Sometimes, I get inspired around this time of year. The first time, CHRISTMAS MOON was the result. It’s still one of my favorite Christmas stories. 😉 Then came A VERY SADE CHRISTMAS. (I should dig that one out again.) And MIDNIGHT MOON which will make a published appearance in one of the Moonstruck volumes. This year, Hardy, Gunner, and Gravedigger getting caught in a winter storm while on a road trip inspired this tale. I hope you enjoy this little “present” from me and mine to you and yours. Merry Christmas!
ONCE UPON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR: A Nightriders Christmas Tale
The night was cold and clear, the stars like diamonds tossed across midnight velvet. Yeah, yeah. I don’t usually wax poetic but we’d been riding mostly nonstop for two days now as we headed west for home. The clouds on the horizon didn’t bode well for us finishing the trip that night.
Outside of some podunk town, the blue norther caught up to us. Not even Wolves want to ride bikes in that shit. The gas station was shutting down but Gravedigger convinced the owner to stay open long enough for us to fill our tanks. Our next stop was the no-tell motel next door. The “No Vacancy” sign sparked off and on. I went in and rousted the desk clerk out of the back room where he was watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” on a TV that looked as old as the movie.
I went back outside where Digger and Gunner waited for me. “Bad news,” I said. “No room at the inn.”
“At least the diner’s open,” Gunner groused. “We can eat and then head to the next town.”
Sounded like a plan to me.
The waitress was straight out of central casting for a seventies-era sitcom—red hair teased, twisted, waved, and plastered into a hairdo that defied gravity. A lit cigarette dangled from the corner of her mouth and I worried about spontaneous combustion from the amount of hair spray.
“We’re gettin’ ready t’close. Sit at the counter.” The ash on the cigarette didn’t even move. She poured three cups of coffee, pulled three sets of cutlery rolled up in paper napkins out of her apron pocket, and disappeared into the kitchen without another word.
Ten minutes later, after Digger got up and grabbed the pot for refills, the gal reappeared with three plates piled high with eggs, bacon, sausage, and pancakes. “Only thing left on the menu,” she said, the cigarette still riding the corner of her mouth and the ash still intact.
I was pretty damn sure magic had something to do with it.
We ate, drank more coffee, and then Digger asked how far it was to the next town.
“Next town of any size would be Bethany. They even got a Wallyworld Supercenter.”
We mounted up and headed west. The snow was coming thick and hard and even with our eyesight and senses, riding was dangerous. That’s when we spotted the barn. We managed to wrangle our Harleys up the road and pushed them inside. The wind whistled outside but the old place was dry. We had sleeping bags but if it got too cold, we could shift into our wolf forms and burrow into the piles of hay to stay warm.
After pushing our bikes inside, Digger was closing the door when a sound caught his attention. “Be right back,” he called over his shoulder before ducking back out into the storm.
Gunner and I exchanged looks and shrugged. I was debating whether we could safely light a fire when the door opened and I’ll be damned if Digger didn’t herd in a menagerie of critters—three sheep, a milk cow, and a donkey. Ice and snow had frozen on their hides. I rigged a fire pit while Gunner and Digger rubbed the animals down with some old gunny sacks they’d found.
An hour later, the barn wasn’t cozy, but none of us—Wolves or critters—would freeze. My wolf kept nudging at my insides, restless and discontent. He wanted out. To go hunting. No creature would be stirring but would he listen to me? Hell no.
“I’m goin’ out,” I explained as I stripped and shifted. Gunner got up and opened the door for me. The wind no longer howle so I put my nose up, testing the air. The snow still came down fast and furious. I hoped to hell it’d stop before we had to resort to eating sheep, even though my wolf loved the cold, white stuff. He would happily live above the arctic circle.
Screams split the silence of the night and I took off. It took me almost twenty minutes to find the little car. It had skidded off the road and buried nose-first into a snowbank. The motor stuttered off just as I padded up. The stink of scorched hair and ammonia mixed with rusted iron filled my nose. Panic, terror, and blood. Never good.
Easing closer, I scented two people—no, three. A man crouched by the open back door. He was the panicked one, with a healthy dose of terror to spice things up. I caught a glimpse of a woman, her legs up, blood between her legs. Then I heard the crying. A baby.
I couldn’t do anything as a wolf and a naked man in sub-zero temperatures would just scare them more. I ran back to the barn, scratching madly at the wooden door until Digger let me in. I was shifting back before he even got the thing shut.
“Grab the donkey and our sleeping bags.”
“Slow down, Hardy,” Gunner drawled at me.
“Can’t. Wreck. Woman. Baby.” I’d been a combat medic but I’d never dealt with babies. I mentally cataloged what I had in the first aid kit in my saddlebags.
“Why do we need the donkey?” Digger, ever Mr. Practical, asked.
“Snow’s too deep. One of us will have to go wolf and lay down a trail the donkey can follow. We’ll put the woman on the donkey and bring them back here.”
Digger, who was a damn big wolf, shifted. Gunner made a halter and lead line out of some rope he’d found and leading the donkey, we followed Digger. It took awhile but we made it to the car. The door was closed now and I worried the couple had taken off on foot. People did stupid shit when they got stranded. The windows were fogged up and I took that as a positive sign. I opened the door. The man yelled, the woman screamed, and the baby just stared at me with the biggest brown eyes I’d ever seen.
“We came to help,” I explained. It took some persuasion and Gunner was inches away from pulling his weapon and forcing them to come with us when the woman finally agreed.
We got her and the baby wrapped up in one sleeping bag, the father in the second. That little donkey was a trooper, waiting patiently while we got mother and child settled on his back. Digger made the trail wider on the way back to the barn and it didn’t take us long at all.
Back in the barn, we got the little family settled. Digger chose to remain in wolf form. The woman’s teeth stopped chattering and she gave Gunner and me a smile. Her husband introduced them.
“Thank you for your help. I’m Joe Carpenter and this is my wife, Mary.”
Gunner and I exchanged a look and Digger whined a little, leaning against my leg. Even though there was a wolf in the barn, the sheep, cow, and donkey ignored him and happily munched on hay.
“We were trying to get to the hospital in Bethany,” Joe continued. “I don’t know what we would have done if you fellas hadn’t shown up.”
“I’m Hardy,” I said. “And this is Gunner.”
I didn’t introduce Gravedigger until Mary spoke up. “That’s a beautiful dog.”
Gunner choked back a laugh as Digger growled. “Not a dog, ma’am. He’s a wolf. We call him Digger.”
At some point, the Carpenters fell asleep, the baby along with them. Digger changed back to human and was snoring before Gunner dropped off. I tried to stay awake to keep the fire burning but when I opened my eyes, only embers were left and someone was banging on the door.
“State police! Anyone in there?”
Digger and Gunner were immediately on their feet and alert. Joe was awake but Mary and the baby still snoozed, bundled up in sleeping bags and nestled in the hay. I headed to the door. “Comin’.”
I lifted the board that held the door shut and opened it just enough the trooper could slide inside. I held a finger to my lips and nodded toward the sleeping pair. The trooper stopped dead, taking in the tableau. Sheep, cow, donkey bedded down in hay. Man, woman, and baby, also bedded down in the hay. And three bikers, in our leather cuts, standing guard. We weren’t exactly wise men but whatever.
“Found the car,” the trooper explained. “Followed your tracks.” He studied all of us again, shook his head, and a little smile ticked up one corner of his mouth. “Never expected to find something like this. Merry Christmas.”
That’s when the date hit me. December 25. “Yeah,” I said. “Merry Christmas.”
Because it was.
Merry Christmas to all and to all happy reading! May the peace and joy of the season settle around you and yours bringing happiness, love, and dreams come true.