Hannibal Heyes stood at the window, dancing a little on the cold wooden floor of the line shack. They’d been lucky to find the place before the snowstorm hit, lucky they’d just ridden through South Fork and replenished their supplies.
Heyes didn’t believe in luck.
But what else could you call it? They’d spotted the roofline of the cabin just when the clouds were starting to make Heyes nervous. There’d been just enough time to pack everything into the cabin, shelter the horses in the lean-to behind it, and split some kindling for the fireplace. Just as the Kid had been lighting that fire, the wind had roared down the valley like a freight train on a straight-away.
All these coincidences had Heyes’ hackles rising. He’d never trusted anything too easy, and for good reason. But the Kid wasn’t worried. Look at him stretched out on the bed, his big feet towards the fireplace Heyes had just restored to life. Did he look like a man pondering the vagaries of Lady Luck?
The view from the little window was hardly reassuring. At least a foot of snow buried everything Heyes could see. A city man would say it was pretty, but Heyes and the Kid knew better. A sudden snowstorm meant cold death to anyone without shelter. No, they’d been lucky to find this place, like it or not.
While the Kid heated up the skillet, Heyes bundled up and shoved through the snowdrifts to the horses, taking a bait of corn for each of them from the saddlebags. The animals would need the extra energy from the corn if they were all going to make it down to the nearest town. The storm had left deep drifts where the winds hadn’t been blocked by trees and undergrowth. It was going to take muscle to fight their way out. And muscle needed fuel.
To that end, Heyes returned to the warm(er) cabin and took the plate the Kid offered. They’d bought bacon at the last town, and flour, so the Kid had whipped up some biscuits and made gravy. They ate every bite, not just because they were hungry, but because both of them knew the trial that was coming up, knew they’d need the energy to get down into the valley.
They left the cabin as they’d found it, ready to shelter the next wanderer—or cowboy, come Spring. Saddling up, the two rode west, heading for the town of Bull Lake, somewhere at the base of the mountain. As with everything else out here, exact directions were scarce, but the old stable keeper had said they couldn’t miss the lake and the town was on its northern bank.
For over an hour, Heyes and the Kid rode almost silently, only pointing out an easier trail through the trees. Heyes was starting to think they’d never find a way down, would end their days on this snow-covered hunk of rock. The Kid called a stop after the second hour, and they nibbled on jerky and fed the horses a little more corn.
They rode on then, until the Kid hauled his horse to a stop with a muttered curse. Heyes pulled up beside him and echoed it. They’d come to the edge of a cliff. There, far below, lay the town they were trying to reach, spread out along the banks of a large lake, sparkling in the sunlight. But how were they to get there?
“That may be the easy way down,” came a voice from behind them, “but I don’t think you’d enjoy the landing.”
Heyes whirled in the saddle, seeing the Kid pull leather. Behind them sat an old mountain man, mounted on a shaggy pony with a loaded mule in tow. The man’s faded red coat was trimmed with fur and his white beard flowed halfway down his chest. He had a Sharps rifle in one hand, but the barrel was pointed at the ground, not at either Heyes or the Kid.
Making sure to keep out of the Kid’s line of fire, Heyes hauled his horse around to face the newcomer. “Do you know a better trail, old timer?” he asked politely.
The mountain man let out a deep laugh that made Heyes want to join in, though he wanted in on the joke. Hopefully it wasn’t on them.
“I know these mountains like the back of my hand, youngster,” the old man told him.
Heyes waited, but he said nothing further. Reining in a flash of temper, Heyes smiled at their strange guest. Maybe the old fellow just wasn’t used to human company after all these years up in the hills trapping beaver or whatever he was doing.
“I don’t suppose you could tell us how to get to Bull Lake,” he asked, “safely, that is?”
The old man scratched beneath his beard, a thoughtful frown on his face. Then, his round cheeks creased in an answering smile. “Why sure, young fellow. You two just follow Ol’ Nick. I’ll get you down safely.”
Without another word, he wheeled his horse and headed back the way he’d come. Heyes glanced at his partner, who shrugged and returned his pistol to its holster.
“Might as well follow him,” the Kid muttered. “At least we’d be off the mountain.”
Kneeing his horse, Heyes caught up to the old mountain man. “How long will it take us to get to the town?”
Ol’ Nick shrugged, “Most of the day from here, I’m afraid. You fellows took a wrong turn.”
They stopped twice along the way, once to make a small fire and brew some hot coffee, which they doctored with plenty of sugar for energy. Heyes was heartily tired of the cold and the white drifts by the time they reached a visible trail.
“Loggers,” Ol’ Nick muttered, spitting to one side of the trail. “No respect for the forest. Some of these trees have been here longer than we’ve been alive.”
Heyes, who couldn’t care less about the age of your average tree, nodded. “But if we follow their trail, we’re bound to come out near town, right?”
“Sure will, young fellow.” Ol’ Nick turned his horse, then paused. “Say, maybe the two of you could do me a favor.”
Heyes gave him a suspicious glare. They’d been hoodwinked by “favors” before. “Depends.”
“Oh, wouldn’t be much out of your way. I was going to carry some of my wares down, but since you’re going anyway, maybe you’d deliver them for me.”
Heyes glanced again at his partner. The Kid shrugged. “What sort of wares, old fellow?” he asked.
Ol’ Nick laughed again, his round belly jiggling. “Nothing illegal, I promise. Just some presents for the youngsters in town. I like to carve, and the kids like the toys I make them. Just drop off these bags with Preacher Jones. He’ll see they’re handed out fair.”
Heyes couldn’t think of a reason not to carry a couple of bags of carved toys to a preacher. Surely such a favor couldn’t turn around and bite their backsides. “I reckon we could deliver your bags, then,” he told Ol’ Nick.
The mountain man chuckled and tugged at the mule’s rope. The animal came alongside, and Nick untied a couple of large sacks from the animal’s pack. “Just tell Preacher Jones Ol’ Nick had other goods to deliver. He’ll understand.”
Which probably meant the old mountain man was far more comfortable in the high country than down in a crowded town. Heyes was all right with that. Sometimes he could barely stand humanity himself. He took one bag, tying it to his saddle horn. Nick handed the Kid the other sack. When both bags had been seen to, the mountain man wheeled his horse away from them again.
“Merry Christmas, boys,” he called, his red coat barely visible beneath the trees in the fading light of late afternoon.
Heyes gave the Kid a look. Was it Christmas already? Let’s see, they’d left South Fork on the sixteenth. He counted the days in his head.
The Kid beat him to it. “Well, I’ll be,” he said, kneeing his horse down the trail. “I reckon tomorrow is Christmas, Heyes. We ought to celebrate somehow.”
Heyes urged his horse in behind the Kid’s. “Hopefully, Bull Lake will have a decent restaurant that’ll serve a turkey dinner.”
“And some decent whiskey,” his partner replied.
As the sun descended into the winter evening, they came out of the forest to see the town of Bull Lake spread out before them. It was larger than they’d thought it would be, with a white church, several saloons, and a main street crowded with shops.
“Paster Jones first, or the hotel?” the Kid asked once they pulled onto the main road leading into town.
Heyes wanted nothing more than a long, hot bath followed by a meal neither of them had cooked, a glass of good whiskey, and a fine cigar to close the evening. However, he knew that once he’d settled into that hotel, he wouldn’t want to step back into the cold to walk to the church.
“Those kids will be wanting their Christmas presents,” he said slowly, trying to come up with a reason to delay delivery until the morning. He remembered when he was a child, waking up on Christmas morning with a firm conviction that Santa Claus would have left him something. “We can’t disappoint a bunch of kids, can we?”
“I reckon not.” The Kid sighed as they passed the hotel and headed for the church instead. “I’m getting a whole bottle of whiskey, though, once we get in out of this cold.”
Heyes smiled grimly. “I’ll help you drink it,” he promised.
The door of the church opened as they climbed onto the wooden porch. The man who stepped out to greet them looked as if a stiff breeze might topple him, but he wore a merry smile. “I’m Preacher Jones,” he said, extending a hand. “How might I help you two gentlemen on this fine Christmas Eve? Our service will begin at eleven.”
Heyes had to smile himself at the thought of the two of them in a church service. God had probably given up on them years ago. “We ran into Ol’ Nick on the trail,” he said, shaking the preacher’s hand. He untied his bag and handed it over. “Said you’d know what to do with these.”
The preacher pulled a wooden horse from the bag. “Ah, the children’s Christmas toys. Perfect. We usually distribute them at the service. Nick used to deliver them in person but--”
“He said he had other goods to deliver,” the Kid said, extending his own sack to the preacher.
“Of course. There are so many more towns in these mountains now. Ol’ Nick must be hard pressed to make toys for all the children.” The preacher hefted the two sacks in one hand. “Will we have the pleasure of your company at our service?”
Heyes tipped his hat and climbed back onto his long-suffering horse. “We’ll see, pastor.”
Preacher Jones smiled and nodded, then carried the bags of toys into the church. Heyes was certain the man understood. He wasn’t going to be watching for them at the Christmas Eve service.
At the hotel later, having stabled the horses and paid extra for a little extra pampering for them, Heyes gratefully lowered himself into a tub. They had a bottle of whiskey and two glasses on the small table between the tubs, and he and the Kid puffed away at a couple of fine cigars. Heyes felt the chill of the trail gradually fading and let out a satisfied sigh.
“Now this is what I call comfortable,” he muttered, sinking deeper into the soapy water.
The Kid had a thoughtful expression on his face that worried Heyes. Some of their worst ideas had come from one of those expressions.
“I been thinking,” the Kid said, blowing out a puff of cigar smoke.
“That old mountain man. Didn’t he remind you of someone, Heyes?”
The Kid gave Heyes the side-eye. “I’m serious, Heyes. That long beard. The laugh. The red coat with fur. The toys. And Nick?”
Heyes suddenly saw where this was going. He took his cigar from his mouth and used it to point at his partner’s chest. “You, my friend, have been out in the cold too long. Your brain’s frostbitten. That was an old, smelly, unshaven, probably antisocial mountain man who happened to be named Nick.”
“But Heyes, it’s Christmas Eve. And Nick was in a hurry to leave. He said he had more stuff to deliver.”
“Kid, I’m only going to say this once—and I can’t believe it even needs saying. There ain’t no such thing as Saint Nicholas.”
The Kid gave him a suspicious glare. “Just because you can’t prove something don’t mean it ain’t true.”
“I’m done. What should we have for our Christmas dinner? My stomach’s starting to think I cut my own throat.”
The Kid muttered something under his breath that Heyes was careful not to hear. Sometimes a man had to ignore his partner’s shortcomings for the sake of the partnership. And one of the Kid’s shortcomings was his belief in things unseen. Heyes liked the world to make sense, and that meant if you couldn’t prove it existed, then it didn’t. He wasn’t going to waste another second arguing about some hairy old mountain man.
He finished his bath and his cigar, then carried the whiskey downstairs to the restaurant. The Kid followed, still frowning. Heyes hoped the man wouldn’t mope through the holiday. The waitress found them a nice, corner table where they could watch people come and go (and spot any suspicious law-types who might wander in). Heyes looked at the menu, which professed this was the restaurant’s Christmas dinner selection. Turkey or roast beef, potatoes (mashed with butter and gravy), roast carrots, freshly baked bread, and a slice of pumpkin pie to end the meal. Perfect.
And after the meal, a lovely, warm room with a soft, thick mattress on the bed. They dumped their saddlebags on the chair and Heyes rummaged around for the new book he’d bought in South Fork, something about Life on the Mississippi. His fingers encountered something unfamiliar.
“Kid,” he said, pulling the object from his bag, “check your bag, would you?”
“A new holster—thanks, Heyes!”
“My present for you is still here, Kid. Who put that holster in your bag?”
“What’s that you got? A deck of cards. Nice.”
Heyes glared at his partner. “You’re missing the point, Kid. Who put this stuff into our saddlebags?”
The Kid, busy replacing his worn old holster, only smiled.
“No way, Kid.”
“Happy Christmas to all,” said the Kid, “and to all, a good night.”