The soft glow of the light cast by the lanterns and the warmth given off by the fire in the potbellied stove did nothing to quell the tension that blanketed the bunkhouse like one of Emma's quilts. Usually quick with a smile, Kid's mouth was now etched in a line so straight it could have been drawn with a straight edge. The rider clenched and unclenched his hands as if trying to get a grasp on the reins of his temper that reared like an unbroken horse.
"You promised," he said tightly. Like a cold harsh wind whipping across the prairie, anger swept through Kid. Barely able to contain it, he swallowed. Though he'd directed the last statement at Jimmy, he his gaze arced around the room. "You all promised."
"Have ya' taken a look outside?" Cody asked from his bunk where he burrowed deep within the cocoon he'd made of his blankets. "In case ya' haven't, there's a couple a' feet a' snow on the ground."
"And more to come," Jimmy added casually as he ran the cloth over the barrel of his gun for what Kid thought was the millionth time since he'd met the dark-haired rider. The cheeky grin Jimmy added only fueled Kid's ever growing irritation.
"'Sides, Teaspoon said we didn't have any rides for Christmas, meanin' we had the days off. I plan on takin' that very seriously." Cody punctuated his pronouncement by pulling the blanket up over his head.
"And since Christmas so nicely came at the same time as this snow that's supposedly headin' our way, Teaspoon wants us to stay outta' that too." Jimmy held the barrel up to make sure he hadn't missed any spots. The outside was buffed to such a high shine; it could have been used as a mirror. Kid had the sudden urge to grab it and smudge that shine away.
"Kid," Buck began softly. With a slight shake of his head, Kid turned his attention to Buck. Kid knew the Kiowa sensed the increasing strain and by Ike's solemn expression, Kid was pretty sure he did too. But then only someone totally oblivious of what was going on around him would be unaware of Kid's mood. Easily that explained Cody but Jimmy was another story.
With a glance out the window, Buck continued, "That storm will be here, I'd say in the next couple of hours, so going out would be a bad idea."
"It's not like I just got the idea," Kid snapped. "I've been askin' for over two weeks now."
"We've been busy," came Cody's muffled voice. A few coughs covered for the laughter that threatened to escape from the other three. But they were smart and remained straight-faced.
"Busy?" Kid grunted a bitter chuckle. Slowly crossing his arms over his chest, his eyes narrowed as he looked around the room. "I see how busy you are."
The group had the decency to cast their eyes downward and Cody kept his head covered. Buck was curled up on his bunk reading and Ike was sketching one of his many pictures in his drawing pad. As always, Jimmy was cleaning his gun at the table, and Cody, as always, was sleeping, or trying to.
"What is so all-fired important about this anyway," Jimmy asked, tossing the cloth on the table. He pawed the air as Kid opened his mouth to explain. "Yeah, I know, it's for Lou." Arms folded, he rocked back in his chair and eyed Kid.
For the last two weeks, every day, Kid had asked someone to help him get this very special present for Lou. It seemed that when Kid approached one of the other riders, they always had an excuse for why they couldn't go. Lame as the excuses were, Kid figured someone would go the next day so he didn't push the point. Until now. It was Christmas Eve and there wouldn't be a "next day." Lou had gone to town with Rachel and wouldn't be back for several hours. The timing was perfect but he didn't think he could handle the present alone. Which brought him to the current impasse.
"Because it would get this place a bit more in the spirit." It was the only reason he could come up with that didn't have Lou as the basis. To his ears, it sounded weak, but he knew what the others would say if it came back to Lou.
"I really don't understand why people take a perfectly good tree, cut it down, bring it inside, and then decorate it," Buck mused. In no way was Buck dismissing another's customs, he was just curious as to the practice and Kid knew that. However, that didn't matter.
"Because it's called a Christmas tree," Kid barked. He'd reached his limit and he was tired of trying to get one of his supposed friends to help him. It was best he did this alone. He grabbed his coat and scarf off the peg. "Forget it. I'm goin' on my own." Anger and frustration flared in his voice. Brusquely pulling on his coat and wrapping the scarf around his neck, he snatched his hat from his bunk. They watched in silence.
Ike's hand smacking his notepad brought him everyone's attention but he only wanted one person's. When he finally saw Kid was looking at him, he signed, *You should not go out there*
"I have to," Kid muttered as he stormed angrily out the door.
For a moment, they stared at the door waiting for Kid to rush back inside, laughing, and tell them how cold it was out there but it didn't happen. They traded questioning looks, each hoping another would do something.
"Well, he did say the tree was just a few miles east a' here," Jimmy said, resuming his fastidious chore.
"Yeah, and he said it really wasn't that big a' tree so he can prob'ly handle it himself," Cody mumbled as he turned and drifted off to sleep.
Buck mirrored Ike's facial shrug and they went back to their books.
Shoving his hands in his gloves, Kid trudged to the wagon he had waiting. Immediately after Lou and Rachel had left, he'd hurried to get everything ready. Stupidly, he'd assumed someone would be coming with him. Climbing up onto the wagon seat, he grabbed the reins and snapped them harder than he should have. His anger was felt through the leather strips causing the two horses to lurch forward and give him twin indignant snorts.
"Sorry fellas," he said softly as the wagon slowly moved. "I shouldn't be taking this out on you. You're actually the only ones helping me." The harsh laugh that came out caused him to grimace. "It's Christmas. I'm not gonna let them ruin this for me."
He'd spotted the tree a month earlier on his way home from a run. Giving Katy her way, she'd wandered into a small area where a copse of pines stood. The snow was about the same depth as now, and it made the trees look decorated already. As soon as he'd spotted the smallest of the trees, he'd known it was the one. About a head taller than he was, it would fit perfectly in the bunkhouse. If he could get it there, he thought glumly.
Realizing it was going to be a slow journey; he sat back and made himself enjoy the scenery. Yes, as Cody had pointed out, the snow was piled up a couple of feet high, but to Kid it was beautiful. The morning sun had lost its struggle to break through the tarnished silver sky but that didn't matter. The only sound was the horses' hooves crunching the snow beneath. He inhaled deeply and was invigorated for the task ahead. The excitement he'd felt when he first had the idea was finally coming back. The other riders had done a good job of squelching that excitement as they said no each time he'd asked for their help. But that was behind him and the tree was ahead.
His bright smile returned and he started whistling, as the wagon rolled towards its destination.
Due to the snow-covered ground, Kid had figured on just over an hour to get there. Unfortunately, snow had started falling halfway there and it had taken over two hours. The flakes were small and not coming down too heavy, but they were still falling steadily. He maneuvered the wagon to sit just beside the tree. The wagon rolled to a stop and Kid quickly jumped down. He wanted to get this done as fast as he could, hoping to get back before Lou returned. Even if he couldn't have it decorated for her, it at least could be up and ready. Prepared for the mounds of snow under the tree, he'd brought a shovel to clear it away so he could cut.
Shovel in hand he began the job of digging out the tree trunk. After only a few minutes, he'd worked up a sweat. Wiping his brow, he removed his scarf and actually thought about taking off his jacket but he decided not to. Better to be hot than catch a cold like Teaspoon had. Finally, he'd cleared most of the snow so he had a good path for the axe. He stepped back to admire the tree.
"I really think she's gonna like this," he murmured, a boyish grin spreading across his face. He backed up a few more paces to stand beside one of the larger pines. Just as he came even with the tree, he placed his foot back and felt nothing. The snow gave way. Arms flailing, he felt his balance shift. Hands grasping for anything, his fingers caught hold of one of the snow-ladened branches of the pine tree. Desperately holding on, he tried to swing forward. His added weight to the snow that already weighed the branch down was too much. It gave way with a very loud crack.
"NO!" His scream pierced the vast silence. He heard the horses' reactions and knew they were gone.
The feeling of weightlessness was terrifying, and it seemed he hung in the air for an eternity. But it was only a moment before he plummeted towards the ground.
"Well, looks like we made it back just in time," Rachel declared. The light snowfall that had started while she and Lou were in town was much steadier now. She jumped out of the buckboard to get the packages inside before they were buried.
"I really hope he likes it," Lou said, as she followed Rachel. Her mind on other things, Lou barely noticed the snow.
"I'm sure he will," Rachel assured, amused by her young friend. "Ya' know that color is per -"
Startled, Rachel looked up to see Teaspoon standing at the foot of the porch steps, doubled over from the strength of his sneeze.
"Teaspoon Hunter!" she hollered. "You get in that house now!"
"Teaspoon," Lou said as she hurried towards him. "You ain't supposed to be out here. You're already sick enough."
"I told you not to leave that house!" Rachel joined Lou and the two women flanked him.
"Now Rachel," Teaspoon said, his gravelly voice made harsher by his cold, "there are a few things that I can't actually do in there. Well, I can but I don't want to."
Sniffing, he gave them a pointed look and then glanced over at the barn. Comprehension sparked in both women's eyes and they laughed. For the first time, Lou noticed Teaspoon was wearing Rachel's dark blue and gray knitted shawl over his coat.
"Nice," she said, fingering the edge. "The color suits you."
"Young lady," he drawled, "no sassin' your elders." Once again, his eyes were drawn to the barn. Wiping his nose with his handkerchief, he looked at the buckboard and back at the barn.
"You okay?" Lou asked. A look of concern passed with Rachel as Lou gently placed her hand on Teaspoon's arm.
"Now where d'ya' suppose the wagon is?"
As if on cue, two horses and the wagon came around the side of the bunkhouse. The horses looked exhausted, their nostrils flared as their breath fogged in front of them. Immediately Lou ran to the animals, Rachel and Teaspoon close behind her.
"Why on earth do you think…?" Puzzled, Rachel looked from Lou to Teaspoon and back. Suddenly, Lou's face paled. "Lou honey? You feelin' sick too?"
"Oh no…" the petite rider breathed. From under the wagon seat, Lou pulled out a blue scarf.
"Kid," Rachel gasped.
All he saw was white. Sure his eyes were opened; he blinked and just felt cold. Nothing was there. Where was he? His entire body ached, and that went double for his head. A dull pulsing sensation almost like a heartbeat was concentrated at the base of his skull. The last thing he remembered doing was looking at the tree. Lou's tree. No, the last thing he'd done was fall. Snow, he was covered in snow. As he began to get hold of his senses, he lifted his hand to brush the snow off his face.
When his face was free and he could see, he glanced around. Unsure of where he was, he didn't want to take anything for granted. Like the fact that he could just get up and walk away. Soon he was completely coherent and actually wishing he wasn't. Pain throbbed throughout his body but mainly in his right leg. Slowly he pushed himself up to rest on his elbows and saw that the leg was bent awkwardly below the knee.
"That doesn't look good," he muttered.
Staring straight up into the snowfall, he saw the edge from which he'd fallen. It was a good twenty feet he surmised. A few strong curses left his lips but he knew he had to keep his wits if he was going to manage. The delicate snowflakes from before were gone. The snow was coming down much harder and he needed to get his bearings so he could find shelter.
Beside him on his left, he saw the branch he'd clung to before falling. It was leaning at an odd angle, looking something like a child's seesaw. A gust of wind lifted the raised end and the branch disappeared behind him.
He was on a ledge. After a moment he heard the branch hit bottom and a new feeling coursed through him - fear. He leaned on his right elbow and with his left hand felt behind him. In barely an arm's length he felt the brink. Panic threatened to take over as he quickly brushed the snow from his body. Free of his snowy confines, he ignored the pain and pulled himself as far from the lip as he could. He needed to find some type of shelter. His pants were soaked and he could tell the temperature was dropping. Night would soon be there and the last place he wanted to be was where he was now.
"Boys!" Teaspoon bellowed, without a care to his scratchy throat. When no one came out, Teaspoon stomped over to the door and threw it open. "Let's try this again! BOYS!"
Close behind him, Lou and Rachel watched as the four startled riders struggled to get out of their bunks. Legs encased in his blanket, Cody got the worst of it, falling face first onto the floor. It would have been funny except for the situation.
"Good grief, Teaspoon," Jimmy mumbled, as he stretched and rubbed his eyes. He wandered towards where Teaspoon stood. The sleep slowly leaving him, Jimmy hugged himself. "Close the door, it's freezin'!"
"What was that all about Teaspoon?" Scrubbing his face with his hands, Buck tried to wake up. Barely keeping his eyes opened, Ike joined him and leaned against him for support.
"That really wasn't very nice," Cody whined, as he pushed himself up off the floor. "A body could get seriously hurt."
The warm, cozy bunkhouse had worked its magic and sent each rider off to a deep sleep not long after Kid had left. The four now stood in the doorway, the cold wind working its magic now, shocking them all awake.
"Well, a body may be," the stationmaster replied cryptically.
The four riders glanced around, finally noticing Lou and Rachel.
"When'd y'all get here?" Jimmy asked innocently. The two women just glared at him and he pulled back. "What?"
"Never mind that," Teaspoon snapped. "Can anyone explain this?" He pointed at the wagon.
"Oh he's back?" Cody murmured, scratching his head. "Really, can we go inside, it's cold!"
"Back?" Teaspoon, Rachel, and Lou said at once. They stared at the boys standing there in various stages of waking.
"Um, I get the feeling somethin's wrong," Jimmy said, gazing at the wagon as if trying to grasp a fleeting thought.
"Ain't you the smart one," Teaspoon said, arms crossed over his chest. Unfortunately, it was at that moment he sneezed… and sneezed… and sneezed, taking the authority out of his stance.
"Here ya' go," Lou said, handing him another handkerchief. He just nodded his appreciation and blew his nose.
"Where's Kid?" Buck asked, scanning the yard. His eyes settled on the wagon and horses, realizing that the animals looked tired and distressed. Kid would never have left the horses like that.
"That's what we wanna know," Lou said unable to keep the emotion out of her voice.
The four boys glanced uneasily at each other but said nothing. They just stood there, with their arms wrapped tightly over their chests trying to get warm. Cody stood with one foot over the other to warm up his feet.
"Well?" Teaspoon prompted.
Before anyone could answer, a loud rumble came from Cody's stomach. "Must be lunch time." He grinned.
"Past it," Lou answered, standing with her hands on her hips. "Now, you were sayin'?" Even though they weren't she hoped that they'd start.
"Wait," Buck said, his eyes widening in alarm. "How much past?"
"It's," Teaspoon removed his watch from his pocket, "goin' on two."
"Well, no wonder my stomach's growlin'. We're way past lunch, almost into din -"
"Shut up Cody," Jimmy growled. Shaking his head, he looked at Buck, then at Ike, and finally at Cody. "He ain't back yet."
The quiet words hung in the air, their meaning loud and clear.
With his back against the side of the cliff, Kid glanced around to see what the ledge had to offer. To his right, where the branch once sat, was nothing. Literally nothing. The edge of the ledge. He swore under his breath at how lucky he was. His fall could easily have been farther out or more to the right as he'd hung from the branch. Luck was a funny thing to be considering but it helped him cope with the situation.
The left had more to offer. Unless his eyes were playing tricks on him it looked as if there was a recessed area in the cliff. Silently he prayed as he pulled himself towards the space he hoped would give him shelter.
"So does this have somethin' to do with what Kid asked y'all for help with?" Teaspoon asked, though they all knew it wasn't a question.
"How'd ya' know 'bout that?" Curiosity always loosened Cody's tongue and Ike nudged him to tighten it again.
"Did he tell ya' -"
"He didn't tell or ask me a thing," Teaspoon interrupted Jimmy. "Ain't much 'round here I don't know about."
*Wonder what else he knows*
"Don't be impertinent," Teaspoon said dryly. "I only pay attention when I need to."
"Right," Buck replied. A hint of a smile crossed the rider's face.
"And he's been gone how long?" Teaspoon continued the painful questioning.
Another round of tight expressions and Buck answered, "He left not long after Lou and Rachel."
"Since seven?" Rachel asked, incredulously. "In this?"
After a long, uncomfortable silence, Lou asked, "What did he want help with?"
The boys shifted awkwardly and Cody gave a half shrug. They traded expectant looks, each wanting another to explain. Exasperated, Lou opened her mouth to ask again but Ike answered for them.
*Christmas tree* Ike signed using the sign he and Buck had created for "Christmas." That they'd merged part of the sign for star with the sign for tree was appropriate.
To his credit, Teaspoon refrained from launching into his "family is family" speech. He sighed and said, "Then I guess you boys will go help Kid get this tree." His tone brooked no arguing.
And none was given. The boys just turned to get ready to leave.
Luck had been with him. The indentation was almost a cave and Kid pulled himself as far into the cover as possible. There was that word again. Luck. A harsh, hacking sound came out that was supposed to have been laughter. Once he got the cough under control, his head was pounding. This actually helped him forget the sharp pain in his leg. Was that more luck?
In an effort to find a comfortable position, he tried to curl his left leg up but every move brought on a new cramp or spasm, so he did the best he could. He'd lost his hat but with his coat and the many layers he'd had the good sense to put on, he wasn't that cold. Of course he wasn't that warm either. The fact that his pants were still wet didn't help matters but it did numb his leg so the pain was subsiding.
"They'll have to miss me," he mumbled, his lips tingling. Suddenly the thought of freezing to death here alone crept into his mind. "NO!" Violently he shook his head to get the idea out but the yelling and thrashing caused him intense pain. A wave of nausea flowed over him and he turned his head to be sick.
"You really shouldn't have gone out."
Startled, he looked up to see Buck standing in front of him. The queasiness abruptly passed at the sight of the rider. "Oh? If one of ya' had helped days ago… No, weeks ago, I wouldn't be in this mess." The sharp twinge in the back of his head caused him to wince. It was like someone driving a nail through his skull.
"He's right, the weather wasn't good."
"Ike just shut up," Kid muttered and looked away. "Wait." Kid's head whipped around but no one was there. This time the action got what it wanted and Kid turned his head to be sick.
"Don't know why ya' go through this."
Head hanging down, Kid refused to look over at Jimmy. Oddly, Kid thought he could actually hear the man's boots in the snow.
"Ya' always gotta do somethin' to impress her, don'cha'." Kid still refused to look up.
"You ain't real," he muttered.
"Now that's friendship for ya'." This was Cody's voice. Finally, Kid looked up to see the four riders standing in front of him. How they did this in the tight space, he did not know, but there they were. Or what he thought they were.
"So why do ya' do it?"
Even though these were his hallucinations, he couldn't figure out why he'd given Ike a voice. Or for that matter, how he knew this was how Ike would sound if Ike did speak. Strangely, he found that fascinating. But the visions weren't going to let him contemplate this.
"I said why do you do it?"
"Why do I do what?" Kid mumbled. His eyes were so heavy; he just really wanted to sleep.
"Hey!" Jimmy hollered. "It ain't polite to fall asleep while Ike's talkin' to ya'."
"Fine, fine," Kid said, opening his eyes as wide as he could, trying to rouse himself. Unable to keep his head up, he dropped his chin against his chest. He just wanted to go to sleep. That probably wasn't a good sign.
"Answer Ike's question!" Jimmy yelled. Kid really wanted to stand up and punch Jimmy in the face, even if this wasn't the real Jimmy.
"Wha' was the queshun?" Slurred words definitely weren't a good sign.
"Why do ya' always do this?" Arms held wide, Ike stared at Kid.
"I have to," Kid muttered, trying hard to make his lips work. His eyes drifted closed.
"Damn it! Answer us!"
Again, Kid's head popped up. Jimmy seemed angry for some reason, and Kid just didn't understand. "For people who aren't real, ya' sure are loud."
"Answer Ike," Buck demanded.
"I don alwaysh do anythin'," he argued. "I wanna do thin's for 'ou… Lou." His lips felt like they weren't attached to his face anymore. He rubbed them together, trying to get the feeling back.
"Tha's a shtupid queshun," he grunted. "I wanna."
"Come on," Buck chided. "What's the real reason?"
"Real reashun?" Head aching, Kid didn't know what they wanted. The feeling was gone from his lower body. Maybe that was good due to his broken leg but he had his doubts. His gloves had been soaked from clearing the snow so his fingers were almost numb as he pulled the collar of his jacket up even further. Like a turtle, he burrowed inside his coat.
"Am I gonna die?" he asked helplessly.
"Good grief," Cody exclaimed and threw up his hands. "He can't answer a simple question."
"I did," Kid said his voice barely above a whisper.
"No, you didn't," Ike argued.
"Why?" Jimmy leaned forward, the face of the image almost touching Kid's.
"I tol' yooooo…." He struggled to speak.
"No, why?" The Buck image joined Jimmy's in front of Kid.
"Leave me alone," Kid grumbled. His head lulled to the side and he saw that it was dark out. The thought of staying out here alone to freeze terrified him but he was powerless to do anything about it. Hot tears welled up and burned his eyes. No one was coming for him. The storm was too bad and it was too cold, they'd just forget about him.
"Why?" The Cody image walked over, standing with the Buck and Jimmy images.
"I…." Kid's eyes fluttered closed. There was nothing to do but sleep. He'd just drift off and never wake up. For some reason, that sounded surprisingly good to him.
"Why!" The Ike image yelled, and Kid jerked awake. He'd swear later, only to himself, that he felt something kick his leg.
"So she'll love me." He'd thought no one could hear him but he was wrong.
Suddenly, the four images began laughing, harder and harder.
"SHUT UP!" The outburst was so loud that snow fell from the top of the cliff, landing in a pile at the front of the small cave. It also caused Kid's head to feel as if it was splitting open and the spasm caused him to black out. The last thing he remembered was hearing Jimmy yell his name.
"I suggest you bundle up good," Teaspoon said, as the boys walked out, fully dressed, from the bunkhouse.
"Teaspoon it's gonna be hard to find him. It's gettin' dark," Cody was saying, though he was also pulling on his gloves.
Teaspoon shot a barely patient look toward Cody, and answered curtly, "Which is why you're gonna be takin' these lanterns."
Desperately trying to keep herself together, Lou paced in front of the wagon. She'd wanted to go, almost fought for the right, but Rachel had told her that she needed to get things ready for when the boys brought Kid home. That seemed to hold Lou but only barely.
It hadn't taken more than thirty minutes for them to get ready. The wagon was set with fresh horses, the largest two they had, and everyone was gathering the most necessary of supplies. Jimmy and Ike would drive the wagon as Cody and Buck traveled by horse. Rachel and Lou had gotten food together, as well as a change of clothes for Kid. Something had happened to him, and in this weather, they all knew he'd be cold and wet. Hopefully, that would be all.
"Buck," Lou said, as the Kiowa loaded blankets in the wagon. He turned to face her. "Please…." Her hand reached out to him and he took it. Gently running his thumb over the soft skin on the back of it, he smiled.
"I won't come back without him." The simple statement was all Lou needed. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek.
"Ya' know, there are three others goin' too," Jimmy teased. A soft blush covered her face and Lou walked over to hug Jimmy, then Cody, and finally Ike.
"You boys be careful," Rachel said, her voice catching. She too hugged the four boys.
With everything packed, Cody and Buck mounted their horses as Jimmy and Ike climbed into the wagon. Even with the gray sky, there was still some light left and they planned on making the most of that.
"We'll be back," Jimmy said softly. Ike nodded and snapped the reins to get the wagon moving. With a touch of his hat, Cody tapped his horse and followed the wagon. Buck lingered back for a moment.
A determined set to his jaw, Buck's eyes roamed over the three people in front of him. Three people that meant a great deal to him, along with the three that he would be riding with. And the one they were riding to find and bring home. Not able to put his feelings into words, Buck just nodded his head and turned his horse to follow his friends.
Snow blowing around them, Teaspoon, Rachel, and Lou stood there until they couldn't see the wagon or the riders.
"I suggest we get to fixin' up some decorations for that tree they'll be bringin' back," Teaspoon announced, punctuating it with another sneeze.
"I suggest you finally get inside where it's warm," Rachel said pointedly. Gently she pushed Teaspoon towards the house. They'd only gone a few steps when she realized Lou wasn't following. "Lou, honey?"
"Do you think they'll find…." Her voice caught and she pressed her fist against her mouth. Rachel was quickly by her side.
"Yes I do and Teaspoon's right, we need to get some decorations made," Rachel said decisively, wrapping her arm around Lou's shoulder and squeezing.
"I don't care about the tree, I just want 'em to bring…." Not wanting to finish her thought, she laid her head on Rachel's shoulder.
"If'n I know Kid," Teaspoon said, as he placed his arms around the two women and pulled both to him, "they'll definitely come back with that tree."
It took the foursome over three hours to get to the same spot Kid had earlier. Surprisingly, Jimmy had known almost exactly where it was because, as he'd grudgingly admitted, he'd actually listened to Kid discuss his plans. Too, Buck had scouted ahead, able to lead them through a better, quicker route. Less snow, slightly more traveled, the path had helped. And that the snow had stopped falling helped them even more.
However, darkness had fallen so they'd used the lanterns the last hour or so. Once at the site, they knew instantly which tree it was. The snow Kid had cleared was still much lower than the surrounding snowbanks. Each with a lantern, they searched the area for any sign of their friend.
"Where the hell could he be?" Cody asked tightly. "Ya' don't think he'd a' tried to get home, do ya'?"
"I don't think so," Buck answered, confident that they'd have seen some sign of Kid on their way there.
Spreading out some, they walked away from the tree, each taking a direction. Annoyed that this wasn't the rescue Jimmy had wanted, he gazed around the area, holding his lantern high. Something was odd about the spot where Cody was headed so Jimmy followed behind the blonde. Just as Jimmy realized what it was, instinct and reflexes took over. Grabbing Cody by the back of his jacket, Jimmy pulled his friend to him. As Cody's foot slipped through the snow, Jimmy used the momentum to fall backwards with Cody following. Their lanterns flew in opposite directions, landing safely in the snow.
Buck and Ike rushed over in time to hear Jimmy swear a blue streak.
"Damn it Cody!" Jimmy grunted. "Get off me! Get off m-"
"Shhh!" Buck interjected. Doing as he was told, Jimmy didn't say another word but still pushed at Cody to get up. With Ike's help, Cody struggled to his feet and they both then helped Jimmy. Meanwhile, Buck had walked towards the edge where Cody had almost fallen through.
"What is it?" Jimmy whispered. Not knowing what Buck had heard, Jimmy feared it could have been an animal so he figured it best to obey Buck.
"I don't know…." Leaning forward, Buck concentrated. He knew he'd heard something. After several moments, he began to think it was just the wind but then a very faint sound, almost like a moan, drifted up from below. "He's down there."
Frantically, Cody and Ike ran to the wagon, as Buck and Jimmy yelled for Kid.
"We're comin' to get ya'!"
No response but as Buck looked at the ground at the edge, he saw telltale signs that someone had slipped. "Look! Right there." He pointed to a spot in the snow right beside where Cody's foot had gone through. Then he looked up and saw the fresh break where a branch had been. "And there! He must have grabbed a branch."
The elation of finding Kid set the boys to working quickly. Cody tied a rope around Lou's tree and walked it to the edge.
"How far down do ya' think it is?"
Carefully, Buck got down on his belly, indicating for someone to hold his feet, which Ike quickly did. He crawled to the edge and, removing his hat, peered over the lip. "Hand me a lantern."
"Well ours ain't lit now," Jimmy said snidely, eyeing Cody, and handed Ike's lantern to Buck.
The darkness was thick but the clouds had parted to let through the bright starlight and the light of a full moon. The scene with the pure white snow on the ground was breathtaking but no one was enjoying it. Easing the light down, Buck was able to see the ledge below.
"Twenty feet, give or take a foot," he said. "Throw the rope over."
Jimmy did and Buck saw that the rope was long enough with rope to spare. That would be good because they'd definitely need it to get Kid back up.
"Sooooo," Cody intoned. "How exactly are we gonna do this?"
Ike patted his chest. *I will go*
"Why you?" Curious, Jimmy tilted his head. "Not that I'm arguin' mind you. Never been exactly keen on heights."
The other three stared at Jimmy, slightly shocked by his admission. With an embarrassed shrug, Jimmy looked away.
"Heights never bothered me but I ain't crazy about bein' in tight spaces," Cody admitted. He grinned when Jimmy chuckled.
*Dark* Ike signed. *And I love to climb* he added in answer to Jimmy's original question.
"This is all good but sorry Ike, you can't call up to us," Buck said, bringing the others back to the task at hand and unfortunately pointing out a slight flaw in their plan. "I'll go."
Disappointed, Ike nodded but was ready to help how he could. *We will anchor the rope up here*
"Thanks," Buck said, as he grabbed hold of the rope and shifted so he could push himself over the cliff. With the rope wrapped firmly in his hands, Buck looked up at his friends. The message in their eyes was clear - they weren't leaving until they had Kid safe.
"Lou sweetie, come over here," Rachel urged.
They'd stayed outside as long as the weather had let them; staring off in the direction the boys had traveled. Now inside the warm, cozy house, Lou had been at the window ever since.
"I need help with these here decorations," Teaspoon pleaded. His fingers weren't nimble enough to tie off the ribbons on the pomanders Rachel had created with cloves and cinnamon. An exasperated grunt emphasized his need.
Not wanting to disappoint the stationmaster and smiling despite herself, she sighed and walked over, plopping down on the chair beside him. The ribbons were of various colors, Rachel having raided her sewing box. Rachel was stringing some berries she'd planned on using in pies, but this seemed a much more important use - however much Cody would argue the point.
Busy with their ornaments and garland, they lapsed into a comfortable silence. But each one sent silent prayers that their five loved ones would come home safe and soon.
"I'm down here," Buck called. It was so dark he didn't dare take another step. "Lower a lantern." The roped quickly disappeared back up from where he'd come. Soon, he saw a light slowly drifting down towards him and as it reached him, he caught it and untied the light. "Thanks!"
Holding the lantern up, he saw how narrow the ledge was and noticed the faint impression in the snow. "That's where he landed," Buck murmured, startled by how close Kid had been to the brink. At his feet, Buck saw an indentation in the snow, what looked like a drag mark, leading to the other side of the ledge. Buck followed and again heard the faint moan. Quickening his pace, but keeping the light out in front of him, careful to avoid any misstep, Buck came upon the crevice. And Kid.
"Kid!" Buck hurried to his friend's side. Kid didn't look good, his lips were blue, his skin ashen, and Buck noticed blood on the snow behind Kid. Removing his gloves, Buck eased his hand under Kid's head. When he pulled his hand back, he saw blood. With Kid barely conscious, Buck needed help. He put on his glove and rushed back to the rope.
"I need help!" Impatiently, he waited for an answer. "I said I NEED -"
"Ike's coming down!"
In no time, Ike was standing beside Buck, holding a blanket. From above, Jimmy yelled, "You really can climb!"
Ike grinned and Buck laughed. "Good idea," Buck said, indicating the blanket.
*Where is Kid*
Lantern in hand, Buck led the way. Ike's face fell when they reached Kid. He saw the same things Buck had but that didn't matter. Kid was alive and they had to get him home. Like the longtime friends they were, Buck didn't have to explain anything and the two got to work. As he wrapped the blanket around Kid, Ike saw the wounded leg. Tossing snow to get Buck's attention, Ike pointed down.
"I know, but we gotta do the best we can," Buck said, shaking his head. This wasn't going to be easy.
Since they needed the light, the only place to put the lantern was on Kid's legs. Ike tested whether it would cause Kid any discomfort and Kid barely reacted. Both riders sighed in relief. Carefully, Buck curled his arms under Kid's and Ike grabbed Kid's legs, supporting the broken one as much as possible and balancing the lantern the best he could. The only complaint they received was a low moan. Buck nodded and Ike walked backwards out of the shelter. Slowly the two men made their way back to the rope.
"Jimmy? Cody?" Buck called up.
"Yeah?" both answered.
"The only way I can think of to do this is tie the rope under his arms and the two of you hoist him up."
"Sounds good," Jimmy said. "There's a 'but' in there ain't there?"
Buck and Ike clearly heard the sighs from above. "What is it?"
"Kid's leg is broken and he banged his head pretty good."
"Wonderful," Cody grumbled loudly. "Ain't any other way to do this, right?"
"Nope, we just take it as slow and easy as possible" Jimmy answered. "Tie the rope and give it a yank when you're ready."
Within minutes, Buck had tied the rope securely around Kid's chest. He yanked twice and suddenly the rope went taut. Buck and Ike flanked Kid, trying to keep him as steady as they could. But once he'd risen above their heads, they could only watch.
Jimmy was true to his word. He and Cody eased Kid up the side of the cliff, with only one precarious moment. When Kid was just a foot below the edge, he started to twirl and banged into the side. Cody crawled to the lip, and reached down, grabbing hold of the rope just above Kid's head. Once Kid was stilled, Jimmy resumed pulling and when Kid reached the edge, Cody grabbed hold of Kid's jacket to help him clear the final step.
"We got him!" Jimmy yelled as he and Cody moved Kid gently from the edge. He then threw the rope back over.
"We're on our way!" The two exchanged relieved smiles. Ike grabbed the rope and began his ascent with Buck following close behind.
At the top, they saw that Jimmy and Cody had already gotten Kid into the wagon and were beginning to get his wet clothes off him.
"His shirts are okay but his pants are soaked," Cody said. "But what about his leg?"
"I'll find some sturdy branches. We need to brace it."
Doing his best to avoid hurting Kid's leg further, Cody eased Kid's pants off. With Ike's help, Buck found two thick but straight branches. Using his knife, Buck cut strips of rope from the shorter coil they'd packed and climbed up into the wagon bed by Kid.
"I need you all to hold him," Buck said, the concern clear in his eyes. With Cody at Kid's head, Ike on the left and Jimmy on the right, the three had their friend secured. Buck saw that the break was below the knee and felt for the specific spot. He released the breath he'd been holding. It was a clean break. With a nod, he indicated that he was going to straighten the leg and with a snap, it was aligned. Kid's shriek broke their hearts but they knew it needed to be done.
Instead of trying to put pants on Kid, they put a couple bottoms of long underwear on him. Covered with blankets and nestled in the wagon, Kid was set for the ride home. Jimmy and Ike climbed into the wagon, and Cody jumped up on his horse, as Buck prepared to mount.
"Oh God that hurt." The murmur was music to their ears.
"Boy you really go to some extremes to get a tree," Buck said, back beside the wagon. Jimmy and Ike turned on the seat to look at their friend.
"Do you remember anything?" Jimmy climbed down and stood across from Buck by the wagon.
Suddenly Kid tried to sit up. "The tree." The motion sent pain stabbing through his skull and his head fell back on the makeshift pillow.
"Oh for cryin' out loud," Jimmy grunted and walked to the back of the wagon. Jumping into the bed, he kneeled beside Kid. "You almost killed yourself for that stupid tree."
"I have to," Kid moaned, again trying to move.
"No you don't," Jimmy argued, putting his hands on Kid's chest to make the Southern stay.
"Why?" Jimmy snapped.
"I told you why," Kid said, slightly louder. The other three shared the same confused look with Jimmy.
"So she'll love me."
The profound admission made Jimmy's jaw drop open. Able to recover after a few minutes, he swallowed hard and gently cupped Kid's face. "You idiot," he said lightly. "You don't need to do all this. She don't need a tree. She needs you. She loves you."
A wistful smile spread across Kid's face and his eyes fluttered closed. "Lou's tree," he said so softly, Jimmy almost didn't hear him.
The four riders were quiet for a moment, not knowing what to do. Jimmy sat back on his haunches, balanced on his boots. Finally, he looked at Buck, who had the same understanding look in his eyes that Jimmy did.
"You wanna go first?" Buck asked as he held up the axe.
There had been many times that Lou had rushed out onto the porch, knowing they'd come back, only to be disappointed. After the sixth or seventh time, Teaspoon wasn't quite sure; she'd dropped onto the settee almost in defeat. Soon after, she'd fallen asleep. That's where she was when the wagon finally pulled into the station yard. All it took was Teaspoon's hand lightly on her arm and Lou sprang up, calling Kid's name.
"Sweetie they're here."
Lou was out the door and down the steps before realizing she didn't have her coat on. But she didn't care. Kid was home. Stopping just short of the wagon, her eyes spanned the four in front of her. They looked tired and gave her weary but happy smiles. Smiling in return, she continued forward. There was Kid, wrapped in almost all of the blankets the boys had taken with them. His face was so pale. Afraid of disturbing him, she didn't climb into the wagon, but instead stood beside it. Lightly brushing the damp hair out of Kid's face, she allowed her tears to fall freely.
"He's gonna be okay," Buck said from beside her. She turned and bestowed the most grateful smile on him; he swallowed the lump that formed in his throat.
"We need to get him inside," Rachel ordered, walking up with more blankets. "Take him into the house and -"
"No." Kid's voice was so soft but it carried clearly. "The tree."
Lou's eyes widened, she looked at the others. The sheepish grins they wore made her laugh. "You really got it?"
The four boys just pointed down, behind the wagon. Sure enough, there was the tree, wrapped up with the tarp they'd brought, tied to the bed with the rope.
"Well, let's get Kid inside the bunkhouse," Teaspoon said, revising Rachel's instruction. "Then we'll get this miraculous tree inside." The boys slowly pulled Kid from the wagon, all four supporting his body.
"Lou, help me get the decorations." Rachel curled her arm through Lou's
"Decorations?" Jimmy said the amusement clear in his voice. "Ya' just figured we'd bring it back, huh?"
"No," Lou giggled. "Teaspoon did."
"And we've been busy." Teaspoon's chuckle turned quickly into a cough.
"Mister," Rachel bit out, "get inside now!"
"I believe I'm in trouble boys," the stationmaster purred. Just before he complied, he winked at his boys.
Relief spread through the Express family, as they laughed joyfully. They were all home.
The ache in his leg had subsided and the pain in his head was just a dull throb. But he was warm. And the body beside him was helping with that. Not having to open his eyes to know who it was; Lou was curled up against his side, her head on his shoulder and her arm protectively over his chest. It was quiet. The only sound was the competing snores of Buck and Teaspoon. What was Teaspoon doing in the bunkhouse?
He opened his eyes and lifted his head slightly, neither wanting to disturb Lou or his head. Gazing around the room as much as he could, he saw that Buck had given up his bunk to Teaspoon and was sleeping in the spare bunk below Ike. Rachel was also in there, curled up on another spare bunk. The family was together.
"Merry Christmas," came a soft murmur.
Kid smiled as Lou leaned up and kissed him on the cheek. "Merry Christmas to you too."
"Isn't it beautiful?"
"Isn't what…." That's when he saw it. Lou's tree. It was decorated from top to bottom. "You decorated it."
"Of course we did silly, that's what you do…" she stopped, her brow furrowed. "Oh, we didn't wait for you. I'm sorry. Oh Kid we thought - "
"Now you're the silly one," he said softly, placing his finger on her lips. "It's better than I imagined. I was just surprised that's all."
They quietly stared at the tree until Lou broke the silence. "I thought I'd lost you."
"I'm sorry Lou. I just thought this was the perfect gift. I knew you'd love it and I just wanted to - " This time she put her finger to his lips.
"I love you."
"Yeah, I've heard," he chuckled deeply as he kissed her finger. The warmth of the room and the Christmas day washed over him. "I love you too," he said as he heard her breathing deepen. He pulled her closer and rested his head on hers. One last look at Lou's tree and he followed her into slumber.