Summary: My adaptation of Charles Dickens’ famous story, as written for the 2016 BoNaNo Challenge. Thank you to the fun group of writers who participated as it was the first time I have done anything like that.
Word Count: 7111
Disclaimer: All publicly recognisable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
A Ponderosa Christmas Carol
Joe leaned back against the filthy wagon wheel, beyond caring at how much mud was sticking to him. He was as filthy as it was, if not more so, already. He watched as Adam tried his best to keep a civil tongue towards the cantankerous old man seated in the driver’s seat and dropped his gaze to the ground. If it were him, the words would be a whole lot different and a whole lot less respectful. His pa would take a strip off him if he could hear the thoughts rattling around his youngest son’s head at that moment. Joe allowed himself a small smile at that thought as it had been some years since his father had taken him over his knee and tanned him for whatever his latest misdemeanor was. Of course, his pa still had a tongue that could do some damage when his hand no longer could.
Joe glanced up as the wagon began to rumble down the slushy street and he felt himself being nudged out of the way. Hoss had a grip on his elbow and was steering him across the street. He pointed to where their own horses were tied to the hitching rail. The horses were just as filthy as their owners and just as cold which was evident in the way they all stamped their feet and shuffled up closer together.
“C’mon, little brother. We gotta get these horses put up for the night at the livery.”
“But … no! We gotta get on home. Pa’s gonna be waiting for us and we need to …”
“Joe, it’s too late to be ridin’ home tonight. That road’s treacherous enough in the daylight otherwise those wagons wouldn’t be gettin’ inta so much trouble. Pa won’t be expectin’ us tonight.”
Joe shook his head at his brother, about to argue again when he felt Hoss’ hand tighten slightly on his arm.
“How’s about a hot bath and some hot grub?
Joe smiled as Hoss once again gently defused his frustration and averted a confrontation between him and his two brothers. The smile slid back off his face as he thought of his father waiting for their return and not knowing if they had made it into town safely or not. He knew his father well enough to know he’d worry until the three of them made it home again. He’d said it more than once that a father didn’t stop being a father just because his children grew up.
Joe sighed as there was nothing any of them could do but settle their horses and take care of their own needs. A hot bath sounded mighty good, even if he would have to slide back into the same grimy clothes he was still wearing. At least the hotel clerk might be persuaded to scrape some of the mud off their boots while they soaked in the tub.
Hoss was saying something to Adam as they walked, but Joe heard none of it. Instead, he glanced up at the night sky, the stars shining clear and bright against the black backdrop. His breath misted in front of him as he blew out a sigh of frustration. A nagging thought kept creeping towards the edge of his consciousness, but he could not grasp a hold of it. For some reason he could not explain, he knew they needed to get home tonight.
Tomorrow would be too late.
Adam’s hand came to rest on his shoulder and Joe startled at the touch. His thoughts had been miles away on the road towards home and he had missed whatever had been said.
“You okay?” Adam’s brow furrowed as he watched his youngest brother trying to gather his wayward thoughts.
“Yeah. Just wanna get home, that’s all.”
Adam nodded at him and smiled. “We all do. We need daylight for that road, Joe. With all that snow melting and then refreezing it’s far too dangerous to ride in the dark. Even you know that!” He tried to soften the rebuke with a gentle cuff to the back of Joe’s neck, but he frowned as Joe scowled back at him.
Of course, the grumpy old man who had insisted on calling all of them boy, had soured all of their moods. He’d heard Joe mutter something to Hoss about burying the old man in the deepest snowdrift he could find and Hoss had attempted to smother a laugh as that very same old man had suddenly developed sharp hearing.
Joe felt himself wanting to argue that he wasn’t a child and of course he knew about the dangers of snow, but he couldn’t define just what it was that was chewing at him.
As if sensing something, Adam tried again. “Tomorrow will be here soon enough Joe and we can leave at dawn if it’ll make you happy.”
Joe chewed at his bottom lip as he once again felt the irrational warning rising from the pit of his stomach. He would not be happy until he was home again and whatever was bothering him went away.
Ben leaned his head against the worn chair back and closed his eyes. It had been a long week and he was bone weary. Real winter had been late in arriving and that had presented some unusual problems for the time of year. Light snows had fallen and then the weather had taken a strange turn and temporarily warmed up again. The resultant slush and mud had left travelers stranded when iced-over hard roads had suddenly softened and turned treacherous. He and his boys had been kept busy helping neighbours and strangers alike as they tried to get through to wherever they were headed even as fresh snows arrived and made things even worse.
The clock chimed and Ben jolted awake in the chair. He had only intended to warm himself by the fire before retiring for the night. Instead the brandy had warmed his insides and the fire had warmed him on the outside as fatigue won out over good intentions. His muddled thoughts slowly cleared as he took in the time on the clock face across the room. Hop Sing had long since gone to bed and he pushed himself upright, knowing he should do the same.
All around him, the house stood silent. His boys were no doubt tucked in warm beds in the Virginia City Hotel after escorting the last wagonload of travelers into town. He had hoped they would return for supper, but as the darkness fell and there was no sign, he knew they would have erred on the side of caution. The road was just becoming too treacherous and they would wait for daylight before returning home. The wind had picked up outside and he listened for a moment as he tried to determine if a storm was blowing in or not. He hoped it would hold off long enough to allow his boys to make it home in the morning. Finally, he shook his head and once again turned for his bed.
“Good night, boys,” he whispered into the empty room.
He smiled at his own thought as he headed for the stairs. Adam hadn’t been a boy in a very long time and Hoss had certainly not looked anything like a boy in years. Joseph? Now that one thought of himself as a man, but Ben smiled to himself as considered the only one of his sons he could still really call a boy. At eighteen, he knew that Joe didn’t think he needed much guidance anymore, but his father figured he still had a few things to learn.
As he grasped at the solid wooden newel to pull himself up the stairs, a muffled noise carried through the night air. Thinking that perhaps his boys had ventured home after all despite the weather, he shook his head and smiled simultaneously. He’d give them a fatherly scolding about risking the roads in the dark while being secretly pleased to have them all under the same roof before the snows began again. He breathed in the rich pine scent of the tree that stood behind the staircase and smiled again. It was too close to Christmas to have his boys away from home.
The noise carried across from outside once again and he quickly surmised it was the barn door. Whoever had been charged with holding it open for the others was clearly having trouble in the increasing winds. As he hurried to pull on his heavy coat once again he noted the smell of damp wool. It was warm from the fire, but had still not dried from his time outside earlier in the day. Ben hurried across and pulled open the front door as another bang carried across the yard. He was surprised that nobody had lit a lantern in the barn yet, but there was enough moonlight to see his way across the yard without one.
The wind was picking up and the chilled air carried a threat of snow on the wind. He plunged his bare hands inside his pockets and headed for the barn, fully expecting to see one of his boys any moment. By the time he got across to the barn door it was swinging again in the wind and threatened to once again slam into the post. He knew he had pulled it closed hours before when he finished putting up his horse and figured there was only one explanation as to why it was open now.
“Adam? … Hoss?” He was about to call for his youngest son when a dark shadow emerged from inside the barn. A figure on a horse came barreling towards him and he was too slow to react. He saw a flash of cream as his own horse crashed into him. Buck reared at the unexpected collision and whoever was on his back struggled to gain control again. Before Ben could do anything further, something solid connected with the side of his head and the world turned a vague shade of various colours before sliding into darkness.
The horse and rider surged forward and soon disappeared into the dark while the barn door lodged against the body laying stretched out on the ground. Eventually tiny flakes of snow began to flutter about on the breeze, but they did nothing to wake him up. Instead, a gossamer blanket began to weave itself over him as Ben was oblivious to his surroundings.
Ben thought he felt a hand on his shoulder, gently shaking him into consciousness. He blinked into the brightness of sunlight reflecting off fresh snow before slowly sitting upright. As he pushed a hand into the snowdrift to steady himself, he was stunned to find the snow was not cold.
“What in the …” He pulled his hand back towards his face and rubbed it against his cheek. It felt warm to the touch and he quickly plunged his hand back into the snow. “It’s not cold!”
“Don’t need to be cold here.”
Ben looked up to see Roy Coffee standing against the corral railing with his hands in his pockets.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ben once again found his senses floundering as he pushed himself to his feet and noted again that the snow was not cold. “Roy!”
“It’s not important right now. There’s bigger things for you to worry about.”
Ben stumbled across the space between them and suddenly pulled up short. Roy was standing several feet away from him and yet there were no boot prints in the fresh snow either between them or anywhere around where his friend was standing. He glanced down to see ankle-deep snow around his own boots and yet when he looked behind him, the snow was as smooth as silk. He felt his heart thundering in his chest as questions scrambled around his head.
“Roy?” The word came out in a more tentative manner than he had intended. His friend waved a hand at him and pointed towards the door of the house.
“Let’s go, Ben.”
Before he could argue about it, Roy started towards the verandah and Ben silently followed him. Once again the snow seemed oblivious to their passing and seemed to be untouchable to their boots. He glanced behind him and found that he had not left any kind of impression in the soft powder as he walked. He swallowed down the fear that crept up his throat and turned back to face the sheriff. He was clearly losing his mind!
As they neared the door, the sound of laughter carried across the yard. Suddenly the heavy door swung open and three heavily rugged up boys came pouring out into the snow. Ben gaped at them as their boots certainly left an impression in the snow while his still did not. It took a few minutes for him to stop staring around at the snow and actually pay attention to the boys.
“It can’t be!” The words came out in a breathless rush.
“It is, Ben.”
“But ….” Ben felt his jaw go slack as he stared at his sons leaping around in the fresh snow. Adam and Hoss grasped at the small boy who tried to dodge between them and they swung him up and over a railing before tossing him into a snowdrift. The sound of Joe’s infectious giggle carried across to him and Ben could not take his eyes off the scene. “How? Roy! How can this be?”
Roy stood beside him, but didn’t speak. As Ben was about to turn and ask again, his breath caught in his chest. Marie appeared on the verandah with a heavy winter shawl wrapped around her shoulders. She smiled as she watched the boys’ antics. It had been two days that they had been cooped up inside and it felt good to let out some youthful energy. Finally Adam tired of chasing Joe in circles and left him to Hoss for a while. As he stepped up onto the verandah and came to rest next to his step-mother, Ben tried to call out to him. His intended words stuck in his throat.
“They can’t hear you.”
Roy was never a great talker and his explanations were usually to the point, but Ben found himself beginning to feel angry. He turned towards his friend and glared at him.
“Roy! What in tarnation is going on here? How can this be happening?”
“It already happened, Ben. You missed Christmas. Don’t you remember?”
A sudden spasm of guilt rose up from the pit of his stomach and he glared at his friend.
“I was stuck in Placerville because the stage couldn’t get through.” Ben had no idea how he could be witnessing a scene from the past, but he knew what Roy was referring to. Before he could say anything further, he saw Little Joe heading for his eldest brother.
“Adam … when’s Papa coming back? You said he’d come back for Christmas and he hasn’t! Are we gonna miss out on Christmas?” The whine in the tone made it clear this wasn’t the first time the child had asked the same question. As Adam reached to swing his brother up against his chest, Ben noted the anxious look that passed between his wife and his eldest son.
“He’ll be home soon, little buddy. He can’t get through the snow, that’s all.”
“And our Christmas celebrations will keep until your papa is here, mon chéri.” Marie leaned across and bestowed a kiss on her son’s forehead and smiled a forced smile.
“But I want Papa now!” The insistence of a four-year-old carried across to where Ben stood and watched the scene. His heart ached as he recalled his son’s reaction to his late arrival several days later.
“You promised, Papa! You promised!”
It was the first time his son seemed old enough to understand the value of a broken promise and it still nagged at him all those years later that he had been the first one to teach that bitter lesson. Of course, the fact that the following Christmas had been no kind of celebration at all without his beloved Marie only added to his guilt.
Ben closed his eyes as he tried to contain the sick feeling rising up from his stomach. The nausea came out of nowhere and almost knocked him off his feet.
“You weren’t there for him.”
It was all he could do to force his eyes open again as his stomach threatened to revolt.
Roy was half way across the yard and once again Ben noted the snow was untouched despite the fact his friend had clearly crossed it. There was no sign of the boys having played in the pristine carpet and he clutched at the hitching rail to stay upright. There was no sign of his family at all.
“You weren’t there, Ben.”
Ben groaned as his friend’s image faded away as though he had never been there.
“You weren’t there.”
The echo of condemnation settled over him and he closed his eyes once again before pitching forward into the snow.
There was no way to track the passage of time, but by the time Ben opened his eyes again the sun had moved higher into the sky. The sun glinted off the pristine white snow and Ben looked out across the yard.
Something was very off.
Hop Sing stood off to one side of him, shouting angrily and the torrent of words made no sense. It wasn’t that any of them understood him when their Chinese cook let fly, but usually they could catch the gist of his rants by knowing the context. Ben squinted at him and suddenly realised what was wrong with the whole picture. The wind was blowing around them and making the trees sway, but Hop Sing’s hair and clothing did not move, except in response to his violent gestures.
“I can’t understand you.” The comment was almost pleading as Ben found himself trying to stand up. As had happened before, he plunged a hand into the snow surrounding him and wasn’t surprised when he discovered it wasn’t cold. So many things did not add up and he frowned at his own hands. They should have been blue, given he wasn’t wearing any gloves, but they were a normal healthy pink. He rubbed a finger against the calluses on one hand and felt the roughened skin. They were his hands.
As he continued to stare at his hands, Ben realised he was still sitting in the snow. He tried once again to stand up as a sudden bout of severe nausea gripped his stomach and doubled him over. His face slid into the snow once more and his mind began arguing with his senses again. The snow was most definitely not cold and he wondered why he seemed to have no sensation. Just then another ragged jolt reminded him that he could feel something because whatever he had last eaten was determined to come back up. He groaned as he tried to roll onto his back, only to hear Hop Sing starting up another tirade. Most days he could smile indulgently when his cook threw a fit because most of the time it had some level of justification if he was honest about it. This was not most days. Today he just wanted the noise to stop and for somebody to explain to him why the laws of nature seemed to have been thrown out the window.
“Hop Sing … help me … please.”
“You help yourself!”
Ben opened his eyes again to see the little man towering over him. The perspective was all wrong and Hop Sing suddenly looked ten feet tall. The scowl on his face made Ben groan and he tried again to sit up.
“When you done with foolishment, you come!”
Hop Sing stomped across the yard towards the barn and Ben struggled to get to his feet and follow. He had given up trying to figure why neither of them were leaving any tracks as nothing much of anything was making any sense.
“You look!” Hop Sing pointed inside the barn and huffed as he refused to look his employer in the eye.
Ben forced himself to enter the darkened barn in search of whatever he was supposed to be looking for. He wished he had a lantern as the interior was gloomy, but his eyes slowly adjusted.
“Hop Sing … what am I looking for?”
“You look!” The words were clipped and angry and Ben was finding his hackles were rising in response. He did not want to be playing some kind of game and he was about to say just that when he saw something crumpled in a stall. He rushed forward, unsure if his eyes were deceiving him.
“Joseph?” Ben dropped to his knees as he saw his youngest son curled almost into a ball in the dirty straw. His first instinct told him that his son was injured and he reached a hand toward him. Before his hand connected, he spotted the almost empty whiskey bottle laying on its side in the muck. Rage rose up from his stomach as understanding dawned. His son was passed out drunk on the floor of the barn.
“You not here for boy.” Hop Sing was standing beside him as Ben looked up.
“What?” He looked back at his son and frowned. “What is going on here? I know Joseph has had a few beers with his brothers …. but this?”
Ben once again reached out to shake his son’s shoulder and watched in horror as his hand passed right through Joe’s filthy jacket. He tentatively grabbed again and found the same thing happened. He scrambled backwards and came to stop almost up against the railing.
“You not here tomorrow. Tomorrow Christmas and tomorrow … Little Joe do this.”
Hop Sing pointed at the … whatever it was that was not his son and waggled his finger accusingly.
“Little Joe take blame on himself. Leave father to die. He want to die too.”
The words pierced through the fog surrounding him and Ben looked up again.
“Die? What on earth are you talking about? Nobody is dying. You aren’t making any sense, Hop Sing. None of this makes any sense!”
“Joe!” Adam burst through the barn door with Hoss close on his heels and Ben watched as his sons knelt down beside their brother. Adam gently brushed Joe’s hair off his face in the same way he had done a thousand times before when Joe was a child. Hoss reached for the whiskey bottle and he eyed its contents with open disgust as Adam reached out to scoop Joe up into his arms.
“Let’s get you cleaned up, little buddy.”
Hoss stood and watched as his older brother carried the limp form of his younger brother towards the house. Ben stared at him as tears trickled down his cheeks. He was about to speak when Hoss suddenly smashed the bottle against the ground and stomped off after his brothers.
Ben felt the nausea rising up from his stomach once more and he leaned heavily against the railing. His head throbbed, but his chest felt like a grown man was standing on him.
“Hop Sing … help me.” The words were no more than a whisper and he slowly lifted his head to see Hop Sing glaring at him.
“You help Little Joe!”
“Joe? How can I help Joe?”
“You not die!”
Ben felt the ground rushing up to greet him as Hop Sing’s bizarre words swirled around him.
It looked like late afternoon if the sky was anything to go by when Ben found himself waking up, flat on his back in the middle of a snowfield. He blinked at the soft flakes that drifted down but never seemed to settle on him. His hands reached out beside him and he clamped onto fists full of snow.
“I’m losing my mind,” he muttered as he noted that the powdery substance in his hands was not cold. “Either that or I’m …”
A voice carried across from somewhere behind him and Ben jolted upright. He twisted around to see his friend, Paul Martin sitting on a log. It did not surprise him that there were no signs of boot prints or any other kind of marking on the snow and he shook his head at himself. How easily he had come to accepting the utterly illogical as fact.
“Paul? Am I? …. Dead, I mean.”
Without answering, Paul stood up and pointed over the crest of the hill. “Do you know where you are, Ben?”
As he pulled himself to his feet, Ben glanced around. It was very familiar territory to him as his wife’s grave lay just on the other side of the hill. Cold fear clutched at his heart as he suddenly thought of something. He stared at the man who calmly watched him and realised he had not answered the question. He didn’t know if he had the courage to ask it again.
“I have something to show you, Ben. Just over there.” As Paul began to make his way over the rise, Ben was beyond caring that his friend left no trail in the snow. He felt a weight descend on him that he could only describe as utter dread, but his feet seemed to have a mind of their own as he followed along.
There had been three moments in his life when he had thought his heart may stop beating and never start again. Now he had a fourth to add to that awful tally. Paul stopped and waited as Ben caught up with him. Marie’s gravestone looked as it always had, but he could not stop himself from falling to his knees. Two more markers bore witness to losses in the Cartwright family. Ben felt his throat close over as he read his own name on one and his son’s on the other.
Joseph Francis Cartwright – beloved son and brother.
Ben bowed his head in defeat as he took in the date. His much-loved youngest son had only lived until he was nineteen. Suddenly a red rage welled up from inside him and he clambered to his feet.
“This can’t be true! Joseph can’t be dead! He can’t be, Paul!”
The doctor had weathered many tirades from grieving and hurting people over the years, but Ben knew he ached alongside his patients and friends. The mockery of the man he knew as his friend did not flinch as Ben lunged towards him.
“This can’t be true!”
Paul watched as Ben tried in vain to grasp his shoulders and shake him, but his hands slipped through thin air.
“Why are you doing this to me? Why torment me like this?”
“This is a Christmas that is yet to come.”
Ben stumbled sideways as his body gave way to his grief. “What?”
“Ben, this is next Christmas. Little Joe took the blame for your death and he began drinking. Hard! He pulled a gun on the wrong man and bled to death in the main street. I tried to help, but there was just too much blood. I’m sorry, Ben.”
“Wait … what?” Ben rubbed a hand across his face as he tried to reel in his floundering thoughts. “You said this is yet to come. You mean it hasn’t happened yet?” Hope rose in his voice and Paul nodded at him.
“Then how do I stop it from happening?” he demanded.
Reality seemed to be spinning away from him as Paul began to fade away.
“No! Stop! You have to tell me. How do I save my son from this future? Paul!”
“Don’t die.” The words floated across on the wind as Ben found himself once again lying in the snow. His hand reached out for a handful of powder and he was vaguely surprised to feel the chill against his fingers.
The whispered name tumbled from his lips as his eyes fluttered closed again. Warmth began to seep into his bones as though somebody had placed a blanket around him and he smiled at the thought. He just needed to sleep.
Joe jolted upright in the bed. He knew he’d been dreaming, but he had no idea what it was about. His heart still thundered in his chest and his stomach churned violently so he knew it had not been good. A sense of dread settled over him as he gripped tightly onto the blankets.
He could have sworn his father had called him, but he shook his head at his own stupidity. His father was sound asleep on the Ponderosa where they all should have been. They would have been if that last group of stragglers hadn’t almost snapped a wagon axle and delayed their arrival in town by three hours.
Joe tried to slide back down under the covers and go back to sleep, but something chewed at his thoughts until he could not possibly fall back into sleep. He listened across the room as his brother’s snoring shook the roof and he smiled. Hoss could give a train a run for its money.
As sleep seemed to have decided it was done for the night, Joe eventually climbed out of bed and stoked up the fire. He hunkered down in front of the flames and tried to calm the runaway thoughts that ran through his head. Hop Sing would have told him he had eaten too much before bed, but he could not shake the sense of foreboding.
Finally Joe decided to find his clothes and boots and head for home. As he scribbled a note to explain his whereabouts, he knew his brothers would never let him hear the end of it. Sneaking off in the middle of the night, leaving a nice warm bed for a snowy trail, based on nothing more than a gut feeling! They’d no doubt tell him that he had been sneaking whiskey while they weren’t looking. Still, the nagging voice just would not let him wait until morning as commonsense told him he should. He shoved his hat down onto his head, pulled his collar up and slipped out the door.
For the last few miles, Joe had begun to second-guess himself and think that he was as loco as his brothers would say he was. The wind had died down and the eddies of snow that swirled around him were increasing. It was a good thing there was some moonlight or he may just have ridden straight off the road and into a ditch.
“C’mon Cooch, we’re almost home.” He reached forward and scratched the pinto’s neck as some kind of apology for dragging the animal out of his stall in the middle of the night.
By the time the house came into view, Joe was wondering just what he was going to say to his father about his unexpected arrival home. He grinned in the dark as he walked Cochise around the side of the barn. He’d think of something.
He was surprised to see the barn door open as he approached as his father was never careless about such things. He slid down off his horse and grasped at the reins as he stumbled into something blocking the doorway. The moon had been sufficient to ride by, but it only showed him that something was on the ground without any detail. As Joe crouched down and reached out his hand, his mind refused to register what he was seeing. Seconds ticked past as he stared at the deathly-still figure lying in the snow.
“Pa?” The whisper barely formed on his lips as he reached out and hauled his father towards him. Fear gripped him and he felt his chest constrict as he tried again, more urgently. “Pa!”
Joe felt his horse’s warm breath against his neck as some kind of gruesome contrast to his father’s icy skin.
“Pa! Wake up!”
Joe gripped at the collar of his father’s jacket and began to tug at it. He could not hope to lift the dead weight of a man who seriously outweighed him so he pulled at the jacket instead and began to drag him backwards across the yard. In spite of the cold, sweat beaded across his forehead. His muscles protested as he persisted until he finally had his father on the porch steps. Joe reluctantly let him go only long enough to wrench open the door and bellow inside.
Ben didn’t stir as his son dragged him the rest of the way into the room and over towards the fireplace. Joe heard Hop Sing stumbling towards him and suddenly a lantern flared into life. As light flooded the room, Joe got his first real look at his father. The blue skin was almost his undoing and for a moment he faltered. A dark crescent-shaped welt across his father’s cheek told its own story.
“I get blankets. You get wet clothes off.” Hop Sing’s orders broke through his thoughts and Joe shrugged off the stupor that threatened to settle over him. He grabbed at his father’s heavy jacket and forced it off. The shirt underneath was wet and he ripped at until it too lay discarded on the floor. Behind him, Hop Sing was stirring the fire into life and Joe felt the warmth on his own back. He shivered as his hands tugged at his father’s boots. The skin underneath was like ice.
“Here, wrap blankets. I get bricks.” Hop Sing shoved blankets into Joe’s hands before scurrying out of the room. Joe draped the first blanket around his father’s shoulders before pulling him into an embrace. The first rule of survival in the winter wilderness was sharing body heat. Every child who had been raised in the wilds knew that. Joe leaned up against the table and positioned his father between himself and the fireplace. Hop Sing arrived back with bricks which he shoved into the coals to heat before wrapping another blanket around Ben’s legs.
Joe felt the weight of his father against his chest and he struggled to draw breath. Ben still hadn’t moved or responded in any way and Joe found his hands resting against his father’s ice-cold chest, willing his heart to keep beating.
“Please Pa, don’t you leave me. You hear me?” Between the two of them, Joe and Hop Sing kept up a steady rhythm of rubbing life back into frozen limbs, shifting bricks from the fire and wrapping them in cloth and putting the cool ones back in to warm up. As they worked, Joe kept up a quiet, one-sided conversation that he prayed his father could hear.
As the first rays of sun stole their way through the windows, Ben finally began to stir. Joe sensed the movement and gripped tighter as his father slowly came back to consciousness.
“Pa? Can you hear me?”
The question sounded in his ear and Ben twisted sideways. He couldn’t bear it if this was another figment of his imagination and he stared at the hand that reached out through the blanket and tightly gripped his.
The skin was warm to the touch and solid. He squeezed the fingers and almost sobbed with relief.
“Yeah, Pa.” His son’s voice sounded shaky in his ear and he felt Joe shudder as if he were cold.
“You gave us one helluva scare, Pa!”
If he noticed the language, he gave no indication. “Joseph? … You’re … alive?”
Joe frowned at the whispered question. “Of course I am, Pa! You’re the one who took a nap in a snowdrift. You’re the one we weren’t sure was alive or …”
Ben heard his son’s breathing hitch and he twisted himself around to fully face the boy.
Tears glistened in Joe’s eyes and Ben reached a hand to touch his son’s face.
“We’re both alive, I’d say.”
Joe grinned at him and simply nodded.
“And I’m cold.” Neither Joe nor Hop Sing could understand why that brought a wry smile to his father’s face.
“Coffee, warm you up inside.” Hop Sing placed down a tray laden with a coffee pot and cups and began pouring them out. He grinned at Joe as he picked up the first cup and held it up for his father to drink from. Ben smiled over the top of the cup as the liquid slid down and warmed his insides. How many times had he held a cup for his child to drink from? As he drank slowly, his eyes roamed over his son’s face, as if drinking him in too. The dark circles under Joe’s eyes told a saga of a long night.
“I had the strangest dream.” Ben looked up to see Hop Sing looking at him with concern. “And you were both there.”
“Hop Sing sleep too deep. Not know Mister Cartlight in trouble. Not help.” His eyes searched the floor as he considered what had almost happened.
Ben shook his head. “You helped me. More than you’ll ever know.”
Joe looked at his father’s odd expression and was about to ask a question when the front door flew open and a swirl of cold air swept the room.
“Joe! Are you some kind of …” Adam stopped in his tracks as he took in the sight before him. He hurried forward as Hoss slammed the door closed.
“Little brother, you ain’t got the brains you … Pa! What happened to you?”
Ben smiled as his two older sons pulled up on berating their brother and hurried to check on his welfare. “I had a slight mishap.”
“Mishap! Pa! You almost … you …” Joe choked on the words as he felt his father’s hand tighten around his.
“But I didn’t.” Ben smiled back at him. “Thanks to you, Son.”
Joe dropped his gaze to the floor, unable to speak over the lump in his throat. As his brothers filled the silence with more questions, he felt his mind drifting away to a shapeless dream that had woken him and urged him home. He closed his eyes as he silently thanked God he had listened to the prompting and not stayed in his warm bed back at the hotel.
The morning after Christmas had dawned blustery and cold and Ben sat on the hearth by the fire in the early-morning darkness. The chill in his bones had not quite abated despite what he told his boys and he pulled his robe a little tighter. He stared at the stairwell as he recalled the preceding morning only too clearly. His heart had stayed firmly wedged in his mouth until his youngest son had come bounding down those very same stairs and wished him a hearty merry Christmas. Try as he might, he could not shake a strange sense of foreboding and he had been hard-pressed to explain it.
Memories of the night he had been run down by a horse thief in his own barn were vague at best and disturbing at worst. Roy had sent word that an ex-hand had spotted the distinctive palomino in Carson City and delivered a knock-out punch to the man who had lied about buying him. Anybody who knew him knew there was no way that Ben Cartwright would have sold Buck for any price, any more than Joe could have parted with Cochise. Ben smiled at the thought his horse would soon be back in the barn where he belonged.
He lifted his gaze as if he could see through the walls and see the outline of the barn across the snowed-in yard. Hop Sing had filled him in on the fact that it had been Joe who had inexplicably come home during the night and dragged him across the yard from that frozen barn. Adam had relayed how they had woken up and found Joe’s cryptic explanation for bolting home in the middle of the night. Hoss had told him that they had ridden faster than good sense told them they should; half afraid they’d find their little brother lying dead somewhere in the snow after falling in the dark on the icy road.
But Joe? Joe had simply clammed up. Every time he looked at his son, Joe seemed to pull back and find anywhere else to look. Once Hoss had ridden to town and dragged Paul back to examine him, the five of them had conspired to keep him resting. He admitted that his head ached and the broken bone across his cheek was painful to the touch, but that was all he would admit to. The problem with rest was how much time it allowed his mind to wander. And wonder. Wonder about just how close he had come to dying and why three of his friends had shown up in such bizarre circumstances. He refused to allow himself to wonder about the one question he did not want to think about and he eventually concluded it was just a strange dream brought on by his near-frostbite. To entertain any other possibility opened a door to a possible future he could not contemplate.
No, it was just a dream!
He had not died and his son was safe.
Ben shook his head at his own ridiculous thoughts. It was just a cold-induced dream. Nothing more.
Finally, Ben slowly pushed himself up off the hearth and reached for the new book Adam had gifted him for Christmas. Mr Dickens wrote interesting stories and Adam felt sure he would enjoy this new one and had ordered it in months ago. Ben figured it was certainly appropriate for the season, given the title. He leaned back against the solid chair and thumbed to the first page.
Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.
“Cheery little tale,” he muttered to himself as he settled back into the seat and continued reading.
A/N: My apologies to Charles Dickens for my use or misuse of his excellent material. As Tiny Tim would say, “God bless us, every one!” and Merry Christmas to us all.
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