Memories and Miracles    

I would sincerely like to thank two people, without whom I would never have finished (and possibly never have begun) this story.  Puchi Ann and Deborah Grant have been invaluable to me through their generous assistance (in terms of historical and technical expertise) and also in a purely supportive role as they encouraged me to see this story through to its conclusion.  I am in their debt. I also wish to thank Steve and William for their understanding in giving me the time to work on this project – I dedicate this story to them.

A special thank you to Mr. David Dortort, for characters that live on in people’s hearts and minds through  stories such as this one, and to the four gentlemen – Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker and Michael Landon – whose extraordinary talents brought the Cartwright family to life on the screen.

 Memories and Miracles -

A Christmas Story


By: Larkspur

December 2003



Chapter 1


The snow had been gently falling for most of the late December afternoon and the drifts were slowly building against the sides of the large, two story, ranch house.  The curl of smoke from the stone chimney and the open, inviting porch, made the home seem, well, just that, a home.  Each familiar  touch evident from the outside: the starched white eyelet curtains at the small window in the front, the polished brass knocker on the front door, the rocking chair and small wooden table on the porch, made known that this was a place that was cared for and appreciated.  The house's sturdy construction also bespoke of the skill with which it had been built.  It was obvious that all who lived here would be snug and well protected within its walls.

The massive great room was apparent as one entered the house.  Its rough stone fireplace encompassed the entire wall opposite the front door and was an ample heat source for the main living area.  There was a large, comfortable looking, Moroccan leather chair to the left of the hearth, and a blue velveteen, straight backed armchair to the right.  A settee, with burgundy and ivory stripes offset with small pettipoint roses, provided additional seating for three, and it faced the fireplace as well.

A large, dark, rough-hewn table filled the space in front of the settee completely, allowing ready access to all that might be seated near it.  The maroon armchair did have a small smoking table to its right and a pipe and pouch of tobacco had been placed upon it.  A fine, handmade Turkish rug with colors that complimented the rest of the décor was found under the low table.

A gun case with open cabinets and storage beneath it was behind the blue armchair and abutted the mantelpiece. The case was filled with all manner of rifles and shotguns, all well maintained and easily accessible. The gun cabinet ended at the stairway, which was a rustic, freestanding structure with a landing after the first six steps. A brightly colored Indian blanket was hanging over the railing at the landing.

As just described, the interior could be as imposing as the exterior, even with the variety of paintings, small carvings and pieces of sculpture that decorated the walls and sideboards.   Yet, upon further inspection, the ample evidence of the young family living within its confines helped to dispel any feelings of austerity. 

There were tin soldiers on the table before the fire, ready to resume battle at the two young generals’ command. A well worn volume of children’s short stories had been casually left on the blue armchair by its young reader.  A bowl of apples and a checkerboard (awaiting two ‘slightly’ mismatched opponents) were also set upon the low table.

A sewing basket was placed on the floor at the end of the settee, closest to the maroon chair.  It currently held a pair of men’s socks to be darned and two pairs of little boys' trousers.  The chocolate brown pants, which were of ample measure at the waistband, had a tear at the knee that needed patching. The hem of the navy blue pair, in a small size given their length, was in the process of being let down another inch to accommodate their owner's recent growth spurt.

Marie Cartwright, enjoying the unusual quiet for this time of day, blinked as she heard the clock strike the half hour.  She had just awakened from an impromptu nap on the couch, having had the luxury of a solitary repast at dinner.  Eyeing the interloper that had roused her from her slumber, she sighed and pushed herself up to a sitting position. 

She reached over the arm of the settee, and pulled the top garment from the pile of mending.  Turning the pants inside out, she measured the new hem and began stitching at small, even intervals, as she had been taught so many years before by the nuns in the convent.

Quickly completing the task, she placed the pants next to her and leaned over to pick up the brown pair.  She shook her head in dismay at the size of the tear in the right knee, knowing that any patch job would be blatantly obvious, even to their young owner.  ‘Well,’ she thought resignedly, ‘one more for the rag bag!’

Remembering the extra cloth she had purchased earlier in the season for just such a purpose, the young woman replaced the pants in her basket. Heading for the staircase, she intended to retrieve the material and start a new pair of trousers for the younger of her two stepsons.   

Arriving at the top, she paused before heading to the master suite, her eyes adjusting to the darker passageway before her.

The second floor had five bedrooms, each opening off a polished wood hallway. Four of the bedrooms were of a similar size and layout, two with a view of the front of the house and two overlooking the back.  The master bedroom was twice as large as any of the others and the hallway ended at its entrance.

Of the four smaller rooms, only two were completely furnished as they were occupied on a full time basis.  It was obvious from the look of them that each was inhabited by a young boy, however, the similarities ended there.

Marie hesitated before opening the door of the first bedroom on the left side of the hallway.  This one belonged to her eldest stepson, who fiercely guarded his privacy and allowed entrance only if he were inside.  Of course, his father had free and ready access to the room, and although she honored the boy’s wishes, Marie would sometimes enter it when the child was at school.  This was done not as an invasion of his privacy but merely to gain further insight into his world, as the boy would not willingly share any part of himself with his stepmother.

Slowly pushing the door open, Marie marveled at the cleanliness of the room.  The boy kept it neat and tidy, to a degree usually found in an adult’s private quarters.  The walls were adorned with framed, pen and ink sketches of sailing vessels, as well as drawings of ancient Greek and Roman buildings. These drawings were not only decorative, but also instructional in nature, as they gave all the proper terminology for the columns and archways depicted therein.

The four-shelf, maple bookcase adjacent to the door, was filled with a variety of reading material, from children’s storybooks, novels and biographies to more technical texts regarding architecture and basic engineering concepts.

Marie smiled as she approached the small student desk in the corner nearest the head of the bed.  On it was a stack of homework papers, almost all of them marked, in an adult hand, with “A’s” and notations such as, ‘Well Done’ or  ‘Fine Effort’.   She noticed several crumpled papers in the wastepaper basket next to the desk, but ignored her first instinct to collect the trash, as she knew this would be a signal to the boy that someone had entered while he was away.

Unconsciously looking for something to straighten in the room, Marie ran her hand over a barely discernable wrinkle in the extra blanket folded neatly at the end of the bed.  As she straightened up, she spied the small bedside table topped with an ivory, hand-crocheted doily. 

The table held an oil burning lamp and a copy of “Ivanhoe” with the reader’s place marked with a ribbon.  The book had been carefully set upon the table, so as not to upset the other, more precious, items found there. A fine gold frame held a small daguerreotype of a dark haired woman in her early twenties. She was seated, with her head resting on the back of the armchair, looking dreamily into the distance. 

Marie, again careful not to leave any discernable evidence of her visit, did not pick up the picture, but knelt down near the table for a closer look.  ‘What a beautiful woman Elizabeth was’ she thought to herself, without a hint of jealousy for her predecessor,  ‘and Adam favors her so, especially around the eyes.’  

She sighed as she considered the fact that young Adam had never known his mother, and had only a photograph to remember her by.  Her sympathetic feelings toward the child were intensified, when the light from the window glanced off the glass covering the image. It was apparent from the smudges there that the child had placed a light kiss on his mother’s likeness. 

Next to the frame was a delicate bone china music box, decorated with rosy hued cherubs. It was the child’s most treasured possession and had been lovingly carried across the continent by his father as a remembrance of his first wife.  It had originally been an engagement gift from the handsome young sailor who had finally found the courage to ask his captain’s only child to become his wife. 

Marie did not open the box, as she had often heard its lilting tones after her stepson had been tucked into bed at night. She knew that its frequent usage was a comfort to the child in the fleeting moments before sleep overtook him.

Rising to her feet, Marie exited the room, leaving the door slightly ajar as before. She moved down the hallway to her younger stepson’s bedroom.

The other child’s room was on the same side of the hallway and shared a common wall with that of his brother.  It was as chaotic as the other was orderly.  The bedclothes had been hastily tossed aside, and the pillow was still lumpy from the previous night’s usage.  Clothes, both clean and worn, were strewn about on the chair and the bed, with some having slipped to the floor after their owner had left the room that morning.

Marie shook her head at the sight, knowing that it was more messy than usual, given little Hoss’ excitement about attending school with his big brother that morning.  She bent down to retrieve the clean clothes and began to fold them carefully. 

As she placed the garments into the dresser drawers, she noticed with some disdain, the remains of the snack the little boy had eaten sometime yesterday.  The brown apple core was sitting on the dresser scarf, next to some rather grimy looking jelly beans that had most likely been retrieved from his pants pocket the night before.

A look of some irritation was evident on her face, as Marie remembered the scolding the child had received just last week for eating in his room.  Vowing to have another little talk with him, she turned towards the unmade bed.  Her anger was quickly displaced by a longing for her youngest as she spied a sweet reminder of her precious little boy.

Just visible under the untucked blanket on the small trundle bed were the ears and head of a stuffed toy bunny.  The little creature was made of worn brown corduroy, with black buttons for eyes and a soft, velveteen nose.  The toy was obviously well loved, as the stuffing was no longer evenly distributed throughout its body and the ribs of the fabric had been worn away in places. 

Hoss called him Brownie and the child had had him as long as he could remember.  The toy had been made for him by his mother, Inger, while she was expecting him.  She had fashioned a new vest for her husband with the same material and had enough left over for the little bunny.  Nothing was wasted during those long, hard days on the wagon train heading West.  Inger had delighted in imagining her little son or daughter with it as she carefully crafted the toy. 

Once again, Marie was saddened as she thought of this second child who had so tragically lost his mother as an infant.  Inger had been savagely killed during an Indian raid when her baby was only three months old. 

Tenderly, she picked up the bunny and laid him on the chair. She quickly smoothed the bedding and fluffed the pillow before placing the toy back in its familiar place on the bedspread.

A wooden Noah’s Ark, along with a variety of hand carved beasts, was in one corner of the room, along with some picture books and building blocks. Marie carefully stepped around these playthings as she moved to straighten a picture on the wall.   The artwork in this room was of cowboys on horseback lassoing wild stallions, and natives sitting peacefully before their wigwams. 

Having righted the picture, she turned to rearrange the items on the bedside table.  The little boy’s love for the outdoors was evident as she spied some unusually shaped rocks, a variety of leaves, and an old, sky blue robin’s egg.  Marie was thankful that their cook, Hop Sing, had stealthily removed the inside of the egg before the treasure found its new nesting place in the house!

The current Mrs. Cartwright carefully lifted a framed daguerreotype from the small table.  In sharp contrast to the one in Adam’s room, this image was of a blond woman with light eyes and a sunny smile, who looked as though she had been laughing right as the photograph was made.  Although the pictures were different, each child’s adoration for his mother was identical as there were telltale lip prints on the glass of this picture frame as well.

Marie replaced the picture and surveyed the now more tidy area. Satisfied with the improved condition of the bedroom, the young woman (after placing the apple core and jelly beans in the pocket of her apron) continued on to the master suite at the end of the hall.

She paused briefly at the bedroom across from Hoss’, which was also adjacent to the adults’ bedroom. This room, as well as the one across from Adam’s bedroom, held a variety of furniture, mainly odds and ends that did not meld well with the décor of the others.  The rooms had been built for guests who would travel long distances to visit or, in an optimistic look to the future, to accommodate a larger family.

Marie’s eyes sparkled as she considered the latter reason and moved on to her own room.

The master bedroom had a view of the front yard and enjoyed the panoramic vista of tall pines and the impossibly blue lake beyond the clearing to the south. This room was tastefully furnished with an array of fine wood pieces from around the world.  A large four poster bed occupied its center, with oversized feather pillows in starched covers at its head.  Highly detailed oil paintings of majestic clipper ships and four-masted schooners were in evidence as well. The works of art had been purchased not only for their beauty, but also for the memories they evoked for their owner.

Searching through the bag of extra cloth she kept in the bottom of her armoire, Marie pulled out a length of dark brown material.  This should work nicely’ she thought to herself, ‘and I will pad the knees with the extra fabric, just in case!’   

She folded the yardage and draped it over her arm as she exited the room.  Drawn again to the spare bedroom, the young woman entered and pulled back the drapes.  Pale winter sunshine flooded the room as the petite, chestnut haired woman of twenty-three settled herself in the oak rocking chair.

She hummed quietly to herself as she placed her hand upon her stomach.  A self satisfied smile played upon her lips as she patted her midsection contently. 

Marie’s thoughts turned to the subject of her contentment.  ‘This is the second time that I have missed my ‘monthly’.  It could only mean one thing!’ The almost imperceptible mound under her palm served to confirm her suspicions. ‘At long last, a baby!  Ben will be so very pleased and happy!’   She felt a tingle of anticipation as she imagined the look on her husband’s face when she told him.

Ben and Marie had been married for just over a year and were anxious to add a little one of their own to the household.  They had both asked God for a child as an everlasting symbol of their love for each other.

The two older children were the living embodiments of their own mothers.  The boys (eleven year old Adam, and five year old Eric, known by the most appropriate moniker of Hoss) were only half brothers, but their father had always treated them as full siblings.  He had been both mother and father to them for almost all their young lives.  Marie was pleased that her child would also share that last name, as well as the special man who had fathered the three of them, Ben Cartwright.

Now that the young woman felt assured of her impending motherhood, a somewhat disconcerting thought entered her mind.

When shall I tell Ben?’  She was so anxious to share her news, but also aware that the first three months of pregnancy were precarious at best.  She soon came to the conclusion that she would rather bear the burden of a miscarried child alone and spare Ben yet one more loss in his life.

‘I will wait one more month, or at least, until after the Christmas holidays are over, before I tell him. By then all should be well with the child and with me.’   

She frowned slightly as she considered her decision further. ‘That is, if I can wait to tell him before he guesses it himself!’  Marie did not recall her first pregnancy with Jean's baby as being obvious so early on.

The sudden memory of her first husband and their own child brought lingering feelings of sadness and regret.

To think that only eighteen months ago, I was alone, with nothing and nowhere to turn!’


                        *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *

Marie Del Vyre had been secretly married to Jean D’Marigny, a debonair, wealthy (and somewhat spoiled) young heir of one of New Orleans’ most prominent families.  He had been born with the good looks and family fortune; however, the spoiling had been the result of his mother’s preoccupation with her only child.  Jean’s father had been an exporter, and although he was very loving towards his son, his business frequently kept him from home and hearth.  Without a strong male presence in his life, Jean soon became dependent on his mother for all his needs and she willingly controlled who he met and what he did.   Once Jean’s father passed away, the dependency and control issues became even more entangled.

Because of all of this, and in spite of the fact that he had readily pledged his love and troth to Marie, Jean knew that his mother would be far from pleased at the prospect of a new woman in his life.  This was the reason for keeping their union a secret and Marie would soon regret her part in the charade. 

Just after the nuptials, Jean rented a small flat for her in which to dwell until he found the right time (and more importantly, the nerve) to tell his mother of their marriage.  However, Jean’s mother, being very well connected and a patron of the Church, soon learned of the marriage through the bishop of the diocese. (In keeping with the dictates of her Catholic faith, Marie had insisted on a church sanctioned union and Jean had acquiesced to her wishes.  The bishop, willing to compromise his position and violate his own vows of secrecy to assure continued funds for the diocese, had passed the news of the clandestine marriage surreptitiously to his benefactor.)

Madame D’Marigny was a spiteful woman used to having her own way and was furious that Jean had married without her permission.  Of course, had Jean approached his mother with his request, no such permission would have been forthcoming.  Madame felt that no woman, especially one from the Flats (the poorer section of New Orleans where Marie had been born) was good enough for her precious only child.

Upon further deliberation and with the counsel of Marie’s own cousin, a scoundrel named Edward D’Arcy, Madame D’Marigny outlined a plan to remove Marie from the picture permanently. The surest way for the D’Marigny family matriarch to oust her unworthy daughter-in-law from Jean’s life was to convince him that Marie had been unfaithful. With D’Arcy’s assistance and Madame’s money, the two devised a plot that would assure this outcome.

Meanwhile, without any indication of his mother’s knowledge of his deception, Jean was a frequent visitor to his wife’s apartments (and her bed, as well.)  It was not long before Marie determined that she was with child.  She did not immediately share this discovery with her husband and her delay in delivering the news unknowingly enhanced her mother-in-law’s plans.

Edward, with funds from his accomplice, paid an equally unsavory acquaintance to pretend to be Jean.  The other man entered the apartment (by buying off the landlord and gaining access as Marie slept) just before the time that Jean would normally arrive.  The imposter slipped into bed beside the young woman, who, thinking her spouse had arrived for their nightly tryst, turned eagerly to him in the late evening darkness.

Moments later, Jean entered the room and was shocked to find his beloved in the arms of another.  Marie was even more astounded and alarmed than her husband.  The intruder continued the charade and indicated that Marie should reveal her part in their affair. 

Marie, of course, vehemently denied the accusations, but Jean, now believing all the lies his mother had told him regarding female wiles, would have none of it.  The distraught young man ran from the room, and Marie never saw him again.  The intruder also dashed from the apartment and disappeared into the streets and alleyways of the town.  He now had enough money to live well and no desire to right the wrongs he had perpetrated.

Jean’s mother had been successful in her evil endeavor; however, the final outcome was one not even she had bargained on.  Rather than her penitent son returning to his mother’s home to resume their lives as before, Jean left New Orleans in disgrace.  Madame D’Marigny had gambled with her son’s affections and lost. 

Marie was inconsolable and soon found herself put out on the street as she had no means of support.  With nowhere else to turn, Marie went to the only oasis she could think of, the convent where she had been raised after her parents died .  The nuns, pitying the young woman, took her in.

Marie’s baby was born seven months later in a small room in the convent.  A doctor from a nearby township had been called to assist with the delivery. After a long and painful labor, the doctor delivered the child and took the baby away immediately, before Marie had a chance to see or hold her child. Upon the doctor’s return, he told the young mother that the child, a boy, had been stillborn.  Although Marie had been devastated by the news, she insisted that she be allowed to see her child.  The doctor had forbidden it, as he felt it would serve no good purpose and that she should put the episode behind her as quickly as possible.

It would be several months before Marie found out the truth about her son. 

The doctor, (also bought off by Madame D’Marigny) had handed the healthy baby boy over to his assistant who had whisked the child away into the night, before the infant’s first cries would contradict the story.  He was delivered to the waiting arms of his paternal grandmère to raise in place of his father. 

Marie, realizing that there might be a glimmer of hope in recovering the child through the Church’s intervention, had had her heart broken anew when told that the infant had taken ill and died shortly after his abduction.

Still grieving the loss of her newborn and unable to secure more respectable employment,  Marie found work as a hostess in her cousin Edward’s gaming salon in the French Quarter.  He had offered her the job because she was pretty and could entice the patrons to drink (and therefore, gamble away more of their money), rather than from any sense of familial duty or remorse. 

Marie knew that many of the local townspeople thought she provided more than just simple conversation and encouragement to the gamblers, however, the proud young woman’s conscience was clear.  She was determined to rise above her present circumstances. Her strong belief in the tenets of her Catholic faith brought her great comfort, especially in this time of need and she prayed daily for deliverance from her plight.

It was in Edward’s salon that Ben Cartwright had found her when he arrived to bring the news of Jean’s death.  The rancher had been guided there by one of Jean’s closest friends in New Orleans, Marius Angierville, who shared the true story of the young woman’s situation with Ben.

Marie’s heart beat faster as she remembered the first time she had seen the man who, unbeknownst to her at the time, would be the answer to her fervent prayers.  The tall, slightly graying gentleman had entered the gaming establishment asking for her.   By the cut of his clothes and his dignified bearing, she could tell that he was a man of some wealth and substance.

When she first looked into his velvet brown eyes, she could see the kindness there and felt the warmth of his concern for her.  There was something about this man that made Marie want to know as much as possible about him.  However, when Ben told her that Jean was the reason for his journey, she immediately went cold inside.

Jean had worked for Ben as a horse breaker on his ranch in the Utah Territory.  Jean had been an excellent equestrian, known throughout the state of Louisiana for his abilities in the show ring. He also was an exceptional judge of horseflesh and both attributes had won him a job on the Ponderosa.  The Southerner had become more than just an employee to Ben, as the slightly older man valued his friendship as well as his devotion to seeing the ranch prosper. Jean’s expertise had brought about great improvement in the fledgling string of mares and the Ponderosa geldings were soon much sought after by both soldier and cattleman alike for their stamina and speed.

It was while seeking to further enhance the Ponderosa line that Jean had been killed.  Jean, Ben and some of the Ponderosa hands had been trailing a group of wild horses, led by a powerful black stallion. The men were attempting to capture the black for use as a sire.  They had been able to surround the animals and force them into a box canyon.  Jean had been successful in lassoing the stallion, however, the animal had reared and Ben’s horse had unexpectedly done likewise.

Ben was thrown from the saddle, and was rendered temporarily unconscious. Seeing his friend’s plight, Jean had jumped to the ground, covering Ben’s body with his own.  The stallion, now free of the tension on the rope, reared once more.  The animal’s hoofs landed squarely on Jean’s back, crushing his spine and causing massive internal injuries. Due to Jean’s quick, unselfish actions, Ben was unhurt.  He had quickly regained consciousness and was able to pull the mortally wounded man to a sheltered area as the rest of the hands chased the wild herd from the canyon.

Jean’s last words were of his love for, and forgiveness of, his wife Marie.  Ben, knowing that the man had willingly sacrificed his own life to save his, felt the only way to repay that selflessness was to find Marie and deliver the news in person. 

She had, at first, dismissed Ben even before he had shared the reason behind his journey. However, he later confronted her in her apartment and told her of Jean’s death.  Marie was deeply saddened by the news, although the bitterness over Jean’s easy acceptance of the lies perpetrated by his mother remained.    

Thinking she would not see the rancher again now that he had delivered the news, Marie was surprised as their paths continued to cross while Ben completed some business dealings in the city.  Ben, unbeknownst to Marie, had discovered her normal patterns of comings and goings, and arranged these seemingly coincidental meetings. 

This was out of character for the normally forthright man.  He had not come to this place for any reason other than the delivery of the news of Jean’s death and the subsequent opportunity to sell some furs he had brought with him to offset the cost of the trip. 

Ben was as surprised as anyone at his sudden interest in Marie.  There was something about her, something wild and unsettled, and yet very wise and knowing, that had captured his imagination.  Her ability to rise above the unpleasantness of her circumstance, and yet, live life to the fullest, sparked a passion in the man that he thought had been extinguished forever.  Ben Cartwright had experienced enough heartache to last a lifetime and yet was only 31 years of age.

His true feelings for the young Creole woman were finally voiced after he was drawn into a duel with Edward.  The charlatan had wrongfully accused Ben of cheating at cards in the salon.  This was the result of a plan again devised by Madame D’Marigny as Ben came close to piecing together the truth regarding Marie and the so-called “other man”.  She wanted him out of the way permanently and realized that Edward could accomplish this via a duel with rapiers. 

However, Marius Angierville, unbeknownst to Ben, had taken his place by arriving before the appointed time and had fallen victim to Edward’s unparalleled skill with the epee.  Ben, fueled by his anger at what had been done, immediately challenged Edward to a second duel with pistols. 

Edward’s ability with a gun was much less than his mastery of the sword and he failed to inflict even a flesh wound.  Firing a return volley into the air, Ben proceeded to beat the scoundrel with his fists.  As much as Ben wanted to kill him, his ultimate goal was to force the truth regarding Marie out of him, so that all in attendance would hear of the deceit and Marie’s reputation would be restored.  Edward, with some semblance of honor towards Madame D’Marigny, refused to divulge what he knew. 

It was then that Marie realized the depth of her feelings for Ben, the man who had risked everything to give her back her integrity and her reputation.   Even though Edward would not substantiate the truth, Marie’s reputation had been restored in the eyes of the only person she truly cared about. Although they had never given voice to their desires before, Ben’s immediate proposal of marriage and a new life by his side mirrored what Marie had envisioned as well. 

Later that week, after paying homage to Marius at his burial in the same graveyard as Marie’s parents, Ben and Marie were married by a magistrate in a civil ceremony.

Their wedding night was a mixture of tenderness and love, with a smoldering passion that excited and engulfed them both.  There was no doubt now that these two were meant to be together, as soul mates, lovers, and man and wife.


                        *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *

The memory of that first heady night spent in Ben’s arms brought Marie’s attentions back to the present.  Her body warmed at the thought of her husband’s touch.  As she focused on this exceedingly pleasant feeling, she was also reminded of the result of their lovemaking, as the minute but unmistakable flutters of the new life within her were felt as well.  The large clock downstairs chimed the two o’clock hour, and her thoughts now moved forward to another special night when, she was convinced, this little miracle had been conceived.

*          *            *            *            *            *            *            *         

It was the night of the Harvest Moon dance in the middle of October.  She and Ben had attended the earlier festivities in town with the boys.  There had been food booths, games of chance, foot races and the like. Adam easily won the foot race for his age group and Hoss came up a winner by knocking over the most bottles in the ball toss. Ben had competed in the shooting contest, coming in a respectable second, with his two little boys and his wife comprising the Cartwright cheering section.

They allowed the youngsters to eat their fill (within reason, of course) of the various treats that were on offer at the event.  Hoss had a hard time making up his mind between all the cakes, pies and pastries that the women of the town had prepared for sale.  Knowing that his brother did not possess his taste for sweets, the little boy could not share and sample as many of the confections as he hoped. 

"Now, son, you know you have dessert after supper every night.  It's not like you haven't had most of what is for sale here" said Ben as he knelt down to Hoss' level and reasoned with the chubby five-year-old.  "Hurry up and decide or you won't have time to eat it before we leave for home."

Hoss sighed. He knew that his father would withdraw his offer if he didn't decide now.

"Can I gets tha brown sugar cake and two gingersnaps?"  The child asked eagerly, as he shifted his gaze from one parent to the other. 

Marie interjected gently, "How do we ask for something, Hoss?" 

"Please, Mama?" came the swift reply coupled with a pleading look.   Ben looked at his wife for her agreement.  Marie nodded, and Ben paid the attendant for his little son's fare. 

Hoss, now exceedingly happy, looked over at his older brother, who was also trying to decide between two of his favorites,  a turkey leg or some slices of freshly smoked ham, at one of the food booths nearby.

"Well, Adam, what will it be?" asked Mr. Jenkins, the town's barber, who was filling the role of waiter and cashier at this particular location.  The older man smiled as Ben came up behind his other son, as the boy carefully pondered his decision. 

"Um, I think I'll have the turkey leg, please, Mr. Jenkins."  Adam replied.  He knew Ben would approve, as Adam's appetite was not anywhere near what his brother's was. 

"Some potato salad and fresh rolls to go with that?" 

"Yes, please, sir." replied the courteous young boy. 

"Here you go, son” the man said as he handed the china plate and a fork from the International House restaurant to the eleven year old. Turning to the boy’s father, he added, “That'll be four bits, Ben."   

"Money well spent, Bill, anytime I can get this youngster to eat!"  Ben laughed as he gently placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder and handed the half dollar to the congenial man in payment for his son’s meal. 

"From the looks of it, the Cartwright men will be in need of your services soon" Ben said, as he noticed the errant curls at the nape of his dark haired son's neck. 

"Always look forward to seeing you and your boys, Ben.” Changing the subject, he asked, “Will you be at the dance tonight?" 

"Wouldn't miss it.  The wife has been changing her mind everyday for a week as to what she will wear!"  Ben responded.

Adam, turning from the two men, rolled his eyes in annoyance at the mention of his stepmother.  He then made a beeline for the tree under which the object of his annoyance, and his brother Hoss, were seated on a blanket. 

The elder Cartwrights had shared some of the booths' offerings earlier in the day with Hoss, so the little boy had had something more than sweets at the event.  Adam had pretty much held off on eating until now, so he ate his fill, although he soon found the turkey leg more than he could handle.  Ben finished off the rest of the boy’s meal and the family remained under the shade of the oak tree for another half-hour or so, while letting their dinner settle.  The adults then agreed to walk around the exhibits one last time and let the boys run off some of their renewed energy. Within the hour, it was time to head for home.

As the sun began to set, Ben and Marie settled the boys into the buggy for the trip back to the Ponderosa. The animated discussion between the two children soon ceased as the motion of the buggy rocked them both to sleep. 

Marie turned to look at the two little boys in the back; Adam, scooted down into the seat, his left arm around his brother's shoulders, and his chin on his chest, and Hoss, cuddled into his big brother’s embrace, quietly snoring.  Marie nudged her husband gently and indicated the scene in the back with a turn of her head.  Ben looked behind him and smiled at his two sons. 

‘Adam looks like such an angel when he's asleep.  I wish he could keep the same countenance when he's awake!’  He thought with a small shake of his head. 

Adam had been very trying in the months since he had brought Marie to the Ponderosa as his wife and the boys' stepmother.  Ben's patience was wearing thin with the boy's belligerent attitude and he had already punished him several times for his behavior.  Hoss had been and continued to be his usual sweet self with his new mama and was rewarded with the love and attention only a mother could provide. 

After they reached home, Ben woke up their two little "angels" and helped them down from the buggy.  He reached up for Marie and easily lifted her down also.

Hop Sing, the Cartwrights’ cook, came quickly through the kitchen's side door.  He had been expecting the family back at any moment and was ready to bathe the two children before supper. 

He nodded to Ben and Marie and exclaimed,  "Liddle boys' bath wader ready, Mista Cartlight.  I take them to washhouse and then supper be reddy." 

Adam and Hoss, standing next to their father, both pulled a face, even though it was Saturday night and they always had a bath then as there was church the next morning.  Hoss, especially, balked at the idea and said so.

"Cain't we do that after supper, Hop Sing?  I'm hungry!"

Ben, moving swiftly behind his children, reached down and, with both hands at once, lightly (but purposefully) swatted the boys' backsides.  Both of them turned immediately to face him.  With an arched, black eyebrow, he gave them a look which, Adam and Hoss knew from experience, meant they had better mind their parent. 

"Don't give Hop Sing any arguments” their father quietly intoned. “ I want you both clean and in your nightshirts before you come to supper.  Is that understood?"

The children, knowing not to press the issue, nodded at their father.  With an obedient "Yes, Pa" coming from them both, they began to walk towards the cook. 

Hop Sing took each boy by the hand and led them to the washhouse located off the kitchen.  'Pa sure has been particular about how clean we are since she came around.'  Adam thought to himself, as he let himself be shepherded into the room.

He knew deep down, however, that this wasn’t true.  Hop Sing and his pa had always been sticklers for cleanliness and he and Hoss normally had baths at least twice a week.  However, in the little boy's mind, this was just one more reason for his ongoing dislike of his stepmother.

He had waged a continuous campaign against this woman from the moment he had met her.  Although Marie had tried numerous times to win Adam over, he refused to meet her even halfway.   The strain of this situation was becoming more and more evident in the entire family’s demeanor.

The child had no recollection of his own mother, Elizabeth, who had died a few brief minutes after his birth. Inger, Hoss' mother, was the only mama Adam had ever known. His memories of her and the love she had provided to this motherless child, prevented Adam from letting another woman take her place. He was determined that he would never accept Marie as anything other than his Pa's wife, no matter how many times Ben punished and lectured him on his behavior towards her. 

Adam had inherited many things from his father, not the least of which was a stubborn streak as wide as he was tall.  Ben did not see the similarities in their temperaments and often found himself locked in a battle of wills with his older son.

With the boys in Hop Sing's care, Ben and Marie unloaded the rest of the buggy and brought their things into the house. Ben put up the horses and placed a fresh team in the harness of the carriage he and Marie would use that evening.  As he did this, Marie went upstairs to change.  Ben soon followed, as they planned to join the rest of the family for a quick supper before they left for the dance.

Two tired little boys, with scrubbed faces, damp combed hair, and dressed in clean nightshirts, were waiting impatiently at the table for their parents.  Hop Sing, suspecting that the boys had eaten their fill at the festivities, had planned a light meal of soup and sandwiches.

Ben and Marie then descended the stairs, and what a striking couple they made!  Even Adam had to admit that his father looked exceedingly handsome and his stepmother was a very pretty woman, with her sparkling green eyes and chestnut curls. They approached the table with an approving grin from Hoss and a bit of a smile from Adam. 

After they were seated and Ben said the blessing, both boys dove into the delicious meal that had been set before them.  Marie, with a sideways glance at her husband, watched in awe as Hoss took in a man sized portion of the fare.  Hoss' appetite was always remarkable, however, on this night; his eleven-year-old brother was a very close second in the amount of food consumed.  Ben grinned at his wife and shook his head as he watched his two growing boys tuck into their meal. 

Once they were finished, Ben and Marie arose and excused themselves.  Marie went to get her wrap, and stepped outside for a moment, while Ben gave last minute instructions to his sons. 

"Now boys, I expect you to be in bed at your normal times.”  He softened his tone and added, with a bit of a plea in his voice, “I want a good report on your behavior from Hop Sing, all right?"

Both little boys met their father's eyes and assured him that they would do as they were told.  Marie then came back to the table and gave Hoss a kiss.  She bade Adam good night as she knew he would not tolerate any show of affection from her.

Ben kissed both boys on the forehead and wished them a good night as well.  "Bye, Papa, bye, Mama" Hoss intoned with Adam following with only a soft "Good night". 

Ben helped Marie into the carriage. She declined his offer of a robe for her lap, as the night was somewhat warm for October.  The breeze from the movement of the carriage along the road made the ride a very pleasant one. Although they planned to return to the ranch after the dance, the mere thought of a few precious hours with each other and  some adult company thrown in for good measure, was something they had both been looking forward to for many weeks. Within an hour, they arrived at the dance and Ben alighted from the conveyance, turning to collect his beautiful wife.

As they entered the social hall, all eyes turned to see the debonair couple.  Ben had on his Sunday best, and Marie was in a fetching dark green gown, with a delicate ivory lace trim about the neckline that accentuated her fine features. They greeted their friends, all of whom had been guests at the Ponderosa earlier in the year, when Ben had thrown a large party to introduce the new Mrs. Cartwright.

Upon hearing the first notes from the small orchestra, Ben bowed deeply and kissed Marie's hand chivalrously, as she returned the bow with a graceful curtsey of her own.

"May I have this dance, Madam?"  He asked, with a wink. 

Marie replied, "Oui, Monsieur, my dance card is not yet filled."

Her green eyes sparkled as Ben lifted his eyebrows at the remark. He took his bride gently in his arms and twirled her about the dance floor, as those with less ability stepped aside and watched the couple who seemed to move as one.

They danced every dance, with eyes only for each other.  Although married just over a year, it was very obvious to all in attendance that the honeymoon had not ended for these two.  For those, such as Dr. Paul Martin who had known Ben ever since he came to the Carson Valley four years before, the metamorphosis that had taken place once Marie had entered Ben's life was profound.  Ben looked ten years younger and his broad grin was evident anytime he had his winsome wife on his arm. 

The orchestra took a short intermission and the pair, after partaking of a glass of refreshing punch, left the hall to find a cool respite outside. 

As they stepped away from the building into the darkness of the evening, Ben turned Marie's face to him and kissed her so deeply and passionately that it took her breath away.

'Her eyes are so beautiful, I could lose myself in them'  Ben thought to himself as his wife reached her hands up around his neck to bend him again to her waiting lips.

The man, suddenly feeling exceedingly warm, returned the kiss as intensely as it was given. The strains of the next tune drifted out on the night air as the orchestra began the second half of their program.  The dance, however, was now the furthest thing from his mind.

Hoping that his wife felt the same way, he whispered huskily to her; "Perhaps we should spend the night in town, my dear?" 

Marie smiled demurely and nodded.  Her thoughts and desires were also heading in an entirely different direction, away from the social hall.  Without formal good nights to their fellow partygoers, they stealthily headed down the street to the International House, the only reputable hotel in town.

The lobby of the hotel was empty save for the night clerk.  Ben and Marie greeted Tom and quickly secured a room for the night. 

Ben asked him to have word sent to Hop Sing, hoping his excuse would explain their lack of luggage!

"Please say that we will be returning to the Ponderosa in the morning, as we stayed longer at the dance then intended. And could you have Bob at the livery see to the team for the night?"  Tom agreed to the requests as he pocketed the half-dollar pressed into his hand for his trouble.  Turning the register, the desk clerk nodded slightly to Marie as her husband signed the book.  Tom handed Ben a key and directed the pair to the second floor and the room at the far end of the hall. The two headed upstairs, trying not to appear in too big a hurry to reach their room, although there was no one other than Tom to witness their hasty departure.

When they reached the room, Ben fumbled with the key, hastily trying to force it in upside down!  Marie laughed lightly as she took his hand in hers and turned his palm upwards, so the key would fit correctly into the lock.  Ben winked at her and turned the key, finally allowing them to enter.

The room was bathed in romantic moonlight that streamed through the sheer daytime curtains.  Marie entered first and headed towards a lamp on the nightstand nearest the window.  Ben caught her arm as she went, soundlessly closing and locking the door behind him as he pulled her to him. 

"We have a full moon shining through the window and no little ears to hear us.  Let's not waste this precious night on anything but each other” Ben said, as he bent down to kiss her.    

With Marie’s consent evident in her kiss, he asked, “Darling, what can I do to pleasure you?" 

With a coquettish look in her eye, she took his hands and placed them at the top button of her dress, just above her creamy ivory breasts.  As Ben unbuttoned each small shell-shaped guard to his treasure, he let his lips explore the newly exposed areas hungrily. 

Marie moaned as she surrendered her body to her husband, wishing that he would hurry and yet, at the same time, savoring every touch, every feathery kiss that would eventually lead to that same place where their love for each other would manifest itself.

They enjoyed a night of passion second only, perhaps, to their wedding night.  However, the intimate knowledge of each other’s bodies and desires elevated their lovemaking to new heights of pleasure.

In the flushed afterglow of their first coupling that night, Ben slowly rolled to the bed on his wife's left side.  He slid his right hand and arm under her neck and shoulders, while the fluffy white pillow supported her head. Ben caressed Marie's breasts with his other hand, enjoying their fullness.  He lay back against the softness of the cushion at his head and felt the flutter of Marie's heart beneath her bosom. 

Marie moved herself more closely into his embrace and placed her head against his broad chest.  She could also feel her husband's heartbeat and breathing returning to normal. 

"Oh, Mon Cheri," Marie whispered. " I love you so very much.  You are everything I have ever longed for."

Ben kissed her forehead.  "It is I who am truly blessed" he responded.  "You bring out a passion I thought had left me long ago.  I love you more than words can tell. "

Marie pulled her head back to look into Ben's dark velvet eyes and kissed him gently on the lips.  Soon, both fell asleep holding the other, exhausted but oh so warm, in their lovers' embrace.

They made love twice more that night, each time with the same intensity as the first.  Ben's virility knew no bounds and Marie was a more than willing partner. 

It what seemed no time at all, it was morning. The sun shown brightly through the sheer curtains, as they had not shut the heavier draperies the night before.

Marie watched Ben as he slept, her love for him evident in the look on her face. She turned the gold wedding band on her left hand, as she blissfully recalled the events of the night just ended. 

On this special Sunday morning, the devout woman silently sent a prayer heavenward. 

'Please let this night bring us more than just cherished memories.  Please, dear Lord, bless us with a sweet baby that will be a living reminder of the eternal love we have for each other.’

Marie made the Sign of the Cross while quietly intoning, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen” and was soon fast asleep.


                                                            Chapter 2


Marie was brought out of her reverie by the sound of two pairs of boots stomping up to the front door.   Adam and Hoss are home from school!’  She thought in alarm.  ‘Heavens, is it already so late? 

The day had been hers as Adam had taken his little brother to school as a treat for the last day before the Christmas holiday vacation.  Hoss would start school in the fall of the coming year, but had not before been allowed to accompany Adam for this annual event.

"Mama, Mama!  Where are you?"  The little boy shouted as he entered the house.

"I'm upstairs, sweetheart.  Why don't you and Adam ask Hop Sing for a snack and I'll be down to hear about your day in just a minute” Marie called, hoping that the boys would do as she asked. 

When she had heard Hoss call, she had risen from the rocking chair a bit too quickly and suddenly felt dizzy.  Although the pregnancy was primarily to blame for her lightheadedness, the vivid memories relived in the last few minutes (and the emotions they aroused) did not help the situation any!

Marie grabbed hold of the bedpost near the rocker, closed her eyes and silently chastised herself.  I must learn to take my time and not rush around so quickly!’  Her greatest fear was that she would be forced to divulge her secret before she was ready.

Fortunately, the room ceased its spinning and Marie felt better as she made her way down the hall to the stairs, again carrying the soft woolen fabric over her arm.  At the top of the stairs, she stopped and smiled as she spied the dark wavy hair of her older stepson. 

Adam was sitting with his back to the stairs and his head bent over a book open on the dining room table.  Here was one child who never took a vacation from learning.  His insatiable curiosity for the world around him and for places he was yet to see kept the elder Cartwrights constantly searching for yet another book for the serious little boy.  He devoured them, often times to the exclusion of everyone and everything else nearby. This lack of attentiveness had sometimes brought him lectures (or worse) from his father, especially at times when Adam was vested with responsibility for the youngest member of the family.

Marie laughed behind her hand as she saw the little blond headed boy sitting across from his brother. He was helping himself to three more cookies with one pudgy hand while devouring the first one held in his other hand at the same time.

Hoss did not look like a typical five-year-old, being only a head shorter (and several pounds heavier) than his six years older brother.  But it was Hoss' sweet disposition and loving countenance that had touched Marie's heart from the moment she had first met him.  This little boy so needed a mother's love and he had accepted her immediately upon her introduction as his new mama. 

Adam, on the other hand was, and continued to be, another story.  Although he was polite enough, he did not accept Marie as his new parent and resented her inclusion in the close knit family circle.  She had spent many hours puzzling over how to reach this child who had already lost two mothers and, unbeknownst to his parents, was not willing to risk giving his love to a third.  She hoped that the life now growing inside her would be the answer to another of her nightly prayers, that all of them could become a family in more than name alone.

Hoss looked up at her, grinning, as she descended the staircase, and then drained the glass of milk Hop Sing had provided to each boy to enjoy with his snack.  Slamming the glass down, he jumped from the table, bumping into it as he did so, and brought Adam out of King Arthur's castle to reality.

He ran to her as he chirped, “Mama, we had so much fun today!  We’s made paper chains for our Christmas tree, and singed songs, and listened to Teacher read stories!  I gots to sit next to Adam and he let me draw on his slate and we 'et Hop Sing's lunch and got apple cider to drink!  School is great!” 

Finally taking a breath, he opened his sky blue eyes wide and pleaded, “Cain’t I go with him after his, when he goes back after Christmas?"

Marie knelt down to give the child a hug, laying the trouser material over the arm of the settee as she did so. "Oh sweetheart, I'm so glad you had such a wonderful time” she said delightedly, as she was not sure he would find school to his liking.

She paused before answering his question, knowing that the reply would not be the one he wanted to hear. “I’m sorry, darling; you cannot start school until next year, when you are six."

Hoss' face fell at this comment. Tears pooled in his eyes, which had been so happy just a moment before.  Marie hastened to avert the impending emotional storm. 

"Do not cry, little one, Mama missed you so much today that I could not bear it if you were to leave me alone everyday.  I had no one to read to, or sing with, and I was very lonesome” she said truthfully, as she had missed the little bundle of energy who was normally her constant companion.

As she had hoped, Hoss's sunny smile returned and he hugged her tightly, kissing her cheek with a loud smacking sound, as he replied, “I’s missed ya too, Mama.”  Marie returned the affection, stood up, and took the boy's hand as he led her back to the table.

Adam had watched the exchange with, what he hoped was, an indifferent look on his face.  Inside his heart however, was a longing for the same type of comfort and motherly concern that his little brother had just received.

"And how was the day for you, Adam?"  Marie asked somewhat cautiously as she stood with Hoss. She wished there was some pet name she could call him, rather than always using his given name.  It seemed so formal and yet, she did not want to disturb any fragile peace between the two of them by the use of an affectionate name to which he would take offense. 

"Oh, it was all right, but we didn't get a chance to review anything from the last few days' class work” he replied, with obvious disappointment. “Mrs. Johnson wouldn't let us take any of our schoolbooks home because she wanted everyone to enjoy the time off. I wanted to read ahead over the holidays, but guess I'll just settle for King Arthur again instead."  Adam could not truly understand taking a vacation from learning.  There was so much to know and a limited time to acquire the knowledge, what with chores, sleeping, eating and all the other necessities of life that took up his time. 

Marie shook her head slightly as she considered the boy and his constant thirst for knowledge.  ‘Does he know what it means to relax and just do nothing?’ She supposed not, knowing what hardships Ben and Adam had faced during the long journey that eventually ended at what was now their home.

Building on the subject of school, Marie spoke again to the older boy.

"I just wanted to say 'thank you' for taking such good care of Hoss today.  I know that having to watch a younger child can prevent you from doing as you might like with your school friends.  He is lucky to have someone older, like you, to make sure he is kept safe. Your father and I always appreciate your help with him." 

As soon as the words left her lips, Marie realized that she may have laid the praise on a bit too thick.  Adam was used to being almost totally responsible for Hoss, from the time the younger boy was an infant until Marie had entered their lives.  The sideways glance that Adam gave her confirmed this suspicion, as he merely grunted and continued on with his book.

Marie sighed, turning her attention to the eager little boy who was not yet finished detailing his day for his mother. Smiling down at the child, she intoned, “Come, sit here with Mama and tell me about everything you did today, sweetheart.” 

Moving her mending and the fabric down to the basket, she sat down upon the settee and patted the space next to her.  With a grateful smile, Hoss climbed up on his hands and knees, turned around and plunked himself down against the back cushion, his short legs sticking straight out over the furniture’s edge.  Marie put her arm around the child and he immediately closed the space between them and nestled against her. 

Hoss always loved these quiet times with Mama and, he too, would miss their little discussions when he started school in the fall. Marie enjoyed the pleasure of his company, asking questions and making conversation to encourage him to talk.

Hoss' usage of correct grammar left a lot to be desired. Marie found that the more he spoke, the more she could help him to put his thoughts into complete words and sentences.  Hoss didn't seem to mind this; he relished the attention and the ready affection that his mother gave him constantly.  His brother and father just corrected each word automatically, where Marie made him feel special when she helped him to say what was on his mind.

Hoss and Marie were engrossed in conversation, as Hop Sing came bustling out of the kitchen to clean off the dining room table.  He retrieved the little boy’s empty milk glass and the cookie plate, which, thanks to Hoss, was completely devoid of even a crumb. 

Adam drained his glass before handing it to the cook and announced, "I'm going upstairs to read until supper's ready."

He did not specifically address his statement to anyone, but the little cook admonished him "Dinner ready when fatha get home.  Hop Sing only call liddle boy one time!" 

Adam took the hint, nodding sheepishly at the little Oriental man.  The child was often late to supper as his immersion into whatever he was reading was total.

As Adam stood to head towards the stairs, he turned to see Marie and Hoss talking animatedly with their heads together, sharing the events of the day. A feeling of envy swept over him as he spied his little brother enjoying their stepmother's affection. As he climbed the stairs to his room, Adam remembered a time, not so very long ago, when he had a mother that gave him that same type of love and affection.

I wish Mama was here, instead of Marie’  Adam thought, feeling the familiar lump rise in his throat as he remembered Inger, Hoss’ mother. ‘Especially now at the holidays!’

As he entered his bedroom, the little boy flung his book on the top of his bed and lay down on his stomach, placing his head on his folded arms. He turned towards the window, where the blue sky and tall Ponderosa pines were in view.  However, the child saw only what his memory made crystal clear:  a tall, blond, young woman, with laughing blue eyes the same color as his little brother’s.

He could hear her voice, too, and smiled wistfully as he heard her call his name.  She always made the “A” in Adam sound longer, like ‘Aaaa…dam’, with her lilting Swedish accent softening the first vowel. Pa always said, “Adam” like a command, even when the child wasn’t in trouble with his parent.

Well,’ thought Adam ruefully, ‘maybe it seems that way because I’m in trouble more often now than I was then!’

Slipping back into the more pleasant past, he recalled that ‘Adam’ wasn’t the only thing his parents had called him.  When Mama or Pa would cuddle him before he went to sleep each night, he was their “Baby” or “Sweetheart” or “Little Boy Blue”.   He especially liked the last one, as it had a meaning that only the three of them could understand. Its origin, of course, was the nursery rhyme, but in this little boy’s case, there were no cows and sheep to tend.

Once, after a long afternoon of playing “Hide and Go Seek” with the other towns children, little Adam hid too well and could not be found.   The children alerted Ben and Inger, who began an anxious search for their child. 

The story ended happily when the five year old was found; fast asleep in a corner of the livery stable, partially covered with hay to avoid discovery by his friends.  Adam again experienced the warm glow he had felt then, when his mama’s hand caressed his cheek while his father lifted him gently from the straw and carried him back to their little house next to the store.

Reveling in the comforting memories, Adam rolled onto his back, and clasped his hands behind his head.  His thoughts were drawn to the one holiday season he and Pa had shared with Inger.  She had made it such a special time, first with the observation of the feast of St. Lucia in early December (a tradition in her native Sweden) and then with the excitement of Christmas itself.

Adam had still believed in St. Nicholas then, just like Hoss did now, and the anticipation of that jolly old man's arrival had been fueled by his mama’s preparations for the big night. His mouth watered as he recalled her culinary abilities.  She baked for the whole week leading up to Christmas and the house, small though it was, was filled with a different delicious smell every day.

Closing his eyes, the child could remember the kitchen table almost groaning under the weight of all the different treats she prepared.  He smiled as he saw himself again at her side as Mama’s helper, at her request. 

‘Mama always told me how much better the cookies were because I stirred the dough just right or cracked the eggs  just so’ he thought to himself.   Pa had told him later that when he would come home for the evening after closing the store, he could usually tell what duty Adam had performed that day, as the youngster's clothes and face were dusted with flour or he had milk or egg down the front of his shirt. 

Adam’s inadvertent sigh was audible as he compared his lot in life now versus then.  Of course, before Inger had come along, things were almost as gloomy as they were now. Before Inger, he couldn't play and explore like other children. He always had to be in the wagon as he and Pa had headed west, following his father’s dream of a new future for them in the uncharted wilderness.

There had been so many stops in towns that all looked the same, as Pa found work to continue to pay their way across the country. At those times, Adam remembered, he had to stay in their room, in whatever boarding house they happened to be in, while his father worked.  Ben couldn't afford to pay someone to watch him during the day, so often times Adam was alone each morning and afternoon, seeing Pa for a short time at dinner and then in the evening after the workday was over.

It was a hard life for them both, as the young man tried to be both mother and father to his beloved child.  Ben was attentive to and interested in his little boy when he was with him, but most times weariness overcame him and he and Adam often retired at the same time each night.

Once Pa married Inger, however, all that changed.  Adam was relieved of all duties, other than minding his parents and having fun. 

Upon further, and wistful, reflection, Adam determined that the one thread running through all his memories of Mama was that he had always been happy when she was alive.  He could enjoy being a child, without all the responsibilities and restrictions that Ben had had to place on his small shoulders since he was a toddler.

The sweet sound of his little brother’s laughter rising up from downstairs reminded Adam of another reason why Christmas and his memories of Mama would always be inextricably bound.

The little boy felt the lump tighten in his throat again, bringing tears that stung his eyes, as he remembered the extra special present that Mama had given to Pa and him that Christmas Day.  Although the gift itself didn’t arrive until the following summer, the knowledge that he would soon become a “big brother” had brought nothing but joy to his heart.

Hoss.’ The thought of his precious little brother and the love he felt so strongly for him, caused the tears to fall involuntarily from the corners of Adam’s hazel eyes.

Pa had told him that babies were the result of the love between husband and wife, just as Adam himself was the product of Pa's and his mother, Elizabeth's, love for each other. Adam didn't yet understand this in the literal sense but took it to mean that babies were the evidence of a loving home.   He knew, in Ben and Inger’s case, that this was abundantly true.

Adam immediately swallowed hard as the next event, after his brother’s birth, was one he never allowed himself to think about.  

He closed his eyes tight against the scene that threatened to replay itself in his brain:  Inger, with an arrow in her back on the earthen floor of the shack at Ash Hollow.  Pa, lifting his mortally wounded wife into his arms for the final time, with tears of disbelief and sorrow coursing down his cheeks.  And finally, a dark haired little boy with his three month old brother bundled in his arms, watching in shocked silence as his whole world collapsed before him.

I will not think about it.  She is still alive in my heart and no one will ever take her place!’  Adam rubbed furiously at his eyes and staunchly refused to let more tears fall.  ‘I have to be strong for Pa.  I didn’t cry then, and I won’t cry now.’ 

Adam, as to be expected, had been devastated by the loss, but his father had been inconsolable for many days and weeks afterwards. Ben withdrew into himself as he had when Elizabeth had been cruelly taken six years before, when Adam was born. 

However Ben, in his grief, failed to realize that this time the loss was not only his.  Adam was a newborn baby when Liz had died and Mrs. Callahan had been there to care for his needs.  Now, when his little boy needed him the most, Ben’s sorrow had made him blind to Adam’s pain and he had not given the child the attention he so desperately needed in order to help him deal with the loss of his beloved mother.

In an effort to ease his father’s suffering, and try to escape his own memories, Adam had devoted himself to looking after his little brother.  The joy that the baby brought to both their lives helped Ben to recover from his grief and Adam to sublimate his.

The weeks, months and years since that awful day had seemingly flown by.  He, Ben and little Hoss, had finally reached their destination and since then had concentrated on building a home and a future on the Ponderosa.  They were happy, just the three of them, with the welcome addition of Hop Sing after they arrived in the Carson Valley.

‘We were happy, until Pa took that trip to New Orleans!’   Adam felt anger replace sorrow as he again focused on, what he felt, was the root cause of every disagreement and problem that had arisen in the Cartwright household over the last year.  His fists inadvertently clenched in rage as he thought about the interloper that threatened everything that Adam held dear. 

The child’s misplaced, but very real, animosity towards his stepmother had been the cause of many clashes between Ben and Adam.

‘Pa has Hoss and me, with Hop Sing to cook and clean.’ Adam naively reasoned.  ‘Why does he need Marie?’  Adam’s fierce determination to control his world, and his place in it, had been compromised when Ben married Marie. 

His little brother had been no help, as Hoss had taken to Marie right away. Adam, of course, forgave him as he always did because ‘Hoss is just a little kid.’  

He reasoned further that, ‘he doesn’t know any better, and besides, he always takes to everybody.’ Adam again failed to see the similarities between the way Marie expressed her love for Hoss, and the way Inger had shown her love for him.

Adam knew that he was alone in this battle of wills and was unsure who would be the victor in this perceived fight for his father’s affections, Marie or him.  He knew his father loved him, though Adam did not let his pa express any real physical affection for him, especially in front of other people.  Hoss was the one who got hugged and kissed now but of course, he was the baby of the family and this was to be expected.  It was not for lack of trying on Ben’s part, but the child’s avoidance of emotional displays was a natural result of the inner despair that he could not reveal to anyone.

Adam's reflections and childish rationalizations were interrupted by the sound of the front door opening downstairs and the greetings between his father and the rest of the family.

Remembering Hop Sing's warning about being late to table, Adam, his emotions still hovering precariously near the surface, got up, quickly washed his hands and face in the basin in his room and hurried down the stairs to welcome his father home.


                        *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *

The family had an entertaining conversation over dinner that was led by its youngest member. Hoss again outlined the events of the day, this time for his father.  Ben chuckled as he thought of his  baby boy, with paste on his hands, making the red and green paper chain that he so proudly held up for his pa to see.

"Well, son, it sounds like school certainly agreed with you!  We'll hang that chain first thing when we put up the Christmas tree."  Ben nodded at Marie as Hoss' smile widened even more. 

Seizing the moment, the child began to ply his father with questions, "When can we go gets the tree, Pa?  Tomorra?  I want to go in the sleigh 'nd pick it out with you 'nd Adam 'nd Mama!  Please, Pa, please?"

Ben reached over and chucked the little boy under his chin as he said, "Now just a minute there, young fella.  We can't go get the tree this soon or it will dry out before St. Nick even has a chance to bring your presents.”

Looking to Marie for her agreement, he added “Christmas is a week from tomorrow.  Why don't we plan on cutting it on Christmas Eve?"

Hoss started to pout, but thought better of it, as Ben lifted one eyebrow in his direction.

Marie, hoping to avoid a scene, interjected, "Now, now mon petite.  Don't forget, Père Noël is watching all the time, but especially now, with Christmas coming so soon.  You don't want him to see that face and think twice about what presents he should bring you, n'est pas? " 

Hoss, well aware who Père Noël was by the stories Mama had told him, anxiously replied, "Golly, no Mama.  I'll be the goodest boy ever.  You'll see!" 

He nodded earnestly, as Hop Sing brought apple pie to the table for dessert.  Ben laughed and tousled his baby’s straw blond hair, giving his wife a saucy wink for her efforts.

Adam, still struggling with his thoughts from earlier, had been quieter during supper than was normal for him.  Ben turned his attentions to his older child as he cut a forkful of the flaky pie before him. 

"So son, what are your plans for your vacation?"

Adam shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Well, I don't really have anything planned, just thought I'd help you around the ranch, do my chores, and read." 

Marie had been considering what she might do with both the boys home for the coming two weeks.  She saw this as an opportunity to bring up her plans for their holiday preparations. Dabbing at her mouth carefully with her napkin, and giving Adam an encouraging smile, she said “I was planning on doing some baking, Adam.  Your father tells me that you were quite a helper when Hoss' mother baked and I thought…" 

Marie's words were cut short, however, when Adam, confronted with the emotions he had been trying to put aside all during supper, jumped to his feet and shouted at his father.  "Why did you tell her that?"

Ben’s fork slipped from his hand, hitting the dessert plate with a clank.  His mouth was slack as he looked up into the angry eyes of his eldest child. 

Not pausing for an answer from his appalled parent, Adam turned his fury on his stepmother.  "You could never bake or do anything like my mama could!!" 

The tears immediately welled up in Marie’s eyes, as she saw the unbridled hatred in her stepson’s flashing hazel ones.  Running on pure emotion that had finally reached its zenith, the boy, at last, gave voice to the frustration and aggravation that had been eating away at him for the past year.

Meeting Ben’s smoldering brown eyes, Adam took a deep breath, and spoke the words that he was sure would change their relationship forever. 

With the courage of his convictions, he screamed at his mortified father,   "You RUINED last Christmas for me by bringing her here and announcing that you were married!  Now, I'm supposed to act like we're one big happy family?” 

Adam’s voice took on a more high pitched timbre as he concluded his emotional pronouncement,   “Well, the only thing I want for Christmas is for HER" as he jabbed his right index finger in Marie's direction, “to be GONE!"

Ben, finally recovering from his shock at this seemingly uncalled for display, jumped to his feet, slamming his hands on the table as he did so.

His equally angry voice shook the glass in the windows as he shouted, "ADAM!  Stop this insolence at once!  I will NOT have you speak to us in such a disrespectful manner!" 

Adam looked at his father and suddenly realized the magnitude of what he had just said.  He felt his body tremble as he saw the wrath in his father’s eyes.  He glanced at Hoss and saw his brother’s face was white and his eyes glistened with tears.  Although he would not look directly at her, Adam could hear his stepmother quietly sobbing into her dinner napkin.

Ben drew himself up to his full height and set his shoulders and brow in a rigid line. The man’s face darkened with barely concealed rage and his hands were tightened into bloodless fists. His eyes were black with anger as he faced his son. His voice, now unnaturally quite, unnerved the boy as he spoke again in a slow, menacing tone.

"You get yourself to your room this instant, young man!  I will be up shortly to have a VERY necessary talk with you about your continuing unacceptable behavior.  Now, GO!"  Ben emphasized the last word by pointing to the stairs and giving Adam an angry look that the boy had never seen directed at him before. 

A very frightened and visibly pale young boy, realizing that his fate was sealed, turned and ran from the table, knocking his chair to the floor in his haste.  Hot tears began a furious descent down his cheeks before he reached the staircase.  Blindly, he took the stairs two at a time, quickly trying to put as much distance between himself and that awful scene as possible.

When he reached the top and rounded the corner, he could hear his little brother sobbing and Marie trying to comfort him.  "Now, sweetheart, everything will be all right.  Adam is just upset and missing your mother because it's Christmas." 

'There she goes again.  Making it up to Hoss, to keep him wrapped around her finger!'  Adam thought angrily as he entered his bedroom and slammed the door behind him. He knew that this would further incense his father; however, if he was going to be punished for his behavior, he would let his actions speak for him as well as his words!

Fear of retribution for his unforgivable declaration then overtook the anger as Adam threw himself on his bed and buried his face in the pillow. 

Downstairs, Ben, suddenly looking much older than his years, dropped back down to his dining room chair.  He put his elbows on the table and covered his face with his shaking hands, as he heard Adam’s door slam. 

'Why can't the boy see that his behavior towards his stepmother is tearing this family apart?’  He thought helplessly. ‘How many more times will I have to punish him for these outbursts?' 

Ben's thoughts were interrupted by the continuing wails coming from his younger son. 

"Mama, why'd Adam say those mean things?   I don’t want ya to go and neither does Pa!”  Then, the child continued, with a revelation which, to his young mind, was almost as horrible.

“And St. Nick musta heard him for sure! Now he won't git no presents, just a switch in his stockin'!"  

With that, Hoss, with Marie kneeling beside his chair, buried his face into his mother's shoulder.  Marie, her eyes still wet with tears and looking more than a little dazed from Adam’s venomous words, moved her arm around his heaving shoulders and held him close, giving Ben a worried look as she did so.

Ben signed and turned to quell the immediate crisis.  His anger receding, he gently said, "Now, son.  Come over here to me."  The child looked up as Ben gestured to the woebegone little boy.

Hoss got up and, wiping his nose on his sleeve, came to stand by his father.  Ben lifted him up onto his lap and used his dinner napkin to dab at the tears on the anxious little face.

He gave Hoss a hug and whispered, “There, there, baby.  It's just like Mama said.  Adam's having a hard time because he has so many happy memories of your mother and he misses her so."

Although Ben spoke the words, he didn’t really believe that Adam’s proclamation had anything to do with him missing Inger.

Hoss sniffled loudly and said "But, Pa, we gots a new mama now and she's here with us.  Why ain't Adam happy 'bout that?"   His blue eyes looked deep into his father’s brown ones, searching for an answer that Ben couldn’t provide.

Ben looked sadly at Marie.  Hoss' question was the same one that both of them had been asking themselves ever since Ben had brought Marie home to the Ponderosa after their whirlwind courtship and marriage in New Orleans the previous year. 

"I don't know, Hoss, I just don't know."  Ben said dejectedly. 

Steeling his resolve, he continued. "But I intend to get to the bottom of this situation for all our sakes."

Hoss swallowed hard as he heard the word "bottom" because he knew his brother was in for another tanning from their father for his explosion at supper. 

Ben put Hoss back on his feet and absentmindedly patted the child’s upper arms with his hands. "Why don't you and Mama finish your pie in the kitchen, while I go talk to Adam?"  Ben directed the question to Hoss, but was looking at his wife as he finished the request.

Marie knew that her husband did not want them to hear the "talk" that he intended to initiate with the flat of his hand on his elder son’s backside. 

Desperate to avoid another such confrontation between her husband and stepson, she handed the younger child's dessert plate to him and said "Why don't you go in the kitchen and ask Hop Sing for some milk to go with your pie, sweetheart?  Mama wants to talk to Papa and then I will join you." 

Hoss, ever the obedient child, did as he was told even though he wasn’t hungry anymore.

After Hoss had left the room, Ben slowly rose from his chair with a grim look on his face.  As her husband started for the staircase, Marie rose and put her hand on his forearm.  She was now sure that the cause of all this heartache was tied to Adam’s feelings for Inger.  Marie knew that she had to convince Ben of this or any hope of all of them becoming a family would be dashed.

Taking a calming breath, she faced Ben, and put her hands on his biceps, feeling them flex with tension under her fingers. "Darling, I know how upset and angry you are.  But there has to be more to what Adam is feeling than what he is saying in these angry outbursts.  He is obviously a very confused and hurt little boy.”

Ben looked at his wife, trying to understand what point she was attempting to make.  She continued to present her evidence.

“Tonight is the first time that I have ever heard him speak of Inger.  There must be some connection, some link to the past that he cannot deal with.  Whatever it is, it is so close to the surface that the mere reminder of her overwhelmed him emotionally.” 

Marie paused, as she realized something else that was different in tonight’s outburst.

“He turned on you first.  Normally, it has always been something I have done that sets him off. It was as if you had violated a sacred trust by telling me about Inger.”  Marie stopped, as the reasons for her stepson’s unexplainable behavior became clearer, at least to her.  

“It seems the mere mention of her name caused him pain.  His dislike of me must have something to do with memories of her.” 

Meanwhile, Ben, only half listening to what his wife was saying, had already come to some conclusions of his own.

If Adam would not yield to his authority and stop this intolerable behavior, he would have no choice but to send him away to school.  As much as it would devastate his father to do this, it seemed to be the only solution, short of divorcing Marie which Ben would never consider.  His only hope would be that, in time, Adam would become mature enough to accept the situation for what it was, something that was out of his control.

Feeling sick inside with the decision he had just made, Ben knew that he still needed to deal with the immediate situation of Adam’s behavior at supper.

Before he turned to head again for the staircase, Ben commented in a matter of fact way to Marie, “He has always been a very quiet child, never really confiding in anyone what he is thinking or feeling." 

He looked at the tender expression on his wife's face as he spoke, but continued more forcefully.  “But that doesn't excuse what he said.  I will not have him disrupting our family and causing you grief because things are not the way he thinks they should be.”

Ben paused and his voice and manner became more reflective, “Life never turns out the way any of us expect it to. He should be grateful that you have come into his life... into all our lives." Ben looked lovingly at his wife at this last comment.

Marie smiled as she realized what her husband meant.  However, she felt she still had to make Ben see that continuing to treat the symptoms of Adam's unhappiness would never cure what was truly wrong inside the heart and mind of the youngster.  Marie tried one last time.

“Darling, promise me one thing." 

Ben looked at her inquisitively, unsure of what she might request of him.

“When you go upstairs to talk with Adam, try using your lap in a different way than I think you intend to.”

Ben raised his eyebrows in surprise, as Marie continued, “Maybe that will be all he needs to tell you what is in his heart."

Her husband looked at her, obviously perplexed, then the light of understanding shown in his dark brown eyes. 

"I will try your way first, my dear.  I promise I will give him a chance to talk."  Ben lightly kissed his wife's cheek, and then headed upstairs, hoping that a different tack with his eldest child might work a miracle in this season celebrated for its miracles.


                        *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *                           

Adam had been lying on his back on his bed, staring at the ceiling and waiting for the sound of his father's footfalls on the stairs.  He wouldn't be able to enjoy this position after their "little talk" so he figured he should take advantage of it while he could.   He was still struggling to bring his emotions under control, though he had been able to stop the tears with a few deep breaths and a large dose of stubborn pride.

'Why, oh, why, can't I keep my big mouth shut?' he thought woefully.  ' Last year, I didn't say anything about Pa bringing her home  and changing everything, so why did it have to come out now of all times?' 

Adam already knew the answer to that question.  It was all because of his reaction to Marie trying to do something with him that brought back memories of Inger. Angry thoughts now replaced the anxious ones of the previous moment.

'How could Pa tell her about how I used to help Mama?  It's none of her business what Mama and I did together.  That memory is mine and mine alone!’  Forgetting his anger at his father, he again turned his rage towards his stepmother.

Why does Marie always try to bring up the past and change it to include her?  She may have Hoss fooled, but I will never let her get close to me!'  Fresh tears welled up in his eyes and the pain in his heart caused a new lump to form in his throat too. 

Adam started abruptly as he heard a knock on his door.

'Pa!' he thought anxiously.  I didn’t even hear him come up the stairs!

"C… C… Come in, sir." Adam quietly stammered as he leapt to his feet, wiping at his eyes with the back of his hand.

Ben entered and closed the door quietly behind him.  He turned to look at his oldest son, noticing the red-rimmed eyes and downcast expression on the boy's face. Still without speaking, he turned and walked to the chair at Adam's desk.  Ben took the chair and moved it near the bed.

Adam watched dejectedly as this was the usual routine before he would be ordered to drop his trousers and be taken across his father's lap for his punishment.

Ben, however, did not proceed as usual.  The tall, somewhat imposing man merely placed his hands on the back of the chair and looked around, as if he were unsure what to do next. 

Adam stole a look at his father and was surprised by what he saw there. ‘Pa doesn’t look angry, like he did downstairs, he looks almost sad.’ 

Ben said, in a calm and non-threatening voice, "Sit down, son." and  gestured to the bed directly in front of the chair.  Adam sidled over and sat ramrod straight on the very edge of the mattress. 

Ben took the chair and placed it near Adam's knees, giving himself some legroom, and sat down somewhat tentatively.  Adam looked down and bit his bottom lip, dreading what lay in store for him. 

The adult took the child's chin in his right hand and brought it up so the boy would be forced to look directly into his eyes. Adam did so reluctantly, but noticed again how very sad and defeated his father appeared. 

"Son, what's wrong?"  Ben asked pleadingly, his concern showing in both his voice and the expression on his face.

Adam said nothing, unsure of where his pa was going with this unusual approach. 

Receiving no response, Ben dropped his hand, took a deep breath and continued. "Marie didn't mean anything by what she said downstairs about you helping Inger.  I just told her about it because you had seemed to enjoy it so much when you were a little fellow.  I thought that it might be something you could do together that would be pleasurable for all of you…especially at this time of year."

Ben stopped speaking now and looked intently at his child.  He was hoping against hope that his son would be as giving with his response, as Ben had just been in affording him the opportunity to speak his piece.

His father’s gentle and caring words caught Adam off guard, striking a chord deep within him. Without even realizing it, the child let his normal defenses down. He finally spoke, so quietly that Ben had to hold his breath to hear what his son was struggling to say.

" I just miss Mama so much.  I...I know that Marie didn't mean anything by what she said.  She was just to be nice.” 

Adam took a deep breath as he tried one final time to quell the rising anguish within him, but fortunately for all concerned, this time he lost the battle. 

“Oh , P..Pa..!!"  The last words came out as a wail as the power of Adam's pent up emotions overtook him.

The torrent of tears began again and coursed silently down the boy’s pale cheeks. As he involuntarily began clasping and unclasping his hands, Adam’s whole body shook violently with his sobs.

Ben, shocked by the sight of his normally placid child in such turmoil, immediately and instinctively reached out to his despondent little boy.  Leaning forward and standing slightly, he picked Adam up under the arms. As he slowly settled back to the chair, Ben placed the child sideways on his lap with Adam's head leaning into Ben's broad chest, and his legs dangling over the side of his father's thigh.

Ben slowly rubbed the heaving back with his left hand, as Adam, giving no sign of resistance whatsoever,  buried his head into his father's strong chest. Ben lifted his other hand, placing it on the outside of his son's left leg and slid his first born in more closely to his own body. 

Adam, responding to the comfort he had always found in his father’s arms, began to sob more freely now.  Ben's hand came up from the boy's back and gently stroked the dark mussed hair.  Adam moved his arms around his father's waist and hugged Ben tightly.

Just as he had done when Adam was an infant, Ben slowly began to rock his little boy back and forth, all the time murmuring words of comfort to the crying child.

 "There, there sweetheart, it's all right.”  Ben crooned, using an affectionate name that was music to Adam’s ears.   “Papa can see how unhappy you are.  Just let it all out, don't hold anything back."

Ben brought his arm down and began rubbing his hand up and down his son’s arm in rhythm with the steady rocking.  His other hand remained on the outside of Adam’s legs, the warmth of which brought added solace to the overwrought youngster.

He placed his chin on the top of his son's head, and was not surprised to find that his own eyes were wet with sympathetic tears.  Adam burrowed himself more deeply in the comfort of his father's embrace, as Ben continued the soothing repetitive motion.

Adam continued to cry as though his heart was breaking and Ben was shocked by the unabated intensity of the child's emotions.  He searched his brain for the reason for this outpouring of despair on his young son’s part.  Suddenly, he likened it to his own emotional breakdown, some five years before.

'He's crying as though Inger had just died.' 

Ben reflected on that thought for a moment and then realized that he had never seen his son truly mourn his lost mother.  He immediately recalled the look of raw pain that was evident on Adam’s face just before Ben had taken him onto his lap. 

‘But surely, he has gotten over that by now?’  His conscience now troubling him, Ben struggled to bring to the fore the horrible scene on that day in Ash Hollow many years before.

Painfully, he relived the day when his world was cruelly and irrevocably changed for a second time: the Indian attack, Inger handing Hoss to Adam and pushing them into a corner of the cabin, then turning to reload the rifle. 

Ben closed his eyes and shuddered as he then heard again the sickening sound of an arrow finding its target, and Adam screaming for his pa.   

The man’s heretofore unshed tears began to fall unabated as he felt his beloved wife in his arms again, holding her one last time as she slipped away.  Unconsciously, Ben grasped Adam more tightly to him and increased the intensity of his rocking motion, now as much for his own comfort as that of his child.

The man fought to overcome his own reawakened feelings of grief as he searched his memory for glimpses of his son’s suffering at that moment in time. 

As he had held his dead wife, Ben recalled looking over at his boys.  Adam had been ghastly pale, clutching the baby to him, his eyes wide with fear.  There were no tears then, as the child could not deal with what was being so gruesomely portrayed before him.

As the onslaught continued, Ben vaguely remembered someone taking Inger from him and laying her gently down on the dirt floor of the cabin. He was then led over to the corner near Adam and forced to sit on the hard earthen floor, while two women carefully covered Inger’s body with their cloaks.  

He had stared at the figure on the floor, seeing her gold wedding band sparkle against the pale and lifeless fingers of her hand.   Adam had moved a bit closer to him, though he did not recall the child speaking to him or attempting to interfere with his father’s grief in any way.  

His memory became very muddled then, once the Indians had abandoned the fight and it was safe to return to the wagons.  He was helped to his feet and he recalled someone trying to take little Eric away from his big brother.  Adam had cried out “No!” and the adult had acquiesced to his wishes. 

‘Probably saw that the boy had to derive comfort from someone as his own father was not up to the task’ Ben thought painfully.

They were all guided back to the wagons and, Ben supposed, as his memory now failed him completely, the women had prepared his wife’s body for burial and the men had chosen the site and dug the grave. The service had been brief, not due to any disrespect of Inger’s memory, but because they had been easy targets should the Indians return. 

Ben had no other recollection of comforting or even holding Adam, until they laid Inger to her rest in the prairie sod of the lonely, endless Nebraska plain. 

In his mind’s eye, he saw the small boy beside him and could even hear Hoss cooing in the background in someone else’s arms. He had put his hand on the child’s shoulder and had felt Adam edge up to his side.

They stood in silence as the rest of the wagon train began its departure, driving the teams directly over the spot where his beloved lay.  The finality of it had hit him then, as the tracks obliterated any sign of the grave to discourage animals or Indians from disturbing Inger’s final resting place. 

Once again, he could remember no tears on Adam’s part, only a brave little boy who took his inconsolable father by the hand and led him back to their wagon. 

Searching his memory in a futile attempt to challenge what was now painfully obvious, Ben could recall no time since that day that Adam had discussed Inger’s death or showed any hint of emotion regarding her in front of his father.  Ben had wrongly assumed that the boy had done his grieving in private and therefore had not pushed him to express his anguish. 

Or’ Ben thought ashamedly, ‘force myself to think of it again, not even for the sake of my child!’  

The man, shocked and saddened by this admission, now began silently and angrily chastising himself.  'How could I have been so blind as to ignore Adam's suffering?  How could I deny the child a chance to voice his grief for the wonderful woman all of us had lost, not just me?’

His rage and self loathing increased as he continued his internal reprimand, ‘I was too caught up in my sorrow to acknowledge my own child and give him the love and support he gave me during those awful days following her death. What a poor excuse for a father I am!'

This revelation regarding Inger’s death caused Ben to finally see what was behind his son’s hateful attitude towards Marie.   The anger, frustration and anxiety that his little boy had been wantonly venting towards his stepmother during the last year now finally made sense.

Ben’s tortured inner discourse now reflected his realization of the part he had played in all that had happened.  

'My God, he's carried this inside him for five years?  No wonder the child is so miserable with a new mother in the house.  He's never come to terms with losing the only mother he had ever known! And I am the one to blame!’

The enormity of the situation and his sole responsibility for it brought Ben abruptly back to the present. He looked down at the precious child in his arms and vowed that Adam would no longer suffer from his father’s shortcomings.  Ben knew he could never make up those lost years, but this boy would no longer be denied the right to his emotions, no matter how painful those emotions may be for Ben.

Adam, not knowing of his father’s revelation, found the pain in his heart and mind slowly receding.  The feel of his father’s loving arms about him and the gentleness of his caresses were truly a tonic to the boy’s troubled soul.  How he had missed this closeness, this communication of feelings without words, and the love that flowed directly from his father’s heart to his own! 

The little boy’s sobs began to subside as well, and in time, quiet sighs replaced the tears. Adam relished the comforting rocking motion and the sound of Pa’s deep voice rumbling in his chest and then into his own ear.  Ben ran his left hand through the curly dark hair, and placed a gentle kiss on the top of Adam’s forehead.

Ben’s heartfelt apology was his first step towards easing his son’s grief.

“It’s going to be all right, baby” he whispered in warm, adoring tones. “Papa loves you more than anything and…”  Ben paused as he struggled to regain some composure, “I am so, so sorry that you were hurting so much inside and I didn’t see it.” 

At this pronouncement, Adam lifted his tear stained face to his father.  He was greeted with a tender smile and another kiss on the forehead, as he noticed that his pa had been crying, too.

"Pa," Adam said softly, as he reached for the handkerchief his father now offered. “It’s not your fault.  I’m okay now.  I guess it just won't ever be the same again.” 

Ben shook his head in response to Adam’s comment; however, it was done in awe of this small boy who always put others’ feelings ahead of his own, rather than in disagreement with what he had said.

Adam continued, feeling that he owed his father an explanation for his actions, even if he himself didn’t quite understand them.  “It hurts when I see Marie and Hoss together.  It reminds me so much of Mama and me.” 

“It also makes me sad that Hoss doesn't seem to need me like he did before.  He turns to Marie for everything.”

Ben started to protest, but it was Adam’s final declaration that struck him like a knife through his heart. “I don't feel like anyone needs me anymore."

Adam hung his head at this last remark and looked almost as miserable as he had before.

He raised his head as his anguished father gently forced the little boy's chin upwards with a trembling hand. 

Ben looked deep into the hazel eyes that so reminded him of Liz, and said with great emotion, "I need you…and so does your little brother… and Marie as well."

Adam made a face at this pronouncement and said “I’m the last one Marie needs or wants after the way I've treated her.”

Ben sighed, knowing that it was up to him to convince his son that his stepmother did indeed need and want him.  Bringing these two together was a task that Ben gladly accepted and vowed to make a reality, especially in light of all that had just happened.

He quietly replied, "You need to give Marie a chance to get to know the fine young man I know and love.” 

A hint of a smile crept onto Adam’s face as he heard his father once again proclaim his love for him.

She was the one that told me you were hurting and that I should give you the opportunity to tell me what you were feeling.”  Ben paused here as he silently thanked God that he had listened to his wife’s counsel. 

He continued, “Marie's a very wise and kind person, Adam.  All she wants is a chance to give you her love, like she has with Hoss.  That's not asking too much, is it, son?"

Adam considered this question as Ben lifted his eyebrows pleadingly and gave a slight nod of his head. He was pleased to see Adam respond with a similar nod and a wider smile.

"I promise I will try, Pa. And,” he continued, with just the slightest hint of merriment in his eyes as he used the vernacular of his smaller sibling “I'll also do my best to be the goodest boy I can be."

Ben laughed and touched his son's forehead with his own.  "Thank you, Adam."

A brief silence ensued as Ben drank in the sweet sight of his now much happier little boy.  Relief was evident in his voice as he continued in a different vein.

"Well now" said Ben, dabbing at his own eyes with the knuckle of his right hand, "what say you wash your face and we'll go downstairs and have a slice of that apple pie?  Don't want to make Hop Sing think that we don't like his cooking anymore!" 

Adam gave Ben a bright smile and once more tightened his arms around his father's middle.  "Thanks, Pa, for listening…and understanding.”

Adam hesitated for just an instant and then spoke the words that his father needed so desperately to hear.  “I…I love you, Pa." 

“I love you too, sweetheart" Ben confirmed, with a smile of his own. 

Ben’s heartache was lessened even more as Adam gave his father an unexpected but very welcome kiss on the cheek.  Ben returned the kiss and gave him one last squeeze before the boy slid off his lap.  "Now hurry, before your little brother finishes what's left of that pie!"

Adam smiled as he hurried to the basin.  Ben followed him, and using the slightly damp towel hanging nearby, touched it briefly to his face.  As he looked in the mirror above the washstand, he was pleased with the reflection that greeted him, as he could see the stress of the past months had vanished from his face. 

Both of them headed downstairs, with Ben's arm around Adam's shoulders and the boy smiling happily up at his pa.

Downstairs in the kitchen, Marie had been straining her hearing while trying to calm Hoss and divert his attention from the ugly scene he had witnessed earlier.  It had been almost half an hour since Ben went up to Adam’s room and she was desperate to catch an indication of how the situation was progressing.  She fervently hoped that the fact that she could not hear anything at all was a good sign, and not merely that her little charge was louder than the exchange in the other part of the house.

Marie and Hoss's discussion was suddenly interrupted by the sound of two pairs of boots coming down into the living room. 

'That's a positive sign’ Marie thought, hopefully.  'Normally, Ben comes down alone afterwards.'

Her relief was apparent as she saw man and boy round the corner from the dining area, with their arms around each other.  Hoss looked up to see unexpected smiles on both his father's and brother's faces.  Not wanting to break the mood, he wisely kept his questions to himself as to the status of his big brother's punishment.

Marie rose as Adam, with Ben's hands now placed gently on the top of his shoulders, approached her.  The youngster took a deep breath and, with a truly contrite expression Marie had never seen before, turned his eyes to her. 

"I'm really sorry, ma'am…uh, Marie, for what I said before.  I know you're just doing what a mother is supposed to do.  I guess I thought you were trying to take my mama's place.” 

Adam paused briefly and then said “You and Hoss reminded me of how it was between me and her, and I guess I was kinda jealous of that, too." 

The child looked away for a moment, chewing his bottom lip and trying to find the right words to make up for all the unkind things he had said and done to his stepmother over the past year. 

Marie, who had just received the most joyous present imaginable from this child, came forward and took his thin face between her hands. 

"Adam" she kindly intoned, as she brought the boy's face up towards her own.  "I accept your apology and please know how much your words mean to me.  I, too, am sorry that you have felt I was trying to take your mother's place.  I only wanted to show my love for you and Hoss." 

Marie's voice quavered as tears shimmered in her deep green eyes. “I know now, how hard this last year has been for you and I'd like for us to make a new start… to try and be friends."

Adam smiled shyly at his stepmother, and continuing to meet her eyes, said "I'd like that, too."

As Ben released his hold on Adam's shoulders, Marie took the child’s hands and tentatively drew the boy towards her.  Her long said prayers had not been in vain as he went willingly and gave her a gentle hug around the waist.  She returned the embrace, briefly touching her cheek to the top of his head. As they withdrew from each other, he gave her another smile that reached his eyes and mirrored what was now in his heart.

Marie glanced at her husband and noticed that he too had tears in his eyes. Adam turned to face him as Hoss, taking in the joyous scene before him, rose from his chair and came to stand next to his father.  The younger boy gave his father a wide grin as he looked up and saw the happiness in Ben’s own expression.

Ben winked as he spied the up-turned, sugar-speckled face and put his hand down on his baby's soft hair.  Hoss hugged his pa's leg, happy that all was finally well between his mama and his brother. 

The evidence of Hoss’ recent activities showing clearly on his face begged a question from his father.

"Well, young man, did you leave us any pie?"  Ben asked skeptically, with a comical wiggle of his dark brows that made the little boy giggle as he gazed at his father. 

"Sure, Pa, ‘cause Hop Sing always makes 'em two at a time!"  The entire family laughed at this and settled down in the warmth of the kitchen, to share the pie and the closeness that enveloped them all.

*          *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *

Later, after the boys had been lovingly tucked into their beds, Ben and Marie curled up on the settee in the living room. Ben recounted in detail the reason behind Adam’s unhappiness and expressed his anger over his own ineptitude in dealing with the situation.

"Thank you for making me see that his outlandish behavior was just a cover for the hurt that he couldn't deal with.  The hurt that I never let him express…"  Ben still felt intense guilt and anger at himself for being so blind to his son's needs. Marie, seeing the pained expression on her husband’s face, tried to find the words to ease his mind and his heart.

Looking directly into his troubled dark eyes, she said, "We cannot change the past, darling.  But the future holds infinite possibilities.  Be glad that you were willing to take a mere suggestion and turn it into an opportunity to better know and understand your son." 

Ben, appreciating her attempt at consolation, shook his head at her phrasing. "Our son” he declared. 

"Yes," said Marie dreamily, "he truly is our son now."  

Ben moved his arm around his wife's shoulders and she nestled into her customary place against his broad chest.  "Christmas seems to have come early this year." Ben whispered as he kissed the top of his wife's brown curls. 

"Mai ouis, I know I have already received my gift."  Marie replied, referring to the breakthrough with Adam. She turned to give her husband a gentle kiss on the lips. “One I will enjoy for a very long time to come. And you, Mon cheri?"

"I receive my gifts each day, from you and those two little rascals upstairs.  I consider myself a very lucky man." Ben said with a heart full of thanks for his family.

Marie's hand moved absentmindedly to the other "gift" that she had yet to tell her husband about.  She was so glad that she had decided against saying anything just yet.  This Christmas belonged to her two little sons and their father, the man who was holding her close.  Her family.


Chapter 3

The next week was special in many ways for each member of the Cartwright family.  Hoss, as expected, was impatiently awaiting St. Nicholas’ arrival. He was a willing participant, however, in any activity that his mother had planned to divert his focus from the celebration that was still many long days and nights away.

Ben wanted to be more involved in the holiday doings, but, most days, work on the ranch prevented him from joining his family until the evening.  Although she missed her husband, in a way Marie was glad to have the time alone with her two sons, especially as she and Adam were trying to forge a friendship on their own terms. 

Adam was more at peace with himself and his surroundings then he had been in all the time his stepmother had been a part of his life.  In fact, he had not felt this content since Inger had been lost to him.   He found Marie's cheerful countenance and playful nature a pleasure to be around and he was drawn to her as he would be a much older sibling.  He still couldn't bring himself to call her "mother" but she didn't seem to mind.  Just the fact that he referred to her by anything other than 'ma'am' made Marie's heart light.

Marie had made plans for some activities that the three of them could enjoy together during the week.  She hoped to create some memories for all of them to share when her two little boys were no longer little.  She also encouraged Adam to relax and not spend all his waking hours with his nose in a book. 

"Take time to dream a little every day" she said in response to the quizzical look she received from him when she told him to sit and do nothing. Not having had the freedom to be a child and do childish things since Inger was alive, Adam found it somewhat difficult to shake off his mantle of maturity.  Hoss, sensing his brother's confusion over how to have fun, took the bull by the horns, so to speak, and pestered his older sibling to come outside and play in the snow with him. 

"C'mon, Adam!” The little boy said excitedly one afternoon after dinner. “We’ll have a snowball fight, 'nd make a snowman, 'nd make angels in the snow, too!” 

Adam looked questioningly at Marie, as Hoss rose from his chair at the table and ran to his brother’s side.  Trying to pull him to his feet, the child continued, “Hurry up and git your warm woollies on 'fore Mama says it's too cold to go out!” 

Marie laughed and nodded her permission as Hoss, now putting all his weight into the endeavor, literally yanked his older brother from his chair. 

“Hoss!”  Marie admonished, her laughter turning to a scolding tone, “not so rough!  You’ll pull Adam’s arm out of the socket!” 

The little boy, immediately contrite, let go of his sibling’s hand and dropped his head.  Fearing that his mother’s approval would be withdrawn, he hurried over to her and apologized.

“I’s sorry, Mama.  I won’t hurt ‘im, I promise!”  The child pleaded, as Adam, now equally concerned with regaining her permission, waved off Marie’s anxiety regarding the condition of his limb. 

“Please let us go, Marie” the older child also implored.  Smiling down at his slightly shorter sibling, he added, in his best ‘big brother’ voice, “Hoss couldn’t hurt me if he tried!” 

His little brother smiled back, knowing that this proclamation would be disproved during their impending snowball fight!

Two pairs of pleading eyes turned towards their weakening mother, as Marie once again gave her consent. 

“All right” she said a bit apprehensively, “but be careful!  I don’t want any broken bones or black eyes for Christmas!” 

As they both assured her that they would indeed be careful, the two raced up the stairs to their rooms to change.  Marie shook her head and rolled her eyes heavenwards in a perfect imitation of her older son but, truth be told, she was delighted by their antics.

A few minutes later, two bundles of warm clothing came downstairs to be inspected by their mother before heading outside to the winter wonderland.  Due to the layers consisting of long underwear, a flannel shirt, oiled pants and a heavy winter jacket, Adam was now as big around as Hoss.  Or, at least, he was as big around as Hoss was before his little brother was dressed in a similar fashion! 

Each wore a knitted wool cap that Marie had made, on the trip from New Orleans the previous year, as a first Christmas gift for her two new stepsons.  She felt tears sting her eyes as she looked at Adam’s red cap, as this was the first time he had ever worn it.  The little boy did not miss the grateful look in her eyes and grinned as she adjusted the sides of the cap down over his ears.  Looking each child over carefully, she pronounced them amply covered and shooed them out of the living room.

Marie smiled as she watched them trundle out the front door.  Adam's mittened hand did not allow him to close the door easily, so, taking her winter wrap from the rack behind the door, she followed them out as far as the porch. She waited in anticipation as her little one began to work his magic on his older brother.

Hoss, taking a position near the center of the front yard, had already begun assembling his arsenal of snowballs for what was assured to be an all out war between the siblings. 

Adam also turned to the task at hand, looking for a likely stronghold just beyond what he judged to be the accuracy and reach of his little brother's arm.   He had thrown down the gauntlet in the house earlier, when he assured Marie of Hoss’ inability to inflict pain on him.  However, a little discretion might be the greater part of valor now that the battle was about to be enjoined!

Both boys quickly made about fifteen white orbs of ammunition.   Each stepped out from behind their supply and eyed the other smilingly. 

"C'mon little brother.  I'll give you the first one” cried Adam as he tossed his snowball up and down menacingly.  Hoss grinned, as he knew he could easily trounce Adam from where he stood. Given this opportunity, he could catch his brother unawares and prevail.

"Ok, ya ask'd for it” yelled Hoss as he pulled his right arm back and threw with all his might.

The older boy felt involuntary tears sting his eyes as his baby brother hit him squarely in the face with the first uncontested pitch.   Silently cursing his long eyelashes that caused the snow to stick and temporarily obliterate his sight, Adam wiped a gloved hand across his face.

Marie, fearing the first casualty in this snowy skirmish, started to leave the porch to attend to Adam.

Unaware of his stepmother’s intentions, Adam yelled laughingly, "I'll get you for that, Hoss Cartwright” and returned the opening volley.  Remaining where she was, Marie breathed a sign of relief as the eleven year old began his own onslaught in retaliation for his miscalculation of his brother's snowball throwing abilities. 

Having the rare upper hand in this contest with his big brother, Hoss continued to lob his projectiles towards Adam’s body, scoring hit after hit.  Each child was laughing so hard at the other’s efforts, they were soon winded and red cheeked from the exertion and the cold.   Marie, caught up in their infectious gaiety, cheered them on from the sidelines, showing no favoritism for either contestant.   

Adam was amazed at Hoss' accuracy and realized that his "little" brother was more than up to the challenge he presented. After each had exhausted their original amount of ammunition, they fell to the task of restocking their supply. Marie, her own face aching from grinning at the boys at play, shook her head as the two began another battle.  It was so good to hear their high pitched voices while they enjoyed one of the simple pleasures of childhood. 

Hearing Adam cheer as his snowball found its way down the front of Hoss’ shirt, Marie thought to herself, ‘One would never guess that this is the same little boy from a few nights ago.  What a joy it is to see this side of him.  I wish Ben were here right now!’

Starting to feel more cold than comfortable, and knowing that she must guard her health for the sake of the baby, Marie silently withdrew into the house.  She went into the kitchen for a cup of tea where she could watch the boys through the window. 

The kitchen was very modern for its time, with a pump at the sink, bringing fresh water directly indoors.  The cook stove was a six burner affair, with a warming oven and oversized baking oven as well. Many open cabinets hung from the walls, with all manner of dishes and serving pieces filling the ample space.  A small white painted table, with four matching seats, was to the left side of the cook stove. 

The large window, overlooking the front yard, brought in an abundance of light.  There was a separate entrance to the kitchen from the outside that was located on the other side of the stove.  This door also had a window within it which was covered with another handmade eyelet curtain, identical to the one in the front window of the house.  The curtain was gathered in an hourglass shape, and tied at the center with a grosgrain bow.

After the third go-round, Hoss began to tire and his brother scored some major strikes against him. The youngster, in a gesture of defeat, fell down on his back in the snow and started to move his arms and legs in a sweeping motion.  Adam grinned as he too fell back and mimicked Hoss' movements.  Soon, the snow found its way down the two ‘angels'’ necks and caused more whooping and hollering as each struggled to stand up without disturbing his creation. 

Hoss looked round to find his mother and saw that she and Hop Sing were watching their antics thorough the kitchen window. 

"Lookee at our angels, Mama” the child cried excitedly, as he gestured to their handiwork in the snow. Adam stepped back from his and at the same time, made a sweeping motion with his arm and took a deep bow.  Straightening up and grinning cheekily, he waved to the audience as Hoss announced, “We's gonna make a snowman now!" 

Marie and Hop Sing both waved back and smiled.  The two Cartwright brothers turned and, with their backs to the house, each pointed to a different area of the yard as they determined where their snowman should be built.

Marie turned from the window and carefully moved herself into the chair closest to the stove.  She was becoming much more vigilant in avoiding any quick motion that could cause a repeat of the dizziness she felt the previous week.  She gently placed her hand on the little bulge that was the reason for that dizziness and smiled at her own secret.

These ministrations did not go unnoticed by Hop Sing.  He had seen her discreetly letting out the waist of some of her everyday dresses and noted how her normally frenetic pace had slowed over the last few weeks. Her preference for certain foods and the increased amount of nourishment she was taking in also served to confirm his suspicions.

Mr. Cartwright had been focusing all his attentions on the relationship between his wife and eldest son and would not have noticed such minute changes in Marie’s routine.  Adam and Hoss were only children and would not perceive any difference in their mother.  It would not normally be the place of a servant to concern himself with the apparently “delicate condition” of the lady of the house.  However, the little Oriental man was no ordinary servant. 


                        *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *         


Hop Sing had arrived in the Carson Valley a few years prior, after a long and arduous journey from his native Canton.  At home, he had studied to be a doctor under the tutelage of his father.  Hop Ling was a wise and loving man who, using a vast array of native Chinese herbs, flowers and the like ministered to the people of their local province.

Hop Sing was an eager student, intent on learning everything his father had to teach him. His life's dream was to continue his father's work, and he was content with his plan to remain in the village of his birth. 

The young man’s education, and life as he had always known it, was brought abruptly to an end, when a band of marauding criminals from an adjacent province attacked their village without provocation.  In a twist of fate, Hop Sing had been in the home of a relative in a nearby town, purchasing rare herbs for his father's apothecary.  

Upon his return to the village, he found the inhabitants lying dead in their houses, and all their valuables gone. The terrified young man did not immediately find his father until he searched one home where a baby had been due.  There, he found the body of his father with the massacred child still in his arms.

Hop Sing buried his father in the earth that had provided Hop Ling with the necessary ingredients to ease the suffering of his fellow human beings. He prayed that his father would find eternal peace with the spirits of his ancestors. 

Dragging himself back to their home, the young man searched the interior for the one thing that was more valuable to him than anything else in the dwelling.  It had no material worth so it was not likely the raiders would have taken it, but knowing of the wanton desecration he had found in the other huts, Hop Sing feared that it may have been destroyed.

All their belongings were scattered about the earthen floor of what was once their home. It took a few precious minutes before he discovered it, first by touch rather than sight.  He gently caressed the grass paper cover, seeking comfort from the medical text that was so lovingly shared between father and son.  Finally, overcome with grief, Hop Sing gave vent to his emotions and keened for the man who had given him so much.  The air, heavy with the smell of death, was split by the anguished cry of the one who had not physically perished, but was dead inside nonetheless.

Finally, gathering the journal, along with what other few items he could carry, the young man walked outside to look upon his tiny village one last time.  As Hop Sing prepared to take his leave, he said a prayer for the dead that lay within the walls of their shelters.  He then went from house to house with a lighted torch and ignited each one as a funeral pyre in honor of the families who were now forever lost to him.

With his father and his village gone, Hop Sing decided that he would follow the example of thousands of his fellow countrymen and begin life again across the ocean in the “New World”.  He had many relatives who had settled in San Francisco and would welcome him into their homes. With this in mind, he proceeded to earn the vast sum necessary to pay his fare to that distant shore.

After many months working as a common laborer, he had scraped together sufficient funds to book passage on one of the many vessels bound for America.  The passage was harrowing, at best.  Hop Sing’s medical expertise was called upon many times during the voyage and giving aid and comfort to his fellow countrymen brought him a great deal of satisfaction.   It was with some regret and a large degree of trepidation that he finally stepped foot on the land he would now consider his home.

His reticence soon dissipated, however, as he was met by a myriad of relatives at the dock in San Francisco Bay.  He had not realized how lonely he had been until he took in the jubilant faces of several of his first cousins, as they spied him disembarking from the belly of the vessel.

He felt a weight being lifted from his heart as he heard his name called out in the lilting cadence of his local dialect.   Hop Sing had not expected a welcome party as the ship had been delayed by bad weather and was many days late in arriving. 

His family had taken this in stride, as they had been planning a celebration since the young man’s last brief letter, outlining his travel arrangements, had been delivered weeks before.  Each day, beginning just prior to the ship’s intended arrival date, a different family member had been dispatched to the wharf, with specific instructions to notify the rest of the relatives when the vessel was in sight.

After the happy informal reunion near the bottom of the gangplank, Hop Sing was spirited away to the home of his father’s eldest brother, the family patriarch in this new country.   His joy at this meeting was tinged with sadness, as he beheld the gentleman who had helped to raise his father, and noted the strong resemblance between the two men. 

His uncle was most gracious and the young man took comfort in the warmth of his condolences. Over the next few weeks, Hop Sing was able to finally share his emotional burden with this understanding and sympathetic soul, who helped him heal his heart and his mind.

Having recovered from both his journey and the loss of his father, Hop Sing was anxious to embrace this new country and find his rightful place in it.

However, the young Asian soon experienced, for the first time, hatred based only upon the shape of his eyes and the color of his skin.  He learned that he was safest with others of his own kind and yet, he had to meet white men on their terms in order to secure more than bare sustenance wages. 

Though happy to be reunited with several branches of his extended family, Hop Sing had learned a great deal about self sufficiency during the long months since his father’s death.  He had enjoyed his independence and vowed to find his own way in this new land, without reliance on his relatives for assistance.

Swallowing his pride and downplaying his education, Hop Sing became a houseboy to a wealthy family on Nob Hill.  He picked up English as he could, often learning a word or phrase after being chastised by his employer for his lack of understanding. 

The family had three children, who, after being virtually ignored by their parents, were raised by nannies.  Having had a devoted father in his life, Hop Sing felt sorry for these little ones, who seemed unloved and unwanted.

One of his duties was assistant to the cook. Hop Sing began to put his burgeoning culinary knowledge to good use by making all manner of cookies and cakes for the children to enjoy. The children took readily to any attention given them and Hop Sing was soon improving his knowledge of English while listening to them recite nursery rhymes and sing songs. 

Hop Sing had definitely improved his lot in life, with a mastery of skills in the kitchen that few others had attained.  After several months, he could see, however, that he would not have an opportunity to better his position with his current employer.  The head chef was a relatively young man himself, who had no intention of giving up his enviable post.

He was also weary of the hustle and bustle of this booming waterfront metropolis.  He longed for a less harried existence, in a more familiar, rural type of environment, as he had found in his native Canton. The diminutive man had also fully regained his independent nature, and a bit of wanderlust now overrode the practicalities of remaining within the close family circle in which he had been enveloped.

Over the protests of his uncle and the rest of the family, Hop Sing decided to head East, with the ultimate goal of utilizing his many and varied domestic skills in the mining camps of the western Utah Territory.  He did not desire to dig his way to wealth, as the only mining claims that were available for Chinese miners to work would be ones abandoned by others.  He hoped, however, that those who did pin their hopes on a hole in the ground would pay well for the privilege of a hot meal and clean clothes.

He was able to find a local merchant who was in the midst of shipping supplies, by wagon, bound for the mining camps of the Washoe Valley.  Hop Sing struck a deal with the gentleman for a space on one of the buckboards, while agreeing to cook meals for the man’s employees while on the trail.  With that, he bid farewell to his family and left to find his own dream in the rugged valleys of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Although not even remotely apparent at the time, Hop Sing would soon find his real place in the world, due to a simple act of kindness and one very special child.

One day, as the young man was leaving his shack to head for work, he came across a small boy, standing alone in front of the livery stable, crying.  By the way he behaved, Hop Sing knew that he could only be about two or three years old, though the child was almost as large as a youngster twice that age. He bent down to the child's level and, smiling pleasantly, asked his name.  The child stopped crying, however (as he was somewhat startled by the little man with the kind face and the strange way of talking), he did not respond. 

Hop Sing asked again, "What your name, liddle one?" 

The child was, by nature, very trusting of anyone, especially someone that was not much bigger than he was! Wiping his tears away with the back of his dirty hand, the youngster looked the stranger in the eye and said, "Hoss." 

Having heard many unusual names in this untamed country, the young man continued in a friendly tone.

"My name Hop Sing” he replied.  Hoping to get more than a one word reply this time, he gently queried, "Why you all alone? Where mama and papa?"

Realizing that this little man was now his only friend in the world, the child responded in a distressed tone, "I ain't gots no mama and my papa's somewheres, but I c…c…cain't find him.  He's losted!" 

Hoss' tears began again at this last comment, making his cornflower blue eyes an even brighter shade than normal.

Hop Sing comforted the little boy by assuring him that they would find his lost parent. He took the chubby little hand and started off in search of the irresponsible adult in question.  Hoss, now momentarily placated, went willingly with the man, as he seemed to take charge and would not take ‘no’ for an answer. 

As they walked along the wooden sidewalks towards the main business section of the town, Hop Sing asked him how he had "losted" his father.  Hoss looked down at the ground and did not answer. 

"Did liddle boy wander away when fatha not looking?" he asked again.  Hoss merely nodded, knowing that he would receive a spanking from his pa for not staying in the wagon as he had been told to do. 

Meanwhile, a frantic Ben Cartwright was looking everywhere for his baby son.  They had stopped at the general store to pick up supplies.  Ben had loaded the wagon, and then told Hoss to stay on the seat of the buckboard as he would only be a minute in settling his account.

The father had turned to go back into the store, after assuring that the horses were firmly tied to the hitching post and the brake set on the wagon.  His little boy's attentions were now focused on the candy that had been promised as a treat for his obedience and he sat quietly on the high seat. 

Ben had just entered the shop when Hoss felt something land on the back of his hand.  The youngster, who loved all creatures, was delighted to see a beautiful, lemon yellow butterfly there.  As he reached down to gently touch it, the little being took flight.

Intent on seeing where the insect would land next, Hoss climbed down easily from the wagon. Completely forgetting his father's instructions, the child followed the butterfly as it continued its flight up the street. 

Less than a minute later, Ben returned to the wagon. 

“Here you go, baby.”  The dark haired man said, as he watched his step up onto the wheel of the conveyance, lifting the bag of sweets towards the seat where he had left his younger son.  When he did not feel a grab for the package of treats, he looked up, fully expecting to see his blond-headed three year old in the seat above him.

Ben stopped in mid-air, as the candy left his hand and the color left his face. Quickly glancing up and down the street, he stepped down to the ground and began to loudly and anxiously call his little boy’s name.

“HOSS!”  he yelled furtively.  Cupping his hand round the side of his mouth, he called again, trying to keep the rising panic out of his voice.


The child in question was now a ways up the street, darting through an alleyway on the trail of the elusive butterfly.  Hoss, doggedly determined to trail his quarry, was not paying the slightest bit of attention to anything but the tiny yellow creature.

On the street behind the mercantile was a livery stable, where, after catching a current of air, the insect landed on the roof.  Hoss stood for several minutes, his hand shading his eyes, as he waited for the butterfly to take off again.

Finally the child became bored with the lack of activity on the part of his winged friend, waved goodbye to it and turned to start back to the wagon. He was surprised to find that no matter which way he turned, he could not see the buckboard or anything the least bit familiar.  The realization that he was lost naturally frightened him and he immediately started to cry.  Hop Sing had then happened upon him in this pitiful state.

Ben, now having given up his futile calling, began rushing down the street, asking passersby if they had seen a child about so high, towheaded with sky blue eyes. As Ben rarely came into town, the many people he asked did not know him, let alone his small son.   No one had seen the toddler.

Desperate to find his baby, Ben began to imagine all kinds of terrible scenarios to explain his son's disappearance.   He was about ready to head to the sheriff's office for help, when he spied Hoss walking up the sidewalk, hand in hand with a very determined looking Oriental man. 

Ben released his breath in a rush as he saw that his son was safe.  That relief was tinged with anger towards the little boy who had disobeyed him. He vowed to give Hoss a stern talking to (and a session over his knee for his "adventure”) once they reached home. 

However, the young father had no inkling of the upbraiding he himself would receive as he hurriedly approached the pair.

Hoss, upon seeing his father, let go of Hop Sing's hand, and ran to Ben's outstretched arms, calling “Papa, Papa!”

"Hoss!  Are you all right?”  Ben questioned as he lifted the little boy into his arms and hugged him tightly to him.  “What happened, baby?" 

"I’s fine, Papa,” the child responded, as he kissed his pa’s cheek.  “I finded a budderfly and it flied 'way and I tried ta chase it but it wented ta the top of the house.” 

Hoss stopped briefly for a breath, and then continued.  “’nd…, ‘nd then…, you was losted and I could't find ya, but he helpeded me!”   At this last pronouncement, the child pointed excitedly to his now unsmiling benefactor.

By this time, Hop Sing had caught up to his little friend and eyed Ben Cartwright angrily.  Ben, deftly moving Hoss to perch on his left hip, turned and extended his right hand towards the Oriental gentleman.  He then kindly intoned “Thank you so much…” 

That was as far as he got before the “Oriental gentleman” began his tirade.

"What’sa madder with you, mista?” the little man demanded hotly.

Giving no time for a response to his rhetorical question, he pointed to the wide eyed child in Ben’s arms. “He too liddle to be in busy street by self!” 

Hop Sing then shook his finger at the now speechless young man and continued.  “Don't fatha have better sense than to leave baby outside alone?”   

Ben's jaw dropped open and he felt his face and ears redden with embarrassment.  The townspeople sharing the sidewalk gave the three a wide berth while eyeing both Ben and Hop Sing disdainfully. Such displays of temper were not unusual in this somewhat uncivilized berg, but the fact that the Chinaman was the one giving the dressing down to a white man was unheard of!!

The downcast young father, however, paid no mind to them as he looked upon his precious baby’s face. All he could feel at that moment was shame and guilt, coupled with the knowledge that he fully deserved this tongue lashing, regardless of its source. 

As Hop Sing continued his scolding, Ben added his own silent reprimand. ‘Hoss is just a baby and I shouldn't have left him without supervision, not even for a second!’   

The child turned towards his anguished parent and regarded him solemnly with eyes that were exact replicas of his mother’s. The thought of losing his only link to his beloved, deceased, wife momentarily overwhelmed the young man, as he closed his eyes and whispered, “Forgive me, Inger.”

Seeing the effect that his words were having on the guilt stricken man, Hop Sing stopped his ranting and stood with his hands on his hips, waiting, no, daring, Ben to deny anything he had said. Hoss, well aware of his pa’s explosive temper, instinctively covered his ears for the eruption he felt sure would follow.

Ben, however, could only nod in agreement with everything Hop Sing had expressed.  When he finally found his voice and spoke, it was in a highly uncharacteristic and tentative way.

“Where did you find him?”

Over by livry stable on next street,” the still angry man replied.

Knowing that his little son could easily have been hurt in any number of ways between the mercantile and the livery stable, Ben swallowed audibly.  

Looking again at the chubby toddler in his arms, he said with emotion, "I don't know how I can repay you for your kindness and help in bringing Hoss back to me, sir."  He kissed the little tear stained face of his younger child as Hoss took his hands down from his ears and hugged his pa around the neck. 

Although the man did not specifically apologize to Hop Sing for his lack of vigilance, the look on his face (and the fact that he had called the Oriental “sir”) spoke volumes.   Hop Sing took a long appraising look at the man and child before he spoke again.

"My name Hop Sing.  Liddle boy say he got no mama.  That truth?"

"Yes, it is.  My wife died when Hoss was about three months old.  He, Adam… that's my older boy, and I have been on our own since then."  Ben was surprised to hear himself respond so readily to the direct question, especially when it was a rather personal one at that.  He quickly wrote it off, however, to his highly emotional state.

The inquisition continued.  "How old otha boy?"

"Adam is not quite nine" came the response.

"What you do to feed boys?" 

Ben was not quite sure what the little man was asking, but gave what he hoped was an acceptable answer.

"I have a ranch about 10 miles northwest of here, called the Ponderosa."

"What kinda ranch?" 

"It's a cattle ranch, but I have a stand of good timber land as well." 

"You have ranch house with indoor kitchen?" 

"Well, I’m in the midst of building a bigger home.”  Ben responded, and then hastened to add additional detail as he saw that this scant description did not seem to please the man.

“But plans are for a large kitchen,” Ben hesitated then, but remembered a modern feature Adam had recently suggested, and added triumphantly, “with a pump at the sink!"

'What am I saying?’  He thought incredulously as the words left his tongue.  ‘Here I am telling this total stranger my life story, as well as my plans for the future!’

For some reason, however, Ben felt compelled to answer his questions. There was this niggling thought in the back of his mind that he and his family would only benefit from their interaction with this brusque little man.

For what seemed an indeterminate amount of time, Hop Sing stood and reflected on the information just provided. 

Needing to take his son home but also hoping to escape with a bit of his dignity left intact, Ben used the first reason as a convenient way to move the conversation along.

"Well, I need to get this little one home” he said, hefting the still silent Hoss further up on his hip.

Receiving no response, Ben continued with a more direct tack.

“How may I repay you for bringing him back to me, Hop Sing?"  Ben asked sincerely, trying to determine what Hoss' rescuer might feel was a just reward.  The next question put to him took away any remaining dignity he had retained during the prior interrogation.

"What your name, Hoss' fatha?"  Hop Sing asked, using the only moniker for Ben that he knew of at that moment.

"I…I'm Ben Cartwright" said Ben, now embarrassed by the fact that he had not even had the presence of mind to introduce himself.  He reached out his hand which Hop Sing took and shook one time, while bowing in his accustomed way.

Again, Ben waited while the Good Samaritan considered his open ended offer. 

“Mista Cartlight” he finally, respectfully, replied, "you repay by letting Hop Sing cook, clean, and take care of liddle boys.”

He continued playing on Ben’s apparent lack of parenting skills, as the young father was momentarily taken aback by this unexpected request.

“Must need Hop Sing vely badly to lisk baby's life in busy street." 

Before Ben could fully grasp all the ramifications of that final statement, the little man pointed at the rancher and his child.  "You wait.  Hop Sing get clothes and books, then all go Ponderlosa light away."

The little man then turned away, half-walking, half running down the street towards his dwelling to collect his things. 

Hoss, who had been taking all this in, turned to his father and asked the most important question to his young mind, "Do ya think he can cook better’n you, Pa?" 

Ben, still watching the little Chinaman with a shocked stare, turned and looked at his son.  He slowly nodded his head in agreement.  "I…I wouldn't be at all surprised, son.” 

Quickly resigning himself to his fate as Hop Sing’s new employer, (though it felt quite the other way around!) he added,  “Maybe we better find some room in that wagon for Hop Sing's belongings, before he gets back.”

Ben continued, with a somewhat fearful, yet comical look on his face, “I don't want him angry with me again!"  

Hoss chortled at this, and was met with a loving smile by his adoring father.  Ben turned towards their wagon, all thoughts of Hoss' punishment forgotten in the aftermath of their first meeting with this beguiling little man.

Hop Sing soon became a member of the family, not only because he had rescued Hoss that day, but because he took a genuine interest in the well being of all the Cartwrights, Adam and Hoss in particular. 

He assisted in the completion of the new house and kept it spic and span from the day they moved in.  He provided an endless supply of clean clothes and linens, which had not been a priority for a man and two small boys. 

But the thing they all benefited from immediately was his mastery in the kitchen.  The family had subsided on Ben's very limited menu of oatmeal or eggs for breakfast, beans and bacon or cold sandwiches for dinner, and rabbit, fish or beef for supper, with some fresh vegetables as Ben could buy or barter for.

The elder Cartwright's strong suit in his culinary repertoire was gravy, as he knew that his boys would eat anything he made, as long as there was gravy on it.

His biscuits were leaden, and although he was the only one to drink his coffee, even he had to admit that hot water had more appeal.  They also never ate poultry, as Ben had a distinct aversion to the necessary requirements of bringing a chicken from yard to table. It was not so much the ending of the creature’s life that he found distasteful, but the immersion of the bird in boiling water (in order to remove the feathers) and the resulting smell was something he could not stomach!

Hop Sing, conversely, could take any ingredients and make a meal fit for a king, or at least, a hungry man and two growing boys.  Not only were the meals themselves delicious, but the desserts were to die for!

Little Hoss, especially, was entranced by whatever came out of Hop Sing's kitchen.  He could often be found, sitting impatiently at the small table in the kitchen, ready to taste test whatever sweets or pastries the little man chose to create that day.

Hop Sing was also able to put his medical training to good use, as the children came down with various aliments, as all children do.  He nursed Adam and Hoss through the whooping cough and measles, along with a variety of fevers, upset stomachs, and runny noses. 

The two motherless boys came to look on him as something of an uncle and confidante. Ben, likewise, was forever grateful that, not only had Hoss been found that day but a loyal and trusted friend to help him raise his sons, as well.

                        *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *         

Given his venerable position within the family, Hop Sing felt obliged to air his concerns to "Missy Cartlight" as she sat enjoying her tea and the warmth of the fire in the cook stove.  "When Missy tell husband about new baby?" he blatantly asked.

Marie practically choked on her tea, and could not have looked more shocked than if he had asked the question in French! 

"Wh…What?  How…how did you know about the baby?" she asked, with an abashed look on her face as she realized that she had just divulged her secret.

'Surely, he couldn't tell just by looking at me!'  she thought anxiously.  

The little cook replied, in his typical, matter of fact way, "Hop Sing have many girl cousin.  He see what they do when baby on way.” 

To further prove his point, he counted out the various things Marie had done that were a dead giveaway to her condition.   “Eat more, make clothes bigger, walk slower, take nap.”

Having presented his irrefutable evidence, Hop Sing returned to his original question. “So, when you tell Mista Cartlight good news?"

Marie was glad she had been seated when he asked the question, as she was sure she would have fallen into a dead faint had she been standing!  Now that she had inadvertently confirmed the man's suspicions, she had to assure that he would not give away her secret. 

"I…I planned to tell him after the holidays, so we could have a Christmas focused on just Hoss and Adam, and not the impending arrival of a new baby.” 

“Please, Hop Sing, please don't say anything!" she implored with both her voice and her eyes.

Hop Sing's eyebrows rose and he muttered something in Cantonese that, in English, would not be fit for a lady's ears.

"Hop Sing not tell secret!!” he indignantly replied.  “Only ask to help Missy with anything she need until Mista Ben know.” 

He continued with a short list of possible scenarios to outline his good intentions.

“If Missy want to rest or want special food, tell Hop Sing. He keep liddle boys quiet, or cook what Missy want.  Hop Sing can take Missy clothes to cousin to make bigger, too.” 

He finished the declaration with a gentle tone.

“I no tell no one.”

After confirming his oath of secrecy, he asked earnestly, “You believe Hop Sing?"

The relief was evident in her voice as she said, "Of course I do.  I appreciate your kind offer.  I fully intend to tell Mr. Cartwright right after the first of the year." Marie smiled shyly, grateful now for a confidant and an ally as well.

She stood slowly and walked to the window to check on the boys, then placed her hand on his arm.  "Thank you, Hop Sing” she said with a radiant smile. “It’s nice to be able to share the news with someone!" 

The little man smiled and nodded.  They both turned to the window then, and watched their boys complete the family’s snowman.


Chapter 4

The boys had come in about half past three, but only due to their mother’s insistence, even though they were both exhausted from playing outside. Their focus for the previous hour and a half had been the planning, placement, and construction of a snowman that both could be proud of. 

Surprisingly enough, the arguments had been kept to a bare minimum, given both little boys’ propensity for stubbornness. Adam acquiesced to his brother’s wishes regarding the placement of their creation near the right corner of the porch, facing the yard.  Adam’s preference was to have it near the barn, so that the family and any visitors could appreciate it from whatever vantage point they happened upon it. 

“But, Adam,” whined Hoss, “he needs ta be near tha house, so he don’ts get lonesome.” 

His older brother rolled his eyes at that remark.

“How can he get lonesome?  He’s made of snow, for Pete’s sake” said Adam, with his hands outstretched, as he undercut his brother’s supposed logic.

Knowing that annoying look well, Hoss continued with what he hoped would be a convincing argument.

“Well, what if’n it snows again?  Then, he’ll jus’ get all mess’d up out there!” 

Seeing a glint of acceptance of his supposition, Hoss hurried to make his point.

“If’n we build ‘im right cheer next to the porch,” said the child walking to, and then standing in, the intended space, “than we can fix ‘im more easier.”  The youngster finished the demonstration triumphantly, with a firm nod of his green cap-covered head.

Adam (albeit begrudgingly) admitted to himself that the little boy had a point.  However, he had to add his two cents before he would agree to his sibling’s plan.

“The roof of the house will keep some of the snow off of him, too!  Ok, little brother, by the house he goes!” Adam was rewarded with the gap-toothed grin he expected and the boys fell to their work. 

Soon, they had assembled the little man’s lower body, midsection and head.  It had taken both of them to roll the bottom part into a ball that was acceptable to the budding architect in the family.  Hoss, still pleased with his brother’s approval of the creation’s post by the house, allowed him to indulge his love of building and willingly followed Adam’s precise directions.

After they moved the base of the snowman to its permanent location, Adam used both his hands to slightly flatten the rounded top, so to provide a better anchor for the next section.  Hoss, not understanding the reason behind his brother’s actions, protested loudly as he saw his careful handiwork disturbed.

“Whatcha doing that fur?  We jus’ took the extra time to make it round!”  He exclaimed in amazement.

“Because,” the young designer patiently explained, “it needs to be flat on the top so the next part will stay where we put it!”

“Then, why’s we have to be so careful to be sure it was round?”  said Hoss, now a bit more upset about the time lost to perfection, when all he really wanted to do was decorate the little man!

“If ya don’t make it round to begin with, then it looks funny on the other sides” maintained the eleven year old, his voice rising with his declaration. 

“It’s sapposed to look funny,” asserted the other, equally determined, child. “It’s a snowman!” 

Adam, usually the one with a quick answer, couldn’t think of anything to say in response to this argument.

“Well,” he said, as he looked at his little brother with a sheepish grin, “guess ya got a point there.” 

Both of them laughed at their stubbornness, and hurriedly completed the assembly of the body without further disagreement.

With a very naked, expressionless, statue before them, the boys went racing to the kitchen door for some assistance from their mother and Hop Sing.  Taking his mitten from his now cold hand, Adam rapped gently with his knuckles on the window in the door.

The two adults had fortunately completed their unusual conversation just moments before.  Opening the door a bit, so as not to let too much cold air inside the toasty kitchen, Marie asked,  “What did you need, boys?  Are you ready to come in?”

“Oh, no, Mama!”  Hoss replied, answering the last question first.  “We’s havin’ a great time!  Ain’t we, Adam?”   He added somewhat tentatively, looking to his ruddy faced sibling for confirmation of his blanket assertion.

The older boy nodded in concert with the other’s statement.  “We sure are!”  he agreed.

Marie, having seen these two “go at it” during the past year, knew they were telling the truth. “Well, what did you need, then?”  she asked again, knowing it must have something to do with the new addition to the landscape.

“We just need some things to dress our snowman and to make him a face.”  Adam explained. “Do you have anything we could use?”  

His stepmother, as much a stickler for politeness as his father, did not immediately respond.  Her green eyes danced as she waited for the anticipated addendum to his question.

“Please?”  The child added respectfully, with a bit of a pleading look from his equally merry eyes. Never turning down the opportunity to decorate, even if it was only a snowman, Marie said brightly, “Just give me a second, boys.  I’ll find some things you can use.” Closing the door behind her as the boys ran back to the yard, Marie started towards the archway to the rest of the house.  For no apparent reason, she suddenly stopped.

“Something wrong, Missy Cartlight?”  Hop Sing asked, the concern for her, and her unborn child’s welfare evident in his voice.

With a confused look, she slowly turned and faced the servant.

“What does one need for a snowman?” she asked, in a discomfited tone.

Marie, having been raised in the warm temperate climes of southern Louisiana, had never built or even seen a real snowman.  She had no idea what to provide to the children, and her adult pride would not let her ask her young stepsons for their input!

Hop Sing, (Cantonese curses taking the place of his heart in his throat) shook his head. 

“Snowman dress like man, but not with clothes” he explained brusquely.  Seeing the even more befuddled expression on Marie’s face, he continued a bit more calmly.

“Need hat, button, scarf, and carrot for nose.”

Relying on the only source of reference she had, Marie nodded.  Not wanting to aggravate the little man any more, she asked timidly, “What kind of buttons should I use?”

Hop Sing, remembering his own first attempts at providing suitable attire for an earlier Cartwright snowman, smiled kindly at the confused soul before him. 

“Hop Sing will get button, Missy” he gently intoned.  “Maybe Missy find old scarf upstairs?” Pleased to be assigned a specific item, rather than trying to draw on her nonexistent experience with this sort of thing, Marie left the kitchen to begin her search.

Hop Sing once again turned to his kitchen duties while considering what items to provide to the children. 

“Too much foolishment!”  he said to himself, but was grinning contentedly as he did so.


                                    *            *            *            *            *            *            *         

Within a short time, the two adults had provided additional items to make the snowman complete, including a scarf of Ben's that Marie had discovered in the bottom drawer of his bureau.

Hop Sing gave the children some small pieces of charred wood from the cook stove that, after they cooled off in the snow, were used as buttons on the round little creature.  One of the ranch hands had an old hat that he let the boys use and, with a carrot for a nose and more charcoal for eyes and a mouth, the snowman was quite a marvelous sight.

The two assistants exited the house for a quick look at the finished product. 

“What a wonderful job you both did!”  Marie merrily exclaimed.  Although she had no personal basis for comparison, the look of delight on her little boys’ faces told her that this was the epitome of a well dressed snowman.

“Liddle boys do vely nice work” intoned the cook, smiling and nodding in agreement with Marie’s pronouncement.  Both of them turned to head back to the warmth of the house, with Marie fully expecting the boys to follow them in.  Adam and Hoss however, had other plans.  After admiring their handiwork, the two were anxious to begin another snowball battle.  Each of them ran to retake their positions in the yard then hurried to form yet another stockpile of weapons.

Marie, realizing that they had run in the opposite direction from the house turned as she reached the porch.

“Boys!”  she called, in a pleasant tone of voice.  “It’s time to come in now!”

“Aw, Mama!”  Hoss said, in a tired five year old’s fretful way. “We’s havin’ such a good time! Cain’t we stay out a littl’ longer?”

“Please?”  he pleaded, with an anguished look on his round little face.

“Please let us stay out for a bit more, Marie” Adam respectfully requested, though his countenance was the exact replica of his brother’s.

“No, it’s getting much too cold to be out” their mother stated in an authoritative manner, crossing her arms upon her chest.

Seeing the pout now in residence on her younger child’s face, as well as the clouding of Adam’s visage, the young mother took an entirely different tack.  “Hop Sing just made fresh sugar cookies and there’s cocoa on the stove!” she said enticingly.

“Cookies?”  Hoss asked brightly, his tummy growling in anticipation.

“And, cocoa?”  Adam asked hopefully, upon hearing the mention of his favorite wintertime beverage.

“That’s what I said” Marie confirmed.  “But only if you two come in right now!”  With that, she turned back towards the side door, in effect starting the timer for obedience to her request.

The boys looked at each other and all thoughts of any further discussion were immediately abandoned.

“Wait, Mama!”  Hoss yelled.

“We’re coming!”  Adam called.

At that, the boys took off on a dead run for the house.  Of course, the depth of the snow, combined with the heaviness of their clothes and the weariness of their bodies, did slow them up somewhat.

Marie smiled as she heard the crunching of snow beneath two pairs of boots as the children rapidly approached the kitchen door.

‘Never fails!’ she thought, pleased that a behavioral crisis had been averted.

At her direction, the children removed their wet outer clothing and shoes on the side porch nearest the kitchen.  They entered the house, where the warmth emanating from the cook stove soon thawed their frigid fingers and toes. Their mother had them both sit down at the kitchen table while she and Hop Sing quickly removed their wet socks and remaining clothes, down to their long johns. After their damp hair was dried with a towel, the boys were soon dressed in the clean shirts, pants, and dry socks that Marie had brought from their rooms. She had also thought to place their bedroom slippers by the stove to warm.

With their toasty slippers finishing their outfits, the two children and their mother, with the cook now busily preparing supper, shared hot cocoa and some of Hop Sing's famous sugar cookies while they discussed their busy day.

                                    *            *            *            *            *            *            *

Ben arrived home shortly before nightfall, and the children, anxious to show off the result of their afternoon’s endeavors, started to run outside to meet him. 

“Boys!”  Marie said in a firm but gentle tone, as Hoss’ hand touched the doorknob.  “You cannot go outside in your house shoes and no coats.”

“But, Mama” begged the child, “we want Papa ta see our snowman afore it gets too dark!”

Before Marie could answer, Adam interceded.

“Marie’s right, Hoss” he said, to his stepmother’s obvious surprise.   “Ya don’t wanna be sick for Christmas, do ya?” 

His little brother naturally shook his head in response to his elder’s question.

“I know a way to get Pa’s attention before he comes in!” 

With that, the boy rubbed two dry spaces on the condensation of the kitchen window (using his clean shirt, of course!).  The small child grinned up at his ingenious older sibling as both waited for Ben to reappear from the barn.

When their father came walking  towards the house after putting his horse up for the night, he saw a pair of happy faces, smiling and pointing to him through the glass.   The man waved, and then noticed that his children were trying to focus his attention somewhere behind him.

Turning to face the front door, he saw the intended object off to the side of the front porch.  He grinned as he took in the new addition to the yard and knew immediately that both his boys had had an equal hand in the molding of this fine specimen of a snowman.

Moving closer to more fully appreciate the craftsmanship, Ben felt a momentary sting of tears in his eyes as he recognized the red, hand knitted scarf the snowman wore.

‘So many years ago and so far away.  How she would have loved this!’  he reflected briefly.

Dabbing slightly at his nose with the back of his hand, but with the smile once again evident on his face, Ben turned and walked back towards the kitchen door. Seeing the boys' eagerness for his opinion of their creation, he indicated his approval by raising his arms and clapping his gloved hands together. 

He was rewarded with two delighted faces, which quickly disappeared from their place at the window. As the boys had done earlier, Ben removed his coat and hat and hung them on the vacant peg outside the door.  He stamped his boots noisily on the porch before taking them off as well.

Seeing his children through the window of the kitchen door, and anticipating his reception, the young man slowly entered the house.  He was immediately tackled, not by just the two chubby arms he expected, but two more as well.

As Ben closed the door behind him, Hoss grasped his legs on the left hand side just above his knees while Adam circled his midsection on the opposite side.  The older child’s exuberance at his pa’s entrance had overridden his normal aversion for public displays of emotion.  Needless to say, his father was more than pleased to see his older child acting like, well…, a child!

Trying hard to keep his balance, he looked down into the same pair of blissful faces that had greeted him at the window.  Ben, also smiling broadly, caught a glance from his wife who nodded her head, with a slight wink that only he could see.

"Pa, Pa!"  The boys both said at once, as their father tousled the downy blond hair on the one side and the dark unruly curls on the other.

"Looks like the two of you have been busy today,” he commented pleasantly. 

Looking in turn to each little rosy cheeked face and set of shining eyes, he then asked, somewhat tentatively,  “And I hope you both have been good for your mother?" 

Instead of answering him, Adam and Hoss looked expectantly to Marie for the final determination of their behavior that day.  Ben also raised his eyes in a similar fashion, trying to determine her possible response by the look on her face. She laughed as she took in the sight of the three most important men in her life, all wearing the same anxious expression.

She did not hesitate to allay their fears, as she quickly spoke up. “Even St. Nicholas would be very proud of how well they have gotten along today, Father, as I know I am."  She was also very pleased that Adam had not objected to Ben’s reference to her as his mother and her face clearly showed her delight at this revelation, as well.

Three elated faces beamed back at her at this pronouncement, the brightest of which belonged to the eldest ‘boy’.  Ben had hoped that Adam had taken their previous agreement to heart and by all indications; he was living up to his promise.   

“Well, speaking for both of us, St. Nick and I are very happy to hear that!”  Their pa responded joyfully, as the boys’ eyes met each other’s in this ready acknowledgment of their good behavior.  Both then looked up at Ben, never releasing their grasp on their parent.

‘I can’t recall Adam ever looking as childlike and full of life as he does at this moment.’  Ben thought, as he tenderly cupped the boy’s now upturned face in his hand.  Adam, intuitive as always, hugged his father’s middle again, albeit more gently, in response.

The boys let their father loose as each of them, at the same time, began to relay the events of the day.

“Now, just a minute, gentlemen,” said Ben not unkindly, as he lifted his hands, palms forward, in a gesture intended to assuage the verbal onslaught. 

“Let me say hello to your mother and to Hop Sing, then I’ll hear all about it.  All right?”  The boys nodded in acquiescence to their father’s simple request and stepped back to allow him to pass in front of them, towards their stepmother.  Ben walked over to Marie, who had earlier taken a place at the opposite side of the little table away from the stove. 

“Hello, love”  he said quietly as he bent his tall frame, and Marie turned her face towards his. He then tipped her chin up with his index finger.  Marie gave him an engaging look as he placed a brief though affectionate kiss on her lips.  They both smiled as the boys giggled and turned away in embarrassment.  Ben drank in the rosy glow of her cheeks and wrongly assumed that it had been caused by the same exercise and excitement the children had enjoyed earlier in the day.  

“Did you have a hand in building that snowman, darling?  You look as if you have been out in the cold, just like the children” Ben unknowingly inquired.

She was momentarily caught off guard by his question.  Before Marie could think up a reason, (other than the real one which she would not divulge), Hop Sing quickly came to her rescue. 

“Missy Cartlight help Hop Sing in kitchen today.” he said, turning to address the man directly.  “It get vely warm in here with extra baking.” 

Ben easily accepted this answer, and noted that the cook’s cheeks looked flushed as well.  The reason for the man’s enhanced coloring, however, was due to just having told an untruth to his employer, which went against his grain.  The little cook, however, was already forgiven his deception, by the grateful look he saw in Marie’s eyes.

“Well, I’m sure we’ll enjoy whatever the two of you have concocted, as you are both excellent chefs!”  Ben concluded, in acknowledgement of Hop Sing’s presence as well.  He always made sure to praise the little Oriental’s skills in the kitchen, as they allowed Marie more time to devote to herself and her family (the direct benefits of which Ben often took advantage of himself).

Having accomplished his stated task, Ben sat down in the chair nearest the stove.  He saw that his thoughtful wife had brought his own slippers downstairs, as he noted that the boys were wearing theirs. Taking off his wet socks and laying them on the floor to the side of the stove, Ben bent down and placed the slippers on his feet.  Seeing that both his little boys were about to burst with the excitement of recounting their day for him, Ben scooted the chair, so he was sitting parallel to the table. 

“All right, little man, up you go!”  he said to the chubby cheeked cherub that was his younger son.

Ben lifted the child gingerly under the arms and set him down on his right leg, with his back to his stepmother.  Hoss loved being close to his father and smiled joyfully as he swung his short legs back and forth from his perch.  Adam, again forgoing his usual reserve, moved into the space across from his brother, and boosted himself into the same position on his father’s left leg, directly facing Marie.

Ben, pleasantly surprised by this continuing change in the boy’s attitude, glanced discretely over at his spouse, as Adam made himself comfortable.  She smiled just a bit and gave him a wink, which he answered with a lifting of his dark eyebrows and subtle smile of his own.  Letting his arms go naturally about the waists of his children, Ben looked at each one, and then said, “I’m all ears!”

The boys both began speaking at once, though Hoss caught his father’s attention first.

“Papa, ya shouda seen me!  I throwed a snowball and gots ole Adam right in the face!”  said Hoss, with a triumphant grin while, at the same time, pulling back his arm in a demonstration of his technique.

Adam, not to be seen as less able in his pa’s eyes, stated emphatically, “But I let him go first, ‘cause he’s younger than me, so he had time to aim!”

“Nah,” countered the five year old, “I woulda gotten ya just the same!” 

“Would not!”

“Would too!”

“Now, boys” said Ben a bit sternly.  “Let’s not get into an argument over it.” Hoping to avoid further conversation on the matter when he was not there to officiate, he looked first to the younger of the two combatants.

“Hoss” he said, in a conciliatory tone, “I’m sure that Adam was able to ‘get’ you several times as well, isn’t that true?”

“Well, yeah, Papa, I guess so” the little boy said begrudgingly.

“And, Adam,” Ben turned towards his other youngster, “it sounds like your brother’s snowball throwing ability has improved also, hasn’t it?”

“Yeah, Pa.”  Adam calmly agreed, not really wanting to start a ruckus with his sibling at the end of a wonderful day.

“All right then” said their parent, in a tone that both boys knew put an end to any future debate. Attempting to restore the previous harmonic atmosphere, Ben refocused their attention to an activity where they had obviously worked as a team.

He said, in the same interested manner as before.  “So, tell me about the snowman!” 

Adam began this time.

“Boy, that was so much fun, Pa” he said, his eyes and voice reflecting the enthusiasm he felt at their accomplishment.  “The snow was just perfect for it, too!” 

Hoping to make it up to his little brother for his own juvenile display of a moment before, he added, “Hoss was a big help, too.  He was the one who said we should put him on that side of the porch, so we could fix him more easily when it snows again.”

Hoss, feeling equally bad for his taunting, spoke up.  “Adam sure made the parts stick togeth’r real good, Papa.  And he can tell jus’ by lookin’ at ‘em as to how’s big they need ta be.” 

The boys exchanged shy grins as the air was cleared between them without the need for formal apologies.  Ben, knowing his children as he did, could also tell that peace had been restored between his two stubborn sons. 

“I can see that those architecture books were a good investment!” he said as he shifted his attention to the child on his left. “It was evident to me how hard you worked to proportion everything so well.”

Ben knew that his eldest’s burgeoning interest in all aspects of design and construction was not just a passing fancy.  This was further confirmed by the wide grin on Adam’s face which revealed his deep dimples, at hearing his father’s high opinion of his handiwork. Ben swallowed involuntarily, as he took in the expression on his little boy’s face, ‘He looks so much like Liz when he smiles like that!’ he thought to himself. ‘How wonderful it is to see the light in his eyes again!’

Hoss looked up expectantly as Ben turned to him, knowing that any praise needed to be equal to that just given his older brother. “Hoss, you did a wonderful job with his face and his outfit.  He looks as if he could talk!”  Ben’s eyes were merry, as his little boy’s gap toothed grin made its appearance right on cue at this remark.

Marie had been taking all this in, and noted that her husband appeared as delighted as the children were with the recital of their day. 

Spying the dreamy look in his stepmother’s eyes as he glanced around his brother, Adam chimed in, “Marie helped too, Pa!”

“Yeah, Pa,” Hoss concurred, nodding. “Mama ‘nd Hop Sing founded everything for his face ‘nd all!”

“Well, I wish I had been here to help!”  Ben said, kidding, but with a somewhat hurt look on his face.

“Oh, but you did contribute, Mon Cheri!” exclaimed his wife.  “I used an old scarf of yours I found upstairs.”   Realizing then that she had not received her spouse’s permission prior to doing so, she concluded a bit apprehensively, “I hope that was all right with you, dear?”

“Of course, darling” he immediately replied, to lessen any guilt on Marie’s part. A wistful smile appeared on his face, nonetheless, as he softly continued, “I could not think of anything that would have made him more complete.”

Although the slight change in his countenance was not apparent to anyone but her, Marie made a mental note to query her husband as to the origins of that scarf.  She would wait until after dinner, though, when the little ones had been put to bed.

In the quiet that followed this last remark, Hoss’ tummy began to growl, which lightened the mood considerably. 

“Sounds like someone’s hungry!”  Ben said, laughing as patted his baby’s middle and helped Hoss down from his knee.

“I shor am, Pa!  Me ‘nd Adam worked hard today, huh, Adam?”  The little boy remarked, as he watched his older brother slip off their father’s leg.

“We sure did” replied his brother, in an equally jovial tone.  “But it sure was fun, too, wasn’t it, little brother?”

“I’ll say!”  The child responded emphatically, as their father rose and replaced his chair under the table.

"Well, boys, I think Hop Sing could use some room in the kitchen to finish making supper.  Sure smells good, Hop Sing, is it beef stew?"  Ben inquired.

The cook bobbed his head in agreement to both the question and the previous statement.

"All right then, boys.” Ben instructed, as he indicated the passageway to the rest of the house. “You two go and get yourselves washed up and ready to eat, while I talk to Mama, all right?" 

"Yes, Pa” they both chorused as they raced out of the kitchen and headed for the great room stairs.  As soon as they left the kitchen, their father rolled his eyes heavenward, as he realized that some things never change, no matter what the time of year. Marie instinctively held her hands to her ears, and braced herself for any cries of pain or sounds of broken objects from the next room. This posture also served to protect her hearing from the command she knew would be inevitably forthcoming from the head of the household.

“BOYS!  NO RUNNING IN THE HOUSE!"  Ben intoned for, perhaps, the one hundredth time.  Immediately, the two parents heard the stampede cease followed by nearly simultaneous calls of "Sorry, Pa!”  The sound of more delicate steps, along with some giggling, became fainter as the two made their way to their bedrooms.  Marie removed her hands and shook her head at the impish grin that appeared on her husband’s face. 

"Boys will be boys, even at Christmas!" he said, with a flirtatious wink. He moved to the far side of the table and gently pulled his wife to her feet.  Marie, knowing that this ‘boy’ needed some attention, gave him a bright smile in response. Holding each other about the waist, the couple left the kitchen.  

Hop Sing, happy to have his domain to himself again, shook his head as he muttered, (for, perhaps, the one hundredth time) “Yell! Yell! Why he all the time have to yell?  Hop Sing go back China!”  He smiled at this impossible notion and hurried to complete the meal preparations for the family.

Ben and Marie walked into the great room for a bit of conversation before supper.  Marie validated all that the boys had told him regarding their day.  She also reconfirmed the fact that they had been very good, both with each other and for her. 

Ben breathed an audible sigh of relief at her comments, as he stood holding his wife before the hearth.   “Well,” he said candidly, “I know this good behavior can’t last forever but I will certainly enjoy it while it does!” 

“As will I, darling,” said Marie in agreement.  Ben smiled down at her as he made up for the brevity of their last encounter with a more passionate and lasting kiss, minus the audience.

                        *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *

Supper was a somewhat quiet affair, compared to the exchange in the kitchen of a few minutes before. The adults were actively engaged in conversation at one end of the table, while the children, ravenous from their activities of the day, were focused on satisfying their hunger and did not participate in the exchange. 

Marie was in the midst of relaying her plans regarding the menu for Christmas Eve supper.

“I can prepare the turkey for Christmas Eve, and save the ham for New Year’s, or the other way around, if you prefer, darling”  she stated, knowing how Ben enjoyed turkey with all the ‘fixings’, but wanting his agreement before proceeding with her plans.  She had also been flirting discretely with her husband all during the meal and laid her hand on his right forearm, squeezing it gently.

“Well, I just don’t know.”  Ben replied teasingly, his dark eyes sparkling in response to his wife’s advances.  At this moment, the only preference he had was for sending the children to bed early!

This thought suddenly brought the presence of the children to mind.  Drinking in the sight of his beautiful wife, he asked absentmindedly, without averting his gaze, “What do you think, boys?”

Receiving no immediate response, he asked again, a bit more pointedly but without taking his eyes off Marie, “Boys? 

Again, no response was forthcoming from the other two people present at the table.  Ben, his good mood rapidly dissipating at the lack of respect being shown by his children, turned to admonish them both.  Marie, also surprised by the blatant disregard of a direct question from their father, redirected her attention to the opposite end of the room.

The sight that met Ben’s eyes immediately restored his jovial countenance, while Marie placed her hand over her mouth, fighting valiantly not to laugh aloud. 

Hoss, sitting to his father’s left, had slid down slightly in his seat.  He looked completely content, with his tawny head resting on the dinner napkin tucked into his shirt and his cerulean blue eyes closed, though his arms were still on the table.  His right hand was balled into a fist with his spoon standing at full mast in the center of it.  His left hand clutched a dinner roll, with one bite gone, the butter slowly melting down his hand.

At the end of the table opposite Ben, Adam had also taken an unintended respite from eating.  The child had obviously fallen asleep just as he had set his empty milk glass down.  His right arm was fully extended with his hand still encircling the container, and that same side of his body was pushed up against the edge of the table.  The glass had moved up nearer to his brother’s place setting, taking the now wrinkled tablecloth with it.  The boy’s head had followed his arm’s lead, and his right cheek was placed fortuitously on his bicep. Remarkably, none of his other dishes had been upset, though the tip of his nose was a mere fraction of an inch from the rim of his bowl.

The two parents looked at each other, the amusement and delight clearly evident in both their eyes and their expressions.

Ben said to his spouse, in mock disgust, “I know I’m not the world’s most brilliant conversationalist, but I’ve never had anyone fall asleep listening to me before!”  The skin around his eyes crinkled, as he chuckled quietly.

“I never thought Hoss could sleep through a discussion about food!”  His wife added, her love for her small son apparent in her gentle chiding.

“Well, I was going to suggest an early night for all of us, and I can see the boys are in agreement” Ben said in a hushed tone, as he stood quietly and moved to Hoss’ side. The adult gently removed the spoon from the tyke’s chubby grip, then pulled what remained of the dinner roll from the little one's other hand. Using his own dinner napkin, he carefully wiped away the butter from the child’s fingers. Then, biting his lower lip to keep from laughing aloud, Ben slowly moved the chair back, supporting Hoss’ upper body with his right hand.  

The child was oblivious to his parent’s ministrations, and his slumber remained deep and uninterrupted.

Marie watched lovingly as her husband, with the skill gained by many nights of practice, easily lifted the sleepy little bundle into his arms. The little boy yawned widely as his head instinctively found its usual resting place near the hollow of his papa’s collarbone.  A contented smile appeared on his face as he nestled against his father’s body.

Ben shifted him slightly to get a better grip and removed the napkin from the front of Hoss’ shirt. He then turned to look at Adam. Noting his elder boy’s similar rhythmic breathing pattern, Ben sensed that he would need to repeat this most enjoyed, but now less frequently called upon, fatherly duty.

Refocusing his attentions to the warm little body in his arms, Ben cuddled his baby to him, kissing the top of the silky blond head.  He caught Marie’s eye as she rose to attend to their other exhausted child and silently mouthed, "I'll be right back."  He headed for the staircase, taking his time and savoring each moment of the journey.

The young woman, sensing imminent disaster, gingerly moved the bowl and bread plate away from the sleeping form, being careful not to disturb his slumber.  She also gently removed the milk glass from his hand, concerned not about the rumpled table cover, but the very special adornment upon it. Seizing this opportunity to impart some motherly attention, Marie gently stroked Adam’s dark unruly hair, not intending to awaken him, but unafraid if she did.

‘What beautiful, soft curls he has!’  She thought, as she fingered the unruly black waves. Prior to the resolution of their conflict last week, she had never dared touch him in an affectionate manner, even in his sleep. The events of the previous few days had resolved the reticence within her, and, thereby emboldened, she bent down to give him a gentle kiss on the cheek.

Ben, having safely delivered one precious parcel (now snoozing quietly on his bed), stopped on the landing and took in the touching scene before him.  He waited there, watching silently, until Marie felt his presence in the room.  She lifted her head, and looked at her husband, communicating the enormity of her feelings with her emerald eyes. 

He came to her side and softly kissed her temple.  The tender hearted young man then whispered, “He looks just as he did when he was a baby, so innocent and carefree.”  She acknowledged his observation with a gentle hug about his waist, as Ben, too, gently ran his fingers through the mussed hair on his first baby’s head.

Exercising the same care with this child as he did with Hoss, Ben cautiously moved Adam to an upright position and leaned him back in his chair.  Moving the chair to face him, Ben lifted the boy under the arms, leaning back slightly as Adam laid his head upon his father’s shoulder.  To further secure his hold on the longer body of this youngster, he placed his left forearm under the child’s bottom, and his right hand across his back.  The boy’s long legs dangled on each side of Ben’s waist.

The little boy, although somewhat more aware of what was transpiring than his younger brother had been, did not protest as his father’s arms enveloped him.  Ben, ever mindful of the rarity of this particular moment, kissed the nape of his neck, and then rubbed his cheek against his son’s thick, raven colored hair.

Marie noticed a very idyllic look on Adam’s face as he moved himself up just a bit, again placing his left cheek on top of his father's left shoulder.  The child brought his arms up behind his father’s strong back in order to secure his position more completely.  These actions were purely instinctive; however, as his eyelids did not flutter and he still appeared to be soundly asleep.

As Ben turned towards Marie, she could see the resemblance between father and son, now much more apparent with their faces so near to one another.  Adam’s black, feathery eyelashes against his ivory skin gave him a truly angelic appearance that brought a smile to his mother’s face.

Ben headed for the staircase again relishing, for a second time that night, the sweet feel of his sleeping child in his arms. Marie entered the kitchen to let Hop Sing know that they were putting the boys to bed, and slowly followed her husband upstairs.

The diminutive cook emerged from the kitchen and watched as Ben easily carried the eleven-year-old to the second floor, with his wife bringing up the rear. Smiling happily, he quietly began to clear the dishes from the table. 

As Ben made his way into Adam’s bedroom, Marie entered the second room on the same side of the hallway.  She shook her head, with an amused look on her face, as she took in the sight before her. The little boy was on his back on top of the coverlet where his father had placed him earlier.  His soft, steady snores indicated that he was deeply asleep.

His mother began undressing him, and immediately decided to forgo his nightshirt in favor of his long johns! This decision was precipitated by her struggles to remove his trousers.  She easily unfastened them, but her face became pink with exertion as she then struggled to slide them over his hips. By the time she finally pulled both pant legs off, using the cuffs as an aid, she was exhausted!

Fortunately, his shirt came off a bit easier.  She was able to pull the back of it up, by using both sides of the unbuttoned shirt as handles and dragging the garment up towards his shoulders.  She then lifted one arm at a time and pulled it free from the sleeve. Finally, with loving care, she removed the article of clothing from underneath his head.

'This little one is the soundest sleeper I have ever seen!’  Marie thought to herself, as Hoss never stirred once during all this activity.  Knowing that she would need her husband’s assistance to turn down the bedclothes with the inert child on top of them, Marie sat down heavily upon the trundle bed. 

Quickly recovering from the exertion, the young woman lovingly caressed the little boy’s downy pink cheek with the back of her hand.  She was deeply grateful to him for his innate ability to bring out the child in his older brother.  The small smile that appeared on his face told her, in effect, that her thanks had been acknowledged.

A similar scene was taking place in Adam's room (though, without any exertion on the parent’s part!).

Ben tenderly undressed the soundly sleeping boy, leaving him in his long underwear too.   It had been several years since he had last done this, as the child would normally awaken as soon as any attempt was made to move him. Of course, once awake, Adam would stubbornly insist on undressing himself and Ben would reluctantly acquiesce to his demands.

His father was pleased to note that this was not the case tonight, as the boy appeared to be sleeping as soundly as his little brother. Ben hoped that the unburdening of Adam’s heart a few nights before was the cause of the deep, peaceful slumber that the youngster now enjoyed. 

Moving Adam’s legs under the heavy blankets and replacing the cover, Ben brushed back a curl from his baby's forehead and kissed him gently on the cheek.  His previous assumptions regarding the depth of Adam’s unconsciousness were then disproved when the child murmured a brief "Night, Pa" before rolling over and giving himself up to sleep.

Assuming that Adam had deliberately allowed Ben to tend to him as the young child he was, brought a lump to his pa’s throat.  With great care, Ben tucked the blankets securely around the prone figure and bent down to place another kiss, this time on his son’s temple.  

“I love you, Little Boy Blue” his father whispered tenderly, then rose and left the room. 

The contented smile on Adam’s face mirrored the happiness in his heart, as he snuggled into the softness of the feather pillow and went back to sleep.

Ben entered Hoss' bedroom silently.  Aware of his presence, Marie rose carefully from the edge of the bed and motioned for her husband to come nearer. Ben, noting that his wife had been successful in her endeavors, but only to a point, nodded his head in understanding.  The tall man bent down and slid his calloused hands gently under the child’s shoulders and knees. Standing while cradling the still sleeping tyke, Ben then walked to the head of the bed.  Marie moved swiftly to turn down the comforter and the blankets underneath it, and leaned forward to pick up the stuffed toy animal from the pillow. 

Quietly stepping back to the side of the bed next to his wife, Ben laid his child’s head upon the cushion.  Lifting the covers, he gingerly placed the sock clad feet of his second baby between the muslin sheets, as Hoss immediately made himself comfortable in the cozy envelope of warmth. A small grimace then crossed the little boy’s otherwise placid face. Again with a parent’s instinct, Ben took the floppy eared bunny from Marie and laid it in the crook of Hoss’ right arm. The child, with an appreciative sigh, rolled over and hugged the toy to him.

Marie replaced the covers, making sure they were up to his chin.  Ben tucked the little fellow in, following with a kiss to his forehead. 

Imparting one of his pet names for this child as well, Ben whispered, “Sweet dreams, little cowboy.  Papa loves you.”  

Marie followed suit, then took her husband’s hand as they turned to leave the room. Ben turned down the lantern on the dresser, but not all the way, as Hoss was still afraid of the dark.


Chapter 5

With the boys asleep at such an early hour, Ben and Marie decided to head back downstairs before they too, retired for the evening.

The young couple cherished their nightly, private conversations, when they could reconnect on an adult level. They found that the sharing of each other’s trials and tribulations of the day caused their later physical intimacy to be more relaxed and freeing.  Giving voice to concerns, and working out problems together, brought them each great comfort and further strengthened the love between them.  Hop Sing, anticipating their return, had left two cups and a pot of freshly made coffee on the living room table. A few sugar cookies were also in evidence, so Ben could enjoy them as the rest of the family had earlier in the day.

Ben added a large log to the fire, to ensure a steady source of warmth for the two of them.  After adjusting the addition with the fireplace poker, he turned back to watch Marie, as she deftly poured the steaming beverage into each bone china cup.

‘She looks so content, as if she has finally found her place here, as a wife…and a mother.’  Ben observed. He realized that he too, felt that his household was back on an ‘even keel’ and they could all put the discord of the past year behind them.

Marie, feeling her husband’s eyes upon her, set the pot back onto the table and gave him a welcoming smile.  ‘He looks so happy’ she thought.  ‘It appears a weight has been lifted from his shoulders.’   Her eyes were merry as she then remembered each “weight” Ben had borne that night and how he had risen eagerly to the task. 

‘I can’t wait until I see the newest little Cartwright in his arms.’  A renewed sense of joy and contentment at this thought spread throughout her body and was mirrored in her face. 

Taking this happy visage as an invitation, as he offered his own loving smile in return, Ben moved to the space at his wife’s left side on the settee. He reached for a cookie, as he took the cup proffered by his doting spouse. They settled back on the couch, each silently revisiting the very special memories of the day just ended.  The minutes crept by as the fire eagerly consumed its replenished fuel supply. As they quietly sipped their coffee, both adults’ thoughts turned to two different, yet (not surprisingly) closely related subjects.

Marie now knew (thanks to Adam's disclosure the previous week) of the upheaval her arrival had caused in advance of last year's holiday celebration.  With this in mind, coupled with her desire to make this a Christmas that all of them would cherish, the young woman needed to know what traditions the little family usually observed at this time of year.

‘I only wish I’d have thought of this sooner!’  She mildly chastised herself, knowing that she had only a few days left to finish her preparations.  But even as she thought this, she conceded that the more pressing issues of Adam’s unsettled behavior and her pregnancy, had taken precedence over any additional consideration of the impending holiday.

She gave her husband a sideways glance, trying to gauge his possible reaction to her contemplated inquiry.  This was going to be a very delicate subject to broach with him. Traditions were a tangible link to the past and Ben had shared very little about his earlier life with either child’s mother, let alone anything about his own New England boyhood.

The only glimpse into her husband’s heretofore undisclosed memories of the past had been their brief conversation early in the previous week.  His offhanded comment regarding Adam helping Inger with the Christmas baking had caught Marie completely by surprise. She had not pursued the opportunity for further enlightenment then, as Ben had been on his way back to work after dinner and did not have the time for drawn out explanations. 

‘The look on his face also made it clear that he was not inclined to continue the conversation.’ his wife remembered ruefully, and she had wisely kept her questions to herself at the time.  Now, however, due to the transformation of her relationship with her older stepchild, Marie felt more assured that such an inquiry regarding Ben’s past would cause her husband to be more forthcoming in his response. 

She had noticed that Adam’s tearful revelation regarding Inger’s death had also engendered a change in Ben’s demeanor, as well.  The careworn young man had experienced a kind of catharsis of his own and he had been much more cheerful and relaxed over the last few days.  However, Marie remembered that Ben’s face had briefly taken on a sad and somewhat wistful countenance earlier that evening, in response to the brief discussion of the snowman’s bright accessory.

‘I wonder what he was thinking when I mentioned that scarf?’  A quizzical look appeared on her face as she replayed the scene in her mind.  She wished she had been able to see his expression when he had first laid eyes on the item in the front yard. 

‘He seemed fine when he came in.’ she reasoned, although the boys’ jubilant welcome could have erased any vestiges of unsettled emotion that Ben would have otherwise displayed.

‘Perhaps it was a gift… but from whom?’  Outside of his late wives, Marie could not imagine her husband keeping anything from any other woman.  Her imagination running rampant and her innate curiosity now definitely aroused, the young woman vowed to discover more about the scarf and the identity of its creator.  As she turned to face him, with the question on her lips, Marie paused suddenly.  Shame replaced her impetuousness, as, with her face reddening, she put herself in her spouse’s place for just a moment.

‘How would I feel if he had searched through my things without my permission?’  Marie now suspected that her husband’s uncharacteristic reaction might have been more akin to thinly veiled disappointment caused by her wanton violation of his privacy.

Thoroughly displeased with herself for her inconsiderate trespass into Ben’s private things, Marie rethought her original position.  ‘Even if I don’t find out any more about its origins, I must apologize to him for taking the scarf  without his permission.’  She internally castigated herself, with an almost indiscernible nod of her head.

Had Marie not been so wrapped up in her own internal guessing game, she might have noticed the reappearance of that same wistful visage on Ben’s face that had been apparent to her earlier in the day.  The man, however, was struggling with the long forgotten memories that had resurfaced so readily this afternoon at the sight of the old woolen garment.  He hoped that his wife would not notice the sudden change in his demeanor, as he was unsure how he could field any inquires as to its source.

‘How could I explain the thousand and one sights and smells and feelings that that old scarf conjures up?’  Ben found that he was wavering on the edge of an emotional precipice he had not allowed himself to walk in a very long time.

‘Had the events of the prior week not taken place, I probably would not have given it a second thought’ he maintained, as his manly pride, accompanied by a vain attempt at emotional detachment, asserted itself.

Sighing, the young man knew that, deep down, this bravado was most assuredly false, especially in this particular case.  ‘My older son and I have a great deal in common!’  Ben thought ruefully, as he likened his own internal dismissal of these long buried recollections to Adam’s immature denial of his true feelings regarding Inger’s death.

Validating his own unsettled feelings, he now considered what, if any, non verbal clues may have been inadvertently revealed to his ever perceptive wife earlier that evening.

‘I wonder if Marie noticed my hesitation when she mentioned the scarf?’  Ben now unknowingly took up the same mental guessing game where his spouse had just left off. 

‘I suppose I should explain its significance, but how do I put those feelings into words?’  He pondered this question as he added an uncharacteristic caveat. ‘Or at least words that allow me to keep my composure!’

There was one other issue regarding the scarf that Ben hesitated to bring up, but one he felt was necessary to broach with Marie.

‘How do I, ever so gently, scold my wife for rooting about in my bureau drawers without my permission?’  This, Ben felt, might be the most upsetting subject of all and he agonized over ending a most perfect day on a less than pleasant note.  Even with all these conflicting thoughts, Ben had to admit the overriding positive outcome of the entire episode.

‘It was wonderful to see it used again, especially by two little boys who would mean the world to her!’ 

His face took on a much more contended look at this realization. Marie could not help but notice this as she gather the courage to speak her piece.  Taking it as a good omen, she finally broke her self imposed silence, and spoke.

"Mon Chéri,” Marie said.

Her husband, at that same moment, found the internal fortitude to speak his own mind, as he turned towards his spouse.

“Darling” Ben started.

They chuckled at their timing, which served to ease the tension each was feeling. Ben, always the gentleman (and relieved not to have to go first!), kindly nodded his head to indicate that his wife should continue.  Giving him a warm smile in return, Marie broached her subject in a somewhat tentative manner.

"I know last  Christmas was not everything we had hoped it would be,” she began, in reference to, not only Adam’s recent critique of the festivities but also, the strained atmosphere that they all had experienced during that first holiday season as a family. 

Ben nodded in agreement, as he mentally reviewed that tumultuous time in their lives.

Marie and Ben had married only three months before they arrived at the Ponderosa, reaching the ranch just before the first heavy snowfall in late October. Ben had originally intended to return at least a month earlier, but his unforeseen involvement with Marie and subsequent change in plans had caused him to miss both his boys’ birthdays: Hoss’s in August and Adam’s in September.

The ten year old had been exceedingly angry with his father for springing his new wife on him and his brother, without so much as a letter beforehand. Now, in retrospect, Ben realized that his buoyant attitude, brought on by his new found love, had muddled his thinking at the time. He had not concerned himself as to the reception his new wife would receive from his younger son, and Hoss had responded to Marie just as he had envisioned. 

Remembering how easily Adam and Inger had bonded, Ben had mistakenly assumed that this would be the case with Adam’s acceptance of Marie into the family, as well. 

Unfortunately, Adam did not look upon Marie as anything but an unwelcome interloper to their all male domain. Thanksgiving, the child’s favorite holiday, had been just another in a long line of uncomfortable family meals. By the time Christmas arrived, Adam’s anger with Ben had manifested itself into a sullen hatred of Marie, with only the most base level of civility shown to her by the boy, as his father had demanded and painfully enforced.  Hoss, caught in the middle between his idolized older brother and his cherished new stepmother, had tried to play peacemaker.  Even he, however, could not lighten the mood and the holiday had been something to be suffered through, rather than enjoyed.

Ben sighed in a heart wrenching way as he conceded the unintended, yet undeniable role he had played in his family’s domestic upheaval. Armed with the knowledge gained from Adam’s recently divulged secret, he now realized that he had brought all this on by his lack of sensitivity to his older child’s emotional needs.  Marie, noting Ben’s obvious discomfort at the still painful memory, moved ahead to her real reason for bringing up the subject.

“I wanted to make sure that all the holiday traditions that you and the boys have enjoyed are in place this year, just as they always were…before.” she said, adding the ‘before’ as an indication that last year was a definite anomaly.

Ben’s eyes expressed his innermost thoughts in a way that touched Marie’s heart.  ‘Thank God I have someone who understands the importance of tradition and routine in our children’s lives!’  Ben thought to himself.  ‘We have all sorely missed a woman’s foresight and wisdom in attending to the things that are so necessary and yet so often overlooked.’

The desire to bring comfort to both his children by the reintroduction of their few family holiday traditions overrode any trepidation their father felt about reliving painful memories of the past.  Sensing his spouse’s discomfiture and eager to alleviate it, Ben endeavored to help the conversation along. 

“What is it you want to know, darling?”  He asked in an open and kindly way.

His valiant act was met with a sigh of relief from his anxious wife.  Giving him a puzzled look, she asked earnestly, “What kind of things did you and the boys normally do for Christmas?"

Ben smiled at his wife, touched by her desire to recreate whatever precious memories he and the boys had of Yuletides past. It was a question that deserved a complete answer, and Ben considered his response for a full minute before he spoke. Knowing that he had given Marie only the briefest amount of information regarding either one of his boys’ mothers, he felt that he should give some background before he could address her ultimate question.

Massaging the bridge of his nose with his left thumb and forefinger, Ben searched his memory to determine an appropriate starting point for his story.

Taking a deep breath, he set his half filled coffee cup on the low table and took his wife’s hand.  Marie gave him her full attention, hoping this impending conversation would provide her with some additional insight into this man to whom she had pledged her life and her love.

                        *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *         

“Adam and I had been heading west since he was...” Ben paused here as even he could not believe his son’s tender age at the beginning of their journey, “not quite two months old.”  Although it seemed now that her question would not receive an immediate answer, Marie’s heart skipped a beat as Ben, without pretense, commenced his story.

With the benefit of hindsight and still amazed at his own foolhardiness, Ben shook his head at this disclosure.  “I know now what a risk I took in starting our journey when Adam was so very young.” he admitted solemnly. 

“But…” he struggled to explain, “I couldn’t bear to stay in that house or that city without…her.”

Even now, more than eleven years after her death, Ben could not speak of his first love without having those same overwhelming feelings of sadness wash over him. He had first experienced that suffocating sorrow when he tried to remain in Boston after Liz’s death. Every familiar person, place or thing had been painfully and irrevocably altered for him, because she was no longer by his side.

Marie felt his hand involuntarily tighten around hers though the pain in his eyes was lessening somewhat as he continued.

“When I proposed marriage to Liz, I told her that I was leaving the seafaring life for good.”  Ben smiled at the memory. 

“I had a dream of going west and finding a place with ‘tall trees’ where our children could have room to grow and we could…” he swallowed hard as he finished his sentence, “always be together.”

Marie nodded sympathetically at this disclosure, knowing that dreams often come true, but not necessarily as one originally envisions them.

Endeavoring to move ahead in his story, he continued. “Abel...” then added as an explanation for Marie’s benefit, “Liz’s father…and I opened a ships’ chandlery shop when Liz and I married. He had been involuntarily retired from his position as captain of The Wanderer, due to his age.”  The young man paused momentarily, remembering how he had felt when he heard the news of the unceremonious withdrawal of the ship master’s command.  “He was lost without a ship and a crew.”

His brow furrowed unintentionally at this last remark. Marie rightly suspected that this action on the part of the ship’s owners also did not sit well with Abel Stoddard’s son-in-law. 

Ben continued. “I had to have a way to support Liz and myself, and the shop seemed to be a logical solution for two old seadogs trying to settle on dry land.”

The corners of Ben’s mouth lifted at the memory of the cantankerous older man, and his distaste for a shopkeeper’s life.  “It took a bit of doing, but we made quite a nice go of the place, with help from Liz as the bookkeeper and our clerk, Otto.”

Marie smiled in response, and Ben likened the glow in her cheeks to that of Liz’s, as he remembered her working at the clerk’s high desk during the first months of her pregnancy.

“That was the only time I got out of doing bookwork.” He said, with a rueful grin.  Marie laughed aloud at this, knowing how her husband despised the monotonous drudgery of the journaling and balancing of the ranch’s monetary accounts.

“Of course, that didn’t last very long.”  He blushed ever so slightly at the reason for his wife’s retirement from accounting.

“Why was that, darling?” Marie asked innocently.

“Well, a certain young man began to make his presence known in a very obvious way, and Liz couldn’t get sit close enough to the journal to post the entries!” Ben’s arched left eyebrow, coupled with a rounding of his arms near his own midsection, left no doubt as to the exact reason why he became the new bookkeeper.

Marie giggled, a bit self-consciously, as she imagined her own figure in the coming months, as it would take on its enlarged proportions.

“How those months flew by!”  Ben recalled. Then upon further reflection, he added, “Or at least they did for me.” 

“Liz was confined to bed for the last two months before the baby was due.  It was a good thing she was such a voracious reader or her nurse, Mrs. Callahan, would have had to tie her down to keep her there!”  Ben was chuckling at the long forgotten memory of his independent wife having to do as she was told. 

“Adam is like her in so many ways” he stated, in a somewhat wistful tone.  “His love of learning, his tireless pursuit of anything that interests him and his innate appreciation of beauty …those are all attributes that drew me to his mother.”

Marie nodded her head in acknowledgement of all her husband had said.  Looking up at him, with a gentle smile on her lips, she added, “I think he is very much like his father, too.”  Ben looked over at her then, a possible list of less than desirable traits that the boy had inherited from him springing to mind.  Before he could state his thoughts aloud however, his spouse continued.

“He is sensitive, fiercely protective of those he loves, and always puts others’ needs before his own.”  Marie gazed unwaveringly into the depths of Ben’s dark, velvet eyes. 

“Those are also some of the attributes that drew me to his father.”

Ben looked away briefly, as these accolades were unanticipated and touched him deeply.  Seeing the effect of her words on him, Marie added one last candid observation. 

“He is also somewhat difficult to get to know, and does not readily disclose his feelings.”

She paused here for effect, and as Ben’s head rose expectantly, she continued. 

“However, it is well worth the effort involved to move past those barriers and discover what lies beneath a sometimes gruff exterior.”  A more broad smile was now in evidence upon her face and her dancing green eyes belied the solemn tone in which the pronouncement was given.

Ben gave her a look that spoke volumes and kissed her promptly, hoping to turn the conversation away from this amazingly accurate portrayal of himself, as well as that of his first born son.

“Well…now, where was I?”  He cleared his throat a bit nervously, as he searched his memory for the thread of continuity to his story.  Marie, her attention never distracted from the narrative, said, “You were talking about Liz’s confinement just before Adam was born.”

“Oh, yes.  One day, towards late afternoon, Abel and I had been at the store, tying up a few…er…loose ends.”  Ben glanced at Marie, hoping not to engender a question from her as to what those so called “loose ends” were.  Seeing no hint of a pending inquiry, he hurried on with his story.  

“Otto came racing in to tell us that the baby was on the way.”

Ben had intentionally left out the unpleasant part of the story, knowing that it would serve no purpose to comment on it now. His father-in-law and business partner, inconsolable since the loss of his command, had tried to force him into returning the Captain’s initial investment in the chandlery. Ben had refused the request, as it would have taken all the shop’s working capital to accomplish and therefore, put them out of business.

Abel, angered by this turn of events, had later taken all the shop’s funds from the strongbox to purchase an interest in and take command of (unbeknownst to him) a slave ship. It had taken all of Ben’s “persuasive” skills, along with his fists, to convince the scoundrel to return their funds.  The rift between the two was quickly forgotten, however, when Otto brought the news of the imminent birth.  Neither one knew it at that moment, but the bittersweet events that occurred later that same September evening, the joy at little Adam’s healthy arrival and the sorrow at Liz’s untimely death, would bind them together forever.

“The Captain and I waited downstairs in the parlor, for what seemed like an eternity, until finally I heard something akin to a slap, and then…”  the wonder of that moment would always live on in Ben’s memory as he heard again his newborn child’s first high, thready wail which announced his arrival.

“And then I heard him cry.”  Even as he spoke the words, the same tingle of delight was coursing down his spine, just as it had that night when he became a father for the first time.  The look of unbridled joy on her husband’s face was not lost on Marie.  She knew, in her heart, that she would witness that same expression on the day their child entered the world. 

She added a silent prayer at this realization.  ‘I hope Elizabeth could see this too, before she died.’  She felt a sudden kinship with the first Mrs. Cartwright, as she sensed a positive response to her wish.  ‘It was only right that she knew how much he wanted to be a father and how happy he was at that moment.’

Ben swallowed twice before telling of the next few moments, when he fell from the heights of elation to the depths of unrelenting despair. 

“I entered our bedroom and smiled at her. But then, I…I could tell by the doctor’s demeanor that the birth had been too much for her.” 

Ben aged markedly before Marie’s eyes, as he grasped her hand with both of his own.

“She asked me what I thought of our Adam, and I made some nonsensical remark about him growing to be a fine looking man.”  He dropped his head at this, and turned away slightly as he fought to keep a tight hold on his emotions.

“Truth was…I hadn’t even looked in his direction.” 

His voice was scarcely above a whisper as his throat tightened uncontrollably.  “I…I was trying…trying to will her my strength… and my love, to keep her there with me.”  A single tear slid down his cheek as he again saw his beautiful wife’s face before the light in her eyes faded forever.

Marie brought her other hand over to cover Ben’s, and in the same manner as her husband had just described, willed him her love and strength at that moment.  “Darling, please.  I can’t bear to see you suffer like this.  Please forget that I said anything.”  Her voice was tight with unshed tears, and she shared the weight of the sorrow reflected on his face.

Ben’s eyes moved upwards to take in another visage so similar to his own.  With a forced smile, he brought her hands to his mouth and kissed the palms tenderly. 

“I should have told you all this months ago, sweetheart.” he admitted, followed by an almost inaudible sigh.  Shaking his head just a bit, as the constriction in his chest lessened, he added, “I know this sounds ludicrous, but it does help to talk about it.” 

He held her hands gently, and now smiling with his eyes as well, he said, “Seems like Adam has taught me something about giving vent to feelings and thereby lessening the pain associated with them.”

Marie slowly nodded her acquiescence at this revelation, and mirrored her husband’s tentative smile by giving him one of her own.

Regaining his hold on his composure, Ben took another deep breath and continued his story.  The clock behind them chimed the eight o’clock hour. The fading light from the fireplace further softened the shadows in the room and the young couple’s faces seemed to take on an almost ethereal glow. 

Moving past the days immediately following Liz’s funeral, Ben began his story again, with his decision to follow his heart and his dream.  “Even Abel,” he stated, “convinced me that it was best that Adam and I start our journey as soon as possible, to go West towards a new life in a new land.” 

“Although I know it pained him greatly, he was willing to have me take his only living tie to his child and begin to realize my dream. Maybe it was right to leave when we did, because it was Liz’s dream too.”  He declared softly, but with some conviction. 

“When I agreed to head west, Abel purchased my interest in the chandlery …for considerably more than it was worth at the time.” Ben said, with a shake of his head and a small smile.  

He recalled in his mind the day the open carriage pulled away, leaving behind the last true home he and his infant son would have for the next five years. With his father-in-law and Otto waving goodbye, Ben relayed the scene to Marie, by saying “And so we set out: Adam, myself and Mrs. Callahan, who had graciously offered to accompany us to see to the baby.” 

Finally arriving at some tangible link towards the subject of his wife’s original question, Ben stated, “Adam was exactly three months old on his first Christmas.” 

Marie sat up straighter, listening even more intently, as she again focused on her query which gave rise to her husband’s commentary.

“We were living in a boarding house off of Nantasket Beach.”

Marie looked inquiringly at her husband, and Ben nodded his head at her perceptiveness.

“Yes, I had left Boston, but I couldn’t quite bear to leave the East Coast without a final Yuletide on the Atlantic shore.” 

He continued in further explanation of his reasoning.  “I had lost Liz, but I had to have something familiar to get me through that holiday.  So, rather than heading West, we headed south along the shoreline.”

Shrugging off his own (in his opinion) selfish reason, he added. “It was only fair to Mrs. Callahan to have some semblance of a Christmas observance, so we bundled Adam up and went to church that night.”  Ben remembered the small amount of consolation he was afforded by the traditional service and the time it gave him to pray for guidance as he contemplated his future without the love of his life.

Taking in his spouse’s concerned countenance; he smiled halfheartedly and said, “That’s all I remember of that particular Christmas Day.”

Marie, recalling her own despair the year her husband left and their son was taken from her, merely nodded her head and looked down at her hands.

            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *

In order to stay within what Ben perceived were the parameters of Marie’s interest; he jumped ahead in his narrative, as the next four holidays were each the same as the one before.

“Until Adam and I arrived in Illinois when he was five, his Christmases were meager at best.”   Marie wisely kept her myriad of questions regarding the elapsed span of time to herself, as she did not wish to subject Ben to any more emotional episodes than he, himself, was willing to disclose at one time. 

‘I hope the opportunity to fill in those gaps will present itself someday’ the young woman thought to herself.  Knowing how long it took for this current noteworthy conversation to occur, Marie conceded, ‘I’m just glad that he is willing to continue at this juncture!”  

Not waiting for any questions from his spouse, Ben continued. “He and I were usually holed up in a boardinghouse somewhere on the holiday.”

The young man shook his head as he recalled the progressively poorer quality and smaller quantity of gifts that he was able to afford for his child during those years. 

“I did the best I could to make it special for him, but other than hanging a stocking by the fire and scraping together enough to buy him some candy and a secondhand book, it was hardly a traditional celebration.”  Ben’s regret over his poor attempt at a proper holiday observance was overcome as he remembered Adam’s happiness at finding a gift and something in his stocking on Christmas morning. 

“He was always so appreciative of anything, especially a book.”  Ben’s countenance brightened noticeably as his next comment disclosed his own wellspring of Christmas bounty.  “His joy in receiving the paltry gifts I could provide was Christmas present enough for me."  The faraway look in Ben's eyes told Marie how  precious those memories were to him and she could imagine the father and son sharing the special gift of each other's love during those holidays on the way West.

Ben’s face now took on a completely different visage as, in his mind; he again entered the quaint mercantile store in a crossroads hamlet in Illinois.  Although the travel weary man and his little boy didn’t know it at the time, their luck was about to change.

“I’ll never forget the afternoon we pulled into Petersburg.” 

Ben caught what he took to be a faraway look in Marie’s eyes and realized his inadequacy as a story teller.  He squeezed her left hand gently as he turned slightly towards her on the settee. “I’m sorry, darling.  I’m not telling this very well, I know.”

Not wishing for his commentary to end, Marie’s eyes focused directly into his, and she shook her head fiercely at this remark. “Oh, no, Mon Chéri!”  Marie hastened to reassure him.   “I gathered that was where you met Inger.”

Seeing Ben’s confusion at this pronouncement, she blushed and then continued in explanation. “I could tell by the look in your eyes.”

Ben smiled and said, in a self deprecating sort of way, “Am I that obvious?”

Marie shrugged her shoulders at this remark, then added, “No, not always.  But when you speak about Inger, your face takes on a different look.  It reminds me very much of your younger son.” 

Ben grinned at this as he considered any resemblance between himself and his fair-haired second child. “Hoss is like his mother in so many ways – he has her kindness, gentleness, sweet nature, and…”

“Her sky blue eyes.”

Ben paused here, as he silently thanked God for the one immediately apparent physical trait that his baby had inherited from his tall, Swedish-born mother.  Marie’s thoughts were immediately drawn to the small daguerreotype upstairs on the little boy’s bedside table.  She imbued the young woman’s photograph with eyes the color of Lake Tahoe on a spring day and nodded her head in agreement with Ben’s statement.

“That had been a particularly difficult period of time for Adam and me, as I had been unable to find much work for the previous few months.  Our money was running out and then, Adam took ill. I was very anxious to find a doctor and a decent place to stay.” He felt again the anxiety and desperation brought about by endless hours of worry about his child, though the knowledge of the eventual outcome immediately relieved these transient feelings.

“If it hadn’t been for Adam’s illness, I might never have gone in that direction.”  Ben smiled as he then realized something else.  “Of course, if it hadn’t been for Adam’s being immediately taken with Inger…”

Ben happened to glance in Marie’s direction as he said this and hastened to apologize for the truthful but, given recent circumstances, unthinking remark.  “Oh, darling, I’m sorry.”  He said in obvious contrition, as he saw some inadvertent tears glaze his wife’s green eyes.

Marie pulled a delicate linen handkerchief from the pocket of her housedress and dabbed at the outside corners of her eyes.  Giving Ben what she hoped was a convincing smile in order to soothe his conscience; the young woman shook her head gently and said, “No, no dear.  It’s all right.”  Marie was angry with herself for letting her still fragile emotions, regarding Adam’s original dislike for her, show so readily.

Endeavoring to alleviate the concern obvious on her husband’s face, Marie shifted her position on the settee in order to fully face him.  She held her head high and shook back the mass of chestnut ringlets that framed her face.   In a voice as matter of fact as her bearing, she stated, “He was only a little boy who had never had a mother.  If Inger was as much like Hoss as you say, there is no reason why Adam should not have been enchanted by her.” 

Her smile returned, as she recalled the similar situation that occurred between herself and the little towheaded lad upon their first introduction.  “I know what a charmer Hoss can be.”  With a more devilish grin, she added, “His father can be just the same way.”

Ben grinned sheepishly at this statement as Marie’s uncanny ability to assess a man’s character asserted itself yet again.  Taking her husband’s face in both her hands, she kissed him in a manner that underscored the truth of her statement. 

Returning her affection with an equally passionate example of his own feelings, Ben’s conscience was cleared.  Marie sidled up more closely to his side, and patted him gently on the knee.

“Please continue, dear. I’m anxious to know what happened next.” 

Trying to refocus his attentions from this brief sensual encounter, Ben began again, ignoring his own physical desires in acquiescence to his wife’s gracious acceptance of his earlier apology.

“Inger and her younger brother, Gunnar, owned the mercantile, and when we became engaged, I began to work in the store with her.”  He purposely skipped over their strained first meeting and the ups and downs of their courtship, because he was as anxious to relive the precious memories of that Christmas, as Marie was to hear about them.

“When we married, Adam and I moved into their house.  Fortunately, Gunnar was willing to move into a small storeroom at the back of the store.”  Ben paused here, as he remembered Gunnar’s magnanimous gesture in giving Adam his room in the house. He also recalled Adam’s absolute delight at this prospect, as he had rarely had a bed to himself during their travels, let alone an entire room!

“That way, he could come and go as he pleased, but he still took his meals with us.  He planned to stay until he had enough seed money to go west and seek his fortune."  He glanced over at Marie, who had a somewhat confused look on her face at this last statement.

Armed with the small amount of information Ben had provided to her during their trip to the Ponderosa from New Orleans, Marie protested,   "But I thought you sold the store immediately to finance your journey west and provide Gunnar with the money he needed as well." 

Ben nodded in agreement.  "Yes that was our plan, but we couldn't start our journey right away. It was October when we married and too late to start West before the bad weather set in."  Somewhat surprised and secretly pleased at his wife’s penchant for recalling every brief conversation they had ever had regarding his past, Ben continued his story.

"The man to whom we eventually sold the business had once entertained thoughts of marrying Inger for the sole purpose of acquiring the store." His face took on a dark and foreboding countenance as he recalled for Marie the lies that the man, McWhorter, had told him about Inger's equal desire to marry the tavern owner. Later, McWhorter had also been to blame for that bleak day when, over a misunderstanding with her brother, Ben thought he had lost Inger's heart forever.

Ben's expression lightened considerably as he told Marie, with a wink, "Fortunately for me, she married for love instead of money."

The rest of the house was silent except for the crackling of the fire and the incessant ticking of the grandfather clock, as Marie waited for Ben to continue. Her intuition told her that she would soon have her answer regarding some of the little customs that she could replicate in order to make this a memorable Christmas for them all.  Little did she suspect that she had already inadvertently set into motion a recreation of the most special Cartwright Christmas tradition of all.

Ben, unaware of his wife’s deliberate silence, hastened to articulate the memories of that very special time; memories that were so joyful and yet tinged with sadness, as in retrospect, it was the only Christmas that Inger was able to enjoy with Adam and Ben. 

"As I said, Adam had never had a Christmas in a real home before, so Inger made sure that his every conceivable wish was granted that year."  He smiled somewhat wistfully as he remembered her concern that everything be perfect for the little boy that had won her heart from the first moment she had laid eyes on him.

“Inger insisted that we have a Christmas tree, though neither one of us had ever had one before.  There was a German family in the town and Inger told me how they always had a tree with decorations for the holidays.”  Ben shook his head and laughed as he relayed his total surprise when she told him that the tree was actually brought into the house! 

“I couldn’t believe that my tidy wife would allow a tree, of all things, to be dragged into her clean house and propped up in a corner!  But,” he added, with some feeling, “she never could say ‘no’ to Adam.”  Adding, but only to himself, Ben acknowledged ‘And I could never say ‘no’ to her!’

"She helped Adam make ornaments for the tree, all manner of angels, stars, reindeer and the like.  And,” he said, suddenly, snapping his fingers as he remembered their present location, “I believe they are still in my old sea chest, along with my journal and other mementos from our journey West.”   

Marie made an immediate mental note to find that chest and delve into its bounty of memories.  ‘Marie Cartwright!’  she scolded herself, as her covert plan began to take shape.  ‘Haven’t you done enough snooping for one day?  You haven’t even apologized for your first trespass and now here you are, planning another!’ 

Her change in visage, as it diverged from calculating to contrite, was not lost on her husband, as he correctly suspected she was waging an internal battle with her innate curiosity versus her high moral standards.  Allowing her to determine her own course of action and believing that her conscience would be her guide, Ben continued with his story.

“The tree Gunnar and I cut was the biggest one that we thought would still fit through the door. Inger was just as excited as Adam when we brought it home."  Ben laughed, then said,   "Getting it through the door, without taking the wall with it, was a bit of a trick, but there was no way that  we would deny Adam his first Christmas tree!"

Marie laughed as well, imagining her husband and his brother-in-law struggling with a tree almost too big for the doorway, as Inger and Adam tried to help guide the towering pine into its appointed place by the hearth.

Ben then said quietly, “I already told you about the baking." Marie sighed as Ben rubbed his forehead with his fingertips, both of them remembering that terrible scene at the dinner table the previous week that, fortunately, had a happy ending for all involved.

Moving on to the big day itself, Ben was lost in the memory of half a dozen separate scenes that would live in his heart forever. Marie, her head on her husband’s chest once again, could feel his heart increase its rhythm as his voice took on an animated tone she had never heard before.  Anxious to observe his facial expression as well, she moved her head and sat a little ways apart from him on the settee.

Ben, in an unconscious response to her change of position, brought his right knee onto the settee and set that leg on its side as he turned his body to face hers.  As the young woman had anticipated, he began to speak, not only with his voice, but with his whole being, as he described the early morning scene in detail for his appreciative audience.

"Christmas Day was wonderful.  Adam was up at the crack of dawn, naturally, on the one day we could all sleep in!  I remember he came creeping into our room, hoping to find us awake.  Inger and I had heard him get up, so we were only pretending to be asleep when he tiptoed in.”  Marie could imagine the two young parents, playing “possum” and being as caught up in the excitement of the day as their little boy.

“The little imp comes over to my side of the bed, climbs up on my stomach and puts his face right in front of mine!” Ben used his hand, palm facing him and held it about six inches from his nose.

“And then, he says…”  Moving his hand away, Ben paused here, as he took a deep breath, and endeavored to imitate the five year old with a stage whisper in a high pitched voice.

"Papa, you awake?"

Ben laughed out loud at the next scene, even before he relayed it to his wife, though she was already smiling in anticipation.

"You should have heard him squeal when my eyes flew open.  I grabbed him around the waist, held him up in the air straight over my head and said, ‘Well, lookee here, Mama!  Saint Nicholas forgot one of his elves!”  Ben’s head was thrown back now with his arms held skyward, and a merry twinkle, that would rival that of St. Nicholas himself, was evident in his chocolate brown eyes.

"I never laughed so hard in all my born days!" Ben said as he savored the memory. Marie was also laughing and trying to imagine Adam as a small boy being held aloft in his father's strong arms.  Of course, after seeing Ben carry him to bed tonight, that’s not so very difficult to do.’ She considered, as she continued to smile broadly at her husband’s delightful story.

Laying his hands back down on the tops of his legs, Ben continued.  "I laid him on the bed between Inger and me and he gave us each a kiss.  The next thing I knew he was on his hands and knees, scooting down the center of the bed, calling over his shoulder for us to hurry because it was Christmas!”  He grinned as he recalled Adam’s bare little bottom peeking out from the hem of his nightshirt as he raced to the end of the mattress.

“He would hardly let us put on our robes before he was pulling us each by the hand into the front room to see what treasures the old gentleman had brought.  His eyes were as big as saucers as he took in all the bounty under the tree.”

“And then,” Adam’s father continued, “he saw that his stocking was full to overflowing, as well!”

“We had originally planned to wait for Gunnar to arrive before opening our gifts. He had graciously insisted that it wouldn’t be fair to Adam to expect him to wait and he rightly guessed how early that little rascal would awaken. Truth be told,” Ben admitted, “Inger and I couldn’t wait to see him open his gifts either!”

“So, Inger went in to start the coffee and I stoked the fire.” Ben said.  “I handed Adam his stocking and he plopped down on the rug, with his hand already pulling out the first item before his bottom hit the floor!”

Marie interjected here, as she had not had received a stocking of gifts during her childhood and was intrigued by what treasures the unusual package may have held.

“What was in it, dear?”

He considered her question for just a moment, as he searched his memory for a list of its contents.  “His stocking was full of fruit and candy and some smaller toys. It certainly helped to be the proprietors of the only mercantile in town.”  Ben stopped, and then added as an afterthought.

“I remember he had a peppermint stick dangling from the corner of his mouth, before I even realized he had found it!”

Marie giggled, as she said, “That sounds more like Hoss than Adam!”

“Well, he’s not much of a sweet eater, but he does like peppermint.  Hoss will eat pretty much anything as long as it’s candy. Though, on second thought, he doesn’t care for licorice.”  Ben’s eyebrows rose in a devilish fashion and with a grin, he added, “Which means all the more for me!”

Marie smiled as she tucked these little pearls of information away in her mind. She had already purchased some candy for each of the boys for Christmas and fortunately, had thought to buy licorice and peppermint both.

“What did Adam receive from St. Nicholas?”  She asked, in deference to the fantasy of the loving and generous patron of children.

“He received some books,” Ben gave his wife a ‘so, what else is new’ type of look, and then said, “along with a top, a box of pick-up-sticks and a new slate and chalk.”

“Inger had made him two new pairs of pants and three shirts, along with mittens, a knitted cap and…” the man searched his memory for any remaining items, “oh, yes and a scarf.”   Marie felt her stomach clench involuntarily at the mention of the final gift.  She glanced surreptitiously at Ben, who seemed unfazed by his last comment and was proceeding in his mind to the next event.

"Adam showered us with hugs, kisses, and ‘thank you’s’. He was the happiest little boy in seven states.”  Ben eyes took on a rather faraway look, as he summed up the experience from an adult point of view.  “The joy he gave us that day was more than either one of us could have hoped for."

"It sounds magical." she quietly intoned, as the young woman grappled with her conscience as to whether she should take the opportunity to apologize for her previous transgression.  ‘It must not be the same scarf or he would have said something more about it.’  She reasoned, as she mentally weighed the pros and cons of bringing up the uncomfortable subject at this juncture, and immediately decided against it.

In her mind’s eye, she could see one of the sisters at the convent shaking her gnarled finger under her nose, as had happened innumerable times when she was a little girl and refused to do as she was bid. ‘I promise I will tell him how sorry I am before we retire for the evening.’  She bargained with the imaginary nun and was let off now, as she had been then, with this heartfelt vow.

Marie, realizing that Ben was still enjoying the memory of that special day and had not picked up on her own private departure to another time and place, endeavored to glean any additional insight she could.  Although they were a bit off the subject now, Marie had to ask, "What gifts did you and Inger give each other?" 

Ben's smile was almost shy as he looked down at his hands, rather than at his wife.

"I gave her material that I had ordered special from one of our vendors, so she could make herself a new Sunday dress.  She bought me a book about the West, which was a great reference on the trail that spring.”  He became quiet then, but an inner glow spread throughout his face and was magnified in his dark eyes. He verbalized the emotion that was already evident to his audience.

“But…there was something else she gave me that….well, we gave the gift to each other.  A gift of love that I cherish every day of my life."  Marie could only guess what Ben would say next, but her womanly intuition told her that this was the most precious symbol of love a man and woman could give to each other.  He did not keep her in suspense for long.

"That night, after we tucked a very tired Adam into bed and Gunnar had left, Inger sat with me on the couch, just like we're doing now.  She reached out and took my hand and placed it on her stomach.”  Ben's eyes were misty as he reached out for Marie’s hand and kissed it gently.

"She told me that she was with child…that our beautiful little baby would be arriving in the summer.  It was the best Christmas gift I had ever received."

The look on her husband’s face spoke of the endearing love he had for his now deceased wife and the mother of his second child.  Marie's heart was about to burst and she felt a warm tingling glow, as she imagined how Inger must have felt as she shared her special secret with the man she loved.  Looking tenderly into his wife’s sparkling eyes, Ben spoke of his wish for the future, a wish that, unbeknownst to him, had already been granted.

"I only hope that someday we will have a gift like that of our own to cherish, another little blessing like the two upstairs." 

The third Mrs. Cartwright silently thanked God that she had not revealed her “gift” and could provide her husband with another very special Christmas present that they both could treasure always.

                        *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *

They were silent for awhile, as Ben's thoughts were six years and 2,000 miles away.  The clock, as it announced the nine o’clock hour, seemed to break into his reverie.  Ben turned to her and, in apology for his preoccupation, said, "I'm sorry, darling.  It's been a long time since I thought of those days." 

"Memories are a great comfort, especially at the holidays.  I want to create some of those same types of memories for Adam and Hoss to always enjoy, as well."  Marie commented.  Wanting to get the conversation back on track, she asked, innocently, "What did your family do for Christmas when you were a boy, darling?" 

Her question was actually a thinly veiled attempt to persuade her husband to tell her more about himself.  She knew very little of his childhood as he had shared virtually nothing with her about his parents or his older brother, John.  Ben ran his hand across his brow and looked over at his wife to better gauge her true interest in the subject.

"Now, we're talking about ancient history.  I don't know if I can even remember back that far!"  He said with a slight note of sarcasm in his voice. 

Marie slapped his thigh lightly with her hand and shook her head.  "Well, I guess it would be asking a lot for a man of your advanced years to remember a time when he still believed in Father Christmas!”

“You did have Père Noël back then, did you not?"  Marie lightly chided, with more than a little of the same sarcasm evident in her tone.

Ben's eyebrows rose quizzically, as he shook his finger under his wife's nose.  "Don't use that tone of voice with me, young lady or you'll be the one with the switch in her stocking on Christmas morning!"  He responded, grinning at his wife's obvious attempt to "get his goat". 

Ignoring her husband's reprimand, she requested, "Please, darling, I really do want to know what your holidays were like.  I have never traveled to the Northeast and was not brought up in a Protestant household.  I think it's important that your family's traditions be honored as well."  Marie turned what she hoped were persuasive eyes towards her husband.

"All right.  How can I refuse you anything when I love you as much as I do?"  Ben asked, as he shifted himself on the settee to face the fire once again, and put his arm around his wife's shoulders.  Marie settled into his embrace, anxious to hear what he had to say.  Ben took a moment to collect his thoughts and then began reminiscing about those long ago days in New Bedford, when it was just him, his brother and their parents.

"Well, I believe I told you that my father, Joseph, was a sailor."  Marie nodded her head against Ben's chest, as she listened to her husband's deep soothing voice.

"He was often gone for months at a time, and my brother, John, was the man of the family while Father was away.  John was five years older than I was and he always made sure that I knew who was in charge.”  Although his wife could not see his face, she knew that if she were to look now, she would find a disgruntled visage to match his tone.

"Sounds like someone else I know."  Marie interjected, with no need to mention to whom she was referring. 

"No, I think John lorded it over me much more than Adam does Hoss.  Or at least it seems that way now from an adult perspective."  Ben considered this briefly and determined that he would pay more attention to the interaction between his sons. 

"In any event, Father always planned his voyages to assure that he would be home for Christmas.  It was normally too stormy during the early winter months to set sail, so we got to spend a great deal of time with him in December and January." 

Ben paused here, and his heart warmed at the vivid memory of the man he had always looked up to and tried to emulate.  With a slight catch in his voice, he said softly, "My father was a wonderful man and I so looked forward to the holidays for that very reason.  Just to be with him and know that he took great pleasure in having us all together, as well." 

Ben smiled ruefully before continuing. "Of course, depending on how I had behaved just prior to his return, I could also be a bit pensive at the thought of his homecoming.”

Ben’s face became quite flushed, and then he murmured sheepishly, “Sometimes, the days that followed his arrival could be somewhat, er…shall we say, painful for me."  Unconsciously, Ben shifted his weight on the settee, as he remembered having the seat of his britches warmed by his father for any inordinate display of disobedience that may have occurred during Joseph's absence.

Marie put her hand to her mouth to cover the giggle that threatened to escape her lips.  "So, you were not always a model child, darling?”  She asked innocently, as this time, she pulled back to view Ben's face at her observation.

"No, I should say not."  Ben said with some remaining evidence of embarrassment on his face. “I got into my fair share of scrapes and mischief as a young boy.  However, even though he wasn't always there, my father made sure that I knew right from wrong."

His eyes and manner took on a determined look, as he continued.

"The lessons he taught me carried forward not only in his absences, but remain with me to this very day.  Lessons like hard work, perseverance, honesty, integrity, and most of all, respect for other people and for myself.  Knowing how disappointed he would be, if I were to go against his teachings or what he stood for, often stopped me from doing many things that a boy without a full-time father might think about doing.  In fact, even now, I still consider what he might think before I make important decisions."

Ben stopped and reflected on what he had just said. His next words came from his heart, as he sought to impart all that his father meant to him. "My most fervent hope is that I can be half the man my father was and bring up my children with the same ideals and values that he instilled in me."

Marie stroked her husband's cheek softly, and, as she looked at him lovingly, replied, "I think your father would be very proud of the man his son turned out to be.  I know how grateful I am to him for shaping you into the person that I am proud to call my husband." 

Ben looked down into Marie's admiring eyes and kissed her gently on the lips.  "Thank you, darling.  That means more to me than you could know."

He briefly daubed at his left eye with the back of his hand and collected himself before continuing. "As I was saying, Father would return home a few weeks before Christmas. The holidays were really quite simple affairs, as we didn't have much in the way of extra cash.  In fact, we never had a tree, as it just wasn't the custom then."

"I would imagine trees would be fairly hard to come by in a seaport town, as well."  Marie enjoined. 

Ben nodded in agreement.   "The house was always bright and cheerful though, as Mother made sure of that."  Ben squeezed his wife's shoulders gently as he said the word, 'Mother'.  He had not thought of his mother in quite awhile, before today.  The mere mention of the word brought back a flood of fond memories.

"My mother…what a marvelous woman!  She could make anything with her hands, be it clothes for us boys, or a delicious meal.  She made us each a Christmas stocking with our name on it and we would always receive new mittens and scarves as gifts." 

At this last pronouncement, his arm tightened slightly about his wife’s shoulders. He took a deep, steadying breath before he spoke.  “That scarf …that the snowman is wearing.  Mother made that for me. It was a gift I received from her for what was the last Christmas we had together as a family.”  Ben braced himself for the unreserved outpouring he knew this statement would engender.

Marie’s head came up immediately and she caught her breath at this revelation.

“Oh, Mon Chéri!”  She cried out in anguish.  “I am so sorry!  I had no idea how special that scarf was to you!”  She looked at him beseechingly, the contrition evident in her words and on her face.  Tears sprang involuntarily to her eyes, making the green irises even more beautiful through the shimmering liquid pools.  As she moved to leave the couch and retrieve the precious item from its current location, Ben gently grasped her by the arms and pulled her back down.

“No, darling.  You don’t understand.”  Ben asserted.  “That scarf is right where it should be…on her grandsons’ snowman.”  The disbelief on his lovely wife’s face let Ben know that he had to more fully impart his feelings regarding his mother’s last gift.

“Don’t you see, dear?”  Ben insisted earnestly.  “She never had the opportunity to know her grandchildren.  The fact that they took pleasure in something she made with love for her own child, why… it makes it all the more special for me.” 

Marie, still not convinced, started to protest.  “But, Ben…”

“Please” he said quietly. “Let it remain where it is.”  Ben eyes glistened, as he soothed his wife’s conscience and brought the subject to a poignant close at the same time. 

“You have no idea what a wonderful surprise it was for me to see it there this evening.”

Marie’s eyes were brimming with unshed tears and she swallowed both her pride and the large lump in her throat, before she spoke. “I promise that I will never take anything of yours again without asking your permission, darling” she whispered softly.  Ben’s kiss on her cheek and gentle touch of his hand on hers let her know that she was forgiven.

Hoping to regain the mood that was in evidence before this disclosure, and wanting to tell Marie more about the very first woman in his life, he picked up his story where he had left off.

Ben cleared his throat. As he began to speak, his voice took on an almost reverent tone.

"What a beautiful voice she had!  That was one of the best parts of the holidays, when she would sing carols and hymns in church.  Everyone around her would sing more quietly and her voice would carry up to the rafters."

Marie, now sitting upright, turned her head towards him, as she wanted to see the look on her husband’s face at this moment.   She was not surprised when she caught a glimpse of the little boy he had once been, listening to the sound of his mother's voice.

He smiled tenderly at his wife as he went on, "Of course, she would sing at home all the time, too. I would often have a lullaby instead of a story at bedtime."  Marie could easily imagine a small child, looking somewhat like Adam, falling asleep to the comfort of his mother's loving tones.

Ben's eyes lit up as he returned to the now vivid memory of his boyhood and one very special Christmas Eve.  "Mother decorated the mantelpiece with sprays of holly and ivy and the room was filled with candlelight.  We had a wonderful supper before we went to church.”

He paused for a minute as he saw again the bounty that was evident on the dinner table each year.  ”It was turkey, with all the trimmings. She made the best cranberry sauce, too!" he added with a chuckle.  "The church service was always the high point of the evening.  One year, Mother sang ‘Silent Night’ by herself at the request of the minister and members of the congregation.”

Ben lifted his eyes slightly upward, as if he were once again sitting in the congregation, anxiously awaiting his mother’s solo.  “She didn't require accompaniment, and…” his voice dropped to an almost inaudible whisper, “it was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard…it seemed just like an angel." Marie was acutely aware of her husband’s tenuous hold on his emotions, as he heard his mother's voice and saw her face once more.

"I can still see her standing there at the altar, looking down at me and smiling while she was singing.  Even Father had tears in his eyes when she finished.  I was never more proud to be her son then at that moment."

Marie was also overcome with emotion as she imagined the scene so many years before.  ‘How I hope that someday, our children will remember both of us with as much love and adulation as Ben does his parents!’   

Ben stopped his reminiscing for a moment, and was amazed that these recollections of the past could still stir such strong feelings within him.  How glad he was that he had been able to reach out to his son and allow him to relive his own memories of Inger!  He prayed that Adam could now think of her without quite so much pain, and realize, as Ben had so many times tonight, what blessings memories truly are.

With thoughts towards their upcoming, but as yet undisclosed, blessed event, Marie asked a simple question. "What was her name?"

Ben smiled a bit as he regained his composure, and replied, "Catherine."  Marie returned his smile, as she mentally placed this at the top of her list of names for little girls.

Ben, his voice now a bit stronger and more assured, brought up one final recollection from the past. "The other thing that I will always remember is Father reading from the Bible. After we returned from church and before John and I were put to bed, Father would read the story of Christ's birth aloud.  He had a deep, resonant voice and I would get chills as he recited the verses that told of that first blessed Christmas in Bethlehem."

Marie again met her husband's eyes as she nodded her head.  "I, too, read the story of the virgin birth each Christmas Eve.  That was one memory from the convent that has always stayed with me." 

She continued in this vein and sensed her next statement would be in conformance with her husband's beliefs as well.  "Christmas should be celebrated with the acknowledgment and gratitude for that very special gift that was given to all mankind that night.  Our children should always be reminded of the true reason for the holiday."

As she had hoped, Ben shared her viewpoint. "I agree, darling, I agree.  That is one tradition that will be observed in this Cartwright home from now on."

Just then, the grandfather clock struck the eleventh hour.  Both Marie and Ben started at the sound, noticing that the fire had died down to a few glowing embers.  Ben gave Marie a tender kiss on the forehead, as they rose to prepare for the night.  Looking into his wife's emerald eyes, he expressed his gratitude for her interest in his past.

"Thank you for letting me relive those days, darling.  It doesn't seem possible that so many years have passed, and I now have children of my own.”

Ben held her close and said, with a note of obvious longing for the unattainable, "How I wish my parents could have lived to see their grandchildren.  The age difference between Adam and Hoss is almost the same as that of my brother and me.  They would have enjoyed them so much!" 

Marie pulled back from his embrace and looked at her husband encouragingly, “Perhaps if you were to share your stories with Adam and Hoss, they would come to know their grandparents better,"  'And', she thought to herself, 'their father, as well.' 

With that, Marie turned towards the staircase and waited as Ben made his usual check of the bottom floor.  Having assured himself that all was secure, he slipped his right arm about his wife’s waist as her left hand found its way around his back. The two then headed upstairs, each lost in private thought.

At the top of the stairs, another nightly ritual was once again observed. The pair silently entered each of their sons' rooms, in turn, for a final check of each child before retiring. 

Ben gently pushed open the door to his older child's room.  He noted that Adam continued to sleep soundly and had scarcely moved from the position he had taken earlier that evening.  Mindlessly smoothing the handmade quilt that covered the sleeping form, Ben gently fingered the tousled hair on his precious child's head and kissed him once more.  This had always been the one time each day when the father could show his affection for his little boy, without incurring a roll of Adam's hazel eyes or an averting movement of his head.  Marie stood beside her husband, and then, also taking the opportunity, kissed the child tenderly on the cheek. 

A contented sigh from the snug depths of the blankets was the welcome response to their ministrations.

Ben quietly closed Adam's door, although still leaving it slightly ajar, as Marie opened the one to Hoss' room.  She smiled at the familiar sound emanating from the small bed. Hoss, on his back, with his bunny held tightly against his chest, slept peacefully, albeit, a bit more noisily than his brother.  Ben, with a bemused look, listened to the sound of his baby's gentle snoring and tucked the blanket a bit more firmly about the chubby little boy. 

A faint sign of a smile appeared on Hoss' face, as first his father and then his mother placed a kiss on the little cherub's cheek.  Marie had watched these scenes unfold each night since her arrival on the ranch.  She always looked forward to them, as her tall, strong husband revealed his tender love for his children.  She once again thought of the new life growing within her.  Her baby was so lucky to also have this special man as a father!

Hand in hand, the young couple left their younger son's bedroom and headed towards their own personal sanctuary within the four walls of the master bedroom at the end of the hall.  Gazing at his adoring wife, and silently counting his blessings, Ben ushered Marie into the room and softly shut the door behind them.


Chapter 6

Ben arose even earlier than normal, as there was much to do before he could afford the luxury of a few days off for the holidays.  Moving stealthily from the mattress, so as not to disturb his partner’s deep slumber, Ben fell immediately into his early morning routine.

He stood before the mirror over the basin, though the lack of any evidence of daylight negated the mirror’s usefulness at this hour.  Relying on many years of shaving without a reflection as a guide, he brought the straight razor deftly across his lathered cheek.

Finishing that daily chore, he reached for his shirt from the hook next to the dresser.  As he donned the rest of his heavy woolen clothes, Ben noted that he felt totally rejuvenated with just the few hours of rest he had had.  He also felt a tingle of happy anticipation as he thought of the coming days of celebration with his family. 

Soon fully dressed, he bent down to drop a kiss on his wife’s forehead, and exited the bedroom with his socks and boots in hand.  His bare feet produced no sound as he made his way down the carpeted runner towards the head of the stairs.  Stopping to listen midway between the adjacent doorways at the hall’s entrance, there was no indication of activity in either child’s bedroom, which was remarkable given the boys’ exceptionally early bedtimes the night before.  Reminded of that special evening, Ben, with a contented countenance, silently made his way down the broad staircase.

Upon his arrival in the great room, the patriarch was surprised to see that Hop Sing had already stoked the fire.  Easing into his chair, he was immediately warmed by the flames growing steadily inside the stone hearth.  He pulled on his socks and the worn work boots that the little cook had cleaned and replaced in the master bedroom the previous evening.

“Morning, Hop Sing.”  Ben said in somewhat hushed tones, so as not to startle the diminutive chef as he rounded the corner into the tidy kitchen. With his queue bouncing in concert with the motion of his head, the employee greeted his boss with a smile and a nod toward the coffee pot on the stove. 

“Good morning, Mista Ben.  Coffee all reddy.”  Hop Sing replied as he finished flattening the biscuit dough with the wooden cylinder he used as a rolling pin.  Wiping his hands on the apron tied around his waist, he reached into the open cupboard to retrieve a cup and saucer.

“You up earlier than usual today.” he observed, as he handed the red transfer ware china cup to the bemused man and filled it with the delicious smelling brew.

“Never earlier than you, Hop Sing.”  Ben smiled his thanks as he took the proffered beverage and sipped it carefully.  Taking advantage of this unplanned meeting, he asked, in a conspiring voice, “Is everything in readiness for Mrs. Cartwright’s Christmas gift?” 

Nodding once again, the family confidant continued his breakfast preparations as he cut the biscuits and placed them in a round baking pan. 

“Everyone take bath before Christmas Eve supper.  Hop Sing ask Jake help move plesent from bunkhouse into washhouse after that.”  His eyes crinkled shut as a broad grin appeared on the normally unreadable countenance.

“Good.  I could never have pulled this off without your help, Hop Sing.  I think Mrs. Cartwright will be very surprised.” 

Ben chuckled as he completed this discourse in his mind. ‘I know she has turned this house upside down looking for her present! She’ll never think to look in the washhouse, at least not that night.’ 

Setting the now empty cup on the wooden table, Ben gave the cook a pat on the back and headed towards the main entry way of the house.  Reaching the front door, he retrieved his heavy shearling coat and his tan felt hat. The coat, which he had purchased in San Francisco last year while on the way home from New Orleans, had set him back more than a few, hard earned dollars.  However, the soft tanned sheep skin jacket with the remains of the unsheared wool inside, provided a blanket of warmth against the winter cold, and was worth its weight in gold on mornings such as these.

After donning his jacket and hat, he grasped the iron latch which bolted the wide pine door to its frame and drew it back with a smooth, easy motion.  The broad shouldered man then opened the door just enough to permit him to exit, and hurriedly shut it behind him, so as to limit the amount of frigid air that rushed inward in his wake.

Ben stopped to pull on his work gloves, as his breath created a frosty fog of vapor in the icy semi darkness. In a lighthearted gesture, as he walked off the porch towards the barn, he tipped his hat in greeting to the grinning snowman with the handsome red scarf.

Replacing the hat firmly on his head, he tugged at the brim of it to bring it further down on his brow. Smiling broadly as he set his shoulders back, the tall figure strode off to complete his first chores of the day in the waning minutes just before dawn.

            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *

Meanwhile upstairs, the lady of the house lay staring into the darkness around her, glad to have the unexpected private time to organize her thoughts before she started her day.

Rolling to her back, she absentmindedly rubbed her stomach in a circular motion as she considered the day ahead. Suddenly, she became aware again of the very faint, but unmistakable, signs of life, seemingly in fluttering response to her gentle caress.  The almost imperceptible feeling, similar to a narrow band of small rippling bubbles moving vertically from her navel to her pubic bone, provided delightful confirmation that Marie’s Christmas surprise was indeed alive and well within her.

Had her spouse been witness to this momentous event, he would surely have suspected that something was afoot.  The glow on the expectant mother’s face could only be described as radiant, and the light in her eyes was heightened by the anticipation of her pending disclosure, which was now definitely scheduled for Christmas evening. Trying to allay her excitement, Marie forced herself to focus her attention on her plans for the day at hand. 

“Let’s see.” she said out loud, as she now gently patted her stomach with one hand and placed the other behind her head.

“First, we’ll do the baking and then, I’ll…,” she paused for a moment, and stressed the next word in deference to the vow she had made the previous night. “ask Ben to please find his sea chest so we can see what ornaments are still usable for the tree.”

Assuming there would not be many of these earlier decorations, usable or otherwise, her thoughts jumped ahead to another possible activity for later in the day.  “Perhaps the boys would enjoy making some new decorations.  I’ll have to see what we have in the way of colored paper and sewing scraps.”  She imagined the yet to be selected pine tree in its appointed place next to the staircase, its broad, blue green branches cascading down the length of its tall trunk, devoid of any decoration.

“We’ll need some ribbon to tie the pomegranates and apples to the branches, and I must find those small candles and holders that I put away after that trip to town last month.” 

The young woman was quite pleased that, when she had made her final visit to town before the onset of  the winter’s snows, she had thought to inquire of Will Cass as to any special holiday adornments he had available for sale.  The proprietor of the mercantile had suggested that she purchase the miniature candle holders, with metal springs on their bases, for attachment to the evergreen’s branches. These were accompanied by short white tapers specially designed for use on a holiday tree.  At his behest, she had also bought, as additional ornaments, some of the rather unusual looking, papery skinned fruits with the jewel red berries inside. 

‘Ben will be somewhat aghast at the price.’ 

She considered her rather impulsive purchase momentarily, realizing that her spouse had yet to receive the bill for her shopping spree as the anticipated winter storms had arrived right on schedule, delaying the inevitable discussion as to the cost of said discretionary purchases.

“But,” she continued as she turned her head to the right, and spoke assuredly to the vacant pillow on Ben’s side of the bed, “I can make jelly from the seeds after the holidays are over.”  She said this in such a way as to ascertain how reasonable it would sound to her husband when she used the argument in defense of her purchase.

She pursued her lips in resignation as she suspected what his response would be, but then, a slow smile moved across her face. She knew she would have purchased ten times that amount had she even suspected how much more merry this Christmas would be than last year’s!

In an impetuous addendum to her argument, she added, in a dramatic whisper, “Let the expense be damned!”

Immediately, the tenets of her strict Catholic upbringing came rushing to the forefront of her mind.  She felt an immense sense of shame at her blasphemous statement, especially given her present status as a vessel of God’s blessings (due to her unborn, and even now, impressionable, child), let alone voicing such a sinful declaration at this most holy season of the Christian year . 

‘Maria Theresa Cartwright!’  She internally admonished herself.  ‘You were not brought up to utter such sacrilege!’ Her memories of past confessions in the convent where she grew up came flooding back.  She could once again see herself as a mischievous little girl, squirming on the leather upholstered kneeling bench with her hands clasped tightly in  front of her in a gesture of supplication, as she admitted her youthful sins to the kindly old priest.

‘At least I could kneel somewhat comfortably,’ she considered, with a trace of a smile playing on her lips.   She readily recalled that sitting was sometimes tantamount to impossible, courtesy of an earlier spanking provided by the Mother Superior!

Her current situation, however, did not present a ready solution to her dilemma. As there was no priest nor parish within 100 miles of the ranch to hear her confession, Marie knew that she would have to devise her own penance to absolve her of her sin.  Mentally invoking the familiar scolding tone, she could once again hear Father Sebastian’s voice as he decreed her punishment.

‘You will say ten Hail Mary’s and five Our Fathers in addition to your daily recitation of the rosary.   May God deliver you of your heathen tongue!’  Feeling very much ashamed, but relieved that she could recover the Lord’s grace with her extra devotionals, she again considered her plans for the day.

Her mind flitted back to her tentative pastry and dessert menu for Christmas Eve supper. 

“I’ve already made the fruitcake for Ben.”  Her nose wrinkled in disgust as she knew it would remain forever untouched if she were the only one expected to eat it! 

She smiled as she thought of the traditional ‘gros souper’, the somewhat Spartan repast that was partaken after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in New Orleans, (and elsewhere in the world), by followers of the Roman Catholic faith.  The austerity of the meal was evident, however, only in the entrée and preceding courses.  The feast’s pièce de résistance was the presentation of a spectacular array of various brandied fruits, nuts and pastries in honor of the newborn savior and his future disciples.

‘Hoss would especially enjoy the thirteen desserts that are served in honor of Jesus and his apostles!’  She had already considered this, as she had added a bûche de Noël or Yule log, as well as pecan pralines, to her menu in deference to the event.

“I know Adam has a preference for gingerbread men, and surely everyone would enjoy plum pudding.”  As an afterthought, she added, “with hard sauce for the adults, of course.”

Anxious to begin her holiday preparations, Marie threw back the covers from the bed and swung her legs towards the floor.  The room took a bit of spin (from her perspective) in response to this sudden movement. 

With a sigh and a wry smile on her face, she looked down at the cause of her dizziness. Before she attempted to stand, she said to her belly in mock consternation, “All right.  You win.  I’ll take it a little slower!”

Holding onto the bedpost as she edged carefully off the side of the mattress, she wiggled her toes into her house shoes and turned to make the now empty bed.

                        *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *

The adults of the family were not the only ones who had started their day earlier than normal. 

A pudgy little face, with blue eyes somewhat glazed from sleep, peeped out from his bedroom doorway into the upstairs hallway. He paused, listening intently for any signs of early morning activity from his parents’ end of the corridor.  Hearing none, the long john clad child (with one back button that had come undone, partially exposing his little bottom) moved slowly and quietly into the polished passageway. 

Pushing his way, unannounced and uninvited, into his older brother’s room, the little boy slid his stocking feet forward on the hardwood floor, as if skating on some imaginary frozen pond, and headed towards the bed in the center of the room.  Looking up, he was surprised to find that the bed was already vacant.  With a bit of consternation evident on his face, the child turned towards the pale light just beginning to emanate through the window near the foot of the high single bed.

“Adam?”  He asked in what he thought was a whisper, but was actually quite a loud voice given the time of day and the close proximity of the addressee.

A muffled sound, akin to that made by the unplanned meeting of a small head and a wooden bed frame, was heard, followed by a sharp cry of pain and a terse “What?” that issued forth from the floor at the end of the bed. 

Happy at pinpointing the location of his missing sibling, and totally oblivious to the pain he had just caused him, Hoss moved his feet towards the window.  He found the person he had been searching for (or at least, his bottom half).  The talking half was partway under the bed, retrieving something from an apparent hiding place. 

The chubby little boy got down on his hands and knees and peered under the bed as the darkness begrudgingly gave way to the hazy winter sunshine which was lighting the room.

“Whatcha doin’, Adam?”  He inquired innocently.

The older boy scooted back from under the furniture, and sat down heavily on the braided rag throw rug under the window. His hazel eyes were shut tight as he rubbed the crown of his head and moaned dramatically (mostly in an attempt to garner an apology from his pesky little brother than from actual pain of the injury!). When no such apology was forthcoming, he answered his brother’s question with an angry retort.

“None of your business!”   He moved his slim body further away from the other child as he quickly hid the object of his search behind him.

Hoss’ lower lip began to tremble at his brother’s harsh words, and, as he sat back on his heels, his sky blue eyes clouded with inadvertent tears.

Adam, noting the immediate, and not unexpected, change in his little brother’s visage, felt a jab of remorse for causing pain with his own hurtful response.  Being the older and wiser of the two, he knew that the burden of an apology was now on his shoulders.

“I’m sorry, Hoss.  I didn’t mean ta be so mean.” he said kindly, with a guilty expression on his face.  As further evidence of his contrition, Adam patted his hand on the rug and motioned for the child to join him there.  At this conciliatory gesture, Hoss’ mood returned to its normal sunny state and he plopped down on the rug as his brother had bid him.  He looked expectantly at the older boy, still waiting for a better answer to his original question.

“I was gettin’ the present I made for Pa, so I could wrap it.”  Adam stated in an intuitive response to the look on his brother’s face.  “I heard him leave early this morning, so I thought I could ask Hop Sing for some paper and get it done today.”

The boy anticipated what the next question would be from the chubby tyke and he wasn’t disappointed.

“Whatcha make for Papa?”  Hoss inquired, as he strained to see what Adam had hidden behind his back. 

Adam hesitated, as he knew from first hand experience that Hoss could no more keep a secret than go fly in the moon!  However, because he was still feeling bad about upsetting the little lad, he threw caution to the wind and brought the wooden shadowbox forward so Hoss could see it.

Holding the gift back far enough to keep it just out of his little brother’s reach, but still close enough to see its contents,  Adam displayed the evidence of his many hours of careful and painstaking work. Justifiably proud of his creation, he invited a response from his always ardent admirer, “So what do ya think?”

True to form, Hoss’s eyes grew round with amazement as he took in the carefully mounted bits of twine, each with a name printed in uniform block letters under it.

“That’s really sumthin’, Adam.” Hoss respectfully intoned; fascinated as always by anything his idol had wrought.   The older boy sat up straighter at this expected response, his chest expanding in a self-important manner.

However, the five year old’s curiosity then got the better of him, as he added. “Wha’ is it?”

In an equally normal response to his sibling’s lack of knowledge regarding any seemingly mature subject, Adam sighed loudly and rolled his hazel eyes heavenward. 

“Don’t cha see, Hoss?”  He said in an exasperated tone.  “I tied some sailor’s knots just like Pa woulda used when he was first mate for my Grandpa Stoddard.  I used Pa’s book about sailing as a guide.”  The triumphant nod of his curly head spoke volumes as to the eleven year old’s own impression of his creation. 

The look on Hoss’ face did nothing to mollify his brother’s doubt regarding the tyke’s understanding of the subject under discussion.  Seeking to educate his sibling, based on his own great store of knowledge in the nautical way of doing things, Adam placed his arm about his brother’s shoulders.

“Ya see, Hoss,” the little boy continued, (in his oft used “older and smarter” tone of voice). 

“A sailor has ta know how to tie a lot of different kinds of knots depending on what he’s trying to do.  Some knots are made to give a little, like this one.”  He said as he pointed to a knot in the top left hand corner of the display. 

“And some of them, like this one here, need to hold a sail tighter than tight against a fierce Nor’easter.”

“What’s a Noresser?”

“That’s a really big storm that comes up all the sudden and can take the sails and the rigging right off the mast.”

“What’s riggin’?”

“That’s the ropes that the sailors use to climb to the top of the mast, where the crow’s nest is.”

“I done seen a crow’s nest once in the tree outside my winda, and there terwern’t no sailors in it, just baby crows.”  Hoss said matter of factly, in direct disagreement with his brother’s patient explanation.

“It ain’t, isn’t, the same thing, Hoss!” Adam’s tolerance for the preschooler’s “bird’s eye” view of the world was quickly dissipating.  “You asked me what I made for Pa and I tole ya.  Now no more questions!” 

“Okay, ya don’t haveta get sore.” Hoss responded resignedly.  However, the word “sore” brought up something else that now had his attention.  Sitting up on his knees, he turned to look over his shoulder. 

“Adam, why does my bottom feel prickly on one side but not tha other?”  He turned his backside towards his brother and Adam grinned as he noted the state of the little boy’s undress. 

“One of your buttons is undone.  Let me fix it for ya.”  He said as he reached over, replaced the fabric and secured it with the wooden fastener. His aggravation quickly dissipating, the older boy asked a question of the younger in regards to a related subject that had been puzzling him since he awoke that morning. 

“Hey Hoss, do ya remember anything strange happening during supper last night?” 

Biting his lower lip in a semblance of deep thought as he remained on his knees, the chubby child looked upwards as he considered the question. 


“What?” Adam asked, surprised that his little brother would have noticed something that he did not.

“I don’t ‘member having dessert” he said his normally unlined brow furrowed in a frown.

“I don’t ‘member goin’ to bed neither” he added, now with a shrug and a scratch of his tow colored head.

Adam, about to protest that that was not what he meant, hesitated and rethought his next statement before he spoke. He also had no conscious memory as to what went on during or after the family’s evening meal.  His quick mind, however, filled in the missing information and came to the obvious conclusion that he must have fallen asleep at the table, been carried to bed, undressed and tucked in just like his younger brother.

Knowing that his enviable status as mature older brother was at stake, (as he vowed that he would sooner die than disclose these facts to Hoss), the child fabricated a story that he felt his sibling would buy.

“Well, I know when I went to bed, I had to wear these,” he said, indicating his own set of red long johns, “ ‘cause I didn’t have a clean nightshirt.” 

“Yeah” said Hoss, nodding in agreement as if he, also, had experienced the same dilemma before retiring for the evening,  “Me, too.”

Hoping to avoid any more discussion of this sensitive subject, Adam sat up on his knees like his brother, and prepared to stand.  “Well, I’ve gotta find some paper to wrap this gift, so guess we should get dressed.  Hope Hop Sing has something I can use.” 

As he placed his hands on his bended knee, his little brother’s next, surprisingly insightful, question caused him to remain where he was.

“Hey, Adam.  Whatcha make for Mama for Christmas?” 

The older child’s face blanched, as Adam suddenly realized that, given his prior animosity towards his stepmother, he had purposely dismissed the idea of a holiday gift for her.  Last year, the question of a gift for Marie had been solved by his father, who had provided a gift to her on behalf of all three of them. He had rightly assumed that this would be the case again this year.  Now, however, he really did want to give Marie something on his own for the holiday and he had no idea what that would be.  Furthermore, he had only a few days to design, create and deliver said gift while in constant danger of being discovered!

“Gosh, I haven’t got anything for her!”

With a look of abject discomfiture evident on his face, he now, in a rare juxtaposition, looked to his younger sibling for some ideas. 

“What did you make for her and Pa?”

“I drawed ‘em both  a right purdy  picture.” came the triumphant reply. “ Mama’s picture is me giv’n her some wildflowers and Papa’s picture is me riding with him on Buck.” 

With his eyes downcast, and nervously rubbing the bridge of his nose with his right thumb and index finger, Adam considered his predicament.

“Christmas is almost here!”  he said, anxiously, forgetting his brother was there.  “I gotta think of something!”

“Why don’tcha draw her a picture too?”  Hoss suggested, helpfully.

The boy replied in an annoyed tone of voice, “I can’t give her the same thing you are, ‘coz I’m older ‘n you!” 

Hoss, in a dead on imitation of his brother, rolled his blue eyes towards the ceiling. 

“Well, you can sit here ‘nd think some more, but I’m hungry!  I’s gonna go gets my clothes on and get some breakfast!”  Hoss placed one foot on the floor and stacked his two chubby hands upon his knees, pushing himself to a standing position.

As he started to leave the room, he turned to face the still kneeling Adam.  “Ya want me to ask Papa for some idears?”  he offered, in an attempt to assist his perplexed sibling.

“Nah” said his brother, who had already begun to consider various possibilities.  “I’ll think of somethin’.” 

Hoss shrugged at this dismissal and ‘skated’ back out into the hallway to his own room.

            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *

Marie, now fully dressed, finished pinning up her thick, wavy hair so she would not have to concern herself with it later on in the day.  The young woman stood in profile before the vanity mirror, noticing how her breasts were taking on a more maternal fullness.  Her waist had also thickened considerably in response to the pregnancy and she decided to take Hop Sing up on his offer of tailoring services to be provided by his cousins.

‘It’s a good thing that Christmas is almost here!’  the expectant mother-to-be said to herself.  ‘I’m down to my last two larger shirtwaists and gathered skirts.  I’ll have to wear Ben’s shirts before too much longer!’

In an effort to continue to hide her secret, Marie selected a frilly dark colored apron, whose flowing design was both complimentary to, and concealing of, her figure.  She had her hand on the doorknob to exit the room, when she suddenly remembered her self-imposed penance for her earlier transgression.

Returning to her bedside table, Marie opened the drawer and lovingly removed her rosary beads from their nest.  She brought the medal of the Madonna to her lips, and then slipped the rose quartz beaded religious symbol into her apron pocket. 

‘I will make the time to pray the rosary while the boys work on their ornaments.’  she determined.  ‘That should keep them busy and afford me the time I need to ask for forgiveness and regain the Lord’s blessing.’

Hearing her stepsons’ voices as they headed down the hallway towards the staircase, she checked her reflection one last time and exited the room to join her family for breakfast.


Chapter 7


The boys were already seated at the table by the time Ben returned from the barn.  Normally, the children would have been expected to attend to their chores before breakfast, but their father, fully immersed in the holiday spirit, had already milked the cow (Adam’s duty) and collected the eggs ( Hoss’ job), on his sons’ behalf.

He had stopped just inside, by the front door, in order to remove his coat and hat, and quickly ran his hands through his hair.  As he did so, he happened to glance up towards the staircase, and his heart caught in his throat as he watched one of God’s most lovely creations make her entrance from the upper floor. 

‘I have to be the luckiest man alive to share my life with this angel.’  Ben still marveled at the fact that he, of all people, had won this woman’s heart and hand in marriage.

Marie’s eyes sparkled as she felt Ben’s admiring stare and gave him a look that was both alluring and beatific at the same time.  They had eyes only for each other as Marie moved hurriedly across the room, her skirts rustling in perfect time to the now quickening beat of her heart.

Ben stepped slightly forward to meet her, and was now in partial view of the other members of the family. Marie, noticing how ruddy her husband’s cheeks were from the cold, (and forgetting the young spectators now awaiting their morning meal), quickly bridged the distance between them.  Taking his face between her palms, she kissed him full on the mouth. 

Adam and Hoss, with no vacillation at the witnessing of this familiar event, eyed each other gleefully. Although their parents’ displays of affection caused them some embarrassment, it also provided them with a feeling of comfort and security that both of them understood intuitively, if not consciously. 

Hop Sing, entering the room at that same moment with a platter of flapjacks and another of sausage, also bit back a smile when he noticed the exchange just around the corner of the dining room.  He had not intruded on the two last evening as they talked late into the night, however, he himself could not retire without removing the last remnants of the evening’s meal from the coffee table.  He was never one to eavesdrop, but was fully aware that the conversation had engendered a wide range of emotions, based on the rise and fall of the volume and timbre of their voices as they had spoken to each other.  He was pleased to see that whatever discussion had taken place between them had obviously been well received by both parties.

“Good morning, darling” Marie whispered, as she gave Ben a chance to catch his breath from the intensity of her kiss, which he had returned in a like manner.  They normally shared their first greetings of the day in their bedroom, and both had missed that initial closeness this morning.

Ben, hearing the somewhat strangled sound of his children’s struggle to keep their merriment in check, felt his cheeks redden from something other than the outside temperature.  Trying to recapture some sense of decorum after his spouse’s and his own rather uninhibited display, Ben, setting his shoulders back in his most fatherly manner and taking Marie gently by the arm , strode into the dining room.

“Good morning, boys, Hop Sing.” he said, nodding to each in turn.  His lack of self-consciousness and no nonsense tone immediately put any thought of comment by Adam and Hoss to an end.

“Morning, Pa...Marie.”  Adam said, with just the faintest smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. 

However, after noting his father’s arched right eyebrow, which signified that he was in danger of crossing that indelible line between respectful and disrespectful behavior, the child immediately refocused his attentions to his breakfast place setting, the smile gone from his lips.

“Morning Mama, Papa.”  Hoss politely replied, his innocent visage above reproach.

Hop Sing, his face unreadable as always, nodded his greetings as he turned from the table. He soon returned with the coffee pot in one hand, and a spatterware pitcher of milk in the other.

With the proper atmosphere regained, Ben held Marie’s chair as she was seated and then briefly adjourned to the kitchen to wash his hands. Upon his return, he silently took his place at the head of the table.  Marie’s cheeks were still just a bit pink from having caused her husband any undo embarrassment.  Catching only her eye as he bowed his head to say grace, Ben’s sly wink told her that he was surreptitiously pleased with her exuberant greeting.

After the blessing was said, the boys, with the platter of hot cakes between them, attacked the fluffy, golden brown stacks with the gusto of two prospectors with a new shelf of ore to mine.  Ben, ever mindful of the opportunity to reinforce good manners, observed the frenzy at the other end of the table.  He cleared his throat rather loudly.

As intended, two sets of eyes; one pair the color of a Sierra sky after a rain shower, and the other imbued with the variegated hues of a Ponderosa pine bough, met their father’s burnt umber ones expectantly.

Now having his children’s full attention, the young father gently admonished, “Gentlemen, no one is going to take the food away from you, so please mind your manners.”

“Yes, sir.”  Adam said deferentially, as he slowly lifted two large flapjacks onto his plate.

Hoss nodded his acceptance of his parent’s dictates, as his mouth was already full of pancake.  Swallowing said remnants, he then quickly added, “Yes, Papa.”

Returning to his own meal, Ben inquired as to Marie’s plans for the day.

“Well, dear,” she began. “Given that Christmas is almost here, I thought that we should get the baking completed first, and then perhaps, the boys might like to make some more ornaments for the tree.”

Hesitating for just a moment, she continued in a most courteous tone of voice, “Could you please find your sea chest, so I may look at the decorations we already have…if it isn’t too much trouble?”  Her countenance portended a model of humility, as she peeked out from under her lashes in a very uncharacteristically timid manner.

Ben hid a smile behind the coffee cup he had quickly raised to his lips.  The look in his eyes was indicative of his initial impression of her request.

‘She sounds like a little schoolgirl asking permission to leave the room!’ 

His actual response, however, was as gracious as it was appreciative.

“I believe I know just where it is, and, of course, darling, it is no trouble at all.”   He moved his hand over hers, squeezing it gently in confirmation of her subtle gesture of contrition.

Relieved, Marie blushed charmingly and turned towards Adam and Hoss, who were both helping themselves to second and third platefuls of food, respectively. 

“How does that sound to you, boys?”  she asked, with just a bit of diffidence to her tone.  She knew this was a moment of truth, of sorts, and she unconsciously slipped her hand into her apron pocket, gaining comfort and courage from the familiar spiritual object in residence there.

Adam chewed his mouthful of pancakes thoughtfully, and gave his stepmother a somewhat troubled look, as he considered his answer. 

Marie felt her heart rise in her throat and she, involuntarily, held her breath as she waited for his response.  Ben, also observing his older child’s uneasy demeanor, had placed his fork silently upon his plate as he, too, waited for what seemed an eternity for his son’s reply.  Finally Adam spoke.

“Before I can tell you, there’s one thing I need to know first.”

Ben and Marie, not at all sure what he would request, glanced anxiously at each other, then back at the eleven year old, whose expression was the image of somberness, as the boy seemingly continued to consider the question at hand.

At last, his father could take the suspense no longer.

“Well, son?”  Ben said, as his mind rapidly considered all the possible, undisclosed scenarios that could disrupt his family’s fragile peace yet again. Marie was silently invoking a litany of fervent prayers, while Hoss, seeming to intuitively inherit his parents’ anxiety, stared at his brother, his hearty appetite gone.

Adam, with his audience now in the palm of his hand, placed his utensil deliberately upon his plate and folded his arms at the edge of the table.  His hazel eyes were clear and unperturbed as he turned to his stepmother and said solemnly,

“If we make gingerbread, can I lick the spoon?”

Ben’s breath was released in a rush of relief, and Marie felt the tension in her neck and shoulders drain away.  Hoss’ high pitched giggle echoed in the room, and Adam’s dimpled grin was as endearing as it was mischievous.

Marie reached over and gently slapped the child’s forearm in rebuke.

“You naughty boy!  Just for that, we won’t make gingerbread.”  she said with a stern countenance, though the joy in her eyes belied the tone of her voice.

Adam, however, did not catch the merriment there and looked a bit upset at this declaration. Marie, as fond of teasing as her older son, could not contain herself then, and the smile that had been evident in her eyes now made its presence apparent on her total visage, as well.

Adam immediately realized that his parent could “give as well as she got”!  His impish grin returned and he once again dug into his meal with enthusiasm.   Marie, her eyes shining with delight, said a silent ‘thank you’ to her guardian angel, and squeezed the rosary tightly before returning her attentions to her breakfast.

Ben, however, although pleased that the outcome was not what he had feared, felt that a bit more of a sincere reprimand was in order.  He did not appreciate being held emotional hostage to his son’s whims in such a childish manner.

“If I were you, young man, I would be more considerate of others’ feelings.” he said, as the relief on his face disappeared and was replaced by another, more recognizable expression.  As he made eye contact with the boy, Ben raised his right index finger in rebuke.

“Perhaps you should bear in mind that a wooden spoon is very useful for something not nearly as pleasant as making gingerbread!  Do you understand my meaning?” 

He conveyed the admonishment in a tone that unequivocally stated that he would not tolerate any more impudence from this child.

Adam, fully aware of what his father was referring to, felt a familiar tingling (where his person met his chair).  There was no doubt now that his position with his male parent was precarious, at best, and, he knew from past experience, that he had best behave himself or suffer the unspoken, but painfully obvious, consequences.

“Yes, sir, Pa.  I understand.”  he replied in a quiet voice, coupled with a penitent look. 

Hoss, not wanting to bring any unintended attention his way, slowly and carefully speared a bite of sausage and put it gingerly to his lips.  An uncomfortable silence filled the room as each family member concentrated on their repast.

Marie gave Ben a sidelong glance, and wisely kept her tongue.  She would never countermand any disciplinary decision that her husband handed down, especially in front of the children, but she did feel that he had been overly harsh in his assessment of Adam’s behavior. She personally had found his newly displayed sense of humor rather delightful, though, in this instance, a bit ill timed.  Feeling somewhat guilty for her less than mature part in the exchange, the young mother now attempted to redirect the family’s attentions to a more neutral, and hopefully enjoyable, subject.

“What do you have planned for today, darling?”  She inquired, perhaps a bit too brightly.

“Jake, Charley and I are going to take the feed out to the last of the steers that we weren’t able to get to yesterday.”  Ben answered in an agreeable tone.  Although he had felt it necessary to correct his little boy, he too, did not want the day to be overshadowed by the incident.  “If all goes as planned, I should be able to take the balance of the week off” he said, with a smile directed at his spouse.

The younger child, attuned as always to any subtle attitudinal shift, took a calculated risk and endeavored to lighten the mood, as well, by voicing a simple question.


“Yes, Hoss?”  his father replied, in a kindly tone of voice.

“Ain’t tomorra Chrismas Eve?”

Ben, anticipating what his son was angling for, decided to play along.   However, he first had to negate, yet again, his baby’s usage of that slang term, which was, to his mind, the scourge of the English language.

Isn’t tomorrow Christmas Eve, Hoss.” 

Fortunately for Hoss, his reply to his father’s restatement was accepted in the ingenuous way in which it was given.

“I don’t know, Pa.”  he answered in a straightforward manner.  That’s why I askt you.” 

Ben, a twinkle in his eye, glanced at Marie, who, with an answering grin, looked to Adam, whose puckish countenance had been suddenly regained.  All three of them burst out laughing, as Hoss looked about in confusion, his pudgy face a mixture of embarrassment and discomfort.

Marie was the first to regain her composure. 

“We aren’t laughing at you, sweetheart.” She murmured, in a tender tone.  “Papa was just correcting you for saying ‘ain’t’ rather than ‘isn’t’.”

“Oh!”  Hoss said, now giggling along with the rest of the family. 

The earlier tension having completely dissipated, Ben answered his son’s question.

“Yes, little man, tomorrow is Christmas Eve.  Is there something you had planned?”  He inquired in a seemingly naive way, although he naturally remembered his promise of the previous week.

“Well, yeah, Pa.  We’s gonna cut the Christmus tree that day, wasn’t we?”  The tyke asked in a hopeful tone.

Ignoring his son’s grammatical errors, Ben reached out and cupped his hand round the back of the impatient child’s neck.  He replied in earnest, “You bet we are!”

The little boy wriggled happily in his seat, not only for having confirmed the agenda for the next day, but for inadvertently restoring harmony to the family circle at the same time.

Ben was pleased to notice that Adam seemed caught up in his brother’s excitement and had ceased to sulk about his reprimand.

"Pa, where do you think we should go to look for a tree?”  he asked.  Without missing a beat, and before Ben could answer, he added, “There're some pretty ones in the stand of timber you bought last summer." 

Ben indicated his agreement with his son’s assessment by a nod of his head. "That's exactly what I thought too, son.  You have a real woodsman's knack for finding the best ones"  he said, with a smile.

“Thanks, Pa” the elder child replied sincerely, grateful to be in his parent’s good graces once again.  This time, it was Marie who gave the meaningful wink to her spouse, as Ben resumed his meal with renewed vigor. 

As the family finished their fare, Ben poured himself an additional spot of coffee, drank it rapidly and then addressed both his children, as he set his cup back upon its saucer.

“My sea chest is out in the storeroom.  Would you boys like to come with me and we can search for those ornaments?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, both boys answered with a resounding “Yes sir!” and pushed their chairs back from the table. They were eager to explore the contents of the “treasure” chest to which their father so seldom allowed them access.

“Now, Ben”  Marie said, with a note of warning in her voice.  The addressee looked curiously at his spouse, as she so seldom used his given name.

“Make sure you don’t peek into any unfamiliar boxes or bags in the storeroom!”  she said, with a wicked glint in her eye.

Ben chuckled, now knowing what this conversation was leading up to.  The boys were also well aware of Marie’s intimation, and looked excitedly at each other.  Catching their jubilation, Marie turned to the children.

“No, there aren’t any out there for either one of you, but no snooping on your father’s behalf!” she said firmly, but with a grin on her face.  The boys’ excitement was not diminished at this however, as they were still thrilled to be allowed to examine their father’s box of mementos, which he wisely kept under lock and key at all times.

As Ben arose from the table, he looked down at his still seated wife.  He bent to kiss the top of her head, and said in a voice that only she could hear.

“Don’t worry, my dear.  I’m not as curious as some members of this family, who shall remain nameless, though her initials are M.T.C.” 

He gave her a wide grin then, and Marie, pretending to be astonished at this supposedly outrageous (but actually very true) statement, lightly smacked him on the forearm. 

“Naughty boy!”  she whispered, and Ben laughed in reply.

“Come on, men!”  he said to his two assistants, as he strode towards the front door, with the two boys following like frisky puppies at his heels.  “Put on your coats and we’ll see what treasures we can find!” 

The children quickly complied and the three of them headed outside as the storeroom, which was located at the far end of the house next to the kitchen, had its own separate entrance.

Marie watched them go, then slowly moved herself away from the table and ambled into the kitchen.  Hop Sing, busily cleaning the cast iron skillet, smiled his greeting to the lady of the house.

The young woman had purposely not disclosed her tentative baking plans to the cook, as she was unsure of what her stepsons’ receptivity would be to the idea.  In addition, she did not want to deal any sooner than need be with the Chinaman’s tirade (that she rightfully assumed would transpire) due to her contemplated trespass into his private domain!

“Hop Sing,” she began in a friendly tone of voice.

“Yes, Missy?” the cook responded, glancing in her direction, as he now oiled the clean frying pan.

“Um…I promised the children that we would do some baking today,…some Christmas baking, you see…and I was wondering if…”  Marie’s nervousness was apparent in her stammering recitation. Her courage quickly left her as she tried to determine how her message was being received by the cook.

“What Missy planning to bake?”  he asked, somewhat suspiciously, never giving an indication of his pending pronouncement.

“Well…, I wanted to make some pralines, and I…I thought the children would enjoy making some gingerbread men that they could decorate and perhaps use on the tree.” 

“Missy would have to make many gingerbread men to have some left for tree, after liddle boys eat their fill!”  he stated, knowing from experience that Hoss could eat a full batch by himself if given the opportunity!

She smiled tentatively at this statement, then resumed her list of Christmas delights.

“I also wanted to create a bûche de Noël.  It’s a rolled sponge cake with hazelnut cream filing and cocoa icing.” She said by way of explanation, in answer to the man’s puzzled expression, “Oh, and a plum pudding, as well.” 

She was grasping her hands inadvertently as she finished her catalog of tantalizing desserts, and tried to decipher the unreadable countenance of the head chef of the Ponderosa dining room.

Hop Sing, in a characteristic flair for the dramatic that seemed to have been the requirement for today, set the frying pan down carefully on the back burner of the stove.  He turned to face the anxious young woman, who was, again, seeking undisclosed solace from the rosary beads in her apron pocket.

“Hop Sing will let Missy and chilren in kitchen under two condition.”  he stated emphatically.

“What conditions?”  Marie responded, with a sigh.

“First, Missy only make gingerbread and candy with liddle boys.  Hops Sing make cake and pudding for dessert.” 

“But,” she began to protest.  “I wanted to make those special for everyone, especially the Yule log, because it’s a Christmas tradition in my family.”  Her full lips were now in a pout, and her brow furrowed at, what she perceived to be, the cook’s unreasonable dictates.

“Hop Sing know how to make pudding, and you tell how to make other, and Hop Sing follow direction.”  he insisted. Without waiting for further remonstration, the diminutive man finished his declaration.

“Missy must also leave all dirty dishes and pots for Hop Sing to wash. And, Missy not do any lifting or climbing.”   In a reenactment of the Chinaman’s introduction to the head of the family years before, Hop Sing shook his finger at the young woman to stress the importance of his words.

“But, Hop Sing!”  Marie complained. “I can’t leave you with all the mess! Why won’t you let me do as I planned?”  She ended her retort on a petulant note, as she crossed her arms about her chest.

“Because” said the man with a dose of inherent Confucius’ wisdom, “Hop Sing never forgive self if Missy get sick working too hard getting leady for Christmas. “

Marie reddened self consciously at the obvious logic behind what he was saying.  She respectfully dropped her arms to her sides in non verbal acceptance of his demands, and remained quiet as he finished his lecture.

Hop Sing’s voice dropped an octave as he whispered the reason behind his seemingly severe restrictions. 

“Missy need to think of baby.” 

The mother-to-be looked into the almond shaped eyes of her confidante.  Her demeanor had changed from one akin to an obstinate child, to one befitting an adult charged with the ultimate responsibility for a new life.

“Thank you, Hop Sing”  she replied, with a note of shame in her voice.  “I’m glad that someone in this room is thinking of the welfare of my child, as I should be.”

In an attempt to ease her conscience, Hop Sing countered her statement. 

“Missy just being a good mother to her other two chilren.”  He smiled, as he saw the contented look that was now evident on Marie’s face in replacement of the previous expression of disgrace.

The two, equally pleased with the outcome of their conversation, turned their attentions to assembling the necessary ingredients for the confections.

            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *

Out in the storeroom, Ben retrieved the chest from its accustomed berth on the earthen floor in the back of the storage area, as Adam and Hoss looked on in barely contained excitement.  Dragging the item by its intricate ropework handles (or beckets in sailor’s jargon) to the center of the room where the feeble light from the window was at its brightest, Ben grinned as he watched the boys jumping about, from a combination of anticipation and an attempt to keep warm in the unheated space.

Upon entering the place, Ben had (much to his chagrin!) made a sweeping glance of the shelves, looking for the mysterious gift that his wife had alluded to.  His eyes had settled on a rather large, paperboard box that now occupied a space where some canned goods had previously been stored.  The box was unadorned and would have gone unnoticed if Marie had not all but confirmed its existence.  The boys, with total attention affixed on the object of their own desires, had not captured the moment’s hesitation on their parent’s part, as the man paused to wonder what might be contained therein.

‘Ben, you’re worse than your children!’  he gently admonished himself.  He smiled broadly at his next thought.

‘But you’re much better at controlling your curiosity then your wife!’  His internal discourse was then interrupted by two less than patient voices.

“C’mon, Pa!”  Adam begged.

“Yeah, Pa, we wanna see what’s in your sea chest!”  Hoss pleaded.

“All right, boys.  Let me get the key”  their father replied, as he reached into his vest pocket for the key he had retrieved earlier that morning from its hiding place, in expectation of his wife’s request.  Kneeling down and grasping the padlock in his work roughened hand, he slipped the key into the mechanism and turned it to the right. 

As anticipated, the lock sprung open and Ben removed it from the latch.  The boys, crowding in on either side of him, were atremble with expectancy, as it had been years since anyone, other than their father, had been witness to its contents.

Ben slowed pushed back the hinged lid, and felt an immediate rush of emotion, as he spied the layers of his life that lay inside the wood and iron banded trunk.  He knew, without looking, all that was at rest there, and yet was almost as anxious as his sons to relive the memories that each item would prompt.

Upper most was the journal that he had kept on the journey West.  It had been years since he had read it, but as he lifted it from its berth, the smooth, burnished leather cover felt as comforting as an old friend.

Hoss was the first to speak.

“What’s that, Pa?” 

Beating his father to the punch, Adam piped up animatedly, “That’s Pa’s journal.  He wrote in it every night from the time we left Boston.  Isn’t that right, Pa?” 

Adam obviously did not remember those early years when Ben had languished over his entries, sifting through his ever changing emotions of hopelessness, depression and loneliness.  The pages he had shared with his older son were those that told of his wonder at the beauty of the untouched wilderness, his pride at the skills that he, himself, was acquiring as they progressed on their journey, and most of all, his joy at watching his child grow.

“Yes, son.  From the time we left Boston, ‘til we arrived at the Ponderosa”  Ben said, a bit dreamily.  “It tells all about when you were little, and when Hoss was born, as well as the details of our travels.”

“Will ya read it to me, Pa?”  The youngest asked in a beseeching manner.  Hoss had been an audience to the mysteries of the sea chest once before, but had been too young to remember anything from that previous occasion.  The fact that this book was a link to a past that Hoss could not remember made it that much more appealing to the child.

“Not right now, little man.  We’ve got to find the decorations for your ma.”  Ben explained to his child.  Hoss’ face fell at this statement, but Ben insisted, “Plus, it’s too cold to stay out here for very long.” 

“OK, Pa.”  Hoss said in a resigned tone of voice.

“I promise that we’ll find a time soon, and you,” Ben touched the tip of his baby’s nose as he said ‘you’, “and I can read all about our trip.” 

The little boy smiled his acceptance of his father’s dictates.  Adam, whose recent recollections of that time had been anything but pleasant, said nothing as he witnessed the exchange between his sibling and parent.  He noticed though, that his heretofore heightened anxiety regarding any mention of their travels, and therefore his tie to Inger, was not provoked at this conversation. 

Ben set the book gently on a low shelf and turned back to the trunk and its contents.

“What’s that, Pa?”  Adam asked, pointing with surprise as he spied a bit of light blue bunting in a far corner of the case, which was, in actuality, a crocheted sweater and matching booties.  He continued, with a rather appalled inflection. “Looks like something a baby would use.” 

His obvious dismay at finding so delicate an item in a sailor’s luggage was clear.  This was compounded by confusion as his father had evidently rearranged and added some of the items since the last time he had been permitted to view the contents of the chest.

“Yeah, Pa” Hoss added, as he squinted in the less than optimal light in the room.  “And that there looks like a blanket for a baby, too.”  In an imitation of his brother’s less than polite gesture, the little boy jabbed a pudgy finger towards a second tissue encased packet near the first one.

Ben grinned at each of his former babies, as he carefully lifted first, the outfit, and then the blanket, from the delicate paper wrappings that held them both.

“As I recall,” he said in a matter of fact tone, “both of you started out as babies.”  His eyebrows lifted at this remark, accenting the teasing glint in his eyes.

Both boys blushed the same shade of pink, as they suddenly realized who these lovingly crafted articles had been made for.  Ben grinned broadly, as he held the miniature objects for their, now much larger, owners to see.

“Adam, your mother started making this sweater and these booties for you the day she told me that you were on the way.” 

Ben looked into Liz’s eyes, now replicated in her son’s handsome face, and smiled wistfully at the way they sparkled just as hers had that morning at the breakfast table of the residence they shared with Captain Stoddard.  Hardly waiting for her young husband to finish his eggs and coffee, Liz had slipped flirtatiously onto his lap, kissed him unabashedly, and told him that Captain Stoddard would soon not be the only one who would be called “Father” in that house.

His confusion at the comment, and subsequent elation as her extraordinary disclosure became clear, were now relayed to the person who had caused all the commotion in the first place.  Adam’s face crinkled into a happy smile as he gently fingered the soft yarn and marveled at the size of the garments his father held along the palm of his hand.

Turning to the other person whose arrival was the most joyous event of the long and arduous journey West, Ben, gently setting the layette aside, unfolded the sunny yellow square of softness.

“Hoss, your mama worked on this blanket every night as we came west, while she was waiting for you to be born.” 

Inger looked at him then, although her essence was now contained in a chubby little body, capped by fine strands of ever darkening straw blond hair. 

‘There’s no mistaking those eyes.  They are hers.’  Ben thought as he took in his little son’s pleased expression at the mention of his mother and her special preparations for her yet to be born, but obviously beloved, child.  Said child’s countenance turned cloudy though, as he considered the color of the knitted coverlet.

“Why’d she make it yeller, Pa?”  Hoss asked, plaintively.  “Yeller’s a girl’s color!”  he said with as much disdain as his brother had expressed earlier.

“Well, son.”  Ben said, with a bemused look.  “We didn’t know if you’d be a boy or a girl until you were born, so Mama thought yellow would work no matter what.”

“Oh.”  Hoss replied slowly, not believing that there was ever a time when his parents didn’t know he was a boy! 

Adam nodded his head, as he remembered Inger in the family way. 

"Yeah, Hoss.  Mama didn’t even know if she would have only one baby or two!”

Ben took a sideways glance at his oldest. 

“Does that boy ever forget anything?!’ he marveled to himself, as his son’s “steel trap” mind brought forth another tidbit of family history.

Hoss looked over at his brother with a confused expression, as he had never, in his brief span of existence, been around a woman in that state and therefore, did not understand the meaning of his brother’s comment.

“Whacha mean, Adam?”  he naively asked. 

Adam was about to launch into a discussion of the immense proportions that Inger had taken on while carrying little Eric. His father, however, sensing that this was, most definitely, neither the time nor the place for such a disclosure, broke into the conversation before his eldest could reply.

“My goodness, it’s getting chilly out here!”  The man exclaimed, hoping to divert attention from the topic under examination.  “We had better find those ornaments for your mother before our fingers freeze!”  Gently rewrapping the precious items in the fragile tissue paper, Ben laid them on top of the journal and turned back to the wooden container.

Fortunately for Ben, the children once again became engrossed in the contents of his seaman’s chest and promptly forgot about the subject of their departed mother’s delicate condition.

Digging down through the miscellaneous papers, old clothes and mementos of his seafaring days, Ben continued to rummage around for the illusive paper parcel that held the objects of his search.  Becoming somewhat frustrated at the ineffectuality of his undertaking, he carefully removed some of the souvenirs that were impeding his progress.  Naturally, the boys immediately fell upon these keepsakes enthusiastically.

“Hey, Hoss!”  Adam cried, as he nabbed the worsted wool cap that their father had worn as a young cabin boy, and pulled it onto his head.  “I bet I look just like Pa did when he set sail with Grandpa Stoddard!” 

Ben glanced over at the boy, who, save for the curly hair and lighter eyes, did suggest a many years younger, and carefree, version of himself. 

Was I ever that young?’  Ben mused.  ‘And when did he get to be as old as he is? He’s almost the same age as I was when I ran away to sea!’ 

Ben’s attention was diverted to his other child, as Hoss found something equally as fascinating as his brother’s discovery.

“Lookee what I gots!”  The other youngster said happily, as he brought his father’s telescope to his eye and swung his head from side to side to view his surroundings in a completely new way.

Ben’s memory was jogged yet again, as Hoss played with the spyglass just as Ben had, when his own father had allowed him his first look at the world through the selfsame magical lens.

“Careful with that, Hoss.”  Ben said, in a cautious tone.  “That eyepiece has been around the Horn and back more times than you can count, and Papa doesn’t want it broken.”

Heeding his parent’s words, the little boy slowed his motion and concentrated his attentions on the landscape visible through the single window in the room, “oo”ing and “ah”ing at the way the magnified images seemed close enough to touch. Satisfied that his possession was in no immediate danger, Ben turned back towards the chest.

Adam, meanwhile, had claimed another treasure from the pile.  The boy was sitting back on his knees, with the cap still in place, dangling a bright, gold colored object on a chain from his fingers.

“Where’d you get this, Pa?”  he asked, as he examined the foreign inscription on the amulet and peered at the ornate rendering of a man thereon. 

Ben had just found the parcel containing the ornaments, but glanced back at his eldest to see to what item he was referring. 

Catching sight of that precious article, Ben’s eyes glazed over, while he recalled the source of the good luck charm, and that fateful night he had received it as a token of gratitude from a fellow sailor.

Taking the medal gently from his son’s grasp, the man smiled reflectively and held it up to catch the pale sunlight filtering into the room.  Hoss, intrigued by his father’s pensive mood, brought the telescope down to his side and gave his brother a puzzled look.

Adam could sense, just from Ben’s comportment, that there must be a great deal of history tied to this one small piece of jewelry.  Knowing his parent well, he motioned to his younger brother with a slight shake of his head, which meant that if they both kept quiet, perhaps Ben would favor them with the story.

They did not have long to wait, as Ben, sitting down carefully on the packed dirt floor and leaning his back up against the chest, motioned for the boys to do likewise.  The two children sat Indian style, one at each side of their father’s long legs, and gave him their undivided attention.  Although the sound of the wind that found its way about the sturdily built house was not obtrusive, its lively presence only heightened the excitement that Adam and Hoss felt, as Ben began to relay the significance of the sacrosanct medal he held in his hand.

“It had been a peaceful crossing, as we headed home from the Spice Islands.”  Ben began, his memory of that day as clear as if it had happened yesterday, rather than half a lifetime ago.  The Wanderer had a bellyful of cardamom, black pepper, cloves and cinnamon, and we were bound for Boston Harbor.” 

“As was sometimes the case, the relative ease of the return voyage lulled several of the men into a less than attentive frame of mind.” 

“The ship’s master,” Ben said, as he spied the hint of a smile that appeared on Adam’s face, as he alluded to the vessel’s captain. “Captain Abel Morgan Stoddard was his name, I believe.”  Captain Stoddard’s eleven year old grandson sat up proudly at the mention of his cherished grandfather’s name.

“Well, three years prior, Captain Stoddard had employed a rather unproven,” Ben’s eyes crinkled merrily in anticipation of his disclosure, “though very intelligent, cabin boy by the name of Benjamin Cartwright.  Young Cartwright had since worked his way up to seaman’s apprentice by this time, though he was only 16 years old.”  

Hoss’ jaw fell open at this comment, as he could not imagine his tall, distinguished, father as a mere boy.  Though, of course, to the five year old, sixteen was still practically as old as his father was now.

“There was an older sailor on board, who had taken me under his wing, and taught me a great deal about the sea.  I guess I was drawn to him, not only due to his being old enough to be my father, but also because his name was Giuseppe, the Italian word for Joseph.”

Adam nodded his understanding at Ben’s comparison, but the look on his younger brother’s face was one of complete confusion.

“Pa, who’s Joseph?”  Hoss asked, as he tried to grasp the meaning of his father’s statement.

Ben was now the one with the confused visage, as he stared at his baby, not quite believing what he had just heard.

“Why, Hoss!”  he said, with a tone of incredulity to his voice.  “Joseph was your grandfather’s name.  He was my father.  Haven’t I told you that before?”

“No, sir.”  the little boy respectfully, and honestly, replied. 

Ben turned then to Adam who, before his father could form the question, offered the source of his knowledge of the Cartwright family tree.

“I knew that, ‘cause you told Mama that you wanted to name your next son, Joseph, after your father since Hoss was named Eric after Mama’s father.”  The child had once again drawn on a conversation from the day Hoss was born, that Ben had totally forgotten about until just that minute.

‘Maybe Marie is right!’  Ben thought to himself.  ‘I should share more stories of my family, as my own child doesn’t even know what his grandfather’s name was!’  He could imagine the look of disbelief that would be present on Joseph Cartwright’s face at this revelation, and felt himself redden with embarrassment at the thought. Vowing to provide more information to his children about their lineage, Ben resumed his story.

“Anyway, on this particular day, Giuseppe was in the process of retying the mainsail, as several of the knots had come lose from their grommets, due to another sailor’s poor attempt at securing the …”

“Yeah, Pa!”  Hoss interrupted.  “Adam done tole me all ‘bout how them knots gots to be tied just so!”

Adam gave his brother a look that could kill, and said, through clenched teeth, “Hush up, Hoss!”

Ben could tell from the exchange (and past experience) that Adam had evidently confided something of a secretive nature, in his sibling, and now mightily regretted his decision!  The look on Hoss’ face and the hurried covering of his mouth with his hand also gave credence to their pa’s conclusion.

“Adam, that will be enough.”  Ben said, in a tight voice. 

The little boy looked at him, still angry with Hoss and now with himself, for letting ‘little BIG mouth’ in on his Christmas surprise.

“Yes, sir.  I’m sorry.”  Adam’s lower lip began its familiar downward movement, which was always evident anytime he was corrected or scolded by his father.

Ben then turned to Hoss. 

“Eric, what have you been told about interrupting when your elders are speaking?”  Ben admonished.

Hoss did not need to hear anything other than his given name to know he was also in trouble with his parent.  He quickly removed his hand from his mouth and apologized, as he had been warned before about his tendency to disrupt adult conversations.

“I’s sorry, Papa.  I won’t do it no more” the little boy promised, his forehead puckered with worry at the rebuke.

“All right then.” said Ben, giving both of them a very telling look before continuing.

“As I was saying, Giuseppe was retying the knots, when, suddenly, a squall came barreling up from the South, catching us all unawares!”

Both boys’ heads came up, their reprimands forgotten, as they were once again captivated by their father’s sailing yarn.

“I was up on the rigging, on my way to the crow’s nest, and the next thing I knew, I was hanging on for dear life!  As I watched from my vantage point, I saw Giuseppe lose hold of the mainsail and then…” Ben paused here for dramatic effect,  “…he was swept overboard!”  The young man’s voice became more animated as he was caught up in the recounting of the story for his raptly attentive audience.

“I was the only one who had seen him go over the side, as no one else had the view that I did.  I yelled as loud as I could, but the wind was louder still.”

Just then, in a case of eerie coincidence, the wind outside the house increased its speed, rattling the windowpane in a foreboding manner.

Adam and Hoss looked from the window to each other in amazement. They both knew, from firsthand experience, that the volume and timbre of their father’s voice could override the thunderous hoof beats of a herd of wild horses, a gang of disorderly cowboys, and even the rough and tumble horseplay of two mischievous lads (whose uproar could be almost as deafening, given the opportunity!).

Ben took a deep breath, as the reminder of the next event sent an involuntary shiver up his spine as he, in hindsight, considered the foolhardiness of his actions.

“I did the only thing I could think of, as I saw that Giuseppe was drifting further away from the ship and struggling to stay above water.”

“What was that, Pa?”  Adam asked fearfully, his hazel eyes now dark with anxiety as he imagined his father in such a dangerous situation.  He knew that Ben, at least, had survived the ordeal, but the thought of him dangling high above the deck in such a precarious way made his heart leap to his throat.

Hoss was too spellbound to speak, though his visage was an exact replica of his brother’s.

“Well, son, I pushed myself away from the rigging and dove backwards into the sea.”  Ben demonstrated his technique as he put his arms above his head in the semblance of a dive, but with his head and body arched backwards.

“I surfaced near Giuseppe and was able to hold his head above the water by positioning him in the crook of my arm, but I couldn’t swim back to The Wanderer, as the waves were too high.”

Adam had now moved his body forward and was sitting on his knees, with his feet crossed under him.  His usual reserved and detached demeanor had been supplanted due to his active involvement in his father’s narrative. The boy was unconsciously chewing on his right thumbnail, and his eyes were like saucers, which caused him to appear all the more childlike.

Hoss was bouncing up and down with his elbows on his knees and his chubby chin planted firmly in the palms of his hands, his eyes never leaving his pa’s face. 

Ben, biting back a grin at his boys’ total absorption in his tale, continued. “Fortunately, there was another crewmember in the crow’s nest that had seen me enter the water.  He clambered down the rigging towards the deck, while he yelled ‘Man Overboard!’”

Ben, in an exact imitation of that sailor’s call, had cupped his hand near his mouth and shouted the phrase.

In the kitchen, on the other side of the far wall, Hop Sing and Marie looked up at each other in surprise, as they heard the odd exclamation in a familiar voice. 

“Ben must be reliving his sailing days for the boys.”  Marie said.  “No wonder they’ve been out there so long!” 

“Mista Cartlight enjoy story as much as chilren.”  Hop Sing added, as he had been witness to many a night when the boys would plead with their parent for a bedtime story, which would inevitably take place on board ship.

Both turned back to their preparations with a smile, imagining the three Cartwright males enjoying the retelling of yet another tale set on the open sea.

Back in the storeroom, the young seaman turned older and wiser rancher, carried on with his account.

“The men threw us a line, which I was able to loop around the both of us.  They hauled us towards the ship, where they had a rope ladder unfurled over the side.  Fortunately, by this time, the storm had subsided somewhat and they were able to bring us aboard.”

Hoss, with his usual compassion for all injured creatures, asked, “Was Guis…, Guis…, Joe, and you, ok, Pa?”

Smiling at his baby’s attempt at Italian, he ruffled the downy hair on Hoss’ head and replied, “Yes, Hoss, thank the good Lord, we were both a bit waterlogged, but fine.”

Adam felt his heart resettle itself in his chest and his little brother breathed a sign of relief, his checks puffing out as he did so.

“So, Pa, is the medal for saving him?”  Adam asked, still unclear as to the significance of the medallion in his father’s hand.

“No, Adam.   Giuseppe was of the Catholic faith, like Marie.  The medal is a rendering of Saint Francis of Paolo, the patron saint of sailors.”

“What’s a pattern saint, Pa?”  Hoss asked, somewhat timidly, making sure to wait until his father finished his sentence before posing his question.

Ben nodded to his little boy, to indicate his appreciation of the polite way he asked.  “It’s pronounced ‘pay tron’ and it is a religious person who is thought to be a special guardian of a group of people.”

The youngster, still not quite comprehending the explanation, rephrased the response in a more succinct manner.  “Ya mean kinda like an angel, Pa?”

Adam and Ben both grinned at this simple comparison, and Ben confirmed Hoss’ definition.  “Yes son, very much like an angel.”

“Why’d he give it to you, Pa?  You’re not Catholic, you’re Presbyterian.”  His older child stated in his matter of fact way.

Ben paused as he remembered the look of gratitude on the older man’s face, after they had been pulled from the water.  They had been sitting in the galley, sipping hot tea, with coarse woolen blankets about their shoulders, as the others went to retrieve dry clothes from their sea chests.  Without a word, the man had slipped the sacred symbol from his own neck and placed it about that of his own ‘patron saint’.

“He gave it to me, as a token of his thanks for my actions that day.  He told me that it had already saved his life, and now it should protect mine.  I explained that I wasn’t of his faith, but he said it didn’t matter, and I would always be in his prayers, as well.”

In a touching reenactment of that moment, Ben placed the chain and amulet about the neck of the dark haired child who had evoked those memories to begin with.  Adam felt a chill travel down his spine as he intuitively made the connection between the two events.  Grasping the medal in his right hand, he smiled up at his father and slipped the pendant underneath his shirt, sensing the coolness of the metal next to his skin.

Ben, feeling the cold much more acutely now as he remembered the chill from his unplanned plunge into the sea many years before, made his way to his feet.

“C’mon boys – it’s really getting cold.  Time to go inside” he instructed.

“But, Pa, we ain’t” Hoss began, in an inveigled tone.  

Ben looked at the child with one raised eyebrow that indicated, once again, his displeasure at his son’s choice of words. 

Hoss swallowed nervously, as he struggled to think of the correct word.

“I  m…m…mean, we haven’t found the decorations for Mama, yet”  he finished with a sigh.

His father smiled down at the beguiling little face, received a gap toothed grin in return, and replied, “I have them right here, son.”  Ben held up the parcel for Hoss to see.  “Now, boys, please gather up those things off the floor, so I can put everything back in the sea chest.”  Ben said, as he indicated the items with a nod of his head.

Although the children were disappointed that they had not been able to see the total contents of the chest, they immediately obeyed their father and handed him the objects as he had bade them.  As Adam was removing the cap from his head, there came a knock on the storeroom door.

“Mr. Cartwright?” 

It was Charley, one of the ranch hands.  “We’ve loaded the hay on the sledge, Boss.”  He called through the closed door. “Do you want me and Jake to head out?”

Ben, having lost track of the time, answered his employee in a hurried tone. 

“No, Charley.  I’ll be right there.  You boys meet me by the barn.” 

“OK, Boss.” Charley turned from the door and headed back across the yard to wait as he had been instructed.

Ben, hastening to finish the task at hand, placed the journal and the baby things back into the trunk, and quickly closed the lid, which screeched in rusty protest.  Snapping the padlock shut and pushing the heavy container back under the low shelf, Ben indicated that the boys should proceed to the kitchen entrance off the porch.  Giving the unopened parcel on the opposite shelf one last glance, Ben grasped the package of ornaments and followed his sons outside.

‘What, in the world, could that be?’  he sighed, with a note of resignation. 

Now he knew that his wife had regained the upper hand in their “cat and mouse” game regarding their respective Christmas gifts.  He had been dropping hints for the last several days about the location of her present, but Marie had been very closed mouthed about his surprise.  Thanks to his spouse’s shrewd disclosure, he would now be unable to banish the niggling image of the unwrapped gift from his mind.  Marie also knew that, due to her husband’s high moral standards, he would not allow himself to satisfy his curiosity and would, therefore, suffer the intended consequences for his teasing. 

Ben smiled sheepishly to himself, as he considered what a delightful sense of humor his wife had, even though the joke was on him!  The tall man exited the room and closed the door with a gentle motion, shaking his head in acquiescence to his comeuppance.

Adam and Hoss had already entered the kitchen, greeting their stepmother and the cook as they did so.  The older child grinned happily as he noted the kitchen table had been set with the necessary ingredients for his previously requested cookies, and Marie gave him a loving smile of her own in response.  Her husband had arrived in the kitchen by then, and was a witness to the exchange between his eldest and his spouse. 

‘Looks like the gingerbread will not be the only thing that will be created today.’  Ben noted hopefully.  ‘Lord willing, the beginnings of a friendship will be forged as well.’

Marie came towards him, and took the proffered package from his outstretched hand.

“The ornaments are inside, but I didn’t look to see what condition they were in.”  Ben said.  “I hope some of them are still usable.”

“As do I, Mon Chéri.” 

“Well, I need to get going if we’re to finish everything before dark.”  Ben stated, and then looked to Hop Sing. 

“Did Charley and Jake already pick up our provisions?”

“Yes, Mista Cartlight.  Hop Sing get everything together for you and men.”  As the three men would not be able to return for dinner at the house, Hop Sing had packed beans and bacon, as well as biscuits and beef jerky.  The coffee pot was included as well, for they would find some respite from the cold in the many caves along their path, and would also have kindling with them to make a fire.

“Thank you, Hop Sing.” 

Turning to his wife once again, Ben took her into his arms and gave her a slightly less demonstrative buss than he had received earlier in the day.  Marie smiled coyly at this, as she knew if they had been alone, this parting gesture would have been even more passionate than before.

“Be careful, darling.”  the young wife intoned, as Ben moved towards the dining room entrance, to pick up his hat, muffler, and gloves before he headed outdoors.

“I will.  See you tonight, boys.” 

Their father waved his farewell, as he often did when leaving for the day’s work and made to leave the room.

In a totally unexpected response, Hoss ran after his pa, exclaiming, “Wait, Papa!”

Ben turned around, and glanced down at the little boy at his feet.  Hoss’ upturned face had an unsettled and pleading look to it.

“What is it, son?”  Ben asked, not unkindly.  “Papa’s got a lot of work to do and I need to get going.”

Hoss tugged on his father’s coat sleeve in response and Ben knelt down to his level.  As he did so, Adam, with a similar visage, moved closer too. 

The younger of the two flung his arms about his parent’s neck, engulfing him in a snug embrace that caught Ben totally unawares.  The man’s arms came up automatically about his child’s back and gave him an equally emotive hug. 

Adam waited until his father had placed a kiss on his little brother’s cheek, and gently released his arms from about his neck.  Ben slowly straightened up, noting the tentative and anxious look on the older boy’s face.  Opening his arms to his other little boy, Adam came forward immediately and circled his father’s waist with his arms.  Grasping the child to him, Ben, with a look of perplexity in his eyes, met Marie’s equally confused countenance. 

“Be careful, Pa.”  Adam said quietly as he moved from his father’s embrace. The simple remark, however, provided enough of a clue for Ben to deduce the cause of his sons’ reticence at his departure. The story Ben had related regarding the rescue at sea had affected the children deeply.  The thought of losing their pa, even though the episode took place long before they were born, brought up the need in both of them to connect with their father in a more demonstrative way.

“Boys,” Ben said, as he cupped his hands around each child’s face and looked into their eyes. “That incident happened a long time ago.  I didn’t tell it to you to frighten you. I just thought you would enjoy the story.”  Smiling down at his children, he said gently, “Now you two have fun with your mother and I’ll see you this evening.” 

With a whimsical raise of his eyebrows and a sly wink, he whispered, “And save me a cookie, all right?”

“We will, Papa!”  Hoss happily intoned, and turned back towards his mother’s open arms. 

“Bye, Pa.  See you tonight!”  Adam chimed in, as he, too, went to join the others.

 Part Two


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