Summary: WHB for Winter Kill. Returning from Montana, Ben, Hoss, and Joe witness a rare natural phenomenon.
Word Count: 1899
“So, what do you think, Pa?”
Ben Cartwright hid a smile. The question had been thick in the air since he, Hoss, and Joe had left Matt Canderson’s little spread in northeastern Montana nearly an hour ago. The only surprise, really, was that it had kept for this long. He wasn’t surprised which of his sons had finally broken. Joseph hadn’t nearly the patience of his larger brother—not even this more responsible, more mature version of his youngest son that had been slowly appearing over the past years.
He pulled Buck up and waited for Chubb and Cochise to circle back around. Truthfully, he still wasn’t sure what he thought … but they had to try something, and this seemed as logical as anything.
“Well, they all make a good case.” He turned and peered back the way they had come, although they could certainly no longer see anything of the ranch behind them.
“Yeah, but what do you think?”
Ben shrugged and nudged Buck into a walk. Hoss and Joe fell in on either side. “I think we can’t afford to keep losing stock to winter kill like we have, and neither can any of our neighbors.”
“You really think these Montana cattle will do it?”
“Well, they sure seem to survive the winters here well enough.” Hoss leaned forward to peer around Ben. “Better numbers all around than what we’ve been havin’. Seems like there’s sure gotta be somethin’ keepin’ them alive through the cold season.”
“They certainly seem hardy enough,” Ben agreed.
Joe wasn’t arguing, really. Ben suspected he was more tired than anything, and unable to work up much enthusiasm one way or the other right now for the potential project. They were all tired, after such a long trip and so many stops in so many corners of Montana, and in no good shape to be making decisions about anything that would affect the strains of their larger herd (and possibly those of their neighbors as well). It was why he’d insisted on making this a fact-finding mission only. If bringing in cattle from Montana to breed into their stock still seemed like the best alternative after they were home and rested, they could either go back next year or pay someone to bring some number of cows to them. Maybe he was being overcautious, given the distance and time involved … but there were other avenues to try, and ‘most expensive’ or ‘most effort involved’ didn’t always translate to ‘the best’.
“Well, we’ll talk about it more tonight, once we camp,” Ben finally offered. “I want to get some distance behind us yet today.”
They made good time for the next several hours—enough that Ben was torn when they topped a hill and found themselves looking at a nice little lake lying in the valley below. It wasn’t as late as he’d planned to travel (probably no more than three thirty), but the small body of water was clear and inviting, and Ben decided suddenly that they all deserved a little rest.
“Why don’t we stop there for tonight?”
His boys were surprised, but neither of them argued. They were as worn out as he, even without the extra thirty years added on. Joe squinted as they started down the hill.
“Is it getting a little dimmer out here?”
Ben frowned, peering around them. Everything looked the same to him—hot and sun-drenched. “I don’t see how it could be. There’s barely a cloud in the sky.”
Hoss snorted. “Maybe you’re just catchin’ up with your elders, little brother. Won’t be able to see any better than any of the rest of us before long.”
“Nah.” Joe cackled softly, nudging Cochise down the hill. “Can’t be that.”
By the time they reached the lake, however, it had become abundantly obvious that not only were Joe’s eyes not failing, but they were still far better than either his father’s or his brother’s. A murky … gloominess, for lack of a better word, was definitely settling across the land, visible to Ben and Hoss now as well. Ben dismounted at the near bank and patted Buck as the horse lowered his head to drink, peering uneasily around them.
“Storm coming in?”
“Pa,” Hoss protested, “you said it yourself. There ain’t a cloud out there.”
“Then what is it?” Joe snapped, stuffing his gloves in his saddlebags with unnecessary vigor. “It doesn’t just get dark while the sun’s out!”
Ben stilled Hoss’s comeback with a quick hand, determined to end the fight before it began. His sons were obviously feeling the same apprehension that had settled into his own gut, but wrangling over the obvious wouldn’t get them anywhere and would only put him into a bad mood. Hoss grumbled softly, but kept whatever he had to say to himself.
“We know that, Joseph. And yet …” Ben waved a hand at the land around them, and realized that he was forced to squint in order to see it clearly. It wasn’t dark … but it was like twilight under a full sun. Like he was peering through a darkened window pane.
Like the dull discoloration before the most severe of storms that they had experienced while traveling by wagon across the broad, flat plains so many years past, when hail and even tornadoes might strike with very little warning.
There were no clouds.
“Pa?” Hoss was squinting around them, blue eyes flickering uneasily between sky and land. “Ya think we should find shelter?”
Ben didn’t know what to think. This was something completely outside his experience …
“Is anybody else … a little cooler?”
Joe sounded tentative, as if he hated to bring one more unexplainable factor into play, but Ben had already noted the decreasing temperature for himself. Nothing drastic, but he was definitely not so hot as before, nor sweating as profusely. He shivered, though the action had nothing to do with the temperature around them, and gathered Buck’s reins.
“Yes, and yes.” He nodded across the lake. “There are trees on the other side. We’ll head over there.”
“How will that help?” Joe demanded. Ben ignored his youngest son’s tone. The boy didn’t mean anything by it. It was simply Joe’s way to grow angry when frightened. Ben couldn’t blame him—he was becoming uncomfortably close to frightened himself, as the laws of nature appeared to be bending around them. Of course, he would normally not tolerate such a tone directed at him … but now did not seem the time.
“I don’t know, but let’s go there all the same.” He leveled a glare over Buck’s back, cutting off whatever protest was on the tip of Joe’s tongue. The boy just didn’t always know when to stop … “Joseph, unless you have something constructive to say, keep it to yourself.”
His son’s jaw clenched, but the head of tangled hair nodded. “Sorry, Pa.” Joe gathered up the pinto’s reins, and tugged Cochise along after Chubb and Buck.
They were maybe halfway around when darkness fell.
It was sudden, not the gradual dimming of the past minutes. Cochise threw up his head, nickering, and Joe called out sharply. “Pa!” A flock of birds rose in a rush from the trees, their dark shapes seething across the water. The horizon and the lake itself glimmered with a pale light, as if reflecting earliest dawn.
Hoss this time. Ben turned sharply, and stared up into a solid black circle surrounded by glowing, hazy halo, and the confusion cleared in one brilliant, glorious rush.
He laughed aloud, feeling foolish. Anxiety swept away in a rush of giddy delight.
“An eclipse!” Ben seized Joe’s shoulder and shook hard. “Boys, it’s an eclipse of the sun!” He gaped into the sky and felt tears of awe well into his eyes, marveling at the shimmering white tendrils. Just to the right, the tiny point of a star shone in the late afternoon sky.
That he should see such a thing …
“That’s … what is that?” Hoss’s nose wrinkled as he thought. “The … the moon’s coverin’ the sun?”
Ben dropped Buck’s reins and reached for Hoss’s shoulder as well, thankful that his buckskin was more placid than the excitable pinto.
“Yes, exactly.” He eyed the darkened heavens, pointing out two more stars. “One of the older sailors on my first ship, when I was a cabin boy, saw a total eclipse near Philadelphia when he was very young–he didn’t remember many specifics, but he described the sun just as we see it here. I was terribly impressed with the story, but I never thought …”
Ben fell silent, drinking in the sight.
“Listen!” Joe whispered. “Is that … crickets?”
It was. The chirp of the night creatures was hesitant, confused, but there was no mistaking it.
“Boys, this is … this is something we won’t see again.”
Joe’s hand came up to grip his shoulder, and Hoss’s wide grin gleamed in the weird darkness. “Look at them birds, Pa. They still don’t know which end’s up.”
“Don’t think Cooch does, either,” Joe laughed, releasing Ben to pat his horse firmly, murmuring beneath his breath. The pinto snorted, clearly not appeased. Before Cochise could work himself up further, however, a shaft of searing light edged the white halo—and suddenly the darkness lifted, as quickly as it had come. Cochise snorted and shook his head, settling. The crickets stilled. The birds’ frantic circling slowed, and they began to settle back into the trees.
Ben stepped away from his sons, peering around them. “It seems so bright. I would imagine it’s no better now than it was right before it went dark …”
Hoss laughed, and rubbed Chubb’s dark neck briskly. “We know better now, though, right? Heck, it don’t look dim at all anymore. Good boy, Chubby.”
“We do at that.”
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands,* Ben thought with deep satisfaction. He patted Buck and whispered a few words of approval into the black-edged ears. Then he eyed the brightening lake and the blue sky, laughed, and pulled his horse back around.
“Well … I suppose we don’t need to hide in the trees anymore.”
Written to celebrate the 2017 total solar eclipse — two and a half of the coolest minutes I have ever experienced.
A total solar eclipse occurred in North America on August 7, 1869. It entered the United States near Simpson, Montana, and moved southeast. Given the timing of Winter Kill in the series (Season 12), I thought this might work out … 🙂
A total solar eclipse also occurred in North America on June 24, 1778, and could be seen near Philadelphia.
The lighting and temperature descriptions in this story come from our own observations during today’s eclipse. The animal observations (other than the horses, which I just kind of made up :-P) were adapted from the reports of a friend today, and from online descriptions of the 1869 eclipse.
I know that eclipses could be predicted at this time and before … but I don’t know how widespread that information might have been, or how likely people outside the path of totality (or ‘belt of obscuration’, as it was called in the 1800s) would be to know one was coming. In watching today’s eclipse, we were curious how it would be to experience a total solar eclipse without actually knowing it was coming … and I got to kicking it around, and so this little story was born.
Historical eclipse info taken from Almanac.com and Pantagraph.com.
*Ben’s bible verse is Psalm 19:1.
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