Summary: A Christmas What Happened Instead for the episode “The Firstborn”
Word Count: 1750
The sky was darkening into dusk when I looked over the rise towards the ranch. Smoke was curling from the chimney, light streaming through the windows and the Ponderosa pines were still standing to attention in line behind the house. Everything was the same; it was as if time itself had stood still. Nothing had altered nor changed; all was as I had imagined it would be, night after night since the day I’d left without a backward glance, six months before.
There was a chilling wind and I shivered, wiping my gloved hand across my eyes; my vision blurred by a combination of tears and flakes of falling snow that had transformed the Ponderosa into a wondrous world of white. What could have made me leave such a heaven on earth? As I shook my head, I gave a wry chuckle. Not so much what but whom. I could feel my eyes mist again as I remembered him — my brother Clay.
The night he’d left the ranch was still a fuzzy confusion in my mind. After all I’d been badly beaten that day by a gang of aggrieved miners in town, keen to exact their revenge on my brother by taking it out on me. I’d been in agony from the broken ribs and the bruises that covered my body. But the pain was nothing to the pain that had been in my heart when Pa told me Clay had gone for good, without saying goodbye.
So with true Cartwright stubbornness, I’d dressed as quickly as was able then sneaked out without anyone hearing me. And I don’t know to this day how I’d managed to find my way to Clay’s campsite that night. Of course, at first he’d insisted I return home; no one’s life was safe around him and he certainly wasn’t willing to risk mine. But for every reason he gave me to leave him, I matched his argument.
“Just give me a chance to get to know you a little more,” I’d insisted. “We don’t really know anything about each other and I for one don’t intend to lose you now.”
Clay’s voice was low and etched deep with concern as he’d tried his best to persuade me to change my mind. “But look at yourself, Joe. You’ve been injured…practically killed! Just go back to the Ponderosa. You’re better off without me.”
Still I’d shaken my head resolutely. “Ma would have wanted us to be together.”
For a moment, Clay had been lost for words. “Look, tell you what I’ll do Joe. I’ll send word where I am in a few weeks time, and if you’re still keen to join me once you’ve recovered, I’ll wait for you. How about that?”
Now one thing I can say for sure –- I may be selfish at times, but I’m certainly not all that stupid. I realized if I’d headed off back home that night he would have hid his tracks real good and I would never have heard from him again. So, as the sweat of fever poured off my forehead, I refused to be swayed, my resolve unwavering. “No! I’m not going back. I’m staying with you.”
Only one thing mattered to me that night, such was my blinkered vision. I didn’t want to lose Clay. And regardless of the consequences of my actions to Pa, Adam and Hoss, I stood my ground, my eyes never leaving his face as we stared at each other in the flickering light of the camp fire — Marie’s sons exactly matched in temperament and bullheadedness — till finally with a deep sigh Clay unwillingly acquiesced, handing me a cup of coffee and shaking his head. “I just hope you know what you’re letting yourself in for, little brother.”
We got on well, me and Clay. Travelling from state to state, town to town; money made playing the cards tables of noisy saloons…money spent on the whiskey, the women who hung around the winners. It was everything I’d expected. Fun and adventure with my Ma’s firstborn.
But after the days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months, I finally realized I’d made a big mistake. Much as I’d craved the excitement, the lifestyle of a gambler…I had to acknowledge this life wasn’t for me. My heart and mind was constantly hundreds of miles away on the green meadows and pine-filled forests of the Ponderosa with my Pa, Adam and Hoss.
And though I tried to hide how I felt from Clay, he knew…reckon he’d known from the start. So there were no hard feelings towards him when I found his note in my hotel room one morning. More a sigh of relief. He’d gone east on the stage, the note said, intended to take on the card sharps of New York on his own. But he wished me well…said he loved me…would never forget me…just wanted me to return to where I truly belonged. And though I wept at his words, I accepted his decision as I cast his letter down and packed up my saddle bag. This time I had no intention of following him. This time I was going home.
Exhaustion from the days of travelling suddenly overwhelmed me as I swallowed hard and my nervous heart raced. I’d been sitting on the crest of the hill for over an hour, unable to make a move as I stared down at the familiar buildings; darkness now covered the land but the sky cleared, and all around, the icy landscape bathed with the soft glow of a full moon.
I’d always acted impulsively, never stopping to think of the consequences of my actions, not considering anyone but myself. All these months away and not once had I thought of telling Pa or my brothers how I was…where I was…what I was doing. And now I was scared…a coward! For the first time in my life, I felt fear of my family in every bone and sinew. Dare I return to the place of my birth, my childhood and my adolescent years? Dare I face those I’d held most dear for all of my life yet had deserted without warning, without a second thought?
I sighed deeply. ‘No turning back now, Joe,’ I murmured. ‘You’ve come this far.’
I urged my horse on and closer. Although the yard was well lit and the house a flood of light, it was strangely quiet and deserted as I dismounted and then made my way towards the front door.
Tentatively and cautiously I entered, fully expecting to hear the booming laughter of Hoss, the faint strumming of a guitar from Adam, the strong yet gentle tone of my father’s voice. But no faces looked over towards their unannounced visitor. The whole house was empty and silent.
For a moment I paused, puzzled as I tried to make sense of the view in front of me. A Christmas tree stood by the side of the stairs, decorated with the familiar ornaments that had adorned it since my earliest recollections. The table was set and a mouth-watering smell of beef permeated from the kitchen. It was then the realization dawned — for of all the days to return, I’d chosen to arrive on Christmas Eve.
No wonder the place was deserted. At this moment in time, my Pa and brothers would be happily completing their visits to the ranch hands and their families who lived in various cabins dotted around the Ponderosa, giving out well-deserved hampers of food and drink and Christmas bonuses.
It was an evening I remembered well with fondness; there would be laughter, songs, much festive spirit. Would my father and brothers’ goodwill still flow when they returned and saw I’d arrived back? After my behavior, I didn’t deserve this family and I certainly didn’t want to be the dark cloud that settled over their happy holiday. Maybe I should leave now before I was discovered?
My mind was made up in an instant, and I half-turned, ready to leave for ever. However, my eyes were suddenly drawn towards the fireplace where the fire roared and crackled. I could see three familiar brightly colored knitted stockings that had been reverently hung on the mantelpiece every Christmas Eve since the death of my mother. She’d made them months before she died, and each had an embroidered initial of the owner emblazoned on the front. As I found myself pulled by an invisible thread towards them, I noticed a small piece of paper sticking out of the stockings belonging to Adam and Hoss.
Images of Christmas’ past, when I was very young and it was still magical, flashed through my mind. A week before Christmas, Pa would help me write a short note asking for any presents I would like and then let me leave it in the stocking for Father Christmas to read. That way, he told me with a serious expression, Santa will know what to send you down the chimney. I had accepted his explanation without a second thought. After all, Pa never lied to me! And each year, to my utter amazement and surprise, my requests were granted.
But as I grew older, the time came when I realized it was my Pa who would tiptoe around early on Christmas morning and place my presents under the Christmas tree. So after that, there were no more notes and the custom was forgotten. It was a tradition Adam and Hoss never followed, being that much older than me, so my curiosity was now aroused and I bent forward and read Adam’s note, then the one Hoss had written. There was no mistake…it was their handwriting, as clear as day.
I sank to my knees in front of the hearth, gripping the notes tight in my hands, failing to hear the front door open and three gasps of delighted surprise. Tears flooded over my cheeks and my shoulders shook with emotion while I read the simple requests over and over again.
All we want for Christmas is our brother Joe. Please bring him home.