Word Count: 7700
“Is it time, Papa?” an excited Joe asked with a tug at his father’s shirt.
Ben looked down at his youngest with an amused smile playing on his lips. “Do you remember how many times the clock has to ring before we start gathering the wood?”
“This many,” Joe said, holding up three fingers.
“That’s right. Why don’t you go upstairs and play while you wait for the clock?”
“Can I play with Adam?”
“If he’s not busy.”
Little Joe’s boots clattered on the stairs as he excitedly ran to his oldest brother’s room. Ben shook his head at his son’s back and wondered where all of that energy came from.
Marie came out of the kitchen with a tray bearing two steaming cups of hot cocoa. As she sat down on the settee, a contented sigh escaped into the cup. The Nevada winters were so incredibly cold compared to her native New Orleans and some days she felt that her bones practically rattled as she went about her activities. She was thankful that Ben, Hop Sing, and both Adam and Hoss helped to keep the fire roaring all winter long to warm the house. Sometimes she felt as if she were a delicate flower being pampered in a greenhouse so she’d bloom beautifully in the spring.
She snuggled into the crook of Ben’s arm as she deeply inhaled the scents of various dishes cooking under Hop Sing’s supervision within the confines of the kitchen. The Reveillon had been an important tradition prior to her parents’ deaths and she appreciated that the cook was pleased to have a reason to exercise his talents at Christmas time by preparing some of her native cuisine.
“Penny for your thoughts,” said Ben.
“A whole penny?” she asked, looking up through her eyelashes, a smile twitching at her lips.
“Where’s that sprig of mistletoe?”
“Is that the only way I’ll receive a kiss, mon cher?”
“I hope not,” he answered with a mischievous grin before setting their cups on the table.
Bounding into Adam’s room, Little Joe saw his oldest brother was drawing; going over to the desk, he stood on tiptoe for a look. He expected to see a house or barn, not Santa’s sleigh being pulled by reindeer. “That looks just like Santa!”
“You think so?”
“Yeah! You ever met him?”
“Nope.” Adam didn’t have the heart to tell his youngest brother that he’d used their father as a model.
“How does Santa know if I’ve been good?”
Looking down, Adam replied, “He just does.”
“Santa has a magic looking glass so he can see anywhere in the world. If he thinks of someone, he can see what they’re doing.”
Little Joe’s eyebrows shot up. “Do you think he saw when I pushed Hoss in the hay?”
“Or when I soaped your saddle real good?”
“That was you?”
“I’m sure Santa saw you doing that.”
Tears began to well in Little Joe’s eyes. If he’d known that Santa saw everything, he never would have tasted Papa’s tobacco.
Adam pulled his brother to him in a hug and said, “It’s okay, Buddy. I’m sure you didn’t do anything so bad that Santa will only bring you coal.”
Little Joe wasn’t thinking of himself—he was thinking of all the things he’d asked Santa to bring to his family. What if no one got anything now because he’d been bad?
His thoughts were interrupted by Hop Sing entering the room with a tray of steaming mugs of cocoa. Hoss was on his heels, anxious to get at the fresh-baked sugar cookies.
“What do you want for Christmas?” Little Joe asked the cook.
“Hop Sing want everyone eat all of food.” Seeing Little Joe’s disappointed look, he added, “And new apron.”
Little Joe’s eyes lit up—that’s exactly what he’d asked Santa to bring Hop Sing.
Munching on a cookie, Hoss said, “It’ll be time soon, Little Joe. You’d best get your coat and mittens.”
“Papa said to wait for the clock.”
Sitting down on the bed, Hoss held a hand cupped near his chin to catch cookie crumbs. Between bites he said, “You still have to get ready for going outside. Besides, I wanna talk to Adam.”
Taking the hint, Little Joe took three cookies from the tray and headed for his room. Hoss checked the hallway since the youngest Cartwright was notorious for eavesdropping and then he shut the door.
“I don’t wanna sleep with Little Joe tonight. He jabbers so much that I won’t get no sleep.”
“One of us has to, since Pa and Marie won’t let him sleep with them. Besides, he can’t talk all night.”
“He came durned near close last year.”
“You can’t blame him for being excited.”
“It ain’t just that. When he did go to sleep, he kicked me so dadburned much that I couldn’t get comfortable.”
With a crooked smile, Adam said, “Know who he reminds me of?”
Hoss snorted and said, “I wasn’t never like that!”
“You sure were. You kept me up asking for stories or telling me how you were gonna help fix up some critter. Some nights I only got a couple hours of sleep because you snored so loud.”
“I don’t snore!”
Holding up a hand, Adam said, “All I’m saying is that you were the same way at Little Joe’s age, and I’m sure if you asked Pa, he’d say I was like that, too.”
“Well dadburnit, Adam, I don’t see why one of us has to sleep with him.”
“It’s one of the privileges of being a big brother.”
As Hoss thought that over, there was a knock at the door. The boys exchanged a look and Hoss placed a hand on the knob. “Who is it?”
“Open the door.”
Ben walked in and looked from one son to the other. He was sure they were up to something but he didn’t think he wanted to know.
“One of you boys has to sleep with Little Joe and I was hoping one of you would volunteer.” The silence let Ben know he would have to make the decision. He came prepared, though, and held forth two matches. “Whoever gets the short match sleeps with Little Joe.”
Hoss looked to Adam hoping his older brother would go first.
“Youth before age,” said Adam.
Reluctantly, Hoss selected his match; Adam’s frown told Hoss that he was off the hook this year.
“Just remember, it’s one of the privileges of being a big brother.” Hoss happily picked up a couple of cookies and headed downstairs, oblivious to Adam’s glare at his back.
“It’s only for tonight,” Ben tried to reassure his eldest.
“I know,” muttered Adam. He wasn’t relishing the thought of being elbowed in the ribs by his restless four-year-old brother or telling the same stories over and over all night long. He wondered if Marie had any of that cough syrup hidden away in the kitchen.
“I know that look,” said Ben poking his eldest in the chest, “so don’t try anything Santa wouldn’t approve of.”
Adam glanced at the floor and said, “No, sir, I won’t.”
A loud, “I’m ready,” ended any lecture Ben might have thought of giving. He stepped into the hallway and collided with a bundled up Little Joe.
“The clock hasn’t . . . ,” Ben began but the large case clock downstairs began to ring before he could finish.
“It’s time!” hollered Little Joe as he thundered down the stairs.
Ben chuckled at his youngest’s enthusiasm and excitement.
Hoss came out of his room, wrapping his thick, woolen scarf around his neck. “You reckon that wood Adam and I chopped and scattered will be enough?”
“I’m sure it will, son. You’d better get down there before he drags your mother outside.”
“Yes, sir.” Hoss started down the stairs and saw his little brother pulling at the ornaments on the tree. “Best not do that, Little Joe—Santa’s still watchin’.” He was amazed to see Little Joe’s hands go straight into his pockets.
Ben came downstairs with Marie’s mink coat and beaver muff. The furs smelled of the cedar chest in which she kept them in the warmer months. He’d always associate the scents of cedar with his wife.
Adam came down to the first floor, pulling his gloves on. He frowned as he tugged at the leather, trying to completely cover his hands. If he’d realized that he’d needed new ones, he would’ve put them at the top of his list.
The bundled up Cartwright family headed out the backdoor to the cleared area Adam had selected for this year’s bonfire. Little Joe squirmed as he waited for the signal so they could begin their Christmas Eve tradition.
“On three, boys. One . . . two . . . .” Before Ben could complete the word, “three,” Little Joe was off and running with Hoss hot on his heels. Ben turned to look at Marie and saw the faraway, almost wistful look in her eyes. What he wouldn’t give to allow her to relive her childhood, wrapped in the security and love of her parents. His attention was brought back to the moment with the dull thud of a log as Little Joe dropped it before running off to find another one.
Marie dug her hands firmly into her muff as she watched her boys scamper through the snow to collect the wood. Adam didn’t hide the logs, but it was almost as if an Easter egg hunt was being conducted with Petit Joseph’s shouts of, “I got one!” ringing through the frosty air. As fast as her boys found the wood, they ran back and deposited it for their father and Adam to stack before running off again. Ben didn’t allow Adam to build a large tower as the ones back home had been.
Seeing her boys removing their coats made her shiver but then she realized they were staying plenty warm by searching out the wood for the bonfire.
Ben and Adam got the last pieces of their tower in place and some kindling and pine straw placed inside to get the fire started. Adam pulled a match from his pocket and struck it against one of the logs in the tower. The smell of sulfur was briefly carried on the chilly air as a flame sputtered into life. He squatted down and held the burning match to the tinder within the bonfire tower until it began to smolder. He rejoined the rest of the family as the kindling began to glow. Soon, the lower portion of the bonfire tower was alight.
As she watched the blaze begin, Marie remembered a conversation she and Adam had had when Petit Joseph was celebrating his first Christmas. Adam had asked if she would mind if he built a bonfire tower like the ones lit on Christmas Eve in her birthplace.
“How did you learn to build a tower such as that?”
“In New Orleans. Pa and I were there for Christmas one year. I watched them build the bonfires along the river.”
“Oh? Was Hoss with you?”
“No, Ma’am. He was back here with Shaughnessy and the hands.”
“Why is it that you went with your pere?”
“Pa said it was time I got my sea legs.”
“Did you enjoy New Orleans?”
“From where did you watch the building of the bonfires?”
“I sat up on the levee and used a spy glass loaned by Captain White, one of Pa’s sailing friends. The smoke from the steamboats sometimes made it hard to see downriver, but I could hear them chopping the timber and shouting as the towers were built.”
“Did you walk to the Vieux Carre to get a better look?”
“No, Ma’am. Pa would’ve had my hide if I’d done that without his knowing. ‘Sides, he was busy most days buying supplies and most nights talking with friends at supper parties.”
“Friends such as Captain White?”
“Yes, Ma’am, and Lord Dunsford, Earl Chadwick, and Linda Lovelace. I think Miss Linda was sweet on Pa, especially after he gave her a music box sorta like my mother’s.”
“But Earl Chadwick seemed kind of sweet on Miss Linda.”
“Your pere didn’t court her?”
“Pa was too busy telling stories about what we did back on the Ponderosa to have time for courtin’. Anyway, it was Christmas, and I guess he just wanted to give her something pretty for a present.”
“Did your pere allow you to watch the fires burn on Christmas Eve?”
“Not directly. Captain White’s house had a balcony and I watched from there. It was kinda disappointing to see all of that work burn up, though.”
Marie was brought back to the present as a gust of wind blew powdery snow through the air. She adjusted the scarf that covered her ears and went round her neck and then quickly put her hand back into the warmth of the muff. A smile lit her face into radiance and she couldn’t help but laugh when a snowball smacked into the back of Ben’s head and he and Adam quickly scooped up snow to retaliate against their attackers.
Adam and his brothers were soon wrestling in the snow as Ben and Marie looked on, laughing as Hoss and Joe tried to gain an advantage. Hoss and Adam were about evenly matched but Little Joe fiercely clung to Hoss’ back once his bigger brother had Adam pinned.
Hop Sing poked his head out of the kitchen and yelled, “Goose almost finish. You wash up before dinner ruined.”
The wrestling immediately came to an end and the boys got up, dusting snow from their coats and pants. Afterwards, Marie and the boys went inside while Ben waited for Carl Reagan, son of the Ponderosa’s foreman, to come out back to tend the fire. It would be his job to watch over it to make sure it didn’t get out of hand or send any stray sparks into the trees, resulting in a forest fire.
Just as Ben’s temper was beginning to rise because he’d been waiting for fifteen minutes, Carl ambled over. Rather than scold the young man, Ben said, “Let it burn until 8 o’clock, then you can put it out.”
“I have to sit out here in the cold and watch that fire?” Carl asked in a surly tone of voice.
“I’m paying you to tend the fire,” Ben reminded. “Hop Sing will make sure you have plenty of hot coffee. Or you can tell your father that you didn’t want to and I can pay one of the hands.”
Carl quickly turned on the charm and said, “No, sir. I’ll take care of it. You can count on me.”
“Good,” said Ben as he squeezed Carl’s shoulder in a friendly way before heading into the house.
Carl shot a glare at Ben’s back as his father’s boss went inside to the warmth of the house. It wasn’t fair that the Cartwrights had so much while he and his pa shared a room separate from the hands in the bunkhouse.
Hop Sing brought out a steaming tureen of turtle soup as the Cartwrights sat down for their dinner. The smell of the hearty stew transported Marie back to her the happier days of her childhood, before her parents died from the fever, and the Reveillon dinners at her Del Vyre grandparents’ house.
Her family gathered at the cozy house with its lacy iron work on Rue St. Ann in the late afternoon for a light meal. At 11 pm, everyone donned their coats for the walk to St. Louis Cathedral, the ladies young and old carrying delicate, Venetian lace in their pockets that they’d cover their heads with before entering the church. She and her young cousins walked arm-in-arm, singing carols, while the adults walked at a more leisurely pace. Up on the levee, the bonfires, lit to point the way for Pere Noel, provided a blazing light to guide the Vieux Carre’s residents to Mass much as the bright star must have directed the three wise men to the crèche in which the baby Jesus lay.
When another family group making the trip to Mass was encountered, all would stop to briefly exchange greetings, the children receiving hugs and kisses from family friends called “Tante” or “Oncle,” and the larger group then continued on. Enticing aromas of ducks, roasts, suckling pigs, oyster gumbo, pecan pie, and myriad other dishes swirled through the chilly night air from small kitchens placed behind houses. Everyone’s stomachs growled in anticipation of the dinner that would be eaten following Mass.
Upon arriving at the Cathedral, families gathered in the courtyard to exchange pleasantries and wish each other a Joyeux Noel. The bishop drifted through the crowd, greeting parishioners with a handshake and bestowing blessings on the children, before going inside to don his vestments. When the bells began ringing to call the faithful to Mass, family groups reformed to enter the church and to sit together in the pews they normally occupied on Sundays.
The haze from the incense and many burning candles stung her eyes as the bishop spoke words in Latin that she didn’t understand. She often spent part of Mass looking at the backs of the de Marigny family seated in a pew placed prominently before the altar. She’d heard whispers that young Jean’s mother was disliked by old Madame de Marigny as someone who’d married to get her fingers on a fortune. Marie didn’t know what that meant but figured it must have something to do with the sour expression that always seemed to be on Jean’s mother’s face.
Following Mass, families exchanged good-byes before setting off for home and the Reveillon. After her family reached home, coats were put up and everyone gathered for a short prayer to thank God for His blessings throughout the year and the gift of His only Son. Afterwards, plates were handed out and everyone ate heartily from the multitude of dishes that had been prepared. When all had eaten their fill, everyone went to bed.
Following her parents’ deaths, she was sent to the Ursuline Convent, since her father died in debt and her closest relatives couldn’t afford another mouth to feed. The nuns celebrated Mass within the confines of the Convent church rather than the Cathedral, and the children were required to attend Mass on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As the Christmas Eve Mass was in the early evening, there was no Reveillon to look forward to in the early hours of Christmas morning and there were no gifts to exchange later on Christmas Day; the only gifts the children received were oranges or rosaries instead of toys.
After everyone had gone to bed and lamps had been extinguished, she’d sneak out of the dormitory room the girls shared and slip through a window to climb into her tree to look over the Convent wall. From there, the river’s murky surface reflected the dancing light of the fires along the levee to light the way for Pere Noel, and the sounds of families heading for Mass at the Cathedral carried through the air.
“Hmm?” Marie asked, suddenly brought out of her reminiscing.
“Missy like oyster dressing?”
“Mais oui, it’s delicious.”
Hop Sing smiled with pride knowing that one member of the family appreciated his skills. “You eat before food get cold,” he said with a look for the boys before returning to the kitchen.
After dinner, Little Joe insisted on going outside to see the bonfire. After bundling up, Adam took his little brother out the back door. Carl was sitting on the bench on the porch, whittling by the firelight. “Hi, Carl.”
“Hi Adam, Joe.” Carl felt annoyance at Little Joe for not saying hello.
Once Little Joe was satisfied that the fire was blazing brightly, he was ready to go back inside. Papa would soon be telling him to go to bed so Santa could find their house.
Carl’s eyes narrowed in hostility after the Cartwright boys went back inside. That little Cartwright brat hadn’t even thanked him for tending to the fire.
Adam stared at the ceiling in hopes that his little brother would get tired of talking and go to sleep. Instead, Joe would come up with another question and expect an answer. Occasionally he wouldn’t wait for an answer before launching into the next question.
“How come Mama calls Santa Pere Noel?”
“Because that’s what he’s called in French.”
“That don’t sound like Santa Claus.”
“It means Father Christmas.”
“I like Santa Claus better. Makes him sound nicer.”
“Aren’t you tired?”
“Nope. Do you think Santa really has reindeer?”
“How can a reindeer fly?”
“Santa has special reindeer, that’s why.”
“Oh. I ain’t never seen a deer fly.”
“Regular deer can’t. Besides, we don’t have reindeer here—just white-tails and mule deer.”
“Does an elk look like a reindeer?”
“Sort of. How about we go to sleep?”
“I ain’t tired. How come elk can’t fly?”
“Maybe they could if Santa used them instead of reindeer.”
“Do you think his reindeer get tired? Does he have to stop to rest?”
“Maybe the reindeer get a little nap when they land so Santa can deliver presents. Why don’t we go to sleep so Santa will come to our house?”
“I wanna stay up until Santa comes.”
“He won’t come if we’re awake. He only stops at houses where everyone’s sleeping.”
“I’m goin’ to sleep then.”
Adam took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he hoped his little brother would be true to his word. He wished that Hoss had gotten the short straw this year.
“You asleep yet Adam?”
“I thought you were going to sleep.”
“I ain’t tired yet. Does Hop Sing believe in Santa?”
“You’ll have to ask him in the morning.”
“Will Santa still come even if Hop Sing doesn’t believe?”
“Did Santa come last year?”
“Then he’ll come this year, too. If we go to sleep.”
“Okay. You better go to sleep, Adam, so morning will get here.”
Adam yawned in hopes that Little Joe would get the hint.
Little Joe squirmed a bit to get comfortable and then said, “Sleep tight.”
“Sleep tight, Little Joe.”
“Adam! Wake up!” Joe shook the mattress harder to get his oldest brother’s attention; the only response was some muttering.
“Wake up! The fire’s gone!”
Hearing the word “fire,” Adam’s brain immediately became alert. Fire was nature’s most dangerous weapon on land full of pine trees, and if there was a fire he, Pa, and the hands would have to act fast. Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, he heard a thunk followed by a squeak.
“Is that you, Little Joe?”
Pulling himself up by clinging to his brother’s nightshirt, Little Joe said, “The fire’s gone! Santa won’t find us now!”
Now Adam was confused—first there was a fire and now there wasn’t. What did Santa have to do with a fire? His sleepy mind struggled to wake up and grasped for the connection between fire and Santa. He yawned and ran a hand through his hair, still not seeing what fire had to do with a man delivering presents.
“If Santa can’t see us, he won’t bring us presents!” Little Joe’s voice was becoming more insistent with a touch of panic. If Santa couldn’t find them, none of the presents he’d requested for his family would be delivered. He wanted to see Mama looking pretty with those new combs in her hair and Hoss walking in his new boots and Papa smoking his new pipe. Most of all, he wanted to see Adam wearing his new vest with shiny silver buttons.
“Calm down,” Adam said through a yawn. “How do you know Santa hasn’t already been here?”
“I checked.” Joe tugged at his brother’s hand, hoping to pull him out of the bed. “You gotta put your boots on and make the fire come back.”
Sleep’s cobwebs were finally lifting from Adam’s mind and he now understood that Joe wanted to go outside to relight the fire. He managed to encircle his little brother’s waist and pull him into the bed but was quickly rewarded with a kick in the shin. “Ow! Are you wearing boots?”
“You ain’t gonna tell Santa, are you?” Little Joe asked in a trembling voice.
“No,” Adam answered in a loud whisper. “Now settle down.” He tried to hold his squirming brother but it was as if he was trying to keep a piglet still.
“How will Santa know where we are if we don’t make the fire real big?” asked Joe, his lower lip quivering.
“Tell you what. We’ll build up the fire in the fireplace so Santa will see the smoke coming from the chimney and know we’re home. How does that sound?”
Little Joe sniffled and wiped at his nose with the sleeve of his nightshirt. “But how will Santa get in the house if he can’t come down the chimney?”
“You’d be surprised,” Adam answered in what he hoped was a reassuring voice. “I remember one time when Santa got down the chimney and squeezed through the fireplace when Hop Sing left a large pot of soup over the fire. The pot hadn’t been moved so I knew Santa was able to get around it without any problems.”
Adam pulled his robe on over his nightshirt and told Little Joe to take his boots off. He softly told his brother they had to be quiet when going down the stairs so everyone else wouldn’t wake up. Then, the older boy took the younger by the hand and they made their way down the staircase.
Once downstairs, Adam pulled the poker from its resting place and stirred up the coals and embers. Little Joe looked around the tree and noticed that Santa hadn’t been yet since there weren’t any new presents. He hoped that Santa hadn’t gone past the Ponderosa because the fire had burned out.
“Come help me get a few logs,” Adam whispered to Little Joe. The two boys padded across the room in bare feet, hoping to avoid any squeaky spots. When they reached the door, Adam wished he’d put his boots on after all.
He slowly lifted up the latch and winced when it squeaked. Both he and Little Joe stole a quick look around and decided no one probably heard the noise. As soon as Adam opened the door, a gust of cold air rushed into the room, making him briefly think twice about his decision to get the fire going again. The need for warmth soon won out over the wisdom of leaving his bed and Adam darted out to the wood box. He quickly handed a couple of stout logs through the door and then grabbed up several to carry in his own arms.
Little Joe dropped his logs with a loud “thunk” on the hearth and Adam grimaced at the noise. If they weren’t careful, Pa would soon be downstairs telling them to get back to bed where they belonged. As he gently set down his own burden, he was relieved that no sounds other than Hoss’ snoring came from the second floor.
Adam added a couple of logs to the flickering flames and soon had a warm fire going. He pulled Pa’s red leather chair closer to the fireplace and beckoned Little Joe over. Little Joe made himself comfortable in Adam’s lap as his older brother propped his feet on the coffee table for the fire’s heat to warm.
Adam took in the shadows dancing across his youngest brother’s face and the firelight reflecting in his eyes. “You know we have to be asleep for Santa to bring presents.”
“But I’m not sleepy,” said Little Joe through a yawn. “Are you sure Santa will find us?”
“How do you know?”
“’Old Santeclaus with much delight, His reindeer drives this frosty night. O’er chimney tops, and tracks of snow, To bring his yearly gifts to you’,” quoted Adam from memory.
“But Mama says Santa needs the fires so he can see his way. How do you know he’ll be able to find us without the fire?”
“He found Pa and me when we were staying with Uncle John, when we were traveling with the wagon train, when we started building the Ponderosa, and when we were in New Orleans. That’s how I know.”
“But are you sure?”
Adam hugged his little brother closer and said, “When Pa and Hoss and me were traveling with the wagon train…”
“When Hoss was a baby?”
“Yup, Hoss was still a baby so he didn’t know about Santa. We were stopped in Diamond Springs since we wouldn’t be able to go any farther until the spring thaw.”
“Because of the snow?”
“That’s right. There were twenty-five families camped there with us. Most everyone lived in small shelters that they’d built, but a few lived in their wagons.”
“Did you help Pa build yours?”
“Sure did. Pa knew how to build so the wind couldn’t get through and make us cold. Some of the other shelters had gaps in the frames that could be seen through.”
“I bet they were cold.”
“Did anyone die?”
Adam looked into his brother’s face and imagined himself as a small boy, trying to be brave so his father wouldn’t have to take care of him so much. When Timmy, his best friend, died that winter, he tried to not cry when Pa could hear him. Instead, he burrowed under his quilt and tried to sob quietly. One night, Pa pulled him out from under the blanket, held him tight, and said that it was okay to cry when loved ones and best friends died.
“A few people died that winter. But you asked me how Santa knew where we were.”
Quickly forgetting his previous question, Little Joe asked through a yawn, “Did you have a great big fire?”
“No, because we didn’t want the sparks to catch the shelters or the wagons on fire.” Adam stared into the fire, a faraway look in his eyes, as he remembered those lean years of his childhood. “We had a small fire in our shelter that Pa banked for the night. Pa knew how to build a fire so it’d throw off a lot of heat instead of smoke. We slept with Hoss between us to keep him warm.
“That Christmas, all I wanted was a carved covered wagon. I had a jackknife of my own and I could make little animals, like the ones in Hoss’ room. A wagon was much harder, though, and even though I tried and tried, I just couldn’t ever get it right. I finally gave up and decided to stick with carving animals that I thought I could maybe sell if we needed money.
“When I woke up Christmas morning, Pa and Hoss were still sleeping. I started to get up and felt something between me and Hoss. It was a perfectly carved wooden wagon. Even the little wheels moved. I was so happy I woke Pa up to show him. He was pleased but said to get started on breakfast.
“I played with the little wagon every day, and even let Hoss chew on it some when he was teething. It was in bad shape, though, by the time we got settled here on the Ponderosa. That was before Pa met your mama. I wish I knew what happened to it,” Adam said as he stifled a yawn.
He looked down and saw that Little Joe was sound asleep. Since he didn’t want to risk waking his little brother up and having to deal with his insistent chattering again, he decided to stay put in the chair. As he relaxed into the beginnings of slumber, he remembered the joy a simple wooden wagon had brought him that Christmas. It seemed so long ago.
Marie descended the stairs, surprised by the quiet. The only sounds were Ben walking around their room as he dressed and Hop Sing cooking breakfast. She inhaled deeply and her stomach growled at the mingling smells of bacon, flapjacks, and coffee.
She was briefly taken aback at the sight of the red leather chair pulled close to the fireplace but she couldn’t see who occupied it. She stepped between it and the tree and a smile spread across her face as she took in her sons sleeping together, Adam’s cheek resting atop his younger brother’s curls and Petit Joseph’s head on his older brother’s shoulder. Marie wished there was a way to quickly capture this moment but he sketching skills weren’t adequate enough to do it justice.
Ben came downstairs with a heavy step and was surprised to see Marie place a finger to her lips indicating that he should be quiet. Curious about what had her attention, he joined her and held her close as they looked at the boys. Adam may have gotten the short straw but he couldn’t have been too annoyed with his little brother to end up sleeping with him in a chair in front of the fire.
He gently shook Adam’s shoulder, saying, “Wake up, son.”
Adam slowly rolled his head, making popping noises in his neck, as he became aware of his surroundings. “What time is it?” he finally asked.
“Time to get up and get ready for breakfast,” answered Ben.
Adam gently cradled Little Joe to him as he rose from the chair; his little brother didn’t even wake up.
Marie kissed Adam’s cheek and then the top of her Petit Joseph’s head before Adam went upstairs. She smiled as she watched them, one of her little boy’s arms gently hitting his older brother’s thigh in time with his steps.
Ben gently placed a little extra pressure around his wife’s waist to get her attention. “Merry Christmas, Darling.”
She smiled up at him, said, “Joyeux Noel,” and kissed him.
“Hey! Santa came!” said Hoss as he raced down the stairs, interrupting his parents. “Adam an’ Little Joe better hurry up and get down here so we can open presents.”
“They’ll be down shortly,” said Ben. “Why don’t you go see if Hop Sing could use any help.”
Hoss was more than happy to comply with his father’s request as it meant he might get a treat or two from the cook.
Upstairs, Adam had placed Little Joe on the bed so he could get dressed. As he took off his robe, he noticed a bit of extra weight in one of the pockets. Reaching in, his fingers felt something smooth and made from wood. His eyes widened in surprise to see the carved covered wagon he thought he’d lost several years before. How did Santa get hold of this? he wondered.
“What’s that?” asked Little Joe as he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.
“It’s something that I had when I was a bit older than you. I lost it a long time ago.”
“How’d you get it back?”
“I don’t know.” Adam’s brows together as he frowned in thought. “Last night I was telling you about it and this morning it was in my pocket.”
Little Joe’s face lit up in surprise and he knew how it got there. “Santa brung it when he stopped here. He must have seen the fire like you said he would.” He was hurriedly tugging on his pants as he said, “Hurry up!”
Little Joe raced down the stairs with Adam on his heels. Marie and Ben were startled by the noise their sons were making in their haste.
“Slow down,” said Ben as he scooped up his youngest. “Where are you going in such a hurry?”
“I wanna see what Santa brung.”
“There’ll be plenty of time after breakfast,” said Marie as Hop Sing and Hoss brought out platters of flapjacks and bacon.
“Eat food while hot. Save foolishment with presents.”
“But, Hopsy . . .,” Little Joe began to whine.
“No but,” said the cook with a mock glare for son number three.
As his brothers and mother headed for the table, Adam touched Pa’s arm and said, “Look.” He held out the little wooden covered wagon.
Ben took it from his hand and looked it over. Memories of living in a crude shelter by the spring those many years ago came back. Along with them came the picture of his eldest son, trying so hard to be a man instead of a little boy as he grieved for his best friend. He’d waited until his sons were asleep before working on the wagon as a surprise and he remembered the delight on Adam’s face when he found it that Christmas day.
“I lost it shortly after we got here,” said Adam. “How did it get in my pocket?”
“Santa must have known what was in your heart and brought it back to you,” said Ben as he put his arm around his son’s shoulders for a brief hug.
The two joined the rest of the family at the table to eat as Hop Sing had commanded. Adam set the wagon on the table in front of his plate.
Marie said, “That’s an exquisite carving, mon fils. Did you make it?”
“Santa brung it,” said Little Joe around a mouthful of flapjack.
“Don’t speak with your mouth full of food,” said Marie.
“Yes, Ma’am,” replied Little Joe as he shoved the food to one cheek with his tongue.
“Didn’t you have that when you was a kid?” asked Hoss.
“Yeah,” said Adam. He stroked the smooth wood with a finger before rolling it back and forth in front of his plate.
When everyone had eaten their fill and Hop Sing had stopped scolding his family to eat before the food was ruined, they went to the tree to open presents. Joe wanted to tear into the packages but Hoss held him back as Pa pulled presents from under the tree and gave them to the recipients.
Marie opened a small box and was delighted to see a pair of delicate tortoiseshell combs with silver inlay. She placed them in her hair and then leaned forward to kiss her husband.
Ben briefly shook a small box before his sons told him to open it. He removed the ribbon and wrapping paper in a way that both could be reused; his frugality wouldn’t allow him to tear either. As the boys clamored for him to show his present, he opened a corner of the box and his brows drew together as he worked to open it further. Within the box was a silver locket with intricate scrollwork on the cover and a small fleur-de-lis pin that could be attached to a ribbon for use as a watch fob. He pulled it from the box and examined it before he figured out how to open it by sliding the top to the side. A portrait of his wife was nestled inside.
“This is beautiful,” said Ben softly. “And so is the picture.”
“I’m glad you like it, Mon Cher,” said Marie before her husband kissed her.
“Open this one!” yelled Little Joe as he handed another box to Pa.
As Ben opened it, Little Joe hoped it was what he’d asked Santa to bring. He let out a whoop of joy as his father pulled a pipe and a pouch of cherry tobacco from the box.
“Thank you, boys,” said Ben.
Adam nodded to his father as Little Joe said, “Thank Santa. He brung it.”
“Well then, thank you, Santa,” said Ben, indulging his youngest.
Ben handed a large box to Hoss and a smaller box to Adam. Both boys eagerly opened their gifts. Hoss was pleased to see a new pair of boots, and he quickly shucked his old ones to try on the new.
Adam pulled a new vest from his box. Little Joe was pleased to see that there were silver buttons on it, as that was what he’d asked Santa to bring.
Noticing the tissue paper in the bottom of the box, Adam gently pulled it back to see a new pair of black leather gloves. He put them on, and with a huge smile, he held up his hands for all to see. There was even some extra room at the tips of his fingers. “Thank you,” he said.
“Santa musta brung ‘em,” said Little Joe.
“What did you receive?” asked Adam to his youngest brother.
Little Joe finally tore into the paper wrapping his gift, with pieces flying to different areas of the floor. Inside was a carved wooden horse, painted black and white to look like an Indian pony. His eyes lit up in wonder when he realized that the head and legs were made so they could be moved. “How’d Santa know?” he asked.
“Santa knows what’s in your heart,” said Ben, looking at Adam.
Adam looked down at the little carved wagon and remembered that he and Hoss had talked about it earlier in the year, when Hoss wanted to know about his mother and the journey West. He was too old to believe in Santa, but how else could he have gotten back a long-ago cherished toy he’d lost?
Finally, Hop Sing was the only one left who hadn’t opened a gift. He carefully removed the paper and saw a spotless white apron. As he pulled it from the package, he saw a tan leather vest underneath. While the apron was what he’d asked for in the assumption that he was just a cook, he blinked back tears as he realized he was an accepted member of the Cartwright family. His employer and eldest son wore leather vests and now he had one, too. “Thank you. Thank you very much,” he said as he bowed to his family.
“You’re very welcome,” said Marie with a big smile.
As Ben and Adam began gathering up the paper and boxes, Little Joe tried to figure out a way to attach his new horse to Adam’s wagon. Hoss walked back and forth through the big room breaking in his new boots.
Hop Sing proudly put his new vest on after tying his new apron around his waist. A large smile beamed on his face as he began to clear the table.
Later that day, Ben and Marie were nestled together on the settee while their sons were outside having a snowball fight. Ben admired the locket he’d received and slid the cover back and forth in one hand.
“Do you like it?” Marie asked.
“Now you’ll never forget me, especially on those long trips to California,” Marie said with a humorous twitch of her lips.
“I could never forget you,” he said as he drew her in for a long kiss.
With the house so quiet, she slowly pulled the combs and pins from her hair, letting it tumble below her shoulders. “Shall we observe our tradition, Mon Cher?”
“So early?” Ben asked.
“If you’d rather not . . .,”
Ben set the locket on the table, took her hand, and led her to the staircase. He pulled a small twig off the tree and held it over their heads as if it were mistletoe and pulled his wife in for a deep kiss.
“What do nos fils say? Last one upstairs is a rotten egg.” With a laugh, she headed for their bedroom as Ben held a palm against her lower back to urge her on.
He thought there wasn’t any way he could ever forget such a vivacious woman, especially one who insisted on following traditions.
- The tradition of building and lighting bonfires on the levee of the Mississippi River in St. James Parish, Louisiana, on Christmas Eve probably began in the latter decades of the 1700s when the Spanish administration brought Germans to the colony to settle along the Mississippi upriver of New Orleans. This area, known today as the River Parishes (St. James, St. John the Baptist, and St. Charles) became known as the German Coast, during the colonial period. It’s been speculated that these German settlers brought the Christmas Eve bonfire tradition with them. While no one today knows the origins of why these bonfires were lit, speculation has ranged from guiding ships downriver to New Orleans or lighting the way for people walking along the levee to Midnight Mass. Today, Christmas Eve bonfires are built in the St. James communities of Gramercy and Lutcher as elaborate structures (including log cabins) and draw crowds to watch the blazes. This tradition is not native to New Orleans but has begun in recent years across the Mississippi River in the community of Algiers. For this story, I’ve placed the Christmas Eve bonfire tradition in New Orleans so Marie would be familiar with it.
- The Reveillon was celebrated by the Creoles of New Orleans (and people of French descent other parts of south Louisiana). A French tradition, it was brought to Canada, Louisiana, and other French territories during the years of colonization. During the Spanish rule of Louisiana, the Reveillon was a way for the Creoles to celebrate their French heritage. Reveillon consisted of a large dinner eaten in the early hours of Christmas morning following the return home from Midnight Mass. This tradition began to die out in the latter part of the 1800s and was revived in the 1990s by New Orleans restaurants as a way to bring tourism to the city during the Christmas season.
- The stanza from the poem Adam recites to Joe in front of the fireplace is titled The Children’s Friend and was published in 1821 but the author remains unknown. Interestingly, this poem is the first mention of Santa Claus riding in a sleigh led by a flying reindeer.
- Diamond Springs, located in Kansas, was a frequently used stopping place on the Santa Fe Trail because of the natural springs that provided fresh water for travelers. The Santa Fe Trail was a popularly traveled pioneer route to the Southwest beginning in the late 1830s.