Note from Mrs. M: This story assumes that Katherine's first husband, the outlaw Troy Swanson, has died sometimes in the past couple of years.
TRUE SISTERS AT HEART
I miss you terribly! So many things are happening here in San Francisco. I can’t wait to catch up when we come to the ranch for Christmas! Aunt Rebecca is doing well, but I worry about her health with this cold weather. She would love to come with us for a visit, but she is busy with the church ladies, collecting clothes and food for the misfortunate. You know Aunt Rebecca… Oh mother, how the children have grown! Levi just turned fourteen and is a foot taller than me! Betsy, in fifth grade now, is top in her class. Hannah, who keeps reminding me that she is almost eight, is quite the adventurer! Sometimes she reminds me of Andrea when she was her age. Speaking of Andrea, is she still trick riding? Well, I should start dinner. I can’t wait to see you!
Love your daughter,
P.S. I have a surprise for you. A very special someone is coming to meet you this Christmas!
December 24, 1884
San Joaquin Valley, California
“They’re here!” Sixteen-year-old Andrea Carter raced downstairs from her room where she had spotted the buggy. She heard Melinda ask Mother how she looked. Andi shook her head, Melinda, you amaze me! Always trying to look your best. Just put your hair in a braid and call it good, that’s what I do!
A knock sounded on the front door. Elizabeth Carter straightened her hair and with a graceful smile, opened the door.
“Mother!” As the two embraced, Elizabeth, knowing she would start to cry, was the first to step back.
“Oh, my, where are my manners?” Katherine smiled sweetly at the man standing behind her with the children and a young, pretty blond girl.
“Mother, this is Joseph Williams. Joseph, this is my wonderful mother and my sisters, Melinda and Andrea.”
“So nice to finally meet you! I have heard so much about you, I feel as if I already know you.” Joseph stated in a deep voice, then smiled at Melinda and Andi. He was a large man, but not overly tall, with nice clothes and shiny boots.
“Well, Joseph, it’s nice to meet you as well. Now who, I mean—”
“Mother, this young lady is Joseph’s daughter, Elsie. Elsie is thirteen years old and quite the piano player.”
“Oh my! Elsie, I would have never guessed thirteen, you look so mature. I just adore the piano. Maybe you will play us a piece on Christmas day.”
Andi held back a chuckle when she saw her mother’s face. I don’t think any of us were expecting Katherine’s special surprise to come with a child!
“Um, mother, Joseph came with me because I wanted you to meet”—Katherine paused to look at Joseph—“my fiancé!”
Mother’s hand flew to cover her mouth in surprise. Melinda’s and Andi’s eyes grew huge.
Melinda was the first to recover. “Congratulations! I’m so happy for you both!”
Mother nodded in agreement then hugged Katherine again, but this time she could not hold back the tears of joy. “Engaged? Oh my, this is wonderful news! Come inside and have some hot cocoa. Andrea, have someone get their luggage. Melinda, you will move in with Andrea so Katherine can have your room with the children. Joseph will have the guest room. Will you get the extra cots, Andrea?”
As they walked into the parlor, mother’s excitement was radiant. When Andi went to get the cots, she heard Mother tell the children to play outside while she got more acquainted with her soon to be son-in-law.
Then it hit Andi. She was going to have a brother-in-law and a new niece!
Deciding that she needed some “barn time,” Andi grabbed her wool coat. The temperatures were dropping. She could smell the chimney smoke from the wood stove. This reminded her of cattle drives, when she would go to sleep and wake up to the smell of campfire smoke.
As much as I like going on cattle drives, I prefer my warm bed to the cold ground any day. Andi knew she needed to find someone to carry in the luggage.
"It would be easier if I did it. I carry hay bales all the time. Why wouldn’t Mother ask me to do it?” Andi mumbled, but she knew the answer.
“A lady doesn’t do men’s work.” She rolled her eyes.
Andi spotted Chad, Mitch, and Riley riding to the barn. That morning Andi had let Mitch ride Shasta, because his horse Chase was lame. As they came closer, she noticed the horses looked just as tired as their riders.
A smiling Riley winked at her, and she blushed. I have to stop this every time he's around, Andi told herself, I hope he thinks it’s the cold air that has my face flaming! Watching her chocolate-colored gelding approach, she was happy to see he wasn’t giving Mitch as much of a fight as when they had left.
“Hey, Andi.” Chad said as he dismounted.
“Hi. Katherine is here, and she has some big news. I won’t spoil it for you. Do you have time to go in and visit? Mother has hot cocoa. Lucy and Justin should soon come over with their kids. Ellianna was planning to come too.”
Her fast words jumbled together, and Chad eyed her suspiciously. “Sure, we were just calling it quits.”
“I can untack the horses if you and Mitch want to go inside,” offered Riley.
“Thanks, I will take you up on that. Come in when you are done so you can warm your hands. I know mine are ice.”
“I’ll help Riley untack,” Andi said. “Oh, will you bring their luggage into the house?”
“Sure thing” was all Chad said as he and Mitch went to the house.
“You don’t have to help if you don’t want to,” Riley said. “I wouldn’t want to keep you from your company. Anyway, it’s freezing out here.”
“I want to help, Riley. Being around horses help me clear my mind.” She took a deep breath, “Katherine’s surprise is a fiancé who has a kid!”
Riley’s eyebrows rose, lifting his cowboy hat.
“I know. It’s a surprise all right!”
“No wonder you came to the barn.”
Just then the horses grew restless. Stomping their hooves on the frozen ground, they whinnied and snorted, blowing puffs of breath into the wintery air.
“I know, Dakota, we’ll get you in the barn. I’ll give you some grain for being a good boy today.” Riley patted his gelding’s forelock.
Andi liked the way Riley talked to his horse, like talking to a friend. They had this in common.
Once the horses were tied up, Andi spoke first. “So, how was work? Any more broken fences?”
“Nope, everything is in good shape. We checked the front and back pastures, then looked for any strays.” Riley undid the saddle cinch and easily lifted it from Dakota’s back.
Andi grabbed the brushes. As the two friends untacked and gave a good brushing to each horse, they talked about trick riding. Riley made Andi laugh by telling a joke he had heard from a ranch hand.
Andi had nearly forgotten about her sister’s fiancé and soon-to-be niece, when they heard a high-pitched, blood-curdling scream.
“Help! I can’t swim!” the frantic Elsie screamed. “I hate you, Betsy Swanson! I’ll tell Father!”
Riley and Andi came running out of the barn to see Betsy scramble away from the creek. As they got closer, the sight of Elsie thrashing in the freezing water, lips purple, made Andi worried. She knew the creek wasn’t more than five feet deep in this area, but Elsie didn’t know that. She was struggling, trying to keep her head above the water.
Before Andi could blink, Riley jumped into the water. The water level came to his shoulders as he pushed through to get to the now-crying girl. Running down the bank and onto the sand where they stood shivering with cold, Andi took off her coat and handed it to Elsie.
“What happened?” she asked.
Teeth chattering, Elsie dramatically told the story. “I was watching the younger children when Betsy, for no reason at all, pushed me into the creek. Look at my dress! Not to mention my hair, most likely in muddy knots. If not for your timely rescue, I would have drowned. Betsy needs a good whooping if you ask me,” she concluded with a hard nod of her head, shaking loose her long strands of wet, blond hair.
Riley and Andi look at each other, not sure if they believed her side of the story.
Betsy would never do something so mean, but why would she scramble away instead of help Elsie?
“Let’s get you inside where it’s warm, then we’ll talk to Betsy and hear what she has to say,” Andi suggested.
“You don’t believe me! Playing favorites. I knew it!” Elsie sobbed.
Andi shrugged to Riley, then practically dragged the girl to the house with Riley following behind.
Once inside, the whole family buzzed around Elsie like bees to honeycomb. Bringing her blankets, hot cocoa, dry clothes, and questions. For each question, Elsie teared up and blamed Betsy.
Riley also got dry clothes and hot cocoa.
This is an act, Andi thought, a very realistic one. Everyone, even Katherine, believes it!
“Where is she?” Katherine asked. “Betsy should be apologizing to Elsie.”
“I’ll look for her,” Andi offered. Katherine nodded then brought another blanket to Elsie.
Putting on another coat, Andi headed to the barn. This is where I would go. She’s probably giving the horses treats. She walked into the barn and automatically went to Shasta's stall.
“Hey boy, how are—” She gasped.
His stall door was standing wide open. Shasta was gone!
“Gone? Ran away? Search party? Blizzard? Whoa, hold your horses. Slow down, Andi, I don’t understand what you are saying.”
“Chad, do I have to spell it out?” Andi said impatiently. “I already told you, but here goes again. Shasta is gone. I think Betsy took him and ran away. We need to organize a search party before the weather gets worse and turns into a blizzard.”
Realization finally dawned, and Chad took charge.
“Okay, I need you, Riley, and Levi to get the horses tacked up. Tack up as many level-headed horses as you can. I’ll fill everyone in on what is happening and send Justin to get the sheriff. We could have used the ranch hands I sent home for Christmas. Any extra men would be helpful.”
“Or women,” Andi corrected. “It’s about three hours until sundown, and freezing. What if she heads up the mountain trail?”
“We don’t have time to worry, Andi. God will look after Betsy, we just have to trust Him.”
“You’re right. As Mother says, ‘God is in control.’ I’ll go tack up.”
With purposeful strides, Riley, Levi, and Andi walked to the barn and did as they were told. Not a word was said as the seriousness of the situation settled over them.
Twenty minutes later, the horses were saddled and ready. Andi chose to ride Rosie, a chestnut mare. Chad, Mitch, and Joseph came into the barn, Chad had a saddle bag slung over his arm. It had first aid supplies in it.
They were just mounting up when Katherine and Elsie came storming in.
“You think you can just tell me to stay put and wait while my daughter is out there somewhere freezing to death,” Katherine said. “You must not know me very well, Chad Carter. And you, Joseph Williams, thinking it is a good idea. I will not be bossed around. You better get used to it, because I will not be pushed to the back burner while you all go search for my daughter. Elsie also wants to go. She feels responsible for this disappearance and should come as well.”
Katherine, hands on her hips, glared at her brother, then turned piercing eyes to her fiancé, both standing there with mouths wide open.
At the sound of applause, they looked to see Andi clapping and nodding.
“Well, dear, I guess you two will be coming along. I just thought it was a good idea for someone to stay at the house just in case she comes home,” Joseph stammered.
“Well, Mother, Melinda, Hannah, and Lucy with her kids are staying, so there! Now let’s not waste any more time. Chad what horse do I get?”
Chad pointed Katherine to a horse named Dumplin’, and Elsie to a pinto pony.
“Now, we will split up into groups. Andi, Mitch, and I will be the ones to lead each group since we know the property best. Andi, you lead Joseph and Elsie. Take the mountain trail. Mitch, you get Riley and Levi. I want you covering the pasture land. Katherine, you and I will follow the creek. When she is found, fire three shots. Any questions? Good. Let’s head out.”
After a short prayer for safety, they dispersed, taking their appointed trails. The rocky path known as the mountain trail was easily maneuvered by their three strong horses. Knight, Joseph’s bay gelding, was as trustworthy as they come. Elsie’s mare, Apple, was very sure-footed, making her a good choice for the rocky terrain.
Andi and Rosie guided them through shadowed paths and winding cliffs, calling Betsy’s name as they went. The higher they climbed, the more snow covered the ground in deep drifts.
Andi pulled her cowboy hat lower. The wind was fierce. We have to find her, we have too! “Trust in the Lord with all your heart,” Andi said aloud. If only I were a better tracker!
“And lean not on your own understanding.” It was not Andi but Joseph who recited the Bible verse next. She looked over her shoulder and smiled.
“In all your ways acknowledge Him.” Elsie's turn.
Heavenly Father, we can’t do this alone. Please help us find Betsy, Andi prayed.
“And He shall direct your paths. Proverbs 3:5,6” Andi finished the verses. A peace settled over the small group.
Thirty minutes passed as they called for Betsy.
“I’m scared, it’s going to be dark in a few minutes,” whined Elsie.
“Hang in there a little longer, Elsie.” replied her father.
“No, I’m scared for Betsy. She must be so lonely and cold! It’s all my fault, Father.”
“It’s not, dear.”
“Yes it is! I told a lie. It’s not true what I said about Betsy pushing me into the creek.” Elsie pourd her heart out, and Joseph listened patiently.
“I was jealous that you were spending time with Betsy, Hannah, and Levi. I mean, since Mother died, I’ve had most of your attention. I didn’t want them to take my place. Betsy and I had a fight about who Hannah should listen to. She is her older sister, but I will soon be the oldest girl. I wanted to get her in trouble, so I jumped into the creek and acted like I was drowning. I could touch the bottom. For a few minutes, my plan was working. You and everyone else gave me all of your attention. But then when Betsy ran away, I felt guilty. Do you think she will ever forgive me?” she whimpered.
“Well, what you did was wrong. You know that I love you very much, and I love Betsy very much. When I marry Katherine, I will have four children I love very much, but Elsie, you will always be my baby girl. No one will take your place. You know that, right?”
Elsie nodded. “Please forgive me.”
“Of course, but Betsy deserves an apology-“
“Shasta!” Andi’s excited shout interrupted father and daughter.
At Andi’s call, Shasta’s ears perked forward. Andi looked harder. His saddle was empty!
“Shasta, where’s Betsy? You have to lead us to her.” Andi pleaded with her horse.
Shasta turned on a dime. Andi, Joseph, and Elsie followed him as he weaved his way through the woods.
Just when Andi thought Shasta was leading them on a wild goose chase, he came to a halt at the remains of an abandoned cabin.
“Betsy?” Joseph called as he dismounted and opened the creaky door. Andi and Elsie followed.
“You came,” a weak voice called from the dark corner.
“Thank God!” Joseph exclaimed.
“Oh Betsy! Why would you run away? You had us worried sick!”
“I’m sorry, Andi, I thought I would go for a ride to blow off some steam, but then I got lost. I’m cold, I can’t feel my fingers.”
Elsie rushed to take off her coat and put it around Betsy shoulders.
“We need a fire to get her warmed up, I’ll get wood. Joseph, can you fire three shots in the air to let the others know we found her? Elsie, talk to her, don’t let her go to sleep.” Andi wisely instructed.
As Joseph got his gun from his saddle, Andi went to find wood, but before she left she could hear the two girls.
“No, I’m sorry!”
Andi shook her head, They are going to be best friends! After tying up the horses, she collected kindling. By the time she got back, all three were sitting together, talking and laughing.
“I see you worked things out.” Andi smiled.
“I’m going to love having Betsy as my new sister.” Elsie put her arm around Betsy.
“Me too!” Betsy agreed.
Christmas that year came and went, but the Carter family made memories together that would last forever. Katherine and Joseph, with their children, went home to San Francisco having new joy over Elsie and Betsy’s tight friendship.
Not only were the two girls going to be sisters by name, but that Christmas they became true sisters at heart.