For Dede: Thanks for waiting so very long… hope this fulfills what you had in mind… and thanks *sigh-grin* for reminding me of my
Jimmy stared down at his hands, the edges where skin met nail were torn and bloody and he knew he was just as lost as he’d been when he started climbing. The world below him was still blanketed with white and showed little in the way of landmarks or a trail. "I did this to myself… that’s what you’re thinkin’." The wind blew past him and he shoved his hands into his jacket pocket to avoid the cold. "Fine, so I admit it. I wasn’t really thinkin’… I just wanted to get home."
He stopped a step or two later and sighed. "And now, I’m talkin’ to myself." Looking back he could see the tracks in the snow that marked his passing and thankfully the winds had died down enough that if he had to back track… he could.
"Then again," he continued, "I can go back there… and-" he didn’t like the way his thoughts were going and pushed them out of his mind.
A chilling blast of air forced his hand, reminding himself of the bandana stashed in his coat pocket. He reached his hand into his jacket and closed his fingers around a smooth chilled surface. Pulling it free from his jacket, he looked at the small bell that Mrs. Weathers had given him at the station.
"It may not look like much, Mr. Hickok, but when you need it... then you’ll appreciate it."
Maybe it was just echoes bouncing back from the far end of the canyon? Maybe it was just wishful thinking, hoping something else alive and … human was out there. ‘Maybe,’ he thought, ‘maybe I’m just going insane?’
Out of the darkness, a cloud billowed out toward him and for a moment, Jimmy knew he was going to die… it was just like the stories told by the mountain men of blankets of snow burying men alive. This had to be it. Jimmy closed his eyes and braced for the impact of the snow… waited for it to blow him back over the edge of the canyon.
The ringing of the bells came to a stop a moment before Jimmy heard the laughter.
"You out for a walk, son?"
Jimmy cracked open one eye and then the other. A wagon was stopped just a few feet away, but it looked different, strange. The metal runners attached to the frame were different than any he’d ever seen. "I was headin’ home when the snow rolled over and took everything."
"Not everything," the man corrected as he pushed his hat back on his head, "you’re still here."
Smiling down at his boots, Jimmy agreed. "Right now, I just want to get back to my family."
The old man’s smile was like a beacon in the darkness. "Well then, let’s see if I can help. Which way are you headed?"
Jimmy shrugged and stepped up into the sleigh. "Not that you’ll know the area, but it’s the Hickok house outside of Rock Creek, it’s got-"
"Green shutters on white. Know the place well."
That last part took the wind out of him and he sank down on the seat beside the old man. "Really?"
"I’ve made a delivery or two there in the last few years. Sit back, we’ll have you home before you know it." He flicked the reins and the sleigh dashed into the night.
Jimmy had barely touched the snowy ground when his son barreled into his legs, almost knocking him back into the sleigh. "Whoa."
"You made it home!" His daughter added to the imbalance when she wrapped her arms around his middle. "Mama waited up all night, but we knew… we knew that-" She caught sight of the rather rotund gentleman stepping down from the driver’s seat. "SANTA?"
Jimmy’s chuckle was echoed by the larger man.
"Oh dear girl… I’m sorry, I-"
Crouching down beside his daughter, Jimmy lifted her chin so he could try to get her attention away. "Sweetie… he brought me home when I was lost in the snow and," he caught Lou’s eyes over the top of her head, "lost the wagon, horse… everything in it in a rock slide. I’m sorry about your presents, but-"
"You know," the older man held up a finger as if he’d just remembered, "right before I found you makin’ all that racket in the snow, I found a bunch of packages bundled up and half buried."
Jimmy was about to laugh at the silly notion when he produced a brown paper wrapped package with Mr. Weather’s peculiar string bows flopping around on top. "You found that?"
"Looked like a trail of bread crumbs in the snow and took me a few stops before I was pretty sure I got it all." The children fairly danced around his feet as they piled the packages into their arms before Teaspoon could make his way out to help. "Careful now," he cautioned the children, "I wouldn’t drop those if I were you; the snow is deep enough around here that you won’t find them until the thaw."
Jimmy took the steps quickly and wrapped his wife warmly in his arms. "I’m glad you stayed up here where it was warm."
"Safe you mean," she nodded to the heavy blanket of snow, "I didn’t want to end up sprawled in the drifts, waving my arms like a fallen angel."
"Good, whatever it takes to keep you safe."
She laid her palms on either side of his face and felt the two-days growth of beard on his face. "You’re so cold-"
"The wind-" he barely managed to answer.
"But you’re not hurt?" She continued on before he could answer. "We were worried; Teaspoon spent half the night standing at the window waiting for you." Her fingers traced over the reddened areas of his skin where the wind had burned him.
He dropped his gloves and took her face in his hands, his thumb tracing the fullness of her lower lip. "And you, wife… did you stay up all night waiting for me?" When her gaze dropped for a moment, he knew he was right. "You should be resting." She allowed him to tuck her in against his side as his savior walked up to the house. "My wife Louise," he began by way of introductions.
The stranger bent over her hand and brushed his whiskers over her knuckles. "Pleasure, Ma’am." He stood back up, a hand on his lower back to aid him in the movement. "Your friend, Teaspoon shook my hand back over at the wagon and the children," he gave Jimmy a nod, "I knew them from our drive over, but it was most enlightening to see the two little scamps in person."
"Scary, aren’t they?"
The older man laughed as Louise elbowed her husband in his side. "They came running downstairs right before you drove up; they were talking about hearing… bells?" Louise laughed and shook her head. "Don’t understand it really."
Jimmy touched the small bell tucked away in his pocket and shared a smile with the wagon driver. "Why don’t you come in, spend the morning in a soft bed and head out in a few hours time."
The older man pulled off his hat and scratched at his temple, seriously considering the offer. "I’d love to, if only to have a few moments to enjoy the noise those children will be makin’… but I have to be gettin’ on to finish my deliveries… folks just won’t wait for things ‘round this time of year."
Louise stepped forward and Jimmy followed behind her, hands gently holding her shoulders. "Well then, when you find some time and you’re not urgently needed elsewhere…"
Agreeing, Jimmy finished her thought. "You come and visit us." He looked over his shoulder and heard the chorus of laughter coming from the house. "There’s always room for one more."
He tipped his hat with a round and rosy grin. "That I’ll do, Jimmy… that I can do." The old man laid a finger up beside his nose and a swirling cloud of snow and air billowed out around him. When it cleared… he was gone.