The Ghost of Christmas Past (by Susan G)

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Summary:   An innocent conversation from five years before leads to devastating consequences in the present.

Word Count:  13,000  Rated:  T

The Ghost of Christmas Past

“Adam, it’s going to take us forever to get this tree decorated if you keep trying to find the perfect place for each ornament,” Joe Cartwright chided his oldest brother. “Just hang it anywhere.”

“There’s an art to decorating a tree,” Adam replied as he continued to study the large Ponderosa pine in front of him. “The best ornaments should be in front, and there should be a balanced look.” He frowned a bit, then took a step forward to place a red ball of glass on a low branch to his right.

“I don’t know why you two always fuss about how the tree should look,” grumbled Hoss Cartwright, the middle brother of the trio. “You know Hop Sing and Pa always move the ornaments around when we’re done.”

“Yeah, and then Adam moves them again,” Joe commented with a grin. “Seems like every time I look at the Christmas tree, things are in a different place.”

“Like I said, decorating a tree is an art,” Adam said in a slightly haughty tone. “And I am the artist in the family.”

“Let’s just get this done,” suggested Hoss. Holding two glass bulbs in his hand, Hoss took a step forward and hung the ornaments on the tree branch in front of him. Adam grimaced at his brother’s haphazard placement of the decorations and quickly moved one of the ornaments to a lower branch.

“Hoss is right,” Joe said as he also hung a decorated ball on a limb. “We’ve got to do to get the house ready for Christmas. It’s only a week away, you know.”

“I know it’s only a week away,” replied Adam, giving an exaggerated sigh. “You’ve been telling us how many days it is until Christmas for almost a month. You act live you’re 5 years old, instead of 25.”

“I like Christmas,” said Joe defensively. “It’s the best time of year, what with all the parties and decorations and stuff.”

“And the food,” added Hoss. “Don’t forget the food.”

“And pretty girls willing to be kissed under the mistletoe?” Adam said, arching his eyebrows a bit.

“Yeah, well, that’s a big plus,” Joe admitted as an impish grin broke out on his face. “I’m just trying to add to their holiday spirit.”

“I’ll bet you are,” observed Adam dryly.

“Hey Hoss,” said Joe suddenly, “what did you buy for Pa this year?” He moved closer to the largest Cartwright brother. “C’mon, you can tell me. Pa’s still in town picking up the mail.”

At that moment, the front door opened and Ben Cartwright walked into the warmth of the Ponderosa ranch house. His tan coat was dotted with specks of liquid, indicating the light snow that had begun earlier in the day was still falling. Placing a large bundle of envelopes on the bureau by the door, Ben began removing his hat and coat.

“Too late, little brother,” Hoss told Joe in a low voice. “You’re just going to have to wait.”

“Hello, boys,” Ben greeted his sons cheerfully as he hung his hat and coat on the pegs by the door. “Is the tree done yet?”

“Almost,” replied Joe as he walked toward his father. “Did you get the mail?”

“Yes, I did,” Ben stated with a smile. “And yes, there are some cards and letters for you.” He picked up the stack of envelopes and began rifling through them. “And for Adam and Hoss as well.”

The half-decorated Christmas tree was forgotten as the three Cartwright brothers moved toward their father. Ben felt like a postmaster as he pulled each envelope from the bundle and handed it to the son to whom it was addressed. The house grew quiet as Adam, Hoss and Joe began opening envelopes and reading the notes each one contained. For a moment, Ben just stood and smiled indulgently at his sons, enjoying the look of pleasure on each of their faces as they read. Then he began opening the envelopes addressed to him.

“This is odd,” said Joe with a puzzled look on his face. He held up a piece of paper and showed it to his father. “This is an invitation to a Christmas party at the Austins’ place in Carson City on December 23rd.”

“The Austins?” Ben said in surprise. “I thought they moved to Denver last year?”

“They did,” Joe confirmed. “And look at the date for the party. It’s on December 23rd but the date is five years go.”

“Looks like you’re a mite late for that party,” commented Hoss with a laugh.

“I’ve heard of mail getting delayed, but five years seems ridiculous,” Adam added.

Frowning, Joe looked at the envelope in which the invitation had been enclosed. “There’s no address or stamp on the envelope. It just says ‘Joe Cartwright’ on the front. And the paper inside it is yellowed, like it’s been sitting around for awhile. Someone must have stuck this old invitation in an envelope and put it in the mail basket in town.”

“Why would someone do that?” asked Hoss.

“I have no idea,” admitted Joe, shaking his head. “Maybe it’s suppose to be some kind of joke.”

“Well, if it’s a joke, it’s a pretty subtle one,” Adam commented.

“Yeah, it is,” agreed Joe. He stared the invitation in his hand for another moment and then shrugged. “Whatever it is, it’s not worth worrying about. Let’s get back and finish the tree. We’ve still got lots of Christmas decorations to get up.”

**********

The Virginia City Christmas Dance was one of the holiday festivities Joe looked forward to each year. Held annually on the Saturday before Christmas, the dance was a chance for everyone in the area to get together to exchange holiday greetings and celebrate the season before traveling to visit family or hosting guests for Christmas. People had been known to trek through snowstorms and frigid temperatures to attend the Christmas Dance. This year, however, the temperature was mild for December – a little above freezing — and the attendance at the Christmas Dance was expected to be large, especially since the day of the dance was four days before Christmas this year.

As Joe entered the old warehouse that had been converted into a dance hall for the night, he wasn’t surprised to see the floor was already crowded with people. Everyone he knew had been talking about coming to the Christmas Dance, and it appeared all of them – and more – had already arrived. While the hard-working people of the West didn’t have fancy dress suits and silk ball gowns to wear, everyone had donned their best clothes. Men wearing jackets and suits brushed clean were mingling with women clad in brightly colored cloth dresses. Joe knew he looked good in his dark blue suit, crisp white shirt and string tie; he had spent over an hour in front of the mirror at home to insure he looked his best.

“They did a nice job of sprucing up the place,” commented Adam as he stood at Joe’s right.

Looking around the old warehouse, Joe had to agree with his brother. Strings of green garland were draped along the walls, interspersed with bright red ribbons. A large green wreath hung on the back wall behind the stage which had been constructed for the musicians. Lanterns were hung everywhere, illuminating the large building with their bright glow. Two small stoves near the stage gave off enough heat to take the chill out of the room, but the crush of bodies on the floor generated more than enough warmth to keep the warehouse comfortable. To the left were long tables covered by bright red cloth on which numerous punch bowls, cookies and cakes had been placed. To the right were rows of chairs – currently empty – for people to rest between dances. Joe noted that someone had thoughtfully hung sprigs of mistletoe high on the wall, mostly in the darker corners of the building.

“Looks like pert near everyone in the county is here,” Hoss observed from Joe’s left.

“You shouldn’t have much trouble finding someone to dance with tonight, Joe,” Adam agreed.

“So many girls, so little time,” murmured Joe in reply.

The musicians were still assembling on the makeshift stage, so people were socializing in the middle of the large floor. Once the music started, the crowd would separate – some moving to the side to watch and wait, others hurrying on to the floor to dance with their spouses or selected partners.

“There’s John Harris,” said Ben, pushing himself past his sons. “I need to talk to him about sharing the winter feed.”

“I think I’ll go over and sample some of them goodies at the food table,” Hoss announced, and he ambled toward the left of the building.

“I see Mary Ann Wilson,” Adam commented. “I believe I’ll wish her a Merry Christmas.”

As his father and brothers disappeared into the crowd, Joe moved slowly around the edges of the floor. He was making note of who was in attendance, as well as compiling a mental list of dancing partners. So absorbed was he in planning his evening that Joe didn’t notice the raven-haired girl in the green dress until she lightly grabbed his arm.

“Joe Cartwright!” exclaimed the girl. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

“Hello, Beth,” replied Joe, smiling with genuine pleasure. Beth Matthews had been high on his list of potential dancing partners. “I’m glad to know you missed me.”

“Well, I did miss you…a little,” Beth admitted with a twinkle in her eye. “But that’s not why I was looking for you. Someone asked me to give this to you.” She handed Joe a small white envelope.

“What’s this?” asked Joe as he opened the envelope. He pulled out a small newspaper clipping, and frowned as he read it. Joe turned the clipping over, making sure there was nothing on the back of interest, then looked up at Beth. “Who gave this to you?”

“Just some fellow,” Beth answered with a shrug. “I didn’t know him.” Suddenly, the twinkle in her eye returned. “He said he was asking me to give it to you because I was the prettiest girl here, and he knew you’d be dancing with the belle of the ball.”

“He was right about that,” Joe acknowledged gallantly. “You look lovely and I can’t wait to dance with you.” Joe’s face sobered a bit as he added, “This fellow, what did he look like?”

Knitting her brows, Beth thought a minute before answering. “He was about thirty, had dark hair, a little taller than you. Nothing special about him…except…” Beth hesitated.

“Except what?” Joe encouraged the girl.

“Well, it was his eyes,” Beth answered slowly. “They were…I don’t know…it’s kind of hard to explain. There was no spark in his eyes, no life. It was like he looked at life with no joy.” The raven-haired girl shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just imaging things. I only spoke to him for a minute.” She gave Joe a curious look. “Can I ask what was in the envelope?”

“It’s a wedding announcement,” Joe told the girl. “Just a small piece announcing the marriage of Susan Pennington to William Johnson in Carson City on Christmas…Christmas four years ago.”

“Four years ago!” exclaimed Beth. “Did you forget to send a wedding present?”

“I would have sent a present,” answered Joe with a smile. “But I have no idea who these people are.”

“You don’t know them?” asked Beth skeptically.

“Never heard of them,” Joe reiterated.

“Why on earth would someone send you a four-year-old wedding announcement for two people you don’t know?” Beth inquired.

“I have no idea,” Joe replied. He slipped the clipping back into the envelope, and then stuck the envelope into the inside pocket of his jacket. “Maybe this fellow had the wrong Joe Cartwright.”

“There’s more than one Joe Cartwright in the world? Oh, my! I’m not sure the girls of Virginia City will be able to stand the thought of that,” Beth teased.

“You’re lucky; you have the best one standing next to you,” Joe said in a self-mocking tone. He heard the sound of music swelling in the background. “May I have the honor of this dance?”

“You may,” agreed Beth, taking Joe’s hand. “You’ll do until that other Joe Cartwright shows up.”

**********

It was almost midnight before the Christmas Dance began winding down and people started drifting toward the door. Joe was standing near the food table, refreshing himself with the last of the sweet liquid from a punch bowl. He had enjoyed himself during the evening, dancing several times with Beth Matthews and squiring a number of other girls around the floor. He had even managed to steal a kiss or two underneath the mistletoe. But the pleasure of the dance had been a bit damped for Joe by the envelope Beth had given him. He had found himself watching the men around him from time to time, trying to spot a stranger with cold eyes. Periodically, the thought of wedding notice as well as the party invitation crossed Joe’s mind, and he wondered why he had been sent these old announcements.

“Joe, you ready to go home?” Hoss asked as he threw his arm around his brother’s shoulder.

“Yeah, I am,” Joe admitted. He drank the remainder of the punch in his glass, then set the tumbler on the table. “It’s been a long night.”

“I’ll bet you’re tuckered out,” Hoss said, grinning. “Every time I looked, you were out there dancing. And with a different girl each time.”

“Hoss, I was just trying to spread the Christmas cheer,” Joe told his brother solemnly. “I wanted to make sure all the girls in Virginia City have some happy Christmas memories.”

“Oh, I’m sure they’ll have some memories,” Hoss agreed. “Whether they’ll be happy or not depends on how them fillies liked being replaced by another gal for the next dance.” He looked up and saw Ben and Adam standing near the door of the warehouse. “Let’s go; Pa and Adam are waiting for us.”

As he strolled toward the entrance with Hoss, Joe’s mind turned again to the envelope Beth had given him. He wondered briefly if he should tell his father and brothers about the wedding announcement, but quickly decided against it. Joe knew they wouldn’t understand why someone had sent it to him any more than he did, and showing the old clipping to them would be pointless. Besides, it wasn’t like the messages had a threatening tone. For some unknown reason, he was being reminded of events from Christmases in the past. Whoever was sending the notices must have thought Joe would understand why, but the fact was, he had no idea what the old announcements meant.

“Did you fellows have a good time?” Ben asked with a smile as Joe and Hoss approached him.

“It was a great party,” Hoss answered enthusiastically. “Them cakes were the best I’ve ever eaten.” Joe merely smiled and nodded.

Stretching his arms a bit, Adam yawned. “Let’s get our coats and go,” he said. “I’m tired.”

The four men headed toward a small room off to the side of the entrance. Once an office, the room had been converted into coat closet, with pegs on the wall and a number of coat racks on which people could hang their capes, heavy jackets and other outer garments. Adam walked to a rack in the far left corner and began pulling coats off, handing a tan jacket to his father and brown coat to Hoss. He stopped suddenly, though, and looked around.

“Joe, you hung your coat on the same rack as ours, didn’t you?” asked Adam.

“Yeah, I hung my coat right next to yours,” Joe answered, taking a few steps toward his oldest brother. “Why? Isn’t it there?”

“I don’t see it,” Adam said, as he began pushing through the garments on the rack.

“It probably just fell down,” suggested Ben as he came over to where Adam was standing. “Look on the floor.”

“Maybe someone picked it up and put it someplace else,” offered Hoss as he began checking the coats on the pegs to his right. “It ain’t likely someone would take that old blue coat of yours.”

The four men searched through the garments in the room for several minutes, looking for Joe’s heavy blue coat without success. “It’s not here,” Joe declared finally in an irritated voice. “Why would someone want to steal my coat?”

“I’m sure no one stole your coat,” said Ben in a placating tone. “Someone probably just picked it up by mistake.”

“Well, mistake or not, it’s gone,” grumbled Joe. “Now I’m going to have to ride home without a coat. I’ll probably freeze to death.”

“Little brother, you ain’t going to freeze to death,” Hoss advised reasonably. “For one thing, it ain’t that cold tonight. And for another, a man has to ride a whole lot longer than it takes to reach the Ponderosa to get frozen.”

“Yeah?” countered Joe, sounding skeptical. “Well, you just keep saying that when you have to thaw me out.”

“Joe, if you think you’re going to freeze, you can wear my coat,” offered Ben. A small smile crossed his face as he added, “I guess your father is a lot tougher than you.”

“No, that’s all right, Pa,” Joe answered quickly. He squared his shoulders and assumed a martyred look. “I can ride home without my coat. It doesn’t matter how cold I get. I’m a Cartwright, and we Cartwrights know how to endure through the worst suffering.”

“Oh, brother,” muttered Adam, rolling his eyes.

“Well, the least we can do is go get your horse for you,” Ben said quickly, forestalling any more dramatics from his youngest son. “We’ll go over to the livery stable and bring your hose back here. You just wait and stay warm.”

As Ben walked out of the converted cloak room with Adam and Hoss, Joe took another look around, searching in vain for the missing coat. Finally, he just stood in the middle of the room and shook his head. “There are a lot of strange things going on,” Joe muttered, looking perplexed.

**********

As he raised his head from his pillow, Joe peered toward the window with eyes still half closed with sleep. The pale light of a winter morning was visible through the glass, so Joe knew the time must be after 8 am. The sun didn’t rise until almost 8 in Nevada this time of year. Normally, Joe’s still being in bed so late in the morning would have been cause for loud raps on the door and shouts for him to get up. But Ben had told his sons to sleep in this morning. The dance and the late hour at which they had gotten home had made them all tired. Ben and the boys had made sure the horses had plenty of hay and water in their stalls when the animals were stabled in the barn last night, so having to wait a bit to get their morning feed wouldn’t hurt the horses.

Throwing back the covers, Joe sat up in bed and stretched his arms, then reluctantly climbed from the soft mattress to the floor. The feel of the cool wood on his feet reminded Joe of his chilly ride home last night. As Hoss had predicted, Joe hadn’t frozen to death, but the ride was still uncomfortable. He had kept his horse moving at a brisk walk the whole time, trying to shorten the time it took to reach the Ponderosa ranch house. Nevertheless, he had felt like an icicle by the time he had reached the yard in front of the house. Remembering the cold ride home, Joe once more silently cursed whoever had taken his coat.

It didn’t take Joe long to wash, shave and dress, and he emerged from the bedroom less that twenty minutes after he had awakened. As Joe started down the stairs, he wasn’t surprised to see his father and brothers were already seated at the dining room table eating breakfast. Their idea of “sleeping in” was a whole lot different than Joe’s. He guessed that they had been up for an hour or more and he hoped they had finished the morning chores by now.

“Well, look who’s finally out of bed,” called Hoss as he saw Joe descending the stairs. “We figured you might not show up until noon.”

The retort Joe was going to throw back at his brother died on his lips as Joe reached the bottom of the stairs. From the corner of his eye, he saw something blue hanging on the pegs by the door which held the Cartwrights’ coats and hats. Joe turned his head and stared at the coats by the door, then slowly turned to face his father and brothers. “My coat is here. Where did it come from?” asked Joe in astonished voice.

“Your coat is here?” repeated Ben with surprise from his seat at the end of the table. “Are you sure?”

“I know my coat, Pa,” Joe replied with a touch of sarcasm. “It’s hanging right there by the door.”

Joe heard the scraping of chairs behind him as he walked toward the front of the house where the coats were hanging. He wasn’t surprised to see Ben, Adam and Hoss crowding around him as he pulled the cloth coat from the peg and looked it over. “It’s mine, all right,” Joe declared. He looked at his father and brothers with a puzzled expression. “How did it get here?”

“Hop Sing!” Ben shouted in a loud voice. “Hop Sing! Will you come in here, please.”

It took only a minute for the Cartwright’s Chinese cook to coming padding into the room. “What you want?” asked Hop Sing in an irritated voice. “Hop Sing busy. Have no time for foolishness.”

“Hop Sing, do you know how Joe’s coat got here?” Ben asked.

“Hop Sing find coat on porch this morning,” the cook answered, his irritation not abated. “It good coat. Youngest son just leave by door. Not deserve warm coat if not take care of it.” Hop Sing turned his fiercest look on Joe, then sniffed and walked out of the room.

“Whoever took the coat must have brought it back early this morning,” Ben suggested after the cook had left.

“But why just leave it on the porch like that?” asked Joe.

“Well, perhaps whoever took it was embarrassed,” Ben replied. “They probably didn’t want to have to admit their mistake, or have to apologize.”

“Maybe,” Joe said doubtfully. As he turned to hand the coat back on the peg by the door, Joe noticed a bit of white paper sticking out of one of its pockets. When he pulled the paper out, Joe somehow wasn’t surprised to see it was another envelope. He opened it quickly and looked at the contents.

“It’s another newspaper clipping!” Joe exclaimed.

“Another?” asked Adam, looking a bit puzzled. “You mean you got some other clippings?”

“Last night at the dance, Beth Matthews gave me an envelope with a clipping in it,” Joe explained. “She said someone had given her the envelope to give to me. She didn’t know who the man was. The clipping was an announcement of a marriage between two people I didn’t know. The marriage happened on Christmas four years ago.”

“What’s this one about, little brother?” Hoss inquired curiously.

Joe looked at the slightly faded paper carefully before answering. “It’s dated about a year ago.” He scanned the article quickly. “Listen to this,” he said and then read the clipping aloud:

Embezzler Released from Prison

Edwin Frye, who was convicted of embezzling almost $8,000 from the Carson City Merchants Bank, will be released from prison on Christmas day. Readers will recall Frye was sentenced to three years in prison when an audit of the bank’s book uncovered Frye had stolen money over a six month period by issuing false loans and taking the money for himself. Frye, who was the assistant manager of the bank at the time of his arrest, admitted the theft and made full restitution. He has served thirty-three months of his sentence and is being released early as part of the governor’s Christmas pardon for prisoners who have shown good behavior. It is not known whether Mr. Frye plans to return to Carson City after his release.

“Do you know this Edwin Frye?” Ben asked his youngest son.

“No,” answered Joe, shaking his head. “I never heard of him until now.”

Suddenly, Hop Sing walked back into the room, annoyance evident on his face. “Family come eat,” the cook scolded the four men. “Food get cold while family stand around and yak-yak. Hop Sing cook good breakfast. You eat.”

“All right, all right,” Ben agreed in a voice obviously meant to mollify the cook. He turned to his sons. “Hop Sing is right. Our breakfast is getting cold. We can talk about this while we’re eating.” He walked back toward the dining room, followed by Hoss and Adam. Joe took a moment to read the article again, then put the envelope and clipping on the bureau by the door. Shrugging a bit, he headed to the dining room.

Standing near the table with his arms crossed, Hop Sing watched with a scowl on his face until all four men sat down and began filling their plates with food from the serving platters. When he was satisfied the Cartwrights were bowing to his insistence that they eat breakfast, the cook gave a quick nod and padded back to his kitchen.

“This series of messages you’re getting, Joe – it’s all rather mysterious,” said Ben after taking a sip of coffee from his cup. “Do you have any idea who is sending them?”

“Nope,” replied Joe, shaking his head. “And I have no idea what they mean. The only connection I can see is that they are all about something at happened at Christmas over the past couple of years.”

“Who got hitched?” asked Hoss between mouthfuls of eggs. “I mean, in that clipping you got last night?”

Having read the article several times in an attempt to figure out its meaning, Joe was easily able to name the couple whose wedding had been announced. “Susan Pennington married William Johnson,” Joe answered his brother. “I’ve wracked my brain but I can’t place either one of them.”

“It seems to me that this is all somehow connected with that Christmas party at the Austin’s five years ago,” Adam said, looking thoughtful. “The invitation to the party was the first message you got. You went to that party, didn’t you, Joe?”

“Yeah, I did,” Joe confirmed. “I never received a formal invitation or anything, though. I was delivering that pair of matched carriage ponies Mr. Austin bought from us as a Christmas present for his wife. Mr. Austin told me about the party that night and invited me to come. I was planning to stay in Carson City until the next morning anyway, so I decided I might as well go to the party.”

“Did you meet any of these people – Susan Pennington, William Johnson or Edwin Frye – at the Austin’s party?” Ben asked.

“It’s possible,” admitted Joe, “but if I did, I don’t remember them. It was a big party and I got introduced to a whole lot of people that night. I don’t remember who most of them were.”

“Did anything unusual happen at the party?” Adam asked. “Something that might have made someone angry with you?”

“Adam, that was five years ago!” replied Joe in an exasperated voice. “I barely remember the party.”

“Think about it,” Adam urged his brother. “Something must have happened.”

Knitting his brows, Joe tried to remember the Austins’ Christmas party. He recalled the large house on the edge of Carson City decorated both inside and out for the holidays. Inside the house, a large room had been filled with people. A single violinist provided the music, and there had been a little dancing. Mostly, though, people simply chatted with each other, exchanging news, gossip and opinions. Joe had found it to be a rather dull gathering. The mental picture of a small room – quiet, empty, dimly lit from a single fireplace – flashed across Joe’s mind, but in an instant the picture vanished.

“No,” said Joe finally, shaking his head. “I can’t remember anything unusual about the party.”

“Are you sure?” Adam pressed his brother. “You didn’t dance with some girl whose regular beau objected? Or have an argument with someone?”

“No,” repeated Joe, shaking his head again. “Most of the people there were friends of Mr. and Mrs. Austin. There weren’t too many people my age at the party. I only danced a couple of times, and I think most of the dances were with Mabel, the Austin’s daughter.” Once more, the image of a small room flickered in Joe’s mind, this time with the vague shadow of someone sitting in a corner. But as before, the image disappeared as quickly as it had come. “I remember talking to some people, but as I recall, it was mostly about ranching and horses. The Austins organized some games later in the evening, but I didn’t join in. I watched for awhile, then kind of wandering around. There was a late supper. I ate, said my good-byes and left.”

“Seems to me if someone got mad at Joe at that party, they wouldn’t wait five years to tell him about it,” observed Hoss. “And they’d sure make it a lot plainer to Joe what they were mad about.”

“You’re probably right,” Adam admitted with a sigh. “I just think there’s some meaning behind all these messages. Someone is trying to tell Joe something.”

“Well, I’m sure we’ll find out what this is all about in due time,” said Ben. “In the meantime, there are chores to be done, so finish your breakfast. Time to get to work.”

“Pa, it’s Sunday, and only a few days until Christmas,” Joe complained. “I thought we’d be kind of loafing for the next few days.”

“I know it’s Sunday and only a few days until Christmas,” replied Ben in a stern voice. “But unfortunately the stock doesn’t know that, and neither does Hop Sing’s empty wood box. You can do all the loafing you want after the horses and barn are properly taken care of, the wood box is filled, and you boys have made sure the herd in the south pasture hasn’t wandered off toward the North Pole.”

“Yes sir,” said Joe glumly.

“However,” Ben continued, his face breaking into a smile. “Tomorrow I want you three to go to Virginia City to pick up some things Hop Sing needs as well as to get the mail and some extra cash. I wouldn’t mind if you boys took your time about doing these errands in town.”

“Hot diggety!” exclaimed Hoss. “I think that’s a great idea, Pa.”

“I’m sure you can count on us to take as much time as necessary in Virginia City to make sure everything is done properly,” added Adam. He tried to sound solemn but the twinkle in his eye and the smile tugging at his face belied his serious tone.

“Yeah, it could take hours and hours,” Joe agreed, trying to match his oldest brother’s serious demeanor. But Joe’s natural enthusiasm couldn’t be contained, and his face broke into a wide grin.

“Now I want you boys to be sure to be home in time for supper,” cautioned Ben. “I don’t want Hop Sing to be upset. If you don’t show up in time to eat the food he’s cooked, you’re liable to get cold soup and stale bread for Christmas dinner.”

“Don’t worry, Pa, we’ll be there,” Joe assured his father. He turned to face Adam and Hoss. “I’ve got dibs on picking up the mail tomorrow. I want to see if there are any more strange messages. And I want to try to find out who’s sending them.”

“Good luck with that, Joe,” said Adam dryly. “Whoever is sending the messages is deliberately trying to make sure you don’t see him. I’m not sure you can catch a ghost.”

**********

With a bundle of envelopes in his hand and a discouraged look on his face, Joe trudged down the main street of Virginia City toward the general store. Adam’s prediction had proven all too accurate. After spending almost an hour asking questions of various people in town, Joe was no closer to finding who had been sending the strange messages than he had been at the breakfast table the day before.

The weather was unseasonable mild – so warm, in fact, that Joe was wearing only his light green jacket – so he didn’t mind traipsing all over town. What bothered Joe was that all of his questions had yielded no answers.

When he had picked up the mail, Joe had leafed through the envelopes carefully. But the only mail addressed to him had been a few cards with familiar return addresses. Joe had opened his mail right there in the post office, just to be sure, but the envelopes contained nothing but traditional Christmas greetings from friends. He had asked Tom, the postmaster, about the envelope his father had picked up a few days before – the one with only his name on the outside – but wasn’t surprised when Tom remembered neither the envelope nor who had put it in the mail basket. This time of year the postmaster was extremely busy sorting all the Christmas greetings both coming and going from Virginia City. One somewhat oddly addressed envelope wouldn’t stick in the man’s mind. Joe doubted he had done anything more than glance at it before placing it in the box reserved for the Cartwright’s mail.

Without much hope of success, Joe had spent the rest of his time questioning people about a stranger with cold eyes who might have been asking questions about him. He talked with Sheriff Roy Coffee, the clerk at the hotel, and the bartender at the Silver Dollar Saloon. No one had any recollection of a stranger asking questions about Joe.

As he neared the general store, Joe saw Hoss carrying a box from the store toward the buckboard parked in front of the building. He slowed his step a bit, as a small smile tugged at his face. There was no sense arriving at the store until he was sure Hoss had all the heavy items loaded into the wagon.

Hoss, however, spotted his brother coming down the street. “Hey, Joe!” Hoss called. “Where’ve you been? I thought you were just going to pick up the mail?”

“I did pick up the mail,” Joe replied, showing his largest brother the bundle of envelopes in his hand. “I also spent the last hour trying to find out who’s been sending me those clippings and things.”

“Any luck?”

“No,” Joe admitted. “It’s like Adam said. Whoever is sending those messages has made himself invisible. No one knows anything.” Joe looked around. “Where is our resident scholar anyway?”

“He went over to the bank to get that cash Pa wanted, and then was going down to the Wells Fargo office,” answered Hoss. “He said he wanted to see if any packages came in.” A wide grin spread across Hoss’ face. “Of course, he also probably wanted to spend some time chatting with that little gal Mary Ann who works there. I saw him dancing with her a lot the other night. He said he’d meet us over at the Silver Dollar.”

“Well, let’s get the supplies loaded and then head over to the Silver Dollar for some Christmas cheer,” Joe suggested as he put the envelopes into a box of supplies in the back of the buckboard.

“I done finished loading the supplies, as if you didn’t know,” retorted Hoss with a scowl.

“You did?” Joe made his face look as innocent as possible. Gee, I’m sorry, Hoss. I would have helped you but I just got busy asking questions around town. I didn’t realize it would take so long.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Hoss said, his voice full of disbelief. Then he relented and smiled. “C’mon, I’ll buy you a Christmas beer, little brother.”

“And then I’ll buy you one,” Joe countered with a grin. “And we’ll get older brother to buy us both a beer.”

The two brothers started walking down the street, but Joe stopped when he heard his name being called. He turned to see a boy about 10 years old running toward him, shouting his name.

“Hey, Tommy, what’s all the ruckus?” asked Joe when the boy skidded to a stop in front of him.

“Some man needs to see you, Joe,” replied Tommy in a rush of words. “He gave me two bits to find you for him.”

“What man?” Joe asked the boy. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. He just said I had to find you right away,” Tommy answered.

“Hey, little fellow, take a deep breath and start from the beginning,” Hoss advised. “You ain’t making a lot of sense here.”

Nodding, the boy followed Hoss’ instructions and took a deep breath. Then he turned to Joe. “This man stopped me on the street and asked me if I knew Joe Cartwright. When I said yes, he gave me two bits to find you and tell you he needed to see you right away. He said he’d meet you at that building where they held the Christmas dance.”

“Did he say why he needed to see me?” Joe asked with a puzzled expression on his face.

Tommy’s face puckered as he thought hard about what the man had told him. “He said it was about something he had lost and he needed you to help him find it,” replied Tommy slowly. He looked up at Joe with a confused expression on his face. “At least, I think that’s what he said. Maybe it was about something you lost. I don’t remember for sure. But he said it was real important that I find you and tell you to meet him.”

“Who was the fellow, button?” Hoss asked.

“I don’t know,” Tommy admitted. “I ain’t never seen him before.”

“What did he look like?” Joe asked the boy.

Biting his lip a bit, Tommy thought a minute and then shrugged. “Just some man. There wasn’t anything special about him.”

“All right, Tommy, thanks for delivering the message,” Joe said as he reached in the pocket of his jacket. “Here’s another two bits for your trouble.”

Grinning, Tommy snatched the quarter from Joe’s hand and ran off.

“What do you think that’s all about?” Hoss asked.

“I don’t know,” admitted Joe. “Maybe it has something to do with my coat being missing after the dance. I didn’t check the pockets after I took out that envelope. Maybe this fellow took the coat and left something in it.”

“Why’d he want to meet you at the warehouse, then?” Hoss said, sounding doubtful. “You’d think he’d come looking for you himself.”

“It could be this fellow is looking for something he lost at the dance, and he’s searching the warehouse too,” Joe replied. He slapped Hoss on the back. “Look, you go over to the Silver Dollar and get us some beers. I’ll go down to the warehouse and find out what this is all about, and then meet you at the saloon.”

“You want me to go with you?” Hoss asked. “Maybe this is the fellow who’s been sending you all those strange letters.”

“If it is, I want to meet him and find out what this is all about,” Joe said in a determined voice. Then he smiled. “I can handle this, Hoss; don’t worry. Go get a beer. I’ll see you later.”

“All right,” Hoss agreed a bit grudgingly. “But if it looks like trouble, you skedaddle out of there, you hear. I got a feeling that this guy ain’t someone who just wants to wish you Merry Christmas.”

**********

Looking around cautiously, Joe entered the old warehouse. The decorations from the dance still hung on the walls, but they no longer looked festive and bright. The garland appeared wilted, and the floor with littered with the dried pine needles which had fallen from the roping. The large wreath, also looking a bit withered, had been taken down and propped against at the front of the stage. Without the bright cloths that had covered them, the long tables were merely dark pieces of wood shoved against the wall. The lanterns were no longer lit, and the only illumination was from the weak winter sunlight streaming through the small windows high on the walls. The empty floor seemed cavernous in the dim light.

“Hello?” Joe called, looking around. “Is anyone here?”

“Mr. Cartwright?” The voice echoed a bit from Joe’s right. Joe spun around and saw a figure emerging from the shadows.

“I apologize if I startled you,” said a man with dark hair. He walked up to Joe and offered his hand. “Thank you for coming.”

“You’re welcome,” Joe replied, shaking the man’s hand briefly. “What can I do for you?”

“First, perhaps an introduction is in order,” stated the stranger. “My name is Edwin Frye.”

For a moment, Joe said nothing but rather studied the man standing in front of him. Wearing brown pants, a cream-colored shirt and string tie, Frye looked like a clerk or shopkeeper. Joe noted he wasn’t wearing a gun. Frye had a long thin face, and while not ugly, no one would have called him handsome – ordinary was the word that best described his features. But it was the man’s eyes that drew Joe’s attention. As Beth had described, Frye’s eyes seem cold and hard, showing no emotion. They seemed to suggest a man who felt nothing, who cared about nothing.

“Does my name mean anything to you?” Frye asked.

“It didn’t until yesterday, when I read it in the article you sent me,” admitted Joe. He cocked his head a bit. “You are the one who sent me the invitation and those clippings, aren’t you.”

“A little subterfuge on my part, I admit,” acknowledged Frye. “I believe a man should be aware of the consequences of his actions. I thought those messages might help you understand the chain of events you set in motion.”

“You didn’t have to be so mysterious about it,” Joe advised. “You could have just sent me a letter or something.”

“A letter might have been ignored, and it certainly wouldn’t have had the impact,” replied Frye.

“Well, taking my coat certainly made an impact,” Joe said dryly. “There’s nothing like a cold ride home to get someone’s attention.”

“A little suffering is good for a man’s soul,” commented Frye. He shrugged a bit and then added, “I wanted to make sure you read the clipping. You might have not seen it if I had merely slipped it into your coat pocket. I knew you’d check the coat once I returned it, and would find the envelope. It was important that you realize all the consequences of what you did.”

“I don’t understand,” Joe said frankly. “None of this means anything to me. What’s this all about?”

Rather than answering, Frye looked around. “Why don’t we sit down over here, Mr. Cartwright,” suggested the dark-haired man, pointing to the chairs still lining the far wall. “We have a lot to talk about.”

As Frye moved toward the chairs, Joe hesitated. There was something about the man that made him feel uneasy, yet Joe was curious about what was behind the strange messages. Finally, Joe decided there was no harm in listening to what the man had to say. He walked over to a chair near where Frye was sitting, laying his hand reassuringly on the pistol strapped to his hip as he moved forward.

“What’s this all about?” Joe repeated. “I remember going to the Christmas party at the Austins five years ago, but the newspaper clippings made no sense to me.”

“It was at that party that you destroyed my life,” Frye replied in an even voice. “That was the night you convinced Susan Pennington not to marry me.”

In an instant, the image that had been a vague memory for Joe the day before became a clear picture. He remembered now. Bored by watching the games at the party, Joe had wandered around the Austins’ house. He had entered a small room – a study or library, perhaps – down the hall from the large room in which the guests were being entertained. The room had been dimly lit, with only the light from a small blaze in the fireplace providing any illumination. At first, Joe thought the room was empty, but then he heard the sound of crying. He had seen a girl sitting on a chair in the far corner of the room with her face in her hands. Joe approached her, offering help and comfort. The two had talked for awhile, and then the girl had left. Joe never saw her again.

“I talked with a girl at the party,” Joe acknowledged. “But I didn’t try to convince her of anything. She was just looking for a shoulder to cry on, and I offered her mine. I never even knew her name.”

“That’s not entirely true, is it,” countered Frye. “Susan told me she had a conversation with a young man at the Austins’ party, and because of that conversation, she was convinced she could never be happy being married to me. She broke our engagement two days later, on Christmas day.”

“Look, I had nothing to do with that,” Joe argued. “She told me she was upset because her fiancée hadn’t shown up at the party like he promised, and that she was tired of being ignored and taken for granted. I remember she said something about not being sure she was going to have the kind of life she wanted after she was married.”

“And that’s when you advised her not to marry me,” said Frye with a touch of bitterness in his voice.

Joe thought a moment before answering. “I don’t remember exactly what I said,” he admitted. “But the gist of it was that I told her she should think long and hard about getting married if she wasn’t sure she would be happy with the man. I never told her not to marry you. I just suggested she make sure she was making the right decision.”

“You must have something more than that,” insisted Frye. “She wouldn’t have broken our engagement otherwise.”

“No, that was it,” Joe answered, shaking his head. “Maybe she talked to someone else, and he was the one that convinced her.”

“It was you,” Frye said with conviction. “I spoke with Mabel Austin after Susan broke our engagement. Mabel told me she saw you and Susan talking in the study that night, but didn’t want to interrupt what seemed like a serious discussion. Mabel also told me that Susan left the party immediately after she came out of the study.” The dark haired man abruptly stood and began pacing. “What you said isn’t as important as the consequences of your discussion with Susan,” Frye emphasized in an agitated voice. “After talking with you, Susan returned my ring and told me she couldn’t marry me. I thought the only way to win her back was to become rich, to offer her a fine life. So I started taking money from the bank, but I was caught.” Frye stopped and turned to face Joe, scowling as he looked at the youngest Cartwright. “Because of you, Susan broke our engagement and, within a year, married another man. Because of you, I ended up in prison.”

“You’re saying that all it took was a twenty minute conversation with me for Susan to decide not to marry you?” commented Joe in a dry voice. “And that all it was going to take to get her to change her mind was for you to flash some money at her? You must think this girl is pretty shallow.”

“Of course, she isn’t,” Frye replied disdainfully. “Susan is beautiful, sweet, and intelligent. She would have been the perfect wife for me.” The scowl returned to Frye’s face as he added in a low voice, “She would have married me, but you destroyed her love for me.”

As Frye talked, more and more of the conversation from that night came back to Joe. He cocked his head a bit and studied the man standing in front of him. “She did love you,” Joe said slowly. “The problem was that you didn’t love her.”

“I did love her!” shouted Frye angrily.

“Did you?” Joe countered. “You didn’t love her enough to show up at the Christmas party that night.”

“I was working,” Frye explained, still sounding upset. “There were things to be done at the bank.”

“At ten o’clock at night, and only two days before Christmas?” Joe asked skeptically. “She told me about the broken dates, the times you left early or came late, the parties where she sat in the corner while you talked business with the other people there.”

“I was trying to make a life for us,” Frye insisted. “I had to work hard, put in long hours, to have a successful career. The harder I worked and the more contacts I made, the more successful I would be. I wanted to give Susan a fine house and beautiful clothes. I wanted to be sure we had the money we needed.”

“Maybe that’s what you wanted,” Joe said, shaking his head sadly. “But apparently, that’s not what she wanted.” He looked at Frye. “You know what she said to me? She said that you had another love, one that she could never compete with. She didn’t think she could marry a man who had another mistress.”

“That’s not true!” exclaimed Frye. “There was no one else. No one but Susan.”

“But there was,” Joe stated firmly. “Your mistress wasn’t a woman, though. Your other love was money. You loved the idea of making money, having money more than you loved Susan. That’s why she couldn’t marry you.”

“You’re wrong,” Frye declared. “You are very wrong.”

“Am I?” Joe shrugged and got to his feet. “Well, you can believe whatever you want. I’m leaving. Thanks for any interesting trip down memory lane.” Joe brushed past the dark-haired man and headed for the entrance to the warehouse.

“Hold it!” Frye shouted after Joe. “Stop!”

Ignoring the shouts, Joe continued toward the door until he felt a hand grab his shoulder and tug on it. Spinning around, Joe started to say something but was abruptly silenced by a fist which smashed into his jaw. Immediately, he balled his own hand and pulled it back in order to throw a counterpunch. But his thrust stopped in mid-air and Joe took a step back.

“I guess if I had lost my girl and ended up in prison, I’d want to punch the man I thought caused my problems,” Joe acknowledged, rubbing his jaw. “You got your one punch, Frye. Don’t push it.”

“Oh, I’m far from finished with you, Mr. Cartwright,” Frye said in a menacing tone. “You know, a man meets an interesting variety of people in prison – rustlers eager to know where a large herd is just waiting to be taken, and thieves who would love to hear about a rich rancher who regularly transports large payrolls from the bank. Did you know that there are men who like to set fires just to watch things burn? They would be delighted to see a barn or even a house go up in flames. I’ve thought about this for a long time. I’m going to make you pay for what you did.”

“You’re crazy, Frye,” snapped Joe angrily. “I had a twenty-minute conversation with a girl five years ago. She wanted some sympathy and I gave it to her. That’s it. That’s all there was to it.”

“I’m going to make you pay, Mr. Cartwright,” repeated Frye. “Of course, I could be persuaded to leave town without causing you any harm. Perhaps if you offered me compensation for my loss in the sum of, say, $20,000.”

“That’s what this is all about, isn’t it,” said Joe, as a look of understanding came over his face. “It’s the money. This was never about your fiancée or your going to prison. All you want is the same thing you’ve always wanted – money.” He cocked his head a bit and considered the man standing in front of him. “What was the plan? Make me feel so guilty about what happened that I would pay you to ease my conscience?”

“I thought you might,” Frye admitted.

“And since that didn’t work, you’re resorting to threats,” declared Joe. “You must want that money awfully bad.”

“I need the money,” corrected Frye. “You don’t know what my life has been like since I got out of prison. The only job I could get was working as a clerk in a store, being ordered around by fat women and cranky men who treat me like dirt. I had everything – a woman who loved me, a good job, and a future. You took that away from me. It’s only fair you compensate me for that.”

“I didn’t take anything away from you, Frye,” declared Joe. “You threw it away. You never loved Susan; she was just another acquisition for you. And you used her breaking your engagement as an excuse to take what you really wanted, which was the bank’s money.”

“I’m not going to stand here and debate the issue any longer,” Frye said angrily. “The choice is yours. Either you pay me the $20,000 or I start contacting my friends from prison.”

“There’s a third choice,” said Joe, pulling his gun from his holster.

“Are you threatening to kill me?” asked Frye, sounding unconcerned. “Shoot an unarmed man? That’s murder, Mr. Cartwright. And they hang people for murder.”

“I’m not going to murder anyone,” Joe replied calmly. “I’m simply going to escort you down to the sheriff’s office. There are laws against blackmail, you know.”

“Blackmail?” countered Frye with a sneer. “Do you see any witnesses, or have anything in writing? No? Well, then I guess it’s your word against mine. And I can be very persuasive, especially when I tell my sad story about how you destroyed my life once and are trying to do it again. I know your reputation for romancing the ladies. It won’t be hard to convince people that you saw Susan as just another potential conquest, and advised her to break our engagement so you could pursue her.”

“That’s crazy,” retorted Joe angrily. “I told you that I never knew her name or saw her again after that night.”

“That’s your story,” Frye responded smoothly. “Do you think anyone will believe it?”

“I think you’ll find the word of a Cartwright carries a little weight in this town,” Joe said confidently. “They’ll believe my story, especially after I tell the sheriff how you’re willing to do anything to get your hands on some money. You’ve already been convicted of embezzlement. It won’t be hard for the sheriff to understand how you might want to try a little blackmail. You are going back to jail, Mr. Frye.”

For the first time since he had met Edwin Frye, Joe saw a flicker of emotion in the man’s eyes. He wasn’t sure what that emotion was – fear, panic, or perhaps just worry – but Joe knew Frye wasn’t planning to go quietly to the sheriff’s office. He tightened the grip on his gun. “Don’t try anything,” warned Joe. “At this range, I couldn’t miss. And it’s not a crime to shoot someone in self-defense.”

Whatever emotion had manifested itself in Frye’s eyes disappeared, and the cold, dead look once more reappeared. Frye stared at Joe for a moment, and then his shoulders sagged in resignation. “It was worth the try,” he muttered.

Suddenly, Frye spun around and grabbed a chair. With incredible quickness, he swung the chair off the ground and smashed it into Joe’s side, knocking the youngest Cartwright to the ground. The gun slipped from Joe’s hand and skidded a few feet away from him.

“I’m not going back to jail,” cried Frye as he made a move toward Joe’s gun.

Surprised and stunned more than hurt, it took Joe only a moment to realize Frye’s intentions. He reached up and grabbed the man’s leg, pulling him away from the gun and onto the floor. Joe scrambled to his feet just as Frye was getting up. Joe threw a fist into the other man’s stomach, causing Frye to double over and stagger back a step or two. But Frye quickly straightened and charged straight at Joe, knocking him back to the floor. He jumped on top of Joe and belted the man below him with a quick jab to the face. Joe reached up and threw an uppercut which caught Frye just under the chin. Frye fell back and Joe kicked the man off of him.

The two combatants got to their feet, both breathing hard. They watched each other warily for a moment, then Frye charged forward. This time, Joe was ready for him and sidestepped the charge, hitting Frye on the back as the man went past him. Frye fell to the floor, then rolled quickly to his left. He threw his legs at Joe’s shins, causing Joe to lose his balance and fall.

Once more, the two men scrambled to their feet and faced each other. They began circling slowly, each man crouched and fists ready, as both waited for the other to make the next move. Frye took a step forward, and this time, it was Joe who charged. Joe’s shoulder hit Frye in the chest, causing the man to tumble into the row of chairs behind him. The chairs skidded into one another, the last one hitting the wall with a resounding thump.

The vibration from the impact caused a lantern to fall from the wall to the floor. The lamp’s glass shattered, and the oil spilled out from the lantern onto the dry pine needles scattered on the floor.

Frye got to his feet quickly, and shoved aside the chairs in which he had become entangled. The legs of one chair scratched noisily across the wooden floor, creating a spark. Almost instantly, a small tongue of fire popped up from the oil-laden needles on the floor.

A roar of anger escaped from Frye’s lips as he charged at Joe again. Joe tried to sidestep the man as he had done before, but Frye altered direction at the last minute so that his body slammed directly into Joe’s. Both men crashed to the floor, and their arms began flailing as each tried to pound their fists into the other. Joe pushed Frye to the right, and the man slid off of him. But Frye grabbed Joe’s arm and pulled his opponent toward him. Joe flipped himself over the man on the floor, landing on his back next to Frye. He quickly got to his feet and joined his hands together. As Frye began to rise from the floor, Joe threw his entwined hands into the man’s stomach, then jerked them upwards to hammer Frye just under the chin. Frye’s head snapped back and his body went limp. He collapsed to the ground in a heap and laid still.

Breathing hard and coughing a bit, Joe stood over the fallen man for a moment, making sure his opponent was down for good. Suddenly, Joe realized the air around him was becoming thick with smoke, and he heard an ominous crackle behind him. He whirled around and his eyes opened wide with both fear and astonishment as he saw the fire burning behind him.

The dried-out pine needles scattered on the floor gave the fire the fuel it needed to spread quickly. With almost morbid fascination, Joe watched as the flames raced along the wall toward the back of the building and then turned toward the makeshift stage that had been erected. The fire paused long enough to set the wreath leaning against the stage ablaze, and then continued its sprint around the edge of the floor. The fiery wreath ignited the wooden stage and soon flames were shooting from the platform.

Turning quickly, Joe ran to where Frye laid on the floor. He grabbed the front of Frye’s shirt and pulled the man to his feet, shaking him and shouting as he did so. “Frye! Frye!” yelled Joe. “We’ve got to get out of here! The building is on fire!”

Moving his head from side to side, Frye looked at Joe with glazed eyes. Then, Frye’s eyes suddenly cleared. Without warning, he jerked his arm upward, hammering the side of Joe’s head with his fist. Joe wasn’t expecting the blow, and the punch seemed to rattle his brain. He released his hold on Frye’s shirt and crumpled to the floor, hitting the hard wood with his head as he landed.

Stunned by both the blow and the fall, Joe laid unmoving on the floor. He heard a roaring in his ears and sparks of light exploded in front of his eyes. His arms and legs felt heavy, useless. A small part of Joe’s brain was urging him to move, but the rest of his body refused to obey. Joe knew he was on the floor and wondered dully how he had gotten there. For several moments, he simply laid still and watched the black smoke that was beginning to curl and thicken above him.

At last, the part of his brain that was urging Joe to move got a response. He blinked twice and tilted his head until it was almost resting on his shoulder. Expending what felt like an extraordinary amount of effort, Joe pushed himself up from the floor. He winced and gritted his teeth as head throbbed, but Joe continued to push against the floor until he was in a sitting position.

Joe sat for a moment with his head hanging forwarded as he waited for the pain inside his skull to abate. When the throbbing finally eased, Joe raised his head slowly and looked around.

The flames that had been licking the walls had found new fuel in the wooden tables and the row of chairs on either side of Joe. He could feel the heat as the fire burned its way from the perimeter of the building toward its center. Dark smoke swirled around him and Joe coughed as the smoke found its way into his mouth and nose. He could see nothing but flames and smoke all around him.

“Frye!” Joe called loudly. “Frye! Where are you?” He coughed the smoke out of his lungs and tried again. “Frye! Answer me! We have to get out of here!” Joe listened hard but heard nothing except the crackle of burning wood. Frye either couldn’t answer or had left, abandoning Joe to whatever fate the fire had for him. Joe knew it was too late to worry about Frye. He had to concentrate on saving himself.

Dazed and disoriented, Joe peered through the smoke, trying to figure out which way he was facing. He knew he had only one chance to find the front of the building and the doorway that led to safety. If he moved in the wrong direction, he wouldn’t have time to correct his mistake. Joe could see a sea of flames to his left, but wasn’t sure what was fueling the fire. If it was the stage, then the entrance was to his right. But if the chairs were fueling the blaze to his left, then the pathway to safety was in front of him.

Turning his body, Joe began crawling to toward the flames, hoping he could tell what was burning and which way to go in order to escape. He stopped and reached out his hand, but felt nothing, then began crawling forward again. Once more he stopped and reached forward but his outstretched hand felt only heat and air. He was beginning to think he was facing the stage, but Joe knew it was worth his life to be sure. Forcing himself to continue toward the flames, Joe crawled a few more feet before stopping. Yet again, he stretched his arm forward and this time his hand bumped into something hard. He touched the smoke-obscured object, moving his hand around until he felt the thin, rounded leg of a chair.

A small smile of satisfaction broke out on Joe’s face as he backed away from the flames. The row of chairs was in front of him, which meant the entrance to the warehouse was now to his right. Joe crawled rapidly backward until he was a good distance from the fire, then turned his body to the right. For a moment, Joe considered getting to his feet and trying to run out of the burning building. But he knew the smoke would be thinner closer to the floor and he could breathe what little air was left in the warehouse. Besides, his head was still throbbing and he felt a bit dizzy. Joe decided he was better off using four limbs to balance himself than just two.

Joe heard a loud crash behind him as some piece of burning material fell to the floor. He didn’t bother to look to see what it was. He could feel the heat of the flames intensifying and see the smoke thickening. Joe knew he had no time to lose. He began crawling forward, praying that the entrance to the warehouse wasn’t too far away.

As he moved on all fours across the floor, Joe came across pieces of debris, some smoldering and others bright with flames. Joe pushed these aside, even though the fragments singed his hands. He didn’t want to crawl around the burning pieces and take a chance on getting disoriented again. He knew his only hope was to keep moving in as straight a line as possible toward the door.

The smoke near the floor was getting thicker and Joe began to cough. His head was spinning, and the roaring had resumed in his ears. His arms and legs began to tremble as his strength started to ebb away. Joe wasn’t sure if the fire or the blow to head – or both – were the cause of his difficulties, but he knew it didn’t matter. He had to keep moving forward; he had to continue crawling and pushing himself toward the front of the building.

After crawling for what seemed a mile, Joe’s right arm gave way and he fell forward. He tried to push himself up again, but his arm felt as if it was made out of putty. Joe reached out with his left arm, trying to pull himself across the floor with that one limb, but his left arm didn’t seem to work properly either. The thick smoke enveloped him and the heat from the flames seemed closer than ever. His thinking confused by the fumes from the smoke, Joe decided it wouldn’t hurt to rest for a minute before continuing toward the door. He laid his head on the floor and closed his eyes.

And then, without warning, Joe felt a pair of hands taking a firm grasp on his left upper arm, followed by a second pair of hands grasping his right arm. He felt himself being dragged for a short distance and then pulled to his feet. His right arm was flung across a neck and shoulders, and then the action was repeated with his left arm. Joe felt two arms – one from the right and one from the left – wrapping themselves around his body. He was propelled forward, being pushed and dragged at the same time. In less than a minute, Joe felt a rush of cool, fresh air against his face. He breathed in deeply, sucking the clean air into his lungs, as he continued to be pulled forward.

As he lifted his head to look around, Joe heard a familiar voice in his ear. “Doggone it, little brother, I thought I done told you to stay out of trouble.”

**********

Pulling his horse to a rather abrupt stop, Ben Cartwright jumped out of the saddle and hurried toward the door of the brick building in which Dr. Martin’s office was housed. The man who had ridden out to the Ponderosa from Virginia City to advise Ben to come to town right away had offered him little in the way of hard facts. He had only known that the warehouse in which the Christmas Dance had been held had somehow caught on fire, and Joe had been trapped inside. Adam and Hoss had pulled their brother from the burning building only minutes before it had begun to collapse. The last thing the man had seen was Adam and Hoss carrying Joe toward the doctor’s office.

The fear and anxiety Ben felt was evident on his face as he pushed open the door and walked into the doctor’s office. In the waiting room, Ben hesitated, looking around for someone from whom he could demand information. Then the door to the examining room in front of him opened, and Dr. Paul Martin emerged.

“He’s going to be just fine, Ben,” declared Dr. Martin with a smile before Ben could ask the question. “You Cartwrights are a tough lot. It takes more than a little fire to slow one of you down.”

Ben’s body sagged a bit as he let out a sigh of relief. “How bad is he hurt?” he asked, his voice trembling a bit.

“Nothing major,” the doctor answered. “He’s got a knot on his head and a nice collection of bruises. He also swallowed some smoke and burned his hands a bit. But there’s nothing wrong with him that a little rest won’t cure. I promise Joe will be sitting at the table for Christmas dinner.”

“Thank goodness,” said Ben in a soft voice. “Can I see him?”

“Of course,” replied Dr. Martin. He moved aside and motioned Ben toward the room behind him.

Walking rapidly, Ben entered the examining room and saw his three sons. Adam was sprawled in a chair, and Hoss leaned against the edge of the examining table. Their relaxed poses confirmed to Ben that Joe was all right. Nevertheless, he walked straight toward his youngest son. He gave Joe a quick hug and then stepped back to examine the young man himself. Sitting on the edge of the examining table with his feet dangling a few inches above the floor, Joe waited patiently as his father looked him over.

If the doctor hadn’t told him so, Ben wouldn’t have believed that Joe had escaped from the fire with only minor injuries. Joe’s pants were streaked with soot and smoke, as was the front of his shirt – the part of the shirt not protected by stained green jacket which lay in a heap on the floor by the table. A large white bandage circled Joe’s head, holding in place a small square white cloth positioned toward the back and left of his skull. Even though Joe’s face had been cleaned, Ben could see the dark bruises on his son’s chin and cheekbone. White bandages were wrapped around the palms of Joe’s hands. Ben pursed his lips a bit as his eyes raked over Joe from head to toe. “How are you feeling, son?” he asked in a quiet voice.

“I’m fine,” Joe told his father, giving him a reassuring smile. “I’ve got a bit of a headache and some aches and pains, that’s all.” His face grew somber. “Things would have been a lot worse if Adam and Hoss hadn’t pulled me out of there.”

“Well, we figured something was up when you didn’t show up to drink your beer,” observed Adam from the chair. “It’s not like you to pass up a chance to guzzle beer.”

“We were already heading toward the warehouse when we spotted the smoke,” Hoss added. “It didn’t take much to put two and two together and figure out you were in trouble.”

“Well, I appreciate what you did,” Joe said earnestly. “It’s not many men who have brothers who will rush into a burning building to save him.”

“We didn’t have to rush all that far,” Adam replied. “You were only a couple of feet from the door when we found you. You almost made it out of there without our help.”

“Almost,” Joe repeated. He shook his head a bit. “I’m not sure I would have made it those last few feet to the door if you two hadn’t shown up.” Suddenly, an impish grin appeared on Joe’s face. “I lost my hat and gun in that fire. You can add those things to the presents you’re going to give me on Christmas morning.”

“Ain’t he a caution, Adam?” Hoss declared with a grin. “First we save his hide, and now he wants us to buy him more presents.”

“We can argue about Christmas presents later,” said Ben, sounding a bit exasperated. “Right now, I want to know what happened.”

After taking a deep breath, Joe related the story of his extraordinary meeting with Edwin Frye to his father. It was a story Joe had told twice already, once to his brothers and a second time to Sheriff Roy Coffee. Joe fervently hoped this was the last time he was going to have to tell it.

“What happened to Frye?” asked Ben after Joe had finished.

“I don’t know,” Joe admitted. “He just disappeared. I think he got out of the warehouse but I don’t know that for sure.”

“If he didn’t, we’ll never know,” commented Adam. “There’s nothing left of that building but ashes.”

“If he did get out, do you think he’ll come back to cause trouble?” Ben asked with a worried expression. “I don’t like the idea of having to look over my shoulder for him all the time.”

“I’m the only one who would have to look over his shoulder,” Joe pointed out. “As near as I can tell, I’m the only person who ever actually saw Edwin Frye, or at least knows who he is. He’s one of those people you just don’t notice unless someone points him out to you. Adam called him a ghost, and that’s kind of what he was. He would appear for a few minutes and then fade into the background again.”

“Roy Coffee is going to keep any eye out for Frye, based on the description Joe gave him,” added Adam. “But his feeling is that if Frye didn’t die in that fire, he’s long gone.”

“But will he come back?” persisted Ben.

“I don’t think so, Pa,” Joe answered, shaking his head. “All he really wanted was money and he knows now we won’t give it to him. If he’s still alive, Frye is heading for some place where he can get the only thing he cares about – money.” Joe cocked his head a bit and then continued. “You know, I’m not even sure Frye knew what he wanted the money for. It was having the money that was important to him, not what it could buy.”

“It’s sort of sad, ain’t it,” commented Hoss. “He’s kind of like the fellow in the story Mr. Dickens wrote. You know, the one about the old miser who didn’t like Christmas.”

“You mean Scrooge?” Ben replied. “I suppose in a way he is. Except Scrooge didn’t go around threatening people.”

Suddenly, Joe began coughing, and he winced as his body shook from the effort to clear his lungs. Ben put his hand on Joe’s back and asked gently, “Are you sure you’re all right, son?”

“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe reassured his father. “Just clearing out the last of the smoke.” Then he gave Ben a sly look. “But I don’t think I’m going to be up to doing any work for awhile.”

“I think we can manage for a few days without you,” Ben agreed with a laugh. He turned to Hoss. “Why don’t you go get the buckboard and bring it up here. It’s time we got this one home.”

“Hey,” said Joe brightly, “talking about that Dickens story just reminded me of something. Remember the little boy in the story? The one whose father used to carry him on his shoulder because he couldn’t walk?”

“You mean Tiny Tim?” asked Hoss.

“If you think we’re going to carry you out of here on our shoulders, you’re crazy,” retorted Adam. “For one thing, your name is Little Joe, not Tiny Tim. And Hoss and I have carried you around enough for one day.”

“That’s not what I was thinking of,” Joe replied. “It was what the little boy said.” He looked around the room at his father and brothers. “Merry Christmas, Pa. Merry Christmas, Adam, Hoss. And God bless us everyone.”

*****End*****

 

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Author: SusanG

The Bonanza universe lost an ardent fan when Susan Grote passed away unexpectedly on March 2, 2017.   The news caught her family, friends, and fellow writers and readers by surprise as she had not been ill. Susan was a fierce supporter of Bonanza fan fiction, helping many to take their first literary steps.  She never failed to offer support and encouragement to all writers, regardless of fandom. Her family has graciously granted Brand permission to post her stories in our Library so that readers may continue to enjoy them.

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