Before Christmas (by Debbie L)

Summary: A fight, a flower, and a little bit of faith. A Bonanza fable for Christmas.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: PG
Word Count:  3500


It was the night before Christmas. I was ten years old, and Pa and Adam were stirring it up something fierce. That winter, my head still hung low under my brothers’ elbows, and Pa and Adam built a lattice to grow some fancy flowers that Adam brought home from back East when he came back from college. They were supposed to bloom all year, even through the winter, but I figured the plant didn’t read the same book that Adam did. It went brown and shriveled come the first hard freeze. Pa grumbled about all that book learning and good lumber used up for nothing, and Adam got mad right back at him. But, I told Adam I thought it would come back to life every chance I got. Everyone looked at me funny when I’d say it, but I didn’t pay them any mind. It was true I’d never shown any interest in a bunch of flowers before, but I’d have said about anything to keep them from tearing down the lattice that stretched from the ground to the roof in between Hoss’ and my bedroom windows. I still don’t know what they were thinking when they built it there, but I reckon Pa and Adam must have set their minds on flowers and not how they were building me a perfect ladder to freedom. Before the lattice, I had to jump off the edge of the roof, clear the porch, and land onto the open spot between the two pine saplings. It was downright difficult on a dark night and dangerous if the ground was icy. The lattice made everything a whole lot easier, and I thanked Adam for it, every time I climbed down it. Because I was thankful, I was always careful to step around the tangled brown vines that still hung to the framework. The plant sure looked dead, but you never knew for sure. Things like that had a way of getting tricky when you didn’t expect them to. After all, we wouldn’t have been celebrating Christmas if the dead didn’t sometimes come back to life. Nobody would have thought twice about one little baby in a stable, if he hadn’t come back to life, all those years later, after being three days dead in the grave. As Pa always said, things had a way of turning around when you were looking the other way. But Adam looked at that dead vine every time he passed it, all the same.

“It’ll grow back,” he’d say to anyone who would listen. “It just needs a chance to establish its roots.”

I didn’t know why that one dang plant mattered so much to him and why he cared so much whether it flowered or died. But that was the Christmas when Adam cared an awful lot about a lot of things that I just didn’t understand. He and Pa were alike that way. They both set store by being right, and you’d have thought that would give them something in common. Since Adam came home from college, it just didn’t seem to work out that way. It seemed like they were always arguing over something.

That Christmas Eve, their voices had carried right up the stairs and into the fine dream I was having about the new string of horses that Pa brought all the way from Genoa. You should have seen those horses, all taut and dancing, and ready for my saddle. If they would have let me, I knew I could ride them as good as anyone. And that’s what I was dreaming about when Adam’s voice reached into my dream and yanked me right out of the stirrups and back into my bed.

I rubbed the dream out of my eyes and sat up. I could hear thumping coming from the other side of the wall. It meant that Hoss was awake too and was lying in his own bed. I could tell he was tossing around and trying not to listen. He always banged into the wall, when he couldn’t sleep. Hoss hated it when Pa and Adam fought, and lately that was about all they’d been doing. In a while, I knew that Hoss would come into my room to try to make me feel better, but I was feeling fine. Adam and Pa were having a fight. By the sound of it, it was the biggest yet, and I wasn’t gonna miss it by lying around in bed.

Tucking my robe around me, I crept to the window. My feet were bare because I’d left my boots to dry out by the hearth, after I’d got them wet, splashing at Sarah in Shepherd’s Creek. I opened the window carefully, trying to keep it from skipping and jamming and bringing everyone upstairs in a hurry. The moon was full and was almost covered by clouds. But a strand of moonlight threaded through the trees, so I could make my way down. Pa said there would be snow by Christmas. Adam didn’t think so, but the clouds were moving in fast, and the wind bit right through my robe. I figured this time Pa might be right.

I was so tired that I almost fell asleep climbing down, but I could still make out the sound of those two hollering at each other. I knew that the window by Pa’s study had a crack in the seal. It wasn’t a big crack, but it was enough to let cold air in and their secrets out. That was how I’d found out about my new saddle that was stashed in the barn and would be under the tree come morning.

My feet found their footing on the ground, and I crept around to the front window. I hunkered down, my robe wrapped tightly around my long johns. It was colder than I thought it would be, and I could feel my toes going numb and tingly. No matter. I didn’t get cold easy, and making it down before the fight was over was the important thing. I tried to get a better look at Pa and Adam through the steamy glass. I sure could hear them. I heard every word they said, and for a minute I thought I should climb back up to try and make Hoss feel better. He wouldn’t like this, not on Christmas Eve, and I didn’t like it either. Listening to what they were saying gave me a funny feeling in my belly. Adam had just come home from being gone for so long, and I didn’t think I could stand to see him leave one more time.

“If that’s the way you feel, Pa,” Adam was shouting, “then I don’t know why I bothered coming back in the first place! You don’t trust any of my ideas. You treat me just about the same as you treat Little Joe!”

“Adam, that’s ridiculous!” Pa roared, and I wanted to climb through the window and agree.

After all, Adam didn’t have to go to bed before the moon was above the treeline! He didn’t have to go to school and spend hours and hours learning things that had nothing to do with anything that could ever matter to anyone! Everyone clapped Adam on the back and said what a fine young man he was turning out to be. They never patted him on the head and said things like, “Oh dear. Still not catching up to your brothers!”

The way I saw it, Adam had it pretty good.

Pa was talking. He wasn’t yelling anymore, but his voice sounded tight, like the way he held the reins to the buckboard when he thought the team was about to bolt. Even from where I was hiding, I could see the sides of his jaw working back and forth like he was trying to hold his words back.

“That is not true, Adam,” he said, quietly this time. “I have brought you into the running of the Ponderosa over the past several months, and I’ve been very proud of the way that you’ve risen to the challenge. There is no one, absolutely no one, that I’ve given more authority than I’ve given to you. But I am not about to cut down entire ridges of the finest timber on God’s good earth simply on faith that you might be right.”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Adam said and pounded his fist on the desk. “You have no faith in me or my ideas. And that’s what it’s going to take. Faith in the things you can’t see right in front of you. I’m not saying I want to chop down every tree on the Ponderosa. But we can either move forward and set a stake in the future or we can watch it happen without us. Something big is going to happen around here, Pa. I can feel it. I just know that there’s going to be big changes around the territory. I don’t know what it will be, but I know I want to be part of it. It’s part of the reason I came back. I want to help make it happen. You’re going to have to decide, Pa. Which way is it going to be?”

Pa turned and faced off to Adam. They were just about the same height, and they were standing so close it looked like their noses could touch. I wondered if I’d ever grow as tall as my father and brothers. My whole body was shaking from the cold, and I couldn’t feel my toes anymore. The wind had picked up and was tossing pine needles around me, cutting like a knife through my thin clothing.

“God gave us this land, Adam,” Pa said. Both of their voices had fallen, and I had to strain to listen. “It’s our responsibility to serve as stewards of it. You believe that some big change is coming. That we need to start felling trees to have lumber ready for this building explosion that you believe is on its way. We’re to be stewards, Adam. Do you honestly believe that cutting down God’s creation is the way to exercise that stewardship?”

“Stewards, yes,” Adam said. “But wise stewards, Pa! Are we supposed to hoard our riches so that when we’re dead and buried, we’ll wind up with exactly what we started with? I remember a Bible verse that preached against exactly that same thing.”

“I am not hoarding,” Pa thundered. He was mad again, and his eyebrows had knit together across his forehead. “Adam, there are some things that aren’t worth the risk. Cut a fine old tree down, and it will be a hundred years or more before you get back what you started with.”

“Unless you believe that something good will come from it,” Adam answered. “Isn’t that why you came out West in the first place, Pa? In hope of something better? You had no way of knowing it would be better out here than it was back East. You had to step out and have faith in something you couldn’t see.”

“I think there are better times to discuss this,” Pa said. “It’s late, and it’s Christmas.”

“Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?” Adam asked. “About believing that this isn’t as good as it gets? That something better is about to come along?”

Adam kept talking, but I was getting too tired to listen. I couldn’t understand what they were talking about or why they were fighting. Adam was smart. Everyone knew that.

Once, when I’d snuck into the bunkhouse to watch the cowhands play poker, I’d heard one of the fellows say, “Now, this youngun here is gonna be smart. But he’s gonna be a different kind of smart than his big brother who’s the greatest lawgiver since Moses.”

The other fellows laughed and shushed him, pointing at me, but they needn’t have bothered. I already knew how smart Adam was, had known it all my life. Pa always seemed to know it too, and that was the part that confused me. Hoss told me that Pa was only acting like a prairie dog that knows his own hole. I didn’t understand that either, but Hoss told me not to worry about it, and that was enough for me.

I knew I needed to get back to the lattice. The cold had settled in my bones, and my teeth were rattling so hard they made my headache. But as I listened to their voices, I started getting sleepy. My eyes started closing, and the night air started feeling warmer somehow, like a blanket tucked around me. No matter how I ordered my legs to start moving, they didn’t seem to listen. They just curled underneath me and wouldn’t move. I could hear Adam’s voice, soft and gentle, like when he came into my bedroom to tell me stories at bedtime.

They weren’t fighting anymore. Adam was telling Pa different stories than the ones he told me. Stories about the future and about the grand cities that were waiting for Ponderosa lumber to build them, but I couldn’t get up to see if Pa was listening. I felt a spark of cold against my cheek and opened my eyes to white flutterings falling from the sky. Snow. So Pa was right after all.

I heard them laugh, and I tucked myself into that as well. They weren’t mad at each other anymore. That was the way it was supposed to be. It was Christmas, and the preacher said that the lion and the lamb were supposed to lie down next to each other, not have it out in the barn.

I gave one last try at moving, and this time my body listened. Too cold and tuckered to feel foolish about it, I crawled across the snow-dusted ground around the corner to the lattice. My body was numb and stiff, like it didn’t belong to me, but I kept crawling, until I came to the side of the lattice under Hoss’ window. Then I couldn’t keep crawling anymore. I curled into a ball and rested my head on the snow. It was strange how it didn’t feel cold anymore. It felt soft and warm, like my head was resting on a goose feather pillow.

I felt like I was drifting, and maybe I was. I could see myself lying below on the ground, outlined by a sifting of snow. I looked small lying there, smaller than I felt when I was in my body. Pa said the next year would be my one for growing. He said the same thing happened to him when he was a boy. I wanted to believe him. He was my pa, and he was always right.

Drifting back around the corner, past the window, I could see Pa and Adam sitting together around the desk, sharing a bottle of Pa’s good brandy. I drifted past the barn, where they had hid away my brand new saddle. I drifted along the tips of the pine trees that Pa loved but never so much as he loved all of us.

I drifted up and past Hoss’ window and could see my big brother inside, slowly creaking open the door to the hall. Even Hoss’ curiosity could get the best of him, although it didn’t hold a candle to mine. Now that Pa and Adam had settled down, Hoss wanted to see what was going on. I tried waving at him, but he didn’t see me. So I grabbed the pane of the window and rattled it real hard.

Then Hoss turned. He looked right through me, but he hurried over to the window all the same. He didn’t seem to see me there, waving at him, but his eyes widened at something else right next to me. He smiled. And I tried to see what he was looking at. Everything was glowing and white. The moon and the clouds and the snow falling lightly were as white and bright as an angel’s wings. And I could see it too. Under a tangle of brown branches, one single blossom was hiding, as white and as perfect as Adam promised it would be. I laughed, but my laugh sounded like the wind and was lost in it. My big brother was right after all. Snow flowers growing in December. Just like one of those miracles that Pa was always telling us about.

Then Hoss looked down at the ground underneath his window. His eyes widened even bigger, and he screamed my name. He turned heel and ran for the door, slamming it back against the wall, as he passed through it. I could hear feet pounding and voices hollering, but I wasn’t worried. By the time I made it down again, I didn’t need to be answering. That little flower had looked like a miracle in the middle of that dead vine. And there was one more miracle.

I was lying in the snow and didn’t feel cold at all….

*****

When I opened my eyes, I was cold all over, and there wasn’t a part of my body that wasn’t shaking. I was lying on the settee, a fire was blazing in the hearth, and I was covered with more blankets than I thought we owned. My head was tilted to the side, and I could see out the window to the graying dawn. Snow was falling. White against gray, and it was Christmas morning. And I remembered the fight, and the snow, and the drifting. And I remembered the flower. Adam’s Christmas flower, tucked away where no one could see it.

“Adam,” I croaked out, and my voice sounded funny, even to me. “Your flower bloomed after all.”

They were huddled together, talking in quiet, worried voices I couldn’t understand. They turned when they heard me – Adam, Hoss, and Pa – and their faces were touched with a look I hadn’t seen before. I didn’t understand what it was, but they were all over me then, and nobody seemed mad anymore.

“You gave us a scare, little brother,” Adam said softly and patted me on the shoulder.

Hoss was crying next to him, and I wondered why. I reached out my hand and touched his arm.

“Don’t cry, Hoss,” I said, as best I could, through chattering teeth. “It’s Christmas.”

Pa reached out and took hold of my hand.

“He’s a little warmer,” he said to Adam

“Is he going to be all right?” Hoss whispered, and Pa gave a small nod, like he was still thinking it over.

“Merry Christmas, young man,” he said to me, with an expression that might have looked angry if I didn’t know better. He had wrinkles in the corner of his eyes, and his mouth was twitching like he was holding something back, but I didn’t know what it was. “I’d say you’ve used up your lifetime share of miracles last night. If Hoss hadn’t looked out his window, I can’t say for certain what might have happened.”

“I can’t remember why I even looked,” Hoss confessed, still sniffing and rubbing at his eyes. “I just heard the wind stirring things up, and I don’t remember anything else until I looked down and saw him.”

“Adam’s flower,” I whispered.

I didn’t know why Pa said I’d used up any miracles, but I wanted to tell them about Adam’s flower, about the perfect blossom hiding under that blanket of snow. But they didn’t seem to hear me, or if they did hear me, didn’t seem to think it was all that important.

Hop Sing leaned over and started spooning steaming broth into my mouth. The rest of them kept fussing over me, clapping each other on the back, and throwing out words like “providence” and “miracle”. They weren’t listening to me trying to tell them about the flower, and it was probably the way it needed to be.

I understood it a little that Christmas morning. It was like what Adam said when he was fighting with Pa. There were some things that had to be seen, if you were ever going to believe them. There were other things you had to believe in first before they could be seen.

And there were some things you had to see for yourself.

I remembered Adam and Pa and their fight and knew that they would work things out for themselves. So I stopped trying to tell them about the flower. When Pa was ready to look for it, he’d find it, and Adam already believed that it would be there.

It had been a long time since all four of us spent Christmas together. I was already feeling warmer. It had nothing to do with miracles or with the fire in the hearth. We were a family. We were together. That’s how it was supposed to be at Christmas.

***The End***

Christmas 2005

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