SANTA’S LITTLE HELPER
Sharon Kay Bottoms
Little Joe Cartwright gave a sigh of pure pleasure as
he snuggled back in his father’s comfortable armchair. He’d been out
in the December cold most of the day, and it felt good to sit close to the
roaring fire, feet propped on the low wooden table before the hearth.
A nice down-filled quilt would have made him feel even cozier, but Joe didn’t
dare give in to that much luxury; he knew if he did, he’d be fast asleep in
a matter of minutes and he didn’t have time before supper for a satisfying
The eighteen-year-old was tired—with good reason, he
told himself. Ever since Hoss’s horse had slipped on a patch of ice
last week and dumped his older brother onto ground frozen hard enough to
guarantee a broken leg from the spill, Joe had been doing extra chores and
extra work around the ranch. To be fair, Adam had done his share, but
it was hard for even two men to handle the workload big Hoss normally carried,
especially during a season of the year when the Ponderosa maintained only
a skeleton crew. And now Pa was down, too, with an ailment the doctor
had called bronchitis. Except for his concern for his father, that
hadn’t added to Joe’s load, because Adam had taken over Pa’s responsibilities.
The added burden was making his oldest brother crankier by the minute, though,
and Joe was quite content for Adam to be late getting in tonight.
That contentment didn’t last long, for soon the front
door swung open, and Adam blew in—almost literally—on the strong wind that
swirled snow in after him. “Better close it fast,” Joe called.
“Hop Sing ain’t feelin’ real tolerant about cleanin’ up puddles.”
Adam closed the door and leaned heavily against it.
“Well, I ‘ain’t feelin’ real tolerant’ toward bossy baby brothers who think
they can tell their betters what to do, so if Hop Sing pitches a fit about
the puddle, you can just clean it up—and get your feet off the table!”
Staring at his brother, Joe slowly removed his boots
from the table and set them on the floor. “Bad day?” he asked softly,
for while Pa regularly scolded him for putting his feet on the table, Adam,
being himself the biggest culprit in that regard, hardly ever did.
“They’re all bad lately,” Adam sighed as he shrugged
out of his sheepskin coat and hung it on the peg rack beside the front door.
He glanced at the closed door to the downstairs bedroom, where the middle
Cartwright brother had been staying since his injury. “How’s Hoss doing?
“Hoss is okay,” Joe reported, “except he says he’s gonna
faint away from hunger if supper ain’t ready soon, but Pa’s fever is up some
and he’s coughing worse, too.”
As if motivated by the power of suggestion, Adam coughed
in response and crossed the room with long strides. Spreading his hands
to the blazing fire, he said, “I’ll check on him as soon as I’ve warmed up
“It’ll keep,” Joe said. “I was up there about ten
minutes ago, and he was sleepin’ sound.”
“Good. Sleep will—” Adam bent forward, leaning
a hand against the stone fireplace, as another crackling hack shook his ribs.
“Oh, no,” Joe moaned. “Not you, too.” He
stood up and moved toward Adam, hand stretching toward his brother’s forehead.
Adam jerked away before Joe could touch him. “I’m
all right,” he muttered tersely.
Joe’s face screwed into an expression that was half doubt
and half disdain, with a layer of concern lying underneath both. “You
mean except for bein’ bone-tired and cross as a bear?”
“I am not cross as a bear,” Adam growled as he fell into
his favorite blue chair, opposite the one in which Joe had been sitting.
“Could’ve fooled me,” Joe grunted, following his brother
and forcefully planting his palm against Adam’s forehead. Though Adam
tried to flinch away, Joe could feel the warmth radiating to his fingers.
“You’re sick, Adam,” he said, “same as Pa.”
“I’m fine,” Adam insisted, the statement belied by another
attack of coughing. “Look, if I’ve been short with you, I’m sorry, and
if you really want to improve my mood, fetch me a hot cup of coffee.”
Joe straightened up. “I’ll fetch the coffee, but
you’re going straight to bed once you’ve drunk it. You’ve got fever,
Adam.” Ignoring his older brother’s protest, Joe headed for the kitchen,
where he informed Hop Sing that another Cartwright would be taking his supper
on a tray in his bedroom, and returned with a steaming cup of coffee.
The warm drink seemed to transform Adam’s intractability into reluctant cooperation,
and after checking on his father, he crawled beneath the covers of his own
bed, hoping that some extra rest would ward off whatever was making him feel
so achy all over.
By the next morning, however, even stubborn Adam was
willing to admit that he belonged in bed, and a worried Little Joe made an
early morning dash into town for the doctor. After Paul Martin had
examined his new patient and checked on Ben, he drew the only still-healthy
Cartwright into the hall and placed his hands on the anxious young man’s
shoulders. “They’ll be fine, son,” he promised, “so long as they follow
orders: bed rest, plenty of fluids and regular doses of that pulmonary syrup
I told you to buy at the apothecary’s.”
“I’ve got it,” Joe said, “and I’ll make ‘em drink it
by the bottle, if it helps.”
Dr. Martin chuckled. “Just the prescribed dose,
please, unless you want tipsy patients. There is a rather high alcohol
“Might make ‘em easier to manage,” Joe returned with
a cheeky grin.
Dr. Martin chucked the young man under the chin.
“None of that nonsense, young fellow.” His hand fell again to Joe’s
shoulder. “You take care of yourself, son. Don’t overdo and get
plenty of rest yourself.”
The grin faded and Joe shook his head. “Like to
follow that advice, Doc, but don’t see as how I can when I’m the only able-bodied
man left around here.”
The doctor frowned, and his grip on the young man’s shoulder
tightened. “You won’t stay able-bodied long unless you do as I say,
young man. Do what you must to keep the ranch going, but no more.”
Joe gave him a half-hearted smile. “I sort of doubt
that Pa or Adam, either, would go along with that.”
The frown lines in the doctor’s forehead deepened.
“Surely you don’t think your father—or Adam, either—cares more about this
ranch than about you.”
The smile broadened and Joe shook his head. “No,
of course not, but if things ain’t taken care of, they’re likely to hop out
of bed to tend to ‘em themselves.”
Paul Martin laughed in acknowledgement of the all-too-accurate
analysis. “Your job to see they don’t. Take care, Joe, and stay
out of the cold as much as you can. I’ll check on Hoss on my way out,
but I expect to find the leg mending well. I’ll just see myself out
“Thanks, Doc,” Joe said. After shaking the doctor’s
hand he went into his oldest brother’s bedroom and settled on the side of
the bed. “How you feelin’?” he asked.
“Wretched,” Adam admitted, hand held to his sore throat.
“Sorry to abandon you, kid, but I don’t feel like I could crawl, much less
“No problem,” Joe assured him, although he couldn’t help
feeling a little daunted, now that the entire responsibility for the ranch
had landed on his slim shoulders. “Just tell me what needs doin’ and
I’ll do it.”
The next several days were an endurance test for the
young man temporarily in charge of the vast Ponderosa ranch. Much against
his natural inclination, Little Joe was up early every morning, doing everyone’s
chores, making certain that the hands had their assignments for the day and
taking up whatever slack resulted from a work crew short three men.
He had help, of course, in the loyal ranch foreman and a handful of other
trusted men, as well as advice from both his father and oldest brother, for
while neither Ben nor Adam felt able to leave his bed, neither was so out
of his head with fever that he couldn’t answer questions, though Joe bothered
them as little as possible.
Once ranch duties were attended for the day and enough
wood brought in to keep fires stoked in every bedroom and the great room downstairs,
Joe turned nurse, providing loving care for the physical needs of his ailing
family, wiping their fevered brows as they had so often done for him, often
‘til the early morning hours of the next day. He had help in this,
too, from Hop Sing, but the strain was beginning to show on both overworked
Then, just when it seemed that things couldn’t possibly get worse, the Ponderosa
acquired one more patient and had one less caretaker for those already stricken.
Hop Sing managed to put a pot of soup on to simmer before he collapsed in
the kitchen, so supper for the invalids was provided. After bundling
the cook into bed, Little Joe watched the pot until he thought it was done
and took the first bowl to Hop Sing, to see if it met muster before serving
it to the others. Everyone except Hoss received the liquid nourishment
with gratitude. The big man at first looked incredulously at the bowl
Little Joe handed him, and then his face screwed into a huge frown.
“Where’s the rest of the meal?” he demanded.
“That’s all there is, and I don’t want to hear any complaints,”
Joe barked. “You think Hop Sing has nothin’ better to do than fix you
a six-course dinner with all the sick folks around here to tend?” Although
he knew that eventually he’d have to tell everyone that Hop Sing was sick,
too, he wanted to keep that worry to himself as long as possible, and stewing
about how he was going to handle kitchen chores, in addition to his already
past-endurable load, was making him touchy.
Since Joe tended to have a short fuse anyway, Hoss saw
nothing unusual in the testy retort, but reasoning that both his younger brother
and the cook really did have more to do than cater him a full-course meal,
he apologized and said the soup would be fine. “Can I have a second
bowl, at least?” he asked tentatively.
“I reckon,” Joe sighed, thinking he’d probably have to
give up his own portion to satisfy Hoss’s gargantuan appetite. Then
he straightened up and smiled. What did he have to complain about, compared
to people stuck in bed, only days before Christmas? He could always
make out on bread and cheese, in a pinch. “Sure, big brother,” he said
cheerily. “I’ll fetch another right away.”
Hoss grinned, glad to see his little brother’s good humor
restored, but he thought no more of the sudden affability than he had of the
short temper earlier. Joe’d always been prone to lightning changes of
mood, so, to Hoss, everything seemed pretty much normal, except for the meager
Things stopped seeming normal when Joe brought him his
breakfast the next morning, a decidedly lumpy and slightly scorched bowl of
oatmeal. “Dadblame it, I know Hop Sing’s pullin’ extra work, but soup
for supper and oatmeal for breakfast ain’t enough to keep a bird flyin’!”
He lifted the bowl to his nose, which wrinkled in distaste at the sharp odor
of burnt cereal. “He too busy to give it a stir now and then?” he grunted.
“Yeah, dadblame it, I am!” Joe shouted. “I know
I ain’t any kind of a cook, but I’m doin’ my best and the least you can—”
“Whoa!” Hoss held up a restraining hand.
“Whoa up there a minute, youngun. You’re doin’ the cookin’ now?”
Joe moaned at the realization that he had blurted out
what he intended to keep secret and collapsed on the foot of his brother’s
mattress. “‘Cause I’m the only one left who can.” He gave Hoss
a sheepish grin. “I was hopin’ to keep that to myself awhile longer,
but I reckon that oatmeal’s a regular tattletale, ain’t it?”
“It’s a sorry imitation of the bacon and eggs and biscuits
and gravy and flapjacks I’m used to,” Hoss admitted with a chuckle.
Joe straightened up. “You want eggs? I could
try . . .”
Looking horrified, Hoss waved off the suggestion.
“No, no, oatmeal will be just fine, little brother.” To demonstrate
his satisfaction, Hoss took a big bite and somehow managed to choke it down.
“Pa and Adam had their breakfast yet?” he asked, figuring they hadn’t or he
would have heard the shouts of protest, even cut off downstairs as he was.
Joe shook his head. “Guess I might as well tell
‘em up front who done the cookin’,” he sighed.
“Reckon as how you might better,” Hoss said with a grin.
“Easier on your ears that way.”
“Yeah,” Joe muttered as he stood up, “and I can use all
the easy I can find today.” As he left the room, Hoss’s concerned gaze
followed him. The boy looked worn out and sounded like he was weighted
down with a load too heavy to heft.
Typically, when Ben heard that Hop Sing was now ill,
too, his chief concern was for the extra burden that would fall on his young
son. “Joseph, I don’t know how you’re going to manage,” he whispered
sympathetically, for a whisper was all his enflamed throat could produce.
Joe offered a sickly smile, since he also entertained
grave doubts about how he would manage to keep the Ponderosa afloat in this
deluge of disease. “Well, Hop Sing made a big enough pot of soup to
last through dinner, but after that it’s my cooking or none, I guess.”
“Just do your best, son,” Ben urged.
Adam, when told of the new problem, offered a partial
solution. “Get Smokey to help,” he suggested. Smokey Whittaker
was an old wrangler who had sometimes served as assistant cook on cattle drives,
and he was conveniently housed close by in the bunkhouse. “He may not
know how to cook more than beans, bacon and biscuits, but the men can survive
on that ‘til Hop Sing’s on his feet again.”
“And it’ll fill Hoss up better, too,” Joe acknowledged,
his countenance brightening. Then he shook his head, sighing.
“Don’t think beans, bacon and biscuits is quite what you sick folks need,
though. Guess you’re still stuck with me for a cook.”
“Guess so,” Adam agreed hoarsely, “but at least Hop Sing’s
soup will stretch further if you’re not feeding it to Hoss and the crew, too,
so we won’t fall onto your tender mercies quite as soon.”
Joe pulled the wool blanket up and tucked it tight under
his brother’s chin. “Don’t be wastin’ your voice spoutin’ meanness,
big brother; my mercies are the tenderest you got right now, and you’d best
be grateful for ‘em.”
As soon as Joe left, Adam smiled at the closed door to
his bedroom and whispered, “I am, little brother; I truly am.”
The warm feeling of gratitude lasted just halfway through
his first sip of the soup Joe brought him at noon. “What have you done
to this?” Adam demanded, spewing the broth from his mouth.
“Hey, don’t go makin’ extra laundry,” Joe scolded, hastily
dabbing his brother’s nightshirt with a napkin. “I just added some extra
salt, figurin’ it would help your sore throat. Doc always says to gargle
with salt water for that.”
“Gargling is about what this is fit for,” Adam muttered.
“Not good?” Joe asked, mouth skewing sideways in a quizzical
“Not edible,” Adam responded pointedly.
“Oh.” Joe cocked his head and said cajolingly,
“Guess it’s a good thing I just added it to the bowl, not the pot, huh?”
Adam favored him with a sour smile. “Meaning I’m
your only victim? I suppose some might consider that a good thing—namely,
Pa and Hop Sing!”
Panic swept across Joe’s face. “Pa and Hop Sing!” He took off
at a run, shouting, “Don’t eat it!”
Somehow the family survived Joe’s cooking that day and
the next and even began to show signs of returning health, though the sound
of loud coughing continued to punctuate the otherwise silent nights.
Though obviously exhausted, Little Joe started to relax. “Looks like
you’re gonna be well in time for the Christmas Eve party after all,” he said
happily after checking his father’s forehead for fever and finding it cooler.
“Oh, Joseph, I don’t think any of us are up to hosting
a party this year,” Ben sighed. Though he felt better, his throat was
still raw, and anything beyond a shallow breath stirred up the coughing that,
once started, was hard to control.
The boy still residing within the seemingly mature eighteen-year-old
came bursting out. “But, Pa, it’s Christmas,” the youngster cried, “and
the invitations are already sent and everything.”
Drawing his hand from beneath the warm covers, Ben stroked
the boy’s cool cheek. “Joseph, I’m sorry; I know it’s a disappointment.
Goodness knows, you deserve a night to dance your cares away, but I’m really
not well enough to consider it. I hate to add even this to your workload,
son, but I think you’d better ride out and get word to all those invited guests,
canceling the party, so they’ll have time to make other plans. Apologize
for the short notice, and tell everyone we’ll try for a New Year’s Eve celebration,
“But, Pa . . .” Joe’s voice took on the characteristics
of a childish whine, and that grinding sound irked his father into a curt
“Do as I say, Joseph,” Ben ordered brusquely. He
looked as though he would have liked to say more, but yet another attack of
coughing forestalled the rest of the lecture.
“Yes, sir,” Joe muttered. He left and dragged dejectedly
downstairs and into the bedroom his middle brother temporarily occupied.
He said nothing as he perched at the foot of the bed, but the desolation on
his face told Hoss something was amiss. “Christmas,” Joe sighed despondently
when asked what was wrong.
“What’s wrong with Christmas?” Hoss asked.
Joe drew his knees up, ignoring the fact that the soles
of his boots were on the bedspread, and huddled miserably over them.
“There ain’t gonna be none, that’s what.”
Hoss laughed. “Aw, shucks, sure there is.
I admit there was a time earlier this year when I figured there’d be nothin’
in your stocking but switches for tannin’ your ornery hide, but after the
way you’ve pitched in the last few days, all your other mischief has been
paid for, so I reckon, come Christmas morning, ole Santa will have left a
pile of presents under the tree for you.”
Joe looked up and asked glumly, “What tree?”
Hoss gulped in sudden realization. “That’s right.
We ain’t got one, have we? We all got laid up before time to chop one
down, and I reckon you’ve been too busy since to give it a thought.”
“I guess I still could,” Joe said pensively, “but it’d
be just you and me to enjoy it. Pa says I gotta ride out and uninvite
folks to the party so’s they can make other plans.”
Hoss now looked as forlorn as his younger brother.
“Aw, that’s a shame. Folks look forward to that party all year—especially
the orphans over to Carson City. They don’t get many chances for special
doin’s; kinda hard for them to make other plans, too, tight as money always
is at the home. You oughta take some candy to ‘em, at least, Joe, to
give ‘em a little Christmas cheer.” He glanced considerately at the
weary-eyed young man across from him. “If you got time, that is.”
Joe smiled for the first time since entering the room.
“I’ll make time. Like you said, it’s the least we can do for kids that
won’t get much Christmas otherwise.” He stood up and stretched.
“Guess I’ll turn in, since I need to make an early start tomorrow. You
need anything before I head up?”
“Just pour me a glass of water and leave it where I can
reach it, and I’ll be set for the night,” Hoss said.
Joe did as requested and leaned over to give his big
brother a final tuck-in.
Hoss’s big hand closed around Joe’s forearm. “Don’t be frettin’ yourself
over that party, you hear now? Christmas may not be the merriest this
year, but there’s better times a-comin’, and we’re all gonna be here to celebrate
‘em, at least in part thanks to you. Ole Santa”—he tapped himself on
the chest—“don’t forget things like that.”
Feeling awkward, as he usually did with words of praise,
Joe mussed his brother’s sandy hair. “Thanks, Santa, but you’d best
be restin’ up for your late-night travels, hadn’t you?”
“Yup,” Hoss agreed with an added measure of good cheer.
“Gonna take some extra effort to hoist me into the sleigh this year, though,
so I reckon you’d better be restin’ up, too, if you’re gonna be Santa’s little
“If I’m hoistin’ you into a sleigh, I reckon I better,” Joe laughed.
He gave Hoss a playful punch on the shoulder and left. After stopping
in to see Hop Sing, Adam and finally his father and tending to their last-minute
wants and wishes, Joe turned in himself, citing all the homesteads he had
to visit the next day as reason for his early retiring. “I’ll leave
all our doors open, though,” he promised both his father and eldest brother,
“so just holler if you need anything.” Smokey Whittaker had promised
to sleep on the settee and keep an ear out for similar cries for help from
Hoss and Hop Sing, since Joe couldn’t be both upstairs and down at the same
time. Amazing how even that much help eases the load, Joe thought, and
from there his mind drifted back to Hoss’s calling him “Santa’s little helper”
as he slipped a nightshirt over his head and slipped into bed.
It certainly appeared that Santa could use a little help
in bringing Christmas to the Ponderosa this year, and as near as Joe could
see, he was the only candidate available for the job. He decided then
and there that he would find the biggest and best Christmas tree available
and decorate it as if the whole territory of Nevada would be there to see
it glisten in the light of the candles tied to each bough. Maybe Pa
and Adam would feel like leaving their beds, at least long enough to open
presents, by Christmas morning, but even if they didn’t, Hoss would be able
to enjoy the tree. Doc was supposed to be bringing some crutches out
from town that would release his big brother from bed.
Joe yawned. Good ole Hoss, he’d tell me not to
bother, just for him. Always been unselfish like that, which just means
he deserves a merry Christmas more than anyone I know. Hoss always
did his part to make Christmas merry for everyone else, even dressing up
like St. Nick to pass out presents to the wide-eyed orphans from the Carson
City Asylum, and Joe could tell that what was bothering his big brother most
of all was the thought of those little kids going without. He’d promised
to see that they got their treats, of course, but somehow that didn’t seem
like enough. Kids like that, who got next to nothing all through the
year, really needed the fun of a big Christmas party.
Joe sat up, hugging his knees beneath the covers as he
considered the possibility of throwing the kids a party all by himself.
He’d need a tree, of course, but he was going to get one anyway, so that didn’t
count as extra work, and he’d need candy and presents and some kind of refreshments.
Joe’s face scrunched with dismay. Hop Sing always made great refreshments,
but Hop Sing was sick. Kids didn’t demand much, though; sandwiches,
punch and cookies would do. He could make sandwiches easy enough.
There was plenty of smoked ham and cheese in the larder, and even as inept
as Joe felt in the kitchen, he could slice meat and cheese and bread.
Nothing to that, and he’d watched his pa make punch often enough to manage
that, too. Cookies were another matter. Joe sighed, chin dropping
to his bent knees. Cookies were beyond his ability, no question about
that, and kids just had to have cookies for Christmas; cookies, candy and
presents were what Christmas was all about at that age.
Joe’s chin came up and a smile curved his lips as sudden
inspiration struck. The Cartwrights weren’t the only ones who cared
about giving the orphans a good Christmas; there were lots of kind-hearted
folks in the territory, and he had to ride around to most of them tomorrow,
anyway. He’d just apply the old Cartwright charm, fix his little-lost-puppy
eyes on those he knew to be good cooks, paint them an irresistible picture
of those pathetic little cookie-less orphans and ask them to donate a dozen
or so treats to a good cause.
Sudden inspiration struck again. If he was throwing
one party, how much more trouble could it be to throw two? Just make
a bunch more sandwiches, mix some extra punch, ask for a few more cookies,
maybe a cake or two from his closer female friends, push back the furniture
for dancing once the orphans headed back to Carson and let the older folks
make their own fun. What could be simpler? Explaining to Pa why
he had disobeyed a direct order to cancel the party might get touchy, but
that could wait for Christmas morning, when, hopefully, the spirit of the
day would have Pa in much too good a mood for stern lectures.
* * * * *
Little Joe was whistling merrily as he and a couple of
the ranch hands brought in the huge pine and set it up in the usual niche
beside the stairs. Everything was going according to plan. The
people he’d visited yesterday had been more than willing to lend a hand with
providing for the orphans’ party, and while some of the older folks had questioned
the wisdom of his hosting the second party by himself, all the girls he’d
told had declared their delight at the prospect of dancing with him.
A few of their older sisters expressed regret that Adam wouldn’t be escorting
them around the dance floor, but Joe assured them with a naughty wink that
he’d see to it they didn’t miss his older brother too much. He refrained
from making a similar offer to Bessie Sue when she bemoaned Hoss’s inability
to dance on Christmas Eve. Joe had danced with her once last year as
payback for a favor Hoss had done him, and that big gal had not only worn
him out with her vigorous sashay around the dance floor, but had tromped on
his foot and nearly broken it in the process. No, sirree, Miss Bessie
Sue was welcome to come, but she’d be dancing with someone else this year!
After he’d spoken to all the invited guests and assured
them the party was still on, Joe had made a quick trip to town for last-minute
supplies: a wide assortment of candy for the kids, including the big one with
the broken leg, lots of small toys to tie on the branches of the Christmas
tree and bigger ones to come straight from Santa, some tins of peaches and
jars of pickles to set on the table with the sandwiches, and the ingredients
for Pa’s famous punch. He’d had chores to do when he got home, of course,
and supper to prepare for his ill family members, but there had been enough
soup left to satisfy their skimpy appetites. It was gone now, though,
so Joe figured he’d have to make a fresh batch. Though Hop Sing wasn’t
feeling up to getting out of bed, he wasn’t hoarse or feverish, like Pa and
Adam had been, so he could surely give instructions on how to make a proper
pot of soup. How hard could it be?
Starting early this morning, Joe had selected the perfect tree, chopped
it down by himself and then enlisted the help of the ranch hands in getting
it home and into the house. They’d been glad to take a break from regular
chores for a job that promised the reward of an invitation to the dance.
“I’ve got just the girl picked out for you,” he told one of the men, who he
had noticed wore especially stout-toed boots.
Joe made quick work of the necessary barn chores, for
he still had much to do tonight. First he popped a huge bowl of popcorn
and toted it into Hoss’s room.
“Popcorn!” Hoss protested. “Don’t tell me Smokey’s
down sick, too, and this is all I’m gettin’ for supper!”
“Smokey’s fine, and you ain’t eatin’ none of this,” Joe
snorted. “This is for stringin’—for the tree.”
Hoss looked touched. “You went and got a tree for
just the two of us? Joe, you shouldn’t have, not with all the extra
work you’ve already got to do.”
“I wanted to,” Joe said, “for me as much as for you,
but as it turns out, it ain’t gonna be just the two of us, after all.”
A broad smile spread over Hoss’s face. “Pa and
Adam are better?”
“Yeah, they are,” Joe said, “but that’s not what I meant.
They’re on the mend, but I’m still not sure they’ll be out of bed in time
for the party.”
A deep frown replaced Hoss’s beaming smile. “What
party?” he asked in staccato-sharp syllables.
“The one for the orphans,” Joe said. He paused
and added in a voice so low Hoss could barely hear it, “And the other one,
“The other one?” Hoss queried. Then realization
dawned in his clear blue eyes. “The one Pa told you to cancel, you mean?”
“Shh!” Joe ordered, although reason should have told
him that there was no way his father could hear the conversation from his
bedroom upstairs. “Yeah, that one. Well, I was s’posed to cancel
the both of ‘em, for that matter, but Pa might understand about the orphans.
The other, I ain’t so sure.”
“Joe,” Hoss chided, “you are bound and determined to
get them switches in your stocking, ain’t ya?”
“No, I ain’t,” Joe insisted. “What I’m bound and
determined to do is make a merry Christmas for those poor little orphans you
was frettin’ over. You’re the one that reminded me about them, so the
least you can do is help out by stringing a little popcorn. Lots of
folks is helpin’, by bakin’ cookies and such, and I thought you’d be glad
to do what little you could, but if you’re too selfish to give a little time
to kids that don’t get parties hardly any other time of year, when you ain’t
got nothin’ to do but lay there, anyway, I reckon I can just add this to
my workload that you said you was so worried about and—”
“Hey, hey now,” Hoss interrupted, his face glowing crimson
with shame. For some reason Joe had always had the ability to make him
feel about two inches tall, when he’d been so certain a minute before that
he was the one in the right. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t string the popcorn.
Sure I will, and I think it’s great that you got folks to help out with the
cookies and such, but about that other party, Joe . . .”
Joe swept aside his older brother’s concern. “All
under control,” he assured Hoss confidently. “Ain’t much more work,
you see, to get ready for two parties than for one, and if folks are bringin’
refreshments for the orphans, only seems right to let ‘em stay and enjoy some
fun themselves, to pay ‘em back for bein’ so good to the kids.”
“Well, maybe,” Hoss conceded, trying hard to follow his
younger brother’s convoluted reasoning, “but I ain’t sure Pa’s gonna see it
quite like you do.” Little Joe could usually talk circles around Hoss,
but most of the time Pa and Adam somehow managed to wade through the spiral
of words and see what really lay behind them.
“Pa’s been too sick to think things through or he’d see it just the same,”
Hoss rolled his eyes skeptically. “You are gonna tell Pa, ain’t you?”
“Oh, sure,” Joe responded with easy acquiescence.
“When the time’s right.” He smiled to himself. Christmas morning—that’s
when the time would be right—right after he gave Pa his Christmas present,
which was, thankfully, a really nice one this year. “Okay, you get to
stringin’,” Joe ordered. “I got to get to the kitchen and start some
soup. I’ll make a big pot, in case you want some, too.”
“Uh, Smokey is still okay, ain’t he?” Hoss asked with
a hint of anxiety.
Joe turned at the door, clearly perturbed by the lack
of confidence Hoss was expressing in his cooking skills. “Yeah, he’s
fine. I was tryin’ to be nice and give you some variety, but if you
really want beans, bacon and biscuits again, you’re welcome to it, big brother!”
“Got a positive craving for it,” Hoss said as he squinted
to thread the needle Joe had handed him for stringing the popcorn.
Little Joe trotted into the cook’s bedroom. “Hey,
Hop Sing, soup ain’t hard to make, is it?” he asked. “Just throw everything
in a pot and let it boil, I guess, but how long?”
The cook muttered something in Chinese that Joe thought
was better left untranslated, but since there was no other way anyone would
get fed, Hop Sing finally condescended to tell the young man how to begin.
Much running back and forth from kitchen to cook’s room went on for the next
hour or so before Joe brought a bowl for his instructor to evaluate.
Hop Sing took a tentative taste of the broth. “Not
enough salt,” he dictated.
Joe nibbled his lower lip. “You sure? Last
time Adam said I added too much.”
“Mr. Adam got good sense; he not foolish boy like you.
You not s’posed add anything to Hop Sing soup,” the feisty little Oriental
grunted. “Hop Sing soup perfect.”
“Yeah, it was; I mean, it always is,” Joe admitted quickly,
both because it was true and because he didn’t dare risk losing his only ally
in the battle against starvation. “More salt, huh?”
“Little bit more, not whole cup,” the cook cautioned.
Joe looked annoyed. “I got some sense, you know.”
“Not much,” Hop Sing muttered. He scooped up a
cube of beef onto his spoon. “What Hop Sing tell you? Cut meat
“I did!” Joe protested.
Hop Sing shook his head. “This not small; this
size for stew, but not have time for stew. Take meat out, cut smaller
and cook little more.” He tried again to chew the beef, but spit it
out of his mouth in distaste. “No, not little more, lot more.”
“But it’s suppertime now,” Joe wailed.
“Vegetables done; take meat out, make plain vegetable
soup,” the cook advised after another taste test. “Add meat tomollow,
make mo’ special.”
Joe gave him a relieved smile. “That’s a good idea.
They oughta have something special for Christmas Eve. You, too.
I’ll even sneak you a cookie or two while the doc’s back is turned.”
Of course, Dr. Martin hadn’t specifically prohibited cookies, but in Joe’s
experience, nothing that good was likely to fit a doctor’s notion of good
nutrition. What the doctor didn’t know, though, wouldn’t hurt anyone.
Hop Sing returned a conspiratorial grin. “Now you
show good sense, like number one son.”
Sticking out his tongue seemed to Joe an appropriate
response to being compared to Adam. Taking the bowl back to the kitchen,
he scooped the meat out of the pot and dumped it onto the cutting board,
added a little more salt to the remaining soup, and after it had simmered
a bit longer took a small portion back to Hop Sing for tasting. When
Hop Sing pronounced it fit to eat, “but not good like mine,” Joe ladled soup
into two more bowls. After taking soup upstairs to Pa and Adam, he returned
and picked up a butcher knife. Then he cocked his head and eyed the
meat for a minute. No need to cut it smaller, he decided, since it
now had plenty of time to cook. “Stew for Christmas Eve,” he decided
and started to hum as he tossed it all back into the pot and left it to bubble
He decided to leave the dishes ‘til the next day. That way he’d only
have to wash up once before the party, and, besides, he needed to get the
paper cones made for holding the candy treats for the orphans. He dragged
the round game table into Hoss’s room, set it beside his older brother’s bed
and helped Hoss swing his legs over the edge. Then, seated opposite
each other, the two younger Cartwright brothers chatted merrily as they snipped
and pasted and tied a ribbon to the top of each cone for hanging on the tree.
Finally, the containers were completed and after pulling the table back
out of the way, Joe gave a mighty yawn and a stretch. “I’m for bed,”
he said. “It’s been a long day.”
“Yeah, I know it has for you,” Hoss said, “but I gotta
tell you. Havin’ somethin’ to do sure made the hours pass faster for
me. I’m glad you’re throwin’ this party, little brother, and sure ‘nough
glad you figured a way I could help out.”
Joe laughed. “Maybe I can convince Pa I did it
all to help you mend faster.”
“Welcome to any help I can give you along them lines,”
Hoss chuckled. “Now get on to bed. You look bushed, and tomorrow’s
another long day.”
“Oh, tomorrow should be easy, compared to today,” Joe
assured him, ending with yet another wide-mouthed yawn. “Just need to
finish decorating, make the sandwiches and punch and set things out.”
* * * * *
Little Joe was so certain that he had everything under
control that he granted himself the luxury of a little lie-in on the morning
of Christmas Eve, and none of his family begrudged him the additional rest.
He visited his father and eldest brother as soon as he was dressed and assured
them that breakfast wouldn’t be long in arriving. “In fact, I’ll make
you all some nice buttered toast to tide you over ‘til the oatmeal’s cooked.”
“Joe, that isn’t necessary,” Adam insisted when the message
was delivered to him. “Really, don’t trouble yourself.”
“No trouble,” Joe announced genially and bounded out
Adam sighed, wondering just how much longer he’d be subjected
to the tender mercies of over-salted soup, lumpy oatmeal and predictably scorched
Joe clattered down the stairs, made the same assurance
and promise to Hoss and Hop Sing and set to work cutting off thick slices
of bread for the toast. The loaf he’d been using provided four slices,
but deciding one wouldn’t be enough for Hoss, Joe headed to the pantry for
a fresh loaf. Yet though he searched every shelf, he couldn’t find any
bread. Rushing into the cook’s room, he asked, “Where do you hide the
extra bread, Hop Sing?”
When Hop Sing indignantly asserted that he never hid
bread and told him it was in the pantry, Joe shook his head vigorously.
“No, it ain’t; I looked high and low.”
“How much blead you eat?” the cook demanded. “Hop
Sing bake enough fo’ week.”
Joe could almost feel the color draining from his cheeks.
He had eaten and served an unusual number of sandwiches over the last few
days; in fact, he himself had basically lived on them, so as to save the better
food for the invalids, but surely the bread wasn’t all gone. “I mean
the other extra bread,” he suggested, adopting, without realizing it, the
same pleading puppy eyes that had garnered him dozens of cookies from female
friends. “Ain’t you got some stashed somewhere, for emergency?”
The forlorn expression had no effect on Hop Sing.
He merely folded his arms across his chest, repeated that the bread was all
in the pantry and began to mumble something about greedy-bellied boys.
Joe got out fast and walked back to the kitchen, scratching his head.
What was he going to do? The orphans were scheduled to arrive at four
that afternoon, so he had no time to ride around searching for bread to borrow.
And he had to have bread. Sandwiches might not be fancy party grub,
like folks were used to, but they sure as shootin’ beat nothing but peaches
Joe’s eyes lighted as he entered the kitchen and saw
Smokey Whittaker stirring up a batch of biscuits. “Hey, Smokey,” he
said, gazing at the grizzled wrangler as if he’d just seen his savior.
“How are you at baking bread?”
“You mean light bread?” Smokey laughed. “I’m
only passable at makin’ biscuits, boy; I got better sense than to tackle light
“But you gotta,” Joe whined. “We’re plumb out,
and I can’t make sandwiches without bread.”
“I ain’t gotta do nothin’ of the sort,” Smokey snorted.
“I don’t mind doin’ what I can to help out in time of need, but I got too
much gumption to mess with what I got no hope of doin’ right.”
“Please?” Joe pleaded. “I’ll set you up with a
real pretty filly for the dancing.”
Lips pursed in determination, Smokey shook his head.
“I’ll find my own filly, boy, and leave you to tend the bread-makin’, though
I think you’d be a fool to even try.”
Joe sank into the straight-backed chair, feeling that
even its solid wood was insufficient to support him. He propped his
elbows on the kitchen worktable and tried to come up with a solution to his
dilemma that didn’t involve his tackling yet another new cooking skill.
For fifteen minutes he sat there, thinking, before he faced the inevitable
conclusion that the only way to get more bread was to bake it himself.
With a sigh of despair for the way this “under-control” day was unraveling,
he stood. How hard could it be? he asked himself as he headed for lion’s
lair once again. Harder than taming the wildest bronc, that’s how hard!
Hop Sing’s first reaction to Little Joe’s questions about
how to bake bread was to pull the covers back and try to climb out of bed.
Joe put a quick stop to that nonsense. “Don’t be stupid,” he scolded.
“You were the last took, and that makes you the one that needs to stay in
bed the worst.” He stood sternly by the bed, arms akimbo. “Now,
how do I make bread?”
“Is-a not good idea,” Hop Sing insisted. “Velly
hard, especially for foolish boy who not follow orders.”
“I follow orders,” Joe protested. “Well, most of
the time.” He couldn’t help realizing in that moment that he wouldn’t
be in this predicament if he’d followed his father’s order to cancel the party,
but he wasn’t about to confess that to Hop Sing. “Anyway, I’ll follow
yours; I’ll do just like you say, just like I did with the soup.”
Hop Sing shook his head, wondering how the boy could
tell such a bald-faced lie with such an earnest face. “Just like with
soup? Hop Sing much wollied now.” Seeing the chin of the boy
he loved begin to quiver, though, against his better judgment Hop Sing started
rattling off instructions in the art of bread-baking.
Mumbling the steps over and over to himself, Joe rushed
back to the kitchen and set some water on to heat, determined to watch it
carefully so that it was just warm and not boiling, for Hop Sing had warned
him that boiling water would kill the yeast. While he was waiting, Joe
saw the slices of bread he had meant to toast lying on the worktable and
decided he’d better get those to his family fast or there would be difficult
questions to answer. Four slices still didn’t look like enough, so he
cut each in half, pleased that now each person could have two apiece.
When the toast was done, Joe ran a plate of it in to
Hop Sing and then charged up the stairs to deliver toast first to those most
likely to question any delay. Sure enough, as soon as he came through
the door, Adam said, “Well, if it takes this long just to get toast, I suppose
it’ll be nearly noon by the time the oatmeal arrives.”
Joe stared at him, flabbergasted. “Oatmeal?
You want oatmeal, too?” Then, as the incredulous expression on his brother’s
face reminded him of his previous promise, he sputtered, “Oh, yeah, the oatmeal.
Coming right up.” He ran down the hall to his father’s room and thrust
the plate of toast at his father.
“Joseph, son, slow down,” his father urged, concerned,
as he had been for days, that his youngest son was being overworked.
“No need to rush around so. We’re not going anywhere.”
“No need!” Joe cried in dismay. If only Pa knew
how great the need really was! But he caught himself before saying anything
more incriminating and after promising the oatmeal soon, walked out of the
bedroom, only breaking into a run when he’d rounded the corner into the main
upstairs hall. His feet touched half or fewer of the steps as he careened
down the stairs. Racing to the kitchen, he grabbed the last plate of
toast and, rushing into Hoss’s room, practically threw it at him. “Gotta
go,” he yelled. “Oatmeal soon.”
Running back into the kitchen, Joe found that the pan
of water had started to boil in his absence. He grabbed the handle to
move it off the stove and just as quickly let it go, bringing his reddened
palm to his mouth. Snatching a dish towel from the counter by the sink,
he started to remove the pan, but then he smiled and left it where it was.
After all, he did need boiling water to cook the oatmeal, so the minor blunder
had actually put him a step ahead. “Shouldn’t be tryin’ to do two things
at once, anyway,” Joe chided himself. “Get breakfast out of the way
first and there’ll still be time to bake the bread.”
Deciding that he should at least get out the utensils
and ingredients while the cereal cooked, however, he set out bowls and spoons,
flour, sugar, salt and yeast and made a quick run to the spring house for
milk and butter. Placing those on the worktable, he decided to give
the oatmeal a stir and discovered it had already boiled dry. “Should’ve
remembered oatmeal needs more water than bread,” he muttered. Snatching
up the spoon with which he had intended to mix the bread dough, he took a
taste of the oatmeal and grimaced. No, definitely not done yet, although
it did taste a bit charred around the edges. Well, that would just give
it a nice roasted flavor when it was done; no need to start from scratch,
especially as pushed for time as he was this morning. He took the pan
to the pump, put more water in it and set it back on the stove to boil again.
When the cereal had boiled down a second time, Joe took
a tentative taste, and his face screwed up once again. That roasted
flavor wasn’t quite as nice as he’d hoped, but it would have to do.
He certainly didn’t have time to start over. He had bread to bake!
He took the cereal first to his brother Adam. “And
I don’t wanna hear any complaints, either,” he said when he handed Adam the
bowl of gray lumps.
“Oh, that sounds promising,” Adam sighed, but Joe had
“I didn’t do so good this morning, Pa,” Joe apologized
at his next stop.
Ben could see that at first glance into his bowl, but
his concern, once again, was for his youngest son, who seemed more distracted
and frenzied than usual this morning. The strain of the last few days
must be getting to the boy. “It’ll be fine, Joseph,” he said gently.
“Your best is always fine, son.”
Joe paused long enough to give his father a relieved
smile. “Thanks, Pa,” he said, and then he was running down the hall
again. As he passed Adam’s room, he hollered, “My best is always fine
“If this is your best, heaven preserve me from your worst!”
Adam yelled back to the now empty hall.
Running back to the kitchen, Joe hastily dished up another
bowl of oatmeal and trotted it into Hoss’s bedroom. “It ain’t too good,
but I’ll do better by you later, I promise.”
“Whoa! What’s the rush?” Hoss asked. “I thought
everything was under control.”
Joe popped his head back into the room long enough to
announce, “It ain’t under control—far from it—but I’m workin’ on it.
I’ll explain later.” And then he was off again. He prepared the
final bowl of oatmeal and carried it to Hop Sing, who took one look and started
ranting in Cantonese.
“Yeah, I know,” Joe said, walking gingerly backwards
with his palms held outward to ward off the angry words, “but I ain’t got
time to listen now. I got bread to bake.”
What ensued for the next hour or so should have gone
down in history next to the Napoleonic wars or some battle of equal proportions.
Joe measured and mixed and then plunked the whole sticky mess onto the floured
table and began to knead . . . and knead . . . and knead, adding more and
more flour and trying in vain to keep the dough from clinging to his fingers.
When he felt that he couldn’t possibly pound that recalcitrant lump of dough
one more time, he ran down to Hop Sing’s room again. “How long I gotta
knead this stuff?” he demanded.
Hop Sing scanned the flour-dusted figure of the youngest
Cartwright. “My kitchen look bad as you?” he demanded.
Joe took a quick glance downward. “Worse,” he replied
honestly, “but I’ll clean it up. Now, how much more I gotta knead this
stuff? My arms are about to break off!”
Hop Sing grinned. “When they break off, you be
‘bout there.” He pointed to the dough on Joe’s fingers. “‘Til
dough stick to self and not to you,” he advised.
“Okay,” Joe sighed, muttering as he turned away, “but
you must have the strongest arms in the territory.”
Hop Sing smiled and nodded, pleased that his worth was
finally being acknowledged. Perhaps he should consider giving his other
Cartwrights opportunities like this; perhaps they, too, would appreciate his
work more if they had to do it for a few days.
The dough finally stuck to itself and not to Joe’s fingers,
so he concluded that it was ready to plop into a greased bowl and be left
to rise in a warm place, as Hop Sing had previously instructed. Since
that process was supposed to take at least an hour, Joe decided he had time
for a visit with, and hopefully a little sympathy from, his middle brother.
“Doggone. That’s hard luck,” Hoss commiserated
when he’d heard Joe’s latest woe. “‘Course, I should’ve known you was
headed for trouble when I first heard you was plannin’ to disobey Pa.”
“Don’t bring that up now,” Joe moaned. “I can’t
go back and change that now; it’s too late to get word to folks, and, besides,
think of those poor little orphans, Hoss.”
Hoss nodded slowly, though his mouth was set in a worried
frown. “You’re right about it bein’ too late to cancel on the kids now.
I just wish there was some way I could help you more.”
Joe perked up. “There is. We still need to
put the candy in those cones. If you could do that, I could finish decorating
the tree while the dough rises.”
“Pull that game table back over and bring me the candy,”
Joe did, wagging a finger at Hoss as he left again.
“And don’t be eatin’ all the candy yourself,” he cautioned. “I ain’t
sure how much we got to spare.”
“Just one piece?” Hoss suggested, his face as woebegone
as any orphan’s could possibly be.
Joe grinned and held up five fingers, and as if by magic,
Hoss’s countenance was totally transformed and he went to work with renewed
Joe finished draping the evergreen boughs over the mantle
and tying all the small gifts to the tree. By that time Hoss had a large
number of candy-filled cones ready, so Joe scooped up all he could carry
and took them to the tree and hung them from the branches. It took
several trips before all the cones were in place, and then Joe added the
final touch by fixing the carved angel to the top of the tree. “Merry
Christmas, Mama,” he whispered. The angel always reminded him of his
mother, and he always sent her a Christmas greeting when her representation
was put atop the tree. Not wanting anyone else to hear and think him
foolish, he normally voiced the words only inside his own head, but with no
one around to hear this year, he could actually say them, and that felt extra
special. With a warm, magnanimous feeling for the world, Joe headed
back to the kitchen for the second engagement of the battle of the bread.
This particular phase of the battle was actually pleasurable,
for it was time to punch down the dough and Joe used the opportunity to vent
his frustrations of the morning. When the dough was properly pummeled,
he shaped it into loaves and set them aside to rise again while he rushed
outside to complete the neglected chores. When he returned, it was time
for the bread to go in the oven. Joe slid the final loaf in and gave
a gaping yawn. Wandering into the front room, he flopped down on the
settee to relax while the bread baked. Yes, sir, he thought contentedly
as he curled into the cushion, the day had started off a bit frantic, but
everything was once again under control.
* * * * *
Dr. Martin rapped a second time on the front door of
the Ponderosa, and when again no one came in response, he opened the door
himself. No doubt Little Joe was upstairs, seeing to the needs of the
bed-bound, and simply hadn’t heard him knocking. Knowing he was welcome
at any time, Paul walked in freely and headed toward the stairs. Surprised
to see a decorated tree, he paused to look at it for a moment; then he heard
a soft snore that made him spin to his left, and he saw the youngest Cartwright
nestled on the settee, sound asleep. Concerned that bronchitis had felled
a final victim, the doctor rushed to him. “Joe! Joe, my boy,”
he said as he laid his hand on the slumbering youth’s forehead. No
fever, at least, he noted.
Joe woke with a start. “Huh? Oh, it’s you,
He started to sit up, but the doctor pushed him back down. “Not ‘til
I’ve examined you,” Paul Martin dictated, reaching for his bag of instruments.
“Examined?” Little Joe bolted upright so fast that
there was no holding him down this time. “I don’t need examinin’; I’m
The doctor sat on the table before the settee.
“Are you sure? You gave me quite a fright, young man, when I saw you
lying there, dead to the world.”
Joe smiled apologetically. “Just tired,” he assured
the doctor. “Been working pretty hard this morning.”
“Overdoing, you mean,” Dr. Martin scolded. “I thought
I warned you about that, son.”
“And like I told you, there ain’t no one else,” Joe countered.
“Well, how is everyone”—the doctor’s nose crinkled as
a sharp odor hit his nostrils. “Is something burning?”
It took a moment for the suggestion to register, and
then Joe leaped from the settee and raced toward the kitchen, arms waving
wildly as he yelled, “My bread!”
Having developed a sixth sense for disaster about to
strike, Paul Martin charged after him and burst through the doorway in time
to shout, “Use a pot holder!” when he saw the young man reach for the handle
to the oven door.
“Oh, yeah, good thinking,” Joe said. “Don’t wanna
make that mistake again!” He grabbed a towel from the worktable, opened
the oven and began pulling out the loaves as quickly as he could. Once
they were all on the table, Joe fell into the chair beside it and stared morosely
at the darkened crusts.
Dr. Martin clapped a hand to the sturdy young shoulder.
“My boy, I am beginning to understand those dark circles under your eyes.
I wish I’d known you were in need of the staff of life. I could have
had my wife bake a loaf or two for you.”
“I’d need more than that,” Joe moaned. “They’re
ruined, ain’t they? And I ain’t got time to bake up another batch before—”
“Before what?” the doctor inquired authoritatively, for
he had known Joseph Cartwright long enough to recognize a suspicious sentence
cutoff when he heard one.
“Before dinner?” Joe offered, his response so tentative
that it immediately lost all credence.
Before Dr. Martin could explore the reason behind the
suspect answer, a stream of vociferous Cantonese alerted him to a more urgent
need. “I’m going to check on Hop Sing before he gets out of bed in defense
of his kitchen, and after that I’ll see my other patients. Then you
and I are going to have a little discussion, young man. I would suggest
that you seriously consider giving me a straight answer the first time.”
He strode swiftly toward the cook’s bedroom, leaving behind a woebegone waif
slumped disconsolately over the table.
When the good doctor had finished his rounds, he returned
to the kitchen, where Little Joe was carefully cutting away the scorched edges
of each loaf. “The inside looks fine, and kids might like sandwiches
better without crust, anyway, you think?”
“What kids?” Dr. Martin demanded. “And stick to
the truth because I assure you that I will not be put off by the usual Joe
Cartwright run-around reasoning!”
“Just some kids that are comin’ here later for sandwiches,”
Joe said, and judging that a change of topic might be in his best interest,
he quickly asked, “How’s everybody doin’?”
“Well enough, but we’ll discuss that later,” the doctor
said sternly. “Stop trying to divert me, young man. What kids
and why are they coming here for sandwiches, of all ridiculous places?”
Joe collapsed forlornly in the chair beside the worktable.
“Promise you won’t tell Pa?”
Dr. Martin folded his arms and glared at the young man.
“No promises. What mischief are you up to, young fellow?”
“None, honest,” Joe insisted, his face earnest.
“Just tryin’ to keep Christmas the way the Cartwrights always do, starting
with a party this afternoon for the Carson City Children’s Asylum.”
“Here?” Dr. Martin all but shouted the query.
“It’s always here.” Little Joe’s head bobbed rapidly
up and down to emphasize the logic of his statement.
“Well, it shouldn’t have been, not this year!” the doctor
ranted. “Surely it hasn’t passed your notice that you are the only Cartwright
Joe sat up straight, chin held high. “I noticed!
But I can do it, even if I am the only Cartwright left standing. I’ve
got it all planned, and everything’s under control.” His gaze fell on
the lopsided, slightly burned bread, and his countenance fell. “Well,
anyway, it was ‘til this happened.”
Shaking his head in consternation, Dr. Martin drew up
a chair and sat down, resting his arms on the worktable. “Let’s hear
the whole sad story,” he said.
Little Joe started at the beginning, with his father’s
instruction to cancel the traditional parties, Hoss’s concern over disappointing
the orphans, his idea—inspiration, he called it, with an especially charming
smile directed toward the doctor—to carry on anyway and to enlist the help
of others in the community in baking cookies and of Hoss in preparing the
popcorn garland and the horns of candy to hang on the tree. “So all
I had to do was decorate the place and make sandwiches and punch,” Joe explained
in conclusion, “but then I discovered we were plumb out of bread, and so I
been workin’ all morning to make some and, well, you know the rest.”
“Joe, Joe,” the doctor chuckled, shaking his head affectionately.
“Only you could follow your heart into this big a mess,”
Paul laughed. “More heart than brains, that’s you.”
Sensing that the doctor was coming around to his side,
Joe returned a crooked smile. “I reckon, but I think it’s gonna be okay.
Good idea, huh, cutting off the crusts?”
“So that’s it, then? Just the party for the orphans?”
Paul inquired. The look on Joe’s face made him glad he’d thought to
ask what seemed to be an unnecessary question. He’d learned over the
years, however, that even the most outlandish questions were rarely unnecessary
where this youngster was involved.
“Well, there is the dance after that,” Joe said slowly,
biting his lip and gazing anxiously across the table.
Leaning his head back and closing his eyes, Paul Martin
groaned. “What dance, son?”
“For the grown folks,” Joe said with bright-eyed buoyancy.
“You’re invited, of course; bring Mrs. Martin, too. In fact—oh, hey!
this is a great idea—you can read A Christmas Carol for the kids, unless you
think Pa’s up to it.”
“Gracious, no!” the doctor remonstrated. “I brought
the crutches I promised, so I think we can get Hoss up, and he can sit quietly
in a nice padded chair and see the orphans get their Christmas candy, but
not your father and Adam. I’m willing to let them out of bed by Christmas
morning, but they are definitely not ready to be around a crowd of people.”
“Oh, too bad,” Joe said. He smiled engagingly at
the doctor. “Well, that leaves you to do the reading, then.”
“Leave me out of this madness,” the doctor intoned ominously.
“But, Doc, you know how the kids look forward to hearing
that story every year,” Joe cajoled, “and if Pa can’t and Adam can’t, then
you’re the next best choice.”
“No,” Paul Martin said bluntly.
“Doc, I’m surprised—no, shocked is more like it,” Joe
declared, holding his palm to his breastbone. “Here you have a chance
to do something to make Christmas special for some poor little orphan tykes,
and you won’t—”
“No,” the doctor repeated more firmly. “Don’t try
twisting me around your little finger, young fellow. Unlike Hoss, I
am immune to your manipulations.”
“Hoss—now there’s someone who really cares about folks
less fortunate than himself,” Joe rambled on as if there had been no interruption.
“Here he is laid up in bed himself, but still wanting to do all he can for
someone else. And all those ladies, too, taking time out from their
own Christmas baking to make cookies for the kids, and all I ask you to do
is read one measly little story and you think that’s too much. Well,
just forget I asked! I guess I can read the story, too, even though
I have been overworkin’ myself, like you said not to, and this’ll just add
more to my—”
“Enough.” The doctor raised a remonstrating hand.
“I’ll do it, but there will be conditions.”
The triumphant smile that had appeared on Joe’s face
when the doctor started to speak skewed sideways by the end of the sentence.
“Conditions? What kind of conditions?”
“Two things,” the doctor replied. “First, promise
me that you’ll take a nice long nap Christmas afternoon if you manage to survive
the lunacy of this evening.”
Joe grinned. “That sounds great! I mean,
if you think no one will need me . . .”
“No one will need you. A nice long nap, young man,
and one more thing: you need to tell your father about this.”
“Oh, I will,” Joe promised easily. “I planned to,
of course, right after we open our presents tomorrow . . . or maybe I should
wait ‘til after dinner, huh? Don’t want to spoil his appetite, do we?”
“Not tomorrow, Joseph, today!” the doctor admonished
sternly. “Before the first of your little guests arrives. I do
not want either your father or Adam getting out of bed to investigate unexplained
“Noises? What noises?” Joe asked, hazel eyes wide
with complete innocence.
The doctor rubbed his throbbing temple, thinking how
typical it was for Joe Cartwright to focus so single-mindedly on what he
wanted that nothing opposing his purpose had a chance of penetrating his
brain. “Dozens of little feet running around, cacophonous cries of
delight as candy and toys rain down, not to mention the sound of a fiddle
and the thump of dancing feet later on.”
Little Joe twisted his lower lip between thumb and index
finger. “Oh, those noises.”
“Yes, those noises! Now, either you tell your father,
young man, or I will,” the doctor said, looking fully prepared to carry out
“I’ll tell him,” Joe promised quickly, adding with a
sigh, “Don’t seem like I’ve got much choice.”
“You have no choice,” Paul Martin affirmed, forcing himself
to keep an unyielding visage. “And tell Adam, too. He doesn’t
need to come bounding out of bed any more than your father does.”
Joe winced. Sometimes Adam could be worse than
Pa, but the young man quickly agreed to the doctor’s terms and after a few
more questions about the patients, showed Paul Martin to the door.
Then Joe returned to the kitchen to slice the bread and make the sandwiches,
reasoning that his father and oldest brother would be more receptive to a
party if all preparations were already made.
* * * * *
Joe paused in the bedroom doorway, dreading his father’s
reaction to the message he had been ordered to deliver. At the moment
he was less concerned about his own fate than about upsetting his father.
After all, it had been years since he’d actually had his britches warmed,
but Pa wasn’t strong yet and shouldn’t have to be bothered with the shenanigans
of a disobedient son. Why is it I never think of this kind of stuff
‘til it’s too late? Joe scolded himself. Then he screwed up his courage
and stepped into the room. “Hey, Pa,” he called softly. “Doc says
you and Adam can come downstairs Christmas morning. Good news, huh?”
Ben stretched his hand toward Joe. “Wonderful news,
but come and sit beside me, son; you look exhausted.”
“Well, I am, kind of,” Joe admitted, “but I’d just as
soon stand right now.” Out of arms’ reach, just in case! “I—uh—I
need to tell you something, Pa.”
“What is it, son?” Ben patted the mattress invitingly.
When Joe just shook his head and remained standing, hands behind his back,
Ben recognized the confessional stance and his brows drew together with foreboding.
“What is it you’ve done, Joseph?”
“Something you told me not to,” Joe said, figuring it
was best—for Pa, at least—for him to get this over with as quickly as possible.
“Don’t go gettin’ all flustered, though. It ain’t nothin’ all that bad,
and you really aren’t up to a temper fit yet, you know.”
One of Ben’s eyebrows arched toward his hairline.
“Would I throw one if I were up to it?”
Joe returned a rueful smile. “Yeah, probably.
Like I said, though, it ain’t all that bad, so don’t fret, okay?”
Ben inched up in bed, and Joe hurried over to adjust
a pillow behind his father’s back. “Just what is ‘it’?” Ben asked tersely.
“No more beating around the bush, Joseph.”
“I wasn’t,” Joe protested. “To cut to the core,
you remember tellin’ me to cancel the Christmas party?”
Ben groaned. “You didn’t.” His tone bordered
just between question and instinctive knowledge of that question’s answer.
“I didn’t,” Joe said plainly. “Hoss was so upset
over the orphans’ missing out on their party that I decided I’d host one for
them anyway, and I didn’t figure it’d be much more work to have the dancing
after, like always, so I didn’t cancel that, either. Everything’s set
up and ready to go, but I thought I’d better tell you, in case you heard music
A wry smile lifted a corner of Ben’s mouth. “Who
pointed that out to you?”
“Doc Martin,” Joe admitted as he grinned back.
“You know me pretty good, don’t you, Pa?”
Ben chuckled. “Well enough to remember that you
generally reserve your confession ‘til the deed has been done and rarely realize
on your own that the truth is likely to come out sooner than you’d hoped.”
He reached out to take his son’s hand. “Joseph, I only told you to
cancel the party out of concern for you and the load you were already carrying.
I wasn’t simply being a spoilsport.”
“I know,” Joe said, squeezing his father’s hand.
“Doc says I gotta take a long nap sometime tomorrow, and I think I’ll be good
and ready for it, but I just had to do this, Pa, for Hoss and for those orphans.
I wasn’t thinkin’ of myself, honest.”
“I can see that,” Ben said, pride glowing in his warm
chocolate eyes, “and since it’s the true spirit of Christmas that motivated
you, I suppose I’ll have to excuse your disobedience this once. Just
don’t make a habit of it, you scamp.”
“No, sir, I won’t,” Joe promised. By way of further
appeasement, he added, “I’ll bring you some cookies later.”
“You made cookies?” Suddenly, the flour dusting
his son’s shirt and britches made sense, but Ben had a morbid dread of what
cookies baked by his youngest son might taste like.
Evidently, that dread showed on his face, for Joe laughed
and said, “Don’t worry. I asked for donations—for the cookies, at least.”
Ben looked relieved for a moment and then his brows drew
together in concern. For which of the refreshments had his young son
not taken donations? Those were definitely the foods for a poor, recovering
invalid to avoid! But Joe had already disappeared, so he had no opportunity
Joe walked down the hall and popped his head into his
brother Adam’s room. “You might hear some music and noise a little later
on,” he said, rushing to get the words out and be on his way, “but just keep
to your bed, understand? Doctor’s orders.” Pulling back his head,
he moved toward the stairs, but his conscience wouldn’t let him keep going
when his brother called his name.
With a sigh Joe reentered Adam’s room. “You know
we always host a party for the orphans’ asylum, with a dance after for our
“I thought Pa told you—”
“He did,” Joe interrupted. “I disobeyed, all right?
But I already told Pa, and he’s okay with it, so you don’t need to say anything
Adam stared at his brother in disbelief. “You’re
doing this by yourself? Have you taken leave of your senses, boy?”
“More’n likely,” Joe said, attempting a nonchalant shrug,
“but I couldn’t disappoint the kids.”
Adam laughed. “Oh, sure! ‘Couldn’t disappoint
the kids,’” he scoffed. “You’re just doing it so you’ll have free rein
with all the pretty girls, since neither of your brothers will be around to
compete for their favors.”
Catching the twinkle in his brother’s dark eyes, Joe
sported a mischievous grin. “A fellow deserves some reward for all
this work, don’t he?”
“Bend over, and I’ll be happy to give you your just desserts,” Adam suggested.
Joe’s nostrils flared, but then his face relaxed as he thought of the perfect
comeback. “Speaking of desserts,” he chirped, “those pretty girls are
bringing batches and batches of cookies for the party. If there’s any
left, I might bring you a couple.”
“What do you mean, ‘if’?” Adam demanded.
“Oh, didn’t I tell you? Doc says Hoss can come
to the party, and considering the grub he’s been getting since Hop Sing took
sick, I figure our brother will have worked up quite an appetite, so I can’t
really promise there’ll be anything left for you.” Like any good military
strategist, Little Joe know when to beat a fast retreat, so, snickering, he
ducked back into the hall and scampered down the stairs, this time ignoring
the voice bellowing his name.
* * * *
Little Joe walked watchfully beside Hoss as the older
boy made his way into the front room. Helping his brother ease into
Pa’s plump-cushioned chair by the fire, Joe took the pillow tucked beneath
his arm and used it to cushion Hoss’s foot as he elevated it on the low wooden
table before the hearth. “How’s that?”
“Can you move the table a little closer?” Hoss asked.
Joe did, and the big man sighed with satisfaction. “Feels good to get
out of that room, even if I can’t dance with any of the gals.” The sigh
that followed sounded melancholy this time.
“Don’t worry about that,” Joe assured him with a clap to the shoulder.
“You’re gonna get plenty of female attention. I’ll send most of Adam’s
lady friends your way, the older ones, anyway. Ladies just love to mother
a man, so all you gotta do is let out a moan every now and then and you’ll
have them eating out of your hand. Those gals are gonna fuss over you
all night, I promise you! Be sure you rub it in real good to older
brother tomorrow morning, too. He’s got it coming.”
“I’ll do that,” Hoss promised with a chuckle, though he had a feeling the
warm glow of Christmas morning would drive all such notions from his head—and
Joe’s too, for that matter. His alpine eyes lit up like those of a child
as they fell on the tall pine bedecked with Christmas joys for the youngsters
scheduled to arrive soon. “Little brother, you sure did a bang-up job
on that tree. The kids’ll love it. Sure hate that I can’t play
Santa for ‘em this year, but it’d plumb upset the younguns to see Santa hobblin’
around on crutches. Then again I reckon they’ll be just as upset when
Santa don’t show up at all.”
“Not show up?” Joe feigned shock. “How can
you think Santa wouldn’t show up? Of course, he’ll be here!”
Hoss’s broad face beamed with pride. “You got someone
to play Santa? Little brother, you plumb thought of everything!
Who’d you talk into it?” When Joe bowed from the waist, the shock on
Hoss’s face was anything but feigned. “You? You gotta be kidding!”
“Of course, me,” Joe proclaimed, hands on his hips.
“Who else did you think I’d find?”
Hoss’s eyes swept up and down his younger brother’s lean
frame. “I was sort of hopin’ you might’ve asked someone a little—uh—rounder.”
Joe chuckled. “Well, I did, but Sheriff Coffee
said he couldn’t make it, ‘cause the deputy’s laid up with bronchitis like
a lot of folks in town. Don’t worry, Hoss. I know I can’t play
the part as good as you, ‘cause you’re the best doggone Santa there ever
was, but I’ll do my best to fill your underwear and beard.” He giggled
at his own joke.
Hoss, however, wasn’t laughing. “My underwear?
You’re gonna wear my underwear?”
“You don’t mind, do you?” Joe asked, surprise flashing
over his face. “You’re the only one in the house with a red set of drawers.”
Hoss’s belly began to shake like the bowlful of jelly
described in Clement’s poem. “Oh, no, I don’t mind, but they ain’t gonna
fit, little—and I do mean little—brother!”
Joe waved aside the remark. “I’m gonna stuff pillows
underneath; it’ll be fine, you wait and see. The kids’ll never
know the difference.”
Thinking that there weren’t enough pillows in the house
to transform Joe into him, Hoss shook his head. “This I gotta see!”
Joe glowered at his brother, but before he could come
up with the kind of saucy retort such a display of disbelief merited, he heard
the sound of excited voices outside and realized that the children had arrived.
Soon the house was packed with happy youngsters and older
folks who had come to make the orphans’ Christmas merry before settling in
for an evening of fun themselves. The refreshments, far from being just
the lopsided sandwiches Joe had felt slightly embarrassed to set out, were
better than ever. Once the invited guests heard about the youngest Cartwright’s
solicitations for cookies and the illness that had made help necessary, they
rightly concluded that other contributions would be welcome, as well.
The table wouldn’t even hold all the festive food that had been brought,
and no one enjoyed it more than the man ensconced by the fire and waited
on hand and foot by a flock of caring females. Much as he would miss
the dancing later on, Hoss couldn’t help thinking that there were worse ways
to spend Christmas Eve than having lovely ladies ply him with plate after
plate of delicious food.
When everyone had eaten all they wished, Dr. Martin sat
enthroned in the blue chair by the blazing fire, with children perching on
both of its arms and sitting cross-legged at his feet, as he began to read
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Little Joe stood behind Hoss,
arms folded on the back of the leather chair, listening as enrapt as the children,
until the doctor began to recount the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Yet
to Come. Then he tiptoed out to the kitchen, gathered up the two plates
full of goodies he had set aside earlier, when he made up a plate for Hop
Sing, and hurried up the back stairs. “Here you go, big brother,” he
said, handing Adam his plate of refreshments, having already delivered a
similar assortment to his father. “I got to feeling sorry for you and
decided to rescue a few nibbles before that other brother of ours gobbled
down everything in sight.”
“So generous of you.” Adam offered his provoking
brother a sarcastic smirk in return for the refreshments. “And did he
repay the favor by rescuing my lady friends from you?”
“The ones I’m squirin’ around don’t need rescuin’,” Joe
taunted, “and the ones I sent his way are havin’ such a good time fussin’
over him that you may have to break a leg yourself to get them back!”
He laughed at the glare with which Adam responded to his twitting. “Much
as I’d like to stay and tell you all about how Hoss is getting along with
your former sweethearts, older brother, I got to get into my costume.
Almost time for Santa to arrive!”
Adam stared incredulously at the space just vacated by
his youngest brother. Joe as Santa Claus? Not a sight he could
afford to miss, so doctor’s orders notwithstanding, he threw back the covers,
crept to his doorway and peeked out. Down the hall, hiding behind a
corner, the patriarch of the Cartwright clan was doing the same, for he, too,
had been told that Little Joe was playing Santa Claus this year and couldn’t
resist seeing a sight like that.
Joe was taking a gander at the sight himself, as he added
a second pillow to produce a plumper belly. The reflection in the mirror
was a sorry representation of the jolly gift-giver, he had to admit. The belly
was padded well enough, but that only emphasized the scrawniness of the frame
supporting it, and the long sleeves and legs of the red wool underwear shouted
that they surely belonged to a taller man. Had he really fooled himself
into believing that no one would notice the difference between him and Hoss?
Joe shrugged off his sudden intuition that everyone would. Okay, so
they’d notice, but as long as he handed out plenty of presents, the kids
would probably set aside any misgivings they had. Joe rolled up the
sleeves and legs, fastened the cottony beard behind his ears, put the oversized
stocking hat on his head and hoisted the sack of gifts too large to be hung
on the tree onto his back. “Ho, ho, ho,” he intoned, testing out his
new, deeper voice. Not bad, he concluded and headed out his bedroom
He tiptoed near the head of the stairs and hid behind
the wall until Dr. Martin read Tiny Tim’s famous final line. While the
children were applauding, he leaped into view at the head of the stairs and
with a mighty “Ho, ho, ho” started down at his usual devil-may-care trot.
As his foot hit the fourth step from the top, however, the large hat flopped
over his eyes and one leg of Hoss’s longjohns came unrolled and caught under
his foot, and then pandemonium broke loose as Santa tumbled head over heels
down to the first landing, the bag of presents rolling down after him.
Of course, everyone screamed and ran forward to assist
poor Santa. Even Hoss tried to get up, but Dr. Martin pushed him back
into the chair, announcing that he was Santa’s personal physician and he would
take matters from here. Before the good doctor could make his way through
the bevy of children to his notable patient, however, the noise brought two
other men concerned for Santa’s welfare to the head of the stairs. Lying
flat on his back, Little Joe spotted them, and thinking only of the doctor’s
admonition of the day before, he bellowed, “Get back to bed!” Then,
fearing that a belligerent Santa might frighten the children, he shouted,
instead, in his jolliest voice, “I mean, ho, ho, ho! It’s back to bed
Dr. Martin, who had finally made it to the landing, looked
up and waved his disobedient patients back, assuring them that Santa would
be fine. Grinning, Ben and Adam returned to their rooms. “You
are fine, aren’t you?” the doctor whispered in Santa’s ear. “I probably
should examine you, but I hate to worry the children.”
“Of course, I’m fine!” Santa declared loud enough for
all to hear. “Stairs can’t hurt a man used to falling down chimneys!”
With the doctor’s help, he got to his feet, all the children clapping to see
him upright once again. “And I have presents for all the good boys and
girls,” he proclaimed in booming tones as he lifted the bag of gifts.
Squeals of delight met this announcement, and the children crowded around,
each assuring Santa that he or she had been good as gold this year.
One boy of about ten sidled up to Hoss’s chair after
getting his present. “You know, Mr. Hoss, I always thought you was
Santa, since I couldn’t never spot the two of you together, but now I reckon
I was wrong.”
“Why, Billy, you ought to have figured I was just sneaking
off to the kitchen for more food,” Hoss said, struggling to keep a grin off
Billy nodded soberly. “I reckon I should have.”
The last little girl to receive a new doll shyly reached
up to pinch Santa’s arm. “Have you been sick, Santa?” she asked solicitously.
Little Joe sat down on the table, beside his older brother’s
pillow-propped foot, and drew her into his lap. “Why, no, sweetheart.
Santa’s been working long hours, ‘cause some of his elves have been feelin’
puny, but I’ve been just fine except for being a little tired.”
The six-year-old mother hen with blonde pigtails continued
to feel his arm. “Are you sure? ‘Cause you’re an awful lot skinnier
this year than I remember.”
Unable to hold it back, Hoss let loose a loud guffaw.
“No, little doll,” he explained quickly while Joe glowered at him. “Santa
don’t get sick, but what I heard was that Mrs. Santa put him on a diet this
year, mostly burnt bread and watery soup. Not that it did much good
in flattening his belly!” He gave the pillows a poke with one finger
and only laughed louder when Joe squirmed away, hugging his stomach protectively.
“Well, I think she went too far,” the little girl confided
as she slid off Joe’s lap and took his hand, “and I think you should eat lots
of cookies tonight, Santa, so’s you’ll fill out again.”
“I will, Susie,” Joe promised, adding with a vengeful
glare at Hoss that he just might, in fact, eat up all there were.
“I ain’t worried,” Hoss cackled. “I got plenty
of pretty elves to keep me nice and round.” He patted the belly that
never needed pillows for playing the part his little brother had assumed
With the necessity of staying in character, Joe couldn’t
answer the way such bedeviling deserved, but he wouldn’t have had much opportunity,
anyway. Taking her role as Santa’s keeper quite seriously, Susie pulled
him to the table and began to point out tasty foods he should try. Santa
heaped his plate full and then said that he’d have to take it with him, as
he had a lot of other stops to make before Christmas morning.
“Okay, but you eat it all,” Susie admonished with a wag
of her finger.
Santa bent over to kiss her goodbye. “I will, sweetheart,
I will, and I’ll tell Mrs. Claus that you think the diet is a bad idea, too.”
“Good! You do that,” Susie advised, waving along
with the other children as Santa disappeared into the kitchen.
The children sang carols after that, and Little Joe,
attired in dress shirt and string tie once more, was back in time to hear
most of the songs. Soon it was time for the children to depart, if
they were to reach Carson City before time for sugarplums to dance in their
heads, and after they’d left, the furniture was moved back and the youthful
Santa finally got his reward by dancing into the wee hours with every pretty
girl in the room.
* * * * *
All the Cartwrights slept in on Christmas morning, but
they were finally all dressed and downstairs, where Little Joe served them
up his best Christmas oatmeal, promising a much tastier dinner from the party
leftovers that everyone had generously told them to keep. Gifts were
opened, loving words exchanged, and then laughter broke out as they all recalled
the antics of “the skinniest Santa Claus in the history of Christmasdom,”
as Adam called him. “Next year, little buddy,” the man in the blue robe
continued with only a twinkle in his eye to reveal that he was teasing, “we’ll
dye your underwear green and fix you up with your own little green stocking
hat and pointed shoes. You make such a good little Santa’s helper that
I don’t think it would be Christmas without a visit from our own special
While Hoss cackled in agreement and Joe wriggled his
nose in distaste, Ben shook a finger at his eldest son. “Now, now,
there will be no elf costume for your brother next year.” He patted
the arm of his chair. “He deserves better.”
Grateful for his father’s defense, Joe gladly came to him, smirking at his
annoying brothers as he took that protected perch. “Thanks, Pa,” he
said with a meaningful nod at the two brothers who obviously needed to learn
from their father’s example.
“You’re quite welcome, Joseph; your praise is well deserved.”
Ben snaked his arm around his youngest son’s waist. “However, what I
actually meant was that you’ve earned something better than an elf’s costume.”
He paused for a moment to be sure he had everyone’s attention and to take
a firmer grip on Joe before continuing, “What we really need to outfit you
in next year, my boy, is a flowing white robe and feathery wings, because
you’ve been a true Christmas angel to your family the last week or so.”
“Aw, Pa,” Joe whined. “I thought you was on my
Ben hugged him tight. “I am, Joseph—always, my
own little angel.”
“Ugh!” Joe protested, wrenching free of his father’s
Snapping his fingers, Adam leaned forward. “You’re
right, Pa! That’s the perfect costume for Joe, and Hoss and I will join
forces to make the halo that goes with it.” He sent his youngest brother
a wicked grin. “Appropriately bent, battered and tarnished, of course.”
With an expression that was anything but cherubic, Little
Joe snatched up a pillow from the settee and fired it at Adam, as the room
erupted once more with the warmth of Christmas laughter.