Summary: The distance of time through a child’s eyes, and a dilemma of epic proportions.
Rating: G 2,725 words
The Greatest Gift
Anna Sullivan paused as she strolled along the boardwalk. Up ahead of her was Ben Cartwright’s youngest boy and his face was pushed up against the mercantile window. She wondered just what on earth he could be doing outside the store as it was far too cold for his father to have left him there. Curiosity got the better of her and she began to walk towards him once more.
Joe heard the footsteps approaching and he looked up to see who it was. Anna was shocked to see the stricken look on his face and she hurried forward and crouched down in front of the child. Joe gulped as she stopped and before he could stop himself, his bottom lip began to wobble.
“Little Joe, is something wrong?”
Joe shook his head and chewed on his lip to hold it still.
“Are you sure?”
Joe’s traitorous lip gave him away and tears began to trail silently down his cheeks.
“I was just about to head into the mercantile to see if my order has come in. Is your father inside? Or one of your brothers?”
Joe shook his head again as he scrubbed his free hand across his face.
“Then what are you doing out here alone?”
“I’m not. I’m … I’m s’posed to …” Joe sucked in a sharp breath and the tears welled up once again.
“You know, my mama always says a problem shared is a problem halved. I’m sure that whatever it is can be sorted out if you would just tell me.”
Joe began to shake his head once more.
“Could you tell your pa what’s wrong? Or Adam maybe?”
“Nuh uh! I can’t tell neither of them!”
Anna barely withheld a smile as she could not imagine what terrible crime the child could not confess.
“Then why don’t you tell me? I’m usually pretty good at solving problems.”
Anna moved over to sit on the bench under the window and she patted at the spot next to her. Joe reluctantly shuffled over to sit next to her and hung his head as if he was facing execution.
“Adam’s goin’ away.” The words were so soft that Anna wasn’t sure she had heard correctly. “Next week.”
“So I heard. I suppose you will miss him dreadfully.”
“He’s gonna be mad at me.”
“Mad at you? Whatever for?”
Joe kicked his boots against the leg of the bench and twisted his fingers together.
“Everyone’s got presents for Adam. To say goodbye and to … to help him remember us. Everyone ‘cept me.” Joe sniffed as he tried to stop the tears from starting again. “I lost the money that I had. I told Pa I was big enough to come buy Adam’s gift myself but I lost the money on the way! Now Adam won’t have nothin’ to remember me by and … and he’ll forget all about me!”
Anna reached an arm around Joe’s skinny little shoulders and gave him a squeeze.
“Do you really think Adam needs something to remember you by?”
“Uh huh.” Joe nodded solemnly. “Hoss whittled him a horse that looks just like his real one and Pa has something he had all wrapped up and said it’s a surprise. Even Hop Sing says he’s gonna bake Adam a whole wagonload of cookies to take with him.”
Joe rubbed his hands across his face once again and frowned at his boots.
“Adam’s gonna be gone forever and he ain’t gonna have nothin’ to remember me.”
“Joe, you do know that Adam is coming back from college, don’t you? I know it will be a long time, but he will come home again. And when he does, he can’t possibly have forgotten you. “ Anna watched as Joe’s shoulders shrugged in response and she tried a different tack. “But do you know what might help him remember better?”
Joe stared at her as he shook his head.
“What if you make some memories for him to take with him? That could be your gift that would be very special to your brother.”
“How do I do that?”
“Well, the value of a gift is not always in the monetary value. It’s in the love behind it. Why don’t you find some ways to show Adam how much you love him before he goes away? You don’t need one penny to do that.”
For the first time since she’d spotted him, Joe didn’t look completely forlorn. A few minutes later she watched as the boy trotted across the street towards where he was supposed to meet his father. She shook her head and smiled as she stepped into the mercantile.
“Nobody could possibly forget you, Little Joe!”
It seemed like such a good idea and Joe had spent the ride home deep in thought of just how he could show Adam he loved him. Ben had wondered if his son was sickening for something with the change in the weather as he was so quiet. The weather was certainly turning as the last fall leaf dropped to the ground and the days grew shorter. He hated the idea that Adam would miss Christmas, but it couldn’t be helped if he was going to travel safely to Boston for the start of the school year.
Joe had barely said ten words and Ben reached a hand to check his son’s forehead. Joe shook him off as if surprised by the action and Ben watched closely as Joe tugged at his satchel before he began to remove his horse’s tack. He certainly didn’t feel warm or look unwell, but something was definitely going on. Before he could say anything further, Hoss came and called for his father and the moment was forgotten.
Joe brushed down his horse and as he worked, he noted that Adam’s horse was tethered at the rail and still wearing his saddle and bridle. It was unusual for Adam not to tend to his horse straight away and Joe grinned to himself as he decided he’d help Adam by putting his horse up for the night. He was half way through the job of brushing down Adam’s horse when he heard footsteps coming through the door.
“Just what are you doing?”
Joe spun around to see Adam glaring at him with his hands on his hips.
“Putting your horse up for you. I figured that …”
“You figured wrong! I only just saddled him as I need to go over to the Morrison’s before dark.” Adam looked irritated as he pulled his saddle and blanket from the rail and began to redo the job that Joe had just undone.
“But, I …”
“If you really felt that eager to brush down an extra horse, how about Buck? He’s still standing there and Pa isn’t needing him to go anywhere in a hurry.”
Before Joe could respond, Adam climbed up into the saddle and headed for the barn door. Joe stared after him for a few minutes before he kicked at the bottom railing on the stall.
Joe watched carefully all day as he tried to find something else he could do for his brother. Adam was pretty efficient at taking care of his own needs and Joe followed him from a distance trying to see what he could manage. The overnight sleet had turned the yard into a muddy sludge and Adam stopped on the porch to pull his boots off before heading into the house. Joe saw his chance and climbed up onto the porch and lifted up a boot in each hand. With his hands full, he headed for the washhouse. He laid the boots on a bench and then managed to fill an enamel basin with water. He’d forgotten that his own boots were just as muddy as his brother’s and he yelped in surprise when he heard Hop Sing complaining about the mud all over the floor of the washhouse. The boot he held in his hand slipped out of his grasp and plopped into the bowl of water. As Joe tried to fish it out, he heard Hop Sing slip into his native tongue. He didn’t need to understand the words to know he was in trouble and he grasped at the boot once more. The mud was sliding off, but the boot was now full of dirty water.
“What naughty boy doing with brother’s boots?”
Hop Sing snatched the offending boot from his hand as he shooed Joe towards the door.
“Leave mud all over! Make big mess! Not have time for foolishment!”
Joe retreated from the washhouse and scarpered towards the house. He was about to open the door when it swung open from within.
“Where are my boots?” Adam stared at him and Joe pointed towards where he could still hear Hop Sing’s rant.
Without thinking, he ducked under Adam’s arm and ran for the stairs.
“Joe! Get your boots off!”
By the time he made it to his room, Joe was expecting to hear Adam’s voice thundering after him. After all, boots took forever to dry in front of the fire and the leather became stiff if it wasn’t then softened with salve. Instead of helping, he’d just made a bigger job and Adam was gonna be mad at him all over again.
As he sat on his bed and shivered in the chill air, he decided it was time to stoke up the fire in the grate. Except he’d forgotten to fill the wood boxes. Again. Joe hauled himself off the bed and tried to work out how to get to the woodpile outside without Adam seeing him. He crept down the stairs and cringed as he heard Adam and Hop Sing still in the washhouse. As he gathered an armload of wood, he saw Hop Sing heading for the kitchen and he noted the frown on the man’s face. He’d just have to come up with something else to help Adam that would make a happy memory and not an angry one. He had enough of those already!
As Joe hauled the second load of wood upstairs it struck him that Adam would lay his boots in front of his own fireplace to dry. So that meant he needed a good fire. The fireplace still had glowing coals, but he quickly fed smaller bits of kindling in until they caught alight. He pushed a couple of heavier logs behind the flames and propped them so they would catch from underneath. Suddenly he heard footsteps on the stairs and he gathered the last of the logs and shoved them into the wood box against the wall. He wasn’t watching as the prop underneath the log gave way and the two logs rolled on top of the small flames, quickly smothering them. He raced for the door and pulled it shut behind him as he raced for his own room.
“What are you doing?” Adam’s voice held a tone of accusation and Joe slowly turned to face him.
“Filling the woodboxes.”
“Uh huh. Then why are you running out of my room?”
Joe looked down as he tried to think of a suitable answer.
“My room’s real cold and … and I just wanted to get some more wood real fast.”
Adam hooked a thumb over his shoulder towards the stairs.
“The wood is that way.”
Joe nodded and slowly moved towards the stairs as he tried to skirt around Adam.
Once he reached the top of the stairs, he bolted. He was almost at the front door when he heard Adam bellow his name.
“Joe! What were you doing?”
Hop Sing came out of the kitchen to see what was going on and he frowned at Joe.
“What little boy do now?”
Joe’s face fell as he saw the front door open. His father and brother had arrived home just in time to hear the commotion.
“Joseph.” Ben’s unspoken question hung in the air and Joe eyed the open door as some kind of escape. Before he could make a run for it, Adam appeared at the top of the stairs.
“Were you trying to send smoke signals again? My room is full of smoke!”
As all eyes landed on him, Joe burst into tears and ran for the front door, but Hoss grasped his shoulder as he tried to escape.
“Not until you tell me what’s going on, young man.”
Ben waited as Joe stopped pulling against Hoss. The child looked up as Adam appeared in front of him and he swiped a hand across his face, desperately trying to stop crying.
“Adam’s gonna forget me, ‘cause I can’t do nothin’ right!”
“What are you talking about?” Ben’s tone softened as he heard the distress in his son’s comment.
When Joe refused to answer, Ben hooked a finger under his son’s chin and tried again.
“Joseph, what is going on?
Tears dribbled down Joe’s face as he looked at his brother.
“I lost the money to buy Adam’s gift and … Miss Anna said I could … she said I could make some memories for Adam instead so’s he’d remember me … ‘cept I just keep messin’ them up and now Adam’s gonna forget me!”
Adam shook his head as he knelt down in front of Joe. “So that’s what all this was about. I though you were mad at me and trying to cause trouble.”
“I don’t want you to forget me!”
Adam chuckled as he squeezed Joe’s shoulders.
“There is no way I could ever forget you, little buddy. You are a one of a kind! Wanna know a secret?”
Joe nodded tentatively as Adam didn’t often share secrets with him anymore.
“I was scared that you’d forget me. It’s a long time for a little kid and I wasn’t sure if you would remember me.”
Joe flung his arms around his brother’s neck as Adam wrapped his arms around Joe.
“Couldn’t never forget you!”
That evening, Joe lay stretched out asleep on Adam’s bed as his brother sat at his desk. There were two pieces of paper laid out before him. He felt his chest constrict as he considered the lists. How different would they look when he returned from college? What would he miss while he was gone? The little boy who had drowned his boots and smoked out his room would be gone. Who would his brothers be when he came home?
Christmas morning had felt somewhat diminished as each of them looked for the one who was not with them, but Ben knew his son was still travelling towards his own dream in Boston. As he looked around the room at the roaring fire and the huge pine, he knew it was time to share Adam’s last gift.
He called his sons to come and sit by him as he pulled out an envelope from inside his bible.
“Joseph, Adam wrote this because you were worried he could forget you.”
Dear Little Joe and Hoss,
I know I will be gone for a long time and Joe was right that a lot will change in that time. I decided we could help each other to remember and to keep track of those changes so it won’t be a huge shock when I come back. You can keep me updated in your letters.
your brother Adam
Ben smiled as he pulled out the sheets of paper behind the letter. There was one for each of his brothers. Adam had written down things such as their height and their favourite food as well as what books they were reading and who their best friend was. There were some categories that almost made him laugh out loud.
“Adam asked that you both write a similar list for him of all the things you remember about him. That way, nothing will be forgotten.”
Joe jumped to his feet and raced towards his father’s desk. “Pa, do you have a pencil here?”
Soon, both boys were sitting at the table as Hoss wrote down the things they remembered about Adam. Ben leaned back in his chair and watched the flames dancing in the fireplace. Whatever gift Little Joe had planned to buy for his brother had nothing on the gift his sons had given each other.
Click here for the 2018 Advent Calendar – Day 6 – Hidden Star by BakerJ
Other Stories by this Author
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- Joe Cartwright – Magician! (by Questfan)
- Angels, In Spite of it All (by Questfan)