Chapter 14

It seemed as if the group had been walking all night when a sound of rushing water overcame the whispered conversations. "Looks like we're at the bridge," Charles said to John and Socrates. "Let's get everyone across."

With instructions to be careful and take slow steps, the first duos stepped on the railroad ties. Once it became easier to gauge how far apart the wooden beams were, the peoples' steps quickened. The trio stayed behind to make sure everyone got across. Those too terrified teamed up with some teens who came back to help.

"It's easy, really!" With eyes closed, the frightened women were carried in the arms of the strong young men. The men were on their own and had to suck it up and make it across.

"Everyone's over," John said. "Let's go."

The three walked side by side and stepped almost in tandem across the bridge. John's foot slipped on some snow near the rail. His arms flailed and he tilted toward the edge. He tried to compensate, but his weight took him over the side.

"John!" Socrates and Charles dove for him, but only Socrates got a hold of his arm. He cringed and felt himself slipping closer to the edge. He wedged a foot between the ties and stopped his body from plunging over. "Charles. Help!"

Charles got on his stomach and reached for John's sleeve. It was slipping from Socrates' grip.

"Hey, let me go, Soc. Just let me go!"

"No! We're not letting you die," Charles and Socrates said with determination. They pulled together and felt him rise a few inches.

"I'm slipping!" Charles wedged himself against the rail. He groaned as he pulled.

Socrates felt the muscles in his arms screaming in pain. He could have sworn something tore and he scrunched his eyes up against the burning sensation. But no matter how much he resented this man's attempts to steal his love from him, his actions did not deserve a grisly death on this bridge. Socrates would rather die trying to save his life than to go home and admit he did nothing to help. He held on tightly, and he felt John's hand reach up and grasp the beam next to his left arm.

"We've almost got him," Charles exclaimed. He reached out and grabbed the back of John's pants and pulled harder.

Suddenly John found himself back on the bridge. All three men lay back on the ties, exhausted and breathing like a freight train out of control.

"Socrates." John puffed. "You didn't have to do that."

"Yes, I did. It's not your time yet. You've got a ranch to get back to and a life to build there."

"Alone. No family."

"Start one." Socrates sat up and shrugged.

"That'll be pretty hard to do considering that a friend of mine has the hots for the girl I wanted." John grinned and chuckled in the darkness.

"Sorry."

"It's okay. I know she loves you. Everybody's talking about it." He rose to his feet and Socrates and Charles joined him. "Let's get off this thing. I'm sure we've got people freaking out over there."

"Where are you from, John?" Charles asked as they finished their trek across the bridge.

"Why do you ask?"

"You talk funny."

"You don't really wanna know. Trust me, you won't believe me if I told you, and if you did, it would blow your mind."

"Whatever you say."

With frequent breaks to rest, the group wandered into Hope Falls in the wee hours of the morning. None of them had ever been so happy to see the little town. The depot was dark, and a search of all the windows showed no one inside.

"We should probably go over to the hotel." Someone said and a group broke off.

"We should go to the Sheriff's office," Charles said. Some of the people followed him, including John and Socrates.

The Sheriff's office was also dark and empty, and a note on the door indicated that unless there was an emergency, it would remain closed due to the holiday.

"Oh yeah, and what does he think this is?" John smirked. "Soc, I think we should just try to get a horse or something to take us back to Sunset Ridge."

"I hope we can get something, because it's about fifteen miles south of here. That would be a long walk."

"Good luck, fellas." Charles shook their hands. "And Merry Christmas."

The two men smiled. "Merry Christmas to you too, Charles."

John and Socrates walked down the street and found a livery stable where a light shone in the barn. A young boy was mucking out stables. He heard them enter and turned. Looking them up and down, he stared.

"What happened to you fellas?"

"The train crashed into an avalanche," Socrates answered.

The boys eyes grew wide. "It did? Where?"

"Don't worry about it. All the survivors are here in town and we need to rent a horse and sleigh to get us to Sunset Ridge," John said.

When the kid stopped gaping, he exclaimed, "I'll get my father!"

"What on earth happened to you boys," the owner said when he got a good look at the men.

"The train was on its way here and crashed into an avalanche. We and some others were able to get out and walked back here. Now it's imperative that we return to Sunset Ridge," Socrates explained.

"I heard some talk about an avalanche. We just thought the train would stop and wait until the rails were dug out."

"It's not a really bad avalanche, but the train wreck was a whole lot worse," John said.

"You boys got any tickets to prove you were on that train?"
"I do." Socrates pulled his from a pocket. "My name is Socrates Poole, I'm a lawyer, and I have a practice in Sunset Ridge. Sheriff Brisco County is a friend of mine."

"Sheriff County, eh? He cleaned that town up real good from what I heard." The man smiled. "Okay, just hold on a minute and I'll have a team set up. You might have some other passengers who need to get to Sunset Ridge, and if so , you can take the lot of them."

"That's a good idea," John said to Socrates.

Within a half hour the sleigh was filled to capacity eight people and the two horses trotted through the snow to their final destination. The sun came up in the east and lit the road ahead. The snow sparkled like it contained diamonds, reminding Socrates of the ring. He patted his vest pocket, relieved that it was still there. Someone in the back started singing, and others took up the happy caroling. Sunset Ridge was in sight, and everyone was happy to make it home for Christmas morning. One family of four was dropped off at a homestead along the way, and two more got off near the village limits. That left John and Socrates riding the front seat.

"Man, I never thought I'd be spending a Christmas Eve stranded out there like that." John glanced at Socrates. "I'm glad there were no hard feelings over me trying to move in on Louisa."

"Why should there be?" Socrates had plenty of reasons, but in this season of good will he decided to be a better man about it.

"Yeah, whatever. I'm just really grateful for you saving my life. Charles was about ready to go over himself. You were like our anchor, man. Thanks." He held out a hand and Socrates shook it. He stopped the sleigh in front of Socrates' office. "Here's your stop."

"Actually, if you could drop me off at Brisco's I'd be really grateful."

"Hey, no problem, Soc. I suppose you can't wait to see Lou, can you?" He looked at him and said, "You really shoulda cleaned up first. You look like crap!"

Socrates laughed. "I feel like it, but after what happened, I don't think I can waste the time going to my apartment first."

"I understand." The jingle bells on the horses' harnesses stilled as John pulled up to the front door. "Take care, Soc. And be good to that woman. Don't make me wish I'd been more aggressive."

"You have my word, she will be treated like the treasure that she is."
John smiled wide. "Good luck to you two."

Socrates got out of the sleigh and nodded. With a slap of the reins, John set the horses trotting away toward the stables where he was to drop off the sleigh.

It was early yet, and Louisa heard sleighbells. Sleighbells that were getting closer to the house. She pushed the covers off herself and rolled off the bed, stepped into her slippers, and moved to the window. She pulled up the blind and pushed the sheers aside to see a large sleigh below. She blinked. That looked like John, except he was unkempt. His clothes were torn and he had no coat or hat. The strawberry blonde but balding man next to him looked like...

She chirped. "Socrates." She gasped as he got off the sleigh. "Jeez, what happened to you?" Without another thought, she ran for the door and tore her robe from the peg on it, threw the door open and hurried downstairs as she put on her robe and tied it at her waist. She heard noises in the kitchen and voices. Thinking she missed Socrates coming inside, she rushed into the kitchen.

Brisco looked up from his coffee at the wild woman in the doorway. Loiusa's hair was loose and sticking up everywhere. Her eyes were wide with excitement, but they quickly closed down. "Where is he? Where's Socrates?"

"He's not due for another hour, Lou. You better get yourself together if you want..." Dixie was interrupted by someone knocking on the door.

Louisa hopped and turned at the same time. "It's him," she screeched in a high pitched voice and ran for the front door.

"What on earth has gotten into her, Brisco?"

"I don't know." He rose and set his cup on the table, then followed her to the foyer. By the time he arrived the door was wide open, a silhouette against the bright white light swayed in front of it. "Hey, you wanna keep the cold outside where it belongs?" He moved around the hugging and kissing couple and closed it for them with a solid thud.

Dixie joined them, equally puzzled about the display. "Would someone please explain what is going on?"

Socrates managed to break away from Louisa's lips and grin at her. "Merry Christmas, Dixie. And Brisco! You don't know how great it is to be alive!"

"I think you need to sit down, relax, and tell us what this is all about," Brisco said as he took Socrates by the sleeve and led him to the kitchen. "Lou, you better go get changed."

"But I wanna know what happened too!"

"Don't worry. We'll get Soc calmed down, and give you time to get yourself together. Then we'll talk."

Louisa gave Brisco an annoyed look. "I'm not a little kid, Brisco." She looked at Socrates. He was still agitated. "Okay, I'll be down in five minutes." She picked up the hem of her gown and robe and raced up the stairs. As promised, she returned in less than five minutes.

By then Socrates sat at the table with a cup of coffee, his face and hands washed, and his clothing somewhat straightened. He told them about the accident and how he and John worked with another passenger to get everyone to Hope Falls and on to Sunset Ridge. Everyone felt pity for John losing his family, and who knew what other lives were lost.

"Will you need to go out there, Brisco?"

"Probably not. Most likely the sheriff of Hope Falls will contact the railroad and the rail company will have to deal with the cleanup and such." He gazed into his coffee cup. "Such a shame on Christmas."

"At least most of the passengers survived, thanks to Socrates and John." Louisa said as she hugged Socrates' arm. "How about that, I've got myself a real live hero. The kids are going to love this when we meet again on Monday!"

"I didn't do it to be a hero. It was just... I don't know. I wasn't even thinking. I don't think any of us were. We all just wanted to go home."

"Home. It's great to have you here, Socrates," Dixie said with a smile.

"It's great to be here." Socrates reached for Louisa's hand and held it in his. "I have something for you."

"I thought you already gave me my Christmas present," Louisa said with a coy smile.

"This is better than that." He reached in to his pocket. This wasn't how he'd planned on asking, but after last night's brush with death, he didn't want to waste any more time. The ring slipped out of the pocket and he held it between his finger and thumb so she could see it sparkle in the sunlight that filtered in through the kitchen curtains.

Her breath sucked in as she set her eyes upon it, and then her eyes locked on his. "Socrates..."

"Louisa, I know I only recently said I love you. But you know I loved you long before that. From the moment I first laid eyes on you, I had hoped, prayed, that you would love me too. And you have. So now I would like to know if you would be my wife. Will you marry me, and love me forever?"

"Yes, Socrates. You bet I will." She eagerly thrust her hand out and wiggled the fingers with a mixture of excitement and fear. She'd never gotten this close to marriage before. Her own parents failed at it, and her home life was a mess. Maybe living with Brisco and Dixie had been a good learning experience for her. She saw what true love was like and how people behaved when their home was full of love. She could only hope that Socrates and hers was the same.

The ring slid onto her finger easily. He had no idea what her size was. It was a little tight, but she pushed until it rode over the knuckle and stopped at the end. Her fingers curled around his. She had the biggest smile on her face. Even without his glasses, he could see it. They closed the space between them and kissed. A soft "Awww" came out of Dixie.

"Well," Socrates said when their lips finally parted. He looked around and realized that they were alone. "Wonder where Brisco and Dixie went?"

The couple stood and walked into the parlor to find the couple snuggled up on the love seat before the fireplace. Brisco heard a floorboard creak and turned his head. "Well, it was about time you two stopped lip-locking! Let's open some stuff!"

Neither Louisa nor Socrates wanted a long engagement. Reverend Hart insisted that the couple meet with him before the wedding, however, and on New Year's Eve the two stood at the altar and pledged their lives to each other. The post-wedding party was at the Countys'. Bowler was in town to witness the vows and festivities, and when the couple left in a sleigh to ride down the street to Socrates', and now Louisa's apartment, she tossed the bouquet over her shoulder. It landed at Bowler's feet.

"Well, looks like you lucked out of that one," Dixie purred as a little girl, one of Louisa's students, picked it up and ran away after her parents. "You were almost the next one to marry."

"Sorry, Dixie, that ain't never happenin' to me. I say good luck to you all, but I'm married to the open road and the thrill of adventure."

"Maybe so, but you can lay your head in our home any time," Brisco offered with a smile and a handshake.

"I believe I'll take y'all up on that tonight. Thank you."

"Good. It's going to be awfully quiet around here without Lou and her piano and flute playing." Dixie complained.

"I could always sing, if you play the piano, Miss Dixie."

She smiled. "That's a great idea, Bowler. Come on and warm up those pipes!" The three went inside, closed the doors against the chill, and enjoyed the last few hours of the year together.