Winter's Snow

Part twenty of the Ranch Days series

By Maz McCoy

"What are you doing?" Hannibal Heyes asked as Jed lay down on his back in the snow.

"Watch an' see."

Jed took off his hat and threw it to his friend, who caught it and then stared in fascination as Jed began to wave his arms up and down through the snow as if he was trying to fly. Next he moved his legs apart then together, apart then together.

"What the…?"

Jed stopped, smiled and got swiftly to his feet. Taking his hat back from Heyes he studied the impression he'd made.

"I made a snow angel."

Heyes looked.

"What?" Jed brushed snow off his clothes.

Heyes squinted.

"See, there are the wings, where my arms were and where my legs were, that's like an angel's - robe." He beamed at Heyes. "Emily showed me how to do it."

"Rolling in the snow with Emily? Bet that's not all she showed you."

"Huh?"

"Nothin'." Heyes studied the ground again. "I thought you and Emily were…"

"We're still friends, Heyes."

"If you say so."

Jed had no intention of arguing over that.

"So are you gonna make one?"

"A snow angel?"

"Yeah."

"That's for kids."

"Meanin' you can't do it."

"I can."

"You're afraid you'll get it wrong."

"No, I'm not."

"So prove it."

"I don't have to prove it."

"You don't, but then you'd say that if you couldn't do it."

"All right I'll prove it!" Heyes removed his hat and slapped it into Jed's chest. "Hold that!" Jed did. Heyes lay down in the ground looking up at the sky flapping his arms up and down as his legs waved wildly together and apart.

"Heyes, what the heck are you doing?" Jeff Collins strode towards them.

Heyes' head shot up and he stared at the ranch foreman.

"I… Er... I was…"

"He's making a snow angel," Jed supplied, helpfully.

Heyes scrambled to his feet, brushing himself off.

Collins studied the two impressions in the ground.

"A snow angel, huh?"

Heyes looked too and yep, he'd made a pretty good angel.

"See there are the wings and…" Collins raised an eyebrow. "I guess we should be getting back to work."

"I guess you should." Jeff stood with his arms folded across his chest, his face conveying his most patient expression. He smiled. "'Cos if those supplies aren't loaded on the wagon by the time Marty's ready to leave, you two will be leaving a very different impression in the snow." He leaned closer, his face nearer to theirs as he spoke through clenched teeth. "Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"Yes, Boss."

"Good. Now get to it!" Collins watched the boys take off at a run heading for the store room, then he turned to look at their handiwork. Not bad snow angels. Smiling, Collins headed back to the bunk house.

"Are you sure you're all right?"

"Heyes, I've told you, I'm fine. The doctor said a little exercise is okay and I don't think sitting on a wagon seat is going to put too much stress on me, do you?"

Heyes flicked the reins then took a look at the man sitting next to him. Marty certainly looked back to his old self, even though he knew he wasn't allowed to do everything he had done before his heart gave out. It was nice to have his company on the trip out to the line shacks and they were only going to the three nearest the ranch so…Heyes pulled on the reins to keep the horses on the trail.

"Watch this bit up ahead, there's a lot of tree roots around the base of the rocks," Marty advised and Heyes pulled hard on the reins to steer the horses and wagon around the bend.

"Can I ask you something?"

"Can I stop you?" Heyes looked sideways at the older man. Marty smiled. "Go on. Ask."

"When you had…I mean when you were ill, when it happened. Did you feel your heart stop?"

"Nope. It felt like someone hit me dead on, knocking the wind outta me. There was an almighty pain in my arm and chest and then I was on the floor looking up at the cobwebs in the ceiling. Then the kid was staring down at me like he'd seen a ghost. Made me think I was one for a minute."

"Did your life flash before your eyes? They say when you have a near death experience, your whole life flashes past."

"A near death experience huh?"

"Yeah. So did it? Your whole life?"

"In my case that'd take a heck of a long time. I don't think dying waits while you sit back and watch."

Heyes looked confused.

"No, Heyes, my whole life did not flash before my eyes." He pointed up ahead. "Watch that dip in the trail."

Heyes tugged on the reins and avoided the dip.

"Snow's falling harder," Gerrard announced as he pushed the bunk house door closed against the biting wind. Stamping his feet he left a trail of melting snow as he made his way to the stove, blowing on his hands as he did so. Pouring himself a cup of coffee he shivered as he turned to face the others. "I'd hate to be up in the mountains on a night like this. If you can't find shelter you're gonna freeze to death."

The men looked at him.

"What?"

Realisation dawned.

"Oh, Jed, sorry."

"It's okay. They'll be fine. Probably hol' up in the line shack over night and head back in the morning." Jed tried to sound unconcerned but worry was written all over his face as he pulled his boots off and climbed onto his bunk.

"Marty'll have the stove going and coffee on." Henry pushed back his chair and stood up, scratching at his Henley.

"And no doubt Heyes'll be trying to beat him at cards," Nathan suggested as he rocked his chair back on two legs and stifled a yawn.

"I sure hope Marty didn't take any money up there with him 'cos he's coming back a poorer man if he did." Bill spat and the spittoon gave a resounding TING!

"Just hope Heyes ain't making the coffee," Nathan added.

Henry walked behind him on his way to the stove. He gave the chair legs a swift kick as he went by and Nathan landed on his backside.

"S*$%!"

As the others laughed, Nathan was swiftly on his feet squaring up to Henry. The cook ignored him and poured himself a cup of coffee as the younger man continued to rave.

"What kinda dumb, stupid thing was that to do? Were you trying to break my neck?"

"Nope."

"I coulda broken my back or something!"

"I doubt it. Bruised your backside more like."

Nathan stood there agog. Henry smiled and lowered his voice as he spoke.

"Don't 'spose Jed's thinkin' about Heyes anymore, do you?"

Nathan glared at the cook.

"Couldn't you have thought of another way to distract him?" he asked, quietly through clenched teeth.

"Not one as funny."

Henry smiled.

"Do you believe in it?" Heyes asked as he huddled closer to the stove, his hands held out towards the flames.

"Big foot?"

"Yeah." The light from the stove's fire sent shadows dancing eerily around the line shack.

"Nope."

"Why not?"

Marty pulled off a piece of jerky with his teeth and wriggled his sock clad toes in front of the fire. He looked at the youngster.

"Heyes, if there was something out there I reckon some hunter woulda shot it by now. Heck they've almost wiped out the buffalo, d'you really think if there was some creature roaming the forests as big as that they wouldn'ta found it by now? Imagine the bounty on one of those things."

"So you don't think there's anything in these mountains?"

"What the heck makes you ask that?"

"Just something Gerrard said."

"Don't tell me you've been listening to that fool? I thought you were brighter than that."

"He just said there were rumours about a strange creature some of the injuns claimed to have seen."

"A creature? Did he say what type?"

"Sort of a man-bear. Whenever they approached it would disappear into the trees."

"You mean like a mountain man in a buffalo skin coat, not too keen to get caught by a bunch o' injuns?"

Heyes considered this.

"I guess."

"Well, I solved that one for you. What else does Gerrard have lurking behind every tree stump and rock?" He got up, scratched at the rear of his union suit, checked the back flap was fastened and sank down on his bedroll.

"Nothing."

"Good. Now get under your blanket and get some sleep. We may hafta dig the wagon out in the morning and me not being a well man, means that job's down to you."

He could almost hear Heyes thinking about that. Pulling the blanket up to his chin, Marty smiled as he closed his eyes. Heyes lay down beside the stove. The shadows continued to dance above him creating weird shapes.

"Ooooooooo."

"What the heck was that?" Heyes shot up grabbing for his gun.

Marty chuckled.

"That was not funny!"

"Yes, it was." Marty chuckled again muttering something about gullible youngsters as he drifted off to sleep.

"Still nothing?" Collins asked as he joined Bill on the bunkhouse porch the following morning. Steam rose into the frigid air from his cup of coffee.

"Nothing." Bill's breath left a vapour trial as he scanned the horizon. "D'you reckon they're holed up in a shack?"

"I sure hope so." One-handed, Collins pulled the collar of his coat up around his ears. "It's too early in the year to be so darn cold."

"Reckon we're in for a bad winter." Bill blew on his hands and rubbed them together to create a little frictional warmth.

"In more ways than one." Bill turned to look puzzled at Collins. "What?"

"I thought Mark had arranged an extension on the loan. Got some banker to help out back east?"

"That won't last forever." Collins' gaze fixed on the distant mountains.

"Not like you to be so pessimistic."

"I'm getting old, Bill. Too old to start again."

"Maybe you won't hafta."

"Wish I had your faith."

Bill turned his attention to the snow covered prairie.

"You're not that old and you should be thinking about the future. Thinking about Miss Tanner and what you're gonna do about her."

The sides of the foreman's mouth turned up slightly. Yeah, what was he going to do about her?

"D'you love her?"

Collins smiled.

"You about to give me some romantic advice?"

"Based on my vast experience with women? Nope. But do you? Love her?"

"I'm not sure."

"I think you do."

"That vast experience talking again?"

"Nope. Just the number of times you've found an excuse to go to town these past few weeks; that and the stupid look that comes over your face every time anyone mentions her."

"I don't have a stupid look on my face!"

"Yes, Boss, you do. Got it there now as a matter of fact."

Jeff did his best to look stern.

"You don't know what you're talkin' about."

"If you say so, but if I felt the way you do about a woman, I'd do something about it. Especially knowing she was all alone in town and me stuck out here. Knowing the boys from the other ranches were just as likely to take a shine to her as you. Some young buck might get the idea to…"

"You think she'd…?"

Bill smiled at the expression on the foreman's face. He patted Jeff on the arm.

"You're right. I don't know what I'm talkin' about."

"Bill…"

"Now Nathan, he's thinking ahead. Saving up his money."

"What for?"

"What do you think?"

"I don't know, that's why I asked."

"Reckon he's after buying Annabelle a ring."

"He's gonna ask her to marry him?"

"He hasn't said in so many words but we've had a talk or two."

"You're a regular matchmaker ain'tcha?"

"Just that vast experience again."

"So how come you ain't married?"

"What, and break the hearts of all the gals I don't chose?"

"Hmm."

"How long d'you think we should give 'em before we go looking for Marty and Heyes?"

"What? Oh…" Collins shook his head. "If they headed back at first light we should give em 'til noon. Then send out a couple of the boys to meet 'em."

"Will do, Boss."

"Bill…"

"I'd best go check on the horses." He descended the steps from the bunkhouse, then turned to face his friend. "Just don't leave her wonderin' too long."

Collins nodded.

"I won't."

"Good."

"She was the biggest woman I ever met; at least a foot taller than me and she could arm wrestle any man in town. She had a tattoo of a humming bird just here," Marty pointed to his chest. "Iris wore her dresses pulled in real tight at the waist and they left nothing to the imagination when she leaned over, know what I mean?"

Heyes smiled. He was a young man with healthy hormones. Oh yeah, he knew what Marty meant.

"And yet she had the gentlest way with…" Marty's words were cut off as one of the back wheels on the wagon caught a rock and shattered. "HANG ON!"

The wagon dropped on one side, and the momentum sent the front wheel over the edge of the trail. The horses pulled hard as Heyes struggled to control them. Marty's big hands covered the younger mans. Between them they pulled on the reins, but the back end of the wagon was already over the edge of the trial and sliding. There was nothing they could do to stop the inevitable. The wagon slid off the trail and down the snow covered slope. The horses screamed as they lost their footing. Heyes released the reins as he felt himself falling. He landed hard on his back despite the cushioning effect of the snow and began to roll. He could hear Marty cussing, and hoped he would be okay. It was the last thing he needed after his heart trouble. Branches hit and scratched Heyes' face as he tumbled. How long was this darn hill anyway? A boulder obliterated the view, a searing pain screamed inside his head and everything went black.

"We hafta go look for them!" Jed stormed into Collins small office and stood purposefully in front of the foreman's desk, rotating his hat impatiently in his hand. Collins looked up from the ledger he was studying.

"I've already sent Nathan and Gerrard out. And you might wanna remember to knock next time."

"Oh. Sorry. I…"

"Yeah, I know. You're worried about 'em." Collins put down his pen.

"When did you send them out?"

Collins removed the watch from his pocket.

"About an hour ago."

"What if…?"

"Jed, you've got work to do. Go do it. If I decide to form a posse I'll let you know."

"But…"

"Go."

"Couldn't we just…"

"I'm about to lose my patience, boy. Get back to work."

Knowing when he was holding a losing hand, Jed turned and left the office. Jeff looked out the window at the distant clouds.

"Where the heck are you, Marty?"

"Heyes? Hannibal? D'you hear me boy?" Marty sat back in his heels. Heyes made no reply. Marty lifted the bandana he'd placed on Heyes' temple to staunch the flow of blood. As the cloth raised he could see the wound was still bleeding. Marty replaced it. "That's gonna be one heck of a goose egg, son."

Getting to his feet, Marty steadied himself in the snow. He held his left arm close to his body. It wasn't broken, at least he didn't think so, but it sure hurt like hell. He must have done the damage when he hit a tree on the way down the hillside. At least his heart was feeling fine. Darndest thing.

The wagon lay broken halfway up the hill. The horses were dead. He hated that, but at least he didn't have to put them out of their misery. Marty looked down at Heyes, his blood staining the snow. How the heck was he gonna get the boy back to the ranch?

The line shack was empty but there were plenty of signs that it had been recently occupied. Ash in the stove, pans recently wiped clean and of course the more obvious foot prints in the snow leading to the door.

"I guess they spent the night here after all." Gerrard looked at the shelves lined with fresh supplies.

"So how come we didn't see them on the way up?" Nathan stood in the doorway looking down the trail.

"Maybe they took another route with the wagon."

"There isn't a better route."

"No, but I bet Heyes thought he'd find one."

Nathan considered this.

"I want to take a closer look at that gully."

"There were no wagon tracks there."

"I know but we've had more snow this morning."

"What do you want me to do?"

"Come with me. I don't see them coming back here." Nathan looked at the sky. More grey clouds were gathering in the distance. More snow heading their way. Where the heck were they?

The climb up the hillside had been harder than he imagined. Marty held his arm close to his body, braced himself with his feet and knees and struggled on. His foot slipped out from under him and he went crashing down slamming his chin into the snow.

"S*$ !"

Marty pulled himself up. He cast a glance back over his shoulder at a forlorn figure lying in the snow, covered in his coat. The boy hadn't moved. Marty looked up at the top of the slope and the trail that lay beyond.

One step at a time. That was the only way he was going to get there.

"Marty?" Nathan studied a figure struggling up the hillside. The man looked up and a broad grin broke out on his face.

"Nathan? Nathan, that you?"

"Yeah. You all right?"

"I'm okay. Boy's hurt though."

"Where is he?"

"Further down the slope. Hit his head when we went over the side."

"I'm coming down."

A rope appeared and Gerrard tied it off around a tree trunk. Grabbing onto it, Nathan scrambled down the incline. When he reached Marty he stopped beside him, his eyes fell on the arm the older man held close to him.

"How bad's the arm?"

"It's nothing."

"How bad?"

"Not broken, just bruised I reckon."

"Think you can use the rope? Pull yourself up while I go after Heyes."

"I'll manage. Get the boy."

Leaving Marty behind, Nathan descended to where Heyes lay beside a fallen tree. The coat Marty had covered him with was dusted in new snow. Nathan knelt beside Heyes and placing a hand on his arm gently shook him.

"Heyes? Heyes, can you hear me?"

No response. Removing a glove Nathan placed it against Heyes' cheek. Cold. He replaced his glove.

"Okay, kid, time to get you outta here." Nathan pulled the coat away and grabbed hold of the youngster under his arms. Hauling Heyes to his feet, he shifted him over his shoulder before catching hold of the rope once more. Up above Gerrard and Marty watched as Nathan carried Heyes up the slope. When he drew closer Gerrard scrambled down to meet him and help carry Heyes the last few feet.

A lone figure sat on the corral fence his back to the bunkhouse, head low. Carrying a blanket, Jeff Collins strode towards Jed. The boy didn't appear to hear his approach and the foreman soon realised why. Jed was fast asleep, sitting on the fence, head down on his chest. Jeff shook his head. Stubborn kid. He would probably freeze to death before he gave up his watch.

Jeff climbed onto the fence and stood beside the boy. Jed stirred as the fence swayed, almost falling off as he did so. Collins grabbed his arm, steadying him. Wide-eyed Jed stared back.

"What is it?"

"You fell asleep."

"Was I on watch?" Jed looked around, trying to get his bearings.

"Not officially." Jeff opened the blanket and wrapped it around Jed's shoulders. "You might want to find something safer to sit on if you plan to be out here any longer."

Jed shivered and pulled the blanket around him.

"Thanks, Boss."

"Henry said to tell you there's hot stew when you want it. Seems he's taken pity on you too."

"I just wanna…" Jed paused. What did he want? Nathan and Gerrard would be back one way or another. His waiting on the corral fence wasn't going to bring them back any faster.

"I know. Just don't catch pneumonia waiting for Heyes. I can't afford to have you laid up." Collins jumped down and turned, heading back to the bunkhouse. He was halfway there when Jed called out.

"BOSS!"

Turning Collins saw two horses heading their way. Against the snow he could tell both mounts carried more than one man. With his eyes still on the approaching men he half turned towards the bunkhouse and bellowed.

"BILL! HENRY! GET OUT HERE!"

"He has concussion," the doctor pronounced as he closed his bag. "But then from what you tell me about the accident he's lucky to be alive."

Lying on his bunk, Heyes tried to focus on the men around him. He could make out the shapes of Jed and Nathan. Collins was standing beside the doctor but the rest were a blur. His head felt like it was about to split in two. He didn't even try to make out what they were saying. Concentrating took too much effort.

The doctor pulled on his long coat and faced the cook.

"Henry, you know what to do for him. If you get worried about anything send one of the boys for me and I'll be here as soon as I can." He pulled his gloves from his pocket, shaking Collins' hand before pulling them on. He turned his attention to Marty who sat at the table, left arm in a sling. "That arm may not be broken but you treat it like it is. Let it heal before you start roping horses and wrestling steers."

Marty smiled.

"Reckon those days are behind me."

"Don't bet on it. I know you." The doctor said his goodbyes and headed out the door to his waiting buggy.

"How you feeling?"

Heyes looked up at Jed through half-open eyes.

"Why do people always ask that?"

"I guess because they're concerned." Jed sat on the bunk next to Heyes.

"That was a rhetorical question."

"A what?"

"Forget it." Heyes pulled himself up on the pillow. Pressure threatened to crush his head in two and he screwed up his eyes.

"Head hurt?"

"You got any more dumb questions for me?"

"Not yet but I could think of some if you want?" Heyes looked at his friend. Jed smiled innocently. "Back to your normal grumpy self, huh?"

"Just annoyed at the stupid questions you keep asking a man in pain."

"There's a man in pain around here?" Jed looked around the room.

"Funny. You're real funny, Jed. Now go away and let me rest. You heard the doctor, I have concussion."

"I also heard Henry tell me we hafta keep you awake."

"Why? So I can listen to you babbling on?"

"No, so we can…"

"I know why you hafta keep people awake!"

Jed was quiet for a moment. He sat gazing at the dust on his boots.

"You know we were all worried about you and Marty."

Something in Jed's tone made Heyes look up. Seeing the expression on his friend's face his irritation subsided.

"Had you worried, huh?"

"Yeah."

"I'll be okay."

"I know. It's just for a while there I thought I was gonna hafta break in a new best friend."

Heyes laughed and instantly regretted it.

"Ow!"

End of Part 20

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