THE CHRISTMAS PRESENT
"Kid, isn't this time of year great. Christmas just around the corner.” It was snowing, not that dark wet stuff, but the blue sky, great puffs of white stuff. “Dances in town, too cold for posses to worry 'bout us. Isn't it great?" Hannibal Heyes slapped his cousin on the back and left his hand around Kid Curry's shoulder.
"Yea, Heyes. Just great."
Christmas was seldom that happy for the Devil's Hole Gang. Too little money, nowhere to go, and for most, no family to spend it with, left an emptiness in many of the men. For Heyes and Curry, the empty was joined by memories. Memories of family Christmas'. Parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters. Choosing just the right trees and the procession bringing them to the two houses. Stringing the cranberries and making the paper ornaments. Which of the kids got to put the angel on the top. The table, one year at the Heyes farm, the next year at the Curry's, covered with food. The noise, the laughter.
For most of their lives since they lost everyone they held dear, the two men celebrated quietly, trying more to get through the days, so the memories could be pushed away for another year.
This year, however, Heyes was almost gleeful. He hadn't stopped smiling for days. He'd walk around the camp laughing, humming carols no man there had heard for years. He even talked about cutting down a tree, something for the men, he said.
"Heyes, what's gotten into you? You've been grinning like you do when you got a plan worked up. Hey, is that it? We're going to do another bank? Which one? When?" Kid smiled at his cousin. That's better, it's just a bank.
"Kid, I have been working on something." He met Kid's broad grin with a different kind of smile. The serious kind that said, you're my family and I gotta tell you something you're not gonna want to hear. "Kid, we gotta have Christmas. A real one. With a tree and singing and presents."
"You're crazy. That bullet you took last month must of rattled your brain. Christmas. Here. Christmas is for families, Heyes. I don't want to remember those days." The terrible sadness that filled those brilliant blue eyes made Heyes think for a moment that he had made a monumental mistake.
No, this is the right thing to do. "Kid, I know how much it hurts. But somehow, we gotta do this. I just know it's gonna be ok. Look at the men. Why, most of them never even had Christmas. They don't have any family either. We're all we got here. Maybe Christmas shouldn't hurt so much. Please, Kid. I really gotta do this."
Kid sighed. Heyes seldom pleaded for anything. "All right, Heyes. I'll try. What did you have in mind?"
Heyes smiled that little boy smile again. "That's right, Kid. You'll see. It'll be great. Let's go tell the men."
"Yea, that should be real interesting."
"So, we're gonna have Christmas. We're gonna cut a tree and put ornaments on it and we can draw, highest card gets to put the angel on the top. We'll cook off that turkey we found and sing carols." He was drawing the picture for the men with his hands, waving them around the bunkhouse, his voice animated with how it was gonna be.
The dozen or so men at the camp, looked at him like he had been hitting the still more than he should. "Well, uh, Heyes, me 'n Earl were going to be with his sister. We was planning on leaving tomorrow. Yea, Heyes, I was gonna go on too. Heard 'bout a job down south. One by one, each of the men declined the Christmas Heyes had painted.
The sparkle in his eyes quieted. "Well, that's ok, boys. Glad you've got places to be." Turning, he walked towards the door. "Oh, yea, Merry Christmas."
"Heyes, come on Heyes, don't let it get you. You tried." Kid was one of the few men alive who saw the Heyes that was now sitting in the big chair in front of the fire in their cabin. The quiet, thoughtful man, who hid his own hurt from others. Now, watching his cousin staring into the fire, he felt bad that he hadn't been more excited about the Christmas plan. "Come on Heyes, we'll do it. Just you 'n me. Just like you said."
"Nah, Kid. It's all right. Stupid idea anyway. We'll just do like we planned. Maddie and Jennie will be a fine way to celebrate. We'll just go into town and have a good time with the girls on Christmas Eve and just spend Christmas here." Seeing the worry on Kid's face, he brightened. "We're still the only family we got, Kid. And we should be spending that day together."
The knock on the door was followed by "Heyes, Kid, can we come in?" Wheat Carlson and Kyle Murtry shuffled into the cabin.
"Yes, boys. What is it?"
"Uh, Heyes, well, it's like this. ‘bout what you said…" Wheat was sputtering, like he just couldn't get the words out.
"Wheat and me want Christmas. Just like you said, Heyes." Kyle had the most goofy smile on his face.
"Yea, Heyes. Well, Hell, why not." Wheat did not look to certain about this, but he wasn't gonna let anyone know that.
"Wheat's gonna get the tree and I'm gonna kill that big ol' turkey. We don't know those songs you was humming, but you could teach us, o.k. Heyes?" Kyle looked like a very dirty three-year-old.
"Well, boys that's real good. Sure, that's a great idea. Look, tomorrow's Christmas Eve. Wheat why don't you go find a tree and Kyle, you make sure that turkey don't go anywhere. Kid and me'll go into town and get everything else we'll need."
"Yea, Heyes. Christmas. I haven't had a real Christmas since I was a boy. This is gonna be fun." Kyle still didn't look like he had grown up all that much as he and Wheat left the cabin.
"As if Christmas wasn't bad enough. Christmas with Kyle and Wheat. Now that's gonna be real memorable." He held up his hands in mock surrender. "OK, OK. Let's go see what's left in town and get this over with."
It was a quiet ride into the small town that sat close to Devil's Hole. The townspeople, while they knew who these men were, chose to ignore it. Their money was good and so far, they hadn't hurt anyone or robbed their bank. Today the town was bustling. People out making last minute purchases. Heyes and Curry finished their shopping and made their way to the saloon for a drink before returning to camp.
"Hi boys. Glad you made it in. You coming to the dance tomorrow night?"
Maddie Glen and Jennie Day were two of the girls that worked in the saloon. They were young and pretty. They enjoyed the company of the two young outlaws. "Yea, sugar. Maddie and me were thinking up some real nice presents for you." Jennie put her arms around Kid's waist.
"Sure we are. Wouldn't miss that for anything." Kid seemed to have found the present he was looking for.
"Kid, we promised to spend Christmas Eve with friends." Heyes was finding it just as hard to resist the charms Maddie was offering.
"Don't ya think they'll understand? I mean if we explain it real good to them." His eyes were telling his cousin, come on Heyes, you're the genius. Kyle and Wheat or Maddie and Jennie?
The unspoken comment understood, Heyes decided. "Ladies, we'd be happy to join you tomorrow night. But now, we've gotta be goin'. Lots of things left to do." Heyes disengaged himself from Maddie. "Uh, you comin'?"
"What, oh sure. Right behind you." With a last look at the two women, Heyes and Curry left the saloon, mounted their horses and started back to Devil's Hole.
"They'll understand Heyes. Why they'd make the same choice themselves. Anyway, it'll be easier this way." The last comment spoken drew Heyes' attention.
"I know, Kid. You're right. For now, maybe it's for the best."
The trip completed in silence, both men knowing what the other was thinking and feeling.
"Heyes, Kid, boy am I glad you're back. I'm real sorry Heyes, I was just trying to feed it and it got away, I tried to catch it but it bit me Heyes, never knew turkeys were mean, but it just stuck it's head out and bit me, Kid I sure wish you'd been here, you coulda' shot it. I'm sorry Heyes." Kyle was holding his hat in his hands, looking like he'd just committed the most horrible act possible. He was pointing to where the Christmas dinner was last seen, and back at his cheek which had brand new, bright red welt.
"Kyle, slow down. What happened?" Heyes put his hands on the man's shoulder and tried to settle him down.
"I've been telling you Heyes. The turkey. I tried to feed it and it got away. After it bit me. I tried to run after it, but I couldn't catch it. It was real quick, Heyes." Heyes looked at Kid. Both were picturing the sight of Kyle chasing the turkey, and doing their best not to laugh.
"That's all right, Kyle." Heyes spoke as seriously as he could to the downcast man. "We got lots of stuff to eat. It'll be all right."
"Really, Heyes. You sure?" When Heyes nodded, Kyle smiled, "Think I'll go help Wheat get the tree"
"Good idea, Kyle. I'm sure Wheat could use your help." Heyes refused to look at Kid until Kyle was out of sight. Their eyes met and they both burst out laughing.
"Now, that would'a been a sight. Kyle chasin' that turkey. Sorry I missed that." Kid had shouldered the supplies and was heading back to the cabin.
"Kinda, helps what we gotta tell 'em. Without Christmas dinner and all. Don't you think, Kid?"
"Sure, Heyes." Looking reflective, he turned to his cousin. "I'm sure glad your leader."
"Huh? Why is that, Kid?"
"Cause it's your job to tell 'em."
Heyes had just about figured out how they were going to break the news to Kyle and Wheat when more noise greeted them.
"That's the puniest tree I've ever seen."
"Well, it's the only one I saw, if you want somethin' else, why don't you just ride on out and cut one yourself."
"Now Wheat, I didn't mean anything. I just was sayin', it's a little one, that's all."
Heyes and Curry came out to find the centerpiece of the argument. The "tree" was about three feet tall, It had nice green branches, 'bout six of them. They stared at the tree, then at Wheat, then back at the tree.
"Well, it was the only one I could get to. The rest were, well it'd take me days to cut those down. What's wrong with this one, anyway?" Wheat was very protective of his tree.
"Nothing, Wheat. It's a fine tree." Well, better just get this over with. "Uh, boys, we got a little change in plans." He started to tell them, but stopped when he saw the faces. Kyle looking like he knew he had ruined everything when he let dinner get free. Wheat hanging onto the tree like it was a prize possession. And Kid, looking like, well you got yourself into this, let's see that silver tongue in action, cousin.
"Well boys, we met some ladies when we went into town and they suggested that we spend Christmas Eve with them, and maybe Christmas Day too. And we was thinking that might just be a better idea."
There was silence. Then Kyle spoke. "Oh, sure Heyes. Wheat and me, we understand. Don't we Wheat?
"Yea, yea, it's fine Heyes. Don't need Christmas anyway."
Looking at the two downcast faces in front of him, Heyes did what Kid said later was the nicest thing he'd ever seen. Kid swore he’d said the craziest, but Heyes was sticking with nicest.
"No, boys. You don't understand. We're all goin' into town. There's a dance tomorrow night, there'll be lots of food and pretty girls."
"Us too? You mean we're all gonna get to go?"
"That's what he said, Kyle." Wheat still hadn't let go of the tree. "Yea, Heyes now that's what I call a real plan."
"See, Kid. It all worked out." Heyes was smiling.
"Right, Heyes. I'm sure Maddie and Jennie will be real pleased to see Kyle and Wheat."
"I'm working on that, Kid. I'm working on it."
"Uh, Heyes, Kid. We gotta talk to you." Kyle and Wheat entered the cabin.
"We can't go with you. To town I mean. It's to dangerous, the four of us, I mean. Kyle and me'll just stay up here."
"What are you talking about, Wheat. The town's not gonna do anything." Heyes paused as he looked at the two of them. "OK, boys, what's goin' on?"
"Nothing, Heyes. It's like Wheat said, we… Ah, heck Heyes, Wheat and me can't go to no dance. We don't know how. Anyway, who's gonna want to dance with us?” He looked like he was about to cry.
"Is that all? Well we can fix that. Sure, boys. That's easy."
"Heyes," Kid was telling him that he was gonna kill him if he said what he knew he was gonna say. "Heyes, don't say it."
"Kid and me, why we'll be happy to teach you to dance. Why it'll be easy. Right Kid?"
Anyone watching would have been witness to a sight as improbable as the possibility of a man flying through space. Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry, the two most notorious outlaws in the West, teaching Wheat Carlson and Kyle Murtry, the two most uncoordinated outlaws in the West the finer points of the waltz.
"That's all right, Kyle. I have another foot."
"Wheat, you're not letting me lead."
"Kid, if I let you lead, how am I gonna know how to when I dance with a girl."
A happy pair or outlaws went back to the bunkhouse that night. A less happy pair remained in the cabin massaging sore feet. "Don't say it, Kid. We're doing a good deed. Just remember that."
"I know, Heyes. I know. Just tell me why a good deed has to hurt this much."
Somehow they got through the next morning, when they had to tell Kyle and Wheat about the need to take a bath. And shave. And put on clean clothes. And to not chew tobacco or spit in front of the ladies. And not to put any food in their pockets for the return trip.
Finally, the foursome set out for town. Arriving at the hall they found it already crowded. The fiddlers were playing and had been joined by the mayor who was quite the harmonica player. The ladies and gents were all dressed up and dancing in the center of the hall. The tables were laid out with food, the likes of which the four hadn't seen in a long time.
As they entered the hall, Heyes and Curry were immediately chosen by Maddie and Jennie. Wheat and Kyle found the food tables and stood watching. As the night progressed, Heyes and Curry danced steadily with a succession of partners. They both noticed the other two asking ladies to dance and receiving polite, but firm no's.
"Choose your partners, everyone for the last dance. That's right, choose up. We'll be starting in just a bit." The mayor made the announcement. Couples met and started for their places on the dance floor.
Heyes had his arms around Maddie, Kid was with Jennie. The girls looked beautiful in soft dresses, very different from the ones they wore in the saloon.
Beautiful women, music, dancing, lots of food. Heyes looked at Kid. Yea, this was gonna be a good Christmas, after all.
They both saw the two men heading for the door at the same time. Brown eyes met blue. The question asked and answered. Each spoke softly to the woman he was holding and saw the smile in return.
The caller was shouting out instructions. Swing your partner and form a star…" It was the last dance and they all wanted it to last a long time. Especially the two slightly tipsy, still uncoordinated but very happy outlaws who were dancing with the two pretty girls in the center of the room.
"Sure hope the girl's feet live through this, Heyes."
"Oh, I think they'll be fine Kid."
"Merry Christmas, Jed."