Summary: When Adam brings his family back to the Ponderosa, his daughter Elizabeth’s first Christmas in Nevada is far from idyllic. But in 1903–in St. Louis!–Adam and the rest of her family make an upcoming Christmas truly special for her.
Rated: K WC 2600
Under the best of conditions I suspect I’d have had a hard time adjusting to the Ponderosa after a life lived in busy cities–even the Devon countryside, to my surprise, had been much more crowded and sociable than a large Nevada ranch. The fact that we were still unpacking our luggage when Papa rode away again certainly didn’t help. It wasn’t that I couldn’t see why he went; Mama and Uncle Jamie and even my grandfather all explained about how unhappy and restless Uncle Joe had become after the death of his wife, though at first they tried not to tell me she’d been murdered, or that it had happened in a house built on Ponderosa land. It was impossible, though, to explain why my uncle thought he was hunting down Aunt Alice’s murderers without even hinting at the manner of her death, and armed with those hints I found ways to learn the whole story, or as much as relative strangers were willing to tell a small but curious girl.
I understood, at least, that there were bad men on the loose, that Uncle Joe and the Ponderosa’s best hand were after them, and Papa had gone to bring everybody home–if he could. It was not an encouraging introduction to life in the American West.
Even after Papa’s telegram that he’d tracked Uncle Joe down, It was three more weeks before they all were able to get back to the ranch–almost Christmas, in fact. We heard them ride up, and their conversation with the hands who came to attend the horses, so everyone was assembled in the front hall by the time the door opened to admit the travelers, together with a blast of bracing cold air and a pungent whiff of winter pine. Of course Grandfather was the first to greet them, and there was no space for general talk until he’d embraced both his sons and settled the younger one on the settee with his injured leg propped up in comfort. Grandfather didn’t even notice that I’d brought Spot in from the kitchen and was holding him on my lap, in plain defiance of his rules. My little dog’s warmth against me felt good in the drafty, unwelcoming room.
Papa remained standing behind the settee, a protective hand still resting on my uncle’s shoulder as he gave us a brief summary of their journey. I stared at my uncle as Papa talked. From all the family stories, I’d been expecting him to be crackling with electricity, rather like how people build up sparks on a cool dry day, but he only seemed tired and strangely gray–and not just because of his unruly head of grizzled hair.
Mama had gone to Papa’s side as soon as she could, but she didn’t interrupt his story. Only when it was over did she murmur as she took his coat off, “This is soaked through, Adam. Is it snowing in the mountains already?”
Papa shrugged, drew her to him with his free arm, and gave her a long kiss. “What if it is? Now we’re all here together again–” he let go of Mama to sweep his arm in a broad circle around the room—“it doesn’t matter. Let it snow!”
He’d taken care to include Jamie and Candy in that gesture, and they both drew in closer to the rest of us, but it was my uncle Joe who made the biggest response of all. He twisted under Papa’s hand to grin up at his brother–looking suddenly much younger–and said, “Hold on, aren’t you forgetting we still have to bring in the Christmas tree?” Before anyone else could react he snapped his fingers and broke into a cheerful cackle of laughter. “Oh, yeah–it’s your turn for that, Adam. Guess if you don’t mind snow there’s no reason we should!”
Papa didn’t cackle, but his smile was as broad and his laugh even louder than Uncle Joe’s. He hadn’t seemed this happy in a very long time–maybe ever–and the sight made me stop feeling sorry for myself. Papa was home where he needed to be, and that mattered more than having a city around me or Spot in my bed.
That night I woke up hearing the big clock downstairs strike midnight, which I’d done just about every night since we’d arrived at the ranch, and I strained my ears to hear some comforting, familiar city noise. Of course, I couldn’t. It was a silent night except for the occasional wail of something Mama had assured me was an owl hunting. It didn’t sound to me like a noise something as ordinary as an owl would make, but Jamie had agreed with Mama, and my grandfather had glared at me, his bushy eyebrows almost meeting above his nose, when I had started to voice my doubts.
I thought it sounded more like peacocks, but I had to admit that really wasn’t likely. This wasn’t a country house in Kent, after all; I doubted there was a peacock in the whole state of Nevada. As for other, more exotic possibilities–well, in the daytime I could admit I was being foolish and fanciful. Hearing that unearthly sound at night, though, made me wish I hadn’t learned quite so much about monsters out of the old Greek myths.
After a handful of cries from the owl–or peacock, or harpy–I squirmed into my robe and slippers so I could go downstairs to fetch Spot. This was such an established part of my nightly routine by now that I always tucked the robe under the covers with me so it would be warm and ready for when I got up.
I hadn’t even reached the head of the stairs when I could see light coming up from the great room, though. Warily, I poked my head around the bannister just far enough to see that Papa was settled in the tall blue chair with a book. Quiet as I’d been, he noticed me and twisted around to face the stairs.
“I’m rediscovering an old luxury,” he explained. “Whenever I couldn’t sleep I liked to come down here and read by the fire. Of course in those days I didn’t have to worry about disturbing your mother…but she was sleeping so soundly I didn’t think she’d notice me leave.”
I didn’t much like the idea of Papa going back to habits he’d had before I was born–before he’d even met Mama–but when he wrapped me up in the Indian blanket from the staircase and settled me next to the hearth I decided to change my mind. Quite conveniently, the owl call came again, and I could say, “That woke me up. What is it?”
“A barn owl. All it’s after is mice, or maybe a rat in the hayloft.”
“And he really lives in the barn?”
“That’s right. Next spring there might be a nest in there to show you. I remember Hoss–your uncle Eric–as a boy, he’d spend all the time he could in there, watching over the owlets until they were fledged.”
I’d never thought the barn could have been such an exciting place.
“Now say me, why were you creeping those stairs down, young lady, hmm?”
He was sounding almost like Onkel Sandro, and I couldn’t help giggling as I admitted I’d come down to rescue Spot.
“Do you really think Spot needs rescuing? He’s all tucked up by the nice warm stove where Hop Sing can give him his breakfast first thing in the morning. Are you sure he wants to be woken up now?”
Put that way, saying I wanted to wake Spot up would only have made me sound selfish, so I could only mutter that I thought no one here much liked Spot–especially not Hop Sing.
“Oh, nonsense. How could anyone not like Spot? Hop Sing just likes to remind us all that he won’t be taken advantage of. I’ll bet he’s still threatening to go back to China any time there’s food left on somebody’s plate.”
In fact the elderly cook had been grumbling just that every night at dinner, as my grandfather picked glumly at his food and wondered again and again where Uncle Joe and Candy–and Papa–had gone to. I told Papa about how the scolding always rekindled my grandfather’s appetite somehow, and Papa laughed a little sadly. “You see? Hop Sing’s taken care of the family for a good long time, Elizabeth. He’ll look after you, and your mama, and Spot just as carefully. Now let’s go back up and get you into bed. There’ll be plenty to do in the morning.”
So I went. What else was I to do?
And I wasn’t as surprised as I might have been to notice Hop Sing, the next morning, slipping a choice piece of bacon to Spot when he thought no one was looking, and whispering, “Melly Clistmas,” as he did.
Winter in St. Louis was almost as unpleasant as it had ever been in Virginia City, and about as much to my taste–which is to say, not at all.
“Very well, Papa,” I snapped as we left the train station. “Now that you’ve dragged me off into the nation’s heartland–and at this of all times of the year–the least you can do is explain to me why. Did you win the contract to install the city’s Christmas illuminations, or is it something to do with next year and the World’s Fair? You’re getting too old for this, you know. You’ll be catching pneumonia next.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Papa responded amiably, swinging his walking stick with a flourish. “You’re the one who was looking a little peaked. A change of scenery was just what you needed–and don’t you want to welcome your beloved husband again as soon as you may?”
“My husband is perfectly capable of changing trains by himself in St. Louis, or anywhere else else for that matter,” I spat back. “Must I remind you he left our school in my hands for this trip–with the first term’s examinations beginning in less than a week? I don’t need to be anywhere else but San Francisco, Papa!”
We were passing a handsome townhouse as I spoke, and drifting down from above I could hear someone soothing a fretful child by singing softly. The words sounded something like, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” but I couldn’t be sure I was hearing them correctly. Probably I wasn’t. Foolish, nonsensical phrase….
“You never could stomach anything that didn’t make perfect sense to you,” Papa said with an indulgent smile that only added to my irritation. Obviously he’d also heard the singing, and been reminded of my own prickly childhood by what was going on above us.
I sniffed, in conscious imitation of Aunt Rose, and walked even a little more briskly towards the station ahead, where trains from the East drew into town.
Almost the moment we made our way into the open spaces of the station’s main arcade, I heard someone call my name joyfully, but it wasn’t my husband. Instead, his sister, in the midst of a bewildering swirl of children all far too young to be her own, was coming towards me with her arms stretched out.
“Oh, Elizabeth, isn’t this fun?” my sister-in-law gasped as she reached me. “Bella’s husband just took a new position with the Bank of California, so I thought Julia and I would come west too and help settle her and the children in, but we’re all going to be busy as bees the whole holiday season and I couldn’t think when we’d find time to see you and wish you a merry Christmas, so it’s just wonderful to meet you here, and we’ll have the whole rest of the train trip to catch up with each other….”
I hugged her hard while trying to make sense out of what she was saying. Julia was my youngest niece, just getting ready to be presented in New York–unless they decided to introduce her into San Francisco society instead, once they were there–and Bella was Julia’s cousin, the married daughter of my husband’s older sister. So the cloud of youngsters had to be Bella’s get, though I could also make out one of Julia’s brothers, manfully guiding a porter and a trolley mounded with all their luggage through the crowds…and my husband, still in the distance, playing horsie to a cheerful if exuberant three-year-old perched on his shoulders while heaving along something apparently too precious to entrust to anyone else.
It took me several minutes to extract myself from the cheerful feminine chatter–which, truth to tell, buoyed up my spirits almost as high as theirs already were–and start towards my husband. Halfway to him I recognized what he was carrying–besides my great-nephew, of course–and broke into a run. I hadn’t even realized we still had that old travelling-kennel, and it was clear from the way my husband was struggling with it that it wasn’t empty now. And surely, surely, he hadn’t taken it all the way to New York just to lend it to his sister, or to Bella….
“Oh, Mr. Cartwright!” I heard Julia exclaim. “We counted on you to keep Auntie Liz distracted! Now the surprise is all spoiled….”
And Papa was explaining gently, “I don’t think this would make a very good Christmas surprise, my dear. It needs to be taken care of, not hidden away in a box.”
Something was whining from excitement inside the kennel, something with a black-and-white face I could just make out through the wicker as it bounced up and down…and I found myself on my knees in the middle of the station, unlatching the door so I could scoop out a wiggly, joyful little French bulldog that apparently wanted nothing more than to cover me with kisses. For a moment I felt younger than the little boy pulling on my husband’s hair and yelling to be let down, so he could see puppy too!
My husband ignored the demands of his rider and planted a kiss on my ear, the only part of me my hat and the puppy left open to him. “It took us forever to track down a pied pup,” he said with satisfaction. “Apparently the fashion is for brindle ones now, and these days Frenchies are nothing if not fashionable–but we found one, in the end. You’ve waited too long to have a dog again, darling. Merry Christmas!”
Papa, and the rest of the crowd of sisters and cousins and aunts, had caught up with me once more, no doubt sheltering me from the eyes of the vulgar. It didn’t matter that I was laughing and crying together, or that my hair was coming down and my hat had been knocked askew.
“Merry Christmas,” I told them around the puppy’s warm wide tongue. “Merry Christmas to us all!”