Yukon Cornelius and Bumble surveyed the carnage. Icicles of blood littered the field. Blackened pine trees still smoldered, turned to brittle black skeletons by elfin flamethrowers.
The calves had all survived, but two adult reindeer and an elf lay dead. Bumble let out a howl of dismay. Cornelius patted the abominable snowman’s fur-matted, thick-muscled arm. Bumble had grown fond of Santa’s herd over the years, and they had adopted him like a big, not-too-bright brother.
“It’s ugly all right,” said Cornelius. “Doesn’t look like the snowman had any strategy beyond smashing whatever he could find.”
Mrs. Claus’ stern voice buzzed from the speakers in Cornelius’ yellow earmuffs. “Can you track him?”
A microphone braided into his moustache carried his answer back to the Pole. “Of course I can track him. I’m Yukon Cornelius! You just make sure Jack Frost holds his breath a little longer so he doesn’t bury the trail. The last thing we want is a blizzard covering Frosty’s tracks.”
Frosty hadn’t gotten away unscathed this time. According to the reports, the flames had thinned his armor and set fire to his broom. The snowman had been forced to flee, belly-sledding away at speeds neither elf nor reindeer could match.
As Cornelius walked, he checked to make sure his silver and gold-inlaid revolver was fully loaded. He had grown up in the northern wilderness, and had faced everything from angry yeti to rabid reindeer. These days, his beard and moustache were more gray than red, and he wasn’t quite as quick to pick a fight, but he was still twice the hunter and tracker of any man within five hundred miles.
Bumble sniffed the air. His lips peeled back in what would have been a fearsome snarl, if Hermie the elf hadn’t pulled his teeth all those years ago. The flat, too-white dentures just weren’t the same.
Cornelius dropped to one knee and jabbed a finger into the ice-crusted snow. It tasted of pine, blood, and soot. Relatively fresh. They couldn’t be more than an hour behind. “Don’t you worry. We’ll find this snowman and be home in time for dinner!”
“Just find him,” Mrs. C said sternly. “Do not engage.”
“Understood.” He pulled his pick axe and shifted his belt, making sure the revolver was in easy reach. The point of that axe could punch through stone. It would crack Frosty’s frozen armor like a nutcracker through a chestnut. He might not be planning on a fight, but he’d be a fool not to prepare for one.
A second set of tracks intercepted Frosty’s trail. Cornelius jabbed his axe into a human-sized footprint, then licked the tip. The tracks were fresh, and from the residue, they weren’t local. Elf-made boots had their own sugar-sweet aftertaste. These tracks tasted like old rubber.
He touched his moustache. “Frosty’s not the only one wandering our woods.”
A less alert man would have missed the sharpening of Mrs. Claus’ words. “His master?”
“Won’t know that until I find them. Yukon Cornelius doesn’t make assumptions.”
The tracks did follow the same path as Frosty. In several places, the human prints indented the smooth slide of Frosty’s path, meaning the human had followed behind the snowman.
Bumble grabbed the top of Cornelius’ head, and turned him gently to the right. Unfortunately, the beast’s oversized fingers also prevented Cornelius from seeing what Bumble was trying to show him.
“I can’t see through your hairy mittens, you big oaf!” He pried the hand free and looked around.
The pine trees here were thin and undecorated, unlike the woods closer to the Pole. A short distance ahead was an icy crater, lightly dusted with snow. It looked like an enormous ice cream scoop had gouged the ground. In the fading sunlight, Cornelius could make out something sparkling in the center.
He readied gun and axe and moved closer, checking the trees to either side for movement. “Looks like a bomb went off here.”
The tracks continued on, passing the crater a ways to the side. It didn’t look like they had stopped. On a hunch, Cornelius approached the edge of the crater and jabbed his axe into the snow. He circled slowly, squinting and tasting. He had gone halfway around when his tongue confirmed what the snow had hidden – the human had been here. Three, maybe four days back.
“It’s some kind of ornament,” he said. “Crystal, maybe. Busted all to pieces now.”
“Don’t touch it. I’m sending Rudolph and a pair of elf researchers your way. Can you tell what the ornament used to look like?”
Something in Mrs. Claus’ tone made Cornelius’ moustache itch. Bumble’s hackles raised, and his eyes spun to and fro, searching the shadows.
“I’d say a star. Or maybe a snowflake.”
“Get back to the North Pole now.”
He spun, gun raised. “There’s nobody here, Mrs. C. Just me and Bumble. And we still don’t know where Frosty—”
The snow exploded as if the snowman’s name had summoned him up from an icy hell. He was larger than Cornelius remembered. Without missing a beat, Cornelius put two bullets through the center of Frosty’s head. “Found him!”
Frosty roared and leaped, broomstick raised like Death’s scythe, but Bumble tackled him from the side. They fell into the snow, rolling like cats. Bumble was all claws and fury and angry growls, a regular Bumble rumble.
Cornelius charged in. “Get out of the way, you overgrown hairball!”
Snow swirled to his left. So focused on trying to line up a shot that wouldn’t hurt his friend, Cornelius ignored the movement a second too long. By the time he spotted the figure stepping out of the snow as if through a curtain, it was too late.
“Clever girl,” he whispered.
“Cornelius, what is it?” shouted Mrs. Claus.
He spun, throwing his axe and raising his pistol, but his limbs had already begun to slow. Cold seeped into his bones.
He saw Bumble jump to his feet and start toward him. Frosty clubbed Bumble’s knee with his broomstick. With an angry howl, Bumble seized Frosty by the head and hurled him through the air at one of the pine trees. The pine tree broke with a crack like bone, and Frosty went down.
Bumble charged to Cornelius’ aid. Blood matted his fur, and one of his ridiculously huge eyes spun in circles, a sure sign of concussion in bumbles.
“I’m not afraid of you, beast.” The woman’s words grated like death itself. Ice flew toward Bumble’s face, sharp as shards of broken glass.
Bumble howled again, but he kept coming. However painful his physical injuries, his grief and determination were stronger. Bumbles were loyal to the end, though it was unusual for a Bumble to show such loyalty to humans and reindeer and elves. As long as Cornelius was alive, Bumble would fight to the last breath to save him.
What had an old prospector ever done to deserve that kind of friendship?
As his strength ebbed and his hands stiffened, Cornelius forced his wrist to bend, until he was peering down the barrel of his own pistol. “Get out of here, you dumb Bumble!”
With Bumble’s anguished cries echoing through the woods, Yukon Cornelius forced his frozen finger down on the trigger.