"I donít know why I have to be the one stuck taking the run tonight," grumbled Cody to no one in particular. "After all, itís Christmas Eve, a time for snoozing by the fire." To his credit, Cody had worked particularly hard that day, even doing the other ridersí chores as a Christmas present to them. Still, no one seemed to notice.
"Iíd gladly take your ride, Cody," offered Jimmy. "Emma says sheís gonna make us all go to church."
Emma had entered the bunkhouse just in time to hear Jimmy trying to strike a bargain, "Oh no you donít, James Hickok. You ainít gettingí out of church tonight. Your soul needs saving more than anyone else I know."
Cody couldnít help but smirk, and when Jimmy caught sight of the smile he threw a pillow at the blonde rider. Being used to the commotion, Emma nonchalantly intercepted the weapon, looking at Jimmy disapprovingly. "And that, young man, is why your buttís gonna be in a pew tonight and not in a saddle. Sorry, Cody, but the rideís yours."
"Humph . What about my soul?" asked Cody in an injured tone.
Buck looked up from his newspaper, "You canít save something that doesnít exist."
"And Cody, gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins," teased Lou . "I saw how much you ate at supper last night."
"What are the others, Lou? Lord knows Codyís done them all, probably several times over," added Jimmy.
That was the last straw. Cody was too angry to even speak! He gave them all a dirty look, gathered up his belongings and stormed out of the bunkhouse in a blind fury. All the denizens of the bunkhouse simply stared after him with dropped jaws. Usually Cody could laugh at a joke on himself.
"Guess I went a little too far," admitted Buck with a sheepish look on his face.
"Suppose Iíd be complaining too if I had a ride tonight," Lou said thoughtfully as she looked out the window. The snow was definitely falling harder now, and the wind was picking up speed. "Cody looked pretty upset. I think maybe we really hurt his feelings."
"Yeah, well, knowiní Cody heíll be back when thereís a warm meal on the table," said Jimmy with his usual cockiness.
"Remember, boys, itís Christmas Eve. A time of peace and goodwill." Emmaís last sentence sounded suspiciously like a hint.
"Alright, weíll apologize to him when he gets back," conceded Buck. "When is he due in?"
Emma checked her pocket watch. "Itís a short run, so I suppose about eight tonight."
"Apologiziní and church," muttered Jimmy to himself. " And it's not even Sunday."
Meanwhile, Cody was having a miserable time of it out on the trail. The cold wind and snow seemed to penetrate through his heavy coat, hat and gloves. He wasnít just physically uncomfortable, but also upset at the remarks his so-called friends had made. He knew he wasnít perfect, but was he really that bad? He wiped at a damp spot on his cheek and tried to convince himself that it was melted snow. Preoccupied with his own thoughts, Cody didnít see that Prince had picked up a stone in his hoof. Before Cody knew what was happening, he went flying through the air, knocking his head on a rock when he landed. Mercifully, everything faded into darkness.
It was almost nine by the time Emma, Teaspoon and the riders returned home from the Christmas Eve service. They expected to find Cody in the bunkhouse but found it cold and empty.
"I thought you said Cody was due back around eight," Lou directed at Emma.
"I did. He was pretty upset when he left, though. Maybe heís just taking his time coming home."
"Not in this weather," reasoned Kid. "Besides, that doesnít sound like something Cody would do, especially not on Christmas Eve."
"Kidís right," agreed Lou. "I want to go look for him. Maybe heís in some kind of trouble." The rest of the riders consented and everyone started to get ready.
"Now hold on just a dog-gone minute," ordered Teaspoon. "I donít need the whole kit and caboodle of you out there on a search party. Lou, you may go since it was your idea and take Buck along to track him."
"You two better bundle up real good," cautioned Emma. "Looks like the stormís growing worse. And please, bring him back safe."
When Cody awoke he found himself standing in a familiar looking room. Dazed, he rubbed his eyes to make sure they werenít playing tricks on him.
"Your eyes are workiní just fine, son," said a grizzled, yet kindly voice at his side. The voice belonged to none other than Teaspoon. Cody felt relief. Maybe Teaspoon could explain things.
"This is my old room, Teaspoon, when I was a boy. How did I-I mean how did we get here?"
"How is not important right now," he answered cryptically.
Just then a tow-headed boy of about ten walked into the room and crawled into one of the beds. He looked pale and feverish, but also glum.
"Samuel! Sam!" cried Cody, trying to get the boyís attention. "Teaspoon, thatís my big brother, Sam. Why canít he hear me?"
"No one can hear or see you or me," explained the stationmaster. "Weíre just observers right now. Youíre looking at your past. Now hush up and watch." I
Soon a young woman entered the room. She was young and pretty with light auburn hair and turquoise colored eyes that looked tired. She had an air of patient humor about her.
"Ma!" Cody gasped. He wished to feel her arms around him again but knew it was impossible.
"You need to stay in bed Ďtil the fever passes," she told the boy. "You want to feel better for Christmas now, donít you?"
"Yes, ma," he answered hoarsely.
"Sam was always sickly," Cody explained to Teaspoon. "No one ever knew quite what was wrong but he never did get better. He died only a few years later. I-I wasnít around to say goodbye. Iíd already gone west."
Before Teaspoon had a chance to respond another tow-headed boy came bouncing into the room. He also had light blonde hair, but unlike the other boy, had rosy cheeks, an impish grin and seemingly boundless energy.
"Are you sick again, Sammy?" he asked his big brother.
"íFraid so, Will," he sighed. "And you know how Ma is. She wonít let me out of bed. I hate being stuck here, especially on Christmas Eve."
"Just because youíre sick donít mean Santa wonít bring you nothiní," the smallest boy said confidently.
"How do you know?"
"íCause I know. Sammy, did I ever tell you about the time I met Santa Clause?"
"No," smiled Sam, getting the feeling he was in for one of Willís tall tales. "Tell me, Will."
Will launched into an incredibly detailed fantasy about meeting St. Nick. The bigger Samís smile got, the bigger the story became as well, until they both both boys were laughing so hard they were warned to keep it down.
"Your brother always appreciated your stories and imagination," Teaspoon told Cody. "They made the time pass for him and kept his mind off his pain. Thatís why you like to tell stories like you do. Even if you do exaggerate a little bit, you do make people laugh."
"Iím not sure my friends see it that way," Cody said dejectedly. "That is, if they even are my friends. Iím too sure anymore."
"Well, son, I think itís time to find out."
The scene before Cody started to fade. "Bye, Sammy," he waved. "It was good seeing you, big brother."
The next thing Cody knew, he was surrounded by swirling snow, though he couldnít feel it. He looked around a bit more and noticed the particular stretch of trail he stood on was one he had passed many times, including just a few hours ago. Again, Teaspoon was by his side.
"I donít understand, Teaspoon. Why am I here?" he asked.
"Watch and listen, son, watch and listen."
Cody heard the sound of distant hoofbeats and the rumble of a wagon. As it got closer, Cody realized Buck was driving the wagon and that Lou was by his side.
"Whoa," Buck called to the horses. He hopped down from the seat and closely inspected his surroundings.
"You got anything?" Lou called out to him.
"Barely. Itís hard to track in this snow," he replied. "Itís turning into a blizzard."
"Weíve got to find him, Buck. Weíd have met him already if heíd been on his way home. Somethingís happened to him, I know it." Lou's voice sounded almost desperate. Cody took a good look at her. Small Lou was nearly eclipsed by her large coat and she had tied a scarf around her hat and tied the ends under her chin. Even so, her teeth chattered in the bitter cold. Cody looked at her eyes and read THE concern in them.
A new thought dawned on Cody, "Lou cares about me that much? Sheís freezing. She shouldnít be out here."
"Yes, Cody, she cares," Teaspoon said gently. "And you and I both know itís impossible to change her mind once itís made up. Sheís determined to find you."
"What about the others?" Cody asked his guide. "Jimmy and them. Sometimes I donít know if-" Cody bit off the end of his sentence for fear of it sounding too childish.
"Well, letís take a look-see."
Before he knew it, Cody and Teaspoon were back in the bunkhouse. Although it was Christmas Eve, no one was joyous. In fact, it was strangely quiet. Even the tree in the corner remained untrimmed. No one was doing much of anything except Emma, who stood at the kitchen stove.
"What are you making this time of night?" Kid asked her.
"Well, Cody didnít have a nice dinner at the hotel like we did. Iím fixiní him some soup. The storm is getting worse. Heíll be cold."
"Iíll get some more wood for the fire then," Jimmy responded. He was wore a concerned expression rather than the scowl that was usually on his face when he did this chore"What else can we do, Emma?"
"Not much Ďtil the three of them get back, besides pray that they make it home safely."
"Weíll do that," signed Ike. The others nodded.
"Theyíre doing all that for me?" asked Cody in wonder.
"Youíd do the same for any of them," Teaspoon replied. "Youíve got to understand Cody, that underneath their joshiní and foolishness, they, uh, we, really do love you."
Cody lowered his head, "I know that now, Teaspoon. I want to go home."
"Soon. Thereís one more stop we need to make before the night is over," the older man smiled mysteriously. "Youíve seen Christmas past and Christmas present, but you havenít seen-"
"Christmas future!" Cody finished for him. He knew the Dickensí story quite well.
By now Cody was used to popping into different places so it didnít take him by surprise when he landed in the middle of a house parlor that was nicely decorated for Christmas. Two children, a brown-haired girl and a tow-headed boy, were chasing each other around the sofa.
"Emmylou, give it back!" the boy demanded.
"Not Ďtil you say Ďsorryí for pulling my hair," she yelled back, grabbing the back of his shirt collar and yanking him to the floor. A wrestling match ensued.
"Are these my kids?" gulped Cody.
"A little high spirited, ainít they ?" chuckled Teaspoon. "They take after their ma and pa."
The figure of a woman came into the room. Cody couldnít make out her face clearly but the moment she said, "Children, behave yourselves!" he knew exactly who the voice belonged to
"Now your pa will be home any minute with the tree." She continued. "If you two canít settle down, go run around the house a few times and burn off that energy."
"Teaspoon, is that really-?"
Youíd better believe it. You named your son Sam after your late brother, and your daughter is called Emmylou. Sheís named after Emma andÖyour wife."
Just as Cody was about to respond, a slightly older version of him came through the door, carrying a fir tree. "Alright, kids, whoís gonna help their pa with this tree?" Forgetting their fight, the children ran to him, giving him liberal hugs and kisses, saying, "Me! Me!"
Cody beamed at Teaspoon. "My family," he said proudly. "Theyíre-theyíre beautiful."
"They sure are," agreed Teaspoon. "The children have your mischievousness and their motherís stubbornness, so life will never be dull, but theyíre a good bunch. And now, Cody, itís time to go home."
"Lou, I donít know if we can go on much further. This snowís making it almost impossible to track," Buck explained sadly.
"No, we canít give up now," she countered him. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a figure lying in the snow not twenty feet ahead of them. "Buck, look!"
The young Kiowa quickly jumped from the wagon seat and rushed to his friend. He turned Cody onto his back and felt for a pulse. There was a gash on his forehead and his lips were almost blue, but he was breathing. Buck noticed one of Codyís gloves was somehow only halfway on and he swore under his breath. There was no doubt that frostbite had set in.
"Heís alive!" he shouted to Lou, who sat frozen with fear that he wasnít. Spurred into action by the good news, Lou grabbed a blanket from the wagon in hope of warming Cody a little.
"Cody? Cody, can you hear me?" Buck asked. "Come on, wake up, buddy."
The blonde rider didnít so much flicker an eyelid in response. Buck took the blanket from Louís hand and wrapped it around his friend.
"Weíve got to get him into the wagon and home quick. Who knows how much longer-" Buck had intended to say "heíll survive out here" but quickly changed it to "itíll keep snowing" when he saw Louís worried eyes.
Buck lifted Codyís limp form and placed him gently in the wagon bed that had been filled with straw. Lou scrambled into the wagon as well. She cradled Cody in her arms and used her handkerchief to try and stop the bleeding.
"Hang on, Cody," she pleaded, her eyes stinging with tears. One drop escaped and promptly froze to the exposed part of her cheek. "Buckíll get us home real soon." Louise closed her eyes and prayed with all her might that her words were true.
The residents of the bunkhouse, who had been mostly moping, suddenly became quite animated when the saw the wagon pull onto the property.
"He's alive" Buck shouted as the curious crowd gathered on the porch. "But barely. I'm gonna need some help!"
"I'll tend to the horses," volunteered Jimmy. He knew he'd look generous by offering to go out into the cold but the truth was, he couldn't stand to see people he cared about in pain. It always made him feel uncomfortable, but at least he could put off the inevitable for a while.
"Put him down here," ordered Emma, pointing to the bunk closest to the stove. Without a word Kid dutifully started to remove Cody's wet, icy clothes. Ike soon joined him.
"Any sign of frostbite?" Emma was concerned.
"Yeah, on his hands. What should I do?"
"Just get him warmed up for right now," she said. "He's so cold he's not even shivering."
The others realized Emma was right. Except for the shallow rise and fall of his chest, Cody lay deathly still. Emma held up a blanket near the stove to warm it, then passed it to Kid who placed it over Cody. The cold had actually numbed Cody to any pain so when his body began to absorb the warmth from the stove and blankets he started to shiver and let out a soft moan.
"It's a good sign, means he's getting warmer," Teaspoon assured the others. "He's gonna be in considerable pain, though. Ike, we got any laudanum left?"
Just as Emma was about to place a spoonful of medicine into Cody's mouth he started thrashing about in the bed. The shivering had turned into full-scale shaking. Cody was now starting to come to a bit and he wondered who was stabbing daggers into every inch of his body. Inadvertently, he knocked the spoon from Emma's hand, sending the last of the laudanum to the floor.
"He's starting to come around," explained Emma. "We've got to keep him from moving too much so he doesn't do any further damage to his hands.
Kid then noticed how swollen Cody's hands were from the frostbite. If it wasn't treated soon he knew that Cody risked losing some fingers. He pressed one hand against Cody's chest to keep him from struggling, "Easy, Cody, easy." Walking in from the barn, Jimmy witnessed this scene before him and wished he could walk right back out. Instead, he came to Kid's aid.
"Shh, Cody, I know it hurts, sweetheart," Emma tried to soothe him. "Just try and lie still now."
By now Cody was aware that there were others around him but he had no idea who these people were. He could hear voices but not make out the words. The voices were friendly, calming. He guessed he was safe. He could stop fighting them for now.
"Teaspoon, I don't think we can wait any longer to treat his hands," the red-headed woman choked. "Could you-?" Emma shook her head, ashamed of her weakness at not wanting to perform this particular task. She couldn't stand to see the poor boy suffer any further.
Teaspoon nodded solemnly and filled a bowl of water from the kettle. He mixed in some cold water until it was lukewarm.
"Boys, you're gonna have to hold him down tight. This is gonna hurt like hell. Turning to Cody, he apologized for what he was about to do, "Sorry, son."
Cody was aware of someone taking his hands. It hurt but he could tolerate it. The next thing he knew, those hands burned with an incredible, searing pain like he'd never felt in his life. Screaming in agony, he tried to sit up and pull away, but more hands were holding him back now.
Lou's face paled as she watched Cody's reaction. It took all her willpower not to pry that bowl out of Teaspoon's hands and save Cody from this misery.
"Emma, Lou, you got to calm him down," Teaspoon nearly barked in frustration.
Lou took Cody's head in her hands and began to massage his forehead, "You're gonna be fine, Cody, try and relax."
"Breath through the pain, Cody," suggested Emma. She had only seen a handful of people in this much misery in her life, and they had all been giving birth at the time. Cody would have no reward to take away the memory of the pain, though.
Cody still couldn't make out the words the others were saying, but he had heard his name. The voices that spoke to him and the hands that touched him were loving ones. Finally he stopped his struggle with them. Exhausted from the ordeal, his body relaxed as much as the pain would allow it to, and he slumped back against the others.
"Cody, no!" screamed Lou, fearing the worst.
Emma hugged the distraught girl to her, "It's alright, Lou, he's just sleepin'. He just fell asleep, see? Cody's alright, just wore out."
Louise peeked over Emma's shoulder to see Kid and Jimmy easing Cody onto the bed. In the dim light she could see that his features had relaxed considerably and he was indeed asleep.
"The rest of you better get to bed, too," suggested Teaspoon. "You'll have to take shifts sitting with him."
Lou was about to volunteer when Emma shook her head. "No, darlin', not first watch. You were out in that cold too. You should rest and get warm."
"I'll take the first watch," Jimmy surprised everyone by saying, himself included, although he fervently hoped Cody would not awaken on his shift.
"If he wakes up see if you can get a little broth down him," instructed Emma. "The main thing is to keep him calm. If you need me, just holler."
Cody slept so soundly for the first couple hours that Jimmy kept checking to make sure he was still breathing. He was almost relieved when Cody groaned; at least he wasn't so deathly still and quiet.
"Home," he called out. "I want to go home."
"You are home, Cody," whispered Jimmy.
Still a little out-of-it from the pain and the cold, Cody was unsure who was speaking to him. He tried to lift his hand to get the person's attention but when he moved it the pain shot through him once again. Cody bit his lip to keep from crying out loud but a drop or two escaped down his cheeks.
"Don't move your hands, Cody, they're frostbit. Keep them still."
Cody finally recognized the edgy voice, "Jimmy," he slurred. Slowly he brought himself to open his eyes, "You're Jimmy."
"Guess you didn't hit your head too hard if you remember me," said Jimmy with a wry smile. He was tremendously relieved to see his friend awake, but would have died before admitting it. "Emma said to give you some soup. Think you can handle that?"
Cody nodded slightly, still too weak and dazed to talk much. Jimmy awkwardly spoon-fed Cody some of the broth. He felt very much out of his element in the role of nursemaid.
When his strength gave out Cody shut his eyes and turned his head away from Jimmy as a signal he couldn't eat any more.
"Cody, I'm sorry if I was out of line earlier today," Jimmy apologized in the darkness. "We were just jokin' but I guess we just weren't thinkin', you know?"
The blonde rider didn't respond.
"Great," muttered Hickok. "The one apology he's gonna get out of me and he sleeps through it."
Cody's eyes fluttered open briefly, "Thanks, Jimmy."
Jimmy hated to wake Lou for her shift but knew she'd be madder than a wet cat if he let her sleep through it.
"Hmm? What is it?" she yawned when she felt a gentle nudge on her shoulder. Once she was fully awake she asked how Cody was.
"He woke up some," was Jimmy's good news. "Remembered me and took some soup."
Lou felt a wave of relief wash over her. The intensity of her worry had surprised her. But it was only natural to be worried about a friend, right?
"That's good," she said bringing herself out of her reverie. "I'll stay with him now. Thanks, Jimmy. And Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas, Lou."
Cody awoke with a start. Something was different, but he couldnít quite put his finger on it. After a couple minutes he realized that he was no longer cold. He wasnít quite warm but at least he had stopped shivering. The nightsí events were a bit fuzzy to him, and he called out the name of the last person he remembered singing, "Jimmy? Jimmy?"
"Iím here, Cody," Lou soothed. "Or did you want Jimmy?"
He shook his head, "I thought heíd been here. Musta been dreaming."
"No, he was sitting with you earlier," she explained. "Itís my turn now."
"Iím glad," he said, giving her a weak smile. "Youíre the one who found me, werenít you?"
"How did you know? You were out when we found you. Figured from that gash that you hit your head on a rock."
"I-I just knew somehow," he answered lamely. Cody did not want to explain his crazy dream to Lou. Knowing the part that she had played in that dream, he began to feel a little awkward around her, and didnít know what else to say.
Lou mistook his quietness for tiredness. Very gingerly she picked up one of his hands to inspect it, "Theyíre looking better. We were pretty worried. Can you move them at all?"
Cody tried to curl his fingers into a fist. He didnít get beyond bending the fingertips but Lou was happy to see even that much improvement. At the very least, he would keep all his fingers.
"Was Teaspoon here tonight?" he asked.
"Yeah, he tended to your hands. Felt real bad about it, too. Do you remember?"
"No, I donít remember much of anything except when I woke up and talked to Jimmy."
Lou patted him on the arm, "Count your blessings. It wasnít pretty. It took all the boys to hold you down, you were in so much pain."
By the dim light of the stove, Cody saw the anguished look in Louís eyes as she recalled watching him in pain. He noticed she was also still holding his hand. Teaspoon was telling the truth, he thought, she really does care. I see that now.
"You had a long night," Lou said softly, placing his hand back on his chest. "And you should rest."
"Stay with me?" he yawned.
Cody was about to close his eyes when he noticed the tree in the corner of the bunkhouse. It was still untrimmed.
"Lou, is it Christmas yet?" he asked, unsure of the time.
"Yeah, about two hours ago," she answered.
"Then why isnít the tree all decorated?"
Lou shook her head at the absurdness of his question, "Well, first no one felt like doing much of anything, everyone was so worried. And then we were taking care of you. Donít you see, Cody? Our first concern was you." Lou kissed him on the cheek to drive her point home.
"I want to see that tree all decorated the next time I wake up," he instructed with a wink.
Cody closed his eyes and enjoyed feeling Lou arrange the blankets over him. He now felt silly, even slightly embarrassed at how he had reacted to the teasing yesterday. Secretly Cody hoped no one would remember with all the chaos that ensued. What was I thinking? he wondered. I have the best friends a guy could ever ask for.
Later that morning Cody woke to the sound of excited voices.
"Thought you were gonna sleep the day away," Emma smiled at him when she noticed he was awake. "How are you feeling, young man?"
Cody propped himself up on his elbows. "Better."
The words were music to Emmaís ears. She hoped he had no idea of how close they had been to losing him. "Iím happy to hear that. Lou, do you want to show Cody your fine work?"
"I had some help from the boys," she gave credit and she pointed in the direction of the newly decorated firtree. It was the prettiest one Cody had ever seen. Almost every branch was adorned with something. He beamed at it, then his friends.
"Thank you," he choked, hoping the others blamed the huskiness in his voice from a night in the cold. "Merry Christmas."
Teaspoon ambled over to Cody and helped get him to a sitting position, "Youíre welcome, son. Merry Christmas, and may all your future Christmases be as blessed as this one." Teaspoon gave Cody a quick wink.
Future Christmases? Cody gave Teaspoon a bewildered look. Was it really a dream heíd had last night? Teaspoon only smiled in return.