Summary: Little Joe’s recent misbehavior has him singing the “I’m Getting Nothin’ for Christmas” blues.
Word Count: 1200
A relentless hand kept shaking his shoulder, while a persistent voice nagged some nonsense about getting up. “Go ‘way,” Little Joe Cartwright mumbled as he rolled over and buried his face in his pillow.
Unyielding fingers gripped his shoulder all the more tightly and pulled him back over. “Time to get up, little brother,” Hoss insisted. “Don’t tell me you plumb forgot what day it is!”
Little Joe cracked a reluctant eyelid at his brother. Of course, he hadn’t forgotten what day it was! Christmas morning, but what did that have to do with him? Christmas was for good little boys, or so he’d always heard, and he’d been anything but good here of late.
“Don’t make me throw water at you for your first Santy gift, Shortshanks,” Hoss warned.
The eyelid lifted enough to fix a glare on the older boy. “Anything but that,” Little Joe grumbled as he threw back the covers.
Hoss rumpled his brother’s sleep-tousled curls. “See you downstairs.” He turned as he reached the doorway. “And get a wiggle on.”
“Get a wiggle on,” Little Joe mimicked sourly as he slowly put his legs over the side of the bed. Far as he was concerned, they could wait all day to open their presents. After all, he’d be lucky if he had anything but a load of coal piled under the tree. Oh, he was old enough to know there wasn’t really a Santa Claus, keeping a list of the naughty and nice, but he was also wise enough to know that Ben Cartwright really did keep such a list in his head and could read him chapter and verse on every misdeed that had surely put him somewhere near its rock bottom.
He’d tried; he really had, especially the further along December had galloped, but the mischief inside him had galloped faster and caught up with him time and time again. All his chickens had come home to roost the day before, and he had to figure that being sent to bed without supper on Christmas Eve did not bode well for waking up to a merry Christmas morning.
He dragged down the stairs to find that his older brothers had already divided the gifts into two good-sized piles. Two, not three. Bad as he’d been, he hadn’t really believed that Pa would be mean-spirited enough to put nothing for him beneath the tree. If nothing else, a new set of drawers. He really needed new drawers, Pa having pretty much worn out his others with a few necessary little talks…or it might have been those wild slides down the banister, he admitted, trying to keep his new resolution on honesty. Either way, you’d think Pa would, at least, have given him something boringly useful like that. After all, gifts tended to be purchased early, for fear that winter snows would prevent last-minute shopping, so they had to be hidden around the house someplace. Maybe even the drawers had been put away for some miraculous day when he might work his way back into Pa’s good graces. Maybe, if he tried really hard, he could manage that by next December.
“Good morning, Joseph,” Ben said, pleasantly enough. He paused a moment and then added, “Since you don’t have much to occupy yourself here, I wonder if you would bring in some firewood.”
It was worded like a request, but Little Joe knew an order when he heard one. So that was his Christmas gift, huh? Chores. It figured. Well, at least, it wasn’t a load of coal, but come to think of it, it probably meant the same thing. Coal for bad kids back East, but loads of firewood to be brought in out here, since that’s what they used for heat. “Sure, Pa,” he said with a resigned sigh.
“Thank you, son.”
Joe managed a flicker of a smile as he pulled on his warm jacket. Extra chores were no more than he deserved, and maybe if he took it with the right attitude, Pa’d at least consider giving him those new drawers. In a way, Pa was doing him a favor, he decided as he trudged through the crusty snow to the woodpile, sparing him the sight and sound of his brothers, happily unwrapping package after package of their father’s love and respect. He hadn’t earned either one, but at least Pa cared enough to spare him that misery.
As he picked up the first log of firewood, he heard a whinny off to his left. A horse was out! Someone must have left the barn door open. Little Joe groaned as he lifted a silent prayer to heaven: Oh, God, please don’t let it be me. I got troubles enough already. Dropping the wood, he turned and his frosty breath caught in his throat. There, tied to the lowest limb of a towering evergreen, stood the most beautiful horse he’d ever seen. A sleek black-and-white paint, like he’d seen in the Paiute camp on a trip with Pa, but this was no Indian pony. A big, cherry-red bow was tied to its tail, and smaller bright bows dotted the silky mane. It was exactly what he’d wanted most, but that wasn’t possible, was it? Not after all he’d…
“Merry Christmas, Little Joe,” Ben said.
Little Joe spun around to see his father and both older brothers smiling at him. He’d been so transfixed by the horse that he hadn’t heard any of them come up behind him. “Pa, I…” he babbled. “It’s…it’s not…for me…is it?” Hope quavered in his voice.
“Of course, it is,” Ben said warmly. “Did you really think I’d give you nothing for Christmas?”
“I…I was hopin’ for…drawers.”
Hoss and Adam burst out in loud guffaws, but Ben just pulled his son gently into his arms. “I think you might find a set or two of those inside, son, if that’s what you really want.”
Little Joe blinked, but a single tear still managed to trickle down his cheek. “I don’t deserve even that,” he said, “much less what I wanted most. I’m sorry, Pa.”
“I know, son; I know.” He took the earnest young face in his hands and smiled tenderly. “I think you’ve forgotten the reason we celebrate this day, my boy.”
“Baby Jesus,” Little Joe whispered.
“Yes,” his father said, “a gift for us all…but, especially, the undeserving. You don’t have to earn love, son; it’s a gift freely given.” He pulled his son back into his loving embrace, and almost immediately two more sets of arms encircled them both, while in the background, the striking pinto bobbed its ribbon-bedecked head in heartfelt approval.
Note: This story was inspired by the picture on a Christmas card from my dear friend, Peggy Janitz.