The whirling sound of the wind was what woke him. That's Wyoming for you, he thought to himself, that wind never stops blowing. It rattled the shutters and whistled around the building. He pulled the quilts higher around his shoulders and resolutely kept his eyes closed. No way, no how, was he going to let anything interrupt his sleep. He was just too comfortable, nestled in the feather bed with his head resting deep into the pillows.
Now he could hear sleet starting to hit the bedroom windows. Yeah, sounded like a real blizzard getting started. By tomorrow night, the snow would probably be drifted up to the roofs. Good thing he and Heyes had laid in plenty of stores to get them through the winter.
He stretched a little and tried to roll onto his back, but he couldn't move. What the . . .? Was Heyes hogging the bed again? And what was Heyes doing there anyway? He had his own bedroom.
He tried pushing himself onto his side a little harder, but the obstruction didn't budge. Finally, he opened his eyes and twisted his head to look over his left shoulder. It wasn't Heyes laying there, though. It was a small, blonde girl.
"Katie? What're you doing here, pumpkin?"
Two small hands rubbed sleepy eyes.
"I got scared, Grandpa."
"What scared you, sweetheart?"
"I don't like the funny noises."
"What funny noises? You mean the wind?" She nodded.
"It's just wind, Katie. Nothing to be scared of."
"Oh no it's not, Grandpa. It's a ghost. Uncle Liam said."
He sighed. Liam was an idiot. Time was, his reputation and a few minutes behind the cabin would've been enough for him to set Liam straight. He couldn't do that today, much as he wished he could.
"I'm cold, Grandpa."
He lifted the heavy covers. "Might as well crawl in with me, then." She wiggled up next to him. He put his arms around her and pulled her close against his chest.
He listened to her soft breathing and held his own for a moment, hoping that she'd go to sleep. Even 8-year-olds got tired sometimes. The silence lengthened, and he started to drift off.
"Are you afraid of ghosts?" He stared at the ceiling. So much for sleep.
"No, Katie. I don't believe in ghosts."
She pushed herself up, hands on his chest, and looked at his face. Even in the darkness, he could see she wasn't satisfied.
"I just don't, that's all. And neither should you. There's no such thing."
"Uncle Liam says when you hear the wind like that, it's not just the wind, it's a banshee, and that's a lady who comes around when somebody's going to die."
"Oh, is that what he says?" he asked. She nodded vigorously.
"Has he ever seen one?"
"He says he heard one, in Ireland. That's where they live."
"Well, that's Ireland," he said. "Maybe over across the ocean. But there aren't any banshees in Michigan."
She bit her lip, thinking. He couldn't help but smile at her small face, all twisted up in deep thought. He stroked her cheek with his thumb.
"So. No banshees in Michigan, alright? Just the wind."
"Okay." She leaned higher, pushing down on his chest with both hands, and kissed him on his forehead.
"I love you, Grandpa."
"Love you, too, Pumpkin. Now how about we get some sleep?" He pulled her close again, and drew the covers over them. His eyes closed. The warmth of her little body next to his was soothing. Even the staccato sound of the ice and sleet hitting the house made him drowsy.
Another sound intruded. Creaking. Was that the door? Reluctantly, he opened one eye.
"Grandpa," a childish voice whispered. "Are you asleep?"
"No, Annie," he said. "Why would I be asleep?"
"Because it's real late!" She whispered, loudly. "Most people are sleeping at this time!"
"You know what?" he said. "You're right. Most 10-year-olds are asleep at this time. So why are you up?"
"I woke up."
He released Katie and rolled onto his side, propping himself up on one elbow.
"Why didn't you go back to sleep?"
She shrugged. "Is Katie here?"
"Yep. She couldn't sleep either."
He looked at her. She bit her lip. He gave in to the inevitable and held the covers up.
"You want to crawl in with us, honey?" She closed the door and ran over.
"Okay, okay, you two, let's get rearranged. There's plenty of room." There wasn't plenty of room, but he figured there was enough for himself and two little girls. Soon he had a child on either side, and he wrapped an arm around each girl.
"Everybody happy and warm?" Both girls nodded. "Can we get some sleep now?" More nods. Katie pushed herself up.
"We heard a banshee before!"
"You did not!" Annie said.
"Wait a minute, wait a minute!" he said. "I thought we settled the whole banshee question. There aren't any banshees in Michigan."
"There aren't any banshees anywhere!" Annie said.
"Alright, girls! That's enough! It's the middle of the night!" The girls stuck their tongues out at each other.
"I said, that's enough! If you two can't settle down, I'm taking you both back to your own beds."
"I'm sorry, Grandpa." "Me, too, Grandpa."
There was quiet for a moment.
"Really?" he said. "You mean it?"
"Yes, Grandpa." "I promise, Grandpa."
"Well . . . alright then. You can stay. If you promise not to argue."
Both promised. Both kissed his face.
"Grandpa?" it was Annie. "Will you take us out sledding tomorrow?"
"Maybe," he said. "If your mother says it's okay. If there's enough snow, and it's not too cold."
"There's lots of snow already, Grandpa," Annie said. "I looked. And it's still snowing hard."
"Did you now. Well, we'll see tomorrow. But first, we need to sleep, or you'll be too tired to play in the snow."
"I won't be too tired, Grandpa!" Annie said.
"I won't be tired either, Grandpa!" Katie said.
"Yes you will! You're only eight. You're still a baby!"
"I am not a baby! I'm almost almost almost nine anway! I'm almost old as you!"
"When you get older, I'm getting older too. I'll always be older, and you'll always be a baby!"
"No I won't! I'm not a baby! I can go tomorrow!"
"Enough!" His voice was loud enough to quiet both girls. "Are you already breaking your promises to me? Are you?"
Two heads hung in shame. "I'm sorry Grandpa." "I'll be good, Grandpa."
"You said that before." His voice was stern. "You mean it this time?"
Both promised. Both kissed him again.
"Okay. You can stay – only IF and UNTIL you start arguing again. Understand?"
They settled down again. He lay back and looked at the ceiling, waiting. He was sure it wouldn't take long.
"Grandpa?" It was Annie. "Did you ever have a sled when you were a boy?"
"No, sweetheart. I grew up in Kansas. We had snow, but no hills."
"Did you have a sled when you were a grown-up, Grandpa?" Katie wanted to know.
"Didn't you have anybody to ride the sled with?" Katie asked.
"I had a friend," he said. "But we were men by that time, and men don't ride sleds."
"I think that's silly," she said. "Men should have fun, too."
"Oh, we had fun," he said. "We travelled a lot, met a lot of different people. We did the kinds of things men like to do."
"What do men like to do, Grandpa?" Annie said.
"We liked to play lots of card games like poker," he said. "We did that a lot."
"Well, we worked a lot, too. Cattle drives, delivering things, mining, ranch work. Men's work."
"Men's work," she said. "Even in a big storm like tonight?"
"Sometimes," he said. "Storms are bigger in the Rocky Mountains, though. Here in Michigan, you might get a foot of snow, or two. In Wyoming, you could get 10 feet of snow in one storm. And winter started early, too. Why, one time, me and my friend were gold mining up in the mountains, and we stayed too late in the fall. We spent the whole winter in that one cabin with some other men."
"Why did you do that?" Annie said.
"They had to do that," Katie said. "They got stuck. Right, Grandpa?"
He stroked her hair. "Right, sweetheart. We were trapped for the whole winter. Couldn't get out till spring."
"Did you go sledding?" Annie asked.
"No, honey. We didn't have a sled. We played cards, all winter. That's all."
"I think Michigan is nicer," Annie said.
"It's nicer because you two are here," he said. Both girls smiled at him.
"Is your friend going to come and live with us, too?" Annie asked.
"No, honey. I don't know where he is. We're not friends anymore."
"We had an argument, honey. A big one. We both got so mad at each other, when we left that town, we went our separate ways."
"What did you fight about?"
"I don't remember, honey. Something stupid. I don't even know anymore."
"So what happened to him?"
"I don't know," he said. "We both left. I never saw him again."
Both girls crawled higher to look at him.
"Don't be sad, Grandpa." Annie said. "We'll be your friends now."
"We won't ever leave you, Grandpa." Katie said. "We're going to love you forever and ever."
He was almost too full of emotion to speak. He pulled the girls tightly together against him.
"I love you, too, girls. Forever and ever."
Annie looked up. "We promise, we won't fight ever again."
"Well," he said, "well. . . don't make promises you can't keep, girls. It's okay to fight sometimes. Just don't stay mad, okay? That's how you lose friends, and good friends are special. You don't get too many of them."
He heard a knock on the door. The door swung open slowly on creaking hinges.
"So that's where you are. I didn't know there was a slumber party going on this evening."
The girls giggled.
"The storm and wind scared the girls, Christine."
"I did warn you, Daddy, that you might get some company at night. You girls have perfectly fine beds of your own."
"We didn't want Grandpa to get lonely, Mama," Annie said.
"I didn't want the storm to scare him, Mama," Katie said.
"Well. Be that as it may. I think Grandpa is feeling pretty brave now. How about you two scamper back to your own beds and let him get some sleep? If you ask real nice tomorrow, he might take you sledding."
"Grandpa said he'd teach us to play poker!"
"Oh no I didn't!" he said. "Honest, Christine, I didn't say that!"
"Oh, I don't know, Daddy. Maybe you should teach us all. You were a pretty good poker player back in the day, weren't you?"
"Please Grandpa! Please! We want to play cards like men do!"
He saw his daughter trying not to laugh and relented. "We'll see. But I can't do anything tomorrow if I don't get some sleep now. So go to bed, you two, and I'll see you in the morning." Both girls threw their arms around his neck and kissed him soundly before skipping out the door and back towards their own bedrooms.
"Honestly, Christine. I was just telling them a story, and they . . . "
"They were just being little girls. It's okay, Daddy." She stepped over to where he was sitting on the bed and kissed his forehead. "You'll get used to them. I'm glad you're here, Daddy. I really am. And it's okay with me if it gets known that that nice retired man from the west, Mr. Thaddeus Jones, plays a lot of poker. Or even if he's teaching it to his granddaughters. After all, didn't you always tell me a reputation is a good thing to have?"
"Not always, Christine. Not some kinds. Not out west."
"You're in Michigan now, Daddy. No worries. I hope you can get some sleep now. The storm's getting worse." She blew him another kiss as she quietly closed the door and left. He heard her footsteps fading as she went down the hall to check on her daughters.
The house was silent again. The wind howled outside. He got up to peek behind the thick curtains hanging in front of the bedroom window. The winter storm had become a white-out, like he'd seen so many times in the west. You couldn't even see across the yard.
He thought of the long winters he and Heyes had seen, back in the 19th century. Somehow, he'd survived to become an old man. The blonde curls had gone gray, and there were some deep lines on his face, but he didn't feel that different than he had forty years ago. He wondered what Heyes would look like as a 70-year-old, and if he'd even recognize his old friend, if they happened to meet again. He hoped Heyes was alive out there somewhere, maybe settled down with family like he was.
He went back to his warm bed and pulled the heavy covers up. He pushed the thoughts of Devil's Hole and Heyes out of his mind. He'd need to get some serious sleep, if he was going to be dragging two little girls around on a sled in the morning. He let the familiar sounds of the storm lull him to sleep.