Snow Storm (by Stardust)

Summary:
Category:  Bordertown
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,500


Marshal Jack Craddock sat on the corner of his desk and gently swung the short piece of rope he held while the small black cat chased it back and forth, back and forth. His dark, slightly wavy hair hung down to his collar and needed combing. His cloths were clean but wrinkled. His boots were muddy, with a slight odor of horse to them. But the star on his vest shone brightly. The gun and holster on his hip had seen lots of use but were spotless. Craddock had spent many years wondering the west. He had fought in the Civil War, been a Texas Ranger, and had tried his hand at many frontier occupations in his forty some years of life. Several years before he had been offered a job as a marshal, which had resulted in an assignment to Bordertown. He liked it in Bordertown and had settled into the quiet routine of a small town marshal.

“Afternoon, Marie,” he said as Doctor Marie Dumont and Corporal Clive Bennett walked into the office.

“See,” said Bennett motioning toward Craddock. “He spends half his time playing with that cat.”

Marie laughed. “Is that true, Jack?” She took off her hat and coat and shook off the light sprinkle of snow on them. Stepping close to the woodstove she extended her hands, warming them.

Craddock laughed with her. “I haven’t had much else to do ‘round here lately,” he said. “Winter time is always quiet.” He tossed the piece of rope over onto the Mounties’ boots and the large kitten followed, trying to attack it. In her excitement at finally catching her prize she climbed Bennett’s leg to his knee.

“Ouch! Owww.” Bennett shook the kitten off his leg. “Craddock!”

Jack Craddock grinned, his dark brown eyes twinkling. He was always looking for someway to irritate Bennett but knew his turn would come in the never-ending battle of practical jokes between them.

“Clive,” Marie chided him. “She’s only playing. She didn’t know she would hurt you.” She picked up the young cat that immediately began purring. The beautiful, blond, blue-eyed Marie Dumont had come from France with her husband, Dr. Jacque Dumont, several years before. Jacque had died soon after their arrival but Marie had stayed on in the little frontier town. She liked her home and her many friends here. She had also taken over the role of doctor for the town. She had trained in France as a nurse, and Jacque had taught her a considerable amount about doctoring. At last she had managed to pass the test that Canada insisted their doctors take and was really a doctor.

Clive was still upset with the cat. “Well, she can play somewhere else. She gets into everything and leaves hairs on my bed.”

“Where did you get her, Jack?” Marie asked, her French accent strong. “She is all black like that other cat, Spook, that helped you when those outlaws held us hostage and forced you into that gunfight.”

“Don’t know where she came from, Marie. But I figure she might be related to Spook. He might be her daddy or something. They certainly do look alike. She just started hangin’ round a couple a days’ ago. She’s been stayin’ at my cabin but I think she gets lonely durin’ the day and come here.”

“Does she have a name?”

“Well, I don’t know, Marie.” Jack looked at the pretty doctor and without cracking even the slightest smile he continued. “I didn’t ask her, and she didn’t offer to tell me.”

Snorting at the Marshals joke Clive offered his opinion. “Pest is the only name fit for a creature like that.” He rearranged his books and pencils that the cat had scattered across his desk. Or he assumed the kitten had done. Knowing Craddock he might have done it.

Clive Bennett was a stickler for everything being neat and in its proper place. The exact opposite of Jack Craddock. Younger than the Marshal, but still close to the same height and build he had curly blond hair and dark blue eyes. In his Northwest Mounted Police uniform Clive was considered very handsome by every female in Bordertown regardless of her age. The Mountie was known for following all Mountie or Canadian rules and regulations. He stuck to the very letter of the law. But on being transferred to the little outpost of Bordertown he had quickly exchanged the small round, red Mountie hat for the traditional felt hat most Western men wore. Clive had not been thrilled when he had been sent to Bordertown. It was certainly not the best outpost a Mountie could want. But being a Mountie he had accepted the transfer, then had learned to like the town as much as Jack and Marie had. The fact that Marie lived there had been a big help in his wanting to stay. He supposed he could have transferred out a long time ago, and had even had a few offers. But when it came right down to it he had always decided to stay.

Marie had moved over beside the Marshal and the black bundle of fur had jumped over to Craddock’s shoulder, and clung there. He reached up and handed the cat to the doctor.

“Here, Marie, You can have her.”

“On, no. We have the puppy you gave Lucy. One pet is quite enough. You keep her, Jack. You need a pet and she seems to like you very much.” She placed the cat on the Marshals desk, smiling when the small creature swatted at the leather bridle reins lying there then sat down to wash her face.

Bennett shook his head. “Jack, you’re always taking in strays, and you would take up with another black cat. Wasn’t one black cat enough?”

“Wrong, Clive. Spook wasn’t my cat, even though I was glad of his help during that gunfight. ‘Sides most of the time, he’s over at the saloon waitin’ for handouts from Dom, and anyone else he can get anything from.” Craddock grinned again. “What’s wrong, Woodpecker, you getting superstitious now?” he asked. “You think havin’ a black cat in the office can bring bad luck?”

“Of course not. Superstitions are for primitive, uneducated people like you, Craddock. In fact you probably believe in knocking on wood, crossing your fingers, spilling salt, and all kinds of bad luck, like black cats.”

The Marshal stood up. “Well, no. As a matter of fact I don’t believe in all those superstitious ideas. I ain’t that – that primitive.” He walked across the floor to the Mountie’s side of the office and stared at the calendar Clive had hanging on the wall. “If I don’t got my days mixed up, today is Friday. Isn’t it Marie?”

“Why, yes it is, Jack.” She wondered what he was getting at now.

Craddock continued, “And it’s also the 13th. That makes it Friday the 13th. That makes it double bad luck in my book. Friday the 13th and a black cat.” He shook his head looking very solemn and serious. He went back to the swivel chair at his desk and sat down. “I think with all this bad luck around I’ll just stay right here and not tempt any of them fates into causin’ me to have a day a bad luck.” He propped his feet on the desk and tipped back. He was still straight faced but laughed to himself at the look of irritation on Clive’s face.

“Well, I do have lots to do around here. I’ll be back later.” Clive pulled on his coat and picked up a leather mail pouch. “I’ll see you across the street to your store, Marie. Then I’ll deliver this mail.” He followed the lady doctor out and the little black cat curled up in Jacks lap to take a nap with him.

*****

Corporal Bennett walked across the slushy street to the general store with Marie, said hello to Sully Duffield and several other Bordertown residents in the store and headed for the stable.

 It was late fall and the weather was typical for that time of year. Bordertown was known for beautiful warm, green summers and long, cold, harsh winters because of where it sat on the 49th Parallel. Half of the town was in Canada and half was in Montana Territory. Ironically the line ran not only through the town but right through the center of the combination of jail and office that the two lawmen shared. It caused a lot of the disagreements between them to the point that they had painted a red line though the office, but neither of them could get the backing to build another office and jail in a better location. So they put up with it.

The rain and snow mixture continued to fall lightly. This winter was getting its first good start, Clive though, although there had been a light snow a few weeks before which had melted off quickly. This one looked like it might linger awhile.

“Where you headed, Corporal?” asked Archie Stanton as he entered the barn to see Bennett saddling his bay horse.

“Oh – just out for a ride and patrol along the border area and drop off some of this mail. Make sure folks are doing alright,” the Corporal answered. After checking the saddle cinch again he led the horse out of the barn and then mounted.

“When will you be back?” asked Archie. “This snow may be getting worse.”

Clive looked back over his shoulder at the stableman. “Around dark or so I would guess.”

He urged his horse into a trot and took the road north, then angled onto a trail leading northeast.

Corporal Bennett continued along his route. He hadn’t been over this section of his jurisdiction in quite some time and wanted to get it covered before the storm hit. If it did decide to storm, it might be a long time before he got a chance again.

Craddock made fun of his having to deliver the mail to the Canadian people who lived near Bordertown, but he enjoyed it. It could be easily done on his patrols and gave him a better chance to meet and understand the people he had to live with and protect.

As he traveled along the clouds lifted slightly and the snow let up. The sun sparkled on the new snow. The country was lovely with its white blanket and tall, green trees. Maybe the storm had passed them by this time. Bennett continued on stopping at several small farms and ranches and eating lunch with one family.

After eating, Bennett headed for old man Peters homestead. He rode up to the dilapidated, one-room cabin and called out. “Anyone home.” He didn’t get an answer.

Dismounting, he peaked in the half open door. There was no one inside. The stove was cold, there were dirty dishes on the table and scattered around the cabin were a lot of empty whiskey bottles and a few dirty clothes. Several filthy blankets hung off the edge of a broke down cot. Bennett stared in disgust. “This place is worse than Cradock’s.”

The Mountie backed out of the cabin and walked over to the shed that served as a barn. Inside, lying on a pile of old hay, he found Peters. The smell of whiskey overpowered the more common barn odors.

Against his wishes Bennett shook the skinny old man’s arm. Then shook him harder. “Wake up, Peters.” It did no good. There was no response. The man was passed out drunk. “Wake up.”

Bennett broke the ice off the top of a bucket of water sitting in a stall. He poured a trickle of the cold water onto Peters face. The old man roused slightly then passed out again. Bennett upended the bucket, dumping the rest of the water all over the drunken man.

Peters gasped and sat upright.

“What – who – who are you?” he stuttered. His blood shot eyes tried to focus on the Mountie. “Oh, Corporal Bennett. What ya doin’ here?”

“I have a letter for you from your daughter.”

Peters looked at him uncomprehendingly. “So what,” he finally said.

“Come on, Peters,” Bennett said. He pulled the old man to his feet and headed him into the house, and sat him in a chair, where the man sat holding his head. Must be a heck of a hangover, thought the Mountie.

 Knowing Peters would freeze in his wet clothes, he went out and split a couple of logs with the rusted ax he found and finally got a fire started in the woodstove. He went to the near by stream and filled a bucket. On returning he hunted around until he found a coffee pot and some coffee. He filled the pot, added the coffee and set it on to boil.

Peters had stumbled to the cot and was dozing on it. At least there was heat in the cabin and the old man’s clothes were almost dry.

Clive managed to get several cups of strong coffee down Peters and a couple down himself, although he would have preferred tea. He hoped he could leave without Peters dying from exposure. As he started to leave, he remembered the letter and retrieved it from the mail pouch.

“Peters, here’s your letter,” Clive said pressing it into the dirty hand.

“Don’t want it,” said the old man. “You keep it.”

“I’ve delivered it. Now it’s yours.” This is not part of my job, thought the Mountie.

Peters stared at the letter in his hand. He stood and walked to the stove. Before Clive could comprehend what he was doing, Peters opened the stove door and tossed in the letter. The flames consumed it almost instantly.

Before he could say something he might later regret, Bennett turned on his heel, mounted his horse and raced away from the cabin. Well, there were sometimes when his job had its bad points. Nothing was ever perfect. At least most people appreciated his delivering the mail.

A couple of miles on down the road the Corporal heard the sound of yelling up ahead.

“Get up ther. Heee – yahhh. Get up.”  A whip cracked the air.

Bennett pushed through a thick group of trees to find Jerry Monahan and his wife Carolyn. He quickly realized their wagon was buried in a gooey mud hole made up of snow, rain and slick, slimy mud. Carolyn stood to one side while Jerry urged the horses to pull the wagon out.

“Corporal Bennett,” cried Carolyn when she saw him. “Could you help us, please?”

“Of course,” said Bennett. Unlike Peters, he was sure the Monahan’s would appreciate his help. He rode around the wagon, looking the situation over.

“Do you think we should unload the wagon?” asked Jerry.

Bennett was surprised the young couple hadn’t already done it but only said, “I think it might be best.” He and Jerry quickly took out the heavy supplies that they had picked up in town.

“Carolyn,” called Bennett to the plump, but cute woman, “take the reins and guide the horses while Jerry and I push.”

Jerry was quick to disagree. “No, Carolyn. You must think of the baby.”

Carolyn laughed, “Jerry, don’t worry the baby’s not due for several months and I want to help.”

Bennett smiled to himself as he shrugged out of the heavy black winter coat he had worn over his red Mountie jacket and hung it on his saddlehorn. So that was why Carolyn seemed to be overweight – er – chubby each time he saw her. He knew the couple had been wanting children and was glad they soon would. To him they seemed the perfect pair.

Carolyn took the reins and stood to one side as the Corporal and Jerry each took up a position at the rear of the wagon.

“Now!” shouted Clive.

“Heeee – yaaaaa!” yelled Carolyn.

Up to their ankles in mud, the men had difficulty, but push they did, and the wagon began to slowly move. Then with a lunge the horses jerked it out of the mud and yuck. Bennett slipped and fell forward hitting his forehead on the corner of the tailgate and fell into the mud. Monahan managed to remain standing but ran to his wife when he noticed she had slipped and gone down.

“Carolyn? Are you all right? Are you hurt?”

 “No, Jerry. I’m fine,” she reassured her husband. “Just a little out of breath.” She let Jerry help her get up.

Monahan turned to the Corporal. “See,” he yelled, “she could have been hurt. I knew she shouldn’t have done it.”

Bennett slowly got to his feet. He swiped at the blood seeping down his face. His head throbbed and his vision was blurry.

“Are you all right, Corporal?” asked Carolyn ignoring her husbands concern for herself.

“He can take care of himself,” said Monahan, taking her arm and pulling her toward the wagon. “Get in,” he demanded.

“I’m all right, Mrs. Monahan. It’s nothing,” said Clive to the woman. He knew she was concerned but didn’t want to upset Jerry any more than he already was. He climbed onto his horse. Let Jerry Monahan reload his supplies himself, he thought as he rode across the stream and on down the road for Bordertown. He looked down and realized his red Mountie coat was covered with mud. He’d never get it clean again, he thought.

“Thank you, for your help, Corporal,” called Carolyn after him.

Chilled now, Clive pulled the heavier black coat back on. As he rode along he did not feel any better as he had expected he would, but began to feel worse. He was dizzy and his vision was becoming more blurry. He was soon seeing double. His horse developed two heads and four ears. He gave up guiding the animal. It was all he could do to hang onto the saddlehorn and stay upright. He closed his eyes trying to block out the throbbing pain. He would have to rely on the horse to find his way back to Bordertown.

The trail took a turn and dipped down. Clive, with his eyes shut, was unprepared. His hold on the saddlehorn slipped, and he pitched foreword to slide off the horse, hitting the ground with a hard thud. He felt his arm hit a rock and a bone snapped. Sharp pain vibrated throughout his whole body just before everything when black.

The big bay horse looked at his fallen rider. It wasn’t sure what to do. He nosed the Mountie and whickered softly as he waited for Clive to get up and remount, but Clive didn’t stir. The horse nibbled at some dried grass for a few minutes. Then being careful not to step on the fallen reins he began to head on down the trail. He knew where the warm barn and feed were even if his rider didn’t seem to care.

*****

It was early afternoon and there was a lull in the customers. Marie walked out onto the steps in front of her general store. It had turned into a nice day after all. The rain had stopped and the sun was out. No sign of the snowstorm now. She decided it was too nice a day to stay inside. “Sally, will you be all right here for a couple of hours? I would like to ride out to the Baxter farm and check on the children. They all had colds last week.”

“I don’t see why not,” answered Sally. “It doesn’t look like we’re going to have many customers today. I’ll just finish stocking the shelves with the new things we got in yesterday.”

“I will go and change and get my horse. I should be back before dark,” Marie called back as she left to walk to her home.

“Marie,” said Sally, causing the doctor to turn back to listen to her friend. “you should tell the Marshal or Corporal Bennett. Maybe one of them will go with you.

“Clive left earlier and Jack said he wasn’t doing anything today. I won’t bother them. Besides I think I’d like to go alone for once.”

“Well, you be careful.” Sally didn’t say it but thought maybe Marie might be hoping to run into Clive somewhere on the trail.

Marie changed to a long, heavy, brown wool riding shirt, with a warm, flannel shirt over the cotton longjohns she wore, as did most people planning a ride in cold weather. She then pulled on a heavy top coat, added a scare around her neck, and her hat. It seemed like a bit of over doing it at the moment but she knew just how fast it could turn deadly cold if she didn’t get back by dark or the storm did decide to descend on them after all.

She did not see Archie so she saddled her horse herself and rode out. It was something she was used to doing and enjoyed very much. Although she had to admit to herself that she had fibbed at bit to Sally. She really wouldn’t have minded if Clive or Jack had been around to go with her. But Clive was already gone and she wasn’t about to go and ask Jack after what he had said earlier. Besides she really could use some time to herself.

The pristine snow made Marie think of a painting. It was too bad more people couldn’t enjoy the beauty of a day like this. Many people were afraid to get out in the cool weather. Others would never be able to see the beauty she saw in this wonderful country that had become her home. She urged her mare into a trot and then to a slow canter. They both were ready for the faster pace.

After several miles Marie slowed her horse, not wanting her to get too sweaty and tired in the cold. She had plenty of time. The silence was as wonderful as the land. There was the soft thump – thump of the mares’ hooves and the creak of the saddle leather but almost no other sound could be heard. There was not even a whisper of wind in the trees. The trail wondered under some trees and Marie was startled when an overloaded tree branch showered snow down her collar.

She had heard Jack and Clive talk of being out all alone and feeling like the only person left in the world. She realized this was one of those times, but of course that could never really happen. The spell was broken when a horse nickered up ahead. It sounded very loud and lonely in the stillness. Marie’s horse stopped of her own accord and answered the other.

Marie waited to see who it was that might be watching her. She had a sudden thought that maybe she should have asked the Marshal to come with her. Watching where her horse was looking Marie saw the head of another horse appear and then saw the complete horse come out of a grove of trees. The two horses greeted each other as friends and Marie recognized the other one was Corporal Bennett’s bay.

“Clive, are you here?” called Marie, but the silence of the woods had returned.

“Clive!” There was only the stomp of a horse. Marie began to get worried. She knew Clive was a good rider and wouldn’t have allowed his horse to get away with out good reason. Tying the reins of the bay to her saddlehorn Marie rode a quick circle around the area. She could find nothing. She wasn’t very good at tracking but in the new snow it was easy to tell nothing had been through here. She could see her tracks and the tracks of the Corporal’s horse but there was nothing else.

Returning to where she had started the doctor knew she had to make a decision. Her first thought was to go back to Bordertown and get the Marshal. NO. She would at least follow the tracks for a little way. The Mountie might be fairly close. He might be just out of earshot. He was probably walking in the snow, cold and cursing a normally gentle horse that for a reason only a horse could explain had dumped him and headed for town alone. Marie was aware that it did happen now and then. Even her horse had done it to her once.

*****

Clive Bennett rolled over, got a mouth full of snow and spit it out. The first thing he realized was how cold he was. Then he became aware of how much he hurt. He ached all over. From the top of his head all the way down to his toes, but mostly it was the sharp, agonizing pain in his arm that caused him the most concern.

He tried to move again but was so stiff with cold he couldn’t. Then he heard a noise and stopped trying. He had heard a low growling sound, followed by what felt like a puff of warm air and the smell of the breath of an animal. His horse was his first thought. No, it didn’t smell like a horse and horses didn’t growl. But Craddock’s cat growled like this, only not so loud.

He slitted his eyes open, and looked into the largest pair of yellow cat eyes he had ever seen. Gradually the big, tawny head of the mountain lion came into focus. He stared at the big cat and the cat stared back at him. Well at least it wasn’t a bear, he thought to himself. A bear would have already been chewing on him. He could feel his gun digging into his side where he lay on it. If the cat did decide to attach, Clive knew he would never get the gun out and fire it in time.

From what he could remember the big cats were like their small cousins. Filled with feline curiosity, but willing to avoid trouble when ever possible. Tensing his muscles, Bennett tried to jump to his feet and yell at the wild cat. All he managed to do was rise to his knees and crock out a whisper of “Hey! Cat! Get!” But that was all that was needed. The mountain lion disappeared so fast Clive was left wondering if he had really been there or if he had been imagining it. The tracks in the snow chased away any doubt in his mind. That cat was probably more scared than he was.

Taking a deep breath the Mountie tried to quit shaking. He wasn’t scared of the lion, he told himself. Not now. But he was scared of being out in the cold with a broken arm, no horse, and a long ways from Bordertown. It was even a long ways to the nearest farmhouse.

Working his way out of his big black overcoat and then out of the muddy red Mountie coat, Bennett inspected his arm. It was a simple break on his left arm and just above his wrist. He could feel the broken bone but it had not cut through the skin. Still it was extremely painful.

Forcing his legs to stand he stumbled a few feet to a tree. Working with one hand was difficult but he managed to break off some small branches and trim them with his knife. After many minutes of trying he got his bandana wrapped around his arm, a branch on each side, his arm protected from the rough branches by the sleeve of his undershirt.

After pulling on the red Mountie coat and his heavier black coat, Bennett made it back onto his feet and began walking, cradling his broken arm with his good right arm. He considered the possibilities in his mind. There weren’t many. He could try and return the way he had come and walk to a cabin or he could continue on toward Bordertown. It seemed to him the distance might be about the same which every way he went.

Looking down he saw horse tracks. His horse was headed toward Bordertown. The thought came to him that maybe the horse wasn’t that far in front of him. Possibly it might stop and graze on the way back to the barn. He began following the tracks. Hopefully it would let him walk up to it, if he did catch up with it.

Trudging along through the six inches of snow the silence was over powering. Corporal Bennett would have given anything for the sound of a human voice, or the whinny of his saddle horse. The sun wasn’t as bright as it had been, and the clouds were floating in again, darkening the sky. It was mid-afternoon and sunset came early to the winter of the border country. The dark towering trees began to close in on him. Would he be able to continue on? The snow would lighten the dark making it so he could find his way through the night. But the night would be much colder and he was cold now. Maybe it would be best to try and find shelter of some kind and spend the night. He checked his pocket. Yes he still had his matches wrapped in oiled cloth in a leather bag. He could start a fire. If he could find some dry wood.

The clouds quickly hid the sun and big, fat snowflakes began to drift down around him. The wind began to moan softly through the trees. Clive tried to move faster. Almost running. The movement made his head and arm ach worse and he began to sweat.

“Stop that. Slow down,” he said out loud to himself. He knew if he sweated in the cold the sweat would turn to ice and he would freeze in a hurry.

The horse tracks lead him on. He looked for shelter, a windfall in the trees, a jumble of rocks, anything that would be better than being in the open.

His vision was getting fuzzy again. Maybe it was his head injury; maybe it was just from trying to see through the snowflakes. He stumbled on.

Something caught at his boots, throwing him to the ground, causing him to cry out when his left arm bumped the ground. He lay there thinking he would rest for just a minute. His eyes closed. His last thought before sleep claimed him was about how cold he was.

*****

Jack Craddock threw the pencil across his disk in disgust. The black kitten swatted it onto the floor. It was beyond him how Bennett could like doing paper work and reports. He had spent several long hours trying to catch up but had made little progress. Most of it was beyond his reading ability. He vowed to take up the reading lessons that Marie was always insisting he do with her. She had managed to teach him some and more couldn’t hurt. At least he got to be with her, without Clive, when she was teaching him.

The door opened and he looked up to see Sally Duffield. “Marshal, it’s getting late and Marie hasn’t returned yet.”

”Hasn’t returned? Where did she go?” asked the Marshal, glad for a distraction from his papers.

“She didn’t tell you, did she? Even though I told her too. Marie decided to ride out to the Baxter farm this afternoon. She was supposed to be back by dark.”

“Why didn’t she tell me she was going?” Craddock stood up, walked to the door and looked out. He didn’t like the thought of Marie being out in weather this bad.

“She said she didn’t want to bother you,” said Sally. “She should have been back by now, Marshal. I locked up the store, and went to see if she was home yet, and she wasn’t.  I’m starting to get worried about her. And so is Lucy.”

“Now don’t go frettin’ none, Sally. I’ll go see what I can find out. She might a just decided to spent the night out there, at the Baxter’s.”

“It looks like it’s going to storm,” complained Sally looking at the dark sky and the snow that was starting to fall again.

“Well, Bennett’s overdue, too. So I’ll just take a ride out that way. I’ll probably find them comin’ in together. Why don’t you go set a spell with Lucy and tell her I’ll take care of things”

Craddock put on his heavy gray corduroy coat, picked up his saddlebags and rifle and headed for the stable to get his horse.

*****

At first the tracks had been easy to follow but the sky had darkened again and the wind began to whip snowflakes into Marie’s face. The drifting snow was filling the tracks quickly as Marie continued on, calling out frequently, but the wind carried her words away and she couldn’t be sure any one would hear them. Full dark was rapidly approaching when both horses stopped and refused to go on.

“I suppose your right,” Marie said talking to the horses. “It is almost dark. We had better go back to town and get Jack to help. He will know more about what to do than I do.”

As Marie turned her chestnut horse Clive’s bay refused to follow. Marie pulled harder on the reins, causing the horse to snort and shake his head. With a lunge he jerked free. He stopped a few feet away, off the side of the trail, and nosed something on the ground.

In the semi dark it looked like a log with a partial covering of snow. What is that, thought Marie as she urged her chestnut closer? Now she could see it was a body. But who? She jumped from her horse and ran to the body. Worried that she had been to late for who ever it was she still took the time to slowly and gently ease the body over. She didn’t want to do more damage if he was alive and injured. Now that he was turned over she could see the red Mountie coat. “Clive!”

Quickly she searched for the pulse point in his neck. The Mountie was very cold to the touch but Marie found he still had a strong, steady pulse. There were blood streaks on his face and a make shift splint on his arm but Marie could find nothing more serious. “Clive! Clive! Please, you have to wake up and help me. We have to get on the horses and get back to Bordertown. There is no way I can get you on your horse by myself.” As she talked to him Clive slowly regained consciousness.

“Marie. Where are we?” He struggled to set up.

“You’re lying in the snow and there is a storm coming. Please get up and get on your horse. I do not think you are too seriously injured. Unless there is something I didn’t find. Clive, what happened? How did you get hurt?”

With a rush the Corporal remembered everything. The whole miserable day. The drunken Peters. The Monahans and their mud mired wagon. Hitting his head and then falling off his horse and breaking his arm. The mountain lion. And he was still a long ways from town, hot food and a warm bed.

With Marie’s help he finally sat up. Well, maybe the day wasn’t all bad. Marie had found him and she did have the horses. With a little more effort Clive made it to his feet. “What are you doing here, Marie?”

“I was going out to the Baxter farm to check on the children who had colds but I found your horse or he found me and I followed his tracks and found you.”

“I’m certainly glad you did.” Clive leaned against his bay for a moment then taking a deep breath he set his left foot in the stirrup and swung into the saddle. It didn’t do his arm any good as it started throbbing even worse that it already was.

Marie quickly mounted her mare and they started for town. “How did you get hurt, Clive?” she asked again.

Giving her a short version of the complete story he told her about the Monahan’s wagon and then about falling off his horse. It certainly wasn’t something he was proud of. He realized when Jack heard about it he would never let him live it down.

As they rode, the light of evening disappeared and full darkness set in. The wind blew harder and harder, while the snow became so thick it was like trying to look through a white blanket. It clung to everything and the cold wind would blow it away only for it to start clinging to everything again, including the man, woman, and horses trying to make their way through it. The storm was trying to become a blizzard.

Bennett turned to Marie and shouted at her to be heard over the howl of the wind. “I think we had better find some shelter. We’re still a long ways from town, or at least I think we are. I hate to admit it but I am not real sure exactly where we might be. And I suspect this storm is going to get worse before it gets better.”

Marie could barely see the man right next to her, and it was difficult to make out his words over the wind. She had been out in bad weather before, but this kind of storm was more than she had bargained for.

Bennett reached out and took hold of her hand encouragingly. “If we are where I hope we are there is a cave nearby. We’ll try to get to it and spend the night there. Stay close to me so we don’t get separated.” He hoped there was a cave nearby, but he wasn’t real sure. It had to be or they might not survive the night. He remembered Craddock showing him a cave last summer. They had stopped long enough to brew a quick cup of coffee and Craddock had insisted they take the time to put a stack of wood in the cave, after they had used most of what was already there. The Marshal was always doing things like that. Pointing out good places to camp and caching wood for future use while he complained about how wet this country was. Most of the time it irritated the heck out of Clive but this time he was glad Jack had showed him the cave and they had put more wood in it. Bennett knew it was a good idea and had been known to due it himself a few times, although only when Jack wasn’t with him to know about it.

Now where was that cave?

They went on. Bennett following only his instincts. They had turned off the main road and the horses were having a rough time. There were logs and rocks and the wind was making snowdrifts. But they had to keep going on. For many long minutes they went on and on. It had not been far but seemed like forever to Marie when her horse stopped because Clive’s did.

Clive appeared abruptly out of the snow beside her, and helped her almost fall off her mare. Together they stumbled into the black void behind a stand of spruce trees.

*****

Marshal Craddock hadn’t ridden far when he picked up Marie’s tracks or what he thought were the doctors. This was the direction she would have come and someone had ridden this way. But now the tracks were becoming difficult to find. They were wind blown and filled with snow and it was hard to find what remained of the tracks. The sun had disappeared and the wind whipped the whirling snow harder. It stung his eyes and clung to his face and mustaches as well as his hat and clothes.

In seconds the tracks he had seen were obliterated by the storm. Why hadn’t Marie told him she was leaving? Why hadn’t Sally come and told him Marie was gone earlier?

He sat his horse undecided about what to do. He could ride on to the Baxter farm and see if Marie was there but if she was somewhere along the way he might miss her completely. In this kind of a storm even he might get turned around. Surely she had stayed at the farm. And as for the Mountie, well Clive knew how to find shelter or else he was holed up at a farm somewhere, too.

Craddock decided there was no since in maybe getting himself lost in the storm, also. He turned back toward town. He would wait till morning then head out again. By the time he reached the barn the wind was sending its icy fingers all the way through his yellow slicker, heavy coat and woolen shirt. Even his leather leggings didn’t keep the numbing cold out. He stabled his palomino, making sure it had fresh water and hay and added some oats. He wanted the horse in good shape when the storm ended. They would have some hard riding to do.

Returning to the office, Craddock almost tripped as the small ball of black fur darted between his feet when he opened the door. The cat wanted in out of the snowstorm. “Get out of the way,” he grumbled to the kitten.

The Marshal was worried about Marie and even though he didn’t want to admit it, even to himself, he was worried about Bennett, too. Both should have been back long before now. The more he worried, the more he was sure something had happened. He paced the floor. Checked his saddlebags, making sure he had everything he might need when he rode out again. And paced the floor some more. He wiped down his guns, making sure they weren’t damp from when he had been out. And paced some more.

Knowing he needed to be rested, Jack tried sleeping on the hard bunk in one of the cells. He tossed and turned, then gave up. He thought of his own cabin and much more comfortable bed. It was close but meant going out in the storm again, and he would have to start a fire in the stove when he got there. He already had this fire going. He made coffee and chewed on a piece of jerky, giving some to the kitten when she wouldn’t quite pestering him. He thought of the Mounties’ bed in the next room, but it was Clive’s bed, not his. He felt a bit guilty that he might be in a warm building and at least had a hard bed when Marie and maybe Clive, too, might be caught out in the storm.

Finally he dozed in his chair, feet propped up on his desk, the cat purring as it curled up in the crook of his arm, while the storm raged outside.

*****

For several minutes Marie and Clive could do nothing but cling to each other as they tried to recover from being out in the storm. Bennett was exhausted. His head had resumed aching and his arm had never let up the constant throbbing. He could feel each heart beat down through his arm all the way to the tips of his fingers. By himself he knew he might have given up but for Marie’s sake he knew he had to keep trying.

Marie was the first to speak. “We need a fire. Do you think we can find any dry wood?”

“There should be some back there,” he pointed into the dark. The thought hit him, what if someone else had found the wood, and used it, not bothering to replace it. He pulled the leather bag from his coat pocket. Struggling one-handed he tried to get out a match. Marie took the pouch from him, got a match and struck it against the rock wall. The dark was gone and they briefly saw the stacked wood. Working together they moved some to the front where they could see enough to lay a small fire. It took Marie three of the precious matches before she could get a sliver of damp kindling to catch and burn long enough to start the rest of the wood. The fire was small but a most welcome sight.

They sat on the floor of the cave, close together, and let the heat seep into them driving out the cold. Finally Bennett roused to the occasional soft snort or nicker of the two cold, hungry horses. There was nothing to feed them but maybe he could get him inside. He looked up. No, the ceiling was to low. He could barely stand erect himself. With his one good arm and Marie’s help they unsaddled the horses and pulled the saddles, blankets, and their gear inside the cave. The Mountie led the horses a little deeper into the jumble of large boulders. He tied them tightly to some evergreens where the wind was lessened by the trees and rocks. It would have to do for the night.

Marie had spread out the saddles and blankets and found the emergency stock of tea and jerky Clive always carried in his saddlebags. She put a can of snow over the fire to melt so she could make some tea.

Neither had spoken in several minutes. The effort seemed like too much trouble while they were working to get settled in for the night. Returning to the cave, Bennett collapsed near his saddle and leaned on it. Now that they had shelter and a fire and the horses would be all right he allowed himself to relax a little, or as much as his broken arm would let him. He told himself the storm would have played itself out by morning and they could return to Bordertown then. He closed his eyes and tried to rest, but there was no way.

The snow melted in the small can and Marie added tea leaves to the water. The aroma filled the small cave. After allowing it to brew for a few minutes Marie poured a tin cup full and took several sips. She leaned over and touched Clive on the shoulder. “Here, drink some of this.”

“What?” He knew he wasn’t thinking straight.

“I made some tea. Try some.”

He drank some of the hot tea and passed the cup back to her. If his arm hadn’t hurt so much he might feel half human again he decided.

Marie pulled her medical bag to her and began taking out supplies. Now that she was warm and could think correctly she became a doctor again. “Let me see your arm,” she said.

“It can wait until tomorrow,” said Clive. He didn’t think he could handle her doing any medical care right then.

“Do not even think of arguing with me, Clive Bennett. I am going to set your arm, now. You will feel better after it is done.”

“Marie, it is a simple break. The skins not ev –en – brok – en,” Clive’s words were stuttered with pain as Marie gently took hold of his broken arm.

“Uh – hun. Let me help you take off your coat and jacket.”

Bennett groaned and did as she asked.

Unwrapping the bandana, Marie removed the makeshift splints. “There is a lot of swelling. I think you had it tied to tight. I am going to cut the sleeve of your undershirt.” There was a ripping sound as the doctor used her scissors to cut open the tight shirtsleeve.

Clive’s face went dead white and he sucked in his breath sharply then took several deep breaths to fight the pain as Marie examined felt his swollen arm.

“There is the break. But it is not too bad.”

“I tried to tell you that,” complained Clive.

Marie smiled at him. “Who is the doctor here? You or me?”

Clive caught hold of her hand with his good one. And looked into her beautiful blue eyes. They were tired eyes now but still lovely as was the long blond, damp hair that straggled around her face having come unfastened from the way she had done it up early that morning. “You’re right, Marie; you are the doctor and this one is your call. Do what you have to.”

“All right,” said Marie pulling her hand free from his. Her breath had caught, and she had felt a lot warmer, even flushed at the way Clive held her hand and looked at her. She was sure it wasn’t just the look of an injured man needing care. She set her mind to the task at hand. “Hold very still now.”

Clive tensed. Marie took a firm hold of the injured arm at the wrist and elbow. She gave a sharp twist and jerk at the same time. Biting his tongue to hold back a scream from the gut-wrenching pain the Mountie sank back against his saddle. Tears leaked out of the corners of his tightly clenched-shut eyes. When he could catch his breath and talk again he commented, “Do you call that healing or torture.”

“You sound like Jack,” reproached Marie. She bandaged his arm and used the same branches for splints as he had used. They would have to do until they got back to Bordertown and she could get something better.

Clive tried to grin. “Are you comparing me to a rough, tough, obnoxious, crude —–.” He didn’t continue cutting down the Marshal at the look on Marie’s face. He was perturbed by her look. Did she care more for Craddock than he knew about or than she had ever even admitted to Jack? Even though she had almost made fun of him with her own comment.

“Jack is your friend, is he not?” she asked. “I am sure he is but the two of you seem to be constantly arguing lately. Why is that?”

“Yes,” he agreed, “he is my friend. I doubt if I’ve ever had a better one, except – maybe – you, Marie. But don’t tell him I said so,” he was quiet a moment. “I really can’t say why we have been arguing so much. Maybe it’s the weather. I don’t know. But now that you mention it I will try to think on it and maybe, just maybe we can slow down some of it. And I bet that right now, he’s sound asleep in his warm cabin, with a full belly, and has that cat with him.”

Marie giggled at the thought of Jack Craddock sleeping with his black kitten curled up with him. The smile left and she became more serious again. “But if we don’t show up in the morning do you think he will come looking for us?”

“Yes, he will. Because that is the kind of friend he is. He may joke and fool around but when there is trouble he’ll be right there to help.”

She made another cup of tea and insisted that Clive share it with her. It did taste good and helped to warm them. They chewed on some of the tough jerky. It wasn’t much of a meal but would get them through the night.

“Come here, Doctor,” commanded Bennett gruffly. Marie sat beside him and he put his good arm around her, pulling her close. He kissed her check with a light peck. “Thank you, Marie. I owe you my life. But now I think we need to get some rest. At least I know I do. And we can stay much warmer by being close together.”

Not resisting, Marie leaned against him. “Yes, it is much warmer this way.” Maybe to warm, she thought. Oh – o – o – why did she have to have so many of the same feeling for both of the two lawmen that were her good friends? It always seemed to her that she liked them both equally.

The Mountie knew he would have given anything to know that Marie cared for him more than just as doctor and patient, or even as friend to friend. To sit her holding her close was wonderful even if he did have a broken arm. But Clive decided now was not the time to talk of his feelings far her. When Marie leaned her head on his shoulder it felt so amazing but at the same time it felt so right, that he just didn’t want to break the spell that it seemed to create.

It was so good just to be held and cared for, thought Marie as she felt Clive lightly flex the muscles of the arm that held her. She had never really allowed herself to think of him as more that just a friend. Either Clive or Jack. Tonight she did. Nor could she resist when he leaned down and gently but determinedly kissed her for several long moment before settling down to get some sleep. It was a kiss she knew she would never be able to forget. Such a breathtaking kiss, here in a cave, in a snowstorm, with such a wonderful, handsome man. It was long after Clive slept that she was able to doze off.

Tired to the point of total exhaustion, the doctor and the Mountie slept in each others arms, under the pile of coats and saddle blankets while the small fire kept the storm at bay outside of the cave.

*****

Awaking to the touch of little cat feet on his face and soft meows, Jack wasn’t sure where he was at first. Memory returned and he realizing he had slept in the office, and that Clive and Marie hadn’t returned last night. He placed the cat on the floor and looked out the door. It was quiet with no wind and the snow was now just barely drifting down. The storm had departed, but had left a world of white outside the buildings of Bordertown. Heating his left over coffee and a can of beans, Jack shared a quick breakfast with the kitten.

 He first checked at Marie’s house and talked to Lucy who was becoming very concerned that Marie hadn’t returned. Archie was up and feeding horse when he reached the stable. He asked about Marie and Clive’s horses and was told they hadn’t come in yet. He quickly saddled his palomino. The horse snored and half bucked when he mounted and headed out the way he had gone the day before. “Save that energy,” he told the eager horse. “We could have a long day in front of us.”

As they went along he thought of various places a man might hole up to wait out a storm. There were several that he knew about. He planned to check out all of them if he had to. Then he remembered the cave. It was near by and not far off the regular road. He would go there first. He turned off the road and down a trail that he couldn’t see, but he knew was there. His palomino was having a hard time as it plowed through snow almost up to its belly. Jack was sure he was wasting his time. He should have gone straight on to the Baxter farm. Then he heard a wicker of another horse. Clive’s bay and Marie’s chestnut poked their heads out of the trees. Dismounting Craddock went to the cave and looked in.

“Bennett! – Marie!” he called loudly.

“Oh – oo, Jack, you found us,” cried Marie when she and Clive woke to find the Marshal standing in the entrance to the cave.

“Well, well. If you two don’t look all nice and comfy,” he said when he saw the pair still cuddled together.

Bennett sat up quickly when he realized he was still holding Marie to him. Then groaned as his arm reminded him not to move so fast. She pulled away from him, stood and went to give Jack a hug.

Craddock was glad to find his two friends safe but had to badger Bennett some more as he helped the Mountie saddle his and Marie’s horses. He chuckled as he said, “Might a known you’d find some way to spend the night with Marie. Even if you had to break your arm and get caught in a storm to do it.”

Clive turned abruptly on the Marshal catching his arm in the hard grasp of his good hand. Glaring at him he said in a low voice. “Craddock, regardless of what you might think of me, don’t ever say or think disrespectful things of Marie again. “

Surprised at Bennett’s tight-lipped look and unexpected anger, Jack backed up, pulling his arm away from the Mountie. Normally he would have gotten mad, too, but something about Clive stopped him. “Hold on, Bennett, don’t go getting’ your dander up. I didn’t mean it that way. I admire and respect Marie more than anyone else I know of. I was just funnin’ you a little. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. Forget I ever say anything. I already have.”

He returned to saddling Marie’s mare not wanting either Marie or Clive to see the way he felt. He knew Clive had always hoped Marie would one day allow the memory of her husband to fade and realize how the Mountie felt about her. Maybe that time had come. Jack did admire Marie. More than even he wanted to admit. He had always known it was too much to consider that she would care for him more than Clive. He was closer to her age, and a lot better looking. And educated, thought Jack. Yeah, a lot better educated. As long as she had treated them the same he could hope but now as he covertly watched the two blond heads together as they gathered their gear, his heart fell. But he knew he would never deny his two best friends whatever they wanted no matter how he felt.

Craddock put on his rough, tough lawman face as he helped Marie mount up. “Come on, let’s get on home,” he said.

*****

Marie sensed the strain between her friends as they made their way back to Bordertown. She wondered why. Could she be the reason for it? She was sure she had been at other times. She didn’t like it and tried to find a way to relieve the situation. She laughingly told the Marshal of how she had rescued the injured Mountie, making it seem more of a lark than the dangerous predicament it had been.

As they rode on through the fresh snow both men did seem to relax again. They frequently had arguments but continued to be good friends and all three of them hoped it would be that way again.

Entering the quiet, little town covered in the new fallen snow Marie decided it looked like the few carefully painted and decorated Christmas cards she had seen. It made Bordertown look like a beautiful European village instead of the rough, frontier town it was. The new snow sparkled and flashed almost blinding in its brilliance. It covered everything like white icing on a cake. Later on it would pack down and turn to ice or mud. Winter would bring more, much more to cause the community to be almost snowbound until spring. Before spring came she knew everyone would hate the wet, cold stuff. But right now the snow was to be enjoyed. Children and dogs played and adults watched, sometimes joining in.

Lucy was in front of Marie’s house making a snowman while Willie made a snow fort. Seeing the three riders Willie made another snowball and threw it at the Marshal. Acting surprised, Jack dismounted and quickly sent several snowballs sailing threw the air as Willie ducked behind his fort.

“Marie? Are you all right? I was so worried. What happened?” questioned Lucy as she ran up to them.

“Of course I am all right,” said Marie. “Did you think I would not be. It is Clive who is injured. But he will be well soon.” She dismounted and gave the girl a hug.

Lucy picked up the black kitten that was winding itself around her feet. “Look what I found. Isn’t she cute? She was mewing at the back door this morning. Do you know who she belongs to?” She cuddled the kitten to her and it began to purr.

“That’s Craddock’s cat,” said Bennett, glaring at the cat, who promptly hissed at him.

“You know, Bennett. If you’d try to like her, she might learn to like you,” said Jack as he reached out and petted the cat. “Now, now, Kitty. I won’t let the big, bad Mountie hurt you.”

A gangling puppy ran up with Willie who had come out of the fort. The Marshal saw his chance. “See she even likes ol’ Lucky here,” he said indicating the pup. “Why don’t you keep her, Lucy, if you want to?”

“Oh, could I?” asked the girl, then she looked at Marie. “I can’t,” she said sadly. “Marie said only one pet when you gave me Lucky.”

“Well, now, two pets are better than one. They can be company for each other when you have to go to school or do your chores.” Looking at Lucy, who was hugging the purring kitten to her, then at Marie, he added, “All little girls need a kitten. Big girls, too. Don’t they, Marie?”

Marie knew she was not about to win this argument with the persuasive Marshal, and the child she had taken in to raise that she loved so much. “All right, I give up. You may keep the kitten as long as she does not cause any problems. And Jack, you must help her take care of her dog and cat.” She had to get back at Jack some way.

“I’ll help, too,” chimed in Willie as he petted the cat and then the dog. “What are you going to name her, Lucy?”

“Pest,” Clive quickly said with a grin at the delighted girl and boy. He was pleased that Marie was letting Lucy keep the kitten. And, also, that it would be out of the office.

“Come, Clive,” said Marie to her patient. “Come into the house. I need to re-bandage your arm. Lucy, please, would you help me start some breakfast as we are all very hungry.”

“Willie, lets you and me get these horses put away,” said Jack gathering up the reins of all three horses and heading for the barn. He smiled as Willie and Lucky ran ahead of him. It might turn out to be a halfway decent day after all, he thought.

***The End***

 

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