December 13th, 2013
This story, by Jan Lucas, Penny McQueen and Ginny Shook, has become a bit of a Christmas tradition with High Chaparral fans. We hope you enjoy it, and Merry Christmas to you and yours!
Stave 1 (The Ghost)
December fell in Tucson like water hitting fire, temperature plunging as the sun hid behind mountains. The threatened rain stayed in overhanging grey clouds, changing to nightly fog, heavy and thick, leaving the air wet and chilling the bones. Men, hardened to scorching desert air, ached with the cold. “I’d rather face July and August put together,” Joe Butler complained, coughing so hard he dropped a card on the bunkhouse floor.
“Stop whining and make your bet,”Sam griped, eyeing his brother between swallows of whiskey.
“Eh, Wind, have you noticed,” Pedro said casually as he rearranged his cards, “every time amigo Joe has a good hand, he starts to cough? Mira – he is about to raise.”
“I do not cough,” Joe growled, pushing his dollars into the growing pile in the center of the table. He attempted to stifle the next explosion, cleared his throat loudly to mask the sound.
Wind pushed his money forward, looked at grinning Pedro, and pulled it back. “I fold,” he sighed.
Reno laughed. “You believe everything you hear, Wind? Just so you know, there ain’t really a man in a red suit and white beard bringing you presents on Christmas Eve.”
Impassive dark eyes stared across the top of fanned cards as the half-Pawnee considered. “My people believe the spirits teach us wisdom and truth, that seems more important that a sack full of material possessions.”
“That’s cause you ain’t got any,” Ira offered. “Mrs. Cannon had me helping her wrap presents this morning. Did you know you gotta put your finger in the middle of a bow to tie it? Big box, too.” He tossed coins onto the table. “I raise you five.”
“So Mrs. Cannon is Santy Claus?” Reno grinned.
“Joe has a cold is all.” said Sam suddenly. “Maybe he should drink less and sleep more.”
The younger Butler drank deep from the whiskey bottle. “Stop being my mother,” he said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “’Course I’ve got a cold. It’s freezing outside and its freezing in here. John Cannon’s working us all into an early grave. Should be good enough to get the cows to the army when they’re due, but he’s gotta get them there early. I’m surprised he lets us get any sleep at all.” He fingered his cards in irritation.
“Your bet, Joe.” Wind’s eyes flickered with humor.
The poker players leaned forward as one.
“I ain’t going to cough!”
“All I know is, you have been coughing all night and you been winning all night.” Pedro said.
“He’s been coughing every night,“ Ira grumbled.
“You’re all loco. I ain’t coughing. I see your raise and here’s ten more. See? No cough. Next thing you’ll be saying I marked the deck.” A sudden explosion of a cough spattered blood on the cards in his hand.
The only one not complaining about the weather was Big John Cannon. There was no point wasting energy stating the obvious. When asked for the millionth time if there had ever been such a freezing day in the history of the world, he answered honestly that he didn’t feel the cold. If he was a different sort of man he might have admitted, at least to himself, that lately he didn’t really feel much of anything. But the army needed winter beef and feelings were a luxury he couldn’t afford. Scanning the ledgers, he saw a sound profit, but Army beef would push the ranch farther into the black. John kept a sharp eye on doing a job better than the next man.
As for the Chaparral hands, his sharp eye saw them doing everything but the job since Victoria started decorating the ranch for Christmas. Buck and Pedro were gone a day and a half riding into the mountains to fetch a tree. He discovered Ira hanging upside down from the roof, tying wide red ribbons around the wooden posts that rimmed the house. And in the middle of the day, John found Victoria teaching Reno Christmas carols in the living room.
No amount of persuasion or even commands could stop strong-willed Victoria’s enjoyment of the holiday season. She loved Christmas and was determined they all would celebrate to the fullest. Her happiness was infectious to everyone else. As the day drew near, John’s family and the ranch-hands became more foolish, smiling at nothing and singing for no reason.
“Juano! Feliz Navidad!” Manolito Montoya greeted his brother-in-law at the breakfast table on a morning that was greyer and colder than any before.
“Christmas ain’t ‘til tomorrow, Mano.” Buck’s face glowed like a child’s, as he stacked pancakes on his plate and added fried eggs and soused everything with sorghum thickly over the top. “Might save us some time if we open them presents of Victoria’s right after breakfast, don’t you think? No sense waiting until tomorrow, is there Mano?”
“Only if you wish to retain your scalp, my friend.” Manolito sampled his eggs, then sipped coffee. “My sister is worse than a priest about keeping the rituals of the season, hombre. Violate one and,” grinning, he slid a finger across his throat.
“Very funny, Manolo. Perhaps I will take your present to the children at San Xavier del Bac, at least they will appreciate one more gift from us.” Carrying an urn of coffee from the kitchen, Victoria continued, “I suppose you do not even wonder what I have for you?”
“Something too expensive,” John snapped. “And no one is doing any celebrating until the herd is brought up to the south ridge. I don’t care what day it is. ”
“You certainly will care if you are late to my special supper,” Victoria said. “Supper is at 6:00 and you will all be washed and dressed nicely and at my table not one minute later.”
“We will get it done on time, my sister, I promise you,“ Manolito interrupted John.
“Sure thing, Victoria, don’t you worry. I’ve been smellin’ those wonderful smells you’ve got coming from the kitchen. I’ll be sitting at this here table at 5:00. And I’m gonna eat until I pop some buttons,” Buck grinned around a mouthful of eggs.“ You making those little apple pie things? Blue Boy sure loved those. ‘Course he loved all your cooking but he really…”
“Can I just eat my breakfast in peace, please?” John roared.
A heavy silence followed. Suddenly Buck slammed his hand down on the table. He pushed his chair back hard and stomped out of the house.
“What the devil is wrong with him?” John grumbled.
Mano rose, considering John for a moment. “He does not like your new rule.”
“I don’t have time for your fool jokes, Mano. What rule?”
“That we are all to pretend that Blue does not exist.” He placed a hand on his sister’s shoulder. “Victoria, thank you for the delicious breakfast.” And Manolitio was out the door before John could say a word.
“Fools, the pair of them,” he muttered. He stole a look at his wife, waiting for her to defend them. Victoria was silent until he stood.
“Do not go yet, John. There is something I want you to do.”
“Victoria, there is no time for…”
“It will only take a moment.” She reached into a drawer in the living room table and then placed something in his hand.
“Will you put it on the top of the Christmas tree for me?” she smiled at him.
John stared at the ornament. The large china star was painted in delicate colors, flecked with gold.
“This was Annalee’s” he said, both surprised and cautious as he fingered the worn edges. “We always had it on our tree in Virginia. How did you…where did it come from?”
Victoria smiled happily. “I found it in Blue’s dresser. You asked me to remove his things, remember? This was in the bottom of a drawer. Do you think Annalee hid it there? Or was Blue saving it for the proper moment? Please put it on our tree, John, you’re the only one who can reach the top. Is it not beautiful? Annalee had exquisite taste.”
John remembered. He had a sudden memory of hoisting little Blue up to his shoulder so he could put the star in its place, and hated the sour knot of grief growing in his throat. John set the star down on the table.
“This doesn’t belong on your tree,” he said, grabbing his jacket as he opened the door to the frigid morning. “Put it away. I don’t want to see it again.”
Slamming the door behind him, John squinted at Manolito. His lanky brother-in-law relaxed against a support post, back to bracing wind, keen eyes and tight mouth belying casual posture. “Whatever’s on your mind, spit it out and mount up. You’re burning daylight,” John said, marching toward the bunkhouse as Mano fell in beside him.
“I was just thinking. The sky today, gray as the beard of my father.” Glancing at the clouds above, he smiled. “A ruthless and often cruel man, the old lion. Yet never did he close the door on his disappointing son. Seguro, he disinherited me, but never did he disown me.” Tone low and compelling, he clasped John’s shoulder and stopped walking. “What is between fathers and sons, often complicated, eh?”
“And what’s between me and mine is just that, between me and mine. You finished?”
“No.” Sweeping his arm from bunkhouse to ranch-house, he said, “What affects you affects everyone, especially my sister. The first Christmas without Papá, Victoria wants something like Nativity fiestas at Hacienda Montoya. This she does to honor the Christ Child and the memory of our father.” Fierce eyes betraying the grin on his face, Manolito faced John. “Amigo mio, if you honor my sister, you will not begrudge her this. Entiendes?”
“Or what, the first bullet’s for me?” John jabbed a finger into Mano’s chest. “Your sister, who also happens to be my wife, can pay homage to Don Sebastian any fool way she wants, but I won’t have her interfering. Do I make myself clear? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a ranch to run.”
Turning on his heel, heading for the bunkhouse door, he heard Manolito mutter, “Ay-yi-yi, Big John, always the rancho. But if you have no son, who is it for?”
In the past, Sam Butler would have been at the front gate, mounted and waiting to start the day’s work. But since his brother Joe had gotten sick Sam stayed in the bunkhouse until the last minute. Being forced to fetch him tempted John to remind him how many men would kill to work on the largest spread in Arizona, possibly for lower wages. John reminded himself that Sam was a skilled foreman and shook such thoughts away.
The bunkhouse was not much warmer than outside as Sam poked wood into the small corner stove. He turned slightly reproachful eyes on his boss. The small abode’s roof had been under repair before the cold snap hit. Though the frigid air now flooded the room day and night, John would not spare any of the men to patch the holes. “Fix it on your own time, we’ve got cattle to round up,” he had roared the last time Sam hinted that a couple of the men finish the job that was started two months before.
Victoria’s decorating spirit had even invaded the bunkhouse. Socks of various lengths, as well as the bottom half of a pair of long-johns, were tacked up along the shelf holding personal belongings. Bandanas were tied in big bows around bunk bed posts and a small cactus in a pot at the center of the table was adorned with strings of red berries and popcorn. The hired hands obviously had too much free time on their hands.
“We’re moving the herd today.” John said, trying to ignore the hopeful festiveness.
“I want two men on night herd tonight. With that fog, there’s a good chance for beeves to get separated. We can’t afford to lose even one. Give the men on watch extra supplies – there’s no sense in coming back so far until the day after.”
“But tomorrow…” Sam hesitated, then seemed to steel himself. “is Christmas. Mrs. Cannon invited us all to…” he cleared his throat several times, “celebrate with….you…”
Big John made a noise that sounded like “harumpf”. He fixed hard blue eyes on his foreman but Sam did not look away or look as repentant as he should.
“Couldn’t Joe ride night herd?” John asked before he could stop himself. After all, the younger Butler hadn’t done much work in weeks. The formerly vital man could not shake his wracking cough and breathing was a struggle, but John figured he could cough as well riding herd as in the bunkhouse. Sitting on a horse wasn’t that different than lying in bed and astride he wouldn’t need the crutch he began depending on for balance.
“Sure I can,” Joe said feebly from his bunk, attempting to raise himself up.
“Don’t be stupid,” Sam snapped at his brother. To John he said forcefully, “No.”
John had long since stopped inquiring as to Joe’s poor health, but Sam had recently wasted an entire day fetching the doctor in Tucson. Gritting his teeth, he asked, “What did the doctor say this time?”
“Joe’s gotta go to that place in San Francisco. What did the doc call it…a sanatorium? Something about his lungs…he won’t get better any place else. He’s gotta take it easy until then. As soon as I get enough money…”
“Fine. I’ll ride night herd myself,” John snapped, interrupting the kind of talk that sometimes ends with a request for more pay. He stood up and glared down at Sam. “I suppose you want the whole day off tomorrow.”
Sam glared back. “Yessir, if it’s convenient.”
“It is not.”
“It’s just once a year, Boss.”
The big man’s boot heels sounded like gunshots as he stomped to the door. Anger boiling, without turning around he barked, “Just because he’s your brother doesn’t mean he’s not replaceable. If Joe can’t work, then he’d better make room for someone who can.”
Every step of John’s made his temper surge. By the time he passed the garlands on the corral fence, red ribbons around the roof posts and presents under the tree which drained the coffers, he was ready to explode. He settled for flinging clothes with great vigor from his dresser drawer in an attempt to begin packing for a job that he should not have to do.
He thought he could hear Joe coughing all the way from the bunkhouse. Blast the man anyway, it was all his fault. Though Sam did not have to behave like a mother hen, watching his brother’s every move. It was probably just a winter cold and Joe would recover soon enough. Sam should be thanking his lucky stars he worked for a man like John Cannon, with a fair wage and a boss that never abused him. Not to mention an entire day off with pay for the entire crew! How dare he refuse a direct order? Forcing the boss to do a job he was paying them to do! He was John Cannon, owner of the High Chaparral, the largest spread in Arizona. He deserved respect and gratitude and…
“My husband.” Victoria stood in the bedroom doorway. “Have you lost something?” She began retrieving the clothes he flung across the room.
There was a twinkle in her eye that irritated him. “I’m packing.” he snapped. “I’ll be gone for two days.”
“To protect my herd! Tomorrow is Christmas and maybe that’s a special day for you, Victoria, but the cows don’t know it’s supposed to be special any more than the bandits and renegades. Do you care if the ranch falls down around our ears while you waste money on fool presents and decorations and stars and…” He stole a look at her face, then hurriedly began stuffing items into a bedroll. “I told you not to get a tree; I told you nobody needed presents. But did you listen to me? Of course not! No one listens to me. Buck and Mano acting like six-year-olds. Reno singing all day like some sort of traveling minstrel. And Joe treating the bunkhouse like some kind of hotel. “
“Joe is very ill,” she said, hands on her hips. “You only have to look at him to know that.”
“Well, it isn’t my fault and there is nothing I can do about it.” He hated the calm look on her face. Why wasn’t she yelling at him, telling him he was being unfair and unreasonable?
“Oh, John! I only wish for you to stay home,” she answered, blocking his way and sliding her arms around his waist. “We will have a special supper tonight and will celebrate the most holy of days with our family and all the men who work for you, who have become like family. Please, John. It is important to me.”
“We’ll celebrate when we have something to celebrate. We’ll celebrate when I say we will. Right now, I have work to do.”
“John?” Victoria held him fast. “You have riches beyond measure. Christmas is a sacred time. It is a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time. It is the time for us to open our hearts to everyone. It is not a day to think of money and work. You have no right to feel so dismal when you…
“I have every right!” he exploded. “And don’t tell me how I should feel!”
He was never so glad to hear Reno shouting down from the roof. “Mr. Cannon, wagon coming!”
Two men in a rickety buckboard made their way slowly through the gate. They were both wearing suits, though the suits had seen better days. Smiling brightly as they approached the Cannons, they doffed bowler hats as bowed to Victoria.
“Is this the home of Don Sebastian Montoya?”
“It is not. If you’re looking for Rancho Montoya, you’re in the wrong country. It’s about three days ride South. This is the High Chaparral and I’m John Cannon.”
”Of course. I beg your pardon. I am Juan Gazzarra, and this is William Breeson..”
“I am Mrs. Cannon. Don Sebastian was my father. He… passed away recently. Won’t you come inside?” Victoria smiled, an anxious glance at her husband.
“No need for that,” John spoke up louder. “I’m a busy man. What do you want?”
Their smiles did not falter. “Mr. Cannon, as you know, it is usual at this time of year that we provide for others that are less fortunate than we are. Specifically there are children in this great territory and across the border who are going without the basic necessities. We know that a man of your standing, who has been generous in the past, will not let these poor children suffer. At Christmas…”
There was that word again. John clenched his fists.
“What happened to the Yuma Mission? I thought orphans were provided for there. Is the Mission gone?”
“No, Sir, the Mission is still in operation, but…”
“And there is also a Mission in Nogales?”
“Yes, the Mission in Nogales also cares for the less fortunate children.”
“Then the children are well cared for.” As if that was enough, John turned toward the corral. The visitors were at his heels.
“We understood that Don Sebastian would give most generously.”
John snorted. “Don Sebastian wouldn’t have given you one red cent. He was no easier a mark than you seem to think I am, and I doubt you’ll get a better reception from his brother, but if you leave now, you can find out yourselves. There’s nothing for you here.”
He threw the saddle on his horse, ignoring a few more pleas. Victoria, at least, did not contradict him this time. He waited at the gate for the wagon to roll past him. Without a look back or a goodbye, he rode into the desert.
The High Chaparral herd bunched together against the cold. Heavy fog that night blanketed the world like a shroud, obscuring sight and distorting sounds. John could not even hear his own horse’s hooves on the frozen ground, but a disgruntled beeve sounded eerily like a crying child. Determined to focus on the job at hand and not let his imagination play any tricks, John kept to his watch.
The next thing he knew, he was falling from his horse. In the second it took for him to hit the ground, smacking his head for good measure, John saw an entire conversation replay before him.
“You never fall asleep on watch!” he bellowed at Blue, who stood before him with his head hanging. “I’m depending on you. We’re all depending on you! There is no excuse for it, so don’t even bother. It’s what I would expect from a child. When you fall asleep on the job you are useless to me!” And he’d pushed him away, not listening to Buck, Sam or Mano explain that maybe he had forgotten, sitting on a slow moving horse that rocked you like a comfy chair, in the pitch black of night so that your eyes were strained with trying to make out which were beeves and which were rocks, was something that made any man fall asleep in the saddle before he even knew what was what.
How they would laugh at him now. The Boss had nodded off on the job and fell out of his saddle like the worst greenhorn. Even worse, the grey haze immediately swallowed his horse, and he felt like a fool child playing Blind Man’s Bluff, stumbling with his arms out in front of him to find it. Yessir, this was something Buck would have a good cackle over. For a second, he actually thought he heard someone laugh; a low chuckle. He held his breath but did not hear it again. Still, he pulled his gun from the holster just in case. Hammer back and finger on the trigger, he waited long minutes. Not a sound except cattle huffing and the hot breath of his horse. He was never so happy as when the bay bit his arm.
It was hopeless to continue in such conditions. Better to sit in front of the fire, where he would at least be able to see any mountain lions that got too close. He made coffee and ate jerky and cold biscuits. And he found that he grabbed Buck’s saddle bag instead of his own, because there was a welcome bottle of whiskey in its depths. “For medicinal purposes, Big John,” Buck would always say with a wink. With his aching head and a belly that felt full of stone, it was just what the doctor ordered.
A stick in the fire moved, attracting his attention. There, in the center of the flames, was the face of a bearded man. John blinked hard. He squinted at the fire and the perfect likeness of Don Sebastian Montoya peered back. Startled but not frightened, John grumbled, “Nothing but Manolito’s nonsense” and threw the dregs of his coffee into the fire, followed by another stick. The vision vanished with a sizzle as sparks danced upward in the wind.
A sound woke him. It was so loud, he wondered in his grogginess if the cattle were stampeding. But it was not the thud of many hooves but single, loud steps, like huge, heavy boots on a hard stone floor. The footfalls moved toward him. Then came a clanking noise, as if the owner of these monstrous feet dragged a snarl of anchor chain.
A sudden wind whipped through the trees, extinguishing the camp fire. John fumbled for his rifle and leaped to his feet. “Show yourself,” he yelled. “Who are you?”
The unearthly clang stopped and the fire roared back to life, larger than before.
“Ask me who I was,” said the figure that was now illuminated; a barrel-chested phantom dressed in the elaborate brocade clothes of a hidalgo. Instead of a cummerbund, a rusty iron chain encircled its waist and trailed on the ground. The chain was made of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses made of steel. The Phantom’s body was transparent; so that John, observing it, looked through its jacket to the embroidery on its coat behind. Chin raised, it squinted at John with eyes black as a grave.
“Who were you then?” John asked tentatively, thinking he recognized the voice.
“In life I was your father-in-law, Don Sebastian Montoya.”
John stood still for a full minute, considering. Legs trembling, he turned away and sat down.
The spirit glared. “You could at least do me the courtesy of being frightened.”
John managed a smile. “You couldn’t frighten me while you were alive, no matter how hard you tried. You can’t do it death, either.”
‘You do not believe in me.”
“Far as I know, you’re nothing but a bad case of dyspepsia. God knows you gave me enough heartburn before the funeral.”
“Bah! Perhaps I have not been convincing enough, sí?” Shaking its chain, the phantom let loose a scream that bounced off the mountains and shivered John to the bone.
“No need for more of that.” John sat ram-rod straight. “With all due respect, what in blue blazes do you want with me?”
“Ah, blue blazes! Exactly the point I wish to make,” answered the Ghost, pleased, as Don Sebastian always was, when his behavior was having the desired effect. Holding his chains carefully out of the way, he sat down.
“Why do you wear the chains?” John asked. “They look blamed uncomfortable.”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost with a shrug that made the links rattle. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; of my own free will I did it, and of my own free will I wore it. Does it not look familiar to you? You have been recently forging one very much like it.”
John would have jumped up then but his legs shook even while he sat. He settled for a scowl. “You always did enjoy bringing me terrible news. Are you just back to torment me as you did in life?”
“Torment you? I? I know nothing of this torment of which you speak.” The Phantom raised its eyebrows. “However, I have been sent to help you and my time is short, so listen carefully.” It pointed a spectral finger. “You see, John Cannon, if a spirit is not worthy of Heaven, it is doomed to walk the earth; a special sort of Hell, watching others enjoy fruits of honorable living.” The Ghost brightened, adjusting his coat. “Of course, that is only for Protestant spirits. Victoria has only to say sufficient novenas and I am on my way.” He sighed dramatically. “Given your present path, you might consider converting more sincerely.”
“And what’s wrong with my present path?”
“Ay, caramba!” He exhaled loudly. “Business is business, eh? For business, John Cannon, you ignore the wishes of your wife, you deny your son. A terrible thing, to disown a son! A man’s family should come before mere business, should it not?”
“It didn’t with you.”
“My point exactly!” The spirit howled in mournful rage. “Business! Bah! I could have been a better husband to the wife I loved, a better father to my daughter. I could have judged my son less harshly or cheated fewer men to the poor-house.” Tapping fingers together, it raised its chin. “The welfare of mankind should have been my business, yet I was distinctly lacking in charity, was I not?” It held up the chain, dropped it to the ground and grunted. “No wonder mourners were in short supply at my funeral Mass.”
“I’ve always conducted myself with honesty and honor, Don Sebastian.”
“So? These things are not preferable to mercy.” Leaning forward, the Ghost narrowed its eyes. “Hear me, John! I have been watching you. You were my good friend and are the husband of my daughter; therefore, I give you warning lest you succumb to my current fate.”
“Well, I can’t say I’m not grateful…”
“Sí, and you shall be more grateful yet,” the Spirit continued. “Three more spirits will haunt you. They are the only hope you have, so heed them well.” Hearing this, John’s face sagged. “The first arrives tomorrow when the clock chimes one.”
“For the love of… can’t we get this over with now? I’m a busy man.”
“Without their visits you cannot hope to escape the path I tread.” Preening, the Ghost flicked a bit of ectoplasm from his lapel. “Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night at the last stroke of twelve. This will be my final adios, amigo mio. For your own sake, remember what has passed between us.”
John watched in amazement and some horror as the Spirit began floating upward. “Don’t leave me like this. Tell me more about these ghosts. Can’t I….”
The spirit of Don Sebastian pulled a lacy handkerchief from its pocket and waved it airily under its nose. “Unfortunately for you, I must tend to an urgent matter concerning my brother Domingo. Punto! Sé acaból!” And with that, the ghost dissolved into the night.
The fire vanished along with the spirit, but John wasn’t bothered by that equally odd occurrence. He wasn’t sure he would ever be bothered by anything odd again. He did know that he needed to be home and in his own bed as soon as possible. Because if this was a dream he needed to go back to sleep and wake up in a world he understood. And if the ghost of Don Sebastian had indeed been real, John did not relish meeting three more of the creature’s amigos here in the desolate desert. He stuffed his belongings into saddle bags with a haste he always chastised his brother for. His horse needed no urging to fly back to the ranch at the fastest speed.
Stave 2: The First of the Three Spirits
When John awoke, he saw bedposts looming like sentinel saguaros. He blinked at the bedroom’s stucco wall, when around the corner, the alarm sounded on Buck’s imitation solid-gold pocket watch, buzzing four quarters. “That brilliant brother of mine probably set it so he can remember to have a drink,” he muttered, listening for the hour.
The annoying contraption chimed from six to seven, and from seven to eight, stopping at twelve. “Hell’s bells!” It was past two when he went to bed. Either the clock was wrong or Buck was soaked and John didn’t have an ounce of redeye left in the house. Twelve!
He grappled for the bedside clock and held it aloft. Ticking, its hands stayed at twelve o’clock. “What in tarnation?” said John, giving the clock a shake. “I’ve never slept through a whole day in my entire life!”
Teeth clenched, he swung his feet to the floor and marched to the window. Not enough light to see the guard at the front gate. Ocotillo rattled in the wind and dust swirled in the scant light. The window-pane was cold to the touch. Had to be the same night. Relieved, Big John made his way back to bed. Victoria’s side was empty. Probably downstairs stringing popcorn or hanging bells on the buckboard, he thought, then turning his mind to Don Sebastian’s ghost, grumbled, “Don’t be a darned fool. Nothing but one hum-dinger of a dream.” Half-convinced when the alarm rang again at three quarters more, he remembered the ghost warned of a visitation when the clock struck one. Resolutely vowing to stay awake, he stared at the ceiling, muscles twitching in his jaw.
When the imitation solid-gold pocket watch shrilled one o’clock, John was triumphant. “Let ‘er rip, that’s right! Now if Buck will shut that consarned thing off, I’ll get a little shut-eye.” Words barely spoken, the door to his room flew open in a burst of light bright as a Tucson bawdy-house. Spectral footsteps approached, accompanied by the jingle of ornate Spanish spurs. Suddenly John faced the unearthly visitor wearing them.
A strange figure – a boy yet also an old man, its long hair white and face unlined. Deep dimples puckered the corners of its mouth and it wore a tunic and tight pants of purest white. Around its waist was a lustrous belt of sparkling silver conchos, in its hand a bottle of fresh pulque. The figure’s mutable form turned light then dark, at times it seemed a being with a hundred hands and many hundred fingers.
“What in Sam Hill are you supposed to be?” asked John.
“Yo soy el fantasma de Navidad más allá de. Como se dice, the Ghost of Christmas Past, hombre.” The spirit propped a casual foot on the bedrail. “Your past, amigo mio.”
“My past isn’t anyone’s concern but my own.”
“Wrong! What concerns you concerns me.” said the Ghost. It placed a hand over its heart and bowed slightly. “I say this out of only the greatest regard for your well-being.”
“If you’re worried about my welfare, let me sleep or I won’t be much use tomorrow. High Chaparral won’t run itself.”
The spirit clasped his arm. “Hombre, no. I cannot do that. Andele, vamanos!” It tugged him upright and propelled him forward through the wall. They stood in the parlor of an elegant bordello, surrounded by scantily-dressed women. “I am sorry. The past of someone else. You sure you want to see yours? Ay, Chihuahua! Yours is a little boring, you know?”
“You brought me this far, no sense lollygagging around with a bunch of doxies.”
The spirit hesitated, then sighed. “All right. Con permiso, I will try again.”
As the words were spoken, the bordello vanished and the snow-covered hills of Virginia stretched before them. “Great Scott!” exclaimed John. “I was born and bred here!” The spirit rolled its eyes.
“Ay-yi-yi! Hombre, you think I do not know?” it said, as John’s mind flooded with memories of home. “You remember the way, do you not?”
“Remember? I can describe it so even Pedro could find it!” As they walked along the road, John recognized every field, barn, house and fence. Crossing a bridge, he saw spirited boys rough-housing on the river-bank. John could name every one and called them by name, hollering, “Merry Christmas!”
“Eh, amigo mio? Do not waste your time. They are only shadows of what was. To them, we are nada. We do not exist.” Walking on, they came to a one-room schoolhouse. “In there, compadre. A solitary muchacho cleaning supply cabinets while his friends play.”
John said he knew. “But if I didn’t do it, it’s plain as the nose on your face nobody else would’ve.”
“Are you loco? Madre de Dios! Old pencils, erasers and tablets. Why did you care, hombre?” The spirit scratched its cheek. “You sure you want to do this? We could go back to the bordello, haunt the girls, drink a little…” John glared in silent exasperation.
A puff of cold air swirled the schoolhouse door open and a laughing younger boy burst into the room. Snowflakes fell from his blond curls. “Brrrr! Hey Johnny, you gonna stay here all night?” Sturdy legs clomped to the desk. “We’s going ice skating.”
A smile tugged at John Cannon’s lips; he turned his face to hide it from the Spirit, but could not stop himself from speaking. “Buck!”
“Sí. And others.”
Head swathed in a red wool scarf, golden curls like cornsilk down her back, a small girl rushed into the schoolhouse. Buck took her hand and together, they urged young John to abandon work. Fog from Big John’s breath clouded his eyes, or perhaps it was something more. “Annalee? I…I’d forgotten.” In clearing mist, he saw a snowball sail through air and clout Johnny’s head. A tall, rosy-cheeked boy raced forward. His younger self shouted “Jimmy!” as Big John cried, “Why that’s Jim Forrest!” The two boys wrestled, then ran from the room, books and erasers forgotten.
The Ghost laid a hand on his arm, and they spiraled through air, landing at a frozen pond. “Your amigos, sí?” it asked as laughing children skated across the ice.
John cleared his throat. “They can’t see us or hear us?” When the Ghost shook its head, he moved closer. Johnny and Jimmy raced across the pond. Tumbling to the bank, they lay panting steamy breath and staring at a bright moon.
Sitting up, Jimmy dug in his pocket, nudged his friend with a toe and held out a clumsy bundle. “Merry Christmas, Johnny. It ain’t much, but since we’re best pals and all, I figured, well…” Grinning, he thrust it into his hand.
Untying the string, Johnny Cannon gasped. “It’s your pocket knife! This is the best thing… Jimmy, I can’t take this.”
“Sure you can. It’s a present, that’s what it’s for.”
John watched with growing tightness in his chest. The Ghost tapped his shoulder and spoke. “Too expensive, eh? And Christmas is not until tomorrow. A foolish thing, is it not?”
Moonlight magnified the crevices of John’s face, every year tracing a sharp line. When the Ghost tugged at his arm, he shook his head, pulling toward the children. Buck and Annalee held hands, twirling in an awkward circle, then fell laughing to the ice. “Seems like you brought me all this way, we could at least stay a while.” The Spirit’s dimples framed a determined smile, and it insisted they leave. John sagged, then squared his shoulders. “Well, let’s get on with it.”
Wind roared from darkness, covering the school and skating-pond with heavy snow. Disoriented, rising with only the Spirit’s hand to steady him, John flailed weightless in a murky void, hearing only the whoosh of cold air. Vision returned slowly as he fell into the clamor of battle. Gunshots, shouts, shadowy men in blue uniforms. With a thud, he was on his knees atop a gentle hill.
Gasping for breath, John saw Union soldiers crouched behind outcroppings, firing across a wide valley into a twisted maze of broken rocks. Returning fire from Rebel soldiers pinged against Union breastworks and ricocheted off granite, turning Pennsylvania air hazy with black powder smoke. Instinctively, John rolled behind a boulder, throwing his hands protectively over his head to dodge incoming bullets. He heard laughter and looked up at the Ghost, standing tall amid a volley of gunfire. Chuckling, it said, “Hombre, you are not really here. Entiendes?”
Scrambling to his feet, dusting off dirt and leaves, John tasted bitter metal as he said, “Sugar Loaf.” Glancing across the valley at Plum Creek, he swallowed and continued, “Little Round Top they call it now.” He pointed a finger and barked, “I lived through this once, I don’t much want to do it again.”
The Specter’s white hair danced in the wind, the strangely ageless angles of its face jagged as rocky outcroppings. It jerked its chin toward a wooden breastwork. “Mira. Look.”
Lying behind sheltering logs, Captain John Cannon pulled a Confederate soldier roughly to a half-sitting position and shouted in his ear. Blood ran from the man’s chest and his head lolled as Cannon ripped at the gray woolen uniform. “You hold on, Jim. I’m getting this bullet out, but you hold on, you hear me?” When the jacket wouldn’t yield he dug in a pocket and retrieved a knife, unfolded it and began to cut.
His friend coughed and grasped his hand. “You still got that thing?” When John nodded and told him to get ready, his bloody hand gripped tighter. “Promise me, John.”
“Hold still, you damned fool. Promise you what?”
Red froth bubbled on his lips as he wheezed. “I’m not going West with you, Johnny. I’m going to rest here a while.” He was quiet so long Cannon thought he was gone, then, “Promise you’ll find Buck after it’s over, and you’ll go for us all.”
When the bullet was out and Jim Forrest breathed evenly, Captain Cannon cleaned the knife and folded it, his eyes like flint. Turning away from his friend, he shouted, “Sergeant of the Guard! Get me a prisoner escort on the double.”
Turning from the long-ago battlefield, John Cannon slipped a hand into his pocket and fingered the familiar metal. “I buried my dead in this war a long time ago.”
“Perhaps” The Ghost’s hand touched his shoulder. “In my heart is only compassion, amigo. But it takes a certain type of hombre to save a friend, then take him prisoner. Entiendes?”
“I only did my duty to my country,” said John, voice cracking.
“What about duty to your friend? Was that of no importance?”
John wiped a hand across his eyes, then set his jaw and frowned at the Spirit. “If it was, I don’t see what I’m supposed to do about it now. But I suppose you’re going to tell me.”
“No, gracias.” He shrugged a shoulder. “Your problem, eh? I have important business elsewhere.”
“Then take me back where you found me and go haunt somebody else.”
“Bueno! There is a very lovely succubus I want know better. Andele! Vamanos!” With that, the Spirit disappeared in a blinding flash of light and John was again in his own bed. Exhausted, he sunk into a deep sleep.
Stave 3: The Second of the Three Spirits
A thunderous rumbling shook John to consciousness. Buck snores like a bear with a sore foot when he ties one on, should’ve made him sleep in the bunkhouse. He lit the bedside lamp before the pocket watch chimed one o’clock, determination in his eyes. If Don Sebastian’s next visitor showed up, he was ready.
The minute hand crept past the hour, five, ten minutes. John extinguished the lamp, only then noticing light from downstairs seeping underneath the bedroom door. Cursing, he pulled on boots, grabbed his Colt and rushed to the stairs.
He skidded to a stop at the landing. Garlands of greenery hung from the ceiling, holly and mistletoe draped the fireplace mantle, and blocking the door was a tree wreathed in popcorn strings, candy-canes and candles. Food covered the dining room table; in the center as plump a turkey as Fergus MacLeish ever raised.
“Mighty fine, ain’t it, John Boy?” A hulking spirit sprawled on the couch with a turkey-leg in one hand and large black boots propped on the pillows. Wearing green so dark it appeared black, its black hat was banded with holly and an icicle dangled from the back. Blond tufts of hair sprang from underneath the hat, free as the Phantom’s genial face. Its eyes as young and old as the desert, the holster on its gunbelt was empty, but a leather ammo band around its bicep held shiny silver bullets. Biting off a hunk of turkey, it held the drumstick to John, dripping grease on the gold velvet upholstery. “It’s good. You want some?”
“Well, I think… maybe I’d better…” Voice stronger than his buckling knees, John slumped into a chair and clasped shaking hands in his lap. “I think I’ll pass.”
The happy Apparition gnawed the last gristle from the drumstick, then pulled a pie from underneath a pillow and grabbed a chunk with gloved fingers. “You sure you don’t need a snack to take with us?”
“No, no. But don’t hold back on my account,” he rasped, dry-mouthed.
“Naw, I wouldn’t do that, Big John. I ain’t eat all year.” Pie finished, the Spirit crunched an apple, tossed the core on the coffee-table and clambered to its feet. After vigorous stretching, it rounded the couch and pushed him toward the door. “C’mon, we got more than beeves to round up.”
John braced himself as the heavy door swung open, expecting to fall into dark nothingness. Instead he stepped into bright daylight and the bustle of morning on the ranch. Sailing across the porch, Victoria chattered at Buck who trailed her closely, arms full of boxes. The Ghost leaned over his shoulder and chuckled. “Real handsome man, your brother.”
Buck’s hat slipped between his shoulder blades as he collapsed on a bench and dropped the packages in a heap. “Victoria, slow down. John ain’t gonna be back until night anyways, and I ain’t no donkey.” He kicked a brightly wrapped present. “Who’s this one for?”
“That is for me to know, Buck Cannon, and for you to not find out.” Hand on her hips, Victoria tapped her foot impatiently. “I want everything ready before John comes home, and I cannot have things ready if you do not make them ready, so kindly do not sit there like a stubborn burro.”
“All right, I said I’d help you, you don’t have to be so noisy about it.”
“Noisy!” Face flushed, she exploded into rapid Español and continued into the dining room. Occasional words carried out to Buck. “Noisy….head too big from whiskey….cabeza dura…surrounded by men more like children than children….” Sighing, he observed maybe Blue was safer in St. Louis and began to gather boxes.
Beef sandwich in its hand, the Spirit tapped John’s shoulder, grinding bits of meat into his leather vest. “Blue Boy ain’t home for Christmas?” As John turned away it stuffed food into its cheeks and mumbled, “Boy oughta be with family for holiday, why you figure he ain’t?”
“I’m not… I’m not exactly sure,” John stammered, clearing his parched throat. Coldness clutching his heart, fingers working at his side, he stiffened his shoulders. “But I raised him to think for himself, to do what he believes is right. He’s a grown man, if he wanted to come home, he would.”
“Could be. Or could be he’s got a touch of Cannon pride, same as you. When you come here,” it continued, pulling a full whiskey bottle from a vest pocket, “you met with Cochise and them other Aye-patch, worked out a way to live peaceful.” The Spirit took a swig, wiped its mouth and smacked the cork into place. “Funny how you was willing to meet them Injuns half-way, but not your own son.” Before John could answer, the Ghost’s beefy hand propelled him across the yard and shoved him into the bunkhouse.
Leather, wood-smoke and grease congealed in the still air. Metal scraped against the stovetop as Sam Butler replaced the coffeepot and carried a steaming tin cup to his brother. Propped in a lower bunk, sweat beaded Joe’s forehead as he struggled to push upright. “Keep the coffee, Sam, it don’t sit right.”
Sam chewed his lip, then drank the bitter bottom dregs. “Joe, you got no business on a horse. I’ll tell the boss, you’ve got to get to Tucson to see the Doc again.”
“What’re you gonna pay him with, my good looks?”
“We’d be better off paying him with the back end of your horse.”
“Is that right?” Joe muttered from the corner of his mouth. “Let’s try it, see if he can tell the difference between your face and my horse’s a…” Hacking coughs shoved him against the rough headboard.
John winced when the Spirit prodded him with a blunt finger, saying, “Looks like Joe Boy could ride night herd, don’t it?”
“If he was half the man he claims to be, Big John would take care of it.” Sam muttered back. “Would you just lie down, you ornery cuss? You’re not going anywhere. I don’t care what he says.”
Joe grinned. “Well, since you asked so purty…listen, Sam, don’t be shooting off your mouth to Big John. He’s a good man and fair man. And you know it. We’re lucky to be here. We could be back in San Felipe, under Ben Lynch’s thumb. Or in jail.” He leaned back against his pillow and fixed an innocent look on his too-pale face. “He ain’t thrown me out. That’s something. He just wants me back on the job because I get twice as much done as you.”
“Now I know you’re getting’ worse – whatever you got has addled your brain.” Sam managed a smile he wasn’t really feeling. Then one of Joe’s coughing fits made his grim look return. “Can’t I – do anything for you?” he asked, when his brother had caught his breath.
“Large whiskey. Make it a double,” Joe croaked, wiping blood from his lip. He grinned at his own joke.
“Some Christmas this is turning out to be,” Sam sighed. He held Joe’s head so he could drink some water.
“Just cheer up, Sam. I promise not to make you an orphan at least until the New Year.”
Dismay dimmed the foreman’s bright blue eyes. He got up and paced the small room like a captured mountain cat.
Quietly, Joe said, “I ain’t scared, Sam. Don’t you be, either.”
John Cannon grabbed the spirit’s sleeve with a sudden urgency. “Spirit, tell me that Joe Butler is going to be all right.”
“There be an empty place,” replied the Ghost, removing the black hat and rubbing unruly hair, “at the poker table in the bunkhouse. Unless something happens to change it, Joe’s gonna die.”
“No! It isn’t true. Tell me it’s a joke.” John’s emotion had him trying to shake the shoulders of his vapor-like host.
“I’m telling you straight out, Big John, come spring you’ll be short one ranch hand.” The Spirit slammed the hat on its head and spoke through clenched teeth. “Just because Joe’s a Butler don’t mean he ain’t replaceable.”
John hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit. There was nothing he could say in reply. And then blackness surrounded him, the Ghost’s voice echoing into oblivion, “You can always hire some other man to take his place.”
Stave 4: The Last of the Spirits
In the darkness John twitched awake, every nerve raw and senses stretched to breaking. For a moment he thought he’d dozed between Apache attacks or battles to save the Union. When the Spirit came, he didn’t doubt its presence; its shrouded bulk blotted out wan moonlight. Tall, broad-shouldered, its face hooded, it stood silently at bedside. John cleared his throat and asked, “You’re here to show me what’s to come in the future, aren’t you?” This Ghost never answered, only nodded its dark head once, then gestured for him to rise.
Choking dread leapt in his stomach as John pushed back covers and heaved his feet to the floor. Staring at the Wraith, honest fear gripped John, but his determination spoke, “Let’s get on with it.” The Spirit nodded, and pointed to the door. As John stepped forward the room darkened and then lightened in a blur.
As the scene cleared around him, he saw a well-worn saloon, waxy candles burned low in clay holders and sawdust on the scuffed floor. The tall bartender stretched, pushing back long hair and re-tying his apron across decades of beer. Fitness clung to broad shoulders and strong hands as he filled mugs and delivered them to a table of poker players.
The three cronies played listless cards and gossiped, draining beer in gulps. White hair hanging in greasy strings, the fat one leaned back in his chair and offered, “Gimme two cards, Jimmy John. Now what I hear is, he died by hisself, fell over in the middle of that big compound.”
The dealer’s one tooth shone against blackened gums as he licked a thumb and carefully peeled off cards. “’Course he was by hisself, ain’t got nobody but hisself do he? Run off all his kin from what I hear.” He rubbed a liver-spotted hand across his bald head, then leaned forward and whispered, in his deafness loud enough for crows to hear. “They’s gold in old placer mines scattered all over the ranch. Old buzzard was too dang stubborn to dig it out.”
The stocky player fanned his cards and snorted. “Jimmy John, you dream gold in the middle of Montezeuma Street. All that land is wide open for the taking, and I intend to take some. With that old skinflint out of the way, it’s time for new blood.” His smirk stayed in place as a solid black gloved hand tapped his shoulder, then smashed his face, grabbed his collar and pitched him into a wall.
The newcomer was a broad man in black. He bent stiffly, retrieved broken pieces of chair and tossed them at the unconscious player. After dusting his hands, he rubbed gloved fingers through unruly hair, replaced his battered black hat and nodded at the two old-timers. “Jimmy, Len. You got something else to say?”
Jimmy John grinned around his one tooth. “Nope. Good to see you Buck. Staying long?”
Buck Cannon’s face was dark as he turned away. “Not any longer than I have to.”
Elbow propped on the bar, Sam Butler poured whiskey into shot glasses. “Well Bucko, it was a fair fight.” Buck nodded, they clinked glasses, grimaced, and tossed off the redeye.
Frowning, John turned to the Spirit. “My brother never needed an excuse to break up a saloon. Who were they talking about?” Quiet as a grave, the ghostly presence floated over the batwing doors, leaving John no choice but to follow. It pointed two ghastly, unfleshed fingers north, and John saw two men walking towards him. He knew them both very well – Creed Hallock, who managed the bank in Tucson, and Ebenezer Binns, the editor of the town newspaper, The Tucson Citizen. Creed and Ebenezer were men that John held in some regard, though he wouldn’t exactly call them friends. He had personally helped both these men to achieve their prominence in the town; without him neither would have met with successful careers.
“Mr. Hallock, how are you?” said Ebenezer, doffing his derby hat.
“Fine, thanks. You?” Creed gave a nod of his head.
“Have you heard the news? The big man has met his maker at last.”
“So I am told. Cold, isn’t it?”
“Seasonable for Christmas time. Mrs. Hallock is well, I take it?”
“Very well. I’ll tell her you asked. Well, time to get to work.”
“Good morning to you.”
Not another word. That was their meeting, their conversation, and their parting.
John could not help wondering why such a trivial dialogue would need to be heard. Obviously someone had died but he couldn’t think who it would be or what bearing it had on him. Though this spirit frightened him to the very depths of his soul, he was tempted to chide it for wasting time. Surely there were lessons for him to learn; after what he had been through the past few nights, of that much he was sure. Why couldn’t they just be made apparent?
As if reading his thoughts, the ghost turned its unseeing eyes on John. It raised a black bony hand and pointed once more. The town of Tucson dissolved around them in a swirl of grey smoke.
The Phantom spread its dark robe before him for a moment, like a wing; and withdrawing it, revealed a room at night time. John recognized it instantly as the bunkhouse and he breathed a shuddering sigh of relief to be back in familiar surroundings.
What was unfamiliar was the behavior of the ranch hands. No one played poker, no one even spoke. Reno held his guitar but did not strum it. Pedro lay on his bunk. The always productive Wind sat at the small table, still as a statue. Only Ira paced the floor, stopping every time he reached the window to look out.
When Sam opened the door they all jumped up and gathered around him. John, who knew this man as well as if he was another brother, saw a face that had aged greatly, full of a sadness that could only come from the heart. An odd mixture of emotions gave the foreman a remarkable expression; as if he wanted to smile but knew that he shouldn’t.
“Compadre, tell us, por favor!” Pedro finally broke the silence. Sam slunk down into the nearest chair.
“Is it good or bad?” Ira tried to help him.
Sam appeared embarrassed how to answer. Finally, holding any emotion in check he blurted out, “Bad.”
“He wants the money we borrowed to get Joe to the sanatorium and he wants it right now,” Reno intoned in a lifeless voice.
“No, it’s not that. There’s still some hope.”
Ira fell into the chair next to Sam. “If he forgives the debt,” he said, amazed, “then it’s a blamed miracle.”
“He actually relented?” asked Wind.
“He’s past relenting,” said Sam. “He’s dead.”
To a man their expressions now rivaled Sam’s; one second full of thankfulness and relief, and the next, sadness and guilt.
“I thought he was avoiding me all this time,” Sam continued. “Turns out he was awful sick. Dying.”
“So who do we have to pay the dinero back to now?” asked Pedro.
“I don’t know. But before that time we’ll be ready with the money; I’ll be ready. I never should have let you all get involved. It was up to me to take care of my brother.”
“You tried to stop us, remember?” Ira attempted a smile. “Didn’t work.”
“Si. Un amigo bueno. It was a few pesos well spent.” Pedro remained serious.
“Well, it ain’t possible to owe anybody that’s more hard-hearted than he was,” Reno offered.
Sam started to smile and tried to stop it at the same time which produced something like a twitch. “Boys, I’m not gonna worry. Let’s just get a good night’s sleep tonight for a change.”
They moved towards their bunks and prepared for sleep, no one speaking. Only when the gas lamp had been dimmed, a low voice, lighter in spirit murmured, “He’s really dead. Seems fitting, don’t it, Sam?”
The foreman made no reply.
Who the devil had died? John wondered. Who would the ranch hands have gone to for money? When it had been borrowed to help a sick man, what kind of miser would hold the debt over their heads? Sounded like something Don Sebastian would do, though that miserly man had expired long before this scene occurred. Still, this lack of remorse over someone’s death was beginning to weigh heavily on him. Could a similar reaction be all his own end would meet?
“Spirit,” he murmured as politely as he could, “Couldn’t you show me something that isn’t so… discouraging?” He had barely finished his words when the scene once again swirled into a cold mist. When it lifted he faced the little cemetery where Annalee was buried. Though it was not yet dawn, Sam Butler stood among the graves, his head hanging low. After a minute he crossed himself slowly, as if the gesture was not yet a routine. He started for the house without raising his head.
Before John had a chance to step aside, Sam had walked right through him; an unnerving experience that made John totter on the solid ground. Sam knocked on the door, his back to his unseen audience. John did not need to see the man’s face to notice the changes in his foreman. The formerly strong shoulders were stooped now and his head hung low. An air of listlessness hung over him as obvious as a cloud of smoke.
“Sam! Merry Christmas!” Victoria exclaimed. She took both his hands and pulled him inside. “You are just in time to have coffee with me. Everyone else is still asleep. But you and I – we will celebrate this wonderful morning together.” She put her arm through his and led him to the table.
John saw Sam’s face then and drew back in some alarm. The man looked as if he had aged ten years; his face pale and drawn, his eyes bleary. But Victoria looked just the same; stunningly beautiful in a black dress with a colorful shawl around her shoulders. It was clear from her appearance that this was not the too-distant future.
“I don’t know if we got too much reason for celebrating,” Sam mumbled as Victoria filled a china cup with steaming coffee.
“That is the wrong word, perhaps. Forgive me,” she said quietly.
John was more than surprised to see his foreman lay his hand in a particularly tender way on his wife’s arm. “There ain’t nothing to forgive. You’ve been like an angel these past months, helping me – helping us all to get through this. I couldn’t have handled it without you. And I ain’t done anything to help you.”
Victoria shook her head. “You lost your closest companion. I did not.”
They both sat back, drinking their coffee. “And you stayed,” Victoria added suddenly. “You stayed to run the ranch, when I know you would have preferred to grieve by yourself. With Manolito helping Tio Domingo now and Buck unable to face what has happened, what would I have done without you, Sam? So can we not celebrate our bond? Though loss has brought us closer, I cannot help but feel…some joy that we are here to celebrate this day…together.”
John bristled at the way Sam’s sad blue eyes lit up, and now it was Victoria who put her hand on his arm. The silence between the two seemed to bring them comfort but John wished he had a voice to disrupt it. He breathed a sigh of relief when they got up and moved into the living room, sitting across from one another.
“I know it was late when Blue finally arrived last night, but did he tell you what he has planned?” asked Sam.
“There was a great deal of news to share. He still enjoys his life in St. Louis. He is now a partner in Carson Publications – the inheritance allowed him to purchase part of the company. And there is a certain young lady who will be receiving a ring when he returns.”
“He’s not coming back here for good?”
“He is not. It is not the life for him. He has many plans; a great future in front of him. He will have much success, though it is very different than his father envisioned. And I am happy for him. Though I cannot help but feel sad for myself. We cried together last night, Blue and I.” Victoria wrapped her shawl more tightly around her shoulders.
“I don’t want you to cry!” Sam exclaimed with as much fervor as if she was weeping pitifully now. “If I had anything to say about it, you’d never have a reason to cry a day in your life.” Then he cringed at the outburst. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s got in to me lately. I should go….”
“Please don’t.” Victoria grabbed his arms and held on tightly. “I need you here, Sam. I…want you here. There is only you and me. Can we not make our own dream here, together?”
He stared down into her face as if seeing its beauty for the first time. An incredible joy crept into his eyes but he shut them suddenly and shook his head. “I’ll be the foreman here as long as you want me to. It’s…so soon after…you can’t mean…”
Victoria got up without a word. She moved to the window and looked out into the morning, now turning rosy as the sun cleared the mountains. Sam hesitated, then slowly moved to join her.
“Perhaps you do not want to stay here and be reminded of your brother,” Victoria said quietly. “You must have dreams of your own. Sam, wherever you decide to go – I would like to go with you. “
He reached out for her, awkwardly, and she grasped his hands. “Where will you take me?”
“Sometimes I do think about going.” he murmured. “But how could I? I can’t get my mind around leaving Joe out there, all alone. The ground is so cold…I must be crazy.” He tried to laugh; a painful sound that brought Victoria close enough to embrace.
“Sam,” she said gently, lovingly. “Joe is not in the ground. Not the Joe we loved. He is in Heaven right now, do you not know that?”
Now he smiled; a full, honest smile. “My brother, that mangy cuss, in Heaven? Are you sure about that?”
They laughed together and moved closer still.
“I still think I’m crazy. “Cause I can hear Joe talking plain as day right now.”
“And what is he saying?” Victoria’s eyes twinkled.
“’Grab her quick and don’t ever let go, you crazy fool. Tell her that her dreams are your dreams. And that you’ll make all of her dreams come true.’”
“I always liked your brother…” Victoria stood on tiptoe to take Sam’s face in her hands. “He has a most wonderful way with words, no?”
The scene faded to blackness in front of John’s confused eyes. The Spirit once again waved its shrouded arm in a new direction.
“No!” John shouted. “Give me a blessed minute to think, won’t you!” He sunk to the ground and gripped his head in his hands. The words and visions he had just experienced swam in a jumble. He let a moan escape his lips.
“Spirit, I can’t take any more. Mark my words, I’ll do everything in my power to change what I’ve seen. Let tonight be over, take me home to my wife and by all that’s holy, I’ll be a new man.” But the Ghost glided away, pointing ahead.
Familiar darkness swept John yet again to a different time. He understood there was no order in these visions, except they were of the future. He stumbled, catching himself on the familiar hitching post. Wind blew sand against his clothes and stung his eyes, behind him the front door hung on one hinge, banging loosely against the frame. Desolation covered the compound and house. Crossbeam posts were broken and charred, the adobe divider crumbled, and the side porch collapsed on itself. Loud creaking from the windmill echoed in emptiness.
John hurried to the porch, but the Spirit stopped him, motioning to the front gate.
“This is my house, whatever year it is,” John said, pushing his way past. “Let me by.” Still the spirit pointed.
Stepping around weeds and trash, John wrenched open the door to a bare room. Blown sand piled in corners, broken dining room windows and shutters. He strode to the Spirit, demanding, “All we worked for and built, come to nothing? The land, the ranch, abandoned?” John turned away, overcome, then spun back. “Before I follow you, tell me one thing. Is this what will be, or what might be?” The Ghost stood, unwavering, and John continued, “Tell me! If a man changes his ways, can he change his future?”
As the Spirit’s finger demanded attention, John Cannon at last looked beyond the front gate, where the once proud sign hung crooked and broken. Sighting along the Ghost’s course, he cried out, then ran toward the small hill covered with chaparral and a lone saguaro. When he reached Annalee’s grave, he fell to his knees and covered his eyes. “No, no, I won’t look. I won’t.” The Spirit stood beside him, pointing to a second grave. Slowly, John rose to his feet and spoke through clenched teeth. “I understand. Do you hear me? I understand. And by God, I won’t be the man I was. I didn’t bury her here to have all this be for nothing.”
Cold as death, the Phantom ignored him. Thinking to see its face, John reached for its shoulder. As he spun it toward him, its flesh collapsed, the heavy robe shrinking under his fingers. A shriek echoed through the desert, assaulting his ears. Grasping cloth with both hands, he clutched at the Spirit, gathering the material to his chest and face. The Spirit’s howling changed in his ears, becoming his own voice; the heavy, rough robe softened. In the darkness of his familiar bedroom, John Cannon held handfuls of his own bedclothes.
Stave 5: The End of It
The mist cleared once more, leaving John Cannon in his bedroom. Unbroken furniture clean, glass whole in windows. Clapping his hands, he laughed. “I’m alive, and it’s today! Past, Present, and Future, I’m a man who’s seen all three, and I’m alive!” Rushing to the window, he threw aside the curtains, tugged open the window, and stuck his head out. “Hey, what’s today?” he called to Pedro as he crossed the yard toward the corral, carrying a saddle.
“You talking to me, Boss?” returned the lanky ranch hand, scratching his head.
“Today, Pedro, what’s today?”
He searched the compound, then shrugged. “Es Navidad. Christmas Day.”
John leaned against the window sill, relief pouring through his veins. “Christmas Day. I didn’t miss it. They did it in one night. A bunch of ghosts, I guess they can do anything they want.” Leaning out the window again, he yelled, “You’re a fine man, you know that?”
Pedro’s expressive eyes bulged as he edged away from the ranch-house, holding the saddle between himself and his employer. “Sí, that’s right, whatever you say, Señor Cannon.”
“Smart man, really remarkable,” John said to himself. “I should’ve noticed it before.” He continued louder, “Pedro, take a good horse! Take the best horse in the corral, and get yourself to the MacLeish place! You men need a proper dinner tonight and one bird isn’t enough. Get the biggest turkey there and be back in an hour, there’s an extra ten dollars in it for you.” He withdrew into the room then ducked his head out again. “Make it in half an hour, I’ll give you fifteen.”
“¡Ay, Chihuahua! Quince dólares!” Pedro dropped the saddle on his foot, then grabbed it and scrambled for the corral as John called out “Merry Christmas!”
Wide smile on his face, John clapped his hands together and spun toward the door, yelling, “Victoria! Victoria!”
“What is wrong John?” Expressive eyes wide, she hurried from the hall, arms full of linens. “You are bellowing like a mad bull. Are you ill?”
“I’m just fine, dear.” Taking the bundle from her and laying it on the bed, he kissed her tenderly, then wrapped her in his arms and waltzed her around the room. Holding her tightly, he murmured, “I’m the luckiest man alive, and you’re the best Christmas present I’ll ever have.”
“Oh John,” she answered, eyes shining, “hearing that is all the gift I need.”
The High Chaparral ranch hands awoke to the sound of loud banging over their heads. Reno sat up so quickly he bumped his head on the bunk over him, Wind was on his feet in an instant, knife drawn, Ira groaned and pulled his pillow over his ears to muffle the intrusion.
“What in blazes…”
“Santy Claus has remembered us after all,” Joe laughed, coughed, then laughed some more. “I guess he’s having a hard time finding our chimney and is gonna make his own.”
“Santy Claus must be a whole lot fatter than he is in the pictures,” Reno growled and rubbed his head. “I was gonna sleep all day.”
“I thought that this Claus man was a storybook character,” Wind hollered over the noise that seemed to shake the entire structure. “Buck told me – he has a flying buckboard for delivering presents.”
“That’s right. Only it ain’t the buckboard that flies, it’s the twenty beeves. Can’t you hear ‘em on our roof?” Joe continued to laugh though it made his breath come in hard, strangled rasps.
Ira flung his pillow across the room, hitting Joe in the head. “What have you got to be so cheerful about? It’s supposed to be our day off. It ain’t even hardly day yet.”
“It’s Christmas. And I’m still alive. Seems like a good day to me.”
Sam said nothing but stumbled into britches and boots. Grabbing his jacket and holster, Sam raced outside to find John Cannon on the bunkhouse roof, pounding a thick plank over the hole that had contributed to their frosty living conditions. The big man sat back on his haunches and took the nails out of his mouth.
“What do you mean by sleeping until this hour of the day?” he bellowed at his foreman. “There’s work to be done! This roof isn’t going to fix itself, you know.”
Still woozy from sleep, Sam rubbed his eyes and tried to think. “But Boss…it’s Christmas Day. You said…you gave us the day off. Remember?”
“Bah!” John climbed down the ladder with menacing steps. “Paying good wages – fair wages! – to a bunch of men who don’t appreciate the good job they have. And your brother – laying around all day, not pulling his weight, just because he’s a little under the weather. Well, I’m not going to stand for it any longer, you hear?”
Sam’s mouth was open but no words came. Then he saw John take a step toward him and raise his arm. But the large hand came down to clap him on the shoulder.
“So I’m going to take care of him. Least I can do for someone who’s helped me make Chaparral what it is. I would never have realized my dream for this ranch if it wasn’t for you and Joe and all the hard work you’ve done. First thing tomorrow we’ll go into Tucson and send the money to the sanatorium. And get you and Joe a couple of train tickets to San Francisco.”
The man was smiling as broadly as Sam had ever seen, his large frame practically twitching with delight. Sam wondered if he should call the boys to help restrain the poor soul who had obviously lost his senses during the night or perhaps just knock him out before he did an injury to himself. He settled for taking the hammer out of his employer’s hand.
“You want to sit down a minute, Boss?”
John laughed and clapped Sam’s shoulder again. “Yes, let’s go in the house and have some breakfast. Have all the men come in. Victoria will help us make plans for Joe, she is excellent at making plans. I want to be with all my friends today. My wonderful family and friends.”
He turned towards the house, then wheeled around and started towards the barn at top speed. “I need to send a telegram. Right now, to Blue. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll tell him – no, I’ll ask him…”
Sam grabbed his arm. “The telegraph office won’t be open yet, Mr. Cannon.”
John laughed again. But then he sighed; a deep, pleasurable sigh, and seemed to become more himself. “Of course you’re right. There are just so many things I want to…put right. But I have the rest of my life to do it, don’t I? I intend to live a very, very long time.”
Later in a Tucson office, John apologized to Doc Plant. “Ben, I’m sorry to make you work on Christmas, but I couldn’t wait.”
Amid the medicinal smells, Ben Plant tapped out his pipe and shook his head. “It’s no problem, John, but there’s nothing more I can do for him. Maybe a specialist can offer some hope, but I’ll be honest, it doesn’t look good.”
“Listen to me Doc,” John leaned forward in his chair, one hand tugging at his glove. “I don’t care what it costs, Joe Butler built Chaparral alongside me and my family. I want him well.”
“There’s a good man in St. Louis.” He lit another pipe. “Or there’s the place in San Francisco I told Sam about.”
Standing, John shook the doctor’s hand. “You just get the best man for the job. Tomorrow. Merry Christmas, Ben.”
Mid-morning, most streets of Tucson were quiet, but on Meyer, saloon business was brisk with celebrating saddle-tramps. Tinny piano music drifted from behind bat-wing doors and half-open windows, mingling with slurred carols and bawdy lyrics. John paused at the hitching rail to pat Buck and Manolito’s patient horses, laughed at his brother’s voice singing ‘We Three Kings’. As Buck slurred the kings into ‘Buffalo Gals’, John marched to his last stop before heading home. His heart felt easy as he opened the door, grinning as he read the brightly lettered sign: Wells Fargo-Western Union-Butterfield Stage.
At a well-to-do townhouse in St. Louis, a plump housemaid answered the door. “What would you be a-wanting on such a night?” Shivering, the deliveryman offered an envelope. The maid snatched it away and moved to close the door when her employer spoke.
“Katheen, bring the young man to the kitchen for a toddy.” A weed of a man, he sighed and peered over the top of his pince-nez spectacles at her frowning face. “In the spirit of the season, Katy. At least for tonight remember you work for me and give the poor man a decent drink.” Grumbling, she thrust the envelope at her boss and bustled the deliveryman away.
With long, thin fingers, Benton Arthur Carson adjusted his glasses and eyed the envelope. Eyebrows raised, he called, “William, I think you should attend to this.”
Dressed in patterned waistcoat, winged collar, and Ascot tie, Blue Cannon trotted from the dining room. “Mr. Carson?” He accepted the envelope in surprise, opened it and whistled. “It’s from home.”
Benton Carson stepped precisely to his side study and poured two small brandy glasses. “I surmised as much. No one ill, I hope?”
“No.” Blue sat on an overstuffed wingchair and glanced at his employer. “I’m not sure what to make of this, to tell you the truth. Listen. ‘Merry Christmas, Blue. Never doubt you have a home if you want it.’ Then it says LK 15:23-24. What the heck does that mean?”
“William there are times I despair of making you a civilized man.” Carson sat in a second chair and crossed a stork-like leg over his knee. “We make a good deal of money publishing penny-dreadful books. That is no excuse to be illiterate boors.” He snaked a long arm to an overstuffed bookcase, withdrew a well-thumbed volume, flipped it open, and handed it to Blue, marking a passage with his finger. “Read that, my lad.”
“And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.” The book fell slack in his hand as Blue stared into space. “Well I’ll be.”
Topping off the brandy glasses, Benton Arthur Carson raised a toast. “Merry Christmas, William. I think I shall not see you here next holiday season.”
Blue rose from his chair and crossed to the door, opened it and stared across the city, westward. Streetlamps rose like arms of saguaro among the mountains of buildings. Running fingers through his hair, he bit his lip, then turned to the study. “Mr. Carson, could you spare me for a few weeks?”
Christmas evening, John Cannon walked to the edge of his ranch-house porch, leaned against the divider, and stared east. He smiled fondly at Victoria when she slipped her arm in his and said, “You did the right thing, John. Blue will come back. I know this in my heart.”
Patting her hand, John answered, “I hope so, Victoria. But I promise you, I’ve learned something. The people I love are more important than anything else in this world. And I won’t rest until all of them are here with me.”
John Cannon was a man of his word. His stubborn will and iron purpose changed his nightmarish future to one of peace and prosperity. Once rekindled, the softness of his heart, which Victoria saw the first time she met him, never left again. If he did not always laugh out loud, the lines of his face and eyes carried the joy of his soul to his family and friends.
Of the Sprits, he never told a soul, nor did he ever see them again. In Tucson and Arizona, it was said that he knew how to live well and keep Christmas. Many years later, when he met his final fate, he died a happy man, well loved and surrounded by family.
On that day, his youngest grandson Timothy Cannon, crept into weeping Victoria’s lap and held her hand. “God bless Grandpa,” he said. “God bless us every one.”