Christmas Wish (by Susan)

Synopsis:  Could it be that St. Nicholas himself ensures that Ben’s Christmas wish comes true.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western, Holiday
Rating:  G
Word Count:  8,140


 

Ben Cartwright placed the last of his purchases into an already full wagon. He sighed with relief as he loaded the box into the wagon. He seemed to have a lot of purchases to bring home, but then, he always did at Christmas. In addition to the normal supplies for the ranch, Ben  had picked up extra flour and sugar for Hop Sing’s baking. There also were several odd-shaped packages in the back of the wagon, items which seemed out of place among the other sacks.

Ben had deliberately waited until his sons were busy elsewhere before making the trip to town. He wasn’t looking forward to having to unload the wagon by himself when he got home but he knew the looks on his sons’ faces on Christmas morning would be worth the effort. Ben mentally ran over his list once more. He had picked up the books for Adam, the boots for Hoss and  the silk vest for Joe. The new saddles he had ordered for each of the boys were hidden under the sacks in the wagon, just in case. His last purchase had been a tea set for Hop Sing; the china cups and pot were carefully packed in straw inside a wooden crate.

Ben moved the items in the wagon a bit, making sure each was secure and wouldn’t bounce around during the ride home. As he finished, he heard a voice behind him.

“Merry Christmas, Ben!” Sheriff Roy Coffee said cheerfully as he approached the wagon.

“Merry Christmas to you, Roy,”  Ben replied with a smile. “Why aren’t you out chasing outlaws or something?”

“Seems to be a lack of crime in Virginia City these days,”  Roy replied with a twinkle in his eye. “Everyone seems to be on their best behavior.”

“Well, this time of year does seem to bring out the best in everyone,” Ben said with a laugh. “You’re still going to join us for Christmas dinner, aren’t you?” Ben added.

“I’ll be there,” Roy promised. “As long as the weather holds.”

Ben looked at the clear blue sky above him. It has been a mild winter so far, with little snow and only a few cold snaps. “I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that,” Ben said.

“I don’t know,” replied Roy. “My knee has been aching all day. That’s a sure sign of snow.”

“Roy, your knee aches during a warm day in July,” Ben said with a grin. “It’s as about as reliable as looking at woolly worms for predicting snow.”

“My knee always aches when it’s going to snow,” Roy insisted. Then he smiled wryly. “I figure it must be going to snow. Otherwise, the only reason for my aches is old age, and I know it can’t be that!”

Ben laughed with his old friend. “Have time for a cup of coffee?” Ben asked.

Roy nodded. “I think Virginia City will be safe if I take a half  hour or so off,” he said.

Ben and Roy strolled down the street, heading toward the café. Ben stopped a few feet from the café, surprised at the scene before him. A large, portly man was sitting on a chair outside the building. The man has long white hair, and a snow white beard which flowed down to his chest. He wore pants made of  brown cloth tucked into shiny black books. His ample girth was covered by a thick brown coat; a shiny black belt ringed his waist. But what surprised Ben was the long line of children waiting patiently near the man. One little boy was sitting on the man’s knee, and the others seemed to be waiting their turn.

“Who’s that?” Ben said, pointing at the man.

“Don’t rightly know,” Roy admitted. “He showed up in town a few days ago. He sat himself down outside the café, just like now, and all of a sudden, all the kids in town started coming to him. They’ve all been telling him what they want for Christmas.”

“Santa in Virginia City?” Ben said with a smile. “Didn’t know he knew where to find us.”

Roy smiled back. “Well, maybe it just took him awhile,” Roy replied.

Ben and Roy walked to the door of the café, carefully skirting the children in line. Ben was surprised when the man called to him.

“Good day, Mr. Cartwright!” the man said cheerfully as he slid a young boy off his knee.

“Good day to you,” Ben replied politely. He looked at the children waiting patiently. “You seem to have attracted quite a crowd.”

The man nodded. “A lot of the children have been visiting me,” he said. “It’s nice to see so many young, innocent faces.”

“I hope you have been telling them that they have to be good if they want Santa to come,” Ben said with a smile.

“Oh, I have,” the man assured Ben. “it’s amazing some of the Christmas wishes I’ve heard.” The man peered up at Ben. “What about you, Mr. Cartwright? What do you want for Christmas?”

“How do you know I’ve been good?” Ben asked with a grin.

“Oh, I see things and hear things,” the man replied. “I know you paid for the rebuilding of the church after the fire last spring, and that you gave twenty head of cattle to the miners and their families to tide them over when the mines shut down for awhile. I even know you delivered water to some of the smaller ranches during the drought last summer.”

For a moment, Ben was stunned. How did this stranger know all about him, he wondered. Then Ben realized it was the children. Adults often forget their youngsters see everything that goes on around them. The children must have been telling stories along with their Christmas wishes.

“What do you want for Christmas?” the man repeated.

Ben smiled. “I have everything I want for Christmas,” he replied. “I’m going to spend the holiday with my sons. I don’t want anything more than that.”

The man nodded thoughtfully. “Christmas with your sons,” he mused. “Seems a reasonable enough request.”

“Santa, is it my turn?”  a high pitched voice asked insistently. Ben looked down to see a little girl standing impatiently behind him.

“Of course it is,” Ben said, stepping out of the way. He smiled as the girl climbed up on the  man’s knee.

“I want a new dolly for Christmas,” the girl announced without preamble.

As Ben and Roy headed into the café, Ben heard the man ask, “Have you been a good girl?”  Ben smiled to himself. The stranger was certainly acting in character. He would have all the children in Virginia City behaving themselves…at least until Christmas morning.

*****

“Adam, I want you to check the herd,” Ben said as he poured himself a cup of coffee. The Cartwrights were sitting around the breakfast table, finishing their morning meal. “Make sure they haven’t strayed and that pond hasn’t frozen over.”

“Right,” agreed Adam, wiping his face with a napkin. “I’ll go right after I finish eating.”

“And Hoss, I want you to take those supplies up to the line shack on Watson’s Ridge,” Ben continued. “I want to be sure the shack is ready for the winter.”

“Aw, Pa, can’t that wait?” asked Hoss. “It’s Christmas Eve. I don’t want to be working on Christmas Eve!”

“That’s exactly why I want you working,” Ben said. “I don’t want you boys underfoot while Hop Sing is cooking and cleaning.”

“You’d think we were twelve years old,” Adam said with an ironic smile.

“Sometimes you act worse than twelve year olds,” Ben replied with a grin. He turned to his youngest son. “Is that right, Joseph?”

Joe looked up from his plate with a surprised expression. “What do you mean, Pa?” he asked in a puzzled voice.

“I saw you poking around in the barn yesterday,” Ben answered in mock anger. “How many times have I told you that you’re not going to find anything until Christmas morning.”

Joe reddened. “I was just looking for my bridle,” he mumbled.

“In the grain bin?” Ben said with a grin.

“How about Joe?” Hoss asked. “You going to let him stay around here while we’re working?”

“No, I have a little chore for your brother,” Ben said. “He going to ride up to Sun Mountain and make sure those fences we put up near the ravine are still standing.”

“That will take most of the day,” Joe exclaimed.

“Quit complaining,” Hoss said. “I’ve got to take those supplies up to Watson’s Ride. That’s a three hour ride.”

“Yeah, and I have to spend most of the day looking at some cattle,” Adam added. “Not exactly the way I’d choose to spend Christmas Eve.”

“Now, boys,” Ben said patiently. “You know if you stayed around here, you’d just be getting in each other’s way. Remember last year? The three of you started arguing over who got to hang the wreath over the fireplace. I finally ended up doing it myself.”

Adam gave his father a wry smile. “I guess we did get a bit testy,” he admitted.

“It did seem a bit crowded in here,” Hoss added.

“You all should be back by mid-afternoon,” Ben said. “By then, Hop Sing and I will have everything ready. We can finish trimming the tree and have a nice, relaxing evening together. No arguments, no slamming doors, and no yelling.”

“I guess we did kind of get out of hand last year,” Joe admitted.

Ben put down his coffee cup. “Now, get on your way,” he ordered. “The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll get back. I promise Hop Sing and I will make up a batch of eggnog for you.”

“I hope that eggnog has a little kick to it,” Joe said with a laugh as he stood. “Come on, brothers. We might as well get started.”

Ben watched contentedly as his sons walked away from the table. The house looked festive, draped in garland and red ribbons, with a large tree standing in the corner by the fireplace. Tomorrow, friends would be stopping by for a visit. Roy Coffee and a few other special friends would join them for dinner. But tonight, he would be spending Christmas Eve with just his sons. Ben was looking forward to the evening.

“Wear your heavy coats,” Ben shouted after his sons as they gathered hats and gunbelts from the rack by the door. “There’s a nip in the air.”

“Pa, were not twelve any more,” Adam said in a patient voice.

“I know, I know,” Ben acknowledged in a resigned voice. He heard the front door close behind his boys. In a way, Ben wished they were twelve again. Life seemed so much simpler before his boys grew into men.

*****slowly rode around the herd. The cattle seemed quiet enough, and he was giving the animals minimal attention on his inspection. Adam had checked the pond and found only a thin layer of ice on it. He broke up the ice, confident the cattle would  be able to do the same when they wanted a drink. Now all he had to do was finish his cursory inspection of the herd and head for home.

Adam was remembering past Christmas celebrations as he rode. He thought about Boston and the formal parties with everyone dressed in their best. At the time, they seemed such a sophisticated way to spend the holiday. But he had learned that the elegance often hid a shallow and cynical attitude toward the holiday. Adam didn’t feel nostalgic about those parties. He much preferred the family celebrations on the Ponderosa.

Adam was surprised to see a rider coming across the meadow. As the man neared, Adam could see he was an odd looking fellow. The man had long white hair, and a long white beard. His brown pants were tucked into shining black boots and his large waist was circled by a black belt. The man waved at Adam and rode over to him.

“Can I help you?” asked Adam, curiously.

“No, I was just cutting across your ranch, “ the man said. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all, “ replied Adam. “Where are you headed?”

“Oh, I have one or two errands to take care of , and then I’m heading home,” the man answered vaguely. He looked up at the sky. “You’d better be heading for home, too, son. You don’t want to get caught in the storm that’s coming.”

Adam looked at the man with a startled expression. He glanced at the blue sky above him. “Storm? What storm?” Adam asked.

“See those clouds over by the mountains,” the man said, pointing to the west. “Those are snow clouds, and they’re coming fast. Look at the cattle. See how they’re all bunched up? Animals sense when a storm is coming, and they huddle together.”

Adam looked to the west. He could see some large gray clouds moving in his direction. He also looked around at the cattle. As the man said, they were beginning to bunch up. Adam wasn’t sure if the man was right about the storm, but he thought it wise to head for home now…just in case.

“Thank you for your warning,” Adam said. “I guess I was daydreaming and not paying attention. What about you? Are you going to be all right?”

“I’m used to snow,” the man said with a chuckle. “Where I come from, we get lots of snow.”

“Well, if you need some place to bed down, come to the Ponderosa ranch house,”  Adam invited. “It’s about two hours east of here.”

“I’ll remember that,” the man promised. He turned his horse and began to ride off. “Merry Christmas,” the man shouted over his shoulder.

“Merry Christmas,” Adam said in return.

Adam took one last look around, making sure that the herd was settled. The cattle seemed to be as prepared for the storm as they could be. Adam looked up and was surprised to see the man was nowhere in sight. He must have ridden into that grove of trees, Adam thought. Suddenly, he realized the clouds were rolling toward him. A few flakes of snow fell to the ground. Adam turned his horse and kicked him toward home at a gallop.

*****

Ben and Hop Sing had been busy all day. Hop Sing had been working furiously in the kitchen, cooking and baking treats for Christmas. Ben had pulled his gifts out of the various nooks and crannies where he had hidden them around the house, and spent most of the day polishing the new saddles. Now he was trying to wrap his gifts. He was rapidly discovering that, no matter how large the sack, there was no way to disguise a saddle. Sighing, he put the saddles on the floor. The boys would just have to see them when they got home, he decided. A Christmas Eve surprise would work just as well as opening packages in the morning. Besides, he had the other gifts to wrap.

“Mister Cartwright, Mister Cartwright,” Hop Sing yelled in an excited voice as he ran from the kitchen. “Look, Mister Cartwright! Snow!”

Ben looked out the window and saw flakes falling. “Looks like we’ll have a white Christmas,” Ben said with a grin. Then he frowned. The snow wasn’t falling in gentle flakes. He could see the wind blowing through the trees, and the snow was being blown almost sideways in the gale. It looked like a blizzard was trying to form. “How long as it been snowing?” Ben asked.

“Don’t know,” Hop Sing answered. “Hop Sing busy cooking. Just see the snow.”

Ben got up and walked to the door. He pulled the door open and looked outside. Ben could feel the cold wind; the temperature had dropped considerably since this morning. The yard in front of the house was already covered with snow. Ben could feel the sting of the icy snow blowing on his face.

“Not to worry, Mr. Cartwright,” Hop Sing said in a soothing voice from behind. “Sons come home soon. You see.”

Ben silently berated himself for sending his sons out to take care of some almost meaningless chores. Nothing they were doing couldn’t have waited for a few days. He had just wanted to get them out of the house for a few hours. Now all three were caught in the storm.

Ben knew the ranch was deserted. He had given all the hands a Christmas holiday, to visit family or just have a good time. Only he and Hop Sing were left at the house.

“Maybe I’d better go look for them,” Ben said.

“Which way you go?” asked Hop Sing in a practical voice. “Mr. Adam, he down with the herd. Mr. Hoss, he go to line shack. Little Joe, up on mountain. Three sons go in three different directions.”

Ben cursed himself again. He had sent his sons off in different directions. If they had been together, he might not have been so worried, although he doubted it. But Hop Sing was right. How was he to choose which one to go after?

“You wait,” Hop Sing advised. “Sons come home soon. You not help by getting lost in storm.”

“I suppose,” Ben said with a sigh, closing the door. It was still early in the afternoon, and the boys were due home soon. Ben hoped he was worrying for no reason. But somehow he felt that this was not going to be the Christmas he had planned.

*****

Hoss had stacked the supplies in the cupboard of the line shack and checked the building to make sure it was tight and dry. He even spread some blankets over the bunks. The blankets were what sparked his idea. The bunks looked inviting, and the blankets were warm. Hoss figured a little nap wouldn’t hurt anything. He stretched out on one of the beds and went to sleep.

Dreams of past Christmases filled Hoss’ sleep. He saw himself at 12, lifting his little brother high so Joe could put the angel atop their decorated tree. He saw again the look of  pleasure on Adam’s face when his older brother opened the package and saw the beautiful stag Hoss had carved for him when Hoss was 15. He dreamed of the happy look on his Pa’s face when Hoss offered a toast to the “best family in the world” at last year’s Christmas dinner.

Hoss woke to the sound of a howling wind. He looked out the window and saw snow starting to fall. He realized that a storm was brewing.

For a few minutes, Hoss considered staying in the line shack. He was warm and had plenty of food. Going out in the storm was just plain foolishness. Then he remembered it was Christmas Eve. Pa always had a family celebration on Christmas Eve, and Hoss didn’t want to miss that. Besides, if he didn’t come home, Pa, Adam and Joe would worry. They might even come after him. Hoss didn’t relish the thought of his father and brothers being caught in the storm.

Hoss looked out the window again. The storm didn’t seem too bad yet, and if he started out now, he might be able to outrun it. Hoss considered his options again. He decided to try for home.

Hoss quickly buttoned his coat and pulled his collar up. Walking rapidly, he left the shack, pulling the door secure behind him. His horse was standing patiently in the corral next to the shack. Hoss quickly tightened his saddle girth and mounted.

Urging his horse to a speedy trot, Hoss started for home. It seemed, however, with each yard he covered, the storm picked up in intensity. Hoss could feel the snow stinging his face, and the wind nearly blew him out of the saddle. Hoss decided he should take the hill trail. It was longer, but the hills would offer him some protection. He turned his horse and started through the trees toward the hills.

Hoss had been riding about half an hour when he realized he should have come to the hill trail by now. Somehow, he had missed the trail. Instead of heading toward the ranch, Hoss realized he was heading further west -–right into the teeth of the storm.

Don’t panic, he told himself. Just turn around and head back to the shack. But when Hoss turned his horse, he was surprised to see the snow had piled up behind him. His tracks had disappeared. Hoss shrugged. He was sure he could find his way back to the shack. Well, almost sure. The storm made the landscape look different, and without tracks to follow, Hoss was guessing as to which way led back to the line shack.

Pulling his hat firmly down on his head, Hoss urged his horse forward through the snow. He tried not to think about what would happen if he couldn’t find his way back to the shack. He kept his eyes firmly on the ground ahead of him, looking for familiar landmarks.

Hoss was surprised to see another rider coming out of the trees. The rider was an older man, with long white hair and a white beard. He was dressed in brown, wearing shiny black boots and a shiny black belt. The man waved at Hoss.

“Some storm!” the man shouted over the howling wind. Hoss nodded.

“Where are you headed?” the man asked.

“Back to a line shack,” Hoss shouted in reply. “I’m going to wait out the storm there.”

The man looked surprised. “Why don’t you just take the hill trail?” he asked. “It would get you out of the storm and lead you down this mountain.”

“I was, but I couldn’t find it,” Hoss admitted. “I guess I got turned around in the storm.”

“It’s right over there,” the man said, pointing behind Hoss. “Come on, I’ll show you.” The man urged his horse forward.

Hoss hesitated. He wondered how a stranger could find the trail when he, who had spent his life on the Ponderosa, couldn’t. Then he shrugged. The man looked like some kind of mountain man, and mountain men always seemed to have an instinct for finding the right trail. Besides, Hoss wasn’t sure he could find his way back to the shack on the storm. Hoss turned his horse and began riding after the stranger.

The man had stopped, waiting for Hoss to catch up with him. With a grin, he pointed ahead of him and started to ride forward. Hoss followed the man. They had rode about thirty yards when Hoss started to recognize the land around him. He knew they were headed in the right direction.

The pair rode for another twenty minutes before Hoss spotted the trail. He could see it winding between the large rocks. Even covered in snow, the trail was impossible to miss.

“Can you find your way from here?” the man asked with concern.

Hoss nodded. “Yep,” he answered. “No way to get off the trail now. It hugs these hills all the way down to the meadow. Once I get to the meadow, I’m only ten minutes from the house.”

“Good,” replied the stranger. “Now you be careful, you hear.”

“Ain’t you coming with me?” asked Hoss.

“Nope, I have one more thing to do, and then I’m heading home,” the man replied.

“Mister, you better come with me,” Hoss warned. “This storm is getting bad. Whatever you have to do can wait.”

“No, it can’t wait,” the man said. “Besides, this storm is nothing. Where I come from, we get storms three times as bad.”

Hoss couldn’t imagine a place that got storms worse than this. “Are you sure?”  he shouted.

“I’m sure,” said the man. “Now, you get on home. And Merry Christmas to you.”

“Merry Christmas,” answered Hoss. “And thanks!”

The man waved off Hoss’ thanks. He seemed to be waiting to see that Hoss got started down the trail all right, so Hoss turned his horse and started riding. He rode about ten feet, then turned to wave at the man again. He was surprised to see no one behind him. He must have ridden off right away, Hoss decided. Turning his attention back to the trail, he urged his horse forward.

*****

Ben paced in front of the fireplace. He could hear the howl of the wind outside as the storm seemed to be building in intensity. Once again he debated going out searching for his sons. But which one? Should he head down to the south pasture after Adam or up to the line shack after Hoss? Or should he ride to Sun Mountain, looking for Joe? Ben knew his sons were grown men, able to take care of themselves. He had taught each of them how to survive in the worst storms, and they had learned their lessons well. But that didn’t keep Ben from worrying.

Suddenly, Ben heard the sound of footsteps on the porch outside. With a sigh of relief, he walked rapidly to the door, reaching it just as Adam walked in.

“Adam!” Ben cried. “Are you all right?”

Adam brushed the snow off his hat and shoulders. “I’m fine, Pa,” he said. “The storm is getting pretty bad, though. It’s a good thing I headed home when I did.”

“I’m glad you’re back, son,”  Ben said, his voice tinged with relief.

Adam looked around. “Hoss and Joe aren’t back?” he asked.

“No, and I’m worried about them, “ Ben admitted.

Adam began taking off his coat. “Pa, they’ll be all right,” he said in a reassuring tone. “They probably started back as soon as they saw the storm clouds. They’ll be home any time now.”

“Do you think so?” Ben asked. He wanted to believe his oldest son, but his concern nagged at him.

“Sure, they’re too smart to get caught in a storm,” Adam replied. “Besides, it’s Christmas Eve. You know they wouldn’t miss that.”

“I hope you’re right, Adam,” Ben said fervently. “I hope you’re right.”

*****

Joe hated checking fences. It was a lot of lonely riding interrupted by periods of hard work. He especially hated checking the fences up on Sun Mountain. It was a long ride up to the ravine, and most the time, the ride was for nothing. The fences the Cartwrights had built to keep animals from straying into the ravine were solid. They seldom needed repair.

Joe sighed as he rode on. He would take a quick look, then head for home. If the fence did need work, he would come back later to fix it. He was half tempted to turn around and head for home now. But he knew his Pa would ask him if he checked the fence. He couldn’t lie to his Pa, especially not on Christmas Eve.

Joe grinned to himself. He did like Christmas. The gifts, the parties, and the wonderful food made it his favorite time of year. The best part was kissing all the girls under the mistletoe. Joe wondered if he could get Susie Parker to stand under the mistletoe again this year. She hadn’t seemed too reluctant last year.

Lost in his musing, Joe didn’t realize he had reached the ravine until he was almost on top of it. Pulling his horse to a stop, he studied the fence. As he expected, the trip was for nothing. The fence was standing firm and whole, looking as if it had been built yesterday. Joe dismounted and walked to the fence. He gave it a shake, just to be sure, and was rewarded with the feel of a solid structure. He walked back to his horse and vaulted into the saddle.

“Come on, Cochise,” Joe said to his pinto. “Let’s get home and get some of Pa’s eggnog.”

Joe was starting down the mountain as the snow began to fall. The storm seemed to come out of nowhere. One minute, the trail was dry. A few minutes later, it was covered with a fine sheet of snow. Joe slowed his horse as the path began to get icy. The trail headed downward at a steep angle, and Joe let his horse pick his own way. Twice, he felt Cochise’s back legs slip, but each time, the horse regained his balance. Joe patted the pinto reassuringly on the neck, and hung on tight to the horn of his saddle. Joe knew he was going to be late getting home. But he wasn’t about to hurry his mount on an icy trail.

Joe relaxed a bit as he felt his horse walking on seemingly firmer footing. He hoped that they had passed the worst of the ice. He gave Cochise a nudge with his knees, urging the horse on. The pinto picked up the pace a bit.

Suddenly, the horse’s legs seemed to slide out from under him. Cochise screamed as the animal lurched to his side. Joe was thrown from the saddle and hit the ground with a thud. He rolled several times across the rocky ground, then laid still.

*****

Day was turning into the evening and still the storm raged. Adam was sitting in the blue chair by the fire, pretending to read, but really watching his father pace by the door. He had tried to distract Ben from his worry by admiring the new saddles. He had even helped his father hang a few decorations on the Christmas tree. But Ben had quickly lost interest in that activity.

Ben paced worriedly near the door. Periodically, he would stop and open the door, peering out into the storm for some sign of Hoss and Joe. Each time, he closed the door in disappointment.

Ben paced a few more steps and then stopped. “Adam, we should go out and look for them,” Ben declared. “They should be home by now.”

“Aw, Pa, relax,” Adam said. “Joe and Hoss aren’t that late. They probably got slowed down by the storm, that’s all. Besides, what’s it going to accomplish by us going out and getting lost in the storm?”

“They could be in trouble,” Ben insisted.

“Pa, you’re working yourself into a state for nothing,” Adam said. “Hoss probably decided to wait out the storm in the line shack. And Joe had the furthest to come. Even in good weather, he wouldn’t be home yet.”

Ben was about to insist on a search again when he heard the snicker of a horse. He quickly pulled open the door and sighed with relief when he saw the figure of a big man wearing a tall white hat leading his horse into the barn. Ben peered out across the yard, hoping to spot another rider. He was still staring into the snow when Hoss emerged from the barn.

Hoss walked quickly across the snow covered yard. “Hi, Pa,” he said cheerfully as he neared the house. “Sorry I’m late.”

“Hoss, are you all right?” asked Ben in a worried voice as Hoss entered the house.

“I’m fine, Pa,” he said in a reassuring voice. “You weren’t worried, were you?”

“Well, you are late and with the storm and everything…..” Ben’s voice trailed off. “I’m just glad you’re home, son.”

Hoss removed his hat and coat. Both were covered with a thick layer of snow. He shook them and then hung both items on a rack near the door.

“Well, if you want to know the truth,” Hoss admitted sheepishly, “I took a little nap up at the line shack.”

“That figures,” Adam said ironically from his chair.

“I didn’t think it would do any harm, “ Hoss protested. “I didn’t know there was a storm coming up.”

“You’re home safe,” said Ben. “That’s all that’s important. You didn’t see any sign of Joe, did you?”

“No,” answered Hoss with a frown. “Isn’t he back yet?”

“No, he’s not,” Ben replied, the worry building in his voice once more.

“I told Pa not to worry,” Adam said. “It’s a long way from Sun Mountain. Joe was just slowed by the storm. He’ll be along soon.”

 “Adam’s right, Pa,” added Hoss with a nod. “Joe can take care of himself. He’ll be home soon.”

*****

The snow continued to fall on the unmoving figure by the trail. Joe’s horse kicked nervously at the snow. The animal was unhurt by the fall, and had been trained to stop when his rider dropped his reins. But Cochise had been standing in the snow a long time, and the pinto didn’t like it.

Joe was almost completely covered by snow when the rider approached. The man with the long white hair and long white beard pulled his horse to a stop next to the pinto. Dismounting, he gave the horse a reassuring pat on the neck. The he quickly walked over to the figure lying by the trail.

Joe was laying on his stomach, and his head was turned to the side. The man quickly brushed the snow off Joe’s face, and turned the young man over. He could see a deep cut over Joe’s left eye; blood had flowed down the side of Joe’s face. Quickly the man ran his hands over Joe’s arms and legs, and then felt Joe’s ribs. “Nothing broken,” the man said in satisfaction. He looked down at the unconscious figure. “But you’re half frozen, ain’t you, boy,” he added.

The man looked around, trying to spot some type of shelter. But the land was dotted only with boulders and trees. With a sigh, the man laid Joe gently back on the snow. He stood and walked a few feet away. Then he began digging into the snow.

Within a few minutes, the man had hollowed out a small cave in the snow. He returned to the unconscious figure on the ground. The man picked up Joe and carried him to the snow cave. He set the injured man gently inside the cave, offering him some protection from the storm. Then the man walked into the woods. He emerged a few minutes later, carrying an armful of branches and twigs. Quickly he arranged the wood a foot or so from Joe, then reached into the pocket of his brown coat. He pulled out a handful of matches.

It took several tries, but the man finally got a small fire going. He slowly added branches to the fire, being careful not to smother it. Satisfied that the fire would blaze for awhile, he picked up a handful of snow and began cleaning the blood off Joe’s face.

Almost half an hour passed before Joe began to stir. Even with the heat from the fire, Joe felt miserably cold. His teeth were chattering as he slowly opened his eyes. His vision was fuzzy. He saw a white haired man peering anxiously at him. “Pa?” Joe asked.

“No, it’s not your Pa,” the figure answered. “But we’ll get you home to him. How are you feeling?”

Joe tried to answer but he couldn’t. His head ached and he seemed to hurt all over. But mostly he was cold, colder than he had ever been in his life. Joe began to shiver.

“Try and move your legs,” the man said to Joe.

Joe tried. It seemed to take a lot of effort, but finally he managed to move both his legs.

“Now your arms,” the man ordered.

Joe moved his right arm. But he cried out when he tried to move his left.

“Where’s it hurt?” the man asked quickly.

“Sh..sh..shoulder,” Joe managed to say through his chattering teeth.

The man reached under Joe’s coat and felt Joe’s shoulder. Joe moaned at the pain the man’s gentle touched caused him.

“Dislocated your shoulder,” the man said. “It’s painful but not serious. Once we get you home, your Pa will fix it up. Doesn’t look like you broke anything.”

Joe nodded. Suddenly, he felt sleepy, and he started to close his eyes. He grunted in pain when he felt a hand gently shake him.

“Come on, boy,” the man said. “We got to get you home. You have to spend Christmas with your Pa.”

Joe wasn’t sure how the man managed to get him on the horse. He knew he was dragged from the little warmth offered by the snow cave and into the howling wind. He groaned as he felt himself being lifted and pushed onto a saddle. Joe leaned forward, clutching the horn of an unfamiliar saddle with his right hand. His left arm hung uselessly from his body.

Joe felt someone climbing on the horse behind him. He could feel strong arms around his body as the man reached for the reins. Joe leaned back against the man. The body heat of the man behind him and the horse underneath his legs warmed Joe a bit. Joe felt his hat being placed firmly on his head. Then Joe’s chin fell toward his chest as he drifted into darkness.

*****

Ben’s worry had increased tenfold as night had descended. Joe should have been home by now. He should have been home hours ago. The blizzard still raged, and with each hour that passed, Ben’s worry grew.

Adam and Hoss no longer tried to reassure their father. They too were now worried about their youngest brother. Visions of Joe being lost or hurt danced in both their heads, but neither were willing to voice their concern.

Ben’s almost ceaseless pacing continued by the door. Even though he couldn’t see anything in the dark, Ben continued to check outside.

“We’ve got to go look for him,” Ben said to Hoss and Adam. “We can’t wait any longer.”

“Pa, looking for Joe at night in the middle of a blizzard would be like searching for a needle in a haystack,” argued Adam . “We’re just as worried as you are, but there’s nothing we can do until morning.”

“I should have never sent you boys out,” Ben said. “I should have let you stay home like you wanted.”

“Aw, Pa, stop blaming yourself,” Hoss told his father. “It’s not your fault. There’s no way you could have known that storm was coming.”

“Hoss is right,” added Adam. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“If anything has happened to Joe, I’ll never forgive myself,” muttered Ben.

“Pa, Joe’s a smart kid,” Hoss said. “He’s probably holed up somewhere, waiting out the storm. He’ll probably show up in the morning, wondering why we were worried.”

Ben tried to be comforted by his sons’ words, but it was a futile effort. He knew Joe was in trouble, he just knew it. The fact that he could do nothing to help his youngest son just added to his frustration and worry.

Hop Sing walked slowly into the room. “Mr. Cartwright, you eat something,” he demanded. “You no have food since breakfast. You eat some of Hop Sing’s cooking.”

“I’m not hungry,” Ben snapped back at the cook. He instantly regretted his words. Ben walked over to the cook, and placed his hand on the man’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Hop Sing. I didn’t mean that.”

Hop Sing nodded in understanding. He knew how worried Ben, Adam and Hoss were about Joe. He felt the same worry. “Little Joe be all right, you see,” Hop Sing said with a confidence he didn’t feel.

Ben nodded. “Why don’t you go to bed,” he said to the cook. “I’ll wake you if…if we have any news.”

“Hop Sing not tired,” replied the cook. “Hop Sing go make eggnog. Have everything ready for big Christmas when Little Joe get home.” With a determined nod, Hop Sing walked purposely toward the kitchen.

Ben looked around the house, still decorated with Christmas garland. The thought of celebrating Christmas was the last thing on Ben’s mind. Ben had a bad feeling that he would never want to celebrate Christmas again.

*****

Joe felt a hand gently shaking him. “Wake up, boy,” a voice said. “You’re almost home.”

Joe roused himself and opened his eyes. He was surprised to see the barn and the ranch house of the Ponderosa looming ahead of them. The barn was a dark outline in the snow, but the house was ablaze with lights. Joe shook his head. He didn’t remember giving the stranger directions to the house. But then, Joe didn’t remember much of the ride from Sun Mountain. He suppose that he must have forgotten that he told the man how to find the house.

The stranger guided the horse past the barn and across the yard. He stopped just short of the porch and dismounted. He helped Joe off the horse. Joe knees buckled a bit but the man held him firm.

“You think you can walk to the house?” the man asked. “I want to put your horse up in the barn. I don’t want to leave him outside on a night like this.”

Joe turned his head to look over his shoulder. Cochise was standing patiently behind the horse that had carried Joe and the stranger. Joe shook his head, trying to clear it. He couldn’t see where his pinto was tied to the other horse. He knew the stranger had had both hands full of his own horse’s reins. Joe wondered how the man got the pinto back to the ranch.

“Do you think you can walk?” the man repeated.

Joe nodded. He was cold, and sore, and tired, but he felt he could walk the few feet to the front door of the house. Clenching his teeth, Joe straightened and took a step.

Joe staggered rather than walked but he made it to the door. He leaned his right shoulder against the door jamb and stood for a few minutes, breathing hard. Then he lifted the latch and pushed the door open.

“Joe!” Ben cried as the door opened.

Joe stood in the doorway, covered with snow. His left arm hung uselessly, and blood from the cut over his eye trickled down his face. His skin had a bluish look and his teeth were chattering. Joe tried to take a step forward, but his knees started to buckle again.

Ben rushed to his son and grabbed him as he began to fall forward. For a just a moment, he held Joe tight. Then Ben pulled his son into the house.

“Hoss, help me!” Ben shouted unnecessarily. The big man was already rushing to the door.

“Adam, stoke up that fire,” Ben said as Hoss put his massive arms around his little brother. “Joe’s almost frozen.”

Adam had started toward the door also, but stopped at his father’s command. He turned back to the fireplace and began jabbing at the logs with a long poker, turning the fire into a roaring blaze.

Ben and Hoss slowly guided Joe to the red leather chair near the fireplace. Joe moaned slightly as Ben eased him into the chair, unintentionally bumping his son’s left shoulder against the hard leather.

After rushing back to the door and slammed it shut, Hoss turned to the chest near the door and yanked the bottom drawer open. He began pulling blankets from the drawer.

Hop Sing came rushing out of the kitchen, his attention attracted by the loud voices. Ben turned to him. “Hop Sing, get some hot coffee, quick,” Ben shouted at the cook. Hop Sing turned and hurried into the kitchen. “And lace it with brandy,” Ben yelled at the retreating figure.

Ben turned back to his son. He slowly began to unbutton Joe’s coat. He had noted Joe’s moan and didn’t want to hurt his son any more than he had to. Once the coat was open, Ben slid it gently off Joe’s shoulders. He pulled the hat from Joe’ head and threw it to the floor.

Immediately, Hoss handed his father a blanket. Ben wrapped the warm woolen cloth gently around Joe’s body. He took a second blanket from Hoss and wrapped it around Joe’s legs. Joe was still shivering, but the spasms seemed less violent. Joe laid his head against the back of the chair and closed his eyes.

Hop Sing rushed into the room, carrying a white porcelain mug. Steam was rising from the dark liquid in the mug. Ben took the mug from the cook and held it to Joe’s lips. “Come on, Joe,” he urged gently. “Drink this. It’s will warm you up.”

Joe’s eyes opened slightly, no more than a slit. He began sipping the hot liquid and could feel the warmth flowing through him. For the first time in hours, Joe felt the cold fading away. He drank eagerly from the cup held to his mouth. Then fatigue, the warmth of the fire and the brandy all seemed to catch up with Joe at once. As the cup was pulled away from his lips, Joe drifted off to sleep.

*****

Joe could hear the clock striking as he woke. He figured he must have been asleep for hours. Joe opened his eyes to see three anxious faces staring at him. He was still wrapped in blankets, but Joe also could feel his arm resting in a sling. He no longer felt cold. In fact, he was beginning to feel uncomfortably warm. Joe shifted slightly in the chair.

“Joe?” Ben asked as he peered anxiously into his son’s face.

“Hi Pa,” Joe answered with a weak smile.

“What happened to you, boy?” Hoss asked. He was standing behind his father, his face a mixture of anxiety and relief.

“My horse slipped on the ice,“ Joe said. “He threw me. Guess I banged myself up some.”

“Well, you have a dislocated shoulder, a bad cut over the eye and some bruises, but nothing is broken,” explained Adam.

Joe nodded. “That’s what he said.” .

“He?” Ben asked.

“The man who brought me home,” Joe said.

“What man?” Hoss asked.

Joe looked around the room. He realized that there was no one there but the Cartwrights.

“Where is he?” Joe asked in a puzzled tone. “You asked him to stay, didn’t you?”

“Joe, there wasn’t anyone with you,” Adam insisted.

“Yeah,” added Hoss. “I went out to take care of your horse and found him stabled in the barn. There wasn’t anyone else around.”

Joe shook his head. “I don’t get it,” he said. “That fellow found me and took care of me. He got me home. Why wouldn’t he stay around? Where would he go in that storm?”

“What did he look like?” asked Adam.

“He was a heavy set man with long white hair and a long white beard,” Joe answered.

“Was he wearing a brown coat?” Hoss asked.

“And black boots?” added Adam.

“I don’t know about the boots,” Joe said. “But he was wearing a brown coat. Had a big black belt around his waist, too.”

“That’s the man who warned me about the storm,” Adam exclaimed.

“He’s the man who helped me find the trail home,” Hoss said.

Ben looked at his sons in amazement. The man they described was the one he had seen outside the Virginia City café, listening to Christmas wishes from the children. Ben suddenly remembered his Christmas wish. He wanted to spend Christmas with his sons. Somehow, the man had made sure it happened.

“Wonder who he was?” asked Hoss.

“Probably some trapper or mountain man,” suggested Adam.

“I don’t think so,” said Ben. “I don’t know who he was, but he wasn’t any ordinary man.”

Joe suddenly yawned.

Immediately, Ben turned back to his youngest son. “We’d better get you up to bed,” he said to Joe.

With sleepy eyes, Joe looked across the room  at the clock. “Hey, Pa,” he announced, suddenly brightening. “Look at the clock. It’s after midnight. It’s Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, little brother,” Hoss said with a smile.

“Merry Christmas, Pa,” added Adam.

 Ben looked at each of his sons in turn, his eyes shining with love and happiness. “Merry Christmas,” he said. “And it is going to be a Merry Christmas.”

“Let’s get little brother up to bed,” Hoss said to Adam. “He’ll be up early enough tomorrow, looking for presents.”

Adam nodded. “Hop Sing went to bed an hour ago. He said he had to get some sleep before Joe woke the house up with his yelling.”

“I only do it because you two put me up to it,” Joe grumbled good naturedly.

Ben watched as Adam and Hoss helped Joe from the chair and guided him slowly up the stairs. He couldn’t begin to express the relief and gratitude he felt that his sons had made it home. Christmas wishes, he thought, are powerful things.

Ben knew his Christmas wish had been granted.

*****End*****

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