Summary: With eighteen-year-old Little Joe the only Cartwright not confined to bed, the prospects for a merry Christmas appear bleak. Ben has even ordered the cancellation of the annual Christmas Eve party, but in a burst of Yuletide enthusiasm, Joe decides to host the party by himself. After all, how hard could it be? And then his carefully laid plans begin to unravel.
Word Count: 15,000
Little Joe Cartwright gave a sigh of pure pleasure as he snuggled back in his father’s comfortable armchair. He’d been out in the December cold most of the day, and it felt good to sit close to the roaring fire, feet propped on the low wooden table before the hearth. A nice down-filled quilt would have made him feel even cozier, but Joe didn’t dare give in to that much luxury; he knew if he did, he’d be fast asleep in a matter of minutes and he didn’t have time before supper for a satisfying nap.
The eighteen-year-old was tired—with good reason, he told himself. Ever since Hoss’s horse had slipped on a patch of ice last week and dumped his older brother onto ground frozen hard enough to guarantee a broken leg from the spill, Joe had been doing extra chores and extra work around the ranch. To be fair, Adam had done his share, but it was hard for even two men to handle the workload big Hoss normally carried, especially during a season of the year when the Ponderosa maintained only a skeleton crew. And now Pa was down, too, with an ailment the doctor had called bronchitis. Except for his concern for his father, that hadn’t added to Joe’s load, because Adam had taken over Pa’s responsibilities. The added burden was making his oldest brother crankier by the minute, though, and Joe was quite content for Adam to be late getting in tonight.
That contentment didn’t last long, for soon the front door swung open, and Adam blew in—almost literally—on the strong wind that swirled snow in after him. “Better close it fast,” Joe called. “Hop Sing ain’t feelin’ real tolerant about cleanin’ up puddles.”
Adam closed the door and leaned heavily against it. “Well, I ‘ain’t feelin’ real tolerant’ toward bossy baby brothers who think they can tell their betters what to do, so if Hop Sing pitches a fit about the puddle, you can just clean it up—and get your feet off the table!”
Staring at his brother, Joe slowly removed his boots from the table and set them on the floor. “Bad day?” he asked softly, for while Pa regularly scolded him for putting his feet on the table, Adam, being himself the biggest culprit in that regard, hardly ever did.
“They’re all bad lately,” Adam sighed as he shrugged out of his sheepskin coat and hung it on the peg rack beside the front door. He glanced at the closed door to the downstairs bedroom, where the middle Cartwright brother had been staying since his injury. “How’s Hoss doing? And Pa?”
“Hoss is okay,” Joe reported, “except he says he’s gonna faint away from hunger if supper ain’t ready soon, but Pa’s fever is up some and he’s coughing worse, too.”
As if motivated by the power of suggestion, Adam coughed in response and crossed the room with long strides. Spreading his hands to the blazing fire, he said, “I’ll check on him as soon as I’ve warmed up a bit.”
“It’ll keep,” Joe said. “I was up there about ten minutes ago, and he was sleepin’ sound.”
“Good. Sleep will—” Adam bent forward, leaning a hand against the stone fireplace, as another crackling hack shook his ribs.
“Oh, no,” Joe moaned. “Not you, too.” He stood up and moved toward Adam, hand stretching toward his brother’s forehead.
Adam jerked away before Joe could touch him. “I’m all right,” he muttered tersely.
Joe’s face screwed into an expression that was half doubt and half disdain, with a layer of concern lying underneath both. “You mean except for bein’ bone-tired and cross as a bear?”
“I am not cross as a bear,” Adam growled as he fell into his favorite blue chair, opposite the one in which Joe had been sitting.
“Could’ve fooled me,” Joe grunted, following his brother and forcefully planting his palm against Adam’s forehead. Though Adam tried to flinch away, Joe could feel the warmth radiating to his fingers. “You’re sick, Adam,” he said, “same as Pa.”
“I’m fine,” Adam insisted, the statement belied by another attack of coughing. “Look, if I’ve been short with you, I’m sorry, and if you really want to improve my mood, fetch me a hot cup of coffee.”
Joe straightened up. “I’ll fetch the coffee, but you’re going straight to bed once you’ve drunk it. You’ve got fever, Adam.” Ignoring his older brother’s protest, Joe headed for the kitchen, where he informed Hop Sing that another Cartwright would be taking his supper on a tray in his bedroom, and returned with a steaming cup of coffee. The warm drink seemed to transform Adam’s intractability into reluctant cooperation, and after checking on his father, he crawled beneath the covers of his own bed, hoping that some extra rest would ward off whatever was making him feel so achy all over.
By the next morning, however, even stubborn Adam was willing to admit that he belonged in bed, and a worried Little Joe made an early morning dash into town for the doctor. After Paul Martin had examined his new patient and checked on Ben, he drew the only still-healthy Cartwright into the hall and placed his hands on the anxious young man’s shoulders. “They’ll be fine, son,” he promised, “so long as they follow orders: bed rest, plenty of fluids and regular doses of that pulmonary syrup I told you to buy at the apothecary’s.”
“I’ve got it,” Joe said, “and I’ll make ‘em drink it by the bottle, if it helps.”
Dr. Martin chuckled. “Just the prescribed dose, please, unless you want tipsy patients. There is a rather high alcohol content.”
“Might make ‘em easier to manage,” Joe returned with a cheeky grin.
Dr. Martin chucked the young man under the chin. “None of that nonsense, young fellow.” His hand fell again to Joe’s shoulder. “You take care of yourself, son. Don’t overdo and get plenty of rest yourself.”
The grin faded and Joe shook his head. “Like to follow that advice, Doc, but don’t see as how I can when I’m the only able-bodied man left around here.”
The doctor frowned, and his grip on the young man’s shoulder tightened. “You won’t stay able-bodied long unless you do as I say, young man. Do what you must to keep the ranch going, but no more.”
Joe gave him a half-hearted smile. “I sort of doubt that Pa or Adam, either, would go along with that.”
The frown lines in the doctor’s forehead deepened. “Surely you don’t think your father—or Adam, either—cares more about this ranch than about you.”
The smile broadened and Joe shook his head. “No, of course not, but if things ain’t taken care of, they’re likely to hop out of bed to tend to ‘em themselves.”
Paul Martin laughed in acknowledgement of the all-too-accurate analysis. “Your job to see they don’t. Take care, Joe, and stay out of the cold as much as you can. I’ll check on Hoss on my way out, but I expect to find the leg mending well. I’ll just see myself out after that.”
“Thanks, Doc,” Joe said. After shaking the doctor’s hand he went into his oldest brother’s bedroom and settled on the side of the bed. “How you feelin’?” he asked.
“Wretched,” Adam admitted, hand held to his sore throat. “Sorry to abandon you, kid, but I don’t feel like I could crawl, much less ride.”
“No problem,” Joe assured him, although he couldn’t help feeling a little daunted, now that the entire responsibility for the ranch had landed on his slim shoulders. “Just tell me what needs doin’ and I’ll do it.”
The next several days were an endurance test for the young man temporarily in charge of the vast Ponderosa ranch. Much against his natural inclination, Little Joe was up early every morning, doing everyone’s chores, making certain that the hands had their assignments for the day and taking up whatever slack resulted from a work crew short three men. He had help, of course, in the loyal ranch foreman and a handful of other trusted men, as well as advice from both his father and oldest brother, for while neither Ben nor Adam felt able to leave his bed, neither was so out of his head with fever that he couldn’t answer questions, though Joe bothered them as little as possible.
Once ranch duties were attended for the day and enough wood brought in to keep fires stoked in every bedroom and the great room downstairs, Joe turned nurse, providing loving care for the physical needs of his ailing family, wiping their fevered brows as they had so often done for him, often ‘til the early morning hours of the next day. He had help in this, too, from Hop Sing, but the strain was beginning to show on both overworked men.
Then, just when it seemed that things couldn’t possibly get worse, the Ponderosa acquired one more patient and had one less caretaker for those already stricken. Hop Sing managed to put a pot of soup on to simmer before he collapsed in the kitchen, so supper for the invalids was provided. After bundling the cook into bed, Little Joe watched the pot until he thought it was done and took the first bowl to Hop Sing, to see if it met muster before serving it to the others. Everyone except Hoss received the liquid nourishment with gratitude. The big man at first looked incredulously at the bowl Little Joe handed him, and then his face screwed into a huge frown. “Where’s the rest of the meal?” he demanded.
“That’s all there is, and I don’t want to hear any complaints,” Joe barked. “You think Hop Sing has nothin’ better to do than fix you a six-course dinner with all the sick folks around here to tend?” Although he knew that eventually he’d have to tell everyone that Hop Sing was sick, too, he wanted to keep that worry to himself as long as possible, and stewing about how he was going to handle kitchen chores, in addition to his already past-endurable load, was making him touchy.
Since Joe tended to have a short fuse anyway, Hoss saw nothing unusual in the testy retort, but reasoning that both his younger brother and the cook really did have more to do than cater him a full-course meal, he apologized and said the soup would be fine. “Can I have a second bowl, at least?” he asked tentatively.
“I reckon,” Joe sighed, thinking he’d probably have to give up his own portion to satisfy Hoss’s gargantuan appetite. Then he straightened up and smiled. What did he have to complain about, compared to people stuck in bed, only days before Christmas? He could always make out on bread and cheese, in a pinch. “Sure, big brother,” he said cheerily. “I’ll fetch another right away.”
Hoss grinned, glad to see his little brother’s good humor restored, but he thought no more of the sudden affability than he had of the short temper earlier. Joe’d always been prone to lightning changes of mood, so, to Hoss, everything seemed pretty much normal, except for the meager supper.
Things stopped seeming normal when Joe brought him his breakfast the next morning, a decidedly lumpy and slightly scorched bowl of oatmeal. “Dadblame it, I know Hop Sing’s pullin’ extra work, but soup for supper and oatmeal for breakfast ain’t enough to keep a bird flyin’!” He lifted the bowl to his nose, which wrinkled in distaste at the sharp odor of burnt cereal. “He too busy to give it a stir now and then?” he grunted.
“Yeah, dadblame it, I am!” Joe shouted. “I know I ain’t any kind of a cook, but I’m doin’ my best and the least you can—”
“Whoa!” Hoss held up a restraining hand. “Whoa up there a minute, youngun. You’re doin’ the cookin’ now?”
Joe moaned at the realization that he had blurted out what he intended to keep secret and collapsed on the foot of his brother’s mattress. “‘Cause I’m the only one left who can.” He gave Hoss a sheepish grin. “I was hopin’ to keep that to myself awhile longer, but I reckon that oatmeal’s a regular tattletale, ain’t it?”
“It’s a sorry imitation of the bacon and eggs and biscuits and gravy and flapjacks I’m used to,” Hoss admitted with a chuckle.
Joe straightened up. “You want eggs? I could try . . .”
Looking horrified, Hoss waved off the suggestion. “No, no, oatmeal will be just fine, little brother.” To demonstrate his satisfaction, Hoss took a big bite and somehow managed to choke it down. “Pa and Adam had their breakfast yet?” he asked, figuring they hadn’t or he would have heard the shouts of protest, even cut off downstairs as he was.
Joe shook his head. “Guess I might as well tell ‘em up front who done the cookin’,” he sighed.
“Reckon as how you might better,” Hoss said with a grin. “Easier on your ears that way.”
“Yeah,” Joe muttered as he stood up, “and I can use all the easy I can find today.” As he left the room, Hoss’s concerned gaze followed him. The boy looked worn out and sounded like he was weighted down with a load too heavy to heft.
Typically, when Ben heard that Hop Sing was now ill, too, his chief concern was for the extra burden that would fall on his young son. “Joseph, I don’t know how you’re going to manage,” he whispered sympathetically, for a whisper was all his enflamed throat could produce.
Joe offered a sickly smile, since he also entertained grave doubts about how he would manage to keep the Ponderosa afloat in this deluge of disease. “Well, Hop Sing made a big enough pot of soup to last through dinner, but after that it’s my cooking or none, I guess.”
“Just do your best, son,” Ben urged.
Adam, when told of the new problem, offered a partial solution. “Get Smokey to help,” he suggested. Smokey Whittaker was an old wrangler who had sometimes served as assistant cook on cattle drives, and he was conveniently housed close by in the bunkhouse. “He may not know how to cook more than beans, bacon and biscuits, but the men can survive on that ‘til Hop Sing’s on his feet again.”
“And it’ll fill Hoss up better, too,” Joe acknowledged, his countenance brightening. Then he shook his head, sighing. “Don’t think beans, bacon and biscuits is quite what you sick folks need, though. Guess you’re still stuck with me for a cook.”
“Guess so,” Adam agreed hoarsely, “but at least Hop Sing’s soup will stretch further if you’re not feeding it to Hoss and the crew, too, so we won’t fall onto your tender mercies quite as soon.”
Joe pulled the wool blanket up and tucked it tight under his brother’s chin. “Don’t be wastin’ your voice spoutin’ meanness, big brother; my mercies are the tenderest you got right now, and you’d best be grateful for ‘em.”
As soon as Joe left, Adam smiled at the closed door to his bedroom and whispered, “I am, little brother; I truly am.”
The warm feeling of gratitude lasted just halfway through his first sip of the soup Joe brought him at noon. “What have you done to this?” Adam demanded, spewing the broth from his mouth.
“Hey, don’t go makin’ extra laundry,” Joe scolded, hastily dabbing his brother’s nightshirt with a napkin. “I just added some extra salt, figurin’ it would help your sore throat. Doc always says to gargle with salt water for that.”
“Gargling is about what this is fit for,” Adam muttered.
“Not good?” Joe asked, mouth skewing sideways in a quizzical expression.
“Not edible,” Adam responded pointedly.
“Oh.” Joe cocked his head and said cajolingly, “Guess it’s a good thing I just added it to the bowl, not the pot, huh?”
Adam favored him with a sour smile. “Meaning I’m your only victim? I suppose some might consider that a good thing—namely, Pa and Hop Sing!”
Panic swept across Joe’s face. “Pa and Hop Sing!” He took off at a run, shouting, “Don’t eat it!”
Somehow the family survived Joe’s cooking that day and the next and even began to show signs of returning health, though the sound of loud coughing continued to punctuate the otherwise silent nights. Though obviously exhausted, Little Joe started to relax. “Looks like you’re gonna be well in time for the Christmas Eve party after all,” he said happily after checking his father’s forehead for fever and finding it cooler.
“Oh, Joseph, I don’t think any of us are up to hosting a party this year,” Ben sighed. Though he felt better, his throat was still raw, and anything beyond a shallow breath stirred up the coughing that, once started, was hard to control.
The boy still residing within the seemingly mature eighteen-year-old came bursting out. “But, Pa, it’s Christmas,” the youngster cried, “and the invitations are already sent and everything.”
Drawing his hand from beneath the warm covers, Ben stroked the boy’s cool cheek. “Joseph, I’m sorry; I know it’s a disappointment. Goodness knows, you deserve a night to dance your cares away, but I’m really not well enough to consider it. I hate to add even this to your workload, son, but I think you’d better ride out and get word to all those invited guests, canceling the party, so they’ll have time to make other plans. Apologize for the short notice, and tell everyone we’ll try for a New Year’s Eve celebration, instead.”
“But, Pa . . .” Joe’s voice took on the characteristics of a childish whine, and that grinding sound irked his father into a curt rejoinder.
“Do as I say, Joseph,” Ben ordered brusquely. He looked as though he would have liked to say more, but yet another attack of coughing forestalled the rest of the lecture.
“Yes, sir,” Joe muttered. He left and dragged dejectedly downstairs and into the bedroom his middle brother temporarily occupied. He said nothing as he perched at the foot of the bed, but the desolation on his face told Hoss something was amiss. “Christmas,” Joe sighed despondently when asked what was wrong.
“What’s wrong with Christmas?” Hoss asked.
Joe drew his knees up, ignoring the fact that the soles of his boots were on the bedspread, and huddled miserably over them. “There ain’t gonna be none, that’s what.”
Hoss laughed. “Aw, shucks, sure there is. I admit there was a time earlier this year when I figured there’d be nothin’ in your stocking but switches for tannin’ your ornery hide, but after the way you’ve pitched in the last few days, all your other mischief has been paid for, so I reckon, come Christmas morning, ole Santa will have left a pile of presents under the tree for you.”
Joe looked up and asked glumly, “What tree?”
Hoss gulped in sudden realization. “That’s right. We ain’t got one, have we? We all got laid up before time to chop one down, and I reckon you’ve been too busy since to give it a thought.”
“I guess I still could,” Joe said pensively, “but it’d be just you and me to enjoy it. Pa says I gotta ride out and uninvite folks to the party so’s they can make other plans.”
Hoss now looked as forlorn as his younger brother. “Aw, that’s a shame. Folks look forward to that party all year—especially the orphans over to Carson City. They don’t get many chances for special doin’s; kinda hard for them to make other plans, too, tight as money always is at the home. You oughta take some candy to ‘em, at least, Joe, to give ‘em a little Christmas cheer.” He glanced considerately at the weary-eyed young man across from him. “If you got time, that is.”
Joe smiled for the first time since entering the room. “I’ll make time. Like you said, it’s the least we can do for kids that won’t get much Christmas otherwise.” He stood up and stretched. “Guess I’ll turn in, since I need to make an early start tomorrow. You need anything before I head up?”
“Just pour me a glass of water and leave it where I can reach it, and I’ll be set for the night,” Hoss said.
Joe did as requested and leaned over to give his big brother a final tuck-in.
Hoss’s big hand closed around Joe’s forearm. “Don’t be frettin’ yourself over that party, you hear now? Christmas may not be the merriest this year, but there’s better times a-comin’, and we’re all gonna be here to celebrate ‘em, at least in part thanks to you. Ole Santa”—he tapped himself on the chest—“don’t forget things like that.”
Feeling awkward, as he usually did with words of praise, Joe mussed his brother’s sandy hair. “Thanks, Santa, but you’d best be restin’ up for your late-night travels, hadn’t you?”
“Yup,” Hoss agreed with an added measure of good cheer. “Gonna take some extra effort to hoist me into the sleigh this year, though, so I reckon you’d better be restin’ up, too, if you’re gonna be Santa’s little helper.”
“If I’m hoistin’ you into a sleigh, I reckon I better,” Joe laughed. He gave Hoss a playful punch on the shoulder and left. After stopping in to see Hop Sing, Adam and finally his father and tending to their last-minute wants and wishes, Joe turned in himself, citing all the homesteads he had to visit the next day as reason for his early retiring. “I’ll leave all our doors open, though,” he promised both his father and eldest brother, “so just holler if you need anything.” Smokey Whittaker had promised to sleep on the settee and keep an ear out for similar cries for help from Hoss and Hop Sing, since Joe couldn’t be both upstairs and down at the same time. Amazing how even that much help eases the load, Joe thought, and from there his mind drifted back to Hoss’s calling him “Santa’s little helper” as he slipped a nightshirt over his head and slipped into bed.
It certainly appeared that Santa could use a little help in bringing Christmas to the Ponderosa this year, and as near as Joe could see, he was the only candidate available for the job. He decided then and there that he would find the biggest and best Christmas tree available and decorate it as if the whole territory of Nevada would be there to see it glisten in the light of the candles tied to each bough. Maybe Pa and Adam would feel like leaving their beds, at least long enough to open presents, by Christmas morning, but even if they didn’t, Hoss would be able to enjoy the tree. Doc was supposed to be bringing some crutches out from town that would release his big brother from bed.
Joe yawned. Good ole Hoss, he’d tell me not to bother, just for him. Always been unselfish like that, which just means he deserves a merry Christmas more than anyone I know. Hoss always did his part to make Christmas merry for everyone else, even dressing up like St. Nick to pass out presents to the wide-eyed orphans from the Carson City Asylum, and Joe could tell that what was bothering his big brother most of all was the thought of those little kids going without. He’d promised to see that they got their treats, of course, but somehow that didn’t seem like enough. Kids like that, who got next to nothing all through the year, really needed the fun of a big Christmas party.
Joe sat up, hugging his knees beneath the covers as he considered the possibility of throwing the kids a party all by himself. He’d need a tree, of course, but he was going to get one anyway, so that didn’t count as extra work, and he’d need candy and presents and some kind of refreshments. Joe’s face scrunched with dismay. Hop Sing always made great refreshments, but Hop Sing was sick. Kids didn’t demand much, though; sandwiches, punch and cookies would do. He could make sandwiches easy enough. There was plenty of smoked ham and cheese in the larder, and even as inept as Joe felt in the kitchen, he could slice meat and cheese and bread. Nothing to that, and he’d watched his pa make punch often enough to manage that, too. Cookies were another matter. Joe sighed, chin dropping to his bent knees. Cookies were beyond his ability, no question about that, and kids just had to have cookies for Christmas; cookies, candy and presents were what Christmas was all about at that age.
Joe’s chin came up and a smile curved his lips as sudden inspiration struck. The Cartwrights weren’t the only ones who cared about giving the orphans a good Christmas; there were lots of kind-hearted folks in the territory, and he had to ride around to most of them tomorrow, anyway. He’d just apply the old Cartwright charm, fix his little-lost-puppy eyes on those he knew to be good cooks, paint them an irresistible picture of those pathetic little cookie-less orphans and ask them to donate a dozen or so treats to a good cause.
Sudden inspiration struck again. If he was throwing one party, how much more trouble could it be to throw two? Just make a bunch more sandwiches, mix some extra punch, ask for a few more cookies, maybe a cake or two from his closer female friends, push back the furniture for dancing once the orphans headed back to Carson and let the older folks make their own fun. What could be simpler? Explaining to Pa why he had disobeyed a direct order to cancel the party might get touchy, but that could wait for Christmas morning, when, hopefully, the spirit of the day would have Pa in much too good a mood for stern lectures.
Little Joe was whistling merrily as he and a couple of the ranch hands brought in the huge pine and set it up in the usual niche beside the stairs. Everything was going according to plan. The people he’d visited yesterday had been more than willing to lend a hand with providing for the orphans’ party, and while some of the older folks had questioned the wisdom of his hosting the second party by himself, all the girls he’d told had declared their delight at the prospect of dancing with him.
A few of their older sisters expressed regret that Adam wouldn’t be escorting them around the dance floor, but Joe assured them with a naughty wink that he’d see to it they didn’t miss his older brother too much. He refrained from making a similar offer to Bessie Sue when she bemoaned Hoss’s inability to dance on Christmas Eve. Joe had danced with her once last year as payback for a favor Hoss had done him, and that big gal had not only worn him out with her vigorous sashay around the dance floor, but had tromped on his foot and nearly broken it in the process. No, sirree, Miss Bessie Sue was welcome to come, but she’d be dancing with someone else this year!
After he’d spoken to all the invited guests and assured them the party was still on, Joe had made a quick trip to town for last-minute supplies: a wide assortment of candy for the kids, including the big one with the broken leg, lots of small toys to tie on the branches of the Christmas tree and bigger ones to come straight from Santa, some tins of peaches and jars of pickles to set on the table with the sandwiches, and the ingredients for Pa’s famous punch. He’d had chores to do when he got home, of course, and supper to prepare for his ill family members, but there had been enough soup left to satisfy their skimpy appetites. It was gone now, though, so Joe figured he’d have to make a fresh batch. Though Hop Sing wasn’t feeling up to getting out of bed, he wasn’t hoarse or feverish, like Pa and Adam had been, so he could surely give instructions on how to make a proper pot of soup. How hard could it be?
Starting early this morning, Joe had selected the perfect tree, chopped it down by himself and then enlisted the help of the ranch hands in getting it home and into the house. They’d been glad to take a break from regular chores for a job that promised the reward of an invitation to the dance. “I’ve got just the girl picked out for you,” he told one of the men, who he had noticed wore especially stout-toed boots.
Joe made quick work of the necessary barn chores, for he still had much to do tonight. First he popped a huge bowl of popcorn and toted it into Hoss’s room.
“Popcorn!” Hoss protested. “Don’t tell me Smokey’s down sick, too, and this is all I’m gettin’ for supper!”
“Smokey’s fine, and you ain’t eatin’ none of this,” Joe snorted. “This is for stringin’—for the tree.”
Hoss looked touched. “You went and got a tree for just the two of us? Joe, you shouldn’t have, not with all the extra work you’ve already got to do.”
“I wanted to,” Joe said, “for me as much as for you, but as it turns out, it ain’t gonna be just the two of us, after all.”
A broad smile spread over Hoss’s face. “Pa and Adam are better?”
“Yeah, they are,” Joe said, “but that’s not what I meant. They’re on the mend, but I’m still not sure they’ll be out of bed in time for the party.”
A deep frown replaced Hoss’s beaming smile. “What party?” he asked in staccato-sharp syllables.
“The one for the orphans,” Joe said. He paused and added in a voice so low Hoss could barely hear it, “And the other one, too.”
“The other one?” Hoss queried. Then realization dawned in his clear blue eyes. “The one Pa told you to cancel, you mean?”
“Shh!” Joe ordered, although reason should have told him that there was no way his father could hear the conversation from his bedroom upstairs. “Yeah, that one. Well, I was s’posed to cancel the both of ‘em, for that matter, but Pa might understand about the orphans. The other, I ain’t so sure.”
“Joe,” Hoss chided, “you are bound and determined to get them switches in your stocking, ain’t ya?”
“No, I ain’t,” Joe insisted. “What I’m bound and determined to do is make a merry Christmas for those poor little orphans you was frettin’ over. You’re the one that reminded me about them, so the least you can do is help out by stringing a little popcorn. Lots of folks is helpin’, by bakin’ cookies and such, and I thought you’d be glad to do what little you could, but if you’re too selfish to give a little time to kids that don’t get parties hardly any other time of year, when you ain’t got nothin’ to do but lay there, anyway, I reckon I can just add this to my workload that you said you was so worried about and—”
“Hey, hey now,” Hoss interrupted, his face glowing crimson with shame. For some reason Joe had always had the ability to make him feel about two inches tall, when he’d been so certain a minute before that he was the one in the right. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t string the popcorn. Sure I will, and I think it’s great that you got folks to help out with the cookies and such, but about that other party, Joe . . .”
Joe swept aside his older brother’s concern. “All under control,” he assured Hoss confidently. “Ain’t much more work, you see, to get ready for two parties than for one, and if folks are bringin’ refreshments for the orphans, only seems right to let ‘em stay and enjoy some fun themselves, to pay ‘em back for bein’ so good to the kids.”
“Well, maybe,” Hoss conceded, trying hard to follow his younger brother’s convoluted reasoning, “but I ain’t sure Pa’s gonna see it quite like you do.” Little Joe could usually talk circles around Hoss, but most of the time Pa and Adam somehow managed to wade through the spiral of words and see what really lay behind them.
“Pa’s been too sick to think things through or he’d see it just the same,” Joe alleged.
Hoss rolled his eyes skeptically. “You are gonna tell Pa, ain’t you?”
“Oh, sure,” Joe responded with easy acquiescence. “When the time’s right.” He smiled to himself. Christmas morning—that’s when the time would be right—right after he gave Pa his Christmas present, which was, thankfully, a really nice one this year. “Okay, you get to stringin’,” Joe ordered. “I got to get to the kitchen and start some soup. I’ll make a big pot, in case you want some, too.”
“Uh, Smokey is still okay, ain’t he?” Hoss asked with a hint of anxiety.
Joe turned at the door, clearly perturbed by the lack of confidence Hoss was expressing in his cooking skills. “Yeah, he’s fine. I was tryin’ to be nice and give you some variety, but if you really want beans, bacon and biscuits again, you’re welcome to it, big brother!”
“Got a positive craving for it,” Hoss said as he squinted to thread the needle Joe had handed him for stringing the popcorn.
Little Joe trotted into the cook’s bedroom. “Hey, Hop Sing, soup ain’t hard to make, is it?” he asked. “Just throw everything in a pot and let it boil, I guess, but how long?”
The cook muttered something in Chinese that Joe thought was better left untranslated, but since there was no other way anyone would get fed, Hop Sing finally condescended to tell the young man how to begin. Much running back and forth from kitchen to cook’s room went on for the next hour or so before Joe brought a bowl for his instructor to evaluate.
Hop Sing took a tentative taste of the broth. “Not enough salt,” he dictated.
Joe nibbled his lower lip. “You sure? Last time Adam said I added too much.”
“Mr. Adam got good sense; he not foolish boy like you. You not s’posed add anything to Hop Sing soup,” the feisty little Oriental grunted. “Hop Sing soup perfect.”
“Yeah, it was; I mean, it always is,” Joe admitted quickly, both because it was true and because he didn’t dare risk losing his only ally in the battle against starvation. “More salt, huh?”
“Little bit more, not whole cup,” the cook cautioned.
Joe looked annoyed. “I got some sense, you know.”
“Not much,” Hop Sing muttered. He scooped up a cube of beef onto his spoon. “What Hop Sing tell you? Cut meat small, right?”
“I did!” Joe protested.
Hop Sing shook his head. “This not small; this size for stew, but not have time for stew. Take meat out, cut smaller and cook little more.” He tried again to chew the beef, but spit it out of his mouth in distaste. “No, not little more, lot more.”
“But it’s suppertime now,” Joe wailed.
“Vegetables done; take meat out, make plain vegetable soup,” the cook advised after another taste test. “Add meat tomollow, make mo’ special.”
Joe gave him a relieved smile. “That’s a good idea. They oughta have something special for Christmas Eve. You, too. I’ll even sneak you a cookie or two while the doc’s back is turned.” Of course, Dr. Martin hadn’t specifically prohibited cookies, but in Joe’s experience, nothing that good was likely to fit a doctor’s notion of good nutrition. What the doctor didn’t know, though, wouldn’t hurt anyone.
Hop Sing returned a conspiratorial grin. “Now you show good sense, like number one son.”
Sticking out his tongue seemed to Joe an appropriate response to being compared to Adam. Taking the bowl back to the kitchen, he scooped the meat out of the pot and dumped it onto the cutting board, added a little more salt to the remaining soup, and after it had simmered a bit longer took a small portion back to Hop Sing for tasting. When Hop Sing pronounced it fit to eat, “but not good like mine,” Joe ladled soup into two more bowls. After taking soup upstairs to Pa and Adam, he returned and picked up a butcher knife. Then he cocked his head and eyed the meat for a minute. No need to cut it smaller, he decided, since it now had plenty of time to cook. “Stew for Christmas Eve,” he decided and started to hum as he tossed it all back into the pot and left it to bubble ‘til bedtime.
He decided to leave the dishes ‘til the next day. That way he’d only have to wash up once before the party, and, besides, he needed to get the paper cones made for holding the candy treats for the orphans. He dragged the round game table into Hoss’s room, set it beside his older brother’s bed and helped Hoss swing his legs over the edge. Then, seated opposite each other, the two younger Cartwright brothers chatted merrily as they snipped and pasted and tied a ribbon to the top of each cone for hanging on the tree.
Finally, the containers were completed and after pulling the table back out of the way, Joe gave a mighty yawn and a stretch. “I’m for bed,” he said. “It’s been a long day.”
“Yeah, I know it has for you,” Hoss said, “but I gotta tell you. Havin’ somethin’ to do sure made the hours pass faster for me. I’m glad you’re throwin’ this party, little brother, and sure ‘nough glad you figured a way I could help out.”
Joe laughed. “Maybe I can convince Pa I did it all to help you mend faster.”
“Welcome to any help I can give you along them lines,” Hoss chuckled. “Now get on to bed. You look bushed, and tomorrow’s another long day.”
“Oh, tomorrow should be easy, compared to today,” Joe assured him, ending with yet another wide-mouthed yawn. “Just need to finish decorating, make the sandwiches and punch and set things out.”
Little Joe was so certain that he had everything under control that he granted himself the luxury of a little lie-in on the morning of Christmas Eve, and none of his family begrudged him the additional rest. He visited his father and eldest brother as soon as he was dressed and assured them that breakfast wouldn’t be long in arriving. “In fact, I’ll make you all some nice buttered toast to tide you over ‘til the oatmeal’s cooked.”
“Joe, that isn’t necessary,” Adam insisted when the message was delivered to him. “Really, don’t trouble yourself.”
“No trouble,” Joe announced genially and bounded out the door.
Adam sighed, wondering just how much longer he’d be subjected to the tender mercies of over-salted soup, lumpy oatmeal and predictably scorched toast.
Joe clattered down the stairs, made the same assurance and promise to Hoss and Hop Sing and set to work cutting off thick slices of bread for the toast. The loaf he’d been using provided four slices, but deciding one wouldn’t be enough for Hoss, Joe headed to the pantry for a fresh loaf. Yet though he searched every shelf, he couldn’t find any bread. Rushing into the cook’s room, he asked, “Where do you hide the extra bread, Hop Sing?”
When Hop Sing indignantly asserted that he never hid bread and told him it was in the pantry, Joe shook his head vigorously. “No, it ain’t; I looked high and low.”
“How much blead you eat?” the cook demanded. “Hop Sing bake enough fo’ week.”
Joe could almost feel the color draining from his cheeks. He had eaten and served an unusual number of sandwiches over the last few days; in fact, he himself had basically lived on them, so as to save the better food for the invalids, but surely the bread wasn’t all gone. “I mean the other extra bread,” he suggested, adopting, without realizing it, the same pleading puppy eyes that had garnered him dozens of cookies from female friends. “Ain’t you got some stashed somewhere, for emergency?”
The forlorn expression had no effect on Hop Sing. He merely folded his arms across his chest, repeated that the bread was all in the pantry and began to mumble something about greedy-bellied boys. Joe got out fast and walked back to the kitchen, scratching his head. What was he going to do? The orphans were scheduled to arrive at four that afternoon, so he had no time to ride around searching for bread to borrow. And he had to have bread. Sandwiches might not be fancy party grub, like folks were used to, but they sure as shootin’ beat nothing but peaches and pickles!
Joe’s eyes lighted as he entered the kitchen and saw Smokey Whittaker stirring up a batch of biscuits. “Hey, Smokey,” he said, gazing at the grizzled wrangler as if he’d just seen his savior. “How are you at baking bread?”
“You mean light bread?” Smokey laughed. “I’m only passable at makin’ biscuits, boy; I got better sense than to tackle light bread.”
“But you gotta,” Joe whined. “We’re plumb out, and I can’t make sandwiches without bread.”
“I ain’t gotta do nothin’ of the sort,” Smokey snorted. “I don’t mind doin’ what I an to help out in time of need, but I got too much gumption to mess with what I got no hope of doin’ right.”
“Please?” Joe pleaded. “I’ll set you up with a real pretty filly for the dancing.”
Lips pursed in determination, Smokey shook his head. “I’ll find my own filly, boy, and leave you to tend the bread-makin’, though I think you’d be a fool to even try.”
Joe sank into the straight-backed chair, feeling that even its solid wood was insufficient to support him. He propped his elbows on the kitchen worktable and tried to come up with a solution to his dilemma that didn’t involve his tackling yet another new cooking skill. For fifteen minutes he sat there, thinking, before he faced the inevitable conclusion that the only way to get more bread was to bake it himself. With a sigh of despair for the way this “under-control” day was unraveling, he stood. How hard could it be? he asked himself as he headed for lion’s lair once again. Harder than taming the wildest bronc, that’s how hard!
Hop Sing’s first reaction to Little Joe’s questions about how to bake bread was to pull the covers back and try to climb out of bed. Joe put a quick stop to that nonsense. “Don’t be stupid,” he scolded. “You were the last took, and that makes you the one that needs to stay in bed the worst.” He stood sternly by the bed, arms akimbo. “Now, how do I make bread?”
“Is-a not good idea,” Hop Sing insisted. “Velly hard, especially for foolish boy who not follow orders.”
“I follow orders,” Joe protested. “Well, most of the time.” He couldn’t help realizing in that moment that he wouldn’t be in this predicament if he’d followed his father’s order to cancel the party, but he wasn’t about to confess that to Hop Sing. “Anyway, I’ll follow yours; I’ll do just like you say, just like I did with the soup.”
Hop Sing shook his head, wondering how the boy could tell such a bald-faced lie with such an earnest face. “Just like with soup? Hop Sing much wollied now.” Seeing the chin of the boy he loved begin to quiver, though, against his better judgment Hop Sing started rattling off instructions in the art of bread-baking.
Mumbling the steps over and over to himself, Joe rushed back to the kitchen and set some water on to heat, determined to watch it carefully so that it was just warm and not boiling, for Hop Sing had warned him that boiling water would kill the yeast. While he was waiting, Joe saw the slices of bread he had meant to toast lying on the worktable and decided he’d better get those to his family fast or there would be difficult questions to answer. Four slices still didn’t look like enough, so he cut each in half, pleased that now each person could have two apiece.
When the toast was done, Joe ran a plate of it in to Hop Sing and then charged up the stairs to deliver toast first to those most likely to question any delay. Sure enough, as soon as he came through the door, Adam said, “Well, if it takes this long just to get toast, I suppose it’ll be nearly noon by the time the oatmeal arrives.”
Joe stared at him, flabbergasted. “Oatmeal? You want oatmeal, too?” Then, as the incredulous expression on his brother’s face reminded him of his previous promise, he sputtered, “Oh, yeah, the oatmeal. Coming right up.” He ran down the hall to his father’s room and thrust the plate of toast at his father.
“Joseph, son, slow down,” his father urged, concerned, as he had been for days, that his youngest son was being overworked. “No need to rush around so. We’re not going anywhere.”
“No need!” Joe cried in dismay. If only Pa knew how great the need really was! But he caught himself before saying anything more incriminating and after promising the oatmeal soon, walked out of the bedroom, only breaking into a run when he’d rounded the corner into the main upstairs hall. His feet touched half or fewer of the steps as he careened down the stairs. Racing to the kitchen, he grabbed the last plate of toast and, rushing into Hoss’s room, practically threw it at him. “Gotta go,” he yelled. “Oatmeal soon.”
Running back into the kitchen, Joe found that the pan of water had started to boil in his absence. He grabbed the handle to move it off the stove and just as quickly let it go, bringing his reddened palm to his mouth. Snatching a dish towel from the counter by the sink, he started to remove the pan, but then he smiled and left it where it was. After all, he did need boiling water to cook the oatmeal, so the minor blunder had actually put him a step ahead. “Shouldn’t be tryin’ to do two things at once, anyway,” Joe chided himself. “Get breakfast out of the way first and there’ll still be time to bake the bread.”
Deciding that he should at least get out the utensils and ingredients while the cereal cooked, however, he set out bowls and spoons, flour, sugar, salt and yeast and made a quick run to the spring house for milk and butter. Placing those on the worktable, he decided to give the oatmeal a stir and discovered it had already boiled dry. “Should’ve remembered oatmeal needs more water than bread,” he muttered. Snatching up the spoon with which he had intended to mix the bread dough, he took a taste of the oatmeal and grimaced. No, definitely not done yet, although it did taste a bit charred around the edges. Well, that would just give it a nice roasted flavor when it was done; no need to start from scratch, especially as pushed for time as he was this morning. He took the pan to the pump, put more water in it and set it back on the stove to boil again.
When the cereal had boiled down a second time, Joe took a tentative taste, and his face screwed up once again. That roasted flavor wasn’t quite as nice as he’d hoped, but it would have to do. He certainly didn’t have time to start over. He had bread to bake!
He took the cereal first to his brother Adam. “And I don’t wanna hear any complaints, either,” he said when he handed Adam the bowl of gray lumps.
“Oh, that sounds promising,” Adam sighed, but Joe had already left.
“I didn’t do so good this morning, Pa,” Joe apologized at his next stop.
Ben could see that at first glance into his bowl, but his concern, once again, was for his youngest son, who seemed more distracted and frenzied than usual this morning. The strain of the last few days must be getting to the boy. “It’ll be fine, Joseph,” he said gently. “Your best is always fine, son.”
Joe paused long enough to give his father a relieved smile. “Thanks, Pa,” he said, and then he was running down the hall again. As he passed Adam’s room, he hollered, “My best is always fine with Pa!”
“If this is your best, heaven preserve me from your worst!” Adam yelled back to the now empty hall.
Running back to the kitchen, Joe hastily dished up another bowl of oatmeal and trotted it into Hoss’s bedroom. “It ain’t too good, but I’ll do better by you later, I promise.”
“Whoa! What’s the rush?” Hoss asked. “I thought everything was under control.”
Joe popped his head back into the room long enough to announce, “It ain’t under control—far from it—but I’m workin’ on it. I’ll explain later.” And then he was off again. He prepared the final bowl of oatmeal and carried it to Hop Sing, who took one look and started ranting in Cantonese.
“Yeah, I know,” Joe said, walking gingerly backwards with his palms held outward to ward off the angry words, “but I ain’t got time to listen now. I got bread to bake.”
What ensued for the next hour or so should have gone down in history next to the Napoleonic wars or some battle of equal proportions. Joe measured and mixed and then plunked the whole sticky mess onto the floured table and began to knead . . . and knead . . . and knead, adding more and more flour and trying in vain to keep the dough from clinging to his fingers. When he felt that he couldn’t possibly pound that recalcitrant lump of dough one more time, he ran down to Hop Sing’s room again. “How long I gotta knead this stuff?” he demanded.
Hop Sing scanned the flour-dusted figure of the youngest Cartwright. “My kitchen look bad as you?” he demanded.
Joe took a quick glance downward. “Worse,” he replied honestly, “but I’ll clean it up. Now, how much more I gotta knead this stuff? My arms are about to break off!”
Hop Sing grinned. “When they break off, you be ‘bout there.” He pointed to the dough on Joe’s fingers. “‘Til dough stick to self and not to you,” he advised.
“Okay,” Joe sighed, muttering as he turned away, “but you must have the strongest arms in the territory.”
Hop Sing smiled and nodded, pleased that his worth was finally being acknowledged. Perhaps he should consider giving his other Cartwrights opportunities like this; perhaps they, too, would appreciate his work more if they had to do it for a few days.
The dough finally stuck to itself and not to Joe’s fingers, so he concluded that it was ready to plop into a greased bowl and be left to rise in a warm place, as Hop Sing had previously instructed. Since that process was supposed to take at least an hour, Joe decided he had time for a visit with, and hopefully a little sympathy from, his middle brother.
“Doggone. That’s hard luck,” Hoss commiserated when he’d heard Joe’s latest woe. “‘Course, I should’ve known you was headed for trouble when I first heard you was plannin’ to disobey Pa.”
“Don’t bring that up now,” Joe moaned. “I can’t go back and change that now; it’s too late to get word to folks, and, besides, think of those poor little orphans, Hoss.”
Hoss nodded slowly, though his mouth was set in a worried frown. “You’re right about it bein’ too late to cancel on the kids now. I just wish there was some way I could help you more.”
Joe perked up. “There is. We still need to put the candy in those cones. If you could do that, I could finish decorating the tree while the dough rises.”
“Pull that game table back over and bring me the candy,” Hoss said.
Joe did, wagging a finger at Hoss as he left again. “And don’t be eatin’ all the candy yourself,” he cautioned. “I ain’t sure how much we got to spare.”
“Just one piece?” Hoss suggested, his face as woebegone as any orphan’s could possibly be.
Joe grinned and held up five fingers, and as if by magic, Hoss’s countenance was totally transformed and he went to work with renewed enthusiasm.
Joe finished draping the evergreen boughs over the mantle and tying all the small gifts to the tree. By that time Hoss had a large number of candy-filled cones ready, so Joe scooped up all he could carry and took them to the tree and hung them from the branches. It took several trips before all the cones were in place, and then Joe added the final touch by fixing the carved angel to the top of the tree. “Merry Christmas, Mama,” he whispered. The angel always reminded him of his mother, and he always sent her a Christmas greeting when her representation was put atop the tree. Not wanting anyone else to hear and think him foolish, he normally voiced the words only inside his own head, but with no one around to hear this year, he could actually say them, and that felt extra special. With a warm, magnanimous feeling for the world, Joe headed back to the kitchen for the second engagement of the battle of the bread.
This particular phase of the battle was actually pleasurable, for it was time to punch down the dough and Joe used the opportunity to vent his frustrations of the morning. When the dough was properly pummeled, he shaped it into loaves and set them aside to rise again while he rushed outside to complete the neglected chores. When he returned, it was time for the bread to go in the oven. Joe slid the final loaf in and gave a gaping yawn. Wandering into the front room, he flopped down on the settee to relax while the bread baked. Yes, sir, he thought contentedly as he curled into the cushion, the day had started off a bit frantic, but everything was once again under control.
Dr. Martin rapped a second time on the front door of the Ponderosa, and when again no one came in response, he opened the door himself. No doubt Little Joe was upstairs, seeing to the needs of the bed-bound, and simply hadn’t heard him knocking. Knowing he was welcome at any time, Paul walked in freely and headed toward the stairs. Surprised to see a decorated tree, he paused to look at it for a moment; then he heard a soft snore that made him spin to his left, and he saw the youngest Cartwright nestled on the settee, sound asleep. Concerned that bronchitis had felled a final victim, the doctor rushed to him. “Joe! Joe, my boy,” he said as he laid his hand on the slumbering youth’s forehead. No fever, at least, he noted.
Joe woke with a start. “Huh? Oh, it’s you, Doc.”
He started to sit up, but the doctor pushed him back down. “Not ‘til I’ve examined you,” Paul Martin dictated, reaching for his bag of instruments.
“Examined?” Little Joe bolted upright so fast that there was no holding him down this time. “I don’t need examinin’; I’m fine.”
The doctor sat on the table before the settee. “Are you sure? You gave me quite a fright, young man, when I saw you lying there, dead to the world.”
Joe smiled apologetically. “Just tired,” he assured the doctor. “Been working pretty hard this morning.”
“Overdoing, you mean,” Dr. Martin scolded. “I thought I warned you about that, son.”
“And like I told you, there ain’t no one else,” Joe countered.
“Well, how is everyone”—the doctor’s nose crinkled as a sharp odor hit his nostrils. “Is something burning?”
It took a moment for the suggestion to register, and then Joe leaped from the settee and raced toward the kitchen, arms waving wildly as he yelled, “My bread!”
Having developed a sixth sense for disaster about to strike, Paul Martin charged after him and burst through the doorway in time to shout, “Use a pot holder!” when he saw the young man reach for the handle to the oven door.
“Oh, yeah, good thinking,” Joe said. “Don’t wanna make that mistake again!” He grabbed a towel from the worktable, opened the oven and began pulling out the loaves as quickly as he could. Once they were all on the table, Joe fell into the chair beside it and stared morosely at the darkened crusts.
Dr. Martin clapped a hand to the sturdy young shoulder. “My boy, I am beginning to understand those dark circles under your eyes. I wish I’d known you were in need of the staff of life. I could have had my wife bake a loaf or two for you.”
“I’d need more than that,” Joe moaned. “They’re ruined, ain’t they? And I ain’t got time to bake up another batch before—”
“Before what?” the doctor inquired authoritatively, for he had known Joseph Cartwright long enough to recognize a suspicious sentence cutoff when he heard one.
“Before dinner?” Joe offered, his response so tentative that it immediately lost all credence.
Before Dr. Martin could explore the reason behind the suspect answer, a stream of vociferous Cantonese alerted him to a more urgent need. “I’m going to check on Hop Sing before he gets out of bed in defense of his kitchen, and after that I’ll see my other patients. Then you and I are going to have a little discussion, young man. I would suggest that you seriously consider giving me a straight answer the first time.” He strode swiftly toward the cook’s bedroom, leaving behind a woebegone waif slumped disconsolately over the table.
When the good doctor had finished his rounds, he returned to the kitchen, where Little Joe was carefully cutting away the scorched edges of each loaf. “The inside looks fine, and kids might like sandwiches better without crust, anyway, you think?”
“What kids?” Dr. Martin demanded. “And stick to the truth because I assure you that I will not be put off by the usual Joe Cartwright run-around reasoning!”
“Just some kids that are comin’ here later for sandwiches,” Joe said, and judging that a change of topic might be in his best interest, he quickly asked, “How’s everybody doin’?”
“Well enough, but we’ll discuss that later,” the doctor said sternly. “Stop trying to divert me, young man. What kids and why are they coming here for sandwiches, of all ridiculous places?”
Joe collapsed forlornly in the chair beside the worktable. “Promise you won’t tell Pa?”
Dr. Martin folded his arms and glared at the young man. “No promises. What mischief are you up to, young fellow?”
“None, honest,” Joe insisted, his face earnest. “Just tryin’ to keep Christmas the way the Cartwrights always do, starting with a party this afternoon for the Carson City Children’s Asylum.”
“Here?” Dr. Martin all but shouted the query.
“It’s always here.” Little Joe’s head bobbed rapidly up and down to emphasize the logic of his statement.
“Well, it shouldn’t have been, not this year!” the doctor ranted. “Surely it hasn’t passed your notice that you are the only Cartwright standing upright.”
Joe sat up straight, chin held high. “I noticed! But I can do it, even if I am the only Cartwright left standing. I’ve got it all planned, and everything’s under control.” His gaze fell on the lopsided, slightly burned bread, and his countenance fell. “Well, anyway, it was ‘til this happened.”
Shaking his head in consternation, Dr. Martin drew up a chair and sat down, resting his arms on the worktable. “Let’s hear the whole sad story,” he said.
Little Joe started at the beginning, with his father’s instruction to cancel the traditional parties, Hoss’s concern over disappointing the orphans, his idea—inspiration, he called it, with an especially charming smile directed toward the doctor—to carry on anyway and to enlist the help of others in the community in baking cookies and of Hoss in preparing the popcorn garland and the horns of candy to hang on the tree. “So all I had to do was decorate the place and make sandwiches and punch,” Joe explained in conclusion, “but then I discovered we were plumb out of bread, and so I been workin’ all morning to make some and, well, you know the rest.”
“Joe, Joe,” the doctor chuckled, shaking his head affectionately. “Only you.”
“Only you could follow your heart into this big a mess,” Paul laughed. “More heart than brains, that’s you.”
Sensing that the doctor was coming around to his side, Joe returned a crooked smile. “I reckon, but I think it’s gonna be okay. Good idea, huh, cutting off the crusts?”
“So that’s it, then? Just the party for the orphans?” Paul inquired. The look on Joe’s face made him glad he’d thought to ask what seemed to be an unnecessary question. He’d learned over the years, however, that even the most outlandish questions were rarely unnecessary where this youngster was involved.
“Well, there is the dance after that,” Joe said slowly, biting his lip and gazing anxiously across the table.
Leaning his head back and closing his eyes, Paul Martin groaned. “What dance, son?”
“For the grown folks,” Joe said with bright-eyed buoyancy. “You’re invited, of course; bring Mrs. Martin, too. In fact—oh, hey! this is a great idea—you can read A Christmas Carol for the kids, unless you think Pa’s up to it.”
“Gracious, no!” the doctor remonstrated. “I brought the crutches I promised, so I think we can get Hoss up, and he can sit quietly in a nice padded chair and see the orphans get their Christmas candy, but not your father and Adam. I’m willing to let them out of bed by Christmas morning, but they are definitely not ready to be around a crowd of people.”
“Oh, too bad,” Joe said. He smiled engagingly at the doctor. “Well, that leaves you to do the reading, then.”
“Leave me out of this madness,” the doctor intoned ominously.
“But, Doc, you know how the kids look forward to hearing that story every year,” Joe cajoled, “and if Pa can’t and Adam can’t, then you’re the next best choice.”
“No,” Paul Martin said bluntly.
“Doc, I’m surprised—no, shocked is more like it,” Joe declared, holding his palm to his breastbone. “Here you have a chance to do something to make Christmas special for some poor little orphan tykes, and you won’t—”
“No,” the doctor repeated more firmly. “Don’t try twisting me around your little finger, young fellow. Unlike Hoss, I am immune to your manipulations.”
“Hoss—now there’s someone who really cares about folks less fortunate than himself,” Joe rambled on as if there had been no interruption. “Here he is laid up in bed himself, but still wanting to do all he can for someone else. And all those ladies, too, taking time out from their own Christmas baking to make cookies for the kids, and all I ask you to do is read one measly little story and you think that’s too much. Well, just forget I asked! I guess I can read the story, too, even though I have been overworkin’ myself, like you said not to, and this’ll just add more to my—”
“Enough.” The doctor raised a remonstrating hand. “I’ll do it, but there will be conditions.”
The triumphant smile that had appeared on Joe’s face when the doctor started to speak skewed sideways by the end of the sentence. “Conditions? What kind of conditions?”
“Two things,” the doctor replied. “First, promise me that you’ll take a nice long nap Christmas afternoon if you manage to survive the lunacy of this evening.”
Joe grinned. “That sounds great! I mean, if you think no one will need me . . .”
“No one will need you. A nice long nap, young man, and one more thing: you need to tell your father about this.”
“Oh, I will,” Joe promised easily. “I planned to, of course, right after we open our presents tomorrow . . . or maybe I should wait ‘til after dinner, huh? Don’t want to spoil his appetite, do we?”
“Not tomorrow, Joseph, today!” the doctor admonished sternly. “Before the first of your little guests arrives. I do not want either your father or Adam getting out of bed to investigate unexplained noises.”
“Noises? What noises?” Joe asked, hazel eyes wide with complete innocence.
The doctor rubbed his throbbing temple, thinking how typical it was for Joe Cartwright to focus so single-mindedly on what he wanted that nothing opposing his purpose had a chance of penetrating his brain. “Dozens of little feet running around, cacophonous cries of delight as candy and toys rain down, not to mention the sound of a fiddle and the thump of dancing feet later on.”
Little Joe twisted his lower lip between thumb and index finger. “Oh, those noises.”
“Yes, those noises! Now, either you tell your father, young man, or I will,” the doctor said, looking fully prepared to carry out the threat.
“I’ll tell him,” Joe promised quickly, adding with a sigh, “Don’t seem like I’ve got much choice.”
“You have no choice,” Paul Martin affirmed, forcing himself to keep an unyielding visage. “And tell Adam, too. He doesn’t need to come bounding out of bed any more than your father does.”
Joe winced. Sometimes Adam could be worse than Pa, but the young man quickly agreed to the doctor’s terms and after a few more questions about the patients, showed Paul Martin to the door. Then Joe returned to the kitchen to slice the bread and make the sandwiches, reasoning that his father and oldest brother would be more receptive to a party if all preparations were already made.
Joe paused in the bedroom doorway, dreading his father’s reaction to the message he had been ordered to deliver. At the moment he was less concerned about his own fate than about upsetting his father. After all, it had been years since he’d actually had his britches warmed, but Pa wasn’t strong yet and shouldn’t have to be bothered with the shenanigans of a disobedient son. Why is it I never think of this kind of stuff ‘til it’s too late? Joe scolded himself. Then he screwed up his courage and stepped into the room. “Hey, Pa,” he called softly. “Doc says you and Adam can come downstairs Christmas morning. Good news, huh?”
Ben stretched his hand toward Joe. “Wonderful news, but come and sit beside me, son; you look exhausted.”
“Well, I am, kind of,” Joe admitted, “but I’d just as soon stand right now.” Out of arms’ reach, just in case! “I—uh—I need to tell you something, Pa.”
“What is it, son?” Ben patted the mattress invitingly. When Joe just shook his head and remained standing, hands behind his back, Ben recognized the confessional stance and his brows drew together with foreboding. “What is it you’ve done, Joseph?”
“Something you told me not to,” Joe said, figuring it was best—for Pa, at least—for him to get this over with as quickly as possible. “Don’t go gettin’ all flustered, though. It ain’t nothin’ all that bad, and you really aren’t up to a temper fit yet, you know.”
One of Ben’s eyebrows arched toward his hairline. “Would I throw one if I were up to it?”
Joe returned a rueful smile. “Yeah, probably. Like I said, though, it ain’t all that bad, so don’t fret, okay?”
Ben inched up in bed, and Joe hurried over to adjust a pillow behind his father’s back. “Just what is ‘it’?” Ben asked tersely. “No more beating around the bush, Joseph.”
“I wasn’t,” Joe protested. “To cut to the core, you remember tellin’ me to cancel the Christmas party?”
Ben groaned. “You didn’t.” His tone bordered just between question and istinctive knowledge of that question’s answer.
“I didn’t,” Joe said plainly. “Hoss was so upset over the orphans’ missing out on their party that I decided I’d host one for them anyway, and I didn’t figure it’d be much more work to have the dancing after, like always, so I didn’t cancel that, either. Everything’s set up and ready to go, but I thought I’d better tell you, in case you heard music or such.”
A wry smile lifted a corner of Ben’s mouth. “Who pointed that out to you?”
“Doc Martin,” Joe admitted as he grinned back. “You know me pretty good, don’t you, Pa?”
Ben chuckled. “Well enough to remember that you generally reserve your confession ‘til the deed has been done and rarely realize on your own that the truth is likely to come out sooner than you’d hoped.” He reached out to take his son’s hand. “Joseph, I only told you to cancel the party out of concern for you and the load you were already carrying. I wasn’t simply being a spoilsport.”
“I know,” Joe said, squeezing his father’s hand. “Doc says I gotta take a long nap sometime tomorrow, and I think I’ll be good and ready for it, but I just had to do this, Pa, for Hoss and for those orphans. I wasn’t thinkin’ of myself, honest.”
“I can see that,” Ben said, pride glowing in his warm chocolate eyes, “and since it’s the true spirit of Christmas that motivated you, I suppose I’ll have to excuse your disobedience this once. Just don’t make a habit of it, you scamp.”
“No, sir, I won’t,” Joe promised. By way of further appeasement, he added, “I’ll bring you some cookies later.”
“You made cookies?” Suddenly, the flour dusting his son’s shirt and britches made sense, but Ben had a morbid dread of what cookies baked by his youngest son might taste like.
Evidently, that dread showed on his face, for Joe laughed and said, “Don’t worry. I asked for donations—for the cookies, at least.”
Ben looked relieved for a moment and then his brows drew together in concern. For which of the refreshments had his young son not taken donations? Those were definitely the foods for a poor, recovering invalid to avoid! But Joe had already disappeared, so he had no opportunity to ask.
Joe walked down the hall and popped his head into his brother Adam’s room. “You might hear some music and noise a little later on,” he said, rushing to get the words out and be on his way, “but just keep to your bed, understand? Doctor’s orders.” Pulling back his head, he moved toward the stairs, but his conscience wouldn’t let him keep going when his brother called his name.
With a sigh Joe reentered Adam’s room. “You know we always host a party for the orphans’ asylum, with a dance after for our friends.”
“I thought Pa told you—”
“He did,” Joe interrupted. “I disobeyed, all right? But I already told Pa, and he’s okay with it, so you don’t need to say anything more.”
Adam stared at his brother in disbelief. “You’re doing this by yourself? Have you taken leave of your senses, boy?”
“More’n likely,” Joe said, attempting a nonchalant shrug, “but I couldn’t disappoint the kids.”
Adam laughed. “Oh, sure! ‘Couldn’t disappoint the kids,’” he scoffed. “You’re just doing it so you’ll have free rein with all the pretty girls, since neither of your brothers will be around to compete for their favors.”
Catching the twinkle in his brother’s dark eyes, Joe sported a mischievous grin. “A fellow deserves some reward for all this work, don’t he?”
“Bend over, and I’ll be happy to give you your just desserts,” Adam suggested.
Joe’s nostrils flared, but then his face relaxed as he thought of the perfect comeback. “Speaking of desserts,” he chirped, “those pretty girls are bringing batches and batches of cookies for the party. If there’s any left, I might bring you a couple.”
“What do you mean, ‘if’?” Adam demanded.
“Oh, didn’t I tell you? Doc says Hoss can come to the party, and considering the grub he’s been getting since Hop Sing took sick, I figure our brother will have worked up quite an appetite, so I can’t really promise there’ll be anything left for you.” Like any good military strategist, Little Joe know when to beat a fast retreat, so, snickering, he ducked back into the hall and scampered down the stairs, this time ignoring the voice bellowing his name.
Little Joe walked watchfully beside Hoss as the older boy made his way into the front room. Helping his brother ease into Pa’s plump-cushioned chair by the fire, Joe took the pillow tucked beneath his arm and used it to cushion Hoss’s foot as he elevated it on the low wooden table before the hearth. “How’s that?”
“Can you move the table a little closer?” Hoss asked. Joe did, and the big man sighed with satisfaction. “Feels good to get out of that room, even if I can’t dance with any of the gals.” The sigh that followed sounded melancholy this time.
“Don’t worry about that,” Joe assured him with a clap to the shoulder. “You’re gonna get plenty of female attention. I’ll send most of Adam’s lady friends your way, the older ones, anyway. Ladies just love to mother a man, so all you gotta do is let out a moan every now and then and you’ll have them eating out of your hand. Those gals are gonna fuss over you all night, I promise you! Be sure you rub it in real good to older brother tomorrow morning, too. He’s got it coming.”
“I’ll do that,” Hoss promised with a chuckle, though he had a feeling the warm glow of Christmas morning would drive all such notions from his head—and Joe’s too, for that matter. His alpine eyes lit up like those of a child as they fell on the tall pine bedecked with Christmas joys for the youngsters scheduled to arrive soon. “Little brother, you sure did a bang-up job on that tree. The kids’ll love it. Sure hate that I can’t play Santa for ‘em this year, but it’d plumb upset the younguns to see Santa hobblin’ around on crutches. Then again I reckon they’ll be just as upset when Santa don’t show up at all.”
“Not show up?” Joe feigned shock. “How can you think Santa wouldn’t show up? Of course, he’ll be here!”
Hoss’s broad face beamed with pride. “You got someone to play Santa? Little brother, you plumb thought of everything! Who’d you talk into it?” When Joe bowed from the waist, the shock on Hoss’s face was anything but feigned. “You? You gotta be kidding!”
“Of course, me,” Joe proclaimed, hands on his hips. “Who else did you think I’d find?”
Hoss’s eyes swept up and down his younger brother’s lean frame. “I was sort of hopin’ you might’ve asked someone a little—uh—rounder.”
Joe chuckled. “Well, I did, but Sheriff Coffee said he couldn’t make it, ‘cause the deputy’s laid up with bronchitis like a lot of folks in town. Don’t worry, Hoss. I know I can’t play the part as good as you, ‘cause you’re the best doggone Santa there ever was, but I’ll do my best to fill your underwear and beard.” He giggled at his own joke.
Hoss, however, wasn’t laughing. “My underwear? You’re gonna wear my underwear?”
“You don’t mind, do you?” Joe asked, surprise flashing over his face. “You’re the only one in the house with a red set of drawers.”
Hoss’s belly began to shake like the bowlful of jelly described in Clement’s poem. “Oh, no, I don’t mind, but they ain’t gonna fit, little—and I do mean little—brother!”
Joe waved aside the remark. “I’m gonna stuff pillows underneath; it’ll be fine, you wait and see. The kids’ll never know the difference.”
Thinking that there weren’t enough pillows in the house to transform Joe into him, Hoss shook his head. “This I gotta see!” he chortled.
Joe glowered at his brother, but before he could come up with the kind of saucy retort such a display of disbelief merited, he heard the sound of excited voices outside and realized that the children had arrived.
Soon the house was packed with happy youngsters and older folks who had come to make the orphans’ Christmas merry before settling in for an evening of fun themselves. The refreshments, far from being just the lopsided sandwiches Joe had felt slightly embarrassed to set out, were better than ever. Once the invited guests heard about the youngest Cartwright’s solicitations for cookies and the illness that had made help necessary, they rightly concluded that other contributions would be welcome, as well. The table wouldn’t even hold all the festive food that had been brought, and no one enjoyed it more than the man ensconced by the fire and waited on hand and foot by a flock of caring females. Much as he would miss the dancing later on, Hoss couldn’t help thinking that there were worse ways to spend Christmas Eve than having lovely ladies ply him with plate after plate of delicious food.
When everyone had eaten all they wished, Dr. Martin sat enthroned in the blue chair by the blazing fire, with children perching on both of its arms and sitting cross-legged at his feet, as he began to read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Little Joe stood behind Hoss, arms folded on the back of the leather chair, listening as enrapt as the children, until the doctor began to recount the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Then he tiptoed out to the kitchen, gathered up the two plates full of goodies he had set aside earlier, when he made up a plate for Hop Sing, and hurried up the back stairs. “Here you go, big brother,” he said, handing Adam his plate of refreshments, having already delivered a similar assortment to his father. “I got to feeling sorry for you and decided to rescue a few nibbles before that other brother of ours gobbled down everything in sight.”
“So generous of you.” Adam offered his provoking brother a sarcastic smirk in return for the refreshments. “And did he repay the favor by rescuing my lady friends from you?”
“The ones I’m squirin’ around don’t need rescuin’,” Joe taunted, “and the ones I sent his way are havin’ such a good time fussin’ over him that you may have to break a leg yourself to get them back!” He laughed at the glare with which Adam responded to his twitting. “Much as I’d like to stay and tell you all about how Hoss is getting along with your former sweethearts, older brother, I got to get into my costume. Almost time for Santa to arrive!”
Adam stared incredulously at the space just vacated by his youngest brother. Joe as Santa Claus? Not a sight he could afford to miss, so doctor’s orders notwithstanding, he threw back the covers, crept to his doorway and peeked out. Down the hall, hiding behind a corner, the patriarch of the Cartwright clan was doing the same, for he, too, had been told that Little Joe was playing Santa Claus this year and couldn’t resist seeing a sight like that.
Joe was taking a gander at the sight himself, as he added a second pillow to produce a plumper belly. The reflection in the mirror was a sorry representation of the jolly gift-giver, he had to admit. The belly was padded well enough, but that only emphasized the scrawniness of the frame supporting it, and the long sleeves and legs of the red wool underwear shouted that they surely belonged to a taller man. Had he really fooled himself into believing that no one would notice the difference between him and Hoss? Joe shrugged off his sudden intuition that everyone would. Okay, so they’d notice, but as long as he handed out plenty of presents, the kids would probably set aside any misgivings they had. Joe rolled up the sleeves and legs, fastened the cottony beard behind his ears, put the oversized stocking hat on his head and hoisted the sack of gifts too large to be hung on the tree onto his back. “Ho, ho, ho,” he intoned, testing out his new, deeper voice. Not bad, he concluded and headed out his bedroom door.
He tiptoed near the head of the stairs and hid behind the wall until Dr. Martin read Tiny Tim’s famous final line. While the children were applauding, he leaped into view at the head of the stairs and with a mighty “Ho, ho, ho” started down at his usual devil-may-care trot. As his foot hit the fourth step from the top, however, the large hat flopped over his eyes and one leg of Hoss’s longjohns came unrolled and caught under his foot, and then pandemonium broke loose as Santa tumbled head over heels down to the first landing, the bag of presents rolling down after him.
Of course, everyone screamed and ran forward to assist poor Santa. Even Hoss tried to get up, but Dr. Martin pushed him back into the chair, announcing that he was Santa’s personal physician and he would take matters from here. Before the good doctor could make his way through the bevy of children to his notable patient, however, the noise brought two other men concerned for Santa’s welfare to the head of the stairs. Lying flat on his back, Little Joe spotted them, and thinking only of the doctor’s admonition of the day before, he bellowed, “Get back to bed!” Then, fearing that a belligerent Santa might frighten the children, he shouted, instead, in his jolliest voice, “I mean, ho, ho, ho! It’s back to bed you go!”
Dr. Martin, who had finally made it to the landing, looked up and waved his disobedient patients back, assuring them that Santa would be fine. Grinning, Ben and Adam returned to their rooms. “You are fine, aren’t you?” the doctor whispered in Santa’s ear. “I probably should examine you, but I hate to worry the children.”
“Of course, I’m fine!” Santa declared loud enough for all to hear. “Stairs can’t hurt a man used to falling down chimneys!” With the doctor’s help, he got to his feet, all the children clapping to see him upright once again. “And I have presents for all the good boys and girls,” he proclaimed in booming tones as he lifted the bag of gifts. Squeals of delight met this announcement, and the children crowded around, each assuring Santa that he or she had been good as gold this year.
One boy of about ten sidled up to Hoss’s chair after getting his present. “You know, Mr. Hoss, I always thought you was Santa, since I couldn’t never spot the two of you together, but now I reckon I was wrong.”
“Why, Billy, you ought to have figured I was just sneaking off to the kitchen for more food,” Hoss said, struggling to keep a grin off his face.
Billy nodded soberly. “I reckon I should have.”
The last little girl to receive a new doll shyly reached up to pinch Santa’s arm. “Have you been sick, Santa?” she asked solicitously.
Little Joe sat down on the table, beside his older brother’s pillow-propped foot, and drew her into his lap. “Why, no, sweetheart. Santa’s been working long hours, ‘cause some of his elves have been feelin’ puny, but I’ve been just fine except for being a little tired.”
The six-year-old mother hen with blonde pigtails continued to feel his arm. “Are you sure? ‘Cause you’re an awful lot skinnier this year than I remember.”
Unable to hold it back, Hoss let loose a loud guffaw. “No, little doll,” he explained quickly while Joe glowered at him. “Santa don’t get sick, but what I heard was that Mrs. Santa put him on a diet this year, mostly burnt bread and watery soup. Not that it did much good in flattening his belly!” He gave the pillows a poke with one finger and only laughed louder when Joe squirmed away, hugging his stomach protectively.
“Well, I think she went too far,” the little girl confided as she slid off Joe’s lap and took his hand, “and I think you should eat lots of cookies tonight, Santa, so’s you’ll fill out again.”
“I will, Susie,” Joe promised, adding with a vengeful glare at Hoss that he just might, in fact, eat up all there were.
“I ain’t worried,” Hoss cackled. “I got plenty of pretty elves to keep me nice and round.” He patted the belly that never needed pillows for playing the part his little brother had assumed this year.
With the necessity of staying in character, Joe couldn’t answer the way such bedeviling deserved, but he wouldn’t have had much opportunity, anyway. Taking her role as Santa’s keeper quite seriously, Susie pulled him to the table and began to point out tasty foods he should try. Santa heaped his plate full and then said that he’d have to take it with him, as he had a lot of other stops to make before Christmas morning.
“Okay, but you eat it all,” Susie admonished with a wag of her finger.
Santa bent over to kiss her goodbye. “I will, sweetheart, I will, and I’ll tell Mrs. Claus that you think the diet is a bad idea, too.”
“Good! You do that,” Susie advised, waving along with the other children as Santa disappeared into the kitchen.
The children sang carols after that, and Little Joe, attired in dress shirt and string tie once more, was back in time to hear most of the songs. Soon it was time for the children to depart, if they were to reach Carson City before time for sugarplums to dance in their heads, and after they’d left, the furniture was moved back and the youthful Santa finally got his reward by dancing into the wee hours with every pretty girl in the room.
All the Cartwrights slept in on Christmas morning, but they were finally all dressed and downstairs, where Little Joe served them up his best Christmas oatmeal, promising a much tastier dinner from the party leftovers that everyone had generously told them to keep. Gifts were opened, loving words exchanged, and then laughter broke out as they all recalled the antics of “the skinniest Santa Claus in the history of Christmasdom,” as Adam called him. “Next year, little buddy,” the man in the blue robe continued with only a twinkle in his eye to reveal that he was teasing, “we’ll dye your underwear green and fix you up with your own little green stocking hat and pointed shoes. You make such a good little Santa’s helper that I don’t think it would be Christmas without a visit from our own special elf.”
While Hoss cackled in agreement and Joe wriggled his nose in distaste, Ben shook a finger at his eldest son. “Now, now, there will be no elf costume for your brother next year.” He patted the arm of his chair. “He deserves better.”
Grateful for his father’s defense, Joe gladly came to him, smirking at his annoying brothers as he took that protected perch. “Thanks, Pa,” he said with a meaningful nod at the two brothers who obviously needed to learn from their father’s example.
“You’re quite welcome, Joseph; your praise is well deserved.” Ben snaked his arm around his youngest son’s waist. “However, what I actually meant was that you’ve earned something better than an elf’s costume.” He paused for a moment to be sure he had everyone’s attention and to take a firmer grip on Joe before continuing, “What we really need to outfit you in next year, my boy, is a flowing white robe and feathery wings, because you’ve been a true Christmas angel to your family the last week or so.”
“Aw, Pa,” Joe whined. “I thought you was on my side.”
Ben hugged him tight. “I am, Joseph—always, my own little angel.”
“Ugh!” Joe protested, wrenching free of his father’s grasp.
Snapping his fingers, Adam leaned forward. “You’re right, Pa! That’s the perfect costume for Joe, and Hoss and I will join forces to make the halo that goes with it.” He sent his youngest brother a wicked grin. “Appropriately bent, battered and tarnished, of course.”
With an expression that was anything but cherubic, Little Joe snatched up a pillow from the settee and fired it at Adam, as the room erupted once more with the warmth of Christmas laughter.