I know as a professional writer chick, I’m not supposed to give it away for free, but sometimes I just can’t resist. Happy Krampusnacht, kittens!
Two days before Christmas, we had been on the run from a bank job for a week and a half. I had expected us to head south toward old Mexico, but Cade had led us straight north. The rest of the gang seemed to know what he was doing and trust him, and I had only been riding with them since Halloween, so I kept my mouth shut. But looking up at the sky, I was pretty sure we were headed straight into a blizzard.
Just as it started to snow, we rode up to a two-story hotel in the literal middle of nowhere. The hotel and its stable were the only buildings in sight in the middle of a flat, open plain surrounded by mountains.
The little round innkeeper came out from behind his desk as soon as we walked in the door. “Mr. Cade,” he said as we huffed and stomped and peeled out of the frozen layers of our coats. “Danke Gott! When we received your telegram, I was afraid you’d be lost on the road.”
“Telegram?” I said, raising an eyebrow. As far as I knew, we’d been riding for our lives. When had he stopped and sent a telegram?
“Of course. We couldn’t just show up without a reservation, Daisy.” The smile on his face made him look like a man I’d never met. Elbert Cade was not a smiler. “That would be rude.”
“But who is this?” the innkeeper said as I unbuttoned my duster. “Daisy? You have brought your young lady?”
“Mr. Bhaer, meet Mrs. Cade,” he said. “Daisy, honey, meet our host, Mr. Bhaer.”
To my credit, I didn’t faint from shock. “Pleased to meet you,” I said, giving Cade a slant-eyed look that should have shaved off one of his sideburns. Rule number one of the gang was never dispute our fearless leader in front of decent folks, so I wouldn’t. But I wasn’t no more Mrs. Cade than I was the queen of Sweden.
“Mein Gott!” Bhaer said. “Mother, come quickly! Cade has taken a wife!”
“Uh-oh,” Thomas, Cade’s second-in-command, said with a grin. “Now you’ve done it.”
The swinging doors behind the front desk opened, and people came pouring out, a stout little woman with blonde braids wrapped around her head and half a dozen little tow-headed kids. “You don’t mean it!” the woman exclaimed in the same thick German accent as her husband. “Congratulations!” She kissed Cade on both cheeks, leaving flour in his whiskers. “Papa, look!” She took my hands and beamed at me. “Ain’t she lovely?”
“Daisy,” Bhaer said. “Her name is Daisy.”
“Mr. Cade, are you crazy?” one of the kids asked, a freckle-faced little bruiser with mischief dancing off of him like sparks off an anvil. “Whatcha want to get some stupid girl for?”
“Klaus!” his mother cried, scandalized.
“Well, Klaus, to tell you the truth, I didn’t have much of a choice,” Cade said with a bit of mischief in his own eyes. “I fed her one time, and she followed me home.”
“Klaus, you are a very naughty boy,” Mrs. Bhaer said. “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Krampus carried you away tomorrow night.” She smacked Cade on the arm. “And you, too.”
“I don’t think Krampus will be traveling tomorrow night,” Mr. Bhaer said. “Not in this storm.”
“But Papa, what about Saint Nicholas?” one of the other kids said, this one a girl barely as tall as her papa’s boots. “Ain’t he coming either?”
“Not to worry, poppy seed,” Thomas said, swinging the little girl up in his arms. “Saint Nick can always make it through.”
“Something surely smells good in the kitchen, Mrs. Bhaer,” said Luis, Cade’s other lieutenant. He’d been all but hopping on one foot since we came in.
“I am baking gingerbread, Mr. Gonzales,” she said. “Or did you mean Clara?” Her husband and all the other men but Luis laughed at her joke. Me, I thought I must have fallen off my horse and hit my head at some point without noticing. This had to be a crazy dream. “She’s been waiting for you all day,” Mrs. Bhaer went on. “You’d better come see her. Papa, get everyone else settled into their rooms. I’m sure Mrs. Cade is exhausted.”
“So how long have you two been married?” Bhaer asked.
“Not long at all,” Cade said.
“No kidding,” I muttered.
“We’re still on our honeymoon,” Cade said, stepping on my foot. I bit back a shriek of pain.
“Wunderbar,” Mrs. Bhaer said. “The bridal suite it is. Come, children, help me fetch Mrs. Cade a hot bath.”
“Aw, nuts,” Klaus grumbled, making me laugh. That child was a caution and cute as he could be.
“That’s quite enough from you, young Klaus,” his father said. “Go now and help your mother.”
When we got to the top of the stairs, Cade went so far as to carry me over the threshold. But as soon as Bhaer left us alone, he set me down, and the honeymoon was over.
“What in hell has gotten into you?” I said.
“Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer are good Christian folks,” he said. “They’d be mightily offended if they thought I’d brought some…” He let his thought trail off.
“Some what, Elbert Cade?” I said. “And remember, I have a gun.”
“They ain’t like us, Daisy, he said. “They’re good and kind and peaceful, and they don’t understand that the rest of the world ain’t like that.”
The rest of the world like him and me. “Which makes me wonder how they know you,” I said.
“I got shot up real bad a couple of years ago about twenty miles from here,” he said. “The rest of the gang thought I was going to die, and most of them skinned out and left me. But Thomas and Luis loaded me up on a half-busted wagon and tried to get me to help. Just when they figured it was hopeless, they found this hotel.”
“And these folks took you in?” I said. I was shaking just thinking about him getting hurt so bad, but I’d have sooner died than let him know it. “A wanted outlaw?”
“Thomas told them we were scouts,” he said. “He said we’d been set upon by bandits when we were leading a wagon train west, and that I had fought off half a dozen men single-handed to save the rest of the party.”
“Lord God Almighty.”
“Hey, I had—they just happened to have been a lawful posse.” If I hadn’t been so mad, I might have thought his little grin was charming. “Anyhow,” he said, seeing my frown. “The Bhaers got me a doctor, and when I woke up, I was a hero. And we’ve been coming back here every Christmas since. Luis and the cook even have an understanding to wed.”
“And they don’t know you’re outlaws?” I said.
He at least had the decency to look embarrassed. “Like I said, they’re good people.”
“Stupid people, maybe.” When I had taken up with him, I had known I was giving up any hope of ever being respectable, that I wasn’t ever going to be the nice married lady I had always dreamed I’d be. But I had wanted him so much, I had told myself it didn’t matter, that there were things more important than being respectable. But now here we were, and he expected me to pretend.
“Now don’t be like that,” he said. “I didn’t tell you we were coming here because I wanted it to be a surprise. I thought you’d like it.” He took my hand and tugged me closer, and I let him. “Just think, darling. A clean bed.” He kissed me on the forehead, sweet and soft. “A hot bath.” I couldn’t help but smile, slumping against him. “When was the last time you had a hot bath?”
“It has been a while.” The last time had been in Carson City, and a fine time it had been.
“We can stay here and ride the storm out safe and sound, eating Clara and Mrs. Bhaer’s fine cooking.” I twined an arm around his neck, and he kissed my mouth. “Sleeping as late as we like.”
“That does sound nice.” Getting up before the sun was the thing I hated most about being an outlaw.
“No posse breathing down our necks.” He nibbled the back of my neck. “No Thomas or Luis snoring one bedroll away.” He kissed behind my ear. “No biting my shoulder to the bone, trying to keep quiet.” I giggled, and he kissed me on the mouth. I melted against him, and he walked me backward toward the bed. “And I was thinking,” he said, nuzzling my throat.
“Thinking what?” I untied the bandana at his throat.
“When the storm does break and we do ride out…” He kissed me again, cuddling my head in his hand the way he knew I liked. “…you could stay on here a while.”
I broke the kiss. “Beg pardon?”
“Just for a little while.” He put up his hands like I might have been a sheriff with a shotgun. “Just until the weather warms up and things calm down a bit.”
“You want to just dump me?” I said.
“Of course not.”
“Have I ever once whined or told you I was tired?” I demanded. “Did I ever cry when I got shot at or fail to shoot when I had to?”
“No, honey. I just thought–”
“I ride as good as Thomas and better than Luis.” I had never been so mad at anybody in my life. “If you’re sick of me, Cade, all you’ve got to do is say so. If you’re ready for another piece of–”
“Stop right there!” He didn’t holler at me often, but when he did, it was impressive. “I don’t want no other women, damn it! That’s the gawddamn point! I want you to be safe!”
“Then you ought not to have let me come with you in the first place!”
“You think I don’t know that?”
I caught my breath like he had hit me. Truth be told, I wished he had.
Somebody knocked on the door. “Mrs. Cade?” It was Mrs. Bhaer. “We have your bath.”
Cade reached out a hand to me. “Daisy…”
“Get out.” I couldn’t stand for him to see me cry. “Just get out.” I opened the door. “Thank you kindly, Mrs. Bhaer,” I said, putting on a smile. “Elbert was just leaving.”
I had a good, long cry while I was having a hot bath. By the time I got out, I was feeling more myself. I put on a full girlish dress with petticoats and high-button shoes for the first time in weeks, and when my hair dried, I pinned it up in waves with bows instead of pulling it back in a braid. In the mirror inside the chifferobe, I looked almost like the dove I’d been when Cade first found me.
Downstairs, Cade and Thomas were playing cards with Bhaer and a fellow who looked local. Luis was helping a pretty girl I hadn’t seen before and a couple of the Bhaer kids decorate a Christmas tree. “Hey Daisy,” he said when I came in. “Meet my intended.” He brought the girl forward. “Miss Clara Henderson.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said, shaking her hand. “I’m Daisy.” I glanced over at Cade and narrowed my eyes. “Missus Daisy Cade.”
“It’s nice to meet you finally,” the girl said. “Luis has told me all about you in his letters.” I shuddered to imagine the lies he must have told. This girl looked like she ought to have been packing box lunches for the Sunday school picnic, not keeping company with a wanted killer.
“You look a damned sight better as a girl,” young Klaus said, making me jump and Clara gasp. His swearing didn’t disturb me, but I hadn’t seen him at first. He was sitting by the chimney wall like he was being punished. “I think you look right fine.”
“Klaus!” Bhaer said.
“I know, I know,” he said, turning his back to the room. “Krampus is going to carry me off.”
“Don’t scold him on my account,” I said. “Thank you kindly, Klaus. It’s nice to get a real compliment for a change.” Cade made a noise, and I raised an eyebrow at him. He looked back at his cards.
“Can I get you something, Mrs. Cade?” Clara said. “Supper won’t be for a while yet, but we have tea and cookies.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I can help myself.” I took a handful of cookies and went over to the settee in front of the hearth. “Hey there,” I said, holding out a cookie to Klaus.
“Hey,” he said, taking it. “I’m being punished.”
“So I figured.” We both munched. “These are damned good cookies,” I remarked.
He snickered. “Mama makes them.”
“She’s a damned fine cook.” He giggled fit to bust. “Don’t let anybody tell you different.”
“I won’t,” he promised.
“I think Mrs. Cade must like naughty boys,” Clara said with a smile.
The sugar cookie in my mouth suddenly tasted like sawdust. “That would be the rumor,” I said. I patted the settee beside me, and after a moment, Klaus joined me. “So who is this Krampus everybody keeps saying might carry you off?”
He helped himself to another one of my cookies. “He’s a demon who punishes bad boys and girls,” he said. “He travels with Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas gives the good ones toys, but Krampus puts the bad ones in a sack and hauls them off to Hell.”
“Well, mercy me,” I said. The horror stories nice folks made up to tell their kids could curl your hair, I thought. “Have you ever seen him?”
“No, ma’am,” he said. He was a brave little bruiser, but I saw real fear in his eyes. It made me want to stuff his mama and papa in a devil’s sack of their own. “But Papa said when he was a boy at school, he saw a bad boy carried off.”
“Is that a fact?” I gave Bhaer a hard look, but he just winked.
“It is,” Klaus said. “He’s got a nasty long tongue and horns on his head and hooves on his feet like a goat, and his hands are like claws.” He demonstrated with his own little fingers.
“That does sound scary,” I said. “But I’m not sure Krampus comes after children in America.” Bhaer and his wife could be mad at me if they wanted. “I was as bad as bad could be when I was your age, and he never came after me. How about you, Elbert?” I could count on one hand with spares the number of times I had heard anybody dare call Cade by his first name. But I figured it was my wifely privilege. “Did this Krampus ever try to carry you to Hell?”
“Not that I recall, honey, no,” Cade said. “But I’ve learned there’s many a thing in this world that I just haven’t seen yet. Remember Heart’s Remorse?”
“I do.” As if I could forget. Cade and I had met in the middle of a zombie attack in the town of Heart’s Remorse. “Klaus, he does have a point, I’m afraid.”
“Saint Nicholas has always brought Klaus toys and sweets just like he does his brothers and sisters,” Bhaer said with a smile for his son that made me like him a little better. “I’m sure he can be good enough for a few more hours to keep Krampus away.”
The men went back to their card game, and I stared into the fire. Klaus took my hand. “I don’t believe it,” he said so softly no one else could hear. “I don’t believe you were ever really bad.”
I squeezed his hand and smiled. “I don’t believe you’ve ever been really bad either.”
By suppertime, the snow was drifted halfway up the windows downstairs, and the hotel was full enough to bust. People had drifted in all afternoon like ghosts in thick coats dusted white—trappers, gamblers, a traveling preacher, even a couple of farm families with kids. Just as Mrs. Bhaer and her daughters were setting the table, the big doors opened again, and two men came inside, one carrying a fiddle case. “Hooray!” the oldest daughter hollered, clapping her hands. “Now we can have dancing!”
They put me next to Cade at the table for supper, of course, and by the time we tucked in to Clara’s special brandy pudding, we were managing to be civil. But when the fiddler and his friend the piano player tuned up, we got as far away from one another in the big main room as we could get.
After a while Thomas came over to where I was loitering by the hearth. “Hey Daisy,” he said, offering me his hand. “Care to take a turn?”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Cade had parted a fellow’s hair with the butt of his rifle in Kansas City for less.
“Aw, it’s Christmas,” he said. “I’ll risk it.”
I looked over at Cade, who was back to playing cards with one of the farmers, the preacher, and a professional gambler who would probably fleece the lot of them. “Yeah, I’m his fake wife now,” I said. “He probably won’t even notice.”
Thomas laughed. “Oh, I wouldn’t go that far. What’s got you in such a fidget, anyhow? Don’t you like Christmas?”
“Not especially.” Luis and Clara were having a sweet little smooch under the mistletoe. Our Mexican bandito was wearing a clean white shirt and had wet his hair and slicked it down flat until he looked like a bank clerk.
“Don’t be like that. These kids get a real hoot out of Saint Nicholas. I’ve been carrying a toy train for that bad little Klaus in my saddlebag since May just to see the look on his face.”
“That’s real sweet of you, Thomas.” Klaus and one of the farm kids were hiding under a table near Cade and his cronies, plotting mischief. I hoped they gave them all a hot foot. “But Saint Nicholas can kiss my ass.”
“From the mouth of a lady,” Thomas said. “What did poor ol’ Saint Nick do to cross you, Daisy?”
“Nothing, since he ain’t real,” I said. He just kept looking at me, waiting. “It’s a pitiful story.” Still waiting, one eyebrow raised. “When I was nine years old, there was a dolly in the window of the general store,” I said, turning my back on the room to face the fire. “She was the prettiest thing I ever saw, in a white dress, a bride. She had blue eyes and yellow curls like me, and I stood at the window for a while every day for a month just staring at her, wishing she was mine. My daddy got wind of it, and he told me not to worry, that if I was good, he was just positive Saint Nicholas would bring her to me for a Christmas present.”
“Oh hell,” Thomas said.
“Oh hell is right,” I said. “I wanted that dolly so bad, I forgot my daddy was the town drunk and wouldn’t know the truth if he met it in the road. Three days before Christmas, that dolly disappeared from the store window, and I was just sure he had gotten her for me. He kissed me good night on Christmas Eve, and I just knew when I woke up, I would have my doll. I even had a name for her all picked out. I was going to call her Charlotte Russe after a sign I had seen in an eating house.
Thomas was standing beside me, blocking my view of the room. “I’m just guessing it didn’t work out that way.”
“Not quite, no.” I was glad he was hiding me from the others. I had tears in my eyes for a dolly I hadn’t seen for twenty years and had never owned; I felt like God’s own fool. “When I woke up, there wasn’t no doll nor no daddy either. I had to go down to the saloon and scrape him up to keep the sheriff from throwing him in jail for drunk and disorderly. Then as we were walking back, him leaning on my shoulder singing, ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ like some damned idiot, I saw this wagon full of folks riding past us on their way to church. They had a girl about my age; I knew her from school.” I wiped the foolish tears away. “She was sitting up front with her daddy, and my Charlotte Russe was sitting on her lap.”
“Damn,” Thomas said, glancing back at something over my shoulder. “That might be the saddest tale I ever heard.”
Before he finished saying it, I looked back and saw Cade right behind me. Before I could say a word, he had picked me up and slung me over his shoulder.
“What do you think you’re doing, you crazy bastard?” I said, kicking and beating on his back as he carried me to the stairs. “Put me down!”
“Nope.” Everybody in the room looked shocked, but nobody made a move to help me. Luis was grinning like a possum.
“Y’all sleep tight now,” Thomas called. “Don’t let the bed bugs bite!”
“You better hope you can sleep with one eye open,” I warned Cade. I was still squirming and fighting, and he was still holding me tight. I knew from experience I could fight all I wanted, but he wouldn’t drop me.
“You know I can.” He kicked open the door to our suite then kicked it shut behind us.
“Don’t even think about,” I said as he set me on my feet. “I’m mad at you.”
“I know it.” He kissed me, and I bit his lip so hard, I tasted blood. He put his arms around me, and I stomped on his foot. He didn’t let go; he kissed my cheek, nuzzling me like a dog with his soft, scratchy beard. I balled up my fist and socked him in the jaw, calling him a name too ugly to repeat, and even though his head snapped back, he held on. I beat the living hell out of him, and he let me, never fighting back and never letting go. When I finally started running out of steam, I slumped against him, bawling like a lost calf. “I know, Daisy,” he said, cradling me close.
He unbuttoned the back of my dress, and I wriggled my arms out of the sleeves before I reached up and grabbed a double handful of his hair to pull him down to kiss me. I tasted the blood on his mouth from my bite as he slid the dress down and untied my petticoat. Still kissing me, he shrugged out of his coat, and I unbuttoned his waistcoat and the shirt underneath.
He pushed me back on the bed and went to work unhooking my corset down the front. “One of these days, I am going to shoot you,” I said as I unbuckled his belt.
“I figure somebody’s bound to eventually.” He shucked out of his trousers and kicked them off with his boots still inside, making an ungodly thump. “Might as well be you.” He kissed me on the mouth some more, pinning my hands over my head. We banged that headboard against the wall so hard and for so long, there was no chance of anybody in the hotel not hearing or not knowing exactly what we were doing. Then when Cade was done, he peeled off the damp remains of my chemise and pantalets and pulled me back against him. He nuzzled my neck and slipped a hand between my thighs, and before he was done, I was done two more times and crying into my pillow.
“Daisy.” He shifted me to a more comfortable position spooned against him. I wrapped both hands around his wrist, holding his arm around me. “Honey, I’m sorry.” I turned my head to kiss his shoulder. Whenever I heard his voice change like that, so soft and tender and so different from the way he sounded with anybody else, I wanted to hold on to him and never turn loose. “There’s things I just can’t…things I don’t say, and you know that.’ I smiled through crying because I knew he couldn’t see. “But if ever I was to say it, you’re the only one I’d say it to.”
“I know it.” I kissed his strong, scarred, hard man’s hand. “I’m all right.” I fell asleep tucked under his chin, thinking the world was just fine. The wind picked up during the night, flinging snow like little rocks against the windows, but I snuggled closer to Cade and paid it no mind. For once we were indoors and safe.
In the morning, I woke up by myself, but that didn’t worry me much. Cade was an early riser even when he didn’t have to be. But when I went downstairs, I found the whole gang in a fidget.
“What the hell did you say to him, Daisy?” Thomas said as soon as he saw me coming down the stairs. “Did you put him out?”
“Put who where?” I said. “What are you talking about?”
“Cade,” Luis said. “He’s gone.”
“What do you mean, he’s gone?” I said. “And no, I most certainly did not put him out.” As if I could have put Elbert Cade anywhere he didn’t want to go. “Where has he gone?”
“That’s what we’re trying to tell you,” Thomas said. “We got up this morning, and he wasn’t here, and all of his gear was gone. Miss Clara volunteered to peek in your room, and you were sleeping alone.”
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Cade,” Clara said. “Luis was just so worried.”
The front door opened, and Mr. Bhaer and his oldest son came in with cold wind and snow gusting around them. “His horse is gone,” he said.
“Well, damn him anyhow,” I said. “Let me get changed so we can go find him. He shouldn’t be hard to track in all that snow.”
“Daisy, we couldn’t track a steam train walking on the rails in this storm,” Thomas said. “It’s six feet deep in the valleys and still coming down.”
“We had to hold on to a follow rope just to get to the stable and back,” Mr. Bhaer said.
“Somebody will find him in the spring when the thaw comes,” the gambler drawled from his seat at the poker table. “He’s got to be dead already.”
I stomped across the room, reached down into the gambler’s waistcoat and drew his little hidden, silver pistol. “You take that back,” I said, pressing the barrel to his forehead.
“Now Daisy,” Luis said. “He didn’t mean nothing by it.”
“Then he shouldn’t have said it.” Every gambler I had ever met had carried the same stupid little peashooter in the same spot and had had the same big mouth, and all but one had been a yellow coward. This one was no exception.
“I do beg your pardon, Mrs. Cade,” he stammered, sweating like a whore in church. “I misspoke. I’m sure your husband will be just fine.”
“Like as not, he left before it got too bad,” Thomas said, taking me gently by the wrist and easing the gun from my hand. “He’s probably stuck holed up somewhere, waiting for the storm to break.”
“I’m sure he is,” Luis said. He took the gun from Thomas and popped the bullets out. “He’ll ride back here as soon as it’s safe.”
“Exactly,” the gambler said. Luis handed him back his empty gun, and he tucked it away in his pocket. “I’m sure he’ll be home soon.”
But of course that was a lie. He was sure Cade was dead or dying in the blizzard, and so was everybody else.
I’ve lived through some hellacious Christmas Eves in my time, but that one was by far the worst. I tried at first to stay in my room so I wouldn’t spoil everybody else’s fun, but I couldn’t stand being alone. Every time my eyes lit on the bed, I wanted to go running out into the snow to find him. Plus up on the second floor with no one else around, all I could hear was the horrible, howling wind, and all I could think about was Cade out in it. I couldn’t imagine why he’d gone, but I was sure it had to be my fault. But what had I done?
Finally I gave up and went back downstairs. Mrs. Bhaer had a fair-sized selection of yellow-backed novels on her bookshelf, and I spent the rest of the day on the sofa near the fire, reading and trying not to think. Thomas and Luis seemed almost as bad off as I was, Thomas playing checkers with the kids and Luis following Clara around like a lost puppy. I caught each of them giving me the stink eye more than once. They knew it was my fault, too.
But the only one who looked like he might be more miserable than me was Klaus. That poor child wandered the hotel like a lost soul all afternoon into the evening, peering out the window at the storm and trying so hard to stay out of trouble, it broke my heart. “Papa, what if the storm doesn’t stop?” one of his sisters asked. “Will Saint Nicholas be able to come?” The children had all been told Cade was safe in town; they didn’t know to worry about him. Klaus looked back at his daddy with hope in his eyes.
“Oh, I don’t think a little snow will stop Saint Nicholas,” Mr. Bhaer said. “I wouldn’t worry.” He ruffled Klaus’s hair. “But maybe Old Krampus will stay home warm in bed.”
“I bet you Old Krampus is dead,” I said. “As many bad kids as there are in the world now, I bet his old heart gave out a long time ago.”
“He doesn’t have a heart,” Klaus said. “He’s a demon.”
“Let’s all get washed up for supper,” Mrs. Bhaer said. “Come along, Klaus.” She herded all the children through the swinging doors.
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” I told Mr. Bhaer when they were gone. “Scaring that child with a made-up story. You’ve ruined his whole Christmas.”
“You think I lied, Mrs. Cade?” he said. “You think Krampus is a made-up story?” For the first time, I noticed how pale and drawn he looked himself. “I wish that were true.”
“You’re saying there really is a Krampus?” Thomas said.
“Like I told the children, I saw him once,” the innkeeper said. “There was a boy in my school, not such a bad boy, really, just lost and angry. He couldn’t seem to behave himself even when he tried, just like my Klaus.” The card players had gone quiet, and the piano player had stopped picking out a tune. “One year at the Feast of Saint Nicholas, there was a storm, just like this one here tonight, so none of us boys could go home for the holiday. That night in our dormitory, Krampus came for that boy. A monstrous sight, a terrible thing with claws and a tail and feet like hooves. We all wanted to help our friend, but it was as if some magic spell had paralyzed us in our beds.” He looked around at his audience with what looked like real tears in his eyes. “All we could do was watch as the demon snatched him up,” he said. “He stuffed him in a sack and carried him away, and none of us ever saw him again.”
As I listened, only one phrase came to mine, one of Cade’s favorites. “Buffalo shit,” I said. “If something carried off your friend, it was a plain old evil man dressed up to scare you all and make you behave. And you couldn’t help him because you were all just kids scared stiff.”
He smiled. “You have an admirable turn of phrase, Mrs. Cade,” he said. “I only wish you were right.”
The rest of the night dragged by. I picked at the delicious supper Mrs. Bhaer and Clara had made just long enough to be polite, then went back to the parlor. To stay out of everybody’s way, I dragged a chair over to one of the windows and set a lit candle on the windowsill. I told myself I was just giving myself light for my book, but that was a lie. Against all good sense, I was hoping Cade would see it. I was hoping it could somehow guide him home.
I stayed there staring out the window while Mr. Bhaer read the story of the Baby Jesus to the children from the family Bible then kept on sitting and staring as all the mamas and papas kissed their children and sent them off to bed. As the clock was striking eleven, I watched them filling all the stockings, including Thomas tucking a toy locomotive into Klaus’ little shoe. I turned away as the clock struck midnight and Luis and Clara kissed again under the mistletoe. Cade was somewhere out there in the dark, dead or alive, and I wondered how I’d ever find out which.
“Miss Daisy?” I turned to find the traveling preacher standing behind me. Everybody else was heading off to bed. “I mean, Mrs. Cade? Would you like me to pray with you?”
“No, thank you, Reverend.” I had caught his act a couple of times in our travels, lots of fire and brimstone in the beginning and a moonshine and snake oil tonic for sale at the end. “I doubt the Good Lord is much interested in what I’d have to say.”
He smiled. “You might be surprised.” He put his hands in his pockets. “They know, you know. The Bhaers? They know you and Cade ain’t married and that Cade and his friends are wanted outlaws. They know I’m a plug nickel hustler and a fraud. They know the truth about all of us and more besides, I reckon. But they don’t care.” He pulled out his pipe and lit it. “This is a special place, Daisy.” The burning tobacco smelled sweet and nice with the piney smell of the Christmas tree and the wood smoke of the fire. “It’s Christmas Eve, and anything can happen.”
He drifted upstairs with everybody else and left me alone in my chair. I knew I should probably go to bed, too, but I couldn’t make myself do it. I couldn’t face that empty bed. I was just nodding off sitting straight up when I heard footsteps. I jerked my head back up and saw Klaus.
“I thought I might have heard something,” he said. In his nightshirt, he looked younger and smaller than he had before, barely more than a baby. “Can I sit up with you?”
“Sure you can.” I motioned him over, and he surprised me by climbing into my lap. I kissed his cheek and put my arms around him, and he settled back against my shoulder. Looking out at the snow, I wondered if Cade had been a bad little boy like Klaus once. Had some woman somewhere held him in her lap when he was scared of demons in the night? I hoped she had.
“Hey Daisy?” Klaus said. “Do you think Cade is dead?”
“No, sir, I do not.” My lover had survived two wars, one on the losing side, the journey west, a hundred heists, a hundred angry posses, two trials for murder, a horde of zombies, and me. I couldn’t see him cashing in his chips to a spell of bad weather. “I think he just left me; that’s all.” I thought about the night before, all the things he’d said to me and the things he couldn’t say. If I’d been paying attention, I would have known he was saying good-bye.
All of a sudden, Klaus went stiff as a board. “Did you hear that?” I hadn’t heard anything until he asked, but now I heard thumping coming from over our heads. He jumped up and grabbed my hand, and as I stood up, I heard what sounded like rats scrabbling in the chimney. I shoved him behind me and grabbed the poker just as something rolled out of the fireplace at our feet, a bag of rags about the size of a pumpkin.
“Stay back!” I hollered at Klaus. “Hey, somebody! Thomas! Help!” A weird, cold wind was rushing around the room, making the candles gutter and the curtains fly around like ghosts. I raised the poker to whack the ball of rags, and it started to unfold. Klaus was clinging to the back of my skirt with both fists, but if he was saying anything, I couldn’t hear him. The wind was too loud.
“You leave this boy alone!” I yelled over the din. Where the hell is everybody? I thought. How are they sleeping through this? I could hear the shutters banging against the hotel outside, and the swinging doors to the hall were dancing like corpses on a hangman’s noose.
The thing on the floor just kept rising and growing, unfolding into the shape of something like a man but twice the size of any man I’d ever seen. It had the hooded robe and long white beard I had seen in pictures of Saint Nicholas, but its skin was scaly gray and white, and its glowing eyes were yellow. And it had the long tongue and claws and hooves I’d been hearing about all day. “Holy shit,” I muttered, tightening my grip on the poker. I had faced down zombies before, but that was with Cade beside me. Now it was all up to me. “Please, Lord, let me be dreaming.”
The thing that I reckoned must be Krampus reached out a clawed, scaly hand. “Come.”
“I told you already, you can’t have him!” I bellowed, waving my poker at him. I had no notion I could kill this monster with a fireplace poker, but I’d be damned if I’d let him take Klaus without one hell of a fight.
Krampus’ laugh was like thunder. “Not him,” he said in that voice like rusted iron chains rattling in the wind. “You.” He curled his talons at me, beckoning me closer. “Come.”
“I don’t think so.”
Cade kicked the swinging doors open and fired both barrels of his shotgun into the demon’s back. Krampus roared with pain and fury as a big, flaming hole opened up in his chest. As he turned to face Cade, I grabbed Klaus and darted around him. I caught the shotgun as Cade tossed it my way and dove into the coat he had dropped behind him, digging in his pocket for the fresh shells I knew he’d have there. As I reloaded the shotgun, Cade unloaded both his hog-leg Colts into the demon’s face. When he grabbed the shotgun back, the thing was reeling, a sort of burning husk, but it was still coming for us. I put my hands over Klaus’ ears as Cade fired both barrels again, so close I felt the burn of the blast. Krampus stretched up tall and thin, a curtain of flame with the face of the devil, and Cade spit in his eye. With a final roar, Krampus collapsed.
Cade kicked the ball of burning rags into the fireplace, and it exploded like a pine knot in the fire.
“Papa!” Klaus yelled, running for the stairs. “Papa, come quick! Mr. Cade killed Krampus!”
“You all right?” Cade said. His hat was dripping snow, and his boots were caked with mud and ice. And his lip was busted, and his eye was black, but I had done all that the night before.
“Yeah, I reckon,” I said. I had burned my hands grabbing the shotgun, and he took them and kissed the burns. “I guess old Krampus is real after all.”
“I reckon so.” He smiled, and I threw myself into his arms.
“Where the hell did you go?” I said. I could hear voices and footsteps coming down the stairs. “Didn’t you notice all that snow?”
“There was something I had to go to town to get.” He kissed me sweetly then let me go to get his saddlebags. Thomas and Mr. Bhaer came in as he pulled out a package wrapped in brown paper. “Merry Christmas,” he said, handing it to me.
“What did you do?” I unwrapped it and gasped. It was a perfect yellow-haired dolly in a perfect lacy white dress.
“What in the hell is that?” Thomas said.
I could have scolded him for risking his life over something so foolish. I could have been furious with him for scaring me so bad or embarrassed that he’d thought a doll could mean so much to me.
“She’s perfect,” I said, hugging him again. Maybe he couldn’t say it out loud, but I could. “I love you.”
The storm finally broke on Christmas night, and the next morning, we packed up to go. I wrapped Charlotte Russe in my prettiest dress and tucked her into my saddlebag. Then I put on my gunslinger togs, tied my hair up in a braid, and strapped on my revolver.
As I was heading outside, the preacher stopped me. “Best of luck to you, Miss Daisy,” he said, tipping his hat. “If you and Cade ever decide to make this thing legally binding, I’m always around.”
I took his offered hand and smiled. “We’ll check the jails if we need you,” I said, kissing his cheek.
Cade was bellowing as I walked out the front door. “Gawddammit, Luis, are you coming or not?” The sun was shining, and the whole world was sparkling blue and white. All the Bhaer’s Christmas company was heading out, and the yard was full of kids, bundled up like bear cubs and throwing snowballs at one another. Klaus balled up a snowball as big as his head and flung it at the back of his big brother’s neck. It hit dead on target, and Klaus laughed like a fiend as the bigger boy chased him away.
One of the other boys had saddled my mare. “Thanks, Dietrich,” I said, taking the reins.
“Ma’am,” he said, tipping his hat and blushing red as a holly berry.
Cade was doing his usual ritual, checking all his laces, positioning his guns. When Dietrich had gone, I put a hand on his back. “That preacher offered to marry you and me for real.”
He kept on retying a strap. “You want him to?”
“Him? I don’t think so.” I didn’t need a ceremony. I knew he was all mine.
He turned around and put his arms around me. “Are you sure you want to come?” he said. “You could stay right here and be safe. Bhaer and his wife have already said you’d be welcome. You could eat regular, sleep in a bed every night.” He touched my cheek. “Rarely if ever get shot at.”
“Well, that just sounds boring as hell.” I slid my arms around him under his coat. “Forget it, bad man.” He kissed me, and I kissed him back. “I’m sticking with you.”