Sleigh Bells, Rotgut, And Other Miracles (by pjb & dbird)

Summary:  In the middle of a snowstorm on Christmas Eve, in a line shack stocked with beans and rotgut, the Cartwrights are reminded of what truly matters.  

Rated: K+  WC 10,900

 

                      Sleigh Bells, Rotgut, And Other Miracles

 

Tiny pellets of icy snow stung Joe’s face. He squinted against the bitter wind as the horses trudged along the narrow, winding trail. The pain in his leg intensified each time the splint glanced off the horse’s side, but he was almost grateful for enough misery to keep him awake and in the saddle.

“Joe? You doing all right?” Pa called from behind.

Joe raised his hand in a bleak “yes,” but it was just a reflex. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d felt less all right. Worst of all, the whole thing was his fault.

They could have been home by now if it hadn’t been for him and his stupid idea. At this very moment, they’d have been riding into the yard, arguing over who would get the first bath. Even miles from home, in the frigid woods, Joe could almost smell the heady scent of bread baking and smoked ham that would have greeted them as they’d opened the door. Hop Sing would have grumbled at them for tracking muddy snow onto his clean floors, and he’d have shooed them out of the living room where the fire crackled and the glasses sparkled and the tree reigned, typically grand and glorious.

Joe closed his eyes for a moment, dreaming of the simple comfort of a hot bath as the knife-like wind picked up. A luxurious soak in steaming water, and then the fragrances of hair oil and Pa’s bay rum and that fancy cologne Adam wouldn’t let him touch would have mingled with the scent of cedar smoke and Hop Sing’s good cooking. Good-natured teasing would have filled the house as Joe tied Hoss’s tie and Pa looked for the bootblack and Adam checked his face in the mirror one more time to make sure he hadn’t missed a whisker. Finally, they would have stood together in the living room in front of that blazing fire with all their friends, toasting another year filled with yuletide blessings. Christmas Eve on the Ponderosa was a cherished tradition. Everyone looked forward to the annual festivities, the Cartwrights most of all. This year, despite the impromptu hunting trip, should have been no different.

But instead, they were out in the woods, with snow pelting them relentlessly as they struggled to reach shelter, and it was all Joe’s fault. Not that anybody had said so, but he knew the truth. Once again, Joe Cartwright had managed to mess up Christmas. Last year he’d dropped a Christmas tree on Pa’s foot, leaving his poor father to limp through the holidays. Hadn’t he learned his lesson? Couldn’t he do anything right?

He should have stayed home. That would have been the answer. Not that Hop Sing would have allowed it, of course. When Hop Sing had work to do, what he wanted most was to rid the house of Cartwrights. Work to do! That’s what Hop Sing had to say about the matter. He would shoo them from one part of the house to another, impatiently flicking his hands as if his employers were misbegotten chickens to be swept back into their coop. The hunting trip had seemed like the best solution to get out of Hop Sing’s way. Plus, as his father had noted, it would give them some time together, a treasured commodity that was always lacking during the busier seasons of the year.

Even though they hadn’t managed to catch the puma, it had been an enjoyable trip. They’d laughed uproariously over stories told over the campfire. Even Adam, who had spent the autumn overseeing a particularly rough team of men up at the timber camp, began to relax, entertaining them by acting out scenes from a play he’d seen during the summer in San Francisco. It had been a good trip, a good time, a success in its own right.

If only they could have caught that puma. . . .

Joe hated not getting what he was after. It taunted him, even as he laughed at Adam’s reenactment of a Russian hat salesman. Not catching that puma bothered him when he woke up in the morning and when he saddled up his horse for home. It was silly, he knew. If Pa and his brothers could put the defeat aside, so should Joe. There were more important things to worry about. It was Christmas Eve, and they were going home. If the puma was still around in the spring, they’d worry about it then.

Yet, the thought of going home to that party and having to tell sweet Emma Lee that he’d let that cat get away. . . .

The idea had come to him when they were riding home, as their horses stepped carefully through the snowdrifts that covered the road. That puma was out there. Joe could feel it under his skin. I’ll climb up to the peak, Pa-I’ll see that puma from there for sure. Only take a minute. They’d tried to argue him out of it, but he’d just laughed. Nobody was more surefooted than Little Joe Cartwright. His family had joked over the years that he must be part mountain goat. If anybody could climb up that peak, it was Joe. And so he set off to climbing.

But he hadn’t reckoned on the ice that hid under all that newly fallen snow. He’d almost reached the top when he spotted the cat. Shouting for the others to get ready, he reached to pull himself up just a bit more, and his hand met ice instead of rock. And that was all it took.

He couldn’t remember falling, but he remembered hearing his family shout his name. The next thing he knew, he was sprawled out on the snow, some fifteen feet down from where he’d started. His hat was gone, and the snow was soaking into his hair and the back of his neck. The trees above him were tunneling out of focus. Pain cut through his leg like a dagger as blood soaked through his pants into the snow. As his pa and brothers hovered blurrily over him, asking him questions he couldn’t quite understand, he remembered the summer when he was ten and had fallen out of the Nelsons’ apple tree. Way back then, he’d known his leg was broken without anyone having to tell him. It was the same now.

And just like that, everybody stopped talking about getting home for Christmas.

They were at the farthest edge of the Ponderosa, almost a full day’s ride from home even in good weather. In this storm, with Joe hurt, it was all but certain they weren’t getting home any time soon. At best, Adam thought they might be able to make it to the nearest line shack before dark.

Joe shivered as the sharp wind snuck in between his collar and his muffler. He wished they’d found his hat. Adam and Hoss had set and splinted his leg as he lay in the snow, his head on Pa’s lap. He remembered talk about building a travois, but eventually, they’d lifted him onto his horse with promises that it wouldn’t be too long before they were safe and out of the cold. Nobody mentioned a word about “home.”

It seemed like forever since they’d started out. Only the balance honed by a lifetime of riding kept him in the saddle. Each time the horse took a step, Joe’s head pounded with the movement, but that was nothing compared to the fire in his leg. Because of the swelling, Adam had cut his boot off. Hoss had wrapped his foot up in a saddle blanket and tied it over the splint, but he could feel the blanket sliding down. It came to him that he couldn’t feel his foot any more. Panicked, he jerked the reins so hard that his horse stopped. He could end up losing his foot, or even his leg because of his own stupid decision. Nausea overwhelmed him, and he yanked off his muffler, clinging to Cochise’s mane as he leaned over to retch.

“Are you all right, son?”

Too dizzy and sick to answer, Joe nodded. The next thing he knew, his pa was beside him, handing over a canteen.

“Thanks,” Joe whispered. He drank just a little bit and handed it back. He heard his brothers calling out something over the wind, and his pa assuring them that Joe was all right. Then, with one last pat on Joe’s arm, Ben turned his horse, and they resumed their snowy trek.

Joe was drifting in and out of sleep when his horse stopped again. “Come on,” he muttered, kicking with his good leg. “Let’s go.”

“We’re here,” Adam told him, with a peculiar gentleness. To the others, he added, “Get Joe inside. I’ll get a fire started.”

By the time Hoss and Ben had gotten Joe down from his horse and into the shack, Adam had managed to get a fire going in the stove, and the air filled with smoke and dust. They settled Joe on the room’s lone cot, and he closed his eyes, gratitude and relief battling it out with guilt over the fix they were in. He tried to pant through the pain, but it wasn’t enough.

“Okay, let’s see that leg,” said Hoss, gently moving their pa aside. He untied the pieces of string that had held the splint in place and lifted the bloodstained flaps of Joe’s torn pant leg and long johns. Carefully, he unwrapped the blanket around Joe’s foot. “Bring that lamp over closer,” he said. His blunt fingers traced the bruising around the gash where the bone had come through the skin. An exposed bone meant the risk of infection was high. But Hoss didn’t flinch, or even comment. Instead, he turned his attention to Joe’s foot. The foot was gray and cold.

“What do you think?” asked Adam.

“I don’t like it,” said Hoss. His eyes were sober as he met Joe’s. “I ain’t gonna lie to you, Little Brother,” he said. “You got yourself in a pickle this time.”

“Hoss,” Ben remonstrated, and Joe watched as the rest of his family carried on a silent conversation with their guarded looks. He felt his stomach lurch again, and he closed his eyes, not wanting to know what they were afraid to say.

“You think one of us should try to get to town for the doctor?” suggested Adam in a low voice.

“Not tonight,” said Ben firmly. “Tonight, we’re all staying here. Come daylight, we can see whether the trail is passable.” He turned to his older sons. “You two tend the horses. I’ll see to Joe.”

His brothers hesitated only a moment before tramping back out into the blistering cold. Ben watched them go before he sat on the edge of the cot, his back to Joe’s head. “Tell me when I’m touching your foot,” he said.

Joe waited for what seemed a long time. Finally, as he felt fingers tapping on his heel, he said, “Now.” When his pa stood up without comment, Joe shivered for reasons having nothing to do with the cold.

By the time Hoss and Adam came in, Ben had tied up the splint again. The blanket on the cot was peppered with moth holes, but he drew it over Joe, tucking it snugly around his son’s foot. “You just take it easy,” he said, stroking the boy’s wild curls.

“How is he?” asked Adam, as if Joe wasn’t there to answer for himself.

“I’m fine,” Joe snapped irritably, ducking out from under his father’s hand. He knew what was coming. Sooner or later, somebody was going to point out that this whole ridiculous predicament was his own damned fault. And they would be right.

“His foot’s numb. I can’t tell if there’s frostbite.” With a sigh, Ben straightened the blanket, wishing it was thicker. “We’ll see how the leg is tonight. Hopefully, we can start for home tomorrow morning and get it taken care of.”

“Tomorrow morning,” Hoss said mournfully, suddenly reminded of what they were missing on Christmas Eve. He poked around the shelves in the corner of the shack, while lamenting, “Hop Sing said he was gonna bake a ham and roast a turkey for the party.” He peered into a large burlap sack and shrugged. “We got beans.”

“Beans,” repeated Adam with no inflection at all. “No jerky?”

“I got some in my saddlebags,” Hoss said. “There’s some coffee here-nope, sorry,” he added as he opened the canister. “Just a few grounds left. An’ there’s a bottle of rotgut, and something orange in a jar, but I can’t tell what it is.”

“A veritable feast,” Adam noted dryly. “What else do we have?”

“I’ve got some jerky in my saddlebags,” Ben offered. He positioned himself at the end of the cot and reached under the blanket, cupping his hands around Joe’s foot in an effort to warm it as best he could.

“How ’bout you, Shortshanks?”

“I don’t remember.” Joe gestured towards the front door where they’d heaped all their supplies. “See what’s there.”

Hoss poked through one of Joe’s saddlebags. “You got three shirts, some long johns, and two pairs of socks. What’d you think you were doin’? Goin’ to a dance with that there puma?”

“Check my other bag.” Joe fought to keep his voice under control. Would the day ever end? He was tired and hurting badly, and now to top it off, his brothers were going through his saddlebags to find God only knew what. He closed his eyes, half-hoping that the pain would knock him back into unconsciousness.

What the hell had he been thinking when he packed? Easy answer: he’d been thinking about Emma Lee Hansen. He’d been thinking about blond curls that brushed his hand as he helped her with her coat after church that morning, and blue eyes that almost dared his hands to linger on her shoulders. It had been all he could do not to lean in and kiss her then and there, right in front of God and the entire churchgoing population of Virginia City, including her parents and his pa. As he’d packed for a hunting trip that no longer seemed nearly as interesting, he’d consoled himself with the thought that Emma would be at their party, waiting to celebrate his triumph. He imagined taking her hand to lead her off the dance floor and maybe this time, not letting go. And then-well, even their parents couldn’t object to a simple Christmas kiss. With that kiss in mind, who wouldn’t have packed an extra shirt or two? It was only practical.

“Well, here’s something interesting,” said Adam, breaking into Joe’s reverie. He’d taken the saddlebags from Hoss, and now he was holding up Joe’s tie. “Think we can boil it with beans?”

“You brought a tie?” Hoss couldn’t help himself. He doubled over with laughter. “Always knew you were a dandy, Little Brother, but I never thought you’d be tryin’ to impress no puma!”

“I didn’t know if there’d be time to change before the party.” It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but even Pa was smiling. “Didn’t want to come back looking like a trail hand.”

“Any chance you packed any food for the trip, son?” Ben teased lightly.

“Of course, I packed food.” He tried to sound sure of the matter, but the truth was that Joe couldn’t remember what he’d packed. He only hoped that he hadn’t packed the note Emma Lee had passed him after the opening prayer. If his brothers found that perfumed letter, he’d never hear the end of it, and he was too tired to hear much of anything. It was a wonder they hadn’t smelled it on the trail. He tried wiggling his toe, and pain jolted through his leg, so sharp that for a second, it took his breath away. He didn’t even want to know if that was a good or a bad sign.

“Wait, he’s got-looks like four pieces of jerky here,” said Adam. “And an apple.” He tossed Joe’s saddlebags on the pile of gear.

“Well, there you go,” Joe said, managing a smile. “Something for each of us.”

“Christmas Eve supper out of a saddlebag,” agreed Adam, shaking his head. Even after a lifetime of living with his oldest brother, Joe couldn’t tell if Adam was angry or amused, or maybe some inscrutable mood in between.

“Well, it ain’t like-” Hoss cut himself off. He’d been about to make a crack about how it wasn’t his fault they were spending Christmas Eve in a line shack, but Joe looked so miserable that he couldn’t bring himself to point out the obvious.

“Hand over the jerky,” he said gruffly to Adam instead. “Let’s see if I can’t do somethin’ with that. Besides, we got beans.”

Adam handed it over. As Hoss busied himself with their meager offerings, Adam took the opportunity to take a hard look at his little brother. The kid was hanging onto the sides of the cot like he was trying to stay on a bucking horse, and his jaw was clenched so tight that Adam could see the tense muscles even in the light of the lantern.

Without comment, Adam reached for the rotgut and uncorked the dusty bottle. He gave it a skeptical sniff, grimacing as he sat on the edge of Joe’s cot.

“Drink up, kid,” he said. “It’s Christmas Eve.”

“Adam,” their pa warned, reaching for the bottle, but Adam aimed a meaningful look at the splinted leg under the gray blanket, and Pa’s hand dropped in tacit acknowledgement.

Joe was just about to protest that he didn’t need anything and that he was just fine, but he realized that his objection was so absurd that it probably wasn’t worth mentioning. So, he raised himself up on an elbow and took the bottle from Adam, ignoring fumes that made his eyes water. Manfully, he took a swig of whiskey, fighting like crazy to keep from spitting it out. He’d never actually tasted kerosene, but he’d have bet that it tasted pretty much like this homemade swill. The whiskey burned something fierce going down, but it blazed a warm trail in his belly that was unexpectedly soothing.

“Better?” Adam asked calmly, but Joe didn’t bother answering. He took another drink instead. Pa reached between them and took the bottle before he could take a third helping.

“That’s enough,” said Ben. The last thing they needed was for Joe to get sick from bad liquor on top of everything else. His heart wasn’t in the warning, though. With a sigh, he looked down at his son’s poor broken leg and half-frozen foot. Before he could stop it, a vision flashed through his mind of Doc Martin shaking his head sadly as he told them he’d done all he could to save the leg, but. . . .

Merry Christmas, he thought with uncharacteristic bitterness.

Immediately, he admonished himself for his lack of faith. After all, Christmas was all about the unexpected. It was about unlikely stars and manure-strewn barns and shepherds who had no business welcoming a king. Miracles. And if his boy needed a miracle-well, this was the perfect time. They were all tired and cold and hungry, and it was easy to see problems that weren’t even there. Come morning, they’d figure out what to do next.

His mind made up, Ben took a modest sip from the squat, dusty bottle. The whiskey was a far cry from the good brandy waiting in the cabinet at home, but right now, he couldn’t be picky. It was likely to be a long, hard night, and warmth was going to be hard to come by. He passed the bottle back to Adam, who gave his father a curious look, but put it back on the shelf without comment.

Hoss fussed over the fire, still sputtering from the wet wood, while Adam went out to fill the lone cast iron pot with snow to melt so they could cook the beans. Fortunately, the shack was well stocked with oil for the lantern, and they could still see in the failing light. It wasn’t much of a Christmas Eve celebration, but they were out of the cold, and that was something.

Joe lay back, ignoring the quills that pricked through the thin ticking of the mattress. He was feeling light-headed again, but that was fine by him. If he’d ruined Christmas for all of them, he’d just as soon not think of it. He wanted to ask Adam for more whiskey, but the blasted rotgut was already taking effect, and his eyes closed of their own accord, even as he struggled to remember where Adam had gone, anyway.

Adam slipped back inside and shook the snow from his hair. “The wind’s really picking up,” he said to Hoss as he set the pot of snow on the stove. “Wouldn’t be surprised if we get another foot of snow tonight.”

“Think we’ll make it out in the morning?” Hoss asked quietly, trying not to disturb their little brother or alarm their pa, who both seemed to have dozed off. He drew a deep breath. Adam was the only one he could have said this to, and even so, he wasn’t sure he wanted to say the words in case saying made them true. He felt his brother’s eyes on him, questioning, as he poked unnecessarily at the fire. Finally, he straightened and forced the words out: “I ain’t sure Joe’s gonna be able to wait out the storm. If that leg gets infected. . . .”

“I know it,” Adam agreed. The brothers regarded each other all too seriously, not needing to say anything more. Then, Adam nodded, his mind made up. “Tell Pa I went for help, and tell Joe-tell him merry Christmas for me.”

“No one is going anywhere!” Their father’s voice, low and emphatic, startled both of them. They’d been talking as quietly as they could, and they hadn’t heard him come up behind them. It was always astonishing how Ben Cartwright could shout while keeping his voice a hair above a whisper. “I am not having either one of you riding out in this weather. Tomorrow morning, we’ll sort out what we’re going to do.”

“But, Pa-tomorrow’s Christmas.”

Hoss couldn’t imagine why he’d said it. Just like he was a kid again. It wasn’t like the others didn’t know. And it wasn’t like it was going to make a difference for Little Joe whether it was Christmas or the Fourth of July or just some ordinary day. If Joe lost his leg, the last thing anybody would care about was what day it was.

Still, the idea of not getting home for Christmas at all left him with an ache that took him by surprise. He bowed his head, his cheeks reddening. He was a grown man. Where did it come from-the sudden grief at being away from home on Christmas? But in the next moment, he understood. The ache went deeper than missing Christmas. His little brother was in trouble-bad trouble-and Hoss didn’t know how to fix it, or whether anybody even could.

Just stop it, he told himself firmly. Nothing bad could happen on Christmas, could it? Wasn’t that how things were supposed to work out?

Ben couldn’t keep the irritation from his voice. “I’m very aware that tomorrow is Christmas, Hoss. I also know this is Christmas Eve, and this is not how anyone-including your younger brother-wants to spend the evening. At this moment, Bert Abele is likely finishing off the last of the eggnog, and Mrs. Sanders is probably leading carols in front of the hearth. Don’t you think we would all like to be home, enjoying the holiday with our friends?”

“That would be nice,” Adam agreed. “Although I could live without Mrs. Sanders’ caroling. The woman sounds like a coyote when she hits her high notes.” Ben frowned at him, and Adam shrugged, inviting his father to disagree if his conscience allowed.

“And don’t forget ’bout Hop Sing,” Hoss added. “He makes the best doggone ham in the whole territory. And don’t forget the turkey, neither.”

“Nobody’s forgetting the turkey,” Adam said. “For heaven’s sake, is food all you ever think about?”

“Well, dadburnit, can you think of a better reason to be at our Christmas party than Hop Sing’s cooking?” Hoss retorted.

“I can think of a dozen better reasons.” Adam crossed his arms and seated himself on the cold, dirty floor. “Civilized conversation, for one thing. A chair would be even better. I don’t think that’s asking too much of Christmas Eve.”

“What in tarnation’s wrong with our conversation?” demanded Hoss.

Adam rolled his eyes. “Nothing that some music and rum-laced punch couldn’t fix.”

Hoss was already sitting as close to the stove as he could get without scorching himself. The lid to the iron pot rattled, as the water foamed and hissed underneath. The air in the line shack felt musty and warm.

“I reckon that ain’t too much to ask,” Hoss admitted. He craned his neck to see around his father. “Little Joe still asleep?” He didn’t want his brother to hear them complaining. Even with half-cooked beans, rotgut and no chairs, they were still having a much better night than Joe.

Ben looked over his shoulder and nodded. His son was pale and gray under the blankets. “I hope he sleeps through the night. I can’t imagine how much pain he must be in.”

“What was he thinking, anyhow?” Hoss mused, half to himself. Bad enough he’d had to watch Joe scaling that wall of ice, but the sight of his little brother falling backward through the air was seared into his brain. Hoss shook his head as if that would erase the memory. “Dadburned fool thing to do,” he muttered.

Ben was about to say that there was no point in discussing it. What was done was done. There were times he wanted to shake his boy hard enough to rattle his teeth, but for the moment, all he could think of was whether Joe would ever walk again.

But Adam had been rifling through the saddlebags to see if there were any supplies he’d overlooked. From Joe’s bag, he pulled out a tinted sheet of stationery. “Well, this might have something to do with Little Brother’s sudden display of heroics,” he said. He began to unfold the letter with a raised eyebrow.

“Adam, that’s none of our business,” Ben chided, holding out his hand. “Give it to me, or put it away.”

Hoss had to grin, even though he was tired enough to go to sleep right then, hanging from the rafters. “Aw, come on, Pa. Little Joe wouldn’t mind, seeing as he’s how come we’re stuck here tonight. We need something to keep us going. I’ve been lookin’ forward to our Christmas Eve shindig since last summer.”

“We could use a little entertainment,” Adam added, trying to suppress a smile. Joe’s love life was nothing if not entertaining-better than any traveling play he’d ever seen at Piper’s Opera House. Keeping track of the rotating cast of characters was a challenge, but Joe was always so absolutely certain that his current young lady was the love of his life that his brothers and father couldn’t help but be drawn into the inevitable drama-and the equally inevitable comedy when Joe determined that he’d made a slight error in judgment and needed to extricate himself from the young lady’s clutches.

“Your brother’s private correspondence is his own business,” Ben admonished his oldest sons, taking the note. In truth, Ben was a bit exasperated. One minute, they were as worried as he was, and the next, all they wanted was to see what some girl had written to their little brother. He caught a whiff of the letter as he slipped it into his vest pocket. Shaking his head, he admitted, “This young lady is a little exuberant with the perfume, isn’t she?”

Hoss and Adam both smiled at that. They could smell lavender over the wet, dank aroma of boiling beans.

“At least tell us who it is,” Hoss cajoled. “He didn’t even tell me he was sparkin’ anyone this month.”

“We’re not asking for much,” Adam pointed out to their father, and Hoss nodded his vigorous agreement.

When Ben crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head, Adam sighed and reached for the bottle of rotgut. He figured it was probably safe to drink it. After all, Joe and his father weren’t showing any signs of being poisoned by the concoction. If they weren’t going to get to read about Joe’s love life, he might as well give the whiskey a try.

Before Ben could chastise his older sons, a low moan from the cot stole his attention. Beans, whiskey and love letters were forgotten.

“How do you feel, Joseph?” Ben bent over his son, absurdly hoping he didn’t smell like lavender. Joe didn’t need to know they’d found the note.

“Been better.” Joe cracked a small smile, even though it clearly cost him. “Foot hurts something fierce.”

“That’s probably a good sign,” Ben conceded. “Can you feel your toes yet?” He pushed aside the blanket and ran his fingers slowly down the sole of Joe’s foot.

“Not yet,” said Joe. “I feel that,” he added as Ben touched the arch of his foot.

“That’s better than before,” said Ben, masking his relief. Even if the progress seemed minimal, it was still an improvement.

“The color’s better, too,” Adam observed. The exposed foot was indeed more red than gray now.

“Well, we’ll just keep your foot wrapped up so that it stays warm, and hopefully, it’ll be back to normal by morning,” Ben said. He started to draw the blanket over his son, but Hoss stopped him.

“Pa, we should try to clean out that leg a little better,” his middle son said. “We only used water before. We should clean it with alcohol.”

Ben ran his hands over his eyes. He knew Hoss was right, but he wasn’t looking forward to it. Judging by the apprehensive look he was aiming at his brother, neither was Joe.

“Son, your brother’s right,” said Ben, his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “We’ve got to try to clean out your leg as best we can. Unfortunately, all we’ve got is that whiskey.”

“It’s probably better for cleaning than drinking anyway,” Joe said dryly. “I’ll bet that stuff would take the paint off a wagon.” His brothers grinned at him approvingly. Joe was a Cartwright, and Cartwrights had grit.

“All right, then. You just hold on as tight as you can. I promise, it’ll be over in a minute.” Ben held Joe’s hands as Hoss and Adam unfastened the splint. “On three, now. . . .”

It felt like a lifetime, but it was over before that, and Hoss and Adam finished resetting the splint.

“Good work, boys,” Ben said, nodding over his shoulder to his older sons. Gently, he extricated his hands out of Joe’s viselike grip. “You did just fine, Joe,” he said, trying not to let his son see him flexing his fingers. “Now, you lie back and get some sleep, okay?”

“What time is it?” Joe asked, trying to get his breathing in order. He’d sooner drink every drop in the wretched bottle than go through that again. If he’d thought his leg felt like it was on fire before, that was nothing compared to having the open wound doused in alcohol.

“I don’t know,” said Ben. A thought occurred to him. “Do you think you could eat something? The beans should be ready by now.”

“I’m not hungry,” said Joe. They were going to have beans for supper, while all their guests feasted on ham and turkey. He was starting to feel sorry all over again. The beans, the snow, even the dust all danced mockingly in this farce of Christmas Eve. It wasn’t fair to any of them. He might have brought this on himself, but his family deserved better.

“You should get something in your stomach,” Ben said. “Afterwards, we can give you some more of that whiskey, and you can go back to sleep.”

“Pa really likes that whiskey,” Adam offered, with an unreadable expression on his face. “He wants to get a whole case of it for next year’s Christmas party.” Ben stared at him, startled, but the slight smile that quirked the corners of Joe’s mouth was Adam’s reward.

“I can see why Pa likes it,” said Joe, matching his brother’s deadpan tone. “It’s got a kick like a big old mule.”

“That would be some mule,” Ben replied mildly. “Hoss, are those beans ready yet?”

Hoss stirred the pot. “Not yet,” he said. “A little while longer. Why don’t we have some jerky while we wait?”

“Ah, yes,” said Adam. “Nothing quite like an appetizer of jerky made from the finest beef the Ponderosa has to offer, followed by an entrée of freshly cooked beans-what kind were they, Hoss? Pea beans? Pinto?”

“They’re just beans, Adam.” Hoss shrugged and looked over in bewilderment. His brother had come back from Boston downright peculiar.

“Fine. Freshly cooked beans it is, seasoned with Christmas snow-and, of course, a nightcap of the most excellent whiskey this establishment has to offer.” Adam continued with mock formality, “And perhaps Tiny Tim will entertain us with a song.”

“Tiny who?” Hoss was starting to look worried about his older brother as well as his younger one.

“Little Joe, Tiny Tim-what’s the difference?” Adam shrugged.

“What’s the difference? Who’s this Tiny Tim, anyway? And how much of that stuff did you drink?” Hoss had always thought Adam could hold his liquor better than the rest of them, but maybe he was wrong.

Adam sighed with exaggerated patience. “Tiny Tim was the son of Ebenezer Scrooge’s clerk in Mr. Dickens’ classic story about Christmas,” he explained. “Like our brother, Tiny Tim was the youngest in his family, and he also had a bum leg. Of course, I don’t recall anything about Tiny Tim drinking whiskey straight from a bottle, but sometimes, one must improvise.”

“Doesn’t Tiny Tim die in that story?” Joe asked with narrowed eyes.

“Only until Scrooge redeems himself,” Adam explained. “Then he alters Tiny Tim’s fate, and he and the kid end up living happily ever after.”

“Pa, do you understand anything they’re talkin’ about?” demanded Hoss.

“It has been a while,” Ben admitted. “But if I recall correctly, there’s a scene in that book where the family is celebrating Christmas, and Tiny Tim sings a song. I think that may be what your brother is referring to, although I have no idea why.”

“Exactly!” Adam gestured dramatically. “And here we are at Christmas in less than ideal circumstances, so naturally, our own Tiny Tim should sing for us.”

“Joe?” Hoss stared, horrified. “Dadburnit, Adam, Joe can’t sing any better than I can!”

“Speak for yourself,” retorted Joe, glaring at his big brother. “I sing just fine! You’re the one who couldn’t carry a tune if we nailed it to your backside!”

“You better watch yourself, Little Brother-you’re gettin’ kinda ornery!” Hoss flashed a quick grin at his eldest brother. Keeping Joe distracted seemed to be helping. He started to turn back to the beans, but inspiration struck. Waving the spoon at them, Hoss announced, “And mebbe I can’t sing, but I sure can tell a story a whole heck of a lot better than that Dickens feller.”

“Well, that should be interesting,” said Adam. He commandeered the bottle and settled himself next to the cot. Lightly, he cuffed Joe’s shoulder. “You want some whiskey? For the pain or Hoss’s story-your choice.”

“Adam. . . .” Ben had to chuckle, even as he eyed his youngest son taking another mouthful of the whiskey. “Go ahead, Hoss, tell us your story.”

Hoss cleared his throat with a good helping of ado and waited until they were all listening. “All right then,” he said. “Now, time for my story. Once upon a time, there was a great big man who was just as nice a feller as you’d meet in a day’s walk.”

“Gee, who do you suppose he’s talking about?” Adam said to Joe. To Hoss, he added, “How about a calm, impressive, well-educated man? Where would he fit into the story?”

Considering that it had been such an unfortunate day, Adam was in a remarkably good mood. But Hoss frowned and chided, “Lookee here, Adam, this here’s my story. You can be impressive and well-educated in your own story!”

“I suppose that’s fair,” Adam said, winking at his father.

Unruffled, Hoss continued. “Anyhow, the nice feller had a brother who was just about as ornery as anybody ever was. This here poor feller tried everything he could to get his brother not to be so ornery. He helped him unpack his saddlebags, and he cooked him beans, and he even made sure the ornery brother had all the whiskey he could drink, but the ornery brother was still ornery.”

“Maybe he had a good reason,” suggested Adam, looking meaningfully at Joe’s splinted leg.

“Well, that was what everybody said, but still, the nice feller wanted to make his brother not be so ornery,” said Hoss. “So, he thought and he thought and he thought.”

“That must have taken weeks,” interjected Adam, and this time, Joe grinned.

“Finally, the nice feller had an idea,” said Hoss, ignoring Adam. Nonchalantly, he took a tin plate from the shelf and opened the door, leaning out into the cold and scooping it full of snow. “He figgered that what would make the ornery brother happy would be a nice big plate of snow.”

Ben frowned. “Hoss, what are you talking about?”

“Hoss, don’t do it,” said Adam, suddenly serious. Joe looked confused, as if he couldn’t possibly have heard right.

But Hoss didn’t seem to be paying attention to any of them. He strolled over to the cot with his plate of snow, saying “So, the nice feller took a big plate of snow, and-”

“I mean it,” warned Adam, standing between Joe and the plate. He didn’t know what Hoss could be thinking, but this wasn’t going to be funny. Joe wasn’t up for this kind of horseplay, and Hoss knew it.

“And quick as a wink, the nice feller dumped all that snow down his brother’s new shirt!” Before Adam could move, Hoss grabbed his collar and dumped the whole plate of snow down the back of Adam’s shirt.

The holler that followed was neither calm nor particularly well-educated, but it was most definitely impressive. Blustering, Adam stripped off his shirt and undershirt, flinging snow everywhere as laughter roared through the tiny room. Melting snowflakes dripped down his shoulders, and he was ready to take a swing at his large brother until he heard Joe’s giggle over Hoss’ guffaws and Pa’s restrained laugh.

“I never said that nice feller only had one brother,” said Hoss, eyes shining with his triumph. Even if it was just for a minute, he’d gotten Joe to laugh.

“No, but the little brother might only have one brother when this ornery brother is through with him!” Adam shook the remaining snow out of his shirt and hung it on the stove to dry. He tried to hold his glare, but he couldn’t keep a straight face.

“Now, Little Brother, you tell me-warn’t that just the best story you ever heard?” Hoss beamed at Joe, draping his arm around Adam’s bare shoulders.

“That was a darned fine story,” agreed Joe sleepily. “Especially the ending. Old Shakespeare himself couldn’t have done better.” He yawned. “Hey, Older Brother, what do you think? Was that a comedy or a tragedy? I remember when you tried teaching me ’bout that stuff.”

“It might be a history once I get even with Hoss,” Adam said, looking mock-threateningly at his huge grinning brother. “I must say, though, I’m impressed that you remember anything I taught you. Do you remember about the difference between a comedy and a tragedy?”

Eyes barely open, Joe mumbled, “Tragedy-everybody dies. Comedy-everyone gets married.”

Adam was obviously pleased that his instruction had stuck for a change. Without thinking, he said, “So how’s this night going to end? Are we going to get a happy ending?” Almost as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he wanted to take them back, even before his father’s sharp look reprimanded him.

But Joe answered, “Well, I ain’t getting married any time soon, so I guess it’s not looking real good, is it, Brother?”

“All right, boys, that’s enough,” said Ben, glowering at Adam. It was the thing he’d never been able to understand about his boys-how they could sidle up to so much pain and tragedy and then laugh it off. He didn’t find anything funny about the situation they were in, but his sons were all happy with each other again. Ben had never been particularly close to his own brother, so he was often both moved and bewildered by the ever-changing relationship between his three sons. “Let’s get Joe something to eat, so he can get some sleep.”

“I wouldn’t rule out that marriage bit just yet. That letter Adam found might say something different.” Hoss was still mighty pleased with himself and wasn’t ready to let it go.

Joe’s eyes opened, his good mood gone. “You had to find that letter,” he said, groaning. “This is definitely gonna be a tragedy, ’cause as soon as I can get off this bed, I’m going to have to kill both of you.”

Adam and Hoss exchanged a quick look. Calmly, Adam said, “Don’t worry, Joe. We didn’t read it.”

“I’ll bet,” muttered Joe, looking miserably out the grime-streaked window into the dark.

“They didn’t read it, son,” Ben assured him. He pulled the letter out of his pocket and handed it to his son.

“Doesn’t matter,” Joe said at last. “It’s too late. I reckon it doesn’t make any difference anymore.” He handed the note to Adam without turning his gaze from the window.

Adam took the note, but he didn’t unfold it. Instead, he turned and slipped it back into Joe’s saddlebag.

“You want to talk about it?” Ben asked.

Joe said nothing for a minute. Then, his gaze still fixed on the window, he said, “It’s from Emma Lee Hansen.”

“She’s a nice girl,” said Ben gently when his son didn’t continue.

“She’s very pretty,” offered Adam.

“An’ I hear her ma makes a mean peach cobbler,” Hoss chimed in.

“Why on earth would you know that her ma makes a nice peach cobbler?” Joe asked, truly baffled.

“Hoss just knows that sort of thing,” Adam said, and he elbowed his bigger brother.

Joe sighed. It was almost harder now that no one was teasing him, but he figured it wouldn’t hurt to tell the rest. “I’d asked if she wanted to go for a walk with me on Christmas. That note-well, she said yes, and she’d be looking forward to it. And now. . . .” He motioned to his splinted leg in disgust. “It’s not bad enough that I can’t walk-I don’t even have a way to let her know I won’t be coming over.” He took another drink of the whiskey, adding, “She’s just gonna think I didn’t bother. Girls don’t like that sort of thing.”

“Don’t be so certain,” Adam said, smiling.

“And you’re giving me advice from your huge success with women?” He didn’t mean to be short with his brother, but the last thing Joe needed was Adam telling him what to do. His leg throbbed, his foot felt like somebody was trying to skin it with a dull knife, and he was just so tired and disappointed and sorry that he wanted to go to sleep and not wake up until the spring thaw. He took another long drink from the bottle.

“Joseph,” Ben chided, taking the whiskey from his youngest son and handing it to his eldest with a meaningful look. As Adam put it away, Ben settled back wearily against the wall. “I don’t know how Shakespeare would go about telling it, but the last I heard, Christmas had its share of miracles. I suggest you don’t give up so easily.” Joe just looked at him but didn’t reply.

Hoss returned to his post by the stove. “Pa, I think the beans are done,” he called out. He sampled a few and beamed. “They’re even kinda good.”

“That’s a miracle if ever I heard one,” Adam said.

“Got another one,” Joe mumbled, practically asleep.

“What’s that, son?” Ben asked. He drew the blanket up over Joe’s shoulders with a rueful smile. If this evening was any indication, at least he would never have to worry about his youngest son wasting his entire paycheck on whiskey. A couple of drinks just about did him in.

“Sleigh bells,” murmured Joe. “You hear them?”

“Too much whiskey,” Adam mouthed, but Joe wasn’t awake enough to notice.

“Reckon it’s Saint Nick?” suggested Hoss, an affectionate sparkle in his eye as he recalled all the years when his little brother had tried so valiantly to wait up for Santa Claus. Finally, when he was nine, Little Joe knocked out Bradford Moore with a devastating left hook when the older boy had the grit to suggest that Santa didn’t exist. He does exist! I saw him! Ain’t that so, Pa? Hoss could still remember his pa vacillating between anger over his young son’s swollen hand and despair over the fact that it was time to tell Joe the truth. Hoss’s little brother often had that effect on people. . . .

“Don’t be ridiculous,” murmured Joe, his eyes closing. “Not that kind of sleigh bell. These ones are real.”

“Whatever you say, Little Brother.” Hoss mussed up his brother’s hair and then returned to doling out beans onto dented tin plates.

Adam turned from his brothers to see his father staring out the window contemplatively. Whether he was listening for sleigh bells or a break in the wind, Adam couldn’t say. But Ben Cartwright would always worry. Adam placed a hand on his father’s shoulder. “He’s going to be all right,” he said quietly.

Ben nodded, but he laid a hand on his sleeping son’s brow, just to check. Still no sign of fever. He breathed a prayer of thanks and turned to his older sons.

“Let’s have some of those beans,” he said.

The three of them were huddled next to the stove, talking quietly, their makeshift supper long over, when Joe murmured, “Pa?”

Ben got to his feet, his knees creaking. “How’re you feeling, son?”

“Is my bedroll around here?”

Hoss and Adam rose. “It’s right over here,” said Hoss, retrieving it from the pile of gear by the door. “You want it?” At Joe’s nod, he untied it.

“You cold?” Ben asked. He rested his hand on Joe’s brow, but there was still no sign of fever.

“A little.” It was a pretty big lie. Truth was that he couldn’t ever remember being this cold. He was shivering so hard that he could barely get the words out.

“Does your foot hurt?” asked Adam, moving the blanket aside and holding the lantern close to check on the color of Joe’s flesh.

“A little bit.” An even bigger lie than the first.

“It’s looking better,” said Adam, ignoring his brother’s obvious untruth. “That’s probably why it hurts so much. Tell me what you can feel now.” He tapped Joe’s toes, remaining expressionless at his brother’s silence, just as he masked his relief when Joe said that he could feel Adam’s touch on the ball of his foot.

Ben brightened suddenly, the way he always did when there was something he could fix. “I’ve got an idea, boys. Let’s move Joe’s mattress over by the stove. No point in having him freezing over here all night.”

“Good idea, Pa,” Hoss said, nodding. “We can put our bedrolls together and stay warm that way.”

“You don’t have to-” Joe began, but no one paid him any mind. Before he quite knew it, he was holding on to the mattress for dear life, as Adam and Hoss lifted it bodily and carried it to the stove. He grumbled at them for not giving him a chance to get off first, but he had to admit it was a whole lot warmer that way.

“We should probably all turn in,” said Ben, spreading his bedroll next to Joe’s mattress. “Hopefully, the snow will stop by morning, and we can decide what we’re going to do.”

“Gonna have to get Shortshanks out of here,” said Hoss, unrolling his bedroll on Joe’s other side and settling in. “That comes above everything else.”

“We need to bring back the sleigh,” said Adam. He spread his bedroll on Hoss’ other side. Bunking down next to Hoss had always a good way to stay warm. “You and I could start off at sunrise.”

“It’ll take you most of tomorrow to get to the house, and another full day to get back with the sleigh,” observed Ben as he turned down the lantern. “Do we have enough food here to last that long?”

“We got plenty of beans,” said Hoss. “I’m more worried about dry wood. Wouldn’t want you runnin’ out of firewood before we come back.”

They were talking the situation over like he wasn’t there, making their plans for the next day, just like it was a regular day instead of Christmas. They were settling in and didn’t seem to notice that Joe had gotten quiet. If anything, they probably figured he’d drifted off to sleep again. That would have been a good thing in their view.

But like always, Joe stopped them short. “I’m sorry,” he breathed. “I-I’m so sorry.”

“What did you say?” Ben asked.

“This is all my fault,” said Joe, hesitating slightly. “All of it. If I ever listened to anyone, we’d be home for Christmas and eating real food and sleeping in our own beds, and instead, we’re here, and you have to spend your Christmas-” His voice broke, and he was grateful for the darkness.

“You listen to me, young man,” Ben began, and his three sons could just imagine his finger punctuating his words in the darkness. “Granted, this is not an ideal way to spend Christmas, but it could have been a great deal worse, and we certainly have a lot to be grateful for.”

“Grateful?” The boy’s voice was thick with incredulity. “For what?”

“You didn’t die,” said his father simply. “The way you fell, you could easily have broken your neck instead of your leg. We were near enough to shelter when you got hurt so that, instead of freezing to death in a snowstorm, we’re inside where we can be warm and safe and dry. We have food-hot food, in fact. And you’ve regained the feeling in some of your foot, it doesn’t look like your leg is infected, and even though I’m not a doctor, I’d wager you’ll be using it again by spring-would you like me to go on?”

“No, sir,” whispered Joe.

“And most importantly, we’re all here,” Ben continued as if Joe hadn’t spoken. “The only thing that truly matters to me, on Christmas or at any other time, is that we’re together. The rest of it-the party, the gifts, the food-doesn’t matter.”

“That’s the truth, Shortshanks,” said Hoss.

“Agreed,” said Adam. Although no one could see his smile in the dark, he added, “But next time we go hunting near any cliffs, we’re hog-tying you to the saddle.”

“But it’s still my fault that we’re out here instead of at home,” said Joe stubbornly. “I ruined Christmas.”

“Well-I don’t know about ‘ruined,’ but you’ve definitely made it memorable,” said Adam. “Just the same, I’m sure you won’t mind if Hoss and I find somewhere else to celebrate Christmas next year.”

“What do you mean?” asked Ben, startled.

“Well, Pa, it’s like this,” said Adam. “It’s becoming a Cartwright tradition-last year, Joe broke your foot, and this year, he broke his own leg. We figure that, if we stick around next year, either Hoss or I will end up drawing the short straw.”

Hoss and Ben chuckled, but there was no sound from Joe. Hoss moved closer to his little brother and patted his shoulder. “Actually, Little Brother, the way I see it, you kinda did us a favor,” he said.

“How come?” Joe asked quietly.

“Fact is, we’ve gotten used to havin’ all them fancy, comfortable Christmases, and I reckon we kinda forgot how it all got started,” said Hoss. “At least we got a shack. That first Christmas, all they had was a stable. Now, it don’t say in the Bible if anybody’d cleaned that stable, but you know what it’d be like if they hadn’t.”

“Sort of the way our barn is when Joe ‘forgets’ it’s his turn to clean out the stalls?” teased Adam.

“Just like,” said Hoss. “All that wet, smelly hay and them piles you gotta step around. Plus, it don’t say if anybody brought them anything to eat, but I’m bettin’ they didn’t have beans or jerky in that stable, and I don’t reckon them shepherds brought supper when they came.”

“Or whiskey,” added Adam. He reached over Hoss to nudge Joe, but he ended up poking his father instead.

“An’ that poor little gal, havin’ a baby in the middle of all that-ain’t nothin’ but a shame. I know you’re hurtin’ too, but I’ve delivered a few babies in my time, Little Brother, and from what I can tell, it sure looks like havin’ a baby hurts a whole lot more than breakin’ a leg.”

“I think Marie would have agreed with that,” said Adam. He’d been twelve when Joe was born, and he’d been convinced from his stepmother’s agonies through childbirth that no one could survive such an experience. Inger had been relatively quiet in the wagon, by comparison, and Adam had overheard some of the women saying that Inger Cartwright was going to be a natural mother, if her labor was any indication. Childbirth and motherhood had come harder to Marie, and so he’d been stunned when Pa shepherded him and Hoss into her room, and she’d not only been alive after all that suffering, but actually smiling as she held the tiny baby in her arms.

“So, mebbe by havin’ just a little bit of a rough time this year, we got ourselves a reminder of what Joseph and Mary went through way back then,” concluded Hoss. “After all, ain’t that what Christmas is all about?”

“I have to admit, Brother, this story’s a whole lot better than your first one,” Adam said.

“I’d have to agree with that,” said Ben. He couldn’t see his sons in the darkness, of course, but he could feel Joe begin to relax.

“I guess you’re right,” said Joe finally, his voice tentative. After a moment, he ventured, “Hey Adam, nobody’s dead yet, and nobody’s married. What do you call this kind of story?”

Adam reached across Hoss to rest his hand on Joe’s arm. “It’s a Christmas story, Little Brother.”

For a few minutes, the four of them lay quietly. With his sons lying next to him and the wind and cold outside. . . . Ben didn’t know how this particular Christmas would end, but he knew that this was a moment he would want to remember.

“Hey, Pa you forgot something,” came Joe’s drowsy voice out of the darkness. “You always read from the Christmas story from the Bible on Christmas Eve.”

“He’s right,” said Hoss. “How ’bout it, Pa?”

“Go to sleep,” Ben said. “We’ve got a lot facing us tomorrow-and besides, I didn’t pack my Bible.”

Adam said, “I have a sneaking suspicion that, after all these years, you probably don’t need it anyway.”

“Come on, Pa, Adam’s right,” urged Hoss. “You know that whole story by heart.”

Ben was about to tell them again to go to sleep when Joe said softly, “Come on, Pa. Please?”

What could he do? Ben gave in. For a moment, the years fell away, and they were gathered in the living room, the boys in their nightshirts, as he opened the large Bible that had been in Inger’s family for generations. It was one of the few possessions that survived the trail that terrible winter when they had to jettison most of their belongings to make it over the drifts, but letting go of it had never been an option. Inger had been dead for three months when Christmas came that year. Her Bible and her son were the only tangible evidence of the beautiful, gentle soul who had lived among them so briefly. Hoss was right. All the fancy trappings didn’t really mean anything. They were together, and they were safe. In the end, that was all that mattered.

Ben gave silent thanks, as he began the ancient, timeless story.

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. . . .”

* * * * * * * * * *

So, it was Christmas, and Joe was bored. The window was steamed up because his pa insisted on keeping the fire stoked so high they were both sweating. They’d been playing checkers to pass the time, using pinto beans and bullets as pieces. Ben Cartwright wasn’t the type you could cheat at checkers, so the games weren’t exactly going in Joe’s favor. He’d been glad enough when his pa found the tattered checkerboard stored in an old box under the cot, but it wasn’t the same. Joe already missed his brothers.

They’d left just before daybreak. They’d tried not to wake him, but Hoss got all tangled in his bedroll, bumping into Joe’s broken leg, which hurt bad enough that he forgot about watching his language until he remembered his pa was lying next to him. Needless to say, he quieted down real quick. Didn’t matter how bad his leg hurt. There were some things Pa just didn’t stand for, especially on Christmas.

“Merry Christmas, Pa, Joe,” Hoss had called out, before setting out after Adam. And then they were gone.

One of Joe’s most endearing qualities was that he did learn from his mistakes. So, he didn’t complain, and he did his best not to feel sorry for himself. He spent Christmas morning with his pa, losing at checkers and watching melted snow trickle down the lone window.

They had beans for breakfast. Ben informed his youngest son that he’d had more than enough whiskey the night before, but he’d found a small bag of ground coffee in the box with the checkerboard, and so he’d brewed what was left. It meant there wouldn’t be any for the next day, but after all, it was Christmas. Joe said thank you and drank the hot coffee slowly, making it last.

After lunch of jerky and beans, they stretched out for a nap. Ben was snoring, and Joe was finally drifting back to sleep, when he heard it again. The same sound he’d heard the night before but had been unable to explain. Bells. Sleigh bells ringing out over the wind.

“Pa!” Sitting up that quickly, he almost fell off the cot.

“What’s the matter? Are you all right?” Ben was instantly awake, in the chair next to him.

“I heard it again,” Joe said cautiously. This time, he didn’t explain what he heard.

He didn’t need to. Ben looked up sharply, his forehead furrowed in a frown. “I hear it too.”

“It’s too soon,” Joe said. “They can’t be back yet. Not until tomorrow, at the earliest.”

But Ben was already at the door. A blast of cold air chafed his unprotected face and hands, but it didn’t feel bitter. Forgetting to close the door behind him, Ben ventured out into the powdery snow, feeling the crunch under his boots. He couldn’t see very far into the woods, but there was no question about what he was hearing. Bells were ringing, their song drifting through the air, light as snow.

“What is it, Pa?”

Ben turned around. Joe was at the threshold, balanced on one leg. Somehow, he’d hopped over to the door. “Joseph, go back!” he roared in absolute irritation. Despite everything he held dear about the notion of family, he was sometimes convinced his youngest boy was going to be the death of him. “It’s too cold, and you’re going to ruin the splint!”

But Joe was pointing off into the line of trees beyond. Nothing was visible except woods and snow, and yet. . . .

“They’re out there,” he said, in wonder.

Ben knew Joe had grown up believing that his big brothers could do anything, but it just wasn’t possible. Yet, it was Christmas. So, Ben allowed himself to believe it, too.

That’s why they were waiting expectantly, when Adam and Hoss drove that sleigh into the patch of clearing. Adam had the reins, and Hoss was grinning broadly, even though the brim of his hat was weighted down with snow.

Ben laughed out loud. He couldn’t help it. “What on earth-I don’t understand-how did you manage it?”

“What took you so long?” Joe shouted from the threshold, and Adam rolled his eyes as he swung over the side of the sled.

“Keep it up, Little Brother, and it’s back to beans for you!” Adam pulled a crate from the back. “We’ll keep all of Hop Sing’s ham for ourselves!”

Joe laughed. “Oh, no, you don’t! I’m having ham!”

Ben was still shaking his head, trying to make sense of it all. “You couldn’t have made it home and back in one day,” he protested as he lifted a pile of blankets from the sleigh.

Hoss lumbered over to the threshold with a crate under one arm, effortlessly picking Joe up as he passed by. He made it look like he was carrying a sack of potatoes, but Ben knew how careful Hoss was being. His middle son had already had a lifetime of practice. Ben could hear Hoss ordering, “Now you better stay on that bed, Little Brother, or we’re gonna tie you up for the ride home.”

At least he listens to his brothers, Ben reflected, shaking his head. He looked up to see Adam standing beside him, shaking the snow off his overcoat. “How did you do it?” Ben asked.

“We were a few hours out when we ran into Sheriff Coffee, Earl Hansen, and a couple others,” said Adam. “Seems folks got a little concerned when we didn’t show up for our own party. Apparently, they waited for us at the house all night, and this morning, they got some horses, loaded up the sleigh and set out looking for us.”

“Earl Hansen?” Ben’s brow furrowed. He hardly knew Earl Hansen.

“Emma Lee’s father,” Adam grinned.

“Oh.” Understanding that much, at least, Ben chuckled. But- “Why did they bring a sleigh?”

“They figured that, if we weren’t back, it was likely because we were in some kind of trouble,” said Adam. “They were going to come up here with us, but we gave Roy and Hansen our horses and sent everybody on home. No sense in all of us being out in the cold for Christmas.”

“But all that food. . . .”

Adam grinned. “Guess Hop Sing figured that, if we were all going to be lost somewhere, we should be well-fed. Careful of that crate-Roy says your Christmas present’s in there. Finest brandy he could get his hands on, all the way from San Francisco.”

Ben shook his head in astonishment. “What are the chances that you’d run into each other?”

“Pretty slim,” Adam admitted. He shrugged and then clambered through the snow toward the shack, yelling, “Hey, Romeo-your long-lost love wrote you another note . . . smells like rose petals this time. . . .”

Ben shook his head as he led the team to the shelter. The young took their miracles so lightly. That they were here at all was an unlikely miracle if ever there was one. And yet, weren’t all miracles unlikely? Sleighs and bells, line shacks and love letters, stables and shepherds and stars -miracles all, and each more unexpected than the next.

The horses snorted gently as Ben stood by himself in a perfect world of white. Nothing like newly fallen snow to change things. Ben could already hear laughter coming from inside the shack. He knew he should get out of the cold and join his boys. Unlikely, indeed. Yet, despite the circumstances, he had sudden faith that everything was going to be just fine.

And Ben flicked the bell attached to the harness, just to hear it ring.

The end

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