Summary: Myth or reality?
Word Count: 1754
The clock was striking 9 pm as the front door to the Ponderosa ranch house opened. Ben Cartwright tried to mask the relief he felt as he looked up from the book he was reading while seated in his favorite red chair near the fireplace.
“Sorry I’m so late, Pa,” called Joe Cartwright as he began to unbuckle his gunbelt. “After I delivered the horses to the Hendersons, they insisted that I stay for supper.”
Hoss Cartwright suddenly looked up from the checkers board he had been studying carefully. “Did Mrs. Henderson give you some of her apple pie?” he asked a bit wistfully from his seat in the far corner of the settee.
“And some of the good cornbread she always makes?” added Adam Cartwright, who sat across the checkers board in the blue chair near the stairs.
“Both,” reported Joe with a smile. “Why do you think I accepted the invitation for supper?” He placed his hat and jacket on the pegs near the front door and walked over to join the rest of his family.
“I wasn’t worried,” Ben told his youngest son, lying only a little bit. “There’s a full moon tonight so I knew you could see the trail.”
“Speaking of full moons,” said Joe as he eased himself down on the settee in the corner opposite from Hoss, “you’ll never guess who I saw tonight. The Runaway Bride.”
“What!” exclaimed Hoss. “You mean you saw her for sure?”
“I sure did,” Joe answered soberly but his lips twitched as he tried not to smile. “She was riding across the top of Hawkins Ridge. I saw her plain as day, silhouetted against the full moon, long dress draped across the back of her horse and veil flying out behind her as she galloped across the ridge.”
“You don’t really believe that story, do you?” Adam asked incredulously.
“Well, Molly Anderson did disappear on her wedding day to avoid having to marry old Joe Ferguson like her family wanted. No one has seen her since, except when she rides on the night of a full moon,” replied Joe. “They said she died trying to get away and now when the moon is full, she tries to make her escape again.”
“People have been seeing things in the moon for centuries,” Adam observed. “The dark spots on the moon have given rise to stories about ancient messages, omens and mythical animals. Where do you think we get the phrase ‘the man in the moon’.”
“Yeah, well, dark spots don’t move,” countered Joe. “What I saw rode across the ridge and then disappeared. It sure looked like some kind of ghost to me. Who else could it be than the Runaway Bride?” Joe turned his head a bit to take a peek at Hoss’ face. His brother was staring at him with an almost stunned look on his face. Joe struggled to keep a straight face.
“That’s a lot of hogwash,” insisted Ben. “Molly Anderson is probably settled in some town with a husband and family. The only people who see her riding at night are drunken cow hands.” Ben put his hand up to stop the protest forming on Joe’s slip. “Or someone so tired from a long day in the saddle that his imagination has gotten the better of him.”
“You’re probably right,” admitted Joe, finally breaking into a grin. “But I did see someone riding across Hawkins Ridge and it sure looked like a woman. Wonder who she was?”
The next morning, Hoss and Joe drove the buckboard into Virginia City, intending to pick up supplies and the mail. They were surprised to find the town in an uproar, with knots of people standing on the street talking in urgent tones and men shouting to each other to get their horses.
“What the heck?” said Hoss in a puzzled voice. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know, but I intend to find out,” replied Joe. He jumped from the seat of the buckboard and hurried over to where three men were standing together, talking animatedly. “Hey, Charlie, what’s going on?” Joe called to one of the men.
Charlie turned and shouted back, “Joe! Glad you’re here. You can join the search party.”
“Search party? Who’s missing?” Joe inquired.
“Cindy Fuller,” answered Charlie. “She was supposed to meet Andy at the church last night to go over their wedding plans but she never showed up. No one has seen her since yesterday afternoon.”
“Another runaway bride?” Joe stated in astonishment. “What’s going on in this town that none of the women want to get married?”
“This ain’t nothing like that,” insisted Charlie. “Cindy and Andy, they wanted to get married. We figure something must have happened to Cindy. That’s why we’re organizing search parties.”
By now, Hoss had pulled the buckboard to a stop in front of the general store and then hurried over to join his brother. When Hoss repeated Joe’s question about what was going on and heard Charlie’s explanation, his eyes opened in surprise. “Cindy? That cute little gal that works in the dress stop? I thought she was seeing Jimmy Williams.”
“She was,” answered Charlie, “but they broke up a couple of months ago. Andy stepped in and swooped her off her feet, I guess. They’re planning to get married at the end of the month.”
As Joe listened to exchange between Hoss and Charlie, his brow furrowed. He was sure he had seen a woman riding across Hawkins Ridge last night. Could that have been Cindy? He suddenly turned to his brother. “Listen, Hoss. You pick up the supplies and the mail. I’m going to get a horse down at the livery stable and go looking for Cindy.”
“All right,” Hoss agreed. “But where are you going to look?”
“I just want to check something out,” Joe replied vaguely. “It may be nothing. I’ll see you at home later.”
As Joe rode slowly across the top of Hawkins Ridge, he kept his eyes cast down, looking for tracks among the soft grass and mud. He finally spotted some hoof prints and began to follow them. It wasn’t long before the trail led him to a dilapidated shack nestled among the trees on the far side of the ridge. When he got closer to the shack, he could see a bay horse tied to nearby tree.
Joe dismounted and tied his horse next to the bay. Then he walked slowly to the shack and rapped on the door.
“Go away!” shouted a voice from inside. It was definitely a woman’s voice.
“Cindy, it’s Joe Cartwright. I’m coming in,” Joe called. He pushed the door open.
Inside the shack, Cindy was sitting on a bed which looked like it could barely hold her weight. Her rumbled blue dress and the blankets pile in the corner showed she had slept on the decrepit bed last night. It crossed Joe’s mind briefly that her long brown hair hanging loosely from her head resembled a veil around her face.
Cindy’s face was in her hands, and when she lifted her head to look at Joe, her red-rimmed eyes clearly showed she had been crying.“Go away, Joe,” she repeated.
“Not until you tell me what’s going on,” Joe answered. “Everyone in Virginia City is looking for you. They think you’re lost or been kidnapped or worse.”
“I’m sorry about that,” Cindy stated regretfully. “I didn’t mean to cause any trouble. I just had to get away.”
“Why?” asked Joe curiously.
“Because I don’t know what to do!” howled Cindy. She took a deep breath to compose herself and then continued. “I was all set to marry Andy, but when I started walking over to the church, I suddenly got this feeling that everything was wrong, all wrong.”
“Do you love Andy?” Joe asked quietly.
“Yes. No. I don’t know,” Cindy answered with a sniff. “Andy is smart, and he’s kind, and he says he loves me. But…”
“But what?” prompted Joe.
“But he’s not Jimmy!” wailed Cindy. She burst into tears once more.
Joe waited a minute, letting Cindy shed her tears, before saying in a soft voice, “Cindy, you can’t marry a man while you’re still carrying a flame for someone else. That’s not fair to him or to you.”
“I know,” Cindy acknowledged in a low voice. “I like Andy, I like him a lot. I don’t want to hurt him. But I don’t think I can marry him.”
“Then you have to tell him that,” Joe insisted. “He’ll be hurt for awhile but he’ll get over it. That’s better for him — and for you — than going through with a marriage to someone you don’t really love.”
“Yes, I know,” Cindy said meekly. She took a deep breath and seemed to come to some decision. “I need to tell Andy I can’t marry him.” She bit her lip a bit and then looked up at the youngest Cartwright. “Joe, will you ride back to Virginia City with me? I could use a little support. My conversation with Andy, well, it’s not going to be a pleasant one.”
“Sure,” Joe agreed. He held out his hand to help Cindy get to her feet.
As the two left the cabin and started toward their horses, Cindy suddenly stopped. “How did you find me, Joe?” she asked curiously. “I didn’t think anyone knew where I had gone.”
“I saw you riding across Hawkins Ridge last night,” Joe explained. “You were outlined by the full moon as you crossed the ridge.”
“Last night?” echoed Cindy in a puzzled voice. “I wasn’t on the ridge last night. I left town yesterday afternoon. It was still daylight when I crossed the ridge.”
For a moment, Joe just stared at Cindy and said nothing. Then he shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe it was just my imagination. I thought I saw you and came out here looking for you. I guess it was just luck that I stumbled across your tracks.”
Cindy nodded, apparently satisfied with Joe’s explanation. But as she started toward the horses, Joe stayed in place. He turned to look to the top of the ridge, seeking some clue which would explain what he had seen last night. But the ridge was almost bare, with only a few shrubs poking intermittently out of the ground.
“I guess runaway brides have to stick together,” Joe muttered, shaking his head as he walked forward to join Cindy.