Summary: Just before Christmas Ben Cartwright makes a choice he will soon regret. He allows his twelve-year-old son, Joseph, to help the young woman who is filling in for Abigail Jones over the holidays find her way home. Little does Ben know that the blue sky of morning will soon become the deep gray of an approaching storm, and that his son and his teacher will need a miracle to survive.
Rated: PG-13 (12,321 words)
The Biggest Miracle of All
“Joseph! Sit still! Mind your manners!”
Pa’s whisper was short and snapped out. He was in trouble and he didn’t know why.
Joe’s green eyes shot to the older woman sitting opposite them. The little giggle the Widow Corney swallowed along with a bit of her overly dry cookie was slightly choked and mostly at his expense.
He didn’t like that.
And truth be told – Joe shot a look at his pa, wondering if the older man could read his mind, ‘cause sometimes it seemed he could – he didn’t like the widow Corney much either. For one thing, she couldn’t bake worth a darn, and she always pinched his cheek and ruffled his hair like he was five years old when they came to visit.
Couldn’t she see he was a man, and didn’t she know a woman didn’t pinch a man’s cheek and ruffle his hair?
After all, he was twelve.
“Yes, sir,” Joe answered, straightening up, since the only thing he could figure he was doing wrong was slouching.
His father’s sigh told him otherwise.
“Your pinky,” Pa breathed under his breath.
Joe looked down at his left hand, noting how the fine china cup he held, with its blue background and raised white grapes and leaves, shook. It made him nervous drinking out of other people’s china cups. When he’d broke one at home, it had cost him a month’s allowance to buy a replacement.
Was Pa mad that he was shaking?
But no, he’d said his ‘pinky’. That was the runt of a finger at the end. With a frown, Joe glanced out from under thick black eyelashes at the widow. Her pinky was sticking out at a funny angle from the cup. Now that he thought of it, so was Pa’s.
Always good at picking up where others left off, Joe stuck his pinky out like it was a signal flag for the cavalry and smiled at his father.
Who sighed again.
“Now, Ben,” the Widow Corney said, going up a notch in his estimation, ‘you have a pleasant, well-behaved young man sitting there next to you. Don’t give him such grief.”
“I’m afraid my efforts to instill in my sons the proper knowledge of manners and etiquette have failed with this one.”
“Hoss don’t stick his pinky out when he drinks from one of them fancy cups,” Joe protested, noting how his pinky was protesting the odd position he had put it in.
His father’s graying eyebrows reached for the widow’s fancy plaster ceiling.
“Or proper grammar.”
“Nonsense, Ben, the boy is charming with his provincial speech and ways.”
Joe’s frown doubled.
Had he just been insulted?
“Nevertheless, my sons need to know how to behave in polite society.” Those near-black eyes pinned him. “Would you like to rephrase that, son?”
It took a moment to remember what he’d said. “Hoss…doesn’t stick his pinky out when he drinks from a fancy cup.”
“If you notice, neither do I at home. Mrs. Corney is treating us to ‘high’ tea. There are certain rules one must follow.”
“Rules? To drink tear?” he blurted out. “Whatever for?”
Before his father could scold him, the Widow Corney replied, “I agree, Joseph. Whatever for?” And then she burst into laughter.
It took a moment, but Pa laughed too – sort of.
“Well, it’s getting late,” his father said, putting his cup on the table, which let Joe do the same – with relief. “It’s time for us to go. The sun will be down by the time we get home. We have a long ride.”
Joe hesitated, unsure of the proper etiquette for telling a grown-up they’d forgot something.
His father was on his feet. He looked down at him.
It was an intimidating sight.
“I’m supposed to help the new school marm shut down the school house for Christmas break and stay with her overnight. Remember?” It had been Adam’s idea. If you asked his opinion, older brother Adam was pining for his teacher. She was substituting for Abigail Jones since the old bat was away visiting relatives for the holidays. Today was the beginning of a two week break from schoolwork – even longer if one of the big snows they had came in quick and he got snowed in at the ranch.
“That’s right.” Ben frowned. “I’m not so sure about that, Joseph. The signs indicate snow is coming.”
“I’ll be fine, Pa. Hoss and Adam are coming in Tuesday morning, and she really needs the help,” he said, as innocent as could be. Truth to tell, he was pining a bit for the new teacher, who went by the unusual name of Sophrona Chesto, himself. She had honey blonde hair and big blue eyes and about the prettiest face he had ever seen.
Big brother in one of his moments of ‘waxing poetic’ as he put it, had said she was the ‘nectar’ of the gods.
Whatever that meant.
To him, she was just about the nicest person he had ever met. She seemed to understand him. When most of the teachers who substituted for Miss Jones sent home notes telling Pa he was unruly and disobedient, Miss Chesto had sent one to his father telling him he was ‘spirited’ and ‘a pure delight.’
He might be in love.
The funny thing was, it was really Mrs. Chesto. She was a widow like Mrs. Corney. She and her husband had lived in San Francisco for about a year. He was run down by a carriage and died, which was why she took the post in Virginia City – to get away from the memories, as Pa put it.
Mrs. Chesto was expecting a baby.
Which was why Adam had volunteered him to help her shut down the school house and drive her home in her carriage. He was gonna do a few chores and then stay overnight and then Adam and Hoss would pick him up at her place when they came into town. Of course, that meant big brother would get to talk to her to and wax even more poetic.
“Yes, your brothers are coming in on Christmas early to deliver some packages. But I don’t know….”
Joe pulled his ‘puppy dog’ look, as Hoss put it. “But Pa, she’s all alone and she can’t do chores since her baby’s due in about a month. Mrs. Chesto ain’t…. “ He corrected himself before his father could do it. “She hasn’t got a husband and she needs to get ready for winter.”
“I’m sure Joseph will manage quite well,” the Widow Corney said as she returned to the room with their coats over her arm. “Won’t you, young man?”
He stood up too and puffed his chest out a bit. “Yes, Ma’am.”
“Sophrona will take good care of him, Ben.”
“It’s just that it’s such a long way out.”
Mrs. Chesto had rented the old Carter place. It was about fifteen miles outside of town to the north. Joe really didn’t want to whine, but it came out that way anyhow.
“Ah, Pa, I can do it.”
His father glanced at the window, as if assessing the sky, and then stared down at him.
“All right, Joseph, but if it begins to snow heavily on your way there, I want your promise that you will turn the carriage around and head back to town. Both of you will be safer here. ” Pa looked at the widow again. “Thank goodness, Mrs. Chesto has another month to go. I’d hate to think of her time coming when she was alone. I know Paul has advised her to move into town in a couple of weeks.”
“I’m part of the committee that will see to it!” the widow said, beaming.
His father took the blue and green checked coat the older lady held and handed it to him. “Bundle up before you go, Joseph.”
“All I gotta do is cross the street and walk a block to the school, Pa.”
“Nevertheless, you will bundle up. I won’t have you catching cold.”
“Yes, sir,” Joe said as he shinnied into his coat and headed for the door.
“And button that coat, young man!”
Joe reached for the buttons instead of the door latch. He haphazardly fastened three out of the four before opening the door.
“See you in a few, Pa!”
Joe looked up as he stepped outside. The light was waning and the air felt heavy with moisture, but the sky was as clear as Lake Tahoe on a cloudless day. He knew why Pa was worried. There’d been plenty of signs of a hard winter to come. The animal’s fur was thick, and Hoss had seen squirrels scurrying up into the trees after gatherin’ up great quantities of nuts. Adam said the cones on the pines were bigger than usual and Hop Sing was already complainin’ about havin’ mice in the pantry. As he moved into the street, the youngest Cartwright pulled his collar up about his chin. It was colder than he had expected and that was fine with him. Truth to tell, he loved the cold.
He just plain loved winter.
As the schoolhouse came into view Joe noted Mrs. Chesto’s fancy surrey sittin’ out front. The pair of fine Black Belgians she had were ex-race horses. Pa didn’t have any time for race horses, though he had grudgingly admitted that this was the finest looking pair he had ever seen and that they seemed to perform competently as draft horses. Pa was all about work. Everyday. All day long. As he came alongside the animals, Joe stopped to give them each one of the treats he’d put in his pocket that morning and talk to them, telling the pair that he was gonna drive them soon and it would be all right ‘cause he knew what he was doing.
And he did. He was good with horses. Better even than old high and mighty Adam.
Before he could move on, the schoolhouse door opened and Mrs. Chesto stepped out. The light from inside caught in her honey-colored hair and made it shine like gold. She was wearing a pretty crimson dress made from some fabric that had a tiny pattern in it. Her hand rested on her belly and the growing baby inside.
“Oh, Joseph, it’s you.” Her smile could have lit the night sky. “Come on in. I started without you.” She cast a glance at the sky and added, “I think we can be done here in about an hour. I’d like to get to the house before dark.”
He left the horses and mounted several steps. “Sounds good,” he replied.
“Thank you for volunteering to help me. I suppose I should have given winter more thought.” She shook her head. “Living in the city for so many years has spoiled me a bit.”
From what he’d overheard, Mrs. Chesto had come west with her family when she was about his age and lived in San Francisco until her husband died. She was twenty-one now and had been teaching for about five years.
“I love winter,” Joe said. “Out where we live the snow can pile up mile-high!”
Those blue eyes – the color of cornflowers – fastened on him. “’Mile-high’?” Her lips curled with a smile. “Now my best student wouldn’t be indulging in a bit of hyperbole, would he?”
He knew that one. Mostly ‘cause of Adam.
“I ain’t…. I’m not exaggerating,” he replied. Then he smiled too. “Well, not much.”
They laughed together as they mounted the steps and went inside. It took about two and a half hours to complete closing down the schoolhouse. They’d been just about done when one of his schoolmates pa’s had shown up to discuss what he could do to keep his son’s studies up over the winter. Mrs. Chesto had tried to put him off, but he was a ‘hard-nosed’ type as Pa said and wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Joe glanced at the darkening sky. He’d have to push it if they were to make it to the Carter place before dark. He hoped his teacher couldn’t see how excited he was or how his heart pounded as he sat down on the buggy seat next to her and took up the reins of her powerful horses.
“They sure are beautiful,” he sighed.
It took her a second. “Oh, Belle and La Bette, you mean?”
She shivered and dug her hands farther into the black muff she wore. It matched her lambswool coat. “My horses. Do you remember the reference?”
How come he could ace things with Mrs. Chesto when he never could with Miss Jones? “Sure thing, Mrs. Chesto. My mama was French. She used to read that story to me. It’s called ‘Beauty and the Beast’, just like your Belgians.”
“It’s just about my favorite fairy tale,” she admitted. After a pause, she added, “Joseph, I have one thing to ask of you.”
“Could you call me Sophie when we’re not at school? When you say Mrs. Chesto, all I can think of is my husband’s dour Scottish mother.” Using her fingers to mimic a pair of glasses, she pulled a long face and said, “Ye’re a wee scunner, Sophie! Awa’ and bile yer heid!”
He didn’t know what the heck she’d said, but the look and the sound of it made him giggle like a girl. Mrs. Chesto…Sophie…joined in and soon they had both horses shaking their heads at them.
Finally he managed to say, “I will if you do one thing for me.”
She wiped a tear from her eye. “What’s that?”
“Call me ‘Joe’. My Pa’s the only one usually calls me ‘Joseph’ and that’s usually when he’s madder than a rattler on a spit.”
She held out her hand to seal the deal. “Joe, it is then.”
He took it and, even though he felt a little funny calling his teacher by her first name, said, “Sophie.”
A moment later they were pulling away from the schoolhouse, chattering and laughing, and headed out of town.
It should have been an easy journey, would have been if not for a sudden shift in the weather. They were a little more than halfway to the old Carter place when a band of gray clouds rolled in, darkening the sky to the point where it was hard to see. The temperature plummeted along with their approach and the breeze that had been blowing turned into a gale-force wind. It rocked the rig as they continued on and whipped the horses’ manes into their eyes making them skittish and hard to control. Joe’s fingers were nearly frozen and were white on the reins.
He’d never felt such power in a team before.
As the snow began to swirl around them, masking the road and the woods beyond, Joe thought about what his father had said he should do should it start to snow. The problem was, they were already more than halfway to where Sophie was staying. It would take them longer to get back to Virginia City than to make it to her place. He didn’t want to disobey his pa, but he figured this was one of those times where he had to be resilient. Pa liked that word. He said it meant being able to fit yourself to the needs of the situation no matter what you had planned and making do with what you had when it happened.
Joe eyed Sophie where she sat all bundled up in the back of the rig. He’d made her – well, asked her – to get in the back when the wind picked up. He’d found a couple of blankets under the seat and wrapped her up in them and then made sure her heavy coat was tucked in all around her. She looked like one of those Eskimos from Adam’s book on the peoples of the world, only wearing black instead of white.
Turning back to the team, Joe checked them and then looked at the sky again. The snow was coming quicker now and the flakes were thicker than before. They still had a couple of hours to the Carter place and he was worried about getting there. He had a special charge in the carriage, not only Sophie, but her unborn baby. He didn’t want to do anything wrong or go looking for trouble.
He didn’t have to.
It found him.
“What is it, Pa?” Adam asked as he came into the great room carrying a steaming cup of tea. His father was standing in front of his desk looking as lost as one of the ladies from the Aid Society suddenly finding herself in a saloon.
The sound of his voice started the older man out of his reverie. “What?”
“I asked if something was wrong.”
“Wrong? Oh, no,” his father replied in that way he had that said, ‘Yes, something is wrong, but I’m not going to admit it because, if I do, you will think I am an old fool.’
Of course, Adam knew what it was. What it always was.
“Little Joe will be fine, Pa. With that team of horses Sophrona has, they’ll have made it to the Carter place long before the storm came in.”
His father’s look seemed to say that offered him little comfort.
“I hope your brother was responsible with that pair. You can never tell with former race horses.”
That was an old argument. One Adam didn’t choose to revive.
As he moved toward the hearth, the black-haired man took a sip of his tea and discovered it was still too hot to drink. After placing the cup on the round table with the chess board in order to let it cool, he decided to check the weather. If it was calm and bright outside, perhaps that would allay his father’s fears. With deliberate steps Adam walked over to the front door and opened it and only just managed to stifle an audible intake of breath at what he found.
Little Joe had better have made it to the Carter’s already.
All too soon he heard his father’s footsteps behind him. The older man had less luck.
“Good Lord!” Pa gasped. “I should never have let Joseph stay.”
The storm they were facing, flying in fast from the northwest, looked to be – to use a popular phrase – of Biblical proportions. In the short time they had been inside the visibility had fallen to nil.
He couldn’t even see the barn.
Words came to Adam. Pat. Useless. But he said them anyway.
“I’m sure they got to the Carter place before it hit. You said they were going to head out mid-afternoon. It only takes around two to three hours to get there at an average pace.” He hesitated to add that the pair of Belgians Joe was driving could probably do twice that at a trot. It would only make his father worry that they had been trotting.
“It will have hit town before us,” his father said succinctly as he reached for his coat, “and the Carter spread before that.”
At that moment Hoss appeared from out of the swirling snow like a tall ship breaking out of a fog bank, startling them both. He had no hat or scarf and looked a bit like Saint Nicholas with his temporary beard and hair of white. The teenager stomped his feet and then turned and used his considerable strength to close the door against the mounting wind.
Standing in the pile of snow, Hoss looked from one of them to the other and said, “You two look nervous as a long-tailed cat under a rockin’ chair. What’s the matter?”
“Your younger brother is ‘the matter’.” Pa indicated the wild white world outside. “He’s out in this.”
“We don’t know that,” Adam cautioned, ignoring his father’s scowl. “Joe was taking Sophrona home. They should have made it before or, maybe, just as this hit.”
“I plumb forgot.” Hoss grinned. “I bet Little Joe’s sitting all cozy in that nice house of the Carters drinking hot cider and eatin’ some of them coriander cookies Mrs. Chesto bakes.” At their combined look, he added, “She gave me some one day when I picked little brother up.”
“Pa, face it. Until the storm blows over, or lessens considerably, there’s nothing we can do.” He eyed Hoss who raised his eyebrows and indicated the door and most likely, a meeting in the barn. “If we can’t see the stable, we can’t trust that we wouldn’t all become lost along the way and that won’t do Joe any good.”
Their father remained immovable in body and intent for a long moment and then his broad shoulders slumped. “He’s just so young.”
“And he has our collective wisdom to rely on. Trust me, Pa. Joe’s fine.”
Adam walked over to the door and opened it again and looked out. His tone was light, but his heart was heavy.
If anything had delayed Little Joe leaving town….
His hands hurt terribly. So did his head.
Well, really, everything hurt.
Joe opened his eyes and batted his long eyelashes several times to free them of snow and then looked around. All he could see was snow.
But he heard horses.
Closing his eyes, he laid on the cold ground and tried to remember what had happened. He’d been driving a wagon, or maybe a rig. The wind had driven snow into his eyes and blinded him for a couple of seconds. By the time he’d brushed it away and could see again, he’d lost control of the horses. They’d started to gallop. It was only as they flashed past a stand of trees that he saw the big buck standing there and noted the doe on the other side of the all but invisible road that had spooked them. He’d had a split-second after the horses snapped their harnesses to think that he was glad they did because Mrs. Chesto would be okay and then he’d taken off on the ride of his life.
He was lucky he wasn’t dead.
Looking down, he saw that the leather reins running like greased lightning through his hands had burned them. That’s why they hurt so bad. Of course, he didn’t know if anything else was wrong since he hadn’t moved. At least his head was clear.
Clear enough to remember that he hadn’t been alone.
Mindless of his own injuries, Joe leapt to his feet and shouted, “Mrs. Chesto! Sophie? Can you hear me?”
Fear gripped his innards when there was no reply.
He sounded desperate and he was. Striking out blindly into the snow, he headed back in what he thought was the way they had come. Since the team had broken free, the carriage should have simply rolled to a stop with his teacher in it. Still, it could have hit a bump. They were rounding a bend on a slight rise when the horses shied. It could even have gone over the edge and rolled down the hill to a stop. As he walked, Joe scowled. Picking his feet up and putting them down was like walkin’ through molasses. He didn’t know how long he had been out, but where he was troddin’ the snow was almost knee-deep on account of the wind, which was pushing it and piling it up into pure white dunes. As he walked he became away of a pain in his lower back, but he ignored it. He’d fallen off horses plenty of times and it felt about the same. The pain always went away in a day or two.
“Sophie?” he tried again and, again, but got no response.
He was getting worried. Sophie wasn’t that near her time but he knew from the animals on the ranch that an expectant mother could have birth pangs brought on by a fall or taking a blow. Sometimes, Hoss said, just the thought of bein’ in trouble could cause it, like when that mare they’d had who’d been close to her time had been trapped by a cougar. Hoss had to deliver the foal right there and then.
Joe stopped and swallowed hard.
Would he – could he deliver Sophie’s baby if he had to?
He’d seen it done, of course, with horses and cows, but this…this was a…baby!
As the young, curly-haired boy stood there with the wind howling around him, growing colder and colder; with the snow rising up above his boots and sneakin’ in to wet his socks and freeze his toes, he considered for the first time the reality that neither he nor Sophrona Chesto or her baby were going to come out of this alive. He’d heard stories about people lost out in a big snow like this, and how their bodies hadn’t been found until the spring thaw. He didn’t want to die. He had things to do. But more than that, he didn’t want Sophie and especially her baby to die.
“So stop bein’ lily-livered,’ he told himself. “No little snow’s gonna beat Joe Cartwright.” Lifting a fist , he shook it – at the storm, at the wind, at God himself, maybe. “You hear that!”
Faintly, in the distance, he heard a reply, and since it wasn’t the wind or the storm or God, it must be Mrs. Chesto.
“Here! I’m here!” he cried and then waited.
Was he crazy? No, he knew he had heard something and that something was a voice.
Bolstered by what he was almost certain he had heard, Little Joe started to move forward again. It was his duty and obligation to find and take care of his teacher no matter what cost to himself. He sucked in air as he began to move again. His back sure was hurting and so was his right leg. He ignored it as best he could. Pa’s friend Dan Tollivar called it a ‘hitch in his giddy-yap’. It made him walk like an old bronco buster, but he willed himself to keep going, moving ever deeper into the snow, calling out Sophie’s name .
And praying for a miracle.
“What do you think we should do, Adam?” Hoss asked as he rose to his feet and dusted the straw from his knees. His older brother had just opened the door and stepped inside, shutting off his view of the wild, whirling snow outside the warm stable. “If Little Joe and Mrs. Chesto is out in this….
His brother’s reply was as raw as his fear. “God help them. He’s the only one who can.”
“You don’t think we should, well, try to go find him?”
“In the dark, in the middle of a blinding snowstorm? Dear Lord, Hoss! Much as I want to, it would be suicide. You don’t remember the winter of forty-seven. It came in just like this.”
That was the year the Donners had, well, done what they’d done.
“Pa said it’s been bad ever since,” he agreed.
“The trouble is this storm came out of nowhere, like something out of myth. The sky was clear at six this evening and now, this.”
“If things went as they should, and Joe and Mrs. Chesto left on time, they would’ve made it her place before it hit. Right?”
Adam’s smile had an equal mix of affection and exasperation in it. “Since when have you ever known anything where our little brother is involved to go as it ‘should’?”
He had him there. Joe had a knack for runnin’ into trouble, even when it weren’t no fault of his own.
“I’m worried about that team,” Adam said out of nowhere.
“What about ‘em?”
“They belonged to the Chestos in San Francisco. Those animals aren’t used to the wilderness with all of its…challenges.” Adam looked at him. “They are very powerful animals. Perhaps too powerful for a twelve-year-old boy to control should something startle them.”
“Joe’s good with horses.”
“Yes, but he’s also a boy, with a boy’s strength.” Adam shrugged. “And a slight boy at that.”
It was a constant worry to them. Joe wanted to do everythin’ they did, but he weren’t half Adam’s size let alone a quarter of his.
Just made him want to try harder.
Hoss walked to the stable window and looked out. “What about first light?
Adam followed him. “If the storm has let up, I say we start out as soon as we can. It won’t be easy.”
“Pa’s gonna want to go.” He paused. “Do we let him?”
His brother thought a moment. They’d done it before, taken matters into their own hands to protect the older man.
Finally, Adam nodded. “It’s his right. Depending on what we find….”
Maybe Little Joe half-frozen. Maybe, their little brother…dyin’.
Pa’d want to be with him.
Joe stumbled forward a few more feet and then fell flat on his face. His strength was ebbing. The pain in his back had been growing to the point where it was hard to ignore when, suddenly, it was gone. In his heart he rejoiced, but his head kept reminding him that the only reason it was gone was that he was so cold and numb that he couldn’t feel anything anymore. If someone had asked him to swear on the Bible that he had fingers and toes, he would have told them he couldn’t, because he didn’t want to lie.
Like he was lookin’ at a page in Pa’s medical book, one word kept flashing before his eyes.
Pa’d hired a man once who had been the talk of all the kids at school. He didn’t have any earlobes and the end of his nose was missin’. He’d been caught out in the big storm of forty-seven and his extremities had frozen, and though the doc had been able to keep from cuttin’ off his fingers or toes, the others bits had to go. Idly, Joe wondered what he would look like without the tip of his nose. He tried to reach up to make sure it was still there, but couldn’t. He was shivering too bad.
After another couple of steps, he didn’t really care if he had a nose. He didn’t really care about anything.
Except, maybe, finding the softest bit of snow to fall into.
Adam thought he’d be the first down the stairs the next morning. The light had only begun to rise, casting fiery orange fingers through the open curtains of his window. When he went to look out, his heart sank. It was still snowing.
It didn’t matter. He was going to look for Joe.
When he reached the main floor, he found his father already up and seated at the table. The older man’s plate was nearly full but he had signaled for Hop Sing to take it away. The man from China gave him a forlorn look as he slipped into his seat, and then returned to the kitchen shaking his head. After shoveling a mass of scrambled eggs and placing a few slices of bacon on his plate, Adam looked t his father. Ben Cartwright was a strong man of faith, but that faith hadn’t kept him from losing three wives.
Pa looked devastated.
“We’re going anyway,” the older man said.
It was not only reckless to do so, but just plain stupid. Pa knew that as well as he did.
“Never doubted it,” he replied as he forked some eggs into his mouth and forced himself to chew.
“Never doubted what?” Hoss asked as he approached the dining room.
“We’re going after Little Joe,” his father said, brooking no argument.
The big teen smiled. “I was just thinkin’ about how I was wantin’ to get out there and get me a first-hand look at that snow,” he remarked, keeping his tone light as he too took his seat. “Can’t let little brother have all the fun.”
God, how he hoped Joe was having fun! He hoped his little brother was safe and sound at the Carter place playing checkers with the lovely Sophrona and growing fat as a Christmas turkey while enjoying the beautiful woman’s company.
The Carter place. Fifteen miles on the other side of Virginia City. Their own spread was twenty miles in the opposite direction. Between the two places lay a sudden blizzard that refused to abate and in all likelihood would kill one or all them all should they dare to challenge it. And yet, challenge it they would.
Before it claimed one of their own.
They continued to eat in silence until Hop Sing returned to ask if they wanted any more coffee and then – at the combined shake of their heads – excused himself to ready their packs. Hoss went to the barn to saddle their horses while he watched their father rise wearily and turn to look out the window behind his chair in the dining room.
“Do you remember the time you were lost in the snow, Adam?” he said at last.
“Me? No. When was it?”
“It wasn’t very long after we arrived in Nevada. You were just a little boy. Seven, maybe eight.” His father took a sip from the cup of coffee he held in his hand. “Hoss asked you to get the moon for him.”
His father laughed at his surprise. “He was sick. He said he’d been looking at the moon and when he put his fingers up, he could hold it between them. He showed you, and I’ll be hornswoggled if you didn’t believe him. You set out to catch it….”
“And wandered farther and farther away until I was lost.”
“Marie was beside herself. She knew I had to go, but she hung on me, terrified that neither of us would come back. When we did, I promised her then that….” His father choked. “That such a thing would never happen again.”
Adam rose from his seat. He crossed to his father and placed a hand on his shoulder. “We all make promises we can’t keep, Pa.”
Pa nodded. “Tomorrow is Christmas Day, Adam. I want your brother home.”
Adam’s gaze went to the storm that raged just outside the window. So did he, but considering what they were up against, if that happened, it would be a Christmas miracle akin to the virgin birth.
He’d had the oddest floating sensation, as if he was moving but…not. He’d opened his eyes once or twice and seen the snow flowing by like it was one great big white river and then closed them again and sunk into a dark place where he wasn’t cold anymore, just…numb.
Even his back had stopped hurting.
He tried to open them again now, but found he couldn’t. It was like trying to open a jam jar with sticky fingers. He reached up to brush away whatever it was that had sealed his eyelids shut and found he couldn’t do that either.
So he just sighed.
“Joe?” a frightened voice asked. “Little Joe? Can you hear me?”
He could hear fine. He just couldn’t see.
Running hot water over his fingers and drying them usually worked, but he didn’t have water or a towel to dry them on. At least, he didn’t think he did. Then again, his fingers felt awful hot.
He heard a shout a moment later. It took a moment to realize he’d done it. His eyes were open.
“Oh, thank God!” the trembling voice remarked.
Yeah, he’d do that. Thank God, that was.
Just so he didn’t have to do it in person.
Something warm touched his face a second later. It felt like a hand, but he couldn’t be sure. Whoever it was shifted and rose and moved away. It was a minute or so before they came back. When they did, they pulled at the blanket covering him, lifting it from his feet, and a moment later a blessed warmth began to creep up through his chilled form.
“I heated a brick. You let me know if it’s too hot.”
Too hot? Was there such a thing?”
‘Yes, Ma’am,’ he said, for the speaker was female, but it came out, “Yss-mm.”
“How do you feel?”
He tried to lick his lips but failed. Whoever it was with him placed a glass against his mouth and let him drink. After a moment, he tried again and managed a few words.
The lady picked up his hand and began to pat it. “Good. That means the circulation is coming back. There are only a few blisters on the tips of your fingers and toes. I’m hoping it’s nothing beyond frost nip.”
Joe rolled his eyes around the place he and whoever occupied. It was made of wood and was simple enough. Bigger than a line shack, but smaller than a real house.
“A mission. I was in the carriage when the priest who lives here found me. I’d been knocked unconscious. Forgive me, Little Joe, when I came too I was confused. It was hours before I remembered you had been with me and sent the father to find you.” There was a pause. “It was almost too late. It appears you became confused and were headed in the wrong direction.”
A mission? The only mission he knew was close to the Paiute village. The Catholic missionary who lived there was what Hoss liked to call ‘a tough old bird’. No one knew much about him other than that he had somethin’ in his past he wouldn’t talk about. Pa said becomin’ a minister was most likely his penance. Pa said his mama had called on the old man from time to time and the priest had come to her funeral, even though he was rarely seen in town, and then only at the back of the church during town meetings and school functions.
Joe’s eyes started to drift shut just as he realized who it was that was talking to him.
“Sophie!” he exclaimed as they shot open again.
The pretty lady with honey-blonde laughed. “Yes, we both made it.”
Joe tried to rise up on one elbow and succeeded . He looked around. The place he was in was comfortable enough. Adam would have called it ‘Spartan’, meaning it only had in it what was needed to survive. “Where’s the preacher?”
“Father Macintosh went to town for help.” Sophie was holding his hand. She smiled and then squeezed it without warning. A moment later, she went on. “He’ll be back by morning.”
She said it like she didn’t believed it.
Joe squeezed her hand back, hoping it would help. “Pa must have been prayin’. I mean, it was kind of a miracle that we were found – and found by a preacher.”
“A priest,” she corrected as only a school teacher would. “In fact it was two miracles. First that we are both alive and relative unharmed, and secondly, that we were found and there was a warm place to be brought.” She paused to draw a breath. Joe noted she looked kind of pale and the skin around her blue eyes was pinched. “We have much to be thankful for.”
Thinking about what she said about the priest coming back, he asked, “Is it Christmas yet?” He hated to admit it, but he was suddenly homesick for his Pa and brothers.
Sophie glanced at the small window set high in the wall above the bed. A single beam of moonlight fell through it to strike the crude wooden floor.
“Not yet, but it will be in about seven hours….” Sophie sat up straight. She sucked in air and her eyes went wide. “Oh!”
That ‘oh’ woke him up like nothing else could. He sat up and then sucked in his own air as pain shot through him taking his breath away.
“Stay…still, Joe. You’ve…hurt your…back.”
Each word was bit off like a sour bite of rhubarb.
“What’s wrong?” he demanded as he tried again and succeeded in pulling his body up and propping it against the pillows. He could see her better now. Sophie was pale and she was holdin’ onto her belly. Fear shot through him at the velocity of a bullet leavin’ the barrel. He knew enough to make what big brother called an ‘educated’ guess.
“The baby’s coming, ain’t it?”
She winced as she adjusted herself on the bed until her back was propped by the post. With a sigh, she nodded. “I’m afraid so. It seems he or..she wants to be here to celebrate Christmas too.”
Joe swallowed hard. “And the priest is…gone?”
“Don’t worry, Joe. It’s a first baby. They rarely come….on time and I’m not due for another…month.” Sophie smiled through the blonde locks dangling in front of her eyes. “It’s probably false labor.”
“False…labor?” He couldn’t help but hear the squeak of fear in his own voice.
She heard it too. “Women often have it…in the last few weeks of their maternity. It’s nothing.” Sophie drew in another breath and then said, “I should fix you something to eat. You’ll need your strength to get better.”
“You don’t need to do that,” he started to protest, but she was already working her way to her feet.
“Nonsense. Yes, I do. I promised your brother Adam I would….” This time there was a little grunt that came out with the breath. “I promised Adam that I’d take care of you. You just stay here and rest. Father Macintosh left some soup on the stove. I’ll just go and heat it.”
Joe followed Sophie’s progress with his eyes. She was movin’ slow and kind of waddled. After she disappeared, he turned his attention to the room he was in. It was just like he thought – simple and spare. Sophie had gone into another room to cook the soup, so the place must have a kitchen and probably a parlor too. Joe closed his eyes and counted to twenty – so he was sure she wasn’t coming back – and then forced himself up higher in the low bed. After a second, he swung his booted feet over the frame and planted them on the floor. Pain shot through him as he did, but it wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle, so he reached out and gripped the chair by the bed and pulled himself up so he was standing.
So far so good.
He had a sort of dull, aching pain that traveled down his spine and into his legs, but that was all. When he began to move around it felt a little better. It still hurt but more like his ribs after Hoss forgot and squeezed him too hard and less like being poked with a hot branding iron as it had before. Joe was stretching, trying to ease the muscles, when he heard a small cry and the sound of a pan striking the floor. By the time he made his way to the kitchen, Sophie was beside it.
Strange thing was, she was sittin’ in the middle of a puddle.
“Sophie?” he asked as he caught the back of a chair and leaned on it for support. “What’s wrong?”
The eyes his teacher turned on him were full of fear.
“It’s coming, ain’t it?” he asked.
Her teeth gritted against the pain, Sophie nodded.
It was completely dark and well into the night by the time they halted their search. They’d pressed on past the limits of reason and still had only managed to make it as far as the last turn in the road on the east side of Virginia City. A journey that should have taken them four hours at most had taken them nearly twelve. And the only reason they had made it this far was that finally – abruptly – the snow had stopped falling. The world around them was buried in it. Fortunately the direction the wind had chosen to blow was the best for their purposes as it had left high drifts on the either side, but only a foot or so on the road itself, which the horses could navigate.
Adam glanced at his father, who sat on a low rock with his eyes closed and his lips moving in prayer. Pa was nearly beside himself with worry. He couldn’t blame him of course, though in his experience worry seldom had little effect on the outcome of any given situation. After a moment, the black-haired man turned and went to talk to his brother. Hoss was cooking up some beans and had a hot pot of coffee ready to warm them. They would be spend a few cold hours trying to get some shut-eye before the sun reappeared and then they would be on their way.
“Thanks,” he said as he took a graniteware cup from his teenage brother and used it to warm his hands before sampling the contents. “Tastes good.”
“I sure hope Joe’s got somethin’ to warm him, wherever he is,” Hoss said with a sigh.
None of their thoughts were far from Joe, not even for a moment. They’d all expressed their hopes and fears so many times that, at the end of the day’s search, they had ridden in silence. If Joe and Sophrona had been able to take shelter somewhere, they would both be fine.
“Joe may be only twelve, but he’s resourceful – and determined,” Adam replied as he thought of the times he’d scolded the boy for both qualities. Like that time Joe’d been resourceful enough to figure out how to get the gate to the stable yard open when he was five, and been determined enough to climb up on the back of one of the tallest horses they had and take a bareback ride. With a shiver at the memory, he went on. “He’ll be all right.”
“Lessen he’s hurt.”
Adam scowled over his cup. It was their greatest fear, of course. Little Joe and Sophrona Chesto, out in this weather, injured, maybe having been thrown from the carriage or taken over the edge of a ravine after hitting a slick spot of unseen ice.
“No use borrowing trouble,” he said and then felt stupid for it.
“I ain’t borrowin’ it,” Hoss snapped. “It’s mine and I got a right to it.”
“Sorry, Hoss. Sorry. I’m…worried too.”
His teenage brother nodded his forgiveness. “Can you think of anywhere Joe and the teacher lady might hold up, I mean, between town and the old Carter place?”
He considered it. There was nothing much. A scattered line shack or two and that old ramshackle place Father Macintosh occupied from time to time up near Paiute land. Pa’d mentioned checking each one out on their way tomorrow.
Adam halted as he brought the cup to his lips to take another sip.
“Ain’t gonna be much of a Christmas without little brother,” Hoss sighed, as if reading his thoughts.
Adam nodded and then changed the subject. “Are the beans about done? Pa needs to eat. I don’t think he’s had a thing since last night. I noticed his plate was nearly full this morning when Hop Sing took it away.”
“I saw that too.” Hoss leaned in and sampled the beans. “Yep. They’re ready.” His brother turned his head and called out, “Hey, Pa! Supper’s on!” When no reply came, the teenager rose to his feet and stared out into the night. “Adam. I cain’t see Pa. Can you?”
Adam looked too. No, he couldn’t see him.
Their father was gone.
Ben didn’t know where he was going. He’d just felt the need to be on the move. Sitting still felt like he had given up on finding his youngest son and that was one thing he would not do.
Could not do.
They’d only just celebrated Joseph’s twelfth birthday a few months before. Though his youngest son thought he was well on the way to becoming a man, when he’d looked at him that night – laughing and joking with his brothers, blowing out candles and smashing cake into Adam’s face much to both Adam and Hop Sing’s dismay – all he had seen was the child Paul Martin had placed into his hands a little over a decade before. Joseph was slight now, much to his son’s chagrin, but the boy had been – honestly – diminutive when he was born. No bigger than a child’s porcelain doll. Even so, Marie had had a hard time of it, both her labor and delivery proving difficult. Joseph had come unexpectedly and they had been, quite simply, unprepared. At first there had been no one to tend her but two unschooled men and two boys – one young and one barely more than a baby himself. While Hop Sing was by far the wisest among them, he had never attended a birth. Marie’s pain had come swift and sure and stayed with her until the moment his son entered the world. And then – then – there had been days of waiting to see if the boy would thrive. He’d spent a good portion of those days on his knees petitioning his God for his son’s life.
He fell to them now to do the same.
At first he spoke to his Lord silently, with his head bowed. Then he raised his tear-streaked face to the sky. Above him the stars twinkled, diamond-bright in an endless black void. He noted one in particular that was brighter than the others and it made him think of that night, so long ago, when another anxious father had awaited the arrival of his son. He’d named his boy after his own father, Joseph Cartwright, but even more so, after that man. Somehow everyone’s attention focused on Mary at this time of year. The church pastors preached week after week of the determination and willingness of the oh, so young virginal girl who had given herself over to God’s plan. They told tales of Mary’s deep faith, of her courage and utterly unshakable faith in God.
Seldom, if ever did they speak of Jesus’ earthly father.
He had thought of Joseph much over the many years of his life; this man who – at first – refused to believe in God’s miracle. Joseph loved Mary. He planned to put her quietly aside to save her shame, but refused to marry her – until he had his own miracle. Until Joseph had a visit from the angel Gabriel who assured him that all his young betrothed said was true. Gabriel told Joseph that he had been chosen too – to be the man the baby Jesus would look to, to meet to his earthly needs both physical and spiritual.
To be father to the Father – to God.
There were few references to Joseph in the Bible. But for Jesus, he would have been there every day, trying as best he could to make his son into the man God intended, encouraging and scolding, reprimanding, even dealing out correction if necessary. He’d done the same with his three sons, seeking to instill in them a deep moral code that would guide them throughout their lives. The Good book said Jesus was ‘in all points tempted as we are’. There had to be a few times they knocked heads!
Like he did with his Joseph.
“Lord,” Ben breathed into the still night air, “I love my son as You did yours. And like you, I want him with me. I want to watch my Joseph grow and mature into the man I see in him. Please, Father, here the cry of your son Benjamin. Preserve Little Joe and the young woman with him. Bring them to a safe harbor. You….” His voice faltered and he had to clear it before continuing. “In a short time we will celebrate the moment of Your son’s arrival in our world; the moment of silence after the plan was begun, and then the joyous cry of the angels in the sky proclaiming peace on Earth and good will to all men. Tonight, in the silence, I beg for my child’s safe arrival. Tomorrow – on the day of Your son’s coming – I ask that I may proclaim Little Joe’s deliverance from danger and sing of Your great mercy and loving kindness.” The rancher paused and then continued. “But, if You see fit to…see another end, then I bow to Your will. God only grant You also give me the strength to survive. Amen.”
“Amen,” a soft voice echoed behind him.
He knew who it was before he turned. “How long have you been there, Adam?”
“Not long.” His son came to his side and looked up. He pointed to the sky. “You see that bright one up there?”
Ben looked. “Yes.”
“I’m betting Joe’s safe somewhere and he’s looking up at that very same star right now.”
The weary father couldn’t help but smile as the star twinkled as if in agreement with his son. “You’re sure of that?”
Adam thought a moment. “Yeah, I am.” A second later his son shivered and pulled his coat closer about his frame. “Come on, Pa, there’s warm beans and coffee waiting.” With a shrug, he added, “It’s not the Christmas feast Hop Sing would have prepared, but we’re together and a feast is what you make it.”
Ben looked at his son. “Is it…?”
“Yeah, Pa,” his eldest said as he circled him with his arm, “Merry Christmas.”
Little Joe looked back at the mission house. He’d told Sophie he needed to relieve himself and it wasn’t a lie. Not that he needed the outhouse, but he’d needed – at least for a moment – to step away from her screams and so he’d limped outside and taken a seat on a barrel by the empty water trough. Sophie was in a lot of pain. Seems the women in her family didn’t always go through a long labor where their birth pains slowly mounted toward the end. No siree, those pains slammed from nothin’ right into somethin’ with the contractions coming faster and faster like one of those locomotives Adam had told him about, heading for a crash.
The ‘crash’ bein’ her baby entering the world, and she needed him to help her do it.
He was scared. Plain and simple.
Oh, he’d seen Hoss bring animals into the world, so he had some idea of what was goin’ to happen, but most of those animals did the birthin’ by themselves. They only needed help when something was wrong.
Joe looked up at the vast expanse of sky above him.
He prayed to God that nothing went wrong.
As he sat there, staring up, one bright star in the sky caught his attention. It twinkled and winked, almost as if it was encouraging him. He wondered if his pa and his brothers were out looking for him and were looking up at it just like he was. The snow had stopped falling at last, so they could have been on the road. It blanketed the land around the mission, sparkling and shining like the light in a little kid’s eyes when he looked at a Christmas tree or opened that present he’d peeked at and knew it was what he wanted more than anything else in the world.
He wanted his pa more than anything else.
Joe snorted. Maybe St. Nick would wrap his pa up tight and put a bow on his head and deliver him in his sled before morning.
It was past midnight. There was a clock in the mission and it had chimed as he headed out the door.
It was Christmas day.
Joe rose and began to walk, passing by the empty stable and a small privy. It was funny, being alone on Christmas. Even though Sophie was with him, it was the first one he could remember without his family; the first time he hadn’t awakened to the smell of Hop Sing’s Christmas breakfast with all the trimmings and run down the stairs to shake all the presents with his name on them before giving everyone a big hug. It made him think about that first Christmas. Mary and Joseph had been far away from their families. They’d gone all the way to Bethlehem because of that census, and when her time had come, she hadn’t delivered her baby in a place even as nice as Father Macintosh’s mission house. Joe glanced back at the stable with its dry interior and warm bed of hay. Pa had explained to him that stables in Jesus’ time were often in caves. So the Savior of the world had entered it in a dark, rocky cavern. There wouldn’t have been a doctor there either. No one who knew what they were doing. Just a scared girl, her young husband, and maybe the woman who owned the inn.
Joe turned back toward the mission house. He winced as he straightened his back and then, after the pain had passed, lifted his head high. Sucking the cold air in through his nostrils, he steeled himself, and then let it out slowly. Pa told him once that he’d named him Joseph, not only after his own father, but after the man who God had chosen to be the earthly father of their Lord.
‘Joseph faced a challenge that would have cowed a lesser man,’ Pa’d said. ‘He was a man among men, son, and so are you. One day you’ll face a similar challenge and I know you will rise to meet it.’
Sophie was calling for him.
‘One day’ was now.
Hoss fought back tears. He glanced at Adam and saw him doing the same. About an hour before they’d found Mrs. Chesto’s fancy rig and, a little ways off, her pair of beautiful Belgians.
Frozen solid in the snow.
There were no tracks, of course. The snow was too deep. They’d stood starin’ at the rig for the longest time and then split up and covered the ground around the crash site, walking in larger and larger circles, looking for…somethin’…anythin’ that would indicate their little brother had walked away alive. It had been about an hour before that they found it. Pa was holdin’ it now, clingin’ to it like a man holdin’ onto a fence post in a nor’easter.
They’d found Little Joe’s hat about a quarter mile out. Little brother had been headed in the wrong direction, away from both the Carter place and home.
They had a choice to make. Go in the direction where they’d found his hat or head on to the Carter place as planned. Pa was torn. Joe’s hat could easily have blowed to where they found it or he could have lost it as he was walkin’. Adam was all for goin’ on to the place Mrs. Chesto called home. He’d trained Little Joe in survivin’ in the wilderness – really, they all had – and Adam was sure little brother would set his course for a sure thing. Pa wasn’t so sure. He kept walkin’ back to the place where they’d found the hat and lookin’ north, toward Paiute land. They both knew he was afraid it was some Indian had found Joe and Mrs. Chesto. If they had, both of them might be long gone. Joe’d be adopted into a tribe somewhere to replace some Indian boy who’d been killed by a white man and Mrs. Chesto….
Well, it didn’t bear thinkin’ about.
Adam reached up as if to strike a lock of hair out of his eyes, but he knew big brother was wipin’ away tears. He sighed as he came to his side. “I think I’m going to take off for the Carter’s place,” he announced.
“Adam, you know what Pa thinks of that. He don’t want one of us goin’ off alone.”
“It’s the only way. We have two possible directions in which to search and there are three of us. One of us has to go alone.”
“Pa’s been prayin’ for a miracle,” he said, as if that said it all.
Adam gave him that ‘look’ – the college-educated one that said there weren’t no such things as ‘miracles’. “That’s all very well and good, but even if something ‘miraculous’ happens, there are still two directions to search in.”
“Not if its a big miracle, you know, like the star hangin’ over the stable on Christmas day?”
“As much as God loves our father, and I grant you, Pa’s probably closer to the Man upstairs than most of us, I doubt He’s going to move the heavens to point the way to one missing –”
“Adam! Hoss! Come quickly!”
The pair of them exchanged a glance and then ran for all they were worth. They were out of breath by the time they reached their father’s side.
“What is it, Pa?” Adam asked, beating him to it.
“There! Do you see it?”
Adam squinted against the glare given off by the rising sun striking the snow. He squinted too. “What?”
“There, moving through the trees. A man dressed in black.”
They looked, and then they looked at each other. It was older brother who spoke first. “I don’t see anything, Pa. Maybe whoever it was moved off.” Then he tossed a look at him.
“Yeah, Pa. That’s gotta be it.”
“Don’t you two dare humor me!” their father snapped. “I know what I saw, and I saw a man in a long black coat moving through the trees, headed north!”
“Ain’t nothin’ north, Pa,” he hazarded.
“Except…” Adam said, his voice hushed with awe, “…except the old mission.”
Minutes later they were mounted and on their way.
He would sure as shootin’ never underestimate a woman again.
Joe stumbled into the kitchen of the mission house, headed for the warm nest of blankets he had placed by the table, in direct line of sight to the bedroom. He was bathed in sweat, and covered in blood and he really didn’t want to know what else. Fortunately Sophie remembered enough from helpin’ her ma birth babies to fill in the gaps in his cowpoke education. You didn’t need to scrub down a horse or cow before they gave birth, and you sure didn’t need to worry about keepin’ the bedding clean as they laid there. He’d never tied no sheets to a barn pole either. Joe snorted as he dropped onto the blankets and reached for his boots, which were befouled. He wasn’t sure what his pa was gonna think when he found out he’d seen what he’d seen .
But then if he hadn’t seen what he’d seen, he’d have missed the miracle.
With one filthy boot on and the other half-off, Joe paused and turned back toward the bedroom. Sophie was laying there with her brand new baby girl in her arms. He’d never seen anything so ugly and so beautiful at one and the same time in all his life. When he returned to the house, he found Sophie puffin’. Her pains were comin’ closer and closer together and she could feel the baby moving. He didn’t know what to do and he’d pert-near panicked, but she kept talking to him, telling him this was the way it was supposed to be. She even quoted the Bible to him. ‘Unto the woman He said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children’. Now, that didn’t seem quite fair to him, seeing as how Adam had been just as guilty as Eve, but Sophie told him that God didn’t make mistakes and that the pain only made the joy deeper.
Luckily for him, it has been what Doc Martin called an ‘easy’ birth, though for all he was worth he couldn’t see anything easy about it other than the fact that when Sophie was finally done yelling and pullin’ on the sheets, that baby girl of hers slid right out and into his hands kicking and screaming to beat the band. He didn’t even have to smack it on the bottom liked he’d thought he would.
What he did have to do to finish up would take a long time gettin’ over.
Joe looked at his arms. They were covered in blood up to his elbows, as was his shirt. He’d had no idea that a body coming into the world brought such a mess with them. He hoped Pa wouldn’t be mad about his shirt, seein’ as there really hadn’t been anything else he could do. It was one of his best ones and had cost a pretty penny.
Exhausted, elated, and just a little giddy, Joe let the other boot fall to the floor with a thud. He’d left Sophie and her baby sleeping in the next room and gone outside for a while to sit under the stars and think again about the night Jesus was born. Pa’d said there might have been an innkeeper’s wife and she just might have helped Mary give birth, but most likely it was just Joseph and her. Joseph, his namesake, who had stood there lookin’ at that mess and seeing in it the biggest wonder of them all.
Joe smiled sleepily. Adam was wrong.
Miracles did happen.
Ben reined in his horse and leaned forward. The moon was riding high and it cast long shadows over the rolling land before them. He lifted a hand to his near-black eyes and searched the silver-white dunes for a sign of the old mission house.
It was Adam who spotted it first.
“Pa, look! There’s smoke coming out of the chimney! Someone’s there!”
It might not be Joseph, but then again, it might.
It just might.
“I don’t see no horses, Pa,” Hoss said, his voice bright with hope. “So’s maybe it is Joe. He and Mrs. Chesto would of been on foot.”
Hope rose in his heart and Ben did his best not to beat it down. The thought that the pair of them – a young boy and an expectant mother – could have made it this far through the cold and snow was nothing short of irrational.
Still, it was Christmas day.
Before either of his sons could say another word, the worried father put heels to horse flesh and sped ahead of them, riding as recklessly as his young son who was missing through the knee-deep, fallen snow. He was off Buck before the horse could completely stop and in the old house before either Adam or Hoss arrived. The rancher had a suspicion his older sons were holding back out of respect for him.
Whatever they would find here, it was his to find as Joseph’s father.
The old mission house was quiet and chilly; its ramshackle interior dark. At first Ben could see nothing. Then he noted the faint flicker of a fire in a back room and headed that way. On his way, the toe of his boot caught on the end of a blanket tossed on the floor and he nearly tripped. Looking down, he saw someone lay there, sleeping.
It was his son.
Joy and terror mingled in the older man as he knelt to examine the boy. His son’s unruly hair was filthy, the curls separated as if he’d been sweating. As his hand fell to Little Joe’s chest, the white fabric of the boy’s shirt crunched. When he touched his finger to his lips, Ben tasted blood. As he began to move his hands over the boy, searching for the wound, his son stirred. He seemed to be in a deep, almost drugged sleep. Had he been kidnapped? Was he wounded? Where was Sophie? Had their captors taken her away and left his son to die?
“Joseph!” he called desperately. “Joe?”
His son’s nose wrinkled and he drew in a breath. One eye opened languidly and then closed again, before both of them opened and he smiled.
“Hey…Pa. When’d you get here?”
The sound of the door opening alerted Ben to the fact that his other sons had arrived. “Pa,” Adam asked from the doorway. “Did you find….”
“Yes, I found him!” he snapped as he turned toward them. “Adam, Hoss, get in here quickly. Your brother’s hurt!”
“No.” He felt Joseph’s hand on his arm and looked down. “I’m…fine, Pa. Really.”
Again, he looked at his son’s blood-spattered shirt, at Joe’s arms and face. “But you’re covered in blood!”
His son fought to keep his eyes open. “Not mine. Sophie’s….”
“Pa, I think you better come take a look at this.”
He hesitated to leave Joe’s side, but Adam’s tone was insistent. Relinquishing his place to his middle boy, he crossed to where his eldest stood looking into the back room. On the bed was Sophrona Chesto and in her arms, sleeping peacefully, was a beautiful baby. He could just see a head with tousled blonde curls peeking out of an old plaid blanket.
Ben’s eyes opened wide as he understood the cause of his youngest’s disheveled condition.
“Good Lord!” he breathed.
Hoss joined them a moment later. “I checked him over good, Pa. Little Joe ain’t hurt nowhere other than a few bruises and scratches. I cain’t figure where all that blood come from….” The big man took off his hat and whistled softly as he noticed Sophrona. “You mean short shanks…he….?”
“The kid did it,” Adam said, with a smile and a shake of his head.
“No,” Ben said as he returned to his young son’s side. “This young man did it.”
Joe stirred at his voice and languidly opened his eyes again. His son smiled at him as if he hadn’t just seen him a moment before. It was no wonder Joe was confused. The boy had to be completely exhausted.
“Did you see, Pa?” Little Joe asked. “Ain’t…she beautiful?”
“Yes, she’s very beautiful.” So it was a girl. “Joseph, you…?”
His son frowned. “I’m sorry…about my dress shirt, Pa. I’ll pay you back. I didn’t mean to ruin it.”
Ben wasn’t sure if he wanted to laugh or cry. The boy was so serious. “Joseph, I’m not worried about your shirt.”
“No, but I am worried about your grammar.” A stifled snort behind him told him Adam had joined them.
“Hey, buddy, you did good.”
Joe beamed. “Thanks, Adam.”
Looking at his young son lying there, whole and safe, it suddenly hit Ben that this trial was over. Joseph was here, not lying somewhere in a ditch slowly freezing to death or buried under five feet of snow. A touch on his arm told him his son had reached up, seeking him. Ben took his hand and squeezed it. Then, bending down, he pressed his lips against the boy’s forehead and waited for the inevitable explosion.
When it didn’t come, he looked down and found Joseph looking up at him. “No complaints that you’re too old?” he asked with a smile.
The boy was thoughtful. “No.”
“And why not?”
Joe was more awake now. He turned slightly, his gaze going to the back room where Sophie and her daughter lay sleeping. “I guess I understand better now,” he said. “Sophie’s baby ain’t mine, but since I helped her come into the world…. Well, I don’t think I’d ever want to stop kissing her.”
He squeezed Joseph’s hand again and then looked up at Adam. “Will you sit with your brother a moment, Adam? I’d like to step outside.”
“Sure thing, Pa,” Adam said as he smiled at his brother. “If the little scamp can stay awake long enough, I’ll try to clean him up a bit.”
“You take your time, Pa,” Hoss added. “We’ll take care of Joe.”
And he knew they would.
As Ben stepped out of the mission house, he drew in a full chest of the cold crisp air. It helped a little to dispel the lingering panic that clung to his father’s heart and opened it up to understand what had just happened. Each time one of his boys went missing or was in danger, he found his faith challenged. Though he believed strongly in a Divine Providence, he still found it hard to surrender control. Hard to let God be in charge.
Hard to let God be God.
Standing under the stars, with his three sons safe in the humble dwelling behind him, the rancher felt truly blessed. He had prayed for a miracle and received more than his share – his son restored, all of them, safe and alive, and a new life that his boy had helped to bring into the world.
It wasn’t until the next day when the sun rose that Ben found out there had been yet another miracle.
Early the next morning Adam and Hoss went exploring. They found an old wagon and harness in the stable next to the mission. As they hitched their horses to it in preparation for taking Joe and Sophrona Chesto home, an old Indian came riding by. He explained that he checked on Father Macintosh’s home every few weeks and, in honor of the old priest, did his best to keep it clean and stocked just in case someone such as them had need of shelter. When Ben told him that he and his sons had seen the father the night before, and that the priest had rescued Joe and Sophie and brought them to the mission, the aged man had slowly shaken his head from side to side and told him that it was impossible.
Father Macintosh had died during the influenza epidemic the winter before.
As Joseph said, miracles – really big miracles – did happen.
Tags: Adam Cartwright, Ben Cartwright, Hoss Cartwright, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright, JPM, snow
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