Summary: It’s time again for Joe’s annual letter to Santa Claus, this time based on the events of Season 2 of Bonanza. From Jennifer Beale to Ellie McClure and beyond, Little Joe is still having trouble dealing with the opposite sex and remains in great need of Santa Pa’s advice.
Word Count: 3750
The house was dark, quiet and still as a solitary figure tiptoed down the stairs into the room below. At each step he cast a furtive glance over his shoulder, but all was silent above, except for the reverberating snores of his brother Hoss. Unlikely as it was that his bare footsteps could be heard above that, he continued his stealthy progress down the stairs. It simply wouldn’t do for Pa (much less his brothers) to catch him on this mission. That simply wasn’t the way it was done; always, always this delivery was made in secret.
Finally reaching the bottom, Little Joe scurried across the cold floor and propped the letter against his mother’s picture. He’d been about eight when he’d realized that looking at that picture always mellowed his father’s thinking, and mellow was exactly the way he wanted Pa to be when he read this yearly missive. Mission accomplished, he headed back up the stairs, about twice as fast as he’d gone down, and scrambled back under the covers to escape the frosty December air.
Ben found the letter the next morning, and though he was behind on the ranch bookwork, he couldn’t resist the pull to open it. He smiled at the familiar beginning:
I can explain.
It’s sure been some kind of year, huh, Santa? Is it just ‘cause I’m growing up that each year seems more momentous than the last, or was this one really something else? You’ll have to decide, ‘cause I sure can’t.
I know you told me last year that I couldn’t use inexperience as an excuse for any problems with women, but I’m beginning to think a fellow just can’t get enough experience to prepare him for all the trouble those pretty skirts can swish his way. At least, I didn’t propose three times this year, so you could say I’m doing better! What I learned this year, though, was that a fellow don’t even have to fall in love with a gal to be head-over-heels in trouble.
Take Jennifer Beale, for instance. I was determined not to repeat last year’s mistakes by getting serious with every woman I dated, so that’s why I picked her to take to the carnival. A fellow’s entitled to some fun, isn’t he, Santa? And that’s what Jennifer was: a fun girl to go out with who wasn’t any more ready to settle down and get serious than I was. That should have made her safe, right? No such luck. See, she’s also rich, and that made her a target for that scoundrel Reed, who kidnapped her to hold for ransom. I know that ain’t my fault, and I did get her home safe again, but in between I witnessed a murder and got accused of it myself and had to hide out in all sorts of odd places — well, likely as not, you read the Virginia City papers and know all the details already. It was a mess and enough to make a fellow swear off dating . . . only I didn’t exactly swear off it.
Wasn’t more than a week, in fact, before I was contemplating going out with another dangerous girl. Oh, Dolly Kincaid herself wasn’t dangerous, but her sheriff pa sure was, especially with his shotgun pointed at my chest! I wasn’t really interested in her, just feeling sorry for her, and Pa rightly convinced me that I shouldn’t make trouble for her. It would have been just toying with her feelings to no good purpose, so I changed my mind about going out with her. Should have been the end of the story, right? I mean, you don’t stick lumps of coal in a fellow’s stocking just for thinking about doing the wrong thing, do you? Not if he don’t go ahead and do it, right?
Well, somebody sure decided I needed some lumps . . . namely, Vince Dagen, Dolly’s no-good, bank-robbing boyfriend. I know I asked for some of those lumps, baiting Dagen the way I did when he had me and Hoss trapped up in that wolf tracker’s cabin, but it was the only way I could figure to make Dolly see what sort of man she’d taken up with and to make an opening for me and Hoss to take advantage of. A batch of bruises later, it worked, and I think Dolly and her pa are getting along a lot better these days. I heard a decent fellow from over at Mormon Flats is sparking her now, with Sheriff Kincaid’s permission, and I wish them all the best.
So, I’d tried dating just for fun and I’d thought about dating out of pity (but didn’t, remember? I need everything in the “nice” pile that I can stack there this year!) and now I figured it was time to take it all a little more serious . . . without proposing right away. Learned my lesson, remember? That’s why I started spending a lot of time over at the McClane place, kind of shining up to Carrie. Her uncle Abe needed a lot of help around the ranch, and I used that as my excuse; but if I’m honest, I really went over there to see Carrie, who was all a fellow could ask for in a girl: pretty, sweet-natured, admiring, home-like. She’s the kind of girl I’d like to marry someday, but I can’t really think of her without being reminded of that awful night up on the mountain with Hoss’ Uncle Gunnar. He died saving my life, which to my mind made up for all the wrong he’d done in raiding the McClane place and taking me and Carrie hostage, but even though I know Hoss don’t hold anything against me, I sort of feel like I’m the one that took his uncle from him. I don’t see any kind of future for me and Carrie until I can get past that.
So that did it. From then on, I swore I wouldn’t be anything more than a friend to girls. Even picked a nice, safe girl to be that to. Poor little Annie Croft. Just wanted to bring a speck of pleasure into her lonely life by taking her that little rag doll and then when I realized she could learn to talk with her hands, I wanted to give her the world—but still just out of friendship. Was it my fault she fell in love with me? Well, not real love — just gratitude, like Pa said — but try telling her that! I handled it all wrong at first, but finally got things straightened out. Annie’s doing real well with her finger-talking now, and her pa’s picking it up right quick, too. He’s her teacher now, and that’s as it should be, ‘cause I hate to tell you this, Santa, but when I go up there, Annie still sort of looks at me like — well, uh, like she’d like to do with me what I’d rather do with Carrie McClane. I don’t want to encourage that, so I don’t visit real often. I hope you think I’m handling that the right way.
The next one — yes, Santa, there was a next one! Anyway, the next one I handled all wrong, too, but that’s ‘cause I didn’t have no time to prepare myself. I didn’t ask to get myself landed up with Willow Hoad, much less her greasy kin. I couldn’t let her pa burn off the Ponderosa, could I? I didn’t want to kill him, but he left me no choice, and I don’t figure I had much choice but to bring her home, either, little as I wanted that spitfire under the same roof as me. Doggone it, Santa, she wanted to kill me! You can’t think I’d want her anywhere near, even if certain older brothers did rib me unmerciful about cozying up to anything in a skirt. Like they got room to talk — Adam with his White Buffalo Woman and Hoss with that scheming Helen Layton!
Even Pa got “married” this year, though maybe that don’t count since the marriage license was a fake. I know, I know — that’s between them and you. I’m only saying that if the three supposedly older and wiser Cartwrights had trouble with women, I don’t see how you could expect me to do better, seeing as how I’m the youngest and least . . . experienced. Oh, yeah, I wasn’t supposed to use that one again, but . . . well . . . I always will be the youngest, you know, as certain older brothers never fail to remind me. It oughta be worth something, Santa, by way of explanation.
Anyway, we worked through our difficulties with the Hoads, and Willow went off with her true love. (No accounting for taste.) After that, I stayed so busy with other things that I didn’t have much time for girls, but I still managed to get myself into one more fine pickle because of one. I knew Mary Parsons, of course, but I never even thought about dating her. No real reason; just didn’t see her that way. Don’t think she saw me that way, either; she just used my name as someone she knew her pa wouldn’t object to. Object to! He was pleased as punch when he thought we’d snuck off and married up . . . and mad as blazes when I told him I hadn’t even seen Mary, much less eloped with her.
Sure hated to hear she’d been killed. She’d been a school friend, if never a girlfriend, and she was always a nice girl. She deserved better than what she got from Jerome Bell, but with her whole family convinced that I was the one who’d murdered her, I couldn’t spare much thought for poor Mary. Thank God for my brothers, who worked hard to prove that I was innocent and to find the real killer. Stuff their stockings full for that one, Santa!
I ain’t much for watching men die on the gallows, but Bell hanging is one man I’d’ve been glad to see with a noose around his neck. Me and my whole family was all wrapped up in another mess by then, though. Pa sure comes up with some of the doggonedest friends. Major Cayley seemed all right, and we were glad to help out with his balloon experiments. At least, I was until Hoss pulled that mean trick of sending me up in the balloon against my will. You know how I feel about heights, don’t you, Santa? I think you ought to put at least one lump of coal in his stocking this year for that stunt, but you can fill it the rest of the way with his favorite horehound drops, ‘cause, truth be told, he’s about the best brother a fellow could have . . . when he ain’t in a prank-pullin’ mood.
Anyway, turned out that Major Cayley’s only interest in balloons was using them to get away after robbing the bank. I tell you, Santa, we Cartwrights have dealt with so many bank robbers and other assorted thieves this year that we might as well take up detective work, instead of ranching! First, there was Sam Kirby, who hired on here at the Ponderosa to hide out after robbing the bank. I was kind of suspicious of him, right off, but he turned out to be better than I thought he was. (I wasn’t just jealous of his way with horses, no matter what Hoss and Adam have told you!) I sort of think I helped turn him around, so let’s add that to my “nice” pile, okay, Santa? (I’m gonna need to stack it high for what came later.)
So then Hoss gets tangled up out in the desert with some men trying to steal army gold, and after that Pa’s old friend Denver McKee turns rustler, spoiling my chances with his daughter Connie (more female trouble!) and then there was that Vince Dagen robbery and good old Uncle Gunnar, the Comanchero and, finally, Major Cayley. Oh, and I guess we ought to count Jock Henry as a sort of thief, too, charging taxes for unborn chickens and such. The territory’s been plumb overrun with robbers and rustlers and scoundrels and schemers. Is it any wonder that when I heard about old man Harrison’s plot to bankrupt his own bank, my first thought was to rob the bank before he could? At the time it seemed like a good way to keep the money safe until we could get those bonds cashed and delivered back to the bank’s depositors. Don’t seem fair that me and Hoss ended up with a price on our heads and a stay in the county jail. Our hearts were in the right place, Santa! Just not our heads, maybe, but don’t you think all this law-breakin’ goin’ on around us might’ve had some bad influence? I wish you’d think long and hard about it before filling my stocking, even though I know this one has to go in the “naughty” pile.
While we’re on that subject, there’s one other thing that belongs in that pile, and I’m afraid it’s a big one. You heard about Red Twilight, didn’t you? The man who shot Hoss. No one deserved killing like he did, and I . . . well, I came right close to doing it myself . . . forgetting all I’d been taught and just shooting him in pure vengeance. Adam sort of covered for me, like the good, loyal brother he is, but I’ve wondered ever since if Pa guessed how close I came to making myself no better than Twilight. I’m real sorry about it and real grateful to my big brother for keeping me from shaming this whole family and grieving Pa’s heart.
I got nothing to ask for myself this year, Santa, but I sure hope you’ll be extra good to Hoss and Adam (except for that one lump of coal I mentioned). They’ve both had a rough year, had their hearts broke by women worse than I have; Hoss lost his uncle and then nearly died himself, and Adam probably wished he could give his own life, rather than kill his friend Ross, like he was forced to do. So, be good to them, and if either of their “nice” piles runs a mite short, take some from mine to make up the difference. Now that I look back over 1860, I don’t think there’s enough in that pile to make up for bank robbery and a vengeful heart and a few other not-to-be-mentioned misdeeds in the other stack, so Hoss and Adam might as well have ‘em.
Thanks for listening,
Little Joe Cartwright
A soft, bittersweet smile played at Ben’s mouth as he set the letter aside and drew out a sheet of stationery. As usual, he couldn’t resist replying immediately, no matter how much work piled up while he did so. Joe wouldn’t see the answer until Christmas morning, but Ben usually managed to convey with a kind look or a wink that all was well between them. He wanted to record his response, however, while the emotions playing in his heart were still fresh. They’d run a gamut throughout this letter, just as his volatile young son’s must have throughout this most “momentous” year, as Joseph had termed it.
“My dear young friend,” he began, as he always did, keeping alive the fantasy that the letter came from jolly old Saint Nick:
When someone has your youthful zest for life, every year is momentous, but this one has been particularly full for you and your family. That you have all come through it alive, well and healthy is little short of amazing!
I am pleased to see that you have tried to follow old Santa’s advice this year, and for the most part I think you’ve done well. At your age, a mistake here and there is expected; the important thing is to learn from them, and I believe you have.
First of all, you have learned that women are unbelievably complicated creatures. I wish I could tell you that one day you would solve all their mysteries, but honesty compels me to say that they will maintain that quality throughout your life . . . yes, even when you’ve found the right one to grace your home. I am glad to see that you have slowed down your pursuit of that one special woman, and I am confident that you will one day find her and that some year I will see a tiny stocking or two hanging beside your own. That will make Santa very happy! But there’s no hurry.
At your age, you are certainly justified in dating simply for the pleasure of being with an attractive young lady, so long as she is of the same mind. That was the case with you and Jennifer, and as to what happened at the carnival, Santa thinks you comported yourself exactly as a young gentleman should. You protected the young woman, even at risk of your own life, and while another innocent life was lost in the process, that responsibility lies solely on the soul of Mr. Reed.
I was concerned to read about you baiting Vince Dagen while in his power. That was a very dangerous maneuver, young man! Please consider that the next time you find yourself in a jeopardous situation. (Unfortunately, in this territory, Santa can almost assure you that there will be a next time, and you are far too impulsive in the way you often deal with such situations.) I’m only glad that this time your stratagem did work and that you were able to help Dolly return to her father.
On the other hand, you handled yourself in the best manner possible during that incident with Hoss’ uncle. No impulsive or imprudent actions, just calm courage in the face of almost certain death. Santa is justifiably proud of your conduct and you should be, too. While we all grieve with Hoss in his loss, you are certainly not in any way to blame for Gunnar’s death. I remember him from the time he was a boy, and he was already set on the wrong course, even then, with his focus on material things and his tendency to take from the till of his sister’s store what he had not earned by hard work there. Learn from him that the small choices you make as a young man will chart your path in later years, but don’t let feelings of guilt rob you of a potential relationship with Miss McClane. If you decide she’s not the one, that’s fine — there’s no hurry, remember? — but don’t let it be for reasons of guilt. You bear none and, therefore, should transfer none to her.
I believe you are correct in keeping some distance between you and Annie Croft. She’s a sweet young lady, and as the world opens up before her, she will eventually understand that her true feelings for you are those of gratitude. Too frequent contact might slow that process, however; so, yes, don’t visit too often. Fortunately, the advent of winter will keep you close to home for the next few months and create that distance naturally without your giving the appearance of avoiding the girl.
Frankly, young man, you could have managed that Willow Hoad affair a bit better. Not the original incident. You had no choice in regard to her father’s attempt to burn off the Ponderosa, but certain elves have reported that you went to the Hoad camp against the advice of your older brother Adam. A tragic death, which you failed to mention in your letter, could have been avoided if you had listened to him. I know you shot in self defense, but it’s always better to stay out of situations where the need can arise. And it does little good to plead inexperience if you refuse to listen to the wisdom of those “older and wiser” than yourself when it is offered. Furthermore, using all the lawlessness in the territory as an excuse for your own foray into bank robbing is completely ridiculous. If anything, seeing what happened to all those other “robbers and rustlers and scoundrels and schemers” should have been an incentive to you to avoid following their example!
Your attitude toward Red Twilight is more serious, and I am exceedingly glad that this time you did allow your older brother to guide you to a better choice. His wisdom and experience, as well as that of your other brother and your father is always available to you. Seek it out, my boy, whenever you are troubled about difficult decisions. Ultimately, you must make your own, but they are all there to help you.
I am also pleased to see your compassionate concern for your brothers’ troubles. As you say, it has been a difficult year for everyone in your family, but the love you personify in your final requests has always been the Cartwrights’ greatest asset in facing difficult time. Be assured, Santa will be generous with your brothers and with you, as well.
Merry Christmas, Joseph!
Your personal Santa
Each of the Cartwrights took a bulging stocking from the mantle on Christmas morning and sat down to explore its contents. Little Joe took the envelope his contained, smiled across the room at his father and slipped it into the pocket of his robe. The contents of this yearly letter tended to be personal, so he always waited until he could be alone to read it.
“Hey! What’s this?” Hoss demanded loudly.
Little Joe looked up to see his older brother sitting on the hearth, the contents of his stocking dumped in the floor before him. From the middle of an imposing pile of horehound drops, the big man plucked and held out for everyone’s view . . . exactly one lump of coal.
Seeing Joe’s appreciative — and suspicious-looking — grin, Hoss scowled at him. “Joe, you dadgum little nuisance, you put this here, didn’t you?”
Joe raised both palms in a display of innocence. “Not me,” he said. “Stockings are Santa’s business, and I stay out of it.” He caught the wink of his father’s eye, and his grin broadened. Stockings might be Santa’s business, but it was good to know that, on occasion, Santa was open to suggestion and that he took as dim a view of hoisting a fellow into the clouds as did his youngest son.