Word Count: 6500
Joseph Cartwright always felt a prickle of nervous trepidation when riding through the passes during the snows of winter. The overpowering silence and the bleak whiteness provided no sympathetic ambience to concentrate his thoughts on the beauty of such scenes. His eyes were constantly narrowed against the cold, or roving back and forth to note any changes in the appearance of the snow.
Even now, as he rode beside his brother, he felt the tension creeping up his backbone and into the hairs on the back of his neck. In his thick mittens, his hands were sweating. He swallowed a gulp, adjusted his muffler, and pulled his hat lower.
Just because it happened once before, it didn’t mean it would happen again. Not to him. No, it just wasn’t possible.
Every time, it seemed, they rode through the passes where the snow was mounted up high as can be, overhanging the craggy rocks and boulders, poised as though just ready to drop. His eyes caught a movement and he shuddered, gripped the reins, and shivered.
“You alright, Joe?”
Adam’s deep voice, quieter, softer than usual, whispered in his ear and he turned to look at Adam before glancing at where he had seen movement, then relaxed, reassured as he noticed no change.
“Do you remember, Adam, when …?”
“Yes, I remember. No point in tormenting yourself now about it, Joe. It happened; doesn’t mean there’s a second time for it to happen to you again.”
“It’s not that I’m scared.”
“Of course not; it’s only natural for a man to be cautious, especially out here. At least we’re together.” Adam smiled at his brother kindly.
“Don’t you think it could happen again?”
Adam paused, drawing Sport to a temporary halt. He leaned upon the pommel of his saddle and looked around him, then pursed his lips, narrowed his eyes and nodded. “It’s always possible, Joe; that’s how nature is, I guess. I just doubt it would happen to you again.”
“Even after all these years?”
“Even after all these years,” Adam repeated and pulled his muffler to cover the bottom of his face.
The wind was raw. Joe didn’t want to hang around here too long; the snow overhanging the precipice looked just about ready to drop.
It was nearly ten years ago when it had happened. An avalanche that had swept down the mountainside and across the pass with such swiftness that two wagons had been swept away in much the same manner as a man swipes a fly from before his face. Two wagons, supplies, eight horses and two women, two men and a child. Gone. Buried beneath tons of snow and rock. The pass had been blocked for weeks and it had not been until the spring thaw had worked its magic for some weeks that they were able to dig out the bodies. It had been heartbreaking.
Joe had been four years old at the time. Muffled up to the eyes with shawls and blankets, he had sat between his Ma and Pa as they left the small settlement. Ben Cartwright had promised to lead the family in the wagons to the land they had purchased months earlier and which they wanted to claim and settle upon before winter had closed all the passes. They had approached Ben as he was tying things down in his own wagon – supplies that had been necessary to keep them alive during the winter. The snows had arrived early, and the blizzard had been harsh, trapping Ben, Marie and Joseph in the settlement with Adam, Hoss and Hop Sing awaiting their return.
With the blizzards over and the assurance from several of the scouts that the pass was still clear, the Cartwrights went about their business swiftly. Never for a moment did either of them imagine themselves in danger, for had they done so, they would never have risked their lives and the life of their child on that journey.
The two men had approached Ben, while their women folk had sat in their wagons patiently waiting for their husbands to return to them with a decision. They were determined to reach their land before the pass was sealed off. Ben warned them of the dangers of travelling and the men had pointed out, rightfully, that if he were prepared to risk it with his wife and son, then why should not they?
“Very well,” Ben said, “As I see you’re determined to go whether I lead you or not, so be it. All I ask is that when I raise my hand, you maintain utter silence. When I stop, you stop. When I slow down, you slow down. If I decide to turn back …”
“We ain’t turning back.” the older man said gruffly.
“If I decide to turn back, Mister, I’d advise you to do so. I’m not risking my son and wife for you.”
The two men had an altercation between themselves before coming to some agreement and promising to do as Ben suggested. With a sigh, Ben watched them return to their wagons before turning his attention to checking the knots of his ropes that held his provisions and supplies in his wagon.
“Do you think we should go, Ben?” Marie had asked, placing Joe squarely on the wagon seat, so well wrapped up against the cold that he couldn’t have moved except to have rolled.
“The Grosch brothers have assured me the pass is clear just now. Another blizzard like the one we just had will seal it off completely. We have to get across, Marie; provisions are just too low back home.”
Marie nodded, and pulled her shawl tighter. At her feet was a hot stone from Mr. Cass’ store. It would keep them warm, along with the straw that surrounded it. She knew she could rely on what Ben had told her, and was confident that were he to decide to turn back, he would do so. She never had any fears when she was with Ben.
She looked up at the blue sky and sighed; how quickly the weather could change. So fickle. So capricious. There had been no warning of the snow that they had just had dropped on them. Had there been, she would never have ventured out to the settlement, especially with Joe. She busied herself with fussing over her little boy, who resembled an overstuffed little toy with only his expressive eyes indicating he was actually alive.
They had began their journey with no problems, no difficulties at all. The track was clear. Prints here and there indicated the passing of small deer, hare and rabbit. The sky was blue and a wintry sun shone apologetically from the sky.
There was no wind. Not even a breeze. Joe had sat there warm, too warm in fact, between his parents and had fallen asleep listening to the hum of their voices. They spoke very softly. He could remember that – the softness of their voices. Everything was quiet and peaceful. Very peaceful.
He was never sure why he had wakened from his sleep. He was only aware of the fact that the wagon was moving very slowly. His parents were not talking and his mother was hugging him closer than usual to herself. He saw his father raise his arm and keep it raised for what seemed a very long time.
From out of the silence there suddenly boomed a sound that made Ben and Marie look at one another in amazement. Joe could see, even at his age, that without saying a word his parents were each asking of the other “What on earth was that?”
There was another boom, then another… then suddenly the most horrific sound as walls of snow and ice toppled down towards them. Ben yelled to send the horses surging forward. Joe rocked on the wagon seat and felt his mother’s arms engulf him so tightly he was in danger of suffocating. Snow billowed up around them in great white cold clouds and he thought he heard a scream. He would dream about that scream for years later.
Later, when the spring thaw was well set in and they had recovered the bodies and sorted through the possessions from the wagons, they had discovered the cause of the avalanche. The old family grandfather clock, wound up to strike the hour, with its hands frozen in time …
Now, at fourteen years of age, Joe still felt the ghost of memories trickle through his mind, and the scream of that time filtered through his veins like the blood that coursed through them. He could remember how Ben had driven his wagon onwards out of the danger of the avalanche and then turned back to see nothing, nothing but white clouds of snow and ice and rocks. And no one rode out to follow them from their midst.
The morning had revealed an excellent beautiful day. After the restrictive confinement to the house, it was good to be able to get out once more.
Hop Sing watched from the kitchen window as the four Cartwright’s had ridden out of the yard. Four dark shadows against the blinding whiteness of the snow. He bobbed his head and smiled. His dark eyes almost disappeared in the folds of his cheeks as the smile widened at the thought that he could at last go and visit his cousins in town.
He bustled about the kitchen, putting finishing touches to this and that. He checked out the stove and lowered the dampers. Then he pulled out his thick winter coat, quilted and guaranteed to keep a man as warm as possible during the winter months. With a warm hat on his head and thick mittens, he looked like a walking comforter as he left the house and made his way to the stable.
He paused in the yard to stand awhile and look about him. So beautiful. Pristine cleanliness all about as the snow blanketed the hills and mountains wherever he looked. He took in a deep breath. Then shivered. It was very cold. Very still. The sun shone down from a foolishly blue summery sky. It was misleading, as Hop Sing knew it was 15 degrees below freezing at least.
Mr. Adam had come in earlier and announced that the passes were clear. They had been restricted to the house for five weeks as blizzards had pummeled them one after the other. The excited buzz that Mr. Adam’s announcement brought them was exhilarating. Mr. Hoss and Little Joe had jumped up from the table and collided with one another. Mr. Ben had shouted instructions about all the jobs they had to do, which would have required at least fifty men to do them, and Mr. Adam had stood there with a big grin on his face.
The cook harnessed his team of horses to the wagon and smiled as they whickered their pleasure at seeing him and being out again. Ah yes, so much delight to ride out at last. He had so much to talk about to Cousin No. 5 about the wedding of Mai-Lin to Cousin 2’s son, Wang.
He drove carefully. The wheels made barely a whisper of sound and occasionally he regretted not having replaced the wheels with the long runners that Hoss had stacked away just before the blizzards had arrived. It had been a surprise, this vicious weather. Just as they had expected spring to arrive, winter had snapped its jaws and trapped them. But now, at last, the sun shone.
Every so often he had to clamber down from the wagon to remove the impacted snow that had clogged up between the wheels and the brakes. Slowly he drove along the track with his mind on Mai-Lin’s wedding and the beauty of the day. It never occurred to him that there could be trouble. Not on a day as beautiful as this one.
Occasionally he paused to look about him, for snow brought such beauty here. It was already an outstandingly lovely place and in many ways reminded him of the ancient hills and mountains of his own country. The vast panoramic view was spread out before him, unbelievably bewitching. With joy in his heart, he rode on.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught movement. He turned and frowned. This was something he had never seen before and could not now believe he was actually seeing. A line of trees was moving down the hillside. It was slow. Majestically slow. Hop Sing watched with disbelief as he watched the trees appear to walk down the side of the mountain. Even as he watched, he struggled to make sense of what he was seeing.
Then he heard a sound. A loud cracking sound that gathered in volume as he sat there. The sound rumbled louder and louder and he knew instinctively that whatever was about to happen meant trouble – big trouble – and he had to move to distance himself as quickly as possible.
He cast his eyes upwards and his mouth opened in horror as the overhang of snow that had looked so much a part of the mountain only seconds before now began to shift. The trees were no longer ‘walking’ down the mountain but were tumbling down as they were caught up in the massive build-up of snow that was ripping, tearing and shoveling everything apart that stood in its way.
He urged the horses forward. Hurry, hurry, hurry… go faster, faster. This was not just trouble, not just a problem; it was life or death and a race against time. He looked up as the roar from the mountain filled his total being and shook him through, making his flesh crawl and his bones vibrate. The horses, knowing so well the danger, craned their necks forwards and stretched out their legs to escape the horror that was hastening to envelop them.
Against the purity of the white backdrop, the two horsemen were like two black ink spots slowly making their way through the pass. Cochise and Sport were only occasionally able to break into a fast trot as the deep drifts caused by the recent blizzards prevented them from going any faster. At times, the drifts engulfed them to their chests and forced them to forge a trail through the softening snow by straining every ounce of muscle they possessed.
Their riders were only grateful for the warmth of the sun and the fact that no cruel biting southeasterly of a wind was blowing down the pass. They had had dismal success in hunting and had now turned towards home.
The prospect of home made Joe feel far more relaxed about being out on the pass. The closer Cochise brought him to the Ponderosa, the safer he felt. The tight nervous constriction around his chest eased off and he was feeling as many do when approaching the home stretch. Cochise was young and mettlesome, like his young master, and Joe was more than pleased with the way the animal was handling matters. The younger horse was following the example of the older horse, Sport, and could feel through his reins his master’s confidence in him. The strong lithe young wrist, Cochise already knew, would brook no nonsense from him.
“Joe…” Adam raised a hand and placed it gently but firmly against Joe’s chest. “Listen? Can you hear that?”
“Hear what? Apart from the rumbling of my stomach, I can’t hear a thing. Hop Sing isn’t going to be too pleased when we get home without anything for dinner. I’m starving and…” He stopped; there was no point in pretending, trying to swagger it out, and make a joke of things. His grin slipped; it slipped from his face like a waxen mask melting under intense heat, “Yes,” he nodded and his eyes rounded in his face, “I hear it. I can feel it too.”
The ground was shaking. The softening snow began to slide with the movement of the ground. Cochise and Sport both rolled their eyes, snorted nervously and stamped their feet in an attempt to control this strange and irresistible phenomenon.
“Avalanche.” Joe whispered and pointed to where the pass snaked down beneath them, “Look!”
But Adam was not looking at the pass beneath them. Tons of snow crashed now with a frenzy, seeking to crash and devour whatever and whoever was foolish enough to intrude. Adam’s eyes were directed to the vast ledges of snow still hanging perilously heavy over the parapets of rock close by them. Once more he reached out a hand and touched Joe, then directed his brother’s attention by pointing to the danger above them. He put a hand to his mouth and shook his head in warning to his brother to say nothing. The least whisper of a sound could trigger the whole lot down upon them.
With one mind, they began to edge back. Both Sport and Cochise willingly obeyed the commands of their masters as though understanding the safest course was to very slowly move back. Both men kept their eyes fixed on the snow that resembled so many fat frowsy pillows burgeoning with sleep inducing plumpness, but both men knew there was a power there that would put them to sleep with a permanence neither currently sought.
Hop Sing’s arms ached with the tension in them as he urged the horses onward. When the first fall of snow crashed into the wagon, his mouth and eyes formed three black holes of horror. Boulders, rocks, limbs of trees, masses of snow and clumps of ice crashed and tumbled in a cruel cascade that totally enveloped both horses, the wagon and Hop Sing. Like a toy, it was lifted up and tossed along with the rest of the debris. The horses shrieked in their death throes as they were torn away from the vehicle. Over and over it was turned and tossed and thrown until it came to rest between two large boulders.
It was silent now. No sound. Not even the whisper of the only remaining wheel as it slowly spun to a standstill. The blue sky was summery blue and the sun shone making the snow sparkle like a diamante studded shawl. The wheel stopped spinning and the snow stopped falling. There was only the most profound silence all around.
“Dadburnit, Miz Gilroy, jest what have ya gotten here anyhow?”
Hoss Cartwright paused in mid-stride, one shoulder hunched against a box that could have housed an elephant comfortably. He had both arms wrapped around one side of it as he struggled to keep his feet from slipping in the churned up mud and snow. Ben had difficulty in keep his end from teetering from the wagon, which warranted a shriek from Mrs. Gilroy that sent their ears ringing. Mr. Gilroy abandoned his corner of the wooden crate to assist Ben, which meant that his corner of the mysterious container took a nose dive for the ground that was saved only by some quick thinking and equally swift footwork from Hoss.
Nervously plucking at her apron, and then her shawl, Mrs. Gilroy performed some grotesque ballet on the verandah of her house as her husband, Ben and Hoss, struggled, pushed, wriggled, pulled and shoved the crate through the door of the house.
“Couldn’t we have taken it outa the crate before tryin’ to git it n?” Hoss asked, taking off his hat and mopping his brow, “Shucks, I only came here ‘cos I could smell pie cookin’, I didn‘t…I didn’t expect to be part of a haulage team.”
“Seems like we’ve taken off some of your door here, Bella.” Ben indicated where a chunk of the door frame had splintered as a result of the battle to get the crate indoors. “What have you got in there anyhow?” He smiled as he pulled off his muffler and began to unbutton his thick winter coat.
“A pianny,” Mr. Gilroy stated matter of factly. He had already discarded his outer clothing and was now contentedly puffing at his pipe and seeking the comfort of his chair.
“A piano?” Ben’s eyes rounded. “You’ve brought a piano all this way on a day like today?”
“Started out with it yesterday afternoon. It’s a gift for our gal, Sheila. It’s bin sitting in storage since the first fall of winter. Soon as I could. I got into town and started home with it yesterday afternoon.” He puffed several smoke rings towards the ceiling and half closed his eyes. “Bella, git our guests some coffee and that dadburned pie of your’n.”
“A real piano!” Hoss exclaimed. “Hey, can I unpack it and take a peek?”
“After some coffee and pie, Hoss. You and your Pa deserve it; it wasn’t easy draggin’ that in here.”
“Good thing it isn’t a grand piano, or even a baby grand,” Ben said with a smile as he took a seat and rubbed his hands together. This statement was met with blank looks and an odd smile from Hoss so Ben just shook his head and smiled to himself. “Still, it was a risk bringing this crate along, Gilroy; the pass has only just cleared as it is.”
“Oh, it was clear enough yesterday and I jest managed to squeak through with this load today. Good thing I met up with you when I did or you would have been stuck for sure.”
Hoss paused in the act of prying several boards loose from the crate, which resulted in packing straw spilling out onto the floor. “How’d ya mean?” he frowned as he set the boards down, “The thaws set in and Adam said the pass was clear.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m a-telling ya; it was clear. Then jest as I got through and was coming up ta’ road to our place, I heard an almighty roar and looked back to see the whole side of the mountain rolling down, it was taking trees and anything in its way with it.”
“Well, that does happen sometimes when the thaw sets in quick and fresh snow falls on it. Then the thaw sets in again. The least sound and the whole lot slides.” Ben sighed as a memory of what had happened in the past slipped into his mind, “I’ve seen it happen before.” He nodded his thanks and took the coffee from Mrs. Gilroy and stared into the flames of the fire, “Avalanches can be tricky things to handle.”
“I was mighty glad it were on the Ponderosa side of the pass and not our’n.” Gilroy smiled and puffed at his pipe, “And mighty glad I am to you both for coming to help me haul this in.” He jabbed at the crate which Hoss was slowly dismantling, revealing as he did so the black shining veneer of wood, “My gal will be prouder’n a peacock when she sees that.”
“It sure is mighty fine, ain’t it, Pa?” Hoss said with a smile as he swept aside the last of the packing materials and very gently lifted the lid from the keyboard. The black and white keys smiled up at him and he grinned. “Say, Pa, ain’t that jest about the prettiest danged thing?” He turned to look at his father who was staring thoughtfully into the flames. “PA?”
“Hoss, I was wondering…didn’t Hop Sing say something about going to visit his cousins in town today?” Ben stood up, setting down his cup and picking up his coat. “It’s just possible that I’m worrying needlessly, but I think I had better make sure that Hop Sing is safe. Hoss, take the Mill Road home and check to see if Hop Sing is safe. If he isn’t there, then get some of the hands to ride with you and join me.”
“Why? What’re you thinking, Pa?”
“I’m thinking that Hop Sing may have been on his way to town, and he may have got caught in that avalanche and will need all the help he can get.” Ben didn’t have to embellish what he had already said, there was no need.
Hoss was pulling his coat back on, “In which case, I’m a-riding with you, Pa.” He fixed his father with a stern blue gaze that prevented Ben from saying another word.
“I’ll come too,” Gilroy said, setting down his pipe and getting to his feet, “You’ll need every spare hand you kin git.” He glanced at the gleaming piano and then at his wife who nodded agreement and held out his old worn winter coat into which he shrugged himself once more.
The wind had begun to blow. It had a sharp keening sound and whistled eerily through the rocks that were now denuded of their white mantle. Joe and Adam continued to inch their way from the area where the snow continued to cling to the rock, overhanging from it with the constant threat of plummeting down upon them.
The elder brother turned slightly as he heard above the sounds of the wind his brothers’ sharp intake of breath and then allowed his eyes to follow the outstretched finger that pointed towards the debris of a crushed wagon.
They both turned their eyes to the enshrouded rocks and scanned those that now shone black and glistening. Then they looked at one another with questioning eyes.
“Hop Sing?” Adam whispered and Joe nodded.
Without any further hesitation, they pulled their horses around and began to slither a descent through the hazardous trail to where the wagon lay, shattered and broken.
Adam Cartwright had been sixteen years old when he had joined his father and several other men to search for the remains of the people swept to their deaths in the avalanche that had so nearly taken Little Joe, Marie, and Ben. He had worked alongside his father with shovel and spade to dig away at the remnants of the snow that still clung to the sides of the mountain.
Everywhere he looked there had been the signs of spring. Small golden flowers had fluttered in a warm breeze alongside daisies and little clumps of snow clung to the blades of grass that grew between the boulders.
Someone had shouted and beckoned to them to come and see … and altogether they had abandoned their tools and the search to go and look at what had been found.
As he now rode alongside his brother, Adam felt as though an iron fist had clutched at his heart and was squeezing it tight. His breathing was difficult and he had to fight off the urge to yell Hop Sing’s name as loud as possible in the longed for hope that there would be a reply.
The thick pillow of snow dangling so tantalizingly over the rock overhang was a constant reminder to be as silent as they possibly could be as they made their way through the snow to the wreckage.
Adam could remember the way they had all stepped back away from the bodies as though the sight of them would condemn each and every one of them for the treachery of despoiling their final sleeping place. Here were the two women, one holding the child in her arms. Perfectly preserved, but frozen in sleep. The sun had not kissed their cheeks and put pink roses in them; it had not begun to touch their flesh so that the smell of death would repel and repulse those who came by. There had been no decomposition, nothing that could have invited the carrion and the wolverine to gorge upon their remains.
They lay together as they had fallen all those months ago. The snow had been their grave. Only then had they been exposed to the indignities that lay ahead of them.
Adam ran his tongue over his teeth now, his mouth was dry. He could remember staring at those corpses and being grateful that he had not been the one to find them like that, because it had been just too – well – what word could he use? Sacred? Dignified? Sad…
He glanced over at Joe and forced himself to bring his mind to what mattered now. The past had to be left where it belonged — in the past. The future mattered, Hop Sing and the future. Dwelling on this thought, he pushed away the other memories of that tragic event, the discovery of what had been left of the men and the later burial on the land that they had been so anxious to reach all those weeks before.
He knew Joe had his own memories; he had seen in his brother’s face the taut edge of nervous tension as they had ridden along the pass. He had seen it every year whenever the snow had lain this thick, this treacherous. He had seen it and always assured his brother that it couldn’t happen again and now … well, now he had been proven wrong, for it had happened, and their dear friend could well be a victim.
The fear, the thought of such being true urged him to push Sport faster, and the horse used all its strength to obey his master’s command. Down they slithered and slid until they reached the wreckage and dismounted to find themselves floundering deep in the drifts.
“Ca-can you hear that?” Joe whispered as he knelt beside his brother and hauled away armfuls of the snow from the wreaked wagon, “It’s my teeth. I’m so co-cold that they’re going like cas…castanets.”
“Concentrate on getting the snow cleared, Joe, and quit jawing,” Adam whispered urgently in reply, and with an anxious glance up at the precipice where the snow was visibly slipping forwards.
“Do you think Hop Sing could be here?”
“I wouldn’t have suggested digging here if I didn’t.”
Working side by side, the two brothers hauled at the snow that covered the broken wagon. With their eyes turning every so often to look at the snow above and then returning to the task on hand, they worked in a frenzy that only panic and fear provoked. Their fingers ached, pained from their frantic digging at the snow. Eventually they sank back upon their haunches, settling down into the drift of snow that surrounded them, and looked at one another blankly,
“He’s not here,” Joe whispered with a slight break in his voice. He turned his face away so that Adam would not see the gleam of tears in his eyes.
“Then he must be with that wreckage down there,” Adam replied, and pointed to where the body of the vehicle protruded from the snow like an overturned toboggan. He grabbed at his brother’s arm and together they pushed their way through the snow down pass the wreck of boulders and wagon, navigated their way around the carcass of one of the horses until they had reached the upended tailgate of the wagon.
“Dig as though your life depended on it, Joe,” Adam whispered and began to haul at the snow as though he were a man possessed.
“Look, Pa, over there. Ain’t that Adam and Joe?”
“Seems like they’ve found where Hop Sing could be,” Ben replied quietly and he turned to Mr. Gilroy, “Looks like we found the place, Gilroy.”
“Yep, seems so.” Gilroy nodded and glanced further along the cliff. “Reckon it would be a good idea if we jest kept our voices down real low.”
Ben narrowed his eyes and looked up at the gathered snow just waiting to drop and nodded. With his mouth compressed into a tight line of grim fear and anxiety, he led the way through the snow down towards where Adam and Joe were frantically pawing at the snow with their hands.
“Did you hear that?”
“If you’re going on about your teeth again…” Adam hissed.
The faint tapping was barely audible. They looked at one another and set to in a frenzied attempt to clear away the rest of the snow. Adam wiped sweat from his brow. “If only Hoss were here, we could do with his strength right now,” he groaned.
“Here, pull this…” Joe suggested and together they hauled at a part of the wagon that jutted further from the snow. Their feet slid from under them – more than once they ended on their backsides and on top of one another -but finally the wood splintered and came away in their hands.
“Ah, you come to Hop Sing rescue.” The waxen face of their friend beamed up at them.
“What are you doing here, Hop Sing?” Joe grinned, offering the most inane question but so relieved to see him that he wiped his nose on the back of his hand as though he were six years old again.
“Waiting for rescue by you,” came the simple reply as Hop Sing looked up at them with a smile creasing his face. “No good trying to get out. Ice and snow too packed in tight. Just waiting…” he said.
“We’ll get you out in no time, Hop Sing. Can you wait just a little bit longer?” Adam asked, with a smile of his own.
Hop Sing gave a slight nod; it was the best he could do in the circumstances. Nor for a minute would he admit to the fear and terror he had been feeling since the avalanche had descended upon the frail wagon. He had been thrown clear of the vehicle and then found himself buried in snow with part of the wagon above him. It had fallen at such an angle that it had actually protected the upper part of his body from being crushed by the weight and volume of snow that had fallen around him. It had also taken the brunt of the rocks and snow that had crashed down upon it. Trapped from the waist down, Hop Sing had been unable to move, but he could breathe, and there was no pain caused by any injury that he was aware of at that moment of time. The thick heavily quilted coat he had chosen to wear that morning had also assisted in saving his life.
He lay there with his eyes closed and prayed. He prayed his thanks for his loyal friends. He prayed his thanks for deliverance. He prayed a blessing upon those who had risked their lives to rescue him.
Hoss, Ben and Gilroy arrived at this time, and it took only a few moments for Hoss to wade through the snow, sending it falling to right and left of him as he passed, so that a fine channel was furrowed out for his father and Mr. Gilroy to follow in his wake.
“Here…” Hoss said to Joe, “I’ll deal with this, short shanks.” He gave his little brother a warm gentle smile as he took the freezing plank of wood from Joe’s bleeding hands.
Hop Sing opened his eyes and looked up. He saw the face of his friend and employer looking down at him. This was, he thought to himself, this was very good. He would be safe and home soon.
He was unconscious when they finally drew him out of the snow that had packed about him. Very carefully, Hoss carried the limp body of the man through the snow to where Chubb patiently waited for his master. Adam and Ben, Joe and Mr. Gilroy trudged their weary way behind them. Pausing a moment, Joe turned to look back at the scene they were leaving,
“How come something that looks so beautiful can be so darn unpleasant at times,” he murmured, then looked at his father who was looking wistfully down at him.
Perhaps they were thinking of the same incident, but neither of them mentioned it. Nor did Adam make any reference to it as he hurried to where Sport was waiting for him. He gently stroked the animal’s nose and patted his sleek neck before he mounted into the saddle. Taking the reins in his freezing hands, he turned the animal towards home.
Hop Sing could gaze upon the snow-covered mountains from his bed. With pillow supporting him, warm blankets covering him, and a fire burning in the grate, he had never felt so warm and so cosseted in his life. The cold and now the heat caused him to feel an extreme lethargy; even keeping his eyes open was an effort of will, despite the fact that he had now slept for twenty-four hours.
The door opened after a firm rap was sounded, and Ben Cartwright stepped into the room bearing a tray laden with a bowl of steaming soup and crusty bread. He smiled at his friend and set the tray down on the table by the bed. “Hop Sing, you old rascal,” he exclaimed, “To think we nearly lost you”
“Not good idea, Mr. Catlight.” Hop Sing smiled.
“No, not a good idea at all, my friend,” Ben replied, his voice softer, gentler now as he pulled out a chair and sat down close to the bed. “How are you feeling?”
“Hop Sing feel very tired. Eyes closing all time.”
“That’s understandable. Thankfully we couldn’t find any damage done, although we’ll know more when we can reach town and get the doctor here.”
Hop Sing shook his head vigorously. “No need see Doctor. Hop Sing rest and soon get up. No bones broken. Only some bruises and bumps.”
“We’ll see…” Ben replied in a voice meant to brook no nonsense from him, but his face was soft as though indicating that he knew he had met his match.
Hop Sing sighed and closed his eyes. The soup smelt very good but he hadn’t cooked it so wasn’t tempted to taste it. He knew the bread was good; perhaps later he would taste it. Perhaps. He was quiet and contemplative, remembering the precarious balancing act of the snow on the ledges. Another few moments and it would have all come down upon them, burying him, and his friends as well as Mr. Gilroy. He sighed again. He remembered hearing one of Mr. Cartwright’s friends quoting an old proverb: ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed.’ It was a proverb he had not fully understood as he had tried to struggle to understand the meaning of it. Now, he felt, he knew what it meant. He allowed a small smile to touch his lips before he drifted back into sleep.
Ben stood up and pushed the chair back against the wall. He looked down at his friend asleep in the bed and leaned down to touch his hand. Assured that Hop Sing merely slept, he quietly left the room and closed the door behind him.
Ben had prayers of his own to offer – for the mercy extended to them during the past few days, for friends, for courage, for faith.