Christmas on the Trail

By Ella


Summary : While twenty-six-year-old Adam spends his Christmas on the trail with strangers, back at the Ponderosa, Ben shares with his younger sons what it was like having Christmas with others when he, Adam and Hoss made their way West.

Rating: G

********

A crackling fire, the curling tail of pipe smoke teasing his nostrils, a new book cradled in his open hand, the rise and fall of his brothers' banter across a worn checkers board. Scenes and sounds of home tumbled in twenty-six-year-old Adam Cartwright's dream, despite the persistent rumble of carriage wheels revolving beneath him.

With a sharp lurch, the rocking stagecoach shook him rudely from his contented sleep. Through half-closed eyes, he fought to return the dream, the monotonous snow-covered landscape rolling past reminding him all too vividly of where he was spending this December twenty-fifth.

Christmas on a rutted-up trail. Not the way I'd planned to spend it, that's for sure. Not what the family was expecting either. Bet Pa has about chewed his pipe stem to a stub, worrying over where I am. But we both knew someone had to make the trip to San Francisco, in order to finalize the Flanders contract - or lose it to the Turner operation. I told Pa, flat out, that if there were any unexpected delays, it was better for the boys if I was the one who missed Christmas at the ranch.

Boys.

Joe sure refuses to admit it these days, but he's still a kid - still gets all caught up in finding the surprises under the tree. It just wouldn't be the same for him, without Pa there watching from the background with that Christmas day glow he gets in his eyes.

No matter how many years pass, I know Pa still sees Joe's ma admiring our towering tree, decked in all the ornaments we made each year to please her1 - we still do, Ma. He remembers her Christmas Eve parties, too. How folks in the area looked forward to them. She and Hop Sing cooked and baked, for days on end, as if their very lives depended on it. But it wasn't just the food people looked forward to at those gatherings. The special atmosphere she created - it was like the tingle that goes through the body in the midst of a fierce lightning storm ... exhilarating.

Area musicians about begged Ma to let them perform at those annual gatherings - wanted to be an integral part of the magical night, play the music that kept feet tapping, voices lifted, laughter in everyone's eyes as they talked and drank, all the while losing themselves in the night, forgetting the unending, backbreaking toil that is part of making a life in this rough country. That single evening gave folks the feel of a week-long holiday.

I'll never forget -

A sneeze from the other side of the coach brought Adam abruptly upright. Still a bit foggy with sleep, he turned his head to find himself gazing into eyes so close to the clear blue of brother Hoss', he had to mentally shake himself to be certain he was really awake.

The blond woman looking back at him smiled, her voice soft, apologetic.

"I'm sorry, did my sneeze wake you?"

Mesmerized by the familiar blue color, Adam couldn't find his tongue for a moment, then reached instinctively to tip his hat.

"I'm sorry, miss. I had no idea anyone else was riding with me. I guess I've been sleeping for some time now."

He watched blue pools twinkle in response before the young woman managed an answer through her tinkling laughter.

"Oh, yes, you've been quite soundly asleep, since I boarded at the last way station." She held out her hand. "I'm Clara. Clara Woods."

Taking the petite gloved hand in his, Adam shook it as he responded, "Adam Cartwright."

As their hands slid apart, Clara tilted her head. "Cartwright. Hmmm. That's a familiar name."

Sitting up a bit straighter, Adam squared his shoulders, allowing a brief proud smile to claim his lips before answering, "Our Ponderosa beef has a fairly wide-spread reputation, miss. As well, we supply quite a bit of lumber to this part of the country."

Clara nodded in recognition. "Of course, I've certainly heard of the Ponderosa." Suspecting she was only several years Adam's junior, her eyes widened as she asked, "Are you the owner of that huge ranch?"

Feeling the blush on his cheeks, Adam scratched the back of his neck, ducking his head slightly.

"Uh, no. My father, Ben Cartwright, is the owner. But it's a family-run business. My two younger brothers and I contribute quite a bit toward keeping it a topnotch outfit. We also have a group of regular hands, hiring extra help as needed during the busy seasons."

When Clara shivered noticeably, Adam leaned forward, concern creasing his forehead.

"You're not warm enough - no wonder you're sneezing." He reached for the extra buffalo robe the coachman had given him at the outset of the trip. "Here, take this."

Clara's voice rose in protest. "No, I couldn't - "

Jaw stiffening, Adam insisted, "No buts. Really. I was using it as a pillow. I'm fully awake now. I have no need for it."

Accepting it gratefully, Clara wrapped it around her back, then snuggled into it. Her cheeks suddenly turned hot pink.

"You make me feel the way I did on the trail, years ago, when my father would insist on throwing an extra skin over me at night. How he fussed over me ... so tenderly ..."

She dropped her head and Adam knew she was saying a prayer. Something about her touched his brotherly instincts, giving him pause. Attractive as Clara was - blond ringlets escaping from beneath her bonnet, captivating blue eyes, just the right dash of freckles across her nose, dimpled cheeks - he felt not even a hint of attraction toward her. But before he could analyze his feelings further, the girl's misty eyes found his.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Cartwright - "

"Adam. Please, call me Adam. And there's no reason to apologize, Clara." Catching the corner of his lip with his teeth, he hesitated, then asked, "Your father, did you ... did you lose him on the journey West?"

Eyes filling at the unspeakable thought, Clara shook her head wildly.

"Oh, no. Papa is very much alive. He's temporarily gone back East, to bring two of my aunts - his sisters - to live with us on our ranch in California." Her lips twitched, then she gave a wink as she leaned forward to whisper, ever-so-confidentially, "He says if they haven't found husbands for themselves by now, it's not going to happen, and perhaps out here they'll have better luck." When Adam grinned appreciatively, she continued, "They'll make the trip out here in the spring."

A cloud passed over her face before she revealed quietly, eyes downcast, "It ... it was my mother we lost on the trail - to cholera. I was only a little girl then. I can just barely picture her now."

Adam removed his hat, bringing it to rest briefly against his chest.

"I'm sorry. And I'm sorry if something I said brought back somber memories. Being away from family on Christmas is hard enough - on you."

Something in his voice made Clara study him more closely which caused him to shift his attention back to the passing snowy panorama.

Clara coaxed, "And your family? You mentioned two brothers and your father ..."

Adam's left eye twitched ever so slightly as he considered how easy it was to talk to this person he hadn't known for even an hour. He turned to meet her waiting eyes.

"Yes. And we have a cook, who is very much a part of our family - a feisty fellow, named Hop Sing." Seeing the unspoken question in Clara's expression, Adam added quietly, "My own mother ... she died soon after I was born. My father married twice more over the years, but lost both those women as well. Each of them gave him a another son."

Clara felt it was her turn to apologize, but Adam waved away the notion before any words left her lips. "There's no need to say anything. Really. You and I are part of a large group of folks who experienced losses during our journey here. But there are so many others who lost even more that we did, aren't there?"

Clara nodded slowly, not just at the truth of Adam's statement, but over his wisdom to voice the fact. They didn't have to speak of it, both of them aware that whole families were wiped out by various tragic occurrences: Indian raids, river crossing disasters, starvation, dehydration, sickness, and so many other misfortunes.

With another wave of his hand, to dismiss the gloomy atmosphere he'd created, Adam put on an encouraging smile.

"So, how is it that you are spending your Christmas on a stagecoach?"

Again, Clara leaned forward, as if to make sure no one heard her admission.

"Well, my father would not approve, but I decided on a whim that I'd like to spend Christmas with his third sister - his favorite, though he'll never admit it aloud. But he admires ... what he calls her spunk. She lives in Virginia City. I - "

Adam sat up a bit straighter. "Virginia City? Perhaps I know her. What's your aunt's name?"

"Marjorie Edwards2. She's a widow now, but she owns a women's apparel shop in town. Do you know her?"

Grinning widely, Adam answered, "Sure do. And your father is right. She certainly has spunk. Margie is a very independent lady and a good friend of our family."

Settling back into the comfort of the buffalo skin, Clara smiled warmly. "Aunt Margie and Uncle Robert came West a year after we did. They lived with us on our farm for a time, then Uncle Robert struck gold. He died ... only a short year afterward. My father offered Aunt Margie a place with us, but, clear as anything, I can remember her kissing Papa on the cheek, then saying, 'I didn't travel all those months - across prairie, desert and mountain - just to live under your roof, big brother. I have my own path to follow and I plan to do just that.' My Aunt Margie did just that and is quite happy she did, too. At least she always sounds happy in the letters she writes. I haven't seen her in years.

"She's a very jovial woman," Adam agreed. He frowned, thinking over all Clara had said. "But she doesn't know you're coming? Does anyone know your whereabouts?"

Clicking her tongue, Clara scowled, answering sharply, "Yes. Our foreman, Peter, knows. So, don't you start scolding me. I got an earful from both Peter and his wife, Charlotte, as it is. The two of them planned to have Christmas together in their cabin on our property. They're perfectly capable of caring for all the stock while I'm away. I wanted to spend the day with my own family. Surely that's no crime.

Besides, if it hadn't been for that rockslide that had to be cleared off the trail, I'd have surprised Aunt Margie on Christmas Eve, the way I planned to. And since she doesn't know that I'm coming, she won't be worrying - so I'm riding with a clear conscience."

Just what I need in my life, another hard-headed woman.

Adam's expression gave him away and Clara stuck out her chin as she prepared to put him in his place. Raising both hands in surrender, he responded, "All right. I'm sorry. It's none of my business, to be sure." He shrugged his shoulders. "Guess I'm just used to taking care of things. You'd understand if you knew my younger brothers."

Clara lifted her shoulders in apology. "I'm sorry, Adam. It's ... just ... well ... out here ... a gal has to learn to take care of herself. And I have. Oh, I live with Papa - went back to him when my own marriage proved to be a mistake. But Papa has so many responsibilities, and I don't wish to be one of them. I don't need looking after. Why, I'll be twenty-four before he knows it.

My Aunt Margie ... she's always been an inspiration to me. I plan to have some long conversations with her. She's a woman who can teach me plenty."

As the coach rumbled along, Clara happily shared a few of her favorite memories about her aunt, keeping Adam grinning, and helping both of them forget the fact that they were missing Christmas at home.


*~*~*

Back at the Ponderosa, Ben was indeed worrying about the whereabouts of his eldest son. His younger boys exchanged a concerned glance, for what seemed like the hundredth time. Little Joe jerked his head sideways, causing Hoss to join him, watching their father close the front door after his umpteenth check outside. With a wink at his little brother, Hoss turned to Ben when he returned to sit down in his red leather chair near the fireplace.

"Pa?"

Snapping out of his clouded thoughts, Ben answered, "Yes, son?"

Clearing his throat, eyes jumping away briefly to elicit support from his youngest brother, Hoss asked, "Um, Pa? Ya think you could tell me and Joe a story?"

Joe inched forward on the settee, bobbing his head in exaggerated agreement. He gave Hoss a quick the thumb's up for his idea, then turned back to Pa, eyes flashing in anticipation.

Eyeing them both suspiciously, Ben tilted his head.

"A story? Aren't you two getting a little old for stories?"

A disapproving scowl taking over his face, Hoss scolded, "Why, Pa, ain't you the one that done always told us that stories is how people comin' West kept from goin' crazy sometimes? And when folks met up - even with pure strangers - on the trail, they nearly tripped over their jaws, tryin' ta outdo each other with wild tales or jest any memory, ta keep everybody's mind occupied?

An most 'specially at Christmas, when folks was missin' their homes an' - "

Joe's high-pitched giggle reached the rafters when their father's face clearly told them he'd surrendered to his middle son's logic. Ben held up a hand.

"All right, young man, you've made your point. I don't doubt your brother Adam would be slapping you on the back in congratulation right now, if he were here." Frowning, Ben glanced over at the front door, then began to push himself out of his chair.

Hoss' voice stopped him, with an unusual tone of command. "Pa, you gotta stop worryin' 'bout Adam, sir. Charlie done told ya that in town the word is that there was some rock slides that's got the stage line schedule all backed up. That's what's keepin' Adam from gittin' home to us on time. I'm sure of it. Please, Pa, a story would do us all good."

Little Joe reached out to grab their father's arm, squeezing it as he voiced his own vote. "Hoss is right, Pa. We sure wish you'd tell us a story." Giving Hoss' earlier words deeper thought, Joe added, "How 'bout tellin' us bout the times when you were on the road West? 'Cause you and Adam and Hoss didn't even have a real home for a long time. Did ya share Christmas with any interesting people along the way, Pa?"

Studying the two pairs of encouraging eyes looking back at him, Ben found his mind in a whirl over all the years it took before he and his boys reached this land they all so loved and called home - Christmases spent in so many places. He felt a twinge of pain, remembering the year he, Adam and Hoss had spent it at Fort Laramie, too shortly after Inger's death.

How hard the thought of Christmas at home hit him that year, knowing how special the holiday was to his second wife. Only a short time before she died, Inger had shared with him how much she was looking forward to spending Christmases with her new family - she wanted to give her children memories similar to all the warm ones she had from her own youth.

Joe pressed his father's arm harder, suddenly spotting the moisture building in far-away chocolate eyes. The young man's voice trembled slightly as he spoke.

"Pa?"

Sniffing, Ben quickly dashed a finger under his nose, then straightened up, spying the concern on both his boys' faces.

"Oh, Little Joe, son, I'm all right. Some memories still give your pa's heart a twinge or two. But the fact is, despite those tender memories, thinking about the year your brothers and I spent Christmas at Fort Laramie ... I'd say it was actually one of the most ... well ... Christmas-like ones I'd ever experienced."

Both brothers leaned forward a bit, drawn in by their father's special knack for telling a story and a certain spark in his eyes, the one that always seemed to leap in when he geared up to tell them a tale.

Ben smiled reassuringly, before admitting quietly, "You see, your pa and older brother Adam were still hurting pretty badly over the loss of Hoss' mother that year. I guess I was having trouble rousing any sort of Christmas spirit. In fact, I guess I was trying pretty hard to just avoid the holiday all together, busying myself with all the work there was there at the Fort. But the other folks spending the winter there had different ideas ....

~~~~~~~

The Cartwright party was not the only group of travelers who had missed their chance to make California before the winter snows blocked the mountain passes. As it turned out, Ben Cartwright wasn't the only person among them who had lost his spouse that year either. Widower Edward Cook also caught the attention of the other emigrants staying at the fort. They noted, in whispers amongst themselves, how both he and Ben chopped wood as if their lives depended on it, and that neither man seemed to notice that the other members of their trains were helping their Army hosts get ready for the holiday.

Nor did Ben or Edward initially realize how much the Army men were fussing to make Christmas special for the children in the visiting groups. Children were a gift, cherished equally by troops and officers alike - all of them keenly aware of the long distance separating them from their own families during this special time of year. They wanted to give the youngsters something back, in the way of thanks, and racked their brains for what they could put together in the way of presents - or even a decked out tree, for that matter.

~~~~~~~~

Forehead crinkling in thought, Hoss interjected, "Yeah, it was hard enough in these parts ta come up with decorations in the beginning, weren't it, Pa? And them there Army fellers were even less stocked than we were, for that sorta thing, I'll bet, huh?"

Ben nodded. "Yes, after all, their job was protection, not entertainment. Yet, hard as their Captain Parker might have tried, he couldn't hide his own soft heart for the children in his fort, or how they reminded him of his own youngsters back home. I suspect he ordered his men to put together a "proper day for our young guests," as I often heard him call them. And his men were more than willing to obey their commanding officer. They were a good bunch and they did a splendid job, with what they had on hand to work with ....

~~~~~~~~

The company carpenter - Whittle just happened to be his name - got saddled with carving out two satchels of building blocks for the babies, Hoss Cartwright and little Willie Robertson, even if neither infant was quite ready to play with them. Meanwhile, the men collectively decided that the older boys, Adam Cartwright, George Bender and Tommy Barton, might like fancy fishing poles and a set of hooks - what proper boy wouldn't?

However, the men were baffled over what to give the one little girl gracing the Fort that Christmas. Cute as a button, the four-year-old had a laugh that brought tears to the eyes of even the toughest recruit - their burly Sergeant Weston Preston. The little gal was the daughter of Edward Cook, who, like Ben Cartwright, seemed to be trying very hard not to think about Christmas - or the wife who was no longer there to share it with him.

~~~~~~~~

Joe and Hoss exchanged worried glances before Joe looked their father straight in the eye to ask, "Golly, Pa, what did a bunch of old Army men know about making presents for some cute little gal? Did she end up bawlin' her eyes out when there was nothin' for her on Christmas? And what did they use to decorate their tree?"

Looking away to admire the spectacular evergreen he'd chosen for Hoss to chop down to stand in their great room this season, Joe shook his head as he decided, "No buncha Army guys had time to pop corn or make fancy bows or like that - or dream up special ornaments, like me, Hoss and Adam make every year." Tossing out his hands in challenge, the young man asked, "What did those Army fellas do ta make that little girl happy, Pa?"

Ben chuckled at his youngest son's anxious concern for someone he'd never met.

You are so much your mother's son, Little Joe.

He looked at Hoss, whose tender expression clearly showed that he too was concerned for that little gal back on a trail he'd traveled, but didn't remember.

Hoss - you have the same big heart your mother did. My Inger would be prodding me now - worrying over that little, bright-eyed gal with a giggle that made all those tough Army men want to hug her close and promise her the world for Christmas.

Blinking away the mist in his eyes, Ben smiled at the two pairs of anxious faces staring back at him.

"Well, boys, just because these fellows were in the Army, didn't mean they'd forgotten what it was like to be fathers, sons or brothers. Besides, they had help, to make that Christmas special ....

~~~~~~~~

Like Ben Cartwright and Robert Cook, Laura Robertson had lost her spouse during her journey West. The men at Fort Laramie couldn't do enough for this young mother and her infant son Willie, but they soon discovered Laura was a strong woman and willing to do her share at the outpost.

For one thing, when she learned the Cartwright's had a motherless baby of nursing-age, she generously offered to take Hoss in, to give him proper feeding. As a result, Adam spent many hours with her, in order to be with the little brother for whom he felt a great responsibility.

Like many women who met the young Ben Cartwright family, Laura had an overwhelming desire to mother Ben's oldest boy. But after talking with other female members of the Cartwright company, she wisely respected what they told her. Adam resented any overt motherly attention - his heart still belonged to a very special lady named Inger.

In her own subtle way, Laura earned the trust of the serious youngster. The two slowly came to know each other, and Laura learned to recognize the various moods that clouded Adam's eyes. She could tell when he was lost deep in thought, or trying to solve a problem.

On this particular afternoon, Laura knew the boy had something he wanted to discuss with her - apparently with complications attached. Busying herself with changing his little brother, she waited for Adam to put his dilemma into words. She was glad her back was to him when he finally spoke. His tone was so serious, she had to clap a hand over her mouth to capture her rising laughter.

'Mrs. Robertson? Ma'am, could I speak with you for a moment?'

After dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief, Laura stuffed the lacy cloth back into her sleeve before turning to face him, her expression matching the young one that was all business.

'Yes, Adam?'

Taking off his hat, the boy brushed the brim repeatedly as he answered, 'Mrs. Robertson, I gotta ask you a question, ma'am.'

'Well, certainly, Adam. You ask me anything you like.' Laura resisted an overpowering urge to hug the boy, then in her mind said a quiet prayer, in memory of Ben's departed second wife.

Pointing vaguely over his shoulder, Adam explained, hesitantly, 'Um ... somehow I heard the men talkin' about makin' Christmas for us kids.' He tugged at an earlobe, dropping his eyes to his toes as he admitted quietly, 'See, sometimes a kid hears things he's not supposed ta, but after he does ... he can't do nothin' about it - you can see that, right, ma'am?'

Laura moved away quickly, to fuss over her baby Willie in his bed, even though Adam was sure he'd never heard a peep out of the little guy. Pulling her son's quilt up to cover him more completely, the woman nodded.

'Yes, I expect you've got it right, Adam.'

With a sharp nod of conformation, Adam answered, 'Yes'm, I expect so, too. But, the reason I'm bringin' this up to you is because I know they're worryin' particularly over what to give little Button, Mr. Cook's girl. And ... I have somethin' that maybe would be good, but ... it needs your help to make it right."

Turning, Laura watched as Adam brought a cloth sack from behind his back. He looked up, eyes fairly demanding the woman's agreement, before she knew what she was agreeing to. Laura answered in a way that wouldn't trap her into some impossible promise, but she knew in her heart that she'd do whatever she could to assist this child.

'Adam, if I can help, I'll be more than happy to. What is your idea for a gift?'

Digging into the bag, Adam pulled out a cloth doll. Laura managed to keep her jaw from dropping, despite the condition of the toy. The strands of its wool hair were in a tangled nest; it's once bright blue gingham dress was torn and faded; and its face was badly stained with what was possibly dried blood.

Taking a moment to find her composure, Laura moved forward, dropped down on her knees and took the battered doll from the boy's hands.

'Adam, wherever did you find this?'

With a weighty sigh, Adam studied the bedraggled toy, before looking up to explain, 'There was this wagon, on the trail here ... we ... me and Pa ... saw lots like it. It got left behind by some family, I guess. When we found it, it didn't have wheels, or axles, or canvas, or nothin' worth takin' - because Pa said other travelers likely stripped it already. Or maybe scavengers did it - 'cause that's what happens sometimes, ma'am.'

Laura nodded in understanding, creases marring her soft brow at the thought of how much this young boy seemed to understand all-too-well.

Brushing the tangled woolen hair with her fingertips, Laura asked, 'So where was this doll, that you managed to ... rescue it?'

Adam looked over his shoulder, as if to be certain no one else was listening, then looked into waiting brown eyes.

'Pa had gotten back up in the driver's seat of our wagon and told me to climb in back with Hoss. And I was doin' that, but somethin' made me look at the a-ban-done wagon. I saw that little hand,' he pointed to the cloth one, 'stickin' out of the sand. I ... I had ta run over and see what it was and when I pulled on it, that doll came up.

I don't play with dolls, ma'am, and Hoss ain't gonna, neither. But it didn't seem right to leave it back there, once I got it out. So I put in this here bag and brought it with us.'

Forehead creased, Adam shook his head. 'But a dirty, ripped up doll ain't a proper gift for Button. She's ...' His eyes drifted to his little brother who was lying in a wooden crate the men had provided for a cradle.

'Ma'am, that there Button's got almost the same color hair as my brother. Same eyes too.' Adam stared hard at Laura, trying with all the power inside him, to make her understand. 'I just gotta see that she gets a proper present. Do you think you can fix this doll up, so it would be something she'd like?'

Tears fighting to get the better of her, Laura dropped her head, making a big production over studying the doll in her hands. She nodded, confidently, when she was sure her voice wouldn't give her away, then met the concerned young eyes waiting for her answer.

'Adam, I think I have all the things I need in my sewing basket to fix her up, if you're willing to leave her with me for a few days?'

Bobbing his head, a grateful smile erasing all the lines in his face, Adam answered emphatically, 'Oh, yes, ma'am. You keep her as long as ya have to.' His eyebrows dipped. 'Long as it ain't goin' past Christmas.'

~~~~~~~~

Both Joe and Hoss found themselves joining their father, sniffing a bit. Hoss took that moment to announce that he thought hot cocoa was in order. He got up and headed for the kitchen. As his brother disappeared through the doorway, Joe reached out for his father's arm, squeezing hard.

"Adam ... I guess he kinda thought that ... that little Button mighta been a sister for him ... if things were different, huh, Pa?"

Tugging out his handkerchief, Ben blew his nose, then stuffed the cloth away. He patted his youngest son's hand as he answered.

"You brother Adam seemed to understand things deep inside, from an age when most children weren't thinking that way yet. It's just the way he was, Joe, always has been. And Mrs. Robertson ... like everyone else at Fort Laramie that Christmas ... wanted that little gal, Button, to be happy. Guess she also wanted your brother Adam to be happy too. She had a big heart. And, I expect, she was glad to be able to busy that heart making a little boy happy. It helped soothe her own aching heart, and her longing for the husband who wasn't sharing Christmas with her and their little boy."

Joe nodded in somber understanding. "Yes, sir."

*~*~*

The stage carrying Adam and Clara pulled into the last way station before the Virginia City stop. Alighting from the coach, Adam held out his hand to help his companion to the ground, smiling as he promised, "It may not look like much from the outside, but Harry Blanchard, who mans this station, is actually about the best cook I've ever met - aside from Hop Sing, of course."

Clara accepted the strong hand, then shivered when the shifting wind tossed up a face-full of snow. Putting an arm around her, Adam insisted, "Come on, let's get you inside, then I'll come back for our gear."

Much as she suspected her Aunt Maggie might protest over the fussing, Clara gave in to the no-nonsense expression on Adam's face. She was cold and hungry. What's more, she was keenly aware of a heavenly aroma tugging at her nose.

"Can that be roast goose I smell?"

Mouth watering as his nostrils and mind filled with Christmas goose and all the trimmings, Adam nodded.

"Didn't I tell you?"

The door to the station house swung open and Harry took Clara's arm, leading her inside. Adam did an about-face, to go retrieve his and Clara's carpetbags. He chuckled, hearing Eddie grumbling at the team. The coachman wasn't fooling him though. Adam knew Eddie was happier in the company of those animals, than he was with most folks he shuttled from one place to the next. If it weren't for the extreme temperatures, Adam suspected the man would have spent the night in the barn with the horses.

However, when a whiff of Christmas dinner hit his nose, the coachman exclaimed, "Well, smells like you ain't the only ones that's gonna git a good feed tonight. And the sooner I git yer chow to ya, the sooner my belly'll be thankin' me."

An hour later, a wide-eyed Harry was picking over the bones of what had been the biggest goose in his pen. He watched Adam snatch the last corn muffin from the plate, even as Eddie was scraping out the bowl of mashed turnips. Clara's eyes were resting on the yet untouched apple pie.

"Mr. Blanchard, you are a wonderful cook. I can't tell you how delicious that dinner was. I don't do a lot of travelling these days, as a rule, but I can say for certain that the men running the other way stations on this route need to take a cooking lesson or two from you."

The station manager blushed. "Thankee, miss. An' you jest call me Harry. I always say, since a man's gotta eat, he should enjoy it. Learned what I know 'bout cookin' from my ma and grandma, what raised me, a long time since now. I'll wager them gals could make boot leather taste good, if they had ta." He winked. "Lucky fer me, they ain't never did have ta prove my boastin'."

His face sobered a bit as he admitted, "Lotsa folks comin' 'cross this here country shore did et a lotta unexpected meals, ta keep 'em from starvin' though, didn't they?" With a regretful bow, he looked directly at Clara. "An' if yer one of 'em, miss, I apologize for speakin' it. Pretty gal such as yerself should'na oughta never had ta. I'm bound ta say it."

Feeling all eyes upon her, Clara took time to pull her handkerchief from her sleeve, then used it to dab her mouth.

"Um ... Harry, I appreciate your concern, but ... I was one of the lucky ones." She gave Adam a quick sideward glance before turning back to the station attendant. "Certainly, we had our own share of bad luck on our journey West, but ... food was never a problem for long. My father managed to provide for me. I don't recall being hungry for any length of time ... or having to eat anything too unpleasant."

She giggled, then explained to the circle of inquisitive eyes, "The most adventurous thing I recollect eating was dried grasshoppers, which an Indian gave me. And the only reason I think I remember it so well, is that the fellow smiled so gleefully when I held out my tin plate for more."

Reaching for the pie dish, she asked, "Shall I cut this now, or am I the only one who wants dessert?"

The men all shoved their plates toward her and Clara divided the heavenly smelling pastry into four equal portions. When all their cups were topped with more strong coffee, and their mouths full of the luscious pie, the young woman turned to her attention back to the station manager.

"So, Harry, I'll bet your mother and grandmother put together a Christmas dinner to remember."

Adam smiled behind his coffee cup. What better thanks to give this man for filling our bellies this Christmas night, than to let him share his memories of two women who were obviously very important to him?

Harry's green eyes glowed. He got up from the table, then scurried away, burrowing into some hidden crock to dig out a flask. He hurried back to add a dash of special elixir to his coffee. Still standing he lifted the silver vessel, silently offering to share the contents with his table mates.

The men's eyes widened when Clara extended her cup to join their circle. Harry nodded respectfully and when all had some, Clara held her cup up a little higher.

"To my Aunt Margie and all the other women who came West to make this a better place."

In answer, the men touched their mugs to hers, in true appreciation of the words.

"To the gals," Harry answered.

"To the fillies," came Eddie's toast.

"To all the women, both here and gone," Adam responded, his voice filled with husky respect.

After they'd all gulped down a healthy slug of the bolstered beverage, Harry proceeded to make everyone's mouths water, recalling every detail of every dish his ma and grandma insisted had to be part of a proper Christmas celebration.

They all went to bed with satisfied bellies and warm thoughts of Christmas, each of them reminded that the day came, no matter where you were or who shared it with you.


*~*~*


In the middle of the night, Adam woke with a start. It took him a moment to realize that he wasn't home in his room, but rather sleeping on the floor of way station, on a bedroll padded by a thick buffalo robe. He'd been dreaming about Little Joe - at the age of five or so, sitting in his room pretending to read a fairytale to one of the many stuffed animals his mother had made for him.

Tilting his head, Adam listened carefully, realizing he was still hearing someone talking quietly, as if reading to a young child. Looking over to where Eddie Watson had thrown his own bedroll, Adam found the man propped up on his elbow, staring at the station manager's door. Harry Blanchard had insisted that Clara take his room - but not before he changed the linens, of course!

Eddie turned to reveal to Adam, "She's been talkin' fer quite a piece now. Um, at first I thought mehbe she was talkin' in her sleep. Ain't so shore of it now though."

Scratching his head, Adam shrugged, answering without bothering to whisper. "Well, I don't know. Some folks even walk in their sleep, and don't realize they're doing it. But - "

The door of the station manager's room swung open. Clara stood there, lantern in one hand and something Adam couldn't quite make out clutched against her opposite hip. The young woman spoke apologetically.

"I'm sorry, I've woken all of you, haven't I? It's ... I've always had a hard time sleeping in a strange bed. So, I was ... oh, this will sound very silly ... but I was talking to Emily here - it helps me get sleepy. Something I've done since I was a little girl."

Clara pointed a bit sheepishly to the bundle she held against her left hip.

"Emily?" Eddie asked. "But you and Adam come here alone, didn't ya, miss?" He turned his head, expression skeptical, questioning Adam silently. His eyes swelled when he found Adam's face drained of color, riveted to the object Clara held so tenderly. The bundle had been illuminated by the lamp she'd lowered slightly.

The coachman stammered, "Wha ... what's the matter, Adam? Ya look like ya seen a ghost?"

Getting to his feet, Adam walked across the room to stand in front of Clara. With both hands outstretched, cupped slightly, he indicated to the soft object she clutched protectively.

Clara paled, even as she placed a doll in a lace-edged yellow dress into Adam's outstretched hands. She took a step backward, shaken by something in his tender expression.

"Why ... you know Emily, don't you?"

Running a finger over the delicate black braids, done up just so with yellow ribbons to match the dress, Adam nodded.

"Yes, Button, I knew Emily before you did - but you named her."

The water that had been building in Clara's eyes spilled.

"Button. My father's nickname for me when I was a little girl on the trail. You're ... I knew the name Cartwright meant something special, when you first introduced yourself on the coach ... but ... I was so young back then. It's all sort of a mixed blur. You ... you're the dark-haired little boy who sat at the table across from Papa and me. Christmas dinner at Fort Laramie, when that nice Captain gave me this doll ... aren't you, Adam?"

With a grunt from behind them, Eddie rose, then grumbled, "Guess I'll put us on some coffee. It's fer shore none of us is gettin' no sleep now, 'till this here little mystery gets explained, ta my satisfaction."


*~*~*


Late the following afternoon, Ben heard the sound of sleigh bells, but before he could rise from his desk, Little Joe had flung open the front door, announcing gleefully, "Pa! Hoss! Adam's home! And Miss Margie's brought him, along with some nice-lookin' gal."

Even as his eldest came through the front door, Ben could see a special glint in Adam's eye - telling him he had a secret - one he was fairly bursting to tell. But the pretty young gal on Adam's arm diverted Ben's attention, when she smiled widely, then flung herself into his arms.

"Merry Christmas, Mr. Cartwright." She planted a warm kiss on Ben's cheek, then pulled away.

Seeing the startled expression on their father's face, Hoss and Joe looked at each other, simultaneously shrugging their shoulders.

Margie tossed a gloved hand in the air, her eyes glittering as she slid an arm across the young woman's shoulders.

"Ben, Hoss, Joe, let me introduce my niece, Clara Woods. But ... I think, Ben, you might better know her as little Button Cook, from Fort Laramie."

Hoss and Joe watched in awe as the beautiful young lady unfolded a cloth bundle she held in her arms, to reveal a doll with black braids tied in yellow ribbons, to match her pretty yellow dress edged in lace.

Joe gasped. "Hey ... it's Emily - the doll."

Clara smiled. "And you're Joe, Adam's youngest brother."

"Yes'm. But ... you don't understand. Our pa was just tellin' us about you and your doll, only just yesterday."

With a sideward glance at Adam, Clara nodded at Joe. "Yes, and only just yesterday, I realized Christmas miracles still happen, no matter how old a gal gets."

Her clear blue eyes gleamed.

"Merry Christmas, Joe."

"Yes'm. Merry Christmas."

The Cartwrights escorted their unexpected guests towards the fireplace, looking forward to a warm evening of memories and stories of Christmas past and all the people that made them happen.

The End.
(December 2007).


Author's Note: This story was inspired, in part, by my recent readings, which include:

Pioneer Children on the Journey West, by Emmy E. Werner, Westview Press, 1995.

Women & Men on the Overland Trail, By John Mack Faragher, Yale University Press, 1979.

Covered Wagon Women, Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840- 1949, Edited and complied by Kenneth L. Holmes, University of Nebraska Press, 1995

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