Word count: 2500
“I’m sorry, boys. All I know is that the telegram said the stage would be late; it didn’t say where it was or why,” Jake Wilson stood his ground behind the telegraph office window. He wasn’t about to let two of the Cartwright boys intimidate him, especially on Christmas Eve. Like everyone else, he just wanted to be home with his family, and a late stage meant that he’d have to wait it out and miss out on his family’s celebration too.
“That’s ok. Jake, we understand,” Hoss tried to put a tone of caring into his voice. He even mustered up the beginning of a smile. Joe Cartwright, on the other hand wore his heart out on his sleeve and he was obviously not happy with Jake’s comment.
“There’s got to be something else you can do,” Joe said to Jake, raising his voice. Jake wasn’t about to get into a shouting match with Joe Cartwright. Hoss pulled his younger brother back a little. “Maybe we should ride out and pick him up,” Joe was saying to Hoss as he slapped him lightly on the arm.
“Joe, we don’t even know where that stage is; we could be riding for miles,” Hoss explained.
“Listen, Jake, can’t you send back a telegram and try to find out where it is?” Joe pestered the station officer again.
Hoss decided to run interference; he could see that Jake wasn’t happy about the whole situation either. “Oh Joe, come on, quit bothering Jake; he just wants to have Christmas with his family too. He told you there’s nothing else he can do. Come on, I’ll buy you a beer. We’ll wait for a little while and maybe it’ll come pulling in.”
Joe scanned up and down the street, hoping that the stage would come barreling around the corner, but there was no such luck on this Christmas Eve. He took a deep breath of remorse and regret and tapped his older brother on the back. “I’m sorry, Jake; didn’t mean to take it out on you,” Joe said, showing the hint of a smile. Jake nodded his acceptance. Hoss smiled too. “Let’s go get that beer,” Joe said.
The two brothers headed off toward the saloon. “Joe, what you all so upset about anyhow? Stages have been running late for years; you know better than to take it out on old Jake Wilson.” They bellied up to the bar. “Two beers, Cosmo,” Hoss said.
Joe took off his hat and set it on the bar. “I don’t know why; I guess it’s just Christmas Eve and I want Pa to be at home.”
“Well, me and Adam want him home too.” Hoss said, swallowing down his beer. “You don’t own that one by yourself. I suppose being with your family, well, that’s what Christmas is all about.”
Joe nodded and drank down his beer. He didn’t say anything though.
The silence was what worried Hoss. He knew that meant something was really bothering Joe, but Joe wasn’t talking about it. Pa was probably the only one who could pry it out of him, when he got like this. “He’ll make it home,” Hoss added, hoping his answer would cheer up his little brother.
Again, Joe kept to himself and didn’t speak his peace.
That lack of response still gnawed away at him, he continued to try to make light of the issue. “What’s gotten into you anyway?” Hoss tried to joke. “All your presents are already hidden away in the house. Pa ran into Santy Claus a few weeks back and everything’s been in hiding from your grubby little hands.” He laughed a hearty laugh.
Joe wasn’t laughing. “It’s not about presents,” was all that he said. “You wouldn’t understand.” Joe left his explanation at that. He almost sounded mad when Hoss questioned him.
Now Hoss was just about at wit’s end. He wasn’t about to let his brother’s rotten mood spoil his holiday. “Suit yourself, little brother,” Hoss said, finishing down his beer. “Let’s get back home; Hop Sing’s got a feast a cooking.”
“You go ahead; I’m gonna wait awhile longer,” Joe said.
“Now Joe, you know Pa expects the three of us to be at home. He wants us together for Christmas. He told us so before he left for just this reason. Now come on, finish your beer and let’s get home. We’ll leave Pa’s horse at the livery. He’ll be along just as soon as he can.”
Joe let out another sigh and drank down his beer. He followed Hoss outside and together the two of them rode home in silence.
Hop Sing was busy putting the finishing touches on a Christmas Eve Feast when Joe and Hoss came in.
“It’s about time you two got home; Hop Sing and I were just getting ready to sit down and eat all this food together. Where’s Pa?” Adam said, greeting them with a big smile.
“The stage is late; we’re not sure where he’s at or when he’s gonna get home,” Hoss explained. Adam’s broad smile left his face in a hurry.
Joe took off his hat, coat and gun belt and hung them from the familiar rack. He brushed by his brothers and went off toward the fire and stood there staring into it.
“What’s a matter with him?” Adam whispered to Hoss.
Hoss shrugged, “He ain’t saying exactly, but I reckon it has something to do with Pa not being here.” Hoss followed suit and took off his hat, gun and jacket.
Adam nodded and walked over to Joe and put his arm around him, “He’ll be here soon. We’ll even wait supper on him; how’s that?” Every once in awhile Adam took on more of a fatherly role in matters of his youngest brother. His hand gave Joe’s shoulder an extra squeeze.
Joe turned and looked at his oldest brother and nodded. “I’d like that.”
“I’ll go tell Hop Sing,” Hoss said, hearing Joe’s comment, he went walking into the kitchen. “And maybe just get me a snack to tide me over till then.”
Adam and Joe both laughed and took a comfortable seat in the sitting room.
“Well, I guess that’s why Pa told us to go ahead with Christmas for this very exact reason. It’s kind of like he had a premonition or something,” Adam continued.
“Adam, you don’t think anything bad happened, do you?” Joe asked.
“Nah, that stage from Sacramento always runs late. You know that,” Adam said, reaching for an apple.
Several hours passed and there still was no sign of Ben. The boys decided to have their supper before it was ruined. The conversation was light, albeit quiet too. When dinner ended they retired to the sitting room for more quiet time. The stage had now been delayed over six hours.
“Well, it’s been an awful quiet Christmas Eve,” Adam began, “I think we should all go to bed so that we can have a nice Christmas.”
“I’m for that,” Hoss said, standing up from the seat he had taken.
Adam stood up as well and the two of them took a few steps toward the staircase. It didn’t take long for them to realize that their youngest brother was not following.
“Come on Joe,” Hoss said.
Joe averted his eyes downward, refusing to look at either of them.
“Joe, come on, let’s go on up to bed,” Adam repeated.
Joe looked up and stared at both of his standing brothers. “You fella’s go ahead; I’m gonna wait up a while longer. I’m not really tired yet anyway.”
Adam and Hoss looked at each other and decided to relent. “Ok, but don’t stay up too long waiting. Pa wouldn’t want that,” Adam said.
With that, Adam and Hoss went up the stairs to their beds.
Joe stood up and walked about the large living room. He finally chose a book from the nearby shelf and sat back down by a table with ample enough light. Several more hours flew by as Joe became engrossed in a book. It was nearing 2am when he finally gave into the sleep that he’d said he wasn’t ready for.
The grandfather clock struck three and except for its soft clang, there was no other sound to be heard. The lamp that Joe was using for reading still shone fairly bright, but the young man snoozed lightly under its warm glow.
It was just a little past the three am hour when the huge front door began to creak open. Joe didn’t stir. Ben Cartwright entered the house as quietly as he possibly could. He knew he was late and now he was hoping to ‘sneak’ in and surprise his boys on Christmas morning.
His eyes expected darkness, save for the always burning fireplace, but instead the light from a reading lamp attracted him. Quickly his eyes shifted to the nearby chair, his chair normally, where his youngest son slept, with a book open in his lap. It brought the hint of a smile to Ben’s face. He should have realized that Joseph wouldn’t ever forget.
Ben set his gear down quietly on the table near the door and stepped quietly toward his sleeping son. “Joe, Joe,” he called out and finally gently shook his shoulder to rouse him.
Joe opened his eyes slowly and took in a deep breath of air and then focused on his father’s familiar face. “Pa?” he said and a smile lit up on his face. “You made it.”
“Yes son, I made it,” Ben returned the smile. “Why don’t you get up to bed now? That soft bed of yours will sure beat this old chair.”
“I wanted to wait for you Pa,” Joe started.
“And now I’m home boy, see, no need for waiting and worrying anymore,” Ben answered. Ben made a move toward the stairs.
Joe didn’t move from the chair.
“Joseph?” Ben said.
“I thought we’d watch the sunrise together, like always,” Joe said.
“Now Joseph, don’t you think we’re both getting too old for that?” Ben said, deep inside he enjoyed the tradition that they had established some nineteen years ago. Ben decided to answer his own question before Joe could reply. “No, I suppose neither one of us is,” he gave a slight chuckle. “Can I at least have a cup of coffee first?”
“Sure Pa, I’ll go make up a pot,” Joe said, rising from the chair and heading off to the kitchen.
When the coffee had been drunk, the father and son walked outside the grand house. It was now about four am and soon the night sky would give way to the brightening of the day. They didn’t walk far or at a brisk pace and neither one of them spoke in any great lengths. When then came back toward the house, they went up to the porch and sat down side by side, ready for the rising sun. It was then that Ben started to talk.
“That first Christmas you were here, your Mother was so sick, you were just an infant and she had a bad, bad cold. She needed some rest and you, young man, were no help. You were so fussy, especially that Christmas Eve. Your brothers were both tucked in and your Ma was finally able to sleep, but you just kept on making noise all night long. I finally brought you and your cradle downstairs and put you in it in front of the fire. Even that didn’t do much good.”
Joe was listening intently. No matter how many times he’d heard the stories before, he cherished hearing them time and time again.
“The only thing that seemed to satisfy you was if I picked you up and held you in my arms. So that’s what I did. And soon that wasn’t enough; you weren’t content with that or with even a gentle rocking. It was about the same time as it is now, just before dawn and I started to walk with you. We came outside here and walked, just like we did tonight and you finally started to settle down. I carried you up here to this porch and we rocked until the sun came up, when you finally fell asleep in my arms.” Ben glanced over at Joe who turned to make eye contact with his father. They both smiled.
“And a tradition was born,” Joe said.
Ben laughed, “Yes, son, a tradition was born. That next year, well you had a touch of the colic and we went through the same tradition all over again. I think the next year all you boys were sick with something and you were the last one that I could get to fall asleep.” Ben kept on talking now, enjoying the look back at his son’s crazy fascination with Christmas. “The next Christmas, I remember, I was putting the presents under the tree, after finally getting the three of you to bed. Your mother was enjoying my antics to be as quiet as possible, when the next thing I knew, you came bounding down the stairs, wide awake and full of energy. I took you outside for what was becoming our annual walk and sun rise watch and she managed to finish what I had started.”
“I don’t remember any of those,” Joe said sadly.
“No, I don’t imagine you would, but it really happened, believe me, it really happened,” Ben explained, reaching out and putting his arm around his son’s shoulder and drawing him closer.
“I remember all the rest,” Joe said anxiously. He could feel Ben nod against his own body, they both remembered.
“Your mother died that next October; it was so hard on all four of us. And Christmas I think only made it sadder. We sat out here in silence that year, you and I. You cried and cried. I prayed that happiness would return to our family.”
Ben paused for a moment before continuing, giving them both time to turn their current thoughts and prayers to Marie. “And then the next year, your brother Adam sent you down to spy on his presents, followed by two years of Hoss sending you down to spy on his presents. And that was followed by you spying on your own presents for the next three years.” Both of them enjoyed a good laugh.
“It’s our tradition now, Pa; just you and me, it’s very special to me,” Joe said.
“It’s special to me too, son; it will always be,” Ben replied.
Joe took a deep breath, “I didn’t think you’d make it home tonight; I wanted to ride after the stage and find you, just so that we could be together.”
Ben gave him another smile. “I half expected you would.”
Silence overtook them both once again as they both gave in to their memories.
“Pa, tell me the Christmas story again; I don’t ever want to forget the way you tell it,” Joe started.
Ben took in a deep breath and exhaled and then began, “The best Christmas stories start with one thing, a Father’s love for his Son…..”