We’ll Be Home for Christmas (by Puchi Ann)

Summary:  Having promised Pa that they will be home for Christmas, the three Cartwright brothers are ahead of schedule as they return from a late-season shopping trip in San Francisco. A sudden snowstorm in the Sierras, however, may make keeping that promise ­, or even staying alive, ­ impossible
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  16,300


Hoss Cartwright licked his lips in anticipation as a plate, heavily laden with a combination of scrambled eggs and oysters, was set before him.  “Doggone, but that looks good!” he declared enthusiastically.

“All food looks good to you,” Adam, seated to his younger brother’s right at the round wooden table, commented dryly.  He glanced up at the flaxen-haired matron who had delivered their order.  “However, I have to admit that no one makes Hangtown Fry quite like yours, Ludmilla.”

“Not even Pa,” Little Joe, across the table from Adam, chirped in agreement.  All three brothers laughed in recollection of their father’s yearly tradition of preparing the special egg dish for them every New Year’s morning.  Pa’s cooking wasn’t bad, but it couldn’t compare with the food at Mama Zuebner’s restaurant.  Nothing but Hop Sing’s could.

Ludmilla smiled down at the trio of brothers she had watched grow up.  She had first met Adam when they traveled west on the same wagon train, and while her acquaintance with the younger boys was of shorter duration, she had known them from infancy and still doted on all three like a maiden aunt, looking forward to every trip they made through Placerville, California.  “I am glad you like the food,” she said, “but I wish still that you would stay with me for Christmas.  No one makes good Christmas like Germans.”

“We’d enjoy it very much,” Adam assured her, “but I did promise Pa we’d be home for Christmas.”

A frown settled on Ludmilla’s normally placid face.  “You eat hearty, then.  Weather is making colder.”

“We’ll eat hearty, Mama Zuebner,” Hoss vowed solemnly, bringing a titter from his younger brother.

“Maybe you will,” Little Joe whispered as the proprietress departed to the kitchen, “but there’s no way I can finish this.  What was she thinking?”

“Same thing anyone thinks who gets a look at them bird bones of yours,” Hoss snorted, “that you need fattenin’ up.”  He smiled benevolently at the boy beside him.  “Don’t you worry none, though, little brother; I’m gonna help you clean that plate—just so’s Mama’s feelin’s won’t get hurt, you understand.”  He calculated, with satisfaction, that he’d be confiscating about a third of what was on Little Joe’s plate.

Cackling, Joe choked on a bite of egg and, grabbing his napkin, held it to his mouth until he got the coughing under control.  “Oh, yeah, big brother, I understand perfectly,” he sputtered, “but I ain’t gonna complain, since I can sure use the help.”

Sipping his coffee, Adam had watched his brothers bantering back and forth with an indulgent eye.  They’d all gotten along well on this trip to San Francisco.  Maybe it had something to do with the festivity of the season, but even he and Joe hadn’t done much sparring at each other.  The only conflict they’d had, in fact, had been about their departure time.  Adam had wanted to stay over one more day, to see another show, but Little Joe had begged to go home, instead, as soon as they’d finished their Christmas shopping.  Of course, the kid was only eighteen, so some slight homesickness was to be expected, Adam supposed, and it didn’t help that the show he’d offered as enticement was an opera.  Hoss had sided with his younger brother in opting to get home, so Adam had given in with good grace.  After all, Pa would be that much prouder of him for getting the boys home a day earlier than expected.

Pa hadn’t been too enthusiastic about his sons’ making this trip.  The stores of Virginia City were quite good enough, he’d alleged, and weather in the Sierras was always chancy this late in the year.  Adam had pointed out, however, that it wasn’t like the old days, when he and Pa had first come west.  Whereas snow had once cut them off from California for months out of the year, roads were better now, and stages ran regularly through the winter.  Besides, Adam had been quick to point out, this winter had been an unusually mild one, so Ben had reluctantly agreed to let his sons make the trip, provided they were home for Christmas.  The more Adam considered the possibility of delays, the more content he became with his brothers’ decision.  If the stage ran on schedule, they’d pull into Carson City tomorrow morning, the twenty-third of December, and be back at the Ponderosa well before that Christmas deadline.

As the Cartwright brothers finished their breakfasts, Ludmilla appeared once again at their table, this time carrying a large covered basket over one arm.  Noting with pleasure Little Joe’s clean plate, she set the basket between him and Hoss.  “If you bound to go, you take this,” she ordered.  “Not all stage stations feed good, like here.  I put in apple strudel for Adam, good German sausage for Hoss, cheese with brown bread for Little Joe and plenty lebkuchen and pfeffennuch for all.”

Hoss stood to wrap a hefty hug around the older lady, who barely came to the middle of his chest.  “Aw, thanks.  This’ll turn that dull ride home into one long Christmas party.”

Joe and Adam stood, as well.  “Yes, ma’am.  We surely thank you,” Joe said.

Ludmilla turned to embrace him.  “You see brothers share all food, not just cheese,” she advised.  “You need more meat on your bones, little one.”

Joe took the admonition and the diminutive term in stride, only because they came from someone he genuinely liked.  “Yes, ma’am, I will,” he assured her.

“Thanks again for your hospitality last night,” Adam said, “and especially for these delicacies to take with us.  I wish we could stay longer, but that stage leaves at eight sharp.”

“You go, then,” Ludmilla agreed, still looking reluctant to see them head out into the cold, “and give to Ben my love and wishes for merry Christmas.”

Adam smiled warmly.  “I will.  Come on, boys; we have to leave now.”

Hoss and Joe exchanged another quick hug with Mrs. Zuebner and followed Adam outside, each one’s arms laden with bundles, the fruit of their assault on the shops of San Francisco.  The only unpleasant part of their journey thus far had been the juggling of these assorted parcels from one conveyance to another: carriage to steamboat to train to stagecoach and now to another stagecoach.  Each young man’s face glowed, however, when he thought of how much pleasure the gifts he’d bought would give on Christmas morning.

Little Joe’s eyes shone especially bright, for with the higher wage that he was earning now that he was older, he finally felt that he was able to do as well by Pa and his brothers as they’d always done by him.  He hadn’t appreciated all the harping Adam had done throughout the year about saving his money, but he was glad now that he’d followed that advice with some degree of success.  Even so, he’d come up twenty dollars short of having enough for everything he wanted to buy, but Hoss had generously loaned him that amount.  The emerald eyes fairly danced in anticipation of how pleased everyone would be with what they found under the tree.

Leaving his carpetbag and bundles with his brothers, Adam stepped into the stage depot to purchase their tickets.  “Looks like we’re the only ones on board this morning,” he commented when he returned to find that all the baggage had been loaded into the boot of the coach, except for Ludmilla’s basket of goodies.

“Hey, that’s great!” Hoss exclaimed.  Stagecoaches tended to be confining for the big man, especially when crowded.  With only the three of them inside, he could claim a seat to himself and stretch out.  “We got all we need, anyway: good food, good company, good”—he wrinkled his nose at the gray skies overhead.  “Well, the weather ain’t so good, I reckon.”

Adam draped an arm over each brother’s shoulder.  “Good food, good company, good spirits,” he finished for Hoss and won a gap-toothed grin in response.

“Time to board, gents,” the driver called, so the three brothers bustled inside, Joe first, followed by Hoss and lastly by Adam, who closed the stage door and settled down on the seat beside his youngest brother.

Twelve miles down the road the stage stopped, as it would at about that interval all along the route.  Though Sportman’s Hall was renowned for the quality of its food, none of the Cartwright brothers was tempted to eat again so soon.  Unfortunately, it would be late afternoon before they again reached a station with acceptable food, but Ludmilla’s generosity had insured that none of them would go hungry before reaching Strawberry Valley House.

Hoss, of course, was the first to dig into the basket, cutting off a hunk of sausage and a thick slice of bread to eat with it.  By the time the stage stopped at Webster’s Station to change horses, all three brothers had tasted some of the good food Ludmilla had sent, although in Little Joe’s case the taste had included only one of the honey-flavored lebkuchen cakes and a couple of the round spice drops Ludmilla called pfeffenuch.

The three brothers got down from the stagecoach at Webster’s, not wanting to miss a chance to stretch their legs.  While Joe made a quick trot around to the outhouse, Adam arched his back to work out the kinks and Hoss stood staring up at the sky.  Noticing his bigger brother’s wrinkled brow, Adam cocked his head.  “Something bothering you?”

“I think we may get some weather,” Hoss said.  “That’s a storm sky, Adam.”

Adam looked at the glowering gray clouds overhead.  “Yeah, looks like rain, all right.”  He clapped the ample back beside him.  “You’re not going to let a little rain dampen your Christmas spirit, are you, Hoss?”

Hoss shook his head, a motion that had nothing to do with answering Adam’s question.  “Not so sure it’ll be just a little, older brother.”

“Don’t worry,” Adam urged.  “We’re only nine or ten hours from Carson.  I promised Pa we’d be home for Christmas, and we’ll make it with time to spare.”  He saw Little Joe coming around the corner of the stage station.  “And don’t go worrying the kid.  He’s fidgety enough about getting home as it is.”

“I won’t,” Hoss promised earnestly.  Nobody could work up a fret like their baby brother, and the thought of being cooped up inside a stagecoach with Joe once he got in that state was enough to silence the first word of his own concern.

By the time the stage reached Strawberry, twelve miles down the road, the rain had started, and the Cartwright brothers had rolled down the leather curtains over all the windows of the coach.  They made a dash for the station, where they opted to eat an early supper.  Though it was only four in the afternoon, they were all hungry, having skipped dinner, and the thirty-minute layover the stage always made at this station gave them plenty of time for a meal.  The rain had turned to a downpour by the time they reboarded the stagecoach.  Just before they pulled out, the door opened and the driver thrust three woolen blankets inside.  “Compliments of the company,” he said.  “Likely to be colder as we climb up to the summit.”

Adam nodded his appreciation, even though he knew that the courtesy was customary.  At an elevation of seven thousand feet, Echo Summit was, indeed, likely to be cold, especially on a day like this.  In fact, they’d be lucky if this rain didn’t turn to snow before they reached the top.  He passed one blanket to each of his brothers.

Hoss immediately bundled up, and soon his snores were rattling the sides of the coach.  Joe managed to stay awake a little longer, but the rhythmic drumming of the rain lulled him, too, into drowsiness, and he dozed off, wrapped up in the blanket.

Adam chuckled beneath his breath.  It always amazed him how easily those two could fall asleep, but why shouldn’t they?  Nothing else to do.  Might as well join them, in fact, since he couldn’t even read with the curtains rolled down.  Between Hoss’s snoring and Little Joe’s tendency to curl into his shoulder, however, Adam found it harder to drift off than his two younger brothers.  Pulling the wool blanket up to his chin, he nudged Joe back toward the other side of the coach and closed his eyes with determination.

A sharp staccato replaced the soft spattering that had lulled the younger boys to sleep.  Pulling back the edge of the curtain, Adam peered outside and viewed with dismay the frigid precipitation.  As he’d suspected from the sound, it was no longer droplets of rain, but pellets of ice now striking the stagecoach.  A little snow he had expected, but ice would make the road more treacherous.  For the first time Adam entertained the thought that the winter shopping excursion might have been a mistake, and his concern was only accentuated as they climbed toward the summit and snow began mingling with sleet.

They topped Echo Summit and started down the Osgood Grade, one of the scariest sections of road on the entire route. Passengers and drivers alike were always glad to put this steep descent behind them and pull into the next station.  Yank’s came equipped with a fourteen-room hotel, and, given the continuing storm, it would probably be wise to spend the night there and catch the stage for Carson City tomorrow.  They’d be late, but should still make it home for Christmas.  Joe wouldn’t take the delay well, of course, but Adam was pretty sure he could count on Hoss to side with him this time.

That settled, at least in his own mind, Adam again huddled inside the gray blanket and let the rocking motion of the stagecoach lull him, too, toward slumber.  It wasn’t long, though, before the rocking became a positive lurching from side to side.  Lifting the curtain again, Adam noted with alarm the slick condition of the road and felt the wheels skid from side to side on the frozen rain, now hidden beneath a thin layer of snow.  Looking ahead, he saw that the horses were hard put to stay ahead of the careening coach.

Adam rolled up the window of the stage door and leaned out, intending to yell up at the driver and ask him to pull over as soon as he could.  One glance at the stone-strewn slope to the right, however, was enough to convince him that there was no safe siding anywhere near.  The wheels were right against the edge, and just as Adam pulled himself back inside, the rear one slid off the road.  The stagecoach tilted to that side, and Adam fell against the door, his weight breaking open the latch.  He made a frantic grab for the door, but his hand slipped on the ice-coated wood, and he plummeted out, small rocks stabbing into his arms, legs and torso as he tumbled down the hill.  Finally, his head struck hard against a larger one and Adam blacked out.

Thankfully, the stage managed to stay on the road for a few more feet; otherwise, it would have tipped over onto Adam, but the two passengers sleeping inside were not so fortunate.  When the stage skidded off the road and began rolling, bottom over top, down the hill, the two younger Cartwright brothers were tossed helplessly around the interior.  The driver’s fate was even worse, for he flew off the driver’s box and landed among the flailing hooves of the six horses pulling the stage, becoming tangled in the harness beyond hope of escape.

Hoss and Joe had been jolted awake, of course, but both were too groggy to fully comprehend what was happening.  Limp as a rag doll, Joe flopped from side to side and from top to bottom until he was thrown from the coach through the opening in the side, the open door having broken off when it first hit ground.  Joe landed hard and hurtled, out of control, down the rocky hillside until he slammed up against the thick trunk of a sugar pine.

“Joe!” Hoss cried, clutching frantically and futilely at the slight figure as it flew past him.  Being heavier, Hoss wasn’t tossed around as much, but he had no more control over his movements than his bird-boned brother.  Though he was thrown against the open doorway more than once, his larger frame didn’t go through, and Hoss rode the stage until its body collided with two closely spaced trees and the plunge down the mountain came to an abrupt halt.  Hoss finally fell through the splintered side, screaming as the coach lurched toward him.

*****

Light stabbed at the edges of Adam’s eyelids, and for a moment he squeezed them tight.  Innate curiosity overcame his desire to avoid pain, however, and Adam slowly opened his eyes.  Sharp stings prickled in a dozen or more places, but they were nothing compared to the ache in his head.  Dazed, he touched his throbbing temple, and then stared at his bloodstained fingertips, as if trying to comprehend how he had come to be hurt.  He raised himself on his elbows and waited for the world to stop spinning before looking at his surroundings.  A snow-covered slope—what was he doing out on a snow-covered slope?  Willing the dizziness to pass, he sat up.

The screams of horses to his left drew his attention down the hill.  Just below the source of that agonized sound he spotted the wreck, and his first sight of the overturned stagecoach snapped the memories back into place.  Hoss and Little Joe were inside that overturned vehicle, no doubt in urgent need of his help.  All thought of his own injuries driven out by that overriding concern, Adam struggled to his feet and staggered down the hill.

Boots slipping on the slick and uneven footing, he scrambled toward the wreck, calling the names of his brothers.  The body he saw first, motionless among the writhing horses, belonged to neither of them.  The driver was obviously dead, and while Adam hated to hear the anguished cries of the animals, the gun he needed to put them out of their misery was packed away in his carpetbag.  Heightened anxiety spurred him past the horses toward the body of the coach.  As he drew close, a groan assured him that at least one of his brothers was still alive.

Adam skidded to the side of his brawny brother.  “Hoss!” he cried as he touched a hand to the big man’s shoulder.

“Hey, Adam,” Hoss said, in an attempt at lightness, though his face was contorted with pain.  “I was wonderin’ where you took off to.”

“I’m here, buddy,” Adam said softly.  He glanced down his brother’s big frame and winced when he saw Hoss’s right leg, pinned under right rear wheel, which was weighted down by the bulk of the coach itself.

“I think it’s busted,” Hoss said.

“Good guess,” Adam muttered.  “You hurt anywhere else?”

Hoss tried to grin, but the expression looked more like a grimace.  “I hurt everywhere else.”  Seeing Adam’s forehead wrinkle, he added quickly, “Don’t think nothin’ else is busted, though.  Just scraped and sore.”

“Lose consciousness at all?” Adam queried further.

“No such luck,” Hoss grunted.  “Got to see the whole thing.”

Adam gave the massive shoulder a sympathetic squeeze and looked directly into Hoss’s lake blue eyes.  “I’m gonna need help to get you out from under there, buddy.  Let me find out how badly Little Joe’s hurt, and we’ll see what we can do.”  He stood and moved toward the body of the coach.  Though badly damaged, one corner was still intact, leaving a space large enough for someone as small as Joe to be lodged within.

“He ain’t . . . in there,” Hoss said, his explanation coming out in disjointed phrases, interspersed with gasping breaths as he tried to control the pain.  “Flew out . . . somewhere on the way . . . down.  Tried to snare him . . . but just couldn’t.  Sorry.”

Adam looked up the hill.  “Above us, then.  You know which side he’s on?”

Hoss shook his head.  “Sorry.”

Adam’s discerning gaze rested on his brother.  “No need.  Nothing you could do.  Might take me awhile to find him, so let’s get you settled first.”

“Naw, I’m okay.  Go . . . go see to the boy.”

Adam had spotted one blanket on the ground and, looking inside the coach, found another in that corner where he’d hoped to see Little Joe.  He took only enough time to tuck both around Hoss and then began climbing, snowflakes dusting his dark, ebony hair.  Waves of dizziness alternated with moments of clearer vision as he moved slowly upward, calling Little Joe’s name at frequent intervals.  About halfway up the hillside, Adam thought he heard something.  He stopped to listen and made out the sound of soft moaning a little below him on the right.  He turned too quickly and had to fight off another attack of vertigo before he dared move.

“Joe!” he called again as he waited for his head to clear, and again he heard a slight moan.  Though he wanted to rush toward the sound, Adam knew he had to move slowly and steadily, to avoid falling himself.

Finally, he saw a dark shape about six feet below him and, throwing caution to the wind, slid quickly down to his youngest brother.  “Joe?” he asked, gently rolling the boy over onto his back.

“A-Adam?” Joe murmured.  “Wh-what happened?”

“Stage wreck,” Adam explained laconically, running his fingers through Joe’s damp curls to check for any signs of a blow to the head.  Finding no lumps, he breathed a little more easily.

Joe, meantime, was looking beyond Adam, as if searching for something.  His shimmering gaze settled on Adam’s face.  “Hoss?” he asked fearfully.

“Down the hill,” Adam responded.  “Trapped under the stage, and it’s gonna take both of us to get him out.”

“Let’s go, then.”  As Joe struggled to sit up, a sharp cry burst through his lips.

Adam pushed him down.  “Easy, buddy.  Let me check you out first.”

“No,” Joe argued.  “We got to get to Hoss.  We got to, Adam!”

“And we will,” Adam said firmly, “but first things first.”  When he saw Joe again trying to sit up, he pressed down on both slim shoulders and ordered sharply, “Lie still, Joe.”

“Adam, I’m okay,” Joe pleaded.

“I’ll just bet you are,” Adam grunted.  “Where’s the pain, kid?”  He held a hand to his own forehead as another spell of dizziness struck him.

Joe reached up to touch the blood trickling down the side of his brother’s face.  “Adam?”

Adam pushed the hand away.  “I’m okay,” he said.

“Yeah, I’ll just bet you are,” Joe muttered, tossing his oldest brother’s words back at him.

Adam gave him a chagrinned smile.  “All right, so none of us is okay.  Look, Joe, we don’t have time for this.  Hoss needs us, but I, for one, am not willing to put you to work ‘til I know for sure what shape you’re in.  Now, where’s the pain?”

Little Joe bit his lower lip.  “Left side, mostly,” he said.  “Ribs, I think.  Probably just cracked.”

“Let’s hope,” Adam said tersely.  He quickly unbuttoned Little Joe’s sheepskin jacket and tan shirt.  Frowning at the bruises darkening the left side of the boy’s torso, he probed the area with deft fingers, noting the location each time his younger brother winced.

“Just cracked, huh?” Joe asked hopefully.

Adam sucked in a short breath.  “Maybe,” he conceded.  He slid his hands under Joe’s arms and pulled him into a sitting position.  Leaning the boy against the sugar pine, Adam stood and, cupping his hands around his mouth, hollered down the hill.  “I found him!  We’ll be down soon.”  Squatting, he started to pull off Joe’s jacket.

“What you doin’?  It’s cold, Adam,” Joe protested.

Adam massaged his forehead.  “I’m sorry, buddy . . . not thinking straight.  Me first; then you. I-I’ll work fast.” Adam quickly skinned out of his own fleece-lined coat and shirt and began tearing the latter into long strips after putting the coat back on over his bare flesh.  “Those ribs have got to be wrapped before you do much moving around, kid,” he explained as he worked.

Joe frowned.  “You could have used my shirt, you know.”

“Not likely,” Adam snorted, gripping the black material between his teeth and tearing off another strip.  When he’d finished, he tied the ends together and, laying the bandage aside, he maneuvered Joe’s arms out of his coat and shirt, dropping both onto the snow.  Having Joe lean forward, he began binding the boy’s ribs as tightly as he could.

“Adam, I can’t breathe,” Joe gasped.

“The general idea,” Adam muttered.  “Be quiet.”

Joe rolled his eyes, but recognizing that the sooner this was done, the sooner they could get to Hoss, he made no further comment as Adam finished the wrapping and helped him back into his shirt and coat.

Joe picked up a strip of black shirt left over from bandaging his ribs.  “Might as well fix you up while we’re at it.”

“That’s not necessary,” Adam grunted as he fastened the final button of Joe’s coat.

“Adam,” Joe chided.

“Oh, all right,” Adam conceded, “but be quick about it.”

Joe did make quick work of tying the strip around his older brother’s head.  Then Adam put an arm around the younger boy and pulled him up.  Before he got Joe on his feet, however, Adam felt his own knees buckle and strike the icy slope.

Both boys uttered a sharp cry at the sudden jolt.  “Hey, what’s that about?” Joe demanded.

“Sorry,” Adam muttered.  “World sort of tips sidewise every now and then.”

“Oh, doggone.”  Joe groaned in fear of just how much trouble they were in.  He wasn’t medically knowledgeable enough to evaluate Adam’s condition, but he knew a concussion could mean serious trouble, and it sounded to him like Adam had one.  “That must have been some knock on the head you took.”

Adam gave him a lopsided grin.  “Probably just cracked.”

Joe released a sputtering laugh and paid for it with a stabbing pain in his side.  “Shucks, you’ve always been a little cracked,” he managed to choke out.

Adam shook his head at the bad joke, an action he quickly realized was a mistake.  “Okay, let’s try it again,” he suggested after taking a deep breath.

The two brothers made it to their feet this time, and Adam supported Joe as they walked down the hill.  They moved slowly, but even so, Adam could sense that Joe was gasping for air.  Any exertion at all would be rough on the kid, but Adam had nowhere else to turn for help with Hoss.  He couldn’t do it alone, but he resolved to take as much of the load on himself as possible, just as he was doing on this trek toward the stagecoach.  When they reached the overturned vehicle, he eased the winded boy down beside Hoss.

Joe gazed with concern at his brawny brother’s plight.  “Oh, boy, you are in a pickle.”

Hoss reached a hand toward his younger brother.  “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Joe said, grasping the big hand and giving it a squeeze.  “Well, mostly,” he added when he caught Adam’s disapproving glare.  He gave his lips a nervous lick and looked up at his oldest brother.  “How we gonna get that weight off him?” he asked, nodding toward the wheel pinning Hoss’s leg.

“Leave that to me,” Adam stated.  “Stay here; I’ll be back soon.”

“Where you goin’?” Joe cried as Adam moved away.

“Just scouting around for a fulcrum and lever,” Adam said.

Joe looked back at Hoss.  “You got any idea what he’s talkin’ about?”

“Nope.  It’s all Greek to me,” Hoss replied.

Adam laughed at the unwitting appropriateness of the comment, considering that it was the Greek Archimedes who had praised the law of physics Adam hoped to apply.  “Give me a fulcrum and I shall move the world,” he called over his shoulder in abbreviated quotation.

Joe shook his head in concern.  “Concussion,” he announced to Hoss in explanation of their older brother’s babbling.

Hoss nodded solemnly.  “Yeah, wits plumb scrambled.”

Adam made his way around the stagecoach, hoping to find some broken piece to serve as a lever.  There was plenty of splintered wood, but nothing he thought long enough for the job.  Then he spotted a dark shape that might work as the other part of the simple machine he needed, if the small boulder weren’t too deeply embedded for him to move.  Bending over to check, Adam was surprised to feel what he had assumed to be solid rock give beneath his hand.  He laughed.  Not what he’d been looking for, but something he could use, especially if the carpetbag were his own.  Opening it, he discovered that it was, but he didn’t take time to put on one of the extra shirts.  His comfort could wait, but those poor horses had suffered long enough.  Taking his revolver from its holster, Adam headed toward the front of the stage.

Three of the horses were still alive, and Adam quickly fired a bullet into each one’s brain, mercifully ending their death throes.  Then he saw the pole to which the horses were harnessed and knew he’d found his lever.  The pole had cracked near the coach, leaving enough length, but it wasn’t broken clean through, unfortunately, and Adam didn’t think he could finish splitting it by himself.  So much for sparing the kid, he thought ruefully.  “Joe,” he called, “I need you.”

Joe got up, chiding himself for his slowness, and came toward Adam.  “What you need?” he gasped, holding his side.

“Have you got your pocketknife?” Adam asked.

“Yeah.”

“Good.  I need you to cut these horses free from the harness and the harness from the pole,” Adam explained.  “Save as much length as you can; we might need it.  Then we’re gonna break this pole off, here where it’s partially cracked.  Think you can do that?”

Joe was already pulling his knife from his pocket.  “I can cut the harness.  About the other, I—I don’t know, Adam.  I’ll try.”

“We have to, Joe.”  Adam hated himself for pushing the injured boy, but there was another injured brother to consider, too.

Joe squared his shoulders.  “Then we will,” he said with determination.

Adam took out his pocketknife, too, and began cutting harness on one side, while Joe worked on the other.  Even that job seemed to take an excruciating amount of time, for, between pain and dizziness, neither boy could move at better than a snail’s pace.  They took a short breather when they finished, at Adam’s insistence, and then tackled the harder task of breaking the pole free from the coach.  “Put your weight behind it,” Adam instructed when he had positioned his brother, “but if you feel any sharp pain, stop at once.  You hear me, boy?”

“I hear you.”  Joe set his lips stubbornly.  Pain or no pain, this job had to be done, and he wasn’t about to let Hoss down, just to spare himself a little pain.

“All right, then—push!”  Words and action had to be repeated several times, with breathing spells between every push, before the pole broke free.

Joe fell to his knees, exhausted, and Adam immediately knelt beside him.  “Joe, I’m sorry,” the older boy said.

“No need.”  Joe had to take a deep breath before he could continue.  “He’s . . . my brother, too.  I just wish . . . I could be . . . more help.”

Adam brushed snow from his brother’s chestnut curls, which kinked tighter than ever when moist.  “Get back down to him and rest up.  I can manage the rest of this.”

Joe straightened.  “No, I can help.  Just need . . . to catch my breath.”

“I can manage this,” Adam repeated firmly, “but I will need you again later.  Rest while you can, boy.”

Seeing the wisdom of what his brother had said, Joe nodded.

Adam gestured toward the carpetbag.  “I will let you carry that down as you go.”

Pleased he could do something, Joe smiled, lifted the carpetbag and made his way down to Hoss.

“Doggone,” Hoss muttered when he saw the carpetbag.  “Sure wish it was that food basket you’d found.”

“I’ll see if I can,” Joe said.

“Joe, I didn’t mean . . .”

Joe waved the concern aside and moved to the other side of the coach, for he figured he would have already seen the basket had it been on this side.  As he moved up the hill, he noticed bundles scattered in all directions and spared a long sigh.  Even if any of the Christmas gifts had survived the accident, they’d have to stay here, instead of reaching their intended recipients.  He and his brothers would have a hard enough time getting themselves out of this fix, much less carrying home any Christmas cheer.  They’d be lucky, in fact, if they made it home for Christmas at all.  As Joe noticed the snow, now falling in clumps, rather than individual flakes, he shivered.  They’d be lucky, for that matter, just to survive this quickly approaching night.

Adam, meanwhile, had dragged the pole down the hill and laid it next to Hoss.  “Where’s Joe?” he demanded.

Seeing the angry spark in Adam’s eye, Hoss winced.  “My fault.  Said something about that food basket.  Boy took off to find it.”

“And now I have to find him again,” Adam snorted as he followed the footprints in the snow.  “Fool kid, can’t ever just do what he’s told.”  He rounded the coach, fully prepared to administer a harsh tongue lashing, but when he saw Little Joe, coming toward him, face aglow, the anger washed out.

“Hey, Adam, look what I found!” Joe cried, holding up the third woolen blanket with one arm and the basket of food over the other.

Adam nodded, and though his voice was soft, it held a note of authority as he said, “I thought I told you to rest.”

Joe gulped down the knot that suddenly rose in his throat.  “Hoss was hungry,” he offered as excuse.

“Hoss is always hungry . . . and you are always disobedient.”

Joe’s lips puckered in a pout.  “Aw, Adam, ain’t you even a little proud?  We can use these things.”

Adam’s mouth twitched.  “Maybe a little,” he conceded.  Maybe a lot, he added to himself.  He took the blanket and draped it across Joe’s shoulders.  “I’ll be even more proud if you get yourself and those things back over to Hoss and stay put this time.”

Holding the blanket around his neck with one hand, Joe smiled wryly.  “Yes, sir, I’ll try.”

Adam laughed, thinking that trying to do as he was told was about as much as one could ever expect of Little Joe.  “Go on,” he said with a light shove in the right direction.  “I’ve still got to find that fulcrum.”

Joe shook his head as he watched Adam walk away.  Babbling again.  Maybe he ought to keep an eye on his oldest brother . . . or maybe he ought to just do as he was told.  Choosing the safer course, Joe headed back toward Hoss.

“Hey, you found it,” Hoss cried when he saw the basket on Joe’s arm.

Joe grinned, pleased that one brother, at least, was happy with his discovery.  “Yeah.  You want something now?”

“Yeah, give me one of those honey cakes,” Hoss said, hoping the sweet would take his mind off the pain in his leg.

Joe sat down and opened the basket.  “Side’s busted in,” he said, “but everything’s still here.  Kinda scrambled, though.”

“Scrambled cookies is still cookies,” Hoss assured him.

Joe found a piece of lebkuchen, broken on only one corner, and handed it to Hoss.  “Think it’s got some strudel on it, too.”

“Won’t hurt nothin’,” Hoss said, taking the cookie.  “Have one, Joe.  You gotta keep up your energy, boy.”

Joe shook his head, grinning in appreciation of his brother’s appetite.  “Ain’t been that long since we ate, Hoss, and it ain’t my energy that’s hurtin’.”

“Ribs?” Hoss asked, licking sticky strudel syrup from his fingers.  He’d seen his younger brother touch his side gingerly several times.

“Yeah.  Reckon I better rest up some, like Adam says, if I’m gonna help lift that wheel off you.”

Hoss frowned.  “Don’t see how you can with busted ribs.”

“He isn’t going to,” Adam said, rolling the small boulder he’d found close to the wheel.  He dropped between his brothers and dug into the basket for a pfeffennuch.  “I’m going to lift the wheel.  What I need you to do, Joe, is pull Hoss out.”

Joe looked dubious.  “I know you’re stronger than me, older brother, but you can’t lift that by yourself.”

“Not by myself,” Adam explained.  “With the help of the lever.”

Joe still didn’t understand, but he helped position the fulcrum and lever, just as Adam ordered, and then wrapped his arms around Hoss’s torso, ready to pull as soon as his oldest brother gave the signal.  He watched in amazement as Adam pressed down on the lever and the wheel was slowly lifted a few inches above Hoss’s leg.  Adam yelled, “Now!”  Joe pulled with all his might, and Hoss used his good leg to add extra push.  Within minutes, all three boys lay panting on the ground, but Hoss was free.

Adam sat up first, gazing anxiously at the darkening sky.  “Joe, I hate to ask,” he said,” but the light’s fading fast.  I need you to gather up some sticks we can use to splint Hoss’s leg.  I think I saw something we can use to pull him up the hill.”

Not wanting to waste precious breath on words, Joe simply nodded and pulled up, first to his hands and knees, and then upright.  By the time he had gathered enough straight sticks, Adam had returned, dragging the door of the stagecoach.  Though splintered at the bottom, the door was in decent shape to use as a sled for the injured man.  Adam examined the sticks his youngest brother had chosen and pronounced them perfect for their intended use.  “You hold Hoss down, while I set the bone,” he said.

“Just a minute,” Joe said, opening the food basket.

“You can eat later,” Adam said sharply.

“I got an idea,” Joe insisted.  He pulled out one of the thick German sausages, cut off a chunk with his knife and handed it to Hoss.  “Here.  Bite down on that,” he suggested.

With a grin Hoss did as he was told, and his brothers went to work setting the leg.  The sausage was bitten through by the time they finished, and Hoss figured the best thing to do was just eat it.  “Best doggone bit I ever had in my mouth,” he declared.

Adam chuckled, but quickly turned his attention back to splinting his brother’s leg.  “Hand me those short pieces of harness, Joe.”  Then, while Joe held the sticks in place, Adam began tying them down with leather strips.  When he finished, he told Joe to stretch out next to Hoss.

“What for?  We’re not staying here, are we?” Joe questioned edgily.

“No, we’re not staying here, but we’re not ready to leave yet.”  Adam eased Joe down and began piling the three blankets over his two brothers.  “I’ve got to get this sled rigged up, and if you’re going to help me pull it, you have to rest.  No argument, boy.”

“He’s right, Shortshanks,” Hoss put in.

“Yeah, I reckon,” Joe admitted, though he couldn’t help wondering why Adam didn’t need rest, too.  He knew his oldest brother wasn’t hurt as badly as he was, except for his addled wits.  Well, maybe they weren’t so addled, after all.  That fulcrum idea had worked.  His trust in Adam renewed, Joe laid his head on Hoss’s chest and felt his middle brother’s arm draw him close.

Adam worked as fast as the waning daylight permitted.  First he cut off one of the long leather thoroughbraces that gave the stagecoach its smooth ride.  Puncturing holes in each end, he threaded harness through and fastened the other ends of the lines to the window opening in the door.  He wished there were something available to fill that hole, so Hoss would have better support, but he couldn’t think of anything that would help.  He hoped his fuzzy wits weren’t keeping him from seeing something that should be obvious.  Looking around one last time, he saw nothing.  No, this would just have to do.

Walking back to his brothers, he saw that Joe was asleep.  Poor kid, he must be exhausted, and the hardest work, getting Hoss up that hill, still lay ahead.  No sense waking the boy ‘til the last minute.  “Almost ready to go,” he whispered to Hoss, who nodded in response.

Adam opened his carpetbag and took out a clean white shirt.  Removing his coat, he quickly put his arms through the shirtsleeves, buttoned it up and drew his coat back on.  Then he gently shook Little Joe, who woke easily, since he had only been dozing lightly.  Adam handed him the red shirt and brown britches he had taken from the carpetbag.  “Put those on over your own clothes,” he commanded.  “You can use all the extra warmth you can get.”

Joe quirked a smile.  “You gonna put Hoss’s pants on over yours?”

Adam laughed.  “I might, if I knew where they were.  Hurry up about it, Joe.  Time we were leaving.”

“Feels wrong,” Joe muttered as he pulled Adam’s pants over his own, “me being bundled up warmer than either of you.”

“You need it more,” Hoss stated matter-of-factly.  “You got less flesh coverin’ them bird bones of yours, so stands to reason you’d need more clothes.”

“Aw, shut up,” Joe growled, irked by the number of times he’d heard that particular reference to his size on this trip.  He thought about pointing out that Hoss had too much flesh covering his bones, but decided that would only make his big brother feel bad about giving them a heavy load to pull.  “Okay, I’m bundled and ready,” he declared, instead.

“Time to get you settled in your new bed, then, buddy,” Adam announced with forced cheer as he set the improvised sled next to Hoss.  “Can you slide over onto this?  Hold his leg, Joe.”  Working together, the three brothers got Hoss situated on the sled, and as Joe covered him with the blankets, Adam dumped out the remaining contents of his carpetbag, except for the soft clothes, and eased it under Hoss’s head for a pillow.  Being wider than the window opening, it rested across the open space and provided a bit more support for the immobile man.  Finally, Adam used the rest of the harness and, with Little Joe’s help, lashed Hoss, as well as the basket of food, to the sled.

Moving to one side, Adam motioned for Joe to join him.  When the younger boy stood before him, Adam rested both hands on Joe’s slight shoulders.  “We need to get a couple of things straight before we start.”

Suspicion glinted in Joe’s green eyes.  “What?”

Knowing that what he had to say would not go down well, Adam took a deep breath before starting.  “This trip is going to be hard on you.”

“You, too,” Joe returned bluntly.

“True, but harder on you than on me.”  When Joe started to object, Adam raised a silencing hand.  “Hear me out.  Facts are facts, Joe.  With those taped ribs it’s harder for you to breathe, which means you’re going to give out more quickly and need rest more often.  It can’t be helped, so don’t hesitate to let me know when you need a break.  If you wait too long, you’ll end up dropping in your tracks, and that will just jolt Hoss.”

Joe swallowed hard.  “Yeah.  I guess it’s him we gotta be thinkin’ of, huh?”

“Yeah,” Adam agreed, knowing he’d found the key to overcoming Joe’s natural tendency to strain too hard to keep up with his older and bigger brothers.  Admitting weakness might hurt the kid’s pride, but he’d suffer it for Hoss’s sake.  “So, this will be the signal between us: when you need to stop, just say ‘down’—just the one word.  I’ll understand what you mean.”  His lips tightened.  “And if I need to stop, I’ll do the same.”

Joe saw the tight lips, the taut brow and knew Adam was worried.  “You still getting dizzy?” he guessed.

Adam nodded a single time.  “Not as much, but, yeah, it happens now and then.  If it gets too bad, I’ll let you know.”

Joe smiled.  “Just ‘down,’ right?”

“Right.  Ready to give this a try, little buddy?”

“Ready as I’m gonna get.”

Adam and Joe got into the harness Adam had improvised from the thoroughbrace and reins.  “Okay.  Up to the main road.  Then we’ll just follow it to the next station.”

“Hey, maybe we’ll get lucky and a stage’ll come along.”

“Maybe,” Adam said, although he secretly thought they’d be luckier if one didn’t come upon them in the dark.  “No more talking, Joe; conserve your air.”

Together, the two brothers began pulling Hoss up the hill.  Joe was determined that he would not ask to stop until they reached the road, but they’d covered no more than half the distance before he was forced to say “Down.”  Blinking back tears of self-disgust, he muttered, “Sorry.”

“No, you did just right,” Adam consoled him.  “The climb up to the road is the hardest part, little buddy.  It’s downhill from there, and you won’t need to stop as often.”  After a brief pause he asked, “Ready to go again?”

Joe took as deep a breath as his chest bindings would permit and nodded.  Leaning into the thoroughbrace in concerted effort with Adam, he plodded up the hill, and when they reached the top, it was Adam who said, “Down.”

“Dizzy?” Joe asked anxiously.

“No, just thought we should rest a minute before going on,” Adam explained.  “That was a rough pull, little buddy.  How are the ribs?”

“Okay,” Joe said, though the truth was that his entire chest was screaming in protest.

“Uh-huh,” Adam responded, sounding dubious.  He looked over his shoulder.  “Hoss, how you doing?”

“Hey, I’m fine,” Hoss said.  “You ain’t the steadiest draft horses I ever saw, but you work cheap.”

“We’ll try to do better,” Adam snorted as he raised the harness once more and nodded to Joe to start again.

As Adam had promised, the downhill grade and the smoothness of the well-traveled road, as compared with the stony slope, made the going easier.  The two “draft horses” still had to stop periodically, Joe about twice as often as Adam, but they were making progress.  Adam tried to gauge how long it would take them to reach the next station.  In the stagecoach they could have made it in about forty-five minutes, but on foot, dragging an injured man, the journey might better be measured in hours, not minutes.  How many hours, Adam couldn’t say, for there were just too many factors to be weighed in: the stamina of his kid brother, the slippery footing and the poor visibility, to mention only three.  The sun was fully down now, and the night was a dark one, especially with snow swirling in their faces.  It was coming down thicker, too, and colder.  Adam could hear Joe cough from time to time, and the rasping sound added to his sense of urgency about getting to shelter as soon as possible.

After they’d labored for quite awhile, Adam called for a longer halt.  Digging into the food basket, he gave Joe a handful of apple strudel and took one out for himself, as well.  “For energy,” he said, and though he wasn’t hungry, Joe ate.  Having nothing else to do, Hoss had fallen asleep, and Adam said not to wake him.  “We’ll all have a good hot meal once we get to Yank’s,” he promised as he and Joe got back into harness.

On they plodded, through the deepening snow and the wind that seemed to blow more fiercely with every step they took.  Although an occasional spell of vertigo still assaulted Adam, he deliberately disregarded the dizziness, refusing to halt except when Little Joe needed to rest.  The boy’s strength was deteriorating fast, the cough erupting more frequently, the need for warmth and walls between him and the wind growing imperative.

Feeling the same urgency, though not for his own sake, Joe fought to stay on his feet as long as possible.  It hadn’t escaped his notice that Adam never asked to stop anymore, and only the fear of dropping Hoss prevented Joe from following that example.  The snow was up to his knees now, and it was getting harder to move forward, but even taking that into account, Joe had a mounting awareness that something was wrong.  Finally, he could keep it to himself no longer.  “Adam.”

Adam turned toward him and held a gloved finger to his lips to remind Joe not to talk.

“Adam, please,” Joe cried.  “Down!”  It seemed to be the only word that Adam would respond to.

The two brothers eased their load to the ground.  “Sorry, Joe.  I didn’t understand what you wanted,” Adam said.

“I want to talk,” Joe said.

Adam shook his head.  “No, don’t waste your breath.  Just rest, boy.”

Joe grabbed his brother’s arm and gave it a shake.  “Adam, something don’t feel right.”

Adam reached toward him with an anxious hand.  “Your ribs?  Sharp pain?”

Joe batted the hand away.  “Not me.  The—the ground, I guess.  It don’t feel right.  I think we may be off the road.”

Adam rolled his head back, scrunching his eyes shut, hoping that the world would look less topsy-turvy when he opened them.  “Trust me, Joe,” he urged.  “I’ll get you to shelter soon, boy.  I promise.”  Just like I promised I’d have us home for Christmas, he thought.  Well, I haven’t failed to keep that one yet.  Just gotta keep pushing on.

“Adam, you seeing straight?”

“I’m fine, Joe.”  He lifted the thoroughbrace.  “Time to move on.”

“Adam, something’s wrong,” Joe cried, but when Adam just started walking without comment, Joe had no choice but to move with him.  He couldn’t, however, shake the feeling that something was wrong.  The footing seemed more treacherous, stonier and steeper than it should be on the Osgood Grade.  He tried once more to convey his concern to Adam, but received only a stern rebuke in return, accompanied by a reminder that “I know this part of the territory much better than you, boy.”  Joe felt a budding fear that that concussion was affecting Adam’s judgment and a burgeoning terror that they were headed in the wrong direction.

They slogged on, each hoping, though with unequal expectation, to see the lights of Yank’s Station twinkle below them, but no matter how long they walked, the lights never appeared.  Even Adam was beginning to wonder if they had somehow gone astray when something happened that told him definitely that they had.  He stepped forward and slipped as icy water sloshed over his left boot.  When he fell, he took Joe with him, of course.  The younger boy toppled forward, and his hands broke through the thin layer of ice and splashed into the water.

Adam pulled Joe back and jerked the wet gloves from his hands.  Pulling his own off with his teeth, he quickly placed them on Joe’s hands.

“No,” Joe moaned in protest.

“Yes,” Adam insisted.  Hearing a groan from the sled, he moved toward Hoss.  “Sorry, buddy; we slipped,” he explained.

“I’m all right, Adam,” Hoss said, though his face said otherwise.  “We close to Yank’s yet?”

“Still down the road a bit,” Adam said softly.

“There—there shouldn’t be water over the road, should there?” Joe asked, gulping down the knot in his throat and praying that Adam was ready to listen to reason this time.

Adam shook his head.  “No.  You were right.  We’re not on the road.”

They were the words Joe had wanted to hear, but that confirmation of his fears broke his resolve to be strong.  Leaning forward, he buried his face in his hands and began to shake uncontrollably.  “We’re lost; we’re lost.”

Adam moved back toward his youngest brother.  “Easy, Joe, easy; don’t give way on me now.”

“What difference does it make?” Joe cried.  “We’re gonna die out here.”

Adam grabbed the trembling boy by both arms.  “Get a grip on yourself,” he ordered brusquely. “We’re not lost and we’re not gonna die.  I know where we are, Joe.  Now, get those emotions under control before you do yourself harm.”

Joe’s voice was strained as he tried to make his brother comprehend his concern.  “Adam, your head’s in a whirl; you don’t know which end’s up, much less where we are.  It’s that concussion.”

“Yeah, it probably kept me from thinking straight,” Adam admitted, “but I do know where we are now.  This is Echo Creek, Joe.  It can’t be anything else.”

Feeling a tiny spark of hope, Joe glanced up.  “Echo Creek?   The road crosses over Echo Creek, don’t it?”

“That’s right,” Adam assured him softly, rubbing a soothing hand over the boy’s back.

Joe choked on the saliva filling his throat.  “So, so all we gotta do is follow the creek, and it’ll take us back to the road.”

Adam took a breath.  “It would, but we’re not going that way; we’re going the other direction.”

Certain now that Adam had completely lost his mind, Joe shook his head violently.

Adam stilled the motion, holding Joe’s neck between his bare and shivering hands.  “Listen to me, boy.  Like I said, I know this part of the country.  There’s an old cabin down the creek.  We can get to it quicker than to Yank’s, and that’s where we’re going.”

“Adam, you sure?” Hoss asked, head turned toward his brothers.  “We for sure know there’s shelter the other way.”

“I’m sure,” Adam said.  “Joe’s too young, but you should remember old Baxter.”

Hoss’s forehead wrinkled as he searched his memory.  “Nate Baxter, that old prospector?  Yeah, he did have a cabin around Echo Creek.”

“Right on the creek,” Adam added, “no more than half a mile beyond the bend”—he pointed to a curve in the stream just south of them—“that bend, unless I miss my guess.”

“Your guesses ain’t been none too good the last hour or so,” Joe charged.

“Joe, give me a chance,” Adam pleaded.

“Half a mile,” Hoss mused.  “Not so far we couldn’t turn around if he’s wrong.  I say we give Adam that much chance, Joe.”

“I don’t know,” Joe whispered.

“You’re outvoted, Shortshanks,” Hoss announced, knowing they had no time to waste in further debate.

Adam shot his middle brother a look of gratitude.

Joe looked disgruntled at the way the older boys had closed ranks against him and even more worried, but he accepted Adam’s help in standing up and getting into harness again.  “Sure hope you’re right, older brother,” he whispered, so Hoss wouldn’t overhear, “‘cause I don’t think I got an extra mile in me.”

“You only need half a mile,” Adam stated, “and you can make it if you save your breath for pulling, instead of wasting it flapping your mouth.”

As Adam had intended, the taunt angered Joe and poured fire into his flagging footsteps.  Keep it up, little brother, Adam urged.  Only a little further, I promise.

They had covered, perhaps, half the distance to the cabin when Joe collapsed onto his knees.  “I’m sorry,” he murmured as Adam lifted him.  “I didn’t give the signal.”

“It’s okay, buddy,” Adam said, his voice gentle now.  “I didn’t give it last time.”

Joe smiled weakly.  “So we’re even?”

“We’re even.  Come on, boy,” Adam urged.  “It’s not much further.”

“If you’re right.”

“I am.”

Joe sincerely hoped his brother’s recollection of the location of that cabin was accurate, for each step felt like the last he could possibly take.  But he somehow convinced himself each time that he could take just one more.  Walking on sheer willpower now, Joe trudged forward beside his older brother, legs aching, lungs screaming for air.

Adam felt like shouting when he saw the dark, rectangular shape looming through the driving snow.  He grabbed Joe and pointed.

Joe’s face lit up, brighter than moonlight on snow.  “It’s there; it’s really there.”

“Well, doggone it, don’t just stand there, admirin’ the view,” Hoss snorted.  “Let’s get inside!”

“You always were the practical one,” Adam chuckled.  “Come on, Joe.  A few more steps and we can quit being draft horses for this big lug.”

They pulled the sled right up to the cabin door, where Adam cut the harness holding Hoss in place.  Then, using his brothers as crutches, Hoss hopped between them to the slat bed pegged to one side of the small cabin.  While Adam supported Hoss, Joe jerked the straw mattress into place, and they both eased their middle brother down.

“Aah,” Hoss sighed.  “Flat as a pancake, but it sure beats that stage door.”

“I’ll get the blankets,” Joe said and headed toward the door.

Adam caught him by the elbow.  “You will lie down right now—and no argument.”

“And where will you sleep?” Joe demanded as his oldest brother steered him across the room to the only other bed.

“He said ‘no argument,’ Shortshanks,” Hoss pointed out.  “That sounds like arguin’ to me, don’t it to you, older brother?”

“It most certainly does,” Adam agreed, easing Joe onto a mattress little, if any, thicker than the one Hoss lay on.

“Gangin’ up on me again,” Joe groused.  “Story of my life.”

Adam and Hoss both laughed, and even Joe grinned, out of sheer relief at being out of the snowstorm.  Adam grabbed up the three blankets and the food basket from the sled and shut the door.  Setting the basket on a rickety table in the middle of the room, he put one blanket over Hoss and laid the other two over Little Joe’s slighter form.  “I’ll take it back later, when I’m ready to sleep,” he said, to forestall the protest he saw forming on Joe’s lips.

Joe didn’t think anything about it when Adam removed the borrowed gloves, until he saw his older brother pull them over his own hands.  “You’re not going out again, are you?” he asked anxiously.

Adam tugged on the second glove.  “Not for long.  I’m gonna gather up some wood and build a fire.  You two rest easy.”

“I could do that,” Joe said, rising on his elbows.

“No.”

Joe flopped back on the mattress as Adam went through the cabin door, shutting it behind him.  “He’s the most mule-stubborn, cantankerous critter that ever—”

“Almost,” Hoss corrected with a significant look at his younger brother.

Joe’s nose screwed up in distaste when he realized what Hoss meant.  “I ain’t that bad; I ain’t never been that bad.”

Hoss beamed a broad, beatific smile across the room.  “Face facts, little brother.  I’m the only non-cantankerous Cartwright in the whole dadburned bunch.”

Joe groaned loudly.

“Facts that painful?” Hoss teased.  “Or are them ribs hurtin’ again?”

“Never stopped,” Joe muttered bluntly.

The grin evaporated off Hoss’s cherubic face.  “Doggone, Joe, I’m sorry; I thought you was funnin’ with that groan.”

“I was, Hoss; I was,” Joe assured him, “but the ribs do hurt pretty bad.  Don’t let on to Adam, though, huh?  He’ll be takin’ the whole load on himself if you do.”

“Reckon you’re right about that, but it ain’t the kind of secret I ought to keep, Shortshanks,” Hoss said soberly.  “I feel real bad about how hard you and Adam both had to work to get me here.”

Joe rolled onto his uninjured side to face his brother.  “Don’t.  All I need’s a little rest.”  Propping his head up on one elbow, he looked at the door.  “Does it seem like Adam’s been gone an awful long time, just to gather a few sticks?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe he’s gettin’ more than a few. I’d favor a big fire, personally; this cabin ain’t been chinked in years.”

“Yeah, it’s drafty,” Joe conceded, “but better than being outdoors.  I’m glad Adam remembered this place.”  He glanced toward the door again.  “Maybe I should check on him.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t,” Hoss said firmly.

“Hoss, he ain’t runnin’ on all four wheels,” Joe observed with evident concern.

Hoss fell into a fit of laughing.  “Just so he don’t tip over and land on my other leg, like that stagecoach that wadn’t runnin’ on all four wheels,” he cackled.

“Hoss!” Joe hissed.  To him, his brother’s accident was no joke; nor was the possibility that his other brother really might just tip over on them—and then where would they all be?  In just about as bad a pickle as Hoss had been under that stage.  He certainly couldn’t pull both his older brothers back up the creek!

The door blared open, and Adam came through, bearing a load of twigs and branches he’d culled from the area surrounding the cabin.  Shutting the door with his hip, he dumped the wood near the fireplace.  “What’s so funny?” he asked, as he saw Hoss trying to contain his laughter.

“Nothin’,” Joe declared vehemently.

“We was just”—Hoss struggled to stop cackling—“havin’ this real interestin’ discussion”—more laughter—“ about wheels.”

Adam looked from the laughing face of his middle brother to the glowering one of his youngest and arched an eyebrow.  “Should I be checking him for fever?” he asked, gesturing with his head toward Hoss.

“Yes,” Joe replied with a curt nod.

Adam shook his head.  “Well, I’m glad someone can find humor in this situation.”  It didn’t surprise him that Hoss had managed to make light of their troubles.  He was good at that.  But, then, so was Joe, normally.  In fact, the kid’s infectious giggle generally resounded from the rafters of the Ponderosa, whether the joke was on him or someone else, although a little louder in the latter case. As Adam laid the wood for the fire, he pondered what might be bothering Joe and finally decided that his youngest brother was just too exhausted to find anything funny.  And well he should be, after what he’d been through that night.  Typically, Adam discounted his own weariness as insignificant.  After all, he was in better shape than either of his younger brothers, so, of course, he should bear the brunt of the load.  A matter of simple logic, he concluded as he lit the fire.

“Oh, that’s better,” Hoss sighed, a big smile transfusing his face as the warmth of the fire began to reach him.

“I think we’ll do fine tonight,” Adam said, more for Joe’s benefit than Hoss’s, although the comment was directed toward the older boy.  “Roof over our heads, warm fire on the hearth and a fine meal—what more could anyone ask?”  He opened the food basket on the table.  “Dinner is served, gentlemen.  I believe you’ve perused the menu, so what’s your pleasure?”

“Anything but that dadgum cheese,” Hoss snorted.  He tossed a wink at the glum boy across the room.  “I’m gonna make a present of that to you, Shortshanks.”  Expecting some saucy remark in response, or at least an out-thrust tongue, Hoss was shocked when Little Joe, instead, rolled his back toward his brothers and turned his face to the log wall.  “Joe, I didn’t mean nothin’.  Eat anything you want.”

Adam shook his head at Hoss.  “That’s not it; he doesn’t care what he eats.”  He quickly sliced off a hunk of sausage and handed it to Hoss with a slice of brown bread.  Moving across the room, he squatted at the side of Joe’s bed, noting the quivering back.  “That can’t be comfortable, lying on those cracked ribs.”  He pulled gently on the boy’s shoulder.  “Turn over, Joe.”

“Leave me alone,” Joe muttered.

“No.  You’re hurting yourself, and I won’t allow that,” Adam stated, drawing on his authority as the oldest brother.  His voice softened.  “If you’re trying to hide the tears, don’t bother.  I know you’re crying, Joe.  Now, turn over.”  Once more he pulled on the slim shoulder, more insistently this time.  There was no resistance, but Joe still refused to meet his brother’s gaze.  “What’s wrong, boy?” Adam asked, moving to sit on the edge of Joe’s bed.

“Nothin’.”

Hoss scooted up in his bed, propping himself upright with both hands.  “Is it somethin’ I said?”

Joe bit his lip and looked away and then slowly nodded, to the amazement of both his brothers.  Joe could be touchy at times, but he usually could take a joke, as he must surely have realized Hoss’s jibe was meant to be.

“I thought you liked cheese,” Hoss said.

Joe uttered a short, humorless laugh.  “Not that.  ‘Present’—you said, ‘Present.’”

Hoss stared at Adam in complete consternation and shrugged.

Joe swallowed hard.  “I’d almost forgot about presents; you just brought it back to mind, that’s all.”

“Aw, shucks, I’m sorry,” Hoss muttered, quickly contrite.

“No need,” Joe urged him.  “It’s just that I had such nice presents for you this year—the best ever.  Now you’ll never get ‘em.”

“You’re not getting anything from us, either, you know,” Adam commented with a rueful smile.

Joe rolled his face to the wall again.  “I don’t care about that.  I know I’m just bein’ a fool kid, but it’s the first chance I had to get anything really nice for you both and—and Pa—and it hurts to think about them scattered out there on that hillside, doin’ nobody any good.”

“Don’t sound like a kid talkin’ to me, do it you, Adam?” Hoss inquired, gazing ith pride at his younger brother.

The pride was reflected in Adam’s eyes, too, as he said, “No.  Thinking about others, instead of himself, just as he has been through this whole situation.  That’s not a kid; that’s a man I hear talking.”

Joe turned back and looked up into his oldest brother’s dark eyes.  Swiping the tears from his cheeks, he murmured, “I thought you said you didn’t have any presents for me.  That’s the best one there is.”

“Better than cheese?” Hoss teased.  He scrunched his face into an exaggerated pout.  “He likes your present better than mine, Adam.  I think I’m gonna bust out bawlin’ now.”

“Now, that sounds like a kid!”  Adam laughed and both brothers joined him.

Each doing his best to keep the others’ spirits up, the three brothers feasted on the contents of Ludmilla’s gift basket and toasted one another with melted snow.  They had to take turns with that, though, since Adam had found only one, slightly rusty tin cup in the cabin.  Then it was time to turn in, for all three were worn out, physically and emotionally, by the events of the evening.  Since he had to sleep on the floor, Adam confiscated the carpetbag as a pillow and, as promised, took back the second blanket from his youngest brother.  Then he stretched out in front of the fire, between the other two boys, urging them to call him if they needed anything during the night.

For none of them was it a restful night.  Pain kept Hoss wakeful, and the discomfort of his bed did the same for Adam.  While Joe slept more than they, his breathing grew increasingly labored, the wheezing and intermittent coughing more pronounced.  Sometime toward morning Adam became concerned and got up to check on his youngest brother.  He laid a hand across the boy’s forehead and frowned.

“How’s he doin’?” Hoss asked.

“He’s running some fever.”  Adam glanced across the room.  “I take it you’re not resting well, either.”

“Not too good,” Hoss admitted.  “Leg hurts somethin’ fierce.”

Adam walked back toward the fireplace and picked up the carpetbag.  He brought it to Hoss’s bed, lifted his brother’s broken leg and placed the bag beneath it.  “Elevating it should help keep the swelling down some,” he explained.  “Packing it in snow would help, too, but it would melt pretty quickly, and I don’t want Joe going outside to replenish the supply.”

Hoss cocked his head quizzically.  “Joe?”

“He’ll be the only one here to help you.  I’m leaving at first light.”

“No.”  The sound came from the bed behind Adam.  “We need to stay together,” Joe said, coughing between the last couple of words.

Adam swiveled around to face his youngest brother.  “No, Joe.  I’ll make better time alone.”

Joe tossed off the covers and swung his legs over the side of the bed.  “If you get there at all, you mean!  Adam, your head ain’t workin’ right.”

Adam stepped across the room and sat down next to Joe.  “My head’s working much better this morning.  Haven’t had a dizzy spell for hours, which makes me the best candidate to go for help.  Hoss certainly can’t, and you’d be slower—if you got there at all.  So it’s settled.”  He slipped an arm around the slender waist.  “Before I leave I’ll bring in a good supply of firewood.  You’ll be in charge of keeping the fire built up and seeing to it that Hoss has anything he needs.  Beyond that, I want you in this bed.  You’re not well, boy, and unless you want pneumonia for a Christmas present, you’ll do as I say.”

“I’ll see to it, Adam,” Hoss promised.

Adam smiled.  “All right, then.  I’m putting each of you in charge of the other.”

“Somebody needs to be in charge of you, too,” Joe grunted.

“Maybe,” Adam conceded with a tousle of his brother’s chestnut curls, “but that somebody will not be my baby brother!”  Sliding his hand down, he gave Joe’s neck a light caress and stood up.  Going outside, he gathered all the loose wood he could see and brought it into the cabin.  Taking a piece of strudel with him, to nibble on the way, Adam left.

The snow had stopped, leaving behind a glistening wonderland through which a morning’s walk would have been pleasant, but for Adam’s concern for those he’d left behind.  The breeze was brisk, but no longer blustery as it had been the night before, and the crunch of ice-crusted snow beneath his boots was the only sound in the silent world.  Adam had no trouble following the path of the creek to the main road, and from there it was only a short walk to Yank’s Station and the willing help of residents and stage line employees.

Weak-kneed from having pushed himself unstintingly, Adam stumbled up to the hotel, set in a snow-frosted grove of tamarack, pine and aspen, and practically fell through the front door.  A multitude of hands reached to support him and helped him to a chair by the fire.  “Stage wreck . . . this side of the summit,” Adam stammered, shivering.

“We knew there was a stage overdue,” said a man dressed in buckskins and moccasins with shoulder-length, curly hair.

Adam recognized him as Ephraim Clement, proprietor of the station.  “My brothers . . . still out there . . . need help, Yank,” he pleaded, using, as everyone did, the nickname derived from Clement’s Green Mountain origin.

“Well, of course, we’ll help,” declared a lady whose gracious apparel bore no resemblance to the garb her husband affected to enhance his image as a mountain man.  “Are the boys bad hurt, Adam?”

Adam had caught his breath by now.  “Hoss has a broken leg and Joe some racked ribs.  They’re holed up in old Baxter’s cabin down by Echo Creek.”

“Know just where it is,” Yank said, giving Adam a sturdy clap on the shoulder.  “Don’t worry a minute more, boy; I’ll get them brothers of yours back here safe, sooner than you’d think possible.”

“I’m going with you,” Adam said, standing.

“No need for that, my boy,” Lydia Clement protested.  “You look done in, and I’ll wager you haven’t had a decent meal since sometime yesterday.”

Adam smiled at the remembrance of strudel and sausage and German confections.  “We haven’t exactly starved,” he said, “but we could all use a good, hot meal.”

“And you will have one before you step one foot outside this hotel, young man,” the proprietress proclaimed.  Though Adam protested, it was to no avail, but no time was lost.  While he consumed a bowl of beef and barley soup with dumplings, Yank rounded up a trio of men from the small number of families that lived near the station, and by the time the mountain man had hitched strong-limbed horses to a sleigh, Adam had finished eating and the rescue party set out.

*****

Hoss watched his younger brother lift the lid of the food basket.  “Anything left in there?” he asked.

Joe tossed him a mischievous grin.  “Well, there’s cheese.”

Hoss gave a mock growl.  “I ain’t that hungry.”

“I ain’t disposed to share, anyway, seein’ as how it’s my Christmas present,” Joe popped back.  He followed the jibe with a regretful half-smile.  “There’s just a little bread and a couple of cookies, besides that.”

“You want ‘em?” Hoss queried.

Joe shook his head.  “I can eat the cheese.”

Hoss looked almost pained.  “Shortshanks, I know you ain’t got much gumption when it comes to food, but I’m pretty doggone sure you favor cookies over cheese.”

“Well, sure,” Joe snickered.  “I ain’t addle-pated.”  He handed over the two spice drops and broke the piece of bread in half.  “That’s all there is.  Not worth fighting over, and I don’t mind eating cheese.  Honest.  You want some water?”

“Yeah.”  Hoss popped a cookie in his mouth and reached for the tin cup Joe extended toward him.  “How long you calculate ‘til Adam might get back?”

Joe shrugged.  “I ain’t the calculatin’ member of the family.”  He cast an anxious glance at the door.  “Sure wish I knew he was all right, though.”

“Aw, sure he is.  A little knock on the head ain’t gonna faze ole Adam, hard-headed as he is.”  Hoss tossed the second cookie into his mouth.

Joe grinned naughtily.  “I’m gonna tell him you said that.”

Hoss wiped cookie crumbs from his chin and eyed his younger brother with narrowed gaze.  “You do, and I’ll tell him how many times you been out the door this morning—and how little time you’ve spent in that bed.”

Joe waved his hands back and forth before his face.  “I’m goin’; I’m goin’.”  He looked duly subdued, but how much of that was real and how much was put on, Hoss didn’t have the ability to assess.  He wasn’t the calculating member of the family, either.

The Cartwright gifted with calculating ability was at that moment slowly making his way through the wintry woods.  The journey took far longer than he wished it would, for since there was no road along the creek, the horses had to break a path wide enough for the sleigh, skirting around trees, seeking the surest footing.  Despite knowing that his younger brothers were well situated, Adam couldn’t help feeling concern, especially for Little Joe.  The boy was worried enough and impulsive enough to leave that cabin and come looking for his big brother if they didn’t get there within a reasonable amount of time—what Joe judged to be a reasonable amount of time, that is—and even Adam wasn’t gifted enough to calculate that equation.

Finally, he saw smoke through the trees and knew it had to come from the cabin’s chimney.  If the fire was still going, the odds were that Joe was still there, feeding it as need arose, and when he realized that, Adam’s heart dropped back into place.  Minutes later the sleigh pulled up before the cabin, and Adam jumped out, almost before it stopped.  He burst through the door, eyes swiveling from one bed to the other.

“Hey!” Hoss called.  “You’re back.”

“Did you ever doubt it?” Adam parried.

Hoss put on his most innocent and cherubic look.  “Me?  Never!  But you know how Shortshanks is.”

“How is he?” Adam asked pointedly, pulling off his gloves as he walked over to brush aside the errant curls straggling down Joe’s forehead and check for fever.

“Tuckered,” Hoss said.  “Coughing some, but not much more than when you left.”  He saw the other men coming through the door.  “Hey, Yank!  Long time no see.”

“Howdy, Hoss,” the station keeper called.  “Sorry to be seein’ you like this, but we’re gonna get you back to my place, fill you up with my Lydia’s good cooking and bundle you into a nice warm bed.  How’s that sound, boy?”

“Sounds like all a man could ask for,” Hoss said with a grin.  He’d tasted Miss Lydia’s good cooking before, and while the beds at Yank’s place didn’t rival the one at home, they were a far sight better than what he was lying on now.

Adam had roused Little Joe and was helping him into his sheep-lined coat.  “We’ll get Hoss situated in the sleigh; then I’ll come back for you.”

Overhearing him, Yank quickly said, “You leave Hoss to us, boy.  You best be puttin’ out that fire while we do that.  I’ll give a holler when it’s time to bring the young one out.”

Adam nodded acceptance of the offer.  “All right, Yank.  Thanks.”

The four rescuers carried Hoss out to the sleigh, propping his splinted leg on pillows brought for that purpose.  Yank yelled back to the cabin, and Adam, after checking to make sure the fire was well out, helped Joe into the sleigh and then climbed in beside him.  When all three were bundled under warm buffalo robes, Yank turned the sleigh around and headed back to the road, the other rescuers following on foot.

*****

Adam drew back the curtain and gazed out the window of the upstairs bedroom he had shared with Little Joe the previous night, Hoss having slept in a separate room on the first floor.  As he gazed at the picturesque view of frosted pines thrusting heavenward from the snow-covered slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, he mused that this wasn’t such a bad place to spend Christmas, if one had to, especially in the company of good people like Yank and his wife.  By the time they had arrived at the station yesterday afternoon, Lydia had prepared a meal fit for holiday fare, including mince and pumpkin pies.  After stuffing themselves, they’d all settled around the fire and listened with fascination to Yank spinning yarns of his adventures in the Green Mountains and the Sierras.  The stories were fantastic, of course, since Yank was known far and wide as a teller of tall tales, but Hoss and Joe, especially, had been kept on the edge of their seats and had stayed up longer than either probably should have.  Hoss, at least, had made it up for a filling breakfast of hotcakes and ham, but Little Joe was still asleep, even though it was almost noon.  Deciding the boy shouldn’t miss another meal, Adam turned to wake him.

Touching his brother’s cheek, Adam tried to determine whether his fever was up or down.  Down a little, he thought, but touch was such a subjective measurement, he couldn’t be sure.  Adam lowered his hand to the boy’s shoulder and shook him slightly and then more forcefully when Joe didn’t respond.  Finally, still groggy and yawning, Joe opened his eyes a crack.  “Time for breakfast?” he asked.

Adam laughed.  “Try dinner,” he suggested.

Joe’s eyes widened and he sat up.  “Should’ve woke me,” he complained.  “Did we miss the stage?”

“There’s another,” Adam said, “if we take it.”

“Ain’t we?”  Joe’s surprised expression faded, replaced by one of concern.  “Oh, you mean Hoss?  You figure it’s too rough a ride for him with that broken leg?”

“Actually, Hoss should be fairly comfortable, since we’d be going in a company sleigh,” Adam observed.

“Oh, yeah.”  Joe hadn’t personally traveled by stage this late in the year, but he’d heard the company ran a sleigh between Strawberry and Carson Valley when snow covered the road.  It was the main reason one could get through to California year ‘round now.  The mildness of the winter had lulled everyone into thinking the sleighs wouldn’t be needed or that accident would probably not have happened.  “So we are going then.”

“Maybe.”  Adam perched at the foot of the bed, one leg drawn up in a V and resting on the coverlet.  “I would like to get into Genoa, at least, and get some medical attention for the two of you.”

Joe scowled as he reached for his tan shirt, hung on a chair by the bed.  “Hoss may need medical attention, but I sure don’t.”

“Oh, of course not.”  Adam chuckled at the entirely predictable response.  “Not a thing wrong with you—cracked ribs, difficulty breathing, cough, fever—why would I think you needed a doctor?”

“‘Cause that concussion still has your wits scrambled?” Joe suggested as he sat in the chair to pull on his pants.

Adam grinned.  “Nice try, but my wits aren’t so scrambled I can’t see through that!”  Not wanting his brother to put any strain on his ribs, he squatted down to help Joe with his boots.  “I know you want to go home, Joe, and I’d like nothing better than to keep my promise to Pa and you boys about being home for Christmas, but it would mean a lot of hours out in the cold for you.  I hesitate to put you through that.”

“Adam, please.  Pa’ll worry if we don’t make it home.”

“We can’t make it home in time to prevent that, Joe.”

“Well, I want to go home,” Joe pleaded.  He thrust out a pouty lip.  “I’m just a kid, you know, and kids need to be home for Christmas.”

“Aah, but you’re a man now, remember?” Adam teased.

Joe’s nose crinkled.  “Ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.”

Laughing, Adam helped him up.  “Let’s get some dinner.  We’ll try for Genoa, at least.  Whether we go further depends on what Doc Phelps there has to say.”

*****

It was around two o’clock on Christmas morning, as best Adam could calculate, when the buckboard finally pulled into the Ponderosa yard.  The three-seat sleigh used by the stage line had left Yank’s about three the previous afternoon and had arrived in Genoa at a quarter past six.  Another couple of hours had been spent at the doctor’s office, getting everyone evaluated and bandaged and admonished about proper care.  Dr. Phelps hadn’t been overly pleased at the idea of the three Cartwright brothers heading for home that night, but he’d finally given in to Little Joe’s pleas and agreed that they would probably suffer no appreciable harm if they kept well bundled.

While his brothers waited at the doctor’s office, Adam had hurried to rent a team and wagon from the local livery, thinking it better to go directly to the Ponderosa than to load Hoss into the connecting stagecoach to Carson City for fourteen bumpy miles and rent a wagon there.  Then he raced to the general store and pounded persistently on the door, rousing the owners, who lived on the second floor above it, from their Christmas Eve celebration.  His disgruntlement assuaged by the generous amount Adam paid for the blankets and pillows, the man had even helped carry them out to the buckboard and spread them over the straw that would cushion the long ride home.

The house was dark, as was to be expected at this hour.  Adam climbed wearily down from the driver’s seat and roused his slumbering brothers.  “We’re home, boys,” he said softly.  “Pa’s asleep, so let’s keep as quiet as possible.  I’m gonna get one of the hands to put away the team.”

As Adam headed toward the bunkhouse, Joe helped Hoss out of the wagon and tucked the crutches Yank had made under his arms.  Joe keeping close, in case Hoss needed assistance, they walked to the front door.  Joe opened it, and they went inside.  In the light coming through the open doorway, Hoss’s eyes traveled up the ceiling-sweeping evergreen, bedecked with garlands and simple ornaments, which stood, as always, in the corner beside the staircase.  “Look at that!” Hoss said, his voice reflecting his awe.  “Ain’t that a sight to come home to?”

Joe’s gaze was riveted a bit lower.  “Look at the presents!” he cried softly.

“You keep away from those,” Adam warned from the doorway, where he stood holding the blankets and pillows from the wagon.

“Aw, Adam,” Joe whined.  “It is Christmas now, ain’t it?”

“No,” Adam said adamantly, dropping the bedding on the settee.  “It isn’t Christmas ‘til we’re all together, including Pa.”  He glanced up at Hoss.  “I think it would be better if we put you in the downstairs guest room, at least for tonight.”

“Just as soon sit up awhile, Adam,” Hoss said, making his way toward the burgundy leather chair by the stone fireplace, “especially if you build up that fire.  I’d like to warm up before I go to bed.”

“Sure, buddy.”  Adam took the poker and began stirring the embers of the banked fire.

Little Joe opened the wood box sitting on the hearth.  “Let me help you,” he urged.  “You must be tired.”

From protective habit, Adam started to refuse.  Then, seeing the earnestness of his youngest brother’s expression, he nodded.  “Yeah, I am; I can use the help, little buddy.”

Together, they got the fire blazing brightly and stood side by side, holding their hands to the warmth.  A loud snore behind them made both turn and laugh.  “Oh, I knew it was a mistake to let him sit down,” Joe giggled.  “Now we’ll never get him up.”

“Shh.”  Struggling to keep from laughing aloud himself, Adam held a finger to his lips.  “All things considered, I believe we should just let sleeping hosses lie.”

“Oh, yeah,” Joe agreed quickly as he sat on the hearth, elbows propped on his knees and chin cupped in his hands.  “He can be a real bear if he wakes up sudden.”

Adam chuckled.  “Seems to run in the younger half of the family.”  He shook his head as he gave up the idea of seeing his own cozy bed that night and began propping pillows behind Hoss’s head and under the leg resting on the fireside table.  “I guess I’ll stay down here with him, in case he does wake up and decide to go to bed.  How about you?  You need some help up the stairs?”

“Naw, I’ll stay down here with you,” Joe said.  “After all we’ve been through together, don’t seem right not stickin’ together now.”

“You’d be more comfortable in your own bed,” Adam suggested.

Joe shook his head.  “I want to be with you.”

“Okay, you can take the settee.”  Adam walked to the cabinet by the front door and took out extra blankets.  “I’ll make up a bed for you.”  When he turned around, he saw Little Joe gazing wistfully at the packages beneath the tree.  He started to repeat his previous admonishment about leaving them alone, but then he suddenly realized that it wasn’t the packages beneath the tree that Joe was thinking of, but the ones that weren’t there.  Adam sighed, remembering how upset Joe had been at having nothing to give.  Foolish boy, don’t you know you’ve brought home the one thing your pa wants most this Christmas?  Adam couldn’t bring himself to say those words aloud, but he wished there were some way to express it, so Joe would truly understand.

Later, after his two brothers were both asleep, the idea came.  With a sly smile on his face, Adam tiptoed into the kitchen in search of the items he needed.  Sitting at the dining room table, he cut and penned and, when he was finished, gathered the prepared materials and took them to the front room.  Being sound sleepers, neither of his younger brothers woke as he looped the material around their necks and made the final adjustments on his surprise.  Looking from Hoss to Joe with satisfaction, Adam gave his own neck the same treatment.  Then, sitting down in the blue chair across from Hoss, he curled up in his blanket and dozed off, smiling as he envisioned his brothers’ reaction, as well as Pa’s, to what he’d done.

At the crack of dawn, Ben came down the upstairs hall, dressed for cold weather.  He’d waited up long into the night, hoping against all reasonable hope that the boys would make it home, and had reluctantly gone to bed with a vow to start out at first light and find his wayward sons.  He kept using that word, ‘wayward,’ despite knowing that not even Joseph would dawdle about getting home for Christmas, because he didn’t want to face darker possibilities and because anger was an easier emotion to deal with than fear.

Clomping down the stairs, he halted abruptly on the landing and stared at the scene before him.  He could only see the top of Adam’s dark head above the blue chair, but he had a clear view of both Joseph on the settee and Hoss in his father’s favorite chair.  What made Ben blink his eyes to be sure he was seeing straight, however, was the bright red ribbon each of his younger sons wore around his neck.

Ben walked softly down the few remaining steps and moved to Little Joe’s side.  Scooping up the blanket lying in the floor, he covered the boy and brushed a loving hand over his tousled curls.  Then Ben picked up the tag attached to the bow and read, “To Pa, from Hoss and Adam.”

Stepping around the table, he stared at Hoss’s splinted leg, shook his head and lifted the tag hanging from his second son’s bow, which read, “To Pa, from Adam and Joe.”  Chuckling, Ben looked up to see his eldest son smiling at him.

“Merry Christmas, Pa,” Adam whispered.

Ben arched an eyebrow as he spotted the red ribbon around Adam’s throat.  “And does your tag read, ‘To Pa, from Joe and Hoss’?”

“That’s right,” Adam chuckled.  “We don’t have anything to give you this Christmas, except each other, and it took all of us, working together, to see to it you got that gift.”

“It’s just what I wanted,” Ben said with a smile.  He sat down on the table directly in front of Adam.  “What exactly did happen to you boys?”

“It’s a long story, Pa,” Adam said, resting his head against the back of the blue chair.

“It so happens I’ve got the time,” Ben announced, “since I’m not going to have to spend the morning looking for my lost little boys.”

Adam’s grin was almost a smirk.  “Why would you do that, Pa?  Didn’t I tell you we’d be home for Christmas?”  Then he started at the beginning, and Ben listened, enthralled, to all that his sons had endured to make this Christmas one he would always remember with wonder and thanksgiving.

***The End***

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