Two weary, soaked cowboys rode along a muddy road, passing a sign announcing the nearest town called "Toad Hole".
The uncommon name elicited no smile on either face. They had ridden a few days in a row, the sky grey, drizzling rain taking turns with steady pouring rain. The cold, biting wind adding no comfort at all for the two men, everything was wet and damp. Their horses trodded along morosely, mirroring the sullen mood of their riders, especially that of the dark-haired one.
The fairer one had attempted to start a conversation several times, but the tense answers gave him nothing to elaborate on. Finally, he accepted his partner`s mood this time of the year and acquiesced in the situation.
Hannibal Heyes hated the days before Christmas. What did these days have to offer them, two ex-outlaws on the run, waiting for an amnesty which was unsure ever to fulfill, dodging all kinds of people, who had a grudge against them or wanted to profit from the bounty on their heads?
What`s more, Heyes felt edgy and restless. His vivid mind hadn`t been challenged in a while, the last jobs were more hard on the back than really interesting.
They both had agreed not to gift each other during the last years.
But he couldn`t stop thinking about how his friend had loved Christmas when they were kids. The feeling that he was responsible for looking after Kid would always be there, he was sure.
Things could have been worse. They weren`t totally broke, the few dollars between them were enough to spend the holidays in a cheap hotel, a few meals of comfort food and perhaps a nice distraction once in a while.
Reaching town, their first stop after the usual checking out of the layout of the town, was the saloon.
Not looking forward to enjoying the company of his moody partner much longer, Kid Curry soon looked for female company. After making sure no imminent dangers were lurking in the run-down saloon, he left Heyes at the bar and went upstairs, arm in arm with a brunette.
Heyes watched the activities of the bunch of patrons. It was a backwood town, no poker games going on.
The weather left the room in a dim light. He was bored, irritated and frustrated beyond his own comprehension. Memories from former Christmases, pushed at the back of his mind, struggled to surface. After all, what was it about Christmas anyway? To bring joy to those you care for. Mostly with a gift.
Yep, he liked that thought.
But for a gift he had to increase their funds. Honest work simply didn't bring in enough money.
Heyes surveyed the room again. The men seemed like plain farm hands. He was Hannibal Heyes, notorious, known for his plans and intelligence. He had, more than once, followed the motto, "No risk, no reward.". One more time certainly wouldn't affect their long-awaited amnesty.
A crooked grin emerged on his face, revealing a well known, deep dimple.
His decision made, the dim room was suddenly enlighted by a single sunbeam breaking through the clouds outside. He was sure, Lady Luck would be with him.
Heyes sat at a table, surrounded by a group of men, a nice heap of coins and bills in front of him. It hadn't taken him long to explain to the men the rules of Three-Card-Monte.
You could regard the game sceptically, might even say it had a reputation of being a con game.
In fact, you could cheat, if you wanted to. But that wasn't Heyes' intention. He was always proud of his dexterity and enjoyed admiring glances. Of course he had no misgivings to take money he fairly won. He was in it for the thrill. The money was a nice side effect.
Meanwhile, the men goaded each other into who would win against the dealer.
Next in line was the broad-shouldered blacksmith, known for his strength as well as for his explosive temper.
Focusing on the cards he made his bet, a bigger sum than all others dared to summon up. The moment the blacksmith realized Heyes' almost self content expression, after he couldn't find the correct position of the winning card, the ruckus set in... The blacksmith roared,"You're cheating!", turning over the table, knocking Heyes from his chair, the money scattering on the wooden floor. All hell broke lose, people trying to gather unclaimed coins. Heyes, still from his position on the floor, shouted,
"Hey, that doesn't belong to you! Leave the money where it is! Don't you dare, put it down, I won it fair and square!"
But it didn't take long and a fight man against man started, involving the ex-outlaw leader, who proved his toughness learned on in his previous active outlaw life. Some good punches hit their mark.
Alerted by the commotion Kid Curry hurried down the stairs, still adjusting his gun belt. Trying to get an overview he spotted his partner. Grabbing Heyes' arm, he hissed, "It's always amazing how fast trouble finds you. Let's leave town, before the law shows up."
Hastily, Heyes retrieved his battered hat and clapped it on his head.
They mounted their horses and unobtrusively rode to the outskirts of "Toad's Hole", then urging their mounts into a canter.
Dusk was already falling, when they discovered an abadoned, dilapidated shack. Heyes and Curry had ridden without talking since leaving town, the dark haired one casting surreptitious side glances towards his partner, whose jaw was set tight. So he refrained from starting a conversation.
Silently they started a fire and bedded down for the night.
Sighing, Kid asked, "All right, spit it out. What happened?"
Heyes conceded he had looked for a challenge and to get some fast money.
"Aw, Heyes, but three-card stud poker? Risky thing. You should have known better. You can't let it be, can you?"
The ex-outlaw leader grudgingly acknowledged that fact, for a short time considering a snappy comment but dismissed it because, if he was honest to himself, his decision at the saloon seemed rather reckless in hindsight. Surely, not one of his best plans, not that he was going to admit that openly. Sometimes, even if he tried, he fell back into old habits. Going straight was mostly all right, but the constant struggle to have enough money to survive and to dodge all other dangers, seemed somehow tedious. Life as an outlaw had had its advantages. If it wouldn't have been for the Kid, he would have dismissed going for amnesty.
Curry's next sentence, "How much money did you lose?" left Heyes squirming inwardly.
With a slightly contrite sideglance he preferred to evade that question and to use another tactic to change the subject at hand.
Heyes snapped, "Each his own pleasure! Besides, we could have made good use of a little more money. It's almost Christmas after all. I'm sure you would have appreciated some luxury." The moment the words were spoken, he realized they were wrong. Trying to calm himself, he continued under his breath, "I'm sorry for all those things you don't have after following me into outlawing."
"You do know I have a mind on my own, right?" responded Curry adamantly. Silence set in once more.
But Heyes' words affected Kid. Pensively, he stared up at the roof of the shack. There was a hole in it, revealing parts of the moonlit gloom. After all those years, he knew his partner better than anyone else, maybe better than the said person.
The only sound to hear was the dripping of raindrops from the roof above on some unseen metal object.
"Heyes, do you remember those three wise men we met back home and later on in the saloon?"
"Those who claimed to be missionairies traveling to that Eastern Country on January, 6th each year?"
"Yeah," said Curry in a gentle voice,"I've been thinking...."
"I think we had an agreement about that!" came the exhausted answer.
Ignoring Heyes, Kid went on, "They prophesized you being smart. And even if I hate to admit it, they were right."
A corner of Heyes' mouth turned slightly upwards.
"They said, too, that despite being smart, you will become one of the best poker players, one way or the other able to earn enough money for us to survive... even if you aren't always able to keep money... They were right. See, I've known you all my life but there's no reason for me to lose my faith in you. We're together, alive, that's what counts."
For once, Heyes' eloquence failed him. Not sure his voice would be steady, he grabbed his black hat, fumbled with the inner lining and held a small object on his open palm towards Curry.
He said,"Remember the gift from the old wise man with the black beard?"
"Sure, the one you borrowed from me and lost in a marble game! I was cross with you for weeks."
"Well, I got it back. Doesn't matter how."
In this moment a bright light shining through the broken roof illuminated the blue marble.
"You kept it for such a long time? Hidden in your hat??" Curry asked incrediously.
"Looked like one of the safest places to store it. Better than in our saddle bags, thinking of how often we have to leave them in a hotel room. My hat is always with me. But it never seemed the right time to give the marble back to you...." Heyes hesitated for a moment, then went on,
"Kid, thank you for being my partner. Without you and your trust, I don't know if I could have stayed honest that long. Sometimes I am itching to do more. All this hard work for a few coins. Remember the fun we had some years with the boys celebrating? I...." His voice broke.
A somehow touched blonde ex-outlaw said, grinning, "Aaww... Quit it, Heyes. I know, same goes for me. Some wisdom in the missionaries words." Pointing towards the Evening Star, he continued,"The Star of Kansas stands for our past and future, that's what they said. But some things will never change. We have to come to terms with them. But I'm glad the gift of the tanned man with the wrinkled face is not lost forever. The 'seed of hope' always returns...", he chuckled softly.
With feigned shock, Heyes said, "Quit your thinking, you might change into one of those men... Kid Curry, the fastest gun of the West, riding now as the 4th wise man beside Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar in a new gang instead of the DHG. I'm sure, all Dime Novel's writers would love to add a picture of you on a camel!"