Tyler Perkins was tired and so very, very cold. The snow fell in huge heavy flakes and that on the ground was deep and getting deeper. He pulled his coat tighter and tucked his chin into it in a vain attempt at finding some kind of warmth.
On he trudged, doggedly dragging first one foot then the other out of the snow then plunging it back in. He lifted his head and took in his surroundings. Had he not been sure he would never leave this mountain alive he’d have been in awe of the beauty. He’d explored hundreds in his lifetime, but these woods of northern Idaho were breathtaking. He supposed if he had to go, there was no better place than this slice of heaven on earth he found himself in.
His foot slipped and he managed to stay upright by sheer force of will. He knew that if he went down now, he’d never get back up. The snow was too deep, and his exhaustion too complete. He had no idea how long he’d been wandering and lost. One day? Two? Could it be more? The memory of how he’d gotten here brought on a wave of sorrow. Millie. His Millie was gone. The death of his wife had driven him to seek solace in the only place that had ever brought him any sense of peace. Perhaps somewhere deep inside he’d known what he was doing. Been aware of what he was getting himself into. Understood what the result of his flight into the wilderness so ill prepared and under these conditions would be.
His foot slipped again and this time he wasn’t able to regain his footing. Somehow, he landed on his back. He lay there staring up into the gray skies, too tired to even blink away the flakes. He had no concept of how long he lay there before he heard a voice calling to him.
“Mister? Hey mister, are you okay? You’re not dead, are you?”
Tyler opened eyes he hadn’t realized he’d closed and looked up into the tiny face of a little girl with white-blond curls peeking from under a knit hat, big blue eyes, and cheeks red with the cold. Her smile at his open eyes was brilliant.
“Hello. Why you laying there in the snow that way?”
He reached up a hand and brushed a shaking finger down her cheek. “Are you real?”
Her giggle fell around him like little drops of sunshine. “Well, that’s a silly question, sure I’m real. I’m awful glad you’re not dead.”
“Well, I suppose I’m glad I’m not dead too. What’s your name little one?”
She drew up straight and pointed a thumb at her chest. “My name is Wynona Wittman and I turned five-years-old last Sunday. Momma made me a chocolate cake. And you wanna know what? I just lost my first tooth, wanna see?” She leaned forward with her mouth open and pointed to the gap with the tip of a pale blue mitten.
Tyler managed a weak chuckle, finding unexpected delight in the way she drew her name out to Why-no-na, and her excited display of her missing tooth. “Well, isn’t that something?”
“Our house is right over there,” she pointed over her shoulder. “Wanna come in and get warm? Momma made stew and Papa is carving me a dolly. Brodie’s in there too. He’s my baby brother. He just got his first tooth.” She giggled again. “Momma said it was something the way I lost a tooth and Brodie got one all in the same day.”
Tyler’s eyes drifted closed and he fought to drag them back open. “I’d love to come in sweetheart, but I’m not feeling well. Maybe it would be best if I just stay here. I’m a might bit tired.” He let the weight of his weariness pull the lids down over his eyes once again.
As his awareness faded, her voice sounded far away and wobbled just a bit. “I don’t think you should sleep out here it’s way too cold. I’ll run get Papa, he’ll help you up.”
The first thing Tyler did when he awoke was to marvel at how warm he was cocooned as he was in heavy blankets that smelled of sunshine and lavender. As slumber receded further though, awareness of the pain in his head and throat made his stomach roll. When he shifted to try to ease the ache in his back, the mattress beneath him crunched and crackled. Was he lying on a straw mattress? He hadn’t slept on one of those for decades. The sound of softly spoken words too low to be understood road in on a wave of confusion. Where was he? The last he remembered he’d been laying in the snow burning with fever while talking to a tiny little girl. Was this heaven? Surrounded as he was by the sensations, smells, and sounds of a long-ago childhood in the mountains he could think of no other explanation.
“Momma, I think he’s awake. He’s movin’ around. Can I talk to him now? I’ve been waitin’ ever so long.”
The little girl’s words were followed by the low tones of a male.
“You leave him be now Nona. He needs to rest.”
His words were followed by those spoken softly by a woman.
“I know you’re worried about him Nona. He’ll be alright. He needs his sleep to help the healing along is all. I never thought I’d be so happy to have you disobey me and your papa. If you hadn’t gone out to watch the snow fall we wouldn’t have found him until it was too late.”
Tyler felt the edge of the bed give and then tiny fingers stroke the back of his hand. “I thought he was dead Momma. I was sure scared at first. Are you sure he isn’t gonna die anymore?”
Tyler’s heart ached at the worry in her voice, so he turned his hand to grasp her fingers. Her eyes met his in surprise and he gave her a smile. “Hello again Wy-no-na.”
She smiled back. “Good morning. Momma says you’re real sick with fever but you’re going to be okay after you rest some.”
“That’s real good to hear.”
Heavy footsteps thudded on wooden floors and brought with them the scent of pine sap and wood smoke. A big man with hair as fair as his daughters nodded to him as he lifted Wynona off the bed and set her down with a kiss to the top of her head. “Why don’t you go help momma finish up fixin’ breakfast and let me talk to your new friend a spell?”
“Yes, Papa.” She patted Tyler’s hand. “I’ll be right back.”
They watched her scamper off to join her mother, a tiny woman wearing a pioneer style dress with red hair piled up in a bun who offered Tyler a shy smile before turning her attention to her daughter. The man dragged a chair over and sat down.
Tyler lifted eyes dry with his rising fever. “Name’s Tyler Perkins. I’m grateful for you helpin’ me out.”
The man’s expression was kind. “August Wittman.” He gestured toward the kitchen area. “That there is my wife Moira, you know Wynona, and that’s Brodie sitting in the highchair. You had us real worried last night, you were near to frozen by the time Nona led me to you. We don’t get many visitors up this way.”
Tyler shifted uncomfortably, embarrassed over his foolishness. “I’m not usually dumb enough to come out here this way with bad weather forecast. I suppose I wasn’t quite in my right mind. I lost my wife see, and the forest is the only place I’ve ever found real peace. I guess I didn’t realize how far I’d gone. Then the storm hit. I got turned around . . .”
Moira came to them carrying a cup. “I’ve brought you some nice warm broth. As sick as you are, I’m thinking this will be the best for you. Help him sit up Auggie.”
Tyler ate then slipped back into the darkness. He had no way of knowing how many days passed as he fought against the fever and sickness. Each time he woke Wynona was there holding his hand.
As time went by, he stayed awake longer and longer. Eventually he was able to eat at the table and spend time with the little family who had taken him in. He bounced little Brodie on his knee and listened to the endless stories Wynona wove for him. In the evenings after the children slept, he and August talked quietly by the fire while Moira bustled about cleaning or sat nearby sewing or knitting.
He wondered at their lifestyle. They lived and dressed as though it were the nineteenth century rather than the twenty-first. As he lay in bed one night after a meal of weak soup and dried meat, he realized how sparse their provisions were and what a drain his presence must be on them. With a heavy heart he decided it was time for him to go.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny, a perfect contrast to how he felt when he told the family he thought he was well enough to find his way off the mountain to home.
Tears shimmered in Wynona’s eyes. “But I don’t want you to leave Mr. Tyler.”
Tyler knelt down so he was eye to eye with her. “I know pumpkin, but I’ve taken advantage of your momma and daddy’s kindness long enough. Now that I’m feeling better, it’s time I get back home. I’ll come back and visit, I promise.”
She threw her arms around his neck and buried her head in his shoulder. “I’m going to miss you.”
Tyler’s voice was thick with emotion when he spoke. “I’m going to miss you too.” He pulled her away so he could see her. “I’ll be back. Come spring, when the snow melts, I’ll come back and I’ll bring you and Brodie a surprise.”
Wynona sniffled. “I guess that will be just fine. I do like surprises. I got one for you. Wait right here.”
Tyler rose to his feet and watched her scamper off to her sleeping nook. Seconds later she was back.
“Close your eyes and hold out your hand.” He did as she asked. She put one hand under his and then he felt her press something into his palm then she folded his fingers up around it. “Now you can open your eyes.”
He opened his eyes and looked down into hers. “May I look at it now?”
She managed a wobbly smile. “Of course you can silly, I want to see what you think about what I gave you.”
“I’m sure I’ll love whatever it is.” He opened his hand to find a blue stone. It was smooth as glass and the exact color of her eyes. “Why Wynona I believe that’s the prettiest rock I’ve ever seen. Are you sure you want to give it to me?”
She nodded. “I’m sure. It’s my most favorite. Me and Papa found it when we went up the creek last summer. I wanted to give you something extra special, so you’ll never forget me.”
Tyler knelt back down. “I don’t need a pretty treasure to remember you by. How could I ever forget you?” He closed his fist around the rock and held it over his heart. “But I thank you for it and I will treasure it always. Whenever I look at it, I’ll think of the little blue-eyed angel who saved me from the storm.”
He hugged her again and this time it was he who had tears in his eyes.
Tyler made his way slowly down the trail Auggie had pointed out. He’d used snowshoes before, but it had been a long time ago. It didn’t help that the snowshoes Auggie had given him were the old wooden type and the laces holding them to his boots seemed weak.
When he made it to the edge of the clearing, he turned to look back at the cabin. Wynona was in the open door waving like crazy and hollering words that were swept away by the breeze. Behind her stood August and Moira with Brodie on her hip.
Tyler waved back. “Bye Wy-no-na.” Then with an aching heart, he turned and left them behind.
It felt like he’d been fighting the deep snow for hours when he finally broke through the trees. When he caught sight of Ben Cranston standing next to his pickup, he dropped the sticks he’d been using as poles and fell to his knees. Relief and exhaustion sapping the last of his willpower.
Ben rushed to his side and knelt next to him. “Tyler, thank the Lord. We’ve been looking for you for days. You hurt? Where you been?”
Tyler pressed his lips together and shook his head, too overcome to speak.
“Never mind all that. You don’t look good. Let’s get you into my truck. I got to radio the others and let them know you showed up.”
“Come on, I got the heater runnin’.”
After Ben had settled him under a quilt he kept in the truck, he let the rest of the searchers know Tyler’d been found then turned his attention to the exhausted man next to him.
“You’ve been missing for three weeks. I came by to check on you a couple days after Millie’s funeral and you weren’t there. We asked around and no one had seen you. Next day Denise Williams reported she’d found your truck at the base of Miner’s Peak, so we gathered up a bunch of fellas and set to lookin’ for ya. Where’ve you been?”
Tyler turned to look at the snow-covered mountain he’d just descended. Three weeks? The time he’d spent with the Wittmans had seemed so much longer than that. He missed them already.
“I was stupid. Went up there completely unprepared. Losing Millie tore me apart Ben. I couldn’t take it anymore. I have no idea how long I wandered around up there before they found me. Two, maybe three days. Mighta been more. I was so cold, tired, and sick that I thought little Wynona was an angel when I opened my eyes and found her looking down at me. Her daddy dragged me into the cabin. If it weren’t for them, I’d be dead right now. I . . .” Tyler stopped talking when he turned back to his friend and saw the odd look on his face. “What?”
“Ty, there ain’t no one livin’ up on that mountain. Only cabin within miles of here is the old Wittman place. Ain’t no one lived there since August Whittman and his family passed there the winter of eighteen sixty-three. T’was a bad winter that year. More snow then’d been seen in years. When August didn’t come to town come springtime, they went up lookin’ for him. They’re all buried up there behind the cabin. I know you and Millie haven’t been in town long but I’da thought you’da heard the story by now. Cabin is still standing. Auggie build the thing out of stone and there’s a few town folk who keep an eye on it. But ain’t no one livin’ there. You musta wondered in there somehow and hunkered down ‘till the storm passed.”
“But I saw them. Auggie, Moira, Wynona, and little Brodie. They saved me. Nursed me back to health. Hell Ben, they even fed me. You can’t tell me I didn’t see those people.”
“Now don’t go gettin’ all worked up Ty. Let’s get ya inta town and over to see Doc Barstow. You musta somehow got into the cabin. Whoever was there last musta forgot to lock it back up. You probably heard the story about the Wittmans and your fever recreated the story or somethin’.”
Tyler looked back up the mountain through tear blurred eyes. What the hell had happened up on that mountain? What about the snowshoes Auggie had given him? Those were real. Ben had stuffed them in behind the seat. When he mentioned that to Ben, he told him that all the Wittman’s possessions had been left in the cabin. After that Tyler closed his eyes and said to go ahead and take him to see the doctor.
Doc Barstow sent Tyler on to the hospital where he stayed for another two weeks. Months passed and finally spring came. Tyler knew it was time.
It took him three hours to reach the cabin. The clearing looked different. The blanket of white had been replaced with one of wildflowers, breathtaking in their beauty.
Tyler made his way around to the back of the lifeless cabin then up the little knoll topped with four stone markers. He dragged his hat off as he took in the sight. He spoke to Auggie and Moira first, thanking them for their kindness. Then he took off the backpack he wore and knelt between Wynona and Brodie and pulled from his pocket the proof that his time with them had been real.
“Hey Wy-no-na. I still got your gift.” He held up the blue stone she’d given him the day he’d left as if to show it to her. “I carry it with me everywhere. I didn’t forget my promise to you either. Just had to wait ‘till springtime.” He opened the backpack and pulled out a toy truck and set it next to Brodie’s marker. He reached back in and pulled out a porcelain doll with white-blond curls and leaned it on Wynona’s. His voice cracked with emotion. “Here’s the surprise I promised you. She reminded me of you. Hope you like her.”
He laid a hand on her stone and closed his eyes. It was then, riding along the breeze, came that familiar giggle and once again it fell around him like little drops of sunshine.
Based on a prompt from Writers Unite! For more great stories click here