“Don’t die on me, Zel.”
I’ve been dying, Zachary. I’ve been trying to tell you that.
“Come on, Zel. You know how much I love you, girl. You’re all I’ve got. Don’t do this to me here. Not now.”
But it had to be here because it would be now. His beloved pickup truck Zelda had quit on him, and Zach Beaudry had no one to blame but himself. He’d taken his sweet time hitting the road, and then miscalculated a shortcut. For all he knew he was a hundred miles from gas. But even if they were sitting next to a pump, the three dollars he had in his pocket wouldn’t get him out of South Dakota, which was not where he wanted to be right now. Not even reliable old Zelda could get him much of anywhere on fumes. He was sitting out in the cold in the middle of nowhere. And getting colder. Zach made no apologies to anyone for being a fair weather lover.
Cowboy. Fair weather cowboy. As a lover, he was the all-weather model.
He shifted the pickup into neutral and pulled hard on the steering wheel, using the downhill slope to get her off the blacktop and into the roadside grass, where she shuddered to a standstill. He stroked the padded dash. “You’ll be safe here.”
But Zach would not. It was getting dark, and it was already too damn cold for his cowboy ass. Was it December yet? November in this part of the country was hard enough on beat-up bones and wore-out joints. Zach’s battered body was a barometer, and he was feeling South Dakota, big time. He’d have given his right arm to be climbing into a hotel hot tub instead of a brutal blast of north wind. The right was his free arm anyway. Damn thing had lost altitude, touched some part of the bull and caused him a scoreless ride last time out. Whole lotta pain for an ugly little goose egg.
It wasn’t scoring him a ride this night, either. A carload of teenagers whizzed by, topping off the insult by laying on the horn as they passed him. It was at least twenty minutes before another vehicle came along. He stepped out and waved both arms this time, damn near getting himself killed. Whatever happened to do unto others? In places like this, decent people didn’t leave each other stranded in the cold.
His face was feeling stiff, and he figured he’d better start walking before his toes went numb. He struck out for a distant yard light, which the only sign of human habitation in sight. He couldn’t tell how distant, but he knew he’d be hurting by the time he got there, and he was counting on some kindly old man to be answering the door. No shame among the lame.
It wasn’t like Zach was fresh off the operating table—it had been a few months since his last round of repairs—but he hadn’t given himself enough time. He’d lopped a couple of weeks off the near end of the doc’s estimated recovery time, rigged up a brace, done some heavy-duty taping, and climbed onto another bull. Hung in there for five seconds—four seconds past feeling the pop in his hip and three seconds short of the buzzer.
He could still feel the pain shooting down his leg with every step. Only this time he had to pick the damn thing up, swing it forward, and drop it down again on his own. Couldn’t even wangle a ride off his own kind.
Pride be damned, he just hoped somebody would be answering the door at the end of the road. The light in the front window was a good sign.
The four steps to the covered porch might as well have been four hundred, and he was looking to climb them with a lead weight chained to his left leg. His eyes were just as screwed up as his hip. Big black spots danced around with tiny red flashers, and he couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t. He stumbled over some shrubbery, steadied himself on the porch railing, and peered between vertical slats.
There in the front window stood a spruce tree with a silver star affixed to the top. Zach was pretty sure the red sparks were all in his head, but the white lights twinkling by the hundreds throughout the huge tree, those were real. He wasn’t too sure about the woman hanging the shiny balls. Most of her hair was caught up on her head and fastened in a curly clump, but the light captured by the escaped bits crowned her with a golden halo. Her face was a soft shadow, her body a willowy silhouette beneath a long white gown. If this was where the mind ran off to when cold started shutting down the rest of the body, then Zach’s final worldly thought was, This ain’t such a bad way to go.
He wanted to tell her, touch her, thank her. If she would just turn to the window, he could die looking into the eyes of a Christmas angel. She would find him, know him, forgive and love him, all in a look, and he would go to his Maker feeling good inside. Fighting to free his leg from a dried-out bush, he stumbled over a stone face with the bulging eyes, fangs and flaring nostrils of a hideous watchdog sitting on the porch beside the steps. It took all the strength he had left to throw the hellhound off him. Down the steps he went.
But he went down fighting.
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