Word Count: 2447
The tall wooden clock struck midnight, its pealing chimes temporarily interrupting the silence of the great room. Ben sighed softly. Christmas Eve had given way to Christmas Day. The Cartwrights had opened and exclaimed over their gifts, had sipped their wine and filled their bellies with Hop Sing’s wonderful dinner. As night fell, the four had gathered around the beautifully decorated tree and sang the traditional carols and listened reverently as Ben read the story of the very first Christmas from the worn Bible, just as they had every year since they were children. The boys had only just bid their sleepy good nights and Merry Christmases and sought their beds, but Ben lingered as he blew out the lamps, feeling sentimental as he always did this time of year. He gave the darkened tree a final glance before heading up the stairs to his own room.
He turned up the lamp on the nightstand and briefly considered the neatly turned down bed. It had been a long, busy day, but he wasn’t the least bit tired.
On impulse, Ben stepped over to the wardrobe and removed a box from the highest shelf. He paused briefly and held the object close for a long moment, feeling once again the warm swell of emotion that the plain wooden box always induced. He lifted the lid, and there it was.
The yellow-haired angel.
Joe had been barely five years old when he’d made it; the boy conspired with Hop Sing to create a special gift for his father that Christmas. It was a loving patchwork of silk and lace and chicken feathers crookedly fashioned by small, hardworking hands. The carefully rendered wooden spoon face was topped with soft woolen hair dyed yellow so that it would resemble his mother. The silk had since aged from white to dull gray and the wings had lost many of the feathers through the years, but to Ben, it was still as lovely as the day his excited little boy had first presented it to him. With reverent hands, Ben picked up the little ornament and turned it to read the oversized paper tag still attached with a faded satin ribbon. His lips curved up in amusement as they always did when he saw the clumsy but deliberate writing. Joe had only just learned to write his full name that winter, and he had eagerly practiced it at every opportunity.
To Pa frum yor son Joseph Francis Cartwright.
It had been the first Christmas at the Ponderosa since Marie’s death. Ben remembered how difficult it had been for him to remain strong for the sake of his boys in those bittersweet weeks leading up to the blessed holiday. It had been his wife’s favorite time of year, and she had always met Christmas with the excitement and giddiness of a little child. But Marie was gone, and Ben could find no joy in celebrating the season without her.
After a rather subdued dinner that Christmas Eve, Little Joe had raced up to his room and then came down the stairs slowly, carefully, trying as hard as he could not to show that he was hiding something behind his back. He stepped up to his father, and with a proud flourish, presented his little angel. As Ben took the gift into his hands, Joe climbed up onto his lap and Ben could feel the soft tickle of the boy’s breath against his ear as he whispered, “It’s my mama, Pa, ’cause she’s an angel. Angels watch over everybody. Remember?” Joe reached up and placed his hands on each side of his father’s face, looking him straight in the eye to be sure that he understood. “Remember, Pa?” he repeated.
Ben swallowed back the sudden lump in his throat as he regarded his young son. And in the next instant, he was clutching him tightly to his chest, and burying his face in the riot of soft curls that, incredibly, still bore his wife’s scent, as if the boy had just left her embrace. “I remember, Joe,” he whispered.
Since that day, the angel had been displayed in a place of honor on the mantel every Christmas, until about six or seven years ago when Joe pleaded with his father to discontinue the tradition. It nearly broke Ben’s heart, but he complied with his son’s wishes. Joe had grown increasingly embarrassed by the childish decoration with each passing year, and his snickering brothers were certainly no help. So the angel had subsequently taken its rightful place in the plain wooden box alongside many other cherished mementos; among them were Marie’s wedding ring and tiny Bible, the dried spray of roses and ribbons that had adorned her hair on the day they married, and the crystal snowflake brooch that would have been her Christmas gift that year. Someday the angel and the other precious contents of the box would be passed on to Joe himself, but for now the angel was his alone to treasure.
Ben had received many fine and thoughtful gifts from his boys through the years: sparkling brandy decanters, gleaming bridles, shiny chess sets, expensive colognes, fine cigars — all well-intentioned and all deeply cherished. But none of them — not one — had ever moved him as much as the small, yellow-haired angel he lovingly held in his hand.
Whatsoever is done in love is done well.
The long familiar platitude arose in his thoughts unbidden; he had first heard it as a child but had never fully understood it until many years later, when he would learn to appreciate the worth of a simple gesture lovingly expressed.
Ben’s musings were interrupted by the soft pad of bare feet in the hallway, followed by a tentative tap on the door. Joe. It used to be that his boy would come barreling into the room unexpectedly, and it had taken years of reprimands before Joe learned the common courtesy of knocking first. Still, there were times when Ben missed the impetuous energy of his youngest, when his son would fly into the room and take a bouncing leap toward the bed, whether Ben was in it or not.
“Pa?” came the sleepy voice behind the door. “Pa? You asleep?”
Not that it would have mattered. The door creaked open and Joe’s face poked through the opening. “You asleep, Pa? I saw the light under your door…”
“I’m not asleep, son,” Ben replied. “Come in. I want to show you something.”
Joe stepped into the room and sat on the bed. “Something wrong, Pa?”
Ben seated himself in the walnut rocking chair and faced his son. “No. Everything’s fine, son. I was just thinking about all the gifts that I’ve received, and…”
“Gifts?” Joe interrupted, sitting up straight. “You didn’t like the bridle, did you? I knew it!” His lips tightened in annoyance. “That was Adam’s fault, Pa. I wanted to get you the black one with the silver studs on it, but no, he said. Pa would prefer the plain brown one, he said. I shoulda known that…”
Ben chuckled in spite of himself, and reached out to touch Joe’s shoulder. “Joe, I like the bridle very much. It will look quite handsome on my horse. But that’s not what I was talking about.”
He held out the angel decoration to Joe. “Do you remember this, son?”
Joe took it from his father, and for a long moment his brows knit in confusion as he stared at it. Then, recognition lit his features, and he grinned. “My angel? I thought you threw this out years ago, Pa!” He laughed. “Boy, did Hoss ever give me trouble about it. Used to holler, ‘Hey, look everybody — it’s widdle Joe-Joe’s angel!’ I sure was glad when you got rid of it.” Joe handed the angel back. “I can’t believe you’ve kept it all this time.”
Ben gazed at the angel affectionately, tenderly stroking the soft woolen hair. “I’ve learned quite a lot from this little gift,” he said quietly. “Do you remember giving it to me?”
Joe shook his head. “Not really. I remember that Hop Sing was mad ’cause I made a huge mess with all the feathers. And I think I first tried to use egg yolks to make the hair yellow. That’s when he gave up and decided to help me out with it. I probably would have destroyed his kitchen otherwise.” He shook his head thoughtfully, looking over at it. “It sure is a funny-looking little thing, isn’t it? I never was too much of an artist.”
“You told me that it was your mother, because she was an angel, too,” Ben said. “Your mother loved Christmas, Joe. She was so looking forward to sharing it with you that year. And then she was gone, and I just didn’t know how I was going to get through it all without her.” He sighed sadly, remembering. “That day — putting up the tree, the decorations, singing the carols — that day was almost worse for me than the day she died.”
Ben reached over and touched Joe’s hand, smiling. “And then there you were, standing before me with this enormous grin on your face, offering me this precious little gift. No more than five years old, and you already knew what mattered more than I did.”
Ben lifted the tag and read it aloud. “‘frum yor son Joseph Francis Cartwright’. Well, Joseph Francis Cartwright, it was the best gift I’ve ever received. This little angel saved Christmas for me that year. And probably every year after that. I’ll never forget it, son.”
“Pa, I . . .” Joe shook his head, at a loss for words. “I never knew, Pa,” he said softly, apologetically. “I never knew why it meant so much to you. I’m sorry that I complained about it so much all those years.”
“Joe, you couldn’t have known,” Ben replied gently. “But it doesn’t matter anyway.” He stood, stepping over to the nightstand, and propped the angel against the lamp. “I’ve still been able to take it out and enjoy it anytime I want.”
Joe stood then and moved toward the door, but paused to look over at his father. “Thanks for telling me about it, Pa. I don’t remember it, but I’m glad I was able to . . . you know . . . help you out a little bit.”
Ben watched from the doorway as his son shuffled his way back to his room and closed the door behind him.
The lamp was dimmed but still burning later as Ben succumbed to blessed sleep, and he drowsily admired once more the yellow-haired angel on the nightstand before he finally closed his eyes.
Ben paused as he descended the stairs the following morning, and blinked in surprise at the sight that met his eyes.
Joe was standing before the Christmas tree, staring up at the top. The tin star had been removed, and in its place, haphazardly attached with a half dozen clothespins, was Joe’s angel, leaning somewhat crookedly to the side. Joe’s hands were full of clothespins and he was grinning proudly at his efforts.
He was flanked by his brothers, who were gawking at their brother as if he had sprouted a second head.
Hoss looked up at the angel, frowning in confusion. “Is that . . . dadburnit, it sure is!” He laughed out loud. “Lookie there, Adam. It looks like widdle Joe-Joe’s angel!”
“Yeah — come back to haunt us,” Adam commented dryly, his hands on his hips as he studied the spectacle. “I see that you’ve employed your usual artistic flair for detail, younger brother. You plan on fixing it?”
“Why? What’s wrong with it?” Joe responded, annoyed. “It looks fine. Pa’s gonna like it, too. You just wait and see. It’s a . . . what do you call it? Oh, yeah. A family heirloom.” Joe raised his eyebrows in that smug manner that usually invited his brothers to smack him.
Hoss snorted. “If that’s a family heirloom, it sure is a danged ugly one.”
The stair behind them creaked, and three heads swiveled around to stare at their father.
“Pa, I don’t know what’s gotten into him,” Adam said, gesturing toward his younger brother. “I was pretty sure you wouldn’t approve, but he insisted on…” He stopped, struck speechless at the expression on his father’s face as he stared in wonder at the new tree decoration.
Adam returned his attention to the tree, rubbing his chin thoughtfully as he regarded the yellow-haired angel, and then turned back to Joe. “You know what, brother? I’ve got an idea. Let me think on this a bit. I wonder if we could . . .”
After dinner, the Cartwrights gathered in the great room. Ben was hunched over in his blue chair, rubbing oil into his new bridle; Adam sat with his feet propped up on the hearth, leafing through his new edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets; and Joe and Hoss were concentrating on breaking in the shiny new checkerboard. Ben paused and glanced up at the angel, still perched atop the great tree, and smiled.
Adam had attached a cone-shaped base of stiff paper so the angel would sit neatly on the highest bough without a single, undignified clothespin. Hoss had rummaged through the hen house for several soft white feathers, and had attached them to the wings, so that they were once again full and fluffy. Joe had fashioned a new skirt from a silken handkerchief, and tied a tiny red ribbon in the yellow hair. And a sparkling crystal snowflake now adorned the front of the angel’s gown.
By consensus, Joe’s carefully rendered paper tag had been replaced with a new one. His words were smaller and neater this time around, but the generous thought remained the same: Merry Christmas to the Cartwright Family, from Ben, Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe.
All told, Ben thought it was the loveliest thing he had ever seen. Almost as lovely as the woman who had inspired it.
Almost, he thought wistfully.
As night fell, the candles were lit, and it grew too dark to read or play checkers, so the four Cartwrights sat quietly before the crackling fire, clinging to the waning remnants of the joyful holiday before they would reluctantly bid it goodbye until next year. Soon the decorations would be stored away, the tree and pine garlands discarded, and the day would quietly assume its place among a host of Cartwright Christmases past. The Ponderosa would return to its regular rhythm, the seasons would come and go, and life would continue on as usual.
And through it all, a lovely angel would watch over them…