Summary: here is a little tale of a surprise at Christmas, funnily enough!
Word Count: 1113
“I don’t know, Cooch, what do you think?” Joe Cartwright asked his pinto horse as they rode within sight of the ranch house of the Ponderosa. “Do you think they’ll all come out to greet us?”
Cochise, Joe’s pinto horse, didn’t comment. Joe grinned, and patted the horse. He had been away from home for three weeks, breaking horses down at a friend’s ranch in Arizona. The contract was up, and Joe was glad to be back, as Christmas was only a few days away. Compared to Arizona, the weather in Nevada was pretty seasonal, with snow lying all around.
Trotting into the yard, Joe was surprised when nobody came out to greet him. Sighing, he took the horse into the barn and tended to him. Gathering up his saddlebags, Joe trudged across to the house, and opened the door.
The big room downstairs was cold, because the fire was out. Joe dropped his hat, bags and gun belt on the credenza by the door, but decided against removing his jacket. It wasn’t noticeably warmer indoors. Concerned, Joe shut the door behind him, and went into the kitchen. The range fire was out, too, and there was no sign of Hop Sing, the family’s Chinese housekeeper.
Shaking his head, Joe picked up his bags, and headed for the stairs. He opened the door to his room, and saw movement from the corner of his eye from Adam’s room. Joe dropped his bags, and reached for his gun, forgetting that he’d left it downstairs. When his hand encountered only fresh air, Joe decided he’d better take the initiative, and barreled into Adam’s room, expecting to find someone going through his brother’s things. Instead, he saw Adam lying in bed, deathly pale.
“Adam!” Joe exclaimed. He crossed to his brother’s side and felt his forehead. It was sweaty, but there wasn’t much sign of fever. “Adam,” Joe said again, and Adam’s brown eyes slowly opened.
“Joe,” Adam croaked. He swallowed with difficulty, and Joe, spying the glass of water by his bed, helped his brother drink some. “Glad to see you,” Adam whispered. “All sick.”
“All?” Joe echoed, with dismay. “Pa and Hoss, too?”
“And Hop Sing,” Adam confirmed, nodding. “Getting better. Paul said so.”
“So Paul has been here?” Joe asked. At Adam’s nod, Joe patted his arm. “You rest, big brother. I’ll go and see how the others are.”
Tiptoeing along the hall, Joe looked in on Hoss first. Hoss was asleep, a fact that Joe already knew, due to the snoring he could hear. Like Adam, Hoss was pale. He, too, was free of fever. Joe left him to sleep. His next stop was Ben’s room. He inched the door open, and saw his father was awake.
“Joe!” Ben said. “Thank goodness you’re home.” His father was pale and weak.
“Relax, Pa,” Joe said. “I’ll take care of everything.”
Joe was as good as his word. He built up the fire in the main room, and in the kitchen. He sent a hand into town to see if he could hire a cook for a few days. Ben, Adam, Hoss and Hop Sing had all had the flu. Paul Martin, the doctor had tried to come out every day to see them, but the epidemic had swept through the town, and he hadn’t always managed.
The family began to pick up after Joe’s return home. Regular food, and warmth helped immensely. Hop Sing was first on his feet, determined not to have a stranger in his kitchen. Joe nursed his father and brothers, and kept an eye on the ranch, too. It was rare that he got to his bed before midnight, and he was up by 6 each morning. However, there wasn’t a single word of complaint from him, as he tackled the extra chores caused by the sickness in the house.
“Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve,” Hoss complained. “Dadburnit, we don’t even have a tree this year. It just don’t seem right.”
“Well, tell me,” Joe snapped. “When have I had time to get a tree?”
“I’m sorry, Little Joe,” Hoss soothed. “I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. I’m right pleased you came home when you did.”
Shaking his head, Joe smiled tiredly. “I’ll be pleased when you people can get up,” he commented. He felt as though he was running round in circles the whole time.
So it was with relief that Joe heard Paul Martin say that the family could get up on Christmas Eve, provided they didn’t do too much. As he sat by the fire that evening, Joe looked at the space where the tree usually went, and wished he’d had the chance to get one. He had gone from bedside to bedside, then out to the yard to talk to the hands, then back to his nursing duties. Sitting there in front of the fire, Joe felt his eyes begin to close.
There was no sign of Joe the next morning, and Ben, venturing out of bed, discovered his youngest son sprawled across his bed, still sound asleep. Smiling fondly at him, for Joe had been a tower of strength over the last few days, Ben decided to let him sleep.
The atmosphere in the house seemed suddenly very festive. Ben put it down to the fact that he and his boys had recovered from the dreaded flu. It wasn’t until he went downstairs that he discovered why Joe was sleeping so late.
In the living room was a huge Christmas tree, decorated with all the baubles Ben had stored carefully from year to year. The only thing not on the tree was the star for the very top. It lay on the table in front of the fire.
“When did he do that?” Adam asked, amazed, coming down behind Ben.
“I don’t know,” Ben replied, equally astounded. “He’s been so busy, when did he have time?”
“Dadburnit, that’s what I call a tree!” exclaimed Hoss. “Ain’t it pretty, Pa?”
“Prettiest tree I ever saw,” agreed Ben. “But when did Joe do this? It wasn’t here last night, we’d have smelt it.” As he said the words, Ben realized that it was the rich smell of the pine tree that had given the house its festive air.
“Well,” said a sleepy voice from the stairs, “I wasn’t doing much last night after you fellas were asleep!”
Grinning delightedly at his family’s surprise, Joe continued down to join them.
“Merry Christmas!” he exclaimed.
Crowding round him, they hugged him and patted him on the shoulder. Joe had single-handedly made the Ponderosa’s Christmas.
“Merry Christmas, Joe,” they chorused.