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 4.2 How I Survived Christmas by Leah Anders

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20150428
Post4.2 How I Survived Christmas by Leah Anders

4.2 How I Survived Christmas
by Leah Anders


Snow and wind stinging his eyes, Heyes got off the horse as quickly as his frozen joints would allow. "Kid!" His voice, swept away by the wind, sounded far-away to his own ears. Kneeling on the white-blanketed ground, he pulled Kid's head into his lap, wiping fat, wet flakes of snow away from his face. "Kid, wake up! You hear me, Kid? Wake up!" Kid's eyelids fluttered, but his eyes remained closed. Heyes felt a panic start to build, starting deep in his midsection and blooming outward. Squinting against the fierce forces of nature that were steadily working at wearing him down, he looked around him, desperate for some sign of improving weather. Finding none, he looked back at Kid, lying still as death against the white ground. He shook him vigorously by the shoulders. No response. He slapped him smartly across his cheeks, covered as they were by the thick woollen scarves. No response.

With a silent cry of fear and desperation, he managed to get Kid into a sitting position and, bending at the waist and knees, he pulled, using all the strength he had remaining, and threw Kid's limp body over his shoulder; intending to push, pull, and drag him back onto the horse any way he could.

Turning, he lost his footing on the slick earth and fell. Kid landed on top of him, weighing him down, face first in a thick, swirling drift. He lay there, exhausted, pinned between Kid and certain death from freezing. Realizing the hopelessness of their situation and yet, not ready to give up, he rolled Kid off him. Panting from the exertion, he said, "Ok, here we go, Kid. You gotta try and help me." Feeling as though he were moving in slow motion, he grabbed Kid's coat by the lapels, gave a mighty pull - and collapsed, breathing heavy, moist clouds of vapor, on top of his partner. Frustrated tears burned at the back of his eyes as silently he cursed himself again for getting the two of them here.


Starring

Pete Duel as Hannibal Heyes
Ben Murphy as Kid Curry


Guest Stars

Thomas Haden Church as Joe Boone


Dakota Fanning as Jillian Rose Boone


Ellen Pompeo as Gail Boone


Stephen Collins as Benny




How I Survived Christmas
by Leah Anders



Heyes silently chastised himself, not for the first time this day, for the predicament he and Kid found themselves in. Given their circumstances, he probably could have shouted his curses at the top of his voice and not been heard over the howl of the wind that swept their words away across the prairie wilderness before they could reach the other's ears. The only real proof he had that Kid was still with him was the gentle, constant pressure against his back he felt through his heavy, though not nearly heavy enough, gray coat. After losing his own horse, which had slipped on an icy patch and broken its leg, they had been forced to ride double on Kid's and since his friend and partner was in worse shape than he was, Heyes took the reins.

The snow skittered and scurried around them, over them, and against them. It drifted up into huge mounds that pulled at the horse's legs and threatened to block their path time and again. The wind was a major culprit, blowing the snow with persistent zeal at them, looking for entrance under and around their clothing to wage angry, freezing assault on their already frigid bodies. Heyes' toes, inside his cowboy boots, were nearly frozen stiff and his fingers inside his leather gloves weren't faring much better. He found himself rubbing his hands together almost constantly to try to keep the circulation going, but he was fighting a losing battle.

Heyes was angry with himself for not recognizing the signs that the weather was going to take a turn, a very bad turn, for the worst. And now here they were, out in the middle of this god-forsaken prairie, in the middle of a first-class blizzard, without so much as a stand of trees to take shelter among. There was nothing here except for more nothing; at least that is how it appeared when the snow first started falling harder and the wind kicked up a few hours ago. Now, it was impossible to say with certainty what might be around them. The visibility had dropped to nearly nothing in the last hour and had stayed that way pretty much the whole time since.

The inability to see anything past the ears of his horse made Heyes feel like they were floating rather than walking along what may or may not have been a road; it was impossible to tell if they had wandered off the trail or not. The wind only added to his feeling of sensory distortion by blocking out any sounds other than the white noise of its whistling, gusty whooshes. He was thankful for the feel of Kid's torso resting against him, if for no other reason than to keep him grounded in reality.

Kid had been silent for too long. Heyes was becoming more and more worried about him. He had been fine when they set out this morning, except for a little winter cold; just a run of the mill cold; sniffles, a cough, a scratchy throat; nothing to lose sleep over.

Again, he bitterly berated himself for not watching out better. They could have stayed in that last town but since they were almost out of money, again, with less than ten dollars in their pockets between the two of them; and hadn't had any luck at all finding work, they had mutually decided to move on. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now Heyes was sure he should have known better, somehow. They could have stretched those few dollars a little bit further if they had wanted to. And what good were they now, tucked safely inside his shirt pocket? They sure weren't helping them much out here, freezing in the cold.

The day had started out well enough, not much different than any other day out on the trail, except it was colder than what they were used to. How they had ended up so far north at this time of year was something else he blamed himself for, although right now he wasn't rightly sure how it had come about in the first place. When the snow started to fall, they hadn't minded. It came down gently at first, really a beautiful sight. He remembered how excited Kid had been to see the first flakes fall and hit his heavy winter coat. Sometimes Kid was such a kid, Heyes thought.

"Heyes, look! It's snowing."

"Uh, huh,"

Kid glanced at his partner, annoyed. "Uh, huh? That's it? That's the best you can come up with?"

Heyes chuckled, "I've seen snow before, you know. So have you, for that matter."

"That don't mean you can't enjoy seeing it again, does it?"

"Course not. But I can enjoy seeing it without getting all girly about it," he answered with a grin.

Kid's blue eyes turned as frosty as the air. "Girly! Why, if that don't beat all. Heyes, you can be the most disagreeable- "

"Aw, Kid. You know I was only prodding you. Where's your sense of humor?" Heyes reached over and poked a good-natured fist against Kid's shoulder. Kid thawed slightly but wasn't ready to warm up to Heyes' apology too quickly. "Kid, look. The snow is coming down harder now." Thick, wet flakes fell from the sky faster, clinging to their clothes, their hats, their skin, their horses. Concern creased Heyes' forehead. "Maybe we ought to find some place to hunker down until it lets up."

"You're probably right. But where?" Heyes and Curry scanned the horizon. There was nothing except open prairie and rolling hills, dotted by an occasional lonely, barren tree or two, for as far as the eye could see. "Maybe we should turn around? Head back to town?"

"Could be. On the other hand, how bad can it get? Maybe we should just keep going. The next town isn't more than five or ten miles that away," Heyes reasoned, gesturing towards the far horizon.

Thinking back now, Heyes wondered if it would have been smarter to head back the way they had come. In actuality, it probably wouldn't have made a speck of difference, but there was that little voice in his head telling him he had made a wrong decision when he decided to push forward.

Now the most important thing on his mind, other than beating himself up mentally, was to find shelter somewhere; someplace to get out of the wind and the snow and try to wait out the blizzard; maybe someplace he could dig down through the snow and make a small fire. Unfortunately, he couldn't see anyplace like that. No matter how hard he strained his eyes to see through the dense, white curtain of flakes, he couldn't see anything at all. Grimly, he decided that they were going to have to just keep going and hope for the best.

Which is what they'd been doing all day since the snow started falling harder and harder. Once the wind picked up, it only got worse. It seemed to get colder with each passing minute until Heyes' feet were so numb it was hard to keep them from falling out of the stirrups. Not only that, Kid had gone awfully quiet as the weather conditions got worse. Heyes was kept busy trying to keep him engaged in conversation.

"Are you all right, Kid?" he asked time and again, and each time, he got the same response from his friend.

"Fine, fine. I'm all right."

But his appearance didn't bear out his words. Heyes knew that Kid wasn't feeling all that well to start with and the cold was wearing him down. As the minutes and hours dragged on, it almost seemed to Heyes that Kid was visibly shrinking inside his big overcoat.

"Are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine," Kid answered stoically. "Just cold, is all."

"It's cold enough, that's for sure." Heyes was silent for a while. "But other than that, you're ok?" he asked again.

"Fine, I'm fine," Kid mumbled, his head drooping forward a little more.

Heyes studied Kid, knowing full well he wasn't fine. His face, now slack and fatigued looking, had taken on a bluish tint. Remembering the thick, knitted scarves that they carried in their saddlebags, Heyes paused long enough to retrieve them and to wrap Kid's securely around his head, giving him at least some protection from the hard-driven wind. After a second's hesitation, he took his own scarf and wrapped it around Kid's face also, securing it snugly into the top of Kid's coat.

When later, without warning, Heyes' horse went down hard on a patch of ice hidden under the snow and they were forced to shoot it to put it out of its misery, leg broken and bent at an unnatural angle, he was more than happy to join Kid on his horse. Partly because they would be able to share body warmth, an increasingly precious commodity; and also because he was concerned Kid would not be able to sit his horse alone much longer.

Now that concern became reality and Heyes could do little about it. Slowly, but not slowly enough, he felt Kid start to slip sideways out of his seat behind the saddle. Alarmed, Heyes reached back awkwardly, trying to stop Kid's steady roll to the left. But from where he was, the best he could manage was to grab a fistful of Kid's sheepskin coat with his cold-stiffened fingers, halting his fall momentarily before losing hold, only to watch Kid fall the rest of the way to the ground, where he landed in a soft, thick pile of flakes.

Snow and wind stinging his eyes, Heyes got off the horse as quickly as his frozen joints would allow. "Kid!" His voice, swept away by the wind, sounded far-away to his own ears. Kneeling on the white-blanketed ground, he pulled Kid's head into his lap, wiping fat, wet flakes of snow away from his face. "Kid, wake up! You hear me, Kid? Wake up!" Kid's eyelids fluttered, but his eyes remained closed. Heyes felt a panic start to build, starting deep in his midsection and blooming outward. Squinting against the fierce forces of nature that were steadily working at wearing him down, he looked around him, desperate for some sign of improving weather. Finding none, he looked back at Kid, lying still as death against the white ground. He shook him vigorously by the shoulders. No response. He slapped him smartly across his cheeks, covered as they were by the thick, woollen scarves. No response.

With a silent cry of fear and desperation, he managed to get Kid into a sitting position and, bending at the waist and knees, he pulled, using all the strength he had remaining, and threw Kid's limp body over his shoulder; intending to push, pull and drag him back onto the horse any way he could.

Turning, he lost his footing on the slick earth and fell. Kid landed on top of him, weighing him down, face first in a thick, swirling drift. He lay there, exhausted, pinned between Kid and certain death from freezing. Realizing the hopelessness of their situation and yet, not ready to give up, he rolled Kid off him. Panting from the exertion, he said, "Ok, here we go, Kid. You gotta try and help me." Feeling as though he were moving in slow motion, he grabbed Kid's coat by the lapels, gave a mighty pull - and collapsed, breathing heavy, moist clouds of vapor, on top of his partner. Frustrated tears burned at the back of his eyes as silently he cursed himself again for getting the two of them here.

Lying next to Kid on the cold snow, Heyes felt himself losing hope. "It looks like this is it, partner. The end of the road. We've survived posses and bounty hunters who've tried to turn us in, outlaws who've tried to kill us for the reward, and now it looks like God himself is against us." Longing for a moment's rest, Heyes moved closer to Kid, throwing an arm around the other man's shoulders, doing his best to keep both of them warm before, at the end of his endurance, he felt his eyelids slide shut.

* * * * *

Heyes didn't know how long he lay there on the ground next to Kid; but it was long enough for both of them to become covered with a thin winter blanket of white. He didn't know what finally woke him from his slumber; he was just thankful that he woke up at all. He lay there for a time, eyes closed, too cold to move, the noise of the wind invading his tired mind. Disoriented, he felt something about it had changed while he lay sleeping. It no longer howled relentlessly. Instead, all Heyes heard was a low, squeaking sound, unlike any wind he'd ever heard before, getting louder by increments as the seconds passed. First his exhausted mind resisted the sound, wanting nothing more than to keep sleeping, wanting to give in to the peaceful feeling of surrender he had succumbed to since lying down next to Kid.

Suddenly more alert, he pushed himself, with effort, to a sitting position and, squinting against the bright, white light of day, surveyed the horizon, hoping that his ears were not playing tricks on him.

Feeling nearly frozen, he barely had the strength left to beckon to the approaching wagon. Ironically, now that the worst of the blizzard had passed and the wind had died down, Heyes was able to see not only the wagon making its difficult way to them through the drifted snow, but also the small cabin no more than a few hundred yards away from where Kid had fallen from the horse. A touch of almost-hysterical laughter escaped his lips as he realized that they had almost frozen to death so close to possible shelter.

As the wagon got closer, Heyes studied the two men it carried. The driver was a big, rough-hewn sort, probably a farmer, although it was difficult to make out much more about him because of the worn, but heavy, fur-lined coat he wore. The other man, seated in the rear of the wagon had fair, finely chiselled features and light colored hair. He was strangely dressed for the weather, wearing only a fine suit with no overcoat at all. He kept his eyes locked on Heyes' until the wagon pulled up right next to them.

Relief and gratitude rolled over Heyes as he watched the driver get down from his seat and, without a word, pick Kid out of the snow as effortlessly as if he weighed no more than a bag of feathers and gently lay him out in the back of the wagon. Then, unable to fight the exhaustion that sought to overwhelm him once again, he lost consciousness at the exact moment he felt rough hands lift him from the ground and place him next to Kid.

* * * * *

Later - minutes…hours…days? Heyes had no idea how long he slept, but when he awoke, he felt warm and dry and comfortable and thankful to be alive. He wriggled his fingers and toes experimentally, just to make sure they were all still where he left them the morning of the storm. They felt stiff and a little tingly but not too much the worse for wear, considering what they had been through.

Confident that all his parts were still intact, he took a minute to check out his surroundings. He was in a small bedroom. The only furniture in the room was the bed he was laying in, a small chest of drawers, a straight-backed wooden chair, and a black, wrought iron pot-bellied stove. Wood crackled and burned behind the closed grate. After being stuck out in the storm, the heat it gave off didn't quite take the chill out of his bones, but it felt pretty good, nonetheless.

Reluctantly throwing back the thick patchwork quilt and blankets, Heyes sat up, dropping his bare feet onto the rug covered, wooden floor. He was dressed, not in his own clothes or even his own customary long-johns, but in a knee length, white night-shirt at least one size too large for him. Frowning slightly, he wondered how and by whom he had come to be dressed thusly. He didn't remember anything that had happened from the time he and Kid were dragged out of the snow bank and laid in the wagon. A twinge of panic coursed through his body as he thought about Kid. 'Where is he?' Getting up, he looked around for his clothes. He saw his hat sitting on the dresser and his gun belt looped over the back of the chair, but everything else was missing, even his boots.

Sighing, he padded over to the open door and peeked cautiously around the wall and out into the next room. He didn't see anyone but could hear sounds of other people in the house. There was a blazing fire in the fireplace and in front of it, he saw his shirt, pants, and boots, placed there to dry. With something akin to horror, he saw that even his long-johns were draped over the back of a chair - right there out in the open for anyone to see.

Emboldened by the desire to retrieve his 'underthings,' Heyes left the bedroom, padding along silently in his bare feet. He was just about to grab them from the back of the chair when he heard heavy footsteps coming up behind him. Before he could turn around, a man's voice growled, "Finally awake, eh?"

Heyes looked up at the big man, recognizing him as the person who had driven the wagon. He smiled, somewhat painfully, realizing too late that his lips were raw and cracked from being out in the driving wind and snow for so long. He ran his tongue over them, in a futile attempt to soften them up. He stood there, unhappy to be dressed in the thin nightshirt but determined not to show it. "Yes, I'm awake. And grateful to you, Mr…"

"Boone. The name's Joe Boone."

Heyes snaked his left hand around behind his back and searched blindly until his fingers found the soft fabric of his long-johns. He extended his right hand to Joe, "Joshua Smith. I can't thank you enough, Mr. Boone. If you hadn't happened along when you did…well, I hate to think what would have happened to us."

"I imagine you would have froze to death," he replied brusquely, ignoring Heyes' outstretched hand. "You want some coffee?"

"I would," Heyes answered, lowering his hand. "But first I need to know if my friend, Mr. Jones, is OK. Where is he?"

"Suit yerself."

"So where is he?"

Boone was already pouring himself a cup of coffee from the big, blue enamel pot kept warm over the wood-burning stove in the kitchen area. "In there," he grunted, a sharp nod of his head indicating a room at the back of the house.

Slightly annoyed at being treated so discourteously, Heyes glared at the man's back before leaving the room; underwear still in hand but forgotten in his eagerness to check on Kid. Hurrying, he crossed the threshold between the two rooms. Kid was lying in bed, covers tucked snugly around his body and pulled up right to his chin. All he could see of his partner was his face. The woman leaning over him glanced up and smiled as Heyes came in before finishing what she had been doing - tending to the man lying asleep in the bed. She was smoothing an ointment of some sort over Kid's wind-reddened and chafed skin with a motherly touch.

I see you found your clothes," she said, smiling at Heyes again as she straightened up and looked him over. Her gaze made him feel even more self-conscious about being dressed as he was. "Looks like you could use some of this yourself."

"Huh?" he said, somewhat stupidly.

"Your lips. Use this. It'll help them to heal."

"Oh. Oh, right. Thank you."

He took the jar of ointment from her, then asked, "How is he?"

"Well, I'm not sure. He's not too good, I'd guess."

"How so?" he asked, concern etching deep lines in his brow.

"Like I said, I'm not sure really, and we haven't been able to get the doc out here yet to have a look at him, but he's running a pretty high fever right now and he's been awful restless, even though he hasn't woke up yet. He seems to have some trouble drawing a deep breath and he's got a bad cough."

"Have you been able to do anything for him?"

"I've been able to get him to take a little water every now and again, and I've been giving him some medicine to take the fever down as much as possible."

"Oh." Heyes took a moment to consider what she had told him. Then walked over and sat, knees peeking out beneath the hem of the nightshirt, on the edge of the chair that someone had placed next to Kid's bed. Gently, he laid his palm flat against Kid's forehead. "He's burning up," he said, dismayed.

"I just gave him another dose of medicine. It should bring his fever back down soon."

"But- "

"Please, Mr…"

"Smith, Joshua Smith."

"He'll be all right, Mr. Smith."

"How do you know?"

She smiled. "Sometimes you just gotta have faith. Hasn't anyone ever told you that before?"

"Huh? Oh. Yeah…yeah, I guess I have heard that once or twice. But still - "

"Until we get the doctor out here to look at your friend, all we can do is wait and do what we can for him." She gave him a reassuring pat on his shoulder, and turned to walk away. "I'll leave you here alone for a while if you don't mind. I have some things to do….by the way, my name is Gail. Joe's my husband."

"Ahh…yeah, I met him earlier. May I ask why he seems a bit…surly?"

She laughed. "Surly? Yes, I suppose that's as good a word as any to use to describe Joe these days. Well, Joe is under a lot of stress lately. The last couple of years have been hard on the farmers around here. So money is tight right now, and with Christmas coming up…he's just been a little grumpy, is all."

"Oh, I see. Christmas. May I say, it doesn't seem to be having the same effect on you, ma'am."

"Let's just say I'm more naturally of a better disposition than Joe. And please don't call me ma'am. Gail. Just call me Gail."

"All right…as long as you call me Joshua." He smiled charmingly at her, in spite of his wind-chafed lips. "By the way, would you mind telling me how I came to be dressed this way?"

It was her turn to smile. "Oh. Well, I - "

The sound of running feet interrupted their conversation before she could answer. Both of them turned expectantly toward the open doorway as a young girl appeared there, moving fast; pulling up short when she saw Heyes sitting next to the bed.

"Land sakes, Jillian Rose. What are you in such a tizzy about?"

Breathless and suddenly embarrassed, the girl reddened. "Um, I was coming to tell you the other man was missing from his bed."

"I see. Well, as you can see, here he is. Say hello to Mr. Smith, Jill. And try to show him your manners."

"How do you do, Mr. Smith?"

"Hello, Jillian. I'm glad to see you take your job of watching me so seriously."

Jillian smiled shyly and studied her shoes.

Her mother looked affectionately at her young daughter. "Now let's leave Mr. Smith alone for a while with his friend. You can help me in the kitchen, please." Gail and Jill started to leave; Jill turned for one more curious glance at Heyes. Gail stopped once more before finally leaving, suddenly remembering something... "I suppose I should ask what we should call your friend. After all, I can't go on forever calling him 'your friend,' can I?"

"Jones. Thaddeus Jones."

"Hm. Smith and Jones. Well, if nothing else, it should be easy to remember."

Heyes smiled vaguely, a toneless, noncommittal laugh passing over his lips. And then he and Kid were alone.

He sat quietly watching him, listening as he drew labored, ragged breaths, one after the other, willing him to open his eyes. Leaning forward, he dropped his head into his hands as his mind went back to the other time - when Kid took ill while they were stuck in that cabin up in the mountains; when the fake doc told him that Kid had pneumonia. He still wasn't sure if that's what really made him sick that time, but to Heyes, it looked like whatever Kid had then, he had it again. And he remembered how worried he'd been then; worried that he was going to lose the best friend he ever had. Oh, he sure did remember that feeling. 'I should have been more careful,' he silently chastised himself again.

"Heyes? What are you doing? And why are you sitting there dressed like that? Is that your underwear you're holding?"

Heyes head snapped up. He had been so lost in his remorse that he hadn't heard Kid wake up, but now his mouth widened in a dazzling, delighted smile, unmindful of the pain his cracked lips caused him. "Kid! You're awake! How ya feeling?"

Kid smiled weakly. Without warning, a deep cough rattled up from his chest, racking his body before he could answer. His face reflected the pain the coughing fit caused him. "Awful. What happened, Heyes? The last thing I remember is being stuck in a snowstorm. I thought we were goners. Where are we? How'd you find this place?"

"I didn't. More like, it found us. Or at least, the man who lives here found us. If he hadn't happened upon us, I think we would have been goners." Kid coughed again, the strain of it draining the color from his face. Heyes studied him carefully, concern darkening his eyes to an even deeper shade of brown. "You sound awful. It's probably best if you get some more rest." Heyes stood up. "Can I get you anything before I leave?"

Kid shook his head wearily, "No. I'm alright," he said raspily. "But maybe you should go put your pants on before you catch your death. It must be a mite draughty in that get-up."

Heyes looked down at his bare legs and feet and grinned at Kid. "Naw. Not draughty, just refreshing. You oughta try it."

"Maybe later. For now, I think I'll just stay here where it's warm."

Heyes walked out of the bedroom. Joe, Gail, and Jillian glanced up from what they were doing and watched him gather up his clothes from in front of the fireplace, Gail, amused; Joe, grumpily; and Jillian, curious. Heyes graced them with a quick embarrassed nod and then retreated to the privacy of his bedroom to get dressed.

Later, fully dressed and more at ease, he emerged once again from his room to find Joe alone in the big room of the house. "Gail says your friend…Mr. Jones…isn't doing so good yet."

"I'm afraid she's right. But he'll be ok - I'm sure of it."

Joe grunted, "Coffee's still hot if you want some. Help yourself." He grabbed his coat from a peg by the door and shrugged into it. Then he pulled the door open and disappeared through it, leaving Heyes alone in the kitchen.

He was pouring himself a cup of the hot, black coffee when Jillian Rose breezed into the room. She smiled cheerily at him before sitting down at the big kitchen table. Abruptly, she asked, "What were you and Mr. Jones doing out in the snowstorm?"

"Well, it wasn't storming when we set out. Wasn't even snowing."

"Most people around here would know better than to be caught out like that. Didn't you see the signs?"

"Signs?"

"Yeah. My pa says you have to be able to read the signs for when bad weather is comin'. Didn't you read the signs?"

"I reckon I might have missed a sign or two. Me and Mr. Jones haven't spent much time in snow country these past few years."

"Where you been?"

"Oh, most everywhere, I guess. Mostly down south…where it's warm…no snow."

"Well, what are you doing up here then?"

"Mr. Jones and I like to travel around a lot."

"Huh. Seems like you should have stayed down south this time of year. You don't know much about cold weather, don't seem to me."

"You're more than likely right, Jillian Rose."

"Can you call me Jill, please? Jillian Rose is what my ma calls me when I'm doing something I ain't supposed to be doing…like running in the house."

"Ok, then. Jill. So tell me, Jill…What are you hoping to get for Christmas this year?"

Jill's smile faded. "Oh, I don't think we'll be doing presents this year," she said, in her most mature voice.

"Oh?"

"No. Pa ain't got much money to spend on such stuff right now, Ma says."

"I see."

"But it's OK. Really. I don't need anything at all."

"You don't?"

"No. And anyway, Ma says that Christmas ain't about presents anyway."

"It's not?"

"No. Ma says Christmas is about families and sharing the joy of the season. Presents are nice, but they ain't necessary, Ma says."

"Your ma is a very smart woman."

"I know," Jill agreed, a little sadly.

Gail came into the kitchen. She was lost in thought, her pretty brow lined with worry. Heyes felt his own brow furrow, matching her expression. "What's wrong? Is he worse?"

"He's not any better," she replied. "If I had to guess, I'd say he was getting worse."

"Why do you say that?"

"I was hoping the fever would break by now but it's still very high. He seems to be having more trouble drawing an easy breath. And I'm worried about that cough. He's sleeping again but I sure hope the doctor gets out here soon to have a look at him."

* * * * *

Heyes slouched low in his chair, his cup of coffee undrunk and cooling on the floor next to his feet. He stared helplessly at his friend and partner. Kid was sleeping restlessly, his breathing seemed even more labored than the first time Heyes had seen him since waking. His face was drained and pale, except for the two fiery points of color on his cheeks. Heyes didn't need to touch his skin to know that it burned with fever. He'd seen Kid sick before and knew all the signs.

He berated himself again for not watching out for Kid better. It was his job to take care of him - had been every since they were young'uns. It didn't matter that they were both grown and able-bodied now…some things don't change just because you say they do.
Heyes smiled in spite of the worry he was feeling…if he had asked Curry who generally did the 'taking care of,' he'd get a different answer entirely, but in Heyes' mind, it was his job to see to it that nothing bad happened to either one of them.

Heyes didn't hear when Gail came back into the bedroom. He was so deeply immersed in his own thoughts that he jumped, startled, when she placed her hand lightly on his shoulder. "Joshua?" she said gently. "This is Doctor Johannsen. He's come to look after Mr. Jones."

Doctor Johannsen shook Heyes' hand. His handshake was firm and confident. "Doctor. I'm glad to meet you." Heyes looked up; his eyes peered deep into the other man's eyes, quietly assessing the competence of the medical man. Johannsen had a face that would naturally inspire trust; deep, soulful eyes, a generous, kind smile, and a strong jaw line. He had an air of patience and thoughtfulness about him that calmed Heyes' mind before he even opened his mouth to speak.

The doctor nodded his greeting, "Mr. Smith. Nice to meet you, too." He turned to look at Kid. Setting his medical bag down on the bed, he opened it and brought out his stethoscope. Heyes watched as the doctor examined Kid, carefully taking in everything he saw. He was relieved to see that, even though this doctor went through a lot of the same motions that Doc Beauregard did back in that mountain cabin, Johannsen seemed to know what he was doing.

His heart dropped when, finished with the examination, the doctor sighed heavily and turned around to face Heyes. His heart dropped further when he saw the grim look on the physician's face. He waited for the doctor to speak, dreading the words he knew were coming.

"I'm afraid Mr. Jones is a very sick man. He's in serious distress right now. His lungs sound like they are full of fluid. If I had to guess, I'd say he is suffering from a bad case of pneumonia."

"What can you do for him?"

"There isn't a lot I can do, unfortunately. I'll leave some medicine with you and Gail that will help keep his fever down, but as far as the infection goes…well, we'll just have to keep him as comfortable as possible and hope for the best. With luck, his lungs will clear up and he'll get his strength back. The most important thing is that he gets plenty of rest."

Heyes nodded his understanding, not trusting his voice to answer. He swallowed hard, trying to bring his emotions back in check. He stood up as the doctor walked to the door. "I'll be back to check on him tomorrow."

"Doc?"

"Yes?"

"He'll be all right…won't he?"

The doc shook his head, "I wish I could tell you he will be, but - "

Heyes' temper flared, angry sparks glistened in his eyes. "There's got to be something else you can do!"

* * * * *

"I'm sorry, Joshua. I've done all I can. Now it's in the hands of someone more powerful than I will ever be."

Heyes' shoulders sagged, his anger dissolved. Doc Johannsen smiled sadly and left him standing alone, feeling more alone than he had for a long time. Slowly, he turned and walked to Kid's side. After a few minutes, he reached into the basin of cool water sitting on the bedside table. He wrung the water from the soft cloth he found there, folded it carefully, and lovingly laid it across Kid's feverish brow. Then he sat back down in the chair where he had spent most of the day, watching and waiting to see some improvement in his friend.

* * * * *

Heyes pulled his coat a little tighter against the icy wind cutting a path down Front Street. The snow had stopped falling long ago but large flakes swirled and eddied at his feet, carried by breezy gusts of air. The sun glistened off the pure, unbroken snow drifts, casting off sparkles reminiscent of a salted diamond field.

His horse securely tied to the hitching post, Heyes took a moment to look around the town. He was in a hurry to finish his errands so he could get back to the farm and check in on the Kid.

There were quite a few people out on the streets, many of them carrying packages from the various shops, bags of all sizes slung over their arms and clutched in hand. The stores were doing brisk business on this frosty winter day, the day before Christmas.

Heyes saw the store he was looking for, Arnold's Mercantile, at the end of the block and started walking toward it, taking care not to slip on the icy boardwalk, the smooth soles of his boots providing little traction. Not for the first time, he cursed the boots that served him well in normal weather conditions but which were proving to be a hazard on the icy streets and roads he found himself traveling over these days. With half of his attention focused on keeping his feet from sliding out from under him, he almost didn't notice the man who passed him going the other direction. He only made eye contact for a split second as they crossed paths and then it took him another second to remember where he had seen the face before.

By the time he recognized him as the man who had been with Farmer Boone the day he and Kid had almost frozen to death, and turned around to call after him, the man was nearing the end of the block and turning out of Heyes' sight.

Heyes hurried after him, as fast as the icy ground would allow him to move, wanting to speak to the man and thank him for his part in saving their lives. Even though he could not gain good traction on the ice, he managed to reach the corner mere seconds after the man turned around it, but when he looked down the next street, the man was nowhere to be seen.

Heyes stood there, perplexed, searching for any sign of the man. There were no store fronts on this particular side street - nowhere for the man to duck into quickly. But nevertheless, he was nowhere to be seen. There was no evidence that the man had ever come this way, not even a vague footprint in the hard ground. Heyes frowned, disappointed that he would not be able to thank the mysterious stranger.

Finally, he sighed and turned away, back towards the mercantile. Slowly and steadily, he made his slippery way back down the street, and eventually he was safe within the store. There was only one woman working behind the counter. She was doing her best to keep her customers happy, and succeeding pretty well too, but she was starting to show signs of wear. Her hair, which had probably started the day in a tight, neat bun at the nape of her neck, was beginning to work its way out of its confines, wisping around her face. And her holiday smile seemed to be wearing just a little thin from weariness.

While she was busy with the last few customers of the day, Heyes wandered about the store, browsing through the merchandise still available this late in the day before Christmas. He didn't really know exactly what he was looking for; Christmas shopping for a family was something he didn't have much experience in. Soon, the store was empty except for him and the clerk.

"Can I help you, sir?" she asked, casually looking him over.

"Thank you, ma'am. Yes, I'm looking for some gifts," he answered politely.

"Oh? And what are you looking for, exactly?"

"Well, I'm looking for some things to give the Boone family. Do you know them?"

"Oh, o'course! I know just about everybody in these parts. As a matter of fact, I don't recall ever seeing you around here before."

"No, ma'am. I'm not from around here. Just passing through. I've been staying out at the Boone place for a day or two."

"Friend of theirs?"

"No, ma'am. Just staying there." Tiring of her questions, he smiled sweetly at her, fixing his dark gaze on her long enough to make her look away, flustered. "So do you have any suggestions for me?"

"Oh…yes…yes, of course. We have some very nice things."

Heyes followed her around the store while she pointed out different things she thought he might be interested in. He made his selections thoughtfully, but without wasting any time. Kid's condition was heavy on his mind and he was anxious to get back to the farm to see how he was doing.

Before paying for his items, the clerk asked, "Can I interest you in some of our wrapping paper?"

"Wrapping paper?" he asked, frowning.

"Well, yes…these are gifts, aren't they?"

"I said they were," he answered, on the defensive.

"Then you'll want to wrap them, won't you?"

Heyes frowned more deeply. He'd never wrapped a Christmas gift in his life and had no idea how to go about it. "Of course. Can't give an unwrapped gift, anybody knows that."

She stared at him, waiting expectantly. "Uh…well, the paper is right here. Which would you like?"

"Hm? Oh, well…"

"I tell you what. How would it be if I wrapped them for you? For a small charge, I mean," she added hastily.

The frown on Heyes' face disappeared, replaced by a radiant Hannibal Heyes smile, complete with dimples. "That sounds wonderful, ma'am. How much do I owe you?"

"Just a moment. I'll ring you up." Heyes watched as she pushed the keys on her cash register. At first, everything seemed to be working fine, but the more she pushed, the more frustrated she seemed to get.

"Anything wrong?" he asked.

"Ohhhh…the owner just bought this new cash register…it's one of the latest, he said. Gonna save him lots of money, he says. And it's probably true, because half the time, I can't get the stubborn thing to work." She pushed a few more buttons, seemingly at random. "Now I can't get the cash drawer to open."

Heyes glanced around the edge of the bright, shiny new cash register. "Huh, would you look at that. Looks like a fine piece of equipment." Then, his arm outstretched across the counter, he flicked one key and the register drawer snapped open. "How much do I owe you?" he smiled easily.

Impressed, she smiled back. "That'll be $5.47. No charge for the gift wrapping."

"Why, thank you ma'am. That's right neighborly of you." Heyes reached into his pocket and pulled out his small wad of remaining cash, counting out the exact amount for her with some regret.

"No. Thank YOU, sir. Now you come back in about fifteen minutes and those packages will be ready and waiting for you."

Heyes tipped his hat to the clerk and walked out of the store. Fifteen minutes. Just long enough to have me a quick whiskey for the road, he thought. Fortunately, the saloon was just two doors down from the mercantile, so he didn't have too far to go on the icy walkway.

He was about to push through the barroom doors when he happened to glance toward the end of the street. Standing there, silently staring back at him, was the mysterious stranger who he had tried to catch up with earlier. Heyes called out, "Hey, mister. Hold up a minute. I wanna talk to you."

Heyes took a step toward the other man, just as the other man turned away. "Hey! Hey, wait," he repeated, trying his best to hurry after him. The first man turned the corner, this time just seconds before Heyes himself reached the spot where he disappeared from sight. 'I've got you this time,' he thought, sliding around the corner of the building.

To his surprise, the street was empty…just like it had been the first time he followed the stranger. "What the…" he said, out loud to no one. "Where did he go?" Bewildered, he pushed his hat back off his forehead while scanning the street in front of him for any sign of the fair-haired man. There were none.

'Maybe one whiskey ain't gonna be enough,' he thought.

* * * * *


_________________
Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry, the two most successful outlaws in the history of the west. And in all the trains and banks they robbed, they never shot anyone.
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4.2 How I Survived Christmas by Leah Anders :: Comments

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Re: 4.2 How I Survived Christmas by Leah Anders
Post on Tue 28 Apr 2015, 3:21 pm by royannahuggins


Heyes stomped heavily, first one foot and then the other, knocking the snow clinging to his boots onto the ground beneath him. With a final shiver, he pushed through the door into the warmth of the farmhouse. Gail looked up as he came in and smiled at him, "Cold?"

"Colder than I'm used to, that's for sure."

She laughed. "It's hard to get used to, no matter how long a body lives here. But at least it's not snowing anymore."

Heyes chuckled softly, then his face turned somber. "How's he doing?"

Her smile faded, "No change since the last time you checked on him, I'd say."

"Oh. Well…at least he's no worse anyway, right? That's something, isn't it?" His eyes pleaded with her not to argue.

Gail nodded, her own eyes betraying her doubt. "Yes, it's something."

Heyes stared back at her, reading her thoughts but unwilling to admit she might be right. "Um…I guess I'll go check on him then."

"Alright. Oh, Joshua? Joe and I are going to be going into town for a while. We won't be gone too long…we'll be home before supper, but until then, can you watch him?

"Yes, ma'am. That won't be a problem." As he turned away, he said, "I've been doing that very thing all my life."

* * * *

With a heart made heavy by worry, he entered Kid's room. Kid was sleeping again, but not easily. Heyes could hear his labored breathing almost before he entered the room. As he got closer to the bed, Heyes looked for any signs of improvement in Kid's condition. He didn't find any. Kid's face was drained of color, except for dusky shadows painted beneath his eyes. Heyes signed unhappily and leaned over Kid, pulling his blankets up to beneath his chin.

Suddenly, Kid started to cough violently, drawing his legs up towards his chest, his brow furrowed with pain. Heyes sat down on the bed next to him and held his friend by the shoulders, helping him through the coughing jag as much as he could. When he finally stopped coughing and was able to draw an easy breath, he looked at Heyes with blurry, blue eyes. "Water…"

"Sure, Kid. Hold on." Heyes poured a small amount of water from the pitcher that sat near his bed. Then he gently raised Kid's head from the pillow and held the glass to his lips as he sipped from it. Kid's hands were too shaky to hold the glass and guide it to his mouth by himself so he was thankful for Heyes' help.

"Enough?" Heyes asked. Kid nodded. Heyes helped him lay back again, his head nestled snugly within the pillow. His eyes were closed, the pain he was feeling showed in his drawn cheeks and tight, thin lips. Heyes stayed where he was sitting and studied Kid's face for long seconds. Eventually, he was startled when Kid's eyes suddenly popped open and caught him looking, worry turning his dark eyes even darker, until it was nearly impossible to tell where the pupil ended and the iris began.

"What's the matter with you, Heyes? You look like you lost your best friend." Kid worked hard to smile but Heyes' expression didn't change. "Come on, now. I'm gonna be fine. Hell, I feel better already."

"I know that. I'm just wondering when you're gonna get out of this bed and stop being such a bother. It's nearly Christmas, you know."

A faint sparkle touched Kid's eyes and then, as quickly, burned out. "Christmas, you say? I'd almost forgotten," he said, his voice harsh and raspy. Without warning, another bout of coughing ensued while Heyes sat helplessly watching; unable to do anything but wait. When it finally passed, Kid seemed even paler than before, if that were possible.

"I'm sorry, Heyes. I just can't seem to kick this cough."

"It's OK, Kid. Why don't you rest a while longer? I need to bring more wood for the fire anyway." Heyes stood up wearily, not expecting an answer; Kid was already curled up on his side, eyes squeezed tight. "You sleep," he said. "I'll be back soon."

From the bed, he heard, the words, muffled and weak, "OK, Heyes. Hurry back. I don't wanna be alone."

Heyes walked out of the room. 'That makes two of us, Kid.'

* * * * *

The winter sun was already dipping low when Heyes stepped outside on his way to the woodshed that stood behind the main house. The days did not last long on the prairie this time of year; it would be dark before long. He breathed deeply, taking a large lungful of the brisk, refreshing air; expelling it slowly through his nose. He was taken by the beauty of the scenery; the lowering sun glinting pinkly off the unbroken snow near the side of the house. With the Boones gone, there was no noise disturbing the peace surrounding him, except the sound of his own footsteps crunching through the crisp snow as he trekked the few hundred yards to the shed where the wood was stored, piled high and kept dry, enough for a full winter's supply of heat and cooking fuel for the Boone household.

With his arms loaded with lengths of neatly chopped wood, Heyes trudged back the way he had come. As he walked around the side of the house, he had to pass by the window of the room where Kid lay resting. Sensing movement within, he glanced through the parted curtains into the room. What he saw made him stop for a second look; taken aback, he didn't even notice as the wood he was carrying slid through his arms and landed softly in a fluffy snow bank.

Not trusting what he was seeing, he stepped closer to the window and peered in. Blinking once, as if to clear his vision, he shook his head, not trusting what his eyes were showing him. Kid was still lying in his bed as he had left him moments before, curled up on his side. But he was not alone in the room. Standing next to him, hand resting protectively on his blond curls, was the mysterious stranger Heyes had seen, first in the wagon on the day they almost died, and then again earlier today, on the streets of town. Suddenly Heyes was afraid. A blossom of fear took root in the pit of his stomach; fear of who this man might be and why he might be following them, as he so obviously was. Could he be a bounty hunter who'd been watching them since they left town the day of the blizzard? Maybe he was a lawman coming out to arrest them.

Alarmed, Heyes pushed himself away from the side of the house and ran, nearly tripping over the tumbled pieces of firewood lying on the ground around him. He ran as fast as he could, slipping and nearly falling more than once, back around the house until he reached the front door. Out of breath, his lungs burning from sucking in the cold air, he pulled the door open and charged through the house, straight to Kid's room.

He burst through the doorway; ready to finally find out who this man was and why he was following them; ready to do whatever it took to finally get the answers he'd been looking for. His gun was already drawn from its holster as he skidded into the room but it was too late. Kid's room was dim with late afternoon shadows but even in half-light, Heyes saw that there was only one person, other than himself, there. That person was Kid Curry. His head turned, first left, then right, then back straight ahead, but there was no sign of anyone else ever having been there.

"What are you doing with your gun out, Heyes?" Kid asked, his voice clear and strong. He was sitting up in bed, rubbing his fingers through his bed-tousled locks and yawning, watching Heyes with interest through bright blue eyes.

"Kid? What - where -?" Heyes stood frozen to the ground, the snow melting from his boots and dampening the floorboards beneath his feet. When he regained the ability to move, he hurried to the only possible hiding place in the small room, the closet, and flung the door open, pushing aside garments hanging there and peering into its dark recesses and corners.

There was no one there. He spun around and looked around the room again, hoping that a different perspective would reveal what he was looking for.

"You feeling alright, Heyes?" Kid asked. "You don't look so good." He flipped his blankets away from his legs and swung them over the edge of the bed; his bare feet coming to rest on the floor. "Do you wanna lie down?"

"Huh? No - no, I'm fine. How are you?" he asked cautiously, sliding his gun back into place against his thigh.

"Me? Fine. As a matter of fact, I feel great - and hungry. Anything to eat around here?"

Heyes laughed uneasily, "Food, right - but first, I gotta ask - did you see - I mean, where - ?"

Before he could finish, he heard the front door slam shut. Heyes jumped, startled, and headed out of the room at full tilt. He yelled, "Hey you! Get ba - "

Sprinting out of the room, he collided with Joe, who along with Gail and Jill, had just gotten home. He rammed head-first into the taller, broader man and bounced awkwardly off him. "What the - ! Smith! What are you doing, man?" Joe exclaimed, annoyed but unmoved.

"Did you see someone leave the house?"

"What?"

"Did you see someone leave the house?" he repeated, more insistently.

"Who?"

"A guy - a guy - blond hair, about fifty years old maybe."

"Listen, Smith. We just got home from town. We didn't see anyone leave."

Heyes pushed past Joe and pulled open the front door. He stepped out onto the threshold and looked out into the darkening gloom. The temperature was dropping rapidly now that the sun was no longer high in the sky, and he could see his breath steam out of his nose and mouth as he stood in the cold searching for any sign of the elusive visitor.

There were footprints aplenty coming and going to and from the front door of the farmhouse; his own and the family Boone's. It was impossible to distinguish one set from another so he had no way of knowing if someone else had passed through the doorway. If the man had been in the house, he had made a hasty escape. There was not even a hint of him ever being there; it was almost as if he had evaporated into thin air - like the wisps of breath Heyes expelled from his own mouth; here one second and gone the next.

Shaking his head, his lips pursed in an expression of deep thought, he turned and slowly walked back inside, hardly noticing Joe and Gail in close discussion over the contents of the bags they had brought home with them from their excursion into the town. He did, however, notice Kid Curry coming into the room. In his zeal to follow the phantom stranger, he had almost forgotten about Kid's seemingly miraculous recovery and was overjoyed to see his partner out of bed and healthy again.

Gail noticed him too. "Mr. Jones! What on earth are you doing out of bed? You need to rest if you expect to get better."

"Thank you ma'am, but I am feeling a lot better."

"Nonsense! Why, you were burning with fever just a few hours ago," she scolded, laying her palm flat against his forehead. Her eyes widened in surprise. "Well, I'll be! You're as cool as can be. Hm…I guess the fever finally broke."

"Yes, ma'am."

"But still, I think it would be best if you got back into bed. Don't you agree, Joshua?"

"What? Oh. Well, to tell you the truth, right now I'm not sure about anything but if Thaddeus says he feels better, then I reckon we can believe him. I don't see much point in him lying around in bed any longer if he don't want to."

"Now that that's settled," Joe interrupted, "I think it's time to bring in the tree. Jillian, get your coat on. It's gonna be dark soon."

"Yes sir, pa," Jill said happily, bouncing up and down. "Can Mr. Smith help?"

"I don't think Mr. Smith is inter - "

"I'd love to help, Jill. Thank you for asking."

"Ok, that's settled then," Gail said. "You three go and cut the tree and while you're bringing it in, Mr. Jones and I will start making the decorations. Oh, this is just so much fun, isn't it, Jill?"

"Yes, mama," the little girl answered, almost unable to contain her excitement long enough to get her coat and boots on.

Joe scowled at Heyes. "Well, come on then. Let's get this over with before it's completely dark outside."

"Yessir," he answered, rubbing his hands together enthusiastically. "This is really gonna be fun." As the three of them headed out the door, Kid heard Heyes ask, "So you got the tree all picked out already or do we have to - " and then they were gone, out into the deepening gloom.

Gail looked at Kid. "Well, I must admit, you do look a lot better…sound better too. No coughing. I don't understand it, but I am relieved. I wasn't quite sure what to do with you any longer."

She handed him a piece of heavy thread, several yards long, with a large needle attached to one end. Then she placed large bowls of popped popcorn and raw cranberries in front of him. He grabbed a fistful of kernels and tossed them into his mouth. "Needs salt," he said, his mouth still full.

She laughed. "Silly! That's for stringing…not for eating!"

Kid looked at the popcorn sadly. "Stringing, huh? For the tree?"

"That's right."

"Not for eating?"

"No."

"Oh." He sighed and picked up the needle. Then he picked a cranberry from the bowl and squinting mightily, carefully ran the needle through the center of the berry. "We need to do all these?" he asked, taking stock of just how many berries and pieces of popcorn were in the bowls. His fingers, better suited for holding a .45, seemed big and clumsy to him when he tried to use a needle and thread.

"Well - yes, all of them. And when those are finished, I'll have some more ready to string."

He sighed again and picked up a fluffy, white kernel of corn which he threaded on the string behind the blood red cranberry. While Gail's back was turned, he ate a few more handfuls of popcorn.

He was still chewing when she glanced over to see how he was doing. "Could I get a glass of water, ma'am? Er…I'm awfully thirsty after being sick."

"Of course. Being sick will do that to a body."

"Thank you ma'am."

"Please…call me Gail. Ma'am just makes me feel old."

"OK, Gail, if you'll call me Thaddeus."

He picked up another cranberry and looked at it carefully, rolling it around between his thumb and index finger. "So are these good for eating?"

* * * * *

"Here it is, pa! Here's the tree! Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it great, Mr. Smith?" Jillian was dancing around a tall pine tree. It stood alone in a clearing with no other trees around it. It had the look of a tree that had been carefully tended for the past few years in anticipation of this moment. It was shaped perfectly, with not a single bare spot, no matter what angle you looked at it from. Jillian could barely contain herself, excited as she was for Christmas, presents or no presents. "Hurry, pa!"

"Calm down, Jillian Rose," her father said sternly. But even Joe Boone wasn't immune to her excitement. His face remained sober but his eyes had a twinkle that hadn't been there before. Even in the dusky evening, Heyes could see that the bigger man was enjoying the moment with his daughter.

He looked the tree up and down. It was slightly taller than he was. "Almost a shame to cut 'er down," he mumbled under his breath as he got down on his knees. He had to crawl under its billowy lower branches, nearly on his stomach, in order to get close enough to its trunk. From that angle, it was hard to swing his hatchet with enough force to hack through the wood so it took him several minutes to fell the tree. Heyes and Jill stood aside and watched, hearing muffled grunts and occasional curses coming from underneath the quivering evergreen branches.

Jill giggled, listening to her father. "Happens every year," she said. "Pa gets very - "

"I can hear you, Jillian Rose," her father warned, his voice coming loud and clear even through the tangle of branches. She clapped her hand over her mouth to suppress another giggle and looked up at Heyes, wide-eyed. He covered his own mouth and smiled down at her with his eyes, tousling her hair affectionately with his free hand.

With a dull cracking sound, the tree started to fall. It hit the ground with a soft phloof, sending soft flurries of snow flying into the air around it. Jillian squealed with delight and clapped her hands in excitement. Joe stood up heavily, dusted as much snow off his clothes as he could, surveyed his work, and almost smiled.

"Well, let's get this beauty back to the house. It's colder than - "

"Just a minute, Joe. I need to ask you a question. It's something that's been bothering me since I woke up in your home."

"Yeah? What?"

"The day you picked us up out of the blizzard…who was the guy with you that day? I've been seeing - "

Joe glared at Heyes before answering. "There wasn't anybody with me. I was alone." He leaned down to grab the tree by the trunk, signaling the end of the conversation, but Heyes had other ideas. He grabbed Joe's arm, forcing him to straighten up to face him.

"What do you mean? I saw another man with you that day."

Roughly, Joe pulled his arm away from Heyes' grasp. Scowling fiercely he repeated, "There was nobody there but me. Don't ask again." Again, he reached down to take hold of the tree and started dragging it toward the house.

Heyes stood staring after him for a minute, confused. Is it possible that there really wasn't anyone else in the wagon that day? If that was true, then who had he seen in the room with Kid, less than an hour ago? Could his eyes have played a trick on him on both those occasions - not to mention earlier in town? It just didn't seem possible!

No! he thought, I know what I saw! There is no way I imagined the whole thing! Someone was definitely there.

But who? Joe said he was alone when he found us, by some miracle, in the snowstorm. And no-one else saw anyone near the house today when Kid suddenly got better, almost as if by magic. I just can't work it out.

He stood there several moments, torn between what logic told him must be true and the things he couldn't understand, hardly noticing the dropping temperature, as Joe dragged the tree into the barn, leaving a feathery trail in the snow in his wake. He didn't even notice Jill looking uncertainly back and forth between the two men, seemingly reluctant to leave him standing there alone in the frosted twilight, until he felt her small mittened hand reach up to take his larger gloved one. She smiled sympathetically at him before gently tugging on his arm, "Come on, Mr. Smith. Let's go help pa," she urged softly.

He took comfort in the feel of her child-sized hand in his grown-up one - at least he knew it was real - and allowed her to pull him after her in the direction of the barn. By the time they reached the set of big double doors, Joe was already nearly finished nailing the two pieces of wood that would serve as a tree-stand to the bottom of the tree trunk. Heyes wanted to confront the farmer again, but chose to hold his tongue until he could talk to him privately.

"Grab that end, would ya, Smith? We need to get this tree inside. I'm about froze to death."

With Heyes carrying the top end of the tree, Joe holding onto the other end, and Jill bouncing along beside, they made their way back to the house, shoving the fullest end through the narrow doorway. Kid had moved away from the dinner table, taking his bowls of cranberries and popcorn with him. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the living room, stringing berries and corn onto heavy thread like he had been born to the task. He smiled happily at Heyes. In return, Heyes studied him carefully. The dark smudges of shadow visible underneath his eyes were the only outward reminder of how sick Kid had been. Heyes once more marveled at his speedy recovery, as baffling as it was.

While the three of them had been outside, Gail had set the table for dinner. Heyes knelt down on the floor next to Kid and spoke to him quietly. "Kid? After I went outside to get more wood, did you see anyone in your bedroom?"

Kid looked over at Heyes curiously. "Waddaya mean?"

"In your room…did you see anyone?"

"Heyes, I fell asleep as soon as you left. Next thing I remember was waking up feeling a lot better, and then you came running in like a posse was chasing you." After a pause, he asked, "Did you see someone? Is that why you looked so spooked?"

Heyes frowned, "I'll tell you, Kid, I'm not sure what I saw. I'm not sure of anything right now…and it's really getting to me. Wait, I take that back. I am sure of one thing. I'm sure glad you're feeling better, even though it seems impossible."

"Dinner's ready," Gail called. "Everyone come to the table, please."

"Yes, ma'am," Kid said, enthusiastically. "I feel like I haven't eaten for days."

"Well, other than a little broth, you haven't, Thaddeus. And if you're feeling as well as you appear to be, then I imagine you're pretty hungry."

"You imagine right."

"Well, supper ain't much tonight, but you just wait until tomorrow. I have quite a feast planned for all of us."

"Looking forward to it, Gail," he said politely, and Heyes knew he was telling the truth.

After supper, filled with excited conversation about the tree, the decorations, the upcoming holiday dinner, and quiet anticipation of Christmas joy and sharing, the Boone family, with the help of two notorious outlaw orphans, spent the rest of the evening setting up the tree, decorating it with colorful garlands created by Kid Curry, paper ornaments crafted by Jillian Rose, and candles, carefully placed by Joe Boone with the help of Hannibal Heyes. Then they all stood back and, as a group, surveyed their work and declared it 'good'.

"Now it's off to bed with you, Jill," her father ordered.

"Aw, pa. Do I have to?" she pleaded.

"Now I guess that depends," he said.

"On what?" she asked, suspicion seeping through in her voice.

"On whether you want Santa Claus to bring you anything tonight."

"Oh, yeah. I nearly forgot," she laughed.

"You nearly forgot?" he asked, incredulously.

"Yeah…I nearly forgot to hang my stocking," she said, running to fetch her Christmas stocking, a red and white knitted monstrosity at least two times bigger than her own foot, because she knew that, even if her parents hadn’t been able to find the money to get her anything for Christmas…she knew Santa Claus would at least be making a stop at her house.

* * * * *

"Kid. I gotta ask ya. Did you see anyone else in the wagon with Joe the day we almost froze to death out there?" They were alone, sitting in the bedroom where Kid had spent the last couple of days so close to death. The rest of the house was quiet and dark, the Boone family snug in their beds waiting for the arrival of Christmas morning. Heyes was in no mood to sleep just yet. Too many questions kept running through his head. Too many questions but no good answers.

"Was there a wagon?" Kid answered, a teasing sparkle in his eyes.

"Come on, Kid. This is serious."

"I'm being serious, Heyes. I don't remember a thing about that day. I have a vague recollection of not being able to stay on my horse any longer and then, nothing." He paused, frowning. "Why don't you ask Joe? If there was someone there, he'd surely know."

"I did ask him."

"…And?"

"He said he was alone."

"But you don't believe him."

"No, I don't. If it was just that one day in the wagon, I could almost believe I was just seeing things - hallucinating because of being so close to dying. But I've seen this guy three times now - at least, I think I have."

"Three times? When was the third?"

"Hm? Oh. In town. I saw him in town - at least I think I did. The thing I'm really struggling with, though, is that it seems like I'm the only one who has seen him."

"Well, if you say he was there Heyes, then I believe you," Kid said firmly.

"Thanks, Kid, that means a lot to me. Just wish I could be as sure as you are." He patted Kid on the shoulder with brotherly affection as he rose from his chair. "Well, no sense worrying about it now. It's late. And I'm pretty sure it's going to be an early morning in the Boone house tomorrow. We'd best get some sleep." His eyes heavy with fatigue, he stretched expansively and turned to leave.

"Good night, Heyes. Oh, and Heyes? If you see anybody creeping around in the middle of the night, you be sure and wake me this time, OK?" Kid said, barely hiding a teasing smirk.

"Shut up and go to sleep, will ya?"

Heyes made his way through the dark house, not bothering with a lamp. He undressed in darkness and crawled into bed, relishing the warmth of the blankets as he nestled down into them. When he was finally able to calm his mind enough to fall asleep, he was plagued by dreams of the mysterious man who kept slipping out of his grasp at the last minute…just before he could discover who he was and what he wanted.

* * * * *

As predicted, the next morning dawned before the dawn. Heyes was awakened by excited sounds coming down the hallway toward his room just before Jillian Rose bounded through the door. His eyes flew open just as she bounced onto the edge of the bed next to him. He moved to protect his midsection just before she bounced once more, this time onto his stomach. Even so, he felt the air rush out of him in a grunt as her weight came down on top of him.

"Mr. Smith. Get up! Do you know what day it is?" she whispered loudly into his ear, shaking him with purpose.

"No," he replied dryly, trying to roll away from the high-spirited irritant in flannel nightgown. "Go ask someone else."

Jill giggled happily. "I don't have to ask. I already know."

"Then what did you ask me for?" he said, his voice, rough and raspy from sleep, was now muffled by the blankets he had dragged back over his face.

"Aw, please Mr. Smith. Get up, OK? Everybody else is already up - except pa - and ma says we can't start until everyone is up."

"How 'bout you go tell your ma that I said it's ok to start without me?" he teased.

"Aww, she won't go along with that," she said, giving his shoulder another double-fisted shake. Leaning in closer to where she imagined his ear must be hidden under the blankets, she said quietly, "Don't you want to see what Santa brought you for Christmas?"

Heyes laughed in spite of himself, enjoying her childish excitement. "Jillian Rose, I doubt very much if Santa brought me anything. I haven't been a very good boy this year." He rolled over, pulling the blankets away from his face, revealing sleepy brown eyes beneath a fringe of untidy brown hair. Rubbing the stubble on his cheeks, he yawned and stretched before Jill bounced back down to the floor, slippered feet already on the move, slapping smartly against the hardwood floors as she ran from the room.

"Mom, he's coming!" she yelled. Over her shoulder, she said to Heyes, "Are you coming?"

"Just give me a minute to get dressed, OK? I'll be right there."

The rich, dark smell of strong coffee brewing and the sizzle of bacon frying over a wood fire met him as he stepped out into the hallway. He inhaled deeply, feeling happy and content; satisfied to be part of the Boone family for at least one more day. He heard Kid's voice, still thick with sleep, talking to Gail in the kitchen. She was busy at the stove and Kid was hovering nearby, cup of steaming coffee clutched between his hands. The room was still chilly, but the heat from the cook stove and the fireplace was quickly warming the air. Soon, it would be cozy and warm in the house.

"Morning, Joshua. How'd ya sleep?"

"Merry Christmas, Joshua," Gail said. "Breakfast will be ready soon. Coffee's hot, so help yourself."

"Merry Christmas to you too, Gail. Thank you," he said, reaching for a clean mug. As he poured, he looked around. "Joe not up yet?"

Gail laughed. "No, not yet. I'm sure Jill is seeing to that right now."

"Ah. Yes. She has quite a talent for that."

"Well, she's very excited today."

"Really? I hadn't noticed. Thaddeus, how are you feeling today?"

"Never better, Joshua."

"Huh!" He sipped his coffee contemplatively.

"You don't sound too happy about it."

"Hm? No. It's not that. I'm just still sort of mystified at your sudden recovery, is all. I couldn't be happier. Really."

"I should hope not," he said teasingly. "Me, I'm just glad to be standing upright again."

Heyes and Curry sat down to one of the fastest breakfasts they had ever eaten - even faster than ones they'd eaten with a posse on their tails. The reason for their haste was that Jillian was anxious to see what awaited her under the tree. Even though money was tight, her parents had managed to see to it that there were at least a few presents, mostly hand crafted with love, but brightly wrapped and tied, waiting for her. And Santa had filled her oversized stocking to the top with fruits, nuts, candies and a few small trinkets.

There were even a couple of small gifts for Joshua and Thaddeus, as well as the gifts for the Boone family that Heyes had purchased with most of their meager stash of money. Normally he might have been loathe to part with his last remaining cash buying gifts for someone, but in this case, even he had to admit that it felt pretty good to give rather than to receive. The smiles on everyone's faces that morning were all he needed in return.

After all the gifts had been opened, the Boone family sat in a tight circle on the floor admiring each other's gifts for a while longer. Heyes and Kid moved off to a corner of the room next to the big, fresh-smelling Christmas tree and huddled together too. Heyes pulled out one more small gift.

"Here you go, Thaddeus," he said, handing his partner a small velvet pouch cinched closed with a golden drawstring.

Kid looked at the gift as though he had no idea what Heyes expected him to do with it. "What is it?" he asked, before even accepting it from his friend.

"Why don't you open it and see? It's not much - just something I saw that I thought you could use."

Kid's face maintained its suspicious frown but he reached out, palm up, and let Heyes drop the pouch into his open hand. Testing its heft, he said, "Don't weigh much."

"Just open it, you lunkhead."

Kid loosened the drawstring. Turning the little bag upside down, he let its contents fall into his open palm. Bringing it closer to his face, he studied the little figurine that rested in his hand. "What is it, Heyes?" Kid asked quietly.

"It's a guardian angel statue."

"Huh. OK, I can see that."

"Well, I saw it in town and figured if there was anybody that needed a guardian angel, it was you, Kid."

Kid smiled. Leave it to Heyes to come up with something like that, he thought. "Thank you, Heyes. I'm gonna carry it with me all the time, OK?" He studied the little angel for a few seconds. It really was a beautiful little figurine. Suddenly, he had another thought, "Aw, Heyes. I didn't get a chance to get you anything," he said, unhappily.

"Yes, you did. You gave me the best gift you could ever give me. You gave me my partner back - I thought you were a goner for a while, you know. I can't think of any better gift than that."

* * * * *

The day dawned bright and sunny. Kid studied the sky for any sign of inclement weather. "Looks like a good day for a ride," he pronounced. The air was crisp and cold, but the sky above was a brilliant, cloudless blue. A lot of the snow had disappeared, leaving the road leading away from the Boone homestead clear and even.

Heyes and Curry were saddling up their horses, the one they had rode in on and a second horse lent to them by Joe, with the promise to either return it in the next few days or to send money to pay for it.

Joe had already said his goodbyes, sparingly, and gone off to the barn to start the morning chores. Gail and Jill stood off to the side, watching the two men get ready to leave. When the horses were ready and all their worldly goods packed, they turned to say goodbye to the woman and the girl.

Gail gave them each a warm hug and a gentle kiss on the cheek. "You boys take care of yourselves now, ya hear? Watch the weather too," she admonished, playfully stern.

"You don't have to worry about that, ma'am. We'll know better than to ignore the signs again, I assure you."

Jill threw her arms around Heyes and hugged him tightly. "I'm glad you got lost in the snow so you could have Christmas with us, Mr. Smith."

"So am I, Jillian Rose," he said, smiling at her fondly. "Now you be a good girl until next Christmas, OK?"

"I will. And thanks again for the beautiful doll. I love it, you know."

"You're welcome."

Then she ran to Kid and threw her arms around him, giving him a hug equal to the one she bestowed on Heyes. "I'll tell Uncle Benny that you got better, Mr. Jones. I know he'll be worried about you."

"Uncle Benny?"

"Uh, huh."

Heyes squatted down in front of Jill, making sure he had her undivided attention, just like she had his. "Who's Uncle Benny?"

"My pa's older brother. Uncle Benny."

"Why would he be worried about Kid…I mean Mr. Jones?"

"Well, he's just that way. He cares a lot about anyone who is in trouble or sick. Why, that day pa and him brought you in, Uncle Benny was practically beside himself with worry. He don't talk much but I could just tell that - "

"What do you mean, Jill? Your pa told me that there wasn't anybody but him out there that day."

"Oh, I heard him say that. Pa is weird about Benny. He just don't understand him; can't figure him out…thinks he's 'peculiar' so he just ignores him. Pretends he doesn't exist most of the time. Ain't that weird? Anyway, that's why he told you that."

"You mean all this time - ?" Heyes' words dropped off, his mind trying to process what Jill was telling him.

"Anyway, I don't think Uncle Benny is peculiar. I think he's special. Good things are always happening when Uncle Benny is around. Almost like an angel. That's what I call him, an angel."

"So was he here the day Mr. Jones got better? Did you see him?"

"Sure, I saw him. He was leaving just as we were coming in."

"I don't understand it. Why would he run off like that?"

"I don't know. Maybe he is a little peculiar. He's awful shy. Don't like to talk to most people. Maybe that's all there is to it."

"Well, if that don't beat all," Heyes said, shaking his head in disbelief. Pushing his hat back away from his forehead, he smiled softly.

"I still say he's an angel though. I don't care if he is peculiar. Good things happen when Uncle Benny is around. I've seen it for myself," she repeated adamantly, as if she expected an argument.

Heyes rose up, patting her head affectionately. "Jillian, I believe you might be right. Say thank you to Uncle Benny for me, would you? I think I owe him a lot."

"Yes sir, Mr. Smith. I will," she said, smiling widely.

Heyes and Kid saddled up. Tipping their hats to the ladies, they started off down the road. "Did you hear all that Kid?"

"Sure did, Heyes. What do you make of it?"

"To tell the truth, Kid, I don't have a - " Heyes stopped talking mid-sentence, his attention diverted. Out of the corner of his eye he had seen movement at the edge of the tree stand lining the road where they had just passed. He pulled his horse to a stop and turned in his saddle to have a better look. Benny Boone stood there, half hidden behind one of the larger trees. The older man had an enigmatic smile on his face. He raised his hand in a tentative wave of farewell.

Heyes was startled to see him there but not entirely surprised. "Kid, wait," he called, glancing away from Benny long enough to find his friend with his eyes.

"What is it, Heyes?" Kid said, bringing his horse back around. "Did you forget something at the farm?"

Heyes searched the spot where Benny had stood. There was no sign that Joe's brother had ever been there. He thought, fleetingly, that he should go look for him, seek him out to finally get the answers he'd been searching for since the first time he'd laid eyes on him; prove to himself and to Kid that Benny did exist. "So you didn't see him?" he asked instead.

Kid shook his head. "No." He peered in the direction that Heyes had been looking. "Was he there? You want me to help you find him, Heyes?"

Heyes thought for a moment and then sighed. "No, I don't think so, Kid. I think we should just leave well enough, alone. Anyway, maybe Jill is right…maybe Uncle Benny is an angel."


 

4.2 How I Survived Christmas by Leah Anders

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Stories: Alias Smith and Jones  :: Virtual Season :: Virtual Season Stories prior to 2008-
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