Summary: If you think you’ve seen this basic story before, you probably have. It came about as part of a writers’ group challenge, where we were all given the same general story characteristics, and then submitted our stories anonymously. It was great fun to try to decide who wrote which story, based purely on what we knew of each others’ writing styles. I hope you enjoy my contribution.
Word Count: 4400
Ben Cartwright trudged slowly down the stairs of his beautiful ranch house that morning, feeling his age more than on any other birthday. He knew what the problem was – he was already missing his sons.
His eldest, Adam, had left three days ago in order to make a bidder’s meeting in San Francisco. He’d been upset to be gone on his father’s special day, but, typically, had merely pressed an unusually warm handshake on his father before boarding the stage. They both knew how important winning this contract could be to the future of the Ponderosa, so there really hadn’t been any hesitation for either of them. Neither had felt missing Ben’s birthday was worth the loss of income they hoped to use to build windmill-driven water pumps in the dry parts of the ranch.
Ben knew he was being foolish, but a small part of him still wished Adam had stayed home.
Hoss and a couple of their best wranglers had pulled out two days ago with a string of mares, headed for Stockton to breed them to a stallion who was soon to be shipped East. Another chance that couldn’t be passed up. The fast, hardy stallion had proved to breed true, and they needed his bloodlines in their stock. Hoss had only consented to go, though, because he knew his youngest brother would still be home with their father on his birthday.
But Joe was gone, too. He’d left well before dawn this morning to drive a small herd of cattle to the Paiute who lived at Pyramid Lake. They’d had word yesterday afternoon that the tribe was starving – their pine-nut trees decimated, access to the lake for fishing almost entirely cut off, their hunting lands taken away – none of the Cartwrights could bear not to help.
And so, while Ben wasn’t exactly alone on the ranch, not with all the hands and with Hop Sing in the kitchen, he was nevertheless feeling very lonely. Not terribly interested in breakfast – though craving a hot cup of coffee – he sat down in his accustomed place and began his meal, but the empty chairs around the table soon drove him to leave his plate unfinished.
He wandered over to his desk, coffee cup in hand, where, to his surprise, he found four items lined up in a row. “Joseph,” he murmured. Obviously his youngest son had coordinated something with his brothers, because the desktop had been clear last night.
There were three gaily wrapped packages of varying sizes, plus a bottle of what looked like brandy, which had an envelope propped up against it. He picked up the envelope and pulled out the single sheet of paper. He smiled at the three notes, each written in its own distinctive style.
Pa, read Adam’s elegant, bold strokes, remember Mrs. Quincannon? See you soon, Adam.
Ben laughed softly as he imagined his other sons’ reaction to Adam’s few words. He remembered the lady in question vividly, but his boys would have bedeviled Adam unmercifully about her. He could almost see his eldest’s smile as he handed the paper over to Hoss for his contribution. Adam didn’t intend to be cryptic; it was just that the two of them needed few words to communicate a world of feeling. Ben wasn’t sure why Adam had brought up the old memories, but knew when he opened the gift he would understand. In the meantime, Hoss’ compact, block-shaped words jumped out at him.
Hey, Pa. Sorry to be leaving you on your birthday, but I know Little Joe and Hop Sing will take good care of you. I’ll take good care of these mares, and when Adam and me get home, we’ll have another party. Your son, Hoss.
Your son. Such a world of feeling in those two simple words. Ben felt a lump grow in his throat at the pride Hoss felt in belonging to this family, at the love he poured onto them without reserve. A good man, one that Ben was proud to call his son. He had no doubts that Hoss would take care of the horses; nurturing was as much a part of him as his big, gentle hands. And they would indeed have a party, just the four of them, when they all came home. He already missed them desperately. He moved on to his youngest’s distinctive backwards-slanted handwriting.
Dear Pa, We know our trips are important for the ranch, but we couldn’t just go off and leave you alone on your birthday. We’ll all be with you in our hearts. Love, Joe
P.S. Open Hoss’ present first thing this morning.
And Joseph. Boldly putting into words what all three boys felt, but the older two had to say in different ways. Adam’s poignant remember. Hoss’ expressive your son. And Joe’s simply stated and pure Love.
His eye caught Joe’s last line again, distracting him from his preoccupation. Bemused, he looked at the packages, trying to determine which one was from his middle son. Not the box on the end – the squarely folded corners of deep blue paper and the neat silver bow spoke eloquently of his oldest son’s wrapping technique. The other two packages were about equal in their haphazardness; Hoss’ would be from trying to use those huge, gentle hands to manipulate inanimate paper, Joe’s from sheer impatience.
The main difference between the second two, and what made him decide which was which, was the paper they were wrapped in. The small, flat box in the center was covered in soft, warm brown and had a pattern of little pressed-gold fern leaves. Ben knew just where Hoss had found those gold-backed leaves, though he never trespassed on his son’s favorite preserve and retreat.
He took a moment to smile wryly at Joe’s present. He’d be lucky if the plain brown paper didn’t fall completely off the moment he picked up the box that was three times bigger than his brother’s presents. The bow was in stark, neat contrast to the folds of the paper, telling him that Joe had finally given up on it and gone to his oldest brother for help.
Ben gently pulled the brown paper from Hoss’ gift and opened the box. Inside he found another piece of paper, with a note from his son.
I hope Joe remembers to get this to you early because you have an appointment in town today. Be at the International House at five o’clock sharp and you’ll find out. Dress up spiffy. Hoss
Ben looked at the big Grandfather clock. He’d have to rearrange his plans for the day a bit, but he knew he couldn’t miss this mysterious appointment. He wondered for a moment if he should have something to eat before going to town, then laughed. Hoss would make sure he was fed.
Before starting on his day, though, his curiosity overcame him, and he picked up Adam’s gift and weighed it in his hand. Solid, a bit heavy, but it didn’t have the heft of a book. He set it back down and lifted Joe’s in two hands. Now, this one rattled suspiciously. Puzzled but patient, he decided to put off opening them until later, when he could spend some time enjoying whatever they were along with the excellent bottle of brandy, which he suspected Adam had chosen, though he knew Hoss and Joe would have helped finance.
For now, though, he had to get over to Jeb Miller’s to finalize their deal for his wife’s fresh vegetables, or he’d have Hop Sing to contend with, and that would be enough to ruin anyone’s birthday.
As Ben rode toward town that afternoon, his thoughts turned to past birthdays and the gifts he’d received. A toy sailboat from his father, complete with real canvas which could be hoisted with thin twine “lines” and a rudder that could be tied in place. A night on the town with his brother, John, when they’d found themselves in the same tropical port. His treasured copy of “Paradise Lost” from his first love, Elizabeth, which he’d then given to their son on his sixteenth birthday. A riotously colored bouquet of wildflowers from a laughing Inger, when there was no money for anything else. A silver-backed hairbrush, mirror, and comb set from his darling Marie. They were more expensive than anything his other two wives had been able to afford, but it was the carvings on the silver that had attracted her – tall stately pine trees.
His sons. They’d given him a variety of surprises over the years. Poorly carved ashtrays for his pipe, sloppily painted bookshelves for his room, and a badly plaited set of reins for his horse; a bow and arrow from hopeful eight-year-old Adam, who desperately wanted to learn to use them; a frog from eleven-year-old Hoss who couldn’t bear to turn it out into the cold, wet spring; and tickets to the show at the brand-new theater in Virginia City for himself and seventeen-year-old Joseph, which featured dancing girls.
He laughed softly to himself. All of those presents were treasured as much as whatever they might have come up with this year. He wondered what Hoss had in mind, what Joe had stuffed into that mysterious box, and why Adam had chosen to mention a woman neither had seen for over twenty years.
Mrs. Quincannon. He remembered her quite well. She’d been a quiet woman, steadily and surely going about her duties on the wagon train, never saying much but always there when she was needed. She was alone – her only son and her husband had both died shortly after they started west – and with nothing to go back to she’d headed on to a new life. She’d taken on the role of favorite aunt to all the children, which seemed to bring her a measure of comfort. She always had a drink of water for a thirsty child, or a hanky and a cuddle for a tired, worn-out young one. She gently bullied the older children into helping with the chores and made up games for them to play while they trudged for mile after weary mile alongside the wagons.
While these memories were sweet enough, though, it was her kindness to his family after Inger died that he remembered. She’d fashioned a bottle for baby Hoss and helped put together a comfortable backpack for Ben so he could carry his son. When he had to take his turn on the hunting party, which meant Adam had to drive the team, she took Hoss in her wagon and cared for him until Ben returned. She’d been a godsend to his family, but as he rode up to the International House he was still no closer to understanding why Adam had chosen to bring up her name.
He tied his buckskin to the rail outside the hotel and mounted the steps, only to be greeted at the door by young Johnny Taylor, who worked after school at the livery. “I’ll take your horse, Mr. Cartwright,” he said.
“That’s very kind of you, son, but I don’t know how long I’ll be here.”
“I do,” he replied with a grin. “Mr. Hoss told me to watch out for you, and to take your horse over to the livery for a good rubdown. I’ll have him back here for you when you’re ready.”
Ben raised an eyebrow. “All right, then.” He started to dig in his pocket for a coin, but Johnny raised a hand.
“Oh, no, sir. Mr. Hoss already took care of that.”
“He did, did he?”
“Yes, sir. You’re just supposed to go on inside and enjoy yourself.” And the boy skipped down the steps and led his horse away.
Ben stared after him, wondering what on earth Hoss had planned, then was recalled to the present by a drawl from the doorway.
“You gonna stand out there all night, Ben, or are you gonna come in here and join us?”
“Roy?” Ben turned, and started a bit to see the town sheriff all dressed up in a suit. “Are you in on this, too?”
Roy rubbed at his chin. “Well, that depends on what you mean by ‘this,’ but if you’re talkin’ about the dinner your boy arranged, yep, I guess I am.”
“Dinner?” Ben asked, remembering his earlier thought about Hoss not forgetting to feed him.
“Yep, so come on in, we’re waitin’ on you, and it’s been a long time since lunch for some of us.”
Ben allowed himself to be shepherded into the dining room, where he was surprised and pleased to find several of his oldest and dearest friends, all dressed up, all waiting for him.
Doc Martin stepped forward. “We’ve got a big table at the back, Ben. Everything’s already been ordered and paid for, so all we have to do is sit down and enjoy ourselves.”
And so they did. They laughed and joked their way through a carefully chosen menu of New England-style clam chowder, side dishes of scallops and oysters, a succulent steak that Hoss would have loved— “Ponderosa beef,” said the waiter —served with baked potatoes mounded with butter, the freshest, softest bread, tender asparagus and crisp green beans. There was wine for every course, and rich, strong coffee to accompany the flaming crepes offered for dessert.
Roy Coffee sat back and patted his stomach as the waiter poured glasses of the finest Scotch whiskey and passed them around. “You can sure tell Hoss chose the food, Ben. That’s one of the finest meals I’ve ever had, not countin’ what Hop Sing can do with a duck.”
Ben laughed. “I would have had you all out to the house if I’d known.”
“Nope, Hoss didn’t want that,” said Roy. “Wanted you to come to town. Which made it a sight easier on all of us, I can tell you that, besides gettin’ you outta that big ol’ barn of a house.”
“Oh, that’s what he was doing, was he?” he said with a mock frown. “I’ll have to have a little talk with him about the joys of a quiet house.”
“Admit it, Ben,” inserted Doc Martin. “You enjoyed the suspense. Hoss told us it was going to be a surprise.”
“All right, you all know me too well, anyway.” He swirled his whiskey in its glass, sniffed the smoky aroma. “And it seems Hoss does as well. He picked all of my favorites.” Ben looked up at his friends, and his eyes misted slightly. “And I’m not talking about just the food. Thank you, gentlemen, for sharing this special evening with me.”
There were various levels of coughing and harrumphing, but there wasn’t a man there who wasn’t pleased and honored to be included.
Ben was feeling mellow and warm when he arrived home that night. His smile lingered as he put his horse up and walked back to the house, but then faded just a bit when he entered the darkened and empty living room. He sighed, put his hat and coat on the rack, unbuckled his gunbelt and laid it on the table by the door. He made his way to his desk and turned up the lamp. There sat the remaining presents from his boys. He touched the box from Hoss lightly, and a shadow of his earlier smile returned. It had been a wonderful gift.
He carried the presents from Adam and Joe over to the coffee table, then returned for the brandy. On impulse, he brought the opened box and the letter from Hoss as well and set them next to his two unopened presents. He poked at the embers of the fire Hop Sing must have laid earlier, and added a few pieces of wood until he had a few small but comfortable flames going. A quick trip to the sideboard for a brandy snifter, and he was settled in his favorite red chair.
The brandy was a fine one, smooth until it landed in his stomach when it exploded with delightful warmth. He tilted his head back against the leather and regarded the two presents on the table. He knew he was prolonging the moment in an effort to keep his sons with him, if only in his heart. Once the boxes were all opened, he had a sneaking suspicion he’d feel his birthday was over, without his boys, and he didn’t want to face that. Not yet.
Well, it wouldn’t hurt to open Adam’s gift, and he really wanted to know why his son had made that cryptic reference to that time so long ago.
He pulled on the long end of the silver ribbon. It was no surprise, but a pleasure nonetheless, to see how that one pull unraveled the ribbon, and now that it was free, to watch the paper gently unfold and expose a beautiful inlaid mahogany box. The craftsmanship was exquisite. He ran his thumbs over the thin slivers of what appeared to be cherry and perhaps pine that had been set into the darker wood in a pattern of roses.
Many called the rose a woman’s flower, and so Ben often thought of it since all of his wives had loved them. For Adam’s mother, Elizabeth, it had been the creamy white climbing roses of young innocence that had grown over the trellis in the yard of her childhood home, protecting a love-seat and youthful dreams. For Hoss’ mother, Inger, the wild yellow roses of the prairie, free and joyful, had brought a blush to her cheeks and a smile to her eyes. And Joseph’s mother, Marie, had loved the deep-hearted red rose of mature passion and a treasured second chance. Adam knew. Adam understood.
Ben opened the close-fitting lid, and his heart nearly shattered as a melody started to play. He didn’t know the words, but the lilting melody floated through the darkened room, bringing memories of a terrible time in his life, and of a miracle. Inger had sung this song, and Adam had come to love it. Five years old before he knew any woman well, he had latched onto her as only a motherless child could. When he was ill, sad or lonely, Inger would hold him and rock him and sing him that plaintive melody.
Then she had died, and something had died in Ben as well. He moved through the days, fixed food for his sons, cared for the oxen, put one foot in front of the other day after day, but without any heart, without hope.
Ben swirled the warming brandy in his glass, took a sip, and it wasn’t just the rich, pungent fumes that brought tears to his eyes.
It had been days before he realized that Adam was as silent and somber as he. His son’s eyes were huge dark wells of grief, but the boy just swallowed and carried on, and no tears hung on the sooty lashes. He couldn’t think what to do about it; in fact, he found he couldn’t think at all. He knew Adam needed to cry – it wasn’t right for a boy not to weep for his mother – but he didn’t know how to fix it.
Finally he went to Mrs. Quincannon. She was gentle, but told him a few home truths. It’s not just Inger, she’d said. He’s grieving for you, too. He’s lost both of you, Ben.
He could still feel the punch of those words in his gut.
But Adam wouldn’t sit with him, wouldn’t let him explain, wouldn’t even meet his eyes. He pushed his father away with an excuse about watering the stock or gathering fuel, or even changing Hoss’ diaper. Exhausted from his grief, from the toll the long trek was taking on all of them, he couldn’t see a way to help his son. A week passed, with Adam growing ever more distant, ever more quiet.
Then, one night, Ben woke to an unusual silence that it took him a moment to recognize – he couldn’t hear Adam breathing. Panicked, he lit the lantern and discovered his son was gone. Adam! he gasped. He checked Hoss quickly, made sure he was tucked securely in his cradleboard, then hopped out of the back of the wagon. He cast about with the lantern, but didn’t see any tracks he could identify. He called his son’s name quietly – if he was near, Ben didn’t want to wake the others. No answer.
He’d have to leave Hoss with Mrs. Quincannon. He headed for her wagon to ask her to watch his baby, but when he was almost there he heard a faint humming, a lovely, familiar melody. He called out to her softly, and the flap at the back of her wagon lifted slightly. He climbed up and peered inside to see his son snuggled up against her, eyes dark with misery. She continued to hum what he now recognized as Inger’s song, and suddenly his sorrow burst forth. Tears streaming down his face, he reached for his boy. Adam! Oh, Adam! he’d wept.
His young son had practically leapt into his arms, crying, Pa, don’t leave me. I love you, Pa, please don’t leave me!
Never! he’d sworn. I love you, too, Adam, and I’ll never, ever leave you.
His boy had cried hysterically, pouring out his fear and longing as Ben held him and murmured words of love and comfort. It had taken a long time for him to settle into hiccups and quiet sobs, and for Ben to calm as well. Eventually he became aware that Mrs. Quincannon was still humming, even though tears shimmered on her cheeks as well.
Adam? he’d asked quietly.
Those deeply expressive eyes had looked up at him, drenched in tears, and he’d said, I love you, Pa.
Ben set the empty brandy snifter on the table, only now aware that the music had slowed and stopped. He ran his fingers over the lid of the box again. Such a gift, and so like Adam with its hidden message. He didn’t know how often he would be able to listen to that delicate song, but every glimpse of the lovely box would be a silent declaration from his eldest: I love you, Pa.
Unable to sit still any longer, he rose and stretched, poked the fire back to life, then wandered aimlessly into the kitchen for a cup of strong coffee. He returned to his chair but didn’t sit down – he just stood there drinking his coffee and looking at the objects on the low table.
Joe’s large box still sat there.
Wondering what his youngest had in store for him, he set his cup on the hearth and approached it with a certain amount of trepidation. He’d run the gamut of emotions today and didn’t know how much more he could take. He couldn’t leave Joe’s gift unopened, though, so he gently untied the ribbon, gently pulled the paper to the floor.
There was no hint on the outside of what it might contain. It was about six inches from front to back and almost a foot in length, and was almost a foot and a half tall. When he tapped on it, there was a faint rattling inside, but he didn’t open it yet. He examined it carefully from all angles, noting the well-fitted hinges on the back of the lid and the push-button on the front, which was clearly labeled “press here.”
Not at all sure he wanted to follow those directions, he took a deep breath and did as instructed.
With a loud twang! the box exploded. Ben leaped backwards, landing awkwardly in his chair, as sparkles of brightly colored confetti littered the air. Three objects protruded from the box, bobbing and weaving with such enthusiasm that for a moment he couldn’t figure out what they were. Then he burst out laughing. Three small cowboys were nodding their heads and waving their arms – the one to the left dressed all in black, the large middle one wearing a tall white hat and brown vest, and the small one on the right dressed in a miniature green corduroy jacket. A small banner was draped from the tiny Joe’s left hand to the small Adam’s right, with the words “Happy Birthday” written across it in his youngest son’s handwriting.
Where on earth did he find this! Ben wondered, still laughing. Then, the more pertinent question, and who did he con into helping him?
He watched the last of the confetti fall, settling into a magnificent carpet of color. It could only have been Hop Sing – the Chinese loved explosions and fireworks. His cook was no exception, and he’d passed that love on to his sons. Especially Joe. Ben shook his head in wonder as he gazed at his presents.
From Adam, a melody, a box of rare beauty, and a wealth of memories. From Hoss, good food and good friends. And from Joseph, surprises and laughter.
Wonderful gifts from his sons, each expressing so clearly who they were. But the greatest gift of all was what came with each one. The love.
And the expected wave of loneliness from having finished his birthday didn’t descend on him. Instead, he felt the warm presence of each boy, just as if they’d been standing in the room with him. A birthday he’d never forget.
Author’s Note: Written, as all our stories are, with grateful thanks to Mr. Dortort for creating and giving us such wonderful characters. The actors breathed life into the Cartwrights, but Mr. D’s hand was always evident in the strong, loving relationships. Although we know they aren’t real, Ben, Adam, Hoss, Joe and all the other residents of the Ponderosa showed us that, in the end, it’s the love we have for each other that matters. Thank you.