Word Count: 2150
When he eventually reached the little pine wood at the foot of what his brother Joe had named Mount Welcome many moons ago, four little words managed to warm up his brain that had been frozen on the word gelid somewhere close to Carson City. He had started to entertain himself with looking for synonyms for cold shortly after he’d left Silver Springs (going through the likes of chilly, freezing, frosty, bleak, frigid, and icy, with a short and surprising sashay to parky, which Adam was sure he’d only ever heard used by his six-year-old son Henry), but then his increasingly sluggish mind got stuck without him even noticing it. Now the endless rhythmical rendition of gelid, gelid, gelid was replaced by only two more hours, which didn’t harmonise as well as the first with the hoofbeats and therefore instantly jolted him out of the meter.
Adam rotated his shoulders and stretched his back this way and that to work out some kinks, then bent forward and patted his horse’s neck, muttering, “Only two more hours, boy, then we’re home!” As he sat up something in the small of his back clenched up, and some more stretching was needed to bring relief of the sudden stiffness.
Only two more hours. Only. What a euphemism. The pure and unadorned truth was that he had two more hours on horseback, aggravating his already sore behind and aching back even more, two more hours of stinging cold creeping slowly through all layers of winter clothing (Adam’s never really sleeping academic vein provided him with parkyness as a synonym for cold, and he made a note to later consult Henry and ask if there even was such a word), two more hours of wondering if his toes had indeed turned into icicles or if it only felt like that, two more hours of uncaringly falling snowflakes biting mercilessly into every exposed inch of his skin.
He pulled his scarf further up his face, to just shortly beneath his eyes, and revelled in the sensation of warmth created by his breath. It was a short respite, for soon he couldn’t stand the stale air collecting under the wool anymore and had to expose his nose again.
Manoeuvring his mount on the narrow path through the pine grove, Adam rolled his eyes at the world at large as represented by a technically innocent pine close by and puffed a wool-muffled but still definitely annoyed “oh, well!”, then had to grin and added an “oh, very well!” in a familiar, pronounced British accent. It raised his spirits, albeit only briefly.
The simple, unambiguous truth was: Adam hated the snow. The snow and the cold. The older he got, the more he hated it. He couldn’t even remember a time he didn’t hate it, even though he was certain there had been one. Perhaps a short period after back then when snow had meant little game and long nights of hiding the shivers of cold from Pa in plain prairie schooners or humble boarding houses but before Adam had been old enough to do ranch hand’s work. But if that ever had been the case, it had been long ago, anyway. Now all he felt was the cold burrowing deep into his bones and joints, numbing his fingers and toes. It was beyond pitiful.
A lot of people seemed to delight in the snow, in particular once it had ceased to fall and settled firmly on the ground, reflecting the sunlight. “See how it sparkles, Adam? Like diamonds. Crystallised cold, frozen sunlight, a billion stars all piled up…isn’t that wonderful?” No, it wasn’t. It might be wonderful for someone who only looked at it, for someone who wasn’t used to being snowed in for weeks and months at a time every year, for someone who didn’t work a ranch or any other job that required being outside for the better part of the day. It might be wonderful for someone whose winter attire consisted of heavy, fashionable woollen coats and furs and dainty calfskin boots with hundreds of tiny buttons and hooks lining up slim ankles, looking elegant and…alluring (Adam felt a familiar tug deep in his belly, Oh Lord, two more hours, and then…) but that didn’t provide any notable warmth. Not that they needed to. They were sufficient enough for short strolls on Virginia City’s sidewalks (“pavements,” provided a British voice in his brain), and on the coach ride to and back there they’d be hidden under fur blankets anyway.
Yes, swaddled in wools and furs, people might appreciate glistening snow and freezing breathing air. It was almost comprehensible, but Adam was not one of those people. For him, snow meant being cold, wet, and miserable.
If he was completely honest, Adam had to admit that there were a lot of weather conditions he did not view favourably. Rain, for example was just as bad as snow. Perhaps even worse. It tended to seep even quicker through coats and trousers, making the clothes cling to his skin and bringing on a chill that was almost as bad as that of frost and ice. But while he was still debating with himself which he liked less, rain or snow, a small avalanche of frosty white broke free from a tree crown and landed with cruel precision on the one unprotected spot at the back of his neck where his scarf had come loose—which tipped the scales instantly and irrevocably towards the rain’s frozen brother.
And suddenly Adam was inundated with visions of happy days of frolicking in warm summer rains, and he wondered how he could ever have doubted his unswerving preference for a healthy downpour.
“Oh, yes, let’s talk about that again when you come home from a long day riding fences during a summer storm,” the British voice in his head piped up again. As usual, it was true.
He sighed. At least the snow had finally stopped falling. The sky was still grey with the promise of an early dusk—which made it even more urgent to hurry than Adam’s general…crankiness.
“Let’s try and get over with this nonsense, won’t we?” Adam encouraged his horse as he tapped his spurs into its side, twice.
Sport sped up into a spirited canter, clearly picking up on his rider’s disposition. Or perhaps he’d recognised the group of boulders to the left, too, and knew that after the next bend in the road they’d spot the light from the porch lantern. Home.
When the light eventually appeared in the distance, Sport needed no command to strike up an even faster pace. He was sure footed even in the snow, visibility was still good, and he always seemed to long for home as much as Adam did.
In the end, they reached home before the estimated two hours were over. Adam made it a short affair to settle Sport down, and as he left the barn, leaving behind a happily oat-munching horse, night hadn’t fallen yet.
He stretched his arms wide, straightened his back until he heard a reassuring crack, inhaled deeply, and closed his eyes for a moment, revelling in being home at last.
“Welcome home,” he heard, and it was that British voice, and there was a smile in it, and it was all he needed to open his eyes again.
Juliet stood on the front porch, cloaked in her thick wool coat, mittens on her hands and her long, light blue scarf wound around her neck. Her smile was bright, her eyes sparkling—and then there was alarm in her face, she opened her mouth, “Adam, watch—” and then a snowball hit him square in the chest.
“What in tar—” and then another snowball found its target, this time his face.
Wiping snow out of his eyes, he shot Juliet a short glance, and saw her trying and failing to suppress her laughter.
When a third projectile hit him, he turned around scanning the yard for the culprit and soon spotted the tip of a red bonnet. Henry’s. His son apparently was crouched behind a woodpile, with a line of ready-made snowballs sitting on the log before him.
“Is this a way to welcome your father?” Adam growled. “In my time, one respected his elders—” and sure enough, the next snowball interrupted his tirade.
And giggling. Both from the woodpile and the porch. Like mother like son.
“Really,” he went on with his lecture, slowly approaching the woodpile, “I wonder where in your education I went wrong, making you think this was an appropriate way to treat your father. But perhaps, since you think this is a commonly accepted way to…,” he picked up a handful of loose snow, “…behave in the company of people who are much sneakier than you’d ever thought…,” pulled Henry out from behind the pile, and rubbed the snow into the little boy’s face.
Spluttering and shrieking, Henry wriggled himself out of his father’s hold, grabbed a snowball from his stockpile and hurled it at Adam.
“Take that, villain,” he cried. “The Black Knight will not allow intruders in this castle! Lo and behold!”
Adam managed to block the Black Knight from retreating behind the shelter of his log pile castle again, so the battle which followed was fought on open ground. During the altercation more snow was moved than an average avalanche would have accomplished, a huge amount of it ending in both Henry’s and Adam’s necklines.
They had to stop the fight when dusk stole the last glimpse of daylight, and since they both had equally wet clothes and chattering teeth by then, they called it a draw.
“For now,” Henry said as they were ushered inside by Juliet. “We gonna settle this tomorrow, once and for all.”
Adam, shedding his soaked coat and wrapping himself in a blanket that had been warmed by the fireplace, while Juliet stripped their son, put him in his nightshirt and dressing gown and swathed him in another warmed blanket, nodded gravely. “If you insist. But be certain, I’ll take no prisoners.”
“I swear, never did two parties that just had declared war look more complacent, “Juliet laughed. “Now get settled, I have hot chocolate for the warriors. With cinnamon,” she handed Henry, who’d sat down at the dining table, one mug, “and with brandy,” she gave Adam the other.
He retreated to his comfy blue chair, the only thing he’d taken from the Ponderosa to his own new house, gladly noticing that baby Florence was napping in the cradle beside it. Groaning, he pulled his feet out of his wet boots and replaced his wet socks with the thick, woollen ones someone—he raised his mug to Juliet—had laid out there for him. Pulling the blanket tighter around himself, he reached for the book that had also been placed within easy range, but thought better of it.
He spent the next hour or so sipping his brandy-laced chocolate, nudging the cradle into motion with his foot every now and then, smiling when that elicited a happy gurgling from within, and watching Henry and Juliet cutting out stars and snowflakes from paper until Juliet said, “Dinner,” and went to the kitchen to see if Mrs. Coleman needed any help.
Henry cleared the debris from the craftwork off the table, then picked up one of his and brought it to Adam for inspection. It was a delicate thing, a small snowflake made of intricately folded and cut paper, hanging on a string of white yarn.
“It’s pretty, ainnit, Papa?”
“Isn’t it,” he corrected automatically. “But yes, it is. Very pretty.”
“It looks almost like the real ones, doesn’t it?” Henry looked out of the window behind Adam, as if to check the truth of his statement, and his eyes grew wide. There was stunned silence for a moment, then, “Oh…look!”
As he turned around in his chair, Adam saw what charmed his boy so. The snow had started falling again, and right in front of the window it was illuminated by the porch light. The flakes were thick and heavy, and bore distinct resemblance to Henry’s paper specimen.
“They are all different, Mrs. Myers said,” Henry marvelled. “But they are all pretty, aren’t they?”
“They look like falling stars in that light.” Juliet had joined them quietly, and crouched down between Adam and Henry, wrapping an arm around her son and snuggling her head on her husband’s shoulder.
They stayed like that for a moment, then Henry went to the window, dangled his paper snowflake in front of it, moving it down in synchrony with the flakes outside. “I love the snow,” he declared then. “Don’t you, too, Papa?”
Adam smiled. “Oh, yes, I do.” And to his utmost surprise, he meant it. Truly.