Christmas Comes Early (by Donna)

Summary:  Someone can’t wait until Christmas morning.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  6499


 

 

“Hoss!” Joe Cartwright called out from the Ponderosa barnyard one early December evening, just ahead of a winter storm. The dark-haired young man drove a wagon into the yard, loaded with supplies for the family’s cook, Hop Sing. And from the look of that sky, not a moment too soon.

“Joe, where have you been?” Hoss asked. The sandy-haired gentle giant with friendly blue eyes approached Joe from the barn. He brushed hay from his clothes as he moved toward Joe, a smaller but muscular young man. “I got in from checking on the crew and the herd, thought you’d meet me out there.”

“I planned to, but I got busy in town,” Joe said. “First I had to get the mail, then I got the supplies. Then there was a fella in town telling this story I’ll have to tell you later.”

“Why later?” Hoss asked.

“We got a letter today,” Joe said, his eyes twinkling.

“Who’s it from?” Hoss asked, grabbing a box of supplies from the wagon.

“You’ll just have to wait until I find Pa, big brother,” Joe chuckled as he headed toward the house with another box. “Where’s Pa?”

“Pa’s in the house, little brother,” Hoss answered. “Which you must have known since you headed there before you asked me where he was.”

“Could be,” Joe called over his shoulder, Hoss following.

“Who sent the letter, Joe?” Hoss asked again once they reached the large porch that ran along the front of the ranch house, ending at the ell that housed the kitchen.

“Adam,” Joe replied, grinning at Hoss from ear to ear.

“You little –” Hoss protested.

“Brother. I’m your little brother, Hoss,” Joe countered, laughing.

“Never mind that,” Hoss said. “You think he’s about to pay us a visit?”

“Don’t know, I didn’t read the letter,” Joe replied.

“You mean you didn’t try to hold it up to see if you could make out any of the words?” Hoss asked, with a booming laugh.

“Paper’s too thick to see through,” Joe said. Handing the letter to Hoss, he suggested, “Look for yourself.”

“Why should that stop you?” Hoss asked, attempting to read through the envelope, then playfully slugging Joe in the shoulder.

“We find Pa, and we’ll both know,” Joe suggested with a chuckle as he took back the letter and stuck it in his shirt.

Hoss opened the massive front door, pushing it wide open with a bang that usually brought yelling from Hop Sing, if the Chinese cook happened to be walking out from the kitchen. Hoss left the box on the dining room table.

The grandfather clock in the hallway struck five o’clock as Ben Cartwright, a white-haired gentleman, emerged from his study, tucked away in a large alcove.

“If Hop Sing wasn’t so busy with dinner, Joseph, he’d scold you about slamming that door.”

“‘Twasn’t me, Pa” Joe said, turning to face Ben from the dining room.

“Then who?” Ben asked, casting a knowing look at Hoss.

“I did, Pa. But I had a good reason,” Hoss said.

“And what might that be?” Ben asked.

“Bringing supplies in from town,” Hoss answered.

“Got the supplies I went into town for,” Joe said. “There’s more out in the wagon.”

Joe dashed toward the front door, where Hop Sing pushed the door open with a box of supplies. Joe grabbed the small, round-faced man’s box, took it out to the kitchen, then carried out the box Hoss left on the kitchen table.

“Where were you when Hop Sing carried other box in house?” Hop Sing asked. “Hop Sing carry boxes, Little Joe listen to Mr. Adam’s letter.”

“How did you know?” Joe asked. “That the letter’s from Adam?”

“Heard from kitchen when Little Joe and Hoss outside,” Hop Sing answered. “Hop Sing sure Little Joe wants to hear what Mr. Adam says in letter.”

“I can help you first,” Joe offered, heading toward the door.

“Hop Sing carry boxes, Little Joe listen to Mr. Adam’s letter.”

“Thanks, Hop Sing. I do want to hear what Adam has to say,” Joe said as he walked over to the study, where Hoss and Ben were waiting.

“Let him read it, Joe, let him read it,” Hoss said, nudging his brother forward.

“Anything I need to know about?” Ben asked.

“Well, it looks like a big storm is coming in. Good thing I got home when I did,” Joe said, grinning bigger than his arrival warranted.

“The letter, Joe, the letter,” Hoss reminded under his breath.

“Oh, Pa. There was a letter from Adam today, too,” Joe said, with a shrug. But a grin gave away the fact that this wasn’t unimportant to him.

“Let’s see what your brother has to say,” Ben said, as Joe pulled the letter out of his shirt, then handed it to him. Ben opened the letter, which said:

“Dear Pa,

I hope that you, Hoss, Joe and Hop Sing are doing well. I have some good news and some bad news for you –“

“We sure could use some good news around here,” Joe said.

“I have some good news for you. Remember that teaching position here I wrote you about? –“

“What position is that?” Hoss asked.

“The one that’s a temporary position for the winter semester, until the professor returns from sabbatical in Europe,” Ben continued as he read the letter.

“Oh, that position,” Hoss said, sheepishly.

“Guess who’s taking the position?”

“How many guesses do we get?” Joe asked. “I guess Adam.”

“If Joe guessed I did, he’s correct. I’ll be teaching science and mathematics courses, and also have opportunity to sit in on an engineering course. I’m looking forward to teaching this winter, then going back to sea next summer.”

“How ’bout that!” Hoss exclaimed, beaming with pride.

“Yeah, how ’bout that,” Joe said, his voice tinged with a lack of enthusiasm.

“Sounds like Adam’s making something of himself back there,” Ben proclaimed, his pride competing with Hoss’. He continued to read the letter:

“Unfortunately, I need to stay here over the Christmas holiday to prepare for the classes I will teach. I hoped I would be there with all of you for the holidays, but it will have to be next year.

“My thoughts are with you and in my heart, we will all be together on Christmas Eve, opening packages and singing carols until dawn. Adam”

“Joe, what’s wrong with ya?” Hoss asked as Joe moped toward the kitchen.

“Nothing,” Joe protested. “Say, what’s for dinner, Hop Sing?”

“Mr. Hoss slam door. There no dinner!” the family cook scolded from the kitchen doorway. He returned to the kitchen with a stamp of his foot.

“Guess I need to find something to eat out there, then,” Joe said.

He started toward the kitchen, then stopped. Hop Sing returned with a plate piled high with steaming meat.

“Come eat or it’ll all dry up!” Hop Sing said. “Can’t take pride in Mr. Adam’s new job on empty stomach.”

“Mr. Adam’s new job!” Joe muttered under his breath.

“Did you say something, Joseph?” Ben asked as he and his sons sat down to the table.

“Think I’ll take some of that food,” Joe said, half-heartedly filling his plate.

“Eat up, Joe,” Ben said. “We can talk more about what’s bothering you later.”

“Nothing’s wrong, Pa.”

“We’ll talk later,” Ben promised, in a tone that indicated it was indeed a promise.

“Our Adam is a professor,” Hoss proudly restated the fact.

“It’s a temporary post, Hoss,” Ben reminded him as he passed the potatoes.

“Aren’t you just a little bit excited for big brother?” Hoss asked.

“Sure,” Joe said, leaning on one hand and toying with his food.

“You were just as excited about getting that letter from Adam as I was.”

“I’m glad for Adam, Hoss. but–” Joe stopped. He sighed, dropped the fork, then strode out of the dining room, through the great room and out the front door.

“What’s bothering him”?” Hoss asked again.

“You know Joe, Hoss. He has his moods,” Ben said, watching the front door in hopes Joe would return quickly. And expecting that Joe would still be out there after they finished dinner, working out whatever was bothering him.

*****

Joe did not return before Hop Sing cleared the table after dinner. Hop Sing muttered in his native dialect and threw concerned looks toward the door, shook his head and looked again toward the door.

“Boy not eat dinner. He no eat until breakfast. Not good,” the cook pointed out.

“Yes, Hop Sing, not good. But that ‘boy’ is a man now, and if he doesn’t want to eat, there’s not much either of us can do about it.”

“Something wrong with Little Joe. Mr. Cartwright go out and make it all better,” Hop Sing suggested.

“If only I could,” Ben answered with a sigh. “He doesn’t always let me make it all better anymore. And sometimes, it’s something I can’t make better.”

“Take out a sandwich to Little Joe. Maybe he eat that, not go hungry.”

“I’ll take it out to him, Hop Sing. But I don’t know that he’ll eat it.”

“Little Joe eat. Just tell him that Hop Sing made for him, special,” Hop Sing said. After a few moments in the kitchen, he returned with a sandwich on a clean plate and a glass of milk to go with it. “Little Joe eat.”

“I sure hope so,” Ben said as he took the sandwich outside. He looked at the stormy sky, then to that son who wasn’t so little anymore.

“Oh, hi, Pa,” Joe said from his perch on the front porch. Ben shivered in the cold air.

“Brrr! It’s cold out here,” Ben exclaimed as he shivered again. “Hop Sing made this sandwich especially for you.”

Joe took the plate and glass, then set them on the table on the porch. He sat down and started to eat.

“It’s delicious,” Joe enthused as he took another bite. Father and son remained in silence for a few more moments, then Ben asked, “You want to talk about it?”

“Nothing to talk about, Pa,” Joe said.

“Son, I know when nothing is bothering you, and you’re not acting like nothing’s bothering you.”

“It doesn’t bother you, so why should it bother me?” Joe asked, standing up and balling up his fists.

“Joe-“

“I’m sorry, Pa.”

“That’s better. Finish the sandwich Hop Sing made for you ‘special,’ then we can go inside and talk.”

“It is getting pretty chilly out here,” Joe agreed. Teeth beginning to chatter, he said “I’d rather finish it inside, if you don’t mind?”

“I don’t mind a bit,” Ben agreed. “Just let me know when you’re ready to talk.”

“I will,” Joe promised, then followed Ben into the house. Ben worked on the accounting work in his study as Joe sat by the massive fireplace, polishing off the meal Hop Sing sent to him.

Ben’s work moved along slowly as he found himself looking up every few minutes to observe Joe’s actions. Not that there was much to see, just a young man eating a sandwich and drinking milk, sitting in front of a warm fire. If he hadn’t seen Joe walk out of the house in anger, he would have thought he was quietly enjoying dinner. But just as he was aware that Joe had his moods, he also was aware that something triggered his outburst, something was bothering him.

And if Ben asked him again what was wrong, he knew what the answer would be: “Nothing, Pa.”

That quietness was another sign that something was bothering Joe. If nothing was bothering him, he would have chattered a mile a minute about what he did in town today, whatever he was working on around the ranch, and funny stories one person or another in town shared with him. This was not the Joe watching the flames in the fireplace, or the Joe standing up and picking up the plate and glass.

Joe took the plate and glass into the kitchen, where he found Hop Sing finishing the last of the dinner dishes.

“What wrong with Little Joe?” Hop Sing asked.

“What do you mean?” Joe asked, setting the plate and glass with other dirty dishes. Aware that a family cook usually wouldn’t ask such a direct question, Joe was not insulted. In fact, he smiled at the thought of sharing with Hop Sing what was on his mind, something he had done on several occasions when he wasn’t ready to tell his father or brothers.

“Mr. Adam write letter, send good news.”

“I’m glad he’s doing well for himself,” Joe said.

“Then why look like lost best friend?” the cook asked.

“Didn’t know that I did,” Joe said.

Hop Sing imitated Joe’s forlorn expression. Joe started to laugh, then imitated Hop Sing’s expression.

“Can tell Hop Sing. Know many Little Joe’s secrets, may be able to guess what’s wrong.”

“Then I’ll let you guess,” Joe suggested.

“You unhappy because Mr. Adam not at Ponderosa for Christmas this year? Or some other reason?” Hop Sing asked.

“Some other reason. It’s just not the same, but yet it is the same.”

“Mr. Adam big success in big pond. Little Joe smaller success in smaller pond?” Hop Sing offered.

“How did you know?” Joe asked, amazed that Hop Sing understood what he wasn’t saying.

“Hop Sing watch Mr. Adam and Little Joe many years. Know Little Joe want big brother proud of him.”

“Adam always knew exactly what he wanted to do to make the Ponderosa a success, and Hoss was always willing to do what Adam asked him to.”

“Not always,” Hop Sing reminded him. “Mr. Hoss fought with older brother, too.”

“But Adam didn’t push him like he pushed me.”

“Mr. Adam not push you now.”

“No, he doesn’t. But what can I do to make him as proud of me as I am of him? I’m here on the ranch, doing all the dirty work and he’s back there teaching classes.”

“Little Joe want to teach classes?” Hop Sing asked.

“No. But I know I could.”

“Why do something don’t want to do?”

“You and Pa always told me to go to school, wash behind my ears, take medicine when I was sick. Now you tell me to not do something I don’t want to do?” Joe groaned and shrugged his shoulders.

“Life short, Little Joe. What does Little Joe want to do?” Hop Sing asked.

“I want to break horses, maybe even sell them under my own name,” Joe said without hesitation.

“Then do it, Little Joe,” Hop Sing said.

“Adam has the business savvy.”

“Learn how,” Hop Sing suggested.

“Yeah, why not learn how?” Joe asked, chuckling. “Why not?”

Joe whistled as he left the kitchen and repeated to himself, “Why not learn how?” He started to think of ways to learn how as he walked across the great room.

“The cold air and food did you a world of good,” Ben called out from the study.

“Sure did, Pa. Just need to learn how,” Joe said.

“What do you mean?” Ben asked.

“Just need to learn more about horses, cattle, selling them,” Joe answered. “Which reminds me that I need to take a look at your accounts tomorrow.”

“Why?” Ben asked.

“I need to learn more about the business side, Pa. You’ve been telling me for years that I should learn about something besides breaking horses and tending cattle.”

“Yes, I’ve been telling you that. And so did Adam,” Ben said, wondering what brought on the new enthusiasm for the financial side of the ranch.

“With him gone, maybe I can help?” Joe asked.

“We’ll see, Joe. We’ll see.”

*****

Snow fell off and on for the next three days, making it impossible to do more than tend the stock in the barn and return to the fire that warmed the great room of the ranchhouse. The Cartwrights knew their property very well, just as they knew the dangers of wandering the wrong way in a snow storm. If the winter storms continued for an extended period, there would be plenty of opportunity for each Cartwright to be out there with the herd, which was in the care of a crew well-prepared during the warmer months for winter emergencies.

Hoss brought out the family checkers game after the evening meal on the second day. He set up the board on the dining room table and called out for Joe.

“I’m reading,” Joe answered from the settee in the great room, not even looking up from the book.

“What are you reading now?” Hoss complained. “Not another book about solving crimes, I hope.”

“Yes, it is. Just let me finish this case and I’ll be right there,” Joe answered.

“What’s the case about?” Hoss asked.

“Is it from Scotland Yard again?” Ben asked from the study.

“No, this is a different one, Pa,” Joe said. “A pair of detectives work together to solve crimes, in England.”

“Not Scotland Yard?” Ben asked, surprised.

“You were telling me to read something better than the pulp detective stories I was reading last summer, so I asked the clerk and he suggested this one,” Joe answered, as he turned another page and set a bookmark inside the book. “How’s about that checkers game, Hoss?”

“Thought you’d never ask,” Hoss said as Joe approached the table. Hoss sat with the red checkers in front of him and Joe sat down across from him, then moved his first black checker.

Hoss studied the board for a moment, then moved his first red checker. Joe quickly moved another black checker and started humming as Hoss studied the board.

“Joe, how can I concentrate on the board with that noise?” Hoss complained.

“Or I on the accounting work over here?” Ben added. “Which you said you wanted to learn more about, by the way.”

“I sure do, Pa. There’s time to do that later, isn’t there?” Joe asked.

“Yes, there’s time to do that later, Joe. After the checkers game, the books will still be there.”

“Your move,” Hoss reminded Joe as he continued to hum.

“Your move now,” Joe suggested as Hoss sat there for a moment, sizing up Joe’s move and the board.

“Don’t be in such a hurry,” Hoss teased. “Just don’t hum, is all.”

“Gotta do something while I’m waiting,” Joe teased in return.

“Then tell us more about that book you’re reading, Joe,” Ben suggested. “You’ve always been a good storyteller.”

“I can tell you another story,” Joe offered, his eyes lighting up with the knowledge he had a captive audience.

“Tell us the other story, then,” Ben advised.

“Well, you see, Santa got lost in Texas one year . . .,” Joe began.

“Santa?” Hoss asked. “Why Santa?”

“Where’s your Christmas spirit, Hoss?” Joe asked before beginning again. “Santa got lost in Texas on Christmas Eve. He had one more package to give, but he couldn’t find the fella the package went to.”

“What did he do then?” Hoss asked, forgetting the game for a moment.

“Well, he went out on a snowy night, much like tonight. He rode and rode and rode, until he was bone-tired weary. Carried his reindeer ‘cross the prairie, hitched to a big red sleigh,” Joe answered.

“A pretty strong fella there,” Ben suggested.

“That’s why he was bone-tired weary, carrying those reindeer across that prairie,” Joe agreed.

“Did he ever find the fella?” Hoss asked, as he moved a piece across the board. Joe moved a piece, then resumed the story.

“Sure did, riding herd on Christmas Eve. Gave him a big lone star and a pair of silver spurs,” Joe answered as Hoss jumped one of Joe’s checkers. Joe studied the board for a moment, then saw a move that would work in his favor. Both brothers focused on the game for a long time, silently planning strategy.

“Ah, you’re joshing me, Joe. Why would Santa give a fella a big lone star and a pair of silver spurs?” Hoss asked, breaking the silence.

“They were in Texas, Hoss,” Ben explained. “Texas is the Lone Star State, and silver spurs could come in handy there, or anyplace where cowboys are riding herd.”

“Why silver?” Hoss asked.

“Same reason the leprechauns carried away that strongbox, maybe?” Ben asked, remembering a time when the entire family and all of Virginia City thought Hoss was telling a tall tale about leprechauns and a box of gold.

“Because it was theirs,” Hoss remembered.

“But they mined it on our property,” Joe said as he jumped one of Hoss’ pieces. “King me.”

“If they hadn’t mined it, no one would have benefited from it,” Ben remembered. “I think that Santa knew the cowboy needed something valuable that year. Something he could turn around and use in his job, but something valuable.”

“Here’s the second checker, Joe. How did you manage that move?” Hoss asked. “I didn’t even see it.”

“Strategy, brother. Strategy,” Joe crowed as they resumed the game.

“We’ll pick it up tomorrow, Joe. And this time, I’m going to win,” Hoss protested after Joe’s game-winning move.

“You sure about that, brother?” Joe asked. “Adam taught me a thing or two about playing checkers, you know.”

Hoss laughed. “He taught me a thing or two, too. Guess they weren’t the same things?”

“Whatever they were, they’ll have to wait until morning,” Ben affirmed. “We may not be doing as much with this weather, but we still need our sleep.”

“Fine with me,” Hoss said. “I just need to find a book that tells me how to win at checkers, is all.”

“Maybe you will, Hoss,” Ben responded with a laugh. “Maybe you will.”

*****

The next morning dawned cold and bright. At lunchtime, the sun shone and the snow was beginning to melt. That evening, after the stock in the barn were tended, minor repairs were made in the immediate area in preparation for the next storm and the crew and the herd were seen to, Ben suggested a game of checkers with Hoss.

“But Joe and I were going to play again,” Hoss pointed out.

“I know you were, but I think Joe has other plans right now,” Ben said as he began to set up the game board.

Joe’s return from the pastures found him reading his detective novel. The turning of pages was only interrupted with the sound of sleigh bells approaching the house.

“Hey Pa, someone’s coming!” Joe shouted as he dropped the book and jumped over the back of the settee.

“Joe, wait for me!” Hoss called out as he stood up and started to follow him.

But Joe was already bounding out the door, waving to the driver. He approached the wagon parked in the Ponderosa barnyard.

“Hello, Joe,” said the wagon’s driver. “I brought a package from town for your pa. Is he inside?”

“Sure is, Nick,” Joe answered the tall, thin, grey-haired man. “I’ll get him.”

Joe walked back toward the house and found both Hoss and Ben standing on the front porch.

“Nick says the package is for you,” Joe said.

“Let’s see what it is, Joseph,” Ben said as he and Hoss walked toward the wagon. Joe stood back and watched as Ben lifted out a small, wooden crate, then carried it inside.

Hoss, Nick and Joe followed him into the room, where the settee lay upturned.

“Pick up the settee, Joseph.”

Joe quickly obeyed, watching as his father, Hoss and Nick stood in the study.

“Thank you for bringing it out, Nick,” Ben said when Nick appeared to be rooted where he stood with no sign of movement.

“It’s been at the post office for about a week,” Nick said. “My missus and other people in town are wondering what’s in it.”

“Other people?” Ben asked.

“I am, too,” Nick admitted.

Joe picked up the tag attached on top, which read “Merry Christmas” in bright bold lettering.

“It doesn’t say ‘wait until Christmas’, on the tag,” Joe said. “If it’s Christmas cookies, they could spoil in there.”

“My missus and other people in town are wondering what’s in it,” Nick repeated.

“I know who sent it,” Ben said.

“Who?” Nick and the brothers asked in unison.

“Adam.”

“Adam?” the trio asked, again in unison.

“Why didn’t you say nuthin’ about it?” Hoss asked.

“Yeah, Pa, why didn’t you say nuthin’ about it?” Joe asked.

“Christmas is a time for surprises,” Nick suggested.

“Yes, Nick, a time for surprises,” Ben nodded.

“When can we open it?” Joe asked.

“Christmas Eve, naturally,” Ben answered.

“Pa, that’s more than a week away. Can’t we at least open the crate?” Joe inquired.

“Nick, you think we should wait?” Ben asked, studying both his sons for a moment. “If we get another storm, we may not get any more mail until after Christmas.”

“And maybe not until New Year’s,” Nick suggested.

“We don’t have to open the packages, just open the crate,” Joe pleaded.

“Joseph, don’t you think you can wait?” Ben asked, winking at Nick.

“If it’s scarves or socks in there, we sure could use them in the next storm,” Hoss said. “If it’s a game, we could sure use it now.”

“I knew you’d see it my way,” Joe chuckled with glee. He grabbed for the crate as his father gently grabbed the collar of his jacket.

“Joe, when you are the pa, you’ll get to decide when to open Christmas gifts. Until then, I’ll decide,” Ben said, letting Joe go.

“But, Pa –” Joe protested.

“Joe, you get to make many other decisions around here. This time, we’re going to wait until Christmas Eve.”

“In that case, I’ll go outside and do some chores in the barn,” Joe said, stomping out.

“I’ll be going, too,” Nick said.

“Just a moment, Nick,” Ben said. Nick nodded.

“I’ve got that other package,” Nick whispered. “Why is it wrapped separately, anyway?”

“I’ll explain in a moment, Nick,” Ben whispered in return. “Hoss, watch that high window in the study. Let me know when Joe’s in the barn.”

“All clear,” Hoss said a few minutes later from the study as Joe closed the barn door behind him.

“Now why did Adam send a second package?” Nick asked.

“You saw how excited Joe was about opening that package. I was hoping he’d be satisfied with opening his package, then Hoss and I could open our packages on Christmas Eve,” Ben said.

“But, Pa –” Hoss protested.

“You too, Hoss? I was hoping you’d have more patience than your younger brother,” Ben teased.

“I can wait, Pa,” Hoss reluctantly admitted. “Where is Joe’s package?”

“It’s in the wagon, still crated,” Nick said.

“Good, good,” Ben said. “Go ahead and get it, then.”

*****

Hoss and Nick walked out to the wagon, then Nick handed Hoss the second, smaller package. By the time he finished with his chores, Nick and his wagon were long gone. Joe hurried across the yard into the house and upstairs.

“What got into him?” Hoss asked.

“Don’t know,” Ben shrugged.

“Little Joe not sit down at table, no open Christmas packages tonight,” Hop Sing scolded.

The cook stood by Ben’s right elbow, muttering in his native language, but the way he looked up the stairs suggested who he was muttering about.

“Hop Sing, Joe’s probably washing up,” Ben suggested. “After years of telling him to wash up before he sits at the table, he’s probably obeying instructions.”

“You know Joe and obeying instructions,” Hoss reminded him.

“I do, but I also know that Joe’s a grown man now, very capable of patience and also very eager for –“

“Christmas to get here,” Hoss completed the thought.

“True enough. But he doesn’t have as long to wait as he thinks,” Ben said.

“You mean we get to open the packages tonight?” Hoss asked, wide-eyed with surprise.

“We’ll see,” Ben said as Joe appeared at the top of the stairs on the other side of the room.

“How ’bout joining us?” Hoss called out.

“Think I will. Something smells good there,” Joe responded. He looked at the package, now sitting next to the staircase, then looked back at it several times as he walked across the great room into the dining room.

Once he was seated at the table, Joe looked at the package, swallowed a few forkfuls of food, then looked at the package.

“Hurry up, Joe, we don’t want to be here all night,” Ben said.

“Huh? Oh, I’m eating, Pa,” Joe said as he took another bite.

“That package will still be there when you finish,” Ben assured him.

“Unless you keep us here all night watching it do whatever it’s doing that caught your attention,” Hoss said.

“It’s not doing anything, Hoss –” Joe said before he realized that Hoss was teasing him. He turned his back to the package, then finished eating almost as soon as Hoss and Ben. He stood up and walked over to the package, again asking his father if they could open it.

“This one has to wait until Christmas, Joseph,” Ben said. “But another package came while you were out in the barn.”

“Another package?” Joe asked, wide-eyed.

“Yes, sir,” Hoss said, delighting in his brother’s eagerness to find out what the package was.

“Where is it?” Joe asked.

“You don’t know it’s for you, Joe,” Ben said.

“Is it? For me, I mean?” Joe asked, as if he was once again a child.

“Think we should look and see, Hoss?” Ben asked.

“Maybe. Maybe not,” Hoss said, winking at Ben.

“Have you been a good boy?” Ben asked, as if he was talking to the child Joe.

“Yes, sir,” Joe said. “Most of the time, anyway.”

“Then you can open your package, Joseph,” Ben said.

Hoss brought the package to Joe from Ben’s study, still in its crate. Hoss also handed him a hammer so he could pry the crate open.

Joe grabbed the crate, feeling its weight and trying to figure out what it was inside. He spent several minutes studying it, and Hop Sing came into the dining room to clear the dishes.

“Little Joe take long time opening package,” Hop Sing commented as he took dishes away.

“I wonder what it is,” Joe said.

“Only one way to find out,” Hoss said.

“Open it, you mean?” Joe asked.

“That’s what I’d do,” Ben said, taking pleasure in Joe’s enjoyment of the package.

Joe opened the crate. Three books, and a note.

Dear Joe,

Saw these books at a local bookstore and thought you might enjoy them.

Adam

“Books?” Joe asked, puzzled. “Adam’s giving me books?”

“Look at the books, Joe,” Ben suggested. “You may be pleasantly surprised.”

Joe took a closer look at the books, then gasped. Two detective novels and a book called “Running Your Own Livestock Business” were in the package.

“How’d he know I like detective novels?” Joe asked, flushed with embarrassment.

“Adam wrote me, asking what kind of books you like to read these days. Thought you could read them this winter.”

“Did you write him about Hoss and me playing detective?” Joe asked, looking over at Hoss.

“I wrote him about you and Hoss catching a pair of bank robbers. I didn’t mention that you boys gave me two black eyes and knocked out the deputy sheriff in the process,” Ben said with a laugh. Joe’s relief quickly registered and he laughed, too.

“Joe knows a lot about animals,” Hoss said. “Why did Adam send him a book about livestock?”

“Because he knows that Joe could learn more about the livestock business, which would be good for him and the Ponderosa,” Ben said.

“Yes, sir. Think I’ll start reading that one,” Joe said as he sat down on the settee and put his feet on the coffee table, then opened the book.

“Joseph–” Ben called. Joe immediately took his feet off the table and started reading.

Rapt up in what he was reading, he hardly noticed that Ben and Hoss started another checkers game nearby or that Hop Sing walked in to take more dishes away.

“What Joe reading?” Hop Sing called out as he picked up the dishes.

“Running Your Own Livestock Business,” Joe said, turning the cover so Hop Sing could see it.

“Learn how,” Hop Sing said. “Use gift wisely.”

Joe smiled and said, “I will.”

“Mr. Cartwright, what’s in the other package?” Hop Sing asked as he took the dishes to the kitchen.

“We’ll just have to wait until Christmas to find out,” Ben answered, loudly enough that Hop Sing could hear him from the kitchen.

“Joe got to open his package early,” Hoss complained.

“Joe wouldn’t have let us rest until he opened that package, Hoss. Besides, Adam had a reason for sending that package separately,” Ben said.

“Why did he send it separately?” Joe asked as he continued to read.

“Put the book down for a moment, and I’ll tell you,” Ben said.

“Something more than knowing that Joe wouldn’t want to wait to open his gift?” Hoss asked.

“Yes, that’s another reason,” Ben said as Joe set the book down and Hoss turned from the game to listen, too.

“Joe, Adam knows that the two of you missed a lot of Christmases together when he went back East to college. When he wrote me he was sending the other package and asked what I thought you might enjoy or learn something from, he told me that he wished he could be here with all of us this year, that he still remembered his first Christmas here after college graduation.”

“Oh,” Joe remembered. “The Christmas I was so mean to him?”

“And the Christmas that he realized Christmas is very important to you,” Ben added. Joe grinned and returned to his book.

“Which reminds me,” Hoss interjected. “What did he send you and me, Pa?”

“We can open the package Christmas morning, Hoss. Let’s make this Joe’s night to celebrate,” Ben suggested.

“Go ahead and open it,” Joe offered.

“Are you sure?” Ben asked.

“Christmas is meant to be a time of sharing, and I’d like to share with both of you,” Joe admitted.

“But we’ll open our gifts to each other on Christmas morning, like we planned,” Hoss suggested.

“I can wait,” Joe said as all three of them laughed.

Ben opened the original package, loaded with old newspaper. He pulled out newspaper, looked at it, then set it aside.

“Wonder what it is,” Hoss asked, his eyes aglow with anticipation.

“Now who can’t wait?” Joe asked. Ben pulled out more paper, then a heavy wrapped package addressed to him. He unwrapped the package, revealing a thick leather-bound book.

“Wow, Pa. What’s the book about?” Hoss asked.

“It’s a journal, a log book like I used to keep when I was a sailor,” Ben said, suddenly nostalgic as he turned the finely crafted pages. He opened an envelope inserted in the front of the book. “It says in the front that Adam wants an account of what happens around here until he comes home for a visit.”

“You really think Adam will visit?” Joe asked.

“I think so, Joe,” Ben said. “Not this year, but I think he’ll find his way back here someday. That’s what I hope and pray for.”

“I do, too,” Joe admitted.

“But the two of you fight like cats and dogs,” Hoss protested. “I’d like to see Adam, but not if the two of you are going to argue all the time.”

“Just because we argue doesn’t mean I don’t miss him,” Joe answered. “How about opening your gift?”

“Almost forgot my gift,” Hoss said as he pulled out another heavily wrapped package. “The label says this one’s for Hop Sing.”

“Hey, Hop Sing!” Joe called out.

The cook came back quickly and said, “Don’t yell at Hop Sing!”

“But you’ve got a gift from Adam, Hop Sing,” Hoss pointed out.

Hop Sing stepped forward to take the package, which turned out to be a cookbook filled with Chinese recipes. Adam’s note inserted in the front cover remarked that he missed Hop Sing’s cooking and thought Hop Sing might enjoy a cookbook of recipes from his home country. The glint in Hop Sing’s eyes proved Adam right.

“Looks like there’s one other one in here,” Hoss said as he dug through the remaining newspapers.

“What is it?” Joe asked. Hoss started to open it, and his face turned crimson as he looked at what he could see of it.

“It’s a book, too,” Hoss answered, trying to hide the cover.

“Go on and open it,” Ben suggested.

“Promise not to laugh?” Hoss requested.

“Have I ever laughed at you?” Joe asked. “Have I?”

“There was the time I told you I was going to fly,” Hoss responded.

“I’m a lot older now,” Joe explained. “More solemn.”

He struck a pose to indicate how solemn he could be, which started Hoss and Ben laughing. Hop Sing also laughed at Joe’s attempt at solemnity. Joe burst into laughter too, then took a closer look at what he could see of Hoss’ book.

“Go on, Hoss. We won’t laugh,” Ben said.

“It’s not a book about playing the violin, is it?” Joe asked. “I did laugh at you then, but I’m older now.”

“That wasn’t so long ago,” Ben reminded them, trying to stop his laughter as Joe again struck a solemn pose.

“I guess you can laugh,” Hoss said as he opened the book: A Guide to Winning At Checkers.

“Just say the word and we’ll put the book into action,” Joe offered once the laughter died away.

“Maybe you should read the book, first,” Ben suggested. “Then you really can use what you learn.”

“Not a bad idea,” Hoss agreed. “While Joe’s learning more about the livestock business, I can learn more about playing checkers. Then we can teach each other what we learn.”

“There’s the holiday spirit,” Ben noted.

“And Hop Sing read about food from home while Mr. Cartwright writes about what happen at Ponderosa,” Hop Sing suggested. “For Mr. Adam.”

“For me, too?” Joe asked.

“For all the Cartwrights!” Hop Sing exclaimed, grinning ear to ear.

“Good thing you know how, isn’t it?” Joe asked.

“What do you mean, ‘learn how’ and ‘know how’?” Hoss asked.

“It means ‘reach for dreams’,” Hop Sing explained.

“Speaking of dreams –” Hoss started.

“Yes, brother?” Joe asked.

“How about a rematch of checkers?” Hoss answered.

“Thought you’d never ask,” Joe replied.

***The End***

Author’s Note: No copyright infringement intended. Joe’s story about Santa getting lost in Texas is based on “Santa Got Lost In Texas,” a song from the “Christmas on the Ponderosa” album. Books mentioned in the final scene are figments of the author’s imagination. Thank you to Susan, Puchi Ann, Sierra, and all the writers of “Bonanza” fan fiction who inspire me as both a “Bonanza” fan fiction reader and writer.

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