Topic #36: Word - "Silent Nights"
|The Roar of Silence
||A Silent Angel's Silent
Night by: Cathy
|Oh Night Divine by: Cindy
||The Plan by: Lori
|Words Into the Darkness by: Raye
|| Silent in the Night by: Raye
|All is Calm, All is Bright by: Debbie
|| In the Silence of the Night by: Cindy
|Silent Nights by: Liz
Please be kind its my first try (thanks for the encouragement Laney)
Buck lay looking at the ceiling of the bunkhouse and counting the flyspecks for the millionth time. He couldn’t sleep, every time he closed his eyes he thought of her. He knew he wasn’t alone. Ike missed her terribly, too, maybe more than Buck. Cody, Jimmy and Kid had all expressed the wish to know how she was doing.
She’d come into their lives one cold morning and taken their hearts, when she left a few days later she took them with her. Those first few hours had been hard. Buck had little experience in this area and had looked to the others for guidance.
Cody had been his usual jovial self and attempted to charm her with all his innate talents. At times he succeeded with brilliance and at others failed miserably. He’d always thought of himself as a lady’s man.
Jimmy had some experience but all the tricks of his trade, bullets, spurs and guns had failed to impress the little lady and he too had failed. Nothing in is sordid past had prepared him for this blue eyed lady.
Kid, without Lou, tried his best to charm and woo the beautiful blond with the wispy curls of gold. He had more to draw from in his past but it wasn’t enough. He had a limited success too.
Teaspoon, for all his marriages and vast experience with women, was also at a loss. He wished Lou or Emma would be home soon. They’d be able to handle this visitor better than the boys and him. This little lady had them stumped.
Ike, it seems, had a hidden talent and a definite way with this young lady. She giggled with him, smiled with him. She wanted him and him alone. Her hands reached for his and he readily accepted the role she wanted him to play. His work roughened hands became as gentle as an angel’s kiss when he touched her. His lips found her head often and she smiled each time he kissed her even in her sleep.
The nights were the hardest. She’d slept in the bunk house and they’d all taken turns holding her when she cried. They’d rock her gently in their arms and whisper soft words of love to her. Buck had told her the stories of the Kiowa. She’d listened intently, not understanding a word of the story when Buck spoke to her in his native tongue, but loving every minute. He loved her smile, her smell, the feel of her velvet soft skin under his fingers. Buck had never had anyone enjoy his company as much as she did. Her love was unconditional, no strings attached. She’d snuggle in his arms, a smile of contentment on her face. He enjoyed the feeling of love, giving and taking, it was new to him.
None of them had a full night’s sleep the few nights she was there. The nights were always interrupted with her cries. She demanded attention and the men had rallied to her. If one was up they all were. Ike was the hero. He could soothe her cries, he intuitively knew what she needed and wanted. The others took over his runs so he could give her his undivided attention. She thrived in his very capable care but the end inevitably came.
“Rider comin’” Cody sang out one afternoon a few days after her arrival, “It’s a woman but I don’t think it Emma”
They all gathered on the porch of the bunkhouse. She was contentedly sleeping against Ike’s chest.
The woman drove her team into the door yard and stopped. She regarded the men carefully, and then she saw the baby and her face lit up.
“Can we help you?” Teaspoon asked walking over to the wagon.
“You already have, Thank-you so much, that’s my daughter” she pointed to the slumbering child in Ike’s arms. “After her Daddy died I was at a loss, I was going to leave her with Emma Shannon, and Emma was so kind to me when he died. I started to head back to my parents but I only got so far and I realized I couldn’t do it. I love her too much. I need my baby.” She spoke through her teas as Ike slowly walked over to the wagon. Buck and Teaspoon helped the young mother down and Ike placed the infant in her arms. The baby woke up and cooed at her mother happily. “I don’t know how I’ll get by but I’ll do it somehow, as long as I have her, I’ll be alright. We’ll be alright.”
Buck and Teaspoon again helped the woman back onto her wagon, the baby girl nestled securely in her mother’s arms. As the wagon left the station they all shed a silent tear for the little girl they’d all fallen in love with. Life returned to normal an hour or so later when the familiar cry of ‘Rider coming’ rang out. Ike grabbed his coat and was out the door in a heartbeat, expertly taking the handoff from Lou.
“Hi guys! Miss me?” Lou cheerfully greeted them as she entered the bunkhouse. “Anything exciting happen while I was gone?”
That night the silence was deafening in the bunkhouse. Lou was the only one who slept soundly. The others had never had a louder silent night.
Very few stars were visible in the sky that night. The clouds were closing in and it was beginning to snow again. Not that either of these things were of any real concern to Ike McSwain as he rode steadily towards Sweetwater station. The only thing that really mattered to the rider was that he get home in time for Christmas.
“Home.” That was term Ike hadn’t used in reference to where he lived for a very long time. The mission school hadn’t been a home by any stretch of the imagination no matter how much the sisters had tried to make it one. Until Buck Cross had come along to be his friend and give him a “voice” again, the mission had been little more than a prison to the silent young boy Ike had been.
At the thought of Buck, Ike couldn’t help but smile. The only reason he’d taken the ride that would risk his being home in time to celebrate with his friend was that he had wanted to get Buck something very special for Christmas.
A few weeks earlier they had been at Fort Laramie and Ike had seen Buck eyeing a sweater in the camp store. The other rider had run his hand gently over the warm woolen item and then sighed as he turned away. He’d said nothing to Ike but the mute had known that his friend had wanted that sweater. That was when he’d decided to buy it for Buck for Christmas.
The sweater was now safely wrapped in brown paper and tied tightly to Ike’s saddle.
~ ~ ~
Lost in his musings, Ike almost missed the stuttering sound of the song in the dark. Reigning his horsed to a stop, the rider strained to listen. Several minutes passed until Ike began to believe he had imagined the words.
Then he heard, “H-h-o-oly n-n-night.”
The voice was coming from a grove of trees not far from the path. Sliding to the ground, Ike made his way towards where he thought the song originated.
It has been snowing steadily for several days so the going was a lot harder than the rider had anticipated. The plaintive “All is-s c-calm, a-all is b-b-bright,” drove him through the drifts until he reached a large pine toppled onto its side in what was one of the few clear patches of ground.
The rider paused to get his bearings, wishing once more that he had a voice to yell. Realizing the futility of wishing for what he could not have, Ike did the next best thing. Pulling off his gloves, he clapped his hands together as loudly as he could.
“He-hello?” a voice called weakly.
Ike trudged determinedly around the tree until he found the source of the voice. A woman—girl actually—lay among the lowest branches of the tree. Her back was to him but the sound of his breathing made her twist to look in his direction.
“Y-you’re r-real!” she cried, then gasped in pain.
Ike’s smile faded as quickly as it had come. Moving closer, he realized that the woman’s leg was trapped beneath the tree and what he could see of it was at a very unnatural angle from the rest of her body.
Kneeling, the rider assessed the situation as quickly as possible. The woman’s lower leg and foot were pinned to the ground and it was obvious the leg was broken. Tentatively, with an apologetic smile, Ike attempted to lift the tree. Her cry of agony, along with the weight of the tree, told him he was going to have to find another way.
Frantically slapping his hands against his thighs he tried to come up with another idea. The ground was too frozen to dig, even if he had something to dig with.
“Am-am I going to d-die?” the woman asked softly.
Ike knelt beside her and shook his head determinedly.
“C-can’t you t-talk?” she asked, curiosity overriding her pain momentarily.
Again Ike shook his head, this time sadly.
Carefully he traced the words “Need Help” in the snow beside them.
“M-my h-house is on t-the other s-side of that r-ridge,” the woman told him. “B-but no one is t-there.”
Ike looked at her, then slapped the side of his head. She was obviously shivering. He hadn’t noticed at first but now realized her gloveless hands were nearly blue from the cold.
Stripping off his own gloves he gave them to her and she accepted them gratefully. As he started to strip off his coat, she stopped him. “You’ll f-freeze,” she exclaimed.
Smiling confidently, Ike nodded, then wrote “be right back” in the snow. Running as fast as the snow allowed back to his horse, he pulled his bedroll and blanket from the saddle, then hesitated briefly before untying the pack that held his present for Buck. His friend would understand, of that he was sure.
~ ~ ~
“My name is Virginia,” the woman told him. Her voice was still weak but the shivering had stopped with the addition of the sweater and the blanket to her own coat. Ike had found some relatively dry wood and was trying to get a small fire started.
Smoothing out the snowy patch he had been using to communicate, Ike wrote his name, then pointed to himself.
“Ike,” she repeated. “That’s a nice name.”
Ike blushed shyly then pointed to her and grinned.
“You think my name is nice too?” she asked smiling for the first time.
Nodding, the rider turned his attention to the wood and finally coaxed a small flame from the kindling. It didn’t give off a lot of heat but at least he was able to see a bit better from the light it provided.
The tree was bigger than he had thought at first; going several feet before it even began to taper to a point. Fortunately, if it could be considered that, Virginia’s leg was trapped almost at the base of the branches.
Looking from the tree and then back to the woman, the mute raised his eyebrows questioningly.
“I’m not sure what happened,” she explained. “Our cow got loose from the barn and I was out looking for her. I guess the snow at the top was just too heavy. I heard this crack and tried to get out of the way but I fell and the tree fell on my leg.”
Ike pulled one of the burning branches from the fire and used it like a torch to check out the area around Virginia’s leg. Only the foot was actually trapped beneath the trunk but he couldn’t lift the tree by himself.
“You have to go for help,” the woman told him. “I’ll be all right,” she added without much conviction.
The rider shook his head. Instead he looked around again and noticed a long branch and a rock that sat not far from the tree. Smiling as the memory of Sister Mary Francis as she explained levers and fulcrums, he rose quickly to his feet.
~ ~ ~
“And then my silent angel used that branch to lift the tree far enough that I was able to get my foot out.”
Ike smiled as Virginia shared their story for what seemed like the thousandth time. The neighbors had been looking for her and had found the pair not long after Ike had gotten her on his horse. They had taken her to their house and Ike had ridden with as much speed as possible to the nearby town to get the doctor.
Luckily the damage to her foot had been nothing more than a severe bruise. She’d be back on the farm in no time at all, the doctor had assured them. He’d left them with some laudanum for the pain if she needed it but so far Virginia had refused.
“You are a very lucky young woman, Virginia,” Mrs. Brighton told her. “But you need your rest now!”
“Ike?” Virginia asked, suddenly shy. “Would you stay with me? At least until I fall asleep?”
Ike glanced quickly at the older woman, then nodded as Mrs. Brighton smiled in agreement. Moving to a chair beside the bed, he took the hand she offered and held it tightly in his own.
“I was beginning to think I was going to die out there,” Virginia told him once they were alone. “I had been calling and calling but no one had heard me.”
Smiling, Ike gave her hand a squeeze. Pointing first to his chest, he then cupped his hand around his ear.
“You heard,” the girl translated. At the rider’s nod, she hesitated, then added, “you heard me singing.”
The pair fell into a comfortable silence and Virginia finally nodded off to sleep.
~ ~ ~
Buck Cross looked at the sweater his friend had given him. One sleeve had obviously been torn but carefully repaired. Ike had finally returned to Sweetwater two days after Christmas. He hadn’t known what to expect when his friend had handed him the package but this wasn’t it.
“What happened?” he asked curiously.
It’s a long story, Ike signed. But it begins with a snowy, silent night.
Author’s Note: This story follows “Starting Over” in Quick Fic week #25.
They walked together in silence, leaving the music behind them, leaving the laughter and gaiety of Rock Creek’s holiday party behind them, leaving everyone else behind.
They reached the edge of the town, and as they neared the small jeweler’s shop, Jane tightened her grip on Buck’s hand. Looking at the shop now, and thinking about how it felt like home, made it hard to believe that it was really only a few months since she had made the decision to leave Benton and move to Rock Creek. It hadn’t been planned that way when she had stepped off the stage in Rock Creek. No, it was just supposed to be a short trip, to see old friends and console them after Ike’s death.
Yes, that had been the plan.
But seeing Buck again had reignited a passion that had first flared when he had escorted her home to Falls Church following the death of Emory and Frank Pike. Buck had been right to push her away at the time, she knew – the death of her own father was still too raw a wound. And although she still missed her father terribly, the open wound on her soul had healed by the time she arrived in Rock Creek.
And saw him again.
They walked on past the jeweler’s shop now, though she clearly remembered seeing it for the first time – and realizing it could be hers. Buck had taken her on a tour of Rock Creek, the two of them walking through the nearly deserted streets in the evening. Laughter and music sounded from the saloons, but otherwise they were alone. And this had been their final stop. He had told her about the death of the previous owner – and reminded her of her own love of making jewelry.
In words no one else might have understood, he had asked her to stay.
She said yes, of course – and then wondered, often in those first days, if that had been the right decision. True, she had helped her jeweler father, and often garnered his praise for her work, but that was a far cry from running her own shop. The demands of actually owning a business were totally foreign. And then there was always the fear that Buck would leave. The Pony Express was winding down, they all knew it, and he was unsure of what his future might hold.
But he hadn’t left town, and things had worked out. At first, he had still been busy with the Express, and in between he threw himself into the task of helping her learn to keep the books for a business. Later, when there were no more mail runs, he took on odd jobs. Polly needed occasional help at the saloon, Janos had more work at the blacksmith shop that he could handle alone, and Teaspoon needed a part-time deputy.
Of course, he had absolutely refused to take any money for the work he did helping her with the shop.
The sounds of the town were completely behind them now, with only their own footsteps crunching across the frozen ground to break the silence. She looked ahead, across the open prairie, even as she was thinking back to their courtship.
Courtship . . .
It almost hadn’t happened. Always concerned with the fear and anger his mere presence engendered with some people, Buck had at first insisted they should be careful about being seen together in public – not for his sake, but for hers. Gradually though, their friendship evolved into something more . . .
Jane smiled as she recalled the day that their courtship officially began. They had gone to the general store – never Buck’s favorite place anyway, and this day made it no better. Tompkins and two of the men from nearby farms had been talking LOUDLY about how the army was set to wipe out the Indians, and how the world would be better off, and how they shouldn’t be allowed to associate with white folk until they were wiped out. Buck had simply stood in stoic silence, only an occasional twitch in his tightly-set jaw betraying his pain.
At some point it had become more than Jane could take. Dropping the items she had picked up to purchase, she had gone to Buck, grasped his face between her hands, and pulled him into a long deep kiss. Her sheer determination had overcome his surprise – and the store had become instantly quiet.
She knew she would never forget the shocked look on the other men’s faces as she turned to them, a satisfied smile on her face. Taking a still-stunned Buck by the hand, she had loudly announced that there were better places in town to court, and they had walked out the door.
Remembering the whole scene, in fact, made her laugh silently, her whole body shaking.
Buck felt the shaking in her arm, and he turned to her, concerned. “Are you cold?” It was December 24 – of course it was cold. Maybe he shouldn’t have suggested this walk . . .
“No, I’m not cold.” She leaned close against him, wrapping her arm around his, and hoping he’d accept that answer. She really didn’t want to break the spell of this magical, silent night by explaining that she had been laughing about when their courtship became public.
Buck pulled her arm closer, feeling the warmth as she leaned in against him. For the hundredth, or maybe the thousandth, time he wondered how he had gotten so lucky as to find love with this special woman.
She had not only become his best friend, she had weathered the stares and angry comments of some of the townspeople when they realized she was being courted by an Indian. Her strength had given him the strength to stay and fight for acceptance, when otherwise he might have turned away. No matter what the challenge, Jane had not only weathered it, she had come out stronger.
It had been fascinating to watch her grow over these last few months. From fledgling business owner to confident jeweler, she had blossomed personally and professionally. And in many ways she had taken him with her as she grew. Under her tutelage, he had learned to trust the opinions of the people who mattered, and ignore the opinions of those who didn’t matter.
Well, he’d mostly learned that anyway.
He thought about how lucky he was now – how much luckier he was than he had dreamed he could be. He could sit with Jane and talk for hours, about everything, or about nothing really. Or they could sit for hours and say nothing, merely enjoying each other’s company.
So often in his life, silence had been dangerous or uncomfortable. It had accompanied fear, anger, distrust. But with Jane, silence was comfortable and reassuring.
They crested a hill, leaving even the soft glow of light from the town behind. Buck stopped, looking up. The sky was filled with millions of stars, obscured here and there by the clouds that were starting to move in. Still, nothing could obscure the majesty of the night sky.
Jane followed his glance, studying the sky herself. With Buck, she had learned to appreciate nature so much more. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered.
“It is,” Buck agreed. Then he looked down at her and smiled. “So are you.”
Jane just smiled, warmed by the blush she could feel touching her cheeks. “I’m glad we came out here.”
Buck nodded, thinking about why he had asked her to go for this walk. What he had to say was for their ears only, not for any of the townspeople to share. And just as he knew he had grown during his time with Jane, he also knew that she would agree to come along. Other women he had met might have objected to leaving the party, but Jane was different from all of them.
That, of course, was why he had needed to get her alone, to ask her something . . .
He pointed up toward the heavens. “The Kiowa say that those are our ancestors,” he said softly, indicating the stars. It was important to do this under the watchful eyes of those ancestors.
“It’s like they’re watching us,” Jane whispered.
Buck nodded, turning to face her. “They are,” he agreed. “And I wanted them to witness something.” For a few moments, the only sound was their breathing, and then he took her hands in his. Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, he plunged forward. “Jane, under the eyes of the ancestors, I am asking you to marry me.”
Jane caught her breath, and suddenly she was fighting back tears – tears of joy. “Oh, yes!” she whispered, wrapping her arms around Buck’s neck. Whether the eyes of the ancestors were on them or not didn’t really matter, she decided – it was only Buck’s eyes she was interested in.
He wrapped his arms around her, holding her tight – and still trying to accept that she had really agreed. Years of not being accepted anywhere still made him doubt himself at times. But her embrace was strong and loving, and as they stood there in silence he found his doubts going away.
Later, he really he had no idea how long they stood there, just holding each other. But the spell was finally broken when the clouds above opened up and the first snowflakes fell, touching them with tiny dots of dampness as the flakes melted against their skin. Laughing together, but still needing no words, they turned and headed back toward town.
The music was done as they neared Rock Creek -- the party had ended, and people had gone back to their homes to welcome Christmas. The snow was falling, light and fluffy, the flakes gathering on the ground to give it a soft, white shine.
They reached the jeweler’s shop and Jane unlocked the door, then led the way upstairs to the small apartment she called home. All the way back to town, the excitement of Buck’s marriage proposal had kept her warm and almost floating on air. And now, despite the small gifts they had exchanged earlier, she knew exactly what she wanted for Christmas.
Buck took Jane’s coat and hung it on the peg near the door, and then he stood there, just watching her. It was late, and he knew he should go – but the woman in front of him had agreed to be his wife, and somehow he was afraid that if he let her out of his sight, she might simply disappear.
Her mind made up, Jane stepped forward, sliding her hands inside of Buck’s jacket and slipping it off. She let it drop to the floor behind him as her hands continued down his back. She leaned up, meeting his lips and holding him in a long kiss. And then her fingers started to undo the buttons on his shirt . . .
“Jane.” He caught his breath, and then he caught her hand in his.
Undaunted, Jane just moved her other hand up to finish unbuttoning his shirt. “Stay with me tonight, Buck,” she whispered.
“We’ll set a date for the wedding,” he said, though it was getting hard to talk. “When we’re married . . .”
Jane didn’t let him finish the thought, covering his lips with hers. “Tonight,” she whispered, her voice firm and steady. She pulled his hand to her blouse, smiling as his fingers started to work the buttons.
“You’re sure?” he whispered, knowing that he wanted, more than anything, for her to say yes. Knowing that, again, beyond that they would need no words.
Jane nodded, finally whispering, “Yes.” She dropped her blouse to the floor. Holding his breath as his fingers brushed softly against the skin of her shoulders. “Oh, yes,” she whispered again.
After that, they undressed slowly, taking the time to get acquainted with each other’s bodies. Finally, as the last bit of clothing dropped away, Buck wrapped his arms around her, holding her tight. “I do love you, Jane Benedict.”
“And I love you, Buck Cross,” she replied, returning the hug.
They stood that way for several minutes, again appreciating each other in silence. Finally, Buck picked her up and carried her to the bed, stretching out next to her. The smile on her face as she looked up at him helped erase any doubts that still lingered in his mind.
Just then the bells rang out, signaling midnight – Christmas day had arrived. Jane’s smile widened as she wrapped her arms around Buck’s neck, pulling him closer. “Merry Christmas, Buck,” she whispered.
He covered her with his body, joining them together forever and for always. “Merry Christmas, Jane.”
Whoever said silence was golden deserved to be shot. Not just shot, but shot in the gut so they could bleed out slow and painful.
Silence was supposed to be soothing, calming, a break from the turmoil and noise of life, of the people around. It was supposed to relax a body. Give a soul a chance to think and reflect on life, on one’s actions, on where to go next. It was supposed to do these things…
It wasn’t supposed to be so oppressive that it weighed down on a person and threatened to crush the unsuspecting fool who believed the useless adages. It wasn’t supposed to be so loud that it hurt and made a person’s ears bleed. It wasn’t supposed to press on a soul, picking and gnawing at the flesh, until one begged for mercy and respite from the cacophonous din. Because one was supposed to like the silence.
But he hated it. Despised it. Loathed it. Wished he could track it down, wrestle it to the ground like a runaway animal and then slit its throat if only that would give him some relief.
He’d once been surrounded by love. He’d once been surrounded by friends. He’d once been so busy, caught up in the ebb and flow of life that he used to wish for a break, a chance to get away from it all and just rest.
Now…now he would give anything for those days again. He would give anything to be anywhere but here. He would give anything for fights in the bunkhouse, calls of Rider Comin’, and the blissful snap of twigs in a fire on the trail.
But they were distant memories…just like he was.
Alone in a crowd, cold in the summer, he hated life. He hated how everybody ignored him, but then hated when they pestered him. He hated the smile of a stranger, but sometimes wished that they’d stop to just say hello.
For too long he’d been riding the tornado of despair. For too long the pressure, the quiet, the solitude ate at him, picked at the recesses of his mind and slowly drove him insane. For too long he wished for some sort of…end from the misery and the suffering.
He’d long ago given up on wishing. On hoping someone else could change his life and make things better. He remembered truths once forgotten; the only person he could depend on was himself. Only he could change things and make things right. And that’s just what he resolved to do.
The silence was too much to bear. The misery too much to endure. It was time to stop wasting away in life.
The letters were written and neatly addressed. The ticket was purchased, and the arrangements were made. It was time to go home.
There was only more thing to do.
Standing, he walked over to the wall and picked up his most prized possession. The gift that had started him down this road back when he was a youth full of the innocent belief that he was better than anyone and anything. It was fitting that it would be his salvation.
Raising the Colt and pulling back the trigger, he closed his eyes.
And in the roaring report of the gun, he finally ended the pain.
A/N: This is a continuation of the Halloween QF about Dara.
“She hasn’t moved at all.”
The doctor gave him a sympathetic look that was nearly lost in the haze of tears clouding his eyes. “She needs her rest.”
“Rest.... she needs rest.” Jimmy looked at her hand, small and cold in his. “I...” He couldn’t look up at the doctor, couldn’t see his pain reflected in the older man’s eyes. “I need her.”
Jimmy held his chin steady, his eyes open and free of tears. His desperation the only thing holding him together. It was the simple touch of the doctor’s hand on his shoulder that did him in. A rough sob caught in his throat and he pressed the back of her hand against his cheek. Tears, hot and relentless swept over her skin. “Lou...Honey...”
Jimmy willed her to open her eyes even if it was to tell him it was all his fault that she was in this mess. He’d much rather have her screaming and fighting mad than laying in a hospital bed.
He’d much rather... He pressed his lips to her palm, brushing the tender lines and chilled flesh with his cheek. “How do I tell her-”
“Tell her what, son?”
His body bent, his posture failing as his forehead pressed lightly on her arm, “How do I tell her... that I wish it was me layin’ there... wish that I’d been there to-”
“Take the bullet yourself?” The doctor pulled up a chair beside the bed and lowered himself into the sagging cushions.
“No use worryin’ over something like that, now.”
“You’re right, I know... but-”
The doctor nodded, “but I couldn’t pry you away from here for the world, eh, son?” When Jimmy didn’t answer, the old man continued, “I know I can’t talk you into goin’ back to the hotel for some sleep, but if you’ll take a bit of advice from an old man...” he paused to take a breath, “tell her, son. Tell her what you’re feelin’.”
“She can’t hear-”
Jimmy looked over as the other chair creaked loudly in the room.
“ ‘Kids down?”
The screen door settled into the door frame. “MmmHmm.”
“Need help inside?”
The swing shifted beneath him as Louise sat down beside him. “All done... I had help.”
He took in a deep breath and caught the ghost of Teaspoon’s pipe. “The ol’ man get home?”
The soft ring of her laughter warmed him more than the cup of coffee she had put in his hands. “He fell asleep on the couch. Polly’s in the guest room.”
Polly, she’d certainly tamed the old goat of a Station Master they’d taken as a father. Taking his wife’s hand in his he settled their entwined hands on his thigh. “It was good to see everyone again.”
Louise leaned against his shoulder and brushed her lips along the line of his jaw. “It’s nice to be alone, too.”
His laughter was warm and spread through them both like the tide of the Mississippi, ageless and steady. He shifted a bit and draped his arm over her shoulders, drawing her closer against his side.
Looking up into the sky they watched as the stars talked to each other. Silent in the night.
All is Calm, All is Bright
Author's note: This story is a continuation on my earlier quick fic 'The Welcome Party'
Upon hearing a commotion at the front door, Lou headed out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. She glanced back at her daughter and seeing that Emma was preoccupied with the globs of cookie dough she was dropping on the baking pan resting on the table, Lou went to see what was happening in her front hallway. She stared with her mouth wide open in shock at the sight in front of her.
Kid was dragging an extremely large pine tree into the parlor, pulling Jed as well who was holding the top branches of the tree. The small boy was huffing and puffing in his effort to 'help' his father drag the tree into the house.
Once the tree was in the middle of the parlor, Kid stood with his hands on his hips, surveying the tree and the room at the same time. Jed went and stood next to his father, adopting the same stance.
"What in the world?" Lou exclaimed in confusion. She looked from the tree to her husband.
"It's a Christmas tree," Kid told her proudly. "The biggest most perfect tree I could find." He nodded his head in approval of his choice. The moment he'd seen it, he knew it was the one for them. It had taken a lot of effort to get it home but it was worth it. His children were going to have the best Christmas ever; he wasn't going to hold out on anything. They'd had to make due while he was gone fighting in the war but he was home now. No child should have to wake up on Christmas morning and not find a tree in their home with presents under it. He shook his head to ward off the thoughts that were starting to surface. Kid had convinced himself he would never go there again and no offspring of his would ever know that feeling.
"It's big alright," Lou agreed with a frown. She crouched down next to her son and started to remove his hat and mittens as she spoke, using them as a distraction so she didn't have to look at Kid. He had not been acting the way she expected and it was starting to get on her nerves. Lou understood how important this holiday was to the Kid. It would be the first Christmas they would spend together as a married couple, even though they'd been married for four years already. And it was also because this was the first Christmas he would be spending with the twins since he had not known about their birth until he'd returned from the war. They had quickly become a happy family of four; the children had eagerly accepted their father into the lives and she relished each moment with Kid by her side. It was in the past month that he'd changed and made her want to scream in frustration.
"When you said you wanted to get us a tree, of course I was as excited as you at the thought of having one but isn't this going overboard?" she asked, standing up. "What did you do? Search the whole territory for the biggest tree you could find, even when you knew it wouldn't fit in the house?" She turned away from him, shaking her head in confusion, and directed her attention to her son. "Jed, Emma is in the kitchen with a plate of cookies we just made. Why don't you go in and have a snack?"
"O'right, Mama," Jed said, running into the other room.
Once her son was out of earshot, Lou went to Kid, her arms folded across her chest. "Kid, I know you're excited about Christmas coming but this is too much. Are you trying to outdo what we had when you were gone? It may not have been the best Christmas but everyone helped to make it the best it could be. And the only reason I didn't want a tree those other Christmases was because you weren't with us to pick it out. But we did have one and it was only because Teaspoon would keep after me to let him get one, saying we needed it for the little ones. He would say it each year and he would wear me down until I finally consented."
"Kid," Lou continued, going to him, "I wanted all those silly little traditional things but I wanted them with you. Now you've given them to us but you've given it all at once instead of gradual and it's overwhelming. I don't know how to handle it."
"No, it's not, Lou," Kid argued. "This is exactly what Jed and Emma need. They need the big decorated tree waiting for them on Christmas morning," he began, not looking at her but staring off into space, picturing what he was saying. Without realizing it, he started walking toward a bare corner of the room, the space he'd picked out to hold their tree. "They need to be lying in their beds having a hard time falling asleep, wondering what Santa will bring them. To get up all excited and run in to wake their parents so they can go downstairs together like a real family. To see the mounds of presents piled all around the tree; each present they open bigger and better than the last. To see smiles on their parents' faces and feel the love they share for one another." He blinked then turned back to Lou. "That's how it should be, what each child deserves; and I'm going to see to it that my children have those exact memories."
He walked to her and stopped in front of her. "I just want it to be perfect, Lou, that's all. Now I have to get the saw to cut this tree back a little to make it fit." He was out the door instantly. He'd seen her open her mouth, about to protest once again, but he didn't want to hear any more of it. She wouldn't understand, he kept telling himself. He'd been waiting for a Christmas like this his whole life.
Lou stood with her hands on her hips, letting out her pent up breath in frustration. She stared after him then turned around, only to have her path blocked by the tree. That damn tree, she thought. She tried to kick the branches out of the way but they only sprang right back at her. She had tried repeatedly to make him understand none of this was necessary. It was still Christmas whether there was a tree or presents. And if he wanted a tree, any one would have been just right, not because of what it looked like but because he picked it out for them.
She turned as Kid came back in and got right to work trimming and cutting.
Lou watched him work then finally couldn't take the only sound in the room being that of the saw as it cut the branches, causing them to drop to the ground. "You know, Kid, all this is great, I mean it. The presents you've bought the twins are things they are going to love. They have never seen such fine toys as the ones you picked out of that catalog for them but one would have been enough. Why do we have to have a closet full, waiting for them? And the new outfits you selected for each will make them look like the fanciest children in all of Rock Creek but you know as well as I do that they're too nice to be worn every day. So they'll just go to waste hanging in their closets. You wanting everyone to spend the day here is understandable. Now this tree. No child is as lucky as our two are but Kid you're overlooking something in your quest to make things perfect." She paused as he finally stopped sawing and looked up at her. "You've forgotten about the people you're trying to do all this for."
Kid stood and looked at her in confusion. "Everything is perfect," he argued, "the presents, the dinner at home with family all around, the tree. What else is there?"
"Are you doing this out of guilt? Because if you are, you should have thought of that before you left," she told him, a hint of anger to her voice. "Whatever you do, you can't make up for the years you were gone. And you can't feel bad about that; what's done is done. I did the best I could with what little I had."
"I know that and that's not what I'm doing," he said, raising his voice. He paused to control his temper then went on. "I hear what you're saying, Lou, and I knew going off to war would be a sacrifice, it's just that I didn't think it would affect me so much, but it does," he admitted. "I need to make this up to them, to give them everything I nev ... to give them what they deserve," he said, covering his mistake.
"You have been so busy trying to make this perfect for them that you have hardly spent anytime with them in weeks. Between all your planning and taking care of the horses, there's no time for us. The children miss you, I miss you. I never thought I would say that again because you're back but it's true."
"I'm here, Lou, I have been. This is just something I need to do, to make things ... "
"... perfect, yeah I know," Lou finished for him. "It will be and you know why?" Lou asked, touching his cheek to get him to look at her. "Because you're here with us," she said, answering her own question. "That's what we were missing the years you were gone. We needed you, not all the frills."
"I can't help it, Lou, I'm sorry." Kid went and stood by the fireplace, looking into the flames. "This is something I need to do, for Jed and Emma, for you, and for me."
Lou followed, waiting for him to go on, knowing he wanted to talk but also knowing this was the Kid, she expected to wait until he was ready.
Kid felt her eyes on him and after several seconds, couldn't take it any longer. He started walking around the room and ended up going to the tree laying in the middle of the floor. He knelt next to it and played with the branches as he spoke. "I knew there would be sacrifices when I went to fight in the war. I accept that and I know I can't go back and do things over but I just never thought things would hit me so hard. I thought I could just pick up on my life like nothing had ever happened but things have happened. You had two children without me here and you raised them for three years without me. You and the kids have memories that I am not a part of."
He stood and turned to her. "And with me being gone, I gave you the type of Christmas I wouldn't wish on any child." He looked away as he continued. "One where the mother was faced with the difficult task of making do and doing everything on her own because the father was gone or too drunk to care."
"Dru ... ?" Lou started to ask then stopped herself. She noticed the far away, hurt look on his face and finally realized where all his behavior was coming from. He wasn't trying to outdo the Christmases she'd given the twins, he was trying to outdo the ones his father had forced him to live through as a child.
"I don't feel sorry for what I didn't have," he admitted quietly. "I feel sorry for you having to struggle and make do. I just want to make sure it doesn't happen to another child if I can help it."
Lou closed her eyes for a moment, feeling guilty for the way she'd talked to him. She had never thought to ask about what his holidays were like growing up. She hadn't had great ones herself but while her mother was alive, she had seen to it that each of her children got one nice gift each year. Lou had assumed that was how it had been for the Kid as well. Now she knew how wrong her assumption had been. "Kid, come here, sit with me?"
He hesitated and that was all she needed. She went to him, took his hand, and dragged him toward the couch. He reluctantly sat down, still hurt by her thinking he was doing this out of guilt or trying to better the Christmases she'd made for the family. How could she think he'd want to take away the memories she and the twins had already made?
"Kid, if I knew this was why you were going so overboard and making me crazy, I would have told you this weeks ago.You just have to believe me when I tell you that this is the first real Christmas for all of us. We made do but it wasn't in a bad way. Sure, I went through the motions for the children and Teaspoon, Polly, Rachel, even Buck would be here for them. And they would give whatever type of presents they could afford at the time but none of that mattered because you weren't with us." She paused, reaching her hand out to stroke his hair.
"If you ask me," she continued, "I'd say you're getting the best Christmas of them all. Jed and Emma understand what it's about this year and that's the first time they do. The first two they were babies, sleeping through most of it or trying to eat the ribbons the packages were wrapped in because they liked the bright colors. Last year they loved opening presents but they didn't understand about Santa, not like they do now."
"Really?" Kid asked, hopefully.
"Really," Lou assured him, smiling. "Kid, it's not going to matter to them what's under the tree come morning or even if there is a tree, what's going to matter is that they now have a daddy at home. A daddy they can climb all over in our bed in their attempt to wake you, not realizing that you were already up and just lying there waiting for them to come get you. Memories are always going to be special to us, even if there are small clouds surrounding them - that's just the way life is. But I think we're going to make some special memories together to put with those other memories, don't you?"
Kid stroked her cheek then planted a soft kiss on it. "Yeah, I do," he agreed.
"You just have to remember that with or without the tree and with or without the presents, it will still be Christmas. It is a time of hope, a time of being with family and friends, and a time to be thankful. And we have so much to be thankful for: we have two beautiful children, a good home, and most of all, Jed, Emma and I have you back safe with us. That's the best blessing of all."
Kid drew her into his arms, resting his chin against her head. "God, I love you, Lou. I don't know what I'd do without you. I keep making a fool of myself around you and you always know how to make things work out alright."
"You weren't being a fool, Kid, annoying, yes," she teased, "but not a fool. You are just a man that loves his family more than anything and we couldn't ask for anything more." She knew him, the type of reserved man he was, so she knew he wouldn't want her to bring up what had more than likely happened to him as a child. When he was ready, he would tell her. She smiled at him. "Now what do you say to getting that tree set up while I see about popping some corn? I think strings of popcorn and some ribbons would look right pretty wrapped around those branches."
"Then afterward, how about a walk outside? It was beginning to snow when I went to get the saw. I'd like to see the children's faces when they see it for ... " Kid paused, stopping himself before he said 'for the first time.' He understood that they have seen snow before and have had Christmases before. That was now fine with him; he couldn't take that away from them but as Lou said, he could add to it by making memories of their own.
He stood up and held his hand out to her. "Well, what are you waiting for?" he grinned. "The sooner you get to popping, the sooner we can go outside."
"Now that's the kind of planning I like," she said as she headed toward the kitchen. Lou paused in the doorway and called to Kid, "Kid, I'd say you found us the perfect tree."
Kid smiled as she disappeared into the next room, loving her more each day for how she made him feel. He turned back to the tree at his feet. "Perfect? Yeah, right, it's too big," he mumbled as he took the saw up once again.
He rode slowly, guided by the moonlight. A thin coating of snow covered the frozen ground, a promise of more to come in the still-young winter. Except for the soft, steady clip-clop from the horse’s hooves, the night was silent.
Away from the lights of the town, the moonlight cast shadows along the hills, creating an ever-changing landscape. But he barely paid any attention, intent on reaching his destination.
It wasn’t far.
The small hill came into view and Buck slowed his pace even more, finally stopping near the base. He dismounted, noting now that only the horse’s breathing interrupted the silence that surrounded him. He stood still for a moment, savoring that silence, and momentarily putting off what he had come to do. And then he started forward, climbing the short slope, his footsteps crunching against the frozen ground.
He quickly reached the top and looked around. Although not really very far from town, Rock Creek was hidden behind other, larger hills. It took little imagination to believe he was alone.
Except, of course, he was never really alone, especially not here.
Buck looked down around his feet. Even with the light snow on the ground, he could see the grass and wildflowers that had grown up on the hill after . . .
After Ike’s funeral pyre had burned bright.
He crouched down, running his fingers lightly over the snow. It wasn’t that he believed Ike was still here. No, Ike’s spirit was free, traveling unbound like the wind. But this was the place he felt the closest to that spirit of the man who had been, and always would be, his best friend. And it was especially important to be with that friend tonight.
“It’s Christmas Eve, Ike,” Buck said softly, though his words seemed somehow loud amidst the surrounding silence. He wasn’t really sure why that mattered – or, for that matter, why he needed to speak the words at all. He only knew that he must.
“Do you remember Christmas last year?” he continued. “The whole deal with Cyrus and worthless shares in a mine, and then the card game Rachel set up to save Tompkins’ store? And how we all went to the Jergensons’ place with a tree and presents? We sang songs, and Teaspoon read the Christmas story.”
He stood up, looking toward the sky. “It’s different this year, Ike. You’re gone, and so is Noah. Cody’s off in the army, Jimmy’s probably joining up soon too. Kid still isn’t sure what he’s going to do. We just had Christmas Eve dinner – and maybe none of us will be together next year.”
Buck scuffed his boot lightly against the ground, pushing some snow aside, lost in thought. “I remember our first Christmas after leaving the mission,” he said almost whispering. “We’d been moving around for months, working at whatever odd jobs we could find. A lot of places wouldn’t hire either one of us, so it was tough. We were living off the land mostly, trying to save whatever money we could toward buying two horses.”
He crouched down again, pushing his fingers against the now-bare ground. “Then we wandered into Halverton, just a few weeks before Christmas. And we got lucky. The Wilsons hired you on their farm to repair the barn, and Mrs. Langton hired me at the newspaper to clean up and do the heavy work until her husband recovered from his broken leg.”
He paused a moment, remembering. “We found that old mining shack that no one wanted. Everyone figured the gold vein was played out, so they didn’t mind us staying there. It was small, and drafty, but we made it work. For the first time since leaving the mission, we thought we might make it. But we still didn’t have any money, and Christmas was coming . . .
Buck paused, holding the broom away from the floor, as he looked out the window. Night was falling, and so was the snow. It was still light, but the clouds coming in from the northwest promised a heavier fall soon.
“It’s beautiful when it snows like that, isn’t it?”
Buck jumped, so lost in thought that he hadn’t even heard Sylvia Langton come into the front room. “It is,” he agreed, quickly starting to sweep again. “I’ll have this done in just a few minutes. Then whatever else you need me to do.”
Sylvia smiled, watching the way the young man attacked the job he was doing. “I think that will be enough for tonight,” she said, starting to gather up the scraps of paper left over from the day’s printing. “It is Christmas Eve, after all.”
“It is,” Buck agreed. Not that it actually meant all that much to him. Despite his time at the mission, this concept of Christmas didn’t really mean very much to him. But it meant a lot to Ike – his friend had spent hours trying to describe the Christmases he remembered with his family.
“Well we had an early Christmas present when you came to town just after Johann had his accident,” Sylvia said. “I couldn’t have done everything alone. It was truly God’s hand that sent you here.”
Buck wasn’t so sure about that, but he knew enough not to voice his doubts out loud. “I was just lucky you’d hire me. A lot of places wouldn’t even talk to me.”
“Yes, I’m sure that’s been a problem,” Sylvia said softly. The young man was quiet, not sharing much about himself, but she had learned enough. “I think it was simply meant to be, that you would be here to help Johann and me,” she continued, heading for the trash bin with the scrap paper.
Buck watched her for a moment, suddenly struck by an idea. “Ma’am, are you throwing that paper away?”
“Why, yes, this is all much too small for printing,” Sylvia replied, looking at the scraps. Then she looked over at Buck, noticing the question in his eyes. “Did you have a need for this?”
Buck looked down at his boots, nervous about asking for a favor. The Langtons had been so fair with him, it just didn’t feel right. Still, she had said it was going to be tossed away. “It’s for my friend,” he said.
“Ike,” Sylvia supplied. “The one you’ve talked about, the one who can’t speak.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ve taught him to use Indian sign language, but with other people, sometimes he needs to write things, and we haven’t had money to spend on paper.”
“Then of course it is yours,” Sylvia replied, placing the small stack in his hands. She pointed at the stacks of paper waiting for future printings. “If you need more . . .”
“No, this is fine,” Buck said quickly. He stared at the paper, uncertain of what to say. Even knowing that it was destined to be thrown away, it was hard to believe the gift. In other places, at other times, restaurants had refused to let him and Ike have the scraps that would otherwise be fed to stray dogs. “It’ll be his Christmas present.”
“Well, I have something else for you too,” Sylvia said, handing him a box that had been sitting under her desk. “I baked cookies last night after we closed up, and I want you to have these.”
“Thank you,” Buck said, noticing that his voice was none too steady. He was used to hatred and discrimination – simple acts of kindness were rare.
“No, thank you, Buck,” Sylvia said, taking the broom from his hand. “We’re done for tonight,” she continued, leading him toward the door. “Come back in two days, and we’ll start work again.”
“I’ll be here,” he promised.
“Merry Christmas, Buck.”
“Merry Christmas . . .”
Buck opened his eyes as the memories started to fade. “I remember that Christmas so well, Ike,” he said. “We had agreed we wouldn’t buy each other anything – we needed that money for horses. But when I gave you that paper, and those stubs of pencils, the way your eyes lit up – I still remember that. We had the cookies from Mrs. Langton, and the Wilsons had sent a pot of stew.”
He stood up slowly, fingering something in his jacket pocket. Drawing his hand out, he looked at the rough-carved eagle he held. “You carved this for me, Ike,” he whispered. “It’s the most precious Christmas gift I ever got.”
He wiped a tear away from his eye, looking up into the still night sky. Clouds had moved in, and the first flakes of snow touched his cheeks. “A couple of weeks later, the barn was repaired, and Mr. Langton was back on his feet, so we were going to move on. But as we were packing up what little we had, you saw something flash against the rock.” He shook his head, a smile crossing his face. “It wasn’t a big gold nugget, and we sure didn’t find any more – but it gave us enough to buy those horses.”
Buck looked down at the ground again. “That was the best Christmas ever,” he whispered. “And it just wasn’t right this year without you. So I had to come here.”
The snow was falling heavier now, covering the bare spot on the earth again. Buck pulled the collar of his jacket closed as the wind picked up, whipping the flakes around and around. On top of the hill, the snow swirled, climbing back up into the sky, even as it fell. Up and down, up and down, in a silent, white ballet.
He turned then and walked back down the hill to where his horse was waiting. With one last glance at the hill behind him, he mounted, and turned the horse toward Rock Creek.
No, Ike hadn’t truly been on that hill – and still, it had felt as though his friend had heard his words, and touched him. And he knew that as long as he held that Christmas memory near and dear, Ike would never be far away.
Gladdened by that thought, Buck urged his horse to a little more speed. As happy as he was to have shared these moments and memories with Ike, there were other friends who even now were waiting for him
A thicker coating of snow began to cover the frozen ground, a promise of more to come showing in the thick clouds building up. Except for the soft, steady clip-clop from the horse’s hooves, the night was silent.
It was almost Christmas day . . .
"I wonder, as I wander, out under the sky..."
It was a haunting melody, that had been drifting round and round in his mind since first Rachel, then Lou, had taken up the tune as the whole family had gathered in the bunk house - eager to decorate the tree and ward off the growing chill.
It had been a warm autumn, he reflected, full of the gathering anxiety of the approaching war. Rachel and Teaspoon in particular had seemed more eager than usual to make this Christmas a special one, as though acting out of some shared sense that this holiday season might be the last one to find all of them together. Finally, over the past week or so, the last warm breath of summer had given way to winter's icy fingers, as Jack Frost painted the ground and window sills with his lacy designs.
Buck pulled the blanket around his shoulders and stepped out onto the porch. The warmth of the bunkhouse - still heavy with the smells of Rachel's holiday baking - gave way to the clean, frozen perfection of the dark, still night. Usually when he couldn't sleep, something dark and anxious pulled at the edges of his slumber until he woke up tired and frustrated. Tonight, however, was different.
Buck stepped off the front porch and let the light of the moon and stars bathe his face. He looked up and down the street, noticing for the first time the all-encompassing silence that seemed to have settled over Rock Creek. He listened carefully as his sharp ears tried to pick up any sign of impending danger in the darkness. After a long moment, he began to feel a little silly and laughed at himself, silently chastising himself for borrowing trouble.
He walked toward Rachel's little house, knowing that she wouldn't mind if he borrowed her porch swing to take in the night air. He lowered himself carefully down onto the seat, intent on not disturbing the quiet perfection of this Christmas night. Even the swing seemed to oblige, swaying mutely on its hooks as he urged it gently back and forth.
Buck wasn’t sure how long he’d sat there before the thought occurred to him. Family was his gift this season. Regardless of the mounting tension coming from both in and outside of the bunkhouse over the last several months, the war looming on the horizon and the uncertainty of the future, this day and night had been perfect – a frozen moment in time of peace and rest and acceptance in an otherwise hectic world.
Buck stood again, and looking up to the winking stars, he whispered a soft prayer of thanks to the Gods, both those of his people and to the God Teaspoon and the others worshipped. Savoring the peace in his heart, he returned to snug bunkhouse and his warm bed.
~ fin ~