If you would like to read Group 2's RPG, go visit Four Corners Junction.
I do not own the characters of the Magnificent Seven, I just play around with them a bit. They are the property of Trilogy and all those great folks. For a complete disclaimer, please visit the Disclaimer page available at Dust Trails. Don't sue me...I can't afford it.
Haddie Parker shivered in the cold late December air. Her oversized coat enveloped her in wool, but could not keep out the bitterness of the winter night.
She returned to her seat on the floor of the wagon, burying herself in costumes and opening up the tiny pouch that swung from a belt loop at her hip. Slipping her fingers inside the pouch, she removed a match and candle, among the only possessions she owned, save for the locket around her neck and a few other trinkets small enough to be carried on her person.
The flare of the match brought a smile to her blue-tinted lips, and she lit the candle, watching the wick spark and flicker. The costume wagon glowed in a soft light, casting dim shadows across the walls. She watched the shadows dance, as if performing a play all their own.
Haddie had only been with the Campbell Roads Acting Guild for seven months now, but she knew her place quite well. She was a stage hand. And stage hands were not actors. She thought of the actors and directors, all snug and warm in their hotel and shivered again.
The wagon had become her home and shelter, blocking out the wind and weather. On the warm summer nights, she had made a bed atop the wagon, staring up toward the brilliant balls of light twinkling in the heavens. Of course, to venture into the cold night now would be suicide, so she snuggled into the warmth of the costumes and looked through the barred window to the patch of sky peeking in at her.
One solitary star seemed to shine a bit brighter than the others and she smiled. The Evening Star. She thought maybe her parents were looking down on her, waving with every flicker of the star, and perhaps guiding her somehow.
“Merry Christmas,” she called to the heavens as her flame slowly flickered out, thrusting the wagon once again into darkness.
One year later
“Ezra Standish!” an angry voice rang out from the street.
Ezra, seated comfortably in the Four Corners Saloon, grimaced and began collecting his winnings. He looked to the three men at the table. “I trust you gentlemen will abet my timely disappearance?”
JD’s brow furrowed, but Vin nodded, a smile playing across his lips. “Will do.”
Rising from his place at the table, Ezra tipped his hat and slipped out the back door, determined to avoid his adversary at all costs. After all, he valued his life.
Vin cooly began dealing the cards to begin another game with JD and Jay, certain that the source of the voice would be storming into the saloon at any moment.
He was right.
“Ezra! Show yourself!” Arabella Standish stalked into the saloon, fists clenched into balls and eyes blazing fire. Eyeing Vin and the two young men with him, she approached.
“Where is he?” she demanded.
Vin shrugged, staring at his cards casually. “Don’t rightly know, ma’am.”
JD spoke up. “Umm…I think he had to go water his horse, Miss Arabella.”
Jay cackled at his side, eyes not straying from his hand.
Collecting herself into a sea of calm, Arabella smiled. “Well then, I’ll just have to go see about that.” She turned and headed out the back door, straight for the outhouse.
“Come out of there at once!” she called into the outhouse, banging on the door. “Come out, you coward! Are you afraid to face me?”
After a brief second of silence, the door slowly opened. “I’ll face you any day, Miss Arabella.” Buck Wilmington smiled smoothly, fastening the last button on his trousers and stepping from the outhouse.
Arabella backed away, embarrassment flushing her cheeks. After regaining her composure, she marched up to Buck. “Where is he?” She raised her fist as if to threaten certain death by beating should he not cooperate.
“Whoa there, Miss Arabella.” Buck laughed. “I ain’t seen Ezra since yesterday. I just got up,” he announced, seemingly proud.
Arabella turned on her heel and marched away, promising herself that Ezra would pay.
Callie McChesney giggled, clapping her hands as the baby crawled awkwardly across the parlor floor of Sophie and Arabella’s new house.
“He’s really moving!” Emma chuckled, looking up from the popcorn she was busy stringing.
“Yeah, Jacob’s growing like a weed,” Callie said, beaming with pride in her little brother. “And he’s just gonna love the little rag doll I made for Christmas!”
Emma smiled. She felt sorry for Callie, the young girl having been through so much the last few months. The return of her beau, Robert, had been an utter disaster, but Callie had gritted her teeth and went on with life, exemplifying bravery, in Emma’s mind.
“I wonder if the boys found a tree yet?” Emma took a moment to let her eyes drift around the parlor, picking out the perfect spot for the tree. She could almost see it’s full green branches, adorned with candles and streamers, glistening in light and glory.
“I don’t know, but I do hope they hurry. It’s getting rather cold out…they’re going to freeze if they stay out much longer.” Callie grimaced and turned back to Jacob, tickling his nose with a feather.
“And they had better not freeze to death,” Sophie called from the kitchen. “We’ll have all this food left over.” She inspected the feast before her on the counter, thankful to finally be done with all this cooking. She promised herself to talk to Arabella about hiring a cook when she could get around to it. Sophie turned back to kneed her biscuits, but stopped as the door flew open.
“Dagnabbit, it’s colder’n a welldigger’s butt out there!” Haddie’s voice came, carried by the icy wind whipping through the door. The three women smiled, straining their necks to see through the doorway, each envisioning what the beautiful tree might look like.
“Lookit this beauty!” Haddie called in.
As the branches poked through the doorway, Sophie frowned and raised an eyebrow. She glanced at Emma and Callie, both staring in disbelief at the tree.
Haddie, Burt and Nathan, each grasping an end of the tree, entered the house and plopped the small brown plant on the ground. It’s shriveled and sickly branches looked as if they might turn to dust right there.
“Well? Whacha ya think?” Haddie asked, smiling proudly up at the withered clump of branches.
The women stood there for a moment, each trying to find the words.
“It’s...it’s a weed.” Emma managed finally, trying to stifle a laugh.
Haddie frowned, almost insulted. “Well, it may be a little dry an’ all…but it sure will look good once it’s all decorated!”
The three women stared at Haddie, then exchanged glances.
Burt took the opportunity to grin at Haddie, sending her an “I told ya so” look. Haddie made a face at him and blew on her hands, rubbing them together for warmth.
“Well, come on in and warm up.” Sophie said, trying to be good-natured.
The three frozen bodies plopped into chairs, and Emma came around with cups of hot cider. She handed Burt and Haddie their cups, then made her way to Nathan, her hand brushing his.
Nathan sent her a warm smile and she returned it, her eyes smiling with her. When Emma broke their gaze and turned away, Haddie nudged Nathan playfully. He grinned at her sheepishly and sipped his cider, eyes drifting back to Emma.
“So, how’s the Christmas party coming?” he asked.
Emma returned to her place on the floor with the popcorn strings. “Well, Sophie and Callie are working on the food, and now that the tree’s here we can start decorating. Everybody should start arriving in another hour or so.”
Haddie finished her cider and moved to Sophie’s side in the kitchen. “Kin Ah give ya a hand?”
Sophie raised an eyebrow at Haddie, remembering the young woman’s previously disastrous “attempts” at cooking, but nodded, thankful to have someone else doing the work. “Would you like to make some biscuits?”
Haddie smiled and began measuring out ingredients. Sophie excused herself and washed up, returning to the main room to help Emma string the popcorn onto the “weed”. As they decorated, the two women tried hard not to laugh, forcing the temptation back every time their eyes met.
“Well, what did I expect?” Sophie asked herself. “It is the desert, after all.”
“I don’t think we should try the candles…we don’t want to burn the tree down,” Sophie commented.
Burt laughed. “It’d put it out of its misery.”
Emma chuckled and turned to Haddie, smiling as the girl put a pan of biscuits into the oven. Haddie slapped her hands together to rid them of excess flour and nodded to herself at a job complete, ignoring Burt’s comment.
After wiping her hands well, Haddie joined Callie on the floor with Jacob. She rolled a pinecone to the baby, while Callie tried to show him how to roll it back, giggling when he seemed more interested in sucking on it.
Emma and Sophie watched the two girls on the floor briefly, then turned back to the tree, determined to get the poor thing looking half decent before everybody started arriving for their Christmas Eve party.
Vin shivered in his buckskin coat, and threw a glance to Sam, astride her Palomino Pinto, Tracker. He studied Sam for a moment, his lips turned upward in a grin. He knew she was as cold as he was, but she seemed determined to hide it as best she could, as if trying to prove something.
After parting company with Jay and JD at the saloon, he had been lucky to run into her. Vin was enjoying her company on the ride to the homestead, but she seemed even more quiet than usual. He knew she was apprehensive about the Christmas Eve party, and understood her discomfort entirely, never having been much of a ‘people person’ himself.
They had both agreed to make an appearance at the party at Sophie’s insistence. Neither had any intention of staying too long, but they decided to go to appease Sophie and the others. Both had seen the wrath of their female friends and both wanted to avoid it at all costs.
After all Sam and the others had been through in the last few months, Vin knew Sam’s walls of distrust were starting to crumble. The women, despite their problems and disagreements, had seemed to develop a sort of unspoken bond. Vin noticed that it was almost the sort of bond he and the guys seemed to know, but never spoke of.
As for Sam, it seemed as though every time she was about to break the walls around her heart down, something would happen to thrust them back up again. And Vin knew as well as anyone that he was partly to blame for that.
“You’ve been starting at me for five minutes, Tanner.” Sam’s voice pierced the silence, but she did not remove her eyes from the trail.
Vin blinked, tossed from his sea of thought. He shrugged and turned his eyes to the trail. Out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw Sam smile as he turned.
“Just admirin’ the view’s all,” Vin replied casually.
Sam glanced over at Vin, wondering if he had been taking lessons from Buck Wilmington. Their eyes met and locked for a long moment.
After a minute, Sam broke away quickly and urged Tracker into a run. “Gettin’ cold out,” she called back. “We’d best get to the house before the snow comes.”
Vin sighed, looking after her. He knew she’d come to trust him again, and he’d just have to be there for her until she did. Slapping the reins, he started after her, expecting to see the homestead anytime now.
Meghan Larabee adjusted her dress and made her way into the parlor with a tray of gingerbread.
People had begun to filter in and they had the works of a small Christmas party in motion. Her eyes scanned the small crowd in search of her prey.
Vin and Sam chatting quietly in the corner… Arabella , looking a bit angry, talking to Sophie… Callie and her parents playing with Jacob Matthew on the floor… Jay, Burt and JD engaged in a game of poker… Josiah, Nathan and Emma watching the action with Clemmy at their feet… Chris rocking quietly in a chair…
Where was he?
Meghan frowned. She was sure he was planning to come with Chris…he had to be here.
She glanced over at Chris and smiled softly. He rocked gently, taking in the sights and seemed to be in another world. He hadn’t wanted to come…it took she and Buck days to bribe him into coming, but the ice in his eyes didn’t warm the room any.
“Chris, have you seen…” Meghan didn’t even have a chance to finish. The door swung open and in he pranced.
“Buck! There you are!” Meghan turned and giggled as Buck brushed a bit of snow from his hair.
He grinned suavely at the young woman, removing his coat and hanging it on the staircase banister. Spying the cookies, he moved quickly to her side. “Hey Meg…you shouldn’t have.”
She smiled with an evil gleam in her eye. “Yes…I made them just for you.”
Buck grabbed up a handful and munched greedily. His chewing slowed and he looked at Meghan, his face twisting and contorting. Attempting a smile, he chewed as best he could.
She could hold in her laugh no longer.
Buck paused for a brief second, realizing what she had done. He made a mad dash for the door, darting outside and emptying his mouth over the porch. He sputtered and spit, oblivious to the laughter of the faces watching him from the doorway. Scooping up a handful of wet snow, he washed his mouth out as if it would kill him.
“What the hell did you do to me…?” he managed.
“Alum…lots of alum…” Meghan told him between gasps. “Oh, Buck! You should have seen your face…”
Buck’s cheeks reddened and he glared at Meghan. “Think that’s funny, huh? I’ll show you funny!”
Seeing the look in his eyes, she dashed back into the house. Buck followed close on her heels, chasing her through the rooms.
Meghan darted to the kitchen, finding herself with no exit…nowhere to go. She backed into a corner, turning to face her adversary.
Buck stood before her and reached to the counter beside him. His hands closed around an object, but Meghan was too lost in his eyes to pay attention. As he approached her, his hand came forward, presenting her with a bow of mistletoe.
“I caught you…now I’m gonna to collect my retribution.” He held it up and grinned.
She stared at it for a moment, before smiling.
They shared a small kiss, then made their way back into the parlor.
The two laughed and taunted each other, finally tiring and collapsing on a setee.
Meghan gasped to catch her breath, leaning back to rest against Buck. Her eyes came to rest on Chris across the room, still rocking and staring straight at her. Something in his eyes made her shiver, and she turned away, unsure of how to help him join in the fun.
He seemed very distant, even moreso than usual. She understood his feelings, but knew life had to go on, or it would go on without her. They had been given the chance to start over, and that’s exactly what she intended to do.
Buck rose after a few minutes to get some punch and Meg smiled after him. Feeling a hand on her shoulder, she turned and found herself staring directly into the icy eyes of Chris Larabee.
“We need to talk,” he said shortly.
He took her arm roughly and led her to a back bedroom, out of hearing range of the other guests.
Meghan swallowed hard, raring for a fight.
Haddie sat on the steps of Sophie and Arabella’s house, watching the party through the banisters. She adjusted the skirt of her Christmas dress and rested her elbows on her knees, gazing out at the people. Everyone seemed so happy--so relaxed. Happy, playful times seemed far and few between these days, and the joy was a welcome addition to the holiday.
The coming snows had been a source of anxiety for the town of Four Corners. Haddie knew snow was not common in this part of the country, and hopefully, this storm would pass with little incident. She noticed the snow actually seemed to help with the town’s spirit, and the general opinion was that the town needed a little snow to help with the feeling of the season.
She chuckled from the stairs as Buck brushed the snow off his head and headed for Meghan’s cookies, and watched them blissfully running through the house.
Haddie sighed and smiled softly, happy to see her friends enjoying themselves. Her eyes scanned the room and she nodded, noting that just about everyone had someone. They had all been through so much in the time she had known them, and she had come to consider them all friends…so why did she feel so distant? So alone.
What was keeping her here, anyway? True…she had a job working for her two friends, she had a nice warm roof over her head and food in her belly…but she’d had all those things before. The house was built, the land was being protected by the guys, and Sophie and Arabella had Burt. So, why was she still here? She realized she had never been in one place for so long since she was a child.
Haddie bit her lip and smiled, her mind drifting back to another Christmas
party, all those years ago…
“Haddie Rose! Git them fingas outta that cake!”
Haddie giggled and licked her little fingers, ducking under the cloth hanging over the edge of the table. She settled down on her rump under the long dessert table, squirming in the tight confines of her blue velvet dress. She set her loot—a pan of cookies--on her lap and licked her lips, inhaling the sugary aroma.
The tablecloth lifted slightly and Nana’s face appeared. She swatted good naturedly at the seven year old with a broom handle, urging her out. “Comeon outta theya, you. You’se gonna git whooped…’m tellin’ ya!”
“Aww, Nana! Ah’m bein’ good…Ah swear!”
Nana smiled and shook her head, putting down the broom. “Well…moveon ov’a theya, then. Cain’t have yous eatin’ all mah fixin’s now, kin ah?” The big maid crawled under the table awkwardly and planted herself next her young charge.
The two shared a few cookies and finally made their way out from the table, back into the party. Nana took her leave and headed for the kitchen and back to work, leaving Haddie to wander through the crowd of her family’s friends.
Most of the attendees were political friends of her father’s, and although Haddie understood that he was planning to run for an office in the coming election, she cared nothing for all that boring political stuff. Her interest was in having fun.
A tug on her dress and the soft little voice that accompanied it turned Haddie’s attention to her side.
“Haddie! Ah been lookin’ all over fer ya.”
She smiled at her five year old little sister, Elizabeth, clinging to the skirt of her dress. The child, although the picture image of Haddie physically, was her total entire opposite in personality. Where Haddie was ‘rough and tumble’, Elizabeth was tender and gentle, the very picture of a lady in training. Haddie had often wished she was more like her little sister, even though Libby was just a kid.
“Ah’m thirsty, Haddie. Kin we git somethin' ta drink?”
Haddie nodded vigorously and took her sister’s hand, leading her to the beverage table. There was no servant working it, so Haddie looked around for an appropriate drink.
“Ok, Libby…which one? The orange stuff, or the pink?”
“Pink!” Libby clapped her hands.
Haddie poured two cups, one for each of them, and raised the cup to her lips. Taking a sip, she almost choked, the punch having a very definite bite to it.
Libby looked to her big sister. “This is momma and daddy’s punch, Ah think.”
Haddie giggled and nodded, taking another sip. The two girls drank their cups down and returned to the table, anxious for more. By the second cup, Haddie and Elizabeth were feeling very happy and very very giggly.
It didn’t take long for Nana to shoo them upstairs, out of the eyes
of the amused onlookers…
“We need to talk,” Chris said.
Haddie didn’t know why that statement had ripped her so suddenly out of her daydream, but the roughness in Chris’ voice did not sound pleasant. She watched him push Meg toward the bedroom and jumped up, eager to assist Meghan should her friend need help.
Pushing her way through the small crowd in the parlor, Haddie found the door and pressed her ear against it, listening to the conversation.
When the last pan of cookies had finished baking, Jay snuck into the kitchen. He was a man with a mission.
He hid behind the cupboard, studying the kitchen. There were no females in the room, so he decided he was safe. He eyed the cooling pan and licked his lips, creeping to the counter. Ducking below the table, he reached out a tentative hand to touch the cookies.
Jay started and grabbed for a handful, darting toward the door. He practically smacked right into Sophie, tapping her foot in the doorway and brandishing a rolling pin.
“Umm...it was a good cause…I swear...” he began.
“Yes--feeding the hungry, I assume?”
Jay nodded, feeling his stomach rumble. He wasn’t lying, after all.
Sophie raised the rolling pin threateningly and chased him from the kitchen, thankful that she had at least a jar full of cookies still hidden from the hungry, thieving hands of their male friends.
“You stay away from Buck…understand?” Chris pointed a threatening finger at his sister.
“You ain’t my pa, and you won’t control my life,” Meg retorted angrily. “I can associate with whomever I choose.”
Chris looked angry enough to hit her. “You can’t take care of yourself, Meghan…you’ve already proven that. You’ll listen because you’re my sister and because I say you’ll listen.”
“Just because you don’t have a life doesn’t mean you can go around ruining everyone else’s,” Meg shot back angrily. She was sorry the instant she said it.
Chris stopped and turned away, pressing his anger deep inside. Meghan remained motionless, watching for any hint of reaction from her brother.
When he didn’t move, she stomped to the door stubbornly and turned back to him. “Maybe I should have never come back here.” Throwing the door open, she nearly knocked Haddie over and stormed away.
Haddie stood in the doorway of the bedroom, watching Chris.
“Ya know…Meghan survived a long time without you lookin’ over her shoulder. Reckon she knows how to fend fer herself,” Haddie said casually.
Chris glared at the young woman before him. “It’s none of your business,” he breathed, coldly.
“Meg’s mah friend…Ah ain’t got too many’a them. Ah’ve watched you doggin’ her for months now…Ah seen her sufferin’ cause’a you. When she’s got troubles Ah’m there fer her. That makes it mah business.”
Chris glared at her with a stare that would have frozen a campfire.
Haddie swallowed hard and approached him to continue, ignoring the anger in Chris’ eyes. She had had enough of him, and the loneliness in her heart came bursting out.
“Ah’m sicka you bringin’ everybody down, Larabee! So ya lost yer family—yer still alive! Yer ALIVE, Larabee! Don’t that matter to ya?”
The shock in Chris’ eyes told Haddie he hadn’t expected her outburst.
“Ya ain’t the only one who ever lost, Chris. Ya ain’t the only one. But some people know that the world’s still turnin’. Ya gotta family, Chris. Ya got Meghan and Buck…ya got the guys…ya got all you could ever dream of.” Haddie’s eyes pleaded with him to understand what she knew he never could.
He stood there, emotionless and still, eyes staring somewhere past her.
Haddie controlled herself and swallowed hard, holding back the tears threatening to fill her eyes. “Yer the bravest coward Ah’ve ever known, Chris Larabee.”
And she walked away.
His eyes flashed an evil shade of red as he stared at the house from his shadowed place in the woods. A pillar of smoke trailed skyward from the chimney and the sound of activity emanated from the house. He knew the occupants…he had watched them all arrive. And he was thirsty for pain.
The sound of happiness sickened him. He would have to do something about that sound.
As he laid out his plans, the gleam of new falling snow on the house’s roof told him that the storm had arrived...
Haddie stormed to the barn, throwing a saddle onto her mule’s back and mounting up swiftly. She wanted to ride…just get out. She had to blow off steam and this was the only way she knew how to do it. Tugging on the reins, she urged the mule out of the barn and into the comfort of the cold outdoor air.
Although she wished she had changed out of her dress first, she was thankful she had grabbed her shawl before she stormed from the house. The air seemed to have suddenly gotten so much colder and Haddie wondered how long she’d be able to stay out before the cold forced her back inside.
Riding the mule as hard as she dared in the cold, she headed for the woods, not sure exactly which direction she planned to go. The snow on the ground was not much more than a dusting, but flakes were beginning to fall and would probably begin to accumulate soon. She shrugged it off, knowing that she’d be back before any serious snow would hinder her.
A few minutes into her trip, she spied a figure coming toward her on the trail, and she slowed up. It didn’t take her long to recognize Ezra’s fancy green wool coat, and she huffed, not particularly in the mood to talk to anybody. She knew she couldn’t avoid him, so she trotted along the trail so he could pass.
“In case it’s escaped your attention, there is a storm approaching, my dear. Perhaps I could escort you home…?” Ezra called when she was within earshot.
She shook her head. “Ah’m jes’ takin’ a ride. Be back soon.” Her answer was shorter than she would have liked, but she was in no mood for joviality.
He raised a suspicious eyebrow but asked no questions. “I’ll be sure to convey your intentions to our hostesses.” He smiled and tipped his hat before heading down the trail toward the homestead.
Vin sipped the punch in his cup silently. He had been enjoying himself enough, but he felt out of place in the room.
Turning to the woman seated next to him, he gestured toward the door. "Sam, I’m headin’ to the barn…wanna make sure the animals are ready for this storm comin’ in.”
Sam nodded. “I think I’ll join you. Just need a little air.”
Vin grinned and set his cup down, grabbing his waiting coat and headed for the door.
Ezra opened the door to the house, thankful to be in out of the cold. He removed his hat, but promptly returned it to his head upon seeing the two women standing there, arms crossed and feet tapping. The look in Arabella’s eyes turned his blood cold. He turned right around to head out the door before a hand grasped his arm.
“Oh no you don’t,” Sophie warned.
Ezra turned and smiled at her, his gold tooth glistening in the light of the house. “Happiest of Holidays, dearest cousin!”
“Don’t you ‘Dearest cousin’ Me, you scoundrel,” she hissed.
“I’ll handle this, Ette.” Arabella brushed Sophie aside and stood before the gambler. “Where is it, Ezra?” she demanded.
“My dear, whatever are you talking about?” he asked innocently, removing his coat and hat.
Arabella’s eyes blazed fire. “You gambled it away, didn’t you? You lost all the money I gave you for the schoolhouse books.”
Ezra shook his head. “I assure you I did not lose your money. The situation is under control.”
Arabella’s jaw tightened and Ezra ducked away in the event that she felt the urge to slug him. “I have made arrangements…you must trust me on this matter, Ari.”
He slipped into the parlor, planning to keep the crowd between him and the two women as long as he could.
Haddie had ridden for almost 30 minutes when she felt calm enough to start back. The ride had indeed done her good, letting her rid herself of all those emotions she had been penning up.
She was almost home--could see the smoke billowing from the chimney, when she spied something shiny in the snowy trail ahead of her.
“Good ol’ Ezra musta dropped somethin’.” She shook her head and chuckled. Slipping off the saddle, she bent down to examine the object. She recognized it as a knife, and frowning, picked it up.
“Now, who woulda dropped a scary lookin’ knife like this’n? Ezra don’t own nothin’ like this…”
Suddenly, there was a sharp pain and the world seemed to fade out. Haddie felt herself falling into a sea of darkness…
Haddie squealed with delight. “Libby! It’s time!” She turned to her sister, grabbing her hand and raced for the parlor.
The house had been decorated so beautifully for Christmas. Bows of paper and ribbon, streams of tinsel and lace, and brilliant golden candles adorned the rooms. In all her ten years she had never known a more wonderful time of the year. Even the wonders of the summer could not match the spirit of the Christmas season.
Haddie and Elizabeth bounced before their father, giggling and clapping. “Daddy…read it! Please!!” they cried in unison.
Haddie felt the soft hands of her mother on her shoulders, calming her down. “There now…settle down, children.”
The two girls seated themselves on the floor at their father’s feet, wiggling like newborn puppies. Mother seated herself beside her husband and Mr. Parker began reading the Christmas story, all about the birth of the baby Jesus and the single star that guided the baby’s mother to Bethlehem.
Haddie smiled at the thought—she had always loved the stars, too. Her mother had always told her the stars were candles in the sky, tended by the angels every night to guide good people home. The stars had helped her find her way home a few times when she had been lost in the woods—the Evening Star always seemed to fall right over her house. Of course, she would never tell her mother of those incidents. Haddie, herself, preferred to think of the stars, as with everything else, as worlds to be explored. She knew she could only explore them from the ground, but she would have to be content with that.
After he had finished reading, Mr. Parker handed his daughters two candles. Libby’s fingers curled around the wax and she waited for her father to light the wick.
“This is your first gift of Christmas, girls.”
Haddie stared at her candle, confused. “A candle…?” she asked.
As their father lit their candles, he smiled. “A candle is a good friend to have. It will give you light and warmth and guide you when you’re lost.”
“And this candle will guide my girls to bed,” their mother added with a soft smile.
The girls stood and kissed their parents in turn before heading up the stairs to bed, the light of the candles casting a radiant glow through the room.
Their parents followed them to their room, tucking the girls in and retreating down the hallway.
“Merry Christmas!” Haddie called out the door as she blew her candle out, casting her warm bedroom into darkness.
Vin pushed on the barn door, but it wouldn’t budge. He looked over his shoulder at Sam, grinning at the irony.
“It’s stuck.” He shrugged.
“The snow must have drifted…” Sam sighed and kicked at the hay.
“Someone will dig us out…they’ll notice we’re gone,” he assured her, settling down on the floor of an empty stall.
“What…so we’re stuck here?” Sam asked, not believing her luck. “There’s got to be a way out of here.”
Vin grinned as Sam searched the barn for an alternate exit. When she realized that they were, in fact, stuck, she sighed and sat down opposite Vin. The two exchanged glances, then shared a chuckle.
A sarcastic smile played upon Sam’s lips. “Well, if I have to be stuck in a barn with someone, at least it ain’t that damned gambler.”
Vin laughed softly, knowing that was the most she was going to give him.
The world faded in and out, although it was much more pleasant on the way out.
Haddie tried to sit up, but the pounding in her head made her think twice. She was indoors…that she was sure of. It was cold, but not so cold as the icy wind had been in the woods.
Taking a deep breath, she forced herself upright and leaned against the wall.
An evil laugh chilled her, and she forced her eyes to open. When the room had stopped spinning, she gritted her teeth.
“Snake,” she greeted coldly.
He eyed her and licked his lips. “I was waitin fer ya ta wake up, girly. Funner ta break ya that way.”
She frantically tried to stand, finding that her wrists and feet were bound tightly. Beyond the cabin’s door was a raging winter storm. There was no escape. Her heart sank as she realized there was no hope…she was at Snake’s mercy.
Haddie had seen evidence of what Snake could do--far too many times. She and her friends had faced him before, and his bite was just as bad, if not worse, than his bark. She shuddered, remembering those horrible incidents. The young woman swallowed hard, half wishing for a weapon, if only to kill herself before he got started on her.
Snake recognized the hidden fear in her eyes and it seemed to please him. He took his knife and began running the blade down a whetstone, the sound of chinking metal piercing the cabin’s stillness.
Haddie looked to the window, gray with the snow blowing against it, and she forced herself not to cry. She had to be brave…for as long as she could be.
Dying didn’t scare her, it was the pain that she shivered at—the excruciating pain that Snake loved to deal to his captives. She’d known pain in her life, but how long would she be able to last before her body screamed, giving Snake the satisfaction that he sought.
Glancing around the cabin, Haddie felt sick. It was an ordinary one room shanty, but the room’s few distinguishing features made Haddie want to heave. Bloodstains marked the lone table in the middle of the room where Snake was seated. Animal carcasses lay cast about. And the stench of death seemed to radiate from the very walls. Haddie was sure the cabin must be the pit of Hell itself.
With every stroke of his blade against the stone, Haddie’s heart jumped. But her heart stopped dead when the stroking ceased. She glanced up at her captor, her eyes meeting his and he rose, slowly approaching his newest victim of the season.
The wind and snow blew against the door of the homestead, and Josiah, upon close inspection of the front porch through the doorway, announced that the occupants were stuck. For this night, anyway. No one had guessed how bad the storm would become, but at least they were among friends.
Emma reassured everyone that it would be like a big “sleeping party” and since the spacious house had just enough rooms to accommodate the people, it would not be a problem housing everyone until the storm had passed.
Josiah was about to shut the door when he caught a glimpse of something moving amidst the falling snow just off the porch. He squinted and made his way off the slippery steps against the wind and toward the object.
His heart skipped a beat when he realized what it was.
One look told him all he needed to know. It was Haddie’s mule, saddled and waiting. Ezra had told them Haddie was out riding. Now here was her mule, and Haddie was nowhere in sight…
Haddie clenched her jaw and closed her eyes. She tightened her grip on the tiny pouch swinging from the velvet ribbon around the waist of her dress. It was all she had to hold on to…the last thing she expected to feel before the pain.
Feeling the lump of her candle and matches inside the pouch, she sighed, knowing they could not guide or warm her now. With a deep breath, she opened her eyes and looked to Snake.
She didn’t know what made her say it, but somehow it just felt right. “Merry Christmas,” she said simply.
Chris was the first to his feet, and the plan was organized swiftly. They would take turns in groups of four, each staying out in the blizzard for no more than 20 minutes at a time, combing the woods where Ezra had last seen Haddie.
As he issued orders, Meghan came to Chris’ side, fear and guilt racking
He placed a hand on her shoulder, nodding silently to her, conveying more than words could.
The men bundled and mounted, the first group consisting of Buck, Chris,
Burt and Josiah.
The tension between Buck and Chris seemed to have disappeared, both men having one thing on their minds.
They headed out into the blowing wind leading a horse and sled. The snow crunched under their feet, and each man prayed, hoping against hope to find their young friend alive.
Snake stopped and cocked his head, staring at the girl.
When she saw the look on his face, she swallowed. Haddie doubted he had ever heard a kind word in his life, and she bit her lip.
Reaching for her pouch, she slipped her fingers inside and withdrew the candle and matches, knowing she would never have use for them again.
“Here, Snake. This is for you…it’s a gift,” she managed. Holding the objects out to her captor, she forced a smile.
Snake just stood there, unsure what to do.
“You…are givin’ them…to me?” he asked, his face twisted in confusion.
Haddie nodded, knowing she was being stupid, but wanting her last act in this world to be an honorable one. She could hold back her tears no more against the throbbing of her head and the knowledge of how she was about to spend her last Christmas.
“It’s a Christmas present…from me to you,” she whispered, just audibly, a tear rolling down her cheek. “A candle’s a good friend ta have. It’ll give ya light and warmth, an’ guide ya when yer lost.” She echoed her father’s words all those years ago.
Snake snatched the candle and matches from her hands and stared at them, for once in his life, utterly stunned. His eyes shifted from the candle to Haddie and back, trying his best to comprehend what she had done.
And then…it happened.
Vin and Sam snuggled tightly against each other, exchanging their warmth in the bitterness of the cold.
They passed the time chatting in casual conversation, and Vin had noted that Sam was loosening up, talking a bit more freely. She was coming to grips with her feelings…finally letting herself trust.
The wind howled outside the barn and the two lonely bountyhunters had found peace, for once, in each others arms.
Buck tugged at Chris’ arm, but it was no use. He was bound and determined to find her.
“Chris! We gotta get home…let the next group come out! We ain’t gonna do Haddie no good if we freeze out here,” Buck shouted through the wind.
Chris didn’t even look at his old friend. He shrugged loose and continued on, determined.
Josiah, Burt and Buck shook their heads at each other and followed, unwilling to leave Chris out in the weather alone, and praying Haddie might be just up the trail.
The match flared as Snake struck it. He placed it against the wick and stared for a moment at the flickering light.
“Nobody ever give me nothin’ a’fore…” he said, more to himself than to Haddie.
Haddie brushed the tear away and looked up at Snake, sympathy replacing her fear. What dreadful childhood had this man known?
She thought for a moment he might lash out, but he just paused, clenching his fist.
The room was deathly silent. Then, Snake said one word.
Haddie stared at him, feeling as confused as Snake had moments before.
“What…?” she asked, dumbfounded.
For a brief moment, Haddie glimpsed something in Snake—something she couldn’t believe existed. It was a glimmer of goodness—something he had locked deep down inside. Probably something he had seldom shown in his life. He approached with his knife, swiping quickly at her. She gasped, but realized he was only cutting her bindings.
“I said Go…a’fore I change my mind,” he growled. “Lost my appetite.”
After grasping the comprehension of the outlandish statement from the lips of so vile a killer, Haddie scrambled to her feet, bracing herself on the wall of the cabin. She threw her shawl around her shoulders and bolted for the door, plunging herself into the bitter wind and blowing snow.
She ran as fast as she could manage, knowing not where she was headed, but glad to be away from the cabin of death. A few times she turned to look back, to make sure Snake wasn’t following her, even though something told her she was safe from his wrath for now.
Her feet plunged through the accumulating snow, now up to her ankles. It seemed as though the storm was beginning to let up, but she could not stop. She would surely freeze to death.
Her head throbbed, she couldn’t feel her feet, and the world seemed to be spinning, but she trudged on. A few times she stumbled, and each time it became harder and harder to pick herself up again.
“C’mon gal…pick up yer feet…it cain’t be far now,” she told herself.
Stumbling through the snow, she kept on, hoping that God could hear her prayers over the howling of the wind.
The house was still and silent. No laughing; no playing; no carrying on. The occupants sat together in the parlor, knowing not what to say or do.
Finally, Emma spoke up. “I think we should play a game to pass the time…poker, maybe?” She glanced at Ezra trying to smile.
Her brother nodded, dealing the cards to a handful of glum participants. Nobody really felt like playing.
Even Jay, who was beginning to lighten up the last few months, seemed withdrawn and quiet, much like he had been when he had first come to town.
Nathan joined Emma at the table, having completed his task at converting a back bedroom into a makeshift clinic. He squeezed her shoulder reassuringly and smiled.
Clemmy seemed to sense the tension, yowling and brushing against Emma’s skirt.
The game continued on, no one even realizing that Vin and Sam had disappeared, too.
When she thought she could go no further, Haddie plopped in the snow, breathing heavily and shivering beyond control.
It suddenly dawned on her with a hint of irony, that the snowfall and wind had stopped and she had no idea just how long the storm had been over. Stiffly, she looked skyward, the clouds opening up to a beautiful starry sky. Sniffing, she spotted the one star that had always guided her home.
It flickered and winked at her, beckoning…
“Home…Ah’m comin’ home!” she called out, suddenly feeling alive with energy. She stood once more, stretching her energy as long as she could. The Evening Star was before her…her mother always said it would lead good people home. Haddie knew in her heart that she would be home very soon.
Arabella met Ezra’s gaze and sighed. This day was turning out miserably.
Ezra folded his hand at the last deal, and excused himself from the game. He approached his wife, giving her a look that had always melted her heart in her youth.
“Ari…I apologize for my ill-timed actions. I simply wanted you to have a nice Christmas…” he began.
Arabella looked at him, not even bothering to muster up her strength to argue. “What are you saying, Ezra?” she sighed.
“What I’m saying, is that I did not ‘gamble your money away’. I invested it.”
She raised an eyebrow, about to ask him what the difference was.
“With a bit of fine planning on my part,” the corner of his mouth raised into a grin, “…and with the help of the railroad…well, let’s just say that your books are on their way. The schoolhouse will, indeed, be ready for the spring.”
“Ezra…why didn’t you tell me the books were coming in the first place?” Arabella asked. “I gave you money for the schoolbooks…you came back empty handed. What was I supposed to think?”
Ezra placed a hand on her arm and smiled. “Well, there’s a little more than just the books coming…”
Arabella looked up, confused.
“You see, I took the liberty of utilizing the benefits of the investment in the best interest of the school you and the ladies are building. When the shipment arrives, expect not only the books, but slates, furnishings, and various other items that may be of use in an endeavor such as this.”
Arabella stared at him. “You…you did this for me?”
“Well,” he began, deciding how to word it. “The school may bring in business…in turn being profitable…” he stopped, giving in to her taunting look. “Merry Christmas, Ari.”
She laughed quietly, knowing that he was softer underneath than he let on. They shared an embrace and he returned to Emma’s side at the table.
Emma winked at her brother and turned back to her hand, praying Haddie’s luck was holding as well as Ezra’s had.
Haddie had no idea how long she’d been outside, but she knew it had been too long. She could no longer feel the cold--only numbness.
Her feet wouldn’t work anymore, and she finally tripped one last time, landing face down in the snow. Her arms made a futile attempt at lifting herself up, but she collapsed, hugging the snow.
Her last thoughts were of her friends, peaceful and warm back in the house. She smiled, thankful to have known true friendship once in her life.
Her consciousness was fading, but she couldn’t complain…the darkness felt so much more comfortable.
She looked skyward to the brilliant flames in the sky, finding the Evening Star. “Merry Christmas…Ah’m comin’ home…” she whispered as the darkness claiming her.
Chris pressed on, with Buck, Burt and Josiah close at his heels. They were thankful the snow had let up, but it was still bitter cold. All four were to the point of exhaustion, but none would give up. They couldn’t turn back now…they had come too far.
No one spoke, afraid to voice the fear that was on every mind.
The light of the stars overhead glistened off the snow through the trees, a sight that would have been spectacular, had any of the four men noticed.
It seemed an eternity before the silence was broken. “Over there…” Burt grabbed Chris’ arm and pointed.
A lump of color lay in the snow ahead, not far off the trail. The men raced in the direction of the figure, lying deathly still.
“Haddie!” Burt called, fear gripping him. As he knelt beside the girl he had worked with for so many months, Josiah’s prayer echoed in his ear. He couldn’t recall too many times in his life when he prayed, but he knew for a fact that he would remember this prayer until the day he died.
Haddie didn’t know what to expect of death. She had teetered on the edge of death so many times, yet she had no idea what it felt like to actually die.
As she opened her eyes to the beautiful golden light, she knew that she must be in heaven. She squinted, trying to adjust them to the blinding radiance.
She knew that voice. “Libby…?” she croaked out, wondering why her own voice sounded so raspy.
“Oh Haddie! We were so worried!”
She felt a strong, warm hand grip her shoulder and she focused on the image. “Easy there, Haddie…you had a rough night.”
That voice…so deep and comforting…
She heard a few sighs of relief and looked around, realizing she was in a big warm room. Her head pounded and her body felt strange and numb, and it dawned on her. “Ya mean…Ah ain’t dead…?”
Emma, sitting beside her on the bed, chuckled. “Oh no, Haddie! You’re going to be just fine!”
Haddie nodded, letting her muscles relax as awareness returned.
“You almost look disappointed, Haddie,” Meghan frowned, coming to sit on the bed opposite Emma.
Haddie shook her head, then wished she hadn’t. “No...it’s just…heck. Ah didn’t expect ta wake up.” She looked to the window, the bright sunlight peeking in through a semi-drawn curtain. “How long Ah been out?” she asked with concern.
“You’ve been asleep all night, Haddie. Chris and the boys brought you in late last night.” Emma took Haddie’s hand gently.
Haddie smiled. “Oh…then, Merry Christmas!”
The room suddenly erupted in noise and gossip, everyone echoing Christmas wishes and cheer.
Haddie smiled and scanned the room, thankful for each of her friends. She frowned when Chris approached, but the expression of relief on his face told her she didn’t have to fight him.
He rested an apologetic hand on her shoulder and started to speak, but Haddie stopped him. “I know.”
He nodded and looked up to Meghan, smiling at her. She smiled back and came to his side, hugging him in a playful embrace.
Haddie nodded, knowing things had turned out the way they should.
Vin awoke to a scratching sound, and he nudged Sam. “The cavalry’s here,” he whispered.
She shifted beside him and opened her eyes. “”Bout time. Thought I was gonna be stuck in here with you forever.” She smiled and gave his arm a squeeze.
The two rose and shared a knowing glance. Sam stretched, feeling her muscles loosen in the cold morning air. Vin mirrored her movements, remembering their days with the tribe. The Indians always awoke with stretches, and Vin had learned that stretching in the morning seemed to give him more energy during the day.
He made his way to the door of the barn. “Mornin!” he called and the scratching sound promptly stopped.
“Vin…that you?” a perplexed young voice called after a moment.
“Yup…ya mind hurryin’ the hell up? It’s a bit chilly in here.”
The scratching began again, full force this time. “I’m comin, Vin…you just hang on!”
“Thanks, JD.” Vin laughed.
When JD finally got enough snow moved from the doorway, he yanked it open as Vin pushed from the inside.
“You two ok?” JD asked, huffing from the work. “Damn it Vin, didn’t realize you were stuck out here…you coulda froze ta death…”
Vin glared at him sarcastically. “Ya figger?”
As JD worked quickly getting Haddie’s mule settled in its stall, he told Vin and Sam of Haddie’s romp with Snake and the storm. When he had finished, the three cold bodies headed for the house, anxious to get in from the cold.
Haddie was feeling much better by midday, though Nathan scolded her several times for attempting to get out of bed. He accused her of being more stubborn than her mule, which she countered and accused him right back.
Finally, Emma convinced Nathan to let her come into the parlor. They had planned to read the Christmas story, and the bedroom was just not big enough to hold so many people.
Josiah carried the young woman to a setee and she snuggled into the warmth of her blankets. Clemmy joined Haddie on the setee, curling up with her. Sophie usually frowned upon the animal being up on the furnishings, it seemed acceptable just this once.
When everyone had come in from shoveling, chopping wood, and the other odd chores required after a storm, the ladies passed out warm cider and settled around the parlor to listen.
Buck snuggled next to Meghan, teasing her hair. Chris, surprisingly, looked on with a hint of amusement in his eyes. The season would never be the same for him, Meghan knew, but at least they had each other.
When everyone was settled, Josiah opened his book to begin.
“Josiah…wait.” Haddie suddenly stopped him. “Kin Ah…?” She motioned to the book and glanced to Emma, smiling proudly. Emma and Nathan had spent many hours tutoring Haddie, and it appeared the young woman was finally secure enough to show off her new skills. The insecurity about her illiteracy was finally over, and Emma nodded at her confidently.
Josiah smiled, handing her the book and pointing out the beginning of the story.
She took a deep breath and began reading, slowly at first, then more confidently as she went, sounding out the more difficult words. When the story was finished and she closed the cover, there was virtual silence among her friends. They all seemed so content, a feeling that Haddie knew could not last. But for the world seemed perfect to the handful of friends gathered together on that snowy Christmas morning, if only for the moment.
“Merry Christmas,” Haddie said.
And it really was.
Suddenly, Sophie’s angry voice boomed from the kitchen. “Jacob MacCreagh?! Where is my cookie jar?!”
“Well,” thought Haddie with a chuckle, “Almost.”
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