Synopsis: Home alone on Christmas Eve; a special visitor keeps watch over a young man.
Word Count: 920
“Gentle slumber, my little one.” Reaching out, her voice lilting with music. “I know your heart aches that your father and brothers are not here, on this of all nights. They tried so hard to return home in time for Christmas. Take comfort that they are safe and together; that their thoughts are of you, as yours are of them.”
She reveled in the fleeting visit He allowed her this evening; her presence aglow. Memories swirled around the great room of a curly-haired, green-eyed, innocent child laughing with an exuberance only the young could possess. Eyes misted for the boy left behind, raised by his father and brothers.
“I mustn’t forget Hop Sing, I know he’s watched over you since before I had to leave. He cares about you as if you were his own; and between you and me,” she quietly giggled as might a little girl revealing a secret, “he enjoys sharing you with your father even though that should be the other way around.”
She had silently observed him decorating the house earlier in the day. In the corner by the staircase stood an evergreen tree decorated with colored ornaments and a garland strung with cranberries and popcorn. Unlit candles affixed to the limbs waited, while a golden star rested at the top. He’d sipped hot chocolate provided by his surrogate father while humming various carols as inspired by his holiday mood. Now, the cup sat empty on the low table. Underneath the tree were packages lovingly wrapped bearing the names of his family members. Boughs and pine cones decorated the staircase railing and the mantle above the fireplace, the flames within casting a gentle radiance around the room and over her son.
“You’ve grown into such a handsome young man. I’ve treasured each and every day that I’ve watched you come of age.”
Sprawled out along the settee, his body had succumbed to sleep while patiently awaiting the return of his family from San Francisco. The string tie ends hung down the front of his white dress shirt, which lay unbuttoned at the top.
“When you were much younger, Ben and I would argue over who you took after the most, but now… I see a lot of myself in you through your passionate and fiery temper, but also I see the gentle strength of the man I married and loved, and we can’t forget his stubbornness either. There too is your brother Adam; though you never chose to excel in your schooling, you are smart beyond the instructions of education. I see Hoss in you, the way the two of you love the land and care for the animals. You are all of us.
“Sleep well. Know that you are loved; always and forever, and most especially on this holiest of nights. Merry Christmas, my Joseph.” Gentle lips kissed his brow lightly.
The young man moved, seeking to snuggle his cheek into the warmth of her touch.
Wearily three riders rode into the snow-covered yard. Father and sons riders dismounted before leading their horses to the barn; nickers of greeting broke the quiet as they entered. The men took care to groom their horses and bedded them down; uncleaned tack was placed on the saddle racks before the men ventured to their home.
“Ya reckon Joe gave up on us gettin’ home tonight?” Hoss inquired.
As the men walked across the yard, the window above the porch deck grew dim, indicating the last of the lanterns had just been extinguished. Brushing snow from their shoulders they stepped to the porch, and removed their hats.
“He must have,” Ben reached for the door latch.
“Surprised our little brother didn’t hear us ride in,” Adam offered.
Expecting to see the youngest member of their family banking the fire or half-way up the stairs, they were surprised to find the room empty.
Adam closed the door behind them. “He couldn’t have made it all the way upstairs.”
“Joseph?” Concern tainted Ben’s voice as he stepped farther into the room, looking to the second floor landing.
A hand and arm reached over the back of the settee, while a sleepy head with tousled hair rose with a yawn. “Pa?”
“Hey Shortshanks, ya musta worked yerself hard to be asleep so quick.”
“What time is it?” Sitting up, he stretched his arms wide, bending his neck left and right before standing.
Adam mirrored the others by removing his coat as the long clock finished striking midnight. “It’s Christmas, Little Buddy.”
Turning around, eyes widened, “You’re home!”
“Merry Christmas son,” Ben enveloped his son into a hug. “Sorry we couldn’t get home any sooner.”
“Ya weren’t worried about us, were ya?”
“I…” Joe paused, stepped back, and looked to his family. “I was earlier, but that was before…”
“Before what?” Ben asked.
Eyes shimmered, “Before Momma told me you were safe and together, and that you were trying to come home. She was here….wasn’t she Pa?”
With an arm across his son’s shoulders, “Son, if ever there was a night where your mother could visit, tonight would be the one.”
“Hey, if Joe were already asleep,” Hoss paused, thumbing over his shoulder to where Joe had slept, “then who turned down the lanterns before we got to the door?”
Each looked from one to another.
“Tonight is the night of angels, little brother. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round them…” (Luke 2:8)
Peace on Earth, Merry Christmas Everyone!