Summary: A New Year’s What Happened Next for the story “A Note For Santa”
Word Count: 1800
An overwhelming feeling of guilt and shame isn’t an easy load for anyone’s shoulders to bear, least of all a Cartwright’s. But that was the silent burden I’d unhappily carried for the past week, I reflected with a deep sigh as I made myself comfortable on the settee and sipped the last remnants of my festive drink.
The whole house was quiet and I was the only one left downstairs after seeing in the New Year with my father and brothers a few minutes before. I’d tried my best all evening to hide my feeling of misery and put on a happy face as the four of us shared a few hours of pleasant enough conversation and a bottle or two of Pa’s best brandy. But keeping up the pretence had been hard work and I could see my father occasionally giving me a thoughtful gaze, especially when the smile on my lips never quite reached my eyes as I forced out a laugh at one of Hoss’ inane jokes that at one time would have had me writhing on the floor at its absurdity.
When, to my relief, the magical hour eventually arrived and the chimes on the grandfather clock struck midnight signifying the beginning of another year, my Pa had raised his glass, just as I remember him doing since I was old enough to stay up late without any danger of falling asleep in his arms. After he’d made a short toast, we’d all hugged and shook hands and wished each other well, and the yearly ritual was over once more. Then with my Pa and brothers all yawning loudly, they made a move to retire.
Though I also felt tired, I decided to sit up a while and held back, for once not lured by the thought of my warm and comfortable bed waiting for me. My father paused on the bottom step and pointedly looked back with those brown loving eyes that didn’t give a hint as to what he was really thinking. And for a moment I wondered if he was about to say something. But instead he remained silent and just wished me goodnight, following Adam and Hoss and walking slowly up the stairs before disappearing around the corner onto the floor above.
After a few minutes of sitting alone and staring into the dying embers of the fire, I eased up and made my way outside, shaking slightly with the chill in the air. As I wrapped my arms tight around my chest to keep myself warm, I noticed the old rocking chair that still stood in its familiar place on the veranda and sat down.
I relished the beauty and peace of a clear cold night, and I stared up at the twinkling stars and then across the darkened landscape that in a few short hours would show the first pale streaks of a fresh year’s dawn on the horizon. For me, this time of night was always special and helped me to think clearly, so I closed my eyes for a moment, allowing my mind to float back seven long days to Christmas Eve and my emotional return.
Even now I can still bring to mind the feel of Pa’s strong arms as they’d enveloped me, can still recall the faint odor of his favorite pipe tobacco as I’d buried my face into the warmth of his chest and soaked his shirt with my tears. I can also hear the loving tone of his voice whispering my name as a brother’s hand lightly squeezed each of my shoulders, just enough pressure to indicate they were there by my side.
So like the story from the Bible that my Pa used to read to me when I was small, I was the proverbial prodigal son, returned and now welcomed warmly back to the fold.
But after my tears had dried and we’d sat down together around the table to enjoy a Christmas Eve dinner, I felt myself tensing with trepidation awaiting any minute my father’s wrath for disappearing as if off the face of the earth for all those months after leaving the Ponderosa with my brother Clay.
Thinking of myself as undeserving of any good feelings, I inwardly willed my Pa to shout and cry, yell his disappointment and anger in those first few hours. I was prepared to take his protestations and disapproval on the chin as a son who knows he’d wronged his father should — as a Cartwright had been taught to do.
But to my amazement, nothing was said. There were no fierce remonstrations or anger; no questions asked nor apology sought. And even in the days that followed, no signs of bitterness or suggestions in any way, shape or form that I had been an obvious cause of much pain and worry to my brothers and to the man I revered above all others.
Suddenly, I was shaken from my private reflections as I heard the quiet creaking of the front door opening, and to my surprise, Pa appeared, carrying a blanket over his arm. “You’ll catch your death of cold sitting out here tonight,” he said as he gave me a parental smile of concern and carefully draped it around my shivering shoulders.
I smiled silent thanks and he leaned against the wall. Though I couldn’t see his face clearly in the shadows, I could sense him staring at me intently. Then he nervously cleared his throat, as if dreading what he was about to ask. “I’ve noticed something’s been bothering you ever since you returned home, Joseph. Is it Clay? Do you regret your decision not going to New York? Do you still have a desire to follow him there?”
I took a swallow, found my hands tighten around the arms of the chair at the plaintive sound of his voice as I shook my head vehemently. “No Pa. It was Clay who wanted to go east and I never had any intention of going there.”
My father nodded and gave a faint sigh of relief. “So what’s making you so unhappy, son? Is it the ranch? Do you regret coming back here?”
My jaw dropped in surprise, and though he continued to stare at me, there was no trace of condemnation in my father’s gaze, although his eyes were sad and glistened in the moonlight. “No Pa. I don’t regret coming home. My only regret is what kind of man I’ve turned into. A disappointment to you.”
I could see Pa furrow his brow as I felt tears welling, and without embarrassment, I brushed a hand across my eyes as I continued. “I left without a word or a backward glance, and I can’t even begin to imagine how you felt when you found me gone the next morning. But all I cared about was my need to be with Clay and I never gave you a second thought. I was selfish, insensitive and let you down, yet not once have you raised your voice and reproached me for what I’ve done. And that’s what’s tearing me apart, Pa… I just can’t figure out how you can possibly forgive me when I can’t forgive myself!”
There was a long silence between us, then Pa spoke. “Oh Joseph…Joe,” he murmured and laid his hand on my arm. “The night you left…I heard you moving about in your room…saw you ride out. I knew exactly where you were going but I did nothing. Do you know why?”
I must have given a confused look of puzzlement as I shook my head, for my father smiled gently towards me and cupped my face in his hands. “There comes a point in time when a father has to step back and let his child make their own decisions as to what they want to do with their life. You’re a grown man now and I could see you were determined to go and find Clay and I had no right to stop you. So, though it darn near broke my heart, I let you go with just a silent prayer and my blessing.”
“But all those months not knowing where I was…how I was! I bet you were sick with worry.”
Pa gave a knowing smile. “I knew, son…Clay made sure. He used to send me a wire every couple of weeks to tell me you were all right.”
My eyes widened with amazement at what my brother had done. “Clay did that? He never said. But didn’t you wonder that I might never come back?”
Pa shook his head. “If I’d thought for one minute I’d never see you again, I’d have done things a lot differently. But I had faith in you, son. Faith you’d return.”
I suddenly felt my face redden. “You were that sure? How come?”
Pa smiled and raked his fingers gently through my hair. “You’re not your father’s son for nothing, Joseph. We’re alike…more alike than you’ll ever know. I knew in time you’d realize your mistake and see the Ponderosa was the place you truly belonged.”
I fought hard to stifle a sob that had built up in my throat. “You seem to know me better than I know myself, Pa. But I promise I’ll never even think of leaving again. You have my word.”
My father pressed a cautioning fingertip to my lips but couldn’t hide his delight as he smiled warmly. “Don’t go making resolutions you have no intention of keeping, son.”
However, as I shook my head, I didn’t even have to think about it. “Oh I intend to keep this one for as long as I live Pa. Believe me.”
Then I rose up and hurriedly disappeared into the house, appearing moments later with two filled glasses. I pressed one in my father’s hand. “I’d like to propose a toast, Pa,” I said, raising my drink towards him. “To us and The Ponderosa.”
My father nodded but added, “…and absent family.”
I knew immediately who he meant and I gave a faint smile, holding his gaze for a moment and acknowledging his gesture with a clink of our glasses. “Absent family…wherever he may be.”