Summary: New Year’s Day in 1865 rings in both unspeakable sorrow and unbridled hope for Joe. Reference is made to the episode “Between Heaven and Earth.”
Word Count: 2200 words
Little Jenny Devlin had always been good with numbers. Joe Cartwright had figured that out the first day of school the year he was seven. Although he was ahead of his grade in reading—his older brother Adam had seen to that—he had had trouble with arithmetic.
Jenny always knew the answers when teacher called on her. Before Adam had headed off to college, he advised Joe to watch and learn from the best, so Joe finagled a seat by Jenny and huddled shoulder-to-shoulder with her over their shared slate. They were soon inseparable not just in the school room, but before and after school as well, much to the amusement and occasional consternation of their parents.
Little Joe and Little Jenny. The “Littles” they were called by Ben Cartwright and Max and Jennifer Devlin. Where are the Littles? What have the Littles gotten into now? the families wondered. That was how Joe and Mitch became best friends.
Cut from the same cloth, Little Joe and Little Jenny could not sit still for a moment and both could let their imaginations run wild. In desperation, the parents called on older brothers Hoss and Mitch to keep an eye on the youngsters before, during, and after school. That worked until Hoss left school at the end of the following year leaving Mitch alone to wrangle the kids.
If there was one thing Little Joe understood it was older brothers, so right away he started involving Mitch in his and Jenny’s adventures. Always a serious child, Mitch pretended at first to be too old for the antics of “kids,” but the more he hung around the Littles, the more fun he started having and before long the three of them became the Three Musketeers—one for all, all for one—doing everything together, including getting the measles.
Joe and Mitch recovered quickly, but Jenny’s fever was so high for so long she was never right again. They didn’t notice at first, but as Joe and Mitch grew older and matured, Jenny stayed the same.
“Fever,” the doctors said. “Sometimes a fever like that does something to the brain.” Jenny would always be a child. Her body would grow, but her mind wouldn’t. That’s when the word “little” turned ugly.
As much as the youngest Cartwright disliked being referred to as “Little Joe,” he winced more every time he heard someone whisper “Jenny Devlin . . . poor little thing.”
Joe joined Mitch in becoming Jenny’s protector and for several years they succeeded. But eventually it became too uncomfortable—not for Jenny who loved school—but for others who felt awkward around a young woman who would never leave first grade.
So the fall Joe turned 13, Jenny quit school and that was the year the calendars started.
Jenny didn’t understand why Mitch and Joe couldn’t play with her every day. To her, every day was the same. Doctors advised the Devlins to keep Jenny to a routine so she would feel safe and secure and it never varied except on Sundays when they went to church. There, Joe and Mitch and Jenny would again be inseparable.
For Christmas that year Joe bought her a fancy illustrated calendar featuring the works of the Grand Masters. Jenny had been a good artist and he thought she would like the paintings but it turned out to be the calendar itself that held her attention. She began writing things down as she listened to Joe and Mitch talk about their lives. She wrote down important dates like holidays and birthdays, anniversaries, and deaths. Jenny watched the clock and she would count days. She knew the hours in a day, days in a week, weeks in a month, and months in a year. Joe had helped her calculate how many minutes there were in a year and she seemed to tick them off one by one. Amused, Joe started calling her “calendar girl.”
For Christmas the next year she gave Joe and Mitch each a calendar—not for the new year about to begin—but for the year just past. It was a calendar filled with holidays and happenings that they had told her about. Each month was on a separate piece of paper and she had pasted the twelve pages together to form a long banner. She had carefully illustrated and hand lettered each event and then rolled the banner like a scroll and tied it with silk ribbon.
Neither Joe nor Mitch knew quite what to make of a calendar that looked backwards instead of forwards, but they were pleased to see how happy Jenny was when she gave it to them, so they were enthusiastic recipients. It was Mitch’s idea to give her some paints so she could add color to her pencil drawings and the following year they again received a calendar for the year just past.
Soon the boys were out of school and working on their family’s ranches. There was little time to spend with Jenny and when they did she peppered them with questions. She wanted to know about their firsts . . . first girlfriends, first kiss, their first beer, first black eye . . . questions that drove Mitch nuts. Joe was more indulgent, but then he didn’t have to live with Jenny.
“What’s your favorite month, Little Joe?”
“December,” he said without thinking.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because it’s Christmas?”
“I’m not in school anymore, remember Jenny.”
“What’s your favorite month, Little Joe?”
“December,” he’d say again.
“Because it snows?”
“Hop Sing’s goose?”
“No roundups or branding?”
“Is December still your favorite month, Joe?
Each year Joe received his scroll, thanked Jenny with a kiss on the forehead and carefully tucked it away in his trunk without further thought.
Until this year that is.
This year Joe wondered whether she would even make him a calendar and if so, if she would add the demise of his friendship with Mitch to it in big black letters.
During the summer, without warning he had been emasculated by a fear of heights that was overwhelming. Not only had he turned away from everyone who was trying to help him, but he deliberately set out to hurt Mitch in order to feel better about himself. Ironically, all he succeeded in doing was to make himself feel worse. Although he had apologized a dozen times over, the friendship was lost. Mitch was civil when they ran into each other in the Bucket of Blood or at church, but then either he or Joe would leave—neither comfortable in the presence of the other.
This holiday Joe and Hoss were stuck in Placerville by heavy snow and unable to get home for Christmas. Pa said not to worry, that the goose would keep until New Year’s and they should stay put until the roads were safe to travel.
If only the Devlins had done the same.
In an effort to make it back to their ranch before the onslaught of the winter storm, Max Devlin foolishly risked driving down Geiger Grade. At the height of the snow storm, their carriage careened off the steeply twisted road and into a ravine. Only the deepness of the snow accounted for survivors. Mitch was thrown clear and able to dig out his father and mother, but the overturned rig had crushed Jenny. His mother had suffered a broken leg and Max remained with her and their daughter while Mitch went for help. It was hours before rescuers were able to deliver Jenny’s broken body to a doctor.
It was too late to do anything to save her.
When Joe and Hoss arrived home the day after New Year’s, they were greeted by an empty house. No Pa. No Hop Sing. Instead, on the credenza there was an obituary along with a note informing them of the funeral service. They had just enough time.
Exchanging their tired horses for fresh mounts, Joe and Hoss rode as fast as they dared into Virginia City arriving at the church just as the service was ending. Hoss went to look for their Pa and Joe stood at the back of the church near a long line of people waiting to offer their condolences to the Devlins.
Joe’s heart pounded as he overheard snatches of conversations.
“I don’t know how she hung as long as she did. So much pain.”
“We gave her permission to let go, but she kept on.”
“Barely conscious, but always wanting to know what day it was. The last night, she kept asking what time it was.”
“When the clock struck midnight, she became alert, smiled, said ‘January,’ and took her last breath.”
“I wonder what she meant by that?”
“Maybe she wanted to see the New Year in. You know she kept track of important days on her calendar.”
Joe caught sight of Mitch as the crowd thinned and they locked eyes for a moment, but Mitch turned away before Joe could speak. Suddenly, he felt Hoss at his side and his father’s hand on his neck. Joe turned into his father’s embrace and wept.
The church had emptied by the time Joe straightened up and his father released his grip.
“Just give me a minute,” he said, wiping his face with his arm.
“Take your time, son. We’ll be right here.”
Joe walked slowly up the aisle to the front of the church. Evergreen boughs intertwined with pinecones and sprigs of holly adorned the top of the closed casket. Joe placed a hand on the polished wood and whispered, “One for all.”
“All for one,” Mitch said as he entered from the vestry. The two men stood side-by-side for several minutes, then Mitch held out a scroll tied with red ribbon and a piece of mistletoe. “There was a big grin on her face when she put it under the tree. When I asked her why, she said she had figured out why December was your favorite month.”
Joe looked up; Mitch’s eyes were as red and swollen as his no doubt were. He couldn’t tell for sure, but maybe—just maybe—there was a softening there as well. It would never be the same now that there was just the two of them, but perhaps the friendship was still worth having in the new year, if for no other reason than their shared love of Jenny.
Joe nodded and took the scroll. After brushing his hand across the wood one last time, he backed away from the casket and rejoined his father and brother.
No one spoke during the ride home in the softly sifting snow.
The silence continued during the days that followed. Joe answered when spoken to but otherwise did not initiate any conversations. He did his chores, poked at his food, and went to bed early. But he didn’t sleep.
What had she figured out? Even I don’t know why I said December was my favorite month.
Three weeks later, he untied the scroll Mitch had given him and unrolled it on his desk, placing a book at either end to keep it from curling. He scrutinized the carefully lettered entries and colorful drawings, searching for meaning.
Then he had an idea and went to the tool shed. Returning to his room with a small hammer and a box of tacks, he opened the trunk at the foot of his bed and tossed the contents until he found the other scrolls, which he nailed to the wall one below the other.
For the last twelve years she had given him a scroll, twelve squares to a scroll. 12 x 12. Together, the banners formed a colorful quilt of sorts on the wall. Each square filled with his special dates. Family birthdays. The date his mother died. The date he got Cochise. His first kiss.
Joe sat on his bed and stared at the wall. It was a history of his life—all the joy, all the heartache, all the laughter. Births in pink or blue, deaths in black, anniversaries in red, “firsts” in green, and all the escapades of the Three Musketeers were in purple. My life certainly has been colorful, he mused.
And that’s when he saw it. What Jenny had figured out and why she had clung so desperately to life until the new year. In each row, an entry in black appeared in every square except the twelfth.
The next day, Joe went alone to the cemetery to pay his respects.
Little Jenny Devlin
May 5, 1842 –January 1, 1865
Beloved Daughter of
Max and Jennifer
Sister of Mitch
For Auld Lang Syne
Joe traced the last line with his fingers. “Calendar Girl. I’ll never forget what you did. I’ll never forget you.”