Winter Storm

Part 2 of the Sacrifices, Storms, & Retribution trilogy

by Bean

Part 1

Hannah was bundled as best she could be against the coming storm. She had finished checking out the fencing on this end of the station and was heading up to the cabin when the storm started to hit. She had known it was coming, but it was still not fun to be caught in it. Her mare knew the way well, there was no fear of not making it back up the hill to the cabin. She clamped her hat lower onto her head and pulled her collar up against the cold. The howling wind was making great piles of snowdrifts at the foot of the trees. The snow was already at least three feet deep up at this altitude and she didn't want to get stuck in more.

"C'mon girl, let's get a move on before we're stranded out here! Lotsa warm straw waitn' for you the sooner you get us home."

She encouraged her mare through another drift, figuring about another hour to get back to the cabin, and silently cursing herself for the misjudgment in the weather. She didn't usually make mistakes like that. Her mind had been wandering as of late. They wound their way through the trees in a zigzag pattern up the hillside to make it an easier climb. The wind grew louder and she knew she was in for a dreary ride. The mare was working hard through the snow and gusts. They were about a half-mile from the trail when her mare whinnied and turned in another direction. Hannah took her by the bit.

"Wrong way girl, you want to be headin' for the barn, not the woods!"

She chuckled at the horse. The mare uncharacteristically fought her hand and turned again. She let out another whinny and, on the wind, Hannah heard a faint answering whinny.

"What the… ?" she asked the air as she tipped her head to listen carefully.

"Well, let's go see what you've found." She gave the mare her head and they headed in the opposite direction from home.

+ + + + + + +

Four Corners was sleepy with winter. The saloon was about the liveliest place to be, which made Ezra very happy. He had found himself a good card game and was enjoying it immensely. Buck was chatting up the girls, as he was most likely to do, and Josiah was tucked in the corner with a bottle of whiskey and a book. Leaning on the bar near him was JD, having a great time watching Ezra, and eavesdropping on his friend.

"Do you think he believes even half of what he says?" JD asked over his shoulder.

Josiah looked thoughtfully over the top of the book.

"Prob'ly more than half." He gave JD a chuckle and then went back to reading.

"What's ya readin' Josiah?" Nathan was having a late lunch at the table.


"What the heck would a guy want to be readin' poetry for?" scoffed JD.

"It's a good way to find words that rhyme," Josiah said with a straight face. He gave a look to Nathan who was grinning.

JD could think of no suitable comeback so he just kept silent and went back to watching and listening.

Chris took it all in with one quick glance as he came through the swinging doors, heading straight for the whiskey bottle.

"It's cold out there. Looks like we're in for some snow." He took a deep gulp from his glass.

"Snow!" exclaimed JD "I love the snow!" He almost skipped out the door for a look.

"Ah, the exuberance of youth," said Josiah with a big grin.

Laughter was heard all around.

"Heard from Vin yet?" Nathan asked Chris.

"Nope. Not like him to be gone this long. Got me thinkin' 'bout takin' a ride myself."

"He ain't been stickin' around town much, that's for sure." Nathan replied

"You're right about that. He's been jumpin' at every opportunity to get out in them hills that he can. Some men just ain't made for town." He took another deep drink and lit a cheroot.

"What's the latest excuse?" Josiah put the book down.

"Pretty good one actually. Something's been spookin' cattle off at the ranches on the outskirts of town. Runnin' 'em right through the fencing. It's been hittin' some of the townsfolk pretty hard. 'Specially with this hard of a winter. Last hit was the Tucker place. His entire herd's been spooked off and he's got no one to help go after 'em. Vin was on his horse and gone 'fore I could turn around." That many words at one time called for another drink and a big exhale of smoke.

"Well, he's got a lot to work out." Josiah grinned again and started to pick his book back up, but the swinging doors got his attention as they blew open once more. Four men came bustling in from the cold brushing snow off of their dusters.

The men walked up to the bar rubbing their hands together for warmth. One ordered a bottle, another grabbed some glasses and they went to the nearest table.

"Hola Senior Larabee! Como estas?" one of the men said with a big grin on his face.

"Bien Paulo, bien. What brings you to town in this kind of weather?" he asked the Esperanza men.

'The weather!" the dark man laughed, and all the men laughed with him.

"Hola Paulo!" Buck slapped the man on the shoulder as he went to join his friends. He had brought a fresh bottle to plop on the table.

"Senior Buck! Good to see you again!"

"That's what they all say." Buck was in a very good humor indeed.

"You hear about Senior Tucker?" Paulo asked Chris.

"We did. Tanner went to see if he could help."

"As did the Padrina. She sent six men over up the Eastside of the mountain to see if they couldn't drive the cattle back over to the holding station before they either froze to death, or fell over from lack of water. She headed West checking the fencing along the way. We were supposed to meet up with her but the weather drove us back down. We will have to wait until a break in the storm to set out again." He took his own deep drink.

"She go alone?" Buck asked, trying his best to look disinterested, but not fooling anyone.

"As always. She's stubborn the Padrina, Senior Buck. She knows that mountain like the back of her hand. She built that cabin up at the way station with her padre and brother mucho years ago. It was her refugio, how you say it, hideout, since she was a nina."

"How long ago she leave?" asked Chris quietly.

"She had about three hours on us I think," Paulo said with another drink.

"Prob'ly stuck right in the middle of it." Chris looked out the big window and the darkening sky.

Paulo and the other men gave a chuckle. "You don't know our Padrina. She has the bendicion para di Dios!" The other men nodded and held their glasses up to the other men.

"Via con Dios Padrina!" They all said aloud and took another drink. "Relajar, relax, Senior Chris. We can do nada tonight. We will be gone as soon as buen tiempo is permissible. Until then, we shall stay warm together!" They toasted again.

All but Chris joined in. He’d had a bad feeling all day and it just turned worse.

He puffed on his cheroot and watched the sky.

+ + + + + + +

Vin headed up the mountain after stopping to talk to old man Tucker. He’d gotten a good look at the brand he used, double checked his supplies and began the climb up the hillside. The trail was easy to follow; a blind man could have done it. He supposed they should widen their 'so called' peacekeeping to include all of these outskirts, which would suit his wandering nature just fine. He spent his first night under the stars uneventfully and got an early start the next morning. He would rather be out here than just about anywhere. Just about. Things had changed a bit with him since meeting Hannah. He had found himself riding out to her place at all hours just to sit his horse within eyesight of her and watch. He was content to know she was there. Once in awhile she would see him and just watch him right back. He knew it wouldn't be like this much longer, he just needed time. She had turned him inside out, and no one had ever done that to him before. It was a new feeling that he wanted to relish in. He was so lost in thought he almost missed the turn in the tracks. Almost.

"Jeez, keep me on track there big fella," he said out loud to the gelding with a spit.

He kept on the tracks and looked at the sky. The weather had been getting bad for about a week now, and he knew another big storm was coming. Being well prepared, he had all the right gear and would just need to find a place for shelter before it hit. He had ridden out worse before. He judged he had about two more hours, three at the most before he would have to take cover.

It felt good to be out in these surroundings. Town got to be a bit closed in for him on occasion. He kept up his pace and gave his gelding fond pats of encouragement over the ravines and rocky crags. They hit the tree line and the snow was, surprisingly, already at least a foot deep.

"Well big fella, isn't this a sight."

He looked around at the whiteness surrounding them and continued on. The tracks were starting to fill in as the fresh snow was falling, but he felt he had a good line on the direction they were going. He calculated roughly 4 days to find them, get them turned around and headed back down the hill again. No one was sure what was spooking the cattle, man or beast. He supposed he would take care of either. The way was getting steeper and he started his horse on a zigzag pattern to make it easier for the ascension. The storm came on them all at once and with an undisguised fury. He clapped his hat down and pulled his collar up against the cold, cursing himself for the misjudgment in the weather. He didn't usually make mistakes like that. His horse was plunging through snow banks and doing his best to keep them heading up. It was hard to see ahead as the snow was now coming down so thick he could barely see his hands. He pulled Peso to a stop to get his bearings. Hearing a loud creak and noisy groaning, he looked around carefully. There was a sudden snap, and then he heard nothing. As he hit the ground, the snow broke his fall.

+ + + + + + +

The mare plunged her way through the snow and Hannah could barely see in front of herself, the snow was coming down so hard. She couldn't remember the last time it had snowed like this up here, and she had been coming here a long time. The mare was snorting and her breath was coming up like smoke plumes from her nostrils. She seemed to know where she was going, so Hannah just let her have her head. It was slow going, and maybe a half an hour passed when the mare gave another whinny and there was an answer. Next thing she knew, they were almost on top of another horse. She peered through the thick snowfall and her breath caught as she recognized the rider-less gelding. "Vin!" She had her hands to her mouth and was hollering as loud as she could, "Vin!"

The wind just blew her voice away. She got down from the mare and was instantly plunged into snow up to her knees. She kept yelling as loud as she could and made her way to the gelding, who nuzzled her face in greeting. She brushed some snow lightly from around the horse and looked for tracks but could see none.

"Vin Tanner!" She called again, but no answer.

She slowly felt her way around Peso to see if his rifle was in the sling. Maybe he had gone after something. She felt it there, snug in its home and turned carefully each way. She moved to the front of the horse and stumbled over something. Pushing a big branch out from in front of her she saw a mound in the snow that didn't belong.

"Vin!" She inhaled sharply and began digging through the snow with her hands.

There he was, face down in the drift. She uncovered his shoulders and dragged him over towards the gelding. She listened closely until she was able to hear that he was breathing, giving a sigh of relief at the barely audible sound. There was dried blood on the side of his head and he was very cold. She knew he needed warmth and needed it fast.

Struggling to get him slung over his horse she was thankful Peso wasn't the skittish type. It nearly wore her out. Finally, he was secure and she had to plough her way back to her own mare leading the gelding and his precious cargo. She turned the mare and they worked their way slowly up to the cabin. She was exhausted with the effort and was glad for the horses. Soon they were on the trail and the going became a bit easier as the drifts were blowing off to the lee side, but it still felt like forever before she saw the cabin looming up at them.

She jumped down and got the door open, then hurried back to Vin. It was much easier getting him off of the horse, and by maneuvering him partially on her shoulders she was able to get him up the porch and into the cabin. She had banked the fire when she left, it took very little effort to get it going again. After throwing a couple of logs on, she grabbed the blankets off of the big bed in the corner of the room. She threw some hides down in front of the fire and lay Vin’s limp body on them, throwing all of the blankets on top. "That will have to do for now," she whispered feeling his chest for breath once more. There was too much to do to rest yet. Out she went again, grabbing a long rope that was hanging on a hook by the door. She tied one end of the rope to the hook and went for the horses. The mare led her to the barn through the blinding snow, where she tied the other end of the rope. Feeling her way back, she got Peso and brought him to shelter. Dragging the saddles off, she looked at the mare.

"You are just gonna have to go without your brushing tonight girl, got other things to do. Be happy that you are warm and dry and have food in your belly."

The mare blinked solemnly in reply. She threw them some hay, cracked the thin ice on the surface of the water barrel, then shut and bolted the barn door behind her. It was impossible to see where she was going, and was glad for the rope to direct her back to the porch. Finally latching the cabin door behind her she took a deep breath.

There was a big cast iron kettle on the cold stove that she wasted no time filling and hanging on the hook by the fire. Unlatching the door, she went out again for more wood. She didn't want that fire going out, so she made three trips before shutting the door for the last time that night. Leaning on the door exhausted, she took another deep breath then went to Vin. His breathing was still slow and he was so very cold. His lips were almost blue. He was also soaking wet and she knew that was dangerous. She threw the blankets back off again.

She started with his coat and hat, then his scarf. She found a towel and dried his hair as best as she could. She suddenly felt quite timid. She knew he had to get warm, so she took a deep breath, muttered "oh, hell!", and stripped him down, doing her best to avert her eyes. She got him bundled back up in the blankets and quickly strung another line inside to dry his clothes out.

"He had to have been in that snow quite awhile to be this wet," she mused out loud. She actually had to wring his shirt out. She poured some of the hot water for a cup of tea, and soaked a cloth in some hot water as well to wipe his face. Luckily the wound was shallow, and didn't worry her. He would, however, have a nice bruise in the morning.

He was still very cold and she was worried about that. She realized how wet she was as well and sat in the rocker to pull off her boots. They were full of snow and she shook them out in the kitchen then set them by the fireside to dry. She had thrown her duster to the ground when she came in and now picked it up to hang next to his on the coat rack. Off came her hat and scarf as well. She unbraided her hair and toweled it dry. At least she had dry clothing here. This was her hideaway from the world. It was well provisioned and she could stay for months without wanting for anything. Off came the wet socks and she realized her toes were almost blue. That gave her a start.

"Oh my god, I didn't think to look!" and she threw the blanket back from his hands and feet to look at them closely. They weren't black, thank the Lord, but they were very blue. She exhaled loudly, not even realizing she had been holding her breath. She took his hands in hers and alternated rubbing them vigorously and blowing on them. But they weren't pinking up. She felt his face again. Freezing. She sat there on her haunches with her hands over her mouth for a few moments trying to recall everything she had ever heard about survival from the cold. As the realization dawned on her face, her cheeks became quite flushed. The best thing to warm another body was body heat itself.

She rocked back and forth on her heels for a minute then got up with steely resolve. She put a few more logs on the fire, gulped down the rest of her tea then began to undress. She grabbed the last remaining blankets in the cabin, threw them on the pile, finished undressing and slowly crawled underneath them. She rolled him on his side and wrapped her arms around him and lay very still. She never meant to fall asleep, but it soon overtook her and the cabin was bathed in firelight and silence.

+ + + + + + +

He woke slowly, stretching under the warm blankets. The fire felt good on his face but he had one heck of a headache. He put his hand to his head and winced, then froze as he felt something next to him. He slowly rolled onto his back, turned his head and there she was. What was this and how did he get here? His mind was blank for a few moments and then it all came back to him. The storm, the blinding snow, and then the blackness. He rolled carefully onto his side and stared at her a long time. She must have come across him somehow. How she had managed to get him here he had no idea, but he had a feeling he might owe her another life.

Her hair was free and spilled out over the blankets and she had a peaceful look on her face. He moved the blanket a bit and realized she had a bare shoulder. There was an ugly scar running up onto her shoulder and he touched it gently. When she shivered, he pulled the blanket back and tucked it under her. He had been in the cold before and knew instinctively what she had done. He looked about the room and saw his clothes strung out, and one eyebrow rose at the sight of both of their boots by the fireside. He gently touched her hair, her cheek, gave a small sigh, then quietly climbed out from under cover so as not to awaken her.

His clothes were dry and warm. As he dressed he looked about the tidy cabin and was pleased with how it looked. It was a perfect little hideaway and well stocked from what he could see. He liked efficiency and simplicity. It was immediately comfortable for him to be here. He saw the fire needed tending so he stoked it with the last of the wood and opened the cabin door. There was a neat stack on the porch and he refilled the wood box inside. He searched around the kitchen and found the coffee and got it going. He felt like he was in his own home and it brought a smile to his face. He poured a cup of coffee and went quietly back out to the porch, closing the door softly behind him.

The frosty air looked like smoke rising as he took a deep breath and had a look around. The only sign of the storm were the huge drifts up against the buildings. The sun was rising and the morning was beautiful. He walked to the end of the porch and noticed the rope. He put his hand on it, looked to where it went, gave a "humph", and said to no one "Well I'll be damned." He untied the rope and rewound it on his way to the barn. He was greeted by a snort as he opened the barn doors, and was very happy to see his horse all in one piece. He was welcomed with a nuzzle, handed out a few scratches as he looked for the hay, and then tossed it down to them. The water looked good, and noticing his saddlebags, he slung them over his shoulder with the rope and only bolted the bottom half of the barn door on his way out.

He saw another building off to the side of the cabin but the snow was too deep to get to the door. He could see pens off to the other side, and what looked to be a bunkhouse on

the other side of the barn. The path to that was deep in snow as well. There was a well just off to one side of the porch and he grabbed a bucket of water on his way in. He went back inside and hung the rope back by the door on a peg he had noticed after looking around. Then he slung his bags on the back of a chair and poured another cup of coffee. He found a basin and poured some of the fresh water into it. He sat in the rocker with his coffee and watched Hannah sleep. Apparently he, again, had a lot to thank her for.

She woke slowly, stretching under the warm blankets and smiling from the feel of the fire on her cheek. She felt she could sleep forever it was so warm and quiet. The coffee smelled so good. She took a deep breath and stretched out again, rolled over and froze. Memories flooded her at once and her eyes flew open. He was sitting back in the rocker with a cup of coffee balanced on his knee, an unreadable look on his face, watching her. She realized she was not clothed in any proper fashion, in fact, not clothed at all, and her cheeks blazed as bright as the fire.

"Mornin' ma’m," he said with a cheeky wink.

"Morning." She looked everywhere but at him. He had restocked the woodpile, and the fire had been well stoked. Obviously he had found the coffee and his clothes. She realized she had nothing within reach for her to put on, then remembered she hadn't meant to fall asleep in the first place.

"I didn't mean to fall asleep," she said to him.

"Oh?" His face was still unreadable.

"Your horse is in the barn."

"Saw him already, fed them too. Smart thinkin', that rope you strung."

"My father taught me that trick one year when we got snowed in up here. It's easy to lose your direction when it's blowing that hard." She was looking around for a way to get up without exposing herself and he was not making it easy.

"This your place then?" he asked with a sip of coffee.

"Yup. We put it up here years ago as a halfway station for taking the cattle through the pass. I like to use it as a getaway more often though. I spend a lot of time here."

She had to stop talking and get dressed. He didn't seem to notice her discomfort.

"Nice." He took another sip of coffee.

She finally just gathered a few of the blankets around herself and stood up. He never budged. Just kept looking at her with that unreadable expression and a crooked smile that was infuriating.

"Coffee?" he offered with raised eyebrows.

"Maybe after I get dressed?" she said pointedly, but he didn't budge.

She resigned herself to the fact that he was staying put and was for some unknown reason, enjoying himself immensely. Wrapping a blanket tight around her shoulders, she made her way over to the dresser by the bed and pulled some clothing out. She went behind the screen, giving him a backward look, which he, yet again, raised an innocent eyebrow over, and got herself clothed. She came out with bare feet, shirt and pants on, braces down around her waist. She went to another drawer and pulled out socks and sat in the overstuffed chair to put them on.

"Coffee?" he asked again.

"Sure, that would be great."

She pulled her boots on then took the cup thankfully. It was hot and strong, just how she liked it. Then she started picking up all of the blankets. She made the bed and got the throws back up on the chairs. Taking the rug outside she gave it a shake, then put it back in front of the fire. She saw the basin and threw some water on her face. Her clothes she threw in a pile at the foot of the bed and then grabbed a brush and sat back down. She began brushing her hair while he watched, and after fifty strokes started the braid she always wore.

"Don't." Her hands stopped and she looked at him questioningly.

"It looks nice like that."

She knew her cheeks flushed again, but put the brush back on the dresser, adding combs in the side to keep it pulled back from her face.

"Well, better see what damage is done." She went out to the porch.

He came out behind her and stood just a little closer than she was accustomed to. She tried to ignore the feelings he was evoking as she surveyed the white beauty around her. She could feel his breath on her hair and they both stood very still. Their breath mingled as a single smoke plume into the morning air.

"Well, the boys will be down with the cattle in a couple of hours I imagine, and they won't be able to reach either those pens or the bunkhouse. Got some shoveling to do there, and the food is all in the root cellar over there. They'll be howling for hot food, so maybe I best start there."

He liked her matter of fact manner.

"Where do you want me to start?" he asked, very close to her ear.

"You fed the horses?" she asked him, trying to keep her voice steady.

"Done," he replied. He liked how the sun reflected the red highlights in her hair. He resisted a sudden urge to touch it.

"Well, probably the pens then. Best to get those cattle contained when they get here.

His horse gave a loud whinny out the barn door.

"Company comin'," he said and moved to the edge of the porch to see who, but there was no one in sight yet.

She reached in the door and grabbed her coat and hat. Then on second thought, with another blush, put the hat back on the peg. She turned back around, grabbed a shovel from the side of the door and headed for the root cellar.

"There's more shovels in the barn. I just keep the one by the door, just in case."

He grabbed his own coat and hat and headed for the barn.

She started to shovel a pathway to the food stores and fought hard to keep from turning around and watching him. He, on the other hand, had no such qualms and looked at her every chance he got. He had just got the first gate unburied when the riders appeared.

"Padrina! Miss Hank! Como estas!' the greeting rang out loud and happy in the sunshine.

"Paulo! Bien, gracias. What took you so long?"

The dark man jumped from his horse and smiled at his boss. Then he saw Vin leaning on his shovel and raised an eyebrow.

"Hola Senior Tanner" he called out. Vin tipped his hat to the man. Paulo looked back at her

"Only a loco man would have ridden through that storm last night." He gave Vin a pointed look at which he received a smile in return.

" We got turned back, then set out again as soon as we could this morning. But now, look at this!" He spun in a circle with his arms outstretched with such a big smile that everyone else had to smile with him. "Muy bonita!"

She suddenly realized there were more than just her men there.

"Chris, Josiah! Good to see you! What brings you up to the station?" She went to shake their hands warmly.

"Thought we might’a lost somethin'," Chris said as he watched Vin walking towards them.

"Almost did," Vin said with a smile and an outstretched hand to his friend.

Chris dismounted and tied his horse to the railing.

"Padrina," Paulo had an admonishing tone about him, "you weren't out in that storm bein' loco, were you?"

He put his hands on his hips like he was scolding a daughter.

"Of course I was Paulo. Just a small misjudgment on my part, but it turned out all right." She smiled at the dark man and he fairly beamed at her impudence.

"Let me guess," said Chris, "You were out there too?" He gave his friend a long look.

"Yup. Tell you 'bout it sometime."

Chris lit a cheroot while eyeing the nasty bruise on Vin's forehead.

They listened to Hannah give the men directions as to what needed doing and Josiah walked off with the other men to help. Chris looked at Hannah.

"How's that trail lookin' up above? Have you checked it out yet this mornin?"

"That's not a bad idea. Haven't had much of a chance to even think of that yet." She looked up the hillside.

Chris mounted his horse again. "I'll do it." And he was off.

She and Vin exchanged a look and a smile, and got back to work. With six men helping, things happened quickly. Josiah had helped her shovel a pathway to the door of the food stores then went to help Vin at the pens.

Inside again, she got the wood stove fired up and put on a big pot of stew as well as two pots of coffee. The small cabin was soon filled with the smell of fresh baked biscuits and Hannah was on the second batch when the men came in for the first round of coffee. She pulled the first batch of biscuits out of the oven and plopped them on the table with a big jar of jam.

"Help yourself," she said and turned for the coffeepot, which was not there. Vin had already taken it from the stove and was putting it on the table, so she grabbed cups and handed them out. She laughed as Josiah put a big glob of jam and an entire biscuit into his mouth at once and smiled at the ceiling as he made some sort of contented sound. She turned back to the stove and Vin reached out and wiped flour off her cheek. He turned back to the table while she blushed furiously. The other men watched without comment.

She was out giving the mare her overdue brushing when she finally heard the first of the cattle. She put the brush away and gave her a pat on the neck before she went outside.

"Paulo, you will have to guide them in or they won't even see those gates for all this snow" she hollered over to him.

'Si Miss Hank, right away" and he was on his horse with the three other men he brought and off up the trail.

Josiah stayed at the gate waving his hat at the bawling cattle as they were driven into the first pen, and when that one was full, he closed the gate so the second pen could fill up as well.

Vin was on horseback and soon came into sight with the other men. He felt her watching him and turned to see her on the porch. "Makes for a nice picture ta' keep in a man's mind," he said to no one in particular, but Chris was within earshot and turned in his saddle to see what his friend was talking about.

"That it does my friend, that it does."

It gave Chris a moment of pain as it recalled pictures in his own mind’s eye, but he gave his friend a smile anyway and turned back around.

Vin tipped his hat to her with a smile and a wink and went about the work again.

Soon all the cattle were in and she walked to the pen climbing up onto the rail. She looked for a brand and there it was.

"These are Tucker's all right. Will he ever be happy! Good work boys!' She gave her men a dazzling smile "Get some rest, get dry, I put food and coffee in the bunkhouse and the fire is going. Don't have to head back down until tomorrow morning." They gave a bit of a cheer and headed for the barn.

"You're welcome to stay too," she told the three men still in front of her. "There's food in the cabin and beds in the bunkhouse. The boys could use the help riding back down in the morning.

Josiah had already dismounted and was heading for the barn.

"I know what she cooks like, I'm stayin'."

Chris looked after him. "Sure, why not." He dismounted also.

Vin was already starting to walk his gelding to the barn, but Hannah had waved a young man over.

"Yes Miss Hank?" he asked

"Sam, could you look after these horses for me please? Take good care of them, I would appreciate it."

"Sure thing Miss Hank, right away!" And he gently led off the two black geldings.

The three of them walked over and sat on the porch listening to all of the sounds around them.

"It was a nice thing you did, comin' after Tucker's cattle like that Hannah."

She liked that Chris never called her Miss, or had pretensions about anything.

"What else do you do when a neighbor is in need?" She shrugged the compliment off.

"Maybe you dig him out of a snowbank?" He gave her a sideways look with a grin and puffed on his cheroot.

"Maybe," she answered with a smile of her own and went inside.

Chris chuckled and gave his head a shake.

Josiah had joined them and gave Vin a thoughtful stare.

“Looks like you got yourself you're very own guardian angel there Vin."

He fairly beamed at the younger man.

They had an enjoyable dinner, and all of them helped to clear the table and clean up, which she appreciated. They shared an easy companionship, and for once she didn't begrudge sharing her little hideaway. After supper, they sat by the fire and she pulled out a whiskey bottle which elicited a crooked smile from Chris and a 'Hallelujah" from Josiah. She poured herself a small liqueur and they enjoyed their conversation together. They talked of everything from cattle, to the Kiowa village her brother lived in. The men had seen large bear tracks while driving the cattle to the station, and they decided it was probably a lone renegade, not ready to sleep, looking for food that was scaring the cattle off. Some of the men in the bunkhouse were already planning a hunting expedition she heard. Chris' cheroot gave the room a sweet smell and anyone looking in would think they were great life long friends. But, all good things must come to an end, and soon Josiah was up and stretching.

"Well, I don't know 'bout you boys but I'm near done in. Think I'll go find me a nice warm bed.

“ 'Night Miss Hannah. Thanks for a great evening." He patted her cheek on his way to the door.

Chris stood as well.

"Hold up Josiah, I'll come with you. Hannah." He tipped his hat and walked to the door also.

Vin was close behind him.

"I'll be along shortly" he told his friends.

Hannah had wrapped a blanket around her shoulders and sat in the porch swing, her feet drawn up underneath for warmth.

Vin sat next to her on the edge of the seat. He didn't speak, just looked out to the night.

He turned to her and took a piece of her hair between his fingers. After a moment he looked up.

' ‘Spose I should get goin' too."

“ 'Spose you should," she replied.

He slowly let the piece of hair fall from his hand and stood.

"'Night then Miss Hannah.'

"Goodnight then Mr.Tanner."

She watched him go and didn't leave the porch for a long time.

When she finally went in, she climbed into the big bed and remembered what it felt like to have him next to her. It took her a long time to fall asleep.

Vin had gone to his bunk silently and lay for a long time with his hands behind his head looking at the ceiling.

"You okay cowboy?" He had thought Chris was asleep.

"Oh yeah." He said it with a smile on his face.

Chris gave a chuckle and they both closed their eyes to their own thoughts.

+ + + + + + +

She had coffee and breakfast going by the time they came walking in

"Miss Hannah," asked Josiah, "is there nothin' that you can't do? Are you sure you don't have a sister somewhere?"

She laughed as he made a big show of settling down to eat.

"Mornin' Hannah," Chris greeted her as he came in.

"Morning Chris. Help yourself. Food’s hot, coffee’s strong."

"Just the way I like it" he grinned at her and pulled out a chair.

She was getting plates down when Vin came up behind her. He reached for the plates and took them from her hands. She involuntarily shivered when their hands touched.

"I'll get those". He put them on the table and the other two started digging in. He pulled a chair out for her and she sat down to join them. He surprised her again by handing her a cup of coffee before getting his own.

"Thank you" she jumped up and got more biscuits as Josiah seemed to have quite a liking for them. She sat down again.

"The boys will be ready to go in about two hours," Paulo said. "One of the horses needs a shoe and they had a couple of pieces of tack that needed mending, but they were happy to hear you were heading down with them."

"You're not comin'." Chris made it sound more like a statement than a question.

"No, I'm gonna stay up here for awhile I think. There's some fencing to tighten and I have to put that barn back to rights. I also need to take an inventory of what we will be needing in the spring up here. This is a busy place in the spring and summer. Don't usually have more than just me up here in the winter." She sipped her coffee.

"We'll miss you on the ride Miss Hannah," Josiah said with sincerity.

Vin ate his breakfast in silence.

Soon they were all gathered and the cattle were started down the trail.

"Adios Padrina! Stay safe! Don't forget, if you're not down in one week, we're comin' back up for you!" Paulo gave her a big smile as he headed after the cattle.

"Thanks for the hospitality Hannah," Chris tipped his hat and lit a cheroot. "I can see why you like it here. Nice place."

"Thanks Chris. You're welcome to it anytime."

"Might take you up on that."

He nodded before turning to ride away.

Josiah gave his thanks as well and was extremely pleased when she handed him the bundle of biscuits and jam for the trail, giving her a bear hug and a kiss on the cheek in return. They started after the other men.

Vin looked at her for a long moment, then tipping his hat rode out after them.

She stood on the edge of the porch and saw him turn in his saddle to look back. She made the Kiowa motion with her hand and saw him smile, then went to her tasks.

+ + + + + + +

It was late afternoon when the men finally reached the bottom of the hill. They headed straight for the Tucker place. Some of the townspeople had come to help mend the broken fence and the cattle were put back up in no time. Mr.Tucker couldn't thank them enough. Mary Travis had even come out with some of the other women to cook for the men. When all the work was finished people started heading back to town, some on horseback, some in wagons. Mary was in a buckboard by herself and was getting ready to leave when Chris noticed she was alone.

"Goin' back by yourself?" He lit a cheroot under the brim of his hat.

"Why, yes, as a matter of fact Mr.Larabee. Is there a problem?"

"It's gettin' dark, we'll ride along." It was his usual statement of fact. They mounted up and Chris turned to Vin, who he had noticed casting many a glance back at that hillside. Vin was checking his cinch and adjusting his saddlebags.

"Comin' cowboy?" He spit to the side before looking up at him.

Vin mounted his horse, gave him a smile, tipped his hat to Mary and cantered back up the way they had come without answering. Chris smiled after him and turned for home.

+ + + + + + +

It seemed awfully quiet after all the commotion the day before. She got lots of work done, as well as holding a great conversation with her mare about life in general. The mare was a fine conversationalist, blinking her large dark eyes in reply to everything Hannah asked her. She set the entire barn to rights, and had a good start on her supply list. After a light supper, she boiled big pots of water and taken a hot bath in front of the fire, relishing in the warmth. Her hair was clean, and she could smell the lemon and lavender that she had added to the water for a treat. She was terribly restless. After cleaning up, she made a cup of tea and put on her nightdress. Throwing a blanket over her shoulders she went out to the porch swing.

She didn't know how long she sat there staring at the stars, but was suddenly aware of a rider coming in. She stood slowly and walked to the edge of the porch. When she saw him coming up the path with the moonlight shining on him, he looked almost like an apparition. She thought she had never seen anything so perfect in her entire life.

With the full moon and the white snow on the ground, it was almost like riding in daylight. When Vin looked up to the cabin, she was outlined in the moonlight and looked like a vision to him. He could see her nightdress blowing gently in the breeze, her figure underneath highlighted by the moon's soft light, and her hair was loose about her face. He thought he had never seen anything so beautiful in his life. His eyes never left hers as he rode up to the hitching rail.

He dismounted and tied the gelding, then climbed the steps to where she had not moved.

He ran his hands through her hair. He gently put his hands on her face and lifted it slowly to his.

"I thought I'd never get here," he whispered.

"I wondered if you'd ever come," she whispered back.

And their first kiss was never to be forgotten by either of them.