Summary: A blizzard in the high Sierras is no place to spend Christmas Eve as Ben finds out. A Christmas tale.
Rating: K+ (4,650 words)
It was the day before Christmas and Ben Cartwright was a very long way from home. It was not by choice. There was little of more importance to the eldest member of the Cartwright clan, at this season of the year, than to be in the warm and loving company of his family. In fact, it was a matter of such importance to him, that he had been induced to take what had proved to be a very foolish and foolhardy risk.
His business with cattle buyers had dragged on a great deal longer than he had intended. The contract had been vital to the continued prosperity of the ranch. While the buyer’s agents had conducted protracted, long-distance, two-way conversations with their superiors on the coast, Ben had been forced to remain, cooling his heels, in Soronto. Then, with his affairs finally, and successfully, concluded, an old friend had unexpectedly fallen ill. He had felt compelled to stay until the crisis was past. The compounded delays had meant that by the time he set out for his home across the mountains, it was already dangerously late in the season.
Ben had known, with all his great wealth of experience, that it was too late in the year to attempt what was never an easy passage. It was only the late onset of the winter, resulting in no more than moderate snowfalls in the high passes, coupled with a soft-hearted desire to be home at Christmas that had induced him to undertake the journey.
For soft hearted, read softheaded, he thought gruffly. Here he was, half way up a mountain headed for the Devil’s Gate, caught in the middle of a blizzard.
At first, the sky over the mountain peaks had remained clear and blue. The wind, from the south, had been soft and almost balmy. Ben had been enjoying the trip. He had relished being on his own for a while after the busy social round of the big city.
Hunting for small game along the way and camping out in the forested foothills had been a pleasure, something of a rest cure for the soul. He had treated the trip as a holiday, and, he had to admit, he had not made the best time that he could.
Even when the wind had swung round to the west, and then to the northwest, he had not been unduly perturbed. The air had become bracing, if not chill, but by then, the mountains had been in clear view, and he knew the path well. He had not foreseen any difficulty in clearing the pass. Optimistically, he had pressed on, albeit at a rather faster pace.
He had not expected to be further slowed by a lame and limping packhorse. The animal had made halting progress through the high hills, and Ben knew, with hindsight, that he should have turned back then. It had been that idealized vision of a blazing log fire, a tall, decorated tree and the smiling faces of the people he loved that had overcome his good sense.
Now Ben was in serious trouble, and he had the intelligence to know it. Keeping to the pace of the lame horse had made him fall far behind his expected schedule. Even if the weather had remained clement, he would never have made the home ranges before the end of the year. Of course, the weather had not remained clement.
Winter had come to the southern mountains with a sudden, but not unpredictable, savagery. Ben, even after all the years he had lived with the turbulent, turning seasons, had been caught by surprise. The storm clouds had gathered swiftly around the peaks of the mountains and had swept down on him with little warning.
He had already ridden above the tree line and was on the exposed mountainside cut off from any possible refuge. He was following a known trail that switched back and forth among the rocks but none the less, climbed steadily towards the highest pass of all. About mid-morning the snow had started to fall; the large, soft flakes drifted lazily out of a now-leaden sky. Ben had looked at the lowering cloud base with foreboding. He had known then that the first of the true winter storms was upon him.
Rapidly, the snowfall had become heavier. The fluffy, white snowflakes settled onto ground already well chilled by several nights of hard frosts. They quickly formed a white carpet that muffled the sound of the horses hooves and concealed the stones that made them stumble.
Now it was afternoon and the snow was still falling thick and fast. It blinded Ben’s eyes. It reduced his seeing distance to only a few yards. Familiar landmarks became anonymous and distorted. It was only his intimate knowledge of the path and a certain innate instinct that kept him from straying to certain and instant disaster.
Progress was becoming ever slower. Both his horses were labouring through deepening snowdrifts, and to make matters worse – much worse – the wind was rising. It drove the snow down the mountain before it, turning the snowstorm into the a’fore mentioned blizzard.
A practical man in all respects, Ben acknowledged that in his anxiety to get home he had made a number of very serious mistakes: leaving Sonoro in the teeth of the winter, failing to turn back when the packhorse had stumbled on a rock and split a hoof, and now, getting caught high on the mountain in a rising storm. Facing facts, he knew that they were a series of errors that might well be about to cost him his life.
It occurred to him that he might be getting a little too old for this. A second thought, hard on the tail of the first, was that he might not grow much older.
If he were to stand any chance at all of survival, he had to get through the Devil’s Gate before nightfall. If he could do that, he might be able to find some sort of shelter in the lee of the mountain. He decided to do what he should have done a long time ago, and abandon the packhorse. Yet another mistake, he thought grimly.
He stepped down from the saddle and walked back to where the dark bay, shaggy-coated animal trailed miserably on the end of his lead rope. Briefly, Ben rubbed his nose with a gloved hand.
Hunched against the rising wind, he made a quick search through the various packs on the animal’s back. He selected only the basic necessities: blankets, the spare canteen, a little food, a canvas wrapped bundle of firewood. The rest of it, his clothing and the gifts he had bought for Christmas, the cooking equipment and the remainder of the food, he left with the horse.
Even with the most confident of outlooks, the chances of the crippled horse finding his way back off mountain and surviving the winter in the forests below were remote. Ben led the stricken beast to the side of the trail and did the best thing for it that he could. The shot sounded flat and muffled in the snowstorm. The horse dropped, and, at once, the snow started to drift over its legs.
Ben tied his few remaining possessions onto the back of the saddle horse, speaking to him kindly. The big buckskin was a willing sort, and he pricked his ears at the sound of the familiar voice. The animal trusted him, and Ben, somehow, felt humbled by that trust. By his own mule-headed Cartwright stubbornness he had got them both into this mess, and by heaven, he was going to get them out of it! He pulled his hat down over his eyes and shrugged his coat collar up around his ears. It did little good. The wind was in his face and it drove the snow under the brim of the hat and full into his eyes. Ben picked up the reins and with the same fierce determination that had carved an empire from a wilderness, he started up the trail.
It was an hour later, with the grey light becoming ever greyer as evening approached, that he realized that he wasn’t going to make it. It was still snowing, although not so hard, and the wind was gusting round the rocks. It picked up the freshly fallen snow and threw it back up into the air. That confused Ben’s sense of distance and direction. He knew only that the trail was still climbing, and that the pass was somewhere up above him.
Not only was it getting dark, it was also, inevitably, getting colder. Ben could feel the bite of it on the exposed skin of his face. His body, encased in long johns and long-sleeved vest, pants and over pants, woollen shirt and quilt-lined coat, gloves and muffler, was as warm as could be. He knew it would not last. It was the effort expended in walking that was keeping him warm. As the temperature fell further and his strength started to fail, the fatal chill would creep, almost unnoticed, into his bones.
He stopped for a moment to pull a bar of trail rations from the pack on the buckskin’s back. It was a hard-pressed chunk of nuts and dried fruit and it took a lot of chewing. He worked at it, knowing that it would provide almost instant energy. He picked up the reins again but found it hard to resume the upward climb.
He was no longer sure exactly where on the mountain he was. The snow had covered everything in an all-enveloping whiteness. Only the almost vertical faces of black rock stood out starkly in the gloom. The snow from earlier, lesser falls had compressed under its own weight into slippery patches that were treacherous underfoot for man and beast alike. More than once, Ben slipped to his hands and knees. Once, the horse went down heavily. It took all Ben’s strength and determination to get him back on his feet.
To keep his concentration, Ben began to count his paces. Five times over, he reached a hundred before starting again. On the next occasion he counted eighty-seven before losing his place. He had begun to wander from side to side in the trail. It was now totally dark. The night had crept up silently, stealthily, and it was still getting colder. Ben’s breath steamed from his open mouth.
Then he slipped again on the icy surface and almost fell headlong. He saved himself only with a gloved hand against the ground. This time he found it remarkably difficult to get up.
Unnoticed, the snow had stopped falling. The white flurries that blew through the air were entirely wind driven; they were picked up from the drifts and swirled around at head height before being deposited again to form other drifts. The wind made a lonely and hollow sound that filled a silence, otherwise populated only by the hiss of Ben’s own breath and the beat of his blood in his ears.
The sky was clearing rapidly, the storm clouds blown away to the south by high altitude winds. All around, the mountains were looming vastnesses of stone: majestic pillars of God’s creation holding up the black vault of heaven. Even as Ben watched, face upturned, the stars came out, one by one. They were hard, bright points of light that lit a harsh landscape with silver light.
The upward trail that Ben had followed all day was no more. It had ended in an almost flat plateau, and it was as if he stood on the roof of the world. From here, every path led downwards. He stood in the very jaws of the Devil’s Gate.
The pass was a mile wide and twice that across. It ran true northeast through the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was already well filled with snow. Just one more storm, and it would be blocked by drifts as high as a horse. A man’s body, lost up here, would not be discovered until the spring thaw. It was a thought that made Ben’s throat go dry. He wiped the back of a gloved hand across his mouth.
The wind had scoured paths among the drifts right down to icy bedrock. As Ben watched and the wind blew, the paths shifted and changed. It was said that there were more than fifty trails down from the mountain. Many of them were dead ends, or ended in drop-offs, or simply petered out on bare mountainside. It was the reason that the pass had been given its name – and come to earn a dread reputation. The trick was in deciding which of the paths were true and which false. In the starlight, with the wind blowing and the snow shifting, Ben couldn’t have said where the paths lay at all.
Standing still, the chill was seeping into his body. His feet were painful and his hands already numb. Looking down, he could see that the reins were wound securely around his gloved fingers. The buckskin horse still followed behind him, but his head was hanging down to his knees. To lead the animal down a half dozen blind alleys would be to lose him for sure.
Ben fixed determined eyes on a distant, familiar peak and, leading the horse, set out to cross the pass.
It was the wind, blowing steadily into his teeth, which ultimately defeated him. Each time he selected a path through the snowdrifts, the wind moved it, and then it howled in his ear with an insane, demonic laughter. Ben wandered until he was no longer even sure of his direction. By now, he had lost the feeling in his feet, and his legs had become leaden, unresponsive. He was starting to feel very tired. He looked up at the mountains, and they gazed back with dark, impersonal countenances.
Ben leaned against an outcropping of stark, black rock to rest, just for a moment. He no longer recognised any of the landmarks. The shifting snows, and the darkness, and his increasing mental confusion had robbed them of all familiarity. He shook his head, trying to clear his thought and to make sense of it all. He no longer felt especially cold. His arms and legs were without any feeling at all. His only real discomfort was the burning sensation that filled his chest with every breath.
Unable to decide which path to take next, he slid down and sat with his back to the rock. Not to sleep, he reminded himself firmly. As he had always impressed most forcefully upon the boys, to fall asleep in the cold was a fatal mistake. It was not one he was about to make himself. He had made just about enough mistakes, he figured, for one day.
He raised his face to the sky. A flare at zenith caught his attention. A shooting star; a bright light in the heavens on Christmas Eve. Ben followed its plummeting fall with his eyes until it was lost behind the mountains.
The long climb had made him so very weary. Ben settled himself down against the rock. It might have been an illusion, but it seemed a trace warmer here. At least it was sheltered from the wind. He knew he had to get moving again, to get home. If he rested for a little while he would recover all the strength he needed. Then he would walk down off this mountain, and he would ride home. Drowsily, his eyelids drooped.
He dreamed of home. He dreamed of the vast, comfortable ranch house. He had built it to stand against the cold, with double walls of split-pine logs around a solidly built hearth of grey stone blocks. How Elizabeth would have loved the house! His lips twitched at the thought. His beautiful, beloved, raven-haired Elizabeth! But Elizabeth was gone – dead so many years. A faint frown came to his face. Then there had been Inger: blonde, blue-eyed, bubbling with life. Inger had never seen the house. She had died before he had ever come to this land. Marie, sweet, petite, joyous Marie, she had known – and loved the house. She had made it bright with flowers and with laughter. But cruel fate had stolen her away as well. Ben rolled his head against the stone in grief and in misery. He had been left alone. Alone!
He shook his head, forcing his eyes open to look at the snow and the stone. Not alone! Each beautiful, loving woman had left him a son; three fine sons who had grown tall, like the pine, and as strong as the mountains. He had to get home to them. He had to get home in time for Christmas!
Ben was asleep, and dreaming of home, when a harsh voice spoke to him and rough hands shook him by the shoulders. He was not at all pleased. He was tired and comfortable. He had no desire whatever to wake up. He was shaken again, violently, and incomprehensible words were yelled into his face. Fingers were digging into his shoulder and his neck, hurting! Ben tried to push the hands away but they persisted. Irritated, he opened his eyes.
Someone was bending over him, a dark, human form against the brighter sky. Gloved hands were locked onto his shoulders. Loud, angry words were being shouted at him. He couldn’t make sense of them; couldn’t understand his assailant’s agitation. He could see that he was a big man all muffled up in heavy, winter clothing. A black hat was pulled a long way down over the eyes and a scarf wrapped around the lower part of the face. All Ben could see were the eyes. They gazed at him with intense concern. He knew those eyes. They belonged in a much-loved face. He struggled to make his mouth work.
“You got it in one, Pa. Come on, now. I’ve got to get you out of here.”
Ben tried to make it add up. It was Christmas, and Adam Cartwright, his eldest son, should be a hundred miles away beside a roaring log fire. Impossibly, he was here, halfway up a mountain, industriously rubbing the circulation back into his father’s legs.
“Adam?” Ben’s eyelids drooped again.
Adam pulled the muffler away from his mouth, and his breath steamed into the frosty night.
“Stay with me, Pa! Remember what you always told us about going to sleep on a mountain?”
The urgency in Adam’s voice got through, and Ben struggled manfully with the somnolence. “I remember,” he said thickly. “Not a good idea.”
“Not the best.” Adam smiled. His white, even teeth were stark in his shadowed face.
Finished working on Ben’s legs, he crouched beside him and took his arm across his broad shoulders. Ben couldn’t feel his limbs at all. Adam tried to lift him, but his father was a big man, and a dead weight.
“You’re gonna have ta help me here.”
Ben grunted and made an effort. Neither arms nor legs belonged to him, but he was willing to do as his son asked, if only because he asked it. With Adam’s help, he managed to get his feet under him and hauled himself erect.
“That’s the way.” Adam’s tone was encouraging. In fact, it was downright cheerful.
“Don’t patronize me!” Ben snarled with a trace of the old bite in his voice. He was still puzzling over how his son came to be there at all.
Adam settled his father’s arm more comfortably across his shoulders and put his free arm around his waist. “Just lean on me, and I’ll walk you out of here.”
Ben didn’t have a great deal of choice. He could feel the surging strength in his son’s body, holding him up and guiding him. All he had to do was to move his unresponsive legs in sequence.
With very little assistance from Ben, Adam half dragged, half carried his father down to his little campsite. He lowered the older man onto his own bedroll and covered him with every blanket he had. He built up the fire, put stones into the embers to warm and set water to boil. Then he peeled off his gloves and set to work in earnest.
Ben Cartwright woke only slowly from a deep, and not very comfortable, slumber. He had dreamed of a black beast with glowing green eyes that had been stalking him through the snow. He had the uncomfortable feeling that it had been pursuing him for a very long time. Waking was like swimming upwards through deep, dark water. The surface, brightly lit, was far above his head. His arms and legs moved only sluggishly, refusing to propel him with the speed he demanded. His lungs were bursting. If he breathed, he would surely drown. The surface rippled close to his face. He reached for it, but so slowly, too slowly! He had to fill his lungs!
Adam left his spot beside the fire and was at his father’s side in seconds. His expression, as he peered into Ben’s face, was clouded with concern. As soon as he saw the clarity in the older man’s eyes, it cleared.
“’Mornin’ Pa. Glad to see you’re still hanging in there.”
Ben grunted and tried to move. His outer clothes had been removed, and he was bundled up in blankets. What felt like hot rocks were packed against his legs and lower body.
Adam put a hand under his head and lifted it so that he could sip water. Ben managed a mumbled, “Help me sit up.”
Well used to his father’s dislike of being helpless, Adam obliged. He lifted Ben bodily and propped him against an upturned saddle. “How do you feel?” he asked, half-afraid of the answer he might get.
“Terrible.” In truth, Ben felt a lot better than he had any right to. He could feel his hands and his fingers inside the blankets, warm, if a little numb. His feet were another matter. “Toes hurt.” He said.
“Sit easy. I’ll take a look.”
Adam unwound some of the blankets and made an examination. When he had cut away his father’s boots and socks, some hours before, his feet had been an ugly blue colour and icily cold. While the older man had slept the deep, chill sleep, he had worked with his hands, massaging the circulation back into the tortured limbs. He had been glad, then, that Ben was comatose. The pain would have been excruciating. Then he had warmed them very slowly with rocks heated in the fire and wrapped in his own spare clothing. There had been a danger that his father would lose all his toes, if not his feet.
The frostbite had not been his principle concern. Ben’s body had been deeply chilled, and it had taken all Adam’s ingenuity and effort to warm him. What he found now offered some encouragement. Ben’s toenails were black and would doubtless fall off. His feet and toes were an angry pink, and the fact that they hurt was a good sign. The blood was flowing again.
“I think you’re going to be just fine. Could you use a little coffee?”
Ben favoured his eldest with a glare. “I thought you were never going to ask.”
With a grin, Adam rearranged the blankets and the warm stones and then went back to the fire.
Ben took the opportunity to look round. Adam had set up camp in a little depression somewhere just below the pass. Surrounding stones sheltered it from the wind. He saw the dark, shifting shapes of several horses. His own buckskin stood alongside his son’s chestnut gelding. Adam had made a second trip into the pass to recover the animal. In the centre of the circle the fire burned brightly, warming blankets and more rocks.
Adam returned with the coffee.
“Let me help you with this. It’s real’ hot.”
He was right. It was very hot, and strong, and black. It scorched its way into Ben’s belly and made him realize that he was still alive. He drank half of it before the lethargy overcame him again.
“What time is it?”
Adam looked at the sky. “A couple of hours ‘til dawn.”
“Mm.” Ben snuggled a bit further into the blankets. “Wake me up when it’s light. ‘Gotta get off this mountain before the next storm.”
“That’s about what I figured. Just as soon as you can sit a horse…” Adam looked at his father’s face. Ben wasn’t listening. Ben was asleep.
Smiling to himself, Adam changed the blankets and replaced the cooling stones with hotter ones. Then he returned to his place by the fire and resumed his vigil. He looked towards the distant, aloof peaks and the sky beyond, now lightening with the first glimmer of dawn. He reflected on how strange the workings of fate could be. Just as he had been about to lie down in his blankets to sleep that night, a bright light had flared in the sky – a meteor falling to earth beyond the mountains. It had stirred him to make one final climb up to the pass. If he had not, by now, his father would be dead.
The sun was full in Ben’s face when he woke up again. He wriggled inside his cocoon of blankets.
“Adam?” His voice had regained its strength. “Adam!”
Adam appeared from the direction of the picket line. “Hey, Pa! You ready to eat?”
“You bet your butt I am,” Ben grumbled. He was still struggling with the blankets. “Will you get me out of this?”
Adam unwound the blankets enough to free his father’s hands. Ben found his fingers swollen and clumsy. He was flexing them, stiffly, when Adam brought plate and spoon. He declined to be fed. The food was standard trail fare of beans and salt bacon. It was steaming hot. Adam watched him eat with a smile on his face.
“I’m afraid it’s not much of a Christmas lunch. It’s the best I can do in the circumstances.”
Ben remembered, abruptly, what the circumstances were.
“What in tarnation are you doing here? Half way up a mountain?”
Chewing, Adam looked at him. “We figured you’d try and get home for Christmas, no matter what. I thought I’d ride up a-ways and meet you.” Adam wasn’t about to reveal the furious argument he’d had with his brothers in the front yard of the house. Winter had long since come to the eastern side of the Sierras. It had been obvious to all of them that if their father tried to make a late crossing, he would be in big trouble. He certainly wasn’t going to mention how he’d pulled rank, as the eldest, for the privilege of being the one to make the trip. He knew he was going to get enough of a bawling out, just as soon as his Pa reckoned up the risks he’d taken.
Already, Ben was working it out. His dark eyes were furious. “You’re a damn fool, boy!”
Adam laughed. “I guess I learned it from a good man.”
Ben glared at him and then laughed, effectively disarming himself. “’Guess you’re right at that.” He handed back his plate. “As soon as you’re finished, we’d better get moving. There’s a fresh storm brewing up there.”
Ben lay back in his blankets and watched as Adam, with competent and economical movements, packed up camp. Soon, it would be time to wrap his swollen feet in strips of warm blanket and climb back aboard the horse. It was going to be a long and uncomfortable ride home, but Adam would be there to help him. That Christmas morning, Ben gave thanks to God for his own first born son.