Disclaimer: I don't own High Mountain Rangers or The Wild, Wild, West, not making any money, just cheap thrills.
Warnings: Angst, slight crossover with Wild, Wild, West
Summary: Cody encounters a woman with a promise to keep
Twelve year old Cody Hawkes glanced up at the roiling sky, rapidly filling with thick clouds that he knew would bring snow. Judging by the number of clouds, there would be a lot of it. Cody kicked himself, he should have been paying more attention to what was happening around him. He knew better than to ignore his surroundings, that was a greenhorn mistake, something he had never been.
As he did every year, Jesse had given Cody today off from school. He always claimed he might as well, as Cody's head was so filled with ghosts and goblins there wasn't any room for mundane things like Math and English. With plenty of energy to burn off, Jesse had sent Cody off on a hike, camera in hand and instructions to capture any animal he saw on film. Cody chuckled, even when he was given the day off, his dad still managed to make sure he learned something.
Unfortunately he had gone further than he'd intended, becoming so wrapped up in his photography that he didn't realize until a sudden drop in temperature had him looking up at the sky. Realizing that Matt would be waiting to take him back to town for the haunted house and trick or treating, his last year for the latter, he had put his camera away and hurried towards the cabin.
He'd only traveled a couple of miles when the first flake landed on his cheek, followed quickly by several more until the snow was coming down so thick and fast that it was impossible to see more than a foot in front of him. He tamped down on the panic threatening to overwhelm him. If he was to have any chance of survival, he had to remain calm. Mentally checking over the supplies in his pack, he knew he was in trouble. He'd only expected to be out for a few hours and had packed accordingly. The food he'd brought was already gone, though he did have an energy bar for emergencies. With all of the snow coming down, water wouldn't be an issue; shelter and warmth would be.
Matt glanced out the window, sighing at the sight of the empty yard. "Aren't you worried?" he asked his father, bringing his attention back to the room they sat in.
Jesse looked up from the book he was reading, a frown on his face. "No reason to be," he shrugged.
Matt shot the older man an incredulous look. "He's twelve years old, he shouldn't even be out there wandering around on his own."
"Out there is his backyard, he knows it better than any of us," Jesse countered. They hadn't always argued like this, but from the time his oldest had turned sixteen he thought he knew better than his old man about a lot of things, especially his brother. The accident last summer hadn't helped.
"Knowing it didn't keep you from getting hurt did it?" Matt challenged his father.
"Accidents can happen anywhere Matt..."
"Except that up here even a minor accident can be deadly," he interrupted. "It's almost dark, he should have been back by now."
Jesse frowned, glancing at the clock and then out the window. Jumping to his feet, he raced to the door, throwing it open he shot a fearful look at the sky.
"Dad?" Matt asked, coming up behind him. He hated to admit it, but his father's reaction was scaring him.
"You've spent too many years living in town son," Jesse sighed. "It's not getting dark, there's a storm moving in and it looks like it's going to be a bad one."
"Cody," he whispered, terrified for his brother. "We have to go look for him," he said as he grabbed his coat. A strong hand clamped down on his arm, "Let me go."
"Where are you going to look Matt?" Jesse calmly asked, his blue eyes stabbing his tall son with the authority he'd always wielded as if it were a second skin.
Matt deflated, "I don't know, but we can't just sit here and hope he'll make it home."
"No we can't, but we have to be smart about this. We won't do your brother any good if we get ourselves lost or killed while we're looking for him."
"Then what do we do?"
"We call the Rangers, let them know what's happened. Then we call anybody I can think of that he might have taken shelter with when he saw the storm blowing up."
"Alright, and if he didn't?"
Jesse sighed, bracing himself for the explosion. "We gather supplies and wait for the storm to blow over."
"Like hell!" Matt cursed, not remembering or caring how his father felt about cursing. "You stay here if you want, I'm going to find my little brother." Turning on his heel, he jerked the door open only to have it ripped from his hand as it slammed shut with the sound of finality.
"How do you think Cody will feel when we find him and have to tell him that his brother is dead? That he died searching for him?" Jesse demanded. He knew it wasn't easy for Matt to sit and wait, it wasn't easy for him either, but searching in a blizzard was as good as committing suicide. He had to make his oldest see that. He couldn't take it if he were to lose both boys to this storm. No, he forcefully shook off such thoughts. Cody would find shelter, someplace safe to wait out the storm and when the storm ended they would find Cody.
"I don't want to lose him," Matt confessed, his eyes sparkling with unshed tears.
"I know son, and we won't," Jesse assured him.
Cody stumbled through the thickly falling snow, he should have found the caves by now. Shouldn't he? Could he have gotten turned around? No, he couldn't...if he was lost..."St...stop it," he ordered himself through chattering teeth. He couldn't let panic take hold, not now, not here. In this moment and in this place panic would mean only one thing...death.
Resolutely he stumbled onward, determined to find his way home. He wouldn't leave his father with the guilt of his death. He didn't know how long he had walked. It must have been a long while, each step was becoming harder than the last as his feet grew heavier with each move forward. "Home...have to mmmake...home," he whispered, quietly encouraging himself to keep going.
Sharp pain stabbed through his shoulder. Backing up, he shook his head and tried again, once more met with pain. It took him several tries before he realized that it was an old cabin he was slamming against. Laughter rang through the trees. "Dad always said I was stubborn," he smirked. Feeling along the side of the cabin, he searched for the door.
"What the...?" he never finished his question, knees buckled bringing him to the floor.
Charity O'Neill gasped as the door open, brining a young boy in from the cold. Rushing to his side, she smiled in relief to feel the strong pulse at the boy's throat. With deceptively strong arms, Charity carried the young boy to the bed. Working quickly, she stripped him from his wet clothes and tucked him under the warm quilts adorning the single bedstead. "Poor mite, and you'll be starved no doubt when ye wake," she mumbled as she brushed hair from his face. A small smile graced her heart shape faced, hazel eyes flashing with compassion and concern for the boy who had come into her care. Giving a small nod, she stood and moved to the old wood stove in the corner. "'Tis good I've got a rabbit stew cooking, no doubt the lad'll be thankful for it when he wakes," she muttered to herself.
A delicious smell tickled his nose, reminding him of the hunger he had felt for hours. "Dad?" he called.
"Ah," Charity smiled, "it's no yer dad, but mayhap I'll do until he can get here?"
Cody's eyes flew open, "Who are you?" He blushed, "Sorry," he apologized as he realized how rude he'd sounded.
Charity laughed, "No need for that lad," she assured him. "Charity O'Neill is the name, and who might ye be?"
"Cody Hawkes," he replied. "Um, how did I get here?" he asked, looking around the small cabin.
"Ye don't remember?"
Cody closed his eyes, trying to remember. "There was a storm?"
"Aye," Charity confirmed.
"Where am I?"
"Why yer in me cabin lad," Charity teased. "Which is in the Sierra Nevada mountains, near to the lake the Indians call da'aw but we call Tahoe."
Cody nodded, he knew that. "How long have you lived here?"
"Longer than ye've been alive lad," Charity smiled.
He frowned, "I've lived up here all of my life, I've never seen you or heard of you before."
Charity laughed, it was a sad laugh. Such suspicion in one so young. "And ye know everybody what lives in these mountains?"
Cody blushed, "I guess I don't. I didn't mean anything..."
"It's quite alright laddie, ye were no doubt surprised. Now, then, would ye be liking to try some of me stew?" She laughed as his stomach grumbled in response. "I'll take that as a yes."
"Do you live here alone?" Cody asked a while later as he sat the empty bowl aside.
Charity's smile faded, "Aye. T'wasn't always such...me family used to live here with me but they've moved on an age ago."
It was strange listening to her talk, the words and mannerisms so old-fashioned and yet it was oddly comforting. "Why do you stay?" he finally asked.
"I've a promise to keep Cody Hawkes, one I'm glad to keep to," she smiled, the soft expression lighting her face with an ethereal melancholy that tore at Cody's heart.
"A promise?" Something in the way she said it told him that it was more than a simple promise. Whatever the promise was, it was something which went beyond time and space.
"Never you mind about that Cody Hawkes," Charity replied. "You must sleep now, I will keep watch," she whispered, smoothing his hair as she began to hum a lullaby she had once sung to her own babies.
Cody closed his eyes, the soft melody soothing him into sleep. The last words he heard were Charity's promise that when he woke his father would be there.
Jesse and Matt had set out as the sun began to lighten the sky. Bringing Dingo along, they searched for any sign of the youngest Hawkes. Though neither spoke of it, both searched with fear filled hearts. Cody had taken only a day pack with him, he wouldn't have been prepared for the blizzard that had come early in the season. They found him just past mid-morning.
"Cody?" Jesse called, kneeling on the cave floor next to his youngest.
"Dad?" Cody smiled, "She said you'd be here when I woke up."
Jesse exchanged a glance with Matt, "Who said son?"
"Charity," Cody replied, finally moving his gaze from his father's face to take in the cave. "What happened to the cabin? How'd I get here?" he asked, struggling to sit up.
"Cabin?" Jesse asked, confused by his son's questions. "There isn't any cabin near here son, there hasn't been for a hundred years or more."
"No," Cody shook his head. "There was a cabin, I was in her cabin and she took care of me. She made rabbit stew and covered me with quilts..." he trailed off. He didn't understand any of this. He knew he had been in a cabin with a woman, a woman who cared for him the way he'd always thought a mother should. So, how could he be in a cave wrapped in an old fur.
"You must have been dreaming Toad," Matt told his brother.
"A dream?" Cody asked, looking between the two men. It couldn't have been just a dream, could it?
Jesse could see by the look on Cody's face that he was becoming upset by this little mystery. "Dream or not, the important thing is that you survived the storm and you're safe now."
"Yeah, I guess so," Cody mumbled. "Still I wish I could tell her thank you."
Jesse smiled, "Something tells me that if she was more than a dream...she knows son. You ready to go home now?"
A smile blossomed on Cody's face, his father was right. He nodded, letting his father and brother help him to his feet. Climbing from under the fur, he looked down at himself in surprise. He would have sworn he had been sleeping in nothing but his thermals...maybe Charity had dressed him before she left, or maybe he had been dreaming.
"Come on Toad, I want to get back to the cabin where it's warm," Matt called.
"I'm coming," Cody called as he joined his father and brother at the entrance to the cave. Turning back, he smiled as the sound of light laughter reached him. "Thank you Charity."
"It's too late for me Jim West, but ye'd be doing an Irish lass a favor if'n ye'd take me bairns," Charity quietly asked of the handsome man leaning over her.
"I'm sorry Charity, I never should have left you alone," Jim apologized. He had thought it would be safer to leave her and her children at the cabin. It had been his memory loss that had brought him into her life, a memory loss brought on by the man who had ultimately taken more than memory from him. He had spent weeks here with Charity, happier than he'd ever been. Having accepted the loss of his identity he had come to love the woman who had cared for him when he'd been at his lowest. Then Colonel Rodgers had returned, attacking him once more. Charity had come upon them before Rodgers could finish the job, shooting the man. Together they had made their way back to the cabin. He had told her who he was, confessing his love for her in nearly the same breath. With tears in her eyes she had returned the feelings, promising to love him forever. They had spent a little time reveling in the love they felt for each other. Reluctantly Jim had left the cabin to bury Rodgers, he didn't want the little ones to see him. He had returned to the spot where the attack had taken place, only to find Rodgers gone. His heart was in his throat as he turned back to the cabin, running for the small structure, he threw open the door just as Rodgers drove a knife into Charity's chest. He had killed Rodgers, making sure he was dead this time, before moving to Charity's side, pulling her into his arms, heedless of the blood coating his clothes.
"Take my bairns Jim West, care for them as I will care for you and your's from now to the end of time," Charity whispered the plea and vow, punctuating it with blood.
"I'll love them as if they were my own," Jim vowed. "I love you Charity O'Neill," he whispered, kissing her forehead as she breathed her last.
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