They came upon the cabin at dusk. It was ramshackle, but at least it would be shelter from the impending storm.
Illya Kuryakin hadn't thought they'd have been able to put as much distance between them and their THRUSH captors as they had. It had been a series of lucky breaks, hitching a ride in the back of a truck, even riding the rails for a bit. Now if only he could raise HQ. It was mind boggling how dependable the communicators were at times and how unreliable they were at others.
He wrestled the door open, happy that cold and exhaustion had finally quieted his traveling companion. At first, she jabbered nonstop about how terrible she'd been treated by THRUSH, but then she turned to how incompetent her rescuer seemed to be in fulfilling her needs. Yes, she was the daughter of a very important senator in Washington, but Illya was nearly ready to take up where THRUSH had left off. Now she was too tired to do much of anything... or so he thought.
"What a pigsty!"
"I'm sure if they knew we were coming, they would have tidied up. That's the problem with surprise guests." The walls seemed solid enough and there was a fire place. "Hand me that stick." Illya pointed with his bad hand and then bit back a moan as the item hit it.
"Sorry." She didn't seem the least bit sympathetic. "Where are you going to sleep? There's only one bed."
"Then I shall sleep on the bed; you can decide if you will join me or not."
"I'm not sleeping with a Russian."
"You got that right in one try." Illya rammed the stick up the chimney, relieved that it met no resistance. They could have a fire and there was certainly enough wood stacked around the cabin to provide adequate fuel. He dug some matches from his pocket and looked around for some kindling. He spotted the thick report she carried and pointed. "Let me have that."
"Are you out of your mind? I worked nearly a month on that! I need it for my college prep class."
"And I need it to keep us from freezing to death tonight. There is a storm coming and I, for one, intend to live through it."
After a moment, she carefully tore out a few pages and handed them to him. Within a short time, Illya had a fire happily crackling in the hearth and she squatted down beside him, holding her hands out to the fire.
"Keep feeding the smaller sticks and add a larger one now and then."
"This is most certainly not what I had in mind for my Christmas Eve," she muttered.
"Nor I, but you are free and alive. You should just be thankful for that."
"Where are you going?" she asked as he got stiffly back to his feet and checked his weapon.
"To get dinner."
A sharp whistle, the rabbit looked and it was a fatal mistake on its part. Illya dropped it with one shot and raced to collect it. He had no idea if there were wolves or other predators in these woods, nor did he intend to find out. He field dressed the rabbit as he had the last and started back to the cabin. It was dark, but he had no trouble following his path back.
Illya took a deep breath. There was the smell of snow in the air and clouds were blotting out the stars one by one.
As he drew closer to the cabin, he was surprised to see the girl crouched on the threshold, her arms wrapped around her in an attempt to stay warm. The smoke curled from the chimney, telling Illya that at least the fire hadn't gone out.
"What are you doing out here, Miss Swanson?" She looked up and, to his great surprise, she rushed into his arms. At her trembling, his anger subsided. "What's wrong?" His voice softened.
"There's something in there."
"I'm not surprised."
"I'm serious, Mr. Kuryakin. I kept hearing these thumps and a weird jingling sound." She looked fearful as he guided them back inside.
The fire gave the cabin a warm glow and Illya was surprised to see that Miss Swanson had made attempts to tidy up. There was a rope and a couple of sacks hung lengthways across the bed and Illya hid his smile. Apparently she took him at his word.
"The thumps are probably squirrels and the jingle..." He paused to look around. "Most likely the wind is catching something and rattling it."
They ate in silence, his guest jumping at every sound. Illya, too, heard the thumps and smiled reassuringly at her. "We have guests who are as anxious to be out of the storm as we are." He pointed as a squirrel paused to examine them. Outside, the storm buffeted the cabin and little blasts of cold air found their way in.
Illya dropped the last bits of his share of dinner to the piece of bark he'd been using as a plate. "When you are finished, just put your bones there and I will take them out."
"Why can't we just leave them in here? It's not like anyone is going to complain."
"There are wild animals out there and I have no desire to have one of them join us in the night."
"Gotcha." As Illya pulled on his jacket and reached for a rusted bucket, she asked. "Where are you going now?"
"To wash up." Illya waggled his greasy fingers at her and went out to brave the storm. It nearly knocked him off his feet. He gathered up some snow and relieved himself in the shelter of a tree. It wasn't so much that he was modest, but he was taking no chances with the animals.
He came back in and saw Miss Swanson on the bed, still anxious. Before taking his jacket off, he reached for the pile of bones.
"They're gone," she murmured. "I went to get some more wood over there and when I came back, they were gone."
"Huh... I didn't know squirrels ate bones." He looked up at the ceiling and that's when he heard the thump and the jingle.
"There it is again." She drew her knees up to her chest.
"It's nothing to worry about." Illya studied the small interior of the cabin. He could see nothing moving that would cause either noise. "I will protect you."
"I'm counting on it." She glanced at the bed, her question clear.
Illya hung up his winter jacket close to the mantle and piled more wood onto the fire. For the first time today, he let himself feel the weariness in his bones. His broken fingers, while set, still throbbed with every beat of his heart, but even that wasn't going to keep him from sleeping.
He climbed onto the bed, took off his suit jacket and used it as pillow. He set the Walther beside him within easy reach and lay down. Soon the deep, even breathing from the other side of their impromptu curtain told him his charge had fallen asleep. Yet as tired as he was, he couldn't drop off. He could still hear the jingling and the noise puzzled him. For a while, he tapped his mouth with a fingertip in thought. But that became too much effort and Illya fell into a fitful sleep.
Miss Swanson's scream brought him to painful awareness. He reached for the pistol even before his brain was fully awake. "What's wrong?"
"There's something in bed with us." Her voice quaked. The fire had died down and the room was decorated with fearful shadows. Sure enough, there was a lump at the foot of their bed.
"When I say move, get out." Illya shifted his weapon to his good hand and clutched the blanket with the other. "Get out!"
The girl was halfway across the cabin before he got both words out. Illya jumped up and yanked off the cover. Except there was nothing there, just an empty bed.
"What was that?"
"No idea. Why don't you get some more wood? I'm feeling strangely awake now."
He was banked up the embers when he heard her gasp and he looked over his shoulder.
"You need to see this."
Illya took a long stick and thrust it into the fire until it caught. Carrying it carefully, he moved to her side.
"I was just picking up some wood and there they were. What are they from?" she whispered, keeping behind him.
"They are bones." He gave her the stick and knelt down. "A small animal..." He found a jaw. "Probably a dog or a canine of some sort." He set it back down and picked up a collar. It had three small bits of metal on it. He shook it and the girl gasped.
"That's the noise we've been hearing."
An idea formed in Illya's head, not one that he would normally entertain, but the situation was not entirely normal either.
"Miss Swanson, you are a child of the twentieth century. Do you believe in ghosts?"
"What? Of course not! Why?"
"My very good friends the Gypsies taught me that there are many things in this world that exist without explanation." He shifted and held out his hand. "It's all right, I understand now. You don't have to hide." There was an answering thump and a jingle and Illya jumped as something wet caressed his hand.
"What?" Miss Swanson's eyes were wide.
"I believe we have a visitor." Illya gestured to her. As she held out her hand, something warm brushed it. "It feels like..."
"A dog." Illya felt something hit him on the leg—a wagging tail. "This cabin is haunted by a ghost dog."
"You mean the poor thing was left here to die?" Her voice cracked. "You poor thing. Here all this time just waiting for your master to come home and get you."
There was a soft whisper of a sound, like a whine and Illya smiled. "I think we have solved the mystery of the lump in the bed as well. Are you ready to try for a bit more sleep?"
"This is really, really weird, Mr. Kuryakin. No one would believe me at school and Daddy would ship me off to a shrink."
"Welcome to the world that is my life." Illya returned the stick to the fire and added more logs. When he moved back to the bed, he wasn't surprised to find his spot occupied. "Shift it." He pointed to the foot of the bed and the mattress depressed as something invisible moved down it. Like Miss Swanson, Illya was fully convinced no one would believe him, either.
This time he fell asleep easily, the pressure against his legs a comforting weight. His second awakening was no less rude. The door to the cabin was kicked open. Illya sat up and went for his pistol, but stopped as he saw the rifle pointed at him.
"Do it and I'll kill her where she lies."
Illya should have realized that DuPre would be able to follow them. The man was an uncanny tracker.
"Leave her alone. It's me you want."
"It's you I have." The man moved quickly into the cabin and caught Illya with a rifle butt to the head. Illya fell from the bed and collapsed to the floor, moaning.
"You creep!" He heard Miss Swanson yell.
"You'll call me a lot worse before I'm done with you." This time the young girl screamed and Illya tried to make his body obey him. If he could just get his hand on his Walther...
Then there was another noise, one that made the hair stand up on the back of his neck. He'd heard that sound before; he'd been running with two Doberman Pinschers on his heels. There was an explosion of barks and snarls. Then DuPre screamed and flailed his arms. He stumbled as if something was hitting him with great force.
With a final scream, the man fled back into the storm and Illya, with Miss Swanson's help, got to his feet.
"Are you okay?"
"Just dazed," Illya said, hoping that was the case. He half groped, half staggered his way to the door and shut it against the raging storm outside. "Get me something."
A few minutes later, the door was securely braced shut and Illya sat on the foot of the bed. Carefully, Miss Swanson dabbed the lump on his head.
"Illya, what happened?"
He smiled at her use of his given name. "I'd say our friend came to our rescue." There was a happy thump and Illya smiled at empty air. "You are a good dog." A silk soft woof met his ears and he grinned. "I am going to have to take back all those bad things I said about your kind."
Dawn came and with it, the end of the storm. Illya stretched carefully, trying not to awaken the girl in his arms, but the slightest movement and she was awake.
"Nothing. The storm is over and I'm going to try and reach someone."
He got the door unbarricaded and smiled at the brilliant blue sky. The forest was heavy with new snow and it glistened like a million diamonds in the sun. Illya got out his communicator and managed to get it open without too much difficulty.
"Open Channel D," he said and sighed with relief at the immediate response.
"Illya?" Napoleon's voice was thick with emotion. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Napoleon, just a few bumps and bruises. And Miss Swanson is fine as well. Tell her father."
"We will. Where are you?"
"I was rather hoping you could tell me that."
"Give me a minute. " Illya took a deep breath, just happy to be alive. Something warm gently bumped his bad hand and he smiled as fur moved through his injured fingers. "Good boy."
That's when he saw the lump, a boot sticking out from it. Apparently DúPrè had tracked his last UNCLE agent. There was a soft whine and Illya patted the ghost dog. "It's okay. You were protecting us. You did what you had to."
"Illya?" Napoleon's voice came back on. "You are only about two miles due east from a major road. We can have someone there in an hour.
"We'll rendezvous with you there. Kuryakin out." He looked down at the THRUSH agent. "Just one more thing left to do here."
He walked back into the cabin, no longer threatening , but now a haven. Miss Swanson laughed as a stick floated back to her, then fell to her feet. She tossed it and, again, the soft woof could be heard.
"We need to go now, Miss Swanson."
"My name is Lily," she said, standing and brushing off the knees of her pants.
"Before we do, I think we need to properly thank our host."
It took a bit to find a patch of ground where they could scrape away enough dirt to make a shallow grave. Reverently, Illya laid the bones inside. Miss Swanson... Lily held up a stick. To it she had attached the dog collar.
"Rest easy now, my friend. You have earned it." Illya paused and smiled sadly at the silence.
"He's gone, isn't he?"
"Freed at last, as are we. We have a ride to catch, so we'd better get started."
"Illya?" She caught his good hand and he smiled at her.
"How are we going to explain that we spent the night in a haunted cabin with a ghost dog, which came to our aid when we needed it most?"
"I am going to chalk it up to peace on earth and good will to all, something that can only happen on Christmas Eve and leave it at that."
And with that, they were gone as a gentle breeze caught the dog tags and made them jingle quietly.