Synopsis: Traveling alone late at night, Joe encounters a young girl lost.
Genre: Western, Drama
Word Count: 4,830
The moon peaked out from behind the clouds for only a few minutes – just long enough to light the trail in front of Joe Cartwright. Not that Joe needed the light to find his way. He had made the trip from Black River, a town on the Nevada border, to the Ponderosa, his family’s ranch, more times than he could count. Joe could find his way home on any darkened night, as could the faithful pinto on which he was riding.
Nevertheless, Joe was grateful for the few minutes of illumination. Maybe it was the cloudy sky of late October, or perhaps because the hour was approaching midnight, but for whatever reason, the night seemed ominously dark. For at least the tenth time, Joe wondered if he would have been smarter to stay in Black River and head for home in the morning. He had been late departing the town. After delivering the signed contracts to the timber mill, he should have left for home right away. But, as usual, Joe had found a reason to linger in the town. This time it was a Halloween party hosted by the town banker. Joe had told himself he was merely building some good will with the banker by staying at the party, but he knew in his heart that the spicy punch, pretty girls and dancing had kept him at banker’s house long past the time when he was suppose to have left for home.
The wind blew hard in the trees, rustling branches and sending what sounded like a sigh into the night sky. Joe pulled his jacket a bit tighter around him, wondering if a storm was brewing. The moon ducked behind the clouds again, and the night once more enveloped the land around him.
Peering into the dark, Joe chided himself for his nervousness. There was nothing on the trail he hadn’t seen a hundred times, nothing to cause the feeling of uneasiness that seemed to be growing inside him. The only real worry he had was how to explain to his father – who had expected him home by midnight – why once again he was late.
As Joe came to the fork in the road, he pulled his pinto to a halt and considered his options. If he went to the left, he would follow the trail through the hills. That trail was a bit more difficult and certainly a harder ride on a dark night, but it would get him home sooner. The trail to the right led to what was called the Mill Road, an easier but longer trail leading back to the Ponderosa. Briefly, Joe wondered why people called the trail the Mill Road, since there was no structure even resembling a mill on it. It was simply a flat trail that wound itself around Bald Mountain toward Virginia City and the Ponderosa.
Once more, the full moon of the October night forced its way from behind the clouds, brightly lighting the two trails before Joe. He sat for another minute, still pondering his choices. Finally making a decision, he turned his horse a bit to the right, aiming the pinto toward the Mill Road.
Just as Joe turned his horse, the sky went black again. The wind began to blow, and the rumble of thunder could be heard. A flash of lightning cut jagged across the sky, followed by the loud crash. In the brief light caused by the lightning, Joe saw a white figure dashing out of the woods.
The sudden movement caused the pinto to rear a bit, and Joe spent a few moments bringing the horse back under control. When the pinto had settled down, Joe turned to look at the figure, and was astonished to see a girl standing on the trail to his left.
Dressed in a long white dress, the girl appeared to be about 18 years old. Her long blonde hair hung down past her shoulders, the palest blonde hair Joe had ever seen. A chain of wild flowers hung around her neck, a colorful contrast to the almost pristine white of her dress. The girl looked anxious, both in the sense of being worried as well as eager to draw Joe’s attention. The air around her had become suddenly still and the moon began to shine brightly once more, as if the girl’s appearance had quieted the approaching storm.
“Where the heck did you come from?” Joe asked in surprise.
“I’m sorry,” replied the girl. “I didn’t mean to frighten your horse like that, but I wanted to catch you before you rode down the trail.”
“What are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of the night?” inquired Joe, more curious than alarmed.
“I’m lost,” admitted the girl. “I was picking mushrooms, and somehow, I got turned around. Then it got dark and I couldn’t find my way home.” Her lips quivered and her eyes seemed to be filling with tears.
“Hey, it’s all right,” said Joe in a comforting voice. “I’ll help you.” He dropped his reins so that the well-trained pinto would stand its ground, then climbed down off the horse. Walking over to the girl, Joe asked, “Where’s home?”
“My father and I have a cabin up on Hellfire Creek, ” replied the girl.
“Hellfire Creek?” Joe repeated with a frown. He knew the area, and he couldn’t remember seeing anything up there except an abandoned cabin. “I didn’t know anyone lived up there.”
“My father and I haven’t been here very long,” the girl explained. “He only built the cabin a few weeks ago. He’s a miner, and he’s looking for silver. He thinks there might be a vein near the creek.”
“He might be right,” advised Joe cautiously. “I’ve heard of people looking for silver up there, although I don’t think anyone found anything.”
“Maybe we’ll be the lucky ones then,” said the girl. “Maybe we’ll strike it rich on Hellfire Creek.” The girl gave Joe a rueful look. “Not a very polite name for a place but if my father finds silver there, I don’t suppose anyone will mind the name.”
The sky darkened as the moon began to sink behind the clouds. The wind began to blow again, and the sound of distant thunder rumbled through the night. The girl looked around fearfully. “There’s a storm coming,” she commented in a worried voice. “I have to get home.” She looked toward the woods from which she had appeared. “Is that the way I should go?” she asked.
“Into the woods?” said Joe. “That’s the wrong way. It will take you way from Hellfire Creek. Besides, once you get inside those woods on a night like this, you’ll never find your way out.”
“I suppose you’re right, ” agreed the girl in a tentative voice. She looked around again. “I really am lost. We haven’t been here long, but I thought I knew the way home. It all looks so different in the dark.”
“Don’t worry,” Joe replied in a confident voice. “I know the way. I’ll be happy to take you home, Ms…”
“Kathleen,” supplied the girl. “Kathleen O’Connell.”
“Joe Cartwright,” said Joe, introducing himself.
“I’m very pleased to meet you, Joe,” replied Kathleen with a smile. “Very pleased.” She bit her lip a bit and added hesitantly, “Would you mind showing me the way to Hellfire Creek?”
“I don’t mind at all,” Joe assured her. “In fact, I’ll give you a ride home. That trail through the hills takes me back to the ranch, and Hellfire Creek is just a little ways off the trail.” He smiled at the girl. “I’ll take you home again, Kathleen,” he quipped, quoting the line from an old Irish ballad.
Kathleen laughed, the sound an almost delicate tinkling in the air.
“You have a nice laugh,” Joe commented with a smile.
Lowering her eyes a bit, Kathleen said shyly, “And you have a nice smile.”
The trees began to rustle as the wind started blowing again, and the rumbling thunder seemed closer than before. Joe’s horse snorted and pawed the ground nervously.
“We’d better get moving,” Joe stated. “That storm is really coming up.” He made an exaggerated bow and pointed his hand toward his pinto. “Your steed awaits you, madam,” he added in an overly polite voice.
Kathleen giggled and curtsied, pulling her dress a bit as she dipped. “Thank you, kind sir,” she said in reply.
As Kathleen walked toward the horse, Joe studied her. He had never seen anyone so pale. Her blonde hair was so fair that it barely showed the color. The skin on her arms was so white that it was difficult to tell where the white dress ended and her flesh began. The only bit of color on the girl was the wreath of wild flowers hung around her neck.
When Kathleen reached the pinto, she turned toward Joe with an expectant look. Joe hurried over to help the girl on to the horse. He quickly decided she was not the type to ride astride, and lifted Kathleen so she would sit on the back of the horse with her legs dangling to the side. To Joe, Kathleen felt as light as a feather, almost as if he was lifting nothing. As he lifted her, Kathleen smiled down at Joe, giving him a warm look. He smiled back, and any curious thoughts he had melted away.
Climbing up into the saddle, Joe said over his shoulder, “You’d better hang on to my waist so you don’t fall.” Kathleen nodded and put her arms around Joe. He could barely feel her touch.
Giving his horse a light kick, Joe started up the trail toward the hills. He glanced over his shoulder again, and smiled. “Your necklace of flowers is very pretty.”
“Thank you,” answered Kathleen, giving Joe a warm smile in return. “I love making necklaces and crowns from flowers. I like to think that God put them here so people like me who can’t afford jewelry can have something beautiful. I know it sounds kind of silly, but I like to call the flowers ‘nature’s jewels’.”
“I don’t think it sounds silly at all,” said Joe.
The pair rode in silence for several minutes, a contented quiet in which both felt at ease. Joe couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so instantly comfortable with a girl. He didn’t feel the need to try to impress her or to charm her to him as he usually did when he met a girl who attracted him.
Once more, the wind began to blow and Joe could feel the cool air. He also felt Kathleen shiver slightly behind him. “Are you cold?” he asked, turning toward the back of his horse.
“A little,” Kathleen admitted. “I was sick last winter and I guess I haven’t fully recovered.” She shivered again.
“Here, take my jacket,” Joe offered, pulling his horse to a stop. He began to shrug his arms out of the green jacket he was wearing.
“No, I couldn’t do that,” protested Kathleen. “If it storms, you’ll get wet.”
“I’ve got a poncho under the back of my saddle,” Joe told the girl. “I’ll be fine. Now, please, take the jacket.”
“Well, if you’re sure,” Kathleen said in an uncertain voice.
“I’m sure,” stated Joe firmly. He handed the jacket back to Kathleen, who slipped the green coat over her shoulders.
“Thank you,” Kathleen accepted with a grateful smile. “I feel warmer already.” She put her arms around Joe again, and this time, Joe seemed to feel the warmth of her body, as if Kathleen were snuggling closer to him. He turned forward, hiding the look of pleasure on his face. Then he kicked his horse lightly, and the pinto started up the trail again.
It seemed to Joe that they had been riding all too short a time when Kathleen cried, “There’s the path! Home is at the top of that path.”
Pulling his horse to a stop, Joe asked, “Are you sure? I wouldn’t want you to get lost.”
“I’m sure,” answered Kathleen, with a smile. She quickly slid from the back of the pinto to the ground. “I can find my way home now.”
“Do you want me to go with you?” offered Joe with a mixture of concern as well as disappointment that Kathleen seemed so eager to leave.
“No, it’s not necessary,” replied the girl. “All I have to do is go to the top of the path and I’m home.” Kathleen gave Joe a warm smile. “Thank you for bringing me home, Joe. My father will be pleased. Patrick O’Connell likes to have his debts paid.”
Joe frowned a bit, not certain what Kathleen meant. “Kathleen…” he began in a hesitant voice.
“Thank you, Joe,” Kathleen said, interrupting him. She turned and began walking quickly up the path.
“Wait!” Joe shouted. Suddenly, the wind began to blow harder, and the thunder rumbled. Lightning cracked across the sky, and the thunder answered with several loud booms. Joe’s horse reared and pranced, frightened by the noise and flashes. Joe pulled hard on the reins, and fought to bring the pinto under control. When the horse finally calmed down, Joe looked toward the path.
It was empty.
Sitting on his pinto, Joe chewed his lip a bit, wondering if he should follow Kathleen. He liked her — liked her a lot — and felt disappointed that she had left him so quickly. He knew the hour was late, and that he should be heading toward home. Kathleen had seemed anxious to get home also. But Joe was reluctant to have his time with the girl end so soon.
Then Joe realized Kathleen had been still wearing his jacket when she hurried up the trail. He smiled to himself. He would return tomorrow to retrieve the jacket; it would give him an excuse to see Kathleen again. With a brief nod of satisfaction, Joe kicked his horse lightly and started toward home.
Joe hadn’t traveled very far from the path when the storm finally broke. The rain fell lightly for a minute, then began pouring from the sky in sheets of water. Joe pulled the poncho from under his saddle and quickly slipped it over his head. It offered some protection but not much. Water was streaming down the brim of his hat and flowing off his shoulders. His shirt and pants quickly became soaked.
Riding on grimly through the storm, Joe was thankful that he was on a familiar trail. The rain was falling so hard that Joe could barely see. Puddles were forming on the ground as the water fell too fast for the earth to absorb it. Joe guided his pinto through the storm with a sure hand, however. He knew his way home even in the dark of the midnight storm. As he rode, though, Joe’s mind was filled with thoughts of Kathleen. He hoped she had made it home before the storm broke, and even more, hoped she would allow him to visit her again.
By the time Joe rode into the yard of the Ponderosa ranch house, the storm was easing. The rain had slowed to a drizzle and the dark clouds were breaking into patches. Joe rode straight to the barn, and spent the next few minutes unsaddling and drying his pinto. Despite the fact that he was cold and wet, Joe knew tending to his horse had to be his first concern. It was a lesson his father had taught him long ago.
Once he was satisfied that his pinto was comfortable settled in the stall, Joe stretched and yawned. He was tired, as well as wet and cold. He could think of nothing better than a night’s sleep in a warm bed. A small smile crossed Joe’s face. He knew this was one night when he was sure to have sweet dreams.
Walking quickly through the rain, Joe headed from the barn to the ranch house. As he pushed opened the front door, he was surprised to see the front room brightly lit and his father sitting by the fire in his favorite red chair.
“Hi, Pa, I’m home!” Joe greeted Ben Cartwright. Joe glanced at the tall clock near the door. “You’re up pretty late.”
“Joe! Glad you’re home, son,” replied Ben, trying to keep the relief out of his voice. He had an uneasy feeling all evening, and when the storm had hit, his apprehension had grown. Ben knew Joe was a grown man – well, at 22, perhaps a grown boy – but still he had anxiously waited for his son to return home.
“You didn’t have to wait up for me,” Joe commented. He took off his hat and hung it on the peg by the door. “I can take care of myself, ” continued Joe as he slipped off the poncho and hung on another peg.
“I know you can,” said Ben, with a small smile. “But it is late, and that storm was pretty fierce. It’s a father’s prerogative to worry, you know.”
“I know,” Joe answered, a smile on his face also. “I’m sorry I’m so late. I got …delayed.” For some reason, Joe was reluctant to mention his meeting with Kathleen. He felt as if talking about her would somehow cause the warm memory to melt away.
“Did you have any trouble with those contracts in Black River?” asked Ben.
“Nope, everything were fine,” Joe answered. He yawned. “I’ll tell you all about it in the morning. Right now, all I want to do is shed these wet clothes and crawl into a warm bed.”
Nodding his understanding, Ben said, “You must be tired. Why don’t you head on up to bed.”
“Aren’t you coming up?” asked Joe, a bit surprised that his father seemed to be settling comfortably in his chair.
“I’ll be up in a minute,” replied Ben. He wanted a few moments to himself, in order to say a silent thank you to all the heavenly entities he had been bombarding with requests to watch over his youngest son. As Joe crossed the living room and started up the stairs, Ben looked up and added, “Pleasant dreams, son.”
Stopping for a minute, Joe turned to his father and smiled. “The pleasantest of dreams, I hope,” he answered a bit mysteriously. Then Joe turned and bounded up the stairs.
The sun was up by the time Joe slowly descended the stairs for breakfast the next morning. He knew he was later than usual in getting up, but he had been reluctant to leave his warm bed, as well as to let go of the dreams he had had of a girl in a white dress with blonde hair.
His father and brothers were already finishing their breakfast when Joe slipped into his chair at the table. “Morning,” mumbled Joe as he reached for the coffee pot.
“Nice of you to join us,” commented Adam Cartwright. “We thought you might have decided to sleep until noon.”
“Well, I thought about it,” admitted Joe as he began to sip the coffee he had poured into his cup. “I got home from Black River pretty late last night.”
“If you took the Mill Road from Black River, you’re lucky you got home at all,” noted Hoss Cartwright from across the table. “Al Harrison rode by early this morning to tell us the Mill Road is blocked.”
“Blocked?” said Joe in surprise. “What happened?”
“Landslide,” replied Hoss. “The storm must have loosened the dirt on Bald Mountain. Al said it looked like half the mountain slid down onto the road.”
“What…what time did that happen?” asked Joe slowly, a funny feeling forming in the pit of his stomach.
“A little after midnight, according to Al,” Hoss answered. “He was riding back from his sister’s place and heard the noise. He rode over and took a look. Said the landslide covered the road and everything around it with about ten feet of mud.”
Holding his coffee cup in mid-air, Joe stared across the table at his brother, his mouth agape.
“Joe, what’s wrong?” asked Ben in concern as he noted the look on his youngest son’s face.
Turning his head slowly to look at his father, Joe explained, “I was going to take the Mill Road last night, but ended up taking the hill trail.” He swallowed hard. “If I had taken the Mill Road, I would have been riding past Bald Mountain just about when that landslide hit
“Good lord!” exclaimed Ben. His heart skipped a beat at the thought of how close his youngest son had come to being killed.
“You can thank your lucky stars you didn’t go that way, little brother, ” said Hoss, shaking his head. “From what Al said, it would have taken us a month to dig you out.”
“Yeah,” replied Joe, still a bit stunned. “It sure is lucky I took the trail through the hills.”
“What made you go that way?” asked Adam curiously. “I would have thought that you would have taken the Mill Road. It’s an easier ride, especially at night.”
Turning to Adam, Joe gave his brother a shaky grin. “I met a girl on the trail and gave her a ride home. She lived just off the hill trail.”
“You met a girl on the trail in the middle of the night?” Adam said, raising his eyebrows. “Even for you, that’s unusual.”
“She was lost,” explained Joe. “She got turned around in the dark and couldn’t find her way. I gave her a ride up to Hellfire Creek. That’s where she lives.”
“Hellfire Creek?” repeated Hoss in surprise. “Are you sure? I was up that way about a month ago. There wasn’t anybody living up there, Joe.”
“Well, there is now,” Joe replied. “Her name is Kathleen O’Connell. She said her father built a cabin on Hellfire Creek a few weeks ago.”
“Somebody was pulling your leg, Joe,” said Adam. “The only Kathleen O’Connell who lived on Hellfire Creek died about 15 years ago.”
“What!” exclaimed Joe in astonishment.
“You were just a little kid at the time,” Adam continued, “so you probably don’t remember. A girl named Kathleen O’Connell went looking for mushrooms one day and didn’t come home. Her father organized a search party, and Pa and I rode with them. In fact, Pa was the one who found her, isn’t that right?” Adam looked to his father for confirmation.
“That’s right,” acknowledged Ben, nodding. “I found her curled under a tree. She was dead when I found her. We figure she got confused when it got dark and went deeper into the woods instead of heading home. She might have been able to find her way home in the morning, but she didn’t survive the night.”
“She died after only one night in the woods?” asked Hoss in surprise. “You think she would have been able to last one night.”
“Well, evidently she had been sick the winter before,” answered Ben. “Scarlet fever or something like that. The doctor said her heart was probably weak as a result, and a night exposed to the elements was just too much for her.”
“Poor little gal,” said Hoss sympathetically.
“I remember when I brought her to her father,” continued Ben, looking off a bit as he recalled that day. “He was distraught, of course. But he was so grateful that I had found her and brought her body back. He kept saying he would pay me back one day for bringing his daughter home to him. He said he would like to bring one of my sons home to me, only alive and well.” Ben smiled a bit. “Luckily, O’Connell never had to go searching for one of you.”
“Whatever happened to the father?” asked Adam.
“Patrick O’Connell left Hellfire Creek about a year later,” Ben answered. “He never found any silver, and I guess the memories of his daughter’s death in those woods were too painful for him to stay around. I don’t know what happened to him after that.” Ben shook his head in regret. “Kathleen was such a pretty girl. I remember she had the palest blonde hair I have ever seen. When I found her, she was wearing a necklace of wild flowers. Her father said she loved flowers. She called them ‘nature’s jewels’, I think he said. She was still wearing that necklace of flowers when her father buried her at the top of the path leading to Hellfire Creek.”
Looking over toward Joe, Ben saw his youngest son was staring at him with a dumbfounded look on his face. “What’s the matter, Joe?” asked Ben with a frown. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
It was almost noon by the time Joe made it back to the path leading to Hellfire Creek. He had finished his breakfast in silence, not knowing what to say to his family about his meeting with the girl who called herself Kathleen O’Connell. Joe only knew that he had to return to Hellfire Creek right away. He had to see for himself what was there.
Riding slowly, Joe guided his horse up the path. His eyes were on the ground, looking for signs of footprints in the soft dirt. But the path was smooth, as if no one had walked on it in a long time.
When he reached the top of the path, Joe pulled his horse to a stop and looked around. To his left was the beginning of a thick woods, an area dense with trees and bushes. But the land near the creek was flat and clear of growth. He could see a long way in both directions. Joe urged his horse forward so he could take a better look.
Turning his head left and then right, Joe searched the area around Hellfire Creek with his eyes. The only thing he saw was an old cabin, obviously abandoned long ago. Holes dotted the roof of the small house, and the door was missing. Large gaps were visible between the log walls, the caulking having fallen out or disintegrated. His bewilderment growing, Joe rode over to the forsaken cabin.
Dismounting, Joe walked to the door of the cabin and looked in. The old building was empty. A thick layer of dust covered the floor, a coating that would have showed any sign of someone who had visited the cabin. But the dust covered the floor evenly, with no footprints or other marks disturbing it.
Shaking his head, Joe turned and mounted his horse. He guided the animal back to the path, still mystified by his encounter with the girl. Why had she said her name was Kathleen O’Connell, he wondered. And why had she lied to him about living up on Hellfire Creek? And if she didn’t live up on Hellfire Creek, where had she disappeared to when she left him? There was no place to go on the path up which she had run except to Hellfire Creek.
Joe also felt a keen sense of disappointment. He had felt a strong attraction toward the girl and was a bit hurt that she had chosen to play some kind of trick on him.
As Joe reached the beginning of the path, something in the edge of the woods caught his eye. Stopping his horse, Joe dismounted and walked over to take a closer look. As he reached the woods, Joe could see the area was covered with a thick layer of leaves and twigs. It was obvious that no one had walked through the woods in quite awhile. Joe moved closer to the object which had attracted his attention.
A wooden headstone, worn by age and weather, stood in a small clearing. Joe could barely make out the faded writing on the wood. He walked closer, and read the words:
Standing near the headstone, Joe thought again about the girl. He knew he hadn’t imagined what had happened. The girl he met was real – at least, he thought she was. He doubted that he could have dreamt up anyone with her unusual beauty and warm smile. But Kathleen O’Connell of Hellfire Creek had died 15 years ago. Joe wondered who the girl he had met really was.
Standing in the woods, Joe decided he would probably never know exactly who he had met on the trail last night. But he did know he always would be grateful to her. She had prevented him from taking the Mill Road. And that had probably saved his life.
As Joe turned to leave, he noticed something behind the headstone. He walked a few steps to see what it was. As he came around the headstone, Joe froze and stared incredulously at the object on the ground.
Folded neatly on the ground behind the headstone lay his green jacket.