Summary: Each year at Christmas a beautiful lady graces the Cartwright’s Ponderosa ranch house. From her post high atop their tree the little angel with cornflower yellow hair watches them. A smile lights her face for she knows that, without her, Ben Cartwright’s life would have been very different…
Word count: 7489
The Lady with Yellow Hair
PROLOGUE – December 24th, 1863
It was Christmas eve and Ben Cartwright couldn’t sleep.
He’d lain awake tossing and turning for the last hour or so and had finally come to the conclusion that, if he didn’t do something about it and soon, he was going to lay there the whole night. So, after putting on his burgundy robe and sliding his bare feet into his slippers, the rancher left his room behind and headed for the stairs, intending to make his way to the kitchen for a warm glass of milk – and maybe a few of those chocolate fudge cookies Hop Sing had baked for the holiday. Ben chuckled to himself as his feet hit the great room floor.
With three boys in the house, it would probably be his only chance to get one!
As Ben stood there thinking about his sons and how much he loved them, and imagined their faces as they opened the presents he had hand-selected for each one of them, an unexpected beam of moonlight penetrated the window in the dining room. It struck the polished surface of the table and then moved on, briefly touching Marie’s striped settee before settling on the round table that held his decanter and four brandy snifters. Hop Sing must have removed the chess set and placed it there before he went to bed, knowing he would want it for tomorrow’s celebration. Ben smiled as he noted the decanter had been filled to the brim. His old friend knew he liked nothing better than a fine aged brandy. Always had.
The older man’s smile faded with the light.
Once upon a time he had liked it too much.
Pointing his feet toward the decanter rather than the kitchen, Ben crossed over to the table. When he arrived, he placed his hand on the stopper and stared at the amber liquid. He was remembering – remembering a time when he had almost lost himself and, truth be told, nearly lost his youngest son as well. Not that Joseph’s life had been in danger. At least, not in the usual way. But the threat was there and he hadn’t even noticed.
He’d been too busy wallowing in self-pity and cursing the world.
Ben sniffed as he teared up and then continued on to his desk. Hanging one hip on its edge, he reached for his late wife’s portrait – his third wife – and gazed at her beautiful face. Marie was forever young, frozen in time before the snow lay upon the rose. The rancher reached out to touch her face and then turned his attention to the ten-foot gaily decorated fir tree that dominated the great room. He smiled at the myriad decorations, most of them handmade by his sons, and then lifted his eyes to its pinnacle. The yellow-haired angel, Anne, was there, watching over them as she had for a little more than fifteen years. Adam was thirty-two. Hoss, twenty-six. And Joseph – dear Joseph – had just turned twenty. Ben glanced at Marie again, thinking how proud she would have been to see what a fine young man her son had grown to be, and then he returned her portrait to the desk. Sticking his hands in his pockets, the rancher rose and walked over to the tree and looked up. Anne smiled down on him. It was the family tradition that Joseph was the one who would put her in place. The antics over the years that had occasioned were legendary. Still, there was a reason – a very important reason that his youngest was so honored.
Without Anne – without his mother’s angel – Marie’s beloved Joseph might have grown into a very different kind of man.
ONE – Spring 1847
Ben Cartwright stood outside of his youngest’s room, listening. The boy’s mother had put him to sleep sometime before, but as he passed his son’s bedroom on the way to the kitchen, he heard Little Joe laughing. The sound had puzzled him and so he had stopped, sure that at least one of Joseph’s older brothers’ had sneaked into his room and he would hear their voices as well, but there was nothing.
Nothing but that laugh.
The four-year-old had just moved to his own room a month or so before. On his birthday Joseph had announced that he was ‘all growed up’ and wasn’t a baby anymore. Much to his mother’s dismay, he had begun to resist her hug and kisses, stating flatly that ‘Hoss and Adam don’t get no kisses ‘fore they goes to bed.’
A word in his elder brothers’ ears had quickly dispelled that notion and set everything right in the Cartwright household again.
Still, to honor the little boy’s desire to be ‘all growed up’, he had talked Marie into allowing the boy to have his own room. His wife had been terrified at first. Joseph was known to wander now and then during the night. He wasn’t quite sure the boy was actually sleep-waking, though that was what Paul Martin labeled it. Nevertheless, they had made it a habit to lock the boy’s door once they put him to bed.
Ben glanced at the key hanging off the lamp next to his son’s bedroom door. They kept it handy in case of an emergency. As another peal of laughter indicated the little boy was still awake, he decided to use it.
With a quiet click and a shove, the heavy wooden door opened. It was quite dark inside as the room was lit only by the pale sliver of a moon that shone through the boy’s window and a few companion stars. One winked at him as he stepped into the room, glowing brightly for just a moment before disappearing.
Several heartbeats later a small voice asked, “Is I in trouble, Papa?”
Ben hid his smile. “Should you be, young man?”
His son stirred on the bed and sat up. Joseph was anchored in the middle of the usual tempest of linens, indicating he had been asleep at some point. As he watched his son’s curly head appeared, framed by the window in the opposite wall.
The sight of those glorious curls always brought a smile.
There was a moment of silence before he spoke. “I’s sorry, Papa. I know’d I shouldn’t have been playin’, but she asked and I had to.”
Ben’s dark brows popped. “She?”
The curly head bobbed. “You told me it ain’t polite to refuse a lady.”
Crossing to the bed, the older man took a seat on it and looked at his child. Joseph’s little face was so serious.
“No,” he agreed. “No, it’s not. Was there…a lady in here?”
Little Joe’s eyes were bright in the darkness. He nodded again, solemnly. “Yes, sir. A beautiful lady.”
“Oh, so you could see her in the dark?”
His son grinned. “On account of she glowed all on her own!”
Ben ran a hand over his face. “She…glowed, did she?” The older man nodded toward the window. “Perhaps the moonlight…?”
Joseph’s smile melted into a frown. “No, sir. She glowed from the inside out!”
Obviously, the boy had been dreaming and just didn’t know it.
“So, this beautiful lady. She came to play with you?”
“Yes, sir. I told her I was tired, but she said she wanted to stay ‘cause tonight was important.” As if to prove his point, his young son yawned. “But since she was a lady I had to be –”
Ben stared at the boy a moment and then decided enough was enough. “How about we get you settled in, and then you can tell me more about her.”
Joseph fidgeted with the linens wrapped around his skinny frame. “I been fightin’ my covers again.”
“I can see that.” He smiled. “I’ll just straighten them out first. How does that sound?”
“Real good, Papa.”
It took a couple of minutes. He had Joseph sit on the chair by his bed while he pulled and tucked his covers, all the while keeping an eye on the little boy to make sure he didn’t drop off and – drop off. When he was done, Ben picked his son up and – after giving him a hug – tucked him in and under and drew the covers up to his chin.
Then he sat in the chair.
“Now, Joseph, tell me more about this lady. What does she look like?”
“She looks like Mama,” his son said, so quickly it startled him. “Only older.”
“Oh? How can you tell she’s older?”
“Her hair’s yellow, but it’s the color of Hop Sing’s pans here just like yours.” Joe touched his temple. “So she’s gotta be old.”
Out of the mouths of babes.
“I see, and why did she want to stay – even though you told her you were tired?”
“She said she had something she wanted to give me.”
“Did she? And what was that?”
Little Joe screwed up his face. Then he shrugged. “All she did was tickle me and make me laugh.”
As he had heard. “That was it?”
“Uh huh. Then she gave me a big old bear hug and told me somethin’ else, and then told me to remember it.”
He was intrigued. “And what was it you were to remember?”
Joe sat up in his bed again and spoke as if he was reciting his sums. “That laughter is the language of God and that, with it, we can all live happily ever after.”
The imagination of a child.
“Well, young man,” he said, rising, “now that you have your gift – and your laugh – I think it’s high time you go to sleep.” Leaning in, Ben planted a kiss on his son’s forehead. “Lay down now. Good night.”
Little Joe’s tiny fingers closed on the coverlet as he rolled over to one side. “Night, Papa.”
Ben had headed for the door, but stopped as his small son called him back. Taking a step toward the bed, he asked, “What is it, Joseph?”
“I love you, Papa.”
A smile lit his face. “I love you too, Joseph. Now get some sleep.”
Ben stifled a sigh. With Joseph, it was inevitable that the ‘goodnight’ ritual take at least five minutes.
“What is it now?”
He was expecting the usual request for a drink or a second trip to the privy. He was not expecting the answer her got.
“The pretty lady said to tell you she had a gift for you too.”
Ben blinked. “A gift for me?”
Joseph nodded. “She said it would be under the Christmas tree.”
The older man frowned. It was spring. Christmas was over six months away.
What in the world had turned the boy’s thought to that?
“Well, I will be sure to remember. And if I don’t, you remind me. All right?”
Then, there was silence.
Ben chuckled to himself as he headed out the door and toward the staircase. A gift for him from an unknown shining and beautiful lady with yellow hair touched by the silver of Hop Sing’s pans.
What would the child think of next?
The next day flew like the hooves of his wife’s beloved black stallion. The spring round-up was near and it had never been more important than this year. The last winter had been harsh and they had emerged from it in want – oh, not nearly so great a want as he had known after Adam’s mother had died and the two of them had struck out for the West – but enough that he feared he would not be able to keep Marie in the style to which she was accustomed. His wife had grown furious with him when he had hinted at his purpose, accusing him of treating her like one of the fragile porcelain figurines she kept sitting on the what-knot shelf in the great room. Marie told him she would be perfectly happy wearing rags and eating off of treenware dishes if she had him and her boys at her side.
He knew she meant it too.
Still, it did his heart good to shower her with things as beautiful as she was; to…pamper her. God had gifted him with a precious treasure when he had met and married Marie De Marigny. And then he had lavished even more upon him in the gift of their son. Ben glanced at his feet where the boy sat playing quietly – for once – with the set of handsome wooden horses his mother had ordered for him from France. If there was one thing Joseph loved – maybe more than his mother – it was horses. Joseph took to the fine fierce animals like a fish to water which, he had to admit, had been a bone of contention between him and Marie at times. She often took the boy down to the corral to watch his brothers and the few hands they had work with the wild, free-spirited animals. He thought Joseph was too young. He was afraid the boy would get it into his head that he was old enough to do what his brothers did.
Marie had laughed the first time he’d put words to his unease – that lovely, lilting, tinkling laugh she had. She called him a ‘inquiétude verrue’ or a worry wart. ‘Does the Bible not say,’ his beautiful wife went on, ‘that worry cannot add one hair to your head or a day to your life, mon Cherie?”
had turned more than a few of them silver.
The rancher felt a tug on his pants’ leg. He looked down to find his young son’s cherubic face looking up at him.
“When will Mama be home?”
When indeed? Marie had gone to visit a neighbor; riding away on that fast-flying thoroughbred of hers. He had qualms about that horse, though the hands he’d questioned said it was a good horse, if somewhat skittish. He considered it too big for his wife’s small frame.
Though not too big for her spirit.
Ben rose and moved into the great room so he could see the tall case clock by the door. It was about 4:30. Hop Sing insisted on dinner at 6:00 and Marie would need time to change.
“Any minute,” he assured his son.
“The pretty lady told me last night to give Mama a big hug and a kiss today before she left,” his son said as he went back to playing with his horses.
“The pretty lady?” For a moment Ben was stumped. Then, he remembered Little Joe’s sometimes nocturnal visitor.
The boy nodded without looking up. “She was sad.”
“Oh? And why is that?”
Joe shrugged and then looked right at him. “She told me to tell you to remember to look for that gift.”
Ben frowned and opened his mouth to ask his son what he was talking about.
That was the moment when his world turned upside-down.
He heard a horse snort and blow and his wife’s voice scolding it. Adam called out something. The door opened – he didn’t know how – and he saw his beloved astride that damn horse. The black was backing up and bucking. Rearing. Marie was fighting for control. She almost had it.
It was then that he realized what had caused the door to open.
Joseph was running toward his mama.
Ben’s eyes locked with his wife’s. There was terror in them – and regret. She pulled the horse’s reins sharply to the left. The animal fought against her, tossing its head from side to side, shrieking and rearing; its hooves striking out.
There was another shout and a blur of motion. Adam swooped in like a falcon on the chase. He caught hold of his brother on the run and the two of them tumbled out of danger.
And then there was another sound; a sound he would never forget. Later, he would recognize it as the noise of a nearly two-ton weight animal striking the ground.
At that moment he felt it as a clap of thunder.
A second later he was on his knees at his dying wife’s side.
Marie’s emerald green eyes fastened on his. “Joseph…?”she asked through her pain.
“Safe,” he said as he clasped her gloved hand. It was waving in the air as if seeking something out of reach.
Marie nodded and then her back arched – as much as it could with the weight of the horse atop her. She grimaced, breaking his heart, and then – unexpectedly – smiled. The most beautiful, heartfelt smile.
“Marie?” he pleaded.
Her eyes closed as if she was gathering strength, and then his beautiful wife looked right at him.
“Remember, mon cherie,” she breathed.
And was gone.
Chapter Two – Winter, 1847
Adam Cartwright moved down the staircase, careful to keep his steps as light as he could. His father had fallen asleep in his chair – again. Since Marie’s death, whenever he bothered to come home, the older man went straight to it. Pa would fall into that chair, order Hop Sing to bring him a bottle of brandy, and then drink at least half of it. They had learned to give him a wide berth. Well, he and Hoss had.
Little Joe just didn’t understand.
And so he had made it his job to make sure Little Joe was ‘elsewhere’ when Pa was in one of his moods – which was most of the time that he was home. Or maybe it would be better to say, when he was ‘in the house’. The Ponderosa hadn’t been a home since that terrible day last spring when Marie’s horse spooked and landed on top of her.
The teenager paused at the bottom of the steps. His father didn’t know it, but he did. The older man blamed Little Joe for Marie’s death. Oh, not consciously – and Pa had never said anything to Joe or to any of them – but it was there.
Pa avoided Marie’s son just as much as he did the Ponderosa.
At first, he’d thought their pa had a hard time being around his baby brother because Joe looked so much like Marie – more so, in fact, with each day that passed. That was a part of it, but there was something deeper – and darker – to it. Pa was always short with Joe. He said it was because he had no time and, Joe being Joe, didn’t understand. But that wasn’t it. Adam’s eyes returned to his father where he slumped in the chair. Pa had plenty of time to waste in a stupor, after all. No, he knew what his father believed and why the older man thought what he thought. But Pa was wrong.
He’d been on the other side of things that day as his step-mother came riding into the yard. He was at the barn, talking to one of the hands. The black was acting like a bee-stung stallion. Marie barely had it under control. It was only a matter of time before it threw her or came crashing down on top of her. Nothing could have stopped it.
It was plain bad luck that Little Joe chose that moment to run out of the door.
His little brother had been in danger too – from the animal’s wild and willful thrashing – but he didn’t cause the thrashing. That was an unfortunate combination of the horse’s temperament and its rider’s temper. Marie was high-handed with a mount. She expected it to understand her and obey instantly. He’d seen it many times.
This time she met a horse as stubborn as she was.
With careful steps, the teenager moved into the room and headed for the kitchen. Little Joe had been crying again and he had promised his baby brother a warm glass of milk and some of the cookies left over from their meal. Pa had come in unexpectedly just after supper growling about his trip being a waste of time, and then shouting about the cookies being a waste of good money. It had been all he could do to keep his mouth shut.
In fact, it had been all he could do to keep from yelling back.
Adam paused to run a hand through his hair, thrusting the fringe of black back and off his forehead. He’d be the first to admit it. He’d been sort of jealous of Joe before Marie died. The kid got everything handed to him on a silver platter – the best clothes, enough toys to fill a store, more than enough to eat; kisses and hugs and pats on the head and promises of more. At Little Joe’s age, he’d sometimes felt the back of his father’s hand and been growled at as many times as his stomach had growled for lack of food. He’d grown used to it. Little Joe wasn’t. There were times now when he looked at the little scamp that Joe looked like he’d lost his best friend.
Adam glanced at his pa again where he sagged in his chair.
Of course, Joe had.
He hadn’t any more than taken a step when the older man stirred and grunted, “Who’s that?” No surprise, his father’s words were slightly slurred. “What’re…you doing?”
“It’s just me, Pa. Adam.”
The teenager winced as the tall case clock chose that inopportune moment to chime quarter after midnight.
His father’s eyes went to it. “What are you…doing up so late?”
Curfew was eleven. Probably so he wouldn’t see what he was seeing now.
“Sorry, Pa. I was just getting a glass of milk.”
The inebriated man pushed himself up by bracing his hands on the arms of the chair. “Aren’t…you a little…old…for a glass of milk?”
Adam winced and waited for the explosion. Pa would have a fit that Joe wasn’t asleep. “It’s for Little Joe.”
“Just woke up. A minute go,” he lied. “I thought the milk would help him get back to sleep.”
His father didn’t explode as he’d expected. Instead, he surprised him.
“I’ll get it, Adam. You go…to bed.”
Startled him was more like it. This was definitely not a good thing – especially considering what was in Little Joe’s room.
“It’s okay, Pa,” he replied as he headed for the hall. “I don’t mind – ”
“Are you dish-oh…disobeying me?” his father roared.
Yes, he was. And with good reason.
Christmas was in a few days. Pa had told them he would be gone until New Years. Little Joe had been so sad when the older man left that he’d decided to do something to cheer him up. Together with Hoss, they’d headed out to find a small pine tree and put it in Little Joe’s room. They’d had a blast decorating it. Hop Sing had even joined in, supplying the gingerbread men. The tree stood proudly now, in front of his baby brother’s window, dripping with tinsel and decked out with candles and homemade ornaments.
Pa had forbidden Christmas this year.
Adam cleared his throat. “No, Pa. I’m not disobeying you. But you did ask me…” He paused to correct himself. “…order me to tell you if I thought you were too…tired…to take care of Joe.”
Something like pain entered his father’s eyes. “I did. When?”
This was it – acceptance or the belt.
“When you were sober.”
Anger flared in his father’s eyes, a familiar anger – the kind that had brought that callused hand to his backside when he was young. Then, as quickly as it flared, it was gone.
“Thank you, son,” was all he said.
The teenager didn’t know how to respond. He looked down toward his feet and then back up. Pa was still staring at him.
“I’ll just go get that milk then. Shall I?” he inquired, jerking his finger toward the kitchen. “Little Joe will be waiting.”
His father nodded and then dropped back into his chair. Anchoring his chin on his folded fingers, the older man turned and looked at the fire.
Adam took that as a ‘yes’.
Ben Cartwright opened his eyes and shivered. It took him a moment to remember where he was. When he did, he shifted and looked at the hearth. There were a few active coals left, but they did little to dispel the chill that had settled on the room.
It was not as great a chill as the one that had settled on his heart.
The older man turned back into the great room and looked around. He knew what he should see – all that he had achieved and all he had. But the only thing he could see was what was missing.
It had been a little over six months ago since he had lost her. In some ways it felt as if he had never had her to begin with and in others, like it had only been a day since she had been in his arms. Falling back, he stared at the elegant settee his late wife had ordered from France. He could see her sitting there, a book in one hand; the other stroking Joseph’s curls as he lay in her lap sleeping.
Ben ran a hand over his face, feeling the stubble. Plain and simple, he’d failed the boy. No . Who was he kidding? He’d failed all of them – not only Marie’s son, but Inger and Elizabeth’s as well. Hoss was the easiest going of the three. His middle son accepted him as he was and where he was. Hoss would be fine. Adam, on the other hand, was shamed by him. He knew it. And Adam was angry – angry that he’d been forced to grow up too quickly – that there was no time to raise hell with his friends. No time to be a boy. And then there was his boy. His youngest.
Joseph was withering.
Ben rose with a start, displacing the half-empty brandy snifter on the table and knocking it to the floor. He stared at it as it hit the stones and shattered into a dozen pieces, echoing the stuff of his soul. He had nothing for the boy and the boy knew it. It…just wasn’t in him. At first he had told himself that it was because he was an old man. In a way, he had never raised a child. Adam had been his partner – and all too soon his right hand. Hoss? Well, in truth, it was Adam who had reared Hoss as he forged his empire. He had been so pleased – so excited – when his youngest had come along. He had doted on the boy and enjoyed nothing more than coming home in the evening after a hard day’s work to spend time with him and his mother.
Joseph and his mother.
How often, in reality, had he spent time with the boy on his own?
Ben remained where he was, considering his failures. As he did, a tear escaped to trail down his cheek. He’d gone so far as to try to convince himself that he blamed Joseph for his mother’s death in order to excuse his behavior. It had been a selfish thing to do and pure fiction.
No one was responsible for Marie’s death but Marie.
“Ah, there’s the rub,” the rancher sighed, quoting Adam’s bard.
It wasn’t Joseph he was angry at.
Reaching up, Ben struck the tear away. He drew in a deep breath as he glanced up the stairs. Adam had acted so strangely when he’d offered to take Joseph the milk, almost as if….
As if Joseph was afraid of him.
A thought struck him then, and a deep sadness, as he remembered the night before Marie’s fall – that night when he had been stopped outside his youngest’s door, drawn there by the sound of his son’s joyous laughter.
There had been no laughter in the house since that night.
Lost in thought, Ben left the hearth area and walked to the kitchen. Entering it, he looked around for the cookie jar. He’d take a couple up and leave them on the bedside table with a note telling Joseph that he loved and missed him. Adam or Hoss could read it to the boy in the morning. He would leave tonight. It seemed they were doing fine without him and he couldn’t stand to be home.
The clock struck three as Ben Cartwright climbed the stairs, cookies in hand. He stopped at Joseph’s door and looked down the hallway. It pained him to think that he wouldn’t have a chance to talk to his middle boy, but he had made up his mind to go. His sons would be better off without him. He’d seen a few things in the kitchen as he scrounged around that indicated Hop Sing was not adhering to his order that Christmas be ignored. Of course, none of them had expected him back. He hadn’t intended to come back, but after the deal he was brokering fell through something – he had no idea what – had drawn him home a surely as a bee drew a bear to honey. Perhaps it was a need to see his boys and to make sure they were well. He’d look in on Hoss after he left the plate for Joe. That way, he would have seen him at least.
And then he would excuse himself from their lives again.
Ben didn’t know what he expected as he stepped in the door, but it was certainly not what he found. He’d crossed all the way over to the bed and placed the plate on the table beside it before he noticed – and when he did, he was stunned. Apparently, where his order was being circumnavigated downstairs, in Joseph’s room it had been completely ignored. A small, three-foot-tall fir tree stood in front of the boy’s window, bathed in tinsel and hung with handmade ornaments, most of which glinted in the silvery moonlight. There were packages under it – some wrapped by Hoss no doubt as the paper was asymmetrical at best in its application. As his indignation rose, Ben noted idly that the tree had no topper.
At least there was one thing in the house as empty as his soul.
“Are you mad, Papa?” a small voice asked.
Mad? He was furious!
Rounding, Ben glared at the small figure in the bed with its wide eyes and tousled curls – and then felt like a jackass. His son was terrified. Joseph’s face, where it showed above the coverlet, shone with tears as bright as the tinsel on the tree.
“I’m sorry, Papa, if I made you mad. Adam said it would be…be all right….” The little boy shuddered. “….he didn’t think you’d be home.”
Feeling about as low as the belly of a snake, Ben crossed to the bed and sat by his son. When he reached out, Joseph flinched. He held still until the boy recognized that he meant him no harm, and then laid his hand alongside the child’s cherubic cheek.
“I’m sorry, son,” he said, his voice quivering.
Joseph looked t him as if he was a loon. “You ain’t done nothin’ wrong, Papa. I’ve been a bad boy.”
Ben turned and glanced at the tree. It sparkled in the moonlight, condemning him. Turning back, he said, “Because you had Adam put up a tree?”
“I know’d you didn’t want one in the house. I know’d it would make you sad.”
Ben sighed. “And how did you know it would make me sad?”
“Cause, like me, it reminds you of Mama.”
The older man was struck like a blow by memories. He saw them all gathered in the great room, their voices lifted in song. Marie sat on the settee with Joseph in the crook of her arm, smiling, as his older sons decorated the tree. There were parties. Guests. And then, after the guests had gone and the boys were in bed, that kiss under the mistletoe and the journey up the stairs to their room.
Dear God, how he missed her.
Ben blinked back tears as he came to himself. “Yes, Joseph?”
“How come thinkin’ about Mama makes you sad? Don’t you love her anymore?”
That stopped him cold.
“Of course, I love your mother.”
Little Joe cocked his head. A frown marred his precious face. “Don’t love make you happy? You ain’t happy.”
The older man shook his head. He’d have to talk to Hoss about his grammar. “I’m ‘not’, son,” he corrected.
Joseph’s little head bobbed up and down. “That’s what Adam says. You ain’t.”
“Adam?” Ben thought of the teenager standing there, staring at him from his position behind Marie’s settee. “What does your brother say?”
Joe looked frightened again. “Will I get him in trouble?”
Ben shook his head. “No, son. Just tell me the truth.”
“Oh…kay. Adam says you’re sad ‘cause of Mama. He says, when Mama went away she took your heart with her and there ain’t nothin’ but a big ol’ hole there now.” His youngest hesitated and then reached out. His tiny fingers touched his vest. “Can I find it for you, Papa?”
Ben fought back tears. He drew a breath to steady himself before taking Joseph’s small fingers in his own. “You don’t have to find it, son. It’s here.” He touched the boy’s golden curls. “With you….” He cleared his throat. “With you and your brothers.”
Joseph sat there, silent, for some time. He seemed to be considering all he had said. Finally, scrunching up his nose, his child said, “I gots me presents for Adam and Hoss under my tree. I made them myself.” He hesitated. “Is it…is it okay that that there’s one for you too?”
Ben glanced again at the little Christmas tree – nearly as small as its owner – and the wrapped boxes beneath it. “One of those is for me?”
His son crawled out of his covers and came to sit beside him. His curly head bobbed up and down.
Ben hesitated and then wrapped an arm around Little Joe’s waist. “Did you make it?” he asked.
Joseph looked uncomfortable. Finally he admitted, “I didn’t think you’d want one so it ain’t from me. Sorry.”
“Really?” He was surprised. “Then who is it from?”
“The pretty lady with the yellow hair.”
It took him a moment. Then, that night of laughter came back to him again– along with the memory of the following day. “Joseph, you know there is no such lady.”
The boy looked affronted. “I ain’t lyin’. You don’t let us lie.”
“I didn’t….” Ben cleared his throat. “I didn’t mean to imply that you were lying, son. I’m sure you believe she is real. Perhaps, you were dreaming?”
“She is real, Papa! She is! The pretty lady with yellow hair comes to my room and sings to me and laughs with me and tells me all about mama.” His voice grew quiet. “She tells me about you too.”
Ben didn’t know what to think. “What does she tell you about me?”
Little Joe’s green eyes grew wide.
“That…you ain’t gonna learn to live ‘til you learn to laugh again.”
Several hours later Ben Cartwright sat in the chair by his youngest’s bed, blinking back sleep as he stared at the Christmas tree his sons had erected – despite his wishes. It sparkled with the light of the stars that spilled in the window and seemed to glow. Ben blinked and the light diminished. Then he leaned forward and dropped his head into his hands.
He felt like a complete failure.
“You are too hard on yourself, Benjamin.”
Startled, he looked up. The light around the tree had returned. It intensified and coalesced into the form of a small, slender woman.
A woman with yellow hair.
She was about his age. He blonde hair was upswept and, as his son had said, touched with silver at the temples. She wore a simple pale blue dress. Behind and about her there was a sort of pale pink light, like the shimmer on pearls.
Ben sat straight up. He blinked and rubbed his eyes. When the vision persisted, he asked, “Who are you? How did you get into my son’s room?”
“I have always been here. You simply lacked the faith to see me.”
“No. I would have known….”
“Non, mon cher fils,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “Not unless I had wished it.”
Mon cher fils.
My dear son.
“Who are you?” he asked again.
The woman moved from the window to his side, bringing the shimmering pink luminescence with her. Holding his gaze, she reached out and laid a hand alongside his cheek. “Once upon a time, mon cher fils, you would have known me. I am love and light and laughter. I am a reminder of all that you have forgotten.”
She laughed and the sound was like tinkling bells. “I was…once upon a time.”
There was something about her – something familiar. It was close. He could almost grasp it.
“You try too hard,” she said, as if reading his thoughts.
“I have to,” he sighed. “I have a ranch to run. Sons to provide for. They need a place to sleep, clothes on their backs, food in their bellies….”
“You have forgotten to mention the one thing they need most.”
“What is that?” he demanded.
She moved away from him. Crossing to the other side of the bed, she gazed down lovingly at his young son. “You, Benjamin. They need you.” She laid a hand on Joseph’s curls. “Especially this little one. It is not too late.”
“Too late? What do you mean?”
The blonde woman looked up. Her gaze pierced his heart. “Shall I paint you a picture, mon fils? A portrait of a fiery young man whose life has been formed by loss. Who desperately seeks his father’s attention in the only way he knows how. Whose days end not in joy but in grief – at the end of a rope.”
His eyes went to his sleeping son, so young , so innocent.
“Oui.” The woman returned to his side. Reaching out, she took his hand in hers. “Joseph is as fiery as his mother. Just as strong and just as fragile.”
“What do you know of Marie?” he challenged, his voice choking as he spoke his late wife’s name.
Her hand moved to his heart.
“I know she would want you to laugh again.”
Ben started awake. He blinked and looked at the window. Joseph’s Christmas tree was there, the tinsel and ornaments glinting in the dawning light. Outside, snow was falling. He was surprised to find that the sight filled him with joy and not sadness.
“Morning, Papa,” a small voice said. “Is it okay to wish you Merry Christmas?”
The older man closed his eyes. He drew in a breath as he did and then let it out slowly. Once he had regained his composure, Ben looked at his boy. “Yes, Joseph, and a Merry Christmas to you.”
Little Joe studied him. Finally, he asked, “Did you talk to the lady with the yellow hair?”
There was no reason to deny it – dream or reality, he had talked to her.
“Yes, son, I did.”
“Did you open her present yet?”
Ben looked at the tree. There were several presents under it. They all looked the same – except one. It was wrapped in a beautiful pale pink paper than shone like the inside of a Queen conch shell and looked quite out of place next to the other, very masculine boxes. He rose and went to the tree and picked it up.
“This one?” he asked his son.
The rancher returned to the chair by the bed and started to sit, but then changed his mind. He looked at his son. “Would it be all right, Joseph, if I sat beside you on the bed while I opened it?”
His son looked a little frightened, but nodded his head.
That look pained him.
As he slipped in beside the boy, Ben said, “Joseph, can I ask you something?”
The little boy nodded.
“Please, call me Pa.”
Joe’s eyes lit up. “Like Adam and Hoss do?”
He nodded. “Just like Adam and Hoss do.” He held out his hand. “Is it a deal?”
Solemnly his small son shook it. Then he asked, “You gonna open the lady’s package…Pa?”
He was almost frightened to.
“I’ll help if you’re scared.”
Ben looked at the boy, surprised by his perception. Then he nodded. “Thank you, son.”
Together, they took hold of the ends of the ribbon bow on top and pulled. It seemed to magically fall away, leaving a small box wrapped in pink paper. Next. he indicated to Little Joe where to place his finger and instructed the boy to run it along the seam, dislodging the glue. He did the same on the other side and then to two of them – together – pulled the paper away to reveal a printed paper box covered with drawings of angels.
“It looks like the ones Mama had. The ones she kept her hats in,” his son said and then winced as if he had said something wrong.
“Yes, it does. Mama had a lot of pretty things.”
Joseph looked up at him. “Mama was pretty. Wasn’t she, Pa?”
Tears entered his eyes. “Yes, she was.” He hesitated. “ Joseph, you know I loved her very much. Just like I love you.”
His son’ eyes narrowed. “You’re different, Pa. How come?”
He winked. “I met your lady with the yellow hair.”
As his son watched, Ben lifted the lid off the box. When he saw what it held, he began to laugh. In fact, laughter bubbled up in him and spilled over until tears of joy were running down his cheeks.
Joseph was clapping his hands. “See! See, I told you! She said you needed to learn to laugh again!”
Ben ruffled his son’s unruly golden curls. Then, he ran his sleeve over his face to wipe away the tears. “Why don’t you take it out, son,” he said.
Little Joe’s eyes danced with excitement.
He watched as the boy pulled out the yellow-haired lady’s present . Then he picked him up – present and all – and carried him over to his tree. Joseph looked at him. When he nodded, his son soberly planted the gift on the tree’s piney top.
Stepping back, Ben gazed in wonder at the handmade angel with her cornflower-yellow yarn hair, pale blue dress, and pink pearlescent wings.
Joe was looking in the box. “Pa, there’s a note in here.” He pulled out a piece of paper. “I can’t read it. Can you?”
“A note? Really?” Taking his son and crossing back over to the bed, Ben took his seat as he accepted the note from him. His eyes quickly scanned its content. A moment later he lowered it to his lap.
“Who’s it from, Pa?” Little Joe asked as his fingers sought the lightly scented paper.
It took a moment for him to reply. “It’s from your grandmother.”
“Grand mother? Does that mean she’s really big like Hoss?”
He chuckled. “No, just really old like me.”
Joseph blinked. “Okay.”
That made the laughter bubble up again. The note in his hand silenced it – with awe.
“What does it say, Pa?”
He hadn’t realized Marie’s mother was still living. His wife had never spoken of her, and he wondered now if they had parted on less than friendly terms. Ben’s eyes returned to the tree in the window. The little yellow-haired angel gazed back at him, its blue eyes wide and wise.
Clearing his throat, he read:
‘Fille chérie, It has been more than a year since your maman has heard from you. One of the late Marius Angeville’s friends informed me that you had moved to the Nevada territory and have a little one. I pray this letter finds you there. With all my heart, mon petite Marie, I wish I could see you again, but it will not happen in this lifetime, and so I send your dear little Anne in my place. Do you remember the beautiful lady with the yellow hair who kept watch over you? I told her you have need of her now. Place her on your tree each year at Christmas and she will watch over your small son and remind his dear mama and papa of what is important….’
“Love, light, and laughter,” Ben read, his voice soft as the fall of snow outside.
“Was she right, Pa?” Little Joe asked. “Are you all better now that you learned how to laugh again?”
He circled his son’s small form with an arm and drew him in close.
“Yes, son. I’m all better now.”
EPILOGUE – December 25th, 1863
Ben started and sat up, a little embarrassed to find that he had fallen asleep in the chair by the fire – and without the influence of brandy! Joseph stood before him. His son’s rampant curls were tousled and the boy was wearing his robe.
“You been there all night?” he asked.
He glanced at the window above the dining table. The dawn light was spilling through it. Ben’s smile was chagrined.
“I guess so.”
“Keepin’ watch over the tree?”
The older man’s eyes went to the splendid fir. His lips twitched. “Maybe.”
Joe sat on the edge of the table. His son pivoted on the polished wood so he, too, was facing the tree. He watched the boy’s eyes climb it to the tattered angel that graced its top. For a moment Joe was silent and then his lips quirked with amusement. When he turned to face him, his son had ‘that’ look in his eyes.
“You sure you weren’t sparkin’ with Anne? I know you’re sweet on her.”
He nodded. “Fifteen years now and we haven’t missed a date.”
Joe chuckled, but sobered quickly as his eyes went back to the little angel. “Pa….”
“Was she real? The lady with the yellow hair, I mean?”
Ben’s gaze followed his son’s. “She’s right there.”
Joe looked at him. “You know what I mean. Not,” he nodded toward the tree, “that lady. The other one. The one in my room.”
They hadn’t spoken about it for years. As Joseph grew, his son became self-conscious. Of course, his brothers hadn’t helped. They’d teased him mercilessly about the little yellow-haired angel. It had taken a patriarchal edict to put a stop to it and, after that, the matter had dropped.
No one said anything.
He wondered now what had prompted his son to broach the sensitive subject again.
“What do you remember, son?”
Little Joe shrugged. “Not much. I was pretty little.” The boy rose and walked over to the tree. He stood there a moment, fingering one of the branches, and then said, “I remember you were…sad.”
“I wasn’t sad. I was mad, Joseph. Mad at the world. Mad at God.”
Joe turned and looked at him. One corner of his mouth quirked. “Yeah, I remember that too.”
Ben rose and walked over to the boy and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “I’m sorry, son, that I ever made you afraid of me.” When Joe began to protest, he went on. “Don’t deny it. I…lost myself after your mother died. I wasn’t there for you and for that I apologize.”
“It’s okay, Pa –”
“No. It’s not. I was so mired in self-pity that I forgot I wasn’t the only one who was hurting. I thought you boys would be better off without me.”
Joe shook his head. “Pa, no! Never!”
“I know that now.” Ben looked up. “And I owe it to your maternal grandmother and her gift.”
His son sniffed back his emotions as he too looked up. “You know Pa, I think….”
“What do you think, Joe? Tell me.”
“I think…it was mama’s mama who came to visit me.” He winced, knowing it sounded peculiar. “You don’t think I’m crazy do you?”
No, he didn’t think his son was crazy. After that night, he had hired a private detective to track down Marie’s mother. By the time the man located her, she had passed. The detective had gathered what information he could and sent him a file, which he had placed in his desk and never shared with his son.
“Wait here, Joe.”
Joseph’s puzzled look followed him across the room and back. Upon his return, Ben opened the file and drew a heavily decorated small leather case from it and handed it to his son.
“What’s this?” Joe asked.
When he did, his son’s mouth fell open. Tears welled in his eyes. “Pa, that’s her!” he exclaimed, looking at him. “It’s the lady with the yellow hair!”
Ben took the image back from his boy and gazed at it. Marie’s mother had been a wealthy woman. The daguerreotype was hand tinted. From its shining metal surface a handsome, bold, and determined woman looked back at him. Her blonde hair was winged with silver and she wore a pale blue dress. Behind her was a curtain of pink.
Her name was Anne.