The Christmas Gift (by Judy)

Summary:  Best gift ever.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Westerm
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  19,366


 

December 21, 1864

 

The blizzard that had started in the high Sierra Madras was the biggest of the winter so far, and had caught many trappers, hunters, homesteaders, and ranchers off guard. The blizzard had dumped several feet of wet snow in the first hours of the storm, followed by ice, and then ending with more snow. By the time the storm abated after 4 days, the mountains and the higher elevations were completely snowbound, cutting off all travel between the remote ranches and the towns lying lower on the plains. Once the snows came, there was very little the people could do but to sit back and wait it out. Those who had planned well and were prepared for the winter, who had moved their herds to more protected areas where grazing was still possible or where there was a means to get feed to the cattle, they were undaunted by the storms. Those who had not planned well and were unprepared for the harshness of the winter storms, generally didn’t survive the winter, or if they did, they usually did so because of the largesse of the people who had planned and prepared well.

Springtime would see people in the former categories making one of either two decisions about their rightful place in this land of harsh winters. Either they packed up their belongings and moved on, hoping to find a climate less severe and less demanding, or they resolved that they would stay and battle nature and that next year they would have planned better and be prepared for the struggle to survive. Generally only people with strong determination, energy, and courage stayed around for that second year.

Benjamin Cartwright was such a man. The first year that he had staked the Ponderosa claim had been a constant struggle for survival. That first winter his family and his dream would not have survived had he not received help from good neighbors and friends. The next winter, he was ready for the winter and his family survived and thrived; within just a few years, he was helping other ranchers and homesteaders out in the same way that he had been helped. He never forgot the assistance he had received and he felt obligated to carry on the tradition of helping out neighbors. He provided them with food, grain, supplies, fuel for their cook stoves, and on many occasion manpower—either his own or that of his sons—to help those ranchers less fortunate than he. He provided them with advice, encouragement and hope for their battle for survival. If the ranchers or homesteaders decided that this life was not for them, he frequently bought their land from them come spring, at a fair price, giving them the opportunity to start over. He did this not because he needed the land, the Ponderosa was already big as an empire, consisting of over a half a million acres of prime Nevada land with good water, grazing, and timber stands. Instead he did this to prevent the rancher from losing their investment and more importantly, their dignity. He told his sons that the purchase of land to add to the holdings of the Ponderosa was always a good investment.

Ben reflected on the past as he surveyed the Ponderosa on his first trip out since the storm had come. It had been almost a week since he had been able to ride out and he was enjoying the fresh, crisp, cool air that smelled of pine trees, and clear melted snow from high in the mountains. He stopped Buck on a small ridge several hundred feet beyond the Ponderosa ranch house and looked around at the peaceful scene. His heart flip-flopped momentarily when he remembered that this had been one of the reasons that the Cartwright log house had been situated where it was. He had brought his then new wife, Marie, Joseph’s mother up here one day and it had been she who had pointed out that that would be the perfect location for the house they were planning. He marveled as he had done many times, at what an excellent insight it had been. He came to this site in all seasons and every time he came, he was inspired by the sheer beauty of the site. “You sure had a good eye, my love” he said out loud. The house looked especially beautiful at this time of the year, with the snow covering the yard, and the green pines standing out in stark contrast to the snow. The Christmas decorations were in place, with wreaths and garlands adorning every window and door. It was a sight that almost took Ben’s breath away. He would never lose his love of Christmas—it was his favorite times of year–made more enjoyable by his sons. They all enjoyed Christmas, especially his youngest.

As he was thinking this, he smiled and then frowned slightly, then smiled again, as he saw the child they had right after this house had been built, come riding into the yard on his pinto pony. Joseph was so much like his mother that he was a constant reminder of his late wife. He knew that through Joseph a part of Marie was still with him. The frown was caused by Little Joe’s habit of riding into the yard as if a whole tribe of scalp-taking Comanches were chasing him. As he rode up, he jumped off his horse in one motion, and when he was safely off the horse, Ben breathed a sigh of relief and smiled again. “Marie, I have tried to break that habit since he first started riding. I guess there are just some things that even a father can’t change.” As he continued to watch the ranch, he saw his youngest son take his horse into the barn, and fifteen minutes later, his two older sons, Adam and Hoss came riding in, at a more relaxed pace, and took their horses into the barn as well. Shortly after that, Little Joe came running out of the barn, chased by both brothers, who showed evidence of being hit by a blizzard themselves. Obviously Joe had lay in wait for them with a bucket of snow and dumped it on them. They attempted to chase him, but he had a head start and they still had their horses to tend to. Laughing, Ben Cartwright headed his horse for home to join his sons.

When Joe reached the house he was still laughing at the joke he had pulled on his older brothers. He was amazed at just how many times they would fall for the same old trick. It seemed to him that they would one day wise up and came in through the side door or back door to the barn. Then he would have to think of another way to trick ‘em. “Hop Tseng” he yelled as he entered the door, careful to wipe the snow off on the mat before entering. He needed Hop Tseng’s cooperation so he knew better than to get snow on the floor. “What you yell Hop Tseng for?” Hop Tseng asked as he came into the living room from the kitchen. “Hop Tseng busy in kitchen. Make big supper for family. Family be hungry after day out in the cold.” he explained to his youngest charge.

“Hop Tseng. Is there enough hot water for a quick bath?” Joe asked.

“What you want take bath for now before dinner?” Hop Tseng asked suspiciously.

“I have somewhere I have to go tonight Hop Tseng. Is there hot water?” “You go get ready. Hop Tseng bring water.,” he said though he followed the statement by a dialogue half in Chinese and half in English. Little Joe just laughed at the barrage and ran quickly upstairs.

By the time, Adam and Hoss came in, Joe had finished his bath and was coming down the stairs into the great room. Right away they noticed that Joe was wearing a clean white shirt and tie and a leather vest. Hoss sniffed the air as if trying to figure out a particular scent. “Hmm Adam if I didn’t know better I would say our baby brother has going into town on his mind tonight.”

“Yeah Hoss I would agree with you, but surely little brother knows the weather conditions are still too rough to risk a trip into Virginia City.” Adam replied.

Joe, determined not to let his brothers get him riled up, just smiled and replied, “Maybe too risky for you old mother hens, but not for me. I am going to Virginia City for the barn dance tonight. I would ask you to join me, but I don’t think the ladies would be happy if they had to share me tonight.”

Adam realized that Joe was seriously planning to go into town, probably planning on leaving a message for Pa, instead of waiting ’til he got home. He also knew that his father would not approve and more than likely, hold HIM responsible for letting Joe leave. “Now hold up there, little brother. Seriously, it is still too rough to ride into Virginia City yet. Some of those passes are bound to be next to impassable.”

Joe, also realizing that Adam was no longer joking, escalated his resolve. “Adam, the roads are perfectly fine. I scouted all the way to Lambert’s crossing today and it is fine.” Joe replied, his voice rising.

Hoss backed Adam up, trying to de-escalate the situation between Joe and Adam, “Joe those girls have waited a week, they can wait another few days.”

Joe smiled at Hoss and said simply, “Maybe they can, Hoss, but I can’t. Now I am going to town. Tell Pa I won’t be late.” As he said this he started for the door. As he went by, Adam reached out and grabbed his arm and said, “No Joe, you are not going to…..”

He was not able to finish his sentence because just at that time Ben Cartwright strode briskly into the room. All three sons stopped talking and looked at their father, two faces showed their relief, one showed disappointment. Joe’s plan had been to get out of the house and leave before having to tell his father of his plans, because he knew, as Adam and Hoss did, that his father would not approve of them. As Ben came in, he was still shaking the cold and snow off, but he took in the situation very quickly. Joe dressed up, smelling of cologne, the determined look on his face, Adam gripping his elbow, and Hoss and Adam looking relieved to see him, Joe looking like he had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar . He continued to brush the snow off, then looked at the three of them and said, “Evening, Sons.” There was a chorus of “Hi Pas” from the three of them.

Joseph spoke up first, hoping to catch his father off-guard, “Pa I am going into town for a few hours tonight. I am supposed to take Jennifer to the barn dance. I won’t be late.”

Immediately Adam spoke up, “Pa, I don’t think the roads are…”

Little Joe reacted hotly, “Mind your own business, Adam. I told you I checked the roads out today and they are fine.” he said loudly, giving a scowl to his oldest brother.

“Pa, I gotta go along with Adam on this; them roads just ain’t safe.” Hoss put in, earning him a look of betrayal from Joe.

“Pa…” Joe began again.

Ben, who had heard enough already, raised his hands and said, “All right I get the idea.” He turned to Little Joe and said, “Joe, your brothers are right. The conditions are still way too rough and I think it is going to snow more tonight. I think your trip to Virginia City and to see Miss Jennifer will have to wait a few more days. There is no sense in taking unnecessary risks.”

Joe had been fuming during this pronouncement from his father, knowing that once his father’s mind was made up, there was little he could do to change it, but he thought it was worth a shot anyway. “Pa, I promise…”

Again Ben raised his hand and said, “Joseph you may not go into town now and that is the end of it.” “But Pa,” Joe began, but was silenced by his father, who put his arm around him and said, “Joseph, I won’t discuss this any further. The issue is closed. Now come on, boys, let’s see what Hop Tseng has for dinner.” As he said this, he propelled Joe to the dining area with his arm firmly around his shoulders.

Joe, never one to give up without a fight, tried one more time, “But Pa,”

This time his father cut him off curtly, saying “Joseph, that will be all. Do you understand?” He asked, fixing Joe with a stare.

“Yes sir,” Joe replied, realizing that he had lost this battle. If only he had finished that last cattle check a little bit sooner, he thought, he would have made a clean get-away. “It’s going to be a lot more complicated this way” he thought to himself.

Dinner that evening started out on a somewhat somber tone, Joe was quiet, not participating in the conversation and the other three, figuring Joe was mad, were trying hard to make up for it by extra effort. In reality, Joe wasn’t really mad, at least not at them, he was mad at himself for stopping to eat the lunch Hop Tseng had fixed for him. If he had just worked through lunch, he would have beaten them by a good half an hour or more and he wouldn’t be in this predicament. Whereas his outward appearance was quiet, inwardly his thoughts were racing, as he quickly ran through his options. The problem was, the way he looked at it, he really had no options. There was only one thing he could do—he had to go to Virginia City tonight.

Little Joe had been truthful about his intent to take Jennifer to the barn dance, but that was only half the reason he had to go to Virginia City that night. He had found the most perfect Christmas present for his father in town almost two months ago, a pair of dueling pistols that would be a prize addition to his father’s gun collection. At the time he had not had enough cash in his regular banking account to pay for the pistols. He had savings but withdrawal of money from that account required his father’s signature until he was 21. So he had negotiated with Mr. Barker the owner of the pistols to make a down payment and then to make the final payment no later than today. He had had the money two weeks ago but with ranch chores, and then the blizzard, he had not been able to get into town to make the final payment and claim his father’s gift. If he didn’t go tonight, Mr. Barker had another client, anxious to purchase them. He had told Little Joe that if he didn’t get there by midnight on the 20th, he would sell them to the other client. Joe had to get those pistols for his father—he knew he would love them. He had seen him look at similar pistols and point out the flaws in them and what a prize pair looked like. The workmanship in these pistols was exquisite and they both fired straight and true–a good feature in a dueling pistol, he guessed. Unconsciously, he chuckled when he thought that, causing the other three Cartwrights to look at him quizzically.

“And what is so funny, young man?” his Father asked smiling at him.

Joe realized he must have laughed out loud and replied, “Oh I was just thinking about how surprised Adam and Hoss were when that bucket of snow dumped on ‘em.” he said and laughed again. Ben laughed with him, thinking about how many times Little Joe had gotten them with the same trick. At first Hoss and Adam frowned, but then they looked at each other and laughed too.

“One of these days, little brother, one of these days.”; Hoss’s threat was implied, not real, and they all knew it.

After dinner they moved over to the living room and began a quiet evening. Ben worked on the account books for a short time, then retreated to his favorite chair with his pipe and a book. Adam read by the fire, and Joe and Hoss played checkers. Hoss sat on the sofa, while Joe perched on the table. Ben started to tell him to get off the furniture, but decided to not notice it instead. He was relieved that Joe had given in gracefully on the proposed trip into Virginia City; he could have remained sullen and withdrawn all evening and ruined a pleasant evening at home—he certainly had ways of showing his displeasure—just like Marie, Ben thought again.

Oddly enough, Joe was the first one to start showing signs of becoming sleepy, yawning and stretching at about 8:30. After a few minutes of that, Ben said, “Joseph, if you are that sleepy, why don’t you go on to bed and stop fighting it, son?”

Joe looked around and said, “Well Adam unless you want to give me a real game of checkers, I might as well.” hoping against all hope that Adam wouldn’t surprise him and agree to a game of checkers.

“Well I appreciate the offer Joe, but I am in no mood to be beat by my little brother at checkers tonight. Now if you want to play chess, that is a little more competitive.”

Joe breathed an inward sigh of relief and replied, “Nope, Adam, too boring. I might as well go on to bed.” With that he got up and headed toward the stairs, “Good night everybody.”

*****

Joe went into his room and quickly glanced around, taking stock of what he would need for the trip to Virginia City. Unfortunately his warmest coat was downstairs, so he would have to wear another one. He put on extra layers of clothes to make sure he would be warm for the ride. He had to work quickly because he had to leave before his family went to bed. He usually waited until everyone else had gone to bed before he sneaked out of the house. Tonight however, he was going before they came up to bed. This of course meant that more than likely his father would be waiting up for him when he returned, and would be furious, but he knew that if he waited for his father to go to bed, he wouldn’t make it on time to retrieve the pistols. His father, out of long habit, continued to stop in to tell him goodnight, as he used to do when he was young. So his absence would be discovered quickly, but he figured once he was gone, his father would opt to deal with him when he returned, rather than go looking for him. AT least he hoped that he would. Well that can’t be helped, he thought as he eased the window open and slipped outside.

Once outside, he lowered the window, leaving it open just enough so he would be able to get it open from the outside. Then he quickly and quietly crept to the end of the house, down the column supporting the porch, and a short drop to the ground. This was old hat to Joe, he had been doing it since he was a little kid. He had gotten away with it for several years, but as he got older and started sneaking out at night and staying longer, his father had caught on and one night, the inevitable happened—Joe slipped out, went into Virginia City and came home and climbed into his bedroom window, and just as he was quietly closing the window—his father lit the lantern in his room. That had been a bad episode between him and his father. Joe continued to do it occasionally, but the memory of the anger and disappointment in his father’s eyes made him enjoy it a little bit less each time. Still, there were times that Joe felt compelled to do it because of what he felt were unreasonable restrictions placed on him by his father, and sometimes with the assistance of his older brothers, which really irritated him.

Joe quietly slipped into the barn and closed the door before lighting the lantern. He walked over to Cochise and gave him a sugar cube and patted his head. Speaking softly, he said, “Coch, I am going to ride Midnight tonight. I don’t want you out tonight after the work you did today. You just rest.” He looked at him as if to say, “Okay by me, I don’t want to go out in the cold again anyhow.” He chuckled and went and quickly saddled the black stallion he had named Midnight. Midnight was a bigger horse than Cochise and although he was slower and not as easy for Joe to handle, he would be fresh for the ride into Virginia City. Joe led Midnight out the back door of the barn and quietly mounted him when he was sure he was out of hearing distance from the house.

The ride into Virginia City was cold and long. Several times he had to stop and clear snow or ice from the pass before he could continue. He was glad that he hadn’t ridden Cochise, he wouldn’t want to risk him getting injured. He mentally apologized to Midnight, hoping Midnight didn’t get injured either. The trip took him about 2 hours longer than normal. He rode very slowly and very carefully, sticking exactly to the middle of the road, so as to minimize the risk of the horse slipping. He realized halfway there that he would not be taking Jennifer to any dance tonight. He figured that was just as well, because the closer her got to Virginia City, the more he thought of how angry his father was going to be, and the less he was looking forward to the inevitable encounter when he returned. He knew he would be even angrier since he couldn’t tell him why it was so important that he make the trip. His Pa wouldn’t look too kindly on this trip if he thought the only reason he did it was to take a girl to a dance. But he couldn’t tell him that wasn’t the real reason, otherwise that would spoil the surprise. “I will just have to take it like a man” he thought grimly. At least, he made it into Virginia City in plenty of time to meet his deadline. He thought to himself, “See I knew they were just being over-protective”.

He stabled his horse and made sure he was comfortable, then headed over to retrieve his father’s Christmas gift from Mr. Barker. “Maybe I can just get it and get back before Pa knows I am gone” he thought optimistically, never one to dwell on the negative. When he got to the storefront, he found the doors closed and locked and the window shades drawn. He was a little alarmed, wondering if Mr. Barker had decided he wasn’t coming and had sold his father’s pistols to the other customer. He was about to go to Mr. Barker’s house to see if he could find him there, when he saw a flicker of light in the store. “That is strange, I wonder what he is doing in there?” he thought to himself.

He went back to the door and knocked loudly. At first there was no response, but seeing the light still moving, he knocked louder. Finally, he heard Mr. Barker say, “Go away. Can’t you see I am closed?”

After the trouble he had gone to get here and considering the trouble he would be in when he got home, there was no way he was going home without those pistols. “It’s Joe Cartwright, Mr. Barker. I came to get those pistols.”

“I said I am closed.” Mr. Barker said again.

“You told me I had until midnight, Mr. Barker, and I am not leaving without those pistols. Now you gonna open up and let me pick them up, or am I gonna break down the door?” Joe asked determinedly.

After another short silence, Mr. Barker said, “Alright, just a minute, Cartwright” and soon after that the door opened and Joe went in. When he got inside and his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he found himself facing two armed men, with one aiming a gun at him; the other gun was aimed at Mr. Barker, who was opening his safe. Joe immediately reached for his gun, but as he brought it out, he felt another gun pushed directly in his back.

“I wouldn’t advise it, boy.” the man holding that gun said. One of the other men relieved Joe of his gun. “You git over there where we can see you, boy and be quick about it.”

“Man, when will I ever learn to take good advice?“ Joe asked himself out loud as he was pushed over against the other side of the wall.

“I tried to send you away, son. I am sorry ‘bout this.”

“You shut up and get that safe open. We ain’t got all night.” one of the men growled.

About that time Mr. Barker clicked another number on the big combination lock and the door of the safe swung open. The man nearest him, shoved him aside and began rifling through the contents. He was excited as he found two bank deposit bags, both full of cash. He quickly withdrew them and put them in a saddlebag, then he turned back to look at the other contents of the safe. He pulled out jewelry, watches, and two matching dueling pistols and began stuffing them into the bag. “Hey, wait a minute you can’t take those” Joe said moving toward the man. The sudden, unexpected movement startled one of the men and he turned and raised his gun, hitting Little Joe over the head forcefully. Joe’s eyes opened wide and he took one small step toward the man, then crumpled to the floor. Mr. Barker moved to go toward him and one of the other men fired his gun, and he too, fell to the floor.

The robbers quickly scooped up their loot and said, “Let’s get out of here. Someone might have heard that shot.” They grabbed the loot and exited through the back door and went to the other side of the alley to a small shed where they had hidden their horses, mounted and rode away.

*****

Sometime later, Little Joe became aware of being cold, then slowly he became aware of a splitting headache. Gradually he regained consciousness and remembered what had happened. He fumbled around in the dark and found a lantern and lit it and turned toward Mr. Barker. He was relieved to see his wound was in the shoulder and didn’t look too bad. Mr. Barker was still unconscious. Joe slowly rose and stumbled to the door and opened it, quickly scanning the streets, he saw they were deserted. He went back in and made Mr. Barker comfortable, covering him with a coat he found hanging on the coat rack, and told the unconscious man, “I’m going for the Doc, I’ll be right back.” With that, he made his way out the door into the cold night, still a little shaky on his feet. He went by the Doc’s office and there was no answer, so he headed toward the Sheriff’s office for help. He was relieved when he opened the door of the office because he saw the Doc playing checkers with Roy Coffee.

Both of them looked up and immediately rose and went towards Joe when they say his appearance. He was looking quite pale from the blow to the head. They helped him to sit down and the Doc grabbed his arm, feeling for a pulse. Joe roughly pulled his arm away and said, “You need to get over to Barker’s Emporium, he’s been shot, Doc. He’s the one who needs you, not me.”

Dr. Martin took a look at Joe, sizing up the extent of his injuries, and determined he could wait for further treatment. He said, “Alright, I will go on over to see about Barker. You wait right here ’til I get back. Roy, help him lie down before you come over. Wait right there, Joe,” he repeated once more, looking directly into Joe’s eyes. “You hear me?” He repeated.

“Yeah, yeah I hear you.” Joe said. “Hurry up, Doc, he is bleeding really bad.” Joe lied in order to get the Doc on his way. He knew the wound had already stopped bleeding.

Roy Coffee put his arm around Joe and led him to a cot in the nearest cell and forced him to lie down. “Now, Joe tell me what happened.”

Joe related the events of the robbery as quickly and concisely as possible. He was able to give a very good description of the men. “Roy, if you hurry, we can catch ‘em, they can’t have too much of a headstart” he told the Sheriff, although in fact, he had no idea how long he was out from the blow to the head.

“Joe what time was it when you got to the store?” Roy asked.

Joe, staring at the clock behind Roy, knew this was a crucial question. He knew if the Sheriff thought they had too much of a head start, he would not lead a posse out that late at night, but would opt to wait for daybreak instead. Seeing it was 1 am, meaning that he had been out a lot longer than he had realized, he made a decision. “Roy I don’t know for sure, I just had to be at Barker’s before midnight, and you know how I am about being late.” This of course was an evasion of the truth, but not a lie—not exactly, anyway.

Roy chuckled, “Yeah Joe I been hearing about your being late for everything ‘cept your birth your whole life.”

Joe again said, “Roy if we hurry we can catch ‘em.”

The Sheriff took in Joe’s appearance, he was pale, his eyes were a little glassy, and he was shivering slightly. “Joe I am gonna go over and see how bad off Barker is, then I will see about rounding up a posse to leave at daybreak. You ain’t in no shape to go on a posse. I am gonna send someone to take you home first thing in the morning. In the meantime, you just lie down and rest ‘til the Doc gets back. You hear me, Joe? You stay right here ‘til me and the Doc gets back. Ya hear?” the Sheriff repeated, loudly this time.”

Joe took a deep breath and sighed, “Why does everybody think I am hard of hearing? Yeah I hear you.”

Roy smiled when he heard that and said, “Why, indeed, Little Joe?” With that he went out of the cell for a moment and returned with a bigger blanket. “Here, you just lie back here and rest ‘til me and the Doc get back. We won’t be long.” He covered Joe up and thought how he was glad he wasn’t having to send someone to tell Ben Cartwright that his youngest son had been shot, just a few days before Christmas, at that.”

Joe lay on the cot until he heard the front door of the jail close, then he sat up slowly, to keep from aggravating the dizziness he was feeling. From experience he had learned that dizziness accompanied being hit over the head. He wasted no time, however, in getting up and going to the front door of the jail. He opened it cautiously, looking to see if there was anyone nearby. Not seeing anyone, he quickly left the jail and headed towards the stable where he had left Midnight. He found himself regretting leaving Cochise at home; he would have preferred to be riding him for the job of tracking the robbers. He knew Roy Coffee wouldn’t leave before morning and with the looks of the weather, there was more snow coming and any tracks the robbers left would be long covered by then. If he was going to get his father’s Christmas gift back, he had to leave right then. He had thought about leaving a note in the jail, but he knew it would have done nothing to decrease the worry or the anger his father would have and it would have just taken more time.

He quickly saddled Midnight, taking time to collect some extra feed for her, just in case. He then mounted and rode to the alley behind Barker’s Emporium. He was able to easily pick up the trail left by the men since there was hardly anyone out on such a cold night. He followed the tracks to the main road leading from Virginia City and continued following them on the road toward Placerville. He pulled his hat down on his head and buttoned his coat up all the way, and determined to ignore the biting chill to the wind. He knew his best hope was to catch up with the men before the snow started to fall. If he could figure out their likely destination, he might be able to find a way around so that he could there ahead of them and surprise them. He really didn’t spend too much time thinking of how he intended to get the pistols back—he just knew he would get them back, one way or another.

*****

Ben and Adam and Hoss stayed downstairs for another 30 minutes, then Hoss decided that he would go on up to bed too. “Well Pa, I am going to turn in too. I will see you in the morning.”

“Good night Hoss. Sleep well.” Ben smiled at his middle son.

Adam said, “First one up gets to do all the chores in the morning.”

“Well big Brother, I think I will plan on sleeping as late as Little Joe tomorrow then.” Hoss laughed. It was a fact of life they accepted—Little Joe hated to get up early. He usually hated to go to bed early, too. Hoss decided to see if there was something bothering Little Joe that was his real reason for going to bed early. He walked up to the door, listened for a second, and not hearing anything opened the door and went in. He never felt the need to knock at Little Joe’s door–he knew he was welcome. What he saw though, caused a look of surprise and growing concern—-Joe wasn’t in the room, and the window was open just a crack. Hoss crossed over and looked out the window and could clearly see the tracks left in the snow going across the roof and then from the side of the house to the barn door. Little Joe had sneaked out of the house. Hoss berated himself for not realizing that was his plan all along. Joe was seldom deterred so easily from his plans as he had been that night at dinner. Hoss debated for a few seconds what he should do. He hated to go to his father and tell him what Joe had done because he didn’t want to get him into any trouble and he knew his father would be furious. But he also was worried that Joe was out in the snow alone and was afraid he could be in danger and he didn’t want the responsibility of worrying all by himself. Besides when his father came up to bed, he would undoubtedly check on Joe as he always did and not finding him, he would ask Hoss if he knew he was gone earlier. Hoss figured his best option was to go tell his father now.

Sighing, he turned back and headed down the stairs back into the great room. Ben and Adam looked up curiously when they saw him, unasked questions on their faces. “Pa.” Hoss began.

“Yes, Hoss, what is it?” Ben asked.

“Pa, it’s…well, it’s Little Joe.” he started again, not wanting to have to tell his father.

“What about Little Joe, Hoss?” Ben asked rising out of his chair and coming towards Hoss.

Hoss took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then looking his father directly in his eyes, he said. “Joe isn’t in his room, Pa. Looks like he went out the window.” By this time both Ben and Adam were off their feet. Adam took the stairs, two at a time, as if Hoss might have just overlooked Little Joe and he would find him sleeping in his bed. Ben just stood there, a look of shock on his face. Adam quickly rejoined his father and brother, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head in response to his father’s look.

“Go look and see if Cochise is in the barn, Hoss, please. Though I suspect it is a foregone conclusion that your brother has gone to Virginia City per his earlier intentions. Why would I expect him to start listening to reason now, just because it is about 20 degrees outside with snow and ice on the ground and more snow coming?” Ben said, pacing the floor in front of the large stone fireplace. Hoss had already gone out to check the barn, and Adam stood by, trying to think of what he could say to calm down his father. He knew his father didn’t really expect an answer but he hated to see him so worked up. He knew however his father wouldn’t rest until Little Joe was home. It had always been like that, and unfortunately, Little Joe didn’t give any signs of changing anytime soon. He couldn’t think of anyone, young or old, more stubborn that his little brother.

Adam sometimes felt his father made it worse by being unnecessarily protective of him, making him more determined to go his own way. But tonight, he fully agreed with his father—it was too dangerous for anyone to be out there alone. His father was still pacing and getting angrier by the minute, Adam felt he had to try to say something to lighten the mood, so he said, “Well Pa, you know Joe and Cochise make such a good team, you know they will be alright.”

Hoss had re-entered the room just as Adam said that statement, and both Adam and Ben caught the look of dismay that crossed his face when he heard it. “He ain’t on Cochise, he’s in the barn in his stall.” Hoss said, not wanting to give the next bit of information.

“What horse is he riding, Hoss?” Ben asked. “Looks like he took ol’ Midnight, Pa.”

“Midnight!” Adam exclaimed, “Now why in the world would he take Midnight?” Midnight had a reputation for being hard to handle, and despite the fact that the stallion was big and powerful, he took a lot of attention to control.

Ben sighed and said, “Well I’m going after him. It’s up to you two whether or not you come with me.” There was no question they were going with him.

“Pa, we’ll all go with you. Just promise me one thing, Pa.” Adam said. “What’s that son?” “Can I have first crack at him when we do find him?” Ben looked a little puzzled, then broke out into a smile and they all laughed just a little.

The ride into Virginia City was cold and hard. Heavy wet snow began to fall about halfway there. They had been able to make out Joe’s tracks easily for the first part of the trip. They had seen where he had stopped to walk the horse through some treacherous places a couple of times but hadn’t seen any evidence that he had any real trouble. By the time they reached Virginia City, they were almost numb from the cold, despite being in their heaviest winter coats and being dressed for the weather. By the time they got there, it was close to 4 AM. They were unsure where to start looking for Little Joe, but Ben thought they should look at the hotel, hoping that after the dance, he had decided not to risk the trip back home and had checked into to spend the night. They rode up to the hotel and tied their horses to the hitching post and went inside, shaking the snow off as they entered. Adam and Hoss made straight for the fireplace to get warm, while Ben went to the clerk’s desk and rang the bell. After several minutes, a sleepy-looking clerk came out, yawning. He straightened up when he saw who was standing there. “Yes, sir Mr. Cartwright, may I help you? Do you want your usual room?” he asked. Ben or his sons frequently stayed here overnight when the weather conditions were considered too bad to make the trip home safely.

“Gus, I am looking for Joseph. Is he here?”

“No, sir, I haven’t seen Little Joe since the town social two weeks ago. Jennifer was awful put out that he didn’t get to come in to the dance tonight in fact.”

“You’re saying Joe wasn’t at the dance tonight, Gus?”

“No, sir, Jennifer was right put out, too. Said she was surprised that a little snow would keep Joe from coming to the dance.” But as he continued, Ben looked at Adam and Hoss who had come up behind him at that bit of news.

“Now what?” Hoss said.

“Let’s try the Bucket of Blood.” Ben said grimly. “Perhaps he made it too late to get to the dance, and decided to play poker instead.” His youngest son’s poker-playing hobby had been a bone of contention between him and his father since Joe had first learned to play by hanging out in the bunkhouse with the ranch hands. They remounted their horses and rode off toward the Bucket of Blood. When they got there, they quickly entered and looked around—the saloon was virtually empty. Two men were asleep at a table and the bartender was dozing in a chair behind the bar.

“Hank, Hank. Wake up.” Hoss said, impatiently, because he was getting worried. What if Joe had been thrown off Midnight and they had missed him and ridden right past him in the snow? He could be frozen to death by now.

Hank sputtered awake, and said, without missing a beat, “What can I get for you fellas?”

“We just want to know if you have seen Little Joe in here tonight, Hank.” Adam said.

“Little Joe? No I haven’t seen him since last Saturday night.”

Adam almost said something but caught himself and closed his mouth. He wondered if his father would remember that last Saturday night Joe has been restricted to the Ponderosa, or so they had thought.

“Thanks, Hank.” Ben said abruptly and he turned to leave, followed closely by Hoss and Adam.

“You boys go take the horses and put them in the stable. I am going to go see if Roy Coffee has seen that young son of mine. When I do catch up with him, he is going to have some powerful explaining to do. I just wonder if he EVER listens when I tell him something. I might as well be talking to myself as talking to him.” That answered Adam’s unasked question—his father remembered, alright. He was glad he wasn’t going to be in his little brother’s shoes when his father did catch up with him. He was going to be doing extra work for a long time and wasn’t going to be leaving the Ponderosa for a long time either.

Adam and Hoss led the horses across the street to the livery stable and Ben headed down the street to the Sheriff’s office. He opened the door and was surprised to see Roy Coffee and Doc Martin in deep discussion. They both looked up at him as if they had seen a ghost. Paul Martin recovered first, “Ben, we were just talking about you.” he started. Ben got right to the point,

“Roy I am looking for Little Joe. Have you seen him?”

Roy began to nod his head as he listened to Ben’s question. In fact, he and Paul had just been talking about Ben—they had been arguing about which one of them should get the unpleasant job of telling him what his youngest son was apparently up to. Neither of them had wanted the task. “Yeah, Ben I’ve seen him.” Roy responded, trying to buy some time while he decided the best way to tell his friend the circumstances.

“Roy don’t beat around the bush. Have you got my son locked up? Is that what you are trying not to tell me?” he asked, his voice rising perceptibly.

Roy shook his head and waved his hands at Ben, trying to head off another barrage of questions. “No, Ben, I wish I hadda locked him up—that’s what I shoulda done.” Roy said.

“Now what are you saying? Is my son in some kind of trouble?” Ben asked, his voice several octaves louder by now.

“Well, yes and no, Ben.” He ain’t in no kind of legal trouble, if that’s what you mean.”

“WHAT KIND OF TROUBLE IS HE IN THEN?” he was shouting at this point. Hoss and Adam had entered the jail to hear the last exchanges between Ben and Roy.

Roy looked pleadingly at Paul Martin, obviously wanting some help dealing with the distraught parent in front of them. Paul said, “Ben, Joe walked in on an armed robbery at Barker’s Emporium”. He was watching Ben’s face as he said this and he saw the color drain from his friend’s face. He wanted to reassure him. “I’m sure he’s alright, Ben” he said. This statement further confused Ben, what did the Doc mean he was “sure he was alright.”

Roy Coffee stepped in again; they were functioning as a tag team. “Clive Barker got shot, and Joe got hit over the head with a gun and blacked out for awhile. He was a little dizzy is all and probably has a bad headache.”

This time Hoss could stand it no longer, he interrupted, “Doc, where is Little Joe now?” Both Roy and Paul took a deep breath before attempting to answer that question.

Finally, Roy said, “Well Ben, Doc and me was playing checkers when Little Joe come in and said Clive Barker had been shot. Doc here looked at Joe and”….he looked at Paul to take up the conversation…”

“I looked Little Joe over, he had got hit over the head with a gun and knocked out, he had a lump the size of my fist and I am sure he had a concussion. I put him to bed in one of Roy’s cells, but he told me Clive was bleeding bad, so I went over to see about him. Ben, I told Joe to wait right here for me.”

Roy took it up again as the three Cartwrights waited, they figured they would get the whole story sooner if they let them tell it their own way, although each of them had already guessed what had happened, they waited, hoping that their fears would not be realized. “Ben, I made Joe lay down and covered him up with a blanket on account of he was looking a little peaked. An’ I told him more than once to stay right there ‘til the Doc and me got back. I told him I would send someone to ride home with him this mornin’. Ben I swear I told him to stay right here. I did everything ‘cept lock the cell and I wished I’d done that. I just didn’t think Little Joe would be so all-fired determined to go after them robbers—but he seemed to take it personally.”

Ben felt the need to reassure his friends that he didn’t hold them responsible for the impulsive actions of his youngest son. “Roy, Paul, I am sure you did your best to reason with Joe. I certainly know that talking to that young man is like talking to a barn wall sometimes. What else can you tell me about the whereabouts and the condition of my son?”

“Well, Ben, Clive Barker wasn’t hurt that bad, he was shot in the shoulder but it went clean through. I patched him up and sent Charlie to take him home, then Roy and I came back to see about Little Joe and, well, Ben, he was gone. Without a trace. He must have left right after we did.”

Roy interrupted again at this point. “I done had Clem and Charles out looking for tracks, but we got mebbe 4 or 5 inches of snow since then and there just ain’t no tracks left, Ben. It is my opinion that Little Joe went after those robbers, but I ain’t got no way of knowing which way they went. There ain’t no hope of following them. They could have gone in any direction. I just ain’t got no idee where they went from here. Now Doc here says I can talk to Clive come daylight and I can get a description from him and put out some wires and see if I can get any information on ’em. If I can then we will have an idea where they are headed and ……”

Ben interrupted, “And then we will know where Little Joe has gone.” he concluded Roy’s sentence.

“Yep, Ben, that is the way I figger it.”

Ben took another deep breath and closed his eyes briefly, as if the news were more than he could bear. Hoss and Adam looked at their Pa and then at each other, at a loss as to how to comfort him. “Dadburn that Little Joe, Pa. When I get home, I am going to nail that window shut with 10-inch nails and we’ll see if that’ll keep him from pullin’ this trick again!” B

Ben said, “Right now all I can think of is getting him home again. Then we will worry about keeping him there.” he said with a pained, worried expression on his face.

*****

December 22, 1864

 

Joe followed the trail of the robbers all night, stopping only occasionally to rest his horse. He patted him and spoke to him, encouraging him and trying to keep him from becoming rebellious as he sometimes did. He knew that it was hard on the horse to be out in the cold and snow and he wanted to make it as easy on him as possible. He dismounted and walked the horse around any icy patches, trying to prevent the horse from slipping and injuring himself. He knew that if the horse were to become disabled and not be able to continue that likely he and the horse would freeze to death. He was glad he had gotten started as soon as he did. As it was, he figured he was not too far behind the robbers. They were taking their time, not expecting anyone to be following them in this kind of weather, so he was able to follow their trail. They had been headed towards Placerville at first, but had turned off the main road onto a trail that led toward the hills and a densely wooded area. Joe figured that they must have a hideout somewhere in the foothills, and realized that it would be a perfect hideout, because the sheriff would likely send wires to all the surrounding towns, but would not likely search all the trails leading off the main roads. Even if the Sheriff put together a posse, it was not likely that they would go off onto this trail as there were literally dozens of them between every main road in every direction leaving Virginia City. He doubted that the sheriff would even bother to put together a posse, since he knew that Mr. Barker was really not injured too bad; he had had shoulder injuries much worse than that of Mr. Barker, so he was sure he would recover. And if Mr. Barker was the only person robbed, there wouldn’t be too much incentive to track them down; it wasn’t like they had robbed the bank or the Wells Fargo office. Robbing the Emporium was a good idea, it gave them a reasonable haul and decreased their chances of being apprehended.

As he rode along in the cold, he thought of his family and the worry that his actions would undoubtedly cause his father and brothers. He regretted that, yet, he felt compelled to apprehend the robbers and retrieve those guns—he wanted to give his father a special gift. One that would show him how much he loved him and that his father would truly enjoy. Pa loved his gun collection, he kept them all cleaned and oiled and carefully protected. When something was worrying him or when he was sad, his father had a tendency to get out some of his prize weapons and clean them, his fingers caressing the fine etchings and carvings lovingly. Joe was determined his father would have a matched set of dueling pistols to enjoy come Christmas morning. He would retrieve those guns or die trying, he thought to himself. The irony of his statement did not register in his mind—that his father would much prefer to have his son at home and safe than to have him risking his life to give him a gift.

Ben, Adam, and Hoss spent a restless few hours after they left the Sheriff’s office. They checked into a suite at the International Hotel, but neither of them even pretended to go to bed. They finally went downstairs to order an early breakfast and wait for 7:00 am when they were to meet the doc and the sheriff to talk to Clive Barker to see if they could get any ideas as to where the outlaws were going. They tried to make conversation as they waited, though none of them could think of anything except the one that wasn’t there. For the thousandth time, Ben said, “I just can’t understand what Little Joe was doing in Barker’s Emporium that late at night anyway. And why didn’t he go to the dance if that was why he sneaked out of the house. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Adam and Hoss were just as baffled as their Pa, “Me neither, Pa. I betcha Little Joe had a reason though.”

“Oh yeah, I am sure he had a reason–it probably only makes sense to him, but he’ll have a reason, I’m sure.” When they were served, they ate their breakfast in silence, each occupied with thoughts they didn’t want to share with the others, as if saying them out loud might make them come true. Even Hoss had little appetite that morning, but they ate because it was something concrete they could do to fill the time.

Finally at 6:30, they could stand it no longer and decided to go on over to meet Roy Coffee at the sheriff’s office. They met Paul Martin on the way and they all went in to Roy’s office. Roy was drinking the last of his morning coffee, and he said, “I’ll be right with you. Just let me get my coat.” Once he was dressed for the weather, they all again braved the cold and snow to make their way to Clive Barker’s house. When they arrived, they were ushered inside by a maid, but were met very shortly by Mrs. Barker, who led them into the parlor.

Doc Martin went back to check on Clive first, after about 20 minutes he came out and speaking to the maid, he said, “Margaret, why don’t you bring Mr. Barker some breakfast? He says he would like some of your sausage and biscuits.” Laughing, Margaret said, “Yes, sir, Doc, you tell him I am cooking them right now.”

Dr. Martin turned to the sheriff and said, “Roy, he’s fine. Go on in and talk to him. Ben why don’t you come, too? Boys, if you wouldn’t mind waiting…..” he indicated to Hoss and Adam, who had jumped up at his arrival into the room.

“Sure” they said, realizing that there was no need for all of them to go in.

“Pa, ask him what Little Joe was doing in there, anyway.” Hoss advised his father.

“Don’t worry, Hoss, I will find out everything I can.” Ben patted his middle son on the back and quickly followed the Doc and the Sheriff into the bedroom.

Clive Barker was propped up on pillows in the big four-poster bed, and his wife was handing him a glass of water. “Hello, Sheriff, I was hoping you would be coming by this morning. They cleaned me out last night.”

Roy Coffee waited until Mrs. Barker had made her husband comfortable, then said, “Clive I am glad you are gonna be okay. Did you get a good look at the robbers?”

“Yeah, Roy, I got a real good look at ’em.”

“Have you ever seen ’em before?” Roy asked, hoping he would be able to give him some names.

“Well they came in the store earlier in the afternoon and spent a lot of time picking out a gold pocket watch, then they said they would have to think about it and come back later.”

“Then just as I was coming back from dinner, they came back in. You know I have to stay open late the last couple of weeks before Christmas on account of the miners and some of the ranchers that can’t get into town earlier, so I didn’t think nothing of it. But before I knew what happened, all three of ’em had their guns out and one of ’em closed the door and pulled the window shades and turned down the light. Then they told me to open the safe and give ’em the money.”

“What did they look like, Clive? Can you describe ’em for me?”

Mr. Barker gave Roy a fairly good description of each of the three robbers.

“That should help, Clive. I’ll get wires out all over the territory as soon as the telegraph wires are working again. Somebody somewhere will know somethin’ about ’em.”

Ben could stand the suspense no longer, interrupted and asked, “Mr. Barker, how did my son get involved in this?”

Mr. Barker seemed to notice Ben for the first time and said, “Oh Mr. Cartwright, I didn’t notice you there. What happened to Joe? Did they shoot him too?”, as he asked this he was rising from the bed in his desire to hear news about Joe.

Doc Martin put his hand on his shoulder and pushed him back toward the bed. “No, Clive, they just knocked him out. He is the one who came and told us about the robbery.”

“Oh, good.” He said.

“Please continue Clive,” Roy Coffee said.

“Well I was opening the safe, I was just gonna give ’em what they wanted, you see…”

“And what happened?” Ben interrupted again. Roy gave Ben a “Be quiet look” and Ben returned his gaze with a “Not ’til I get my questions answered” look.

“Well that was when Little Joe came to the door. I tried to send him away but he said he wouldn’t leave until I opened the door.”

This time Ben and Roy both interrupted the story at the same time, “Why was he so insistent?”

Dr. Martin, concerned about his patient, interrupted before they got an answer. “Gentlemen, I am sorry but you are just going to have to wait. Clive needs to get some rest. You can talk to him again later on today. You have what you need to start working on don’t you?”

Ben started to protest, but looked again at Clive’s face and realized that Paul was right. And it really didn’t matter why his son had done what he had done at this point. The only important thing was to find him and bring him home. THEN he would deal with him about why he did such a fool thing.

*****

Joe was beginning to think the men were never going to stop–he had followed their trail higher and higher into the rocky elevations and he and Midnight were exhausted. He was glad he had thought to get grain for Midnight, otherwise he never would have made it in the cold. Several times he had had to get off the horse and guide him through thick snow drifts. He was so cold he was numb, but he couldn’t turn back. He never even considered that. He wished he had thought to get some food for himself; he had a constant gnawing feeling in his stomach, reminding him that he had not eaten in almost 24 hours. He ignored this feeling as well, focusing only on following the men. He had gotten close enough to them now that he could hear them talking to each other. He made out two names—Mark and David—but he never heard the other man’s name. He followed them doggedly.

Just as he was beginning to think his horse would not make it any further, he realized that the men were heading to a little protected clearing in the cleft of the mountain side. Joe slowed down and went around and went a little higher so that he could see clearly what was going on. He found a sheltered area and tied his horse, first giving him the last of his water and the grain he had brought. He covered the horse with a blanket from his bedroll to keep him from chilling too much as he cooled down. Joe carefully eased around the rocks, keeping covered until he could see the clearing. There was a cabin built directly against the back of the mountain, sheltered by the overhang of the mountain. It was really ingenious, Joe thought, because the cabin was pretty much protected from the fierce wind and the heaviest of rain or snow. There was a small but adequate stable nearby and Joe could see that the men had stabled their horses there. He saw two of the men entering the cabin, carrying the saddlebags that contained the loot from the Emporium, including the dueling pistols. Since there was now a fire going in the cabin, Joe figured the other man had gone in ahead of those two.

Joe knew that at this time, he was not in good shape to take on three armed men. He knew that his best chance to take them would be tonight, when their guard was down and they were sleeping. However, he knew that he had to get some rest and some food in the meantime. He could not risk hunting for game because they would hear the rifle fire. He decided to snare a hare. Before he did that, he cautiously sneaked down to the stable and procured some fresh feed for his horse, then he rubbed him down good and tied him in a spot that was both sheltered from the elements but also hidden. He talked to the horse softly as he cared for him. Just because this horse could be a little testy and unpredictable, his family didn’t like him. In fact, Joe had had to stand up to his father and assert his authority as the designated manager of the horse business of the Ponderosa because his father had insisted that he be sold. That was one battle Little Joe had won, though it had not been easy. His father was a stubborn man when his mind was made up, Joe thought.

After Joe had cared for Midnight and made sure he was comfortable and safe, he set about setting up a trap for a hare. He had seen tracks so he hoped he would be lucky enough to catch one. He set up the snare near a little stream that had flowing water, thinking that would be a logical spot to catch something. As he was turning to leave, he spotted a magnificent buck with about an eight-rack antler. “Hmmm hmm” he said out loud. “I sure wish Hoss could have seen that beauty.” Thinking of Hoss made him momentarily sad, he knew his brother would worry about him and would wish he were with him. Sighing, he went back to where the horse was and spread out his bedroll and lay down for a nap. He didn’t plan on sleeping long, but he was so exhausted, that by the time he laid out his bedroll, after carefully scanning the area, he was asleep by the time his head hit the blanket practically.

He awoke suddenly, alerted by some sense, he quickly sat up and scanned the horizon. He saw a small herd of deer running through the meadow, that must have been what woke him. He sat back down once he saw the danger had passed, dizzy from the head injury, exhaustion, and lack of food. He sat still for another few minutes, waiting for the dizziness to pass, then he rose slowly. By looking at the level of the sun, he guessed that it was around 3 or 4 o’clock. He hadn’t meant to sleep that long, but the rest probably did him good. He went to check on the activity of the cabin and saw the fire was still going and there was no movement visible and no tracks outside the cabin—all was quiet. He then went to check his snare and was lucky because there was one limp, fat hare. He quickly skinned the hare and made a very small cooking fire, well downwind and out of range from the cabin, so the smoke could neither be seen nor smelled by the occupants of the cabin. While the hare cooked, he tried to warm his hands and feet by the fire. He would have loved to build a great big roaring fire, but he couldn’t take the chance of alerting the outlaws to his presence. As soon as he hare was done, he ate about half of it, electing to save the rest to eat later, in case he didn’t get an opportunity to build another snare or light another fire. After eating, he wrapped himself up in his bedroll and backed up against the mountain and tried to stay warm while he waited for the right time to try to surprise the outlaws. He thought he would try around midnight or a little later. Finally, huddled in a small crevice in the mountain, he dozed again.

After leaving the Barker’s house, Roy Coffee had checked on the condition of the telegraph service and was pleased to find out most of the surrounding towns had service. He sent wires to all the neighboring towns with operational telegraph wires and left instructions to send the same wire to the other towns as soon as they were functional again. In all he sent wires to 5 towns, and left instructions to send to three more, including Placerville. Ben, Hoss, and Adam had gone over to Barker’s Emporium and looked to see if they could find any sign that might have been overlooked. There had been so much snow since last night that there were no tracks of any kind visible. They had absolutely no idea in which direction the robbers or Little Joe had gone. By mid-day, the snow was coming down harder and outside conditions were dangerously cold. Sheriff Roy Coffee came and with the assistance of Adam, forced Hoss and Ben to go inside and warm up. Neither Hoss nor Ben was thinking logically at that time—their desire to find something—anything—that might lead them to Little Joe overcame their common sense. Finally Roy, Adam, and Doc Martin convinced them to come inside and get warm before they became ill or got frostbitten themselves.

As the daylight finally ended, and dawn came, the three Cartwrights had realized they were not going to be able to track Little Joe unless they received some answer from the telegraphs Roy sent that might give them an idea of which direction to head. Once again, the Cartwrights headed over to the International House after getting assurances from Roy that if any helpful responses came in to any of the telegrams he would send for them and from the Doc that if Clive remembered anything that would help them, he would send for them. They ordered a meal to be sent to their room; they were in no mood to be sociable to the occasional diner they might meet in the hotel dining room. Ben stood at the window for a long time staring at the falling snow, driven by a hard, northerly wind and wondered where his youngest son was. Hoss and Adam tried to comfort him and each other, but none of them was fooled. They knew if Joe was out in that storm, they would be lucky to find him at all, much less still alive. Finally they settled in for another long evening and night of worry and little sleep.

*****

December 23, 1864

 

Joe again slept longer than he had planned and when he awoke, he felt more rested, but the cold was taking its toll on him. He was cold to the bone, his arms and legs were stiff. He forced himself to get up and move around to try to get his blood circulating. He estimated it to be about four in the morning and knew it was as good a time as any to try to pull off his surprise attack. He checked on Midnight and found him to be reasonably comfortable. He was not used to being out in the weather, but the mountain and outcropping of rocks and the blankets that Joe had covered him with, rather than using them himself, had been sufficient to ward off the brunt of the bone-numbing chill. Joe again fed and watered the horse, then saddled him and got him ready to ride. He thought about eating the cold hare but just couldn’t force himself to face it. Joe knew though that he needed to get himself and the horse to shelter before long.

He took a deep breath, burrowed deeper into his coat and started for the cabin. He sneaked down into the clearing and dashed into the stable from the side so that he could see the front of the cabin. He looked around, aided by the reflecting white of the snow and saw no foot prints around the area. He noticed that although still burning, the smoke from the fire had been allowed to die down some. He concluded all three men must be asleep. His plan was quite simple, and he would have liked to have a more elaborate one, but he honestly couldn’t think of anything else–there were three of them, they were obviously better prepared to wait him out, since they were warm, had food and fire, and were in no hurry. He on the other hand, was cold, had no food to speak of, and definitely was in a hurry. He planned to sneak into the cabin, get the drop on them, relieve them of the dueling pistols and the cash if possible, and get out of there, hopefully alive.

He walked carefully and quietly toward the cabin door. He was hoping the door would not be locked. He didn’t imagine they would be expecting anyone to be paying a call at this ungodly hour and in this ungodly weather. With his gun in his left hand, he cautiously tried the door latch with his right hand. Thank God, the door was not bolted from the inside. He carefully opened the door, holding his breath as the door squeaked just a little. He could tell where the three men were by the sounds of their snoring. Two men were on the left side of the cabin and one man was on the right side, near the fire. Joe wished they had all been on one side, but that couldn’t be helped now. He had a split second to make a decision and he thought his best bet would be to tiptoe over to the left side of the cabin so he would be behind the two men and facing the lone man. Just as he was about to put that plan into action, his eyes caught on the two saddle bags, laying in plain sight on the table in the middle of the room. Impulsively, he reached for the saddle bags and started backing out of the cabin. He made it all the way to the door when he stepped on a floorboard that creaked loudly, and one of the men stirred. “Hey, somebody’s in here” and he jumped up and started reaching for his gun. Then the other two men started scrambling up too. Joe held tightly to the saddle bags and turned and ran from the cabin, towards the spot where he had left his horse. Since the men were not dressed for the weather, he figured he had a couple of minutes on them. On impulse again, he ran into the stable and shooed their horses out of the their stalls, hoping they would run off, giving him another time advantage.

Just as he was leaving the stable and heading for Midnight, he heard a shot go whizzing past his left ear. He kept running and almost made it. Just as he was within 5 feet of his horse, he felt a bullet slam into his right side. He fell over with the pain, but fortunately he did not pass out. He struggled up and managed to climb onto the horse’s back, the two saddle bags still held tightly in his right arm. Riding low, to try to stay out of firing range, he looked back over at the cabin, two of the three men were now running out and the third man was going back inside, presumably to dress. Joe saw that the horses, aroused from their warm and cozy nap, had not gone far when he tried to scare them off. They were standing just on the other side of the clearing; it wouldn’t take them long to catch them. Joe knew that with his current situation his only hope was to keep the slight time advantage he had and to stay ahead of the men. He thought that they would surely come after him, not so much for the two saddlebags, but to keep him from giving away their hiding place. From what Joe had seen, they had a minor operation going here and they probably felt keeping it a secret was worth the price of one dead man.

The remaining Cartwrights were again up early that morning. None of them had slept and they couldn’t lie in bed any longer. They were all feeling a deep sense of helplessness and frustration over their inability to do something. Ben had spent many long nights worrying about all his sons. His love for them was deep and unconditional. Each of them in different ways had caused him to worry. Joseph, however, undoubtedly had caused more outright worry than Adam and Hoss put together. Joe had always been a challenge—headstrong, hot-tempered, impetuous, and always trying to get his own way. He had learned the hard way that he had to be very precise in what he told Joe to do and not to do. Joe was honest and he didn’t lie; however, he had learned that language can be tricky and can be misconstrued easily. Joe used that to his advantage. He had an infuriating way of doing exactly what he was told to do, yet, missing the entire meaning of the instruction. He had thought about his conversation with Joe about his wanting to come into town. His own last words to him had been, “Joseph you may not go into town now and that is the end of it.” That seemed perfectly straightforward to him. After going over and over it in his head, he had realized finally that one little word in that sentence had given Joe the loophole that he used to disregard his instructions. The “NOW” was the problem, Ben realized. Joe didn’t go “now”, he went “later”. If he had said tonight, perhaps. Then he thought, No, that wouldn’t have worked either. Joe would have merely waited until after midnight, then he would have gone, because technically, it wouldn’t have been “night” any more. Ben was becoming more and more worried and the more worried he became, the more exasperated he became with Joseph.

As he and Adam and Hoss sat down in the dining room of the hotel at 6:00, Sheriff Coffee came striding into the hotel. “Ben, I got telegrams from all those places yesterday with no luck.” Ben’s face fell, he had been hoping and praying that they would get an answer today that would lead them. “But this morning the telegraph over in Placerville came back up and I just got a response from them. They think that it’s a gang living over towards Ryder Ridge between here and Placerville. They tried ’em one time, but couldn’t make a case. They think they hit small stores, etc like this right at Christmas time, and right before some bad weather, so they won’t be followed. But after that one trial, they hit only outlying towns and don’t mess with the towns near them. He sent me directions to their cabin, and the storm has finally let up. I got Clem getting together a posse right now.

As Roy was still talking, Adam and Hoss jumped up. Hoss said, “Adam, let’s go get our gear and get the horses. Pa, we will meet you back here as quick as we can.”

Ben nodded and said, “I’ll see if I can get the kitchen to pack us some supplies.”

Roy interrupted, “Boys, Clem told the livery stable boy to get your horses and gear ready and Mrs. Grayson is packing supplies enough for us all. She said to tell you Hoss, that she was making sure you wouldn’t go hungry.”

*****

Joe held tightly with his reins and his knees to Midnight and urged him to go as fast as he could. The pain in his side was excruciating, and he could tell he was bleeding with every motion of the horse, but he couldn’t take the time to stop and try to bandage the wound. He finally managed to get his handkerchief out of his pocket and pushed it against the wound. That increased the pain, but it did seem to slow the bleeding some anyway. Joe focused on staying on the horse and holding on. He looked back one time and didn’t see the men, and after that, he wouldn’t allow himself to look back. His only hope was that Midnight could outrun their horses. He hadn’t gotten a chance to see any of their horses running but they were not spectacular looking, but he was aware that they had made the same trip he had made out of Virginia City with no trouble, and they had been resting in a warm stable, instead of outside like Midnight.

Joe rode for a long time, he thought at least an hour had passed, he allowed himself to look around and he didn’t see anyone following him. The pain in his side was again becoming unbearable and he felt a deep thirst. He knew that both he and Midnight would need a rest. He started watching for an area where he could stop to rest yet still see a long distance behind him. Just as he was about to think he was not going to be able to stay on the horse much longer, he saw the crest of a small hill. He could stop on the downslope of the hill and by watching from the hill, he could see for several miles. Fortunately the snow had finally started slowing down, he actually thought maybe the weather was fairing off.

Joe came to the hill and painfully climbed off his horse. He took a long drink of water, which refreshed him a little. Then he gave the horse water from his hands. The horse was clearly not enjoying this experience and Joe rubbed him gently on the muzzle, talking to him in a soothing voice. Then Joe took off his coat, then tore the sleeve out of his shirt, and tied it tightly around his waist and over the wound, holding the neck-kerchief on. He clenched his teeth to keep from crying out when he did this. He did it as tight as he could tolerate it, then he put his coat back on. Just as he was starting to relax a little bit, he looked over the rise and he saw three riders in the distance. He remounted his horse and once again started back toward the trail to Virginia City.

The robbers and Joe went like this for several more hours. Joe would stop when he could go no further and rest for a few moments. He noticed at one point that the riders seemed to be gaining on him, but slowly and there appeared to now be only two riders. “I have to keep my eyes open” he thought, “one of ’em may be trying to outflank me”. Joe could tell that Midnight was tiring and he tried to loosen his load. Unfortunately he had very little he could leave. Finally he took the two saddlebags and took the box containing the dueling pistols out and put it in his saddle bags, then he discarded the two saddlebags full of jewelry and cash from Barker’s Emporium, hoping the robbers would turn back if they got what they came after.

Joe rode until middle of the afternoon. He had ridden in all about 8 hours with only a few minutes of rest and a few sips of water. He was very thirsty but there was only a little water left and he knew he should save it. He thought about eating some snow to slake his thirst but he knew he was too cold already and the snow would just make him colder. All his life his father had taught him that snow had to be melted and heated before it could be used for water. If only he had time to build a fire, he would do that. “If I had time to build a fire and some wood to burn in it, I would also warm my hands and feet” he thought ruefully. Joe pressed on until he found himself about to fall out of the saddle. He had to rest before he went any further. He also knew that Midnight couldn’t keep up that pace any longer. He may have already ridden the horse beyond his endurance. He slid off the saddle, took the saddle bags off to lighten the horse’s load, and took the horse blanket and spread it over the horse, then took his bedroll and laid it out next to an outcropping of rocks. He scanned the horizon and didn’t see the men following him, so he thought he could safely rest for just a few minutes. He sat there, holding Midnight’s reins since there was really nothing to tie them too and he didn’t want her to wander away.

Eventually the cold woke him up. He couldn’t remember ever in his entire life being so cold. It took him several minutes to realize where he was, then when he did, he tried to sit up quickly and the pain in his side reminded him of his situation. Then the horror hit him—Midnight was not there. He stood up slowly and scanned the horizon—nothing in all directions—nothing. He clearly saw Midnight’s tracks, he was headed in the right direction, but he had forgotten his rider. Joe knew that his situation that had been desperate before was now—what? “What is worse than desperate?” he asked himself. Then he mentally chided himself, “Come on, Joe, quit feeling sorry for yourself, You got your own self into this and now you have to get yourself out of it.” Joe wrapped the bedroll around him for extra warmth, and picked up the saddle bags and opened them. Finding the leftover hare, he forced himself to eat it, though he was barely able to get it down, due to the waves of nausea that had hit him when he stood up. Then he emptied everything out of the saddlebag, and taking the pocket knife, and the mahogany case containing the dueling pistols, he started walking, following the horse’s tracks. By looking at what was visible of the sun, Joe figured it was close to 5 p.m. and he was no where near any kind of shelter. He knew if he didn’t catch up with the horse or find some kind of shelter, he would likely freeze to death that night. His only chance he thought was to keep walking and hope he either found the horse or some place where he could take shelter, or as a last resort build a snow cave. His memory from the previous ride made him doubt this was going to happen, but he wouldn’t give up without a fight.

Joe trudged along following the horse’s tracks; the horse at least seemed to be going in the right direction. He hoped Midnight would make it back to the main road, at least there he would have a chance of being found and returned to the Ponderosa. He looked behind him a few times, but saw no one following him. He realized that the robbers had probably long since headed back toward their warm cabin, figuring he wouldn’t make it out alive anyway. He was determined to prove them wrong. He was not going fast, but he continued to make some progress. His thoughts of his family kept him going–he had to make it home for Christmas. In his whole life, he had never once missed hearing his father read the story of that first Christmas from the family Bible with the marriages of his father and his and Adam’s and Hoss’s mother’s, and the births of him and his two brothers, and the deaths of his own mother and Adam’s and Hoss’ mothers before that. His father always preferred the version told in Luke. Joe could almost hear his father’s strong voice ” In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…”. He imagined his father sitting in his favorite chair, Hoss on the sofa, Adam in the chair across from his father, and him sitting, wrapped in his mother’s afghan, leaning against Adam’s chair. The memories of those Christmas’ past were so strong that Joe could almost feel the warmth of the fire. When he felt like stopping and giving up, he would hear his father’s voice and he would keep going.

Joe was so cold he no longer felt his hands or feet. He was no longer thinking of reaching the Ponderosa, he was thinking only of putting one foot in front of the other. His stubbornness paid off in that, he never once considered just giving up. He would not quit. However, the cold, the blood loss, the lack of food and water, and the exhaustion eventually robbed him of the ability to stand, and he fell. Still refusing to give up, he struggled to crawl. He crawled a few feet, but the effort finally depleted his own inner reserves, and he drifted into the blackness, where cold and pain didn’t exist.

*****

Within 15 minutes, the posse was ready. Roy Coffee and Ben Cartwright led the way with Adam and Hoss just beyond, each of them lost in their thoughts. They were not able to talk initially because of the wind, but as the morning wore on, the wind died down and the sun even tried to shine, although the temperature was still below freezing and there were high snow drifts. They continued to ride, following the directions given to Roy by the sheriff of Placerville. The Cartwrights hoped the directions were accurate and they were going after the right robbers and they were not going to be too late to find Little Joe. At noon, the Cartwrights didn’t want to stop, but Roy insisted the men and horses needed rest. They reluctantly agreed, but each of them worried about where Joe was and in what kind of shape he was in.

As the journey went on, Ben’s anger toward his youngest son evaporated, as it often did. Yes, Joe was extremely exasperating, but he was also a joy to have around. He was full of life, high spirits, and love of life. His mother had coined her own term to describe Joe’s exuberance when he was just a toddler, she called it his “joe de vive”, a pun on the French words meaning joy of living. That was what made Joe so special and so much fun, and yes, what made him worth all the aggravation and the language games, and his stubbornness. He couldn’t imagine life without his youngest son. He knew his brothers felt the same way. Hoss and Joe were very close and had a special bond that was open, uncomplicated, and easy to see–they literally adored each other. But Adam’s and Joe’s relationship was more complex. On the one hand, they frequently were at loggerheads with each other. Adam was logical, ruled more by his head than his heart, and methodical. Joe was emotional, guided by logic that made sense only to him at times, always ruled by his heart, not his head, and spontaneous. These differences in personalities combined with the 12 year age difference often times pitted them against each other. Yet, there was no doubt there was a deep love and mutual respect there that was unspoken more than spoken, but obviously there. Ben could not envision life without Little Joe. He urged his horse on, hoping that the others would pick up the pace. He wondered if Hoss and Adam had similar thoughts because they urged their horses on at the exact same time he did.

The posse had found the trail that led off the road and had started toward the hills as dusk was approaching. The men of the posse were looking around at the sheriff and deputy to see what they were planning. They were wondering if they intended to keep going in the night. They were cold, hungry, and tired and wanted to stop. Their questions were answered as the sheriff and deputy began pulling out lanterns from the pack mule they had brought along and handing them out. Roy knew if Little Joe was out in the weather, they may already be too late, but he couldn’t face that proposition himself and he knew getting the Cartwrights to call off the search would be futile. So he didn’t even bring it up. He figured his good friend needed his support now more than ever and the best way to give it, was to keep searching. So they rode on.

Later, they found they no longer needed the light from the lanterns, the weather was finally clearing and the light from the stars and the moon was so bright there was sufficient light to see. Hoss pointed out there was one particular star brighter than all the others, “that’s the one Joe always called the Christmas star” he told Adam. Adam, who had been wishing on that star, nodded in agreement. They continued to ride, their thoughts all on a single purpose and a single person.

Suddenly one of the deputies hollered, “Look, up ahead…” They all looked at where the man pointed, there was a black horse, slowly but steadily coming towards them.

Adam voiced what Hoss and Ben were thinking, “It’s Midnight”. They urged their horses on.

When they approached, Midnight, always skittish began to back away. Hoss quickly jumped off his horse and walked slowly towards the horse, talking to him. He got close enough to the horse and grabbed hold of his reins. He could see he had been worked hard but was in fairly good shape. He didn’t feel as if he had been ridden recently. He quickly remounted his horse and said, “Let’s follow his tracks, and we’ll find Joe, Pa. I’m sure of it.” Ben and Adam both agreed and they led the way. They rode steadily for another hour, closely following the horse’s tracks, hoping they would lead them to Joe, the starlight guiding their way.

They were almost on top of him before they saw him, lying covered with snow, just barely visible. Their hearts sank as they saw him. They were off their horses fast, but somehow Ben was the first to reach Joe. He pulled him in his arms, his heart breaking. Adam, who reached Joe only a split second later, felt his neck and said loudly, “Pa, he’s alive. He’s alive” Hoss immediately hollered, “Get some blankets over here and somebody get a fire built, he’s near ’bout frozen.”

Immediately the men of the posse began to move, the kindling and wood from the pack was used to start a fire. They quickly took extra blankets and made a makeshift tent and moved Joe into it and began to remove his wet clothing and attempt to get him warm.

As they did this, they discovered he had been shot and they covered the wound with a makeshift dressing. As they removed his boots and socks from his feet they were distressed to find that his feet were wet and extremely cold with no apparent circulation. Adam and Ben exchanged worried glances, and Ben quickly said “Get off his gloves and get his hands warm.”

As Hoss attempted to remove his gloves, he found that he was holding something clutched tightly in his right hand. “What in the world is this?” he said out loud.

Ben said “Never mind that, Hoss get his hands warm, as he and Adam each tried to warm one of his feet.” Hoss nodded his head in quick understanding pried the mahogany box loose from Joe’s hands and removed his gloves and began to rub them briskly, then he placed then inside his own gloves which were dry and furlined.

Roy Coffee came over with a mug of soup he had warmed over the fire. “Here, Ben see if you can get some of this in him, it’ll warm him up from the inside out.” Ben took the mug and cradling Joe’s head and shoulders in his arms, he was able to force some of the hot liquid into Joe’s mouth and Joe swallowed reflexively.

After they had removed Joe’s wet clothing and dressed him in spare clothes from Adam’s kit, they wrapped him in layers of warm blankets and continued to warm his feet. Ben was very worried over the condition of Joe’s hands and feet–they were cold, white, and almost hard to the touch. He had seen people lose extremities due to damage from the cold and Joe’s feet looked like what he remembered those frostbite injuries looking like. He also knew Joe had lost blood from his wound, but it was hard to determine how much since he was so pale and white-looking from the cold. Around his mouth and eyes looked almost blue, and his pulse was weak and irregular. They discussed the best course of action and decided the number one priority was to keep him warm and to get fluids in him. They knew they could not do this on horseback, so Roy sent several of the men to go back to the main road and go to the nearest ranch and borrow a wagon. They figured that would take at least a couple of hours. In the meantime, the other men set about keeping a fire going and cooking a meal for the rest of the men.

Ben and Adam and Hoss continued to rub Joe’s extremities to try to get them warm and they fed him the warm soup as fast as they could get it in him. They were very concerned because he showed no signs of regaining consciousness during this time. Yet they talked to him and continued to try to rouse him. When they felt they had done as much as they could do, Hoss and Adam got coffee and sandwiches for them and their father and as Ben sat still holding Joe’s head and shoulders in his arms, Hoss reached over and picked up the mahogany case and opened it. Unconsciously, Hoss whistled when he looked inside and saw the fine pair of dueling pistols inside. They were made of silver and steel with exquisitely carved mahogany panels on the side. He picked one up and felt the delicate, yet sturdy feel of the pistol. “That’s a real beauty, ain’t it Pa?”

Ben looked at the pistol Hoss held and said, “Yes son, it is.” Absently, his mind only on Little Joe at the time.

Finally the men arrived with a wagon, which was loaded with still more blankets and warming stones given to them by the rancher’s wife. They carefully warmed the blankets and the stones, then they made a bed in the wagon and placed Joe carefully inside the wagon, then they fashioned a cover with the remaining blankets to keep out the wind and snow if any should fall. With Ben and Adam on either side of Joe and Hoss driving the wagon, they began the long journey back to the Ponderosa. Joe never once made a sound or opened his eyes during the entire journey. Ben kept his eyes on his son, frequently forcing warm liquid down his throat, feeling his pulse, and watching for the rise and fall of his chest. He was encouraged that the strength and regularity of Joe’s heart seemed to improve as they moved slowly back to the Ponderosa.

As they neared the fork in the road that would lead to Virginia City or to the Ponderosa, the wagon turned toward the Ponderosa. Roy Coffee volunteered to go bring Dr. Martin to the Ponderosa. “Ben I’ll go get the Doc and we’ll head out over the Watson Pass, so we can get there just about the time you do or soon after.”

“Thanks, Roy” Ben said simply, but he meant for so much more than for going after the doctor. “Thank all of you” he added to the rest of the men.

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Cartwright.” They responded.

Ben replied “Merry Christmas to you and your families, too” . He then looked at his sons and with unshed tears in his eyes said, “Let’s get this young man home, boys. It is Almost Christmas Eve.

*****

CHRISTMAS EVE? What time is it?” he said, his voice rising as he started trying to get out of bed.

“Now just settle down, Joe, you aren’t going anywhere.” Adam said, as he and Hoss both put a hand on Joe’s shoulder pushing him back on the bed.

Joe relaxed for a minute, his eyes closed, then he opened them wide again. “Where is Pa, Adam? And what time is it?”

“Pa’s sitting downstairs, Joe and it’s almost midnight. Why?”

“Listen Adam you have to go out to the barn right now and get that box and bring it inside to me.”

Adam was getting suspicious of what his little brother had in mind and asked “Why, Joe? Why do you need it now?”

“I just want to make sure it is alright. That is Pa’s Christmas gift, Adam. I just gotta have it. Please. Either go get it or let me go get it.” He fixed them with his own version of his father’s “look”.

Adam put up his hands and said, “Alright, Joe, you win. You just settle down and I’ll go get it for you. Now you just settle down.”

Joe smiled and said, “Sure, Adam. Just go bring it in for me.” As soon as Adam left the room, Joe turned his smile on his brother and said, “Hoss, I need your help….” Hoss eyed him suspiciously, but walked over closer to the bed so he could hear him clearly. His eyes widened as he heard Joe’s request.

*****

Ben was getting ready to turn in for the night, but he was waiting for Adam to come inside. He had said he’d forgotten to do something in the barn and had rushed out of the house just a few minutes before, saying he’d be right back. He had told him to go on to bed, but Ben liked to have all his sons inside and safe before he went to bed. Even though Adam was a grown man, he still didn’t like having them out. As he was waiting for Adam he was reflecting on how different this Christmas was than others. He was not complaining, however, realizing how tragic this Christmas COULD have been, just made him appreciate this one a little more. Just as he heard Adam come walking up on the porch, he heard footsteps coming down the stairs. His eyes widened and his mouth dropped open at what he saw. Adam came in and seeing his father’s face, followed his gaze. Down the stairs came Hoss, carrying Joseph in his arms. He was walking slowly and carefully, trying not to jostle his brother and cause him any pain. Joe was wrapped in his mother’s afghan and was busily giving Hoss instructions.

Ben finally recovered his voice and boomed out, “Hoss what is the meaning of this? Joe is supposed to be asleep!”

“Pa” Hoss began, but he was interrupted by Joe.

“Pa, it’s Christmas Eve. We can’t go to bed without hearing you read the Christmas story.”

Ben started to send Hoss right back upstairs, but the look on his youngest son’s face prevented him from carrying out that thought. He sighed and said, “Joseph, you are a caution, son. Alright, I guess since you are already down here it won’t do any more damage. But after that you are going right back up to bed and you are staying there. Is that clear?”

“Sure Pa,” Joe smiled at him and said, “Adam, get Pa the Bible.”

Adam went over to his father’s study and quickly retrieved the treasured Bible. Ben sat in his chair and Adam sat across from him. Joe had to settle for sitting on the sofa with Hoss, as they would not agree to his sitting on the floor. They all became quiet as Ben started reading, ” In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…”. When he had finished reading, they all had tears in their eyes, except for Joe, who was sound asleep. Ben and Adam helped Hoss pick him up and they carried him upstairs and put him in his bed and covered him up, and leaving the lantern on, they crept out, leaving the door slightly ajar.

*****

December 25, 1864

 

As usual, Joe Cartwright was the first member of the household awake on Christmas Day. His family often made fun of him for sleeping late, but Christmas Day was the one day of the year that he was awake first. When he awoke, he sat up in bed slowly, careful to not put undue pressure on his side, which was still very tender. He carefully got out of bed and stepping gingerly on his still sore feet, he found his robe and a pair of slippers and carefully went downstairs, holding onto the railing and taking the stairs very slowly. He had seen where Adam had put the box last night, and the first thing he did was retrieve it. He opened it carefully to make sure the guns were there and not damaged. He couldn’t wait for his father to see these pistols. He slowly made his way across the room and placed the box under the tree with the other gifts already there. Then he went to the small crawl space behind the stairs and bending slowly and wincing a little, retrieved the two presents he had hidden there for Adam and Hoss. He knew every hiding place on the whole ranch; this was one that no one but he ever thought of. He grinned as he carefully placed these gifts under the tree. He knew that Hoss would love the new holster he had gotten him, with the engraved “C” on it. Adam had been harder to choose for, as he had different tastes. He had finally chosen a new book of short stories written by their friend Mark Twain. He had sent the book to Sam Clemmons and had it autographed. He thought Adam would enjoy that. He loved getting Christmas gifts, but he enjoyed giving them even more.

Finally his work done, he crept back up the stairs and got into bed, just as he heard his father’s bedroom door open. He hadn’t had time to take his robe or slippers off, so he just pulled the covers up over him and closed his eyes. His father came over and said, “Good morning, Son. Merry Christmas.”

He opened his eyes as if he were just waking up, yawned for effect and said, “Merry Christmas, Pa.”

“How are you feeling this morning, Joe?”

“Oh I feel fine, Pa.” About that time Adam and Hoss entered and another round of “Merry Christmas” was exchanged.

“Well what are we waiting for? Let’s go see what Santa left” Joe said, starting to pull back the covers.

He was stopped by his father’s arm, and voice saying, “Now just a minute young man, you aren’t going anywhere.”

Joe looked at his father, crushed. “Pa, come on. It’s Christmas Day, Pa. Surely you don’t mean…..” He looked at his father incredulously. “Pa, Hoss can carry me down, won’t you, Hoss? Please, Pa. It’s Christmas.”

Ben looked at Adam and Hoss and they all three started laughing, “Gotcha, Joe” they all said in unison. Joe laughed too.

Then Ben said, “Alright, Hoss let’s get your brother downstairs. You get him up and I will get his robe and slippers.” Instantly, Joe knew he was in trouble. “Hmm. Joe where are your robe and slippers….”

About that time, Hoss pulled back the covers and laughing, said, “Pa, I found ’em.”

“What do you mean ‘you found ’em'”, Ben asked, whirling around.

When they all saw Joe with his robe and slippers still on, they were all quiet for a second. Joe said, “Well I wanted to be ready’s all.”

Shaking his head and frowning, Ben said, “Joseph, one of these days you and I are going to have to reach an understanding about obedience.” Joe was not surprised to see that he wasn’t smiling. His father didn’t easily overlook outright disobedience.

Fortunately, Hoss came to his rescue, “Well, Pa, that will have to wait ’cause today is Christmas Day. Let’s go see if Santa came to visit last night despite all the carryings-on around here the past few days.”

Adam slapped his arm around his father and said, “Come on Pa, it is Christmas.”

When they reached the stairs, they saw Hop Tseng setting up the usual Christmas breakfast in the living room, in front of the fireplace. He had known that one way or another, Little Joe would be joining the family downstairs, so he had prepared a place for him on the sofa with a pillow and blankets. Although Hop Tseng did not celebrate the Christian Christmas, he did enjoy the celebration with his adopted family. He helped to settle Little Joe in and served coffee and Joe’s favorite breakfast, sausage and biscuits. After they had finished eating—although Hoss only stopped because Joe threatened to return his gift if he didn’t stop so they could open the presents, they turned their attention to the tree. Ben, as was his custom, played the role of distributing the gifts one at a time. Everyone watched the person open their gift, taking turns until they were all opened.

They each were as interested in watching the others open the gifts they had selected for them as in opening their own gifts. Joe was pleased that Hoss and Adam had seemed to appreciate his gifts to them and he was excited over their gifts to him as well. Joe’s last gift was from his father, and the size and shape of the package identified it as a gun, probably a new hunting rifle, which Joe had been needing for a while. He was ecstatic when he opened it. It was a fancy new breechloader, like the kind just introduced by the Calvary. “Thanks, Pa. I can’t wait to try this out.” Joe said, smiling broadly at his father.

“Now, there is only one gift left and there is no name on it.” Ben said.

Smiling, Hoss and Adam turned to Joe.

“That’s your gift from me, Pa. Merry Christmas.”

Ben picked up the box and noted that it was mahogany. “The box is a fine piece of workmanship itself.” He said, puzzled at what was in the box. He opened the box to see the most exquisite pair of dueling pistols he had ever seen. He picked one up carefully and the weight and feel of the gun was perfect. “Joe these are beautiful. Where in the wor……” He stopped, staring at his son, but hearing instead Hoss’s voice saying “What in the world is this?”. “You got these from Barker’s Emporium? That’s why you had to go to Virginia City and why you took off after those men?” Ben’s face was drawn and white as the realization that his son had risked his life, and had come close to losing his life, to get these pistols for him. He sat down, his knees too weak to support him.

Joe, who had been eagerly watching for his father’s reaction to the gift, was confused. “Pa, don’t you like them?” he asked alarmed. He thought his Pa would love them, now he wasn’t sure what to think. Did he make a bad choice? Is the work not really good? What is wrong? He asked himself anxiously.

Ben looked at Hoss and said, “Hoss would you carry your brother back to his room for me, please?”

“Sure, Pa” Hoss replied, every bit as confused as Joe was. “Pa” Joe said..

“Just a minute, son. Just a minute. Hoss settle him back in bed for me, please.”

Hoss said “Yessir” and reached over and picked up Little Joe in one swoop and carried him toward the stairs.

“Hoss, wait I have to talk to Pa. I don’t understand.”

“Ssh, Joe, it will be alright. Just calm down.” Hoss tried to calm his brother, though he was upset himself. He had never seen his father act that way before. He and Joe and Adam had probably all given him gifts that he didn’t like before, but he never once acted like that. And why didn’t he like them? They were beautiful dueling pistols and Pa loved dueling pistols. Hoss continued to try to calm Joe down as he settled him back into bed.

Adam was also puzzled, but he had an idea seeing the reason for Joe’s mission had brought the reality of how close they had come to losing him home to his father. He walked over and put his arm on his father and said, “Pa, you know he is going to be alright. He’s okay.”

“Yes, son. He is okay. THIS TIME. But I have to make him understand. He—we—may not be so lucky next time.” With that, he turned and went up the stairs. When he got to his son’s room, he opened the door and went quickly inside. “Hoss, I’d like to be alone with Joe, please.”

“Sure, Pa.” Hoss said and sped out of the room, he was glad for the chance to escape his brother’s hurt eyes, asking a question that he couldn’t answer.

Ben sat down on the side of the bed and said, “Joe, look at me”. His youngest son slowly turned his face toward Ben and he could see that in the short time he had been downstairs, Joe had shed many tears. Ben’s heart broke at the sight of the hurt and pain in his beloved youngest son’s face. “Joe” he smiled at his son, speaking softly. “I’m sorry for the way I acted down there. I love the pistols, son. I truly do. They are beautiful.” Joe looked at his father, more confused than ever.

“Pa, I don’t understand. If you like them, why did you look like you hated them, like you were repulsed by them?”

“Joseph, when I realized that the pistols were the reason you had sneaked out of the house in a blizzard and then had gone off into another storm following a gang of outlaws, got yourself shot and almost froze to death….. Son, the pistols are wonderful and I will always treasure them, but you have to understand Joe that there is nothing you could give me—nothing anyone could give me—that would mean as much to me as YOU mean to me, Son. I will treasure these guns, Son, but more for the reminder of what they almost cost you and me, son, than for their beauty. And I want you to realize that, too, Joseph.”

Joe was watching his father and trying to understand what his father was trying to say to him. “Pa, I don’t understand. What are you saying?”

“Joseph, what I am saying…. What I am asking, Joe, is that you realize YOU are my gift. You and Adam and Hoss. You are more important to me than anything else. And I want you to remember that from now on, every time you start to do something that places your life in jeopardy. Joe as much as I love those pistols, they would have been very little comfort to me if you had gotten yourself killed. Do you understand that Joe? It is important to me that you understand that.”

Joe had watched his father as he talked to him and saw his father was speaking from the heart and seemed to need something from him to relieve his distress. Joe knew what he must do. He looked at his father and said, “I understand, Pa. I promise to think about you before I do something dangerous again. I understand, Pa.” Tears were streaming down his face and as he looked at his father’s face, he saw that his father was crying, too.

Ben reached over and took his son in his arms and hugged him tightly. They kept the embrace for a few minutes, until Joe said in a small voice, “Pa, I can’t breathe.”

Ben loosened his grip and pulled back from Joe, but kept his hands on his shoulders and said, “I am going to hold you to that promise, Joseph.”

“Okay, Pa. I know you will”.

After Ben and Joe had regained their composure, Ben said, “Well, how about if your old Pa carries you downstairs this time and let’s go have some Christmas cookies and coffee?”

“Well Pa, I can walk you know, it only hurts a little” Joe started, but stopped when he saw the stern look on his father’s face. “I mean I bet it will only hurt a little, Pa.” Joe corrected, and held out his arms so his father could pick him up. Laughing they went back downstairs to join Hoss and Adam for Christmas Day.

***The End***

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