It wasn't so much cold as it was bitterly cold. He desperately wanted to stamp his feet, but he refused to undo three hours of work. Instead, he wiggled each finger, each toe, and carefully, carefully unscrewed the cap of his metal thermos and took a cautious sip, his eyes never leaving the small thicket of wood that he knew, just knew, was hiding at least one deer. Possibly more. He couldn't see them, but he could sense that there was something alive about the small cluster of trees. More than the latent life in the leafless trees, more than the whisper and skitter of small animals looking for food and warmth.

And then, it happened. In a turn of events he hadn't anticipated, three full grown deer exploded into the clearing, followed closely by a small red fox nipping at their heels. In a smooth, practiced move, he raised the tool of his trade and took careful aim. Using the lightning fast reflexes he'd honed in years of practice, he captured his prey in a succession of rapid shots.

When all four animals disappeared on the other side of the barren clearing, he replaced the lens on his professional calibre Hasselblad and took great delight in stomping the circulation back into his legs. Ever mindful of his one extravagant possession, he guarded the camera closely as he waved his arms, raising them over his head to maximize the flow of blood. Though he could still feel the bite of the frigid December temperature, he knew that he was warm enough to make the long trek back to his cabin. The fire would have died out over an hour ago, but the cabin wouldn't have lost all its warmth in the interim.

He hoped.

In any case, it wouldn't take long to set a pot of coffee percolating.

And it would take even less time to unwrap a piece of his carefully rationed chocolate while he waited for that coffee to percolate. In fact, he thought, as he watched the late afternoon sun begin to dip below the tree line, it might be a good evening for him to make his annual Christmas cake. He smiled to himself, thinking of the rich, decadent cake filled with dried fruit and nuts. Lots of people didn't care for it, but that simply left more for him.

And it wasn't as if he had many visitors from the sleepy, stagnant little town of Sleepyside. Which was exactly the way he liked it. He didn't need them. And he certainly didn't need to share his fruit cake with them. Heck, he could put extra fruit in the cake, seeing as he would be the only one eating it.

With this plan firmly etched in his mind, the long walk back to the cabin was much more tolerable. Along the way, he stopped to take several more pictures of the landscape, groupings of trees, and even managed to catch one of the few winter birds native to the region in flight. The photographs with animals, he knew, were always an easier sell than the ones without, though he could never understand why. For him, true beauty lay in the naked landscape. The inhabitants of the landscape were superfluous. But he wasn't the one purchasing or publishing the photographs. All in all, he was more than pleased with the day’s productivity. He had three rolls of film to develop and the potential for some highly marketable shots.

Along the way he checked several traps, but each was empty. He couldn't find it in his heart to be terribly broken up about it, however. The pelts were a good source of income and he was happy to have the meat, but leaving more animals available to photograph was even more appealing.

He fell into a steady rhythm, his arms and legs working together with practiced ease as he walked at a good pace back to the cabin. This, though he could feel the fatigue and cold eating away at him, was always his favourite part of the day. A time to practice being content with his day, set aside the disappointments, and focus on the future.

A future considerably different than what he had once planned.

No, he certainly hadn't anticipated living on his own, secluded, cut off from almost all human contact. And he hadn't anticipated being consumed by a bitterness that would have been better suited to a man of certain years, instead of a man of only twenty-seven.

The bitterness had come as a surprise, much as the events of his life had.

He breathed a sigh of relief when the clearing came into view, and tramped determinedly to the front door. A thin wisp of smoke from the chimney and a light in the window told him that he had company, and he hastened his pace. Mrs. Vanderpoel wasn't above dropping by with a meal for him, but she seldom made herself so at home. No, he suspected that his visitor was the reclusive Brom.

He tugged the closely fitted log door open, closing it behind him quickly once he'd entered in order to preserve the warmth in the cabin. Sure enough, a man in his mid-fifties with shoulder-length grey-streaked brown hair was seated at the kitchen table, using his knife to whittle a piece of wood.

"Got your mail," the older man said by way of greeting, using his knife to point to a stack of envelopes. Maypenny nodded his thanks. The post office in town was happy to hold his mail for him under General Delivery, but if he didn't come in to pick it up for a week or two, the post man made a point of bringing it along on his route and leaving it with Brom, since the clearing in which the cabin was situated was inaccessible to motor vehicles. It probably wasn't legal, but that didn't seem to matter much. And if it saved him the punishment of a trip to town, Maypenny was all for it.

Shrugging out of his coat, he hung it neatly on the hook by the door and removed his boots as well. With the ease of familiarity, he set the coffee pot percolating on the stove and took down a jar of his latest batch of hunter's stew.

"You'll stay to supper, I hope," he said, not bothering to wait for a reply. Brom wouldn't have disturbed his privacy unless he needed a decent meal. His visitor grunted unintelligibly in response, and returned his attention to the intricate figure he was carving. The only sounds in the cabin were the clattering of dishes, the hiss of the stove, and scrape of blade on wood. And it was still louder than what he had become accustomed to.

When the preparations for supper were complete and he was waiting for everything to finish heating, he sat down at the table and began sorting through the pile of mail. He'd left it longer than usual, he realized, grimacing at the thickness of the stack. Pulling out the knife he always kept on his person, he slit each of the envelopes open, but left the letters inside. They'd waited days, if not weeks already; another few hours wouldn't hurt.

As the aromas of good food and coffee filled the small cabin, the silence grew more companionable, almost as if anticipation for the meal were giving them a bond.

When Maypenny set a bowl of stew directly in front of his guest, Brom finally tucked his knife away in a pants pocket, but didn't set down the half-finished figure. It was obvious that it was an animal of some sort, but Maypenny couldn't tell exactly what, yet.

"This is for Ellen's new little one," Brom said, his eyes on Maypenny instead of the carving. "They’re hoping for a girl this time, I hear."

Maypenny moved away swiftly, setting down his own bowl of stew with a little more fervor than was strictly necessary.

"That's nice," he said, lips pressed tightly together.

"Mrs. Vanderpoel sees them every week at church," Brom continued, twisting the knife in his heart a little deeper. "This is their third young'un."

Yes. He knew. Had heard about the additions to the family. He hadn't wanted to. Hadn't wanted to know that she was really and truly happy with the life she'd chosen. The man she'd chosen.

With an ill-mannered grunt, he raised his spoon to begin eating, but stopped when he saw that Brom's head was bent in prayer. Ashamed, he closed his eyes, and silently recited the prayer that his mother had spoken over every meal she'd prepared in that cabin.

Brom tucked in as soon as the prayer was finished, and the men ate in a silence that Maypenny assumed was companionable. It was sort of hard to tell, since he wasn't feeling especially charitable after thinking about Ellen and her family. Still, that was no reason to be rude to the only company he'd had in weeks.

"More bread?" he asked, wondering if the question doubled both as conversation and good hosting.

Brom grunted something that sounded like an affirmative answer, so he used the bread knife to cut another thick slice of homemade bread and passed it and the butter toward him. The more the older man ate, the happier they'd both be. It was common knowledge that Brom didn't always have enough to eat, but it was also common knowledge that you risked a tongue lashing, or worse, if you mentioned it, or, even worse, tried to do something about it.

Maypenny watched as Brom worked his way through three large bowls of stew before bringing a jar of canned fruit to the table for dessert. Amelia Belden was a fine cook, and, unlike Brom, he didn't mind accepting the food she occasionally left for him. Carefully spooning the peach slices into bowls, he watched as Brom devoured them, too.

"I should be going," Brom finally said when his bowl had literally been licked clean. "I just thought you'd want your mail, seeing as how there's a letter from the hospital."

Maypenny's eyes drifted to the stack of letters he'd yet to read. A letter from the Sleepyside General Hospital wasn't uncommon, as he'd made regular donations to the place after the deaths of his parents. Still, he'd donated only a few months ago, and he couldn't imagine that they would ask him for funds again so soon.

By the time he turned his focus back to his guest, Brom had made his way to the door and had begun tugging on his boots. Maypenny frowned, noting that the leather of the boots was scuffed and battered, most likely too thin to keep out the worst of the wind and snow. His coat was little better and bore tell-tale signs of having been mended by Mrs. Vanderpoel more than once. Still, the man's cabin wasn't too far away, and as long as he didn't drift off the path or have an accident, he would most likely be fine. Still...

"It's a fine evening," he said, trying not to wince at the bald lie. "Would you like some company on the walk back?"

He would have been better off keeping his offer to himself, he realized, when Brom turned his clear blue eyes on him. "You just sit yourself back down at the table, young sir," he said sternly. "If I want an escort, I'll ask for it. Until then, you're to keep your offers to yourself."

Maypenny nodded sheepishly, knowing that he'd been much too blunt in his approach. In the future, he'd have to come up with more plausible reasons for accompanying him. Still, it just seemed wrong to send the elderly man out into the cold night by himself. Not that Brom was really all that old, he reminded himself. He was probably only in his late fifties, perhaps early sixties, which wasn't old at all, but life had been hard on him, and he looked at minimum a decade older than he was. The fact that the man could barely afford to feed himself only made the situation even worse. How could he not want to help him?

"Thanks for supper," Brom said gruffly, breaking the silence. "Your stew is as good as it gets in these parts," he acknowledged with a nod, and then stepped out into the yard. Dark had really and truly fallen, but the night was clear. With a full moon to provide light, Maypenny knew that Brom would find his way without difficulty.

"Any time," he called after the retreating figure. "Any time."

With the door firmly shut behind him, Maypenny returned to his seat at the kitchen table and gathered the mail. There wasn't much of it, but the letter from Destination was important. The magazine had been buying his pictures for months, and this letter would contain both a cheque and an explanation of what type of photographs they were currently looking for.

He was right. The cheque was made out for a decent amount, and he felt a thrill of pride that he was actually making a decent living by selling his photographs. It wasn't the career he'd had in mind when he'd left Sleepyside almost ten years ago, but it had ended suiting his needs perfectly, providing an outlet and an income when he was in desperate need of both. Luckily, their current emphasis on pictures of wildlife worked perfectly with his surroundings. He fingered the letter, running various options through his mind. He'd already had one picture of an eagle, and one of a coyote published, but there were many, many more animals that he could attempt to capture on film. It was just a matter of deciding which one, studying it, and being patient enough to capture the perfect image.

Ellen had always liked rabbits. Even when they'd eaten the carrots from the garden she tended so carefully. Her father had set traps, put out poison, and even shot some of the varmints, but never without listening to his daughter scold him soundly first.

He shook his head. Rabbits were notoriously difficult to photograph. And it wasn't as if he needed to be sitting and thinking of Ellen while he waited for one to appear. No. He definitely wouldn't be photographing rabbits any time soon.

A distant cry sounded, tickling his ears with its ethereal quality. A cat of some sort. He frowned, hearing it again in his mind. Not just a cat. A large cat. Very large.

He stared out the window and into the darkness, as if somehow he'd be able to see into the thick trees surrounding his property. The moon was full and the sky free of clouds, but he knew that it would be impossible for him to spot a wild creature until it was practically under his nose. Not that a wild creature was likely to venture into the pie-shaped clearing on which his cabin sat. No, most were much too wary of human contact to take the risk. A bear, perhaps, would be lured by the meat he hung to cure, but a wildcat would not.

And that was a good thing, he reminded himself. Coming across a wildcat on his own property unexpectedly could very well spell his death.

Still, he knew that he would have to seek out the animal. If he could hear its cry, then it was already far too close to civilization, and that never ended well. At least, it didn't for the poor human who was liable to stumble across it, unprepared. With luck, he would be able to shoot it with his camera before he was forced to turn his gun on it.

But not tonight.

He turned away from the window and back to the kitchen table, noting that he still hadn't opened the letter from Sleeypside General Hospital. Withdrawing the sheet of crisp white paper, he unfolded it and quickly scanned the content.

And was forced to hold back a surprised snort. Sleepyside General Hospital's campaign to raise money to provide Christmas presents for young patients in their care over the holidays had been successful, and they were looking for a volunteer to dress up as Santa. That part was all well and good, but as one of the most faithful contributors to the campaign, he had been asked to take on the responsibility of donning the traditional red suit and distributing the presents.

His eyes darted to the top of the page to check the date, hoping that he'd left the mail long enough that they'd been forced to look elsewhere because of his lack of a response.

No such luck.

The letter was dated only four days previous.

Well, shoot. Now he'd have to reply. And as good as he was at saying "no", (or was that having "no" said to him? No matter.), it still wasn't any fun. Especially not when he was saying no to such a good cause. A good cause that he'd supported from its inception.


Still. That didn't mean he had to do it. Surely there were other people in Sleepyside who would jump at the chance to play benevolent gift giver. There had to be. It was a town of supposedly well-meaning but ultimately selfish and cruel people. They should be lining up to do something that would improve their standing in the community.

A wave of self-loathing crashed over him. What would his mother say if she knew his thoughts? She'd send him out back to split wood that they didn't need, is what she'd do.

And she'd be right.

With a heavy sigh, he set aside the letter and walked heavily to the door. He couldn't split wood in the dark, but he could use the cold night air to clear his head from his miserable, uncharitable thoughts.

A good long walk seemed to be the best course of action under the circumstances, even if it was cold and dark. Perhaps especially because it was cold and dark. A little physical exertion was often enough to purge his mind of whatever was bothering him.


"You're home!" She threw her arms around him, her blonde hair swinging hard enough to cause the perky pony tail to brush against his shoulder.

He steadied her forward momentum by placing both hands firmly on her waist and holding her slight form against his considerably more sturdy build. "I told you I'd be back today," he said, smiling in satisfaction at her exuberant greeting. Attending college in New York was good, but coming home to his girl was better by far. And when she slipped her tiny hand into his, he knew that there was no place he'd rather be. With a quick glance to make sure that they weren't being observed by any of his mother's many nosy friends, he tugged her away from the train depot and practically ran toward the park. It was well after dusk and he knew that all the town children had been called home for supper and bed hours ago. And anyone else who was there was probably planning on using the sequestered park benches for exactly the same purpose he was, so...

He didn't need to explain himself. Ellen seemed to understand exactly what he was thinking. She always did. It was one of the things he loved best about her—he rarely had to use words to explain himself. And right at this moment, she seemed to want the exact same thing that he did. Could life be any better?

“I missed you so much,” she whispered, tucking herself against his side as they claimed the most secluded bench in the park and daringly placing her hand on his knee. She had missed him, Maypenny realized. Ellen had never exactly refused his careful advances in the past, but she certainly hadn’t instigated them, either. Tonight, however, she couldn’t seem to get enough of him. Couldn’t seem to get close enough to him.

And that suited him just fine.

He woke with a start, sweating and groaning. The sky was still dark, but he could feel that dawn wasn't far off. Flinging his arm over his eyes, he flopped back onto his bed, disgusted with himself and his inability to pack away the memories that continued to haunt him in his sleep. Would he never be free of them? Of her?

With a sigh of resignation, he flung back the patchwork quilt and tugged on heavy jeans over his long underwear. After adding a heavy shirt and sweater, he lowered the staircase from his attic bedroom and hurried to build the fire in the cook stove. It didn't take long to have coffee percolating and eggs frying. And by the time it grew light he'd be ready to split the firewood he hadn't the night before.

And though the winter supply of wood was nearly laid in, he couldn't help thinking that this was still something he needed to do.


"Blast it!" Maypenny swore long and loud as the lace on his boot broke. Again. And this time, there wasn't enough excess lace left for him to tie the tied frayed ends together and still be able to tie his boots. He'd meant to pick up extra laces last time he was in town, but he'd caught sight of one his mother's friends, and had finished his shopping at Crimper's without stopping to make sure he had all the items on his list.

Just the thought of subjecting himself to another round of supposedly well-meaning interrogation from the local busybodies had him putting a little extra swing into the motion as he split another cord of wood. He glanced at the neat stack butted against the cabin, but kept going, ignoring the fact that it wasn't necessary. It was cheap therapy, he told himself. And more physically productive than taking a long walk, his other form of therapy. Disgusted by the fact that he was actually admitting to two forms of therapy, he straightened and returned the maul to its rightful place. No more. It was time to stop acting like some sort of lovesick fool. If he wasn't careful, he'd find himself being described as broody. Or worse yet, tortured. No. His plight was no worse than that of the average man, and he'd be damned if spent one more minute in self-pity than he could help. In fact, he told himself, his lips twitching just a little, his situation was probably better than a lot of the men he saw around the small town. After all, he wasn't stuck in a loveless marriage or surrounded by screaming children.

The smile disappeared and was replaced by a frown as his thoughts dwelt on screaming children. The letter from Sleepyside General Hospital was still sitting on the kitchen table, lying open on top of its envelope. He'd meant to add it to the kindling pile, but somehow hadn't gotten around to it. His mother would have said it was because of his subconscious conscience, and he had a gnawing suspicion that in this case, she might just be right. But honestly! He was a young man with no experience with children. Why on earth would the hospital want him to play Santa to sick kids? And, even more importantly, why was he even entertaining the notion? Not just entertaining, he pointed out to himself, but almost fixating on the idea. When he hadn't been thinking about Ellen, he'd been picturing himself in a ridiculous red suit, balancing two runny-nosed children on his lap and trying to listen around the lisps and misformed words to determine what they were saying.

He shuddered. Why couldn't the hospital just have asked him for money again, instead? It might mean eating lean for a few weeks, but at least he'd retain his sanity...

The same haunting cry he'd heard the night before interrupted his musings, and he snapped to attention. The preserve might be his home, but as his father had drilled into him, that was no excuse for letting his guard down. The cry sounded again, from a slightly different direction, and Maypenny resigned himself to the notion that a catamount had indeed taken up residence entirely too close to civilization.

He'd thought that when his parents were both gone, he would be free of the perpetual pull, the tug back and forth between mastering the land and capturing its beauty in film. In his naivety, he'd thought he'd be free to make whatever decision he wanted, and answer to no one. Instead, he found himself fighting the same battles, only this time, the fight was entirely within himself. And he was continuously answering to himself as he struggled and justified his decisions.

He could practically see the catamount in his mind. Lone. Feral. Powerful. Unconcerned with anything around him other than finding his next meal. It would be absolutely magnificent captured on 80 mm film.

But the knowledge that the catamount might not be at all picky about where his next meal came from was sobering. Could he really take the chance on shooting it with the camera first, and risk having it disappear before he could follow up with his rifle? If it stayed in the area any longer, livestock and family pets would soon start disappearing. And that would be the least of their troubles, if they were lucky. With a shudder he remembered the cautionary tale his father had told many times—a story of a family of catamounts making their home in the Sleepyside area during his father’s grandfather’s time and seriously harming a small child before they could be contained. It wasn't a history that bore repeating. At least, not if he could help it.

But the day passed without further evidence of the catamount, and he dared to hope that the predator had moved on.


Maypenny settled himself on the antique rocking chair and placed his end-of-the-day hot cocoa on the table beside him, taking care to place it where it wouldn’t leave a mark. The table was just as old as the rocking chair and had seen better days, but he’d been brought up to treat furniture carefully unless he planned on building new pieces.

Probably, though, he shouldn’t have used the letter from the Sleepyside hospital as a coaster. Probably he should actually respond to the letter. Probably he should have done it a week ago. With a sigh, he lifted his mug and picked up the letter from underneath.

But reading it three times didn’t make one iota of difference. He still didn’t want to play Santa. And he still couldn’t bring himself to reply to the hospital and tell them so.

Setting aside the empty mug, this time on an actual coaster, Maypenny closed his eyes and enjoyed the crackle of the fire and comforting warmth from the hot drink.

And dreamed about a different letter.

By the time you read this, I’ll be married.

The sick shock of the words had frozen him, even as he’d sat in the sweltering heat of the midday sun in South Africa.

I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to you, since you’ve been gone so long and have doubtless spent time with lots of other women.

But it had come as a shock, because the fifteen months he’d spent travelling the world and photographing everything he could had swept by in a steady stream of intoxicating new discoveries. And while he’d met plenty of women on his travels, he hadn’t spared a single one of them a second glance. Why would he? He had Ellen, waiting for him in Sleepyside. Ellen, who had apparently not been waiting for him at all. Ellen, who had apparently found other men to spend time with while he was gone.

You remember Grant; he was a year behind you in school.

But in that moment Maypenny couldn’t remember anyone. Anyone other than the woman he’d planned to spend the rest of his life with. Assumed he’d spend the rest of his life with. Banked on spending the rest of his life with.

He couldn’t do it. Couldn’t read another word of the letter. He jammed it back into the air mail envelope, ripping the tissue-thin paper in the process. The postmark caught his eye, and he realized that Ellen was probably already married. Or on her honeymoon. Or was back from her honeymoon, settling into life with the kind of home-grown boy she thought she’d found, but hadn’t, really, in him.

He’d thought he was handling the news well until he woke up that night from the sound of his sobs, his muffled cry ripping through the steamy summer African night…

He jolted awake, still hearing the cry. It still felt like yesterday that his life had taken an unexpected and unwelcome turn. Still, he hadn’t woken up this upset in years, not since he’d first read the letter…

The howl sounded again, and Maypenny leaped from the rocking chair so fast that it continued to rock, nearly knocking him off his feet. The catamount was close. Very close. He blinked to clear the sleep from his eyes and searched for his rifle in the dim light cast by the glowing embers of his dying fire. He was almost to the door when he hesitated.

It wouldn’t hurt anything if he took it along, he decided. After all, he didn’t have to use it. Decided, he looped the strap of the Hasselblad over his neck and hurried out the door into the crisp night.

The moon was full, bathing the clearing around his cabin with so much light it was almost as if the sun were shining.

Perfect lighting for nighttime photography.

It was almost, he decided, as if the moon were a spotlight. Because before he’d ventured a hundred feet out of the clearing he could see it.

It was magnificent.

She was magnificent. Beautiful tawny coat and long tail, complete with black tip. White chest illuminated by the moon. A perfect specimen of the species. Staring directly at him.

Without a second thought he raised his camera and captured image after image. The catamount, only fifty feet away, looked away after a moment and turned her head in profile. The preserve was silent in the presence of the predator and the moon shone in full glory, illuminating the wild animal against the backdrop of towering trees.

He’d captured plenty of exotic animals on film while in South Africa, but it was an entirely different experience to find the perfect shot in his own backyard. Returning to Sleepyside had been difficult for many reasons, not the least of which was the limited pool of subjects for photography.

But this moment, he thought, his heart racing, was perfect. The still of the night. The beauty of the catamount. The—

A distant howl filled the night air, and Maypenny and the cat turned toward it simultaneously. It wasn’t the howl of a coyote, the other large predator in the Catskills. No, it was feline. But… young.

Young. Young catamount. Almost certainly the off-spring of the catamount in front of him, he realized.

And almost certainly far too close to Sleepyside.

Before Maypenny could exchange his Hasselblad for his rifle, the catamount was gone, bounding into the thick of the preserve in almost absolute silence.

Heading straight for Sleepyside and her kits.

Cursing under his breath, he followed, sliding and skidding his way through the fresh dusting of snow. He couldn’t hope to keep up with the catamount, but he couldn’t not follow, either. With any luck he’d hear the mother and her kits returning to Storm Crow after they’d reunited. And if he wasn’t lucky… Well, incidents of animals attacking humans were rare, he reminded himself.

But not rare enough.

He picked up speed as he raced along the familiar path, becoming more sure-footed on the rugged terrain. For the second time that night, he was grateful for the strong, full moon. He didn’t need to worry that he couldn’t see the catamount—he could hear the cries of both mother and kits as they located each other. And every time the eerie screech filled the night air, he allowed himself to hope. Hope that anyone out and about would hear the cries too, and know well enough to stay indoors. It was late. At least ten o’clock. Sleepyside was a town that shut down early, especially in winter. With every minute that passed, the chance that anyone would be surprised by the felines grew slimmer.

But he didn’t slow down.

The cries continued, and he continued, until it felt as if he’d been running forever. And then suddenly they were on the outskirts of Sleepyside and the cries of the catamount changed. She’d been using her voice to let her kits know where she was. Now she was using her voice to…

He’d thought he hadn’t an ounce of strength left, but when he heard the high-pitched laughter of a small child, he cursed and sprinted the remaining distance.

He skidded to a stop at the edge of the clearing of the Duncan farm. On the fringe of Sleepyside, it was no longer a functioning farm, but they still kept chickens, a few horses, and… children. He couldn’t remember how many, but he’d seen birth announcements for the family a few times since he’d returned to Sleepyside, so—

An ancient car rumbled onto the property and he saw the porch light flicker on. Expected guests, he realized. Probably Lois Duncan’s sister from upstate New York. He’d read in the Sun that the Duncans were hosting early Christmas festivities for extended family this year, filling their house to bursting with their children and her sister’s four. His eyes widened as the children piled out of the vehicle, shrieking with excitement at the late hour and the prospect of a visit with their cousins. Before he could shout a warning or even take a step, the Duncan children charged from the front door, followed closely by their parents.

“Inside!” he cried, but he was too far away and the children were making too much noise. He couldn’t hear the wildcats anymore, but he could feel the tension in the air and knew they were close.

“Get inside!” he repeated, this time louder and closer. “Inside! Catamounts!”

This time both sets of parents heard him. After a second of shocked and frozen silence, they began to hustle the children inside.

“Faster,” he silently urged. Catamounts didn’t often attack humans, but the current conditions were like a textbook case for disaster waiting to happen. Noisy children moving erratically between a mother catamount and her kits. The only thing that could make the situation worse—

One of the Duncan children dropped a toy he’d been clutching and began to howl.

“Go to the house!” Maypenny yelled, knowing that catamounts were often confused by loud sounds and jerky motions. And a confused catamount was a threatened catamount. And a threatened catamount—

He hadn’t seen it. Hadn’t known it was so close to the house. When the catamount leapt, however, it was caught in the circle of light cast from the yard light.

And for the first time in years, Maypenny’s impulse was to reach for his gun instead of his camera.

One shot. He knew he had only one chance to kill the catamount before it reached the child. Relying on instinct and years of shooting, he raised the rifle in a swift motion, sighted, and fired.

And missed.

Time stood still and the world fell silent in the echo of the shot. The child, shocked into silence, stared open-mouthed at the catamount falling as if from the sky toward him. And then the screams. From the boy, the catamount, the other children, and the parents. A vicious snarl, and the child’s screams of terror turned to cries of pain. The catamount had bitten him, Maypenny realized. Or scratched him. It was so rare an outcome that Maypenny had foolishly hoped that the catamount would be distracted at the last moment and leave them in peace. But it wasn’t to be. And now he couldn’t take another shot without risking the life of the child.

In a last act of desperation, he fired into the night sky. As if in answer to the prayer of every person in the yard, the catamount turned to face him. Time slowed. He raised the rifle again, never looking away from the haunting yellow glow of the catamount’s eyes. His second shot was true, and in the aftermath of the deafening retort, he realized that he’d blocked out all other sounds before firing. The sounds came back in a rush—the screaming, crying, and praying. He suspected he was adding to the cacophony along with all the others, but it was impossible to tell.

Before joining the other adults who rushed to the injured boy, Maypenny verified that the catamount was truly dead and not just injured. To his reluctant relief, the animal didn’t so much as twitch when he approached. His relief, reluctant to begin with, soured further when he heard the distant cry of the kits as they streaked back to Storm King as fast as they could. It was for the best, he knew. Catamounts didn’t belong this close to civilization. But he couldn’t help but mourn the death of the magnificent cat and worry for the kits who would have to learn to survive without their mother.

And then he took stock of the adults clustered around the stricken child.

“Maypenny,” Matthew Duncan said, glancing up briefly from his son. “Thank you,” he said, his voice low and rough. “I had my rifle at the front door, but…” He didn’t need to elaborate. In his panic, he’d frozen, unable to come to the aid of his son. Maypenny attached no shame to Matthew’s response, but knew that it would be a long while before Matthew came to terms with it.

“How is he?” Maypenny asked. The child was unnaturally pale and silent. And his arm was—Maypenny had to look away from the terrible mess of blood.

“He’s alive,” Matthew said. “And Doc Taylor is on his way.”

Maypenny nodded. Sleepyside and Croton shared an ambulance, but the crew was volunteer and had little medical training. Since Doc Taylor had a station wagon and kept a black bag in it, most everyone called him directly in emergency situations.

“I’ll stay until he arrives,” Maypenny promised, surprising himself. There was no reason for him to stay. There were four highly capable adults dealing with the injured child and the flock of frightened children, after all. But he didn’t want to leave the lad, especially not while he was unconscious.

When little Todd opened his eyes only a moment later, Maypenny questioned that decision. Obviously in shock, the toddler’s teeth chattered and he struggled to keep his eyes open. Maypenny tried to edge away as the boy’s parents comforted him, wrapped a blanket around him, and assured him that he’d be just fine.

“I just wanted to play with the kitty,” the three-year-old whispered. “He looked like he had soft fur. But he didn’t want to play with me.”

“No, the kitty didn’t want to play,” Maypenny agreed, not bothering to correct him on the gender of the cat. “But if you want, I can make a rug for your room,” he offered, glancing at the boy’s parents out of the corner of his eye. “It’ll be soft and you can pet it anytime you want.”

Todd nodded, but it was obvious that his pain was worsening. He closed his eyes and whimpered.

“Thank you,” Matthew Duncan said, glancing toward the downed catamount. Someone, probably Lois’ sister, had thrown a blanket over it, which Maypenny thought was for the best. All of them would have nightmares aplenty without adding the picture of the remains to their mental files. When Doc Taylor arrived, Maypenny was glad for the distraction. The men made short work of loading Todd onto the stretcher and securing it in the back of the specially-equipped station wagon, and both the Duncans thanked Maypenny effusively before climbing into the vehicle.

It was a long walk home, longer because he insisted on carrying the wildcat across his shoulders. Why had he even offered it to the poor child? He’d taken an obligatory psychology class at college and he wondered now if the catamount pelt might not be a cruel reminder of a terrible accident. He knew for damn sure he didn’t want the blasted thing in his own home. But the weight of the body across his shoulders was both a comfort and a burden, and he knew he had his own unfinished business to take care of.


Work was therapy, Maypenny thought, whistling as he swiped the smoothing stone on the under-side of the pelt for the last time. It had taken a few weeks, but he was pleased with the result. He might not be a tanner, but the end product had turned out fine, just the same. And the work had given him plenty of time to come to terms with his guilt. When he’d chosen to photograph the catamount instead of shooting it, he’d had no way of knowing that she would follow her kits to the outskirts of Sleepyside. Although he regretted missing his first shot, that was something he would just have to learn to live with. He’d always been proficient with a gun, but never a marksman. And he was fine with that. Firing a rifle might be necessary to his life in the preserve, but he wasn’t required to enjoy it. He’d instituted weekly target practice in the hope that he’d be better prepared if he ever found himself in another life or death situation. And that was all he could do.

Except, of course, for delivering the pelt. He’d talked to the Duncans once while Todd was still in the hospital and they’d assured him that the pelt would be a welcome gift—a memento and gentle warning rolled into one. The society pages of the Sleepyside Sun had reported that Todd had been released from the hospital. A broken arm and numerous lacerations, the report had read, and Maypenny heaved a sigh of relief every time he thought of it.


Maypenny stared at Lois Duncan in surprise. Gripping the pelt firmly in both hands, he struggled to make sense of her words. “But I thought he came home…”

“He did,” Lois assured him, glancing down as a child attached himself to her knee. “But the infection…” Patting her son’s head absent mindedly, she said, “We’re only home now because Michael needed a nap.”

As if on cue, the boy rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

“We’re going right back. It’s not easy for Todd to be in the hospital so close to Christmas, you know, so we’re trying to keep him as busy and distracted as possible.”

“Of course,” Maypenny agreed. “Infection?”

Lois smoothed Michael’s hair and straightened his rumpled shirt. “Doc Taylor thinks he has it under control, but it was serious enough that he needs to be monitored,” she explained.

“Right.” Maypenny offered her the pelt, feeling off-kilter. He’d expected to give it to Todd personally, but there was nothing wrong with leaving it as a surprise for when the lad came home, was there?

“Oh, no,” Lois protested when he attempted to hand it to her. “I couldn’t—I mean, he’d much rather thank you himself.” Lowering her voice, she said, “You’re all he talks about. You and that,” she shuddered, “animal.”

“Oh,” Maypenny said, momentarily stupefied by the notion of the young boy remembering him, much less spending any amount of time thinking of him.

“It will give him something new to think about while he’s in the hospital,” she finished brightly, obviously putting the best spin possible on the situation.

“Right,” he agreed. “Of course.” And it did make good sense, he told himself as he tramped home through the preserve. But it didn’t feel right.


It didn’t feel right. Was the collar supposed to be this tight? And had he developed an allergy to wool? He didn’t remember it ever itching this much. Of course, he’d never worn a fake beard before…

A sharp knock at the door startled him, and he scrambled to cinch the wide black leather belt holding the layers of padding in place around his waist.

“Are you almost ready?” Margaret Lytell, the overbearing society mother of the odd little man who ran the General Store, stage-whispered. The force behind Santa’s visit to the children at the Sleepyside Hospital, Mrs. Lytell had badgered the citizens of Sleepyside into donating a mountain of toys for the event. “The children are getting restless,” she reminded him.

Maypenny tugged at his hat, hoping that it wouldn’t slip and give the children a glimpse of his dark hair. The white wig was just as itchy as the beard, but at least it only started at the brim of the felt hat. If he’d had to cover his scalp in the itchy peruke he’d have flat out refused to do this.

No, he wouldn’t have.

“I’m coming,” he grumbled, and wondered if he was even capable of making his voice sound the least bit jolly. Well. He’d be delivering presents. Mostly likely the children would be so thrilled with the toys Margaret Lytell had badgered the citizens of Sleepyside into donating that they would be willing to overlook the gift bearer’s shortcomings.

“Well! Don’t you look…” Mrs. Lytell fiddled with the lapel of his crimson coat.

“Ridiculous?” Maypenny suggested gruffly.

“Nonsense,” she scolded, her voice brusque. “You look perfectly charming. Here.” She handed him a black sack, and Maypenny stumbled at the unexpected weight of it as he slung it over his shoulder.

“That many children?” he grunted, horrified at the idea that Sleepyside Hospital could possibly have so many children in it at one time.

“Don’t you worry,” Mrs. Lytell clucked, motioning for him to follow her down the short hall and into the specially arranged cafeteria. “There are only eight children, and all of them are wearing name tags so you won’t have to ask or remember their names.”

Great. He hadn’t even thought of trying to remember the names of the children. But that was definitely something that would be expected of Santa Claus. And who knew what else he was forgetting? This was a terrible idea. He’d had a moment of weakness when he’d volunteered. Surely Margaret Lytell could see that. She had to know that he was fundamentally unsuited to this role. That he had marginal social skills and that he liked it that way. That—

That it was far too late to back now.

“Santa!” a little girl cried, and Maypenny smiled in spite of himself.

“Ho, ho, ho!” he greeted the children, and he thought it came out considerably better than he had any right to expect.

Children, he decided, were exhausting. Also precocious, charming, and mystifying. But mostly exhausting. When the last child finally climbed on his knee, and he recognized Todd Duncan, swinging his casted arm wildly, Maypenny knew that whatever else they were, children were a gift. After Todd had recited his list of requests, Maypenny reached into his bag, as he had for every other child. This time, though, he searched until he felt the soft fur of the wildcat pelt.

Todd’s eyes grew wide. “Mom said I wouldn’t get it until I came home,” he breathed, “but I knew Santa would bring it!” Hugging the pelt to his chest, he slid off Maypenny’s knee and took off at a run to show his gift to his mother. Maypenny had only enough time to nod in acknowledgement of Lois’ startled gratitude before he felt a tiny hand on his leg.

“Ho, ho, ho!” he greeted her. “And what’s your name, little girl?” Mrs. Lytell had assured him that all of the children would be wearing name tags, but he could not for the life of him spot any sort of identification on the child.

“Jessica,” she said, her voice clear as a bell and without any sign of a lisp. “And I’m here to ask for a baby sister. I’ve already got two younger brothers, so we don’t need any more of those. Mama said we’ll be happy with whatever we get, but I figure it doesn’t hurt to ask. Especially at Christmas!” She looked up at him anxiously and Maypenny reflected bitterly that his prepping had definitely not covered this scenario.

“Jessica! There you are!” An exhausted-looking man hurried toward them, and Maypenny covered his sigh of relief with a hasty, “Ho, ho, ho!”.

“I’m so sorry,” the man said, taking the little girl by the hand. “Her mother is in the maternity ward—“

Maypenny’s eyes, hidden behind ornamental spectacles, widened. He hadn’t realized Jessica’s request was quite so… time sensitive.

“And actually,’ he said, turning to his daughter, “your mother said to tell you that your Christmas present has arrived. Would you like to meet your baby sister?”

Jessica’s eyes grew as round as saucers. “Santa,” she breathed, “you’re good!”

Maypenny’s jaw dropped. Again, this was not a scenario for which he’d prepared.

“Mama said Santa couldn’t promise me a sister. But you got me one! And Mama needs to meet you so she knows I didn’t imagine you.”

Jessica’s father looked at him helplessly. Maypenny opened his mouth to explain that he couldn’t, that her mother needed to rest, but Jessica refused to have any of it.

“You’ve already given away all the presents,” she argued, pointing to the empty sack beside them on the floor. “And Mama won’t mind a visitor. Not if it’s Santa!”

“She’s right,” her father agreed. “She’s ready for visitors, and I’m sure she’d appreciate a visit from Santa.” Kissing the top of Jessica’s head, he asked, “Who wouldn’t?”

Jessica wriggled away from her father and tugged on Maypenny’s hand, attempting to pull him to his feet. “And we have to take a picture because the new baby needs to know how lucky she is to share a birthday with Santa!”

“She shares a birthday with Jesus,” her father gently corrected her. “Not Santa. And you know we don’t have a camera.”

If her lip had started quivering, Maypenny would have sighed and continued to follow them down the hall. But instead of pouting or looking to Santa to solve her problems, Jessica cocked her head to the side, as if she would be able to conjure a camera by the strength of her will alone.

“I might be able to help with that,” he said, and was rewarded with a look of wondering awe from the little girl. Before he could rethink his decision, he ducked into the room where he’d changed into his Santa costume and located his camera. It was too expensive to leave lying around on a regular basis, but he considered a walking trip to Sleepyside wasted unless he captured at least a few photographs along the way.

Jessica clapped her hands together when she saw him emerge with the heavy camera hanging around his neck. Too excited to use words, she grasped his hands and scampered down the hall, forcing him to keep up. It was a good thing he spent so much time tramping through the woods, he thought grimly as he lurched around a corner and stumbled to a halt at an open room door. Otherwise he would be decidedly out of breath when he met—


Jessica’s mother was Ellen.

The woman who’d jilted him, already on her way to the altar to speak her vows with another man.

The woman who appeared exhausted but radiant as she cradled an extremely new-born infant.

“There you are!” Ellen exclaimed, smiling indulgently at her daughter. “I was beginning to think you didn’t want to meet your new sister!”

Jessica, however, had eyes only for the bundle in her mother’s arms. “She’s so little,” she breathed.

“Babies generally are,” Ellen said. “You were even smaller.”

“I could carry you in the palm of my hand,” Jessica’s father—no, Ellen’s husband—said, as he propelled both himself and Maypenny into the room.

“Oh, Grant, you could not!” Ellen laughed and then caught sight of her visitor. “Santa?” she blinked.

Jessica nodded vigorously. “He brought me a new sister. For Christmas,” she added.

For the first time, Maypenny appreciated the full coverage of his itchy beard and its ability to hide his flaming face.

“So he did!” Ellen agreed, recovering quickly.

“And we need to have a picture with Santa. For proof!” Jessica insisted.

“Oh, but...”

“He has a camera, Mommy, so you don’t have to worry about that. See, I’ll stand on this side of the bed and Daddy can stand on the other, and…” she frowned. “The boys should be here. Where are they?”

“At church with Grandma,” her father said. “And I thought you’d had enough of your brothers?”

Jessica huffed out a breath of air. “They should still be in the picture, but if they’re not here...” She shrugged.

Maypenny raised his camera and adjusted the aperture. The lighting in the hospital room was ghastly, but if he changed the angle slightly...

“That’s quite the camera,” Grant observed. “Hasselblad?”

There was a sudden stillness to the room, and Maypenny knew that no amount of beard or padded costume could hide his identity from Ellen any longer. She’d often commented that he spent more time with his Hasselblad than with her.

“Smile, Ellen,” he said softly, and snapped the picture even though her face had drained of all colour. She recovered quickly and she managed a forced smile for the remaining shots.

“I didn’t realize you did family pictures,” she said, her voice stiff.

“I don’t,” he said, striving to keep his tone mild.

“Oh! How wonderful!” A white-capped nurse poked her head into the room. “Even the new baby is getting a visit from Santa!” Spotting the camera around Maypenny’s neck, she said, “Oh, we simply must have a picture of you holding the baby!”

And before Ellen or Maypenny could protest, she’d plucked the sleeping newborn out of her mother’s arms and gently placed her in Maypenny’s.

“Never held an infant before? No matter. As long as you support the neck…” She adjusted Maypenny’s arms until the baby was positioned to her satisfaction. “You don’t mind if I use your camera, do you?”

Before Maypenny could reply that yes, he did mind, very much, she’d slipped the strap over his head and lined up a shot.

“Oh, that’s perfect,” she breathed, as Maypenny stared down in mingled amazement and chagrin at the strangely content child in his arms.

And just as fast as she’d removed them, she returned both baby and camera to the proper persons. The relief was so great that Maypenny felt a weight ease from his shoulders despite the heavy costume he still sported. Now if only he could escape without—

“Thank you,” Ellen said, and though her tone was still formal, it was slightly less stiff. Maypenny nodded, pausing only to pat Jessica’s shoulder and nod at Grant as he backed awkwardly from the room.

Sometimes, Maypenny thought for the very first time as he stripped off the hot and heavy red costume, Sleepyside was entirely too small a town.


Boxing Day was not a day that he traditionally spent in his darkroom, but as he pored over the pictures that evening, he thought it had probably been a good way to spend the day. Setting aside the generic shots that he would send to a variety of magazines, he placed the two remaining photographs side by side.

A close up of the catamount.

It was a fluke. A fluke of near perfection. The odds of achieving the precise degree of focus, of the light illuminating the subject just so, of the catamount training his attention on him with absolute stillness… It was a fluke of astronomical proportions.

And it was quite possibly the best photograph he’d ever taken.

The second picture was... different. Unlike anything that had ever come out of his darkroom. The nurse who had taken the photograph might not have been formally trained, but by another fluke of photographic luck, the focus, lighting and depth of field couldn’t have been better than if he’d set up the shot himself.

If he hadn’t known that he was the man in the Santa suit, he never would have recognized himself. More importantly, he never would have recognized the expression on the bearded man’s face as he stared at the bundle of new life in his arms.

It wasn’t the typical fascination or adoration that most pictures with newborns contained. No, Maypenny had been staring at the baby with an air of contemplation that seemed completely at odds with the situation.

Only perhaps it wasn’t. The longer he looked at the photograph, the more compelling he found it.

And the more uncomfortable.

He looked back to the picture of the catamount, so similar in nature to hundreds of other pictures he’d taken in the last several years.

And grew more uncomfortable.

His pictures had never made him uncomfortable before. Satisfied, yes. Proud, occasionally. Disappointed, more often than not.

But uncomfortable?

He’d always heard that art was supposed to make people uncomfortable. But he’d never considered his photographs art. They were reflections of the nature around him. Of life.

Which meant that life made him uncomfortable.

And if there was one thing that he’d learned over the years, it was that if a person was uncomfortable, it was the perfect opportunity for growth.


February wasn’t the most picturesque of months, Maypenny decided as he tramped along the familiar path from Sleepyside back to his cabin, but it wasn’t all bad, either. It wasn’t exactly warm, but there was a definite lessening of the bitter cold that gripped January. Hope. February wasn’t much warmer than January, but it carried the hope of spring and warm weather.

He fingered the envelope in his pocket, resisting the urge to slit it open. It was rude to open mail in public. You waited until you got home. That was what his mother had taught him when he’d wanted to open Christmas cards during the long walks home from Sleepyside. It hadn’t done any good to argue that they were hardly in public as they walked along the quiet path; she’d been adamant.

This letter was different, he decided, and stopped in the middle of the path. Using his finger to slit the end of the envelope, he extracted the sheaf of papers and scanned the first paragraph of the cover page.

Dear Mr. Maypenny,
It is our pleasure to inform you that your photographs, A Christmas Baby, and Wild Cat, have been chosen to be a part of our premier line of Christmas greeting cards. Please find attached waivers and a schedule of payment—

He stopped reading, his heart pounding. He had tried not to get his hopes up, but his reaction proved that he hadn’t been as successful as he would have liked. It wasn’t so much that he cared about the honour of having his photographs chosen. Truth be told, he didn’t consider it much of an honour. But it would mean so much to the children’s ward of Sleepyside Hospital. And Jessica and Todd would be so excited.

His heart clenched a little at the thought about the generosity of the two young families. He’d approached both families with the idea of signing over the rights to the photos so that the children could begin a college fund or savings account, but they’d insisted that the proceeds be donated to the Sleepyside Hospital children’s ward.

And he’d been pleasantly surprised to discover that there was considerably more money to be made in the greeting card business than he’d dreamed.

He looked up at the sun, calculating. Plenty of time, he decided, to deliver the good news in person to the two families.

He whistled as he retraced his steps, stopping only to listen for the occasional hoot or howl in the preserve.

Author’s Notes

Many, many years ago (okay, in 2012) I drew Bonnie’s name for Secret Santa and started O Little Town of Sleepyside. And while it embodied many of the characteristics I admire about Bonnie (independence, generosity, and strength of character), it wasn’t quite right. I set it aside, unfinished, and instead wrote A Fruitcake in the Frigidaire. This year, Maypenny insisted that he’d waited long enough and that I really ought to finish his story, thankyouverymuch. And I know better than to ignore Maypenny. ;) Merry Boxing Day, Bonnie! I hope you enjoy this not-quite-right-but-still-written-for-you story. *hugs*

Thank you to MaryN who edited and graphiced at the last minute. *hugs*

Disclaimer: Characters from the Trixie Belden series are the property of Random House. They are used without permission, although with a great deal of affection and respect. Story copyright by Ryl, 2016. Graphics copyright 2016 by Mary N.

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