Pa’s Christmas Gift (by Helen A)

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Summary:  It’s Christmas time on the Ponderosa.  What are the boys planning to get Ben for Christmas?

Rating:  K  (5,785 words)

 

Pa’s Christmas Gift

“Deck the Halls with boughs of holly…” Ben Cartwright sang the lyrics under his breath as he finished tacking the last in a long line of fragrant fir garlands into place.

He stood back and took a good look around the room.  Everything seemed to be in place now, with the exception of going out and getting a Christmas tree to decorate.  Festive red berried holly boughs swathed the fireplace mantle.  Garlands circled the railing of the stairs and zigzagged along the dowels, set off by little red velvet bows.  A huge wreath had temporarily replaced the horns over the fireplace and everywhere one looked, hints of holiday cheer seemed to grab the eye.  It was a week to Christmas, but even now the wonderful scents of ginger and cinnamon, vanilla and orange filled the air as Hop Sing baked pan after pan of sweet holiday desserts to tempt and delight the young family of hungry boys and their father.  The gifts were purchased and hidden away to wait until they could be snuck beneath the tree on Christmas Eve.

Everywhere Ben went on the vast Ponderosa these days, he seemed to encounter ranch hands singing carols and playfully pitching handfuls of snow at each other. The urge to play with the fresh powder that had been falling off and on for the last week would suddenly overcome their adult senses and before they even knew it, they would be out frolicking like a pack of little boys at recess.  When their boss would come into sight, the men would stop what they were doing and try to look busy, guilty smiles on their faces, but Ben would chuckle and pitch a snowball of his own at some unsuspecting fellow and the merriment would be restored.  As long as the work got done, Ben had no complaints.

Speaking of boys, he thought, I wonder if mine are ever planning on getting out of bed today?  He had expected the sounds of hammering to produce at least one of them at the top of the stairs, but so far there had not been a single peep out of any of them.  Ben smiled, not at all surprised when he recalled the massive snowball fight the three of them had engaged in the night before in the front yard, ending in a draw as their father had called them in for hot cocoa and cookies before sending them all to bed.  Hoss was out of school for the week in celebration of the holidays and Ben had given Adam the week off as well, giving him time to formulate his own Christmas secrets and to be a boy for a while.  Besides, if he were to be honest, it was much easier to keep Little Joe distracted from sneaking around searching for the hiding place that would yield an early peek at his gifts if Adam and Hoss were both there to keep an eye on him.  The three brothers had grabbed onto their rare opportunity to spend lots of time together with all the enthusiasm Ben could have hoped for.  Every time he saw them, they seemed to be running and laughing and playing games together and he was frankly delighted to see it, especially from Adam.  At eighteen, Adam considered himself too old and mature for such things most of the time, but somehow Christmas always brought out the child in him and this year he seemed especially determined to have a good time.  Ben supposed he wanted to make up for last year’s dismal holiday when they had all still been too broken up over the recent loss of Marie to do much celebrating.  And too, this would be Adam’s last holiday at home for a long time.  He would be leaving for college in the spring.

Ben moved to the stair landing and called up, “Boys, time to get up!  Breakfast is almost ready and chores are waiting to be done!”  He waited.  Nothing.  Curious, he walked the rest of the way up and stopped at Adam’s door.  To his surprise it was open and empty, the bed rumpled.  He crossed to Hoss’ room and found exactly the same thing.  Narrowing his eyes suspiciously, Ben moved to the third room, Little Joe’s, where he heard muffled voices.  The door was open just a crack and he pushed it further and stuck his head in.  All three brothers were sprawled on Joe’s bed, still dressed in nightshirts as they bent their heads together and whispered in animated tones.

Suddenly, Little Joe spotted his father and jumped up to stand on the bed.  “Hi Pa!” he called loudly.  His brothers sat up, flashing suspiciously innocent smiles as they too faced their father and echoed their little brother’s greeting.

“What are you three whispering about?” Ben demanded.

Hoss and Adam both rushed to assure him that there was nothing going on that he needed to be concerned about, which of course made Ben even more suspicious.  He kept his eyebrow up and his face stern; knowing somebody would crack before too long.  Indeed, Hoss was already beginning to squirm uncomfortably, but then Little Joe crossed his arms firmly over his small chest and leveled an equally stern glare right back at their father as he boldly declared, “Ain’t no fair askin’, Pa. Christmas is comin’ and if you ask too many questions, Santa will get mad at you and he won’t bring you nothin’.”

Adam and Hoss grinned at each other and adopted their little brothers’ pose as they looked at Ben and chorused, “Yeah!”

Ben laughed, realizing that whatever was going on, it evidently concerned a Christmas present for him.  “Well, I wouldn’t want to take the risk of upsetting Santa!  You three better get a move on though.  Breakfast is just about ready and you’ll have to do your chores before we go out and look for our Christmas tree.”

The boys perked up and as one they scrambled off Little Joe’s bed.  “We’ll be right there, Pa!” Hoss said excitedly, inspired by thoughts of both the tree and breakfast.  “Just one little minute more.”

“All right, then.  I’ll see you downstairs,” Ben told them, smiling to himself as he moved out and shut the door behind him.  He really was blessed to have three such fine boys.
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Chores completed, the boys resumed their conspiratorial discussion. They had collectively pooled their allowances for several weeks to buy their father a gift that they were certain would be the finest he’d ever received; a large framed portrait of all their mothers.  Adam had managed to smuggle the daguerreotypes that each of them had of their mothers in to an exceptionally talented portrait artist who had recently moved into Virginia City.  The price had been a little more than they had counted on, but they had not been willing to let go of the idea, and so had agreed to forgo buying store bought gifts for each other.  They could make each other’s gifts, that way spending all they had on their father.

Ben watched with mute fascination from across the room as his sons excitedly whispered, then Adam nodded and scrawled something on a piece of paper.  Clearing his throat loudly, he sauntered over to them and asked, “Anything interesting I should know about?”

“No, sir,” Adam replied, deftly slipping the note into his pocket before his father could see what was written on it.

“Oh,” Ben said, sounding a trifle deflated.

“Did you want us to do somethin’ for you, Pa?” asked Hoss innocently.

“Well, I was going to ask you and Adam to take the buckboard into town and collect the last of the supplies that Hop Sing needs for this year’s Christmas banquet.”

“A bank what?” Hoss asked and scrunched up his face.

“A feast.” Adam supplied and watched as his younger brother’s expression changed bewilderment to immense pleasure.  “When do you want us to leave?” he added, realizing gleefully that he had just been given the perfect opportunity to pick up the gift and bring it home undetected.

“Can I go too?” interrupted Little Joe. “Pa, can I, huh? Can I please go with Adam an’ Hoss?” he begged, pulling on his father’s sleeve.

Ben gathered his young son up into his arms and smiled. “I was sort of hoping you might stay here and keep me company today.”

“Yeah, Joe,” Hoss enthused, “it’ll be warmer at home.  You don’t wanna get a cold right  ‘fore Christmas do ya?”

“S’pose not.” Joe relented, resting his head on Ben’s shoulder.  He watched his older brothers prepare for the journey into Virginia City, and a hopeful look spread across his face. “Don’t s’pose you could bring me back a candy cane, could ya?”

Adam winked at Hoss and rubbed his chin. “I dunno.  I suppose I might consider it if you’re sure it won’t ruin your appetite.  What do you think, Pa?”

“I think you two had best be heading into town, or you won’t be back before nightfall,” he answered, giving his eldest a shallow nod of permission out of the sight of Little Joe.
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“When do you think Adam ‘n Hoss will be back?” Joe asked for the umpteenth time and stared out the door.

“Knowing your brothers,” Ben said and pushed the door shut, “they will be back as soon as they can.  I’m sure that they don’t want to miss out on Hop Sing’s sugar cookies.” He saw the glum expression that his youngest son wore and held out his hand to him. “Come on, what say we have that game of checkers you’ve been nagging me for?”

“Really?” You mean it?” Joe’s voice lightened at the prospect of playing his favorite game, even if he didn’t quite understand all the rules.  “I’ll get the board out.”

Ben chuckled to himself as he watched Joe enthusiastically search for the game pieces. “What do you say to a cup of hot chocolate?”

“Are you gonna make it, Pa?” Joe asked, his tone a little worried.

Stunned at the response Ben stopped in his tracks. “Why? Is there something wrong with the way I make hot chocolate?”

Joe bit his top lip and tilted his head. “No, but it’s not like how Hop Sing or Adam makes it.”

“Oh, and how does Adam make hot chocolate?”

“He puts in extra cream to make it fluffy and extra chocolate sprinkles on the top.  Hot chocolate tastes better if it gots sprinkles.”

“Hmmm, I see.” Ben stifled a laugh at the solemn assertion, quietly pleased to realize that Adam had been spoiling his younger brother a bit.  “Well I guess if he and Hop Sing can make it that way, then I can too.”

“You mean it? With extra chocolate?”

“With lots of extra chocolate,” he promised, smiling as he watched his happy son turn his attention to readying the pieces for their game.

It took far less time for Little Joe to set up the checkers than it did for Ben to make a pot of hot chocolate, and left to his own devices, it did not take long for Joe to find a new way to amuse himself.  He had been waiting for an opportunity such as this to investigate all the possible ways in which Santa could make an entry into the house at night time without being seen or heard.  He looked at the door and shook his head. That couldn’t be it.  Pa always locked the door securely at night.  He walked over to the windows and stared at them.  That didn’t seem right either.   “He ain’t gonna fit through there,” the boy whispered.  He started to go up the stairs, then the sight of the hearth prompted another idea.  “Hey!” he exclaimed and ran to look more closely.

“Little Joe, have you got the board ready?” Ben asked and entered the main room carrying a tray laden with two cups and a plateful of cookies.

He saw that the board had been set up, albeit missing a few pieces, which Ben eventually found under Joe’s cushion.  “The scallywag,” he chortled. “No wonder he is getting good at beating his brothers; he starts out with more pieces.” He searched the room for his curly headed son but could not find him anywhere.

“Joe?”

“Achoooooooooo,” sneezed Joe as soot rained down upon him. He peered out from under the top of the fireplace, his face completely covered in soot. The only white parts left on his face were his teeth and the whites of his eyes.  “Yeah, Pa?”

“Joseph!” Ben exclaimed, hurrying over to pull his son out of the chimney before he could fall.  “How on earth did you get up in there?” Holding the small boy out at arms’ length to prevent getting as covered in soot as he was, Ben set him down on the hearth with an order not to move as he went to grab a whisk broom and began dusting him off.  Careful as he was, the black powder still managed to drift onto the floor and furniture.  When he was finished, Joe was marginally more recognizable.

“Pa, don’t,” Little Joe protested, squirming as Ben pulled out a handkerchief and spit on it, trying to clean some of the soot off his face.

It was obvious that stronger methods were going to be needed to get the boy clean again and Ben called out for Hop Sing.  The small man came padding in, a questioning look upon his face, then he gasped in horror at seeing his nice clean floor all covered in black.  “What you do?  Why all dirty?” he demanded, pointing first to Joe, then to the floor, then back to Joe with a helpless wave of his hands.

Ben sighed.  “I found Little Joe trying to climb up the chimney.  Would you please get some hot water ready so I can give him a bath and get out some clean clothes for him, Hop Sing?”

“But, Pa, I don’t wanna take a bath!” Joe whined.  “I took a bath already this week.”

“I’m sorry, son, but I’m afraid you have no choice,” Ben said sternly.  “What were you doing anyway?  How did you even get up there?”

“I climbed up the logs, then used the cracks in ‘tween the bricks to climb up the rest of the way,” Joe told him matter-of-factly.  “I wanted to see how Santa gets in.  You read that story to me about seein’ Santa go up the chimney and I wanted to see.  How does he fit up there, Pa?  I didn’t have much room and Adam says Santa Claus is bigger around than Hoss.”

Making a mental note to see that the chimney was cleaned and sealed of all cracks big enough to provide a handhold for small questing boys, Ben took a seat on the low coffee table. He studied the little face that was looking up at him; just sure that he had all the answers.

“Water ready, Mr. Cartwright.  I take boy upstairs now,” Hop Sing announced, saving him from having to give an immediate answer. Ben was gratified that his cook had readied the water so quickly, but obviously he must have had some already on the boil for today was laundry day.  Hop Sing shook his head at the mess and held out his hand to Little Joe.  “You come now, wash up.  Put dirty clothes in with rest.  Chop chop!  Hop Sing no have time to clean up after messy little boy all time!”

Little Joe took no notice of the cook’s ire.  He was still waiting for his answer and Ben decided to kill two birds with one stone.  “Never mind, Hop Sing.  I’ll give Joseph his bath.  You just bring the water and take his dirty clothes downstairs.” Hop Sing retreated to get the water, nodding and smiling as he watched Ben lift his son and carefully carry him up the stairs.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Pa, I’m plenty clean now!”  Little Joe tried to push away his father’s hand as it descended toward his face again with the soapy washrag.

As he knelt next to the round washtub trying to keep a solid grip on the wet and soap-slippery child within it, Ben was growing exasperated.  “Will you please hold still?” he demanded.  “We’re almost done.  I thought you told me you were going to be extra good this week because Santa is watching!”

“I did, but he can’t see me right now,” Joe said complacently, smiling as Pa finally quit finding new places to scrub and lifted him out of the washtub to wrap him up in a large fluffy towel.

“Oh, really,” Ben said, vigorously rubbing the towel against his son’s body and hair.  “What makes you so sure of that?”

“Santa has a magic mirror he watches all the kids through, but it don’t work when you’re in the bathtub or the outhouse,” the boy told him.  “Hoss told me so.”

Mentally congratulating Hoss on his ingenuity, Ben reached for Little Joe’s clean clothing and helped him get dressed again.  “I see,” he said.  “Well, Hoss is right I expect.  Do you know what else Santa Claus uses magic for, Joseph?”

The boy’s eyes widened with curiosity as he shook his head.  “What, Pa?  For the reindeers?”

“Well, they use magic to fly,” Ben agreed, “but that’s not what I was thinking of.  When he checks his list over to make sure where all the good boys and girls live, Santa brings his reindeer and sleigh out to those children’s houses, then he uses magic to get inside the house and fill the stockings without being seen.  So, you see, Joseph, you don’t need to check the chimney again to make sure he can fit because he can fit into any space.  Windows or keyholes or chimneys, or whatever the house he’s visiting happens to have.”

“Because he’s magic?” Joe breathed in wonder.  Ben nodded and pulled the boy up to sit in his lap as he pulled his boots back on for him.  “Pa, how come Santa don’t bring presents to grown-ups?”

Ben thought about it for a few seconds.  “I’m not sure, son.  Maybe it’s because Santa Claus mostly brings candy and toys on Christmas and grown-ups would rather have other things, so we buy those things for each other.”

“Yeah!” Joe cried, bouncing up and down in sudden excitement.  “That’s why Adam and Hoss and I don’t have to get each other presents.  So we could get you…” He stopped short, clapping a hand over his mouth.

Intrigued by what Little Joe had almost said, Ben asked, “Did you boys get together to buy me something for Christmas?”

Little Joe looked a little uncertain whether he should answer the question or not, but figured there was no harm in just that one little piece of information, so he nodded.  “I can’t tell you what it is, though.  You have to wait.”

Ben put on his best pout, the one expression guaranteed to make Little Joe burst into laughter.  “A whole week?” he asked pathetically.  “I’m not sure I can wait that long.  Can’t I have just one little hint?”

“Nope,” Little Joe said, hopping down off his father’s lap and backing away, his face alight with the joy of keeping his wonderful secret from Pa.

Ben waggled his eyebrows at the boy.  “Suppose I were to tickle it out of you?”  Joe shook his head and backed up a step.  Ben reached a hand toward him and wiggled his fingers in the air.  Little Joe giggled and clutched his tummy, laughing harder as his father inched closer to him.  Ben took a sudden step forward and the boy shrieked in delight and took off, out the door, down the hall and stairs and straight into the kitchen yelling for Hop Sing to save him.

When Ben came downstairs a minute or two later, carrying the washtub outside to empty its filthy contents, he found Little Joe sitting at the dining room table happily eating Christmas cookies with a fresh cup of cocoa. A second cup sat across the table from him, steam rising invitingly.  “Come on, Pa.  Hop Sing made us a snack.”

With a grin, Ben went in to join him, wondering as he did so what sort of gift the boys were planning to give him.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
“Oh, Adam, Pa is just gonna bust when he sees this!”  Hoss was holding up the framed drawing so they could both get another look at it, his face shining with delight.  “Did you know Mr. Winston was gonna do the picture like this?”

Adam was grinning from ear to ear.  “I asked him if it would be possible.  That’s why it cost so much.  I can’t believe he could do something this good though!  It’s incredible.”

“Where do you think we ought to hide it?  You know of any place where Pa won’t look, Adam?”

Adam nodded.  “I’m going to hide it under my bed.  Pa would never go snooping through my things looking for Christmas presents and I’m the only one he ever knocks before entering on.”

“What about Little Joe?” Hoss asked with a laugh.  “He’s gonna want to see it too. How are you gonna keep him from spilling the beans to Pa before Christmas gets here?”

With a smile and a shrug, Adam popped one of the jellybeans his brother offered him into his mouth and tucked the picture carefully back into its protective leather wrapping.  “I expect I’ll probably bribe him to keep his mouth shut.”  Hoss grinned back at him.  That always seemed to be what they wound up doing when their baby brother was involved in a secret.  He popped a handful of candy into his mouth and helped Adam secure the last of their supplies into the buckboard.  Adam took the bag of sweets from him with a sigh and tucked it into his own coat pocket.  “Hoss, you know Pa doesn’t want you stuffing yourself with candy.”

Hoss gave a mournful sigh as he watched the bag disappear into his brother’s pocket.  “I know.  He keeps saying it’ll ruin my appetite, but it ain’t never happened so far.”

“Maybe he’s just hoping,” Adam muttered wryly, climbing up into the driver’s seat as Hoss scrambled up the other side.  “Hey, did you remember to get that candy cane Little Joe asked for?”

“Right here.” Hoss patted his own coat pocket.  “I got him a good one, all red and white striped, just like he likes.”

“I guess that’s everything then.”  Adam snapped the reins and the team started for home.  He saw Hoss looking back at the package containing the present once again and couldn’t help snatching another peek for himself.  “He’s really going to love it, isn’t he?”

Hoss looked almost bursting with happiness.  “Sure is!  I just can’t wait until Christmas, Adam.  This is gonna be the best one ever!”
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The rest of the week passed by in a whirl of gaiety as the Cartwright family got ready for Christmas.  The tree was selected and set up in the living room before the fireplace, where everyone who visited the house could easily admire it. Friends and neighbors came by for the big annual Christmas party where everyone helped decorate the tree and stayed late eating and laughing and exchanging favorite holiday memories. Then, two days before Christmas, a large unexpected snowfall provided plenty of opportunity for building forts and snowmen and taking sleigh rides.  On Christmas Eve, the family came bustling into the house, rosy-cheeked and laughing from such a ride, the boys singing carols at the top of their lungs.

“Hop Sing!” Ben called out merrily.  “Do you have anything to eat for four starving men?”

Hop Sing came in, face wreathed in smiles as he helped the younger boys out of their hats, coats, mittens and mufflers.  “Yes sir, Mr. Cartwright.  Fix very good supper.  Beef stew and buttered biscuits to warm up the inside.  You come eat right away!”

“Oh goody, biscuits!” chirped Little Joe.  He made a run for the table and hopped up into his own special chair, which Adam had built with an adjustable seat which could be raised to accommodate the much shorter stature of his youngest brother.  Joe reached eagerly for one of the fluffy white biscuits Hop Sing had just set in front of him, then stopped when he saw his father glaring at him, remembering that grace had not yet been said.  “Can I say grace, Pa?”

A little taken aback by the unusual request, Ben smiled and said, “I’m sure that would be very nice, Joseph. Go ahead.”

The family folded their hands and bowed their heads, each one filled with curiosity to know what sort of blessing a six-year-old might deem appropriate.  Little Joe squeezed his eyes shut and earnestly clasped his hands up to his chin.  “Dear God, thanks for all the good stuff we have to eat.  Pa says lots of poor families don’t have nothing like we do for Christmas; no warm house or food or even presents.  So I just wanted to say thanks and to ask you to tell your son Happy Birthday for me.  I guess that’s all, God.  If I think of anything else I’ll tell you later when I’m going to bed.  Amen.”  He opened his eyes and looked up at his father.  “Was that okay, Pa?”

Ben, Hoss and Adam wore identically warm smiles as they each added an ‘amen’ to Joe’s grace.  “That was perfect, Little Joe,” his father told him.  “I’ve never heard a better one.”

Dinner was polished off rapidly, then the boys all gathered around the fireplace as their father took his customary place in the red leather chair and read to them.  First he read the folded and creased newspaper clipping of Clement C. Moore’s poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, then the original Christmas story from the old worn family bible.  As he closed the pages, Ben kissed each of his sons on the forehead, even Adam who for once did not shy away from the gesture, and sent them off to bed.  “Santa Claus will be here tonight,” he reminded Little Joe,  “so I want all three of you to get right to bed so he doesn’t catch you awake when he arrives.”

“Good night, Pa,” the boys chorused as they raced up the stairs in a thundering herd of laughter, giving lie to the fact that they were so far apart in age.  Ben waited a few minutes, then began to do a mental list of all the places he had hidden the gifts for each of his sons.

“Come in here, you two,” whispered Adam as he and his brothers reached the hallway leading to their bedrooms.  “We’ve got to get our gift wrapped up and downstairs tomorrow before Pa comes down.”  He pulled the beautiful framed picture out from its hiding place beneath his bed and they all admired the large drawing together.

“I got some fancy colored paper we can wrap it in, Adam,” Hoss volunteered.  He disappeared into his own room for a minute then came back carrying a very peculiar looking piece of wrapping paper.

Adam took it from him and grinned.  “Are these candy wrappers?”

“Yup,” he said proudly.  “I saved up every last one of them fancy wrappers the bon bons come in, both from the ones I ate myself and from everybody at school, then I pasted them to a sheet of packing paper I got from the general store.  You think it’s big enough?”

“I think it ought to be just about perfect if we paste it together around the edges of the frame,” Adam decided.  “The back of the frame will show, but who cares about that anyway? We just want the picture to be covered until Pa has a chance to open it up.”  He carefully stretched the paper, signaling Hoss to grab the other end, then Adam reached over to his desk and pulled out a small pot of glue, which he used to seal the corners of the paper together.

“Wish we had a ribbon or something to hold it on tight,” Hoss worried.  “I’m afraid that the paper will fall off.”

“I got a ribbon!” Little Joe announced excitedly.  “Wait a minute, I’ll show you!”

Adam smoothed the paper into place.  “I think Pa will like it and I know he’ll be surprised to get a present like this from us.”

Little Joe came racing back in and flung himself up onto Adam’s bed, holding out a bright red ribbon, complete with a previously tied bow.  “It’s from Mama’s best hat,” he said quietly.  “I kept it for her after it dropped off after church one day.  She said she was gonna sew it back on, but she never did.”

All three boys wore very sad faces for a moment, and Hoss and Little Joe’s lower lips both wobbled a bit, but they held strong and didn’t allow the tears to fall.  Adam reached over to stroke a hand over his baby brother’s curly hair.  “I think this is just the touch we needed.”  Taking extra special care, he pulled the ribbon around the package and pinned the two loose ends together around the back.  The package looked very festive with its fancy decorations and all three of them felt happier looking at it.  Adam pulled out a small sheet of paper and carefully wrote an inscription on it, then signed all three of their names to it and pasted it to a corner of the paper.  “There, now I just have to get it under the tree without Pa seeing it.”
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Christmas morning dawned bright and beautiful and the three boys had no trouble awakening in time to get downstairs and stow their precious package beneath the tree before their father came down.  When he did finally join them, he was greeted with a trio of bright smiling faces and a loud chorus of “Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas, boys!”  He hugged them all and added.  “Well, what should we do first?  Should we do the chores?”

“Did ‘em, Pa.” Adam smiled, playing along with the annual joke.

“Good, then maybe we should have our breakfast,” Ben suggested.

“Can’t Pa, Hop Sing says it won’t be ready for a spell,” Hoss added, grinning brightly.

Ben pretended to ponder deeply.  “Well, then I can’t think of a single thing we should be doing right now.”

Joe tugged impatiently on the sleeve of his father’s bathrobe.  “I know!  I know!”

Swinging the boy up into his arms, Ben smiled and said, “What should we do, Little Joe?”

“The presents, Pa!  We have to see what Santa Claus left us!”

“Why, that’s a marvelous idea,” Ben agreed, as though he had just now remembered them.  “Come on, boys.  Let’s see what’s under the tree!”

“Yippee!” squealed Joe.

Crows of delight and exclamations of thanks permeated the living room, melding with the sounds of shredding and crinkling as the boys tore through the paper in anticipation of what lay beneath.  Adam had held Ben’s gift back, making sure it was out of sight behind him until the rest had been unwrapped.  Ben had opened a few small trinkets left for him by Roy Coffee, Paul Martin and a couple of other close friends, but Christmas morning was for the children as far as he was concerned and he was not at all disturbed by the disproportionate size of his gift pile compared with his sons’.

“Ready?” Adam asked, when the last gift had been opened. Hoss lay down his new pocketknife and Joe surrendered his bucket of wooden soldiers regretfully, but then began bouncing up and down eagerly as he remembered what would come next.  Adam stood up and passed the large package into his surprised father’s hands.  “Merry Christmas, Pa.  From all three of us.”

Touched that they had remembered him, Ben accepted the package.  He had forgotten about the hinting he had intercepted in his own preparations for the holiday.  He fingered the bright red ribbon with a melancholy smile, recognizing it for what it was, then touched Little Joe’s rosy cheek with his fingertips.  He checked the card, and smiled to see Adam’s fine penmanship and the words he had printed inside.  ‘To the best father in the whole world.  We love you. Adam, Hoss and Little Joe.’  “Thank you, boys.”  Ben’s brow crinkled in confusion as he looked at the peculiar wrapping paper on his present, but then he realized what it was and grinned, patting Hoss on the shoulder.

“Ain’t you gonna open it up?” Hoss asked, concerned that it was taking so long for his father to get to the surprise inside.

“Yes, of course.”  Ben carefully removed the paper and gasped as he beheld what lay beneath.  The artist had drawn each of his late wives inside of a separate cloud-like frame above and slightly behind the image of each of their sons.  He had captured the boys in a captivatingly life-like manner, sitting together and smiling, Adam and Hoss flanking Little Joe.  “This is…oh, boys.  This is extraordinary!  How?”

“We took the pictures of our mothers in to Mr. Winston in town, Pa,” Adam explained.  “Joe had asked me if I could have him paint a picture of the three of us and Hoss thought a picture of Ma, Inger and Marie would be better.  So, I asked Mr. Winston if he could sort of do both.  We pooled all the money we’ve earned over the last few months and, well, here it is.  Do you like it, Pa?”

Tears sprang to his eyes and fell unashamedly as Ben smiled and looked back and forth from the portrait to his three children.  “This is the most wonderful present anyone could have ever given me.  Thank you, boys.”  He lay down the picture carefully on the coffee table and hugged his sons tightly.  He loved the gift, true enough, but it was the knowledge that they had given of themselves, of their time, money, creativity, and most of all, their love, to make this present happen that meant the most to him.  “I love you all and I know your mothers are as proud of you right this moment as I am.”

“We love you too, Pa,” the boys told him.

It was the beginning of a very happy Christmas day.

The End.

 

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Author: HelenA

Helen is a lover of the Western and you can find more of her fanfic on her website listed below. http://virginiacitygirl.com/

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