Summary: The Cartwrights wake on Christmas morning to find four mysterious gifts under their tree. But if they weren’t from Hop Sing, just who are they from? Christmas Day promises mystery, surprises and just a touch of magic.
Word Count: 3,934 words
It was a thump somewhere in the house that woke him, not the anticipation running through his veins. Little Joe Cartwright might be 18 years old, but he still got excited the night before Christmas. He had been dreaming an instantly forgotten dream, when a noise made him start, open his eyes and stare into the darkness. Without moving a muscle, he let his ears strain for further sounds, but all he could hear was silence. Joe was tempted to straighten his skewed blanket and sink his head back into the pillow, but a voice in the back of his head—which sounded distinctly like his father’s—made him throw back his blanket and swing his legs over the side of the bed.
He padded over to the window and pulled back the curtain. The yard and outbuildings glistened in the moonlight, glowing with that strange luminescence only a blanket of snow could produce in the night’s darkest hours. And all was quiet, all was still. Almost too still. Joe reached for his robe. It might look as though the land was sleeping, but he still needed to be certain. He tied the robe’s belt around his waist, tucked his feet into his slippers and left the lingering warmth of his room.
His older brother clearly had the same idea. Adam was pulling his bedroom door closed behind him, his normally immaculate hair mussed. He saw Joe and raised a finger to his lips, nodding towards the stairs.
“You heard it too, huh?” whispered Joe as they reached the living area.
“Uh-huh.” Adam grabbed his pistol from the sideboard. “Check the kitchen. I’ll take a look on the porch.”
The brothers went their separate ways and reconvened moments later in front of the banked fire which smouldered ember red in the shadowy room.
“Anything?” Adam let the gun hang loosely in his grip.
“I looked in the pantry, the kitchen garden, nothing.”
Adam yawned. “It was probably snow sliding off the roof. Let’s go back up.”
Joe followed Adam to the stairs but stopped next to the Christmas tree, studying it from the floor all the way to the angel stroking the ceiling with her halo. The scent of the pine was strong on the freshly cut tree, and baubles reflecting the soft firelight twinkled like stars.
“Hey, Adam, we outdid ourselves with this tree. Doesn’t it make you feel all Christmassy inside?”
“It looks great, Joe. It’ll look even better in the morning after I’ve had some more sleep.”
Adam began a weary tread up the stairs.
“Hey, Hoss must be home. There are more presents under the tree. Four little boxes.”
Adam halted. He looked in the direction of his room and sighed before turning back to Joe.
“Brother Hoss is definitely home. He got back from Placerville before I turned in.” He took a step up. “And even if I hadn’t seen him, I’d know he’s back as the wall between our rooms has been vibrating for the last few hours.” He shook his head. “Gotta sort out his snoring.”
Joe ignored Adam and dropped to his haunches at the base of the tree, fingering the four wooden boxes placed under the lowest boughs. “Ben, Joe, Adam. Hoss?” He frowned. “Why would Hoss buy a present for himself? His eyebrows snaked up his forehead. “Then again, Hoss has been known to do some pretty odd things on occasion.”
Adam leaned heavily on the bannister. “They’re not from Hoss. His are at the back, by the hearth, the ones in badly wrapped tissue paper.”
Joe sat back. “Oh, so who do you think—”
“Joe! It’s late, it’s cold and I’m tired. Quit the questions and go to bed.” He smirked and adopted the voice he would use when Joe was small. “Or Santa won’t bring you any presents for being a good boy.”
Joe was in too good a mood to take slight at Adam’s sarcasm. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” He stood, looked at the four boxes for a moment longer then, taking the stairs two at a time, raced past his brother, whispering, “See you in the morning, Adam,” as he went. He heard Adam’s door click shut as he was pulling his blankets up around his shoulders and sinking into his pillow.
Feeling even more excited than before, Joe wore a large smile as he closed his eyes.
Ah, Christmas, it really was the best time of year.
“Merry Christmas, everyone!”
Joe announced his presence from the stairs. His father and two brothers looked up from where they were already seated at the breakfast table. After Joe’s night-time excursion, he had fallen into a deep sleep which even his boundless enthusiasm for the coming day hadn’t kept him from.
“Merry Christmas, Pa! Merry Christmas, Adam!” His greetings were cheerfully returned. He threw himself into his seat. “Merry Christmas, Hoss. Good to see you home. That was quite a storm which kept you in Placerville.”
Hoss swallowed the bacon he had been chewing. “Sure was, Shortshanks. I swear I ain’t seen drifts that high since I was a little fella. I sure didn’t ‘spect to spend a week in a hotel.” He chased his eggs around the plate. “As soon as a stage made it through from Virginia City, I knew the passes were clear and it was safe ta come home.”
Hop Sing appeared at Joe’s shoulder and laid a plate of hot biscuits fresh from the oven on the table. “Merry Christmas, Lil Joe,” he beamed.
“Merry Christmas, Hop Sing.” Joe grabbed a biscuit. “And thanks for the present.”
Hop Sing’s wide smile faded into a puzzled frown. “Present?”
“Yeah, under the tree. The four boxes. There’s one for each of us, and they weren’t there last evening and they’re not from Hoss, so they must be from you.”
Hop Sing’s frown deepened. “Hop Sing no buy present. Mister Ben tell me no buy present, so I no buy present.” He looked from Joe to Ben—who nodded in agreement—and then shuffled back to the kitchen.
“Well if they’re not from Hop Sing, or anyone of us, who are they from?”
Ben rose from the table and walked to the tree to view the items for himself. “Perhaps they were delivered and Hop Sing hid them before putting them out last night.”
There was a distant shout from the kitchen. “Hop Sing not get delivery. No blame Hop Sing for strange present.”
Ben took a sharp breath. “I’m not blaming you, I…oh never mind.” He returned to the table and patted Joe’s shoulder. “We’ll find out soon enough who they are from.”
The table fell into companionable silence as food was scooped from plate to mouth and consumed with enthusiasm. Joe couldn’t help staring at the tree, however, and after a few minutes he lay down his fork.
“Can’t we open them now?”
Ben sat back. “You know the rules, Joseph. Church, dinner, gifts, in that order. It’s tradition.”
“Ah, Pa, can you wait until this evening to find out who they’re from?”
Ben glanced over at his two older sons. Adam sat hunched over his plate, slowly chewing, observing the exchange before him. As he met his father’s gaze he raised an eyebrow in a non-committal manner. Hoss was resting his wrists on the table, his knife and fork standing to attention, a grin on his face as he awaited his father’s response.
Joe leaned forward. “Go on, Pa, just the boxes.”
Ben looked at his three boys in turn. “Okay, just this once.” And before he had even finished his sentence, Joe had whooped, thrown down his napkin and ran to the tree, closely followed by Hoss and Adam.
The four presents were handed out. The men sat before the fire, turning the boxes around in their hands. Each one was about four-inch square, bound by a large golden ribbon tied into a bow. Engraved on the lid in elaborate golden lettering was the recipient’s name. Adam placed his on the palm of his hand and held it up in front of him.
“It’s a beautiful piece of work. It sparkles.”
He wasn’t wrong. The box twinkled in the light.
“Who’s going to go first?” Joe was bouncing up and down on the coffee table.
His brothers exchanged looks with their father. Ben raised his brows and asked in a serious tone. “Shall we draw straws?”
Ben laughed. “Go ahead, Joe, you open your one first.”
Joe took hold of each end of the bow and pulled, letting the ribbon gather in his lap. He then carefully removed the lid. Inside was a mass of screwed-up tissue paper which, like the box, twinkled in the light. Joe glanced up at his brothers, his face animated with excitement, and removed the top layer of paper. Beneath it was a small scroll of parchment. Joe lifted it out then upended the box letting the rest of the paper fall to the floor.
Hoss crinkled his nose. “Is that it? A scrap of paper?”
“Maybe the box was the present?” suggested Adam.
“Umm, maybe.” Joe placed the box on the table and unfurled the scroll. As his eyes skimmed over the words, his eyebrows rose slowly towards his hairline.
“Well, what’s it say?” said Hoss impatiently.
Joe sat up straight and held his arms out before him, as though reading out a proclamation in a town square. “It’s a poem, I think. It reads…” He cleared his throat.
“For Joseph Cartwright
The Spirit of the Ponderosa
Whose joy in life bestows joy on all.
You giveth of your hand, generous and true,
Compassion, regard and a heart faithful.
For you I bestow this gift.”
He looked up at the dumbfounded faces of his family.
“Someone thinks very highly of you, son,” said Ben. “And every word they’ve written is true.”
“Aw, Pa, come on, I’m just plain old Joe Cartwright.”
Ben rose from his chair and sat next to Joe on the table, his arm around his boy’s shoulders. “Every word is true.” A glance at Adam and Hoss saw them nodding in agreement. “You’re generous, you’re loyal, you’d give your last cent to help someone in need. Believe it, Joe.”
“And you’re always so darned happy,” murmured Adam, leaning back with one arm strewn across the back of the sofa. He met Joe’s eye and the twinkle told Joe his older brother may be jesting, but he was sincere in what he said. Joe grinned.
“So where’s the gift?”
Hoss’s question drew blank looks. Joe picked up the box. “Maybe this is the gift. I’ll keep my collection of love tokens in it.” There was an audible groan in the room. He laughed. “Anyway, Hoss, what’s in yours?”
Hoss opened his box. It, too, held a small scroll which was swiftly unrolled.
“For Eric ‘Hoss’ Cartwright
The Heart of the Ponderosa
Whose love for all beings transcends the boundaries of the earth.
“Aw, that’s nice.” He looked up, his nose crinkled. “What’s it mean?”
Adam slapped his brother’s leg. “It means you have a big heart, brother.”
Hoss’s cheeks bulged as he lowered his eyes and a shy smile lit his face. He returned to the scroll.
“For those in need, you gather in kind,
To heal, bequeath peace, to calm troubled mind.
For you I bestow this gift.”
He stared down at the words. “Well, I don’t rightly know what it all means, but I guess it’s sayin’ I like to help folks and stop ‘em from fightin’ and such.”
Ben leaned forward and squeezed his knee. “You’re a peace-maker, son, as the poem says.” His brow creased. “Just who are these boxes from?”
“It’s a mystery to me, Pa.” Joe turned to his older brother. “Hey, Adam, it’s your turn.”
Adam dug through the tissue paper for his scroll.
“For Adam Cartwright
The Scholar of the Ponderosa
Whose passion to learn helps shape the world.
With method you plan, with heart you solve,
Such noble beneficence a blessing to behold.
For you I bestow this gift.”
The normally articulate Adam was lost for words. His mouth opened and shut as he stumbled to respond to such high praise. “I don’t rightly know what to say.” He gazed around at his family. “I’ve never thought about what effect my education, or reading, or the things I’ve built, has had on the town, or here. I just like to do it.”
“I think it’s the same with all of us,” said Ben. “Hoss doesn’t think twice about helping someone in need, or bringing a stray home, or tending to a sick animal. And Joe gives his whole self without a second thought.” Ben gazed at each of his sons in turn. “Right now, I feel truly blessed.”
Joe smiled and gave his father’s shoulder a nudge. “You’ve not opened yours yet, Pa.”
The scroll was soon in Ben’s hands.
“For Benjamin Cartwright
The Backbone of the Ponderosa
Whose strength binds blood to home and land.
Proving to all what a father should be,
With care, with love, with honesty.
For you I bestow this gift.”
Ben read and re-read the words, his concentration fixed on the parchment. His boys were quiet and when he looked up, three pairs of eyes were watching him. Their expressions were open, smiles playing around their lips, and Hoss was nodding gently to himself.
“I, er…” Ben cleared his throat. “I…I think we’re going to be late for church unless we get a move on.” As he spoke, he was rolling the scroll up and placing it carefully back in the wooden box. He stood and waved his arms towards the stairs. “Go on, on the double.”
His sons exchanged glances as they headed towards the stairs. Joe, bringing up the rear, paused on the bottom step. He turned to see his father standing with his hands on his hips, gazing around the big room, nodding his head with pride. And Joe smiled softly as he turned and followed his brothers.
The front door burst open and four cold but boisterous Cartwrights burst through, talking nineteen to the dozen and stamping the snow from their boots. Joe and Adam headed straight for the fire, stripping off their gloves to hold their palms out to the welcome heat. Hop Sing bundled out of the kitchen, a bowl of carrots under one arm and stared with consternation at the trail of snow leading through the room. “Outside, outside, you take off boot! Hop Sing clean, mop floor all day, you walk dirty boot into house.”
Joe dropped to the hearth and started to pull off his wet footwear. “Sorry, Hop Sing, I didn’t think.” Adam followed suit, stripping off his coat and boots and carrying them over to the door.
“You no think. Hop Sing mop, clean, cook, make bath, change sheets. You no think!”
Ben stood inside the doorway, removing his offending attire, in too good a mood to be annoyed by Hop Sing’s outburst. “Calm down, Hop Sing, it’s Christmas. A time for peace and maybe some leniency, on today of all days.”
Hop Sing scowled and turned on his heel towards the kitchen, muttering in Cantonese under his breath. But after a few steps he came back to face Hoss. “Hop Sing nearly forget. When Mister Hoss come in late night, stay out of kitchen. You eat carrot. Only few carrot left for dinner.” He held out the bowl he was carrying, which looked pretty full to Hoss, but clearly Hop Sing was agitated by the apparent reduction in vegetables. “Uh, sorry, Hop Sing.” The little man nodded his head once and shuffled back to the kitchen.
Hoss looked puzzled. “I don’t remember eating any carrots last night.” He shrugged his shoulders and walked over to the fire, Hop Sing’s accusation soon forgotten as a contented look washed over his face. “Did you see, Joe, did you see Sarah Ann Granger, she gave me a kiss, jest here.” His fingers hovered over his cheek. “I didn’t think she even knew I was alive, but she came over to me after the service and said ‘Merry Christmas, Hoss’ and then kissed me.” He blushed. “Jest here.”
Joe lightly punched his brother’s shoulder. “You’ve been drooling over Sarah Ann for months. Wonder what suddenly made her change her mind.”
Adam sat back in his chair, crossed his legs and looked up at Hoss. “She finally saw sense. She could do worse than a big galumph like you.”
Hoss’s top lip curled. “Huh? I’m not sure if that was a compliment or not.”
Adam laughed. “It was a compliment. It’s Christmas, that’s your gift from me. One compliment a year—”
“Mister Adam, Mister Adam!” Hop Sing ran out of the kitchen causing everyone to turn their heads in alarm. “Hop Sing forget, you get parcel.”
Adam rose from his chair as Hop Sing ran to his side and handed him a parcel wrapped in brown paper.
“Today? But it’s Christmas Day.” Adam turned to Hop Sing. “Who delivered it?”
“Hop Sing not know. It in larder behind sack of potato.” He ran out of the room leaving Adam turning the item over in his hands.
“Well, don’t look at it all day, brother, open it.” Joe rested a hand on the fireplace as he watched.
Adam untied the string and parted the brown paper. It was a book, bound in what appeared to be vellum. It was upside down, and as Adam turned it and saw the cover, he dropped abruptly into his chair.
Ben half rose out of his seat. “Son, are you alright?”
Adam’s glazed eyes tore themselves away from the book. He looked up at his father. “Do you know what this is? It’s a First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays.” He carefully turned one page at a time.
“First what?” Joe leaned over Adam’s shoulder, peering at the book with its intricate and dense lettering.
“First Folio. It was the first time many of Shakespeare’s works had been collected together in one book.”
Adam stood up sharply, causing Joe to stumble backward, but Adam was too consumed by the book to notice. “I think this is an original.” He looked up at Ben. “It’s rare.” Adam’s face fell. “I can’t accept this, it’s worth more than you can imagine. Who would…where…?”
For Adam to be this flustered was almost unheard of, and Ben ambled over to his side. “Son, someone has made a gift to you of this book, probably the same person who gave us those wooden boxes. We don’t know who it is, so we can’t return it.” He looked down. “But should we? Someone has gone to a lot of time and trouble to show us how much they care and appreciate us. But for reasons we don’t know they want to stay anonymous.” He looked at his three boys in turn. “I think we must respect this person’s decision, and, who knows, one day we may discover who our most generous benefactor is.” He tapped the cover of the book in Adam’s hands. “And until then, enjoy your gift.”
“I don’t think Adam’s the only one to have received his gift.”
Three faces turned to Hoss. “Sarah Ann Granger. I don’t think I could’ve asked for a better present.” He blushed. “I’m gonna ask her pa iffen I can walk out with her sometime.”
“I think it’s going to snow again.” Joe trotted over to the window behind the desk and stood on tiptoes to see out. “What the…I don’t believe it!” He ran to the door, grabbing his boots as he went.
“What is it, son?” He was followed to the door by Ben, Adam and Hoss.
There, in the front yard and pawing at the snow, was a magnificent black stallion. Joe was edging out to it, one foot at a time, his hands held out before him.
“Be careful, Joe!” called out Ben.
“It’s that ol’ stallion Joe’s been chasing fer months,” said Hoss. “Each time he got close it hightailed away.”
“I know,” replied Adam. “It was as though the horse was playing with him. Joe would get to within an arm’s length and the horse would back up, or rear, or plain run off.”
“And now it’s here,” said Ben with a shake of his head. “Almost like a gift, wouldn’t you say, boys?”
Hoss and Adam patted each other on the back and turned to pull their boots on. Joe was nearing the stallion which had stop pawing and stood watching Joe’s approach. Joe reached out a hand and gently laid it on the horse’s forehead. He threw a glance back at his family. “Would you look at that?” The horse bowed its head to the floor and on rising nudged Joe’s shoulder. Joe laughed. “I can’t believe it. After months of me chasing you, you come right to me.” He called out over his shoulder. “Someone fetch me a rope, would ya?”
Hoss was soon on his way to the barn, and the horse let itself be roped and led into the corral. Despite the chill, the four Cartwrights stood at the fence without their coats. They didn’t feel the cold on his wondrous day as they watched the stallion gamble before them.
Hop Sing called out from the door. “Dinner on table, five minute.” He was gone before they could acknowledge him.
“So, I got my kiss, Adam got his book and Joe his horse.” Hoss turned to Ben. “You didn’t get anything, Pa.”
“Oh yes I did.” He reached out his arms to the boys closest to him. “I have my sons together at Christmas. Safe, healthy, and happy.” He looked at all three. “No gift is as precious. Now let’s go in before the food gets cold.”
With arms around each other’s shoulders, Ben and Joe headed towards the house. Adam and Hoss followed. But then Hoss stopped, squinting up at the roof.
“Hey, Adam, don’t they look like wagon tracks up on the roof there?”
Adam’s brow furrowed. “What are you talking about?”
“Look, there.” Hoss pointed. “Two lines like the tracks of a wagon, right across the porch roof. And there, above the kitchen, looks like…hoof prints.”
“What are you talking about? It’s probably the snow having drifted down a bit. Though…” He took a step back. “Come to think of it, it does kinda look like wagon tracks. Flatter though. Like a…”
Adam looked at Hoss whose eyes widened, and together they looked back at the strange marks on the porch roof.
Adam laughed. “Nah, can’t be.”
Hoss wore a baffled smile but he couldn’t help thinking about the incredible gifts and the boxes with their beautifully inscribed scrolls. “Yeah, there’s no way that…I mean, he ain’t real.” Hoss’s nose crinkled. “Is he?”
Adam tapped Hoss’s belly with the back of his hand. “Come on, let’s go inside.” And together the two men crossed the yard as the snow started to fall, covering the mysterious tracks on the Ponderosa’s roof.
They closed the door behind them, shutting out the growing darkness of the snowstorm. High above them a golden light shot across the heavens. Christmas for one soul never ended, but his job was done for another year. He had seen, and he had rewarded. And for the Cartwrights, who would never know for certain who had given so generously, it was to be a Christmas filled with good cheer, laughter and most of all, love.