Snow had fallen
Snow had fallen
Marshal Tom Whitford held out his hand, “Teaspoon, glad you could come.” The two men shook and quickly headed into the office to escape the chill winter winds whipping through town.
Indicating the pot of coffee warming on the stove, the Marshal picked up his own mug and drew a long sip before he spoke, “We were afraid you wouldn’t come.”
Teaspoon glanced up for a moment as he poured himself a cup, “Nonsense Tom, Ike’s one of my boys – if there’s trouble, I’m gonna be there.”
Nodding thoughtfully, the marshal rubbed his fingers over his eyes, “Good, good. Well it’s trouble alright.” Leaning back against his desk, he studied Teaspoon’s reaction, “What do you remember about Caleb Janney?”
Ike struggled to sit up as Teaspoon entered, but an outstretched hand and solemn shake of the head stilled his efforts. Sitting down on the edge of the bed Teaspoon studied Ike’s face and although he noticed the pale icy color of the rider’s skin he kept his tone light. “You look like you’re still kickin’ son. How do you feel?”
Ike shrugged his shoulders the instant before chills wracked his body.
“Well now,” Teaspoon chuckled, “looks like you still got your sense of humor.”
The frown that darkened his face worried Teaspoon more than the chills. Ike withdrew his hands from the blankets and ignored the numb feeling that kept him from communicating with Teaspoon.
“Son- let me take a look at them hands of yours.”
Ike shook his head and tried to sign.
Frustrated with the lack of response from his fingers he tried to pick up the pencil and paper laid at his side. Jamming the pencil between his fingers he managed to scrawl out a message:
NEED RESCUE PEOPLE
Teaspoon looked over the boy’s shoulder and read the words out loud. It wasn’t until the final syllable had rolled off his tongue that his shoulders sagged, “Son… there’s something you ought to know-“
Shaking his head violently, Ike wrote again:
“No son, no one thinks-“ Ike turned distrustful eyes to the stationmaster. “It’s just that … well, what you told the marshal, it just not possible.”
Teaspoon took the pencil from his fingers and laid it on the bedside table with the pad of paper and turned Ike’s hands over and back. Although the skin was white and overly soft, there was not a single hint of the red cracked skin or swelling that are such telltale signs of frostbite. Teaspoon was hard pressed to contain his surprise.
Ike shivered again and Teaspoon clucked out a quiet reprimand, “You better rest up son, we’ll be heading back as soon as your able.” Ike looked up at him, sadness heavy in his eyes, “You do want to be home for Christmas right?”
Nodding, Ike leaned down into the lumpy bed, his exhaustion taking over his earlier objections.
Teaspoon stood and moved to the door. Turning back for a moment he looked at his young charge. Thankful that Ike was alive his eyes swept over the frail form buried in the mound of blankets. Concerned, he took his time with a second look over and hissed out a warm breath. There on Ike‘s cheeks, almost like a ghost, trails of tears lay drying.
Deep within the folds of sleep, hands clutched at Ike’s clothes, pulling him off the back of his horse. He tried to fend them off, but his hands, nearly frozen through felt nothing but the confines of the sheets.
“What are you doing?” It was a voice, refined in the East.
“Oh do shut up and help me.” The musical discordance of a woman’s voice and harsh words tickled his ear.
His sleep-heavy body slipped from the saddle and a silent moan escaped his lips, lifting up the bandana tied over his face.
“I don’t like the looks of him, seems a bit criminal if you ask me.”
“Bite your tongue Dugan-” Ike’s eyes fluttered open as he fought for consciousness.
Wounded by her words he looked in askance, “Etta-”
She poked a finger in his chest, “Don’t you ‘Etta’ me... this boy ain’t a criminal, anymore than you’re a gentleman.” She pulled the bandana down off of his nose and clucked, “The boy was just tryin’ to keep from freezing to death.” She looked up at the two men, “Well, let’s get him over by the fire.”
FIRE, Ike mouthed as the chills set in, what a wonderful idea. That was his last thought before his eyes drew closed again.
“Son?” Ike felt himself lean back against the hard wood of a tree trunk, “Son... you have to try to wake up.”
Eyes, heavy and sluggish, opened once again. The man kneeling before him was a hulk, with shoulders that seemed to go on forever and a voice like a booming echo.
“There ya go.”
Ike struggled to sit up, but his hands wouldn’t take the weight. Pins and needles shot up to his shoulders and he gasped out a silent curse.
“Oh great, he can’t talk.” The Easterner sneered.
‘Etta’ shot him a look, “What’s that got to do with the price of eggs?” She turned to Ike, “Glad to see you came around, I’m Etta... Etta Lovette. This not-so-gentleman is Chance Dugan ESQ. from Boston of late and the nearest Saloon of later.”
Ike would’ve laughed if it weren’t for the sour look the man gave him. His fine pressed dinner coat didn’t nearly warm enough for the night. Come to think of it, no one around the tiny fire looked like they cared about the freezing weather. Still, Ike shivered down to his toes.
“Hmm.. still cold, huh? Well,” the mountain of a man stood and reached over Ike’s head, “Let me see what we have here-”
Etta smiled and pointed, “That’s Caleb Janney, he’s marshal of the next town.”
A warm coat dropped in Ike’s lap, “Don’t you be fillin’ that boy’s head full of nonsense, Etta, it don’t make no difference.”
Ike looked at the man again, as the marshal adjusted his own coat around his shoulders the silver star pinned to his plaid shirt caught the firelight. Seeing the familiar site, Ike relaxed a bit.
Etta whispered something and Ike leaned forward. Across the fire, a face appeared from beneath a mound of blankets. Soft eyes gazed across at him, taking his breath away.
Silently, the young woman raised a hand in welcome.
“Ha!” Chance boomed, “Don’t you two get ‘chatty’ on us, I don’t think I could stand the noise!”
The girl ignored the brash Easterner but Ike never heard the words.
Etta reached over and set a bare hand over the glove covered hand of-, “This is Cordelia Longson, my seamstress. Del, this is... you know,” she laughed, “we haven’t asked you-”
Ike nodded and wrote his name in the snow with his shivering fingertip.
I K E
“Ike,” read the marshal, “Ike... it’s a good name.”
“It’s not wordy that’s for sure.”
“Alright, Marshal, I understand - lay off the boy.”
“Well look,” breathed Etta, “He’s got half a brain after all.”
Chance took a flask out from the inside pocket of his coat. Staring at the flask longingly he sighed.
“What now Chance?” The Marshal sounded weary.
“It’s all I have left.”
“Well,” prompted Etta, “you gonna drink it or make eyes at it?”
Swishing it one last time, Chance shoved it back into his coat pocket. “I’m savin’ it.”
“Of all the dern fool excuses, Dugan.” She tucked the blankets around Del’s body, “You are the most exasperating man-”
“I’d say the same about you honey.”
Ike looked to the marshal as the two continued to battle back and forth. Marshal Janney just shrugged and leaned closer, “It was like this the whole stage ride so far. They just can’t seem to decide whether they really like each other... or if they really want to scalp each other.”
Ike had to swallow his laughter as the two continued to pester each other.
Warm under the weight of a spare coat Ike sipped at his cup of bland coffee and listened to the others as they traded quips and stories. An icy wind whipped through and Ike’s mind wandered off, tryin’ to piece together the last... how many days had it been?
He’d left Sweetwater several days earlier with a full mochila of mail and holiday greetings. With a quick wave to his friends he’d headed off on the trail, their calls following after him in the chilled air.
It was over half a day and two horses later that the clouds rolled in overhead. Snow started before sunset and by the time the moon was climbing into the sky Ike had lost all site of the trail. Taking out another handkerchief, he’d tried to protect his face from the bitter winter winds slicing through his skin. The trail behind him disappeared under the snow in less than an hour and the trail ahead was awash in a white drift, leaving him more confused than anything else.
The howling calls of coyotes shivered through his mind and together he pushed his mount onward in what he hoped was the right direction. Clouds covered most of the moon and sometime later, flurries rose up from the ground and covered over what had been left of the path. Chilled, nearly to the bone, Ike leaned low over his mount’s neck and sighed. Without the trail and no shelter in sight.. well Ike didn’t want to think about the bleak night ahead.
From out of the blue-black midnight, light seemed to sing from the horizon, a beacon calling out to him as he rode on the verge of despair. The moon, still hidden behind the thick clouds gave off a paltry glow, but the light ahead was clear and bright.
Giddy with cold, Ike smiled to himself, Wise men once followed a light like this one. If he was lucky, there’d be a place of refuge ahead, if he wasn’t... well Ike didn’t want to entertain that possibility. Pulling up the collar of his jacket, Ike dug his heals into his mount’s slick belly and hoped the animal had enough strength to get him there.
Now, as he took another sip from his cup he wondered at the distance he covered that night. By the time his campfire companions had pulled him off his saddle, he’d nearly been frozen through. Temperatures as they were, the four that he was keepin’ company with should be frozen through, but there they sat, chattin’ away like they were in some warm parlor deep in the heart of town.
Etta’s laughter warmed him, more than the tasteless coffee he was pouring into his stomach, but Ike felt nothing in his fingers and everything below his ankle was simply missing.
Chance raised a knowing brow as one of his verbal barbs hit too close to home for Etta and earned him a withering stare.
“I swear, you two are as irascible as two wet coyotes with a single patch of sunlight to roll in.”
Across the fire, two soft quiet eyes watched him with a steady gaze. Pulling his lids open, Ike looked back and found such a sweet soul staring back at him. She turned her gaze to his cup and nodded.
Ike nodded back and signed **fine - thank you**
Unconvinced, Del reached out and grabbed Etta’s arm.
Ike bowed his head, tryin’ to hide in plain sight. The cooling coffee was doing little to warm his body and his mind was growing dim with the cold, but something inside him was ashamed to admit that their generosity was not enough to stave off the chill spreading through his body.
His eyes rose across the fire and met with Etta’s shrewd glance. “You holding out on us Ike?”
A blush did it’s level best to color his chilled skin **no**
There was no need for Etta to translate for the others, they could see for themselves how bad off Ike was. “Well now, boy,” began the marshal, “I’m feelin’ mighty embarrassed here. I should have kept an eye on you. After all this time with Del, I should have known you couldn’t ‘speak up’ for yourself.”
Three pairs of eyes drew down on the gambler, sitting straight backed and strangely quiet near the fire. “I shant do it. No, I tell you.” Their silent stares spoke volumes, “But it’s my last bit!”
Instantly as he said it, Chance knew what he had to do. Reaching into the inner pocket of his coat, he drew out his engraved flask. “Here.” He held it out to Ike, “Take it.”
“Dugan!” Etta glared, “You think he’s gonna be able to take the top off on his own, the way his fingers are frozen through? I’m beginning to think you’ve plum lost your mind bein’ out in the cold as long as you have.”
Chance unscrewed the cap and flipped it back on its hinge.
When Ike seemed reluctant to take it, the marshal leaned over and set it in Ike’s hands, “Don’t get noble on us son, you need it more than... more than we do. ‘Sides,” he said with a rumbling chuckle, “Chance here, shouldn’t be drinkin’ it anyway.”
The gambler sent a glare around the circle, “You don’t have to remind me every chance you get.”
Tipping the flask up to Ike’s lips the marshal ignored Chance with his eyes, “It’s our one pleasure out here Dugan... don’t grudge me that one guilty pleasure.”
Ike set the lip of the flask on his lip and was surprised that the metal felt warm against his lips. Closing his eyes against the burning alcohol Ike closed his throat around the dose of ... whiskey? It smelled like fine whiskey, perhaps a fine Irish blend he’d tasted just once before, but there was something more in that smoky flavor.
His body slowly filled with warmth, a slow languorous feeling that spread from his chest through to all his limbs, and down to the nails on each finger and toe. Color seemed to flood through his vision and the four surrounding him glowed with life and some unnamed light.
“See now? Don’t you feel a bit better?”
Ike vaguely nodded at Etta’s question, but he was still unable to understand exactly what he felt around him as the air itself seemed to warm his skin with its very touch.
The Marshal reached over and lifted Ike to his feet, “Well now son, off you go.”
**go** Ike mouthed as his head moved slowly in reaction.
With a gesture of Etta’s slender hand, Chance stood and settled his blanket over Ike’s shoulders, “You get back safe you hear.”
Even Del had to smile at Chance’s gruff well wishes.
“That’s right son, you’d best be on your way.”
Ike looked at the Marshal worry in his eyes as he thought of his new friends.
“We’ll be just fine, you just worry about yourself.”
Ike shook his head. As soon as he reached town, he’d send help. Still in a daze he found his way into the saddle with Chance’s help.
Del was the last face he saw and he took up his reins and settled into the well-worn leather. **I’ll be back, soon**
He rode in the direction that the marshal pointed out and paused on the first rise, turning to wave to the little group. The winds and snow drifts blew up a flurry and Ike lost sight of the broken stage. Puzzled, but filled with resolve he turned back to the path ahead and launched his mount into the fastest gait the poor animal could manage.
Ike shifted in his sleep and bumped a hand against the wall. He sat bolt upright and bed, startling Teaspoon who was asleep in a nearby chair. "Ike?"
Lifting a hand to calm the stationmaster, Ike was surprised to realize that his hands didn't hurt. What was even more confusing was that, as he tested each finger he found nary a twinge or pain in any of them. "Ike?" Teaspoon repeated as he leaned closer to the bed, "You alright, son?"
Nodding, Ike flexed his hands and smiled at the world in general. With a quick gesture, he told Teaspoon **I'm fine. Just fine.**
Leaning back in his chair, Teaspoon shared a cheshire grin with the mute rider, "Looks like you're back to your old se-"
Ike frantically waved off Teaspoon's comments **Need to save the people**
"Ike-" Teaspoon began, shaking his head sadly, "Son, I know what you think-"
**No!** Ike squeezed his eyes shut, **I know what I saw.** Ike tossed back his blanket and slid off the edge of the bed, lookin' for his clothes.
Teaspoon set a hand on the rider's shoulder, "Simmer down Ike, it's not what you think." The wild look in Ike's eyes had Teaspoon wishin' he could do more to calm the boy down. "Ike, son .... tell me what's got you so upset."
Ike's look spoke volumes, **As if you don't know.**
Ike went on to describe his snowbound encounter with the four stage passengers. As he told Teaspoon about each person in detail, his mind fairly swam with the memories, each color bright and clear. Wrapped up in the tale as he was, he didn't miss the play of emotions across Teaspoon's face. The veritable five act play slipped across the Station Master's face, sadness, fear, depression, shock, blank consideration, the dawn of hope, and finally... haunted humility.
Quietly, Teaspoon leaned closer and set a hand on Ike's arm, "Son... son? Hold on there-"
Ike slowed his hands and looked Teaspoon in the eye, **You don't believe me.** He didn't need a voice to tell Teaspoon how upset he was, it was in the sag of his shoulders as surely as if Teaspoon had read his mind, **No one believed me here in town either**
"Ike, I don't know how to tell you this-" Ike turned away to face the wall. Sliding down into the bedclothes he pulled a blanket over his head. Teaspoon yanked it back, "Isaac McSwain, you sit up and you listen to me right now."
Shooting a look that would have sent Teaspoon's bowler up in flames he pushed the blanket down and faced his boss. **I'm listening**
Teaspoon sighed and leaned over on a bent elbow. "Ike, what you just described, well... if I weren't a bettin' man, I'd say it was impossible... but with all the details.. the words.. well Ike, you've just described Marshal Janney perfectly."
Ike wasted no time, **Let's go!**
His feet hit the floor and Teaspoon had to throw his arms around the boy in a solid bear hug, "Listen...listen Ike."
Breaking free of the hold, Ike backed up against the wall, **What? They're out there... DYING!** He moved to the door, a near frantic look in his eye. **They can't ..., no food, no real blankets,...if I don't go back... they'll be-**
"Dead Ike... they're already dead."
Ike's hands slowed and fell to his sides, forming the word **no** on the way down.
"It's true Ike. Marshal Janney was scheduled to arrive last year 'round this time, but he and the whole stage load of passengers never showed." Teaspoon made a gesture toward the end of town, "They're still out there Ike, but there's no possible way that they survived. “
His hands, now freezing cold, reached out in a desperate gesture **I..I know what I saw**
Teaspoon’s heart went out to the young man cryin’ before him, “When we go home, I’ll take us by the graves. They left the coach were it lay, kind of a monument of sorts .. after all, no one wanted to ride in it anymore. The Marshal, the gambler, the singer and her friend... all long dead and buried.” Touching Ike’s hand, Teaspoon stood and headed for the door. “You rest, son, we’ll be headed back tomorrow.”
Ike nodded and pulled the blanket back over his body. He couldn’t quite make himself believe it, not until he saw their graves with his own eyes.
Late the next afternoon, the two riders approached the fallen stage with heavy hearts, “See son?” Teaspoon indicated the four markers, white on white, in the snow.
Ike sank to his knees before the crosses and bent his head in silent grief.
A warm wind, like one kicked up from a camp fire, brushed across Ike’s cheek.
“Hey there, boy, don’t you go gettin’ soft on us---” Marshal Janney, clear as day.
“I knew he’d blubber over us once he figured it ---”
“Pipe down, Chance, at least he cares.” Etta’s voice continued, “Don’t you go blamin’ yourself, Ike, there’s nothing you could do for us---”
“But,” Continued another voice, soft and melodic like the trickle of a spring river trippin‘ over the rocks, “we could help you.”
The Marshal’s voice sounded thick with laughter, “Now wipe that maudlin look off your face and head on home.”
With a breath, Ike was back in the saddle and headed for home, Teaspoon following close behind.
As they let their mounts take their own stride, Ike could have sworn he heard the sound of a whip cracking over a team of horses. Thundering hooves reached his ears as he stared straight ahead. The last words he heard as the hooves disappeared out of range were spoken in Etta’s warm brandy-colored voice, “It’s about time we were headed home ourselves, but you take care, Ike... We’ll see you again, someday.”