* Day 20 *
Summary: Ben gets some advice from an old friend, reminding him once more that not every gift is neatly wrapped and under the tree.
Word Count: 2,325
The Last Gift of Christmas
Twelve freshly scrubbed faces, their eyes fixed on the young woman before them, bobbed enthusiastically in tandem as she delivered last minute instructions in advance of a very special visitor.
Ben Cartwright smiled as he looked on, at the same time forming a silent prayer of gratitude for this day. The Ponderosa had supplied the Christmas tree and many of the gifts, but last year’s dilemma of where to house a dozen orphans had been solved by an anonymous donor whose generosity had funded the new Children’s Home. For the eight boys and four girls who now lived there, it was more than merely a roof over their heads and three meals a day. Their benefactor’s vision also mandated their education, both academic and practical, the opportunity to learn a valuable skill or perhaps a trade, offering them hope for the future even if they never found parents of their own.
But this wasn’t a day for learning; it was a day for making merry. The man standing next to Ben knew that too. Barney Fuller’s eyes twinkled beneath a pair of wiry arched brows, his mouth quirked into a grin that was practically impish.
Ben nudged him. “It’s wonderful seeing the children so happy and excited, isn’t it?”
“That’s as it should be. Every child ought to have an expectation of Christmas.”
“In a perfect world they would. I’ll admit we had some pretty lean years, especially when Adam was young.”
“I suppose most of us did back then, though you and I made out all right, didn’t we?”
“Yes, we did.”
“Sometimes even at the expense of one another.” Barney his rolled his trademark cigar between his fingers, casting a sidelong glance at Ben.
“You’re thinking of the time I beat you out of that contract with the Central Pacific Railroad.”
“I am indeed. I sure wanted to build that Humboldt trestle.”
“How well I remember. We had quite a healthy competition in those days.”
“Yes, and I’ll let you in on a little secret. You were always my favorite rival, Ben, the one man I didn’t mind losing to. Not so much, anyway. And whenever I beat you, I knew I’d done something. It didn’t often happen, though.” Barney’s amused expression softened. “You once said you wouldn’t trust me any farther than you could throw me. Do you still feel that way?”
“No, that’s just water under the trestle, so to speak.” Both men smiled. “Besides, you did me a great favor back then.”
“What was that?”
“You were the one who finally got me off my rear end and back to work after the accident.”
During the back-breaking, pressure-filled weeks of trying to meet the railroad’s timeline, tragedy had struck the lumber camp, injuring Ben and killing one of his men. No one could convince him that he wasn’t to blame, and his self-recrimination proved more debilitating than the blow to his leg. In the aftermath he delegated all authority for the project to his sons, as he no longer had the heart for it. The ranch was theirs to run however they saw fit, he told them, turning a deaf ear to their protests. In the meantime, production faltered and schedules were delayed, with Fuller timber waiting in the wings to take over the contract if the Ponderosa could no longer fulfill the terms. Surprisingly, it was Barney who called him out on his decision to abdicate, pulling no punches in his assessment of the laggard in the bathrobe in contrast to “the Ben Cartwright I know,” telling him he might as well go back to bed.
“I wanted the contract, though not that way; and I figured if anyone could put the fight back in you, I could. But you played the doddering old man so well, I wasn’t sure of my success,” Barney chuckled.
“Well, you were right, old friend. A man can’t go against his true nature.” Ben glanced at the clock on the wall. “I wonder what’s keeping Hoss.”
The woman who had finished speaking with the children approached them, smiling as she greeted Ben. “The tree is just lovely, Mr. Cartwright. Your sons did a beautiful job.”
“The boys did their part in getting it here, but I’m afraid they can’t take credit for the decorating. My daughters-in-law took care of that.”
“How wonderful to have the whole family involved.” Her smile faded when she turned to Barney. “You promised, or have you forgotten?” She gestured toward the cigar wedged between his teeth.
He removed it before answering. “No, my dear, and I assure you I have no intention of lighting it.”
She looked doubtful. “Maybe you should just give it to me now.”
Barney cocked his head and pretended to be hurt. “Sarah, you cut me to the quick. Have I ever gone back on my word to you?”
“There’s always a first time.” The corners of her mouth turned up reluctantly. “All right, you win. But remember, I’m watching you.”
“Is that so?”
“Absolutely.” She kissed his jowly cheek and turned to Ben. “I may need your help.”
“At your service,” he replied, bowing slightly and grinning.
Her smiled broadened. “I knew I could count on you, kind sir. All right then. I’m going to check on the refreshments. If I’m not mistaken, Saint Nicholas is due to arrive any minute.”
“Let’s hope so.” Ben watched her slip into the kitchen. “Barney, your niece is certainly an engaging young woman. Everyone is impressed with the way she stepped in for Mrs. Randall during her illness. She really hit the ground running.”
“Sarah’s in her element right now, I assure you. Say, let’s take a load off while we wait. I’m getting a little weary of all this standing around.”
They made their way to a settee positioned along the wall. Barney sat down with a heavy sigh. “That’s better.”
“You feeling all right?”
“Just a little tired, that’s all. I’m not as young as you are, remember?”
“Well, neither of us is as young as we used to be, that’s for sure. Where did the time go?”
“You tell me. Seems like only yesterday your sons were just boys, and now they’re all married with families of their own. How many grandchildren did you say you have?”
Ben held up both hands, fingers splayed to illustrate. “Ten. Nine boys and one girl.”
Barney whistled in admiration. “That doesn’t seem possible, though I shouldn’t be surprised. The Cartwrights have been known to do things on a grand scale. Still, I’m impressed.”
“Well, it didn’t happen overnight. You were away a long time. There have been a lot of changes.”
“You know, when you came back with Sarah last year, people thought Barney Fuller had finally found himself a wife.”
“Yes, and some of those wag tongues were disappointed when they found out she was merely my niece.” He paused, studying the cigar in his hand. “She could have been my daughter if things had worked out differently between her mother and me.”
“Oh? What happened?”
Barney shrugged. “Life. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I loved Amelia but I wasn’t ready to get married. Long story short, while I was off chasing dreams, she married my brother. Oh, I didn’t blame either of them, mind you. They were a better match, had a good life together and raised a lovely daughter. They’re both gone now, God rest them. Sarah’s the only family I have left.”
“Do you ever regret not marrying?”
“I’ll admit, I’ve wondered what my life might have been like if I had, but one thing I’ve learned through the years is that regret is a waste of energy. It’s a backward look at something you can’t change, so why bother? No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused. A man can’t undo the past, but he can affect the future. I’ve chosen instead to look forward, keep my eyes open for new opportunities and make the best of them. I gather you’ve done that too; after all, you’ve been married three times, and I’m sure you didn’t do it blindly.”
Ben smiled. “I can’t argue with that.”
“If the right woman had come along, I would’ve married her. But she didn’t, so here I am.”
“Still keeping your eyes open?”
“Not for that.” Barney shook his gray head. He seemed far away for a moment before turning a pointed gaze toward Ben. “While we’re on the subject, what about you? Do you ever think of getting married again?”
“At my age?”
“Why not? You’re still in the prime of life compared to some men who are even younger. Besides, I’ve seen the way you look at Sarah.”
The remark caught Ben off guard, but not because it wasn’t true. His affection for Sarah Bradford, by the time he was willing to admit it even to himself, was decidedly more than platonic, but for propriety’s sake he had kept those feelings private, conveying his public admiration for her in terms no one would suspect. Or so he had thought. He sputtered a weak protest. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”
“Is that so? Then why are you blushing?”
Barney laughed. “You’re as red-faced as a kid whose mother caught him smoking behind the outhouse. You can admit it. There’s no shame in admiring a beautiful woman.”
“I’m old enough to be her father.”
“A little snow on the roof doesn’t mean there’s no fire in the furnace, does it?”
Ben felt his face get hotter. “I don’t know why we’re even talking about this.”
“I’m sorry; I didn’t meant to make you uncomfortable. Yes, it’s true, you’re old enough to be her father. But she’s probably close to Adam’s age, so nowhere near a child. Besides, she’s a widow, so you have that in common.”
“All right, what’s your angle? Friend or no, you’ve always had one.”
“No angle, just pointing out the obvious. What you do with the opportunity is up to you.”
Ben spied Sarah across the room, laughing with one of the younger children. She caught his eye and smiled at him. He felt himself warming again, a feeling not at all unpleasant.
“Barney, would you and Sarah like to join our family for Christmas Day dinner?”
“Ten grandchildren, you said?”
“That’s right. All under the age of seven.”
The impish grin returned. “That sounds like an opportunity I shouldn’t pass up. We’ll be there.”
Just then the door burst open and the unmistakable voice of Hoss Cartwright boomed, “HO, HO, HO…MERRY CHRISTMAS!”
“Well, it’s about time.” Ben looked over at Barney puffing on his cigar, and he nearly had to shout to be heard above the excited clamor around St. Nick. “I thought you said you weren’t going to light that.”
The old man blew out a ring of smoke as his face settled into an expression of pure satisfaction. “It’s only Christmas once a year, and I intend to make the most of it.”
Christmas Day on the Ponderosa came and went, but without the expected guests. Sarah sent their sincere regrets by messenger, and the next time Ben saw her was at Barney’s funeral three days later.
“I had no idea he was ill. I still can’t believe it.”
“He made me promise not to tell anyone. We didn’t really talk about it ourselves, but we both knew this would be his last Christmas. I just didn’t expect it to be this soon.”
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
“Thank you; so am I. There was a lot more to Uncle Barney than most people realized. He enjoyed his reputation as a shrewd businessman, but he was also quietly generous. He used his success to help a lot of people, often without their knowledge. And with the trust he put in place for the Children’s Home, he’s still doing that.”
“So Barney was the anonymous donor.” Ben smiled. “I suspected it, but he never let on.”
“It may become public knowledge later, but for now let’s just keep that information between us, agreed?”
“You can trust me.”
“I know. You’ve been highly recommended.”
Two small dimples appeared near the corners of her mouth when she smiled, and her eyes reminded Ben of an alpine sky in early autumn. For a moment he was as tongue-tied as a schoolboy with his first crush.
“What are your plans now, Sarah?”
“I suppose I’ll go back to Sacramento since I still have a house there. There’s not much left for me to do here. Barney was very thorough in arranging his affairs. Most of the property was sold last year to fund the trust. The lawyers don’t need me.”
“What about the Children’s Home?”
“They’re in good hands now that Mrs. Randall is back. They won’t need me, either.”
“So you are leaving?”
She hesitated before answering. “I don’t seem to have a reason to stay.”
The thought of her absence put an ache in his gut. It had been many years since he’d felt this way about a woman; it was unexpected and unsettling and undeniably wonderful at the same time. If he let her go without a word he might regret it for the rest of his life. Ben could almost hear Barney admonishing him. The opportunity is yours; what are you going to do with it?
He reached for her hand, placed it in his palm and covered it with his other. “Have dinner with me tonight. Perhaps together we can find one.”
Ben and Sarah were married two months later, to the joy of all the Cartwrights, and the number of grandchildren eventually grew from ten to fourteen. But that’s another story. You can read it here.
Acknowledgments: Barney Fuller appeared in the Season 5 episode “The Prime of Life” written by Peter Packer.
Link to the 2019 Advent Calendar – December 21:
Other Stories by this Author
- Story Time (by JC)
- When Your True Lover Comes Your Way (by JC)
- To the One — A Poem by Adam Cartwright (By JC)
- More Than a Memory (by JC)
- Winter of Discontent (by JC)