~*~*~ Advent Calendar ~*~*~
* Day 6 *
Summary: Can one good man overcome three Great Men? With gratitude to L. Frank Baum for providing inspiration.
Word Count: 3,570
The Christmas Hostage
In days long past when ordinary men and women faced dangers and challenges incredible to modern sensibilities, there lived a good man who raised good sons and made a habit of doing good things.
Ben Cartwright built a big rambling castle of a ranch house, the Ponderosa, where he, his sons, and ranch hands were as busy as one can be from one year’s end to another. The Ponderosa was within sight of the loveliest lake anyone with even a bit of imagination could imagine. Sunbeams danced over the vibrant blue surface, and the lake was edged with tall trees and green meadows interspersed with wildflowers smiling up from their green nests.
No one would expect that Ben and his sons who spent their days working on the big ranch would have had the time or energy to think of his neighbors at Christmas. But Ben loved Christmas, and he was determined that no child would lack a toy under the tree and no table would be empty of a feast if Ben and his boys could make up the difference. So, throughout the entire year Ben planned and saved and stored away items that would be useful and appreciated at Christmas, and every year Ben and his sons delivered gifts far and wide on Christmas Eve. For these acts of generosity and for many other very good reasons, Ben was loved by his neighbors. You would think that good men like Ben and his boys would have no enemies at all, but as you will soon hear that wasn’t quite the case.
About thirty miles from the beautiful lake was a great mountain. The sun dried the soil atop the mountain and baked the ground so that shrubs, grass and small trees had to struggle to survive the heat and zephyr winds that blew across the mountain. But, within the mountain lay great treasure the men of that time (and perhaps, even today) coveted greatly. The mountain was filled with caverns and burrows where men chipped and dug and toiled to bring the treasure up to the surface. It was difficult, dangerous, nasty work to tear treasure from the great mountain. Those men and boys who ventured into the mountain might go days without seeing sunlight and often suffered injuries during their labors.
As often happens, great men (but not necessarily good men) owned pieces of the mountain, and they employed men to suffer the trials of bringing the treasure out. Some of these men did not like Ben Cartwright at all.
The men I want to tell you about today were indifferent to beauty and insensible to the pain suffered by those who were not as great as they. These men did not make a habit of doing good things, and they were confounded by those who would make goodness a habit.
One day a few of these men got together to enjoy some of the luxuries they could afford because of the labors of the men in the caverns and burrows they owned. As often happens with great men who possess small minds, they began to speak disparagingly of men who chose virtue and sacrifice rather than wickedness and greed.
Leaning back into the plush softness of an ornate chair, Great Man One took a long pull on the fat cigar between his lips and commented bitterly, “It’s nearly Christmas. Old Ben will be filling his wagon with stuff and nonsense for the local bumpkins, I suppose.”
Great Man Two huffed in annoyed agreement. “Every Christmas, it’s all I hear. Ben brought my little brats toys. Ben made sure we had a Christmas feast. If these rustics had any gumption, they wouldn’t need Ben and his boys to play Santa Claus. They could take care of themselves and provide their own Christmas.”
‘Isn’t that the truth?” Great Man Three chimed in. “Ben is interfering in the natural way of things. I wouldn’t much care but his interfering with nature is interfering with my business. My workers want all of Christmas day off and even the day after Christmas so they can feast and make merry on Ben Cartwright’s largess.”
The other two great men agreed heartily with Great Man Three and went on to make other remarks too ill-tempered to repeat here. Soon, the three great men came to another agreement—Ben Cartwright needed to stop playing Santa Claus, and they were determined to tell him so.
As it happened, that very day, Ben came to visit the town perched on the side of the great mountain. He had made many purchases to complete his Christmas plans. When he saw the three great men approaching him, he offered them a warm smile and hearty greeting. The great men eyed the piles of toys and foodstuffs packed into Ben’s wagon.
“Ben, you sure have collected some wonderful things here,” said Great Man One. “Why don’t you keep this stuff for yourself? It’s a pity to give it to noisy boys and fretful girls who are going to do nothing but break them all right away.”
“Nonsense,” Ben laughed at the notion. “Even the noisiest and most fretful children deserve presents. If I can make them happy for one day a year, that’s enough for me.”
Great Man Two spoke up. “Look around you, Ben. There’s shops up and down these streets selling toys and gifts. They make money for their trouble, but you aren’t taking a dime for all of your work. Doesn’t that bother you?”
“Not at all. These shops supply people year ‘round. It’s only right that they make money from all of their work. I’m only offering my little trifles at Christmas. It would be a shame to take money for it.”
Great Man Three was certain he had the perfect argument. “Ben, I think you need to hear about the awful things some folks say about you.”
Ben regarded the great man kindly. “Well, perhaps you’d better keep it to yourself. That kind of news isn’t worth hearing.”
“You can’t escape it, my friend. There are plenty of folk who don’t believe in any kind of Santa Claus and they wonder why you would act the way you do. They resent you and sneer at you and call you a foolish old man. Seeing as how they hate you, no one would fault you for hating them right back.
“But I don’t hate them,” Ben replied. “Those folks don’t hurt me at all; they just make themselves and their children unhappy. Poor souls, I would much rather help them than hate them.”
The three great men were dumbfounded. Ben wished them all a good day and greetings of the seasons. Then he climbed into his loaded wagon and rattled down the road back to his home by the lake.
It was clear that the great men couldn’t tempt Ben Cartwright in any way. On the contrary, he’d seen right through their efforts to make mischief and trouble. His cheery laughter disconcerted them. So they abandoned their honeyed words and determined to use force.
Everyone knew that no one could harm Ben Cartwright as long as he was on the Ponderosa. But everyone knew that on Christmas Eve, Ben left the Ponderosa with his loaded wagon so that he could deliver his gifts to the children. So the three great men laid their plans and waited for Christmas Eve to arrive.
On that fateful night, the moon shone big and bright in the sky, and the snow lay crisp and sparkling as Ben cracked his whip and sped away from the Ponderosa. His three sons – Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe — were mounted on their favorite horses and trotted alongside the wagon packed full of toys and gifts. Ben and his boys laughed, whistled, and sang as they went along.
It would be a busy night. As Ben drove the wagon, he reviewed all the places he was expected and figured he had just enough presents to go around and make every child happy. The knowledge comforted him, and he urged his sons to detour to a nearby homestead to deliver packages and rest their horses while he continued on with the wagon.
Suddenly a strange thing happened. A rope shot through the moonlight and a big loop settled over Ben’s arms and body, drawing tight around him. Before Ben could resist or even call out, he was jerked out of his seat and thrown into a snowbank. Without realizing their driver had suffered an accident, the horses pulling the wagon kept running on down the road and were soon out of sight.
The unexpectedness of the attack confused Ben for a few moments, and he couldn’t rally quickly enough to fight off his attackers. The three great men pulled him from the snow bank and bound him with stout rope. Then they carried their prisoner away to a nearby cave they’d prepared and chained him to the rocky wall so he couldn’t escape.
“Ooooh, what will the poor wee children do now?” the great men taunted poor Ben. “Will they cry and fuss when their stockings are empty? Will their little tummies ache without the meats and pies they were dreaming of? What will they say about Ben Cartwright after this?”
Laughing heartily, Great Man Two and Great Man Three mounted their horses to head back to their cheerless homes in town, leaving Great Man One to guard their Christmas hostage.
Of course, the three great men had completely forgotten about Ben’s sons. They hadn’t considered the love and concern the young men had for their father. They certainly didn’t count on the boys returning quickly from the homestead to order to rendezvous with their father and assist him.
When Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe caught up with the wagon, imagine their surprise to find the it full of Christmas gifts but without their father. They were just as upset and worried as you would think they might be.
After tying his mount to the wagon, Adam climbed into the seat, and the three men circled back to where they had last seen their father. Even a green horn could have read the story left in the snow by the attackers, and Adam, Hoss and Little Joe were no slouches.
Hoss was known as the best tracker in the entire territory. It took him no time at all to read the story told by the marks and tracks and figure out where to search for his father.
Hoss told his brothers. “These ‘uns left a trail a blind man could follow, and I see real good. You take the wagon and make the deliveries while I find Pa.”
“We can’t let you do that alone!” Little Joe interrupted. “What if there’s a big passel of varmints?”
“Don’t worry about me, little brother. I can handle myself. Somethin’ tells me these fellers are nothin’ but cut-rate amateurs.”
Adam and Little Joe shared a look. It was very true that Hoss could handle himself. It was also very true that a lot of children were counting on them for Christmas. They all knew what Pa would say if he were there to voice his opinion.
“All right,” Adam conceded. “Little Joe and I will deliver this stuff. We’ll make quick work of it and come find you.”
“Pfft,” scoffed Hoss. “Take your time. Pa and I will be waiting at the house for you.”
And so the sons agreed to split up. Hoss would follow the trail and rescue their Pa. Adam and Joe would divide the gifts and make the deliveries. The two brothers watched Hoss move quietly through the snow, following the tracks and broken branches until their middle brother was out of sight.
“Um, Adam?” ask Little Joe. “How do we know which presents go to which little kids?”
They hadn’t even thought of that. Ben knew, of course, which child had asked for a particular toy, but he hadn’t thought to share that information with the boys. Putting their heads together, the two young men talked about the families they planned to visit and made their best guesses for the children involved. Soon, they too were on their way.
Ben hadn’t planned on being chained to a rocky wall for Christmas, but he didn’t become too upset by it either. As it happened, Ben and his boys had experienced perhaps more than their fair share of abductions—some people said they could write a book on the subject. So, Ben saved his strength and kept a good attitude. He did try to engage Great Man One in conversation a few times, but to no avail. So, Ben settled back to rest while awaiting rescue. He did worry, just a little, whether his sons would deliver the correct present to each child. Next year, he promised himself, he would write it all down should something like this happen again.
He’d been leaning back against the cold rock, sitting as comfortably as a man chained to a wall could manage, when he heard it. Determined to be as much assistance as possible, Ben cast about for an idea and broke the silence with a question that had been on his mind for some time.
“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask, but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?”
In the time it took for Great Man One to splutter with indignation, Hoss crept up silently behind the kidnapper. Disarming the great man was no trouble at all.
“Good to see you, Pa.” Hoss liberated the key to the shackles from the great man and quickly liberated his father from the offending chains. “What were you talkin’ about just now?”
The new captive huffed in annoyance and perhaps a little embarrassment before opening his coat to reveal an astonishing sight—a whole chicken, plucked, tied and ready for cooking was hanging from a string around the great man’s neck allowing the clawed feet to occasionally dangle beneath the coat’s hem.
“Well, doggone, doesn’t that beat all?” Hoss whistled in surprise.
“This happens to be my Christmas supper, young man,” Great Man One replied with dignity. “If I failed to keep it close, someone would have stolen it from me.”
“Pa, have you ever seen such a scrawny bird for Christmas dinner? No wonder this feller is ornery. He doesn’t know how to feast.” Of course, Ben had to agree with his son.
“Friend, we will be feasting on more than a tough bird on Christmas day. Wouldn’t you like to experience a real Christmas feast?”
Great Man One was staggered by the invitation. “What! Come to your home for dinner?! Aren’t you taking me to jail?”
“It would be a shame to put a man in jail on Christmas.”
Great Man One hung his head. How could Ben Cartwright open his house to the very man who had waylaid him? “I don’t deserve your generosity. I took advantage of you. Hadn’t you better wait for me to earn your forgiveness?”
Ben patted his arm. “None of us deserves generosity. None of us can do enough to earn forgiveness for our sins. That’s what Christmas is about—the gift of grace given undeserved.”
Great Man Two was having some difficulty making his way home. In fact, it could be said by those lacking charity that the great man was quite lost. As he sat atop his horse, attempting to fight back a rising swell of panic, he could just discern a desperate cry for help echoing through the night air.
Ordinarily, the great man was unlikely to offer assistance to someone in need. This night, Great Man Two was hopeful that after rescue, the needy individual might be persuaded to point
the proper way back to town.
Following the cries, Great Man Two soon came upon the scene of the accident. A handsome black and white gelding, saddle twisted askew on its broad back, was pawing in distress at the edge of the narrow trail winding above a rather steep drop into a canyon.
Holding his lantern aloft, Great Man Two peered into the abyss and soon spotted the man in trouble. It took only a few minutes to use the rope attached to the gelding’s saddle to haul the man up the side of the cliff. It was all quite exciting and Great Man Two felt a curious sense of satisfaction in rendering aid to a fellow human being.
“Are you all right?” the great man asked.
“I’m fine,” Little Joe answered while brushing the snow and dirt from his clothing. “Cochise lost his footing and the saddle slipped. Threw me over the edge. I was lucky to grab hold of some roots, and real lucky you came along. I should have been able to make the climb up by myself.”
“Nonsense, boy. Everyone needs help now and then.”
The young man nodded sheepishly before running his hands over the horse looking for injuries. “Guess I should have checked Cochise’s saddle after I delivered the Christmas presents.”
“Presents? How on earth did you have any presents . . .” Great Man Two abruptly stopped talking, realizing too late what he had just revealed to Ben’s son.
Little Joe’s eyebrow lifted. Great Man Two held his breath, not sure what to expect.
“I’ve never known you to go out of your way for anyone,” Little Joe said. “Thank you for helping me tonight.”
The great man was mortified. Little Joe would probably have not been in danger in the first place if Ben Cartwright hadn’t been attacked.
“Look, there’s something you should know.”
Little Joe held up a hand. “Don’t worry, we can talk about it at the house. If you’re as cold and tired as I am, you won’t mind getting warm and resting.”
“But, your father.”
“Nah, don’t worry. I reckon Hoss and Pa will be there waiting for us.”
Adam eased back on the reins, encouraging the tired horses to slow down to a comfortable walk. The wagon was finally empty. All of the presents, all of the food had been delivered to the grateful families.
He was worried, a bit, about his father and brothers. After all, Adam was good at worrying, and you don’t get good at anything without a bit of practice. But he knew because he felt it was so, that all was well, and everyone was safely back at the ranch to await the dawning of the sacred morning.
At the final crossroad, where a left turn took a body to the big mountain and a right turn took a body to the beautiful lake, he saw a dirty, disheveled man frantically digging into a pile of rock that had slid down the hill side.
Imagine Adam’s surprise to see Great Man Three pulling at a pile of stones to uncover a shivering, whimpering dog.
“What happened?” Adam added his labors, encouraging the great man to pat and soothe the poor beast while Adam moved the rock.
“I think . . . there, there, pup . . . just a little longer . . . that this little fellow was digging around looking for something to eat when he pulled part of the hill side down on top of him.”
“Lucky for the dog that you came along,” Adam said as he pushed the final stone out of the way. “Here, put him in the wagon. We’ll take him to the Ponderosa and let Hoss doctor him up.”
Silently, Great Man Three carried the poor dog and placed him gently in the wagon. He and Adam pulled sacks around the pup to keep him warm and cushion the ride.
Great Man Three cleared his throat. “Things happen you know. I saw that dog and knew he would die without help. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of dogs around . . . I mean, it’s natural that some dogs would perish . . . do perish. But I had to try to help this one dog.”
“And so you did.”
“I didn’t actually believe there was any hope.”
Adam urged the great man to tie his horse to the wagon and climb into the seat. “I think some of us make the mistake of only believing in hope in hopeful situations.”
“Adam, I need to tell you about your father.”
“Don’t worry so much,” Adam replied and he started the wagon toward the Ponderosa. “I’m sure he and Hoss are waiting for us at home.
The three great men found themselves sharing a hot breakfast at dawn with the Cartwright men. It was a profoundly unsettling experience. If any of them had been in Ben’s shoes, instead of clasping a hand in forgiveness, the miscreants would have been in the grasp of the long arm of the law.
After eating, everyone settled into comfortable chairs around the Christmas team. Ben opened his worn Bible and began to read aloud:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse,
From his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him – the Spirit of Wisdom and understanding,
The Spirit of counsel and of might,
The Spirit of the knowledge of the Lord[ii]
Ben paused in his reading to remark, “I love this verse. It reminds us that fruit doesn’t appear from Jesse’s tree in full bloom. It comes from the stump, from what looks like it cannot grow at all, never mind bear fruit”[iii]
From that time forward, the three great men did all they could do to become good men. That Christmas Eve changed their lives. But as we all know, change takes only moment. Transformation lasts a lifetime.
“A Kidnapped Santa Claus” by L. Frank Baum
[ii] Isiah 11:1
[iii] “Pruning Hope” by Fr. Paul D. Scalia, December 1, 2019 in The Catholic Thing
Link to 2019 Advent Calendar – December 7:
Other Stories by this Author
- Morning Star aka Stealing Christmas (by Belle)
- Small Print (by Belle)
- Aunt Agnes’s Dilemma (by Belle)
- The Adventure of the Antique Opera Glasses (by Belle)
- All Through the Night (by Belle)