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Monday, December 12, 2016

ONE COLD CHRISTMAS



By Celia Jolley


Isabella found one more blanket to pile on, even if it was a horse blanket smelly from the stable.  She'd found it when she went to put Charlie in his stall.  Her horse had to paw through the snow to find a few tuffs of grass here and there since she'd run out of hay.  As soon as she opened the barn door, he'd come over easily hoping to be fed.  The faithful horse's breath was warm on her neck as he followed close behind her.  His soft mouth snuffled over the empty feed trough making sure he didn't miss a single grain.  But none were left.  Tomorrow she'd have to do something.  It couldn't be put off any longer.

As she shivered in her bed with no fuel for a fire, Isabella wished she had chopped up the chairs.  She would have done it too if it wouldn't have meant another trip out to the barn to grab the ax.  But it was just too cold to go back outside for any reason.  So, she slept in her father's wool socks, her flannel petticoat, her flannel nightgown, and her cloak with its hood  pulled over a stocking cap.  She burrowed completely under the covers hugging her faithful dog to try to find any kind of warmth.  Still, her head felt sluggish as she lay awake trying to come up with a solution. 

Isabella Fontaine was flat broke.  There was no money for food, nor wood for a fire, no grain or hay for her horse.  The dog had resorted to stealing the neighbor's chickens to have something to eat, and the taxes were due on the house right after Christmas.  Her father had given her no clue that they were facing such dire times.  Then he had the nerve to get sick and die and leave her all alone.  She'd feel sorry for herself, if she could feel anything at all: but, she was too numb in body and spirit.

She'd gone in earlier today to look for work, checking at the mercantile then the café to see if they needed any help.  Of course they didn't.  But the delicious odors beckoning from their kitchen were to die for: fried chicken, pot roast with mashed potatoes and gravy and homemade bread.  Oh how she had wished she could have sat down at a table to eat like the others crowded there. 

She had glared at the sheriff who sat placidly cutting his steak with just a glance and a nod her direction.  He was the one who had ridden out yesterday to post the auction date for their ranch for back taxes.  The man had tried to apologize for having to do it, but no matter what he said, she still thought he was as heartless as the rest of the town.  It wasn't her fault that her father had been addicted to gambling causing them to lose everything, leaving her to fend for herself. 

At one time, they'd had a prosperous ranch.  It could hardly be called a ranch anymore though since all the cows had been sold off to try to pay his debts,  all the cows, and horses except for her own old horse, Charlie.  Isabella had even sold her saddle, keeping back only a bridle.  She'd have to ride bareback now.  There wasn't anything else of value left in the house that her father had not already pawned.  All Isabella had to her name, were her mother's quilts and her own meager wardrobe, oh and Isabelle's prize possession, her mother's tortoise shell hair combs.  If she was to die from starvation or freeze to death in her own bed, at least she could be buried in those.  Oh my.  Her thoughts were certainly morose.  It must be the glooming hour. 

Listening to her stomach growl and feeling it clench from hunger, she once again thought of the café and its patrons.  She couldn't forget the sheriff with that large bite of steak she'd wanted to rip right off his fork and pop in her mouth.  To add insult to injury, when she was standing outside on the porch wondering where else to look for work, he'd burst through the doors almost colliding with.  He barely saved a covered plate from falling.  She almost wished he would have dropped the stupid thing so she could have savaged it eating right off the board walk.

"Excuse me, Miss Fontaine.  I didn't see you there.  That was close.  I almost spilled the supper for the prisoner.  Hope none got on you.  Well, good night."

She'd closed her eyes letting them roll to the back of her head just smelling that tantalizing food.  Her stomach was as noisy as feeding time at the zoo what with its growls, roars, and groans of hunger.  All she'd had that day were the pecans she'd picked up off the ground at old man York's, their neighbor.  If he'd seen her, he would have come running with his rifle.  The stingy man couldn't stand the thought of someone else getting one single one of his nuts whereas he'd probably be first in line to bid on buying--rather stealing--their ranch since it butted up against his own.  

Suddenly, Isabella sat up in bed.  "Speaking of stealing, that's it!  I'll get the sheriff to arrest me. throw me in jail, then he'll have to feed me.  I bet he'd have to put Charlie up in the livery stable and make sure he was fed too.  And I'm sure it's plenty warm in there since I could see the smoke coming out of his stove pipe while across the street at the cafe." With that plan fixed in her mind, she drifted off to a fitful, shivering sleep.   


Yet, the next morning the plan didn't feel like such a good idea after all.  Nevertheless, she had to do what she had to do.  She would have to come up with something on the ride into town that would warrant the sheriff arresting her. 

"It can't be something that would endanger anybody.  That rules out shooting someone , and I'm not really hankering to steal nothing." So what could she do?" She chewed on a piece of hair that blew into her mouth.

The clouds were scrunching down like the sky was about to throw a fit and storm.   It smelled of snow.  Isabella rode practically laid out all the way down on her faithful horse to hug his warmth.  He knew the way to town without her use of the reigns. 



"What dastardly deed can I do to get the sheriff to throw me behind bars?" she asked her horse.  "What if I kick him?  Then he might charge me with assaulting a man with a badge," she thought aloud, but didn't know if she could do it.  "Kicking an innocent man is not one of my talents,"  she confided to her horse.

"That's it!"  She just had an idea.  "I'll wait in the mercantile until I'm sure that the Sheriff has gone to the restaurant to eat.  Then,  I'll slip in, steal the keys, and lock myself in the jail cell.  I won't tell him where I'm hiding the keys neither, so he can't open the door and force me to leave.  Yes!  It's brilliant!"

It was harder than she thought waiting around in the mercantile looking at all the bounty on the shelves, food stuffs she could not afford to buy, not even a single penny candy.  Her mouth salivated worse than a rabid dog.  But by fingering the bolts of cloth, she had a good view out the front window and spied the sheriff striding over to the café to disappear inside.

Isabella put her head down with her cloak's hood covering her face and hurried over to the jail.  "So far, so good," she said aloud shutting the door behind her.  The silly sheriff was so trusting that he'd not bothered to lock the door.  She wished she could stand by the stove and just hold her hands over its heat, but figured she'd better work fast before he came back.  Sure enough the keys were hanging on a hook behind his desk.

She went over to the single cell, so very thankful that it was unoccupied for the moment, and used the key to open the door.  Her hand was shaking whether from nerves, the cold or hunger, she didn't know.  "In you go," she growled as if she was the sheriff.  "Now, I'll lock you in and throw away the key!"  She reached through the bars and locked the door on herself.  The clanging of the door shutting and the click of the lock was terrifying.  "But so is starving and freezing, you ninny!"  She'd formed quite the knack for talking to herself since her Pa had died. 


"Now to hide the key," she continued coaching herself.  Isabella looked around to the bare cell with its cot and green army blanket folded on the foot of the bed.  The only place she could figure to hide it was on her own person.  Isabella strung the key on her hair ribbon and put it round her neck.  Then she wrapped the blanket around herself and settled in to wait for the sheriff to return.

His footsteps sounded on the boards of the porch,  before the door creaked open.  She swallowed hard and waited until he found her.  The way her heart was beating, Isabella was sure he'd hear it.  Yet, the man did not so much as glance her direction, but only sat at his desk  pulling open a big black book.  A Bible?"

Finally she cleared her throat which made him jump up and pull out his pistol faster than she could spit. 

Her hands went up and the blanket fell on the floor.  "Don't shoot!"

"What in heaven's name are you doing in there Miss Fontaine?" He bellowed.  "I could have shot you!"

"Do you always shoot your prisoners?  I thought I'd be safe in here."

"I asked you a question, young lady," he growled.  "How did you get in there.  Come on back out  now.  Whatever you're playing at is trying my patience."

"I'm not playing around, sir.  I just did a citizen's arrest on myself for committing a crime and put myself behind bars."

"What?"  He threw his hat back to soar over his desk where it glanced off and landed on the floor.  "Stop being ridiculous and come out.  That place is filthy and is no place for a lady."

"I'm not coming out.  I'm guilty.  You have to keep me locked up in here."

The sheriff was looking pretty steamed about now.  It wouldn't be long before the fat hit the fire.  "I don't know what game you are playing, but I don't like it.  I'm ordering you one last time, to march yourself out of there or I'll..."

"You'll do what, Sheriff?  Arrest me?" The she smiled smugly.  "Exactly."

Instead he came over and tried to throw the door open, but about ripped his arm off when it didn't swing wide.  It was locked tight.  He stormed back over to his desk and looked up at the empty hook where the keys normally hung.  Then he frisked himself trying to find them.  It was enough to make her giggle.

"What's so funny?  Are you crazy or something?" he exclaimed grimacing.

Just then her stomach rumbled so loudly, it almost echoed. 

"Where are the keys? I know I left them right there on the hook where I always do.  So where are they?"

"I'm afraid I stole them, sir."

"Huh? You are crazy.  I could have you committed for this."  He ran his hand through his hair making it stand on end.  "Why did you do such a fool thing as that?"  He was exasperated.  He stood feet wide apart with his hands on his hips.  It was show down time.  At least he wasn't reaching for his gun again, at least not yet.

"Well, as long as I'm here, you might as well go over and get me some dinner at the café.  I can smell it clear from across the street.  I know you do that for the drunks you usually lock up until they sleep it off."

"I'll do no such thing.  You can go on a hunger strike for all I care.  So suit yourself.  Make yourself comfortable.  When you get hungry enough, you can just let yourself out.  I won't give you so much as a sip of water."

Oh, no.  Her plan wasn't working the way she'd imagined.  Well, at least she was warm.  So she laid herself down wrapped in the blanket with her face to the wall.  Her stomach was singing opera solos now, with a loud verbrado of hunger. 

She called over her shoulder, "Well, if you won't feed me, at least have mercy on my horse.  He's tied up over in front of the mercantile and his ribs are about stuck together from hunger.  You won't leave a helpless animal out there in the cold to starve, would you?"

Just then, the door opened, and his deputy came in.  "Hey, boss, did we get any new wanted posters in?  He jumped when he noticed her as she sat back up on the cot. "What in tarnation is she doing in there?  Did you arrest her for something?  We ain't never had a woman in there before."

"No.  She just showed up and locked herself in and took the keys.  Can't do anything until she wants to leave."

"That don't seem right.  Hey, missy.  You here for the sheriff's Bible reading?  That's what he does for his prisoners, just reads aloud 'cause they can't escape.  Do you think you are here for Sunday School or something?"  he chortled
 
"Stu, I need you to go take care of her horse for me.  She's says it's tied up in front of the mercantile, and you need to take it to the livery."

"What kind of horse is it?" the deputy asked.

"A white one, kind of bony.  He's getting up there in years," she smiled with satisfaction.  She knew no true gentleman would be cruel to an animal.  The sheriff just went up a notch in her book.  As for her, that was another matter.  Just like the rest of the town, he was writing her off.



No sooner had Stu left and she'd rolled over in the cot, someone else came in without knocking.  My, but this was a busy place.  Oh, no.  It was the sheriff's mom.  Isabella covered her head with the blanket hoping the woman wouldn't notice her.

"Hello, son.  I brought you a piece of pecan pie. I sold a couple more of my pies to the café this afternoon.  Ernie said his customers can't get enough of them."

"Thanks, mother," he glanced nervously over to the jail cell.

Unfortunately, his mother's eyes followed his.  "Who do you have locked up today?  Is it poor old brother Frisk?  He can't seem to part from his bottle, can he.  At least he won't freeze in the alley."  She looked over at the cell tsking, then gasped noticing the shape lying on the cot with telltale ladies boot sticking out the bottom.  "Why my word!  You have a woman in there, Finn.  What's the matter with you?  You can't lock a woman in there!  I raised you better than that."

"You don't understand, ma..."

"Who is it and what has she done.  It can't be as bad as this, locked up in this terrible jail."

He spoke up, "Might as well sit up and present yourself, Miss Fontaine.  My mother can see you in there.  I'll let you explain yourself."

"Hello, Mrs. McGregor.  I was just...well, I thought that..."

"She snuck in here and locked herself up, is what she did, but is too ashamed to admit it.   Then she stole the key while she was at it and won't give it back."

His mother was sputtering.  "Why on earth would you do that, dear?  Is there someone after you that you are seeking shelter from?"

Finn had never thought of that possibility and rubbed his chin wondering.

Isabella shook her head.  She was feeling pretty light-headed about now from hunger.  Her stomach growled in a most unladylike fashion and her hands were shaky. 

"Finn, I'd like to speak to you outside, please," Mrs. McGregor said in a don't mess with me manner.

"Yes, ma'am."  Sheriff McGregor followed his mother out.  Isabella fell back on her cot with a groan.

"Something's not right here, Finn." His mother's lips were pulled tight.  That wasn't a good sign.

"You're telling me?  I just can't figure it out," he rubbed his neck.  "He hoped his mother would enlighten him quickly because it was sure cold out here.

"Can't you see the poor thing is skin and bones.  It looks like she's lost at least ten pounds since I last saw her in church, which has been awhile, come to think of it.  Her cheeks are sunken in and her eyes have lost their luster.  I bet that rotten Mr. Fontaine left his daughter penniless and she was starving to death out at her place.  This must be the only way she figured she could be sheltered and fed.  You have fed her, haven't you, Finn."

"No, ma'am.  I figured when she was hungry enough she'd let herself out."

"Didn't you hear her stomach growling?  "How thoughtless of you, son.  I'm ashamed of you allowing this.  Go over right now and get her a plate of food at the café while I coax her out."

"Yes, ma'am.  He crammed his hat lower on his head in frustration and strode across the street in a hurry away from his mother's fury.

Mrs. McGregor came back in.  "Miss Fontaine?  It's Isabella, isn't it?  Finn has gone to get you something to eat, but you need to come out and sit at his desk.  He'll be right back."

"Thank you Mrs. McGregor.  I believe I will."  But when she stood up on rubbery legs, the room started spinning and she sat back down. "Maybe you could pass me that piece of pie in here first.  I seem to be a little on the weak as a kitten  puny side right this minute.  But I'll be right as rain as soon as I get something in my stomach."

"Then what will you do, dear, after you eat, I mean? Obviously, your cupboard must be bare back at your place or you wouldn't have resorted to this act of desperation."

When Isabella just shrugged her shoulders, Mrs. McGregor clapped her hands.  "Have no fear.  You are going home with me.  I can use you to help me with my baking that I sell to the café, and, if you know how to sew, you can help me keep up with my piecework as the town's seamstress.  These hands aren't as limber as they used to be.  Arthritis does that, you know.  I truly need the help, dear.  Please say yes."

Since the woman was kind enough to come over and hand her the pie through the bars where she wobbled over to grab it eating it like a wild animal, she nodded yes with her mouth full.  Finally swallowing and licking the plate clean, she said,  "I'd be right pleased to do that, ma'am."

She could have kissed that sheriff when he came in with a steaming plate of roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, carrots and green beans.  She then slipped the key off her neck and handed it to him so he could unlock her cell.  She walked weak-kneed over to his desk and sank to eat like a starving man, well, like the starving woman she was. 

"Thank you kindly, Mr. Sheriff.  I've never eaten better," she said as she cleaned her plate running her finger around and licking it to catch any dribbles left.  "I guess I'll be going now," Isabella spoke as she stood still a little unsteady on her feet.  Was that a sigh of relief from the man?

His mother joined in saying, "I'll be running along now too.  I don't know how much longer that snow will hold off and I'd like to be home before it starts."

"Goodbye, ladies," Finn gladly said.  "Good riddance he said to the door once it was shut.  His office was nice and quiet once again, and he could go back to his Bible reading in peace.  Yet, the verses he read troubled and convicted him, so he shut its pages and began reading his correspondence instead.

Once outside, Isabella scratched her dog's ears.  The faithful companion had stood vigil waiting for her to come back outside again.   "Good dog."  Then she told Mrs. McGregor, "I'll go get my horse from the livery.  Can you meet me over there?  I can tie Charlie to the back of your buggy for the drive out to your place.  It is mighty fine of you to offer to put me up, ma'am.  I haven't had much but cold shoulders around here because of my father's reputation.  You know, my pa didn't start gambling until ma died.  He just didn't want to stay home without her, so he'd lite out every night to find a faro table somewheres."

"I know dear.  Sometimes people's poor choices hurt the ones they love the most.  Well, I'll see you over at the livery.  I just have one quick deliver first."






Finn looked out his window and watched as Isabella walked towards the livery.  His eyes followed her until she was out of sight.  She was a sight all right, a pretty thing, but was she wild-crazy, or was it just a wily-smart act of desperation that stunt she'd pulled?  He huffed.  She was a case.  He looked over at the cell and saw that she'd left her scarf.  He lifted it to his nose and smelled the faint rose water lingering on it.  Rather than chase her down, which he wasn't inclined to do since he'd just gotten rid of her, he hung it on his coat rack.  She'd figure out where she left it and would be back.  At that thought, his heart squeezed a little.  Fear?  Maybe.  Attraction?  Never!


The first thing he noticed when he rode home was that the frustrating female's horse was in his corral.  What on earth?  His deputy must have gotten confused and brought it out here instead of putting it in the livery like he'd asked.  He'd have to get on Stu.  But when he walked in the door, he shuttered to a stop.

"What's she doing here, Ma?"  He felt his anger rising.  This could be worse than having her locked up.

"We can't send her back to her house without so much as a crust of bread or a stick of firewood, now can we?  Besides, the place is about to be auctioned off she tells me.  Tomorrow I want you to take her in the buckboard so she can gather up a few things before someone strips the place."


"Mother, will you step outside for a minute?" He glared at their guest who just kept setting the table,  methodically laying down the plates, a knife and spoon on one side and a fork at the other .

"Certainly dear.  Let me get my shawl."

Once he had his mother by herself, he lit into her.  "Mother, we absolutely will not keep her here.  She's not a stray cat.  I won't have it.  I fear she's crazy.  Heaven knows how she was raised.  Her father was the worse sort, but it isn't proper to mention in front of a lady.  Anyway, you can box up some groceries, I'll load up some firewood,  then I'll take her right back to her house.  She'll have a week after Christmas to figure out where to go.  She must have relatives somewhere she can go to.  She is not going to be your responsibility, and heaven knows, I don't want her to be mine."

"'I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in...and I was in prison, and you came to Me.'  Need I go on, son?"

Finn lifted his hat and ran his fingers through his hair.  This was the same Scripture he'd opened up to today just after she'd left.  Maybe God did want to use them, a mite.  Just a little bit, he hoped.   "Okay, okay, but after Christmas she's gone, even if I have to buy her a ticket out of here to some distant cousin or something.  I want her gone."

"Don't be too hasty, Finn."  Then his mother lowered her voice.  "She might be wife material."

"No!"  He'd hollered so loud that a flock of blackbirds flew up in the sky like a black cloud.  "You need to get that idea right out of your head, ma.  That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."

"Now you listen to your mother.  We've been down the list, and you've just run out of options in a town this size with so few marriageable women.  All the good girls got married while you dilly dallied.  There's just Priscilla Frost who is all frosting but no cake.  There's Tamara Smucker who, like you said, has been a little too familiar with a few too many young men.  Then there's Tildy Grifford who is the biggest wag in town with her gossiping tongue.  Who else is there within ten years of your age?  At this rate, you'd have to wait for the next crop of little girls to grow up so you could marry.  Miss Fontaine is a Christian, and is quite pretty, you'll have to admit.  I'm taking a liking to her already."

He put his hands up.  "No, ma.  I'm not going there so don't get too cozy with her.  She's got bats in her belfry."

"It was just hunger talking, dear.  The poor thing could barely walk from her cell to your desk.  You need to give her a chance."


"I'm going out to do the chores in the barn."  Just then he noticed the dog smelling up his boots.

"Who's dog is this?  No, let me guess, it's Miss Fontaine's.  So we are feeding her and the horse and the dog?" he ground out.

"We can afford to do it, son.  What with what you make as sheriff and the bit I bring in with my baking and sewing, we can spare a little kindness."

He threw his hands up in the air again and stomped away.  His mother went back into the house.  He'd have to go in and sit across from that woman now.  I wonder where Ma will put her up tonight? he thought.  There're only the two bedrooms.


Conversation was stilted over dinner.  He refused to look at the interloper.  His mother kept a conversation going with a forced lightness. 

"I'm sorry, Sheriff for what I done in town.  I just had hoped you'd feed me without making me beg." 

His mother glared at him with lips thinned out in that dangerous way.

The way Isabella hung her head in shame, got to him.  "I should have figured out sooner what was the matter, Miss Fontaine.  Goodness knows I could hear your stomach growl loud enough," he managed a small smile as he glanced up.  His chest seized up on him like before so he rubbed his heart.

"Care for seconds, dear?" his mother asked him with a smile tipping her lips as she passed him the meat platter.

The conversation flowed a little easier.  He was glad the young woman didn't jabber, yet she didn't hesitate to answer his mother's questions who had just come around to asking if Isabella had any near kin.

"None that I know of, ma'am.  My ma was an only child, and my grandparents died before I was born.  As far as my pa goes, he'd always joked that he and his brother had been raised by wolves.  He never said anything about his family, except talking about his brother dying at the battle at Gettysburg.  

Hearing of that battle was enough to send Finn to a far place in his mind.  Then he shook his head as he realized she was asking him something.

"Do you need me to go take care of my horse, Sheriff?"

"Here at the house, you can call me Finn.  No, I already fed him.  The dog too.  I heard you call your horse Charlie, but what's the dog's name?"



"We call him Chigger, cause he's always scratching," she said.  "And thanks for taking care of my animals.  I'll do it in the morning, though.  I don't want to trouble you."






"It's no trouble.  I have to go feed my horses anyway.  One more won't matter." But when Finn glanced over and saw his mother's smug smile, he didn't like it one bit and tried to put a grimace back on his face. 



"I promised my mother that I'll take you to your house in the morning, weather permitting, and we can load up a few of your personal things you want to keep,  I understand that most things are to be left there as part of the auction, except the most personal.  Since I'm the sheriff, I guess I can help determine that," he said gruffly.



"Seems like all I say is thank you, but I mean it from the bottom of my heart.  I was so starving that I slipped in between a rock and a hard place.  You kind folks saved my hide," she smiled.  Then she turned to help his mother do the dishes.   

Oh my!  He was in trouble because that smile had dazzled him silly.  "O Lord, not now.  Not her."  He tried to list all her bad qualities and kept coming back to just that number 1: she's crazy!  He'd have to keep his eye on her.  If she was going to turn into a queen of manipulation, he'd step in and rescue his mother.  She was always more gullible than what was good for her.

That night he pulled his mother to the side.  "So, are you sharing your bed with her ma?"

"The way I snore?  Hardly.  I figured she could have your bed, and we'll make up a bed on the sofa for you."

"The sofa?  Are you kidding.  That horse hair stuffing is as hard  as a rock.  I'd just as well sleep on a pallet on the ground."

"Suit yourself."  She walked away leaving him sputtering.

When his mother began turning down the lamp wicks, he gathered up extra blankets and started making his bed in front of the fire.  He sat down and started pulling off his boots.

Isabella stood before him with her hands on her hips.  "What are you doing?  I'll sleep out here.   I'm not about to steal your bed."

"Oh no, dear.  It wouldn't be appropriate for you to sleep out here in the open," his mother   
fluttered her hands.  "Finn will be happy to offer you his bed, won't you, dear."

He muttered under his breath ignoring his mother's daggers.  Instead, he began unbuttoning his shirt which sent Miss Fontaine running to his room and shutting the door.

"Finn, I expect you to be a gentleman"

"Yes, ma'am.  He pulled off his levis and stood warming his backside in front of the fire in his red long johns."

"This is what I mean.  You can't exhibit yourself in your union suit!  What if our guest came out right now?"

"Then she'll embarrass herself.  Good night , mother."

She went off in a huff disappearing into her room.

When he went to hitch up the wagon the next morning, he saw much of the snow had blown away in a the howling wind last night.  The wind chill crept right in next to his skin through all the layers.  He'd better throw in the old buffalo hide to cover Miss Fontaine with.


After a terrible night on the cold floor, Finn was in no mood to chat as he sat beside the young woman his mother had taken under her wing.  Fortunately, she seemed to pick up on his mood and kept her mouth shut.  She only told her dog to go back when it tried to follow her padding behind the buckboard.  He glanced back to see the dog sitting all lonesome in the middle of the snowy yard.

Finally he commented on the weather.  "We'll have to hurry.  Looks like we are in for a big storm that's going to be the biggest one so far this year."

She just shivered.  He tucked the buffalo robe more tightly around their legs.

"This is the best thing to keep us warm.  Anyway, think about what you want to be taking now.  That way we can be in and out in no time," he continued.

"There's not much left," she said softly.  But I thank you for coming out in this cold weather to help me.  There are a few pictures and books and such.  I didn't know if I would be able to keep them, so I'm grateful."

Finn thought of his comfortable home with all its creature comforts, well except his bed on the floor, that is.  He was the one who should be grateful.  He prayed that God would help his attitude.

He stopped by his office and told his deputy where he was going.  "I'm taking Miss Fontaine to her home to supervise what she may take from the house before the auction."

Isabella turned and looked at him as if he'd just insulted her accusing her of being a thief.  Well, she had been a thief stealing the jail key, but that was beside the point.

"Just making it sound like it's business, Isabella. Nothing personal," he said under his breath.

"So, Stu, I want you to keep watch over things here for me.  I'll be back this afternoon."

"Sure thing boss," he grinned looking between them and wiggling his eyebrows.

"Mind your own business, Stu," and he slapped the reigns to get the horses going again.

Isabella sat stiffly beside him without saying a word.

They had hardly gone a mile out of town before the sky fell down sifting swirling snow all about them.

"Looks like we'll have to seek shelter in your house until the worst of this storm passes.   It's almost a white-out as it is." He concentrated on keeping the wagon on the road wishing he'd brought the sleigh instead.

Isabella lowered a scarf his mother had loaned her pulling it down from where it covered her mouth to say,  "Unfortunately, there's no hay or grain for the animals there or any wood chopped."

"We'll have to make due.  Help me look for your turn off.  If we miss it, we'll be out in this for who knows how long.  I should have seen this coming and not tried to come out today."

"Nobody can predict the weather.  The sky was clear this morning when I woke up.  It was still dark, but the stars were out."  Then she shut her mouth and covered back up because her teeth hurt from the cold.

Then she pointed muffled muttering through the scarf,  "There!  Turn here."


He left her at her own threshold then turned the horses to pass on.  Then he unhitched the team and led them into the barren barn.  Finn then covered himself with the buffalo robe and tried to head in the right direction to find the house.  It was turning into a regular blizzard.   He felt stupid for having set out today of all days just to please his mother.

He bumped into the edge of the house and felt his way around to the front door. 

Upon entering, the first thing he noticed was how pale Isabelle looked.  In fact, she looked downright strange staring at him all big-eyed.  Suddenly she shouted, "Look out!"  A man had been waiting to knock him senseless, but thanks to Finn's quick reflexes he was able to block him.  In the next move he had his gun out pointing at the man who dropped the chair he'd tried to hit him with.  Then Isabella whimpered.   He glanced over to see another rough character had grabbed her with his gun pointed at her temple.  He motioned his captive to move over a little so he could keep them both in his sight.  Both Finn and the stranger  kept their guns drawn.

In his mind, he was trying to think through the various wanted posters in his office.  Nothing seemed to match up.  So he tried reasoning with them hoping they were just amateurs, not hardened criminals.  "I'm the sheriff around here, and if you mess with the law and a woman, you'll have the whole territory breathing down your neck.  So I suggest that you fellas just go right out that door." 

Suddenly the one he had his gun pointed at gasped, "Captain, is that you?" 

Finn gave him a closer look and recognized a young soldier who had served under him once.  "Frank, what are you doing with the likes of him?"

"We were just getting out of the cold, Finn, honest," the man tried to plaster a smile on his face.

"Don't go soft, Frank,"  the other man growled while tightening his hold on Isabella.

"Is that why the house has been ransacked?  You two must have been searching for something.  I brought Miss Fontaine home just to get a picture or two and some books out of the house since she's losing possession of the house.  She almost starved staying here on her own, so don't expect to find any treasure.  If her father owed you a gambling debt, you're out of luck."  The other man swore.  Finn had been guessing, but it sounded like he had hit the nail on the head.  Still, he had to think fast so he could get Isabella away from the scum.

"Frank, tell your friend here he needs to let Miss Fontaine go.  If you leave now, I promise not to follow you."

The other man snorted.  "Course you won't.  It's a blizzard out there.  We wouldn't make it as far as the barn."

"You need to let her go, James.  This here is my friend.  I don't want any trouble with him.  Besides, he was a sharp shooter in the war.  He won't miss and draws faster than you can blink.  You saw him just now."

"What's to keep him from shooting us as soon as I let her go? Huh, Frank? Did you think of that?"

"I give you my word, that if you let Miss Fontaine go, I won't pursue you if you leave as soon as  there is a break in the weather.  Meanwhile, it's so cold.  We'll all freeze to death if we don't get a fire going.

"There's no wood, but you could break up the chairs," Isabella spoke up.

"You do it Frank.  since you were about to break a chair over my head earlier any way," Finn urged.

"Yeah, Frank, you do it.  I'm going to hang onto this little lady for a little longer for insurance."


Finn added, "Light that kerosene lantern while you are at it too.  The storm is making it too dark in here."

Frank had a fire going in no time, and it seemed to bring a slight relaxation of the tension.  The rough character moved Isabella around closer to the fire all the while keeping his arm tightly around her waist.  He smelled worse than a skunk sprayed dog. 

Everyone still was on edge, and no one spoke.  So Finn tried to get his former comrade in arms talking.  So what's brought you to this, Frank, breaking into homes and holding a woman hostage?"

The man hung his head.  "There weren't no work after the war.  So I kept moving on trying to find something, then I met James here.  He was so good at his cards that he wanted me to be his body guard."

"Shut up, Frank."  

Suddenly there was a thump at the door.  "What's that?" Frank asked almost jumping out of his skin.

"Open the door, Frank.  I'll keep you covered," his partner James said.  As soon as the door was cracked open, a black blur flew across the room snarling to attack the man who was holding Isabella.  He yelled out and dropped her.  A cacophony of dog and man snarling and yelping filled the room.

Suddenly a gun blast broke through.  The man screamed.  "My hand!  You shot my hand!  Let go of me you stupid dog."  Every time he kicked him, the dog came right back to bite his leg some more.

Isabella hurried to pick up his pistol where he'd dropped it.

"You can call your dog off now, Isabella," Finn said keeping a close eye on both men with his gun trained on them.

"Chigger!  Down.  He obediently came over to her and sat down in front to still guard her.  "Good boy, Chigger."  She hugged him, but he moved his head so as to keep an eye on the man who had held his mistress.  "I can't believe he followed us in all this snow."

"I'm sure glad he did.  Maybe I'll have to deputize him," he chuckled in relief.

Frank even hooted.  "Good one, Captain." But James tried to kick him though his pants leg was shredded and bloody.

"Shut up, Frank."

You better take care of your buddy's wounds, Frank.  We're not going to get close to him, so he's all yours.  But first I want you to lay all your weapons down on the floor and kick them over to me.  If your friend here has any more weapons on him, like a derringer or knife, get those too."

"Sure, Captain."  Frank began to salute, but dropped it when his partner growled.  He reached into the other man's pocket and pulled out the little pistol.

"Good.  Now nice and easy kick them over here.  Okay, Isabella if you know where some clean rags are would you bring them and hand them to me?  And if you have something to clean his wounds with, you can bring that too.  Even a pan of snow would keep the swelling down.  Just don't get close to them whatever you do."

She did as asked, but was shadowed by her dog on her heel.

"Ahh, Captain, I wouldn't harm the lady.  That was his idea, not mine."

"I'd like to believe that Frank.  The best thing you can do is cooperate, and I'll testify that you did so and bring up your honorable service to our country to the judge."

When she came back,  Finn put his arm around her and spoke close to her ear, "Are you alright, Isabella?"

She nodded.  "I was scared but I kept praying.  Between you, Chigger and God, I'm in good hands."

He laughed and said, "That's quite the trio, but I'm proud to be counted next to the best dog in the state and the best God in the universe."

"And the best Sheriff in the territory!"  she beamed.

Somehow that made him all warm inside.  But he couldn't let her distract him.  These two outlaws were not tied up yet.

"Okay, Frank, I think that's all you can do for now.  James, keep your hand on your head to keep some of the pain away.  Isabella, do you have any rope here in the house?"

She thought for a minute.  "There's the rope from under the bed that holds the mattress up."

"You heard her, Frank.  We'll move this little party into her father's bedroom and you can unstring the rope bed.  I want you to stay in here, Isabella.  Hold onto James' pistol.  I'll just cut loose the rope for our friend Frank here so he can pull it out for us.  Ready?" 

Now he waved them across the room.  Stand over there while I cut it loose.  Move the mattress over just a little, Frank.  Good."  Finn kept the gun in his good hand pointed at them and managed to cut with his left sawing through the hemp without looking.  He stepped back to stand in the door when it was done.

"Got it, Captain."  

"Okay, now bring it back by the fire so you can tie your friend up.  Leave some for yourself as well, Frank."

"I understand, Captain.  Bad company corrupts good morals.  You were always telling me.  Wish I'd listened to you."  He tied up his partner with the man complaining the whole time.  It was enough to make the dog growl a warning.

"Stay away from me you stupid cur!" James swore.

"If you swear again in the presence of the lady, I might have to sic this dog on you again," Finn warned.

The man shut his trap then and only moaned and groaned in his pain.  Frank, on the other hand, was almost cheerful.  "I'll be glad to be shuck of the likes of him.  He hasn't paid me all that he promised, and was cutting some dirty deals with the cards.  I didn't want to get caught in gun play 'cause he cheated."

"That's a good idea, Frank.  Too bad you didn't think of it sooner," was all Finn could say.

"He kept the pistol out, but kept his other arm around Miss Fontaine.  The ordeal  had exhausted her, and she'd fallen asleep leaning into him.  Chigger laid down in front of her, his head on his paws, but with his eyes still on the culprit. 

"Remember when..." Frank kept reminiscing about the War.  Finn didn't encourage him because all he wanted to do was to forget the horror of it.  But Frank was right.  There was something about the comradeship of the men in their unit that they all missed.  This is really all that Frank was doing, trying to feel like he belonged in a world that had gone crazy.  Too bad he'd picked a man who only wanted to use him.  The wind outside sounded like the moaning of the hundreds of wounded and dying on the battlefield. 

"We should talk about something else, Frank.  It's bringing back too many bad memories, you know."

"Yeah, your right, Captain.  Makes me think of so many in our unit who didn't come back."  He changed the subject,  "Well, how about that dog!  I never saw nothing like it.  I actually thought it was a demon from hell coming to punish us for our crimes.  I was never so glad to find out it was just a dog."

Finn prodded, "Remember how I used to talk to you about getting your heart right with God, Frank?"

"I know.  It just sounded too easy.  After all, we had to fight that bloody war for Lincoln's cause.  It didn't make sense that all I had to do was ask God to forgive me without having to do something first."

"He wants to fight our battles for us, Frank.  He wants to fight alongside us.  Can you imagine how it would have rallied the men if Lincoln were right there with us.  Well, God has promised to be with us.  He tells us to put on the helmet of salvation, the breastplate of righteousness, the belt of truth, and to take up the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God.  All He asks is for us to enlist.  To renounce our other allegiance to the ruler of demons and their general, Satan himself. God wants us to take up His banner.  If you were afraid of a demon when you opened the door today, you ought to get on the right side, not siding with the pit."

"You're right, Captain.  I have messed up my life ever since I mustered out."

"Well, I'll pray with you if you want to ask God to forgive you and ask Him to come into your heart, buddy."

Frank wiped his nose on his sleeve.  Yeah, I'd like that.  I don't want to go to jail, but I know I have to pay for what I did ransacking Miss Fontaine's house and trying to crack the chair over your head..." James made a disgusted sound, but Frank went on, "If Jesus will pay the penalty for my sin like you used to tell me, then I'm ready."

"Okay, repeat after me..." Finn lead him in a prayer of repentance and acceptance of the salvation God was freely offering."

"How about you, James.  Have you considered where your soul will end up?"  Finn asked.

"Save your breath, sheriff.  I'm not one of your choir boys."

"Just so you know, when you are locked up in my jail, I have this habit of reading my Bible out loud for all to hear."

The man moaned.  "I don't know which hurts more, the dog bites or the gunshot.  I just know I'll never be able to ply a hand of cards again.  You got my good hand, Sheriff."

"Next time don't go using a lady for your shield.  It's a good thing that the dog showed up, 'cause I was considering plugging you right between your eyes if you didn't let go of her soon.  That dog might have saved your life.  Be thankful I only shot you in the hand."

"Humph," he said.  "At least then I wouldn't be in so much pain."

"Don't fool yourself, James.  There's no jail cell waiting for you in eternity, but a lake of fire.  What you are feeling now is only a pinch. I suggest you do some repenting yourself like Frank here."

"Are you a sheriff or a preacher?"  He shook his head.

"I just try to deliver good news to those who have ears to hear."

The fire was burning down, but Finn didn't want to wake Isabella.  It was feeling mighty fine to have her resting her head on his shoulder.  He could get used to that.  He also needed to shove the snow away from the door before they were snowed in blocked by drifts.  It was still coming down thickly with no sign of letting up.

Frank and James dosed with mouths open and drool dribbling.  Finn wasn't sleepy, but he sure was getting hungry.  He couldn't imagine how Isabella had done it with no food or fire.  No  
wonder she'd cooked up her desperate plan.  He chuckled just thinking of the shock of finding her locked in his jail. 

"What's so funny?" She sat up straight.  His arm grew cold absent her warmth.

"I was just thinking about how shocked I was to come in and find you in my jail."

She began laughing too which made him laugh all the harder.  "You should have seen your face," she giggled.  Oh, my, you sure got madder than a hornet with his stinger bent out of shape about it too."

"Then my deputy comes in, next my mother of all people.  Finally when I get home, there you were, like a burr on my sock or something that I couldn't shake loose."  He took her hand and encased it in his, "But I'm not minding it nearly as bad as I did though.  In fact it's kind of nice actually having you around to help me catch crooks."

She gave him one of her dazzling smiles.  "It sure beat staying here burning up the furniture and starving when there was a nice warm cell available."  Her stomach gave that grumble signaling her hunger.  His joined in for a duet.

"I should have known to pack something.  I always try to do so in the winter when I know I might be caught like this.  But I need to break up another chair to burn," he said getting up to go smash one.

The noise of wood shattering woke the two captives.  "The rebs are firing at us again, Captain!  Get down!" Frank cried out.  It was enough to churn Finn's stomach seeing the stark fear on the kid's face until he woke the rest of the way up.

"I was dreaming of the war.  Guess I shouldn't talk about it right before I go to sleep.  I can go weeks without any bad dreams, then boom, they're back."

"I know what you mean, buddy."  Finn clapped a hand on his fellow soldier's shoulder.  Then he fed the fire."

When the other man stirred moaning and groaning, the dog gave a low warning growl. 

"I'm going to open the door and see if I can shovel some of this snow away from where it's piling up."  Without the use of a shovel, Finn grabbed a kettle and went to work throwing pot full after pot full away until it was just knee deep.  "I'll have to keep doing that.  This may be one of those storms with ten foot deep drifts."

"I hope not," Isabella said with her teeth chattering from the cold draft he'd left from opening the door.

"By the way, Frank, where are your horses?  I didn't see them in the barn when I put ours up."

"We didn't figure we'd be here long, so we left them in the corral.  I hope they don't freeze, but I'm sure not going out there to rescue them," he added.

Finn scowled.  He didn't like it when a man didn't take care of his animals.  His may not have hay--he couldn't help that--but at least they were out of the elements.  Instead he checked Chigger's feet to make sure he hadn't gotten frost bitten.  His pads were cracked and sore looking, but he didn't look too much worse for the wear.  Finn also felt over him while scratching his tummy to make sure James' boot hadn't done any real damage.  The dog didn't wince when he touched his stomach or ribs.  Good.  This dog had really come to the rescue.  He'd never seen anything like it.

"He sleeps with me."

"Who?"

"My dog.  That's one reason he's so protective, because we're close.  My father was always gone, and the dog stuck close to me.  Once some unsavory stranger tried to come in, but between my dad's rifle and the dog, he decided it wasn't a good idea."

"He is a good dog.  You can bring your dad's rifle when we go back to town.  I doubt I can get the wagon through, so we'll be taking prisoners back, not your things this time after all."

"That's okay.  People are what's important, not things."  She allowed him to take her hand again.  He still kept his gun handy. 


Finally, the snow stopped.  Stars started to peek through when the clouds were whisked away.  The moon was full and shone down setting off the sparkles in the pristine white blanket.   

"I think we'd best wait 'till morning, Isabella."

"I know everyone is hungry, but that's probably the best decision.   Wait, do you hear that?" she asked looking towards the road." 

"What?"

"It sounds like Santa's sleigh.  I must be going crazy."  She giggled, "That would be no surprise to you though.  You threatened to commit me once upon a time."

"Not one of my finer moments," he admitted.  "Sorry...wait, I hear it too.  Those are sleigh bells, just not Santa's."

"Frank sat up, "I hear them too.  Who'd be crazy enough to come out on a night like tonight?"

"That's Stu's team.  My deputy is coming! Thank the Lord!" 

Finn waded out hip deep to greet him.  "Thanks for coming to check up on us, partner."

"I worried when you didn't get back.  I wanted to make sure you were holed up here and not  frozen in a ditch somewhere.  But maybe you'd rather I didn't bother you until tomorrow, and he winked."

"Enough Stu.  We've got some extra passengers though.  Isabella and her dog helped me catch a couple of men who were up to no good.  I'll round everybody up, and we can get going."

Finn had to drag Frank and James out as their binding didn't give them much room to walk as they kept sinking into drifts.  "You two sit up here by Stu.  Next he lifted Isabella up, then her dog who was bounding playfully through the drifts, disappearing then popping up like out of a prairie dog hole." 

"I'll have to come back tomorrow for the horses." Finn added, "I feel bad about leaving them without grain or hay, but getting the prisoners settled into their new jail house is a priority."

"Hey, I brought a couple of feed sacks of grain.  Get in and I'll drive you over closer to the barn door.  It looks like it was facing away from the wind so the snow didn't pile on as deep there.  You'll probably be able to pull the door open.  A couple of horses whinnied from the corral.

"Look, Captain, they made it!  Do you think you can put our horses in the barn too?"


"Sure."  He got out again wading up to his hips again to open up the gate.  The animals followed him like he was the Pied Piper smelling the grain in the sacks.  He divided it up making the horses a little happier anyway.    

By the time he climbed in the sleigh beside Isabella, he was shivering uncontrollably. 

"Here, put the buffalo robe on you," she offered while tucking it in around him.

"I don't want to get you cold sitting next to my pants wet from the snow."

"Two's warmer than one," is all she said as she cuddled up close.

Stu turned back just once and winked at him, then grinned as he sent the sleigh flying over the untouched surface.  It was perfect conditions for a sleigh ride. 

"I've never been on a sleigh ride," Isabella said, smiling up at him.  This is a dream."

"Yeah, one with two prisoners sitting in the front seat by my deputy?" he said chuckling.  Then he whispered warmly in her ear, "God knows though that it wouldn't have been good if we had been trapped in your house all by ourselves during the blizzard."

"What do you mean?" she asked looking perplexed.

"This."  And he bent down and kissed her. 

"Oh, that..." she giggled.  "Yes, that would have been just terrible."

 
Once they got to town, Stu agreed to stay in his office to keep an eye on the prisoners.  He even brought them something to eat, talking Ernie into letting him have a couple of plates of cold leftovers.  The doctor was even roused to come check on James' wounds.

That left Finn to drive the sleigh to his home, just him and Isabella.  He almost up-ended them in a ditch while sneaking a kiss, so he had to pull the horses to a stop to do it properly.

"Well, this will make my mother's Christmas very happy," he grinned.

"Why?" she asked.

"Because she told me, and I quote, "She's good wife material," and I happen to agree.

"You do?"

"This would make it the best Christmas ever if you agree as well, Miss Fontaine."

"I do.  I most certainly do. But I must warn you, I am crazy, crazy about you!"






 








 





   








 

 















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