“Is he going to be all right?” the wan woman asked, biting her lower lip.
Joshua Paxon shrugged and kept working on his patient’s bleeding head. “I don’t know,” he sighed. With a hand cracked from cold and hard work he pulled the blanket up to the sleeping stranger’s bearded chin.
His wife’s brow furrowed. “Are you still going out?”
“Have to.” Paxon started pulling on his insulated boots. “Did you find any ID on him?”
She was still holding the old man’s scorched parka. “No. Not a thing in his pockets except a piece of a cookie. Oatmeal raisin.” Shuffling her feet nervously, she returned to her earlier plea. “Listen, why don’t you wait until morning? It’s Christmas Eve, for heaven’s sake.”
“I’m sorry, hon’. But if that was a plane crash we heard, there may be more people hurt. Maybe some who couldn’t crawl away like he did.”
Mrs. Paxon touched her husband’s worn face and smiled a little. “You’re right,” she whispered. “Let’s go.”
He looked up, less surprised than she probably expected. “Riding shotgun, hmm? Who’ll watch our patient?”
Mary was squirming into her blaze-orange jumpsuit. “He’ll be out for hours. Others may freeze to death by then. Besides, those big fumble-fingers of yours won’t be much good if we have to do some serious first aid.”
Josh stood and gave her a peck on her thin warm lips. “If this turns out to be nothing, I’ll bring you back here and show you who has fumble-fingers.”
A corner of her mouth turned up. “Oh, so we’re playing doctor either way, huh?”
They were bundled up now. Josh had their big medical kit in one hand and a maglite in the other. His wife grabbed blankets and an Army surplus five-gallon water can.
“Well, here we go,” Paxon announced, heading for the cabin door.
“Wait, Joshua. You must take me with you.”
Paxon turned back to ask Mary what she was talking about. Then it struck him that it hadn’t been her voice he’d heard.
Wobbly but upright, the pudgy old man was struggling into the burnt and torn parka. At the same time he was pushing wide feet into what was left of his old black boots. Despite the head injury, his blue eyes glittered with a clear fire. When he moved, tiny pale flames seemed to crawl through his white hair and beard.
“Mister,” cried the alarmed Paxon,” you really shouldn’t be out of bed.”
The stranger stared benignly back at him. “No, we must hurry to the crash site,” he insisted pleasantly but firmly. His voice sounded like dozens of crystal bells set to ancient music.
Josh’s will melted and flowed out of him like spring snow from a roof. He found himself following the odd little fellow outside as if he were being led on an invisible leash. Mary was at his elbow, a bemused smile on her face usually seen on small children at magic shows. A moment later they were sledding north through the Alaskan night behind the couple’s eight yelping dogs.
Paxon kept trying to ask the stranger questions, such as how he’d known his name when he’d been unconscious ever since they’d found him. But every time the opened his mouth, the desire to know mysteriously left him, as if the question itself were being gently nudged from his mind. Mary, tucked into the sled behind their visitor, merely kept gazing at him as if she were seeing a shooting star.
Twenty minutes of peaceful sledding was abruptly ended as the darkness was ripped apart by cruel lights and a harsh command to identify themselves. The dogs snarled and snapped at a pair of huge helmeted figures which blocked their way, brandishing assault weapons. The soldiers were very young and clearly scared. Beyond the men Paxon could make out some sort of commotion of men and metal.
From under the rugs in the sled came that marvelous sound of melodious bells. “We’re friends, son. We have business here. Stand aside, please.”
Astonishingly, both sentries moved away and waved them forward. Paxon urged the dogs along again. No one challenged them again as they glided into a substantial clearing that was surrounded by burnt and broken trees. Stopping the rig at a hastily-erected rope barrier, Paxon and Mary stared in horrified amazement.
Several olive-green trucks were parked at the edge of the open space, banks of lights in their beds pouring harsh illumination into the cordoned-off area. Behind them sat half a dozen helicopters—mostly Blackhawks, but also a pair of fully-armed Apaches. At least a hundred shivering infantrymen, their breaths clouding the icy air, crowded against the ropes. They were murmuring, shaking their heads, and occasionally pointing at the clearing. Inside the barrier a clump of dazed officers was gathered around a piece of still-steaming wreckage. Although it was shattered--and scarred by fire—Paxon could still recognize it. He felt Mary’s sharp intake of breath beside him as she also saw it for what it was.
A large red sleigh.
Scattered all around it were countless toys: dump trucks, dolls, chemistry sets, football helmets, books…all the trappings of childhood dreams. It saddened Joshua, of course, to see so much potential happiness lying in ruins. But they were merely things. Replaceable things. Their loss wasn’t what horrified him about the awful scene.
No, it was the eight dead reindeer that made his flesh crawl.
They lay in twisted, broken lumps, silver antlers shattered from when they’d ploughed into the frozen ground. The once-glittering golden harness was now dulled by snow and mud …and blood. No glee rang from the grimly-silent bells now. Paxon shook his head in disbelief. He blinked as he tried to absorb the scene. While Mary’s trembling arm slid into his and gripped him tightly, he tried to remember the names of the reindeer. When he’d got as far as ‘Cupid’ he finally dared to look over at the old man he’d rescued.
Tears were frozen on both their cheeks.
Stepping across the ropes, the stranger limped toward the corpse of the sleigh. No one moved to stop him. He halted near one of the dead deer and stroked its cold, still flank. Now he looked very old, indeed—as ancient as all fear and grief. With a sigh he stooped stiffly to thrust his hand at what looked like a bloodstain in the snow. When he brought his trembling hand back up, Josh felt Mary clutch him with a tiny gasp.
It was a red velvet cap, trimmed in ermine.
A wail of frustrated rage rose from the clearing, a keening cry that drove Paxon to his knees in empathy. Mary fell with him. The American soldiers seemed to be frozen to the ground where they stood, powerless to do anything but watch. Their leaders turned toward the tortured sound but made no other move.
To Joshua they all looked ashamed…the same feeling that choked him. Slowly the snow-haired man turned a complete circle, meeting the eyes of every one of them…at least, those who weren’t staring at their boots. No sound could be heard but the crumping of his boots in the snow.
He was glaring at the officers now, the wound on his head livid. It was as if he were daring them to try to explain away their crime. No one seemed up to the challenge. The bulk of the huddle eventually turned their eyes to gaze toward one man in particular. The one with the black stars on his helmet.
“We…We thought it was…an incoming missile,” he whispered weakly. “That was its radar signature.” The general managed to meet the old man’s cold stare for a quivering instant. “We had to shoot it down.” Then his eyes fell to the bloody snow.
A snort of contempt greeted this. The frozen tears shattered from his cheeks as the stranger cried, “When will you learn?!” He received only ashamed silence in answer. “Tell me! Is this going to go on forever, this madness?” His voice broke a little. “Have you learned nothing from me at all?”
Shaking his head, he turned away from them with a growl of disgust. He held his hands out. The trembling that had been there before was gone. Crystalline magic leapt from them and swirled round the clearing in a blue-white rush. Paxon and Mary squinted at the overwhelming lovely light. The sound was of a billion children smiling. Josh was certain he smelled brownies baking. He turned away from the agonizing goodness to look at his wife. Mary was still staring at their former patient. In her wide eyes he saw an enchanted three year-old. It had his face.
With a sound of sadness leaving a sickroom the magic returned to the old man. Paxon turned back toward him, blinking. He caught his breath. The lights in the trucks had been blown out, but he could still see everything in the clearing as if it were noon. The sleigh was whole and full of toys once more, proud lively reindeer dancing impatiently in their glittering harness. Their antlers caught the moonlight like gemstones in a chandelier. Their master’s broad forehead was now clear and unwounded. His parka was a shining new crimson and his boots gleamed as if waxed. He hopped nimbly onto the sleigh and grabbed the reins.
“I don’t bring you toys, my children,” he said in a clear young voice. “I bring you love.” He smiled sadly. “May you someday learn to accept the gift.”
The sleigh rose slowly and silently from the ground. Mary’ hand slid into Joshua’s. She held a warm oatmeal raisin cookie out to him. Her husband raised an eyebrow, but she just smiled and shrugged. Nickolas winked at them, then let out a laugh that they felt, oven-warm, on their chilled faces. The reindeer shook their heads and pulled him aloft. Long after they were out of sight, Joshua and Mary could still feel the harness bells laughing.