Summary: “Real shepherds can be downright ornery,” Hoss tells his little brother, but 6-year-old Joe is determined to see for himself. A Christmas story with a message of comfort, inspired by Rider’s 2013 Christmas Carol Challenge.
Rated: K+ WC 2900
While Shepherds Watched
But Mama wasn’t here, not in the dark woods with Joe, not even at the Ponderosa anymore. Pa said she’d gone to heaven, and that she’d watch over Joe from there, for always.No one had asked Joe about his preference in the matter. But if he’d been asked, he would have given his left hand to have Mama back. Here. On earth. Where she belonged.Scowling, he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Not on longing for Mama, which would do no good…although he hoped she really was watching over him as he tramped through the snow. Not on his disobedience and the spanking he was bound to get if he didn’t make it back home before Pa woke up. Only on his destination, which was much farther away than he’d thought it would be.The powdery snow collected on the toes of his boots as he set them down, then fell away as he lifted each foot, dispersing like the cloud of flour that always surrounded Hop Sing on baking day. That thought brought another worry to Joe’s mind: what would Hop Sing say when he saw that an entire batch of freshly-baked cookies had gone missing? Joe patted the bundle he’d tied around his waist. Yes, it was secure.
His left arm was getting tired, so he shifted the lantern to his right hand. Holding it high to keep the shadows at bay, he continued to plod through the snow. Surprisingly, he wasn’t cold; even at six years old, he was aware enough to be grateful for that mercy. His hands were snug and dry inside the child-sized leather gloves Adam had sent him from Boston. His feet were dry too, thanks to his hand-me-down snow boots, which had belonged to Hoss but still had at least a year’s worth of wear left in them. His ears were warm inside the green cap Mama had knitted him (“It will match your eyes, mon chere.”). He’d left his heavy fur-lined coat at home in favor of a lighter jacket, but he was moving steadily enough to keep his blood flowing. For now, anyway. And he’d be there soon. He would.
And then he topped a small rise and saw the welcome glow of a campfire. He was there.
Elijah Rollins, fifteen years old and definitely a man, snatched up the rifle he always kept in easy reach. Warily he watched the lamp bobbing up and down, coming nearer and nearer. Mama, as usual, didn’t react. She just sat there, huddled on a rock and staring into the fire. Behind him, he heard Papa coming from the wagon. The sheep stirred and bleated in response to the movement, and Papa called, “Who’s there?”
“Joe Cartwright,” a child’s voice answered from behind the lantern. Cautiously, Elijah lowered his rifle, but he didn’t put it down.
Mama, for the first time in weeks, gave a little jump and spoke. “Jakey?” she cried out, staring in the direction of the child’s voice. “Billy? Is that my boys?”
“No, Mama,” Elijah said shortly. “It ain’t them.” Her eyes clouded again, and she slumped down, shoulders hunched inside her blanket.
The little boy was close enough now that Elijah could see his tousled curls escaping from a wool cap. Joe plodded into their camp and set his lantern on the ground. Removing his gloves, he stuffed them in his pocket and untied a length of twine that held a small sack against his waist. He offered the sack to Mama. She didn’t even look at it.
“Merry Christmas,” Joe said softly. “It’s cookies, ma’am.” When she didn’t respond, he added hopefully, “Ginger cookies. Hop Sing made ’em.”
Papa stepped forward and took the sack. “We thank you,” he said. “Have a seat, boy. Ain’t you a little young to be out here alone?”
“Yes sir,” Joe admitted, squatting close to the fire. Now that the kid wasn’t moving, Elijah noted, he looked a little cold. “Pa wouldn’t have brung me. He don’t like—” He halted, apparently unsure of himself.
“We know,” Elijah said brusquely. He recognized the boy now, as well as the last name. Joe had been with his older brother and their father earlier that day, and Elijah well remembered the father’s fierce scowl. “Your pa don’t like shepherds.”
Joe shrugged. “Well, your sheep’ll ruin our pastures,” he said, parroting the old man. “They overgraze it, don’t you know that?”
A sharp retort almost sprang to Elijah’s lips, but he contained it. To be perfectly honest (and for all his faults, Elijah was honest), he’d probably had something to do with Mr. Cartwright’s hostility. If Papa had been with him, things would have gone better. But Elijah had been backtracking alone, trying to locate a lagging lamb, when the Cartwrights had encountered him.
Probably, Elijah reflected, he shouldn’t have pointed his flintlock at the old man right off. And probably, he shouldn’t have pretended he was following a real herd of sheep instead of a measly dozen. And maybe, just maybe, he should have let Mr. Cartwright know of his Mama’s condition. But doing so smacked of groveling, and he couldn’t have brought himself to do it.
Papa interrupted his thoughts. To Joe he said, “You got no cause for worry, boy. Like my son told your pa, we’ll be gone tomorrow.” He frowned. “Course, in the meantime, we better get you back home.”
Joe stood. “I can get back on my own,” he said stoutly, and Elijah couldn’t help grinning. The kid reminded him of Jakey, all full of bravado. Billy had been Jakey’s opposite, frail and bashful, a tow-headed angel beside his mischievous twin brother. Of course, they were both gone now. Elijah’s smile vanished.
“I’m sure you can make it alone,” Papa was saying to Joe, “but I reckon I could use a little stroll. I’ll just walk along with you, if’n you don’t mind the company. Now,” he added before Joe could protest, “let’s see how good these cookies are.” He reached into the bag and then passed it to Elijah.
The gingersnaps were delicious, Elijah had to admit. He sat down and closed his eyes for a moment, savoring the sharp sweetness that melted across his tongue. His smile returned, and this time he didn’t fight it. Taking two more cookies, he offered the bag to Joe, who fished one out and tried again to give the bag to Mama. Again, she didn’t acknowledge him. Joe’s forehead creased. “What’s wrong with her?” he asked Papa.
“She lost her little boys,” Papa said softly.
“They got lost?” Joe echoed, his eyes widening. He looked nervously into the dark woods beyond the clearing.
Papa shook his head. “They was kilt,” he said. “By some real bad men.”
“By some rich bad men, you mean,” Elijah burst out. He glared at Joe. “Rich like your pa. Shepherd-haters like your pa.”
Joe stood. The bag and the cookie he’d been holding dropped to the snow as his fists clenched. “My pa would never kill a little boy!” he shouted. “He wouldn’t even kill you, and you’re—”
“Simmer down, the both of you,” Papa broke in, his voice quiet but firm enough to override Joe’s. “You,” he said, nodding at Joe, “you’re a guest here, and it ain’t right for a guest to yell at his host. I reckon your pa would agree with that, wouldn’t he?” With obvious reluctance, Joe nodded and sat down. Sullenly, he retrieved his cookie from the ground, brushed it off, and bit into it. Papa turned his gaze to Elijah, who looked down. “And you,” Papa said sternly, “you’re the host. You act right too, y’hear?”
Elijah didn’t like defying Pa, but he couldn’t stop himself. Glaring at Joe, he demanded, “How do you know?”
“How do I know what?”
Again, Elijah thought of Jakey. Always bouncing from thought to thought, lightning-fast, unable to hold onto an idea for more than a second before jumping to the next. “How do you know,” he said with exaggerated patience, “that your pa wouldn’t have killed my brothers?”
“Oh.” Joe finished his cookie, picked up the sack and took another, and tossed the sack to Elijah. “I just know.” His eyes brightened as he apparently remembered something. “And because of what he said last night. He was reading us this Bible story, about King Herod killing all the baby boys ’cause he was scared of the Baby Jesus, and Pa got…” Joe paused, searching for the right word. “He got quiet-mad like he gets sometimes, and he said Herod was a real bad man. And he said…” Joe’s voice softened, but its intensity made Elijah shiver. Quiet-mad, he thought, and he envisioned Mr. Cartwright’s gray eyebrows coming together over his blazing dark eyes. Joe continued between clenched teeth, “Pa said, ‘You don’t kill children.’” With that, silence descended in the clearing.
Mama, of all people, broke the silence. “No,” she whispered, looking at the ground. “You don’t.”
They all looked at her. Then Joe got up and walked over to her. “Ma’am?” he said, stooping to peer into her face. Slowly, she raised her eyes to his, and for the first time since her twins had died, she seemed to focus. “I’m sorry about your boys,” Joe said, so softly Elijah had to strain to hear him. “I guess you miss ’em like I miss—” His voice caught, and he took a breath. “Like I miss my mama. Maybe, just for tonight…well, maybe I could be your boy.” He trailed off, ending with a whispered, “Just for tonight.”
Incredulously Elijah watched as his mother reached out and touched Joe’s shoulder. She did it cautiously, as if she was afraid he would disappear like a cloud of powdery snow. Then she reached out with her other hand, stroking the sleeves of his jacket, like petting a kitten. Slowly she drew him onto her lap. Her cheeks were glistening. Elijah looked at Papa, and saw that his face was wet, too. He swallowed the lump that had arisen in his own throat. He was fifteen, after all, and definitely a man. Papa was old, so he could be excused for crying, but Elijah would hold it in. Someone in this family had better stay strong, he reckoned.
When Ben and Hoss strode into the campsite, it was almost morning. Hoss had awakened his pa about three o’clock, having reached for Joe in the bed beside him and finding only rumpled, empty blankets. I should have known, he berated himself. Joe had asked to “go see the big herd of sheep” before bed, but Pa had given him an emphatic “no.” Hoss knew that Pa was waiting until morning to go find the herd and talk to the boss man. He’d probably take a couple of the hands with him, but he didn’t want Joe and Hoss in the line of fire, if there was any fire.
Later in bed, Joe had again voiced his desire to see the big herd and meet “real shepherds.” Hoss figured Joe was thinking about the woodcut illustration in Pa’s big Bible, depicting a trio of neatly robed shepherds tending a flock of clean, docile sheep.
“Real shepherds ain’t like that picture, Joe,” Hoss had said sleepily. “They can be downright ornery.” Then, foolishly, Hoss hadn’t waited to hear Joe breathing evenly before falling asleep himself.
Hoping against hope, he’d checked the outhouse. As soon as he saw the small boot prints leading away from the house, though, he got Pa. He hated tattling on Joe, but he knew that real trouble could be lurking in the woods at night, much worse than Joe could expect from Pa. There were mean critters out there, and maybe mean people. Plenty of animals would love to get their claws into a tasty little boy, and some folks would like to get theirs into a rich man’s son.
So he and Pa had dressed quickly, lit a couple of lamps (noting that one was missing), and followed the boot prints. Now they were standing in the shepherd family’s sparse little camp, and Pa was talking to the shepherd papa and the shepherd boy, who was only a few years older than Hoss but seemed to think he was a man. Hoss wished the boy would quit waving that rifle around, and was glad when his papa told him to set it down. The boy obeyed, but he obviously didn’t like doing it.
Little Joe was sound asleep on the shepherd woman’s lap. She had her arms wrapped protectively around him, and she gazed at Pa and Hoss with a charming frankness. Her eyes sparkled in the firelight, and her face, while tired-looking, was almost pretty.
The shepherd man said, “I was gonna bring him back, Mr. Cartwright. He come here on his own. Brung us some cookies. Said they was a Christmas present.”
“Well,” Pa said gruffly. To someone who didn’t know him, he might sound angry, but Hoss knew how scared he’d been and heard the relief just under the surface of his words. “No harm done. Although what goes through that boy’s mind sometimes, I’ll never know.” He kept looking around the campsite as if wondering where the rest of it was.
The woman spoke up. “Your boy brought more than cookies.” At the sound of her voice, Joe stirred and opened his eyes. He looked around the clearing, coming fully awake when he saw Pa and Hoss. Clearly alarmed, he sat up straight on the woman’s knee.
“What else did he bring you?” Pa asked, fixing Joe with a stern look. Joe leaned back against the woman.
She tightened her arms around him. “A message.” She smiled at Pa. “Don’t ‘angel’ mean ‘messenger’?”
Pa nodded. “What kind of message?”
“Of comfort,” she answered. “”It don’t change nothing really, didn’t bring my boys back to me. But it did give me some comfort.” She brushed her lips against Joe’s hair. “Angel,” she said softly.
Joe rested his head against her shoulder. “My mama used to call me that,” he murmured.
To Hoss’ relief, Pa smiled, just a little. With mock severity, he said to Joe, “Yes, she called you that. And do you remember what I always said?”
Joe giggled. “Sure,” he said, and deepened his voice in imitation of Pa’s. “The devil hath his angels, Marie,” he intoned, and then they were all laughing, Joe loudest of all. Hoss heard the nervousness in Joe’s laughter. Merry Christmas, Little Joe, he thought wryly, hoping Pa would give Joe a reprieve as a present.
The woman stood and nudged Joe toward Pa, then motioned them to sit down on some rocks that were close to the fire. Joe settled in on Pa’s lap, and the woman went to the wagon and came back with a skillet and a side of fatback. A mouth-watering aroma soon filled the campsite, and soon they were all enjoying a breakfast of fried bread and coffee. Hoss didn’t realize he was nodding until the man brought him a blanket. With a glance at Pa for permission, Hoss scooted down and closed his eyes. The man built up the fire, and between the warmth, the food, and his relief at finding Joe, Hoss quickly fell asleep.
He woke to what sounded like a good-natured argument. He kept his eyes closed, listening to the voices rise and fall. The shepherd man was protesting, “We don’t take charity.”
“It’s not charity, Rollins,” Pa said insistently. “I need someone on that land.”
The boy said eagerly, “I’ll keep it clear of squatters for you, Mr. Cartwright.” He sounded a little too eager, Hoss thought.
Apparently Pa agreed. “If you go to work for me, Elijah,” he warned, “you’ll use some discretion about where you point that rifle. So…” he addressed Mr. Rollins, “will you move your family onto that piece?”
Little Joe piped up. “My mama would want you to stay,” he said emphatically.
Hoss opened his eyes to see Mrs. Rollins giving her husband exactly the same look Joe’s mama used to give Pa whenever she’d disagreed with him. Joe’s mama hadn’t contradicted Pa often…but when she had, she’d generally won.