Summary: A fateful encounter at the Truckee river leads to a revelation for Adam Cartwright.
Word Count: 3471
Well, this is it.
Adam Cartwright’s limbs slowly succumbed to the fatigue of muscles pushed to their limits. He felt no bitterness, no desperation, only the quiet resignation of a man who had given his best and lost. Who would have thought things would turn out this way?
Certainly not him. He had grown up with danger, and contrary to what people often said, he knew a man never really cheated death; he merely postponed it. Adam had faced it enough times to recognize it, and each time he had escaped to contemplate its sobering inevitability. He had pictured his own demise a number of ways – a bullet, an arrow, a cave-in, a wolf attack, an unlucky bounce from a horse — but he had never imagined drowning in the Truckee River.
If he’d had the energy, he would have been tempted to laugh at the irony. It seemed so silly in retrospect, chasing after that hat. So what if it was new? Why couldn’t he have just let it go? Joe had always accused him of being tightfisted with his money. Maybe his youngest brother was right. Adam was sorry he had teased him the day before about Wendy Milford. He wished he could tell him that. He wished a lot of things.
He had always heard that a person’s life flashes before him right before he dies. It seemed to be true. So many moments came back to him with such clarity, poignant images resurrected from the ashes of memory. Pa’s comforting presence next to him in the wagon at night on the trail. Inger’s cool touch on his feverish forehead, her lilting voice like a soothing lullaby. Hoss’s chubby hand in his. Marie’s infectious laugh. Little Joe’s curly head on his shoulder. His first real Christmas. His first horse. His first kiss. There was Pa’s bear hug embrace when he returned from college. Hoss’s grin across the dinner table. Joe’s irrepressible giggle. A woman’s face, freshly scrubbed and beautiful, warmed by eyes lit from within by honest love and simple faith. She held out her hand to Adam, and he took it.
It’s not bad at all, he decided. If people knew, maybe they wouldn’t be afraid.
His mind yielded along with his body, anxiety and regret ebbing with the release from physical pain. He did not feel the sun retreat as the water closed above him, nor did he feel his lungs expire. His only sensation was an incredible lightness, as if he was a feather borne on a breeze, and in the calm of darkness, he floated.
Whether it was seconds, minutes or hours, he couldn’t say, for he had no concept of time or space or anything else except a peace he had never known before. The blackness abated, and he felt the light, as though he were lying in the sun with his eyes closed. Its gentle warmth infused his body even to the tips of his fingers and toes, which until that moment he had quite forgotten. His renewed awareness was discomfiting, and his first instinct was to resist and return to the tranquil nebula, but the command to consciousness was too strong. His chest heaved, his body retching in agony as if to turn him inside out. A pair of hands secured him on his side while his lungs purged themselves of the river. The drumming in his ears gradually subsided, and a faint wheezing grew louder, the sound of his own breathing.
He was alive.
Something as gentle as a whisper brushed his cheek. He lifted one eyelid, then the other, enough to discern the outline of a woman kneeling beside him. He tried to speak, but he lacked the strength.
She put a finger to his lips. “Don’t try to talk,” she murmured. “You must sleep now. All is well.”
Sleep, yes. He was exhausted, more tired than he had ever been in his life; dead tired. He closed his eyes. Her hand smoothed his brow. Her…she…who? Regina? Maybe he was already dreaming.
A pungent smoky aroma roused him, and he woke wrapped in a quilt next to a crackling fire. He propped himself on one elbow and looked around. His clothes lay spread out on some adjacent rocks. The woman was nowhere in sight.
“Hello?” His voice echoed in the still night, silent except for the pop and hiss of the flames.
There was bacon and bread on a plate, along with a canteen, obviously intended for him. Whoever she was, she seemed to know what he needed. He was certainly hungry.
When he had eaten, she still had not returned. He wondered if his clothes were dry. He secured the quilt around him with one hand while he crouched down and examined them with the other.
“I think they’re probably still wet.”
He hadn’t heard her approach, and the sound of her voice startled him, nearly setting him back on his heels. He instinctively gathered the quilt a little closer as he stood up and turned around. He realized he was probably being foolish, because after all, she was the one who…and she had already…but he blushed nonetheless.
She smiled. “It’s good to see you up. How are you feeling?”
“Fine.” He stared at her. She was petite, not much over five feet tall, probably no more than a hundred pounds. She couldn’t have pulled him from the water, so there must have been someone else. But she was the woman who spoke to him before.
“Your appetite seems healthy,” she said, picking up the empty plate.
He was further embarrassed that he had forgotten his manners. “Forgive me,” he apologized. “Yes, thank you. It was very good. I’m just a little confused.”
“You thought I was someone else.”
He nodded. “How did you know?”
“You talk in your sleep, Adam Cartwright.” .
She knew his name. He supposed he must have told her, though he did not remember. “Well, you seem to have me at a disadvantage.”
“In more ways than one, I think.” She eyed the quilt around his waist in amusement as she brushed past him.
He felt himself redden again.
“Here, I’m sure you’ll feel more like yourself when you put these on.” She handed him his clothes with a sympathetic smile.
The warmth he found in her eyes dispelled his self-consciousness. He smiled. “Thank you…” He still didn’t know her name.
“Celeste,” she said over her shoulder. “You’re welcome.”
His clothes were completely dry, not a trace of dampness anywhere. But just moments ago… “How did…?” He looked up but she was gone again.
Adam stared up at the sky. There were no stars, no moon, no light at all beyond the campfire circle. He had no idea where he was, for any landmarks he might have been able to distinguish were lost to the darkness. He reasoned he couldn’t be far from the river, but when he strained his ears, no sounds came; none. And nothing moved. He had never known a night so empty.
He slept again, and this time when he woke she was there. He watched her as she stirred the fire, coaxing the dying embers back to life. He decided she was probably younger than he first imagined; in the fire’s glow, her face seemed almost childlike, soft and unlined. Her chestnut hair hung in loose waves to her shoulders, tucked behind one ear, and the eyes he thought were brown appeared in the light to be blue. So far, all she had told him was her name. He didn’t know where she came from or how she happened to be out here alone, but he knew she was no ordinary mountain girl.
“Celeste.” It was an unusual name, lovely, almost lyrical.
She smiled, a smile so intimately familiar he had a sense of remembering something he couldn’t possibly know. Déjà vu, the French called it.
“You have questions,” she said, dropping down beside him.
He had a lot of them. “How did you pull me from the river? You couldn’t have done it alone, so there must be others but I haven’t seen or heard anyone else since I’ve been here, and I don’t even know where ‘here’ is…what is this place?”
“I did have help pulling you from the river, and ‘here’ is not really a place, at least not one you’ll find on any map.”
Her answer was not what he expected. He was in the middle of somewhere/nowhere, in the black of night with a strange/ familiar girl who talked in riddles. I must be dreaming…or crazy…or…. His fingers closed around her arm. “You are real.”
“Absolutely, and you’re not crazy.”
He was sure he didn’t say that part aloud – was she a mind reader too? “I don’t understand any of this, but I know you somehow.” It wasn’t just her smile; he had looked into those deep-water eyes before. “We have met, somewhere else – haven’t we?”
He studied her face, trying to recall where and when. He had a feeling it must have been a long time ago. “I’m sorry. I know I should remember, but I can’t. Tell me.”
“I’m afraid you wouldn’t believe me.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because some truths can’t be told; they have to be discovered. And sometimes remembering is forgetting.”
She was talking in riddles again. Maybe she was the crazy one. His affinity for this unusual stranger edged toward frustration, and he frowned.
Her laughter surprised him. “Don’t be angry, Adam.”
“I’m not angry, I’m confused. It was a simple question – why couldn’t you just give me a simple answer?”
“All questions are simple. It’s the answers that most people have trouble with.”
“There you go again. Woman, would you please make sense?”
“That’s the problem with people like you, Adam. You want a rational explanation for everything. You’re blessed with a brilliant mind, but sometimes your thinking gets in the way of your seeing.”
“How would you know that or anything else about me?”
She smiled. “Patience; you’ll know everything in time. First, let me say it’s never wrong to question something, but you should be prepared to accept the answer even if it doesn’t fit your expectations. Only a small part of this world is discerned through the five senses, the ones you rely on almost exclusively. Some people think it’s irrational to believe in something they can’t see, but just because they can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Perceptions are not necessarily truths. In fact, perceptions can blind a person.” She paused. “The first step toward true vision is forgetting what you think you know. The answer you’re looking for is not here,” she said, tapping his forehead, “it’s here.” She placed her hand on his chest.
“There are some things only the heart knows, Adam. A child can see them clearly. When I look at you I see a man, but I feel the heart of a boy. A boy who needed so much yet asked for so little; a boy who took on a man’s burden too soon, hiding his tears in the dark so his father wouldn’t see; a boy who wandered too far away from the wagon train one night….”
His heart beat beneath her hand, and he saw himself in her eyes as she spoke. Five years old, lost in the woods on one of the blackest nights he had ever known, huddled at the base of an oak tree, shivering and crying. That was where Pa and the others found him the next morning – without so much as a scratch on him. It was miracle, they all said, that the wolves hadn’t gotten him. Mr. Mahan had a killed a big one the night before, and Adam had heard the pack. At first, he had been terrified, but for some reason he had stopped being afraid, and he had fallen asleep without feeling the cold.
Now he knew why.
Sleep, little one…all is well.
“It was you,” he whispered. “I dreamed about you so many times after that night I convinced myself that’s all you were, just a dream. I didn’t believe you were real.”
“Oh, but you did.” Her smile was tender. “Your mind may have dismissed me, but your heart always knew; and that’s why you recognized me. That night in the woods wasn’t the first time you saw me. Now that I have the chance, there’s something else I want to tell you.”
She took his hands, and the warmth of her touch spread through his entire body. “I was with your mother the day you were born. She prayed for an angel to guard the son she knew she would not be able to raise herself. I peeked over her shoulder as she cradled you in her arms, and you looked up at both of us and smiled. You’ve been mine ever since.”
He wept for reasons he could not fathom as she cradled his head in her lap, stroking his hair and consoling him as she did that dark night so many years ago. He slept again, until she nudged him. “It’s time.”
One question remained, though he didn’t fear the answer. “Am I dead?”
She looked amused. “No, though Jeremiah said it would serve you right, chasing after that silly hat. He was kidding, of course. Still, you really should be more careful, Adam.”
“Someone who has been around a lot longer than I have.”
“And how long would that be?”
The corners of her mouth turned up. “Oh, let’s just say a lot longer than you and leave it at that.” She paused, as though listening for something. “It’s time for you to go back.”
“Come with me.” It was more a wish than a request, because he already knew the answer.
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way. When you need me, I’ll be there.”
“Will I remember this time?”
“I can’t say.” She tilted her face toward his, her smile wistful. “I can tell you this. You may not consciously remember, but no one who looks into the eyes of an angel ever completely forgets. So the next time you get the feeling you’ve met someone before, perhaps you have.”
Her lips brushed his; he felt her warmth all around him and within him, lifting him until he floated once more in a sea of light.
A hum and a murmur became a man’s voice. “That’s it. Come on back, boy.”
Adam squinted up at the weathered face leaning over him.
The man’s grizzled features creased into a smile. “Well, glad you could join us, friend. Think you can sit up and take some supper?”
Adam sat up, noting the blanket draped over him. “Where are my clothes?”
“They’re still pretty full of the river, I reckon, though we got most of it out of you. Son, you were near drowned when we found you.”
“Yeah, the last thing I remember was getting caught in the rapids.” Adam rubbed his head.
“Well, you were snagged in some brush when we came up on you. Lucky for you; a few more feet and you would’ve been a goner.”
“I thought I was.” He extended his hand to the stranger. “I’m very grateful to you for your help. My name’s Adam Cartwright.”
“Jem Smith.” He glanced up at a young girl approaching with a plate of stew. “This here’s my niece, Mary.”
“Thank you,” said Adam, accepting the plate from her. Pretty, he thought. Nice smile. The stew smelled delicious and he was hungry, but he didn’t want to be impolite. “Aren’t you going to eat?” he asked as she sat down across from him.
“We’ve already eaten.” She inclined her head toward the man’s back as he walked away. “He’s a dear, but he gets a little impatient sometimes. He doesn’t like to stand around waiting.”
“I guess I’ve probably held you two up today. I’m sorry.”
“No need to be. We’re not in that much of a hurry.”
“So where are you headed?” He asked between mouthfuls.
She shrugged, “Wherever the wind blows. I never know until we get there.”
It seemed like an odd life for a young girl. “What does your uncle do?”
“A little of this, a little of that. Enough to get us by until it’s time to move on. Since it’s just the two of us, we don’t need much.” She smiled, tucking a stray curl behind her ear.
It was pleasant, just listening to her talk. He decided she must be older than she looked. Suddenly he became aware that she was very attractive and he was wearing nothing but a blanket. She, however, seemed completely at ease, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. He was grateful when Jem brought him a shirt and trousers.
Jem nodded. “Wouldn’t want you to catch cold out here tonight. Better get to bed, Mary C. We got a long day tomorrow.”
Adam handed her the empty plate. “Thank you for the food, and for your company. I enjoyed both very much.”
She smiled. “You’re welcome. Sleep well.”
“Wait,” he called after her. “Mary what—what does the ‘C’ stand for?”
She hesitated for a moment before answering. “Christmas.”
“Mary Christmas. You’re joking, right?”
She smiled. “Good night, Adam Cartwright.”
Adam slept soundly and woke the next morning feeling like a new man. He supposed there was nothing like a brush with death to make a person appreciate life. He certainly had a lot to be thankful for, not the least of which was the kindness of the two strangers who had rescued him. Not only had they saved his life, Jem had also tracked down his horse. Adam patted Sport’s neck as the gelding nuzzled him. “I guess we ought to be heading for home, huh boy? Pa will worry if we’re not back by tonight.”
He shook Jem’s hand. “I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done for me. I wish there was some way I could repay you.” The old man had already refused his offer of money, even though Adam felt sure he could use it.
“No need,” said Jem, grinning. “Just pass it on, friend.”
Adam smiled. “I’ll be sure and do that. If you’re ever near Virginia City, I hope you’ll stop at the Ponderosa. You’ll always be welcome.”
Mary handed him a small bundle. “Bread for your journey.”
“Don’t you have somethin’ else for Mr. Cartwright?” asked Jem.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” she said. “I’ll get it.”
She returned with a mischievous grin, holding something behind her back.
“What have you got there?” Adam asked. His eyes widened when she handed it to him. “I can’t believe you found it!”
“That’s a mighty fine hat, son,” said Jem. “I’d hang on to it if I were you. I figure it’s worth a lot more now than when you bought it, considerin’ what it nearly cost you to get it back.”
Adam fingered the battered brim, a solemn reminder of his narrow escape.
“You really should be more careful,” said Mary.
He cleared his throat, nodding in sheepish agreement.
There was a moment when she smiled that something flickered in his mind, like a shadow from a half-remembered dream. And then it was gone.
He put on his hat and gathered Sport’s reins. “You never did tell me. What does the ‘C’ really stand for?”
“Celeste…” Adam repeated. “That’s a name you don’t hear every day. It’s lovely, very poetic.”
Her blue eyes crinkled. “It’s a family name.”
“Well, goodbye Mary Celeste.” He hoisted himself into the saddle and leaned over to smile down at her. “I do hope I see you again someday.”
The smile she returned was more than youthful beauty or a woman’s charm; it was everything that was good and right about the world, and he took it with him as he rode away.
He paused at the top of the ridge to look back at the river. Yesterday seemed like a lifetime ago. In a way, he supposed it was. He had sense enough to know that he wouldn’t be here if Jem and Mary hadn’t come along at just the right time. What were the odds of that happening?
Funny though, he didn’t remember mentioning anything about the hat….
Joe would get a kick out of that story. It would be worth telling, Adam decided, just to hear him whoop and holler.
He nudged Sport forward. There was no need to rush; even at a comfortable pace, they would make it back to the ranch in plenty of time for supper. The sun was shining, it was a beautiful day, and he intended to savor every minute, all the way home.