Nowhere, Washington Territory, December 1878
In answer to the question in your last letter, I would love to join you and your family for Christmas. Clarence plans on spending the holiday with his cousins and can run the shop in my absence. He’s reached the age where time with me isn’t as important as time with his friends. When I look at how he’s changed over the years it makes me realize he’s been a man for longer than I care to admit. I know that letting him go is the right thing to do. He is capable, smart and will soon be ready for a wife. Who am I to stand in his way?
This allows me more time to do the things I’ve put off while raising him – such as visiting you and your new bride! I look forward to meeting Bernice, seeing Grandpa Sam again and visiting your little town of Nowhere.
I will arrive December 20 and will see to my gift shopping then.
Warren Johnson lowered the letter and smiled at Matthew Quinn, his friend and co-owner of the mercantile. “So it looks like you’ll get to meet my cousin.”
“I look forward to it,” Matthew said. “And he’s never been here?”
“No – after his wife died, he was too busy working and raising Clarence.”
“And he’s from your father’s side?” Matthew asked to clarify as he pushed his spectacles up his nose. They were always sliding down.
Warren nodded. “Yes. George is the oldest of four brothers. Grandpa’s looking forward to his visit – he’s all sorts of excited and wants to bake him a passel of pies. Poor George … Grandpa’s going to stuff him with food every day.”
Matthew laughed. “There are worse things.” He brushed some of his brown hair out of his eyes.
“Yes.” Warren unconsciously copied the action with his own blonde hair. He turned and faced the mercantile doors. “Er, Matthew?”
Matthew followed his gaze. “Jumping Jehoshaphat, they’re early!” He ran around the counter, took one look at the two wagons full of people pulling up in front of the mercantile and shouted, “Charlotte!”
Charlotte his wife came running up the hall and into the store. “What is it?” Matthew pointed at the doors, and through the glass she could see people spilling out of the wagons. “Lord have mercy!” she gasped. “They’re a day early!”
Matthew removed his spectacles and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Lord have mercy is right. And may He help us make it through this day.”
“Not to mention the next several,” Charlotte added, hurrying behind the counter to take up her post. She stood straight, looking like a soldier awaiting orders.
Matthew lowered his hand, replaced his spectacles and called, “Mother!”
Betsy Quinn hurried in from the living quarters in the back of the building. “What’s all the commotion …” She glanced through the windows. “… Lord have mercy!”
“You people say that a lot,” Warren commented.
“With reason,” Matthew replied grimly. Once you’re reacquainted with the Weavers, you’ll remember why.”
“Land sakes! They weren’t supposed to be here until tomorrow!” Betsy said.
Warren wisely stepped out of the way as the doors opened and three or four children ran into the store. “Great Aunt Betsy!” they cried.
“All right, all right,” Betsy said. “Calm down, all of you. What are you trying to do, knock me over?”
Warren chuckled as he stood to one side, arms folded, and watched Matthew’s cousins the Weavers file into the store.
“You’re early,” Matthew stated, trying to sound amused but coming closer to dread.
Arlan, the eldest Weaver brother, marched up to him with a little girl of about four held in one arm and slapped him on the back. “Howdy, Matty!”
Matthew pitched forward, righted himself, then glared at his cousin. “Nice to see you too … I think.”
Arlan laughed. “Sorry ‘bout that.” He turned to Betsy. “Auntie!” He wrapped his muscular free arm around her and crushed her against him. “How ya been?”
“Fine, Arlan,” she grunted. She stepped away and smiled at the child. “Hello, Autumn.” She turned back to Arlan. “I thought you were coming tomorrow.”
“We got some extra work to get done right ‘fore Christmas, so we decided to come early so we can get back here for the big Christmas dance. I hope it ain’t an inconvenience.”
“Only on my nerves,” Matthew muttered, joining Charlotte behind the counter. He sighed, grabbed a candy jar off the shelf behind him and faced the growing throng. “Who wants a peppermint stick?”
Half a dozen hands shot up, including that of Calvin, one of Arlan’s younger brothers. Calvin’s identical twin Benjamin came alongside him and grinned. “Got any licorice whips, Matty?”
“Oh yes,” Matthew said. “Sorry, Ben, I forgot.” He turned to the candy shelf, pulled a licorice whip from a jar and offered it to him.
Betsy smiled. A visit from her sister Mary and her family always brought chaos, but also laughter and fun. Though the chaos had lessened since Mary married Sheriff Harlan Hughes from Clear Creek. Mary’s first husband, Charlie, had died when the boys were young. She’d raised them as best she could and did a fair job, but they’d still ended up rough around the edges. They were older now, all married and fairly settled, yet folks had to make sure not to rile them. And even then, problems could still arise.
Benjamin took the candy. “Thanks, Matty.” He took a healthy bite, chewed and smiled.
“Zia Betsy!” someone cried over the crowd of Weavers. Isabella, Calvin’s Italian wife, entered the building with little ones in tow. “Just shoo them away. Don’t let them crowd you like that.”
“Oh, Bella, they’re all right. I don’t mind,” Betsy patted Leonardo, now nine and a half, on the head.
“Well, I mind!” Another young woman, a wirier version of Isabella, entered at top stomping speed. “Leo, Gabby, Let go of Aunt Betsy’s skirt, subito!”
Betsy laughed. “They’re fine, Rufi – just excited is all. Gift buying only comes once a year.”
“No, Auntie Betsy,” eight-year-old Gabriella said. “We get gifts on our birthdays.”
“What she means is,” Rufina explained, “you only get to buy Christmas gifts once a year.”
“Oh.” Gabby frowned and looked around. “I don’t know what to get Arturo.”
Betsy laughed. “Is that whose name you drew this year?”
Gabby looked at her with big brown eyes and nodded. “Yes, but I don’t know what to get him.” She turned to Rufi. “Can I have my money now?”
“I could help her pick something out,” Arturo offered.
“You may not!” Rufi cried. “That’s cheating.”
Arturo grinned. “At least I’ll get what I want.”
“I’d give you a scarf but I’m too slow at knitting.” Gabby frowned again.
“Don’t worry about it, Gabriela,” Rufi consoled. “Next year you can make your present.”
Gabby smiled and ran around the counter to give Charlotte a hug.
At this point the mercantile was chock full of Weavers, come to town to purchase Christmas gifts or supplies to make them, or just to visit – or annoy – the Quinns. Everyone in town knew they were coming, but none knew they’d be early. “Oh dear,” Betsy said. “Matthew, you’d better tell your father the family’s here.”
“He’s still out at the Riley farm, Mother.”
“Land sakes, that’s right.”
“What’s he doing at Clayton and Spencer’s place?” Betsy’s sister Mary Weaver Hughes asked.
“Well, Leona offered to bake some pies for your visit. I just haven’t had time. Lancaster went out to fetch them.”
“That’s mighty kind of you, Betsy.” Harlan Hughes smiled. “Not to mention Leona. We brought a few things to feed the lot of us, including a couple of hams for tomorrow.”
Betsy’s eyes lit up. Feeding the Weavers was always a chore. There were so many in the family now that they almost had to bring their own larder with them just to survive a trip. Accommodations were an issue too, but that had been worked out in advance – Harlan and Mary would stay with Betsy and her family at the mercantile, while the rest would bunk at the hotel. “That sounds wonderful, Harlan. Will the entire family be joining us?”
“Yes, if that’s all right,” Mary said.
“We’ll make it work.” Betsy glanced around the store and counted Arlan, Benjamin and Calvin; their wives Samijo, Charity and Isabella; and Bella’s younger siblings Rufi, Alonzo, Lucia, Arturo, Melania, Leonardo and Gabriella, ranging in age from eighteen to eight. Betsy was often surprised she could keep their names straight by the time the clan was ready to go home. And this wasn’t all of them – Arlan, Benjamin and Calvin had children of their own now. Their youngest brother Daniel and his bride Ebba must be watching them at home. And no wonder, she’d heard on the family’s last visit that Ebba was with child again.
Calvin caught sight of Warren and smiled. “Howdy, Warren!”
Warren’s smile was tight-lipped. He’d managed to go unnoticed until then, but now he’d have to dodge slaps on the back and other indignities. They weren’t indignities in themselves – only in the way the Weaver boys delivered them.
“Mr. Johnson!” Gabby cried and ran to him. “How you doing?”
“Fine, Gabby, how about yourself?”
“I’m not very well, thank you. In case you haven’t heard.”
He looked at Calvin and Bella in surprise.
Bella waved it off. “She cannot make up her mind what to get her brother for Christmas, that is all.”
“Oh yes, I heard you mention that,” he told the child.
“Can you help me pick something out?” she asked him.
“For Arturo? Why, I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
“I can tell you!” Arturo called from across the store.
Warren laughed. “Then what sort of surprise would it be?” he shot back.
Calvin smacked him on the back. “My thoughts exactly.”
Warren stepped away and rolled his shoulder in hope of lessening the sting. “Do you know what Arturo likes?” he asked Gabby.
She shook her head.
“How can you not know what he likes?” Warren asked. “You live with him.”
“But I don’t play with him all the time,” she argued. “Just some of the time.
“Yes, but what does he like to play some of the time?”
Gabby made a face and shrugged. “I dunno. I always play with Leo and Mel.”
“Leonardo and Melania,” Calvin explained.
“Ah, I see.” Warren glanced at Matthew. “I’ll be off. I’ll bring George in and introduce you.”
“I look forward to it,” Matthew handed Leo a peppermint stick.
“George?” Benjamin raised an eyebrow. “Ya got family comin’, Warren?”
“Yes – my older cousin George lives in Oregon City.”
“Always wanted to visit Oregon,” Calvin commented. “Ever since Sheriff Tom told us all them mail-order bride stories years back.” He turned to Benjamin. “Remember?”
“Sure do. Those were good stories. Made us both want to send for mail-order brides.” He looked at his wife Charity and smiled. “And here ya are!”
“And I even married you,” she added with a wry smile.
“Shucks, mail-order brides work out fine,” Calvin said. “Is yer cousin married, Warren?”
“No, he’s a widower.” Warren put on his hat. “Nice seeing you all. How long are you in town?”
“Just the one night,” Arlan replied. “We gotta head back tomorrow on account poor Daniel’s runnin’ the place by hisself.”
“We got most of the heavy work finished ‘fore we came to town,” Calvin added. “Cain’t leave Danny and Ebba to do all of it, ya know.”
“True,” Warren agreed. “At least this isn’t harvest time.”
“We’d never do that,” Benjamin insisted. “They might be tempted to up and leave.”
“That’s why we left our younguns there – as insurance,” Calvin joked. “Well, and we only had so much room in the wagons.”
“Nonsense,” Mary griped. “Besides, they ain’t going anywhere. No one is – right, Harlan?”
“That’s right. We got ourselves a wonderful life in our little valley. Ain’t none of us gonna wander away from it.”
Matthew smiled. “Charlotte and I will have to come visit when we have time.”
Arlan grinned. “We’d love to have you, Matty. Anytime.”
Matthew exchanged a look with Charlotte. For all his cousins’ rambunctious bluster, they were generous, kind and looked out for their own. And that included the Quinns. If only they didn’t irritate him so much, but he was more used to it now. At least they didn’t knock him over while greeting him like they did when they were younger.
“You ought to come for a visit too, Warren,” Harlan said. “It’s been a spell since you’ve been out to the farm.”
Warren smiled. “That’s mighty nice of you to extend an invitation, Harlan. I’ll speak to Grandpa and Bernice when I get home. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind a visit providing the weather cooperates.”
“And you can bring your cousin George,” Matthew suggested.
Charlotte elbowed Matthew in the ribs and rolled her eyes. Matthew just smiled. It was well known around Nowhere that newcomers to town often needed consolation, if not medical care, after first meeting the Weavers. But after the initial shock wore off, they usually accepted the clan as the boisterous, rambunctious lot that they were. Though they also tended not to get too close.
Warren glanced nervously between the Weavers and Matthew. “Yes, I’m sure George will enjoy meeting everyone,” he said in a way that indicated he wasn’t all that sure. He tipped his hat to the group, waved to Matthew and Charlotte and left the mercantile.
He’d just come to town to get his mail and a few supplies, all of which were already stored away in his wagon. He thought of stopping at Hank’s Café for a cup of coffee but decided against it. Best to get home and tell his wife Bernice about the Weavers’ invitation. Would she and Grandpa want to go? Probably. Spending time with the Weaver clan, while occasionally dangerous, was always entertaining. And an outing might do Grandpa good – he’d been getting more forgetful lately, enough that Warren was worried.
When he got home he unloaded his supplies, took care of the horses, then joined his wife in the kitchen. “I got a letter from George,” he said happily.
“You did?” She took a loaf of bread out of the oven, set it on the worktable and glanced around. “Grandpa!” she shouted. “Bread’s ready!” She returned to the oven and took out another loaf. “Is he bringing Clarence with him? It would be nice to see them both.”
“No, Clarence is spending Christmas with friends. Besides, George needs him to run the shop while he’s gone. He’ll be arriving in a few days.” He watched her carefully remove a loaf from its pan. “We’ve been invited to the Weaver farm.”
She stopped and stared at him. “Oh? When?”
“You know, I didn’t ask,” he told her with a sheepish grin. “I’ll ask when I see them at the Christmas dance. They’re only here for supplies – they’ll probably leave tomorrow.”
“Yes, please find out.” She took the other loaf out of its pan, put it on a cooling rack and glanced toward the parlor. “You might have to fetch Grandpa. He’s playing with the baby in the other room. And he’s talking to himself.”
He raised a curious eyebrow. “Grandpa or Alston?” It could be either – the little boy seemed born with the gift of gab, even if he didn’t know many words yet.
Her smile showed her worry. “Grandpa. But at last check, he was talking to someone that wasn’t there.”
Warren’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s new. What about?”
She shrugged. “Well, I couldn’t hear the other half of the conversation, but it was something about Christmas.”
Warren rubbed his face a few times. Grandpa Sam was getting old. He’d always been a little forgetful, but took a turn for the worse sometime last year.
“Well, look who’s home,” Grandpa said, entering the room with baby Alston in his arms.
“Grandpa, you don’t have to carry him everywhere,” Bernice said as she began slicing off a bread end for him. “I’d have fetched him.”
“I don’t mind.” Grandpa jiggled Alston, who babbled nonsense and rested his head against his great-grandfather’s shoulder. “Besides, it’s good exercise for me.”
“You need to be taking it easy,” Warren said as he pulled George’s letter from his pocket. “We’re going to have some company for Christmas.”
“Yes, Albert told me.”
Warren and Bernice exchanged a quick look. “Albert?” Warren said as his brow creased in curiosity. “Who’s Albert?”
“Albert Dunst, my new friend,” Grandpa took the hot slice of bread Bernice offered. “He has plans for George.”
“Grandpa, I need to get a few more things in town tomorrow,” Warren said as he took a slice for himself. “I thought I’d stop in and visit Doc Brown and Millie. Care to go with me?”
Grandpa smiled. “Sure. I wouldn’t mind a trip to town.”
“The Weavers arrived today,” Warren added.
Grandpa’s face lit up. “They did? Well, I definitely want to go then. I’d love to see Harlan. So would Albert.”
Warren sighed, exchanged another look with his wife, then took his son from him. “Fine, we’ll go to town, see the doc and visit with the Weavers.”
“Sounds good to me!” Grandpa said gleefully. He buttered his bread and took a generous bite. “Mm-mm. Well, I’d best go tell Albert.” He left the room, a huge smile on his face.
Bernice crossed her arms in front of her. “See what I mean?”
Warren ran his hand through his hair. “Land sakes, I hope this is something Doc Brown can fix. If not, I’m not sure what we’ll do.”
Bernice nodded and sighed while buttering a slice of bread for herself. “He is a little old for an imaginary friend.”
Warren froze. “Wait a minute – I never told him George was coming to visit, only that we were having a visitor.” He looked at Bernice. “How did he know?”
“A lucky guess?”
Warren shrugged, glanced worriedly toward the parlor, then proceeded to eat his bread.