Summary: Joe proves what Ben has always known: the Cartwrights have never had good luck in pageantry.
Rated: K+ (5,705 words)
The Christmas Tableaux
n. pl. tab·leaux or tab·leaus (tab’lōz’, ta-blōz’) …
An interlude during a scene when all the performers on stage freeze in position and then resume action as before….
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
“And of course, Joseph will play Joseph.”
Joe stopped staring out the schoolroom window and straightened in his seat, eyes widened in horror.
“We must acknowledge that you were meant to play this part!” Miss Jones smiled and turned, beaming her sugar-smile on everyone, seeing no one.
“Uh, excuse me, ma’am, but I don’t mind bein’ a sheep, like last year,” Joe said.
“Oh, no, no, no, your modesty is commendable, but Joseph you are and Joseph you shall be! Of course, that means that Mary Louise Ashton will play Mary-”
Joe’s eyes brightened at this. Mary Louise! The prettiest girl in school! He had been trying to impress her for weeks with handstands and fast riding, but she generally ignored him, saying he was much too immature. Now he would be seeing her every day to practice!
A wad of paper hit the back of his head when Miss Jones turned back to the blackboard.
“You’re dead, Cartwright!”
Joe turned, only to be pinned by Albert Wilkins’ glare.
“I’m supposed to be Joseph!” Albert hissed. “And don’t you forget it!”
Because he happened to be in town at the time school ended, Adam drove the wagon over to pick up Joe for the ride home. Joe, again gazing out the window during the last lesson of the day, spotted Adam, and brightened up. Miss Jones, annoyed at his inattention, followed his gaze. She spotted Adam, and she brightened up, too.
“Joseph!” she said, “I’d like you to stay after class and help clean the classroom, since you cannot seem to pay attention.”
“Yes ma’am,” Joe said, slumping into his seat. Adam would not be happy to have to wait.
“Class dismissed.” The other children scrambled out of the room, scattering like songbirds released from a cage. Albert Wilkins, however, stood in the back of the room until well after all the other children were gone. He stared at Joe in an intently significant way, until Joe glared back. When he had Joe’s attention, Albert pointed his finger at his own chest and mouthed the words “I’M Joseph!” before stepping backward out the door.
Joe scowled and began to collect the waste paper and other trash, straightening the benches as he moved through the room.
“Take those things out back, and on your way, invite your brother to wait inside, Joseph. Then take this, run over to the store, and buy a penny’s worth of-of sticking-plaster.”
Joe looked at Miss Jones, questioning, but took the penny and merely said, “Yes ma’am.”
Adam stepped warily into the classroom a few minutes later.
“I’ve sent Joseph on a little errand, Adam, I hope you don’t mind waiting a moment or two,” Miss Jones simpered.
“Not at all,” Adam said, running his finger around the inside of his collar.
“I thought to ask your advice on a little Christmas play the children are putting on,” Miss Jones continued, stepping closer to where Adam stood near the door.
“I’m sure anything you have planned will be very nice,” Adam said, fighting the urge to run back out the door. I’ve faced down bears and Paiutes, he thought. Surely I can stand my ground before one schoolteacher?
“Well, I must admit to being inspired, this year, simply inspired!” Miss Jones said. “Our little play is called The Christmas Tableaux, fashioned in the manner of French theater.”
Adam kept his face carefully neutral. French theater portrayed by Virginia City schoolchildren did not sound “inspired” to him.
“I assigned the various roles today and have given your young brother a prominent part.” Abigail Jones arched her brow, attempting a coy expression. “Don’t you think having Joseph playJoseph has a certain-well, symmetry?”
“Symmetry,” Adam said, and he shook his head. “I don’t know about symmetry, but I do know the only thing my little brother has in common with the father of Jesus is the spelling of his name.”
Miss Jones’ face fell, but she took a step closer. “I felt sure that you, of all people, would appreciate the aesthetic rightness-“
“I applaud you willingness to take on my brother as one of the principals of your play, Miss Jones,” Adam said, stepping back and putting on his hat. Suddenly, the classroom felt stuffy and confined. “It’s not a task I would have recommended myself, but-well, good luck, ma’am.” He turned and left the schoolhouse.
Miss Jones, her mouth slightly open, reached a hand in the direction of the door as it swung quietly but deliberately closed behind him. She pursed her lips in determination, but turned back to the schoolroom. Joseph was playing one of the main roles, after all; there would surely be other opportunities to discuss this with his older brother.
Joe tied his horse behind the wagon and scrambled up beside his brother. Adam clucked to the horses and they started off at a spanking pace.
Joe watched his brother. “We late for somethin’?” he asked, and then made a point of looking behind them. “Or is someone chasin’ you?”
Adam shook his head and snapped the reins on the rumps of the team. Pa’s matched grays stepped out in showy style the rest of the way through town.
Once they left the town behind, Adam slackened the pace and relaxed a little, his shoulders and arms dropping.
“Can I drive, Adam?” Joe asked, keeping a respectful tone. Adam was in a touchy mood after escaping the schoolhouse, and it wouldn’t take much for him to decide to keep the reins all the way home.
Adam sighed and handed Joe the reins. Joe grinned his thanks.
“Get up there, Smoke, get up there, Mouse.”
Adam smiled at the sight of his little brother, chest puffed out, arms steady, snapping the reins of the team.
“I hear you have one of the main roles in the Christmas play this year.”
Joe nodded. “It’s called The Christmas Tab – Tabbel-ox.”
“Tableaux,” Adam said.
“Yeah, tabbel-ohs, that’s French for pictures of a scene, Miss Jones says, and she made me Joseph ’cause of my name.”
“Do you have to learn many lines?” Adam asked, watching the play of emotions on his brother’s face. From what he’d seen so far, Joe had mixed feelings about his role in the play.
“No, just a few. It’s mostly just posin’ and such.” Joe clucked his tongue. “Stop yer dawdlin’, Mouse!”
“Might be fun,” Adam said, testing the waters.
Joe rolled his eyes. “Not what Miss Jones has in mind. The only good thing about it is Mary Louise Ashton is playin’ Mary.”
“Oh,” Adam said. “Pretty, is she?”
“Prettiest girl in school,” Joe said wistfully. “But she’s two years older’n me.” He suddenly was very intent on the team in front of them.
“Hmm?” Adam said from under his hat brim.
“Do you-do you think I’ll have to kiss her? Right there in front of everyone?”
Adam looked at his eleven-year-old brother, trying to tell if Joe thought a kiss would be a good thing or a bad thing.
“You’re playing husband and wife,” he said after a moment. “I doubt it.”
“Oh,” Joe said.
Ben watched his youngest son dash up the stairs to his room, and sighed. Another Christmas program. Joseph seemed happy about his part, but Ben thought about his family’s participation in previous Christmas performances. Whenever one of them had played a prominent role in a Christmas program, something odd had happened.
When Adam had been of school age, there had been no school in Virginia City. However, the Reverend Miller had taken the Sunday School Class under his wing to provide a children’s Christmas Concert. Adam had a solo part in “Good King Wenceslas,” but had completely misunderstood the words, singing “Good King Wisdom lost his trout, when he fished with Stephen.” Ben still laughed when he remembered it, although Adam had been very embarrassed when he learned the real words.
Ben recalled how Marie had volunteered to have Joseph to play the infant Jesus when he was about nine months old. Joseph’s croup had chosen that night to appear, and the bark-like sounds from the depths of the manger sparked inappropriate laughter at the most serious part of the play.
And then there was eight-year-old Hoss, trying to add authenticity to the stable of the nativity scene. He somehow coaxed a live calf onto the raised platform just as his teacher turned to acknowledge the polite applause of the parents-applause that turned to hoots of laughter when the calf appeared. The startled calf promptly fell off the raised platform, legs splayed in four different directions, knocking the teacher into Hiram Muncie’s lap.
Maybe Joseph, playing Joseph, will break the pattern, he thought, and then he shook his head. Not too likely. The Cartwrights had never had good luck in pageantry.
“Our goal is to strike an artistic pose,” Miss Jones said, striking an artistic pose herself by holding her bent arm to her forehead, arching her neck to the right, and closing her eyes. She held the pose for several seconds, then opened one eye to see the effect her pose had inspired in her students. They were not visibly moved.
Several of the younger children stared at her with wide eyes, as if they had never seen her before. The rest of the children merely looked bored. Miss Jones straightened self-consciously.
“As the narrator, I will read one statement describing the scene. Each scene or tableau will consist of one or two spoken lines, then everyone will freeze into an artistic pose, and hold it until the curtain closes. Then we will set up the next scene. Is that clear to everyone?” Heads nodded around the room. Albert Wilkins poked the back of Joe’s head with his finger.
“There won’t be many lines to learn-the tableaux are simple scenes that represent a well-known story.”
Miss Jones paced down the aisle between the rows of benches.
“In the first scene, your only lines, Joseph, will be asking for a room at the inn. Albert, as the innkeeper, you will of course reply that there is no room. Joseph and Mary Louise will move to the stable for the first tableau.
“Susan, as the angel, you will have one line telling the shepherd to go and worship the newborn king. That will be the second tableau.
“The third tableau, with the baby in the manger, will require no lines from the players.
“The final tableau, with the three wise men, will have all the cast members. Joshua, as one of the kings, you will have a line about the gifts you bring. Once we have created the final tableau-in keeping with our French theme, shall we call it the finale?-we will then break our poses to sing ‘Joy to the World.'”
“All right, then, let’s begin our rehearsal,” Miss Jones said. “We will practice every day this week, and have a dress rehearsal on Friday. Everyone is to have their costumes ready by then.”
Every day during the week before Christmas, the children worked on the play, moving through their poses and practicing their lines. Every day, Joe managed to avoid Albert.
It wasn’t that he was afraid of him, although Albert was three years older, a whole foot taller, and about forty pounds heavier. It wasn’t that he really cared about the disputed part in the play. He just wanted Mary Louise to like him. He figured that getting beat up by Albert would not increase her affection for him. He also figured that neither Pa nor Miss Jones would appreciate the father of the baby Jesus sporting a black eye on Christmas Eve.
His luck in Albert-avoidance ran out on Thursday, however.
Joe winced. He had dawdled as much as possible leaving the school, and still Albert had waited for him, stepping in front of him as he saddled his horse for the ride home.
“What do you want?” Joe asked. “I gotta get home.”
“You’re switching parts with me,” Albert said, leaning over the younger boy with his fists clenched. His hot breath puffed steam into the cold air. “I’m playing Joseph with Mary Louise!”
“I can’t!” Joe said. “Miss Jones picked me for the part because of my name. She won’t let me switch, even if I wanted to! Which I don’t!”
“We can switch the night of the play,” Albert said. “We’ll swap costumes right before the first curtain. Once I’m on stage with Mary Louise, she’ll have to let us go on, or stop the whole play to switch us back. And she ain’t about to do that.”
“No!” Joe said. “Why should I get in trouble just so you can make cow-eyes at Mary Louise in front of the whole town?”
“Because I’ll beat you up if you don’t!” Albert said.
“If you beat me up, Miss Jones will kick you out of the play,” Joe said, but he wasn’t really sure if this was true. Albert seemed to believe it, however.
“If you don’t switch, I’ll pound you into the ground as soon as the play is over!” Albert said. “And you know I can do it!”
Joe did know it.
I never wanted to be in this stupid play to begin with, Joe thought. Why should I care who gets to hold Mary Louise’s hand?
He pictured Mary Louise; her pretty curls bobbing as she leaned forward to kiss his cheek. She might do it, he told himself. She might kiss Joseph at the end of the play. But she sure won’t kiss the Innkeeper.
“I oughta punch you right now!” Albert said. “Mary Louise is my girl, and no one is gonna be her pretend husband but me!”
“The only way you could play this part is if your name was Joseph,” Joe said, backing toward his horse. “And it ain’t! So you can’t!” He swung into the saddle before Albert could react, and kicked his horse into a lope.
“I’ll get you, Cartwright! You better swap with me, or I’ll get you!”
Joe just kept riding.
“Little Joseph,” Mary Louise said at the dress rehearsal the next day. “Would you help me with this?”
Mary Louise held out the golden cord for her costume.
Joe finished pulling the striped Joseph-robe over his head. He usually didn’t like to be called Little Joseph, but somehow it sounded different the way Mary Louise said it. Joe’s face began to feel hot, starting with his ears.
“What do I-I mean, what do you need me to do?” Joe asked, his eyes on Mary Louise’s slim waist. Surely she didn’t want him to tie the cord around her? Actually touch her? This was so much more than holding her hand!
“I just need help getting this knot out,” she said, holding the cord out to Joe. “My silly fingers don’t seem to be able to work it out.”
Albert stepped in front of Joe. “I’ll do it,” he said, and his glare at Joe dared him to challenge him.
Joe glared back, but he was very conscious of Mary Louise’s soft blue eyes, and he held back his impulse to punch Albert in the stomach. Hard.
“Oh thank you, Albert,” Mary Louise said, and her voice, like her eyes, was sweetly soft.
Joe’s eyebrows lowered as he watched the two of them. Mary Louise is so pretty, he thought. I can’t let Albert take my part away from me. She already thinks I’m too young. If he takes my part, she’ll think I’m a baby.
The entire Cartwright family, including Hop Sing, was to travel to town to together on Christmas Eve to attend Miss Jones’ Christmas program. When the carriage was ready and it came time to leave for town, Ben sent Hoss to hurry his brother along.
“Ready to go, Little Brother?” Hoss paused in the doorway of Joe’s room.
Joe didn’t answer. He sat on his bed, head down, the striped costume draped across his lap.
“Joe?” Hoss said. “You all right?”
Joe nodded, but didn’t look around. Hoss watched him for a moment, then walked into the room and sat on the bed beside Joe.
Joe hunched his shoulders tighter.
“What’s the matter? Ain’t you lookin’ forward to the play?”
Joe shook his head.
Hoss sat silent.
“It’s Mary Louise,” Joe said at last. “She never notices me at all. I thought playin’ Joseph would make her like me better, ‘cause she’d see that I was somethin’-well somethin’ to see. But she don’t see anyone but Albert.”
Hoss slung a sympathetic arm across Joe’s shoulders. “There’s no accountin’ for the way girls think.”
“Albert Wilkins is real mad at me because Miss Jones won’t let him be Joseph. I get to hold Mary Louise’s hand but he says she’s his girl and it’s gettin’ harder and harder-I can’t seem to-Albert’s gonna-” Joe sighed. “Maybe I should just give up. It ain’t worth even tryin’ if Mary Louise don’t like me.” He slouched a little further under Hoss’ arm.
“Joe, you’re as stubborn as the day is long-you ain’t never been one to give up half-way.”
Joe shrugged again.
“You come this far. You got the most important part in the play. You know your lines, don’t ya?”
“Then ya gotta do it. You show that Mary Louise the best Joseph there ever was. She’s bound to see you in a whole different way when you’re standin’ right next to her and folks start clappin’ and hollerin’ ‘cause you done such a good job.”
Joe sat up straighter. “Yeah,” he said, struck by the picture Hoss painted.
Hoss patted his shoulder. “Let’s get goin’.”
They pulled into the churchyard along with several other wagons and buggies. Miss Jones, swathed in a thick cloak, was standing in the doorway, calling directions and waving the children to their places. When she saw the Cartwrights, however, she abandoned that duty and ran down the steps to meet them. Hoss winked at Ben over Joe’s head as Adam suddenly jumped out on the opposite side and began to fuss with the team’s harness.
“Joseph,” Miss Jones said, sidling toward the horses. “Please go inside and get ready. I’ll be in to help with your costume in a moment.”
“I don’t need any help-” Joe started to say, but Hoss pushed him toward the door. “I’ll see that he gets ready.” Hoss tipped his hat to Miss Jones, and grinning at Adam, walked with Joe and Hop Sing into the church.
“Good evening, Mr. Cartwright,” Miss Jones said. “Isn’t it a lovely Christmas Eve evening-I mean, isn’t it a lovely evening?”
Ben tipped his hat politely. “Merry Christmas, Miss Jones. It is a lovely evening. I am very much looking forward to your play.”
Miss Jones looked down and stepped sideways, another few feet closer to the horses. “I hope you enjoy it,” she said, looking at Adam. “The children have worked very hard.”
Adam looked around rapidly, tipped his hat to Miss Jones, and said with relief apparent in his voice, “There’s Ross-I’ll see you inside, Pa.”
“Adam-” Ben began, but Adam quickly walked away. Ben sighed, picked up the hitching lead Adam had dropped in his haste, and hitched the team to the rail.
“May I escort you inside, Miss Jones?” He said. Miss Jones, staring after Adam, took his arm absently and walked inside.
Albert grabbed Joe’s arm and pulled him behind the curtain.
“Give me your costume,” he growled.
“No! I ain’t swappin’ with you!” Joe pulled hard and managed to get his arm free. Hoss came up behind him, eyeing Albert pointedly.
“Joe, Miss Jones is callin’ for everyone to get ready,” Hoss said. “Albert, you better get where you need to be.”
Albert scowled and walked toward the Inn door. Joe sighed in relief.
“Places!” Miss Jones called in a theatrical whisper. “Places everyone!”
“That’s us, Joe,” Mary Louise’s sweet voice came up beside them. “Oh, you look very handsome in your costume, Joseph! Let me fix this for you!” She tugged at the folds of his robe near his neck.
Joe stood straighter. “Thanks, Mary Louise,” he said, almost reverently. She took Joe’s hand in hers to lead him to the wings.
Hoss looked curiously at the girl who had captivated Joe’s attention.
She was lovely, he had to admit. Her curls cascaded to her shoulders in golden waves, and her blue eyes shone with a kind of haughty self-satisfaction that he doubted Joe could see. He watched as she leaned behind Joe’s back and blew a kiss to the boy playing the Innkeeper. He shook his head, and went out to find a seat in the audience.
The stage had been set up in the sanctuary of the church. The homemade curtain stretched from the choir alcove to the pulpit, creating wings on either side that concealed the players who weren’t on stage.
Miss Jones paced behind the drawn curtain, checking that all the scenery parts and props were in place for the first tableau. She made sure that Albert was behind the Inn door and Joseph and Mary Louise were standing at stage right, all set to walk into the outskirts of Bethlehem. Everyone was ready.
She took a deep breath, and patted her way along the curtain until she found the place where the two curtain pieces joined together, and stepped through into the stage lights.
Joe could hear Miss Jones’ voice rise, and the audience noise dwindle to nothing. Mary Louise gripped his arm, just below the elbow, and he felt a tingle run up his arm. He could see Albert glaring at them from his position behind the Inn wall, and he glared back. Taking courage from the feel of Mary Louise’s soft hand in his, and still glaring defiance at Albert, he leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, and whispered “For luck” into the golden curls near her ear.
Mary Louise stiffened and tried to draw her hand away, but then the curtain was opening, and Miss Jones was motioning them to come out on stage. Joe tucked Mary Louise’s hand firmly under his arm and stepped out in front of the Inn.
He couldn’t see his family; the lanterns shone too brightly into his face. He took a deep breath, took another step forward, and knocked on the Inn door.
A long, long moment passed before Albert finally opened the door wide and scowled out at them.
“Please, Innkeeper, my wife and I would like a room,” Joe said, raising his voice as Miss Jones had instructed. “Our journey has been long, and she is expecting a child.”
Joe could see Albert’s whitened knuckles on the door handle. Albert was breathing hard, as if he had been running a race. He didn’t answer. Joe looked toward Miss Jones, eyes wide. Albert had forgotten his line!
Miss Jones made a circling gesture with her hand, and Joe squinted, and then nodded. She wanted him to repeat his lines.
“Please, Innkeeper, my wife and I would like a room,” Joe said, more loudly this time. His voice wavered and he stopped speaking as Albert stepped forward and leaned over him, his face inches from Joe’s.
“Mary can come in,” Albert said loudly, grabbing Mary Louise’s arm away from Joe and yanking her through the Inn’s door. “Joseph can GO TO HELL!”
He slammed the Inn door in Joe’s face.
With one voice, the audience gasped. The mass inhalation was followed by a silence so heavy Joe felt it might squash him flat as he stood frozen, all alone on the stage.
Then laughter started, from the back of the room and rolling forward, wave after wave, until the entire room was caught in the tide. Joe’s face, flaming red from embarrassment, grew redder in anger, and he yanked on the latch of the Inn door. Albert was holding it tight from the other side, however, and it wouldn’t budge. He pounded on the door with his fist, and the laughter grew still louder. He suddenly remembered that the “Inn” only had one actual wall. With an incoherent yell, he darted around the edge of the false front.
No one in the audience could see the two rivals any longer, but everyone could hear the unmistakable sounds of a fistfight. Mary Louise shrieked and ran out from behind the Inn, knocking over the manger and bowling over several of her ‘sheep’ classmates who were waiting behind the stable wall for their turn in the next tableau.
“Joseph! Albert!” Miss Jones screeched, and she picked up her skirt and stepped back onto the stage.
All the Cartwrights, including Hop Sing, leaped to their feet. Ben snapped out of his stunned surprise and ran to the stage as Joe and Albert’s yelling grew louder behind the wall. Adam followed close behind, but Hoss and Hop Sing were hampered by Orville Wilkins, Albert’s father, who was pushing past them to get to the stage at the same time.
Suddenly, the entire inn wall vibrated and tilted forward. Ben leaped to one side. Adam grabbed Miss Jones around the waist, pulling her backwards just as the Inn facade slammed to the floor of the stage with a thundering crash.
Startled screams erupted. Adam found himself weighted down with Miss Jones, who, suddenly realizing who her rescuer was, fell backwards into his arms, her wrist posed artistically over her eyes. Albert and Joe fell on top of the flattened wall, tearing at each other like wildcats. Amidst screams and shouts, they rolled into one of the roof supports for the tiny stable, hampered by their costumes but still able to land a few blows on each other. Ben stepped forward again as the stable roof support wobbled and tilted sideways. Adam swung Miss Jones firmly aside, seating her on the upturned manger, and leaped toward the stable. However, it was too late to do anything but snatch the scattering sheep and wise men out of the way as the stable roof, too, crashed to the floor.
The two combatants fought on, oblivious to the destruction they were causing.
Ben stomped over the splintered remains of the sets and grabbed a handful of the hooded costumes in each hand, hauling the two boys to their feet. He turned to find Orville Wilkins standing at his elbow, so he swung Albert toward his father. He grasped Joe’s robe with two firm hands, and he had to grip hard to hold the furious boy.
“Curtain!” Ben hissed toward the wings. “Close the curtain!”
All three Wise Men jumped up and pulled hard on the knotted rope. The two curtain pieces swung wildly together, upsetting the balance of the makeshift support, and the bar holding the curtain slipped off its hooks and crashed to the stage floor. The curtain billowed gracefully-artistically-down to cover Miss Jones, still seated on the upturned manger where Adam had left her.
The Christmas Tableaux were over.
“Here. You hold.” Hop Sing said as he pressed a bandana full of snow against Joe’s cheek. Joe was outside, sitting on the steps of the church, leaning against the railing.
“No, no! Keep on eye!” Hop Sing added when Joe lowered the makeshift ice pack. He obediently returned the snow pack to his eye, and Hop Sing went back into the church.
Most of the audience had departed, still laughing about the outcome of the play. Hoss, Ben, and Hop Sing, along with a few other parents, had remained to clean up the scenery debris. Adam had tried to help, too, pulling several broken boards free, but quickly found the need to evade Miss Jones’ elaborate gratitude. As soon as Miss Jones looked away, he slipped outside and sat next to Joe on the church steps.
He watched his miserable little brother for several minutes, trying hard not to smile.
“Looks like he got you pretty good,” Adam said, and he pulled his handkerchief from his back pocket to dab at a bleeding cut at the corner of Joe’s mouth. Joe impatiently pushed his hand away.
“You got him good, too, though,” Adam said in a low voice, dabbing again. “He’s a lot bigger than you, but he’s feeling the fight.” Joe didn’t push brother’s hand away this time.
The church door opened and Miss Jones appeared, clinging to her mother’s arm and sobbing into a handkerchief. Joe and Adam stood hastily, leaning back against the stair rail. Adam pushed at Joe’s back, and Joe swallowed and stepped forward, lowering the bandana from his eye.
“Miss Jones, I’m real sorry-” he started, but Miss Jones, seeing Adam over the top of her handkerchief, simply shook her head and raised the square of cloth to hide her blotchy face.
“I’d better get her home,” Mrs. Jones said, looking at Adam and Joe speculatively. “Maybe your brother can bring you by to finish what you were going to say in a few days, when the memory is not so-so painful.”
Another push at Joe’s back. “Yes, Ma’am.” Joe said, resignedly. The Cartwright brothers waited until the two ladies passed by, then sank down on the steps again.
“She’s never gonna forget this,” Joe said mournfully. “Miss Jones wanted the play to be artistic, like they do it in France. This is about as far from artistic as you can get.”
Adam smiled. The play may not have been artistic, but a backstage love triangle was, well, very French. His smile faded as he pictured the upcoming formal apology to Miss Jones. He was pretty sure his father would insist he accompany his little brother to help smooth things over. He sighed. The sacrifices older brothers had to make for younger brothers were never-ending.
Joe looked up at the sound of a sweet voice and then sank even lower against the front steps of the church. A few yards away, Mary Louise cooed comfort to Albert as his father helped him into the back of a wagon.
She had escaped the melee without a scratch. When the curtain fell, she had stood amongst the splintered boards and tumbled supports with every hair in place, her lovely, shiny robe and golden sash as spotless as it was at the beginning of the play. Her hair had flown into wild disarray, however, when she screeched at Joe and slapped his face as he held out his hand to help her out of the rubble. She had pushed him out of the way and rushed to Albert’s side, squeaking out a high-pitched “my hero!”
Now, Albert’s face showed a mixture of pain and annoyance as Mary Louise dabbed at his nose with a dainty handkerchief. He didn’t seem as anxious to have her near as he had been before the play.
For Joe, Mary Louise’s alluring luster faded right before his eyes when she turned to Albert. Albert’s welcome to her, he thought.
Ben came out of the front door of the church and stopped at the top of the stairs when he saw Joe, battered and forlorn, talking to his older brother.
“It’s funny, Adam.” Joe’s voice was muffled behind the snow-filled bandana. “Yesterday I thought Mary Louise was the prettiest girl I ever did see. She still looks the same as she did yesterday. But somehow she don’t seem so pretty any more.”
Ben sighed. Humiliated on stage in front of the whole town, rejected by the girl he liked, bruised and scratched from a fight with his rival, the cause of the Christmas play disaster-no wonder the boy looked utterly dejected. Ben just didn’t have the heart to start the lecture he planned to give on his son’s behavior. He stepped down until he was face to face with Joe.
“How does your eye feel?” He asked, tilting Joe’s chin toward the lantern light.
Joe pulled his chin away. “It’s fine.”
Ben patted Joe’s shoulder. Disillusionment was never easy.
It was after midnight before they finished cleaning up the debris from the pageant. Reverend Miller thanked the Cartwrights politely for their help in putting the church to rights, and with a disapproving look at Joe, bid them good night, impatient for his own bed.
When everyone was settled in the carriage, Ben clucked to the horses to start their subdued journey home. It would be a good while yet before they would reach their beds.
Moonlight cast blue shadows on the road. Ben listened to the muffled clop of Smoke and Mouse’s hooves, and inhaled the scent of pine on the breeze. Wisps of snow drifted lazily from the tree branches to melt on the horses’ steaming backs. He heard the jingle of the harness as Mouse twitched his skin against the falling snow. Hop Sing smiled beside him, and nodded toward the back. He turned in his seat and looked back at his sons.
Joe sat wedged between his brothers, his head resting against Hoss’ broad chest, one eye swollen closed and the other closed in sleep. Hoss’ arm was slung tight around Joe’s shoulders. Ben saw the flash of Adam’s teeth as he grinned at Hoss and tucked the blanket up higher under Joe’s chin. Ben smiled. A beautiful, moonlit night, his family settled quietly around him-this washis Christmas tableau.
Merry Christmas, boys, he thought, but he didn’t say a word. He turned his attention back to the team and the snow-covered road before them.