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 ‘assignment’

Old Man Weathers eyed the buckboard with a dubious eye. "You serious ‘bout goin’ out in this storm, Hickok?"

Jimmy finished tightening up the rope he’d tied over his cargo and shrugged as he looked up to the sky. "It’s not a storm yet, Mr. Weathers and I’ve got myself a family to get back to before Christmas morning."

"Humph," his wife folded her arms over her barrel shaped body and gave Jimmy a haughty look, "just like a man to wait until the last minute to get where he’s gonna go."

"Now… now, there, Missus. Mr. Hickok here was doin’ his duty for the territorial marshal, otherwise he wouldn’t be late… would you son?"

Jimmy nodded and let his smile speak for itself. "It’s a special holiday for us, Mrs. Weathers… my wife is expecting come spring."

The news softened the woman’s expression and she disappeared back into the warm cabin beside the livery.

If Mr. Weathers found his wife’s disappearance strange, he didn’t let on; instead he gave Jimmy a few words of warning. "If the storm catches up to you, get yourself under cover and stay warm… don’t get off the trail... they’ll head that way lookin’ for you when it all lets up."

Jimmy nodded absently and climbed up into the wagon seat and tugged on his gloves. "I won’t need to find shelter... I’ll be home before the storm breaks." His confident grin didn’t change the look on the livery owner’s face.

Gathering up the reins, Jimmy tugged on his collar, raising the ends until they covered his jaw. He was a second away from cracking the reins when Mrs. Weathers raced down the steps with her little dog chasing after the hem on her skirts. One step into the snow and the dog disappeared, leaving Mr. Weathers to pull it back up onto solid ground as Mrs. Weathers made it up to the side of the wagon, waving her hand to catch Jimmy’s attention. "Wait … wait…"

"Yes?"

Slightly out of breath, Mrs. Weather wiggled her hand and Jimmy reached out to take whatever it was that she held so tightly in her hand. He opened his hand and she dropped a brass bell into his palm. It was affixed onto a small stick, like a handle and he turned it over a few times before she could catch her breath and explain. "It’s a bell, in case you get lost in the snow."

He smiled and shook his head. "I won’t get lo-"

Pointing her finger at his chest she gave him a warning look. "Never say never, Mr. Hickok. Better men than you have been lost in the white and if it was just you I wouldn’t worry so much, but your family deserves better than to
lose you during the holiday season."

Confused by the sudden shift in her attitude, Jimmy looked down at the bell. It had seen better days, battered and bruised by the years. He gave it a test shake and tried not to laugh at the pitiful tinkle that barely reached his ears.

"It may not look like much, Mr. Hickok, but when you need it... then you’ll appreciate it."

He smiled and slipped it into his pocket with a nod. "Thanks for the charm, Mrs. Weathers… I’ll bring it back next time I’m through."

He cracked the reins and the horses dug into the old layer of snow and lurched forward with the wagon. As the wagon disappeared beyond the trees, Mr. Weathers gave his wife a gentle pat on her shoulder. "Don’t worry, Honey… I’m sure he’ll be fine." He disappeared into the cabin for another cup of his wife’s coffee and gave her one last look as she remained out on the porch.

A stiff gust of wind blew across her cheek and she sighed. "He’ll be fine… now."

*====*

Jimmy’s boast quickly turned into a horrible miscalculation. The storm ate up the space between them and sooner than he thought was possible, it was blowing drifts of snow that seemed to be racing him home.

The horses plunged ahead, fear driving them as much as hope. Jimmy kept the hope alive with the images in his memory. The faces of his family, the promise of new life. He was going to get home.

He had to…

He had to-

His world turned over and over… and over.

Snow churned up beneath the hooves and wheels and he didn’t know which end was up. All he knew was that he wasn’t on the wagon seat anymore and he’d lost track of where the road was. Throwing his hands up over his face, Jimmy said a little prayer as everything went white.

*====*

Jimmy lifted his hand and then went limp. His hand fell back against his chest and he knew he was facing up… not down. A minute or two later he was on his hands and knees coughing up water and snow in a landscape that held no color. No variations except for trees and a few rocks jutting out from the sea of white.

It took him a few minutes later to understand what had happened. The snow that collected on the mountain peaks from the last few days had come loose and taken his wagon for a ride. Problem was… they didn’t say they were coming and they certainly didn’t sign his dance card before stepping in for a waltz.


Pulling his coat tightly around him, Jimmy gave a low whistle and waited for an answer. His chin dropped to his chest when he realized that the silence paired with the soft moan of the wind was a clear indication that he was alone.

In the snow.

In the cold.

The nearby landscape was covered with snow, but the peaks of the mountains were still visible when the moving drifts of fog and ice weren’t covering it all from his view. He must be at least twenty to thirty feet below the road from Warm Springs, if his guess was any good... and in this weather, that wasn’t likely.

Christmas.

Jimmy’s heart thumped heavily in his chest. How would he ever get home now? He had no idea where the wagon was… and the presents. They were all gone, along with the horses and their supplies.

Up a couple hundred feet the storm clouds had gathered against the mountain face as though they were taking a little breather before continuing on with their attack. Jimmy knew that he didn’t have time to worry… he had to act.

*====*

Teaspoon made his way down the stairs and stood at the window beside Louise. The warmth of her breath fogged in a little circle just before her mouth. Setting a hand on the window he eyed the gusts of wind and snow outside. "Thinkin’ of turnin’ in soon?"

"Not just yet…" her voice faded off as a shadow slipped through the snow outside, but just as soon as her hopes grew, they faded into the darkness as the shadow didn’t come any closer… didn’t take the shape of the man she was waiting for.

She barely moved, a slight shift of weight perhaps, but nothing more. He saw the way she had her hands pressed up against the lower curve of her back and wondered aloud. "You plannin’ on stayin’ up all night?"

Louise turned around and when she couldn’t figure out what to do with her hands she fidgeted with her skirts, smoothing the worry-wrinkled mess. "Unless you have something better for me to do."

Teaspoon pulled up a couple of chairs before the window and sat down in one of them, folding his hands in his lap. Louise sat down on the other chair and leaned on Teaspoon’s shoulder as she lifted her clasped hands to her chest and closed her eyes.

It was Teaspoon who began. "Dear Lord, bring him home safely…"

*====*

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."

"What I’d appreciate is a wagon… or a horse. Hell, I’d even take a match and a stick to light." He looked down at the little trinket and sighed, his breath coming out in a cloud before her face. It wasn’t more than a moment later that Jimmy considered the very real possibility that he had lost his mind. Bells… Jingle Bells… just like the ones Mrs. Weathers had tied onto the stick.

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.

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