Chapter One

Winter hit Sweetwater hard and late. Snow had been fallin' for days, but only a few inches had collected. The townspeople still bustled about their business, while worryin' over the dark grey clouds above. The winds were the one thing puttin' a chill on everyone's spirits. They came hard and often, pushing through layers of fabric and chilling all who fell under its touch.

People had been grumbling for days over the weather, and still, the icy winds sliced through the town signaling the change from fall to the cold winter season.

The front door slammed opened against the wall, "Merry Christmas Tompkins!"

"What in hell!? Cody! Close the door before we all freeze."

Cody shrugged his shoulders and slammed the door shut.

Tompkins almost howled in pain. "And watch the windows!"

"Sorry there Tompkins-"

"Sorry... Sorry... sure you say you're sorry, but what good would it do if you broke my window?"

Cody looked behind him, snow flingin' off his fringe, "It ain't broke!"

Tompkins almost growled, "That ain't the point."

Cody strode forward, the familiar languid stride seemed so out of place with such a wintery scene behind him. "Well, maybe you can explain the point to me over dinner-"

Tompkins sputtered in confusion, "Dinner?"

"Yeah, Rachel wanted me to invite you over to the station for dinner on Christmas Eve."

"Dinner?" he repeated.

Cody's head bobbed side to side as he pondered Tompkins' mental state, "Yeah... that's what I said. You okay Tompkins?"

"Huh?" The older gentleman looked like you could knock him over with a breath. "Why?"

The young rider pumped his shoulders up and down, "Dunno...to share the Christmas spirit I guess."

Tompkins looked down for a moment, then he felt the familiar mantle of distance fall over him, "Why in God's name would Rachel do a fool thing like that? I might have plans of my own, you know. Cody, get out of my store if you're not buyin' anything."

Cody headed for the door, pausing with his hand on the handle. "Well, stop by if you change your mind." He pulled his hat down tightly on his head, "Merry Christmas Tompkins."

Chapter Two

Later that afternoon:

Wind and snow flew inside as soon as the door cracked open. Moments later a hooded figure swept in the door. A woman's slender hand struggled to brush off the snow that had leeched itself to the fabric of her coat. Pushin' back the scarf that was wound around her head she turned to locate her quarry.

Tompkins had just mounted the ladder at the back and was restockin' the already burgeoning shelves.

She set her basket down on the counter and walked closer to him, "Good Morning Mr. Tompkins!"

"Mornin' to you Rachel," the greetin' was polite, but cool.

"The boys' and I are certainly lookin' forward to Christmas... aren't you Mr. Tompkins?"

He looked down and over his shoulder at the stunningly beautiful woman. Her blonde curls piled up on her head, but still, a few wisps had fallen to frame her searchin' eyes.

Tompkins shrugged his shoulders, he didn't have time for games, "I guess so-" he turned back to what he was doin'. "Look Rachel, if this is about dinner-"

"And in the season of Christmas it's so wonderful to think that all of the people of Sweetwater would be so thankful for all the-"

A can slapped down on the shelf and Tompkins' looked up at the ceilin' in disgust, "Look Rachel, why don't you just come out and say what you're tryin' to say."

She was taken aback by his tone and anger, but the mood of the whole town had suffered from the weather and Rachel wasn't beyond excusing a momentary display of temper.

"It will only take a moment of your time Mr. Tompkins."

"Fine, you have a moment; don't waste it."

"Good, well, the school is in dire need of some new books, we have some new students begining school after Christmas and I wondered-"

"You wondered if I would give you the books."

"That would be very kind of-"

"Kind? Do you know how much they cost? You'd bankrupt my store if I let you."

"Now Mr. Tompkins," Rachel was distraught over his accusations and ill mannered words, "I'm not asking you to lose your store over this. It's just a few books-"

"Just a few? If I gave you the books this time, what about the next... and the next.. and the next?"

"Mr. Tompkins..."

"What about their parents? Can't they afford the books? Isn't it their duty to buy books for their own children... if they can't afford the schoolin' then might I suggest their children be better off spendin' their time learning some sort of trade? Are the people of this town destined to foot the bill for these children for the rest of their days? And-"

"And!" Rachel schooled her voice, for in truth, she felt like screaming at him. "I can see that the answer is no and my minute is long gone. That's all that needs to be said. I thank you for your time." She turned and headed for the door, heated blood ragin' in her cheeks.

He couldn't resist another thought, "And what Cody said-"

Rachel faced him again from her position at the door, "It's still open Mr. Tompkins. The Christmas Spirit is in everyone, even though some of us try to burry it in an early grave."

She left in a whirlin' cloud of fine snow, the door clicking securely behind her.




A moment later Tompkins felt a small tug at his heart; he didn't need to answer her like that. He walked outside again, and searched for her retreating figure in the snow, but she was gone out of site.

Returning to the warmth of the store, Tompkins struggled to push the door closed as another mammoth gust swept the main street of the town. "Kid!" he called over his shoulder.

His answer came from the storeroom where Kid was unpacking a recent delivery. "Yes Mr. Tompkins!"

"That blasted wind has scattered snow all over the walk, I need you to go out and sweep the boards."

Kid shook his head as he was shruggin' on his coat, "Sorry Mr. Tompkins, I've got to get back to the station. It's almost time for dinner, Rachel doesn't like us to be late."

Tompkins stood sentinel by the door, his arms folded across his chest in stubborn challenge, "Now Kid, when I was hiring an extra hand for the store I didn't want to hire one of you boys for that very reason... I didn't think you'd have the dedication to see the job through."

Kid's pride bristled under the older man's glare, "I'm dedicated to my work."

"Then I'll expect the walk swept before you leave," Kid nodded and started for the door, "and I'll need you to stay late tomorrow as well."

Kid stopped in his tracks. He turned his face to Tompkins, disbelief creasin' his brow, "Tomorrow?"

"That's what I said... you have a problem with that?"

"But Mr. Thompkins, tomorrow is Christmas Eve-"

"And the busiest night I have. You wanna get paid?"

"You can't do that!" Kid's anger was sweepin' up to his eyes.

"You said you'd do the job to my satisfaction."

Kid gritted his teeth together, feelin' his jaw tighten in reaction, "Fine.. I'll tell Rachel I'll be late for dinner tomorrow too." He continued on outside into the chilling winds.

Tompkins scoffed at the boys reaction, "What difference does it make? Christmas only means something if you've got a family... and that's somethin' that rowdy group of boys don't have to worry about."

Chapter Three

Tompkins spent the next hour rearrangin' the storeroom, all the while cursin' the Kid for messin' everything up. Sometime durin' his ramblin's he'd locked the front door, turning the sign in the front window so that it read CLOSED. "There isn't a man with half a brain who'd be out on a night like this... no use stayin' open."

The books had to be finished, stock had to be counted, and all everyone could think of was Christmas, "Who needs it?" he thought to himself.

*KNOCK*KNOCK*KNOCK*

"Go away! The store's closed!"

*KNOCK*KNOCK*KNOCK*KNOCK*

"I said... IT'S CLOSED!"

*KNOCK*KNOCK*-----

"Will you just GO AWA-"

"Are you in here?"

Tompkins was shocked to his toes, "Am I in here? Yes I am! The question is," he could hear the footsteps on the hardwood floor, "why are YOU in he--- Teaspoon?"

The man in the doorway looked up into Tompkin's angry eyes. "Teaspoon?"

Tompkins pushed past him and rattled the door. It was still locked. "How in blazes did you get in here Teaspoon?"

Eyes, sharp as a hawk, gazed calmly back at him. "Teaspoon... what an interesting name." Spotting a mirror on the storeroom wall, he sauntered over to it, pausin' twice to stop and look at his heels. There seemed to be little dangling pieces of metal jinglin' as he walked.

The mirror was enlightening, if not somewhat disappointing. Staring back in the relection was a grizzled agin' man with shoulderlength greying hair. He set his hand on his chin, feeling the growth of whiskers tough under his hand, "Interesting to say the least."

Tompkins appeared over his shoulder, "Teaspoon? Have you lost your senses?"

"There is that name again. Is that who I look like?"

"I don't know what game you're playin' Teaspoon, but I don't like it." Tompkins dismissed him with a wave of his hand and turned around to leave the room, "You better get out of here before I-" He stopped dead in his tracks.

Teaspoon Hunter stood before him, "Before you?" he prompted.

Tompkins scratched at his forehead, "Didn't I just leave you in the other room?"

"Ah, you can't leave something that wasn't there."

"Dammit! It's too late for your double talk."

A weathered grin answered back, "It's not too late if you're willin' to listen."

Tompkins backed away, his eyes on the crazy man before him. "You best be gettin' home, seems like you caught a chill." As he turned around his eyes played tricks on him again. Teaspoon had appeared in front of him again.

"I have something to tell you-"

Tompkins didn't feel like co-operating, "Can't this wait for tomorrow?"

"Are you willing to listen?"

He could feel his curiosity winning out over his anger, "Make it quick."

"I don't think you're ready to hear the message, but you had best open your heart to it... there may not be a another chance for you."

"Teaspoon! You sound like some fortune teller at a fair. What's gotten into you?"

A strong brow wrinkled in concentration as he looked up to the ceiling, "You expect miracles of me don't you?" He trained his gaze on Tompkins again, "You call me by that name, but you do not ask me who I am."

"One look at you-" He stopped and pointed a meaty finger at his 'companion', "and don't you try to tell me somethin' about 'looks being deceiving."

He was answered with a saddened shake of a salt-n-pepper head. "It seems like tellin' you the message won't be enough."

"I still don't-"

"I'm givin' you fair warning, tonight three other spirits-"

"Whoa there Teaspoon! Sounds like you've been drinkin' your homemade applejack again---- Spirits! Ha!"

"I said three... and I meant spirits... you'd be wise to listen to them." A meaningful look fell short of its mark, "My time is through." He moved through Tompkins, his body seemingly like a cloud or haze of mist.

Tompkins shuddered as his mind warred with his eyes, "You ... You... You're a .... a ghost."

"No... not a ghost, a messenger. I just pray what we have to teach you doesn't fall on deaf ears."

With a thought, he faded through the door itself.

Tompkins reached out and grabbed a near by post and leaned against it, "Oh dear Lord-"

A head reappeared inside the door, "Three spirits. You had best prepare yourself, for time is precious... and you never know how much you have left."

A second time Tompkins sagged against the post nearest to him. "Exhaustion... that's what this is... I just need some sleep."

Tompkins prayed that's all it was.

Chapter Four

Tompkins fell asleep workin' on the books for the store, his head pressed heavily on the desk top. The nib of the pen pokin' in his cheek and formed a dark black stain where the ink pooled.

A soft knock on the doorframe shook him awake.

He struggled to sit up, his body had been hunched over the desk too long and the muscles in his back groaned in protest. "Barnett? What are you doin' up at this hour?"

An easy grin settled on the caller's lips, "Is that who I look like? We never know what shape we'll take on, until it happens."

Tompkins jumped straight up from his chair, tippin' it backwards, "You! You're one of them!"

"Them?" There it was again, that idiotic grin.

"Don't you play with me! I know what you are... Teaspo- that first one told me there'd be three more."

"But you didn't believe him?"

Tompkins rubbed his hands in his apron, cleanin' them off again and again... "I've never been one for churches and such... and there's just something dark and just plain wrong about spirits buggin' good folks like me."

The spirit nodded, trying not to choke on his own laughter.

Tompkins' ire was raised to almost a fever pitch in just that moment. "Who are you?"

"The Spirit of Christmas Past."

"What good is that? What's done is done."

"Not true... there are many things to be learned from the past, if you but open your eyes to see."

Thompkins walked away from him, tryin' to straighten his desk to finish the entries in his ledger, "You just run along. I don't have time for this foolishness."

A strange stillness came over the Spirit, "There is no foolishness in what you need to see tonight." He held out his hand.

Tompkins looked at it as if he'd never seen one before. "What's that for?"

Barnett's brown eyes twinkled at him, "Take it." He nodded as Tompkin's reached out with his own hand.

Slowly, the older man's fingers wrapped around 'Barnett's'. The world darkened as the two were taken to another location altogether.




They stood outside the Sweetwater Bunkhouse. Tompkins immediately started to shiver from the frozen winds pelting the building. Under his breath Tompkins griped about 'Barnett' bein' way too cheery.

"Well?" Barnett began.

"Well what?" Tompkins scowled back.

"Let's go inside."

Tompkins reached out and tried the door, it was locked. "I don't think we should wake them-"

The Spirit dragged Tompkin's right through the door itself. Tompkins lost all coherent thought as he saw rather than felt himself pass through.

"Warmer?" questioned the spirit.

Tompkins shook his head; he was still confused and in a daze. "Why are we here?"

"There are things you need to see-"

"Well, get it over with!" Tompkins was rapidly returning to his jolly self.

'Barnett' looked around the bunkhouse and was called to begin with Ike McSwain, whose bunk was the closest to the door. Taking Tompkins wrist in his hand, he settled the flat of the man's palm against the smooth skin of Ike's head.

Tompkins tried to pull back, but the Spirit held him fast.

Light, bright daylight blinded him. He was looking out a window, staring out at a house on the top of a small rise.

Horses... he could hear horses... plenty of them, thundering in from all directions. Angry voices and a woman cryin' out.

'NO! Mama!' The thoughts echoed in his mind as he watched 'his' family gunned down, all while he cowered in his hiding place; guilt and sorrow weighing him down.

The connection was broken the instant the Spirit removed his hand.

"What was that? What did you do to me?"

"You 'saw' what he saw-"

"You mean that actually happened?"

'Barnett' nodded solemly. "So many look down on the Express Riders because they are orphans and have no 'families' to really speak of, but no one really asked how they lost their families."

They moved to the other side of the room, Cody's bunk lay empty, "Last minute run," offered the Spirit.

James Butler Hickok slept with a pensive look on his face. His hand under his pillow, one of his holsters hung empty from a nail.

The Spirit saw the question in Tompkin's eyes, "He sleeps with it under his pillow."

"Hothead!" Scoffed Tompkins.

"Really?" A grin that could only be described as smug pulled on the corners of the Spirit's mouth. Without warning he set Tompkin's palm on Jimmy's forehead.

Daylight again... but he was under a shadow. A man, tall and foul smelling knocked him to the ground. Tompkins felt the sting of the slap against his cheek.

"You leave her alone I said!" The voice was ripped out of his throat before he could stop himself. The man turned away and the child that was Jimmy launched himself at the man towering over a frantic woman. "You get away from my momma!"

"Jimmy, honey please, stop before you get hurt!"

"Mama!"

"Stupid Kid!" Fist connected with soft bone and Tompkins found himself staring up at the sky. Conciousness was slipping away, but the young boys' eyes were glued on his mother as she pleaded for the man to stop.. to stop 'touchin' her.

Tears welled up in Tompkin's eyes. "I never knew."

"No one ever asks."

"It isn't my place to stick my nose were it don't belong."

A wry smiled chided Tompkins, "That's one way to look at it."

The next visit was just across the room. Lou had his back to Tompkins and the Spirit, but Kid had rolled to the edge of his bunk.

"Wait!" Tompkins balked at the thought of goin' through it again, "Isn't there some other way?"

Slowly, the Spirit nodded and knelt down, pulling Tompkins with him. This time Tompkins pressed his own palm to Kid's forehead. The first thing he noticed was the dim light inside the small room. A dirty oil lamp flickered macabre images on the wall, now dirty with grime.

A man, drunk and in a rage, held a young boy in the air by his neck, "Stupid Boy... what the hell did you think you were doin'?"

"Please Daddy... please.. I'm sorry-" The boy's teeth clanked shut as his father shook him violently.

"Stop..." Tompkins pleaded under his breath.

"Hide my whiskey? That ain't right boy. That just ain't right! What were you thinkin'?"

Tears shone bright in the blue eyes of the boy, "I just don't want you to hurt mama no more."

"Well hell boy, if that's it... I'll stop... and just take it out on you instead."

The boy whimpered but didn't look away, "I still love you Daddy."

The whiskey got the better of him and the boy was thrown against the wall, falling to the floor in a heap.

"You bastard!!!!" Tompkins was on his feet in a moment, eyes blazin' with hate for the drunk. The instant contact stopped, Tompkins found himself in the middle of the Bunkhouse again. "Can you imagine?" He slowly turned to face the Spirit, "Can you imagine what it must have been like for them?"

'Barnett' gave no answer, except to say, "We are short on time. We must go back."

Lou turned over in his sleep.

"What about Lou or Noah?"

"That is not for me to show you."

"What kind of an answer is that?"

"The only one I can give you." In an instant, they were back in the store. 'Barnett' seemed far away, the color had faded from his body. "I leave you now. The next will visit you when the clock strikes it's next hour. Wait for him."

"Him?"

Another nod, "Think about what you've seen, for it can save you."

"Save me?" Tompkins rushed forward, but the Spirit had faded away, "What do you mean!?"

Chapter Five

The revelations were soon pushed away into the back of Tompkin's mind. There were still too many things to do, so many excuses to think up.

Fifteen minutes from the appointed time, Tompkins suddenly stood up and roughly pulled his coat off its hook. His hat in his hand, he shoved his arms into the warm leather of his winter coat and pushed the hat down on his head.

The winds tried to push him back through the door. Holding him there, forcing him to stay.

Tompkins didn't take too kindly to it. With a curse he fought past the winds and pulled the door shut behind him. He set the key in the lock and fought to turn it. The icy cold almost made the lock impossible to set.

The street was now piled high with snow. The farther he walked, the higher the drifts were piled. Thigh deep, he stopped and cursed the first two spirits. Muttering under his breath, he tried to explain away his tough luck, "They kept me there on purpose. If I'd waited, then I'd never get away. I would've been stuck forced to meet the next Spirit."

A toasty glow tickled the edge of his vision. The windows calling to him were the eyes of the Saloon, winking in the promise of warmth and distraction.

Heavy double doors replaced the usual batwing wooden barriers and seemed near impossible to open. Tompkins pounded on the door and it swung open. Eyes, wide as saucers swept the winter wasteland outside, "Well lookee here... High and Mighty Tompkins has come to say hello."

"Just let me in before parts of me fall off from frost-bite."

Patrick Chambers, the old banker, forced the door open farther, "Can't say it would happen to a better person, but I'd hate to have your blue nose on my concience."

Tompkins pushed past him and stood in the middle of the room. He stripped off his gloves and worked his fingers, opening and closing them through the pain of returning circulation.

Slurred greetings fell on deaf ears as he moved to the bar. A women, an 'employee' of the saloon helped him remove his coat and took his hat away, setting them on a hook near the bar, "Better warm yourself up from the inside, the snow ain't likely to let up for days the way it's been comin' down."

Sweeney, the Cockney bartender set him up with a double shot of whiskey. "That'll warm you up. Let me know whens you need another."

Thompkins sank down in a chair, proppin' his feet on a chair across the way. The warmth from all the bodies started to move through his body and mingled with the warmth.

He nursed the drink and its successors; his mind awash with all he's seen. Background noise faded away and Tompkins drifted off to sleep in the warmth of the room.

The clock rang with a piercing pang. He jumped what seemed to be a few feet in the air and turned around. "What the-"

"Mr. Tompkins."

He whirled around to face the door, his chair fallin' to the floor, "Hey Tompkins... lay off on the chairs? I ain't got a roomfull of extras." Called Sweeney from were he stood.

Buck Cross stood at the door, arms folded across his tanned chest.

"Buck?"

An expressive brow arched in response.

"Sweeney? Ain't you gonna say something about him?"

The bartender raked his gaze across the roomful of people, just the usual assortment of drunks and farmhands, "Nothin' wrong Tompkins, what are you goin' on about?"

"There in the doorway!"

Sweeney looked up to the empty doorway, "There ain't no one there Tompkins... I'm cuttin' you off."

Still, unblinking, Buck Cross stared at him from the doorway of the Saloon. Tompkins knew something was amiss, the person he saw would never have been allowed to stand there, Indians weren't allowed in the Saloon or any other drinkin' establishment. Everyone knew they couldn't hold their liquor.

The next thing that attracted his attention, the man wore only his vest and his breeches. Where in blue blazes was his shirt? "Damn Savage."

Thompkins tried to order another whiskey, but Sweeney ignored him, shakin' his head at the request.

"It's time." The voice was monotone and still it reverberated through his soul.

"Time?"

"The second visitation." The half breed walked a few paces closer.

A nervous smile colored his laugh, "Ah... the second 'ghost' has come to haunt me... I didn't think you.. I mean BUCK, would be so stupid as to come out in this," his hand gestured to the window, "this blizzard."

The spirit moved forward, silently movin' across the floor. He reached out to set a hand on his arm.

Tompkins jerked back, "Don't touch me."

"Old prejudices can sometimes be irrational."

"What?"

"Your hate of indians, just because they do not share the same color of skin with you does not mean they are any less human."

"Nonsense!" Tompkins shook off his anger, just barely, "Let's get started. You would be ...."

"The Spirit of Christmas Present."

"Well that makes sense."

"Take my hand."

Tompkins looked like he might rebel. "Your hand?"

An amused smiled graced the spirits noble features, "My skin color will not rub off on your skin, you have nothing to fear."

Grimacing, Tompkins grasped the hand offered, "Where are we-" the light streaked by and whirled about them.




Tompkins shook off the Spirits hand and whirled away. "Damn You! I wasn't ready."

"It did not matter."

Lookin' about him he saw the bunkhouse again... inside. "What are we doin' here!? Again!"

"There are things this Christmas that you need to see."

"But I've been here-"

"To see the past, this is where I am your guide."

The door opened and Tompkins looked for a place to hide. The spirit shook his head in quiet mirth and Tompkins straightened, "They can't see me?"

The spirit shook his head again.

Lou came into the bunkhouse with a gale of snow.

"Hey Lou!" Cody's voice followed her inside, "Lou?"

"Hold your horses Cody!" He pulled his scarf out of a trunk against the wall.

"I am holdin' the horses... yours and mine!! Hurry up or we'll miss the dance!"

Lou straightened and wound the scarf around his neck, "the dance." There was an almost whistful quality to his voice.

Feet heavy with more than snow turned to the door and Cody's whinin' voice. In a moment of some importance, Lou ran back to his bunk and pulled something out from beneath the thin mattress.

"What's that?"

"A dress."

"I know what a 'dress' is .. but what is Lou doin' with it?"

"Watch."

Lou smoothed his hands across the lightly colored material. It wasn't of rich quality, but it had been lovingly crafted. "I wish.. just for one night-"

"Lou! I'm freezin' out here!"

"I'm comin-" the voice was a whisper.

"What?"

"I SAID I'M COMIN'.... Give me a MINUTE!!!" Tears sprang onto his cheeks, and in the freezin' air they seemed to turn to crystal in the space of a breath.

"I just don't see-" began Tompkins.

The Spirit was above losin' patience, "Look... look closely."

Lou removed his glasses and wiped at the tears with gloved hands. "Dang it... if Cody sees me cryin' I'll never hear the end of it."

When his small hands moved away from his face, Tompkins leaned closer while he stuffed the dress back under the mattress. "What? Oh my -" Tompkins looked back at the spirit with confusion running rampant across his features.

"What did you see?"

Tompkins dragged his snowcovered sleeve across his eyes and stared closely at the rider. The sweet turn of the face, the delicate hands turned rough with hard work, and the lashes dipping down to bush cheeks colored with embarassment. He didn't know why, "I didn't see it before."

"Didn't see what?"

"He's a girl!"

"Took you long enough."

"What the hell is she doin' riding the trails with this bunch of boys?"

"It's her job."

"What happened to her family?"

"Much of what happened to the others."

Tompkins stood and watched as Lou shoved her glasses back on and headed out to the snow.

In the still quiet of the Bunkhouse, Tompkins turned back to the Spirit. "Those riders get paid well, why doesn't she quit and buy herself some dresses... act like a girl."

"She has something she's saving for."

"What are you talking about?"

A hand settled on his chest, just above his heart, and the two found themselves in another room, far away.

"Where are we?"

"An orphanage in St. Jo. There are two children here that you should see."

"Teresa? Jeremiah?" A nun, dressed in the typical concealing garb, called from a short doorway, her arms hugged close in the cold.

A towheaded little girl and a gangly boy ran forward, little puffs of visible breath floating away, "Yes sister?" they both questioned.

"Your sister has sent you something."

The two moved closer to each other, sharing heat and excitement, "Is she here?"

"Come inside and I'll let you read the letter."

The two followed her into a small side room decorated with a few chairs and a small table. She motioned to a bench against the wall. Both children scrambled into it.. the boy helped the little girl up and they waited as patiently as children can be expected to.

The nun handed the boy an envelope and he ripped it open, "Dear Jeremiah and Teresa-" he started. The letter was short and heartfelt, written in short words, but filled with love for the two children that eagerly pored over them. Over too soon, Tompkins was shocked again as the boy read the last words, "Love always, Louise."

Jeremiah handed the paper to his sister who stared at the writing and traced her fingers over the neat letters.

"Louise? Lou?" Tompkins turned back to the Spirit lookin' for some confirmation. He found it.

The nun handed packages to both of the children who ripped them open in childish glee.

The Spirit reached out and took Tompkin's arm, "It's time to go."

Tompkins shrugged off his touch, "I want to wait."

It seemed like the voice had more than a bit of humor in it, "What for?"

"To see what she sent."

The Spirit looked unconvinced.

"Maybe she sent something from my store." Secretly he just wanted to be there to see their faces. Children always made Christmas special, and his own child... well, he wished she had been able to share this Christmas with him.

Quickly he pushed the thoughts out of his mind and allowed the Spirit to take his hand again.

Back at the Saloon, 'Buck' released his hold on Tompkins. "There will be one more Spirit tonight, heed his warning and you may save yourself..."

Tompkins straightened his stance, "Save myself? I've been shown nothing of my own life... only .... what does anything you've shown me have to do with my life!"

"Everything."

"What happens to them, their 'secrets', have nothing to do with me or my life."

"If you continue to believe that, you've not listened to-"

"To you? You've hardly said a word!"

"-to your heart. If you continue to ignore what it says, you-"

"I've had enough! Leave me alone... go back to - where ever you came from!"

His head bowed in sadness, the second spirit moved back out into the snow covered street, his voice ringing in Tompkin's ears, "One more chance.. to change your heart. Don't turn away from the truth..."

Chapter Six

Tompkins didn't turn away from the truth, he ran. Straining against the icy winds he made his way down the street. The cold numbed his mind as well as his body, but he didn't care. He wanted to put as much distance between the next Spirit and his own miserable soul.

Clutched in his hand was a bottle of whiskey, taken off the shelf behind the bar. He'd left a dollar behind, more than enough to cover the cost of the bottle. He wasn't one to drink, but the events of the last few hours had his head reelin' along with his stomach.

Every step Tompkins took, drew him further away from town. Pushing through the snow, he convinced himself that he was savin' himself from the last visit of the night.

His mind preoccupied with his own ghosts, he did not see the lone figure trailin' behind him, nor did he feel the chill stealin' through his body. Toes and fingers fell asleep as the drivin' need to escape the most ominous of the spirits pushed him further into the snow. He'd lost all track of were he was, but still behind him came the silent shadow.




An hour later, the storm had settled over the town in earnest. The eye of the torrential snows seemed to be right over his head, but Tompkins knew nothing of what was happenin' around him. Face down in the drifts he was dangerously close to freezin' to death.

Hands, wrapped in warm leather gloves turned him over effortlessly. In the shelter of spindly naked trees, a fire burned brightly, casting a warm glow about them. The snow still fell around them, but the two around the fire seemed untouched by it all.




Rousing from his tormented sleep, Tompkins felt the warm glow of a fire on his face. He blinked his eyes furiously, tryin' to make out the form sittin' beside him. A warm cup was set into Tompkins' shakin' hands. "Thanks," was the only thing he said before puttin' the cup to his lips and takin' a long hard swallow of the liquid.

Silence reigned and the two sat together listenin' to the crackle of the flames against the crisp winter air.

"Who are you friend?" Another long swallow was met with silence. "I probably would have frozen myself stiff it you hadn't built this fire... I believe I owe my life to you."

The flames bit through another branch and the flames rose into the growin' silence. "Won't you even tell me your name?" The last of the coffee disappeared in a hearty gulp. "If I didn't know better," he mumbled under his breath, "I'd think you were the last gh-" Eyes stretched open in fearful wonder.

Slowly, Tompkins turned to his companion and felt his breath freeze in his chest. The flames were fanned by an unknown force, lighting a ring around it.

"Ike?"

The quiet figure shook his head .

Thompkins hung his head from his shoulders, "You're the third spirit..."

He waited for an answer for the better part of a minute, until he remembered what form the spirit had appeared in. Turning back, he said the words again, "Are you the third spirit?"

Eyes as sharp and smart as an owl stared back at him. A nod, so subtle it was almost missed, was the only indication that his companion was awake.

'How did I get here?' he wondered to himself.

Tompkins stood and dusted the snow off his clothes. When he was done, he held out his hand to the spirit.

The 'young man' looked at it in askance.

"Well...get on with it!"

The spirit merely motioned to the ground beside him.

Tompkins shook his open hand before the spirit's face, "Take my hand... I'm ready."

'Ike' shook his head firmly and moved Tompkins' hand aside. Once again he motioned to the ground beside him.

In a moment of understanding, Tompkins dropped down in a huff, grumblin' under his breath. All the while, the spirit drew circles in the snow.

"So," Tompkins started, "I've seen the pasts of the riders... the present of another. Are you here to show me the future?"

Another nod.

"Well--" Tompkins' voice rose in frustration.

A handful of snow shimmered as the flakes melted in the heat, instantly transforming into a wintery blanket. Scenes played out before their eyes.

Impending war was on the horizon, and they saw it as plain as day. Soldiers, thick as thieves in the streets of SweetWater and some other town that Tompkins didn't recognize. Towns filled the brim with people, "Well at least I'll have a lot of business."

'Ike' shook his head sadly.

Tompkins gestured at the flames, "All those people, my store's bound to be successful."

The picture flickered and they saw boards over the glass windows of the store, signs proclaiming 'Tompkins' Dry Goods' were faded and cracked with age.

"What happened?" Tompkins couldn't believe his eyes, his life's work was boarded up like unused furniture.

A well to do couple stopped before the store and their voices could be heard above the ambient noise. The man began the lament, "Too bad about Tompkins-"

"Too bad?" Scoffed his wife. "That man was nothin' but a sour old goat! He never had a good thing to say about anyone but himself."

"Now darling-"

"Don't you 'darling' me! I don't think there was a single person in town that he actually cared for... I know for certain that no one cared for him."

Tompkins felt his breath freeze in his chest. "It isn't true... what she's sayin'... it's not true.... I cared. I just didn't ---" He froze again, wonderin' at the words she used, "She's talkin' about me like...like I'm dead!"

'Ike' stared at him with solemn eyes.

"Tell me, tell me that I at least lived to a decent age!"

'Ike' said no such thing.

Gun shots echoed in the flames and Tompkins saw bodies fallin' in the streets. War had come to the town. Tompkins backed away from the disconcerting picture before him. The further away he moved the more the cold invaded his body.

"No... I'm not gonna believe it. Things aren't gonna get that bad! They can't... Hell- Teaspoon won't let it get that bad. I mean with you boys in town..."

'Ike' stood and moved closer. Tompkins was suddenly afraid, the look in the spirit's eyes was desolate.

"Wait... don't come any closer... don't you-" He stumbled over his own feet, "I said.. don't you..."

His feet were pulled out from underneath him and he suddenly found himself starin' up at the cold night sky.

Hands grasped at him, tryin' to help him up... but Tompkins shoved them away, "I can manage."

Tompkins felt hard wood under his hand and grabbed on, tryin' to pull himself up.

He looked to 'Ike', who stood by waitin' for himto regain his feet. "What is it?"

The spirit motioned for him to see for himself.

Scootin' around, Tompkins cleared the snow away from the oddly shaped board.

It was a crudely shaped grave marker. The name of TOMPKINS carved into it, without much care or effort. "Not even my first name?"

He felt, rather than saw the Spirit walk away.

Tompkins felt his hands frozen to the wood, but tore himself away in fear, "WAIT!"

The spirit stopped about ten feet away.

"Wait!!!" He scrambled to his feet, "Wait, there has to be something more you can show me!!!"

The snow covered hat swung back and forth in a sad arc. He turned away again and walked away into the snow.

"I said wait!" The spirit disappeared into the thickening storm, with Tompkins followin' blindly after him.

A few feet into darkness, Tompkins fell again. He looked up with a mouthful of snow and stared into a graveyard full of markers. He pulled his knees underneath his body and brushed snow off of the markers. Most were names he didn't recognize. When he finally found one, his heart broke.

IKE McSWAIN

'What had happened?' Tompkins wondered.

Next to it, was another marker that was half covered. He pushed the snow back with shakin' hands and felt his heart crust over with ice.

NOAH DIXON

"Noah?" He breathed the question into the freezin' air. "I didn't need to know this.... I didn't WANT to know this...." The next stone held another name that Tompkins didn't recognize, but held in his heart regardless.

JESSE JAMES

What did it all mean? What did it all mean?

"Why are you showin' this to me... WHY?" Thompkins shut his eyes and hissed out a breath.

Instantly, heat hit his face, shockin' him and throwin' his eyes wide open. He was standin' in the middle of his room behind the store, the heat from a wood burnin' stove bathin' him in its light.

Numb to the core, Tompkins prepared to sleep. He often stayed at the store when he was workin' late...but tonight, he just didn't have the energy to return home. There was too much weighin' on his mind. Mayhaps tomorrow he'd be able to see things in a new light. Or, maybe he'd lose himself in the darkness.

Chapter Seven

The new day dawned. It was Christmas Eve and Kid couldn't help but feel it was the worst day of the year. He'd left the bunkhouse early and made his way to Tompkins' store. He was surprised to find that there was no one there.

He'd paced back and forth, peerin' in the windows and knockin' on the door. Customers began to arrive, last minute purchases couldn't wait for the missin' shopkeep. Kid went in the back of the store and took out the spare key. He quickly opened the store and spent most of the morning fending off the more aggressive customers, waiting for Tompkins to arrive.

Late in the afternoon, Tompkins wandered into the store. Kid was knee deep in customers and packages, "Mr. Tompkins!"

He walked past everyone, their curious stares lost on him.

"Mr. Tompkins!"

"Huh? Oh, Kid! How are you today?"

Kid was busily handing out change to an anxious mother, "Today? Mr. Tompkins... it's Christmas Eve. Where have you been?"

"Been? I've been home, thinking." He walked past the crowd of people in the store and into the storeroom.

"Mr. Tompkins?" Kid felt like he was drowning.




Tompkins reappeared nearly an hour later, a flush on his skin. The crowd had disappeared just a few minutes before and Kid made his way out from behind the counter. "Mr. Tompkins, are you feelin' alright?"

"Kid?" He still seemed a bit dazed and Kid began to worry if Mr. Tompkins was comin' down with a cold. "What are you doin' here today?"

"Today?" Now Kid was VERY worried, "You told me I had to work today."

"No! Really? Now why would I do that, it's Christmas Eve?"

"But you said-"

"Forget what I said, you've been here all morning! Isn't it time you got back to the Station? I thought Rachel was makin' this big dinner for the riders."

Kid nodded silently, Mr. Tompkins' mood was strange, but he wasn't goin' to question him. Kid took off the apron he was wearin' and put it up on a hook in the storeroom. He hated what he had to do next. It was hard to ask Tompkins' for anything, especially money.

Tompkins was bent over the cash box, counting through the bills. Kid cleared his throat, "Uh, Mr. Tompkins?"

"You did well Kid, you did real well today."

"Well that's what I wanted to talk to you about, my -"

Tompkins placed a bunch of bills in Kid's hand, "Here you are. You earned it."

Kid stared at the bills, "Sir?"

"Your pay and a little extra, for having to work by yourself this morning." Kid stood there starin' at him and Tompkins wondered at how easy it was to change, "You can count it if you like, but it's all there."

Kid shook his head, the sandy brown waves bobbed up and down in confusion, "No need to count it... I was just wondering-"

"You better head on out, before I change my mind."

He stopped at the door, "I almost forgot-"

"The present you bought for L- your lady friend?"

Kid looked at him strangely, "Y-y-yes?"

Tompkins disappeared into the storeroom and emerged with a brightly wrapped gift. He pushed it into Kid's slack hands, "Here it is; I wrapped it myself." He turned away from the young man and went about closin' up the store.

Kid turned the package over and over in his hands.

"Are you still here?" Tompkins called over his shoulder. "If you'd rather stay and work-" The door closed rather noisily and Tompkins laughed to himself, "I'm really starting to enjoy myself."




Lou reached across the table again and held Kid's hand. It was so nice to have him there, early for dinner. She'd waited by the window all day, watchin' for him to come home. Rachel had tried to keep her busy, but there was nothin' that could keep her mind off Kid. Lou had a feelin' that he was workin' the extra hours at Tompkins' store to get her a present for Christmas and she was startin' to feel mighty guilty for all the extra work he'd been doin'.

She barely heard what Kid was tellin' them about the store, her heart was focused on him. The others crowded around the table, either shakin' their heads or mumblin' about their confusion.

Rachel smiled quietly as she stirred the gravy, "Boys? Isn't it time you get yourselves washed up for dinner?" One whiff of the turkey and gravy sent the boys running. Louise and Kid followed behind, walkin' closely, together just bein' happy to be near each other on this special day.

Less than an hour later, they all sat around the table. Their heads were bowed over folded hands and Rachel's clear contralto voice intoned a heartfelt prayer for health and happiness for everyone at the table and the town.

"I hope that includes me too!"

Kid nearly jumped out of his seat, "Mr. Tompkins?"

He chuckled at them from his vantage point in the doorway. Rachel was the first to move closer, followed by Teaspoon and Kid, "Mr. Tompkins," she began, "what brings you out this way?"

He looked down, a slightly bemused expression on his face, "Just wondering if the invitation is still open?"

Rachel set a warm hand on his shoulder, "Of course it is! Ike, Buck? Can you set another place at the table?" The two boys went to the cupboard and set another place at the long rectangular table.

Louise tucked her head down to her chest, hopin' that Tompkins wouldn't notice who she really was. As much as she understood why Rachel had invited him, she had wished he hadn't come.

Tompkins looked over and felt a bit of worry over the change he had seen in Lou since she'd seen him enter the bunkhouse. Part of him wanted to tell her he knew the secret, but the larger part of him knew that this was not the time.

The riders sat back down, changin' their order so that Lou would be the farthest away from him. He admired the way they cared for her, each puttin' themselves in the way of his sight. They acted like over cautious brothers and Tompkins had to admit that that is exactly what they were. This rag tag bunch of 'boys' had formed a family. Tompkins felt humbled by the realization.

Looking around the table while Rachel handed down the trays and plates, Tompkins took a moment to watch both Noah and Ike. Why had the spirit chosen to show him their graves? 'Both boys looked healthy, so that could only mean -' Tompkins cringed automatically and shook his head, 'No use thinkin' about somethin' you can't change.'

"Unless there is something I can do to change it."

"I'm sorry Mr. Tompkins' did you say something?" Rachel froze with the plate of biscuits just out of Cody's reach. His fingers reached closer and closer, straining under the exertion.

"Me? Why no Rachel, but there is something I need to give to you." He withdrew a neatly written letter, "I was hoping the next rider to head out to St. Jo would take this with them."

Rachel took the letter and read it, a radiant smile dawning over her face. She handed the letter to Lou who read it aloud to the boys.

"It isn't much, but I thought that it was the least I could do-"

"All the books? That is just wonderful Mr. Tompkins!"




Dinner progressed with an easy air. Later, as the riders left the table, Tompkins watched with interest as Kid and Lou disappeared into the night. The brightly wrapped package tucked under Kid's arm.

He stood at the window, a cup of mulled cider in his hand, and watched the two fade into the darkness. He'd added some hair ribbons and a bottle of perfume into the package he'd wrapped. His only regret was that he'd probably never have the honor of seein' her wear any of it.

Tompkins felt a hand settle on his shoulder, "Well then," Teaspoon began, "What really made you come out here tonight?"

Chuckling he turned to the Marshal, "What makes you think it wasn't just the Christmas spirit?"

Laughter died as Teaspoon turned near transparent before eyes, "Oh I know it was... I know it was!" With an outrageous wink the spirit disappeared into the night leavin' Tompkins baskin' in the light of Christmas.

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