Peace on Earth
Patricia Thompson-Dumas
This story is for distribution, at no charge, to internet Bonanza fans and is in no way intended to infringe on the copyright of Bonanza Ventures.  This story was originally posted for members of the Internet Adam-Pernell Fan Club and Internet Bonanza Fan Club.
December, 1997

The snow fell softly against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevadas as Ben Cartwright trotted home.  It had been beautiful weather all week long, unusual for late December, when sleet and hail and formidable blizzards usually rocked the area.  But this week had been pristine and shining with bright sun, and snow at night.  Today was the first day he’d seen snowfall¼and, as much as he usually enjoyed the cold winter weather, Ben found himself wishing he could enjoy the vista from his dining room window rather than being in the middle of it.

Ben had started his ride home from Virginia City early that afternoon, calling a halt to a chess game with his old friend Roy Coffee.  He’d found himself feeling uncomfortably warm and achy while struggling to keep his eyes open, despite the coffee and the pleasant companionship.  Roy had noticed, too.

“Ben, you don’t look like you’re feelin’ too well,” he said, concerned.  “You want me to ride back to the ranch with you?”

“No, Roy, certainly not,” scoffed Ben, as he shrugged into his sheepskin coat and gloves.  “There’s no need for you to get make such a long ride.  I’ll be fine.”

“I dunno, Ben, mebbe you ought to stop in and see Doc Martin before you leave,” advised Roy seriously, handing Ben his hat.

Ben smiled wearily.  “It’s likely just a cold,” he assured Roy.  “I’ve had the sniffles for a day or two.  I’ll go home and rest until after Christmas, and I’ll be fine.”

Roy chuckled.  “I guess Santy Claus don’t visit your house much anymore, hey?”

Ben laughed.  With three sons between the ages of twenty-seven and fifteen, Santa Claus had indeed gone on to greener...rather, whiter... pastures.  Still... “You know, those three boys of mine still hang up their stockings on Christmas Eve?  I don’t think they’ve completely given up on Santa yet.”

Roy chortled, shaking his head, and walked his friend to the door.

Just two days until Christmas, thought Ben as he tried to snuggle deeper into his coat; he was cold.  I must really be coming down with something, he grumbled.  Ben always enjoyed Christmas and it annoyed him to think he’d be stuffed up and sneezing through the holiday.

Buck’s canter was graceful and steady and it served to lull Ben a little as he rode home, thinking about the holidays and his many Christmases they’d enjoyed here together.  Long ago, when Adam was very small, Ben had begun a tradition of reading the Christmas story from the bible each Christmas Eve. He recalled the Christmas Adam was just three, and the little boy cuddled close on his lap, listening intently and interrupting every few sentences with his never-ending questions:

“Why did Joseph make Mary ride the donkey, Pa?  She was awful tired!”

“Why did they shut the door at the inn, Pa?  How come?”

“Was it cold in the stable, Pa?  Did Jesus have enough blankets?”

“What’re swallowing clothes, Pa?”

Ben shook his head in amusement as he remembered¼Adam had never stopped asking questions, he sighed.

Ben had continued the Christmas tradition with Hoss and Joe ever since. It hadn’t been easy; after Liz’s death, it had been so hard to find any joy in the holiday season, until he remembered something his father had told him long ago.

“Ben, when you have children, you must remember you are, often, the source of the joy they find in life.  If you have unhappiness, do your best not to fill them with it...they’ll have enough of their own,” Joseph Cartwright had said seriously.  Ben had listened, and had tried very hard to heed and put into practice his father’s wise words all these years.

At first, the pain in his heart he felt every time he thought of his beautiful Liz was particularly sharp at Christmas time.  She had loved the holiday, and even acknowledging it had caused him great anguish.  But for his little one’s sake, he’d had to put it aside and tried to make Adam’s holiday enjoyable.  It became easier year by year, until he found greater peace at the holidays, with each of his sons offering a physical, tender remembrance of their mothers and the love of life each had possessed.

And even now, the boys tended to look forward to relaxing in front of the hearth while Ben read the tale they knew so well, but he remembered those first, quiet Christmas Eves with a special tenderness.  ...just him and his firstborn, curled up in his lap, fresh from a bath, in a snowy, clean nightshirt and wrapped in an afghan, his big, dark eyes often sleepy less than half-way through.  Ben chuckled as he remembered that Adam must have been about eight before he’d been able to stay awake to hear the whole story, and that was only because Ben had Hoss in his lap by then, an arm around Adam’s shoulders sitting beside him, and Hoss kept fussing with the pages, or trying to pull Adam’s hair.

He was shaken from his reverie with a bout of coughing that left his throat sore and his chest aching.  Urging Buck on a little faster, Ben sighed and resigned himself to a few days of bed rest.  Hopefully he’d feel well enough to be up a little while on Christmas Day.

“Hey, Hoss!  Get a move on with those chores!”

“Dadgum it, Adam, I’m goin’ as fast as I can!”

Hoss angrily pitched hay into the troughs, and glared at his older brother.  Ever since the snow had started at midday, Adam had been as prickly as a porcupine, snapping at Hoss, snapping at Little Joe to the point where Joe had finally snapped back and stomped off in a huff, leaving his brothers to do the chores.  Hoss shook his head in irritation.  Hoss wished he could understand that older brother of his sometimes, the way he changed his moods faster than a long-legged jackrabbit was real annoying!

Adam measured out grain and filled water buckets, and scowled.  The snowstorm, rapidly increasing in speed and intensity, meant his plans to go into town and visit with Beth Denton were over with.  Somehow, something always managed to mess up any plans he had.  It just wasn’t fair!  Hearing those thoughts echoing in his mind made him stop a minute and sigh;  no, it wasn’t fair...but neither was it fair that he was taking his bad mood out on his younger brothers.  He turned sheepishly to Hoss, whose back was rigid with annoyance.  “I’m sorry, Hoss.  I apologize for yelling at you like that.”

Hoss turned back around, grudgingly.  “Well, you ain’t the only one around here who’s plans get changed ‘cos of a storm, y’know,” he said gruffly.

Adam grinned, and eyebrow cocked in surprise.  “Yeah?  Who were you planning to see?”

“None o’ your goshdurned business!” snapped back Hoss, blushing furiously.  At twenty-one, Hoss had never had the suave confidence of his older brother with girls, or his younger brother’s absolutely unconscious charm and appeal to young ladies.  It sometimes bothered him that Little Joe, at just fifteen, had already been in and out of love more times in a year than Hoss had been in his whole life.

“Okay, okay!” snapped back Adam in irritation, abruptly turning back to his work.  “I was just asking, you don’t have to bite my head off!”

“So you can dish it out but you can’t take it, huh?” came an annoyed voice from the barn door.  Joe had just come in, dusted from hat to boots with the fat, damp flakes, his green eyes brilliant against the white back drop.  From the stance...jaw jutted out, shoulders tight and body language defiant, it was clear Joe was still angry at his oldest brother.

Having the three together in one place, no one would have pegged them as brothers; in truth, they were half-brothers, all products of their father’s three marriages and each was the physical embodiments of some contradiction.

Adam, at twenty-seven, was more than six feet tall, powerfully built and very dark.  His movements were economical and quick, thought out, like everything else about him.  Obstinate, intelligent, articulate, thoughtful, possessing a dry sense of humor that often went over the heads of people around him, Adam was a loner who seemed both to own and be slightly out of place in any space he occupied.

Hoss was a big man, too, a giant of a man at six feet and four inches, and outweighing his older brother by nearly forty pounds.  But he was a gentle giant, still young enough to be considered a youth by his family which loved him.  Hoss had been taught from an early age that he didn’t need to demonstrate his great strength and power; and God had blessed him with a sweet, gentle nature that was an interesting contrast to his physical appearance.

And then there was Joe...fifteen year-old Joseph Francis Cartwright was small for his age, always had been, but more than made up for it with scrappy, impudent boldness.  His slight build and curly brown hair (as usual, longer than his father liked to see it since Joe usually conned Hop Sing, their Chinese cook/housekeeper/major domo, into just barely trimming it when Pa ordered a haircut) gave him a fragile look, alternately belied by a cocky, handsome grin or a formidable scowl.  Hot-tempered and courageous, Joe had long since left issues of size behind him, learning from babyhood how to get around bigger, more powerful people like his older brothers with guile and charm.

Adam bit back a hot retort and gritted his teeth together, abruptly turning back to his chores.  All three worked, the silence in the barn almost palpable.

They picked up their heads in unison as they heard hoof beats in the yard leading toward the barn.  A gust of wind and swirling snow preceded their father as he led Buck into the barn, both horse and man caked in snow.

“I’m glad you’re home,” said Adam, noting his father’s shivering.  “I was worried about you in the storm.”  He came forward and took Buck’s reins from his father, leading the horse toward his stall.

“I’ve been out in storms before,” smiled Ben wearily, shivering a little.  “But I have to admit, I’m glad.... aaaaCHOO!... to be home.”

Hoss frowned at him.  “Pa? You all right?”

Ben, fishing out his handkerchief and blowing his nose, nodded and tried to smile reassuringly at his middle son.  “It’s just a cold, nothing to be concerned about.”

“You go ahead in, Pa, I’ll put up Buck,” suggested Adam, loosening the cinch on the horse.

“Thank you, Adam,” nodded Ben, turning toward the door.  He caught his youngest son’s worried eye on his way by, and affectionately tousled the boy’s hair.  “Help your brothers finish up,” he suggested hoarsely, knowing only too well that Joe was likely neglecting his chores a bit and letting his brothers take up the slack.

“Yes, sir,” sighed Joe, turning back to his work.

When the three brothers came back into the house thirty minutes later, they found Ben still shivering in front of the fire, a hot toddy in his hands, and wrapped snugly in a knitted throw.  Hop Sing, their housekeeper/cook/household ruler for the past fifteen years, was hovering nearby, ostensibly dusting, but in actuality keeping a close eye on his employer.

Ben felt terrible; he was so cold, his throat was sore, his head throbbed and he found he was aching all over.  The warm fire felt good.  I must be getting old, he sighed sadly to himself.

Little Joe tossed his hat onto the sideboard and hung up his coat first, stamping his boots by the door.

“Joseph, how many times have I told you to do that outside!” croaked his father irritably.

“Sorry, Pa,” Joe said sheepishly.

“ ‘Sorry, Pa’ “ snorted Ben, closing his eyes and leaning back in his chair.  Hoss and Adam exchanged glances, and then looked over at Hop Sing.  The Chinese man’s worried expression told them everything they needed to know.

“Pa, don’t you think you might be more comfortable up in bed?” suggested Adam quietly, as he walked over and perched himself on the huge, heavy oak table in front of the fireplace at his father’s side.  Ben slowly opened his eyes and glared at his oldest son; had it been Hoss, he’d have blushed and scurried off, but this was Adam.  The young man merely cocked an eyebrow and looked back at his father, with a half-smile.  Ben grunted; his oldest son had certainly inherited his stubbornness.

“Pa, come on,” said Adam softly, leaning a hand out and touching his father’s forehead.  He expected to have it slapped away, and was a little concerned when his father didn’t move.  He was even more concerned when he felt the heat radiating from his Pa, and noticed the trembling.  “You’re burning up,” he said in surprise.  “And you’re shivering!”

Ben sighed and nodded.  “I just can’t seem to get warm...” His words were cut off by a violent bout of coughing.

Adam set his mouth and rose to his feet.  “Hop Sing, prepare some hot stones wrapped in flannel, would you?” he said quietly.  “Pa, you really should be in bed.”  He gently touched his father’s arm, sincerely hoping he wouldn’t have to drag his father upstairs.

Ben started to fuss, until Adam leaned over and whispered, “C’mon, Pa.  You’re gonna scare Joe and Hoss.”

Ben opened his glassy eyes and looked at his concerned oldest son.  “You play dirty,” he croaked, irritably.

Adam smiled gently and helped his father to his feet.  “Joe?  Would you mind tracking down some extra quilts?” he said easily, trying to keep the worry out of his voice.  Chills like the ones his father was experiencing weren’t usual with a simple cold.  But it did sound like the disease that was spreading like wildfire through Virginia City...Doc Martin was calling it influenza, and it was serious.

“You want me to get the Doc?” asked Hoss worriedly, after Joe had gone.

“No!” snapped Ben, straightening as he headed up the stairs.  “You’ll be caught in the storm.  I’ll be fine...just let me get to bed.”

Hoss cringed a little at the rebuke; Adam caught his eye and gave him a reassuring smile as he herded his father up the stairs.

Half an hour later, Ben was resting quietly, after having been forced to drink down a cup of Hop Sing’s hot broth and sternly told to stay put.

Ben had to admit did feel a little better resting in bed; covered in quilts and with the flannel-wrapped heated rocks at his feet, his chills seemed to ease a bit.  Ben chuckled to himself as he recalled how firm Adam, and then Hop Sing, had been with him.  Hoss had peeped in worriedly a bit, then Joe hurried in spreading the quilts over him, essentially burying him.  He tried not to snap in irritation, remembering the worry on their faces.  It wasn’t often that he was ill, and he supposed it must be a bit disconcerting for the boys.

His door opened quietly and Adam softly padded in, another steaming cup in his hands.  “You still awake?” he asked quietly, setting the cup down on Ben’s bedside table.

“Sorry,” muttered Ben, sitting up a little.

Adam smiled.  “Pa, don’t worry about anything...we’ll keep everything up while you’re in bed.”  He sat down in the chair at Ben’s bedside.  “So, how do you feel?”

“Rotten,” Ben grumbled, coughing.  “You probably shouldn’t be in here.  The last thing we need is you sick, too.”

“Well, if I’m going to get it, I’ll probably come down with after you’re up and around again,” grinned Adam.

Ben harrumphed and lay back on his pillows.  Adam allowed his concern to surface as he saw how pale his father looked.  “Pa, drink down that cup of broth.”

“I just had some!” grumbled Ben irritably.

Adam sighed.  “If you have influenza, Doc said liquids... lots of liquids...”

Ben opened his eyes and glanced at Adam.  “Don’t let Joe and Hoss in here much, Adam,” he said softly, his voice hoarse.  Their eyes met and Adam nodded; they understood each other perfectly.

Downstairs, Joe paced restlessly while Hoss sat staring into the flames in the hearth.  Around the house, the wind began to pick up;  outside the dining room window, all was white and swirling.  A blizzard was beginning in earnest.  Hoss realized that it was a good thing he hadn’t gone, or he’d have been caught in it for sure.

Joe was worried.  His father was so rarely ill that when he was sick enough to take to his bed, an uneasy feeling enveloped Joe.  “Hey, Hoss?” he said softly.  “Is Pa gonna be okay?”

“Aw, don’t worry, Joe, he’ll be fine...” said Hoss quietly.  “Pa’s tough, you know that.”  But he didn’t take his eyes off the hearth.  Joe nodded, and walked to his father’s desk, touching the leather top, feeling lonely.  Both brothers picked up their eyes as the heard the door close upstairs and Adam walk down the hallway toward the stairs.

Adam saw their worry and sighed inwardly.  He picked his head up and heard the wind howl around the house.  “I guess Pa was right;  blizzard coming.”

“We can’t get out to a doctor, Adam.”  It was a flat statement, and Hoss’ eyes were scared as he looked at his older brother.

Adam walked over to him and put a hand on his brother’s shoulder.  “He’ll be all right, Hoss.  The fever just started today, and he’s resting comfortably in bed.  Don’t worry.”

Joe slowly walked over to his older brother as well.  Gone from the two younger Cartwrights’ thoughts was the argument in the barn with Adam.  Right now, their older brother represented security to them both.  Adam was here;  he’d make everything all right.

Neither thought about the worry coursing through Adam’s mind, but it was something he was used to; being the oldest, he’d been in this position of surrogate father to Hoss and Joe for years now.  It gave them comfort, and that was what they needed.  His own needs...well, if he got around to ‘em...

Christmas Eve dawned but no one could tell, since it was dark and gloomy from the intense blizzard roaring through the mountains.  Adam had spent most of the night at his father’s bedside, relieved only occasionally by an insistent Hop Sing.  He’d managed to send both Joe and Hoss to bed finally, insisting that he wasn’t going to sit up, that Pa wasn’t that ill, but it was an outright lie.

Ben’s cough had become much worse and his fever burned.  Adam wearily wiped down his father’s face and neck as he trembled with chills and fever through the night, tossing and turning restlessly in discomfort.  He ached miserably all over and found sleep almost impossible.  Finally, toward dawn, exhaustion took over and Ben dozed uneasily.

“Hop Sing, we need to make sure he takes liquids every hour,” Adam had yawned as the man relieved him at dawn.

“Hop Sing see to it, Missa Adam,” assured the Chinese man, shooing the young man toward the door and to his bed.

“And don’t let Hoss or Joe in here,” he insisted, turning back at the door.  Hop Sing and Adam shared a glance, the same Ben and Adam had shared earlier.  “Wake me if they give you a hard time, all right?”

Hop Sing nodded silently, and gently but firmly pushed Adam out.  Adam stretched on his way down the hallway.  Hoss’ door opened as he passed, his brother sleepily sticking his head out, still in his nightshirt.  “Pa any better?”

“He’s asleep,” assured Adam.  “Don’t go in, okay?”

“Why not?” demanded Hoss.

Adam sighed.  “Look, Hoss, Pa asked me to not let you and Joe in, since he doesn’t want you catching this, all right?  Let’s just do as he asks.”

Hoss harrumphed.  “Might as well get dressed...I won’t be able to sleep now,” he said miserably.

Adam turned back and squeezed his younger brother’s arm.  “If you’re going to do that, wake me before you go out to do chores.  I don’t want you out there alone.  You’ll freeze to death if you get lost between the house and the barn.  We’ll have to string a line.  All right?”

“You ain’t slept at all, have you?” asked Hoss, eyeing his brother.  Adam shrugged, and Hoss then knew.  His father was seriously ill.

“Promise me you won’t go out there alone, Hoss,” said Adam, intently.

Hoss nodded and watched his brother trudge to his room.

Breakfast was a somber affair.  Adam had slept for about an hour, then restlessly woke and, deciding that any further sleep was impossible, had come downstairs.  He’d sternly ordered Joe to stay in the house, and not venture out into the storm with Hoss.  Concerned for his brother’s safety, Adam had strung the line of rope from the barn door to the house himself, coming in shivering and covered with snow.

Joe chafed at the restriction but after being unable to see beyond the porch upon opening the front door, he realized his big brother was right, and reluctantly obeyed.  He had also been banned from his father’s room.  That order he figured he could violate since Adam and Hoss were occupied elsewhere.

Tiptoeing up the stairs in order to not alert Hop Sing, Joe carefully opened his father’s bedroom door.  Ben was sitting up in bed with a book in his hands, coughing.  He wasn’t getting very far with reading since his head was aching miserably.  He wearily picked up his head when the door opened.

At first, Ben smiled happily;  he’d missed Joe and Hoss terribly, and seeing the worried expression on his youngest son’s face touched his heart.  Then he remembered his edict and frowned.

“I thought....cough! were told not to come in here?” he said in a very hoarse but stern voice.  “Didn’t Adam tell you?”

Joe remained at the door, wistfully. “Yes, sir, he did,“  he said reluctantly, “but... well, I...I missed you, Pa.  Couldn’t I just stay here at the door?  It’s awful lonesome downstairs.”

“Why?  Where are you brothers?” he croaked, setting the book aside.  He couldn’t concentrate on it, anyway.

“Doin’ chores, and Adam won’t let me out,” Joe bellyached, leaning against the door jamb.

Ben smiled wanly.  “He just wants to keep you safe, sounds like a blizzard out there.”

“It is,” nodded Joe, sighing.  “ okay?”

Ben shifted uncomfortably as his body aches and pains annoyed him.  “I’m all right, or I will be in a few days.  Makes kind of a lonesome Christmas for you, though, doesn’t it?”

Joe shrugged, not looking up.  “That’s okay,” he said gruffly, trying to be manly and not show his disappointment or his concern.  Ben smiled tenderly at him; Lord, how he loved this youngest son of his!

“I’ll tell you what,” said Ben, wincing as he shifted in bed, trying to ease the ache in his back, “why don’t you ask Hop Sing if he’ll help you bring in the tree from the back porch.  At least into the washroom to let the snow dry.  Then you can get it set up while your brothers do the chores.”

Joe’s face lit up in excitement.  “You mean it, Pa?  I can set up the tree?” he grinned.  He’d never been allowed to do that before;  either Pa or Adam had always set the Christmas tree in the crossed bar stand and got it ready to decorate.  Then it hit Joe;  Pa wouldn’t be helping to decorate and his face fell a little.  “You ain’t gonna feel good enough to help tonight are you, Pa?” he asked softly.

“No, Joe, I’m afraid I won’t, but I’ll at least try to come look at it,” smiled Ben a little weakly.  He was really feeling worse instead of better, but he didn’t want to alarm his son.  “You tell Adam and Hoss I said it was all right for you to set it up this year.  You’re fifteen now, old enough to handle it.”

“Thanks, Pa,” he said with a small smile.  As he walked back down the stairs, Joe tried to remember a time when Pa hadn’t helped string the cranberries and popcorn...

When Hoss and Adam came in from doing chores, which took so much longer than usual because of the storm, they were surprised to see Joe hard at work getting the tree into place in front of the gun rack.

 “Looking good, little brother,” grinned Hoss, hanging up his coat and stripping off his gloves.

Joe glanced back at Adam, his jaw jutted out at Adam’s expression.  “Pa said I could,” he said stubbornly.

Adam sighed and nodded.  “I wasn’t going to say anything, Joe,” he said softly, turning and walking into the kitchen without another word.

“What’s’a matter with him?” asked Joe, uncomfortably.

Hoss thoughtfully came into the room, looking at the tree.  “He’s pretty bushed, Joe.  He didn’t get much sleep last night, sittin’ up with Pa.  And, you gotta remember, for the past few years Adam’s been the one to set up the tree.”

Joe nodded, feeling a little guilty.  “I’m sorry, I just figured he was gonna yell at me for doin’ it, and I had Pa’s permission.”

“Pa feeling better?” asked Hoss glancing up the stairs.

“I don’t think so,” replied Joe, sitting back on his haunches.  He looked up woefully at his big brother.  “He looks awful, Hoss.”

Hoss nodded, and he turned toward the kitchen, as well.  Reluctantly, feeling bad for the way he’d talked to his brother, Joe sighed and hauled himself to his feet to follow, figuring he’d best apologize.

Adam sipped a cup of coffee as he stared out the window, leaning against the wall and feeling the wind buffet the house.  He heard the heavy footsteps coming up behind him and smiled to himself.  Hoss would never be able to sneak into a room, that was for sure.  He turned back and glanced at his brother.

“He didn’t mean nothin’, Adam,” said Hoss quietly, pouring himself a cup.  “He was afraid you was gonna holler at him.”

Adam sighed.  “Yeah, I know.  But that means he disobeyed and went into Pa’s room.”

“No, I didn’t,” came the soft voice from the door, not defensive, just soft.  “I stood at the door, I didn’t go into the room.  I’m sorry, Adam, I just... “ Joe shrugged his shoulders unhappily.  Adam walked to his youngest brother with a smile.

“It’s okay, squirt,” he said quietly, squeezing his shoulder, on the way by.  “I miss him, too.”

The tree was gaily decorated, the gifts placed underneath¼and the mood filled with gloom.  Adam sat silently in front of the fireplace reading, while Hoss worked braiding some harness and Joe fidgeted, restless.

He got to his feet and wandered into his father’s office area, touching the desk, fingering the books on the shelf behind it, looking up at the map of the Ponderosa.  First Hoss, then Adam, glanced up following his movements, feeling badly.  It was a hell of a Christmas Eve for the kid.

Hoss looked at Adam in appeal.  He thought if Adam would maybe play his guitar a little, it might lift their spirits.  But before he could speak,  Hop Sing came downstairs, a serious look on his face.

All three boys turned in alarm.

“Fatha not good,” said Hop Sing softly.  “Missa Adam, fevah much hottah.”

Adam got to his feet and hurried up the stairs, his brothers on his heels.

“Stay downstairs,” he barked over his shoulder.

“Adam, he’s our pa, too!” snapped back Hoss, stubbornly trudging up the staircase.  Adam stopped short and turned, nearly making Hoss tumble backward.

“Hoss, that order was Pa’s, not mine,” he said sternly.  “Now stay here with Joe, I mean it!”

Hoss scowled, and Joe tried to push by.  “I’m gonna see my Pa!” declared Joe, obstinately, banging into his brother’s suddenly dropped arm and being stopped short.

“Joseph, you’re not going anywhere,” he said sternly.   Joe struggled a moment, then stopped when Hoss put a hand on his arm.  Adam saw the fear in Joe’s eyes and sighed.  “Look...let me just check on him and I’ll let you know how he is as soon as I know.  I promise.”

Ben tossed in bed, his fever burning.  His mind was awhirl with thoughts of snow, white and driving, keeping his vision from clearing.  It sounded like wind whooshing around his ears, and his head ached from the noise.  Snow shouldn’t burn, his tired mind reasoned.  Only occasionally, he felt cold snow flakes cool his face and neck...

Adam gently wiped his father’s forehead and neck, worried about the heat radiating from him.  The door opened and Adam glanced back, hoping it wasn’t one of his brothers and he’d have to yell.  Luckily it was Hop Sing.

“No bettah?”

Adam sighed and shook his head.  “He’s still awfully hot,” Adam replied.

“I sit.  You go downstairs.  Christmas Eve,” said Hop Sing firmly.

“Aw, Hop Sing,” muttered Adam sitting back.

“No!  Little brothers worried, scared.  Need you now.  You go downstairs.”

“But what about Pa?” he stalled; truth was, he was reluctant to go down there without anything new to tell them that was promising.  He glanced at the Chinaman, squirming uncomfortably. “What am I gonna say to them?”  Exhausted, Adam allowed himself to sag, and rested his head on his hand, closing his tired eyes.

Hop Sing glanced at his boss, now relatively calm and resting with the cool compress on his forehead, asleep.  Then he walked to the bookshelf against the wall.  Hop Sing looked on the shelf, pushed aside Marie’s old books of poetry, her copies of Villon and Beaumarchais, then Elizabeth’s books, and reached for the aged Cartwright family Bible.

Hop Sing drew it down with great respect, and carefully opened it where the red velvet ribbon marked it.  He studied it a moment, then nodded and walked to Adam.

“Fatha always read on this night,” said Hop Sing carefully.  “You numba one son.  Fatha,” he said, nodding toward Ben, “cannot read.  You read.”  Hop Sing slowly, respectfully laid the holy book of his adopted family’s God into Adam’s lap.

Adam stared at it.  Three generations of Cartwrights had held that Bible...his great-grandfather Daniel, his grandfather Joseph and his father.  It was his family, represented right there in his lap in that book.  It was one of the very few things his father had brought of himself and his past with them on their trek west.

Adam closed his eyes as his sensitive fingertips touched the worn velvet ribbon.  His mind flew back more than twenty of his earliest memories was of sitting in his father’s lap on Christmas Eve, running his baby fingers up and down the softness of the velvet ribbon, now worn and discolored.  He drew in a shuddering breath and sighed, allowing his fingers to do it again, seeking the comfort and peace it had always given him in the past.

After Adam went downstairs, the heavy Cartwright family bible in his hands, Hop Sing sat down in the leather bedside chair he’d vacated, and studied the face of hisemployer.  For fifteen years, Hop Sing had been with this family...feeding them, keeping their home in order, watching over them.  He had watched the boys grow, having arrived not long after Little Joe’s birth, when Adam was a bright, difficult, scrappy twelve-year-old, and Hoss a large but sweet little boy of six.  He’d watched them all suffer the pain of Marie Cartwright’s death, watched the adolescent struggles of the older boys as they reached for manhood.  He’d watched his family grow up.

He recalled nineteen-year-old Adam leaving home to further his education, little more than a boy, and returning as a man, tall, quieter, sadder, with secret pain that he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, share.  He’d watched Hoss become a mountain of a man, never losing his childlike trust and joy but acquiring a man’s acumen of other men.  And he’d watched the baby, Joseph, become taller, more mischievous, but maturing into a fine young man, reminding him a great deal of his beautiful, spirited mother, whom Mr. Cartwright had loved dearly.

They had made him a part of the family, as hard as he’d tried to maintain the distance he had felt was required to maintain the dignity his upbringing demanded.  Strange as their customs were, he found he was grateful for the good wishes they obviously bore him.

He recalled the first Christmas he’d allowed himself to be drawn into their holy day.  It had been difficult for him to acknowledge it without feeling he’d be less than true to his own beliefs. But finally, his fourth year there, he’d accepted that allowing himself to be drawn into the family would not diminish his own true faith; it was merely a celebration, an elaborate birthday party for their God.  As such, he could justify it.

Mrs. Cartwright had brought him into the living room on Christmas Day as the boys opened their gifts and emptied their socks... no, they called them stockings...

The boys had been tickled he was joining them.  Adam, a tall fifteen-year-old, had escorted him to the settee, and Hoss, nearly as tall as his brother at just nine, had rushed up to the gaily decorated Christmas tree in the corner by the gun rack, grabbed a beautifully wrapped gift and brought it to Hop Sing.  Mrs. Cartwright had sat back with a smile on her husband’s knee while Mr. Cartwright had grinned and smoked his pipe.  Three-year-old Little Joe had climbed up close beside him on the settee, wanting to watch him unwrap it.

“Open it, Hop Sing!” grinned Adam, perching himself on the arm of the sofa, and Hoss had plopped down at his feet, his moon face wreathed in smiles.  Hop Sing had shyly opened the gift and stared in shock.  Then he looked up at Mrs. Cartwright, knowing she had been in the inspiration for this gift.

“Joe said your special pen had a bad tip and it made your writing difficult,” she said softly, her eyes warm.  “I cannot imagine you not being able to write to your family.”  Hop Sing retired to his room at least once a month to write to his family back in China and San Francisco and tell them of his adventures in this new land.  It was true, his pen had become worn.  But, the gift was so much more than a pen nib.  It was a beautiful calligraphy pen, just right for forming the Chinese pictographs with which he wrote, ensconced in a carved wooden box lined with crimson velvet.  The box cleverly held a drawer that, when opened, displayed exquisite rice paper, the best upon which to write.

“Adam made the box, Hop Sing!” Hoss crowed, “an’ he let me carve on it!”

“Cahving velly good, Missa Hoss,” said Hop Sing softly.  He glanced up at Adam, who beamed at him.  “Fine work.  You do...all you self?”

Adam nodded.  “I got the idea from a box I saw at the mercantile,” he said with a smile that reached all the way to his eyes.

“An’ it was my idea!” said Little Joe, determined that he’d get his due.  “Mama found that pretty cloth and I put it in!”

“With Marie’s help,” chuckled Adam, ruffling his curls in affection.

“No!” scowled Joe, “I did it!  All my own self!”

Hop Sing was overcome.  It was a beautiful gift.  He looked up at the senior Cartwrights who smiled at him with caring and generosity.  Mr. Cartwright gently stood his wife on her feet, rose and walked over, stretching out his hand.  “Merry Christmas, Hop Sing,” he said quietly. “We couldn’t imagine not having you share in the family’s favorite holiday.  Thank you.”

Hop Sing struggled for a moment, then nodded, shaking Mr. Cartwright’s outstretched hand.  “Melly Clissmas, Missa Cahtlight,” he said softly.  He bowed deeply to Mr. and Mrs. Cartwright, emotion filling in his heart, then abruptly turned and started to walk to his kitchen.

Behind him, he knew the boys must be crestfallen, and looking in appeal at their parents.  He stole a glance back at the family.  Mrs. Cartwright was smiling, tears glistening in her eyes and Ben had his arm around her with a gentle smile.  “Don’t worry boys,” said Ben softly.  “I think he loves your gift.” With a small smile, Hop Sing nodded, then re-entered his domain.

Hop Sing sighed and looked down at this man...this man who was his friend...and gently wiped the perspiration from his feverish face.

“  ‘.. And so Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to David’s town of Bethlehem - because he was of the house and lineage of David - to register with Mary, his espoused wife who was with child....’  ”

Hoss settled back in the blue velvet chair by the hearth, closing his eyes and listening.   Twenty-one years he’d heard this story.  A different voice rang in his ears this time, but hearing Adam reading it didn’t disturb him in the least.  All of his life, that voice had been as important to him as his father’s, and hearing the words of the birth of Christ in his big brother’s voice sounded nearly as sweet as it did in his father’s.

“  ‘... Suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

Glory to God in high heaven,
peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests.’

When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to one another: ‘Let us go to Bethlehem and see this event which the Lord has made known to us.’ ....”

Joe sat beside Adam, who had one arm draped around his little brother’s shoulders and the other resting on the yellowed page of the old bible.  This time it was Joe’s fingers that slipped up and down the worn velvet of the ribbon marking the spot in the gospel of Luke as he leaned his head back, safe in the crook of his big brother’s arm.  It was harder for him to hear Adam’s voice and not his father’s read of the birth of Jesus.  But it felt good to hear them.  At least the words were there, even if his father couldn’t be.

“  ‘... They went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger; once they saw, they understood what had been told them concerning this child.  All who heard of it were astonished at the report given them by the shepherds.  Mary treasured all these things and reflected on them in her heart.  The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, in accord with what had been told them...’  ”

Joe recognized the end of the story was near and laid the velvet ribbon back on the page;  Adam finished reading and closed the book gently.

“Thanks, Adam,” said Hoss softly.  “It jest wouldn’t’a felt like Christmas Eve without hearin’ that.”  He was still young enough to need the tradition of his past to feel safe and comfortable.

Adam smiled at him, then looked down at his baby brother.  Joe’s face was pale, and his eyes were welled with tears he was working hard to keep back.  Adam sighed and squeezed his shoulders in a gentle hug.  “Pa’s going to be all right, you’ll see.”

Silently, Joe nodded, his throat tight.

Hop Sing came down the stairs, his face closed.  All three boys stared up at him, his face saying what he couldn’t put into words.  Their Pa was worse.

They split the night watch up into three four-hour blocks.  Adam would take the first shift of watching, then Hoss, and finally Joe, after he’d had some sleep.  Adam couldn’t refuse him;  he’d been scared to death.  Adam figured it’d give him something to hang onto until morning.

He managed to coax his father into sipping down some broth, then sat down in the chair beside Pa’s bed.  Ben’s fever was still raging; Adam tried to cool him down, but didn’t get very far.  At least he was able to calm him from his restless tossing.

Adam’s mind drifted as he sleepily set his book down.  He shut his eyes and leaned back a bit in the chair, remembering Christmases gone by.  He recalled the year he was six, when Inger had been alive and it had just been the three of them, Pa, Inger and himself.  He remembered sitting in Pa’s lap while he read the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke, and he remembered Inger sitting beside them, sewing and smiling.   Adam had been determined to stay awake and hear the whole thing this time, but as in years gone by, his sleepy eyes had drooped and he’d fallen asleep toward the end; the last he remembered was Pa reading about the big, bright star that illuminated the spot where the Christ Child lay.  Other happy Christmases danced across his memory as he sat there, wiping his father’s hot face and neck.

Then he remembered another Christmas, a sad, lonely one in Boston his sophomore year of college.  Adam had been invited to spend the holidays at the home of a classmate; as such, his grandfather had accepted the invitation of an old friend and his family. When, unexpectedly, just a day before the holiday, his classmate’s father had passed away, Adam didn’t feel he could impose on the grieving family and ended up spending Christmas by himself at his grandfather’s house in Boston.  For the first time in his twenty-one years, Adam was totally alone for the holiday.

He sat in the living room that Christmas Eve, in silence in front of the fireplace watching the flames.  He’d dug out his latest letters from his father and brothers, and tried to see their faces and hear their voices in his mind.  In embarrassment, he felt his eyes welling up and he got to his feet, resolutely fighting to keep his lips steady.  Looking out the window from the dining room, he saw the snow falling on the harbor, feeling more homesick than he’d felt in all the fifteen months he’d been there.  The snow reminded him too much of home, and the water too much of the beautiful lake that had been his refuge for twelve years.

Miserably he’d walked back to his grandfather’s leather chair in front of the fireplace and sank into it.  He tried to think of his mother, enjoying Christmas as a girl in this house, but as he’d never known her beyond other people’s memories and the portraits of her his father and grandfather had, he had trouble making a connection.  He was very lonesome and unhappy, and after a few moments of struggling, he covered his eyes with his hand and felt the tears come.

“Oh, Pa...” he whispered, squeezing shut his eyes, trying to sense the love his family held for him in his mind.  Softly, slowly he began to hear his father’s voice... softly, quietly, telling the story of the blessed Christ Child.  Adam opened his eyes and stared into the flames, hearing his father’s voice as he had for the first nineteen years of his life.  He drew in a deep, shaky breath and sighed, managing a small smile.  “Thanks, Pa,” he said softly.

Adam came back to the present, opened his eyes again, and looked down at his father, his fever still high as the bright spots on his cheeks attested.  Running the back of his hand over his damp eyes, Adam sniffled and reached for a fresh cold compress, wiping down his father’s face.  “C’mon, Pa,” he whispered shakily.  “You’ve got to get well.  I might not be little anymore, but I still need you.”

He heard heavy footsteps approaching, and composed himself quickly, drawing in a deep breath, thankful for the soft light in the room.  The door opened softly and Hoss stuck his head around it.

“C’mon in,” said Adam softly, getting to his feet.  “He’s sleeping.  I managed to get some broth down him about an hour ago, but he’s going to need something again soon.  Let him sleep a little longer, then wake him up.”

Hoss nodded.  His eyes were circled and red.  Adam smiled wanly and squeezed his brother’s shoulder.   “He’ll be alright, Hoss.  Just try to keep the fever down, okay?”

Hoss nodded and looked worriedly at his father.

“Did you get any sleep at all?” asked Adam softly.

Hoss sighed.  “I couldn’t.  I was thinkin’ too much.  You?”

Adam sighed and shook his head.  “Maybe I can now.  Hoss, wake me if he gets worse, okay?”  He headed toward the door, then turned wryly.  “And you’d better wake up our little brother at four or he’ll never forgive us.”

Hoss managed a small smile.  “I will. You try to get some shut-eye, now, y’hear?”

“Yeah,” sighed Adam, taking a last glance at his father then shutting the door softly behind him.

Hoss slowly walked over to the bed, felt his father’s forehead and sighed as the heat was still intense.  After half an hour there was a light knock on the door and Hop Sing came in, a bowl of snow and water in his hands.  “Cold watah,” he said quietly, peering at his employer worriedly.  “You sleep, Missa Hoss?”

“No,” sighed the young man.  “I just couldn’t.”

Hop Sing nodded, understanding, and placed the compresses into the cold water.  Ben stirred restlessly, moaning in his sleep, and coughing.  Hop Sing frowned and stepped closer.  He noted with alarm the heat coming from his employer.

“Missa Hoss, we must cool him,” he said urgently.  Hoss got to his feet, alarmed, and helped Hop Sing open his father’s nightshirt and wiped down his chest, neck and wrists, while leaving an icy compress on his forehead.  After working at it for twenty minutes or so, they felt Ben relax and rest more comfortably.  They woke him briefly to drink down some water, then watched as he dozed back to sleep.  Hop Sing smiled tiredly and patted Hoss’ shoulder.  “He bettah now.  You watch and let fatha rest.”  And he slipped out as quietly as he’d entered.

Wearily, Hoss sank into the chair at the side of the bed and looked at his father.  “Pa...” he said softly, reaching out a big, meaty hand and taking his father’s.  Stroking his father’s hand reminded him of another Christmas, so many years ago now.

A couple of days before Christmas, when he was only four years old, Hoss had slipped on the ice outside the old house and sprained an ankle.  It had gotten badly swollen and ached terribly.  Even though he’d tried real hard to be brave, it hurt something fierce and he couldn’t help crying.  Pa had been so patient with him, wrapping the ankle in snow to ease the pain and bring down the swelling, and spending as much time as he could with him.  Adam had been real good to him, too, reading to him and playing checkers with him, trying to keep his mind off his pain.  The worst had been Christmas Eve.  He was sure that he was going to miss decorating the tree and hearing Pa read the Christmas story from the bible.  But Pa had carried him into the main room from his bed, where he’d been staying since he couldn’t climb the ladder to the loft he and Adam shared, and propped his swollen ankle up on a pillow right near the tree.  Pa jovially put Hoss in charge of stringing the cranberries and popcorn...the fact he’d nearly eaten enough to give him a tummy-ache didn’t bother him that much.  And he’d lain with his head cushioned in Pa’s lap while he read, stroking his father’s hand just as he was doing now.  Adam had stretched out on the rug in front of the hearth, listening quietly.  Hoss didn’t remember falling asleep but he woke up Christmas morning in Pa’s bed, cozy and comfortable.  Even his ankle didn’t ache as much.

Hoss smiled at the memory of that Christmas and later ones with Marie and his baby brother.  And then the sad ones...the first year after Joe’s Mama had died, and then when Adam was away.  That first Christmas with just the three of them had been hard.  Pa had been pretty sad, but tried not to show it.  Joe was lonesome too, often looking at the guitar in the corner of the living room.  For so many Christmas Eves, Adam had played carols and hymns on his guitar, and Little Joe had missed it that first year without him.

“Do you think Adam misses us, Pa?” he’d asked, his green eyes sad as he sat in his father’s lap on the settee in front of the fire.  Hoss had sat at his father’s side with Pa’s arm comfortingly around him, too.

“I’m sure he does.  But he’s with his grandfather so he’s not all alone,” soothed Pa, trying to console himself at the same time.

“Will Santa find him in Boston, Pa?” asked Joe worriedly.  “It’s so big and it’s so far away.”

“Santa will find him, Joe, don’t worry,” smiled Pa, hugging him close.  And then he’d lifted Joe up to put the star on the top of the tree and they sat down all together again to read the chapter of Luke.

Hoss looked down at his father and saw that he’d been sleeping comfortably for awhile now.  He lightly touched his father’s forehead.  He was still pretty warm, but at least he seemed comfortable and his breathing didn’t seem as labored.  Hoss glanced wearily at the clock and saw it was just before four a.m.  Time to wake Joe.

Hoss quietly opened his father’s door and saw the light on under Adam’s door.  He peeped in and smiled.  Adam had fallen asleep reading, with the book splayed out over his chest.  Good, thought Hoss, he was worn out.  Gently, Hoss laid the book on Adam’s beside table, blew out the lamp and drew the quilt up over his older brother, who didn’t even stir.

Further down the hall, Hoss quietly opened Joe’s  door.  He saw his brother was still fully dressed and just covered lightly with a quilt while the wind howled outside.  Hoss came to the side of the bed, and gently shook his brother’s shoulder.

“Joe...” Hoss said quietly.  “Joe, wake up.”

Joe stirred, and groaned. “It can’t be morning...” he protested sleepily, starting to sit up.

“No, it ain’t morning, Joe,” said Hoss with an indulgent smile.  “It’s four a.m.  You wanted to - “

“Pa!”  Joe’s eyes were wide and frightened as he bolted upright.  “Pa! Is he okay?”

“Relax, Joe,” soothed Hoss, shushing him.  “Pa’s alright... he’s sleepin’ comfortable.“  Joe closed his eyes and lay back on the pillow.

“Sorry,” he said, shakily, composing himself again, a little embarrassed. “I just got scared for a minute.”

“It’s okay,” nodded Hoss, yawning.  “You awake enough to sit with him?”

“Yeah,” nodded Joe, swinging his legs around and out of bed.

Joe struggled to keep his eyes open as he sat with his father.  Ben was definitely resting better.  Joe wiped down his forehead and neck when he got hot again just before dawn, but noted that he barely stirred.  Joe watched the sun rise from his father’s window, and it suddenly occurred to him that it was Christmas Day.  He sighed, and glanced over at his father, who stirred in his sleep and muttered, then turned onto his side.  Joe smiled a little, and walked back toward the bed, sitting in the easy chair beside him.  He studied the contours of his father’s face, the slight stubble of gray beard, the dark brows, which had been knitted together in discomfort earlier and which were relaxed now.  Although pale, he no longer had the two red fever spots in his cheeks.  Joe reached over and gingerly felt his forehead.  Cooler; he was definitely cooler now than he’d been.

Joe sighed and leaned back, thinking.  His father was ill so rarely, he had to think back to remember the last time he’d been ill enough to be confined to bed.  Usually, his Pa would fight a cold on his feet, refusing to give in, with the same stubbornness with which he’d send one of them to bed at the first sign of a sniffle.  Joe chuckled softly as he remembered a battle between Adam and Pa over a cold just last month.  As usual, Adam had lost, ending up fussing and fuming in bed for two days.

Joe settled back in the chair, and relaxed. was always his favorite holiday.   He loved giving gifts and he loved getting them!  He thought sadly of the bottle of brandy he’d saved his allowance for; Pa probably wouldn’t feel up to a Christmas toast with that today.

Christmas...Joe smiled as he thought back over the years.  His father and his brothers had always worked hard to make his holiday special.  The first Christmas he could remember he must have been around three and a half years old.  Adam had made him a wooden marionette that year, one that moved when he jiggled the strings dangling from a crossed bar of firring strips.   He could remember being fascinated by it, and taking it to bed with him.  Joe smiled as he realized he still had it upstairs in the attic.  And his mother...  he could remember sitting in his mother’s lap while they listened to Adam play Mama’s guitar.  He giggled quietly as he realized that Adam sure had a long way to go before he’d be very good, but at the time, to three year old ears, it had sounded pretty.

Hoss had proudly given him his gift, a whistle he’d whittled himself, and which Mama had shuddered over, with a laugh, when he made it shriek.  And Pa and Mama had given him some toy soldiers, like Adam’s old ones, but with bright red and blue paint.  It had been a wonderful Christmas!  He remembered falling asleep playing with his soldiers and Pa carrying him to bed, protesting that he wasn’t at all tired! even as he dozed against his father’s shoulder.  He’d insisted on taking his marionette to bed with him.  Joe smiled and closed his eyes.

In his Pa’s arms...putting the star on the tree...stringing the popcorn ...reaching up for his stocking... the stockings!  Joe bolted upright in the chair.  With all their worries over their father, they hadn’t hung up their stockings!  Then he smiled sheepishly.  Well, he supposed they were old enough to let that go, he thought with a grin.  It wasn’t likely Santa would be dropping by this year.  He smiled as he glanced down at “Santa,” sleeping comfortably now.  Joe settled back again as the Christmas sunshine filtered through his father’s bedroom window.

In his father’s arms...he closed his eyes as he remembered the first Christmas after Mama died.  He had been so sad that year, not getting very involved in the festivities as much as Pa, Adam and Hoss tried to make it happy.  He’d sat in front of the dining room window looking out at the stars... When Pa came up to him and rested his hands on his shoulders, he’d leaned over and kissed the top of his head.

“What’s wrong, Joe?” he’d asked quietly, gently stroking his curls.

“I miss Mama,” he’d sighed, his lower lip trembling.

Ben had picked him up and cuddled him close.  “I miss her too, son,” he father had said softly, kissing his cheek.  “But she’s not far away.”

Little Joe sniffled and rested in his father’s arms.  “Whad’you mean, Pa?”

Ben carried him into the living room picking up a knitted throw and wrapping it around him then carried him out onto the front porch.  Joe had snuggled into the blanket, his nose growing cold.  “Look up there, Joseph,” said Pa gently, nodding up at the skies.

Joe sniffled a little and looked up at the navy blue blanket above him flecked with the white stars.  The snow had stopped earlier and all was clear with stars as far as he could see.

“See all those stars?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Your mother used to tell me that whenever she was lonely she’d look up at the stars and think of the person she was missing and try to imagine they were looking up at the same stars.  And that people she’d loved who were no longer with her had become one of those many many stars, helping God watch over her.  That’s where Mama is now, watching over you...and all of us.”

Joe stared up at the sky.  “Which one do you think she is, Pa?” he asked softly.

“I don’t know, Joe, which do you think she’d be?”

“The brightest one, Pa,” he said, turning to look at his father.  Ben sighed and cuddled Joe closer to him.

“I think you’re right, Joseph, she would be brightest, most beautiful star.”  And together they’d looked through the night sky, seeking out the brightest, until Joe had fallen asleep in his father’s arms.


Joe came back to earth abruptly as he heard his father’s voice.  He looked down at the bed and beamed when he saw his father smiling gently at him.  “Pa!”  He reached out a hand to his father’s forehead and grinned in relief.  He was still cool.  The fever must have broken.  “How do you feel?”

“Better,” said Ben quietly, not saying how weak he felt.  “ there something close by I could drink?”

Joe immediately poured a glass of water and supported his father’s shoulders while he thirstily drained the glass.  Joe got him settled again, propped up a bit on pillows.  He could see how tired his father looked so he didn’t make him talk, he just sat close and stroked his father’s hand.

He’d never noticed before how beautiful his father’s hands were...hands that had calluses from hard work.  Tender hands that had stroked his cheek, in comfort;  deft hands that had helped him button up his coat when he was very small, or showed him the intricacies of machinery or the slight movements needed to guide a horse; stern hands, that had delivered a sharp parental smack to the seat of his pants or pointed straight to his room when he’d been disobedient or naughty; caring hands, that had clasped his own smaller one in protection and love.  Joe brushed away his tears in embarrassment as he realized his father was watching.

“I’m all right, Joe,” said Pa tenderly, squeezing Joe’s hand.  “Everything’s all right.”

“I know, Pa,” he said huskily, and gave in.  He sat on the edge of the bed, leaned over and kissed his father’s cheek, which earned him a hug.  “Merry Christmas, Pa,” he said brokenly, his face buried in his father’s nightshirt, his arms around his pa.

“Merry Christmas, son,” said Ben tenderly, stroking his youngest son’s hair.

Adam jarred awake, looking around himself.  He relaxed as he realized he was in his own room, and the house was quiet.  He listened; it appeared the wind had died down.  He stretched and hauled himself to his feet, walking to his window.  The storm had stopped in the night, and the ground was crystalline with brilliant sunshine reflecting off the fresh, unmarred snow.

Adam sighed and walked out into the hall.  Hoss was just coming out of his room, too, stretching and yawning a bit.  Adam smiled at him and they walked quietly together to their father’s room at the end of the hall.

Joe was asleep in the chair by the bed, and Pa was sitting up, reading.  He glanced up when he saw his older sons and smiled.  He put a finger to his lips, and smiled, nodding at Joe beside him.

Hoss put out a hand to his father’s forehead; Ben sighed, but submitted gracefully.  Hoss beamed at his brother and nodded; the fever’s gone!  Adam grinned back and perched on the edge of his father’s bed.

“How do you feel, Pa?” he said very softly, so as to not disturb his little brother.

“Much better, Adam, thank you,” he said quietly, his voice still a little hoarse.  “You boys didn’t sit up all night, did you?”

“No, sir.  We split it up between us,” said Hoss in a whisper.  “Adam took the first shift, then me, then Short Shanks.”

“Well, you both look tired to death.  After you finish the morning chores, why don’t you both go back to bed and get some sleep?” suggested Ben quietly.

“Sounds like a plan to me,” yawned Adam sleepily.

“You hungry, Pa?” asked Hoss hopefully.

“As a matter of fact, I am,” nodded Ben, a little surprised to realize it.

“I’ll go down and see if I can’t rustle up somethin’ - “ began Hoss getting to his feet, when the door opened and Hop Sing entered, bearing a tray.  The commotion finally disturbed Joe who jerked awake, startled at seeing so many in the room.

He immediately looked at his father in alarm.  Ben, still looking a bit weak and ill, gave him a warm smile.  Reassured, Joe leaned back and yawned.

“You all go downstairs.  Eat bleakfast, do chores!” scolded Hop Sing, back to his old self as he set the tray on Ben’s bedside table. “Fatha need to rest.  Him sick!”

“But Hop Sing - “ began Joe in protest.

“Go!” roared the man, punctuating his command with a spate of Chinese, his intensity sending three young men scurrying out the door.  After the door had closed quietly behind them, he chuckled and turned to his employer.  “Fevah gone, Missa Cahtlight.  You feel bettah?’

“Yes, thank you Hop Sing,” he sighed contentedly.  Hop Sing set the bed tray at Ben’s lap and sat beside him.

“You eat much as you can...too full, stop.  But must eat.”

“Thank you,” nodded Ben, with a warm smile.  “Thank you very much.”

A silent message of trust and friendship passed between them, then Hop Sing quietly sat back in the chair and watched over Ben as he ate.

Downstairs, the boys found breakfast waiting at the table, eggs kept warm in a chafing dish, crisp bacon, home-fried potatoes browned and smelling wonderful.  The boys were hungry and ate well, relief from worry being an excellent way to regain an appetite.  Then they hurried outside to the chores, already more than two hours late.  Adam sent Hoss and Joe out to the barn to tend to the stock while he found a broad shovel and cleared the snow from the front porch and sections of the front yard, then went around back to do the same.  After clearing the back, he attacked the woodpile, getting a good load of wood cut, split and stacked and hauled some into the house.

It was nearly lunch time when the three found their way back inside to get warm by the fire.  Hop Sing had hot coffee and tea ready for them,  as well as turnovers to warm their hands by the fire.  They sat in companionable silence eating and relaxing until Hoss looked up at the hearth.

“Hey!” he said in wonder.  Adam and Joe glanced at him in surprise, then turned to follow his gaze.

Three stockings hung over the fireplace, filled to bursting.  Joe giggled and scrambled to his feet, making his older brothers grin indulgently.  “Hey, come on!  Ain’t  ya gonna look in yours?” he crowed gleefully, looking back at his brothers with a joyful expression that belied his fifteen years.  Hoss looked at Adam, questioningly, but his older brother’s eyes were wide as he shrugged.

Like three overgrown children, the boys happily dumped out and examined the contents of their stockings.  The special, well-planned and thought-out little gifts, nuts, and the traditional sticks of peppermint candy delighted them, making them laugh and chatter noisily with each other just like Christmases long gone by.

When he heard his three sons come back into the house after chores, Ben set down his book and listened intently through the door Hop Sing had left open.  A few minutes later, at the sudden crows of delight, Ben smiled to himself.  The sounds of their talking and laughter warmed his heart and made him feel better than any medicine any doctor could have forced down him.

Santa Claus had found his way to the Ponderosa again this year, with a short detour at a sickbed and then, through China.


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