As the sun set over the snow-capped peaks of the Sangre DeCristo mountains, its fading light gave the panorama of plains and mesas to the east an eerie, supernatural glow. Even after being born and raised near here, 30 miles north in Raton, New Mexico and having traveled this stretch of I-25 countless times since moving to Denver, Jed Cooper was still awestruck by the powerful raw beauty of this country.
As a nationally respected independent security consultant, Jed spent more time on the road than anywhere else, which was just fine with him, even on this Christmas Eve. He had never married, and his parents had passed on years ago. He had no real roots or family, and therefore no commitments. Despite the nationwide nature of his profession, he rarely traveled in airplanes. Sure, planes are much faster, but someone else had control over his fate, something he could never be comfortable with. Besides, he enjoyed driving and relished seeing everything America had to offer, from ground level.
Jed glanced at his watch, "Almost five, should be home by nine or so, plenty early enough for a quick one at the Grizzly Rose and a good night's sleep."
Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, not that it really mattered. Other than dressing up as Santa, and doing some time at the shelter for homeless families, Christmas day held little else that was special to him.
Jed always became a bit melancholy as he drove through this area. Raton reminded him of his childhood, his parents, and most of all, his high school sweetheart. Jenny was his first, and only love. Whenever he passed through, he thought about Jenny.
"I wonder where she is, what she's doing, or if she's even still alive," he thought to himself. "Is she married? Dumb question, of course she is, probably has grandkids by now. Wonder if she stayed in Raton, or went off to the big city, like we'd always dreamed we would..."
Throughout high school, Jed Cooper and Jenny Valerio had been together, going steady they called it then. They loved each other, and were certain they'd be married someday. But life, and fate, is sometimes cruel to young lovers. Soon after graduation, Jed was drafted for Vietnam. Jenny begged and pleaded with Jed not to go.
"I'd rather live as a fugitive in Canada, with you at my side, than lose you to some damn war nobody believes in." Jenny would sob, tears rolling down her young face, "If you go, I can't wait for you, I couldn't bear the pain."
Jed was torn between his love for Jenny, and his duty to his country, but in the end Jed knew what he had to do. "I have to go, Jen. I couldn't live with myself if I ran away from this, and you couldn't either. Don't worry, I'll get back O.K."
Jenny wasn't convinced, and being young and hurt, she threw a tantrum and told Jed sharply, "It's obvious you don't love me as much as you love the thought of war and adventure in some rice paddy half a world away. Go on and go. I don't want to see or hear from you ever again."
She didn't mean it, but she couldn't bring herself to take it back. She knew in her heart that Jed was the only man she could ever love.
Jed wasn't too worried about Jenny, and he told his friends, "She'll get over it, and she'll love me even more when I come home with a shirt full of medals."
He still wasn't worried when, the next evening, he saw Jenny at the A&W, parked with the quarterback of the football team. Jed and Brad Simmons had been rivals since kindergarten, and Jed figured, "She's just trying to make me jealous."
When Jenny didn't even show up to see him off to boot camp, Jed began to wonder if he might have really lost her. When she wouldn't return his letters, or take his phone calls, he was convinced she no longer cared. He had a leave coming after boot camp, but heartbroken, he went straight to Vietnam instead.
In Vietnam, survival was top priority, though he thought of nothing but Jenny in his rare moments of peace and solitude. Jed found that war really was hell, especially this one. He did what he could to survive, and mourned the loss of many friends. One especially hot and rainy night his platoon was overrun by Viet Cong forces and the heroism Jed displayed, by carrying his badly wounded platoon sergeant through enemy infested jungle to the safety of Da Nang, earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Jed's parents were absent on the day that the President of the United States draped the Medal around his neck. His Commanding Officer had assured him that passage to the Washington D.C ceremony had been approved for his folks, and soon after the affair Jed found out the reason for their absence: While driving to the Albuquerque airport, his parents were involved in an automobile accident. There were no survivors.
After losing his parents, the military became his only family. He never went back to Raton, even for his parents' funeral. He made a career out of the Marine Corps, then started his own security business in Denver after he retired. He never even stopped in Raton for gasoline, if he could help it. The memory of his parents and the love he left behind was just too painful.
As the miles continued to roll by, taking him closer to the hometown of his childhood, Jed wished to himself that he could somehow change the past. How grand his life would have been, if he'd only had Jenny and his parents there to share it with him. With that thought, he willed Jenny, his folks, and Raton out of his mind. "They're gone, and you can't change the past, dummy."
As Jed continued to guide his Corvette northward through the crisp New Mexico winter dusk, he noticed the peak called "Eagle Tail" just to the east.
"Used to be some good deer hunting up there," he remembered, "got a nice ten point buck my first time."
As he gazed up at the peak, now littered with radio towers, he saw an object flying just above the mountain's mesa-like base, in his direction.
"Kind of small for a military jet." he thought. Military planes from Cannon and Kirtland often flew at low altitude in this area.
As the object grew near, he was sure that it wasn't a military jet, or any other kind of airplane for that matter.
"What the..." he exclaimed out loud, as the craft neared. "It can't be...naw..."
He quickly rubbed his eyes and set them back onto the highway. The object seemed to be a sleigh, pulled by nine tiny reindeer. The white beard and red suit of the driver were plainly visible, as well as the bright red nose of the lead reindeer.
"I've gotta be imagining things," Jed muttered as he turned his head for another look. As quickly as he turned his head, Jed instinctively ducked as the sleigh bore down, on a collision course. As the sleigh buzzed Jed's Corvette, he lost control, crashed through a barbed wire fence and traveled several meters, until he ended up under the bridge spanning the Canadian River, swamped. As the car lurched to a sudden stop in the river, Jed's head bounced off of the steering wheel, knocking him out cold.
It took Jed a few minutes to orient himself once he regained his senses. The winter sun had disappeared behind the mountains to the west and the air had gotten much colder. The cold Canadian River water, now up to his neck, didn't help matters much. Jed couldn't force the car door open, but he was able to escape through the driver's side window.
Cold, wet and near hypothermia, Jed rescued his now wet jacket from the sinking car, climbed up the riverbank and started walking as quickly as possible northward on the interstate toward the lights of Raton. Jed soon lost all feeling in his outstretched thumb, but the exercise generated enough body heat to keep him going. Despite his predicament, his mind began racing.
"Am I going nuts? Everybody knows that Santa Claus is just a myth, but the Santa piloted sleigh was sure real enough. Was it my imagination? Was I hallucinating? Did I really get buzzed by flying reindeer?"
As Jed continued to plod up the highway, questioning his sanity and the events that led to his crash, he didn't notice the passenger car that had slowed and pulled to the shoulder behind him. The car's horn caught his attention and he turned towards it, startled.
"What happened, mister. You need a lift to town?"
"What happened, yea, that's a good question." Jed retorted sarcastically.
Jed thought to himself, "I can't tell these people what really happened, or at least what I THINK happened. I'd be sent to the cracker factory pretty darn quick, though a nice cozy rubber room does sound kind of good right now."
Jed walked over to the driver of the car. "I swerved to miss a deer. Ended up in the river. I would sure appreciate a lift into Raton."
The driver, a young, good-looking fella, smiled and opened the rear door. "Climb on in. The wife brought along a thermos of hot coffee, you're welcome to have some."
After Jed settled into the rear seat, he saw that the young man was not alone. A pretty, twenty-something girl, with dark hair, doe-like brown eyes, and golden skin, occupied the passenger seat. In the middle was a child seat, filled with the bundled up form of a young boy. There was something about the girl; like he had seen her before, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.
"I appreciate the ride, young man, and this coffee sure hits the spot, ma'am. My name is Jed. I used to live around here, a long time ago. You can just drop me off at the nearest telephone."
"No trouble, Jed. My name is Mike Johnson. This is my wife, Emily, and this little fella here is our son, Josh. We live in Las Vegas, but Emily's family lives in Raton and luckily for you her Uncle Joe owns a towing company. Don't you worry about a thing. Nothing's gonna be open tomorrow, it being Christmas and all. You just spend the night with us, at Emily's mom's place. She's a great cook, and you can use the telephone to call your family. Uncle Joe will tend to your car after Christmas dinner, but I don't think that you'll be driving it again anytime soon. Day after Christmas we should be able to hook you up with a rental. Or maybe your wife could drive down and fetch you?"
"I'm not married. In fact I've really got no place that I need to be, or anyone who will worry about me. I've been alone for quite a long time."
"Then it's settled. You'll spend Christmas with us."
"I wouldn't want to trouble you any..."
"No trouble," Mike's wife chimed in, "Momma would love the company of a fine looking gentleman like you... once you dry out."
Jed took an immediate liking to the young couple. "What the heck, a good home-cooked meal and a warm bed sure beats a motel. I accept your invitation, and I sure appreciate the hospitality. Merry Christmas to you both."
Emily's eyes brightened as she exclaimed, "That's what Christmas is all about, Jed. People caring for other people."
Jed winked, as young Josh peered over the car seat eyeing him curiously. As they drove into Raton Jed noticed that the names of most of the stores had changed, but that downtown Raton still looked much as it had twenty-five years earlier. As the car cruised slowly up Main, Jed's throat tightened at the sight of all the downtown Christmas decorations, and the large Christmas tree right smack in the Main street median. The buildings, the tree, and the decorations, combined with the backdrop of imposing snow-covered mesas leading up to Raton Pass made downtown Raton look like Christmas heaven. He immediately regretted ever leaving his hometown.
As the car continued up Main, through the railroad underpass and east on Sugarite, Jed's senses were filled with memories of many of the places he saw. Much of the town had changed, but some places were the same as he remembered them. The Johnsons left him to his silence, until they pulled into the driveway of a small, well-kept house on Garcia Street. The twinkling lights of a Christmas tree escaped through the drapes of the front picture window.
"Look Josh, we're here. Let's go in and give Grandma a great big hug," Emily cooed as she bundled the child into his coat.
Mike Johnson turned to Jed. "I'd appreciate some help with the packages in the trunk, Jed."
"No problem, Mike. Glad to help out."
As Jed and the young family entered the house Emily called out,
"Momma, we're here and we brought some company."
A female voice answered from a hallway, "I'll be out in a second, Emmy. Who have you brought with you?"
Jed's ears homed in on the voice from the hallway; there was something familiar about it. When the woman entered the room, the packages in Jed's arms, as well as his jaw, dropped to the floor and his body stiffened with surprise and emotion.
"Momma, this is..."
"Jed..." the woman squeaked, as tears welled up in her big brown eyes.
"Momma, you know this man?"
For what seemed to be eternity, Jed couldn't make a sound come from his mouth. Finally he was able to choke out, "Jenny. My God."
Jenny rushed to Jed's arms, and as he embraced her it seemed that all the years they had been apart just disappeared. Mike and Emily could only stare, dumbfounded, as the two childhood sweethearts hugged and wept. Little Josh wasn't the least concerned.
"Grandma, I want some candy."
Over the dinner table, Jed and Jenny caught up on the events of their lives over the last twenty-five years. Mike and Emily tried to remain politely silent, but could not help asking Jed about wartime experiences. Josh, of course, was another matter. He demanded constant attention, as children do, until finally Jenny convinced him that it was bedtime.
"The faster you get to sleep, the sooner Santa can deliver your presents."
Mike and Emily excused themselves to put little Josh to bed, and Jed could hear their excited whispers, when they thought they were out of earshot. For a time, he could only gaze at Jenny, drinking in her every feature, amazed at the way time had made her even more beautiful. Jenny gazed back at him, looking directly into his eyes, thanking the Lord for bringing him back to her. Jed broke the silence.
"So who did you finally marry?"
He noticed her eyes widen, as if she had forgotten something, and she did not answer immediately. Jed could just imagine an angry husband storming into the room at just that moment. The tears that began clouding her eyes made him fear the worst. Jenny's voice was little more than a whisper when she answered.
"I never married, Jed. You're the only man I've ever loved."
Jed's heart nearly melted, "And I still love you, Jen..." Then a sudden thought crossed his mind. His voice was strained with emotion when he finally continued, "...then who is Emily's father?"
"You are, my darling, I'm so sorry that I never..."
Before she could finish, there was a sharp crack as the back of Jed's chair met the floor, after he fainted for the first time in his life.
The next day, as Jed and Mike followed Joe Valerio's Mega-wrecker down I-25 to retrieve Jed's car, both men were silent, lost in deep thought. Both thought about how strange and wonderful the twists and turns of life can be, and wondered just how independent from fate they really were. Jed knew that he would never leave Jenny again. He would marry her, as he always knew he would as a teen. After so many years apart, every moment together would be treasured and from now on, every Christmas would be even more magical. Of course, no Christmas would ever be as special as this one had.
As they approached the Canadian River Bridge, Jed was suprised to see that his car had been removed from the river, and sat sparkling clean on the shoulder, the sun glistening off the brightly polished chrome.
"Did the State Police already send a wrecker?"
"Could be", Mike replied, "looks like you got a ticket on the windshield."
Jed got out of Mike's car, and walked over to his own. There was no evidence of the Christmas Eve accident. In fact, the car hadn't looked this good since it was new. Jed reached out and took the slip of paper from beneath the wiper blade. It wasn't a ticket, but just a plain piece of white paper, with a short hand written note. As Jed read the note, he broke out in hysterical laughter.
Confused, Mike asked, "What is it, Jed?"
"Nothing," he laughed, "just a note from a good friend."
Despite the confused look on Mike's face, Jed stuffed the note into his pocket. He'd read it to Jenny later.
DEAR JED, SORRY ABOUT YOUR CAR, RUDOLPH IS GETTING OLD AND HIS EYESIGHT ISN'T TOO GOOD, BUT I THINK THAT YOU'LL FORGIVE ME. YOU AND JENNY CAN TELL YOUR GRANDSON HOW GRANDPA GOT RUN OVER BY A REINDEER. MERRY CHRISTMAS.