Topic #87: Picture
Baby It's Cold Outside by: Dede
Snow and Fall by: Cindy
Warm Hearts by: Miss Raye
Letting in the New Year by: Sid
Baby It's Cold Outside
by: Dede

A/N: Using the words to “Baby It’s Cold Outside” by Frank Loesser

With one last wave at Lou and Kid’s wagon disappearing around the corner, Buck turned towards his house, thinking of Lou’s final question.

“Ya’ promise you’ll get Constance home?”

A slow smile spread across his lips as he strode swiftly through the gate towards his last guest – seventeen-year-old Constance Manning. Of course he would make sure the beautiful young lady got home…eventually.

*~*~*~*~*

What was she thinking? Why hadn’t she accepted one of the offers for a ride home?

Constance paced the floor, wringing her hands nervously. It had been such a delightful evening and Buck had been a wonderful host. It was the day after Christmas and Buck had the good idea of having family and friends over to continue the holiday celebrations. He’d been kind enough to include her family. Not that it still wasn’t a delightful evening but now, everyone was gone and it was just her…alone…with Buck.

Her parents, with her two sisters and brother, had left much earlier, content in the knowledge that, with all the offers, their eldest child would get home safely. But one by one, Buck had assured everyone that had offered that he’d take her home, the last being Kid and Lou. That was the last wagon, her last chance. And she hadn’t said a word.

Not that she wanted to leave. She found Buck kind, considerate, a perfect gentleman – and very intriguing. She knew that he knew she was infatuated with him. How could he not? He always seemed to look at the exact moment she was staring at him. And it had been at its worst tonight. Every time she was watching him visit with his guests, he looked over at her, causing her to blush and look quickly away. She swore she heard him chuckle one of the times. Sighing, Constance plopped down on the settee in front of the fire, just as the door opened and the man in question strolled in.

“It’s cold out there,” he said, softly. He rubbed his hands together and walked over to the fireplace. Constance jumped up and hastily walked around to the back of the settee putting the piece of furniture between them.

“Well, I should really be going,” she said, as she watched Buck warm his hands. He turned and smiled the smile that always made her legs weak. She swallowed hard.

“And it’s snowing,” he said, using the same soft tone. He walked towards her. “It really is cold out there.”

“I can imagine,” she mumbled, wide-eyed as he approached her. “Um, it really has been a nice evening but I should…” She watched as he took her hands.

“Your hands are like ice,” he said as he wrapped his hands around hers. His smile grew as her lips parted in a soft gasp.

Blinking as if waking up, she slowly pulled her hands free and walked towards the door. “I’m sure my mother will start to worry and I know my father, he’ll pace the floor.”

“It’s not too late,” Buck said, coming up behind her, “no hurry.” He touched her arm to turn her towards him. “Another glass of wine?”

“Well, maybe just a half,” she murmured, unable to say no as Buck took her hand and guided her back to the settee. Once she was seated, Buck walked to the small end table and poured two glasses of wine. ‘Where did that come from?’ Constance wondered. She didn’t remember wine being on that table.

Buck chuckled softly as he watched Constance look around the room, crossing and uncrossing her arms nervously, unable to figure out what to do with her hands. Every time her eyes caught his, she quickly looked away. Handing her a glass, Buck sat right beside her, so close their legs touched, and grinned wickedly as he heard her sudden intake of breath. She scooted over some and downed the wine in one gulp.

“You know,” she whispered, looking at the empty glass, “I really can’t stay.” She finally looked at Buck and was lost in his deep brown eyes. “I wish I knew how to break this spell.”

She said it so softly that if Buck hadn’t been as close as he was, he wouldn’t have heard her. He moved closer and took the glass from her hand. Leaning behind her, he put her glass then his on the table; she was mesmerized by his actions. His arm was perfectly placed around her shoulder and he gently pulled her towards him.

Unable to take her eyes off his lips and that smile, she murmured, “I oughta say no, no, no…” she sighed, “at least I’m gonna say I tried….” Buck leaned forward, ready to capture her lips but she turned her face so all he kissed was cheek. “I simply must go.” She pushed herself up, unsteadily on her feet.

Buck groaned and stood, holding her arm to keep her standing. “But it’s cold outside.” He pulled her towards him, turning her to face him. “And listen to that fire.”

“The answer is no,” she said firmly, gently pushing him away. Looking into his eyes, she continued, “You’ve been nice and warm…” Her jaw dropped. “I mean the welcome has been nice…oh dear,” she murmured as he cupped her cheek and ran his thumb over her bottom lip. She whimpered softly as he slowly bent his head towards her once more. Again, she turned her head and Buck’s forehead bumped her ear. “My brother will be at the door.” She turned and walked towards the door, stumbling slightly. “What was in that drink?” she muttered.

Buck rolled his eyes. He kept ahold of her arm, making sure she didn’t fall and followed her across to the coat rack. He glanced out the window and saw that the snow was falling harder. He took her chin gently, turning her face to the window and whispered in her ear, “Look out there at that storm.” He was rewarded with a soft sigh as she leaned back into him. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her neck.

“My sisters will be suspicious,” she protested feebly, bending her head to the side so Buck could continue his journey up her neck to her chin.

“Mmmm,” he murmured as he continued his kisses and turned her to face him, “your lips do look delicious.” He leaned over and again, she turned her head, causing him to plant his face in her long, black hair. He growled and pulled back.

“Buck,” she said, “there’s bound to be talk tomorrow….” She placed her hands on his chest and leaned against his muscular body. “Please…”

It was barely a whisper but he heard the earnest appeal. Sighing inwardly, he knew he needed to get her home. He once more wrapped his arms around her, hugging her tightly, as he looked over her head, out into the dark, snowy night. It wouldn’t be an easy trip.

*~*~*~*~*

After two long hours, they arrived at the Manning house. It had been slow going, Buck worried about the horses as much as Constance, but they made it. As Buck pulled the wagon to the front of the house, all the Mannings came rushing out the front door. Buck steeled himself for the accusations.

“Constance!” Mrs. Manning cried, as she hurried to her daughter. “You poor thing!” She wrapped a blanket around Constance’s shoulders and hustled her towards the house. Constance glanced at Buck but didn’t have time to say anything. Her two sisters, fourteen-year-old Prudence and twelve-year-old Temperance, were flitting around behind their mother and older sister and followed them to the house.

Buck stayed on the wagon seat, ready to take off, knowing they wouldn’t want him there. Mr. Manning looked up at him and Buck thought he saw anger darken the man’s eyes. “Mr. Manning, I’m sorry that –”

“I don’t want to hear any apologies,” Mr. Manning gruffly said.

Buck clenched his jaw. Even though the Mannings always treated him kindly, Buck supposed that courting their daughter would make a difference. “Fine, I’ll be leaving.” Buck lifted the reins to start the horses moving but was stopped by Mr. Manning’s hand.

“Like hell you will,” the man said. “You get right down from there and get in that house. This isn’t the kinda’ night for anyone to be out in. That you had the decency to look out for Constance and to bring her home when no one would have blamed you for staying put at your house, well, I just…I mean…” Mr. Manning cleared his throat and Buck could swear the man’s voice quivered a little. “William!” Mr. Manning turned to his son. “Look after Mr. Cross’ horses.”

The fifteen-year-old jumped up on the seat next to Buck. Grinning, William took the reins from Buck and said, “Ya’ best do as Da says. He don’t take to people arguin’ with him once his mind’s made up.”

Bewildered, Buck nodded slowly and climbed down. He watched as William guided the buggy to the Manning’s huge barn. Knowing the two horses would be well taken care of, Buck followed Mr. Manning to the house.

“I told Ma that it would be better in this crazy weather if Constance just stayed put,” Mr. Manning was saying, though Buck was half-listening. Buck couldn’t get over that Mr. Manning wasn’t upset, but was actually grateful to Buck.

“But ya’ know how mothers can be,” the man continued. The fact that Constance could have been home hours ago, not just if she’d gone with the many others that had offered but especially if she’d come home with her family, didn’t seem to enter into Mr. Manning’s mind. Much to Buck’s relief.

“I just appreciate you being such a gentleman and having Constance’s best interests at heart.” Mr. Manning finished by grabbing Buck’s hand and shaking it firmly. Buck continued nodding, not knowing what to say especially since just hours before gentleman would have been the last word Mr. Manning would have used to describe Buck.

Stomping the snow from their boots, the two men entered the house. Buck’s eyes immediately found Constance, sitting on the large sofa, in front of the enormous fireplace that was so large you could walk upright inside it. Constance looked over as Buck walked in and smiled shyly. Mrs. Manning hurried over, flitting around Buck like a bee, coaxing him over to the sofa.

“Sit, sit,” Mrs. Manning said, pushing Buck gently onto the cushion beside Constance. Right beside Constance. Prudence and Temperance were both hovering nearby with blankets, one that their mother took and wrapped around Buck’s shoulders the other she draped over the couple’s laps. “Now, I’ll get you a cup of hot cider like Constance has.”

Bemused, Buck watched as Mrs. Manning skipped into the kitchen, followed closely by Constance’s two sisters. The two younger girls glanced at Buck and giggled when he grinned at them. He chuckled softly and shook his head. This night was turning out very strangely indeed. Buck’s head whipped around when he felt Constance’s soft hand on his. He looked down and saw her finger drawing circles on his palm. Turning to face her, he arched his eyebrow and smiled questioningly.

“Mother said you won’t be going anywhere tonight,” she whispered and grinned mischievously. “It’s too cold outside….”

Snow and Fall
by: Cindy

He stumbled, caught his balance, and paused for a moment, catching his breath. He no longer had any real expectation that he was on, or even near, the road. And while his senses told him he was still heading in the general direction of Rock Creek, he had nothing physical to base that on.

The heavy, blowing, swirling snow had obliterated all landmarks, reducing visibility to a few feet in each direction.

He'd known the storm was coming, of course. The signs had been obvious for most of the day - and it had grown increasingly ominous. There certainly wasn't a chance to make it back to Rock Creek; that had been a long shot for the day anyway. But Plum Creek had seemed within reach.

Until his horse took that bad step and went down.

Fortunately, the mare's leg didn't appear to be broken. But when she regained her feet, she was definitely limping. In the hours since, the limp had only gotten worse.

Buck used both hands to readjust the collar of his jacket, pulling it up as far as he could. No matter what he did though, the bitter wind seemed to find ways to blow the snow down his neck.

He trudged on, the fresh snow tugging at his calves, and occasionally drifting deep enough to top his boots and send chilly flakes down the inside. His feet were so wet and cold by now that he barely noticed when new snow invaded his boots.

Buck paused, using his hat and his hand to shield his eyes as he tried once more to look around. Right now he'd settle for any type of shelter - even a single tree would give him something to work with. But the open prairie remained unbroken, at least for the few feet he could see.

That's what was especially frustrating, he decided. For all he knew there could be a stand of trees not fifty feet away - but in the current visibility, he'd never know.

Just as he was about to start forward again, the wind seemed to pause for a moment. Then it reappeared, seemingly from all directions at once. But in the vortex the swirling winds created, the snow cleared just a bit…

A light!

As quickly as it appeared, the beacon disappeared again, and he wondered if he had actually seen it. Still, there were small farms out this way, he'd seen them on Pony Express runs during more temperate conditions. Could he be so lucky…

He needed shelter soon, and there was only one way to find out. Fixing the direction of where he thought he had seen it firmly in his mind, he struck off toward the light.

After several minutes, however, all he had seen was more snow. The light had not reappeared, and now he was sure he wasn't going toward Rock Creek any more. In this weather he couldn't afford to stray too far off of his path…

There!

The glow reappeared momentarily, larger now, closer. He pulled on the reins, urging the injured horse to move a little faster.

A few more minutes of struggling against the wind, and then a shadow appeared. Large, unmoving, the shadow gradually resolved into the stand of trees he'd suspected might be around. Beyond the trees, the shape of a building, and then another building appeared out of the gloom. He'd wandered into a farmyard. There was a barn on one side, and a small house across the way - a house with a light burning in the window, and smoke coming from the chimney.

Buck hesitated for a moment, considering his options. Going to the door ran the risk of being turned away because of his Indian blood, so he was more than half tempted to just slip into the barn. But being discovered there in the morning was probably more apt to result in shooting, and with a lame horse, and in the snow, he couldn't count on getting away very fast. So, better to make contact - and hope that the storm would offer some concealment at the door.

Decision made, he turned and headed toward the house.

The building came into clearer view as he followed a small fence around the yard. He finally found the gate, just off-center to the house. It looked to be one story in the front, but the roof rose at a fairly sharp angle as it made its way toward the rear. Rough-hewn wood made up the walls. He could see two windows, both frosted with ice. There was a bright glow from the larger window, and a softer glow from the other.

He looped the reins over the railing and took the two steps as one, winding up on the narrow porch. He paused for a moment, taking a deep breath. There was still time to just go to the barn. In the storm, and walking up, it was unlikely anyone inside had heard him approach…

Another swirl of wind threw more snow down his neck, and his resolve firmed up once more. He needed shelter, and he didn't want to be forced on his way again until the storm was over.

He reached out and knocked on the door.

There were some muffled sounds from inside, voices, he thought. And then there was the click of the lock being released, and he prepared to plead his case.

The shotgun barrel that appeared through the partially-opened door forced the words back into his mouth.

"Who are ya? Whatta ya want?"

A woman's voice.

"Ma'am, my name is Buck Cross. My horse came up lame, and I've been walking a long time. I was hoping for some shelter in your barn for the night."

The door opened a bit farther and he could see someone in the shadows. But the gun didn't waver.

"It's just you?"

"Yes, ma'am." He took a careful step back, holding his hands out. "I don't mean you any trouble. I just need to get out of the storm, and tend to my horse's leg."

She took a step out, looking around. With all of the light behind her, he still couldn't really see her. There was a pause, as though she was considering her options, and then she finally nodded.

"You'll find a lantern and matches on a shelf just to your right as you go in."

Buck realized he'd been holding his breath, and he let it out slowly. "Thank you, ma'am."

The figure backed up into the house. Buck waited for the shotgun barrel to disappear into the house, and for the door to close, before he moved. Then he retrieved the reins and led his horse toward the barn.

Snow had drifted up against the doors, keeping them from opening when he removed the plank braced across the brackets. Using the plank like a shovel he scraped snow away, digging out enough space so that he could gain access for himself and the horse.

He found the lantern and matches, right where his mysterious hostess had indicated they would be. As the glow from the light began to illuminate the interior of the barn, Buck could make out a work bench and some barrels on his left, with stalls on the right. From the back he could hear the soft mooing from cows, but the lantern light didn't extend that far.

Leading the horse he walked down the center aisle, past a couple of large plow horses on the right, and a riding horse on his left. When he found an empty stall he led the weary mare in and began the process of settling her for the night. He untied his bedroll and saddlebags, stripped off the saddle, then used the blanket to rub the animal down. She neighed softly and pulled away when he got to the injured leg and he pulled the lantern closer for a better look. In the flickering light he could see some swelling, but no open wound.

Back at the front of the barn, Buck swung the lantern over the work bench until he found the liniment he had suspected would be there. He also found a couple of clean rags, and he carried the items back to the stall. Holding the halter firmly with one hand, he used his other hand to put the medicinal rub on the leg, then he wrapped the area carefully with the rags.

That done, he wandered farther back in the barn. The lantern finally illuminated three cows penned in the back, and just before that pen he found an unoccupied stall with several bales of hay and a pitchfork stuck in the top one. He carried hay back to the horse, tossing several forkfuls into the stall. The water trough by the back pen had a thin layer of ice on it, which he cracked easily and then carried a bucket back to the stall.

With the horse settled, Buck considered his own options. There was plenty of hay to make a deep, warm bed. And he had seen a couple of blankets by the work bench which would also help. All in all, he'd much rather be back in Rock Creek, but he'd slept in worse conditions.

He had just started spreading hay out in an empty stall when he became aware of light behind him. Turning, he saw someone walk into the barn, a lantern held high…

And the barrel pointed at him again.

"How's your horse?"

The same voice as from the door. "Her leg is swollen. I found some liniment up front and used it. I hope that's all right."

"Of course."

Buck gestured toward the stall. "I was going to just put out some hay here."

The barrel of the shotgun wavered just ever so slightly as the lantern was raised higher. "If you're willing to hand over your gun." The lantern panned down. "And that knife, you can come up to the house."

A night in a cold barn, depending on hay for warmth - or inside the house, with a fire in the hearth. It wasn't much of a choice. Buck reached down slowly to untie his holster, then he unbuckled the gun belt and tossed it gently toward her feet. "Thank you," he said, as he unfastened the sheath on his boot and added it, with the knife, to the pile.

"I wouldn't want to find you out here, frozen, in the morning."

"I agree." He watched as she tried to juggle the lantern and the gun, while trying to pick up his weapons. "I could carry the lantern," he offered, taking a single step forward.

She hesitated, looked up, and for the first time he could see light brown hair falling loose around her shoulders. Buck held out his hands and took one more step forward. "I don't mean you any harm," he said softly.

She hesitated, and then set the lantern on the ground. Gathering up his weapons, she stared at him for a moment before turning and hurrying out of the barn.

Buck picked up both lanterns and his gear and then followed. He paused at the door to extinguish the flame in one and return it to the shelf. Then he stepped out into the storm, closed and bolted the door, and turned toward the house. He saw a flash of light as the door was opened and he headed the same way, ducking his head against the storm.

Reaching the porch he stomped his boots and shook his hat to get rid of as much snow as possible, then raised a hand to knock on the door. But it opened before his fist touched it, swinging back to reveal a good-sized room.

The fireplace across the room caught his attention as he stepped inside, touches of the fire's warmth reaching out to him across the space. But then as he closed the door he noticed other things too.

Two tow-headed boys stood off to one side, twins if he had to bet, and about six or seven years old. Next to them was a little girl, half-hiding behind one of the boys and peeking out at him with wide blue eyes. Next to the fire there was a small rocking cradle, and he could see a baby, maybe a few months old.

Movement to his right caught his attention and Buck turned that way, seeing her for the first time. Small puddles had formed by her feet from the snow melting off her boots. The shotgun was leaned carefully by the wall as she shrugged out of her coat. A few clumps of snow fell from her hair as she shook it free from her scarf, and then he found himself looking into the deepest blue eyes he'd ever seen.

His gun and knife were on the floor by her feet, but as she saw him notice that she bent down and quickly picked them up. She lifted the lid of a storage bench behind the door and dropped the weapons in, letting the lid fall shut with a bang. And then she went back to stand by the shotgun, her hand hovering near the barrel.

She couldn't be more than seventeen, maybe eighteen, he thought, still studying her. And even though he could see a hallway down beyond the fireplace, no one else - no one older -- had come out. Buck ran his fingers through his damp hair and nodded in her direction. "Ma'am, my name is Buck Cross. I sure do thank you for the shelter."

She swallowed hard, looking nervous. "Susan Carmichael," she finally said, very softly.

Buck nodded again, adding a smile. "Miss Carmichael." He set his saddlebags and bedroll on the floor, then shrugged out of his jacket and turned to look for a place to put it.

One of the boys stepped forward hesitantly, reaching for the jacket. "Here, mister," he said softly as he took the garment. Stretching up on his toes, he hung it on a peg on the other side of the door.

Susan smiled at the boy. "Thank you, Peter."

Buck gave the boy a smile and held out his hand. "Hello, Peter. I'm Buck."

The boy snuck a quick look over at his brother, then shyly held out his hand.

The handshake seemed to break the other boy's hesitation as well. He stepped forward and extended his own hand. "I'm Daniel." He paused, giving his brother a taunting look. "I'm older than Peter."

Peter rolled his eyes and gave an exaggerated sigh. "Just by eleven minutes."

Buck grinned at the sibling rivalry; it reminded him a lot of the early days in the Pony Express bunkhouse. "Pleased to meet you, Daniel," he said, shaking hands.

The little girl stepped up next, emboldened by her brothers. "I'm Sally," she announced, a slight lisp marking her "s" as she twirled a finger in one of her pigtails.

"Hello, Sally." Buck crouched down and held out his hand, grinning as she jerked his hand up and down.

"That's Lucy," Daniel said, tapping Buck's shoulder and pointing at the baby.

"Our other sister," Peter added, not to be outdone by his brother.

"Well, you've met everyone now," Susan said, stepping closer to the door. She turned toward the children before continuing. "Mr. Cross is stayin' here tonight because of the storm. But just 'cause we got company don't change nothin' else. It's time to be gettin' to bed."

"But Susan…"

"Do we gotta?"

"I ain't tired."

Susan held up a hand, apparently a sign the younger children knew well since it stopped their protests. "I ain't gonna argue, an' you know what papa'd say. Now Sally, you go on an' get changed." She paused a moment, considering something as she studied the loft up over the back of the house. "Peter, Daniel, you go get your nightclothes. You're gonna sleep in papa's bed tonight."

Sally trudged off slowly toward the hallway, but the boys exchanged grins and raced for the ladder propped up next to the fireplace. From the back, Buck couldn't tell which boy won, but they both scrambled quickly up to the loft.

Figuring the change had something to do with him, Buck turned to Susan. "I'll be fine with my bedroll on the floor by the fire," he offered.

She shook her head absently, still apparently thinking about something. "You'll have the loft. The boys'll like the change anyways." She pointed off to the side, into what Buck had identified as the kitchen. "There's hot coffee on the stove, an' you'll see the mugs on the shelf. Help yourself."

"Thank you."

"I… I gotta get the girls settled."

Buck watched her walk away, noting with interest that the shotgun still sat leaning against the wall. Well, since he had no evil intentions anyway, it really didn't matter - and hot coffee sounded really good after his long, cold trek.

He was pouring a mug of the steaming liquid when he heard the boys coming back down the ladder. The footsteps disappeared down the hall.

Buck inhaled the aroma of the coffee as he held the mug tightly between both hands. His fingers were tingling with pain as they warmed, but he knew that was actually better than not feeling them at all, so he'd take it.

The stove had the kitchen nicely warm, so he pulled out a chair and sat down, taking his first sip of coffee. The hot liquid burned his tongue, but he could feel his body starting to warm from the inside as he swallowed.

He'd made it most of the way through the first cup of coffee when he heard footsteps coming toward him, and he looked up as Susan appeared back in the opening between the living area and the kitchen.

Buck got to his feet as she slowly walked closer. "The coffee is very good."

"Thank you."

"Can I get you a cup?"

She nodded and Buck went back to the stove, refilling his mug and filling another one. He carried both of them back to the table and sat down again, sliding the second mug across the table toward where she stood.

Susan hesitated for a moment, then picked up the cup and seated herself at the chair farthest away.

Buck calmly sipped his coffee, trying to figure out the best way to put her at ease. After seeing the children she was apparently responsible for by herself, at least for the time being, he could understand her hesitancy at letting a stranger in. That her upbringing and manners had led her to invite him in out of the storm anyway was a lucky stroke for him.

They drank in silence for a few minutes before she finally broke it. "What brings you out here in a storm?"

"I was trying to get to Plum Creek before the storm, but then my horse got hurt."

"Is that where you're from? I don't recall seeing you before."

"No, I'm from Rock Creek. I knew I wouldn't make it that far though, even if the horse hadn't fallen."

"Not many people travel in winter in these parts."

Buck nodded, knowing that not traveling was definitely the smarter course of action when winter on the Plains could be so unpredictable. "I was escorting a prisoner, so I didn't have much choice." And after dropping the man off, he'd put the badge away. Dumb move, Buck. Wearing it might have put her more at ease…

"You're a lawman then?"

"Part of the time. I rode for the Pony Express until it ended. The man who ran the Rock Creek station is also the town marshal. I work for him some of the time, and I do some other things too."

Susan smiled. "Oh, I've seen the Pony Express riders pass through Plum Creek a few times. You must have seen so much of the country!"

"A lot of it, yeah. We used to be out at the Sweetwater station, much farther west. I was coming back from Fort Kearny now."

She suddenly sat up straighter, looking intently at him. "Fort Kearny? Did you… did you see anyone else traveling back this way?"

Buck shook his head. "No, I didn't. Like you said, not many people travel…" He stopped, putting some pieces together. The father whose bed was empty… "Is that where your father went?" he asked gently.

She nodded, her hands trembling on her cup. "My father, and my brother Joseph." Her voice dropped to barely a whisper. "They should have been back two weeks ago."

"I'm sorry." That sounded so weak, but he didn't know what else to say. "I really didn't see anyone else on the road. Maybe… maybe one of them got sick and they were waiting until he got better." Weak, Buck, really weak - why wouldn't they have sent a telegram? The lines had looked fine the whole way, and before this storm the weather had been mild for almost a month.

"Maybe," Susan agreed, with no real sense of conviction in her voice.

Silence enveloped them again. Susan stared down at the coffee in her cup, and Buck just sipped at his, not knowing what to say - or if his comments would even be welcome, no matter what he said.

"Maybe they'll come home after the storm passes," Susan finally whispered.

Buck took a deep breath and nodded. "Better traveling then, that's for sure." Two weeks late from Kearny didn't sound good though - and it was obvious Susan thought so too.

She got to her feet and walked past the stove, setting her cup on a small counter. "Morning chores come real early," she said, jumping as a gust of wind rattled the window next to her.

Buck brought his own cup over, looking out the window. Most of the glass was frosted up, but in the upper corners he could see the wind whipping the fresh fallen snow across the yard. "I really am very grateful for your hospitality."

Susan took a deep breath and pressed her hands down on the counter as if steeling herself. "People gotta help each other when they can," she said softly. "That's how I was raised."

"Me too."

With a sigh she pushed back from the counter and walked toward the living area. She hesitated just briefly when she noticed the shotgun left forgotten against the wall and then kept walking. She pointed at the ladder. "You can sleep in the loft. Might wanna leave your boots by the fire to dry."

That seemed like a sound suggestion, so Buck sat down on a chair and tugged his boots off, placing them by the hearth. Then he took the heavy cast iron tongs and banked the remaining embers for the night. Finally, very aware that her eyes had never left his back, he picked up his gear from near the door and headed to the ladder.

He was on the first step when she spoke. "I'm… I'm gonna take the ladder away 'til morning once you're up." She glanced down the darkened hallway, then back up at him. "I gotta think of the children," she added, almost apologetically.

Buck looked back at her and nodded. "I understand," he assured her, and then he continued to climb. At the top he tossed his gear over the ledge and then pulled himself up. Looking over the ledge, he watched as she pulled the ladder away and maneuvered it heavily onto the floor.

"Good night, Miss Carmichael."

Susan looked up at him, nodding once. "Good night, Mr. Cross." Then she extinguished the lamp near the kitchen, and took the one from the table by the front window with her as she walked down the hall.

Buck watched the lamp light disappear, then looked down over the edge of the loft. He understood Susan taking the ladder away, even if he didn't like it. But looking down now by the faint glow of the fire he decided it wasn't really so bad. The loft was only about eight feet off the floor below. Since he was almost six feet tall, if he lowered himself over the edge, adding in the length of his arms, his feet would almost be at the floor anyway. And if needed he could use the mantle over the hearth as a step.

Satisfied that he had an escape plan, if needed, Buck turned around and looked at the rest of the loft. The dim lighting didn't show much detail, but he could make out three pallets, and an equal number of small trunks. There was one small window near the peak of the roof - but even at its highest point he wouldn't be able to stand upright.

Well, standing wasn't required to sleep, and after fighting the storm for so long, rest was exactly what he needed. And he didn't need much light to get ready. He found a dry pair of socks in his pack and changed, almost immediately feeling the warming benefits over the wet socks he took off.

He crawled toward the pallet nearest to him, peeling the blankets back by touch. He figured there might be a lamp in the loft somewhere, but right now, with a bed so close, he was too tired to look. What the loft lacked in lighting it made up for in warmth, as heat from the fire below rose and filled the space.

Crawling under the blankets he stretched out, feeling some of the weariness ease. It was hardly a deep feather bed - not that he'd had much experience with those anyway - but his tired body didn't seem to care.

He lay there, on the edge of sleep, listening to the wind howl outside. In the morning he'd have to find his way through the snow to the barn and check on his horse, see if there was anything else he could do.

Buck yawned and turned on his side, tucking into the heavy woolen blankets. He was safe from the storm, and warm. All thanks to the kindness of a stranger.

People gotta help each other when they can…

Susan's words came back to him in the dark stillness, and he paused his journey toward sleep for a moment to consider the words. He believed the same thing, and with a father and brother missing, the Carmichaels could certainly use some help. Maybe there would be something he could do.

But as he yawned again, he acknowledged that he wasn't going to think of anything that night. He gave himself to sleep, with one last thought on his mind.

He'd think about the question of help in the morning…

Warm Hearts
by: Miss Raye

“You know…” Lou began, “it’s gettin’ close to sundown out there.”

Cody lifted the corner of the curtain and peered out. “Looks like.

“How long do ya suppose-”

“They ain’t that late, Lou.” Cody again, this time turning away from the window and back to his book. “They’ll be here, just wait.”

“Just wait,” she grumbled under her breath. She’d been on a run that morning and seen the dark grey clouds hanging over the land to the east of Sweetwater. She’d hoped that the clouds would just keep going, but they’d been laden with snow and had slowed to a stop by noon. Since then, there’d been a smattering of flakes falling down out of the sky. It wasn’t enough to set into drifts, most of it melted to slush when it touched the ground, but for the last hour or so, the weather had chilled and now, clumps of snow were collecting on the leaves of Emma’s cottonwood tree. “I hope they beat it home.”

Standing up from her seat at the table, Lou paced over to her bunk and slid her finger along the ribbon she’d tied around the carefully wrapped present on her bunk. It was a simple gift and she’d made it with her own hands during downtime from her chores and her duties as an express rider. Something she could have sent in the mail, but had waited to deliver it in person. Now she wished that she’d just sent it when she’d had the chance… then she wouldn’t be waiting. Waiting for the wagon to roll up to the gate.

The bunkhouse door slammed open and was filled with a snowman dropping clumps of white flakes on the floor. “They’re here! Special delivery from Omaha!”

“Oh do get out of the door, son, you’re gettin’ the rug wet.”

Jimmy stepped aside as Teaspoon shouldered his way through into the warmth, his eyes on the rag rug beneath his feet. “So, I’m gettin’ it wet… but it’s a rug, you’re supposed to use it, right?”

“Try as I might,” came the exasperated laugh, “I can’t find an argument with your logic ‘right this minute.’”

Lou was pushing her way through the crowd before she even saw her. “Emma!” The two threw their arms around each other and started to talk excitedly. “I was so worried you wouldn’t make it through.”

“Sam said the same thing yesterday when he wanted to turn back.”

Lou couldn’t stop herself from turning around to look at Sam. The Territorial Marshal had the good sense to look a bit ashamed and the warmth in his cheeks was only partially due to the cold. “I guess he was worried about you gettin’ too cold and-”

Setting her hand on Lou’s, Emma caught the younger woman’s attention. “He was plenty cold himself, Lou, so it wasn’t just about me, but he knew how much this trip meant to me, so we kept going.” Emma leaned back to give her husband a smile. “So he hunkered down in his coat and brought me.”

“That was real nice of him and-”

Sam came up beside Emma and pressed a kiss to her cheek. “’course it did help that Emma said we couldn’t have any of the pies she’d made until we got here.” Sam started toward the tight knot of boys standing around the fire holding their hands to the warm flickering lights.

“But I have a feeling that you’ve got somethin’ on your mind to tell me.” She gave Lou’s hand a squeeze. “I could see it in your letters and now lookin’ at you I can see you’re about to burst. What happened while I was gone? Did you run off and join the circus?”

Lou looked over at the fire, her eyes sliding over her friends before she returned to Emma. “Sooo much… but I’ve got so many questions… I don’t know which ones to ask first!”

“Hmmm,” Emma pondered, “then I guess you better help me get the food unpacked.” Emma inclined her head toward the crate that Sam had placed on a table at the far end of the room.

Seeing the opportunity that it presented Lou nodded. They stood and walked together, their heads pressed tightly together, their laughter warming the air around them.

Letting In the New Year
by: Sid

The moment Rachel stepped onto the porch and closed the door behind her, she began to feel a little better, a little freer somehow. Wrapping her shawl closely around her head she breathed deeply, as if to steady herself. For a long moment she merely stood there, the wooden floorboards under her feet, raucous laughter in the house behind her, and a snowy, moonlit night ahead.

There had been flurries all day, but now the snow only fell sparsely, wispy little flakes trailing through the air, gentle and unhurried. It was quiet and still, the way only a winter's night could be, as if the world had been wrapped in cotton, every noise muffled by the quiet of the snow.

Rachel breathed deeply, letting the biting cold fill her nose and lungs, basking in that pure, crisp, aching smell of fresh snow and winter wind. So beautiful. When you had a roof over your head, food on the table, and a fire crackling in the fireplace, you had the luxury of enjoying a cold night like this.

She stepped down from the porch and into the yard, listening to the crunch of her boots on the deeply-packed drifts as she walked toward the fence that surrounded the property.

And this year more than ever, she told herself she just plain had a duty to enjoy a night like this. A houseful of family, all together for the first time since the war had begun. Food and merriment and the laughter of children. Christmas, the first since the war had ended. And now here it was, New Year's Eve. Another year, the last year of the war, behind them. You're one of the lucky ones, she reminded herself. Starting a new year with your family together again.

But all the same, it was bittersweet, and so many things robbed her of what should have been happiness, so many terrible reminders of what life had been like before, reminders of how much they had lost.

New Year's Eve had used to be a holiday of so much promise. Thanksgiving was about thankfulness, Christmas about joy, but New Year's had always been, to Rachel, about promise. And hope. New beginnings, new chances.

The house was lit from top to bottom, and even from the fence Rachel could hear the laughter and the music. Gwyneth was playing the piano, it sounded like "O Tannenbaum," and several voices were singing along. The dog was barking intently. Cody was shouting something, and Jimmy's shadow moved before the window as he danced through the room with a little girl in his arms.

Everyone was reveling in the pleasure of being together again. Why couldn't she?

She had tried. She was still trying. But every time she felt a little happiness and hope creeping in, something always stopped her. The scar running over Cody's face. That horribly empty space where Kid's left leg had used to be. The haunted look in Lou's eyes. All of these things. These things, and so much more. The ring on Rachel's wedding finger that no longer had a reason to be there, and the grave across the pasture where she had buried her husband and her heart. And the empty spaces at the dinner table that should have been filled. Ike's. Noah's. Hal's. Jesse's--they'd heard only rumors of him since Noah's death. And Teaspoon's.

This time last year she had been standing at this very fence with Teaspoon by her side. Hal had been dead only a few months; Rachel hadn't been able to get through a day without breaking down into sobs. Their family had still been scattered to the winds, the war still raging, only she and Teaspoon together to ring in the new year. Last year there had seemed so very little to celebrate. Cody was missing since a scouting expedition two months before. Kid was in the hospital, one leg gone and still in danger of losing another. Lou was by his side, waiting for him to wake up. Hoping he would wake up. Not really believing that he would. There had been no word from Jimmy or Buck for months. And Hal, her dear Hal, was gone. Two years together, that was all, and then she was alone again.

"Not alone, darlin'," Teaspoon had reminded her gently. His arm stole around her, warm and comforting. For several long minutes he was quiet. "But… I reckon I can see how you'd feel that way."

His embrace had grown tighter, and his voice lower. "It's New Year's Eve, darlin'. Time to say goodbye to this old year and welcome in the new one. New beginnings, Rachel, new chances. Who knows what the next year will bring? We got to hope, that's all we can do. We can't shrink from what lies ahead, we got to meet it head on.

"My mama used to open the door every New Year's Eve, right at midnight. She'd make a big to-do, swingin' that door wide and throwin' her arms out. She'd say to me, she'd say, 'Aloysius, you got to let the new year know it's welcome. You got to open that door and let it in. Let it all in, the good that's comin' and the bad too.' 'Cause that's life, Rachel, and no amount of wishin' makes it otherwise. It's life, and we got to welcome it all."

Rachel sighed, feeling the tears dripping down her nose, her breathing ragged. The good and the bad. Yes, Teaspoon's mama had been right. Because the new year had brought the end of the war, and Kid and Lou's third child. It had brought Cody, blissfully happy, with his sweet Gwyneth, and Buck with his Violet. It had brought Jimmy, haggard and drained, but somehow at peace with himself.

And the new year had given Rachel herself the greatest gift of all: that roly-poly baby boy with Hal's face and Hal's smile and Teaspoon's name.

The front door swung open, spilling yellow light against the white snow. "Rachel, get in here now!" It was Cody, his silhouette sharp against the light of the house. "It's almost midnight! Gwyneth's gonna make us sing! That damned Scottish song I can't never remember the words to."

"It's called ' Auld Lang Syne,' Billy," his wife hissed from behind.

Rachel felt laughter bubbling to her lips. It felt wonderful. "Be there in a minute!" she called back.

"You say it's in English, but I don't believe it," she heard him declaring loudly before the door closed behind him, and Rachel laughed again.

Her walk back to the house was slow. Through the window she could see the family gathering in a close little circle. Kid was pouring everyone drinks. Children were clamoring at Lou's skirts. Gwyneth was playing the piano again, the first few bars of Auld Lang Syne. Buck was stealing a kiss from his wife under the mistletoe.

Rachel shivered despite her coat and shawl. It was too cold to be out here indulging in self-pity anyway. Her nose and cheeks were turning to ice.

She began the short walk to the house. She saw that someone had left the gate open and clucked to herself. Someone was always leaving the gate open, and it seemed like she was always the one closing it.

She pulled it firmly in place and was just going to latch it when suddenly, she stopped. A smile spread against her lips and she felt her bruised heart throb, just a little, with healing. With hope.

Then she pushed against the gate, just as firmly, swinging it open, throwing her arms wide in welcome.

Letting the new year in.

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