The Kate Chronicles
Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV program "Big Valley" are the creations of Four Star/Republic Pictures and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended by the author. The ideas expressed in this story are copyrighted to the author.
From the time I was old enough to know what it was, I loved Christmas. At first, of course, I loved the season because it brought my birthday and shortly thereafter, a visit from Santa. If Papa had had his way, I would have been inundated with every toy available for purchase in the stores of New Orleans and later Nashville. Fortunately, Mother was there to make sure that some measure of restraint was applied to the charmed life of Papa’s princess.
For the first few years of my life, of course, I didn’t know the circumstances of my birth. I only knew that Mother and Papa had seen me in the Stockton Orphanage and decided that I was meant to be their daughter. Papa always added to the story by reminding me that I was brought especially for them by the Christ Child—which made me feel a rather miraculous creation.
However, I was by no means a perfect child—being given to snatching toffee from Isabel’s pantry and knowingly charming Mr. Silas into plying me with all sorts of treats and stories. In fact, I knew how to get my way with everyone in the family, even Mother, and used that knowledge shamelessly. It was only as I grew older that I realized the true miracle was to be found in my parents—in their love and devotion for each other and for me.
The realization didn’t come all at once, of course, but rather bit by bit over the years. And it seemed to me later than my insights were keener at Christmas. It seemed to me that Mother was more beautiful at that season than at any other and that Papa was more handsome. Not that they didn’t glow in their mutual presence all year, but it was at Christmas that their joy in each other—and in me—took on a special brilliance.
I have experienced seventy-six Christmases, but there is one that stands out in my memory and which deserves to be set down here, not only for my children and grandchildren, but for the multitude of Barkley progeny now scattered over this country.
* * * * * * * *
“And what does Papa’s princess want for her birthday this year?”
I put aside the book I was reading and looked up at Papa standing there so ramrod straight, befitting his years in the cavalry, his silver hair shining in the sunlight that filtered through the lace curtains of the parlor windows.
“I don’t need anything, Papa,” I said dutifully.
“Ah, but birthdays aren’t for needs but rather for wants.”
“Well, then, I suppose I don’t want anything either. Mother says I have everything under the shining sun.”
Papa sighed. “That’s true enough.”
I unfolded myself from the chair and put my arms around his neck. At fourteen, I just reached the top of his vest, but I still surpassed my petite Mother in height.
“I love you, Papa,” I said.
His arms around me were as strong as ever, but just lately I had begun to realize that my parents were older and that I would not have them as long as my friends would have theirs.
“I love you, too, Kate. You’re my joy.”
“And what is Miss Kate charming you out of now?” Mother appeared in the door, filling it despite her small stature.
“Not a thing, Victoria, my love,” Papa said, holding out one arm as an invitation to join us. She did, and we stood there together in a warm embrace. “As a matter of fact, she just told me that she neither wants nor needs anything for her birthday.”
“Well, then, I suppose we needn’t worry about how to get the throne and scepter to Stockton on the train!”
She laughed. “Are you finished with your packing, Kate?”
I shook my head. “You’ve been upstairs inspecting the trunks, I suppose.”
“I suppose I have.”
“Then you know I’m not finished. I just started this book and. . .”
She fixed me with a firm—albeit loving—look.
“I’ll go finish now, Mother.”
She smoothed my hair. “And make yourself presentable for dinner before you come down.”
I paused in the hall and caught her words to Papa as he continued to hold her in his arms.
“She’s becoming a lovely young lady, Royce.”
“I can’t help but wish she’d stay a little girl for a few more years.”
“We can’t stop time—but we can enjoy every moment as it passes.”
“And I’ve enjoyed every moment of these years with you, Victoria. You know that, don’t you?”
“I’ve never doubted it.”
I smiled as I took the stairs two at a time—because I could and because Mother wasn’t looking, of course! I didn’t know how to explain how those moments between Mother and Papa made me feel—but I knew that, no matter how many material things I had, I’d be poor indeed without them.
* * * * * * * *
“So what are you getting for Christmas, Kate?” asked my second-best friend, Mary Elizabeth, the next morning as she unbuttoned her coat and hung it neatly on the hook in the cloakroom of Miss Beauville’s School for Young Ladies.
“You know our family doesn’t exchange gifts at Christmas, Mary Elizabeth,” I said patiently.
“You still don’t? What an archaic idea!”
Her remark rankled me, intended, I was sure, as a criticism of my family. “My birthday is the twenty-third. I get gifts then.”
“If my birthday was two days before Christmas, I’d make sure I got twice as much!”
I tucked my gloves into the pocket of my coat. “I’m sure you would.”
That night, while I did my lessons in the parlor after dinner, I shared the conversation with Mother and Papa. “People think we’re very strange,” I finished.
“Are you suggesting that we begin exchanging gifts to satisfy the expectations of others?” Mother asked.
“Of course not, Mother! I just—I just don’t know how to answer all their questions anymore. Not so I make sense anyway.”
“You might remind them of the scripture—It is more blessed to give than to receive. Or, to whom much is given, much shall be required.”
“Oh, Papa, I can’t quote the Bible to them!”
He put down his paper. “I suppose not, though my father certainly quoted it frequently enough to me.”
“He was a preacher. That’s what they do.”
“The idea is, Kate, we’re supposed to live what the Bible says—not just quote it.” Mother’s fingers pinched and stitched the smocking on a dress for Heath’s Leah.
“Well, we do—don’t we?”
“We try,” she said. “Our agreement to forego personal gifts and contribute more to the orphanage is an attempt to do that.”
“I really like Christmas at the orphanage!”
“Well, then, you might consider your enjoyment of it a gift to yourself.”
I chewed the end of my pencil thoughtfully. “If it wasn’t for Christmas at the orphanage, I wouldn’t be here, would I?”
“You wouldn’t be our Kate,” Mother said easily.
Papa reached for a cigar. “Everyone has different holiday traditions, and we have ours,” he observed. “What is your favorite thing about Christmas, Kate precious?”
“Going to the ranch,” I answered promptly. “The family being all together. Having a big celebration for my birthday—Mr. Silas’s cake and everything. And then, there’s my come day, of course.”
The idea had been Audra’s—to celebrate the day I had come home from the orphanage with Mother and Papa when I was just five days old—as nearly as anyone knew, that is. Only, on this day, instead of receiving gifts as I did on my birthday, I gave a gift to Mother and Papa. That had been my own idea beginning the year I was six and could write my name.
The first gift I’d given them was a long piece of paper with Katherine Barkley Wardell painstakingly printed from top to bottom. Of course, Papa had it framed as soon as we got home and hung it in the parlor! Over the years I’d struggled for a new idea each December 28, knowing that whatever I gave would be enthusiastically received—but wanting it to be special all the same.
It occurred to me now that I had yet to come up with an idea for this year, and the fact had been nibbling at me uncomfortably for at least a week.
“Yes, your come day,” Mother said softly. “I’ll never forget that.”
Papa shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Now, Victoria my love, perhaps there are some parts of it we should forget.”
Mother laughed with almost wicked glee. “Oh, no, Royce, not at all!”
I left the mathematical problems with which I was doing battle to sit beside Mother on the sofa. “A story!” I almost squealed. “Another story! Tell me, Mother!”
“It was quite cold that year, so all the fireplaces were lit the afternoon we brought you home. Audra was waiting in the foyer and practically snatched you out of my arms and took you into the library where the Christmas tree was still up in the library—we always left it until after New Year’s. She put you down in front of the fire and proceeded to unwrap the blankets that we’d wrapped around you very tightly.
“You loved the freedom immediately and began to kick and wave your little arms—and then you sneezed—probably from the cedar tree. Royce became distraught, declaring that you’d caught cold on the ride from the orphanage. I couldn’t persuade him otherwise, especially when you sneezed twice more. He was ready to send Ciego for Dr. Merar!”
“Oh, Papa! How funny!”
“Well, I didn’t know anything about babies, you see. It seemed obvious to me that you were sneezing for a reason.”
“And then there was feeding you,” Mother continued, obviously enjoying herself. “Silas had been making up bottles from the instructions we brought with us and. . .”
“Where did you get bottles?”
“We had to buy them in town, and there weren’t many to be had. They weren’t used a great deal in those days.”
I giggled. “No, I guess not.”
Papa cleared his throat.
“Anyway, Audra brought a nice warm bottle, and I told Royce that he had to begin learning about feeding you right away. You’d gulped down half of it before I thought to tell him to burp you!”
Papa smiled a little. “I was shocked by the noise!”
“He jumped as if he’d been shot! You almost flew over his shoulder!” Mother threw back her head and laughed. “Oh, it was marvelous!”
I loved the way Mother laughed, head back, mouth open, her whole body shaking with the emotion. She laughed honestly—the way she lived.
Papa’s smile widened. “You weren’t laughing the next morning after you were up with her three times during the night.”
“Well, no, I wasn’t.”
“Was I a fussy baby—like Audra’s second one?”
“Not really, but it had been almost twenty years since my night’s sleep had been interrupted! Of course, as soon as we got back to New Orleans, we found Elspeth. I assured your father that you wouldn’t be marked for life if we left the nighttime exercises to someone younger.”
“I had to agree with her,” Papa said. “I was somewhat ragged, too, by the time we returned to New Orleans.”
Elspeth, my British nanny—found by the Vandemeers—had been with me for four years, and I’d wept when she moved on to another place. Even being assured of being a big girl now hadn’t really comforted me. Thinking of her now, I felt sad. She had been the first real loss in my life, and I knew there would be more.
“Your parents are old enough to be your grandparents,” Mary Elizabeth had said one day recently. “I wouldn’t like that.”
“They’re my parents!” I’d defended them hotly. “How old they are doesn’t matter!”
Her eyes had widened at my outburst. “Well, at least you have more family to take you in when. . .”
I put my hands over my ears and fled.
“Kate? Kate precious, you’re far away.” Papa’s voice broke through my reverie.
“I’m sorry, Papa,” I said quickly. “Did you learn to take care of me?”
“He found out fairly quickly that you wouldn’t break,” Mother said. “And you always knew his voice when he came in the door every evening—even before you saw him, you knew your Papa was home.”
“Where is Papa’s princess?” The memory of Papa holding me high above his head and then cuddling me close and kissing me was vague but warm.
“I remember—I think I do anyway.”
“The office held few charms for me after your Mother became part of my life—and even fewer when you arrived.”
Mother glanced at the clock on the mantle. “Kate, have you finished your lessons?”
“Then perhaps you should get back to them.”
I rose. “I’m almost finished.” Impulsively I leaned over and kissed her smooth cheek. “Thank you for the story, Mother.”
* * * * * * * *
Three days later, on the afternoon that school let out for the holidays, we boarded the train for Stockton. My birthday was in five days, and my come day just five days after that. For the first time, I was at a loss as to what to give Mother and Papa. And, for the first time, I felt afraid because I no longer took it for granted that I’d have them always.
* * * * * * * *
Audra was there already, creating a stir upstairs and down as she readied stockings and packages for Christmas Eve at the orphanage. As usual, she pressed me into service almost as soon as I unpacked—a task not quickly accomplished to Mother’s satisfaction. Only after she’d inspected my drawers and the garments hanging in the wardrobe did she release me to more interesting pursuits. A lady always sees to her wardrobe properly, Kate. A trunk hastily packed or unpacked leads to disorganization and wasted time.
With all the children in and out—not to mention my brothers who at Christmas were as much like children as their own—I didn’t have a spare moment. But on the second night, when Don was downstairs smoking with Jarrod and Nick, I knocked on Audra’s door.
She was already in bed but threw back the covers and invited me to snuggle with her. “I’ve missed my baby sister,” she said, putting her arms around me.
“I’ve missed you, too.”
“You’re growing up too fast!”
“You still have dolls to play with—your own children!”
She laughed. “Mother will never let me forget that! I suppose I did play with you much as I would a doll, but you were so sweet!”
“Audra, I don’t know what to give Mother and Papa on my come day!” I blurted.
“Oh, well, you’ll think of something,” she said casually.
“No, I won’t! I’ve thought and thought, and I just don’t know!”
“Have you learned any new pieces on the piano that you could play for them?”
“Nothing I do well—or want to do well. I hate the piano, Audra! Or rather, practicing it anyway!”
“Did you bring your drawing pencils or pastels? You might do a picture for them.”
“I did that last year.”
“A poem then, or a story.”
“I can’t even begin!”
She sighed. “I don’t know then, KatieBee sweet, but you’ll think of something. I’m sure of it—and you have awhile yet.”
* * * * * * * *
But I didn’t. Every idea that came to me was rejected, but I sank deeper into my private despair. I hid it, of course, from my family, but sometimes I’d catch Mother watching me and know that she sensed something was amiss.
My birthday was, of course, an occasion. Everyone was there, but because it was my special day, I was allowed to sit at the dining room table with the adults instead of at the other table in the hall with the rest of the children—a fact that Trevor, my brother Jarrod’s son who was just two years younger, threw up to me in disgust.
He was almost thirteen and was beginning to be a real irritation to me at times. Mother said it was because I was growing up faster. Girls just do, Kate darling. Trevor’s still very much a little boy. But in a few years, you’ll be close again—just wait and see.
Mother had decreed that I was to have just one gift from each family, but that was more than enough. She and Papa gave me their gift last—a complete set of the English poets, beautifully bound in rich red leather with gold lettering. I’d seen it in a secondhand bookstore in the summer and even priced it, but found it too expensive for even my generous pocket money.
“How did you know—I didn’t think I mentioned. . .” I exclaimed, jumping up to embrace Mother, then Papa.
Papa smiled broadly. “I happened to be in the store one afternoon, and Mr. Broaddus mentioned that you yearned over the set every time you came in. He’d put it back especially for you.”
“I wouldn’t want an old set of books,” Trevor said with disgust. “That’s a silly birthday present!”
Already examining the fine gilt edging and looking for any inscription that might give a clue to its former ownership, I ignored him.
“It’s dumb,” he said in my ear.
“Hush up, Trevor!” I exploded. “It’s the most perfect birthday gift ever! I love it!”
Pleased that he’d nettled me, he reached to take one of my precious volumes, and I swatted his hand. “Don’t touch them! Your hands are probably greasy from the chicken! You never use a napkin!”
“Kate,” Mother reproved me. “Don’t be petty.”
“He’s just so annoying!” I retorted.
“That’s enough, Trevor,” Jarrod interjected. “Let KatieBee enjoy her books.”
He smirked and fell silent.
Later I carried the precious volumes upstairs and arranged them on the table beside my bed. How like Mother and Papa to give me something I truly wanted rather than something fashionable like Mary Elizabeth and the others would expect me to receive.
I sat down on the edge of the bed and regarded the books with satisfaction. They’d given me such a wonderful gift—and I still had nothing for them! Some of my pleasure faded. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve at the orphanage, and Christmas Day would be spent making and receiving calls with Mother and Papa. What was I going to do about their gift for my come day?
Without warning, terror like I’d never experienced stabbed my chest and settled like a stone in my stomach. I had nothing to give them this year—and next year—oh, what if next year I didn’t have them? I began to tremble violently, then to sob. We were so close, Mother and Papa and I. We were part of each other. Without them—oh, without them, what would I do?
I made sure that the evidence of the storm was cleared away before Mother and Papa came in to say goodnight. They noticed the books on the table immediately. “I might want to reach over and touch them in the night,” I said. “Just to be sure they’re mine, you know.”
“You’re an unusual child,” Mother remarked. “At fourteen, Audra would have turned up her nose at a set of books.”
“We’re glad you like them, Kate,” Papa said, bending to kiss me. “Happy birthday, precious girl.”
I put my arms around his neck and held on just longer than usual so that he noticed. “Thank you, Papa,” I said. “I love you very much.”
“We love you very much, too, Kate precious.”
Mother eyed me questioningly. “I’ll be in after a bit, Royce,” she said, sitting down on the edge of my bed. When he’d gone, she smoothed my hair. “Is something bothering you, Kate?”
“No,” I lied.
“You can tell me about it, you know.”
“Nothing. . .” Horrified at myself, I burst into tears again.
“Come, Kate, tell Mother what’s troubling you.” She lifted me in her arms and held me tightly.
“I’m afraid,” I wept.
“Afraid of what?”
“Of not having you and Papa!”
“Because we’re so much older, you mean.”
“We’re in excellent health, darling. We’ll be with you for many years to come.”
“You know I can’t promise something like that. I can only tell you that, in all probability, we’ll be with you until you’re grown.” She laid me back on the pillow and tucked the quilt around me. “Would you like for me to stay with you until you fall asleep?”
I shook my head. “No—and please don’t tell Papa—he’ll worry.”
“He’s your father, Kate darling, and as such, he has the right to know everything. But I’ll tell him you’re all right.”
* * * * * * * *
The clock at the foot of the stairs was striking midnight when I woke with a start. Clutching the quilt to my chest, I sat up and gazed around the room in the silver moonlight. It was quite obvious that I was here in my own room at the ranch, but I hadn’t been—only a few moments ago, I hadn’t been here.
Closing my eyes, I could see it—the small unpainted shack with the peeling roof and broken windows. Beyond the half-open door, which sagged on its hinges, something—or someone—moved silently in the shadows, and I heard a baby crying.
Had there been more? I lay back. It had been a dream, of course, but it had been so real. I’d felt the rocky ground beneath my feet, smelled the pines around me, seen a thousand stars twinkling in the midnight sky above me—and heard the soft, mewing sounds of a newborn baby. Only a dream but yet so real. Where? And why?
* * * * * * * *
There were extra children at the orphanage this year, but we had more than enough for all of them. Audra always began galvanizing the women of the various churches early in the spring—and Don said that the businessmen turned down dark alleys to escape her, knowing that they would be poorer if she caught up with them.
She took all the teasing good-naturedly, but she was single-minded in her pursuit of the best for the residents of the orphanage. It wasn’t the same one I’d lived in, however briefly. A new one was completed the summer after I was adopted and the old one torn down. But the Gordons, though they had more help now, were still in charge.
After the children were busy with their new treasures, I fell into conversation with Pastor Gordon. “You get prettier every year, Katherine,” he said, patting my back.
“Don’t let Mother hear you say that,” I laughed. “She says that vanity is a sad failing!”
“Somehow I don’t think you have to worry about being vain,” he said, laughing again. “And look how Audra turned out!”
“She’s a good person,” I agreed. “Beautiful and good.”
“Amen to that.”
“Did you ever know where that line shack was?” The words came out unbidden, surprising even me.
“The one where I was found.”
“Well, let’s see, it was one of old Mr. Houghten’s hands who found you, so I suppose it was on their property—and their ranch adjoins the Barkley holdings, I believe. One of your brothers might know.”
“I was just curious,” I said quickly, covering my guilt. “Of course, Papa says the Christ Child brought me.”
“You’ve been a blessing to Royce and Victoria, that’s certain.”
“I think I’m the one who’s been blessed, Pastor.”
He patted me again and moved off to settle a small squabble between two of the younger boys.
* * * * * * * *
The next morning, Christmas Day, we gathered for a late breakfast. Afterwards, I helped Mr. Silas in the kitchen. He wasn’t well, but though Mrs. Loysoya came in daily, he refused to give up the kitchen. Nick was building him a house beyond the garden and hoped to persuade him to take up residence there as soon as it was finished.
“Soon be your special day,” he said as he poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down at my insistence while I put away the dishes. “I remembers that day like ‘twas yesterday.”
“Mother said you had to make bottles for me.”
“Never done that before, but you liked ‘em.”
“Well, I didn’t starve anyway.”
He chuckled. “Mr. Royce, for awhile he’s sure you’d break. Tipp-toed ‘round here carrying’ you like you a basketful o' golden eggs!”
I hesitated, and then asked, “Did you ever know where the line shack was—the one where they found me?”
He nodded. “Right up past the North Ridge—right ‘cross the line ‘teen this place and the Houghten’s.”
“But I’ve been up there a hundred times! I never saw any line shack!”
He nodded. “It be there, Miss Kate. Sorta hidden in th’ trees and all.”
The trees. The towering pines. I smelled them again despite the aroma of fresh coffee that filled the warm kitchen.
“Is there anything else I can do to help you, Mr. Silas?”
He shook his head. “Miz Losoya be here directly to help get dinner. You run on now, Miss Kate—family’s prob’ly wonderin’ where you are.”
* * * * * * * *
The day was full of friends and family, and it was quite late before the house was quiet. I was reading from one of the new volumes of poetry when Mother and Papa came to say goodnight.
“Did you have a good day?” Papa asked, sitting down beside me.
“Very good, Papa. I love Christmas at the ranch.”
“Your mother said you expressed some concerns last night.”
I sighed. “I’m all right, Papa.”
“We won’t be with you forever, Kate precious—you must accept that. But you must also accept each day for what it brings and not ask for tomorrow’s troubles in advance.”
“I know, Papa.”
“Life is a finite thing, you know, for all of us. It’s what we make out of our lives that counts. Every day that I’ve had with your mother—and with you—makes me know that my life was preserved many times through more than chance.”
“Mine was, too, wasn’t it, Papa?”
“To be sure.”
“I think the season makes circumstances all the more poignant,” Mother said, joining us. I’ve thought a thousand times of the young girl who gave birth to you and wished that I’d been able to help her in some way.”
“But if she’d kept me, I wouldn’t be your daughter!”
“Perhaps now—and again, I’ve always felt she’d have been glad to know you had two parents and a loving home.”
“I wouldn’t want things any different,” I said. “I’m sorry she died—but for her sake, not mine.”
Mother took my face in her hands. “You are cherished, Kate darling.”
* * * * * * * *
When I woke again at the stroke of midnight, I had to look around the room to make sure I was there. I’d been back to the place among the trees—I knew it. As my eyes drifted around the room, I realized there was someone sitting at the foot of my bed.
A small shake of the head.
“Who—who are you?” Oddly enough, I didn’t feel afraid.
The figure was clad in a white nightdress, and her long hair—the exact color of mine—fell around her face and gleamed in the moonlight.
“Who are you?” I asked again.
Her face, hidden both by her hair and the shadows that danced from wall to wall, lifted slightly, enough for me to see her small, well-shaped nose and chin—my nose—my chin. And then she brushed the hair away from her face, and I found myself looking into my own sea foam-green eyes.
A faint smile turned up the corners of her lips, and she nodded.
“What do you want?”
Did I hear the words or imagine them?
“Back? Back where?”
“The line shack?”
“But I don’t know where it is—not exactly.”
I’ll show you.
“Why should I go? There’s nothing there.”
“No! No, I’m here! I’m Kate Wardell! I’m Katherine Wardell Barkley! I’m not that baby anymore!”
Go back. Go back.
Her words faded to the faintest whisper as she disappeared into a swirling mist.
I lay down again. Had she been real, or was my too-vivid imagination running away with me? Jarrod said I was a dreamer. He didn’t say it critically, of course, but I knew he felt I wasn’t practical like her was—or Nick or Heath or Gene—or even Audra. He said I walked with my head in the clouds like some ethereal being—and Papa, hearing him once, said that I was just that—their angel child.
All my life I’d gone my own way, encouraged by my parents to dream and indulge myself in literature and art. While Mother had attended to the necessary practicalities of my upbringing, she’d still let me follow my heart.
Now my heart was telling me that I should heed the words of the girl—whoever she was. No—I knew. I knew who she was. She was—she was the reason I was here.
She was also dead, but she’d come back. Why? Mother said that parents are sensitive to their children’s innermost feelings, and certainly she and Papa had always understood mine. Just two nights ago she’d sensed that I was hurting inside and had coaxed my fears from me. I’d understood more clearly than ever that blood had nothing to do with the deepest relationships.
So why—why had she come, this long-dead girl who looked scarcely older than me? And why had the place of my birth haunted my dreams and consumed my waking thoughts? Why should I go back? Why?
Yet, as I closed my eyes, I knew that I would.
On the morning of December 26, I woke with one thought in mind—to see the place where I was born just fourteen years earlier. After breakfast, I helped Mr. Silas in the kitchen again, and then I went to find Papa. He was in the library reading the newspaper.
“Papa, may I go riding this morning?”
“I was out earlier,” he said, giving me his full attention as usual, “and the weather’s mild. I don’t see why not. But you remember your boundaries, of course.”
The north ridge wasn’t off limits, so I said, “Yes, Papa.”
“And don’t be gone too long.”
“I’ll be home before lunch.”
He held out his arms, and I went to kiss him. “And run upstairs and tell your mother where you’re going before you leave.”
Mother and Audra were sorting through a pile of the boys’ clothes. “Goodness, Audra, Donnie certainly wears his things out at the knees!”
“Worse than he did when he was crawling,” Audra said. “Now he’s always down on his knees shooting marbles. Don says as long as he’s not
shooting. . .” She caught sight of me and stopped.
“Mother, Papa said I could go riding this morning.”
Mother nodded. “You know how far you can go.”
“I know. I’ll be home before lunch.”
“Dress warmly just in case.”
I kissed her and then went to my room to change.
* * * * * * * *
Ciego was getting on in years, too, like Silas, and Nick had put him in charge of the barn and the smithy. Though he’d been one of the top wranglers under Tom Barkley, Ciego was a practical man who knew when it was time to step down to a less strenuous job, especially when he was paid more for the responsibility it entailed, and he also knew that Nick valued him too highly to risk his safety on the range.
I liked Ciego—and not just because he always insisted on saddling my horse for me and seeing to it whenever I returned. “Don’t tell Papa,” I always reminded him. “He says that if I’m going to ride, I have to do everything connected with it.”
This morning, when I repeated Papa’s words, Ciego’s leathery face crinkled into a warm grin. “Si, Miss Kate, but when old Ciego is here, he will do it.”
I sat down on a bale of hay and watched him go about his work. “You’ve been on the ranch a long time,” I observed.
“Si, since I was a boy just up from Mexico.”
“Did you come with your family?”
He shook his head. “Mi padre—my father died, and I just left.”
He shrugged. “Quien sabe? Who knows? I wanted adventure!”
“And you ended up here on the ranch?”
“It has been my home for over fifty years now.”
I giggled. “How have you put up with Nick that long?”
He laughed. “Your brother is a good man—loud, but good.” He led Daisy out of the barn and held her while I mounted. “Where are you riding to this morning?”
“I’m not sure.”
He frowned. “I think you should tell Ciego.”
“Sometimes you’re worse than Nick, Ciego!” I said impatiently.
“Oh, si, pero. . .but it takes the both of us to look after you, senorita!”
I sighed. “I’m going up on the north ridge, I suppose. And I’ll be home for lunch. Is there anything else you want to know?”
He handed me the reins. “Eleven o’clock.” He patted his pocket where the watch my brothers had given him reposed. “Eleven-thirty, I come looking for you.”
I rolled my eyes. “Eleven o’clock,” I said. “And thank you for saddling Daisy.”
He waved. “De nada, senorita. Hasta luego.”
* * * * * * * *
I rode slowly, wondering if the girl—or the apparition—would really show me where to go. In the crisp brightness of the December morning, it was hard to believe that she’d been more than a dream, and yet something inside of me wouldn’t discount her completely. I’d done my part by being on my way. Now I would wait to see if she’d do hers.
Once I reached the north ridge, I pulled up and looked toward the stance of pines. The line between the Barkley ranch and the Houghten’s wasn’t fenced. Both were old families in the Valley and usually partnered for the long trail drives to the railhead in the eastern part of the state. So if a Barkley cow wandered onto Houghten land—or vice versa—it was no problem. Everything could be sorted out later.
As nearly as I could tell from the cedar posts that were driven into the ground marking the surveyor’s lines, the trees were on Houghten property, and that’s where Pastor Gordon had said the line shack was located. There was no fear of trespassing, of course. Pressing my knees into Daisy’s sides, I started for the trees.
With the sunlight all but shut out by the towering evergreens, it was colder. Daisy seemed nervous, but I urged her forward, turning my head from side to side to search for the outbuilding I had seen in my dreams and could recall so clearly. When, after ten minutes, it hadn’t appeared, I stopped. “All right,” I said aloud—somewhat impatiently. “Where is it?”
A whisper came on the breeze that stirred the branches above me. Go on.
For the first time I experienced a stirring of fear. Papa and Mother wouldn’t like the fact that I hadn’t just gone riding. What if I got lost? What if I didn’t show up at eleven o’clock? Ciego would come after me, of course, and Mother and Papa would get the story out of me and be disappointed that I hadn’t told them the strict truth.
I sat still. “I can’t,” I said to the unseen whisperer. “I’m going back.”
I hadn’t signaled Daisy to move, but she did, and I let her have her head. A few feet. . .a few yards. . .
And it was—exactly as I’d seen it in my dreams. I sat staring in disbelief.
So many questions flooded my mind. How had the girl found it fourteen years ago? How had she survived here and for how long? How had I survived my unattended birth? There were, of course, no answers.
“No, I came. I’m here. That’s enough. I don’t’ want to go inside.”
“I am not! I’m right here!” My indignant words echoed in the dim chilly silence.
And then, though I didn’t remember dismounting, I was standing at the sagging, half-open door. It groaned eerily as I pushed it back. A damp musty smell assaulted my nose. A shadow flickered on the back wall. The soft cry of a baby made my heart skip a beat.
Suddenly I was inside—though I didn’t know how I got there. A rusted iron bedstead, stripped of its mattress, leaned unsteadily against the back wall. Several wooden packing boxes, obviously once used as storage for food and other supplies, littered the rotting floor. A faded blue curtain fluttered in the breeze that blew through the broken window.
Standing there transfixed, I almost didn’t here it—but then the sound grew more distinct—the ominous whirring of a rattler. I froze. Where was it? Could I get out the door without it striking me? And if it did, what then? What had Nick told me about the emergency treatment of snakebite? Everything went out of my mind except fear.
How long I stood there listening, waiting, dreading, I didn’t know. The sound slithered closer. My knees were trembling to the point of giving way, but I knew my only hope was to stay perfectly still. Guilt at my foolish errand warred with the fear in my heart. I thought of Mother and Papa and how they would grieve if something happened to me.
Without warning, the place was flooded with light, the brightest light I’d ever seen, and the swirling shadows took form. The girl. Not my mother, but the girl who had carried me in her body and given birth to me here, alone, with no one to share her agony or assuage her fear. Now I understood that fear as I anticipated my own pain.
She looked into my eyes, sea foam green like her own, and the expression on her pale face was one of serene determination. I watched one thin arm shoot out and then rise above her head—holding the snake aloft—its body limp, its rattles silent.
The light grew even brighter, and instinctively, I put my hands up to shield my eyes.
I gave you life.
“Twice,” I murmured, my throat so dry I could hardly speak.
I loved you.
“I—I believe you.”
You had to know.
I nodded. “I know.”
Now go home.
When I took my hands reluctantly from my face, she was gone, but some of the brightness lingered. My eyes focused on the top of the torn curtain, one spot unfaded, still as blue as the midnight sky, and then below the window I saw the pieces of shattered glass sparkling like fallen stars refusing to give up their light.
And then I understood why I had come.
* * * * * * * *
My come day was a cold, blustery one. The sleet, which began chittering against the windows at noon, held Jarrod and his family in town, and Heath rode up in the early afternoon to say that it was too raw outside for his family to join us in the evening. Gene and Lucy, of course, had returned to San Francisco late on Christmas Day, unable to leave his patients unattended for more than forty-eight hours.
I was glad, though, that this year the celebration of my arrival would be quiet. It was different somehow, and I was reluctant to share my gift with anyone but Mother and Papa. When I said as much to Audra, she replied that she’d see to it that the three of us had our privacy.
Sure enough, everyone went up early, leaving Mother, Papa, and me alone in the library before the crackling fire. From behind a table, where I’d hidden it earlier, I produced my gift for them. I knew they wouldn’t understand at first, and I was still feeling a little guilty about how I’d acquired it. Still, I felt certain they’d understand.
I stood in front of them holding out the crude frame made from pieces of wood I’d scavenged from the rotting windowsill of the line shack. Stretched between its four not-quite-square sides was the unfaded portion of the blue curtain, and scattered over that, carefully glued in place one by one, were the tiny, diamond-like pieces of glass.
Along one edge I’d fastened the three very tiny pine cones I’d found just outside the door, linking them together with a neat line of white stitches, and at the bottom, I’d embroidered the date.
Mother and Papa saw the symbolism immediately—the stars in the midnight sky, the three pine cones for the three of us—but I knew they still didn’t quite understand. I took a deep breath.
“I didn’t know what to do this year. I think that’s what made me sad during the holidays.”
“You’re out gift, Kate precious,” Papa said softly. “We need no other.”
“I know, but I wanted—I wanted this year to be special. I can’t explain it.”
Suddenly, I knew I couldn’t tell them now about the dreams and the girl—someday of course—but not yet. I searched my mind for the words to explain about the line shack.
“I asked some people—Pastor Gordon—Silas—about the place where I was born—where I was found.”
Something flickered in Mother’s eyes. “The north ridge. You went up there.”
I swallowed hard. “Yes—I had to, Mother! I had to see it! I don’t know why—or I didn’t until I got there!”
“This is all from there, then?” Papa asked quietly.
I nodded. “When I found all of this, I knew, don’t you see? It was all so clear!”
“It came upon a midnight clear,” Papa murmured, tracing the glass “stars” in the blue cloth sky.
“Peace on the earth, good will to men, from Heaven’s all gracious King,” I said. “You’ve always said that the Christ Child brought me, Papa. I think—I know now that He did. Or at least, He saw to it that I didn’t die up there—and that you saw me and loved me and. . .”
Tears streamed down Mother’s face. “Oh, Kate.”
Papa cleared his throat.
I rushed on. “Millions of stars—so many babies—but I was given to you! And like the stars. . .” I had to stop to get control of my voice. “And like the stars, we’ll always be together! I know that now! It’s like Christmas—it’s gone on for hundreds of years! It never ends! Christmas means love, and that never ends either!”
Papa held out his arms. “No, Kate precious, love never ends either.”
We sat together, the three of us loving each other, until the fire burned low.
* * * * * * * *
Nashville, Tennessee, 1956
Neither the dreams of the line shack nor the vision of the girl ever came again, but the lesson of love I learned from her has endured. It is a simple lesson—one that every child is taught but too often forgets. It stirs within me anew each Christmas.
My children and grandchildren have, one by one and at various times, asked me why I go outside each December 28 and gaze up into the sky, even when clouds obscure the stars. I remind them only of the first line of the old carol, it came upon a midnight clear. . . And in my mind’s eye, it is clear. I see the angels bending near the earth with their harps of gold and joyous tidings.
I often repeat the last line, and the whole world gives back the song, which now the angels sing. Well, maybe not the whole world. There is, after all, war and hunger and suffering in the world. But at least my heart gives back—and that lesson I mentioned comes to mind once again.
God is love.