Summary: A Cartwright Christmas comedy told in three part harmony
Rated: Family Friendly / Word count: 4296
Sleigh Bells Ring
Have you ever tried convincin’ your older brother, especially one that’s fresh home from college, that he’s wrong? If you have, then you know somethin’ about what’d be like to try and take a bull by the horns in a China shop without breakin’ any of the dishes. It all started, of course, with my littlest brother. All three of us had been in the barn tryin’ hard to make it seem like we were doin’ anything other than getting’ a look at Pa’s new sleigh. Now this weren’t no ordinary sleigh. This sleigh was special designed, ordered, and built by none other than Gruber Hirsch, the best wagon, sleigh, buckboard, and just about any other mode of transportation you could name, maker around these parts. The minute it was delivered, which by sheer coincidence happened to be on a day when Pa’d sent me, Adam and Little Joe on an errand, it was stored in the barn, and by the time we got back, Pa had it wrapped up real tight in a bunch of old tarps. The only thing you could see were the runners stickin’ out the bottom, and let me tell you, those were some of the sleekest, shiniest runners I’ve ever had the good fortune to lay eyes on.
You see, Pa had a big surprise planned for the annual Christmas party we Cartwrights like to host. Pa had plans to offer rides to all the guests and had even gone so far as to buy a matchin’ pair of gray speckled Percherons to pull the sleigh. He was almost as proud of them animals as he was the sleigh but, of course, it’s harder to hide two giant horses than one oversized sleigh. That didn’t stop him from orderin’ us not to touch them, though.
The sleigh had been sittin’ in the barn for about a week, and although the three of us had tried on separate occasions—having the scars and blistered ears to prove it—none of us had even managed to get a glimpse of it as of yet. For the last week, Pa had been keepin’ us pretty busy takin’ over all the chores the hired hands that stayed on through the winter were supposed to be doin’. Them he had workin’ from sunset to sundown carvin’, shovelin’ and in some cases even blastin’ out a trail that would take our guests on an excitin’ ride past a spectacular view of the lake and end up back at the ranch where Hop Sing would have all sorts of hot drinks and good things to eat ready and waiting. Well, on this particular day, Pa himself was out making the final inspection. Come to think of it, the whole thing really started with him leavin’ us alone . . .
Honestly, Pa should’ve known better. I mean leavin’ that new sleigh out in the barn, all wrapped up in crinkly black tarp looking like a giant Christmas present, with two of the most amazing draft horses I’d ever seen just ready and waiting, was somethin’ like dangling a piece of raw chicken out to a badger and expectin’ to pull your arm back in one piece.
I know my brothers blamed me but hey, I was only ten-years-old and they’re the ones that were supposed to be grown up and responsible. Well, okay, I was the one that first found it. I had been takin’ my time walkin’ around the sleigh, fighting temptation, when I saw it—a small crack on the left side runner, right at the base of where it met the leg. The light had hit it just right as I was walking by and I was drawn to the gleaming sparkle, like a fish to worm a dangling at the end of a razor sharp hook.
“Hey, you guys, come look at this,” I said excitedly.
Adam and Hoss hurried over and I pointed out the spot. Now that I think back, it really wasn’t all that big of a crack. More of a small fracture really . . . pretty little . . . bordering close to miniscule . . .
It was all the excuse we needed though. I’d only been home from college for about two months and I’d been working really hard to prove to my father that his hard earned money had gone for a good cause. So, when I saw the fracture, I thought fixing it would be a great opportunity to show Pa some of the engineering skills I’d developed, and of course everyone knows that good engineering really boils down to practical application, which is why I suggested to Hoss and Joe that we test out the sleigh. After all, we wanted to make sure our guests wouldn’t be in any danger.
All right, all right, I wanted to try it out just as much as my brothers did, but I should have known better. I mean, considering the strain I’d been enduring under Pa’s watchful eye ever since arriving home, I really was overdue to mess up royally, which is what I did, thoroughly and completely.
Well, after I had put out my suggestion to fix the fracture, my brothers and I all took a step back, considered the possibilities, weighed the consequences . . .
And threw caution to the wind right along with that tarp, and I’m tellin’ you, I’ve never seen a prettier piece of work. The whole thing was painted a bright cherry red, which made those smooth silver runners stand out all the more. And the seats, which were huge—probably could’ve carried eight to ten people between the two of them—were covered in plush red velvet.
In case you’re wonderin’ about earlier, when I mentioned trying to talk Adam out of somethin’, it wasn’t this. I’m afraid I was just as guilty as the other two in the decision to take out the sleigh.
When after a few minutes none of us had moved yet, I started things by nudging Adam in the side. “How much time you think we’ve got?”
Adam looked up toward the roof, did some quick calculatin’ and figured we had about two hours . . .
Which was more than enough time for us to fix that tiny scrape and then go for a ride. While my brothers worked on welding the runner, I got the tack straightened out, although the two horses were way too big for me to hitch up by myself. I decided at the last minute not to use the harness with the bells, and I left them laying on the floor near the door. It would turn out later to be the only smart decision I made that whole day. Adam and Hoss were done in a jiffy and the way my oldest brother bragged, you’d have thought he’d just finished building a castle complete with towers and a moat. Sheesh, and he wants me to go to college . . .
I do have to admit that my satisfaction in a job well done was due more from trying to ease a nagging conscience than to fact that we’d done anything so amazing.
When it was done, before I had a chance to lose my nerve, Hoss was beckoning me to grab hold of the other side of the sleigh so that we could turn it toward the door. I was more than a little surprised at my middle brother’s willingness to go along with all this . . .
No more surprised than I was though. Maybe it was the way the sun was beating down on the crackling snow, or the way them beautiful horses pawed and stamped at the ground, I’m not sure, but I was just itchin’ to go, and knowin’ that we weren’t supposed to just seemed to make it that much more excitin’. Between me and Adam, we had the horses hitched and the sleigh in the front yard in just under ten minutes. Adam and I both started to climb in from opposite sides and then, of course, there was a little scuffle over who was going to drive the sleigh . . .
Naturally, it ended up being Adam. Not that I thought there was any chance I would actually get to drive, but since my brothers were already arguing, I threw my two cents in just in case. After things were settled, Adam and Hoss took the front seat, which was fine with me because I got the back all to myself. The horses were prancing and seemed to be even more eager than we were to get goin’, but a sudden thought occurred to me.
“Hey, Adam, what about the tracks?”
I watched as Adam’s arms fell slack and he turned to Hoss in surprise. Usually, he would be the one to think about those little details. It just goes to show that none of us were in our right minds. I’ve decided it must have been that shiny red color that knocked our senses loose. Well, we ended up agreeing to go around the back of the barn and hope that it snowed before Pa found a need to wander in that direction. Hoss and I both jumped out as Adam steered the horses around, and we grabbed some shovels out of the barn to cover the tracks in the front yard. With that done, we climbed aboard, Adam lifted the reins, and with barely a flick of his wrist, the horses took off through the snow. They started out slower than I would have liked, since a path hadn’t been cleared around back, but the new sleigh cut through the snow just fine and before we knew it, we had joined up with the main road going toward Virginia City and the ride smoothed out. That was when the horses really got going. Up until then, Adam had been holding them back, but now he let them have their head, and watching the snow explode around their giant bodies rippling with muscle was breathtaking.
It wasn’t until we came to a fork in the road that things really started to happen . . .
That was when I tried to convince Adam that taking the short cut around Cutler’s Pond was a bad idea, but he was worried about us running into Pa and wanted to go as far in the opposite direction of where he was working as we could.
“Adam, there’s too many sharp corners along that ridge,” I tried.
“Hoss, these horses move like they have wings and the sleigh glides just fine. Those turns won’t be a problem.”
Deep down I knew that what Adam was sayin’ wasn’t right but, truth be told, I wasn’t anymore keen on runnin’ into Pa than he was. “All right,” I said finally. “Just be sure you take it nice and slow.”
At that point, I went completely mad. Something about Hoss telling me to be cautious grated on my nerves and I was determined to show him I knew better, and Little Joe in the back yelling for me to go faster just added fuel to my deranged fire. Unlike my two younger brothers, there have been very few times when I ever fell into trouble, so to speak. No, most of the time I looked it square in the face and chose to go ahead, and that’s what I did then . . .
I’d never seen an expression like that on Adam’s face before and when he stood up, cracked the whip, and hollered “hah” at the top of his lungs, I was half thrilled and half scared to death. Let me tell you, those horses took off at a speed that made their earlier canter seem like we’d been crawlin’ along up until then. They took the first sharp corner just fine, although I lost my hat, but then we came to the second one . . .
Things took a turn for the worst, literally. It all happened so fast that I can’t tell you exactly what went wrong, but I do remember a snap, a terrific bump, and then we were suddenly gliding past the horses as they continued to run. It was quite an odd experience, and I’m not sure who was more surprised, the three of us or the horses. Needless to say, they pulled up short, but we kept going and it began to dawn on me that our sleigh had suddenly turned into a sled.
A sled that was out of control. I don’t remember much about the before except for grabbin’ hold of the front with both hands and yellin’ back to Joe to hang on. The last of the three sharp turns was just up ahead and I knew there was no way we were gonna make it. Adam must have realized that too because he suddenly turned around and began to climb over the seat. I can only guess that he was goin’ to try and protect Little Joe, but there was no time. The sleigh hit a rock and swerved, taking a dive right over the ledge. I remember a lot of bumps, crashing, and bodies flyin’ and then the next thing I knew, I was blinking up into a clear blue sky and all was peaceful . . .
For about point two seconds anyway. I had gone flying at one point and ended up in the front of the sleigh at Hoss’s feet. I started to uncurl slowly when Hoss moaned and that’s when I heard a crack. Hoss sat up quickly and then froze.
“Little Joe, don’t move a muscle,” he said.
“Wasn’t going to. Can you see Adam?”
Hoss turned his head real slow and looked across the icy pond. “Yup, he’s not movin’ either.”
For a few minutes, other than the soft plop of snow as it fell off the limbs of some nearby tree, there was no sound.
“Hey, Hoss,” I said softly. “What do we do now?”
I had no idea where I was. I’d hit my head on something at some point and my vision was blurry at best. Everywhere I looked, I was surrounded by white and for a minute, I was half convinced that I’d died and was now in Heaven. I remember hoping that my guardian angel wouldn’t be reassigned now that I’d arrived, because as soon as Pa got there, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was going to kill me.
Dropping my hands to my sides, I braced myself and tried to sit up. That’s when I heard the crack and suddenly, the world around me seemed very fragile. I froze and, after several minutes, my vision began to clear. Well, Little Joe had been after me for a while to test the ice on the pond for skating. I now had my answer, it wasn’t ready yet. A minute later, I cringed as I heard Hoss’s voice carry across the pond.
“Adam, don’t move.”
I didn’t bother answering that I’d figured that much out by myself. I tried to remember what Pa had told me in the past about being caught out on the ice. Lie flat, distribute your weight, and . . .
Too late. It was one of those times when everything seems to just slow down. The loud groans and creaking seemed to go on forever, and then with one terrific crash, everything got really wet and really cold, really fast. Thankfully, the pond was shallow enough for Hoss to walk out of it, which he did after lifting me to his shoulders. Unfortunately, it was just deep enough to completely cover the sleigh. After Hoss dropped me on the bank like a soggy sack of potatoes, he turned back for older brother. Adam isn’t quite as tall as Hoss, and he was struggling to keep his chin above water as he slowly waded toward the shore. Hoss met him halfway and a few minutes later, we were all on solid ground shivering and gasping for air.
As I looked back out toward that huge hole in the ice I almost wondered if it would have been better for my brothers if I had just let them drown . . .
I was pretty much feeling the same way. Especially by the time we trudged into the front yard. The three of us were nearly frozen solid when Adam finally managed to turn the knob and open the door. Hoss tried to yell for Hop Sing, but the sounds coming through his chattering teeth sounded more like he was calling the pigs in. Luckily for us, Hop Sing happened to wander into the living room just then, and he went into quick action, Chinese style.
Thirty minutes later, Hoss and I were wrapped in a blanket in front of the fire sipping hot tea and Adam was soaking in a warm bath. He’d been in the icy water the longest, and not having quite as much padding as Hoss, was really suffering.
I was determined not to get sick, but I was already starting to feel achy and, try as I might, I couldn’t hold my sniffles back. After three sneezes in a row, I got up to make a dash for my room, but it was too late. Hop Sing had heard and was already coming toward me with a big bottle of some nasty homemade concoction. Well, several choice words, two whacks, and a well-placed kick later, Hop Sing limped back to the kitchen, and I used the corner of my blanket to wipe as much of the vile stuff off my tongue as I could . . .
Normally, I would’ve laughed at the scuffle between Little Joe and our feisty cook, but right then, I couldn’t think about much else besides what Pa was going to say, or what he was goin’ to do.
Unless you’ve ever stood guilty before Ben Cartwright, you can’t even begin to imagine the feeling of dread that had settled in the pit of my stomach. Try picturin’ the worst toothache you’ve ever had, add the fact that you’ve got a real bad stomach flu, then drop a sledge hammer on your foot. Now, you’re close . . .
And that’s before he gets you out to the barn. Not that I was worried about that particular experience, but I knew my brothers were. As I sat in that bath water trying to soak up the heat, I thought about what I could possibly say to Pa. I knew I was going to be in for more trouble than I had seen in many a year, and on top of that, I was starting to feel sick.
An hour later, I had joined my brothers by the fire and had been given several doses of Hop Sings cure all. The three of us had been talking it over and had reluctantly agreed that the only thing to do would be to tell Pa the truth.
A short while later, it was growing dark outside. Little Joe was folded in half in his chair, just about asleep, and I could see that Hoss was fighting to keep his eyes open as well. I stood up and declared that it was time for bed and that we would confess our sins first thing in the morning.
I ended up having to carry Little Joe to his bed and tuck him in. I had just crawled between the sheets in my own bed when I heard the front door slam and Pa’s voice bellowing down below. With a groan worthy of the condemned, I got back up and made for the stairs.
“Oh, Adam, there you are,” Pa said and then stopped, noticing that I was dressed for bed. “Are you feeling all right?”
“Actually, Pa, the three of us are coming down with a cold. I sent Hoss and Joe to bed and was just about to join them.”
If you know anything about my pa, then you know that he was instantly concerned, and after checking on his two younger sons, insisted on helping me to bed. I was wondering why he hadn’t mentioned anything about the sleigh yet. I thought for sure he would have noticed it missing when he put his horse up for the night, but he answered my question without my having to ask.
“I think I’m going to get to bed early myself,” he said. “I was so tired, I had Randy put Buck in the barn for me. I’ll see you in the morning, son.”
His voice was so soft and so comforting, and as I lay there, I wondered how long it would be before I heard that tone again.
I hadn’t let on that I was still awake, and I listened to the low hum of voices as Pa said goodnight to Adam. When I heard the click of Pa’s door shutting for the night, I sent up a silent prayer that something, anything would happen to change what I knew was coming the next day. Well, God heard my prayer and a few hours later, the most amazing thing happened.
We were robbed. I’m not sure how long I’d been asleep, but I woke up with a start at the sound of bells jingling. I jumped out of bed into my slippers and pulled on my robe as I ran for the hallway. My brothers and Pa must have heard the sounds too, because they had already beat me to the stairs. Pa grabbed a rifle from the rack and Adam raced for his gun belt, but Hoss just bolted straight for the door. I was right behind him until Pa grabbed the belt on my robe and pulled me back into the house.
“You stay here,” he ordered, and I had to content myself with watching from the doorway until Hop Sing came in and made me shut it.
Well, it turned out that whoever it was had hit the storehouse first. Thankfully, we’ve got two, plus a cellar, so I was pretty sure we weren’t going to starve.
Naturally, when Pa discovered the sleigh and horses missing, he assumed that those had been stolen as well. I thought about speaking up, but it had already been decided to put it off until the morning. I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but somewhere between Pa loading just about every rifle we owned and him threatening to personally make sure the no good, low down, and some words I won’t repeat, horse thieves would hang from the highest tree, my brothers and I made eye contact and a silent vow was agreed upon to never reveal the truth of the sleigh’s fate.
And to this day, Pa don’t know a thing about it. Every family’s got its secrets, and each of us has a pile that we keep from Pa, but there are only three that we all keep together and this is one of them. We do all get a little worried during the summer months when the water starts dryin’ up in that old pond, but so far, we’ve all done a real good job of keepin’ Pa far away from it. I still wonder from time to time just who it was that robbed us that night. We figured they would’ve gotten away with more if it hadn’t been for them bells jinglin’.
Like I said, it was the one smart move I’d made that day, leavin’ them lying on the floor. Adam thinks it was probably just some old Indians needin’ some food for their families, but . . .
Little Joe was just sure that it was Santa Claus, and who knows, maybe he was right. We did hear sleigh bells ringing. Of course, our gift ended up being in the taking more than the giving that night.
It turned out that Pa was still able to offer his sleigh rides. A neighbor brought over a big buckboard that we attached an old set of runners to and people had a wonderful time, even if it was being pulled by two ornery old mules instead of those magnificent horses.
We never did see those two beauties again, although every once in a while, I’ll see a new colt in some wild herd that spouts a few of their features. Oh, by the way, be careful if you ever want to go for a swim in that old pond. When you’re out toward the middle, you might just bang your knee.
Other Stories by this Author
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- Donny (by bahj)
- Who Did It? (by bahj)
- Hide and Seek (by bahj)
- Scrumptious (by bahj)