Ghosts of a Christmas Past
By Becky Sims
Joe Cartwright struggled through the snow, leading his limping horse. He’d been on his way home from Virginia City when one of the sudden, deadly Sierra snowstorms caught him just at the top of Ophir Canyon. It wasn’t bad at first and he made decent time, but as darkness fell the snow increased and the wind picked up into a biting, swirling maelstrom that frightened the pinto and confused Joe. It was no real surprise that they’d strayed from the trail, but the problems really started when Cochise fell.
They hit hard, and while the horse regained his feet fairly quickly, Joe lay on the ground, winded, his side on fire where he’d landed on a rock. He moaned in pain but rolled to his knees and grabbed at his horse’s stirrup to help pull himself to his feet. He managed to mount, but Cochise hadn’t gone more than a few steps when Joe realized his horse was injured as well. He slid back down to the ground, jarring his side again, and turned to block the wind so he could examine the leg his horse was holding lightly against the ground.
Blood ran down the white hair from a gash on his foreleg. Joe pulled off his neckerchief and tied it tightly around the wound, silently wondering what he was going to do now. When he finished he straightened awkwardly, one arm around his ribs, and tried to estimate where he was. He knew he wasn’t all that far from the ranch, no more than an hour. On a good day, that is. Tonight, the night before Christmas Eve, he knew he’d never make it.
He cast around in his mind for possible shelter, but there weren’t any line shacks this close to the ranch house, and he’d passed their nearest neighbor three hours ago. He sighed. All he could do was travel onward.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Ben and Jamie were having a quiet dinner with Candy, the ranch foreman. They’d all had a long hard day, though it had ended with laughter as they pushed and shoved this year’s Christmas tree through the doorway and set it upright in its usual location by the stairs. Ben had retrieved the boxes of decorations and said they would start decorating as soon as Joe got home. But Joe hadn’t arrived.
Jamie shifted around again in his chair—even at fourteen, he expressed his worry by wiggling.
"Son," Ben said calmly. "Eat your dinner. Pushing it around on your plate isn’t going to make Joe get home any sooner."
Jamie sighed and put his fork down on his plate. "I’m sorry, Pa, I just can’t help worrying. He should have been back hours ago, and now with this storm . . ."
Candy spoke up. "If I know your brother, he saw the storm coming and holed up at the Bucket of Blood Saloon for a while."
Jamie laughed, and Ben shot a grateful look at his foreman.
"If you’re finished eating," Ben said to his youngest, "go wash up and get started on the plans for that branding chute you want to try out next spring."
Jamie shot out of his chair. "Yes, sir!" He’d been thrilled at his father’s interest in his idea, and was anxious to get all the details laid out. No matter that they couldn’t actually start on it for months, it was enough that his family cared.
While Jamie was upstairs getting his drawing supplies, Ben grew serious again. "You don’t really believe that, do you?"
Candy grimaced. "No, I don’t. The storm came up too fast, just when Joe would have been a good part of the way home."
They listened to the wind howl, and Ben dropped his head into his hands. "I can’t lose another son, Candy. First Adam in that freak coach accident in Boston, then Hoss with pneumonia . . ."
Candy knew the raw wound of Hoss’ death was barely healed for his employer, the same as for him. Adam he’d never known—the oldest son had died before Candy came to the ranch—but knowing Ben’s love for his other sons, losing his firstborn must have been devastating as well.
"Joe’s tough, Mr. Cartwright, and smart. He knows these mountains as well as anyone. He’ll be okay."
Ben looked up, his eyes distant. "I hope you’re right. I sure hope you’re right."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Joe continued to struggle through the drifts that were piled high by the shrieking wind. He was cold and rapidly becoming exhausted. He stopped and leaned against his horse and tried to warm himself against the animal’s shoulder. His breath came hard and fast, making his sore ribs hurt even more. He wondered if he’d broken any of them.
He was getting a little dizzy, but pushed it back, knowing he had to go on—had to get home. Not just for his own sake, but for his father. Christmas had been hard enough since Adam died, but with Hoss gone just this past spring, Joe had to be there. He thought back to the last Christmas they’d had together, before Adam had gone East. They’d all sat in front of the tree, drinking Hop Sing’s hot punch and singing silly ditties to the accompaniment of Adam’s guitar. He missed his brothers desperately.
He pushed away from the warmth and set out again. He peered through the blowing snow, trying to decide how far he’d come. Everything looked different—what little he could see, anyway. Had he reached Pine Meadows yet? The pond there was surrounded by a thick stand of trees, which would protect him some if he could just find his way. He stumbled, almost fell. He set the pond as his goal, and trudged onward.
The night grew darker and the storm clouds obliterated what should have been a full moon. He tripped again, and this time when he fell he remained half-buried in the snow. Cochise snuffled at his hair, and shied a little from the smell of blood.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Ben sat in the red leather chair near the massive fireplace, staring into the flames. Jamie was hunched over the coffee table, his back to the hearth, as he worked on his drawings. Ben had loaned him some of Adam’s drafting tools which Jamie handled with a reverence that showed he appreciated what they meant to his father.
Ben glanced at this red-headed young man who drew with the same concentration he’d seen so often in Adam. His eyes filled and he blinked quickly, the sudden aching hole that Adam’s death had left in his life as fresh now as the day he’d gotten the news.
Candy watched his employer surreptitiously from the desk where he’d been cleaning and polishing the rifles, a chore he reserved to himself for quiet nights like this. He clenched his jaw, well aware of the pain Ben was feeling, though he wasn’t sure of the source. He rose and crossed to the foyer, shrugged into his coat.
"I’m going to go check on the horses," he called. He wrapped a muffler around his throat and jammed his hat on his head.
Ben merely said, "Thank you," but Candy knew it was for the brief look-around he would do for Joe.
He fought his way across the yard through a knife-like wind to the barn, through a foot of snow in the easiest places, and through at least one three-foot drift. He slipped through the door into the quiet barn with gasping relief, now more worried than ever for his friend. If Joe was caught out in that . . .
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
A voice called his name. Joe! it said. Hey, Joe, wake up!
His head hurt, but the familiar call roused him. He opened his eyes to see Hoss bending over him, felt his brother’s big hands shaking him. "Hoss?" he cried weakly.
Time to get up, little brother, you got work to do yet.
"I’m so cold, Hoss…"
Don’t matter none, you gotta get up anyway. You gotta get goin’ or you’ll die.
Joe rolled over onto his side, pushed himself up onto hands and knees. "Feel sick," he moaned.
Sorry ‘bout that, Little Joe, but you gotta. C’mon, I’ll help you.
Joe leaned on his big strong brother, and only when he was standing did he notice Hoss wasn’t wearing a coat. "You—you’ll freeze, Hoss."
Hoss smiled. Nope, not likely. Now I gotta go make another visit, but you just keep on going, you promise?
Numb, Joe didn’t stop to think if what was happening made sense. "I promise, Hoss."
No givin’ up, right?
He nodded. "I won’t give up. I’ll keep going."
Head thataway, and his brother pointed into the woods. We’ll be watching over you.
Joe peered into the woods. "We?" he asked, but his brother was gone.
He shook his head to try to clear it, then set out in the direction Hoss had pointed out.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Ben had convinced Jamie to go to bed and the boy was upstairs and asleep by the time a near-frozen Candy returned. He helped the foreman remove his coat, gloves and hat, and ushered him over to the fire.
"It’s as nasty as I’ve ever seen out there, Mr. Cartwright," Candy said through chattering teeth. "It would be suicide to go out searching right now."
Ben sank heavily back into his chair and sighed. "You’re right, of course. We don’t even know where to start looking, or even if it’s necessary."
"I don’t like it either, but we need to wait a little longer." He chafed his hands together, trying to loosen their cold-induced stiffness.
"I suppose we’d best get a good night’s sleep then," said Ben, though he didn’t get out of his chair.
"If you don’t mind, I’m going to sit here just a little longer, until I don’t quite resemble an ice block any more."
Ben laughed. Of course, everything would be fine. Joe was still in town, or holed up with a neighbor, or would walk in the door any minute. He was worrying for nothing. He rose and clapped Candy on the shoulder. "That sounds fine. I’ll see you in the morning."
"First thing," said Candy. And I’ll sleep if you will, he added silently.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
In spite of his worry Ben drifted off to sleep, but it was a sleep disturbed by nightmare memories of loss.
He saw his mother and father die, victims of one of the swift-traveling diseases of his youth. He watched his first wife Elizabeth fade as her music box played, their son in the bassinet next to her. Then Inger died, shot by an Indian arrow; and he saw Marie and her horse fall, heard the terrible noise her body made when it hit the ground.
He held once again the letter from a friend of Adam’s, telling how his eldest had been struck by a carriage as he crossed a busy street in Boston and had died later that night, never recovering consciousness. He’d never had a chance to say goodbye to his son, hadn’t even been able to attend his funeral. And Hoss. He’d prayed through Hoss’s lingering illness, and watched again as someone he loved slipped away.
Now Joseph. The son of his last wife, lost in the wilderness.
Pa . . . A much-loved voice invaded his dream. Pa, you gotta help Little Joe . . .
"No," he moaned. Hoss was dead.
Joe needs you, Pa.
Ben turned over; tried to ignore the voice, but the vision stayed before him. His son, trying to tell him something. An ethereal form hovered in the darkness behind Hoss, and Ben tried to make out what it was as his son spoke again. Pa, you gotta listen to me.
"Hoss? Is that you, son?" Ben reached out to the vision. "I’ve missed you."
I’ve missed you, too, Pa.
"Stay with me, just for a while."
I can’t. I gotta go help Joe.
"Please, Hoss?" Ben pleaded.
Hoss looked over his shoulder, a question on his face, and the insubstantial form behind him moved forward, solidifying into the black-clad shape of his oldest son.
"Adam!" Ben cried.
Adam squeezed Hoss’ shoulder and nodded at him. He smiled sadly, his dark, wise eyes pleading with his father, then faded into the shadows of the room, leaving behind only the memory of a single word: Hurry.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Joe staggered onward through the night, his promise to his brother the only thing keeping him going. He’d lost his hat in some stumble over a tree root and snow dusted his curly hair, not even melting any more, he was so cold.
Where could he find shelter? He knew he had to get out of the cold—at least get out of the wind.
Then a different voice spoke in his ear, deep and melodious, kind and strong; a voice he hadn’t heard in over six years. Go to the cabin, Joe. You can make it that far.
Joe looked up, but didn’t see anything but swirling snow.
The cabin, little brother . . . The words echoed in his mind, and he halted, tried to get his bearings. Then the wind suddenly dropped, the snow cleared, and he thought he saw a man in black hat, shirt and jeans standing motionless in the woods to his right, standing in the middle of a small trail.
"A-Adam?" He stuttered with cold.
The cabin . . . he heard once more.
He started forward in the new direction even as the wind rose to a new level of howling, his horse limping behind.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Candy slept restlessly as well. He knew this was the best, most sensible way to handle the situation—to be fresh in the morning when they would need all their strength—but he was haunted by dreams of a stranger in black.
The man had piercing dark eyes under formidable black eyebrows, and they bore into Candy’s soul, refusing to leave him alone.
Listen to me, the man demanded, his insistent voice invading Candy’s mind. Find Joe. He needs you.
Candy tossed uneasily and groaned.
Tell Pa . . . go to the cabin. . .
Candy wrenched himself awake to find he was sitting up in bed, sweat streaming from his body.
And in the silence of his room, he heard the deep voice again, Go to the cabin . . . go now . . .
Compelled to act in spite of common sense, he quickly got dressed and opened the door to the hallway, only to almost mow down Ben Cartwright.
"What time is it?" Candy asked.
Distracted, Ben headed down the stairs. "I don’t know, but I have to go . . ."
Candy clattered down behind him and grabbed his coat. "I’ll get the horses ready, you get some supplies and the medical kit."
Ben grabbed his arm. "You don’t have to do this."
"Yes, I do."
"This isn’t reasonable, to go out in the snow in the middle of the night."
"You’re right, it’s not. Now let’s get going; we’re wasting time."
Ben let out a brief snort of what might have been laughter and headed for the kitchen.
They met in the barn a few minutes later, bundled against the wind. Candy had saddled the two strongest horses they had, and had saddlebags ready for the supplies. They mounted up, and headed out into the darkness.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Joe kept walking, though he didn’t think he could. Every time he started to fail, the vision in black appeared before him, encouraging, loving. Not much farther . . . a few more steps . . . you’re almost there . . .
He remembered the time Adam had taken him to the cabin, just before he moved to the East. He’d wanted Joe to see it for a number of reasons, Joe realized later, not just for help with the annual cleaning trip he’d always made alone. He’d wanted to say goodbye to his little brother, to help Joe understand why he was leaving, to show him a bit of his personal history.
Adam had run his hands over the logs, telling how he’d helped their father seal them with mud against the coming Sierra winter; he’d shown Joe the small built-in chest that had served him as a study desk and still contained a few carved animals and a McGuffey Reader; he’d explained how this had been his first home, even though he’d been almost nine years old by the time he and their Pa and Hoss had settled in.
Joe had returned often over the years, keeping the place clean and stocked with a few necessities. He felt close to his oldest brother in the dirt-floor room; and when things seemed to get too hard he would retreat there for a few hours to rest, to think, to lie on the bed his father had made and handle the toys his brother had played with all those many years ago.
And now Adam was showing him the way again. He didn’t realize the snow had stopped and the moon had started to break through the clouds. He stumbled forward, feet almost frozen in his boots, beyond shivering but determined to follow his oldest brother once more.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Ben and Candy rode out onto the road to Virginia City. Once they got past the trees and into the open the wind picked up, but this was a blessing as well, they found, since it blew the snow off the road and made traveling easier. They moved their horses at an easy, ground-eating trot, searching the countryside by the now-brilliant moonlight.
Candy finally gave in to his curiosity and asked, "What were you doing up?"
Ben didn’t speak for a moment, then said, "I had a dream." They rode on a bit farther in silence, then he continued. "I dreamed Hoss was telling me to find Joseph. It woke me up and I couldn’t get back to sleep, so . . ."
Candy nodded. "Me, too."
"What?" Ben asked, startled.
"It wasn’t Hoss, though. I don’t really know who . . ." He pulled his horse to a stop and looked around the countryside. "Uh, Mr. Cartwright?"
Ben turned his horse back. "What is it?"
Candy was almost afraid to ask. "Is there a cabin around here?"
Ben’s eyebrows shot up. "Yes, there is. I hadn’t thought about that, considering how close it is to the ranch."
"But the wind and snow were so bad . . ."
Ben wheeled his horse, and headed out into the meadow at a right angle from the road. Candy spurred his horse after him.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Joe was lying on something hard, cheek pressed against what felt like a piece of wood. Had he made it? He tried to rise, but his arms were too weak and he fell to the ground again, jarring his ribs painfully. But he seemed to be out of the wind, at least. He turned his head and dimly saw two figures in front of him standing shoulder to shoulder—one in a brown vest and big white hat, the other dressed in black. Their faces were so clear he reached out to touch them. They smiled, then, and he heard Adam’s voice one last time. You’ll be all right now.
"No," he cried. "Don’t go!" but they began to fade and were replaced by two different men who were rushing toward him.
"Joe!" his father cried and knelt beside him. "Joe, are you all right?"
Candy knelt as well and checked the pulse at his friend’s neck. "He’s too cold, we have to get him inside right away."
They lifted him carefully and carried him into the cabin, laid him on the larger of the two beds. Candy immediately began to build a fire, grateful there was plenty of kindling. He didn’t know the story behind the cabin, but obviously someone had been taking good care of it.
Ben removed Joe’s boots and covered him with a blanket. He took a second blanket and hung it by the fire to warm, then returned to his son. He pulled a flask from his saddlebag and held it to Joe’s lips. "Drink a little of this," he ordered.
Joe swallowed, coughed, swallowed again. Candy brought the warm blanket over and they traded it for the cooler one.
"Hey, Pa," Joe said weakly.
Ben stroked the curls away from his face. "How do you feel?"
"’m tired," he answered, voice wavering a bit.
"You’ll be all right now, son. Just sleep."
"Pa?" he asked.
"Shh, just rest now."
"Pa, where’d Adam go?" he asked, his eyes starting to droop. "He told me to find the cabin. He led me here."
Candy drew in a breath sharply. Ben looked over at him, then turned back to Joe with a strange intense look on his face, but his son had fallen asleep.
Candy felt a little silly, but asked anyway, "Did Adam have dark hair, dark eyes, wear black?"
Ben pulled Joe’s blanket up around his shoulders, then nodded slowly. "Yes, he did. Why?"
Candy considered explaining, but finally just said, "Nothing. It’s just that . . . nothing."
Ben looked at him oddly, but turned his attention back to Joe. Then a thought occurred to him. "Candy, how did you know about the cabin?"
Candy just shook his head. "I’m not sure I can explain."
Ben continued to stare at his son and
said quietly, "There are a number of things about tonight that I suspect
can’t be explained."
The next evening saw Joe bundled on the couch in the great room in front of a roaring fire. The tree was decorated, Hop Sing’s cookies and punch had been devoured, and they were all indulging in the singing of some Christmas songs.
Ben watched Joe carefully for fatigue, but his son seemed to have bounced back well, considering he’d been only a half-hour or so from freezing to death when they’d found him on the porch of the cabin. If not for the dreams . . . He shook his head.
He checked on Jamie, who was cheerfully trying to sing the loudest but was giggling so hard at the faces Candy was making that he kept having to stop for air.
Candy. A good foreman, and a good friend. Part of the family, he thought with great satisfaction.
Ben raised his voice to join in on the refrain to Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.
And it seemed to him that there was a guitar playing somewhere, and there were two additional voices singing along—one beautiful and mellow, one rough and lively. He thought about what he’d always believed, and what he now knew. He turned his gaze upwards, and whispered, "Thank you, boys."
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