A Cartwright Christmas
Lois Boehl

     Ben Cartwright sat at the dining room table enjoying his third cup of coffee.  The morning of December 24 had dawned clear and cold.  The house was quiet and peaceful. Ben knew that within the hour all that would change.  His three sons, their wives and his eleven grandchildren would descend upon him to spend the next two days and nights celebrating the Christmas holiday.  The house would be decorated, a tree chopped down and trimmed, stockings hung, food prepared, and other traditional events peculiar to the Cartwright family would occur.  The house would be the scene of merry bedlam.  Ben was looking forward to it with almost as much anticipation as the children were.

     Though each of his sons had built a large house to accommodate his family, by tradition Christmas was celebrated here.  Some people believed that Ben might be lonely in the massive home, living there alone, with only Hop Sing to see to his needs.  Actually, nothing could have been further from the truth.  Ben lived a busy, active life. The time he spent alone in the house was minimal.

     On Monday evenings he went to town to attend the weekly council meetings.  He had continued to serve on the Virginia City council, though he had declined politely when asked to run for mayor.

     On Tuesdays, if he had no other plans, Ben ate at the home of one of his three sons, on a rotating basis.  His daughters-in-law had insisted on this.  They all loved Ben and wanted their children to spend as much time as possible with their grandfather.

     Every Thursday his “boys” dined with him and spent a good part of the evening discussing the ranch and ranch business.  The Ponderosa was doing well but times were changing and it took all their combined ingenuity to keep up with the latest innovations in ranching and the timber industry.  These dinners were a time to plan future projects, decide who might need to take the next trip out of town, and engage in general troubleshooting.  It was also a time to renew the close bonds that bound the four men together.  They all looked forward to these evenings.

     During the rest of the work week there might be other evening functions—Cattleman’s Association, the Tahoe Timber Group, Virginia City Cultural Society, and other organizations in which Ben had an interest.  Or friends would drop by for a game of chess, a snifter of brandy, and some conversation.  After church on Sunday the whole family would gather at the home of one of his three sons.  If the weather were warm and fine they would picnic at various locations around the ranch.  If not, they would eat an informal dinner at home, frequently inviting the sheriff or the minister and his family to share their meal.

     Ben was an early riser and worked as hard as he had ever done.  If he arrived home early, it was no surprise to find that one or more of his grandchildren had stopped by on the way home from school.  Grandpa was always delighted to show off the newest foal or litter of barn kittens that had come along.  He could be counted on to tell wonderful stories about their own Pa’s naughty behavior as a boy, and Hop Sing kept cookies and doughnuts on hand every day.  And Grandpa had such wonderful things to look at in his house and lots and lots of good books to read.

     So Ben’s days and evenings were full and busy.  He enjoyed the quiet evenings when he could sit, read, and reflect.  They were not as frequent as others might imagine.

     “Hop Sing!” he called to the Chinese cook.

     The man scurried in.

     “Yes, Mista Cahtlight.  You want more coffee?”

     “No, thanks, Hop Sing.  I just wanted to tell you to enjoy yourself for the next few days.  Where will you be going?”

     “I stay with my cousin in Virginia City.  You sure you no need me?”

     “I’m sure my daughters-in-law will be able to feed all of us.  They’ve done it often enough in the past.  I’ve never met three women who could work together so well.”

       Ben smiled at the man who had worked for him all these years.  Hop Sing was more like a member of the family than an employee.

    “The families should be arriving soon.  Sure you don’t want to stay for a while?”

    “No!  Mista Cahtlight.  Eleven kids—too much confusion!   I just wash the dishes and I go.  You tell them I say Melly Clistmas.”

     “I’ll be sure to tell them.  You have a good time yourself!”

     Fifteen minutes later Hop Sing had gone and ten minutes after that Joe, Carrie, and their three children rode up in a brightly painted sleigh.  It had been a particularly snowy winter and another six inches had fallen overnight.  The elements had conspired to give the family an especially nice treat.  Several traditional activities depended on the amount of snow available on Christmas and this year there would be more than enough for all of them.

     Joe assisted Carrie and Mary out of the sleigh as his two boys hopped out from the other side.

     “I’ll take care of the horses, Pa,” young Joe said.

     He was a handsome boy, almost nine years old, and the image of his father at the same age.  Ben sometimes did a double take as the youngster walked by, thinking he was seeing things.  Then he’d shake his head and wonder at the rapid passage of time.  Though he looked very much like his father, with light brown wavy hair, green eyes and a slender frame, young Joe was somewhat quieter than the elder Joe Cartwright had been.  He had a slightly more serious nature, though he was all boy, and could join in the family fun with the enthusiasm of the rest of the children.  His consuming passions were horses and anything at all that had to do with the running of the ranch.  He had a small horse of his own and was on his way to becoming an expert rider, having perfected the swing mount, which his father no longer used.  He was willing to do any chore that would bring him in contact with his four legged friends, and Carrie scolded her husband for abusing their son’s willingness to muck out the stalls.  Joe laughed, but he was very proud of his older boy.  He was delighted that the youngster was also a good student.

     “He didn’t get that from me, darlin’,” Joe remarked as he signed the boy’s report card which boasted 3 A’s and 2 B’s.

     “Don’t be ridiculous, Joe!  You’re very smart.  You just weren’t a student.  His temperament is different from yours.  Ben will probably be more like you in school.”

     Ben was their youngest child.  At six, he was the baby of the family although he hated being called that.  He was more mischievous than his older brother, but hadn’t gotten into too many scrapes yet, because his mother kept a sharp eye on him.  He had her straight black hair and eyes as dark as his grandfather’s.  His face was round, his smile impish, and his personality as happy and charming as his father’s.

     While young Joe saw to the horses, Carrie, Joe, Ben, and Mary began to unload the sleigh.  Clothing, decorations, and food had to be brought into the big house and everyone pitched in, although Joe made sure that Carrie didn’t bring in anything heavier than the cake she had baked yesterday.

     “Mary, sweetheart, you and Ben take the clothes upstairs to the bedrooms.  I’ll help your mother with the food.  Then get back down here and the three of you unload the rest of this stuff.”

     “Yes, Pa,” they answered simultaneously.  They were well-behaved children, but it was Christmas Eve day and they were being extra good.  Ben especially hoped that Santa was watching how helpful and respectful he was being.

     Mary picked up the carpetbag of clothes and entered the house.  She dropped it inside the door and ran into Ben’s outstretched arms.

     “Hello, darling,” he said as he hugged her and she kissed him on the cheek.  “Is it very cold out there?”

     “Freezing, Grandpa, but it’s always nice and warm in here,” she answered with a smile.

     Ben’s eldest grandchild was a lovely girl of almost eleven.  She had dark wavy hair and her father’s green eyes, but when Ben looked at her face he saw his old friend, Daniel Moreau, Carrie’s father.  Mary was one of those fortunate females who would pass from girl to woman without any “awkward” stage.  She was bright, graceful and the apple of her father’s eye.  She was adored by her younger female cousins who regarded what “Mary says” as the last word in many important matters.

     She picked up the bag and headed for the stairs.

     “Are we the first ones here?” she asked.

     “You are, but the others will be along shortly, I’m sure,” Ben answered as he greeted the rest of his youngest son’s family.

     Hoss, Rebecca and their four children arrived next.  Hoss had let his twin sons take turns driving the sleigh over.  Eric and Peter were nine and a half years old.  The surprise Rebecca had received when she found out she was pregnant was eclipsed by everyone’s surprise when she had given birth to twin boys.  They were already tall, with the promise of being well over six feet when fully grown.  They were large, like their father, but without much of his bulk.  Like most twins, they were very close, though they didn’t look much alike.  Eric had darker blond hair and light blue eyes.  Rebecca thought he looked like her brother Henrich.  Peter had lighter hair and his mother’s cornflower blue eyes, but his face was his father’s.  They were good students, especially Eric, who had a friendly competition with his cousin Adam for the best grades in their class.

     “You boys done a good job,” their father praised them, as they rode up to the house.  “Now let’s all pitch in and get this sleigh unloaded.”

     Hoss assisted Rebecca and his two daughters down and everyone in the family grabbed boxes, bowls, tins, and bags.  They entered the house as a group, to be greeted warmly by Ben, Joe, Carrie and the children.  Rebecca and the girls removed their coats as the boys and Hoss went back out to retrieve the last of the items from the sleigh, and tend to the team.

     “Grandpa!” shouted Bitsie, Hoss and Rebecca’s older girl.  She flew into his arms and gave him a big hug and kiss.  Rebecca’s pregnancy with Inger, or Bitsie, as everyone called her, had been troubled.  The child had been born prematurely and Rebecca had almost died.  When the crisis was over, Hoss held the tiny child in his big hands and said with grateful tears in his eyes, “She’s such a little bitsie thing,” and the name had stuck.  She had been baptized Inger, but she was never called that by the family.  She was a small child for her seven years, thin and delicate, with an elfin face and her mother’s eyes.  He hair was buttery blond and Rebecca braided it and folded the braids up, tying them with ribbons, so they formed two loops.  Bitsie was smart as a whip, leading her class in school every semester.  She was a domestic little girl, devoted to womanly pursuits, and though her cousin Beth was a year younger than she was, they were best friends.

     By contrast, her younger sister Charlotte, named for Rebecca’s mother, was a round, robust little tyke of just over four years.  Lottie was almost as tall as Bitsie, but chubby and pink.  Her hair was strawberry blond, done in the same fashion as Bitsie’s, and like her brother Peter, she favored her father.  Bright blue eyes and a sprinkle of freckles across her nose gave added charm to her round face.  Her smile was broad and infectious. Her little cousin Annie, Adam and Meg’s youngest, was her closest friend.

     “Hi, Pa.  Adam here yet?” Hoss asked after his horses and sleigh had been tended to.  Rebecca and Carrie were already in the kitchen.

     “Not yet, son.  I expect they’ll show up any minute,” Ben answered as he bounced Lottie on his knee.  She was laughing hysterically, to her grandfather’s delight.

     “Well I hope he shows up soon.  The tree we have in mind is a good hour and a half ride away.”

     “Well, why don’t some of you get the tree sled ready?  Then when he shows up we can get going right away.”

     The Christmas tree had to be cut and hauled back to the house so it could be decorated that afternoon.  Adam, Joe, and Hoss had built a special sled to tie it to, so that bringing it back to the house would be easy.  Every Christmas Ben, the three brothers, and their sons who were old enough, made the trek to cut the perfect Christmas tree.  It must be at least ten feet tall and faultlessly shaped.  Throughout the year everyone made note of trees that might fit the bill.  In late November, Hoss, Adam, and Joe would ride out and make the final decision.  This year’s tree wasn’t located that far away, but the snowfall would make the going rough.

     “Hey Eric, Peter, Joe…” Hoss called out.  “Go hitch up the sled so we can leave when Uncle Adam gets here.

     The three cousins came out of the kitchen clutching fresh doughnuts.  They dressed and headed outside, anxious to be underway.

     As they left the house, Adam and his family rode up into the yard.

     “Hi Aunt Meg, Uncle Adam,” they called as they headed for the spot behind the barn where the sled was stored.  “Hey Adam, when you’re done there, give us a hand.  We’re getting the tree sled hitched up.”

     “I’ll be there in a few minutes”, their ten year old cousin called back.

     Adam assisted Meg and their older daughter Beth from the sleigh.  While they collected some items from the back of the vehicle, Annie, just a few months over three years old stood up and announced, “I wanna jump, Pa.”  Adam turned and faced her.

     “Alright, I’m ready.”

     The tot launched herself off the side of the sleigh and into her father’s waiting arms, with a shout of  “Wheee!”

     Adam laughed and caught her. He held her as Meg and Beth walked passed him, heading for the front door.  A small figure tried to race past him.  Adam’s free arm shot out and caught his younger son Jesse by the collar of his coat.  He twisted his wrist forcing the boy to face him.

     “Where are you going?”

     Adam rarely raised his voice.  It was unnecessary.  All his children could tell how much trouble they were in by his tone.  Jesse, his feet just touching the ground as Adam lifted his arm slightly assessed the situation.  Pa wasn’t too angry yet.

     “Into the house.”

     “At that rate you could have knocked over your mother and sister.  The rule is ‘Ladies first’ Jesse.  See that you remember it.”

     “Yes Pa.”

     The youngster waited to be released, but Adam kept hold of him.  This wasn’t good, the boy realized.  He had done something else wrong, but for the life of him couldn’t imagine what it was.

     “What did I tell you before we left the house?”

     Uh oh.  Jesse’s mind raced.  What had Pa said?  His parents were always telling him stuff and it was just so hard to remember it all.  And today was Christmas Eve day and there were so many other important things on his mind.  He wracked his brains while his father waited for an answer.  Then he caught sight of his brother, lifting a basket out of the sleigh, and he remembered.

    Thank you Adam!, he thought as he said, “You said Adam and I should unload the sleigh when we got here.”

     “So why aren’t you carrying anything?”

     Jesse hung his head.  He spoke the sentence that was his theme song.

     “I forgot.”

     Adam sighed.

     “Like you forgot that you were supposed to polish everyone’s shoes last night?”

     “Yes Pa.”

     “And like you forgot to fill the kindling box yesterday morning?”

     “Yes Pa.”

     Adam released his hold on the Jesse’s collar.  He placed his hand under his son’s chin and lifted it, so he was looking into the boy’s eyes.

     “You have to do better at remembering Jesse.  How would you feel if Santa didn’t bring you anything because he forgot?”

     “I’m sorry, Pa.  I’ll try to do better.  I really will.  I’ll unload the whole sleigh myself so Adam can go help Joe and the twins,” came the earnest reply.

     “That’s not necessary.  You just do your fair share and I’ll be happy.  In a family we all work together.  Now go help your brother.”

     Jesse was off like a shot and Adam watched him go.  The boy was so easily distracted.  He meant well and was always sincerely sorry when he forgot things, but Adam doubted that the child would remember his head if it weren’t screwed on to his neck.  He was a good-hearted little boy who would be eight years old in a couple of months.  He had dark brown curly hair and favored his mother, with an oval face, straight nose, and big brown eyes.   Recently he had lost another tooth, giving his smile the appearance of a mischievous jack o’lantern.  He was a poor student, although Meg worked patiently with him every night.  She swore that there was some as yet undiagnosed problem, which caused him to have such a bad memory.  Adam was less sure about that, but he had to admit that the child did seem to try and felt more sympathy for his struggle than anger.  If Jesse was giving school his best effort, then there was little Adam could say.

     The boy was also incredibly impulsive.  He never seemed to think before he acted.  He had almost pulled down Ben’s beautiful grandfather clock because the wooden moldings and decorations on it seemed just right as handholds for climbing to the top of it.  Fortunately his Uncle Hoss had been there to throw his body in front of the clock before it toppled over.  Then there was the time that Jesse looped a rope around the longhorns that Ben had mounted on the mantel.  He thought it would be fun to swing in and out of the fireplace.  His grandfather had caught him before he set his clothes on fire.

      Adam remembered that Rebecca had once said to him that God played a little joke on women, giving them pain in childbirth, but still making them desirous of their husbands’ attentions.    Well, the Lord certainly did seem to have a sense of humor.  By all that was logical, Jesse should have been Joe’s child.  Their personalities were very similar, though Jesse didn’t have Joe’s quick temper.  But Adam loved his son dearly. He was so sincere and kind.  Like his father, the child abhorred injustice of any kind.  And he was a hard worker, when he remembered that he had a job to do.

     Adam felt a pat on his cheek from a little red-mittened hand.

     “Pa, I’m cold.”

     “Sorry, sweetheart.  Let’s get you inside,” Adam said, turning his attention to his baby daughter.

     He walked into the house, shutting the door behind him.  He put her down and helped her remove her mittens, hat, coat, and scarf.

     “Now, what are you going to do with these things?” he asked her as he squatted in front of her.

     “Put them on the bed in the downstairs bedroom.”

     “Good girl!”

     He watched her march off and stood up, removing his hat and coat.

     “Sorry we’re late,” he said as he greeted his brothers and father.  “We had a little problem with unshined shoes.”  Seeing the puzzled looks on their faces, he held up his palm and shook his head.  “Don’t ask,” was all he said.

     “Just how much trudging through deep snow are we going to have to do today?” Ben asked, referring to the location of the tree, and thinking of the beginnings of rheumatism in his hip.

     “Not much, Pa.  There’s road almost all the way.  I guess we’ll have a 15 to 20 minute walk through unbroken snow.  But don’t worry.  We’ll let ya ride on the sled with the kids if ya can’t make it!” Hoss joked.

     “Don’t you worry about me,” answered his father, shaking his finger.  “Just keep an eye on the boys.  We don’t want anyone getting hit with the tree when it comes down.”

     This had happened the year before.  Young Joe had been hit with the top of the tree as it fell.  The force knocked the wind out of him.  He wasn’t hurt because the pile of soft snow beneath him cushioned the blow.

     While the men were talking, little Ben was arguing with his mother near the dining room table.

     “But I’m old enough now.  I wanna go cut the tree.”

     “You can stay here and help us string popcorn and make cookies,” Carrie said soothingly.  “Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

     “That’s girl stuff,” he scoffed unhappily.  “I’ll careful, Mama.  Honest!  Please can’t I go?  Jesse’s going this year and he ain’t much older than me.”

     “He’s not much older than I am,” Carrie corrected.  “No, sweetie, I think you’d better stay home one more year.”

     “But it’s not fair!” Ben continued to argue, something he would not have tried had his father said no.  Carrie took a look at her little one’s stormy face.  Before she could answer him, young Adam came up to her and said quietly, “If you let him go Aunt Carrie, I’ll keep an eye on him.”

     Carrie smiled fondly at her nephew.  He was becoming more and more like his father every day.  The mischievous little boy was becoming a responsible, thoughtful, considerate young man.  Though he had his mother’s eyes, everything else about him was Adam all over again.  He was exceptionally bright and a hard worker.  And he had his father’s depth of thought and innate sense of privacy.  He was a thinker, loving books above all else.  He was devoted to both his parents and felt a responsibility, as the eldest, to watch over his siblings.  He had just turned ten, but he gave the impression of being older.

     “Thank you, Adam,” Carrie answered, stroking his dark curly head.  “It’s really your Uncle Joe’s job to watch out for him.  I’ll see what he thinks about Ben going along this year.”

     A few minutes later a thrilled Ben was told he could go with the rest of the Cartwright men to get the Christmas tree.

     “Take him to the outhouse before you leave,” Carrie suggested.

     “Darlin’, if he has to go, he can go behind a tree.”

     “Joe!  That’s disgusting.”

     “Carrie, it’s what men do in the woods.  Stop worrying.  He’ll be fine.”

     “But he’s just a baby.”

     Carrie was particularly protective of Ben because he was the youngest.  She had wanted more children but had suffered two miscarriages in the past four years.  Joe went over and whispered something in her ear.   She looked at him and smiled slightly.

     “Alright.  Just watch him carefully…and young Joe too!”

     Her husband kissed her and he and Ben went to join the rest of the group waiting outside.

       The sled carried the tools and rope they’d need to bring the tree home. The eldest boys took turns driving the team.  Everyone started out walking, but anyone who wanted to rest could hop on the low, wide sled for a ride.  As is typical with men, they took it as a test of their manhood not to ride at all, no matter how tired they were.

     “Hey Joe,” Hoss said, “your Mary’s gonna be quite a looker when she gets older.”

     Joe beamed.

     “She’s a pretty little girl.  I’ve always thought she favored Carrie’s side of the family.” he agreed modestly.

     “Little girl?” Hoss continued.  “My boys say she’s the most popular girl in her grade.”

     The smile evaporated from his brother’s face.

     “What’re you talking about?”

     Hoss chuckled.  The look of apprehension on Joe’s face was priceless.

     “Well,” he said, as if pondering what he wanted to say, “the twins just happened to mention that a few of their older friends think Mary’s just about the nicest, prettiest gal they ever met.”

     “Who are these ‘older friends’ and just how old are they? Joe demanded.

     “I don’t rightly recollect their names.  Sorry,” Hoss replied, taking delight in his brother’s discomfiture.

     “Names, Hoss.  I want names!” Joe demanded, his face getting red, more from anger at the mental picture his brother was painting than from the trudge through the snow.

     “Well now, calm down Joe.  What difference does it make if a boy shows a little interest in your daughter?”

     “What difference does it make?  I’ll tell you what difference it makes. I was a boy!  I know how their minds work.  If any snotty nosed kid thinks he can waltz up and…”

     Before he could finish the thought, Adam decided to jump in and needle his brother a little as well.

     “Calm down, Joe.  You don’t have anything to be concerned about yet.  She’s still young.  I don’t think you’ll have any serious worrying to do for at least…well, another year or so.”

     Adam scratched his eyebrow with his little finger and added,  “And you know, Hoss and I are gonna keep a sharp eye on how you deal with everything so we do it right when our girls hit their teens.”

     He winked at Hoss and they both laughed.

     “Seems to me, little brother, that your past is gonna serve you well when it comes to handlin’ any suitors Mary might have,” Hoss continued.  “Yup, old Adam and I ain’t got near the experience you have.  You can be a regular example for us.”  And Hoss threw back his head and laughed at Joe’s expression.  It went from angry to irritated to frustrated to glum in the space of a few seconds.

     Joe sighed deeply.

     “Since the day she was born I knew there’d come the time when I wouldn’t be the most important man in her life anymore.  I wish time didn’t go so fast,” came the morose reply.

     “And it makes you think, doesn’t it son, that all those girls you used to chase were somebody else’s little girl,” Ben added, taking his own turn at teasing Joe.

     Joe looked abashed.

    “Yeah, Pa.  You’re right.”  Then he brightened a little.

     “I think Adam’s right though.  I don’t really have anything to worry about just yet.  I’ve got plenty of time to get all my shotguns and rifles in good shape.”

     And the conversation ended with laughter from Ben and all his sons.

     The lighthearted banter continued until they’d reached the tree.  Everyone took a moment to admire it and Ben said a few words about how fortunate they were to be able to select from such a huge number of pines.  It was his custom at this point to offer a word of thanks to God for the blessings he and his family enjoyed from the land.  Then they got busy with felling the lovely tree.  Everyone took a turn at the cross saw, even little Ben.  When it was on the ground, they lifted and tied it to the sled and started home.  About half way there Joe’s six-year old and Jesse decided to ride.  And finally, his hip beginning to ache, Ben took a seat on the sled.  It was the first time he had ever done so.

     “I’m a lot older than you boys,” he said somewhat sadly.

     “Well, that may be true Pa, but right now I’m so tired that I’m thinking you’re also an awful lot smarter than the rest of us,” Adam replied as they walked wearily back to the house.  His brothers nodded in agreement.  The remark brought the smile back to his father’s face.

     Ben had been correct when he said that his three daughters-in-law worked well together.  The women cared deeply for each other.  They sewed together, preserved the winter’s food together, went berry picking and made their jams and preserves together.  They shared recipes and children’s clothing.  They acted as sounding boards for each other and attended each other at the births of their babies.  They babysat each other’s children so often that the cousins were as comfortable in the house of either of their uncles as they were in their own.  Each felt she couldn’t have hand-selected two better friends.

     The women and girls had been busy while the men were out.   As soon as they arrived Rebecca and Carrie had gone to the kitchen and thrown together the ingredients for a hearty beef vegetable soup.  It was simmering in a huge pot on the stove.  Loaves of bread were lined up ready for making sandwiches, and there were plates of cookies brought from their own homes for dessert.

     Meg had set Mary, Bitsie, and Beth to stringing popcorn to decorate the tree.  The three cousins sat on the settee and chatted as they worked.  Lottie and Annie watched as Meg cut dozens of shapes from rolled out gingerbread.  The two little girls poked holes in the top of each of them prior to baking.  These would also serve as tree decorations.

     As the soup cooked, Carrie and Rebecca decorated the house.  They strung evergreen garland on the banister and trimmed it with red bows.  They draped it over the fireplace, the front door, and the dining room windows as well.  They removed the beloved horse sculpture that always sat on the table behind the settee to a free spot in Ben’s office alcove.  They had made a lovely evergreen centerpiece with pinecones and ribbons to put in its place, resting on a Christmas table runner made by Rebecca.  A second centerpiece, with a tall red candle at its center, graced the dining room table.  Ben had placed a big hook on the front door and they hung a huge wreath there.  Small sacks of pine needles were put in odd places, giving a wonderful smell to the entire downstairs.

     When the men and boys arrived home they untied the tree from the sled and stood it upright on the porch, leaning against the house wall.  After lunch they’d bring it in and trim it.  The inside of the house was bright and warm and smelled of pine, soup, gingerbread, and coffee.  It was a ‘welcome home’ smell.

     The children were fed in the kitchen, where they could eat in a less formal setting than usual.  All three families followed the traditional rule that children could not speak at the table unless spoken to.  This did not mean that meals were silent affairs, by any means.  Each child was questioned about his or her activities of the day, but no child initiated a conversation.  None of them would have dared speak while his parents were engaged in a discussion or ventured an opinion, unless specifically asked.  So having lunch with all their cousins was fun and quite a treat.  Still, they were careful not to become too noisy and disturb the grown-ups.

     When they had been excused, all the children except Lottie and Annie went out to play in the snow, while the adults drank coffee and talked.  Lottie was an easy-going child, but Annie could be difficult.  When Adam looked at his two girls he thought that each had inherited a particular part of their mother’s personality.  Annie had most of the passion and stubbornness, the single-mindedness, and the determination that was one part of Meg.  Beth had the gentleness, domesticity, and sweetness that was the other part.

     “Mama, I wanna go play in the snow,” Annie said to her mother, who was refilling the coffeepot in the kitchen.

     “You can’t, lovey.  It’s much too cold out for you.  Stay inside and play nicely with Lottie.”

     “But I wanna,” the little girl insisted.

     “Annie, I said no.  Now stop whining and go play in the living room.”  And Meg paid no further attention to her.  This however did not stop Annie.  She marched into the dining room and boldly tapped on her father’s leg as he sat talking with the other adults.

     “It’s not polite to interrupt grownups, Annie,” he scolded her gently.  She looked so woebegone that he relented.

     “What do you want, Bright Eyes?”

     “I wanna go play in the snow, Pa.”

     This ploy had worked successfully for the little schemer in the past.  She had played one parent off against the other to her benefit a few times.  For unknown reasons, her siblings had never tried this.  If one parent said no, it didn’t occur to them to ask the other.  Or if it had occurred to them, they decided that they would eventually be found out and punished.   The three-year old, however, had no qualms about doing whatever was necessary to get her way.  Unfortunately, her father was on to her game.

     “Meg!” he called, “Annie wants to go outside.”

     Meg reentered the dining room, coffeepot in hand.

     “She asked me already and I said no, Adam,” she told him as she set the pot down and resumed her seat.

     Adam looked at the child and raised his eyebrow.

     “Did you ask Mama before you asked me?” he asked sternly.  Her big brother Adam and her sister Beth rarely heard that tone of voice from their father.  And it was enough to make Jesse, who was more familiar with it, quake in his boots.  But the little girl faced her father squarely and nodded her head.

     “If Mama says no, then don’t come and ask me.  And if I say no, you don’t go and ask her.  Is that clear?”

     She nodded again.

     “Answer me, Annie.  Did you understand what I just said?”

     “Yes, Pa.”

     “Now go play with Lottie.”

     As she walked away he glanced at Meg.  She rolled her eyes heavenward and shook her head.

     “If she’s this manipulative and strong willed at three, what will she be like when she’s ten?” she asked.

     “I can handle her,” Adam answered. Then he chuckled and added, “I’ve had a lot of practice dealing with stubbornness.”

     “Now what’s that supposed to mean?”  Meg huffed indignantly.

     He took a sip of his coffee and shrugged.

     “It means that she has your stub…strong will,” he replied.

     “And you’re not stubborn, Adam?” Carrie joined in, rushing to her sister-in-law’s defense.

     “I can be,” he admitted.  “So poor Annie’s inherited it from both sides.  But like I said before, I can handle her.”

     His wife shook her head, but remained silent.  Adam, a loving but strict father,  seemed to have a little blind spot when it came to their youngest.

     Annie did finally get to go out in the snow for a while.  A short distance from the house was a hill just made for sledding.  The Cartwrights had two big toboggans.  Everyone except Carrie went out to have a ride or two down the hill.  They had a marvelous time mixing the riders on the sleds and racing each other down the hill.  An impromptu snowball fight followed, with Hoss, Adam, and Joe joining in with as much enthusiasm as any of the children.

     Eventually they found their way back into the house to trim the tree.  The brothers moved the blue velvet chair out of its corner by the fireplace and set the tree in place.  It took less than an hour to decorate all ten feet of it with gingerbread figures, delicately crocheted snowflakes and stars, small red and white bows, and bells cut from gilt pasteboard.  Yards of popcorn string were draped around it and the white candles were carefully set in their holders.  On top was a specially made silver star, which Rebecca had brought with her from Germany.  They stood back and admired their work.

     “I think our trees get prettier every year,” Mary said.

      “I think you’re right, darling,” Ben said putting his arm around her to give her a hug as they all stood back to admire their handiwork.  “Every year I think we’ve got the perfect tree and the next year I always think we’ve done even better.”

     “Say, is dinner just about ready?  I don’t know about the rest of you, but all that exercise this afternoon gave me a real appetite,” Hoss remarked.

     “Yeah, well just when haven’t you had a real appetite?” his brother Joe asked sarcastically.

     “Well every time Rebecca was carrying one of the kids, I just about completely lost my appetite for a few months.  Almost wasted away.”

     While Joe hooted over this response, Rebecca came up and wrapped her arm around her husband’s waist.

     “Ach, Joe, you may laugh if you want, but I think it was so sweet for Hoss to share my discomfort.  And he did really eat less at that time.  I should know, since I cooked for him.”

     Hoss draped his arm over her shoulder and looked down at her with the same unadulterated adoration he had on the day they wed.  Even after more than ten years of marriage he sometimes couldn’t believe his luck in finding the pretty blonde woman at his side.  He kissed her temple.

     “Thanks, hon.”

     The little cousins loved the way their fathers teased each other.  They waited to see what would happen next, but just then Carrie called them in to eat.  As before, the children ate in the kitchen.  Three large baking pans of chicken pie were on the menu as well as assorted vegetables, breads, pickles, and applesauce cake for dessert.  After dinner there was no time to linger at the table.  It had been a tradition that the children entertain the adults before the lighting of the candles on the tree and bedtime.  All the mothers assisted with the production to some extent, but most of the organizational duties fell to Meg.  She helped each child or group of children with their selection, coached them, and she and Adam accompanied them, when necessary.  Their piano had been brought to the main house yesterday. The settee was pulled back to diagonally face the stairs, the heavy table was moved out of the way, and extra chairs had been brought in. The children would perform in front of the newly decorated tree.

     First on the program was an instrumental duet on piano and guitar by the eldest grandchildren, Mary and Adam.  Mary had taken piano lessons from Meg for the past two years and played quite well.  His father had instructed young Adam, and Meg had selected several pieces they could perform together.  They did very well and the applause was enthusiastic from the rather biased audience.

     Then Hoss and Rebecca’s four children got up and sang two Christmas carols in German.  Meg was familiar with the tunes and accompanied them.  Rebecca had practiced with them so frequently that they were letter perfect and even managed a bit of simple harmony.  More applause followed.

     Finally, young Joe, Ben, Jesse, and Beth tooted out a few familiar carols on recorders that Meg had purchased for them.  Both Adam and Meg accompanied them and the results were quite pleasing.

     When the entertainment was over, Carrie sent the children into the kitchen to get a huge bowl of popcorn balls that had been made earlier in the day.  They were allowed to eat them in the living room while Grandpa and one of the uncles did the traditional readings.  While the others were off getting the refreshments, Annie came up to Adam and tugged on his sleeve.  He smiled down at her.

     “Don’t you want to go get the popcorn balls with your cousins?” he asked.

     She shook her head.

     “I wanna sing,” she said.

     Adam looked puzzled.

     “Didn’t Mama teach you a song for tonight?” he asked.  Perhaps Meg thought the baby was still too young to perform, he thought to himself.

     She shook her head again, her face incredibly sad.  Adam’s heart melted.  She could be a little stinker, but she was so cute.  She still retained some baby plumpness.  Her shiny brown curls were too short yet to braid, so Meg had pulled them back into two little ponytails, tied with red and green ribbons.  There could be no doubt as to her paternity because her face was a feminine version of her father’s—thick lashes framing hazel eyes, pronounced cheekbones, and even a tiny cleft in her chin.

     He took her hand and stood up.

     “Let’s go see about this,” he said as she trotted along next to him.

     Meg was piling up music on the piano as they approached.

     “Sweetheart, Annie wants to sing but she said you didn’t teach her a song for tonight.”

     “I thought something like this would happen,” Meg answered as she continued to shuffle and rearrange the sheet music.  “Adam, I asked her many times over if she wanted to perform tonight and every time she said no.  I told her that everyone else, including Lottie would be doing something, but she refused.  I did my best to change her mind, but she said she didn’t want to, so I let it drop.  It didn’t seem that important to me.”

     Adam squatted down to be at eye level with the little girl.

     “I’m afraid you lost your chance, Annie.  Next time when Mama offers to teach you a song you should say yes.  Then you’ll be able to perform with your cousins.”

     Annie was not deterred by her father’s logic.

     “But I wanna sing now,” she insisted.

     “You don’t have a song prepared,” Adam answered patiently.

     “I know a song.  I know a song about a star.”

     “You do?”

     Her curls bounced as she nodded in the affirmative.

     “I know Twinkle, twinkle little star.  That’s a good song, isn’t it, Pa?  There’s a star on the Christmas tree.”

     Adam stood up and covered his smile with his hand.  He coughed and said to his wife,   “What do you think?  Her argument has some merit.”

     “I think we should let her live with the consequences of her actions.  I offered to teach her a Christmas song for tonight, but she turned me down…repeatedly,” she emphasized.

     Annie wrapped her arms around her father’s leg and leaned her head against his thigh. He looked down at her.  Her expression seemed to say, “You are my knight in shining armor, championing my cause.”

     He placed a hand gently on her head and turned back to Meg.

     “Come on, Meg.  She’s only three.  Where’s your Christmas spirit?”

     His wife tilted her head and looked at him through her lashes.

     “This will come back to haunt you some day, Adam.  She shouldn’t be allowed to get her way just because she’s young and cute.  You’re spoiling her.”

     She shook her head, sighed, and addressed her daughter.

     “Annie, you may sing Twinkle, twinkle little star.  I’ll accompany you.  Go with Pa and he’ll tell you where to stand.”

     A huge smile filled the child’s face.  She was about to run off when Adam grabbed her and said, “What do you say to your mother?”

     “Thank you, Mama,” she said excitedly.

     Adam stood her on the bottom step of the staircase and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention.  We have a last minute addition to our entertainment.  Miss Anne Prescott Cartwright will now favor us with her rendition of Twinkle, twinkle little star.”

     He took a seat on one of the extra chairs while Meg played a few cords of introduction.  Then the youngest Cartwright warbled her way through the familiar tune.  There was a second of silence after she finished.  Then the room was filled with thunderous applause, including loud whistles from Uncle Hoss and shouts of ‘Brava!’ from Grandpa and Aunt Carrie.  The enthusiastic reception first stunned, and then frightened the tiny chanteuse.    She fled to her father, who scooped her up and held her on his lap.  She popped her thumb in her mouth and buried her face in his shirt, causing the applause to turn to laughter.

     Each year one of the brothers read A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Moore.  This year it was Joe’s turn.  His captivated audience sat on the floor around him, munching popcorn balls and drinking hot chocolate.  He read with enthusiasm and a dramatic flair.  When he reached the last line, every child joined him in saying, “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!”  Then the Cartwright cousins took their cups to the kitchen, washed the stickiness from their hands, and came back to hang their stockings.  Hoss did the honors here because the thick slab of wood, which served as a mantel, was so high above the hearth that no child could reach it.  Soon a row of eleven stockings of different sizes and colors festooned the wooden beam above the fire.

     Each brother lit a match and they worked quickly to light the candles on the tree.  Because of the danger of fire, the tree was lit only twice…once on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas Day.   The women lowered the lamps and everyone stood back to admire the lovely fir, gaily decorated, and now shining with the glow of several dozen candles.  It was breathtaking…a once a year phenomenon that would burn into their memories as brightly as the candles burned on the tree.

     At this time it was also traditional that Ben would read the Christmas story from the book of Luke.  The youngest child present generally sat on his lap, but Annie was still overcome from the reception to her song, so Lottie took her place.  Once the little blond was settled, Ben opened his well-worn Bible, and in his deep resonant voice read the familiar and beloved words.  When he had finished, Meg, Carrie, and Rebecca took the children up to put them to bed.  The boys would all be sleeping in one room and the girls in another.

     “Now remember,” Joe said as they began to troop up the stairs, “everyone stays in bed until we call you in the morning.  Don’t come downstairs before that.”  This was said in the futile hope that the weary parents could get a little sleep.  With the excitement of the holiday, the children had a difficult time falling asleep and generally woke earlier than usual.

     As he and his brothers snuffed out all the candles Joe asked, “How come we can’t get those kids out of bed on a school morning, but tomorrow they’ll be wide awake by 4:30?”

     “It seems to me you behaved in exactly the same way,” his father responded with a smile, as he filled four brandy snifters.

     Joe laughed.

     “I guess you’re right, Pa.  Christmas Eve was the most exciting night of the year.  It’s amazing I got any sleep at all that night.  And you know what?  Christmas is still a lot of fun for me, but for different reasons.  I love seeing the kids expressions when they check their stockings.”

     By the time Meg, Carrie, and Rebecca returned, the furniture was put back, the candles were safely put out, and the four Cartwright men were enjoying their after-dinner drinks.  Rebecca went into the kitchen and returned a few minutes later with a hot, spiced wine drink that she made every year for the women.  The warm red wine, sugar, and spices tasted perfect on a cold December night.  The adults sat up awhile longer talking and laughing.  Just before they retired for the night they filled the stockings and set a few extra presents under the tree.   The fire was banked and more wood added to the big cast iron stove.  As they retired, they checked once more on the children.  They were all still awake, but pretended to sleep as soon as the bedroom doors were opened.

     “I love Christmas,” Meg said as she turned the lamp down low, but did not fully extinguish it.

     “I like it too,” her husband agreed as he climbed into bed.  He had taken to wearing nightshirts as the children got older.  He lay back against the pillow with a sigh.

     “How much sleep do you think we’ll get before those kids are up?” he asked as Meg slipped in beside him.

     “Well Joe made it clear that they weren’t to go roaming around till we were up,” she answered, pulling the covers over them.

     “And what do you think the chances of that are?” he asked, draping his forearm above his head.

     “I don’t know.  I doubt that they’d actually leave their rooms, but they might make a lot of noise hoping to wake us up.”

     Adam turned on his side and kissed her.

     “Let’s get whatever sleep we can then.”

     She placed a hand on his arm.

     “Adam, do you think it’s midnight yet?”

     He shrugged.

     “I don’t know.  I doubt it.  It was about eleven when we came up.  Why?”

     “Well, I had a special Christmas present I wanted to give you, but I guess I could give it to you a little early.”

     A smile spread slowly across his face.  He reached out and caressed her hip with his hand.  His eyes grew heavy lidded.

     “A special present?  Now what exactly could it be?”

     She laughed gaily.

     “Well that wasn’t what I had in mind, but I suppose I could give you two special presents.”

     “I must have been a really good boy to get two special presents,” he joked.

     Her smile changed from laughter to love.  She reached out and ran her finger down his cheek.

     “You’ve always been good…good to me and good for me.  We’re so busy all the time that I suppose I don’t tell you often enough how happy you make me.  But you do.  I think I have just about the perfect life and much of it is because of you.”

     She leaned forward and kissed him… a long, lingering, loving kiss that hinted of wonderful things to come.  He wrapped his arm around her waist and drew her closer, positioning her beneath him.  He paused a minute to look at her beloved face.

     Twelve years had changed them both a little.  He was going gray at the temples and there were a few ranch chores he no longer performed, such as bronc busting.   Meg had a few tiny lines at the corner of her eyes and a stray gray hair or two.  But her eyes were still the same velvet brown, with a suggestion of mischief and merriment right below the surface.  He loved her more than ever because he knew her better than ever.  But she still had the capacity to surprise him, and though their life was rather routine, it was never dull.

     He enjoyed making love to her as much as he had when they were newlyweds…more, if the truth was told.  He knew her body as well as his own and she had come to understand and rejoice in her own passionate nature.  Familiarity had not taken the edge off their love life.  It had enhanced it.  Now he knew exactly how to get a response from her…where to touch, to kiss, to stroke.  And her reaction never failed to inflame him further.  She welcomed his advances.  In all the years of their marriage she had rarely turned him down.  His only regret was that four children had decreased the frequency of their encounters, but that was to be expected he supposed.

     It was ironic.  Adam loved making babies with his wife, but the more children they had, the less time there was for their love life.  It was like a mathematical equation.  The number of romantic interludes they had was inversely proportional to the number of children they had.  The kids were a natural kind of birth control.  Meg was a doting mother and a fussy housekeeper.  Adam had tried to convince her to hire some domestic help around the house, but she always insisted it wasn’t necessary.  She sent out the laundry and had help with heavy work when she was pregnant, but aside from that, she did everything else herself.  She was so tired some nights he didn’t have the heart to ask anything of her.  She was asleep almost as soon as she pulled up the covers, having expended the last of her energy on a hasty goodnight kiss.  And on those nights when she seemed more lively, they were often interrupted by one of the children, whose requests ran the gamut from, “I want a drink of water” to “I have a stomach ache”, to “I had a bad dream.  I’m scared.  Can I sleep in here with you?”

     But he doubted they would be bothered tonight.  The children would be having fun with their cousins and here was Meg, ready, willing, and eyes sparkling with fun and anticipation.

     He lowered his face to kiss her but she stopped him.

     “Don’t you want the first surprise I said I had?” she asked with a smile.

     “Can’t it wait?” he asked, with mock impatience.

     “Well, I suppose it could but I want to tell you now.”

     “Tell me?  Tell me what?”

     She dropped her arm from around his neck and ran her finger over the cleft in his chin.

     “I wanted to tell you that we’re going to have another baby.  That’s my Christmas surprise.”

     His eyebrows went up.

     “We are?”

     “Mmm hmm.”  She watched his face to gauge his reaction.  With a little planning and a lot of luck their children were spaced a few years apart.  They had believed that Annie would be their last.  Would he be upset or disappointed?  She was relieved when a grin split his face.

     “That’s wonderful, sweetheart.  I couldn’t think of a nicer Christmas present.”

     He kissed her tenderly, then pulled back and looked down at her, the smile still on his face.   He seemed to be about to say something but she spoke first.

     “Aha!  There it is!” she said, nodding her head from the pillow.

     He looked puzzled.

     “There what is?” he asked.

     “That smug smile you get every time I tell you we’re expecting another baby.  You are such a typical male.  You’re as proud of yourself as that old rooster I keep.  If I pushed you out of bed right now you wouldn’t get up and walk, you’d strut.”

     He chuckled.

     “You’re wrong.  My smile is just pure happiness…nothing else.”

     “No it’s not.  Admit it, Adam.  Every time I tell you I’m pregnant you give yourself a little pat on the back.”

     “If you think I’m fool enough to admit such a thing to you, then you don’t know me very well.”

     “You just proved my point,” she said with a laugh.  “But I’m glad you’re happy.  I thought maybe you might not be.”

     “Of course I’m happy.  But what about you?  This is going to be a lot more work for you than for me.”

     “I’m thrilled,” she assured him.  “Don’t forget.  I’m the woman who was sure she’d never have a baby.  Besides, Beth is getting old enough to be some help and the boys can pitch in too.  Everything will be fine.  You’ll see.”

     He stroked her hair.

     “When’s the baby due?”

     Meg sighed.

     “That’s the only bad thing.  It’s due in mid-August.  I have to lumber through the hot summer looking like a cow.”

     Adam did some quick mental calculations.

     “August?  Then you could only be about one mon…are you sure about this?” he asked with a frown.

     “I’ve done this four times already.  Yes, I’m sure.  I was sure a week ago, but I wanted to save the news as a surprise.”

     “So how’d it happen?” he asked.

     She knew he was referring to the fact that they hadn’t been expecting this child, but she decided to have some fun.

     “How did this happen?  Hmm…  Well, a number of years ago a very handsome man told me exactly how this happens.  Would you like me to explain it to you?”

     He smiled a toothy, wolfish smile.

     “I’m one of those people who learns better by doing rather than by hearing.  Think you could give me a demonstration?”

     “I guess that could be arranged.  Are you a quick learner?

     “It depends on the teacher.”

     “Well, that would be me.  And I’ve been told I’m quite a good teacher, by the way.”

     “I think you’re going to have your work cut out for you.  Sometimes I need to repeat things over and over until I get the hang of them.”

     “I’ve also been told I’m incredibly patient.”

     “A very desirable quality in anyone involved in education!  So what’s my first lesson?”

     She looped her arms up around his neck and drew his face down toward hers.

    “I suppose we could start here,” she said as her eyes closed and she planted her lips tenderly on his.  They kissed gently, sweetly for a while, taking their time and enjoying the delightful sensations they could arouse in each other.  She broke away and placed kisses on his cheeks, his eyelids, his chin, his neck.

     “My turn,” he whispered, as he proceeded to kiss her face in a similar fashion.

     “You’re a better student than you give yourself credit for,” she sighed softly, as he found the pulse in her throat and covered it gently with his lips.  Suddenly she was aware that he had stopped playing the game.  His mouth came down on hers with more force and determination.  Her lips parted at his insistence and their tongues danced together.  He slipped an arm under her to bring her closer.  Their breathing accelerated.  He slid his free hand down her side and found the hem of her nightgown.  He pulled it up and stroked her calf.  With maddening slowness he caressed his way up her leg.  He was on fire for her.


     Meg heard it first.  She pushed him away.

     “What?” Adam looked confused.  “What’s the matter?”

     “Someone’s knocking at the door,” Meg answered him, pulling back.

     “Just a minute,” she called out.

     Then Adam did something he had never done in his wife’s presence before.  He swore.  Her eyes popped open.

     “Adam!” she said, truly shocked.

     “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, as he tried to get his breathing under control.  “It just slipped out.  Who can that be at this time of night?” he asked sitting up and running a hand through his hair.

     “I hope nothing’s wrong with any of the children!” Meg worried immediately.  She started to throw off the covers but he stopped her.

     “Stay where you are.  I’ll take care of it.”

     He put on his robe and padded barefoot to the door.

     He opened it to see his brother Joe standing on the other side holding Annie by the hand.

     “I’m sorry Adam.  She decided she didn’t want to sleep with the other girls and she went looking for you.  She found us by mistake.”

     “Thanks,” Adam said, with the enthusiasm of a condemned criminal expressing appreciation to the man who puts the noose around his neck.  He took his daughter’s hand as Joe went back to his room.

     “I wanna sleep in here with you.”

     He bent down so he could look her in the eye.

     “You said you wanted to sleep with the big girls.”

     “I don’t wanna sleep there.  I wanna sleep here.”

     “But isn’t it more fun in the other room with your cousins?” Adam coaxed.

     “They called me a baby.  I’m not a baby.  I wanna sleep in here, Pa.”

     “How about if I take you back there and I tell them you’re not a baby.  Then will you sleep in the other room?” he tried.

     “I don’t wanna sleep there.  I wanna sleep here,” she repeated, more emphatically.

     “If you go back and sleep with the girls, I’ll tell Mama to put honey in your milk tomorrow.”

       Surely this would work, he thought with the desperation born of sexual frustration.  Annie disliked milk and he had caught Meg sweetening it so she would drink it.  This irked Adam, who believed that his children should eat what was put in front of them and be grateful they had it.  They had discussed it and he had won out.  The child would learn to drink her milk without honey.  Unfortunately for him, Annie was not accepting bribes.

     “The big girls are all asleep.  I was afraid.  I wanna sleep in here with you.”

     Her voice was growing more high-pitched and panicky with each sentence.

     “Maybe you’d like to go sleep with the boys?” he asked.

     That did it.  His daughter peered around him and sought out Meg.  Her voice quavered.

      “Mama?” she managed to say right before her little face began to crumble.

     “Come here, sweetie,” Meg called, holding out her arms.  Annie ran to her as Adam straightened up.  She climbed over her mother and settled herself in the middle of the bed.  While she was doing this, Meg mouthed silently to Adam, “Sleep with the boys?  What’s the matter with you?”  And he mouthed right back, “You know what’s the matter with me!”

     Meg couldn’t resist.  Out loud she said, “She’s only three years old, Adam.  Where’s your Christmas spirit?”

     He tossed his robe on a chair and turned to look at her.  She couldn’t read his expression in the dim light.  She cocked her head and smiled…not a smug “gotcha” smile, but a gentle, loving smile.  He took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he walked toward the bed.  As he got closer she could see his face.  He looked at her and smiled back ruefully.


     “If you think you can stay awake for about ten minutes, the night might not be a total loss,” she told him as he got in bed and pulled up the covers.  Annie was lying facing Meg, with her thumb in her mouth.  Meg gently pushed the curls off the child’s face.

     “I guess I can manage that.”

      So he lay down on his side and enjoyed the sight of his wife as she stroked Annie’s hair, hummed a lullaby, and their little one fell asleep.  As he watched, he thought to himself that this was surely the reason that so many paintings depicted the Madonna and child.  It probably had less to do with religion than with the theme of maternal love…so universal and incredibly beautiful.

     After a while Meg said quietly,  “She’s in dreamland.  Pick her up and we’ll take her back into the room with the girls.”

     “What if she wakes up?”

     “She won’t.  She’ll sleep until the others wake up in the morning.  She was over tired and over excited.  All she needed to do was relax a little bit.”

     Adam got up, reached over, and picked Annie up in his arms.  Her little body was completely limp as he carried her back to the girls’ room.  Meg went with him to open the door and help settle her between her sister Beth and her cousin Bitsie.  After making sure the other girls were sufficiently covered, they walked quietly back to their bedroom, their arms around each other.

     “Now, what were we doing when we were interrupted?” Adam asked when they were back in bed.

     “Hmm.  Let me think,” Meg answered playfully.  “Oh yes!  I remember.  We were in the middle of a lesson.”

     “I told you I was a terrible student,” he replied with a grin.  “I can’t remember where we were.  Can you help me out?”

     “Sure can.”  She slid under him, took his hand and placed it on her hip.  She wrapped her arms around his neck and tugged his head down toward her own.  The last words she spoke for quite a while were, “We were right about here.”

     “Psst.  Adam.  Adam, are you asleep yet?”  Jesse whispered to his older brother.  No reply.

     “Psst.  Adam!  Wake up!” Jesse put an arm out and shook Adam’s shoulder.

     “Wake up!”

     “Whadda ya want?” came the mumbled answer.

     “Wanna go down and sneak a look at our stockings?”

     “What time is it?” Adam asked sleepily.

     “I just heard the big clock strike three.  Wanna go down and sneak a look?”

     “You’re nuts, Jesse.  Uncle Joe said don’t leave the room till they called us.  Go back to sleep.”

     “Aw, c’mon Adam.  Just a little peek.  No one’ll know.  We’ll be quiet.”

     “What’s going on?” their cousin Eric asked, yawning.

     “Now see what you did, Jesse?  You’re waking everyone up.  Just shut up and go to sleep.”

     “Eric, wanna go down and take a look at our stockings?  Ole Adam here’s too scared.”

     “Are you crazy, Jesse?  You heard what Uncle Joe said,” Eric answered.

     “Uncle Joe ain’t gonna do anything to you, Eric.  Besides, no one’ll know.  We’ll be real quiet.”

     “Yeah well maybe Uncle Joe wouldn’t do anything, but my Pa’ll tan me and it isn’t worth it.  I can wait another couple of hours.”

     “Ain’t there anybody in this family with any guts?” Jesse asked with disgust.

     “Forget about guts…my brain is tellin’ me to stay here and if you’ve got a brain in your head you’ll just be quiet and go to sleep,” Adam said, turning over and pulling the blanket up over his shoulders, adding to his cousin, “Ignore him Eric, he’s askin’ for trouble.”

     “Adam’s right, Jesse.  Go to sleep,” Eric advised, lying back down.

     Jesse shook his head in disbelief.  Here was a perfect opportunity and his stupid brother and cousin were blowing it!  The adults were all asleep.  What harm could come from a quick trip down to the living room?  It would only take a few minutes and they could be back before anyone knew anything.

     Well, they weren’t the only two in the room.  Jesse thought hard.  No use in asking Peter.  If Eric wouldn’t go, Peter wouldn’t either.  What about Joe?  Nah!  Joe was asleep and he slept like the dead.  Jesse figured he’d have to make so much noise waking him up that he might wake up a grownup.  That left only Ben.  Jesse smiled to himself.  He was sure he could convince Ben.  He got up and tiptoed over to where his younger cousin was sleeping on a pile of blankets on the floor.  He squatted down and shook Ben’s shoulder.

     “Ben!” he called softly, shaking the little boy’s shoulder.

     Ben’s eyes popped open and he sat up so quickly he knocked Jesse over.

     “Is it morning?  Did Santa come?  Can we go down?”  he asked excitedly.

     “Sshh!  Be quiet!” Jesse whispered, as he sat on the floor with a thud.  “No, it’s not morning yet but I’m going down to sneak a look at my stocking.  You wanna come?”

     Ben wiped the sleep from his eyes and yawned.

     “Well, do you wanna come or not?

     “I dunno, Jesse.  My Pa said not to leave the room till he called us.  We could get in trouble.”

     Jesse smiled benevolently and put an affectionate hand on his little cousin’s shoulder.

     “That’s what I like about you, Ben.  You’re smart.  You’re always thinkin’.”

     Ben looked at Jesse and smiled with pride at the compliment.

     “Yup, you’re always thinkin’.  And you’re right, Ben.  We could get into trouble if anybody heard us.  But I don’t plan on anyone hearin' us.  I’m gonna be real quiet goin’ down and once I’m down there, I’m just gonna sneak a quick peek and be back up here before anyone knows I’ve been gone.”

     Jesse stopped whispering, cocked his head, and looked at his cousin.

     “Well, that’s my plan.  I’m asking you to come too, if you want, because if you’re old enough to help us men get the tree, then you’re old enough to come with me.  Whadda ya say?”

     Ben thought for a second.  He was tired of being considered a baby and here Jesse was saying he was old enough to go with him.  And he had gone with the rest of the men to cut down the tree, so he must be old enough.  The fact that this had been Jesse’s first tree outing too had slipped his mind.  And it would be fun to take a look in his stocking before all the others knew what was in theirs!  He pushed aside the covers.

     “Let’s go!”

     Jesse smiled broadly.

     “Great!  Now listen Ben.  You follow me and be real quiet.  We’ll go down the front stairs.  There’s lamps lit in the hallway, so we can see okay,” Jesse said quietly as he stood up and walked to the door.

     He slid the door open silently and the two boys stepped into the hallway.  Jesse put his finger to his lips as he closed the bedroom door and started down the hallway with Ben trailing right behind him.  They padded along the carpet runner that covered the floor and further muffled their steps.  Each time they passed the grownups’ bedroom doors their hearts raced.  At the top of the stairs Jesse turned to Ben.

     “Be careful going down and hold on to the rail.  We don’t want to fall!” he whispered.

     Ben nodded solemnly and grabbed the banister.  They nearly fainted, then froze as Jesse stepped on one tread that creaked slightly.  When they were sure they hadn’t awakened anyone they continued down until they were standing in front of the fireplace.  They gazed in wonder at the array of plump and bumpy stockings that hung above their heads.  For a minute they were too overcome with excitement to move or speak.  Jesse recovered first.

     “Ben,” he whispered.  “Which one is yours?  We’ll look in that one first.”

     Ben looked gratefully at his cousin.

     “Thanks, Jesse!”

    “Hey, you came down here with me.  I can wait till we check yours out,” Jesse said quietly, prepared to be magnanimous.

     “But Jesse, how are we gonna get them down?  They’re so far up and we can’t reach.”

     Jesse wrinkled his brow in thought.  He had forgotten exactly how high up the mantle was.  Then his eyes lit up.

     “I got it!  I’ll kneel on the hearth and you stand on my back.  Then maybe you can reach your stocking.”

     It sounded like a good plan to Ben.  He pointed to his stocking, which was the second one hanging on the left side of the mantle.  Jesse got on his hands and knees on the stone hearth, his head facing the dining room.  Ben mounted the raised hearth and, grasping the corner of the fireplace, he stepped onto his cousin’s back.  He steadied himself with his hand as Jesse tried not to collapse under the other boy’s weight.  Ben reached up as high as he could, but he couldn’t reach the stocking.  He carefully climbed down off his cousin’s back and hopped silently onto the floor.

     “It’s no good, Jesse.  I can’t reach it.  I ain’t tall enough.  What are we gonna do now?  Should we go back upstairs?”

     “No!  I’ll think of something else,” Jesse answered as he rubbed his sore knees.  He sat with his back to the warm embers of the dying fire and thought.  His eyes lit up a second time.

     “You can sit on my shoulders and then you’ll be tall enough to reach,” he said excitedly.

     Ben looked at him doubtfully.

     “How will I get up on your shoulders?”

     “Easy!  I’ll squat down on the hearth and you sit on my shoulders.  Then I’ll stand up and you can peek into your stocking.  Whadda ya say?”


     “C’mon, Ben!  If we’re gonna do this, we have to hurry.  Make up your mind.”

     “Well, yeah, I guess so,” the younger boy agreed somewhat reluctantly.

     Jesse stepped up onto the hearth again and squatted down.  Ben stepped up after him and climbed onto his shoulders.  Then with a huge effort Jesse stood up.  He quickly realized that Ben was heavier than he anticipated, but there was nothing to do now but lock his knees and stay upright till Ben had had a look into his stocking.  And it suddenly occurred to him that Ben wouldn’t be strong enough to hold him while he checked his own stocking!  Oh well, he’d worry about one thing at a time and right now his mind was occupied with standing upright under the weight of his cousin.

     “Hey Jesse, can you move a little to the right?  I can almost reach it!” Ben said excitedly.

     Jesse, his arms locked around Ben’s legs, took a deep breath.  He hated to unlock his knees for even a second, but he had no choice.  He took a baby step to the right.

     “A little more.  I can just touch it with my finger!”

     Jesse started to take the second step.  In that split second his knees gave way and he began to fall forward.  This caused a chain of events beginning with Ben hurtling through the air and hitting the back of the settee with such force that he knocked it over.  The table behind it also was toppled.

      Meanwhile, Jesse fell face first onto the heavy wooden table in front of the settee.  His head hit the brass bowl full of apples, causing it to fly off and roll around the floor.  Fruit was scattered everywhere.  The noise was deafening in the quiet house.

     Upstairs, the four Cartwright men jumped out of bed.  Ben grabbed his robe while each of his sons said basically the same thing to his wife.

     “Stay here and lock the door.  Don’t leave the room till I call for you!”

     And each woman answered anxiously, “What about the children?”

     “I’ll take care of them.  You just stay here and I mean it!”

       In the days prior to their marriages, when all Ben’s boys had still lived at home, the house had occasionally been broken into.  Sometimes the goal was the contents of Ben’s safe.  Sometimes there were more sinister motives including the intention to do bodily harm to one or more of the Cartwrights.  As a result, the men had devised a plan of action for such events and though a break-in hadn’t occurred in years, the old training held true.  Joe and Hoss had each opened one of the doors where the children, now all wide awake, were bedded down.  They hastily called into the dark rooms that the doors were to be locked and no one was to leave unless called for.  At the top of the stairs they met up with their father who was carrying a gun.  They started cautiously down the steps.

     Little Ben had hit the settee with such force that he not only knocked it and the table over, but he also had the wind knocked out of him and received a big bump on the head as he fell to the floor.  He was momentarily stunned and lay sprawled on his stomach, trying to get his breath back.

     Jesse had received a lump on his head from his encounter with the fruit bowl, but was alert enough to hear the commotion upstairs and headed as quickly and quietly as he could for the safety of the kitchen and the back staircase.

     “Who’s down there?” Ben’s voice boomed ominously as he and his sons made their way to the landing.  They peered around in every direction, looking for movement.  Just then little Ben shook his head, recovered his breath, sat up, and began to wail.  By this time the adults’ eyes were becoming accustomed to the dim light in the living room and Joe recognized his younger son’s plaintive, “Pa!”

     “Ben!  Son!  Are you all right?” Joe called out with concern, heading in the boy’s direction.  Unfortunately he didn’t see the scattered apples, and as he moved down off the final tread, he stepped on a piece of fruit and his legs went out from under him.  He fell with a crash onto the floor, his head missing the bottom step by a fraction of an inch.

     “Hey Joe!  You all right?” Hoss asked, hurrying to his brother’s assistance.  Meanwhile Ben was lighting lamps as his grandson stood up on wobbly legs.  The men surveyed the scene before them as Joe got to his feet, his legs almost as shaky as his son’s.

     Jesse had made it to the kitchen and was heading for the back stairs when he was met by his father, who was on his way down.  Since Adam’s bedroom was nearer this stairway than any of the others, the plan was for him to come through the kitchen and add an additional element of surprise for any uninvited visitors.   The plan still worked.  Nowhere on earth at that particular moment was there a more surprised boy than Jesse Cartwright.

     “It’s all right, Adam.  No one tried to break in,” Hoss called out to his brother.  “Come on in here.  You ain’t gonna believe this!”

     Adam stared long and hard at his astonished son.  He could just about see the boy from the light of the oil lamp that Hop Sing kept perpetually burning in front of his beloved kitchen god.

     “You’re wrong, Hoss.  I probably will believe it,” he thought wryly to himself.  Then he addressed Jesse.

     “What are you doing down here?”

     Jesse gulped, his mouth as dry as a hot desert.

     “I wanted a drink of water, Pa.”

     “There’s a pitcher of water and a glass in every bedroom.  Are you telling me the pitcher in the boys’ room is empty?”

     Jesse nodded vigorously, then realized his father would only have to check to catch him in a lie.  Adam hated lying worse than any other wrong his children could commit.  It had been made very clear to them that any punishment they might receive for a misdeed would be increased dramatically if they were caught lying about it.  Jesse hung his head.  Well, Christmas was over for him.  There was no way he’d get any presents now and Pa might even take a belt to him.  At least he could make sure he wouldn’t get an extra punishment.  He’d tell the truth.  He took a deep breath and looked up at his father, who seemed particularly tall and imposing as he stood there with his arms crossed, his expression unreadable.

     “No, Pa.  The pitcher’s not empty.  I wasn’t getting a drink of water.  I was trying to sneak a look at my stocking.  I brought Ben with me, but we had an accident.”

     “Didn’t you hear Uncle Joe say to stay in your room till you were called?”

     Jesse hung his head again.

     “Yes,” he said in a barely audible tone.

     “I didn’t hear your answer.  Did you hear what Uncle Joe said?”

     Jesse looked up.

     “Yes, Pa.  I heard him.”

     Adam uncrossed his arms and placed his hands on his son’s shoulders.

     “Son,” he said, and paused a moment, “you are in big trouble.”

     He turned the child around and nudged him in the direction of the dining room.

     Hoss had returned up stairs and assured the women that there was no real danger.  At the children’s bedroom doors he said, “You can unlock the doors, but you young ‘uns stay put till I call you.  And I mean what I say!”  And they could tell from his tone that jolly Uncle Hoss wasn’t joking.

     “Hey Adam,” Eric whispered, “Wanna bet this has something to do with Jesse?”

     “I never bet on sure things,” came the sleepy reply.

     Back downstairs Ben and his sons inspected the damage done in the living room.  Hoss and his father righted the settee, which had sustained no harm.  The fruit bowl had a large dent in it and as Hoss went about retrieving apples from all over the living room and office alcove, Joe stood alternately rubbing the big bump on his youngest child’s forehead and the bruise that was beginning to swell on his own hip.

     “What in the world were you two thinking?” Joe asked little Ben.

     The boy’s eyes welled with tears as he answered his father.

     “It wasn’t my idea, Pa.  It was Jesse’s.  He said we could sneak a peek and get back upstairs and you’d never know.  I got on his shoulders to reach my stocking but he fell or somethin’ and then I hit the settee an…” At this point he burst out crying.  His father was unmoved.

     “Is this what you were so anxious to see?” Joe asked, reaching down to pick up Ben’s lumpy red stocking.  The boy had just managed to grab it and pull it down as he went sailing through the air.

     “Well take a good look at the outside of it Ben, because I seriously doubt you’ll ever learn what was inside of it for you.”

     The child cried harder and rubbed his eyes with the sleeve of his little striped nightshirt.

     “And don’t go blaming your cousin for what you did.  You’re a big boy of six and you know the difference between right and wrong.  When I tell you something you’re supposed to mind me.  You deserve what happened to you.  You’re just lucky you didn’t crack your skull open,” Joe finished.

     Adam had been standing near his father’s leather chair, his hand on Jesse’s shoulder.  He turned the boy around to look at him.

     “It’s bad enough that you chose to be disobedient, but to involve your younger cousin…” Adam didn’t finish the sentence.  He just shook his head and guided the boy over to where little Ben and Joe were standing.

     “Perhaps you’d like to explain to Ben why it’s so important that children obey their parents.”

     Jesse hung his head.  His chin was planted firmly against his chest.  He didn’t speak.

      “I’m waiting.”  Adam didn’t raise his voice but his tone had become even sterner.

     His son raised his head.  He knew the answer to this because it had been drummed into his head along with numerous examples of the sad fates of children who had been disobedient.

     “We should obey you because sometimes something bad could happen to us if we didn’t.  We could be hurt, or even killed.  We shouldn’t question grown-ups because they know better than we do.  When they tell us to do something it’s for our own good or for our safety.”

     At this point, the three women descended quietly into the living room.

     “Jesse,” Adam said, “We heard all that noise and thought a stranger might be breaking into the house.  Grandpa had a gun.  He could have shot your cousin.  Do you think that would have been worth a peek at a Christmas stocking?”

     Hearing this, little Ben started to wail louder than ever.

     “Grandpa was gonna shoot me!” he sobbed.

     Carrie rushed over and took him in her arms.  The room was suddenly silent except for Ben’s muffled sobs.  There was truth in Adam’s statement and the boys’ prank took on new meaning.  Each brother expected his children to obey and do it without question.  The West could still be a dangerous place and keeping their youngsters healthy and safe was the priority of not only the Cartwrights, but of every set of concerned and loving parents.   Obedience was not simply a matter of respect for one’s parents.  It could mean the difference between life and death.

     Meg went over to her husband and wayward son.  While Adam explained briefly what had occurred, his father bent over to right the toppled table.  Ben remembered with relief that his favorite statue had been moved earlier in the day to make way for an evergreen arrangement, the branches of which were now strewn around the floor.  As he was about to set the table on its legs, he caught sight of something on the underside.  He looked more closely.  There, carved in bold capitals, were the initials “JC”.


     The boy jumped as his grandfather called his name in an ominously severe tone.  Adam took his son by the upper arm and marched him over to where Ben was squatting down and staring at the whittled letters.

     “Did you do this?” Ben asked, pointing to the damage.

     Jesse looked down, then at Ben.  He shook his head.

     “No, Grandpa.  Honest!  I didn’t do that,” he protested.

     Adam shook the boy slightly by the arm.

     “They’re your initials, Jesse.  How’d they get there?”

     “I don’t know, Pa.  Honest I don’t!”

     Jesse’s eyes were wide with alarm as Ben and Adam stared at him, disbelief written all over their faces.

     “Wait Pa!  Don’t blame Jesse.  He didn’t do that.”

     Ben and Adam looked up in surprise as Joe hurried towards them.

     “Jesse didn’t carve his initials in the table, Pa.  I…I carved mine,” Joe admitted sheepishly to his father.

     Ben stood up and faced his youngest son.

     “You did this?” he asked incredulously, pointing to the table.

     Joe nodded, a sickly half-grin on his face.  Despite his age, he looked exactly like he did when he was a youngster caught misbehaving.

     Ben was momentarily silent as he looked first at Joe, then at the initials, then at Joe again.  Suddenly his shoulders began to shake.  His laughter grew and he was soon joined by all the other adults in the room.  The incident broke the tension that had previously filled the air.

     When the laughter had died down Ben demanded to know when Joe had committed this act of vandalism.

     “Well, I got a new pocketknife for my birthday one year.  I think I was a bout seven. It was an awfully rainy day, I had a bad cold, and I was bored.  I wanted to use that knife so much.  You, Adam, and Hoss went out to do some chores and I started looking around for something I could carve.  The table seemed like a good bet because it was wood and you’d never see underneath.  So…” And he ended his tale with a shrug.

     Ben listened to the story, shaking his head all the while.

     “You never cease to surprise me, Joseph,” he said with a chuckle.  “Any other little secrets you’d like to share?”

     “No, Pa.  I’m not saying there aren’t any more secrets…just none I’d be willing to talk about right now!”  This remark brought another burst of laughter.

     “Well, what do we do now?” Ben asked, when the chuckling had subsided.

     “What time is it anyway?” Hoss asked.

     “Almost three thirty in the morning,” his father answered, glancing at the grandfather clock.

     “Oh Lordy!  Can’t we go back to bed and get a little more sleep?”

     “I suppose we could try, but the kids are up and they’ll never go back to sleep.  And Meg and I have to deal with…” Adam interjected, pointing his finger down at the head of his younger son.

     “Yeah, Carrie and I have to make a few decisions here too,” Joe agreed.  “I want to take care of this now and get it over with.”

     “Well Hoss and I will go up and tell the children they must be quiet for another hour or so.  They surely will not sleep, but if they rest a bit it will be almost as good,” Rebecca said.  She turned to her husband and added, “Then you can try to get a little more sleep, mein schatz.”

     “Let’s all go up.  I’d rather have this discussion in the privacy of my room,” Joe added, running a hand through his hair.

     So after the mess had been cleaned up and the lamps turned off they all made their way back to their respective rooms.  Carrie and Joe took Ben with them and Adam and Meg took Jesse to their room.

     “Go sit on the bed while your mother and I talk,” Adam told the boy.  Then he and Meg walked over to the window and spoke quietly to each other.

     “He deserves a thrashing.”

     Meg looked troubled.

     “You know I hate corporal punishment, Adam.”

    “He disobeyed and he put Ben’s life in danger.  I wasn’t joking when I said my father might have shot him.”

     “I know…I know.”  She sighed, then brightened a little.

     “But he did tell you the truth in the kitchen.”

     Adam crossed his arms and leaned back against the windowsill.  He looked at his wife with amazement.

     “Are you suggesting that he not be punished because he managed to do one thing right tonight?” he asked incredulously.

      She put a gentle hand on his arm and cocked her head.

     “No…of course not.  He should be punished.  But nothing really bad happened and it is Christmas and he did own up to what he had done.”

     “Meg, you don’t reward a child for doing what they’re supposed to do anyway!”

     “I’m not suggesting that we reward him, Adam.  I’m just saying it should be taken into consideration when we decide how to punish him…that and the fact that it’s Christmas.”

     Adam thought a moment.

     “He disobeyed.  He put someone else’s life in danger.  He’ll be whipped.”  His voice was firm and when Meg looked into his eyes she knew nothing she could say would change his mind.  They had been over this ground before.  Adam did not like to discipline his children in this way.  They were usually well behaved and he was more creative than most parents were when it came to devising a fitting punishment for their occasional misdeeds.  In Jesse’s case he had unusual patience with the impulsive little boy. But this particular prank could have had tragic consequences and he believed that fact had to be driven home to his son.

     He looked at Meg’s stricken expression.

     “He’ll have to apologize to Joe and Carrie, and Pa too.  But we’ll let him have his Christmas presents.  If we don’t, it’ll cast a pall on the day for everyone else.  No reason others should suffer for what he did.”

     She nodded sadly.

     “Don’t worry, sweetheart.  I’ll make sure he understands why I’m doing this.”

     “All right.  I’ll leave it up to you,” she agreed.

      They had been speaking quietly to each other and turned to tell the little boy what they had decided.  But Jesse, exhausted from the night’s activities, as fallen asleep at the foot of the bed.  He looked so little that Meg’s heart melted when she saw him.

     “You’re not going to wake him now, are you?” she asked.

     “No.  Why don’t we just let him sleep between us for the rest of the night?  I’ll take care of it in the morning.”

     So Adam picked up his son and laid him in the middle of the bed as he and Meg climbed in again.  He smiled wryly to himself as he pulled up the covers.  Before he married he had never imagined that raising children could be such an exhausting experience, especially when one was blessed with a child like Jesse.  He gave a mental salute to his father, who had raised three boys, basically on his own, and whose third son had been the mischievous, trouble making Joe.

     “I hope this next baby’s a girl,” he murmured.

     “What did you say?” Meg asked, having not completely heard his remark.

     “I said I hope this next baby’s a girl,” he repeated a little louder.  “They’re easier to raise.”

     The words had no sooner left his lips, when the door burst open and Annie rushed in.

     “I wanna sleep in here.  You said I could sleep in here with you!” she declared indignantly.

     Adam groaned, mumbled something unintelligible, rolled over on his side, and covered his head with a pillow.  Meg got up, shut the door quietly, and addressed the child.

     “Young lady, I do not like your tone of voice.  I don’t want to hear the words ‘I wanna’ spoken by you again.  Polite girls do not speak that way.  You can say ‘May I please’, but not ‘I wanna’.  Do you understand?”  Meg’s voice was sharp and her eyes snapped angrily.

     Annie was taken aback by the severity with which Meg spoke to her, but Meg was tired…physically tired and just plain fed up with her youngest child’s demanding ways.  Annie was getting spoiled.  There was no denying it.  Well, she’d put a stop to this nonsense once and for all.

     “Yes, Mama,” came the rather subdued reply.

     “And you apologize right now for the way you entered this room.  Polite people knock before they open a closed door.”

     “I’m sorry, Mama.”

     “You’d better hope that Santa is so busy delivering gifts right now that he doesn’t know how rude you’ve been today.”

     The little girl’s eyes grew wide with apprehension.

     “I’m sorry Mama, I’m sorry Pa, I’m sorry Santa,” she began to babble quickly, hoping to include all the really important people in her life in her apology.

     Meg suppressed a smile, took the child by the hand, and sat down on the edge of the bed.

     “You and I need to have a talk about your behavior, miss,” she said to her little daughter.  “But right now I’m just too tired.  You can sleep in here too.  It’ll be tight, but I doubt that anyone’s going to get much more sleep tonight.”

     She moved Jesse over closer to Adam and then put Annie in bed next to her brother.  There was just enough room for Meg to lie down.  Despite what she had told Annie, Meg was asleep almost as soon as her head touched the pillow.

     Relative peace reigned till almost 6 a.m.  The exhausted parents managed to get a little more sleep.  Finally Ben began to knock on all the bedroom doors.

     “Hey, get up you sleepyheads!  Let’s go see if Santa was here,” he called at each room.  The children needed no second invitation and burst from their rooms, nearly knocking their grandfather down.  He laughed delightedly.  There was nothing he loved so well as the presence of his family, especially on such a happy occasion.  The boys tore past him but his granddaughters surrounded him and, taking his hands, pulled him toward the stairs.

     “Come on Grandpa!  Don’t walk so slowly!  Let’s go see what’s downstairs!”  And they kept up the chatter till they were all in the living room, their eager eyes going from their full stockings to the other presents under the tree.

     “Now remember,” Ben warned them, “we don’t open anything till everyone is down here.”

     There were disappointed groans, but almost immediately Joe, Carrie, and young Ben made their way into the living room, followed by Hoss and Rebecca.  There were excited wishes of Merry Christmas and affectionate kisses and hugs for everyone.

     “Where are Mama and Pa?” Beth asked anxiously.  “Maybe they didn’t hear you Grandpa.  And where are Annie and Jesse?” she asked, looking around.

     “They will be down in a moment, schatzie,” Rebecca said to her, as she gently stroked her niece’s hair.  “Meanwhile I go to make some coffee and some hot chocolate for you children.  I know you are impatient, but you can wait another minute or so, no?”

     “I’ll help you, Rebecca,” Carrie said, following her sister-in-law into the kitchen.  There would be plenty of work getting breakfast for this crew and it wasn’t too soon to get started.

     Upstairs, Meg walked to the door, holding Annie by the hand.  She stopped and walked back to her son, who stood next to the bed while his father pulled on his pants and buttoned his shirt.

     “Jesse, I’m so disappointed in your behavior last night,” was all she said.  Then she looked up at Adam.

     He came around the bed and said quietly, “Trust me to handle this.  Tell the others we won’t be long.  I know everyone wants to open their presents.”

     Meg nodded, took Annie’s hand again, and left the room.  Adam turned to face his son.

     When Jesse had awakened that morning, for one glorious instant he remembered that it was Christmas day, the most special and exciting day of the year.  And then the events of the night flooded his memory and his joy had turned to bitter disappointment.   Now he awaited whatever punishment his parents had decided on.

     Adam sat on the edge of the bed and pulled the child between his legs.  He bowed his head for a moment as if praying to find the right words to say to his boy.  He cleared his throat, then raised his head.

     “Jesse, the most important thing for any parent is that their child is safe.  Until you’re old enough and wise enough to keep yourself out of dangerous situations, we have to do that for you by telling you what you may and may not do.  That’s why it’s so important that you obey me or Mama or any adult who cares about you.  There are other reasons you have to obey grownups but the most important one is safety.  Do you understand that?”

     The little boy nodded his head solemnly.

     “You know that your mother and I love you very much.  You and your brother and sisters are the most important people in our lives.  When one of you disobeys, it upsets us because we know about all the dangers in the world that you haven’t learned about yet.  Disobedience could put you in an unsafe situation.  You could be hurt or worse.”

     Adam stopped here and brushed a stray lock of wavy hair off his son’s forehead.

     “When parents discipline children, it’s not out of anger, Jesse.  It’s out of love.  We love you so much that we have to make sure you do as we say so you stay safe.  If we didn’t love you, we’d let you do whatever you want and not care what happened to you.  Does that make sense to you?”

     Again Jesse nodded his head.

     “Last night you were disobedient, you involved someone else, and you put that person in possible danger.  Mama and I decided you should get a whipping.  You also have to apologize to Uncle Joe and Aunt Carrie for involving Ben.”

     Adam reluctantly picked up his belt, which was lying on the bed.  He slowly folded it in half.  In the midst of his own anguish, Jesse sensed his father’s distress at what he was about to do.  He reached out a hand and patted Adam reassuringly on the shoulder.

     “Don’t worry, Pa.  It won’t hurt me as much as what Mama just said.”

     Adam looked up in surprise.

     “What do you mean?”

     “I mean a whippin’ only hurts on the outside for a little while.  But Mama said I disappointed her.  That hurts me inside for a long time,” the child answered guilelessly.

     Adam looked down at the piece of leather in his hand.  Then he looked at the little boy in front of him, standing straight and patient.

     “So it’s important to you not to disappoint your mother?”

     Again the wavy-haired head bobbed gently up and down.

     “And you too, Pa.  I’m sorry I disappointed you.”

     And Adam knew that his son spoke from his heart.  He wasn’t trying to worm his way out of the whipping.  He was just stating the facts as he perceived them, and in a strange way attempting to comfort his father.  Adam stood up and Jesse took a step backward, then watched with a puzzled expression as Adam began to thread the belt through the loops on his pants.

     “What are you doin’, Pa?”

     Adam didn’t answer immediately as he buckled his belt.  Jesse was totally confused.  Maybe Pa was going to whip him with a switch instead.  Finally Adam placed his hand under his son’s chin and tilted it up.

     “I’m not going to whip you Jesse.  You said it yourself--Mama’s disappointment is punishment enough.  You just make sure you remember how that feels and do your best not to disappoint her or me anymore, all right?”

     Jesse stood there, wide-eyed and speechless.  Then he croaked out, “Yes, Pa.  I’ll remember.”

     “Well, I think we’ve kept everyone waiting long enough, don’t you?” Adam said, placing his hands on the boy’s shoulders and turning him in the direction of the bedroom door.   “We’d better get down there so all you kids can open your presents.”

     Jesse stopped dead in his tracks and turned to look at his father, in his eyes a mixture of confusion and hope.

     Adam smiled down at him.

     “Yes, your mother and I decided that you can still have your Christmas presents,” Adam answered the unasked question.

     Jesse lunged forward, wrapping his arms around his father’s waist.

     “Thank you, Pa!  Oh, thank you!”  And the little boy began to cry.  Adam knelt on the floor and drew the child into his arms.

     “Hey!  What’s all this?  I thought you’d be happy!”

     “I am happy.  I am happy,” Jesse sobbed into his father’s neck, dampening Adam’s shirt with his tears.  “I love you, Pa.  I love you and Mama so much.”  And he wrapped his arms around his father’s neck and clung to him, weeping tears of relief and joy.

     Adam held him tenderly, stroking his back until the child’s outburst had subsided.  He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his son’s damp cheeks.

     “We love you too, Jesse.  Here, blow your nose and we’ll go downstairs.”

     Adam held the handkerchief as his son honked noisily into the pristine white cotton.  Then Jesse put his arms around Adam’s neck again and gave him a sloppy kiss on the cheek.

     “Thanks, Pa.  I’m okay now.”

     Adam returned the hug and kiss.  Sooner than he cared to think about, Jesse would be too old to feel comfortable expressing his affection this openly.  His older son was already slightly reluctant to kiss his father goodnight.  Adam savored the precious moment as he thought regretfully of how quickly his children were growing up.  Being a parent was a bittersweet experience…an investment of time, energy, and emotion trying to mold your children into good and independent people, and before you knew it they were grown up, on their own, and not really needing you anymore.  Well, if they didn’t need you anymore, then you had done your job properly.  Still their dependence on you when they were little evoked powerful feelings.

     “This is crazy,” Adam thought to himself.  “I’m starting to get as maudlin as an old woman.  Annie is only three and we have a new baby on the way.  There’ll be children around the house for a long time!

     “All right, pardner, let’s go downstairs,” Adam said as he stood up.  He tossed the soiled handkerchief on the bed and gave Jesse an affectionate swat on the bottom.

     “Hey Pa!  I thought you said you weren’t gonna whip me,” Jesse protested, a big silly grin on his face.

     “You get downstairs and apologize to your aunt and uncle and your grandfather,” Adam responded, pointing to the door.

     “Yes sir!”  And Jesse was off like a shot.  Adam sighed, shook his head, and shouted after him, “Slow down!”

     Hoss was busy taking down the stockings and handing them to the children.  Their contents were all identical.  Each child had an orange (a special treat in the middle of the winter), a gold five dollar piece (Ben’s gift to each of them), a new pair of mittens, and two pieces of striped stick candy.  Unfortunately little Ben’s candy had been broken in the fall to the floor, but he was so thrilled to be allowed to have his stocking at all that he wasn’t about to complain.  Carrie convinced a skeptical Joe that the scare their little one received knowing he might have been shot was all the punishment that was necessary.  They had talked to him and required him to apologize to his grandfather, but he had gotten off easily.

     While the children were exclaiming over their stockings, Ben took Adam aside.

     “I know I shouldn’t butt in, son, but was it really necessary to whip the boy on Christmas day?” he asked quietly.  Everyone had noticed Jesse’s tear stained face when he came down the stairs and went to apologize to Carrie and Joe.

     Adam crossed his arms over his chest and stepped back, silently looking his father up and down.

     “What?” Ben asked, puzzled by the action.

     “I’m just trying to see if I recognize the man who made that remark as the same man who raised me,” Adam responded.  “As I recall, you didn’t hesitate to whip any of us if you thought it was warranted.”

     Ben cleared his throat.

     “Well, no, of course I didn’t, but…but…,” he stammered sheepishly.

     “But what, Pa?”

     “Well, I don’t recall that any of you deserved a whipping on a holiday,” Ben finished lamely.  He cleared his throat again.

     “Besides, he’s my grandchild…it’s different.”  His expression fell somewhere between defensive and sheepish.

     Adam started to laugh.  He bent his head close to his father’s ear and whispered, “I didn’t whip him.  I’ll tell you all about it later.”

     Ben looked puzzled.

    “Then why are his eyes so…”

     “I’ll tell you about it later, Pa.  Let’s watch the kids open the rest of their gifts,” Adam responded, draping an arm over his father’s shoulder and walking toward the settee.

     Besides their stockings, the children each received one special gift chosen especially for them.  They were busy unwrapping these as Ben took a seat in his leather chair and Adam sat on the hearth next to him.

     Joe was fastening a gold heart locket around Mary’s neck.  When he had finished, she whirled around and hugged him enthusiastically.

     “Oh, Pa!  It’s so beautiful!  I love it!”  Then she trotted over to express the same sentiments to her mother and show the locket to the rest of the family.

     “Look, Grandpa!  Isn’t this just the most beautiful thing?” she asked excitedly, holding the locket out for Ben’s inspection.

     “Well, if you’re asking me, I’d have to say the person wearing it is more beautiful than the most beautiful piece of jewelry on the planet,” Ben answered gallantly.  “But yes, darling, it is very pretty.  And only a very grown-up young lady would receive a Christmas present like that.”

     Joe overheard his father’s remarks and his heart sank.  His brothers had been teasing him when they went to cut the tree, but there was truth what they said.  His daughter was very attractive and growing up faster than he or Carrie liked.  Still, she was a level headed and responsible girl.  He hoped the boys would not come calling too soon.  And like his older brother, he wondered where time went.  It seemed like only yesterday that they were celebrating Mary’s first Christmas.

     The Cartwright brothers, like most parents, loved all their children equally, yet differently.  Growing up as they had in a mostly masculine household, they related easily to their sons.  They understood their ways of thinking and their behavior, and were doing their best to turn them into honorable, hard working men.  Their little girls were a different matter altogether.  The sight of one of their daughters in a frilly pink dress and a tiny straw sunbonnet with a big blue bow, elicited a fierce protective feeling in them.  The high-pitched giggles, adoring hugs, and feminine mannerisms enchanted the three grown men.   The anxiety that Joe had begun to suffer now, would come to his older brothers in time.

     “Uncle Adam, isn’t my locket pretty?”

     Adam smiled at his niece and winked.

     “It sure is, but I agree with Grandpa…you’re much prettier.”

     As she giggled and moved on to show her present to everyone else, Adam looked around trying to locate his older son.  He spotted him behind the settee pulling the paper off his new shotgun.  The boy’s eyes grew huge and the expression on his face was priceless.  Like Mary’s locket, this gift came with the message that the recipient was growing up and was considered responsible enough to have it.  Adam watched with quiet pride as the boy examined every inch of the shotgun, first opening it to make sure it wasn’t loaded.  He smiled with satisfaction.  That’s exactly what should have been done first.  He watched as his son stroked the smoothly polished wooden stock appreciatively, and he knew that this was the perfect gift for him.  Then young Adam looked up and saw his father watching him.  He walked over to Adam, carefully holding the shotgun with the barrel pointing toward the floor.  His face was split by a huge grin.

     “Pa!  Look at this!  Isn’t it swell?”

      “It sure is Adam.  Did you check to make sure it wasn’t loaded?”

     “Sure, Pa.  First thing…just like you taught me.  You wanna check?”  He held the gun out for his father’s inspection.

     “No.  If you checked, I’m sure it’s not loaded,” his father answered, taking the gun.  He pointed it toward the floor and checked the sight.  “It’s a fine shotgun, Adam.  You be careful with it.”

     “I will.  I promise.  Maybe we could do some target practice this week, huh, Pa?  You know…so I could sorta get used to using it.”

     “I think we can manage that,” his father answered with a smile.

     “I don’t have any shells, but I saved some money so maybe I can go into Virginia City and buy a box.  But you’d have to come with me.  I don’t think they’ll let me buy ‘em by myself,” he said in his most earnest voice.

     “You just keep saving your money, Adam.  I’ve got plenty of shells you can use.”

     And the son whom he feared was growing up and away from him too quickly, threw his arms around his neck and hugged him fiercely.  Adam happily returned the embrace.

     “I’m gonna go show Mama now,” the youngster said, taking the shotgun carefully from his grandfather, who had also been asked to inspect the prized possession.  Adam knew he’d receive a somewhat different reaction from Meg.  She had fought against this present with every ounce of persuasive skill she had.

     “Absolutely not, Adam!  It’s much too dangerous.  He could hurt himself”

     “Meg, he’s been using one of my old shotguns for two years.  He knows how to handle firearms.”

     “He’s only ten years old.”

     “He’s a mature and responsible kid.  I wouldn’t think of giving Jesse such a gift, but Adam…”

     “I wanted to buy him a nice set of the classics.  You know how he loves to read.  There’s a lovely bound set in the catalogue that he’d just love.  Let’s get him that instead.”

     “We’ll give him the books for his birthday.  He’ll get the shotgun for Christmas.”

     And so it went.  Adam successfully countered every one of Meg’s arguments.  So his son was now the proud owner of a fine set of classical literature and an equally fine shotgun…the boy was thrilled with them both.

     “Mama!  Look at this!  Isn’t it just great?”  He showed the gun to his mother.  Meg smiled and stroked her eldest child’s curly head.

     “Do you really like it, Adam?” she asked.

     “Like it?  I love it!”

     He looked up and saw something besides happiness in his mother’s eyes.

     “Don’t worry, Mama.  I’ll be real careful.”

     Meg smiled at him.  She wouldn’t allow her own fears to mar his joy.

     “I’m sure you will be.  If you weren’t a grown up, careful boy you never would have received such a present.”  And she bent over and kissed him on the cheek.

     “Now go show that shotgun to your uncles.  I’ll bet they’d love to see it.”  And he walked off happily, carrying the gun with the utmost care.  Meg’s eyes followed him and then they sought out her husband, who had been observing the interplay between mother and son.  He nodded his head gently in approval and she sighed and shrugged.

     The twins were examining their matching pocketknives with four separate blades.  These had been sent specially from Germany by one of Rebecca’s sisters, arriving just in time for the holiday, to her great relief. There wasn’t anything like them to be found in the territory.  The boys were thrilled.

     “Hoss, make sure to speak to them about what they should and should not be doing with those knives,” Ben warned, recalling the initials carved on the bottom of his table.  This brought a round of laughter from the adults.

     “Don’t you worry none, Pa.  I’ll take care of it,” Hoss replied, still chuckling.

     Young Joe had a new bridle he had been coveting.  He was a good boy and tried to save his money, but his spending habits at the moment were very much like his father’s when he was young.  He seldom had two nickels to rub together.

     Jesse’s eyes grew huge as he examined the handsomely carved schooner that was his present.  Adam and Meg had taken the boys on their last trip to San Francisco.  They all went down to the beach and for Jesse it had been love at first sight.  Perhaps it was because it was in his genes on both sides of the family.  Perhaps it was because his namesake had been a child who loved the sea.  For whatever reason, Jesse adored the ocean, the ships, and anything and everything else maritime.  He decided right then and there that he would someday be captain of his own ship.

     He pestered Ben for tales of his escapades as a young seaman.  He demanded to know the differences between a frigate, a schooner, and a clipper ship.  Meg related to him the few stories she could remember about her own father’s adventures.  She was wise enough to use his fascination of the subject to help him with his studies.  His geography grade rose dramatically when they purchased a globe and plotted the routes of Ben’s voyages.  Adam and Meg searched for any book that had something to do with ships or sailing to encourage their reluctant reader.  Even his math abilities were somewhat improved as they calculated the miles on maps, using scaling factors.

     Jesse could hardly speak, so overcome was he at this magnificent gift.  Adam and Meg smiled at each other as they watched him, both happy they had decided to let him have his gifts with his cousins.

     Bitsie and Beth each had received a lovely china tea set, complete with teapot, creamer, sugar bowl, cups and saucers.  Bitisie’s was white with a delicate spray of violets on each piece and Beth’s was cream colored with pink rosebuds.  They squealed with delight and put their heads together to plan their first tea party.

     Little Ben had a mechanical bank, which fascinated him.  On a rather heavy stand a painted metal hunter pointed his rifle at a painted metal bear, which faced him.  The bear was standing on its back legs, arms extended, mouth wide open.  You put a coin on the end of the hunter’s rifle, pressed a lever, and the coin was shot into the bear’s mouth, falling into his hollow insides.  His father gave him a few pennies, which he shot into the bear, shaking them out of the bank and using them again.

     The two littlest Cartwrights, Lottie and Annie, each hugged cuddly rag dolls.  Lottie’s doll had yellow yarn hair, braided and done up just as Lottie’s own hair was done.  She had blue yarn eyes and a pink yarn mouth.  She wore a blue print calico dress with a white pinafore.  Annie’s doll had dark brown hair fastened in two little ponytails, just as her own hair was.  Her doll had brown yarn eyes and a pink yarn mouth.  She wore a pink print calico dress with a while pinafore.  Each doll also had little white bloomers and a wee red flannel nightgown trimmed with tiny white ribbons.  Rebecca and Meg hoped their little girls would have as much fun playing with their new dolls as they had had making them and sewing the little outfits.

     It was customary for the women to give each other some little gift for the holiday.    Rebecca had made pretty matching tea cozies and tea towels for her sisters-in-law.  Meg had sewn pretty lawn handkerchiefs and trimmed them with delicate lace as her gift.  But Carrie’s present stunned them all.  She had painted family portraits of each set of nieces and nephews.  She was a talented artist and she managed to capture each child’s face and personality perfectly.  She never had the children formally sit for the portraits, knowing that they could never keep such a secret.  Instead, she had hastily done rough sketches of them as they visited her own children at her house.  Then, at night when her children were asleep, she put the elements together and did the final work.  Joe had made lovely frames for each painting.

     “Oh Carrie.  I don’t know what to say,” Meg said, her eyes misting over as she gazed at the faces of thoughtful Adam, mischievous Jesse, placid Beth, and feisty Annie.

     “Didn’t you do one of your own children?” Rebecca asked tearing her eyes away momentarily from the portrait of her four.

     Carrie looked up at Joe, seated on the arm of her chair.  He smiled down at her and nodded.

     “I didn’t do one yet.  I’m waiting until I can have a complete family portrait.  You see, I’m going to have a baby,” she announced somewhat shyly.  “I’m due in early May and I waited to tell you because I wanted to make sure that this time…well, you know.”

     Rebecca and Meg put the paintings down and went over to hug Carrie.  She had been devastated by her two miscarriages and feared she would never have more children.  Joy was written all over her face.  The men pumped Joe’s hand.  Adam managed to catch Meg’s eye.  He raised a questioning eyebrow.  She shook her head almost imperceptibly.  They would save their own announcement for another time.  This hour belonged to Carrie.

     In the midst of the excitement, little Lottie came over and tugged on Rebecca’s robe.

     “Mama, I’m hungry.  Is breakfast ready?”

     Her father grabbed her up and kissed her noisily on her chubby cheek.

     “I’m getting’ hungry too, sweetie.  You think your mama’s gonna let us starve on Christmas day?” he teased.

     “Ach! No!  You wait just a little and breakfast will be ready.  Carrie and I have everything started.”  She turned to Meg.

     “We feed the children first, no?  Then we can eat and relax a little.”

     “But, hon,” Hoss chimed in.  “I’m real hungry now.  You got a little something I could snack on till breakfast is ready?”

     Rebecca laughed and pinched his cheek.

     “You whine worse than the children.  Maybe we should make you sit with them!”

     She laughed again at the sheepish expression on his face.

     “Don’t worry, liebchen.  We have a nice plate of fresh doughnuts you can have while we take care of der kinder.”

     This cheered Hoss up considerably and he put his little daughter down and gave her a gentle swat on her bottom as she skipped off.  While the men settled in front of the fireplace with fresh coffee and doughnuts, Meg, Carrie, and Rebecca busily fed the hungry children at the dining room table.  Carrie had brought her metal cookie cutters and each child could have a pancake in the shape of a tree, a star, a bell, or a gingerbread man.  As she placed the molds in the frying pan and poured the batter into them, young Joe walked into the kitchen and asked, “Mama, why can’t we have all our pancakes in shapes.  How come we can each only have one and then have to eat the plain ole round ones?”

     “I certainly hope that’s not complaining I’m hearing on Christmas morning, Joseph!  But to answer your question, I’d be here frying all day.  There are eleven of you and the shapes are small.  Enjoy the one Christmas shaped pancake and fill up on the regular ones,” she responded as she expertly flipped the shaped flapjacks in one pan and the normal round ones on the cast iron griddle.   Rebecca was placing fried ham slices and bacon on the table and Meg was busy filling glasses with milk.  There was butter, sugar, several jams, and honey from Rebecca’s hives to top the pancakes.  Meg placed a pitcher at each end of the table.

     “You might want to try this on your pancakes this morning.”

     “What is it, Aunt Meg?” Peter asked, peering into the pitcher.

     “Maple syrup.  It’s something I used to put on my pancakes when I was a little girl.  In fact, it’s a very common sweetener back east.”

     “Why don’t we have it here?”

     “Well, it’s made from the sap of a tree that doesn’t grow here.”

     This statement was met with looks of disbelief.

     “This stuff comes from tree sap?” Eric asked, his brow wrinkled as a shock of blond hair fell across his brow.

     “Uh huh.  Pour a little onto your plate and try it.  You don’t have to eat it if you don’t like it.”

     “Hey Adam, did you try this stuff?” Eric asked his cousin as Meg went back into the kitchen.

     “Yeah.  It’s pretty good.  My Pa had it sent out from Boston and it got here last week…three one gallon tins of it.”

     “What made him do that?”

     “Well,” Adam put his fork down, scratched his head, and thought.  “I’m not sure, but a while back we were having breakfast and Mama started to tell us about maple syrup…you know, what she just said…how it comes from tree sap, and they boil it down and use it on pancakes and such.  So Pa looks at her and says, “Do you miss it?”  And she looks at him and says, “No, of course not.  I love Rebecca’s honey.”

     Here Beth chimed in with, “Aunt Rebecca’s honey is the best in the whole world.”  And she gave a big smile to Bitsie, sitting to her right.

     “You ain’t tasted all the honey in the world, so how can you say that?”  Jesse demanded.

     Beth looked a little hurt, then brightened and answered, “Aunt Rebecca’s honey is the best I ever tasted.”  And she gave her brother a look that challenged him to argue with that statement.

     “Anyway,” Adam continued after this brief interruption, “last week Pa comes home from town with these three gallons of syrup and takes them in and puts them on the kitchen table.”

     Beth interrupted again.

     “Then Mama smiled real big and did like this.”  And the little girl clasped her hands together in front of her chest.  “And she says, ‘Oh Adam!  Maple syrup!’  And then she went over to him and kissed him—a really long kiss!”  And Beth began to giggle.

     “Yeah, it was disgusting,” Jesse managed to mumble through a mouthful of pancakes and ham.

     “Jesse, it’s not polite to talk with your mouth full,” Beth reminded him.  He answered by sticking his tongue out at her, full of masticated food.  Ladylike Beth was so appalled she couldn’t think of a thing to say to him.  Instead she turned back to Bitsie.

     “Do your parents kiss a lot?”

     The petit blond nodded her head.

     “They do it when they think we’re not looking.  Pa calls it kanoodlin’”

     “Is that another German word?” Beth inquired with interest.

     Bitsie shrugged.

     “I don’t know.  Mama doesn’t say it much.  But she laughs when Pa says it.”

     “My pa kisses my ma a lot too,” chirped up Ben, not wanting to be left out of the conversation.  “I even saw him chase her around the dining room table one time and she was laughing like anything.  When he caught her, they kissed a long time.”

     Eric, deciding he liked the flavor of the syrup, poured more on another stack of pancakes.

     “One thing I don’t get, Adam,” he said as he cut into the pile.

     “What’s that?”

     “Why’d your pa send for that stuff when your ma said she didn’t miss it?”

     His cousin shrugged.

     “I dunno.  Why do grownups do what they do?  Like, why do they get to eat doughnuts before breakfast and we gotta wait till after breakfast, when we’re not hungry?”

     And the meal concluded with the children in complete agreement regarding the puzzling habits of adults.

     “You young ‘uns get dressed and ready for church,” Hoss said as the adults were finishing their morning meal.  “And you older boys hitch up the sleighs when you’re done dressin’.”

     “Well, ladies, this was a fine breakfast,” Ben said, wiping his mouth with his napkin and taking a last sip of coffee.  “Guess I’d better get moving too.   I’ll ride in with you and Caroline, Joseph,” he added as he rose from the table.  His sons followed him upstairs to dress for church and supervise their youngsters while Meg, Rebecca, and Carrie quickly cleared away the breakfast remains.  Very soon they were dressing for the Christmas service themselves.

     “Jesse, where’s your hat?” Adam asked as his son skipped down the stairs to join his father in the living room.

     “I forgot it, Pa.”

     “Forgot it at home or forgot it upstairs?”

     Jesse hated wearing his Sunday hat.  It had a shallow round crown and a wide flat brim that he thought made him look like a sissy.  But he wasn’t about to give either of his parents a difficult time today, all things considered.

     “It’s upstairs,” he said and turned quickly to retreive it, almost knocking over his sister Beth, who had followed him down the steps.  Adam sighed and shook his head, but didn’t say anything.  He was feeling a little tired from all the night’s activities and the rather unrestful sleep he had managed to get, sharing the bed with two of his children as well as his wife.  Then he smiled to himself.  Well not all the activites of the previous evening had been bad.  Some had been downright delightful.  Maybe tonight?  He was brought back to the here and now by the tug of Beth’s hand on his jacket.

     “What is it, Sunshine?”

     “You like my new dress, Pa?” she asked, twirling around in front of him.

     “You look absolutely stunning,” Adam replied with a smile for his 6 year old.  She beamed back at him.

     “Mama put real lace on my dress.  Annie only has eyelet on hers.”

     “Really?  Well, that’s probably because you’re a big girl,” Adam answered her, though he had no idea what eyelet was.  He made a mental note to check out the trim on his other daughter’s clothes.

     “You look real nice too,” she answered, smiling happily at him.

     “Thank you, sweetie.”

     “Pa, Bitsie and I are gonna have a tea party and use our new tea sets.  Will you come?”

     Adam sat down on the settee to be at eye level with her.

     “Well, when are you having this party?” he asked.

     “Today.  It’ll be after Christmas dinner, but before supper.  Mama said we could.  Bitsie’s inviting Uncle Hoss and I’m inviting you.  We’re gonna have real tea and cookies and everything!”

     Adam smiled at her.  His older daughter was a sweet, gentle, domestic little girl.  Except for the fact that she had Adam’s hazel eyes, she looked very much like her mother.  Her little face was oval, with a straight nose, full pink lips, and a dimple in her cheek, just like Meg.  Her hair was as dark as Adam’s and very curly.  Meg usually pulled it back in tight braids, but today she had left it down, with only the sides pulled back and tied with a red ribbon.  The curls cascaded over her shoulders and almost down to her waist.

     Adam’s nickname of ‘Sunshine’ was appropriate.  The child had a happy, contented nature.  She tried to see the good in everything and everyone.  Adam had noticed that her world was populated by superlative people.  Her mother was the prettiest, her father the handsomest and smartest, Uncle Joe the funniest, Aunt Carrie the best artist, Uncle Hoss the strongest, Aunt Rebecca the best baker, Grandpa the kindest. These superlatives extended to her two brothers, her little sister, and every one of her cousins.

     Beth was the family peacemaker.  She hated discord of any kind and intervened to settle disputes and arguments between her siblings or the cousins.  And Adam wasn’t sure how it had come about, but his little girl was fiercely proud to be a Cartwright.  Perhaps it had something to do with the time she spent with her grandfather.  She was Beth to everyone in the family except Ben.  For him, she was Lizzie.  She spent her time with him asking him about the family history…were there any famous Cartwrights?  Where had they come from originally?  Were there family members living in other parts of the country?  He did his best to satisfy her curiousity.

     Beth was never so happy as when helping her mother around the house. She performed her small chores responsibly, feeding the chickens and collecting the eggs, setting the table for meals, and helping with the dishes.  She was at Meg’s elbow as she cooked or baked and was learning to knit and sew.

     In the evening, when the dishes were done and homework completed, the family would sit together and read, play games, or sing.  Beth was a cuddler.  If Adam were reading aloud to the children, she would climb on to his lap and snuggle up to him, sometimes falling asleep in his arms.

     She was a tender hearted little thing, a fact that was brought home forcefully to Adam the past summer.  He was taking the boys fishing and she begged to come along.  Bitsie, her favorite companion, had chicken pox, and the little girl was bored.  Adam agreed to take her over the loud protests of her brothers.  Adam wasn’t particularly fond of fishing, but till the boys were old enough to hunt, this was a good way to spend some time with them.

     At their favorite fishing hole Jesse and Adam baited their hooks with worms they had dug from the kitchen garden.  Beth’s eyes grew huge, but she didn’t say anything.

     “Want me to bait your hook, sweetheart?” Adam asked, piercing a rather large worm with the bent pin that served as a hook on the fishing pole that he had hastily fashioned for her.  When she didn’t answer, he looked up to see tears streaming down her face.

     “Pa, you’re hurting the poor little worm,” she sobbed.  “Take it off!  Take it off!”

     He plucked the worm from the hook and tossed it back into the can.  He quickly rinsed his hands and picked up the weeping little girl.

     “Hey, Pa,” young Adam called over.  “Can you get her to be quiet?  She’s scaring the fish.”

     “Beth, sweetie, you have to have bait on the hook or you can’t catch a fish,” he reasoned with her gently.

      “But it hurts the worm, Pa.  Can’t I use something else?”

     Adam thought for a moment.  The boys had never reacted like this.  What other kind of bait could she use?  Suddenly he felt inspired.

     “Where’s the basket of food Mama sent along?”

     “It’s under the tree there,” Beth pointed, answering with a sniff.

     He set her down and walked her over to the basket.  The boys had objected loudly to bringing this along.

     “We’re gonna eat the fish we catch for lunch,” they argued with Meg.

     “Well, of course you are,” she told them.  “This is just to accompany the fish.” And she proceeded to pack slices of bread and butter, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, apples, and cookies.

     “She don’t think we’re gonna catch anything,” Jesse grumbled to his brother, who silently nodded in agreement.

     But the answer to Beth’s dilemma was in that basket.  Adam unwrapped a slice of bread and broke off a piece.  He rolled it into a doughy ball and stuck it on the bent pin.

     “How’s that?”

     The little girl smiled happily.

     “Now you put your line in the water and wait.  You have to be patient.  And your brothers are right…you have to be quiet.”

     And he left her happily bobbing the makeshift hook in and out of the water and walked over to his sons.

     “Well how’s it going?” he asked.

     “Not even a nibble yet, Pa,” Adam answered.  “Now that Beth stopped making so much noise maybe we’ll get a bite.”

     “She ain’t gonna catch anything with bread on a bent pin,” Jesse scoffed.

     Though Adam personally agreed with this assessment of Beth’s chances, he didn’t say that to Jesse.

     “Don’t say ‘ain’t’ Jesse.  Say ‘isn’t’.  She’s happy and that’s all that matters.  And you never know.  Maybe she will catch something.”

     And, of course, Beth made the first catch of the day.  The air was suddenly rent with a piercing scream…a sound that is peculiar to little girls about 3 to 10 years of age…a sound so high pitched and shrill that it has the capability of shattering fine crystal.

     Adam jumped up and flew to her side.  She was gripping her pole with both hands.  A harmless and inedible little sunfish flipped and flopped frantically at the end of her line.  And Beth continued to scream, her eyes huge and full of horror.

        “Take it off, Pa!   Take if off!  It’s hurt!  Take it off!” she managed to cry between shrieks.

     Adam grabbed the line, freed the fish, and tossed it back into the water.  Beth dropped her pole and wrapped her arms around his legs, sobbing.

     “I don’t wanna fish anymore!  I don’t like it!  I don’t wanna fish anymore!”

     He peeled her arms from around his legs and picked her up, walking her away from her brothers, who were shaking their heads in disgust.  He patted her on the back and spoke soothingly till she had calmed down.

     He sat down with his back against the tree and held her on his lap.

     “I guess fishing isn’t your sport, is it Beth?” he asked her gently, wiping away her tears with his handkerchief.  She shook her head and hiccuped.

     “Tell you what.  Why don’t you go over there in that field and pick a nice big bunch of flowers that we can take home to Mama later.  Would you like that?”

     She nodded and smiled a wobbly smile.

     “Stay where I can see you.  And in a little while you can help by putting out the lunch that Mama packed.  Will you do that for me?”

     She nodded again, smiling more broadly.  Above all things, Beth liked to be helpful.

     Adam shook his head as he watched her skip off.  She was so sensitive, this little girl of his.  And then, with a silent laugh, he thought of his other daughter.  For some reason he didn’t think Annie would have any problem baiting a hook.  And if she managed to catch a fish, her screams would be screams of delight.  So different…

     When he got back to the boys he was pleased to see that they had each hooked a couple of bass.  They managed to catch a few more in the next hour…enough for a very nice lunch.  Adam let his older son make a fire, while he showed Jesse how to scale and clean their catch.  Beth was busy setting out the food that Meg had sent along.  After the fish had been fried, Adam was surprised that she wouldn’t eat any of it.

     “What’s the matter, honey?  You like fish.  You always eat it when Mama cooks it,” he asked as they sat around the fire on some logs they had dragged over to use as seats.  The boys were busy stuffing food into their mouths, including many of the despised items that had been provided by their mother, Adam noted with amusement.

     In answer, Beth shook her head.

     “I don’t wanna eat the worm.”

     “Eat what worm?” Adam asked, confused.

     “The fish ate the worm on the hook, so if I eat the fish I’ll eat the worm too.  I don’t wanna eat the worm.”

     Her brothers’ heads snapped up and they looked at each other.  They burst out laughing simultaneously.  Jesse, true to form, threw back his head with such forceful amusement that he toppled backward off the log.

     Adam had to chuckle.

     “After we catch the fish, Beth, we take out all the insides, including the fish’s stomach.  When you eat fish, you’re eating only fish…no worms.  I promise.  Now… you want to try some?”  He held out a bit of the flaky white fish on his fork.

     “It’s just fish, I promise,” he reiterated.  “I wouldn’t want to eat a worm either.”

     She took the proffered mouthful and chewed.

     “It’s good, Pa.  You cook almost as good as Mama,” she complimented him after she had swallowed.

     “Well!  That’s high praise indeed,” Adam said as he placed more fish on his daughter’s plate.  He winked at her and added, “But I don’t think your mother has to worry about losing her job, do you?”

     She giggled her little girl giggle, so much more pleasing to his ear than her earlier shrieks.  She never asked to go fishing again.

      The tea party about which she now spoke so excitedly was much more her style.

     “So you’re inviting me and Uncle Hoss, hmm?  What about your Uncle Joe?” he asked her.

     “Well,” she answered, drawing the word out slowly, “we asked Mary to have the party with us but she said she’s too old for tea parties.  We wanted to have a father and daughter tea party.”

     Adam crossed his arms over his chest.

     “I see.  Don’t you think Uncle Joe might feel a little hurt if he’s not invited?  Maybe Mary’s too old for tea parties, but I don’t think Uncle Joe is.  Wouldn’t it be a better idea to invite him anyway? He may not come, sweetheart, but at least he’d have the choice.”

     She thought about this for a minute.

     “Maybe we should invite Grandpa too, Pa.  And Sheriff Coffee.  Bitsie and I don’t want anybody to feel bad,” she said solemnly.

     “I think that’s a much better idea, Beth. You invite them and let them decide whether they want to come or not.”

     She stood silently thinking for a second, then slapped her palms against her cheeks.

     “If all those people come, we might not have enough food.  I gotta talk to Bitsie now!”

     She threw her arms around Adam’s neck, gave him a loud smacking kiss on the cheek, and said, “Thanks, Pa!  I love you,” before she scampered off calling out, “Bitsie…Bitsie…I gotta tell you something ‘portant right now.”

     Within minutes all the Cartwrights were on their way to Virginia City to attend the Christmas church service.  Meg, Rebecca, and Carrie dropped three baskets of holiday food at the parsonage.  The minister would see these were distributed to some of the less fortunate among his flock.  Roy Coffee, now semi-retired, accompanied the family back to the ranch.  It was their custom to have him join them for their Christmas dinner.  There was much laughter and joking at the table as the turkey, fresh ham, potatoes, vegetables, gravy, and rolls were passed around.

     “So what do you do with all your free time now, Roy?” Ben asked, as he ladled gravy onto his meat.

     “Well, you know Ben, it’s sorta like Clem and me switched jobs.  He’s the sheriff and I’m the deputy.  I gotta tell you though, I don’t miss the responsibility or the paperwork!  And I manage to keep pretty busy.”

     “I heard you been escorting a certain widow around lately, Roy.  Is that what’s keepin’ ya so busy?” Hoss joked as he bit into a roll and everyone at the table began to laugh.  The elderly sheriff actually blushed.

     “Elaine Davidson’s a pretty fine woman, Hoss.  When I was sheriff I was too dang busy for much of a social life.  And I admit we’ve been keepin’ company.   I don’t think I’m tellin’ any tales out of school if I say there might some announcement comin’ in the near future.”

     Eyebrows shot up around the table.  Meg, who had been in the kitchen checking on the children, heard the remark, walked up behind Roy, and gave him a hug.   She was especially fond of the old man.

     “I think that’s wonderful!  You tell Elaine, if she needs any help planning…well…anything…Rebecca, Carrie, and I are available!”

     This piece of news dominated the remainder of the dinner conversation.  As the adults finished their coffee, the children were busy bundling up to go outside and begin the annual Cartwright snowman building competition.

     On Christmas day, if there was enough snow, each of the three groups of children built snowmen.  Roy Coffee was then called upon to judge their work, awarding a certificate for the funniest, the prettiest, and the most original.   Each family received a certificate, though not always the one it had been trying for. The competition was fierce, with intense planning for weeks ahead.  The older children in each family group usually took the lead and the snow sculptures generally represented what was of interest to that child at the moment.

     There had been loud arguing amongst Joe’s tribe because Mary wanted to build a snow queen and go for the prettiest.  As her brothers got older they demanded more say in the choice.  “Pretty” just wasn’t of much interest to them.  But she had inherited from her mother a certain strength of will that prevailed and the three fashioned a tall, stately snow queen, garbed in an old skirt and shawl of Carrie’s, as well as a huge hat trimmed with colorful paper flowers and ribbons.

     Hoss’ twins had been reading about Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone in their history classes.  The tales of frontier life, hunting, trapping, and exploring intrigued them.  Their sculpture was a huge mountain man, complete with coonskin cap, a rough looking vest, and an old muzzle-loader they had begged use of from Ben.

     Young Adam had pondered for days over what sort of snowman he and his siblings might create.  Then, on an after school visit to see his grandfather, he got an idea.  Meg and Adam’s children created a rotund snow Buddha, just exactly like the one that Hop Sing kept in the kitchen.  The good hearted cook had lent them a Chinese skull cap and showed them how to write out a simple prayer in Chinese characters.  They copied it on a long sheet of paper and fastened it as a sash across the Buddha’s belly.  As a final touch, they cleared some snow from in front of the sculpture and lit some candles.

     The adults oohed and aahed over these creations and Roy awarded his certificates—prettiest…the snow-queen, most original…the mountain man, funniest…Buddha.

     Adam placed his arm over his older son’s shoulders.

     “Good job! Did Hop Sing help you out a little?”

     “Uh huh.  But Pa, I was hoping to get ‘most original’ ”.

     “Well, maybe next year,” his father replied.

     “You know, Pa, next year we’re thinkin’ of changing it to the boys against the girls.  What do you think about that?”

     “If that’s what you kids want it’s fine with me.  Why the change?”

     “Cause the girls always want to try for the prettiest and we don’t.  So we thought if we let ‘em do their sculpture together then we could do what we wanted.”

     “So there’d only be two certificates?”

     “Well, we thought about that.  We thought maybe the grownups could do the third one!”

     Adam laughed.

     “Maybe we will.  We have a little time to think about it.  Now are you and your cousins going home to take care of the barn animals?”

     “Yeah.  It goes faster when we all help each other.  Can we take our sleigh?  I’ll be careful.”

     “Sure.  Just keep your eye on Jesse and Ben.”

     “I will, Pa.”

     “And make sure you’re back before it gets dark.”

    Adam watched as the boys all piled onto the sleigh and his son took the reins.  They would stop at all three homes to clean stalls and see to the animals.  The closeness among the cousins was not unlike the closeness he felt to his brothers.  He turned to go into the house and found those brothers standing behind him, also watching the sleigh glide off into the distance.

     “They’re good kids,” Hoss remarked quietly.

     “We’re darn lucky,” Joe added.

     The brothers stood together silently for a minute.  Then Hoss clapped his gloved hands together and rubbed them back and forth.

     “Guess we’d better get inside.  Seems to me we got a tea party to go to.”


     “What, Rebecca?”

     Hoss smiled as his wife snuggled up to him in bed, placing her hand gently on his chest.

     “It is wonderful news for Joe and Carrie, no?  About the baby?”

     “Yeah, it sure is.  I know Carrie’s been feelin’ real bad about losin’ them other two babies.  Whadda ya think, hon?  Is she far enough along now so this time things’ll work out for them?”

     Rebecca sighed.

     “Nothing is ever certain, but I believe she has a good chance.  I will certainly pray for her good health and that of the child.”

     Hoss drew her closer into his embrace and kissed her forehead.

     “You’re a good person, Rebecca.”

     There was a brief silence.

     “Would you like us to have another baby, Hoss?”

     Her husband let go of her and sat up.

     “Are you tryin’ to tell me somethin’ Rebecca?” he asked nervously, watching her face.

     She sighed more deeply this time and also sat up.  She took his large hand in her own and looked at him.

     “No, I am not with child.  I am just asking you if you would like us to have more children.”

     Hoss cupped her chin in his hand.

     “We’ve talked about this already, sweetheart.  I didn’t want to have any more kids after Bitsie was born.  I almost lost you Rebecca.  I never want you to go through anything like that again.”

     “But we had Lottie and there were no problems,” she pointed out.

     “That’s true, but for nine months I lived in terror.  I thank the good Lord that you and Lottie came through without any problems.”

     He tilted his head, frowned, and stared at her.

     “What brought this on?  Do you want to have more children?  Are you missin’ havin’ a baby in the house?”

     Rebecca reached out and stroked the worry lines in her husband’s face.  She smiled.

     “No, I have no real desire to have another baby.  But I want to make sure that you are satisfied with the size of our family.   I would have another child if you wanted it.”

     Hoss reached out and pulled her into his arms as he sank back onto his pillow.

     “Rebecca, we’ve got four great kids.  You’ve made me happier than I ever thought I’d be.  We’re lucky…real lucky.  Why don’t we just leave things the way they are?  Far as I’m concerned, our life is just about perfect.”

     She hugged him lovingly.

     “As long as you are satisfied, then so am I.  If I long for a baby, I will play with Carrie’s new child,” she said, and began to laugh.

      “What’s so funny?” Hoss asked.

     “WeIl, with Carrie’s new child I can have all the pleasure of a baby and none of the real work!  It will be like being an Oma.”

     “An Oma?”

     “Yes, like a grandmother…you take care of the child for a while and when it gets cranky you send it home!”  And Rebecca began to laugh her pretty, tinkling laugh.  She was soon joined by her husband’s deep guffaws.

     Carrie smoothed her nightgown over her stomach as she turned to view her profile in the mirror.  Joe watched her with amusement and tenderness.

     “Are you starting to get fat already?” he teased her.

     She turned to him, grinning broadly.

     “Yes!  I couldn’t have waited any longer to tell everyone.  I’ll start wearing my maternity clothes tomorrow.  I’ve never carried big like Rebecca or Meg.  Maybe this time I will,” she added hopefully, this pregnancy being something she wanted to shout from the rooftops.

     Joe walked over, tilted her chin up, and looked deeply into her eyes.

     “Just so that everything goes smoothly.  I want you to take real good care of yourself.  Maybe you should stay in bed like you did for Mary.  We could hire someone to come in and…”

     Carrie placed her hands on her husband’s chest.

     “No!  I’m fine, Joe…really I am.  I promise that if I think I need help I’ll tell you, but I just have some feeling deep inside me that says everything will work out this time.  I can’t explain it to you any better than that.  Maybe it’s woman’s intuition.”

     Joe kissed her forehead, then hugged her gently.

     “Okay.  We’ll do it your way.”

     Carrie snaked her arms around Joe’s neck.  She stood on tiptoe and kissed him sweetly, then tilted her head coquettishly

     “Do you love me, Joe?”

     He pulled back and looked at her, amazed that she could even ask the question.

     “I adore you Carrie.  You know that!”

     “Then show me…now!”  And she reached for the buttons on his nightshirt.

     “Here?” he squeaked.  “Pa’s room is right next door!”

     “So?  I locked the door.  We won’t be disturbed.”  She smiled impishly as she continued to unbutton the garment.  “And we can be quiet.”

     He put his hand over hers to stop her.

     “Are you sure?  I don’t want to hurt you or…or the baby.”

     She stepped back and put her hands on her hips.  Her smile had disappeared and she was glaring at him.

     “Are you trying to tell me that you’re not going to make love to me for the next four and a half months, Joe Cartwright?” she demanded.

     “Shh!  Carrie, not so loud!”

     “Don’t you shush me!” she shot back, her voice rising another octave.  “I’m pregnant, Joe, not an invalid!  I’m strong and healthy.  I keep telling you that this time things are going to be all right!  Why can’t you believe that?”

     He voice continued to increase in volume.

    “ I don’t want to go through the rest of this pregnancy with you afraid to touch me!  What do I have to…”

     He could think of only one way to shut her up.  Joe grabbed his wife and planted his lips firmly over hers.  She struggled briefly with him, wanting to finish her tirade, but his kiss had the effect it had always had on her.  She leaned into him and somewhere in the foggy recesses of her brain she realized she had been victorious.  She wrapped her arms around him and moaned softly.  He swept her off her feet and carried her to the bed, depositing her gently onto the thick mattress, and carefully following her down.

     He broke away and looked into her lovely eyes, now heavy with desire.

     “I’ll be good, now, Joe, she murmured softly.

     His answering smile was full of love, desire, and great tenderness.

     “Carrie, darlin’, you’re always good.  And tonight I have the feeling you’re gonna be great!”

     He lowered his lips to hers.

     Meg pulled the brush through her thick hair as she stood in front of the small mirror in Adam’s old room.  She glanced at the reflection of her husband as he undressed.  When he was down to the tight drawers that seem molded to his body he came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist, bent his head, and nuzzled her neck.  She giggled.

     “That tickles!”

     He looked at her reflection in the mirror and frowned.

     “That wasn’t the response I was hoping for.”

     She set the brush down and turned in his arms, her eyebrows raised, and a smile on her lips.  Her arms curled up around his neck.

     “And just what sort of response were you seeking?” she teased.

     He pulled back slightly and rocked her gently from side to side.

     “Well something a little more romantic than ‘That tickles’.”

     “Ahh!  So you’re in a romantic frame of mind, are you?”

     “Mmm hmm,” he mumbled before catching her earlobe between his lips.  She sighed softly and moved closer.

     “That’s more like it,” he whispered in her ear.

     “Two nights in a row!  I can’t remember the last time we…”

     “I think it was sometime after Jesse was born.  I can’t remember either.  But let’s not talk…let’s take advantage of this time we have.”

     She wrapped her arms around his waist and laid her head on his chest.

     “I’m sorry.”

     He pulled back, cupped her chin in his hand and looked into her eyes.

     “Not in the mood?” he asked her, more than a little disappointed.

     Her expression registered puzzlement, then understanding.  She smiled gently and placed her palm on his chest.

     “Oh no!  That’s not what I meant.”

     It was Adam’s turn to be puzzled.

     “Then what?”

      Meg signed deeply, cocked her head, and looked at him.  She stroked his chest lightly as she responded.

     “I think I owe you an apology.”

     “For what?” he asked, more confused than before.

     Her head dipped and her cheeks took on a rosy hue.  In spite of their years of marriage it was still sometimes difficult for her to verbalize intimate matters with him.

     “I think I’ve been selfish and you’ve had to pay the price.”

     “Meg, what are you talking about?” he asked impatiently, stilling her hand with his own.

     “I’ve been thinking about this on and off for a while, but what just happened…I mean when you said you couldn’t remember the last time we had made love two nights in a row…well, that made me think about it again.  I know I’m putting this very badly, Adam.  What I’m trying to say is that I know you want to make love more often and that I haven’t always made myself available the way a wife should.  Most of the time it’s because I’m tired and I know that you’re just too good to press the issue.  You’ve told me over and over to get some help with the housework and I always refuse.   I just realized how selfish that is.  And now we’re going to have another baby and I’ll be busier than ever…and who will suffer because of this?  You will.”

     She swallowed and continued.

     “So I’ve decided to take your advice and get some permanent help in the house.  Then maybe I won’t be so tired and I can be a better wife than I’ve been.”

     She looked into his eyes.

     “That’s what I meant.”

     He returned her gaze and smiled tenderly.

     “Sweetheart, I’ve suggested getting some domestic help because I hate to see you wear yourself out.”

     He pulled her close and hugged her tightly.

     “I know you.  I know that you think you’re the only person who can properly black the stove, wash the floors, change the bedding, do the spring cleaning, and whatever else it takes to keep the house as nice as you manage to do.  But I’d rather have dirty windows and unscrubbed floors than an exhausted wife.”

     He pushed her away slightly and looked at her.  He wrapped his hand around her neck and caressed her cheek with his thumb.

     “It’s not just about making love, Meg.  It’s about being with you.  Before the children, there were just the two of us.  When they’re grown and gone, it’ll be just the two of us.  I miss spending time with you.  I’d like to have the time to take a walk or a ride together…just you and me.  I’d like to talk to you after dinner, when the kids are asleep, instead of watching you nod off in front of the fire.”  He chuckled.

     “And I suppose because I’m a man, I’d like to spend more intimate time with you too.”

      She smiled at him and nodded.

     “You’re right, of course.  I guess I’m what they call ‘house-proud’.  But our marriage is more important than how clean or dirty the house is.”

     She moved closer to him, seductively running her fingers through his hair and outlining his ear with her fingertip.

     “So, my love, I’m going to try and be a better wife to you.”

     He pulled her tightly against him and ran his hands gently over her derriere.

     “You’re a wonderful wife, Meg.  You’re a wonderful mother, too.  I couldn’t have asked for better.  But if we get you some help with the housework, I think we’ll both benefit.”

     He cocked his head and looked into her eyes.

     “You still feeling ticklish?” he asked quietly, as he continued to stroke her bottom.

     She shook her head, her eyes heavy lidded.

     “Then exactly how are you feeling, Mrs. Cartwright?”

     “Lucky, Adam,” she answered earnestly as she stood on tiptoe, her lips upturned for his kiss.  “I’m feeling incredibly lucky.”

     The morning was a whirlwind of activity.  After breakfast, clothing was gathered up and packed, teams were hitched to the sleighs, pots, pans and tins were sorted into three piles to be taken home by Ben’s daughters-in-law, and children appeared everywhere, dressing for the ride home and carrying items out to the sleighs.  They were somewhat more subdued than when they had arrived.  The holiday was over, school would resume tomorrow, and there were plenty of chores to be done when they arrived back at their own homes.  Lack of sleep had its effect on them as well.

     “That’s my jackknife, Peter!  You give it back.”

     “It is not!  It’s mine.  I ought to know.  I slept with it under my pillow.”

     “Hey, hey!  What’s goin’ on here?” Hoss asked, overhearing the argument between the twins.

     “Pa, Peter has my jackknife.  He won’t give it back.”

     “It is not his.  It’s mine,” his brother answered angrily.

     “Those two knives were exactly the same.  How can you tell the difference?”

     “The difference is that Eric can’t find his so he’s saying my knife is his,” Peter answered smartly.

     Hoss turned to his namesake.

     “Is that true?  You lost your knife?”

     The boy hung his head, his blond locks falling over his eyes.

     “I didn’t lose it,” he mumbled.  “Peter lost his.  That knife’s mine,” he insisted, but he couldn’t meet his father’s eyes.

     Hoss sighed.  His older boy was very bright academically, and Hoss was incredibly proud of this.  But he did have a habit of misplacing things.  Though he could solve math problems that gave his father a headache to read, he was forever in a fog when it came to things like where his good boots were or what he had done with a particular tool he had used.   It was as if his brain couldn’t be bothered with remembering the minutiae of every day life.

     Hoss draped an arm over Eric’s shoulder.

     “Why don’t we go look for the knife together, son?” he suggested.  Maybe your brother’ll give us a hand, hmm?” he said defusing the situation before it erupted into a fight.  The twins were very close, but when they disagreed, they could sometimes become physical.

     The fact that Eric didn’t argue suggested to Hoss that he had indeed misplaced the Christmas gift.  But the situation was resolved when little Lottie came bouncing down the stairs, braids swinging wildly, calling out, “Lookey, Pa!  I found this upstairs when I was helping Mama pack the clothes.  She said I should bring it to you right away.”  And she placed the jackknife in her father’s large hand.

     Like both his brothers, Hoss was charmed by his daughters, and he found the younger of them to be completely beguiling.  Perhaps it was because she was the baby, or because she was incredibly cute.  It might have been her sweet and happy disposition.  Whatever the cause, he couldn’t help but smile whenever he saw her.  He squatted down to be on eye level with her.

     “Lottie, sweetie, you just saved the day.  You give me a big ole kiss and go back and help your mother.”

     She threw her arms around Hoss’ neck, planted a big sloppy kiss on his mouth, and ran back up the stairs, giggling loudly.

     Hoss handed the jackknife to Eric.

     “I think you’d better make a New Year’s resolution to try and remember where you put things, son,” was all he said as he slapped the boy affectionately on the back.

     The rest of the Cartwrights had finally completed their packing and dressing activities and gathered once more in the living room.  There was a flurry of goodbye kisses, hugs, and wishes of “Merry Christmas”.  They piled into their respective sleighs and, bells jingling merrily, they were off.  Almost as quickly as it had begun, the activity had come to a grinding halt.

     Ben looked around him.  The house looked much as it had two days ago before the arrival of his sons and their families.  The only noticeable difference was the decorative greenery still festooned around the downstairs and the beautiful tree, standing tall and quiet near the foot of the staircase.  This morning had also dawned clear and cold.  The boys had left, but Hop Sing would be back before lunch.  Ben refilled his cup from the pot still sitting on the dining room table and sat contentedly in his leather armchair.  Yes, there was still a little time to enjoy the quiet, along with his third cup of coffee.

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