The mud coach lurched, its iron-rimmed wheels slipping into a rut in the hard-frozen trail, and throwing Devereaux roughly against the wall of the coach. “Dammit, Adan!” he complained, hauling himself upright on the battered, barely-padded seat and shoving his head out the window.
Adan, perched atop the coach, gave him a smug glance. “You keep sticking your head out here, you’re gonna be all wet by the time we get to the Green. Get back in there.” The cigarillo smouldering on Adan’s lip glowed brightly through the swirling snow and the blue twilight. Sharp, sweet smoke wafted across Dev's nostrils, sweet in the cold, almost painfully crisp air. Adan went on, “Don’t want to mess your beard up, do ya?”
“To hell with my beard.” Dev scowled up at him. “I feel like damn baggage riding in here.”
Adan’s lightly whiskered face broke into a sympathetic smile, and his tone softened. “I know you do, Frank.” He gestured with his head and clicked his tongue, urging the pair of horses to quicken their pace. “We’re almost there. You can ride up top on the way back and get yourself as mussed up as you want. Just stay nice until we’re done.” Snow clung to Adan’s broad shoulders, clotted in the brim of his hat and fell in fluffy clumps into the thick, whiskey-colored tangles of his shaggy hair. Dev’s heart squeezed with a surge of affection despite his discomfiture.
He’s right. He’s going to need to dry off before we start back. Dev grunted and ducked his head back inside the coach’s window, leaving the leather curtain open. He felt awkward and nervous, and the cold air blowing across his face was cleansing. He drew in a deep breath of it, feeling it calm him. Adan’s deep, gentle voice went on, soothing him and giving him something to focus on other than his own self-consciousness.
“It was sure nice of Monahan and Bari to bring the coach out, eh?” Adan said lightly. “And to stay on for us till we get back to our post.”
“It was.” Dev nodded. “It sure was nice of you and them to volunteer me for this horseshit, too. I notice you didn’t offer to do it yourself.”
“Aw, c’mon, Frank.” Dev could hear Adan grinning around his words. “You know there isn’t anyone within a hundred miles better for this job than you.”
Dev settled back in the seat. “I’m fatter and hairier than anyone else, you mean.” His lip tugged up with a self-satisfied smirk as he heard Adan guffaw rudely.
“That’s not what I meant, Frank.” Traces of mirth were still clinging to Adan’s words. “Look, we’re almost there. Try not to do a lot of cussin’, will you?” The coach slowed to a stop as Adan drove the coach behind Sheriff Holt’s jailhouse. “And could you at least smile?”
Dev hauled himself out of the coach, stepping down into the soft blanket of fresh snow and reaching up to take the burlap sack Adan was handing down to him. He grimaced, feeling his beard pull and itch, before giving Adan a wide grin. “This white shoe polish you put in my beard is gonna snatch my face bald before we’re done.”
Adan swung down, shouldering a second sack. His blue eyes, full of mischief and excitement, shone in the light from the rising moon. He reached into the coach, snatched out the red and white stocking cap Mrs. Lynch had made, and pulled it down over Dev’s heavily shoe-polished and powdered hair. “You look great, Frank,” he laughed, giving Dev’s beefy shoulder a squeeze. “This is gonna be fun.”
“I know it is.” Dev adjusted the weight of the sack on his shoulder, putting a finger to the side of his nose and winking conspiratorially.
“Oh, that’s perfect. Let’s head over to the schoolhouse.”
“Alright...but just wait a moment.” Dev stood still, listening to the silence of falling snow and watching the rising moon glinting like silver and magic on the pristine white around them. The ridiculous red cloak Mrs. Lynch had made for him was warm, and the weight of candy and fruit and toys in the sack felt even warmer. And Adan, brawny, rugged, cigarello-puffing Adan, stood with cheeks reddened with cold and his breath puffing in curling silver mist. Dev wanted to remember this moment, wanted to remember the snow and the yellow lights in the windows of the schoolhouse down the street and the boyish fun twinking in Adan’s blue eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Adan's voice was a quiet rumble.
“Nothing.” Dev said, and meant it. He jerked his head towards the schoolhouse. “Let’s go.” His hand shot out and gave Adan’s bicep a gentle shove before headed up the street. “Ho, ho, ho.”
“There’s our Saint Nicholas.”
“Some kid pisses on my lap...” Dev said, trying to sound stern and failing. “...we’re trading pants.”