Summary: All sixteen-year-old Hoss wanted for Christmas was a kiss from Ellie Miller. He was so excited he set off for the Millers’ place before his brothers. Instead of a kiss, Hoss was soon hoping for a Christmas miracle….
Word Count: 8081
A Christmas Kiss
“Joseph, where’s your brother?”
Ben Cartwright watched as his ten-year-old son skidded to a halt. Little Joe was eating an apple and had to swallow before answering. With a grin and a nod, the boy indicated the gift-laden wagon in front of the barn that was up to its felloes in white.
“Adam’s right over there, Pa. He’s kind of hard to miss.”
Of course, he could see his son – well, ‘sons’, if you counted Marie’s boy – but there was another one that was missing. “Where’s Hoss?” the rancher asked again as he stepped off the porch and into the gently falling snow.
When Little Joe reached the wagon, he looked up at Adam. Adam, who was in the driver’s seat, looked down at his brother. Neither one of them gave him an answer.
It was apparent the two of them were hiding something.
Normally he would have pressed them to find out what it was, but it was the day before Christmas Eve and this was the one time of the year that he allowed his boys to keep their secrets. The three of them were probably conspiring about what gift they were going to get for him. He’d been peppered with enough questions lately about everything from whether or not his saddle blanket was worn out, to what kind of aftershave he preferred. He knew he wasn’t an easy man to buy a present for. He had everything he could want or need.
Most of all, he had his sons.
“Well?” Ben asked with mock indignation. “I’m waiting.”
“We’re not supposed to tell you, Pa,” Little Joe began. A soft nudge on the shoulder from his brother’s boot silenced him.
“Hoss went on ahead to the Millers, Pa,” his eldest explained. “Little Joe and I are going to meet him there. Then we’ll head into town.”
Ah, the Millers. That explained everything.
Hoss had just turned sixteen a few days back. He was at that awkward stage between a boy and a man. Inger’s boy was bashful. He had trouble expressing his feelings and was uncomfortable around girls. Except for Elspeth, the Miller’s middle daughter.
Who, unfortunately, had no such problems.
“I see,” he said.
“Hoss didn’t want us to say anything on account of he knows you don’t like Ellie,” Little Joe blurted out – which earned him another nudge from Adam.
Ben sighed. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the girl. She was lovely and had spirit.
Perhaps a little too much spirit.
“Hoss wanted to give Ellie her Christmas present without…interruption,” Adam said, his eyes shifting to his little brother. “So he went on ahead.”
“You should have seen him, Pa!” Joe exclaimed. “Hoss is wearin’ his Sunday best. He spent an hour fixin’ his hair and he smells like Mrs. Hanks when she comes to church on Sunday!”
Ben’s brows shot up. “Mrs. Hanks?”
Adam let out a little sigh. “Ellie likes lavender.”
He hid his smile. “Oh, I see.”
“You s’pose Hoss is gonna marry her?” his youngest asked.
Ben reached out and caught his small son under the arms and lifted Joe into the wagon. “I suppose, young man, that it’s a little early to start thinking about marriage. How about we think about you and your brothers getting to town and delivering these presents to their rightful owners sometime before midnight instead?” The rancher looked up. The snowflakes had increased in size and were coming down more heavily. “Adam,” he began.
“I’m beginning to have second thoughts. I’m not so sure it’s wise to venture out, considering the weather.”
“Ah, Pa! We gotta go! It’s Christmas!” Joe whined.
“I don’t believe I was addressing you, young man.” His little boy’s eyes went wide and Joseph clamped his mouth shut.
“It will be all right, Pa. It’s not a storm, just a snowfall. Besides, Dan said it would be okay.”
“Dan? Dan Tollivar?” Dan was the best wrangler on the ranch, but Ben was unaware that he was also a weather prognosticator. “What’s Dan got to do with this?”
“Dan says his knee’s better at predictin’ the weather than wooly bears,” Little Joe interjected. And then added a quick, “Sir!”
“Dan’s knee,” he chuckled.
“We’ll be okay, Pa. If it gets too bad, we’ll stay at the Millers or in town overnight.” Adam grinned. “You know how it is. Mrs. Miller would give just about anything to get hold of younger brother here and fatten him up. The same goes for Beth Riley in town.”
Joe crossed his arms. “I keep tellin’ them, I ain’t gonna blow away in no wind!”
“You aren’t going to blow away in any wind,” Ben corrected.
Little Joe’s mobile brows shot toward the curls on his forehead as he threw his hands up in the air. “I know I ain’t, Pa. That’s why I said it!”
He was surprised he had any nose left, he’d pinched it so often.
“Look Pa, we should be at the Millers by ten o’clock this morning. That puts us in Virginia City around one. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours to deliver the presents. We’ll be back before dark.”
The older man looked at the sky again. It gave no sign of an impending storm, but then in this area of the country you could never be certain – of anything.
“See that you are. If, for some reason you do have to stay over at the Millers or with Beth, send word home by one of the men. They’re used to traveling in bad weather.” He thought a moment. “Since he’s been laid up, Jim and Thom Barrett have been working for Hank Miller, and you should be able to find Cyrus or Billy in town.”
“You think I should look in the usual places?” Adam asked with a grin.
He shook his head. “It’s Christmas. Let’s hope the two of them have enough sense between them to keep out of both the saloon and the jail.”
“We’ll ask Sheriff Olin when we give him his present,” Little Joe said.
Ben was staring at his youngest. Joseph was wiggling and shifting and making the wagon seat bounce on its springs. The boy was a bundle of nervous energy and excitement barely contained and, as such, prone to make impetuous and rather unwise choices.
“Young man, I want you to –”
Little Joe rolled his eyes. “Listen to Adam and do what he tells me. And don’t take no…any risks. Stay in the wagon and don’t wander off.” His youngest flashed a mischievous smile. “Did I miss anything?”
“You haven’t left me much!” he laughed. “Keep your hat on and your coat buttoned and your scarf around your neck – and one more thing.”
“What’s that Pa?”
He leaned in so his lips were close to his son’s curly head. “Keep an eye on your older brother. He tends to get distracted.”
“Hey!” Adam said as Joe started to giggle.
“And remember this,” Ben said, daring to touch Adam’s knee, “I love you both, and I will be praying for you. May your journey be as safe as it is enjoyable.”
With a nod of his head, his eldest boy slapped the team’s rears with the reins and started the wagon moving.
“See you tonight, Pa!” both boys called as they rolled out of the yard.
He was an old worry wart, he knew it.
Just like he knew he wouldn’t relax until he saw them again.
Hoss Cartwright cleared his throat. He glanced at his ten gallon hat to make sure he hadn’t worked the rim right off by runnin’ his fingers over it, before turnin’ and facin’ at the most beautiful girl in the world.
“Your ma sure was nice to let us come out here on the porch and talk, Ellie,” he said, because he didn’t know what else to say.
Behind them, in the big white house, Ellie’s ma and pa and her two sisters were decoratin’ for the holiday. The Millers didn’t do it until a couple of days before Christmas, and then they left the tree up clear until the New Year. Hop Sing would have their heads if they left a tree sheddin’ its needles in the house that long! Of course, they put theirs up sooner. They’d done it the week before. He and his pa and brothers had gone on an expedition to find it. Little Joe pert near busted a gut he was so excited since he got to pick it. Still, once the tree was in place and it came to puttin’ on the ornaments, the tinsel and paper chains, they all got kind of…well…solemn. Mama had loved Christmas and, even though it had been five years since her passin’, each and every year they felt her spirit there with them. Little Joe most of all. The poor kid ended up cryin’ before they was done and spent the shank of the evenin’ on Pa’s lap. He’d gone in to see him after Pa put Joe to bed and they’d talked a bit. Truth was, he missed Little Joe’s mama just about as much as his baby brother did.
“A penny for your thoughts,” Ellie said softly.
Hoss started. “Sorry, Ellie. I got me to thinkin’.”
He wasn’t sure he wanted to talk about it. Thinkin’ about Mama and Christmas without her made him all kind of misty and sad. The teenager turned and looked through the window behind him. The Millers was decoratin’ their tree now. Mr. Miller was sittin’ in a chair, since he’d been real sick for a while, watchin’ the others. Ellie’s sisters were laughin’ and singin’. Mrs. Miller happened to look out at the same time he looked in. She waved and then went back to stringin’ popcorn.
His fingers were ringin’ his hat brim again.
“You miss your ma, don’t you?”
The big teen drew in a breath and let it out in a little white cloud. “I sure do. You know, Ellie, I’m right happy for you that you got your ma, but when I see her, I cain’t help….”
Ellie reached over and took his hand. “That’s why I like you so much, Hoss Cartwright. You’re a sensitive man.”
He didn’t know which word Ellie’d used surprised him more – ‘sensitive’, or ‘man’.
Hoss winced. “Is that a good thing? Bein’ ‘sensitive’, I mean?”
Ellie’s laugh was like them bells jingling on a harness in the snow. “Of course, it is, silly.” She paused and her pert little nose scrunched up in that way he loved. “At least to a woman. Men can be such asses.”
The big teen blinked.
“Oh, I know it isn’t ladylike to say such a thing, but it’s the truth.” Ellie’s rosebud lips pursed and she cocked her head, makin’ her golden ringlets bob about her heart-shaped face. “I think it’s always best to speak the truth. Don’t you?”
Elspeth Jeanette Miller was unlike any other girl he had known. She was beautiful as a May morning, with her sunshine-bright hair and crisp blue eyes, and real smart just like brother Adam. Pa didn’t like her much ‘cause she spoke her mind and didn’t always mind her manners. Now, he didn’t like to go against his pa much, but those were the very things that attracted him to Ellie.
She was everythin’ he wasn’t.
“I..ain’t so good at speakin’, Ellie. You know that.”
She was still watching him. “Like now?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I think you have a question you want to ask me.”
Hoss frowned. “I do?”
Ellie leaned in, so close he could smell the peppermint on her skin. She and her ma had been making candy sticks when he arrived.
“I think you want to ask me if it’s all right to kiss me,” she whispered into his ear. “So, ask me.”
Everythin’ on him blushed, right down to his toes.
Hoss indicated the window with a nod of his head. “Your ma….”
“Is otherwise occupied at the moment.”
He glanced into the house. The drawing room was empty except for Mr. Miller who had fallen asleep in his chair.
“Now’s your chance,” Ellie said with a big smile.
He weren’t usually one for takin’ chances, but it were Christmas after all.
“Okay,” Hoss grinned, leaning in. He wanted to kiss Ellie, and he would have.
If her mother hadn’t opened the door at that moment and called them in.
“Mistah Ben stop pacing now. Dig hole in floor. Hop Sing have to fill it up!”
Ben Cartwright stopped by the front door and turned back to look at his cook. “They should have been home by now.”
“Clock strike five. Time left to be home before dark. Mistah Ben come sit down. Hop Sing bring brandy so old man can relax.”
The rancher snorted. Perhaps he was being a bit overanxious. It was just that the snow was coming down in earnest now and the drifts were building up. He wanted his three boys home and safe with him, not wandering about in a storm.
“I don’t need a brandy, thank you. I – ”
“They not home in two hours, you worry. No need worry now.” Hop Sing was placing the plates on the supper table. The Asian man halted in what he was doing and looked straight at him. “Listen to own words. Mistah Ben find something useful to do. Make time hurry.”
Those were his words.
Ben held his hands up in a gesture of surrender. “All right. I have some paperwork I need to attend to.”
“You take care of paper. Hop Sing take care of food. Boys come any minute now, you see. Be plenty hungry.”
Sometimes he didn’t know what he’d do without his housekeeper and friend.
Moving to his office, Ben took a seat behind the desk and began to rummage in the drawers, looking for a pen. As he did, he ran across a small leather-bound case tucked at the back of one. It shamed him that he’d forgotten about it. Pulling it out, he opened the case and looked at the small painting it contained. It was one of his greatest regrets that he hadn’t had a family portrait done before his wife passed. Life was so busy. Needs, work, sickness, Sundays and Mondays, and mere survival crowded out the ‘lesser’ things. Each year around Christmas he’d thought about it, but it never happened.
Hoss and Adam gave it to him for Christmas the year after Marie died. They had an artist do it based on sight and individual images they’d had taken over the years. The trouble was the likeness of his beautiful wife holding their small son, with his two other boys behind her, had struck such grief in his heart that, after a short time of displaying it on his desk, he’d hidden the painting away. Looking at it now, it brought a smile to his lips. Ben placed the opened case on the desk’s surface in a prominent place. He’d leave it there. The boys would be surprised to see it when they came home. It would make them proud.
Why weren’t they home?
Ben sighed as the clock struck five-thirty.
“Hoss, you can’t go out into this snow alone,” Mrs. Miller scolded. “Please wait until one of your father’s men comes back.”
Hoss shifted in the saddle. His pa had leant Ellie’s father two of their hands since he’d been sick and couldn’t keep up with things. It was five-thirty and they was off doin’ chores.
It was five-thirty and his brothers hadn’t showed.
“I’m right sorry to disobey you, ma’am,” the big teen said with a tip of his white hat, “but I know’d somethin’ is wrong. Adam was drivin’ and he said he’d be here mid-afternoon at the latest. Adam ain’t never late.” Hoss frowned at the heavily falling snow. “Truth is, I should’ve left afore this.”
And he would have if Mrs. Miller hadn’t put a midday meal on the table and Ellie begged him to eat with them.
“But, you’re just a boy!”
He drew in a breath and squared himself on his horse. “That’s right, ma’am, I am at that. But Pa says sometimes a boy has to step up and fill a man’s shoes. Seems to me this is one of those times.”
“My pa’s real upset he can’t go with you,” Ellie said, her voice as hushed as the fall of snow.
Mrs. Miller and Ellie’d come out with him and were standin’ on the porch. Their pa was in the house. Ellie’s two sisters, Pearl and Mina, had their noses pressed up against the glass window and was watchin’ them.
“I know he is, and I thank him for it,” Hoss replied. He sure did wish Mr. Miller was up to goin’ with him or one of Pa’s hands was around, but like Ma had always said, ‘If wishes were horses….’ He’d already waited an hour for one of the hands to show and Hoss just knew he couldn’t wait no more. He hadn’t told no one, but he had a feelin’ deep in his gut that somethin’ was wrong and that the more time he wasted, the more ‘wrong’ it was gonna be. “But I gotta go. Adam and Little Joe’s gotta be somewheres between here and the Ponderosa. With this here weather, there ain’t gonna be anyone else on the road. If they need…help…I’m the only one gonna be able to give it to them.”
“You don’t know that for certain,” Mrs. Miller said.
“You’re right, ma’am, but I do know one thing for sure. If I don’t try and somethin’ happens to one of my brothers, well, I’d never be able to live with myself.”
The older woman walked over to where he stood mounted on his horse. She handed him a canteen filled with hot liquid. “It’s coffee. It will help keep you warm.”
“Thank you kindly, ma’am.” He tipped his hat again. “Miss Ellie. Now, I best be on my way.”
“Take care, Hoss,” Ellie pleaded.
“Send us word when you can that everything is all right,” her ma added.
He would. Once he knew it was.
Hoss sighed as he removed his hat and shook the snow off of the brim for the fifth time. He loved snow near as much as his little brother. Loved lookin’ at it and smellin’ it and watchin’ the white shinin’ snowflakes dance against a dark blue sky. Snow was one of those things that made him think about God, about how perfect everythin’ was in Heaven; how beautiful and clean. He knew his mama was up there in Heaven watchin’ the angels make it, along with Adam and Little Joe’s. Pa told him, when he was a little pup, that he was silly for thinkin’ such a thing. Pa might be right, but it made a right pretty picture in his mind, and who was to say whether or not God’s angels had anythin’ to do with it snowin’? The Good Book said God ‘hung the stars’.
So why couldn’t the angels pitch snow?
In spite of how cold he was, Hoss laughed. It was a picture all right.
Since he’d paused to clear his hat, the big teen reached into his coat and drew out the canteen Mrs. Miller’d given him and opened it and took a small swig. Closing his eyes, he relished the warmth coursin’ through him. Then he stopped it right back up. If somethin’ had happened to Adam and Little Joe – if he didn’t find them sittin’ at home sippin’ hot chocolate and laughin’ like puppies ‘cause they’d just plumb never set out – he was gonna need the coffee in that there canteen to warm them.
Hoss frowned as he pressed his heels into his horse’s side and set her walkin’ again. He weren’t that far from home. Maybe, after all, he was gonna find his brothers there. If that was the case, he’d given up the chance to be snowed in at the Millers for nothin’. Thinkin’ about that made him a little mad and that was a good thing, ‘cause it warmed him up. He was workin’ up a right good head of steam when a break in the clouds caused a moonbeam to fall on the road before him. His horse reared up in fright and one of those words Pa didn’t approve of escaped his lips as Hoss reined in his mount and shouted.
“Hey, you! Up there! You could of got yourself killed!”
It was a woman. She weren’t no bigger than a minute, and was wrapped up tight in a winter coat, hat and scarf, so he couldn’t see her face. Hoss looked around. He didn’t see a wagon or horse, so he wondered how she got there.
When he looked back, she was gone.
“What in Sam Hill…” the big teen muttered as he slipped off his horse and headed for the spot where he had seen her.
Hoss knew where he was; a couple of miles outside of the ranch house, near the bend where there was foothills on one side and a big drop to the water on the other. The moon was still shinin’, so he was able to see the road pretty well. Dropping to his knees, Hoss began to search for the woman’s footprints. He was puzzled when he didn’t find them, and even more puzzled when he noticed the tracks of a wagon’s wheels.
Slidin’ off the side of the road and headin’ down toward the water.
Ben Cartwright stood on the edge of his porch. He was dressed in his traveling clothes and looking out toward the Virginia City road; his entire being poised to see or hear something.
But there was nothing.
Behind him, in the house, the tall case clock struck eight-thirty. Hop Sing was busy removing the dishes from the table. He and his housekeeper had eaten alone. They’d talked over supper and decided that the boys had stayed at the Millers and that, due to the inclement weather, had been unable to get word to him.
That’s what they decided.
He didn’t believe it.
He’d gotten up from the table, thanked his friend, and then returned to his office to occupy himself until the boys’ return. He’d done a little work, but mostly he’d stared at the portrait sitting on his desk. The sight of it brought that final Christmas back to him – the last one he’d shared with his beautiful wife. After the presents had been opened, songs sung and the Christmas story read, they’d put the boys to bed. When they’d finished cleaning up, they sat down together on the settee to enjoy a moment alone. Marie snuggled up against him. He could recall the scent of vanilla and spice on her skin. They’d spoken of many things – the ranch, the boys; their future – before falling silent. As the last of the embers crashed to the hearth floor, throwing the room into darkness, Marie turned to him and asked if he was content. He’d nodded and asked her the same thing. A second silence had fallen, so deep and profound he’d thought, perhaps, she was unhappy and had never let him know.
Then she surprised him by quoting a poem.
‘Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear; too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice.’ Marie turned, so she was looking straight at him. ‘But for those who love, mon cher, time is eternity.’
It was at that moment that he’d felt her hand on his shoulder – here in the present, sitting at his desk . So startling was the touch he’d turned and looked, fully expecting to see her behind him. Instead, he’d looked out the window. The night was white with falling snow, so thick the barn was obscured.
It was then he knew.
He knew something was wrong.
Ben raised his collar and stepped off of the porch. He heard a sound and turned back to find his cook and friend standing in the open door.
“You make hurry, Mistah Ben. No delay. Chop chop!” he said.
Perhaps Marie’s spirit had visited Hop Sing as well.
The first thing he heard was cryin’.
Just as Hoss dropped off the side of the road, the moon done pulled its covers up and everythin’ went dark. He couldn’t see his nose in front of his face. But he could hear, and what he heard plain as day was someone sobbin’ their heart out.
He was pretty sure it was Little Joe.
Drawing in a breath of the cold night air, the big teen called out, “Little Joe! Joe, is that you?” When the cryin’ didn’t stop, Hoss slid further down the hill. “Little Joe!” he yelled. “Punkin, you answer me!”
Abruptly, the night went silent. Into that silence came a single word.
The voice came from somewhere to his right. He’d been followin’ the rut of the wagon wheels, but when the light went out, he’d kind of lost track of where he was and must have veered off. Hoss waited. When Little Joe said nothin’ else, he called out again.
“Little Joe? You gotta keep talkin’ so’s I can find you. It’s dark as midnight under a skillet out here!”
“I’m here, Hoss. I’m….”
He was closer, but he still couldn’t see his brother. “Little Joe, are you okay?”
“I am, but…Adam’s…. He’s hurt, Hoss.”
“I’m comin’, Little Joe. You just keep talkin’.” It took a second, but he started movin’ again. Soon, the teenager was slip-slidin’ down the hill at an angle, makin’ it about two feet for every three he tried. Suddenly, he realized that his little brother had gone quiet. “Joe! You gotta keep talkin’ so’s I can find you. Why don’t you tell me what went wrong? Little Joe?”
For a few heartbeats, his brother remained silent. Then, with a sob, Joe said, “It was…me, Hoss. It was me!”
“Well, now, maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t, little brother,” the big teen said as his hands slipped on an icy branch and he nearly fell. “That don’t make no never mind now. You just put that out of your head. What’s wrong with Adam?”
Joe’s voice was closer now, but it weren’t any stronger. “I was horsin’ around. One of the presents…fell. It spooked the horse….”
“Keep talkin’, Little Joe!” he ordered. He was almost there.
“The horses spooked. They…got all tangled up. The wagon….” Hoss could hear the horror in the little boy’s voice. “We went over the side. Adam’s….”
The moon, well, it made up its mind to come back out at just that moment. His little brother was sittin’ a few feet up from the shore. Behind Little Joe was an over-turned wagon.
Under the wagon, shoulder-deep in water, was brother Adam.
A second later a bullet done struck him in the form of his little brother.
“Hoss!” Little Joe exclaimed as he gripped his wool coat with both hands and pulled. “You gotta help Adam! You gotta get him out of the water!”
The big teen pushed his little brother back and looked at him. Joe was soaked from head to toe. His teeth were chattering and, while all their skin looked blue in the moonlight, Joe’s lips were a deeper, darker shade of blue.
“Did you go in after Adam?” he asked.
Little Joe nodded. “I couldn’t…pull him out, Hoss. He’s stuck!” Joe sucked in air as tears flooded down his cheeks. “Adam’s gonna die and it’s all my fault!”
“Joe, now, you listen to me,” Hoss said as he shook the little boy gently. “A horse spookin’ ain’t your fault. They do it all the time.”
“But I dropped the present!”
“Could have been that,” Hoss said as he released him. “Could’ve been somethin’ in the road, or just the dang horse decidin’ somethin’ was funny. You let that go. What matters now is Adam.”
He’d been moving toward his older brother the whole time he was talkin’. Little Joe stayed where he was, which was fine with him. When Hoss reached the overturned wagon, he moved under it and into the water. As far as he could tell Adam’s eyes were closed and older brother didn’t answer when he shook and called him.
Turning back, he called out, “Little Joe?!”
“On my saddle horn there’s a canteen. It’s hot, so watch yourself. You open it up and take a drink and then bring it here to me.”
“What’s in it?”
Hoss sputtered. “It…it don’t matter what’s in it! You do as I say!” He was sorry he’d yelled, but he heard Little Joe movin’. Turning back to Adam, Hoss drew a breath and then slapped his brother’s face. “Adam! You gotta wake up! You hear me? I cain’t get you out of here alone.”
At first there was nothin’. Then older brother moaned and his eyes opened up. Adam stared at him for a second and then a little smile peeled back his lips.
“You’re…a funny…sort of angel,” he breathed.
“Well, I’m the only one you got.” Hoss plunged his hands under the water and ran them over his brother, feeling for injuries.
The water was icy.
Adam turned his head toward the shore. “Little Joe?”
“Getting’ a canteen off of my horse.”
“He’s cold and wet and shiverin’ to beat the band, but he don’t seem to be hurt.”
Adam’s eyes closed. “Thank God. My…fault.”
Well, didn’t that just take the cake!
“Little Joe thinks it’s his.”
Adam’s eyes shot open. “No! I was…joshin’ him. Made him…mad. He threw one of the…presents.” Older brother sucked in air and winced. “Stupid.”
“Sounds like you both was a little bit stupid,” Hoss agreed wryly.
Adam looked at him. “You…weren’t there.”
“…need you…. Buffer….”
Hoss teared up. He sniffed. “Well, it don’t matter any which way. We gotta concentrate on getting’ you out from under this here wagon.”
“Here’s the canteen, Hoss,” a small voice said.
He looked up at his ten-year-old brother. Joe was a bigger mess than the wagon.
“You take a sip like I told you?”
Joe made a face. “Yuck.”
He guessed little brother hadn’t learned the joys of a cup of hot coffee yet.
Hoss snorted and then he opened the canteen and held it to Adam’s lips. “Now, you take a big swig, older brother. It’ll warm your innards.”
After Adam had, he said, “Thank…you.”
“You keep them thanks ‘til the next time you see Mrs. Miller. It’s her what insisted I bring it.”
Now if that didn’t beat all! Here they was, out in the cold and under the stars, with Little Joe shakin’ like a earthquake and brother Adam half-drowned, and he was askin’ about Ellie!
“A far sight prettier than you are, older brother,” Hoss said softly. “Can you tell how you’re stuck?”
“Rim of…the wagon wheel…I think,” Adam replied. “Feels like my…belt’s…caught. Hands are trapped too. Can’t get to it.””
“I can find it,” Little Joe declared as he moved toward the wagon. “I can work it free.”
“You stay out of this here water, Little brother. You already look like a drown-ded rat!”
“So, I can’t get any wetter then, can I?” Joe snapped back.
Hoss didn’t know what to say.
“Besides, I need you to brace the wagon so it don’t come down on Adam…or me,” Little Joe added, his voice wavering. The boy drew a breath and then looked right at older brother. “I’m sorry, Adam. I didn’t mean to….”
“I’m…sorry too. Forget…it.” Adam’s words were slurred; his eyelids heavy. “Please, Joe…. Don’t…take any…chances.”
“I’ll take any chances I want,” the boy countered. Little Joe turned to look at him. “I’d do anything for you two.”
Little brother didn’t say it, of course, but they both heard Joe’s other words.
Ben was riding hard, though it was slow going with the snow so high. Fortunately, the moon was more out than in. He was able to see the road and keep to it even though he had to push Buck hard to make him plow through the white banks lining it. The rancher knew he was foolish to set out alone, but he’d lacked the patience to wait for his men to get ready. He’d left instructions with Hop Sing to equip them, and then send as many of them on as soon as he could.
Heaven alone knew what he was going to find.
What he kept telling himself as he forded the snow banks was that he was a foolish old man; worse than a mother hen about his chicks. Adam was an adult at twenty-two. His eldest could well have a wife and children of his own by now if he so desired. Still, he wondered if Adam would ever marry. The boy had experienced such grief in his short life, losing not one, but three mothers. It was likely he would never take the chance. His middle boy was not quite a man, but Hoss was well on the way to being one. Since the age of twelve, when he’d grown taller than most of the ranch hands, Hoss had worked and lived among them. The boy was mature for his age. Completely trustworthy and competent.
And then there was Joseph. His impulsive, impetuous, endearing and beloved child.
Adam would take care of Little Joe, Ben reminded himself. Even if they had run into trouble, Adam would handle it.
Unless, of course, Adam was unable to do so.
Glancing up, the rancher noted the position of the moon and let out a sigh. He’d been traveling for over an hour and had gone less than two miles. He’d decided to keep to the road as it was the most logical choice. With a wagon, the boys could hardly have left it. There were no tracks, of course. They’d been obliterated by the snow. A very real fear gripped him as he noted the dark trees and the shadows they cast. Unless he spotted the actual wagon there was little hope that – if something had happened – he wouldn’t ride right past his boys, missing them entirely.
Leaving them to die a cold, slow death in the snow.
Hoss held his breath as he watched his little brother’s curly head plunge beneath the water. The big teen had his back underneath the wagon, bracing it so that if it shifted, it wouldn’t carry them all away. The moon shone down on the large body of water only feet away. The wagon had come to rest in a kind of channel, breaking the surface ice and plunging into frigidly cold water that was about a foot deep.
If it had been much deeper, Adam would have drowned.
As he counted the seconds, waiting for his little brother to reappear, Hoss whispered a prayer. He thought about those angels – and their mamas – up in Heaven and asked them to help. He talked to them on account of he was kind of shy when it came to talkin’ directly to God, even though Pa and the preacher told him he ought to. It seemed kind of disrespectful somehow.
A moment later the big teen grunted as the wagon’s weight shifted and bore down on him, testing his strength.
Okay, maybe it was time to go to the Big Guy.
“God, you hear me?,” Hoss huffed through gritted teeth. “You keep little brother safe – and older brother too. Don’t matter about me. If’n you gotta take somebody today, you can take me.”
Plain as day, he heard God talk back.
“One day, mon nounours, but not today. You have much to do.”
Or, maybe, it was Mama.
Ben could never explain what alerted him. The snow on the road remained unbroken, and there had been no sign of his sons, but he’d felt the sudden urge to rein in his mount. Stopping dead in the center of what was a ripple in one vast unending wave of white, he sat there, considering his next move. Above him, the sky grew crystal clear. The moon and the stars shown brightly; so brightly that their combined light, reflecting off of the snow, nearly blinded him. He blinked to clear them and – for just a second – thought he saw a woman standing by the side of the road, beckoning him. As quickly as she appeared, she disappeared. A few seconds later the clouds returned, eclipsing the light.
Ben hesitated only a moment before he was off his horse and headed for the spot where he had seen her standing.
A fresh path through the trees led down to the water’s edge. There was a sheen of ice on the water and it reflected what little light there was, casting an unearthly glow on the shore. At first he couldn’t see anything, but then he spotted it. An upturned wagon.
Three huddled forms beside it.
His boots couldn’t take him there fast enough.
His chatterin’ teeth were still whisperin’ prayers.
Hoss Cartwright looked around him at all the torn paper and empty boxes layin’ on the shore and sighed. If it had been any other time, he would have laughed at the sight, but right now he was too busy makin’ sure neither one of his brothers passed before someone could find them. There’d been presents for Miss Beth in the back of that wagon, along with Roy Coffee and Paul Martin’s wives. Adam was wrapped up in the sweater Pa’d had one of his lady friends pick out for the pie lady, and Little Joe was fairly swallowed up in long winter shawl meant for Missus Martin. There was a pair of gloves for Roy’s wife too – Adam was wearin’ them – and a new handbag for the Doctor’s missus.
He’d opened that right up and put it over Little Joe’s feet!
Yeah, the good Lord had been watchin’ out for them. Hop Sing had put a couple of food baskets in the bed as well. He’d used that food to feed his brothers, along with warmin’ them up with the last of the hot coffee from Mrs. Miller.
Now, all he could do was wait and hope….
Hoss sniffed and wiped a tear from his eye. He’d heard tell of other people havin’ Christmas miracles.
He figured their family was about due one.
After fixin’ up his brothers up as best he could, the big teen had plunked himself down beside them, linked his hands, and begun to pray in earnest, this time bypassin’ their mas and the angels, and goin’ right to the Big Man himself. Every once in a while, he’d rub his hands together to keep his fingers from freezin’. He hoped God didn’t mind.
Maybe, he could say it was what the preacher called ‘active’ prayin’.
Hoss looked at his brothers. Both of them were sleepin’ – or somethin’ worse. He wanted one of them to wake up and talk to him. All around him, the world had gone silent. Even the birds had stopped singin’. It was like the night done took a breath and was waitin’ on somethin’ to happen. There was a slight haze rollin’ off the water. It just about covered them. Hoss wondered how in the world anyone would ever find them where they was, way far down a hill, sittin’ in the mist and mud.
Then he heard it. A voice in the distance.
If that was one of them angels– or his mama – they sounded like they done went and got a frog in their throat.
It was harder to move than he’d expected, but he did it, lookin’ left and right.
The call came again. Closer this time.
Seconds later, the exhausted sixteen-year-old saw it.
His Christmas miracle.
Ben Cartwright stood in his office looking at the leather case that contained the painted image of his late wife and their three sons. He’d spoken to Hoss after coming home. The boy was certain he’d been visited twice by Marie, first on the road when she led him to his brothers and, later, on the beach, when she offered him comfort. And while he wasn’t exactly sure what he had seen, he wanted to believe it was the boys’ mother, sent from Heaven, to show him the way.
The way to save his sons.
Putting the case down, Ben moved into the great room. He breathed a sigh of relief and offered up a quick prayer of thanks at the sight of his three boys sound asleep. His sons had been half-frozen when he found them. Thank Heavens, none of them had been badly injured! Adam and Little Joe had sustained a few cuts and bruises, but that was all.
It could have been so much worse.
His middle son had been the only one awake to talk to him as he knelt beside the three boys on the shore. Hoss explained how, only a few short miles from home, the wagon’s horses had spooked and the terrified animals had taken his eldest and youngest sons down the hill toward what could easily have been their deaths.
It was nothing short of a miracle that the wagon had overturned where it did, which prevented them from plunging into the icy water of the lake.
Shortly after he found them, much to his relief, he’d heard voices on the road above. Raising his gun, he’d fired off three shots – the Ponderosa equivalent of a cry for help. Good old Hop Sing had thought of everything. His men arrived with containers of hot coffee and food, bandages and a medicine chest, and best of all, a hay-lined wagon with at least a dozen blankets to carry the boys home in. All three had slept through the short journey, Hoss and Adam, bedded down in the straw, and Joseph in his arms. His youngest awakened long enough to realize he was there and had latched onto him with the power of a grizzly. He’d held the boy until they arrived at the house, carried him in, and placed him on the settee next to his oldest brother. Adam would not go to bed. He insisted he was all right and needed to be there when Joseph awoke.
‘All right’ being a relative term.
As soon as they arrived, Ben sent one of the men to town to rouse Paul Martin and bring him out. All three of the boys came into the house soaked to the skin, with ice crystals hanging off of their chins and clothes. That was part of why he had left them where they were, near the fire in the great stone hearth. It was the warmest place in the house.
As the rancher stood there, watching his boys sleep, one of them stirred. Hoss lifted his head from where he lay in a nest of blankets on the floor and looked around as if confused. His son’s crystal blue eyes fastened on him and he gave him a little half-hearted smile. Ben signaled to the boy that he should join him near the tree. They’d put it up the week before and placed a second settee on the opposite side, in preparation for their Christmas celebration and the neighbors who would stop by.
Ben sat down and indicated that Hoss should do the same.
The boy let out a sigh as he did. “I gotta apologize, Pa,” he began.
“Not bein’ with Adam and Little Joe in the first place,” he confessed. “I shouldn’t ought to have gone off on my lonesome to see Ellie Miller.”
“I guess you’re right,” Ben responded. Hoss looked at him, startled. “After all, you do have that crystal ball that allows you to predict the weather,” he added with a grin.
“I guess I do at that,” the teenager laughed.
“Son, what happened was an accident. You’re not to blame anymore than your brothers are.” Hoss had told him about Little Joe and Adam’s misgivings. “Sometimes things just happen.”
“For the best, right?” the boy asked. “I mean, that’s what you’re always tellin’ us, that God means everythin’ for our best…even accidents.”
His mind inevitably flew back to his wife’s tragic fall. He wondered if Hoss’ had as well.
“I know it’s hard to believe at times, but…” Ben paused. “Tell me, what did you learn from the accident?”
“Never to leave my brothers alone for one instant.”
The rancher chuckled. “Besides that.”
Hoss was almost as deep a thinker as Adam, he was just less moody about it. His son pondered his words for a good minute before speaking.
“Well, I guess I learned a couple of things, Pa. I learned I was stronger than I think. I mean, about things happenin’ and not losin’ my head. I can tell you, I wanted to faint plumb away when I saw Adam lyin’ in the water under that wagon.”
“But you didn’t. You kept your head and you did what you had to do.”
“Like lettin’ Little Joe go under the water to free Adam.” Hoss turned eyes filled with pain on him. “That was one of the hardest things I ever done, Pa.”
“So, why did you do it?” he asked quietly.
His son let out a sigh. “I couldn’t have done it on my own. I felt… Well, sir, I felt like God was with me and everythin’ was gonna be all right.”
“So you learned to trust in God more. What else?”
The silence this time was lengthy and profound. Hoss’ voice was hushed as he spoke.
“I guess I learned that there’s things worse than dyin’. I mean, I knew I could die if I went in that water to help Adam, but it didn’t matter.” His son straightened up. “I know you don’t want to hear this, Pa, but if it came to it, I’d gladly die for Little Joe or Adam…or you.”
Ben placed a hand on his son’s shoulder. For a moment, he had no words. He wanted to say that he would do the same for him, but he wouldn’t diminish his son’s vow by doing that.
“I know you would, son. Your brothers know it too.”
Hoss looked at his hands. Then he sighed. “I sure am sorry about losin’ all them presents, Pa. Now all of our friends ain’t gonna get any.”
“I don’t know,” Ben said as he lifted his hand. “I think when our friends hear why they aren’t getting any, they will think they got the best present of all.”
His young son looked puzzled. “What present is that, Pa?”
“That they got to be a part of saving you and your brothers. That their presents, so trivial – given now, used up, and gone in a year or so – were part of an eternal chain.” His voice grew hushed as well. “That God used them as he used you, to bring about a Christmas miracle.”
“Ah, shucks, Pa,” Hoss said. “It weren’t nothin’.”
“Maybe not,” Ben replied. “But you are.”
The next night the Millers came by to sing them carols and bring them some Christmas cheer. By that time all three of the boys were sneezing and coughing, though Paul assured him they had colds and nothing worse. That alone was a miracle big enough for the next several Christmases! Martha Miller headed straight for Little Joe and, though the boy protested, he soaked up her motherly concern and love. The second miracle of the night was that Hank Miller had come. Since his accident in the spring Hank had been in a melancholy state. Now he talked of the coming spring and of how he might handle the day-to-day chores of the homestead from a rolling chair, if it came to that. He and Adam were deeply engaged in solving the world’s problems at the moment.
Well, he’d let his young ‘man’ go out onto the porch with Hank and Martha’s headstrong daughter.
For a long-delayed and rightfully earned Christmas kiss.
Tags: Adam Cartwright, Ben Cartwright, brothers, ESH, Hoss Cartwright, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright, SAS
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