A snowstorm rolled down like a misty white blanket over the fortress-like caprock of Johnson Mesa, slowly engulfing its imposing mass into white nothingness. Kathryn stood on the porch alone, arms wrapped tightly around herself, her ocean blue eyes tearfully staring out far past the mesa and its ghostly attacker.
Somewhere out there, in the rough canyon country beyond the mesa, the wreckage of a single-engine Cessna lay inaccessible to rescuers. It was Daniel's plane. He had been rushing home from a meeting in Washington to be with his family on Christmas. Just south of Trinidad, near Raton Pass, he radioed a distress call that he had narrowly avoided another aircraft, but had lost engine power and was going in for a crash landing. Search planes had found the wreckage, but the terrain and the snowstorm made it unlikely a search team would reach it before morning. The search plane had reported no sign of a survivor before weather had forced them back to Pueblo.
"He didn't even want to make this trip...," Kathryn sobbed to herself, "...he was so worried about not being home for Christmas. I wish I hadn't pushed him into going. Why do I always encourage him to do things he says he doesn't want to?" Her voice trailed off into heart-wrenching sobs.
Kathryn remembered how he always talked about wanting a nice quiet life with her, leaving the rest of the world to take care of itself. She knew he meant it with all his heart, but she also knew it wasn't his nature. He reminded her of Don Quixote at times, always chasing another windmill and enjoying every minute of it. She smiled through her tears at the thought. She loved the way his eyes twinkled and his voice became animated whenever he talked about his latest project.
"It was always going to be the last one," Kathryn thought sadly "...he may have been right this time."
The advance guard of the storm began powdering the porch with snowflakes, and the north wind gave her a chill has she turned to walk back into the house. She would have to tell Cody what happened and had avoided it until now because she could not believe it yet herself. It didn't "feel" like he was gone.
Kathryn stopped before opening the door to the house, watching her son finish tending to the fire before sitting down at his beloved computer. She dabbed at her tears and smiled as she watched him. At 13, Cody was the spitting image of his father. He had the same twinkle in his eye and determination to accomplish what he set his mind to, as well as his aptitude for computers and technology. He was growing into a fine young man and she was very proud of him. She loved to watch Daniel patiently, though sometimes bluntly, teach Cody the lessons of life that he had learned the hard way. She knew her husband had lived a hard life before meeting her and she knew he didn't want Cody to have to learn the same way.
As Kathryn opened the door, she wondered if she would be able to keep Cody from rushing out to rescue his father, once she told him what had happened. He was strong-willed and stubborn like his father, too. But, she knew that he would not disobey her wishes, and she would not allow him to go wandering around in the mountains at night in a snowstorm. The prospect of losing Daniel shattered her deeply... losing them both would kill her.
Before she could say a word, Cody turned around and smiled at her.
"Hey Mom, Dad sent you an e-mail. It's pretty long, as usual. He gets mushy again, too."
Kathryn fought back a sob, instead, glaring at her son.
"How many times do I have to tell you to leave my e-mail alone? You haven't split any firewood yet either, have you? You better get your chores done young man, or I'll ground your computer again."
The boy just grinned sheepishly as he rose from his chair and put on his jacket.
"Yes, Mother, I'm going... and I just skimmed it."
He gave her a wink and she could not help but smile, thinking, "So much like his father..."
She grabbed him and kissed him as he walked towards the door, then hugged him tightly.
"I need to talk to you when you get done. I love you sweetie."
After Cody walked out into the night, Kathryn slowly walked towards the computer. The message from Daniel was still on the screen and she sat down in front of it. He e-mailed her everyday whenever he was out of town, sometimes more than once. She loved his letters; he was always so cute, so romantic, even after 15 years of marriage. He was a man of few words in person, but his heart flowed into his writing and entranced her. She always thought he should be a writer, but he would only laugh and claim she was the only person in the world that would read anything he wrote. She scrolled to the beginning and began reading:
My Darling Kathryn,
Hello, beautiful. All the meetings are over, and we have a done deal. The Senator twisted a few arms (after we twisted his a bit) and the funding will be attached to an emergency appropriations bill. As much as I hate playing this game, I gotta admit that I love it when a plan comes together.
I would have taken off for home by now, but there seems to be some weather over the plains and I'd like to see what it's going to do before I fly into it. I don't mind waiting awhile; it gives me time to write to you. I know that I don't share my feelings or tell you how much I love you as often as I should when I am with you. I guess I am just still shy and in awe of you... even after all these years. My mind overflows with words anytime I even think about you, but they always seem to get lost in between my brain and my mouth. Sitting here, two thousand miles away and missing you so very much, the words seem to flow to my fingers so easily. I love you so very much, baby.
The plane is gassed up and ready to go, so once the weather looks better I will be making my way home to you. I am so glad you talked me into learning to fly and buying this Cessna. You were exactly right that the only reason I hated flying was because I couldn't stand not to be in control. Gawd I love to fly. It makes me feel free. I have you to thank, my love; you always know what I want better than I do.
It's so beautiful when I'm flying, I find myself putting on the autopilot and drinking it all in, thinking of you every second. My mind usually gets lost in thoughts of you, and the special times we have had together.
As much as I love to fly, I miss driving too. There is no better way to see the country than driving right smack through it. I especially miss driving with you. I can think of few times in my life more special than those we spent together on the road, exploring new places that neither of us had ever seen before. I remember when we traveled U.S. 40 through the Rockies. The sheer raw beauty of those mountains made your eyes twinkle with amazement. That twinkle, and the look of delight on your face, made you more beautiful than those old mountains could ever hope to match. I also remember each place we stopped at. Anywhere we went you would light up the room, and you entranced everyone we met. You made me feel so special to be with you, to be yours, to be loved by you. Of course you have always made me feel that way, from the first day I met you and every second between then and now. Even today I wonder if you can possibly imagine how much I love you.
Kathryn remembered that trip well. She also knew very well how much he loved her, and her love for him was no less. Kathryn had loved every second they were together on that trip. It was their honeymoon, actually. They had taken two weeks to travel the West, taking their time and enjoying all there was to see and do. Being in the truck with him as they drove through the majestic beauty of the Rockies had been heaven to her. He was so attentive, making sure she was comfortable, pointing out anything that might interest or inspire her, talking to her about everything and anything.
She learned more about him in those two weeks than at any other time in their lives. It was not only that he told her all the details of his past, but also that he shared his hopes, dreams, triumphs and failures. He'd had an interesting life, though he didn't think so, and she marveled at each experience that had helped make him the man she loved. Though his voice hid it well, she could see the pain in his eyes when he talked about the loss of his father, or of friends in combat, or of loves past. She also saw the pride in his eyes when he talked of his accomplishments, though he always downplayed them and the mischievous twinkle when he talked of the not-always-legal exploits of his youth.
Kathryn smiled through her moist eyes as she remembered how he held her hand every minute while they were driving, gently caressing the back of her hand with his thumb endlessly. That small gesture had touched her deeply. He made her feel so comfortable, so loved, and so safe. At night he would always take her to some special place to watch the stars. Straight up above, no matter where they were, their own personal star twinkled down at them. Later, during the times they were apart, she would look up at that star and feel closer to him, knowing he was under that same star no matter where he was. The clouds hid that star from view tonight, but she knew it was there, and her heart could feel he was still under that star, somewhere.
After wiping her moist eyes and runny nose with a tissue, Kathryn refocused on the message displayed on the computer screen. She reached out and touched it gently, desperately wanting his hand to be holding hers again. After a moment, she continued reading.
What I miss the most is sitting with you on the porch swing on a cool fall evening, cuddled up under a warm flannel blanket. It is so clear in my mind. I can hear the coyotes yipping in the distance, savor the chilly breeze caressing our faces, see the burning orange face of the harvest moon rising behind the dark fortress of Johnson Mesa, and feel your warm body snuggled close to me. I can see Cody out by the barn, trying to teach the pups some new trick, frustrated by their insistence on playing with him.
How I miss both you and Cody. He's growing into a fine young man and I am so proud of him. I know that I'm hard on him, but it's because I love him. I don't want him to have to make the same mistakes I did, though I know that no matter what I tell him or teach him, ultimately he will still have to learn them on his own. He was so disappointed when he didn't make the football team, and I feel like it's my fault. He always hears me talk about how I loved playing, and I fear that he only tried out in an effort to please me. While he is no momma's boy by any stretch, his heart isn't into sports. He wants to be an engineer and that is where his heart and mind are. I need to be careful about my prattling on about my football glory days, and spend more time encouraging him to follow his dreams. I wish being a father came with an instruction book. I often worry that I am not doing right for him.
I really do want to help him find his dreams. How ironic, huh? When you met me I thought my life was about over and that my dreams were nothing but wishful thinking. I don't ever want our son to feel that way. Of course that could never happen with you as his mother. Just as you made me believe in myself again and showed me that I could make our dreams come true, you affect Cody the same way. I have always said that you are the best part of me, baby, the part that was always missing until we found each other. You are a part of Cody, too, and that makes me feel very confident about how he will turn out as an adult. You are the best part of us both.
I sure miss home too baby. I love Raton at Christmas. I love how the streets are so brightly lit and decorated and that the Christmas tree is back on Main Street, where it belongs. I hope I get home in time to take you and Cody for a walk downtown and up through the City of Bethlehem, as we always do. I wish I wouldn't have missed playing Santa Claus and passing out toys this year, I really enjoy doing that and seeing those kids faces light up. You did write that check to Toys for Tots, didn't you? I know it was a lot of money, but we have it so why not share it at Christmas? I remember what it's like to be poor and wonder if I could even afford a tree for Christmas, let alone presents.
I sometimes wonder if you don't think I'm crazy around Christmas. I know I tend to go hog wild, and bore you to death with my rantings about the Christmas spirit, how miracles can happen and dreams can come true. I do love Christmas, and I truly believe what I say. Nothing is impossible on Christmas, if people would just let the spirit of the season fill their hearts, and believe. I know that the true spirit of Christmas fills you year around, but I also see the looks you give me when I tell Cody that yes, there is a Santa Claus. I know it sounds crazy, but I believe. Santa Claus exists within us all, if we'd just let him out.
I guess I'd better get cracking and get in the air. The forecasters say that storm should be out of my flight path by the time I get to Kansas. I want to get home to you and Cody and have the most wonderful Christmas ever.
I know you won't let me tell you not to worry while I'm in the air, because you will anyway. Just remember that I will make it home to you, as I always do, one way or another. I don't think anything on this earth could stop me from coming home to your arms baby. Heck, I'll hitch a ride with Santa if I have too.
Before I go, remember that I love you with all of my heart and soul. I know you can feel my love across the miles, because I can feel yours too. See you for dinner my love.
Yours forever, and beyond,
Kathryn stared at his name at the bottom of the message for a long time, before closing her eyes and trying to feel his spirit within her. She knew he couldn't be dead, she still felt him. But she didn't know if he was ok, or if he was lying out there in the cold snow, hurt, reaching out to her for help, feeling his life slowly drifting away. Kathryn felt an overwhelming urge to rush right out and look for him herself.
The front door burst open, and Cody entered with an armload of firewood, the wind and snow howling through the open doorway behind him. Kathryn tried to compose herself, but he noticed her tear stained face immediately.
"What's the matter Mom?" he asked as he stacked the wood near the fireplace. "Bet you're worried about Dad, ain't you? I know you didn't want to tell me, but Sara Duran called earlier to ask if we were OK. I know Dad's plane crashed. Don't worry, you know him, he'll be all right. He always says that God isn't done playing with him yet."
Kathryn smiled sadly at her son, thinking he was so much like his father. He tried to put on a brave front for her, but she could see the worry in his eyes... the same worry she had seen in Daniel's eyes so many times when something was bothering him.
She also remembered something else her husband used to say, only to her, when they first met. She had been so taken by him from the first time they met. She constantly told him what a special man he was and how she just knew he could do anything he set his mind to. He would blush at her flattery, then look her in the eye with those eyes that seemed they were looking past her and a thousand miles away. "I'm just a man, baby. I put my pants on one leg at a time, and I bleed. You don't want to get involved with me, because someday I won't be coming home."
Kathryn shook her head to remove those words from her memory. As the years passed, he had seemed to lose that fatalistic attitude, and seemed to get younger and more enthusiastic about life every day. She held her arms out to Cody and smiled.
"Come here and give me a hug, my so grown up son. I love you so much."
Cody walked over and hugged his mother tight, wishing he could be out there, helping to look for his father. He wanted to go so bad, but knew that his mother needed him now, and would never let him go anyway. The wind howled angrily and snow pelted the sides of the house as Kathryn held her son tight, thanking God that she had him and praying that his father was OK.
Cody had built a nice roaring fire and Kathryn sat cuddled up on the couch in front of it, long after Cody had went to bed. As the minutes ticked by, she grew more and more afraid for her husband. She knew that Daniel was comfortable in the outdoors, and under normal circumstances could survive a night in a snowstorm with no problem. But his plane had crashed and he was most likely hurt, maybe badly. With each passing moment she felt his life ebbing away, and part of her along with it. She tried to shake the dread from her mind and think positive.
"If I just concentrate, let my heart reach out, maybe it can keep him warm and safe until help can find him."
As the fire slowly died to burning embers, her thoughts were of nothing but Daniel as sleep slowly overcame her. The embers of the fire were only a dull glow when Kathryn awoke, hearing a noise outside the house. The lights of the Christmas tree twinkled their multi-colored glow through the living room as she sat up and strained to identify the strange sound.
"Are those bells?" she thought as she rose from the couch.
It sure did sound like bells, combined with the rustling of animals' hooves just outside the house. She wondered if the horses had gotten out of the barn as she walked to the door and opened it. Outside, the snowstorm had passed and the night was clear and still. A sliver of the moon and countless stars overhead, as well as a foot of new snow, made the night seem almost like day.
Kathryn didn't notice the beauty of the night though, all she could see was a sight that made her both laugh and cry all at the same time. A tiny sleigh filled with canvas sacks stood just in front of the porch and eight tiny reindeer pawed at the new snow to reach the sweet grass beneath. Between her and the sleigh a tiny round man was helping a tall figure of a man walk to the house. The little man had a huge white beard, rosy cheeks, and a twinkle in the eye that paled the stars above. His bright red suit lined with snow-white fur gave her no doubt who he was... though she couldn't make herself believe it. The tall man left her just as much in doubt and disbelief.
He looked up and grinned that stupid grin he got when he was drunk, and all her doubts and disbelief were erased. She started to run to him, then thinking better of it, turned and held open the door to the house as the old Santa helped Daniel up the stairs and across the porch. Kathryn motioned to him and helped to settle her husband onto the couch. She hugged Daniel close and kissed him repeatedly, but he seemed to be in a daze. She covered him with a blanket, then turned to the old Santa.
"What's the matter with him...no, first, how did you find him? Wait...I'm sorry, I should thank you... thank you so much for bringing my Daniel home to me."
The old Santa gave Kathryn a wink before speaking.
"Before you thank me miss, you should know that it was kind of my fault he had problems with his airplane and had to crash land. I was running behind, not paying close attention and I guess my reindeer are getting old... we almost ran into your husband's plane. He's a good pilot... better than me," he grinned sheepishly. "He avoided a collision, but broke his plane doing so. I lost track of where he landed in the snowstorm, so it took me awhile to find him. He has a pretty nasty bump on the head. I let him drink all of my rum, so he's feeling no pain right now.
He stopped and winked at Kathryn again.
"It's for medicinal purposes only you see."
Kathryn smiled. "You brought him home to me. That is all that counts. You are a wonderful man."
She turned to Daniel lying on the couch and continued. "I know now that there really is a Santa Claus. I hate to admit it, but I never really believed before. He always did, though, but I think you already know that."
She turned back to Santa, but was surprised to see that he wasn't there anymore. Kathryn ran to the open door but Santa and his sleigh were nowhere to be seen. As she smiled and walked back into the house, she could hear the gentle tinkle of sleigh bells in the quiet New Mexico night.
After throwing a few logs on the fire, Kathryn made sure Daniel was comfortable on the couch, tucking him into the blanket and gently stroking his hair. As she looked at him the joy she felt in her heart overwhelmed her. He looked so peaceful... and safe. She kissed the bump on his forehead softly before slowly getting up and walking off to the bedroom. She wouldn't disturb him from his peaceful sleep. She wanted him to have his strength back in the morning, so she could love it right back out of him.
The insistent cocking of the rooster woke Kathryn just after dawn. The morning sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon, and the vista of snow-covered, volcanic mountains, mesas and plains outside her window had a misty, pinkish hue from the reflection of the blazing red clouds above. Kathryn lay there and marveled at the view for a bit, every morning was a new miracle, and she appreciated each one. After a moment her thoughts returned to Daniel, and she rushed to the living room to kiss him Merry Christmas. She stopped short when she saw that the couch was empty, blanket folded neatly over the back the way she liked it. Daniel was nowhere to be seen. Her mind began to have doubts immediately.
"Was it all a dream?" It had to be... "Santa Claus? Oh my..."
She felt the happiness draining quickly from her heart, replaced with the cold fear of reality. Tears began to well in her big blue eyes.
"Ouch, does my head hurt, a voice mumbled from behind her.
Kathryn turned with a start as Daniel walked a little wobbly up the hall from the bathroom.
"Daniel!" she cried as she launched herself into his arms, hugging and kissing him madly.
"Whoa baby." Unable to keep his balance, Daniel fell flat on his back, Kathryn on top of him, still kissing him over every inch of his face.
"Merry Christmas, Hon," he whispered.
She stopped kissing him and gazed deeply into his eyes, amazed as always at the depth of their color, and their love.
"Merry Christmas to you too, Darling. I am so glad you were right all these years. Santa Claus gave me the greatest gift of my life this year... you. I love you Daniel."
Daniel's blue-green eyes twinkled as he smiled.
"I love you too, baby. More than you can ever imagine."
They kissed deeply for a moment, before Daniel broke the kiss and gave her a confused look.
"What about Santa Claus?"
"He rescued you and brought you home, dear," she stated matter-of-factly.
The confusion and laughter in his eyes grew.
She returned his look with one of shock and scorn.
"Don't look at me like I'm crazy. Don't you remember what happened last night?"
"No. In fact, the last thing I remember is..."
He stopped and looked thoughtful for a moment, and Kathryn became worried as the blood drained from his face.
"What do you remember, sweetie?"
Daniel sat up against the wall, pulling her with him and holding her in his arms.
"Well... I was just clipping along, not having much problem with the storm, and almost home, when something almost ran into me. I had to move fast to avoid it, so I didn't get a good look, but I could swear that it was reindeer pulling a sleigh. I think I clipped the hoof of one too. The next thing I remember is waking up on the couch this morning with a hell of a headache."
Kathryn just looked up at him and smiled.
"He apologized, baby," she giggled.
Daniel's eyes were moist, yet full of joy as he looked at his beautiful wife and held her tight. After a moment, the mirthful strains of their laughter drifted out of the little ranch house and wafted softly over the snow-covered high plains of New Mexico.