PEACE ON THE PONDEROSA

 

 



Sometimes the smallest thing can solve the biggest problem, and when no Cartwright wants to go home on Christmas Eve, there has to be something seriously wrong...

 

 

Peace on the Ponderosa

By

Jenny Guttridge

 

Authorís note: This was inspired by the comment of a reader Ė Sheíll know who she is when she gets to the end!

 

The change in the weather had been neither sudden nor unexpected. Blizzards had been raging in the Sierra Mountains for weeks and the temperature had been falling steadily. In Virginia City, western Nevada, in the winter of eighteen sixty, the inhabitants looked towards the distant peaks with resignation and shrugged deeper into their overcoats. The town was growing fast, booming on the back of the silver lode, and life wasnít going to stop simply because it snowed.

Ben Cartwright, a big built, grey-haired man with an angular, finely chiseled face and intense, dark eyes, stepped out from the cozy warmth of the sheriffís office into the chillier and far less inviting environs of the boardwalk outside. His friend of many years, Roy Coffee, the sheriff, followed him out and quickly pulled the door shut behind him. There was no point in letting all the carefully accumulated warmth inside escape into the street. Ben set his hat on his head and, shivering, thrust his gloved hands deep into the pockets of his heavy, waxed wool jacket. The boardwalk was raised well above the level of the street to keep folksí feet dry, and it had a roof to keep most the rain off. It did nothing whatever to stop the bitter wind that blew unceasing around the corner and down the whole length of Main Street.

The two men stood side by side and surveyed the goings-on in the street. It was a bleak winter scene that was devoid of all colour but grey and white, black and brown. The constant traffic of men, mules, oxen, carts, wagons and horseback riders that ploughed back on forth, and the twice-weekly stagecoach, had churned the street into a dismal mash of slush and mud that was hock deep to a horse. Behind the ornate false fronts of the buildings, the steeply sloped roofs had thrown off the each successive fall of snow exactly as they had been designed to do, depositing it in ever-growing piles in the alleyways alongside. Even the people crowding the boardwalks and picking their way through the mire of the street were drab in their dark winter clothing.

If the street looked like a duo-tone print brought magically to life, it sounded very different. Within earshot, a hundred voiced shouted, sung or spoke in a dozen different languages. Drovers yelled at their teams, mules brayed and dogs barked Down the street the meeting house bell was ringing. A half dozen children in caps, and scarves, and gloves chased each other in and out of the traffic with excited squeals and shouts; across the street a group of women stood together outside the bank, hatted and huddled in furs, singing from their hymnbooks. Six saloons belched noise and music onto the street through their half-height doors, and there was a constant sound of hammering from the continual building work.

Roy Coffee looked over the domain of his authority with a certain satisfaction and an experienced eye. The sheriff was a past master at picking out the first and faintest sign of trouble before it had the chance of developing into anything serious. He hooked his hands into his pants belt and leaned well back on his heels.

"Well, Ben, Reckon as Iíll be shiftiní along to Mary-Louís place. Hear sheís got some right tasty liver aní onions on the menu today. You fancy cominí?"

Ben Cartwright laughed and shook his head - perhaps just a trifle ruefully. "No, Roy. If I fill up at Mary-Louís, Hop Singíll kill me for not eating dinner."

Roy chuckled. The temperament of Benís Chinese cook and general factotum was legendary around town. "I guess youíll be heading on out to the ranch, then."

"I guess I will." Ben heaved a sigh that held a distinct hint of reluctance.

Roy gave him a long sideways look. He had known Ben Cartwright for a very long time - in sickness, health, good times and bad. He had never known him be the least bit unwilling to go home before. Roy sometimes thought that Ben loved that great, sprawling vastness of a ranch like it was a woman. Right now, he figured his friend looked about as Goddamned tired as he had ever seen him. Perhaps the woman was giving him a real hard time.

He figured that Ben would tell him soon enough if there was a problem he could help with.

"Just as soon as I pick up the last of my supplies," Ben added.

"Donít suppose itíll be long afore youíre all snowed in out there?"

If anything, Benís face became longer, his expression more weary. There was definitely something amiss out at the ranch.

"I donít suppose it will." Ben shook himself and made a conscious effort to break out of the mood. "Thanks for the coffee, Roy."

"Any time, Ben. And a merry Christmas to you and the family!"

Ben pulled up short. For a moment there, he had clean forgotten that it was Christmas. A smile finally broke across his face, transforming it. "Why, thank you, Roy! And a happy Christmas to yourself and to Mary!"

Touching a hand to the brim of his hat in polite farewell, Ben picked his way across the muddy street to the General Store. The wagon stood outside with its patiently waiting team. It was almost fully loaded with essential supplies with which to withstand the fiercest onslaught of the winter. The sideboard of the wagon bore Benís own brand burned into the wood, a stylized but unmistakable pine tree. For perhaps the first time in his life, Ben did not feel a glow of pride of possession at the sight of it but rather a small shiver of apprehension.

Ben stepped up onto the boardwalk outside the General Store and kicked as much mud as he could off of his boots. Careful as he had been, the muck had somehow gotten onto the legs of his pants where it stuck like pine-gum. Ben was not pleased.

He was even less pleased when a huge man in shirtsleeves, sporting a high-crowned hat, and carrying a full sized sack of cane sugar on each shoulder came out of the store and barged right into him, almost knocking him back into the mud. Ben let out a bellow and grabbed hold of the porch post.

"Huh?" The big man turned, swinging with the sacks and banged into Ben again. "Oh, howdy, Pa. You all right there?"

Ben teetered precariously on the edge of the step and fought a desperate battle with gravity. Eventually, he won.

"Hoss." Ben eyed the bulk of his second son, and the sacks, warily. If Ben was a big man, then his son, Hoss, was a giant. Appearing almost top heavy, he had a vast barrel chest and immensely broad shoulders above relatively narrow horsemanís hips. Even without the hat, he stood almost a full head taller than his father. "Are you about finished here?"

"íReckon so." Hoss turned again, and he and Ben danced a little jig on the boardwalk as Ben adroitly avoided a third encounter with both son and sacks.

Hoss stepped down into the street and loaded the sacks, first one and then the other, into the back of the wagon. He didnít seem to mind the mud. "I just gotta fetch out them two barrels oí molasses, aní thatíll be a full load."

Ben went ahead into the store to pay the bill. Remembering again that it was Christmas Eve, he added to the mundane list of barley flour, split peas and salt. Mojohn Kendal smiled as he packed the extra purchases into a box and tied it with string: a box of crystallized fruit and another of sugar candy; a red silk petticoat and a pair of razor sharp, stainless steel scissors, all the way from Sheffield, England. On top, Ben put a box of cigars and a bottle of mellow brandy. He counted coins out onto the counter while his big son loaded the molasses, one tub at a time, into the back of the wagon.

Hoss came back into the store mopping his face on a bright green bandanna. "I guess thatís about it, Pa, lessen you got anything else."

Ben took a last long look Ďround. He already had gifts for his sons at home: a finely engraved, gold pocket watch for his eldest son, Adam, a silver mounted, ivory handled whittling knife for Hoss, a couple of fancy, imported silk shirts with real pearl buttons for Joe, the dandy of the family. And for the baby Ė well what could a man buy for a baby? Little Daniel already had all the love a family could give him. At the thought of his beloved, infant son, some of the smile faded from Ben Cartwrightís eyes.

"I think thatís everything."

The two Cartwrights, father and son, stepped out onto the boardwalk. Their breath steamed in front of their faces. It was starting to snow again. Hoss Cartwright shrugged into his coat and buttoned it up down the front. Ben looked at the waiting wagon. "I guess weíd better start for home," he said, without much enthusiasm.

While not a stupid man, Hoss sometimes had a little trouble converting the emotions he felt into the much more cumbersome configuration of words. He had that problem now. His broad featured face contorted with the effort. "Donít reckon as Iíll be goiní home just yet awhile, Pa," he said at last.

"Youíre staying in town?" Ben was taken by surprise.

"Reckon so." Hoss squirmed with obvious discomfort under his fatherís glare, but he wouldnít back down. He hunched defensively into his coat. "Reckon Iíll get me a bite oí lunch aní a beer over at the Silver Dollar, aní then I got me some things I gotta do."

"I see." Ben said heavily. The two short words held a wealth of meaning. Hoss was a full-grown man and quite entitled to spend time in town on his own if he so wanted. And, no doubt he did have private matters to see to, especially on the day before Christmas. Never the less, Ben was disappointed. He didnít relish the long, cold journey home on his own. It occurred to him that Hoss has been planning his desertion all the way along; he had tied his saddle horse to the back of the wagon before they left home that morning, and Ben had wondered why.

Hoss caught the look his father threw him and immediately felt guilty. Staying in town was definitely the easy option, but, right now, he just couldnít face going back to the ranch. Always a mild mannered, easy going man with all the time in the world for all things small and helpless, Ďspecially when they were in pain, even Hoss Cartwright had taken just about as much as he could. "Reckon as Iíll be home in time fer supper," he said sheepishly.

On reflection, Ben couldnít bring himself to apportion blame. He knew that if he were a young man and fancy free, given the circumstances he might well do the same thing himself. He climbed up the high seat of the wagon and gathered the reins into his hands. Hoss untied his horse and walked round to say a final goodbye to his Pa.

"You take care, now," Ben told him, with a frown. "Donít leave it Ďtil it gets dark. If this snow starts to driftÖ" He didnít have to finish the sentence. Hoss had lived in this country almost all his life, had grown up here. He didnít need telling the way the weather could turn - or what would happen to a man if he got caught out in it.

Hoss, relieved that his father wasnít going to argue the point, gave him his famous, gap-toothed grin. "Donít you worry none, Pa. Iíll be home afore you know it."

Ben gave him a final glare for good measure, harrumphed, and slapped the leather reins against the horsesí backs. Hoss stood in the street with his hand on the nose of his horse and watched until the wagon disappeared from sight.

*******

The snow had started to fall on the very first day of November - huge, white cotton-balls which had drifted lazily down from a leaden, pink tinged sky. It had snowed, without fail, every day since. Sometimes the snowfall had amounted to no more than a few, isolated flakes floating on a light, cold wind; sometimes it had been a fine, flour like sifting that stung the cheeks and melted instantly on contact with the warm flesh. Occasionally it had boiled up into a wind blown snowstorm that approached blizzard-like proportions. The end result was an all-enveloping, irregular mantle of white that encompassed the entire landscape. Up on the high ranges, the snow-blanket was four feet thick, and there were drifts in the gullies deep enough to bury a man even if he sat up straight in the saddle. In the lower pasturelands, where the cattle had been mustered for winter-feeding, it was still thin enough for a steer, with diligence, to dig his way through to the tough, tussocky grass underneath. Adam Cartwright, hands on hips on the bank of the creek, eyed the steadily falling snow and concluded that that situation wouldnít last a whole lot longer.

Adam was easily as big a man as his father but differently proportioned. Topping six feet, he had the long legs, lean hips and hard rump of a born horseman. In place of his fatherís barrel-stave ribs, he had a chest that was broad and deep, wide shoulders and a powerful, muscular back. He was also darkly handsome, highly intelligent, educated and artistic. At that exact moment, none of the latter attributes were immediately apparent. All that could be seen of his face between the pulled down brim of his black hat and the yellow muffler wound around his neck were the intense, hazel eyes inherited from his mother, and an array of perfect, white teeth. Adamís face was screwed into a tight squint as he tried to penetrate the snow flurries.

Here, the creek was a wide, swift flowing stream of dark water. It cut a stark, black swathe through a field of unbroken white. Right in front of where Adam stood it curved in a wide arc, faithfully following the, now invisible, contours of the landscape. In the bow of the curve, where the current slackened off and the animals went down to drink, the bank had broken away, and there was an extensive patch of thick, deep mud. The object of Adamís attention, barely discernible through the swirling snow, was a large, black, curly-coated cow, sideways on to the bank and mired up to her big belly in the mud. Adam reflected gloomily that it seemed to be his year for hauling cows out of mud. Turning at the waist, he swung round to look upwards, towards the top of the bank.

"Thereís a cow stuck in the creek all right, Joe. Hurry it up with that rope, will ya?"

"Right here, brother!" Slipping and slithering down the bank, Joe Cartwright arrived somewhat precipitately at the waterís edge.

Adamís fist closed on the collar of his coat and hauled him back just in time to stop him getting his feet, and a whole lot else, very wet. "Steady there, Joe. The last thing I need, right now, is you in there with the cow." Adam sounded weary and resigned. He already had an idea exactly how this particular undertaking was going to end.

Joe, muffled up to the ears in scarf and coat, flashed his brother a big, bright smile. "Gee, Adam, itís nice to know you care!"

For a fleeting moment, Adam was sorely tempted to tip the younger, altogether lighter man butt first into the mud. Joe could deal first hand with the cow and be the one to get all muddied up. Then Adam did as he always did and pulled a long, steadying breath in through his teeth. "Just give me the rope, will you?"

Still grinning, Joe handed over the loose coil. Adam spun out a lazy loop and dropped it neatly over the cowís wide horns. The cow bellowed at the indignity and shook her head violently. The Cartwright brothers had long ago ceased to wonder why it was that the contrary animals so resented the attempts made to rescue them from their own folly.

Joe scrambled back up the bank, paying the rope out behind him. His pinto mare stood with her back hunched against the wind. Joe looped the free end of the rope about his saddle horn and climbed aboard. "All set, Adam!"

"Okay!" Not knowing if Joe could see him or not, Adam made a gesture for him to take up the slack. Joe heard and nudged the mare on. The rope tightened, and Adam leaned on it himself, adding his not inconsiderable strength to that of the horse. The rope shivered, and Adamís muscles cracked with the strain. The black cow bellowed again and pulled the other way, backing further into the mire. Adam muttered a furious oath and resisted manfully the childish urge to throw his hat on the ground and jump on it. He figured that cows just had to be the most stubborn, onoury, recalcitrant creatures ever created by the hand of God. And that it was his misfortune to spend a great part of his life in intimate contact with them. With short, angry movements and much to the amusement of his younger brother, Adam started to strip off his clothes.

Coat and gunbelt, and, reluctantly, boots and socks followed hat, gloves and scarf.

With an expression of extreme distaste, Adam lowered himself into the mud. At first, it wasnít as deep as he thought, coming just halfway to his knees. The mud was semi-liquid and soaked through the thickly woven cloth of his pants at once. It was icy-cold. Resigned, he waded toward the cow. The mud deepened. Adam floundered. The cold seeped up his thighs to his groin. From behind him, up on the bank, he could hear Joe chuckling with barely contained laughter. After any number of nights of broken and disturbed sleep, Adamís patience, unlike the stream, was not running at full flow. He ground his teeth and kept on going.

With murderous intent, the cow swung her head and tried to gore him in the belly. Adam got out of her way and ended up even wetter. Joe was laughing out loud. Adam swore and wondered why the hell he hadnít dumped his irrepressible, constantly irritating and frequently infuriating younger brother into the creek when heíd had the chance. Then, at least, they would both be wet, cold and thoroughly fed-up.

The cold was getting to him and he knew he had to hurry. He waded round to the less-than-savory area behind the cowís tail. It was as bad as he expected it to be. Cows in difficulty had little control of their bodily functions. He narrowed his eyes and squinted through the snow towards the bank. "íYou ready, Joe?"

Joeís voice drifted down, "Weíre ready!"

"Then pull!" Adam jammed his powerful shoulder under the cowís hipbone and shoved hard.

The cow, a big animal and heavily pregnant, weighed the best part of a ton. She bellowed long and loud. Joe and his pinto mare hauled on the rope. Adam was rapidly running out of patience. "Pull, will you, Little Joe? Pull!"

Joe Cartwright, cold, tired, and already working hard himself, abruptly lost his good humour. "Goddamn it, Adam, I am pulling!"

"Then pull harder!"

Joe growled something his brother wasnít intended to hear and drove his heels hard into the mareís sides. She snorted and leaned her full weight against the rope. Adam, hip deep in mud and river water was already numb below the waist. Above, he was burning hot and running with the sweat of exertion. Determined to loose neither cow nor calf, he was getting angry. With a gut-wrenching grunt he directed his rage into effort.

The cow yielded, finally, to persuasion. She groaned mightily as she struggled with the sucking mud. She came loose with a loud slurp. She lunged and got a purchase on the bank with her forelegs, levering herself out.

When the cow moved, Adam found himself in an unenviable position; unsupported and with no firm footing, there was nothing he could do to save himself. He fell face first into the hole she had left in the mud. The hole filled rapidly with very cold water.

Joe whooped with triumph as he felt the rope slacken, and then the smile died on his face. Adamís expression, as he emerged from the mud hole, was thunderous. He used his fingers to clear the muck from his eyes and spat it out of his mouth. He wiped his sleeve across his face and smeared more dirt on than he managed to get off. He despaired of cleaning any of it off the rest of him. Resigned to the filth and to the reek of the filth, he waded wearily out of the creek.

Seeing the warning signs in his brotherís eyes, Joe decided against offering a helping hand and concentrated on freeing the cow. Still bellowing, she moved off into the snow. Adam glared at his brother. It was lucky for Joe that, right now, he didnít have time to dump him in the river. He was soaked through to his pink flannel underwear and beyond; he had to get himself back to the house before he froze. He sighed. "Címon, Joe. Letís go home."

Abruptly, Joe stopped sniggering. "Home? You mean we have to go home? Right now?"

Adam snarled. "Right now!" He had pulled on his socks and his boots and put his coat on over the mud in the hope of retaining some body heat. He jammed his hat onto his wet head and headed for his horse. Already, he was starting to shake.

Reluctantly, Joe bowed to the logic of the situation. His sigh, as he coiled the rope and climbed the bank of the creek for, he was quite sure, not the last time that winter, echoed his brotherís. Right then, home was not the first place he would choose to be.

********

Jenny Cartwright stationed herself strategically between the end of the elegant, French, stripped satin sofa, a legacy left by a previous Mrs. Cartwright, and the corner of the cruder, locally manufactured sideboard. Not an especially large woman, she planted both hands firmly on her waist and made herself as obstructive as she could.

"But you canít go! Not now! Not today!"

It was an argument that had been going on, in fits and starts, for most of the day, and Jenny had an uncomfortable, sinking feeling that she was not going to win. She had long since run out of constructive reasoning. She had, by turns: pleaded, cajoled, bullied and threatened, all to no avail. The Chinese cook, mainstay of the Cartwright household for a great deal longer than Jenny had been a part of it, was quite implacable. He would not stay in the house another day, another hour, not even another minute!

Hop Sing already had on his coat, scarf, gloves, and his stovepipe traveling hat. In his hands he clutched his venerable carpetbag, well stuffed with all the necessities for a long journey. Hop Sing was planning a lengthy trip: visits to distant friends, an extended stay with relatives, the way he felt right now, he might never come back!

The Oriental had planned well and timed his escape to perfection. The Cartwright men were out. The only obstacle between him and the freedom he desired was this voluble woman, no taller than he was, with the long dark hair and the furious, frantic, sea green eyes. He had no intentions of being thwarted now. For the first time in an hour, Hop Sing reverted to an approximation of American English. "Missy Jenny in Hop Singís way. You move now! Hop Sing go!"

"But Hop Sing, where will you go? Itís Christmas!" Jenny had visions of the huge stuffed goose sitting on the pantry shelf, and of a house full of hungry Cartwright men all expecting to be fed Christmas dinner.

Hop Sing put his head on one side. "Chinese people not have Christmas. Hop Sing got lotsa relatives in Virginía City. It quiet in Virginía City." He nodded furiously to emphasise his point.

Jenny forgot about blocking the way to the door. Instead, she wrung her hands together. "Hop Sing, please stay. Just Ďtil after Christmas. Iíll make it quiet! I promise Iíll make it quiet!"

As if to belie her words, a thin but penetrating howl drifted down from the upper reaches of the house. Both Jenny and the ex-cook turned and looked towards the staircase with varying degrees of alarm and resignation. Hop Sing heaved a great sigh. "It not quiet in this house no more! Hop Sing not stand noise! Hop Sing go now!"

Jenny hesitated and, in the moment of her hesitation, was lost. Hop Sing took advantage of her distraction to dodge past her and make a bolt for the door. He flung it wide determined to make good his longed for escape. The wind, blowing outside in earnest now, chose that exact moment to gust and threw a flurry of freshly fallen snow full in his face. The door slammed back, and a huge draft of cold air blasted into the room. Hop Sing staggered as the force of it all but threw him off his feet. The flames in the hearth leapt as the chill gale swept up the chimney. Hop Sing grabbed the door and slammed it shut in the teeth of the wind. It was quite clear that, for a good long while yet, he wasnít going anywhere!

For the moment at least, the weather had won Jennyís argument for her. Letting out a long, relieved breath, she hastened towards the staircase. She had a promise to make good. Hop Sing took off his hat and made his way back to the relative tranquillity of the kitchen with an air of injured resignation.

********

Hoss consoled himself that it was through no fault of his own that he was late home for supper. Admittedly, he had left it to the last possible moment before leaving behind the boisterous and celebratory atmosphere of the Silver Dollar. By then, the light had been fading, and it was snowing hard. Recalling his fatherís cautionary words, Hoss had screwed up his face and decided that another beer and, perhaps, a thick, belly-pork sandwich should be the order of the day, while he waited for the weather to clear. After all, he figured, a man needed his nourishment before he went out in the cold. Time enough then to risk the perils of the journey home. Consequently, it was quite dark when he finally stepped into the saddle, and he turned his black geldingís head towards the west.

And, of course, he made no attempt at all to hurry. The snow had stopped falling and, except for a few, last, wind-borne flakes, the night was fine and dry. Only a few, high tatters of cloud remained; the rest were being swept away by the winds that streamed straight off the mountains. Pale and almost full, the moon rode high over the hills; as the stars came out, one by one, a halo of light formed around her fair face. She cast an ethereal and silver glow over an all but silent land.

Hoss sat back in the saddle and let the gelding pick his own, easy pace. The only sounds were the muffled footfalls of his horse and the huff of his breathing. The breath steamed from the animalís nostrils. Before long both horse and rider were encompassed in a misty cloud. The woodlands were magical: the landscape enchanted. The snow had covered the open range with a fresh and glistening coverlet of purest white. Starkly black and sentinel, individual trees cast faint, blue shadows.

Nestled in among its sheltering pine and scrub-oak, the ranch house glowed like a beacon, shining in the night. Lamps had been lighted in every window, and warm, yellow light spilled into the yard. It gave Hoss a comfortable feeling inside that contrasted oddly with his chilly cheeks. He put his horse up in the barn, and then stood outside for a long, precious moment, puffing steamy breath into the air and gazing with sentimental affection at the impressive, log-built structure. He was content that this was his place in the world, the only home that he could ever remember having, a place of security, and ofÖ

The beatific smile faded from Hossís lips, and his face fell. He heaved a Hoss sized sigh. Patting the bulge in his saddlebags that represented his seasonal gifts to his family, he started, reluctantly, for the front door.

The evening before Christmas in the Cartwright household was always a special occasion. Ben Cartwright, resplendent in his silver brocade waistcoat and fine, grey wool suit, silk shirt and cravat, presided proudly over the lordly setting. The room was bright with lighted lamps and the glow of polished wood. A pine log fire, sweetened with apple wood and witch hazel, blazed in the hearth. Alongside, in imitation of a tradition recently imported from Europe, stood the tree, a young pine so tall that its feathered top all but brushed the high beamed ceiling. The widespread branches were decked with paper twists and coloured candies and shreds of ribbon from Jennyís workbox. The decorations fluttered in the draft as Hoss opened the door.

Ben turned and smiled benevolently. "Youíre just in time son; come and join us."

Dumping his gear on the sideboard and hanging up his coat and hat, Hoss walked over to the fire, a beaming smile back on his face. Ben handed him a tiny crystal glass and poured thick, dark liquor from a decanter. Adam and Joe, in smart, dark suits, offered their glasses and Ben filled them, finishing with a glassful for himself. He looked to each of his sons.

"Gentlemen, I offer you a toast." He turned with love and pride in his eyes and raised his glass in tribute. "To the lady of the house."

"The lady of the house!" The young men echoed their fatherís words and raised their glasses to their stepmother. They sipped at the sweet, cherry-flavoured drink and exchanged appreciative glances. Ben found himself overwhelmed with demands for more.

Jenny, her hair coiled into tight, dark ringlets, flushed pink with the pleasure of the company of four such handsome and desirable men. Her green eyes glowed, and she sipped demurely from her own glass.

"My dear?" Ben offered her his arm, and she rose gracefully. Just for a moment, she hesitated, throwing an anxious glance toward the staircase. All was quiet. Ben patted her hand, and she gave him a slightly nervous smile. Escorting her to the table, he held her chair while she settled. Fondly, he smiled down on her dark head. Tonight, his wife looked particularly beautiful and charming in a lace-trimmed gown of cream-coloured silk. Her perfume was heady, the skin at the back of her neck like white satin. He was quite overcome by a wave of affection.

Only when she was comfortably seated did he take his accustomed place at the head of the table.

Ben looked around at the much-loved faces before him: at his dear wife, laughing with delight at the humorous asides and outrageous compliments of his sons, at the boys who were vying with one another in a display of verbal chivalry and latter-day knightliness. Then there was Joe. No longer the baby of the family, no longer a boy, Joe had retained a youthful appearance and a youthful outlook well into adulthood. His bright eyes and his smile sparkled as he gleefully played the southern courtier.

At the far end of the table was Adam. Benís expression clouded just a little. Adam looked considerably less blue than he had earlier in the afternoon. A hot bath, and a mug of something herbal that Hop Sing had cooked up in the kitchen had apparently worked wonders. Never the less, Ben worried that his sonís unexpected dip in the creek and his cold ride home afterwards could have unfortunate consequences. Then, with a smile, he put his concerns aside. Adam was engaged in lively and enthusiastic repartee with his brother, and Joe was coming off very much the worse. Certainly, there were no obvious ill effects from his dunking.

Hoss, having arrived home late, was the only one not dressed for dinner. The big man was singularly unabashed by his lack of finery. He was interested only in the meal and was watching the arrival of the loaded plates and dishes avidly. The only face missing from the assembly was that of Joe Drury. The young man had returned to Silver City to spend Christmas with his mother.

Ben called the table to order and, in the sudden hush, offered thanks to his God for all his blessings: for the food, for those gathered to share it and for the gift of His own, only son on that most holy of night so long ago.

The meal, as it turned out, was decidedly not one of Hop Singís best. It gave the impression of having been thrown together with little care and in considerable haste. Ben liked his steak rare, but tonightís offering was red-raw in the centre, with singed bits around the outside. The potatoes had inexplicable, gritty lumps, and there was a strange tang to the gravy that he couldnít quite identify.

Thinking that, perhaps, he was the only one to notice, he cast some surreptitious glances around the table. As usual, Hoss had piled his plate high and was tucking in with gusto. It took a lot to put Hoss off his feed. Jenny was nibbling at a morsel of meat; Ben suspected that the newly purchased, and ridiculously tight, corset beneath the wasp-waisted dress was responsible for her apparent lack of appetite. Joe was eating in fits and starts and talking between mouthfuls, describing in embellished detail his brotherís adventure in the creek. Ben doubted that he had noticed yet what he ate. Adam, however, in between parrying his brotherís insults, was chewing thoughtfully and increasingly slowly.

Feeling the weight of his fatherís dark gaze, Adam raised his eyes to meet it. He too had encountered a certain strangeness in the texture of his food. He swallowed the mouth full half-chewed and pushed the plate away. It was a gesture that encompassed a whole wealth of meaning. Ben looked at his wife. Jenny had also stopped eating. She lay down her knife and fork and gave him a weak smile.

Joeís jaws worked to a stop, and his face took on a curious expression of distaste. Hoss, who preferred his meat cooked right through, was eyeing a dripping forkful with obvious disgust. Into the silence that settled around the table, a wail of anguish drifted down from above.

Hop Sing bustled in from the kitchen. He saw the platefuls of uneaten food. He looked from face to face, reading the various expressions. He threw up his hands. "How you expect Hop Sing to cook good? No quiet in this house no more! Baby cry all a-time! Hop Sing go now, live someplace else!" The tirade degenerated into Chinese as the Ė again Ė ex-cook went looking for his carpetbag.

Ben came to his feet with a roar. "Hop Sing!"

Upstairs, Daniel Cartwright howled.

Jenny gathered her skirts and started for the stairs at a run. By now, all the men were on their feet.

The front door burst open, and one the hands dashed in accompanied by a blast of cold air and shedding snow. "Mister Cartwright, youíd better come quick! The snowís brought a tree down across the fence in the lower pasture. We got Mizz Cartwrightís sheep spread all across the north range!"

Ben bellowed. Daniel bawled. Confusion became chaos as the men-folk abandoned the table for the door and their horses.

********

It was three long, bitterly cold hours before all the sheep were gathered up and penned. And longer before Ben was satisfied that they had all been accounted for. By the time the Cartwright men returned to the house they were tired and dirty and chilled to the bone. Their finery was considerably disheveled. The evening should have been spent in singing, story-telling and polite reminiscence. Instead, it had been spent in a snowdrift wrestling with sheep.

Jenny, still in her long silken gown, was pacing back and forth before the hearth with the baby in her arms. Little Daniel Cartwright lay with his head against his motherís shoulder. His eyes were closed in sleep but there were fresh tears glistening in his dark eyelashes. His face was tearstained, and his cheeks were a fiery red.

Jenny and Ben exchanged looks that were infinitely weary. Ben walked over and held out his arms for the sleeping baby. "Give him to me."

At nine months old, Daniel Cartwright showed every indication of growing into a sturdy, thickset little boy and, eventually, into a tall, strong man. He hiccuped a sob against his fatherís shoulder as he was carried up the stairs.

********

Adam Cartwright sat bolt upright in bed and shivered. Despite the warmth of the wall it shared with the chimney stack, his room was cold. At first, as always, he couldnít make out what had awakened him. Then it came again, a long drawn out wail of agony that ended in several sobs. In the silence that followed, Adam imagined the long, indrawn breath and braced himself for the next onslaught. It was the sound of the baby crying - yet again!

Adam lay back against his pillows and threw his arm across his face. This was the eighth Ė or was it the ninth - night in a row that his little brother had woken the household with his weeping. He knew from experience that, despite the best efforts of his stepmother and his father, the disturbance was likely to go on for hours. It seemed like half of forever since he had last got a decent nightís sleep. It was no wonder that everyone was tired and quarrelsome and generally out of sorts. He lay and listened for the familiar opening and closing of doors, the sound of footfalls out in the passage, perhaps a murmur of voices as Jenny, or perhaps his Pa, went to see to the child.

He heard nothing. Danielís crying went on and on, sounding forlorn and lonely in the night. Adam decided, at last, that there was no help for it Ė it was time for big brother to take a hand. He threw back the blankets and reached for his pants.

Outside, beyond his bedroom window, the moon had set and the night was very dark. It was snowing again - fine, feather-light flakes falling silently out of a clear sky. The barn and the ranch buildings were draped in white, and there was a fresh, white carpet spread out on the ground.

In the faint light from the window, Adam rummaged in the bottom of a drawer. It was a moment or two before he found what he was looking for - a Christmas present for the littlest Cartwright of all. Not needing a light to find his way, he stepped out into the long passageway and closed the door quietly behind him.

Ben Cartwright stirred and turned onto his back. His eyes opened, and he stared intensely into the darkness, listening hard. A couple of times he thought he heard the sounds again, faint and far off - the rising and falling of an ancient, gentle melody. Strain his ears as he might, he couldnít be sure.

Beside him, Jenny stirred, only half waking. "What is it, Ben? The baby?"

Now there was nothing - no sound at all. "I thought I heard someone singing," he said.

Jenny sighed and snuggled up against him, appreciative of his warmth, glad that she didnít have to get up. "Perhaps it was an angel."

Smiling, Ben drew her closer. "Perhaps it was." As he drifted back into sleep, his last thought was that he would never have expected an angelís voice to be a rich, deep baritone.

Christmas morning dawned bright and clear. When Ben woke up, the sun was already shining in through the bedroom window. He realized that he had overslept. In fact, it seemed as if the entire ranch had overslept! Outside there was a fresh blanket of snow over everything. Nothing was moving. Inside the house it was utterly quiet. Much too quiet! Ben got out of bed and put on his robe.

Jenny sat up, still sleepy. She saw the expression on his face. "Whatís the matter?"

"Daniel," he said anxiously, "Heís too quiet."

As Jenny got up, Ben was already headed for the childís room.

The babyís bed was empty.

Ben and Jenny exchanged looks. Ben started for the stairs. On the halfway landing, he pulled up short. Jenny, just one step behind him, stopped and looked.

The fire in the hearth had been built up and was burning steadily. The big room was cosily warm. On the far side of the fireplace, in the red leather armchair, Adam Cartwright was fast asleep. He was dressed in his most comfortable old clothes, and his long, lean legs were stretched out towards the flames. Lying across his broad chest, face down and with his head turned to the side, was Daniel Cartwright. The babyís dark head was close against his brotherís cheek. He was sleeping as well. His so-sore little jaws were clamped hard on his brotherís Christmas gift. Left to Adam by his mother, given to her by her grandmother, mounted in silver and yellowed with age, it was an ivory, Georgian teething ring, and it had brought peace to all their lives at Christmas.

 

Potters Bar 2000.

 

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