the three captors slipped down from their horses at the hitching rail, the Sheriff approached the two bound men still atop their horses.
“Heyes, Kid?” he tentatively asked “is that you. What’s going on here?”
Hearing the sheriff’s confirmation of their valuable bounties, Nate’s chest puffed up, and with all three grinning broadly, Nate boasted, “Yeh Sheriff we’re claiming the reward on these sorry, no good outlaws!”
There broad grins were quickly replaced by looks of confusion as the Sheriff spun round with his gun drawn. Without taking his eyes off the three men, he called behind him, “Harker, Smith, Jones – get out here – Harker get these three into a cell, Smith, Jones, help Heyes and Curry then go fetch Caroline and Becky.”
Nate’s incredulous voice could be heard protesting loudly as they were escorted to the cells ...
“Hey, you big lout, what’re you doing, we heard the Sheriff confirming they’s Heyes and Curry - what’s this all about – that reward money is ours!”
As soon as his gag was removed, the words, interspersed with curses, came tumbling out of Heyes’ mouth, “Awww Lom are we glad to see you, I was hoping they’d bring us to Porterville …. What’s the world coming to when decent law abiding citizens can’t go about their business without…….”
“OK Heyes take a breath will you … come on inside and you can tell me what happened over a good strong cup of coffee”, Lom said as, sharing an eye rolling look with the Kid, he ushered the two through the door.
As they entered, they heard the protests from the cells coming to an abrupt halt and saw the sick realisation dawning on their captors’ faces as Harker informed them that Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry had been granted Amnesty nearly three years ago and were now indeed law abiding citizens of the fine, fast growing town of Porterville.
Sitting around Lom’s desk, sipping their hot coffee, the ex outlaws explained their past history with the men in the cell, their treatment of Joe and their abduction in the early hours.
“Well now boys It seems to me that these yahoos have been out of circulation for some time and were ignorant of your Amnesty. But from what you told me, they deserve to be punished, I’ll back you up if you want to press charges.” Lom told his friends.
Just then the office door flew open and Heyes and Curry had barely stood when they were nearly bowled over by two women, one with a squirming bundle in each arm. Watching this happy reunion from their cell, Nate, Jesse and Hank were surprised to see the two couples headed their way.
Having taken one of the bundles and with his best smug smile dimpling his cheeks, Heyes stopped a few feet in front of them with his arm around the waist of the attractive, auburn haired woman.
“This lovely lady is my wife Rebecca and she’s holding our baby son Joshua, and this little beauty is our baby daughter Hannah” he said with pride.
Jed Curry then stepped forward, his own grin causing his blue eyes to twinkle and his arm around the waist of the equally attractive brunette,
“And this boys, is my beautiful fiancé, Miss Caroline Porter. Her Pa owns the Bank and he was recently voted in as the Town’s new Mayor. We’re getting married in a few days time, on Christmas Eve. Heyes and me were on our way back from Salt River with our wedding suits when we had the misfortune of running into you – again!”
Heyes and Curry’s initial reaction had been to have the three men charged, especially as the whole encounter had brought back such painful memories of how they and others had treated Joe and the tragic outcome.
Heyes once said, “Grudges are for people with bad stomachs,” so after leaving the three to stew for a few days, the reformed outlaws let it go - After all, why let bad feelings ruin their enjoyment of Christmas and Kid Curry’s wedding!