Summary: Just days before Christmas, the Cartwrights have guests.
Word Count: 3581
It had been a hard winter so far. Christmas was but days away and nobody on the Ponderosa had been able to get into town for weeks. There were presents waiting in the mercantile to be collected and although they were well stocked up on basic food stuffs, there were one or two less usual items that Hop Sing wanted to get to make Christmas dinner extra special.
At last, they woke, three days before Christmas, to find the sun glinting off the pure-white snow. It was amazing how the reappearance of that golden orb in the sky could lift all their spirits. Tempers, that had been hair-triggered for the last few weeks, were suddenly restored to their normal equilibrium.
Until breakfast, that was.
“No,” Ben Cartwright said, flatly and nobody who heard him doubted that he meant it.
“But, Pa…” the chorus began around the table.
“There are things we need from town,” Adam, the oldest, suggested calmly.
“There are things we would like from town,” Ben corrected him. “But we don’t ‘need’ anything. We have enough food to see us through till spring.”
“But Hop Sing was just sayin’ the other day that he was wantin’…” Hoss offered, hoping that this tempting thought of culinary delights to come would coax acceptance from Ben.
“No,” Ben repeated. His patience was beginning to sound rather strained.
“What about the Christmas Eve dance?” Joe asked, plaintively.
That was the last straw. Crashing his hands down on the table, Ben rose to his feet and fixed his three sons with a steely glare. “What part of ‘no’ do you boys find so difficult to understand?” he demanded loudly. “It’s almost the first word that you were all taught the meaning of!”
All three sons froze, not daring to look at each other for fear of setting off a worse diatribe. Given how annoyed Ben appeared to be, he had been remarkably mild in his comments so far. Joe suddenly realized that he had forgotten to breathe and gulped in some air.
Satisfied that he had got through to his sons at last, Ben calmed down. “The roads will be impassable,” he reminded them all. “There’s almost 8 feet of snow in places. A trip to town is just too risky. I know its disappointing that we won’t be able to collect those gifts we ordered from the store, but that’s the way it is. After all, boys, this isn’t the first time this has happened.”
Mutinously, Joe looked down at the remains of his breakfast on the plate. Suddenly, his appetite had gone. He had almost convinced himself that he would be able to go to the dance on Christmas Eve. He was sure his girlfriend, Lydia, would understand, but he couldn’t help feeling disappointed.
“But since the weather is nice, there are one or two things you could do outside…” Ben suggested.
It wasn’t the same thing, but at least they were outside. The air was bitingly cold, the temperature hovering just below freezing. Joe could feel the cold creep under the big coat he was wearing. His hands, despite the gloves, were getting cold fast. His boots felt incredibly tight because of the two pairs of thick socks he was wearing.
“We’re not splitting up out of shouting distance from each other,” Adam reminded them. “It’s too risky. Joe, you go down there, and make sure there aren’t any cattle stuck. Hoss, you take the top road and I’ll go along here. We’ll meet up at the next curve. If you see something, shout, whistle or fire your gun.”
“All right,” Joe and Hoss chorused. They each urged their horses carefully away from the main trail – or what they could see of it.
A bit further along the trail Joe was pursuing, two men looked at each other. “Here he comes,” one said, nervously.
“Calm down,” the other replied. “Everything is ready.” He eyed his companion. “Hey, you’re glowing again,” he added. “You’ll need to keep on top of that.”
“Oh no!” he cried. He frowned and after a moment, the faint glow that had rimmed his body disappeared. “My wings aren’t showing are they?” he asked, anxiously and the older man shook his head.
“No, its fine.” He cocked his head. “Listen, here he comes now.”
Moments later, Joe appeared around a tree and stopped his horse, gaping in surprise at finding two men out on foot in that weather. His initial impulse was to be friendly, but Joe had learned the hard way that he had to be cautious, too. “What are you doing out here?” he asked, which perhaps wasn’t the most tactful thing he could have said.
“We’re lost,” the older man replied. “I know we’ve taken a wrong turning somewhere, but I’m just not sure where.” He smiled. “We’ve just bought the Hopkins’ place.” He sighed. “And this isn’t it, is it?”
“I’m afraid not,” Joe smiled. He stepped down from Cochise, but his hand never strayed far from his holster. “This is the Ponderosa. I’m Joe Cartwright.” He put out his hand and the other man shook it.
“I’m Luke and this is Mark,” he replied, gesturing to his companion. “Could you point us in the right direction, please?”
“I could,” Joe agreed, frowning, “but you wouldn’t get back there tonight. You’ve come too far. Tell you what, why don’t you come back home with me, and tomorrow morning, weather permitting, I’ll get the sleigh out and take you back?”
“We couldn’t impose,” Luke replied.
“No imposition,” Joe assured him sincerely. “We all have to look out for each other in this weather. Come on, it’s this way. I’ve just got to signal my brothers.” Putting his fingers to his lips, Joe tore off one glove with his teeth and let out a piercing whistle. There was no immediate response. “We’ll start walking,” Joe decided and turned to lead the way.
They had gone only about 10 feet when a voice shouted, “Joe, is that you?”
It seemed to be coming from directly above them and Cochise shied slightly. Joe was thrown off balance by the unexpected movement and his feet slid out from underneath him. He dropped the reins as he began to careen down the slope, a yell being torn from his lips.
There was no doubt where Joe would end up – in the river at the bottom of the slope. Getting soaked was an instant death sentence in weather like that. Mark glanced at Luke and the older man nodded. Joe suddenly fetched up against an un-seen rock, which gave him a few nasty bruises, but he was spared a ducking. Mark, using Luke as a brace, reached down to assist Joe back up.
“Thanks,” Joe panted, as he regained his footing. His butt was soaked through and the wind that was now rising from the lake only emphasized how cold he was feeling. “That was close!”
“Joe! Are you all right?” It was Adam, looking white-faced and shaken.
“I’m fine, Adam,” Joe replied. “Adam, I’d like you meet to meet Luke and Mark. They’ve bought the Hopkins’ place and they’re lost. I said they’d better come home with us and if the weather is good, I can take them back tomorrow.”
“How’d you do?” Adam acknowledged. “I’m Adam Cartwright, Joe’s oldest brother.” They started walking again, and Joe once more realized how cold his butt was. He shivered.
Worriedly, Adam looked around, instinctively seeking Hoss. They needed to get Joe home, for Adam could now see that the seat of Joe’s pants and his legs were wet. Luke and Mark exchanged glances and nodded. Next moment, Hoss appeared out of the trees and waved at them.
“This is our brother, Hoss,” Adam explained. “Luke, if you would like to ride with him, and Mark, you can ride with me. Come on, Joe, let’s get you mounted.”
“I can manage,” Joe protested, but he was quite glad of the shove all the same. His butt felt horrifically cold and there wasn’t much worse than riding with wet pants. It made the saddle slippery. As he settled himself cautiously, Adam grabbed his bedroll and tucked it around his embarrassed brother.
“Don’t say a word,” he admonished Joe. He lowered his voice. “You don’t want to freeze certain vital parts of your body, do you?”
“No,” Joe agreed smiling. “Thanks, Adam.”
The journey back took longer than Adam would have liked, but Joe was still relatively warm when they got there. Adam insisted that Joe take their guests into the house while he and Hoss tended to the horses and Joe readily agreed.
As soon as they entered the house, Ben was on his feet. “What happened, Joe?” he asked, unerringly knowing that something had happened.
Quickly, Joe told his story and introduced Luke and Mark whilst he did so. Ben immediately called for some coffee and practically pushed Joe upstairs to get dry clothes. Hop Sing already had water warm, and hurried to take some up to Joe so that he could soak in a warm bath. Joe was more than grateful for the idea. Before long, he was feeling much better, his butt warm to the touch again and no damage done.
While he was bathing, Adam and Hoss came in and soon were settled in front of the fire, nursing their cups. Ben had repeated the boys’ invitation to their guests and shown them to rooms. As they all gathered in front of the fire again, Ben noticed that it had started to snow as darkness fell.
“I hadn’t realized that the Hopkins’ place had been sold,” Ben commented as they sat down to supper. “Usually new neighbors cause a seven day wonder around here.”
“We have kept pretty much to ourselves,” Luke explained. “We had some land back east, and a developer wanted to build houses on it. So we decided to try our luck out west and bought up everything we thought we’d need, came here and settled in.” He laughed. “And then we get caught in the snow like greenhorns.”
“Everyone has to learn,” Ben allowed. “When the weather clears, we’ll take you back to your place. Are you sure you’ve got enough food stocked up? Winter can last clear through to fall around here.” They all laughed.
“I think so, thank you,” Mark replied.
“Well, if you are running short of anything, please don’t hesitate to come over and ask,” Ben told them. “We always have enough, thankfully.”
“That’s very generous of you, Mr. Cartwright,” Luke replied. “Thank you.”
“Rubbish!” Ben denied. “It’s only being neighborly.”
Again, the visitors exchanged glances and a nod.
Later that night, Luke went to Mark’s room. “What do you think?” he asked.
“They are just like we’ve been told they were,” Mark replied. “Are they for real?”
“Looks like it,” Luke smiled. “Wasn’t it lucky that that rock was there when Joe fell?” They both sniggered. “It would have been tragic if he had gone into the river.”
“Tragic,” Mark agreed solemnly. “How long do you think we’ll have to stay?”
“Another night at least,” Luke replied. “So get some sleep and remember not to glow.” He smiled at the scowl his companion threw at him.
Although the snow was off the next morning, the sky was so overcast that Ben wouldn’t hear of the two men returning home. The boys chimed in, Hoss pointing out all the bad signs. Mark and Luke were persuaded to stay. As they agreed a big, fat snowflake floated down out of the sky.
The snow never came to much but there was almost always some drifting aimlessly in the air. It was slightly less cold than it had been the day before and the horses were turned out into the corral for some fresh air. The boys took the chance to give the stable a more thorough mucking out than usual and then brought the horses back inside.
Having settled Cochise into his stall, Joe went back into the corral to crack the ice on the trough. He didn’t want the wood to split. Hoss, coming out of the barn, slammed the door behind him. The snow on the pitched roof was dislodged and began to slide ominously quietly towards Joe, who started to move into an even more dangerous position.
Seconds before the snow would have hit Joe, his feet hit a patch of ice and went out from under him. Joe landed on his butt. The snow landed inches away from Joe’s feet with a ‘whumph’. Joe was powdered with white fragments.
“Joe!” Hoss cried and yanked open the corral gate. “Joe, are ya all right?”
“I’m fine,” Joe replied, although his butt stung from its sudden contact with the earth.
“If ya’d bin under that…” Hoss whispered, awed by Joe’s narrow escape. The weight of the snow would undoubtedly have injured Joe very badly.
“Yeah,” Joe replied, shaken. He allowed Hoss to help him to his feet, finding that his knees were rather shaky.
It took them all a while to get over Joe’s brush with death. Ben was looking at him with haunted eyes and once more, Luke and Mark exchanged nods.
“Joe seems rather accident prone,” Luke commented to Ben when the boys had gone off on pursuits of their own. Mark was helping Hop Sing with the lunch dishes.
Sighing, Ben nodded ruefully. “Yes, he is,” he agreed. “We all have our share of accidents – heaven knows, life on a ranch isn’t easy. But trouble seems to find Joe wherever he is. How he hasn’t come to permanent hurt, or been killed, I just don’t know.” Ben forced a smile that didn’t hide his concern. “He must have a host of guardian angels keeping an eye on him.”
Smiling, Luke replied, “Well, that’s as good an explanation as any.” He sobered. “You have a lovely family, Ben. They are a credit to you.”
“Thank you,” Ben replied. “They are good boys, and I love them very much.” He swallowed, but his voice was still gruff as he added, “I’m very lucky.”
That night, the two men met in Luke’s room. “How long?” Mark asked.
“We can go home tomorrow night,” Luke replied.
“There can’t be much else that can happen, surely?” Mark queried, his eyes wide. “That boy has had enough for months there, hasn’t he?”
“All I know is that we’re to make sure the Cartwrights have a really good Christmas, and that means stopping anyone getting hurt. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. We can go home then.” Luke shook his head reflectively. “I wasn’t so sure I believed all those stories about the Cartwrights, you know. Oh, yes, Joe has a bit of a temper, and he and Adam seem to knock heads on a regular basis, but they are really nice.”
“Moral, upright,” Mark agreed. “Too good to be true, you’d think. But here they are. I like them.”
“I thought we would,” Luke replied, smiling. “I want to give them a good Christmas. They deserve it.”
The weather was still unpromising the next day and Ben refused to hear of his guests leaving. Everyone seemed to be genuinely delighted that they were staying. Mark and Luke were delighted, too. They were enjoying their stay much more than they had anticipated.
Mid-morning, Joe and Adam set off to take some hay to the herd. There was probably enough already there to keep the beasts going for another few days, but Ben didn’t like to take chances. More hay would be taken down to them. Everyone was surprised when Mark and Luke asked if they could go, too and get a closer look at the famous Ponderosa herd.
The big sleigh glided easily over the crisp snow. The sun was out, and the frost hadn’t lifted at all. “Watch your eyes,” Adam warned the visitors. “It’s very easy to become snow blind in conditions like this.”
Forking the hay out of the sleigh kept Adam and Joe warmer than they really cared to be, wearing their big coats, but neither of them was crazy enough to shed any layers. The work was soon done and they turned around and headed back to the house. The horses, knowing they were going home, picked up speed. Mark and Luke exchanged glances and nodded.
Next moment, one of the sleigh’s runners hit a rock buried deep in the snow and the sleigh swung around, catapulting Joe and Adam into a soft snowdrift. The horses came to a stop of their own volition and Luke and Mark jumped down to make sure that neither Cartwright was hurt.
“I’m all right,” Adam panted, as he extricated himself from the snow. “Is Joe okay?”
The younger Cartwright’s eyes were open, but he didn’t speak. Adam realized that Joe was winded and knelt beside him, heedless of the cold. “Don’t worry, Joe, you’ll be fine,” Adam told him.
Breath came back to Joe with a jolt and he gulped in huge draughts of the cold air. It took him a few minutes to catch his breath enough to sit up, but eventually, they were both on their feet and accepted help from Luke and Mark to get back to the sleigh. The journey back to the house was sober initially, but as relief crept in, Joe began to crack jokes and both he and Adam were slightly hysterical with relief when they got home.
There were explanations all round when they got back. Supper was a light-hearted affair and afterwards, Ben read from the bible, his resonant voice giving the ancient story depth and feeling. Every year, the boys were almost moved to tears as Ben read those old, familiar words and this year, Mark and Luke felt privileged to be there.
At last, they went to bed, with Adam teasing Joe about getting a switch in his stocking that year. But the house was soon settled and quiet.
Ben awoke and looked at Luke, who was standing by the bed. “We’re leaving now, Ben,” Luke told him. “Our job here is done. But I just wanted to thank you for your hospitality. We’d heard so much about it, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure that everything I heard was true. I’m delighted to discover it is.”
“Who told you?” Ben asked.
“Oh, lots of different people, mostly women, it has to be said,” Luke replied. He smiled. “We thought you were all too good to be true, but we’ve learned a lesson here, that’s for sure.” He turned away, then paused. “And by the way, you weren’t wrong about Joe.”
“I wasn’t?” Ben floundered. He had no idea what his guest was referring to.
“No,” Luke answered. “Joe does have a guardian angel looking out for him. He’s away right now, so Mark and I stepped in. We had a bunch of requests through The Boss and we’ve honored them. Christmas is tomorrow and none of your sons is injured in any way.”
“Requests?” Ben was so confused that he began to wonder if he was losing his mind. “From who? For what?”
“This won’t make any sense at all,” Luke confided. “But don’t worry; come morning you’ll think this was all a dream. But a whole lot of people who are fans of yours, and who write stories about you, hoped that this Christmas, a certain writer wouldn’t ‘maim’ Joe. So we arranged it. All those potential accidents? We stopped them. We provided the rock that stopped Joe falling in the river. We made him slip on the ice so that the snow didn’t land on him. We conjured up the snow bank to soften the fall earlier. Being an angel has its uses, but its very hard work keeping the glow and our wings hidden.”
With an enigmatic smile, Luke began to glow. A halo popped into being above his head and he sprouted wings. Ben was speechless.
Luke smiled once more. “Don’t worry; the redhead can’t possibly maim Joe now. This story is almost ended.”
From the room next door, there was an audible thud and Ben winced. “I think Joe just fell out of bed,” he muttered, wondering if he was losing his mind.
Shrugging, Luke replied, “Don’t worry, I’ll sort that. No rest for the wicked!”
When the Cartwrights woke the next morning, their guests were nowhere to be seen.
“I don’t understand,” Joe declared, placing his hands on his hips. “Where can they have gone?”
“I don’t know,” Ben replied, although had amorphous memories of Luke talking to him in a dream. But he couldn’t quite catch hold of it and finally dismissed it as a figment of his imagination.
But that was not the queerest thing about that Christmas morning. The gifts that had been ordered from the mercantile were all under the tree, although all the Cartwrights claimed that they hadn’t gone into town to retrieve them. It was a mystery to compare to the year that Joe claimed they saw Santa Claus.
As they sat down to a delicious Christmas lunch, each moved and delighted by the gifts they had received, Ben’s grace included a special wish for Luke and Mark, wherever they were. Somehow, they all knew that they would never see the men again.
As that elusive memory surfaced briefly again, Ben mused, “Perhaps we were entertaining angels unaware.”