Summary: Little Joe writes his annual letter to Santa Claus and sneaks downstairs to deliver it secretly, but someone is already there to catch him in this most private act of the Christmas season. Based on the episodes of Season 3 of Bonanza.
Word Count: 2600
Little Joe Cartwright sat at his desk, gazing out the window at the stars in the midnight sky as he pensively nibbled the end of his pen. What to say . . . it seemed to get harder each year to frame his thoughts in this yearly letter. Maybe he should just skip it . . . grow up and quit playing this letter-to-Santa game with Pa, but he had a feeling Pa’d be disappointed if he did, and, truth was, he’d miss those responses that always came his way on Christmas morning. They gave good guidance for resolutions for the year to come. . . even if they normally got broken before—sometimes long before—Valentine’s Day. With a rueful smile he dipped the pen in the inkwell and began to write:
I can explain.
Well, maybe there’s not so much to explain this year, ‘cause I am growing up and not making as many mistakes . . . at least, I don’t think I am. You’d be a better judge. I guess I ought to explain why this letter comes so late again. I was gonna do better about that this year, but there’s been a lot of extra goings on here recently, what with finding Gabrielle and helping her find her grandpa and getting run off with a shotgun and just today traipsing back up the mountain after her when she had to give it one more try. Whew! I figure you know all about that, though, and I sure hope she won’t be disappointed, come Christmas morning—that’s day after tomorrow, in case time’s slipped up on you, too.
Having her here has sure reminded me of how much I have to be thankful for, especially in the strong ties of our family. I’m extra grateful, too, for my brothers, having come close to losing both of them this year: Hoss to that hateful Clarence Bolling and Adam to that fellow Kane out in the desert. I ain’t sure yet what all happened to Adam, ‘cause he don’t like to talk about it, but I know it still gives him nightmares. Maybe you can’t hear him moaning, all the way to the North Pole, where you sleep, but me being just across the hall, I hear everything and it worries me. Wish he still wrote to you like I do, Santa, ‘cause I think he could use one of your helpful letters back, but you know Adam, way too grown up for Santa Claus or anything else that’s either fun or sensible—the right kind of sensible, I mean.
Truth is, he’s been in a whole heap more trouble than me this year. Shot by Cochise’s warriors, jailed by Asa Moran, nearly lynched in place of an escaped convict—all that even before he went through that hell with Kane. Not to mention having to accuse his pal Bill Enders of robbery and murder and then take a wild ride to prove he was right. (Every now and then that Yankee granite head of his stands him in good stead.) Still, it’s been another rough year for ole Adam. That’s why I’m hoping you give him something warm and comforting for Christmas (and not any more gloomy books; he has enough of those!)
Things ain’t been much better for Hoss, neither. First off, the guilt over accidentally killing Arthur Bolling and then more guilt from Miss Susan being crippled in that wagon accident. And you know how he is: he even felt guilty about all that happened to Margie Owens, and that just ain’t right! She’s the one ignored a good man, namely Hoss, to go off with that tall, fancy-talking stranger, who turned out to be a no-gooder to end all no-gooders. I reckon she brought it on herself, but she sure didn’t deserve to die for choosing the wrong man. No woman does.
It’s Hoss I care most about, though. He kind of figures if he’d pushed harder to make her see him, she’d still be breathing, so it must be his fault she ain’t. That’s the kind of twisted-up thinking Adam calls convoluted when I spout it, but neither one of us knows how to untangle it when it’s in Hoss’ head. Santa, you just gotta drop something in his stocking, or maybe his ear, that’ll straighten him out! Well, maybe you already did, by sending Gabrielle to us. Helping other folks comes natural to Hoss, whether it’s her or Danny Lynch’s mama from Ireland or them folks whose land was so parched for water last summer, and it always takes his mind off his own troubles. So, maybe you already done give him the best present, just by sending our way another little gal in need of help.
Feeling his fingers cramping up, Joe set the pen aside, stood and walked over to the window. He raised the sash and breathed in the crisp, cold air, scented with the familiar fragrance of pine. There’d been a feel of snow in the air when they’d ridden back from town, after taking Gabrielle back to the Pastors, and now the first flakes had begun to fall. The stars, though, still twinkled their hopeful light against the black drape of the sky. For a moment the deep peace of Christmas stillness settled over him; then he shivered a little and lowered the window. It was late, and he was tired, but he wanted to finish this letter tonight, so he moved dutifully back to his desk and again took up his pen.
Santa, I can almost hear you telling me to get quit using my brothers as a smoke screen and get on with my own business. It’s a good thing, me thinking about other folks first, though, ain’t it? You said so last year. Oh, you saying there’s limits? Okay, on with it, then.
Guess I might as well start with women. It’s pretty near always women with me, ain’t it? I’d probably have me the shiniest halo in the whole dadburned territory if it wasn’t for women. Yeah, I know . . . no excuse.
Leastwise, I only proposed to two of them this year, and even if Melinda Banning wasn’t all she should be in a wife. (being drawn to ol’ Adam the way she was), at least she was an improvement over Tirzah from a couple years back. Laura, though . . . that was true love, Santa, and my heart still screams “Why?” over that one. Why’d she have to take sick? Why’d she have to die? Why couldn’t we just live in that little cabin Adam and Hoss helped me fix up until we were old and gray with a dozen grandkids playing at our feet? It could have been so beautiful, that life we planned together. Why couldn’t we have it, Santa?
Joe dropped the pen and wiped his cheeks dry. He’d thought he was through with tears over Laura, but here they were again, sharp as ever, razors lancing his heart. And they’d smudged the ink on this letter, so Pa’d know he was still hurting. He picked up the sheet of stationery, intending to crumple it up and throw it away, but he couldn’t. It would have been like throwing his feelings for her away, and he could never do that. “Santa” would understand. With determination he swiped away the tears once more, took up his pen again and continued to write:
Pa told me to keep a warm place for Laura in my heart, but not to carry her on my shoulders the rest of my life. I ain’t forgot, and I try, but sometimes it’s hard, like at Christmas. This would have been our first Christmas together in that cabin; it would have been so special, but I guess all Christmases are special, if we let them be. I’m choosing to let this one be, so don’t worry about me, okay, Santa?
As for my other female troubles, I don’t feel rightly responsible for them. Take Lee Bolden for instance. I was just doing an errand for Pa, taking a bank draft to the widow of a friend. No way I could have predicted I’d get caught up with bank robbers, was there? Of course not. Pure happenstance . . . even if I do seem to have a talent for happenstance.
I guess I have to take some responsibility for what went on with Jennifer Flinch. After all, I was trying to catch her eye. She was a cute little gal, but as it turned out, a whole lot more conniving than cute. I’d ask Pa for advice about how to tell the difference, but after him bringing the “most charming and most conniving witch,” as he called her, into our house, I ain’t so sure he knows either. Anyway, Jennifer wasn’t nowhere near as bad as Lady Chadwick. She just had an uncle in trouble, and all her conniving was to get help for him. Makes it easier to forgive, I reckon. As for her picking Hoss over me, well . . . I guess I forgive her that one, too, ‘cause he is the better man. (Don’t tell him I said so!)
And, well, I have to admit I’m not one hundred percent not-to-blame for Su Ling, either, although I do know the difference between a girl and a horse, in case you’re wondering! But I have learned my lesson about making sure I know the stakes before I get into card games that end up with Chinese warlords and their whole armies invading the Ponderosa. I think you can count on me not getting us into that kind of situation again.
Just so you won’t think I’ve done nothing but get into trouble this year, I might mention that I did manage to save my family from getting lynched in Alkali. It was a big gamble that I could get back with help before that crooked Sheriff Gains strung them up, but this time I knew the stakes, and they couldn’t have been higher. Won the bet, too, Santa! Don’t you think that, set against all my slipups, still stacks high enough for a little something sweet in my stocking?
Oh, and I know I’m extra late getting this to you, so don’t press yourself to get me an answer by Christmas morning. I know you got a lot to do tomorrow, what with traipsing all over the world to visit all the good little girls and boys . . . like me!
Little Joe Cartwright
With a gusty exhale of satisfaction, he blotted the writing and folded the letter. He didn’t bother sealing it, since it didn’t have to travel through the regular mail, but just scrawled “To Santa” on the front and slipped out into the silent hallway. He inched past Adam’s open door on tiptoe and made his way soundlessly down the stairs. He’d just reached the lower landing when someone softly called, “Hey.”
Startled, Little Joe dropped his letter. Doggone! Should’ve known it was too blame quiet upstairs for Hoss to be asleep. He bent to retrieve the letter and held it behind his back as he came down the remaining stairs. “What you doin’ up?” he asked.
Sitting in Pa’s chair by the fire, Hoss chuckled. “I’d ask you the same thing, but I reckon I already know.”
Little Joe shrugged. “Just couldn’t sleep.”
Hoss’ chuckles deepened, although he was clearly trying to keep them quiet. “‘Til you got your Santy letter writ, you mean.”
Joe’s nose crinkled in distaste as he brought the letter from behind his back. “How’d you know?” This Santa-letter business was supposed to be a secret between him and Pa.
Hoss grinned almost wickedly. “Everybody knows.”
Joe closed his eyes in obvious embarrassment. “Adam, too?”
“Little brother, you been proppin’ them letters to Santa up against your ma’s picture since you was a tiny thing,” Hoss said. “Only a fool could miss ‘em, and Adam ain’t no fool.”
“You ain’t read ‘em?” Little Joe asked anxiously.
“Joseph!” Hoss managed to keep the chiding hiss under his breath. “You know better than that.”
Joe settled down on the hearth, drawing his legs up. “Yeah, I reckon I do. Sorry. It’s just . . .”
“They’s important,” Hoss finished with an understanding nod.
“Yeah.” Joe looked up at his brother. “So, what are you doin’ up?”
“Just couldn’t sleep.” Hoss tried to shrug, but the gesture came off as dishonest, and he never felt the need to be that way with his little brother. “I keep thinkin’ about that little gal.”
“Gabrielle?” Joe didn’t wait for confirmation. “She’s gonna be fine, Hoss. The Pastors’ll give her a good home.”
“Yeah, but you heard her cry all the way down that mountain, Joe.” Hoss stared miserably into the fire. “It’s her grandpa she wants.”
“Maybe he ain’t what’s best for her, Hoss,” Joe suggested tentatively.
“Maybe,” Hoss conceded, “but you of all people ought to know what it’s like to want someone you can’t have.”
Little Joe stiffened. “You mean Laura?” he murmured, eyes fixed on the letter in his hands as if it had somehow betrayed the secrets of his heart.
“Aw, doggone,” Hoss moaned with sudden misery at having reawakened that pain for his little brother. “No, I meant your ma, but . . . yeah . . . Laura, too. Wouldn’t you give anything to have her . . . or Ma . . . here for Christmas?”
“Yeah,” Joe whispered wistfully.
“Well, that’s what that little gal’s feelin’,” Hoss insisted, “for her ma and pa and her grandpa, too. They’s gone, like all the ones we’ve lost, but he’s still here and right close, and it don’t seem right them not bein’ together for Christmas.”
Joe sighed. “I know, but that kind of miracle’s best left to God, don’t you think?”
“I reckon,” Hoss said slowly. He looked over at his brother and smiled. “Thanks, Shortshanks.”
Joe shook his head. “I didn’t do nothin’.”
“You listened,” Hoss said. “Sometimes that’s the best something of all.” He grinned as he gestured toward the letter in Joe’s hand. “Ain’t that what them letters to Santy’s all about . . . just someone to listen to what’s bottled up inside?”
“Yeah, and I’d better get this one delivered,” Joe said as he stood up. “You goin’ to bed? If we’re gonna be ready for that party we invited Gabrielle and the Pastors to, we got a ton of work to do tomorrow.” He glanced at the tall clock beside the front door and noted that it was almost one in the morning. “Well, today now.”
“Reckon you’re right,” Hoss said, yawning as he stood. “Good night, little brother, and Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Hoss,” Joe called softly over his shoulder as he moved across the room toward his father’s desk.
On Christmas morning the Cartwrights, as usual, gathered before a roaring fire that drove all thoughts of winter’s chill from the room. Each was surrounded with even more warming gifts of love, and in the pocket of Little Joe’s robe was his return letter from “Santa,” to be savored later. Over the hearthside scene hung a sense of awe at the events of the previous evening, when the miracle best left to God, the transformation of the human heart, had taken place here. As Gabrielle and her grandfather had been reunited beneath the towering tree, “the most beautiful” angel her sightless eyes had ever seen had hovered over all with whimsical pink wings that somehow managed to flutter inside the hearts of each one gathered there to celebrate the Savior’s birth.