Summary: Christmas invitations extend beyond the borders of the Ponderosa.
Word Count: 2785
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth,
into Judea, to the city of David,which is called Bethlehem,
because he was of the house and lineage of David,
There were at least thirty-seven more reasonable ways to spend the dying hours of Christmas Eve than folding German stars. Sleeping ranked fairly high in that list, topped only by drinking heavy red wine and by sneaking into the kitchen to feast on left-over almond-and-honey cookies (yes, cookies, since late at night, all on his own in the kitchen, Adam found bizarre pleasure in calling Juliet’s biscuits plainly and simply cookies). At the far end of the list looking after the horses could be found and restocking the firewood—yet both of them still above folding paper stars.
And yet, Adam was folding stars. Well, one star so far. The clock had chimed one already, and he still was fiddling with his first star. When the clock rang, Juliet had suggested they all go to bed. “Only four more,” she’d said. “I can manage alone. There’s no need for you to stay up.”
But all they’d done was collectively raise their eyebrows and carry on as they had before: Pa humming as he cradled Henry, who’d fallen asleep after finishing his third star but woken up at every attempt to remove him from the great hall and refused to go to bed as long as therewas work to do; Hoss peeling oranges and cracking walnuts and arranging cook-, er, biscuits on a plate; Joe busying himself in the kitchen, concocting something he’d earlier labelled “a warmer,” and which Adam strongly suspected to turn out to be very strong punch; and Adam continuing to struggle with the star.
Juliet had smiled and given Adam that look, the one that spoke of gratitude and rewards to be given later, and then reached for another set of long, narrow paper strips.
She was good at this. It was a pleasure to watch her nimble fingers creating the elaborate stars, making it look so easy. So easy that at first they’d all tried their luck, following her precise, if not always patient, instructions. However, it turned out that for some her instructions were too precise (“Exactly like this, Joe. No, you can’t put in variations. Just fold it like this, then back and push through…no, not like that. The other way round. Look at my fingers. Like this, then back, and… How any sane person cannot understand…”), yet for others they weren’t precise enough (“No, I can’t tell you how many degrees, Adam. Oh well, then here you go: it’s a…45° angle. There. 45°. Then another 45° angle, just the other way round. Then…what would you call this? 90°? 180? Just fold it in half, good gracious. Yes, like that. Good. Now push it through the gap. All the way through, right, just like that. Very well. Now make a loop, see, like this, and push the end—pardon? No, I can’t tell you the angle of the loop. There’s no angle to it. It’s just a loop, for goodness sake.”)
Pa had been the first to give up, finding himself unable to even align the paper strips correctly, then Joe, who’d said all this reminded him of unhappy times in Miss Jones’s classroom and that he didn’t cherish to suffer those memories on Christmas Eve of all nights. Finally Hoss had been banned from even trying again, after he’d produced three crumbled paper lumps that resembled rag balls more than anything even remotely being connected to Christmas.
Of course, all this was his fault to begin with—Juliet had been quite adamant about that, earlier this evening, shortly after her well-planned First Christmas Eve in the New House had taken a rather unplanned detour—since Henry, as Juliet had put so eloquently, was of the house and lineage of Cartwright, and therefore incapable of not collecting strays.
Adam, naturally, had just as adamantly claimed he had nothing to do with it, and that Henry had just as much Heatherstone blood as Cartwright heritage in him. But secretly (and when being completely honest with himself) he had to admit he wasn’t entirely guiltless. And he knew exactly where he’d gone wrong, at which point he’d set the course for Henry to act the way he had.
Like so many things before, it had all started at Barnes’s Mercantile, two days ago. He and Henry had been sent to buy a few last supplies for the Christmas dinner—or, actually, to stay out of Juliet’s way, so they would not witness her nervous breakdown in face of having to host the whole family plus Paul Martin and Widow Hawkins all on her own for the very first time in her life.
Adam hadn’t minded, though, and Henry loved the shop anyway for there was always something interesting to see, books and toys, whittling knives and fishing tackle, and equipment a little boy of five couldn’t even fathom the use of and therefore all the more exciting to look at. And sweets, of course. Huge jars filled with brightly coloured candies. Heaven.
On the way to the store they had talked about the first Christmas in their new house and why Mama was a little thin-skinned at the moment, how she wanted to make everything perfect (as was her wont in almost everything). Why had she invited Dr. Paul then on top of everything, Henry had asked, and Mrs. Hawkins.
“Because they are alone,” Adam had said. “They don’t have anyone to go to at Christmas. And anyway, Mrs. Hawkins is almost like family, isn’t she? And Dr. Martin…well, in a way, he’s too.”
Henry had said nothing, just nodded and mulled it over. Adam should have noticed his lack of response and been cautious, but the horse had spooked then and he’d been too busy to keep the buckboard steady, and then forgotten about the conversation.
The memory came back at Barnes’s Mercantile, when, after Adam had asked Arthur Barnes for canned salmon and dried Herbes de Provence, and they’d exchanged some pleasantries about the weather, the conditions of Virginia City’s streets, and the stock market, Henry suddenly spoke up.
“Mr. Barnes, aren’t you alone on Christmas?”
“Well, yes, since my wife had died, and we never had any children…” Barnes looked from Henry to Adam, almost as if asking for help, and then harrumphed a few times.
“Can’t he come to us for Christmas, too, Papa? So he doesn’t have to be alone?”
Barnes did his best to try and look as if he hadn’t heard a thing or as if at least he were completely indifferent to the very idea, at the same time as unobtrusively as humanly possible slipping Henry a lime green candy. For a short moment Adam saw Inger in his mind, in that tiny store she’d owned when they’d first met her, giving him milk and cookies despite his father’s protests—and before his brain had composed the words, his ears heard his mouth say, “I was just thinking the same, Son. Mr. Barnes, if you aren’t occupied otherwise, my wife and I would be pleased to have you at ours for Christmas.”
Arthur Barnes, clearly taken by surprise, just stuttered, “Why, yes, I’d love to…” and that was about it.
Briefly, Adam wondered how he’d be able to sell this to Juliet, but he had a lot of faith in her hospitality and her heart for the unfortunate, and he knew she would understand.
Henry beamed in a way reminiscent of his mother when she’d got through with one of her more eccentric ideas. It made Adam ask himself if he’d just been duped, but Henry’s smile was guileless. Still, to prevent his son from getting too warmed up to this collecting of lonesome souls (Abigail Myers, née Jones, was just about to enter the mercantile), Adam sent Henry to look after the coach horse that was hitched up almost right in front of the shop, while he’d complete some more “grownup business”.
As Adam emerged from the store not much later, laden with goods and thoughts, Henry still looked pleased with himself and the world, a little thoughtful, perhaps, but all in all happy, which in no small amount could be attributed to the candy cane, courtesy of Mr. Barnes on Henry’s exit from the shop, on which he was munching.
Back at the ranch, Juliet was surprised about the newest addition to the Christmas party, but also pleased with her son’s mindfulness and magnanimity.
She was just as surprised when on Christmas Eve not only Mr, Barnes turned up at her front door, but also the well-known drunkard Billy-Bob Coulston, face and hands scrubbed up, but still the same old vagrant, claiming “the young feller” had invited him.
Juliet had just recovered her countenance and warmly welcomed Colston when the man drawled, “Yer son said I can bring a friend, too. Couldn’t thinka who, so I brought’em all. Hope ya don’ mind…”
Billy-Bob Colston apparently had a lot of friends, all former miners like him, all homeless now. Twelve they were, twelve scruffy men sporting grins ranging from shy to downright sly. They all had cleaned up as well as possible, and, thank the Lord, they all appeared sober.
Never had Adam admired and envied Juliet more for her upbringing, for the way she held herself, how she radiated composure and imperturbability, stiff upper lip and all that. Except for a tiny twitching of her right eyebrow—that only he detected because he knew what to look for—her face remained calm and collected, and her smile was convincing as she greeted the unexpected visitors and asked them into the great hall.
Henry, on the other hand, looked slightly panicked and very guilty. A short interrogation in the kitchen made him confess it all: while he had been outside of Barnes’s Mercantile feeding the horse with oats, Billy-Bob Colston had approached Henry and asked him how his mother and uncle were. Henry, completely unaware of the very complicated history of the Cartwrights and Billy-Bob Colston and the man’s consequent feelings of guilt and loathing towards Juliet and Joe, had answered they were very well—and then been struck by the thought that Colston must be a very, very lonesome person, very, very much in need of a good Christian deed, and spontaneously invited him for Christmas. And yes, he’d told Mr. Colston he could bring a friend, for he’d thought the man might otherwise feel uncomfortable. He’d regretted it almost instantly, Henry said. That he might have been carried away a little but that he wasn’t so stupid not to know he wasn’t supposed to invite everyone and his brother. But Mr. Colston had looked so elated that Henry hadn’t been able to withdraw from the invitation.
“But why on earth didn’t you tell us?” Shaking his head, Adam pinched the bridge of his nose. “So that at least we could have been prepared?”
Henry looked down at his apparently very interesting socked feet. “I don’t rightly know…”
A lie, if Adam knew his son at all. “Henry…”
The boy looked up, his dark eyes defiant, his chin decisively set—oh Lord, the Heatherstone-chin—and spoke loud and clear, “I thought you might make me uninvite him, and I didn’t wanta break my word.”
“Well, sometimes circumstances—”
“And I didn’t wanta hurt Mr. Colston.”
And that was it. He was beaten. There was nothing he could in good conscience say again that—just, “You could have told me all that, Henry. You should know you can.”
Dark eyes went back to look down at the woollen socks. Then there was an almost inaudible mumbling, “Sorry, Papa. Don’t be…I don’t…”
He crouched down, pulled his boy to his chest, squeezed him, ruffled his hair. Whispered, “It’s all right, Son,” and meant it, suddenly a little ashamed of himself, wondering why parenting was so hard and how his own father had managed to make it look so easy.
They stayed like that for a short while, then went back to join the Christmas party in the great hall. Everyone had found a place to sit by then, had been poured a cup of tea or hot cocoa, and given a small plate with biscuits.
Accurately remembering the names with which Colston’s friends had introduced themselves to her, Juliet, in full lady-of-the-house mode, presented both the expected and the unexpected guests to each other; and after a brief moment of stunned silence things went the usual way things did on Christmas Eve: song were sung, stories were told, biscuits were eaten, hot beverages were drunk, jokes were made, dances were danced, poems were recited. Adam played the guitar, Juliet accompanied Mrs. Hawkins, who sang Christmas carols of old in a surprisingly well-tempered soprano, on the piano, and Henry charmed everyone with a little one-man-pantomime.
At suppertime, Mrs. Hawkins helped Juliet (or was it the other way round?) in the kitchen, and together, using up almost everything the pantry provided, they conjured a feast that fed and satisfied everyone.
There was a short hubbub when it was time to go to bed, as Billy-Bob Colston actually suggested he and his friends somehow make it back to Virginia City, and it took the combined forces of Adam, Hoss and Paul Martin to convince them otherwise. No one, Adam finally declared, would go home through that cold and darkness (which counted even more for people who didn’t even have a home, as Henry chimed in) and that they’d find a place to stay for all, in the guestrooms, in the bunkhouse, even in the barn if necessary.
Then, after the guests had eventually retired, and Juliet had taken a deep breath and announced to the remaining family, “And now, everyone, bed,” Henry clapped both hands at his mouth and burst out, “We don’t have presents for all!”
And so, after a short discussion in which, surprisingly, Juliet had sided with Henry, they had found themselves set around the dining table, trying their hand at folding German stars after the complicated pattern Juliet had learned from Margarethe Schurz, wife of Juliet’s German teacher Carl Schurz, whom she’d met in London many Christmases ago.
“Aaand…that’s it. The very last one—completed!” Juliet fixed a string on one point of the dark red star and added it to the collection already dangling from the knobs of a chest of drawers at her back.
Adam looked down at his own star and found that his hands had finally done what they’d been told and just made the loops, for goodness sake. He presented it to his family with more pride than he probably should feel, and soon his works hung next to the others.
Joe, who’d emerged from the kitchen sometime between the last and second to last star with not punch but hot cocoa, just as heavily laced with something strong, shoved a mug towards Adam and handed Juliet one, too, then saluted them with his own. “To the stars of Christmas!”
“To the star of Christmas,” Juliet answered, and it sounded not a bit admonishing, but rather, astonishingly enough, a little sermonising.
Hoss raised his mug, too. “Yah, and to a dadburned special Christmas Eve!”
Gently laughing, Pa added, “Oh yes, to a certainly very memorable one.”
“Hear, hear!” Adam couldn’t help saying, then he took a sip of his cocoa, enjoying the burning sensation of Joe’s concoction in his throat and the warm feeling it left deep inside, although it almost made him choke. When he’d recovered his breath he waved his mug towards Juliet, caught her eye as she looked up, and gave her his own brand of promise-of-gratitude-and-rewards-later look. And, gesturing at little Henry, who still lay sound asleep on his grandfather’s lap, he toasted, “And to our very own little star here!”
He leaned back in his chair, watched his family trying not to breathe fire after they tasted the cocoa, and felt…contentment. Folding stars, he determined there and then, ranked quite high on the list of reasonable things to do in the dying hours of Christmas Eve after all. Perhaps it did not outrank raiding the kitchen for biscuits, but it easily beat restocking firewood, and even sleeping.
He took another sip of Joe’s infernal brew, caught his breath, and then said gently, “It’s almost morning. Merry Christmas, everyone.”
And it was. Christmas. And merry, in a very quiet way. Just how he loved it most.