The December wind sliced sharply through Adam's heavy winter overcoat. He looked up and down the deserted street in frustration. St Joe was not the kind of town that was ideal to be stranded in. The stage stood forlornly abandoned two doors down outside the livery.

It was clear to him that he and the other passengers, who'd arrived in the previous afternoon, were not going to continue their journey anytime soon. The wind picked up and blew a flurry of snow against Adam's numb face. He raised his gloved hands to his lips and puffed warm air into them. It was going to be a cold, miserable few days, and he was now certain to miss the annual ranch Christmas party and quite possibly spending Christmas Day with his family.

He turned his back on the blizzard and retreated into the one and only saloon that offered lodging in the tiny town. Banging the snow from his boots as he walked, he crossed the wooden floorboards to the bar.

'Looks like I'm stuck for a while. I'll take the room until further notice.'

'Thought as much. That pass ain't gonna be clear fur days. Ain't nobody gonna go shovel in this weather.'

'No, I guess not. Get me a whiskey, would you?' Adam sniffed with the cold and sat down at a table in the corner. It was the furthest away from the draft whistling in through the door.

Soon, he was sipping on the drink, which at least warmed up his insides. 'So, what's there to do in this town?' Adam stared around the room. It was lunch time, but the only patrons were himself, and an old timer slumped in the corner near the piano, who looked like he could've been in that exact same spot for a month.

'Ain't nothin' to do in this town.' The bartender kept busy dusting the unopened bottles at the back of the counter.

'There must be something. A town hall, or a church? It's only a week until Christmas. How about some carolers?'

Adam could see he was going to climb the walls if he was stuck in his room without so much as a book to read, or a guitar to strum.

'Nope, we don't have nothin' like that. Folk's here keep to 'emselfs.'

'Great.' Adam grimaced as he finished the whiskey. He knew he shouldn't have traveled away from home this late in the year. But, he worried about his father doing too much, especially in winter. He'd got the beef contracts settled for the following season, so that was the important thing. The fact that he may miss Christmas with his family was disappointing, but it couldn't be helped. He just wished he were in a more exciting place than St Joe.

'You have a general store at least, don't you?'

'Oh, yeah. Down the street, 'cross from the jail.'

'And a jail . . .well, it's a real progressive place.' Adam smirked sarcastically as the bartender sent him a mean look.

He was about to answer Adam's remark when a small child of about eight years entered the saloon. Adam saw him and raised his eyebrows. Children were never seen in the saloons in Virginia City.

'You, kid, get outta here!' The bartender yelled harshly, coming out from behind his counter.

'Please, sir. Could you maybe just hang this up for us? It's a poster, tellin' everyone about our pageant.

'I said, git!'

'It's just a Christmas Pageant.' The boy, obviously scared, backed up towards the door holding up a piece of paper as he went.

'Nobody's interested in some dumb pageant. Especially somein' you brats cooked up, now git!' The small boy ran, dropping the piece of paper as he went.

'Darn kids. As if we don't have enough to worry about in this God forsakin' place.'

Adam watched it all with interest. The child had been dressed poorly. His clothes were old and threadbare. They certainly wouldn't have kept out the winter wind. And his boots were practically falling apart.

'Bit hard on the kid, weren't you?' He didn't like people being so harsh with children. And that little fellow was obviously not too well off.

'No way, mister. Them brats have been suckin' this town dry fur too long. Sooner they get the message we don't want 'em, the better.' Adam was taken aback.

'What do you mean, kids?'

'You bein' a stranger, you just wouldn't understand. We got us an orphanage. Not 'cause we wanted it, but 'cause the governor put it there. Now, they expect us to support 'em. Well, they got another thing comin''.

Adam was about to object strongly to this terrible attitude, when in through the door piled a dozen or so cowhands. Also caught in the snowstorm, they filled the bar.

Adam sat back, and considered the bartender's hard words. As another puff of icy wind blew in, the paper the boy dropped floated over to Adam's boots. He leaned down and picked it up. He smiled warmly as he read the flyer. It was written by a child's hand, no doubt. The print was large, lopsided, and simple. It read;

DEAR EVERYBODY

Please come to our Pageant for Christmas. We will do singing, and a play. Thursday night at 6pm.

Cost is free, but 20 cents donation would help us fix the roof.

FROM; Kids at St Joe's Orphanage.

The sweet poster charmed Adam. He was fond of children, and this at least sounded like something he could enjoy on Christmas Eve. It was mean of the bartender not to put the note up, but he was probably just a grouch.

He stuffed the poster in his pocket and got up from the table. Maybe, he'd go down to the general store and see if they had any books he could purchase. He threw his two bits on the counter, and wrapped his coat tightly about him to brace for the cold.

A couple of minutes later, he entered the store. As he walked in, the small boy who'd been in the saloon ran into him at the doorway.

'So . . . sorry, mister.' The boy looked up into Adam's face with fear.

'Hey, what's your hurry. Stay inside for a minute, where it's warm.' Adam leaned down and patted the boy on the shoulder.

'No . . . no, sir. I gotta be goin'.

'Didn't I tell you to scat?' A nasty looking woman waving a broom came at the child.

'I'm goin'

Before Adam could do anything, the boy ran out again.

'Good riddance to ya, and don't come back!' The woman shouted out the door, and Adam felt his anger rise.

Sorry about that, sir. Those street urchins are really bad for business. Hangin' around, begging all the time.'

'Is that what he was doing? Begging?' Adam had a hard time controlling the anger in his voice.

'They's always wantin' somethin'.' Adam looked over and saw a crumpled poster on the shop counter.

'Maybe he just wanted you to put up a sign for their Christmas Pageant.' He walked over and straightened the hand written poster.

'Stupid idea. They only want money, like always. You're a stranger here, right?' She peered at Adam's face, obviously with poor eyesight.

'That's right. I'm a stranger.' Adam took a minute to calm himself, and looked around at the shelves. The store was poorly stocked.

'Got any books?'

'Books?' She looked at him like he was mad.

'Yeah, books, as in novels, reading material, I'm sure you'd recognize them. Square, bound in leather, with pages.'

'I don't have to take that attitude talk from no man. No, I ain't got none.' She straightened up and gave Adam a sharp stare.

'All right, then, I'll take half a dollars worth of mixed candy.

'Half a dollar? That's over two pounds!'

'That's right.' Adam crossed his arms, and looked at the poster again.

'You going to hang that up? The kids need some support.'

'Huh, no way. Nobody's interested in their darn pageant.' She took the paper, and screwed it up, throwing it into the bin.

Adam stayed silent as she filled the bags with candy. He paid, stuffed the bags into his pockets, and left the store without another word to the unpleasant woman. Once outside again, he turned to his left and walked down the street a little way further. This certainly was a depressing town. No holly in the windows. No happy smiling faces on any of the townsfolk and no community spirit like they enjoyed in Virginia City.

Adam fought the snowstorm until he reached the buildings on the edge of town. The last one was a large, old decrepit shed like structure that Adam wondered how long it would stay upright in this heavy weather. Then, over the door, he read the battered sign. St Joe's orphanage. He frowned. Surely those children were not living in this place! He walked forward, and studied the condition of the walls, foundations and roof as he went. They must have some serious leaks, as he noted lots of missing shingles where the snow was getting through. Cracked boards and leaning stumps made for a condemned feel. Adam reached the door, and knocked with hesitation.

After a minute, it opened slowly. A plain middle aged woman greeted Adam. She looked him over with suspicion.

'Can I help you?'

'Er, yes, well that is, I'd like to see the management of this establishment.' Adam smiled with difficulty, as his face was part frozen.

'I'm Mrs Holland. I'm in charge here.'

'How do you do ma'am. I'm Adam Cartwright.'

'May I ask what this is about?' She seemed very cautious of him.

'Er, I was just looking at the condition of your building. Needs a lot of work.'

'I'm sorry but if you're looking for work we can't afford to pay you.' She went to shut the door.

'No, no, that's not why I'm here. I'm a stranger in town and I got this notice about the pageant.' Adam himself wondered why he'd really come to the door. He didn't have a good excuse, except for his gut instinct that told him there were children here who needed help.

'Well, yes, the children are trying their best but . . .' The woman stopped and gave Adam another thorough scrutiny as if she were making up her mind about him.

'I'm sorry, letting you stand in that cold. Please, come in.' She stepped aside and let him enter.

'Thank you, Ma'am.' Adam rubbed his hands together, and blew into them. Even though he was inside, it wasn't much warmer. He noted the wind howling through the building and saw plainly the poor condition inside.

'Mr Cartwright, I hope you can come along on Christmas Eve, if you're still in town. Mind you, the children's play is nothing spectacular. They try but we haven't got much to work with. No costumes or anything. They've been painting pictures to use for decorations, but, well, as you can see, we don't have much.' Mrs Holland spoke with a touch of hardness in her voice.

Adam felt more and more drawn to the situation as he followed her down the hallway. 'Ma'am I'm just looking forward to anything festive. I usually spend Christmas with my family, but looks like with this storm, I'll be stuck here instead.' Adam smiled politely as she showed him into the kitchen that was slightly warmer due to the stove burning.

'Mr Cartwright, I'm sorry you're stuck in St Joe. I really am. It's not a very friendly place. Would you like some coffee to warm yourself?'

'Oh, I don't want you to go to any trouble.'

'It's no trouble.'

'All right.' Adam sat at a large table and continued to study the building. The walls were dull and hadn't been painted for a long time, but covering them, were cheery, bright children's drawings. Adam smiled as he looked at them.

'You say you're away from home. Where do you live?' Mrs Holland brought the coffee and sat down across from him.

'Near Virginia City, on a ranch called the Ponderosa.'

'And your family is there?'

'Yeah, well, my father and two brothers.'

'I'm sorry you won't be with them for Christmas.' She smiled sympathetically as she also sipped a cup of coffee.

'Can't be helped.' Adam continued to feel the draft in the place and felt he just had to say something.

'Don't take me wrong, Mrs Holland, I'm not criticizing, but it's awfully cold in here. Don't you have any heating running through? I mean, with young children, you should have it much warmer.'

Mrs Holland hung her head and looked very worried. 'Mr Cartwright, this is as much heat as we have. There just isn't enough fuel to keep the stoves lit. I have to keep the one in the bedroom lit at night, else the children would all catch chills.'

'Don't you have a wood pile in your cellar?' Adam frowned, wondering just how much help this poor lady was given, if any at all.

'It's getting very low, I'm afraid, and wood costs money.'

'There's a lot of pine around this area. Can't you get somebody to donate some for you it?'

'Donate? Hmm, you don't know this town very well, Mr Cartwright. There's nobody here willing to donate anything. Not even a packet of nails.'

"Do you get government assistance?"

Mrs Holland weighed up her options. This man was a stranger, but he seemed as he might be well off and perhaps might assist with the orphanage's situation, so she decided to tell him her troubles.

'Our yearly grant, but our building is so poor, it would take twice that to just repair the current problems we have. We are only supposed to have a maximum of twenty children, but we have thirty-nine, almost double. How could I turn them away? They have no where else to go, only to San Francisco and to an institution even more cramped than this one.'

'Doesn't anyone come out here to inspect the place, you know, to give you assistance or arrange for work to be done?'

'You also obviously don't deal with the governor on these sorts of issues, Mr Cartwright. No, I'm afraid an orphanage is not high on their list of priorities. And, to top it all off, St Joe is about the most selfish town imaginable. If anyone even helped a little, it would ease the burden greatly, but I doubt if anyone will even come to the pageant, let alone offer a helping hand for a day.' She turned back to Adam and smiled sadly. 'At least we have enough food for the holidays, and our cook, Mary to help us through. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to land you with all our troubles. How would you like to meet some of the children?' Adam's mind was ticking over. He was considering his options, and how he could help best in the short time he had. 'Sure, I'd like that.' He got up, and followed Mrs Holland through to a large room. This room must be used for most of their activities because it was huge and brightly adorned with more drawings on the walls. There were a few desks and chairs, and also floor rugs close to the fireplace. The fire was burning very low, which made the room very chilly.

'You really should keep that fire up. This whole room will be freezing by tonight.' Adam looked at the roof and walls, and saw the obvious holes.

'Well, this time of the year, we can't afford to use this room. It's too big to heat. We use this smaller parlor through here.

They entered through another door, and Adam was surprised at what they found. All thirty-nine children were seated on a floor rug, listening quietly to a large, plumb Negro woman as she read them a Christmas Story. It was about the little Drummer boy.

Adam smiled as he looked around at the children's absorbed faces. They were all neat and tidy, but their clothes had all seen better days. The boy who'd been delivering the flyers was seated in the middle. The kid's ages ranged between about five and twelve. As he looked, one of the little girls turned around and stared at him with the bluest eyes he'd ever seen. Adam smiled and winked at her. She smiled, and tried to wink back, but couldn't quite manage it, as she shut both eyes at once. Adam chuckled and felt his heart melt.

He listened to the rest of the story along with the children, and when it was over, Mrs Holland had them turn around and say hello.

'Hello, Mr Cartwright,' they all said politely. Adam was impressed by their manners. Mrs Holland obviously cared deeply for all the children and took pride in her job, no matter how difficult it was.

'Mr Cartwright is coming to the Christmas Pageant.' Adam turned to Mrs Holland and she gave him a hopeful smile.

'Really?' Some of the older children rushed up.

'Sure, wouldn't miss it for the world,' Adam said as they gathered around.

'Mr Cartwright is visiting St Joe. He'll be away from his family this Christmas, so let's make him feel at home, shall we?' Adam looked up at Mrs Holland, whom had certainly worked him out. She'd figured that he was going to help them. And now, she was making him feel really welcome. Well, he had time, the ability, and he certainly had the desire to lend a hand. He crouched down to the children's level.

'I hope your gonna sing Jingle Bells. That's my favorite, he said with another wink to the cute little girl.

'Sure, we're gonna do that one, and a few others. We're practicing, but we don't have any music now. The string on Mrs Holland's guitar broke, and the piano is in the big room. It's too cold to practice in there.' A boy called Billy came forward and spoke for the group.

' Oh, well, maybe I could have a look at the guitar for you. I might be able to fix it,' Adam said with caution.

'Really Mr?' The cute little girl came forward. 'Would you read me a story tonight?' Adam was surprised as she came right up to him and climbed onto his knee.

'Oh, er maybe tomorrow, but I won't be here tonight.'

'Now, Sally, Mr Cartwright's not staying with us, he's just visiting.'

'You look like my daddy did.' She continued, and Adam was taken in by her sad, lonely stare. He had to lighten the mood.

'I'm sure I can teach you a song or too in the next couple of days, how would that be?' He stood up and picked Sally up with him. She smiled with glee and giggled. All the kids chattered excitedly.

'All right, children, it's time for your afternoon nap. Mary, can you take them to their rooms?'

'Sure, Mrs Holland.' Mary, who was their cook, took them all out. Sally gave Adam a special wave as she left.

'I'm sorry about Sally, Mr Cartwright. She tends to attach herself to anyone who reminds her of her parents.'

'She's very sweet.' Adam turned to Mrs Holland, and became serious. 'I'd like to help you and the children. I've got building experience, and I could get you winter fuel, and supplies.'

'Mr Cartwright, as I said, I don't have any money to pay you for your troubles.'

'You won't need any money, Mrs Holland. And if I have my way, by the end of the week, this town will be doing their fair share to help you out in the future.'

She smiled and didn't rebut. Looking at his determined jaw and underlying strength, she knew he was a man who was used to getting things done, and also was used to being in charge. She had a feeling things were going to look up with him around.

Adam spent some time scouring the basement, looking for tools and items he could use to repair parts of the building. Although, the most urgent chore was to get wood for the fireplaces and stoves. He sharpened the axes he found and headed outside.

In their rear yard there were a couple of pines which were too green to burn; particularly now they were wet through with the snowstorm. Fortunately, near the boundary, was a pine that was almost dead. It would be a little dryer inside. He could burn the rest of the wood in the basement really hot, and allow this wood to catch, then distribute it amongst the stoves. Once the fires were roaring and they kept the wood up to them, it should stay toasty.

He started chopping and in just over an hour, he had the stubborn pine felled. He'd worked up a sweat, but he knew better not to shed his coat or he'd catch a chill. Once the tree was down, he sliced the branches from it, and dragged them into the basement. It took him the rest of the afternoon to cut the tree into pieces small enough to store. Even so, the largest parts of the trunk were still several feet long and very heavy. With a rope and harness, he managed to get them all into the basement by the time it was dark.

He worked on the wood for another hour, until Mrs Holland came down and asked him if he'd like to stay to supper. Adam gratefully accepted. He spent a wonderful meal eating, joking and talking with Mrs Holland, Mary and the children. They were all bright, intelligent and very positive, even with their situation as it was. He realized that the two ladies who looked after them were both dedicated and assured. This was reflected in the children. He quickly grew fond of them all, but three of the children in particular.

Billy, the oldest boy, who'd spoken out earlier. Another boy called Peter, who seemed quiet but was extremely intelligent and observant, and of course, little Sally, who couldn't stop gazing at him.

After dinner, he returned to the basement and brought the dry wood up to the main fireplace in the big room. He started a roaring blaze, but from that, he was able to get the green damp wood to dry and catch, then carefully distribute the red-hot embers to the other stoves to get them started.

Mary helped him and between them, they soon had all the stoves and fireplaces burning red hot. The building was considerably warmer by the time the children finished their desert and gathered in the parlor. Then, once Adam rejoined them, Billy brought an old battered guitar over to him.

'Do you think you could fix it, Mr Cartwright?'

'Call me Adam, kids,' he said in general. He took the guitar and looked it over. Two strings were broken due to wear.

'Would you have any more strings around, Mrs Holland?'

'No, I'm afraid not.'

'That makes it hard then.'

'Wait,' said Mary. I know the reverend at the church has a guitar. They use it sometimes for Sunday school.'

'Well, then, I'll just go see if he's got a few spare strings. Where's the church?'

'Oh, it's too cold and late for you to go for them now, Mr Cartwright,' Mrs Holland protested.

'Nonsense, it's like summer!' he joked and the children laughed. They were all feeling much better with the building being so warm. He was glad because some of the smaller children obviously had coughs and colds.

'I won't be long,' he said. Mary offered to go with him to show him the way. They held a lantern aloft as they walked.

'You know, Mr Cartwright, not even the reverend will wanna help,' Mary commented in her soft, southern drawl.

'He'll help,' Adam answered confidently. Mary had her doubts as Adam knocked on the door to the house, attached to the little church.

'Yes?' A sour looking elderly man opened the door.

'Ah, reverend, my name's Adam Cartwright. I wonder if you could do a favor for the little children at the orphanage?'

'Might I say, how rude it is of you to call at this time of night. If you're after money, you've come to the wrong door. I have a hard enough time keeping up the church coffers without giving it away.'

Adam was prepared for the bristly reception, so he continued in a positive voice.

'It's not money I need sir. Just two strings for this guitar. You see, the children are holding a concert on Christmas Eve and they need the guitar for the performance.

"Well, that's their problem.' The reverend went to shut the door.

'But, I can offer you something in return,' Adam added in a sly tone. Greed, he'd learned was the motivation for just about everyone in town.

'What?' The reverend asked suspiciously. He'd seen this man today buying supplies around town. He obviously had money and for some fool reason, was spending it on the orphanage.

'If you lend me the strings, the proceeds from the concert could be shared between the church and the orphanage.

'Ha! What proceeds? Nobody's going to the concert.' He moved away again, but Adam stopped the door from shutting.

'Wrong, reverend. The whole town will be there. I'll see to it!' Adam's firm, determined voice exuded authority.

The reverend looked into Adam Cartwright's stubborn, dark eyes and had a feeling this man would somehow make sure of that. With everyone going to the concert, it would make it worth his while. He had a pile of guitar strings anyway. He saw a nice, fat donation coming his way, so he finally succumbed.

'All right, I agree.' He went inside, not bothering to offer Mary or Adam warmth for a moment while he got the strings. After several minutes he reappeared with the strings.

'Now mind you keep your end of the bargain, Cartwright. Fifty-fifty, and I'll be there on the night to make sure you don't cheat me!'

'Just you make sure you get your parish to come along.'

Adam and Mary chuckled as they walked away from the church.

'Adam, you is a sneaky one.'

'The way I figure it, any people at all will be an improvement, even if we have to give half of what we take to that old miser.'

They were both frozen through when they returned, but they soon warmed in the small parlor. Adam worked on replacing the strings on the guitar for a while then finally got it tuned. The children all sat around, fascinated while he did this chore.

'Okay, what would you like to sing?' he said at last.

'Can you play, Adam?' Peter asked.

'Oh, a little.'

'I like Away in a Manger,' said Sally.

'Okay.' Adam started to play, and then to sing. The children all were quiet as they listened to him. Adam's rich deep voice held them all entranced. When he finished they all clapped and gathered around him with excitement.

'You can sing real good, Adam. How about you be in our pageant too?' Billy asked hopefully.

'Now, Billy, we can't ask too much of Mr Cartwright. He's helping us enough already.'

'Oh, please?' whined Peter.

'I'd be glad to help, but only if you'll sing along with me.'

They all sung songs and talked about the pageant for the next little while, until Mrs Holland had to send the children to bed. It was all ready way past their bedtime. They fell asleep right away, warm and happy for once. Mary, Adam and Mrs Holland all went back to the fires, and put more wood on to keep them burning.

Adam felt the work of the day catching up with him.

'If you ladies don't mind, I think I might call it a night. Just keep these main fires burning hot so that green wood will catch. It they all go out, then we'll be in trouble. But, when I get that whole tree cut tomorrow, there'll be plenty of wood for weeks to come.' Mrs Holland smiled gratefully.

'How can I ever thank you.'

'Well, I wouldn't say no to some of your delicious coffee before I go.'

'No problem, and its Mary's coffee.' The three of them laughed, and went to the kitchen, feeling like good friends.

'Oh, I almost forgot.' Adam put his hands in his pockets and fished out the bags of candy he'd bought that morning. 'These are for their Christmas stockings.' Adam put the candy on the table, and the ladies almost had a fit.

Mary's eyes filled with tears, and unable to hold back, she ran around to him and hugged him tight.

'I don't know where God dug you up from boy, but you is a gift from the lord, no doubt about it.' Adam was slightly embarrassed by their show of affection, so he backed off a little, made his excuses and left for the night, but with a light heart.

Mrs Holland watched Adam walk back through the snow to the hotel. Mary was beside her.

'You know, Mary, I swear God's finally answering my prayers.'

The next day, Adam persuaded the storekeepers to sell him whatever building materials and tools they had available. The word quickly spread that he was helping the orphanage, so the reception he got was icy. Although, they still sold him the goods. Adam blessed their dear, greedy hearts as he collected the materials and headed back to the orphanage. Fortunately, the falling snow had eased up and the day was quite fine, although the snow in the passes was still way too deep to travel through.

Although he could buy what he needed, Adam was still unable to talk anyone into giving him a hand. They all scoffed at his efforts to help the orphanage, and he found in double quick time that everyone in town shared the bartender's attitude. Adam couldn't understand people taking out their grudges on the children.

When he arrived, everyone greeted him like a long lost friend. The building was much warmer all round, and the fires were all still burning brightly. He cut a lot more wood and placed it close to the fireplaces to dry it even further.

Then, mid morning, he went back to his hotel room to get his pocketknife. He ran into Mr and Mrs Jackson, the couple who'd been riding the stage with him. They were glad for something to do and agreed to help Adam out as best they could for the children.

Adam and Mr Jackson worked solidly patching the walls where they needed it most. The roof was a different matter. It was so packed with snow they had to get ladders and shovel the drifts off a little at a time before they could get to the cracks and holes. Even so, Adam knew most of the roof work wouldn't be able to be done until winter was over.

Some of the children, including Billy and Peter, stayed out with the two men, handing them nails and pieces of wood. They enjoyed helping out. Adam even gave them a go at doing some of the easy work themselves. It was painfully apparent that the kids had never had a man around, as they didn't know much about tools and repairs.

Adam reflected that at the same age he was already helping his father build the Ponderosa. These boys were certainly old enough to start learning, so the two men gave them a crash course.

To make it a bit more fun, every now and then, Adam would put his tools down and start to throw snowballs. The children laughed with delight and joined in. During one snowball fight, a group of local children came past. There were six or seven of them and they looked into the orphanage with curiosity.

'Hey, look, there's those little beggar kids,' yelled one boy unkindly.

'Yeah, my Ma says they steal from her shop and at night, they turn into toadstools.'

'Do not!' yelled Billy.

'Do too!' replied the oldest boy.

Adam could see a fight brewing, so he decided to defuse the situation. He was an experienced campaigner having Hoss and Joe as younger brothers.

'Hey, boys, how's your throwing arms?' Adam called then threw double snowballs at the two leaders. The kids were stunned at first, then they started to retaliate and returned his fire. Soon, all the children were throwing snowballs, laughing and playing. Then, the local children somehow blended in and helped with the building. The mutual games and work made new friendships and soon the children were all talking about the pageant.

'You boys make sure you come along Christmas Eve,' Adam said when it was time for them to go home. 'There'll be treats for everyone after the show.'

'Gee, Mr Cartwright, that sounds neat, but our folks probably won't let us come.' A couple of them hung their heads with disappointment.

'Why not?' probed Adam.

'They say these kids is bad, and we shouldn't talk to 'em.' Adam walked with the group to the gate and put his hand on the eldest boy's shoulder.

'I want you to think about something for me.' Adam stooped down to their level and spoke softly. 'The only difference between you and those kids is they don't have folks anymore. No Ma and no Pa to love them and be with them for Christmas. I want you to think about it. What if your folks got really sick, or were in an accident and died. How would you feel left all alone at Christmas time?' Adam gave them a minute to think about what he'd said. 'I think it'd be really nice of you to come along and be friendly. You don't have to bring any money if you don't want to. You tell your parents that. And, in the mean time, tomorrow, we'd sure love a rematch with the snowballs.'

The boys seemed to be considering his request.

'All right, Mr Cartwright. We might just be back.' They left and Adam knew that if he swayed some of the children, then maybe some of the parents might just follow their lead.

That night after dinner, Adam got the children to rehearse their pageant for him. They were quite good already and clever. They acted out different scenes from the Jesus story and sung a couple of songs that Mrs Holland had taught them. Adam played the guitar and sung with them, which helped a lot in their co-ordination and harmony. He taught them a couple more songs, some amusing actions and then, worked out a funny skit to Jingle Bells. They all had so much fun, they stayed up way past their bedtime again.

When it was finally time for them to go, Sally talked Adam into reading her a bedtime story. He did so happily and in the long dormitory style room upstairs where the girls slept, Adam read them the story of Repunzel.

He left them when they all were sleeping soundly, then checked on the boys who wanted him to tell them about his ranch, his brothers and his horse. He told them a couple of funny family stories about pranks he, Joe and Hoss had pulled when they were young. The kids loved that. He waited until they all fell asleep before he left, and hoped they were dreaming about nice things like having their own ranch, brothers and ponies.

Adam went back to the hotel late that night feeling surprisingly lonely. He enjoyed telling the children about the Ponderosa and his brothers. Now, he really missed Hoss, Joe and his father. This was the first Christmas in many years that he hadn't been home. Still, he thought reflectively as he got ready for bed, those poor orphans had no family at any time of the year.

Adam would never have admitted it but for a while after Inger's death, he'd been scared of loosing his father and being alone. These children were living that nightmare every day. If he did anything to brighten their Christmas, then it was worth a little of his own pain and loneliness. They were wonderful kids and Adam knew he was going to have trouble saying goodbye to them.

The next two days flew by. Adam and the Jackson's worked solidly through the day. The kids from town came back and grew in numbers. Adam felt sure some of them would persuade their parents to come. He also spread a rumor that there would be a very nice door prize for some lucky patron. He would find something to give away between now and the night. Mrs Jackson chipped in with buying material, lace, buttons and bows and making some simple costumes for the kids. She also bought some extra baking stores, so the three ladies (helped by the girls) made some cakes and pies for a special Christmas supper. They also prepared some desert and sugar treats for the children for Christmas day.

On Christmas Eve, the day of the pageant, Adam and Mr Jackson found a small pine in the woods and brought it back for a Christmas tree. Then, while the children started to decorate it, Adam went to the store to try and find some little things to give all the children as gifts. The lady in the store was much nicer to him now.

Between him and the Jackson's, they'd spent a small fortune in town during the week, and her attitude was changing for the better. She managed to find some more candy for him, a few tin soldiers for the boys and for the girls, she knew of a lady who had some homemade rag dolls for sale.

Feeling good, Adam then went back to the hotel to change and get ready for the pageant. He donned his black suit, along with his while shirt and black ribbon tie. The snow and wind had held off for another day, so the night was frosty but not unbearably cold. Adam was pleased when he made his way back to the orphanage and saw some of the townspeople with lanterns starting to make their way along the same path. He felt the night was going to be a success.

While on his way past the tree in the main room, he placed his Christmas Packages under the branches. Adam then helped Mrs Holland in greeting the people as they arrived. The children, out in the smaller parlor with Mary, were excited and nervous as the main room in the orphanage started to fill with people.

Some of the kids they'd met during the week were there along with their parents. The reverend, true to his word, had made sure his congregation all came along. The lady from the store and people from several other businesses in town had decided to come because of the support during the week. Others he didn't know also showed up just from the activity in town. Adam looked out at the crowd, pleased with the outcome.

'Mr Cartwright, this is all your doing.' Mrs Holland came up to him with tears in her eyes. 'All I seem to be doing this week is thanking you, and it hardly seems enough.'

'It's more than enough,' he replied with a smile. 'Seeing the looks on their faces is enough.' They both turned and looked at the kids lining up ready to go on and do the pageant.

'I've never seen them so happy or excited. In a few days you've managed to do the impossible. You've made them forget they're orphans. And that's not easy.' She smiled, leaned up to him and kissed him on the cheek. Adam, embarrassed by the flattery, colored a little, then busied himself getting his guitar tuned.

'Ready kids?' he asked a few minutes later.

'Yep, Adam. Ready!' Billy beamed a broad smile as he formed the children into their groups. They were in the small parlor, and would perform in the large room, where the audience was gathered.

'Okay, now wait for my signal.'

Adam walked out into the main room, and asked everyone to be seated. There were over sixty adults in the room. All the chairs were taken and at least twenty children were seated on the floor down towards the area they'd roped off as the stage.

'Merry Christmas, everyone,' Adam began. The crowd grew quiet and Mrs Holland turned down the lamps at the back of the room, leaving the front lit.

'I'd like to thank you all for coming tonight. I know I'm only a stranger in town, but I've met quite a lot of you this week. I'm touched that you have opened your hearts and come out in support of the orphanage tonight.

It wasn't these children's choice to end up with no mothers or fathers, as I'm sure you're aware. They've already had a lot of tragedy in their young lives. Despite that though, they've worked hard on this little pageant with both enthusiasm and excitement. I hope you enjoy the show, and afterwards there'll be a nice supper to enjoy. I'd also like to point out, the orphanage does need a helping hand every once in a while. I'm not talking about money, folks. Maybe just a friend or two, with a few spare hours to help fix a broken board, or someone with a pine tree they could spare for firewood or, even just a few more friends to play with.' Adam looked down at the group of children in front of him and winked. 'It doesn't take too much to give something small, but it can make a big difference in these kids lives.'

Mrs Holland and Mary were sniffing in the background, listening to his speech.

'And, as for donations tonight, you don't have to make one, but if you feel you'd like to and you've enjoyed the show, it will be put to very good use.' He smiled at everyone in the room and the ladies at least were won over to his side.

'Without further ado, I present the St Joe Orphanage Christmas Pageant.'

The crowd clapped and Adam started to play an introduction on his guitar. The children dressed in their costumes for the nativity scene all filed into the room. Adam started with Silent Night. As he sang, the kids acted out the words and sang as a choir in backup. The audience was surprised by Adam's nice singing voice and by the

children's entertaining performance.

Adam sat on a stool at the side of the 'stage' area, singing the verses. When the first Carol was over, there was a burst of applause and Adam and the kids all smiled with relief.

The rest of the show went brilliantly. Their songs, plays and dances went down well with the townsfolk. They laughed at the kid's cute jokes and sung along with them during the Carols. Then, for the Grande Finale, Adam got all the kids to form groups on the stage. He'd taught them his favorite Carol, and they got ready to be his choir. Adam began to sing in his powerful baritone voice. As he sung, he wandered amongst the children, smiling at them as they sang along.

There was a sign in Bethlehem

Over a barn, a star shone down

By that sign, the wise men knew

The Son of God would soon be born

The Virgin Mary had one son

Oh, oh, glory Halleluia

Oh, oh, glory Halleluia

Glory be to the new born king

Mary what you gonna call that pretty little baby

Oh, oh, pretty little baby

Oh, oh, pretty little baby

Glory be to the new born king

Some call him David, I think I'll call him Manuel

Oh, Oh, I think I'll call him Manuel

Oh, Oh, I think I'll call him Manuel

Glory be to the new born King

Some call him David, I think I'll call him Jesus

Oh, oh, I think I'll call him Jesus

Oh, oh, I think I'll call him Jesus

Glory be to the new born King

The Virgin Mary had one son

Oh, oh glory Halleluia

Oh, oh glory Halleluia

Glory be to the new born king

Glory be to the new born king

When the song was done, they got all the kids in the room together and sung Jingle Bells. When it was finished, the children jumped all over Adam and everyone came up to congratulate them and wish them a Merry Christmas.

The supper was a complete success, and the townspeople opened their hearts and their purses and gave generously with their donations. They'd all thoroughly enjoyed themselves and stayed a long time, talking with Mrs Holland and complimenting her and Mary on the supper and on the children's successful show.

Lot's of them praised Adam also and the ladies especially wanted to know more about him. He fended them off as best he could, then finally when they were all gone, Mrs Holland, Mary, Adam and the orphans gathered around the Christmas Tree. They opened the packages Adam had placed there.

The kids squealed with excitement at the presents. It was painfully apparent that they were not used to getting even the simplest of gifts. Sally climbed up onto Adam's lap and when she couldn't hold out any longer, she fell asleep there. But, she refused to let go of him. He ended up having to carry her and several other children to their beds upstairs.

He eventually said goodnight to everyone one by one and to Mrs Holland and Mary last of all. Adam didn't feel like going back to the lonely hotel room that night, so he loosened his tie and shirt and snoozed in front of the fire on an old sofa.

Around 2am, he was woken by a strange noise which sounded like it was coming from the next room. He got up and went to investigate. Finding nothing amiss, he went back into the parlor and lay down. Then, he saw movement from the corner of his eye. He smirked knowingly.

'Okay, Billy, what are you doing up at this hour?'

Billy came out of the shadows behind the door and walked up to Adam, a guilty look on his face.

'I was just checkin' to make sure everything was all right. It's my job. I'm the oldest man around here, usually.' Are you okay down here alone?'

'Oh, sure, of course.' Adam smiled and beckoned him over to the sofa. He leaned his head on one hand. 'I'm all right, really,' he said kindly to the boy. He noticed Billy's slight frown. 'Is that all?'

'Well . . . I had a dream. I dreamed I was with my Pa again,' he murmured.

'Oh?' Adam patted the sofa in front of him, and Billy sat down close to Adam. He forgot he was a twelve year old grown up for a minute and quietly slid up to him, feeling the warmth and security of Adam's presence.

'It was a real nice dream, Adam. Pa was there and we was having Christmas dinner together.'

'What happened to your Pa, Billy?' Adam sat up and leaned back on the sofa.

'He was workin' in the silver mines and there was a cave in. It was when I was seven.'

'And what about your Ma?'

'I don't hardly remember her. She died when I was little. She was havin' a baby, but they both died. I sure do miss my Pa, though.' Adam nodded with understanding and they both sat for a while in silence.

'I miss my Pa and my brothers too,' Adam said after a while.

'Where's your Ma?' asked Billy as he quietly slipped onto Adam's lap.

'She died when I was little too.'

'I knew you understood, about us I mean.' Billy smiled sleepily and rested his head down on Adam's chest. They both became drowsy.

'Merry Christmas, Adam.'

'Merry Christmas. Billy' They both dropped of to sleep, content with each other's company.

On Christmas morning, Adam went back to the hotel, bathed and changed and then took the whole tribe to church. Instead of the usual icy reception from the locals, they were greeted warmly and the reverend gave a nice talk on friendship and giving to those in need. It was a nice change of attitude from him, thought Adam. And being a leader of the town, his actions should filter through the people.

Later, Adam found out that the reverend had given all the money back from the donations the night before, which restored his faith in human kindness even further.

They all had a wonderful Christmas lunch together, then in the afternoon, they sat in the parlor, played, talked quietly and dozed.

About four in the afternoon, they were interrupted by a knock on the door. It was the stationmaster from the Wells Fargo office.

'Excuse me, Mrs Holland, but I need to tell Mr Cartwright and the Jackson's that the stage is clear to leave at first light in the morning.' Mrs Holland felt her heart sink a fraction as she went back into the parlor and told her guests.

Adam made the most of his last evening with the children and had to admit to himself that he'd grown very attached to them in the few day's he'd been in St Joe. He read them stories and listened to their prayers at bedtime.

'Adam, will you ever come back and visit us again?' asked Sally tearfully before she fell asleep.

'Yes, and that's a promise. I'll come back in spring, so as I can fix this leaky roof of yours. Okay?'

'Okay.' She brightened a little, then fell asleep to a nice lullaby.

The good-byes to the boys were even harder, and he fought back his own tears as he hugged Billy and the others.

'Don't you forget to come fix the roof,' said Billy.

'I won't. I might even bring my two crazy brothers with me if you like. They'd love to meet you.' The boys smiled at the thought of meeting Adam's family.

Finally, after saying more sad farewells to Mrs Holland and Mary early the next morning, the stage with Adam aboard pulled out of St Joe.

He leaned back and thought about the change in the town just over one week. Sure, he'd missed Christmas at home, but he'd gained something much more precious in return. The knowledge that he'd made a difference to the lives of some small, wonderful kids.

He tipped his hat down over his eyes, leaned back and felt good about life. And after the spring thaw, Adam, his brothers and his Pa, all took the stage to St Joe.