Summary: An Advent tale.
Word Count: 2701
Ben burst through the door, waving a telegram. Joe rose from the settee, exchanging a startled grin with Jamie. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen his pa run—and in the house, even. But Ben was moving like a man half his age, and his face was alive in a way Joe hadn’t seen in a very long time. That could only mean …
“Your brother is coming!” Ben tossed the telegram onto his desk, smiling widely. He crossed the great room to thump Jamie on the shoulder. “You’ll finally meet face to face. Excited?”
“Yeah, Pa.” Jamie shrugged, and grinned, and shuffled his feet. He either really was excited, or their pa’s overt enthusiasm tickled him. “Course.”
Joe sat back down. “When’s he getting in?”
“He’s tying up loose ends, says he should be here in about a month. Maybe by Christmas.” Ben started toward the kitchen, rubbing his hands together. “I need to let Hop Sing know …”
They watched him go. Joe chuckled, crossing his boots on the table and opening the newspaper. Jamie chuckled and returned to his math homework, chewing the end of his pencil.
Adam was coming home in a month.
“I don’t know if I’m ready.”
Jamie’s voice drifted through the barn door, slightly ajar, as Joe approached. He slowed, wondering if someone was in there with his little brother or if Jamie was talking things out with his horse. They had all been known to do it …
“Well, he’s comin’ whether you’re ready or not.”
Either that was Candy, or Cinnamon talked back in a way that Cochise never had.
“I am excited, don’t get me wrong. I just …”
“Spit it out, kid.”
“Well, what if he ain’t what I’m expectin’? What if he don’t like me? What if I don’t like him? What if he tries to boss me around?” Despite himself, Joe snorted softly. “I mean … it ain’t like letters are the same as really knowin’ somebody.”
Joe peered into the barn, eyes adjusting in time to see Candy settle on a downturned bucket and twist a wry grin at the youngest Cartwright.
“I think you probably know each other well enough to get started, and I also think he probably ain’t gonna be what you expect.” Jamie looked confused. Candy’s grin widened. “Just seems to me like most people ain’t what you expect when you finally meet ‘em face to face—there’s a lot more to a body than what can fit onto paper—but that don’t mean what’s in the letters ain’t true.”
Jamie screwed up his face, considering. Finally, he nodded. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” He offered a pale grin. “Still don’t know if I’m ready.”
“You know what, kid?” Candy leaned forward and thumped Jamie’s knee. “Don’t think I am either.”
That was … unexpected.
“How come?” Jamie cocked his head, looking as puzzled as Joe felt.
“Well, since the Cartwrights sucked me in,” (Jaime giggled, and Joe quirked a grin. It was, he supposed, true enough …) “I been almost a part of the family. Guess I just ain’t quite sure where this is gonna leave me.”
Jamie’s tone was distressed. “You ain’t thinkin’ about headin’ out, are you?”
Joe blinked. His little brother could make the craziest jumps …
At least, he hoped it was crazy.
“No!” Candy laughed. “Slow down, kid. I ain’t goin’ anywhere. All I’m sayin’ is, me and Joe and Hoss was all close, but Hoss is gone now and here comes another Cartwright who don’t know me as anything but the foreman. Just don’t know how that’s gonna work.”
Seemed like a good time to jump in.
“He knows you’re part of the family.” Joe pushed at the heavy door, stepping into the barn. Candy grinned a welcome. Jamie looked anywhere and everywhere else, obviously afraid that his reservations about Adam’s homecoming would not be taken well. “And if it helps any, I don’t know how it’s gonna work with me, either.” Joe cuffed the back of the boy’s head, then slung an arm around Jamie’s shoulders. (He wouldn’t be able to do that much longer, the kid was growing like a weed.) “Adam and I always spent a lot of time rubbin’ each other the wrong way. I’ve done a lot of growin’ up since he left—we’ve all been through a lot—and I’m sure Adam’s changed some too … but we are who we are.” Joe shrugged. “I’m happy my brother’s comin’ home, I’m lookin’ forward to it, but I just hope we can manage some better than we used to.”
For a moment none of them spoke. The heavy silence wrapped them like a quilt, warm and comfortable.
Finally, Jamie shrugged. “Pa’s so happy, it’s like he’s floatin’ instead of walkin’. Wish I could be more like him.”
“Well, that’s it then.” Joe ruffled the fuzzy red hair. “You start gettin’ jittery again, just stick close to Pa. He’s excited enough it’ll probably rub off—you won’t remember why you ever even thought to be nervous about ol’ Adam comin’ home.”
“Or stick to Hop Sing.” Candy’s teeth flashed. “He’s wrote up a list of chores a mile long, prob’ly keep you so busy you won’t have a chance ta—”
Jamie snorted. “I ain’t goin’ anywhere near Hop Sing ‘til after Christmas.”
“You take out of here and put somewhere else!”
Ben stared at the heavy wooden chest shoved into Adam’s doorway. Joe rubbed at the back of his neck, peering over his pa’s shoulder into the room. Jamie hovered cautiously behind them both, obviously still hoping to remain undetected. They had all been using the empty bedroom as a combination storage room and, well, dumping ground for years. He didn’t even remember who had shoved the first trunk or bag through that door to …
No, he did remember. It had been Hoss. “Adam ain’t here, is he? Anyways, I ain’t got nowhere else ta go with this.” The lamp, an atrocious thing that Clementine Hawkins had insisted Hoss take as a reward for helping her moving furniture one afternoon (“It was ‘Arry’s favorite, it was, but I never could care for it myself”), was visible in the rear corner over several trunks, an old saddle, and a box of … Well, that box had come with Jamie. Joe didn’t know what was in it.
“Hop Sing, where else am I supposed to put this?”
Joe could have told his pa that any protest (whining) would be in vain.
The little cook scowled. “That not my problem. None of this,” Hop Sing waved a hand at the stacks behind him, “stay here. Clutter fill up all space, no room left for number one son.”
“Now, Hop Sing.” Ben’s eyebrows dropped into a fair imitation of his usual stern frown. “This is not clutter. This trunk has my—”
“Not matter what in trunk. Good memory, bad memory. Half-finished wooden carvings.” Hop Sing lifted an eyebrow, and Ben flushed. Huh. Joe had wondered where that nativity set his pa had pretended to work on for all those years had ended up. “All good to keep, but not in Mr. Adam room.”
Ben’s jaw muscles worked, then he bent to seize the trunk without further protest.
Good choice, really.
“Here, Pa.” He reached for one end. “Let me—”
“Mr. Ben carry, not so heavy. Little Joe have his own things to move, and Mr. Hoss’s.”
“Hoss’s?” Joe yelped, turning a dismayed stare back into the jumbled depths. Big brother had, by Hoss’s own admission, taken first and best advantage of the unused space …
Hop Sing thrust Jamie’s box around Ben, waving the boy off toward his own room. “Boy help, after he take this away.”
“What?” Jamie’s yelp was better than Joe’s—it had the advantage of a leftover adolescent voice break to make it more pathetic.
Hop Sing was unmoved by such efforts. “You no want to help Little Joe, you help scrub dining room floor, then dust and sweep great room, and shovel out fireplace. Take pick.”
Jamie gaped. Joe hid a grin.
“Fine,” the boy grumbled, seizing his box and backing away. “But it ain’t none of it mine, I don’t know what to do with it.”
“You help. Family make mess, family clean. Love each other, help each other.” Joe exchanged a dark pout with his little brother. “Christmas almost here, and number one son come soon. No time for foolishness. Much to do.”
“Adam’s family, too,” Joe grumbled, edging into the room. “Won’t he want to help?”
Hop Sing did not deign to respond. “You come to me when done. Have much more on list—silver need polish, table need polish, windows need …”
Ben hefted his trunk and fled.
“And then we realized there was a squirrel nest in the tree.”
Against all odds, the cleaning and cooking and other preparations had helped. Unanswered questions remained, of course … but with Adam’s room cleared and aired, his bed made up, his furniture and closet standing ready, and Christmas itself just around the corner, a strong sense of anticipation had blotted out the bulk of Joe’s uncertainty.
They would figure things out, just like they always had. It was going to be good.
His brother was coming home.
“Ah, no!” Jamie snickered around the gingerbread head he had just crammed into his mouth. “Inside the house?”
Ben took a cookie from the tray. “Oh yes.” He traded a grin with Joe, who sprawled bootless and uncorrected across the blue chair and the low fireside table. Joe raised his cinnamon bun in salute, and swallowed a gulp of coffee.
There was nothing like a Christmas-time late night snack.
“Come on.” Candy was skeptical. “You’re sayin’ you got that whole tree decorated, and nobody saw a squirrel nest until the next morning and after the candles were lit?”
Joe chuckled. “That’s about how it happened, yeah.”
“I don’t believe that.”
Ben snorted. “I’m still not sure I do either. We got that tree home around noon, and as I look back on it, Adam was rather suspiciously quiet for the rest of the day—through all the decorating and Christmas eve meal and Bible reading, right up to bedtime.”
Jamie snorted a giggle, and flopped back against the settee.
Joe stared. “You never told me that.”
“Well.” Ben shrugged. “I couldn’t prove anything.” He shook his head, swirling his coffee in the dainty china cup. “That was the thing about raising Adam. I could never prove anything …”
Yeah. That sounded about right.
“What happened?” Jamie demanded. “How did you get the squirrel out?”
“There wasn’t a squirrel.”
“Aw.” Jamie’s disappointment was profound, and Joe almost spoiled the tale by laughing out loud.
“There were three.”
Even Candy sat up at that. He looked toward Joe. “Really? You had three squirrels in a lit tree?”
Joe grinned widely, remembering the chaos and utter destruction that had overtaken the Ponderosa that Christmas morning. “We did.”
“What did you do?” Jamie demanded.
“Well …” Ben shook his head. “Hoss was trying to catch them—I think he wanted them for pets. Hop Sing was after them with a broom, I was trying to keep our china in one piece and the house from burning down. Joe …” His frown failed to impress. “Joe had dragged his presents around the back of the tree and was busy opening them.”
Candy threw back his head and laughed.
“And Adam,” Ben finished, “just stayed curled up in that blue chair, reading his new book and ignoring all the rest of it.” He took a long sip of coffee, and another gingerbread man. “That boy could read through the second coming if no one made him look up.”
Joe’s cackle joined Candy’s laughter and Jamie’s giggle.
Hop Sing’s door crashed open.
“You be quiet!” An irate cook glared out at them. “How Hop Sing pretend in morning to not notice half his baking gone if family be so loud about it?”
Jamie clapped his hand over his mouth, to little effect. Joe and Candy didn’t even try. Ben offered an apologetic grin. “Sorry, Hop Sing. I was just telling Jamie and Candy about the squirrels.”
“Squirrels.” Hop Sing’s eyes narrowed. “Mr. Adam bad boy for not telling about squirrels sooner.” His door slammed shut again, against the fresh howls of laughter.
It was no little thing, Joe mused as he fell into bed later, that after all they had been through, his family could still know such moments of joy.
The house was cleaned within an inch of its life, and smelled daily of pine and baking and spices. The tree was up and decorated. (In the years since the squirrel incident, they had stopped waiting until Christmas eve to put up the tree—though the two had nothing to do with each other. Nothing.) Adam’s door stood open, revealing a fresh, neatly organized room. The stockings were hung from the mantelpiece. Presents were slowly beginning to appear beneath the tree.
They were ready for Christmas. They were ready for Adam’s arrival.
All that was left was the waiting.
Christmas, of course, would not be rushed. The calendar was set, and did not change for wishing. No one had heard from Adam since that first telegram, and so the exact time he might show up was a mystery. Still, both were very near—the coming of a beloved family member long missed, and that day which celebrated the ultimate Coming and awaited it again.
Any moment. Any moment …
Filled with these bright hopes, the dark winter days pressed on toward Christmas.
Pounding on his bedroom door jerked Joe from a sound sleep. He blinked muzzily toward the dark window, wondering what time it was and why anyone was awake. Christmas wasn’t a day for sleeping late, but this was a little ridiculous …
Voices began to filter in—Ben’s booming bass and Hop Sing’s excited chatter—and then his door cracked open. Light streamed in.
“Joe!” Jamie’s head appeared beside the lamp. “Adam’s here!”
What? Joe blinked again at the dark window.
“What time is it?”
“Early,” Jamie snorted, then disappeared back into the hall. Joe heard thudding footsteps on the stairs, and then a voice he hadn’t heard in … well, in years.
Adam was home.
What had big brother done? Ridden through the night?
Joe rolled out from under the covers and sat shivering for a minute, rubbing his face and getting his bearings. His pa’s voice drifted up again, and Adam’s, and then Jamie’s giggle—the goofy one Joe was so fond of, that one meant the boy felt content and safe and especially happy.
He was missing it.
Joe stumbled across the room and to the stairs. He stopped on the landing to peer down at the scene. Hop Sing had lit nearly every lamp in the great room and was busy stirring up the fire. In the entryway stood Ben and Jamie and his big brother—familiar and well-loved, yet … not exactly what Joe had been expecting.
It had been a long time.
Adam looked up and caught sight of him.
Seemed like it went both ways.
“Makes me look distinguished.”
Adam snorted. For a moment the two brothers stood silent, grinning widely at each other as the years fell away from between them. Finally, Adam jerked his head.
“Get down here, would you?”
Joe grinned, then laughed, and hurried down the stairs to join the celebration.