Summary: This story is excerpted from A Dream’s Darkest Hour, Book 4 of the Heritage of Honor series. The year is 1860, a momentous one. The Paiute Indian War occurred the previous spring, and the larger conflict of North against South looms on the horizon. As Adam is away at an academy in Sacramento, he does not appear here, although he is in the larger book from which this holiday selection is drawn.
Word Count: 12,700
“You sure been to town a lot lately, huh, Pa?” Hoss asked with a grin as he perched beside his father on the freight wagon the next Saturday.
Tousling the boy’s straight, sandy hair, Ben laughed. “Hoss, I sure have—and not home much of the time I wasn’t in town!”
“Yeah, I been missin’ you, Pa.”
Ben’s hand slid down to rest for a moment on his son’s broad neck. “I’ve missed you, too, son, and I’m mighty glad to have you with me today.” Although he made excuses to Marie that he needed Hoss’s help with the team, in his own heart Ben knew that simple desire for time alone with his boy was the real reason he tried to make his timber deliveries on Saturdays. He had a feeling Marie knew that, too, though she never indicated her suspicions by word or facial expression.
“Can I drive the team again, Pa?” Hoss queried, his blue eyes alight with longing.
“When we get to the valley,” Ben promised.
Satisfied, Hoss settled back, watching his father’s driving technique carefully as they wound their way down out of the hill country. Someday, Pa had promised, he could drive the team in the mountains, as well as the flatlands, and Hoss wanted to be ready for that day.
As soon as he reached the flatlands, Ben kept his promise and handed the reins to Hoss. Then he ease back and let his mind drift, smiling as he relished a luxury he hadn’t had much time for the last half week. Only three days had elapsed since his previous visit to Virginia City, but each had been packed. The first evening had been spent in earnest discussion with Marie as the two of them tried to determine what risks they were willing to take. At first, Marie had insisted that the decision was his alone, but he had just as adamantly affirmed that he considered her his partner in business, as well as in life, and valued her opinions above all others. “It’s a lesson I learned a long time ago—with Elizabeth, and Inger, as well,” he had told her. “Women often see things men overlook, and the man who doesn’t listen to the cautions or suggestions of his wife is a fool.”
It had been Marie’s idea, indeed, that had shown Ben how he could expand the timber operation with the least risk possible, to both the land and his financial resources. Her proposal that he lease the timber rights of his neighbors for a portion of the profit had been, in Ben’s view, inspired, and he had spent the next two days in negotiations with his closest neighbors, those whose watersheds most significantly impacted the preservation of the Ponderosa. Three of them had accepted his offer and sealed the agreement with a handshake, and a fourth wanted more time to think it over, but appeared to be leaning toward granting the lease.
Ben smiled as he glanced at the small packet of letters lying on the seat beside him, among them one to Adam, detailing the recent developments. Ben could almost envision the excitement in his son’s eyes as he read the news. He’d included a rough sketch of Deidesheimer’s new square sets, and he could see Adam poring over them with avid scientific interest. He’d described in detail the part the Ponderosa would play in meeting the mines’ increased need for timber and had praised Marie profusely for her helpful suggestion about the leases. “I’ll be needing your help more than ever, too, son. I’ll harvest as much timber as I can before winter sets in, but the real work begins this spring, just about the time you get home. I know you’re looking forward to being part of the growth of our territory as much as I look forward to having you at my side again on a daily basis,” the letter had concluded. Ben smiled with satisfaction as he drove into Washoe Valley and handed the reins to Hoss. Yes, Adam would surely be thrilled to see how the ranch was expanding and branching out in new directions. No doubt the boy would be chomping at the bit to set aside his books and sink his teeth into new challenges.
“Pa! Look at that!” Hoss screeched, pointing to the southeast.
“Hoss, for mercy’s sake, boy,” Ben scolded, making a dive for the reins his excited son had dropped.
“Oh, sorry, Pa.” For a moment Hoss looked abashed, but the animation almost at once reignited in his dancing eyes. “But look at that! What are they, Pa?”
Ben stared in disbelief at the long line of birds marching toward them. “Turkeys,” he replied in a daze. “Hundreds and hundreds of turkeys.”
Hoss almost bounced with enthusiasm. “Like Billy shot that time? That was good eatin’, Pa!”
Ben smiled in fond remembrance. “Yeah, it was.” He snapped his fingers. “That’s it, Hoss! Someone’s had the bright idea to drive a herd of turkeys here from California to sell for Thanksgiving—and a handy profit they’ll make, too!”
“Can we get one, Pa? Can we?” Hoss’s tongue slid unconsciously over his lips. “For Thanksgiving?”
“Hoss, we’re not having Thanksgiving at home,” Ben reminded him. “We’ll be sharing the meal with the Thomases, and they’ll be providing the meat. They may already have their plans made.”
“Yeah, but I bet they’d be glad if we was to bring ‘em a turkey,” Hoss argued. “Pa, please.”
Hoss rarely whined for what he wanted, so the fact that he was doing so now indicated the strength of his desire. Ben hadn’t the heart to say no, but he didn’t want to offend his friends, either. “Tell you what, Hoss,” he suggested diplomatically, “we’ll pick up one of those turkeys and take it home with us. Then I’ll talk to Uncle Clyde and see whether we eat it for Thanksgiving or fatten it up for our Christmas dinner.”
“Sure hope he says now,” Hoss declared. Then he looked shyly at his father. “Can I drive again now, Pa? I won’t drop the reins again.”
Ben started to hand the team back over to Hoss, but suddenly realizing how that line of turkeys would clog the narrow road up to Virginia City, he kept the reins and urged the horses forward at a sprightly pace. “Another time, son,” he cried. “We’ve got to beat those birds to market!”
Marie grabbed the small hand turning the front door handle and clasped it firmly in her own.
“I hear horse, Mama!” Little Joe protested, struggling to pull away.
“So do I,” his mother laughed. “That is why your hand stays in mine, mon petit. I cannot trust you not to run to the horse, can I?”
The toddler thrust out his lower lip as he continued to tug on her arm. “Wanna go! It be Pa maybe!”
“Let’s see if it is,” his mother suggested, opening the door a bit awkwardly with her left hand while her right continued to firmly grip her child.
“Pa! Pa!” Little Joe hollered, dragging his mother across the yard.
Ben quickly tied the horses’ reins to the hitching post and scooped the baby up to give him a kiss. Little Joe grinned down in triumph at his mother until a loud squawking drew his attention to the back of the wagon. “What that?” he asked, eyes wide.
“What have you there?” Marie asked at almost the same moment, gazing with interest at the big bird.
“Don’t tell me you’ve never seen a turkey, either, woman,” Ben chuckled.
Marie tilted her head and favored him with a coy smile. “Mais oui, I have,” she giggled, “plucked and hanging in the butcher’s shop.”
Ben clucked his tongue in apparent dismay. “Your education has been as neglected as these boys’, I see.”
Marie wagged a finger beneath his nose. “Ah, but that is your responsibility, to teach such things, mon mari, and you have been most negligent in your duty, it appears.”
“So it appears,” Ben conceded with a smile.
“Hop Sing has already started supper,” she teased. “If you want him to cook this, instead, you will be the one to tell him.”
Hoss peered around the back of the wagon. “It’s not for tonight, Ma,” he explained quickly. “It’s for Thanksgiving.”
“Or Christmas,” his father reminded him. Seeing Hoss tugging on the rudely constructed crate they’d thrown together from scrap lumber in town, Ben said sharply, “Leave it be, Hoss. That’s too big a load for you to handle alone.” He handed the toddler back to Marie. “See if Hop Sing can hold dinner half an hour, would you? We need to fix up at least a temporary place in the barn for this monstrous bird.”
“I wanna help,” Little Joe protested as he was carried back inside.
Marie laughed and kissed his curly head. “Do not be ridiculous, mon petit. The turkey is bigger than you are!”
Together, Ben and Hoss lifted the crate out of the wagon and carried it into the barn. With his chin Ben indicated the far back stall. “We’ll put this noisy creature in there. Set him down gently, son.”
“Sure, Pa, I’m always gentle with animals.”
Ben smiled at the boy’s earnestness as he stretched the kinks from his back. “I know that, Hoss, but everybody can use a reminder now and then.”
Hoss shrugged. “I reckon. You think the horses’ll like havin’ a turkey gobblin’ at ‘em, Pa?”
“I doubt it,” Ben muttered wryly. Patting Hoss’s shoulder, he said, “This is only temporary, remember? If it turns out we have to keep this bird ‘til Christmas, we’ll build it a coop like the chickens have.”
“Only lots bigger.” Hoss laughed at his own joke; then that earnest look came across his face again. “If it does turn out we keep the bird ‘til Christmas, can I take care of it, Pa?” He broke into a broad smile. “After all, I am the best around at fattenin’ things up. Just look at me!”
Ben pulled the chunky boy into a one-armed embrace. “You’re not fat, son, just built on a large scale. Sure, you can have charge of the bird as long as it’s here, and that being the case, I guess it’s up to you to talk to Aunt Nelly about whether she wants to serve him up next week. You can ride over to Carson City tomorrow morning while I take your mother into town for church.”
Hoss’s face screwed up in doubt. “Uh, it was my week to go to church with her, Pa. Not that I mind skippin’ it, but—”
“Someone’s got to contact them,” Ben said firmly. “Good as you are with horses, I don’t want you driving up to Virginia City without me, and I’m too busy to take a trip to Carson later this week.” He patted the boy’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, son; I’ll settle things with your mother. You can make up your absence the next time. Now, let’s fix up this stall so we don’t lose the main course of our Thanksgiving—or Christmas—meal.”
“We better hurry,” Hoss urged, “or Hop Sing’ll be threatenin’ to go back to China.”
“Point taken,” Ben said. Seeing the horses shy at the strident gobble of the turkey, he dug his fingers into Hoss’s shoulder. “Tell Aunt Nelly just how much you want turkey for Thanksgiving, all right, son? Lay it on real thick.”
“Here, Pa.” The sound of the sweet, high-pitched voice made Ben turn his head just as he sent the hammer toward the head of a nail. With an angelic smile Little Joe held another nail toward his father, but the smile fled at the sound of his father’s yelp of pain. “You gots a hurt, Pa?” the toddler asked, head tilted, expressive eyes full of sympathy.
Ben pulled his injured thumb from his mouth. “Yes, Joseph, I ‘gots a hurt,’” he grunted.
“Oh,” Little Joe murmured with obvious compassion; then the bright smile returned as he again held out the nail. “You need nuther nail, Pa?”
Ben took a deep breath and counted to ten as he took the gift his youngest offered. “Yes, baby,” he said with measured softness, “Pa needs another nail. Now go help Hoss for a while.”
“I don’t need none of that kind of help,” Hoss snickered.
“Oh, yes, you do,” Ben growled. Since he and Hoss were occupied with building the turkey coop and Little Joe had been settled down for a nap, Marie had decided to take a ride on her roan gelding after they returned from church. Naturally, the toddler had awakened early and been booted outside almost immediately by Hop Sing. Ever since, Little Joe had been skittering around, underfoot and into everything in sight.
Hoss took the hint. “Here, punkin,” he called. “You can hand brother some nails.”
Little Joe ran eagerly to the other side of the turkey coop under construction, stopping only long enough to dig his hand into the keg of nails.
“That’s right,” Hoss said. “Bring a whole fistful so you don’t gotta be runnin’ around so much.”
“I like runnin’ ‘round,” Little Joe declared, cherubic countenance beaming beatifically.
“Truer words were never spoken,” Ben muttered. Shaking his aching thumb, he positioned the nail, double-checked for distractions and hit it, squarely this time. Declaring himself ten times a fool, Ben placed another handful of nails in his mouth, pulling them out one by one, as needed. Should have known Clyde wouldn’t need the bird, he grumbled inwardly. I couldn’t get that lucky. Never even crossed my mind that those turkey drivers might have made a stop in Carson first, though, fool that I am. Now here I am, bigger fool, putting out good money for a coop I’ll never need again and extra feed, not to mention extra work I can’t spare the time for. All in all, the most expensive, troublesome Christmas dinner ever to grace our table.
Still, the happy expressions on the faces of his two sons, Ben had to admit, were priceless treasures, worth all the expense and effort. Joseph, of course, had never eaten turkey, but at supper the night before Hoss had begun a campaign to convince his little brother that there was no meat to compare with that of this particular fowl. As usual, especially where food was concerned, Little Joe took every word that spilled from his big brother’s mouth as absolute gospel and had followed with fascination the preparations for the new home of the all-important turkey.
As for Hoss himself, his excitement had virtually doubled when he learned that there would be turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas, too. He had stood tall, shoulders squared with pride, when he promised his father that he’d personally see to it the turkey they put on the table come Christmas was the fattest, tastiest ever seen in western Utah. Ben chuckled as he pounded in another nail to hold the wire mesh to the frame of the coop. Not that there was much competition, the population of turkeys in the territory being limited to the five hundred brought in yesterday, most of which would be roasted and eaten within a week. Good experience for the boy, though, he conceded. Teach him responsibility and show him the pride a man takes in providing for his family. All things considered, not such an expensive bird, after all.
Ben flinched at the sound of hooves coming up the road. Little Joe, whose ears always seemed tuned to the sound of horse hooves, jumped up. “Hoss, grab him!” Ben yelled.
The admonishment was unnecessary. Hoss, more accustomed than his father to the toddler’s habitual response to an incoming horse, already had tight grip on the little lad.
The strawberry roan pranced into the yard, and Marie quickly dismounted to take her baby in her arms. Ben dropped the hammer and stormed around the corner of the coop to confront his wife. “Marie, when are you going to learn not to gallop in like that?”
A spark ignited in her emerald eyes. “I was not galloping,” she retorted crisply. “I slowed the horse down as I approached the house.”
“Oh, that was slower?” Ben snapped. “I’d hate to see the pace you set when you think you’re riding fast!”
“Mama ride fast,” Little Joe added, smiling in admiration.
“Yes, I know,” Ben grunted. He ran his hand over the gelding’s flank and held it, palm up, to show his wife the sweat.
Marie tossed her head, flipping her golden tresses back from her neck. “I was in perfect control; I am always in perfect control. This horse could run all day, and I, of course, did not expect to find this child outside. I left him napping.”
“It’s not just his safety or the horse’s I’m concerned about,” Ben sputtered through taut lips, “but while we’re on that subject, I might as well tell you that I didn’t much approve of your speed with him in the saddle when we met in the valley last week.”
“So you said then!” Marie declared hotly. “I am neither deaf, nor do I have problems with my memory, but since you are so convinced that you can give our son better care than I, I shall leave him to you!” She thrust Little Joe into his father’s arms, snatched up the reins of her roan and headed for the barn to cool down both the horse and herself.
Ben started after her, but the repeated pats of a small hand on his cheek stopped him in mid-stride.
“Pa, you need nuther nail?” the child in his arms asked eagerly.
Ben rolled his eyes. Got to learn to time my battles better than this. “Yes, precious,” he said with strained gentleness. “Pa needs another nail.” And a hammer to hit himself on the head!
When Nelly Thomas opened the oven door to baste the turkey, she saw, as usual, two necks craning past her to peek inside. “You younguns better keep back,” she said, repeating a warning the two boys had already heard several times that morning.
“Yeah, don’t be crowdin’ so close, Little Joe,” Hoss ordered as he pulled his brother back.
“You had best follow your own advice, young man,” Marie observed, looking up from the bowl of potatoes she was peeling.
“Lands, yes,” Nelly laughed. “It’s that tawny head of hair I see pokin’ in first every time I open this door.”
Hoss grinned, knowing from experience that the woman he considered a second mother wasn’t really upset with him. “Aw, Aunt Nelly, I just wanna see how crisp he’s gettin’.” He turned to his younger brother and commented, as if imparting the wisdom of the ages, “The skin is practically the tastiest part of the turkey, Little Joe.”
Freckled-faced Inger Thomas snickered. “You’re just sayin’ that so he won’t eat the parts you favor.”
“No such thing!” Hoss protested. “I wouldn’t take food out of my baby brother’s belly, and I really do like crispy skin.”
“And breast and thigh and wing—and just about every other piece there is,” Nelly teased, squeezing his shoulder affectionately.
All the women in the kitchen, which included Dr. Martin’s daughter Sally, laughed at the joke, and Hoss joined in good-naturedly. “Well, I ain’t overly fond of giblets,” he said, crinkling his nose sheepishly.
“Except in gravy!” Inger hooted.
“Well, yeah,” Hoss admitted, setting off another round of merry laughter among the cooks.
Hearing a loud thump, Hoss raced to the front door, for he had been detailed to answer all such summons. Little Joe, naturally, charged right after him, and gave a squeal of delight when he saw who was at the door. “Aunt Kat!” he cried, raising his arms.
The flaxen-haired beauty immediately lifted the little boy and held him close. “Hello, sweet baby,” she cooed.
Little Joe wrapped his arms around her neck. “You bring me cookies?” he whispered in fond remembrance of the ones she had baked for him when he stayed with her.
“No, but something just as good,” she assured him. “You will like my gingerbread, little one.”
“Okay,” Little Joe, easily appeased when it came to food, agreed.
“Hey, now, don’t I get a hug?” Katerina’s lanky husband chuckled. “Come here, youngun.”
Little Joe willingly went to the arms of the ranch foreman and gave him an obliging squeeze, but then he started wriggling to get down.
“Okay, off you go,” Enos said, planting a light swat on the toddler’s soft behind.
“Well, come on in,” Hoss said. “Ladies in the kitchen and gents in the parlor.”
“As it should be,” Enos observed with a wink at his wife. “Women belong in the kitchen, don’t you agree, Hoss?”
Hoss grinned. “Sure do, ‘cause good things come out when they go in.”
Enos gave the boy a solid clap on the shoulder and, depositing the pan of gingerbread in
Hoss’s welcoming hands, took off for the parlor to join the other “gents.”
“Aunt Kat here,” Little Joe announced as he scooted into the kitchen.
“Oh, good,” Nelly said, looking up from the stove to smile at the latest arrival. “That’s everyone except Billy, and he said he’d be pushing to get here by dinnertime.” Since her son was rarely home, due to his duties with the Pony Express, Nelly had insisted that the Cartwrights spend the previous night with them, the two boys taking Billy’s bed, while Ben and Marie slept in the guest room.
Marie had welcomed the invitation as it spared them the chore of rousing the family sleepyhead at an early hour and enabled her to help with dinner preparations. Ever since the religious friction had developed between them, Nelly and Marie had been cordial, but not really friendly. Working together in the kitchen, however, had seemed to restore some of the old warmth, and both ladies were glad of it.
The front door opened about forty-five minutes later, but no one in either kitchen or parlor noticed because there had been no knock. Their first warning came when a red head poked in through the kitchen doorway and called, “You got room for one more, Ma?”
Nelly wiped her hands on her apron and advanced on her tall son, arms wide. “Land sakes, boy, you know you’re expected.”
Billy cackled. “Yeah, but you got room for one more besides me?”
Holding his cheeks between her hands, Nelly laughed. “Why, you know there is! Did you bring a friend from the Pony?”
“Naw, just some homeless wretch I picked up at Ft. Churchill.” Billy grinned broadly as he winked at Sally. “Couldn’t leave the poor fellow to Army fare for Thanksgiving, could I? Wouldn’t’ve been the Christian thing to do, now would it?”
“Oh, get out of the way!” Sally laughed, pushing past him into the hall, where Mark Wentworth had remained until Billy had his joke. Sally threw her arms around her fiancé and kissed him soundly.
“Hey, what about me!” Billy chortled. “Don’t I get some reward for bringing him?”
“Oh, get in here and help me get the food on the table,” his mother scolded. “After the measly meals that Pony Express feeds you, the feast you’re about to sit down to ought to be reward enough! You’re getting plumb skinny, boy.”
Billy grabbed his mother around the waist. “Well, if that Sally won’t kiss me, I bet my best girl will,” he said as he smacked his lips against his mother’s cheek. Blushing, Nelly herded him toward the stove, where the meal was being kept warm for his arrival.
Billy and Mark joined forces with the ladies, and soon the main table almost sagged with tempting dishes. The turkey graced one end of the table, while baked ham reigned at its opposite end, and in between marched a line of Boston baked beans with Boston brown bread, sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes, boiled turnips and colorful baked beets, green beans and stewed carrots. The sideboard held a vast array of sweets with which to end the meal: Katerina’s gingerbread, Sally’s rice pudding, Nelly’s mince and pumpkin pies and golden pound cake, along with two apple pies, which Hop Sing had insisted on contributing.
Clyde had put together a makeshift second table “for the young folks,” and after a few light-hearted complaints about “eating with the kids,” Billy took his seat, along with Mark and Sally, who didn’t care where they sat, as long as they were together. Once grace was said, the rowdy redhead decided the second table was the best place to be, after all, for he and the others were permitted to take whatever they wanted from the main table before the food was passed around.
Soon everyone’s plate was full, and the tables rang with laughter and lively chatter as the food was consumed. While Marie and Sally served each person at her particular table with his or her requested dessert, Ben called across the room, “Any news from the east, Billy?”
“Just the usual,” Billy called back as Sally handed him a plate with a slice each of pumpkin and mince pie.
“Secession?” Dr. Martin asked, recalling the main topic of discussion in the parlor before dinner.
“Plenty of talk about it,” Billy agreed, “but nobody bolting yet.”
“Pray God nobody does,” Sally murmured with an anxious look at Mark, who gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.
“Yes,” Ben agreed solemnly. “That we are all still one people, united under one flag, is the greatest blessing for which I give thanks this year.”
Mark stood and raised his glass. “To the Union,” he proposed, and everyone except the children returned the words, “To the Union,” and drank the toast to peace.
Brushing a tear from her eye, Sally turned to Ben. “And what do you hear from Adam, Mr. Cartwright? He hasn’t written to me as often as usual this year.”
Ben coughed. “Nor to me, my dear, and the letters I do get are uncommonly short.”
Sally smiled. “I suppose his final year at the academy must be very full.”
“I suppose,” Ben conceded. “I’m expecting a nice long letter next time, though.” He began to share with those who didn’t already know the new developments at the Ponderosa and how excited he knew Adam would be when he read the latest letter from home. Yes, he assured himself, Adam’s next letter will be a long one, probably packed full of ideas about how we can meet the challenges ahead of us next spring.
“Little Joe, you get down from there!” Hoss scolded from inside the turkey coop.
Skirt flapping in the breeze, Little Joe curled his fingers through the tight wire mesh as he sought a firmer foothold. “Why?”
Hoss came to the fence to glare at his little brother. “‘Cause Fred would just as soon nibble your fingers as this chicken feed, that’s why!” Hoss pried the tiny fingers loose and Little Joe dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes.
“Who Fred?” Joe demanded.
“The turkey.” Hoss looked anxiously at the boy sprawled on the ground. “You ain’t hurt, are you, punkin?”
“Fred funny name,” Little Joe giggled.
The infectious sound reassured Hoss that the toddler hadn’t injured himself in his plummet from the fence and he grinned. “Yeah, I guess it is, but he looks like a Fred to me. Don’t know why.” His nose crinkled as he saw the dirt on his baby brother’s clothes. “Now, look what you gone and done. Ma’s gonna have a fit when she sees that dress.”
Little Joe brushed his skirt, dusty hands leaving still more smudges on the light blue fabric. “Don’t like dress,” he grumbled. “Need britches.”
“Yeah, I’m of a mind to think you do,” Hoss agreed. “Maybe ole Santa Claus’ll bring you some if you’re real good ‘til Christmas.”
Little Joe favored his beloved big brother with his cherub’s smile. “Always good.”
“Uh-huh, yeah,” Hoss chuckled. “You run on in the house now. I got to finish feedin’ Fred.”
“Me—I wanna feed Fred,” Little Joe insisted.
“No sirree,” Hoss snorted. “He’ll think you’re a piece of corn and gobble you up. Now, scat!”
Red-faced, Little Joe turned and ran for the house, charging straight into his father’s leg just outside the front door. “Pa, Hoss bein’ mean,” he whined.
Ben picked the child up and snuggled him close. “Which means that he wouldn’t let you do precisely as you pleased, I presume?”
Little Joe looked blankly into his father’s face and Ben laughed. “Time you went in to Mama, baby. You can tell her all about your troubles. Hoss and I have to get to town.”
“I wanna go town!” Little Joe pleaded. “Hoss go all the time, never me.”
“I know, I know,” Ben soothed, “but that’s because it’s a working trip.” He kissed the child’s soft cheek. “Be a good boy and Pa will bring you back something sweet from town. How’s that?”
Little Joe shook his head, clearly not happy, but when Ben set him down with a soft pat on the bottom, he trotted inside as he’d been told. That went better than usual, Ben congratulated himself.
He ambled over to the turkey coop, where Hoss was still scattering corn for his turkey. “Haven’t you finished feeding that bird yet?” Ben grumbled.
“Almost done,” Hoss said quickly. “He eats a lot, Pa, and Little Joe’s pesterin’ slowed me down.
“That I can believe,” Ben chuckled, “especially the first part. That bird eats more than all the chickens on the place put together.”
Hoss came through the gate, shutting it carefully behind him. “Aw, he don’t neither, Pa.”
Ben ruffled the boy’s soft, sandy hair. “Just teasing, son. You’re doing a fine job of fattening that bird up for Christmas dinner.”
“Yes, sir, I’m tryin’,” Hoss said, with a proud look at his turkey.
“Time we got started, boy. Climb up and I’ll let you drive ‘til the road gets steep.”
Excitement brightening his eyes like sunlight does a summer sky, Hoss climbed quickly aboard the loaded freight wagon and reached for the reins.
Wide grin splitting his face, Hoss trotted up the steep hill toward C Street with the unexpected short-bit bonus burning in his pocket. Ten whole cents to spend any way he chose, although Pa had added one condition when he put the coin in Hoss’s palm. “If you’re going to spend it on candy, boy, not more than one piece before dinner,” Pa had said with an amused quirk of his lips. Hoss figured that would be an easy rule to keep. Since Pa had promised they could eat at Barnum’s Restaurant, Hoss’s personal favorite, he didn’t want to spoil his appetite for the big bowl of chicken and dumplings and slice of apple pie that he planned to order.
He had one errand to tend to for Pa first, an easy one. All he had to do was hand the list of supplies to Mr. Cass at the store, and he’d be free to ogle the candy as long as he wanted before making the all-important choice. Gotta pick just right, Hoss told himself, this bein’ our last trip to town for a while. The load of lumber they’d brought in to the Ophir would be the last one ‘til spring, and with winter coming on, chances to go to town wouldn’t come as often. Can’t dawdle too long makin’ up my mind, though, Hoss reminded himself. Won’t take Pa all that long to wind up his business with the mining folks, and he’ll be expectin’ me down to Barnum’s by the time he’s through.
Winded by the pace with which he’d climbed the hill, Hoss paused to catch his breath as he reached the main business street of Virginia City. Cass’s store was directly across from him, but he quickly realized there was no way to reach his destination. As far as he could see, a parade of Paiutes was filling the road, and there was no way to get across, short of plowing through their midst, a course of action Hoss was certain his father would consider rude, if not dangerous. So he waited, blowing warm breath on his reddened knuckles. No longer warmed by exercise, he started to feel the chill in the air typical of the first week in December, and he hoped the Paiutes would hurry on about their business, whatever it was.
Citizens of Virginia City also lined the sides of the road, staring at the Indians. Not since the Pyramid Lake War had any of them seen so many red-skinned visitors to their town. A few had drifted back to scavenge for a meager subsistence wherever they could find it, but never before in such numbers. But for the fact that not a single native carried a weapon and that they all walked down the main street in absolute silence, looking neither left nor right, the white men would have feared an invasion. In a sense that’s what it was, an invasion of gaunt-faced, hungry men, women and children, returning to the mountain they had once called their own in hopes of avoiding starvation in the lean winter months ahead.
Hoss took a step into the street as he finally caught sight of the end of the line. Cocking his head to one side, he stared, like everyone else, at the figure bringing up the rear. Though dressed in a calico skirt made from cornmeal bags, the Indian was too tall and walked with too wide a stride to be a squaw. A calico bandana hid the face, but the red blouse couldn’t hide the fact that it covered a chest too flat to be that of a woman. “It’s a man!” a teenage boy across the street yelled. “Whatcha doin’ in them skirts, huh, injun?”
The Paiute lifted his head, revealing a thin visage and a solemn expression, but he made no response before lowering his gaze again to the dust beneath his feet.
“Hey, injun! I’m talkin’ to you,” the boy shouted, but this time the Indian did not even raise his head. The boy scooped up a handful of pebbles from the street and threw them at the man in women’s clothes. The Paiute grunted as the stones struck, but he kept moving forward, eyes on the ground.
Emboldened by the actions of the first heckler, other children on the street began to run up behind the Paiute, peppering him with pebbles and hooting in derision. When a larger rock hit the Indian on the side of the head and blood began to trickle down the copper cheek, Hoss could hold himself back no longer. Running forward, he pushed the closest attackers aside. “Leave him be!” he yelled. “He ain’t doin’ you no harm.”
The teenage boy who had started the trouble ran toward him. “Mind your own business,” he ordered, punctuating the command with an index finger driven into Hoss’s sternum, “or I’ll give you cause to wish you had.”
“You ain’t got no right to rock him,” Hoss declared, planting his hands on his hips. “He ain’t no different than you or me.”
“You’re gonna eat that lie, injun lover!” the other boy hollered and plowed a fist into Hoss’s jaw.
Unprepared for the blow, Hoss went down, hitting the ground hard, but he scrambled up quickly and rammed his attacker in the stomach.
“Fight, fight!” the cry rang out, and men and children made a circle to watch the battle, most shouting encouragement to the older boy, while the few women on the street turned away in disgust at the display of violence. The Paiutes stopped in the middle of the street, most looking concerned about the possible consequences if they were perceived as the cause behind this brawl. The one in skirts looked from one boy to the other, shaking his head.
Blow after blow was exchanged, with Hoss getting somewhat the worst of it, for while he was strong and well-built, even large for a boy of his age, his opponent was quick and wiry and his fists surprisingly solid, considering they were smaller than Hoss’s. Fueled by his anger at the injustice of the other boy’s attack on a defenseless foe, however, Hoss fought hard and saw his adversary begin to fade under his telling jabs.
As quickly as it had begun, though, the fight was over. Hoss felt himself pulled back, his arms pinioned. “Hoss, stop it; stop it!” Ben Cartwright yelled, struggling to hold the thrashing arms, as across the way another man did the same to Hoss’s antagonist in the fight.
Recognizing his father’s voice, Hoss slumped forward, as shame surged through him. After all Pa’s talk about holding his temper, not letting others taunt him into a fight, he’d let it happen again. “I-I’m sorry, Pa,” he sputtered, feeling himself an utter failure and a disgrace to his father’s teaching. Then indignation erupted once again. “But he shouldn’t’ve been hurtin’ that man. It weren’t right.”
Ben turned Hoss around and, kneeling, engulfed him in an embrace. “No, son. He shouldn’t have. Remember what I said to you that day in the barn, that there would be times when you had to fight?”
Hoss looked up, his eyes lighting with tentative hope that he hadn’t lost his father’s respect. “You think, maybe, this was one of those times?”
“You were defending a man under attack for no reason, a man who for some reason felt unable to defend himself,” Ben said. “I may question your wisdom in flinging yourself into this fracas, Hoss, but your motive was beyond reproach. Now, let’s get you cleaned up and get down to the restaurant for that meal I promised you.”
As Ben stood, he found himself looking into the eyes of the Paiute Hoss had defended, solemn eyes which warmed with respect as the Indian’s gaze dropped to the face of his young champion. Ben shook his head, puzzled by the Indian’s apparel and his apparent willingness to accept abuse. Spotting a Paiute he knew slightly, Ben moved forward to greet him and then asked about what had just transpired in the street. “Why is that man dressed like a squaw?” he inquired. “And why do the rest of your people turn their backs on him when he is attacked by white men?”
The Paiute’s nostrils flared with disdain as he inclined his head toward the man in woman’s clothing. “Him’s Charley. Charley heap scared battle down Pyramid Lake. Charley no want fight—got no gun, he say, throw um away. Charley all time run, run; all time cry, cry—all same papoose. Charley squaw now. Paiutes call um Squaw Charley.”
Ben glanced at Squaw Charley and nodded in sober comprehension. No matter to what society a man belonged, cowardice lowered him in the eyes of his peers. White men, too, had ways of ostracizing those who failed to live up to the standards set by the majority. The Paiutes were just more graphic in their handling of craven behavior. A man too weak to stand with his brothers in battle was, in their eyes, a woman, and to compel him to dress the part he had played seemed to them a punishment that fit the crime. While Ben felt sorry for Squaw Charley, he couldn’t deny the raw justice of the sentence imposed by his people. However cowardly, though, no man deserved to be subjected to harassment and unprovoked attack, and Ben felt proud of his stalwart young son’s defense of the man shunned by his own people.
Face washed and cuts cleaned, Hoss frowned as he waited for his bowl of chicken and dumplings to arrive. Seeing the expression, Ben queried, “Something wrong, son?”
Hoss lifted his head from the elbow on which he’d had it propped. “I was just wonderin’, Pa.”
Ben smiled encouragingly. “About what?”
Hoss shifted in his chair. “You been sayin’ there was a right and a wrong time to fight.”
“Well, I been hearin’ all this talk ‘bout war maybe comin’, and I was wonderin’ if war was a right or wrong reason to fight,” Hoss explained, nose crinkled in thought.
Ben sighed. “That’s a hard question, son. There are defenseless people involved, even more in need of protection than Squaw Charley, and some feel they must fight to give those people the right to live free. Others, both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line, talk of war for more selfish reasons.”
The wrinkles deepened in Hoss’s forehead. “So how do you know when it’s a right fight or a wrong one, Pa?”
Ben reached across the table to smooth his son’s puckered lips. “You look in your heart, Hoss. You ask yourself why you’re doing it, and if you find good reasons there, then you stand and fight. If it’s just to ease your pride or bend someone to your will, it’s not reason enough. You think you understand the difference?”
Hoss nodded soberly. “I think so, Pa.” He paused a moment, then asked quietly, “You think there is gonna be a war?”
Shaking his head sadly, Ben shrugged. “I don’t know, son. It’s looking more and more that way, but I’m going to keep holding onto hope as long as I can.”
“Me, too,” Hoss declared. The waitress arrived with their food, and, for Hoss, at least, thoughts of war were quickly forgotten in enjoyment of a good, hot meal. Ben, however, couldn’t set aside his concerns so lightly. Less than three weeks ‘til Christmas, he mused, and peace on earth seems like a distant dream, but, dear God, keep me dreaming. Keep us all dreaming—and working—to make it happen.
As snowflakes dusted his hat, Ben pulled the collar of his coat close to his ears and moved briskly toward the front door, barely making it through before Marie was at his side. “I have been concerned, mon mari; you are so late,” she said.
“Sorry, my love,” Ben murmured, punctuating his apology with a kiss to her temple. “The weather hit sooner than I expected, and the roads are slick.”
“Oui, I thought that was it,” Marie said, “but it is almost suppertime, Ben, and you know how Hop Sing gets when—”
She was cut off abruptly by a volatile demonstration of exactly how Hop Sing could get when any member of the family was late to a meal. Ranting in his native Cantonese, the diminutive cook loudly castigated the head of the house. “Believe it or not, Hop Sing,” Ben exploded, “I do not control the weather. That lies solely within the province of Almighty God!”
“Whom you resemble not at all at this moment,” Marie suggested sharply.
Ben turned crimson at the pointed reminder that a fit of temper scarcely reflected divine patience. “All right,” he said tersely, self-control returning slowly. “My apologies for being late, Hop Sing.”
“You wash up chop-chop,” Hop Sing dictated with a firm bob of his head for emphasis. “Dinnah on table plenty quick, now you fin’ly come home.”
Ben exhaled gustily as the cook returned to the kitchen. “That man would try the patience of the Almighty Himself,” he declared.
“As do we all, mon amour,” Marie laughed lightly.
Ben returned the laughter. “Yes, I suppose we do.” He took his wife’s hand. “However, much as you might profit from a good sermon tomorrow, my sweet little sinner, I’m afraid the snow is likely to be too deep for me to drive you to chapel. I’m sorry.”
Marie nodded. “I had thought it would be.” She added, with a mischievous smile, “Perhaps I should pray that God will only let it snow on the Sundays when your plans will be spoiled.”
Ben tweaked her petite nose. “See, just as I said, a sinner in need of repentance.”
“But you will find yourself the one doing penance if you do not wash up for supper at once,” Marie warned with a significant tilt of her head toward the kitchen.
“Yes, ma’am,” Ben chuckled. “I repent. No priest could exact severer penance than that irascible cook of ours.” Giving her another swift kiss, he trotted up the stairs at a lively pace in search of a washbasin and a bar of soap. After a fast, but thorough, scrub at his hands and face, he headed back down the hall. About halfway to the stairs, however, he found his forward progress impeded as one pair of arms engulfed him about the hips and another set latched onto his knees. “Here now, unhand me, you varlets,” Ben roared with mock ferocity, “or I’ll have you tossed overboard.” He snatched the smaller boy under the arms and gave him a gentle toss toward the ceiling.
Little Joe squealed in exhilaration. “Do it ‘gain, Pa,” he cried.
“Shh, shh, you’ll get me in trouble with Mama,” Ben warned as he brought the child into his chest.
Little Joe’s emerald eyes sparkled saucily. “I gonna tell,” he declared with a naughty grin.
“Oh, threatening your father, are you?” Ben chuckled. “That’s supposed to be Papa’s prerogative, baby boy.”
Ignoring the vocabulary beyond his comprehension, Little Joe just grinned bigger and repeated the threat. “Do it ‘gain or I gonna tell. Hoss, too.”
Hoss pulled his little brother’s earlobe. “Unh-uh, not me. I know enough to steer clear of trouble, not go makin’ more.”
“A wise adage to live by, my boy,” Ben said, dropping his right hand to squeeze Hoss’s shoulder. “And dinnertime is definitely not the time to be making trouble.”
“That’s for sure!” Hoss guffawed as he clomped down the stairs ahead of his father.
Marie stood waiting at the foot to take her baby from Ben. “Pa been throwin’ me,” Little Joe informed her gleefully.
“Tattletale,” Hoss scolded.
“Oui, I know,” Marie tittered, giving the child’s tiny nose the same treatment Ben had earlier accorded her own. “Papá is being naughty, but so are you, mon petit. As Hoss says, it is not nice to tell tales.”
The light-hearted rebuke washing over him with no visible effect, Little Joe donned his most angelic expression and presented his mother with a hug and kiss. The tender scene was interrupted by a strident pronouncement: “You come table now or I thlow ev’lyt’ing ‘way!” the dictator of the domestic domain pronounced with a stamp of his foot.
Hoss looked genuinely worried. “No, don’t do that, Hop Sing. I’m starvin’!” With an impatient gesture for the rest of his family to follow suit, he hustled to the table.
The blessing said, platters and serving bowls began to be passed from person to person, and soon everyone, even the smallest Cartwright, was eating with enough relish to appease the Chinese cook. Hop Sing nodded with satisfaction and returned to the kitchen to cut slices of raisin pie for those whose clean plates might merit dessert.
“Were you able to find all the things I requested?” Marie asked after filling Little Joe’s plate and ascertaining that he was eating. Though it was still ten days ‘til Christmas, Marie had been concerned that some of the special ingredients she considered essential to her holiday cooking might sell out and had added them to the list of supplies Ben had ridden into Carson City to buy that afternoon.
“Almonds and rosewater, brandy and essence of lemon,” Ben reported, adding with a wink, “and all those items of lesser importance, like flour, soda and salt.”
“Did you see Aunt Nelly and Uncle Clyde?” Hoss mumbled through a mouthful of mashed potatoes. “They gonna make it to the party? And Doc and Sally and—”
Marie interrupted with a quick correction of Hoss’s manners, after which Ben said, “Sure did, and they’ll all be here, weather permitting.” With a smile at his wife, he added, “I stopped by the Pioneer Bakery, too, and extended an invitation to Laura, along with her son and her beau.”
“Ah, good,” Marie murmured. “I am glad you did. I have seen so little of Laura these last several weeks. It seems whenever I am in Carson City, she is away somewhere with Monsieur Dettenrieder. Did she accept or does she already have plans with him?”
“Nothing definite,” Ben said. “Apparently, there’s going to be a ball in Virginia City the same night, and George had mentioned taking Laura. I think she’s going to try to persuade him to come here, instead.”
“Sure hope she can,” Hoss offered. “I know Jimmy’d like comin’ here better than any fancy ball up the mountain.”
Ben chuckled. “Yes, I got the impression Jimmy was going to make it a personal quest, and if he’s as persuasive as the knee-grabbers around here, I doubt that Mr. George Dettenrieder has a chance of reaching Virginia City on Christmas Eve.”
“That when Fred come dinner?” Little Joe piped up.
Ben turned to his youngest with a blank stare. “Fred? I don’t think we have a friend named Fred, precious.”
Hoss glared at Little Joe across the table, but the baby simply smiled sweetly and informed his father, “Fred my friend. He come dinner?”
Ben’s lips twitched merrily. “Oh, you have a friend named Fred, do you? And just where might your friend Fred live, if I may ask?”
“Outside,” Little Joe replied with guileless forthrightness.
Marie touched her fingers to her lips in a vain attempt to hide her amusement, while Hoss slid down in his chair in an equally vain attempt to disappear. Neither behavior escaped Ben’s notice. “And do either of you have the slightest idea what this child is talking about?” he demanded with an arch of his eyebrow.
Marie struggled to control herself. “I know of no person named Fred among our neighbors,” she demurred, keeping her eyes on her plate.
Ben’s brows came together in a straight, suspicious line, and he turned his gaze upon his middle son. “Hoss,” he uttered firmly. “Do you know a person named Fred hereabouts?”
“A person?” Hoss babbled. “Uh, no, Pa; I don’t know no person named Fred.”
The emphasis on the word was a dead giveaway. “And what, may I ask, is Fred, if not a person?” Ben demanded in a tone that brooked no further evasion.
Hoss jumped a little and then grinned sheepishly. “A turkey,” he muttered with a feeble laugh.
Ben’s jaw dropped. “A turkey? Our turkey? Oh, for the love of mercy, boy, please tell me you haven’t gone and named that bird!”
“Fred,” Little Joe inserted helpfully. “His name Fred.”
Ben rolled his eyes; then he jerked back toward his crimson-faced other son. “Well?” he demanded.
“Uh, yeah, Pa,” Hoss quavered. “I guess I did go and name him Fred, now you mention it. He—he just looked like a Fred to me.”
“Me, too,” Little Joe announced.
Ben snapped his fingers toward the baby’s startled face. “You stay out of this,” he ordered.
“Yeah,” Hoss grunted, with a condemning glare at the source of his current dilemma.
Little Joe, confused, cowered back in his chair.
Ben’s finger jabbed in Hoss’s direction. “And you fix your eyes on me, boy,” he thundered. “Didn’t you have better sense than to make a pet out of fowl meant for the table?”
Hoss bit his lip. “Y-yes, sir. I know we planned to eat Fred, but—”
“Eat Fred!” Little Joe screamed. “Who gonna eat Fred?”
“We are!” Ben shouted.
“No!” the baby wailed.
“Yes!” Ben hollered back, fist pounding the table so hard the dishes rattled. “We are going to stuff that bird full of dressing, roast him to a turn and carve him up for Christmas dinner!”
“Ben!” Marie cried, gathering her shrieking child into her arms. “You will not scream at this little one, do you hear me? It is not his fault.”
Ben took a deep breath that didn’t calm him nearly as much as he’d hoped it would. “Of course not,” he sputtered. “Joseph is as innocent in this affair as—as Fred! But you, madame,” he added, index finger thrust toward his wife, “knew about this, didn’t you?”
“I guessed,” Marie admitted, stroking the baby’s curls with slow, soothing strokes.
“Knew and said nothing,” Ben accused.
“Guessed,” Marie reaffirmed hotly, “but did not know for certain until tonight. I remind you of our earlier conversation, monsieur. You remind me even less of the Almighty now than when you first came home!”
Ben laced his fingers together tightly. “All right,” he muttered through a tight throat. “I stand corrected. However, there is another misconception that needs to be corrected, as well, and I can’t promise I’ll exhibit the longsuffering of God while I do it. So, if you think it will upset Joseph to hear what I have to say to his brother, please take him upstairs.”
“On that point, at least, we do agree,” Marie retorted. Standing, she carried Little Joe across the great room, where she paused at the foot of the stairs. “Remember, Ben,” she said with soft-voiced concern, “Hoss, too, is a child.”
Ben leaned his head against the back of his chair, giving her time to take their youngest out of earshot and himself time to gain some semblance of self-control. Blowing out a loud gust of air, he sat upright and faced Hoss, who was nervously pulling on his lower lip. He’s afraid, Ben realized with chagrin, and Marie’s right; he’s a child, too. A child in a man’s body, but a child, nonetheless. “Hoss, what were you thinking, boy?” he asked, carefully modulating his voice to conceal whatever anger he still felt. “I remember having a talk with you two or three years back, when you wanted to name one of the newborn calves. I told you then that we couldn’t afford to get attached to something we planned to eat.”
Hoss rubbed his hand across the tablecloth. “Yeah, I know, Pa, but this seemed different.”
Hoss shrugged. “I don’t know. Fred—I mean, the turkey—was mine, and I guess I figured I could handle him like I thought best.”
Ben groaned. “And you thought it was best to treat him like a pet, to let your baby brother make a friend of him?”
Hoss scrunched up his nose. “I didn’t figure on that happenin’, honest, Pa! That kid gets the funniest ideas.”
Ben scowled. “He’s not the only one, boy! You do understand that bird’s going on the table Tuesday after next, don’t you?”
Hoss shifted uncomfortably. “I—I been meanin’ to talk to you ‘bout that, Pa. I’m thinkin’, maybe, we ought to wait ‘til New Year’s, so’s he can get real good and plump.” Eyes wide with hope, he grinned broadly and bobbed his head a couple of times.
“Good gracious, boy,” Ben exploded, “that bird practically outweighs everything else on the ranch now!”
“Aw, Pa, he don’t, neither,” Hoss argued.
“Well, if it’s an exaggeration, son, it’s a mighty small one,” Ben insisted curtly. “Now, I have invested a goodly sum in feed for that turkey, and he is going on the table Christmas Day. Do I make myself clear?”
“Don’t you ‘but, Pa,’ me, boy!” Ben growled. “Nothing is going to change my mind on this subject, and if you really know how to steer clear of trouble, as you claimed before, you won’t say another word.”
“Little Joe’s gonna be awful upset,” Hoss whispered, pulling out what he considered his last round of ammunition in the battle to save Fred from the ax.
For a moment Ben almost relented; then his face hardened. “He might as well learn early that we do not make pets out of meat for the table.” With that, Ben tossed his napkin down and strode from the room into the cool night air.
When the shouting stopped, Hop Sing peered furtively around the corner from the kitchen and frowned to see only Hoss remaining at the table. “You like piece laisin pie, maybe-so?” he asked tentatively.
Hoss shook his head and, swiping tears from his cheeks with the back of his hand, ran up the stairs and down the hall to his room. Shaking his head, Hop Sing walked back into the kitchen. Sometimes his Cartwrights could be most inscrutable.
Grain trickling from his fingers, Hoss looked up at the sound of footsteps running toward him. “No climbin’ on the fence,” he warned as Little Joe ran up to the turkey coop.
“Okay,” Little Joe said, squatting just outside the fence and leaning far to the right to catch the eye of the bird pecking at the feed. “Hi, Fred. That taste good?”
Hoss frowned as he scattered another handful of feed. “I don’t think you oughta keep callin’ him Fred, punkin. You know what Pa said.”
Little Joe’s lower lip pushed out petulantly. “Don’t like what Pa said. Don’t wanna eat my friend.”
Hoss nodded grimly. He shared the sentiment, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that Fred did, too. As much as he tried to convince himself that it was all his imagination, Hoss couldn’t look into the turkey’s piercing eyes without seeing a mute appeal for salvation.
Ben came out of the barn, leading his saddled horse. He paused at the turkey coop to say good-bye to his sons before heading out. “Don’t dawdle half the morning in there,” he grumbled. “You have other chores waiting, Hoss.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll get ‘em done, Pa,” Hoss promised. Diligent by nature, he had tried extra hard to please his father since the night Pa first learned Fred’s identity.
Ben turned away and then spun back, deciding he might as well perform the most unpleasant chore on his list first. “With all that Hop Sing has to do to get ready for the party day after tomorrow, he wants to get a head start on plucking this bird. I’ll be taking you boys and your mother into chapel in the morning, to make up for missing last week, and while we’re gone, Hop Sing will, uh”—he cut a quick glance toward Little Joe—”do what needs to be done, understood?”
“Yes, sir,” Hoss muttered glumly.
“Pa?” The small voice was accompanied by a pull on Ben’s pants just above the knee.
Ben pried the fabric free from the toddler’s fingers. “Yes, baby?”
“Don’t wanna eat Fred, Pa,” Little Joe pleaded. “He my friend.”
Ben inhaled slowly, counting to ten, but the words still came out laced with frustration. “Pa has tried to be patient with you, precious, but you need to understand that Fred is not your friend; he is your dinner. Now, if I hear any more on the subject, you and I may just have ourselves a very necessary little talk. Is that clear?”
Little Joe stared at his father through narrowed eyes, but said nothing.
“It had better be,” Ben said firmly and swung into the saddle. As he rode out of the yard, however, he could still see the accusation in those small emerald orbs, could still feel their fire burning into his back. He’s got to learn, he told himself as he urged the horse forward.
“Pa mean,” Little Joe declared, curling his fingers through the wire fence.
“Naw, he ain’t mean,” Hoss corrected quickly. “He’s right. I know he’s right”—he cast a guilty glance at the turkey—”but it just feels wrong, doggone it!”
Little Joe sidled up to his brother as Hoss shut the gate to the pen. “Gotta help Fred, Hoss, just gotta.”
Hoss looked back at the turkey, which once again appeared to be gazing upon him in earnest petition. “Yeah,” he murmured, “but how?”
Hoss tiptoed in stocking feet down the dark upper hall to the stairs. Clinging to the rail, he felt his way down to the ground floor. The light from the waxing moon, pouring through the horizontal window behind Pa’s desk, helped him see to cross the great room to the front door. Pausing only to slip into his heavy coat, he inched the door open and slid through. One step was all it took to remind Hoss that he should be wearing boots outside. A light layer of snow covered the ground, and its cold dampness soaked through the thick woolen socks as if they were light as linen. He’d been too afraid of making noise if he wore his boots upstairs, though, and of dropping them if he tried to carry them downstairs in the dark, so Hoss just ran across the yard, nightshirt slapping against his bare calves in the brisk wind off the mountains.
Quickly unlatching the gate to the turkey coop, Hoss trotted over to the shelter beneath which the big bird spent each night and hissed, “Fred. Hey, Fred, wake up.” When he got no response, Hoss moved over to the turkey and shook him. “Come on, Fred; you gotta get out of here—now!”
The bird awakened with a strangled gobble, and Hoss put a finger to his lips as he peered anxiously back toward the house. “Shh, be quiet, Fred. We can’t be wakin’ Pa up, not unless you wanna be stuffed and roasted. You don’t want that, do you?”
Something that sounded to Hoss like vocalized agreement rattled in the turkey’s throat. “Okay, then, let’s get moving.” Taking out a handful of grain, which he had slipped into the pocket of his coat that afternoon, Hoss held his hand toward the bird and took two steps backward. “Come on, Fred, this way,” he urged, backing up.
Fred craned forward, reaching for the grain, but Hoss carefully kept it just out of range of the greedy beak. Step by step, Fred following with interest, Hoss made his way to the gate of the coop and walked through. The turkey, unaccustomed to being outside the fence, balked for just a minute. “Get a move on, will you, Fred?” Hoss urged through chattering teeth. “My socks are soaked plumb through.”
Responding to the familiar voice, Fred moved forward and Hoss continued to lead him into the dark pine forest. “This is as far as I can go, Fred,” the shivering boy said at last. He pointed up toward the summit as he backed away. “Head that way, okay, Fred?”
Fred cocked his head and stepped toward the boy.
“No, doggone it!” Hoss yelled. “You can’t come with me. Terrible things are gonna happen to you, Fred, if you do. Now run!” Tears running down his cheeks, he scooped up a couple of pine cones and pelted the turkey with them, though his heart ached at inflicting even that slight hurt on a helpless creature who trusted him. “Run, you silly bird, run!” he hollered.
Startled, Fred flapped his wings a couple of times and headed for the hills, while Hoss gasped in relief. Then the boy raced toward the shelter of his home, anxious to be back in bed by the time the rest of his family awakened. Retracing his steps, he made his way to his bed, pulled off the clammy socks and, throwing them in a corner, slipped beneath the covers. Sleep didn’t come quickly, though, not even after he finally warmed up. Hoss knew in his heart that he’d done the right thing. Still, he couldn’t help thinking as he lay there waiting for dawn to paint the sky rosy that once “Santa” found out what he’d done, he’d likely get nothing in his stocking but a bundle of sticks, come Christmas morning. I don’t care, Hoss decided. At least, Fred’ll have a nice Christmas, instead of the one Pa planned for him!
Beneath their heavy winter wraps and lap robes, the Cartwrights were dressed in their Sunday best. Marie snuggled close to Ben as the buckboard pulled away from the house. “Thank you for coming with me this morning,” she whispered. “It is a special gift to me to have you all in church with me.”
“Well, it just seems right to be in church at this time of year,” Ben said with a smile, “and since there still isn’t one of my persuasion in the area, I might as well visit yours, though I doubt I’ll understand much of what is said.” He drew in the reins abruptly and stared with displeasure at the swinging gate of the turkey coop. Jerking his head over his shoulder, he glared at the older boy seated in the back of the buckboard. “Did you leave that gate open last night?”
Hoss tried to look surprised. “I—I thought I closed it, Pa, but it sure is open, all right.”
“Hoss,” Ben chided as he jumped down from the wagon. “You’ve got to be more careful, boy. If that bird has wandered out . . .” It was already obvious that the turkey, who was normally out scratching around, hoping for breakfast, by this time in the morning, was not in the enclosed pen. Ben had told Hoss not to bother feeding the turkey that morning, so no one had noticed that irregularity until now. One glance inside the empty shed told Ben that his Christmas dinner had taken flight. Snatching his hat from his head, he slammed it against his thigh as he stalked sullenly back to the wagon. “I’m sorry, Marie,” he said, “but I can’t take you to church this morning after all; I’m going to have to track down that bird.”
“You want me to drive Ma in to church, Pa?” Hoss offered with a trace too much eagerness.
“No, son. I appreciate the offer,” Ben replied, “but the grade into Virginia City is still too steep for you, even with this lighter rig.”
Hoss was disappointed, mostly because he thought Virginia City just might be a safe enough distance away if Pa ever did figure out that the open gate to the turkey coop was more than just an act of childish carelessness.
There was, unfortunately for Hoss, no distance whatsoever between father and son when Ben made that discovery. Hop Sing came storming out the kitchen door, waving a wet, muddy sock in each hand. “Bad boy, velly bad boy,” he ranted, thrusting the socks beneath Hoss’s nose. “Alla time makee mo’ work for Hop Sing. Bad boy!”
Ben grabbed the socks, feeling their moistness and examining the grime on the soles with a critical eye, an eye that narrowed as he looked at Hoss. “You didn’t leave that gate open accidentally, did you, boy?” he roared. “You got up sometime during the night and deliberately let that turkey loose, didn’t you?”
“Oh, Ben, he would not,” Marie protested.
Ben threw the socks into her lap. “The evidence says otherwise.”
One look at Hoss’s guilty face told Marie that Ben was right. “Oh, Hoss,” she sighed with commiseration, understanding at once the boy’s reason.
“You help Fred?” Little Joe asked, eyes shining with admiration. He started to throw his arms around Hoss, but Ben plucked him out of the wagon and plunked him into his mother’s lap, instead.
That distraction out of the way, Ben focused his attention on the guilty countenance remaining in the back of the buckboard. “Now, answer me, boy; you let that turkey out, didn’t you?”
Hoss nodded glumly. “Yes, sir. I’m sorry, Pa, but I just had to. Fred needed my help even more than Squaw Charlie.”
“Don’t throw my own words back at me, boy,” Ben growled. “It’s scarcely the same thing.”
“It is to Fred,” Hoss insisted through quivering lips. “It—it’s worse, even; them boys weren’t aimin’ to eat Charley.”
“Get out of that wagon and up to your room!” Ben bellowed. “Maybe a little firm ‘conversation’ will help you see the difference.”
“Ben, please,” Marie remonstrated. “He is—”
“A child,” Ben finished. “Yes, I remember, but he is a child who is about to learn the consequences of disobedience and dishonesty!” He stalked after Hoss, planting a hard palm against the boy’s posterior to hurry him forward.
“Nes’ry talk?” Little Joe whimpered sympathetically, looking to his mother for confirmation.
“Oui, I fear so, mon petit,” she sighed. Settling him on the wagon seat, she climbed down, then reached back to lift the child down and carry him inside.
Ben leaned his rifle against the broad trunk of a sugar pine and took a long swig of water from his canteen. Capping the container, he lifted the gun and again started tracking “that fool turkey,” as he had begun calling the object of his search. He’d been scouring the woods for hours, and although he’d once come across tracks that could only belong to the big bird, he’d lost them again in a part of the forest strewn thickly with pine needles. Ben was beginning to wonder if he’d ever succeed in what seemed more and more like a hopeless quest; he was also beginning to wonder if he truly wanted to succeed. He didn’t have an ally left in his entire household. Though Hoss had freely admitted that he was wrong to turn the turkey loose, he had also boldly declared that he was glad he’d done it, “tannin’ and all.” And when Ben had come downstairs after changing from his suit into something more appropriate for a hunt, he had met the cold stare of his wife and the tears of his youngest son. Even Hop Sing, who had been anticipating the challenge of roasting his first turkey, looked more upset with Ben than with the guilty party upstairs who’d robbed him of the opportunity. Ought to be some special word, Ben growled at himself—glum monger, grumble bear, gripy grinch . . . something coined just for a man who’d steal Christmas from the hearts of his loved ones.
Bad as he was feeling, though, Ben wouldn’t—couldn’t—give up the hunt. He’d put his foot down so firmly that pride kept him from admitting that where he’d actually put it was square in his mouth. I can’t afford to back down now, he told himself, or those boys will think they can flout my orders anytime they please, then put on a sad face and count on me to let them off. Joseph already had a strong leaning in that direction and while Hoss rarely indulged in willfulness, it was better to prevent the first seed of that kind being sown than to weed out a whole crop of it later on. That, at least, was the reasoning Ben used for refusing to simply let the turkey make good his escape. Still, I was too hard on the boy, he admitted. Confining him to his room on bread and water ‘til Christmas Day for what was basically an act of misguided kindness was simply going too far. It was that edict that had brought the ice to his wife’s eyes and had sent tears streaming down Joseph’s cheeks at the thought of a hungry Hoss. That much, at least, Ben realized, he was going to have to admit, to all of them, had been a mistake, no matter what battering his pride took in the telling. After all, he couldn’t expect his sons to grow up honest unless he set the example himself.
Confound that boy’s tender heart, though; I wouldn’t be freezing my boots off out here now if he’d just be a little harder—Ben shook his head. No, he didn’t really want that. As cold and frustrated as he felt at the moment, he loved that sweet, sensitive son of his just the way he was.
Suddenly, his head jolted up from his careful examination of the ground. There was no mistaking that sound! He’d heard it, day in and day out, for better than a month now. With a triumphant gleam in his eye, he turned left, listened again and again heard the welcome sound of a turkey’s gobble. Step by stealthy step, he crept up on the unsuspecting bird until finally he had Christmas dinner in the sights of his rifle. He cocked the gun, steadied his finger on the trigger and prepared to shoot.
The turkey lifted its head and looked directly at him, making no sound now nor moving one inch. Ben aimed between the bird’s eyes, and it was as though they held him in a trance. As unmoving as the bird, Ben stood, waiting . . . for what, he wasn’t sure. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to block out the image of the turkey pleading for his life. When he looked again through the sights of his gun, however, the eyes he aimed between seemed to change color—first icy emerald, then almond brown, then shimmering green and, finally, sad, mournful cornflower. Addle-pated by sentiment, that’s what you are, Ben Cartwright, the patriarch of the family chided himself.
Then with a smile he lowered the gun. He hadn’t exactly heard the angels sing, but the message rang through his heart as clearly as the one that had filled the sky centuries before, with only slightly altered words. “Peace on earth goodwill toward men,” the angels had sung the night of Christ’s birth, but, this Christmas the message was evidently intended to be goodwill toward turkeys. “Merry Christmas, Fred,” Ben called, “and if you want it to be a happy New Year, you’d best get on over the summit into sunny California.” As his loud laugh echoed through the trees, he shouldered his gun and walked away. Now, if I can just find a steer that boy hasn’t named, he chuckled to himself.
It wasn’t precisely the merriest Christmas the Cartwrights ever spent. Though Ben apologized for the excessive punishment and released Hoss from confinement, the boy still spent Christmas Eve, Christmas itself and several days thereafter in his room—in his bed, in fact, laid up with a nasty cold earned by his ill-clad, nighttime excursion to liberate Fred. The rest of the family banded together, though, to make his Christmas as merry as it could be, sore throat and hacking cough considered.
The New Year, however, was not to be a happy one. Ben persuaded Marie to attend the New Year’s Eve ball, but the atmosphere as they drove into Virginia City was far from festive. Though it would be five days before the ugly headline would be blazoned across the front page of the next edition of the Territorial Enterprise, the entire town was abuzz with the latest news brought by the Pony Express. What everyone had dreaded since the election of Abraham Lincoln had come to pass: South Carolina had seceded, the nation was divided, and the horrors of civil war loomed on the horizon.
In November of 1860, five hundred turkeys were driven from California to Virginia City, to be sold for the Thanksgiving market.
Viewers of Bonanza may recognize the title character of “The Saga of Squaw Charlie” by Warren Douglas. It is my belief, although unverified, that the character is loosely based on the historical figure presented in this story, spurned by his tribe for alleged cowardice at Pyramid Lake. The Paiute parade into town happened as described, and the explanation given for Charlie’s humiliation is an exact quote from a historical text.
South Carolina passed a resolution of secession on December 20, 1860, the first of the southern states to leave the Union. The date the news arrived in Virginia City is an approximation, based on the average time the Pony Express required to cover the distance.
Excerpted from larger work November, 2003