Hannibal Heyes spotted a clearing up ahead and turned in the saddle towards his partner.
“Kid, this looks like a good place to settle in before it gets darker and colder?”
Kid Curry had already spotted the clearing to which Heyes was referring and nodding his head answered. “Yep, it’s as good as we’re going to get.”
A few minutes later both men had dismounted and were studying the place that would be their camp for the night.
“Damn!” Curry exclaimed, peeling off his shabby tan leather gloves.
Heyes, instantly alert for danger, looked around and back at his friend.but before he could say anything Curry spoke.
“Chilblains! I haven’t had them in years.” He blew on the fingers of his right hand as he spoke.
Heyes burst out laughing. “Remember what your Pa used to say about Chilblains?”
“Don’t you dare quote that at me, Heyes !”
“Chilblains are for girls and womenfolk. He used to tease you and Grandpa Curry would try to make it better by adding - come the snow, chilblains go!”
Curry shook his head but didn’t answer. Heyes moved to his side and looked at his friend’s hands. His fingers were swollen, red and cracked.
“Kid, why didn’t you mention them earlier?” He asked, his humor changing from merriment to concern.
“Stop fussin’”, Heyes.”
Heyes took the reins from his partner’s swollen fingers and set about tethering both of their horses.
“I think it’s my turn to catch supper.” He said when he had finished his task.
An hour later both men sat at a glowing campfire with two large skinned rabbits cooking over the flames. Each man held a mug of coffee.
The sun had long sunk and the night was dark and filled with the noises of nocturnal animals. Heyes was talking about their plans for the next day when suddenly Kid was on his feet and pointing his gun towards a noise on the outskirts of their camp.
“Come into the light with your hands in the air.” He shouted
Two young boys leading a mule entered the fire lit clearing.
“Don’t shoot, mister, don’t shoot.” The taller boy said, his voice trembling.
Heyes stood up. “Easy.” He said but it was unclear whether the remark was for the boys or his partner.
Heyes approached the boys and their mule as Curry eased his gun back into his holster wincing slightly as the metal rubbed against his sore fingers.
“So what are you boys doing out on a night like this?” He addressed the taller of the two . He smiled broadly as he took in their unexpected visitors.
It was the younger boy who stepped forward holding the reins of a limping mule.
“You better tell them, Billy.” He prompted the older boy.
Kid grinned as he stepped nearer to the visitors. “Explanations can wait, our supper is just about cooked and I expect you boys have your own plates, so come on and join us. Tether your mule beside our horses. I’m Thaddeus and that’s Joshua, my partner.”
Not much was said as the rabbits were consumed with some biscuits and bitter coffee was passed around. It was Heyes who broke the silence.
“You already know that I’m Joshua and this is Thaddeus so it’s time to tell us who you are.”
The older boy spoke up. “I’m Billy Egan and this is my brother Johnny..”
The younger boy interrupted, his words tumbling out. “He’s twelve and I’m nine, well nearly nine. My Pa is the blacksmith in Chestnut Grove and he wants Billy to quit school and learn the trade but Billy wants to stay in school and we decided to head out on our own. Billy and me have read all the stories about outlaws and we figured we’d join up with a gang maybe like the Devil’s Hole bunch. We took one of the mules so pa would still be able to use the other one and we laid a false trail, heading north out of town.” Johnny stopped talking to take a breath and Billy spoke up.
“We read about Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry doing that kind of thing to escape posses. Johnny is practising his quick draw but it’s hard as he don’t have a real gun, he only has a wooden one he whittled. We were doing okay until Lester, our mule, went lame and it’s getting pretty cold.” His voice trailed off.
Heyes exchanged a look with his partner.
“We’ve known a few outlaws in our time and it ain’t an easy way to live. They’re always watching over their shoulders and they can’t see their families and a lot of the time they haven’t much money.” Heyes looked gravely at the boys.
Curry picked up the conversation. “You know, no matter how fast a man can draw his gun, someday he’ll meet someone faster. That’s just the way it is.” Curry drank from his coffee cup.
Heyes stared at his partner. “ I bet you boys have seen the telegraph office in your town, right?”
Both boys nodded, enthralled with the information they were hearing.
“Well, now bands of desperados, like the Devil’s Hole Gang, have a much harder time robbing trains and banks because information is passed quickly down the line by telegraph so I think blacksmithin’ and other professions are a better choice.”
Neither of the boys said anything.
“It’s getting pretty late so why don’t you boys get some sleep and maybe in the morning you will decide to come with us to Chestnut Grove and let your folks know you’re alright.. It’s nearly Christmas and December is not a good time to run away.” Heyes said as he shuffled into his bedroll.
The sun had risen and both Heyes and Curry had brewed and drank some coffee as they discussed their plans for the day. Neither man had said much about their uninvited guests but it was clear that the brothers had evoked memories of their ill fated families and their days in the home for waywards.
Finally Curry brought the subject to light as he cooked biscuits on the fire. “Think you could use that silver tongue of yours to stop their Pa giving them a whopping, Heyes?”
“Well in my limited experiences of mothers I think their Ma is going to be so pleased to see them that she’ll be the one to stop it.”
After breakfast Billy sat behind Heyes while Johnny climbed up behind Curry and leading the mule they headed off.
Heyes led the way while Curry followed. There was a low hum of conversation between the riders and their charges as the journey progressed. The weather was definitely getting colder and about an hour before they reached the town large snowflakes began to fall. Heyes slowed his horse until Curry came abreast.
“Ki..Thaddeus, those chilblains will heal right up with the snow.”
Johnny piped up from where he was leaning against Curry’s back.
“You’ve got chilblains, Thaddeus? Billy gets those sometimes and Pa always teases him saying only girls get them.”
Heyes burst out laughing.
The two riders and their pillion passengers leading a bedraggled mule entered the town of Chestnut Grove in a heavy downfall of snow. The town was sizable but there were few citizens in evidence as the small parade made its way to the forge situated just off the main street.
The mule braying announced their arrival and a large man who was obviously the blacksmith threw open the forge door as a woman pushed past him.
“Oh My Good Lord! You’re back.”
Johnny jumped down and ran to his mother followed swiftly by Billy. She wrapped both of them in her arms as her husband hurried out behind her.
The blacksmith used his chequered handkerchief to wipe his eyes.
“Where have you been? I spent all day yesterday following your trail north but I lost it and I came back last night to your Momma who has been worried sick about you two.” He seemed to notice the ex outlaws for the first time.
“My apologies, gentlemen, thank you for bringing my boys home. My name is Bob Egan and this is my wife Evelyn and..”
His wife interrupted. “Please gentlemen, come inside and I’ll brew up some hot coffee and some food.”
Kid sighed as Heyes spoke up.
“I’m sorry, Ma’m but we have to drop some papers off at William Claybone’s office so we’ll have to missout on the coffee, thank you.” He turned on a charming smile towards the woman and then addressed her husband.
“Could you tell us where the Claybone office is?”
Bob Egan pointed down the street as he answered.
“Mr. Claybone’s place is just down Main Street beside the Sheriff’s Office.”
The ex outlaws exchanged a quick glance. “That wouldn’t be Sheriff Hataway, by any chance?” Heyes asked, using the first name that came to his mind.
“No, no, it’s Seth Rogers, he’s been Sheriff for about ten years.”
Both Heyes and his partner smiled broadly at the unfamiliar name.
Evelyn Egan spoke up, “You will come to supper tonight? It’s nothing fancy but we’d be delighted if you shared it with us.”
Heyes could feel his partner’s mood lift at the mention of a home cooked meal.
“We’d like that, thank you, and by the way your boys are very polite, they helped Thaddeus this morning with his horse as his hands are pretty sore from chilblains.”
Evelyn Egan turned towards Curry when Heyes had finished speaking.
“Oh! I do hope this snow will ease your discomfort.” she said smiling at him
“My hands are feeling better already, Mam, thank you.”
William Claybone was delighted to receive the legal papers which Big Mac MacCreedy had asked the former outlaws to deliver. In fact he was so grateful that he gave each of the boys an extra hundred dollars on top of the fee which Mac had already paid them.
The three men stood in Claybone’s office sipping very good whisky.
Claybone set his glass aside and said. “I heard you brought the Egan boys back safely.” and added “ Good news travels fast.”
“They’re good boys.” Heyes answered and then his eyes lit up
“You know, Mr. Claybon, Billy the eldest, seemed might quick to me and he wants to stay on at school although his Pa wants him to learn the family business. I guess you’re one of the most successful businessmen in town and I know Big Mac offers scholarships and funding to his local school, did you ever think of doing something like that?”
“William, call me William, Joshua.” Claybone laughed. “Mac told me in his letter that you had a silver tongue. Let me get this right, you want me to sponsor the eldest Egan boy so that he can carry on with his education?”
“Well, I thought it might be advantageous to both you and the town. You’ll get your pick of bright students from the school to join the business and the town folk will be very grateful to have such a generous benefactor.”
Claybone picked his glass up again. “Alright, Joshua, it’s actually a good idea. I’ll approach the School Master about it after Christmas. You can mention it to Bob Egan if you see him. Now I have to get going, gentlemen, I’m to meet my wife in Yorksville, we’re staying with my son and his family for Christmas. Thank you again for delivering those papers and merry Christmas.”
Heyes and Curry drank up and said their goodbyes.
“Wait!” Claybone called as they reached the door.
“I almost forgot. Mac asked me to give you this.” He pulled a letter out of his inner pocket.
“He sent it with his own letter to me and said it arrived at his place the day you left but he figured it would reach here quicker than you, boys, because of the stops you had to make to collect all those documents for me.”
“What is it, Heyes?” Curry asked as they stood in their hotel room.
Heyes was holding the letter he had been given in his hand.
“It looks like Loms’ writing.” He answered as he opened it and began reading.
I hope this letter finds you before Christmas as I want to deliver the best present you have ever received.
You did it, Boys, you actually did it. The Governor is granting both your amnesties.
He believes the time is right so he is signing the papers on the 24th December and as of Christmas Day you are free men.
He wants to formally hand you the documents on New Year’s Day. I will meet you in Cheyanne on the 31st December and I don’t care how you get there, just be there!
It seems several of the railroad and a few of the major banks owners want to meet you both in person and ask for your advice about their security arrangements.
In fact, boys, it looks like you may have a whole new career opening up!
“We got it, Heyes, God Damn it, we did it!” Curry was laughing as he grabbed the letter from his friend’s hands.
Heyes sat down on the bed.
Curry read the letter over, as if he needed to check it was real. He turned, shaking his head and grinning.
“Heyes, I ain’t ever seen you this quiet. We got it!”
Heyes burst out laughing . “Today is the 21st of December, we get it in four days' time.”
“Order up those baths, Heyes, We have to clean up, dress up and have a home cooked dinner with the Egans. I have a feeling we won’t be the only ones celebrating when you tell them about William Claybone’s scholarship for Billy.”
Heyes rumaged through his saddlebags as his partner was talking. He brought out a half filled bottle of whisky, took a large gulf of the golden liquid and passed it to Curry, who also took a long gulp, wiped his lips with his hand and said.
“To us and to amnesty.”
“Keep the bottle, Kid, I’m going downstairs to order those baths then I am heading to the general store to pick up a few gifts for the Egans and most importantly a new pair of the finest leather gloves the mercantile has in stock as I can’t have a partner accept his amnesty with hands covered in chilblains.”