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Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter Four)

"Are you sure you don't mind that I go out for a while?" Quinn wrapped the scarf around her neck and searched the pockets of her parka for her thick fur- lined gloves. "I haven't been up to Elizabeth's cabin in months."

"Of course I don't mind," Catherine assured her daughter, "just don't get stuck up there. We haven't had near as much snow this year as we did last, and the latest report said that the storm may not arrive until tomorrow, but you never know."

"I have four-wheel drive. I wont get stuck." Quinn stole a cookie from the cooling rack. "And if the snow is too deep, I'll just turn around and come back."

"Well, you won't want to stay up there for too long anyway. There's no heat in the cabin, and it hasn't even been opened in months. You'll more than likely have to clear a path to the front door."

"Right I'll take a shovel."

"Here, take this, too, just in case you get cold." Her mother handed her a thermos of hot coffee with one hand and a large wreath of fresh greens with the other.

"Thanks, Mom. And maybe I'll take a few of these, too, in case I need a snack." Quinn wrapped a few more cookies in a napkin, pitched an apple into her nylon shoulder bag, which was already bulging– cleaning cloths, candles, her cellular phone, pruning clippers–and headed out the back. "I won't be long. I just want to make sure that Elizabeth gets her wreath this year."

The cold mountain air was jarring once outside the house, and Quinn hurried across the densely packed snow toward her vehicle, which she had parked out by the barn. She opened the driver's door, tossed her bag onto the front seat, and laid the wreath on the backseat. Returning to the house, she took a broom from the pantry and a snow shovel from the open back porch and slid them both onto the floor in the back of the car before climbing in. She turned on the ignition, giving the engine a minute to warm up before making a wide circle and heading toward the road, driving tentatively, testing the depth of the snow. Finding her traction, she headed on up into the hills, to the old stone cabin that was built by her great-great-grandparents over a century earlier, where every year, Quinn or one of her siblings had gone to hang a wreath on the door to commemorate not only the date on which their great-great-grandmother had been born, but the date she had wed, as well.

They all called it Elizabeth's cabin, although in truth it had been both Elizabeth and Stephen Dunham who had, together, hauled endless stones from the beds of mountain streams to build their sturdy one- room shelter where they had begun their married life. As Stephen prospered as a trapper, the cabin had been expanded to accommodate their growing family. Years later, when Stephen's father had died back East in Philadelphia, he had with the greatest reluctance made the decision to return to take his place in the family shipbuilding business. Elizabeth had known that her husband's blue-blooded family was not likely to welcome her, a full-blooded Cherokee, with open arms, but she had promised to keep an open mind for Stephen's sake and for the sake of their children. And so she had accompanied him on the train across the country, the children all dressed in new "city" clothes, the boys tugging at their stiff collars, the girls confused by the number of undergarments they were forced to wear. The Dunhams had tolerated Elizabeth's presence while Stephen lived, but after his demise following a tragic carriage accident on Broad Street, Elizabeth had packed her belongings, and left her children with their grandmother to be educated as their father had wished. Taking the stash of gold coins Stephen had set aside for her, intending that she would never have to ask her in-laws for money, Elizabeth returned alone to the hills she had loved, to the cabin where she and Stephen and the children had been so happy, and it had been there that she remained until she died at the ripe old age of ninety- two.

Behind the cabin a small stone rose from the grass to designate Elizabeth's final resting place, a smaller stone nearby marking the grave of a daughter, Mary, who had not survived an outbreak of measles. Stories passed down through the family told of Elizabeth's oldest daughter's, Selena's, fight to bring Stephen's body back to the hills to bury him beside his beloved wife, but her efforts had been blocked by her brother Robert. Having taken his place as a Philadelphia Dunham, Robert had refused to permit the moving of their father's body from the cemetery in the city Stephen had never really known, and surely had never loved as he had loved the Montana wilderness. Elizabeth's heart would have broken, seeing her children divided, her son Avery siding with Selena, and Sarah and John siding with Robert. To this day, the descendants of one faction had no communication with those of the other.

It was said, too, that Elizabeth had never left the hills, that she waited still for Stephen's return. Several of Elizabeth's descendants had, at one time or another, claimed to have seen her, usually at a time of danger. Her daughter Selena was said to have seen her innumerable times, as had Quinn's mother and aunt, Catherine and her sister, Charlotte. In Quinn's generation, both Liza and CeCe had claimed to have seen her once when they were swimming and a mountain lion had stalked them on the way home. Susannah swore she had seen her once when a momma bear had decided that Susannah was picking huckleberries all too closely to the den wherein her cubs slept. Each time, it seemed, Elizabeth had appeared to lead her descendants to safety. Quinn alone of Catherine's girls had yet to see the old woman, who had always been described in the same manner: dark hair, gently streaked with gray, hanging over one shoulder in a fat braid that reached past her hips, a green woolen blanket wrapped around her against the chill of the mountain air.

A random snowflake fell here and there as Quinn headed farther up the hill. Over the tops of the trees to her left, a trail of smoke twined toward the sky. She stopped momentarily, then recalled that the McKenzie cabin sat back in the woods a little off the road, back behind the pines. Val must already be there, she thought as she headed on her way.

"I love this place," Quinn announced aloud to the silence inside her car. "I love the way the road winds around through the trees, and I love the way the trees look up here when they are covered with snow, like puffy, soft sculptures, white and quiet and still. And I love the way the air smells, sharp and intense and drenched with pine."

She slowed, then stopped the car in front of the old one-room structure, the original section of the cabin that had been all to survive a fire twenty years earlier.

"And most of all," she proclaimed as she hopped out, "I love this place."

Despite the fact that she had spent some of the most painful moments of her life in this very spot–had spent several hours pacing the stone path leading to the door, waiting for a man who never came– Quinn's love for the cabin had never diminished.

With the shovel she dug a narrow path through the snow to the thick wooden door marking the front of the old stone structure that had weathered more than a hundred winters. Through her heavy gloves her fingers sought the nail upon which she would hang the wreath. She returned to the car and slid the shovel in the backseat with one hand, and with the other, grabbed the wreath and the broom. Slinging her bag over her shoulder, she returned to the cabin and placed the circle of greens on the door. With fingers already cold through her gloves, she searched her bag for the key ring she had removed from the cupboard in the ranch house, and finding the key marked "E," she slid open the lock that hung from the old wooden door handle.

As if a simple lock would keep anyone out who wanted in, she thought, as she pushed the thick door open into the small room, then closed it behind her. Dropping the bag to the floor, she leaned down to retrieve the candles and matches she had packed to lend a little extra light to that which the small windows afforded. One by one she lit the candles, placing them around the room to brighten and cheer the dark space.

"Happy birthday, Grandmother."

Rummaging in her bag again, she found the clippers she had packed, then pulled her hood up and went outside to clip a few sprigs of holly from the tall bush that sheltered one side of the cabin.

Though the air was bitterly cold, Quinn welcomed its sharpness even as it stung her nose and throat just to breathe it in, reminding her of all those many winters Elizabeth had spent here alone. Quinn thought perhaps she understood why Elizabeth had brought her broken heart here, why she had stayed with nothing but the wind to keep her company. Had Quinn herself not sought the silence of the hills, and come to this place to nurse her own broken heart?

Piling up the clipped branches, Quinn went back inside and dropped them onto the floor, then pulled a cloth from her bag and, singing Christmas carols, proceeded to dust the furniture and the window ledges. Starting as children, each of the Hollister girls had taken their turn at this small task, cleaning Elizabeth's cabin, several times each year. Although all grown women now, they still continued with the tradition. It didn't take long, there being little furniture left to dust. Quinn cleaned a few dead bees from the window ledges, then dusted a few spiders from the mantle before placing the holly branches there, wondering if perhaps Elizabeth might have, once upon a time, done the same thing. Sweeping cobwebs from the corners and dust from the floor and removing the dead leaves from the unused fireplace pretty much completed the job.

"And now, we can visit," Quinn announced. Opening the thermos, she poured herself a cup of coffee. The cookies tempted her, but her hands were grimy from cleaning, so she decided to forego the snack until she arrived back at the ranch. "Are you here, Elizabeth?" she asked softly.

The air inside the unheated cabin was cold enough that Quinn's breath puffed from her face in tiny white clouds. She sat on one of the backless benches near the front window and sipped at her coffee, feeling the past–familial as well as personal–nipping at her heels. It had been in that very doorway she had stood watching for Cale's beat-up old black pickup truck that day, this exact bench on which she had sat and sobbed, her heart breaking at the truth she had had to face. Not once since that day had she entered this room without imagining that she could sense the vestiges of her own heartache, as if the walls had absorbed her sorrow and held it tbere, along with Elizabeth's.

"I suppose more than one of us has wept our share of tears here," she said aloud, as if to include the spirit of her grandmother in her reverie.

She drained the last bit of cool liquid from the cup and returned it to the top of the thermos, where it served as a lid. Pulling her jacket around her against the chill that seemed to seep through the thick walls, she gathered her things and snuffed out the candles.

"Good-bye, Grandmother, and merry Christmas to you. I'll be back in the spring. I hope your birthday is a happy one, and that wherever you are, Grandfather Stephen is with you to share your anniversary."

Quinn opened the door, and stepped into a swirl of white wind that all but lifted her from her feet. While she had cleaned Elizabeth's cabin, the storm had hit with a ferocity she had not seen in years. She put her head down against the driving wind, her feet seeking the path she had made, grateful that she had shoveled so narrow a trail, because only by following the path she had made was she able to find the car, so dense was the snowfall.

How could I have been so oblivious, she chastised herself. How could I have been so foolish to allow myself to lose track of time like that?

She climbed into the cab and huddled against the seat, trying to decide what to do. Perhaps if she waited a few minutes, the storm would subside as quickly as it had struck. For a long fifteen minutes, Quinn sat staring out through the windshield, but the storm only seemed to intensify. Some heat would be welcome right about now, she thought, as she turned the engine on and shivered heartily as the frigid air filled the cab. Knowing it would be some minutes before the vehicle wanned up, she decided to call home and let her family know where she was. Cold fingers punched the number on the cellular phone that she had dug out of her bag.

"Trevor? Hi," she said, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible.

"Quinn? Where are you? You sound so far away."

"I'm sitting outside of Elizabeth's cabin. The storm came up so quickly. I never even heard the wind pick up."

"Really? There's a storm up there? Hasn't hit the valley yet," he told her. "Are you all right?"

"Right now, I am. I thought I'd give it a few minutes to see if things settled down before I headed for home. Is it snowing there at all?"

"Not a flake. I guess it'll move down the mountain soon. Which means I should probably leave now if I'm going to make it to the airport to pick up Sunny and Lilly and whoever else is flying in today." He paused thoughtfully. "'You're sure you're okay, Quinn?"

"Well"–she hesitated–"the snowfall is pretty dense right about now."

"On a scale from one to ten…" Trevor asked, his standard barometer.

"Thirteen," she replied grimly.

"That bad, eh? Maybe Sky should take the truck and come up for you…"

"No. No sense in both of us being stuck up here. Look, tell Mom and Dad I'll keep in touch. I do have some gas left, so I can keep the heater running, and I have some hot coffee, so I can stay warm."

For a while, anyway. She bit her lip. What to do when the gas tank is empty and the coffee is gone?

"Well, then, as soon as the snow lets up even a bit, head back on down slowly. Just keep the pines on either side of you and try to make it down to the hanging rock. If you can get that far, you can probably make it to the old McKenzie cabin. Val's been fixing it up…"

"So I heard," she said wryly, thinking back to Sky's reaction to the mere mention of Valerie's name the night before.

"Yeah, well, if you can get to the cabin, you should be fine. Get a good fire going and wait out the storm."

"I think Val must already be there. I saw smoke from the cabin when I drove past. I just hope there's enough wood to get us through the storm."

"There's plenty." Even through the phone line, she could see Trevor's lopsided grin. "Seems like Sky spent most of the past six months chopping wood and stacking it next to Val's back door."

"I see. Well, then, the cabin should be nice and warm, and I can sit out the storm safely with Valerie." Assuming I can get there.

"Quinn?" Trevor asked as she was about to say good-bye.

"What?"

"Call back when you get there so we know that you made it."

"I will. Tell Mom not to worry," she assured him. "I'll be fine."

Or I will be, once the snow lightens up.

It was almost twenty minutes more before the storm appeared to ease. She opened the car door tentatively, then slammed it in the face of the vicious wind. Another fifteen minutes passed before she tried again. This time the wind had died down a little, and so she grabbed the ice scraper from under the front seat and set about cleaning off her windows. In so brief a time, a blanket of snow had wrapped around the car, and it took her several minutes to clean the windows sufficiently to allow her to see. With the defroster on full steam, she shifted into first gear and headed toward the void between the towering shadows of the pines that marked either side of the makeshift road. Inch by careful inch she crept along through a snowfall as thick as clotted cream, straining her eyes to distinguish shape from shadow, keeping her speed slow but steady as she made her way down the mountain. It seemed that an eternity had passed before she could distinguish the hanging rock there in the distance. If she could make it just a little farther, she would find shelter in the old McKenzie cabin.

The car continued its tedious crawl until she was close enough to the rock to touch it. She pressed a little harder on the gas pedal until she had passed the landmark, then eased her foot onto the brake. The car rolled to a soft stop, and she slid the gearshift into neutral. Rolling down the window, she looked out onto an icy world that had suddenly turned totally white. The cabin could be but twenty feet from her face and she could miss it in this blizzard. She sighed glumly and turned off the engine, hoping to preserve what little gas she had left, and had started to roll the window back up when movement just slightly to the left caught her eye.

Quinn squinted, trying to get a better look through the churning white, thinking perhaps she had not seen anything after all. But there, there again, just off the front of the car to the left…

She leaned half out the window, certain that she was hallucinating. Who in their right mind would be out in this storm?

A tall, slender woman stood straight against the wind, and appeared to stare directly at the car. Quinn could not see her face clearly, but she could see the dark slash of braided hair that hung to the woman's waist A dark blanket wrapped around the figure, which, even as Quinn watched, pulled the blanket up around her head like a hood. Quinn knew instinctively who the woman was, and why she was there.

Elizabeth. Come to lead me through the storm.

Without a second's hesitation, Quinn cut the engine, pulled the hood up on her down jacket, grabbed her bag, and stepped out into a swirl of white. All she could see with any certainty was the woman, who appeared to be waiting patiently for her to catch up, but with each tedious step that Quinn took through the deep snow, the woman seemed to take three. No matter how quickly Quinn tried to walk, her guide managed to stay ahead of her. With the wind whipping around, stinging her face with keen icy needles, Quinn tried to keep up, but soon found herself near exhaustion and totally disoriented, questioning her sanity as she stood in the midst of a world so white that nothing appeared to exist beyond the tip of her nose, which right now was in serious danger of frostbite. And suddenly, in the blink of an eye, Elizabeth was gone.

Stunned to find herself totally alone, Quinn's eyes searched frantically for the figure she had unquestioningly followed, but there was neither form nor shadow to be found in the endless white landscape that surrounded her. The figure that had guided her had vanished without a trace.

"Elizabeth!" She screamed, but not even an echo returned. More frightened than she had ever been in her life, she desperately scanned the white for the shape of the woman in the blanket.

What in the name of heaven had come over her, that she had gotten out of the car in a blinding blizzard to follow a… a what? A spirit? Who in their right mind would leave certain shelter, guided only by something or someone who may not even exist, to venture into a world where nothing was certain but snow and wind?

Looking over her shoulder, Quinn sought her car, but knew, even as she squinted into the wind, that she would not find it. She was too turned around to know from which direction she had come, and in the storm, the white car had totally disappeared.

She had, she realized, two simple choices. She could remain where she was, where she would most certainly freeze to death on the spot, or she could search for shelter. Cursing her stupidity for giving credence to what was, after all, merely family legend, she lifted her right foot over the high snow, and fell face forward onto the wooden steps of Jed McKenzie's cabin. "Thank you, Grandmother," she half laughed, half sobbed through a mouthful of snow as she pulled herself up. Her legs heavy with fatigue, she climbed the other three steps and crossed the porch to the front door. She tapped lightly, then looked through the windows. There did not appear to be anyone there. Turning the door handle, she pushed slightly, and was surprised to find it swing open quietly.

"Hello?" she called into the unlit room that opened up before her. "Val?"

When no one answered, Quinn closed the door against the storm and stepped inside. A big deep fireplace of native stone ran along one wall, and it was there that she automatically headed. Glowing embers in the firebox gave testimony that someone had been there recently enough to have had a fire going.

Val must have headed into town not knowing about the storm, Quinn thought. I'm sure she won't mind if I wait here till it passes.

Shivering and cold clear through to the bone, Quinn stacked several logs and fanned the embers until the warm glow began to grow and the flames came alive to warm her. As her hands began to thaw, she removed the gloves and held her hands up close to the fire. The warmth felt so good. She had thought she would never be warm again. She rummaged in her bag for her phone, and punched in the numbers with fingers that were still stiff and stinging with cold. When the answering machine picked up, she left the message she knew her family would need to hear, that she was safe and warm and out of the storm.

Sitting on a low stool, Quinn removed her boots and wet socks. Her jacket came next, and she hung it on a hook she found inside the front door. She stacked another few logs, on the fire, then wrapped herself in the two afghans that she found, one on each end of the sofa. Having fought her way through a piercing wind, she was as exhausted as any soldier fresh from battle. Shivering with the lingering cold, she snuggled down into the cushions and closed her eyes. That she was trespassing into a quiet cabin in the woods made her feel a little like Goldilocks, and her last conscious thought was of looking for something to drink, something not too hot, not too cold. And she would, as soon as she slept off the cold.

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