“All I'm saying is it would be nice to see some snow at Christmas. Come on,” McCormick paused to extend a hand to the older man peering over his shoulder, “gimme the four-inch.” He took the wrench and bent back over the truck engine, grunting with effort. “You musta had snow at Christmas in Arkansas.”
Hardcastle fingered the other wrenches he was holding. “Sure, we had snow. Sometimes. It was nice, except when it took down the power lines and we had to sleep in front of the gas stove to keep warm. The pump would freeze, too, so we didn't have any water and had to melt the snow in front of the fireplace in big buckets.”
Mark stopped working on the distributor and straightened up to look at his 'assistant', who kept talking as he stared off into the distance as though looking back into the past.
“We'd have to keep kerosene heaters going in the barn for the cows, and it seemed like there was always at least one broken. The snow'd get down the chimney sometimes and 'bout put out the fire, too. My mother'd put her Mason jars of all her preserves near the stove to keep the glass from cracking.” The judge paused briefly, scratching his nose with a wrench. “'Least we didn't have school when it snowed that much. Couldn't get there and back. Mr. Kent, he owned the farm down the road, would hitch up his mules and stop by with some supplies from the store and any mail we had waiting.”
McCormick leaned against the truck fender, staring at the judge.
Hardcastle kept right on. “Filling the kerosene lamps was one of my jobs and I hated that smell. But they worked good enough and my dad would pull down our old copy of 'Aesop's Fables' and 'A Christmas Carol' and read to us until bedtime. Once in a while, my mother would get down one or two of the dried ears of corn and we'd pop them over the fire. Now that was a great smell. Popcorn nowadays doesn't hold a candle to corn we popped ourselves.” He sighed, contentedly.
“Before this turns into 'Little House on the Prairie', Judge, all I said was it would be nice to see some snow on Christmas.” Mark handed back the wrench he'd requested and selected another from the older man's hand. “You know, just a coupla of inches would look like the holidays, dontcha think? We don't need kerosene lanterns and old-fashioned corn poppers. Just --” he waved a hand at the palm trees surrounding the pool, “a little less Malibu and a little more Dickens.”
“I hope you appreciate all this snow,” grumbled Hardcastle. “And the fact that I had to pay that guy twenty bucks to put our chains on.” He squinted through the truck windshield, wipers going at half-speed to keep the snow from building up.
“I said I'll pay you back,” McCormick was rapt in admiration of the snow gently falling outside the truck windows. “You knew they make you put on chains when you start up the pass to Tahoe. I offered to do it back a ways, but you didn't want to stop.” He smiled out the side window, wiping a clearer space in the condensation to see the snowfall. “This is more like it.”
The pine trees lining the highway soughed gently in the wind as the snow began to weigh down the branches. Drifts of more than a foot could be seen at the bases of some of the trees.
“Hey, you checked the weather forecast before we left, didn't you?”
“Of course. You wanted to see snow, didn't you?” Hardcastle eased off the accelerator as he felt the truck slew just a bit on ice.
“Me?! You were the one mooning over the lost kerosene lanterns of your youth!” Mark grinned at him, then turned his attention back to the falling snow. “It does look like it's starting to really come down, though.”
“Gunther's Inn and Rathskellar, just beyond the pass. Supposed to have good, solid food and plenty of it. Rustic atmosphere, and they guarantee snow at Christmas or you get ten percent off your bill. How 'bout that?”
The large chalet-style inn was gaily decorated with pine swags and candles in each window. Christmas lights were strung along the porch railing and the sign proclaiming that Gunther's Inn and Rathskellar Welcomes You had Santa and his reindeer perched atop it. Lights gleamed, fragrant smoke rose from the chimney and even Currier and Ives couldn't have improved the scene.
“Remember to stay in character,” whispered the taller of the two men peering out the latticed window in the door. Then, after a deep breath, he pulled open the door to admit a gust of snow and two white-dusted travelers. “Wilkommen! I am Gunther and meine brüder Hans is here to take your bags. Der snow, it is falling so hard now, ja?” The smiling, rotund six-footer beamed on them and waved his brother, Hans, forward.
Hans, too, grinned at them, bowing at the waist and motioning them inside. Both men were husky, broadfaced, and cheerfully wearing intricately-embroidered waistcoats and abbreviated green jackets.
“Yeah, it is,” was Hardcastle's gruff reply. “Here, you wanna take this one?” He handed over his small suitcase and entered the anteroom, stamping snow from his boots and flapping his jacket. “Brr!” He rubbed his hands together briskly.
“Hey!” came the complaint from outside the door, “make some room there!” McCormick shoved the judge from behind and entered, crusted with snow and shivering. “Where's that hot buttered rum you were talking about?” He dropped his overnight bag to clap his hands vigorously on his arms and then shook the snow from his hair.
A pine-paneled, beamed ceiling with an enormous Christmas tree in one corner, decorated with gold and silver ornaments and multi-colored lights, made the lodge's main room seem almost cozy. The log fire crackled and spat cheerily in the large stone fireplace and the scent of pine permeated the entire room. The room was nearly empty, but the attempt at Christmas cheer added a great deal of charm.
“Listen, you admit you were the one going all nostalgic on me about the cows freezing in the barn or we can go home right now.”
“Well, maybe I was thinking a little snow might be nice. A little.” The judge held up two fingers about an inch apart. “This is a bit more than I'd figured on.”
Mark sipped at his rum again, staring at the roaring blaze in the fireplace. “Hans said the weather report is for snow all night, maybe up to more than a foot on the ground. At least,” he wrinkled his brow in thought, “I think that's what he said. There was something about sauerbraten and noodles, too.”
“His vocabulary's way too good to still have that accent. And it's also inconsistent.” The judge took a sip of his own steaming rum and pondered for a moment. “Seems to me there's something weird about those two.”
Noise and a bustle at the door, as a blast of cold air paved the way for more customers. A young couple entered, shaking the snow off their coats and blowing on their hands. The woman was blonde and in her early twenties, while the young man was darker, but still on the bright side of thirty and they had a slight resemblance each to the other. The lodge keeper ushered them toward the fire after taking their coats, and they approached shivering but smiling.
“Hello,” said the blonde shyly. Her companion nodded in a friendly but reserved fashion and introduced himself and his companion.
“George Atkins,” he said, giving each man a nod. “And this is my fianceé, Dorothy.”
Mark made room for the petite blonde by standing and rearranging a chair so that it faced the roaring blaze directly. “Hi, there,” he answered, holding out a hand to George after Dorothy was seated. “Still coming down out there, I guess, from the look of things.”
George turned and shook the judge's hand, also. “Yep, harder than ever. We were hoping to get to Sacramento tonight, but the weather report isn't real great for the next couple of days. And tomorrow's Christmas Eve, so you know what traffic will be like.”
“Not with a snowstorm. Here, edge up to the fire a bit,” Hardcastle said to Dorothy, who was still shivering but smiling gamely. “I'm just wondering how many folks are gonna end up stranded here tonight.”
“There was a semi pulling in just as we came through the door.” Dorothy looked back toward the front door. “But there was hardly any traffic at all the last twenty miles or so. Maybe they were smarter than we were.”
McCormick signaled Hans to bring another couple of rums and looked questioningly at the two newcomers. “The hot buttered rum really hits the spot. Warms you up pretty good, too.”
George smiled at Hans. “That sounds like just the ticket.”
“Four rums, then,” nodded mine host. Gunther then strode to the door just as two men brought a taste of the snowstorm in with them, stamping and blowing.
“Whoo-ee! We dang near ran off the road just a mile back!” The first through the door shook off a few pounds of heavy, wet snow, slapping his cowboy hat against his knee then turned to assist his partner. “Nothing like this in the weather report this morning.”
The other trucker pulled off his knit cap and nodded in agreement, then nodded again to the group around the fire. “Evening, folks.” He cast Gunther an appealing look. “You got a room for two more?”
“Ja, ja. You betcha. Not so many peoples travelling this Christmas, so we are having plenty of room for you all.” Gunther took the coats and gloves and hats and disposed of them tidily in the coat closet. “Please to warm yourselves at the fire and could I get you something to drink?”
“Sure thing,” said trucker number one, a husky fellow. “How 'bout a coupla whatever those folks are having?” He gestured toward the group at the fire.
Gunther grinned at them. “Very nice, very good. I bring in just a small moment.” He bustled away as
the two men held a brief whispered colloquy then stomped over to the fire and settled into the large armchairs just to the side of the hearth.
“I'm Hank,” said the one who ordered the drinks. “And this here's Jimmy.” He poked a thumb at the man at his side. “We got our own business, haul hay out of North Dakota to central California.”
Jimmy, slighter and darker than Hank, smiled at the company generally and murmured, “How do.”
Hank arranged his feet a little nearer to the blaze and sighed comfortably. “Thought for a while we weren't gonna make it here, and we gotta full load this trip – 144 bales. Never known snow to come on so fast and strong, even when we were kids. And boy, we sure did have some blizzards when we were kids, huh, Jim?”
Jimmy offered his mite to the fireside crowd. “We're cousins, see.”
Dorothy flinched slightly and George laid a hand gently on her arm as Gunther appeared with the next installment of steaming mugs.
“I hope now only that the power lines they don't go down.” He handed mugs to Hank and Jimmy and stood beaming at his assembled guests. “We have a big need for the electricity, you know,” he added as he proffered the judge's second round.
The entire group of guests cast anxious glances at each other. Then Hardcastle spoke.
“I'm going upstairs to unpack and grab a hot shower right now. There might not be any hot water if the power lines go down.” He stood just as Hans reappeared with a tray of hot drinks for the two truckers and reached to pick up his own. “I'll just take this with me.”
“A wise idea,” came a new voice from the wide wooden stairway leading upstairs. An older woman, comfortably clad in a tweed skirt and coat and turtleneck, finished her descent and greeted the judge, closest to her. “I'm Anne Hawthorne. Professor of Physiology and Pharmacology and a profligate user of hot water.” She held out a hand to Hardcastle with a smile. “I did leave a small amount for the rest of you, though.”
Just then the room went dark.