~*~*~ Advent Calendar ~*~*~
* Day 20 *
Summary: It was a simple request and one that could not be granted due to circumstance beyond their control. Or could it?
Rating: G 6,880 words
Note: This story was written for the Bonanz Brand 2020 Advent Calendar, originated in the Forums.
Orange You Glad It’s Christmas!
“Joe!” Adam protested from the top of the ladder. “Will you wake up?”
“What?” Little Joe asked irritably.
“The angel,” Adam growled. “How many times do I have to ask you?”
“Sorry.” The fifteen-year-old handed his older brother the hand-crafted angel and went back to wool-gathering . . . or so it seemed to Adam, who was beyond glad that it was the last ornament to place on the tree.
He descended the ladder and, with long arms folded across his chest, stood contemplating his younger brother’s blank expression. “What’s the matter with you, boy?” he finally asked. “You’re usually the one most eager to get the tree put up.” Which was putting it mildly. Despite his noted hatred of heights, Little Joe was usually the first one up the ladder, the one most ready to hang tinsel and ornaments and clip candles to the huge tree that always graced the space beside the Ponderosa’s towering staircase, and his special delight was topping the tree with that yarn-haired angel. The kid just loved Christmas and everything about it . . . usually. But this year wasn’t usual. “Have you lost your Christmas spirit?” Adam quipped lightly, though he suspected he knew what was dampening the boy’s spirits.
Little Joe scowled. “Bah, humbug.” He wasn’t really as grumpy as Ebenezer Scrooge, but it seemed the most appropriate response to give his bossy older brother. Revealing, but not too much.
Adam decided to go with the Dickens reference. “Shall I round up three ghosts and send them ‘round to straighten you out, little brother?”
The scowl quirked into half a smile. “Nah,” Little Joe said with an elongated sigh. “I’ll try to do better, but it just don’t seem like Christmas without Hoss.”
“We are not without Hoss,” Adam stated bluntly, “and if that’s not cause enough to celebrate, I don’t know what is.” As they both knew, the family had almost been one member short for Christmas, and while Hoss was still weak from his recent illness, he was alive and on the mend.
Little Joe gave him a crisp nod. “You’re right . . . as always.” He figured he might as well say it before Adam himself gave the time-honored response. There was always some slight satisfaction in beating older brother to the punch.
“Then, will you help me get the candles on this tree, just in case the big lug is allowed out of bed by Christmas?”
“Five days,” Little Joe mused. “You think it’s possible?”
“Sure. Why not?” Adam wasn’t half as sure as he sounded. Hoss, after all, had been very sick and was still weak from wrestling with pneumonia, but if it got Little Joe got of the “Bah, humbug” doldrums, he could manufacture a little false enthusiasm. And drape it with tinsel if he had to.
Mercurial as usual, Little Joe was suddenly all smiles. “Okay, then, let’s get this tree ready for him!” He scurried up the ladder, like the monkey Adam was sure he half was, and impatiently stretched a hand down. “The candles, brother. How many times I got to tell you?” Turn-about, after all, was fair play when it came to brotherly sparring, and Adam needed his own words thrown back in his face.
For once, Adam was willing to let his little brother have the last word. If only it had been . . .
Legs crossed Indian-style, Little Joe perched on the foot of Hoss’s bed, hands waving with enthusiasm as he described the tree his big brother would be enjoying, come Christmas morning. Hoss smiled tolerantly, although to a discerning observer, it might have looked more like a wrinkled-forehead wince. Little Joe wasn’t a discerning observer, but even he could tell Hoss didn’t share the belief that he’d actually be well enough to make the trip downstairs by Christmas. “Bet ole Santa’ll have a batch of presents with your name on them,” Little Joe burbled, pulling out all the stops to put Hoss’s customary toothy grin back on his face.
The expression he got in response was more sour than toothy. “Hope it’s a whole batch of oranges, then,” Hoss croaked. “It’s the onliest thing that sounds good right now.”
Just then Adam walked in, carrying Hoss’s supper tray, with Ben right behind him.
“Pa,” Little Joe said. “Hoss was just sayin’ he wants a batch of oranges for Christmas.”
“I heard,” Ben replied, looking pained.
“I wadn’t hintin’ for early,” Hoss, who was a discerning observer, said, “though it sure would feel good to my sore throat.”
“Why not?” his unquenchable little brother said with the wide grin he hoped Hoss would soon emulate. “Come on, Pa,” he giggled. “You know you got oranges laid back for our Christmas stockings, and we’re kind of old to believe in Santa, so why not bring ‘em out now, if it’ll make Hoss feel better.”
Adam gave an eloquent eye roll at the extent of his baby brother’s ignorance of current events. Settling the dinner tray over Hoss’s legs, he said, “This broth should soothe your throat, brother.”
“Thanks,” Hoss said without enthusiasm. He’d had enough broth to float a canoe lately, and though he was grateful for whatever he got, it wasn’t what he wanted.
Little Joe’s discernment picked that moment to kick in. “But Hoss wants oranges, older brother,” he insisted, and then he turned pleading-puppy eyes on his father. “He can have mine, too, Pa!”
Ben sighed. “Very generous, Joseph, but I’m afraid it’s not possible.” With a sad smile, he turned toward Hoss. “I’m sorry, son, but there just aren’t any oranges.”
“Aw, that’s all right, Pa,” Hoss said at once. “I know you been right busy of late.” Figuring his father’s busyness was mostly his fault, he swallowed down his disappointment like the man he was.
But Little Joe was still just a boy, and he was having none of it. “What do you mean, no oranges?” he protested. “There’s always oranges!” He couldn’t remember a Christmas of his life when the toe of his stocking hadn’t bulged with a bright orange orb imported from California for the occasion.
“He means ‘no oranges,’” Adam snapped. “Don’t you ever read a newspaper, kid?”
“No,” Little Joe said, shock bringing out the plain truth. Then the injustice of the question got his hackles up. “I don’t need a newspaper to tell me it’s Christmas, older brother, and Christmas means oranges!”
“Not this year,” Adam said, emphasizing each slow word.
Little Joe turned to his father for the contradiction he was sure would come, but when he saw the grave look on Pa’s face, he knew something was really wrong. “No oranges?” he asked through quavering lips.
“I’m sorry, son.” Pa’s words were directed to his youngest, but it was Hoss his eyes rested on. “Early freeze wiped out most of the crop this year.”
“No oranges at all?” Little Joe pressed.
“Oh, some probably survived,” practical and ever-honest Adam replied, “but none made it over the Sierras, and even if they had, they’d be high as hen’s teeth. Now, will you grow up and stop whining for oranges?” Practical and ever-honest Adam might be, but he was not noted for patience, especially with his baby brother and his maddening persistence when any normal person would have just given up.
A sharp rejoinder was on the tip of Little Joe’s tongue, when he heard Hoss heave a big sigh and say, “It’s okay. At least, I got this yummy broth.” With sudden insight beyond his years, the boy realized he was making things harder for his big brother, and if Hoss could be brave about it, the least he could do was not make it worse by squabbling with Adam over his sickbed.
Boots in hand, Little Joe crept down the stairs in his stocking feet. He’d lain, sleepless, in bed for hours, trying to figure a way he could get Hoss some oranges for Christmas. After all, Hoss was the best big brother in the whole world, and he never asked anything for himself, so if he wanted oranges, he should have oranges, especially if they would help him get well enough to actually enjoy Christmas. And since both Pa and Adam had given up on finding any, it was up to him to get the job done. After all, Adam was a born pessimist, so he’d probably just read about the freeze killing the oranges in the blasted newspaper and hadn’t even bothered to check whether any had survived and made it over the Sierras. And, of course, Pa thought his smarty-pants, college-educated son had hung the moon and the stars, so he’d have just taken Adam’s word for it and probably never even asked in town himself. It never took much to convince Little Joe that his elders (Hoss excluded, of course) didn’t know beans about—well, anything, so, in the wee hours of the morning, he decided he wouldn’t give up without at least trying, no sir! He’d just ride into Virginia City and see for himself.
There was only one problem, but it was a big one. Adam probably was right about the oranges being high as hens’ teeth, and Little Joe’s pockets were next door to empty. He’d bankrupted himself, buying Christmas presents for his family, and that included the extra Pa had slipped him so he could. Well, there was only one way he knew to get the money he needed, and it was bound to leave him in a certain amount of trouble. At the very least, Pa’d give him a good tongue-lashing for what he was about to do, but he’d understand, and since it was in a good cause, he’d forgive his youngest son. Probably. As he reached the bottom of the stairs, Little Joe slipped stealthily across the room and moved behind his father’s desk.
“Good morning, son,” Ben called from the head of the table. “Sleep well?”
Adam paused on the landing. “I did,” he said. “You?”
“Fine, fine,” Ben said cheerily. He gave a short laugh. “Even a bit late.”
Adam folded his arms atop his favorite blue chair. “Well, you’ve lost quite a bit of sleep the last week or two, so I think you’re entitled.”
“Glad I have your permission,” Ben chuckled. Now that Hoss was feeling better and the happiest holiday of the year was on the horizon, his perspective on everything, including his eldest son’s wry sense of humor, was returning to normal.
With a twinkle in his eye, Adam smiled back at his father, but it faded as he rounded the settee and the sight of the open safe stopped him in his tracks. He couldn’t imagine what cause Pa had had to be in the safe this early in the morning, but it certainly wasn’t like him to leave the door standing wide open. Still tired from all those sleepless nights, perhaps.
“Son? Lose your way?” Ben teased.
“Were you in the safe this morning, Pa?” Adam asked as a gentle reminder.
“No, no reason to be until Christmas Eve,” Ben said, shaking his head in amusement at the strange question. The look on Adam’s face as he moved into the office alcove sobered him at once. “What is it?” he asked as he left the table and trailed in his son’s wake.
“Not sure,” Adam said, but he knew he was only forestalling the inevitable. The empty safe verified his suspicions. He turned to find his father right behind him. “How much did you have in it?”
“Just the money for the men’s Christmas bonuses,” Ben said.
“About two thousand, then.” Adam sighed. “It’s gone, Pa.”
Ben eyed the empty safe with alarm. “How could someone have broken in and none of us heard?” he pondered aloud.
“I don’t think they did,” Adam said. “No signs of damage, so whoever took it had the combination.”
“Have you shared that with anyone?” Ben asked in astonishment.
“Of course not,” Adam said. “Nor, I assume, have you.”
“Of course not,” Ben repeated. “But no one knows the combination but you and me . . . and Hoss.”
“Well, I think we can rule him out,” Adam said dryly. Hoss was, after all, still too weak to set a foot to the floor. He took a deep breath. “I hate to suggest it, but . . . Joe?”
“He’s fifteen!” Ben protested. “I’ve never given him the combination. Never been a need.”
“I’m not sure that precludes his knowing it,” Adam said, palms raised toward the ceiling. “If either of us ever spoke it aloud or opened it in his presence, he’s observant enough to . . .”
“He’s a good boy, Adam, not a thief! Besides, what possible use could he have for it?”
Hands still uplifted, Adam shrugged. “Christmas presents?”
“I gave him money for that!” Ben exploded, revealing what was, of course, intended to be a secret.
Since it was the most ill-kept secret on the Ponderosa, Adam merely nodded. “And knowing your generosity”—and indulgence with that boy, he might have added—“I’m sure it was sufficient for his shopping needs.”
“Well, why are we speculating?” Ben demanded. “Get the boy up and ask him!”
It was the most logical course of action, and while Adam was surprised that his father was thinking clearly enough to come up with it, he was quick to put it into action, his long legs taking the stairs two at a time. Nor did he need Ben’s called reminder not to wake Hoss to make him lighten his steps as he reached the upper floor. He opened the door to Joe’s room, not in the least surprised to find it empty. After all, if Joe had taken the money, he wouldn’t hang around to be caught with it. On the off chance that the boy might be checking on their other brother, Adam noiselessly opened the door to the next bedroom and closed it just as noiselessly seconds afterwards. He went back downstairs, shaking his head.
“He’s gone?” Ben asked when Adam reached the first floor.
“Unless he’s out early, doing chores,” Adam said, “and we both know how unlikely that is.”
Ben grunted his response. Joseph never rose early for anything but mischief, which he was clearly up to. “What could he possibly want the money for?” he finally sputtered.
Adam started to shrug again and then it hit him. “Oranges?” he suggested tentatively, though he hesitated to think that even Joe could be that stupid.
“Oranges!” Ben exploded, quickly lowering his voice at Adam’s shush. “We told him there weren’t any oranges in town.”
“I know,” Adam said, “but he’s not a kid who gives up easily when he wants something.”
Though he rolled his eyes, Ben found himself nodding. “And he wants Hoss to have oranges.”
“Exactly. I guess I’d better get into town and put a stop to this nonsense.” Adam headed toward the front door, taking both his gun belt and his custard-colored coat from the pegs beside it.
“Find him and march him straight home,” Ben commanded. “Half-grown or not, I know a little boy who’s about to have his bottom warmed.”
Adam grinned to himself as he closed the door behind him. Frankly, he’d relish seeing Little Joe get his buns burned over this shenanigan, but he didn’t believe Pa would actually raise a speck of dust on the kid’s britches. Pa might refer to his youngest as a little boy (he’d even called Adam himself that a time or two, when he was put out with his eldest) but fifteen really was too old for a bottom-warming. What was more likely was some extra time at the woodpile and, if Adam were truly lucky, some other distasteful chores would soon be passing themselves over to a certain “little boy.” And that had the potential for being as good a Christmas gift as anything under the tree. It was worth the long ride into town on a chilly morning to haul the kid home to his just desserts.
Boots dragging the dust of defeat, Little Joe left the last mercantile in town with the proprietor’s rude laughter ringing in his ears. “Ain’t you heard ‘bout the freeze in Californy?” the grizzled man had cackled in response to his request for oranges. Little Joe hadn’t bothered to answer, but he definitely was bothered. Not because he’d made the trip into town for nothing, but because the man sounded so much like his big brother. No oranges this side of the Sierras, Adam had said, and doggone it, he’d been right. Joe hated that worse than . . . well, worse than anything except not finding the oranges for Hoss.
Little Joe sighed as he gauged the position of the sun in the winter sky. No hope of getting home and undoing what he’d done before Pa was up. Even Joe himself didn’t leave bed for breakfast this late! He clapped his palm to his forehead. No point in trying to sneak the money back in the safe before anyone noticed, either, ‘cause, fool that he was, he’d left the safe door wide open. Certain he’d find oranges and put everyone in a forgiving mood, he hadn’t taken time to hide his tracks. Success might have saved him or, at least, lessened the toll on his hide. Failure ensured that he’d pay the full penalty, whatever Pa judged that to be, and Little Joe had the feeling it would be high. Higher than hen’s teeth, like Adam had said oranges would be in California.
His head came up. California! Adam had said there were oranges in California, and bless him for once, big brother was always right. So, all he had to do, to save Christmas for Hoss and, maybe, rescue his own hide, was get to California and buy a bunch of oranges. He’d just grabbed whatever was in the safe, so he didn’t know how much he had, but it had been a thick wad of bills. Surely, it was enough, even if the price of oranges was as high as Adam, the always-right one, said. Pa would kill him, but maybe not ‘til after Christmas, and that was probably gonna happen anyway. In for a penny, in for a pound. With a nod of determination, Little Joe unwrapped the reins of his horse from the hitching rail, mounted and with enough joy in his heart to block out future consequences, headed Cochise west, toward the Sierras.
Adam was huffing steam when he came out onto C Street. Where could that fool kid be? He’d looked in all the reasonable places his brother might have gone and come up dry. Maybe, though, considering it was Joe he was looking for, he should have started with the unreasonable places. Two thousand dollars could buy enough beer to float Joe back to the Ponderosa or, perish the thought at fifteen, pay for a visit to the most enticing establishment on D Street. That was just anger shouting in his ear, of course; he knew perfectly well that Little Joe was doing neither of those things. It wasn’t wine or women the kid wanted: it was oranges, freeze-blasted oranges. Adam had verified that in his inquiries about town. He’d also verified what he already knew: there wasn’t one to be had for love or money, both of which Little Joe had in abundance that frosty morning.
The other thing Adam knew perfectly well was that his little brother hadn’t just tucked his tail between his legs and headed for home. There was nothing but trouble waiting for him there. Besides, little brother was nothing if not determined. No, he was somewhere still searching for oranges, but where? Gold Hill? An even less likely source than Virginia City, and Joe was smart enough to know it. Probably. Maybe not. With a sigh Adam tugged his black hat down over his nose and turned toward the smaller town only a mile over the divide. Then his stomach gave a mighty rumble and he remembered that he’d left home in such haste that he hadn’t bothered with breakfast. Little Joe had, too, of course, but goodness knew, he had enough money to buy the biggest steak in town! Adam decided to follow his example and treat himself to a platter of steak and eggs. Maybe he’d get lucky and find Joe there, too.
Miss Daisy’s Café was the most likely choice for his kid brother, and the food was good there, so Adam did a quick turn and headed the opposite direction, the stiff wind blowing him up the street and making him burrow his head deeper into his warm coat . . . which was why he plowed into another man, knocking him clean off his feet onto the unforgiving slats of the boardwalk. He groaned when he saw who it was, the one man in town most likely to spread the tale far and wide—and he did mean far and wide, for no one could spread a story like a newspaperman, and no newspaperman was likely to embellish it more than this one. “Josh!” Adam said as he stretched a hand toward the fallen man. “I’m sorry. I didn’t see you.”
“Head in the clouds as usual, Adam?” Sam Clemons, who used Josh as his pen name on the Territorial Enterprise, said.
The accusation was truer than Adam cared to admit. Chalk that one up to little brother’s tally of offenses, too, for that’s who’d been consuming his thoughts to the point he hadn’t watched where he was going. As he pulled Sam to his feet, Adam apologized again and said, “I was on my way to Daisy’s Café for a very late breakfast. Let me buy you a cup of coffee, at least. Maybe a piece of pie?”
The reporter never turned down free food, and his writer’s instinct told him there might be a story behind Adam Cartwright’s late breakfast and distracted demeanor. “Sure,” he said. “Pie and coffee sounds good or, maybe, even breakfast.”
Great, Adam thought. This isn’t going to be cheap. But right now he could use an ear to bend, so over steak and eggs—with a side of fried potatoes for Sam—he ignored his wiser instincts and told the sad tale of his little brother’s quest for a gift to soothe Hoss’s sore throat.
“Whiskey and honey probably’d work better,” Sam chuckled. “That’s what my old granny used to swear by, and as I recollect, it tended to burn all the pain away.”
“But Hoss wants oranges,” Adam pointed out with a wry twist of his mouth, “so nothing but oranges will do for Little Joe. Never mind that it’s impossible!”
“Yeah,” Sam said with a hearty laugh. “Have to go all the way to California for them—what?” he asked as he saw a horrified expression sweep over the other man’s face. “You don’t think he’d . . .”
Closing his gaping mouth, Adam nodded grimly. Oh, yeah, he most certainly did think. He only wondered why it hadn’t occurred to him before.
“What you gonna do?” Sam’s reporter’s nose was itching with anticipation. The Cartwrights were always good for a story, and that youngest boy was a pure gem when it came to newsworthy hijinks!
Adam threw his hands toward the ceiling. “Go after him, of course! What else is there to do?”
Sam’s head was bobbing like a jack-in-a-box released from its prison. “Yeah, yeah. Nothing else to do. Well, I reckon I’ll just tag along, Adam, and give you a hand.”
Adam stared the reporter down. “I don’t need a hand; nor do I need to see our family affairs used as fodder for your next colorful scribblings. We haven’t forgotten the Wild Man of the Ponderosa, you know.”
“But, Adam,” Sam argued. “It’s a long trip, bad weather. A man shouldn’t travel alone in such conditions.”
Much less a boy, Adam thought, his concern for Little Joe growing. The kid, of course, wouldn’t have given a moment’s consideration to distance or weather, not with his eyes starry with bright orange orbs, but he wouldn’t be as foolish as that fruit-crazed boy. Sam had a point, and much as he dreaded the consequences of taking a reporter as his companion, it was the only offer he had. “All right, you can go,” he muttered through half-gritted teeth, “but so help me, Sam . . .”
Sam waved off the concern. “I know, I know . . . no wild men . . . I promise.”
Adam stood. “Finish your breakfast and meet me down at Cass’s Mercantile. I didn’t come to town fitted out for a trip over the Sierras.” Nor, he suspected, had Little Joe, but with all that money in his pocket, he’d have been well able to equip himself with the basics.
Shivering, Little Joe squatted over the pile of kindling, furiously rubbing two sticks together and fervently wishing he’d thought to buy a box of matches while he’d been in town. He’d had that much of his own money, after all, and maybe he could even have bought himself a hunk of cheese and a few crackers, if he’d just thought. But, no, he’d gone racing out of town with a brain about as useful as orange pulp, and he was paying the price now . . . with an empty belly and, maybe, a frozen carcass, if he couldn’t get a fire going. He knew how to build one, even with limited resources. Pa, Adam and Hoss had all seen to that, and though it seemed to take forever, he kept at it until a spark turned into a feeble flame and he was able to feed it twigs, then sticks, until it grew into a respectable fire.
He warmed his hands over the flame and then reached up to pull his jacket collar over his neck. It didn’t help much, since the jacket was made of thin, green corduroy, and that was a shame, since he didn’t have a blanket, much less a bedroll, with him, either. He’d only been going to Virginia City, after all, and he’d expected to be home, sleeping in his own bed tonight. Well, no help for it; it was going to be a cold night, so he might as well curl up close to the fire and hope it was enough. He’d just settled himself into position when the first snowflake tapped him on the nose.
Little Joe was torn two directions. First, he couldn’t believe he’d fallen asleep, cold as he was; then, as he dusted the light fall of snow from his damp jacket, he couldn’t imagine what had awakened him. Then he heard it . . . again . . . and knew it was the sound of horses whinnying that had stirred him. Someone was out there. Dousing the dying embers of his fire, he got up and moved softly toward the tree against which he’d left his rifle. Pa, for some inexplicable reason, thought he was too young to carry a hand gun, but insisted on the rifle anytime his youngest left the ranch, just in case he ran into a bobcat or something more dangerous . . . like robbers sneaking into camp. Swallowing down the lump in his throat, Little Joe picked up the rifle and aimed it, almost steadily, toward the sound of the footsteps crunching through the snow toward him.
“Put that thing down!” came a sharp order in a voice he knew all too well. “You’re in enough trouble without shooting your salvation.”
Salvation? Little Joe thought with a stifled groan as he lowered the rifle. More like divine retribution. Or, at least, Ben Cartwright’s. Which, he figured, probably closely resembled that of the Almighty. “Hey, Adam,” he called weakly. “What you doin’ here?”
Adam stepped into the clearing, the light from the full moon showing a distinctly less-than-beatific face. “What am I doing here?” he asked and then exploded, “What are you doing here?” Catching sight of what the kid was wearing, he said with exasperation, “Oh, good grief!” He quickly stripped off his own fleece-lined coat and wrapped it around his little brother’s shoulders.
Little Joe just as quickly tried to shuck it off. “I don’t need your coat,” he protested.
“Shut up, Joe,” Adam ordered, snugging the coat tighter and this time doing up the buttons.
Now, there was nothing Little Joe liked better than talking back to his big brother . . . normally . . . but he’d been cold so long and that coat felt so good that he decided, for once, to just do what he was told.
Seeing the transformation and guessing at its cause, Adam gave a little smirk and suggested, “I would, however, allow you to say, ‘Thank you, older brother, for saving my shivering hide.’”
“Thanks, Adam,” Little Joe sing-songed. On principle, he refused to follow the insulting half of his brother’s command. Then he bit his lower lip. “But what about you?”
“We brought blankets,” Sam Clemons said, finally stepping into the light.
“Oh, hey, Josh. You come along for the ride?”
“That’s Mr. Clemons to you, boy,” Adam ordered.
“Uh, yes, sir. I meant Mr. Clemons.” There were times when older brother shouldn’t be crossed, and this was clearly one of them.
“Hi, Joe,” Sam said and then stood back to watch the fun and file it away for use in future columns of the Territorial Enterprise or, perhaps, the launch of his contemplated career as a novelist.
“Nothing but that skimpy jacket,” Adam scolded, “and not even a fire built! You’ve been taught better camp craft than that, Joe.”
“I built a fire,” Little Joe protested, “but I put it out when I heard robbers tryin’ to sneak in . . . what I thought were robbers, that is.”
“Well, you certainly had enough cash to tempt a gang of robbers,” Adam snorted, “even minus whatever you spent on your camping pack, which obviously didn’t include a decent coat. How much do you have left, boy?”
“What are you talking about?” Little Joe asked, incensed. “It’s all still here. I ain’t no thief, Adam.”
“That is generally the title we apply to someone who takes $2,000 without permission, family or not!” Adam yelled.
“Uh, yeah, guess so,” a suddenly penitent Little Joe admitted, “but that was for Hoss. I figured Pa wouldn’t mind, him bein’ so sick and all. Of course, I wouldn’t spend it on me; that really would be stealing!”
“Speaks of a certain sort of integrity,” Sam drawled.
Still glowering, Adam swung toward the other man. “Don’t you mean a certain sort of idiocy?”
Sam grinned. “That, too.”
Adam turned back to his brother. “I don’t suppose your special brand of integrity allowed you to purchase any supplies at all—namely food.”
“Well, I sort of forgot about food,” Little Joe admitted with a sheepish grin. “Don’t suppose you brought any extra?”
“You . . . forgot . . . about food. Typical.” With a shake of his head and a roll of his eyes, Adam sighed with exasperation. “Have you had anything to eat today?”
When Little Joe shook his head, Sam chuckled. “Reckon you pegged it right after all, Adam; the kid’s an idiot.”
“Hey!” Little Joe protested. He had to take it from Adam; Sam Clemons was another case altogether. What was he doing here, poking his nose in family business, anyway?
“But an idiot with a big heart,” Sam said, by way of peacemaking. “Guess we better feed him, eh?”
“I suppose we must,” Adam said, but his face had softened, and he didn’t sound angry any longer. “All right, Joe; you build back that fire, while I gather up some more wood, and Sam, since you’re so anxious to feed the kid, you can get the grub organized.
Happy at the prospect of a meal, Little Joe moved toward the remains of his campfire. Then he stopped, turned and hesitantly asked, “Uh, Adam? You, uh, wouldn’t have any matches, would you?”
“Of course, I have matches,” Adam sputtered. “You don’t think I’d head out on the trail without”—the truth suddenly struck him—“but I suppose you did. Honestly, Joe!”
Little Joe’s mouth skewed sideways as Adam dug the matches out of his pocket and handed them over. Keeping at arm’s length, Joe gingerly plucked them from his older brother’s hand. Maybe Adam was right; maybe he was an idiot.
Chomping through his second can of beans, Little Joe was happy as a cow in clover. “So, how far into California you figure we’ll have to go for some oranges?” he asked cheerily.
Adam favored him with an acid smile. “We’re as far into California as we’re going, boy. Tomorrow morning, we head straight home, where, I fear, a dire fate awaits you.”
Little Joe gulped. “Well, I’ll face the dire fate . . . when the time comes, but it ain’t yet, Adam. Hoss needs those oranges and we’re probably halfway to ‘em already.”
“More than halfway,” Sam put in. And, so far, he only had half the story he was conjuring; it would have a much more Christmasy, not to mention newsworthy, ending if this quest for oranges were actually to end successfully. The readers of the Territorial Enterprise would eat up this kind of human-interest!
Adam’s scowl found a new target. “I do not need your input.”
Little Joe, however, did, and his attitude toward Sam Clemons’ interference in family business did a complete turnabout. “Sam’s right,” he said, although his actual grasp of California geography was a little hazy. (He’d never been there alone.) “We can’t give up when we’re so close; we should go on . . . for Hoss.”
“We should,” Sam agreed quickly. “For Hoss . . . and for the idiot here, too. He should have a decent coat in this weather, Adam, and the closest one would lie west of here, not back at the Ponderosa.”
Little Joe didn’t especially like being called an idiot, but Sam became his new best friend with that suggestion. Besides, he’d already decided the label was probably right, and it was better to be a warm idiot than a frozen wise man, wasn’t it?
“I’ll think about it,” Adam growled. Of course, he already knew what his answer would be, but he wasn’t about to give this pair, idiots both, the satisfaction. “Now, turn in! Wherever we’re going, we leave at first light!”
Canny as he was trying to be, though, he gave himself away when he bent over his slumbering brother to tuck the blanket closer to his chin and finished by ruffling a chestnut curl from his forehead. Seeing the affectionate gestures, Sam knew, if Joe didn’t yet: they’d be heading west, come morning, into the land of (hopefully) oranges.
Gazing out the snow-hazed window behind his desk, Ben Cartwright heaved a sigh of relief as he saw his two sons and someone else dismounting. Once he’d gotten Adam’s note, he’d stopped worrying; at least, he’d told himself he wasn’t worrying, but the note hadn’t said exactly where Adam was going, probably because he hadn’t known when he left Virginia City. He’d only said that Joe was looking for oranges “elsewhere” and promised to bring back “your truant son.” Responsible boy, his oldest, so Ben had known he would do exactly that or die trying. As the weather had worsened, however, that “die trying” had weighed on his mind, so yes, Ben was relieved, but there was still that “truant son” to deal with. He hid his relief behind a severe and judicial countenance as he went to meet the boys at the door.
Dusting off snowflakes, an ebullient Little Joe bounced through the door first with a happy cry of “Pa!” that almost undid Ben’s resolve. Almost, but not quite.
Little Joe sensed his father’s mood when he threw his arms around him and felt no answering embrace. Pulling back, he pasted on a faltering smile, belied by a trembling lower lip. “I can explain, Pa.”
“What, young man, can you possibly say to excuse your—your truancy?” Coming up with no stronger charge, he borrowed his oldest son’s.
“Truancy?” Little Joe, not having seen Adam’s note, was completely baffled by the word. “School’s out, Pa,” he said slowly, looking as if he feared his father had entered his dotage.
“What have you got to say for yourself, young man?” Ben roared. “Where have you been and what have you done?”
“Oh! Yes, sir. I’ve—uh—been to Sacramento and . . .”
“Sacramento!” Ben exploded. Further than he’d imagined, which, at least, explained the worry-inducing delay. “Jumping Jehoshaphat, Joseph!”
“I had to, Pa,” Little Joe pleaded. “It was the only place to get oranges this year. Remember? You said that yourself . . . or was it Adam?”
“It scarcely matters,” Ben growled, “since you completely ignored what you were told. There are no oranges to be had this year!”
“‘Course, there are, Pa.”
“There are?” He stared in disbelief as Adam raised a burlap bag, full of something round and—Ben sniffed the aroma wafting from the bag—remarkably fruity in fragrance.
“There are,” the older boy said dryly. “The highest-priced ones we’ve ever eaten, but there definitely are oranges for Christmas.” And it was only thanks to the combined efforts of little brother’s cajoling charm and Sam Clemons’ silver tongue that the price wasn’t even higher. Between them, they’d turned that profit-driven grocer’s heart to mush.
“For Hoss’s Christmas,” Little Joe said, quickly pulling out what he figured was his ace in the hole. “They’re for him, Pa, not us,” adding hastily when he saw his father’s continuing frown, “I mean, not me. You can have one, of course.”
But the frown was one of puzzlement, not displeasure. “You found oranges,” Ben finally said, shaking his head in amazement.
“Little brother is nothing if not persistent, Pa,” Adam said with a chuckle.
“And persistence is a virtue, Mr. Cartwright,” Sam finally put in. He was perfectly fine with the man ignoring him until now. Watching and listening, after all, were among a reporter’s best tools.
“I’ll thank you not to lecture me on virtue, Sam Clemons,” Ben rumbled, “at least until you’ve learned the virtue of simple truth-telling.” He still couldn’t quite forgive the man for that Wild Man of the Ponderosa falderol.
“Oh, I generally tell the truth,” Sam drawled with a grin, “but it sometimes makes a better story if you bend it slightly.”
“This,” Ben warned, “had better not make a story, slightly bent or otherwise!”
Sam kept his own counsel about that one.
Ben’s fire had fizzled out, and everyone sensed it, though his words to his youngest son still sounded a little gruff. “Well, you’d better get Hoss’s high-priced oranges up to him, boy.”
Little Joe was only too glad to escape that lightly. “Yes, sir. Right away, Pa.” He bounded up the stairs to the lower landing and then hustled down again, holding out an orange to Sam Clemons. “Here, Sam, you take one. There wouldn’t be any oranges without you.”
“Without him?” Adam sputtered. “How do you figure that one?”
“He’s the one that talked you into going on to California, isn’t he? And getting me a new coat and . . .” Little Joe trailed off. He shouldn’t have mentioned the coat. Pa’d been mellowing down and now he was looking—well, Joe didn’t know what to call that expression, but definitely not mellow.
“New coat?” Ben’s frowning gaze fell this time on his oldest son.
“He needed it,” Adam said plainly and when the frown remained, added, “It’s my Christmas gift to him, of course.
“Aw, thanks, Adam,” Little Joe bubbled. “Here, you have an orange, too.” When his father arched an eyebrow in his direction, he fumbled another from the bag and held it out. “Oh, yeah. Almost forgot yours, Pa!” Hopefully, the treat would get Pa mellow again.
Ben’s lowered eyebrow was a good sign, though he still roared a little as he took the orange and stabbed an index finger toward the stairs. “Git, before I boil you in orange juice.”
“Bah, Humbug,” Sam muttered to Adam. He knew an idle threat when he heard one.
So did Little Joe, but he restrained his urge to giggle until he reached the head of the stairs. Then he turned and called down to the others, “Hey, orange you glad it’s Christmas!” The giggles burst out as he turned and fled into Hoss’s room to deliver his Christmas cheer.
Ben and Adam both groaned, but Sam chuckled in appreciation. “You know,” he said. “That boy might have the makings of a writer.”
“Of bad puns?” Adam snorted. “Careful, Josh. Your nom de plume hints at a certain propensity for those yourself.”
Ben was finally smiling as he said, “You’ll stay to dinner, Sam? I won’t take no for an answer. After all, we appear to owe you . . . for a bag of oranges, at least.”
Secretly thinking they’d already paid more than enough for those oranges, Adam nonetheless joined his father in welcoming Sam Clemons to dinner. It might be considered bribery, which was no virtue either, but maybe if they fed him well enough, they could influence whatever “bending” of this adventure he was plotting for the pages of the Territorial Enterprise.
Character: Sam Clemons
Inspired by: Enter Mark Twain
Director: Paul Landres
Written by: Harold Shumate, David Dortort (creator)
Link to the Bonanza Brand 2020 Advent Calendar – Day 21 – Returning Home by BluewindFarm
Other Stories by this Author
- The Christmas Gift (by Puchi Ann)
- Scarlet Ribbons (by Puchi Ann)
- A Performance to Remember (by Puchi Ann)
- The Ghost of Christmas (by Puchi Ann)
- We’ll Be Home for Christmas (by Puchi Ann)