Word Count: 12,400
The rain was coming down steadily, mixed in it were spits of icy sleet. The young man driving the wagon, Ben Cartwright, blasted himself for this folly. Things were going so badly lately he began to wonder and doubt himself and his delusions of grandeur.
First the weather got nasty, then got better – going between mud and ice, seeming not to be able to make up its mind which way it wanted to torment him. Out of almost every supply due to the weather interfering with the freight wagons last time he managed to get into the Trading Post, he had no choice. Both the men who worked for him were down. One had a severe cold, the other verging on pneumonia. Flat out of options, he had to go today; tomorrow night was Christmas Eve. He could never have his two little boys eat nothing but hard biscuits skinny rabbit and a few shriveled carrots, not again.
There was nothing to be done; they could only get half what they needed. Supply and demand made rationing imperative. Although never one to begrudge others, understanding and facing facts at this point seemed miles apart. In this mood aggravated beyond which his patience could endure, he had snapped at his older boy and brought tears to the eyes of his younger. Neither boy had said a word since leaving the trading post.
Guilt ground into his soul like the heel of a boot. Pulling up on the reins, he halted the wagon, hanging his head. “Boys, I’m sorry; I had no right to get angry. It wasn’t you I was angry with; it was myself and the lack of supplies we so badly need.” He half turned in the seat, his breath making misty puffs. Before he could go on, a dark head poked out from under the tarp, all tousled from the woolen cap, deep hazel brown eyes way too serious for his age answered him without words. Within a minute, big spring sky blue eyes joined his. “S kay’ Pa, we knowed ya wuz.” He rubbed at his cheeks, pink from the cold.
“Thank you, son. Now both of you get under that tarp before you get all soggy and I have to hang you up by the britches next to the fire place to dry out.” He was rewarded by two sets of giggles, while just able to catch a glimpse of the dark head shaking as it slipped back into the cap and melted away under the tarp.
“Some day son, I…”
Turning back to the task, he clicked the big draft horse into motion once again. He knew both his ranch hands were sorry they were ill and could not watch the boys, afraid they would make them sick as it was so close to Christmas. Besides, each boy had coins that were calling to them to spend. After all, a trip to the Post was a rare treat in itself. He smiled, remembering the hushed overly-loud attempt to whisper between them as they matched coins and debated how to best use them. He was very sure he was at the front of the debate; after all, his name came up almost with every other word. Suspecting his Christmas present was in the carefully guarded brown paper sack secreted away inside his older son’s coat, he pretended not to have noticed.
The sky suddenly took his attention from the warm thoughts to the present, unaware of tragedy waiting to befall them just up ahead. Out of nowhere, the wind came roaring up the hillside from the valley below to buffet the wagon violently; the rain, with equal ferocity, came down so hard it was like being forced to ride under a freezing waterfall you could not get free from.
The right front wheel was suddenly swallowed up by a mammoth mud hole, causing the axel to snap, splintering the tongue and sending the horse into a terrified frenzy, catapulting the man into the air. Hands wrapped around the reins, he sailed from the wagon seat, landing on his stomach behind the wildly stampeding horse. Almost drowning in the muddy water, unable to see, he plowed a furrow behind the horse with his body. It was only by some chance of fate his hands slipped out of the gloves as he came to rest five yards down the road, perfectly still; his arm supporting his face was the only thing preventing his drowning in the deep muddy water filling the ruts where he ended up.
Both boys screamed, although the older of the two instantly rebuked himself for such a childish reaction. After all, he was not a kid; he was just turned nine. It was okay for his little brother. He was only four, and that was expected.
Nature was not finished with them. Another gale force wind slammed up the same hillside, hitting the wagon broadside with such intense force the already tilting wagon shuddered. The tarp filled like a sail, and one last parting thrust finished the job. The wagon over turned with a deadly thump. Never quite sure afterwards how it happened, the older boy landed a few feet away. Unfortunately, in blind panic, the younger boy had franticly tried to scramble under the seat, and when suddenly as it came up the wind died, he found himself pinned under the side of the wagon. A hairs breath away from sure and certain death, the deep muddy hole cushioned his landing. Fear and pain tore a scream from him that reverberated through the hills; however, the defining sound of pouring rain muffled his cries.
Dazed and bruised, the older boy reacted to his brother’s voice even before he knew where he was or what had happened. Pure instinct drove him as he scrambled through the weeds and mud, falling and getting up and running and slipping, until hitting the side of the wagon made him stop. His little brother was crying hysterically, trashing and kicking, unable to get free, and it took a few moments to locate and get him calmed down enough to tell him where he hurt and how bad. His hands were cold and he felt numb as he brushed his brother’s face and tried as best he could to reassure the little boy things were going to be fine.
“Paaaaaa! whre’s Pa, I’m scared, I hurt, I cain’t move my arms, an’ I’m so-ooo cold.”
“I know. Shush, it’s gonna be okay; ya gotta calm down and stay still, an’ listen to me… Hoss, stop crying this minute!” He shouted with great authority, although he did not feel at all in command of himself, much less the situation he was now forced into.
Taking heed of his brother’s voice when it reached that tone, Hoss was eventually able to bring himself to a hiccoughing semi-whimper and lay as still as he could, yet unable to stop the trembling. Adam took hold of the sides of young Hoss’ face forcing him to look only at himself. Swallowing he steadied his voice. “Hoss, now listen to me, very carefully…”
His little brother nodded slowly. Rain was spilling down off Adam’s face, his hair flattened to his head, and they were barely able to see each other. Rain made his voice sputter as it tracked down into his mouth. “I’m gonna’ see if I can cut off a piece of the tarp and make a tent fer you, so you be brave and be real still okay.”
Hoss closed his eyes and concentrated on not crying so hard, but oh, he was so scared and where was Pa? He did his best to obey Adam. His arms were pinned and he squeezed his sodden mittens as he balled up his fists. The rain running down the side of the wagon onto his face made him choke; turning his head from side to side helped a just a little
Fighting his own rising fear mixed with pain, Adam struggled with the wet tarp tangled into a twisted mess. His knife refused to do as he wanted and it was increasingly hard to keep a good grip on the handle due to the rain. After a desperate struggle of a good 10 minutes, he had secured enough tarp to keep the heavy rain off Hoss’ face.
What about his Pa?
Young Adam trembled as he looked around and then back to his task. He had to hurry and get Hoss out of the rain and yet his stomach twisted with fear for his father. Was he alive? No! He had to be alive, he just had to. “Here Hoss, this is better right? I know you’re cold but at least I stopped the rain. Pretty good thinking, huh? Hey, you’re being real brave little brother. I’m proud of you, and I know Pa will be too when he gets back.”
Hoss perked up at the mention of Pa. “W-whered he go, A-adam?”
Adam lowered his head just a bit, biting his lip. Then taking a deep breath and wincing, he sent up a silent request for forgiveness for fibbing this close to Christmas and answered. “Oh, he went to find a strong tree limb to pry the wagon up. Told me to take care of you, and tell you not to get all worried and start to wiggle and fuss, so you just be still as you can, okay . . .?”
Hoss sniffed a big sniff. “Adam, I cain’t wipe my nose and it’s runnin’ real bad, an, and I got a bad tummy ache.”
Adam blanched at this; his greatest fear was looming before him.
“W-w-well, I can help with the nose, but…” A huge shiver ran down his spine.
Leaning in, he wiped the little boys face. Actually the sleeve of his coat wasn’t really much help as it was covered with mud, creating a chocolate brown smear. In his special way with his brother he giggled.
Hoss frowned. “It ain’t funny, Adam; quit yer laughin’ or I’m telling Pa.” He stuck out his bottom lip eyes, squinting up in anger.
“Awww Hoss, I ain’t laughin’ at you ‘sept you look like you was made of chocolate, and I’m so hungry I ’bout took a lick off you!”
This did the trick. Hoss giggled back then, grimacing, he cried. “Ohhhh, my tummy! It hurts, Adam. Pleezzz, where is Pa? Get me out… I wanna get out!” His high-pitched voice trembled and rose into a screeching scream.
“Hoss, Hoss, stop, stop, right now!” Adam leaned in close. Catching his brother’s shoulders, he gave Hoss just a tiny shake. His own voice, he realized, was screaming just as loud. He needed to get control. Pa needed him to stay calm, to be responsible to think…
Gulping in great gasps, his chest heaving, he managed to bring both himself and Hoss around.
“There, see, calm, nice and calm. I have to go see. I think I heard Pa comin’. You gonna be okay, right?” Again he lied and crossed his fingers behind his back. Smiling bravely, he kept nodding positively as he backed away from the little tent he had erected. After he stood up looking up so Hoss could not see his face, it crumpled, and silent sobs slipped out.
Standing tall, he shook himself and began to call for his father. As he walked, he strained to hear anything other than rain, wind whistling through bare brush swishing, tree branches clicking together and his own footsteps sloshing along. The rain was letting up and the wind once again suddenly died down. The day was still very dark. Grey sky meeting earth and making it almost impossible to tell where one ended and one began. He kept to the road, following the wide strip his father had made. Finally he spotted the darker lump. Afraid Hoss would hear, he clamped his jaw and slid down on his knees by the prone figure. “OH God! Pa, Pa please, Pa, be alive,”he whispered, as if in fear for speaking any louder would confirm the worst.
He lifted his father’s head. His hair was matted and muddy; pink rivulets flowed down his pale face from a deep scratch under his left eye. When he could not immediately rouse his father, he sank down into the mud. Sitting alone in the cold mud, rain dripping down his nose, he clung to his father; for a long time, he just sat there, until the frightened voice of his little brother calling for him coaxed his inner self back into action. With great effort, he moved the man best he could to protect him from the muddy road. Steeling himself to leave, slowly Adam got shakily to his feet. Clumsily he staggered back towards the wagon, all the while looking over his shoulder. Murmuring a plea for the man to awaken at the same time begging forgiveness for leaving him there seesawed in his heart. .
Reaching the tarp, he shook himself again. Once sure he settled enough, Adam leaned down under the tarp a smile plastered on his face.
“Hey, whatca’ hollerin’ about? I told ya I would be right back.”
“Ya, wuz gone tooo long. Adam, is Pa wiff ya?”
“Uh, no, but he told me to come back. He just ain’t got the right tree limb yet, but said not to worry, he will. Now, how is your tummy?”
“It still hurts something awful.”
“What kind of hurt?” His eyes traveled over his brothers’ face.
“Like I gotta’…oooohhhh, Adam, I…I think I’m gonna’…”
The expression on Hoss’ face told Adam just what his brother had left unsaid. Gently he patted Hoss’ small shoulder. “It’s okay, Hoss; even grownups have accidents.”
The little lip trembled. “But Pa’s gonna’ think I’m a baby.”
“No, no he won’t, honest.” Cheeks suddenly bright red from other than the cold, Adam struggled to admit his own embarrassment over the very same thing shortly after he and Pa had married Mama Inger, and began their trek west.
“It- uh, it happened t-t-to me…once…” Unable to tell the full truth, Adam emphasized the once.
“What did Mama s-say?” Like his older brother, he was ever hungry to hear anything about the Mother he never knew.
“Not to worry; it happens to everyone. Then she got me cleaned up and told me a story. Hey.” He snapped his fingers. “Know what? It was just about this time and it was a Christmas story, from when she was just a little girl, way back where she lived in the mountains in S-wee-eden.” He stumbled over the word as a great trembling shiver took hold then passed. “Want me to tell you while we wait fer Pa? It’s real special, and I remember her face, as . . .” He had to stop for the moment; the memory was so vivid, her beautiful face her great big blue eyes, her soft voice as she held him in her lap wrapped in her warm loving arms.
“Adam, what the matter?”
Adam shook his head and made a supreme effort to stay focused. “W-ell, this is how it goes.” It took a bit of wiggling, just enough so Hoss’ his head was cradled in his small thin lap. Adam began to tell Hoss the story how the animals all kneel down and speak, wishing a Happy Birthday to the baby Jesus and thanking him for all the gifts he gives them each and every day.
“It happens only at the exact stroke of midnight.” He stopped to see his brother’s reaction.
For a moment, the little boy seemed to forget his problem as he pursed his lips, nodded and grinned. “Then this year we gotta’ try to go and see. Did Momma ever get to hear them?”
“Uh, no she said she tried but her Papa always made her and uncle Gunar come back in before midnight, ’cause the winters were way too cold back there in them high mountains. But she told me it was true and she believed, and Mama never lied to me.”
“Hummm, well, it ain’t too cold here, sometimes.”
Adam watched as a gleam began in those blue eyes despite his predicament and it warmed his young heart just a bit. Now if only Pa would show up…
For another long spell, they sat together, neither speaking, both lost in thought, Adam circling Hoss with his arms shielding him best he could.
Consciousness faltered, receding then seeping back into his numb brain. The man remained motionless until the water in the road crept up enough to reach his mouth and nose.
Ben came awake with a start. He was cold, wet, and hurt in too many places to count. His first thought after realizing he was alive, though, was of his boys.
Forcing his unwilling body to his hands and knees, resting briefly before pushing himself up, his head spun as he wobbled, his legs like jelly. After a few anxious minutes, Ben was able to stand completely. Slowly, he began to drag himself step-by-step, sloshing down the muddy road towards his boys. He tried calling out, but the fear and cold made his voice crack. Tears streaming down his face, Ben hurried as fast as he could; the misty air made seeing any distance impossible. His hands stung; he stopped for a minute to gather strength and breath. Looking down, he saw the tight raw lines where he had clung to the reins. Unable to really comprehend, shaking his head in wonder, he took another step, not sure he really wanted to find what he feared the most.
A sound caught Adam’s ear. It was husky and almost lost on the wind now picking up. But there it was again. Adam slid out carefully from Hoss, pushing back the tarp and stood up to face the road ahead. Out of the mist staggered the one thing in the entire world that Adam needed most at that moment . . . Pa!
Before he could react, Pa was on his knees grabbing and holding on to him so fiercely he could not breathe. They both gulped great sobs of relief.
“Pa, oh, Pa, I thought, I-I- oh, ohhh, Hoss!” He fought the stranglehold Pa had on him and turned so Ben Cartwright could see the little boy bravely smiling up at him.
“Hiya, Pa. Adam said you was comin’ back. Did you get that ol’ tree limb so’s you can get me outta here? I’m cold Pa, an’ I-I…”
His sentence was cut short; he found himself smothered in kisses as Ben knelt over the small body trapped under the wagon.
Agony of what might be in store for his baby tore at Ben’s heart. Please God, Oh, God, please, don’t take my baby; he’s only four. He could never have done anything to make you take him. What can I do to make you spare him? Wild thoughts burned on a whirlwind through his mind. Supreme effort went into Ben making himself remain calm and in control; neither fact was true even in the slightest. For a brief instant, his eyes flickered to his older son standing stalwart at his side. Adam gave him a lopsided grin before his face fell and he lowered his head. Letting go of Hoss for a minute, Ben reached up to squeeze Adam gently on the shoulder. A silent message that was more than adequate, as was so often the case between these two. Neither need say a word.
“Ahem, well, young man, let’s see about getting you out of this fine mess. I am so very sorry, boys; looks like we won’t be having a grand Christmas Dinner this year either. Maybe next year, huh?”
Miles away down on the riverbank, another part of life and its twists began to unfold. A small party of travelers, unfamiliar with the region, had made a small but disastrous wrong turn; they sought a low spot to cross the river. The rain had almost stopped and, as it was getting close to Christmas, they opted to get in a few more miles before stopping.
While three wagons headed in an angle down the middle of the wide water, a party of four remained behind on a small bank. Unsure and fearful, they did not want to cross. Just then, all the rain up in the high country sent a wall of water careering down the mountain pass and the wagons were swept away. Horrified, the remaining travelers stood frozen as terrified screams were swallowed up in the thunder and crashing. Then only silence and the splashing of water remained. None of the party knew what to do. Slowly, looking blankly at each other, they turned and walked away. Just where to go or what direction mattered not. No one was in charge; they just wandered in single file off into the woods. Stopping from time to time, they snatched what they could to eat — a dried berry left behind, a root dug up, and an occasional mesquite bean.
Whoever started off first after a rest was the one they followed. The direction suited them all, and the one thing they sensed was they were totally alone. No one missed them. Perhaps they would happen to stumble into a village or settlement somewhere in the huge dark forest that loomed before them.
Slowly they plodded on. Nothing was said. None had the words.
Ben was just standing up to decide how to get Hoss out. He knew he and Adam would never be able to shift the wagon alone, and the limb idea would take way too long. His little boy needed to get out now!
“Hellooo there!” The voice startled him and he spun around so quickly he almost fell on Adam.
Out of the mist came a tall young man, dressed in what to Ben’s eye spoke of the high mountains of Europe. A cap similar to those Inger had told him about sat snuggly on his head. He was leading their big draft horse
Enhancing his twinkling merry dark blue eyes, a huge grin showing beneath a reddish beard covering his slim face. “Any of you fellows missing this magnificent steed?”
Ben looked down at Adam, who stood openmouthed. “Adam, don’t stare. It is impolite; close your mouth, son.”
The tall stranger laughed a gentle laugh. “I see you could use a hand. Wagon took a spill, huh?” He stepped up next to Ben, handing the reins to Adam. Quickly he began to pull off his big woolen sweater, which was covered with reindeer designs. “Well, well, what have we got here? Hello, little guy. How did you get yourself in this mess? I just bet you can’t wait to get out?”
Turning to the stunned father, the man patted his arm. “Been in a bind myself once, but someone came to my aid and I am happy to return the favor. Let’s see if we can get this big old boy hooked up to lift it enough for this strong young lad to pull his brother out. You can do that, can’t you?”
Adam bobbed his head so hard the water splashed all over the stranger and Pa. “Yeessir yessir, you bet, I can. I’ll do just about anything to get my brother out. He’s been there a long time and he is just a little kid and… ”
“No, I ain’t. I’m most four now, Adam!”
Ben leveled a mild look at Adam and he mumbled his “sorry” to Hoss.
The tall stranger just continued to chuckle as he stripped yet another layer of fine wool off. Now in just his undershirt, he rubbed his hands together. “Ready men?”
In what seemed like no more than a minute, they had the horse hitched by the remaining tracers and a hunk of rope produced from the younger mans backpack. “Okay, on three.”
“One, two, three-heave, pull, old boy.”
The huge horse, though still shaken from the events earlier, complied and the wagon came up. Adam, waiting eagerly, caught Hoss’ arms that shot up towards him and hauled him to safety as they continued to right the wagon, which obviously wasn’t going anywhere this day.
Ben fell on his little boy and hugged him as strongly as he dared, fearing Hoss might have been injured severely inside. Hoss hugged back and cried, glad to finally be wrapped in his father’s strong loving arms. Nothing could get him now, of that he was sure. Adam fell to his knees next to his father and stroked the muddy blond head snuggled into his father’s chest. Ben was just able to detangle his right arm and brought Adam into his embrace; tears and sobs took turns with kisses of thanks and relief. It took a long time before they realized the tall stranger was almost out of sight. Ben stood up, Hoss in his arms and Adam holding onto his waist.
“Wait, young man, wait. I want to properly thank you for what you did for us. Please stop. Let us take you home. It’s getting late and this storm may begin again at any moment.” His plea floated after the retreating figure.
The tall young boy stopped and half turning he adjusted his backpack and waved. “No thanks needed; just retuning a favor, remember. Oh, and my name is *Christopher.”
With that, he was gone into the gathering late afternoon gloom. An eerie feeling creping over him, Ben swallowed. Blinking, he shook his head and looked into the big blue eyes of Hoss watching him curiously. Something else permeated his thoughts.
As his eyes grew wide, Hoss ducked his head. “Adam said he did it too,” Hoss defended himself pouting and swiping at his eyes.
“Hey, you’re not ‘sposed to tell things like that!” Adam’s face flamed red.
“It’s okay, boys. I am just thankful you are both alive, Hoss, are you sure nothing hurts now?”
“Uh uh, ‘Sept Pa, I’m getting kinda hungry. Adam is too!”
Ben studied the little face and was reassured his son was being truthful. Besides, unlike Adam, Hoss could never keep a secret nor could he hide his feelings.
“Pa, I’ll see what I can find that didn’t get wet or mashed all up, and we can use this part of the tarp…”
Ben’s brow rose and Adam suddenly felt a little queasy.
Hoss hugged tighter around Ben’s neck. “A-Adam, he made a tent sos’ I didn’t’ get drownded, ’cause that ol’ rain was jest a porin’ an’ porin’ right on my head, Pa!”
Ben shifted the weight on his arm, reaching once again to squeeze Adam gently then pulled him close, in spite of the resistance. “That was quick thinking, son, and besides we can always get another canvas tarp. But where in the world would we ever be able to find another one to replace this one.” He tweaked Hoss on the nose.
Adam smiled, not quite up to his eyes, “I’m sorry about…”
“I already told you, son, it is not important. So now let’s get on with what is important — getting these things gathered up, and headed for home, as we all need a hot bath. Some more than others!”
“Pheww, that’s for sure, Pa,”
To avoid further comments, he placed his little son down, giving him one more close look to be sure he was all right. After another hug — he couldn’t help it — Ben began to direct them both toward anything that was salvageable. It took a rather long time as the mud was deep and made walking troublesome. In the end, they were able to collect as many of the supplies that had not been ruined as they could transport, and Ben used his own pocket knife to make packets from the tarp to hold them.
“Boys, I hope that Molly, Polly, Dusty, and old Tinker here aren’t upset with the short rations they are going to have to make due with on Christmas. At least until I can get back to the Post and replace what has spilled.”
Adam stopped and wiped the water still making its way down his face, much to his frustration, as the cold air was already causing his cheeks to sting and chap. Never mind that he knew his hair would begin to spring into curls and that made him all the more cranky. “It’s Christmas. They are supposed to be happy about the baby Jesus and his Birthday, not what they are missing, ain’t that right, Pa?” He now had his muddy hands on his slim hips, looking so like Ben himself.
“Good advice, Adam. I hope you and Hoss both remember that on Christmas Day.”
Adam dropped his head to his chest at the same time rolling his eyes. Me and my big mouth!
Time picked up its pace, or so it felt as Ben noticed how much closer to dark it had gotten. They would have to hurry to make it back with enough light to manage by.
“Come, boys, lets hurry. Adam, do you have everything?”
“Yes sir, much as I could gather that was still in one piece.”
Carefully they packed the precious cargo, and while Hoss waited wiggling uncomfortably wishing he were big enough to help, Ben tied Tinker near the front of the wagon, swinging Adam up on to the seat of the wagon, much to his annoyance. He was perfectly capable of getting up himself. Ben was in a hurry and ignored the glare. Pushing the two bundles tied to one another into the wagon bed, he climbed up. Working together, he and Adam slid one over Tinker’s back. Ben jumped down and had Tinker side-step away. Adam took a deep breath, and with all his strength — teeth gritted, brow knit into a scowl — he gave a heave. Growling as he had heard Pa do when exerting all his effort, Adam managed to get the bundle up and onto the animal, thus letting both dangle equally on both sides of the horse. Tinker snorted but stood still; all he wanted was home and his measure of warm oats.
Little Hoss bounced clapping his hands. “Yah, you did it, Adam!”
The boy on the wagon shrugged; shuffling to the back, he hopped off before his father could try to help him, a triumphant little smirk on his muddy face. Ben let both brows rise; ducking his chin he moved his jaw a deep breath, slowly followed through his nose. Although he had not spoken, his eyes, stand and tilt of the head let the boy know his feelings on that bit of action.
Adam busied himself with looking for a little brown sack, quite sure it would never be found but he desperately needed a cover-up.
Using what remained of the harness, Ben was just able to reach and secure the bundles together under Tinker. Slipping Hoss up onto the thick withers over which he had placed the last bit of canvas, he untied Tinker. “Whoa, easy, big fella. Hoss, grab onto his mane good and tight, then you tell him to stand while I get onto the wheel. That’s a good boy.”
Little Hoss grinned with given such an important job; sitting up straight, he used a very deep voice, his little messy face all serious. “Easy, Tinker, Pa’s just gonna get on you, okay?”
Ben carefully balanced on the rungs of the wagon wheel but it was not quite high enough so he climbed over the side. Then, with great care, he slid his leg over to ease himself up behind Hoss; every sinew and muscle, already over-taxed, gave voice.
Ignoring his body, Ben cooed, “Good job, son; you are growing up.”
Bathed in such high praise, Hoss sank back into his father. The wind grew sharper. Ben felt his hair matted as it was stirred on his forehead; they had just about run out of time. A tap on his thigh made him look down. At his side stood a very dejected boy; lip quivering, he swallowed. He had watched the exchange between Hoss and Pa.
“I-I f-found your hat, Pa, here. It’s getting real cold. Found my scarf too, and…uh….”
Reaching down to take his hat, Ben plopped it onto his head. Swiftly catching the still upraised arm, he swung Adam easily up behind him. “You ready, Adam?” The small cheek pressed into his wet muddy back nodded as arms encircled his broad trunk. They were trembling and the boy moved tight as he could up next to his Pa.
Charley and Jake had taken turns getting up to pad over to the foggy window and peer out, only to shake their head and return shivering to the warmth of a bunk.
Neither well enough to go out and see, yet both were willing and ready if no sign of the boss and his boys showed up before night came in full.
It was Jake who heard it first. Not as ill as Charlie, he hurriedly wrapped a blanket around himself and padded to the door of the tiny shack they shared as a bunkhouse. Opening it just enough, he was able to make out the shape of a horse but no wagon.
Ben, bone weary and cold, recognizes the creak. His voice, although hoarse, assured his friend all was well in spite of the fact they were riding Tinker. He would be glad to explain, but not tonight. Yes, the boys were safe.
Jake waved and nodding retreated quickly.
“What’s up Jake’ Ah-Chooo!” the froggy voice croaked.
“Boss musta run inta a bit of trouble, but seems okay. Said boys are fine. He’ll most likely tell us ’bout it tomorrow.” With another shiver, still holding the blanket around his waist, Jake opened the door on the old wood stove, poked the fire then tossed in a few more logs. Welcoming the fuel, the little stove gave off renewed heat as the logs popped and burned with gusto.
Inside the main cabin, Ben quickly set to building up his own fire that had been banked before they left. Gathering the mattress and blankets from his bed, he ignored his own body and adeptly, with great gentleness, stripped his youngest boy, turning him to the glow of a lamp he had stopped to light. A rather wide strip of red crossed the chubby little chest and upper belly; however, when he placed his now warm hands on the spot and watched Hoss’ eyes, he sighed with relief. It might turn black and blue but the damage was minimal, at least, he prayed it was. From his boy’s look, even the scrapes weren’t all that bad.
“P-Pa, I’m c-c-ooo-ldd”
“What? Oh sorry, Hoss.” From what he could now tell, the biggest problem was the boys’ need to get the reminder of his accident cleaned away in a nice hot bath then something warm in his little tummy that now gurgled and growled.
Re-wrapping the boy, he stood him closer to the now merrily crackling fire. Off to the side in the shadows, Adam was slowly peeling off his own wet muddy cloths.
“Adam, son, what are you doing over there? Get over here by the fire; you need to get warmed up. You worked very hard this afternoon. I never could have saved Hoss without you, or gotten us home.” He extended his strong arm invitingly towards Adam, who hesitated then head down moved a little closer.
With Hoss now clean and dry safely tucked in a blanket on the mattress, Ben turned to Adam whom was now stepping from the tub.
Adam endured a very embarrassing complete check-over as he stood naked in front of Pa, who was determine to see if he had any hidden injuries he was not going to let on about. Adam was the worst when it came to admitting his hurts or illness. Today could have been so deadly that Ben did not care how mad Adam got; he had to be sure.
“Pa, I told you I was okay, just a few…” He winced as he pulled his now warmed cotton longjohns on, “little bumps and scratches.” Impatiently, he flung his nightshirt over his head; the buttons caught the big bruise on his cheek, causing his eyes to water but thankfully he was still inside the nightshirt and Pa would never know.
The sudden stiffening and hesitation brought a small knowing smile to Bens’ face. “Uh-huh.”
Popping out the top as he slid his arms through the sleeves, Adam stated, “There see, no problem at all.”
Ben stood up, turning towards the now-cooling tub to start re-filling it for himself but not before he looked heavenward and rolled his eyes, thanking both his wives for help on this night.
Later he had firmly but gently told Adam he did not need to help, just put away the supplies. Ben was capable of tending the stock and, besides, Adam had no business going out again as the weather had made its decision — winter was fully moving in. Ben himself had tended to his own many scrapes and bruises under the watchful eyes and dedicated supervision of both his sons. It was very late when at last they all settled down with mugs of warm milk and bread topped with a bit of sweet creamy butter. Not very filling but for tonight it fit the need, and besides tomorrow was Christmas Eve. Time enough to have a feast — well, part of a feast. Avoiding such a disaster as today was gift enough for Ben Cartwright.
The lonely travelers wandered steadily deeper into the mountains. Growing colder, the younger two faltered often and the older two huddled close to offer strength and body heat; it was all they had.
Sunshine woke Jake. Stretching, his eyes shot wide open. No longer was he feeling stuffy, achy or sneezing; in fact, he felt hungry. Bolting out of bed, he danced on the cold floor as he added more logs to the sleeping fire. Nature called and he hopped from one foot to the other over to the corner and made good use of the chamber pot. He thought he would never finish his pee, as his feet were turning blue. His yelping and hopping woke Charlie, who grumbled and pulled the pillow over his head. Still hopping in circles, Jake got his longjohns buttoned up quickly, jumping back into his bunk for a few minutes to warm his frozen toes. Shaking his head in wonder, Jake was hard-pressed to figure out how his cold just disappeared over night.
Ben and the boys slept in, cuddled together there on the floor in front of the fire. A knock on the door woke Ben. Still foggy with sleep, he slowly climbed to his feet; his entire body complained from all points. Staggering to the door, he wiped his eyes, took a deep breath, and then was instantly sorry. Pulling the door open just a bit, he was shocked to see Jake standing there smiling and looking better than he had in months.
“Mornin Boss. Ain’t it a grand one?” His breath rose in a white cloud; the temperature, it seemed, had dropped by at least 20 degrees. Everything was covered with a shimmering silvery coating of pure crystal; icicles hanging from the bare trees and lining the fences from post to post tinkled melodically.
Ben yanked Jake into the house, “Get in here out of the cold!”
Jake pulled off his hat and grinned at Ben. “Don’t ask, ’cause, I ain’t got no idee. Jest woke up this morning fit as a fiddle, and rarin’ to go.”
The boys began to stir at the sudden voice. Ben tugged the ranch hand over towards the kitchen area. “Let me make some coffee. I don’t want the boys up yet; they had a bad day and need their rest.” Shaking his head, the rest of him followed suit. Unable to hide the tremor, he waved Jake’s next words off. “Never mind, let me get the coffee started and into my clothes. Lord, it got cold fast; my feet are freezing,”
Jake sat back on the wooden chair and smirked he felt that same way not more than 25 minutes ago.
Two hours later, after a warm breakfast of fried bread and bacon, Ben left with Jake to check out the accident site and recover anything else that might have survived the night and natures scavengers. Both boys were given strict orders not to overdo it; Adam was firmly directed to take care of Hoss — keep an eye on him and see to it he stayed quiet for today. Adam, while willing to care for his baby brother as he himself was still shaken up over what had happened, by nature balked at not being able to accompany his Pa and Jake.
There was his still missing sack, and thus he was not very gracious about staying home. Pa’s expression and the outside chance of getting a switch for Christmas was enough for him to bite his words and submit.
As they rode, Ben went into more detail with Jake just what had happened but was reluctant to elaborate on how they managed to get the wagon righted.
“Gee, Boss, seems that you was bein’ looked out fer by one of them guardian angels my mama use to say was working overtime fer me when I was just a sprout. Guess I kinda found trouble better than most.”
Ben glanced over at his foreman and smiled.
Adam paced the room, Hoss was napping, still worn out after his ordeal; he was snuggled into the bedding not yet removed from the floor in front of the warm blazing fire. Time after time, Adam stopped his pacing to stand over his brother and watch him breathe. “I can’t help it; I don’t know what I’d do without you, Hoss, or’ Pa neither. It’d about kill him if we lost you too.” Then a stray thought wandered into his head. “Gee, that fella that helped us sure did dress funny and how’s come he told us his name? We never did get the chance to ask. I s’pose as Pa would say, sometimes you just gotta take it on faith.”
The hours seemed to drag for young Adam. Hoss woke and whimpered just a little as he struggled to stand up.
“When’s Pa gonna git back wiff our stuff, Adam? I’m getting mighty hungry; my belly got a powerful hole in it since yesterday. Hey, Adam, you didn’t lose Pa’s Christmas gift, did you?”
Adam drew in a sad breath; half turning to Hoss, softly he admitted, “Yeah, Hoss, I think I did.” At the stricken expression, he hurried on, “But, I looked, I looked real hard. That durn ol’ mud and all I just… Don’t fret; Pa will understand, honest.”
Hoss’ lip quivered. After all, it was a mammoth decision for him to give up his few pennies worth of spice drops towards his share of the gift. The amount of tobacco they both could afford was hardly enough for three pipes full. What Hoss did not know was that Warren the Trading Post owner, surmised as much, and had tucked away a small surprise for both lads when he handed Adam the twisted brown paper sack with a hearty, “Merry Christmas, boys; Hope everyone enjoys what Santa brings.” Adam had looked at him a little strangely but Hoss, in his innocent four years, grinned, his big blue eyes sparkling with anticipation he nodded and called back. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Storms; hope Santa gets you somthin’ good too.”
Adam shook his head, ready to tell Hoss Santa did not visit old men who were not married and had no kids, but an odd stirring deep inside him held his tongue.
“’Sides ain’t Pa always telling us that love and having each other is the most important part of Christmas?” Adam mustered a stern look to mask his own misgivings at the loss of this extra gift to Pa. Somehow in his young min, the loss tarnished the fact he and Hoss had managed together to draw him a picture of the three of them in front of their cabin, complete with trees, horses and the milk cow. The cow part was important to Hoss; he loved Molly for her gentle nature.
Silence followed. Hoss drew up his shoulders and let them sag. “Adam, I gotta pee. Then can you get me some bread and jam, Adam? Just so’s my belly stops yellin’ at me. It can be only even a soda cracker, please.”
Adam smiled warmly at the baby brother he loved so. Hoss was always able to make him smile; he never held a grudge. Besides, he believed Adam and Pa capable of just about anything, even perhaps walking on water if need be.
After helping Hoss with his need, in a breach of proper manners, Adam joined Hoss nestled on the bedding as they shared the snack.
“Adam?” Hoss asked around a hunk of bread, his bulging cheeks slathered with jam.
“Was you just funning me yesterday?”
In spite of the garbles mess his mouthful created, Adam guessed what he wanted to know. They were extremely in tuned with each other.
“You mean about what…” He stopped and looked into the fire, swallowing his own food.
“Umm, sure. Mama would never lie to me.” It came out harder than he intended but talking about Mama always made him angry — not with Hoss or Pa either — just anger he could not really understand himself.
“Nah, it’s okay, Hoss. I-I…well…miss her.” Needing space, he jumped up and went to the door.
“Ahem.” Clearing his throat, Adam pulled the door open. The cold crisp air made the release of pent up tears possible without embarrassment for the boy.
“Burrrr. I thought I heard Pa, but must have been my imagination. Wind is getting things stirred up; snow might be coming. Lucky for Santa, huh. Bet it is hard for his sled when there ain’t none.’”
Pushing the door closed, Adam turned and wiped his face. “Cold can make your eyes water, that’s a fact.”
Hoss nodded and wiggled down into the covers and mattress. Curling up, hauling the blanket over his shoulders, head resting on his arms crossed in front of his face, he watched as his brother collected himself while that special look came over Adam’s face.
“You want to know if the animals can talk on Christmas Eve, don’t you?”
“That’s what you said Mama tellded you . . . Adam, can we go out and see, you an’ me, tonight? Perhaps Pa will fall to sleep and. . . . ”
“Hoss, I don’t…” But the pleading look and his own burning curiosity ever since hearing the legend dismissed his misgivings for the most part. What lingered was what his Pa would have to say. Shaking his head to dispel that horrid thought, Adam set his jaw. “Let me think on it, okay, I’ll let ya know if I can come up with a good enough plan.”
“Oh, I ain’t worried; you can do most anything you put yer mind to. Pa always says so.”
Yeah, but I’m not quite sure Pa would agree this time. Adam did not share this.
Adam gathered up the plates and glasses, then with Hoss’ help, re-made Pa’s bed, as his little brother was feeling so much better.
Adam read to Hoss as the hours ticked by. Hoss napped again, this time on the chair wrapped in a blanket. Day slid towards late afternoon; gradually, sunshine was replaced with misty dove gray skis. A white Christmas hovered above.
Still with no idea where they were going, the small group pushed on. The two older taking turns leading and following to help shelter the two youngsters between them. Snow began to filter down at first like fine sugar, gradually being replaced by fat feathers that ticked against the dry earth or sat to delicately balance on any surface they touched. Shelter was now the main focus, for to be caught out in the snow could spell the end for them.
It was already dark when Ben and Jake arrived in the yard, the makeshift sleigh holding all they were able to rescue. To Ben Cartwright, it was a no small miracle they found anything at all. Still puzzled as to why nothing had been disturbed or carried off, he nevertheless gave grateful thanks to the Good Lord for once again protecting his family.
Tucked away on the inside pocket of his coat was a soggy little paper sack. It caused the sides of his mouth to twitch every time he thought of it.
Adam swung open the door as Ben and Jake stomped the new fallen snow off their boots on the porch.
The look of surprise and wonder combined with shear joy on the young face brought a hearty laugh from his father, Hoss pushed himself under Adam’s arm to see what was going on.
“SNOW! Whoopee! Now Santa will be able to come for sure!”
“Boys, get back inside; you don’t want to catch cold this close to Christmas.” Ben’s eyes twinkled in the fire light streaming out behind his sons, who stood openmouthed at the fact Pa had found almost all the supplies.
Hoss grabbed him around the middle. “I just knew you could do it, Pa, I just knew it. I tole you, Adam, huh!”
Adam, who had slipped into his coat and was halfway to the pile of goods, never looked back but smiled.
Ben, about to tell him not to, saw the look from Jake and kept silent but for the tears that began to form a shinny film over his dark chocolate eyes.
Later as they shared a meal with Jake and the much-improved Charlie, Ben regaled them with tales of his own youth and Christmases back in Massachusetts and at sea.
Snow was slowly covering the ground in places. It created little whirlwinds from the lay of the land or placement of rock or tree.
Just before both hands headed for the little bunkhouse, Ben indicated he needed to speak to them outside. Hoss looked up then shrugged, going back to the sticks he was using to build a corral with. Adam sat up straight, his book dropped to his lap, ears all perked up at the muted conversation just outside.
With a quick glance to Hoss, he slid off the chair, trying not to be obvious as he inched in the direction of the door. Just about the time he got close enough to hear clearly, the door opened and in popped the back end of a tree nailed in place to boards that would help it stand up. Behind the door, Adam was stuck against the wall. Now how was he going to explain this? Hoss jumped up and began to clap. “A tree! Yahahh, Pa you remembered a tree! Hey Adam, come see! Adam, are you here?” Hoss turned in a full circle scratching his head. “Pa, he…”
“I’m right here.” It floated out from behind the door, still open as the two men waited for Ben to give them directions.
Jake and Charlie clomped in all the way. As Ben shut the door, Adam lowered his head, pulling at his ear.
“Hey Boss, is this a good spot?”
Ben turned his back to the boy to survey the placing of the tree. “Yes, I would say it is just about perfect. What do you think, Adam?”
Slowly Adam crept up and stood next to Pa. With a quick glance up, he understood this slip in conduct would be tolerated but not without a word spoken at a later date. Tonight was for his boys and the love Ben had for them. “Adam?”
“Yes sir, just perfect.” His cheeks glowed pink and almost orange in the firelight.
“Son, the decorations are under my bed. Can you bring them out for us? Charlie, Jake, would you like to stay and help?”
Though the thought of the shack and just each other was doubtless rather unappealing on this special night, Jake and Charlie matched looks and gently declined, stating still being just a tad off from being ill. Promising they would gladly stop in the morning and see what Santa might have brought, they slipped out. When far enough from the cabin, they both burst out laughing at the expression on Adam’s face. “That one just tickles me. How he can get into the darnest predicaments without half tryin’.”
Ben had already refused the offer of the men to do the night barn chores. He knew Adam would need a bit of quiet time and space. He would be more than glad to let Adam shoulder the job as he supervised Hoss’ getting ready for bed. Plus he wanted to make doubly sure his baby boy was fully recovered.
After a quick meal — a repeat of breakfast, which no one seemed to mind — they began turning a simple evergreen into a thing of wonder to behold.
The tree decorating did not take all that long. The Cartwright men lacked the supplies to be very creative, thus a chain of colored paper, scraps of cloth, candle holders from Inger, and a few family heirlooms dotted the tree, along with snowflake cut outs, crudely carved animals and lastly, an angel Ben made by hand and given Elizabeth. She had laughed so hard when he had presented it to her, but never had the chance to tell him how very much she treasured it, knowing he had crafted it by his own hands. Elizabeth did, however, manage to finish it off with bits of velvet and yellow yarn. Ben always muttered under his breath as they unwrapped it and placed it on the treetop. Inger, gracious as always, never let him see the merry twinkle in her big blue eyes. As Adam being so little, so proud of his Pa’s angel made for his own mother, she always made sure she fussed over it and handled it with great care and reverence.
As he worked in the barn, Adam feverishly tried to form a plan for the midnight visit he and Hoss envisioned. Getting caught was just one of the downsides. What if they wouldn’t talk?
When he had served the two big horses, Molly the milk cow and his pony Polly, who was very close to dropping her foal, his apology at the scarce amounts was so heartfelt, sincerely so innocent, they all just looked at him as if they truly understood, wanting him to know it was okay. “I know its Christmas, everyone, but see the wagon tipped over, in case you don’t know, and Hoss got hurt but not real bad.” He bit his lip at the memory, which shook him from head to toe yet again. “Only thing is, the grain and oats sacks got all ruined in the muddy road and terrible rain, so we gotta’ be careful not use it up till Pa can get back to the Trading Post.” In his mind, he whispered, that’s if more can get here through the pass.
Finishing with just a small bit of hay for each, Adam cleared the ice on the buckets. Then he took the lantern down. Holding it high, he gave the inside one last going over, blowing out the flame he put the lantern back on its peg. It was colder than he expected, as the temperature had not finished dropping for the night. Fixing the latch so it just looked closed, he kicked some snow against it. He rationalized getting the latch to open might be hard if it should get icy later. Satisfied, he headed back into the warmth of the cabin.
“Everything alright out there, Adam?”
“Yes sir. I was careful not to overdue it so we will have some feed ’til we get back to the Post. That’s okay, right Pa?”
“Yes, son, I think that was a very wise move on your part. Now come join your brother and I. After you warm up, I’ll make some tea while you get ready for bed. It will be time to read the Christmas story, then off to bed with both of you”.
Adam had shed himself of his warm coat. Hopping, he pulled off his boots then brought boots, cap and mittens to dry by the fire.
“Snowing pretty good out there, I see.”
Adam wanted to protest his bed time, feeling he should be privileged to have a bit of grown up time with Pa. After all, he wasn’t little like Hoss. The temptation died on his lips as he saw the smile and adoration in Hoss’ face.
“Hurry up, Adam. Faster you get ready, faster Pa can get the reading done, and we can get to sleep so’s Santa can come.”
His overacted wink did not go un-noticed but Ben let it pass, feeling it must be a secret between his boys. His thoughts once again going to the now dried out little sack on the shelf in the kitchen area. Lowering his head so they could not see his eyes, he coughed, getting the attention of both.
Adam threw up his hand. “I’m going, I’m going. How’s a man ever ‘sposed to get a minutes peace around here?”
Hoss turned to Pa as he wiggled in his lap. “What ‘man’ he talking about, Pa. It’s just you and me and Adam that lives here, right?”
Adam came around the corner, hair tousled as he buttoned the neck of his nightshirt. “What? Why are you both looking at me in that way?”
“It’s nothing, son, come sit.”
Ben stood up to swing the teakettle in over the flames, warming the room; Adam, his cheeks all rosy, slid in next to Hoss. Ben moved off to the cupboard to fetch three cups the tea, sugar, milk and two decorated butter cookies, stashed away in a jar behind the saltbox. Mrs. Clark had taken a shine to his boys that summer. Her treats had been sent home with him last week when he met her on the road delivering her care packages to needy folks. While not having much herself, she always managed to find a thing or two to share.
While his father was busy with the tea things, Adam whispered, “I got it all worked out, but you can’t let Pa think we’re up to something. It’s important.” Adam’s voice was firm and his dark eyes searched Hoss’ face. “’Cause we’ll be in big trouble, even if it is Christmas, you got that?”
Hoss folded his arms across his chubby baby chest, frowning, his eyes all squinted up as he tried to look as mean as possible. Not willing to be out done in the conspiracy, he nodded gravely.
A merry hiss of steam announced the kettle of water was now hot enough. Ben set the small tray on the rough floor next to the chair. Like a vision of heaven, the firelight gleamed off the satin surface of the cookies. Preparing the tea, Ben did not let on to the fact his boys silently poked each other, lips besieged by little tongues that wagged wildly back and forth, noses twitched at the tantalizing buttery flavor released into the room by the warm fire. A hint of peppermint mingled with cookie.
Turning, Ben met two sets of eyes begging for permission. Love filled his heart. Without even being aware of it, he fell into his own fathers’ way of drawing out a treat, letting the desire and suspense wind each boy up. Cheeks hurting from holding it all in, he casually asked, “Something you want boys?”
Fast as any arrow the fingers pointed, mouths now watering.
“It is so very impolite to point.”
Springing to his feet, jumping up and down, arms flapping like some great Christmas goose, Adam wailed, “Paaaaaaaa!!!! You can’t do this to us. It ain’t hardly right; it’s Christmas Eve. You ain’t supposed to be teasin’ me and Hoss!” Dark hazel eyes reflecting the firelight sparked amber and gold.
Hoss sat stunned, not sure if he was more afraid Adam had gone mad or Pa might be mad. His head swiveled from one to the other.
Coolly, Ben replied, “Adam, aren’t you going to join Hoss and I by the fire? Or perhaps you just going to fly around the room like a chicken with its feathers all ruffled.” Never changing his expression, he asked, “Tisk, you don’t like butter cookies with sugar frosting?”
At which point, Adam almost exploded.
“Hummm, Hoss, it seems Adam might need an attitude adjustment.”
Horrified, Hoss thought Adam was in for a ‘talk.’
Ben leaped the distance between he and Adam; sweeping him up in his arms, he spun around until both were so dizzy he flopped into the chair, his boot almost upending the treat. He wrapped his arms around Adam, refusing to let go. The tighter he held, the more Adam struggled, until the last of his bottled up tension evaporated. Ben released his hold slowly to take the flushed face between his rough work worn hands, looking deeply into the eyes of his cherished firstborn.
Softly, with a little sniffle, deep chocolate eyes watering, he almost soundlessly spoke.
“Son, even Pa’s like to have a little fun at Christmas. We don’t have to be serious and grown up all the time. After all, this is a season of love and joy, not to mention you and Hoss give me more joy than any man has a right to expect. Or the fact you are my life and I love you both will all my heart.” Leaning the little head into him, he gently kissed Adam’s forehead. “Do you forgive your old Pa?”
Adam worked his jaw, pulling at his ear, dark eyes still a little stormy, heat rising up his face as he felt the warm glow of his father’s words and love, including the warm lap, which he was snuggled into. Hoss pushing his way in made the decision for him.
Words flew out he had no idea lay waiting in his head. “Well, seeing as it is Christmas, I expect you can be forgiven. After all, big men are really only big little boys at Christmas, that’s what Mama told me!” Adam sat frozen, holding his breath, hand clasped over his mouth.
Big bear strong arms pulled his sons deep into his chest. “Boys, your Mama Inger was a gift from God, and I thank him every day for the time we had, and for the time I had with Eli…” Words stuck. Ben was lost in revere.
Adam slid from his now slack arms; silently he retrieved the old family Bible. Hoss likewise slid off and picked up the two cookies, one in each hand; he handed one to Adam as his brother gently put the heavy book onto Ben’s knee.
The change of weight and lack of warmth created by his son’s absence drew Ben back.
“It’s getting late, Pa.” Adam, smiling all the way to his dimples, added a wide yawn for emphasis. “I think you better read the Christmas story before we all fall asleep. It is part of the Cartwright tradition, you know.”
Settling at his father’s feet in front of the hearth, Adam chomped into his cookie, grinning for good measure. The sweet buttery flavor tickled his taste buds as sugary crumbs filtered down the side of his mouth. Hoss followed his action; mimicking Adam was second nature to him.
Snow ticked and tapped at the window; the fire crackled and snapped yellow and orange, on occasion throwing in blue and white. Serenity prevailed. The rich baritone voice, warmed by love and the telling of the ages old tale of the first Christmas, filled the little cabin, going up the chimney, riding on the sparks to tell the night sky filled with millions of diamond-like stars looking down, smiling their own love.
Ben closed the book to see two sets of droopy eyelids, two heads leaning against one another — one dark as a winter night the other as golden as a summer sunrise.
Stretching and not yet ready to break the spell, he sat for a long minute before setting the book aside. Rising, being sure not to disturb the sleepyheads, Ben went to look out the window at the swirling snow creating a look of white cotton blanketing the land while in his home all was warm and safe.
Just why it was he didn’t know but suddenly Adam was wide-awake. Had Hoss pulled all the covers off him again? He checked. No, that wasn’t it. Had Hoss wet the bed? No, certainly not. Boy, would he get an earful if that thought were spoken aloud. What was it then? Did he have to pee? No, he foggily remembered Pa reminding him just before he sank into bed then into deep sleep. Eyes wide open, fighting to keep his breath minimal and just listen, Adam lay as still as possible. Pa’s deep snoring across the room and Hoss’ baby snoring at his side — nothing out of the ordinary. So why was he awake all a tingle?
The four wandering orphans hesitated at the small clearing around the three small buildings, smoke rising and curling slowly into the night sky from two of them. Waiting for the one with the lamplight to go dark, cold and shivering they made themselves wait a full 10 more minutes.
Now relatively comfortable they would not be found out, they silently, in single file, headed for the barn and shelter. A small gust of wind rattled the door and swept away the pile of snow so that the biggest was able to push it wide enough for them to slip in silently, unnoticed. The inside was dimly lit, but the warmth of breath and sweet hay more than made up for it.
All four jumped when the door closed behind them, alerting the inhabitants but not frightening or angering them. The four newcomers stood huddled together until their eyes adjusted. Molly the cow, her big deep brown eyes soft and inviting, gave a muted low as she chewed her cud. Getting to her knees then standing all the way, she turned her head towards her gift of warm milk waiting to nourish. A moment was all it took as the two youngest scrambled over to eagerly satisfy their deep hunger and bring warmth to their empty bellies. Dusty, Ben’s riding horse, side-stepped in his stall; timidly, the third traveler accepted his offer, reaching in just barely able to get at the few mouthfuls of oats left in the feeder.
Tinker lifted the last of his hay and dropped it over the side to fall into the feeder now empty of any scrap of oats. Polly rose heavily, taking a short time to shake herself. Using the trick her young master had shown her, she expertly opened the latch on the foaling stall to invite the last member in. Shy and careful, big brown eyes expressing thanks, he quickly finished off the warm mash.
No sound but warm breath mingled with shuffling hay disturbed the last few remaining minutes until the clock struck midnight.
Adam shot out of bed. Grabbing his robe and stuffing his feet into his socks, he placed his hand over Hoss’ face, whispering urgently into his ear, “Pssst, Hoss, wake up. It’s time. We gotta hurry or we’ll miss it. C’mon, get up, and for heaven sakes, be quiet!”
“Huh, hey, get your grubby hand off my face. What’s the matter wif you, Adam? I…” Wide-eyed, he remembered and scrambled out of bed, almost knocking Adam over.
“Be careful, will you? Sheeesh, you wanna wake Pa up?”
Vigorously shaking his head, Hoss vainly tried to get into his robe and pull on his socks. Adam held his forehead with his hands. Why oh why did I even think this would work is beyond me. I must be crazy!
Out of breath from holding it, he was almost blue by the time they got ready. Making Hoss wait behind him, he slipped past Pa’s bed, signaling Hoss to come. He had a finger at his lips and the other hand waving his brother to tread lightly, something he knew Hoss was entirely not able to do. When Hoss made it past Pa and Ben never even moved, Adam was able to draw a breath of relief.
As they came to the corner, he held his hand over Hoss’ eyes, reminding him Santa might be around and looking might be a bad thing. Hoss, eager to comply and fearful of upsetting Santa, obliged willingly. Although tempted to peek, Hoss waited patiently as Adam dressed him in his heavy coat, cap and boots. Fighting mightily not to peek himself, grateful Pa had placed his boots back by the door for morning chores and already dressed, Adam let he and Hoss quietly out the door, opening it just enough to slip out and not let in a draft big enough to alert Pa. The snow had stopped; the full moon shown silver and the snow like diamonds. Stars twinkled with extra brightness; the new fallen snow made no noise as they tiptoed the distance to the barn door.
It was now or never. Dare he take the chance? Girding up his courage, Adam pulled the barn door open, ushering Hoss in ahead of him. Moonlight made the inside glow. At least, Adam thought it was moonlight. A hush unlike anything they had experienced filled their minds and warmed them inside and out.
From out of the darkness, the four strangers emerged, no longer fearful, wanting to thank whoever this place of refuge and safety belonged to. Hoss smiled then began to grin, “Lookie here, Adam, we got visitors. Hiya, my name’s Hoss; this here is my big brother Adam.”
Feeling very silly, Adam gave them a shy wave. With that, the glow in the barn increased tenfold.
Back in the cabin, Ben’s pocket watch sitting next to his bed on the small hand made table chimed almost inaudibly twelve sweet melodic notes.
Each Cartwright animal stepped out of their respective stalls to join the four-legged visitors in the middle of the barn as two wide-eyed boys silently pulled off their caps; faces beaming with awe, they watched mesmerized.
One by one they knelt and bowed their head. In what could be described as hushed lowing or perhaps nickering, the words nonetheless were plain as day.
“Happy Birthday, Lord Jesus, and thank Thee for another year, for all the good things your bounty and love provides us with. For those we care for and those who care for us, we thank Thee. All Glory to God in the Highest. Alleluia! Amen!”
The cold draft woke Ben. Sitting up, he could just make out the empty bed, covers hastily thrown back. Had the boys gotten up already? By the moonlight streaming in, it must be no more than midnight or very shortly after it. Grabbing his pocket watch, shrugging into his own robe, he hurried to the window to peer at the face; it read just past midnight. Out in the dark silent living room, only the orange glow of the banked fire throbbed and pulsed in the hearth over which hung two stockings, their bounty pulling them downward.
Reaching the living area, a quick glance around told him the room was empty. A small triangle of snow at the front door let him know. Stuffing his bare feet into his boots and shoving his arms into his coat, he went in search of his boys. The footprints told him where to look. The why as of yet escaped him.
Opening the barn door, he quickly lit the lamp. Not wanting to startle the stock, he kept the wick low so only a small circle of yellow glowed. Stopped dead in his tracks, Ben beheld a strange sight, Adam and Hoss lay sound asleep cured up together, surrounded by four newcomers. Eight sets of dark eyes blinked open. Ben did not ask, and no one answered. He just smiled, his own dark eyes glowing. Gently, he scooped both his boys into his arms. A head nuzzled on each shoulder; two sets of arms went round his neck yet neither stirred.
Just as he got to the door he heard it. Be it the wind or whatever, he was never quite sure, but he heard it. “Thank you. Ben Cartwright and your boys, for the gifts you gave us. Merry Christmas.”
With out turning around, as the lantern flame flickered out, he murmured “You’re welcome, and Merry Christmas to you too.”
No one was ever turned away from Ben’s home, for whatever meager supplies they had could be stretched to include any travelers, even when they were the four-legged kind.
The barn door softly shut behind him. As he trudged back to the cabin, he paused to take in the silent beauty. Spying the Christmas Star shining brightest in the clear night sky, Ben added his own wish. “Happy Birthday, Lord Jesus, and Merry Christmas to everyone.”
On the other side of the barn door, the four strangers knew they had found a new home. A little lamb, a little goat kid, a young jack donkey and a young bull calf, all of who in the future would play a part in the building of the Ponderosa.
Author’s Notes: Christopher was borrowed from Ben’s tale on the album “Christmas on the Ponderosa”; no infringement intended.
The legend of animals being able to speak on Christmas night has been around for a long time.
Merry Christmas, and may love, caring and sharing abide with you through the New Year, bringing Peace and Joy to your lives and those you hold dear. May all those who travel find safe passage.