Summary: On a wintery Christmas Eve, five-year-old Little Joe learns the meaning of trust, brotherly love and forever.
Word Count: 2,877 words
By the time Ben Cartwright and his two youngest sons arrived home that day, the snowstorm that had crept up on them unawares was nearly a white-out.
As they’d left that Christmas Eve morning on a supply run to town, the sky had been a deep cerulean blue with hardly a cloud in the sky. They’d left Adam behind in the navy chair he’d made his own, buried deep in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; the book had been a gift from his father the Christmas before and it seemed like the perfect time to revisit the story. For his father and brothers it was a joy to sit in the buckboard riding over the previous day’s crisp snowfall; so deep in places it shone with a hint of icy blue. Hoss had attached a string of bells to the horses’ bridles, and as the tiny chimes tinkled in tune with the animals’ trot, the two boys were imbued with a sense of excitement and anticipation over the coming celebrations.
Five-year-old Joe sat between his father and older brother, Hoss, jiggling up and down in his seat with delight. Ben laughed and patted his knee, telling him to calm down or he would be exhausted by the morning and would sleep through Christmas Day itself. Joe’s eyes widened and he immediately flattened himself against the back of the seat for the last section of the journey. But on their arrival in Virginia City, Little Joe exploded from his seat like a miniature whirlwind. Ben could only laugh at his son’s pleasure as he shooed the pair towards the general store.
The sky had been growing ominously darker as Ben worked his way through the list of goods Hop Sing had given him. As he wandered over to the window display, his fingers carefully caressing a jeweled hatpin which Marie would have so loved, he noticed the thick grey clouds that were rolling in over the Sierras at a speed that made him blink with surprise. He quickly boxed up the last of his groceries, calling to Will to put them on his account, and sent his boys to the counter to pay for the small gifts they had come to purchase.
As Ben urged his animals into a speedy trot along the town’s busy streets to the open country, the first flecks of snow were beginning to drift past their faces and stick to their thick winter coats. The temperature was dropping but Little Joe didn’t notice. He was still in a state of excitement, clutching a small parcel in his woollen gloves. With the few coins his father had given him he had bought a wooden horse for his animal-loving middle brother, a large handkerchief for his father and a shiny silver button for Hop Sing. The cook was always telling Joe about good-luck tokens and Joe decided Hop Sing could carry the button in his apron pocket and that way would avoid burns, scalds and cuts in the kitchen. Joe hadn’t wanted to buy anything for Adam. He was still peeved his older brother had decided to go away to college—albeit not for another two years—but the announcement had come too soon after the loss of his mother only months before. It had taken a nudge and a frown from Hoss before Little Joe had relented and added a cloth bookmark to his pile of purchases.
Little Joe couldn’t wait to get home. Not only was he going to fill the socks hanging from the mantel above the fire with his gifts, but Hop Sing had also promised they would make gingerbread men that afternoon. It was his mother’s recipe and Joe felt this would make her a part of the Christmas festivities, even though she had gone to live with the angels in heaven. He had decided to make a range of animal-shaped cookies to represent all the creatures that lived on the Ponderosa; as well as gingerbread figures of his pa and ma, Hoss, Hop Sing and himself. He didn’t want to make one of Adam.
The storm caught them as they crossed over the boundary onto Ponderosa lands. Hoss and Joe snuggled in close to their father, heads bent low against the frozen wind. The backs of the horses were covered in a white sheet of snow, and if the boys had prized opened their wind-bitten eyes and been able to look down on themselves, they would have seen what looked like one large snowman and two snowboys huddled together on the wagon’s seat. Any landmarks were fast disappearing but luckily Ben could make out the track ahead of them. He could barely feel his fingers, despite his thick gloves, but thankfully it wouldn’t be too much longer before they reached the ranch house, and warmth.
Ben pulled into the yard. The front door immediately opened and there was Hop Sing, loping towards the buckboard with his familiar wide-stepped gait. Ben looked for Adam. “Where is that boy? Always with his head in a book.” He had ground his teeth in annoyance but quickly turned his attention to his youngest who hadn’t moved from where he was curled against his father’s coat. “Joseph? Little Joe?” There was a tiny murmur from under the folds of material. “Come on, son, let’s get you inside and warmed up.” He lifted the small boy still clutching his parcel and walked as rapidly as he could into the light and warmth of their home.
Hoss, being of a stouter and sturdier build, helped Hop Sing to unload the buckboard and then led the wet team of horses to the barn for some welcome oats and a hearty rub-down.
The main room was a sight to warm the coldest of hearts. An enormous tree stood to one side of the blazing fire bedecked in strings of popcorn, glittering baubles and candles. Garlands of pine were draped over the fireplace from which four socks hung, bulging in mysterious ways from the gifts stuffed inside. It was Little Joe’s favourite place in the whole of the Ponderosa at this time of year. His excitement was momentarily forgotten, however, as his father stood him in front of the fire and peeled the wet clothes from his skin, drying him with a blanket that had suddenly appeared courtesy of their Chinese cook.
In between vigorous rubs, Ben shouted for Adam. But it was not his eldest son that appeared but a flustered Hop Sing.
“Mr. Adam, he not here.”
Ben paused briefly before spinning Little Joe around on the spot and giving the backs of his legs a good wipe-down.
“What do you mean he’s not here?” Ben’s volume began to rise.
“What I say, he not here. We no cinnamon for Lil Joe’s gingerbread. Mr. Adam know Lil Joe want make gingerbread. He get on horse and go to town.”
Ben rose to his feet and took a few faltering steps towards the door. “When,” he swallowed back the saliva in his throat. “When did he go?”
“Not long after you go.”
Ben blinked. “We didn’t see him. He’s out in the storm. I need to…” He threw himself to the entrance. “I need to find him.” When he opened the door Ben was hit with an icy wind blowing thick white flakes into the room. All he could see was a swirling mass of snow; he could barely see the barn.
“Mr. Car’light, you no go out, you no see two feet in front of face.”
“Pa?” A small voice broke into Ben’s panic. He turned away from the squalling gusts of whiteness. Little Joe stood staring up at him; the blanket wrapped around his naked shoulders.
“Joe, move away from the door, you’ll catch your death…” Ben froze on the spot. His unconscious choice of words drove a nail into his heart.
“Pa, is Adam going to be alright?”
Ben quickly closed the door, shutting out the blizzard but not his fear. He paused for a moment with a white-knuckled grip on the door handle and with his back to his youngest boy, he composed his features. When he turned around, Ben wore a smile he did not feel. He swung Joe up into his arms.
“Of course he will. Let’s get you upstairs and into some dry clothes.”
“Is Adam gonna die?”
They had been halfway across the room and Ben was halted in his tracks. “What put that silly idea in your head? Of course Adam won’t die.”
“He went to get the cinnamon for me.” Joe’s voice was small and lost.
Ben felt two thin arms wrap around his neck and heard a soft sniffle. He pressed Joe’s skinny body against his own, patting the narrow back with his large hands. “Your brother will be fine. If he’s got any sense he’ll stay in town until it all blows over.” Why did Ben not believe his own assurances? “Nothing will happen to him, I promise.”
But how could he make such a promise? Adam was out in a sub-zero white-out. He could be wandering in circles, unable to see to put one foot in front of another. He could fall, injure himself and not have the strength to get up. He may be lying out there, freezing to death. No, Ben couldn’t say for sure Adam wouldn’t die. And it was all too soon. He’d not long lost Marie; how could he go on if he was to lose his oldest boy too?
Ben kissed Joe’s head and carried him up the stairs. “Trust me; your brother will burst through the door any time now. You’ll see.”
It was an afternoon when they should have been playing games and laughing, snacking on Hop Sing’s delectable food and singing songs together by the tree. But it was a subdued threesome who sat near each other in front of the fire.
Ben couldn’t keep still. Every other minute he was up and at the window, staring into the glaring whiteness; looking for any movement, any sign, that his son had come home. Hoss tried to teach Joe checkers but neither boy could concentrate. They had lost interest in the presents under the tree, and the tree itself was forgotten. All they could do was sit and stare at the flames dancing far too happily in the grate.
Ben sat heavily back in his chair and sank his head into his hands. He’d given up hiding his worry from his sons a long while ago. Adam was now hours overdue and the sky was growing darker as the sun began to slip behind the distant mountains.
There was a sound outside. Ben shot to his feet and ran to the window, his boys close behind him. Hoss heaved Little Joe up in his arms so the youngster could rest his feet on the bookcase and see out of the window as well. They strained their eyes but there was nothing, only the never-ending swirl of the snowstorm. With their heads down, they slowly returned to the fire, downcast and defeated.
But then the door burst open, slamming back against the wall with a crash. And there was Adam, engulfed in his shiny slicker, snowflakes covering his hat and shoulders.
“Hey Pa! Hey Hoss, Joe.”
Adam was confronted with three stunned faces. And then Ben was scrambling off his seat and pulling his startled eldest son into his arms, no matter he was getting wet from the drenched slicker. Hoss was punching his brother’s arm with a gap-toothed grin marching across his face. Adam pulled back from the unexpected welcome.
“What’s it all about?” His face was lit up with the joy of being home. “I know I’m a bit late.”
“A bit late!” Ben roared. “You had us all worried sick. For goodness sake, get those wet clothes off, you’re dripping water everywhere. Hop Sing!”
Adam obeyed his father with an amused grin on his face, handing his wet slicker, scarf and gloves to their factotum with a wink. He walked quickly to the fire, holding his hands out to warm his chilled fingers. “The storm hit whilst I was in Virginia City but I knew Bluey would get me home. Though, things got a bit hairy when I reached the Ponderosa so we sat it out in one of the line shacks for a few hours. There was a break in the storm about an hour ago so…here I am.”
Ben looked at his happy, smiling son with irritation. “This is no laughing matter, Adam. I thought you were… We thought you were…”
Adam looked at his father, and for the first time since he’d burst into the house he saw the concern that had etched itself onto his pa’s face. Then he saw Hoss who, although happy, was quiet. His face fell. “I’m sorry, Pa, I didn’t realise.” And then he saw his youngest brother. Joe hadn’t moved from where he’d stood after sliding off his seat at Adam’s grand entrance. He was squeezed between Adam’s blue chair and the Christmas tree, his head hanging low from his neck.
“Hey, Little Buddy.” Adam left the immediate warmth of the fire and dropped to his haunches in front of Joe. “Why so sad?”
“I thought you’d gone to be with Mama in heaven.” His face lowered even further so Adam couldn’t see the tears starting to shine in his eyes.
“What, and leave you here making trouble without me?”
“But you are going, aren’t you?” Little Joe flicked angry wet eyes at his brother. “You’re gonna leave us to go to college.”
Adam sighed and smiled. So this is why Joe had been so moody with him lately. “Joe, I’m not going anywhere for a couple of years, and in that time you’re gonna have to put up with me ordering you around and whipping your butt.”
The corner of Joe’s mouth tweaked.
“And I’ll come back, Joe, I promise you.”
Little Joe remembered what his father had promised him several hours before; that Adam would walk through the door, that he’d be fine and well. And his father’s promise had been a true one. Joe knew then that Adam—who was so like his pa—would also keep his word and would come home after his time at college. He reached forward and gave his older brother a quick hug before running over to do the same to his pa.
Adam rose to his feet and resumed his place in front of the fire. Hoss looked around at his family. His little brother was happy again and his father was no longer wearing a groove into the floor from all his pacing. But they were still too quiet.
“Hey, it’s Christmas Eve, and I wanna play some games. Let’s play forfeit.”
The mood suddenly lifted as the game was prepared. As Adam sat down in his chair he became aware of something crackling in his back pocket. He reached around and pulled out a small square of folded paper.
“Joe, I nearly forgot.” He waved the packet in his hand. “I got the cinnamon.”
Little Joe’s face lit up.
Adam grinned. “And you can’t make Marie’s gingerbread without cinnamon.”
Joe took the small packet, handling the precious substance with care. “Thanks, Adam,” he said, and turned away. He stood with his back to his sibling, staring down at the small wrapping of cinnamon that could have so nearly cost him his beloved older brother. And as Adam pulled forward to the edge of the chair to play Hoss’s game, Joe turned back and wrapped his arms tightly around his big brother. He ran off to the kitchen but stopped next to the dining table, remembering the game he had been about to play. Hoss sighed gently.
“Don’t worry about it, Punkin, I’ll let older brother here beat me at checkers.”
That evening, after dinner, Little Joe proudly carried a plate to the table. On it was a selection of gingerbread men. There was a large one; that was his pa. And a slightly smaller one had a pair of feet under a triangular dress. That was his mother. He had made one of Hop Sing but that was now nothing more than crumbs down the front of their cook’s shirt. A medium-sized cookie represented Hoss. The smallest one was Little Joe himself. And there, taking pride of place in the centre of the plate was Adam’s gingerbread man.
Joe was back to his boisterous self, and as he carried the plate of cookies to the table in front of the hearth—in preparation for an hour of games before his bedtime—he couldn’t help grinning wildly at his family. With great ceremony he handed each member their respective cookie. As Mama was no longer with them to receive her offering, he asked his pa to put her gingerbread figure on the mantelpiece to watch over them.
Joe’s young heart had learnt too early about the finality of death. But now, at least, he understood if someone went away, it didn’t have to be forever. And on the day his big brother returned from college, Joe knew there would be a gingerbread man waiting for him.