Creatures Stirring (by Susan)

Synopsis:  As stewards of the land, every now and then, the Cartwrights need someone to watch over them, especially this Christmas Eve.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western, Holiday
Rating:  G
Word Count:  7,950 words

A gust of wind blew through the treetops as the rider leading a brown pony approached the small ranch. Joe Cartwright pulled his heavy coat a bit tighter around him, then looked down at the pony trotting behind him. The brown horse, with its thick coat of hair, seemed more concerned about keeping up with the long-legged pinto ahead of it than bothered by the cold. Joe couldn’t help but smile as he anticipated the pleasure the small animal was going to bring on this Christmas Eve. He had been more than happy to volunteer to deliver this very special gift.

The wind blew again, and Joe felt the cold on his face. The temperature had dropped steadily since he left the Ponderosa several hours ago. The winter had been mild so far – no snow and pleasant temperatures for December. Now it seemed that winter was finally arriving. Joe began to wonder if they might have a white Christmas after all.

Riding into the yard of the small ranch, Joe looked around. The place seemed unusually quiet, almost deserted. The yard, as well as the house and barn, were neatly kept, but appeared almost lifeless. Joe wasn’t entirely surprised. In the last year, the ranch had seen little joy. He hoped he was going to change that.

Climbing down from his pinto, Joe tied the reins of his horse and the lead rope of the pony to a hitching post a few feet from the front the house. He gave his horse an affectionate pat on the neck, then reached over to rub the nose of the pony. Then Joe ducked under the rail of the post and walked to the house.

Bending a bit, Joe looked through the window of the house before knocking on the door. While he could see the inside was brightly lit, with a fire was glowing in the hearth, Joe couldn’t see a decorated tree or any other sign of Christmas. Again, he wasn’t entirely surprised. Christmas was a time of happiness, and that wasn’t an emotion that was prevalent around the small ranch these days. Straightening, Joe rapped his knuckles loudly on the front door.

Almost immediately, the door was pulled open by a tall man with thick dark hair. Almost 30, John Miller was considered a handsome man. But as the man peered at Joe in surprise, Joe could see the signs of sorrow and fatigue in Miller’s face.

“Joe Cartwright!” exclaimed Miller in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

“Merry Christmas, John,” replied Joe with a grin. “Can I come in?”

“Sure, sure,” said Miller, pulling the door open wide. “Come in out of the wind. Feels like it’s getting cold out there.”

“Yeah, it sure is,” answered Joe as he stepped into the house. Looking around, Joe could see what his peek through the window had led him to suspect. The house was warm and bright, but there wasn’t a single sign of Christmas.

“Not celebrating the holiday this year, John?” commented Joe as he looked around.

Miller’s eyes stared at the floor. “I guess I just didn’t get around to pulling out the decorations,” Miller almost mumbled. He looked up and gave a small smile. “Elizabeth was always the one who made Christmas special. She’d start hanging the tinsel and such a month ahead of time.” Miller shook his head slightly. “Neither Bobby or I felt much like celebrating this year.”

Nodding slightly to show his understanding, Joe looked into the fire for a moment. Elizabeth Miller had been a pretty, young woman. Her death the previous spring had devastated her husband and son, particularly since she had died giving birth to the baby girl they had wanted so much. The fact that the baby had been stillborn had only added to the tragedy.

“Where’s Bobby?” asked Joe, trying to sound nonchalant. In reality, he was having a hard time keeping the grin off his face.

“In his room,” answered Miller, a bit puzzled. “You want to see him?”

“Yep, I sure do,” said Joe, a hint of the grin breaking through.

Frowning a bit, Miller studied Joe, trying to figure out what the young Cartwright might be up to. Then he shrugged and walked to the back of the house. Opening a door, Miller called into the room. “Bobby, Joe Cartwright is here. He wants to see you.” Without waiting, Miller turned and walked back to Joe.

A minute later, a small figure emerged from the room. Bobby Miller was six, a handsome boy who had inherited both his parent’s good looks. His dark hair was straight and thick, and his eyes an almost piercing blue. But, like his father, Bobby’s face had a sadness about it. The boy walked slowly, almost reluctantly, over to Joe.

“Hi Joe,” said Bobby in a soft voice.

“Merry Christmas, Bobby,” answered Joe cheerily. The boy merely nodded.

“I guess you’re wondering why I’m here,” said Joe. Bobby looked at him and shrugged. “Well,” continued Joe, “Santa Claus made a stop at the Ponderosa early today. He said he was going to be really busy tonight, and he asked if I would bring a very special present over to you for him.”

Looking at Joe a bit skeptically, Bobby said, “You know Santa Claus?”

“Sure I do,” Joe assured the boy. “He comes to the Ponderosa every year. I wouldn’t say we were close friends, but I know him well enough to do him a favor.”

Joe smiled as he watched Bobby’s inner struggle reflected on his face. The boy was at the age when he still wanted to believe in Santa Claus but was starting to realize that not all the things said about Santa made sense. Joe was hoping that he could help Bobby keep his belief in Santa Claus for at least one more year.

“Did Santa really send a special present?” asked Bobby, his desire to believe winning out.

“Yep, he did,” said Joe. “Get your coat on. It’s outside.” Bobby nodded and ran back to his room.

“What’s this all about, Joe?” asked Miller in a puzzled voice.

“Get your coat on and come see,” answered Joe, with a grin.

Miller studied Joe for a minute, then walked across the room and pulled a coat from a peg near the door. He had just shrugged his arms into the coat when Bobby ran back into the room wearing a blue checked coat. “I’m ready,” the boy announced.

“Then follow me,” said Joe, his grin widening. He pulled open the front door and stepped outside. Bobby followed him anxiously.

“See that pony next to Cochise,” said Joe to Bobby. “Well, Santa asked me to deliver it to you for him. That’s your Christmas present.”

Bobby’s eyes widened as he stared at the small brown horse standing patiently at the hitching post. The boy turned and looked up at Joe. “You mean it?” he asked in amazement. “The pony is mine?”

“He’s all yours,” Joe assured him.

Turning, Bobby looked at the pony again. Then the boy ran across the yard, yelling with delight. He ducked under the hitching post and threw his arms around the pony’s neck. Bobby hugged the pony tightly and then began patting and talking to the small horse.

“Joe, you didn’t have to do that,” said Miller as he walked up behind Joe. He was smiling as he watched his son joyfully patting and hugging the pony.

“It’s just our way of saying thank you for what you did for us last summer,” replied Joe. “If you hadn’t warned us about the dam being ready to break, we would have ended up with the south pasture flooded, not to mention losing half the herd that was grazing there.”

“I didn’t do anything special,” protested Miller. “Anyone would have done the same thing.”

“I’m not sure just anyone would have ridden for three hours in a raging storm to warn us about the dam,” said Joe. “You did us a good turn, John, and we wanted to repay the favor.”

“Joe, what’s his name?” called Bobby from across the yard. His small arms were still hugging the pony close to him.

“Sugar,” Joe called back. He turned to Miller and smiled. “Evidently, the pony has a sweet tooth.”

“Sugar,” repeated Bobby. “That’s the best name ever for a pony.” The boy began cooing and repeating the name softly in the pony’s ear.

“Joe, this is too much,” Miller protested.

“John, we got him for practically nothing,” admitted Joe. “Dave Towson threw him in with a string of horses we bought from him. Dave’s been looking for a good home for him every since his son outgrew the pony. He said the horse has been lonely.”

“Lonely?” said Miller in a skeptical voice. “Joe, he’s a horse. Horses don’t get lonely.”

“Well, according to Dave, this one does,” Joe said. “He put him out to pasture, and every day at three o’clock, when the kids come down the road from school, the pony has been waiting at the fence, watching them go by. He said the pony just stands there and watches, even after the kids are gone.”

“Bah, that’s sentimental nonsense,” Miller said, shaking his head. “Animals don’t have feelings. They do everything by instinct. All they care about is eating and sleeping. When was the last time one of your cows gave you a grateful look for moving him to a new pasture or giving him some feed?”

“Well, you’ve got me there,” Joe admitted with a laugh. He didn’t feel like arguing the point. Joe wanted to just watch and enjoy Bobby’s happiness.

Joe knew what it was like to be a little boy without a mother. With a pang of remembrance, he recalled how important it was to have something special to love and love him back. As he watched Bobby hugging the pony and whispering in its ear, Joe blinked away a tear he felt forming in his eye.

Giving the pony a last pat, Bobby turned and walked slowly back to Joe. “Thank you,” the little boy said solemnly. “Will you tell Santa that I think this is the best present I ever got.” Trying to suppress a smile, Joe nodded.

Looking down, Bobby’s lip started to quiver. “This would be the best Christmas ever if only Momma…” The boy’s voice trailed off, and he gave a loud sniff.

Crouching down, Joe put his hand under Bobby’s chin and lifted it gently. “Bobby,” he said, “I know how you much you miss your mother, and how hard it is not having her around.” Looking away for a moment, Joe swallowed hard as he felt another pang of remembrance. “It’s all right to think of her and be sad sometimes,” continued Joe as he turned back to face the boy. “But your mother loved you, and she wouldn’t want you to be sad all the time. She’d want you to be happy. She’d want you to enjoy Christmas and your new pony.”

Bobby looked into Joe’s face for a minute, and then nodded. “Momma always liked to make me laugh,” he said slowly. “She said it made her sad when I was sad.”

“That’s right,” said Joe quickly. “She loved you and she always will. Your mother wants you to be happy.”

“Do you think she’s happy that I have Sugar?” Bobby asked a bit tentatively.

“I’m sure she is,” said Joe smiling. “But you know, you have to take care of him. You have to feed him, and water him, and brush him down real good.”

“Oh, I will,” promised Bobby. “I know what to do. Pa lets me help him with his horses. I’ll take good care of Sugar. He already told me that he’s happy to be here, and I’ll make sure he wants to stay.”

“He told you he’s happy to be here?” said Joe, with surprise.

“Sure,” said Bobby, nodding his head vigorously. “He’s a smart pony.”

“Why don’t you take your smart pony into the barn and put him in one of the stalls,” suggested Miller from behind Joe. “There’s some oats in a sack near the door. You can give him something to eat and fill his water bin. I’m sure Sugar is hungry and thirsty.”

“Yes sir!” Bobby answered in a voice full of glee. He turned and ran back to the pony. “Come on, Sugar,” the boy said to the pony as he untied the lead rope from the rail, “I’m going to take you to your new home.”

“Kids,” said Miller, giving short laugh as he watched Bobby leading the pony toward the barn. “They say the wildest things. Imagine thinking that pony told him that he was happy to be here.”

Standing, Joe smiled. “Well, John, you never can tell. Animals do some amazing things sometimes, especially on Christmas Eve.” Looking toward the sky, Joe continued. “I’d better be heading on home. That wind is picking up and the temperature is still dropping.”

“Do you want to stay here?” asked Miller with concern. “You can have dinner with Bobby and me.”

“No, I’ll be fine,” Joe assured him. “Besides, Hop Sing always makes a special dinner for Christmas Eve, and I don’t want to miss that.” Joe looked at John for a minute, then added. “Pa has invited a bunch of people over for a party tomorrow afternoon. Why don’t you and Bobby come join us? It’s real informal; just a lot of friends getting together to celebrate Christmas.”

“Thanks, Joe, but Bobby and I are going to my sister’s place for dinner tomorrow,” answered Miller. He grinned suddenly. “I was going to take the wagon, but I have a feeling we’re going on horseback tomorrow.”

“I’m sorry we didn’t have time to get a saddle and bridle for the pony,” Joe apologized.

“Don’t worry about it,” Miller said quickly. “I’ve got some gear in the barn that will work. Besides, you’ve done more than enough.”

“We wanted Bobby to have the pony,” Joe assured Miller. “We thought it might make this Christmas, well, a bit happier for him.”

“The pony will help,” agreed Miller. He looked off for a minute. “And what you told him will help, too. It’ll help both of us.”

Uncomfortable with the emotion he heard in Miller’s voice, Joe said quickly. “I have to be going. Have a Merry Christmas, John.”

“Thank you, Joe,” Miller said. “It will be, thanks to you and your family.” A smile broke out on Miller’s face. “In fact, I’m going to make sure it’s a merry Christmas. It’s not too late for a few strands of tinsel and a couple of ornaments, you know.”

“No, John, it’s not too late,” Joe agreed with a smile. As Miller started toward the barn to help Bobby with his pony, Joe turned and walked across the yard to his own horse.

Preparing to mount, Joe patted his pinto on the neck. “Imagine John thinking that horses don’t talk to people,” he said softly. “He obviously never spent anytime with you, Cooch.” Joe laughed as the pinto snorted and tossed his head. Giving his horse another pat, Joe vaulted into the saddle.

Riding away from the Miller ranch, Joe suddenly was aware of the cold wind. What had been an occasional breeze had turned into a stiff, constant blast of cold air. Joe had seen storms like this before. The wind came from the north, blowing over the snowy mountain peaks, causing the temperature to plummet. He had seen storms like this cause the temperature to drop 30 degrees or more in just a few hours. There usually wasn’t much snow with these storms, just bitter cold air.

Stopping his horse, Joe reached under his coat and pulled out the scarf he had been wearing around his neck. He put the scarf over his head, making sure it held his hat in place and covered his ears, then tied it firmly under his chin. Pulling his coat closed, Joe buttoned the cloth together just under the knot of the scarf. Joe also pulled on the gloves over his hands, making sure they were tight and secure. The clothing offered him some protection from the cold air, but not as much as Joe would have liked. He had a feeling that he was going to be one very cold cowboy by the time he got home.

Kicking his pinto lightly, Joe guided the horse toward the trail through the woods. He had traveled to the Miller ranch over open pastures, but Joe knew riding across the flat land, with nothing to break the wind, would mean a much colder ride than through the woods. He wouldn’t be much warmer in the woods but at least the trees would shield him a bit from the wind.

Joe had been riding through the woods for almost an hour when he heard a strange, howling sound. At first, he thought it was the wind, whistling as it passed through the maze of trees. But as Joe continued on the trail, he realized he was getting closer to the sound. Whatever was making the long wailing cry was something other than the wind. Curious, Joe decided to look for the source of the eerie howling. He listened for a moment, then turned his horse to the left.

A few minutes’ ride through the trees brought Joe to a small clearing – and the cause of the howls he had heard. A large wolf stood in the clearing, his left hind leg firmly caught in a tangle of rope that was tied to a fallen tree. The wolf pulled against the rope, hoping to free itself, but the pulling only tightened the line around the animal’s leg. After a few tugs against the rope, the wolf stopped and howled, a cry that was filled with anger, frustration and distress.

Stopping his horse at the edge of the clearing, Joe watched as the wolf alternately pulled against the rope to no avail, and then sat to howl into the wind. He could see the animal was a big male, with a thick winter coat of silver fur. Joe wasn’t sure if the rope was some kind of snare or just some debris left behind by a careless camper. It really didn’t matter. Whether deliberately set or accidentally dropped, the rope held the wolf firmly.

Dismounting, Joe tied his reins firmly to the branch of a tree. The wind was blowing from his back, so Joe knew his horse hadn’t scented the wolf. But the howling was making his pinto nervous and Joe wanted to be sure the horse didn’t run off and leave him in the cold. Joe could understand why his horse was edgy; the eerie sound from the wolf was raising the hairs on the back of his neck.

Walking slowly toward the wolf, Joe said softly, “Easy now, boy. I’m just here to help you. I’m not going to hurt you. Just take it easy.” The wolf stared at Joe for a minute, then gave a low growl. Joe continued walking toward the animal, talking softly as he approached him.

Joe was a few feet from the wolf when the animal suddenly lunged at him. The wolf snarled and bared its fangs as it jumped in Joe’s directions. Joe froze, watching as the animal tried to attack. But the wolf had forgotten about the rope that held him firmly. As the animal jumped, the rope went taut and held him. With a loud plop, the wolf fell to the ground.

Scrambling to his feet, the wolf made it clear to Joe that he wasn’t interested in help. He growled and snarled, straining against the rope as he tried to reach the man in front of him. Joe held up his hands and backed slowly away.

“Guess that wolf is one animal that doesn’t understand human talk,” said Joe, shaking his head as he backed up against his horse. “Either that, or he just isn’t very friendly.” The pinto snorted and danced nervously to the side.

As he stood at the edge of the clearing Joe considered his choices. He could simply get on his horse and ride away, leaving the wolf to it’s fate. But Joe knew he wouldn’t do that. He couldn’t just leave the animal to suffer and die what would probably be a prolonged, agonizing death. His second choice was to simply shoot the wolf, putting the animal out of its misery. But Joe was reluctant to do that, too. While he wasn’t against shooting animals that caused trouble or attacked the heard, Joe hated the idea of killing the wolf for no other reason than it had been unlucky enough to get tangled up in the rope. His third option was to free the wolf, and that’s what Joe wanted to do. The problem was how to do it without getting himself torn to bits.

Standing among the trees, Joe studied the wolf. The animal couldn’t have been caught up in the rope for very long – a day at the most. Any longer than that and the wolf would have been too weak from hunger and thirst to howl, much less try such a spirited attack. But Joe thought he could see signs that the animal was beginning to tire. The howling had stopped, and the wolf stood panting, it’s mouth open and tongue hanging out. A few more hours and the animal would probably be approachable. But Joe didn’t have a few hours to spare, not with increasingly cold air chilling him.

Biting his lip, Joe tried to figure out how to free the wolf. As he watched, the animal suddenly seemed to lick its lips. Joe realized the wolf was thirsty, and that gave him an idea.

Looking around, Joe spotted a large piece of curved bark laying on the ground. He picked up the bark and walked over to his horse. Reaching up, Joe pulled the canteen off his saddle and uncorked the container. He slowly poured water into the curved wood, filling the bark almost to the brim. Carefully holding the makeshift bowl, Joe slipped the canteen back on his saddle. Then he walked slowly toward the wolf once more, carrying the bark cautiously in his hands.

Seeing Joe emerge from the trees, the wolf began its menacing growl again. Joe walked to the right of the animal, keeping a safe distance between him and the sharp fangs of the wolf. When he reached the right side of the clearing, Joe started forward, moving slowly and keeping his eyes glued to the growling wolf.

Joe stopped a few feet from the wolf, calculating the distance the animal could cover before the rope would pull him back. He knew this was the tricky part. If he got too close, the wolf would bite and claw him. But if Joe didn’t get close enough, his plan wouldn’t work.

Taking another step, Joe reached forward with his hands. The wolf could see and smell the water in the curved bark. The animal stopped growling, and seemed to be watching to see what Joe was going to do next. Bending, Joe set the bark on the ground. The wolf lunged toward the bark, straining to reach the water. The animal got tantalizingly close, but he couldn’t reach the curved wood on the ground. Howling in frustration, the wolf strained and pulled, but the rope held him fast.

Reaching into his coat pocket, Joe pulled out a pocketknife. His eyes stayed on the wolf as he opened the knife. Joe figured he had one chance to free the animal and he had to be ready. Moving forward, Joe put his foot against the bark and nudged it slowly toward the wolf. Water sloshed from the sides of the bark as Joe eased it closer and closer to the animal. Suddenly, the wolf gave a sharp yelp and plunged its nose into the water.

Joe didn’t wait to see if the animal was actually drinking. He ran to his left, making sure he gave the wolf a wide berth. Then he ran forward, toward the log and the tangle of rope.

As he reached the wolf’s hind leg, Joe glanced toward the front of the animal. The wolf was busy lapping up the water from the bark, desperately trying to ease its thirst. Joe quickly put his knife against the rope wrapped around the animal’s leg. He sawed the ropes a few times, cutting the strands with the sharp knife. It only took a few seconds to slice the ropes.

Turning, Joe raced toward where his pinto stood in the trees at the edge of the clearing. He had no desire to be near the wolf when the animal realized it was free. Joe untied the reins from the branch, and got ready to spring into the saddle. Then he turned and looked back toward the clearing.

The wolf finished lapping up the water and began to look around. The animal seemed surprised, as if it felt something was different but wasn’t quite sure what. Slowly, the wolf pulled its left leg forward, and the ropes fell away. The wolf took another step and stopped, seeming to want to make sure it was really free. Then the animal turned and looked straight at Joe.

His hand on the pummel of his saddle, Joe watched the wolf. If the animal took even one step toward him, Joe was prepared to leap into the saddle and ride away. But the wolf never made a move. It simply stood in the clearing and stared, as if trying to memorize the face of the man who had helped him. Then the animal turned to its left and trotted off among the trees.

Joe hadn’t realized he was holding his breath until he let it out with a loud whoosh. Giving a shaky laugh, Joe closed his knife and put it back in his coat pocket. He also put the stopper back into the top of the canteen. Then Joe vaulted into the saddle. Pulling on the reins, Joe said in a loud voice, “Come on, Cooch, let’s get home where it’s nice and warm.” He kicked the horse lightly and headed back toward the trail.

After the excitement of rescuing the wolf, Joe didn’t feel the cold again for several minutes. But a new blast of wind quickly changed that. Shivering, Joe pulled his coat tighter around him as he rode down the trail. His fingers felt stiff with cold, and he could see his breath in icy puffs. The warmth of his horse’s body heat helped to ward off the cold a bit, but not much. The temperature was well below freezing, and continuing to drop. Joe figured he was little over an hour from home, and that hour was going to be one of the coldest of his life.

The wind blew again, an icy gust of air that seemed stronger and colder than before. Joe could hear the branches of the trees creaking in protest as the wind tried to bend them. Hoping to protect his face, Joe lowered his head. He heard a sharp crack and quickly looked up. An old tree – long dead and standing only because nothing had yet knocked it down – had given in to the wind. Joe’s eyes widened with alarm as he saw the tree falling toward him, branches seeming to come at him from every direction. He felt the wood slap against his head and the trunk forcing him backward, out of the saddle and on to the ground. Joe landed on the frozen dirt with a thud, the fall knocking the air out of his lungs. His head snapped back against the hard ground. Joe had the vague impression of being tangled in a web of branches, and then everything went black.

Something rough and wet rubbing against his cheek brought Joe back to consciousness. He moved his head slowly, trying to clear the fog from his brain. Again, he felt the rough, wet substance stroke his cheek, followed by a blast of warm, foul-smelling air. Joe tightened his eyes and then opened them slowly. For a moment, all he saw was a vague blur above him. Joe blinked twice, and then his eyes widened in fright. Only inches from his face he could see the sharp teeth in a wolf’s mouth.

The wolf stood over Joe, watching him with steady eyes. Joe could feel the warm air from the animal’s mouth, and smell the foul odor of its breath. Joe laid still, barely breathing, frozen with fear. The wolf’s fangs were only inches from Joe’s neck.

The wolf seemed to sense Joe’s terror, and it slowly took a few steps back. Joe’s eyes never left the animal as the wolf eased itself a foot or so away. Then the animal sat down on its haunches, as if waiting.

Lying as still as possible, Joe didn’t know what to do. He was sure the wolf knew he wasn’t dead; he had moved his head and opened his eyes. Joe wasn’t sure why the wolf hadn’t attacked him but he didn’t want to startle the animal into any action with a sudden movement.

As he kept his eyes on the wolf, Joe became aware of the tangle of branches from the tree on top of him. Moving his head almost imperceptibly, Joe turned to survey the situation. The main trunk of the tree had landed at Joe’s feet, missing his legs by inches. But the heavy branches had fallen across the lower part of Joe’s body. Joe wanted to move his legs, to see if he could free himself, but he was afraid the movement might startle the wolf. Instead, he slowly pulled his arms out from under some smaller branches, freeing them. Joe flexed his arms carefully, satisfied that the bones were intact. Joe turned to look at the wolf, wanting to make sure that the animal didn’t think the movement was threatening. The wolf simply sat and watched him.

Unsure of what to do next, Joe laid still. He could feel the cold of the ground underneath him, and the cool air chilling his face. His hat had remained firmly on his head, held in place of the scarf. But the bitter cold was beginning to seep into his body. Joe shivered a bit, and began to wonder what would be worse – freezing to death or being torn up by the wolf.

The wolf sat watching Joe for several minutes then seemed to grow tired of waiting. The animal stood and walked back to Joe. Joe held his breath and put his hands up to protect his face and neck. But the wolf seemed to have no interest in attacking the most vulnerable and exposed parts of Joe’s body. Instead, the animal walked up and nudged Joe in the ribs with his nose. The wolf looked to Joe’s face, as if trying to see what the man would do. Joe stared at the animal, not sure what the wolf wanted. The wolf bent its head and nudged Joe in the ribs again with his nose, this time harder. The animal glanced at Joe’s face, and then pushed its nose against Joe’s side once more. Seemingly satisfied, the wolf turned and trotted a foot or so away. Then the animal sat on its haunches again and waited.

As unbelievable as it seemed to him, Joe figured the wolf was trying to tell him to get up. Well, if that’s what he wants… thought Joe. Moving slowly, Joe pulled himself up to a sitting position. He braced his arms behind him and pulled, trying to free his legs from under the tree.

Joe was able to move his legs a bit, but the heavy branches pushed hard against his lower body. Smaller branches lay under and over his legs, keeping Joe’s limbs tangled in the wood. Joe tugged and pulled until his face was red from exertion. The tree shook and shifted but refused to release Joe’s legs.

Falling back to the ground, Joe laid on the dirt, gasping for breath. As he sucked in the cold air, his lungs began to ache. Joe coughed hard, and began to shiver.

The wolf had sat patiently, watching as Joe tried to free himself. Now the animal trotted over to him and once more began nudging him with his nose.

Cold, tired and sore, Joe scowled at the wolf. “Look,” he said almost angrily to the wolf, “I’m doing the best I can. Leave me alone, will you?” The wolf stared at Joe for a moment then trotted back a few feet to sit and wait once more.

Lying on the ground, Joe tried to think of a way to free himself. He knew he couldn’t pull himself out from under the fallen tree. Maybe he could push it off of him.

Once more, Joe sat up. He leaned forward and grabbed a large branch near his waist. First, Joe tried lifting the tree but quickly gave up on that idea. The dead wood was too heavy for him to move even an inch. Next, he tried pushing against, hoping to shift the tree even a few inches, enough to untangle and free his legs. But pushing against the wood was useless also. All Joe managed to do was crack the branch in his hands.

Joe flopped back down on the cold ground, tired and frustrated by his efforts. He was firmly trapped under the fallen tree, and there seemed no way to free himself.

Again, the wolf stood and trotted over to Joe. This time, though, the animal stood next to him, staring into Joe’s face.

“Don’t bother,” said Joe, feeling ridiculous talking to the wolf. “No matter how hard you try, you’re not going to get me up. I’m trapped and there’s nothing either one of us can do about it.” A gust of cold wind blew just then, and Joe shivered with cold. His teeth began to chatter a bit. “G-g-g-o on,” Joe urged the wolf through trembling lips. “You c-c-an leave.” He sucked in another breath of cold air. The ice seemed to reach into the bottom of his lungs. Joe coughed and shivered even harder. Joe closed his eyes and began to wonder seriously how long it took for a man to freeze to death.

Joe felt the warmth of the body nestling next to him before he felt the stiff fur on his face. Opening his eyes in surprise, Joe saw the wolf lying next to him, snuggled close to his body, with his head resting on Joe’s shoulder. Amazed at the wolf’s act, Joe could do nothing but stare at the animal for a moment. But the cold air quickly moved him into action. Joe wrapped his arms around the wolf, hugging the heat from the animal’s body to him. His frozen fingers dug into the fur, finding both protection and warmth. Joe laid his face against the animal’s neck, almost sighing with pleasure at the warmth he felt.

Hugging the wolf close to him, Joe could feel the chill in his bones slowly seeping away. He was still cold but he no longer felt frozen or tried to breathe with icy lungs. The stiff fur protected his chest and face, and the warmth of the animal’s body helped him retain his own body heat.

Joe wasn’t sure how long he lay on the ground holding the wolf. Once or twice, he felt himself growing drowsy, but each time his grip loosed as he started to drift off to sleep, the wolf would turn its head and lick Joe’s face with its rough, damp tongue. The licks were unpleasant, but they accomplished what the wolf wanted – keeping Joe awake.

The setting of the sun told Joe that he had been trapped under the tree for more than two hours. He knew he had left the Miller ranch about two, and this time of year, the sun began to set about six. The darkening sky seemed to make the wind abate, but Joe knew that night would bring even colder air. He wondered how long the wolf would stay with him, and how he would survive the frigid night if the animal decided to leave.

With a sudden movement, the wolf rose to its feet. Surprised, Joe tried desperately to grab the animal and hug him close again, but the wolf danced away from his grasp. Turning, the animal stared off into the distance. Joe wondered what the wolf had heard or seen, what had made his protector want to leave him. Then Joe heard the faint cry himself.

“Joe! Joe!” came floating through the woods, a shout so soft that Joe knew the caller was some distance away. Joe tried to shout in return, but his cold, dry throat emitted only a husky whisper. Swallowing hard, Joe tried again, and this time managed a slightly louder “Over here!” He doubted if the caller heard him, but the faint cry gave Joe hope. If he shouted long enough, maybe someone would hear him.

Preparing to shout again, Joe stopped when he heard a loud howl from the wolf. The sound was the eerie call of distress Joe had heard riding through the woods — the sound that had led him to the trapped wolf. The howling stopped, and the wolf stared off into the distance. The animal watched for a moment, then howled again. To Joe’s ears, the second howl seemed even louder and longer than the first. Once more, the wolf stared off into the distance as it finished its’ cry. The animal began to shift its weight nervously on its legs. The wolf looked over its shoulder toward Joe then turned to stare in the distance again. The animal took a few steps forward, then retreated. Joe thought the animal looked edgy and uncertain. Then he heard the voice calling his name again. The shout of “Joe!” was much closer, and the voice was as familiar to Joe as his own.

“Hoss!” called Joe in a husky voice. “Hoss! Over here!”

The wolf turned to look at Joe.

“Thank you,” said Joe is a soft voice. “I’ll be all right now.”

The wolf stared at Joe for a long moment, then turned and ran into the woods.

“Joe!” came the call once more, the shout only a short distance away.

“Over here, Hoss!” yelled Joe. “I’m trapped. Help me!”

Joe heard the sound of a horse crashing through the underbrush and almost wept in relief. In less than a minute, he saw the big brown horse emerge from the trees, carrying a rider wearing a tall white hat.

“Hoss!” shouted Joe.

Quickly dismounting, Hoss rushed over to his brother. “Joe, what happened?” asked the big man.

“The tree got knocked down by the wind and fell on me,” answered Joe. “I couldn’t get it off me. My feet and legs are tangled up in it.”

“Hang on, little brother,” said Hoss. He took a few steps back and pulled his gun from his holster. Pointing the weapon high and into the woods, Hoss fired two shots. Then he quickly holstered his gun and returned to Joe.

“Pa and Adam will be here in a minute,” Hoss assured his brother. “We’ll get you out of this. Are you hurt?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Joe. He shivered a bit and his teeth began to chatter. “I’m s-s-so cold I c-c-can’t feel anything.”

Nodding, Hoss walked back to his horse and untied a bundle from the back of his saddle. He unrolled two thick blankets and carried them back to Joe. “We figured you’d be pretty cold by now,” said Hoss as he began to wrap Joe in the blankets. “It’s a wonder you ain’t froze to death.”

Feeling the warmth of the blankets around him, Joe closed his eyes. “I almost did,” he said softly. “A friend kept me warm until you found me.” With his eyes shut, Joe couldn’t see the puzzled frown on Hoss’ face.

The rescue was a blur to Joe. He remembered hearing his father’s voice and the feeling of being hugged close to a body. Joe also remembered being pulled under the arms as the weight of the tree was lifted off him. The only thing that he clearly recalled was asking if he could ride home with Hoss because he wanted “all that body fat to keep me warm.” The sound of laugher answered his request, but Joe had felt himself being put on a horse, with a massive body at his back and two thick arms wrapped around him. He knew he slept most of the way home, warm and secure in his brother’s arms.

The next conscious thought that Joe had came when he woke up at the Ponderosa. Feeling warm and cozy, he opened his eyes slowly. It didn’t take much effort for Joe to realize that he was lying on the sofa in the living room of the ranch house, wrapped in warm, thick blankets. He recognized where he was the moment he opened his eyes. Turning his head, Joe was even less surprised to see his father sitting on the edge of the table next to the sofa, watching Joe with anxious eyes.

“Hi, Pa,” said Joe with a smile.

“Hi yourself,” answered Ben Cartwright, relief evident in his voice. “How are you feeling?”

“Warm,” answered Joe. He shifted his weight on the sofa. “And a bit stiff and sore.” Joe realized someone had undressed him before wrapping him in the blankets. He could feel the soft material against his skin. “Anything broken?” he asked.

“A few bruises is all,” a voice said from behind Ben. Joe looked to see his brother Adam, sitting a few feet away in the blue chair near the stairs. Adam stood and walked to the sofa. “All the thick clothes and your hard head must have kept you from getting hurt worse.”

“Where are my clothes?” asked Joe, a bit curious.

“Hop Sing took them way to clean them,” said Hoss as he came to join the others near the sofa. He had been sitting in the red chair by the fire, watching his brother anxiously. “They had a funny smell to them.”

“Yeah,” said Joe, nodding. “Wolf.”

“Wolf?” exclaimed Adam. “How did you ever end up smelling like a wolf?”

Smiling, Joe told his family the story of rescuing the wolf from the tangled rope, and how the animal returned the favor.

“Are you sure it was the same wolf?” asked Hoss, shaking his head in amazement.

“Well, I can’t be sure,” admitted Joe. “There wasn’t anything special about him. But I find it hard to believe another wolf would have done what he did.”

“I find it hard to believe any wolf would do what you said,” commented Adam. “Are you sure you didn’t hit your head harder than we thought?”

“Well, two hours laying in that cold, I should have froze to death,” answered Joe. “But I didn’t. And my clothes smelled of wolf.”

“He’s got a point,” said Ben. He shook his head. “It’s an amazing story, though.”

“And the lion shall lie down with the lamb,” said Adam, quoting the Bible. “I guess it’s possible, only in this case it was a wolf instead of a lion.”

“And I’m not exactly what you would call an innocent lamb,” added Joe with a grin. “But it happened.” He turned to look at his father. “How in the world did you even find me? I figured it would night before anyone even missed me. And when you did, you wouldn’t know where to look.”

“I suppose you could say Cochise told us,” said Ben with a smile. “When the storm came up and your horse came home without you, we knew you were in trouble.”

“But how did you know where to look?” asked Joe insistently.

Shifting uncomfortable on the table, Ben looked at Adam and Hoss before answering. “Well, Cochise came into the yard, and we knew you were in trouble. But when Hoss went to grab the reins, the horse ran away from him. He stopped a few feet away, and Hoss went to grab the reins again. Cochise ran away from him again, and then stopped. We finally mounted up, figuring we would catch the horse on our way out looking for you. But every time we got near him, Cochise would run off, then stop and wait for us. We finally decided to just follow him, and he led us right to the woods. The trees slowed him down and that’s when Adam grabbed him.” Ben shook his head. “Once we got to the woods, we were afraid we’d lose track of him. I guess maybe we should have followed him further, though. It might have saved us some time getting to you.”

“We split up when we got to the woods,” added Hoss. “I was yelling and looking for you when I heard the howling. It sounded strange, almost kind of human, so I thought I’d better check it out. That’s when I heard you yelling.”

Shaking his head, Adam said, “It sure is an odd story. A horse leading us to where a wolf was keeping you warm. Hard to believe.”

“It’s funny, Adam,” said Joe, looking pensive. “When I was over at the Miller place, John said that animals act only by instinct. That all they care about is eating and sleeping. I didn’t argue the point with him then, but I sure would now. Those animals acted like humans.”

“Well, maybe that’s because it’s Christmas Eve,” said Ben with a smile. “There’s an old legend that says that animals become human on Christmas Eve. It gives them a chance to celebrate the birth of the Christ child once again.”

“Pa, that’s only a legend,” scoffed Adam. “Next you’ll be telling us that the animals talk at midnight.”

“Well, I have to admit I’ve never heard them,” said Ben. “But most legends have some kernel of truth to them. Maybe this one is truer than we thought.”

“All I know is, from now on, I’m going to be careful what I say in front of Cochise,” said Joe with a grin. “I don’t want him carrying stories to the other horses.”

Chiming loudly, the clock by the front door struck ten.

“It’s getting late,” commented Ben. “I think it’s time we all headed for bed. Hop Sing is going to make us a special breakfast in the morning, to make up for the dinner we missed tonight. I don’t think he’ll appreciate any of us sleeping in tomorrow.”

“Maybe we should wait until midnight,” said Hoss, grinning. “We could go out to the barn and listen to the horses talking.”

“Naw,” said Joe shaking his head. “Let them talk in private. I got a feeling that there’s a pinto going to be doing some bragging out there, and we don’t want to interfere with that.”

Laughing, Ben turned to his oldest son. “Adam,” he said, “why don’t you help Joe up to bed.”

“Wait, Pa,” said Joe quickly. “I forgot to say something.”

“What?” asked Ben with a frown.

Looking at his father and brothers in turn, Joe said softly, “Merry Christmas to the best family a man could have. I can’t think of a better place to spend Christmas than on the Ponderosa.”


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