Word Count: 3541
A ray of hope flickers in the sky
A tiny star lights up way up high.
All across the land, dawns a brand new morn
This comes to pass
When a Child is Born.
“It’s coming!” The scream rent the silence of the room. The young woman in travail on the bed clutched the hand of the young man who hovered helplessly over her.
“It’s all right,” Joe breathed soothingly, although he had no idea if everything was all right or not. “Won’t be long now, Mary.”
As the contraction eased, Mary looked up at Joe Cartwright. “I’m sorry to get you into this, Joe,” she panted.
“Don’t worry about it,” Joe replied. “You just rest before the next contraction.” Joe had never in his life seen a human baby born, like most males of his generation, but he had birthed cows and horses before and just hoped the mechanics were somewhat similar, or – better yet – the midwife would arrive from town.
Turning away from the bed, Joe glanced out of the window once more. The snow was still falling steadily. He probed the bruise on his cheek gently before looking round once more. Joe had found Mary Cummings in labor in her barn when he rode in to speak to her husband – also called Joseph – about some ranch business. Helping the stricken woman into the house, Joe had then ridden back to town to fetch the doctor. On the way, Joe had met Joseph, explained about Mary and the next thing he knew, he was lying in the road with a sore face.
“Keep away from my wife!” Joseph shouted. “The babe ain’t due fer another month! You always did fancy Mary!”
“You can’t leave her!” Joe shouted back, appalled. “Babies come when they are ready, you know. Yours is on the way.”
It was only when Joe ducked another punch that he realized that Joseph was drunk. He slipped on the treacherous road and went down and before he could regain his feet, Joseph rode away. Brushing the snow off his pants, Joe followed Joseph until he met a small boy, whom he charged with fetching the midwife.
Now, hours later, there was no sign of the woman and Joe didn’t know if it was because his messenger hadn’t located her, or if the snow was preventing her arrival. Either way, Joe was just beginning to realize that he was going to have to deliver this baby, whether he liked it or not!
“Joe!” The gasp caught his wandering attention and he hurried back to allow Mary to grip his hand again as another contraction hit. “Joe, I want to push,” Mary panted, as the pain eased.
“Already?” Joe gulped.
“You’ll have to look,” Mary told him. “Be ready. I have to push.” She bit her lip as she felt the pain starting to build in her back.
Steeling himself, Joe raised the covers. He was no novice with the ladies, but he had never been in this situation before and he hoped he never would be again. But the sight of the baby’s head crowning drove all thoughts of embarrassment out of his head. “I can see the head,” he called.
A strangled scream was his only reply as Mary began to push with all her might. Sweat popped into being on her forehead and her face went puce. Then the contraction quit, and she flopped back on her pillows, panting hard. Her hands were tangled in the sheets, her knuckles white.
As the pains began to build once more, Mary cast Joe a frantic look. He responded instinctively, soothing and encouraging her as she pushed to expel the new life from her womb. With shocking suddenness, the baby’s head and shoulders were expelled into Joe’s waiting hands and the infant let out a loud wail.
“Oh, what is it?” Mary cried.
“I don’t know yet,” Joe replied, half-laughing. “You’ll have to push a bit more.”
Mary made a sound half way between a laugh and a cry and then groaned. Within a minute, the child was fully delivered and Joe was wrapping the little boy in a towel. “It’s a boy,” he told the new mother, reverently. Joe didn’t think he had ever seen anything so wonderful.
Taking the child, still covered in blood and mucus, Mary began to cry, a smile stretching her mouth. “Oh, he’s so beautiful,” she whispered.
Blinking back tears, Joe reached for the things that Mary had prepared for the birth and tied and cut the cord. He knew about that from helping animals give birth. He was rather unprepared for the after birth, but managed to contain it in the sheet covering the bed. Then, after washing his hands, he wondered what else he ought to do. Certainly, he couldn’t go off and leave Mary alone.
Looking out of the window again, Joe was shocked to see that not only had the night fallen, it was almost daylight again. A sliver of light in the eastern sky told Joe that dawn wasn’t far off and with another shock, he realized that it was Christmas Morning! His family would be wondering where on earth he was! He hoped they liked the gifts he had bought them.
“Joe,” Mary called and he turned to look the radiant young woman. Mary had always been pretty rather than beautiful, but at that moment, cradling her new-born child, she was the most beautiful woman Joe had ever seen. Her happiness shone from every pore. “I just wanted to thank you, Joe,” she continued.
A smile quirked Joe’s mouth. “Do you know what day it is?” he asked. “Mary and Joseph and her new son. Its like the Christmas story all over again.”
“This isn’t a stable,” Mary replied. She marveled that she didn’t feel any embarrassment in the young cowboy’s presence. The miracle that they had just shared didn’t allow for awkward feelings.
“That’s where you were when I found you,” Joe reminded her. He walked over to the bed and looked down on the baby. The child was quiet, looking around with unfocused eyes. “He’s lovely,” Joe added, huskily.
With a crash that startled the baby, the bedroom door opened and Joseph reeled in. “What are you doing in my bedroom, ya skunk?” he demanded. “Didn’t ya understand what I told ya last night?”
“Joseph!” Mary admonished. She rocked the crying baby. “Joe delivered our baby!”
“I’ll go,” Joe told Mary quietly. “You and Joseph should be alone together. I’ll get the midwife to come.” He smiled fondly at her and walked quietly out of the bedroom, ignoring Joseph. He knew only too well that anything he said then would be the wrong thing.
He was outside before Joseph caught up with him. Joe was physically tired and emotionally spent. Joseph was drunk and wouldn’t usually have stood much of a chance against Joe, but he put his advantage to full use. Consumed with jealousy and feeling guilty that he hadn’t taken Joe seriously the night before, Joseph took his feelings out on Joe. When he stepped back, Joe was lying bleeding on the snow.
Overwhelmed with guilt, Joseph hurried into the barn and took Cochise out of the stall where he had spent the night. Roughly, he dragged the semi-conscious Joe to his feet and threw him into the saddle. Joe clutched at the saddle horn as his horse started to move and hoped he wouldn’t lose control of his stomach.
The pain came in waves and Joe’s head swam dizzily. He had no idea why Joseph had been so vicious to him and his body hurt too much to allow him peace to think it through. All Joe wanted was to get home and fall into his own bed.
Cochise suddenly slipped and Joe’s precarious balance wasn’t up to the sudden movement. He fell from the saddle and the combination of the slip and Joe’s fall served to frighten the usually steady horse, who took to his heels, galloping down the snowy road. Joe lifted his head enough to shout, “Cochise!” but the horse kept going. Despairing, Joe let his head fall back.
After a time, it occurred to Joe that he was cold and wet. He forced himself to sit up, groaning at the various aches that awoke as he did so. “I can’t stay here,” he chided himself softly. “Get up, Joe.”
Somehow, he managed to struggle to his feet. It was only about two miles to town, but in his present condition, Joe wasn’t sure he could walk two miles. But he had no other choice; he couldn’t go back to Joseph and Mary’s. Joe began to stagger towards town.
The clouds were leaden with unshed snow and Joe hoped that he would reach shelter before the snow started. He wondered if his family was enjoying Christmas and hoped that they might save him some Christmas lunch. Joe wished he had been there to see them opening their presents.
He stumbled and fell, sliding down a short slope into a ditch. The water at the bottom of the ditch was frozen hard and Joe cracked his head off it painfully. As the snow began to feather downwards, he lay there unmoving.
“Are you ready?” Ben asked and both Adam and Hoss nodded. They quickly mounted and followed Ben out of the yard.
When Joe had not come home the previous evening, they had been mildly concerned, but since there had been very little snow, they assumed that Joe was just staying late in town and would be back home before morning. Ben had felt a tad uneasy as he went to bed, but he chided himself that Joe was a grown man and quite capable of taking care of himself, under normal circumstances. But when they arose the next morning and discovered that Joe had not arrived home, Ben was alarmed. A hasty breakfast was eaten before they hurried out to saddle their horses.
Riding into town, Ben wracked his brain to recall if Joe had said he was going anywhere except to Joseph Cummings’ place. Joseph ran his own small ranch, but he also did some carpentering as a sideline and was making some more bunks for the bunkhouse. “Joe wasn’t going anywhere else, was he?” Ben asked his sons.
“No, Pa,” Adam replied.
“Don’ think so,” Hoss added. Ben nodded. That made the area for their search smaller.
As he woke, Joe wondered where on earth he was. He was cold – chilled to the bone and his clothes were wet. Sitting up, Joe probed his throbbing head. What was he doing out in the snow? He glanced around, and realized that he was in a ditch. Getting to his feet, Joe started the tricky climb out.
He slipped back several times, and was almost on the top of the ditch when the branch he was using broke. Joe crashed back into the ditch and banged a knee. When he rose again, the knee refused to hold his weight.
Sitting on the ice and rubbing his injured leg, Joe suddenly remembered that he had delivered Mary Cummings’ baby the night before. Joe had temporarily forgotten about his fight with Joseph and he thought that he had been on his way to fetch the midwife. Galvanized by the thought, Joe struggled to his feet and started to climb the ditch again.
Eventually, Joe reached the road again. He was no longer cold; in fact, he was dripping with sweat. His whole body ached and Joe was forced to sit down and rest before he could begin his trek into town to fetch the midwife.
Walking was easier when he had something to hold on to, so Joe abandoned the road and headed into the trees, planning on taking a short-cut to town. He limped along, biting his lip against the pain. He was completely unprepared for the ground disappearing beneath his feet.
Joseph Cummings looked astounded when he answered the knock at the door and discovered Ben, Adam and Hoss standing there. For a moment, he thought they had come to settle with him for what he had done to Joe, but Ben’s first words soon dispelled his fear. “Have you seen Joe?” Ben asked. “He didn’t come home last night.”
“He was here last night,” Joseph replied. He and Mary had had some strong words and Joseph was feeling a great deal of remorse over his actions. If not for Joe Cartwright’s presence the previous night, Mary would have had to bear her child alone. Joseph was besotted with the child. “He delivered our baby,” he went on hoarsely. “I – I fought with him this morning, Mr. Cartwright and I put him on his horse. I haven’t seen him since.” He looked down. “I’m so sorry for the way I treated Joe.”
Concerned and not quite understanding why Joseph had fought with Joe, Ben frowned. “Do you know where he was going?” he asked.
“I thought he was going home,” Joseph replied, miserably. “But he did say something about getting the midwife before he left, so perhaps he went there.”
“We’ll look,” Ben nodded. “Congratulations on the birth of your baby. What is it?”
“A fine boy,” Joseph replied, puffing his chest out proudly. “I was jealous of Joe being with Mary – I didn’t realize why he was there. I behaved like a complete ass.”
“Everyone makes mistakes,” Adam advised him. “I’m sure Joe will forgive you.”
The Cartwrights hurried back to their horses and began to retrace their steps. Hoss took the lead, watching the snow for signs of tracks. He found the place where Joe had fallen and then found footprints in the snow a bit further on. “I reckon that’s Joe,” he declared, pointing out the tracks. “But he ain’t walkin’ right. He’s takin’ a lot o’ weight on one leg.”
“Do you think he’s hurt?” Ben asked.
“If he fell down into the ditch, he could be,” Adam replied, seriously. He met Ben’s eyes, which were dark with worry.
“Let’s go,” Ben decided. Hoss set out once more.
A bit further on, they found the place where Joe had left the road. The trees were too thick to allow the horses to go in, so they tethered their mounts and continued on foot. Ben’s anxiety was mounting by the minute. It was so easy to lose your direction when walking in the trees.
“Careful!” Adam shouted and reached past Ben to grab the back of Hoss’ coat. He was just in time to prevent his brother from tumbling into a hole in the ground.
“Thanks,” Hoss panted. He dropped to his knees and peered past the snowy branches that partially disguised the drop. “Joe!”
“Where?” Ben rushed to the edge and knelt down. “Joe? Can you hear me, son?”
In the pit, Joe lay still and silent. “Get the ropes!” Ben ordered and heard Adam hurrying through the trees, back towards the horses. “Joe!”
Ben continued to call to Joe while he waited for Adam’s return and he was eventually rewarded with a groan. It didn’t take Adam more than a few minutes to get the ropes, but it seemed like forever to the waiting father. Ben quickly tied a rope around his middle and Hoss and Adam lowered him carefully into the pit.
“Joe,” Ben called, cupping Joe’s cold face in his hand. “Can you hear me?”
“Hi, Pa,” Joe whispered. “Need the midwife.”
“Never mind that for now,” Ben replied, relieved that Joe was awake and talking. “Are you hurt?”
“My knee,” Joe replied, miserably. Now that he was conscious again, his body had set up a chorus of misery. Ben gently felt down Joe’s leg, afraid that he would find a break, but apart from the serious swelling on Joe’s knee, the leg seemed intact.
Getting Joe out of the pit wasn’t easy, as they had to be careful not to hurt him. The marks of Joseph’s fists could be seen all too clearly and Joe was obviously tender in a great many places. But at last, it was accomplished and Joe rested on the snowy ground beside his brothers.
“We need to get Joe to a doctor,” Ben whispered to Adam. “We’re a horse down, too. Joe can ride with me. You go on ahead and alert Paul. Oh and Adam? Send the midwife out to the Cummings place.”
“All right, Pa,” Adam agreed. “Look, Hoss and I will carry Joe to the horses, then I’ll go. We need to get him out of here.”
Nodding, Ben helped Joe to his feet and Hoss and Adam linked hands, providing Joe with a seat. It was awkward, but easier than one or other of them trying to carry Joe to the road. Both men were panting and tired when they reached the road. “Joe, you aren’t getting any lighter,” Adam panted.
“Just be glad… I ain’t Hoss,” Joe replied. His head ached and he felt a bit queasy.
“What are ya tryin’ ta say, little brother?” Hoss demanded, trying to sound aggrieved. “Are ya sayin’ I’m fat?”
“You’re fatter… than me,” Joe responded, breathlessly. He was pleased to hear Hoss laugh. His brother wasn’t touchy about his weight at all.
Joe was soon settled on the front of Ben’s saddle and Adam quickly mounted Sport and headed off into town. He wanted to race there, but the road was treacherous and Adam wanted to arrive with both himself and his mount in good condition. They had several nasty slips, but Sport managed to keep his feet and Adam kept his voice calm and they arrived in town all in one piece.
The doctor was in and after Adam had briefed him, he quickly headed over to the midwife’s house. She got him to help her harness her buggy and set off to see Mary Cummings. Adam knew that the first few days after giving birth held all sorts of dangers for the mother and he was relieved that Mary would have professional help.
As he went back to Paul Martin’s surgery, Adam suddenly realized that Mary and Joseph had just had a son on Christmas Day. He couldn’t help but smile. He was sure that this would be one special child. He was still smiling over it as he helped Joe down from Ben’s horse and he mentioned it to Joe, hoping to bring a smile to his brother’s wan face.
“I know,” Joe smiled. “And I was like Joseph in the bible – a participant, when the child was not mine.” He sighed. “I wonder if that Joseph in Bethlehem felt a bit left out?” he mused. “It was wonderful to see the baby born,” he continued, as he was half-carried into the surgery. “But it isn’t my baby and I felt a bit strange afterwards, but I felt an immediate connection with the child.”
“Who can say?” Ben replied, but it was an idea he remembered and thought about deeply later on.
“Badly sprained knee,” Paul Martin pronounced. “Lots of cuts and bruises, but essentially, Joe is fine. Take him home, give him a good meal and put him to bed.”
That seemed like the best news Ben had ever had. As they helped Joe out to the horses, Roy Coffee came up and he had Cochise with him. “Found him on the outskirts of town,” Roy explained. “I was jist about ta come out an’ tell ya when I saw yer horses here.” He looked at Joe. “Ya all right, Little Joe?”
“Fine,” Joe replied. He took his horse’s rein and patted the mole-soft nose.
“That Joseph Cummings is down at ma jailhouse right now,” Roy continued. “He says he beat ya up, Joe.”
“Does he?” Joe replied. “It was a misunderstanding, Roy. Send him home to his wife.” Ben had told Joe how much Joseph had regretted his actions earlier.
“He ain’t a model citizen,” Roy huffed. “Might do him some good ta spend a night or two in the cells.”
“It might,” Joe allowed. “But I think becoming a father might do him much more good. Let him go, Roy.”
“That was a nice thing you just did,” Ben told Joe proudly as they watched Roy leave.
Joe shrugged, looking embarrassed. “I don’t much like Joseph,” he admitted. “But I like Mary and she loves him. So he can’t be all bad, Pa. And now they have a very special baby. I don’t think we have to worry about Joseph any more.”
Looking up, Joe discovered that it was growing dark. Christmas Day was almost over. “Hey, Merry Christmas,” he said. “Did you like the gifts?”
“We didn’t open any,” Adam laughed.
“Why not?” Joe asked.
“Because you weren’t there,” Ben replied. “No gift could ever replace you, Joe.”
Moved to sudden tears, Joe blinked and looked away. A single star glimmered in the twilight sky. “Let’s go home,” he suggested, huskily.
A ray of hope flickers in the sky
A tiny star lights up way up high.
All across the land, dawns a brand new morn
This comes to pass
When a Child is Born.