A Cartwright Christmas Carol (by PSW)

Summary: A reimagining of the old classic.
Category: Bonanza
Genre: Western/Christmas AU
Rating: G
Word Count: 17,388


 

(With thanks and apologies to Mr. Dickens)

Stave 1  Grandfather Cartwright’s Ghost

Grandfather Cartwright was dead, to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.*  None of Ben Cartwright’s three sons had been present at the unhappy event, nor had they seen a grave or headstone marking any final resting place.  None of them had even met their grandfather while he still lived—though it must be said that for all except Adam that would have been impossible, as Joseph Cartwright had shuffled off this mortal coil when Ben’s eldest was little more than a babe in arms.  Still, the Cartwright brothers had no doubt that their father’s sire was dead.

For one, Ben had told them so, and there was no reason to suspect that he was lying.  The invention of such a falsehood would indeed have served very little purpose.  Ben’s relationship with his father had not been particularly warm, but it had been cordial and should the elder Joseph have still lived, Ben would have welcomed a chance for his father to meet his sons.

For another, the three boys had seen the old man’s death certificate one lazy summer afternoon while poking around in a storage area they (and their backsides) would have done better to avoid.  It was stored in an old trunk with a copy of the elder Cartwright’s will, several previously unknown (to them) heirloom keepsakes, and a medium-sized portrait of their father’s family in which Ben was no more than eight years of age.  This was confirmation enough of Joseph Cartwright the Elder’s demise—if such confirmation had been needed.  Which it was not.

Grandfather Cartwright was dead.  I don’t wish to belabor the point, but this must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.*

For if he was not dead, it would not have come as quite the shock when each of the boys spotted him in the crowds around Virginia City on the morning of Christmas eve.  Oh, they would have been surprised, certainly.  Amazed.  Confused (for nothing Ben had told them of the man made him out to be the type to take a surprise journey into the western wilds during the peak of winter).  But at least such an event would have been possible, were he still … alive.

Which he was not.

How did they recognize him, you might ask?  Recall, if you will, the portrait found some years back.  Upon Marie Cartwright’s urging, Ben had removed it from the trunk into their (his and Marie’s) bedroom.  He would not display it elsewhere, but in tribute to his late wife he had left it in its place during the years since her death.  Having therefore viewed it with some frequency, the brothers had become familiar with certain of their late grandfather’s more striking characteristics.  A deeply cleft chin, for one—so much so that they might have thought it an accident of the artist if their father had not assured them otherwise.  A sizeable wart to the side of the nose was another trait faithfully recorded by that honest painter, as well as other features which I will not detail here.  Be assured, however, that Ben Cartwright’s boys were familiar enough with their grandfather’s appearance to note well who it was they glimpsed down an alley or across the way that day.

I don’t know what would have happened had they been together when they saw him … but that is not what happened, and I will not digress into such speculation.  The three brothers were, in fact, as far distant from each other as possible in a place the size of Virginia City.  They had come to town for last minute supplies (of which the Ponderosa had no real need) because, quite frankly, their father was entirely finished with the lot of them and had practically thrown them out the front door into the buckboard.  They had been sniping and arguing for days, and it seemed only logical to split up when they arrived in order to accomplish their errands as painlessly as possible.  They would complete their tasks, have a drink (in separate saloons), and meet back at the buckboard to drive back home with plenty of daylight remaining.

Suffice it to say that none of the brothers had been expecting to see his dead grandfather strolling those familiar streets, and none felt any need to mention it to the others when they finally met up again.  Adam was too annoyed and offended by the impossibility to give it any more thought than he felt it deserved.  Hoss had all but persuaded himself he was seeing things, and Little Joe was convinced (rightly so, I’m afraid) that he would be accused by his eldest brother of over-imbibing and be forced to defend his sobriety (he’d had only three—well, maybe four) for the entire ride home.  Therefore none of them brought up the odd occurrence.  It was, however, a strangely silent and pensive group of young men who arrived in the Ponderosa yard just before suppertime.

That silence continued throughout the evening, much to Ben Cartwright’s puzzlement and (sad to say) relief.  A few testy exchanges marred the overall peace, but for the most part his boys seemed content to retreat to opposite corners and spend Christmas Eve not celebrating faith and family.  Eventually, despite a very real trepidation regarding the consequences of such an attempt, Ben tried several times to draw them out.  He joked, he cajoled, he scolded.  He demanded.  He opened his much worn Bible and read the Christmas story aloud, as he had every year since Adam was small—although never before to an audience fairly crackling with entirely soundless tension.  That finished, he set the old book aside, wished his sons a weary good night, and padded up the stairs to his bed.  His disappointment filled the room, yet even that did not serve to draw his boys from their self-imposed exiles.

It would have been easier, and would perhaps have made more sense, for the brothers to have sought their own beds as well.  They were certainly drawing no satisfaction from each other’s presence.  However, some half-felt urging kept them in their places that Christmas Eve, and as the night reached its peak and the old grandfather clock stroked out midnight, a heavy knock sounded upon the door.

For the first time in hours, the Cartwright brothers exchanged glances.

They had not been expecting anyone.  The Ponderosa was a good distance from town, and even if it were not, the hour of midnight is a late one to come calling.  As it was, there was no telling what outlaw or indigent or errand boy might be standing upon their porch.  It was therefore with understandable caution that the brothers approached the entrance.  Adam picked up his gun belt from the credenza and drew his pistol forth before nodding to Joe, who had stationed himself with one hand upon the knob.  Joe ducked his head close to the thick wood and called, “Who’s there?”

They could not have been prepared for what next occurred.  Instead of an answering voice, the figure of a man came through the door.

It was, in fact, the figure they had earlier seen in the streets of Virginia City—their Grandfather Cartwright—before them now in such a way that none could pretend to the others he did not see.  And none of the brothers did pretend, although being thought ridiculous or slightly mad was no longer the first concern upon their minds.  The impossibility of seeing their dead grandfather had been replaced in priority by the impossibility of a man walking directly through the heavy outer door.

“Who are you?”

Adam, as the eldest and the only one brandishing any sort of weapon, took charge.  He did not miss the black look cast him by his youngest brother, who as the one at the door handle felt that it should really be he who addressed the intruder, but he had little time for the boy’s petty (as he saw them) complaints.  Their visitor cast a disinterested gaze upon all three.

“You know me.”

“Yeah, but that ain’t possible.”  Hoss, hovering somewhere between Adam and Little Joe, sent up the expected protest, although he was fully aware they had left behind the realm of the expected some time past.  The figure of their dead grandfather seemed wholly unconcerned.

“Who can say what is possible on Christmas Eve?  Who can say how many others have known similar experiences on this hallowed night, or when such first took place?  But whether you believe or not, I am he who was Joseph Cartwright in life.”

To that, there really seemed nothing more to say.  For a moment the four stood in silent tableau, the brothers staring at their grandfather’s ghost and the ghost gazing at nothing in particular.  Finally, Little Joe asked the question he had been preparing from the start (it seemed strange to him that hyper-logical Adam had chosen to begin the exchange with a query whose answer was so obvious).  “What are you doing here?”

“I bring a warning.”

This seemed an ominous purpose, and the brothers again exchanged glances.  Adam, having decided his pistol would do little good against a man already dead, replaced it on the credenza and motioned into the great room.  “Will you … can you, even … have a seat?”

The question was awkward, but the ghost seemed not to notice.  In fact, he preceded them across the floor and sat lightly upon his own son’s chair.  The boys noted that they could yet see the red leather through their grandfather’s form, and it was with a sense of awe and foreboding that they followed him into the sitting area.  As they approached they saw how Joseph Cartwright continually shifted in his chair, as if restless and uncomfortable.  It was Hoss who first noted the reason.

“What’s that you’re wearin’, sir?”

His brothers, too, noted the garment then, which lay under the ghost’s shirt and trousers, peeking out from cuffs and collar and around shoes.  It was an odd type of clothing, certainly, for it seemed woven of nettles and thorns, a tight fit against wrists and neck and ankles.  It was, they supposed, that garment which made the spirit of their grandfather move so constantly, as if in attempt to escape the discomfort that such underclothing should certainly produce.

Grandfather Cartwright’s eyes roved the room, stopping upon none of them but settling finally upon the flames still cracking cheerfully upon the hearth.

“This is the garment I spun for myself in life, piece by piece.  Each offense taken unnecessarily, each grudge held was an additional thorn added to its weave.  Each refusal to consider the well-being of others over my own further extended it.  Each opportunity lost, in my own self-righteousness, to appreciate the motivations and feelings of my fellows tightened it upon me.”  Ben Cartwright’s sons, upon hearing these difficult tidings, shuffled their feet and looked away, each thinking back upon his own behavior—toward his brothers, his father, certain others—of the past weeks.  The ghost had not, however, finished.  “The longer I wore it, the more sensitive I became, so that even the smallest slight affected me beyond all proportion.  No longer did I have the choice of such things, for the constant rubbing of my own pride and selfish desire kept such irritations stirred within my breast, and it was no easy thing to look or think beyond them.”

Hoss, moved easily to pity, asked, “Ain’t there anything can be done about it?”

For the first time, the ghost of a smile flitted across the spirit’s face, though it was gone in an instant.  “What can be done shall be, and is being done as we speak.  Long shall I walk upon the Earth wearing this garment, but not eternally.  He Whose mercy covers us all has ordained it.”  The elder Joseph Cartwright turned his face toward them then, though still his eyes did not fasten upon any of the three.  “My own sad tale is not, however, my purpose for coming to you tonight.”

This time, even Little Joe was content to let Adam speak for the three.  Ben Cartwright’s eldest raised a sardonic brow toward his siblings, then braced his feet and faced the spirit. “Tell us.”

Grandfather Cartwright rose, and they saw that his feet did not quite rest upon the floor.  “Would you care to hear, my grandsons, the length and thickness of your own such garments?”

Perhaps no query could have so distressed the brothers as this, having heard in detail of the weaving of their grandfather’s own thorny attire.  The Cartwright sons were, on a whole, good and generous men.  In the busy stress and overwork of the season, however—of the past several months, in truth—each had drawn into himself, to the exclusion of his fellows and their own particular struggles.  Such a warning, issued by such an emissary, could not help but strike a painful chord in each listener’s heart.

Little Joe cast a quick glance at Adam, his primary adversary of these past times, then fixed his eyes upon the floor and mumbled, “I guess we could be tryin’ a little harder.”

“Yeah,” Hoss muttered, shamefaced, considering his own extra-familial tensions.

Adam did not speak, but offered a brief nod to each of his brothers.

The spirit drifted nearer.  “A boon has been granted, to myself and to others who would seek to enhance your success in such efforts.  On this night above all the veil that separates our poor world from the divine may be lifted for a time, and therefore a light may shine in recesses that would otherwise remain hidden from our sight.”

Confused, the brothers glanced from one to another.  Then Adam spoke again to the spirit of he who had been their grandfather.  “What, uh … boon is this?”

“Three ghosts will visit you this night.”

That news, as might be expected, was not particularly welcomed by the three, no matter the positive intention of such visitations.  One ghostly caller had been quite enough—three more throughout the night surely amounted to something of an excess.  Joseph Cartwright the Younger edged closer to Adam, who wondered with a vague sort of desperation how his little brother possibly expected his protection from the promised manner of guest.  Hoss wrinkled his nose and then blurted what they were all, in one form or another, thinking.

“Do we have to?”

The ghost of their Grandfather Cartwright might not have even heard.  “The first spirit will arrive upon the stroke of one.”  Green, blue, and amber eyes darted toward the face upon the clock near the entrance.  The spirit’s words did not gain in volume, but took on a resounding tone, as if echoing from within a large, hollow place.  The brothers looked back to find that their grandfather’s form had become dimmer, no longer boasting even its previous questionable solidity.  “The second spirit will arrive upon the stroke of two, and the third spirit upon the stroke of three.”

“Wait!”  Adam stepped forward, thinking as he did so that the attempt was surely futile (and even ridiculous—Ben Cartwright’s eldest, being the pragmatist he was, could not yet be completely convinced the experience was not all some insane, vivid dream).  “Surely you can tell us something more.  What kind of—”

“Wait for them.”

The spirit’s voice was a dissolving whisper, and the ghost himself faded from view.  For a long moment the three brothers stood in stunned silence, staring upon the spot which he who had been their grandfather had so recently occupied.

Then the grandfather clock struck one, and the fire flared bright within its grate.

*****

Stave 2 The First of the Three Spirits

“Joyeux Noël, mes fils!”

The voice sounded from behind, a light, fresh breeze in the heavy night and so beloved that recognition stirred their hearts on the instant even after so many years.  They turned as one toward the stairs, and beheld Marie Cartwright descend in shimmering beauty.  Her countenance had not been changed in their time apart—she was yet young and lovely, all soft blonde hair and graceful movements and sparkling red dress to celebrate the joy of the holy season.  As her feet reached the final step some paralysis broke from them, and the brothers rushed to her, her name tumbling from their lips.

“Ma!”

“Mama!”

“Marie …”

She laughed, and her eyes danced with joy as she drank in each of them, but Marie held up one hand as they approached.

“No, mes chers.  This moment we are permitted, but not to touch.  Only the one.”  Her eyes landed significantly upon Little Joe, but her gaze broadened quickly to once again include all three.  “Indeed, I think even if the attempt were made, you would not be able.  Be content, though—no, rejoice!—that this moment of greeting has been granted us.”

Silence hung between them for the space of several heartbeats.  No longer was it the heavy silence of discord, however, but the amazed wonder of children.  Finally, Hoss spoke.

“We’ve missed you, Mama.  Merry Christmas.”

Her tender smile fell upon him.  “And I have missed you so, mon cœur.  I have watched each of you grow in both body and spirit … but would that I had been a part of that.”

“You have, Marie.”  Adam’s voice was soft, but firm.  “You … we still feel you with us, even now sometimes.  It’s not the same, of course, but we …”  Ben Cartwright’s eldest trailed off, and his eyes fell to the floor.  Such admissions did not come easily to such a man as he, but he was determined that the moment would not pass unseized.  Her glowing glance fell upon him.

“Dearest Adam.”

“Mama …”  Little Joe said nothing more, but tears shone in his eyes as he gazed upon her.  Marie turned toward him, and her eyes softened as she beheld this son of her body.  Her skirts rustled as she approached, and Joe stared in surprise as his mother held out one slender hand.

“It is for you that my message comes, mon petit.”  Joe’s brows puckered as he beheld her outstretched palm, and amusement touched her countenance.  “Only the one,” Marie whispered, and shook her extended hand gently.  “Come, Joseph.  Take my hand.”

With a gulp and a glance toward his brothers—but also with confidence that his mother would surely do him no harm—Little Joe complied.

In an instant, as though a curtain had fallen, the great room of the Ponderosa was no more.  Instead Joe found himself with his mother in the corner of a tiny, bare room.  He had seen many such rooms in his travels—single bed, single table with pitcher and basin.  It was a hotel room, or perhaps that of a boarding house.  Poor it was, but scrubbed clean.  For a moment Joe thought the room empty, but then a small form stirred in the shadow beneath the window.  He watched as the lone occupant’s tiny chin tucked over the low windowsill to gaze upon the darkening night, and wondered what scene this was that lay before him.

“Mama?” he murmured.  Marie’s light laugh filled his ears.

“You need not whisper, mon fils.  We are but shadows here, who cannot be seen or heard.”

Joe nodded his understanding—or rather, his acceptance, as understanding of this experience was quite beyond him—and looked back to the child.  “Where are we, Mama?  Who’s the boy?”

“We are in a time years past.  As for the boy …”  Her golden brows rose, as Marie’s own gaze fell tenderly upon the child.  His nose was pressed against the window now, breath fogging the cold glass.  “Do you truly not know him?”

“Should I?”  Surprised, Joe studied the boy.  There was something about him—in the slant of the nose, perhaps, and the curve of the jaw, but he could not …

“Papa,” the boy breathed, straightening.  Marie drifted closer, tugging Joe along behind, and they beheld through the window the hunched form of a man trudging toward the house through the lightly falling snow.  His coat was thin for the weather, and his trousers threadbare.  A single bundle he clutched tight to his chest.  As the man drew near the dark head raised, eyes searching out the window.  The child waved, though the man below could not have seen.  Joe gasped, darting forward.

His mother’s grip tightened, though she made no attempt to restrain his movement.  “You must keep hold of my hand, mon fils.  Once our connection is broken, this will be finished.  You shall return to your own time and place, and I must return to mine.”

Joe nodded, his eyes still riveted upon the man below.  “Pa,” he breathed.  “Mama, that’s …”  A thought occurred to him then, and he looked sharply upon the boy.  “Is that …”  Joe’s eyes met his mother’s, widening, and he saw the truth there before he spoke.  “Is that Adam?

“He was a precious child, was he not?”

Ben Cartwright’s youngest, who had never thought to see his elder brother so, surveyed the child with a new interest.  “He was kinda cute, wasn’t he?  Who’da thought it?”  Joe’s lips curved into an affectionate grin despite their discord of recent days.  He watched as young Adam scampered across the room to the trundle pulled near to the low-burning hearth and burrowed beneath its coverings.  Shortly thereafter came the sound of a heavy boot outside the door, and Ben Cartwright himself entered, slumped shoulders and bowed head entirely absent from his countenance.

“Papa!” Adam crowed, scrambling to meet him.

Only after setting aside his bundle did Ben lift his small son, his voice warm and cheery.  “Adam!”

“Merry Christmas, Papa!”

Startled, Joe cast another gaze around the lodgings.  Only then did he notice the two well-worn socks, one large and one small, hanging by the fireplace at such a height it was obvious the shorter of the room’s residents had undertaken the task.  It was the sole indicator of the season, and Joe watched in disbelief as his father produced an orange and a peppermint stick, passing them to the child.

“Merry Christmas, son.”

There was that in Ben’s voice which Joe recognized as weariness and disappointment, but Adam seemed not to notice.  He sent up a ruckus over the presents, bouncing eagerly back to the warmth of his trundle.  “Thanks, Papa!”

Adam’s younger brother looked toward his mother.  “That’s … this is Christmas for them?”

Marie’s eyes were solemn.  “Christmas is not about number or type of presents, mon fils.  It may be celebrated as easily in a—”

“I know!”  For a moment, Joe’s tone was sharp with offense—he did not think himself quite so spoiled or self-centered as that.  Quickly remembering, however, his grandfather’s recent tale, he offered an apologetic glance as his eyes returned once more to the scene.  “I know, but …”

Adam set aside the peppermint stick carefully, and dug eagerly through the orange peel.  Ben laughed, holding up one hand.  “Wait, wait, son.  Dinner first, then treats.”  He produced a bowl of thick soup and a spoon, padding the bottom carefully with the bed covering before handing the utensil to his son.  “Mrs. Brockhaus’s lentil soup.  Nice and warm and filling.”

The boy hesitated, eyeing the soup and then his father.  “Ain’t you gonna eat too, Papa?”

Ben straightened, striding across the room to remove his coat.  “I had a bite on the way home, son.  This is all for you.”

Joe knew that evasive tone from his father as well, and with a rush of something like horror realized the truth.  “He doesn’t have anything?” he whispered to Marie, and felt her hand tighten upon his.

“Times were not easy, and your father put always the welfare of his son before his own.  This Christmas Eve, the matter of some small gift also weighed heavily upon his heart.”

The knowledge that not only were these few small treats the sum of their Christmas, but that Ben had gone hungry to provide them was sobering and, indeed, upsetting.  Little Joe had always known his father had toiled hard and long across the vast expanses between Boston and what would eventually become his own land.  Joe had never truly realized, however, the straights in which those he loved had at times lived.  It was difficult to see them so.

The child who was his brother had, it seemed, already learned to recognize that tone from their father as well.  The dark eyes watched as Ben hung the coat and returned to him, large in a face that Joe suddenly noted was thin and oh so solemn.

Had Adam truly never been anything but serious?

“You’re gonna share my orange with me though, right?”

It was obvious to Joe what his brother was about—offering the only thing Adam knew his father would accept—but the older man seemed unaware of the ploy.  Or if not unaware, merely accepting.  Ben smiled gently and ruffled Adam’s hair.  “If that’s what you want, boy.”

Adam nodded, satisfied, and dug into the soup.

Marie squeezed Little Joe’s hand.  “Come.  We must go.”

“Wait!”  As distressing as was the scene before him, Joe was strangely reluctant to leave it.  Marie tugged gently upon his hand, however, and the little room began to fade from view.

“There is more yet to see, and only a short time in which to do so.”

Little Joe twisted back for a last glance of the two sitting upon the trundle bed, but even as he did so the light brightened, and he found himself in the middle of a silent, pristine wood on a crisp winter day.  A thin crust covered the unspoiled snow which crunched underfoot, though Joe soon noted it was neither he nor his mother making the noise, but two young boys trudging along through the trees.  They were well bundled against the cold, and their breath fogged the air.

“Where’re we goin’, Adam?” the younger of the two asked, and the elder sighed, obviously much aggrieved by the query.

“I told you, Hoss, it’s a surprise.”

Hoss?” Joe whispered, and flashed a sudden wide grin.  He bolted around the two children, dragging his mother behind him, and stopped short when their faces came into view.  The sight of the younger boy’s round, apple-red cheeks, the wispy blond curls escaping from the tight-tied hood, and the stubby legs produced peals of delighted laughter from the child’s younger sibling.  Unable to clap his hands together, Joe clasped Marie’s hand tight between his own and gave in to his merriment, eyeing the little boy with a joyful mirth that had been wholly lacking from their last visit.  “Look at him!  I didn’t think Hoss was ever this small!”

Marie’s smile was wry.  “He is not particularly small, mon petit, for a child of three.”

“Well, but still …”  Joe caught his breath, shaking his head once more before turning a curious gaze upon the elder of the two.  Adam had grown in height since their last visit, of course, and had filled out somewhat, though his eldest brother still wore a skinny, hollow-cheeked visage that obviously had little to do with his food intake.  Both boys seemed well and healthy, if not quite overfed.  Even through the coat—not as padded as Hoss’s, and without a hood, but nothing like the threadbare samples Joe had seen previously—Adam walked with the easy lope of a boy fit and used to hard work.  His gloved hand gripped the little mitten firmly, his stride clearly shortened for the sake of his smaller companion.

“But when are we gonna get there?”

Hoss’s voice bordered on a whine.  Rather than gripe, however, as was his usual response to whining (at least in Joe’s experience), Adam pulled them both to a halt and grinned.

“Now.  We’re here.”

Hoss peered around for a wide-eyed moment, then turned a suspicious gaze upon his brother.  “Where?  What’s the surprise?”

Joe had to agree with his bigger—bigger-smaller, he supposed—brother.  Nothing in front of them seemed any different from the rest of its surroundings, or particularly worthy of a trek through the cold and snow to view it.  Adam, however, released the boy and gestured patiently to a small, well-formed pine directly before them.

“It’s going to be our Christmas tree.”

Hoss’s little nose wrinkled, a mannerism startlingly similar to that of his adult counterpart.  “What’s this tree got ta do with Christmas?”

Adam knelt beside the pine, digging beneath its branches to produce a small wooden box and a burlap sack.  “We’re gonna decorate it.”

Still the child frowned.  “We got pretties up at home.  Why do we gotta come out in the woods and dec’rate a tree?”

The apparent lack of a Christmas tree in the Cartwright home was a puzzle to Little Joe, who had from infancy been fascinated by the sparkling, shimmering vision which appeared to grace the great room every Christmastide.  Adam’s next words, however, explained a great deal.

“Because Mama Inger said every house had ta have a tree at Christmas.  She made Pa get us one the year we had her with us for Christmas—well, you weren’t born yet, but me and Pa—and it was so beautiful.  All bright and good-smellin’.”

The child perked up.  “My … mama?”  The concept of his own mama seemed a somewhat nebulous one for little Hoss (filling Little Joe with dismay and pity), yet suddenly the smaller boy betrayed an eagerness for the task which he had previously lacked.  Adam nodded.

“Mama Inger.  Remember, I told ya she’s in heaven?”  Hoss nodded, his small countenance reflecting the solemnity warranted by such a statement.  “That makes Pa sad, and he doesn’t want us to have a tree anymore, but Mama would want you to know about ‘em.  I thought we could put up some pretties on this one, and I could tell you some stories about Mama.”

“Yeah!”

Now Hoss reached eagerly for the bits of bright yarn and low-burned candle stubs and stale popcorn produced by his brother from the box and bag.  Adam himself stood back, letting Hoss strew the makeshift decorations about the lower branches of the tree, and began a string of short holiday anecdotes involving Ben’s late wife.  He told of their tree, of endless baking with few supplies, of her visits to families less fortunate than the Cartwrights.  He told of a day named after Saint Lucy on which Mama Inger had appeared with a wreath of lit candles crowning her head.  He had thought it beautiful, but Pa had been mad.  At least, Pa had sounded angry.  Mama told him later Pa was really just afraid that something (Mama’s hair, probably) would catch on fire.  She had laughed and told Pa that many women of her country wore such a wreath on this day, but Pa didn’t seem satisfied and she finally took it off.  Pa had been much happier with the special bread she served for breakfast.  Adam told of Swedish songs and abundant laughter and a day spent snuggled by the fire, and somehow in that telling Hoss’s little tree with its poor decorations became beautiful.

Finally finished, Hoss seemed content to simply stand and gaze upon their Christmas tree as Adam spun his tales, blue eyes shining with wonder.  Adam’s voice was soft, his own eyes lost in memory, and none of Ben Cartwright’s sons (Little Joe included) noted the passage of time that snowy afternoon.

“Adam!”

All three jumped when that bellow split the air—it was a tone all too well known to be ignored.  Adam focused then, and seemed for the first time to notice how the light had dimmed.  “We been out too long,” he hissed.  “I didn’t pay attention.”  Even at such a young age, Joe’s eldest brother seemed to take such a failing personally.  He grumbled, and waved his little brother back down their trail.  “You get going.  I’ll be right there.”

“What are ya gonna do?”

“Hoss!”  Adam’s dark brows dipped into a fair imitation of Ben Cartwright’s scowl.  “Never you mind, little nosey, you just go!”

Hoss pouted for moment, then decided it was not worth the effort.  He turned and went crunching back along the row of footprints, calling loudly, “Pa!  Pa, we’re here, Pa!”

Left alone, Adam scrambled to gather the box and bag which had held their ‘decorations’.  Joe expected him to follow immediately behind … but instead Little Joe’s eldest brother froze in his tracks, the easy merriment of the afternoon leaching from his face and stance.  For a moment Joe thought his brother had seen something to upset him, but when Adam’s young voice spoke, the words scattered such supposition to the winds.

“I miss you, Mama.”  The boy swiped at a tear, and Joe sucked in a breath.  Rarely, if ever, had he seen this brother cry.  “I miss you so bad.”  For a long moment Adam was silent, eyes dark and shoulders rigid, then the child added, “I’m doin’ the best I can.  Pa is too, but he’s gotta work hard and he’s tired a lot.  I … I take real good care of Hoss, though, and I try to tell him about you.”  A flicker of a smile touched the boy’s face.  “You’d be proud of Hoss, Mama.  He’s a real good boy.”

“Adam!”

Adam scrubbed his sleeve briskly across his face, mumbled, “Merry Christmas, Mama,” then hurried away after Hoss.  Little Joe stared at his retreating form.  He was barely aware of Marie’s presence, or of his mother’s hand in his own.

“I knew … I mean, I know he remembers Hoss’s ma, but I guess I never thought about how …”  Distress filled his countenance.  “I don’t think I coulda gone through losing you twice, Mama.”

Gentle fingers touched his cheek.  “You would have survived, mon petit, and flourished.  You are stronger than you know.”  Marie’s eyes drifted along the darkening path which had taken the two boys from their sight.  “Your brother has lived through much in his lifetime, has he not, and yet he has emerged whole and able to love.  You would do the same.”

“Maybe,” he agreed, though his tone lacked any ring of conviction.  Little Joe pondered briefly the sights he had seen this night, and found himself surprised (though perhaps he should not have been) by his conclusions.  “Mama, is all of this why Adam’s always so…”  Her brow lifted, and Joe fell silent.  His feelings toward his eldest brother had not been charitable as of late, and he did not (for any of their sakes) wish such complaints to intrude upon this time.  “The way he is?”

A faint smile crossed Marie’s lips, but regarding those queries she remained silent.  Instead, her cool grip tightened around his.  “Come, mon fils.”  She tugged gently.  “We have yet one place more to visit, before our time is through.”

“Mama …”  Joe sighed.  If his mother chose not to speak—or could not, for reasons he did not understand—he would never convince her.  That much he remembered well.  Instead, therefore, he spoke the other words upon his heart.  “I don’t want you to go.”

Marie’s laughter swirled around them.  “But I must!  I have done so.  The past has already been, mon cher—it may be viewed, as we are doing now, but it may not be changed.”  The snow-covered evergreens faded even as she spoke, and Little Joe found himself suddenly back in the great room at the Ponderosa—though not as it was in the current time.  Feminine touches scattered about the walls and the flat surfaces, vases of holly decorated the tables and the mantlepiece (the delicate one which he barely remembered—it had not yet been replaced by the longhorns, a story which still no one would share with him).  As Little Joe’s eyes fell upon the fire, however, he noted the three silver frames lining the mantle and his heart sank.

Ben Cartwright had never kept pictures of his other wives in evidence while Marie still lived.

His mother must have felt his hand tremble, for she clasped it tight between her own.  Before any words could be spoken, however, a figure stirred in the shadows.  Little Joe saw then that his father sat in the red leather chair, between the great tree and the low-burning fire.  He had no time to wonder what Ben might be doing here, however, alone in the night, for a quiet step sounded behind them.  Joe turned and saw his eldest brother descending the stairs, hair rumpled and nightshirt hanging about his knees.

It was Adam as Joe remembered him in those faint snatches of earliest memory—tall, slight, and with more hair than Ben Cartwright’s eldest could ever hope to see again.  His face, as he passed the fire, was the face Joe knew, though still hollow with youth.  Adam halted before the red chair and crouched before their father.

“Pa?”

Ben sighed, scrubbing a hand over one face.  “I thought I was doing so well.”

Adam’s tone was confused.  “You are, Pa.”

“I thought … but …”  The elder Cartwright waved a vague hand toward the tree, and suddenly a sob escaped into the darkness.

His pa was crying.  Little Joe felt his own answering tears rise, and wished briefly that Pa could have somebody more comforting than ol’ Adam at his side.  His brother leaned forward, however, curling a hand around their father’s nape and pulling the grey-shot head to rest against his shoulder.  “You’re doing fine, Pa.  It’s just Christmas, is all.”

The sobs burst forth then, no longer to be denied.  For a long moment father and son were still, Ben spending his grief upon his eldest’s shoulder and Adam rocking them both gently, murmuring words that Joe was unable to hear.  It was, he realized, just as well.  Though he might be privileged to view a few scenes from the past, some things were best kept between those for whom they were intended.

In truth, Joe was too busy being amazed by his brother’s actions to focus on such details.  Adam was, to be fair, usually there for him at need (with the exception of those few years his brother had been in college back East).  He was always ready with advice (even when Joe didn’t ask or want it), but he was also willing to just help Joe work through a difficult decision on his own.  He was soothing when Joe was ill or injured, and a good teacher of all things ranch-related (once he managed to drop his acerbic commentary for long enough to teach).  Adam had never been, to Joe’s memory, an especially comforting person, however, and an embrace was certainly never his first approach to … well, to anything.  Yet here he was, holding their weeping father with no sign of discomfort or impatience.

If Little Joe was learning anything from his adventures of this Christmas Eve night, it was that Adam was not entirely the person his youngest brother had always thought him.

Perhaps, he pondered, it was what he had been meant to learn.

Finally Ben drew away, wiping at his eyes and chuckling wryly through his remaining tears.  “Sorry about that, son.”

“Don’t be.”  Adam drew back and settled cross-legged before their pa’s chair, tugging the nightshirt over his knees.  “It’s …”  He shrugged. “Christmas is a hard time.”  There was a faint catch to his own voice and Ben looked at him sharply, but his son’s face was impassive as ever.  Ben nodded slowly then, and blew out a deep breath.

“I wanted … I thought that this time …”  He sighed heavily and shook his head, leaning his chin on one fisted hand.  “And I had hoped that at least one of my sons would have the childhood that you all deserved.”

Those words struck with the force of a blow.  Joe had never really thought to imagine his brothers’ childhoods, beyond a vague idea of much travel and smaller accommodations.  Had he not, though, seen the truth during the course of this night?  How often had he grumbled that Adam remembered nothing of being a kid, that he must have been born full-grown?  It seemed now those words were truer than he had ever imagined.  A great regret for the times he had flung such accusation in his elder brother’s face stirred in Little Joe’s breast.

One of Adam’s dark brows rose.  “Pa, Little Joe will have his childhood.  His mama’s … gone, but we’re all here for him, and we’ll make sure of it.  He’s got a family and a home.”  Adam reached out to squeeze their father’s knee.  “He’s got Hop Sing, and Mitch Devlin—those two’re gonna be thick as thieves, if I don’t miss my guess—and all the horses in that corral out there his little heart can stand.”

Ben’s rich chuckle lacked volume, but not humor.  “I’m not sure that corral will ever hold enough horses for Little Joe.”

Adam sat back and smiled—a wistful, faraway expression.  “It’s not the same as if … if Marie was still here, but … Pa, he’ll get to be a kid.  We all want that for him.”

Suddenly, Joe could stand no more.  “Can we leave now?”

“What troubles you, mon fils?”  His mother’s voice was gentle, if unsurprised.

“Them!”  Little Joe swung a wide hand at his father and brother, who continued their low-voiced conversation unaware that their audience had been lost.  “They … I never knew any of this!  Why did I never know any of this?”

Marie’s eyes and expression were calm, implacable.  “None of us can be privy to all that went before, nor should we be.  Is it not enough—has it not always beenenough—to know that your father and brothers love you, without knowing the pain which enriches that love?”

“But I …”  Joe took a shaky breath, watching as Adam gripped their pa’s hand and hauled Ben to his feet.  “I don’t … I didn’t appreciate them like I should.”

“Neither do we ever truly appreciate our loved ones as they deserve.  Is this your fault, mon petit, for straining to grow against the constraints of youth and family?  Is it their fault, for not divulging their innermost struggles to the one whom they would protect?”

“No, it’s …”  Little Joe groaned, and thrust his free hand deep in his pocket.  “It’s nobody’s fault.  I guess we just don’t … always understand each other.”

Her delicate lips curved into a smile, lighting her countenance with the gentle glow.  “Such realization is a valuable first step, mon cher.”

Joe basked in his mother’s approval, but a flash of the old impatience asserted itself.  “So I’m supposed to just let Adam go when he’s treating me like a kid that doesn’t know anything?  Because he didn’t have time to be a kid himself, I’m supposed to let him keep me there forever?”

“No!”  Marie laughed softly, and cupped Joe’s cheek.  “No, of course not.  Such a response would be terribly unwise—for both of you, I think.  No, your brother knows much more than you allow him credit for … but not all.”  She lifted a roguish brow, and Joe’s giggle matched her own.  “He has a sharp tongue he does not always use wisely, and his preference for solitude works often to his own detriment, though he does not see it.”  Her eyes caught Little Joe’s.  “None of us is perfect, mon petit.  That the two of you will argue is a certainty, with personalities such as yours.  But remember this—your brother loves you, and you love him.  Remember what you have seen this night, and keep always in your mind that he is more than you know—as you are more than he knows.”

“So … don’t make it so personal,” he murmured, eyes falling to his feet.  He had done so, he knew.  They had both done so …

Oui.”  His mother’s smile turned melancholy.  “You see now, I think … and my time here is finished.”

Little Joe gripped her tightly, as if by doing so he could keep his mother close.  “No!  Don’t go.”

“But I must.”  Marie took both of his hands in both of hers.  “I love you, mon fils, and I am so proud.”

Behind them, Ben trudged up the last of the stairs and disappeared into the upper hallway.  Adam stood still for a long moment, staring at the three silver frames dimly outlined in the fire’s glow.  Then he sighed deeply, as if from the depths of his soul.  “Merry Christmas, ladies.”  He inclined his head toward each small frame, then turned and followed his father up the stairs.

Little Joe Cartwright released his mother’s hand.

In the great room, the grandfather clock struck two.

*****

Stave 3 The Second of the Three Spirits

Whether an hour had truly passed from when Little Joe had disappeared with his mother from their sight, neither Adam nor Hoss could say.  It seemed to them no time at all, however, before the grandfather clock struck the second hour—both still stood near the foot of the stairs, caught up in the awe and (to be entirely truthful) baffled confusion of what was this night occurring.  Barely had the second stroke faded when the brothers became aware of a voice raised in song, emanating from their kitchen.  The two exchanged a brief glance, and then as one crossed toward that corner to view this new apparition.

The song continued, in words neither brother understood, but suddenly Adam started and his eyes filled with wonder.  Then he grinned, as openly as Hoss had ever seen him do, and quickened his pace, ducking without fear through the wide doorway.  Hurrying along after his brother, Hoss stopped short to stare at the miracle which had overtaken their previously dark kitchen.

Every table, every surface was laden, fairly groaning beneath their burdens.  A large ham sat upon the sideboard, glazed with mustard and honey and strewn with breadcrumbs, and beside it a platter of succulent fish.  Crisp pork sausages were mounded upon another platter, and a pot of steaming meatballs sat behind.  On the adjoining table, a white star-shaped creation (it looked a bit like cheese, though Hoss thought he might be willing to attempt it) took up a large platter, scattered with raspberries and rich red jam.  Beside it, a great mound of pink salad rose from a crystal serving bowl, ringed with slices of boiled egg.  A skillet of creamy potatoes and onions sat still upon the stove, and a heap of mashed potatoes rose from a delicate china bowl.

Bread was heaped upon the center island—flat bread, cinnamon buns, rye loaves dusted white with flour, and golden yellow rolls glazed and stuffed with raisins.  Beside the bread stood great pitchers of dark red drink, soaking oranges and cinnamon sticks.  A round dish of rice pudding scattered with berries, oranges, and cinnamon graced the center of the island, and upon its near end were scores of flat brown cookies, shaped like men and women and hearts.

A woman stood at the table’s edge, rolling out more of the dark dough.  She was tall, with high full cheeks, sparkling blue eyes, and a wealth of blonde hair coiled about her head.  Her pert nose was dusted with flour, yet her crisp shirt-front and deep green skirt remained untouched.  It was she who had been singing, but when the brothers approached she broke off and turned to them, reaching forth her hands in welcome.

God jul, mina söner!

“Mama!”

Hoss had rarely heard such eagerness in Adam’s voice, nor seen such a sparkle in his brother’s eye.  He noted these things only briefly, however, for he was feasting his own eyes upon Inger Cartwright—his mother—of whom he had no memory but a picture in a silver frame.  Yet here she stood.  His greeting was softer, filled more with awe than exuberance, but no less eager.

“Mama …”

“My darling boys.”  Inger’s soft lilt embraced them, her smile lit them as with a dozen fires.  She turned back to gather two of the heart-shaped cookies, and offered one to each.  “Only one, though,” she laughed, and her merriment was such that her sons could not help but join in.  “Don’t spoil your Christmas breakfast.”

The cookies were real in their hands, smooth and soft and rich with the scent of spices.  Hoss’s eyes moistened as the flavors filled his mouth and his heart—he would have closed them against the tears, yet he could not turn his gaze from her.

From Inger.  His mama.

Adam’s breath was shaky.  “Mama, I’ve … we’ve missed you.  So much has happened …”

“I have seen, my son.”  Inger’s smile stretched wide and wistful as she gazed upon this child of her heart, drinking him in.  She reached for Adam’s cheek, yet stopped short of touching.  “I have seen, and have been so proud.”  Her eyes drifted to Hoss, and tears welled within them.  “So proud.”

“Mama …”  Speech seemed to have left him—he could think of nothing to say.

She smiled full upon him, and Hoss caught his breath at the love there.

His mama …

For a moment, Inger’s eyes returned to her eldest.  “Adam …”  She drew in a long breath then, and Hoss wondered if his mother was truly so calm as she appeared.  When she spoke next, however, her tone was brisk.  “Have another ginger snap.  You love them so.” Then, Inger spun and held out her hand to Hoss.  “Come, my darling boy.  We have little time, and much to see.”

He hesitated, eyeing the newly flour-free palm.  “Where are we … goin’?”

Her white teeth flashed.  “Come and see.”

Hoss glanced toward Adam, but his eldest brother still had eyes only for Inger.  Well … Little Joe had gone with Marie.  He supposed he couldn’t let ol’ short shanks outdo him—not when it came to trustin’ a person’s mama.  Taking a deep breath, gathering his courage, Hoss engulfed Inger’s hand within his own large one … and the kitchen with all its abundance was gone in an instant.

They stood instead against the wall of a finely decorated parlor.  The home itself was all beauty and grace—white and delicate with everything in its place.  Decorated for the holy season, it was a work of art.  Holly and mistletoe hung from mantle and window frames and chandelier, candles graced tables and sills, and a tree to rival that at the Ponderosa rose in the center of the room, bright with candles and shining golden ornaments.  A tray of cookies graced the coffee table, and mugs of cider.  Hoss grinned approvingly at the festive atmosphere, until a female voice spoke from behind the tree.

“Gerard, surely this can wait.  It’s Christmas!  The children will be—”

“Caroline, I’ve told you not to bother me when I have work.”

Hoss’s nose wrinkled, and he looked down upon Inger.  “The Reinholds?  Ain’t I had enough o’ her this month, we gotta see her again now?”

Inger frowned fiercely upon her giant of a son.  “Your generous spirit suffers of late, child.”

“Yeah.”  He sighed, hanging his head to acknowledge that truth.  “I reckon so.”

In fact, Hoss knew so.  He had known it already, even without this new affirmation.  His mood had been foul for weeks, in fact, an unusual occurrence for the good-natured man and doubly so during the festive season.  Hoss placed a good part of that upon the woman yet hidden by the Christmas tree—Caroline Reinhold.  Of course, she could not take the entire credit, but the thought of even another minute spent in a room with the woman was enough to drag the usually amiable features of Ben Cartwright’s middle son into a decided scowl.

If only he had never agreed to help out with the Virginia City Christmas Charity …

“Yes, but … but how long do you expect to be?”

“I don’t know!”  Gerard Reinhold’s response was testy, and muffled in some fashion.  Inger tugged upon Hoss’s hand and he followed her reluctantly around the tree.  The man stood beside the outer door, wrapping himself in coat and scarf.  “I expect to be home when I’m ready.”

“But …”  His wife cast an anxious glance toward the tree—no, the stairs beyond.  Caroline Reinhold was a handsome woman, no question.  Tall, stately, and dark haired, with stunning green eyes, she was indeed a site to behold.  Her features were clouded, however, and Hoss (even hard-hearted as he had been feeling toward the woman) could not help a touch of concern.  “Gerard, the children—”

“Can be patient until I’m back.”

“That’s hardly fair!  It’s Christmas morning.  They’ll want to open their gifts.”

“They can wait a while.  It isn’t as if they don’t have other things to keep them occupied.”

The door slammed against any further protest.  Caroline Reinhold stood quite still for a moment, staring at the white-painted wood mere inches from the tip of her delicate nose.  Then she took a long, quavering breath and moved away.  Hoss looked to his mother.

“How does a man speak ta his wife that way, and on Christmas?  And those kids o’ his …”

Inger’s eyes, as they looked upon him, were dark with affection.  “Many men do.  You know this.”

“Ain’t real men, not ta treat their family like that.”

His mother squeezed his hand gently, and the scene shifted.  A boy of about ten chased a younger girl round the tree, snatching at an embroidery hoop and sampler she kept clasped tightly to her.

“Mama!”

The girl’s shrieking—for this was no game, but a true sibling squabble—was finally rewarded, as Caroline hurried in from the next room.

“Gerry!” she scolded, catching her son’s arm.  “You leave her be!  I know your papa’s late, but—”

“Let go!”

Young Gerry jerked away.  His sister, having paused her flight with their mother’s arrival, had unfortunately stopped near enough that the boy was able to at last snatch her sewing from her hands.

Mama!

“Gerry!”  Caroline reached for the embroidery, but he pulled it away.  “Gerard Reinhold Junior, give your sister’s sewing back immediately!”  The boy glared, and Hoss was startled to see real, deep-seated resentment in those young eyes.  From any child that manner of feeling would be troubling, but directed from a boy toward his mother …

For a moment he thought Gerry would not comply, then the boy thrust the crumpled sampler toward his little sister, who snatched it and scurried to the sofa.  Caroline touched her son’s shoulder gently, but he pulled away.

“Gerry, be patient.  Your papa—”

“I’m gonna tell him you yelled at me.”

“Son …”  She reached out again, stopping short this time of actually touching him.

“Papa don’t like it when you yell at me!” the boy flung at her.  “He says I ain’t gotta answer ta no woman, and I’m gonna tell him you done it!”

“Gerry …”

The boy dodged her outstretched hand, darted around the tree, and pounded up the stairs.  Caroline stood staring after him, hand and lips trembling.  On the settee, her young daughter clutched her stitching silently, a tear tracking down one cheek and lower lip quivering.

“Mama, he … that ain’t right!”  Hoss was nearly too appalled for speech.  “No boy oughta—”

“He is a troubled child, my son, from a troubled home.”  Inger’s previously cheerful tone was weary.  Her hand pressed his.  “Not all men treat women—seewomen—as your father does.  You and your brothers have had the best of examples.  Be so grateful.”

The scene shifted again.  Caroline and Gerard Reinhold stood together beside the Christmas tree.  The house was still and quiet, the window dark.  Festive paper lay strewn beneath the tree and around the room, mute testament to the wealth of gifts which had graced the Reinhold home.  The fire burned low in the grate, reflecting dimly against her hair and the fob of his watch.

“I told you to wait, Caroline.”

She took a long breath.  “Gerard, supper was finished.  The day was nearly done.  And they had only opened a few when you—”

He seized her arm and pulled it around, eliciting a sharp cry from his wife.  “I told you to wait.”

“Dadburn it,” Hoss muttered, and started forward—having utterly forgotten that he and his mother were but spectators in the Reinhold home.  Inger tugged him back.

“We can do nothing, child.”

“But Mama …”

“They cannot see or hear us, Eric.  We can do nothing.”

It was almost more than Hoss could bear.  “He ain’t got no right, Mama!”

His mother’s work-hardened fingers gripped his own.

“Gerard!  They were so patient all day, I couldn’t keep them waiting any longer.  Surely your business could have waited until—”

Her husband squeezed her wrist, and Caroline broke off with a gasp.  Hoss could barely see past his fury.

“I told you to wait.”  Gerard’s voice dropped, its very softness adding an edge.  Caroline took a long breath and then nodded, her eyes seeking the floor.

“I am sorry, Gerard.”

He nodded, releasing her.  “Clean this up before you come to bed.”  The man turned then and climbed the stairs, sparing not a backward glance for his wife.  Caroline stood for a moment, rubbing at her injured wrist, then moved soundlessly to gather the discarded Christmas wrappings.

“Mama!”  Hoss turned toward her, finding Inger’s usually sunny countenance somber.  “Is this why … why she’s always tryin’ ta run everything?  Ta make ever’body do everything the way she wants it?  Cause she ain’t got no say in …”

He did not finish the thought.  In truth, he found that he could not.  It would have been too like prying into Caroline Reinhold’s personal sufferings.  Hoss could not take his eyes from her, however—the woman who had made his time with the Virginia City Christmas Charity a nightmare lived, it seemed, a nightmare of her own.  His mother’s hand tightened upon his and the Reinhold home melted from around them.  He found it difficult to focus upon the next scene, and only Inger’s gentle urging drew his attention to their new destination.

It was a little dark room, bare of Christmas cheer and lit only by the glow of a banked fire.  Hoss recognized the place—it was the front room of the Box C ranch house.  Jim Cobbin’s spread.  It seemed, then, that his time with his mother was to be spent touring the other Charity committee members’ Christmases.  Ben Cartwright’s middle son bit back a groan.  There was nothing he desired less … but Hoss was a practical man, and an honest one.  He had surely, he admitted, been in need of those last visions.  No doubt he would also find more than he had expected within the Cobbin home.

Or less.

The Box C was no large ranch, not like the Ponderosa.  It had always been prosperous one, however, and well-tended.  This was one reason (of several) Hoss regretted that Jim Cobbin had taken hard to the bottle after the death of his wife that previous spring.  The man had so much to lose.

The summer had been a busy one, and none of the Cartwrights had seen much of the little rancher during those months.  There had been snatches of rumor, of course.  Stories, though Hoss had paid those little mind.  Virginia City was a veritable breeding ground for gossip, and only a fool believed even half of what he heard there.  It was not until Hoss had agreed to join the Charity committee and found himself sitting across from a Jim Cobbin he’d never known—one who reeked of whiskey and stale, hand-rolled cigars—that he truly realized how bad things had become for the man.

The committee had allowed Cobbin back because he and his wife were founding members, and because Caroline Reinhold and Doris Parker had decided he surely couldn’t do any harm.  Hoss assumed (somewhat accurately) that both ladies were more interested in having a couple of strong backs on hand than any real input from the male committee members.  As the weeks before Christmas passed, however, it became sadly obvious that Jim Cobbin was no longer even that.  The rancher could barely keep himself upright many days.  Toting furniture and heavy boxes was beyond his reach, and no amount of encouragement or scolding or camaraderie from Hoss could induce Cobbin to put aside his bottle for even the mornings of their collections and deliveries.  Burdened by the bulk of the heavy lifting and frustrated with his inability to get through to the other man, Hoss had finally thrown up his hands in surrender—much as it went against his grain to do so.

He had a charity to aid.

Now, standing within Jim Cobbin’s front room on this Christmas day, Hoss was startled by its bleakness—the stark walls, the bare mantel, the empty chairs.  Empty all but one.  Jim Cobbin slumped within a tattered leather monstrosity before the hearth, whiskey bottle in one hand and framed portrait in the other.  Hoss did not need to cross behind the man to know that Cobbin’s wife smiled upon him from beneath that glass.

He shifted, glaring through an unwashed window at the grey world beyond.  “Why ain’t John or Carol out here with him?  It ain’t right ta leave a person’s pa alone on Christmas.”

Inger’s blue eyes were soft with compassion.  “His children have their own families.  You know them.  Both his daughter and son are much involved with the town celebrations, and with their spouse’s people.  Neither wish to bring their children on a long, cold drive to spend Christmas in such a small, cheerless place.”

Hoss growled his impatience with such negligence.  “It wouldn’t be so cheerless if somebody’d get out here and make it that way!”  His mouth tightened.  “Jim’s their pa!  He’s their pa, and he’s missin’ their mama!  It’s their business ta see he ain’t out here alone on Christmas—or any other day, fer that matter—drinkin’ hisself into an early grave!”  Loving soul that he was, Hoss could not fathom the thought of leaving his own father to the dubious mercies of a whiskey bottle in similar straights.  They had all so badly needed each other in the months following Marie’s death—they had all so desperately depended upon each other.  “Don’t they … well, they gotta be missin’ her too.  Don’t they …”  He broke off, unable to choose just one among his many indignant queries.

“Not all cope with grief in the same way, my son.  You know this.”  He did, but right now Hoss didn’t want to hear it.  Inger rubbed gently upon his arm.  “For his daughter to come to this place without her mother would surely bring a pain she does not wish to face.  His son … his boy has long given over loyalty to his wife, who does not wish her children involved with a drunkard.”

“But maybe he wouldn’t be, if they just—”

“So many ‘maybes’.  ‘What if’ can never be—only what is.”

“But …”  Hoss pinched at the bridge of his nose, struggling to calm himself.  “But why don’t his daughter bring him to their house then, if she don’t wanna come here?  It ain’t that much of a drive …”

“My son.”  His mother eyes were understanding, yet helpless.  “I cannot—”

“I know, Mama.”  Hoss halted his questions, venting his frustration with a mighty sigh.  “I know.  You can’t tell me all them things.”  His lifted brow asked for confirmation, and Inger agreed with a tiny shake of her head.  “And I know John and Carol are hurtin’ too, and people’s families ain’t always what they ought to be for each other.  I seen it, ain’t I?  I run across enough of ‘em in my time.”  He eyed little Jim Cobbin, the sorry crumpled form sliding farther down with each drink.  “And I guess I just … I wish I’d …”

Many were his wishes, but none aided this lonely man in his barren home.  Hoss squeezed his mother’s fingers instead, and Inger took his large hand between both of hers.  “Your heart is so big, my son.  So big.  You have such love for the poor and the outcast.”  Her lips tipped into a gentle smile.  “Only remember, perhaps, that the poor and outcast do not always wear such a face.”

Her son nodded, taking these words to heart.  “Yeah.  Yeah, I guess not.”  Without removing his eyes from the unfortunate man before him, Hoss asked, “We gonna go see Doris next?”

Ja, we are.”

“Well then, let’s get at it.  I guess we … we ain’t got all night.”

“No.”  A shadow flitted briefly across Inger’s countenance, gone so quickly that Hoss was uncertain it had ever truly been there.  “We do not.”

The next scene to greet them was that of a cozy kitchen at dawn, warmed by a cheerful blaze and filled with the scent of coffee and cinnamon.  Doris Parker’s youngest daughter bustled about, stirring a pan of bubbling oats and removing fresh buns from the oven and pouring a rich brown brew into the waiting cups.  Her elder brother appeared in the doorway even as she finished, carrying an armful of wood for the bin, while another woman—the brother’s wife, Hoss thought—ushered in two small children and sat them around the table, moving with a spring in her step which belied her obvious condition.  Not that Hoss had been unaware of this coming addition—Doris had spent a great deal of their time together speaking of her family, and particularly this new bundle of blessing.  A boy, the Parkers’ youngest, stuck his head through the doorway, interrupting the general clamor.

“Ma’s comin’!”

This news occasioned a hasty shedding of the eldest brother’s outer coat, giggling from the children, and a quick check of the breakfast offerings by the daughter.  The younger brother scrambled for his seat, nearly knocking it upon its side and sending up a fresh round of merriment from his nephews, and had barely settled before Tom and Doris Parker appeared.

Hoss was unprepared for their arrival—for the slow and faltering steps of this woman who had shown such an ability to be everywhere at once (including places he wished most fervently she was not) over the past weeks.  Doris’s grip upon her husband was tight, and for himself, Tom Parker took obvious care not to move too quickly or make sudden changes of direction.  He settled his wife in the chair at the head of the table, over her protests.

“Tom, this is your seat.”

“The kitchen is your domain, my dear.  I would not presume to sit at the head of this table.”

Doris fluttered a hand, and Hoss saw that she was breathing heavily despite the slow pace and short distance they had come.  “Oh, silly man.  Very well, then.”  Smiling, she looked along the scrubbed tabletop at the gathered faces.  “Shall I stay here in your grandpa’s chair then, children?”

They giggled, though the younger of the little ones responded in some confusion.  “Grandpa’s chair is out by the tree, Grandma.”

This innocent misunderstanding produced another round of merriment and general chatter, which Hoss noted that Doris did not join.  Rather, she sat silent amid the cheerful chaos, looking upon them all with such love and heartache that he understood on the instant.

His tender heart fell within his breast.  Looking down upon his companion, Hoss asked, “Mama, what’s … I don’t understand.  She wasn’t like this when …”

Inger tightened her grip, but had no words to offer.  None were needed, for Tom Parker stood, holding his coffee cup aloft, and the buzz of conversation trailed away.

“Here we are this Christmas morn, together as we should be.”  Little cheers from the family greeted this proclamation, and though he nodded acknowledgement, he continued without pause.  “We gather in the kitchen this morning at the request of your mother and grandmother, who remembers a tradition of Christmas mornings in the kitchen from her own childhood and insists that it will be festive, rather than simply crowded.”  Her sons chuckled, and Doris thumped her husband lightly upon the leg.  Tom lifted his cup high.  “Yet wherever we celebrate, no matter how crowded” [‘or hot,’ their younger boy grumbled, scooting his chair away from the woodstove] “will be Christmas for us, because we’re together and Christ has come.  Raise your cups to Christmas, all.”

Mugs (cups of milk for the children) lifted in the air, and all drank with the gusto of those who have not yet had their first morning sip of coffee.  Tom looked upon his wife as he settled back in his chair, and Hoss saw the truth reflected in her husband’s eyes as well.  The family bowed their heads over the meal, and as Doris began to offer the blessing his mother’s hand tightened and the scene shifted.

The time was later, and the family had moved out to the main room.  A fire blazed, a small tree sparkled nearby, and paper lay strewn beneath chairs and feet.  The children were scurrying about, showing off and playing with their new gifts, and the adults drank coffee and brandy while discussing politics and whittling and Christmases past.  Doris moved busily among them all.  She was steadier now, her step lighter as she bustled here and there to examine a toy, sniff her daughter’s new satchet, exclaim over a handsome red shawl made by her daughter-in-law and inquire after the stitching.  She was everywhere and into everything, so much more like the woman Hoss had known—had bemoaned, in truth—these past weeks that he relaxed, even knowing nothing had changed.

Inger, standing arm in arm with her son, surely felt it.  She bent her head close, though the family could not hear their words.  “With so little time left, everything becomes precious.  Every laugh, every experience, every chance to make a memory—not for herself alone, but for her loved ones as well.  She wishes to live as much as she may, and she wishes them to remember her for who she truly is—not what she will be at the end.”

“Yeah, I …”  Hoss felt tears rise and he struggled to hold them, although there was no one but his mother to see.  It made sense now, so much more sense.  All the underfoot he’d put up with from Doris over these past weeks—the times he’d had to shoo her away while he moved furniture, the times he’d gone to gather donations from his assigned list and found Doris had been there already, the times she’d kept them all at the meetings far past their allotted time with her aimless chatter and stories.  “Yeah.  She was gettin’ her livin’ in,” he murmured, and Inger leaned her head against his broad shoulder.

The scene shifted again.  Tom and Doris stood in the doorway, watching as their eldest disappeared with his family down the walk and into the night.  Behind them, their two remaining children set about to tidy the room.  When Doris moved to help, however, they laughed and sent her away.

“We’ll be done in no time, Mama.  Sit down.”  Her daughter’s eyes were concerned even through the cheer.  “It’s been a long day.”

“It has at that,” she sighed.  Doris started toward the settee, but her husband caught her, pulling her with him to his own chair before the fire and down into his lap.  Their daughter, passing, dropped a knitted afghan upon them, and Doris laid her head upon her husband’s shoulder as he draped it over them.  There they sat, silent, gazing into the fire.  After a time the tidying was done, and without discussion both children disappeared from the room.  Doris’s hand reached up to cradle Tom’s face, and a single tear tracked down his cheek.  Hoss turned abruptly away.

“I can’t watch this, Mama.  It ain’t … it ain’t mine ta watch.”

Inger smiled tenderly upon him, and took both of his hands in her own.  “You see now, my son.”  It was not a question, nor was one necessary.  Ben Cartwright’s middle son was the most empathetic of men—he could not help but see.

“I … I guess ya never know, do ya Mama?  What people have got inside ‘em, what makes ‘em do the things they do?  I mean, some people make it obvious, sure, but some of ‘em …”

“No,” Inger agreed.  Her eyes shone as they rested upon this large son of hers.  “And we never will know, not all.”

“I guess …”  The big man hung his head.  “I been thinkin’ all this time ‘bout all that charity work I been doin’, but I ain’t been actin’ very charitable, toward any of ‘em.”

She laughed softly.  “That, my son, is a trap into which we have all been known to fall.”

“Well, I been grumpier than an ol’ bear woke in the winter, and not just with them.”  Hoss shook his head, casting his mind upon the past days.  “I let it get ta me, and I been gettin’ ta ever’body else.”

His mother’s dimples flashed, and she reached to cup his cheek.  “You are not alone.  Your brothers have been adding their own portion, ja?

Ja.”  He chuckled wryly at that, covering her hand with his own.  “Poor Pa.  He don’t deserve any o’ what we been givin’ him lately.”

“Your father loves you all.”  Inger smiled.  “But I do think Ben would perhaps like it more if his fine sons could manage to provide him some peace.”  She patted him gently.  “It is the season.”

“It is,” Hoss agreed, and smiled shyly down upon her.  “I’ll remember, Mama.”

“I know you will, my son.”

He looked back to the Parkers.  “And I’ll remember … all the rest, too.”  Standing with his lovely messenger on Christmas day, Hoss’s heart swelled in gratitude for the message—a gentle reminder that pain and joy, love and heartache lived behind every door and in every heart, in his own city and beyond.  His charity could not be offered only to some.  “I’ll remember, and I’ll try.”  Hoss’s gap-toothed grin flashed then.  “Cain’t always promise I’ll be good at it, or do it right—but I’ll do my best.”

Tears filled Inger’s blue eyes, spilled upon her rosy cheeks.  “Your best is more than enough, Eric.”  She drew him down and pressed her kiss to one cheek, then the other.  “I am so proud.”

Hoss knew the moment for what it was, and that nothing would change it.  In an instant, he gathered his mother in his arms, lifted her, twirled her about as though such a tall woman were but a child.  Inger’s merry laughter filled the air, dancing about them, and his tears mingled with her own.  Hoss Cartwright planted a rough kiss upon his mother’s cheek and then set her down, releasing her hand.

In the great room, the grandfather clock struck three.

*****

Stave 4 The Last of the Spirits

“Merry Christmas, my son.”

Adam was convinced that time was indeed no longer moving at normal pace.  Barely was his third (no one was there to stop him, after all) gingersnap consumed when the clock struck three mournful chimes, and so like the tolling of a funeral bell was the sound that he shivered in spite of his firm disbelief in premonition.  The voice, light and nebulous as a memory, followed quickly upon it, however, and he had no time to ponder his unusual reaction to a sound he had been hearing for many years.

Slowly, he turned.

She stood near the dining table, looking upon him with such an affectionate joy that he would have known her for Elizabeth Stoddard Cartwright even had he not, from the miniature at his bedside, been familiar with her features.  Yet in the flesh (was she? His logic for once utterly failed him) she was so much more than the likeness which was all Adam knew.  Young she was—so young—and Ben Cartwright’s eldest son was struck for a moment by the absurd realization that his mother was in fact younger than he.  Her eyes were light, her hair was long and brown and hung loose about her shoulders, a dark splash against her red and ivory gown.  High cheekbones stretched in a wide smile.

A mischievous smile.  He had somehow … never thought of her as such.

Adam shook his head, aware suddenly of his stare.  “Mother.  I … ah, Merry Christmas, Mother.”

Elizabeth’s laughter was the playful giggle of a girl.  “Oh, my Adam.  So serious.”  Her mirth quieted, though her joy did not dim.  “So tall and strong, and so serious.”  For a moment they stood drinking each other in, Adam and this mother he had never known.  Then her smile flashed again, and her laughter rippled around him.  “Which is fine, my son, very fine … but do remember to look for an elephant in the clouds every now and again?”

Adam was uncertain what to make of this enjoinder, and she gave him no time to ponder.  Instead, Elizabeth held out her hand, eyes dancing.  “Come along, my Adam.”  He hesitated, rational mind stilling his hands and step where his brothers had not faltered.  Surely this was all a dream …  Yet if it was, what was the harm?  What did he fear?  As if his mother had heard this silent query she stretched forth her hand once more, urging him forward.  “Come, don’t be afraid.  What you will see this night is meant only for your good, and I will be with you.”  A longing entered her eyes.  “I do so wish to have this time with you, difficult though it may be.”

Difficult?  “What do you mean by that?”

“Come and see.”  When he yet hesitated, she sighed.  “Your mind is a wonderful thing, my Adam, but tonight of all nights, let your heart lead.”

“You sound like Little Joe,” Adam muttered, and slid his fingers into hers.  They were cool and slender and very real.  Elizabeth Cartwright’s laughter followed alongside as the great room melted away, to be replaced by another view of the same.  From this little-trodden corner behind the stairs, differences came quickly to his eye—new wear in the old red and white Indian blanket, a scratch across the flooring with which he was unfamiliar, the four (four?) small frames that graced his father’s desk.  Another shelf of books on the wall in the alcove.  A taller Christmas tree than they usually brought home, and holly hung about the room in a configuration he had never seen.

“Is that so terrible?” she asked.

For a moment, distracted as he was, Adam couldn’t remember the topic.  When he did, he only shook his head.  He’d had enough of his youngest brother lately as it was—he had little intention of spending this time with his mother talking about Joe.  Before he could inquire after the alterations in his home, however, Ben Cartwright himself appeared at the top of the stairs.  If the changes in the house had intrigued him, those in his Pa startled him.  Perhaps even unsettled him.  Ben was thinner, his hair whiter, the lines in his face deeper.  He was not old—but he was certainly older than Adam knew him.  Ben descended slowly, most of his attention taken up with a well-worn letter.  He crossed to his desk as he read and sank into his chair, eyes focused still upon the paper.  One hand fumbled as if by rote to grip the fourth, unknown frame.  After a long moment, Ben laid the letter upon his desk.  He picked up the picture, eyed it for a long moment, then replaced it with a sigh.

“Who—” Adam began, but fell silent when the door slammed open.  The newcomer was Hoss, running full out with arms wrapped about his head.

“Little Joe, you just watch yourself!  If you—”

The threat broke into a high-pitched yelp as a snowball sailed through the open doorway, hitting squarely the bare skin between Hoss’s hair and his collar.  Ben rose, frowning, as his youngest followed the missile into the room, clearly intent on perpetrating further mischief.  “Joseph!”

In that briefest of moments, Adam’s eyes froze upon his youngest brother.  Hoss had not seemed so different—he had gained weight, perhaps, but nothing too noticeable.  Joe, however …  Joe was indefinably, undeniably matured.  His body was lean and hard, the softness of youth gone from his face and carriage.  His hair was longer than Ben had ever allowed it, and shot through with gray.  Gray?  A glance assured him that his little brother was not yet so old as all that—he was, apparently, graying early.  Adam might have snickered at the thought of Joe’s dismay, but his feelings regarding his own receding hairline kept that unworthy impulse in check.

Despite all those signs of aging, however, Joe still apparently didn’t know when to quit—rather than halt his forward movement, he simply swerved and sent the next snowball in a new direction.

It hit Ben full on the chest, breaking apart and tumbling to land in melting pieces upon the floor and the desk and the letter.  Joe’s cackle bounced from the walls and the high ceiling even as he ducked behind Hoss, who had halted his flight to stare wide-eyed at the wet spot upon their father’s chest.  Eyes as green as ever peered from behind the broad back.  Ben stared after his youngest, jaw tight … but even so, Adam saw the hint of mirth in their father’s dark eyes.

“How does he do that?” Adam demanded as Ben retrieved the letter, shook it dry, and stepped from behind the desk.

“Do what, my dear?”  Elizabeth’s voice was tight with suppressed laughter.  He would, apparently, get no sympathetic ear from his companion.

This vaguely surprised him about her, though Adam could not say why.

“Joseph,” Ben Cartwright scowled.  The tone was gruff, but even so Adam knew that particular tilt of the brow.  Their father was not remotely put out by his youngest son’s antics.  “Perhaps next time you might consider—just consider, mind you—keeping the out of doors … well, out of doors.”

Joe and Hoss exchanged a twinkling glance, and then Joe laughed again.  Hoss’s loud guffaw joined him.  “Sure, Pa.  Next time.”  Ben shook his head and strolled toward the stairs, waiting until his back was turned before allowing any hint of amusement upon his features.

“That!” Adam threw exasperated hands into the air, nearly pulling away from his mother.  Elizabeth gripped his fingers, drawing him gently back to her.  “He gets away with the most ridiculous things!  Do you know what would have happened if I had thrown a snowball inside the house?”

Eyes settled upon him, an unsettling pale blue combination of amusement and solemnity.  “Would you have ever done that?”

“Of course not!”

“Did you ever wish to?”

Adam frowned, scrambling within himself for a reply.  What was the point—of either snow in the house, or of this question?  “Why would I want to drag snow inside?  It just makes things cold and wet, and then you have to clean it up again.”  Joe’s leisure activities had always been more rambunctious than Adam’s—a source of both irritation and bafflement to his eldest brother.  It was, quite frankly, a disparity which had long been a matter of contention between the two, for it seemed that whenever Adam most desired a few moments of peace, Joe was most likely to have other ideas entirely.

“It is not your way.”  His mother sighed, squeezing hand.  “As your ways are not his.”

The change in his brothers’ tones drew him back to their conversation, and Adam saw that the laughter had gone from them.

“I wish he’d send a new one.  It’s been almost five months.”

“Yeah.  But he won’t forget—he don’t never just forget completely.”

“Well, I wish he’d just remember a little more often, then.  Pa’s reread that last one so many times it’s about to come apart.  It’s Christmas, ain’t it?  You’d think that’d count for something.”

“Now Joe, that ain’t fair.  You know—”

“Yeah, I know.  He tries.  Well, seems like he could maybe try a little harder.”

The fragmented discussion was difficult to untangle without any manner of context.  Adam was distracted from even the attempt when Elizabeth’s hand tightened upon his own, drawing his attention back to her.

“It is his way,” she whispered, “just as solitude and contemplation are yours …”

The room fell from around them, and they stood upon a bleak, cold hilltop overlooking the expanse of Lake Tahoe below.  Adam knew the spot well, and he sought automatically for Marie Cartwright’s grave even as he took Elizabeth’s hand within both of his own.  The shock of finding not one but two markers upon the hill drew him forward, but his feet stilled after only a few steps.  Ben Cartwright stood between the graves, one hand resting upon each stone as though he might buckle without their solid bulk to support him.

“Who …”

His father was not speaking, was not doing anything.  He simply stood, bent as though beneath a great weight.  Feeling oddly frantic—a sensation which Ben Cartwright’s eldest had never been known to enjoy—Adam gripped his mother’s fingers, eyes raking the nearby scenery.  Immediately his gaze fell upon Joe.  His youngest brother stood some distance away, gazing not toward the graves but out across the expanse of blue Tahoe.  A slim young woman with dark hair and eyes leaned into him, tucked beneath his arm.  His curiosity piqued, even in the midst of that which he knew (without understanding how he knew) to be a terrible revelation, Adam drifted closer.  Elizabeth glided silently at his side, and he saw that for once, her merry eyes were somber.

“Who … died?”

At last he managed the words, but his mother only clasped his hand to her heart.  It was not a comforting response.  Reaching Joe and the woman at last, Adam cut a wide circle around.  He accepted that he and Elizabeth could not be seen—certainly no one had reacted in any way to their appearance upon the hillside.  Still, his mind insisted that some manner of caution was required, and Adam was finding it difficult to convince himself otherwise.

Such worries vanished upon sight of his brother’s face.

He had never seen Joe stand so very still, nor those lively eyes so very bleak.  Adam’s youngest brother had lived through his share of disappointment and tragedy—they all had done so—but never before had Adam seen Joe like this …

A terrible certainty welled within him, and Adam cast his gaze once more across the hillside.  Not finding what (who) he sought—that large, comforting presence—he turned upon his mother.

“Where’s Hoss?”  Elizabeth sighed, and his heart seized within him.  “Mother, who died?

Her grip upon him tightened.  “Adam …”

“And where am I in all of this?

No answer was forthcoming.  Rather, the world shifted yet again.  Another grassy field, though not the same one.  Another grave, marked by a white cross.  This time, Joe knelt beside the grave—collapsed, more truly—while Ben hovered in the background.

No dark haired, dark eyed woman.

Oh, Joe …

His father looked … old.  Terribly old.  Lined, and worn.

And Joe …

“He’s gone completely gray,” Adam murmured.  For whom he intended those words—his mother, himself, anyone at all—he could not say.  What Adam Cartwright did know was a sense of odd, dreadful vertigo as he peered upon the image of his youngest brother and found nothing familiar—nothing of humor or fire or even life within the man at his feet.  “Joe …”

There was, in fact, little within those dull green eyes but pain.

This time, Adam was able to make out the words upon the marker.  They leaped out at him—scorched into him—and he wished at once, desperately, for some way to un-see them.

Alice Cartwright and Unborn Child.

“Oh, Joe …”

Elizabeth’s hand tightened once more upon his.  The scene shifted.

He and his mother stood within a barn—their barn.  The familiar scents of hay and horses and leather offered a comforting normality after the chilled bleakness of the open, wind-swept gravesides.  Two men he didn’t know (new hands, he supposed) forked hay and poured water for Buck, Cochise, and a couple of unfamiliar horses.

No Sport, no Chubby.  The leaden weight in his gut grew.

“Joe was tellin’ me about the parties they used ta have at Christmas,” the younger of the two, a slight young man with red hair, was saying to the other.  “For the orphanage fund.  Half the town would come, and Hop Sing would cook for days, and they’d get a tree that went up almost to the ceiling. Bet that was somethin’ ta see.”  He grinned, patting Buck.  The buckskin (Buck had grown old) nuzzled at his pocket, and the redhead laughed.  “Sorry, boy.  Maybe Pa’ll bring you somethin’ tomorrow.”

Pa?  There was no time to wonder, though, and still follow the conversation.

“Yeah.”  The other, square-jawed with a wide (if enigmatic) smile, shook his head.  “I was here for the last few—they mighta had one more after I left, I think.  They were quite the shindigs.”

“A shame we don’t do it anymore.”

“Nobody’s up to it.  You know that.”

The younger man (still almost a boy, really) sighed.  “Yeah.  Ya know, I been real worried about Hop Sing, Candy.  He ain’t movin’ around so good—I think that knee’s givin’ him trouble again—but he won’t admit it or slow down.  He just keeps cookin’.”

The other (what kind of a name was Candy?) shrugged.  “It’s hard for a man to admit he’s gettin’ old, especially somebody like Hop Sing, who’s used ta bein’ always on the go.  Anyway, I’m thinking he’s just after the same thing we are—keep everybody’s minds occupied and on this Christmas.  You know how Mr. Cartwright and Joe both tend ta … drift back around this time of the year if there ain’t anything keeping them in the here and now.”

“Yeah …”  The red-haired man was still for a moment, stroking Buck’s dark mane, then blurted, “Do you think Adam’ll evercome back?”

The sound of his name from this stranger’s lips startled Adam … and the question, with its many implications, both confused and disturbed him.  He had never kept it any secret from his family that he often considered taking leave of the Ponderosa for a time, to stretch his wings and see the world.  It was expected, in fact, if not entirely anticipated by the remainder of the Cartwright men.  The intention was not, though—had never been—to go for good.

What he was hearing now suggested quite otherwise.

He could not accept that.

“Naw.”  Candy’s voice was solid, confident, and a wave of offense washed over Adam.  This cowhand didn’t even knowhim, how could the man make such claims?  “And Mr. Cartwright doesn’t expect him to, not really.  Joe definitely doesn’t.”

“But they put out a place for him at Christmas every year.”

“That’s more wishful thinking than anything else.  Jamie, no one’s even heard from him for at least five years, no one expects him to just walk through the—”

“Five years?”  Anger flared in his breast, and Adam turned upon his mother.  “No.  Whatever this is, whatever you’re trying to prove, I don’t believe it.  I’m not so cruel.  I wouldn’t just leave Pa wondering for all that time.  And I wouldn’t stay away, especially not with everything else going on.”  Her blue eyes were steady, revealing nothing.  He ground his teeth in frustration.  “They’re my—”

“Oh, my Adam.”  Elizabeth rested her head gently upon him, her voice a whisper.  “The world was all before them, where to choose their place of rest, and Providence their guide …”^

Adam recognized the words—of course he did, the book had been upon his shelf (as it were) since before his memory began—but he could not accept their meaning.  Not now, not for him.

“Mother …”

“How quickly our good intentions fade, when our dreams lie within reach.”

So … what?  I abandoned them?

No …  A bitter taste rose in his mouth, and the barn did a slow, drunken spin.  They drove him nearly insane much of the time, but they were his family.

“I don’t …”  Adam could barely form the words, or frame his protest in a way that made sense even to him.  “This hasn’t happened yet though, right?  So it doesn’t have to happen at all.”  His mother’s eyes merely rested upon him, light and silent.  Anger rose again, and determination.  “I have a choice!  Why would you be showing me this if I didn’t?  I don’t—”

“You two about done in here?”

It was Joe’s voice, but not entirely—not the voice Adam knew.  He looked around, and beheld his brother grinning in the barn doorway.  No, not grinning.  Joe was smiling, but it was a faint, distant sort of smile which matched his solemn eyes and carefully held posture.  Nothing remained of the reckless grin of old—Joe’s entire being was subdued.  Adam looked upon the worn and weary face, and suddenly, fiercely ached to see that Joseph Francis Cartwright who had always driven him to the brink of homicide more quickly than aught else in the world.

Elizabeth’s fingers tightened upon his, and the scene shifted.

They returned to the site of Marie Cartwright’s grave, and (unless he was entirely mistaken) Hoss Cartwright’s … and now another.  Drifts of snow heaped upon the frozen earth, yet Joe sank onto his knees without appearing either to notice or care.  The two men from the barn hovered nearby, exchanging anxious glances.  After a time, the red-haired man (he was a man now, though still quite young, and Adam wondered absently how long had passed) moved forward to place a hand upon Joe’s shoulder.  Adam’s brother remained utterly still, kneeling among the graves, and this time Adam was close enough to read the words …

Marie Cartwright

Eric “Hoss” Cartwright

Benjamin Cartwright

“No!”  Adam spun and strode away, fighting the grief and horror of the scene.  “I’m done!  I don’t want to see any more.”

“Why not?”  His mother’s voice was light and curious as ever.  “Do you believe that if you do not see, these things will not occur?  That is the way of a child, my son.”

Will they happen?” Adam demanded, rounding to face her—and careful to keep both his brother and the awful graves at his back.  “Is it certain?  Answer me that one question, Mother.  Are these … these visions set in stone?  Or can I change them?  Why show me this, if there’s no hope of that?”

Elizabeth’s head tilted, her eyes bored into his.  “You cannot control the world, my Adam.  Even your little piece of it, your family and home, is in so many ways beyond you.”

“I understand that, but—”

Do you understand?”  His mother’s fingers rose to touch his cheek, and though her words seemed harsh a great love shone forth from her eyes.  “Have you ever?”

“I … yes, of course.”  Adam looked away, startling them both with bitter laughter  “Of course I understand.  How could I not, Mother?”  The hurt within those words took him by surprise—long had he thought it safely buried.  Elizabeth drew him to her and laid a kiss upon his brow.

“And yet you so desperately try …”

“How can I not … ?”  Adam looked back then upon the image of his young brother—young no longer, pale and alone and bent beneath a weight of sorrow.  “I love them, even though I’m not always good at remembering it.  How can I see this, then, and not want the chance to change it?”  He seized her hands in both of his, peering down into her eyes.  “Even if I can’t do anything to change this but make sure Joe doesn’t face it all alone, that it doesn’t wear him down into …”  He drew their joined hands to his heart.  “Mother, how can I not beg for that chance?”

Elizabeth’s teeth flashed then, and her cheek dimpled.  “How, indeed?”  She laid her head upon their entwined hands, and Adam held his mother close.  “Oh, my Adam.  I am so proud of you.”  Her whisper was soft, barely reaching his ears, yet it pierced his mind and soul.  “There is always hope, my son.”

A single tear wet her hair.  “Thank you, Mother.”

She giggled then, her gaze moving past him.  “Oh Adam!”  She raised her head.  “That cloud looks like an elephant!”

Turning to follow Elizabeth’s glance, Adam Cartwright released his mother’s hand.

*****

Stave 5 The End of It

Bright morning woke them, sprawled upon their beds, and the sons of Ben Cartwright arose to Christmas day.  Sun glinted from snow new-fallen upon yard and barn, and the smell of coffee and cinnamon rose from the kitchen below.  They brushed sleep away, startled to find themselves thus when their last memories were of a beloved face in a distant place.  Remembering then, they rose upon the instant, piling into the hallway without stopping for robe or slippers, and stood blinking upon each other in the light of day.  The briefest of moments passed, in which each saw in his brothers’ eyes an echo of his own recent understanding, and it was as if a great weight rose from them, leaving a happy giddiness in its wake.

“Merry Christmas!” Hoss boomed, and Little Joe jumped upon his brother’s back while Hoss slung an arm about his elder brother’s shoulders.  Memories and lessons of the night still fresh, Adam welcomed the contact as he would not normally do.  Reaching across their middle brother, he stretched out a hand of reconciliation and peace to the youngest, to find Joe offering the same from his lofty perch.  They clasped hands then with a new vigor, each resolving within himself that although they would ever be opposites, still they would find some way to keep the bonds of brotherhood strong.

Thus did their father find them, drawn from his own restless sleep by the commotion outside his bedroom door.  Ben stared in wonder to find his sons so changed, and the brothers hailed their pa eagerly.  Little Joe abandoned his brothers to embrace him, and this example of the youngest was followed by Hoss and even Adam.  Ben received the affection gladly, and if his “Merry Christmas, boys,” held a hint of grateful tears, this reminder of their recent transgressions was no more than they felt they deserved.

They piled all down the stairs, to be met by Hop Sing with a tray of coffee.  Their dear friend, too, was much taken aback by the night’s work, but his countenance lifted and step lightened at the sound and sight of the joyous family.  “You sit!” he cried, “and I be back with cookies!”

“Cookies?”  Ben lifted a brow at his sons as they scattered about the room, pouring the coffee and passing it around in the fine red china which Marie Cartwright had loved.  “That’s not Hop Sing’s usual Christmas morning fare.”

“I find in kitchen this morning,” Hop Sing said, bustling back.  In his arms he held a large basket full to overflowing with deep brown cookies shaped as men and women and hearts.  “Very good, very fresh.  One of you put it there?”

Little Joe, not having been present for Inger’s visit, could not speak to the mystery.  His brothers had no desire to do so, nor any way to explain even if they did.  Instead, they exchanged an unseen glance before availing themselves of the spicy treat, and it was sweeter for its secret source.  Ben took up one of the little men and gazed upon it, eyes distant with memory.  “Hoss, your mother used to bake cookies like these … dozens of them for Christmas.”  He bit into it slowly, closing his eyes.  “I wonder where they came from?  Were there any guests out yesterday?”

No answer was, of course, forthcoming.  Hoss, biting the head off his third gingersnap, distracted their father from the puzzle.  “Pa, I was thinkin’.  What if I ride out later on and invite ol’ Jim Cobbin ta Christmas dinner?  ‘F I remember right, John and Carol are pretty busy with their families, and I don’t know but he won’t be out there alone all day.”

“Well, Hoss.”  Ben’s dark brow rose.  “That’s mighty thoughtful, and I’d be happy to have him.  It’s been a while since I’ve seen Jim.  But, I thought you and he were … not getting along?”

Hoss shook his head.  “Naw, that was no big deal.  And it’s Christmas, ain’t it?  Ain’t right for a man to be alone on Christmas.”

“Well then, you go right ahead and do that.”  Their father nodded.  “It’s a good idea, I wish I’d thought of it myself.  Hop Sing!” he called, and the little Cantonese appeared in the kitchen doorway.  “We may have one more for dinner.”

“One more,” grumbled their cook, throwing his hands into the air.  “One more, always adding one more.”  His mutterings were lighter than usual, however, and no threats of returning to China could be heard as Hop Sing shuffled back into his domain.

Adam, meanwhile, had risen and crossed to the large main door.  He studied it for a long moment, remembering him who had come to them through it upon the stroke of midnight, then opened it and gazed out upon a world white and fresh.

It was a new day—a new beginning, of sorts—and it was Christmas.

“Hey Joe!”  His youngest brother looked up, and Adam motioned him over.  Joe set down his coffee and cookie (his sixth, perhaps) and joined his elder brother at the door.  “Look at that.”  Adam motioned with his chin.  “That cloud looks like an elephant.”

Focused upon Little Joe, Adam missed the startled look his father cast his way.  He did not miss, however, the gap between nightshirt and neck as Joe offered a bemused smile and leaned out past him.  The snowball dropped neatly between.  The resulting shriek was enough to startle their father into spilling his coffee and draw a scolding Hop Sing once again from the kitchen.  For an instant Little Joe’s mouth gaped wide as he stared upon his brother, and then his cackle echoed from the walls.  Dropping his own pre-breakfast treats, Hoss dove across the room to join the impromptu war, narrowly missing snowballs from both Adam and Joe as he barreled past them seeking ammunition.

Ben Cartwright gazed upon his sons in baffled wonder, delighting in their laughter and reveling in their obvious, abundant joy.  What had become of those sullen men of the previous night he could not say, and he did not wish to dwell upon it.  Whatever had happened, whatever miracle had occurred, it had been an answer to his prayers.

“God bless us all,” he whispered, and his heart was full.

***The End***

*Part of the line is taken from Mr. Dickens’ work.

^Paradise Lost, Milton

 

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4 thoughts on “A Cartwright Christmas Carol (by PSW)

  1. This was great. I loved the humor. I see you have some Lord of the Rings, so I’m off to start them. sierra

    Like

  2. One of the best variations of Dicken’s Christmas Carol I have had the pleasure to read! Lot’s of tears and smiles. Amazing job! Thank you so much for writing this story.🐱

    Like

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