Christmas Spirit (by Judy)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre: Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  5700


 

 

Only one week until Christmas, Ben Cartwright found himself with very little Christmas spirit.  The winter had been rough already and it was only getting started.  Early blizzard conditions had cost them several hundred head of cattle, as well as damaging fences, feed stations, and worst of all, a ranch hand had been caught out in the fury of the storm and had frozen to death.  Ben felt responsible for the man’s death, despite knowing that the death was an accident caused by the sudden storm.  The man had no friends or family and somehow, that made his death even sadder for Ben.

Ben had been so distracted that he had neglected the normal preparations for Christmas that they usually had begun much earlier.  Adam and Hoss had noticed, but had understood their father’s reluctance to celebrate Christmas.  Joseph, however, at 12 did not understand and began pestering his father daily about the Christmas decorations and preparations for Christmas.  Ben finally realized that he must at least go through the motions of celebrating Christmas, for Joe’s sake, and because that would be easier than listening to his constant hints and pleas to decorate the house, go get the Christmas tree, or go shopping.  He had acquiesced and devoted the whole last weekend to putting up the garland, wreaths, and other Christmas decorations.  The house now looked as it always did at Christmas time, Hop Tseng’s Christmas baking even had the house smelling like Christmas, but it still didn’t feel like Christmas.

Ben’s reverie was interrupted by the sound of horses entering the courtyard.  He glanced at the clock and realized that it must be Hoss and Joe coming home.  Since the last blizzard, Ben had insisted that he, Adam, or Hoss meet Joe in Virginia City after school to accompany him on the ride home.  Joe bristled about the unnecessary restriction initially, but with his Christmas spirits high, he quickly got over it.  They were early today because it was the last day of school until after Christmas.  Ben forced himself to get up and put a smile on his face to go greet his sons.

Joe was in such a good mood that he didn’t seem to notice his father’s somber attitude.  Even at dinner, Joe chatted on and on about the school play tomorrow night, how he had all his presents already bought, and of course, dropping more hints about that new rifle he wanted.  Adam and Hoss attempted to fill in the void left by their father’s lack of enthusiasm. Ben listened to the conversation as if he were an observer and not a part of the group.  He was slightly irritated at Joe’s exuberance and his unashamed hinting about what he wanted.  He’d often been accused of over-indulging his youngest son and as he listened to Joe’s cheerful banter and not too subtle hints, he began to think perhaps he had been over-indulgent.  Perhaps Joe wasspoiled and self-centered.  He tried to convince himself that it was just Joe’s age and not a major flaw in his character or in his upbringing.  But a tiny doubt remained; he’d have to think about this.

The next day, Ben, Adam, and Hoss were nearly finished with breakfast before Joe came dragging downstairs.  He walked slowly over to the table, stretched like a cat behind his chair, then slowly sat down, before mumbling,  “Morning Pa, Hoss, Adam.”

“Well, Joseph, you seem to have neglected to do your morning chores before breakfast” Ben said, somewhat sarcastically.

“Sorry, Pa” Joe said.  “I’ll do ’em right after breakfast.”

“See that you do, young man.  And since you have no school today, I want you to clean up the tack room and the barn.”

Joe frowned, but didn’t say anything.  He wondered what he had done to put his father in such a bad mood.  He had noticed it for almost a week now, but had tried to overlook it.  Now though, he was sure that for some reason, his Pa was mad at him.  He was concentrating on this thought and not paying attention to the food on his plate, or the conversation around the table.  His father’s loud voice interrupted his thoughts.

“Joseph!  I asked you a question.”

“Sorry, Pa.  I didn’t hear you.”

With a huge sigh, Ben said, “I can see that Joseph.  What I asked is, ‘What time is the Christmas play tonight’?”

“Oh, it starts at 6 o’clock, Pa.  That’s so everybody can get home before it gets too late.”

“All right.  You see that you have finished your chores and are ready to go at about 4:30 then.  We’ll leave here at 4:30 just to make sure we are on time.  Adam and Hoss and I are going to be working in the north pasture today.  I expect you to stay here and stay out of trouble.  Is that understood?”

“Yes sir, Pa.”

Ben just looked at him and nodded and then turned back to talk to Adam and Hoss about the job they had to do that day.  If he had watched his son more carefully, he would have seen the tears that he was desperately trying to hold back.  He decided that he had to get out of there before he did start crying, so he asked to be excused.

“Yes, you may, but get started on your chores.”  Ben said, with only a quick glance at his youngest son.

Before Joe started on his job of straightening the tack room, he decided to saddle his father’s and brothers’ horses.  He had all three of them saddled and ready to go when the three men came out shortly.  Hoss and Adam made a great show of thanking Joe for that pleasant surprise; Ben just said, “Thanks, Joe.  Come on boys; we’d better get going ’cause we’ll have to knock off early to get into town for that Christmas play.”  The way he said it made it obvious to Joe that he was not pleased about having to interrupt his work to go to a silly school play.

Hoss reached over and patted Joe on the back and said, “See Ya later, Short Shanks!” and Adam playfully punched him in the arm and said, “Don’t you go back to bed as soon as I get out of sight, now.”

Ben overheard this playful remark and said, “You’d better not be going back to bed, Young man.”

Joe had never felt so alone as when his Pa and brothers rode off.  As he began the hated job of cleaning out the barn and tack room, he tried to think what he had done to annoy his father.  Ordinarily his Pa always made it perfectly clear what he was upset about.  But it was usually something easy to predict, like bad grades at school, or being late for supper, or for getting in trouble at school or fighting or something.  He hadn’t been that testy on those days he’d been late coming home from school over the last two months. Shoot, his Pa hadn’t acted like this even that time he had played hooky from school with Pete and gone fishin’ instead.  Not one to worry excessively, he decided that all he could do was try to avoid Pa until his Pa was ready to tell him what he’d done wrong.  And one way to avoid trouble with his Pa was to get his job done.  He attacked the barn and tack-room with renewed vigor.  He didn’t even stop for lunch, telling Hop Tseng he’d eat after he finished.

He finished his job with an hour to spare before time to get ready for the trip to Virginia City.  He decided to take a ride around the ranch during that time.  He started to saddle his pony, Flash, when he had another idea.  He’d ride Nutmeg instead.  Nutmeg was a new horse that his father had gotten in a trade a few weeks back.  Everyone had been so busy on the ranch that no one had worked with him much.  And since no one had worked with him—no one had “claimed” him yet.  So, although he wasn’t his horse, he didn’t actually belong to his brothers either.  He quickly saddled the frisky gelding, mounted him, and headed down a trail to the side of the house.  Hop Tseng saw him ride off as he came outside to get wood from the wood box.  As he watched him leave, Hop Tseng shuddered, and said a short Chinese prayer to ward off the anxiety that had appeared without reason.

An hour later, Ben, Adam, and Hoss rode into the courtyard and took their horses into the barn.  The day of hard physical labor in the cold, fresh air had actually helped to restore Ben’s spirits somewhat and he was feeling slightly guilty about the way he’d treated his youngest son that morning. He was anxious to see him.  He looked around the barn and the tack room, nodding at the good job Joe had done.  Adam voiced his surprise with a low whistle, then said, “Little Joe did a good job, didn’t he Pa?”

“He sure did, Adam.  And I’m going to tell him he did.  Let’s get inside and get ready to go to that school play.  Joe’s been awful excited about it and I’ve hardly even asked him about it—or listening when he did talk about it.”

As soon as they’d finished caring for their horses, the three men walked inside the great house.  Ben yelled “Little Joe” as soon as they came in the door, planning to congratulate him on the fine job he’d done.

Hop Tseng came hurrying out of the kitchen, wringing a dishtowel in his hands.  “Little Joe not here.  Hop Tseng see him ride off on trail by kitchen hour ago and he not back yet.”

“Ride off?  But I saw Flash in the barn, Hop Tseng.” Hoss said, puzzled.

“Little Joe not ride Flash.  Ride big bay horse you get while back.”

With that, Ben headed back outside.  Adam and Hoss shared a look of concern, then rapidly followed their father.  Ben was muttering to himself about that “irresponsible son” all the way to the barn.

“Pa, Joe’s a good rider, he can handle Nutmeg, I’m sure.” Hoss said, trying to decrease his father’s distress.

“Have you ridden that horse, Hoss?” Ben asked shortly.

“Well, no not ‘xactly, Pa.” Hoss conceded.

“Then how do you know Joe can handle him?  You don’t even know if YOU can handle him.”

“I rode him, Pa.  He’s lively, but not unmanageable.”

Just as Ben was about to respond, they heard a horse come riding into the courtyard at a fast gallop.  They went to the door of the barn, just in time to see Joseph jump down from the horse and grab the reins and begin to lead him into the barn.  He stopped short when he saw his Pa and brothers standing in the barn door.  He quickly surveyed the three faces:  Pa was angry, Adam looked amused, and Hoss looked sympathetic.  He knew he was in for it now.

“Adam, Hoss you go on inside and get cleaned up for the Christmas play.  I wish to speak to Joseph in the barn.”

Joe swallowed and said, “Hey, Pa.  Sorry I’m late, but I just went for a little ride. It won’t take me long…….”

“Joseph!  What have I told you about riding alone during the winter?” Ben asked sternly.

“Well Pa, you didn’t say I couldn’t ride alone, you just said not to ride alone off the Ponderosa”.

The look on Pa’s face told him that he should have left that unsaid.  Pa hated it when he justified something he did by pointing out exactly what he’d been told.

Ben grimaced, but went on to the next point.  “Okay, Son, let’s just get to the issue of what horse you were riding.  What have I told you about which horses you can ride”….he held up his hand when he saw Joe start to open his mouth, “without supervision and permission, Joseph?”

Pa had him there and he knew it.  “Flash and Star, Pa.” He said, his eyes staring at his boots.

“Look at me when I speak to you, Joseph.”

Joe looked up at his Pa, his eyes filling with tears that he couldn’t will away.

“So riding Nutmeg without my permission or supervision was disobedient, wasn’t it Joseph?”

Joe swallowed and said, “Yes Sir.”

“And what is the consequence of disobedience, Joseph?”

Joe swallowed but didn’t respond.

“Joseph, I asked you a question, Son.  I deserve an answer.”

“Punishment, Pa.”

“That’s right, Joseph. And why is that, Son?”

“To make me remember next time, Pa.” Joe answered. He and his father had had this particular conversation on many occasions and he knew the expected replies.

“That’s right, Joseph.  And one day, Son, I hope it works and you do remember.  You could have been thrown from that horse and hurt or…..” His voice trembled as he added, “killed”.

“I’m sorry, Pa.  But Flash and Star are too slow and I just went down the trail by the kitchen.” Joe tried to explain, but another look at his father’s face and he stopped.

Ben swallowed and said, “Well Son, let’s get this over with so we can go get ready for the school play.”  He took Joe by the arm and led him over to the tack room, where there was a strap on a shelf.  Joe swallowed, tried to choke back his tears and bent over the bench as his father expected.  Ben swiftly administered the punishment, without saying a word.  When he had finished he said, “Son, you must learn to obey me, for your own safety.  Do you understand?”

“Yes Sir, Pa.” Joe managed to get out.

“All right, go on inside and get ready.  We’ll talk more about this incident later.   We have to hurry now so that we won’t be late.”  As he said this he pushed Joe towards the door of the tack room in front of him.

Joe gladly made his escape from that room; not only to escape further pain from that strap, but to get out of there before he started crying from the pain and the embarrassment.  He fled to his room.  Hop Tseng had laid out his clothes for the play and had his bath water ready.  Joe quickly undressed and hopped into the tub, hoping the warm water would soothe the stinging pain.

Ben sat down on a bale of hay to collect himself before going inside himself.  Despite his earlier anger at Joe, he had hated the punishment every bit as much as Joe had.  He did not like to resort to physical punishment, but he felt that it was imperative that he get through to Joseph while he was still young in order to prevent him from getting into even riskier situations as he got older.  But that didn’t make him like it any more.  “Why was this so hard for Joe to comprehend?  Why did he always insist on pushing for more independence?  Why did he strain against authority so much?”

Ben pondered these questions and again wondered if perhaps he had been too lenient on his youngest son.  However, as he thought about how much he had hated giving the strapping to his son, he couldn’t imagine being stricter—he didn’t think he could handle it.  After a few more minutes of reflection, he realized he’d better get inside and get ready for the trip to the Christmas play himself.  He always enjoyed the Christmas activities at the school.  And although he’d not been much into the Christmas spirit, perhaps this would be just what he needed to get his mind off ranching problems.  He’d go enjoy himself and forget about the ranch and Sam Joiner’s tragic death, for at least one night anyway.  Thus resolved, he got up and went inside the house, where Hop Tseng also had his bath ready and his clothes laid out.

The ride into Virginia City started off a little quiet as Joe, usually the catalyst for conversation, was in a somber mood.  Ben, realizing that he was probably embarrassed or even angry about his punishment, initiated a conversation with him by asking about the school play.  Joe answered the questions matter-of-factly with no additional detail at first, but as Ben continued to talk to him, Joe warmed up and by the time they reached Virginia City, things seemed to be back to normal.  Adam and Hoss shared a look and a small smile of relief.

Upon entering the schoolhouse, they were greeted by the friends and families of the other school children. Other towns people had also come to see the Christmas show, which in the small town of Virginia City, was a major event in the holiday season.  The school was lit with candles in every window and on every table.  The desks had all been moved and replaced with benches from the church to provide seating for the audience. There were brightly colored paper chains and garlands of holly and cedar adorning every window frame.  A curtain had been hung in the rear of the school, serving as the stage for the play.  A Christmas tree decorated with strings of cranberries, popcorn, and red and green paper was to the left of the stage.  To the right of the stage was a life-sized crèche with the stable, manger, bales of hay, and a big yellow star made of painted wood attached to the roof of the stable.

Joe was met at the door by friends who hustled him back stage right away.  Ben and Adam and Ben found seats and settled in to watch the play.  While they were waiting for the play to begin they conversed with other people in the audience.  As he listened to the other parents talking about the roles their children were acting in the play, it dawned on Ben that he had been so pre-occupied with the events on the ranch, that he had not even asked Joe what role he was playing tonight.  A pang of guilt reminded him of how he had only been going through the motions of Christmas this year.

Finally, the teacher took the stage and welcomed all the parents to the annual Christmas play.  The play was to be a modern play about Christmas, rather than the traditional portrayal of the first Christmas.  There was some murmuring about this from the audience, this had never been done before and they weren’t sure they liked the idea.  Yet, as the play began, they were so thrilled to see their own children acting the parts, that they soon were enthralled with the play.  The Cartwrights anxiously awaited the first appearance of Joe.  They began to be dismayed when it appeared that all the major characters of the play had been introduced and Joseph had not made an appearance.  Likewise the second act unfolded and still no sight of Joe.

After Act II, the teacher announced that there would be a 20-minute intermission while the actors prepared for the third and final act of the play.  She encouraged the parents and other visitors to partake of punch and cookies and to visit with their neighbors during this time.  Ben and Hoss and Adam gave each other a look and reluctantly stood up to get some punch.

Hoss said, “Well if Little Joe ain’t in that third act, I’m gonna be mighty disappointed.”

“Pa,” Adam said,” Did Little Joe ever say he wasn’t in the play?”

“Adam, I’m ashamed to tell you that I haven’t even asked Little Joe what his role in the play was.”

“Well, Pa, we know you’ve had a lot on your mind.” Adam replied, patting Ben on the back.

“Yeah, and besides Pa, it ain’t like Little Joe to keep quiet about somethin’ like this, unless..”

He stopped at this point and Ben looked at him and said, “Unless what, Son?”

“Well, I was thinking unless Joe was in some kinda trouble he didn’t want to tell you about.”

Adam looked at Hoss and gave a slight shake of his head, but it was too late, Ben had realized the implication that perhaps Little Joe had been in trouble at school and hadn’t told his family about it.

“Well, let’s just wait for Act III and see what happens.” Ben said, his heart heavy.  Had he been so unapproachable that Little Joe had kept something from him?

When he reached the punch bowl, he was standing beside Henry Jenkins, owner of a small farm right outside Virginia City.  Noting the sling on Henry’s arm, he asked, “Well Henry, what did you do to yourself?”

Henry looked puzzled and then said, “Why didn’t Little Joe tell you?”

Ben felt his anxiety grow inside, but outwardly he remained calm.  “No, Henry, what did Little Joe not tell me?”  He attempted to keep his voice steady, even as his mind raced over all the possibilities—that Joe had been responsible for Henry’s misfortune.

“Why Zeb and me had a wagon accident.  I got a broke arm, but Zeb got a broke leg–he’s still laid up.  That’s why he ain’t in the play tonight.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Henry.  How did it happen?”

“Oh I was trying to go too fast on that ol’ wagon and turned over on that curve by Minter’s Creek’s all.  Dang fooled thing to do, weren’t it?”

“Well retrospectively, I’d have to agree with you, Henry.” Ben said, smiling.

“But what made you think Joe would have told me about it?”

“Well, he’s been coming over to our place ’bout ever’ day helping out with the chores and keeping Zeb caught up with ‘is studies.  I don’t know how we’d a made it, ‘thout his help.  Didn’t he tell you?”

“No, Henry, I guess he forgot to mention that.” Ben said, thinking to himself, “I guess he didn’t think I’d care.”

As he and Adam and Hoss reclaimed their seats for Act III, Miss Reed came over to them and said, “You must be so proud of Joseph, Mr. Cartwright.  We couldn’t have done this without his help.”

“Well, yes, Miss Reed, we are proud of Joseph.  But I’m afraid I don’t know what you are referring to.”

She looked surprised and said, “Didn’t Joe tell you what he’s been doing for the past month?”

“No, Miss Reed.  What has Joseph been doing for the past month?”

Smiling she pointed out the tree, the stage, the curtain, and the crèche and said, “Why Joseph has spent almost every play period over the past month building the stage and putting up the crèche.  He even worked through many lunch periods and after school some to get it finished.”

“By himself?” Ben asked.

“Well, Zeb Jenkins was supposed to help him, but he was injured in an accident, so Joe did it all by himself.  The other children were either too busy or couldn’t put in the extra time to get it done.  I’m really grateful for Joe for doing this.  And he did a great job against some big obstacles!”

Ben smiled and nodded and said, “He sure did, Miss Reed.  He sure did.”

Miss Reed moved to the front of the room and called everyone to return to their seats so that Act III could commence.  Ben and Adam and Hoss waited anxiously to see if Little Joe would appear in this act at least.  As the play wound to a close, they were disappointed; it appeared as if Joseph’s only involvement had been in building the sets.  Though disappointed that they didn’t get to see him in the play, they realized that his contribution was as important as the speaking parts.  However, just as the curtain was closing on the end of the play, they noticed that two children, dressed as Joseph and Mary had slowly walked over to the crèche.  They were pleased to see that Little Joe was dressed as Joseph.

The audience quieted as they realized that the play wasn’t quite over.  Joseph stood still, dressed in a richly colored blue robe and white sash and a blue and white headdress covering his curly hair.    He looked at the audience and said slowly and loudly, with no hint of shyness, “You folks probably recognize us.  I’m Joseph and this is Mary.”  As he pointed to his companion, low laughter broke out among the audience, as they realized that Joseph Cartwright was appearing as Joseph and Mary Reynolds was appearing as Mary.  Joe grinned when he realized that the audience had gotten the little joke he’d figured out the first day, but hadn’t mentioned to anyone.

Joseph continued, “We hope you have enjoyed our Christmas play and more importantly remember that first Christmas and the first Christmas gift.”

Mary spoke up then, “Who can tell us what the first gift of Christmas was?”

Many people in the audience shouted out, “Frankincense”.

Again, Mary spoke up, “You are correct that the gifts brought by the wise men were frankincense, gold, and myrrh.  But none of these were the first Christmas gift.  Does anyone else know?”

Mary and Joseph looked around and waited, but everyone looked puzzled and no one answered.

Joseph spoke up and recited, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, shall not perish, but have life everlasting.”

He waited just a few moments for the impact of what he’d just read to hit, and then he said, “The first gift of Christmas was the Christ child.”  Then he and Mary joined hands and kneeled down by the manger and simultaneously blew out the candles, leaving them in darkness.

Miss Reed spoke up, “This concludes our Christmas play.  We hope you have enjoyed it.  Please share the refreshments provided by the women of the Virginia City Church.  Have a safe and Merry Christmas and we will see you next year.”

As soon as the audience arose from their seats, Hoss headed to the refreshment table, Adam headed towards Margaret Taylor, and Ben headed towards his youngest son.  He reached him and grabbed him and gave him a solid hug.  Joe seemed to hug back just as strongly; each realizing how much they had missed those hugs recently.  Finally, Joe said, “Pa, I can’t breathe too good.” Ben laughed and released him from the hug, but held him by the shoulders and knelt down so that they were at eye level.  “Joe, I’m mighty proud of you Son.  Miss Reed told me how you built that set all by yourself and Mr. Jenkins told me how you’ve been helping him out.”

Joe smiled back and said, “Thanks, Pa.  Do you think I did a good job with the stage?”

“Joseph, you did a marvelous job, Son.”

Joe beamed with pride at his father’s praise; he knew that his father meant what he said.

“Son, why didn’t you tell me about helping Mr. Jenkins, though?  All those times you were late, was because you were helping them?”

“Well, most of ’em, Pa.”  Joe said, a mischievous smile on his face.

Ben laughed at that smile; he had missed that smile.

“Well why didn’t you tell me what you were up to?”

“Well the Reverend said when you try to do a good thing, you shouldn’t go around tellin’ everybody, ’cause that ain’t the reason to do it.” Joe explained.

Ben looked at his son and realized that he had gotten the gist of the message, though he had not quite gotten all the details exactly right.  He’d certainly had the right idea. He stood up and put his arm around Joe and said, “How about some refreshments, son?”

Joe smiled and said, “Sure Pa, all that waiting made me hungry.”

They laughed and walked over to join Hoss at the refreshment table.  They stayed for another half hour and visited with their neighbors, until Ben decided it was time to go home.  They bundled up and began the long ride home, with a gentle snow falling on them as they rode.  Joe talked excitedly about the play and how he had built the set all by himself, and many things he’d wanted to tell his Pa over the past few weeks.  About halfway home, his talking slowed down and Ben realized he was practically asleep on his horse.  He and Adam instinctively moved their horses closer on each side of Flash, in case he actually fell asleep.  Hoss just smiled, happy to see his family back to normal.

When they got home, Ben shuffled Joe straight to bed.  Joe protested he wasn’t tired, though it was just an obligatory protest.  He was asleep within a few minutes of his head hitting the pillow.  Ben sat and watched him for a long time after he’d fallen asleep, thinking of the recent events and berating himself for even considering that his son was self-centered.  He realized that this son, as his other two sons, were precious gifts from their mothers.  As he sat there, an idea came to him.

At breakfast on Christmas Eve, Ben told Adam and Hoss that he had an errand to take care of and that he wished them to take Joseph with them today.  Adam and Hoss wondered what their Pa was up to, but didn’t question him.  He had that mysterious look on his face, and they had learned better than to question him when he looked like that.  They took Joe with them and the three brothers had a great day, ending their work with a snowball fight, initiated by Little Joe.  When they rode into the courtyard upon arriving home, they saw their father standing in the doorway of the house.  He called to them to come over there right then.  He then told Joe to go on into the house that he needed to see Hoss and Adam for a minute.  “Hop Tseng has some hot cocoa ready for you inside.  I’ll take care of your horse.”

Joe looked puzzled, but did as he was told.  Rarely did his Pa ever let him go inside without first taking care of his horse, but he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth, so he went inside where Hop Tseng had not only hot cocoa, but Christmas cookies warm from the oven waiting for him.  Before he finished his hot cocoa and cookies, his Pa and brothers came in and joined him.   The evening was spent, much as Christmas Eves had been spent in the Cartwright household all Little Joe’s life.  He tried to guess what his Pa had bought him and gave hints about what he’d gotten for his family.  After a special Christmas eve meal prepared by Hop Tseng, they sat around the Christmas tree, by the fire and talked about Christmas.  Ben ended the evening by reading the story of the First Christmas from the family Bible, with Joe sitting at his feet and Adam and Hoss nearby.

After finishing the Christmas story, Ben prayed and thanked God for the first Gift of Christmas and for all the blessings they had.  When prayers were ended, he sent Joe straight to bed, and since he knew the sooner he went to sleep, the sooner Christmas would get there, Joe didn’t even make a pretense of arguing.  Ben and Adam and Hoss headed for the barn as soon as they were sure Little Joe was asleep for the night.

Christmas morning dawned on a beautiful day.  The sun was up and on top of all the accumulated snow, the day was bright and clear.  Ben actually managed to beat Little Joe up, but for once all he had to do was say “Merry Christmas, Little Joe” and Joe was up out of bed.  By tradition, Ben wouldn’t let the present-opening begin until after breakfast, eaten by the fireplace.  After eating, Ben began distributing the Christmas gifts and they watched as each person opened each gift.  Joe was delighted with his own gifts, happily examining the new hunting rifle he’d been hinting for for weeks.  He was also pleased that his choices for his father and brothers had seemed to be appreciated by them.  He was watching Adam and Hoss open their gifts from him and didn’t notice Pa slip out the door until he heard him come back to the front door yelling, “Joseph!  You’d better get out here on the double!”

He jumped up and ran out to see what his father was yelling about.  When he got to the door and looked out, he stopped dead in his tracks.  He couldn’t believe it.  He stood there motionless and speechless for longer than any of them had ever seen him be quiet or still.

Finally Ben spoke up, “Well Joseph, what’s the matter now?  Don’t you want him?”

This broke Joe out of his trance, and he ran towards his father and hugged him fiercely.  Then releasing his father, he moved quickly, but quietly toward the black and white pinto pony his father was holding by the reins.  He had holly and Christmas garland woven into his mane and he had a green and red saddle blanket on him.  He rubbed the horse slowly and patted him softly, whispering into his ear.  The horse was a little skittish, but calmed to Joe’s voice.  He turned back to his father.  “Pa, he’s beautiful. He’s just like I’ve always wanted.  I love him, Pa.”

Epilogue

Over breakfast, Ben outlined the rules for training the pony and the consequences if Joe disobeyed the rules.  Joe resolved to follow the rules because he couldn’t bear to have this pony taken away from him.  He planned to train this pony well and knew that they’d be a great team.  Joe spent most of the rest of the day in the barn, talking softly to his new friend, Cochise.

***The End***

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