The Alternative Nativity (by Territell)

Summary:  Ben agrees to help out the daughter of a friend, who is in a delicate condition.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  G
Word Count:  6,995


 

 

Ben sat at his desk cursing to himself under his breath. He would never let the boys hear him but this was the one part of ranching that was bound to put him in a bad mood. With a heavy sigh, he began to add up a column of figures for the third time that morning before throwing down his pen in frustration. Ink splattered across the page and Ben cursed once again. Pushing back his chair, he stood up and walked over to the fireplace. Maybe a few puffs of his pipe and a cup of coffee would clear his mind and he could start all over again.

Ben lit his pipe and allowed the tobacco to do its magic. There was something very calming about smoking a pipe that Ben loved, but at the same time he was still glad that none of his sons had developed the habit. He was about to call to Hop Sing, when the little Chinese man appeared, as if on cue, with a pot of coffee and a snack of freshly made cookies. His mood improved immediately and Ben decided to indulge himself a little longer. Sitting comfortably back in his red leather chair, he picked up the newspaper and began to read.

It was a bitter cold winter day outside and Ben wondered how his sons were fairing. Hoss and Little Joe should be returning shortly from a hard day riding fence in the North pasture. Just that morning, one of the ranch hands reported the fence down in a number of places and Ben decided to send his two youngest sons to check on it. Little Joe was most put out. He had hoped that he would get the job of riding into town to pick up supplies and the mail, but Ben had assigned that job to his eldest.

The tobacco, coffee and warmth from the fire worked their magic and Ben nodded off to sleep with his open newspaper lying across his lap.

Adam was the first home and was more than a little amused to find his father stretched out in his chair, chin resting on his chest, snoring softly. Hearing his younger brothers return, he went over to the door and opened it as quietly as he could. Putting his finger to his lips he beckoned to them to keep their voices down.

Hoss looked at Joe and asked, “What’s up with him?”

Joe shrugged his shoulders and followed his middle brother into the house. Adam beamed at the two of them before leading them over to their father’s prone figure. Joe stifled a giggle as a loud grunt expelled from Ben’s mouth.

Noting the now unlit pipe on the table, cold coffee cup and open newspaper, Adam commented. “Looks like Pa’s had a hard day.” Then with a knowing wink at his brothers, he added “He must be doing the books for the end of the month.”

Ben thought he kept his feelings well hidden from his sons with regards to how hard he found it to spend a day doing paperwork. He was well mistaken. Ben would be like a bull with a sore head from the moment he sat down and it had not taken any of his sons long to learn an important lesson with regards to bothering their father on bookwork days. Even as a very small child, Little Joe had realized that if he wanted to sit for dinner that night he would need to be on his best behavior for that one day out of every month.

Stretching out his long body, Ben smacked his lips together in contentment before opening his eyes. Three grinning faces looked down on him and he quickly sat up, mumbling in embarrassment “only dropped off for a second”. Choosing to ignore Adam’s raised eyebrow and Hoss’ gap toothed grin, he barked at his youngest.

“Joseph, how many times do I have to tell you to keep your feet off the furniture?”

Joe quickly put the guilty foot that was resting on the coffee table back on the floor and raised his eyes to the ceiling. Why was it that he was always the one to get it in the neck at times like these? Adam and Hoss were laughing too, but his Pa chose to ignore them and have a go at him. Another disadvantage, to add to all the others, to being the youngest child.

Walking over to the stairs, Ben called back over his shoulder “Get washed up, boys; dinner will be on the table at 7 o’clock sharp.”

The boys waited until they heard their father’s bedroom door close before dissolving into fits of laughter.

*****

It wasn’t until the meal was over, and Ben stood once again in front of the fire with a glass of brandy in his hand, that he decided to open the mail. He sifted through most of it quickly. “Bills, bills and more bills,” he said with a sigh, before he came across a letter that looked different from the others. Opening it with curiosity, his sons watched as a troubled expression came across his face as he read the contents.

“Anything wrong, Pa?” asked Adam.

Ben shook his head, but he wasn’t saying no. “Do you remember the Masons that went to live in California?”

“Yes, of course. Is that who the letter is from?”

Ben nodded this time. “Well, maybe what I should have said is, do you remember their daughter Mary?”

Adam thought for a second; the Masons had three sons that he had gotten to know quite well when they first settled in Virginia City, but their daughter had spent a lot of her time with her aunt in San Francisco and he hadn’t seen her that often.

“Wasn’t she a little younger than Hoss? Didn’t Mr. and Mrs. Mason send her to school in San Francisco for a while because they didn’t want her growing up rough and uncouth like the rest of us?”

“That’s right,” answered Ben. “It seems that Mary is in trouble. How can I put this? She is in a delicate position at the moment.”

Adam and Hoss exchanged knowing looks, but Little Joe looked at his father blank. This was not an expression he was familiar with.

“I gather from that she’s not married?” Adam asked his father.

“No, I’m afraid not.”

Joe could contain himself no longer. “What’s a delicate position mean? Is she sick?”

Hoss slapped his younger brother on the back, almost knocking him from his feet. “No, Joe, it means she’s gonna have a baby.”

“But you just said she ain’t married. How can she be having a baby if she ain’t married?” Joe reasoned.

Three pairs of eyes looked at him in amusement and Joe began to blush furiously.

“You know son, I think you and I might need to have our little talk once again. Just to make sure you fully understand what I was trying to tell you,” said Ben in all seriousness.

The sixteen-year-old blushed even harder, if that was possible, and without looking up he replied. “No Pa, it’s okay. I understand fine; I just didn’t think that’s all.”

“That’s the trouble with you, Joe; you don’t think. And it’s not thinking that lands you up in situations like Mary Mason. This is what happens when you don’t apply self-control. And you, Joseph, are not good at self-control at the best of times.”

“Hang on a second, Pa. What did I do? Why you having a go at me; I ain’t got some girl in trouble? How come you don’t get at Adam? He’s the one sneaking off into the woods after the picnic on Sunday with Sallyanne Jones.”

Ben turned round and focused his attention on his eldest son. “Is that true, Adam?”

Adam glared at his young brother. “Why you little sneak. What were you doing spying on me and Sallyanne?”

Seeing the menace on Adam’s face, Little Joe retreated behind his middle brother for protection. “I wasn’t spying on you; I just happened to be in the woods and saw you.”

Seeing the opportunity to turn the attention away from himself and back to his younger brother, Adam smirked, “And what were you doing in the woods Little Joe? Who were you with?”

Joe tried to retreat further behind Hoss. How come it always came back to him?

“I would like an answer to that question as well, Little Joe?” Ben asked, alarm bells already sounding in his head.

There was no way to avoid an answer and Joe knew better than to lie to his father. “I was with Cassie Baker, Pa. W-w-we just went for a walk that’s all.”

Ben drew in a sharp intake of breath and Joe knew he was in for a good one.

“How many times do I have to tell you, Joseph? You do not go off walking in the woods with a young lady on her own. Anything could happen and before you know it we would have a Mary Mason situation on our hands. Do I make myself clear?”

Much as he feared for his hide when his father was in this mood, Joe was incensed by the injustice of it all. “What about, Adam? He was alone with Sallyanne. How come you ain’t having a go at him?”

Grabbing his youngest son by the arm, Ben pulled him out from behind Hoss. “Adam is a grown man and Sallyanne is a grown woman. They have more sense than to get themselves into any trouble.” Ben followed this statement with a stern look at his eldest son. He needed Adam to set an example if he was to instill morals into his youngest. He would have to have a word with Adam to be more discreet in future.

Joe wasn’t giving up without a fight. “Well Mary Mason is all grown up and look what happened to her?”

Ben didn’t have an answer to that one and so he responded in his usual fashion. Landing a heavy swat on Joe’s rear, he sent him to bed with a flea in his ear. “No more of your cheek, young man. Off to bed and think about what I just said.”

Little Joe mused on his father’s words as he climbed the stairs rubbing his sore behind. Why did his father always assume that Joe was to blame where girls were concerned? The fact of the matter was it wasn’t his suggestion that they go into the woods in the first place; it was Cassie’s. He had been wary of the suggestion, knowing that his father and brothers were not far away, but a couple of passionate kisses from Cassie had persuaded him that it would be worth the risk after all. And up until Adam’s appearance, it had been!

On reaching his bedroom, he entered noisily slamming the door hard behind him. He was too old these days for a tanning but that didn’t stop his Pa giving him a hard whack when he thought he deserved it and even when he didn’t.

*****

Three days later Ben and his sons were stood in Virginia City waiting for the stage to arrive. Ben had been quite shocked at his old friend Albert Mason’s suggestion. He had asked Ben if he would be good enough to allow his daughter Mary to stay with them until after Christmas, whereupon arrangements would be made for her to join her aunt in San Francisco.

The scandal of an unmarried daughter expecting a baby was just too much for her family to bear and so it had been decided that she would travel to San Francisco to stay with her aunt until after the baby was born. The baby would be put up for adoption and Mary would return to her family.

Much as Ben could understand the uneasy predicament of the family, he was upset at the callous treatment of their daughter. To send a girl in her condition all the way from California on her own was to his mind heartless. As for having the baby adopted, Ben could not envisage ever giving up his own flesh and blood no matter what the circumstances.

As they stood waiting Ben felt it necessary to remind his youngest son about his manners. “Just remember, Joe, I want you to be on your best behavior. I know you are not used to having a woman about the house, so just think before you act, that’s all I ask.”

“Don’t worry, Pa, I promise not to walk about the house without my pants on, or burp at the dinner table.”

Ben was just about to admonish his youngest for his smart mouth, when the stage pulled into the street. They all looked at each nervously. This was a strange situation they found themselves in and none of them was quite sure how to behave.

Once the stage pulled to a halt, Hoss opened the door and allowed two elderly gentlemen to exit. Ben moved forward and extended his hand to the woman that alighted next. Mary Mason was an extremely pretty young lady of twenty-two and the four Cartwright men found themselves captivated by her immediately.

Even with the heavy cape draped over her shoulders, Mary could do nothing to hide her expanding stomach and Ben felt a moment of panic as he realized the impending birth could not be far away.

As Ben made the necessary introductions, his heart went out to the young woman as he took in her embarrassment. She had been banished from her home because of the callous abandonment of some man and Ben felt the anger rise in him at the injustice of her situation.

“Come, Mary,” he began, “I’m sure you must be exhausted after your long journey. How about we take refreshments over at the International House Hotel before we make the ride out to the Ponderosa?”

Mary readily agreed; she had not known what to expect, but the friendliness of the Cartwright family brought tears to her eyes. Taking the arm of Ben at one side and Adam at the other, she allowed herself to be helped over to the hotel. Joe picked up her luggage and promptly deposited it into Hoss’ strong arms before following after the departing threesome. A resigned Hoss deposited the luggage at the ticket office before following the others up the road.

Dialogue over coffee was rather stilted and Ben tried to keep the conversation going by asking about the rest of Mary’s family and how they had faired since the last time he had seen them. After about an hour, Ben thought he could not put off the question that was worrying him any longer. “Mary, I’m sorry to have to ask you this, my dear, but could you tell me when the baby is due?”

The color rose in Mary’s cheeks for an instant, but she replied nonetheless. “I had hoped to make it to San Francisco before November, but I have been delayed several times over the last couple of weeks. I took quite ill at one point and I’m afraid I was unable to travel for some time.” Biting her bottom lip as if afraid to confirm Ben’s suspicions, she added, “I’m afraid the baby is due in early January.”

Ben spluttered, “Your father wrote asking that you be allowed to rest over the Christmas before continuing to San Francisco. Surely he can’t expect you to continue your journey when your time is so close?”

Mary bit on her bottom lip for a second. “I’m afraid my father thinks the baby is not due until February. I had hoped that if he though the baby was due later he may allow me to remain at home a little longer.” She did not elaborate on her reason for this and the family did not ask.

Little Joe’s mouth fell open at her words. She could have her baby at any time. He didn’t know if he was excited or scared. Babies were an unknown quantity in his world.

This was a bad situation and Ben knew it. How could he take her back to the Ponderosa, miles from anywhere, in the knowledge that the baby might come when they were cut off from help? If the weather worsened, it could be days before the doctor could reach them.

“I’m sorry, Mary,” he began, “but it really is too risky for you to be at the Ponderosa at this time. We could easily get snowed in and be cut off from any medical help. I really think it would be best if you stayed here in town where there is a doctor to take care of you when the time comes.”

Mary nodded her head in acceptance. She had been traveling all this time on her own and the thought of being part of a family, even for just a short while, had filled her thoughts over the last few days. But she could understand that maybe the Cartwrights didn’t want her there. It would be difficult for them to explain her presence and at the end of the day, she was a virtual stranger to them.

Ben registered her disappointment, but he had to consider her safety. “Hoss, Adam why don’t the two of you go pick up Mary’s luggage and bring it here for her?”

“Sure, Pa,” they said in unison before departing.

Ben made his way over to the hotel reception to arrange a room for Mary. Little Joe was left on his own with her for the first time and for once he was at a loss for words.

As he struggled for something to say, a loud rumpus was heard over by the desk.

“What do you mean you have no room?” Ben shouted at the man behind the desk.

‘I’m sorry, sir,” the man replied “but we are fully booked.”

Ben strode back to the table where Joe and Mary sat.

“I’m sorry, Mary, but there are no rooms left and apparently that applies to every other hotel in the vicinity. It appears that there are a lot of people visiting families for the Christmas and all the rooms have been let.”

Mary tried to look disappointed but inside she was really delighted at the turn of events.

“Don’t suppose they had a spare stable?” Joe asked mischievously. Mary giggled and the ice was broken. Ben gave his young son a warning look but as was usual the look was wasted on Joe as he continued to chuckle as his own joke.

Before Ben could follow up with a few choice words Adam and Hoss arrived.

“What room do you want the bags in, Pa?” asked Hoss.

“There’s no room at the inn” stated Joe trying hard to keep a straight face. “So I’m just about to go over to the stables.” Joe hesitated for a second for effect. “To get the buggy to take Mary back to the Ponderosa.”

Ben chose to ignore Joe’s silliness and, turning to Adam, he said, “If Hoss sees to the luggage, would you mind accompanying me to see Doc Martin so we can arrange for him to visit the ranch as soon as possible. Mary and Joseph can take the buggy back to the ranch.”

Without moving a twitch of a muscle on his face, Adam replied completely deadpan, “Couldn’t they find a donkey, Pa?”

Ben thundered from the hotel as his sons and Mary dissolved into complete hysterics in his wake.

*****

By the time they reached the Ponderosa, Mary was almost asleep on her feet. She was unable to fully appreciate the beauty of the landscape as they traveled and when they arrived at the ranch she was shown to her room immediately. It was almost twenty-four hours before she emerged, such was her exhaustion.

As Mary slept, Ben was down in the great room having a discussion with his eldest.

“I’ve been meaning to have a word with you Adam.”

Adam noted the tone of his father’s voice and knew that Ben had something on his mind. “What is it, Pa?”

“Well Adam, I was just thinking of Mary and the awful situation she has found herself in. Now son, I know you are a grown man and don’t need me to tell you how to lead your life, but I do worry sometimes about some of your relationships.” Ben hesitated for a second to see how his son was reacting. Adam was a very private man and he never appreciated his father interfering in his love life. Surprised to see that his son was remaining calm, Ben continued “Now Sallyanne is a nice young woman but I have noticed that you and her are rather, well, what I mean to say is, you do seem to have become very close over the last few months.”

It was a long time since Ben had had a conversation of this nature with his eldest son and he was beginning to falter. Adam was enjoying watching his father squirm, but decided to put him out of his misery. “You have no need to worry on that score, Pa. I won’t be making you a grandfather before the time is right. I am very careful in my relationships; believe me, I know what I’m doing.”

“That may well be, Adam, but I would appreciate it if you could try to be a little more discreet, especially around your youngest brother. He looks up to you and I would appreciate it if you tried to set a good example.”

Unbeknown to the two of them, Little Joe was sat at the top of the stairs, hidden from view, listening to the conversation. He couldn’t believe his ears. Adam had admitted to his father that he was having intimate relationships with women and his Pa just accepted it. If Joe just as much as looked at a girl with lust in his eyes, his father banished him to his room. “Roll on the years” thought Joe. Just to be able to do what he wanted without having his britches warmed by his father’s large hand would be a start.

The thought of rolling round in the hay with Cassie Baker was just filling Joe’s mind and making him smile when Hoss came bounding along the landing and almost tripped over him.

“What you doing sitting there at the top of the stairs, Short Shanks?”

Joe’s face crumpled into a sick smile just seconds before his father’s voice echoed from the room below. “Joseph, come down here please.”

*****

The mornings after Mary’s arrival the family had breakfasted and were preparing to start their working day as Mary slept soundly upstairs. As they donned their hats and gunbelts, Little Joe piped up, “Pa.”

“Yes Joe”

“If Mary’s baby is near, does that mean that she will be staying with us until after the baby is born?”

All three men looked at him with amusement before Ben replied, “I guess it does, son.”

Joe’s eyes widened. “Wow! Just think — a Christmas baby. I’ve never been around when a baby was born before.”

“And with a bit of luck, you won’t be around when this one arrives,” Adam responded. “The last thing everyone needs is you running round creating havoc at a time like that.”

“I won’t get in the way,” Joe cried in indignation. “I’ll be able to help, just like I do with the new foals.”

Hoss grinned from ear to ear. “Yeah right, little brother; I’ve experienced your kind of help and believe me, she can do without it.”

“Enough, boys,” Ben declared raising his hands. “No one is having a baby today, but there are lots of jobs to be done and you can’t put them off any longer.”

Adam grabbed his younger brother and before Joe could respond he pushed him out of the door.

Ben chuckled to himself as he returned to the great room. Sometimes he wondered if Joe would ever grow up.

Shortly after the boys left, Mary put in an appearance. Ben was sitting at his desk when she entered the room. Immediately getting up and going to greet her, Ben said, “Good morning, my dear. How are you feeling this morning?”

With the morning, Mary’s embarrassment returned. Blushing slightly she replied, “I’m very well, Mr. Cartwright. Sorry I slept so late. I guess I was a little tired after the long journey.”

“No need to apologize. It’s understandable that you are feeling tired. Come and join me in a cup of coffee and I’ll ask Hop Sing to prepare some breakfast.”

“You are too kind, Mr. Cartwright. I really feel very bad imposing myself upon you and your family like this.”

Before she could continue, Ben interrupted, “Now let’s not have any talk like that. You are most welcome and we are delighted to have you stay. It really will be a very pleasant change having female company over the next few weeks. You have no idea what it is like to have no one to talk to all day but Hop Sing and then to have Little Joe chatting in your ear all night.”

They both laughed and Mary began to relax. “Well he can certainly talk. Yesterday afternoon traveling here in the buggy, I think I must have been given the whole family history.”

Ben groaned “I hope he didn’t tire you too much, because if …”

“Oh no, really, he was a delight. He really is very sweet.”

“Well many things he is, but sweet is not one of them. As you will no doubt find out.”

As they laughed together, Hop Sing entered with fresh coffee and pancakes and set them on the table. Giving Mary a wide smile of welcome, he returned to the kitchen for eggs and bacon. Mary felt happy for the first time in weeks; she really was going to enjoy her time with the Cartwrights.

As the day went on, Mary’s apprehension began to surface once more. Ben Cartwright had been very understanding, but in the cold light of day would his sons be more judgmental of the unmarried mother staying with them.

Mary need not have worried; within a very short space of time, she felt like one of the family and the men of the house fussed over her continuously. Even Hop Sing warmed to the pretty lady with the wonderful smile and he took special care to make sure she ate well for both her and the baby.

Over the next two weeks, Paul Martin visited on several occasions and declared the mother to be fit and well. As he informed the family, first babies usually took a lot longer to arrive, so there should be plenty of warning. “Don’t worry, Ben,” he placated. “When the time comes, just send one of the boys to fetch me and I’ll come straight away.”

*****

Christmas Eve arrived and it snowed relentlessly making it impossible for the family to travel. Everyone was in a very joyful mood making preparations for the following day and the boys appeared unconcerned as the weather outside worsened. Only Ben kept going to the door looking out with trepidation; he just couldn’t imagine what would happen if the baby decided to come now.

That evening as they all sat round the fire in contended harmony, Little Joe asked the question that they had all thought about but avoided over the last couple of weeks. “Mary, why aren’t you keeping your baby?”

“Joseph,” growled Ben, furious that his youngest son could be so insensitive.

“No, it’s all right Mr. Cartwright, don’t be angry with Joe. I think it’s time I talked about it. I really would like you all to try and understand.”

Ben’s voice softened but he still glared at Joe, making him shrink further back into his chair. “Only if you want to, Mary; Joseph knows better than to ask such things.”

Joe lowered his eyes and muttered an apology, but he was still curious to hear Mary’s answer.

Taking a deep breath Mary began. “About two years ago, back home, I fell in love with a young man that my father did not approve of.”

“Why?” Joe piped up unable to restrain himself.

“Quiet, Joseph” Ben admonished once more. The boy just didn’t know when to hold his tongue.

“Well as you know my father is a rancher like yourselves. Well Josh, my betrothed, his father is a sheep farmer, and my father and his have a real hatred of each other. My father blames the sheep for destroying the land and he thinks that there should be a law passed to prevent Josh’s father from keeping them. Because of that, Josh and I had to meet in secret, but we hoped that over the months the relationship between our families would improve and we would be allowed to marry.” Mary’s voice wavered as she continued. “When I realized that I was expecting a baby, Josh and I knew we could wait no longer, we decided to elope and marry in secret. We hoped that once the baby was born, our parents would have accepted the situation. A week before we had arranged to leave, Josh was away from home on business with his father when he had an accident and broke both his legs. He was unlikely to be able to travel for about six weeks and so our plans had to be delayed.”

Seeing that Mary was becoming distressed, Adam patted her hand. “You don’t have to tell us all of this, Mary; don’t upset yourself.”

“No Adam, I want to tell you,” replied Mary dabbing her eyes. “I feel much better talking about it. During the weeks that Josh was away, my condition became obvious to my mother and she, of course, informed my father. He was furious and no matter how I pleaded, he refused to even consider Josh and I marrying. Arrangements were quickly made for me to travel to join my aunt in San Francisco and she in turn has arranged for the baby to be adopted.”

Joe’s face registered his horror at the situation. “Why don’t you refuse? Your father can’t make you give up your baby.”

Mary smiled sadly, “Maybe if I had been a boy, I could have gone against my family’s wishes, Joe, but a single woman with no means of support has no choice but to follow her father’s commands until she marries. After that, she is expected to follow her husbands.”

Joe turned to his father. “Pa, if you had a daughter, you wouldn’t treat her like that would you?”

Ben tried not to set himself up against Mary’s father. “I haven’t got a daughter to worry about, Joe, so I can’t answer that. But believe me I have one son that manages to cause more problems that all daughters in the world.”

“Aw Pa, Adam’s not that bad,” grinned Joe before making a quick getaway towards the stairs with Adam in hot pursuit. Reaching the sanctity of his room, Joe shouted a quick “Goodnight” to everyone before shutting his door firmly on his brother. Everyone laughed and the tense situation passed by.

Mary retired to bed shortly after Joe, while Ben, Adam and Hoss stayed downstairs drinking brandy until late into the night. As the clock struck midnight, they wished each other a Merry Christmas before quietly climbed the stairs to bed. As they passed Mary’s room, they heard a muffled cry from inside. Trying not to look alarmed, Ben knocked quietly on the bedroom door. “Mary my dear, are you all right?”

Again the muffled cry could be heard inside.

Knocking once more and getting no answer, Ben entered the room. Mary was sat on the floor, holding her stomach, groaning. The men went quickly to her side and lifted her gently onto the bed.

“Oh Mr. Cartwright,” she moaned, “I think the baby is coming.”

Within minutes, the whole house was in panic. Ben called for Hop Sing to come and help while at the same time ordering Adam and Hoss to prepare hot water and towels.

A sleepy Little Joe, rubbing his tired eyes, sauntered out of his bedroom and stood gazing at the scene in fascination. Crossing over the landing, he peeked into Mary’s room and a look of excitement spread across his face. “Is Mary going to have her baby?” he asked delightedly, making his way into the room to get a better view.

At first Ben did not register his presence but once he did, he took Joe firmly by the arm and led him back to his own room. Pushing him inside, he wagged a finger in front of his face and said, “Joseph, you will stay there until I tell you to come out.”

“That’s not fair. How come Adam and Hoss get to help?”

“Young man if you know what’s good for you, you will stay there until I come and get you,” Ben reiterated before shutting the door firmly behind him.

*****

The road to Virginia City was too treacherous for any of them to attempt to get the doctor and as things turned out, there wouldn’t have been time. Mary’s labor progressed at an alarming rate and before three hours had passed, the baby was about to be born.

Once again Hop Sing came to the rescue. While Adam and Hoss ran round in circles, boiling water and generally getting in the way, Ben tried to calm the frightened girl. When the time came, Hop Sing took charge and, with a knowledge that none of them knew he possessed, he delivered the baby boy safely in the early hours of Christmas morning.

When it was all over and Mother and baby were sleeping peacefully, Ben finally looked in on his youngest. Exhaustion had eventually taken over Little Joe and he lay slumped against the door where he had obviously been trying to listen to the proceedings. Ben and Adam lifted him gently and laid him on his bed. Covering his still form with a blanket, they both looked down on the sleeping boy and smiled as memories of another cold night and a tiny baby been born crossed their minds.

The following morning the baby’s cries awoke Joe and he excitedly made his was to Mary’s room. Knocking on the door, he was grateful to hear Mary call out to him to enter. Looking at the tiny creature in Mary’s arms, Joe’s eyes filled with tears.

“Gee Mary,” he began “I’ve never seen anything so tiny before.” Taking one of the small hands, he marveled at its size next to his own. Joe jumped as he felt a hand placed on his shoulder.

“In actual fact, you were much smaller than that when you were born, young man. Your mother and I didn’t think you would survive the night, you came into the world so early.”

Just at that moment the baby let out another cry and Ben pulled Joe towards the door. “Come, Joseph. A certain little mite is rather hungry and I’m sure Mary would like some privacy to feed him.”

Grinning sheepishly Joe said, “Oh yes, sorry, Mary. By the way, I think he’s beautiful, even if he is all red and wrinkled looking.”

“Out!” Ben barked, giving Joe a swat as he went out the door. Shaking his head, he wondered how he was ever going to teach Joe to think before he spoke. He had hoped that maturity would lessen his impulsiveness but so far there was no sign of it.

Christmas day was one of celebration. Gifts were exchanged and a hearty meal was eaten. Each of the boys visited Mary and the baby throughout the day and in the end Ben had to insist that they stay downstairs so that she could have some well-deserved rest.

As evening approached, Ben was deep in thought at his desk reading through some papers when there was a knock at the door. Adam and Hoss looked at each other. Who could it be at this time of night? Looking at Joe, they waited.

“How come I always get to answer the door?” he grumbled.

Adam and Hoss just shrugged. “Lucky I guess.”

Less than a minute later, Joe arrived back in the room with three men. Going over to his father’s desk he said in almost a whisper, “Pa”.

Without looking up Ben asked “What is it, Joe; can’t you see I’m busy?”

Biting on his bottom lip in an attempt to stop himself from laughing, Joe replied, “There’s three kings here to see you, Pa.”

Standing up from his desk Ben glared at the boy in front of him. “This joke has gone far enough, Joe. I suggest you ….”

At that moment the eldest of the three men stepped forward and extending his hand to Ben he said, “Sorry to disturb you on Christmas Day, Mr. Cartwright. I am Jacob King and these are my two sons.”

Ben took the man’s hand and tried to ignore the wide grins on his sons’ faces. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. King. Won’t you sit down?”

Leading the three men back into the great room, he gestured for them all to sit down. The Cartwrights’ noticed that one of the men walked with a heavy limp. Hop Sing, efficient as ever, arrived with coffees for everyone.

“Tell me, Mr. King, what has brought you out here in such dreadful weather?”

“Well I believe you may have a young lady staying with you, a young lady by the name of Mary Mason.”

Ben was guarded. “Can I ask why you are interested in, Miss Mason?”

The youngest of the two sons then spoke up. “I don’t know how much Mary has told you about me, Mr. Cartwright, but my name is Josh King. Mary and I were to be married.”

Light dawned on the family’s face. “Yes Josh, she has told us all about you. I know she will be delighted to see you. How did you know where to find her?”

Jacob King answered for his son. Placing a hand across Josh’s shoulders he said, “Mary’s father and I have called a truce. We are two cantankerous old men, but we have finally seen the light. Albert Mason has agreed for Mary to marry Josh and return to the family with the baby.”

“That is wonderful. In that case, Josh, you will be most anxious to see the Mother and Child.”

The faces of the three Kings showed first shock then delight. “Mary’s had the baby, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Yes, Josh,” Ben beamed. “Mary had a baby boy in the early hours of this morning.”

Josh became all flustered. “Is she Ok? What I mean is, are they both all right? Can I see them?”

“Of course you can; I’ll just show you upstairs.”

Before they left the room, Hoss could contain himself no longer. “Mr. King, was it right what Mary said that you and your sons are sheep farmers?”

“Yes, that’s correct,” replied Jacob King, puzzled by the question.

“Then I suppose you could say that you’re shepherds really?” Hoss continued.

“I suppose so,” Jacob said with a shrug of his shoulders.

“Two for the price of one,” Adam added, looking at each of his brothers, as they all tried to stifle their giggles.

The three Kings looked to Ben for an explanation. With a look of embarrassment at his sons’ behavior, Ben stated, “Come gentlemen, I will show you the new addition to your family.”

As the men left the room, Adam, Hoss and Joe dissolved onto the settees, no longer able to control themselves. Ben returned a minute later and tried to be angry with the three of them, but he too could no longer hide his mirth. The whole situation was just too incredible.

Wiping the tears from his eyes, Ben chuckled “I asked them why they didn’t leave it until morning? It really didn’t make sense traveling all this way in the dark.”

Adam was the first to regain control of his voice, “What did they say, Pa?”

“They said that there was a star in the sky so bright, it lighted up the way for them all the way here.”

That was too much for Little Joe, holding his sides he fell to the floor in uncontrollable laughter.

Thirty minutes later, Ben, Adam and Hoss made their way to Mary’s room to see how she had received the news. Little Joe was still not able to speak without laughing and he lingered a while longer downstairs.

As he finally made his way upstairs, Joe could hear them all inside of Mary’s room discussing the baby’s name.

Entering the room, he smiled at Mary’s beaming happy face as she lay back against the pillows with one arm protectively around the sleeping child and the other round the waist of Josh as he sat on the bed.

“Oh we must call him that. After everything that has happened, it just seems so right.” Mary was saying and the others nodded.

Joe’s mouth dropped open. “You don’t mean…you’re really going to give him that name?” He looked to his father for confirmation.

Those around him took on an amused look as they realized what Joe was thinking.

Mary smiled at them all knowingly and then to Joe she said, “Don’t you think I should Joe?”

“Well I guess so; it’s just I’ve never heard of anyone doing that before.”

“Then it’s decided,” Mary said mischievously. “After all that has happened, I have no choice. We’ll call him Albert after my father.”

***The End***

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