For the MistletoebyOwensDarlin©
Once upon a time... silent intruders came out of the frosty night, their greedy eyes upon the horses. Kirnan's big paint stallion, Cinco, was prize enough to warrant a thief risking his personal well being, and the Catcher's fast black gelding was not an undesirable commodity.
As always, Kirnan moved quickly for a man his size and, before the Catcher could blink fully awake, the gunman was out of his blankets and off into the moonless night, nothing but starlight on the frosty cloud left by his breath to show where he'd been.
Pistol in hand, the Catcher went straight to the picket line.
Cinco was not there, but she hadn't expected him to be. Kirnan rarely picketed him. The paint was perverse enough to actually enjoy the man's company and so stayed nearby until needed. Imp was there, though, his black ears pricked with moderate interest toward the quiet sound of pursuit in the near distance. Quickly, the Catcher checked the tie lines of the two pack horses. One had been cut, but that horse had lingered near his companions, abandoned by the would-be thief. Listening intently, she caught the animal and secured it again.
As the bounty hunter ran her hand down her own gelding's winter-haired neck, a sharp sound cracked the frigid air, immediately followed by another, making the animals flinch. Patting Imp's muscular shoulder, the Catcher murmured, "Well, my lad, there is one man who will never attempt to set people afoot again...."
She faded back into the shadow of a blue spruce and waited.
By the time Imp whinnied softly and received an answering whicker from Cinco as the big stallion ambled out of the gloom, her teeth were beginning to chatter. Kirnan slid from the paint's bare back as the Catcher tucked her Hartford into the pocket of her lamentably rumpled riding skirt and emerged from the shadows.
Outwardly, Kirnan seemed calm, but she knew his thoughts were racing after the close call. She sent him a serene thought of her own and he replied with a look that might have been either gratitude or irony. With only starlight to illuminate his face, it was impossible to tell.
"How many?" she asked.
His big hands carefully explored the great paint's body, checking for any sign of injury. "Three that I saw," he said quietly. "Two, now."
"And one of them," she added softly, "will limp for a time."
He flashed a look over his shoulder. "That he will." With his chin, he indicated the other animals. "Alright?"
"Yes. One had been cut loose, but boredom seems to be their worst affliction." As her teeth clattered together, she added, "And cold."
"Go back to your soogan," Kirnan suggested.
She watched him tie Cinco to the picket line. His fingers fumbled slightly, now. She knew his hands were just as cold as were hers. He wore flannel and leather, but not enough of it to keep out the early-morning freeze.
"I don't think I could sleep, now.... Any idea what the time might be?"
He gave the stars a long glance where they twinkled in their black bed. "Coming on four, I reckon. Why," he asked, echoing some of her own thoughts, "didn't you know they were coming?"
As he had good reason to know, she had the uncanny ability to read the thoughts of most people - and some creatures - around her. On this occasion, that unusual gift had failed her. She shrugged a shoulder. "I was sleeping quite hard. I dreamed of footsteps in the snow, but it meant nothing to me until the commotion started. Kirn... let's ride on."
"Let's ride on," she repeated. "If we leave now, we'll be sure of making Denver by nightfall."
He glanced at her. "You have a sudden overwhelming desire to see your mother?" he asked, his tone bone dry.
"No," she said firmly. She hesitated, somewhat at a loss for words. For days, she had felt driven to go, but she could not say why. "It is nearly Christmas Eve."
Her friend gave a short laugh and turned back to his horse. "And how does that make your mother more palatable?"
She stomped her feet, encouraging warming blood to move down to her round-toed boots. When she realized that it must make her look like a child throwing a tantrum, she stopped and said a bit crossly, "It doesn't."
He was baiting her mildly, being deliberately obtuse, and now had closed off her access to his thoughts, as well. He was one of the few people who had the ability to lock her out at will. It was one of the things she liked about him, but it was nearly always quite annoying.
"It is you who assumes this trip to Denver is to visit my mother. I never said anything of the sort."
Having made the stallion comfortable to his liking, Kirnan turned and walked toward their fire, leaving her to follow in his track.
"Alright," he drawled ahead of her, "if you're not headed to see your mother, why are you bound for Denver?"
"My health," she told his back, and had the satisfaction of hearing him mutter beneath his breath.
Over a small, sheltered fire, and dressed once again in their heavy coats, they drank strong coffee and ate hard biscuits while the horses munched grain. "Ain't ridin' through knee-deep snow in the dark," Kirnan had said flatly, so it was first light before they buried the body of the would-be horse thief under boulders that were too large for an animal to move.
"He doesn't look more than eighteen," the Catcher said regretfully as the last stone rolled into place.
Kirnan, panting from the effort of moving rocks with very little help from his disobliging companion, said, "Yup. Damn shame."
"Just a boy."
"That boy," he reminded succinctly, "was about to set us afoot in deep snow, ten miles from the nearest help." He handed her a small leather wallet as they walked back to the horses. "That was inside his vest. Might see if there's anything to identify him. No bounty on him, I'm thinkin'."
The reply she flung at his mind was impolite, but he didn't hear it. "You know that means nothing to me," she said aloud. "Not with a boy such as that."
Yes, he knew. He knew that it was justice, not money, that sent her questing. Money, she had inherited. Justice was not necessarily so easy to come by.
They were well away, the horses picking a track back up to the road through snow that was - as Kirnan had predicted - knee deep, before she took the wallet from her pocket and examined its contents.
"Three dollars twenty cents in silver," she called to Kirnan, who was above her on the slope. "A silver button - a good luck piece, perhaps? A key. And...." She unfolded a square of paper. "A brief letter. From his sister.... Kirn?..."
Cinco lunged up over the bank and onto the flat of the road before Kirnan looked back and said, "Well?"
Imp plunged upward after the paint, his shorter legs making more work of the project. When they, too, were on the road and she had caught her breath, she said, "The address on the letter is Denver. The boy's sister lives in Denver."
"Well,..." Kirnan drawled softly as they turned up the road, side by side, and the suddenly risen sun turned the thick layer of snow into countless tiny fiery crystals.
* * *
The house rose straight up out of the snow, a solid mass of stone and timber, its Roman arches bedecked with holly and other greens, and its Gothic windows sporting a potentially dangerous combination of lace curtains and glowing candles. In the light of a flickering arc lamp, before its open, imposing iron gate, the Catcher and Kirnan sat their horses, staring at it. The Catcher's mouth was open slightly in an uncharacteristically uncouth manner....
Kirnan gave a single dry cough and she said quickly, "Don't you dare laugh."
He grinned, instead, beneath the icy fringe of his dark moustache. "When you told me your brother'd bought him a new house, you didn't say it was a medieval castle."
"I didn't know." She swung down from the saddle stiffly. "No sense in sitting here in the cold."
"Nope," Kirnan agreed, and stayed put.
The Catcher stamped her cold-numbed feet a few times before she pushed back her sable hood and looked up at her companion.
"You are coming in with me." It was not a question.
For a moment, he didn't reply. Then he nodded slightly toward the house and said, "See the carriages and horses?"
"Yes." She examined his thoughts as well as he allowed, then turned her attention beyond the gate to those minds that were working so busily inside the massive stone walls.
"They are having a Christmas celebration," she said after a few moments. "My mother is present."
"She hates the sight of me," Kirnan said with practical disinterest. "There's no point in raising a ruckus on Christmas Eve."
The Catcher turned to look full up at the tall man on the paint.
"My mother," she said firmly, "is present, but so is one of my brother's business associates...." She paused a moment to listen. "And a judge. My mother admires them both. She won't make a scene in front of them. I won't stay. I want only to give my brother his Christmas gift. A servant will answer the door. I will simply ask them to summon him quietly, hand the gift over to him, and we will be on our way. We then have another stop to make."
Kirnan had been sitting motionless, his blue eyes examining the stone house and its grounds. He now directed that clear blue gaze down upon the woman and raised a questioning eyebrow. She obliged.
"That boy's sister. We have some keepsakes to deliver."
Now both eyebrows went up slightly as Kirnan said, "You may have keepsakes to deliver. I've got no intention of visiting the sister."
"Why not, if I may ask?"
"Because I'm not gonna look her in the eye, on Christmas Eve, and tell her that her brother was a horse thief and I killed him."
The Catcher watched him for a moment, thoughtfully. She said, "She lives a little off of thirteenth, in a district that is less than wholesome. I have no intention of going there alone, at night."
"Poor, defenseless little lady," he said, quietly mocking. "You figure to knock on the door, say, 'Your brother's dead, here's the man who killed him, Happy Christmas'?"
She glared upward, firing an assortment of unladylike thoughts at him. "Of course not. We will say that we found his body - which is true - and buried it - also true - and we are simply returning his effects, such as they are. All true."
"There's a hot bath with my name on it waiting over at the Windsor."
"Fiddle-faddle," the Catcher said, turning on her heel and passing through the gate. The short drive had been swept clean of snow, no doubt by some under-compensated servant, and she started up it. "You are nowhere near that selfish. Besides, you despise that hotel. You say everyone there is 'snooty.' You know the only reason you like to go there is to ride in the elevator."
She heard a small, strangled noise behind her. "Don't," said Kirnan after a moment, "forget the springy dance floor."
"And the suspended dance floor," she allowed, Imp following her in the direction of the waiting carriages beside her brother's home. "And," she added beneath her breath, "the saloon's Mezcal."
Behind her, she heard Cinco's big feet thud on the cleared driveway.
The interior of the stone house's foyer was lined in dark walnut. The Catcher and Kirnan stood side by side, just inside the door, and waited as a maid's pert apron bow and swishing black taffeta skirt departed for some other region of the house, leaving them alone with a dignified, quietly ticking grandfather clock.
"I believe this is the first time I've felt warmth in three days," the Catcher remarked, removing her gloves.
Kirnan made a sound of agreement. He angled a finger at the marble floor. "Looks like somebody stuck a pig then couldn't scrub out the blood."
Studying the pinkish veined marble and thinking that its lively color probably offended her mother's sense of culture and good taste whenever she entered Nicholas's home, she said, "It's probably quite fashionable, if we only knew.... Why would you say such a thing?" When there was no reply, she glanced at the gunman and found him looking upward. Her eyes followed and discovered a large bunch of mistletoe that had been hung by a golden cord from the ceiling. Finding Kirnan's gleaming blue gaze had shifted to herself, she said tartly, "Do not even think it."
He turned away from her, ostensibly examining the clock's ornate face, but she knew he was grinning.
A door opened and Nicholas slipped out into the long hallway. He looked just the same, the Catcher thought, still her familiar big brother, dark, well turned out, and handsome. She heard him greet her before the words came out of his mouth. When he hugged her, she was slightly ashamed for enjoying the human warmth of his body even more than the warmth of his welcome.
"Hello, Kirnan," Nicholas said, extending his hand. "Welcome to my home, both of you, and I hope you'll stay the night with us."
The Catcher detected surprise in Kirnan's mind, although neither his face nor his voice revealed it. "Kind of you," he said. "I've already got plans."
Nicholas nodded his gracious acceptance of that rebuff.
Have you ever told him I can do it, too? Nicholas wondered with an internal laugh.
No, the Catcher let her brother hear. But have a care. He's very perceptive, you know.
"I do wish you'd come in and warm yourselves by the fire, at least," Nicholas said aloud. "We have a Yule log going. You both look chilled."
"Frozen is more like it," the Catcher said, and dug deep into her pocket. "Thank you for the invitation, Nicky, but you know it's better if Mama and Kirn - or I, for that matter - don't come face to face. I simply wanted you to have this before Christmas." She pressed a small package into his hand. "You may open it whenever you like."
Nicholas turned the small leather-wrapped bundle over and over in his hand, as if trying to sense its contents. The Catcher was careful to clear her mind of all thought of the specially designed silver and gold watch fob he would find when he opened it.
"You have me quite curious, sister," he said. "At least come in while I open it, and let me give you yours. We have catching up to do."
Enjoying the frantic scraping of mind her brother was preforming in an effort to think of some token he might present her tall companion as a spur-of-the-moment gift, she said, "I'd like to come back and visit tomorrow afternoon, if I may. I'll have my present then, if you please, my dear. Unless?..."
He could probably have guessed the completion of that sentence even if he had not been able to read her thoughts. "No," he said, with a little side glance at Kirnan, "Mother will not be here tomorrow."
"And you said there is no God," Kirnan murmured.
"I said no such thing," the Catcher said placidly, working her hands back into her riding gloves. "I merely said He must sometimes be quite distracted. Very well, tomorrow afternoon it is, then. Meanwhile... my friend and I have some business to which we must tend."
"On Christmas Eve?" Nicholas questioned, with a glance at the taller man whose impassive face and closed thoughts told him nothing.
"Yes," the Catcher said firmly as Kirnan reached for the ornate brass door knob. "I know it's unusual, but... there you have it. Tomorrow." She threw her arms around her brother again, enjoying the scent of shaving soap and brandy that hung lightly about him. "Merry Christmas, Nicky!"
"Tomorrow," her brother agreed, and she and Kirnan were out the door into the cold and walking side by side down the stone steps.
Kirnan inhaled a deep, refreshing breath.
"There," the Catcher said as they reached the ground. "It wasn't so bad, was it?"
"Compared to what?"
* * *
On the street where the boy's sister lived, no stone houses rose up from the snow. Neither was the area quite as unwholesome as the Catcher had implied, although there were few street lights to chase away the shadows. The houses were close together, generally clapboard-sided, and just this side of shabby. Some evidence of the season could be seen, greens on the doors and candles in the windows. From one of the larger houses, which bore a hand-lettered "Rooms To Let" sign, sounds of masculine Christmas revelry drifted out to Kirnan and the Catcher as they rode up the snowy street.
They left the horses tied to a ring in the post of a low fence in front of a small pale-colored house.
The door on which they were to knock featured a single thick fir bough with a bit of red plaid ribbon trailing from it. The Catcher stood silently before it for a few moments before saying, "I am so tired. I'm afraid I shall fall asleep before we've done this."
Kirnan reached out and sharply rapped his knuckles on the door panel.
The door was opened cautiously, a few rays of lamplight escaped, and a pair of guileless dark eyes peeped out at them from a height of about three feet. They traveled upward over Kirnan's bulky winter outfit, and on up to his frosty moustache.
"Are you... Santa Claus?" the little girl inquired.
Immediately, Kirnan dropped down on his heels to look straight into those innocent eyes.
"Nope," he said gently, "but I sure am cold. Reckon your mama'd mind if we came in and stood by the fire?"
The child, dressed only in a thin nightdress, continued to examine the man before her for a time, before saying, "She's not here. She went to try to get some wood. Not very much," she added scrupulously and managed to tear her fascinated gaze away from Kirnan and redirect it at the Catcher. "Are you a lady?"
"I certainly hope so," the Catcher said, giving the door a gentle push. "May we come in? Thank you."
They were in.
The house's front room was only marginally warmer than the doorstep. The reason for that was obvious. The wood box was nearly empty. Almost immediately, the Catcher asked, "Do you think I might have a drink of water? I'm very thirsty."
The child nodded obligingly and went off toward the kitchen. The Catcher followed, pulling her fingers out of their gloves and taking the opportunity to peek into the house's single bedroom on the way. In the kitchen, the shelves were nearly bare. Half a loaf of bread, two tins of tomatoes and one of peaches, a small bag of dried beans, two home-canned jars of plums, perhaps a cup of cornmeal, and a bottle of Heinz green pepper sauce.
The water was very cold. The Catcher would have preferred a cup of steaming tea, but her purpose had been served. She downed the icy liquid, permitted the little girl to stroke the sleeve of her sable riding coat, and returned to the front room where the gunman, having removed his wide-brimmed hat and bulky coat, was down on one knee, nursing the fire in the small Franklin stove into something more productive.
This is most probably why he did it. The Catcher aimed the thought at the back of Kirnan's head. Slowly, he turned and looked at her, then at the girl, who was again studying him.
"Stop that," Kirnan warned the Catcher softly.
Oblivious to the exchange, the girl pointed at one of his twin-pistol rig. "You can't wear those in town," she said. "They're not allowed." Seeing the adults' questioning looks, she added, "Mama told Uncle Frank. She said, 'Franky, you can't have that here. You'll get in trouble.'"
And so he did, the Catcher clearly heard Kirnan think. Should've listened to your sister, boy.
"You're right," he agreed aloud. "What's your name?"
The child smiled shyly. "Molly."
"Molly, you can call me 'Kirnan.'" He offered his hand and her small one disappeared in his gentle grip. "Your mother was right. I'll be real careful to take these off as soon as I get where I'm going."
He was about to say more, the Catcher knew, when they heard the squelch of shoes in snow, just outside. The door swung open and a tall, attractive, redheaded young woman hustled in, quickly shutting the door behind her.