Madeleine braced her arms on the stall gate to watch Big Mike dip his muzzle into the bucket of mash. His long eyelashes, starry with melted snowflakes, fluttered with appreciation as he chewed.
Holland, drifting behind Madeleine, gave a pale chuckle. “Nice manners in such a big horse.”
Madeleine sighed. “Go away, Holland.”
“Leave you alone out here?”
“I am alone out here.” She lifted her head, and glanced around the barn. The goats were snuggled into their bed of straw. She had given Big Mike his rubdown, and the ragged towel was drying on its hook beside the door to the feed room. The other Belgian put his nose over his stall gate and whuffed, asking for his own share of mash.
“Sorry, Theo,” Madeleine said. “Big Mike had to pull the wagon all the way to town and back. He earned it.” Theo stamped his hooves and shook his mane in protest. Madeleine said, “Okay, okay.” She dug a wrinkled winter apple from her pocket, and fed it to him, savoring the softness of his thick lips against her palm. She stood for a moment, letting Theo–short for Theodore, named by Holland for the president he had admired most–nose her pockets in a futile search for more. She put her arms around his head, and laid her cheek against his wide, warm one, breathing in the comforting smells of good horseflesh, clean straw, the peppery tang of goat. Hildy, the shepherd, snuffled in the corners in search of any rats she might have missed the day before. The hens in their coop clucked and chirped as they settled in for the night.
“Getting dark,” Holland whispered behind her.
“I know.” She released Theo, and stepped back. She buttoned her overlarge coat, a heavy one that had belonged to her father, and felt the weight of the Peacemaker dragging at her pocket. She had come across it by accident, in a drawer in the feed room. She was used to the Springfield bolt-action rifle and the Winchester shotgun, but they were too bulky when she had buckets and sacks to move. The Colt pistol was easy to lug around, but it was heavy, and that made it hard to aim. If she ever had to use it, she would need something to brace it on.
She pushed the barn door open, and stepped out into the cold with Hildy at her heels. She closed the door, carefully hanging the weighted latch so the rising wind couldn’t blow it open. “Come on, Hildegard. Let’s make a dash for it.”
Hildy had been named by Holland, too. He had acquired her at a stock sale in Missoula five years before, when dogs like Hildy were still called German shepherds. They were just shepherds now that all things German were out of favor. A lot of the dogs had disappeared. People sometimes scowled at Hildy riding in the back of the wagon, as if her very existence was treason.
Madeleine sniffed and tossed her head at that. She had made her war sacrifice. Nobody could doubt her patriotism. Holland pointed out that no one dared accuse her to her face, but that didn’t help much. They whispered so loudly behind her back she could hear them all the way out to the ranch, and not just about Hildy. Most people thought she should sell up and move, but they didn’t say that to her face, either.
The snow had begun in midafternoon, powdering the long lane connecting the ranch house to the road. It fell more heavily now. The wind sent sheets of it drifting across the yard in the gathering darkness. Madeleine picked up the hens’ empty feed bucket, and set off across the barnyard at an anxious trot.
It was the hardest part of her day. She tried to pretend that crossing from the barn to the house was the same in the dark as in the light, but it wasn’t true. Every shadow looked like a predator slipping into the barnyard. She was afraid of a lot of them—coyotes who might tangle with Hildy, hungry bears wandering down out of the hills, and especially mountain lions. Big cats. Cougars got hungry in the wintertime, and chickens and goat kids made easy prey, as did solitary girls.
Madeleine tried to be in the house before dark fell, but deep in December there were precious few daylight hours and a never-ending list of chores. Even when her animals were settled in and she was safely in the house with the oil lamps lit, curtains drawn, windows and doors locked, the vagaries of the wind and the creaking of the beams of the old house kept her wakeful in the long hours of darkness.
Hildy seemed to understand. In the daytime, the shepherd ranged far from the house, keeping an eye on the goats when they went out to forage beneath the snow, barking an alarm if anyone rode up the lane, occasionally nabbing a jackrabbit and delivering it to the kitchen door. But at twilight, Hildy was always home.
Madeleine asked Holland once if he had given Hildy orders to stay close when it got dark. “No need,” he whispered. “Dog knows her job.”
“I couldn’t do it without her,” Madeleine had confessed.
His voice, insubstantial as it was, sounded mournful. “I know, Maddy.”
Tonight, with windblown snow in their faces, the trek to the house took five full minutes. By the time Madeleine laid her hand on the back door latch, there was no light left except the eery glow cast by fresh snow. She pushed the door open, and fluffs of snow blew past her feet to scatter across the wood floor. The wind seemed to seize its chance, to flap the curtains so it looked as if someone was hiding behind them, to rattle the pots that hung above the wood stove, to push back at Madeleine when she tried to close the door. She did close it, grunting a little, and turned the lock from the inside.
“Stove first, Maddie.”
“Stop bossing me, Holland. The dark is making me nervous.” She took the box of safety matches from behind the stove, lit the oil lamp on the table, and trimmed the wick. She kept her coat on as she went around pulling the curtains closed. The house felt only slightly warmer than the outdoors, but she knew better than to leave the fire burning when she was away. She stirred the embers in the stove, threw in some fresh pitchy wood, and opened the flue so it would catch quickly. Warmth began to radiate from it, and soon she felt comfortable taking her coat off, hanging it on its hook beside the door, and turning to the cartons she had brought from town.
There was a sack of flour, another of beans. Her budget had stretched to a modest side of bacon, and a single can of coffee. She had spent her last pennies on dried fruit and a pound of sugar, which she stored in her grandmother’s old lidded crock.
“What’s it for?” he murmured.
“Holland, go away.”
A wispy laugh. “I will. But tell me.”
“It’s Christmas,” she said, and felt a betraying lump swell in her throat. She coughed it away. “I’m going to make fruitcake.”
“All for you?”
“Maybe I’ll have visitors.”
“Oh, Maddie. Too far. Too much snow.”
Madeleine knew that was true. Even when their parents had been alive, few people wanted to drive their buggies or wagons or even their Ford trucks out to the Love place. The lane was narrow and rutted, almost impassible when it rained, icy and treacherous in the snow. Big Mike was good about it, setting his broad feet carefully, remembering where the holes were, but even Theo had trouble with it in bad weather.
She didn’t know what she was going to do in the spring. Her father had always graded the lane after the winter snow melted. Sometimes as she lay awake at night, nerves jumping at the night sounds, she worried over that. She couldn’t afford a hired hand, but she wasn’t strong enough to handle the reins of both big horses, and it took both of them to pull the grader, to say nothing of the plow. The Torgersons might loan her their tractor, for planting at least, but that would mean refitting the plow. She didn’t know how to do it, and she didn’t want to admit that to the Torgersons or anyone else.
Hildy nosed at her knees, reminding her it was time to eat. “Okay, Hildegard,” Madeleine said. “Give me a few minutes.” She had made a pot of soup the day before, and left it chilling in the frigid pantry. She brought it out, and set it to warm on the stove with a few biscuits from that morning’s breakfast. She and Hildy ate the same things, eggs and bacon, pancakes and butter, meat and vegetables. Mrs. Torgerson would scowl over that, but Madeleine couldn’t see that it made any difference.
After supper, Madeleine brought down her mother’s recipe box from its shelf over the sink. She turned up the lamp, and riffled through the bits of paper and cards, sending flecks of dust drifting up into the light. Her nostrils quivered at the scents they carried. It was as if the recipes themselves–in her mother’s and grandmother’s handwriting, even two yellowed scraps written out by her great-grandmother—had captured the shades of long-ago meals.
Her mother’s recipes were reasonably detailed, her grandmother’s considerably less so. Her great-grandmother’s, the ink so faded it was little more than a memory, were just suggestions–a handful of this, a pinch of that, a scoop or a ladle or a scoche. The fruitcake recipe had originated with her great-grandmother, but, fortunately for Madeleine, her mother had copied it, and added measurements and directions.
“Yum,” Holland breathed.
“I thought you were going to leave,” Madeleine said.
“Oh, Holland.” She rubbed her eyes with her fingers. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Mother’s recipe. Perfectly clear.”
“I don’t mean about the fruitcake. I mean about the ranch.”
Madeleine set the fruitcake recipe aside, and began to tuck the others back into the box. “And leave my animals? Our home?”
“Come on, Holland, who’s going to buy the Love place? We’re so far from town they won’t even run the electric out here. The road is a disaster.”
“Yessss.” The word became a hiss, like the wind hissing around the corners of the house.
“I can’t give up on the ranch, Holland, even though . . .” Her voice trailed off into a silence broken only by the rattle of frozen snowflakes against the windowpanes.
“All alone,” he moaned. “Everyone gone. Mother, Pop.”
A dry laugh. “Me. Yes, me.”
Madeleine clicked her tongue. She had been arguing this for months, and it was tiring. “I’m going to bed. Come on, Hildegarde.” As she put out the lamp, and started for the narrow, uneven staircase, she said, “Holland. Go away.”
He answered in a reedy singsong, “Go-ing.”
Madeleine burrowed deep under the pile of quilts on the four-poster bed. Her father had built the bed, turning the posts and sanding the crosspieces, lugging bits of it up the stairs. The bed reminded her of her father’s embrace, as if he still had his strong arms around her. Her mother, of course, wouldn’t have allowed Hildy to sleep here. The shepherd curled into the crook of her bent knees, and Madeleine put one hand out into the cold to stroke the dog’s head as she lay thinking. She worried the pipes leading from the well would freeze, or that the oil drum would be buried in snow. She worried the barn would get too cold for the hens, which would mean lighting the small stove near their coop, then sleeping in the barn to see it didn’t burn out of control. She worried that the road would be so covered in snow she couldn’t make her deliveries of hen’s eggs and goat’s milk, which brought in the only bit of cash she could get in the winter. And she worried about the plowing. She always worried about the plowing, because if she couldn’t seed the fields she wouldn’t have a thing to sell in the fall.
She probably should sell the ranch. It would be the wise thing to do. She could do it in the spring, when the tamaracks on the hills turned green and the pastures looked so promising. The thought of grooming Big Mike and Theo for the stock sale in Missoula made her chest ache. She pictured adding her precious hens to Mrs. Torgerson’s nameless flock, and her throat closed. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Of course, a girl wasn’t supposed to lose her whole family in the space of a month.
When the Spanish flu came to Montana, the whole family caught it, except for Holland, who was in France. Lots of young people died, but Madeleine got well. She got out of bed to care for the animals, keep the house running, and nurse her parents. She expected her parents to get well, too. The doctor came from St. Ignatius and said she was doing all that could be done. She made soup, brought them water and toast, kept them warm.
They didn’t get better. They got worse. Their skin grew sallow, their eyes yellow, their breathing rougher and rougher, until, first Pop and then Mother, they died.
Madeleine rode Theo bareback across the fields to the Torgersons, sobbing all the way. Mrs. Torgerson came in her little pony cart to help her lay them out. The minister came the next day, though he wouldn’t come into the house. Mr. Torgerson helped Madeleine dig the graves on a knoll above the barn. They buried them there, while the minister, at what he deemed a safe distance, spoke the service.
Madeleine made the wooden crosses herself. She painted them white, and carefully inked their names on the crosspieces. She left her two parents lying side by side on the hill while she went to write to her brother.
Holland never got the news. After receiving the letter from Holland’s commanding officer, Madeleine found the dates of Belleau Wood in The Stars and Stripes. Holland was killed before he learned their parents were dead.
Madeleine was nineteen, and alone in the world. She grieved. She was still grieving, but she had her back up, too. Everyone told her to give it up, to go to Missoula, to be a schoolteacher or work as a telephone operator. She wouldn’t do it. The odds were bad, and the score was against her. She was scared, pretty much all the time, but especially at night. Still, she meant to keep her home and her stock.
She lay for a long time watching snowflakes tumble past her window, mirroring the way her worries tumbled through her mind. Eventually she decided sleep wasn’t going to come, and she was wasting time lying here, wide awake. She pushed Hildy out of her way, climbed out of bed, and shrugged into one of her brother’s shirts and a pair of pants, her usual work clothes. With thick socks on her feet, she made her way down the staircase and went to light the lamp and stir up the fire in the stove.
When the wood was burning well, she fetched the crock of butter from the pantry, measured sugar and flour into the big pottery bowl, and set about making her fruitcake. As she creamed butter and sugar together, she glanced up at the Sessions wall clock behind the stove pipe.
Midnight. It was Christmas Eve.
The Model T, already seven years old when Peter went off to the war, gave out in the middle of nowhere. At least it might as well be the middle of nowhere, because he had no idea where he was. He should have stopped at Kalispell, or in that tiny town with its signpost blurred by snow. If it wasn’t wise to try to drive across the Montana plains in winter, it must be doubly foolish to attempt it in the dark, in a snowstorm. Peter was thinking just clearly enough to recognize that he hadn’t had a logical thought in days.
Now here he was, in a broken-down Tin Lizzie, and though he had the skill to repair it, it was too dark to find what was wrong, and too cold to be working on a motor in any case. He was wearing his service greatcoat, and his Army boots, and he wrapped himself in a ragged wool blanket he found under the seat, but it wasn’t going to be enough.
It was as nasty a night as he’d seen, even in the trenches. The wind stung his nose and cheeks. The icy air burned in his lungs. His fingers and toes went numb, and soon his ankles and calves did, too. When he felt the temptation to lie down and sleep through the storm, he knew he was in real trouble. He’d seen it on the Somme, watched soldiers just go to sleep, never to wake again. They drowsed their way to death, frozen in icy mud.
He had to kick the iced-over hinges of the Lizzie’s door before he could get it open. He slid stiffly out, swiveling his legs from under the steering wheel and out to the road, where his boots sank into snow to his knees.
“Damn,” he muttered. “How am I going to move in all this?”
He had to try. Had to get his toes thawed, his lungs working, raise some heat in his body.
He left the door open, and waded around it toward the front of the Model T. Even in the few minutes since the motor had sputtered and died, an inch of snow had built up on the hood. The headlamps had expired with the motor, and he was left with only the ghostly light of the snowfields stretching around him. There was nothing else to see except a few snowcapped fenceposts off to his right.
He pondered those. He was no farmer, but fences meant something, didn’t they? Animals. A barn. Maybe a ranch house, and people. He peered through the shifting curtains of snow, but there was no sign of any of those things.
Of course, it was late, surely past midnight. Everyone–if there was anyone–would be in bed. Asleep. He wondered if it was already Christmas, or was it Christmas Eve? He’d lost track of the days, but it wouldn’t matter. There would be no Christmas for him this year, thanks to the bloody memory of Christmas 1917. Peace on Earth had proved to be an illusion. Even if he survived this night, he doubted he would ever celebrate Christmas again.
He slogged through the swiftly accumulating snow toward the nearest fence post, just to have a goal of some kind. He felt warmer at once, plunging his feet into the white depths and pulling them up again. By the time he reached the post he was out of breath and perspiring. He brushed off the peak of snow that topped it, sending sparkles of dry snow into the darkness. He slid his hand down the post, searching for what kind of fence it was.
Barbed wire. He withdrew his hand, repelled. There had been endless rolls of barbed wire on the Somme, half sunken into the mud and draped with bodies. Scraps of cloth fluttered from its points, most torn from soldiers’ uniforms.
He blew out a breath, and made himself put his hand back on the wire. The war was over. It was time his nerves remembered that.
This wire was straight and tight, in good repair. Though it snagged his gloves, he ran his hand along the strand, and waded through the snow to the next post. Again, another strand, taut and whole. A pasture. Cows, maybe.
He tried to peer through the darkness. Did he dare follow the fence? It might lead to a house, and salvation.
Or not, if he turned the wrong way. The fence could just as easily run away from the road, off into the wide, vacant plains. They wouldn’t find his frozen body for weeks. Better to wade back to the Lizzie, and try to stay alive until morning.
He turned to go back. With one foot deep in snow, the other half-lifted, he stopped, staring.
There was someone in the Lizzie.
Peter Banister thought of himself as a practical man. Other men in his unit saw faces in the mist, or angels hovering amongst the stars, or they claimed their mothers appeared above the trenches before a battle. Peter dismissed all this as nonsense. Wishful thinking.
Growing up with his father had made him tough. His old man scoffed at tenderness, and disdained any show of paternal affection. He had always said that a father’s duty ended on a child’s eighteenth birthday, and to Peter’s surprise, that decree was unaffected by his wartime service and subsequent lack of employment. Peter was granted one night in the family home after he mustered out, then given his new marching orders. The Hun had hardly been more implacable than his old man.
Peter’s tearful mother pled for mercy, and when his father raised his fists to silence her, it was Peter’s turn to be implacable. He was no longer a boy, but a battle-hardened man. He left, just as he was ordered, but not until his old man lay battered and bleeding on the kitchen floor. Peter kissed his mother’s forehead, waved to his siblings, and skedaddled before the ruckus brought the neighbors. He helped himself to the Model T, the old Tin Lizzie, spent his last Army pay on gasoline, and set out in the chill of mid-December.
Yep, he assured himself, Peter Banister was a tough guy. A war veteran, father-beater, car thief. But he was still seeing the misty outline of a person sitting in his Tin Lizzie, a person who couldn’t possibly be there.
Madeleine had to step outside the kitchen door for more wood. She made Hildy come with her as she fought the rising drifts to fetch another armful of logs.
The fruitcake was already baking, in a tube pan that was older than she was. The kitchen smelled of butter and vanilla and sugar, an echo of the previous Christmas. A perfect Christmas, that Christmas of 1917.
All of them had been here together. Holland and Pop cut a skinny fir tree and put it up in the front room. Madeleine and Mother strung popcorn and dried gooseberries to decorate it. The fruitcake of 1917 had been baked weeks in advance, put to rest in a tin in the pantry. When Madeleine lifted the cover of the tin on Christmas Eve, the smell of brandy stung her nose. She had no brandy for the fruitcake of 1918. She had forgotten all about it.
She and Hildy made their way back into the kitchen, and Madeleine gratefully locked the door against the vast snowy blackness outside. She stamped snow off her boots onto the coir mat before she fed the stove another log. She curled up in an armchair near its warmth, with Hildy on the rug beside her. She would definitely be spending Christmas alone. No one with any sense would brave the lane now. In fact, it could be days–even weeks–before she spoke to another soul. Except for Holland.
Not that he was really there, she supposed. His wry voice and his constant teasing were part of how she remembered him. He had been her big brother, her tormentor, her protector. They were going to run the ranch together one day, when Pop got too tired, or when he and Mother moved into Missoula, where there was electricity and hot running water and neighbors you could visit without having to hitch up a wagon. Holland would marry Shireen Torgerson, and they would take Pop and Mother’s room. Madeleine would raise her goats and sell her hens’ eggs and play auntie to Holland’s children. She had never wanted anything else.
“You’ll meet some handsome cowboy and run off,” Holland used to tease her.
“No. Not a cowboy.”
“A doctor, then.”
“Oh, Holland! A doctor?”
“Man of business. He’ll carry you off to live in the big city and wear nice dresses and high-heeled shoes.”
“Why do I have to marry anyone?”
“Don’t you want a husband and a family?”
“Horses. Goats. Chickens. That’s what I want.”
“You can change your mind, Maddy.”
“I know. But I want to stay on the ranch, and I don’t think any man besides you would like that.”
She had never meant to stay on the ranch alone, though. The possibility that they could all be gone, and all at once, had never occurred to her. Could she really live by herself out here on the prairie?
In daylight hours, she convinced herself she could. Plenty of pioneer women, after all, had been alone in their sod huts for weeks on end. If they could manage it, so could she.
But when night fell she recalled other stories, tragic ones, of women who had broken under the pressure, lost their minds to the relentless solitude. In the darkness, she understood them.
This, she thought, was as bad as it could get. Alone on Christmas Eve. No tree, no songs, no decorations. Christmas dinner would be venison stew, shared with Hildy. She wondered how the dog would feel about fruitcake.
She sniffled back tears, and the smell of baking flooded her senses. The familiar fragrance summoned memories from every corner, and made the empty house resound with the silenced voices of her loved ones.
Holland was right. She shouldn’t have made the fruitcake. It would have been better to ignore Christmas altogether.
Peter made himself move forward. Maybe whatever that was he thought he saw in the passenger seat of the Lizzy would disappear if he changed his perspective. He would get closer, and find it was just the pattern of falling snow, or steam from the cooling radiator. He took one laborious step, then another. The shape beyond the veil of snow didn’t change that he could see, but he pressed on, panting, hot under his coat and freezing where his face was exposed. He grasped the radiator cap on the front of the hood, gone cold now. The phantom was still there.
He pushed on until he stood beside the driver’s seat. He pulled off an ice-crusted glove and rubbed his face before he looked again.
It was more distinct than ever. It was a man, a soldier, wearing the doughboy’s overseas cap. Peter could make out the upright collar of his service coat. He leaned closer, though his mouth was dry and his heart seemed to thud in his throat.
The soldier moved. He grinned, and touched his cap with two fingers.
Peter pressed his bare fingers to his throat to feel his own pulse. Yep, still alive. Still on his feet. And seeing a damned spirit.
The phantom’s lips moved, but made no sound.
Peter pulled his glove back on with a shaking hand. He turned in a circle, looking for something, anything that would mean he didn’t have to deal with this–this thing. He was, of course, still utterly alone. He drew a ragged breath, set his teeth, and looked back.
The ghost was out of the Lizzie, standing by the hood with one arm lifted, pointing to the fence line. He spoke again, soundlessly, and his smile widened.
It should have been horrible, this man carved of smoke. Snowflakes drifted through his torso and fluttered behind his face. His grin should be terrible, the rictus of death Peter knew all too well.
Instead, the phantom’s smile was merry and mobile. The pointing arm was not a threat, but an invitation. And when Peter took a step back toward the half-buried fenceposts, the ghost–if that was what it was, and not simply the fantasy of a man on the point of freezing to death–nodded approval, and spoke more soundless words, as if they were having a conversation.
Peter took another step, and another, wading through powder that now reached his thighs. He found the fence post again, and pressed on toward the next one. His companion, wispy and wavering, but persistent, moved ahead of him, looking back now and again, nodding, smiling.
Sweat dripped down Peter’s ribs as he toiled through the snow. It was hard, lung-burning work, and though it kept him warm for the moment, he wasn’t sure how long he could keep it up. He followed the fence line, more or less, trusting more to his ghostly guide than the snow-blanketed road.
When he caught sight of an ephemeral light in the distance, he blinked in surprise. Was it really there? He pushed ahead, panting. It was brighter now, more distinct. He gasped when it disappeared behind a veil of snow, then groaned in relief when it reappeared, like a star breaking through a ribbon of cloud.
His guide faced him now, floating backward, eyebrows flying in encouragement. Peter paused once to pull up his scarf and to let his burning thighs rest. His guide–or his siren, because it was all too possible this spirit was leading him to his death–trembled before him, speaking coaxing words Peter couldn’t hear. When Peter resumed his slow progress, the wraith whirled, and danced ahead of him on its insubstantial feet.
By the time the distant light grew into the unmistakable glow of an oil lamp, Peter was sobbing desperate breaths, nearly falling with every step. His eyebrows and eyelashes were heavy with snow, but his arms felt like lead. He couldn’t lift his hands to clear the crystals from his face.
The spirit soared ahead, his silhouette gleaming with lamp light, until he twirled on the back doorstep of a tall, narrow house. The light, yellow and warm and inviting, shone through a small curtained window.
With a last glance back at Peter, the grinning wraith faded, thinned to nothing, and disappeared through the wall.
Madeleine was taking the fruitcake out of the oven, setting it to cool on an iron trivet. At her shoulder she heard, “Put the kettle on, Maddy.”
“Holland, for God’s sake! You’re going to make me jump out my skin one of these days.”
“Easier now than ever,” he said.
“It was never that hard, was it?” She hung the oven mitts on their hooks, and put another log in the stove. She was sure the temperature was still dropping, but there was no point in checking the Rodgers Ginger Ales thermometer nailed to the outside wall. It only went to twenty below. In a blizzard like this, the temperature could drop twenty degrees below that. Even the idea made her shudder.
Holland whispered, “Brought you someone.”
She straightened. “What? Who?”
“Didn’t catch the name.”
“Not funny, Holland! I wish you wouldn’t scare me like this.”
“Why I’m warning you. Going to knock in a minute . . . Oh! There you go.”
This time Madeleine did jump. Every nerve blazed, like the time she had stepped on a rattlesnake. That was a hot summer day, in broad daylight, and the snake’s warning rattle had seemed as loud as a gunshot. Now, in the frigid darkness, with crystalline snowflakes rattling like buckshot against the house, the knock juddered in her bones.
Hildegard had been curled peacefully in her apple box bed near the stove. At the double rap on the door the shepherd leaped to her feet, hackles bristling. She gave a long, rumbling growl. If Madeleine hadn’t already been terrified, that growl would have done it.
She crossed the kitchen in three strides, and dug in the pocket of her coat for the Peacemaker. She held it, awkwardly, in both hands, and stared at the door with her heart pounding. The knocks came again, two taps, and then a voice–a man’s voice. “Hello? Is anyone there?”
“Open!” Holland whispered.
“No!” Madeleine whispered back. “How do I know who that is? What he wants?”
“Wants to not freeze,” Holland said. There was no laughter now. “Maddy, open. Blizzard. Cold.”
“Maybe I should get the rifle! I can’t shoot this thing.”
“No need,” he said faintly, right beside her ear. “Trust me.”
“Hello?” the man called. His voice–he sounded young, somehow–shook, and she thought of him out there in the blinding snow, the bone-numbing cold. But how had he gotten here?
Hildegard scratched at the crack beneath the door, alternately growling and snuffling. Madeleine put her back to the wall beneath the coat hooks, wondering if she dared peek out the side window first. He–whoever he was–might see her. He would know she was alone, and a girl besides.
She closed her eyes in an agony of indecision, compassion and anxiety doing battle in her breast.
“Trust me,” Holland repeated. “Open.”
“Damn it, Holland!” she whispered. He didn’t answer.
She waited for another breath, as the man knocked again. The sound seemed weaker now, perhaps even lower on the door, and it only came once. She thought she heard a sob, or perhaps it was merely an indrawn breath through a throat aching with cold. He said, “Hello? Could I j-just . . .”
“I have a gun!” she cried.
“Yes, ma’am,” he groaned.
She turned halfway, to speak through the closed door. “How did you get here?”
“You couldn’t have driven up the lane.”
“W-walked up from the road.”
“You can’t see this house from the road.”
“It’s h-hard to explain . . .”
Holland spoke so close to her ear that her earlobe tingled. “He’s frozen. Open the door.”
Madeleine, her lower lip caught between her teeth, put a shaking hand on the latch and turned the bolt. She opened the door a slit, then a crack.
Shivering on the back doorstep stood a young man with a face that might have been pleasant if it were not livid with cold. He wore some sort of military cap that left his ears and his red curls exposed, and his eyes were the blue of the Montana sky in summer.
Madeleine opened the door a bit wider. The man waited until she said, “Come in,” before he took a single step into the warmth of the kitchen. Snow blew in with him, sifting around his boots.
“One more step,” she said. He obeyed, and she shut the door against the blizzard.
He stood still, eyeing her, waiting for her to make her judgment. Hildegard sniffed him, gave one final growl, then sat down, offering her own opinion that the visitor wasn’t a threat. Holland muttered, “Coat.”
Madeleine saw the young man’s eyes flicker past her, as if he was looking for something. She shifted uneasily, letting the Peacemaker drop to her thighs, but still holding it in her two hands. The man’s gaze dropped to the pistol, then rose to her face. Madeleine said, “You can take your coat off.”
He said, “It’s covered in snow.”
“Just let it drop. Then move over by the stove. Warm yourself.”
“Thanks.” He did as she told him, and she saw he was tall, taller than Holland had been, with high, square shoulders. He pulled off his gloves to reveal big, freckled hands. He put his back to the stove, and said wearily, “I wish you’d put away the gun, ma’am. I’ve had enough of guns to last me into eternity.”
Holland whispered, “Me, too.”
Peter couldn’t see her properly until the snow melted from his eyelashes, and then he had to squint through droplets running down his forehead. He tucked his gloves under his arm, and wiped his face with his palm.
She stood almost as tall as the ghost that hovered behind her. She looked sturdy, but as if she hadn’t eaten much recently. She wore loose trousers, held up by a leather belt, and a man’s plaid shirt, everything too big. She had hair the color of straw, in a plait that hung over one shoulder, and eyes the color of good milk chocolate. Her wrists and forearms, extending from the sleeves of the shirt, were ridged with muscle, something that surprised and stirred him.
She was young. Too young to be alone in this farmhouse, out here on the prairie. No wonder she carried a pistol, though it looked too heavy for a girl’s hands, even a strong girl like this one. Single-action, too. By the time she pulled that hammer back, an attacker could wrest it away from her.
The heat from the stove was intense, and it carried with it the baked fruit-and-vanilla smell of Christmas. Both were so delicious Peter felt tears sting his eyes. Nothing seemed real, not even the handsome girl, especially not with a phantom at her shoulder. He cleared his throat. “I’m Peter,” he said. “Peter Banister.” When she didn’t answer right away, he blurted, “I thought I was going to die out there.”
“Why are you here?” she said. “Middle of the night, middle of a blizzard?”
“Model T broke down.” He pulled off his cap, and ran his hand through his hair. It felt greasy and unkempt, and his cheeks flushed with embarrassment.
“Where are you supposed to be?”
He shrugged. “Missoula. Sandpoint. Seattle. I was just going to drive till I stopped.”
“Sounds to me like you’re running away from something.”
He put his hands behind his back and wiggled his fingers in the warmth. “You could say that.”
He gave a bitter laugh. “Maybe. If my dad decides to report his Tin Lizzie stolen.” He shrugged. “He doesn’t have much truck with the police, though, and the Lizzie isn’t worth much. As I’ve discovered.”
“Tell me how you found the house.”
He looked away from her. “I can’t explain it,” he muttered. It was the truth, but he didn’t think that would help much.
He sighed. “Ma’am, I guess I–I guess I just got lucky.”
Madeleine was beginning to wish she could put the Peacemaker down. Her wrists burned from its weight, but she wasn’t going to be fooled by a sweet face and a head of red curls. Or dimples. He couldn’t be too much older than she was herself, despite the bits of military gear. Holland had been just twenty when he died. This Peter Banister looked about the same. Still, she glared at him, this redhead appearing like a thief in the night, one of the many things she was afraid of. She kept the pistol at the ready, and waited.
“There was–I thought I could see a light, in the distance.”
“Pretty far distance.”
“Yeah. Yeah, pretty far.”
“So you left your motorcar and hiked off in the snow because maybe you saw a light.”
He shifted, changing the position of his hands, his eyes flicking this way and that. “Look, ma’am–”
“Madeleine. Madeleine Love.”
“Madeleine Love. That’s pretty.” She didn’t answer, and he drew a noisy breath through his teeth. “I’m not crazy. No shell shock, nothing like that.”
“I–the thing is, I–I thought I saw something. A man.”
“In this storm? Not likely.”
“I know. The whole evening is unlikely. In the extreme,” he added, and flashed his dimples.
Holland murmured, “Maddie. Give the poor sod a break.”
Madeleine released her breath, and hoisted the Peacemaker to lay it on the counter. In a low voice she said, “Holland, you’d better know what you’re doing.”
“What?” Peter said.
Holland chuckled, and she said, “Never mind. You might as well sit down, Peter Banister. There at the table. You could use something hot to drink.”
They ate fruitcake for breakfast, though Madeleine said it was too fresh, that it really should rest under a brandy-soaked towel for a while. When the slow dawn began to brighten the icy world outside, Peter helped Madeleine feed horses and goats, check hens’ nests for eggs, and scatter corn and scratch. They had to scoop snow off the water barrels, then break a layer of ice. While Madeleine filled water buckets for the stalls, Peter shoveled the path from the barn to the house, carving a walkway between four-foot walls of snow.
Madeleine gathered a basketful of warm eggs and carried it to the house. Peter brought the snow shovel in case the path filled up again.. He left it leaning beside the kitchen door while they went in to shed their coats and boots.
Madeleine built up the fire in the stove while Peter worked the water pump. They wrapped up in quilts she brought down from upstairs, and dozed away Christmas Eve afternoon beside the stove. The phantom had disappeared, and Peter began to hope he had imagined it.
Darkness closed in early. Madeleine got up and began fussing in the kitchen. She said, gazing out into the dusk, “This is when I start to get scared.”
“You get scared at night?”
“I hate the dark. I used to creep into my brother’s bedroom at night. He fixed up a bed on his floor for me.”
“Nice brother,” Peter said.
“The best.” She was peeling potatoes and carrots, dropping them into a big saucepan.
“What happened to him?”
She glanced up at him, then down again to her cutting board. “Killed at Belleau Wood.”
He winced. “That was bad.”
“I heard that.”
“Couldn’t you have someone to help you out here?”
“Pop didn’t leave much money. People have to be paid.” She took a canister of flour from a shelf, and poured some out onto the counter.
“No other family?”
She shook her head. She had pinned up her thick yellow braid, and she looked charming, smudges of flour on her nose and forehead, milk-chocolate eyes glistening in the lamp light. “It was just the four of us.”
“And now it’s just you.”
She looked up from kneading biscuit dough on the board, and some complicated look flickered across her face. She said, “More or less,” and went back to her biscuits.
It wasn’t clear to him how she managed it, but they sat down to a Christmas Eve dinner of thick venison stew, fresh biscuits, and what was left of the fruitcake. While the stew was simmering, he told her about the fight with his father, about his weeping mother and his wide-eyed siblings. While the biscuits baked, she told him the story of losing her parents in the influenza epidemic. She said her brother never learned about his parents’ deaths, and at the moment she said it, the phantom rose briefly behind her, making Peter’s heart clutch. Madeleine’s cheeks suddenly flushed, and there was an odd little turn of her head. She didn’t say anything further.
After dinner, they went out once more to check on the animals in the barn. Madeleine, wrapped to the ears in her coat, said wistfully, “It’s nice to have company.” The snow had eased, but hard small flakes still drifted aimlessly through the darkness.
Peter gazed out into the empty white prairie, wondering at it. His own home was a forest of tenements and unpainted storefronts. “It’s so big here,” he said. “And clean.”
“Much better than in town,” she said.
“I have Hildy.”
The shepherd had decided, sometime today, that she liked Peter, and she submitted to being stroked whenever she came near him. “Great dog,” Peter said. “I like the horses, too. Bigger than the ones we had in France.”
Madeleine nodded. “Horses don’t get much bigger than Theo and Big Mike.”
“I’ve never worked with animals,” he said, though he was reluctant to admit it. He hoped she wouldn’t think less of him. He added, “I’m good with machines, though.”
“You work with machines?”
“Do you think you could rig a plow so a tractor could pull it?”
“Yes, ma’am. I think I could.”
Madeleine liked knowing someone else was in the house, and it was nice not to feel her anxiety rise as the light faded. Of course she didn’t really know Peter Banister, but Hildegard liked him, and that meant something. She gave him her parents’ old bedroom, bringing clean flannel sheets from the cedar chest and making the bed up fresh, with a pile of pillows and an extra quilt against the cold.
He stood in the doorway to say good night, properly shy, carefully respectful. Mrs. Torgerson would cluck like a hen over unmarried young people sleeping unchaperoned in the same house, but Madeleine didn’t give two pins for that. Mrs. Torgerson hadn’t spent six months with only a handful of animals for companionship.
It was magical, how different the house felt for the company. Her pillow felt softer. Her quilt was warmer. The creaks of the old house, the whistle of the wind in the eaves, all seemed friendly instead of alarming. Hildegard lay flat next to her as if she hadn’t a care in the world.
As Madeleine slipped gradually into sleep, she reminded herself that this reprieve was temporary. Peter Banister would repair his motorcar, and be on his way to wherever it was he wanted to go. But, just for tonight, it was lovely not to be alone.
It was sometime close to dawn when she jolted awake. The house was freezing, and gray light edged the mountains to the east. From the barn the hens were squawking wildly, and the goats bleated with panic. One of the Belgians whinnied, and something yowled in response.
Madeleine sat up, her skin crawling with terror. It was her worst fear come true. One of the big cats come in search of easy prey, her precious hens, her sweet goats. All she had left!
Hildegard was scratching at the bedroom door, yipping to get out, to get at the enemy. Madeleine’s heart fluttered in her throat, nearly choking her. She scrambled to get into her trousers and shirt. She had worn her socks to bed, and while she was still doing up buttons, she was on her way down the stairs. Hildegard scrambled ahead of her, claws clicking on the wood floor.
Peter was already in the kitchen, with his coat on, and his boots. He was opening the door, and she saw he had picked up the Peacemaker from the counter.
She said, “I’ll get the shotgun.”
“Let me go first.” He stepped out onto the doorstep.
The snow had ceased at last, leaving everything glittering in the pre-dawn light, as if the fields were dusted with diamonds. There was silence for a moment, and then another drawn-out cry, the hunting cougar, that made Madeleine gasp and press her hands to her mouth. Hildegard, deadly silent, dashed past Peter and on down the path he had shoveled.
“Peter! It’s a cougar! It’ll kill Hildy–” But Peter was already gone, flying at a dead run toward the barn.
Madeleine pulled on her coat, not bothering to fasten it, and seized up the Winchester from the gun rack. She checked that there was a shell in the chamber, thrust her feet into her boots, and dashed after Peter. She ran as fast as she dared on the slick snow, not wanting to slip and fall with a loaded gun in her hands. It seemed to take forever to reach the barn. She heard the chickens’ wild clucking, and she pictured them flapping frantically in their roost.
The cat could only get to them if it found its way up into the hayloft above the stalls. In summer that was impossible, but now the snow was drifted in great mounds against the sides of the barn. The cat could climb that slope, and reach the unglazed window leading to the hayloft.
The fury rose in the darkness, Hildegard snarling, the cougar hissing, the goats crying like frightened children. Madeleine, sobbing with fear, skidded around the corner of the barn, catching herself by grabbing the corner post. Peter stood at the foot of the snow drift, feet set wide apart, the pistol in both hands.
In the half light, the cougar was just a streak of tawny gold and black. It crouched at the peak of the snowy mound, from where the window into the hayloft was an easy leap. Hildegard was scrabbling against the snow, trying to climb. The cougar’s eyes glowed golden, and its ears were laid flat against its head. It screamed at Hildegarde, showing a maw full of fearsome teeth.
Hildegard gave a furious bark, tried to leap, and fell backward down the hillock of snow. The cougar turned away, bracing itself to leap through the window.
Madeleine stopped sobbing. She forced herself to concentrate. In another moment, the big cat would be in the barn, in the midst of her goats and her chickens, and she’d have no chance to save them. She lifted the shotgun, with no time to aim, no time to brace herself. At the same moment, Peter pulled back the hammer of the Colt.
Madeleine fired the Winchester, and its kick sent her flying backward into the snow. Just as she landed, the Peacemaker barked a deep, ear-bruising sound. The Belgians whinnied alarm and banged their hooves against the walls of their stalls.
The big cat jerked up, its silhouette outlined against the snowfield, gold and beige and brown against silver-white, then crumpled. It slipped backward down the slope of snow, sliding out of sight. Hildegard charged forward, headed around the drift. Madeleine shouted, “No! Hildy, no!” but the shepherd was already gone.
Madeleine ran after the dog, but Peter’s long legs carried him faster. He reached the scene first, with Madeleine a close, agonized second. They found the shepherd poised over the big cat. The dog’s tail stretched straight out behind her, and her teeth were bared, ready to attack.
There was no need. The cougar was dead.
Hildegard nosed it, then stood back, looking over her shoulder for direction. The snow beneath the big cat’s head was stained with blood. The creature lay limp, head lolling, lifeless eyes staring up into the slowly-lightening sky.
Madeleine said, “I missed.”
“I didn’t,” Peter said. “Head shot. At least it didn’t suffer.”
“Not many could have made that shot with a pistol. Certainly not me.”
His voice was as raw as the morning wind. “I’ve had more practice than I care to think about.”
“It’s sad,” Madeleine said, and she knew she was being obscure.
“But my animals . . .”
He gestured with the Peacemaker toward the cougar, lying peacefully now on the snow. “Is this what you’re afraid of?”
“Oh, this,” she said. “And a thousand other things.”
“But you came out here with that shotgun, even though you were scared.”
“My livestock is all I have left, Peter.”
“You’re a brave girl, Madeleine. Brave as any soldier.” He smiled at her, showing his dimples. Her stomach quivered in an unfamiliar way, and she had to duck her head to hide her blush.
In her ear, Holland gave a long, low laugh.
They decided the morning was too far gone to go back to bed. The sun glinted above the silvery peaks of the Mission Mountains, and blazed across the snowy prairie to usher in a brilliant Christmas morning. While Madeleine fed her animals, Peter shoveled the blood from the snow so it wouldn’t attract buzzards, then hauled the cougar carcass into a shed where Madeleine said it would freeze, and keep until she got around to skinning it. They went into the kitchen when these things were done. Madeleine washed her hands, pinned up her hair, and began cracking fresh eggs into a bowl. The phantom had reappeared, lurking in corners, grinning at Peter at strange times and making him fear Madeleine would think he was shell-shocked after all.
He was worrying over this when he heard her hiss, “Holland! Go away!”
Peter said, “What?”
She turned with the bowl full of frothy eggs in her hands. Her cheeks were flushed, and a loose strand of yellow hair tumbled over her forehead. “He keeps whispering in my ear.”
“Who?” Peter blinked.
She heaved a deep sigh, and set her bowl down. “You’re going to think I’m the one with shell-shock, but I suppose you might as well know.”
“I hear my brother’s voice. Pretty much all the time.”
“Yes.” She spread her hands in a helpless gesture. “I wouldn’t blame you if you hightailed it right back to your broken-down Tin Lizzie, but that’s the way it is. I thought maybe I was losing my mind from being alone so much, like those pioneer women you read about, but now you’re here, and I still–that is, Holland is still–”
“He’s still talking to you.”
“So,” Peter said. He turned his body to face the grinning phantom hovering in the doorway. “So, was your brother about your height? Kind of a skinny kid? Laughed a lot?”
Her eyes widened, and the color receded from her cheeks. “Peter! Can you see him?”
“I see something,” he said grimly.
“But you see him? I only hear him!”
“I was afraid to tell you. That’s how I found the house. He showed me.”
Holland said, in a tone thinner than any she had heard from him before, “Surprise, Maddie!”
“Holland,” she said, very low. “What do you mean? I mean, Peter won’t want to–”
“You were lonely,” Holland breathed. “So–” His voice trailed off, as if he had left the room while he was still speaking.
She cried, “Holland!”
“He’s gone,” Peter said. “He’s not there now.”
She put her hands to her cheeks. “Oh! I was always telling him to go away, but he never listened!”
Peter crossed to her, and took her hands away from her face. “What were you going to say?” he asked gently. “Peter won’t want to–what?”
She looked down at their joined hands, and her voice trembled with fresh grief. “Holland always tried to fix things.”
“Good for him.”
“He’ll come back,” she said uncertainly.
“Maybe he doesn’t need to come back.”
She lifted her face, but slowly, cautiously. “What do you mean?”
He squeezed her fingers. “He brought me here, Madeleine. To you. I needed someplace, and you needed someone.”
“Peter,” she said. “Do you think you might want to stay?”
“Do you think you might ask me to?” He wasn’t smiling, and he watched her face, trying to guess at the emotions whirling behind those milk-chocolate eyes. “You need a hand, I think.”
“I can’t pay you.” She pushed back the strand of hair, but she held his gaze. Brave, that was Madeleine. Scared, but facing her fear.
He released her hands, but he stood where he was, understanding he shouldn’t rush her, willing her to see into his heart. “I don’t need money,” he said. “I need someplace I belong.”
The smile that broke over her face nearly took his breath away, and he had to shove his hands in his pockets to keep from taking her in his arms. He hadn’t known this girl for more than a few wintry hours, but she touched him just the same. She made him want to do everything right.
Her eyes sparkled as brilliantly as the sun on snow. “Well, then. You can set the table. The flatware’s over there.” She indicated the breakfront with her chin.
He had to step over the shepherd lying on the rug to do as she asked. He told himself he wouldn’t say anything further, not now. He could wait. But they would have a great deal to talk about in the days to come.
As he laid the table, something flitted across the kitchen, a shadow, or the ghost of a ghost. He jerked up his head to see it, but it moved too quickly, gone before he could focus on it.
Madeleine, measuring coffee into the percolator, lifted her head, listening to something. She smiled mistily across the room at Peter. “Holland says, Merry Christmas,” she said. “And welcome home.”
Peter stood still, his hands full of forks and spoons, and gazed wordlessly at yellow-haired Madeleine Love.
Christmas. Home. It seemed he would celebrate after all.
Behind her, her brother’s ghost waved farewell, faded through the wall and disappeared.