Story by Gail Z. Martin
Dioramas by Catherine Curl
Jenny looked up from behind the bar at The Ranch when the door opened. She didn’t recognize the man who stood framed in the entrance, but there was no missing how he scanned the room, flinty-eyed, before moving out of the way so his taller, slightly younger, companion could enter.
At this time of the afternoon, the tables were empty and the barflies hadn’t yet claimed their seats. Since it was Christmas Eve, Jenny expected business to be slow but steady today. The bar sat on one end of the vintage Wagon Wheel Motor Inn that had been in her family for half a century, ready to provide weary travelers with food and drink. The Ranch was one of the few places open tonight, and there were always people who needed a hot meal and a little companionship, even on a holiday.
“Can I help you?” She called out. “We’re still serving the lunch menu, if you’re looking for a meal.”
Jenny had been a bartender long enough to size up folks quickly. Well-worn canvas jackets, jeans and boots suggested these two were working men. Light scruff accentuated high cheekbones and strong jaws, ‘ruggedly handsome’ in a hard-used kind of way. They moved like her brother did after he came back from the army, confident he could handle trouble if it came looking for him.
Instead of choosing a table, both men took seats at the bar. She didn’t miss how the taller man angled himself to watch the outside door and the kitchen entrance, while the shorter man turned his attention to her.
“So, Jenny,” he said, glancing at her name tag. “Got any pie?” He flashed a grin that packed rock star wattage.
“We might have a piece or two in the kitchen. The lunch crowd went pretty hard on what the bakery sent us. Any particular type?” She asked.
“Whatever you’ve got is fine with us,” he assured her. Flirting seemed to come naturally to him, but Jenny didn’t get the sense that he meant anything by it.
The other man sighed and shook his head. “Don’t mind my brother. He’s…special.” The fond tone took the sting from his words. “Two cups of coffee—black—with that pie please.”
“Coming right up,” she promised, putting the drinks in front of them before going to the kitchen.
“Last two pieces,” Beth told her, looking up from where she was stirring a big pot of soup. “Anyone asks at dinner, all we have is cake or ice cream.”
“Got it,” Jenny replied, and grabbed the plates and two forks.
“We’ve got one slice of apple and one of cherry,” Jenny told the men. “You can arm wrestle for who gets which one.”
“I’ll take the apple,” the tall man said, pulling the plate toward himself. “Dean always goes for cherry.”
The strangers looked like they could handle themselves in a fight, but Jenny didn’t feel threatened. That kind of intuition came with tending bar, and she’d been around long enough to have dealt with the good, the bad, and the ugly. Jenny hadn’t needed the shotgun under the bar often, but it had come in handy to shut down trouble more than once.
“So what brings you to nowheresville South Dakota on Christmas Eve?” She knew it was none of her business, but it had been a slow day and the men piqued her curiosity.
“Sammy and I got a call from a friend who said there’d been trouble at the old Ryder house,” Dean said through a mouthful of pie. “Wanted us to come take a look at it. So here we are.”
“On Christmas Eve?” Jenny looked from Dean to ‘Sammy’—she bet the older brother was the only one who got away with calling him that. Sam took a long drink of coffee, didn’t even wince at how hot it was. Jenny glimpsed a knife handle beneath Sam’s jacket. Something about the two didn’t add up.
“See, that’s where it gets interesting,” Dean said, pushing his empty plate to the side. “Because we heard that there’s a ghost at the house that only comes out tonight. You know anything about that?”
“Are you ghost hunters?” Beth asked from the kitchen doorway, overhearing Dean’s question.
“I guess you could say so,” Sam replied, with a side glance at Dean that seemed to hold an entire unspoken conversation.
Beth wiped her hands on her apron and came up to stand beside Jenny. “Take it from a local—you don’t want anything to do with the Ryder house, and definitely not tonight. The ghost is real—and dangerous.”
“What have you heard?” Dean’s voice was friendly, but the glint in his eyes reminded Jenny of a dog on the trail of a fox.
“Miranda Ryder caught her husband, Frederick, having an affair,” Beth replied. “She shot Frederick, and fought with Ellie, the mistress. They say Miranda tried to push Ellie down the steps, but Ellie grabbed her and they both fell to their deaths.”
“That was twenty years ago. The house sold a couple of times, but anyone who’s in it on Christmas Eve either has a close call or doesn’t make it out alive,” Jenny picked up the story. “Been empty for a long while. It’s bad news.”
Dean’s smile faded. “Last year, it was a couple of teenagers on a dare, right? They weren’t lucky.”
“You know about that?” Beth asked.
“Let’s just say that we’re here because someone wants to make sure no one else dies,” Dean replied with a grim expression.
Jenny refilled their coffee, and this time, she noticed the scars on the men’s hands. A couple of Dean’s fingers were slightly crooked, like they’d broken and not set quite right. The ghost busting business had gone hard on them.
But here they are, on Christmas Eve, going up against a killer ghost. To save people who won’t even know they exist.
She had so many questions, but she sensed these two wouldn’t answer.
Don’t they have families of their own? Partners? Or is the job their life? At least they have each other.
The men moved around each other like they were used to being in tight quarters, anticipating each other’s reactions, conscious of the other’s presence without needing to look. They both gave off badass vibes, but Jenny noticed how they kept a protective eye on one another, as if they wouldn’t be able to mop the floor with anyone who might give them a hard time, all on their own. For their size, they didn’t ask for much elbow room, standing a little too close to each other by most folks’ idea of ‘personal space’.
A glance out the window told Jenny that the big black car belonged to them—the only one in the lot at the moment. Do they live in their car? Is that why they stay so close when there’s a whole room to spread out in? One more question she knew she wouldn’t get an answer to.
“If you can get rid of Miranda’s ghost for good, dinner tonight is on the house,” Beth said. “That house has been nothing but a nuisance and a heartache.”
Jenny laid a hand on her wife’s shoulder and looked at the two men. “Beth’s little brother got hurt bad one year in there a while back. The ghost is real. So you better keep your wits about you.”
Sam nodded. “Thanks for the warning. We will.”
“Sorry about your brother,” Dean said. His eyes darted to Sam with a look that held old pain and more than a dash of guilt. Jenny had seen that look in Beth’s eyes when it came to her younger siblings, and she knew it ran bone-deep.
“Make that ghost bitch pay,” Beth replied. She and Dean locked gazes, and Jenny saw an understanding pass between them when he gave a curt nod in return.
“We’re open ‘til nine tonight, so come back for dinner,” Jenny called out as Sam and Dean walked to the door. She couldn’t help noticing that they looked as good leaving as they did entering. Mighty fine view, either way.
Beth elbowed her with a grin. “Hey. You’re married, remember?”
Jenny gave her a wicked smile. “Bi- means I enjoy looking. Married means I don’t touch.”
For Christmas Eve, the bar was pretty busy, and the dinner crowd kept Jenny hopping. She and Beth had tried to add a little holiday cheer to the decor with an ancient artificial tree hung with dollar store ornaments, paper snowflakes dangling from the ceiling, and a ‘Santa drinks here’ banner over the bar. The TV played an all-day holiday movie marathon, and even the hard-core sports fans didn’t complain.
Beth baked sugar cookies, and they were free with purchase, along with the candy canes Jenny had picked up on clearance. The discounted drink of the night was an apple cider and rum mixture jazzed up with a clove-spiked orange and cinnamon sticks that smelled good and sold better than Jenny expected.
All evening, Jenny kept an eye out for Sam and Dean. She wondered how the ghost busting had gone, and whether they’d been successful. By eight the snow was coming down hard enough that even the barflies cleared out, and Jenny turned up the volume on the holiday movies and poured herself some of the spiked cider.
She thought about closing early, but discarded the idea. Her father had drilled it into her that people needed to trust the posted hours, and someone who came late needed a good meal more than anyone. Since she and Beth lived in a house right behind the motel office, driving home wouldn’t be a problem, no matter how much snow came down.
Just before nine, she heard the purr of a V-8 engine, and moments later, the door swung open in a blast of snow and frigid air. Dean manhandled Sam inside, with his shoulder under Sam’s arm and his own arm around Sam’s waist. Sam looked woozy, and both men were bleeding.
“Careful,” Dean said as he helped Sam slide into a booth. He turned to Jenny, who had hurried to close the door.
“Sorry to come here like this but…he’s hurt and there’s nowhere else,” Dean said. The cocky confidence from earlier had shifted to raw worry.
“Miranda’s ghost do this?” Jenny asked, grabbing the first aid kit from under the bar and handing it to Dean.
“Yeah. We had a tip she was haunting the carved mantle in the living room—wedding present from her jackass husband,” Dean said as he gentled Sam into sitting propped against the wall. He dipped a napkin into a glass of water and daubed at Sam’s split lip and the gash by his eyebrow.
“Sammy crowbarred it off the wall, and Miranda came after us while I was trying to light the damn thing on fire. By the time I finally got it salted and burned, she’d thrown us both around.”
Dean didn’t look at Jenny as he spoke. His full attention focused on Sam, and those calloused, scarred hands moved tenderly over Sam’s face and head as Dean checked for damage.
“Not gonna let a couple of ‘slay belles’ like Miranda and Ellie hand you your ass are you, little bro?” Dean asked, and Jenny had the feeling he kept talking to ease his own worry as much as to reassure Sam.
“M’okay,” Sam murmured, making a half-hearted attempt to bat Dean’s hands away.
“Let me judge that,” Dean replied, as if the world had narrowed to just the two of them. He flipped Sam the bird. “Hey Sammy—how many fingers am I holding up?”
“Screw you,” Sam grumbled, but a smile tugged at the corners of his lips.
How often have they done this for each other? Enough to have a triage routine. Is this their life?
“My offer stands,” Beth said, coming out of the kitchen with a plate of cookies and a pot of coffee. “If you sent Miranda’s ghost to Hell, you can have anything on the menu, on the house. Whiskey to go with it, too.”
“She’s gone,” Dean replied, still patting Sam down to look for broken bones. “Sent her ass straight to Hell.” Jenny had the feeling Dean meant that literally.
“We’ve got the best burgers in the Dakotas,” Jenny offered. “And our Ranch Fries are a specialty.”
“Burger and fries for me, then, and chicken anything for him,” Dean answered. He straightened, and finally turned toward Jenny and Beth now that he seemed assured Sam wasn’t seriously injured.
“Sorry to bust in here like that but I wanted to check him out in good light and get some hot food into him before we get back on the road.”
“Where are you staying?” Beth asked. “The snow’s coming down pretty fast.”
Dean looked away. “We, uh, don’t have room. Thought we’d drive back to Sioux Falls.”
A weather alert interrupted the holiday movie on the TV by the bar, listing highway closures.
“Doesn’t look like anyone’s getting to Sioux Falls tonight, and it’s way too cold to sleep in your car,” Beth said, hands on her hips. “Jenny and me own the hotel next door. Had a cancellation, so there’s a room open. It’s yours, if you want it.”
Dean looked ready to argue, so Jenny jumped in. “Sam will get stiff in the car, and the cold won’t be good for him,” she said, guessing the magic words to make Dean relent.
He managed a chagrined smile, as if he knew what she’d done. “Well, you got me on that. We’ll take you up on that room then, thanks.”
When they’d finished their meals, Jenny brought over a bottle of Jack and four glasses. Beth came out from the kitchen, and they all watched the end of Home Alone as they ate cookies and drank whiskey.
Jenny turned out the ‘open’ sign, and Dean insisted on helping clean up. He seemed to know his way around the back end of a bar, and she wondered if he’d done a stint or two as a bartender to make ends meet.
They all left The Ranch together, and piled into the black Impala. While they were just across the parking lot, more than a foot of snow would have made it a miserable walk. Dean parked by the motel office, and thanked Jenny again when she brought out the key and pointed to the old owner’s suite, the extra room they didn’t usually rent out.
Jenny and Beth stood in the office window and watched Dean help Sam to their room, tangled up together the way they’d entered the bar, holding each other up on treacherous footing. She reached for Beth’s hand, and gave it a squeeze before they flipped on the ‘No Vacancy’ light and headed home.
Come Christmas morning, the big black car was gone.